by Rajiv Moté
This story originally appeared in Dream of Shadows issue 2.
The shield rested atop a pedestal behind a cordon of Elvish rope. Angled for display, it was dented, blackened, and completely melted around the edges. It was beautiful. Garga yearned to touch it. But the Elf guard standing to the side had a long, curved blade at his belt–the enchanted, Orc-killing kind. Garga kept his hands at his sides.
Orcs milled about the gallery’s length, between the shield and the great statue of Borag at the other end. This part of the museum was free to enter, and the Men, Elves, and Dwarves visiting or settling the Black Land favored the other galleries that displayed the trophies of their own people from the war against the Dark Lord. This place was for Orcs. No longer was there an army, nor lash, nor much of anything for Orc-folk to do. Without the army, the clans were assigned no lands, and forbidden weapons, there was no way to lay claim to any. So Orcs simply wandered the Black Land, and the museum was as good a place to escape the sun as any cave. Here, they could meet and grouse during the worst of the heat, and even under the eyes of the conquerors, they felt this place theirs. Where else were there Orc-things to be found on pedestals in this occupied land?
Across the gallery from Garga stood Sheketh’s massive statue of Borag the Liberator, down on one knee, muscles coiled with power, his massive arms holding up his great shield to the sky as if to blot out the sun. Borag the Rebel, who defied the Dark Lord and shepherded the Halflings to the very Mountain of Fire, destroying the tyrant’s power and freeing the Black Land. Borag the Defiant, who lifted the Halflings on his shield to their rescue, even as a molten river consumed him, leaving only his shield to tell the story.
The statue was proud and powerful, but Garga liked Borag’s shield better. It was real. Every time he saw it–and he came to see it often–it reminded him of something so easy to forget. Orcs fought the Dark Lord too. Orcs, who suffered under him more than any other people, fought back. Orcs had heroes. Garga knew that the real Borag probably looked nothing like the statue. Some gaffers even said it revealed Sheketh’s shame of being an Orc. Its back was straight, like a Man’s, and its features too fine, almost beautiful, like an Elf’s. The real Borag was a soldier. He would have had scars and broken bones, ill-healed, like all the old gaffers who survived the war. Garga had never seen an Orc like the one across the hall, carved larger than life in black basalt. But the shield… That shield had seen battle. It had stopped axes and swords. It had survived the fires of the mountain. Not beautiful, but resilient. It was a thing of Orc-folk, given a place of honor where nothing Orcish was honored.
If only Garga could touch it.
He could lean across the rope, reach with his fingertips, and then run. He could duck underneath, then back, fast and silent as wind. But every time he visited, he lost his nerve. Even here, especially here, Orcs knew to walk small. It made the blood pound in his neck and stirred his limbs with restless energy. His forehead felt hot. A young Orc he knew once said “fish don’t know water, just as Orcs don’t know shame.”
“You do realize it’s all nonsense,” rang a clear, sing-song voice from across the room. Two Elf youths were standing in front of the statue. The Orcs gave them a wide berth. “Borag probably didn’t even exist.” The youth who spoke–boy, girl, Garga couldn’t tell Elves apart–acted as though they were talking to their friend, but that ringing voice could be heard throughout the hall. The friend laughed, an irritating, bird-pitched titter.
The Orcs averted their eyes. A few grumbled, but not loudly.
“A beaten people must try to salvage their pride. A broken sword. A half-melted shield. Entire mythologies are woven from such detritus.”
Now there was no grumbling. There was scarcely the sound of breath. Garga glanced at the guard. The corners of his mouth seemed to want to twitch upward. Garga’s parents had drilled the lesson into him: this was bait for a trap. The Orc that took it would be beaten bloody, if not killed outright.
A grizzled old Orc near Garga said “Shut your filthy gob.” He was a warrior, probably even a veteran of the War. The Orcs around him moved back, leaving him alone. Exposed. Garga, shame and fear pounding in his ears, backed up against the rope.
The Elf youths glided across the room, parting the crowd. “What did you say, old goat?”
There was nothing Garga nor anyone else could do. His people were forbidden weapons, and those charged with their protection were just as likely to strike blows of their own. The old Orc was finished. Every Orc in the Black Land learned a sort of fatalism about Elves, Men, and Dwarves after the war. But around the edges of that fatalism was an unnamable feeling, at once wild, dangerous, and exciting. A drawn bowstring feeling of waiting. Leaning back against the rope, Garga reached backward, straining for contact with that blackened, holy piece of metal. A clever Orc seized opportunities.
“Shut. Your. Filthy. Gob.”
He was a brave one, this old-timer. And most likely a dead one. The veterans usually wanted to die. Garga looked at the guard out of the corner of his eye. He was watching the confrontation with mild interest. His long, delicate fingers brushed his sword hilt.
The Elf youths circled the old-timer like buzzards circling a kill, buzzards that looked like swans, standing taller than their intended prey. But these Elves were no warriors.
It happened all at once. A leg hooked behind a knee sent one Elf onto his back. A fist gnarled as old roots drove up under the chin of the other. The crowd surged backward. Garga tumbled over the rope. A sword left its sheath with a ring like a whistling kettle. The silence broke with the roars of dozens of Orcs. The old warrior knelt astride a prone Elf, beating his face bloody while the other youth tried to pull him off. He’d have a better chance moving a boulder. The guard glided toward them, the naked blade in his hand shining with cold, painful light. He raised it almost lazily into the air.
It fell with a dull thunk against dented, blackened metal. Garga felt the force of the blow from wrist to shoulder, but the shield held. Again and again the blade fell, darting from new angles. Garga desperately moved, keeping the blade from touching the old-timer. He heard a roar, a warrior’s roar, and realized with a thrill that it came from his own throat. The Elf drew back his arm again, and Garga showed his teeth, steeling himself for the next blow.
Maybe Orcs had no true history to warrant pride. Maybe Borag never existed. But his shield was real. So was the courage it inspired. And every Orc who escaped this gallery would tell the story how Garga used it.
Authors notes can be found here.