I woke to a pounding on the bars of my cage. I lay in a pile of straw, huddled against Dog. My thoughts felt thick, heavy. Something was not right. The last things I recalled were eating and the caravan resuming its move toward the destination…
“Wake up.” Someone ordered, rattling a stick on the bars. I doubted this was the first time the rattling had occurred.
We must have fallen asleep, but my mouth had an odd taste and my limbs felt leaden. Dog rolled over and stiffly rose. He favored the one leg, but seemed otherwise fine, despite the fog that still clouded our thoughts.
The cage was opened, and several large men with weapons prodded and herded us down a hall into a large open area, under a dazzling sunlight. We entered a sandy square with a statue twice the height of a man in the middle of it. The sun was overhead, and my eyes took a moment to adjust enough to take it all in.
More of a rectangle than a square, the area was open to the air, with the sun beating down on us from a nearly cloudless sky. I blinked several times and shielded my eyes until they adjusted. From the sky, I could tell it was at least midmorning. I turned to slowly to get a better look at the building.
Pillars placed every few paces completely surrounded the rectangle, reminding us that we were still in a cage. Between the pillars were painted mud walls, likely plastered over heavy bricks. The pillars and walls were only broken in four places, each place at the middle of one of the four walls. To the north and south there were large double gates made of wood and banded with iron. They were wide enough for a wagon to drive through. To the east and west, there were small doors, large enough for a person to pass through only. Currently, all four doors and gates were closed. They, like the walls, had a sturdiness about them.
A balconied second floor was above us, open except for a railing and the pillars, which partially obscured sightlines, seeing how they extended all the way to the tiled roof that they held up. Faces lined the north side, those of both dogs and boys spaced around the pillars along the balcony railing. To the east and west, the balconies were mostly empty, except for a few guards in auburn robes and conical helmets stationed at intervals with their halberds or crossbows. To the south, we saw a large, well-outfitted box with luxurious chairs and benches. Official-looking men and well-dressed soldiers filled about half of that box, looking down on us from their gallery.
We stood before the statue that wore a face that I knew belonged to Nokomi’s father. Kalb had mentioned serving an Emperor, and I’d known that Kalb had been with Nokomi’s father on the day I’d first met her, but somehow I’d never really put it together that this meant she was the Emperor’s daughter. Now it all hit me, and I felt exceedingly stupid for not having realized just how different the two of us were. I knew little of social pecking orders, other than that I’d been at the bottom of the social ladder once Dog and I stepped out of the alleys, but I’d never realized just how far apart our stations actually were.
I frowned at the statue and then let my eyes drift over my shoulder to the line of canine faces and the boys that watched us from the balcony railing above the north gate. There were around twenty dogs and the exact same number of boys. They came in a variety of sizes and ages, just like the beasts they were with. Most of them had hard looks about their eyes, while a few looked cruelly amused by our plight, and fewer still wore sympathetic looks. They all knew what was about to befall us, likely having gone through this same thing themselves.
The south gates opened. The boys beside me flinched. There were four of us and four dogs. Dog and I looked to be the oldest of the bunch. There were also four guards with us in the sandy square, one for each pair of a dog and a boy. Beside Dog and I, there was a scrawny boy with a long-limbed dog, each looking as if they might spring off and outrun the fleetest desert cat at any moment. Next to him was a stocky young man, probably just a year younger than myself. He was paired with a squat, mean-looking dog with a triangular head and powerful jaws. The last and youngest of the four of us actually looked the least worried. He stood beside a tiny dog that had already bared its teeth. Like his dog, the boy had his teeth bared in a snarl.
The little dog charged blindly at the south gates as they opened, not even waiting for anyone or anything to emerge. The young boy dutifully tried to follow his dog in the attack, but he was a bit slower. The guard assigned to him lunged and caught him with a padded truncheon, striking him across the shoulders and knocking him to the ground. Sensing his partner’s distress, the boy’s dog wheeled in the sand and charged at the guard instead of the gates. The guard flinched back and tried to protect his shins from the nipping little beast.
Dog and I stared in amazement as the tenacious creature went on the offensive. The boy’s dog was honestly smaller than many rats I’d eaten in the alleys, but it was strangely undaunted by the size and strength of its opponent. The little dog, with ears nearly as large as its body, darted in and seized the guard’s ankle in his mouth, biting hard. Its needle teeth scored a taste of blood through the man’s robes, and the guard howled, shaking his foot and shouting.
That was all the opening the boy needed. He grabbed that raised leg and shoved it upward with all of his might, upending the guard. Moments later, the boy was on top of the guard’s chest, scratching and snarling at his face. The north gallery behind us erupted in a cheers and excited barks as the boy appeared to get the better of his guard. Clearly it was something that the boys and their dogs had always wanted to try.
The moment of victory was short-lived. A barking shout, something not quite human and not quite canine but something in-between, echoed throughout the gallery. The little dog and his boy both froze and turned, as did we all. Even the crowd of boys and dogs behind us quieted in an instant.
Kalb and his mastiff strolled powerfully out onto the sand, and the gate closed behind him and three others, shutting with a thud and a clank that seemed weak after his bark. He came to a stop a few paces in front of us.
“Stand.” Kalb growled.
The little boy and his much smaller dog got off of the guard, who dusted himself off and tried to stand tall behind his charge, but he withered under Kalb’s yellow-eyed glare. Somehow, I doubted we’d see this guard much more, and if we did, he’d certainly try to get even with the boy for the shame he’d just inflicted upon him.
Kalb was not the type to pace back and forth needlessly. He stood front and center from our group and addressed us all, swiveling his sharp eyes as he did so. “You four are at the Kennel. This is your new home. It is where you will learn to serve your purpose.” Teeth, his giant mastiff, stood at attention at his side, almost begging one of us to step out of line.
He held his hands out to indicate the three nearly-identical men that had come out onto the sand with him. “These will be your trainers and teachers.”
All three were dressed in the same uniform, exactly the same except for their colors: one dressed in red, another in blue, and the last in grey. Each had shrewd, dark eyes and sharp, bony features. It was entirely possible that they were brothers. I doubted I’d be able to tell them apart if they all wore the same color of outfit. They wore their hair close-cropped and were clean-shaven, which was something of an oddity. Most men in the city wore beards or at least mustaches. They were symbols of their adulthood and status. The richer and more powerful, the grander the beard they usually wore.
“Your instructors will show you all you need to know, and you will excel at your lessons. You will take everything they say to heart.” Kalb elaborated.
“Red will teach you all you know of fighting.” Red bowed stiffly from the waist as he was introduced. “You will learn to take the best of your raw animal nature and focus it in effective fighting techniques that make the best of your special abilities. Using skills from both beast and man, you will become more efficient killers.”
“Blue will instruct you in tactics and war.” Blue bowed similarly. “You may be called upon to fight in the shadows, upon the battlefield, or as a lone warrior. You will be given instruction on how to overcome your enemies under any circumstances. Even beasts use hunting tactics. They surround, confuse, and stalk their prey. You will learn to work together to overwhelm and surprise your enemies, all in the service of our Emperor, and you will learn how to effectively eliminate enemies by yourself, as needed.”
“Grey will teach you etiquette, manners, and dance.” Grey bowed with a courtly flourish, a smile twisting at the corners of his lips. I looked back and forth at my classmates, surprised by this one.
Kalb’s eyes focused on Dog and me as he explained. “You know how to be beasts. Can you also be men? The Emperor may see fit to hide you in plain sight. If you cannot eat like men, talk like men, and entertain like men, then how can you be his secret weapons? You must learn to be men, but better than men, for your dual nature makes you a savage creature in human guise.”
“Your loyalties are threefold: Respect your Emperor. Respect your teachers. Respect your pack. Without loyalties, we cannot find purpose. Without purpose, we are animals.”
Red, Blue, and Grey bowed as one, and turned sharply on their heels to depart, and our guards left then, as well. The young boy with the small dog shared a glare with his guard as he hurried from the gallery, leaving only Kalb in front of us.
It occurred to me that the four of us might have a chance to overwhelm Kalb and Teeth, killing them if we worked in concert. Yet, that only brought to mind Kalb’s words, what he’d said about learning to work together with the others. We were untrained beasts, and we would fail against a superior foe.
As if reading my thoughts or our body language, Kalb opened his robes at the throat, baring his collared neck. He held his arms wide at his side, inviting attack. “Here is your chance, the last any of you will ever have. After this, you are mine.”
I took a half step forward. Dead silence filled the place. I felt the weight of eyes from behind and the front. Everyone on the second floor was watching, dogs, boys, officers, and soldiers alike. I heard the creak of a bolt being readied in a crossbow in the eastern gallery. Kalb waved a hand in that direction, not even bothering to look. Somehow, we both knew the bolt in the weapon was eased away from my direction.
Despite it being a guaranteed death, I hesitated, foot raised to take another step forward. Dog, wounded though he was, stood poised and ready to follow me into battle. Kalb watched me, only the slightest hint of surprise in his eyes, and something else, was it approval?
As much as I did not care for the situation I’d been placed in, there was one thing I had heard loudest of all: We were to be put in service to the Emperor. If that was true, the there was a chance that I could return to Nokomi’s side if I learned well, because the service of the Emperor could bring me back to the city, and that meant working near Nokomi.
I made up my mind then and there. I would learn my lessons, and I would learn them better than any of these others. I’d learn all they could teach me, and I’d get back to her. I put my foot down and stepped back. Dog feel in line and relaxed beside me.
“Good.” Kalb announced with a smile, covering his neck once more. “Now let us go get you all settled in to your new homes.
National Novel Writing Month 2019