Shouts and bustling could be heard below. Theodore looked up from his books and peered out the window at the arena nestled at the foot of the palace. The spriggan were moving the refugees out of the stadium, while worker gnomes and pooka cleared the field of debris. The Tournament of Titles was to begin at dawn, and whoever won would dictate the fate of the kingdom.
“Hey!!” Thistle whacked Theodore upside the head with a ruler. “Pay attention! You wanna get gored in the tournament??”
Theodore rubbed his temple and turned his eyes back toward the study material in front of him. Books and scrolls borrowed from the city watch and the Circle Library, all describing the species of unicorn and how to survive an encounter with them. An array of diagrams and illustrations were spread out in front of him. Each was depicted as furious and monstrous, skewering men and bucking wildly as parties of at least ten soldiers were called on to restrain one.
If Lance ever taught Theodore how to fight a unicorn then it was clear Theodore did not listen. The texts reminded him of his father’s advice, an echo either imagined or half kept. The fairy scrolls on the subject were more useful, but so loaded with jargon to be inscrutable. Fife and Thistle offered to offered to interpret, although Thistle’s help was questionable.
“You aren’t reading hard enough!” He said, pounding the pages with a tiny fist. “Use more of your eyeballs!”
Theodore tried not to let the sylph distract him. “This is something I don’t understand.” He pointed at a passage. “This says that weather magic should never be used for combat. That doesn’t make any sense. Isn’t that what Beira uses? It’s clear she is very powerful.”
Fife swirled his goblet and nursed his apple wine. He looked a nervous wreck, as if he was the one called upon to fight in the tournament. “Power is not the issue. Magic of storm and season can be extremely potent if used skillfully.” He took another swig. “That passage is a warning for young fairies born with the skill not to become warriors.”
“They don’t earn many fates,” Thistle said. “They get a little at a time, helping plants grow and easing the transition of the seasons so life can flourish. It’s subtle, and gentle, and hard to do well. Using that magic for war costs too much, more than any of them can earn back.”
“She’s cutting her lifespan short,” Theodore realized. “She’s not even hesitating to do so.”
“It makes her more dangerous than most,” Fife said. “There’s no way to tell how many Fates she wields, but it’s clear she will spend every last one to tear our peoples apart.”
Theodore wondered if his conviction matched hers. Getting up, he fussed with the equipment he had readied. A simple iron longsword and his borrowed armor. Part of him wished he’d kept his father’s broken sword, with its vorpal curse, but it was not something the fairies would ever allow in the tournament. Not that it mattered. Theodore had watched the sword as it was melted down and dispelled.
There were so many clasps and straps to the armor. So many half-remembered pointers on maintaining his equipment, on how to use it, on how to fight and how to defend himself. Putting on armor and holding a sword still felt unreal to him, but it was dangerously real and every moment he spent worrying about how much was riding on him was time not spent preparing.
He ran a whet stone across the blade of the sword. “She can turn invisible. Is there anything I can do about that?”
Thistle grunted. “Not much. Any unicorn can do that. They can’t cast any other spells when they do, though, so there’s that.”
“You will still be able to hear her, and feel her hoof steps,” Fife said. “You will have to attend to your surroundings so she does not get close enough to stab you with her horn.”
Theodore clenched his teeth and imagined himself paranoid and jumping around an empty arena. The more he thought about the coming battle, the less confident he felt.
“What about the other combatants?” Theodore said. “What can you tell me about them? What do I need to look out for?”
There was a knock at the door before either of his coaches could answer. Theodore unlatched the door and found Oboe on the other side with a dish of fruit, cheese and bread.
“Um.” She stood there, as if forgetting why she had come. She stared down into the dish and remembered. “I brought you some food,” she said. “I can’t cook like you, but I scrounged what I could. I don’t know when you ate last.”
Theodore had forgotten himself. Whatever appetite he had was buried by days of anxiety still piling higher and higher. Despite this numbness, he knew he needed to eat. “Thank you.”
She set the dish down on the table, and there was a long moment of tense quiet. Thistle’s expression changed. He looked as if he had noticed something both urgent and terrifying.
“Hey, uh.” His four eyes swiveled between everyone in the room, until settling on Fife. “Listen. Me and the Circle faun here have to go deal with something, okay? We’ll be back later.”
“What’re you talking about?” Fife was bewildered. “What on Earth could be more important than what we’re already doing?”
“Something IMPORTANT,” Thistle said, hissing.
“Do you need help?” Oboe said, concerned.
“No, I don’t need any help from you!” Thistle said, sounding very angry. “I’m just going to take your brother here while you two enjoy your meal. Goodbye!”
Theodore watched as Thistle dragged a confused Fife out of the room by the kneecap. The door closed, and then he was alone in the room with Oboe.