The years went by pleasantly, the Steppe becoming the first real home Uncle Stone had ever known since his childhood. The blood-rage that accompanied a Wvorgi’s abilities often dominated their user, making personal relationships difficult if not dangerous. He loved but let go of a great woman — Deili, Khalen’s eldest — fearing the power’s prophecy and keeping himself apart. He instead provided his skills wherever needed to the village at large, and slowly, reluctantly, a bond of kinship took root. It became the hearth of his home, and he allowed himself a small measure of happiness, distant from the individual villagers as he was.
His Wvorgi kinsmen had been family too, of course, but that was a different kind of brotherhood — one built on flashing steel and the careful restraint of their blood-rage: forever meting their powers out with care, knowing if the lust overcame any one of them, their brothers would not hesitate to end their unquenchable fury. They all risked succumbing to it, and most did eventually. Such ends were how Uncle Stone came to be the last of the Wvorgi, the blood on his hands perhaps invisible now, but no less bright in his mind. The kinship he had found in the village was not as strong as among his old brethren, but it was far less volatile. It was a life no Wvorgi ever expected to be his and yet, here he was. He had been the last, lingering only because killing oneself was anathema to the Wvorgi code. Now he was the only, a very different fate in its meaning, if not so much in the word used for it.
The seasons marched by. The youths of the village began to leave as they grew up, no longer wanting to live in earthen huts and tend animals while cities grew and wars raged afar in the rest of Yeniden. Stone couldn’t exactly blame them. The mundanity they hated was the mundanity that had attracted him to the Steppe. He supposed that was fitting: that he should die and go out with the older world of bygone eras, but there was no reason the younger generation had to, as well. And so it went, the children and grandchildren leaving, the residents aging, and time inexorably marching on in the attrition of both old and new. Uncle Stone kept chickens, traded eggs and goat’s milk, harvested vegetables from his garden, and walked the length of the Steppes daily to stay fit. It was a much more peaceful life than he had previously known. Or so he thought.
One day, a missive arrived for him. It was so unusual for him to get mail that Brodin, now in his 40’s, delivered the letter personally. Uncle Stone knew it could only come from his brother, as he had been the only one who knew that Stone still lived and where to find him. On the outside of the scroll was a military wax seal and sigil from Scythe Fort, a well-fortified town that had managed to elude much of the ravages visited on its neighbors in the north, thanks to the Fort’s high walls and, of course, its new allegiance to the Krygon Empire.
War was brutal. Uncle Stone knew this well. It had taken his parents. It was why he had become a Wvorgi. It left many children as orphans, and many a parent childless. Now it seemed his niece had joined those ranks of the bereaved as well.
Living a quiet life at the Village on the Steppe, he could think of no reason not to take the girl in. She would be safer on the Steppe than in any city, he reasoned. She was part Wvorgi, even if she was not a warrior. He could at least provide her a home and the means to defend herself so that something of their people might survive.
Gathering up a small pack of supplies, he asked Deili, now a widower, to have her daughter tend to his animals, and he began the long walk down from the Steppe and to Scythe Pass, where Scythe Fort sat atop the road south, crouching like an older spider.
A little shy of a week later, he came to the gargantuan wooden gate and waited outside with the refugees seeking asylum from the Krygon war. It was just before dawn. As the sun came up, the gate opened, its massive pulley system discharging wooden groans under the weight of the solid oaken doors. The crowd clamored to get inside. Reaching the front gate had not been enough for them. Men, women, and children were anxious to get past the walls and know for certain they had reached the end of their fraught journeys.
The guards sorted the newcomers out, turning some away, splitting some up, and allowing most of the individuals traveling alone inside the Fort. Uncle Stone waited off to the side near a big tree. He watched the people who had been turned away straggle off to a small camp on the left, in a stand of scraggly pine trees near the river. From the stalls and the gaps in the wood, he judged the building had once been a drafty stables for couriers. Now, those rejected used it to wait to be permitted inside Scythe Fort. Their children crying, they would huddle in the stables to try again the next day, fully dependent on the kindness of passing strangers until then.
One of the guards waved Uncle Stone forward. According to his uniform, his name was Chilali. From the cut of the man’s uniform and the color of his hat, he carried at least the rank of corporal and was in charge of those guarding the gate.
“State your business,” Corporal Chilali said. His tone was sharp and abrupt. Bags around his eyes made the soldier look older than Stone knew he must be.
In response, Stone held out his missive. The soldier took one look at the sigil in the corner of the letter and motioned him to enter the city.
“The barracks are two streets to the left and half a street up. The last of the child refugees are being housed there, separate from the soldiers.”
Uncle Stone nodded and then, as a final courtesy, pushed his hood back to reveal who he was.
The corporal looked at him then, really looked at him, and saw the Wvorgi markings usually hidden by his cloak. The man’s breath caught at the sight. He hesitated a moment, then said, “If you do not find her there, check the brothels.”
Stone clenched his jaw, his mind reciting the mantra that kept him at peace. It would be easy to chalk such a mistake up to the heartlessness of war, to comfort oneself with the cold, placatory excuse that these were extraordinary times, when people were at their best and worst simultaneously, but in truth, Stone knew illness of the spirit was slavering, insatiable, and ever-present, war or not. He gave the young man a curt nod and went on his way. The corporal let out a breath he had not realized he had been holding, barking irritably at his comrade to return to duty when asked what was the matter.
Stone reached the barracks quickly. At the office beside them, a tattered red sheet hung down in the place of a door. The soldier on duty, another corporal, named Fausk, impatiently reached for the missive in Stone’s hand as he approached. The young man’s eyes widened slightly as he read it, but the expression was gone as fast as it appeared. He grimly handed the paper back.
Uncle Stone began inside the barracks, but an arm blocked his path.
“Our sergeant allowed her to be taken only moments ago.” The soldier dropped his arm. “I’m sorry. They are supposed to go to taverns for work if no one comes for them.”
“The trip here took a week. I left the day I received this message,” Uncle Stone told him.
“That girl has been here for six months with no one to claim her.” The soldier’s response was careful and guarded. “She has written you a dozen letters in that time.”
“I received none of them. I came the moment I knew she was here.”
The look on the guard’s face at that moment was volatile, incendiary. “Sergeant Skelnik has been the one to send the letters. I sent the one in your hand at her request. By the Mogul, he will hang for this.”
Uncle paused, still one foot stepped half inside the barracks. He peered through the red curtain, and his eyes adjusted. He could see four boys sitting on the floor at the back of the room, rolling a ball between them. On a cot nearby, a young woman sat, using string to measure the height of a handful of girls. On the ground in front of her, several others sat and watched; a few of them cried and held each other. After a moment, the woman doing the measuring nodded at a man standing impatiently in the aisle. By the cut of his clothes, Stone knew he must be the sergeant in command.
Corporal Fausk started into the barracks, but Stone seized him. As the corporal turned back, scowling, Stone shoved up his sleeve and raised his arm. The young man stopped in his tracks as soon as he saw the markings on Stone’s forearm. Uncle Stone shook his head for Fausk to stay back, then he went inside alone.
The girl being measured recoiled as he walked in. To the woman wielding the string, she begged, “Do not send me to that place! My family will come for me. Please, please! They will come!”
Sergeant Skelnik moved swiftly and grabbed her arm to drag her out. The girl stomped on his foot and tried to wrench herself from his grasp, but he was too strong and shook her roughly. Spittle dotted the edges of his mouth as he snarled, “One pair of black eyes is enough for this morning, don’t you think? Or would you like to match Akeia when you join her?”
Stone closed the distance to the sergeant and the girl, coming up the aisle beside him. He held u his missive, flicking the seal it bore pointedly.
“Sorry, friend. She’s spoken for,” Skelnik grumbled, noticing Stone for the first time. He followed Stone’s gaze, locked on the girl, and continued with a sneer, “If a young thing is what you’re after, she’ll be at the Rose soon enough. You’ll be able to knock the dew off her and won’t have to worry about her following you home for a meal afterward, as they do.”
“I have heard enough.” Uncle Stone moved swiftly, breaking the man’s knee with a hard kick. “Let me relieve you of the burden of being a decent person, since such a thing is too much for you.”
The leg snapped back with a wet crack, like a thick bundle of celery flexed between the hands. The sergeant instinctively tried to step away but howled in pain as his leg failed to hold any weight. “You… bastard! I’ll have your head for this!”
Guards entered the barracks in a sudden swarm, with staffs and swords drawn, tightly surrounding Uncle Stone. Uncle Stone shoved the sleeves back on both arms and held them up, exposing the the cobalt markings of the Wvorgi as warning. Reverence abruptly silenced the room. Quite a few of the weapons pointed at him began to shake, their wielders never having seen such a legend in person. They were all too young to have seen the kind justice the Wvorgi meted out to their victims, but like most on the Yeni border, they had heard the legends of their ferocity and abilities.
Uncle bent over the officer he had incapacitated. “These orphans are under your protection, yet you abuse them and sell them to the brothels,” he said coldly and then stomped the man’s other knee. “You’re going to have some trouble doing that again, I think, now that your fellow soldiers know what you’ve really been up to. At fourteen, my niece is far too young to choose brothel work, but it seems that was of no importance to a snake like you.”
A few of the soldiers appeared disgusted but relieved: grateful that someone else, someone of authority, had finally said it out loud and granted them the implicit permission to go against their sergeant and fellow soldier. Weapons aimed at Uncle Stone moved from him to the man writhing in pain on the floor.
Fury was in the sergeant’s eyes, but pain colored his face bright red. He said through gritted teeth, “Madam Nylark will have your head for this.”
Uncle Stone looked back at the others. “This man is going to need a healer before justice befalls him. Have the children ready to travel when I return. They will be leaving with me. Who is the second-in-command?”
A corporal raised his hand with a healthy dose of hesitation.
“You are relieved of duty. Corporal Fausk? I am putting you in charge while these two men are investigated for their crimes. Make sure to alert the local constabulary that there will be a commotion at Dew on the Rose.”
“Yes, sir. Can I ask why there will be a commotion?”
“Because I intend to make one.”
Fausk swallowed, but he nodded, relief in his eyes. “They children will be here, sir, waiting for you.”
Uncle Stone bowed to the soldier, then — leaving his forearms bare and his hood down — he made his way to the Dew on the Rose. Around him, the crowd took notice, giving him a wide berth. He had forgotten how easily a sea of people in a marketplace parted at the sight of a Wvorgi.
As soon as he came within sight of the brothel, screaming rang out from a window above the door. Stone yanked the door open and followed the screams to a room upstairs. There, a girl with wet hair and two blackened eyes fought like a wildcat against the two women trying to dress her. As she saw him enter the room, saw his markings and his hair, she stopped, her eyes gone wide in disbelief. The two women pounced on the opportunity, yanking a dress over her small, slip-covered frame.
Finally, one turned to look where the girl was looking. Immediately, she dropped the pair of shoes she was holding. The second one, attention still affixed on the girl, snatched up the shoes and grumbled, “Have you gone off, throwing shoes at me, you nitty?”
The first woman did not respond, her eyes glued on Uncle Stone. The second finally noticed the direction of her gaze and turned slowly. The bluster went straight out of her as she laid eyes on the Wvorgi. The shoes fell for a second time.
His gaze sought no one but the girl’s. Once he had caught her eye, Uncle Stone flicked his head towards the door. She broke from the women and hurried toward him, and he caught her in his arms. “Akeia?”
She nodded. “U-Uncle?”
His stern expression finally softened as he nodded. “Thank you for surviving,” he said, a soft Wvorgi proverb. Then, “Go gather any other girls that have been sent here. We’re taking them all with us.”
Tears crested the bruised and swollen purple flesh around her eyes, and Akeia looked down to hide them. Uncle Stone felt a nudge upon his heart, knowing she must have believed, all of this time, that he had simply chosen not to come get her. He lifted a blanket from a chair in the corner and wrapped it around her shoulders. That simple action was enough to cause her tears to fall, but she did not make a sound, and she hurried from the room to do as he said.
The two women stood stock still, with hard, untrusting expressions. They clearly were expecting the worst, but Uncle Stone paid them no mind. He simply went back downstairs and stood by the door, waiting for Akeia.
Madam Nylark, the brothel owner, came out of a room off the parlor with a growl. “What’s the meaning of this?”
Stone crossed his arms and leaned against the door. “Your latest acquisitions will be coming with me.”
“Why? I have their papers; they’re all of age to work here,” she snapped.
“Is that so?” he asked, and he stopped his leaning upon the door.
She tensed as he stood to his full height, his posture no longer promising a lazy threat but an active one. “I do not traffic in children,” she insisted. Stone could see the uncertainty in her eyes, however.
“My niece is a child. Just fourteen years old. You took her just this morning.” Whether the woman was ignorant about her acquisitions and their ages, Stone could not tell. “Your pipeline from the barracks is gone now. You’ll be able to obtain no young women from there anymore.”
Nylark started to say something, but she stopped as his niece and three other girls descended the stairs. Akeia walked the girls to Stone’s side, then turned and approached the brothel owner. Akeia clenched her jaw and stared up at Nylark, her young face a mask of cold, barely-controlled rage. She raised her hand, and the sound of a slap rang out through the parlor. Several women gasped.
Nylark took the slap, her gaze never leaving Uncle Stone, just visible over Akeia’s shoulder. She watched him with narrowed, calculating eyes as she stooped to spit blood on the floor, but she said nothing as he left with the teenagers she’d conscripted. She, too, had heard her fair share of stories about the Wvorgi. She knew better than to challenge him outright, but as the door closed behind him, Uncle Stone had the distinct feeling it was not the last he would ever see of her.
By the time they left the city, all eleven girls from the barracks, four from the Rose, as well as a few boys from elsewhere in the city were in their group. Uncle Stone purchased a wagon and horses for the ride, as well as some provisions from an shopkeeper. The small group then set out for Arondzei.
As they left, three more families were allowed into the gates, and as they were driven away, the children in the wagon watched the children in the stables gather their belongings to happily traipse inside the walled city.
In the years that followed, the Village on the Steppe found itself transformed with the arrival of Akeia and the orphans, turning from a dying community to a thriving one, where the laughter of children rang down the mountainside. For a time, it was a beautiful place to live, even as the war raged on in Yeniden. The children were safe, the aging residents happy (no matter how much they grumbled about being otherwise), and Uncle knew a new kind of peace for the first time in his life: this one of family, of community, belonging, and acceptance. Now more than some stern protector, he had become a kind of Great Father, a patriarch among the villagers.
It was more than he could have asked for, more than he ever dreamed, but still he remembered back to the sour look of Madam Nylark, remembered the children still streaming, oblivious, into the rotten Krygon city’s walls, and he wondered how long it could all last.