The Orc nameth Krapp, created soulless, thus did discovereth he had one.
The war had left countless widows, and innumerable men who’d survived, but were invalids from injuries. Hunger was rampant. Despair scented the air like rotting flowers.
And children without homes. For many women were killed too. Even though they did not fight, women were often brutalized by the armies of men as they marched through.
The village Andylyr visited was named Boverroth, and did not appear on any maps. The reason why was her mother, who had fallen in love with a Mithrandia named Jáfia.
Jáfia raped and killed Andylyr’s mother—with Andylyr, their child, waiting in the womb. Physicians cut Andylyr out just in time, and she survived.
Jáfia didn’t. Confronted by his brethren near what soon became the Black Gates, the Mithrandia judged Jáfia, then burned his body to ash.
The cause of the deadly conflict between Jáfia and Rothtia (whom Tia was named after) was never discovered. What became known was the curse Jáfia put on Boverroth. It made the entire village effectively invisible to outsiders. Worse, it erased all memory of its existence from the minds of men, Elfkind, Orckind, Dwarves, even Mithrandia. Maps were redrawn. Those staring down at them and seeing the designation of Boverroth shook their heads. There was no such village!
Those who had family or relatives from there forgot about them. If confronted by them, they’d stare blankly back and claim they were thieves or con men. Whole families were forever sundered.
In less than a generation, Boverroth disappeared from all recollection and history.
Many of the villagers left. Orphaned by the curse, they made their way into Middle Earth and started anew. If they ever spoke of Boverroth, they were met with scorn and laughter, or treated as insane and hung in public squares. Many, lonely and desperate, killed themselves.
Somehow the village survived. The citizens of Boverroth found their cursed status very freeing. An unspoken oath passed between the citizenry never to speak of their quiet enclave nestled against the forested foothills of Morgai. If they ventured forth to other lands and the cities therein and were asked, they’d lie. “I’m from Minas Tirith, my good sir!”
Minas Tirith, which was visible just over the summits of the nearest western hills.
Boverroth began growing again, even prospering. It became a thing of pride to be from there. And when the war came, it became lifesaving to be a citizen.
For men from anywhere else couldn’t see it, and neither could Elves, and neither could Orcs or Dwarves or Mithrandia. Not even Sauron could see it.
The war raged, but Boverrothians were safe. They kept up with the horrific news pouring in from the front, and they prayed for their estranged families. The Village Council made a proclamation: that any man who refused to join the war would not be judged a coward.
A hundred or so men felt guilty for not fighting and left to join the army (all but a handful perished); but by and large the populace chose to remain safely ensconced within their cursed anonymity.
“I do not understand,” said Krapp as Andylyr finished speaking and went to the sink and began drying dishes left there by Tia, who was out riding Shygar.
“Go on,” said Andylyr, glancing over her shoulder.
“The village you visit ... is invisible?”
She shook her head. “No. It’s visible to all. Anyone can see it. What the curse does is erase the image instantly from a person’s mind once they turn away. It also ... what’s the word? ... It dissuades people from looking in that direction in the first place once they get close enough.”
“Travelers too?” asked Krapp, who had joined her at the sink and put the dishes into the cupboards with her thanks. “What if travelers run across it?”
She shook her head again. “They don’t. The roads leading there are cursed too. I’ve watched travelers. They treat the village as though it isn’t a village but a great cliff or mountainside, or something very dangerous. I’ve seen maps. Most describe a dangerous wood surrounding an impassable peak. Some show a canyon. Some show nothing but mountains and forest. It’s incredible that the mapmakers haven’t consulted each other. That’s how powerful the curse is.”
“Amazing,” whispered Krapp.
“Indeed,” said Andylyr.
“And you and Tia ... are cursed?”
“Yes. Yes, of course you are,” said Krapp. “Of course.”
He glanced at her. “Am I?”
“No. Which is why I’m talking to you about it. Actually, it’s one of several reasons why I’m talking to you about it.”
“You have become ... well, Mr. Krapp, you have become a valued and honored member of our family this past year. Tia ... my goodness! She looks upon you as a friend and a mentor. She’d walk to the ends of Middle Earth for you! And I ...”
She seemed to struggle with words. Her eyes glistened.
Krapp had learned enough about human emotions and expressions the past year to know what she was trying to say but couldn’t. He did what humans would do, and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I feel the same way about you,” he said. “For you and the little one, I too would walk to the ends of Middle Earth.”
Andylyr blinked rapidly and smiled.
They went back to drying and putting away dishes.
The main reason she had brought up The Curse of Boverroth (as it was formally called) was that, as a beloved member of her family ...
“I want to know if you’d like to be cursed as well,” she said.
It was suppertime, and Tia had returned from her ride. She glanced excitedly at him and nodded enthusiastically. “Please, Krapp, please?” she begged. “It’ll protect you!”
“Tia,” said her mother warningly. “We don’t know that. It might protect him. We just don’t know.”
Tia was turning into a beautiful young human. She had grown three inches since rescuing Krapp. Her eleventh birthday was a month ago, and he had watched in puzzlement and wonder as Andylyr made her a “cake” (delicious, though it looked like a white sculpted mound of horse droppings) and brought her gifts, including a lovely blue and white-checkered dress. She was still a here-and-there bundle of energy and enthusiasm; but a vein of considered quiet had settled into her, one that increasingly kept her from speaking until she thought matters through. She had become much more concerned with appearances and maintaining her strawberry-blonde hair, which had grown down to her shoulder blades. There were children her age in the village, and Andylyr occasionally allowed her to ride Shygar there to be with them. That was where she had spent the day.
“What must I do if I wish to be cursed?” asked Krapp.
“Well, now, that’s the difficult part,” said Andylyr, bringing a fork-speared piece of buttered squash to her mouth. She chewed, swallowed, sipped some water, and added, “Over the years we’ve found a way to include others in the curse—which means adding you as a member of the village. That won’t be easy. You are, after all ...”
“... an Orc,” he sighed.
“My best friend!” said Tia defiantly. She punched his arm.
He smiled uneasily at her, then glanced back at her mother. “I am sorry, Andylyr,” he said, “I am still uncertain.... Why would I want to do this—to be cursed?”
“The curse would protect you, silly!” said Tia before her mother could stop her. “I already told you!”
“That’s our hope,” said Andylyr. “Boverrothians are rarely harassed outside the curse’s border. The curse makes us inconsequential to foreigners of all races. They don’t look at us unless we work to make our presence known, and even then it isn’t sure. That would very much favor you should you ever find yourself outside the curse’s borders—for obvious reasons.”
“Because I’m an Orc,” he murmured.
He thought of refusing right away, and made to say so, but stopped himself just before speaking. Something deep inside warned him to shut up and think of it.
He had gone nowhere in the year he had been here. It was very easy to see himself never leaving this blessed home and family. He’d be perfectly happy becoming old and dying in his comfy bed right here without ever again venturing back into Middle Earth.
But the war had taught him that nothing remained untouched by change. And many times that change was harsh if not deadly.
He glanced down at his clothes when it came suddenly clear to him. “These are ... from soldiers ... dead soldiers ...”
He looked up. Andylyr nodded sadly.
“What must I endure ... to be cursed?”
Tia spoke up. “It’s really cool! It’s called the Smiting Stone! I ...”
She glanced at her mother, who was shaking her head.
She glanced at Krapp. “Sorry.”
“Tia knows our history perhaps more than I’m comfortable with,” said Andylyr, smiling with strained patience at her. “Where Jáfia was destroyed by his fellow Mithrandia is a stone. It was where he was standing when judgment was passed on him. It is known only to Boverrothians. It is at the Black Gates.”
Krapp shook his head emphatically. “We cannot go there! I was there when Sauron died! The land! It’s gone!”
“There is a canyon now, yes,” said Andylyr. “We have sent scouts in the past year to investigate. But the Smiting Stone remains. It sits on the edge of the canyon, right at the lip.”
“If I am caught out there ...”
“If the Council approves you, there will be guards escorting you. And I will be there too.”
Krapp caught the subtext. He had learned much this past year. He had studied Andylyr and Tia—their expressions, how they walked or talked when they were in various moods, how they looked in different clothes or even differences when they ate or drank various foods and beverages.
If the Orcs had bothered learning about their enemy, he reasoned, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so easily defeated! Instead they came at Men with the brute stupidity of a hammer, and were in their arrogance shattered.
Tia had fallen silent. She stared at Krapp as he stared at her mother.
“You will be there too ...” he began.
She chuckled soundlessly. “You continually surprise me, Mr. Krapp,” she said, wiping her mouth with a napkin. She nodded. “I am the love child of a Mithrandia and a human.”
“Your powers,” he whispered. He chuckled, which made Tia chuckle (she loved it when he chuckled, because it sounded “very cute,” she told him).
Andylyr shrugged and nodded.
As far as history could tell, there was no such thing as a female Mithrandia.
“I’m not a full Mithrandia,” she declared after the dishes had been cleaned and Tia had gone to bed. Krapp sat with her in the living room.
She had served him something called “whiskey” in a small glass. It tasted like Warg piss, and it burned going down, and he had coughed at first, and almost gagged. But then a pleasant warmth spread from his belly into his fingertips, and a smile formed almost involuntarily on his mouth, and he sipped again, this time much more tentatively, and the warmth increased.
He hissed in satisfaction, relaxed in his seat, and sighed.
“It tastes like Warg piss,” he rasped, staring at the liquid in his glass. “But ... for some reason ... I cannot identify ... I like it!”
She laughed soundlessly and sipped from her glass, then set it down.
“I have the power to heal. I have the power to ... well, loosely put, grant wishes. It’s how I created your bedroom and bathroom. I saw that you were happy here. I have a strong kinship with the earth, though maybe not as strong as yours!”
“When I met Tia, she pretended to be the physician she says looks after her. But ... if you can heal ... then ...”
Andylyr grinned. “We visit the village physician to keep up appearances. Villagers don’t know about my powers. It’s a secret I’ve kept my entire life. Only Tia knows about them. And now ... you.”
More subtext, he reasoned as he watched her. What was she trying to tell him?
“I truly am part of your family,” he said after another sip.
She leaned forward and refreshed his glass, put the cap back on the bottle, and leaned back.
“I wouldn’t ask you to risk your life if this weren’t of the utmost importance to me, to Tia, to us, this family. That includes you, Mr. Krapp. I’ve said it before: Tia would walk to the ends of the earth for you. I can’t and won’t ignore that. I just can’t. She’s never had a father. She’s never had a single male in her life worth a damn. Until you. You’re worth a damn to her. And to me.”
Krapp didn’t know what to say. He stared at the amber liquid in his grip. He took another sip and nodded.
This was where he wanted to be. Here. Right here. Forever. And he would die to protect these two.
He looked up. Andylyr waited with a pleading smile.
He nodded again.
One of Andylyr’s Mithrandic “connections to the earth” involved, funnily enough, plumbing. Specifically, hot water. She had, over the years, coaxed water from a hidden
springs nearby towards the home. She had somehow
integrated the earth beneath the home into a network of pipes that diverted hot
water into the kitchen and bathrooms, including his.
The first time he had a hot bath was almost a religious experience. It occurred a little more than a month ago, just after she’d finally gotten the water to his spigot. It was an interesting sight watching her on her hands and knees as she very slowly advanced towards his bathroom. She’d move only an inch or so every few minutes. Certainly not faster than that.
She’d work at night, after dinner, and only if she wasn’t totally beat from the day, which occurred maybe one out of every four days. She was spending time in Boverroth and nearby villages with widows and injured men, and with orphans, whom she worked at finding new homes for. When she could (and always surreptitiously), she called up her healing powers. It was trying, exhausting, emotional work.
In order to lend a hand, he decided to learn to cook, so that when she returned she wouldn’t be saddled with yet another draining chore.
His initial efforts were met with forced smiles and kind excuses for why both were “already full” from snacks they had earlier, but also with encouragement to continue trying.
(Truth be told, even he couldn’t find much to recommend them.)
He continued trying. The forced smiles and kind excuses slowly disappeared. A few months later he received his first genuine compliments, the very first coming from Tia (“This is good, Krapp! What is it?”), and the second following immediately from Andylyr, who, trying to figure out what she was eating, swallowed tentatively and said, “This is quite interesting—and tasty!”
Soon they had their favorites, and would often request them:
“Krapp, I’m really hungry for your Grumpy Orc Stew!”
“Mr. Krapp, I could really go for that dish you made recently—what did you call it?—‘Stuffed Potatoes in Krapp’s Own Gravy Sauce’? That was quite good. Would you mind making that again soon?”
As with gardening, he soon found that he had a knack for integrating the bounty he tended outside, and very much enjoyed experimenting.
Andylyr had gone to the village all day yesterday, so he made dinner (his own tasty mushroom and cheese sandwiches), anxious for her return. She had gone not only to help the orphans and veterans, but to meet with the Village Council to request his formal membership into Boverroth’s citizenry by means of the Curse of Jáfia.
She returned looking very tired but hopeful. “I spoke with Strurilang,” she told him. “She’s the Council Chair, the village’s most powerful citizen. I told her ... well, I told her the truth, that you’re an Orc. She was alarmed at first, but then calmed as I explained what a kind, helpful, decent soul you are. She wants to meet you—but privately, and in secret, too. She believes that the villagers aren’t quite ready to welcome an Orc into the village, especially the veterans and widows. Are you open to meeting with Strurilang privately, Mr. Krapp?”
He held up.
“You look very concerned,” she went on, “and I can’t blame you. But I’ve known Strurilang for many years. She’s an honorable woman. She was one of my mother’s best friends. I can’t really say much about the others on the Council, but it may not matter in the end what they think. Strurilang has great influence in Boverroth.”
He took a steadying breath. “I fear I will never ... be seen as ...”
“Worthy?” She asked. “Equal? Human?”
“I am concerned only with the first two. I am not human.”
“No,” she declared, “you are not. You are a member of a race that was bred for one purpose—to destroy Men. You were bred soulless,” she went on, looking increasingly determined and upset, “but I ask what is worse: being born with a soul, as all human beings are, then destroying that soul via greed and violence, or simply behaving as you were born to behave? What do you think, Mr. Krapp?”
Tia had long since gone to bed per Andylyr’s insistence so that she could speak to Krapp alone. She had protested, as she had a few nights before, but did as told. He tucked her in, as had long since become customary, and closed the door behind him. “We’ll figure it out,” she declared before he stood and left. “It will all work out, Krapp. Just watch!”
He thought that he wanted a hot bath. That sounded really good. A bath and bed. Then a nice day working in the garden and tending the horses, which he also enjoyed doing.
Andylyr watched him patiently.
“I think that you think differently than most others of your race,” he said quietly, and not without a strain of hopelessness in his voice.
“Which one?” she asked, giving him a look of pained sympathy that told him she had heard that hopelessness. “I’m a half-breed—part Mithrandia, which is entirely comprised of men, as in males, and part human! And I’m a woman! I’m a half-breed human!” she exclaimed. “It’s the race of Men, after all. Men. It was a war between Sauron and Men. Not humans! Not humanity! Not women! Men! As though half of the species doesn’t exist!
“You see, Mr. Krapp, I can sense your fear and trepidation. I know both quite intimately. I’m a woman in a man’s world! I’m thirty-nine years old and can’t find a human male partner because all these so-called men are intimidated and put off that I am independent and don’t need them. I can take care of myself, and a daughter!”
She stood and sat next to him. “I know what you’re going through, Mr. Krapp. I really do. You’re an Orc, and I’m a woman. It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re literally treated no differently in that—” she pointed emphatically—“out there, in a man’s world!”
Andylyr had gone back to Boverroth in the morning to meet once more with Strurilang. She wanted to firm up the meeting, to ensure it stayed a secret, and to plan the next steps. Last night after their talk, Krapp had gone straight to bed instead of having his bath. He was depressed and exhausted.
He didn’t sleep well at all. He tossed and turned all night to the point that he decided when he woke that he would tell Andylyr that he had no interest in being cursed with the villagers, that he would like instead to remain here, at this home, and serve them, to be a valued member of their lives. That was all he wanted. He would take his chances that the world beyond would not intrude and harass him.
He understood their desire to see that he remained safe. The curse would do that, especially against the wider world, which, he was certain, would forever despise Orcs. But the potential problems were too great to overcome. Boverroth was entirely peopled by humans—the very race that had, through tremendous effort, sacrifice, and blood, just defeated Sauron and his manufactured and soulless race of Orcs. The knowledge that one still lived would probably make them violent with rage. More so than they normally were.
And so he had woken early to talk to Andylyr, who typically rose at sunrise. But she had already left for Boverroth.
Frustrated, he made tea and waited for Tia to wake, which she did within the hour. He made her a cup and sat. She stared at him, then reached for his hand.
“I never knew my father,” she said.
He blinked. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder until now.
“Your ... father?” he asked, dumbfounded.
She stared into her cup, which issued lazy curls of steam.
“Momma doesn’t talk about him. He was lost in a battle with Dwarves that were really evil.” She caught herself and said, quickly, “I mean, not evil, I guess ... I mean ...”
“They were in league with Sauron,” he guessed.
“It was before he became ... you know ... super powerful. Before he got all those armies. He was making ... you know ...”
She glanced sheepishly at him.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”
“Do you believe the Orcs were ... you know ... evil?” she asked with obvious delicacy.
He thought for a long time before answering.
“They ... we ... I ... I ... I was created with the intent to do evil. Does that make me, the creation, evil, or my creators?”
She didn’t answer. She gazed at him with those sweet, understanding eyes, and he knew he loved her, that he was capable of love, that love lived in him, that he loved Andylyr as well, and this home, and this life.
“Do you miss your father?” he asked.
“I never knew him,” she repeated.
“Oh, that’s right. Apologies, Tia.”
“You’d be a good father,” she said. “You’re not mean, you’re helpful, you take care of the home, you tuck me in at night, and Momma really likes you!”
He chuckled. “But I am not human.”
She punched his arm. He expected it this time, and so it did not startle him. “But you’re still everything a good father should be!”
He massaged his arm where she had punched it. “Thank you, Tia.”
Andylyr didn’t return home when expected. Two hours later, Tia was frantic. The sun was setting; very soon it would be too dark to travel.
At least for humans.
“What should we do?” she cried. “Something must have happened to her! She would never be this late! She knows how dangerous it is to be out after dark! She warns me all the time! What do we do, Krapp?”
For the Orc named Krapp, the sole survivor of his entire race, who would’ve been happy spending the rest of his days in this home taking care of these humans whom he had come to love and cherish, the moment his soul came fully alive was at hand, and he met it, by means of this grave choice, face-on.
“I am an Orc,” he declared. “I was created to see at night, to move swiftly and stealthily at night, to be fearless and fearsome.”
He stood and gazed down at Tia, who was crying. “Come, child. You know the way to Boverroth, and I can see quite well at night. Let us saddle Shygar and be quickly on our way.”
He stood and gazed down at Tia, who was crying. “Come, child. You know the way to Boverroth, and I can see quite well at night. Let us saddle Shygar and be quickly on our way.”