The worst thing about being in a prison was being left to your own thoughts with nothing to do. On days when we had classes, we were kept too busy and left with too little time to consider our situation. Our days off, which were days seven and eight of the week, we were left to our own devices and our thoughts, many of which weren’t very pleasant.
In our first three days, we’d met with Chahar in both Red and Blue’s classes, and we’d had our solo day with Grey. We were allowed to keep the spare clothes Grey and his team had given us. They were to be kept separate and only worn at his classes. The rest of the time we were in the Kennel, we had to dress in whatever we’d worn at the time of our capture. For most of us, we owned little more than rags. Again, we were faced with our dual natures: that of being wild beasts and that of being men (when it was necessary).
Day four brought us back to Red’s class. Once more, we fought, grappled, did exercises, and participated in weapons training. This time, we had to face off Pack Do, which I’d learned was the second oldest group of recruits in the building. There were only four of them, as with our pack. But, they all had another year of training than us, and, with their scarred leader, the four of them were supposedly nearly on par with Pack Yek’s eight members. Pound-for-pound, this was the fiercest, strongest pack in the Kennel.
They mopped the floor with us. It wasn’t even close. We were all beaten severely in every exercise. With the control they had over their bodies and the precision and speed with which they attacked, they were unbeatable as we currently stood. Even Killer, strong was he was, could not quite keep up with them. Legs and Tiny took the worst beatings of the day, and my own treatment was only slightly better, possibly because of the reputation I’d gathered after my first lessons with both Red and Blue.
I saw a little disappointment in the eyes of my fellow pack mates as I was handed defeat after defeat. They clearly expected me to be some sort of unstoppable force, and that was something I’d probably brought upon myself. It made for a quiet dinner that night. We took turns massaging our hurts with the liniments and bandages that were in the bottom of our basket.
The next day we were back to Blue, again with Pack Do. We fared a little better in the King of the Hill game Blue prepared for us, if only a little. The four of us were placed atop a pyramid made of wooden pallets and covered with dirt. The pyramid was only a few steps high, not even as tall as I was. The four of us perched atop it, each pack member guarding the approach from their direction.
Pack Do logically picked on Tiny’s side of the pyramid, seeing how small he and L.D. were. When we shifted to help, Scar would attack from the distracted side, and we’d fail. Knocked from the top of the pyramid, the four of us would see our roles reversed. Now, we had to be the aggressors. Only, Scar’s team was far harder to take down than we were.
Scar’s second-in-command, a red-haired boy aptly named Fire, was nearly his equal. He had a long-haired dog with a reddish coat that matched his own locks of reddish-orange hair. The dog wasn’t nearly as aggressive as Scar’s black beast, but the red dog was large enough that only Killer’s dog could counter him. Tiny and Legs were little help in this exercise. We tried baiting our opponents down with L.D.’s tenaciousness and Legs’ speed, but they weren’t going to fall for such obvious ploys. Headlong attacks, even focused on one side of the pyramid, often failed. We just weren’t strong enough.
Again, we endured the shame of failure. We ate in silence that night, too. Thankfully, there were more medicines and creams in the basket that night. They were more welcome than the sweet treats at the bottom of the basket, which seemed to lose their savor in the face of back-to-back defeats.
Day six brought us back to Red for a lesson in battle against Pack Se. The five of them with Bull, their leader with the bulldog, were gracious opponents. They taught as they fought, they helped you up when you fell, and they congratulated you on what you did well. Losing to them did not feel like losing. They also didn’t try to hurt you like Packs Do and Chahar did.
The week came to an end, and we were left alone for two whole days. Two days of wallowing in self-pity and boredom. I made our pack clean up our room and go through at least some of the grooming exercises we’d been taught. We might not feel well, but we could at least try not to look as miserable as we all felt. We straightened our room, shaking out blankets and organizing our clothes on the small rack that had appeared in the corner of the room after the day we’d had Grey’s class. A similar rack was in the corner of each other room, Grey’s gift to each pack.
For lack of better things to do, I explored the other empty rooms. All three of them looked basically the same as our own. Would they be expanding into these rooms? Would other batches of boys be forced into this routine? I hoped not, and yet there was nothing we could do to prevent it. If there were more boys and dogs to be found, they would be brought here. They would be subjected to the same treatment and training as we were. That thought made me heartsick. Dog whined and looked up at me. Did he know what these rooms would become?
I stood in the empty room closest to ours, looking around at the bare walls. It was illuminated only by the lonely window on the wall, a portal not large enough for anyone to slip through, although L.D. would fit easily enough. The only thing was, there was no reason for the dog to escape without its master. A pet dog, like I’d seen folks have in the city, might run away on its own, but our dogs were not pets. I doubted that L.D. would have lasted long running out in the wilderness on his own anyway. A hawk or something would gobble him up before he made it halfway to the city.
Sighing, I decided to start working through some of the exercises we’d learned. We had time, and I didn’t want next week to go as this one had. When I’d worked up a sweat, I felt ready for a greater challenge.
“Killer!” I shouted. I was angry, mostly at myself. I was to blame for being weak.
His head popped through the arched doorway a moment later, his dog’s head popping through below his. “Go?”
He blinked at me once or twice and then nodded. He rolled his neck on his large shoulders to loosen up, and then walked over to lock arms with me. We began to wrestle, throwing each other around the room. He was stronger, but I was much faster. He won more matches than I did, but I knew I wasn’t going to get better without learning to fight someone stronger than me.
Drawn by the noise, Legs and Tiny gathered around to watch. A little more hesitantly, they took up wrestling as well, practicing what they’d learned against each other. They were perhaps a bit wiser than us; the floor was not so forgiving to be thrown upon, so they gathered extra blankets and used those to pad their falls.
Bull showed up at some point, I’m not exactly sure when. We’d been so into our matches that we probably didn’t see him watching us from the hall with his dog sitting across his feet.
“Do you want help?” He asked when we finally noticed him.
I looked to my fellows, and they nodded as one. So it was that Bull became something of a fourth trainer for us. Strong, patient, and able, he was a good teacher. Scar came by to scoff at us and mock our feeble efforts, but we said nothing. The next time we met, I wanted to give him a greater challenge. Bull might help get us there.
“Thank you.” I said to Bull when the five of us finally collapsed in exhaustion.
“You are welcome. These days pass slowly. There is too much time and not enough to do.” Bull said wistfully. “I am glad to have something to do.”
“I think they forget that we do not have families or any entertainment. The guards, they probably all have families to go home to. They have markets to visit. They have things to do.” Legs wore a forlorn expression that his skinny dog somehow managed to emulate.
I had an inkling, the beginnings of an idea. I thought back to how the boys in the alleys used to play, silly little games to pass the time. Was that something we could do? “Maybe we need something to do then. Training is good, but tomorrow, maybe we can do something fun.”
Bull smiled at the idea. “My pack and I would like that. Right now, I am ready for a long soak and some relaxation before our meal.”
“If we didn’t have a class today, will they still bring us a basket?” Tiny wondered aloud with more than a little alarm. No one wanted to go brush sand from our food for the second time in one day. No food would have been even worse.
“I forgot, this is your first time on a weekend. You’ll get a basket, but it won’t be anything special. It’s usually plain, simple food.”
“At least we don’t have to fight for it.” Legs remarked.
“There is that.” Bull nodded. “I will see you all later. He bowed stiffly from the waist adding a low growl, and then he vanished down the hall.
No one said anything, but we all realized that he’d just afforded us the same respect that he would have for the Emperor or his other instructors. Was that something he did to everyone, or did he truly feel that he owed as much fealty among our own kind as he did to some Emperor that he’d likely never met? It was both a worrisome and exciting thought.
We quietly gathered up ourselves and went to bathe before the evening meal came. All the while, I was quietly trying to come up with a way to entertain my pack tomorrow. If I could do that, could we bridge the gap between packs? What would that even mean? What would it be like if we all worked together?
Ideas started to swirl in my head. I had to try something.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs