(For other "Stories about Trolls", see the listing.)
Lodestone seethed as he stormed into his quarters, but he still took extra care not to slam the door behind him. Instead, he took a deep breath and carefully pulled it closed so it hardly made a sound. He might be furious, but there were still appearances to keep up. He didn't want passersby — especially if they happened to be high-ranking trolls like himself — to know precisely how furious he was; only novices and utter fools let on how they truly felt when spying eyes and ears abounded.
Once he was satisfied he was away from public eye, he took a couple of deep breaths. Then, he searched on top of his mantle for a wick-reed so he could transfer the light from the flame of his lantern to the shard-lamp on the ceiling overhead and the lamp on his bureau. Once his room was properly lit, he shook the reed to extinguish it, and blew the lantern-light out with a puff of air that sent him into a coughing fit. It took almost a minute to pass, and when it was finally through, the old troll was wiping tears from his bloodshot eyes.
Calm, he tried to will himself. The hacking had done nothing to settle his temper. Calm. He sat down on his bed and dabbed at the corner of his eyes with the edge of his sleeve. He took another deep breath. This time, at least, his lungs felt clear. He took a deep breath again just to make sure.
Now he just wanted peace and quiet so he could figure out how he could fix the terrible mess that had presented itself today. He closed his eyes and tried to clear his thoughts. After a minute or two, he believed he could feel his anger dissipating. It was much easier to sort things out when one's mind wasn't clouded by emotion.
But the silence was interrupted by a knock at the door, followed by a softly feminine voice chortling, “Oh, Lodestone...”
The mere sickeningly-sweet tone of it set the old Scholar back on edge. “Go away,” he grumbled as he grit his teeth.
The troll outside didn't listen. The door cracked open, and a young lass with a cascade of long, black braids poked her head inside. “Oh, Lodestone...” she crooned again, and the rest of her scantily-clad, voluptuous body followed.
“Facet--” Lodestone couldn't even spit out that he wanted her to leave before she had sauntered over to him.
“I came, just like you asked me to,” she said, and reached out to twirl a smooth, green finger in the long strands of his beard. “Pigment made me clean the chamberpots today, but he won't be able to much longer, will he? Not when you're voted in as Head of House?” She started to sit on his lap.
The mere mention of the vote at tonight's session fanned the elder's fury. With a growl, he pushed the young apprentice off his lap, sending her staggering backwards. “As far as I'm concerned, you can rot under Pigment's glare until you die.”
Facet was flabbergasted, “But Lodestone, you promised — you said if I came to your quarters tonight, you'd see about getting me out of that wretched library and into the archives!”
“The agreement is off!” Right now, Lodestone didn't care about seeking pleasures or changing the course of a young troll's life. He didn't care about showing Pigment, Facet's mentor, the extent of his power by snatching out yet another apprentice from under the old librarian's nose. There were much more important things at stake than worrying about what some self-centered, unhappy tart was bellyaching over. Lodestone glared at her. “Get out. Now.”
“But—!” Tears began to well in Facet's eyes. How often had she used those fake tears to manipulate him of late? Plotting, trapping, using... he was sick of it!
Something in him snapped. He'd give her something to cry about! He bellowed, “I SAID GET OUT!!” and charged at her with a thick-palmed hand raised over his head.
With a scream, she whirled toward the still-open door, and left it agape as she ran down the hallway, sobbing. A couple of apprentices happened to be walking past and peered inquisitively into his room.
“Mind your own sodded business, you bloody novices!” Lodestone spat at them, and slammed the door in their nosy faces.
He huffed and shuffled back over to his bed. He was anything but calm now, and no amount of deep breathing or chanting was going to change that. First the events of the vote, and now the brazen intrusion of that thoughtless little tart, were eating at him. Think. Think! He had to clear his head!
He didn't sit. Instead, he turned toward the corner and a medium-sized, grey case he had carefully stashed there. He picked it up, placed it flat on his bed, and opened it. Inside was one of the best-made spike fiddles that troll hands had ever made. It had been his father's instrument, and his father's before that. Lodestone had hoped one day to pass it down to his son, too... but now he was getting old, and it was too late for him to have any more children.
He was running out of time to create any lasting legacy. And the session this evening had made him realize how little of a foothold he had left.
With the same care and reverence he used when handling one of the brittle, ancient parchments from the First Ones, at the archives, he lifted the instrument from its case. He set it carefully on the bed as he closed the protective box and stashed it back in the corner. Then, he retrieved the bow he used to play and sat down on his bed. He took the fiddle, set the spike on the end into the notch that was well-worn in the floorboards in front of him, and touched the bow to the strings.
The tone was rich — brilliant — and the opening notes, as he played them, swelled into the tiny room. The instrument had remained perfectly in tune from the last time he played. Lodestone ran the bow over the strings one more time and closed his eyes. This was what he needed. He could always count on music to calm him. He was feeling better, much less agitated, already.
He placed the fingers of his left hand over the strings on the fiddle's neck and decided he'd practice scales for a while — the simple repetition always cleared his head – and then, maybe, he'd play Slate's Aria 9 or Lumina's Nocturne of the Late Bells. Those were subtle, yet complex tunes. That was how he liked them. They began quietly, but swelled , often surprisingly, in places when they needed to make a point. He pressed on the strings to fret the first note —
And by the sweat of the firstcomers, how his knuckles ached when he did! He shook his hand in an effort to make the hurt go away. Sometimes it worked. But today, it didn't. He looked at his fingers; the knuckles were swollen from age-ache that creeped into the bones of all old trolls. Too many years of pressing down on quills and folding and rolling thick parchments were taking their toll. He shook his hand again, and then pressed the strings firmly down on the neck, ignoring the hurt. He would work through the pain, just as he would work through the latest crisis that had presented itself at the session that was held not even two bells ago.
Tsi-ga-nu-mi-jur-ki-pe-tsi.... The notes of the first scale rang out with precision. Lodestone played them over, in order, then in reverse. again and again. He started out slowly, and then increased his speed as he continued.
Tsi-ga-nu-mi-jur-ki-pe-tsi.... He let his mind wander as he continued to play.
It had been a session he had been looking forward to. Tonight was to have been a moment he had been endeavoring toward, living for, for countless years of his life. He had worked hard to rise through the ranks, and finally — finally! — the fruits of his labors would be realized.
Months ago, Quill had finally admitted to him that she was going to retire. She had come to him one morning at breakfast and they'd had a long discussion about how her great age was finally taking its toll on her mind. She was becoming forgetful. At times, she said things that made no sense! Lodestone, as Quill's assistant, spent at least half of his time in the archives fixing all the mistakes she was making now. It was more than clear that she was no longer capable of leadership. It was, at long last, her time to leave.
She would do so publicly, at the upcoming session to vote in Heads of House, and she was going to put in the highest recommendation that Lodestone be the one to take her place. She couldn't guarantee that he would also take her place as Head of Conclave, but he had much better chances than the other top contender — Brightmetal from Tactics. Quill assured him that the young soldier wasn't as seasoned or as well-liked as Lodestone was. Her views on the point-ears above set too many trolls' teeth on edge. Besides, regardless of what the populace thought of whom, Quill's word held the most sway as far as Conclave matters were concerned. Whatever she recommended, the rest of the Conclave would do.
That was the kind of power Lodestone hoped to wield someday. And soon, the opportunity to do so would be his!
So the two of them planned the evening of Quill's pending retirement like a composer would an epic overture. For days to come, he fantasized about how beautiful the ending would be!
Lodestone spent months preparing for the day of his ascension! He made completely sure he was thorough and that no details were left undone. He planned who his advisors would be, and who would be voted in as Second in his place.
And how many countless times did he check back with that old windbag Quill to make sure that everything would go just as the two of them had arranged? He'd lost count.
At long last, the day of Quill's retirement finally arrived. When the first morning bell of the big day rang, he began to prepare for the occasion. He dressed in his finest robes, slicked his hair back under his cap, and put pomade in his beard. He drew many an odd look from passersby as he made his way to the Conclave Chambers.
At first evening bell, the Conclave had convened for both votes and nominations. When the time came for Quill's big announcement, the old female rose. Lodestone held his breath as he waited for her to say she was resigning and that someone else — him — would need to succeed her. He had a speech prepared. He was ready to stand and take the applause and accolades that would be coming his way at Quill's recommendation.
The elderly female looked first at him, and then at the rest of the Heads seated around the circular, marbled table in the chamber. There was a hush in the gallery balcony above where other high-status trolls looked down over the proceedings when she cleared her throat. Then, she said, “After much consideration, I have decided that my tenure as Head of the House of Scholars, and as your leader as Head of Conclave, is not yet completed. If you will still have me, I wish to remain in my position for another year.”
It was all Lodestone could do to keep his mouth from gaping in surprise. He caught the briefest of gazes that old Quill shot his way, and the hint of a smile that tugged at the corner of her mouth. What had just happened? What was that old bat doing?
Tsi-ga-nu-mi-jur-ki-pe-screech!!! The final string wailed in agony as Lodestone angrily drew his bow across it. He growled under his breath as he planted the end of the bow on the ground. A stray bit of dust on the floor bore the brunt of his anger as he kicked it beneath his bed with vehemence.
When the session was over, after Quill was voted in as Head, and he — once again — as second, Lodestone stormed to Quill's work-chambers. He knew full well she'd stop there to sign the documents that would make the day's vote official. He waited at the door, as it would have been unseemly for him to have stepped inside.
Less than a quarter of a bell had passed before Quill, limping heavily on her cane, and her young assistant Scrawl came walking down the hall. Lodestone impatiently went to meet her halfway.
“What's going on?” Lodestone demanded in a loud whisper. “We had everything all planned out.”
Quill kept walking and held up a hand. “I know, Lodestone. But plans have changed.”
“What's changed? You never told me about any change in plans.” He took at step in front of her so he could look her in the eye. “What haven't you told me about?”
She stopped and then smiled at him like a headmistress would at some student she cared nothing about. “After discussion and consideration, I've come to realize that right now, you're more useful staying right where you are.”
They had reached her door, and it was clear Quill and her assistant were going to go into her work-chambers and not welcome him inside. But Lodestone wasn't finished yet. He stepped in front of her so she couldn't enter. “Discussion? With who? We had a deal, Quill!” He was aware of his voice's increase in volume, and quieted it at the end to not draw attention to their conversation.
“If you'll excuse me,” Quill dismissed him outright and put a hand on his shoulder to nudge him aside. “I have papers to sign and a meeting to attend.”
“Quill!” Lodestone was getting angry now. He would not be brushed aside like this!
Another voice came from behind which prevented him from speaking any further. Lodestone knew that voice. He knew it all too well. He suppressed a scowl as he turned to face Pigment. The old Head Librarian was grinning at him. “Well, Lodestone. What a surprise meeting you here. I trust that I'm not interrupting anything you and our dear Lady Quill need to discuss?”
“Lodestone was just leaving,” Quill flatly announced.
Lodestone looked first at Pigment, then back at Quill, brows lowered. And, suddenly, he had put the pieces together. He knew exactly what had happened behind his back. He was too world-wise and had spent too much of his life clawing his way to the top to have the wool pulled over his eyes this easily. A small part of him wondered, too, if he was supposed to have found out what had happened exactly this way.
It all made sense now. He had seen the wide smile on Pigment's ugly, wart-covered face — in the balcony above the main chamber as Quill made her announcement. And then — for the briefest of moments — Lodestone thought he saw Quill glance at Pigment out of the corner of her eye. At that time, those actions seemed like nothing to be worried about.
But now, he knew. Quill had made some kind of arrangement with Pigment – Lodestone's rival and his biggest competition. He didn't know exactly what they had planned, or what was in store for him in the near future, but he knew that some kind of foundation had been laid that was to Pigment's advantage.
He wouldn't be surprised if there was a surprise announcement about Pigment being promoted to Scholar House Leadership in the very near future.
Suddenly, Lodestone's secure position in his House — in all of Underhaven — seemed precarious at best.
“We can discuss this later,” Lodestone said to his Head of House and stepped away from the door.
“Perhaps,” the eldest troll answered. “Talk to Scrawl to see if I can fit a meeting into my schedule.”
Lodestone seethed at the added insult as the three trolls entered Quill's work-chamber and closed the door behind them. Make an appointment? Talk to the apprentice? A troll of his status didn't need to make appointments to meet with his Head of House! He and Quill had an open-door agreement!
He heard laughter come from inside Quill's work-chambers. Did Quill think he would just sit idly by and let his life's work be cast away? He made sure no one was watching and put his ear to the door and listened. Wafts of the merry discussion going on inside that chamber verified his assumptions. Well, he wasn't a fool! If that saggy old Seal Cow was thinking about giving Pigment his rightful spot as Head of House, well, both of them had another thing coming!
He stormed down the hallway. He had to think!
Lodestone sighed and placed the bow back against the spike-fiddle's strings and began to play the first measures of a sonata of his own writing. They might have insulted him at the session today, but he wasn't beaten. Life in Underhaven was like making music. Learning to play took a lot of practice. A good musician had many songs in his repertoire, and a wise musician certainly didn't stop playing if he'd made a mistake during a performance.
There were those who were played, but Lodestone was one of the few who also knew how to make his own arrangements. He'd been doing that for years.
So he played, he let his mind wander. He calmed down. And he began to orchestrate what he hoped would be Quill's upcoming undoing.