The ride away from town would have been uneventful and long, if we were not mourning the loss of Nokomi from our pack once more. At least we had the memory of her face in our minds. She was so alike what she had been, and yet more. The years between meetings had seen her grow from that wild child in white we’d met in the alleys into the beautiful creature we’d seen in the Bazaar.
Dog and I could not speak of our own beauty. We were wild creatures, the two of us, but we had both grown in strength and stature. Despite my young age, I had no doubt that I might soon be the size of Adish, although of a wirier build. Like the desert dog that Dog was, I would be all sinewy strength, while Adish was heavily-muscled from his time working the forge. If you’ve ever fought with a dog, pound for pound they are much meaner and leaner than any human. I knew I’d take after Dog, rather than my parents, whoever they had been. Dog and I were pack, of a type, if not species.
When the city began to fade from view, the sprawling stretch of buildings fading from where it filled our whole horizon to being a collection of dots on the horizon, we examined our surroundings. The city I’d grown up in was surrounded by sandy hills and scrublands covered with sparse, dry brush. Many of the trees were little taller than myself, and those that were looked twisted and dry, only fully blooming and looking alive when the rains came. Dusky-skinned and scaly critters skittered in the underbrush, hiding from our caravan as it passed. Night time would have shown more activity, as much of the life out here hid from the sun’s harsh light.
We were not alone. There were other jail wagons in our train, but I could not make out more than the one in front of us, and that one, too, carried a boy and his dog. Was he another like me? I had to think it was so. He would not meet my eyes, but we could smell his fear wafting back to us on the wind, overwhelming the smell of horses and men. I hoped if any others took in our scents, they smelled anger and defiance, rather than fear.
Our jail wagon was drawn by a pair of stout horses, creatures bred for stamina and strength, not speed. The plodded along the sand and clay trail, driven by a pair of guardsmen who sat at the front of the wagon. We traveled for set intervals of time, at which time the line would halt. Everyone, the horses and prisoners included, would take water and food. Dog and I were given battered tin dishes of water to share along with sticks of dried meat and crusts of a thin bread.
Had I bothered to think about it, I’d have decided that the quality of food was nowhere what I’d been eating at Adish’s forge. Sherine was a far better cook. Still, we were gloomy from our forced parting with Nokomi and cared little for the taste of food. We had spent enough time on the streets to realize that we could no longer count on our next meal. We’d eat whatever was offered, regardless of its flavor or who offered it. We had to keep our strength up if we wanted to resist and escape. We had to get back to her.
She kept me going. Even Dog could not comfort me as we huddled together in a sweaty, sorrowful mass. Something in me felt torn asunder.
As we sat chewing our tough, dried meat, Kalb came riding up alongside us. He rode a horse, one that didn’t seem to care for his presence, if the way it chomped and pulled at the bit were any indication. Dog and I saw far too much of the whites of the beast’s eyes. It was clearly not comfortable with having the dog-man on its back and the mastiff trotting beside it.
“We will be there soon.” Kalb announced, as if we cared. We were certainly in no hurry to get to anywhere he wished to take us.
The silence was unpleasant. Had I grown so accustomed to speaking? There would be hours to sit in silence, so I took the bait. “Where are we going?”
“Your new home.” He grinned, his sharp teeth flashing through his beard. He certainly looked as much animal as man, more sometimes than others. Did I look like that ever?
“We call it the Kennel.” I stared at him blankly. He continued. “It is a place where we gather people like you and I, those of the Old Blood.”
“Others like us?” Clearly, he meant people bonded to animals, like Dog and I or himself and his mastiff. Other than him, I’d never met another like me, not in all the time I’d wandered the city.
“We are a special breed, you and I, closer to the animals than our fellow men. Our type is ancient, fewer now than we used to be, when our people first came to the desert and learned to crouch beside the firelight with our animals to protect us from the night, before the time of cities and industry. Now… we’re seen as an oddity, beast men, looked down upon as lesser beings, relics of the past”
I had nothing to say to this, though my mind could picture men of the distant past, wandering the open lands with animals at our sides. His words rang true, but even then, I doubted that every man could have been as Dog and I were. No, I suspected even then we might have been something special, if not as rare as we were today.
I felt a pang, suddenly very glad to have Dog, hating the idea of not having something bonded so closely to me. But was that what it was like for Adish and Sherine? They had a bond, not unlike what Dog and I shared, but also very different. Was that why people all sought connection?
“What’s his name?” I asked, looking at Kalb’s companion.
The mastiff glanced up at us, panting and making an expression that looked like a human’s smile. Kalb glanced between his dog and the two of us in the cage. “His name is Teeth.”
“You see, we are very alike, you and I, more so than the others I’ve found. I am what you could become if you tried. Right now, you only live to fill your bellies and make it to another day. It is a simple, selfish existence. The Kennel will give you a purpose, someone to serve. We will make you more than you are.”
“Or you will not.” I smiled.
Kalb leaned toward the bars of our cage, putting his amber eyes close to mine. “Every dog serves a master. I serve the Emperor, a just and powerful man. Who will yours master be? Who will you place above yourself and serve?”
I met his gaze unblinkingly. “Nokomi.” I answered, not knowing why at first, but I felt the truth of it as I said it. Dog yipped in agreement.
Kalb backed away and sniffed at us. Then his eyes scanned our faces, locking onto the scars across my forehead. “Curious.” He announced, sharing a significant glance with Teeth. He turned back to us and smiled, as if he knew a secret, a secret that even Dog and I didn’t yet know. “Maybe you will. I shall be interested to see how this plays out. I pray you stick to your words.”
“Do not worry about us.” I replied, mostly false bravado, and he knew it. We’d never been so far from home or so alone before. We were creatures of the streets. They were all we knew, and now we’d have to learn to survive in a new place, but we were survivors no matter what.
“Oh, I have a feeling you’ll be sorely tested where you’re going.” Kalb smiled with more than a little menace.
Shortly after, the caravan began moving once more, taking us far enough away that my home city was no longer even visible on the horizon. Even though he said we were near our destination, it was a long while before we got there, and sleep took us first.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs