It didn’t take much to persuade her father to let her have a little freedom, it just took her agreeing to go to the pool with Vivi later. She would walk to Vivi’s house, pass the monument on the way and take care of the Gnome business, and then meet up with Vivi to walk to the recreation center. Considering that Emily didn’t think she could stand to spend five more minutes with her Summer Bestie when she woke up that morning, she was amazed at how having a mission to accomplish made it seem much more tolerable.
Before she could go through with her plan, she had to figure out when and where she might be able to talk with Lolfus so she’d know what to tell the Gnome. She knew there was no way she’d be able to go back underground to meet, and she also knew that he wouldn’t be able to come to the surface until after dark. Emily brainstormed for a solution, but she could only come up with meeting in the alley behind her house sometime just after sunset. With the summer days getting longer and longer, it wasn’t dark until nearly nine o’clock at night. The only way she’d be able to get out of the house at that hour would be to volunteer to take out the garbage. It would probably work, but she’d have to make the talk with Lolfus a brief one to avoid raising her parents’ suspicions.
With all the details decided, she packed her bag for the pool and set off for Vivi’s house. Emily had called her earlier to find out if she wanted to go to the recreation center and Vivi had been so thrilled with the idea that Emily was sure that she had suffered some hearing loss due to the squeals of excitement on the other end of the line.
Emily strolled down Franklin Street and made the slight detour to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at the edge of the park. The monument was several stories tall and was positioned so it overlooked the length of Main Street from the crest of the hill. As cool as the view was from the ground at the statue’s base, Emily had often wondered what it was like for the bronze soldier who stood atop the high column above her. He could probably see for miles.
No cars were nearby and the sweltering late June afternoon had apparently dissuaded any dog-walkers or parents pushing baby strollers from venturing out, which was great was far as Emily was concerned. She had no desire to stand around the base of the statue and have a bunch of people gawking at her while she talked to herself like a weirdo. Instead, she had the chance to look like a weirdo in private.
She walked quickly across the roundabout and leaned against the hot iron fence that surrounded the monument, its heat quickly burning her through her shorts. “Um, excuse me, Gnome? Are you there? I have a message for Lolfus,” she said in a whisper. She waited a minute and got no response, so she decided to try again. “Hellooo, it’s me, Emily. I need to get a message to Lolfus—it’s important.”
“Yeah, yeah. I hear you just fine. What’s the message?” a raspy voice spat. Emily guessed that the Gnomes were still cranky and short-tempered. She’d hoped that that would change when Lolfus’ mean brother Malrich went away and Lolfus took over, but they must have just been like that naturally.
“I can meet him in the alley behind my house tonight just after sunset. I need to make it short, though. I can’t get away for long.”
“Hmph,” the voice snorted from inside the stone base of the statue. “Takes real nerve to tell the king you need to keep it brief, but I’ll deliver the message.”
It was all too weird. Not only was she talking to something that most people think of as a tacky little garden statue, but was in reality a scary-looking tiny old man who could walk through stone and soil just like a ghost, she could swear that it had just called Lolfus a king. Emily knew that he was important and that the other trolls treated him with respect, but she had always assumed he was like their mayor or something. A king? It had never really crossed her mind.
Her stomach was suddenly in knots again and the idea of meeting with Lolfus that night changed from being a nice nostalgic chat to something very stressful. Even though each had in the past saved the life of the other, knowing that he was royalty made things very different. She worked to settle her nerves on the rest of the walk to Vivi’s house. It was only a couple of blocks from the monument, but even with the heat Emily had wished it was more. A little more time to get herself together before facing the fastest talker in the neighborhood would have been great, but she just had to work with what she had.
The trip to the recreation center with Vivi was surprisingly painless. Emily assumed it was because she was preoccupied with the details of getting to the alley at the right time and seeing Lolfus again after all those months. Vivi didn’t seem to notice how distracted she was, so the day was a success overall.
Her family had finished dinner, watched the news, and then settled in to watch a documentary about the Milky Way. It was strange but pleasant to be able to watch something with her parents that actually took a bit of concentration to follow without Max interrupting every two minutes to ask questions. She wished summer camp could last twice as long.
As the end credits started rolling on the documentary, Emily noticed the streetlights flick on outside. They were set to come on automatically just before sundown, so she took that as her cue to make sure she was puttering around in the kitchen and ready to make an excuse for taking out the trash. Fortunately, that excuse was easy because her dad had sliced a particularly stinky onion to go with the burgers they had for dinner.
“Ugh, this onion smells terrible!” she said with maybe a little too much enthusiasm. She tried to tone it down a bit and continued, “I’m going to take the kitchen garbage back to the can at the alley. Be right back.” She had tied up the bag and slipped out the back door before her parents could get a word in.
After unlatching the back gate and dropping the bag into the oversized garbage bin in the alley, she struggled to make her eyes adjust to the dim light. The alley had only one overhead light on a pole about four houses down, so it was considerably darker than the street in front of the house. Emily heard some shuffling before she saw the massive silhouette step out into the alleyway just a few yards in front of her. She stifled a yelp and heard a deep and familiar voice, “Well, there ya’ are! Feels like it’s been a decade since I’ve last seen ya’—come here and let me get a look!”
She had to clutch her chest to slow the too-rapid beating of her heart from the fright. Even though she’d been expecting him, Lolfus had still startled her. “Lolfus! You scared me half to death!”
He stayed in the shadows as he approached, but his chuckle carried out into the night. “Aw, sorry about that. I thought ya’ were looking for me. My, you’ve gotten taller!” He was definitely a troll, but he still sounded more like her grandmother than Emily would ever admit to him. It was actually a bit endearing.
He finally reached her and pulled her in for a tight hug. Lolfus stood nearly seven feet tall, but Emily could see that now she was only a few inches shy of reaching his shoulder. As her eyes sharpened in the dark, she could see that he was dressed very much like he had been when they’d parted ways back in the fall. Despite the heat, he wore a long overcoat that almost reached the ground, loose pants, and what appeared to be an old Richmond Department of Public Works uniform shirt that buttoned down the front.
His clothes and his personality were human, but that’s really where the similarity ended. He had an enormous neck and head that looked like that of a wild boar, complete with a pair of short tusks curling up towards his cheeks from his bottom jaw. His skin was dark and covered with short bristles of auburn hair. Strangest of all in Emily’s opinion were his hands—two thick fingers and one short thumb that seemed to barely bend—that reminded her of a pig’s feet.
She would never judge him on his appearance, but it always amazed her how quickly she could overlook the differences in the way they looked. Lolfus was just, well, Lolfus. There was that pesky little thing the gnome had mentioned earlier about him being the king, however.
When he finally released her from the smothering hug, she said, “It’s good to see you. How are things underground?”
“Much better, child. Ya’d hardly recognize the place. Trading is steady again and families aren’t afraid to improve their homes or school their young ones. Before long, we Trolls will be back at the level of living we knew before the big Topside War.”
“I’m glad to hear that. And how are Gelda and Heinrich?” Gelda had been a sweet troll lady who was clearly very interested in becoming more than just friends with Lolfus when Emily and Sarah had met her in the underground marketplace. Heinrich was her twin brother, the one who had helped to overthrow Malrich and get Emily back home safely.
Lolfus looked down towards his feet and Emily was pretty sure she could see the faintest shadow of a smile at the edges of his tusks. “They’re quite well. I’ve begun to officially court Gelda, and things seem to be progressing. I may ask for her hand in marriage before the year is out.”
“What?” Emily shouted, working quickly to calm and quiet herself. “That’s great news! I’ll have to let Sarah know as soon as she gets back from her grandmother’s house. She’ll be thrilled!”
“Thank ya’. Now, I know ya’ don’t have long,” he said, looking nervously towards the house. “I’m hoping ya’ can help me out with gathering some information here on the topside. We’ve been hearing some talk of trouble recently with bad magic, something to do with old beasts awakening. Have ya’ heard or seen anything strange in the city lately? Had any of those visions ya’ Seers are so prone to?”
Once again her arms broke out in gooseflesh and the hairs on her neck began to tingle. “Oh, man, have I ever.”