In the time before the ocean's rise, before men left their hiding places and stretched out across the earth, taming rivers and forests and all in their path, there lived a half-orc boy named Steve. All his childhood, Steve was told by the people of his town that he was born of a forced union between his orc father and his human mother. But Steve knew the truth. He remembered late night visits and secret weekends away together, where his father would play pat-pat with him and dance with his mother in front of the fire. Steve knew the truth: he had been born of love.
It was a love the villagers would not abide. Humans, being so intolerant of differences and so quick to condemn, did not understand. But this is not the story of the villagers, nor even Steve's parents, Joseph and Sarah. This is the story of how Steve found his way in the world and became a man, and it is a story of the cost of love and the loneliness of sacrifice.
And so it came to be that when Steve was five years old, his mother's family found out about Joseph's visits, and all of the men of the village drove his father out with threats upon Steve's life should he return.
Years later, Steve would not remember his father's name nor face, but he would remember being shoved underneath the bed by his mother and the cold press of the wooden floorboards against his shins and elbows.
"Stay here and don't come out unless I call your name," Sarah whispered. Her face, half shrouded in darkness, was grim and determined. "If you smell smoke, jump out the window and run into the forest and up the hill. Hide in Uncle Daniel's barn. Tell me you understand.”
Steve was silent and overwhelmed, his world changing too quickly for his young mind to comprehend. He couldn't understand why anyone would want to hurt his family.
Sarah snapped her fingers in front of his face. "Quickly, my child, tell me you understand."
Steve nodded. "I understand, Mama."
Sarah left the room, and Steve lay on the floor holding his stuffed rabbit close, listening to his heartbeat pound in his ears and his breath rattle in his chest. Soon he heard angry voices and a scuffle, followed by a cry of pain from his mother.
Her cry shocked Steve into action, and he scrambled from underneath the bed and pressed his ear to the door. Sarah and Joseph were right on the other side, but Steve couldn't make out what they were saying or if other people were with them. His mother cried out again, and Steve pushed his bony shoulder against the door, wanting to help her.
Something was blocking the door, and the harder he pushed, the stronger the rattle in his chest became. Steve banged on the door in his haste to get out, drawing frantic, unsteady breaths.
Steve heard shouting outside the cottage and ran to the window to look. A host of men, his Uncle Daniel included, had gathered at his door brandishing torches, their axes and swords gleaming in the flickering light. They began to hack at the cottage door, and it splintered easily within a few minutes.
There was a giant roar from his father as the men charged in shouting. The noise lessened as Joseph was dragged from the cottage. Steve ran to the window and saw his father being held down by six men. Joseph roared again and with Herculean strength threw them off. His uncle drew his sword and stood in between the cottage and his father.
Joseph stalked toward Uncle Daniel with no weapon in hand, a half-crazed look on his face. They were going to kill him, Steve realized. The villagers were going to murder his father. Steve ran back to the door and threw his whole body against it. It moved enough for him to squeeze out into the room.
Steve tried to slip by the men in the cottage, calling out, "Papa!"
He was grabbed roughly, and his skinny arm squeezed tight in the strong grip of their neighbor. The man threw Steve to the ground where he was caught by Sarah diving for him.
She crouched on the ground and clutched Steve tight to her chest, glaring at the man who had handled her child roughly. Blood trickled down from her forehead and into Steve's hair.
Steve struggled in her arms, calling out for his father again. Sarah covered Steve's mouth with her hand, and Steve felt bitterly betrayed. Why was she not fighting? There was a scream of agony outside, and the men in the cottage ran towards it. Sarah stepped toward the door still carrying Steve and gasped, quickly turning to obscure his view.
Sarah staggered backward several paces and fell into a chair, her whole body shaking. Her grip on Steve's mouth tightened, and Steve found himself struggling to breathe. He pulled at her hand with his stubby fingers, chest heaving, until Sarah came back to herself with a start and moved her hand. Steve sucked in breaths, feeling lightheaded. Sarah held him around his waist until all the men had left, having cast Joseph out of the town.
Steve's grandfather entered the cottage, his face turned to hardness. "If that thing comes back, don't let it in."
Sarah nodded, and Grandfather left without another word.
"Mama," Steve said. He pulled weakly against her grasp, exhausted from the night but unwilling to give up. “We must go after Papa. They hurt him!”
Sarah’s expression grew pinched as she struggled to keep hold of Steve. He shimmied down and bit her arm. Sarah yelped and released him. “What’s gotten into you, child?”
“Papa is hurt,” Steve said backing away. He adored his mother; she was so gentle and brave. He couldn’t understand why she hadn’t fought for them, why she was letting the village break their family apart. That she would act in a way that was cowardly--it was like his whole world had been tilted on its axis, and he couldn’t remember which way was up.
Sarah’s expression crumpled. “My sweet, brave boy.” She reached for him, and Steve recoiled from her touch. “There are things you are too young to understand.”
Steve felt his eyes prick with tears, soon flowing freely down his face. “I hate you! I want Papa.” He ran to his room and slammed the door. Steve fell asleep between hiccuping sobs, terrified he might never see his father again.
Steve awoke in the morning in his bed, feeling as tired as he’d been when he had slept off the tarquan flu. At breakfast, Sarah seemed hollow to him, no fire or fight left in her. She said nothing to anyone for several days. Steve boiled with seething anger, and he didn’t know if he’d be able to forgive her.
His mother had loved his father, of this Steve was certain. The last time Steve saw her laugh was when his father was in their cottage. It was the last time she had looked upon her son with delight.
Sarah still loved Steve, a fierce, wrathful love full of hawk-eyed protection from the villagers, but she no longer delighted in him. No longer smiled or touched him softly. And so from that night on, Steve grew with only the bare bones of love but none of the meat of it.
It was the custom of the village for children to receive their birth names from their fathers, and, upon entering adulthood, their final name from the village elders. Steve had no father, at least none that was recognized by the village, and his grandfather would bear him no name. The villagers took to calling him Any Child or Any for short.
Steve responded to it but with gritted teeth. Any Child might be the correct name for a bastard, worthless and alone, but Steve was born in love, given that name by a father who fought six men to be with him. Besides, his mother called him Steve in private, her small rebellion.
Steve mourned his father's absence but knew better than to talk of it. With time, details of him faded, until he was left with a gaping longing that was blurry and indistinct.
One summer when Steve was ten years old, he fell in love with a girl in the village. She was beautiful, with dark brown hair and eyes. Steve first saw her in a field outside of town collecting flowers for her mother's table. She was brave but shy, and had come right up to him, poked a finger out, and touched one of his protruding bottom teeth.
Steve had pretended to bite at her, and she squealed with delight. They walked next to one another holding hands, and Steve carried the basket, though his arms were scrawny.
They met most afternoons for two weeks, played chase in the field, and climbed trees together. Her name was Lorna, and Steve was sure they would be married. Right up until the moment Lorna's three brothers discovered them holding hands.
"Get away from her," one of them growled.
Lorna dropped his hand quickly and cowered in fear. Thinking he was protecting her, Steve stood between Lorna and her brothers. “Leave her alone,” he said.
They came closer and surrounded Steve. They beat him until he saw stars. They beat him until he saw nothing.
Steve awoke as he was being carried home by his grandfather. Sarah let forth a wounded cry at the sight of Steve bloodied and listless. Grandfather laid Steve on the bed and watched as Sarah tended to Steve's wounds. Once Sarah had trained to be a healer, but now no one wanted to be healed by the woman with the half-orc child. Desperate for wages, Sarah worked in the village mending women's clothes, occasionally sewing fancy pieces for weddings and naming days. She came home at night worn thin, all grit and no softness.
Sarah's skill was apparent as she washed the blood off Steve's lips and sewed a cut on his forehead closed. She moved quickly with deft hands and applied a healing salve of her own making to his wounds. Steve, ashamed and heartbroken, was too embarrassed to meet her eyes.
Both adults went into the living room to speak privately. Steve was dizzy and the room was spinning, but he stumbled to the door and peeked through a crack to watch them and listen to the words they were saying. Grandfather had not visited in two years.
“Thank you for bringing him home,” Sarah said.
Grandfather sat on the couch and took off his hat. Steve was surprised to see how much thinner his hair was, it hung lank and stringy around his face. He looked exhausted. “Perhaps,” he said at length, “it would be safer for him to live with his father.”
Steve could tell from the silence that Sarah's anger was boiling. It always made it hard for her to speak. “You say nothing to me for years, provide nothing when we are hungry-”
“You know why,” Grandfather replied harshly.
Sarah’s shoulders shook as she fought back sobs, and Steve longed to run to her. “I am your child, too.”
“You were,” he replied. “My heart’s not softened on this.”
Sarah was silent a long while, and Grandfather moved to stand up.
“They'll kill him there,” she said quietly.
"They might kill him here if he's not careful about it," he said.
"He's safe here. I'll see to it," Sarah said. Her eyes were red-rimmed and desperate. “If you would but get to know him, you might-"
"I'll have nothing to do with him. I can't afford to love an orc."
Sarah's shoulders slumped, but she righted herself with a steadying breath. "Thank you for bringing him home.”
Grandfather reached a hand towards her face, paused, and let it drop. His shoulders slumped as well, and he stepped heavily out of the room without saying goodbye.
Steve stepped hesitantly into the living room, still wobbly on his feet and unsure of whether he was wanted.
“Were you listening, my child?”
Steve nodded and sat beside her on the couch.
Sarah sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “And do you have any questions?”
"Why did they boys attack me?" Steve asked.
"You know why," Sarah said. "You're too much like me, that's the problem. Too stubborn by half and with a taste for danger."
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Sarah's eyes shot up. "You did nothing wrong, my child. It is only a good thing to love someone different than you. To see beyond the outside to the heart. You did a good thing, do you hear?"
Steve nodded, unsure of why his mother was so fierce about this. Sarah fetched him a glass of water and made him drink two big gulps.
“Mama,” he wanted to ask the real question, the one that tumbled shamefully behind his chest, poisoning his heart, “are orcs bad?” Sarah looked like her heart was being torn in two, and Steve hurried to finish before he lost his nerve. “That’s why the boys attacked me and Grandfather won’t talk to me. Is there,” he gulped in a breath fighting tears, “something wrong with me?”
Sarah pulled Steve to her chest, and he winced as the sudden movement pulled on his stitches. “Nothing’s wrong with you, sweet boy.”
“But orcs aren’t bad?” he said against her chest.
Sarah kissed the top of his head, still matted with dirt and blood. “No race is all good or bad. They’re all of them with good and bad people, that’s all.”
Steve leaned back so he could look in Sarah’s eyes. “Is Papa bad?” He hadn’t wanted to ask and wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer, but he had to know. There must be something wrong with him, for Lorna to run away, for Grandfather to spurn him.
Sarah’s smile was forced, strained, and Steve could feel the moment of softness between them dissolving. “He wasn’t bad, and neither are you.” Steve couldn’t name the expression on her face, some mixture of stubbornness and pain.
All at once he felt anger blaze through him. “Then why do we stay here?” he said. “Here, where they hate us. Why don’t we go to father?”
“It’s not safe,” Sarah said, dropping her hands from Steve’s shoulders in surprise.
“We could find a way, or send him a letter and have him get us.” If his father wasn’t bad and the human villagers hated them, it seemed so obvious to Steve that they should leave to live with the orcs. Guilt made Steve’s heart heavy and resentful, Sarah would be accepted if it weren’t for Steve. “I don't even remember his name.”
Sarah stood up and walked towards her room. “I’ll speak no more of this.”
“I hate it here,” Steve said quietly, trembling with anger and confusion.
Sarah paused, clearly having heard him. “I can live with that,” she said.
Steve stayed small and sickly until around his fourteenth birthday. He shot up first, skinny as a blade of grass and two heads taller than his schoolmates. The neighboring farmers let him work the fields in exchange for food and bread, occasional cuts of meat. The added food soon helped Steve grow thick and strong, his shoulders broad.
The other children made fun of Steve's large, heavy body, his green-tinted skin. But Steve could not hate his body, because he knew the truth. He had been born in love, and his body was evidence. He loved his body with the same affection he felt for the dim memories of his father.
By the time he reached eighteen, there was nothing in the village school for him to learn. The teachers were afraid to discipline him, and he had grown into a stubborn and willful young man. His anger towards his mother had never fully cooled, and she mostly left him to his own devices.
Steve spent most of his time in the woods, climbing in and out of canyons, scaling trees as they bent under his weight, barking back at the neighbor's dogs, and spear hunting for rabbits and small prey. Things had gotten easier for once he had gotten too large for bullies to take him on individually. Then, when goblins had raided the village, Steve had fought alongside the men and acquitted himself well with a staff. It hadn’t earned him belonging, but a begrudging acceptance of his use. Most people were content to leave him be.
One late spring day, Steve made his way to the river. He waded into the water, enjoying the squeeze of thick soil between his toes. When he pulled off his shirt and threw it to the grass, Steve noticed he was not alone.
"Shall I pay the toll or answer a riddle," a boy around his age named Usef said with a grin.
"I'm not a troll," Steve said grumpily.
"Leave me alone. Or I'll..." he trailed off, unable to think of a suitable threat. Steve didn't want him to be afraid, but he did want to be alone. Usef was fair and strong, thick chested though, still slight as most humans are.
"Or you'll what?" Usef said, stepping closer. He skipped a rock on the surface of the water so that it skidded past Steve. "Crush me with your hideous teeth?"
Steve waded deeper into the water, ignoring him.
"Clear off, troll. This is my fishing spot," he said.
"No one owns the river, Usef. Least of all you."
Usef hopped closer, skipping rocks around Steve until one popped off the water and hit him on the chin, smacking smartly against his green skin. He gritted his teeth.
"They slew the giant of Elomir like that," Usef said. "A host of men with rocks."
"I am neither troll nor giant, and I was here first."
Usef busied himself collecting more stones from the shore. "The villagers will not tolerate you much longer," he said. "When you were a baby they were content to ignore where you came from, but as you grow larger, and you have grown much larger, it becomes clearer that you don't belong here." He skipped another stone along the water, but Steve caught it before it hit him.
"You haven't much skill with this, let me show you how it's done," Steve said. He reached underneath the water for a large rock, roughly the size of Usef's head and threw it at him. The boy laughed and skittered out of the way.
"You are too slow, troll. That's why the villagers have no use for you. Lumbering, dumb, and slow.” With that, he threw a stone directly for Steve, and it caught him under the eye.
Steve saw red and then black. He surged out of the water gathering up a rock, this one the size of a bushel. “You take that back!”
Usef blanched, glancing between the rock and Steve’s face. He smiled. “What are you going to do about it? You can’t hurt me. They’d never forgive you.” His tone turned sickly sweet, pressing his advantage. “It is a shame, what your father did to your mother. Ruined a good woman.”
Steve cast the rock with all his might at the other boy. Usef made to jump away, but the laces of his boot got stuck on a branch, and Steve watched with a mixture of grim satisfaction and terror as the rock hit Usef solidly against the thigh with a sickening crunch.
Usef howled in pain and fell to the ground. He flinched back when Steve reached for him, but his laces were still snared on the rock, and he couldn’t retreat. Usef took heaving breaths between tears, and Steve felt a surge of contempt—he had learned to hide his pain long ago.
“My father will kill you,” Usef screamed.
Steve untied Usef’s laces and hefted him over his shoulder, uncaring whether he jostled him or not. “Can’t be worse than what I’m living now,” he said.
The next day, the village council was summoned by a loud clanging on the copper bell to determine what to do with Steve. The council consisted of the mayor and two men and two women appointed by the village. They sat behind a large oak table listening while Steve and Usef, whose leg was splinted with two branches of oak and bound with fresh linens, both gave their accounting of his injury.
Steve did his best to speak the truth fully and ignore the murmuring from the crowd. He was not afraid to speak his piece. Surely the elders would see that it was an accident, that he was provoked. One knows better than to provoke a bear, he told them.
“Are you a bear or a human, Any Child?" one of the elders asked him.
"He is no more a child," Sarah said. "Two months have passed since his 18th birthday, and the elders have not agreed upon his name nor given work in the village. What wonder you that he tarry in the wilderness?"
Steve wished Sarah would let him handle this on his own, but she had insisted on speaking in his defense.
"We do not have a name for him," a stern-faced elder said snidely. "He has yet to prove the content of his character.”
"He is strong and smart and a son of this village," Sarah said. Steve schooled himself to hide his surprise. His mother rarely spoke fondly of him.
The first elder spoke again. “Well spoken, Sarah. Any Child has demonstrated his bravery when protecting the town from goblins. Where was Usef? Hiding under his bed, perhaps?”
Usef scowled, clearly not having expected the meeting to go this way.
The mayor joined in, “We have thought of a role for him, though this is hardly the ideal time to propose it. Once, there was a guard who lived on Center Street who questioned strangers entering the villagers and expelled our enemies. The guard post has not been used these many years and is need of repair, but if he wishes, Any Child may take up this job and be provided a small salary to keep the village safe."
"And who keeps us safe from him?" Usef's father asked. "Let us not forget why we are here."
The mayor sighed. "See to your own child, Seymore, and let the village see to this one."
There was grumbling between the villagers assembled, but Steve spoke up. "And a name? Will you give me a name?"
The mayor’s face was pinched, and he glanced at the other elders before looking apologetically at Steve. "As has already been said, a name is a prize given by the elders to attest to your character. We have spent many hours discussing this but have reached no consensus. Give it time. Perhaps a name will come to us."
"You have had eighteen years, one would think it would not take so long to find one," Steve said. It was bad mannered, he knew, but he’d always struggled to leash his tongue.
"It is not so simple as that,” the stern elder said. “There is more than the matter of your behavior. Your heritage, through no fault of your own, nonetheless sends a message, and we were willing to shelter you as a child and keep you in the village employ as an adult, but to have a name is to be one of us.”
Steve could tell many villagers were pleased with this pronouncement. His mother's fists were clenched, and she practically vibrated in rage. Steve saw in her a countdown before a terrible fight, but it did not seem worth it to him. Why fight to be part of a village that hated him?
"My father's name, then," Steve said. "If you'll not give me my name, give me my father's name that I might find him, prove my character, and get a name from him."
The villagers whispered in hushed tones, but Steve had eyes only for the council. “I will not speak his name here," the mayor said firmly.
"Write it down, then."
The mayor's cheeks reddened with anger. "Impertinent lad! We have only ever sought to protect you. Fine. You may have your father's name but once given, you may never return. No one who seeks Orc company deserves village protection."
Steve stared straight ahead. It was a price he was willing to pay. "Agreed."
Sarah's stepped between the council and Steve. "You'll not cast my child out," she demanded.
"Peace, woman," an elder replied wearily. "You've said yourself he is a child no longer." He turned to Steve, "Your father's name is Joseph of Crested City, tall as two trees. Now, begone and do not return."
Joseph, Steve thought. It stirred up some memories in Steve, a shadowy reflection of his father’s face. "Thank you,” Steve said. “I shall leave at once." He strode out of the meeting hall with his mother hot on his heels.