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Lines of Blood: A History of the Gnome
Bloodline Withycombe

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Some call the gnome an unwelcome guest.
Who could think that the tall ones know best?

I take, but I give in unequal degree:
Always two for the host, and one for me.

--Withycombe doggerel


When Sjandor Withycombe was a child, no one predicted he was destined for greatness. Many, including his parents, believed he was destined for an early grave. As a curious toddler, he would find his way into a den of hibernating bears or to the center of half-frozen pond. A nearsighted and frail child, he found himself unsuited for participation in archery competitions and the other games that taught young gnomes the ways of the forest. Instead, he spent his time studying the way of things, and looking for ways to improve them. Sometimes his inventions showed signs of genius. After observing the mating behavior of a certain fish, for instance, he redirected a stream down a graduated falls he built with some friends. As the fish tired of leaping the steps, the gnomes were able to grab them at will with bare hands. Other schemes were less successful, however. In one infamous episode, he actually strapped himself to a kite with the intention of dropping stones on a herd of grazing elk. He was a young gnome, and he healed quickly. "More quickly than is strictly speaking good for him,” his father liked to say.

So it was that when young Sjandor Withycombe stood before the gathered bloodlines and proposed an urban life for the gnomes, those who knew him best were persuaded least. Lacking the character and rhetorical gifts of his cousin Doneagil Basingtoke, Withycombe knew that he would persuade--if at all--on the merits of his proposal alone. He well understood that what he proposed was more than mere transplantation--that it would require a complete transformation of the race, as the gnomes adjusted in body, mind, and spirit to an urban environment. Withycombe did not harangue his listeners, but merely outlined the pros and cons as he saw them and allowed each gnome to judge the proposal on its merits. This respect for individual judgment persuaded many that Sjandor Withycombe was the right gnome at the right time.

Thrust from obscurity to the forefront of history, Sjandor Withycombe led nearly a third of his much-diminished race out of the forests in the direction of the nearest human settlement. His regret at leaving kith and kin mingled with curiosity and a strong determination to realize his dream as Withycombe spent the days and weeks of travel formulating a more specific plan. He knew from scouting reports that the humans were fearful of strangers. Even those who accepted individuals of other races were unlikely to welcome an entire tribe of wayfaring gnomes, a race of which the humans had little or no previous knowledge, looking for food and shelter. He knew that the gnomes could infiltrate the city and pilfer what they needed, but this would be no permanent solution. Eventually the humans would discover such parasites, and dire consequences would follow. He needed a plan under which the gnomes would be physically present within the human city, but not a recognized part of its population; under which they could take what they needed to survive and yet ensure that the humans would disregard their pilferage; and under which they could learn from the humans a variety of skills that would make the change of habitat worthwhile.

Late in Eoantos of -125, the gnomes approached the town of Tamzyrr. Not yet an imperial capitol, Tamzyrr had a large population, an agricultural surplus, and a wide selection of professional guilds and artisans’ workshops; most importantly for Withycombe’s plan, it was built over deep topsoil. From the shelter of a densely wooded copse, the gnomes began to dig a tunnel toward the city walls, lining their subterranean road with brick as they moved beneath fallow fields and the wooden palisade surrounding the city. The gnomes tunneled with great vigor and speed. Reaching the city itself, they built brick-lined apartments underneath human neighborhoods, and beneath business districts they built their workshops. In short order, they mirrored the human city with a complete underworld town of their own. On the first anniversary of their arrival, the gnomes gathered in Sjandor Withycombe’s personal compound, which was built beneath the Tamzyrr City Hall (a building that would later be torn down to make way for an imperial palace). In those grand chambers, still some of the finest examples of burghal gnome architectural design, Sjandor Withycombe delivered his first address as head of a new race:

“This is all the welcome you’re ever likely to receive. In the sky-lit world above lies adventure, knowledge, and wealth, but also certain death for any of you careless enough to be seen. Remember our purpose. We will learn from our hosts, and then help them in whatever small ways we can. Of the value that we add to human endeavors, take one-third: no more and no less. Then our hosts will be glad of our presence, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. Seek out every means of improving our lot. I will serve as your leader for one more year, after which we shall meet again. At that time, let the one who has done the most for our race be chosen head gnome for the year to follow.”

Accepting Withycombe's plan with unanimous acclaim, the gnomes set about their tasks with the energy and enthusiasm that were to become characteristic of their race.

They began by studying human agriculture. The size and stealth of the gnomes gave them every opportunity to observe the process of clearing, plowing, seeding, and reaping the crops. They watched as vermin and disease attacked the plants, diminishing the yield. Using the knowledge of plants and animals they imported from the forest, the gnomes improved irrigation and drainage, they trapped marauding birds and small mammals, they imported worms to aerate soil and bees to pollinate, and they spread fertilizing and insecticide potions over the plants. When, in short order, the quality improved and the yield increased, the gnomes began to break into the store rooms and liberate a share of the food, thinking of themselves not as burglars but as co-workers due a living wage.

The gnomes knew they could not take all that was needed to feed the race directly from the fields and barns. Instead, each gnome was responsible for providing for his own needs and the needs of his infant children. Some stole food from the fields, but others stole from homes and workplace pantries. As a result, the pilferage was slow and steady and never significant enough to cause a hue and cry. Another result of this odd method of procurement can be seen to this day in the fondness of Withycombe gnomes for stew. In most burghal gnome compounds, the cook will maintain a kettle of hodge-porridge slowly stewing day and night. Whatever food comes into the household goes into the common stewpot, so that today’s flavor always owes something to the taste of yesterday.

In addition to fields and barns, the gnomes also infiltrated human homes. They observed housekeeping and the maintenance of lawns and gardens. Some gnomes adopted deserving families as their special hosts, and they performed small tasks on their behalf. A window left open to the cold might be closed in the night, or shoes left muddy might be found clean in the morning. Gardens tended by gnomes became the envy of human neighborhoods, and many a person credited with a green thumb found herself receiving unjust blame for not sharing lawn maintenance secrets with the neighbors.

The gnomes also studied the humans at work. From places of hiding in shops and guild halls, they learned every skill known to their hosts. Individual gnomes adopted particular craftsmen, always seeking out the most worthy persons for their special attentions. They performed small housekeeping tasks, making sure that the shop or workshop was clean and inviting for customers, but more importantly they sought out subtle ways to improve the quality of goods and services. A gnome working with a tailor, for instance, might tighten the seams or elaborate on the embroidery of clothing, earning the craftsman a better reputation and increased custom. As the shop prospered, the gnome would exact her share of the increased profits, sometimes in the form of goods but eventually also in the form of silver coin. The gnomes eventually discovered another form of exchange in colorful faceted stones, and the love affair between burghal gnomes and gems began. To this day, burghal gnomes prefer to do business with gems rather than the bulkier and heavier silver coin; rarely will a burghal gnome leave home without a few gems for daily purchases. Withycombe gnomes are expert and innovative gem cutters, and the hallmark of their jewelry is the simple setting that shows off the sparkle of the gem (the quality they value most).

The burghal gnomes acknowledged that the humans, with their advantages in size and strength, could perform certain tasks with far greater ease than the gnomes could ever hope to duplicate. They sought every means to compensate for their physical limitations, and innovation and experimentation became characteristic of their race. In their workshops, they harnessed every available form of power: they tapped the power of earthnodes to experiment with various forms of magic; they directed underground streams through pipes into their homes and workshops for necessary use but also to turn grinding wheels; they tapped boiling springs as sources of heat, but also as a source of steam power for their machines. The gnomes learned to multiply and direct mechanical forces, first with simple machines like the lever and the pulley, and then with mechanisms of increasing complexity. They built practical machines like the clock and artistic machines like the mobile, but in time the purest expression of their love for engineering and design would appear in wondrous toys, puzzles, and games.

The workshop of a burghal gnome is a place of great noise and industry, with the whirr of spinning wheels, the hiss of steam, and the crackle of harnessed lightning. Burghal gnomes are notoriously casual in their dress, especially in the grip of a particularly vexing project, when a splash of grease or oil might go unnoticed for days or weeks at a time. Between projects, however, their persons and their workshops are meticulously clean. Unfortunately, it’s only the rarest occasion when a burghal gnome is between projects.

As their culture increasingly focused on the workplace and home workshop, the gnomes began to experience a radical change in their personal lives. Nowhere is this more visible than in marriage. Over the centuries, Withycombe gnomes have come to look at marriage as an extension of work, as a task they undertake for the good of the race rather than for personal satisfaction. In their marriage vows, they promise not to love and to cherish the positive qualities of their mates, but to fix specific faults in their partners. They spend their marriage tinkering with each others’ habits and personalities, in the hope of making each other better gnomes. As a consequence of this unique arrangement, burghal gnomes of bloodline Withycombe almost never divorce. Their differences are seen signs of the strength of the coupling, and some Withycombe gnomes go so far as to choose their partners on the basis of their incompatibility. (It is important for outsiders to note that Withycombe gnomes do love their mates, even though the basis for their love might be different from your own.)

Withycombe childrearing is also inextricably tied to the cultural focus on craft. At a very early age, children are apprenticed outside the home, as the emotions between parent and child are considered a deterrent to workshop discipline. As a parting gift from the opposite-sex parent, the young gnome receives a leather tool belt branded with the family and bloodline name; the same-sex parent provides the child with a tool etched with the surname of the new apprentice. As the child gains knowledge and skill in a craft, the master makes additional gifts in recognition of significant achievement. When adolescence turns to young adulthood, most gnomes have filled their belts with the tools of their trade and they stand ready for the arvyad’gno, or the “venture of fate.” In this coming of age trial, each gnome is left alone in a room empty but for a burlap bag. Using the tools in their belt and their native wit, the gnomes must assemble something from the parts and pieces found within in the bag. Some rumors suggest that each master creates her own task item, while others insist that every burghal gnome since the days of Sjandor Withycombe has assembled the same item. The Withycombe gnomes hold secret the exact description of this artifact, but many have revealed that words etched on the metal pieces serve as a clue to the order of assembly as they come together to form an aphorism or short parable of Withycombe wisdom.

Gnomes who successfully complete the arvyad’gno receive the title of journeyman, and they are free to pursue their craft independently. Journeymen typically work for some dozens of years, until they have accumulated the experience and capital necessary to buy out a retiring master (and his or her workshop). Gnomes who fail to complete the arvyad’gno in the allotted time bear the stigma for all of their days. They rarely rise to positions of authority, and they usually perform only menial tasks within the burghal gnome community. At the conclusion of the ceremony, both successful and unsuccessful applicants are marked with their own blood as a sign of adult membership in the bloodline. Withycombe gnomes, many of whom choose to tattoo the bloodmark into their skin, bear a sign of two straight lines with a diamond at either side.

The centrality of the workshop also manifests in the religious life of the Withycombe gnomes. Eonak the craftsman has many adherents, as does Tonis the fleetfooted, patron of thieves. Many Basingstoke gnomes also worship Lumnis and Fash’lo’nae for their connection to the search for knowledge. Like their Basingstoke relations, the Withycombe gnomes celebrate their most important holiday as Founder’s Day, which for the Withycombe marks the anniversary of Sjandor Withycombe’s first speech to the burghal gnomes in Tamzyrr. On Founder’s Day, the burghal gnomes clean themselves up and leave their workshops to visit with family and friends. Presents are exchanged in honor of the gods, and to showcase the work that’s been done over the previous year.

It is on Founder’s Day that the Withycombe select a head gnome for the year to follow. The burghal gnomes have long been settled in their cultural ways, and the criteria for head gnome have changed subtly over time. The gnome who does the most to improve the lot of the race is now seen as the gnome who produces the most ingenious device, whether practical or whimsical in nature. The role of head gnome is largely ceremonial. He (or, rarely, she) visits workshops of master craftsmen to kibbutz on their designs. The input of the head gnome is tolerated, but rarely welcome, as many gnomes give in to an excess of pride after winning the competition for the title. The only serious business of the head gnome comes when a particular city’s population reaches excess, and a pioneering group applies for permission to establish a colony in a new human city or town. For day-to-day business, the burghal gnomes are governed by family elders, who in most cases are also workshop masters.

Withycombe lives end with very little ceremony. After a brief visitation of family and friends, corpses are wrapped in anonymous shrouds and deposited in brick-lined vaults deep beneath the city. There the bodies lie, unmarked and unacknowledged, until even the bones turn to dust. In the course of time, as space for new bodies becomes scarce, the gnomes sweep the remains of the eldest generation from the crypt and spread them into the winds that course through the night in the skylit world up above. Only then is a funeral held, and the gnomes recount the major accomplishments of the lost generation. It is believed that this system provides for historical objectivity, which might be threatened should the immediate relatives of the dead be called upon to judge their work.

Withycombe gnomes have little in their culture that might be called art. While they mimic the artisan skills of the humans, their production tends to be derivative at best. Some of their fancy-dress clothing, however, bears a unique style of embroidery design consisting of interlocking geometric shapes. Basingstoke gnomes also favor the mechanical reproduction of nature, in items like the bejeweled metal songbirds sold on the Dhu Gillywack. For the Basingstoke gnomes, such feats of design and construction represent the very height of aesthetic achievement. The Withycombe gnomes are also excessively fond of poetry; but where the forest gnomes favor the imagistic lyric, the burghal gnomes value only rhyme, often at grave cost to meter and sense.

Burghal gnomes of Bloodline Withycombe have infiltrated most of the major cities and towns of the human empire, as well as select smaller outposts on the fringes of civilization. It is far more likely for burghal gnomes to live openly in these smaller towns, where the prejudicial human laws are not as strictly enforced.

 

 

 



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