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A beautifully written and stunningly evocative debut novel, DOMINIC follows the title character's adventures through the collapse of the ancient Roman Empire, depicting a society rife with reckless abandon and chaos, a world of display and caprice. Into this milieu arrives Dominic, an orphaned dwarf child from Gaul. Left to fend for himself, his travels bring him into contact with many colorful personalities, such as a caravan of gypsies and the inmates of a dungeon. His adventures eventually land him in the ...
A beautifully written and stunningly evocative debut novel, DOMINIC follows the title character's adventures through the collapse of the ancient Roman Empire, depicting a society rife with reckless abandon and chaos, a world of display and caprice. Into this milieu arrives Dominic, an orphaned dwarf child from Gaul. Left to fend for himself, his travels bring him into contact with many colorful personalities, such as a caravan of gypsies and the inmates of a dungeon. His adventures eventually land him in the company of a friend, the gigantic Danish bard Kevin Dunskaldir, who helps him defeat an evil as sinister as any force threatening the empire. Creating two unique heroes, who act against the mighty backdrop of a society in transition, Robinson successfully brings together all the elements of a literary masterpiece in this classic tale of friendship, fate and adversity. DOMINIC is exhilarating historical fiction, featuring characters you won't easily forget.
Had my father been a Roman aristocrat, or a philosopher, he might have abandoned me to the wolves at my birth, for I was from the first dwarfed and odd-shapen, of little use to a poor Gallic goatherder. Fortunately, he was a simple man, and a good-hearted man in the bargain. Therefore, when I was laid at his feet by old Elgge, the midwife, for the acceptance ritual, my father lifted me up and cradled me in his arms, taking me, his only child, into his heart-loving me none the less for my stunted form. Neither did my mother lament over the short, stubby limbs I aimlessly waved, nor over the large, ungainly head I could scarcely move. Instead, she took me to her breast and heart.
I was christened Dominicus Dio, meaning "belonging to the Lord God," though I remained always uncommonly small to carry a six syllable name and can only remember being called simply "Dominic." The village priest baptized me into his Ariyan Christian flock, the tenants who lived, worked, and died on the estate of Lucius Scipio Marcianus, province of Germania Superior, diocese of Gaul, in the western domain of the Roman Empire. The year was 375 from the Birth of Our Lord and, as Pagans reckon it, 1128 from the Founding of Rome.
I learned to crawl on the cool earth-packed floor of a round, wooden hut. In the beginning, that one dim circular room, with its mingled odors of soil, straw, sweat, wood, smoke, frying bread, warm goat's milk, and pungent goat-hide, was my uni-verse. Once I had climbed upon and tumbled off every stool, bench, tabletop, bed, and barrel, once I had repeatedly pulled everything upon my head that could be pulled and eagerly burned my fingers on the coals and gravely tastedthe charred wood-chips, once I had explored it all to my satisfaction, I then learned to step my bare feet up from the dirt floor to the huge (in my estimation) flat stone just inside the door, from there out onto the wooden threshold where I tottered elatedly on stumpy legs to take in my new domain. Assuredly, I had crossed that threshold before on my mother's hip or my father's shoulders, but now I had come to it myself. Having conquered the hut, I could now set my ambitions on the forest-ringed clearing.
Trailing after Mama, I discovered the goat pens and the clay milking jars. After dutifully sampling the manure and the milk and the goat-hair, I went about making friends with the goats, somehow surviving their jumpy hooves, their nipping teeth, and their testy rebuttals. I learned which ones to chase and which ones to leave alone and how to milk the nannies. I watched Papa load the capped jars into the cart, saving always one jar for us, and lead the donkey away along the rutted track that wound into the forest. I lived through both successful and unsuccessful attempts at scrambling onto the donkey's back after luring him with salt to where I perched atop the fence. Sometimes I rode on the milk cart with Papa, following that mysterious road beneath the shadowy trees into the village, where I stared at the folk just as curiously as they stared at me. And, I noticed with secret delight that yet another road, no wider than the cart track, but much more trampled, wound away from the village into as yet unknown territory.
But, to satisfy my exploring spirit, I had the beckoning forest paths that led from the clearing around our little hut and goatshed, paths that tunneled deep into the woods where I could chase sunlight and shadow beneath gnarled oaks and shimmering maples, colonnades of stiff-needled pines, tall ash. and white birch and scratchy, scented cedar. Mama and Papa let me roam, and more than once (but not so often as to vex them too much) one or the other had to come looking for me when I forgot the time or lost my path; then, I would get a scolding and yet another patient lesson in land marking and backtracking.
Still, I would not be kept from the forest. I loved its moist, fragrant earth, lush green bracken, and springy floor of brown needles full of crawling things and scurrying creatures which moved along the ground unseen except for an occasional trembling leaf or stalk that betrayed their passage. And the creatures I did see! Chattering squirrels and quarrelsome birds shattered the hushed stillness; small red foxes slipped shyly into the brush at my approach; deer stepped softly to a woodland pond and then startled away, sensing my stealthy presence. Ah, there were owls and hawks and bats and mice and weasels and rabbits, yet I was always reminded there were dangerous things, too, should I stray too far-wild boar and bear and wolves-but I only heard the hunting wolves howl from afar, and I spied down on fishing brown bear but once from high atop a ridge.
The meadows were my playground in spring and summer. When I could keep up (at least most of the way), Papa let me follow him as he drove the goats to the high grazing on mountain pastures. There we whiled the day together, wandering the hills and keeping a watchful eye on the goats. Then, toward evensong, Papa would let me blow the goat-horn, and the big billy would come trotting with billies and nannies and kids trailing behind him. On days when Papa must cut wood and cart it down-mountain to the Imperial Inn and Post, Mama and I herded the goats ourselves. We played and sang together and told each other tales. Mama's voice was high and clear and trilling; she sang ballads and lovers' tales with endings both happy and sad. She was slim and wispy and had a merry smile; she called me her little "elfkin" and playfully tugged at my headful of auburn-curled "elflocks" as we walked the gentle swells of green grasses or picked the wildflowers that flourished the high meadows like fallen bits of rainbow.
Mama knew tales, too, of heroes with swords who battled foul giants and wooed fair maidens and died tragic, noble deaths. I told my own stories-incoherent collages of odd bits and snitches I collected here and there-and Mama feigned surprise or terror or tears and led me on with nods and sighs.
"Dominic, my elfkin, you tell lovely tales. And, you always give them happy endings."
"I like the tales that end happy the best, Mama. Why do they make the sad ones?"
Mama smiled. "Because life is like that-true tales don't always have happy endings either."
"Because they don't, elfkin. Sad things happen and wonderful things happen and they all mix up together and then at the end ... why, I suppose the end is a little of both. Aye, true tales are merry-go-sorry tales, so you cry and laugh at the same time. Living is like that."
"But, we never cry, do we, Mama?"
"Be sure we do."
"But, not for really sad!"
"That's because we have a happy tale, love." Playfully she shoved me backwards into the sweet-smelling grass. "So, let me hear you laugh!" She leapt to the attack with tickling fingers. I shrieked in gleeful torment and rolled across the meadow, and Mama tickled me all the way down the hill until we both collapsed in a breathless, giggling heap.
Most times I stayed home with Mama when Papa took the goats. We worked the little vegetable garden, though I am certain at first I trampled more vegetables than I tended, but Mama patiently set me to pulling weeds and shooing crows. She kept me busy with little chores like feeding the hens and gathering eggs while she boiled goat's -milk and stirred it, squeezed it, and set it up into cheese; or she crushed barley, mixed and kneaded it, and baked barley bread; or she scrubbed and brushed goat's- wool, which she carried to old Elgge who then spun it and wove it on her loom into thick cloth for warm winter clothing.
As I grew older, Papa took me more and more often up the wooded trails with the goats to the high pastures. I still remember the day I first strode to the grassy top of the highest meadow. I was no more than five years old when I stood proudly beside my papa on that windswept mountain; the sun's late afternoon rays lit the dancing grass with streaks of gold while we gazed eastward to the blue-grey horizon. The mottled green forest below us dived steeply to a wide, wooded valley and ascended the hills again on the farther side.
"Look there, Dominic," pointed Papa, "there at the bottom of the valley. Do you see the river?"
I followed his finger and found a glinting blue-white thread amid the trees. "I see it now!" I exclaimed excitedly. "Why, I thought 'twas a big river!"
"Be sure, the River Rhine is big enough, but we're far from it here. That river marks the edge of the Empire. All on this bank of the Rhine belongs to Rome and all on that bank-"
"To barbarians!" I finished for him, pleased that I knew so much already. My eyes searched the far ridges. "But, I can't see any."
"No more than they can see us, boy," he chuckled. "We're much too far away. Burgundians live in those woods. They're going through a quiet spell now-keeping mostly to their side of the river-but I hear down at the inn that up north Franks are raiding across river again. They've taken to rafting the current, too, and settling down with their near kin in the provinces." He shook his head in bafflement. "Something draws them into the Empire, though I can't think what. Seems to me life would be free over there, out from under Rome."
"Then, why don't we live there, Papa?"
Papa looked to the eastern hills, his hand resting lightly on my head. "I have thought ... but I doubt the barbarians would welcome us kindly. Besides, 'twould mean leaving so much behind-the house, the garden, and the goats, and the stipends of course, and the talk at the inn, and friends-no, we're Gauls, Dominic. Our folk have lived here since the raising of the mountains, long before the Romans, before Caesar, and we'll stay. Romans may take their tributes and call it theirs, but the land is ours. We will not run to the wilds."
On impulse, I turned and looked to the western horizon where the sun tinted clouds pink and gold. Seeing only patches of woods and plains, I frowned.
"But, where's the other side of the Empire, Papa?"
"The other side?" he smiled. "Son, you might travel for months and not see an end to the Roman Empire, and when you did, you'd be stopped by the sea. And, at that, you've seen only the west; there's still the eastern half. Look carefully. Do you see that bright streak gleaming at the edge of the wood?"
"That little river there flows west to the town of tTreverorum. But, look quickly before the clouds shadow it-can you see the highway that runs south to meet the river?"
I finally detected a tiny broken line I took to be a section of road; I nodded again.
"Now, that road, Dominic, will go through more towns than you ever heard of and then eventually to Rome."
"Have you been there? To Rome?"
"Not likely," he answered, gazing at the bit of distant highway. "We're thousands of miles from Rome. I've not even been as far as Treverorum, nor am I likely to. Neither are you, son, unless...." His gaze dropped thoughtfully to me.
"Unless what, Papa?"
"Unless, mayhap, God had something different in mind when He made you. But, Dominic, though we are bound to this land that Rome says belongs to Lucius Scipio Marcianus, and we may not lawfully leave it, remember: We are coloni; we are not slaves; here we have our own kind of freedom. In Rome, and in the towns, 'twould be worse, maybe especially for one like you, lad. Here our lives are our own until tax time, and as long as we give them what they consider their due, they leave us alone. Aye, we belong to this land as much as it belongs to us. Gaul is in our blood, son. "
I looked down studiously at a scraped knee, trying to grasp some sense to his last statement. Ah, I thought, I likely had gotten enough Gallic dirt in that cut to have some of Gaul in my blood, too.
Papa swept his vision across the forested hills, where the sun ignited the tallest trees with brilliant green fire and cast others into deepening shadows. A sudden coolness in the air and the evensong of a mourning dove betokened the beginnings of twilight.
"Let's be off home, elfkin, before the wood grows too dark to see the path. "
We hurried down the mountainside, my short-legged trot barely keeping pace with my father's stride. Papa lifted me onto his broad shoulders and let me blow the goat-horn's mournful note across the meadows, but the impatient goats were already gathered, awaiting us beside the path. Though darkness closed swiftly, both we and the goats well knew the way home. I rode all the way on Papa's shoulders, a position which always delighted me, for I could view the world from a giant's perspective and sit so high that overhanging leaves brushed my head. But, tonight I was not looking; I was thinking.
For the first time, I began putting together two facts. First, the road from our home connected in the village to another road which eventually reached the country estate of Lucius Scipio Marcianus, and from there, it must somewhere connect to the highway for Treverorum, from which yet another highway ran, I had no doubt, straight to Rome. Second, I would likely never set foot upon those highways because I was bound to the land. A colonus belongs to the estate; he cannot leave by law. That, I realized, meant me-and my papa. Certainly, he had never been anywhere off the estate. He could not.
But, then Papa had said mayhap God had something different in mind when He made me. Now, I began to struggle with that inexplicable difference. On the foregoing Sun's Day, I had heard hard words from an older cousin's lips. Playing "catch me if you can" with the village children behind the basilica after Mass while the grownups gathered in front for news and gossip, I stumbled and fell just in time to trip my cousin and get him caught.
"You dumb dwarf!" he yelled in a fury. "Why don't you go back to the goblins where you belong?"
I stared at him, perplexed.
"I never belonged to goblins."
"Oh yes you did! My papa said you're a changeling! He said goblins came in the night and took the real babe away and left you instead, 'cause he knows you're no blood-kin of ours!"
"They did not!"
"They did so! And, Papa said someday the goblins will come back for you and take you away to their caves and make you one of them!"
"They won't!" I wailed, terrified.
"They'll come creeping in one night and snatch you up and-"
"They never will!"
"-carry you deep underground and put awful magic spells on you-"
"-and send you back to put nasty curses on all of us!"
"I'm not-I'm not what you said!"
"Changeling! Changeling!" He pointed his finger and jeered.
"Papa says there's no dwarf blood in our family and he never heard of any dwarf blood in your papa's family, so the hobgoblins must've brought you."
"You lie!" I screamed, charging at him and swinging my fists. But, he was bigger and faster and dodged easily out of my way.
"Hobgoblin! Hobgoblin!" he taunted. "Can't catch me!"
Then, his brother and the others-children I had been playing with happily just moments before-took up the chant.
"Hobgoblin! Hobgoblin! Can't catch me! "
"Hobgoblin! Hobgoblin! Can't catch me! "
"Who wants to!" I shouted, burning with rage. I fled them then, taking refuge at the front of the basilica where the grownups milled. Banished from their play, I sat forlornly on the portico steps and reviled their words. It isn't true, I muttered vehemently. I don't belong to goblins.
I wrestled with their taunts once again as I rode my papa's shoulders through the darkling wood, though I spoke nought of them until we were at last home, the goats penned, and we sat at table for supper.
"Have we dwarf blood in our family?" I ventured cautiously as I tore a piece of crusted, dark bread from the round loaf and watched for my parents' reactions from beneath a tangle of red curls.
Mama paused in pouring milk into my cup for just an instant and met Papa's glance across the table. She shook back her dark brown hair, filled the cup, and set the clay pitcher down deliberately.
"I suppose we do, love, somewhere," she told me matter-of-factly, "else we wouldn't have you, would we now?" She ladled boiled turnips and broth into my bowl.
"I'm not a changeling, then?"
"A what?" Papa exclaimed sharply in disbelief.
"Where did you ever get a fool notion like that, Dominic?"
I breathed relief. It must not be true. "Sivor said his papa said the goblins came and changed me for the real babe because I'm no blood-kin of his, so I must be a hobgoblin and they're going to take me away underground-the goblins won't take me, will they, Papa?" I stared at him round-eyed.
Papa had gone red in the face. "By God, be sure no goblins will take you, boy! You're no changeling!" He spoke grimly to Mama. "I'm going to have words with your brother, Rhihanna."
"And I!" she blazed. "Dominic, you're our own child, and there are no goblins. That's just silly tales to frighten children."
"How do you know I'm not a changeling?"
She laughed, a short burst of merriment. "Why, wasn't I there at your birthing? You came from my womb, my own little elfkin, just as you are now, only so much tinier. Be sure, you were never changed on me."
Ah, my mother would never lie.
"What is a dwarf, Mama? What does it mean?"
"It means, love," she began, brushing back my elflocks with affection, "one who is smaller than other people."
"Won't I grow taller?"
"Never very tall, dear." She glanced at Papa in the glimmering lamplight. "And, it means you are built sturdier, too, with shorter arms and legs, but fine strong hands and a noble head."
I shook the noble head vigorously. "I don't want to be a dwarf "
Now, my parents looked at each other helplessly across the table. Papa cleared his throat.
" 'Tisn't your choice, Dominic. 'Twas God's choice. He made you special-not like ordinary folk. He must have some purpose of His own for you, lad."
"So, we are blessed with a dwarf child," Mama added. " 'Tis why we named you Dominicus Dio, for you must be as special to the Lord as you are to us. Just have faith in the Lord's wisdom, and you'll never go wrong. He'll take care of you, love."
I looked from one to the other. They seemed so eager for me to understand, and I wanted not to disappoint them. Besides, I had full faith in my parents' wisdom, if not God's. I heaved my shoulders and dropped them with a long sigh.
"All right," I nodded and bent to my soup, privately resolving to fool them all and grow up just the same as everybody else. But, I did not miss Papa's and Mama's eyes meeting, full of relief and worry.
Papa did indeed have words with my uncle, because my cousins never taunted me outright after that. But, they laughed and whispered to the other children in a vicious campaign against me. I could see no reason for their cruel games, other than to deliberately hurt, and they did a good job of that.
Come late fall we drove the goats down for the tax collector and estate master to take their due. Then, we returned home with the remaining goats and enough barley and oat fodder to last them the winter. Though Papa no longer had to take the herd to pasture, his quota of firewood for the inn was much increased in winter.
Roman law required that Lucius Scipio Marcianus maintain on the main road that bordered his estate an inn-and-post for the convenience of imperial agents, post messengers, tax assessors, military police, and other officials on imperial business. Papa chopped wood daily and took it down to the inn by the cartload, where the amount would be tallied to determine his monthly stipend of salt pork, barley, beans, olive oil, and vinegar wine. Papa was not the only man doing this same labor, for it took many wagon loads of wood to board the soldiers and travelers the inn hosted. Papa enjoyed his trips to the inn; he heard news from all over the Empire from the innkeeper and servants. On a winter's evening, he would prop his feet up by the fire after supper and tell Mama and me what official news or officially denied rumor he heard that day, or what mishap occurred on the estate, or the latest jest the stable hand rambled off. Our little hut seemed to me the cozy center of a turbulent world, snug against raving emperors and rampaging weather alike.
Papa knew tales, too, of the ancient gods-not just the Roman gods with their high-sounding names and questionable moralities, but also the Gallic gods, terrible to look upon and savage. The old folk in the village ofttimes sat together and told marvelous tales of the ancestral gods, and I made a rapt audience, even on Mass days when I should have had nought to do with such Pagan talk.
Yet, when I heard tales of lame Volund the Smith and his magical swords, of brave Taranis slaying the hideous dragon, or of horrible Teutates and his thirst for human sacrifice, I believed with a child's unabashed wonder. Moreover, evidence in favor of these old tales lurked everywhere. Whilst walking in deep, quiet woods I would come upon a square, stone column, green with moss, and carved thereon would be a dragon, or a bear, or a boar, and the god to whom each beast was sacred; each scene told some story known to folk of Gaulish blood. I might imagine these ancient gods slept contentedly in the past, except for an encircling path of footprints freshly imprinted since a recent rain, proof of the barefoot worshipers who still danced and chanted in secret around the timeless column, invoking the god within. Sometimes an offering lay atop an altar rock. The gift to the god might be fruit, flowers, grain, or acorns, but again it might be the head, feet, and entrails of some small animal, adding its dried blood to the sacrificial stains of centuries.
The most feared and revered god of all Gauldom was Cernunnos, king of the forest, lord of all wild things. Carved columns depicted him taller than mortal men, thickly bearded, and as regally antlered as the grandest deer. Ofttimes his image sat cross-legged, surrounded by his woodland creatures. Cernunnos, the tales said, roamed the forests, master of the wilderness; the deer were his own herd, and when one was killed, the forest king must be acknowledged and thanked, else he would stalk the hunter himself for retribution. As most children, I believed the tales and mused upon them, and sometimes shivered in a lonely, hushed grove, glancing quickly over my shoulder, half expecting to find an ancient god watching.
Copyright © 1991 by Kathleen Robinson
Posted September 8, 2002
I love this book with all my heart. I have read it three times. I'm reading it again right now. Kathleen Robinson really knows how to bring her characters to life. I have cried and laughed with this book. It is the only book I can really get into. I feel like I know Dominic. Like he is my best friend. I wish this book could be made into a movie. I would love that so much. I couldn't believe it when I read that this was Kathleen Robinson's first novel. She is a truly talented and gifted author. She is indeed my favorite. No matter how many times I read this book, it gets to me everytime. Now that's a book worth reading.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.