The heat of the bonfires fought against the chill of the evening. Behind the watchman’s barricade, wizards busied themselves preparing spells for the coming battle. Brittle shards of petrified magic were crushed by hand. The energy inside was shaped into spells and then tied to objects before it dispersed. There were feathers, and bells, and beakers of ichor brewing on burners. Theodore paused to watch as a university student conjured a great orb of fire into the air. It was captured on the wick of a candle and placed on a table alongside a long line of others. It was artillery for the battle to come.
The wall of knights parted to allow Theodore to cross the blockade. Rows of soldiers armed with crossbows stood along the high ground overlooking the Fount. Theodore approached the ridge, and already the air, so dense with wild magic, began to sting his eyes and throat.
Darkness pooled below. They stood on the rim of the valley floor, which was a deep basin of stone and rock. The sun was gone. The bonfires danced and cast shadows. It was difficult to see anything below except the soft ethereal glow of magic wafting up from the Fount’s wells, but something shined through the mist and the dark. Dozens of eyes were staring up at Theodore, in every shape and size.
Theodore wondered what he was doing here. Was it even possible to stop this battle? He held a brass horn in his hand, given to him by the quartermaster. It was enchanted to magnify his voice if he spoke into it. That was, assuming, he could find the words to speak. He raised the horn to his lips, his heart pounding.
“My name is Theodore!” He said. “I was appointed by King Stonewall to serve as your Ranger Deputy! I have come to speak to you all in the hope that no one has to die today!”
“We know who you are, little man!” The silhouette of Silas Jack stepped out from the mist. “Tell your king we are not afraid of him, his swords, or his spells! Come and fight, and we will show you!”
Theodore tightened his grip on the horn. “We do not have to fight! I just want to talk!”
“Talk?” Silas laughed, and pointed a claw. “I see six archers at the ready on either side of you! I see fire and blades! I see an army! If you want to talk, then do it without a weapon pointed!”
Theodore turned toward the guards. “You heard him. Disarm.”
The commanding officer scowled at him. “Those aren’t Redriver’s orders.”
“I’m giving you new ones!” Theodore said. “All of you! Either drop your weapon or fall back!”
A signal was given. The perimeter guards moved back behind the barricade, leaving Theodore alone and unprotected.
“Good!” Silas said. “Now come down here! Then, we can talk!”
“I cannot! The magic is toxic! I won’t be able to speak!”
“That’s right,” Silas said. “And you know why? Because you don’t belong here! The Mother of Magic does not want you! The Whirlwood belongs to ghasts! It belongs to fairies! Not to humans, with their walls, their kings, and their laws!”
The creatures around Silas broke into howls and jeers. “Get out!” They shouted. “Make them pay!” “Kill the humans!” The beasts writhed in the dark, all wings and claws and teeth.
“You’re angry!” Theodore spoke over the crowd. “You’ve been wronged, and you’ve been neglected!” The creatures went quiet, surprised to be acknowledged in this way. “You’ve been punished by King’s Law, but there’s been no one looking out for you! That would make anyone angry! But we can fix this! There is no need for violence!”
Silas shook a fist at Theodore. “You think you know anything about our suffering?! What we’ve been through?! You don’t know the first thing about it!”
Theodore pulled a packet of notes from his pocket, and unfolded his hand-written summary of all he had learned from creature archives.
“I will tell you what I know.”