DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey. It is also written under my pseudonym “Robert-Scott Hemhowzer.”
Just another day at the marina. The fish and crabs scurried about below the green-grey morning water. The boats were compacted, very few had lingered, just enough to suit the needs of Fisher’s Town. The sign above the house where business was conducted said amidst the moss and salty rot “Last Time Marina.”
Trent lingered on, with only a fair amount of strength to carry the box, ready to be shipped to the latest customer in Burople. He tolerated the rattling of shrimp and sea life, live and ready to burst from the cardboard, which was why he kept the bottom and top enclosed with his hands, even if it was taped shut. He brought each box to the caravan, hearing the horse braying in the background. There were already three that were ready to be shipped, and the man behind the reins bristled his thick eyebrows and crinkled his face with impatience.
As soon as that last box was placed in the back, Trent walked up to the driver. “That’s it. All for the customer at Green Street, Burople.”
“I should get someone different,” he said, bluntly. “But this one’s closer.”
Before he went his way, he told Trent, “You’ll never be a Warhound with muscles like that. Just give it up, this world only needs people that can address those needs.”
Trent watched the man reining the horse to ride down the sun-bleached dirt onto the main road with plants creeping through what was left of the “prosperous sand,” hard as a rock and blacker than coal.
He looked into the water, at the crab traps tangled by the posts keeping the piers up as well as the blurry reflection of his tangled reddish brown hair and glossy brown eyes. He also took sight of his barely noticed prowess. Even though he had done physical labor throughout his time, from the age of fifteen onwards, he had developed little change. Trent had been reminded by that old fellow that he could never live his dream, never face possibilities, especially not in an era when people need to use whatever they have at their disposal. In this case, it was only his meager self in that marina working for Carlson, with the gruff boaters and the sea life and crustacean as his company. At some point, Carlson might reprimand him, so Trent walked back into that building.
Inside, he walked up to where the couch was and sat. He couldn’t live this life anymore, condemned to work in a shamble of a marina, where barely anyone dared to do business. If there weren’t thieves in the highway, there were thieves on their boats. Burople would be where the business was at. That was where Trent had been intending to go to for a long time. I want to become a Warhound. To wear that dog’s head on my left sleeve. If I can’t then I’ll serve them as their guard. I would make my younger self proud and my father upset.
“Trent!” a voice exclaimed. He kicked himself up and turn to see a short bearded man with a scar above his left eyebrow.
“What is it, Carlson? Any other orders?”
“No, I need to speak with you.”
He gestured him to the desk nearby. Carlson took a seat while Trent remained standing.
“Do you know why I started this marina?” said Carlson.
“You had to in order to survive.”
“Not just survive, but face reality. Do you know how rough it is out there? Outside of the influence and protection of Burople? I could never dream of bringing my business there. I can only make deals with it.”
“What are you saying, Carlson?”
“I only need to face the world and just do whatever I can. I didn’t choose this path, it was set.”
Trent understood where he was going. He never discussed any profound topic, but now he was about to take this advantage. Every mention of his dream was cast off by Carlson and never the basis of conversation or argument. He would finally get the chance to leave this dump and travel to the great Burople, where roads made from the neatly paved “prosperous sand” stretch in various directions, where the bazaars and markets were alive with sellers and buyers, where the Warhounds watch over the city-state. He said passionately “What if there is no other choice? What if I can’t get it out of my mind?”
“You can’t possibly act upon it, Trent! You’re not a child anymore! Not the one that your father took under my apprenticeship…”
A mere mention of his father was enough for Trent to act upon the mannerisms of Warhound Daniel Twaite, by stepping closer to Carlson, looking into his dead green eyes and exclaiming “My father has nothing to do with this! I’m talking about becoming a guard in the main city!”
“You’re as much a guard in Burople as I am a tailor.” Carlson always had a paternal sense of guardianship over Trent, but nonetheless, he constantly reminded him that reality is what it is. He could not sleep in, there was sea life to catch. He could not just wander off, he had orders to fulfill.
He continued, “You are not built to be a Warhound and you know it.”
“If I can’t be one, then I’ll still become a guard within the city. I’ll join the militia.”
“You could barely kill a crab.”
“You’ve never been to Burople, so you wouldn’t know.”
This caused Carlson to be extremely angered, his fists clenched and he rose, “You listen here! I would kill to do business there! You don’t think I desire it?! That I do! But I have to face the day as I usually do.”
Then, one of the boaters appeared in the office. His short, blond hair bristled from the sea water as he rubbed his scarred, bulky hand through it. He said in a low-pitched voice, “What did the boy do this time?”
“Boy? He is a man practically and he is still convinced that he can become a Warhound!”
“Can’t say I blame him.” He glanced towards Trent, with a reassured smile, then turned back to Carlson. “He’s told me more about the Warhounds then I was ever told. Did you know that they are descendants of the riot police during the beginning of the Age of the Grey Sky?”
“Well he isn’t a descendant is he?”
“Neither was Mitch Walsh, then he got instated.” Like everyone in Fisher’s Town, the boys in the docks were devoutly interested in the Warhounds. They were looked upon as heroes, as founders of the city of Burople, its leader Burrough who founded it and the various towns surrounding it during the beginning of the Age of the Grey Sky. “Also Fisher’s Town could use a Warhound on its own,” he continued, rubbing Trent’s head, “Just like Harry Sanders.”
“The boy is no Harry Sanders! He doesn’t even have the height for it.” It was true that Trent was of medium height. “And your logic is flawed. Mitch Walsh was a descendant, his grandfather was kicked out.”
“I still have confidence in him and I believe him,” he looked towards Trent.
Trent turned to George. “Well, I just need to be able to go there…”
“You would leave this place where you’ve importance here?! You won’t have any importance over there!”
George turned towards Carlson. “You don’t know yet. He hasn’t gone through training.”
George had always been on Trent’s side ever since he came to Last Time Marina, by easing the transition between Trent’s childhood home and the Marina when all the other boaters mocked him for scurrying away from the customers and barely looking them in the eyes when talking to any of them. Despite his frequent forgetfulness, he was more than willing to engage in discussions with his fellow boaters and Trent about the Warhounds. He possessed a bigger heart than Carlson, but of course, it was Carlson who paid him and provided him housing.
Then they saw another caravan arrive in the dirty entrance, presumably here for another order placed. Trent’s heart started beating rapidly, he knew that this could be one of those chances that could easily slip. “It’s time I leave my apprenticeship anyway.”
“What skills would you apply from this scummy marina to the Warhounds? They want dogs of war, not little shrimp like you.”
“Well…” said George. “We’ll see about that, won’t we?”
“Yes,” Trent said.
“Then, who will help me during the winter?” He’s right, the winter would be harsh this time. I don’t know if I am able to escape this time.
“I’ll stay and do everything,” George said.
“You’ll do all the boxes and the packaging?!”
“Until you find another apprentice.”
“Uhh!” Carlson shouted, then brought both of his hands upon his head. Just then two of the boaters walked in, both just as big as George. The one with soft, grey eyes said “The catch hasn’t been coming in.”
The other, wearing a torn shirt, looked at George. He said, “This is just between me, Trent, and Carlson.”
“He’ll never become a Warhound,” Grey Eyes said. He rubbed Trent’s messy hair. “He’s just too wimpy.” This prompted the other man to laugh.
Trent swatted the hand away. “Hey! Nobody said Mitch would become a Warhound either.”
“You and your pamphlets,” Torn Shirt told Trent.
“Those pamphlets were the only thing I had!” Trent had remembered the only education he had, prior to Carlson, were the pamphlets, which were written about how the Warhounds would protect Burople and the lesser towns it controlled, showing the illustrations of Burrough and his successors and supporters, up to the current Warhounds and the Brigadier General Charles Miller, with his beard ruffled like a wolf.
After considering, pacing about, each step a thump in Trent’s heart. A single second was like an entire minute, as his dream hanged by a fishing line, with the hook begging for the catch, hoping that it made ends meet. Only in this case, it was not Carlson’s expenses, but Trent’s own dreams. Carlson said, “Don’t expect me to see you again. I’ll find another shrimp out in this waste-filled sea.”
Those two boaters and George stood silent. But it was Trent who was genuinely shocked, whose entire being was uplifted, almost as if the excessive water was taken off the boat. He can now go to Burople and become what he wanted. He tried his best to hide the smile, forcing the crinkles to cease, but only exasperated the irritable urge to resist.
“Already, let’s go,” George said, tugging Trent along, “That guy’s probably waiting for his shipment anyway.”
The man behind the reins arrived, with George and Trent hunched with the shipment, clattering about with live bait. Trent could handle the smell of the sea since it would wear off at the end of the day.
Trent’s arms and legs started to ache and cramp, but his eyes kept watch over the markets alive with business and the streets unchanged from the Age of Prosperity. There were caravans all about, just like the one he was riding in. The people, wearing all kinds of clothes, from rags to embroideries, did business with one another, whether between stands or out in the middle of the street. He had never thought he would ever see Burople, but he was also sad when reminded that Carlson would never experience this joy, this feeling of discovery and curiosity. His throat started to become choked up when making this realization. But this was why George had sacrificed half of his pay, just so he could get him to the camps where he would be trained.
After the shipment was delivered, George had given the driver a little extra as promised, in order to be taken to the recruiters. “Great, more Buropolitan fodder,” he said, taking the coins. The wheels turned and the horses kept moving. They started to watch the markets and the apartments dwindle and fade, lessening the more they traveled. They saw less and fewer people as well, making clutter less dense and easier to navigate, so the caravan continued at a faster rate until all Trent saw were trees and distant smoke.
Trent’s heart started to accelerate, like the sputter and constant starting of one of the marina’s boats’ motor. He could not wait any longer, every ten minutes felt like an hour and George, right next to him, was starting to feel it as well. However, he started to breathe deeply, almost out of impatience. Trent had done the same, but only because of anxiety and the build-up of excitement.
Then the caravan stopped. He immediately got out, and saw the camp, with its steel towers and barbed fences keeping the thieves out and the recruits in. George climbed out and had approached Trent, “I must be blunt with you. I don’t truly believe that you could become a Warhound.”
Trent’s confidence declined as soon as he internalized that entire statement.
He continued, “I’m not saying you won’t become great, but anything but a Warhound. You’re just not born to it.” He then hopped back into the caravan and motioned the driver to turn and go back. That can’t be…it must be one of George’s forgetfulness. Trent could not believe the one person that believed in him all of these years had suddenly told him he can’t go through with it. It just had to have been one of his flaws. He was always forgetting random stuff, but Trent’s dream was not random.
He walked up to the recruiter, standing within the post of the steel tower. Trent looked at him within the cavernous post and asked, “I would like to join the militia.”
Trent obviously didn’t want to walk in and be made a Warhound. He needed to build up his reputation while he’s here being trained or when he is sent to Burople on duty. He felt self-assured that this would prove successful.
It was cool outside. Trent was like the rest of the recruits, wearing grey cotton jackets, trousers, and puttees, with barely any padding. The drill sergeant walked up and down, from the recruit at the farthest end to the recruit closer to the door. “What are you doing here?!” he exclaimed at the one closer to the door. He responded, “Join the militia!” This occurred with the others until it reached Trent.
The sergeant’s face was wrinkled and his head barely had any hair. He shouted just the same. But Trent responded, “To assist the Warhounds.”
“How are you going to assist the Warhounds?! You’re just a lowly fighter! Give me twenty push-ups!”
Trent quickly dropped to his knees, then fell on his hands, reached out his feet, and did the twenty push-ups.
He got up and stood attentively like the rest of the recruits.
His throat clogged with blood, as the entire band of recruits jogged throughout the woods. Only the backs of their grey jackets and the surrounding trees suffocating the remaining sunlight he could see. Sweat ran down his heated face. The entire road before him appeared never-ending, but his determination challenged it. It was worth the hope that he would become someone of importance, maybe even as a Warhound if the opportunity struck, if the Age of the Grey Sky were to become the changing pivot where he will become the next Burrough or even the next Charlemagne from the Age of Darkness.
He started losing sensation and his vision became obscure. Everything in his sight became amorphous blurs and indiscernible shapes. He fought to stay conscious, even as his entire body started shutting down, even as he felt the overwhelming heat and even as the visible world turned black and he could feel the hard dirt. He heard the sergeant calling for medics…
“Mmmmmm…mmmmm…” The blinding lights around him registered to him that he was in the infirmary. Trent could hear the moans of the other patients, one of whom took a gunshot as he turned his head to the other aching souls.
He turned his head back to the ceiling, but instead found a man with a similar grey jacket standing near the end of the bed.
“Sergeant Swartz will be expecting you tomorrow.”
Trent went back into his thoughts as he now had proven to everyone that he really was a weakling who couldn’t handle even a simple jog. How would he explain this to the Sergeant? I need to just tell him that I will make up for it somehow. I will accept any punishment. Better yet, I ask for him to have me jog twice the distance. He started feeling a fire inside of him, wanting to rectify his mistake. He finally decided that he could just go out and jog that same distance in that same location. He didn’t care about being disciplined, since it would be better than being viewed as a weakling who passes out in the middle of a jog.
Disoriented, he climbed out of his bed and looked at the receptionists and the ailing recruits to make sure none are seeing him. He waddled towards the door and went out onto the grass, walking through the blades as though they were obstacles. He was about to enter the woods, about to go up to the trees, about to hide from the militia and the sky above him. Balancing himself against a tree, Trent could see the winding path that the recruits jogged through, with the trees that were made way with the knobs of cut branches resembling a hallway. Although each step caused him to disorientate, he attempted to walk the first step on his jog.
“Hey! Where are you going?!”
Suddenly, Trent’s heart came up to his throat and all sensation escaped him. He was left standing as that voice thundered again, “You weren’t planning to go into those woods were you?!” Trent dared not look at the source, but instead responded meekly “No, I was about to be sent here…”
“By whose orders?”
“He never commanded any recruit to go into those woods.”
The voice walked in front of Trent, who was surprised to see the khaki uniform and the dog’s head sewn on the left sleeve. My God, a Warhound…I’m dead… He felt that he could just feign passing out again, in order to not feel a Warhound’s wrath, but shock compromised his entire body and halted this small advantage.
“I was making up for it by jogging twice the mile.”
“That’s bullshit! You just wanted to run away didn’t you?”
“No, I…I fainted in the middle of jogging,” Trent’s voice crackled with nervousness. “I…couldn’t bring myself to accept that.”
“You fainted? That’s why you were in that infirmary?”
The Warhound lowered his head to examine Trent with his blue eyes, which penetrated his very being, his muscles, his stature. He started to feel the same heat, but it was internal, no sweating.
“You would go through all of that, simply to make up for it?”
“Come with me.”
This did not make Trent any more situated. He was completely within his senses as he followed the Warhound. As he walked, he kept feeling more and more anxious with every step. His paddings felt like anchors, dragging him down the sea of despair and severe discipline. He had not realized that entering the woods would be so heinous an act that a Warhound would be offended. Every militiaman he walked past acted more as mere moving objects. He had not dared ask if they were going to the Brigadier General or not, but he did picture his ordering Trent to be flogged publicly. Or, in the case of the Warhound Dudley Brigham, executed by a single gunshot to the head. Suddenly, all of the dreams that he had would crash as he walked past the trees and buildings and the jogging bands.
He suddenly found himself and the Warhound walking a long hall leading to a large door. The Warhound knocked.
“Come in,” a howling voice said.
He went in and brought Trent inside. He could see the General, who had a large blond beard and a wide nose. Behind him, he could see the flags with white stars and red-and-white stripes as well as other memorabilia that stated “U.S. Army” as well as a Mameluke sword, hanging just above General Miller’s occupied seat.
Carlson and George and the rest of the boaters were right; I’ll never become better of myself.
As he started thinking about Carlson’s obvious opposition and George’s stunning revelation, the blue-eyed Warhound told the General, “General, I want to know if there are any rules against apprenticing a non-Warhound.”
Then, as if that same excessive water was taken from his boat, Trent was uplifted. He had never thought that this opportunity would come. Just the opposite of his expectations happened. He started to think that all of this was not real, that his meeting with the General wasn’t real, and that he will now serve under a War…
“Yes, there is.”
Then Trent felt down again. He didn’t get punished, but he wouldn’t get trained personally by a Warhound.
“But only in circumstances that are NOT dire. I have read through the Warhound Codices multiple times and only, in that case, is it permitted.”
“Even with the death of General Richard Kantor, how would the situation be dire?”
The blue-eyed Warhound smiled and said, “Not only is it a threat from Delaniople, but also there might be murmurings that you had a hand in it…”
“Classic argument,” General Miller hmphed. “How is this runt any changing difference?”
“You couldn’t find any other Warhound or any of the veterans of the Siege of Victor Delaney.” Trent had remembered that the Siege of Victor Delaney devastated the Burrough forces, to the point where they barely recovered to this very day. However demoralizing it was, the Warhounds and the Siege reminders were still icons throughout Burople and its towns.
“All of the veterans are in our rank.”
“But no one else? What if there’s a raid or a rebellion? Do you have that many elite forces to handle the struggle?”
General Miller stood up and paced the room, only where the memorabilia stood, only by his table.
The Warhound looked to Trent then back to General Miller. “I must also remind you that you took ME in as your apprentice…”
“You were not your grandfather!”
“I will train him myself, so you will have one more addition in case such an event happened,” the interested Warhound concluded as if to repeat the intention.
General Miller then looked towards Trent, already not at ease, not knowing whether this chance of a lifetime would slip or come to him. He examined him the very same way this interested Warhound did, almost as if estimating his worth as a Warhound.
“What do you think about all this?”
“I have always idolized the Warhounds, General. You were originally riot police and military personnel during the end of the Age of Prosperity, then when the Age of the Grey Sky happened, a hundred years today, you became an elite guard for the Buropolitan populace and leadership.”
General Miller then closed his gaze towards Trent, to the point Trent could see the wrinkles on his face, “You have a good knowledge about you, but don’t expect any warm welcome.”
He then looked towards the Warhound. “Mitchell, this better be the first of many personal guards.”
“Yes, sir,” Mitchell bowed.
As he sat outside of Mitchell’s office, Trent started to feel pride. He wanted to write a letter to send to his father. If only he could see the reaction on his face, on the faces of Carlson, George, and the rest of Last Time Marina.
But then he was struck by a thought. Why did he choose me? I’m just a mere runt, the General himself described. As soon as Mitchell took care of some business, he would explain that first point. He had hoped to be the first to ask that, hoped to be the one to get some answers. It was almost as though his own life sped so quickly from fainting in the middle of a routine jog to being sent to the General himself. Trent had reminded himself that he compared his height to that of the rest of the recruits. He had recalled that they were of similar, medium height, but why would a Warhound take interest in such a regular?
“Come in!” he boomed.
Trent got up and walked through the door to find Mitchell sitting in his chair with the desk in front of him, with memorabilia just like General Miller’s, but previously owned by the disgraced Warhound Frederick Walsh.
Mitchell Walsh picked up his head. “Do you know why I picked you?”
I was thinking of that same question. “No, sir.”
He straightened his gaze and answered, “Burople is falling apart since that Siege. As soon as we marched into that Delaniopolitan town to find Victor, we found it was all a trap, and he was gone, with the ambushing forces coming from the same tunnel he used to escape. We barely got out. It cost us dearly.”
“So you’ll find anyone to replace them?” Trent had known about the Siege from the pamphlets, though never as serious as it was described. It was simply a “fallen chance.”
“Yes,” said Mitchell. “It is falling into disrepair and we can only fill the gaps in the ranks. And when I saw you go into those woods, I knew that you had some potential, the way you were standing, almost as though staring down the entire woods, ready to challenge them.”
Trent felt at ease talking to the Warhound. His younger self would’ve fainted the same way he did in the woods, talking to one of the heroes.
“How will I be trained, sir?”
“Call me Mitch.”
“How, Mitch?” It felt strange, rolling that name off his tongue, a pet name no less. He could not just disrespect a Warhound like that, but why did he want to be called as such? Is he like a little brother all of the sudden?
“Well, you will first need to be by my side at all times,” said Mitch. “This is the same as when I served under the General.”
“What will be the purpose of all of this?”
“It would be very possible,” Mitch said, trying to take in what information he has gathered from the Codices and the solutions to this dilemma is. “You could either become one of the main Commanders in the Burrough militia, or you might even become a Warhound.”
Trent saw that Mitch noticed the smirk on his face and responded, “You know this is a very strange situation. Never since the end of the Age of Prosperity had he had to root out raw recruits before. The Warhounds were originally a band of police and military from that Age. Since then, we had become the de facto rulers of Burople.”
A class of some sort, he did not say, unless he provoked the Warhound’s rage. He had remembered the stories of the Warhound Benjamin Pulaski, who could easily knock out a recruit with a single swing to the face. Of course, Mitch looked sophisticated and not a heavy drinker.
“Now I will need to make arrangements on where you will be residing.” Mitch rummaged through the information on his desk. Each paper flying off the edge of the cedar deck. “I can’t seem to find anything…” He rushed out the door, not before telling Trent, “It will be a while.”
Trent noticed that Mitch didn’t close the door. He was left to his own thoughts about all of this sudden change. He was the weakling, now he was a Warhound’s apprentice. Trent hadn’t been to church very much, ever since he came to Carlson’s tutelage, but he did feel that somehow he had satisfied that God who governs the entire world, who assigns people their roles and purposes in life. He had also remembered the past Warhounds lived in the “kennel among the clouds” from the childhood songs. Could that be where he is heading towards?
He picked himself up, his ambitious fast-moving thoughts overtaking his obligation to stay where he was, that same motivation that convinced him to go into those woods without any regard for authority. He exited out of Mitch’s office and walked down hallways upon hallways of shining, hard tiles on the floor and the sun reflecting from the windows, casting a glorious light upon the floor and the dome-like ceilings.
He then encountered a man studying the floor, who approached Trent, “You should be grateful for these floors, runt. Paid for and renovated by the artisans of Burople.” He then walked past him, continuing to study architecture. It was of curiosity when such dedication to this building began, as he viewed the man in his overalls, scanning each nook and cranny with just his eyes. He was about as dedicated to this building’s preservation as the Warhounds were to the entire Burople.
Before he could go on any further, he saw an empty room, looking through the door window, reflecting his smirking face. Trent opened the door and walked inside, picking up every visual detail. There were rows upon rows of tables present, as he continued to walk on the red carpet towards the front. As soon as he faced the cool grey wall, he turned to face those tables, as though there were people occupying them.
His heart thumped louder and quicker. Trent decided that the empty crowd needed some verbal commands, “What you doing there?! We need more forces on the flank!” Then he started pacing up and down the front, waving his arms about, pointing in various directions “We need to push back the Delaney forces! I will not tolerate defeat! Or retreats! Or compromises!” Then, the entire room was under his authority “We need to push them back, in any way we can! Protect the stock! We need it!”
Trent halted when he saw Mitch standing in the doorway. He blushed, his throat completely dry in mere seconds. Then he saw Mitch’s smile, etched across his lean head. Perhaps General Kantor is assisting me.
Cassidy was in her room, with the mirror reflecting the morning light upon her dark brown hair, elongated straight through her shoulder blades. She looked at herself, amidst the makeup contained in little bottles, and saw her brown eyes and the long philtrum between her nose and mouth. She rubbed her forehead with her thin hand.
She continued to swallow her tears, continued to sulk in her room, struck by the death of her father, General Richard. The thought of never seeing him again made her eyes redden. She sniffled and rubbed her eyes. The possible successor of this city cannot bear with this selfish woman. I need to compose myself.
She picked herself up out of her chair and looked around her room, looked at the large round bed, barely mussed and blanket and sheets needing of straightening. Cassidy did not mind the lateness of the maids, in fact, it was better to be left alone to grieve. It was never easy. She then started feeling agitated, knowing that the maidens would usually peer in her room at her mother’s behest to keep an eye on her daughter. An eye on a Warhound’s prize. They had been observing her since General Miller had been in charge and had decided that it was time for her to marry. She is of twenty years, she remembered him saying, It is time she secured an heir for Burople.
She paced about in the little space that was available. Ever since the General’s death, she had been occupied in her room, day and night, her maids bringing her food and only eating when she felt like it. She had strains throughout her body, cramps from staying in bed too long.
Knocks were heard from the door.
“Cassidy, your mother wants to see you.”
It was about time she gave up her sulk and redeveloped communication with the real world. “Please let me get prepared.”
Getting prepared was the most crucial part of her routine, even if it was before the closest family members. She immediately put on what was left of her mascara, hoping to appear exquisite in case some guest arrived or one of the Warhounds. One of the Buropolitan fodder. She dropped everything, then opened the door to find the maiden with her short black hair and her dress and apron on, and said, “I’m ready. Where is she?”
“She is waiting in the main room.”
Cassidy hurried down the hallway of pale stone, her feet touching the cold surface, racing through the Palladium cube, going past the furniture. She reached the main room, where her mother, a shorter woman of long, dark hair, waited in one of the chairs.
“You have been expected minutes ago,” her mother said. “But, your father’s passing has slowed you down.”
“What will you be needing today, mother?”
“General Miller is still waiting for you to make your decision.”
Ever since the death of the greatest Warhound in her own Buropolitan history, she has only viewed the Warhounds as fodder, as mere pups who only snarl and bark. Even though they would go out and fight, even in such courageous efforts like the capturing of Victor Delaney was attempted and failed miserably, it was just fate calling them to the kennel-house among the clouds. They would all die out, even if they lived to old age.
“I am still waiting to make the decision. I’m not even the successor, nor will my heir. Lorne is the sole heir. Why does it even matter?”
“It matters on the grounds that General Miller has authority,” she piercingly said.
He is not my father, she had wanted to say but wanted to avoid any confrontational discipline. Even though she had come out of a catatonic experience of losing a loved one, it did not excuse her behavior, it will never excuse the negligence of her duty as a General’s daughter. But if she really did have that much importance, then the whole Warhound class needs to be aware of that, that she will bear one of them children, that she will bring them up. Without her and the regent Catherine Kantor, Burople will collapse.
“General Miller has his own plans with Lorne, who he plans to marry his daughter. You have the obligation at this point to marry and decide on it. He cannot make any more compromises.”
Finally, Cassidy just has to let it out, she has to tell her thoughts to someone. If she told the maidens, they would tell the other maidens, and they would tell God only knows who. She said, with irritable insides, “Does it matter WHO I marry? They will all die anyway, if not in the field but in their homes. Or assassinated.”
“You do not know the Warhounds!” she exclaimed. “They kept this city alive for a hundred years! Do not forget that!”
“I know that but…” she stammered, obviously she expected such a response, but it was like she blotted her own daughter out. All about the Warhounds, yet not about a Warhound’s daughter, their General’s daughter, “How long with this go on? This struggle against Delaniople. A rivalry that started with the grandson of Jared Burrough and a man by the name of John Delaney…”
“John Delaney betrayed the Warhounds and you know it. He is not even to be spoken of by his name.”
Cassidy had been aware of this history, but it looked futile to her. Such bitter conflict, remaining incumbent, yet this took place in the early Grey Sky years when survival was at the highest peak, and they would betray that purpose for their own selfish means.
“I have misspoken,” Cassidy said. “I’m sorry.”
“I know. I’m shaken up as well.”
Cassidy straightened her dress, a simple attire with a black color reaching down the feet and extending to the gloves. She also had a necklace about her neck, with an emerald in the center, reflecting the silver containing it.
“Are we expecting anyone today?”
“We are expecting the Warhound Stephen Rodriguez to arrive. I want you to be on your best behavior. He could be one of your choices.”
She had been comfortable with it, she did feel unease, but she worried that she could not only ruin the exchange but accidentally insult him. Although the label of a race was arbitrarily used in Burople throughout the Age of the Grey Sky, there was still a sense of tribalism about for every person, that included the Warhounds. Even they are not immune from congregating among their own packs.
“Very well,” she said as she slumped into her chair across from Catherine. She had become accustomed to this ever since meeting with the first potential suitors, Lionel Cornwell and Joseph Freeman, who were both descendants of people who prepared and hoarded for the end of the Age of Prosperity and rose among the ranks of the riot police, flooding the academies during the new Age’s dawn.
Time was meaningless to her. She occupied the time, besides staring at the presidents from the Age of Prosperity and a painting of George Washington, a man from the Age of Discovery, by thinking about her future in Burople. “I wanted to be clear that it would be my choice of who to marry. Do you think that father would’ve wanted that?”
“Your father would’ve sent you away as a diplomatic gift towards Delaniople,” Catherine said bluntly. “It’s been a month, and you rarely got out of your room, so you still have time to choose for yourself.”
“Not to sound like I’m insinuating sabotage, but General Miller seemed intent on allowing me to make my choice. If he couldn’t have sent me away and just given me what I wanted, do you think he was trying to gain my favor?” Or even want me for himself? She wanted to stop there before she opened her mouth any further. It was clear that Cassidy said enough.
“You bear the womb for the possible heir. If you were the only child in this family, he would’ve taken you for himself…”
Has she read my thoughts? Cassidy wanted to speak no more. All she wanted was to wait for this Warhound to arrive. It was not the first time a non-white person married so close to the Kantors. A distant cousin in the town of Hampton had married a Chinese-Buropolitan merchant. It wouldn’t change anything in Burople of course since race was no longer a dividing issue in this city-state…power and influence are.
She could not fathom the image of General Charles Miller having his way with her. Cassidy instead focused on more important situations as she rubbed her head left to right.
A maid arrived and told Catherine, lowering to reach her ear, “The dish is nearly done. Please wait three minutes.”
“Yes, thank you,” she replied. It wouldn’t do any good to leave a Warhound without a dinner with her and the potential bride. That was why it took three more minutes alone to get the entire feast set up on the long table in the dining hall.
Catherine entered with Cassidy and Stephen, side by side, as they both took their seats next to each other and the mother sat across from them to observe their mannerisms. If the maids were enough to monitor Cassidy’s everyday activities, then her own mother would keep watch over her time with a potential husband.
Cassidy turned to look at him, his wide nose, his tan face, and his arching eyebrows. He was considering the dishes before him. Stephen turned towards Catherine. “It is an honor to partake in the dinner of the Kantors.”
“The honor is all our’s.”
He took a bowl of chicken and took some for himself, then he passed it to her, which she took. She took some chicken for herself. She watched as he bit into the meat of the leg before she turned to her wing and took the same bite, which went down her throat in a rough passage. Cassidy drank from her glass cup of wine and washed the poultry down with a sweet spiciness.
“When did you become a Warhound, Stephen?” she said as she put her cup down.
“I became a Warhound when my father retired. He lives on a pension in Hampton.” The same place my distant cousin is.
“He served well,” her mother said.
“That he did. He took part in that siege and was one of the reminders.”
“It must have been rough,” Cassidy cut in, “His experiences…and how he told it to you.”
Stephen nodded, looking at his fork. “It was pretty scary, the way he described how there were barely any bodies left. The idea that people can lose their humanity in that way, it made me never want to be a Warhound. That’s when he slapped me and told me, ‘You will be a Warhound! It is not what you want, but what the entire city-state wants!’ I had to be reminded that we didn’t live in the Age of Prosperity.”
Cassidy looked at his playing with his fork, and immediately blurted out, “So nobody chooses to be a Warhound? Are they destined for it? The prosperous police and military chose it…”
“Enough, woman!” her mother interjected. This caused Cassidy to be silenced. She knew that pups were born into the life of a Warhound. She just couldn’t accept that fact, that loyalty and glory were not to be attained, but were privileges of birth. Why bother needing any help for Burople, when it has simple aristocracy? A simple vassal class?
Cassidy returned to her meal, by taking a bowl of steamy corn with butter smeared all over, and scooping in a large amount.
“You must forgive my daughter,” her mother told Stephen. “It’s been a month and General Kantor’s death still lingers on.”
“I’m very sorry, Regent,” Stephen then turned towards Cassidy. “Cassidy.”
“Would you like to refill that glass?” Catherine said.
“Yes, thank you.”
Catherine called for the maid, who quickly strode towards her, and whispered in her ear, and she went off the same direction.
“The wine will be here shortly.” Hearing her mother’s voice reminded Cassidy of the blurriness about her, and the loose tongue she had seconds ago. I should really keep my mouth shut, but I don’t want to appear disrespectful. Why did I have to go through all of this?
She grasped the cup in her hand, still resting on the table, the cloth taking the spills from her fragile attempts of resisting to take another sip. Cassidy instead took her fork and continued to eat the corn. It was better not to waste such a meal that a commoner would kill for, especially since the Age of Prosperity came to a close with the destruction of entire cities and the radiation seeping into many crops. Then, she realized that her mother and Stephen were carrying on a conversation.
“What do you have to say, Cassidy?” said Stephen. “About the wedding?”
Was she already getting married? She would not have it! If she had to sleep with a corpse, at least she would decide. “No!” Cassidy flung the cup across the hall and threw her plate towards the door. “I will not marry you!”
As Cassidy was staggering, her mother shouted, “Bring her to her room! Lock her in until she wakes up!”
She struggled to be free of the household staff, the maids had to huddle around her. Their hands grasped every part of her as she flailed about and screeched. Cassidy suddenly felt herself moving, so she continued to flail about, trying to escape.
The maids threw her into her room. She heard the door lock. Cassidy turned and fell clumsily. The floor was unforgiving, leaving her to lay there until she got sober. The only thought running through her head was that she would have to marry this Warhound already. It did not suit, it wasn’t fair! She was promised to choose and she didn’t get it! Was the Age of Prosperity the time when compromises could be kept?
The cranking of the door was heard, and one of the maids opened the door. Then the few that brought her in that day had brought her up to her feet and dragged her through the hall along the tiled floor. She was in her mother’s room, similar to her own room but more nicely kept.
Cassidy could hear the deep breathing of her impatience. She knew that she was in deep trouble. She was prepared for any punishment. Everything else didn’t matter, not her choices, not her attitude, not her sense of realistic perspective.
“You were never like this,” she heard her mother say in a calm voice. “How did you change?”
“…I wanted to be…clear that…” she slurred her explanation, the recurring thought in her head regurgitated in the most uncouth way, “…it was my choice…”
“You didn’t choose Lionel or Joseph. Now you don’t want Stephen. What do you want?”
She started realizing that it wasn’t her mother talking, it was General Miller’s words from her throat.
“I want to know…who is least likely to die,” Cassidy said, hoping for some response.
“You know that the Warhounds risk their lives every day for this city.”
Catherine dragged Cassidy unto her bed, soft and warm. She dismissed her maids with a wave of her hand.
“And not their fighters? Aren’t they just the same?”
Catherine rubbed her wrinkled hand on her smooth side. “I don’t make the rules, even though I’m Regent. General Charles Miller runs Burople…”
“I don’t want to be with him!” she shouted, upon hearing the mention of his name. “His own daughter is older than me!”
“He has made it clear to you that YOU choose your husband. But he’s becoming impatient…”
“He’d sooner sell me off to the Delani…Delaniop…Bastards, then wait any longer.”
“Why is it so hard for you to choose?”
Tears started coming down her face as all of the pent-up emotion came out. “I don’t want to be left alone again…”
Catherine rubbed her shoulder, hearing her gasp for air repeatedly. “I felt the same when he died.”
“Regent, the General is here to see you,” one of the maids said.
The wolf of the Warhounds, the general of Burople, stood by the door as he greeted Catherine and Cassidy, who in turn bowed to his salute. She could tell on his face that he had some slight impatience.
“Have you made your choice, Cassidy?”
Catherine looked at her with those penetrating grey eyes. Cassidy turned toward the General, “No, sir. Not this one.”
General Miller moved his lower jaw left to right, “It’s a shame. Stephen Rodriguez is an excellent pup. Has his father’s vigor. But you still have plenty to choose from. I will not rush you.”
Yet you MAKE me feel rushed. “The Warhounds are a lot. Including the veterans.”
“Again, you will not be rushed,” the General said.
There was a brief silence, and Cassidy started feeling uncomfortable. Not saying anything was the worst part about General Miller. It was almost as if he was trying to peer into her emotions, trying to see her squirm, trying to see how she’ll respond. Perhaps he had gained this trick when he climbed to power. Or when the son-of-a-bitch poisoned my father…
He continued, “You have a lot of your father in you. The facial features, the hair.”
“Thank you, General,” Cassidy bowed.
“He was a Warhound. Trailing and ranging for the sake of Burople’s safety. When I see you, I see a fellow warrior.”
“He has taught me a lot of war and tactics and such.” She had been taught her father’s ideas that she never put to use.
“I hope that your offspring will become the greatest Warhounds, just as my son’s will.”
Miller then focused on Catherine. “I am very sorry for the death of your husband. He had a weak heart. In the meanwhile, we will strengthen our forces and we will prepare for more skirmishes, and war if need be.”
That brought a dagger to Cassidy’s heart. More war would mean more deaths and more broken hearts, including her own. Now she will have to live through this travesty of humanity, played out by two city-states. They all just want to act tough, they didn’t care about the safety of their own people, or their own General’s daughters.
She got to her senses, trying to keep out the experience of her sulk. What mattered the most was her marriage, her choice for who will bear her children, who will warm her bed. Yet, there are hundreds of individuals who call themselves Warhounds, scattered throughout Burople and her towns. “So long as I don’t get a Gregory James,” she interceded. She didn’t want to pick a Warhound that would beat her and her children.
“I assure you that the Warhounds have a sense of accountability,” said the General. “All our jurisprudence coming straight from our Codeces.”
I’d like to believe that.
Cassidy walked throughout the hallways of the fort, rushing to find the building where the next Warhound will be assigned to visit. She bumped into rugged militiamen, scarred and grizzled from years of ranging and fighting, and young recruits, little boys who wanted to become the Warhound’s faithful companions. They were cast to the side by her guardians, wearing the same uniform as the militiamen–all grey. As they forced their way, the men ahead voluntarily drew themselves against the walls. It felt dreary this day, her heart was surging, she no longer had the malaise for that month, her father’s death was memorized and everyone moved on.
Before she knew it, they had arrived at the room, where they saw a man behind his desk. He was balding, with evident spots on his hairline. He saw her and called her, “Come in, please.”
There was no enthusiasm in his voice, she noticed. It was clear to Cassidy that he had been on his thoughts for a while, that she still hasn’t picked her suitor, and he was becoming impatient.
She took a seat, leaving her guards at the door. He told her, “Are you well enough?”
She kept up her posture and manners, “Yes, I have gotten over my father’s death. Thank you.”
“Indeed. It must be tough to lose a loved one. But General Miller has assigned me my position, and I do what I must.”
“It didn’t go well with Stephen.” Obviously, if she drunkenly threw everything around and caused a scene, then it was clear indication that she needed to get past her father’s death.
“I’m sorry about that. Your father would’ve…” he stopped. …liked him, she knew. Stephen was quite polite and civilized.
“I understand,” she said. “Who is next?”
The man went through his papers and found the list, with the dates and times, “There is a Warhound who is a protector of the mayor of Jasper.”
Jasper, a town bordering with Delaniople, not even her towns, but the city itself. The very town that could witness a battle, a place that this protector would never survive. Just as her heart was dropping, she said, “I’ll give him a chance.”
“I wish you blessings, Cassidy.”
“Thank you…” she stopped and raised her hand, “By the way, are they all in a position to care for me?”
“All of them besides one or two at the moment.”
She left him to his papers. It was a shame that she had been born a woman in such a desperate time. If she had been born a man, she would’ve left this miserable city and the facade of the Warhounds and just did what she wanted.
She turned to the corner leading to a turn in the hall. “I need some privacy if you please,” she told the two guards. They stood there, in some ways protecting the man keeping the appointments.
Cassidy walked to that turn in the hallway, just the usual sight. There were still militiamen roaming about. She wanted to clear her head. This was just another Warhound to meet, he probably won’t be an inspiration to her, probably won’t be there for her when she gives birth, wouldn’t be there for her when her own family member dies. Then she saw one of the militiamen, wearing the grey uniform, being laughed at by some Warhounds. Typical…playing games on some recruit. Warhounds have no shame! My next one better not act like this! As she thought this, she was walking faster there, stomping her way over there, having little regard for the people she bumped into, all that mattered was that young fighter was being picked on by some of the most upright people in Burople, whom he’s expected to look up to.
Then her shirt collar got caught in some hanging part of the wooden door. She struggled as she watched that young fighter being called “Mitch’s bitch” and having the back of his head slapped. They then walked away laughing. Didn’t even look at the General’s daughter getting caught!
She fiddled with the tips of her fingers, trying to get her shirt free of the wood. Then she saw the brown-haired recruit walk over to her. He was actually quite a looker for someone serving in the militia. She could tell that he was a recruit because he didn’t have any stress-borne wrinkles or any scars. When he got closer, she found that he was the same height as her. He lent out his fingers and brought her freedom, with the exception of a hole in the shirt and the ensuing drama that will occur.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You’re the General’s daughter?”
He just had to say that? Well, it’s better that I’m recognized as such.
“I am deeply sorry for your loss. General Richard Kantor was an inspiration for me, in those pamphlets. I wouldn’t have come here if it wasn’t for him and his fellow hounds.”
“Thank you.” This guy is clearly clueless. Well-meaning…but clueless.
A voice in the background exclaimed, “Are you bothering Cassidy Kantor?!”
This jolted the recruit, who immediately became defensive, “No, sirs! Her shirt was caught in the door and I decided to help.”
They walked right up to Cassidy and then looked him in the eyes. “You are the runt. You are immune from speaking with the late General’s daughter.” Now THEY are really rubbing it in.
“I’m sorry, sirs” he bowed to them, “Cassidy,” he bowed to her. He hurried back to that turn.
When he was out of earshot, she told one of her guards, “He’s the runt I hear about?”
“His name is Trent Anthony, from Fisher’s Town,” said the guard whom she was addressing, “A lowly shrimp who dreamt of becoming a hound. Children will believe that more than anyone here.”
This prompted the two to laugh. Cassidy felt her blood boiling up to her neck. This was going far enough. She will not accept this young dreamer to be subjected to this mockery.
“I will not accept mockery of any kind! This is General Richard Kantor’s daughter speaking!” This brought an immediate silence, both in movement and dialogue. Her guards stood straight, evidently shocked, and the individuals around them were surprised to see the daughter of the late General barking commands like she had become an officer under the new General. They continued their business.
“I will not hear from either of you! You will get me back to my room!” She looked at the attentive guards, still standing still. “Understood?!”
They both nodded. Cassidy turned back and stomped her way back. The two guards followed her. Even a woman has more backbone than that runt. She felt pity for him though.
She now had her new Warhounds ahead to think about as soon as she exited the door and went out into the cold, October land. It wasn’t snowing yet, but there was still a creeping coldness about that made Cassidy curl herself up with her arms. It was about as cold as the world itself. The Age of the Grey Sky is an era of coldness, a winter of the forgotten era of wealth and sustenance. Why was I not born at that time?
“This will not last,” she told her guards, as soon as she stopped nearby the trees surrounding the camps in the distance. “I mean this life. If I want to lead this life, it will have to be by my own choice. My mother knows little about me. She lost a husband; I lost a father. Her own father is peacefully in a home. The fact that an enemy city killed your own family member…” She looked around at the people walking among the fallen leaves. She continued, “The Bastards are just like the Warhounds, wanting to seek glory, even if it means killing people.”
Cassidy then looked at the two, their eyes now fixed on her. She knew that she knew. “What do you think?”
One of them said, “I agree. I don’t know how the Warhounds carry themselves. Them and their hypocrisy.”
The other spoke, “Indeed, I looked up to them before becoming a guard. Now it’s blatantly obvious that they’re all bark and no bite. They couldn’t even protect their own General.”
Cassidy’s heart started beating, she felt unusually hot amid the cold weather. She looked around, hoping no one would hear. There was barely anyone outside, at least in this distance within the thick of trees and suffocated sunlight.
She then realized that she was in a vulnerable position, so she shouted, “I will not hear this any further! The games will be back on track tomorrow!” She saw that people were starting to notice her and her guards’ existence.
“We will pick up on these games when we get back to Burrough House!” she commanded, her drilling keeping the guards at ease, making it clear she was more than just a helpless woman.
“I will not accept this!” Mitch’s chest was afire, knowing that Trent was bullied by the other Warhounds. He could not fathom such an activity, for it warranted weakness. Mitch was not a Warhound to accept weakness.
“You will not accept this!” Mitch affirmed, pointing a trembling finger at Trent. “I will not hear from this again until you are able to put a stop to it!”
As soon as Mitch put his finger down, Trent said, “What do you plan for me to do about it?”
“I want you to beat the shit out of them…!”
“I can’t beat up a Warhound!”
“Sure you can! I did it many times when I was an apprentice myself.”
Mitch could see Trent’s face sink back into a painful indifference. He had been cornered on this. Mitch had remembered such an ignorant time, when he was just a lowly wastrel’s grandson, trying to seek glory. Glory means nothing without a city-state to sustain it.
Mitch calmed Trent, “I was an undesirable person, an outcast. Like you”–He pulled up his leg, and crossed the other leg as the khaki pant curled–“You should be grateful being called the Runt. I was called the ‘grandson of that son-of-a-bitch Frederick Walsh’. We earn nicknames outside of what we may think or say, so get used to it.” I got used to it for a while. Now I’ve practically redeemed the Walsh family through my actions as Warhound.
He rubbed the dog’s head on his left sleeve, felt the threading with his fingertips. The very same that Frederick wore before he had his way with all those women in Dead Leaves Town.
“Trent, let me tell you something.” He gestured the young him with his hand to come closer. Trent walked a few steps forward. He lowered his hand and his chest felt fire still.
“I was around your height when I was an apprentice…of course I was fourteen and you’re…?”
“I’m nineteen, sir.”
This caused disappointment. No further chance of growth. I guess I have to make due. Mitch understood that Trent was at least medium in height, so he wasn’t completely a runt, but his muscles and physical prowess barely shown through, and his demeanor is very withdrawn and insecure. Just like me at that point…
“Where did you work?”
“I was an apprentice for a marina from the age of fifteen until I came here. My father didn’t believe me, nor did George…”
“A boater who worked there. He always had confidence in me, but then told me he didn’t when he brought me to that camp.”
Mitch had his fair share of people in his life that didn’t believe in his redeeming of the Walsh family, but he had proven them all wrong. This was what Trent had intended and why he chose Trent to become his apprentice. “So you intend on proving them wrong?”
“Again I can relate to you. I made an excellent choice indeed.” Perhaps the ranks are recruiting under duress for a reason. Mitch had intended the transition to be easy, but with the threat of the Delaney forces always lingering. Even a dog like Mitch would be eased if there wasn’t the possibility of strange people coming to the door that is Burople. Everything revolved around borrowed time, the potential war was looming. He would need to get Trent prepared as soon as possible.
“I still need you to be put through hell,” he conceded.
He adjusted the papers on his desk, rearranging them, still cluttered just like on the day he brought Trent into his office. The arrangement of the mess reminded him of the state of Burople, waiting for an order to return, waiting for stability to be given by the new generation of Warhounds. Mitch’s heart was racing as he thought of making Trent into a replacement, just like he himself was made a replacement by General Miller.
“I’ve arranged a series of training, giving commands, tactics, and the like.”
Mitch looked into Trent’s eyes, now they were eager, brightly lit. He could tell that Trent was interested.
“Just recently I let you do an errand without you by my side. You were bullied as a result of it. Commander Miller did just the same to me; I beat a Warhound unconscious and I was punished for it. If you had done the same, I would’ve given you a vacation.” Mitch moved his head left to right, all while lowering it. He waved a hand, “Please get me my coffee.”
Trent nodded, “Yes sir.”
Mitch looked down at the papers, still rummaged like the fate of Burople. It would be on his mind to fix it, as he started to feel a crawling inside of him, knowing that Burople could possibly be overtaken by Delaniople. Help us all, if this city’s fate rests on a runt.
The heavy coat kept him warm, as he looked upon Trent, with no shirt covering his modest manliness. He had been punching the mannequin standing on the snow for about an hour, and he could see his entire body turn pink as the flakes fell upon him. But he saw that Trent continued to keep up his training. Each jab penetrated the bean-filled mannequin, on all sensitive points.
“Now we will break and we will return to practice on your kicks.” Mitch motioned Trent into the building. He watched the entire landscape around him, all white with snow. The streets were included, the caravans were not immune from the falling flakes, as the horses brushed them off as they continued to fall on their warm coverings. Mitch saw how the people were moving sluggishly through the ground. They have not yet experienced the hell of an Delaney attack.
The stability of Burople crinkled with fragility, to the point where people are more concerned about the snow, which could not overtake anything. It could withhold a siege.
Mitch walked back inside, where he saw Trent shaking constantly, warming himself to the blanket, enclosing himself within it. Mitch could feel that same coldness, as he once had under Commander Miller. He could feel the exhaustion from punching in every part of the fake enemy in close combat.
“I’m glad that you are starting to improve,” Mitch suddenly said, “You didn’t pass out.” He did believe that Trent could never pass out, that his weak constitution would improve. Mitch never had a weak body but he did have a lot to dream about, as did Trent, the only comparison. How would he continue to look past such a disadvantage? He had already grown up with it.
Mitch sat right next to Trent. He could tell that Trent was a bit uneasy about him sitting next to him, so he scooted a little away from him. His movement eased and remained still. He had been uncomfortable around the Commander when he got near. It couldn’t be if Trent was trained under an imposing, important figure.
“How are you improving?”
Trent sighed, “I still don’t know if I really am.”
“Believe me, it becomes shorter the more you get into it.”
Mitch got up, listening to the chatter of Trent’s jaw. He walked to the mirror, where he saw his face already containing lines, yet he had never gone into battle, never been through a stress-consuming ordeal. He was twenty-nine yet he looked like he was in his mid-thirties. He straightened the khaki peaked cap on his head, aligning it with his bulbous hands.
He heard Trent continue to chatter. Mitch could’ve forced him back outside, but he could do that later on. At this point, he could’ve done more than just pass out. This prompted him to go up to Trent.
“You won’t pass out anytime soon?”
“No, sir,” Trent said.
The snow was starting to melt and dissipate, as the blinding sun shined upon the street and the buildings, revealing their original forms. The militia more and more congregated about, still no threat of attack.
The worst part of a war, Mitch had known, was nothing happening. It was an unnerving silence, never knowing what Delaniople might do to bring down Burople. It could happen in any capacity, whether it was minor or completely catatonic to the population. Mitch couldn’t know if this would be the devastating force that could absorb Burople in as just a ghost of a town, and he didn’t know if Trent would be up against it. A Warhound has to be up against anything that was on the fringes of Burople. It wasn’t enough to investigate domestic threats, a Warhound has to sniff within the space between Burople and everywhere else, always expecting the worst outcomes, the worst people.
“Keep kicking, apprentice!” he shouted when he noticed the sudden stops.
“Yes, sir!” he answered. Mitch heard Trent’s repeated efforts coming from his breath and the blow to the mannequin.
Mitch turned around and saw him, without his shirt on, the pinkness crawled throughout his torso, but Trent was a lot quicker with his kicks than he had been a week ago. The mannequin was starting to show the plush creep out of it from random parts, from the neck, from the side of the hip. Mitch could see the sweat produce from Trent’s forehead, he could feel its irritation, he could feel the dry exhaustion in Trent’s throat. A lot of what Trent had been anticipating, striving for in those kicks he had been reminded of.
Mitch allowed the grunts to fill his ears as he looked at the other parts of the ground below. He could see the calm that might not last long. It could last entire months or it could last for a few minutes.
He told Trent, “Continue kicking until I get back.”
Mitch rushed through the door, went through the flight of stairs, his hurrying feet echoing. He went through the hall where multiple rooms watched him find that one room. He brushed the door open and saw one of the messengers behind the desk.
He demanded, “Any news from the neighboring towns?”
“They have become skeptical of the whereabouts of the Delaney forces. One town has already mobilized should an attack occur.”
This made Mitch’s heart sink. He exhaled, letting the frustration and worries out of his lungs. There would be more to come if this got any worse. The worst part is the waiting. Why couldn’t it just happen? For a second, he had not wished that it didn’t come true, that the Delaneys would attack.
He looked the man in his black eyes, “What town would that be?”
“Have there been any individuals linked to Delaniople apprehended?”
“Not as yet.”
“Keep at it.” Mitch closed the door and turned to walk back to the training area. His feet started rushing, each step hurrying.
He opened the door to find Trent, down on the floor, groggily mumbling from his head lying on the side. The mannequin was knocked over. Mitch hurried to pick him up and brought him inside the insulated heat. His boots made a line trail on the weak snow. He rested Trent up against the wall.
“Trent! Trent!” Then Mitch called for medics. He heard moaning from Trent, instead of his kicks.
He could feel Trent’s force touch upon his arms and torso. Every blow came too fast and light. He could tell the sweat and frustration in Trent’s flushed face. Mitch continued to withstand the blows before he would find an opening.
Mitch leveled a fist unto Trent’s chest, pushing him back. Trent stood where he was, without stumbling or even fainting. The snow had already melted and the heat was beginning to arise. Trent could not pass out this time, especially since Mitch had already seen a change in him since he brought him to the medics when he did just the same.
Trent had now started to avoid his blows and came in on openings that Mitch left. “Oooof.” As he was struck in the chest and shoulder. He could feel the very same training that he had been through under Commander Miller. This brought a smile to his face, knowing that Trent had improved.
He looked upon Trent, with a newly developed torso and his neck expanded slightly. He suddenly had an epiphany of a satisfaction towards the Runt. He had actually improved a lot more than Mitch did. General Miller did remark that he was already a Warhound in the making, but as he saw the Runt walking by his side, the militia making their way, he felt like he had given him the right to call him “Mitch”. He was more than an apprentice, he was one of the Warhounds. However, he has yet to see war, yet to face the Delaney forces.
Mitch looked at Trent, “Do you still have any problems?”
“No sir,” he said with surprising alertness.
Before them, there were two Warhounds. One of the peppered beards said, “If it isn’t Trent and Bitch. Sorry, I meant Mitch and Trent.”
They both laughed.
“Real mature,” Trent chimed in, standing before the two, looking up at them.
“You think you’re getting past? We still have plenty to talk about.”
Mitch was hoping this would go as planned. Kane and Gregory have yet to know of all this.
“About what?” Trent said between his teeth.
“How do you think the Runt would survive a battle against the Delaney forces?”
Mitch’s plan would come full circle, like a mutt chasing after its tail.
“I don’t know, what I do know is that you ran from a skirmish with your tail between your legs.” As soon as Kane’s smile fell from his face, he continued, “So where do you have the right to judge me?!”
He applies his knowledge well.
Trent then looked towards the Warhound with long hair touching the shoulders of his khaki uniform. “Anything else you want me to know?”
“Yeah,” Kane said and threw a punch across Trent’s face, but he quickly dodged. Mitch stepped in and twisted the arm around his back. Trent stepped back. Mitch let go of Keith and looked at him behind his beard. This signaled to him and Gregory that they should leave. They left as soon as Mitch went towards Trent. “Are you alright?”
He could clearly see the dissatisfaction in his unwavering eyes. “You planned this didn’t you?”
And he’s resourceful. “That’s exactly why I told you about Kane’s cowardly past. You must know about your enemy, even among your own ranks.”
Trent was unconvinced, as he walked, leaving Mitch to catch up, which was uncharacteristic in the Runt that he met in those woods. He would’ve walked by his side or behind him during his early days of apprenticeship.
Observing the mountains just beyond the fort, where he trained under Mitch, Trent tried to discern the dark outline of the ridges that reflected off the setting sun. He felt proud that he stood up for himself, but dismayed that it was not genuine, that it was all a ruse. Is my position as an apprentice to a Warhound also a ruse? Will I ever see a dog’s head on my sleeve? He shrugged the thought and continued staring from the watch-tower. Mitch sent him there to learn about how to scan the wilderness for any ambushes or a sudden influx of enemy forces.
Mitch told him how important it was to scan the area, just as much as it was important for Jared Burrough’s own dog for uncovering food supplies. From that point, dogs were regarded as important creatures that went beyond scavenging and into immortalizing their importance into the title “Warhound.” To be a Warhound was to be a provider of food and protection. That was the goal of the Prosperous enforcers when they assigned themselves that title. But that goal could be slipped from him at any moment.
He turned to see a familiar face walk up the stairs to greet him. It was the General’s daughter and she had a soft smile upon her face.
Cassidy stood next to Trent and said. “I heard about what happened between you and Kane. I never seen anyone stand up to him.”
It wasn’t real. “Has he bothered you?”
“No, not at all. But I got tired of his arrogance.”
Cassidy never had Kane on her list of suitors, which was made clear to Catherine and General Miller since both of them were obviously aware of how unlikeable Kane was; nor did she have this Runt on her list either. Although she would show care, that didn’t mean there would be any affection. Trent had shown her his nature by helping her and she returned the favor by reporting his being teased to Commander Walsh.
She looked at the same scenery Trent did and sighed. “I would just like to run from here and just explore those mountains.”
“Have you ever did so?”
“One time, but that was long ago in my childhood.”
Trent sat down on the chair. “Well, I prefer to be here.”
Cassidy hmphed. “You have every right to. You’re a Warhound’s apprentice.”
Feeling the humiliation of being played, of being tested in front of everyone at that base, caused him to lack any patience. He never even got a chance to clock Kane right across his smirking face. Trent snarled “You’re a Warhound’s daughter. I would say that you have more respectability than I do. You are a purebred compared to me!”
“I am not going to be evaluated by you!” Cassidy stormed down the stairs.
Trent returned to his duties. He could never have a girl like her, for he’d sooner become a Warhound than marry the late General’s daughter. He strived to be within the company of Warhounds, but retained realism in the other aspects of life. Even the dream he had materialized into being played and teased. But he could not go back, nor did he want to. He would be willing to tolerate the Warhounds than Carlson, for at least a Warhound like Mitch reached out to him while George gave up on him the last time they met. In Fisher’s Town, he was a shrimp; while in Burople, he was a runt.
Trent continued to stare beyond the woods and into the horizon.