She looked up at the shiny new flier, with its gently rendered woodcut from one of their early snaps. She frowned just a moment, wishing the artist had picked one of the snaps that hadn't shown her “levers over cogwheel” due to a failed levitation spell. The etching in the background did add a bit of whimsy to the event. Even Grommet had to admit that the artist had masterfully captured the expression on her face, caught just as she realized she was going into the lake, again.
“No rust no foul,” she chuckled, until a guard knelt next to her and a heavy gauntlet clad hand fell on her shoulder. “Greasy widget!” She swore in Gnomish.
“Miss Cogswaddle, I think you should come with me, please. You know you're not to be hanging around the bulletin boards.”
Grommet sighed, “Yes, Constable.”
The Constable bent down and scooped up Grommet's pile of new fliers, all but hidden by the old one, neatly placed on top. They marched in silence towards the Stockades.
Grommet sat in the too large chair, scooted to the edge so she could dangle her feet over, and as the watch Sargent grunted over the pile of papers dropped on his desk, she began to swing her legs to and fro, keeping time to a traditional Gnomish Reel with the all too appropriate line “Nicked by the patrol and dropped in the hole.”
“Look, I wasn't really taking anything down...”
The Sargent held up his hand, signaling for silence. Grommet shut up. He looked up from the paperwork in front of him, then over to the old, faded fishing excursion announcement. He picked up the aged sheet, looked at it, looked at her, shook his head and put it back on top of the pile of pristine new fliers without even looking at them. He then turned his grizzled attention back to the paper work on his desk.
Grommet fidgeted, trying to swing her right foot two for every three of her left.
He grunted. “Please stop that.”
“What? I'm being quiet.”
Her stomach did a flip. Dealing with Stormwind justice had always been frightening; everything was built to make the giant humans even more imposing. She'd gotten off with a fine, and some volunteer time healing at one of the many orphanage hospitals, neither had been particularly bad, but she'd also been banned from “loitering at bulletin boards or places for the posting of public bills.”
The last restriction had seemed particularly harsh as the delightful things were everywhere in the city. The patrol seemed, lately, to delight in bringing her in, too. Adding to her collection of bills, posters and fliers had become very difficult in Stormwind, until she discovered that most of the children posting the items would happily sell a copy to her for just a few pennies. Some of the children had even taken to bringing her samples first, showing up in the curio shop first thing in the morning, to the annoyance of her landlords.
Grommet began to fidget, again. This time trying to make her feet circle in opposite directions, out of phase.
The sargent squeezed his eyes shut and had just cleared his throat to speak when one of Stormwind's finest stepped into the alcove and handed him a note. In response, the Sargent stood, handed Grommet's stack of papers to the woman and gestured after her. “Follow officer Versham, we're going to let yours deal with you this time.”
Grommet stopped swinging her legs and hopped down off the chair. She really didn't like the sound of that.
The fact that the Sargent broke out laughing as soon as they were out of sight didn't settle her stomach any.
Grommet followed the silent Officer Versham, wishing she could put the old flier on the bottom of the stack. They made their way lower into the labyrinth, then headed down a low ceilinged corridor Grommet had never seen before. She contemplated a quick mind control effort on the guard but just as rapidly discarded the notion, no one had ever stayed friendly after she'd tried that trick on them. The silent treatment was beginning to wear on her.
“Where are we going?” She asked in her cheeriest voice.
“You'll see.” Officer Versham looked back at her. The woman obviously had children of her own, and Grommet's efforts to seem cheery broke upon severe mom-unit face.
“I'm not going to like this, am I?”
“We're really not in the business of getting people to like us here.” Odd, Grommet noticed the severe mom face also include severe “I hope you learn from this,” face.
“Yes, I suppose not.” In Gnomish, Grommet sang, under her breath, “Nicked by the patrol and dumped in the hole.”
They arrived at a branch of the Stockades Grommet had never seen before. The guard had to stoop to go through the door. Soon they were at a small office. A Gnome sat behind a Gnome sized workbench, absorbed in a small stack of folios, field reports, Grommet recognized the color and size of the after action reports. She had filled them in often enough.
Her guard set the stack of fliers on the edge of the workbench, and indicated that Grommet should sit in the chair in the middle of the room, alone in a bright circle of light which illuminated the dust making it appear as though it was a solid pilaster surrounding the chair. Grommet imagined the dust was thick enough to make it difficult to breath as she sat in the Gnome sized chair.
The guard stood near the door, waiting for the Gnome at the workbench to look up from his reports. He glanced over at the pile of fliers, flipped through them. Then waved the guard away. He leaned back in his chair and swiveled it to face Grommet over the workbench. He steepled his thumbs and interlaced the three fingers on each hand. Grommet couldn't help notice that the middle finger on his left hand was a knuckle shorter than the others. For some reason, this detail bothered her more than the closed leather medical case on the end of the workbench, or the brown stains on the floor and chair, or the fact that the chair had build in restraints, and an odd crackling ozone smell about it. The Hooded Gnome looked at her in silence for a time.
“Nicked by the patrol and shoved in a hole.” She sang to herself, none to happily. It was only beginning to occur to her that she was in the hot seat of a GCO interrogation room. She pouted, that seemed a bit unfair for a loitering charge.
“Miss, er, Fulcrum Initiate Grommet Cogswaddle, is it.”
“Yes, uh sir.” Strange Hooded Gnomes addressing one by one's full title was never a good sign. At least he wasn't twirling the ends of his mustache, that would have been a Very Bad Sign. “Who are you?” She blurted out, trying to make the conversation go in a friendlier direction. All she managed to do was sound desperate.
“Gnomish Covert Ops, Internal External Affairs. I go by Agent Seven and a Half.” He used his mangled hand to twirl the end of his mustache.
Grommet's heart sank. She'd heard that name, in whispers. It was said he'd bitten his own fingertip off on a dare. That he could made veteran agents cry. She believed it, Grommet could all ready feel tears welling up in her eyes. “I was just replacing an old flier with a new one, for the Provisioners, for my Uncle Axelpyre.”
Seven and a Half looked over at the pile of fliers, the barest glimpse. “I know that.” He leaned forward to his workbench and opened a rather thick folio, its cover was a color that indicated Grommet wasn't cleared to know what it contained. “Would this be the Uncle who vanished for nearly two decades? The one whose known associates include,” he traced his fingers down a rather long multi-columned list, “an undead Arch Magus and several Tauren Druids and Shamen?”
“Uh,” Grommet's heart hammered in her chest, “He was human once, the Magus, the undead one, a friend of the family. And Mt. Hyjal.... Everyone knows Tauren Druids and Shamen, I hear the place is crawling with them.” She winced, worried that last bit had been a little too flippant.
Seven and a Half opened another folio, much thinner, but bearing the same color coded cover.
“Do you know what nickname the Dwarves of the 76th Rifles have given you.?”
The question caught Grommet completely by surprise. She lifted her toes off the floor and her legs began to swing in short agitated strokes. (Grommet is short, even for a Gnome.) She thought back to her time outside of Skorn.
There'd been whispers. Whispers that stopped the moment she entered a room. That and the fact that they had never called her anything but “Fulcrum Grommet” where she could hear. The behavior had actually bothered her. Everyone else had a nickname, Cookie Harboz, Stinky of Stormwind, Bait-boy Lassiter, Slydog Wolfrider, Fishmonger.... But not Grommet. “Hey there, Fulcrum Grommet!” was as close to what they called her when relaxed, usually it was “Fulcrum Initiate Cogswaddle,” or “Midwife Cogswaddle.” The Dwarves of the 76th had been formal with her from the very start. She'd just assumed that they treated all their medics similarly. It would appear that was an erroneous assumption.
The light was too bright for her to make out what was written in the folio.
“I, uh, I don't really know.” She forced herself to stop fidgeting. “I don't think I had one.”
Seven and a Half cocked one eyebrow at her. “Really?”
“Not that they called me.”
Seven and a Half peered at her, until he was sure she wasn't going to say more. He turned a page in the folio, without glancing down at it.
“What was your assignment there?”
“Field Medic, Prevent and Patch.”
“And when you got to the field.”
“It was all mopping up. Preventing the Scourge from getting the Vrykul .”
“Uh, by dismembering the ones that were killed, before the Scourge necromancers could get them.”
“Were there a lot of deaths.”
Grommet paused, putting the mission in order in her mind. “Not, no, not at first.”
Seven and a Half leaned back in his chair, his face falling into shadow. “Go on.”
Grommet noticed the scratching of a quill on parchment from a dark corner for the first time. It bothered her that she couldn't tell if it was a person or a machine. “The mopping up was going slow.”
She paused, a moment later the scratching stopped, whatever it, or whoever it was, her words were being recorded. She was glad she hadn't succumbed to her Uncle's habit of exaggerating everything. She realized that she desperately wanted to see what was in his file on the edge of the workbench, to own it, to be able to handle the what appeared to be the scores of hand lettered pages.
With a start she brought herself back to her questioner, “Our squad leader, Sargent Basstein, felt we needed to do more, to, to reduce the threat. These Dwarfs are tough, and they really didn't need much protection from me, or patching, for that matter.”
The quill scratched, then came to a halt, Grommet felt like she could hear it poised to continue. Seven and a Half said nothing, he reached out and turned a page of his folio. His mangled hand slipped back into darkness. Grommet still could not make out what was written in the folio through the glare.
“The Vrykul , they really didn't seem to like Gnomes. Or at least not me. So we came up with a plan.”
“We?” Seven and a Half's mangled hand emerged from the darkness, tracing words on a page that Grommet couldn't read.
“Well, me, more so, I suppose.”
They sat in silence as the quill stopped recording Grommet's words. She wondered if this was what all the trouble was about. But it seemed odd, there was nothing she could find in her activities during the mission that was out of place.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time. I ran up to them, and they followed me back to the squad.”
“A classic ambush strategy, I'm surprised it worked so well.”
“I really think they didn't like Gnomes.”
“And you had another job, in addition to being bait?”
“Yes, they gave me a big machete to dismember the bodies so the necromancers couldn't raise them in one piece.”
“Did you use it?”
“Uh, no, it was unwieldy, too big really. So I used my field surgery. They were very large, it was a great opportunity to study their anatomy.”
“So you vivisected them in the field?”
“No! I would nev... they were all ready dead, or mostly...they would have been, soon. How could you see the movement of the heart or....” Grommet paused. What was practical for a Gnome, she had learned, wasn't always seen that way by other races. “None of them were conscious. I sure, or fairly sure, about that.”
“So you surgically reduced them to useless bits?”
“Please answer out loud for the scribe-o-matic.”
So, it was a machine. At least there was only one person judging her. “Yes.” Grommet replied timidly.
“Slow, but effective. Was there anything else while you were in the field.”
“Wolves, they have huge guard wolves. I thought it would possible to turn them against the Winterskorn, make them think of the Vykrul as food, you understand.” She paused, remembering the suddenness of the insight. Her perceived lack of time. Was that enough to trigger this inquest? “It was an impromptu experiment, and I didn't have everything to do proper controls. But I thought it might help the war effort.”
“Did it work?”
“The Vykrul chops and hocks slowed them down, but they always came after us later. So, no, not really; we kept having to kill the test subjects.” Grommet paused, it had been nothing short of a failure of an experiment. “If we could have started them when they were puppies, maybe?”
“Interesting. I will have to send that suggestion on, there's a kernel of something useful there.”
There was a long pause while Seven and a Half and Grommet waited for the Scribe-o-matic to catch up.
“Did you ever stop to think what the soldiers would think of your activities?”
“No, I mean, it was certainly more civilized than hacking them to bits, and we learned lots of useful information!”
“Yes, yes, we can't argue that, it was a rather inelegant solution. Your after action report was fascinating, with many useful tidbits.” Seven and a Half rolled into the light and opened up a folio turning it to the edge of the workbench nearest Grommet. Grommet recognized her own precise but slightly ornate handwriting. (Her Uncle's influence, she was certain.) There were several other notes in the margins, written in a few different hands. It appeared that she wasn't going to be punished, after all.
“Given what we've seen here, and what your commanders reported, we want to make a recommendation before you go out on your next assignment.”
“Somewhere without Scourge, perhaps?” Grommet didn't know where she got the courage to come out and ask.
“Agent Cogswaddle, this is in addition to your normal field duties, I'm afraid. You need to learn more about how our allies interact... socially.”
Grommet frowned. That didn't really sound like an assignment. Perhaps she was being punished after all.
“I've spoken with Provisioner Axelpyre, and your handler in the GCO Medical Corps. Your manner as a Midwife is exemplary, it needs to inform all of your interactions, even in the field, to some extent, at least when in allied operations. We have convinced your Uncle and the previous leadership to allow you to lead this year's Fishing Excursions, with a eye towards learning how to interact more effectively with our allies. Think of this as a personal growth opportunity.”
“What?” She was being punished!
“Come now, it's only once a week, and you can expense your travel costs to the GCO.”
“Bu- but, I fish to relax, to visit with friends...” She thought to herself, “To forget the undead, the injuries, the death, the sobriety.”
“Exactly, and you have learned what they expect from friends and how to behave with them, yes?”
Grommet thought a moment. That was true, she had learned to modify some behaviors when dealing with human and elf companions. “But to be in charge, that changes the whole thing.”
“Yes, it does. Fulcrum Cogswaddle, you have a great many people expecting a great deal of you. Not just because of what you are, but because of who you are.”
“I'm still Fulcrum Initiate. I can't tell you how many times I had to tell the Dwarfs of the 76th to get that straight.”
Seven and a Half stood up and unrolled one of the black medical cases. Only, the tools were not of the sort any doctor would use in normal practice. Grommet shuddered. From the end of the case, he withdrew a bright silver chain. Dangling from it was a silver wheel on a gold axle. The symbol of the Order of the Infinite Lever, her own order, the jewelry that indicated that one was a full Fulcrum of the order.
“You're Fulcrum Seven and a Half?” Grommet forgot to close her mouth right away, sliding out of the chair and standing unsteadily, she moved closer.
“No, no, not at all, this is yours, Fulcrum Cogswaddle.” In Gnomish he added their short formal blessing, “May your effort balance your load.” Seven and a Half made his way around the workbench and offered a better view of the amulet to Grommet. “Be happy in your work, and for this year, organizing fishing expeditions is part of your work.” It was then that she caught a glimpse of the Gold on Gold emblem dangling at Seven and a Half's neck.
“Y... You're Axle Seven and a Half?” Grommet stuttered, confused. “Bu, But, this place, this...” she looked at the threateningly medical like tools, and frowned, “work.”
“Is vital, I'm afraid. Push or pull, lift or press, we all add momentum to the Great Gear.” He walked behind Grommet and placed the symbol around her neck, then whispered, “Our kind of work needs to be done with balance in mind, or it leads to very dark unbalanced places.”
He walked around to face Grommet. “I'm sorry for the unusual Ordination exam. But since the loss of your parents, and the Servant of the Wheel himself gone missing, we've had to make do.”
Grommet had pictured her Ordination being in front of the Gnomes of Tram Maintenance Hatch 104, her makeshift congregation. Imagined her Uncle Axelpyre placing a ring of flowers atop her head, and then there would be a celebration that lasted late into the evening.
Seven and a Half could see the disappointment on Grommet's face. “Time enough for celebration when the work is done. Come, let's get you out of this place.”
“But my arrest, the charges?”
“Your Uncle has generously agreed to pay your bail, and your fines. It's done, think nothing of it.” He led her through the short hallways, even deeper into the tunnels before heading up a narrow flight of steps. “I'd like to interview him sometime, there is much we'd like to know.” Grommet shuddered, she didn't believe her Uncle would submit willingly to an interview with the GCO, not after the way he was treated at the Hearthglen inquest.
When they stepped out into the night, they were several blocks away from the Stockades. Guards paced, mail jingling, through their rounds in the damp and slightly fish smelling air of night, they gave the pair of Gnomes not a second glance.
She turned to Axle Seven and a Half, “Wait, my nickname, you implied I had a nickname?”
Seven and a Half smiled a crooked knowing smile at Grommet. “You should think about this work, truly. You understand more than you know.”
She nodded, apparently agreeing, but she knew that she could never interrogate another Gnome in a place like that. “Please, what was it?”
Seven and Half held up his finger, showing the angry scar that demarcated its missing length. “Shorn off in a milling accident when I was a journeyman in a team of nine; total losses: eight dead, and one short length of a single digit. I never let them regenerate it because the lesson was too valuable. I had the least of injuries, but of the nine of us, my pain lasted the longest.”
Grommets eyes grew wide.
“Not what you heard, is it.”
Grommet mouthed, “no.”
“Keep that in mind, Butcher of Skorn.”