Theodore studied Thistle’s handwriting, trying to decipher the note. The instructions were vague and littered with grammatical errors. It was less a set of directions and more a ritual.
1. Go edge of Whirlwood (farther from home best!!)
2. find oldest MUST BE VERY OLD oak tree
3. Welk round oak 3 times
4. IT WON’T WORK IF YOU RUN
5. Find mistletoe. Wear on head (DO THIS BEFORE YOU FIND THE OAK TREE OR IT WON’T WORK
6. 3 TIMES NOT 2 OR 4! clockwise
7. Walk toward Fount in STRAIGHT LINE 8. keep going
9. Step between 2 trees branches touching
10. HELP OBOE
It was a struggle for Theodore to parse what he was supposed to do. The first step was simple enough, at least. He hiked toward the Western edge of the Whirlwood, where the valley ended and the Farbend prairies began. He kept his eyes open for Mistletoe on the way and tied a sprig of it into his hair.
The oak he found was enormous. To be certain, he asked a badger whether it was the oldest in the area. He got laughed at. After being pointed in the right direction, Theodore crossed a shallow stream to find a glade dominated by a single massive tree crowded by swathes of poppies. Trying his best not to trample the flowers, he circled the oak three times and set off toward the Fount.
He walked. An hour passed and nothing happened. Had he made a mistake? Had Thistle? He pushed through brush and thickets. His worry turned to doubt, then fear. Did he have the time to start over? Was Oboe still alive? He pushed his aching legs onward, too terrified of failing her to turn back.
He gasped when he saw it. Two trees, their branches twisted together into an arch. Between them the grass was lush, the colors brighter, and he could see a whole village that was not there on either side of the trees.
Theodore was hit by a blast of noise when he stepped through the portal. He found himself standing in a marketplace bustling with fairies of every description all haggling, laughing and arguing. Insectoid sylph hocking wares, fuzzy black pooka rabbits with pointed horns, lumbering leshy with skin like gnarled bark, nymphs with ivy hair and blank white eyes, gnomes rushing underfoot, and there were even antlered fauns like Oboe going about their business. Tents of purple and yellow were set up alongside wagons with creatures shouting for attention. The air tasted of fresh baked bread, day old fish, manure, copper and cranberries.
It was overwhelming. Theodore wandered through the crowd and went unnoticed. This was more than a village, it was a city. Rows of stout round cottages roofs lined well-worn dirt streets like colorful tea kettles. Their roofs were tall and conical, with earthen walls of cob. Above, the sky was wrong: A soft dull green.
Theodore turned to find a faun staring at him wide-eyed from her front doorstep. She was plump, dark furred, and wore a maroon mantle draped over her shoulders.
“Good afternoon,” Theodore said. “I’m sorry if I startled you.”
She jerked her head to call out. “Help!! A human has gotten into the Circle! Someone help!”
Window shutters burst open all around Theodore. Creatures leaned out their windows and gagged on their afternoon tea at the sight of him.
“There’s a human!”
“Mother’s mercy! How did it get in??”
“Someone call the spriggan before it slays anyone!”
“Lock the door! It might get in!”
“Someone help us!!”
Theodore reached out a palm as panic broke out around him. A firework whistled into the sky nearby. “It’s okay!” He said “I’m not here to hurt anybody! I’m the Ranger Deputy!”
This did not reassure them. Doors slammed and locks clicked. Something swooped down from overhead. Furies, bird people dressed in leather armor, snapped to the ground on every side of him. They drew daggers of bronze, one in each hand, and crept closer.
“You are trespassing! This is the Lady’s domain!” She spoke like a shrieking cat. “Surrender yourself, now! Or we will slice you! Cut you! Tear your eyes, your heart! On your knees! Now!!”