Theodore turned the key to find the cottage door unlocked, but stuck. He pressed his shoulder into the door, straining to force it open. It wasn’t until Fritz joined him that it gave with a sharp crack.
The interior was a disaster. Cobwebs had taken over, coating the walls in layers. Light streaked through cracked window shutters. There was a steady drip in the ceiling despite the lack of rain. Furniture and filing cabinets were upended and splintered. Books and paperwork were strewn across the floor in tatters. Whatever happened to the former Ranger Deputy, it seemed his office had been picked over.
The bird followed them inside, gaping. “You have ceilings?? I’m jealous.”
Theodore moved through disheveled rooms: an office foyer, a kitchen, and an upstairs bedroom. All things considered, it was far grander than the garret he had been renting in the city. It was even a bit too large for one person.
“What a dump,” Fritz said.
Theodore rubbed his chin. “It will take a few days work to get it presentable.”
“Well, don’t look at me.” Fritz set the suitcases down by the door. “I’ve got a train to catch. My orders were to escort you here. Nothing more.”
“Oh!! I’ll help!” the little bird said. “Let me help! I’m great at everything!!” She scampered up to a toppled bookcase and struggled to lift it.
Fritz offered a sideways smirk. “Well, Deputy, it looks like you’re in good hands.” He ambled to the door with a salute. “Good luck out here.”
The door closed, shutting Theodore into the dim confines of his new life. He sighed, unsure of what he expected.
The little bird huffed and grunted, scrambling with all her might to pick up the massive bookcase. Theodore watched, pitying them both.
“Please stop,” Theodore said. “It’s cute of you to try, but it’s pointless. You’re just a tiny bird. You aren’t cut out for that.”
She burst out laughing, startling Theodore. “That’s right! I’m a bird!” She said. “I was locked up so long I forgot!”
Theodore raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure how you forget something like that.”
The little bird erupted. In a blink, its body grew and shifted, snapping to the size and shape of a person. Now, instead of a little songbird, a goat-legged woman was standing in front of him.
“That’s better,” she said, wringing her hands. “Let’s get to work!”
“You’re…” Theodore backed away. “What are you?” Fritz was right. He had no idea what this creature was or of what it was capable.
Her entire body was covered in coarse brown fur with speckles and a white underbelly. She was something between a deer and a goat and a human. Her black heart-shaped nose was joined in a short snout, her head wrapped in a messy mane of hair. Stubby little horns poked off the top of her head. Instead of feet her legs ended on a pair of hooves, ankles bent hock, muscles toned. Her smile was playful and her eyes big and brown.
“My name’s Oboe! I’m a faun!” she said, lifting the fallen bookcase with a single arm.
Theodore searched his memory. He had taken pride in studying magic creatures as little as possible once his father tried to force him. “That’s a type of fairy, isn’t it?”
She nodded, sitting the bookcase right side up. “Yeah. And you’re human, right? That makes you a type of feral.”
“What?” He scrunched his nose. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not a talking animal.”
Oboe looked confused. “Oh. But humans are non-magic creatures, right? And they learned to talk because magic touched them, and taught them how to think thoughts, right?”
“Well… yes.” It was a crude but technically correct summary of leading biological theory.
“So how are humans different from ferals? What makes you different from the squirrels or badgers who think and talk?”
“We just are!” This entire discussion was absurd. “We’ve got cities and laws and a whole economy!”
Oboe rolled an upturned desk onto its legs. “Oh. I suppose so.” She fell quiet, and decided to assist Theodore in picking files and papers off the floor. “We don’t get a lot of humans out here. You don’t dress like a witch either. What brings you out to the Whirlwood?”
Theodore grimaced, wishing he could forget. “I was appointed as the new Ranger Deputy.”
The faun froze, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. Papers slipped through her hands and scattered across the floor.
Theodore waved at her, growing concerned. “Are you o-“
She lunged before he could finish. Theodore flailed his arms in self-defense, falling back against the desk. The fairy beast leaned over him, inches from his face.
Theodore slumped limp to the floor. Oboe paced in front of him, somehow bouncier than before. “Oh gosh, oh gosh! We haven’t had a Ranger Deputy in months! This is amazing! You can help everyone! Finally! You can kill Silas Jack!!”