The Whirlwood sanctuary was full. Rows of creatures from all over the valley squeezed together on the seats of the amphitheater. Oboe watched from a distance, beneath the shade of the trees, and wondered how big a mistake she was making.
“It’s time,” Gardner Feather said. “I rang the chimes. If any more are coming, then we do not have room for them. Go and speak.”
The restless rumbling of the crowd washed over Oboe, and a tide of doubt came in. “This is stupid,” she said. “They aren’t going to listen to someone like me. You should be the one to talk to them.”
Feather waved a gentle palm. “This was your idea, young blossom. I called these creatures here because I believe you will avert catastrophe, but I cannot speak for you. They need to see a warrior, not a priestess.”
Oboe had never thought of herself as a warrior. She looked at the bandages on her hands and shoulder, and supposed it had happened without her realizing. Maybe if life had gone differently, she would have become a spriggan for the Circle. That wasn’t her first choice. She’d rather be a knight like Theo. The good sort of knight who tried to protect everyone, like her tutors taught her about. The thought made her feel brave again, and strong. She clenched her fists.
A hush fell over the sanctuary as Feather and Oboe walked out into the sacred flowerbed. Oboe looked up at the countless faces around her, ghasts, fairies, and ferals, and swallowed the last of her fear.
“We have to take action,” she said. “If we don’t, the friendship we have with the humans and with one another will be torn apart.”
“What the hell is this?” A brown furred werewolf stood up. “Gardner! I came here because you rang the chime!” He held out a small bell on a string. “Why are you letting this nameless faun speak in the Mother’s sanctuary?!”
“Because this is important!” Oboe said, before Feather could speak. “Countess Beira wants to start a war. She’s tricked the humans, made them so angry they’re going to fight the Circle. If that happens, we can’t go back!”
An elder gnome climbed up the horns of an elk. “I know about you! You killed the Fair Lady! You were punished for using illegal magic on a human! Why should we listen to someone wicked like you?! You don’t belong in this valley!”
A murmuring filled the sanctuary. Oboe spoke over it.
“You’re right. I don’t belong here!” The creatures stopped talking. “My whole life, you all hated me. I made stupid mistakes, and I never got to belong anywhere.” An anger flickered inside her, but she knew that wasn’t the answer. “But the Whirlwood is still my home! I tried not to care, but I do. I’m not going to let my home be torn apart!”
“You want us to stop a war with the humans.” A leshy, wood skinned with a mop of willow leaf hair, sat in the front row and bounced his long and gnarled knee, mulling over what was said. “Why should we? The humans don’t care about us. They ban us from the city. They deny us jobs. Maybe a war is what we need.”
Oboe tried to breathe. She was losing them, but she had to stay calm. “No. You’re right. Things have been bad. That doesn’t mean they can’t get better. The Ranger Deputy is trying. He’s a human that cares. We’ve all seen that!”
The crowd lightened. There was agreement about this.
“So, what?” The werewolf said. “They fired him. It doesn’t matter now. Just goes to show the rest of them are trash.”
“Theo can’t do this by himself!” Oboe said. “He’s just one human, but he’s proof that there’s good ones! Just like there’s good creatures, and wicked ones too! I killed the Fair Lady because she was bad! If you knew her, you knew the truth! Nothing will change if we let the wicked do what they want!”
She stepped closer, eyes forward. “Tomorrow, Theo is going to stand up for the Fairy Circle to try and stop a war from happening. He’s a good creature. I want to think all of you are good creatures too. I want to believe you all won’t just stand back when this country falls apart. The kingdom of Laien is strong because, a long time ago, we all agreed to stop fighting and to work together! We believed things could be better than they were! They still can!”
No more objections rang out. The crowd sat in rapt silence. Feather smiled, head bowed.
“Tomorrow, I’m going to stand with Theo,” Oboe said. “If you believe in him, and still believe in what Laien could be, I want you to stand with us. Show this country there are good creatures who won’t let it all fall apart. That’s what I came to ask you all today. Come to the Circle, and stand!”
The words ran out. Oboe ran out of things to say, but the crowd kept staring. The air hung heavy, and Oboe wondered if anything she said mattered.
“Damn you,” the werewolf said with a growl. “Alright! Fine! I’ll do it!”
Others stood up. “We’ll do it for the Ranger Deputy!”
“My mom is going to kill me,” a young troll said, groaning. “…Count me in!”
The greater part of the amphitheater rose, and the tide turned. Oboe looked on stunned. A cheer rang out as the creatures of the Greater Whirlwood did what she asked, swearing to stand with the Ranger Deputy.