Cyrus Gatney flipped through a picture-book as he slowly rode home on the back of his mule. The pages were adorned with woodcut pictures of griffons, grobbins and other fantastic creatures, and Cyrus stared in wonder as he imagined himself a fierce hunter. In his vision the stallion he rode moved as swiftly as a wildcat, carrying the armored man with ease as they bore down on prey.
In his reality, the steed under his rump was a glassy-eyed old mule with a decided predisposition against work. Carrying several hundred pounds on her back in the form of hairy, sweaty Cyrus Gatney was something the mule did with marked reluctance.
As he and the mule crested the last hill before home, a small farmhouse not far from Myridon, Cyrus had his eyes firmly locked onto the hand-bound book he had purchased at significant cost from a traveling priest earlier in the day. He was almost within the fence around his home when the acrid smell of smoke reached his nostrils.
Cyrus looked up to see the remnants of his home burned to the ground, save a few support beams that stood resolutely upward like exposed ribs. He was close enough to see into his sleeping room; close enough to see the blackened forms of a larger figure and a smaller one half as big; close enough to see a few unsullied tresses of golden hair on his wife’s head and the ropes that had tied her to their son.
What Cyrus Gatney was too close to see, to his eternal regret, was the lightly wooded copse which flanked the front of his farmhouse. There, a foursome of young men had been waiting for his arrival home, and they moved towards his back as Cyrus slid off his mule and dropped the forgotten picture-book from his trembling hands.
His boots caked in manure, Ulmer Nirnov swore at the pair of oxen driving his plow through the fallow field. It was spring in Shireton, and that meant a lot of work ahead. The narrow strip of land he was farming had delivered a wheat crop the past two years, and the soil needed a respite before a crop of highland beans could be planted to help restore it. Unfortunately for Ulmer, fallow ground still required plowing.
One of the oxen wasn’t cooperating today. Surprisingly, it was the older of the two, a fat brown veteran of many long spring days in the fields. Ulmer walked around the animals to face the quarrelsome beast, checking its eyes and nose for signs the ox might be sick. It appeared to be healthy, and a test of the yoke showed that it was lashed securely to the horns of both animals.
Ulmer walked back to the plow, readied himself and struck the older animal violently on the backside with a short leather whip. It let out a pained bleat and yanked the plow forward.
The rest of the long day’s toil went a little easier than had the morning. As the afternoon passed and the red fingers of dusk spread out over clouds to the west, Ulmer was still working, driving the tired, grunting beasts to exhaustion.
“You don’t have to clear the field in a single day, Ulmer.” The gentle admonishment came from Apted, an older villager and friend who had snuck up behind him. “The sun’s coming up again on the morrow.”
Ulmer began the removal of the yoke without looking at his friend. “I wasn’t aware of that,” he said.
“I see,” Apted said as he helped Ulmer unfasten the loops of rope. Apted stared at the younger man for a moment before saying anything else. “Now,” he began, “I don’t want to tell you your business …”
“Then don’t,” Ulmer said sharply.
“It needs to be said,” Apted responded, a faint hint of blood rising to the surface of his cheeks. “You ought not push Old Brown so hard this early in the season. Gunt would have your head on a pole if we lost him.”
Both men knew exactly what Manor Lord Gunt’s reaction would be if Old Brown was killed or incapacitated. The village had only five oxen left since the war, after all, and Gunt was looking for an excuse to claim a penalty from Ulmer. The plowman had managed to establish his own small farm near the forest, a freehold outside of Gunt’s holdings.
Ulmer reflected on Apted’s words, then said, “You’re right. I will make sure he’s rested tomorrow and slow up a bit. I’m sorry to have spoken to you like that.”
“None the bother,” Apted said. “Besides, you’re half likely to cripple yourself working this hard. Or Trissa will do you harm if you don’t get home for dinner!”
At the mention of going home, Ulmer looked away in the direction of a nearby stream. “Better get the oxen to water,” he said. “Good night to you.”
Apted watched him lead the animals away and then headed to the village and his own family. Once within Shireton he passed by Trissa, who was carrying fresh bread home from the common oven, her two young sons close behind. His friendly nod was met with a smile by Trissa. Her youngest, Aaron, nodded also and greeted the farmer. He had much more a mouth on him than his older brother did. “Hello, sir,” Aaron declared.
Apted gave the boy a friendly pat on the head and continued home. As he walked through his front doorway, Apted was welcomed by his wife, who had watched him passing by Ulmer’s family.
“Aaron’s growing a bit stocky, I guess,” she said.
“I guess,” Apted replied.
By the time Ulmer arrived at his home that night, it was long dark.
After seeing her sons to bed at the conclusion of a hard summer day, Trissa heard a telling snort in the garden behind her cottage. Grabbing a broom handle, she charged outside and into the rows of growing cabbage. A small white pig, intently chewing on a vetch plant, finally looked up to see a wild-eyed harridan bearing down with death in her eyes. The pig bolted from the yard, narrowly avoiding an early trip to the meal table.
At least that’s what Trissa wanted the little scavenger to think. It was protected from becoming bacon by order of Lord Gunt, who wanted to build up the village’s store of animals this year. Trissa thought the pigs were beginning to recognize this fact, and she had needed to scare them off several times the past few days alone.
Stepping back through the garden in her bare feet, Trissa stumbled and accidentally uprooted a fledgling plant as she regained her balance. Ulmer was not yet home, so she took the time to repair the damage and lightly repack the plant.
As Trissa kneeled in the yard under the gray haze of early nightfall, she was unseen by two neighbor women who walked out of an adjoining cottage. One of them was Apted’s wife Coira.
“Looks like the Nirnovs have retired early,” Coira said. Trissa was about to raise up and correct this perception but her neighbor continued to speak. “It’s a real shame what’s become of their youngest.”
“What do you mean?” asked Magdal, a gray-haired woman who had spent the winter with her son in nearby Dargon. “Little Aaron is sick?”
“No, not in the way you think,” Coira replied. “He’s not sprouting up like Gull or any other child I’ve seen. Something’s gone awry and he’s all thick and bulgy. His head’s not right anymore, as well.”
Magdal clucked in horror. Trissa, unable to muster enough will to stand up, dug her hands into the soft soil of the yard, pressing the tips of her fingers hard into the ground until her arms began to shake.
“Dearest be,” Magdal said. “Do you mean to say the little one’s a dwarf?”
“An abomination,” Coira said.
When Ulmer returned home that evening, it was a bit later than usual. He found Trissa sitting by the remains of the fire, tracing grooves in the ashes with a dull stick. Aaron and Gull were long asleep.
“You’ve been out late,” Trissa said angrily without turning to face him.
“I’m sorry, sweet,” he said, kneeling at her side and extending an arm to touch her shoulder. Trissa shrugged it away from her body as if she could catch something from the touch.
“In fact, you barely return at all before bedtime,” she continued.
“That’s not true,” Ulmer said.
“It isn’t? Name the last time you were home to play with Gull before supper.” They were facing each other now, but Ulmer could hardly look at his wife. Her pale green eyes burned a fiery emerald.
“It’s been too long,” he admitted, staring down at the ashes.
“Since before plowing,” she said. “And I haven’t mentioned Aaron yet a’tall.”
Ulmer suddenly found himself thrown into a fury, and he rose to his feet. “Nor will you!”
“We need to talk about this,” she said. Ulmer started to remove himself from the room, either to the darkness of the other side of the cottage or the darkness of the street. But Trissa said something next which made him stay.
“After all, everyone else in Shireton is talking about him, so why shouldn’t we?”
Trissa related the gist of Coira and Magdal’s conversation to Ulmer. He spat out a hateful and uncharacteristically brutal curse against the chattering women. The two sat down, Ulmer on a wooden bench and his wife on the floor, leaning against his outstretched leg. This was the first time the long-married couple had directly discussed the subject of Aaron, who had stopped growing in the manner of other children at least a year before. The five-year-old had beautiful features — his mother’s curly reddish locks and shining eyes — and an appetite for learning like his father. But it had become particularly evident with the blossoming of this spring that he was growing differently than others, his head out of proportion to his short, stocky body. Gull, only two years older than his sibling, was two heads taller and thin as a rail.
“I wanted to believe that he would come around,” Ulmer said quietly. “That’s fool’s thinking on my part.”
Trissa wiped her eyes, which were tearing up from a mixture of sadness and the spent fire’s soot. “There has to be something to do. Perhaps my father …”
“Corambis can do nothing,” Ulmer said. Trissa’s father was a notable sage and astrologer in the city of Dargon.
“You’ve spoken to him?” Trissa asked incredulously.
“When I went into the city to buy another plowshare,” Ulmer said.
“That was months ago!”
“I did not tell you because the news was not good,” he explained. “Your father took out some of his books and spent the afternoon poring over them to see what might be ailing Aaron. At first he mentioned food. He said a child that starves is like a tree — it won’t grow. But we’ve always eaten well on my share of the village crops.”
Ulmer went on, looking past his wife into a bare corner of the room. “Corambis finally decided that it needs have something to do with the humor of the blood. At a young age if a disturbance takes place it won’t be made right.” He put a comforting hand on his wife’s arm as he related what her father had concluded: “Aaron will never be half as tall as a normal man.”
The last statement washed over Trissa like a chill wind. She fell sobbing into her husband’s lap. Ulmer, a fourth- generation farmer whose ancestors helped to clear the forest and scratch out a life for themselves in Shireton, did not let himself cry. He stroked his wife’s long reddish-brown locks and whispered softly to her that things would work themselves out as the gods intended.
Shortly after sunrise, Ulmer left for the fields and Trissa cleaned up the fire pit with Aaron’s help. Gull dug for worms in the garden. Before Ulmer left, the conversation of the previous evening was not discussed, as if like the log of the fire it had been consumed and swept away. They did not talk much at all in the subsequent days.
“I beg of you, do not do this!” Blindfolded and tied up at wrist and ankle, the young man began to sob as Caruso brought his horse-drawn wagon to a stop and dismounted. The youth cast a pathetic figure, curled up in the back of the small wagon.
“Do what?” Caruso responded as he pulled a rope off a saddle hook and threw one end over a tree branch. “You should wait to find out what I’m going to do before you start begging.”
Caruso’s captive, a pale, fleshy man of about sixteen, shifted his weight against his bonds but couldn’t loose himself. “Tell me, demon!” he spat.
“In a moment, friend,” Caruso said as he finished tying a running knot in one end of the rope and fastened the other to his wagon. “If your nose was any better, you’d know exactly why this is happening.”
“My nose?” the youth asked.
“Can’t you smell it?” Caruso said, angrily grabbing the man’s shirt and pulling him upwards to a seated position. “The burned wood; the burned flesh of a woman and her child!”
Caruso ripped off the cloth obscuring the man’s vision, allowing him to see the noose hanging above and the remains of a burned-out house beyond the copse of trees. He grabbed the backside of the man’s head and turned it towards the center of the house.
“I’m surprised you don’t remember,” Caruso said. “Have you put so many wives and children to the torch that the memories run together?”
“No,” the man said, his lower lip fluttering. “I did not …”
“Silence!” Caruso brought the backside of his gloved hand sharply against the man’s face, catching the bone beneath an eye. At six feet tall, Caruso loomed above the younger man, his dark eyes ablaze with ferocity. “You came here to kill a child and his parents because the child was a dwarf. Afterward, you stole books from this farmhouse and sold them to a passing merchant in Myridon.”
Caruso removed a small leather-bound book from his saddlebags. The man stared at him in silence, then turned his eyes up towards the knotted rope a few feet away. Caruso grabbed his captive’s head again, so that he could see the inscription on the inside front cover. It read, “To my friend and fellow dreamer, Cyrus Gatney.”
Caruso stared at the face of the man and saw terror beginning to give way to resignation. “You have one chance to avoid this noose,” Caruso said with soft and steady deliberation. “Others helped you do this, with the killing and perhaps with the planning. Give these people to me and you’ll be lucky enough to wake up tomorrow. Stay silent and I’ll have you dancing from this rope in two menes.”
There was only a brief hesitation before the man began confessing. They were all soldiers home from the war. It had been a plan orchestrated by two of his friends, and the biggest incentive was the belief that Cyrus Gatney had squirreled away a sizeable fortune over the years.
“The Gatney child was a dwarf,” Caruso said. “Are you telling me that it wasn’t a cause?”
“Of course it was,” the man replied. “We figured it was doing the town a favor. They wanted the Gatneys out for a long time.”
When his questions were complete, Caruso rode back into Myridon to pay a few visits around the community. He left the captive behind, securely bound to a tree on the Gatney farm with his mouth gagged and one leg severely broken below the knee.
“Don’t go anywhere while I’m away,” Caruso told the man before mounting his horse.
Summer passed over Shireton and left behind the makings of a strong harvest. The belief in the village was that the gods were repaying the peasant farmers for their sacrifices during the war, including those of four families who had given the most and lost men in battle.
Unfortunately, Manor Lord Gunt issued an edict that quelled much of the euphoria and optimism which had sprouted up among the verdant fields. Gunt, recent inheritor of the farmlands of Shireton, announced that he would be doubling the cost of the village mill and increasing the amount of tribute he would levy on the fall’s crops. These moves were justified by hardships endured during the long war, he reasoned.
The villagers, who had endured more in wartime than young master Gunt, voiced their grievances in small clusters of people over the next few days. Ulmer normally would’ve been at the center of these discussions, and would have tried to convince his neighbors that little could be done. Gunt, like his predecessors, needed to assert his leadership over those who owed him fealty. Ulmer had lived under Gunt’s father when he tried the same many years back, and in that time the levies were eventually softened to something liveable.
Today however, Ulmer remained at a distance from the candid and unflattering discussions of Lord Gunt. Except among his mother’s family, there was a growing chill between the Nirnovs and other residents of Shireton. Some of it was self-imposed, since neither Ulmer nor Trissa could forgive those whose wagging tongues had spoken ill of their youngest boy. The rest was a realization, growing more brazen by the day, that the sight of Aaron made people uneasy.
One morning after Ulmer had left for the fallow fields, Apted called together the village children for a bird run. The ripening corn was becoming an alluring feast for magpies and other bothersome birds, and it was the task of every child old enough to walk to venture into the fields and drive them away.
Armed with anything that could be cobbled together to make noise, children eagerly left their homes to join Apted, one of the eldest members of the village. A mentor of sorts to the children, Apted was having as much fun as they were.
By the time the procession neared Trissa and Ulmer ‘s cottage, more than 20 children surrounded Apted. Several of the younger ones were disregarding his orders to refrain from noisemaking, and both Gull and Aaron heard their approach from a distance. Gull grabbed a dull piece of metal and a stick and headed out. Aaron was a little slower, and Trissa grabbed his shoulder as he left to join the crowd, an old breadpan in hand.
“Mayhap you should stay with me, little one,” Trissa said, even though she had agreed the day before that Aaron was old enough to go.
The child looked crushed at the thought he wouldn’t be included, and his mother couldn’t bear to enforce her change of heart. She patted him on the back before he could voice any objections. “Go on, then,” she said. “Gull, keep an eye on your brother!”
“I’ll be careful,” Aaron said. “You can watch from the garden and see all the blackbirds fly away!” He ran towards the gathering, an excited flurry of arms and legs around a body different from those of his peers. To see him around the other children illustrated how different he was becoming. Different, she thought, but with all the handsome innocence of a young boy beginning to grow up.
Trissa smiled to see how happy he and Gull were. As she saw Apted looking towards Aaron, she started to think he would ask the child to stay behind. He didn’t, but did glance once at Trissa as if she should have kept Aaron home.
“Have you seen this man in recent days?” Caruso held out a sketch of a dark-haired man in his early twenties with a thin nose and a clefted chin. “His name is Ergard, but he may not be using it these days.” Two merchants looked over the drawing but did not appear to know Caruso’s prey. Before leaving Myridon, Ergard had told an acquaintance he was heading for Dargon. Caruso had followed the lead to this small roadside tavern between Shireton and Dargon.
“Why do you want to know?” one asked. The men had been playing paquaratti, a popular card game, when Caruso walked up to their table at Gent’s. The small tavern had a reputation for attracting thieves and slavers.
“Unsettled business,” Caruso replied. “Finding him would be worth 100 Florens to me, so be sure to keep your eyes open.”
The men went back to paquaratti and Caruso sat down at a table across the tavern. Gent’s smelled of rain-soaked wood and old smoke, and the three were the only patrons on this dusty summer morning. Caruso removed his overcoat and folded it over a chair, still feeling the weight of seven days’ travel on his bones. He found himself craving a glass of akavit, though neither a bartender nor barmaid was anywhere in evidence.
It had been a hard summer for the finder. He had come down from the mountains when word reached him of Cyrus Gatney’s child, and Caruso’s plan was to bring back a living thing, not bury a family. Hunting down their killers was taking its toll — avenging a wrong did nothing to make him feel right.
Though the faces of the dead never strayed far from Caruso’s thoughts, he pursued his calling with a single-minded zeal. Finders were often the only friends these people had, when living or dead. Still, Caruso ruminated, it would be nice to come across more live ones.
“Caruso, right?” The messenger stood at Caruso’s shoulder, handing him a sealed tube and receiving a Floren in return. The messenger looked at the coin but did not otherwise move. Caruso pointed out to the street and stood up next to the much-shorter man. The messenger got the message.
Sitting back down at his table, Caruso unstuck the seal and unrolled the parchment.
“To Caruso the Finder from Corambis deSaavu,” began the letter. Caruso did not know the scholar but certainly knew of him, and the fact that Corambis had tracked him down was an impressive credential in its own right. The letter was comprised of several pages of densely penned script.
By lunchtime, Caruso was headed for Shireton.
Nibbling on a carrot, Trissa walked out to the front porch of her home and looked at the other villagers working in their gardens or talking in the street. There were mostly women in the range of her gaze, the men away in the fields and children out with Apted.
The absence of Aaron and Gull had left Trissa anxious and fidgety all morning. Several times she considered making the walk out to the creek where the children were likely to be. Most of the blackbirds had been spooked by now, for certain, and the sons and daughters of Shireton were probably making a grand adventure of their time away from the village. Trissa stayed home, thinking that her sons would soon return.
A few of the women across the street glanced at Trissa but did not acknowledge or greet her. Trissa Nirnov had lived in Shireton for more than 20 years, coming from Dargon to live with an aunt after her mother’s death. Her father Corambis had returned to Dargon, but Trissa did not begrudge the quieter life that was hers in the farming village. For 15 years she had been the wife of Ulmer Nirnov, and his role as village plowman made them a respected part of the small community.
Those days had passed. The year had grown increasingly harder for the Nirnovs, as the people of Shireton put a distance between themselves and the family. Making matters worse was the death in the spring of Trissa’s aged aunt, the last tie to her mother’s family, and her father’s ill-fated visit a few month’s past.
No one spoke openly with the Nirnovs about Aaron’s condition, but they were talking often about it amongst themselves. Some of their children had begun to echo the hateful and frightened chatter.
As Trissa watched Coira and a few others standing outside the common oven, she could not help but think that the woman was talking about Aaron. Living next door to each other and having husbands who were longtime friends, Trissa and Coira were confidants for years. They had not spoken to each other, aside from pleasantries, since Trissa overheard Coira’s conversation with Magdal.
To Trissa’s surprise, Coira approached her as she returned home carrying freshly baked bread. The older woman nodded curtly as she walked up to Trissa, who remained silent.
“I think we need to talk about Aaron,” Coira said.
“Do you mean Aaron, or abomination?” Trissa asked, raising her voice.
“I don’t know what you mean,” stammered Coira.
“I know the words you use to describe my child, Coira. I heard you telling Magdal all about the monster in your midst.”
“Lies!” Coira said. “But whether you want to hear it or not, the child is a dwarf. You know the stories; you know that it’s a punishment from the gods.”
“Punishment?” Trissa stepped off her porch and stared closely into Coira’s eyes. “He’s a little boy!”
“Of course he is,” Coira said. “But it is not our place to question their wisdom. He could be paying for something your father has done. For dabbling in forbidden knowledge, perhaps.”
They blamed Corambis! Trissa had not expected to hear this, but it was probably a commonly held notion among the people of Shireton. Books and magic were alien to most of them, and being alien, were feared.
“Get out!” Trissa yelled, and she could see that the argument was being closely watched by several neighbors.
Coira’s expression turned cold and openly hateful. “You’re not welcome here anymore!” she spat, turning away and leaving. “You should be glad I told you.”
Trissa spun on her heels, went back into her house to put on shoes, and quickly headed off to find Ulmer.
As she did so, Aaron and Gull were playing in the creek near Shireton with a group of younger children, as Trissa had suspected. They had ventured quite a distance away from Apted and the older members of the bird patrol, looking for a good stretch of water upon which to skip stones.
“Let’s go to Pig’s Bottom,” Sark suggested. It was the name given by the children to a pond fed by the creek further downstream. Wild pigs liked to forage in the low-lying area for roots and nuts.
“Good idea!” Gull said. “I know a great place there to throw stones.”
The others were of like mind, but as they headed further down the creek, Aaron grabbed his brother by the arm. “We should go back,” he said. “Apted will be mad.”
Sark, a year older than Gull and one of Magdal ‘s grandchildren, overheard Aaron. “You go back to Sap-Head. We’re not afraid like a little dwarf.”
“I am not!” Aaron protested. Since he had never heard the term dwarf before, his denial was about being scared. “I’ll go.”
The six children walked alongside the creek towards Pig’s Bottom, out of earshot from Apted and the others.
When Trissa found Ulmer in the field, he had stopped the oxen and was on the ground looking at his plow. “In the name of Saren what have I done?” he said to himself, exasperated, invoking the name of the Olean god of suffering. The coulter, a vertical blade that cuts a path for the plowshare, had broken on a submerged stone.
“That looks bad,” Trissa said, surprising her husband.
“It is,” Ulmer replied. The coulter seemed beyond repair. “I’ll have to see Lord Gunt about a new one. What are you doing out here?”
“Coira talked to me today about Aaron.”
Ulmer sat up and wiped dirt off his clothing. “What did she want?”
“To let me know we’re not wanted,” Trissa said.
“This is madness!” Ulmer said. “Shireton has been my family’s home for 100 years. I’ll be damned if I let them drive us out of it.”
“I don’t care about these people or what they think,” Trissa said. “I just want what’s best for us.”
“Living here is what’s best,” Ulmer said. “I’m going to call a village meeting on this tonight.”
The talk with Coira still fresh in her mind, Trissa looked intimidated at the suggestion of facing more than 100 people whose thoughts could be equally venomous. “Can that work?” she asked.
“It will,” Ulmer said, embracing his wife and running his hand through the curls of her reddish-brown hair.
After removing the yoke from the oxen, the Nirnovs made the trek back to the village, talking little. As they crossed a small wooden bridge over the creek that came from Shireton, Aaron, Gull and the children with them could have been seen in the distance, heading away from the village. But Ulmer and Trissa were not looking in that direction, having spotted Apted and a large group of children close by. They hurried towards the group but did not see Gull or Aaron.
Apted spoke first as Ulmer and Trissa approached, the concern evident in their faces. “Some of the children have strayed a bit,” he said. “I’m sure they haven’t gotten far.”
As the adults started to discuss where to look for the missing children, a stranger to the village rode up on a spotted gray horse. He was a broad and tall man with long black hair that reached his shoulders.
“I am looking for the Nirnov family,” Caruso said.
As they reached Pig’s Bottom, Gull pointed to a cliff wall on the other side of the pond. “We need to get up that rock,” he said to his compatriots. “You can throw stones a long way from up there.”
“That’s a bad place for throwing,” Aaron said. “Too high up.”
“Wrong! Let’s climb it and I’ll show you.” The others agreed with Gull, and they worked their way around the pond. Pig’s Bottom was nestled in the thick woods that surrounded Shireton, and the children had to push their way through trees and undergrowth. At one point Apted’s son Reshua surprised a sleeping pig in a leaf-strewn gully. Both animal and boy took off at the sight of each other, screaming or snorting their fright. The other children were still making fun of Reshua when they reached the top of the cliff.
The cliff was about 50 feet above the surface of the pond. A hollow had dug itself out at the base of the rock, and the water there was murky and still. No other people could be seen at the pond.
“This isn’t so high,” Reshua said, eager to make amends for being scared by the pig.
Sark and he walked over to the edge, which sloped slightly downwards. “Looks high to me,” he said.
While the others looked out onto the pond, Gull and his brother were searching for suitable stones. They had to be as wide as a coin and mostly flat, and Gull took off his shirt to hold all the ones they found.
After they distributed about two dozen stones among the six children, it didn’t take long to discover that Aaron was right about the cliff. It was too high up for a tossed stone to skip across the water. The game switched to an accuracy contest, as they tried to hit birds, a nest, rocks and one unfortunate turtle.
Reshua was the first to run out of things to throw. As the other children were looking for a second turtle that Sark had spotted, Reshua saw a fist-sized rock he could pull out of the side of the cliff. He stepped to the edge, leaned over and tugged at it. The ground gave way beneath his feet.
“Sark!” Reshua screamed for his best friend as he fell off the cliff and plummeted into the water. Sark was first to the edge, but it was more precarious footing than he anticipated. Gull grabbed at his shoulders but couldn’t catch Sark before he went over the edge also, slamming into the rocky face of the cliff once before falling into the water.
Gull pushed Aaron a few feet away from the precipice and told him not to move. He did the same for another younger boy. Gull and a boy his age then scrambled along the side of the cliff until they could reach a safe place to descend.
“Help me!” either Sark or Reshua pleaded. “It’s deep here!”
Several minutes passed before Gull and his companion reached the water. They found Sark at the base of the cliff, blood oozing from a cut where his skull met the back of his neck. Sark was unconscious as Gull pulled him out, and his breathing was labored.
Reshua could not be seen. Gull took off his shoes and dove into the water. He was a good swimmer, having learned the past summer at this same pond. But it took more than 10 dives before he found Reshua and pulled him out of the dark water.
Reshua was dead. Gull finally let himself think about it as he reached the water’s edge with the body. He began sobbing and couldn’t make himself stop.
At the top of the cliff, Aaron sat motionless, listening to his brother but too afraid to look. “What’s wrong, son?” Apted was the first to find the children, having heard Gull’s sobbing. He grabbed Aaron by the shoulder and turned him around.
“Sark and Reshua fell,” Aaron stammered, pointing to the edge.
Apted quickly looked to see what Aaron meant, believing it must surely be a minor accident. When he saw Reshua’s prone form, it was obviously too late to save him.
His youngest son, the one who most reminded Apted of his father, was gone. Apted looked at Gull, sitting in the water below with his head in hands, and turned around to see Aaron. The dwarfen child looked up at him and began to tremble. “They’re not hurt, right?” Aaron asked. “Right?”
Despite his wife’s protestations, Apted was not one of the villagers who believed Aaron’s affliction was a divine punishment visited upon his family by the gods. He was not comfortable around the child, admittedly, but thought people would grow used to the dwarf.
Apted now saw that his beliefs were an affront to the gods. The people of Shireton had ignored the portent of Aaron’s birth, and it cost them dearly.
“This is your fault!” Apted raged against the little child at his feet. He picked up Aaron and held the boy over the precipice, the child’s legs dangling above the water and rough-edged rocks. Apted looked downward for the right place to drop the boy. “Why didn’t I see this sooner?”