“And Gru Magru,” she suggested. “He loves new things, especially if they make trouble.”
“Yeah.” These were not the two Crockett would have chosen, but at least he could think of no other candidates. “If we could get somebody who’s close to the Emperor. . . What about Drook—the guy who gives Podrang his mud baths?”
‘Why not? I’ll fix it.” Brocle Buhn lost interest and surreptitiously began to eat anthracite. Since the overseer was watching, this resulted in a violent quarrel, from which Crockett emerged with a black eye. Whispering profanity under his breath, he went back to digging.
But he had time for a few more words with Brockle Buhn. She’d arrange it. That night there would be a secret meeting of the conspirators.
Crockett had been looking forward to exhausted slumber, but this chance was too good to miss. He had no wish to continue his unpleasant job digging anthracite. His body ached fearfully. Besides, if he could induce the gnomes to strike, he might be able to put the squeeze on Podrang II. Cru Magru had said the Emperor was a magician. Couldn’t he, then, transform Crockett back into a man?
“He’s never done that,” Broclde Buhn said, and Crockett realized he had spoken his thought aloud.
“Couldn’t he, though—if he wanted?”
Brockle Buhn merely shuddered, but Crockett had a little gleam of hope. To be human again!
Dig . . . dig . . . dig . . . dig . . . with monotonous, deadening regularity. Crockett sank into a stupor. Unless he got the gnom~es to strike, he was faced with an eternity of arduous toil. He was scarcely conscious of knocking off, of feeling Brockle Buhn’s gnarled hand under his arm, of being led through passages to a tiny cubicle, which was his new home. The gnome left him there, and he crawled into a stony bunk and went to sleep.
Presently a casual kick aroused him. Blinking, Crockett sat up, instinctively dodging the blow Gru Magru was aiming at his head. He had four guests—Gm, Brockle Buhn, Drook and the red-haired Mugza.
“Sorry I woke up too soon,” Crockett said bitterly. “If I hadn’t, you could have got in another kick.”
“There’s lots of time,” Gru said. “Now, what’s thi~ all about? I wanted to sleep, but Brockle Buhn here said there was going to be a fight. A big one, huh?”
“Eat first,” Brockle Buhn said firmly. “I’ll fix mud soup for everybody.” She bustled away, and presently was busy in a corner, preparing refreshments. The other gnomes squatted on their haunches, and Crockett sat on the edge of his bunk, still dazed with sleep.
But he managed to explain his idea of the union. It was received with interest—chiefly, he felt, because it involved the possibility of a tremendous scrap.
“You mean every Domsef gnome jumps the Emperor?” Cm asked.
“No, no! Peaceful arbitration. We just refuse to work. All of us.”
“I can’t,” Drook said. “Podrang’s got to have his mud baths, the bloated old slug. He’d send me to the fumaroles till I was roasted.”
“Who’d take you there?” Crockett asked.
“Oh—the guards, I suppose.”
“But they’d be on strike, too. Nobody’l i obey Podrang, till he gave in.”
“Then he’d enchant me,” Drook said.
“He can’t enchant us all,” Crockett countered.
“But he could enchant me,” Drook said with great firmness. “Besides, he could put a spell on every gnome in Dornsef. Turn us into stalactites or something.”
“Then what? He wouldn’t have any gnomes at all. Half a loaf is better than none. We’ll just use logic on him. Wouldn’t he rather have a little less work done than none at all?”
“Not him,” Gru put in. “He’d rather enchant us. Oh, he’s a bad one, he is,” the gnome finished approvingly.
But Crockett couldn’t quite believe this. It was too alien to his understanding of psychology—human psychology, of course. He turned to Mugza, who was glowering furiously.
‘What do you think about it?”
“I want to fight,” the other said rancorously. “I want to kick somebody.”
‘Wouldn’t you rather have mud baths three times a day?”
Mugza grunted. “Sure. But the Emperor won’t let me.”
“Because I want ‘em.”
“You can’t be contented,” Crockett said desperately. “There’s more to life than—than digging.”
“Sure. There’s fighting. Podrang lets us fight whenever we want.”
Crockett had a sudden inspiration. “But that’s just it. He’s going to stop all fighting! He’s going to pass a new law forbidding fighting except to himself.”
It was an effective shot in the dark. Every gnome jumped. “Stop—fighting!” That was Gm, angry and disbelieving. ‘Why, we’ve always fought.”
“Well, you’ll have to stop,” Crockett insisted.
“Exactly! Why should you? Every gnome’s entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of—of pugilism.”
“Let’s go and beat up Podrang,” Mugza offered, accepting a steaming bowl of mud soup from Brockle Buhn.
“No, that’s not the way—no, thanks, Brockle Buhn—not the way at all. A strike’s the thing. We’ll peaceably force Podrang to give us what we want.”
He turned to Drook. “Just what can Podrang do about it if we all sit down and refuse to work?”
The little gnome considered. “He’d swear. And kick me.”
“Yeah—and then what?”
“Then he’d go off and enchant everybody, tunnel by tunnel.”
“Uh-huh.” Crockett nodded. “A good point. Solidarity is what we need. If Podrang finds a few gnomes together, he can scare the hell out of them. But if we’re all together—that’s it! When the strike’s called, we’ll all meet in the biggest cave in the joint.”
“That’s the Council Chamber,” Gm said. “Next to Podrang’s throne room.”
“O.K. We’ll meet there. How many gnomes will join us?”
“All of ‘em,” Mugza grunted, throwing his soup bowl at Drook’s head. “The Emperor can’t stop us fighting.”
“And what weapons can Podrang use, Drook?”
“He might use the Cockatrice Eggs,” the other said doubtfully.
“What are those?”
“They’re not really eggs,” Gru broke in. “They’re magic jewels for wholesale enchantments. Different spells in each one. The green ones, I think, are for turning people into earthworms. Podrang just breaks one, and the spell spreads out for twenty feet or so. The red ones are— let’s see. Transforming gnomes into human beings—though that’s a bit too tough. No. . . yes. The blue ones—”
“Into human beings!” Crockett’s eyes widened. ‘Where are the eggs kept?”
“Let’s fight,” Mugza offered, and hurled himself bodily on Drook, who squeaked frantically and beat his attacker over the head with his soup bowl, which broke. Brockle Buhn added to the excitement by kicking both battlers impartially, till felled by Gru Magru. Within a few moments the room resounded with the excited screams of gnomic battle. Inevitably Crockett was sucked in.
Of all the perverted, incredible forms of life that had ever existed, gnomes were about the oddest. It was impossible to understand their philosophy. Their minds worked along different paths from human intelligences. Self-preservation and survival of the race—these two vital human instincts were lacking in gnomes. They neither died nor propagated. They just worked and fought. Bad-tempered little monsters, Crockett thought irritably. Yet they had existed for—ages. Since the beginning, maybe. Their social organism was the result of evolution far older than man’s. It might be well suited to gnomes. Crockett might be throwing the unnecessary monkey wrench in the machinery.
So what? He wasn’t going to spend eternity digging anthracite, even though, in retrospect, he remembered feeling a curious thrill of obscure pleasure as he worked. Digging might be fun for gnomes. Certainly it was their raison d’étre. In time Crockett himself might lose his human affiliations, and be metamorphosed completely into a gnome. What
bad happened to other humans who had undergone such an—alteration as he had done? All gnomes look alike. But maybe Cm Magru had once been human—or Drook—or Brockle Buhn.
They were gnomes now, at any rate, thinking and existing completely as gnomes. And in time he himself would be exactly like them. Already he had acquired the strange tropism that attracted him to metals and repelled him from daylight. But he didn’t like to dig!
He tried to recall the little he knew about gnomes—miners, metal-smiths, living underground. There was something about the Picts— dwarfish men who hid underground when invaders came to England, centuries ago. That seemed to tie in vaguely with the gnomes’ dread of human beings. But the gnomes themselves were certainly not descended from Picts. Very likely the two separate races and species had become identified through occupying the same habitat.
Well, that was no help. What about the Emperor? He wasn’t, apparently, a gnome with a high I.Q., but he was a magician. Those jewels—Cockatrice Eggs—were significant. If he could get hold of the ones that transformed gnomes into men.
But obviously he couldn’t, at present. Better wait. Till the strike had been called. The strike.
Crockett went to sleep.
He was roused, painfully, by Brockle Buhn, who seemed to have adopted him. Very likely it was her curiosity about the matter of a kiss. From time to time she offered to give Crockett one, but he steadfastly refused. In lieu of it, she supplied him with breakfast. At least, he thought grimly, he’d get plenty of iron in his system, even though the rusty chips rather resembled corn flakes. As a special inducement Brockle Buhn sprinkled coal dust over the mess.
Well, no doubt his digestive system had also altered. Crockett wished he could get an X-ray picture of his insides. Then he decided it would be much too disturbing. Better not to know. But he could not help wondering. Gears in his stomach? Small millstones? What would happen if he inadvertently swallowed some emery dust? Maybe he could sabotage the Emperor that way.
Perceiving that his thoughts were beginning to veer wildly, Crockett gulped the last of his meal and followed Brockle Buhn to the anthracite tunnel.
“How about the strike? How’s it coming?”
“Fine, Crockett.” She smiled, and Crockett winced at the sight. “Tonight all the gnomes will meet in the Roaring Cave. Just after work.”
There was no time for more conversation. The overseer appeared, and the gnomes snatched up their picks. Dig . . . dig . . . dig . .
It kept up at the same pace. Crockett sweated and toiled. It wouldn’t be for long. His mind slipped a cog, so that he relapsed into a waking slumber, his muscles responding automatically to the need. Dig, dig, dig. Sometimes a fight. Once a rest period. Then dig again.
Five centuries later the day ended. It was time to sleep.
But there was something much more important. The union meeting in the Roaring Cave. Brockle Buhn conducted Crockett there, a huge cavern hung with glittering green stalactites. Gnomes came pouring into it. Gnomes and more gnomes. The turnip heads were everywhere. A dozen fights started. Cru Magru, Mugza and Drook found places near Crockett. During a lull Brockle Buhn urged him to a platform of rock jutting from the floor.
“Now,” she whispered. ‘They all know about it. Tell them what you want.”
Crockett was looking out over the bobbing heads, the red and blue garments, all lit by that eerie silver glow. “Fellow gnomes,” he began weakly.
“Fellow gnomes!” The words roared out, magnified by the acoustics of the cavern. That bull bellow gave Crockett courage. He plunged on.
“Why should you work twenty hours a day? Why should you be forbidden to eat the anthracite you dig, while Podrang squats in his bath and laughs at you? Fellow gnomes, the Emperor is only one; you are many! He can’t make you work. How would you like mud soup three times a day? The Emperor can’t fight you all. If you refuse to work— all of you—he’ll have to give in! He’ll have to!”
“Tell ‘em about the non-fighting edict,” Gru Magru called.
Crockett obeyed. That got ‘em. Fighting was dear to every gnomic heart. And Crockett kept on talking.
“Podrang will try to back down, you know. He’ll pretend he never intended to forbid fighting. That’ll show he’s afraid of you! We hold the whip hand! We’ll strike—and the Emperor can’t do a damn thing about it. When he runs out of mud for his baths, he’ll capitulate soon enough.”
“He’ll enchant us all,” Drook muttered sadly.
“He won’t dare! What good would that do? He knows which side his—ugh—which side his mud is buttered on. Podrang is unfair to gnomes! That’s our watchword!”
It ended, of course, in a brawl. But Crockett was satisfied. The gnomes would not go to work tomorrow. They would, instead, meet
in the Council Chamber, adjoining Podrang’s throne room—and sit down.
That night he slept well.
In the morning Crockett went, with Brockle Buhn, to the Council Chamber, a cavern gigantic enough to hold the thousands of gnomes who thronged it. In the silver light their red and blue garments had a curiously elfin quality. Or, perhaps, naturally enough, Crockett thought. Were gnomes, strictly speaking, elves?
Drook came up. “I didn’t draw Podrang’s mud bath,” he confided hoarsely. “Oh, but he’ll be furious. Listen to him.”
And, indeed, a distant crackling of profanity was coming through an archway in one wall of the cavern.
Mugza and Gru Magru joined them. “He’ll be along directly,” the latter said. ‘What a fight there’ll be!”
“Let’s fight now,” Mugza suggested. “I want to kick somebody. Hard.”
“There’s a gnome who’s asleep,” Crockett said. “If you sneak up on him, you can land a good one right in his face.”
Mugza, drooling slightly, departed on his errand, and simultaneously Podrang II, Emperor of the Dornsef Gnomes, stumped into the cavern. It was the first time Crockett had seen the ruler without a coating of mud, and he could not help gulping at the sight. Podrang was very ugly. He combined in himself the most repulsive qualities of every gnome Crockett had previously seen. The result was perfectly indescribable.
“Ah,” said Podrang, halting and swaying on his short bow legs. “I have guests. Drook! Where in the name of the nine steaming hells is my bath?” But Drook had ducked from sight.
The Emperor nodded. “I see. Well, I won’t lose my temper, I won’t lose my temper! I WON’T—”
He paused as a stalactite was dislodged from the roof and crashed down. In the momentary silence, Crockett stepped forward, cringing slightly.
“W-we’re on strike,” he announced. “It’s a sit-down strike. We won’t work till—”
“Yaah!” screamed the infuriated Emperor. “You won’t work, eh? Why, you boggle-eyed, flap-tongued, drag-bellied offspring of unmentionable algae! You seething little leprous blotch of bat-nibbled fungus! You cringing parasite on the underside of a dwarfish and ignoble worm! Yaaahl”