File GSB-060: Introspection

Anton and Griggin were sitting side by side on a bench in King Magni’s throne room. Anton had a large cardboard roll on his knees, containing the designs for their hot water plant. It also had detailed drawings of their existing proof-of-concept machine that was still chugging away merrily in their small workshop in Tinker town. Anton fidgeted, looking at some dark-haired Human woman talking to the King.

Griggin stared ahead of him, only now and then glancing at Anton. Time and again, the words “It’s Not Your Business” came back to him. He could hardly claim any moral high grounds himself. He sighed. The woman’s audience showed no sign of slowing down. In front of them were a group of Dwarves wearing strange signs on their tabards, carrying a large coffer. At this rate it was doubtful they’d be admitted to the King before nightfall.

“Hope they sort themselves out soon,” said Anton. “I need to take Beatrice out somewhere nice tonight.”

Griggin looked at Anton, and said nothing. Not Your Business.

“You know what women are like, when you forget your anniversary.”

Warlocks, by necessity, have extraordinary control over their facial expressions. Griggin didn’t move a muscle. He thought back. He could easily recall the date of their wedding, but what he remembered most was the look in Lenna’s eyes as she stood before him in her off-white dress (to signify her not-exactly-purity), looking at him. Warlocks were not very popular among Gnomes, and regrettably with good reason. She hadn’t cared. She’d looked at him as if he were her soul’s salvation. She’d told him that if it weren’t for him, she’d be lying in a ditch somewhere now. She was probably right, but really all Griggin had done was take her home after a particularly bad night, and put her in his bed, which at least was clean. He’d spent the night reading Mekgineer Steamrigger’s collected essays on the construction of two-way steam valves, occasionally looking at her face as she slept. That night, as he carried her home, she’d occasionally murmured things like “My Hero”, and “How can I ever repay you”. The next morning, she didn’t seem to remember much of that, but was quite appreciative of the several gallons of water and fruit juice, and a breakfast. Griggin had gone without. She’d given him a hug and a smile that he could still remember, and disappeared.

“Ah. There she goes,” said Anton. The Human woman had finally concluded her business with the King, and walked off, looking not much happier than when she’d come in. The Dwarves walked up, with proper demeanor, observing all the proprieties. Their leader addressed the king in Old Dwarvish, of which Griggin could recognise only a few words. King Magni responded in the same language.

“Tax gatherers,” said Anton. “Oh no! They’re pulling out the scrolls. Wish I’d brought a pillow. We’re going to be here for a while.”

Griggin sighed, forcing himself not to dislike Anton too much. It really wasn’t any of his business how he and Beatrice sorted out their lives. He thought of Lenna instead. After that first quiet night with her, he’d seen her here and there. She was a popular girl. Promising fire mage, life and soul of any group she was in. Completely out of Griggin’s league. Griggin wasn’t even in any league. He was your basic steampunk, tinkering with his machines, knowing to within the last fractured inch how to fit one pipe into its socket, but when it came to girls… yeah. Even at that early age, he could already make metal flow in his fingers. Whatever he set out to make usually worked, with a bit of friendly persuasion now and then. Which impressed young and attractive girls not even a little bit. He could of course have done what one of his fellow apprentice engineers had done, with a bit of leftover copper tubing, a spring-loaded mini-motor and an eccentric wheel. That had impressed a few girls. Unfortunately, one of the devices had found its way to the teacher’s desk. A Meaningful Conversation had taken place, and manufacture of the Personal Massagers had stopped abruptly. Griggin’s fellow student had been philosophical about it. As he put it, his device allowed girls to have fun by themselves, which was a big design flaw.

And then came the day that Lenna Greenhollow visited him, out of the blue, at home. She hadn’t been in the best of moods, and had wanted to talk with someone who wasn’t interested in getting her clothes off. Griggin had sighed, made her a cup of tea, listened to her tale of woe. Someone had totally done something that she really should know better than to do to her, with someone she didn’t really have feelings for, but only… Griggin had let the words wash over him for a while. Ye gods, he was the Friend To Talk To. To this day, he still didn’t know what had come over him, but he’d launched into a ten-minute rant, starting with the words: ‘What in the world makes you think that I don’t want to…’ Lenna had simply sat there, mouth hanging open, big eyes staring at him. After five seconds’ pregnant pause, she’d got up, screamed something about men being all the same and stormed out. Griggin had felt strangely satisfied by that, and absolutely positive that he’d never see her again.

“Get on with it,” said Anton. “Here’s the gold, here’s the receipt, thank you very much, sod off.”

“Quite,” said Griggin, thoughts miles away.

By that time, though, he was starting to have troubles of his own. Dreams. Nightmares. Whispers of being consumed, with not even death an escape from suffering. Warlocks are born with their mental connection to what was called the Wild Nethers, where Daemon spirits dwelt, alien, malignant, ever hungering for souls to steal for the Light only knew what purpose. When a child was born, cursed with such a connection, it was only a matter of time before he was found. Then the whispers would start, poisoning the unwary Warlock child’s mind, assailing him from within his own skull, from within his own thoughts, so subtle and so skillful that some never realised that the images and thoughts were not their own. Many young Warlocks were overcome before they knew what hit them. They would often go insane, going on killing sprees, their own families their first victims, until they were brought down. Fallen Warlocks were executed without remorse.

The Gnomeregan Warlock society was founded after some particularly bad episodes. They gave themselves the unenviable task of finding Warlocks and teaching them how to keep their inner and outer Daemons at bay. The first years were bad. Simply convincing the parents to hand over their children to the Circle was a challenge. People didn’t know the first thing about Daemons, and thought the children might respond well to a firm hand and loving care and attention. What they really needed was a fighting chance to overcome the voices in their heads, and once more to be the captain of their souls. The first attempts had failed, badly. The children had been ‘put beyond the reach of the Daemons’, as they put it. With a ceremonial dagger, all right and proper.

Then, the new methods of teaching had arrived. No longer was it necessary to make a possessed Warlock-apparent try to concentrate on learning the spells needed to control the Daemons. Trainers could simply reach into the minds of pupils, and put the essential knowledge there. It had been salvation for many, including Griggin, even though it came at a price. You were saved from death, but you signed on for life, and were made to swear to help save others in the same way that you had been saved. Made to subscribe to all of their rules, most of which they wouldn’t even tell you. And you could never leave, on pain of death.

“Oh gods. This is going to take forever,” said Anton.

“You will belong to the Circle forever,” mumbled Griggin.

Anton looked round. “What?”

“Nothing.”

Griggin had wanted to leave. He hadn’t asked for the power to bind dark creatures from the Wild Nethers to his will. He hadn’t asked for Daemons to try and invade his mind. He was an intelligent Gnome. He could see why he was made to do the things given to him. But that was the Mind, the Intellect. Daemons didn’t care about the intellect. They went straight for the under-minds, straight for lust, desire, hunger, fear. Griggin had simply wanted to hide under a warm blanket and pretend none of it was happening. His trainer had been harsh. Griggin had hated him from the very core of his being. Trainer had not been impressed, and pushed on mercilessly. With time, Griggin came to realise that he must learn or die. It was not the obvious choice it might seem to be. Even with the knowledge to keep himself alive, he would not have his soul all to himself. He might be the captain, but other creatures had high-ranking officer’s positions, and mutiny was always a possibility. There was, of course, the third possibility. He could neither live nor die, but fall. Offer himself to the Daemons, or rather, through inaction, allow himself to be taken. His trainer had described to him what would happen if Griggin took that option. The slow steady destruction of his mind, his sanity, his self. Trainer could have saved himself the effort. The voices in Griggin’s head were much more eloquent, much more cruel, and could describe their intentions with perfect, terrifying clarity. As long as Griggin would live, to fall would be a possibility.

Griggin had taken a deep breath, looked at the world he must live in, and decided. At the very top of the Gnomeregan Cavern, there was a place where you could see all the way to the bottom of the Hall of Gears. Trying to shut out his thoughts, Griggin walked up the ramps, climbed the ladders, until he came to the hole underneath one of the heavy cranes, that could lift the massive gears used in Gnomeregan’s infrastructure. He closed his eyes, then made himself look down. It would take approximately fifteen seconds to fall from the top of the hall to the floor. Death would be instant. Were fifteen seconds long enough to fall? Griggin walked to the edge, closed his eyes, steadied his breathing.

“Hey. What are you doing here?”

Griggin jumped out of his skin, and almost fell down the hatch, which would have been embarrassing. He managed to balance himself, and looked behind him. Sitting on one of the machines, a flask of tea on one side, a book in her hands, was Lenna Greenhollow. Griggin stared at her, struggling to find words. ‘I was going to kill myself to avoid my soul being consumed by Daemons’ didn’t seem to be appropriate.

“Um, I wanted to get away from it all,” said Griggin.

“Good place for it,” said Lenna. “I come here all the time, when I need some time to myself, to think. Nobody ever comes here.”

Griggin nodded, and said nothing.

“You just need to be careful not to come up here when they’re using the megaton crane, or you’ll just die of the noise.”

Griggin winced as Lenna dog-eared the page of the book she was reading. You don’t do that to works of literature such as… Griggin looked at the title. ‘Summer of Passion’. Oh. Alright then.

“Hey, about what you said the other day. I’ve been thinking.” Lenna looked into Griggin’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say you were, like, not into girls or something.”

Griggin blinked.

“Um, that’s quite alright. I am. Into girls, that is. Just not at this very moment. Not that I don’t find you, um… But I don’t mean…” He trailed off.

“Heh. But I shouldn’t just have dropped all my troubles on you.” Lenna grinned. “Not without offering anything in return, at least.”

“Um yes,” said Griggin. “I mean, no.”

Lenna looked at Griggin. Then, she picked up her flask.

“Tea?”

Griggin took a deep breath.

“Yes please.”

 

Somebody poked Griggin in the side.

“We’re up,” said Anton.


Trixie was lying on her bunk, on her back, eyes closed, hands behind her head. The last of her drawings (Kingsblood in its various stages of development), were done. Hand them in tomorrow, and that would be another few points, and herbalism done with. People always thought that picking flowers and gathering herbs was a bit sissy, until Trixie reminded them that those herbs were ingredients for strength potions, mana potions and many other things that would get you thrown out of any sporting match. Academically speaking, all was well at school.

In any other way you could think off, things sucked. Trixie had never been what she’d call popular, despite her charming, pleasant and gentle ways. Ever since the episode with Barry and the other Troggs, her reputation was below freezing. She’d made no secret of what she thought of the Epic Battle of Gol’Bolar Quarry, which for some reason annoyed the people who thought slaughtering a few defenceless Troggs was a quest of only slightly less epic proportion than stealing fire from the Gods. To add to this, Barry Blackknife kept implying that she was both willing to lie down and open her legs to any boy who asked, and at the same time no good in bed. There were people at school who didn’t even know that she had any other name but “Two-and-two”. Bloody unfair. She’d only done it once, and that was with none other than Mr. Blackknife. Nobody wanted to talk to her, except occasionally to make suggestions to her that warranted a steel boot in the groin. Not that she particularly wanted to talk to, or even, Light forbid, get close to any of her classmates, but still.

Mum was calling to her, something about going out and Bieslook.

Trixie called back: “Yes, Mum.”

She turned round, facing the wall. Nobody wanted her, and the feeling was mutual. Sod them all. There was a noise behind her, some unsteady stumbles, and then Bieslook’s scared voice.

“Trixie!”

Trixie jumped up, nearly bumping her head on the ceiling, and saw Bieslook at the top of the ladder to her bunk. One of her legs had slipped between the rungs, and she couldn’t pull herself up.

“Bies! Be careful!”

Trixie grabbed Bieslook by the back of her dress, and hoicked her up onto the bed. She pointed at Bieslook’s shoes, and she pulled them off. No shoes on the bed.

“What’s up, Bies?”

“Lenna’s gone to get more milk. You have to keep me from being kidnapped by Trolls for the pot.”

“Oh great.”

“But there aren’t any Trolls in Ironforge, so it’s an easy job.”

“Good,” said Trixie. She lay back down, and closed her eyes.

There was a moment of silence as Bieslook looked at Trixie. Trixie felt Bieslook’s hand on her leg, and she looked up.

“You are sad,” said Bieslook. “Why are you sad?”

“Nobody likes me,” said Trixie.

“That’s not true,” said Bieslook. “I like you.”

Trixie looked at the young girl.

“People are nasty to me.”

Bieslook frowned, and raised her hands. “Want me to shoot fireballs-at-dawn at them? That’ll teach them!”

Trixie stared, then fell back in the pillows laughing. For some reason, it was impossible to stay angry when Bieslook was around.

“I can, you know?”

Trixie put her hand on Bieslook’s hair. “No. It gives you headaches. Those bastards aren’t worth it.”

Bieslook blinked. “What’s a bastard?”

“Bad word,” said Trixie. “Sorry.”

“Are they pulling your hair?”

Trixie shook her head.

“Stealing your money?”

“No.”

“What then?”

Trixie fell silent. They were calling her a slut. They were keeping her out of their circle. Every one of their words, every one of their looks, every one of their gestures, was meant to tell her: We don’t like you. You are not one of us. You are unclean. You have broken the rules. You are worthless. Filth. No wonder you fall over for any boy who can hold his breath long enough to be near you. Trixie looked at her adopted little sister, and blinked.

“They won’t let me play with them.”

Bieslook crawled across the bed, grabbed Trixie’s arm and looked into her eyes.

“I’ll play with you.”

Trixie looked at Bieslook’s face, large blue eyes staring at her, worried. Trixie reached out and touched Bieslook’s face.

“Thank you,” she said.

Bieslook beamed. “We can be sisters! I’ve never had a sister! You can be my big sister, and I won’t get a little sister, and that’s good because little sisters are nothing but trouble!”

Trixie grinned. “We can be blood-sisters. We swear a blood-oath and we’ll be each other’s best friend. Only we’ll skip the bit where we cut each other’s hand with a knife, because that hurts like hell and Mum would kill us both if she saw it.”

Bieslook nodded seriously. Then, she spat on her hand and held it out to Trixie. Trixie looked at Bieslook’s hand. Oh what the hell. She spat on her own hand and shook Bieslook’s. Bieslook laughed, lay down next to Trixie and put her head on Trixie’s shoulder. Trixie wiped her hand on the blanket.

“I’m glad you’re my sister,” said Bieslook.

Trixie put her arm round Bieslook’s shoulder. “So am I.”

They lay still, for a few moments. Bieslook stirred.

“Trixie?”

“You have to say Big Sister now,” said Trixie.

“Oh. Big Sister?”

“Yes, Little Sister?”

“Will I get boobies?”

Trixie looked at Little Sister, raising her eyebrows.

“Is this going to be the talk about where baby Gnomes come from? Because if it is, you can just go and talk to Mum. I’m not in the mood to talk about it.”

“No,” said Bieslook. “Baby Gnomes are made by the Titans and brought home on the Strider. Just boobies.”

“Hm. Well, they grow slowly, like trees.”

“I don’t want boobies. Boys wil just look at them. My eyes are up here, boyo.”

Trixie snorted, then fell back onto the pillow laughing.

“Ye gods, Bies. Where do you get those things from?”

“Don’t know.”

Trixie looked into Bieslook’s eyes, still giggling. She put her arms round her little sister and hugged her close.

 

It was late, and Mum came back, climbed up the ladder. Trixie put her finger on her lips, and pointed. Bieslook was lying next to her, head on her shoulder, fast asleep. Mum grinned, and quietly climbed down. Trixie lay back, quietly, so as not to disturb Bieslook. Her eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling. The most amazing thought had just occurred to her. It was the kind of thing teachers would say in lessons where attention was dropping, and students needed a bit of shaking up. She’d always let the words pass her by, because she knew, of course, that she was immortal. But this time, she felt it in her bones, and she would never be the same girl again. The words fought to the surface of her mind, wanting to be spoken, if only in a whisper.

“I would die to protect you,” said Trixie.


Nix stood on top of the Stonewrought Dam, which was a dam, wrought of stone. Dwarves were really good at names. This particular dam was on the northern edge of Loch Modan, and kept the Loch from turning the equally well-named Wetlands to the North from turning into the Shallow Lake. In front of him stood his examiner of the day, Hulfdan Blackbeard. Blackbeard, a Dwarf, towered over him. He looked every bit a Rogue, leather-clad, black hair, beard and mustache, and a face that explained perfectly to Nix why he wouldn’t want to be seen most of the time.

“Right. Steambender? You’re up. Here’s your assignment. You are to leave this dam to the East, in the direction of the Mo’grosh Ogre mound. From the moment your dirty little feet leave this dam, till ye get back on it, keep yer hide out of sight. We’ve got spotters in the area, and if one of ’em catches sight of ye, then that’s a fail. That clear?”

“Yes, Sir!”

Blackbeard frowned.

“Think yer smart, Steambender?”

“Yes, Sir!”

Blackbeard bent down over Nix, scowling.

“The fail rate on this run, mister Steambender, is three quarters. Of those three quarters, half don’t make it back. And that’s just the way we like it. Culls the fools from the company and makes sure that the few who do make it are Dwarves that we can send on important errands.”

“Yes Sir!”

“Now there’s Kobolds in the area, little tunnel rats, you’ll like them. There’s Troggs of the Stonesplinter Clan, and of course Mo’grosh Ogres. We want evidence that you met them all. Whether you do that by picking their pockets, or knocking their blocks off, we don’t care. Finally, you are to go into the Mo’grosh ogre mound and kill Chok’sul, head of the Mo’grosh Ogres. That clear?”

“Aye Sir!”

“Then why can I still see ye? Be off with ye!”

 

Keeping out of sight was easy. Nix’ trainer, not this bully of a Dwarf, thank the Gods, but a Gnomeregan Gnome named Fenthwick, had taught him to wrap the shadows round him. Nix looked round, hoping to spot any of the spotters Blackbeard had mentioned, and pick their pockets. He looked round at the noise of running feet. Ah. Four, no five Kobolds, little rat-like creatures whose main line of business was mining the places that others had mined before, and petty theft. They were running to the West, probably making for the abandoned mines there. Nix picked up a rock and ran after them.

He caught up with the Kobolds in a few minutes, took careful aim and threw his rock at the Kobold who was running at the front. He grinned. Headshot! The Kobold stood still, glaring at his mates.

“Who do that?”

“Not me!”

“You lie! Can tell! Lips move!”

“You awake. If me, you be sleeping now.”

“Crows peck your eyes out if you lie!”

“You got kaka under candle!”

“I give you kaka!”

At that point, the argument moved from the verbal to the tactile, until the other two leapt on the fighting pair and pulled them apart. While this was going on, Nix crept quietly behind one of the Kobolds who was standing there watching the discussion, and performed a textbook retrieval of a small bottle of mana potion. It’d have to do.

Nix flitted from shadow to shadow, grinning to himself. Kobolds are stupid. Who’s next? A noise made Nix stop and look. Something was moving, sheltered in a hollow behind some shrubs. He sneered. Dwarves. They were being uncharacteristically careful, filling a barrel with some kind of powder, and adding drops of liquid from a bottle. Probably one of their explosive devices, used in mining. Life was about to get noisy. Nix got ready to move on, then changed his mind and grinned to himself. He concentrated deep, feeling the silence, sensing the wind, the rustle of trees. He became the silence, and moved forward like a spirit, unseen, unheard. None of the Dwarves ever noticed him there, as he carefully relieved one of the dwarves of a few sheets of paper. When he was at a safe distance, he chuckled, put the paper in his bag and continued.

The afternoon was getting on when Nix arrived at the Ogre mound. He was on a small hill overlooking the entrance, sun in his back, plotting his way round the many Ogres who walked round, unaware of Nix’ presence. His conclusion was that any amateur could enter that cave by night. Doing it in full daylight was a proper challenge for a soon-to-be Journeyman Rogue. He’d have to skirt round, climb to the top of the entrance, then lower himself just behind the guards. Would he be able to pull that off? The Ogres looked big and stupid, but that didn’t mean they were deaf and blind. The weapons they wielded, with as much ease as Nix wielded one of his daggers, were about as heavy as Nix was himself. Being spotted was not good if he wanted to retain all three of his dimensions. He already knew how he’d bring down Chok’sul. He’d bought extra strength poison, and applied a double dose to a dagger reserved specially for the purpose. If he was lucky, Chok’sul would be dead before he’d even notice Nix. If not, Nix had plenty of tricks up his sleeve to add to his luck. He had practiced them on his fellow students, using sticks instead of knives, because the school couldn’t afford to lose too many students. All the students had shuddered, the first time it was explained to them which particular weak points in the bodies were targeted with each attack. Many moves were especially meant to keep the enemy from moving by causing him pain, keeping him from breathing or blinding him. In assassination, there really was no such thing as a fair fight. The most kindness you showed your target was to get it over with as quickly as you could. Nix’ eyes narrowed, and he moved.

Gnomes, much like Dwarves, are used to moving round underground. They have the grit of mountains dissolved in their blood, and they have the night vision of owls. The Ogres’ cave was lit with torches here and there. Cooking fires were burning. Nix tried not to think what, or who, might be roasting on those fires as he stalked through the sandy caves, keeping perfectly still when Ogres passed by. They were large. Larger than a Dwarf. Taller than a Human. Nix could have run between their legs without touching… um, yeah. Best not to continue that thought. Chok’sul would be the largest of them all. Ogres followed the biggest and strongest of them, until they were no longer the biggest and strongest. Meritocracy at its most violent. Nix was about to cause a change of management.

He found the right cave after maybe half an hour of creeping about in the gloom, and slipping past a pair of two-headed spellcasters. The moment you first set eyes on your target, living, breathing, unaware of the fact that soon, their lives would be at an end, was always special. Even the most experienced assassins, with dozens, even hundreds of kills to their name, still felt something, a threshold, a decision, the Universe going one way, and not the other. The finger of Death raised in the air, ready to point at the one, or the other. Nix hid in a small hollow that might have been used for a fire, or to store supplies or weapons. He looked at Chok’sul.

Chok’sul was fighting someone. Another Ogre was attacking him, fists pounding on Chok’sul’s chest, or being blocked by his massive forearms. Nix blinked as Chok’sul took a mighty punch to the head, and staggered backwards. He bellowed, and rushed forward. With the speed of the very strong, he punched his attacker in the stomach twice, then in the face. He placed his hands on his attacker’s chest and shoved, with all his weight behind the push. Chok’sul’s attacker was thrown backwards, stumbled and fell to his back. Chok’sul’s foot came down on the other Ogre’s stomach. Chok’sul took a step backward while the other fought to breathe, then raised his hands in the air in a gesture of resign, knowing he’d been beaten.

Chok’sul threw back his head and laughed, making the cave echo. He stepped forward, held out his hand to his assailant, then pulled him to his feet and hugged him to his chest, rapping his knuckles on the back of the other’s head. Then, he held the other at arm’s length by his shoulders and grinned at him, speaking words in Ogre. He slapped the other’s shoulder.

Nix’ jaw dropped, as he understood. He started shaking. Oh crap! This was not supposed to happen. Targets should be fierce, and evil, and bad, preparing to do the terrible deeds you were sent here to prevent. They weren’t supposed to be congratulating their… their son on a good attempt at de-throning them! Nix looked at the blade in his hand. He had first polished it to a shine and sharpened it, till he could have shaved himself with it. Then, he had held it over the flame of a candle to cover it with soot, so that it wouldn’t be seen. Finally, he had coated the edge with a poison that would kill a boar with the tiniest scratch, and probably anyone stupid enough to eat that boar as well. Nix’ breath started to shiver, and he closed his eyes briefly, steadying himself. Just a dozen or so yards ahead, Chok’sul and two of his mates were laughing and joking with Chok’sul Junior. Nix closed his eyes. This was going to cost him his paper, but he knew he’d already decided. He put away his blade, and without a sound, he turned round and slipped out of the cavern.

 

“Right, let’s have you,” said Hulfdan Blackbeard. “Evidence please.” Nix laid out the things he had taken from the various inhabitants of the area. The bottle of mana potions he’d taken from the Kobold, the piece of paper he’d taken from the Dwarves, some Ogre’s woollen handkerchief, enough to make a shirt out of for a Gnome.

Blackbeard nodded. “Right. Bloody cheek to go thieving from good honest Dwarves. Now for the big one. Chok’sul. Is he dead?”

Nix looked at the ground, then up at Blackbeard’s face.

“No, Sir.”

Blackbeard glared at Nix.

“What? You have the gall to come back here, you little runt, and tell me that that murdering bastard is still breathing? Which part of ‘kill the sod’ did ye need explaining?”

Nix looked at his feet, and said nothing.

“I asked ye a question, you useless little git! Why didn’t you top him off like it said in yer assignment?”

Nix slowly turned his face up to Hulfdan Blackbeard.

“Got scared, Sir. Couldn’t do it.”

Blackbeard scowled down on Nix.

“That’s a fail, Steambender. Go change yer trousers and don’t come back till ye grow some backbone. Get out of my sight.”

 

Blackbeard looked at the back of one of Nix’ classmates, disappearing into the gloom. What by the Light had possessed his masters to allow those useless little Gnomes to try and do a Dwarf’s work? Of the half of them that made it back, most of them managed to bugger up their job in some way or another. Best to go with Dwarves all the way. His eyes fell on Nix’ items of evidence. Wool, potion, paper. What was it anyway? He picked up the piece of paper, and unfolded it. He frowned, turned over the paper, then turned it over again. No matter how he looked at it, it was still a drawing of the very Stonewrought Dam he was standing on right now. Three positions on the dam had been marked with crosses. Blackbeard’s eyes fell on a few words on the paper.
 

Fifty pounds of Seaforium on marks one and two. Eighty on mark
three. Detonate in order.

 

“Bloody hell!”

Hulfdan Blackbeard ran off to the Dam authortities, hoping he wasn’t too late.


“Does my bum look big in this?”

Lenna looked over her shoulder at her husband. This was a really nice dress, and she was shamelessly exploiting the indestructible good mood Griggin was in. Griggin’s eyes gleamed at her, and a big grin was on his face.

“Yess,” he said.

Lenna raised a menacing eyebrow.

“I like large posteriors,” said Griggin, “And I cannot prevaricate.”

“Hmmm…”

She looked at the dress again, blue satin, simple, elegant, without frills but very well made. A little more low-cut and figure-hugging than she was used to, and the heart shape sown in was a bit too sweet and cute, but it wasn’t a dress for day-to-day work anyway.

“Take it,” said Griggin. “You look great in it.”

Lenna took a deep breath and wrapped her arms round Griggin.

“Don’t you mean without it?”

“Well, I can’t take you out without it,” said Griggin, glancing down.

“What, a fancy new dress and lunch? Are we made of money?”

“We have just been commissioned by His Majesty King Magni Bronzebeard to provide hot and cold running water for the whole inner circle of Ironforge. We can afford it.”

“Sorry dear, I didn’t quite hear that. Could you say that again?”

“His Majesty, King Magni Bronzebeard, wants us to install hot and cold water facilities, pumps, piping, heat exchangers, the lot!”

Lenna looked into Griggin’s eyes, and ran a finger down his cheek.

“Ah right. So I did hear you right then. Or at least it is the same thing you told me before.”

“Yes,” said Griggin.

“And the time before that.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“So you’re sure it isn’t that you’ve found some floozie or other and want to ease your conscience?”

Griggin looked into the middle distance.

“Ye gods no. I’d never do that to you. I’ve seen Beatrice.”

“Beatrice?”

Griggin winced. “Sorry, dear. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“No? So what’s up with Beatrice?”

“Let’s not talk about it here,” said Griggin, looking round. “Like the dress?”

Lenna looked at Griggin’s face.

“Yes.”

Griggin pulled out his wallet.

 

Lenna looked at Griggin through the bubbles in her sparkling apple juice. She took a deep breath.

“Anton is cheating on Beatrice. Oh my.”

Griggin took a small sip of coffee, and nodded.

“Has been for a long time. She knows, he knows she knows, and so on.”

“Poor woman,” said Lenna.

“I’m sure she’s not completely innocent,” said Griggin.

Lenna cut off a piece of bacon, speared some egg and finally a piece of toast. She swept up some of the sauce.

“Not even new-born babies are,” she said, with her mouth full. “Kicking Mummy even before they’re born.”

Griggin looked into Lenna’s eyes, hesitating.

“She made a pass at me,” he said, finally.

Lenna’s eyes were fixed on Griggin, fork motionless between mouth and plate. Griggin looked into Lenna’s eyes, shook his head. Lenna smiled.

“I knew you wouldn’t.”

“I never would.”

“Beatrice’s boobs are larger than mine,” said Lenna. “Weren’t you the least bit tempted?”

“I’ve been tempted by creatures more adept at it than any Gnome,” said Griggin. “Not a chance.”

“So what happened?”

Griggin took a deep breath. “Well, two weeks ago we were celebrating our success with the prototype. Alcohol was involved, and I thought Beatrice wouldn’t make it home alone, so I took her.”

Lenna laughed. “Oh my. The old get-drunk-and-look-helpless trick? What sort of woman does that sort of thing?”

“Well, quite,” said Griggin. “So I found myself in her apartment, Anton wasn’t there, but she was.”

“And she flung herself at you?”

Griggin nodded. Lenna finished her drink, waved for another.

“Not that I’m complaining, but why didn’t you?” Lenna’s eyes gleamed. “And if the words ‘I love only you’ are involved somewhere, I’ll drag you home and do incredibly perverse things with you. Kids are at school.”

Griggin stared at his empty plate, thinking. Lenna’s foot touched his under the table.

“She was drunk,” he said, finally. “Not as thought as she drunk she was, but still. She wasn’t really interested in me, just in something Gnome-shaped and warm. I do feel for her pain and misery, but that’s not a good reason. I couldn’t have comforted her.” Griggin frowned. “And I’m not a temporary stop-gap measure.”

“And?”

Griggin put down his cup and grinned at Lenna. “And I would like you to drag me home and do incredibly perverse things to me.”

They left the tavern with purpose in their steps, giggling. Suddenly, Lenna stopped, put her hands on Griggin’s shoulders and looked at him.

“I know why you didn’t.”

“I do love only you.”

Lenna laughed, shook her head. “She was trying to manipulate you. To own you. Nobody does that to you. You’re too stubborn.”

“Nobody except you,” said Griggin.

“Go me,” said Lenna.


Copyright: © 2008,2009,2010 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.

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