(Ed. Note: click here to see a depiction of the various hats worn by Trickleclaw in this story.)
The dimly lit cavern was quite musty, impregnated with lingering odors of waste and death from countless feral occupants of the underground world. Quite an improvement from the blinding, sterile walls of the brutally bright place Twisk had so recently escaped. Atop an improvised table of stone slab, he examined a bounty of tactical information. A handful of leather maps drawn in soot-stick made the base of it. Stones, pinecones, and other markers represented Troll forces, presumed locations of enemy encampments, and other strategic points. Twisk's silent contemplation of his squad’s next move was uninterrupted by sound until a smattering of muffled tones came into range. The tones became a quiet cacophony as the source approached.
Big, brawny Blerg. From the look of her, Twisk knew she'd been in a fight. New bruises, fresh red lines on her face and through her clothes. A half-wrapped bandage around her left shoulder. "Next time, let the healer finish," he advised.
"This couldn’t wait," she said, stepping forward. A wide travel bag was strapped over the good shoulder. Out of it, she produced three wrapped packages in turn, placing each upon a naked corner of the table. “What you sent me to find. What came attached to it. What came attached to that."
After an "Oomph!" of shock, the atonal torrent coming from the third bag formed into words. "Nastybad Dig-digs! Nastybad Smalldark! Take Trickleclaw back to nicepretty Highthings! Or spoot you good!" Its words collapsed back into a harsh screed of breets and deets which Twisk honestly couldn’t tell apart from Preserver singing.
“I could have lived a happy life never hearing that racket again," the male groaned to the female. "One of these two had better be worth it.”
Blerg shrugged, winced, rubbed her bad shoulder. “What else could I to do? Let it fly off to tell its masters where the cross-river ambush point is? It’s not as though I could kill it. Took a full on blow from my hammer trying to keep that one from getting snuffed.” She pointed at the second parcel, which was noticeably damp. “Barely dizzied it long enough to bag up.”
Twisk nodded acceptance of the point. The nature of the second parcel now quite evident, he turned his attention to the first. What was to be found inside was indeed well worth the Preserver’s racket. The item he took in hand was a perfectly curved, obsidian-sharp dagger with an elaborately curved guard. All formed from the same solid piece of translucent crystal. Palace crystal, its facets and curves shining green, violet, and magenta. Whether it was reflecting light or emitting it was impossible to say.
In a Changing One’s hands, it was yet another supernaturally formed weapon. In troll hands, it could be much, much more than that. For while Twisk’s people now controlled the empty husk of the Palace, its bounty was utterly inaccessible. Locked into the forms chosen by its former masters. Impenetrable walls, floors that would yield to no hammer, furniture and statuary that could not be pried away from the frame. This trophy was going to change the entire war, if his advisor was correct. The rebel field commander smiled wide and put it, carefully, on the opposite end of the slab.
The second bag, not as thick as the third, was starting to leave a red puddle beneath itself. He seized it for a closer look, careful to keep the blood clear of his young beard. The head inside was female. Large slanted eyes of gold, a grotesquely small nose, and hair an unnatural lavender. Twisk's role in the overtaking of the Palace was cutting throats in the cocoon chamber. He had no idea what form the ambulatory shapeshifters had taken until after the crash. "I wonder who this was, back on the Palace. When she wore her true skin." A burst of flippant air escaped his nose. "Never ceases to amaze me, that they keep these false forms after they die.” Shouldn’t the magical forces that flowed through their enemies’ veins cease with when their pulses did? It only made perfect sense.
“Even in death, they cling to their lies,” Blerg noted, almost philosophically.
“Well said!” Twisk replied, aware that he and the hunter were both speaking over the insect-thing’s endless caterwauling. He looked again at his fellow troll. “I’ll get this blade to Uzay, see if his theories hold water. You, go back and get that shoulder tended to. And tell your hunt team go rest up. Help yourselves to a wineskin on me. You’ve sure as well earned it.”
“Thank you for that. And for the opportunity to kill a Changing One.” Blerg gave a respectful wave with her good arm, and departed the cavern. Leaving Twisk with nothing to listen to but the ceaseless wall of high-pitched noise.
“SHADDAAAAP!” He brought a fist down hard on the bag, making a very satisfying thump when it hit. The tiny pest didn’t stop bitching, but it was too dazed to do it at full volume.
“One tiny dagger was all it took to end eternity.” Uzay, recently promoted Grand General of all Troll forces, sat musing in a well-carved stone command chair. Which was centered in a well carved room, covered with woven livery. Icons of uncommon distinction which were becoming all too common of late. Held before his eyes in-between both hands, a gleaming crystal shard, lines of mauve and lime rolling across its surface as he rotated the piece. “The stuff of the Palace cleaved into itself, as nothing else we tried could. This gave us shards. Shards we crafted into chisels. Chisels we drove onto the walls of our former prison with the might of our hammers and our backs. We carved up the awful Palace and spread its carcass across these mountains. The power of the Changing Ones is broken! Why, then, do they still have power over you?”
Uzay twisted his wrist, pointing the business end of the shard at his sole company. Trickleclaw was caged within a sculpted mass of Palace shards. One large box they made, near as tall as a troll and twice as wide, the bindings located where the bug could not reach. Unbreakable, by a Preserver's claw and teeth at least. The only seam was where the heavy thing was bolted to the floor. A number of candles atop it provided extra light for the room, the observation deck of the local general. The wax drippings which escaped down through the leather candle setting had been used by the hovering creature to create a hat. “Nicepretty Highthings never keep Trickleclaw in smalldarks!” it huffed, scarlet arms crossed.
“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, little one!” Uzay rose and headed to the window. "Your cage was just as big as mine. Big as a crystal shell. Though I suppose at your size it might not have felt so confining. Certainly it was bigger than what you're accustomed to now. I don’t want to be to you what the Changing Ones were to me. I want to give you what they never gave us. A way out. I’m offering you a whole mountain range and all the tunnels beneath!" His hands found the window sill and he took a long slow gaze across the courtyard below him, through reinforced steel bars.
A squad of warriors was being put through their daily paces by General Klant. Running laps around the inner grounds of Grandmother Mountain Fortress. One of six bunkers where the bulk of the Palace had been sealed away. This fortress's trove was secured in the central vault beneath the watch tower Uzay was standing within. The stratagem being that should the Changing Ones ever return, they'd have to fight tooth and nail for just a piece of their troll-snatching home, and likely run out of bodies to throw away before they could ever reclaim the whole. No single siege, no decisive victory, could win a new war for their side. Be they coneheads or point-ears or whatever they might come charging in as.
'The trouble with always looking out for enemies, is sooner or later you start seeing new ones. Prominently displayed on the high stone walls was the banner of a shield and anvil on a field of slate grey. Designed as a warning to the Changing Ones, if they reached this place, that they would get no further. Now, something in the way the soldiers were moving warned that the banner was becoming an identity. He had seen much the same in the other bunkers he had inspected thus far. Only the icons were different. "We're drawing the lines with needle and thread," he said in a weary whisper. There was no need for this new lofty rank of his, created to keep the generals in line, if the generals could be trusted to keep in ranks.
He ran a hand through his salted hair, turned back to the bug. "But before I let you go, I need to know that you will be grateful. Willing to help us, help me, save lives. Son Stronghold is holding something back. I know it, but I can’t prove it." The general in charge of that mountain's defense, Glorg, was offering the Leadership Quorum no end of troubles recently. Making vitriolic speeches at their expense in their last few appearances before that body. Also there was the matter of anonymous letters being circulated that questioned the competency of those in charge. If the Son wasn't hoarding weapons somewhere, with intent to turn them on their own kind, they were hiding a propaganda operation bent on destabilizing the next election in their favor. "I'll be leading an inspection tour out from here. When it reaches them, I want you to help me find any secret places they may have built up. Find me the ways a troll can’t get to without being seen. We'll stomp out the treason before it even happens."
"No, no, no," The Preserver shook its head in a way that struck the leader-of-soldiers as patronizing. "Trickleclaw know how help! Knockbits Dig-Dig let Trickleclaw wildfree! Come with Trickleclaw for go find softnice High Things! Highthighs come to Homeplace, make goodsoft yipyap with Dig-Digs. All make nicenice! No more smash-bash anyplace!"
"Fool bug!" Uzay's practiced air of military restraint was wearing thin. He wasn’t used to being told no. "I'm trying to stop a war from boiling out. Not escort war casually back to my homeland under a false flag of peace."
"No more smashbash!" The bug's defiant face glared out at Uzay from as close to the gleaming bars as it could press into them, diminutive hands holding firm. "Trickleclaw no help! Phoeey!"
The Grand General turned his back on the useless creature. He had neither the time nor patience to negotiate with it. "I won’t let your childish notions or anything else stop me from restoring order. Hear me, I won’t let it happen!"
The freshly-polished skull of Grand General Uzay sat jammed in its place as the right hand rest of the throne. The left one, the skull of the throne's previous occupier. The throne itself was a crystalline composite; crafted from two Changing One command seats that had been smashed up and recombined to make a seat wide enough for a troll's girth. The great chair sat on a dais festooned with beaming shards, on the outer edges the shards protruded out from the stone like jagged teeth. Behind it, two torn and battle charred flags, bearing the signet of the crossed and bloodied axes. Beside it, a pair of great furnace-pits. Once the heat sources of trollish industry, they were now ovens upon which were being roasted the remains of deer, hog, birds, mesh baskets of insects. Shoveling a handful of scorched fish heads past his beard was the cruel one sitting on the throne. A two-hundred-year old troll of fat-padded muscle and murderously-cropped hair. A bearskin vest that went down to his feet framed a hairy chest covered in trophies. This was Scrunk The Unyielding, Warlord of Father Stronghold. And here was his seat of power.
Hefting himself up from the throne, past a serving lass who had been leaning in to him, Scrunk addressed the gathering before him. Long tables full of feasting warriors, some wood, some stone. All of these warriors were male, and half of them still in armor. Females were there only to serve food and dance upon the tables or his dais. Scrunk's heavily decorated dancers wore only enough fabric to entice. Save his favorite, one of several at his side, who had on but a few strategically placed clusters of Palace shards to compliment her jewelry, all from the same source. The back wall was lined with musicians, most of them drummers. Jugglers and other entertainers pacing the floor now stood pike still to hear their leader speak.
"Am I not a generous ruler?" Scrunk bellowed!
"OO-RAHHH!" came the answering cry!
"Is this not a bountiful mountain?" he shouted!
"OO-RAHHH!" came the call again!
"Are you not the meanest collection of cutpurses, thumpskulls, and wenchriders in aaaaaalllllll the Six Strongholds?" He raised his weighty arms in exaltation of his warriors.
"OO-RAH OO-RAH OOOO!" The final chant bled into a violent pounding of drums.
The warlord patted his hands down, calling an end to the noise. With a wild grin he spoke on. "We all know how these celebrations of ours end, heh heh." A wail of lust went through the crowd. Males leered at dancers and serving maids, who waved back and blew kisses. Some of the wenches had already chosen favorites from the earlier games of strength, and were cozying up beside those who had earned favor. "But first, another gift to you all. A spot of more entertainment." His large hands clapped twice. "Beast-keeper! Bring it out!"
As Scrunk retook his seat, a younger male quickly entered. Olab, he was called, by those who bothered to remember his name. He wore a comical, almost childish, tunic of bright colors that had extended shoulder cuffs and long strips at the chest which went well past his knees. He held aloft a long staff topped with a makeshift cage that was attached well above his head. Cocooned amid the hodgepodge of dulled blades, rusted tools, pig iron bars, and the blobs of metal that held it all together was Trickleclaw. The Preserver awkwardly perched on the walls of the cage with all four limbs at use to keep itself steady through the march. The loose strands of its woven headband, made of scraps cut from the bearer's tunic, flapped about to and fro until the mobile prison came to a stop.
"Sing us a song, red bug!" the warlord demanded, while picking over a plate of crickets.
"Not Red-bug! Is Trickleclaw!" The room went dead quiet. Gape-jawed, the beast-keeper's temples erupted in cold sweat. All eyes went to the warlord. He'd cut out tongues for less than this!
The portly potentate giggled, then cackled, and finally racked the chamber with a howl of maniacal glee. A snap of his fingers and a wave of his hand sent one if the fire tenders over to the cage with a long torch. Eyes viciously bright, the troll in charge told the little creature, "Give me my song, red bug, or my servant here'll roast your flappity wings right off!"
Olab stood passively rigid as the torchbearer came closer still. Stinging smoke and grasping flames licked at the metal as their source was waved directly beneath the cage, sending its inhabitant climbing to the top. Pale gold eyes went wide with fear. The few who could see them, dancers standing atop the dais, could guess at what it was thinking. How long could it hold out up until its hands couldn’t take the heat of holding on anymore? Until it could no longer hover away from the flames? Before it passed out from the fumes? Surrender was not long in coming. "Breeet teekteetleeet! Deeetel breeet reet! Beetlleekeekeekee! Kree kree tetetetete breek! Akkkateedlebreet!"
"Good! Good!" Scrunk's clap-happy cheer opened the way for a round of applause from the very relieved crowd. "Well, enough of that!" Scrunk waved the beast-keeper away, then pulled the shard-clad beauty to his side. He ran a drooling tongue from one exposed nipple all the way up to her neck. When his greedy mouth reached her cheek, he tore the shards obscuring her nethers and shouted out to his warriors, "Let the orgy commence!"
Tinderbox retied the cord of her cloak's hood under the light of improvised lamps. The unfinished chamber she had been sent to was covered to the walls with boxes, bags, and the occasional scroll case. No weapons, no tools or traps, no foodstuffs. All the things with obvious purpose were being gathered in other places for storage and redistribution. The three corners of the counter-revolution were absorbing their like unto themselves. These were the things without a purpose, or at least without an obvious or immediate one. Like herself, perhaps. Rather insulting after all that she and those of her ilk — the spies, the message runners — had done that had made coordinating the effort to undo the warlords possible. More needless things were being brought down by the minute. Marched in and dropped off rather unceremoniously, with so much disinterest that Tinderbox took notice then a large wooden trunk was dragged in and set alone with particular care. A box that wasn’t entirely closed, as there was a strip of wood wedged in the lid. She took note of the markings tagged to the box, and the male who brought it. "You there! Is that lot from Scrunk's treasure room?"
"Yes'm," said the male, whose prematurely grey hair and worry lines did not sit well with an otherwise youthful face that had yet to grow any whiskers. "So am I, really. No one knows what to do with me. So they told me to do this."
"You look like you're worried he's going to pop out of one of these cases," she said wryly. "He's not coming back, if that's what you're worried about."
"I never saw a body, if you don’t mind my saying so." There was no sarcasm in his voice, only subservience. This was a troll who was used to kissing the foot that stepped on him. "I was to bring this to someone named Tinderbox. Is that you? Hello. I suppose I'll be getting a shiny new name now, too?"
"That seems to be the fashion," she answered flatly. Like all of the counter-revolutionaries, she had used an alias while communicating with her fellow dissidents, and like many she had taken to using it as her true name in this reformed world of unified trolls. She'd heard more and more had begun doing the same now that they were freed from the warlord's clutches. Were they doing it as a show of loyalty to the new order, or following along to deflect suspicions of disloyalty? The cloth-draped female did not concern herself with their reasons. In her case, it was the old name itself she rejected. She'd never go by Chuki again. Under that name she wasn't much different than this pitiable placemat before her, though often she was made to wear significantly less. "What would your name be right now, then?"
"Vork, I am. Beast-keeper to — sorry, former beast-keeper to the one you named. Here to deliver the last living member of his menagerie." At first sight of her scowl his hands went up. "I only fed them and shoveled up after! I didn’t have nothing to do with —"
"Put it down!" Born to the life of a dancing maid in Deepwater Stronghold, Tinderbox hadn’t seen for herself the horrors Scrunk released on his enemies. But she'd heard plenty of rumors even before joining the opposition to the warlords. Boars with sharpened tusks, crows trained to go for the eyes, and other nightmares. "There is no room for such monstrosities here."
"That's what the other fellow said! But that's just it, ma'am! It can't be killed!" Though the male's tone had risen in pitch and speed, again there was no defiance in it. It was fully defensive, and he was crouching back as through he expected to be stricken for speaking out of turn. Before Tinderbox could bark a rebuttal, he threw the lip open. "I can’t even trim its claws, ma'am. Blades bounce right off, sanding stones get all scratched up." The very skeptical female stepped over to look inside, noting that Vork reflexively stepped back away from her. Half the interior was filled with a leather-wrapped bundle, the other half a cage of bone. The silver-winged legend trapped within made a rude noise with its tongue.
"Impossible!" What was the word that belonged to this legend? Preserver! A myth come to life before her very eyes! She looked it over long and hard, filling her eyes with the sight of it. Every detail, from the inexplicable lines of its gender-indeterminate form, to the irritated twitching of his or her wings. It wore a hat of yellow-grey parchment, which evidently was pulled from a hole it had picked through the nearby leather. For the tiny being's part, he or she — or it? — made a show of ignoring her, keeping its back turned as she moved about the case. Obviously there was some mistake in the labeling. "I wasn’t aware that a war party had been sent out to the point-ears! When was this taken from them? " she demanded. The return of the enemies of old ten years prior had created the chaos that Tinderbox's lot needed to spark the counter-revolution. But even before the final blows against the last holdout warlord were struck, the decision had been made to avoid direct contact with the point-ears at all costs.
"On my word, I've been looking after this one for a good while. Ever since the last fellow on the job displeased the Warlord..." He cast a wary look over the insect. No, at the cage. Through a stiffened throat, he spoke on. "Hasn’t talked much since then. I think it and Olab were friends. Trickleclaw was someone else's job before that. The leathers have papers and pictures from before... before anything I know. I said as much back up the way, was told to bring it down here for to you to sort out."
Tinderbox's hands were sinking into the package before she was aware she'd opened it. The contents were written in and on a variety of materials. Some of the names that passed her eye she knew. Twisk, a hero of the Great Rebellion. Uzay, who oversaw the destruction of the Palace. Klant, a general who became warlord of the Grandmother after the last vestige of the old government collapsed. Several names she did not recognize. "Who was this?" she demanded, raising one of the mystery documents to his eyes.
A blank look was the answer. "I can’t say I know, ma'am. No one ever taught me letters."
Vork was hardly the first illiterate troll she had met. But never before had Tinderbox's own ignorance been brought to such light. A hair over 300, all she had ever known was the world the Warlords had made around her. 'What else don't I know? What have we all forgotten?' She moved to the inkwell and vellum inventory sheets set atop a smaller pile of boxes. "You want a real job? You have one now," she said as she scratched out a writ of passage and a map for the male. She may not have had all the clout being coalesced around the heads of the 'three pillars' but she still had more than most. She pressed the map into his hand first. "Follow this to my son. Tell him I want every tablet, every scroll, anything with writing on it. Even the things the others have claimed. And I want to talk with anyone who chased the Changing Ones out of the Palace with their own legs, those who didn’t have their brains knocked out one way or another. Plus a fistful of trolls who have the knowhow to write down every word they say. And I want them all here yesterday! Go!" She cast a scrutinizing eye back over to the trunk, and its silent occupant. "We have a past to rebuild."
(This story is continued in "The Many Smalldarks, Interlude".)