The eldest of the Elder Council sat back, fingers steepled in front of his pursed lips, elbows on the arms of his high-backed, wooden chair. The prim Matron of the Orphans shifted uncomfortably under his scrutiny, while the priest who traveled with those who found the infant stood rigidly, long fingers stroking the holy symbol of Xonyx hanging from a thong about his neck. It was in the shape of a stick shuttle, as was the preference of the Mannish clergy. This one was made of ashwood, and had clearly been rubbed smooth by the priest's anxious fingers over the years.
The goddess did not so much smile as laugh maliciously when She saw fit to ensure the party stumbled upon the half-starved foundling discarded in the brush, the elder mused. Bound by vows alone, so he claimed, the priest endured the bawling, inconsolable infant for the week required to bring it to the village, and now a war had erupted between the Orphanage and the Church over who would be saddled with the creature.
For creature it was. Discovered too far from the settlements known to contain the primitive tribes of Men scraping a living in the mountains to have been carelessly forgotten, but close enough to the holes and grottos of the Orcs to guess its origins. By the look of it, an unholy mix of both. The male child appeared, to the elder's eyes, far closer to Orc spawn than Man's issue, yet the Orcs clearly abandoned it.
A swift peek at the eyes told its story, or some of it, at any rate. No full-blooded Orc was ever born with such a color.
"We are at an impasse, it would seem," he said finally, breaking the long silence. "The Orphanage does not want it, and the Church will not allow its death. Death by neglect being high on the list of prohibitions, I see from your missive," the elder noted, casually shifting parchments on the table in front of him. The flourish of the head priest's signature was so bold it could be seen from a fair distance across the room.
"I fear for the other children," the Matron pointed out once more, making sure he understood that point. "They are dangerous creatures. Vile and merciless." She shuddered, recalling that some of the children came into her hands whenever the mood struck those monsters to come pay a visit this far south.
"Yes," the elder said, a hint of a sneer in his voice. "Two-week old suckling babes are certainly... dangerous."
"They grow, sir," she insisted. "Remarkably fast. I have heard an Orc can kill by six months of age!"
The elder made no effort to hide his disdain this time, and rolled his eyes at the ridiculous statement. "I am certain that a firm hand will keep even the most bloodthirsty toddler from laying waste to the village."
The priest relaxed, apparently sure now that his people would no longer be responsible for the beastling. In truth, the elder did not wish the Church to possess anything like a weapon of such potential strength as an Orc, no matter how diluted its blood may be. Were there any choice in the matter, the Church would have no toehold in this remote village to begin with. The elder longed for the bygone days when the folk could go about their business in peace, worshipping the deity of their choice or not, as they chose. Such times were recalled by the elders only; few in the village remembered so far back.
"Very well," the elder sighed, standing up. Glaring for a moment at the priest to remind him that he was not being reprieved, the elder turned to the Matron. "Your folk shall mind the child as you do all your others. When it becomes dangerous, I trust you will notify the proper authorities. The Church shall provide all monetary support for the creature's upbringing until such time as it is discharged, either by maturity or... disciplinary action."
"See here!" the priest huffed indignantly. "We have not the resources..."
The elder raised an eyebrow at the priest, the gesture sufficient to silence the man. "The Church shall provide for the child it wishes so desperately to spare lest the goddess punish the entire village, as you so eloquently pointed out in your argument. Be thankful I do not place the child entirely in your care. You were, after all, the one to find it, the one to bring it back here, and the one so terribly concerned about its welfare."
"I do not care a whit for its welfare," the priest snarled. "It is the village's welfare that concerns me, and no other's."
"Then you should have left it to starve," the elder retorted. "I do not doubt the... fine, upstanding young men of your party would have turned a blind eye."
The priest glowered at the elder, embarrassed to have relied on mercenaries as an escort through the mountains in the first place. "Xonyx guided my steps to the... child. It would be unwise to ignore the Fate-Weaver."
"An affront that would have been committed by you alone, had you ignored the bellowing creature and gone about your business," the elder snapped. "Since you saw the necessity of placing the entire village at risk of either housing a murderous beast or attracting unwanted attention from Xonyx, you will ensure neither danger is realized."
"What do you mean?" the priest asked, eyes narrowed suspiciously. The elder had ever been a blasphemer, but just now, the priest was less interested in rebuking the old man than in sparing his own position in the Church. If the head priest found out they were not well rid of the beast...
"Only what I have said," the elder said impatiently. "Food and clothing you will provide for. Education when it is appropriate. I trust you will take care in teaching only what is suitable? The Council need not convene and debate the issue of whether to train the little bastard to bear arms?"
Grimacing, the priest shook his head. "I do not think any want that."
"Indeed, not," the Matron nodded.
"Then we are in agreement," the elder said, settling back in his chair. Gesturing dismissively, he said, "Do what you must."
As the Matron and the priest left, the elder rubbed his face wearily. He'd never seen an Orc outside of a murderous rampage, and did not relish the rare opportunity presented by the little greenish gray beastling. Would being raised in the village temper the beast's nature? Just how much Man's blood did it possess? Precious little, by the look of it, but apparently enough to urge such extreme measures as abandonment by its mother. Perhaps the Orcs held their own beliefs on the matter of infanticide.
The elder snorted and shook his head. Evidently, those abominations of nature only spared themselves bloodied hands in the disposal of their unwanted spawn. They had no inhibition toward depositing the undesirable where a miserable, drawn out death by starvation was certain.
Five years later...
The older boys found the Orc sequestered at the far end of the field, hunched over his meal of bread and cheese. As usual, he'd tossed the pear he was given to the side, not caring for sweet things. He knew they were coming long before their unkempt heads appeared over the taller grasses that grew in long lines or thick clumps in this field. He was shielded by such a wall, but apparently it was not enough.
"Oy, mongrel!" the eldest of the three barked, and Kurdog darted a wary look at him. His pointed ears flicked and nostrils quivered, assessing how many he could see, how many might be hiding in the brush.
Good. Only the three. He'd managed that many before.
"Whatcha doin' out here, Orc?" another taunted, a sneer on his face. "Hidin'?"
Kurdog curled his lip around his small tusks, still too short to push completely out of his mouth. At least he had that to be thankful for. Though some expressions showed them, as this one did.
"Lookit that!" the leader shouted, pointing at the Orc and glancing back at his friends. "The dog's snarling at us!"
"Ain't polite, that," said the third. "Shouldn't oughta let that stand, Cenric. Thinks he's better'n us, I'll warrant."
"Yuh know, yer right," Cenric said thoughtfully, a cruel smile on his face. "Puttin' on airs like he does." He shook his head. "Oughta just make sure he knows his place, eh? For the Matron. So's she don't have to do it."
"Aye," the second boy agreed. "Wouldn't wanna have her breakin' another stick on his worthless hide. Runnin' outta good sticks, she is."
"All right then, cur," Cenric said, rolling up his sleeves. "Time for your lessons."
Three years later...
It was eerily familiar, this scene. The elder once more leaned back in his chair, fingers steepled, while the priest and the Matron stood before him. This time, however, a third stood between them, shackled yet defiant.
The rest of the Elder Council was also in attendance, for this was no longer a simple disciplinary hearing or the recitation of myriad complaints about the Orc's behavior. Now a boy was dead, the Orc standing accused of the murder. There was no need to call witnesses; the hall wasn't large enough to house them all. Perhaps it began as simply a boy's challenge that went too far, but the end result was indeed the limit of everyone's tolerance.
At eight years old, the Orc was the size of a young lad of twelve or thirteen. Its once naked chin now showed the early stubble of a beard, darkening its already-dark tone. The ragged second-hand clothing clinging to its burly frame still showed stains from the fight that left Cenric shredded on the ground in front of the orphanage.
"It was my understanding," the elder said slowly, "that the moment this... creature became dangerous, we would be informed. Up to this point, it has only delivered minor scrapes and bruises, albeit many of those. I thought you were keeping its claws blunted."
"I was," the Matron cried, her voice higher than usual. She clutched a kerchief to her mouth and hugged her middle. The woman had never seen the sort of damage Kurdog did to Cenric; it would haunt her nights for years to come. "Every week, I filed them down. Twas not its claws that did the worst of it." She shuddered and winced, remembering the blood running out of the Orc's mouth, the creature's red tongue licking its tusks clean almost lasciviously.
"Was there no warning?" another elder asked. "Any sign that might have told you to keep a sharper eye on the two of them?"
The Matron shifted uncomfortably and could not meet the eyes of the councilman. "They have ever been... at odds," she said evasively.
The elder glared at the woman. He was about to launch into a lengthy speech when he heard the grunting.
It was a low, guttural sound, reminding the elder of a rooting pig. Darting a look at the Orc, he saw the beastling's shoulders shaking with mirth.
"This is no laughing matter, Kurdog," he admonished angrily. "You have done a terrible thing. Perhaps you do not fully grasp the situation. Have the priests not taught you the value of all life?"
The Orc slowly raised its head. The toothsome grin that split its face did not reach its strange hazel eyes. "They taught me the worth of some," it sneered.
"Yes, well... you should know, then, that what you did was a crime in the eyes of the goddess," the elder said awkwardly. It suddenly occurred to him that he had dismissed the Orc from his attention the moment he sent it to the orphanage eight years ago. The many occasions since then that the Matron demanded more extreme disciplinary measures served to remind him of that day, but they were brief encounters. Kurdog's impulsive actions acquainted it with the village stocks at the age of three, and the cramped jail for the occasional overnight stay by its sixth summer.
In all that time, the elder had to admit, the beast hadn't said more words than it did just now.
Turning to the Matron, the elder said, "How did the fight begin?"
The woman took a shuddering breath and tried to appear dignified. "I did not see, sir. The children and some of the adults were in a ring surrounding the... boys when I arrived. The staff was stricken and unable to intervene out of shock. The girls were screaming and beginning to run away."
"Some of your helpers were present, and did not stop them?" he asked incredulously. "Were they not instructed in preventing such altercations among the older boys? At what point would they have put a stop to it? Before or after blood was spilled?"
"They... saw no harm in... letting the boys... work out their disagreements," she replied clumsily.
"Disagreements," the elder repeated, exchanging a glance with one of his fellows. His voice rose with mounting anger. "Do disagreements in your facility typically end this way? Do you encourage your charges to settle disputes like gladiators in an arena?"
"No!" she cried, and began to nervously wring her hands. "Please. It was... an error in judgment. An accident. Surely if my staff understood the potential..."
"That is not good enough!" another elder roared, his bushy grey beard bristling. What little of his face could be seen was nearly purple with rage. "A boy is dead! He can not be made undead by apologies or groveling. The deed was witnessed, the murderer stands before you. It has not only admitted to its crime, it has laughed about it! I ask you, as I did eight years ago, what stays our hand in meting out justice to this beast? I will tell you!" he bellowed, slamming his open palm on the table and rising from his chair. The man rarely spoke during these meetings, but when he did, there was little that could be done to silence him.
"The misguided vision of a priest, that is what!" the angry councilman went on. "As if we are not slaves enough to the whims of the Church, we have spent eight years living in fear of this monster in our midst because he placed the blessing of Xonyx on its head! 'We are in Fate's hands,' he said. Is our fate to be slain in our beds by one we have housed and cared for out of the generous goodness of our hearts? I say pfah on such a fate!" he spat. "If it is not hung on the very next dawn for this deed, I will forever distrust the minds and hearts of all present here."
The furious councilman finally sat heavily in his chair, arms folded over his chest, mustaches puffing with each breath.
"I would counsel mercy in this...," the priest began unsteadily, wiping his sweating brow.
"Of course you would," the elder growled. "The village would be endangered. Terrible things would begin to happen. The delicate balance of Fate would be upset." Sighing, he shook his head.
"Mercy we will show," the elder said, raising a hand to halt the angry councilman's renewed ire. "Of a kind. Kurdog, it is the will of the council that you are to be banished from Sterre for the remainder of your life. You will no longer be considered welcome here. If you are seen within ten leagues of our furthest holdings, you will be slain on sight, without question. Your fate is in Xonyx's hands, as it has ever been." Leaning forward, he said pointedly to the smirking Orc, "May you come to appreciate what was given you here."
Four years later...
"What's this?" the man said angrily, grabbing the intruder by the hair and slamming it into a tree trunk. The blade at its throat discouraged struggling for freedom. Another man came up behind the first and snickered.
"Seems to me you caught yourself an Orc," the second man snorted. "Been at your cups, Hrothgar? Usually don't have so much trouble figuring out what you're looking at."
"Bit of a thief, this one," Hrothgar snarled, ignoring the taunting man. His bare-handed grip on the creature's filthy hair made his skin crawl, but he couldn't help noticing the eyes darting back and forth between them. "And not all Orc, neither."
His fellow leaned a little closer and squinted at the Orc's face. The eyes flicked at him, and he jumped back.
"Not seen such a color," he said. "Your mam having a little toss on the side, was she?" His high-pitched laugh startled the Orc and made him cringe.
"What you think we oughta do with him, Oswin?"
The laughing man settled quickly and scrutinized the Orc with narrowed eyes. "Bit of a young'un. Big, though."
"Silent as a shadow," Hrothgar pointed out. "Wouldn't have known he was pilfering if I hadn't looked right at him doing it."
"Don't have much call for sneaking," Oswin protested weakly. "Not here."
"Aye, aye," his leader agreed. "But you never know when it might prove useful."
"Here, boy," Oswin said to the Orc. "What's your name?"
It took a few tries and several choking sounds as he tried to remind his tongue how to maneuver around something other than grunts or growls, but finally the Orc said, "Kurdog."
Both men laughed. "Good name for the likes of you," Hrothgar said. Appraising the young Orc once more, he released his hold and stepped back. Kurdog remained tense and wary, but didn't try to flee.
"Could use a bit of muscle in our operation," the leader mused. "Even if most of it's between your ears." Again, they laughed at the Orc.
"How about it, Kurdog?" Oswin said, grinning broadly. "Wanna join us? Better life than scrounging for scraps, I'll warrant."
"Aye," Hrothgar nodded. "Might enjoy giving rich men a good thrashing for being uppity as well. Sometimes they just won't shut up about the coin they're losing, even with a knife at their throat."
"I'll wager my next share they won't have naught to say if they got an Orc staring them down," Oswin joked.
"We live like kings, Kurdog," Hrothgar urged. "You'll be a prince among Orcs. What do you say?"
It was only a brief internal debate. Like most of his kind, he despised solitude. Even repulsed company was better than none at all. And the last winter had been very hard.
Unable to say much, for not only had he barely spoken out loud in years, he had nearly forgotten how to speak, Kurdog simply nodded eagerly, answering hunger's call more than the enticement of riches.