From full to dark.
Sekayi’s bare brown chest moved up and down, very gently, sweat glistening in the moonlight. One arm lay across his stomach, and blood pooled into the depression of his belly button.
Tareq had helped them turn him over, poor Tareq with his face a blurry mask of tears; Tareq had nevertheless kept quiet and pulled up his arm as Mhumhi and Kutta tried to gently turn him without tearing him further.
He had two bite wounds- a jagged one on the flesh of his arm, and one on the side of his neck. Mhumhi surmised that Hlolwa had grabbed him by the arm to pull him down before striking a more fatal area. But Sekayi must have had time to turn his head and perhaps his upper body away. She had not hit the thickest vein in his neck. But she had removed his ear, which Mhumhi had accidentally stepped on while they were moving the body.
Sekayi’s eyes were open, wide and black, though if Mhumhi stood at the right angle he realized they shone yellow, reflecting moonlight. His pupils were dilated, and he had neither spoken nor blinked in all the time that they had been watching over him. Mhumhi doubted that he was actually conscious.
“We have to stop the bleeding,” Kutta whispered. Mhumhi was not sure why she was whispering, but he kept his voice low too; it seemed appropriate.
Kutta looked at Tareq, who was standing a few feet away, rocking back and forth on his heels. Mhumhi felt a stab of pain.
From the concrete house there suddenly came a shrill howl; they all flinched. They had left Mini there, on the floor, after she had fallen off the chair in her urgency. “Take me, take me, take me to him,” she had begged, but they had only gotten Tareq up to help them turn him.
Mini howled again, her voice quivering.
“Someone needs to shut her up,” said Kutta. “She’ll bring… I don’t know what, but she’s too loud.”
Mhumhi did not reply. He was looking across Sekayi’s body at Hlolwa, who was still sitting on her haunches- unchained and untethered, but still sitting. She was looking out and away across the moon-dappled dump. Kulwe was also still lying with his shoulders back against the stake.
“Make her stop,” whimpered Tareq, who had put his hands over his ears. Fluid dripped from his eyes and nose. “The bad dog will come.”
Mhumhi stepped closer to him, automatically angling his body so that he stood between Tareq and Hlolwa.
“He’ll come and make him dead,” said Tareq. “The bad dog with the blue eyes. He made Maha dead. I’m scared!”
He crouched down, his hands still over his ears, trembling.
“Tareq, the bad dog can’t hurt you, he’s gone, he’s dead,” said Kutta, pushing close to him, licking the tears and snot on his face.
“No he isn’t,” sobbed Tareq. “I see him at night. He’s hidin’ and he’s gonna get me. I’m scared-”
Mini added another howl to his whimpering, and Hlolwa turned her head slightly towards them.
“Shut them up.”
Mhumhi heard Kutta snarl and looked to the left, but she had already sprung forward. She hit Hlolwa’s shoulder with enough force that the two of them spun around together, and then forcibly rolled the heavier dog on her back between her forelegs.
“It’s time someone shut you up,” she said. “You attacked Sekayi- you forfeited your life.”
Kulwe cried out shrilly, struggling in the dirt, retching and spitting up fluid. Mhumhi took a few steps forward, hesitated.
Hlolwa stayed still on her back, looking away from Kutta. She licked her lips as Kutta growled and brought her bared teeth closer.
Mhumhi licked his lips, too.
“Please,” cried Kulwe. “Please, please, her puppies, please, kill me, kill me instead-”
“Shut up!” snapped Kutta.
Kulwe whined and shook, his ears back and his eyes wide like a frightened puppy. Hlolwa turned her head against the ground to look at him around Kutta’s leg.
“Calm down. She’s right.” She turned her nose back upwards. “I broke the rules.”
“Mhumhi,” said Kutta, looking at him again, impatience coloring her voice.
“What?” Now he furrowed his brow. “You want me to decide? I-”
“There’s no decision,” she snapped, but her raised tail was quivering, and her throat was moving as she swallowed.
Hlolwa pulled her own tail in so that it tucked between her legs and turned her head, exposing her throat. Kutta’s jaws parted and closed soundlessly. Again she looked at Mhumhi.
“Kutta,” he said, “Sekayi needs us right now.”
She looked at Sekayi, breathing slow, bleeding silently. “Right, then, later…” She scrambled backwards off of Hlolwa, and the painted dog rolled onto her side. Her eyes flicked sardonically towards Mhumhi. He chose to ignore the look for the moment. It did not seem as though she meant to run away.
He and Kutta went back to Sekayi, nosing him. Mhumhi gently licked the raw patch where his ear had been, his mouth filling with blood. Kutta was looking over his arm.
“It’s not good,” she said softly. “Too much bleeding here… If we could stop it somehow…”
Mhumhi joined her, looking at the long open weal Hlolwa had opened up on the bouda’s arm. He had not noticed before, but the fine hairs on Sekayi’s arms were coarse and gray.
“Bandage it,” he said. “Like he did with Kulwe’s leg- bind it together tight.”
“Who’s going to bandage it?” said Kutta, a little hopelessly.
Mhumhi looked back at Tareq, who was squatting with his arms around himself, rocking back and forth.
“I don’t know…”
“We should ask Mini,” said Kutta. “She knows about caring for hulkers. She helped us that time when Maha-” She broke off, glanced at the other painted dogs.
“I don’t think we should bring her out here to see this,” said Mhumhi, as another of Mini’s howls split the silence.
“It’s no time to be sensitive,” snapped Kutta. “He’s bleeding while we speak.”
“We just need someone with hands,” said Mhumhi. “Where’s- where’s Dot?”
Kutta cocked her head. “Oh- oh, I don’t know. She must have wandered off. That’s a good idea- she likes Sekayi, she’ll help him.” She cast around herself, then let out a sharp whistle. “Dot!”
Mhumhi looked around too, but there was no sign of the screamer. He had a sour notion as to why, looking at their two captives.
“You might as well not stand there,” said Hlolwa, rather suddenly, to Mhumhi. “While she searches you could clean the wound, hold the edges together with your teeth if you have to.”
“You be quiet,” said Mhumhi, though his tone was uncertain. He gave her a wary glance and moved to put his mouth over Sekayi’s wound. Kutta was ranging further and further away, her calls becoming increasingly desperate.
Mhumhi’s mouth was filling with warm blood again, dripping under his chin and off his fur as he tried to gently squeeze the sides of Sekayi’s wound together. His nostrils flared and twitched at the scent of it, and he tried not to swallow. The position felt dangerous, his jaw muscles longing to close harder and cleave.
Sekayi’s pulse beat softly against his tongue. He could taste exposed hot muscle, gooey fat. Mhumhi squeezed his eyes shut; the blood kept coming.
He jerked back and looked up- Kutta was tugging Dot forward by the hand. Her head was lowered, her pace shambling, and she was uttering soft sounds of distress.
“Come on, Dot,” Kutta urged. “That’s Sekayi. You love Sekayi.”
Dot pulled her hand out of Kutta’s mouth and grasped it at the other, staring at the ground. Mhumhi was not sure she had even noticed Sekayi; the presence of Kulwe and Hlolwa seemed to be all that was occupying her mind.
“We need cloth,” he told Kutta, and she gave a grunt of agreement and attacked Sekayi’s pants. Mhumhi was impressed with the neatness of the strips she tore, and also by Sekayi’s exposed, muscular thighs, but he also felt more than a little futile. They had the bandages, they had the hands that could bind them, but how were they supposed to tell Dot what to do?
Kutta took the first strip and pressed the end against Dot’s clasped hands. Dot took it, seeming rather surprised, and then dropped it.
“No, Dot,” said Kutta, swooping down to pick it up again. Dot obediently took it from her mouth, looked at it for a moment, and then let it go.
Behind him, Mhumhi thought he heard Hlolwa give a soft snort.
“What are we going to do?” Kutta said, looking helplessly back at Mhumhi. “She doesn’t understand!”
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’d better try to do it ourselves…”
“Dot!” Tareq stepped forward, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. He grabbed Dot’s arm and tugged her forward. “Come this way!”
Mhumhi and Kutta fell back on either side, both quite surprised, as Tareq led Dot over to Sekayi’s body. He squatted to pick up one of the other strips of cloth that Kutta had made.
“Look,” he said, tugging at Dot again so that she crouched beside him, her eyes flickering between Sekayi and Hlolwa. “Look, do this.”
He picked up Sekayi’s limp arm with a shaking hand and wrapped the end of the bandage around it. The end became damp with blood at once, and the loose binding slipped.
Dot’s gaze quite suddenly became more focused, and she gave a sort of twitch. She took the end of the bandage from Tareq and wound it around more securely, wrapping up Sekayi’s wounds in a swift, practiced manner. When she reached the end of the bandage she reached for another one, and Kutta passed to her, looking a bit dazed.
“She’s done this before,” Mhumhi observed. Dot had a smile on her face now, her expression eager and childish. Tareq crawled away from her and put his arm around Mhumhi’s leg.
“Oh, Tareq, you smart boy, you good buy,” said Kutta, and came over to nuzzle him. “Look at that! You’ve helped Sekayi so much!”
Tareq said nothing, just huddled against Mhumhi. Mhumhi let his muzzle rest on the top of his head for a moment.
“You’re right, she has done this before,” added Kutta. “Though… where? And why?”
“They must have taught her at the safe place,” said Mhumhi, the realization coming to him all at once. “She’s not like one of these wild ones out here- that’s where she came from. They had them trained to do all sorts of things, didn’t they?”
“Like opening doors,” said Kutta. Her brow furrowed. “And Mini. They did something to help Mini after we thought she was dead. They must all be trained about healing wounds and such.”
“Henli said there’re only ever a couple hulkers awake at a time there,” said Mhumhi. “The screamers are the ones that must take care of the rest. I suppose even if they are sleeping they’ve got to eat somehow… And if they get sick, I suppose they want the screamers to take care of that, too.”
Dot hooted, turning back towards them. Sekayi’s arm now bore a tight, neat bandage of fraying cloth. Mhumhi could see the dark outline of the wound underneath as the blood spread through.
“Good girl, Dot,” said Kutta, giving her tail a wave.
“What about the wound on his neck?” asked Mhumhi.
“That was mostly skin taken off,” said Kutta. “I don’t know that there’s much we can do about it… I wouldn’t want to wrap something around his neck. We’ll just have to try to keep it clean.”
“Is Sekayi gonna wake up?” Tareq whispered, his grip tightening on Mhumhi’s leg.
Mhumhi opened his mouth, hesitated, then said, “Yes, I think so.”
He couldn’t bring himself to say more; that the problem would not be whether or not Sekayi woke up, but rather how much blood he had lost and would lose, and how infected his wounds would become in the ensuing weeks.
Mini’s howls had not ceased, and he wrinkled his lips as her voice rose anew.
“Mhumhi,” hissed Tareq, scuffling back against his side. “That dog’s not tied up!”
He was looking fearfully at Hlolwa over Sekayi’s body. She slowly turned her head to look at him, and he shrank further back. Mhumhi rumbled softly.
“Spare me,” she said, and looked away again.
“We should move Sekayi,” said Kutta. “Do you think Dot can carry him?”
“I don’t know,” said Mhumhi, looking sidelong at Dot: she was shorter than Sekayi, but thicker overall, with none of his weediness. “She could try… maybe give him more time to stop bleeding first.”
“Will that dog come get me?” asked Tareq, tugging on Mhumhi’s elbow. “Is she gonna bite me?”
“We won’t let her,” said Kutta. “Tareq, why don’t you go back to the house? Mini wants to see you.”
Tareq frowned in a near-tears way and stiffened around Mhumhi.
“You’re a bad dog,” he said, looking at Hlolwa.
She looked at him more quickly than before, the motion sharp, and Mhumhi’s eyes widened, his heart pounding. Dot made a shrill noise and backed up a few steps.
“Shut up, you little devil,” said Hlolwa. She stepped over Sekayi’s body. Mhumhi drew back his lips and ears as she approached, growling with more fervor. Kutta joined him, her eyes flashing and her fur rising.
Hlolwa stopped and looked coldly down her muzzle at Tareq, who was crying in earnest now, but still managing to scowl at the same time.
“I hate you,” he blubbered.
Hlolwa gazed at him, her eyes hooded.
Tareq trembled, Mhumhi thought with surprise, and gave a loud sob. “I hate you! You bad dog!”
“If you hate me,” said Hlolwa, “imagine how much you’ll hate my puppies.”
Mhumhi put his ears back up in his confusion, and Hlolwa gave a whuffing laugh that managed to reek of sarcasm.
“What do you mean by that?” demanded Kutta.
“I do believe,” said Hlolwa, and she sat back on her haunches, “that it will end up meeting them. Inevitably. Briefly.”
Mhumhi exchanged a look with his sister, then said, “Will he? You don’t plan to run away?”
“You don’t expect us to kill you for this?” added Kutta.
“I am at your mercy,” said Hlolwa, but then she looked at Mhumhi, the same sharp look she had given Tareq. “But Mhumhi does not want to kill me. He wants my puppies.”
Mhumhi wanted to draw back from that- the statement, and the look, but Tareq was anchoring him with his grip.
“He’s not the only one who has a say,” said Kutta, with a rumble.
“Why aren’t you running away?” asked Mhumhi, quickly cutting over her. “Why didn’t you before- why did you bark?”
Hlolwa broke her gaze away from him at once, her ears turning slightly back.
“It is obvious,” she said, in a measured tone, “that there is a way to get back to the city from here.”
“What makes you think that?” exclaimed Kutta, very loudly. Mhumhi winced.
“Obvious,” repeated Hlolwa. “You would not be so concerned about keeping me captive, otherwise. A single, pregnant dog; what could I do to you even if I was free?” Her black lips wrinkled into a grin. “You are afraid I’ll find my way back.”
Denial would have looked stupid at that point, so Mhumhi held his tongue. Kutta looked murderous.
“In that case, why not find your way back?” she snapped. “I don’t think you’re as sure as you think you are. Go on!”
“I would,” said Hlolwa. “But I don’t have the luxury to search, or to travel back across the desert without food. Not in my condition. And I would not like to leave Kulwe to your vengeance if I can avoid it.”
“Madame, no,” said Kulwe, in a pained way.
“Harsh conditions could make me lose half the litter,” said Hlolwa. “Or all of it. This late, I cannot risk it.”
“Then why did you follow us in the first place?” asked Mhumhi. “Did you not worry about it then? Why-”
“Imbwa wanted to go,” snapped Hlolwa, her eyes widening. “I could not let him go alone. I was there to protect him. I-”
She stopped. Her flanks contracted for a moment.
“Time has passed,” she continued, tone bland once more. “The moon is full. I’ll have the puppies by the time it is dark again. I’ve begin to feel them moving.”
Mhumhi stole a look at Kutta, and found that she had folded back her ears.
“It is not my wish for my puppies to be used as servants to your little devil,” said Hlolwa, her eyes almost sinking completely shut with disgust. “But I do not want to risk leaving the food and shelter here. And Kulwe. I propose we compromise.”
Mhumhi had not expected that to come out of her mouth. “Compromise…?”
“Escort me back to the city,” she said. “Before I have them, or after, if you must. In return, I will protect your pack. Even the hulkers. I’ll find you a place to live, make you untouchable.”
He was stunned. She sounded perfectly serious. But-
“There’s no way that can be true,” said Kutta, parroting his thoughts. “You expect us to believe that? That you’d just let us walk away and live? Do you think we’re idiots?!” She gave an open-mouthed snarl. “Once we’re back in the city, we’re at your mercy!”
Hlolwa looked as though she were going to respond, but Mhumhi cut in. “There’s no reason for us to compromise with you. If you are afraid to travel with the puppies, all we have to do is sit here and wait for them to be born. You can’t overpower us alone.”
“Yes,” said Hlolwa, eyes flicking in an irritated way. “Everything is on your side. Except time.”
“Time?” repeated Mhumhi.
“I would think that’s our best ally!” Kutta raised her tail contemptuously. “With you pregnant!”
“For now,” said Hlolwa. “For a little while. But you must not realize who I am. I am not some stray whelping bitch, lost in the desert. There are quite a few who will take note of my disappearance. And they will begin searching.”
“And how would they find this place?” asked Mhumhi. “They’ve never found it before. You said so yourself.”
“Not for a few runaway hulkers, no,” agreed Hlolwa. “We cannot be within a few miles of the city; police scouts would have smelled this place out years ago. I never said it would be easy to find. But the fact remains that I am the Madame. They will take all the time they need to find me. Time, Mhumhi.”
Mhumhi drew a breath, then said, “They may never find you.”
Hlolwa smiled. “But they will look very, very hard.”
“So what?” he demanded. “Like you said, that will take them a long time, and it’s only a possibility. A chance that we’ll be found here. You want us to be scared enough of that to believe you’ll let us live once we reach the city?”
“You think I’ll go back on my word?” she said, almost coyly. “I’m not some mealy fox.”
Kutta gave an incredulous whuff.
“Maybe if it was just us two- but not Tareq,” said Mhumhi. “There’s no way you’d ever show compassion to a hulker.”
“Under the right circumstances-” started Hlolwa, but Kutta butted in.
“You just tried to kill Sekayi! For speaking to you! After he freed you for the sake of your miserable puppies!”
A line of tension appeared between Hlolwa’s shoulder blades, and she sucked in her flanks again.
“It is not dead.”
“Oh, thank you!”
“And I have not killed your little devil, though it spoke to me,” Hlolwa added, her words weighty, as though they had to consider the magnitude of her sacrifice. “I could, easily, in an instant.”
“I’ll hit you!” cried Tareq, scuffing a foot sideways in her direction.
Hlolwa paused and looked down at him again, and he retreated back into Mhumhi’s side.
“One swift bite,” she said.
“The same applies to you,” Mhumhi said coldly. “We won’t need your puppies in that case.”
Hlolwa laughed, sounding almost weary. “Yes; I had considered that. That little creature is in no danger from me. In any case it smells foul.”
“You smell!” cried Tareq, with a sniffle. “I don’t smell! Mhumhi!”
“As long as you know that,” said Mhumhi, keeping himself steady best he could as Tareq shook him. “The importance of him being alive, I mean.”
“Your actions have made that extremely clear,” said Hlolwa, almost wry-sounding. “Will you take me back to the city?”
Mhumhi looked back at Kutta, who scuffed a paw along the ground.
“We’ll consider it,” he said. Not a chance.
“Consider away,” said Hlolwa. “Watch the time.”
She walked away, and Mhumhi went tense, then remembered she had nowhere to go. It still felt wrong to let her have free range, though. What mischief could she get into…?
He watched her warily as she went over to the stake where she had formerly been chained and lapped up some water from a shallow dish Sekayi had left out. Then she lay beside Kulwe and curled up.
Their audience seemed to be over, though Mhumhi still felt that jellylike sensation of unease. Kutta seemed unhappy as well, and stalked over to sit beside Sekayi’s legs.
“First watch,” she said, to Mhumhi. “That’s me. Take Tareq back to bed and I’ll get you later.”
“All right,” he said, before he realized she had left him Mini to deal with. He huffed through his nose.
“She’s mean,” sniveled Tareq, wiping his nose on Mhumhi’s fur. “I hate her.”
“I think she knows that,” said Mhumhi, gently. “Let’s go back to sleep, Tareq.”
Tareq made a sound of complete discontent and rose to his feet, rubbing his eyes and scowling. “I want Sekayi to come sleep with me.”
“Sekayi needs to rest here tonight since he’s hurt,” said Mhumhi. “But I bet Dot will sleep with you.”
Tareq considered this, face darkening, but it seemed his exhaustion won out. “All right.”
He went to take Dot’s hand. The screamer, who had backed away into the fire pit when Hlolwa had walked closer, hooted in a sooty way.
Mhumhi exchanged a solemn wag with Kutta. Hlolwa appeared to have gone to sleep, though he suspected she was only closing her eyes. Still, he felt that she was at least being honest about how little danger she presented them at the moment.
He stepped forward, stopped, and looked back at Sekayi. At some point his eyes had closed. Mhumhi looked at his face, marked with innumerable lines and wrinkles, and then upwards. The moon was bright and full.
Time, thought Mhumhi.