Five hundred knights came to a halt. The main road into the Fairy Circle was blocked, filled to overflowing with the creatures of the Whirlwood. There was nowhere for them to go.
Fireballs ignited. Great spheres of rippling flame suspended on thin candles held by mages in the vanguard. Theodore felt his allies tense behind him. Claws scraped on the cobblestone, and creatures stirred. He was afraid they would lose face, break and run. They didn’t. The line held.
Knight Detective Conrad Whitechain lifted his hand, and the fireballs shrank down. He signaled for his forces to stand back. Crossing the threshold into the marketplace alone, he marched with intent. His armor was shining, with a silvery cape trailing behind him. It was grand, noble and new where Theodore’s looked as shabby and mismatched as he felt.
Theodore and Oboe met the knight detective in the middle.
“Here you are again,” Conrad said. One eye glared up from beneath his hat. “The one constant amid this chaos. The eye of the storm.”
“Good morning, detective,” Theodore said, not wanting to be discourteous.
Conrad’s gaze drifted over the massive crowd of creatures. Countless eyes looked back, anxious.
“What is this?” He said.
“This is the Whirlwood,” Oboe said. “Everyone who was brave enough to stand up. Everyone who’s scared of what will happen if the humans invade. Everyone who wants there to be peace. This is everyone.”
Conrad sniffed. “You certainly have a way with animals, Grayweather.” He pushed his cape away from his sword hilt. “You know what this looks like to me? A revolt.”
“These aren’t soldiers,” Theodore said. “They’re civilians. This is a protest against the overthrow of the Circle government. Fairies, ghasts, and humans have enjoyed peace with one another for a thousand years. You violate the treaties by coming here to seize control. We can’t allow that to happen.”
“We are here by order of the crown.” Conrad’s nostrils flared. “I don’t know what said to trick these creatures, but you make every one of them a traitor. If you have any honor, you will tell them to disperse before you throw their lives away.”
“No!” Oboe said. “There’s more of us than there are of you! If you tear down the Circle, you’ll start a war! Creatures will get hurt! You’re the ones that need to leave!”
“We don’t want to fight,” Theodore said, trying to swallow. It was true that there were more creatures than knights, but only a fraction were trained fighters. Conrad’s men were trained and armed. A battle meant a slaughter. “This is a demonstration of the will of Laien’s people. You may be here on the King’s orders, but those orders are unjust. I want to parlay. We can find a better solution. There’s no reason to spill so much blood.”
“You’re right.” Conrad unfastened the straps of his gauntlet. “I don’t have to fight this horde you amassed. I can resolve this by spilling only a little blood.” He hurled his gauntlet down at Theodore’s feet. “A duel! You and me! To the death!”
Theodore stared at the gauntlet. “Conrad, we don’t have to do this.”
He scoffed. “I’ll show your hapless forces what you really are: A spineless, traitorous, and lying devil.” He drew his sword. “Fight me! I’ll crush you like I crushed you before and scatter your horde back to the wood! Let’s put this charade to an end!”
Theodore bent down. A knight could not refuse a challenge to duel without disgrace. He picked the gauntlet off the ground.