It’s hard to say where a story begins. I suppose in way all stories really find their start at the dawn of creation. But don’t worry, I won’t go back that far.
My story must have started when I was abandoned, but my memories of that time are almost nonexistent. All I can clearly recall is being alone. With no one to look after me, I had to teach myself how to hunt at an early age. And there always seemed to be something around the proverbial corner, waiting to take my life. Predators, hunger, the elements, they all loomed over my head like ominous forces that were eager for my death. It was an empty life, I’ll admit. To always be running from something, always wary, without a pack to lean on.
As the months passed I did try to join other packs. It never went well. But it’s not natural for a dog to be alone, so I tried again and again. Many packs refused to take me in purely because of my size, for you see, I didn’t grow to be a very big dog. A pack wants warriors, and I was told that a dog such as myself could never be a true warrior; that I’d die in my first battle.
I didn’t even know my own name, and that never seemed to help. When someone would ask me, “What is your name?” I replied, “I don’t have one,” and they, more often than not, took an instant disliking to me. I was called a loner, a vagabond, a runt and a worthless wretch… kind words rarely met my ears. So eventually I chose to keep to myself, and mingled very little with my own kind. My only companionship was that of my kills, and they weren’t much for conversation.
I won’t deny that I still longed to be a part of a pack, but I did grow very accustomed to being on my own. As the years passed, and I grew comfortable in my routines, I had a harder time imagining a different life than the one I knew. It wasn’t so horrible to follow the birds south in the winter and back into the mountains when the snow had cleared.
Despite the predictions of others, I became a more than decent hunter. I also learned how to fight, but still lost a fair share of my prey to scavengers. My black and white coat was the biggest obstacle to overcome, for it stands out in sunlight and in full shadows. Only when the light is dappled through leaves and branches can I blend in to my surroundings.
By my third year of life, existence had become a simple matter of “How do I stay alive today?” …and that suited me. I didn’t care to get wrapped up in whatever the rest of the world was doing. I’d heard rumors of wars, and fierce leaders that were constantly at odds with each other. Tales of packs, and allies, and enemies, held little interest for me… certainly such things didn’t truly matter. A creature is born, it struggles to live, and then surrenders to death. There was no purpose, no rhyme or reason behind this design. Or was there?
Was there purpose behind everything that happened in the world around me? Was there something more than the mere day-to-day fight to survive? I was bound to learn the truth, and in the most unlikely of ways…
Dirt and dust stirred with every footfall and the sun glared horribly off of my own white paws and muzzle. The light was only dimmed by the black markings on my face. But there was an undeniable comfort to having the warm rays beat on my black back, undaunted by the cool wind. It was a good day to be traveling, even on that dusty canyon edge. The path I walked was rigid and steep, demanding caution and grace from those who traveled it. I obeyed its relentless demands and steadied my paws, worn as I was.
I went about my cautious stride, daydreaming of the sunshine and abundant prey I would find in the south, when I noticed another wanderer. On the ridge opposite to me he stumbled along. The sudden movement made me pause and I gazed across the narrow chasm in curiosity. His steps were slow and tired, his feet faltering constantly. If the canyon could have spoken to the creature it surely would have asked “Why did you choose to walk my precarious path?” But the rock and earth, like me, only watched in silence.
The creature did not seem to be frail and weak from age, or from pure exhaustion… it looked as if he was simply falling apart. His limbs and body were stained with blood, and one of the four weary legs was dragging along behind him, most likely broken. If you could have witnessed this traveler for yourself, you would not have known at first glance what he was. You would only have seen a blood-smeared, dirt-covered, dark fur coat and the one broken leg that dragged on the ground. I didn’t even know what he was at first, for his scent was difficult to discern through the dirt. But then he raised his head, his ears stood half-bent, and a solemn face turned to meet my own. I flinched under his defiant glare, his body was weak but his eyes revealed there was strength within him.
So it was a dog, like me… yet more than that. The steady, determined spirit behind his eyes was unfailing despite his wounds. I was overwhelmed, not with sympathy or with compassion, but with a deep respect. Surely the beast before me had once been a great warrior. I imagined in that moment that he was a survivor of a fallen pack, defeated in battle most likely. I thought that, perhaps, he was the last of his kin and looking for a friend to travel with.
So, I cried out from the adjacent cliffside, “Friend! Where are you going?” My voice rattled over the rocks, leaping across the gap to the stranger. I wished I could have made the leap myself, it wasn’t so far, but if I faltered and fell it would have cost me everything… I stayed on my own cliff.
“That’s a rather vague question, wanderer. Do you wish to know where I’m traveling to today, or where I will ultimately end-up?” he howled.
“I’m not sure what you mean… tell me both,” I barked back.
“Today I am traveling to a faraway place, to help a warrior I have never met, for my Leader asks it of me. Ultimately however, I am going to Ĉielo, to the place my Leader prepared for me… it is a paradise this world cannot hold. Yes, someday I’ll leave behind all of the dark and broken realms I’ve known in this life.”
“Do you give that speech frequently?” I asked with a smile; it sounded rehearsed.
“I’ve given it at least a thousand times, and been cursed for it nearly as often.”
I smiled again and continued walking, but slowed my pace to match that of the wounded warrior. Such warmth and kindness he had for a creature alone and in pain.
“Is there any chance I could travel with you?” I asked at last.
“Why do you want to travel with a lame warrior? I’m not a companion worth having,” he whimpered. “I have only one purpose left on this earth and then, hopefully, I’ll leave it behind.”
“But no one else is here, and it’s not as if we can truly avoid each other’s company in this place. Perhaps we can even journey together once we’re out of this canyon,” I barked hopefully. The idea of having a friend to walk with was a happy one, and I couldn’t resist dwelling on it.
He gave no response however, and we walked on in silence for nearly a mile. It seemed a silent way of saying, “We can’t avoid each other, but we can ignore each other,” and I assumed that meant he didn’t want my companionship beyond the canyon. We most likely would reach the end of the rocky path and go our separate ways. I wished that wasn’t the case, but was accustomed to rejection.
It wasn’t long before we came to the end of our neighboring trails and found the canyon dropped into a crumbled mess before us both. I stepped with speed and caution as the loose stones rocked beneath my weight, a sort of wild dance down to solid ground. The dog across the chasm however, could not make such careful steps. He paced, and whined, and snapped at the air in agitation, trying to locate a safe path down from his ledge.
“Perhaps I could help you down?” I offered, but he still said nothing to me. I wondered if it was arrogance or nobility that made the beast ignore me.
Looking back, I know there wasn’t anything I could have done. I never would’ve been able to support him going down that treacherous path, and he was far too big for me to help in any other way. So finally, with a yelp of anticipation he flung himself down and tumbled to the bottom of the cliff. I watched in horror as his body hit the ground, stirring up a great cloud of red dust, and instantly he was struggling to stand. The tension and weariness of muscles shone through his filthy coat, and his whole body trembled. He fell back to the earth, but tried again, rising no more than a few inches before collapsing once more. I stood motionless beside him, unsure of what I could do for the failing warrior.
“I fear I’ve broken another leg,” he growled through clenched teeth, finally speaking to me again, “Or maybe it’s my back that’s shattered. Either way it looks like I’ll reach Ĉielo before finding the one I was meant to help.”
“Is there something I can do?” I whimpered, though I knew perfectly well that nothing could be done. It was too late; the dog’s fate had been set. I wanted to turn back time and help him down somehow, and I cursed myself for not finding a way when I had the chance.
“The Great Dio will give me all I need when He pulls me from this wretched world. Don’t help me… help those who are still trapped here, living in these troubled times… Are you a warrior, young one?” he asked, as his breathing grew heavy and labored.
“No, I lost my pack long ago; I’m nothing but a vagabond now. Why do you want to know?”
“Warriors are not determined by the title another dog has given… but by their actions, by their spirit, and by their steady heart… so… I’ll ask a-again… are you a w-warrior?” and he began to gasp and choke on his words.
“I would like to imagine that I am,” I replied, hesitantly giving the response I felt would comfort him most.
“Good. That’s why… w-we… walked to-together. Take up m-my cause… an-and seek out… the one w-who needs my Le-Leader’s help. Her name is Sheelagh. She’s with… the Kero.”
The traveler’s back had indeed been broken, his spirit and body were losing the battle for consciousness. I agreed at that moment to take on his mission, simply to ease his mind in those last moments. His gasping grew worse and he began to cough, spewing blood and rancid liquids until the injury overtook him. His head fell like a rock and his body sunk lower than I thought possible. One last breath forced its way past the blood-filled throat, and escaped into the open air. My heart lurched; I could not believe that I had just watched the stranger die. It was all so surreal.
It took a moment, but the request he had made eventually flooded my mind. He wanted me to take up his cause, the thing he was so desperate to accomplish. But was that mission what had led to his filthy, broken state? Was it what had led him to such a horrid death? Only a foolish dog would risk life and limb for a beast they had known for only a few short hours. I was not a foolish dog, or so I thought, I would go my own way. Besides, he hadn’t told me where he was going, just that it was far away. He hadn’t told me anything except that the warrior’s name was Sheelagh, and she was with the Kero. Even if I’d wanted to, how could I take on the mission when I knew so very little about it?
Nonetheless, I found myself grieved by the death before me. It seemed disrespectful to leave the body there to rot or be ravaged by vultures, and so I buried the shattered warrior before moving on. It was not by any means an easy task, and once the deed was done I felt rather drained.
“May you find your Ĉielo as you leave this world behind, and may it be everything you dreamed of,” I whispered to the grave, wondering for a moment if it was possible… to honor the promise I’d given. It seemed unfair to give a soul one last request, but then not see it through.
“No dog could do what you asked of me,” I moaned, as if the dog could still hear me through the fresh turned earth. “I don’t know where you were going, or how to find this pack that Sheelagh is with. I am sorry but I cannot fulfill my promise to you.”
Satisfied with my reasoning, I picked up my feet and walked away from that place. Such a strange place that canyon had turned out to be and I sincerely hoped to never see it again.
My paws were weary after walking through the rugged canyons, and sore after digging a grave. One of my paws had split open, leaving me with a slight limp from the discomfort, still I had no desire to stop. My paw wasn’t bleeding, so I wouldn’t let it stop me from traveling on. The night was chill and the land around me was dry and dead. It gave me the most unsettled feeling. It was as if the soul of the warrior I’d laid to rest was following me, whispering into my ear and my heart as I ventured. He was telling me that I needed to try to find Sheelagh… that I had given my word and needed to keep it.
“It’s not possible,” I barked into the surrounding darkness, “I can’t do what you asked me to. Even if I could, why should I? You were a stranger, I owe you nothing.”
The night wind rose and as it blew it seemed to be speaking to me, but I couldn’t sort out the words. Then there was a painful tug on my heart, as if some beast was trying to rip it from my chest. My paws finally stopped when the pain hit, and I snarled and struggled against the muffled voices that haunted me. I didn’t understand why I was so torn, why any part of me would feel so obligated to the task.
“I don’t know what to do!” I howled. “I told you I don’t know where this Sheelagh is, or where to find the Kero. If I’m really meant to go, then someone tell me what to do next, and stop breaking my heart.”
“Are you truly willing to go?” a voice replied. It was still carried on the wind, but sounded much stronger and clearer than before.
“If it will stop this awful pain in my chest, then yes I’ll go,” I whined. I scanned the barren landscape for the creature speaking to me, and even searched the skies, but didn’t see a soul.
“Some hear the voice in their heart and ignore it; some feel the pain and shake it off. You can do that too, you can hide from your calling… every soul has that choice.”
“No, I don’t want to ignore it, I want relief from the ache,” I replied desperately.
There came a violent rush of wind at my face, stirring up the dust, and a shadow alighted before me. I jumped back in surprise, growling at the motion before I caught sight or scent of the creature who owned the mysterious shadow. My hackles stood on end and I snarled, waiting for the dust to settle so I could discover what was there with me.
“Stop your growling. I thought you wanted to talk, dog,” the creature retorted indignantly. The voice was sharp and clear, nothing like the voice of a dog.
I inched forward, peering through the black of night at the small silhouette of my new companion. With hackles still raised I sniffed eagerly at the stranger, and my curiosity was rewarded with a loud screech and sharp bite on my nose. I yelped and pulled away, bewildered, when I realized the creature was a falcon.
“You can keep your nose to yourself,” he scolded, his wings beating and stirring up the dust again. “And keep your teeth to yourself as well. If you want to know what to do, you’ll listen to me and not your empty stomach.”
“I wasn’t going to eat you,” I retorted, then quickly changed topics, “So how does a falcon know anything about a dog pack… or is this some kind of joke?”
“It’s no joke, the Great Dio is very serious… He wants you to finish the old warrior’s mission. He says you were made for this.”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about, bird. I don’t know who the Great Dio is, and all I’m made for is hunting and traveling. Now will you get to the point?”
The bird ruffled its feathers in agitation and replied, “My name is Colman, and this is about the Great Dio as much as it’s about anything else. Now tell me, what’s your name?”
“I don’t have one,” I growled.
“Don’t be silly, every creature has a name.”
“If I was given a name, I don’t remember it. My pack was conquered in an enemy attack when I was very young, and I was left to fend for myself. I don’t remember any names,” I growled a bit louder.
“Oh dear, well I’ll have to speak with Him about finding something to call you. In the mean time there’s the mission… The warrior you walked with and buried was Ronan. Ronan was on his way to find another warrior who’s alone, and in a great deal of danger.”
“Sheelagh,” I snapped back, “But the question is where do I find her?”
“Just let me finish!” Colman shrieked, “Some creatures don’t know when to bite their tongues. Anyway, as I was saying, this warrior is very important to the Great Dio and the upcoming battles. He wants you to keep her protected on her journeys.”
“If she’s a warrior then why does she need my protection? I’m not trained to fight, and I’m certainly not a very intimidating dog…”
“Would you just be quiet!” the falcon shrieked again, cutting me off. “You said that you don’t know the Great Dio so let me tell you who He is. Most of the dogs and some of the wolves call Him the Great Leader. He is the creator of all, the Savior of the world and the only light that shines in this dark place. He has promised to rid the world of darkness and evil, to set things right. Until that blessed day comes we fight for Him, bringing truth to all who will hear it; just as I’m bringing it to you tonight. Now the Kero, the Firma Kero and its many branches, are the packs, herds, flocks, clowders, colonies and troops that follow the Great Dio. There is so much more to tell you my vagabond, but I’m afraid there isn’t enough time. Perhaps Sheelagh can share with you more about this life, and the Great Dio, when you find her.”
My mind spun, unable to keep up with everything that Colman had to say. I had spent my life away from other creatures, except for those I hunted. I knew that there were wars, but nothing of Great Leaders and battles against evil. I shook my head and licked at the wound on my nose, thinking quietly before responding.
“I know very little of the world I live in and nothing about your battles and missions, or your Leader. I’m afraid I don’t understand any of this. So tell me, how could an outsider such as myself be of any real help? And what would be the purpose behind my actions? I’ve no reason to listen to you,” I whined, looking down at the bird.
“I know it’s confusing, and I’m not the best at explanations. For now, if you need a purpose you can understand, let it be the dying request a warrior who believed in his cause. If that’s not enough, then let it be that ache in your heart you want so badly to be rid of. Will you go for either one, nameless vagabond?”
“Yes, I’ll go and I’ll do what I can, even if it’s just to end this relentless pain. Go on then and tell me where it is I’m supposed to venture to,” I sighed.
“Travel north until you come to the Soifa River… that is where you’ll find Sheelagh. You’ll know her because she will ask for your protection. When you need to know more, you will be told,” and with that, the falcon launched into the air, leaving the ground far beneath him. I coughed as the dust was yet again thrown into my face, but couldn’t help smiling as he flew into the dark sky and out of sight. Strangely, I found myself hoping to see Colman again but I wasn’t sure why. He was a rather irritable and quick-tempered creature. Perhaps it was because, like the warrior, he had a steady and determined spirit that I admired… despite being so temperamental.
With Colman gone I felt as if I’d snapped awake from a long dream, and in that moment I knew that I still had a choice to make. I hesitated, not wanting to go north, and thought again how it wasn’t my responsibility to take on the mission. But the wind came up and lashed at my face, and I was sure I heard the falcon urging me to turn around.
So I lifted my paws, made the turn and began to travel north, trying hard to ignore the something in me that still wanted to refuse. As I began to travel I couldn’t help but wonder, “Will I need to fight this every day? Will I have to choose every morning that I rise to follow this Great Dio and finish the task before me?” I shook my long white mane at the heavy thoughts and refocused. Maybe if I could just stay focused on the ache in my chest, and relieving it, I’d make it through to the end of the mission. Then I could return to the life I knew.
Brittany L. Engels