Things went back to how they had been, to an extent. Many of the boys no longer knew what to do with themselves for their morning meal. It was no longer a fight. Perhaps they still needed to work out some aggression. Dogs were meant to be hunters, and now everything was just handed to us. Maybe that had been part of the purpose behind the feedings, however demeaning they had been.
We wandered the yard after our meals, and I took those opportunities to run around the perimeter of the yard. After a week of idleness, it felt wonderful to stretch our legs. Dog and I ran with abandon, enjoying the exertion. We worked on building our endurance. From time to time, Legs or some of our other pack mates joined us, but they ran because we did, not for the love of it. They ran as if it might help them understand us, and, in doing so, better understand how to become the beast.
Others watched us. Pack Yek had developed something akin to reverence for Dog and I. They watched us with the careful study of a student with a master, or possibly that of a doctor with a patient exhibiting strange symptoms.
We excelled in our classes, defeating Pack Chahar with ease in Red and Blue’s classes. With Drum recovering and still absent, they were rudderless. They were also a lot less cruel. Our five defeated their four resoundingly, but I made sure we did it with grace, as Pack Se had showed us. If we were to make allies of our enemies, it would not be through cruelty. We had to show them that our way was superior.
Red took the events of last week as a learnable moment, offering us his advice for what we should take away from the events. He saved the best of his speech for my first time back. “What happened before was unfortunate, but it was a lesson in many ways. I saw much that was admirable, and some that was not. I saw packs standing up for each other, working together to defeat common foes. That is the way of the army. I applaud you for this loyalty and strength of character.”
“I also saw some disrespecting the Emperor or those he has placed above us. This is never acceptable.” He paused to give me a look, as if I didn’t know he spoke mostly of Drum and I. “There is a chain of command. Everyone must follow orders. Even an Emperor is ultimately responsible to his people. We must all do our part.”
“I have also seen changes come to this place. While you might not always understand our methods, you must all understand that we are honing you to be weapons. When a blacksmith fires and pounds his heated metal, he does not apologize. He does not worry about being too tough on it. He works to shape and make that raw metal into something better, a tool or a sword. He cannot do that without pounding and shaping and sharpening what he makes. That is what we do to you all. We are in the process of making all of you into the finest weapons in the Emperor’s arsenal.”
I wanted to smile at this, but I kept it to myself. He spoke the truth as he knew it, but what they had was a problem not with their methods, but with their teachers. It was like having a wrestler teach a dancer, or a baker teach a woodworker. These were soldiers. They were not dog men like us.
In a couple weeks, I’d surpassed all of these boys in at least one way. I’d naturally been able to do what these teachers could not teach me. They might backpedal and try to explain their harsh methods, but there was something to be said for innate talent and instinct.
Blue had a similar lecture, but his was more about the loyalty to all members of the royal family and the respect we owed our rulers. He seemed more sympathetic with what I had done than Red, but only up to a point. It was nearly unforgiveable in his eyes to attack Green’s authority, and he spared me no measure of disdain for what I’d done.
Still, I was at the top of his class both times in the week. It didn’t matter if we faced Pack Chahar or Pack Do. Something had just clicked with Panj. I was a level beyond, and standing behind me, Panj was unbeatable. Tiny stood taller and looked fiercer than ever. Legs was confident and deadly quick. Killer was a mountain of assuredness. Face was with us, rounding out our group as if he’d always been one of us. The five of us were a force.
Grey was the only instructor to give us no lecture. Instead, he reviewed our clothing situation. He’d seen fit to give everyone in the program standardized uniforms, not just for when we came to his class, but for our time at the Kennel in general. We now had dress uniforms for his classes and any official events that might crop up in the future, and we had everyday uniforms… including shoes.
I felt odd wearing shoes. I hated them. I decided to never wear them, unless I was required to. Sandals, I could somewhat manage, but the soles of my feet had become like rough leather, like the pads of Dog’s feet. I could walk on just about anything, except for glass or thorns, and I’d be fine. Still, I made an effort and wore the strange things to Grey’s classes at least. The rest of the time, I ran free and barefoot, connected to the ground wherever I went.
The last class of the week was Red’s class with Pack Se. Bull had avoided me for the week, but he had been around. I’d seen him when we washed up or when we played stones, but we hadn’t spoken since my return. I’d seen him in the yard, but he never came up to me. He just watched, obviously still trying to decide what he thought of me or coming up with something to say to me. It was fine. He would speak his mind in time. That was the sort of person he was.
That’s how it would have gone, until Red forced the issue.
I faced off against Bull in the center ring, with everyone gathered around. It brought to mind the first time I’d been in this ring, facing Bull this time instead of Drum.
“Engage each other.” Red instructed, seeing as how Bull and I just stared at each other in a battle of gazes rather than fists and feet.
“We are.” Bull replied, folding his arms over his broad chest. He regarded me as if I might burst into a beast at any moment. Did he still see something of his friend in my features?
“Yeah.” I said, crossing my arms over my considerably smaller chest. I looked at him as if he were my friend, and I was confused as to why he looked at me thus. It wasn’t a stretch. I understood his caution, but not his complete refusal to speak with me. Was he worried I would seem rational and sensible now?
“Then fight now, or I’ll start shooting you both with real arrows.” Red growled.
Bull obliged, walking forward to lock arms for a grapple. Like he’d trained me in the rooms during our spare time, we fought. Except, he either held back, or I’d gained something.
He pushed, and I held him back. He pulled, and I resisted. He tried to throw me twice, but I always kept my feet. He hooked a leg behind my ankle, but I saw it coming. Eyes on his, I could see into him. I knew what he would do.
He disengaged abruptly. “I can’t fight him.”
“What do you mean? Those are your orders, Bull. Engage!” Red demanded.
Bull shook his head. “I can’t.”
Red climbed up onto the ring and put himself between us. He poked Bull in the chest with a finger and stabbed another one in the air in my direction. “You can fight him, and you will!”
Bull shook his head again. “He knows me too well. He reads my every move, and I can’t see what he’ll do. It’s like he’s in my head. I don’t know how, but he’s doing it.”
Red turned to me. I saw a flash of anger cross his eyes, and I knew what he would do. He whirled back toward Bull, slapping him full across the face. It was such a sudden and surprising move that it dropped Bull to the ground. He looked up at our instructor in shock, hand going to his stinging face.
“Get up, Bull. Fight. Use your anger. Anger feeds the transformation.”
Bull began to stand, only to get slapped down once more. This time, anger registered across his face, not shock. His bulldog growled from the ground, snapping at Red’s ankles, but he could not reach, and he was being held back from jumping up onto the ring. When Bull stood for a third time, he blocked the incoming slap and barked at Red.
Red smiled. “Good. Now go fight your opponent.”
Bull’s eyes flashed, but he still had a hint of hesitation as he charged me. I felt my muscles tense in anticipation. There was a hint of the beast in me as I dodged aside and struck him on the side. He grunted but kept coming. I struck again, harder. Still he came after me, arms like tangling spider webs!
What he lacked in speed, he made up in durability. Tenacious as his dog, he kept trying to close on me. I struck again and again, wearing him down, but he wore me down as well. We grappled, fighting with elbows, knees, and fists. When I finally broke free, his eyes were swollen. My bottom lip was split, my jaw ached, and one of my elbows throbbed. Both of us were panting and bleeding.
He grinned through his swollen eyes and threw his head back. He howled. Suddenly, all of the dogs in the room began to howl, led by Bull’s thick-necked dog. I felt something then, a tickle on the back of my neck. It was the infectious feeling of a pack, of a greater pack than I’d known.
Dog let out a long keening howl, the way of his breed. I didn’t even know that I was doing it with him until we all stopped, throats raw. They were all staring at me, both packs and our instructor.
Red took in the sight of us all, knowing he was on to something, but not quite sure how to bottle it all up and bring it back on demand. He looked very pleased with himself. He congratulated the two of us on our efforts and set about trying to repeat his success with other pairs of fighters, which he spread about the room.
With Red’s attention elsewhere, Bull nodded to me, lowering his head. His mouth formed a silent bark. I had not lost him after all. In fact, I’d brought him in even closer. Pack Se was all but mine.
Did Red even realize that he was setting me up as the leader of all the packs? Would he care?
Our instructors waited beside the west gate, the only gate I’d yet to see open. Red, Blue, and Grey each held up signs with characters written on them. I couldn’t read them, so I paid careful attention to where the other packs went, trotting alongside the whole group.
Pack Yek lined up with Grey. He held only one sign. I memorized the character. Packs Do and Se lined up with Blue, who held up two signs. I didn’t know which was which, but I memorized the two. Later, I’d try to figure out how to distinguish between them. Red also held up two signs, one of them was apparently ours, because Legs began lining up in front of it. Chahar was apparently with us as well.
I glanced over at their group, meeting eyes once more with their leader and his giant dog. The smaller boy nodded to me, grinning wickedly. I felt anxious, but not scared. If we were going to have this thing out, at least Red would be there. He wouldn’t let things go too far, would he?
The west gate opened, admitting us. We watched Yek enter first with their instructor, followed by Blue and his two classes, and finally Red, who we followed. Chahar led the way, refusing to give way to our smaller pack. I was fine watching them enter. It gave us more time to observe as we went down the hallway.
Unlike the west gate, which led straight through the thick wall and out into the yard, this hall was longer. It rather quickly ran into a long hallway that ran north-south through the building. Several doors were on the far side of the hallway, one of which being where Blue led his two packs. From the sound of the echoes within that room, it seemed rather large. Grey took his class all the way down the hallway in the direction of the north wing, although they stayed within the rooms of this western wing of the complex.
That left our two packs and Red. We took the large room beside the one that Blue had entered with his packs. Red stood beside the double doors, which he’d opened, and held out a hand to indicate that we were to enter. I was unprepared for what the room held.
Some thirty paces on a side, the far wall had several high windows that admitted light that supplemented the illumination from the skylights above us. The large room was lined with racks of weapons on the right side, as one faced inward from the entrance. An assortment of blunt staves, poles, wooden swords, and chains hung in the nearest part of that wall, while locked cases of swords, knives, spears, and other edged weapons were just beyond them. A third section, toward the far wall, featured various ranged weapons: slings, small crossbows, and bows with a variety of arrows.
Piles of other equipment had been carefully stacked on the opposite wall, to my left. Some of the items had obvious purposes, things like bars, posts, wooden platforms, ropes, scaffolding, and weights. Other things were less obvious in their purpose, and there were closed crates of gear as well. I both wondered and worried about what sorts of things they might contain.
The floor of the room was laid out with five combat circles, all painted white. The central circle was largest, about five long paces across, with the other four arranged around it like corners of a box. The central circle was situated atop a ring of raised earth in the exact middle of the room. It looked to be made of packed reddish clay, built nearly waist high on me. The white ring that had been painted on top of the platform had been marred by footprints, but was still mostly intact.
The other four rings were similar, but not quite as large, and they were not nearly so high, perhaps ankle high at most. Between the five rings, there were places where ropes, rings, and bars were hung from the ceiling. Most of those had been drawn up out of the way for the moment.
Red indicated with two pointed fingers, one from each hand, that we should gather in our packs in front of him. When we gathered in the spots as he’d asked, he began his instruction, starting with a well-rehearsed speech, one he would begin every class with.
“No one wanted you. No one cared for you. You were without purpose, wild beasts. Now, you will live like true dogs, serving the only man who wants your loyalty, the only one who will offer you a place in this life: Emperor.”
He pointed to a painting of the Emperor on the wall above the doors. “Your master!”
Pack Chahar gave a bark and a stiff bow. We did the same after looking at one another. We might not have done it as loudly or with as much practice as them, but we followed their example anyway.
Satisfied with our introduction to his class, Red began pacing back and forth in front of our group. “As your fighting instructor, it is my privilege to instruct you in the ways of combat. You will learn to be deadly with any weapon you are handed, or without one. You were born with natural weapons beyond those of most normal humans. Your hands are your claws, your teeth are your fangs, and your dogs are an extension of your bodies, extra weapons in your arsenal. You must be as deadly as a dozen men, no matter your size. To be any less is to be worthless in our Emperor’s service.”
“Drum. Here. Now.” Red snapped his fingers and asked Chahar’s leader to join him. The boy was quick to join him at his side. “Weapon of choice?” He asked.
“Spear.” Drum answered immediately. He didn’t even need to think about it.
“Why?” Red demanded.
It gives me superior reach. It is deadly from a distance and up close. I can throw it or hold it. Either way, I can kill.”
“You.” Red pointed at me. “Here. Now.”
I joined him on his left side, where Drum stood on his right.
“Same question. Weapon of choice?”
I did not have an immediate answer for him. Instead, I looked to the wall appraisingly before settling on my answer. “My hands.”
Red’s mouth twisted into a smile. “Why?”
“If I drop a knife, I cannot use it. If a club is taken from me, I have nothing. You cannot take my hands from me. I can use them to make anything into a weapon. Or, I can choke, punch, and claw you with them.”
“An interesting answer, boy. Now gather around, boys and dogs. Let us see then, how their answers serve them.”
Red leaped over to the wall to grab a blunted spear. Then, he hurried back to the center of the room, where he waved Drum and me up onto the ring. Before I knew it, I was upon the packed clay, standing directly across from the smaller boy, but he held a spear, and I had nothing but my own two hands. The rest of our two packs had gathered around the base of the circle, looking up at us.
Red cleared his throat and turned slowly, pointing a finger from his left hand as he turned and spoke, “Guard yourselves well, and remember that fights are never even. Your opponents could always be faster, smarter, stronger, bigger, or better equipped and trained than you. It is up to you to exploit their weaknesses and make them into your advantages.”
Red stepped down from the ring and Drum charged immediately. Apparently, there would be no signal to begin, but I had not expected one. Dog barked a warning, but I’d known the attack was coming.
Drum’s two-handed hold on his spear shortened his possible reach, which was good for me, because there was not a lot of space within the circle where I could hide from him. I dodged the initial stab, but he came back with three more, which had me backpedaling and side-stepping along the edge of the circle. My bare feet whispered across the clay, kicking up dust and the talc that white line had been painted with. Drum was quick, I had to give him that. I doubted he’d tire before he hit me, so I knew I had to do something.
The alleys had taught me to survive. Dog and I had always known when to hide, when to run, and when to attack. This was one of those times. I let Drum close on me, waving his spear threateningly. He thought he had me cornered, but that’s just what I wanted him to believe.
He came at me, and I leaned backward, as if I was going to overbalance and fall from the platform. As expected, he sent his spear right at my guts. I snaked my body to the side and grabbed the haft of the spear, tugging it with all of my might. This was like a tug-of-war game I’d played before with Dog, standing on top of a crate in the alleys, but I’d adapted it to this new situation.
My pull against his weight kept me atop the platform while he kept moving forward with his momentum. Drum sailed past me, landing on the ground off of the platform, amidst a crowd that scattered as he fell. His spear clattered uselessly on the floor. He gathered himself up onto his knees slowly, shocked by what had just happened.
His large dog found him and nudged him encouragingly until he stood. I waited silently in the center of the platform, preparing for what would come next. With murder in his eyes, Drum stepped back over to the edge of the platform and pulled himself up, bringing his spear with him. He expected me to attack him as he got back up, but I didn’t strike when he was most vulnerable. It unnerved him to see me waiting to attack.
Changing tactics, he began to swing the spear overhead with one hand, greatly extending his reach. I waited until he got close and feinted as if I’d go low, trying to get under his spear, but that was what he wanted me to do. I could see his strategy in the way he planned to shift his hands to a two-handed grasp once more and strike when I was within his range. When he drew back to fend off my attack, I ran to the side instead, sliding off of the platform.
Dumbfounded by what he took as surrender, Drum turned to Red and held his hands up. “He ran away!”
Only I hadn’t. I’d gotten him right where I wanted. I slid back through the watching crowd, and without getting back up onto the platform entirely, I was able to slide up onto my belly and grab his ankles. One yank at his feet dropped him right onto his face. A moment later I stood above him with my foot pressing into his hands, forcing him to let go of his spear.
“BEAR!” He screamed, unwilling to give up.
Drum’s massive dog bounded up on top of the platform. The mass of fur and muscle barreled right at me, trying to save his master. I spun to the side, kicking the spear with me as I went.
Dog leaped up and found his place beside me. The two of us, him with his teeth and me with my enemy’s spear, faced down the aptly named Bear as it advanced on us.
“Enough.” Red barked. He held his hands up to signal the end of the combat. Bear backed down immediately, though Drum clearly wanted to continue.
“I am impressed in what I saw. What is your name, new boy?”
“Go.” I answered.
“And your animal?”
“Go and Dog of Pack Panj.” Red repeated, nodding. He was not the sort that would forget it.
Red placed himself between the two of us and our dogs. “Bow to your opponents, Drum and Bear of Pack Chahar. Bow to your opponents, Go and Dog of Pack Panj.”
I bowed to Drum and his dog, though I liked it not. Still, if this was part of what was expected, I’d have to do it. I’d gotten lucky using tricks this time. Next time, Drum would be ready for me. I’d just made him hate me all the more. The look in his eyes promised retribution.
Red ignored the nasty look my opponent favored me with. “Competitors you may be now, but you all serve the same master, and he is your true pack leader, your alpha.” He let that sink in for a moment.
“Now, we’re going to pair off. We will rotate partners every five minutes. Then we will do exercises. You cannot be the most dangerous warriors if you have not mastered your own bodies. We will make you fast, strong, tireless, and flexible. Your dogs will train beside you. Only when dog and man are both in peak condition can you be your most deadly.”
“For those of you that are new here, you will see me three days out of eight. Blue will have you for two. Grey will have you for one. The other two days are your own to rest, to clean yourselves, and to bond with your pack.”
What followed was an exhausting set of exercises, including: grappling, wrestling, weights, running, balance, and weapons training. At least, for the rest of the class, I did not have to face Drum again.
Class ended with a bow to the portrait of the Emperor. Then we were dismissed and sent back to the north wing – the dog house. There, we waited for dinner, and prepared to sleep in shifts, ready for reprisals from Drum and Pack Chahar.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs