Theodore felt the toy knight in his pocket. He needed to talk to Oboe, but never got an opportunity. She would come back to the Circle, each time bringing another handful of creatures volunteering to help, but then she would run off again to find more before the two of them could share anything but news.
He wasn’t sure she’d slept. After the first batch of creatures agreed to help, she did not stop recruiting. The crowd in the Fairy Circle marketplace swelled from a few dozen to hundreds. The tents and stalls were broken down or moved aside as bodies filled every corner, facing out towards the Whirlwood. Theodore had given up on rest, having stolen only a couple begrudging hours before giving up. He replaced proper sleep with caffeine, and threw himself into organizing.
“Will we have to fight?” Barghest the werewolf asked, holding his wife’s hand. It was a question Theodore was asked over and over again.
“I don’t want it to come to that,” Theodore told them. “But we should be ready. I won’t make you stay if that changes anything.”
“We are not cowards,” Lola said. “If you think this will work, we will help you however we can.”
Theodore thanked them, and left worrying about whether it would indeed work. Every new volunteer should have steeled his confidence. Instead he was scared. They were all risking their lives. He wanted to stop a war, not stage a battle.
“This is an army!” Knight Captain Myra Redriver said, bug-eyed when she saw the mass of creatures filling the Circle market. The knights at her command stood ready to act, but not without fear. There were far more creatures amassed here than there were human soldiers in the circle.
“It is a protest,” Theodore said. “The knight detective is coming to take over. If that happens, our alliance with the fairies will be destroyed. None of these creatures want that to happen.”
“It doesn’t matter what they want!” Redriver said. “It’s our job to follow the King’s decree!”
“It’s your job to protect the kingdom and everyone in it,” Theodore said, stepping closer. “Or have they changed the oaths of the City Watch since I last reviewed them? These creatures are citizens, and their voice matters.”
Myra met his gaze like stone. Her sword-arm still hung in a sling, still broken by the creatures of the Circle. Theodore knew she would fight him on this, she had good reason to, but he had no choice but to stand his ground. Instead, after a long moment, she looked down and the shiver of a chuckle ran up her body.
“Mother’s tits,” she said. “This is the same shit your father used to pull. Why am I even surprised?” She waved her good hand back at her men. “Alright kids! We’re done here!”
“Sir?” They lowered their crossbows.
“We’re here to keep peace,” she said, her voice commanding again. “Nothing wrong with a protest if they keep it civil. We’ll leave a few lads to keep an eye on things, but we’ve got better things to do than break this up.”
Myra lingered as her knights dispersed. She rolled her shoulders, eyeing Theodore up like they’d never met.
“If this plan of yours goes wrong…” She shook her wrist like a gambler’s dice cup. “They’ll stick both our heads in the guillotine.”
“It wouldn’t be my first time,” Theodore said.
She laughed, louder this time. She slammed a firm hand against his back, but he kept his footing. “Alright. I’ll tell my boys they’re free to join you if they’ve got the balls for it. Work another one of your miracles, Grayweather. I want to see where you’re going with this.”
Theodore did not expect any of the knights to come, but he was proven wrong. The score that came looked nervous, standing shoulder to shoulder with beasts, but were resolute. It took Theodore some effort to array the growing multitude at the entrance of the Circle.
The sky was restless and milky. Birds came to tell Theodore Conrad was coming. Starlings, finches, doves, and pigeons all brought the news in an excited panic, convinced they were the first to report it. The repeat of the news set Theodore more on edge each time. Where was Oboe?
Time was almost up. He wished he’d learned how to pray properly. It wasn’t that he believed; he had always maintained that if the Mother of Magic were real she would need to be a cosmic force so vast and abstract that She could not possibly care about the petty needs of every creature. However, seeing all the creatures come to put their faith in this plan, risking themselves with so much riding on chance, left him wanting to count on something beyond planning and guesswork, beyond an assumed goodness in his fellow man, and beyond himself. They needed all the help they could get.
“Someone’s coming!” A red plumed fury shouted from the rooftops, on lookout. Breaths were held as he adjusted his telescope. “It’s Oboe! She’s brought more!”
Theodore saw her lead a whole tribe of fish men swaggering out from the woods. They stank in the sun and squished when they walked. It was an immense relief to see her, despite the smell.
“I think that’s everybody from Moss Tub Lake,” Oboe said.
“We do not want war!” Muck, the fish men chief bellowed. “Very expensive! Too much!”
“I think you’ve brought the whole valley here,” Theodore said.
“No, I haven’t!” Oboe said, looking ragged. “There’s a whole family of badgers in Gnomes Borough who won’t even talk to me! I got a lot of ghasts to come, but there’s a lot that are too angry, and Squirrels don’t pay attention long enough to listen!”
Theodore smiled. Seeing Oboe banished the fear from his mind. As long as she was at his side, he knew they could do this. That wasn’t rational. She was just one faun, but it felt as if she was the deciding factor between success and failure. She was the difference between a war and a miracle.
“I’m gonna go make another sweep at the Twilight grotto,” Oboe said. “I don’t think I found everybody there yet.”
“There’s not enough time,” Theodore said. His cheer turned grim. “Conrad is on his way. I need you here.”
“Are you sure?” She said. “I could still try. How much time do we have?”
None. The lookout started screaming. The sound of marching grew louder. Ranks of knights in clanking iron greaves appeared from the trees and fell into formation. It was a vast number, platoon after platoon, all with a single man in a cavalier hat marching at the front.