Strickler murmured in his sleep, pulling the catskin blankets closer. Somehow, he'd managed once again to roll out of bed onto the ground, and the chill of the Darklands bit at him with icicle teeth.
Grumbling, he crawled back toward the nest he shared with his mate. No mattress, pillows, or headboard, just a pit near the cavern wall, overflowing with a massive pile of animal furs. Bearskin, buckskin, patchwork blankets made from cats. A far cry from the memory foam and egyptian cotton he slept on at home, but at least it was warm.
"Move over. You've pushed me out again." Strickler wasn't afraid to demand his share of the bed. In the Darklands, you took what you needed to survive, or you didn't.
He let himself flop over, but instead of warm stone hide, he found himself rolling toward the center of the empty furs.
Gunmar was gone.
Strickler debated for a moment then gave a shrug and burrowed deeper into the bedfurs.
"More for me, then."
He sighed once, resisting the urge to curl up like a cat. There was a very primitive pleasure to be found at the bottom of a pile of blankets. Absently, Strickler reached out of the bedding, pawing at a stone shelf until he found his cellphone. There was no signal, of course, but with a few pre-installed apps and a powerbank, it still had it's uses.
The changeling huffed, thumbing past his playlists and candy-matching games until he came to the date.
Strickler frowned, giving the calendar a double take.
It was the third. He was absolutely certain it was the third. Surely he hadn't spent two weeks napping and trying to memorize the names of Gumm-Gumm thralls.
His Upbeat Pictures of Deer Calendar was quite insistent. it was undoubtedly the thirteenth.
Thirteen days down, seventy nine to go.
Quietly, Strickler rolled over, pressing the back of his arm to his eyes.
Two years ago, if someone had told him that he would be the one to end a millennia old war and save the life of a Trollhunter, he would've had them committed.
If they had told him he'd do it by marrying Gunmar, he would've had them assassinated.
Absently, he rubbed at the stone flesh over his heart. The glowing scar had faded away, but the pain remained.
After centuries of serving him; Strickler thought he knew what Gunmar was capable of.
But casting the Animaetia Scriptora ...that had been a surprise.
Even moreso, whom the soulmate spell marked.
Just once, to break the bond. If I agree, you'll let us go?
I'll let the Trollhunter go.
Strickler groaned, turning over and pressing his face into the bedding.
He should've let Gunmar kill Jim. Then the soulbond spell would've been unfulfilled, and it would turn back on its caster; killing Gunmar. He would've been rid of them both. With Bular gone, Gunmar's throne was ripe for the taking. No one could have stopped him.
True, he'd have lost no sleep over Gunmar's demise.
But Young Atlas...
Once again, you have proved why you are the hero, and I am...
Someone who can change.
The boy had gone into the Darklands to save a baby. He'd gone into the Darklands with no guide, no rations, and absolutely no plan.
Of course Gunmar had captured him. He'd captured him, and then he'd ordered the Janus Order to summon their leader.
Strickler had been sipping margaritas out of a coconut when Otto tracked him down on a beach in Taihiti. He'd considered killing the polymorph, until he was informed of Jim's fate.
Gunmar's proposition was simple.
The Trollhunters life for the rest of Strickler's.
Two years ago, the choice would've been easy.
But two years ago, he hadn't fallen in love with a human woman, or fought a soulless Assassin alongside the Trollhunter.
In spite of Strickler's best efforts, it seemed that Jim had managed to find a place in his good graces.
And so, Strickler had done what he'd always done best. He brought control to the chaos. It took a weeks worth of sleepless nights, raised voices and roars, but he managed to negotiate a compromise. It was Jim's idea to call it the Triad Contract, for it brought together three worlds, by three concessions.
A place in Trollmarket, for Changelings.
The safe return of familiars, for the Trollhunter.
And for Gunmar, a seat at the Tribunal. A voice, speaking on behalf of the Gumm-Gumm Trolls, the ones who chose not to live by the pact. A voice, in the form of Waltomomew Strickler, his newly appointed ambassador.
That was the word they agreed to use in mixed company.
Strickler sighed, powering off his cellphone. He had a few power banks in reserve, but it was best to ration his electronics. As the screen went dark, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the black glass.
It felt strange, getting a good look at his trollish form. As a general rule, trolls weren't concerned with their appearances, and so had no use for mirrors. He owned several, but it was rare for him to take this shape when using them.
Absently, he rubbed at the heavy green bags beneath his eyes, then traced the age lines along his cheek. He had age lines. He could've sworn those weren't there 250 years ago, when had he gotten old?
He turned his face to the right, grimacing a bit at the size of his beak-like nose.
"Is this the face that launched a thousand ships; And burned the topless towers of Illium?" Strickler murmured to himself, quoting a poem from his last lesson plan.
His hair was starting to grow out. Maybe he'd allow it. Try for a bit of that Sylvan look.
"I have three months to decide if I like it or not." Strickler rubbed his eyes. "And now I'm talking to myself."
He wriggled free of the bed. On hands and knees, he shifted to his human form. An overcoat and turtleneck would serve better than a loincloth in this frigid place.
"Right then." Strickler stood, straightening his collar. "No rest for the wicked."
The two Gumm-Gumm soldiers standing guard tensed as he emerged from the bed cavern. One of them began to growl in confusion, and the other gave Strickler a sniff. It was clear that they still needed time to adjust to a free-roaming changeling.
He didn't take offense to it.
"Strewth. Good to see your arm's healed up." Strickler nodded to the Gumm-Gumm on the left. The warrior seemed surprised at being greeted by name.
"and Pudd, dear, is that a new parlock spear? It looks well on you." He rapped his knuckle against the weapon.
The Gumm-gumm on the right stood a bit straighter, lifting her helmeted head proudly. Strewth jabbed an elbow into her side, growling out a single trollish word.
He DID take offence to that, but Strickler didn't let his smile falter.
"Could either of you tell me where our esteemed Underlord has gone? It's rare for him to be up this early."
Pudd lifted a hand, and Strewth knocked it down, giving her a threatening glare. The female Gumm-Gumm returned it with a snarl, but after a moment averted her gaze.
Neither of the Gumm-Gumms gave him an answer. Strewth stared coldly past the changeling, while Pudd scuffed the ground with her foot, refusing to look up.
"Alright." Strickler felt his eyes starting to burn, and he fought the urge to return to troll form. "I'll find him myself. You've been so helpful."
He turned to leave. Dictatious might help him, if he used the right tone. To the library, then.
The sound of a Parlock spear clattering to the ground made him glance back.
"Ungh!" The female Gumm-Gumm let out a flummoxed sound, hands clasped to her helmet. Aghast, absolutely aghast at her clumsiness. As Strickler watched, she picked the spear up slowly, much more slowly than she needed to, holding it horizontal for a moment.
The two-pronged head was pointed at the throneroom.
Strickler glanced toward Pudd, trying to hide his amusement.
"I've been meaning to tell you; It hasn't escaped my notice how hard you'd been working. I'll be sure to tell Gunmar about your performance. Keep up the good work."
If possible, Pudd stood even straighter, her horns held so high that her chin was nearly vertical.
“As for you.” Strickler’s gaze rested for a brief moment on the other Gumm-Gumm, his smile betraying no sign of bitterness. “I’m sure Gunmar will be very interested to hear all you’ve had to say, and just how helpful you were to his Lifemate.”
With that he turned on his heel and started toward the throneroom without a second glance at the thrall.
"Your Dark Excellence."
Strickler kept his tone reverent as he approached Gunmar's throne. He stopped at the foot of the uneven stairs, feeling the Warlord's gaze on him. In a balletic motion, he dipped to one knee, bowing his head and placing a hand across his heart.
"What have I told you about groveling?"
Gunmar was in a mood. Strickler could tell from the rumble beneath his words.
Quickly, the changeling pulled himelf up and began climbing the stairs.
"Force of habit, I'm afraid." Strickler gestured absently. "How are you feeling? I was worried you might be unwell."
"Do not pretend to be concerned with me, Impure."
Strickler managed not to roll his eyes. Just barely.
"The Tribunal only listens to me as long as I speak for you. It's in my best interests to be concerned. Besides, you look..." He came to a stop in front of the throne, and for a second, found himself examining the Warlord.
His entire life, Strickler had been taught to regard The Skullcrusher as something near a god. For the Janus Order, Gunmar was second only to The Pale Lady. Gunmar. Trollkinds last defense, an immortal champion of dark heartstone, destined to reclaim the world from the humans who squandered it.
Strickler's faith had been wavering for centuries, but he kept his misgivings hidden. it wasn't easy; he was an unbeliever, playing the part of the clergyman.
This marriage had only made things more difficult.
It was hard to look upon a god with fear and trembling, when you knew that he snored.
"Choose your next words carefully, Stricklander." Gunmar growled, as if sensing the changeling's thoughts.
"I was going to say careworn." Strickler crossed his arms. "I'm trying to keep things civil, which is more than I can say of you."
Gunmar's lone eye rolled to focus on the changeling. His gaze flickered up and down once, considering.
"You're wearing flesh." The Warlord graveled.
"I was cold. Now I know you aren't feeling well." The changeling leaned against Gunmar's throne. "No throttling, no death threats...Not even a snarl. Are you going to tell me what's wrong?"
Gunmar stared at him, saying nothing.
Strickler glanced down. Summoning his courage, he lifted his hand and brought it to rest over Gunmar's paw.
"Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, as The Bard once said. If you want to talk, I'll be in our bedroom." Strickler ran his thumb along a glowing blue vein, then drew back. "Try not to forget I'm here."
He cleared his throat, worried that his words would be misinterpreted. "I didn't survive two world wars to be crushed to death in my sleep."
Finally, Gunmar managed something near a smile; his crooked fangs tilting.
"If I was going to crush you in our bedchambers, Stricklander..."
A playful look of horror crossed Strickler's face. "Gunmar, for the love of Bodus," He shook his finger at the Warlord, "Do not finish that sentence."
Gunmar's claws closed around Strickler's hand, pulling him close.
Strickler let out a startled little yelp as he stumbled, nearly falling into Gunmar's lap.
The Warlord brought his head down.
"And if I do?" Gunmar's words would be menacing, if it weren't for the lilt amusement in his tone.
Strickler pushed himself up. His nose was nearly touching Gunmar's snout.
He gave the warlord a knowing look and opened his mouth to retort. But before he could, The sound of clattering spears interrupted him.
"I hope I'm not interrupting." chimed a stout, cloaked shape as he entered the throneroom, flanked by an entourage of Gumm-Gumm soldiers.
"Dictatious." Strickler quickly pulled away, smoothing the front of his jacket. "I was just consulting the Skullcrusher. He's unwell. Why weren't you here tending to him?"
"Our Dark Underlord doesn't need tending. What he needs is nourishment." With a flourish, the six-eyed troll pushed his cloak away from his shoulders, revealing a bassinet wrapped in his second set of arms.
"I-I see." Strickler stared at the swaddled form nestled in the basket. He tried to keep his voice from cracking. "Has a new familiar been chosen for the exchange?"
"Of course not." Dictatious scoffed. "Our Underlord wanted a midnight snack."