The Old Hound was getting slow. Brance thought he should have noticed it gradually, but it clapped him on the back one day, sharp. They were walking down a long, tumbling hallway, and the Old Hound had fallen behind him. When Brance looked back, the dog wasn’t investigating the walls, or flicking his ears to catch a mystery. He was simply padding forward, head bent in the effort to catch up.
Brance was getting taller. He told himself that he was stretching out. His stride was getting longer. It was the contrast that seemed to diminish the Old Hound so quickly.
He told himself that the Old Hound was not dying. He believed it with a fierceness that reminded him it was a lie.
Bending down, Brance held his hand out to the Old Hound, encouraging him forward. He scratched the underside of the dog’s muzzle, mussed the already criss-crossing fur. Just the way the Old Hound liked. His tail wagged, and his jaw opened in a lazy grin.
Then they wandered on together, the same as always.
For a few weeks. Until they no longer wandered as far. Until Brance’s favorite hiding places were abandoned for the Old Hound’s choice of resting spots. Until Brance felt tethered, the ties natural and galling.
Brance stopped his aimless exploration of known places when the Old Hound fell too far behind. He sat down on the edge of the hallway, back against the stone wall, and waited. The Old Hound arrived. The Old Hound sniffed at his shirt. Then the Old Hound laid down, head under his hand.
Brance had no destination in mind. He had no idea what time it was, happy to ignore the sun and every other clock in the world. But he wanted to be move. He could feel the knot that held them together, and it bit just a little too tightly. He could untie it. He wouldn’t.
The sun moved the shadows across the floor, and Brance stayed, listening to the gentle echoes of other people moving in the long, connected halls.
When footsteps echoed closer, the Old Hound’s ears lifted. Brance went still, eyes unfocused on the light fur around his fingers.
When the footsteps turned into clear, distinct taps, just around the corner, Brance considered the pattern: purposed, but hesitant. Slowing and speeding, as if the person were looking through doorways and considering corners. “Are you looking for me?” he called. Because, in the middle of the hall, he and the Old Hound couldn’t slip away fast enough. Because he liked to think quicker than anyone else.
Vardan stepped around the corner. Holding a dark basket about the size of his own chest with a cloth draped over the top, he looked at Brance. “Yes,” he said.
“Are you going on a picnic?” Brance asked brightly.
Vardan talked toward him, admirably ignoring his question.
“Did the washers make you do your own laundry again?” Brance asked. “You were too smelly?”
The Old Hound pushed itself up on its front legs, sniffing toward Vardan.
“Do you have someone’s head in there?” Brance asked.
Vardan looked down at him sharply, stopping a few feet from his knee. Brance prepared a sharp grin, but Vardan put the basket down without a word, turned, and started back the way he had come.
The Old Hound stumbled onto his feet. He pushed his nose into the basket, past the cloth, and barked quietly. Something whined sleepily back.
Brance pulled the cloth farther back. The puppy inside uncurled itself, standing up on fat paws. It was red as a fox, with black ears and face, like it had clumsily investigated a tar puddle. Pointed ears stood straight up, and it pushed toward the Old Hound, curious, and young, and unsteady.
Instantly, Brance looked up at Vardan’s retreating back. “I already have a dog!”
Vardan slowed, but didn’t stop, flicking him a look over his shoulder. “Now you have two.”
“I like the one I have,” Brance said firmly.
“You’ll like this one, too,” Vardan assured him, his voice surprisingly light. “Her name is Taizi.” Without pause, he turned the corner, and he left.
The puppy climbed up, and put two heavy paws against Brance’s arm. He looked at her, nose to nose. She puffed out a rough, puppy breath. He glared at her without force.
My friends are thieves! And they’re robbing me in a strange new way this week. Rather than run off with the first line of this piece, they ran off with the two dogs. Check out the ring of thieves, to see more canine business.