Crop fields sprawled as far as the eye could see. The sight of the vast sea of grain stopped Theodore dead in his tracks. He had a general idea where his food came from thanks to his books, but this was his first time seeing it himself.
He shook his head. "It's just corn," he said.
The South Manor farms sat on the outskirts of the Whirlwood. It was far enough away that there was little risk of livestock gaining sentience, but close enough to use the river Wander to water crops. The manor house stood like a fort, with looming silos and homesteads radiating out.
"There's something going on at the gate," Oboe said, playing with the binoculars.
They found a crowd of workers gathered outside the main village. A slim man in a suit and cape was speaking, pacing the bed of a wagon like a stage while waving a showman's cane.
"...For a limited time only! With protection like this you can look tragedy right in the eye and say with confidence: 'No thanks, buster!' "
His smile was as curled as his bright red hair. He stepped to the side with a flowering gesture to reveal an old trunk. He banged on it with his cane and it sprang open to reveal a display of ornate talismans.
"Finest silver enchanted by hand to repel any ghast! Defend yourself against the marauding forces of the dark! Be the envy of all your friends! 'Wow!' they will say as ghasts tear them limb from limb, 'I wish I had bought one of those!"
"I'll take two!" an older woman said, hurling coins into the wagon.
"A smart woman if ever I saw one!" The showman bent down and pinned two talismans to her sleeve. "There you are!"
A fatter man spoke up. "Will these things keep me from gettin' elf-shot?"
The peddler snapped his heels together. "Silver is used to defeat ghasts my good man, not fairies. Iron is their bane! I've plenty of those as well if you fear the mischief of the fey. Only nine-hundred thalers!"
"Why is all this stuff so expensive?" A teenager said.
"No price is too great to insure the safety of you and your loved ones! Let me remind you all that I have only a few talismans left! I implore you all, do not miss this exclusive chance to avoid certain death!"
"I'll buy them all!" a panicked woman said.
"No!" An older man jumped in front of her. "I'll pay double!"
"I've got kids!" Said a concerned parent, shoving his neighbor into the dirt. "You've got to sell them to me!"
Theodore stepped back in alarm as the crowd mobbed the wagon, fighting to buy the last of the merchandise.
"There's something wrong," he said. "I need to get up there."
Oboe glanced between him and the wagon. "Okay," She said and grabbed him by the waist.
Before Theodore had a chance to object, Oboe chucked him over the crowd and onto the stage. He landed on his feet and was about as startled as the crowd by the event. Now that he was the center of attention, he took the opportunity to clear his throat.
"Ranger Deputy Theodore Grayweather," he said. "Merchant, do you have a license to be selling enchanted wares?"
The salesman offered a toothy grin. "Why, sure. I'm fully authenticated to sell whatever, wherever I like. Of course, I didn't think to bring any of my many permits with me today."
Theodore pulled out his citation booklet. "What is your name?"
"Oh, are we doing introductions?" He gave a mocking curtsy. "I go by Flip. Purveyor of wonders at rock bottom prices!"
"Flip, you are in violation of king's law," Theodore said. "The sale of all magical apparatuses is restricted to the grounds of the University."
"The university." Flip chuckled. "Should we really trust the protection of these good people to an institution with a monopoly on such product?" He turned, addressing the crowd more than Theodore. "With a killer on the loose, should we expect these citizens to travel all the way to the capital when they've so much work to do here? I came out of respect to offer them the means to defend their loves ones. Talismans made with pure, organic magic fresh from nature! Nothing like the processed, industrial poison that 'university' uses. Am I right?"
The crowd booed. "The university sucks!"
Theodore realized his mistake. "You're not a licensed mage at all. You're a witch!"
Flip spread his arms wide. "If that is the label you must apply to a man who refuses to accept a corrupt system, then yes. In truth I am only a humble tradesman come to offer my much-needed services at never-before-seen prices."
This was a bigger mess than Theodore realized. "You're an unregistered mage selling illegal merchandise." He penciled in the details into the citation form. "I'll have to hand you over to the City Watch. You can argue your case in the courts."
Flip used his cane to knock the citation book out of Theodore's hands and spun to face the crowd. "Good people, does this seem right? I came here to help, in the midst of a plague of wicked ghasts, and you patronize me of your own free will. Are you going to let this man lock me up for that?"
The crowd erupted into louder boos. Theodore grabbed his citation book only to be pulled off the stage by angry villagers.
"Stop!" Theodore struggled as he was restrained. "I need to finish writing this subpoena!"
"Theo!" Oboe tried to push through the crowd and was pushed back. Flip took the opportunity to sell the last few of his talismans.
"Until next time!" Flip made a theatric bow and cast a spell on his horseless wagon. It lurched to life, wheeling off toward the valley. The crowd cheered. Theodore fought to fill in the last few lines of his paperwork but it was too late. The witch escaped.
"Alright! That's enough!" Alaric Pearce swaggered out from the manor yard. The alderman stood a head taller than anyone else. "Let the man go!"
The farmers complied, and Theodore fell flat on his face. Pearce yanked Theodore up by the scruff and set him back on his feet.
"You know you came here to find a killer ghast, not to harass a merchant, right?"
Theodore watched with irritation as Flip's wagon disappeared into the Whirlwood. "I am aware," he said.
"Well, it seems we've beaten you to the punch," Pearce said. "I just got word we've captured the killer."