(Ed. Note: this story is a sequel to ”The Many Smalldarks, Interlude”.)
Cudgel was a large troll. Broad shouldered, bushy browed, and built like a barrel of bricks. His power was not only physical, but political. The excavation team clearing the tunnel he was marching through gave him a wide berth. At his side, Tapestry was pushing a large metal trunk, which had wheels attached to the base for ease of movement.
A near direct route between Deepwater Lake and the core of the Son, the tunnel had been sealed, opened, re-sealed, and re-opened for centuries as the Warlords worked their stonemasons into bags-of-bones invading or fortifying against each other. Cudgel was a warrior born, but he was a troll too, and trolls knew stone. He could tell without checking his map when he was standing precisely in-between the Palace ruins that made up the hearts of the former strongholds. With the voice of a typhoon, he shouted: "This is Cudgel speaking! Killer of Warlords! First Chair of the House of Tactics and Arms! Head of the First Conclave! Every laborer within the sound of my voice is now on their lunch period! Clear this area!"
"Old habits die hard, I suppose," mused Tapestry as the Tinkerers filed out. "Effective, though."
Cudgel's voice softened to a low roar. "A little theatricality goes a long way. And you did ask for privacy on this operation, old friend."
"True." Tapestry worked loose a latch atop the trunk and slid back the metal lid. Inside was Trickleclaw, its red head topped with a swatch of rodent fur, which it was clinging to tightly. The immodest creature had no trouble at all exposing its nethers to the world — if it had any, the troll wasn’t about to check — but according to his brother in arms it refused to go without a hat of some sort if it could manage one. Limiting food and water was how Tapestry’s minions punished the creature for bad behavior, giving it access to fashionable materials was how they rewarded good.
The long blond braids of Cudgel's beard swept over the grate as he leaned over it. "You know the question, insect." It was the same query the two trolls had posed in over a dozen locations about and around Underhaven. 'Where is the Palace?'.
The Preserver's body language was as paradoxically exaggerated yet simplistic as its vocabulary.
"Trickleclaw say already! Is here! Is here! Is always here!" It seemed to Cudgel that he should feel insulted, as if the creature was frustrated with him personally for not seeing whatever point it was trying to make. "Dig-Digs make keep-say! Do now!"
Ignoring the protests, Cudgel turned to his companion. "I am satisfied. Your theory has passed the test."
"Klant's theory, actually. If we can find the remainder of his journals, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he did just as we are doing now." Namely, proving that separating the Palace had crippled the Preserver's most dangerous ability; to locate it. And if Trickleclaw could not pinpoint a location, then neither could the masters of any other Preserver. The point-ears that had returned like a deathly plague to the world above had no specific target in Underhaven to lay siege to. Tapestry’s next comment was somewhat predictable, and delivered with a hungry raise of his brow. "Surely more words and wisdom of the last great general of the old order, the one who held out longest against the fall, has an allure for your House as well?"
Cudgel considered this new attempt to draw workers towards his friend’s pet project, but applied the same conclusion. "The Conclave will always prioritize lives over literature. The area you want to go looking for Klant’s tomb is far less stable than this. Until someone in Tinkers tells me that part of Thunder Ridge is safe, we cannot seek those particular treasures. Your argument does have a sharp point, though, I’ll admit. You’ll certainly be at the head of the expedition when there is one.” He patted Tapestry on the back. With a booming sigh he added, “It's a pity you chose to follow your mother into the life of a Scholar. You were a fine warrior for the cause."
"Thank you. We all do what we can, to rebuild what we can." Tapestry took a moment to re-compose himself. Cudgel was well aware of the ruin the Warlord of Deepwater had reaped across the Scholar’s life, and waited patiently until he chose to speak again. "Right now, I am committed to rebuilding the story of why the golden age created by our honored ancestors collapsed at all."
A tinny pounding of the case dragged Cudgel’s attention back to the captive. “No more look-away Trickleclaw! Dig-Digs make keep-say Trickleclaw go homefree!"
"We can't very well take you to the Palace if you can't tell us where it is!" Cudgel slammed the lid closed and smirked at his friend. The smile was returned.
The entryway to a high-vaulted warehouse first gave way to an ad-hoc desk surrounded by note boards and signs. Lines of colored twines and painted nameplates about them made clear where everyone was supposed to be, what they were expected to be doing. "A good morning to you, friend Sandglass,” Catalyst intoned with florid graciousness as he breezed by the shift-keeper’s desk. He didn’t make it far before a whistle called him back.
The troll-maiden pointed a thumb back to one of the many charts pinned up behind her. "Your name's up on rotation. And you know it." She pointed to a small packet. "Enjoy."
The writer put on a face of indignation. "Surely you don’t expect me to waste time on such a menial task as that? Pass it to one of the groundlings, I say!" Of course there were no low-ranked trolls in the particular place he was entering, but that wasn’t the point. "My place is in the transcription pit! I have been assigned to apply my considerable analytic talents toward The Last Song of the Mountains. Did you know some of the Warlords had rewritten our people's oldest and most significant tales to suit their own whims? To say nothing of the variants I have heard passed orally from members of my own former stronghold? From these the tattered scraps of truth must antiquity be plucked! In the end only the one true text shall be housed within The Songs of the First Era." With a theatrical flourish of his outstretched hand which ended with a finger pointed firmly to the ceiling, "It shall be the crowning achievement of my academic career!"
Playful sharpness in her voice, Sandglass quipped, "And I'm gettin' spit-roasted by a couple o' lads from the bathhouse crew tonight. We all have plans. It's still your turn." She shoved the packet to the edge of her desk.
He took up the box with a false sigh. "My, what a vibrant picture you do illustrate. Truly, the House of Scholars is graced to hold such a wordsmith as yourself within its arms." She grinned and waved him off, once he had the packet in hand. He left smiling as well. It was all in good fun.
The reluctant servant entered the center proper and made his way past rows of boxes, case scrolls, display stands, and busy trolls. Above them all on a stone platform festooned with the orange-and-purple House flag was Tapestry, directing the movements of his subordinates below. "Is that another piece of Deeg’s statuary? Put it on the museum trolley! You have the last bit of that poem pieced together? Good! Walk it to the Library! Another family tree? Public Archive. Is that a — What is that? Over there, to be taken into the Maze." The 'Maze' was the unofficial name given by the sorting team for the complex of tunnels and pocket-caves that would house the items the House decided to keep to itself, more specifically to its higher tier, for one reason or another. Once the renovation was complete, the Maze would be one of the most secure sites in Underhaven. As the blue-clothed Tinkerers chiseling away at the doorway could no doubt attest.
Catalyst shook his head. ’I simply cannot fathom why the Chairs seek to dig things up just to bury them again. Let each discovery be seen and shared, warts and all!’ Even though he was tasked to reclaim the definitive version of his people’s ill-fated first encounter with the Changing Ones, he had every intention of preserving the later versions for public consumption. The very act of altering history was itself a historical event worthy of notice!
Alas, he turned away from the aisle that led to the writer’s pit, and took the route toward a different target. Modified from some old war-beast's kennel, the cage proper was large enough to fit several trolls with plenty of head-room, with a smaller "pre-cage" in front still big enough to fit one. This smaller area provided a means of transferring things, and removing others, without allowing the creature within to access the outside. The larger cage was filled with branches for perching as well as a number of trinkets and toys, scraps from the sorting mostly. Donated by this troll and that over the course of the reconstruction to keep its occupant occupied, or at least quieted down. Near the top, an elaborate nest of twigs and twine, where the Preserver happened to be sitting. It was wearing a three-tiered hat of make similar to the nest.
"A very good morning to you, little one,” he chimed while entering the smaller box. Just because he'd rather be doing something else, that didn’t mean he had to be rude. Emptying the box, he placed onto the tray a small ball of nutmash, half a boiled turtle egg, and a selection of greens. As well as a tin of water, which he twisted the top off of. Exiting and locking the pre-cage, he pulled the cord which drew up a safety screen, allowing Trickleclaw access to the meal. "Come now, little fellow. Enjoy your repast, courtesy the House of Provisions."
Trickleclaw flew down and helped itself. “Trickleclaw is full of happythanks! Wavesmuch Dig-Dig do nice! Could be extra-more nice, let Trickleclaw go homefree?” Its face was benign, almost friendly. The very picture of harmlessness.
Catalyst was about to give the customary reasons for answering in the negative, when loud clanging from the platform drew his eyes to Tapestry’s. A young message-runner was next to him now, still recovering from what must have been a very brisk sprint. "Hear me, hear me! I have an announcement I know you'll all want to hear! It's taken some doing, and I don’t know what my moth — Second Chair Tinderbox — decided to give to Provisions. But it's official... The Second Writhing Scroll is ours!"
A cheer of joy went up as bright as the look on Tapestry’s face. Catalyst shouted his part, affixed to the view of his fellows congratulating each other and putting that much more vigor into their work. So much so that he didn’t notice he was leaning his weight up against the cage. Nor the tiny red fingers which probed his belt and the folds of his tunic, searching for something useful their owner could bury within the walls of its nest.
A heavy stone block slid down to close off the dimly-lit tunnel. Trickleclaw’s silver wings carried it underneath with time enough to breet out in panic, zip back under, and race out again while replacing a rounded bit of leather atop its head.
One clawed hand clasped a metal wire — mangled into a rough thorn shape — for dear life. The first red-garbed guard to come across the red-skinned captive got a taste of that thorn across one eye, and a blinding glob of wrapstuff in the other. A mass of sticky goo on the floor kept a second guard limping and picking at his feet just long enough for the creature to get past another bend and under a second block. More halls, more corners, it raced through before the stone opened up into a wider space.
Within that room, it found chaos. “EEEEEEEEKKKKKK! It’s out it’s loose! Kill it! Stop it! Smash it!” cried a male dressed in orange and purple who cowered behind his desk. “Put it down or Tapestry will have all our heads! AUUUUGGGHHH!” Two others in the same colors jumped up out of their reading chairs to clear the way for two fresh guards. But all they succeeded in doing was slamming into each other, their bodies and books tripping up a warrior who landed flat on her face. A second warrior slapped a stone release, but was too far away to grab his net-pole and swing it in range of the bug before it managed another daring escape. The new wall came down with a scraping ‘thud’ leaving Trickleclaw alone to continue its race to freedom.
The Preserver found no more trolls or falling stones to contend with in the next tunnels. Its only hindrance was the same one that had confounded it for as long as it had been trapped in this underground domain: The Palace was everywhere. No matter where the Preserver went within the forking passageways that presented themselves, it had no point of reference to navigate by. No up, no south, no left, no down. Every place as far and as close as every other place. There was nothing for it but to hike its hat up in a determined pose and go on and on as fast as it could, frantic wings hammering a storm, until at last a way out presented itself.
The mountain walls split before its eyes in a “Y”-shaped fashion it hadn’t seen before, forming one hall as small as the rest, and another other higher and more broad. Trickleclaw chirped with joy and took the wider of the two… right into the same gathering place it had just left, but from the other end. Only this time, the trolls were ready. Cowards and fumblers gone or shoved out of the way behind the desk. Three fighters now faced down Trickleclaw, one with a familiar face half-covered in smeared blood and torn wrapstuff.
A reed-bordered net-screen was set over the door as it slammed shut, trapping Trickleclaw. It kept to the wounded one’s blindspot while dancing with the other two, one with a net-pole the other an axe. Claws, wrapstuff, blade, the frantic flyer threw everything it had at them. “No more smalldarks! No more no more!” it cried as it led its tormentors on a chase around the room making even more of a mess of it, and of them when it swooped in for counter-attacks.
A blind swing of a club by the one-eyed guard created an opportunity the confined captive couldn’t ignore. Juking down then up, it pulled a loose beard-braid right out of the enemy’s chin with its feet. The troll howled and dropped away out of the fight. But Trickleclaw’s momentum dropped too, for having done that. Which was all it took for the female to get her net-pole around her prize. Four lightning-fast twirls had it inexorably wound up in the mesh. A swing of her arms pressed it against a wall. A heavy book applied -– forcibly –- by the remaining male stole away the Preserver’s consciousness. Red-ended tendrils of brown hair still trapped in its claws.
The female nodded at her fellows and stepped round the desk to trigger the release of the doors. “You can get up now, it’s over,” she told the troll crouching behind it, just a hint of derision in her voice. To her partner she said: “Come on if you’re coming.” She started marching toward the security alcove where they could trip the counterweights which would draw up the other barriers, and allow them to put the little beast back where it belonged. After a thorough check of the cage to see how it had defeated it this time, of course.
The clean-faced male patted some of the battle off his companion. “Go and clean up, brother. We’ve got this settled.” He helped the wounded guard over to the aid of the fellow from the desk. Getting into step with his partner, the clean-faced one was unflappably upbeat. “Another attempt thwarted! Third escape in as many years.”
“And that clumsy lot almost lost the fight for us, this time,” scowled the female, believing herself out of earshot of the ones left to reorder the room. “Gonna have to start running more drills. Let up on these book-noses for long, and they forget everything important.”
“We do so they don’t have to. Just as they do so we don’t. You won’t see me wrapping my thinker in knots keeping this place sorted on any count.“
“Feh. Tapestry’s been too busy making eyes with that plantkeeper.”
The male gave a chipper smile. “Well, at least someone’s having a fun day then.”
Tapestry escorted Primrose to the edge of the Maze that contained the Preserver’s storage cell. He was thumbing through paperwork, she was stuffing a visitor’s pass back into her carryall. “Are you sure you want to go in there alone?” he asked the lovely asparagus-skinned female. “It isn’t the best company under the usual circumstances.”
“It’s not as though there’ll be another chance, is there?”
“Valid point. I’ll be in my office when you’re done.” Tapestry kissed her hand and stood aside. It had already been agreed that she would go in alone. The occupant had never seen her before, and would have no unkind memories of her. Other than the knowledge that she was a troll and it the endlessly loyal minion of Changing Ones. Primrose's intended left her with a final warning, "Remember, don’t give it an inch."
The botanist stepped into a semi-circular room with nothing in the way of furnishings besides bale of bedding hay. Gone was the spacious cage she’d been told had been at the center of the space she now stood in. As well as all the toys it had accumulated while the Special Projects team had regarded it as their mascot. Now the creature was held in a cupboard-sized hollow carved into the wall. Hemmed in by stone at three sides, its only way out was a heavy metal door. The hinged side of which had been jammed by a steel spike. Tapestry’s decision had been made; his people were going to wall up the chamber by the end of the moon. Unable to unload the sole occupant on other parties, the team leader considered its upkeep a waste of resources. And he was loathe to accept any liability for its eventual escape to the surface.
Trickleclaw’s defiance was worn across its brow. Denied other means of making clothes, it had topped its head with globs of webbing. It glared at her silently.
A minute went by.
Primrose, a bead of sweat arching down her ear, was the one to break the silence. “Um, hello. My name is Primrose. I don’t have a lot of time, so I’ll get right to it." She pulled from her bag a fist sized rock half covered in moonmoss. It glowed yellow-green in the low light of the room, casting a lime gloss over her silver eyes. “You’ve seen this before. Do you know what it is?"
The insects’ dark face lightened considerably, the crust of centuries peeling away from its eyes. "Oooh, bright-pretty glowstuff! Trickleclaw remembers!”
"I expected you should. You were found wearing some when they caught you." She swallowed. "The first time.” The papers that had been discovered with the insect ten years prior confirmed as much. “What I need to know is… do you know where it comes from?”
The pitch of its already shrill voice raised even higher. “Let Trickleclaw see close! Let Trickleclaw touch!” it begged.
Reflexively, Primrose stepped backward. Never mind that she was half a room away, she had been warned quite passionately that the creature was determined to use any chance it could get to break free and return to its masters above. She was equally determined to prove that she could be relied upon. And yet, 'I'll never get what I came for this way,' she realized. She stepped up to take back her place. "First tell me where it came from."
“Glowstuff is always! Is from Belonging Time!”
A few steps more. “Belonging? To what?”
A step more, into confusion. “Homepl- The Palace?”
“Yes! Yes!” Trickleclaw was straining against the immovable wall, its shoulder poking out of the mesh, desperately reaching out for that small cluster of blue-green.
“Moonmoss came to this world on the Palace?"
“Yes yes yes! Highthings and Preservers and Dig-Digs and glowstuff and —”
The small one’s words were drowned out by the plantkeeper's own zeal. She danced about on the tips of her toes, hands pumping the air. "Hahaa! I knew it! I knew it! There is no other plant like this in the land! It had to come from another!” There were iridescent mosses aplenty, and the occasional glowing mushroom. But no example of bioluminescent moss save this very kind. “Oh, yes! I have others —"
"Let Trickleclaw touch! Smellsgreen Dig-Dig keep-say!"
The troll hopped at the force of the insect's plea. She bit her lip. There was no sill to the doorway, she would have to hold it up. “Promise you won’t hurt me? Keep-say?” Trickleclaw gave a series of emphatically positive gestures. The troll-maiden took the final steps across the threshold, bringing the earthy-smelling clump near to the cage door. It touched the plant tentatively at first, petting it as one would a newborn mumpling. Then dug its hand in deep, getting a firm grasp before ripping a cluster loose. Retreating to the back curve of its prison, it brought the still-radiant cluster to its nose and breathed deep of the scent.
The scientist found herself surprised to learn that the creature could cry. A tinny, staccato sort of noise. “What Trickleclaw do?" it asked.
“Well, I don't know. I suppose if you want to better your conditions, you could start by... Oh! ... errr..." She realized, after she'd started talking, what the creature was really asking. Nervous fingers rearranged the braids that wrapped round the back of her head. “Everything that goes bad in our lives is all the Changing One's fault, if you look at it through the right lens. Them or the Warlords. That's what everyone keeps telling me — Oh! I have more plants to ask about. Plants that may have come from the Belonging Time. Maybe you could... help? I mean, if you can show everyone else that you have more to teach us, then they won’t want to keep you... cooped up... like that."
She procured from her bag one of her plant specimens, held it under the light of the moonmoss. A swatch of dreamberry leaves. Folklore said that the name of the plant came from the Changing Ones. Their former pet did not oblige, morosely sprinkling the moonmoss over its sticky web-hat. “Please?"
A thin line of glop shot out from Trickleclaw's mouth and struck the stem, which was quickly wrenched out of the botanist’s hand by reedy red arms. Trickleclaw ravenously munched the leaves down, then set about meticulously arraigning the stems into its hat. "Is from Belonging Time, yes yes. Berries make Highthings go swishy-walk."
"See! You're teaching us already!" Primrose chirped. Well, everyone already believed that the Palace Ones used dreamberries as hallucinogens. Cudgel had been to see her a few times about weaponizing the effect. But this was proof! "I'm starting to think some of the higher-ups around here have the wrong idea about you. You're not just a... I mean... You really can help us learn! Learn things no one else can teach!"
Trickleclaw was more obliging to help after hearing that. From the eager student's remaining stock, it pointed out the feverease, whistling leaves, and strangleweed as belonging to the Palace. Adding bits of those to its 'headtopper', eating much of the rest.
She watched it as it finished off the last scraps, fresh discoveries presenting themselves to her. The hallmark of a scientist was the ability to find new questions even when answering old ones. "Why is it always your hats that come up when someone writes about you? Surely there must be other things that make you… you? "
It approached the edge of its cage, and looked her over in turn. "Dig-digs no ask before!"
'What else has no one thought to ask? she wondered. 'Where could answering those questions lead me? Us?' If only Tapestry could see past his distaste for the prisoner, he might be made to see what a resource his organization had sitting in its lap. And his fiancée might just be the one to talk him into it! "I'd like to come and speak with you some more. If I can arrange it. Make some of the others realize that I want what everyone wants. I want to be useful. And I... think I... I could help you to be useful too."
The insect smiled for the first time since she'd met it. "Oooh, Trickleclaw like! Like much!" It cocked its berry-red head askew at her. "Then Trickleclaw go homefree?"
Primrose swallowed nervously, again. "Well, um, we'd have to talk about that too."