Meat Shield

The Meat Shield

by Blaze Ward

A new recruit arrives to join the team, but his troubles have come with him. That’s when everyone remembers that it’s useful to have the big, tough troll around.

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Author’s Note

This is the first story about Brak, the half-troll warrior who was one of my favorite characters in an RPG I played several years ago. (The Popcorn Kitten is the second story. Destiny is third.) We still talk about his adventures with Bob and the crew. When I decided to start writing fantasy, I knew I wanted to cover his whole arc from a simple fighter into one of the great figures in the history of the Western Reaches. It starts here, but it will follow his transformation into a knight, a sky-pirate, and a (lesser) god. Welcome to the very beginning.

——–

Bob took another drink of his wine and considered his two long-time adventuring companions. It was going to be one of those conversations, again.

“I’m just saying, Bob,” Piper the Puck said, taking another deep swig off his pint-sized mug, “it’s kinda rude to treat him like that.” Piper glanced back and forth at his two table-mates and pled his case with his hands and eyes. “Even Princess here treats her cat better.”

Across from Bob, the half-elf woman looked up from her burgundy wine. Dark eyes and dark skin made her face difficult to read in the shadows. “My cat’s still smarter,” she sneered softly, hissing the words ever so slightly. She opened the bag on the empty chair, and scritched the occupant lightly with polished nails. Furrywrath woke up and purred. “See?”

“Well, maybe,” Piper sighed, “but would it hurt to treat him with a little dignity? I realize he’s a little dumb and weird, but he’s very useful to have around. After all, he kept us all alive after the Mist Demon broke free.” The puck noticed his mug was empty, so he reached for the pitcher.

Around them, the bar was filled with the regular evening clientele, a bit less rowdy than normal, but food and drink flowed and people relaxed from a busy day on the edge of the civilized lands. Bob glanced around, saw the publican, Tucker the meter-tall Isaurian, filling drinks, and keeping watch from a half-shelf behind the human-sized bar.

Bob scowled at the memory, reached out a hand, and slid it closer. “I kept us alive, Piper.” Bob drained his goblet as Piper filled his mug and slid the pitcher back.

“Sure, after Brak grabbed the damned thing and wrestled it off you. And then held it while you shot the damned thing. I’m just glad I had enough magic left to heal him when it was done. Never seen anything take that much damage and survive.” Piper shivered and drank his beer, lost in his own reverie.

Princess glanced furtively around the room, saw the coast was clear. “He does his job, Bob. You wanted a meat shield, remember? Big and dumb enough to fight anything you pointed at.” She smiled a conspiracy at her friends.

“Point taken,” Bob relented. “More silver arrows next time.” Bob took a breath, released it. “And I promise I’ll be nicer to him. But what do you want? He’s as dumb as a mud fence post.”

Piper smiled over his beer. “The fence post is probably smarter.”

The three old friends shared a laugh.

* * *

Elliot peaked out the window as a slight sound caught his attention. Outside, in the alley, he saw a seven and a half foot tall man hunched over and quietly crept down the alley, a giant two-headed battle axe held lightly. “Whachadoin?”

Brak the half-troll looked up at the night sky, panicked, wide-eyed. “Who said that?”

Elliot leaned out from his second-story window, stared at the surprised giant. “Me,” the voice chirped. “Are you a thief?” His eyes were wide and innocent.

“No. I’m a troll, and trolls are sneaky ,” Brak huffed back at him. He frowned. “I’m practicing.”

“Well I can see you.”

Brak stood up to his full height. “That’s because you cheated. You were up here lurking.”

“Was not.”

“Was, too.”

A voice emerged from deeper inside the house. “Elliot, who are you talking to?”

The boy looked back over his shoulder, wide-eyed. “Nobody.” He quickly slammed the shutters shut with a bang. Brak heard a beam slide into place a moment later.

Brak hunched back over, worked his way back up the alley. Being sneaky.

* * *

Something in the back of Bob’s mind clicked subconsciously, the result of years of experience in dangerous place. Around him, all the noise in the tavern died. Just like that. And in a tavern like ‘The Dutchess,’ that just never happened.

In the corner, Princess closed her bag and drew a wicked poniard from her boot. Bob saw the motion and nodded at her, one hand on his pommel under the table. Across, Piper took a breath and made a small gesture with the hand not full of wine mug. Pixie dust floated on an invisible breeze for a second and then faded.

Bob looked around, saw the cause of the silence standing just inside the front door to Tucker’s tavern. He frowned and tugged his sword a few inches clear of the scabbard. Just enough to loosen it.

“We don’t serve your kind here,” the Tucker the Isaurian announced from behind the bar, as if the words would make the theory not a mockery. Even Tucker sounded unsure, a rare occurrence, but even the meter-tall lizardman had probably never encountered such a creature alive.

Just inside the closed door stood one of the rarest races on the western continent, an Araneae. Rumor had it that the darkest fey, the Night Elves, worshipped a malevolent Spider Goddess who occasionally warped males who displeased her into a new form, fey from the waist up, atop the abdomen of a giant hairy gray-black spider, like a six foot tall spider centaur. They were almost never seen outside the great underground Night Elf cities, except as part of an invading army. And even rarely then. Warriors often chose a quick death in battle to displeasuring the goddess.

The creature paused and took in the room with a deliberate gaze. He had a pleasant Night Elf face, with fine copper hair cut to medium length and bright jade-colored eyes. At his waist rode a well-made sword slung in a scabbard where his hips would have been, along with a backpack adapted for his body structure. Peasants, locals, and merchants pressed back against walls and pillars so as not to touch one of the hairy legs as the creature silently moved into the room. There was a spidery smell, kind of dry and empty mixed with dead and a hint of fresh-rotted shark. He nodded at the bartender and spoke with a rich tenor voice that carried in the sudden silence. “I will not be long, Publican. And then I will depart your establishment.”

He looked around, spied Bob, Piper, and Princess in their corner. He smiled again, and began his smooth octipodal progress towards them, careful to keep both hands in clear view.

Bob stood and drew his sword in one motion. “That’s far enough.” His blade centered on the creature’s chest, an extension of his right hand. Beside him, Piper dropped under the table and Princess swept to one side, a second short knife appearing in her other hand.

The Araneae stopped fifteen feet away, and nodded politely. “Of course,” the voice carried. “I come in response to your job posting.”

Bob’s face, in fact his entire brain, glazed over for a second. “You what?” he finally got out.

“You are Bob, correct? The well-known warrior, raconteur, and adventurer?” the figure asked.

Bob nodded, struck dumb.

“And you are currently seeking a wilderness scout familiar with the foothills southeast of the Mistridge Mountains to join your troupe, yes?”

“But you’re an Araneae,” Princess blurted from a nearby pillar where she was half-hidden. “What are you doing here?”

The elf-spider looked her over with a scowl that turned into a cold, tight smile. “The same as you, cousin,” he replied. “Trying to make a living outside the caverns of the Night Elves where I am no longer welcome.” His scowl returned. “You at least were allowed to walk out. I was cast into the pits first.” The smile returned, frozen harshly in place. The eyes glinted horrible emeralds in the half-light.

“How…how do we know we can trust you?” Bob stammered, working his way back up to his more-polished self. “You’re kind aren’t well-known for veracity or friendliness, now, are they?”

“My kind?” The Araneae took a deep breath to calm himself, glowered briefly, and then suddenly barked out a sharp laugh. “I don’t have a kind, human. As for trust, your dangerous little Puck friend there is also a far better magus that I could ever be, so there is probably some little enchanting trick he could do to help you be at ease.” He waved a hand politely towards the corner. “She’s as close as one could get to my kind, I suppose.”

“And she won’t get any closer, Unbeliever,” came a harsh call from across the room, followed by the basso thrum of a heavy crossbow, a goatsfoot model, firing.

Chaos erupted, mugs and bottles shattered, tables overturned. Women screamed. Men howled. Steel came bare. From the crowd, two Night Elf warriors charged, silvered cutlass blades gleaming wickedly golden in the reflected lamp-light.

Bob watched the Araneae scout go to one knee, well, five knees. There was a 16-inch crossbow bolt, black as onyx midnight, embedded deep in his ribcage, close to the heart, but not quite close enough. His fine shirt of scale mail was nearly shattered, but it saved his life.

The first Night Elf, obviously the team leader, leapt upon a chair and flung himself across the gap, sword point down, intent on finishing the task.

“Pardon me, but that was rather rude.” Bob flowed into the gap between the Araneae and the newcomer, parried the cutlass blade, and bodychecked the Night Elf warrior as he landed, knocking him several steps to one side where Princess engaged him. “We were negotiating a services contract here.”

Princess unleashed both blades and sought to break her foe’s guard with a silver flurry of steel. He was off-balance, cramped, and surprised. But she was only an infiltrator, not a front-line warrior. He fought expertly, parrying both of her blades with his own. He slashed at her feet, cutting a long sliver of wood from the pillar as she stepped to cover. As she was pushed back into the corner, Piper concentrated and conjured a smoke-imp from a nearby lamp with a mystic pass. With two foes, the Night Elf leader was forced to split his focus. Princess rallied.

Nearby, the second Night Elf, the sniper, charged into the melee. Bob met him midway in a shower of sparks. Cut. Thrust. Parry. Evade. Slash. They were well-matched foes, neither giving an inch. It was a display of swordsmanship for the ages. Bob the Raconteur would see to that. Legends would be told of this meeting. They always were. It was Bob.

After a third furious pass, Bob realized he just might be in a bit of a spot. “Piper? A little help here, please?”

Piper sized up the situation with a squint, nodded to himself. “Got just the thing,” he muttered. The Puck suddenly lit up like a giant green lighting bug, and unleashed an eldritch bolt at the Night Elf sniper. Piper watched as his target was limned in emerald fire, only to watch it all drain suddenly into a gold broach on the Night Elf’s chest.

“Fardle,” summed up Piper’s day.

Still, the broach melted. Suddenly, the Night Elf was much less of a blade-wielding badass warrior. Bob took advantage and drew blood from the man’s left leg.

In the corner, a howl of pain followed as the smoke-imp got hold of an Elven ankle with his teeth.

The Night Elves made eye contact across the room, agreed, and broke off combat to race towards the door. They were met there by a wall of troll-kin flesh seven feet tall, filling the entire doorway and hunched slightly to get under the beam.

“Whatchadoin’?” Brak inquired as he encountered the two funny-looking men.

“Brak, stop them,” Bob called from across the room.

“Out of the way, you clumsy oaf,” the first announced. He skewered Brak just to one side of the half-troll’s belly button, slamming nearly two feet of steel into flesh.

“Ow. Hey, that was mean.” Brak reached out, grabbed the Night Elf by the throat and picked him up. The Elf’s arms were too short, so he lost his grip on the sword still stuck in Brak’s chest.

The second Night Elf closed, blade centering on Brak’s heart. Brak looked down, frowned, and hit the second Night Elf in the head with the first one. “You shouldn’t outta do that. Didn’t your momma teach you no better?”

Brak swung the first Night Elf a second time, a third time, a fourth. He stopped and looked at the pile of battered Night Elf on the floor, plus the broken one in his hands. The pain in his belly finally got his attention.

“Bob?” he called across the room. “I’m leaking again.”

Across the room, Bob and Princess looked up. Bob held the Araneae still and drew the black bolt from his back while Piper’s magic flowed into the wound, binding it with a bright orange glow.

“Crap,” Piper said, summed up another step in bad days. “Bob?”

A second Isaurian, ancient and seemingly fragile, emerged from the crowd, approached Piper and Bob with a formal bow. “If I may, I will endeavor to assist your comrade, Bob,” he hissed. “After all, it was my oversight that allowed two assassins to nearly take a life in this establishment.”

“Brother Lucky,” Bob said, “I will be again in your debt. Please do what you can for Brak. I fear the wound in this one will tax Piper’s eldritch strength to the utmost.”

The Isaurian smiled, bowed, and turned away. As he walked across the room, he reached into a belt pouch to pull out a small bag of herbs.

“Friend Brak, if you would kneel down here, I will pull the sword out.” He pointed to a wide spot near the fire. Patrons scattered backwards from where they had started to crowd in again. “After that, I’ll have you lay by the fire and treat you to stop the leaking.”

Brak smiled and kneeled down, putting the sword at the level of the Isaurian’s shoulder. “Thank you, Brother Lucky. I’m sorry I’m leaking all over the floor.”

Lucky smiled back and patted Brak on the chest. “It will wash, Brak. Hold still please.”

Lucky grasped the blade and pulled it out in one smooth motion. He pulled a corner of cloak from one of the Night Elves to clean the blade as Brak stretched out before him, and then climbed atop the small mountain of troll-kin, seated himself, and began to clean and pack the wound with various herbs. He rode the motion of Brak’s breathing up and down careful not to lose his balance.

“Oh,” Brak said. “That feels so much better, Brother Lucky.”

“Now, Brak,” Lucky responded, “I need you to close your eyes and lay very still for this to work. It will hurt, but only for a moment. If you move, we’ll have to do it all over again.”

Brak nodded as he closed his eyes. “I promise, Brother Lucky.”

Brother Lucky pulled out a small glass vial, carefully opened it, and blew the smoky contents across Brak’s face. Within moments, the giant troll-kin started to snore. Lucky contented himself to watch for a moment, and then placed a small pile of herbs on the wound.

“Why did you put him to sleep?” Bob asked, having walked close. “Now we’ll have to drag him to a room.”

Lucky smiled slyly at the human. “Because what happens next will be much easier with him asleep. How is the Araneae?”

Bob shrugged, more to himself than anyone. “Piper’s drained. Princess is watching over them. He’s out cold for now. How’s Brak?”

Lucky nodded in return. “Well-nigh indestructible, as any with troll blood in them tend to be. But better he sleep through this.” With that, the ancient Isaurian monk muttered an incantation and watched the herb pile burst briefly into flame, flash white hot for a moment, and then fade to afterspots.

Bob leapt back and muttered a curse under his breath. “Was that wise?”

Lucky smiled up at the human. “And now, my friend, you understand why he needed to be asleep first.”

Bob shivered. “Gods, yes,” he said. “The last thing I needed tonight was a troll going berserker on me. Last time that happened, he nearly took us out, too.”

“Indeed,” Lucky agreed. He looked up to other Isaurian in the room. “Tucker, perhaps you should consider closing the establishment for the evening?” The crowd groaned at the thought of spending the night at home with their families. Lucky climbed off Brak’s chest, walked over to the nearest dead Night Elf and pulled a fat coin-purse from his belt. Hefting it in one hand, he underhanded it across the room to Tucker.

Tucker caught the bag, weighed it carefully, made up his mind. “Bar’s closed. Everyone pack it up and head out. We’ll make it up to you tomorrow.”

The crowd groaned, muttered, cursed, and began to migrate towards the door like a slowly receding tide. Shortly, only Tucker, Lucky, and Ozyah the Winter Elf cook remained, along with Bob, Piper, Princess, the Araneae, and two dead, broken, Night Elves. Piper joined the Araneae and Brak in a nap on a handy bench, while Lucky made tea at the bar. Ozyah returned to the kitchen and slowly settled things down for the evening.

Bob watched as Princess carefully and professionally rifled the corpses, and piled coins, rings, jewelry, weapons, clothing, and one well-made heavy crossbow for evaluation. She paused at one point, speared Bob with a glance. “By the way, Bob. You let me know when you can beat one Night Elf to death with another one, m’kay?”

“Yeah,” Bob said, grimacing to himself. “Much nicer in the future.”

* * *

Brother Lucky sipped his tea in the corner as Brak awoke with a start, sat up, looked around. “I’m hungry.”

. “Good morning, Brak,” Lucky said, standing in a single saurian stretch. He picked up a pot larger than his head from a nearby candle burner and brought it over to Brak, stretched out on several beds crammed together sideways. “I took the liberty of preparing you breakfast.”

“Is it raw fish again? That always tastes squirmy.” Brak screwed up his face at a memory.

Brother Lucky smiled. “No, Brak,” he replied. “Today you will have a bowl of rice with a pork cutlet and some egg.” He removed the lid and wafted some of the steam into Brak’s face. Brak’s stomach rumbled happily in response. Lucky handed him the bowl and a spoon.

Brak sat up and happily dug in. “Thank you very much, Brother Lucky.”

Lucky walked to the door and opened it. “While you eat,” he said, “I will let your friends know you are feeling better.” He let himself out silently.

Brak finished eating quickly, got out of bed and blushed furiously to discover his nakedness. He found his clothes at the foot of the bed, cleaned and sewn, and dressed quickly. A great double-headed battle axe, five feet tall and nicked and banged up, leaned in one corner. Brak’s face lit up with delight when he saw it. “Woodchuck!” he cried with delight. “I’m so glad I didn’t lose you.” He picked this axe up and caressed the well-polished wood with a happy grin.

A knock at the door roused him from his relaxation. “Coming,” he said,” and walked to the door in two great strides. Opened, the door revealed Brother Lucky, along with Bob and rest of his friends. Brak glanced behind him. “Uhm, it’s too small for everyone to come in. I’ll come out,” he said as he exited the room.

Bob looked up from neck level. “Are you feeling better, Brak?” he asked sizing up the happy giant in front of him. He felt Princess and Piper doing the same.

Bob watched as Brak smiled and then frowned. He could almost hear the molasses thought processes as he watched the thoughts crawl across the half-troll’s face. There was an extra person today. One with lots of extra legs. Brak screwed up his face in concentration, thought furiously. Finally he gave up.

“Who are you?” he asked the Araneae standing at the back of the group, next to Tucker and Brother Lucky.

“Good morning, Brak,” he said. “Bob has hired me to join your group as a scout.”

“Oh, that’s good,” Brak said, still concentrating. “What are you?”

Brak missed the look that passed between the stranger and Bob, and Bob’s slight shake of the head. The stranger paused for a second to consider his response. Then he smiled at the gentle giant before him.

“I’m a centaur, Brak” the stranger smiled. “My name is Sleipnir.”

Brak nodded to himself, pleased. He scratched an itch on his tummy. “Oh. That’s good. What’s for lunch?”

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