Theodore led the bard off the beaten trail, down a slope of stones to find the hut. It was made from trees, twined together to form an oval domed crowned with branches and leaves. The grass in the yard grew wild and bone chimes dangled overhead. Theodore reached to knock on the door.
Albert blew a frantic tune on his flute. The notes were quick, erratic and anxious.
“What?” Theodore said. “What’s wrong?”
Albert gave him a frustrated look. His mouth opened but no words came out. He looked absurd standing out here in the woods wearing the bright motley of a musician. Putting his mouth back on the flute, he played a low and ominous melody.
“I know you’re scared,” Theodore said. “It’ll be okay. We’ll explain your situation to the crone and I’m sure she’ll undo the enchantment.”
He knocked on the door. “Fern?” Theodore called. “Fern Hardroot? Are you home?”
The door creaked inward. A plump, short old nymph with antlers leered at him from the other side. She had green skin, a shrub of ivy hair, and wore a threadbare robe with a faded crest.
“Who are you?!” She said. “What do you want?!”
“Theodore Grayweather, Ranger Deputy.” He showed her his badge. “I need to sort out a problem between you and Albert here.”
She looked at Albert. There was a brief flash of horrified recognition. “Never heard of him!” She tried to slam door but Theodore braced it open with his boot.
“Just a moment, please!” He said, fighting with her to keep the door open. “Albert tells me you put an enchantment on him.” It took an exasperated game of charades at the Ranger Deputy station for Albert to explain all this. “An enchantment he doesn’t want.”
Fern tried her best to crush Theodore’s foot in the door but wasn’t strong enough. She gave up and let the door hang open.
“I don’t see why that’s MY problem,” she said. “We made a deal!”
Albert puffed out barrage of shrill angry notes. Theodore held up a hand to calm him.
“You took away his voice. Do you expect me to believe this is a good deal?”
She rolled her eyes. “He wanted to be a great musician. I granted his wish. Now he can play any kind of music he wants.”
“Yes.” Theodore felt his patience straining. “But now he can’t talk. The ONLY thing he can do is play music.”
“Beautifully, might I point out?”
Albert stomped around the yard, tooting an ugly racket while glaring and pointing at her.
Theodore pinched the bridge of his nose. “Miss Hardroot, you can’t just take away a basic bodily function like that! There are laws!”
“Well, there wasn’t much to work with!” She said. “It’s not like he’s got any natural talent.” There was a trill of protest from Albert. “Fairy Magic works best on folk who have potential, who are weighed down by Fates, the sort who can send ripples of change into the world. Since he hasn’t got any of that the only way I stood to profit is by taking something away.”
“Then you should have told him,” Theodore said.
“I gave him fair warning!” Fern said.
“Was it a riddle?” He said. “A cryptic riddle delivered in rhyming verse?”
She smirked. “Nothing’s as fair as a good riddle.”
Theodore shook himself. “It’s clear to me that Albert did not understand what he was agreeing to. I’m going to have to ask you to reverse the spell.”
Her smile wilted. “No! He agreed! Voluntary enchantment is allowed by law.”
“There’s no consent if you deceived him,” Theodore said.
“It’s not like I turned him into a toad! You can’t take this one from me! I need these Fates!!”
“If you won’t undo the spell then I’ll have to charge you with unlawful enchantment,” Theodore said. “I can have the city watch come and haul you off so the matter can be settled in the Court.”
Fern broke down. She slumped against the doorframe, crying and wailing so loud that Theodore felt bad. He tried to console her, but she batted his hand away.
“You don’t understand!” She said. “But of course a human like you wouldn’t. You don’t need Fates. You never have to cast a single spell to keep going! You get a set lifespan and that’s all there is to it! Tell me, is that supposed to be fair?”
Theodore knew more than she realized. After the incident with Duke Ambergrail he took it upon himself to learn about fairy magic. It was a type of magic that craved expression. Fairy creatures thrived by affecting growth and change on the world, and it was most potent when used to alter the course of lives.
“I don’t make dreams,” Fern said. “I don’t change the seasons. I don’t help plants grow. I was born to work enchantments on PEOPLE. You think that’s easy to do with all these laws getting in the way?!”
Every human had different Fates, different trajectories their life could take, and each could affect the lives of others. A fairy could grow in power by taking away Fates, by removing possibility and replacing it with a direction. That direction did not have to be good for the target of the enchantment. Even if magic wanted to do good, it could be misused.
“I’m sorry,” Theodore said. “But the laws are there to protect people.”
Fern steadied herself on the door. “Look at me. I haven’t got much life left. I admit it, I tricked the human! But only out of desperation. Don’t make me undo this! Please! I’ll be one foot in the grave!”
“I can’t make an exception on this,” Theodore said, firm. “If you can’t follow the law then you’ll be labeled as wicked. I don’t want that to happen to you”
Fern shoved herself off the door. “Fine!” She stormed over to Albert and slapped him across the back. There was a pop and a spark and albert dropped the flute.
“I can speak again! Oh, glorious day! Hooray!” He embraced Theodore. “I’ve learned that there is no replacement for hard work! I shall endeavor from here to become the world’s greatest musician the natural way!”
Fern sneered. “Yeah. Good luck with that.” She waddled back into her hut, mumbling a few colorful epithets about the human race before slamming the door.
Theodore escorted Albert back to the office, trying to hurry. Lifting the enchantment on the bard took far more time than he planned. He was behind on paperwork and that made him anxious.
When he arrived, he found the yard crowded with creatures. There were trolls and wolves, a gaggle of gnomes, a flock of geese, a few goblins, and a pulsating gelatinous cube.
“Where’ve you been??” A wolf said. “We’ve been waiting all morning!”
“Where’s Oboe?” Theodore tried to spot her through the window. “She should’ve shown up by now to help.”
“Well, she didn’t!” A troll said, grinding his hulking knuckles in the dirt. “Not anybody’s shown up at all!”
That was strange. She was late to work that morning but it was bizarre for her not to show up at all. She was always so eager to help. What happened to her?
“I’m next! Help me next!” A gnome said, only for the others to shove and wrestle to be the one in front. “No! Me first! Me!”
The troll swept the smaller creatures aside with his long arms. “Like hell! I’ve been waiting for hours!”
The geese swarmed past him, surrounding Theodore and pressing up against his knees. “Give us some visas!” “I want to go shopping!” “I want to apply for work!” “Help!!”
Albert stepped back as the whole mass of creatures crowded in around Theodore to plead and shout for his attention.
“It uh, it looks like you’ve got your hands full,” Albert said. “I’ll just show myself back to the city.” He slipped away before Theodore could say goodbye.
The day wasn’t half over and already Theodore felt overwhelmed. The longer he worked as Ranger Deputy the more work seemed to pile up. He grit his teeth. It didn’t look like he would get to catch up on paperwork.
“Alright!” Theodore said, taking command. “Let’s get organized! We’re doing this one at a time!”
Just where the devil was his assistant?