Theodore wandered through the grove, finding carnage in every direction. Inside the trees he could see little bedrooms, kitchens, and homes carved out and bisected.
“What happened here?” Theodore said, running his hand over the opening.
“Trolls.” Oboe said, picking a tiny teapot off the ground and placing it on the little kitchen table. “The Red Caps came through here looking for recruits. If anybody didn’t want to join, they started smashing their home up. Most of the gnomes ran.”
Theodore imagined a creature with the strength to split a tree in half and winced. “They were the ones that kidnapped this gnome kid?”
“I… I can’t do this.” Theodore said. “I can’t fight something this strong. I don’t even stand a chance.”
She tilted her head. “I thought you weren’t gonna fight anyone at all?”
“I don’t want to!” He pointed at the tree. “Am I supposed to reason with the monsters who did this?! What do you expect me to do?”
Oboe shrugged. “I’m not the Ranger Deputy. They put you in charge to figure this sort of thing out, right? That’s your job.”
Theodore stood straight again. “I suppose you’re right.” He loathed admitting it. Until he found a way out of the job, he had an obligation to see this through. There was no clocking out until every last form had been filed. “Fine. Which way did they go?”
Oboe gave a bigger shrug. “I dunno.”
“What?! I thought you said you saw what happened!”
“Yeah!” She said. “…Well, most of it. I remember Lemmy being here. He’s the one that smells like mud and walnuts, and he was almost my friend once. When the Red Caps started smashing stuff, I got upset and told them to stop. That’s why Silas had the trolls stuff me in that awful iron cage. I couldn’t change shape or anything!”
Theodore rubbed his face. “…So you have no idea what happened after that.”
Oboe struggled to produce an even bigger shrug.
“This is hopeless!” He said. “How am I going to find them? Were there any other witnesses?”
Before she could attempt a shrug beyond her physical capacity, she stopped. “Oh! I know! We can ask the birds!”
Oboe hopped into a sprint, leading Theodore to the edge of the borough. There, she cupped her hands around her mouth to shout.
“Hey birds! Birds! Get out here! Hey!!”
A cascade of sparrows and finches wheeled out of the trees and settled in rows on hanging branches. They glanced in every direction, trilling, chirping, and preening.
“Hello! Hello!” One said. “What do you want??”
“Uh. Good afternoon.” Theodore stepped up. “I am Ranger Deputy Theodore Grayweather. I’m investigating the disappearance of a gnome. Did any of you happen to see anything?”
“Ya. We see lots of stuff.” The others chimed in after. “Trees.” “Grass.” “A faun, a human.” “Clouds?” “There’s a big rock over there.” “Trees!” the first insisted again.
“Incredible.” Theodore shot Oboe a scowl. “These are witnesses? Are these even real birds? Or are they magic like you?”
Oboe looked offended. “These are normal talking birds.”
“I’m actually a gnome.” The leftmost finch said.
She pointed. “Except him.”
Theodore pushed up his glasses to fully bury his face in his palms. After he fully consigned himself to his fate, he resumed questioning.
“A young gnome was carried off from here the other day by a pack of trolls. They wore red caps. Did any of see where they might have gone?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah! They trashed this joint and ran off to the caves. Yeah.”
Theodore opened his eyes. “What caves? Where?”
The flock broke into a frenzy of warbles. “Crookhole Mine!”