“I did,” she explained. “I said, ‘Let’s have a fight.”
“Oh, that was all?”
“Then we started.” Brockle Buhn nodded. “What’s your name?”
“You’re new here, aren’t you? Oh—I know. You were a human being!” Suddenly a new light appeared in her bulging eyes. “Crockett, maybe you can tell me something. What’s a kiss?”
“A—kiss?” Crockett repeated, in a baffled manner.
“Yes. I was listening inside a knoll once, and heard two human beings talking—male and female, by their voices. I didn’t dare look at them, of course, but the man asked the woman for a kiss.”
“Oh,” Crockett said, rather blankly. “He asked for a kiss, eh?”
“And then there was a smacking noise and the woman said it was wonderful. I’ve wondered ever since. Because if any gnome asked me for a kiss, I wouldn’t know what he meant.”
“Gnomes don’t kiss?” Crockett asked in a perfunctory way.
“Gnomes dig,” said Brocide Buhn. “And we eat. 1 like to eat. Is a kiss like mud soup?”
‘Well, not exactly.” Somehow Crockett managed to explain the mechanics of osculation.
The gnome remained silent, pondering deeply. At last she said, with the air of one bestowing mud soup upon a hungry applicant, “I’ll give you a kiss.”
Crockett had a nightmare picture of his whole head being engulfed in that enormous maw. He backed away. “N-no,” he got out. “I—I’d rather not.”
“Then let’s fight,” said Brocide Buhn, without rancor, and swung a knotted fist which smacked painfully athwart Crockett’s ear. “Oh, no,” she said regretfully, turning away. “The fight’s over. It wasn’t very long, was it?”
Crockett, rubbing his mangled ear, saw that in every direction gnomes were picking themselves up and hurrying off about their business. They seemed to have forgotten all about the recent conflict. The tunnel was once more silent, save for the pad-padding of gnomes’ feet on the rock. Gru Magru came over, grinning happily.
“Hello, Brockle Buhn,” he greeted. “A good fight. Who’s this?” He looked down at the prostrate body of Mugza, the red-haired gnome.
“Mugza,” said Brockle Buhn. “He’s still out. Let’s kick him.”
They proceeded to do it with vast enthusiasm, while Crockett watched and decided never to allow himself to be knocked unconscious. It definitely wasn’t safe. At last, however, Gru Magru tired of the sport and took Crockett by the arm again. “Come along,” he said, and they sauntered along the tunnel, leaving Brockle Buhn jumping up and down on the senseless Mugza’s stomach.
“You don’t seem to mind hitting people when they’re knocked out,” Crockett hazarded.
“It’s much more fun,” Gru said happily. “That way you can tell just where you want to hit ‘em. Come along. You’ll have to be inducted. Another day, another gnome. Keeps the population stable,” he explained, and fell to humming a little song.
“Look,” Crockett said. “I just thought of something. You say human beings are turned into gnomes to keep the population stable. But if gnomes don’t die, doesn’t that mean that there are more gnomes now than ever? The population keeps rising, doesn’t it?”
“Be still,” Gru Magru commanded. “I’m singing.”
It was a singularly tuneless song. Crockett, his thoughts veering madly, wondered if the gnomes had a national anthem. Probably “Rock Me to Sleep.” Oh, well.
“We’re going to see the Emperor,” Gru said at last. “He always sees the new gnomes. You’d better make a good impression, or he’ll put you to placer-mining lava.”
“Uh—” Crockett glanced down at his grimy tunic. “Hadn’t I better clean up a bit? That fight made me a mess.”
“It wasn’t the fight,” Gru said insultingly. “What’s wrong with you, anyway? I don’t see anything amiss.”
“My clothes—they’re dirty.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said the other. “It’s good filthy dirt, isn’t it? Here!” He halted, and, stooping, seized a handful of dust, which he rubbed into Crockett’s face and hair. “That’ll fix you up.”
“I—pffht! . . Thanks . . . pffht” said the newest gnome. “I hope I’m dreaming. Because if I’m not—” He didn’t finish. Crockett was feeling unwell.
They went through a labyrinth, far under Dornsef Mountain, and emerged at last in a bare, huge chamber with a throne of rock at one end of it. A small gnome was sitting on the throne paring his toenails. “Bottom of the day to you,” Gru said. “Where’s the Emperor?”
“Taking a bath,” said the other. “I hope he drowns. Mud, mud, mud—morning, noon and night. First it’s too hot. Then it’s too cold. Then it’s too thick. I work my fingers to the bone mixing his mud baths, and all I get is a kick,” the small gnome continued plaintively. “There’s such a thing as being too dirty. Three mud baths a day—that’s carrying it too far. And never a thought for me! Oh, no. I’m a mud puppy, that’s what I am. He called me that today. Said there were lumps in the mud. Well, why not? That damned loam we’ve been getting is enough to turn a worm’s stomach. You’ll find His Majesty in there,” the little gnome finished, jerking his foot toward an archway in the wall.
Crockett was dragged into the next room, where, in a sunken bath filled with steaming, brown mud, a very fat gnome sat, only his eyes discernible through the oozy coating that covered him. He was filling his hands with mud and letting it drip over his head, chuckling in a senile sort of way as he did so.
“Mud,” he remarked pleasantly to Gru Magru, in a voice like a lion’s bellow. “Nothing like it. Good rich mud. Ah!”
Gru was bumping his head on the floor, his large, capable hand around Crockett’s neck forcing the other to follow suit.
“Oh, get up,” said the Emperor. “What’s this? What’s this gnome been up to? Out with it.”
“He’s new,” Gru explained. “I found him topside. The Nid law, you know.”
“Yes, of course. Let’s have a look at you. Ugh! I’m Podrang the Second, Emperor of the Gnomes. What have you to say to that?”
All Crockett could think of was: “How—how can you be Podrang the Second? I thought Podrang the Third was the first emperor.”
“A chatterbox,” said Podrang II, disappearing beneath the surface of the mud and spouting as he rose again. “Take care of him, Gru. Easy work at first. Digging anthracite. Mind you don’t eat any while you’re on the job,” he cautioned the dazed Crockett. “After you’ve been here a century, you’re allowed one mud bath a day. Nothing like ‘em,” he added, bringing up a gluey handful to smear over his face.
Abruptly he stiffened. His lion’s bellow rang out.
The little gnome Crockett had seen in the throne room scurried in, wringing his hands. “Your Majesty! Isn’t the mud warm enough?”
“You crawling blob!” roared Podrang II. “You slobbering, offspring of six thousand individual offensive stenches! You mica-eyed, incompetent, draggle-eared, writhing blot on the good name of gnomes! You geological mistake! You—you—”
Drook took advantage of his master’s temporary inarticulacy. “It’s the best mud, Your Majesty! I refined it myself. Oh, Your Majesty, what’s wrong?”
“There’s a worm in it!” His Majesty bellowed, and launched into a stream of profanity so horrendous that it practically made the mud boil. Clutching his singed ears, Crockett allowed Gru Magru to drag him away.
“I’d like to get the old boy in a fight,” Gru remarked, when they were safely in the depths of a tunnel, “but he’d use magic, of course. That’s the way he is. Best emperor we’ve ever had. Not a scrap of fair play in his bloated body.”
“Oh,” Crockett said blankly. “Well, what next?”
“You heard Podrang, didn’t you? You dig anthracite. And if you eat any, I’ll kick your teeth in.”
Brooding over the apparent bad tempers of gnomes, Crockett allowed himself to be conducted to a gallery where dozens of gnomes, both male and female, were using picks and mattocks with furious vigor. “This is it,” Gru said. “Now! You dig anthracite. You work twenty hours, and then sleep six.”
“Then you start digging again,” Gm explained. “You have a brief rest once every ten hours. You mustn’t stop digging in between, unless it’s for a fight. Now, here’s the way you locate coal. Just think of it.”
“How do you think I found you?” Gru asked impatiently. “Gnomes have—certain senses. There’s a legend that fairy folk can locate water by using a forked stick. Well, we’re attracted to metals. Think of anthracite,” he finished, and Crockett obeyed. Instantly he found himself turning to the wall of the tunnel nearest him.
“See how it works?” Gru grinned. “It’s a natural evolution, I suppose. Functional. We have to know where the underneath deposits are, so the authorities gave us this sense when we were created. Think of ore—or any deposit in the ground—and you’ll be attracted to it. Just as there’s a repulsion in all gnomes against daylight.”
“Eh?” Crockett started slightly. “What was that?”
“Negative and positive. We need ores, so we’re attracted to them. Daylight is harmful to us, so if we think we’re getting too close to the surface, we think of light, and it repels us. Try it!”
Crockett obeyed. Something seemed to be pressing down the top of his head.
“Straight up,” Gru nodded. “But it’s a long way. I saw daylight once. And—a man, too.” He stared at the other. “I forgot to explain. Gnomes can’t stand the sight of human beings. They—well, there’s a limit to how much ugliness a gnome can look at. Now you’re one of us, you’ll feel the same way. Keep away from daylight, and never look at a man. It’s as much as your sanity is worth.”
There was a thought stirring in Crockett’s mind. He could, then, find his way out of this maze of tunnels, simply by employing his new sense to lead him to daylight. After that—well, at least he would be above ground.
Gru Magru shoved Crockett into a place between two busy gnomes and thrust a pick into his hands. “There. Get to work.”
‘Thanks for—” Crockett began, when Gru suddenly kicked him and then took his departure, humming happily to himself. Another gnome came up, saw Crockett standing motionless, and told him to get busy, accompanying the command with a blow on his already tender ear. Perforce Crockett seized the pick and began to chop anthracite out of the wall.
“Crockett!” said a familiar voice. “It’s you! I thought they’d send you here.”
It was Brockle Buhn, the feminine gnome Crockett had already encountered. She was swinging a pick with the others, but dropped it now to grin at her companion.
“You won’t be here long,” she consoled. “Ten years or so. Unless you run into trouble, and then you’ll be put at really hard work.”
Crockett’s arms were already aching. “Hard work! My arms are going to fall off in a minute.”
He leaned on his pick. “Is this your regular job?”
“Yes—but I’m seldom here. Usually I’m being punished. I’m a troublemaker, I am. I eat anthracite.”
She demonstrated, and Crockett shuddered at the audible crunching sound. Just then the overseer came up. Brocide Buhn swallowed hastily.
“What’s this?” he snarled. “Why aren’t you at work?”
“We were just going to fight,” Brockle Buhn explained.
“Oh—just the two of you? Or can I join in?”
“Free for all,” the unladylike gnome offered, and struck the unsuspecting Crockett over the head with her pick. He went out like a light.
Awakening some time later, he investigated bruised ribs and decided Brockle Buhn must have kicked him after he’d lost consciousness. What a gnome! Crockett sat up, finding himself in the same tunnel, dozens of gnomes busily digging anthracite.
The overseer came toward him. “Awake, eh? Get to work!”
Dazedly Crockett obeyed. Brockle Buhn flashed him a delighted grin. “You missed it. I got an ear—see?” She exhibited it. Crockett hastily lifted an exploring hand. It wasn’t his.
Dig . . . dig . . . dig . . . the hours dragged past. Crockett had never worked so hard in his life. But, he noticed, not a gnome complained. Twenty hours of toil, with one brief rest period—he’d slept through that. Dig. . . dig. . . dig.
Without ceasing her work, Brockle Buhn said, “I think you’ll make a good gnome, Crockett. You’re toughening up already. Nobody’d ever believe you were once a man.”
“No. What were you, a miner?”
“I was—” Crockett paused suddenly. A curious light came into his eyes.
“I was a labor organizer,” he finished.
“Ever heard of a union?” Crockett asked, his gaze intent.
“Is it an ore?” Brockle Buhn shook her head. “No, I’ve never heard of it. What’s a union?”
Crockett explained. No genuine labor organizer would have accepted that explanation. It was, to say the least, biased.
Brockle Buhn seemed puzzled. “I don’t see what you mean, exactly, but I suppose it’s all right.”
“Try another tack,” Crockett said. “Don’t you ever get tired of working twenty hours a day?”
“Sure. Who wouldn’t?”
“Then why do it?”
“We always have,” Brocide Buhn said indulgently. “We can’t stop.”
“Suppose you did?”
“I’d be punished—beaten with stalactites, or something.”
“Suppose you all did,” Crockett insisted. “Every damn gnome. Suppose you had a sit-down strike.”
“You’re crazy,” Brockle Buhn said. “Such a thing’s never happened. It—it’s human.”
“Kisses never happened underground, either,” said Crockett. “No, I don’t want one! And I don’t want to fight, either. Good heavens, let me get the set-up here. Most of the gnomes work to support the privileged classes.”
“No. We just work.”
‘We always have. And the Emperor wants us to.”
“Has the Emperor ever worked?” Crockett demanded, with an air of triumph. “No! He just takes mud baths! Why shouldn’t every gnome have the same privilege? Why—”
He talked on, at great length, as he worked. Brockle Buhn listened with increasing interest. And eventually she swallowed the bait—hook, line and sinker.
An hour later she was nodding agreeably. “I’ll pass the word along. Tonight. In the Roaring Cave. Right after work.”
‘Wait a minute,” Crockett objected. “How many gnomes can we get?”
‘Well—not very many. Thirty?”
“We’ll have to organize first. We’ll need a definite plan.”
Brockle Buhn went off at a tangent. “Let’s fight.”
“No! Will you listen? We need a—a council. Who’s the worst trouble-maker here?”
“Mugza, I think,” she said. “The red-haired gnome you knocked out when he hit me.”
Crockett frowned slightly. Would Mugza hold a grudge? Probably not, he decided. Or, rather, he’d be no more ill tempered than other gnomes. Mugza might attempt to throttle Crockett on sight, but he’d no doubt do the same to any other gnome. Besides, as Brockle Buhn went on to explain, Mugza was the gnomic equivalent of a duke. His support would be valuable.