Max gazed indulgently at the giant troll kneeling before him. The square stone in Max’s twig crown began to glow faintly with the same green light as the stone on the Staff of Truth. “I think I already know what you did, Malvin.”
Malvin burst into tears. “It’s because you’re so tiny,” he sobbed. “Your whole family is small, always has been. No reason under earth why you should be the rulers.”
“I think the Staff of Truth disagrees,” Keisha said.
“Yeah,” said Arty. “The green light doesn’t lie.”
Sure enough, the staff and its stone now were blazing bright, and so was the stone on Max’s crown. The intense green glow woke something in Max’s face that Arty and Keisha had never seen there before: wisdom and authority, tinged with the kindness and courtesy that had always been Max’s best qualities.
Rascal skittered to Malvin and snuggled up against his knee. He picked her up and put her on his shoulder, where she hunkered down and purred.
“I should never have done it,” he moaned. “When you were a baby, I stole the Staff of Truth and the Crown of Authority, and I hid them in the Haven. Everybody thought your mother had lost them, and the two of you were banished from the Underside. There was a long period of disorder—horrible for trolls—but at last I told my mother where to find them, so she was hailed as our savior and anointed queen.” He sighed. “She never could get the stones to work right, and the smoke and the roots began to take over. The guilt has been eating me up.”
Rascal growled and gave a ferocious hiss, arching her back and glaring at Max’s tunnel.
Something crashed into the boulder blocking the entrance. It shuddered but stayed in place. Another crash. Another, and then an earth-shaking thud, as the boulder fell over and a very disheveled Tilley Tartmore staggered out of the tunnel.
“Hounds! Get him!” Tilley shouted, pointing at Max. Four bloodhounds bounded out from a dark corner of the cellar where they’d been hiding. But as soon as the green light from the staff and crown hit them they hunkered down, whimpering. They crept forward and groveled next to Malvin, gazing up at Max with adoration.
“The staff seems to be in full working order now,” Malvin said.
Tilley marched forward and shook her finger at Malvin. “I’m going to tell everyone what you did! My doggie friends Phantom and Shadow saw you do it.” Why would anyone, human or animal, be friends with Tilley, Keisha wondered.
“Too late,” Arty said. “He already told us.”
Tilley snarled and made for the stairs. As she hustled by, Keisha caught a whiff of something horrible—something, in fact, that you’d roll in if you were a dog. Ohhh, she thought. That’s why dogs like her so much. She smells like something dead.
“Tilley’s been nosing around the Underside for years,” Malvin said. “She’s been obsessed with avenging her father’s death. She threatened to tell everyone what I’d done if I didn’t bring Max to her, so she could then reign through him and create more havoc. I knew if I came up through a fissure, the smoke would come with me and absorb this place into the Underside, even if just for a few minutes. That’s why Max’s tunnel sent him to Tilley instead of the woods.”
He burst into tears again. “I’m so sorry. I’ll do anything to make amends.”
Heavy footsteps thundered down the stairs, and there was Mrs. Patterson. “Oh Max, dear. You are looking regal.”
He was also looking very sad. “Mama, I don’t want to be the High Stoniness. Can’t you do it, so I can stay here with Keisha and Arty?”
“I’m afraid the staff has chosen you, sweetie.” Mrs. Patterson patted her son on the shoulder. “Only you can fight back the smoke and the roots. But I think the time has come for better understanding between Under and Over. You’ll have to visit often for negotiations. I imagine Arty and Keisha will be the Overside’s ambassadors.”
Max looked a little more cheerful.
She turned to the tearful Malvin. “We forgive you, dear. Now, the Wachters have prepared a special dinner, and have invited us all to join them.”
Keisha gasped and looked at her watch. They’d only been gone ten minutes. “How is that possible? It’s been hours.”
Mrs. Patterson chuckled. “Oh, the Underside has its own approach to time. When you visit us, you’ll have to be careful not to return home before you left.”
She looked sternly at Max and Malvin. “When we’re with the Wachters, no throwing your food around. This will not be slop.”
Max and Malvin looked at each other. “Not slop?” Malvin whispered
“Mama,” Max said. “Do we have to?”
She winked. “Don’t worry, boys. I have a bucket of slugs to sprinkle over the food.”
Arty and Keisha raced each other up the stairs, hoping to claim whatever seat was farthest away from the trolls.
This is the final installment of MAX DOWNSTAIRS! We're going to take a break until school's back in session. Thanks to all the clever kids who contributed ideas for this story. See you in September for a whole new tale!