As Theodore plummeted toward the bottom of the cliff, hand-in-hand with Oboe, he took the opportunity to regret every decision in his life that led up to this moment.
Hurtling through the air, Oboe transformed herself. She took the shape of a gargantuan condor and hammered her wings into a glide. Theodore screamed as he dangled, her talons gripped around his belt. Somehow, Theodore caught his glasses as they fell off his face. Oboe swooped across the treetops at breakneck speed, angling herself towards the Fount.
“We’re too heavy!” she said, flapping as hard as she could to keep their altitude. “Hang on!!”
“What?! Hang on to what?!” All Theodore could see was a blur of motion until they tumbled through the tree canopy. Branches cracked under them, and Theodore shut his eyes as the ground rushed up to hit him.
After a few moments, Theodore opened his eyes to find out why none of his bones were broken. He fumbled his glasses back onto his face, and found himself hanging just off the ground. Oboe, a faun again, was splayed across the bough of an oak and holding him up by the scruff of his shirt. An entire battalion of knights was staring at them.
“Good evening,” Theodore said, swaying in the wind. “Ranger Deputy Grayweather. I need to speak to your Captain rather urgently.”
The knights exchanged baffled glances until the most decorated officer among them was forced to issue an order. “Fetch Myra,” he said, and a youth was sent running.
Theodore looked up at Oboe. “You can put me down now.”
“Oh! Okay!” She let go. He dropped onto his feet, unhurt, and she jumped down beside him.
“Fairy!” Someone shouted, and a dozen swords were drawn. Oboe backed away, frightened, and Theodore stepped in front of her.
“Stand down!” Theodore said. “The faun is with me! She is not a threat!”
The men lowered their swords, but did not sheath them. More knights marched onto the scene, wielding torches. Myra Redriver strode to the front, armored from head to foot in dented plate mail.
“Grayweather? I thought…” Suspicion flashed in Myra’s eyes. She turned to the officer with the most helmet plumage. “This could be a trick. Have you scanned him for spells?”
Theodore pointed his badge at the Captain. “Check me if you must! It’s me!”
An adder stone was passed around. When his face and papers were authenticated, Myra’s scowl faded away. “Surprised to see you back here, Deputy. Weren’t you quitting? Did you decide to come and watch the show?”
Theodore looked back at Oboe. “I had a change of heart.” He turned back toward the Captain. “Report. What is the situation?”
“We’ve got that blackguard Silas pinned down in the Fount. He thinks he’s safe down there, but we’ll have the last laugh. We brought enough breathing masks to launch an assault, but I’m waiting for more to arrive before I give the order. I’m not leaving anything to chance. We’re wiping the Red Caps out for good.”
Theodore shook his head. “No. Cancel that order. You aren’t going to attack them.”
Myra made a face like he called her mother a troll. “Excuse me?”
“There will be no assault,” he said. “Tell your men to stand down. I want to try talking to the creatures.”
It took the Captain a few moments to get over her disbelief. She swiveled to face the officer holding Theodore’s paperwork. “Are you certain this isn’t some sort of magic imposter?”
A quick double check. “Positive,” her subordinate said.
Myra wheeled around and leaned right into Theodore’s face. “Are you out of your mind, boy? We are dealing with outlaws. Terrorists! They’re dangerous, and they’re not going to listen to reason!”
Theodore felt himself tremble but steeled himself. “I want to try! No one has to die here!”
She bared her teeth. “No. Do you know how many men I’ve lost to these monsters? They’ve been trying to kill us for months! They’re wicked. We’re exterminating the lot of them before they hurt anyone else.”
“That’s not your decision to make!” Theodore said. “This is my jurisdiction!”
“It was,” Myra said. “But you walked away and left me in charge. If you want to help, you can grab a sword and fall in line.”
“I’m the Ranger Deputy!” Theodore pressed a thumb to his badge. “I’m the one charged to keep peace in the Whirlwood! By king’s law, so long as you’re in the valley, you answer to me! I’m talking to them!”
“They’ll kill you,” she said.
“If you have a problem with my plan, you can do what you want when I’m dead! Stand aside!”
Theodore and Myra stood in silence, locked in a stare off. After a breathless lifetime, Myra scoffed.
“Stubborn like your old man.” She moved out of his way. “Fine. Try your fool plan. When it backfires, we’ll be here to mop up.”
Theodore stepped past her. Oboe followed, silent and trying to hide behind him. Together, they walked toward the valley floor.