Rumor alleged that there was a talking dog at the abandoned cottage and laboratory of the enchanted Rocklift the Mage. Rocklift had got herself the Sleeping Beauty Treatment, to awaken in a hundred years, or a hundred thousand miles, whichever came first; and as I'd had a small part in her well-deserved enchantment, I was here to check out her hideout while she dozed in a cave in the next demesne. Was there really a talking dog, or had my informant been eating the informative kind of mushrooms?
I approached the house from the back, where an empty dog box stood against the wall in the greenish light of the morning forest. There was no barking, no stirring. A deep indentation was dug, and I went to examine the chewed wooden stake that lay in the trench. From the radius of the worn ground, I could tell that the wooden stake had once been the center of the universe for a tied dog.
What would a dog tired from digging seek first? I rounded the side of the house to the right, walking towards the creek that trickled by. At the bank of the stream closest to the cottage I found what I'd been looking for: dog tracks, and drag marks of a chain with them, leading to and from the front door, which was not closed.
When I was about twenty feet from the little porch, a dog began barking frantically and fiercely. I paused, but no dog appeared. I moved closer, my staff ready to fend off an attack. Still no dog, and I stepped to the broken door and pushed it fully open.
What had been a mage's neat little place of business was now a mess, chairs overturned around a table, the covering of which lay on the floor with the remains of a broken butter dish. A hambone lay on the carpet, gnawed to whiteness. And the dog still barked from the wreckage of chairs, his chain snagged in the table-legs, the hair on his back bristling as he snarled and lunged.
I raised my hand in parley-gesture. "Dog," I said. "Desist."
"My orders are to guard the house!" barked the tall dog. "I have to guard the house until the Mistress comes back!"
"She's not coming back, Dog," I told him. "Here, smell my hand. You will scent Truth." I cautiously reached out to the hackling, skinny animal.
Still rumbling with his low growl, the dog stretched his neck out and sniffed my fingers. His stiff stance sagged, and his ears drooped. "Dead?" the dog asked.
"No, just 'gone'," I told him.
He heaved a great sigh, his ears going limp. "I'm sad. I was looking forward to her return, even though she'd have beat the spots off my back for this mess." After I unbuckled his collar, he shook himself, and leaving the tangle of furniture, trotted outside.
I left the main room to find the kitchen pantry. There were several jars of canned meats, so I opened one and dumped it on a plate to take outside in the fresher air.
"Hey, thanks, Shaman," the dog mumbled around his gulps. "It's been a couple days since I finished the last of that ham." He was dripping wet, having waded deep into the creek to drink and cleanse himself. He still stunk. "So, where are we headed now?" he said, licking his lips at the end of his meal.
"I don't know. My first thought was to make sure you weren't tied up or locked up to die of starvation. We need to find you a new home, but where, I don't yet know."
He wagged his tail. "Can I come with you?"
I shook my head. "Shamans don't keep pets."
He sputtered, shaking his head until his lips flapped. "I'm a dog, Shaman, not a wolf or a fox. It's my nature to follow and serve, you can't just turn me loose and say, 'Hey, get a job.' What happened to the other talking animals? Did they just wander off and get unemployment benefits somewhere? What about that little jerk Fluffy? He get a job in some office mail room or what?"
"Ahh, I believe he was eaten by wild animals. The talking horses, ditto."
"There were some stinking monkeys, too -- what happened to them? They should have been ate, the sarcastic sons-a-baboons," he said, wrinkling the front of his muzzle as though he had tasted a bee.
"Clerical jobs," I told him.
"See? Hands instead of paws, and they land the cush stuff. Dammit, I'm a thinking animal, I don't deserve to be ate up by a bear with an empty gut, and chasing deer is likely to get a dog tromped into jelly. What am I supposed to do now? Find some chump to team up with and go on the talking dog circuit with some freak show and tell jokes for a living?"
"It would be a living," I reminded him.
"I'm a dog, not a dummy," the canine said earnestly. "I don't want to do the same tricks all day, every day. I got a brain, don't I? I don't want to dress up in a tutu and jump through hoops while some clown barks commands and gets all the glory."
"Funny, most people don't have much more choice than that themselves," I told him.
And sad to say, it's true. The structure of nearly all institutions is pyramidal, a boss at the top, and then, people who take orders from the top, and give orders to the next level, and so on. And if they want to be employed by the institution, they take their orders gracefully ... and do the same tricks over and over all day.
The baker's boy carries buckets of flour from the barrel to the worktable, and sweeps the floor, and fetches what ingredients the baker needs. Cardamom! More eggs! A pitcher of water, did you heat it so the yeast can work? Where's the sugar? Come on, I need more eggs to glaze this! From before dawn until suppertime the boy runs, and runs, and runs. He carries and he sifts, he stays in the same bakery kitchen and store-room all day long, and by the end of the day, the smell of bread makes him want to go eat turnips and onions to clear his sinuses. But it's his job, it keeps him from having to set out on the road, hungry and unwanted. What else can he do?
I wish I could be a basketmaker, he thinks as he drops exhausted onto his mattress at night. I'd never have to smell bread baking again, or carry another keg of flour from the miller's to the shop. But a new apprenticeship would be hard to get if he left this one, as apprenticeships require references from former employers or people of substance. Or I could run off and join Lord Stonewall's forces, he dreams. I could be recognized as a prodigy of strategy and be an officer in no time.
A cruel joke of the creative mind, for a kid with no experience would be set to digging trench defenses and shoveling dung in the royal stables, jobs with even less variety than being the bakery runner.
Possibly the best the bakery boy can hope for is an eventual partnership as the baker grows old, but then there is the baker's nephew who hangs around, offering to fetch things for Uncle and asking him questions about the kneading of the dough, which the bakery boy has no spare time to do. Will he have to somehow set up shop for himself and battle his former Master into poverty to become the village baker? Or set off on The Road, to find an inn or castle who needs a baker to run and bake and run all day to make a living?
To survive, people do whatever it is they have to do. Sometimes it works out well, sometimes survival exacts a toll that will leave an empty hole the rest of their lives. This flea-bitten dog has even less choices than people do.
Or does he?
"Dog, what's your name?" I asked the thin and speckled hound.
"The Mistress called me 'Geoffrey', but my name is really 'Racer'," he said. "I'm faster than most." He wagged his whole back end and grinned to his ears.
"Racer, could you stand security work?"
"Hot damn, Shaman, that and running are my specialties!"
"Your pay would likely be sleeping on the ground and thin rations, and you'd probably have to pretend not to talk most of the time," I warned him, but his ears were still perked with interest. "Okay, I have an idea. Maybe I can find you a job," I said. "But there is one other thing."
He hopped and spun himself about in a fit of enthusiasm. "Sure, what?"
"You absolutely have got to have a bath."
Ah, was any preparation for a job interview ever so cruel?