Sleeping dogs lie.
It was now a very strange and uncomfortable group that huddled together around the fire. It was the evening, and the air was rapidly cooling as the sky darkened. Sekayi had put a pot of water on a kind of metal grate over the fire and was stirring it with a piece of wood. All around him were the dogs- six dogs.
Mhumhi and Kutta were lying shoulder-to-shoulder on a blanket, keeping close, with Mini tucked behind Mhumhi’s elbow for warmth while Sekayi was busy. To their left, and a few feet back, sat Bii, his large ears flattened. Around his other side lay Hlolwa, still staked and chained, and beside her, the injured painted dog was propped on a cushion. Mhumhi hadn’t yet caught his name.
Sekayi cracked an egg on the rim of the pot and let the golden contents fall into the water. Hlolwa was watching him, her gaze a near-golden flicker behind her hooded lids. Mhumhi watched her. He could not parse out if her gaze was calculating, or merely simple curiosity. He had assumed that once Sekayi returned with her companion in his arms that she would show some measure of gratitude, or at the very least some sort of emotional response, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect. She had become more silent and inscrutable than ever. The other dog, taking her lead, had also been very quiet, though he had growled the entire time Sekayi washed and bandaged his wounds.
Kutta tilted her head towards him, and he felt her gaze. He shifted his elbows, studying his forepaws. There were questions hanging in the air that they had yet to answer, and he got the sense he would not be happy when they were. He harbored the sour wish that Hlolwa had run away, or at least turned to fight after Imbwa’s death, but she had not, and now things had become complicated.
Kutta, probably sensing his reluctance, was the first to speak up.
“Where is the rest of your pack?”
They all looked at Hlolwa, across the fire. She did not so much as twitch, her eyes shimmering with reflected light.
Kutta growled, tensing. Mhumhi licked her ear.
“Tell us,” he said. “If you don’t, we’ll have to kill you both.”
Now Hlolwa did make a sound: she laughed softly.
“Is that funny?” demanded Kutta.
“Yes,” said Hlolwa. She crossed her forepaws. “Go ahead and kill us.”
“Madame,” said the wounded dog, his tail curling between his legs, but she twitched an ear at him.
“Where is our pack…? I thought I taught you about that in the garden, Mhumhi. Our pack is the one that controls the city itself. You want to know where they all are?”
“Don’t play games,” said Mhumhi. “You know what I meant. Where are the rest of the dogs that left the city with you and Imbwa?”
Hlolwa’s eyelids rose a fraction.
“The rest of them…?”
“We saw,” said Kutta. “We saw the group of you leave. We know how many of you there are.”
“I see,” said Hlolwa. The tips of her canines glistened from under her lips as she spoke. “And where were you spying from, if I may ask?”
The concept of cameras was not something Mhumhi wanted to explain to her, so he merely matched her stare for stare. Her nostrils flared slightly, and then she laughed again.
“You must be more devious than I had thought, Mhumhi.”
“The rest of our pack is close by,” growled the other dog, raising his head, “so if you value your lives-”
“Hush, Kulwe,” said Hlolwa, and the dog shut his mouth at once.
She turned to gaze towards Mhumhi and Kutta again. “I see little point in bluffing. The two of us are all who remain of the ones who left the city.”
Mhumhi felt his sister stiffen again, this time with surprise. He felt his heart beating faster as well.
“How?” he said, then licked his lips, tried to be more articulate. “How did that- how could the rest of you be gone?”
“She’s lying,” said Kutta, and he felt her tremble against his shoulder.
“They are dead,” said Hlolwa, “probably- or dying. I am afraid it was my error. I should not have led them there.”
“Led them-” started Mhumhi, but Mini gave him a little nip on the elbow.
He glanced down at her with mild annoyance, but she was focused forward now, her small ears pricked. Around the circle everyone else was paying close attention, from Bii to Sekayi to the dog Kulwe. Hlolwa had not lost her commanding presence.
Hlolwa was silent for a long moment, and he half thought she wasn’t going to say anything at all, just sit there holding their attention captive. But then she did speak, uncrossing her forepaws.
“We had scouts follow your track, which led us to the water treatment plant. The bush dogs there told us you had left with a group of jackals. The scouts realized you had left the city and came back to inform us. That was when Imbwa and I decided to go ourselves.”
“Why?” Mhumhi interrupted. Hlolwa held very still for a moment and he couldn’t tell if he had annoyed her or not. From the feel of it, Mini was.
“There are certain tasks we would rather take care of ourselves,” said Hlolwa.
“Certain tasks,” growled Kutta.
“We knew as well that there was a place that the domestics had tried to send their hulkers a long time ago. We assumed that was where you and the jackals were going. Considering your particular interest in hulkers.”
For a moment her eyes lingered on the dark doorway of the building where Tareq was sleeping with Dot. Mhumhi’s lip lifted of its own volition.
“And,” said Hlolwa, with a short pause, “Imbwa and I had never been outside the city before, and he wanted to go.”
Mhumhi put his lip down and straightened a little. Hlolwa’s eyes were flickering with firelight again. For a moment her ears turned slightly back, and then she continued.
“We followed the marks of the jackals to a building in the desert. It was clear they had gone inside, and there was only one entrance. We had three paws’ worth of dogs, so we sent two within. I stayed outside with the others. Imbwa went in.” She licked her lips.
“They were gone for a long time. Finally I took the rest of us inside. We came to a corridor full of dead jackals. There was no sign of any attack on the bodies. We started looking for the rest of our pack. That was when I noticed the doors behind us would not open again.”
She stopped talking, and looked at Kulwe. He raised himself on the cushion, panting a little, and spoke.
“There were many dead jackals, all lined up. They looked just like they had gone to sleep. When we went up the stairs we ran into a hulker carrying a jackal body. We killed it at once.”
Sekayi flinched, but said nothing. Mhumhi and Kutta exchanged a look, one of confusion and horror. Hlolwa was watching them.
“We came to another corridor with more bodies,” Kulwe continued. “There was the smell of lots of hulkers, and something strange… We did not know what it was. Madame smelled Imbwa under a door, but it was locked. We found a thin point in the wall and started to dig through. It took less time than we thought- the dogs on the other side had also been digging. When we got through, the hall filled with bad air that made you feel dizzy. There was a hissing sound. Four of our pack were in the room. Imbwa and one other were still alive, but unable to walk. We dragged them out and back to the stairwell.”
He was panting hard, from the exertion. Hlolwa picked up the thread.
“We found another hulker in the stairwell and killed it while Imbwa recovered. The other dog died. Imbwa suggested we search for an exit the way the hulkers had been going, so we went down the stairs. We picked up your scent there, and that of the hyena.”
She gave Mhumhi an almost sardonic look with this statement, and he bristled, though he was not sure what for.
“We came to a cold, black room. We followed your scent to a little door with a light over it. The other door shut behind us and the hissing noise started. Imbwa told us to bury our noses in the cloth on the floor and started digging. We took turns and managed to break through the wall into a concrete corridor. We escaped, dragging the ones that had fainted. We came to a tunnel filled with hulkers. We killed some and ate.”
“They were very docile,” commented Kulwe, licking his lips. “Strange hulkers… Anyway, we followed the tunnel and came out to this place. We picked up your marks again and heard howling. Madame sent two scouts in investigate. When they did not come back, we went after them and found the hyena standing over their bodies.”
He stopped, and Hlolwa looked over at him, then said, “The rest you saw.”
There was a long period of silence, aside from the sound of the fire cracking and popping. Mhumhi felt Kutta’s rapid heartbeat through his side. Mini had gone completely still. Around the fire, Bii’s silhouette had flattened down.
Sekayi, still squatting by the pot, stirred it again with his stick.
“It sounds as though you were attacked with sleeping gas. We used it on the hyenas sometimes. But it’s meant to make you unconscious, not kill you.”
Mhumhi recalled the jab he had gotten in the bouda’s lair that had preceded his confusing blackout. Had that been what Sekayi meant by sleeping gas?
But that was an aside, for something startling had happened after Sekayi had finished speaking: Kulwe had started growling again, and Hlolwa had gotten to her feet, showing her teeth.
“What’s the matter?” said Kutta. “Haven’t you heard a hulker speak before?”
Hlolwa looked back over at them. Where her stiff gaze had softened slightly in the telling of the story, now it had hardened again, icy and contemptuous.
“The next time you allow that hulker to speak to us, I will kill him. This chain will not stop me.”
Mhumhi and Kutta both got to their feet simultaneously, knocking Mini askew. Mhumhi growled, his tail flagging over his back.
“How dare you-!”
“I’ve warned you,” said Hlolwa. She sat back down, flicking an ear at Kulwe, who stopped growling. “We will not tolerate it.”
“What do you mean by that?” growled Mhumhi, his hackles still raised. Kutta paced closer to Sekayi, standing between him and Hlolwa as though she meant to shield him with her body.
Behind her Sekayi glanced back at Mhumhi and gave a small smile, raising his shoulders.
“Police are afraid of a hulker’s voice,” yapped Mini, from the blanket. “The ones in the cages get attacked if they dare speak in Dog.”
“Be silent, domestic,” said Kulwe. Mhumhi saw his forepaws curling.
“And I know why,” added Mini. “You cowards- you don’t want to eat something that talks back to you, do you? Is that too hard to stomach? You vile-”
“Little domestic,” said Hlolwa. She had that dangerous smile again, her molars gleaming white. “You misunderstand.”
“I don’t think I have!”
“It is all right,” said Hlolwa, tone cold. “Your kind will die out with the hulkers.”
Mini gave a quivering growl, her forepaws paddling on the blanket.
From his place further back, Bii spoke up.
“Are you really telling the truth?”
That broke the tension; they all looked at him. Hlolwa’s gaze became shuttered again.
“Referring to us?”
“Yes,” said Bii. “It is a fantastic story. But I also think it benefits you to have us believe you are the only ones left.”
“How so?” asked Hlolwa.
Bii flashed her his own impish grin. “Because if we thought there were other painted dogs nearby, we might kill you and flee. This way, we stay put, and we keep you poor things alive.”
“He’s right,” said Kutta, at once. She looked up at Mhumhi, adding, “Henli said she wouldn’t-”
Mhumhi nudged her with his hip, silencing her. Hlolwa’s gaze drifted in their direction again.
“There are certainly points that crossed my mind,” she allowed. “But we are not lying. Do you not think that the others would have come to find us by now?”
“They could be waiting for everyone will sleep,” said Bii.
“Then post a guard,” said Hlolwa. “At the very least he can be sure that the hyena does not return.”
“If the hyena does return, I’m not going to protect you,” muttered Kutta. Mhumhi nudged her again, and she sat down.
“If you try to harm Sekayi or Tareq- or Dot- we’ll kill you at once,” he warned.
“Hmm,” said Hlolwa, appraising him. “I do think I believe you this time. Still, it would be best if you kept the hulkers away from us.”
“I agree with that,” said Mini.
There seemed little else to speak of for a while. Mhumhi felt a worrying sense of anticipation, and paced around the fire for a bit, but nothing much happened. Sekayi took the pot off the fire and poured some of the liquid into a metal bowl. He rose and put the steaming bowl beside the head of the dog on the cushion, ignoring his warning growls.
“Sekayi,” said Mhumhi, trotting around to him, but the bouda was already retreating.
“You may tell the painted dogs that the soup is good for sickness and infection,” he said softly, addressing Mhumhi. “He should drink it when it cools; he’ll feel better.”
Mhumhi looked over at Hlolwa and Kulwe and found that they were ignoring them in a pointed fashion.
“He can figure it out himself,” he said, pushing Sekayi further back with his shoulder. “And we will post a guard.”
Bii rose to his three legs.
“I have a suggestion,” he said. “Let’s leave these two to their own out here and sleep together in the building. We can be close to little Tareq that way.”
Mhumhi opened his mouth to protest but caught the fox’s sly look. Kutta also seemed to stop herself from speaking.
“For now,” agreed Mhumhi, eyeing Bii, who had raised his tail. “Maybe not for the whole night.”
Bii merely grinned again.
Sekayi put out the fire and picked up Mini, and they retreated together into the cool darkness of the concrete building. Mhumhi was surprised to find Tareq awake, huddled under the table with Dot.
“Can’t you sleep?” he asked, approaching with the intent to lick his face. Dot made a low sound and tugged Tareq closer to herself; Mhumhi stopped.
“She keeps holdin’ me,” said Tareq, but Mhumhi suspected that was not all. The puppy’s eyes seemed raw and wet, his voice raspy.
“We’ll go to a place where we can sleep more easily,” said Bii.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Kutta, who looked torn between worry and suspicion.
“We wait here for a little while,” said the fox, lowering his voice. “Pretend we have fallen asleep. Then we slip out the back window. If there are other members of the police pack still around, I don’t doubt that they will try to rescue their Madame.”
“And you mean to let them?” asked Kutta, her voice rising a little too loud.
“What do you plan to do with her as a hostage?” Bii countered. She stiffened and said nothing.
“If they are gone when we return in the morning, we know there are more, and we know to get away. If they are not, we stay here safely. Though if you ask me, I’d rather kill the two of them now and leave anyway.”
“And go where?” Mhumhi retorted. Bii gave a little sneeze.
“I don’t know, but I find that it works better to run before the enemy finds you.”
“We don’t really know that they’re the enemy right now,” said Mhumhi. “They must have been telling at least some of the truth- they wouldn’t have known about the inside of the safe place otherwise. I’ll bet they don’t know how to get back to the city from here, and with their pack so fragmented, they may not want a fight.”
“I’m not sure you could call anything we could give them a real fight,” replied Bii. “But I suppose it depends on how many there are.”
“She might have been telling the truth the whole time,” said Mini, from Sekayi’s arms. “If you ask me, it would hurt her pride too much to tell a lie like that. Especially to this group.”
“A dog will do all sorts of unexpected things when his back against the wall,” said Bii. “I happen to have experience in these matters.”
Mhumhi gave him a sharp look, but then said, “I think your idea is a good one, Bii. We can sneak out of here and hide, and have someone stay awake to keep watch.”
“I’d feel better with Tareq further away from them,” agreed Kutta. “And running far with him is out of the question. Unless we get Dot or Sekayi to carry him, I suppose.”
“Let’s worry about that later,” said Mhumhi. Tareq made a soft sound, close to a whimper.
“Are the bad dogs gonna get us?”
“No, my dear,” said Kutta, waving her tail gently. “Your big brother and I aren’t going to let them.” She looked at Mhumhi for support, and he put in a belated, “Yes, that’s right,” but the words sounded hollow. It was a promise he had made and broken many times.
They followed Bii’s plan and got everyone out more or less quietly through the back window. Sekayi led them slowly across the hills, picking his way through shafts of moonlight that shifted as clouds passed over the moon. Dot carried Tareq, swaying a little, her eyelids fluttering with weariness. When Sekayi pulled aside a tarp covering the entrance to a little hovel, she went inside at once and lay down around Tareq.
Sekayi sat down, but did not close his eyes.
“Will we take turns keeping watch tonight?”
“I think so,” said Mhumhi. “I’d excuse Mini, though.”
“I don’t mind,” said Mini, sounding cross.
“Then I can go first,” said Bii, who was hovering near the tarp entrance. He thrust his little head outside.
“Fine,” said Kutta. “I’ll go second.”
“I’ll go after you,” said Mhumhi.
“Then I will see the sunrise,” said Sekayi, flashing them a smile.
Mhumhi crossed by Kutta and murmured, “Don’t take your eyes off of Bii.”
She inclined her head slightly, hulker-style.
The night was long, but it passed, almost to Mhumhi’s surprise. Nothing happened. Bii behaved normally, though Mhumhi had to keep his aching eyes open most of the night to watch him. Sekayi woke him up as sunlight began lancing through the holes in the tarp.
“Shall we check?” he asked.
Kutta yawned, stretching, a long stretch.
“I suppose we should,” she said, shaking herself. She looked as weary as Mhumhi felt. “Mhumhi, should we-?”
“Let’s all stay together,” Mhumhi said. He did not want any more surprises to take them unawares.
They moved themselves en masse back towards the fire pit, sluggish and rather more noisily. Tareq was fussy and kept his hands carded in Kutta’s fur, yanking at her persistently. Mini was making all sorts of unpleasant morning noises from within Sekayi’s arms, and Dot hooted mournfully a few meters behind them.
Mhumhi thought that they would certainly alert any painted dogs in the vicinity to their presence, but it was hope that they were all long gone. Perhaps the thought of Vimbo would be enough of a deterrent. He found himself silently pleading that the little valley with the fire pit would be completely empty as they climbed the final hill.
But when they looked down, there was Hlolwa, dozing beside her stake, and there was Kulwe, half on and half off of his cushion.
Mhumhi realized that they had an entirely new problem, perhaps a worse one than before: what were they going to do with the Madame of the police and the city?