My first memories of Nokomi were of her warm eyes, her fine linen clothes, and her feet dirtied by treading in the filthy streets where I lived. They were of a pomegranate shared between us, the quiet peace of listening to her voice, and our comingled blood dripping in that alleyway.
I could never forget our first meeting. I had been nothing more than a street urchin with a wild dog at my side, and she had been a kind, beautiful girl about my age. We’d bonded that day, sharing fruit while she told her stories that we couldn’t understand, and later as we’d fought the desert cat. By accident, her fire-filled blood had worked its way into the wounds that the cat had inflicted upon me; I feel it still in my forehead when my emotions run high. And then Dog had licked my wounds clean and transferred some of that same blood into his own wounds when he cleaned his own torn flesh with his tongue. The three of us had become a pack in that moment, and everything I’d done since then was to get back to her.
That perfect day had ended when soldiers arrived with her father, who I’d later learned was the Emperor. Seeing how I had been covered with blood, they’d made the snap judgement that I had been a threat to the princess. I understand it, but it had made Dog and I part from Nokomi. We’d fled and ran to hide, though it had been like tearing off a limb to separate from ourselves from her.
Years had passed, years with her unnaturally severed from our pack, but always on our minds. I’d learned words, enough to speak at least, and I’d taken to working at the side of a blacksmith, growing more human to better understand Nokomi’s world. We’d done our best at growing and learning until we happened across her once more in the Bazaar, the city’s great market. She had grown and changed as we had, but we knew her immediately. The bond between us had not broken or faded, even if we had been apart.
Our second meeting was one that Dog and I hadn’t been able to escape from. Instead, we’d been taken away as captives to work in the Kennel – a school for special boys like me with an affinity for beasts.
You see, Dog and I were special. We weren’t just a kid and a dog living in the streets together. We were a pack in more than just the social sense. We shared everything, from scents and feelings to food. I could taste what he tasted, feel what he felt, and hear what he heard. We shared pain, the excitement of the hunt, and thoughts. We were two creatures with one soul, and the bond made each of us more than what we would have been alone. There was no truer thing than that.
Without Dog, I would’ve died in those alleys as a small child. Without me, Dog would have been caged and killed in the fighting pits, made to fight animals until he finally lost a match and his life. Together, we survived, grew, and connected to each other on a level that went beyond thought and life.
So it was that the two of us, a wild dog and an even wilder boy of the streets, came to that special school. We changed things there, too. Changes have always swirled about us, intentional or not. We created a single pack out of the dozens of boys and dogs there, taking the splintered pieces and forging them as a whole. After all, that was what the Emperor had wanted, even if it came about differently than he’d expected. It had not been a painless process. We’d lost friends, and I’d had to kill for the first time, feeding the beast side of my nature.
Despite all of that, the Emperor still needed us. He wanted a weapon unlike anything our kingdom or any of our neighboring kingdoms had ever seen, and we gave it to him. We of the Old Blood, men bonded with animals, were a leftover from ages past, before Emperor Baraz and his fire bloods had come and conquered our savage land. With my help, we’d unified the boys and created a special army for him. All I’d done, I’d done in the hope of returning to Nokomi’s side.
I’d taken boys like Legs, the fastest kid and dog I knew, or Killer, a stout and stoic companion, and Sardar, a quiet source of wisdom, and I’d made loyal soldiers of them. Under the guidance of Kalb, the Emperor’s own dog man and the original source of inspiration for this army, I’d done everything asked of me and more, but nothing had carried me back to Nokomi.
I’d taken our regiment out amongst the regular army, blending our beast-like natures until we were nearly indistinguishable from the other soldiers, at least until one of our dogs decided it was time to show our true natures. All it took was one sight of what we could do, and the other soldiers never forgot that we were a breed apart. The illusions were dispelled and the masks were pulled back. It was impossible to unsee one of us in our true form.
With the army, or sometimes in small strike groups formed of our own kind, we’d worked the borders, rooting out insurgents and spies. We’d fought in battles against bandits and would-be invaders. I’d killed with my bare hands and with my teeth, Dog snarling alongside me the whole time. I’d lost allies, pack members that I’d personally trained. I’d seen members of my pack go mad from the loss of their dogs, and dogs refuse to live after the loss of their human companions. Death was a constant companion, like the scent of smoke that worked its way into clothing, never to be completely removed.
Despite all of this, I never got closer to my true goal of being once more beside Nokomi, the Emperor’s daughter and the third true member of my pack. Until now, that was.
After five years of training, teaching, and fighting, after the grueling weeks and months on the road, with all of the dust and sand and blood, I was finally being called back to the capitol. The payoff for all of our hard work was finally here.
Standing in the desert sand away from the tent city of our camp, with the morning wind whipping grit into my face, I reread my latest orders, so fresh that I could smell the fingers that had sealed the wax mingled with the scent of the courier. Dog was there beside me, and he knew what was coming before I even spoke to him. He knew my thoughts and could feel my exultation.
“We’re going back, Dog.” I said contentedly, and the weight of the years of service fell from me as I scratched between Dog’s ears. “Home.”
He barked and thumped his tail on the sand, turning his head in the direction of the city, even though it was several days’ travel away. We always knew where Nokomi was, and I suspected that she could feel the same.
We were pack, after all.
My first memories are smells, sounds, and tastes. I remember these as flashes, like dog dreams. They blend together in a constant stream of what made up my early life: nibbles of castoff meat, a crust of bread, a short nap in the warm sun, the sharp tartness of pomegranate not quite yet ripe, the taste of blood running from my split lip to my tongue, the sting of rocks, a howl, warm fur, and dark eyes.
Odors that I found normal, others may find repulsive, but they were an ever-present element of my early life. They were the scents of too many people crammed into too small an area, a competing maelstrom of odors coming from food, industry, and waste. The spicy smells of roasting meats drifted down from the markets and cafes.
I lived in a warren of streets, a virtual maze between brick and mud buildings that towered far above my small head. Dark stains streaked the walls and the alley between them. Brick, clay, and mud buildings had been thrown together haphazardly, with little planning for expansion. They melded together, the next one using the previous one’s walls to start. Most were two or three stories tall, and a network of walkways, awnings, overhangs, and clotheslines obscured sight of the sky from the ground level.
These narrow alleyways were teeming with life, mostly of the unwanted and disposable sort. Rats navigated these narrows with ease, along with other scavengers and children as well. Children, unwanted or unaffordable, were left to the streets to fend for themselves. Clothed in rags if they were lucky, the children were overlooked and forgotten unless they offended you with their begging or got in the way of your caravanning wagons and animals. Then, anger, fists, and sticks might be brought against them.
The street children were a rabid, sorry lot. They fought like animals over moldy crusts of bread. The weak ones died quickly of illness, but this may have been a mercy. The slow ones were caught or trapped to be taken away like vermin. The prettiest of them were taken to be servants in rich houses, used as free slaves, or worse. The fastest of their kind made their way into the circles of cutpurses and thieves. They made good lookouts for the criminal sort that stalked the city, or they worked as flash looters, overwhelming market stalls with their sheer numbers.
It was a dangerous way to live. You never knew when a truncheon would fall upon your head or maim you. No one cared. You were one of the unclaimed. You were better off struck dead than maimed. Maimed, you were a target. I could always gauge the remaining life of a wounded one by the severity of the infirmity. You could measure life in hours or days, like sand running through clenched fingers.
I was not one of them, though. No, I was part of my own pack. Dog and I were a pack. A cast-out like me, he’d once lived in the scrublands that surrounded the city. As a pup, he’d been captured, likely to serve as an oddity for the fighting pits, cheered along as some savage beast mauled him to death. He’d escaped his cage and that horrible fate, and somehow we’d found each other. I don’t remember how. I don’t remember the time before him. I don’t remember the feeling of not having him beside me, but I do remember knowing him when we met.
I was barely old enough to walk, a sorrowful creature destined to die in days. Then I’d met Dog. From that moment on, we were as one. We were a team.
Dog had large, round ears that twitched at every noise. Easy to spook and always on guard, he was impossible to surprise. His muzzle was short and stubby, and his nose rough, black as the rest of his face. His dark head looked oversized for his thin frame, but his thin legs and narrow body were surprisingly fast and nimble. His fur was spotted and mottled, part black, part tawny brown. I loved him at once.
He was mine. I was his. It was the two of us, hunting, watching over each other, and sleeping in a tangle of limbs in whatever den we could make. We were living. We shared the food we hunted, working as a team to confuse vendors, to sneak scraps from kitchens, and to lift food from passing wagons. Above all, we kept each other safe.
There were always bigger kids out there waiting to pick on you, to steal from you or hurt you if you weren’t careful. They’d kill you just to spite you. They hated anyone surviving when they struggled, and it made all of us a little cruel, but some of us it made very cruel. I didn’t blame them, but you learned to avoid those ones, like you stayed away from a sick and dangerous animal. You could see it in their eyes, their jittery movements, and the way they smelled. We could smell the hate on them.
It was only the two of us, until that day when everything changed.
On that day, our pack became three.
We, who had lived and been whole as two, learned what it was to grow our pack. Was it an accident or fate? I didn’t know the difference. I still don’t. I just know that I knew her just as I had known Dog. She was to be ours, and we were to be hers.
Our eyes met.
Mine were wary hazel eyes, brown around the center and green toward the edges. I knew this because I’d seen my reflection in rain puddles when they gathered on the street near our den.
Hers were a warm brown, reddish and coffee-colored. There was something in them that reflected a feeling I felt within. This feeling was in both of our eyes. Was it defiance?
Her gaze looked past the dirty clothes, the stain of pomegranate that dribbled down my chin, and my unwashed face. She took in the sight of Dog and I sharing food and grinned.
We gazed upon her fine linen clothes, the brightest white I’d ever beheld with my eyes. They were stained around them hems from where she ran barefoot, sullying them with the grime of the alleys as she ran. Her dark hair was a stark contrast to the light color of her clothes, and her skin was shades darker than my own, but we still shared that expression, whatever it might have been.
She casually strode over to us. Dog’s teeth flashed for a moment, but it was all for show. He sensed something kindred in her, and, though his hackles rose, we all knew that he would not bite her. I flashed my teeth as well and kept my body low and tense, but I let her pluck the pomegranate from my hands anyway.
Seeing that we had been worrying at the thick rind with our teeth, she deftly opened it up, using a small knife she produced from the belt around her waist. Her lips curled into a smile as she made it open like a flower blossom. She took a nibble as a tribute for her efforts, and handed back the rest.
We gobbled it down, seeds and all, slurping at every last drop of the violet-red juices. Hands and face stained with it, we looked to this newcomer.
“I’m Nokomi.” She offered, her voice musical and lilting. I savored the sounds she made. I whispered an approximation of her name. Dog’s ears pricked forward.
“What’s your name?” She asked, inclining her head at the two of us expectantly.
I knew few words, but the ones I knew didn’t work for this situation. I’d learned words from the other boys in the alleys. I’d learned the names of items I pilfered in the market from listening to the merchants, hawkers, and craftsmen. I’d practiced making their sounds, much like the birds in the Bazaar could emulate people noises. Dog always smiled his toothy grin at me whenever I spoke like people.
“Dog.” I uttered, pointing at my companion.
She broke into a laugh, her small white teeth shining in the dim alley light. “I know that’s a dog. He’s a strange one, but he’s a dog for certain. What is his name?”
I cocked my head at her. Dog echoed my response.
“You mean he doesn’t have a name? What about you? What is your name?” She pointed at me.
I thought for a moment, trying to summon a name for myself. What was it the folk of the market called me? They raised their arms and shouted this name at me: “Go.” I grunted the name at her as I hit my hands on my chest, claiming it as mine.
Her eyebrows raised and her eyes widened. “Your name is Go?” She shook her head disapprovingly, but I knew not how to reply. “Dog and Go.”
“I can’t very well call you those names.” She looked us over, as if she’d not noticed before exactly how scruffy and dirty the pair of us was. “Go… Goren?”
“Goren?” I repeated, shaking my head. That was not my name.
As if this were acceptance of my new name, she turned her eyes to Dog. She tilted her head and looked him over, eyeing his mottled coloring of tan, black, and white. “I don’t know what to call your dog. ‘Dog’ seems to work... for now.”
That decided, she settled down beside us as if we were old friends. It’s a gift of some children, to walk into a new place with new faces and just act as if it was the most natural thing in the world to be there among them. In this case, this pristine girl from someplace else sat down with a pair of street creatures as if she were sitting beside long lost friends to catch up on the gossip.
Nokomi began to speak then. We knew little of what she said, but the whole pomegranate situation had earned her our ears at least, so we settled in for a good listen. With our backs to the rough wall, we heard her out. Dog even placed his head on her lap, his tongue licking contentedly at the juice still on his lips and his ears twitching in time with her syllables.
I don’t know how long this went on. I just knew in that moment that I didn’t want it to stop. How I longed to speak to her! I wanted to know what she spoke of and contribute to this conversation. Dog and I communicated to go about daily tasks, but it was more in a sense of feelings and senses. We shared a connection that made words, other than occasional grunts, barks, and yips unnecessary.
Instead, we watched her speak, her words punctuated with laughs and expressions that we enjoyed examining. Dog and I watched every move of her lips, the way her chest and throat rose when she was particularly emphatic about one thing or another. She was a very animated speaker, and I understood no more than a word in ten, if that. We could have listened for days, but we weren’t given that sort of time. Too soon, it came to an end.
Dog’s ears swiveled toward the end of our alley facing in the direction of the market. He rose off of Nokomi’s lap and emitted a low growl. I froze, because I knew what that particular growl meant: danger.
I swiftly rose from my sitting position and drew a sharp sliver of metal I’d found weeks back, a scrap from a metalworker’s shop. It was my claw. I didn’t have the teeth that Dog had, so I had to make do with such things, and this was the best claw I’d ever managed to acquire. While I expected a pack of street boys, the distant cries from the market that I’d heard, but hadn’t registered because of Nokomi’s story, should have alerted me to the fact that this was no mere pack of street boys.
No, street boys we could have shouted off and stood up to. Most of them in this area knew Dog and I well enough now to know we were not to be trifled with. Only the truly stupid or crazed would attack us in the open like this, and those we knew to hide from. We had several dens hidden in this area that we could retreat to, if needed. No, this was something altogether different.
Slinking out of the shadows came a tan cat with tufted ears and a compact body. Of a size with Dog, it was likely an even match for him, if not more dangerous. It arched its back and spat at us. Noises from back the way it’d come seemed to indicate that it was being pursued, and now we stood between it and possible freedom.
If only that alley had been wider, we might have let the cat pass without issue, but its nervousness and need to flee were greater than its sense of caution, so it charged in to challenge us, rearing up on its back paws with claws and fangs bared.
Dog darted in, going for a thigh, while I put myself between Nokomi and the cat, waiting for an opening. Nokomi shouted something, but I didn’t understand. I only knew to protect her and Dog, and that meant attacking. I saw my chance and went for it.
Blood and fur and skin tore as the three of us tangled. The cat was a killer, one naturally prone to going after the neck, so Dog and I made sure to never give the cat a chance to find either of ours. My claw found an opening in the cat’s guts, right below the ribs. Dog ripped at the cat from the side, and we brought the cat to the ground. Sharp claws tore at our flesh as our teeth and claws went after the cat’s end. I tore and bit at it every bit as viciously as Dog, completely lost in the fight.
Nokomi screamed when we finally backed away from the beast, as it breathed its last. Blood dripped from gashes on my arms and a tear of skin on my forehead, but I grinned anyway, spitting fur from my mouth. Dog had raw patches of skin torn from his muzzle and along his ribs, which he immediately took to licking, whimpering as he did so. The flesh would scab in days, but the fur would take longer to grow back.
Aghast, Nokomi looked nearly as pale as me. She tore a sleeve from her clothes and began dabbing at the blood that threatened to obscure the vision in my left eye. As she attempted to treat my wounds, I noticed an acrid smell, like snuffed coals, and it was then that I realized that she, too, was bleeding.
The palm of her hand was cut, how or by what, I did not know. I only knew that the blood of her palm mingled with that of my torn forehead, burning its way into my scalp. Fire spread beneath my skin, tingling through the network of capillaries in the skin until my whole scalp felt alive. The feeling spread through my face and down to my neck, racing down to my heart, and when that first pump of mingled blood reached my chest, I felt Nokomi swoon before me.
We clutched at each other, marveling at the strange feeling that surrounded us. She and I and Dog could have been the only living creatures in the world. I felt her. She felt me. It was different from what I had with dog, different and in some ways surpassing the connection I had with him. I could not feel with her senses, as I could with him, but rather her emotions.
In that moment, lost in each other’s feelings and eyes, we did not notice the man standing at the end of the alley until he shouted, and even then he had to shout three times before it broke us from our stupor.
“Nokomi! Step away from that boy!”
Darkly tanned, with a black beard that came to a point at his chin, the face that stared back at me could only have been her father. He looked so much like her, but hard like steel, where she was like water. His figure was imposingly tall, made taller by a conical head wrap that bore feathers. His broad shoulders he seemed to fill the whole alley. The curved sword on his belt sang free from its scabbard and he snarled.
This time, it was Nokomi’s turn to save us. She put herself between her angry father and the two of us, both still dazed from our wounds and what had just happened between she and I.
An argument ensued, but I did not understand it all. What I did understand was that the man was angry, and the others with him looked an awful lot like a more dangerous version of the market guard. I wanted nothing to do with them. Then, there was the other man that stood amongst them, he was perhaps most frightening of all.
The other man wore a heavy collar and dark robes. With the turban he wore and a dark, thick beard, he left little of his face exposed beyond yellow eyes and a blunt nose. He was an ugly man for certain, but the beast beside him was a fearsome dog, perhaps a bit old, but a battle-scarred mastiff the size of which I’d never seen before.
I knew from the moment our eyes met that he was like us, like Dog and I, and I knew I had to run. I knew what that collar around his neck meant. I’d been through the Bazaar enough times to see animals with their masters. That was not what I wanted. Collared, it would never be just Dog and I again, so we fled.
It felt like tearing off my own limb to separate from Nokomi, but we did it. Dog and I fled do the alley, stumbling at first and then running all out. Shouting followed us, Nokomi’s stricken shrieks mingling with her father’s barking of orders. We fled swiftly, because, injured or not, we knew our lives depended on it.
We hid in one of our dens, a small alcove unintentionally left unfilled when two buildings had been built up together. Weather and crumbling and a poorly-driven carriage had broken it away just enough for the two of us to enter the space that existed between two walls of the buildings. We backfilled the entrance with crumbled rock from within and sat in darkness, clutching each other and licking our wounds.
Footsteps came and went, Dog’s ears twitching with each close pass. Only once did it seem as if we had been found. We heard a dog and its partner’s footfalls near our hiding place, but they receded just when it seemed as if we might be sniffed out.
For the moment, we were safe, but our lives would be forever changed. I’d been given a name. Dog and I had grown our pack, and then we’d lost Nokomi. Things couldn’t stay the same.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs