The Mister Trophy
Eddie the barkeep stared at the Troll and then at the “Dead Troll Tavern” emblem carved into the bar-top and then back at the Troll. The Troll grinned. Forty-eight finger-long incisors popped out, sharper and shinier than anything Eddie might have hidden behind the bar and dripping with poisonous Troll saliva to boot.
Eddie deftly dropped his drying rag on the Dead Troll carving, wiped his grubby hands on his equally grubby apron and donned a shaky tough-guy scowl. “Yeah?” he said to the Troll. “You want something?”
The Troll boomed something back. A second later, Kingdom words rang out in a flat male human voice. “I come for the finder Markhat.”
I choked on my beer. The Troll’s neckless head swiveled, owl-fashion, to face me. It gargled more words in Troll, and its translator spell spoke again. “You are the finder named Markhat.”
“Nope,” I said quickly. “Not me. Not Markhat. Never met the gent.”
The Troll glided over, flashing me that mouthful of nightmares smile. “I was told you would deny your name,” it said. “Shameful. I am-” The Troll spoke its name, and the translator gave up, leaving me with the sound of dishwater gurgling down a sink-drain.
“Honored to meet you, Walking Stone,” I said, as the Troll reached my table. “May your shadow fall tall and your soul grow to meet it.” I rose, my knowledge of Troll etiquette nearly exhausted. “I am not he that you seek, though, and anyway I hear he married a centaur and retired to the Fiti Coast. Why don’t you finish my ale and-”
The Troll’s grin split wider. It made a very human gesture for silence, finger at lips, and then it pulled back its greatcloak just far enough to reveal three fist-sized chunks of shiny solid gold on a fat wrought silver chain. Trolls don’t value gold themselves, but they do use it to barter with the other races. Word is that Trolls don’t haggle; they just stack money in big piles until someone says “yes”.
I sat down. Hard. The Troll shoved a rickety chair aside and squatted on the floor across from me.
“I walked fifty sunsets to see you, Finder,” it said. “I wade wide swamps, swim deep rivers, sleep on brother stones.”
“I live three blocks from here,” I replied. “So, I suppose, I walked fifteen minutes and drank two beers and sat on cousin chair.”
The Troll’s translator choked my words slowly out. The bar cleared, except Eddie, whose right eye-the blue one-hovered unsteadily behind a wide crack in the storeroom door.
The Troll barked and gurgled. My hackles rose, though I recognized booming Trollish laughter. “You jest with me, Finder Markhat,” it said. “You are brave. I admire bravery.” It leaned closer, yellow slitted owl-eyes narrowing. “I pay well for bravery.”
I shook my head. “Someone usually does, Walking Stone,” I said. “Just how much bravery are you wanting to buy?”
“You will go to a place I shall name,” said the Troll. “You will contrive to be admitted therein, and you shall determine if a certain object is displayed there. If so, you shall communicate my message to the masters of the place.”
Boots scuffed at the door, but hushed voices warned them off and Eddie lost another customer.
“This isn’t very private, Walking Stone,” I said. “And before I say yes or no, I need names. What place, what masters and what object?”
The Troll leaned close. My hair tried to stand on end. I’d been that close to a Troll only once before, twenty years ago. If a fat Marine sergeant hadn’t put a harpoon through its skull, I’d be laid out with the other war heroes up on the Hill.
“The place is called Haverlock, Finder,” whispered the Troll’s translator. “Its masters bear the same name. The object is a trophy taken during the War. A head, stuffed and mounted. A Walking Stone head.”
I finished my beer. “What’s the message, Walking Stone?”
The Troll grinned again. “You have what is ours,” he said. “Return it. With apologies. At once.”
“And you think they’ll just pry it off the wall and hand it to me?”
The Troll’s toothy grin got wider. “Most assuredly yes.”
I shook my head. “Do you know who and what the Haverlocks are, Walking Stone?”
“I know they are rich. And powerful.”
“There’s only one way to be rich and powerful in Rannit these days,” I said. “The Haverlocks are night people. Half-dead. Vampires.”
The Troll’s eyes narrowed. “You know this as fact, Finder?”
“I haven’t been bitten by a Haverlock personally, no,” I said. “But they own a mansion in the Heights and they wear a lot of black and they don’t get much sun. Also, old man Haverlock showed up as a hero right after the War and he hasn’t gotten any older.”
The Troll made grumbles. “I thought your people hated and feared such creatures.”
“We did. Then they won the War for us and promised to behave.”
“And have they?” asked the Troll. “Behaved?”
“They stay in their houses from sunup to sundown. We stay in ours after curfew. They don’t break into our bedrooms at night and we don’t spend our lunch breaks putting stakes between their ribs. It’s worked so far.”
“And after sundown-on what do they feed?”
“The brave,” I said, rising. “The brave, the stupid and maybe the occasional wandering Troll.”
“Will you accept my offer?” said the Troll.
“Why me?” I asked. “Why not just go yourself? The Haverlocks are a lot more likely to play nice with a mighty Troll warrior than a third-rate Finder from the wrong side of the river.”
“If I were to go to Haverlock and see the bones of my kin decorating a wall, Finder,” said the Troll, “I would be honor-bound to slay all of the Haverlocks and a certain number of their kin. That would be-” the translator halted, struggling for words “-time consuming.”
Then it erupted in Trollish laughter, which sounds like thunder with a head cold. Eddie hastily took his peeking blue eye elsewhere. I pulled out a pair of jerks-more than I owed Eddie for my drinks, but my presence had cost the man business-and slammed them down on the table. “All right,” I said, rising. “It’s still daylight. I’ll go to Haverlock and contrive to poke around. You won’t owe me if I come up empty.”
The Troll blinked, which is the Troll way of nodding in agreement.
“And I’ll need another name for you, Walking Stone,” I said. “Melodious though yours is, I can’t pronounce it without a tight boot and a mud-hole.”
The Troll rose, knees bending in that backwards flex that looks awkward until you see one make a thirty-foot leap. “You may call me Mister Smith,” said the Troll, to a deep bass rumble I took to be chuckling. “Mister Bill Smith.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mister Smith,” I said. I even threw in courtly bow, just to dispel those rumors about Markhats and bad manners. The Troll responded with another chuckle. I dodged tables, grabbed my coat and opened the door. “After you.”
A pair of Watchmen trotted through the open door. They saw Mister Smith, executed a pair of perfectly timed about-faces, and were back out on the street before the Troll could grace them with a toothy Troll smile.
“Thanks for stopping by, boys,” I said to their rapidly vanishing backs. “Where would we be without law and order?”
Mister Smith ducked under the door and I followed in his wake. Artifice Street-nobody calls it the Street of the Artificers anymore but old folks and the Historic Preservation Society-was empty. No nibble vendors, no ladies of the afternoon, no dark-eyed bands of teenage vampire wannabees out to break the Curfew and maybe get just dead enough to live forever. I frowned and froze.
Mister Smith’s head swiveled my way. “Is something amiss, Finder?” he said.
“Something cleared the street, Mister Smith,” I said. “Could it be you brought friends along?”
The Troll chuckled. “Only two,” he said. “Three is customary number for quests, even among the folk of your legends, is it not?”
I sighed. “I can’t go marching around the Heights with a Troll army at my heels. Why don’t you boys wait in my office while I visit the rich folks?”
“Agreed,” said Mister Smith. Then he burped out something short and loud in Troll. I didn’t need any magic translator to catch the bark of a sergeant behind the words.
One Army is rather like any other, I suppose.
A pair of Walking Stones trundled out of the alleys flanking us. “Mister Jones will stroll on ahead,” said Mister Smith. “Mister Chin will follow, to deter mischief.”
I shrugged. “Why not? We haven’t had a parade in this neighborhood since the Truce. Wish I had a tuba.”
Mister Smith laughed and did a little skip over a pile of horse flop. Doors and street level windows banged shut as we passed; higher up, wide-eyed faces shone and gaped.
We turned the corner at Holt; it, too, was empty, except for trash scampering by on the wind and crows picking at sweetmeats dropped by people in a sudden hurry.
If you look down Holt Street, over the factories and the smokestacks that line the Brown River, you can just see the top stories and slate rooftops of the manor houses that huddle together on the Heights. I wondered if this is what all of Rannit will look like, in a hundred years-deserted and dead during the day, while those withered, pale forms in the Heights sleep and dream thirsty dreams of sunset.
Mister Smith chuckled. “Penny for your thoughts,” said his translator, a hint of mischief in its tone.
I shook off the chill and picked up the pace.
It’s a tight fit, but three full-grown Trolls will fit in my office. I shoved all the furniture against the walls, opened my single barred window and told the Misters I’d be back before dark.
I didn’t even bother locking the door. I just waved to the suddenly nonchalant crowd of gawkers that were beginning to gather at the corner and stepped next door to Mama Hog’s card-and-potion shop.
I raised my hand to knock; she opened the door before my hand could fall. It’s her best trick, and it probably sets the rubes to oohing and aahing, but it saddens me to think she stands there all day peeking through tattered curtains just so she can pull off that one little shred of mystery.
Sunlight barged past her open door, fell on shelves crammed with dusty, foul-smelling glassware, a moldy stuffed owl on a wobbly three-legged table and, of course, Mama Hog herself. The sunlight stopped there, and I didn’t blame it. Mama Hog isn’t pretty like Trolls aren’t petite.
“Somebody sicced a Troll army on me, Mama,” I said. “I’m betting it was you.” No one but Mama knew my haunts that well.
Mama Hog grinned. “The Walking Stone found you, did he?”
“He did,” I said. “And his friends.” Mama motioned me inside. I went, and she shut the door.
“Smells like you’re brewing up something special, Mama,” I said, while she settled her stooped old bones into a chair and motioned for me to be seated as well. “Wouldn’t be Troll after-shave, would it?”
“Might be a drought to shut smart mouths,” said Mama, brushing a tangle of matted grey hair out of her face. “Then where would you be, boy?”
“Out of work.” I shoved the owl aside and picked up a worn deck of fortune cards. “What’s in my future, Mama?” I asked. “Trolls? Gold? Angry vampire hordes?”
The old lady snorted. “The half-dead are no joke, boy,” she said. Her eyes might be old, but they’re sharp as knifepoints, and they glittered. “No joke.”
I plopped down a card. “Neither are Trolls, Mama,” I said. “This bunch might wind up losing their tempers. Soon.”
“They might,” said Mama Hog, her voice softening, losing some of the old-hag put-on rasp. “Certainly so, if they find that which they seek.”
I threw down another card. “So you know?”
“They tell you?”
“They told me.”
I shuffled, cut, tossed down a card. “So who else knows? Eddie? The Watch? Who?”
Mama Hog smiled and scooped up the three cards I’d tossed out. “No one else knows,” she said. “I told them to trust you, and only you.”
“You told them that? Mama, why in the Nine High Heavens did you tell them that?”
“Your fate and their task meet now, Finder,” she said, her eyes bright and hard in the candlelight. “Meet, and mingle, and merge.”
“Drop the carnival soothsayer act, Mama,” I said. “It won’t wash with me.”
She slammed a card-one of my three cards-down on the table, face up in the flickering light.
I could just make out the worn, faded image of a man running away, a sack slung over his shoulder. Coins dribbled out of a tear in the sack.
“Greed,” said Mama Hog. “Flight. Abandonment. How much can they pay you for your soul, Finder?”
“I don’t know, Mama,” I said. “How much do you charge for fate?”
The second card went down. Crossed daggers glinted against a half-full moon. “Vengeance,” hissed Mama Hog. “How many lives will you waste to avenge a single death?”
“Six,” I snapped. “Maybe five, if it’s wash day.”
The third card hit the table. On it a skeletal hand beckoned, bony forefinger crooked in invitation.
“Death,” I said, standing. “Even I know that one. Death, the Final Dancer, the Last Guy You’ll Ever See and Boy Will You Hope There’s Been a Mistake.”
Mama Hog stood as well. “Jest if you will, Finder,” she said. “But take care. You stand at a crossroads. One way leads to the dark.”
“How much do I owe you, Mama?”
Mama Hog went stiff. All four feet of her puffed up and for a moment I honest to gods thought she was going to slap me. Then she let out her breath in a whoosh and broke into chuckles.
“No charge to neighbors,” she said. “Even disrespectful unbelieving smart-mouthed jackanapes who don’t know their friends from their boot-heels.”
“My friends don’t usually send feuding Trolls to my door, Mama.”
“This one did,” she replied. “Now get out. I’ve got an appointment.”
I stomped blinking into the street, telling myself that Mama’s cards were just so much tattered pasteboard and third-rate flummery.
The street stank, and in the absence of my Troll friends, it bustled. Wagons creaked, carriage drivers cussed, horses snorted, and everywhere people rushed back and forth, hurrying against the daylight so the night people could have the city by night.
A man passed in front of me, a sack slung over his shoulder, just like on Mama’s card.
I fell in step behind him all the way to Haverlock.
“And you have no appointment, sir?”
“No. None. Nada.”
The doorman shook his head and doddered away. He’d already asked twice about my appointment; I’d told him twice I had none. He’d checked with the other doorman anyway; both had retreated to the far side of the foyer and were consulting a leather-bound appointment book amid a blizzard of hushed words and furtive glances.
“Look, gents,” I said. “I really don’t have an appointment. I wouldn’t even know who to have an appointment with, unless you’ve got a man in charge of antiquities, decorations and ornamental taxidermy.”
The doormen exchanged suspicious glances. “Taxidermy? Are you a tradesman, sir?”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s right. I’m Wiggle, of Wiggle, Stiff and Waxed, Taxidermists. I’m here to polish the eyes of the Troll head His Honor Haverlock hung in the trophy room right after the War-”
The younger doorman snorted and stalked off, but I wasn’t watching him. My eyes were all for the older man, whose expression had gone from bored indifference to full-blown terror at the mere mention of the Troll’s head.
He shut his jaw and took a breath, but he couldn’t hide the sudden flush on his face or the sweat popping out on his brow.
“Relax,” I said. “I’m joking. My name is Markhat. I run a Finder’s outfit down on Cambrit. I’m here to inquire about the Troll’s head, that’s all.”
He licked his lips. His eyes darted right and left. I could see he had things to tell, and reasons not to tell them, and he was weighing the “what ifs” against the “if thens”.
“I’m not here to start any trouble,” I said, softly. I put on the same kind of smile I’d flash at a fussy baby and hoped I had better luck than I usually did. “I’ve been hired to find out if a Troll’s head is here. That’s all. Yes or no.”
I widened my smile. “My clients will of course be happy to pay for information,” I said. “I believe they’d be most generous.”
He was about to speak. He knew better, but something that looked like an uneven combination of guilt and greed had tipped the scales, just like I’d hoped it would.
The doors on the far side of the foyer suddenly banged open and a small, well-dressed army of cooks, gardeners and coachmen marched inside, a tall cadaverous butler at the fore. “Get out,” he said, addressing me with the boldness that comes with knowing you’ve got the other guy hopelessly outnumbered. “Leave this House at once.”
The doorman with things to tell joined his comrades, his eyes downcast, his jaw set and grim. Whatever he’d wanted to say was gone, and I doubted I’d ever tempt it forth again.
But I didn’t need specifics to know I’d found at least part of what I’d come for.
I fixed the skinny butler in a steely glare. “Your shoes could use a shine, Reeves,” I told him. “I won’t have you besmirching the House with your sloth again.”
Then I hung my nose in the air and beat it out of there. I was sure they’d throw me out anyway-I just wasn’t sure they’d open the door first.
I put the tall dark houses and the big green lawns to my back and set a brisk pace. The wind in my face was off the Brown River; it stank of dead fish and cattle-barges and, always, something burning, but I sucked down lungfuls of it anyway. House Haverlock had smelled of undertaker’s flowers, and mortuary perfumes, but even the combination of both couldn’t quite erase the odor of death that rode the air in every ornate hall or well-appointed room.
But I’d stomped on a memory in the old doorman, and that caused me to remember something as well-stories about a big dust-up in the Heights about ten years back. Half-dead in-fighting is hardly unusual-they kill each other much more often than they kill us day folk-but this clash had been unusual in that most of a five-House common hall was demolished and half-dead were actually spotted fleeing the scene, cloaks flapping, shiny shoes a blur.
What if Mister Smith wasn’t the first Troll to come calling in the Heights?
Somebody bumped into me and cussed because I’d stopped dead in my tracks. I muttered an apology and took off.
Even Trolls, it seems, like to edit their truths.
I sat in my office and watched the sun sink. Nine bells rang and curfew fell across Rannit like the ragged cloak it is, which meant that the brave, the foolish and the felonious were still very much out and about. The Watch would stop a few curfew-breakers, send a few home and make “Well, what do you expect?” faces at missing persons reports tomorrow.
I stowed the Trolls out of sight but in easy reach. Mister Smith was in my room behind the office. Mister Jones was in Mama Hog’s, next door. Mister Chin was squeezed in the alley two Troll-strides down the street.
There’s a street-lamp right across from my door, and every shadow it cast at my office was that of a half-dead, slinking my way with murder on its lips and mayhem on its mind. I got out my old Army field knife and laid into the long steel blade with a whetstone, pausing to admire its edge only when a shadow bobbed toward my door.
Two hours after Curfew, he came.
I never saw a shadow.
I looked up and my door was opening and there it was, tall and thin and pale. Filmy eyes that looked like dirty marbles met mine.
I put down the knife.
Blue lips pulled back from wet white teeth. “You are the finder Markhat?”
I nodded. The Trolls might as well have been a million miles away.
“I am Liam. I come on behalf of Haverlock.”
I found my voice. “Nice to meet you. Pull up a chair. I’ll have the butler bring us drinks.”
Liam sat, dead eyes boring into mine like he could see secret things written on my bones. “No wise-cracks, Finder,” he said. “I was sent here to kill you. Rip you apart, specifically. I’m trying to do this another way. You aren’t helping. So again I ask-why did you come to Haverlock today?”
I gave up trying to keep up with his unblinking half-dead stare. “I came on behalf of a client,” I said. “A Troll client. He wants to know if a dead relative wound up decorating your master’s trophy room. I came to Haverlock to see. I believe I explained all that to your domestic staff, before they cited a dress code and showed me to the curb.”
“What did you see,” it said, leaning a hair’s breadth closer. “And what did you tell?”
“I told my Troll friend I was tossed out,” I said, adding a little emphasis to the word “friend”. “I told him I saw no Troll heads. I also told him I think it’s there, somewhere.”
It lifted a pale eyebrow. “You told the Troll that?”
“I did.” I forced my eyes back toward his. “And I was right. It’s there, or you’d be out grabbing breakfast instead of sitting here making spooky eyes at me.”
It grinned. Just for a heartbeat, but it grinned a crooked grin and I saw the ghost of the man it once was.
“You got a mouth, Markhat,” it said. “Reminds me of me, once upon.”
I guess I ogled. It shook its head. “Surprised I’m still human?” it asked. “I’m full of surprises tonight. First, I’m not going to kill you, so that Troll next door can put down his axe and relax.”
“He likes holding his axe,” I said. “Keeps him from getting fidgety.”
Liam grinned again. “We wouldn’t want that. In fact, we don’t want any trouble at all. So what if-and this is just a what if-what if I gave you a certain Troll artifact that may have mistakenly wound up here after the War? What if I apologized, and handed it over, and walked away? What then?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Is this you talking, or old man Haverlock?”
“Doesn’t matter to you. Answer the question.”
“It does matter, and you answer mine. You or Haverlock?”
He ground his teeth. “Do you know what happens to us when we get old?”
His fist hit my desk, and the mask of humanity fell away. “Some go insane. Haverlock is insane. He wants you dead and your Troll friend dead and he’ll risk the whole House over a moth-eaten curio nobody has seen for ten years. Some of us don’t share his mania. Now answer my question.”
I shrugged. “I just don’t know,” I said. “Maybe the Troll will walk. I doubt it-Trolls don’t work that way. The honor of the clan has been besmirched. One of their cousins spent twenty years wandering around the Happy Hunting Ground without a head to whistle with.”
“What about wereguild? We could pay.”
“Trolls don’t want your money.”
It ground its teeth again. “I’ll ask my Troll,” I said. “But not with you sitting here. You’re a Haverlock-he’s honor-bound to start the War again if you two wind up in the same room.”
“I’ll be back.” Liam rose, and a man with a proper skeleton never moved like that. “I hope you have good news.”
“Sit back down,” I said. “You’ve left out a few things.”
He kept standing, but cocked an eyebrow and stood still.
“You haven’t told me how I stay alive after I wave goodbye to my Troll pal, if he takes your offer,” I said. “Say Haverlock goes to cuddle his favorite War trophy, finds it gone. Say Haverlock finds out that the finder Markhat is still walking around with his head and all his limbs attached. Won’t the Haverlock fly into a snit and send less contemplative boys back around my door, late one night?”
Liam’s dry eyes narrowed. “Haverlock will no longer be a threat to you, Finder,” he said. “Or to anyone else.”
“Time for a change in top-level management?” I asked.
“And we all live happily ever after.”
Liam hesitated, mulling that one over. “Yes. We live.”
I stood. “I’ll ask my Troll. We’ll see. When will you be back?”
“Later,” it said, turning and grasping the doorknob.
“Watch your step out there,” I said. “Gets rough in the neighborhood, after Curfew.”
It turned in the doorway and grinned.
“Especially tonight,” it said.
The door shut.
I hit the chair seat and fought back the first case of the shakes I’d had since the War.
Mister Smith’s heavy treads sounded at my door. “Come on in,” I yelled. “We’re always open.”
The Troll squeezed inside.
“I heard all,” said Mister Smith. He loomed over my desk, a mountain of fangs and fur, but he blinked and breathed and looked downright friendly compared to the Liam-thing. “You were brave in the presence of death,” said the Troll. “Your spirit is strong.”
“My spirit is scared,” I replied. “My spirit hopes and prays you can just take your cousin’s head and let bygones be bygones.”
“He said he would apologize, did he not?”
“He said so.”
“And does he speak for the clan Haverlock?”
I hesitated. “He speaks for those among clan Haverlock who think their master insane. He speaks for those who would remove the eldest Haverlock as leader, and put another in his place. Will that do?”
Mister Smith crouched down and got comfortable while his translator gargled and barked. He grumbled back at it a few times-asking, I suppose, for clarifications of weird human concepts like removing and replacing clan leaders.
“If we receive the head of our cousin and an apology from clan Haverlock,” he said at last, “We will be satisfied.”
“Who must give you the apology?” I asked.
“Clan Haverlock,” said his translator. “He who speaks for the clan,” it added, before I could ask again.
“That won’t be the same guy that actually stole the head,” I said. “I want to make sure you understand that.”
Mister Smith blinked and burped. “Naturally not,” spoke the translator. “It will no longer be possible for him to do so.”
I took in a deep breath. “I knew this was going too well,” I muttered. “Too easy.”
The translator started sloshing that out. “What I meant,” I said, “was that I’ve missed something here. Tell me-why don’t you expect old man Haverlock to apologize?”
Mister Smith chuckled. “Because,” he said, “part of the apology is the balance of insults. Haverlock kept the bones of my cousin these twenty summers. We will keep his bones for the same span. Honor will be restored, both to our clan and his. Is this not the way of all thinking beings?”
“So I have to give you old man Haverlock’s bones.”
“We’ll go and fetch them, if necessary.”
I shook my head and rubbed my eyes. “I bet you would.” I said. “But they’ll be waiting and even the three of you wouldn’t make it off the Hill tonight.”
“You’d die,” I said. “And that would be my fault and who would balance my honor?”
Mister Smith’s brow furrowed. “You have no clan?”
“Nope,” I said. “Clanless Markhat, that’s what they call me. No one to wash my socks.” I stood and stretched.
Something heavy hit the wall outside. Plaster cracked by my doorframe. There was a muffled thud, a squeal like a stepped-on puppy, and a wet tearing sound.
A Troll voice came from the street. Mister Smith growled back.
“One of what you call the half-dead approached,” said Mister Smith. “Not the one called Liam of the House Haverlock. This new half-dead withdrew a weapon and approached your door.”
“What was the ruckus?” I croaked.
“Mister Jones,” said Mister Smith. “He is sorry. He meant to leave the half-dead creature able to answer to you for the insult to your house, but he fears he squashed it. Shall we see?”
Something thin and dark was beginning to seep in under the door.
“Bring me its clothes,” I said. “Toss the rest in a garbage box, if you please.”
Mister Smith rumbled. There was a shuffling outside, and more liquid tearing noises. Mister Jones was having trouble deciding where clothes ended and half-dead began.
If it was one of the Haverlocks, I probably wouldn’t live to see Liam’s coup begin. If it belonged to another House, that meant word had spread and someone had decided a Troll vendetta might do to Haverlock what a dozen Families couldn’t. And what better way to touch things off than by bopping off that meddlesome Markhat?
Mister Jones shoved a wad of clothes through the door. They were wet, and it wasn’t raining.
I stuck my Army knife in the bundle, plopped it down on my desk, and spread things out with the blade.
Black pants, black shirt, black coat, black cloak. And one black shoe, foot still comfortably ensconced.
The shirt-buttons bore tiny dragon heads.
“He was of House Lathe,” I said. “Not one of Haverlock’s boys.”
I bundled things back up. “These can go with the rest,” I said. “And thank Mister Jones for me.”
Mister Smith made rumbles. Mister Jones bowed-I’d never seen a Troll do that before. Then he took the bundle and faded away.
“Will there be more?” asked Mister Smith.
“Could be,” I said. “But we’ve got to wait here for Liam.”
“We will be vigilant,” said Mister Smith. “Fear not.”
I settled back and grabbed my useless whetstone.
We waited, my Trolls and I. Mister Smith crouched in the corner and used my desk as an armrest. Mister Jones leaned against the wall outside my door and cleaned his foot-long claws. We kept Mister Chin hidden inside Mama Hog’s, and from the gurgling and choking I guessed that he and Mama Hog were gabbing away like spinster aunts. I’d told Mama Hog to stay with a friend until this mess was over. She’d pretended not to hear.
Mister Jones growled a couple times between dusk and the tenth hour, but nothing and no one came closer than the corner. I got sleepy despite the steady whirlwind wheeze of Mister Smith’s breathing and the knowledge that dozens of night people might be licking pale lips and heading my way.
The Watch sounded the eleventh hour. The bell wasn’t yet still when Mister Chin rumbled something long and nasty and Mister Smith unfolded and stood.
“One comes,” said Mister Smith. “Mister Jones thinks it is he who came before.”
“Let him in,” I said, standing and slipping my Marine knife in a pocket. “Squash him if he makes rude comments.” I added that in a loud, clear voice I was sure our visitor heard.
The door opened. It was Liam. He stepped inside, and his face in my lamplight looked pink around the edges.
“Have a nice supper?” I asked.
He grinned. His mouth was red and wet.
“I suppose we have a deal,” he said quietly. “Or is this an ambush?”
“We have a deal,” I said. “And us Trolls don’t do ambushes. Besmirches our honor.”
Liam nodded. He hadn’t looked at Mister Smith directly, and he wisely refrained from an eye-to-eye now. “You may retrieve your parcel tomorrow. At a time and a place that will be communicated to you later, via messenger.”
I frowned. “Why not tell me now?”
He frowned back. His frown was meaner than mine. “We both have interests to protect. Tomorrow. By messenger. Or else.”
Mister Smith growled. I shrugged. “Tomorrow, then.”
“Might I make a suggestion?” said Liam.
“Bring your associates and come with me,” he said. “I can take you to a place of safety, for the night.”
Mister Smith made boot-in-mud noises his translator didn’t bother to translate.
“Much as I love slumber parties,” I said, “I think we’ll pass on this one. Thanks anyway.”
Liam shook his head. “You’ve been seen. You’ve been heard. The wrong people want to make trouble by killing you or attacking the Walking Stones just so Haverlock will have its own private Troll war.”
Liam cursed. “Three Trolls can’t hold off a dozen Families,” he said. “No offense intended.”
“None taken,” said Mister Smith, in Kingdom. “But until our insult has been balanced, we may not accept the hospitality of your House.”
“They are coming,” said Liam, wet lips a tight line across his pale face. “They are coming.”
“And we stand ready,” grumbled Mister Smith. “Ready to fight. Ready to die.” He puffed up and out, claws slipping out of sheaths, eyes narrowing, muscles tightening and bulking.
I bit back stammering noises. Liam shrugged. “If you live, you will be told tomorrow when and where to meet.”
“See to your own life,” said Mister Smith. “We shall see to ours.”
Liam gave me a long look out of those dead eyes. I tried to look confident and tough and wound up sneezing.
He left, noiseless as a shadow. The door shut and Mister Smith deflated and I mopped sweat off my brow.
Mister Smith grumbled something short and loud. Misters Jones and Chin growled back.
“We go,” he said to me.
“Go where?” I asked.
“Underneath. Below. To the tunnels that wind beneath your streets.”
“Not the sewers.” Please, not the sewers.
“The sewers,” he said, barking again at his friends. “Quickly.”
My speech about how Liam was right and how we couldn’t hold off a Night People offensive in my shabby ten-by-ten office and how we had to hide was hastily rewriting itself to exclude Rannit’s sewer system as the hiding place. “What about ‘we fight, we die?’” I asked. “What happened to bravery and heroism?”
Mister Smith rolled his eyes. “Load of crap,” he said. “Time to fight, we fight. Time to run, we run. Now is time to run. With haste.”
And so we went, with haste. The Trolls glided, noiseless as clouds. I trotted, feet thumping, pockets jingling until I tossed a handful of jerks out in the gutter. We charged all the way down Cambrit and turned the corner at Artifice and then darted into the foul-smelling alley by Barlett’s Butcher Shop.
Halfway down the moonlit alley, Mister Chin halted, stooped, rose and vanished. Mister Jones trotted to the same spot and dropped out of sight as well. Mister Smith put a sausage-sized finger in my back and gave me a friendly nudge. “We prepared several egresses some days ago,” he said. “You have but to step into the hole and drop. The Misters will catch you safe.”
I did not then pause to reflect on the wisdom of stepping into an abyss on the hope I would be caught at the bottom by Trolls. Something in Mister Smith’s tone brooked no argument. Troll ears are better than mine; maybe he heard the telltale flapping of exquisitely tailored cloaks.
I stepped off into the dark, and fell.
And fell. About the time I decided the Misters had missed, four bony Troll paws caught me and gave way enough to break my fall and not my back. My breath went out of me and I was tossed over a furry shoulder and we were charging through the dark before I could do more than gasp and wiggle.
“Put me down,” I said at last. “I can run now.”
Mister Chin obliged, slowing down to a trot and plunking me down like a child. He kept hold of my hand. “Follow,” he said, his translator’s voice higher in tone than Mister Smith’s. “Keep hold.”
And we were off. I held on and bounced off walls and tripped on gods-know-what and got soaked to my waist, but I kept the Misters in sight. Along the way I tried to memorize turnings and windings but finally had to just give it up-if I got out before daylight it would be with the Trolls or not at all.
So I gave up plotting our course and decided to ruminate on other matters instead. First and foremost, my talking Trolls.
Translator spells-or spells of any kind, shape, intent or fashion-had always been anathema to Trolls. Perversions, they called magics. Betrayals of the land-spirits, or something. Trolls used no magic during the War, and it cost them dear all along, right up until they lost.
Our wand-wavers never quite came to grips with that. They were always expecting some last-minute barrage of deadly Troll magics, a barrage that never came because of some ancient philosophical taboo no Troll ever broke.
Until now. Here were three Walking Stones with translators. I was beginning to suspect they weren’t human-made translators, mainly because they worked too well. And though I’m no expert on Troll optometry I was beginning to suspect the Misters had some night vision spells going, too-we were charging headlong and Troll-quick through sewers blacker and darker than the Regent’s shriveled heart and the Misters never missed a step.
Trolls with magic. Magic-and the half-dead-gave us the slightest of edges in the War. A dozen Troll sorcerers could have easily tipped the scales the other way.
I picked up the pace. Half the time my feet were off the ground anyway. It’s hard to keep up with a Troll in a hurry.
It’s even harder to beat them back.
“Here,” said Mister Smith. Our charge slowed and halted. We all stood panting, though where we stood was a mystery to me.
“Hold out your hand,” said Mister Smith. I did.
A short, gnarled stick was put in my palm.
The sun rose in the sewers. It wasn’t much of a sun-dim, green, and it flickered like a candle in a breezy window-but it let me see.
I’d had night-eyes cast on me during my Army days. This was nothing like it.
Troll magic. I shivered.
“Do you see, my brother?” asked Mister Smith.
“I see,” I said. “Nice place you’ve got here.”
It wasn’t, really. We stood at the dead-end of a tunnel maybe ten feet high and twelve across. The stones were wet and covered with nine hundred years of foul on foul on foul. Bones lay strewn all down the length of the tunnel; all had been cracked open for the marrow, and though most were canine or feline, the big one by my right foot looked like it might once have been part of somebody’s favorite leg.
The smell? Take three hot and sweaty Trolls and run them through an aging urban sewer. Toss in a few thousand decaying rodent bodies for spice. Add another millennia of mold and human waste.
I didn’t retch, but it did cross my mind.
“So what now?” I asked. “We do what?”
“We stand,” said Mister Smith. “We wait.”
I shivered again. “If the half-dead follow us down here-”
“They will,” said Mister Chin. “They shall follow, and they shall seek, but they shall not find.”
“You hope,” I said.
“I know,” he replied. He lifted his hand.
His four-fingered hand began to glow. A dozen fist-sized globs of shimmering goo, like luminescent soap bubbles but thicker, formed and made tight orbits around his claws and then shot off down the tunnel, out of sight.
I gawked. “Behold,” said the Troll. “Confusion. Wrong scents. Wrong sounds. Wrong movements in the dark. They will see what is not there, not see what is before them. They will see Markhats in the shadows, Trolls faces in the waters, hear footfalls, always out of sight.”
Mister Chin was a wand-waver. A Troll wand-waver, casting Troll spells.
“And if the half-dead do stumble upon us,” said Mister Smith, “they will die. Here, they cannot fly. They cannot surround and strike our backs. They cannot ring us round and tear our flanks. Here, they must face us, claw-to-claw.”
I was still staring at Mister Chin’s Troll hand.
“You did magic,” I said at last. “Magic.”
Mister Smith grinned. Trolls shouldn’t grin at people they like. “Yes,” he said. “Magic.”
“Isn’t that a no-no?”
“It was,” he said. “Then. But no longer. Nor ever again.”
I gulped. “You would have won.”
“You could win now.”
“We are not at war,” he said. “Nor do we wish to be.”
Down the tunnel rang a crack of distant baby thunder. Mister Chin guffawed.
“Booby traps?” I asked. Mister Smith nodded.
“One of many,” he said. “Laid days ago, waiting, watching, gathering strength. My Clan knows the ways of the caves, of the winding dark places, of the hidden things that crave blood. It shall be, as you say, a long night. For some. Shall we sit?”
I kicked trash and bones out of the way and sat. The Misters folded their knees backwards and made themselves at home.
Hours passed. Bells rang. Distant shrieks echoed down the dark tunnels. Booms and bangs followed, now distant, now close. Once light flared, and Mister Chin loosed a volley of bubbles from his claw, and shortly thereafter dozens of voices cried out, whether in agony or fear I could not tell.
But the voices fell silent, and aside from the now-constant rumbles of echoed Troll blasts we were left alone.
Just after the fourth bell, we heard furtive footsteps, the telltale tinkle of metal on stone. The Misters rose, Mister Chin’s hands suddenly full of bubbling Troll magics.
A rat the size of a bullmastiff dog rounded the corner. The skeletal human arm it bore in its jaws still wore a dangling length of silver bracelet. Mister Jones growled. Rat feet made fast pitter-patters back into the dark.
The Watch sounded the fifth hour, and soon after that little slants of sunlight crept past trash-choked storm drain grates. Between Mister Chin’s night stick and the sun, the sewers grew bright, like some civil-minded giant had lifted the streets to air the place out.
The sixth bell sounded, and traffic noise began. The Curfew was lifted; the day had begun; the night people were yawning in their holes, too sleepy to hunt that crafty Markhat any more today.
“We made it,” I announced. “Hurray for us.” I rose. My knees and back popped so loud Mister Jones asked me if I were injured.
I offered Mister Chin the night stick. “Keep it,” he said. “We have another night to face.”
“Thank you,” I said, and meant it. Our own wand-wavers were never so free with their treats. “Shall we go back to my office and see what’s left?”
Mister Smith rose. “We shall,” he said.
We went. Three mighty Trolls and one stiff, sleepy human, all bathed in sewer-stuff, a bevy of barking dogs trailing us just for the fun of it. It wasn’t quite an Armistice Day parade, but we had almost as many oglers.
We rounded the corner at Cambrit.
I’d had callers in the night. They’d ripped my door off its hinges, stepped right in and made a mess visible from nearly a block away. Watchmen buzzed in and out of the hole in the wall like fat blue bees. Mama Hog waddled around among them, waving her fingers in various faces and snatching pens and the like-my pens, mind you-out of pockets and paws.
Mama Hog spotted us. “Get over here,” she bellowed, “before they steal everything that ain’t broke.”
Heads turned my way. Mister Smith chose that moment to yawn.
Trolls yawn like tigers roar.
Only two Watchmen were there by the time the Misters and I strolled on down the street.
The oldest Watchman, a gray-headed sergeant named Fleetcab with a scar all down the left side of his face, stood in Mister Smith’s shadow and tried to pretend that he had dealings with Trolls every day. “Somebody tore your place up, Markhat,” he said. “Any idea who that was?”
“My maid gets these spells,” I said. “Last week she set fire to my favorite ottoman. I’ll have a talk with her, I promise.”
He grunted. His partner, a skinny kid of maybe twenty, stepped forward. “Could it have anything to do with your new associates, Mister Markhat?”
I was tired and wet and filthy. I’d spent the night in a sewer. Thirsty half-dead were sleeping with my picture under their pillows.
“My cousins?” I asked. “Now why would you say a thing like that?”
Mister Chin growled.
And that was that. No long hike downtown, no afternoon on the Square answering the same questions over and over in a ten-by-ten room decorated in Stifling Heat and Rank Body Odor. I scribbled my initials at the bottom of an incident report and waved the Watch goodbye.
Mama Hog was inside sweeping. Mister Chin was scooping out debris. Mister Jones was hammering together a new door out of two of Mama Hog’s old tables.
Me? I had plans to make, plots to hatch, baths to take-so naturally, I stripped, rolled up in an old green Army blanket and slept like the dead I was so very close to joining.
I was dreaming. A tall, green-eyed blonde was stroking my hand and whispering my name. She had perfect elfin features and a mischievous wind threatened to remove her last few gauzy veils. I leaned a little closer, heard a noise, woke up-and was face-to-face with Mama Hog. I think I may have screamed.
Mama Hog was holding my left hand. And mumbling something under her breath. And she wasn’t a bit like the tall, elfin blonde in my dream.
I sat up. She hung on tight to my wrist and spat out a string of nonsense words.
“Shut up, boy,” she hissed. “You mess with the half-dead, you need this.”
I was wearing a bracelet or a wristlet or whatever you call a finger-width ring of tarnished brass chain a sham-artist soothsayer wraps around your wrist.
I snarled something and grabbed the thing with my right hand. “I’m a tolerant man, Mama, but I don’t appreciate people sneaking around and messing with me in my sleep,” I said. “I’m taking this thing off, and you can take it with you when you leave, which better be soon.”
But I wasn’t taking it off. It didn’t have a clasp or a joint or any way I could see to open it or loosen it.
“Mama-” But she was gone. I got up and stepped on a chunk of my broken desk and cussed some more and was still cussing when Mister Smith poked his head through my door.
“A child brings a message,” he said. A grime-streaked street urchin darted past the Troll and marched right up to me, a roll of paper gripped tight in his grimy little fist.
No fear in that kid’s eyes, not even for Trolls. I guess the street takes that early, these days.
He handed me the paper. “They said you’d feed me.”
“I can’t,” I said. “Not today. But go next door-the door with the cards on it. Ask for Mama Hog. Tell her Markhat sent you. She’ll feed you till you bust.”
He went. I snickered and unrolled the paper. There was a map of the streets down by the river. An arrow pointed to the rear of a warehouse, the fifth one south of the big barge-docks. A hand-drawn clock lay at the arrow’s tail; the hands were both straight up. One stick figure stood at the door; three other, much larger stick figures stayed back in the street.
“What does it say?” asked Mister Smith.
“We meet them behind a certain warehouse, down by the river,” I said. “At midnight. Vampire lunchtime. I go in alone.”
“Mister Chin feels we should go now,” said Mister Smith. “Mister Jones is undecided.”
I yanked a clean shirt out of the pile in the floor. “They won’t have your cousin’s remains at the warehouse, if that’s what you’re thinking,” I said. “Going early would just hack them off. They’ll be watching. You can bet on that.”
“They are without honor,” said Mister Smith.
“They are indeed,” I said. “And they’ll expect us to be the same.”
“So we wait, and we go, and we trust they will keep their bargain?”
“We do,” I said. “It’s that, or just declare war. And they’ll never hand it over if we start shoving. Trust me on this, Walking Stone. The rich don’t get richer by giving things up easy.”
Mister Smith’s big owl eyes bored into mine. “Haverlock would fight to keep a bauble, a thing of no worth?”
“Yep.” I hunted down socks as an excuse to look away.
“But gold-” he dangled the three chunks of gold he wore around his neck “-this yellow metal-it is worth fighting for? Worth dying for?”
“It isn’t the metal,” I said. “It’s what it will buy.”
“Will gold buy you life, my brother?”
I found a shoe. “It’ll buy roofs that don’t leak and food that doesn’t kill you. And a lot else. Around here, that’ll pass for life. Any day.” I stood. Mama Hog’s bracelet was still on my wrist, and I was tempted to ask Mister Smith if he wouldn’t mind tearing it off.
A second glance at a meaty Troll-paw and I pulled my shirtsleeve down instead. “I need a bath and a meal,” I said. “What about you gentlemen?”
“We will bathe in mountain streams ‘ere long,” said Mister Smith. “But a meal-have you sellers of fish, hereabouts?”
“We do,” I said. “Tell you what-you boys watch my back while I visit the bath house up the street, and I’ll treat you to a wagonload of Brown River catfish. Deal?”
“Deal,” said Mister Smith. His claws popped out an inch, and his big wet Troll eyes got wider. “Are these, perhaps, large catfish?”
“Big as my arms,” I said. “Let’s go. Big night ahead.” Last night ahead, said a snarky little voice in the back of my mind.
We went. The bracelet chafed and pulled hairs.
As I passed by Mama Hog’s, I smelled something cooking and hoped the kid ate like a Troll.
A wagonload of day-old catfish costs a crown and three jerks. I could have made twice that back by charging admission to the small crowd that watched my Trolls eat by tossing whole, raw catfish straight up and then leaping to gobble them out of the air as they fell.
“I always wanted to join the circus,” I told the Misters when the catfish and the crowds were gone. We were all stretched out on the grass under an old water-oak in Rannit’s one and only park. Kids were flying devil-faced kites on a green hill across from us. A woman and a manicured poodle-dog got caught in a Troll-belch of catfish fumes and ran off, yipping and shrieking.
“You should join this circus, then,” said Mister Smith.
“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “After tonight, maybe I will. If there is an after.”
“The spirits tell me all will be well,” replied Mister Smith. “They say our goals will all be met.”
“Spirits ever wrong?” I asked.
Mister Smith chuckled. “All the time,” he said. “But they mean well.”
I shut up and watched the grinning devil kites until the sun got fat and sank.
A chill hit the air. My Troll warriors belched catfish and scratched and sat up, all business.
“It was fun, gentlemen,” I said. “All of it. But we’ve got work to do.”
“We have shared a meal, shared a day,” said Mister Chin.
“We thank you,” said Mister Jones.
I stood and brushed grass off my butt. “You’re welcome, Walking Stones, the honor was mine,” I said, hoping that would suffice. Their words had the sound of some Walking Stone ritual, but it wasn’t one I knew.
Mister Smith yawned again and grumbled something, and after I pointed them toward the River we headed out.
The walk would take us until well after dark.
We’d be at the waterfront by Curfew.
And then, we’d see if Mister Smith’s well-meaning spirits had improved their foresight any since the War.
Night fell. Curfew fell. Drizzle fell. We were so close to the Brown River I could smell the cattle-barges through the stench of slaughter houses and paper mills.
Trolls can shut their nostrils, and hold them shut. I hadn’t known that. They were doing it now, except for Mister Smith, who kept his nose open to sniff for half-dead.
About half past the tenth bell, the drizzle became a downpour. That kept the Watch off us-they might wander around with the half-dead, but you won’t catch them getting wet-and left the night so dark and loud I could have paraded twenty Trolls with flags down the street and no one would have noticed.
So we found a burned-out building with two walls and a rubble heap standing and tried to spot half-dead through the storm. I’d wrapped a string around my nightstick and put it around my neck: as long as the stick touched my skin, night was day in shades of sickly green. The Haverlock warehouse was just ahead, all shadow and gloom.
Across town, down at the Square, the big old bells rang out eleven times. Nothing moved on our street. A barge drifted by our backs, a few lamps guttering, stinking of the mound of garbage that it bore. Mister Smith slammed his nostrils shut until the wind shifted.
Time passed. Then the bells on the Square boomed once, marking the half-hour.
My back ached and rain was running down it and no hat in the world can keep a driving rain out of your eyes.
“I’ve had it, boys,” I said. “Early or not, it’s time to go and knock on a door. Shall we?”
They rose. I watched them tower up and up and took what comfort I could from their bulk.
“We go forth as one,” boomed Mister Smith.
“Our cause is just,” said Mister Chin.
“Our hearts are brave,” said Mister Jones.
“My ass is wet,” I said.
We walked out in the rain. The street was empty. The warehouse was dark.
Mama Hog’s bracelet got hot. Not hot enough to burn me, but hot enough get my attention. I swatted it and yanked on it, but I swear it pulled itself tighter.
Mister Smith saw. His claws came out, and he barked something to the other Misters.
Dark, windowless warehouses loomed around us like canyon walls. The rain sleeted down sideways, soaking man and Trolls alike. Up close, I noticed that water slid off the Misters without wetting their fur.
Hut two three four. We’d fallen into step, gods know why-too much Army time, on both sides, I guess.
A light flared in the double-doors ahead. The window wasn’t glass, just a slitted square of close-set iron slats, but I could see a silhouette beyond it. It might have been Liam, or it might have been the Regent; no way to tell but one.
I stopped. The Misters stopped with me. “You boys keep an eye out,” I said. “And beat it back to the mountains if I’m not back by the twelfth bell.”
“We will not abandon you, Finder,” said Mister Smith. “We came for what is ours. We leave with the bones of our kin, and we leave with you. Tell them.”
The light in the door flickered and guttered like a single candle. Mama Hog’s bracelet felt like it was trying to crawl around widdershins on my wrist.
I pulled down my hat and marched to that door.
It opened before I reached it. Somebody had oiled the hinges, because it opened without a sound.
I stepped inside. The candle sported a pale hand and part of an arm; it beckoned me forward and drifted down a dark hall.
I followed. I’d gone maybe ten feet when my candle-bearer reached a waist-high basket and put the candle on the lid. Then he vanished, quiet as the ghost he probably was.
I walked to the basket. My own footsteps crunched and squeaked, loud in the tomblike silence. I picked up the candle and lifted the lid.
There, wrapped in red velvet, was a head.
His pale, dry eyes rolled, seeking mine, meeting them. His mouth made empty words I could not read.
I was just about to say something-what, I’m not sure-when the candle flame puffed out, the door behind me slammed shut and a bag with a cord sewn into its mouth fell over my head.
The cord went tight. I kicked back behind me and flailed with my fists and none of that stopped the darkness from dragging me under.
Something slapped me.
Again, a slap, and a torrent of cold sour water. I coughed and spat and opened my eyes.
And wished I hadn’t. I was propped up in a chair. Across from me was a desk-a big, dark, polished desk that had no business sitting in a leaky room in an abandoned warehouse-and behind the desk was the Haverlock himself.
I knew him, though I’d never joined him for a glass of sherry or a dinner with the Regent. The few half-dead I’d ever seen before had been the out-and-about variety. The half-dead who’d joined the Army had been the young ones, the ones not yet mad with bloodlust, not yet rendered insane by the very thing that kept them walking.
This half-dead was old. Old and mad and hungry, all dry ashen skin and flexible bones and fingers tipped with claws. His clothes would cost me a year’s work but they couldn’t hide the price he’d paid for a shoddy brand of immortality.
He looked into me with those dead white eyes and tiny black pupils.
My mouth went dry. The Haverlock lifted its corpse-black lips in a smile.
“Came to take my trophy,” it said, its voice a dry airy rustle. “Came to my House to steal.”
I wanted to say something, but found the words wouldn’t come.
“Brought Trolls against my House,” it said. “Brought Trolls and traitors. Did you find the head we left for you, Finder? Will it make your Troll friends happy?”
It giggled. And it reached forward, long black nails at the ends of longer white fingers.
Mama Hog’s bracelet moved on my arm. I jerked back, scooting the chair half a foot.
“Nowhere to run, Finder,” said the Haverlock. “Trolls can’t help you. Watch can’t help you. Friend Liam can’t help you. Did he try to warn you, when you found him? Did he tell you I knew of his treachery, knew of his plot?”
I wondered what time it was. Had I missed the twelfth bell? Was I still in the same warehouse?
The Haverlock saw. It smiled an open-mouthed smile, and where Liam’s mouth had looked almost normal the Haverlock had a headful of crooked, dirty yellow needles.
I bolted, cussed, fell. My ankle was tied to the desk. It wasn’t moving.
Somewhere-it sounded like below us-there was a loud crack, as of thick timbers breaking, and a thud. And then another blow shook the building, strong enough to start a slow rain of dust from the ceiling. And then, muffled but unmistakable, I heard a Troll’s war-roar.
“My Trolls,” I managed to say. “Tired of waiting.”
The Haverlock giggled, child-like. “They die, too,” he said. “We’re ready. Ready for two Trolls, ready for three, ready for ten.” He stood.
“I’ve only got three,” I said. “Three Trolls. At least one of them is a wand-waver. You ready for Troll magic, Old Bones?”
If the Haverlock heard or understood, he didn’t acknowledge me. He just strolled around the desk and came at me, yellow teeth bared, fingers twitching spasmodically.
Mama Hog’s bracelet moved again, spat a fist-sized rain of pale blue sparks. I felt a thousand little tickles, like it had grown feet and was trying to get away. I jerked up my arm.
Mama Hog’s bracelet squirted baby lightning at the half-dead. The Haverlock grinned and his cold, hard flesh touched mine and in an instant he had the bracelet in his gaunt, long-fingered hand. “Stupid little man,” he said, as the bracelet sizzled and glowed. “Foolish little man. You think this trinket can save you?”
He crushed it, flung it aside.
Something still moved on my arm. I chanced a glance and there it was-a long, thin critter like a centipede, but slimmer. It was fast. It scuttled up my shirt to my shoulder, coiled like a snake and launched itself at the Haverlock’s dead face.
You’d have thought I’d thrown a bucket of daylight. The Haverlock’s dead white eyes got wide and he batted the air with those claws and backpedaled so fast he tripped on the desk and went down flapping and kicking.
Then he shrieked, longer and louder and higher than any human ever had, ever would.
I bent down, found the rope around my foot. The knot was tight and hard. I yanked and heaved. The desk was heavy. It didn’t budge.
The Haverlock leaped to his feet. Dark oily spittle was running down his chin. I didn’t see the worm, and from the way he kept turning and looking I knew he didn’t either.
He glared at me, teeth bared, and bunched for a dive. I pulled so hard my shoe came off ahead of the rope.
The Haverlock dove. He broke the arm I raised, but then the wall behind us exploded and Mister Smith snatched the Haverlock up in his massive Troll hands and brought him down head-first on that polished ironwood desk-top.
And brought him down again, and again.
“Go now,” boomed Mister Smith. Down came the half-dead. Black fluid sprayed. “The Misters will see you safe.” The Haverlock still writhed and grappled.
Thunder rang out, right under my fundament, and light flared so bright below me I saw every crack between every board in the floor. Another crack and flash ripped through the warehouse, and a Troll laughed. Tiny wisps of smoke began to coil up and out between my feet.
I got up. My left arm hung limp and numb. Black dots were swimming across my vision. “We haven’t gotten what we came for,” I said.
“We go to House Haverlock,” said Mister Smith, between lifts and falls of the still-twitching Haverlock. “We search there.”
The room pitched and yawed like the deck of a troop ship.
“No need,” I heard myself say. “I know where your cousin’s head is.”
Mister Smith eyed me over the ruin of the eldest Haverlock, gave him another slam for good measure. “Are you well, Finder?” he said.
I laughed. Sizzles and roars under us spoke of Troll magics. More timbers burst, below, and the floor dropped several inches before catching. One of Mister Chin’s tame bubbles floated up through the floor, made a quick circuit of Mister Smith and I, and then sank back through the floor in search of paler prey.
I wobbled my way across tilting, popped floorboards to the other side of the desk.
On the right-hand side were six drawers, all too small to contain a Troll-head. On the left were four drawers-and a single enormous cabinet. A sane man might keep a keg of beer or a wastebasket or a barrel of snacks in it.
The thing Mister Smith was smearing all over the room hadn’t been sane for a long, long time.
I tried the big cabinet door. It wasn’t even locked.
I opened it, moved a cloth and there it was.
“When you’re done with him,” I said. “Help me lift this out. Need two arms, got one.”
Mister Smith grabbed Haverlock by either end and pulled. I turned my head until it was done.
The floor shook. The thunder rolled. I stood there blinking and gasping and sorting out storm-sounds from Troll battle magics. The Misters were making a mess. I hoped they were winning.
Mister Smith turned that desk around with two fingers. He looked down, sang something short in Troll and closed the drawer.
Then he turned those big owl eyes on me. “You have done as you said, Finder. I thank you. Here.”
Three lumps of gold appeared in his bloodied Troll paw.
Maybe the Troll nightstick around my neck joined with my newly acquired concussion to play tricks on my eyes. I didn’t see three fist-sized chunks of gold in Mister Smith’s four-fingered hand. I saw one of Mama Hog’s wear-worn cards. I blinked, and there it was again, turned over so I saw a bony finger, crooked and beckoning.
“Keep it,” I heard myself say. “No charge. No fee. Not this time. Can’t buy my soul, Mister Smith. Shame on you for trying.”
Then the floor buckled and fell and the last thing I remember about that night is Mister Smith smiling at me.
Trolls really, really shouldn’t smile at people they like.
I woke up. That surprised me so much I sat up and opened my eyes.
Home sweet home, my tiny room behind a room. Someone had shoved the bedding back in my mattress and sewed it back up. The door to the office was upside down, but back on its hinges, and closed.
I swung my legs around, snarled when I rediscovered my broken left arm and spent a few minutes scratching under the splint.
Mama Hog’s short fat shadow slid under the door. “You awake, boy?” she barked.
“No. Go away,” I said.
She opened the door and shut it quickly behind her. In her hands she held a steaming bowl of soup and half a loaf of fresh baked bread and she’ll never ever look that good again.
“Brought you some food,” she said. “Don’t you go puking it up, you hear?”
“I hear.” I sat on the edge of the bed. I was wearing my other pants and I wondered if I’d been dressed by Trolls or fortunetellers.
“The Misters?” I said, grabbing a spoon.
Mama Hog’s warty face split in a grin. “They’re Trolls, boy,” she said. “Took twenty-seven half-dead and mashed them flat. Twenty-seven!”
Mama Hog rattled on. “Mister Smith, he came marchin’ back here with you in one hand and his cousin’s head in the other. You’ve never seen the like, boy-and the other two, they were singing some Troll battle song, all thunder and bellowing. Woke up half the city and scared the Watch near to death. Pissin’ their pants, boy! You shoulda seen ’em run!”
I shoved bread in the soup, sopped it up, made it disappear.
“Don’t choke, boy, don’t choke,” said Mama Hog. She lost her grin. “They’re gone,” she said. “Gone back East. Got to do some heavy purification rituals. They touched the undead, walked our sewers, handled our money.”
I swallowed hard. “When did they-”
“Yesterday,” said Mama. “Noon. After the Watch came sniffing around. Mister Smith gave them that gold around his neck to pay for the damages they did. Then he warned them to keep off your back, and they took off for Troll country.” She smiled. Not a grin, but a smile, and for an instant some of the ugly vanished. “He told me to watch after you, Markhat. Said you were clanless no more.”
I put down the soup. “He said that?”
“He did,” said Mama Hog. “Left you something, too. Here.” She held out an egg-sized chunk of smooth white river rock. “Take it. Tell it to speak.”
I took it. It was heavy and cold. “Tell it to what?”
Mama Hog rolled her eyes. “Tell it to speak. Say ‘Rock, speak to me.’”
“Rock,” I said, “Speak to me.”
Troll grumbles filled the air. “Greetings, my brother,” said Mister Smith. “Forgive our hasty departure. It was necessary, but unhappily so. Mister Chin, Mister Jones and I would have shared with you one last meal of the catfish, had circumstances permitted.”
“We will honor your memory,” said Mister Chin.
“You are welcome among us,” said Mister Jones.
“I have warned your Watch, and the half-dead Houses,” said Mister Smith. “You fought by our side. You fought for the soul of one of our own, one who could no longer fight for himself. You walked with us, through darkness, and when you looked upon the yellow metal you turned away.”
I remembered that, and winced.
“I name you Markhat of Clan-” the translator stopped using Kingdom and choked out a long, wet Troll word. “In all things, we are brothers, now and forever. May your shadow fall tall and your soul grow to meet it.”
“Goodbye, my brother,” chorused the Misters, unseen. “Walk brave, in beauty.”
Silence. Mama Hog took the empty bowl and the dirty spoon from me. “You don’t look much like a Troll,” she said. “But I reckon looks can be misleading. Can’t they?”
I put the stone down. I was tired, and my arm was broken, and the lump on the back of my head started throbbing, but I felt good-better than I’d felt since the War.
Memories stirred. “What was in that bracelet you gave me, Mama?” I asked. “Looked like a bug. Scared old man Haverlock so bad he got himself killed.”
Mama Hog grinned with both her wide front teeth. “Fooled you both, didn’t I? Bracelet wasn’t worth squat. Some flash, some heat-bet he tore it off hisself, before he saw the worm.”
“He did.” I shuddered at the recollection. “He acted like I had snakes in my pockets.”
“We call ’em corpse worms where I come from,” said Mama Hog. “Just one of ’em gets in a half-dead, and pretty soon he’s so full of worms he’ll bust wide open. We don’t have no vampire troubles in Pot Lockney, boy,” she said.
I grunted. Mama Hog stopped, half-through the door. “Them Trolls left you something else,” she said. “When you get your legs back come and see. Took two Trolls to haul it across town. Took me two hours to wipe off the mess.”
I didn’t need to go look. I had seen past Mama when she’d barged in-the Haverlock’s fancy ironwood desk sat in my office.
It’s a fine big desk. I keep Mister Smith’s talking rock in the top right-hand drawer and a keg of Keshian ale in the big cabinet to the left.
And when people ask me how much the desk cost, I just smile and tell them a dear old friend left it to me when he passed away.
It isn’t the truth, exactly, but it’ll do.