Anadil opened the door leading from the courtyard down to the castle basement. “How are your ribs, Kestan?”
p. “Better.” The head of the Wardens touched his right side involuntarily. “I’ve been able to sleep better since the swelling went down.”
p. “I’m glad to hear it.” The two men’s shadows loomed long down the stairwell, flitting back and forth with the flickering torches lining the walls. Anadil breathed in the cool, damp, air. He would need to remind himself to recommend a new ventilation shaft to Bulwark. The dampness wasn’t healthy, and probably wasn’t good for the structure, either.
p. A low hooting could be heard over the clomp of Kestan’s boots echoing off the bare stone walls. Kestan gave a start at the sound, and his pace slowed by a hair. “Are you nervous?” Anadil asked.
p. “No, I’ll be fine.”
p. ‘He’s lying’ Anadil thought to himself. His body is getting tenser, and his voice is tighter. Men can try to fool themselves, but their animal natures never lie.
Kestan’s voice rose little too high. “I just don’t understand why you insisted that I come with you.”
p. “Consider it insurance. For now, I’ll need you to protect me if something goes wrong.” They reached the bottom of the stairs, and a low growl could now be heard coming from the last cell. Anadil stopped in front of the cell door, and turned to face Kestan. “Keep your sword sheathed at all times. If things go sideways, I’ll let you know.” Kestan nodded, and slowly released his sword hilt. He crossed his arms in front of him instead.
p. ‘His breathing is shallower. I’ll have to reassure him before we enter the room, or he’ll spook Urs.’ “Kestan, stand still for a moment.” Anadil’s hands began contorting and weaving, back and forth. With a flourish, he laid his hands on Kestan’s shoulders. For a brief moment the guardsman’s skin turned gray and rough, like the bark of a tree, before returning to normal. “I’m making your skin tougher to protect you from the owlbear, just in case. But I don’t think it will be necessary. I’ll be doing all the work, your job is just to stand there and watch.”
p. Kestan nodded again. “No problem. Should be easy.”
p. ‘Good,’ Anadil thought, ‘he’s talking, so at least he’s loosening up a little bit.’ Anadil smiled at Kestan and turned to the door. “The owlbear is silent. He must have heard us talking.” Anadil peered through the eye slit in the doorway, and unlocked it. “Remember, even if the owlbear gets aggressive, I can calm it down. So don’t draw your sword unless I explicitly say to.” With that, Anadil opened the door slowly, and slid into the room, Kestan close behind.
The owlbear was seated in the far corner of the room, next to the window slit situated high in the wall. It raised its head to peer at the men with huge, green eyes. Rising up off its haunches, the owlbear stretched its large, sharp front paws out in front of it, and opened its razor like beak wide in what could only be a yawn. The white and brown feathers around the head and neck ruffed outward, making the baby owlbear seem much bigger. For now, it was the size of a large dog, but Anadil knew it would grow to be huge. In fact, he was counting on it. The brown feathers seemed to merge around the edges with the brown fur which extended down the creatures back, belly and lower legs, as well as down the front arms to the paws.
p. The room smelled as you would expect. “We’ll have to build a cage upstairs to improve the airflow. It will allow us to clean the cage easier.”
p. “Why doesn’t it attack?” Kestan asked tensely.
p. “Because I’ve been training him not to,” Anadil smiled. The druid locked eyes with the owlbear’s, hands open and palms out in front. Slowly, he dug into a pouch at his side with his right hand, and pulled out a rabbit carcass, his left hand still out in front. The owlbear sniffed and took a quick step forward. “Stay, Urs. Stay!” At the sound of Anadil’s voice, the owlbear froze. Anadil tossed the rabbit into the opposite corner. “Stay, Urs!” The creature obeyed, but began sniffing the air hungrily. Anadil dropped his left hand, “Go, Urs!” The owlbear, seeing Anadil’s hands down, immediately dashed onto the carcass, snapping it up with its beak. Anadil heard Kestan’s sharp intake of breath, and turned to give him a reassuring look. “He won’t come near. He knows he’ll get more rabbit if he obeys until we’re done.”
Kestan’s eyes darted to Anadil quickly, then back to the owlbear. He didn’t seem convinced, but he wouldn’t flee the room just yet. ‘This has got to be hard for him,’ thought Anadil. ‘The last time he was this close to an owlbear, he had his guts ripped out. Good thing we got to him in time.’
p. Kestan’s throat sounded dry, “You gave it a name?”
p. Anadil answered over the sounds of Urs’ feeding. “I had to. He needs to have a name for me to tame him. I couldn’t build a rapport with him without one. You wouldn’t like me very much if called you ‘Human’ or ‘Guard’ all the time.” Kestan gave a snort, which could have been a nervous laugh.
p. Urs finished snapping at the remains of the rabbit, and turned to face the two men. Anadil locked eyes again, hands held palm out. “Stay, Urs!” The owlbear sat back contentedly on its haunches. Once Urs was seated, Anadil made a sign with his right hand, pulling it back to his hip. “Mawassi!” He shot his hand forward, and buckets of water streamed from his open palm, splashing across the floor and flushing Urs’ waste down the sewer drain positioned in the corner of the cell. Kestan stared at the owlbear tensely, alert for any threatening movement. Urs just sat still, ruffling its arm feathers with its beak.
p. “I have to keep him clean,” explained Anadil. “And I don’t want the local workmen to be at risk. I figure in another week or so, he’ll be ok with others cleaning the cell.” Anadil looked over at Urs, held out his hand and dug out another rabbit carcass. Urs turned his fist sized eyes toward the meat, but since it was dessert, and not the main course, he didn’t immediately start toward Anadil. “Stay, Urs!” The druid placed the carcass on the floor, about two feet in front of both men, keeping his eyes locked on Urs’ the whole time, his left hand still upraised. “Kestan, when I drop my hand, Urs will rush over and eat the carcass. He shouldn’t bother either of us. He knows if he does, he won’t get the third rabbit in my pouch. You have nothing to be afraid of, and neither does he. I need to see how he reacts with people besides me in the room. Don’t flinch, have confidence. You are the alpha here, not him. Do you understand, Kestan?”
p. Kestan nodded, and then realized that Anadil wasn’t looking at him, and said “No problem” in a voice that was too loud.
p. “Just relax, he won’t attack us. And if he does, I can handle it. Just relax.”
p. “No problem….I’m good.” He sounded a little more relaxed.
p. Anadil paused for a second, and then dropped his hand, “Urs, Go!” The owlbear shot forward. ‘Amazingly fast for such an unnatural creature,’ Anadil mused. He sensed, more than saw, Kestan’s body go completely rigid, gasping in through clenched teeth. But he didn’t move, as Urs pounced on the carcass, sliding forward within inches of the Kestan’s boots. Having sated its hunger on the first rabbit, Urs began playing with his food. The bear claws caught the carcass and tossed it into the air. The beak snapped, and the rabbit fell to the floor, cut neatly in two. ‘Such power. Unnatural power. Urs will always be an aberration to nature.’ The owlbear gulped the front half of the rabbit down. ‘It’s outside the natural order. How can I use him? More importantly, how can I give it a purpose?’ Urs swatted the back half of the rabbit into the corner, and ambled over, turning his back to the men. Kestan let out a sigh. He’d been holding his breath the whole time. Anadil smiled to himself. Now for the next step. ‘I’ll have to finish soon, or Kestan will faint and I’ll be stuck carrying him out of here.’
p. Anadil raised his hands again. “Kestan, stay here.”
p. “I’d love to…” Anadil thought he heard a smile in there.
p. “Urs,” Anadil called in a low, soothing tone. The owlbear turned toward him, a rabbit leg still hanging from the corner of his beak. “Urs…Urs…” Anadil repeated the name slowly, rhythmically, locking eyes. He approached Urs slowly, continuing to murmur the owlbear’s name, finally standing face to feathery face. Kestan didn’t dare move now. Anadil stared right into Urs’ eyes, and slowly brought his hands forward, toward the owlbear’s head. “It’s OK, Urs. Stay, Urs. It’s OK.” The words were low and soothing, the moves slow and steady. Urs gave a low growl, but didn’t move. “It’s OK, Urs.” Anadil’s hands landed lightly on the sides of Urs’ head. Another gasp from Kestan, but Urs barely moved. Anadil ruffled the feathers on the side of Urs’ face. If Urs decided to strike now, there was nothing between Anadil’s eyes and the sharp beak. ‘Too late to worry about that now.’ After a few seconds, Urs’ breathing slowed, and the tension slowly seeped from the creature as it relaxed. After a minute had passed, Anadil pulled his hands away. “Stay, Urs.”
p. For the third time, the druid dug into his pouch and removed the last rabbit. He dropped the carcass slightly behind him, but Urs didn’t move. Here was the last test. If he had done his work, Urs wouldn’t hurt him to get to the carcass. If not, it could get messy. “Kestan, keep still. Urs….Go!” Anadil dropped his left hand. Urs lurched forward, rubbing his shoulder against Anadil, and pushing his head around the outside of the druid’s leg. Urs gently prodded Anadil to the side, but didn’t swipe at him or show too much aggression. Anadil’s hand dropped to Urs shoulder, and stayed there as the creature ate. Now, here was the plum in the pudding. “Urs…Stay!”
p. The owlbear turned his head up to face Anadil, half the carcass still on the floor. Urs gave a screech, piercingly loud in the small cell. “Urs, Stay! Stay!” Anadil’s voice had iron in it. It was a command, not a request. Urs dropped his head back to the carcass. “Urs. Stay! Stay!” Another screech, followed by a low growl, but the owlbear froze. “Stay!” Anadil kicked the carcass away, across the floor.
p. “Anadil!” Kestan hissed.” The druid ignored him, keeping his focus on the owlbear. “Urs, Stay!” Urs turned toward the rabbit, then back again, but Anadil’s tone left no room for disobedience. “Stay!” Slowly, Anadil backed away from Urs, heading next to Kestan. “Stay!” Urs stared back at Anadil’s raised hand, and gave another low growl. After a few moments, Anadil dropped his hand, and before he could give the command, Urs pounced on the rabbit’s remains, swatting and clawing at it in a frenzy. Kestan yelled inadvertently at the sight, but Urs ignored him, enraptured with the morsel that had been denied to him, for however short a time.
Anadil smiled. “Let’s leave.” He turned to open the cell door, and Kestan backed out of the room, never taking his eyes from Urs. Anadil followed him, closed the door behind him and locked up.
p. “By Erastil’s left nut, that was close!” Kestan exclaimed. He was extremely relived to be out of the room.
p. Anadil grinned and clapped Kestan on the shoulder. “Well done! You controlled yourself bravely in there! We still have a ways to go, but Urs is coming along nicely. He’s talking commands, and his holding his aggression.” They started heading back up the hallway.
p. “But why? Why go to all the trouble?” Kestan asked plaintively. It was clear that he wasn’t comfortable at all with a monster living within the city walls. “What can be gained by keeping it here?”
p. Anadil turned to Kestan. “I figure we’ll be done training him in a year, maybe less. By then, he’ll be around ten feet tall, and he’ll weigh dozens of stone. He’ll be stronger than any creature I’ve ever seen. With the training he’s received, he’ll be more than just a beast; he’ll be as strong and as smart as a hill giant. In short, Kestan, he’ll be the strongest warden under your command.” Kestan, astonished, stopped in his tracks. Anadil continued up the stairs, calling over his shoulder. “If things work out, you’ll be spending a lot more time with Urs.”