Without the train, Theodore was forced to enter the Whirlwood on foot. He ran downhill, his mind prickling with every terrible possibility. Was it already too late? Had the fighting already started? Were creatures dead? Had the knights been killed? He passed through the tree line, feeling heavy with guilt. He had to act now before something happened, assuming it hadn’t already, assuming his plan was worth a damn. He shouldn’t have handed this over to the Watch. If only he had researched the Red Caps sooner, or faster, maybe he could have done something, anything.
The twisting trails wrapped back on themselves and sent Theodore racing in circles. Shadows deepened around him and the last red dregs of daylight bled from the sky. There was no time. Theodore growled in frustration as he looped back to the same crossroad, with the same oak tree, for the third time. He spun in place, wondering how anyone ever found their way in this damned place.
If Oboe were here he might have a chance. She understood the Whirlwood and how to navigate it. The problem was she could be anywhere. Theodore stood as much a chance of finding her as he stood finding his way.
But if she were here, what would she do?
Theodore looked up into the oak tree. “Hello?” He said. “Birds? Are there any birds I can talk to? I’ll settle for squirrels! Anyone, really!”
“What’s wrong with squirrels?!” A gray squirrel said, bounding down from the highest branches to glare at Theodore.
A nightingale popped out of a knothole. “Face facts: Birds are the best. Sooner you get that, sooner you understand how the world works.”
The squirrel hurled an acorn, but the Nightingale ducked. “Come out here and say that to my face, beak brain!”
Theodore waved for attention. “Please! I don’t have time for this! I need your help! Have either of you seen Oboe?”
They glanced at one another. “Who?”
Theodore tried to describe her. “She’s a faun. Brown fur. Extremely excitable. She’s strong and can turn into other things.”
“Oh, her.” The nightingale said with a hint of distaste. “I heard some starlings gossiping. They saw her at the Boroughs and there was a whole horde of Red Caps following her.”
“What?!” Was she in danger? “How do I get there from here?”
“Oh, that’s easy.” The squirrel said. “I know a shortcut. If you go take that path on the left, turn right, then take another right when you loop back here, climb the hill and you’ll hit Gnomes Borough in no time.”
That didn’t make any sense. “Can’t I just take the right path now?”
The nightingale snickered. “Look at the hatchling. Doesn’t even know how the Whirlwood folds itself. What a loser.”
“Listen bub.” The squirrel flicked his tail. “If you don’t like my advice, don’t ask for it. You’re interrupting a busy schedule of nut collecting!”
“Yeah!” The Nightingale said. “And I want to take a nap! Stop bothering us!”
The squirrel leapt into the branches and the bird vanishing back down its hole, leaving Theodore with no option but to try.