What has gone before: In the village of Shireton, five-year-old Aaron Nirnov isn’t growing up like other children — he’s a Dwarf. Many in the farming community consider it punishment from the gods, and Aaron ‘s mother Trissa is told by Coira, a neighbor, that the family is no longer welcome. With other children, Aaron and his brother Gull snuck off to Pig’s Bottom to skip stones across the lake. While there, two of the group fell into deep water, and one drowned — the son of Coira and Apted. Apted was the first to find the missing children and his dead son. Apted cursed himself for ignoring talk that Aaron is a bad omen. He decided Aaron must die to appease the gods. As Apted raged, a stranger approached Trissa and Ulmer, far from the lake …
“I was sent by Corambis,” the dark-haired man said to Ulmer and Trissa as he dismounted his horse. He introduced himself as Caruso while the three of them walked a few steps away from Apted and the children nearby. The man handed Trissa a pair of golden earrings. “I understand these were your mother’s,” he said.
Trissa looked at the stranger with consternation. A vague recollection of her mother putting on the jewelry both comforted and saddened her. “Why did he give them to you?”
“He wanted to show that you can trust me,” Caruso said. “He came across the earrings recently, I’m told.”
Ulmer, more wary than his wife of the rough-looking man, spoke up. “What reason would Corambis have to send you here?”
“I may be able to help with your child Aaron,” Caruso said. “I have much experience with people like him.”
Ulmer and Trissa exchanged glances and Trissa excitedly took hold of her husband’s hand. “We should discuss this,” Trissa said, “but first we have to find the children. Who knows what mischief they’ve gotten into.”
Caruso tried not to show it, but a familiar feeling sank into his stomach, and he worried that this might be another time he had come too late. “They’re missing?” he asked.
With a maniacal look on his face and eyes as wide as coins, Apted held Aaron Nirnov over the edge of the cliff. All he had to do was let go and the child would be dashed against the rocky side of the precipice as he fell fifty feet into murky water. “You killed my son,” he said to the terrified child. “You killed him!” Aaron struggled feebly to hold onto the man’s arms. The look in the child’s eyes was that of a rabbit frozen by fear at the charge of a predator.
Apted ‘s youngest son Reshua lay dead on the rocks below, and his best friend Sark was motionless at his side. Apted had joined others in a search for the children, who had strayed from an outing scaring blackbirds away from the crops. He expected to find the strays somewhere around Pig’s Bottom, a small lake not far from Shireton. He knew it was one of Reshua ‘s favorite places to roam.
When he found them, Apted was faced with the sight of Gull and Aaron Nirnov alive while Reshua, and perhaps Sark, were dead. He blamed Aaron, the dwarven child whose affliction was said to be divine punishment. He shook the child, finding it hard to carry out his fevered wish to harm him.
At the base of the cliff, Gull saw what was happening to his brother and scrambled through overgrowth up the side of the cliff. He didn’t yell, afraid that it would cause Apted to drop Aaron. It would take minutes to reach them.
Blood rising to Apted ‘s face made him look crimson-skinned and devilish, the living embodiment of nightmare to Aaron. “Let go, please,” he sobbed. Trissa had taught Aaron to address adults with respect, and he added a word he had forgotten to say. “Sir,” he said weakly.
The gentility of the word, spoken from a child to the adult who was trying to kill him, was like a slap to Apted ‘s face. He put Aaron down a safe distance from the cliff’s edge.
“I’m sorry, child,” he mumbled, then turned away. Apted climbed down to see his son and Sark, passing Gull without saying a word. Sark roused as Apted was wrapping the child’s injured head with strips of cloth torn off his shirt. Apted carried the youth, and the body of Reshua, back to the village.
Gull, Aaron and the other two boys followed him at a distance.
It was long past dusk when a large group of people approached the Nirnov’s cottage. Ulmer and Trissa had been sitting with their sons, hoping to calm them down and find out what had happened at Pig’s Bottom.
Neither Gull nor Aaron was able to talk about it. Gull started crying when he first saw his parents and had not stopped. Aaron told them Reshua was dead and Sark was hurt after an accident at the cliff, but said little else. Caruso was gone, having left the family to see if he could discover what had happened.
Ulmer stood up and went to the door, motioning for Trissa to stay with the children. As he opened it, he saw more than 30 villagers in front of his house. Most stood in the street, but some to his right and left stood close to the cottage. Several held brightly burning torches.
Looking into their angry faces, Ulmer thought it was a real possibility they might burn the home down.
“It’s time for them to go!” yelled Coira. Her chalky black hair was strewn wildly about her face, and she pointed at Ulmer as he stepped towards her. “I bring a warning from the people of Shireton : You don’t belong here.”
Ulmer looked for Apted, hoping the man could calm his distraught wife, but did not see him among the crowd. “I am so sorry about Reshua,” he began.
“Dare you say his name?” Coira raged. “My son is dead because of you.”
“It was an accident,” Ulmer said. “Surely you must know that. My children would never hurt your son. Reshua and Gull were friends since the day they were born.”
Coira brought her hand sharply against Ulmer ‘s cheek, tears streaming down her face. “I told you not to say his name.” Other villagers moved closer to him, and it looked like Ulmer was going to be attacked.
” Ulmer!” Trissa cried. He turned around to see her standing at the doorway with Aaron and Gull at her side.
“Go inside, Trissa!” he yelled.
Turning back to face the group, Ulmer said, “This is madness. You are neighbors and friends. Most of you are like my own family to me.”
“Those days are gone,” said Sark ‘s father, Tomas. “They ended when you brought Aaron into this world.”
“Watch what you say about my son, Tomas,” Ulmer warned. He moved closer to the man, close enough to strike him. It did not help matters any that Ulmer and Tomas had fought each other several times as children.
“I’ll only say the truth,” Tomas replied. ” Aaron is a Dwarf. A kneecap man.” The term came from old Baranurian legends about a diminutive fighter who brought down his foes at a weak spot that was a convenient target — their knees. “You know the stories. He is not meant to live among us.”
“He’s a monster,” Coira added.
“Silence!” Ulmer said. “If you say that once more …”
“She lost her child,” Tomas said as if to excuse the remark. “I nearly lost mine. This happened because we let you raise Aaron here.”
“My family helped build this village,” Ulmer said. “I’ll be damned if we’re driven away by this nonsense.”
Tomas put a hand on Ulmer ‘s shoulder, a gesture meant to be friendly that backfired when Ulmer brushed it away. “We’re not asking you to leave,” Tomas said. “We’re telling.”
Ulmer ‘s first impulse was to lash out at Tomas, but other men looked as if they were eager for Ulmer to do so. “Begone,” Ulmer said. “This is not the time to discuss this.”
For a moment the villagers stood facing Ulmer as he waited for them to leave, and Tomas contemplated what to do next. Coira, fearing that the crowd would back down, grabbed a torch from a man’s hand and moved quickly towards the cottage. “Burn it down!” she said.
Ulmer grabbed at Coira and pulled her backwards by the hair, only moments before she could set the thatch roof aflame. She cried out and Tomas interposed himself between the two. Trissa saw this and came outside to help her husband.
“Stop!” Caruso yelled as he rode up to the fracas. “I have word from Lord Gunt on this matter.” As Caruso dismounted his horse, he held up a piece of parchment covered with ornately scripted writing. He released the lower edge of the paper and it rolled up so that he could pocket it.
“Manor Lord Gunt, to whom all in this village owe fealty, has decreed that no harm should come to the Nirnov family,” Caruso said. He was a tall and powerfully built man, and his words had a stentorian quality that radiated authority. The people around Ulmer, including Coira, stopped to listen. “Lord Gunt deeply regrets what has happened today, but he reminds all of you that every skilled man is needed to rebuild this community after the losses of the war.”
Caruso rested one hand on the pommel of his sheathed sword. “That is all,” he said. “Disperse.”
The reminder of Gunt ‘s authority proved to be enough to alleviate the crisis. Most of the people of Shireton had lived their entire lives in the service of a feudal lord, and they knew the wisdom of unquestioning obedience. Even Coira left, though she spat on Ulmer as she walked away. “This is not over,” she said.
Caruso led the Nirnovs into their home. After they were inside, the children were sent into one room to sleep. In the other, Trissa asked the question that had been on her mind since the stranger’s return. “You went to see Lord Gunt about us?”
“No,” Caruso replied. “The decree was actually the note I received from your father.”
“You lied?” Trissa said incredulously. “Lord Gunt will have your head for that.”
“I’ll take that chance,” Caruso said. “I was not willing to see you harmed.”
“Why is this so important to you?” Ulmer asked. “Did Corambis pay you to help us?”
“He didn’t have to,” Caruso said. “I am a Finder. It is my duty to find people like Aaron. Let’s sit down and I will explain this to you.”
After Trissa brought him a glass of water, Caruso explained why he had come to Shireton. He described the deaths of the Gatney family, leaving out no detail in the hopes of impressing the Nirnovs with the gravity of their situation. Then he began to tell them about his people. None of the adults were aware of it, but Aaron was eavesdropping on the conversation from the other room in the cottage.
“I am a Dwarf,” Caruso said, bringing a look of puzzlement from Ulmer and Trissa, since the stranger was one of the tallest men they had ever met. “My parents are both dwarves, and they brought me up at a secret place in the mountains far to the east.”
“How could your parents be dwarves?” Trissa asked.
“Being a Dwarf is entirely up to chance,” Caruso said. “All the legends are just ignorant superstition. Except for cruel cases where someone purposefully starved a child to make him dwarven, dwarves are just humans who grow up differently. No one knows why it happens — and it’s normal for two dwarven parents to have a child like me.”
Ulmer was fascinated with the Finder ‘s story, but he interrupted to ask, “What does all of this mean for us?”
“Dwarves are mistreated almost everywhere they go,” Caruso said. “What happened here is not unusual. We have found that dwarves are safer — and happier — living with their own kind.”
“You want to take him from us?” said Trissa, aghast. “We cannot possibly …”
Caruso, the image of Cyrus Gatney’s family still fresh in his mind, was blunt. “I’ve buried 14 people in my life, all because of hatred against dwarves. Aaron ‘s a bright child, from what Corambis told me, and I think he deserves a chance to grow up. His grandfather has very high hopes for him.”
“As do we,” Trissa said. “He can be happy and safe here in Shireton. What happened tonight is not going to reoccur.”
Caruso put a tired hand up to his forehead, running it back over his hair. He wanted to dispute her assertion but decided on a softer approach. “I’ll leave you alone to discuss this,” he told the couple. “My best instincts say Aaron would be safer leaving with me in the morning.”
“You need a decision by the morrow?” Ulmer asked.
“It’s for the best this is resolved quickly,” Caruso said. “I’ll also have Lord Gunt to think about very shortly.” The Finder departed, noticing a stocky shadow that moved in the other room as he left the cottage.
“We need to think about this,” Ulmer said.
“No,” Trissa said. “He’s our son, Ulmer. He needs us.”
Ulmer opened the shutters and leaned on the front windowsill of the cottage. The streets were empty, and a cool breeze brushed against his face, carrying with it the smell of burning leaves. The scent reminded him of the autumn night, not so long ago, when he first saw Trissa DeSaavu carrying two bottles of milk as she returned home with her aunt.
She spotted him first during that walk. Ulmer was tinkering with a broken plow in front of his family cottage, which later became their home. His shirt was off, and Trissa tried her best to watch him without being noticed.
It was working until she stumbled on a rock protruding from the packed dirt of the street. The bottles of milk flew from her hands.
Trissa came up beside Ulmer as he stood at the window, interrupting his reverie as she placed an arm around his back.
Ulmer asked, “I was thinking about how we met. It seems so long ago.”
“Not that long,” Trissa said. “My aunt was madder than a caged laska.”
“We had a lot of fun together here,” Ulmer said.
Trissa embraced her husband of 15 years and kissed him softly on the back of his neck. “Yes we did, my love.”
“Do you think Aaron will have the same chance at happiness here?” Ulmer asked.
Trissa did not answer right away, so her husband continued to talk in a soft voice.
“We have to look at this honestly, sweet. Even if we somehow get past what happened today, something bad will happen again. And Aaron will be blamed for it. Can we face that for the rest of our lives? Can our children?”
Shortly after dawn, Caruso rode into town on the back of his grumpy gray horse. The animal was not happy about having been asked to sleep outdoors the previous night, nor was it pleased to make an early start of the day. A few times it ventured off the path back to Shireton, and Caruso gave it a hard nudge to keep it awake.
The streets of the village were mostly quiet, save a few farmers heading off early to the fields. Caruso rode to to the small cottage that housed the Nirnovs. The door opened as he approached it, and Trissa came out.
“We’ve decided to let you take Aaron,” she said, her lower lip quivering slightly. “I know you’ll make sure he’s well-cared for.”
“I will,” Caruso said, clasping her left hand inside both of his.
“Can we visit him?” Trissa asked.
“The location of our home must remain a secret. When he’s a bit older, we can arrange visits in a village closer to the mountains,” Caruso said.
“How often?” she asked, her face sunken from a rough and sleepless night.
“Not often — it isn’t wise for dwarves to travel,” he said apologetically. “I know this is a terrible choice to make, but Aaron needs more protection than your family is able to provide.”
Aaron came out of the house, followed by his father carrying a grain sack filled with clothes and other belongings. “It isn’t much,” Ulmer said. “I wish we could send more along with him.”
“It will be fine,” Caruso told him. “The dwarves are always prepared for new arrivals.”
Trissa looked down at her son, who viewed Caruso with expressive interest. She tried not to cry, and for the most part succeeded. “Will it be a long journey?”
“A fortnight or so,” Caruso said. “More than that I cannot tell you. It’s a beautiful valley nestled deep in the mountains. Aaron will be one of the few people who has ever seen it.”
“Is that where you hide your gold?” Aaron asked. He looked at the tall man with curiousity, the reality of leaving his parents behind lost on the child. ” Gull said dwarves have piles and piles of gold.”
“That’s just a legend, false like most of the things people say about dwarves,” said Caruso, smiling thinly. “I wish it was true!”
A few more people were appearing on the streets. Caruso reached down and gently pinched Aaron ‘s nose. “Young sir, we had best be going,” he said. “I’ll answer every one of your questions as we ride to my home.”
Ulmer picked up Aaron and carried him to Caruso ‘s horse, seating him in front of the Finder. Trissa remained at the open doorway with Gull standing beside her.
“Remember to be good, little one,” Ulmer said to Aaron. He licked his hand and straightened out an errant curl on the child’s forehead.
“I will, papa,” Aaron said. “You remember too.”
With a slight smile on his face, entirely for the boy’s benefit, Ulmer patted the horse on the rump and Caruso rode off. He stood in the street until they had reached a turn in the road and could no longer be seen.
As Ulmer went back into his cottage, Trissa put Gull back to bed and tried to busy herself cleaning the floors. Ulmer readied himself for a day’s work in the fields. “If we’ve made a mistake,” she said to herself, “Ol help us.”
There had been another early riser in Shireton on the eventful morning. At the first glimmerings of sunup, Coira left her home and stormed off to see Lord Gunt. She did not intend to let his decree go unchallenged, and was convinced that she could persuade him to expel the Nirnovs from the village.
The middle-aged woman, no less bedraggled and distraught than the night before, reached the gate to the manor and pulled the entry bell ‘s cord.
Several menes later, she was still tugging on the bell when Jason Gunt came outside in a regal blue silken robe. Without the powdered wig he normally wore to hide his baldness, Gunt looked older than Coira expected.
“Stop that infernal noise, woman!” he commanded. “You have exactly one mene to tell me why I shouldn’t feed you to my dogs for waking me up like this.”
“I’m here about the decree you issued last night,” Coira said.
“My decree?” Jason asked, setting aside his displeasure for a moment at this surprising remark. “By all means come inside and we’ll talk about this.”
Lord Gunt led the woman into a sitting room that was adjacent to the entry of his home. He called on a servant to bring them some morning tea, and Coira related the previous day’s events as they reclined on a plush brown settee. Gunt ‘s main area of interest was the person issuing false decrees in his name, but he didn’t let her know that. It was not easy for him to feign concern about the horror of living around a Dwarf.
“As you can understand, my lord, this situation cannot go on any longer,” Coira said. “The people of Shireton are in agreement on this.”
“The people have reached a decision?” Gunt asked in amazement.
“Yes, we have,” replied Coira. “The Nirnovs must go.”
Jason Gunt stood up, inadvertently revealing his nakedness when the belt to his robe came undone. He was not exceptionally swift to cover himself back up.
“Thank you for coming by, Coira,” he told her. “If you’ll be kind enough to leave, I will attend to this at once.”
Coira left the home of Lord Gunt, a look of satisfied anticipation on her face. She had gotten into such a froth over the matter that she talked to herself as she walked.
Soon, Lord Gunt and four of his men passed by, yelling for her to clear the road, their stallions kicking up dust. She wasn’t paying enough attention and could have been run down, but the first rider reached over and pushed her hard away from the path. Coira fell into a small gully and twisted an ankle.
When they arrived in Shireton, the riders went to Ulmer Nirnov’s home and saw Gull sitting outside.
“Young man, we’re looking for your parents,” Gunt said.
“What do you need, my lord?” Trissa asked, walking out from behind the cottage. Gull ran over to stand beside her, feeling protective of his mother since his father was not there.
” Aaron,” he said.
“He’s off for Dargon to visit his grandfather,” Trissa said, guessing that Caruso ‘s route did not take him in that direction. “He left with a family friend.”
“I’ve heard a lot about this friend,” Gunt replied. “But that’s a matter for another time. Men, we’re off to the north.”
“Lord Gunt!” A man cried out to the lord and his companions before they could leave. It was Tomas. “She’s lying. This man passed me this morning riding to the east with Aaron Nirnov.”
“He’s taking the child?” Gunt asked, turning to look at Trissa.
“Yes,” she answered. “They’re not coming back.”
Gunt paused for a moment to reflect on the information. “We’d better hurry, then,” he said, and the five rode away. It did not take them long to spot a lone rider heading to the east.
Caruso was telling Aaron about his dwarven parents when he heard the approaching hoofbeats. When he saw the number of riders and the glint of their armor, he knew it must be Gunt ‘s men.
“Stay here,” Caruso said, leaving Aaron on the horse as he dismounted. The Finder strode towards the five riders as they approached, ready to draw his sword.
The lead rider, Gunt, slowed his horse to a canter and circled the dark-haired man. His companions stopped nearby.
“I am Caruso,” the Finder called out. “You would be Lord Gunt?”
“Indeed,” Gunt replied. “I understand you’ve been doing some work for me lately.”
“A little,” Caruso said. The Finder stood still as the circling Gunt passed around him. “There’s no need to thank me.”
“You’re too modest,” Gunt said, pushing back his riding cloak to reveal a sheathed knife at his belt. “That was quite a decree you issued on my behalf last night.”
Caruso glared at the man. He was tiring of the game Gunt was playing, and readied himself to end it. “I do my best,” he said.
With a dramatic flourish, Gunt dismounted his horse and put an arm around Caruso ‘s shoulders. “Thank you for making my feelings known to the people,” he said.
Caruso stepped away from Gunt, his hands at his side in a posture that was unmistakably hostile. “What do you want?” he barked at the village lord.
“Power, prestige and a position at the side of the duke,” Gunt replied, grinning. “Oh, and another thing as well: I want this precious child to grow up in Shireton.”
“He’s coming with me,” Caruso said.
“Not any more,” Gunt replied. “When the old woman told me what you did, I knew at once who you were. You find dwarves. It makes more sense for him to stay here. ”
“If Aaron and I are not allowed to return to my people, there will be consequences,” Caruso said.
“There’s no need for threats,” Gunt said. ” Aaron ‘s place is here with his family. I can assure his safety.”
“Why should I believe you?” Caruso asked.
“Because it’s in my interest to do so,” Gunt replied. ” Aaron ‘s a bright child, which is no surprise since his grandsire is the famous Corambis. I want him to apprentice under Corambis one day so that he can return and serve me.”
Caruso, remembering the devastation on Trissa ‘s face as they rode away, began to entertain the possibility of Aaron staying in Shireton.
“What about Coira and the others?” he said. “They blame him for the child’s drowning.”
“I’m going to let them know how I feel about last night’s actions,” Gunt replied. “This is my land. I won’t allow peasants to decide who belongs and who doesn’t.”
The Finder looked back to Aaron, who had nudged Caruso ‘s horse closer so that he could hear what the men were saying. “I want to stay,” the child said.
The child’s statement and Gunt ‘s offer left Caruso a bit dazed as he considered the different possibilities. He took a few steps away from the two and tried to decide which course was best. Taking Aaron away would assure his safety but remove him from family and home. Keeping him here required protection, as Caruso had said to Trissa. Lord Gunt was promising to provide it.
Caruso found it difficult, given the number of people he had buried, to let optimism steer his choice. “If you can assure his safety, my people will be beholden to you,” he said.
“That’s another reason you should believe me,” Gunt said. “If the dwarves can deliver some of their legendary armor to me, my motivation to look out for Aaron will be boundless.”
“That can be arranged,” Caruso said. “But I have a condition to this agreement. I want to stay in Shireton to make sure this can work.”
“You would swear fealty to me?” Gunt asked.
“I serve the dwarves,” Caruso said. “As an ambassador of my people, though, I could be of use to you as an advisor.”
“I am surprised that a Finder would be willing to do such a thing,” Gunt said.
“I am,” Caruso said, interrupting him.
“I’ll take your word for that,” Gunt continued. “If you can stomach the peasant life, I have no wish to stifle your desire to stand sentinel over the child.”
“Then we have an agreement,” Caruso said, and they shook hands. “Let’s go. I’m eager to tell Aaron ‘s parents.”
Lord Gunt rode back to the village with Caruso and Aaron close behind. The child was full of questions about the dwarves.
“When you’re grown, perhaps I’ll take you to meet them,” Caruso said. “You’ll always have a home there if you need it.”
As Shireton came into sight, Aaron had another thing he wanted to know. He didn’t ask until Gunt and his men were out of earshot.
“The Dwarf legends are false, right?” he asked.
“Right,” Caruso told him.
“Why did you tell Lord Gunt he could have armor?” Aaron asked.
Caruso, impressed at the child’s intelligence, wondered if it would be enough to see him through the struggles to come. He chose to believe it would.
“People want to think Dwarf armor is special,” Caruso said. “They’re willing to pay more for it because of that belief.”
Aaron thought about the Finder ‘s words. “What if I make armor?” he asked.
Lord Gunt turned around when Caruso bellowed with laughter. “You’ll make a fortune,” he quietly told the child. “Someday, Jason Gunt will be working for you.”