(For other "Stories about Trolls", see the listing.)
A small stone hammer lay on a tray of dark metal. Beside it on a wide, high table of grim grey stone lay more trays. Upon them lay ivory earrings, a knife, swatches of leather, glass bottles, and the like, each item vitally important. They were exhibits, specimens, data points yet to be gathered.
Behind the table, a mountain of a troll. “A Palace Keeper nearly infiltrated our home! That makes this a military matter!” Bludgeon bellowed. Swatches of leather-scale armor rippled at the expansion of his chest.
The alleged Palace Keeper — a bald female, her legs partly crushed — lay on a specially-constructed, long rock slab under which water from a cold spring had been diverted. Normally, these slabs would be used for the preservation of meat from seals the trolls hunted from the sea, but the preservation method would do to keep the intruder’s dead body from decaying until it had served its purpose. Quill calmly harvested black hair from thin brows, the snipping of her scissors the only sound she made. More evidentiary bounty to analyze. Chert, the head of the House of Scholars, had appointed her to gather and process the evidence for this case.
The appearance of the elf in a northeastern tunnel had thrown all of troll society into a state of organized chaos. The fact that the very unwelcome intruder had met her death among the many traps laid out in preparation of just such an event had done little to ease tensions. The House of Scholars and the House of Tactics and Arms were still wrestling for control and access to the remains, while each blamed the other for lapses that allowed the incident to occur in the first place. The results of this presumable joint venture would go a long way to resolving the matter. But it was only one of many bureaucratic steps yet to come. Quill's reply was precisely as polite and evenly toned as the situation warranted. “Determining if this… being… really was a Palace Keeper is a scientific matter.” Her every action had purpose, so she only turned to catch his eyes when it was time to put the hairs in their place. “You were permitted to this examination as a courtesy, nothing more.”
Well, it certainly was more than that, not that she'd admit it in present company. Exactly who would be here in this room at this moment had been a matter of strenuous debate. Representatives of the Tinkers were however notably absent from this affair. The simplest reason, to Quill’s way of thinking, was that they had backed out. Decided to let other Houses squabble over jurisdiction and then sweep in behind the victor to make their own discoveries without stepping on any toes. Cowardice masquerading as efficiency.
Hot indignant breath blasted from Bludgeon's mouth like an armored charge when he recovered. “Don’t give me that self-serving intellectual dung! We all know bloody well what it is! Shorter and stouter than the scrolls say, but so what?" He pointed over to the other male in the room, Redpike, and continued, "I trust the trolls who brought that body here more than any old tale, and they tell me the bag of bones is lighter than anything its size has any right or reason to be!”
“Speculation!” Quill interrupted.
“Elegant simplicity! Those pointy ears and ridiculous eyes alone are a dead giveaway!”
“And we know that our ancient persecutors took that form in response to something they knew was already on this world!” Quill shot back, her patience with paranoid militaristic prattle reaching its end. “This one could just as easily be what they came here to find!” This was the first real chance to find out either way, and the results of this most vital inquiry could not — would not!— be despoiled by unfounded claims. Quill waved the unsigned death certificate in Bludgeon's face. “Until I say it’s a Palace Keeper, it’s not a Palace Keeper.”
“Begging your pardons,” prompted Thumbprint, the final member of the four. A fellow Scholar, tasked with taking down notes and Quill’s dictation. She was situated opposite the body at the far end of the chamber. “We do have at our disposal a means of answering this question definitively. The very same that our grandfathers’ grandfathers’ grandfathers used when tasked to find a shapeshifter who’d become lost within a new form. It just so happens that said means has been passed down my family line.”
To her side, Redpike held a blank face for a moment. Then his eyes widened with realization, and narrowed with disdain. It wasn’t his place to speak, by the protocols of his House. Nevertheless, he hefted up his belt and shook his head vigorously. “Oh, no, no, no, no! No! We cannot open that bag of spores!”
“If I may be so bold,” Thumbprint replied, “This question could have been resolved some time ago, if the ‘bag,’ as you say, had been opened following the other incident. Our predecessors at the last such inquest failed to use every option at their disposal. Shall we?”
“It’s not your decision to make, soldier,” Quill declared, clinical calmness returning to her voice. “This situation has us all at each other’s throats, and I, for one, wish an end to it. If we destroy ourselves, we do the Palace Keepers’ dirty work for them. I’ll take any solid answers I can get, if it will bring us to conclusion. Go ahead, my dear. This should prove interesting, if not educational.” She waved a hand in the direction of the door. With a slight bow, the young woman made her exit. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Bludgeon shift uneasily.
Quill turned her attention to Redpike. Bludgeon’s second had earned his place at the examination by being one of the guards who had secured the foothold scene. “While we’re waiting, perhaps you could explain to me exactly how you know how heavy this female should be?”
When Thumbprint returned, she was wearing a leather bracer on her left arm and had a small bundle wrapped around the other. Redpike’s glare could have kept the forge-fires lit for weeks. He’d moved closer to the door, while Bludgeon remained lording over the collection of evidence. For her part, Quill had the ledger at the ready, knowing her subordinate’s hands would be full for as long as this took.
“I assure you all I took all proper precautions,” Thumbprint said softly. “The exits out of this section have been sealed. Not much of an inconvenience, given the security already present.” She found an empty table along the wall and set her bundle down. She slowly removed the velvet cover side by side, revealing a gilded cage and a tiny scarlet terror within.
“Oooooooooh Trickleclaw much vexed!!! Nicefriend Digdig say no more smalldark!!!” Quill instinctively covered her ears while the screeching collection of wings and claws rattled its prison walls. “Say Trickleclaw be hushquiet, no say smalldark!!! Nicefriend Digdig no — Awwwwwwwwww!!! Poorpoor Highthing all sparkgone!!!” Its eyes, once they’d chanced upon the corpse, were now locked on to the sight.
‘Ah, so it is true! This is a Palace Keeper before me!’ Quill had no interest in directly addressing the creature. "The insect's response will be noted," she stated for the record. Likewise, she noted the reactions of her counterparts; Redpike’s cold fury and Bludgeon’s… apprehension? No, this new input would not convince anyone who had already made up their mind about its source. "However, our superiors may not take its words into consideration. We shall move on to the next phase."
Surprisingly, she heard no rebuttal from Bludgeon. Quill looked down to transcribe her findings, and heard the general take a step back. “You’re not going to let it out?” he asked, an odd tenor to his voice. Quill looked over at the high-ranking Military House Officer. His pupils were dilated. He was starting to sweat. That was most unlike him. Most unlike him... and most interesting. Was Thumbnail's little pet bug really getting under the usually-unshakable Bludgeon's skin?
“But of course!" Thumbprint replied. Quill set her eyes up above her glass frames to see the bug-handler making a show of drawing out a leash attached to one finger and the bug’s harness. "I asked Trickleclaw to be absolutely quiet on the walk here, and it was. My little friend has proven its word, and earned a reward. It can have a moment out of the ‘smalldark’ before it goes back home.”
“Your… little… ?“ unable to repeat the next word, Redpike bristled. “Now she’s negotiating with it! Oh, I’ve heard the stories about you and your ‘socialization experiments’! When will you learn that thing CAN'T learn?”
"Begging your pardon, but that is where I believe you are wrong." The little beast flitted up on pale grey wings to Thumbprint’s outstretched arm. Wicked-sharp claws dug into its leather perch. It kept its sad eyes on the bodies of the elves, and began to bob its head and screech atonally. A song, perhaps? But thankfully, it showed no interest in approaching and thus contaminating the evidence. But whether that was out of natural disinterest in disturbing the dead or a calculated awareness of the limits of its leash was impossible to determine.
“You think it has any smarts just because you can make it do tricks?” Redpike must have noticed Bludgeon’s unusual and fearful silence by now, as he was apparently determined to fill the void. His hands flailed wildly to punctuate his pronouncements. “All it can DO is tricks! Obedience is all it knows! Obedience to the ‘highthings’ it will never, ever, stop pining for! Let it loose and it will fly right off to go find them! Go on, do it if you have no doubt! HA! You know it can’t think any other way! What we see before us is exactly what the Palace Keepers had in mind for all of us! What we would have become, hmph! Mindless, childish, pets — spit! — who can’t think any thought that they didn’t put in their empty little heads!”
Quill found this insight to the Tactical mindset quite fascinating. She silently played out the chain of rejoinders that line of reasoning would have in the conclave. The insect kept singing. Bludgeon kept trembling. Neither of which were the response Redpike was looking for. "Drubbit, General! Show some stones! It’s nothing but a pest to be squashed!" He marched forward, blind to Thumbprint’s defensive motion. “C’mere, you—!"
The bug stopped singing and instantly spread itself down across it's leather perch, snarling. Its wings clapped rttt-rtttt-rtttt! and it hissed a series of harsh, threatening sounds. Quill’s hands found her ears yet again.
If Bludgeon could fly he'd be on top of the stack of shelves he'd just backpedaled into. "Stand down, soldier! Stand down! Now!"
Redpike gave a look at his pale-faced superior, but years of training won out, and he moved away. But his actions were little help; the rotter was trying to be loud!
"Hmmm," A small smile escaped Thumbprint’s lips. “I’ve thoroughly researched the old records on my little friend and its kin. They clearly speak of the aggression these creatures had against our people. Redpike has just helped us prove that some of that behavior still remains.... However, the fact that it has been nothing but obedient to me shows that it can adapt in the face of new stimuli. Which means it can learn. Thank you, Trickleclaw, back you go.” She prodded the beast with a finger. It obediently returned to the cage, but not without giving its handler a suspicious look.
“In time, I hope to teach Trickleclaw that we are its allies. That it can trust us.”
‘And share its secrets,’ Quill thought. ‘Should that day ever come, the knowledge of the shards will belong to The House of Scholars!’
Hand to her breast, Thumbprint said, “Please do excuse me, friends, but I should get this little one home.” The Preserver-keeper took a lingering look over the bodies and spoke in a whisper, “Looks like the preliminaries are done. I rather don’t think it should be present for what comes next. That might be detrimental to my efforts.” Just shy of the door, she turned to her rival. “Redpike, I trust you can keep notes while I’m gone?”
“This isn’t over,” he groaned, taking an uncertain glance over at his still-panic-stricken general.
“It is for now,” Quill stated. “There’s work to be done. On these tables, and amongst each other.” She waited until the door was firmly closed before bringing out the dissection tools.