The grey horde.
The strange howls were coming closer, hour by hour, and Mhumhi was certain that they came from more than one throat.
They had regrouped back around the fire pit. To Mhumhi’s surprise, Hlolwa walked up to meet them there, her mouth tight. But then again that made sense; the howling would not come from a painted dog, and so she had no way of telling whether it was a friend or foe either.
“Domestic, coyote, jackal, gray wolf,” Mini recited, from atop Sekayi’s chair. Sekayi himself had sagged against the wall next to her. “That’s who it could be. They’re calling like they think someone’s going to answer.”
“They must have heard you, Mini,” Kutta said bitterly. “All that noise you were making before.”
Mini did not refute it. She licked her nose. “We don’t know that they’re a threat. Or that they’ll find us.”
“Oh, they will find us,” said Hlolwa. “It won’t be difficult.”
“I think that there are at least five,” said Mhumhi, “probably more. If they’re big…”
“We’ll have no chance, will we?” said Kutta. “Ah, of course.”
“Get the hulkers out of sight,” said Hlolwa.
They all turned to look at her. She gazed back flatly.
“If they are aggressive towards them, they will attack as soon as they see them,” she said. “We might be able to defend them from the doorway. But not out here in the open.”
“She’s right,” Kutta said, wrinkling her lips with distaste. “Tareq, you go inside. Sekayi…”
“I can go,” said Sekayi, struggling back up against the wall.
“I don’t wanna,” said Tareq, crouching down. “Not if she says.”
“Tareq,” snapped Mhumhi.
“You stay out here, maybe I’ll eat you myself, little devil,” said Hlolwa, and she took a step towards him. Tareq’s face screwed up and he ran to grab Sekayi’s hand.
Kutta jumped in front of them with a snarl, raising her tail. Hlolwa looked away coyly, licking her lips. Mhumhi saw a hint of amusement in the way she gave a small wag of her tail.
“Don’t you dare threaten Tareq,” Kutta said, as Sekayi gently pulled him into the house behind her. “We may as well give you up to those dogs. I’ll bet they’ll have no love for you either!”
“Actually,” said Hlolwa, “that was going to be my next suggestion.”
This caught Kutta off-guard, and she passed an uncertain look to Mhumhi.
“Why, are they friends of yours?” said Mini. “Some of your pet wolves?”
“I don’t think they’re wolves,” said Hlolwa. “They sound smaller. And I didn’t mean I’d go alone. I meant to take Mhumhi with me.”
“Take Mhumhi!” The fur on Kutta’s back rose. “You brute!”
“Oh, I see,” said Mini. “I see. You want to trick them, eh?”
“Not trick them,” said Hlolwa. “Not unless we must.” She looked over at Mhumhi. “If they are from the city, the sight of two painted dogs will command respect.”
“Only if they think we have more backing us up,” Mhumhi said.
“And they will not know that we do not,” said Hlolwa. “We can scout them before they reach this place, and warn the others if things go sour.”
“What a wonderful plan,” said Mini. “I bet you do know them. You’ll have them attack Mhumhi, won’t you?”
“If I knew them,” said Hlolwa, “wouldn’t I have run to them while the other two were away? The only two who could stop me?”
“She has a point, Mini,” said Mhumhi. His heart was fluttering with nervousness. “I think we should do it.”
“Then I should go with you,” said Kutta.
“Someone should stay here with Tareq,” Mhumhi said.
“Then I should go with her and have you stay here!”
“There are no red dogs in the police,” said Hlolwa, offering her a thin smile. “Are you opposed to the two of us being alone together? Do you think I’ll spirit him away?”
Kutta merely fixed her with a yellow stare. Mhumhi began to feel distinctly uncomfortable.
“If she tries anything, I’ll go for her throat first,” he said. “If they are loyal to her, they won’t want me to hurt her.”
“As usual, Mhumhi has come up with a solution,” Hlolwa said dryly. “Well? They are getting closer as we speak; it won’t work if they’re already standing round the fire pit.”
“Where did these fellows even come from?” Mini wondered aloud. “That’s not the direction of the-” She stopped when Kutta whirled and fixed her with a sharp glare. Mhumhi glanced nervously at Hlolwa; he’d been certain Mini had been about to say ‘city.’
Hlolwa merely looked bored.
“Well?” she repeated. “We won’t find out unless we meet them.”
“I think we should go,” said Mhumhi. “Is that all right with you, Kutta?”
She looked mightily unhappy. “Be careful, then.”
He went over and licked her ear, then trotted to the top of the valley, where Hlolwa stood waiting for him.
“Let’s set a swift pace,” she said.
It was still strange to Mhumhi that a swift pace meant stretching his legs to their fullest; but then again he’d never run with anyone who could match him stride for stride. They flew across the hills together, coursing side by side with their ears slicked back. Mhumhi felt a kind of tremor, like Kutta’s concern wasn’t unfounded, but then again, that would be ridiculous- he wouldn’t abandon his family over something like being able to run faster.
Still, it felt good to run as hard as he could manage.
They heard the howl again and Hlolwa skidded to a stop, knocking tin cans this way and that. Mhumhi overshot her slightly and wheeled back around to join her.
“They’ve moved more that way,” said Hlolwa, indicating the left with her nose. She was panting a little.
Mhumhi couldn’t help but glance at her heavy stomach. “Should you be running so much?”
Hlolwa gave him a slant-eyed look. “Have you picked up their scent at all yet?”
Mhumhi raised his head, nostrils flaring. It was hard with the ever-present reek of the dump, but he did detect a doggish thread in there somewhere.
“A bit,” he said. “Not enough to tell what they-” He stopped, and stepped sideways, curling his tail underneath his belly. Hlolwa had moved very close to him, her nose almost touching his haunch.
“Apologies,” she said, though she did not move back. “I just noticed the scar on your leg. Does that pain you?”
Mhumhi raised his back leg and twisted his neck a bit to look at it. The bald, pinkish line was still there, and as if it had been awoken, he felt a twinge from it.
“Not usually,” he said. “It’s old.”
“What did it come from?”
“A snare,” said Mhumhi, seeing no reason to lie to her. He took another step sideways. “Look, we’d better start moving again. I want to stop them as far away from the house as we can manage.”
“Of course,” said Hlolwa, and started running, though this time at a slightly more sedate pace than before. Mhumhi eyed her belly and decided not to push it.
After they had been running for just a few moments Hlolwa spoke again. “How did you escape the snare? My police have been caught in them before; they are dreadful.”
“I was lucky,” grunted Mhumhi, keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead. “My sisters got the end of the wire unwrapped, and then a hyena bit it through, and then one of the little hulkers did the rest.”
“That sounds very lucky,” said Hlolwa.
“I said so, didn’t I?”
“I suppose the hulkers have their uses, beyond meat.”
He couldn’t help but glance at her, for this. Her expression showed little.
“Is that what matters? Usefulness?”
She laughed. “Do you want me to say I am starting to find them endearing?”
“It would make it a whole lot easier if you would-”
He gave a little shriek then, because a searing pain had opened up on his scarred hind leg. He tumbled over before he realized what had happened. Hlolwa had attacked him, and even now was worrying his back leg.
Mhumhi thrashed, still comprehending what had happened, and crying out from the pain. Hlolwa released him and jumped back. Her eyes flicked to him for a split second, and then she spun around and sped away.
Mhumhi gave a wordless yelp and tried to struggle to his feet, but his bad leg buckled. It was bleeding, new wounds opened up over the old scars, and the ache of it was coming back like an echo. Hlolwa had vanished from sight. She was moving faster, Mhumhi realized, than she had been when they’d been running together at his top speed- Damn! Damn! She’d been testing his pace all along!
He struggled to his feet, keeping his bad leg raised. There was no way he could hope to chase her down now. And besides, he had a much bigger worry now: there were gray forms moving down the hills in front of him. Hlolwa had timed her escape to just before they met the other dogs.
There was nothing he could do. He limped around to face them, as they came closer. There were many of them Many more than five… at least ten… perhaps more.
They swarmed down the trash, their eyes bright, yipping to one another. One near the front noticed him and stood stock still; then the awareness seemed to spread out through them like a ripple, until they were all staring silently at him, a horde of gray forms with yellow eyes.
Then one of them cried, “I don’t believe it! It’s little Mhumhi!”
Then they were all rushing him, bounding at him with such fervor that he stumbled and nearly fell over again. They greeted him noisily, all yips and wagging tails and warm tongues on his chin and neck. He struggled to comprehend what they were and how he knew them until one of them- a coyote- ran in front of him and fell into a play-bow.
“We wondered who it was!” she cried. “We were running through this whole desert without a clue- I can’t believe we found you, Mhumhi!”
“Ah,” said Mhumhi, still very shaken. “Was it… Telipa?”
“Yes!” cried Telipa, her whole rear wagging, and went up to lick his face. “Oh, it’s good to see you’re all right! We thought the police had got you!”
“And you,” said Mhumhi, in a dazed way. He blinked and shook himself, causing several jackals and coyotes to skip back. “No- what about you- I thought you’d all been killed!”
“Been killed?” Telipa tilted her head.
“What’s happened to your foot?” cried a jackal, circling behind him to lap at his blood. He flinched away.
“What makes you think we’d been killed?” asked Telipa. “We’ve been trying all this time to catch up to you again. We’re hungry as anything.”
“Starving!” yipped someone else.
“We met with some of the police,” Mhumhi told her. “Some that’d escaped the place where- where you were, that building. She said you’d all fallen down dead from bad air.”
“Oh, that,” Telipa said dismissively. “I can explain that-”
“Police?” demanded someone else. “Are there police here? They escaped?”
“There’s only one left-” started Mhumhi.
“That hulker said she’d release them after us!” cut in Telipa. “She lied!”
“Wait, you mean there were more of them alive at the-” Mhumhi paused, reoriented himself. “You spoke to a hulker?”
“Yes, yes, she talked to us through the ceiling,” Telipa said, as if this were an ordinary thing that happened every day. “But more to the point, Mhumhi- have you got any food?”
There were yaps of agreement throughout the crowd as they milled around him; Mhumhi realized he was simply going to have to adjust to this high energy level.
“I suppose,” he said, wondering if there would be enough left in the fridge to divide between this massive group. “But you’ll have to be orderly about it-”
“Oh, we’re very orderly,” said Telipa, wagging. “So you’ve got some meat! Gosh, I really could eat a rat now; I’m that hungry.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi.
“And you’ll never believe what we’ve found while we were walking all around this place- well, look, look up there.”
She turned and pointed with her muzzle up to the top of a ridge of trash behind them. Mhumhi was startled to see a line of silhouettes- hulker silhouettes.
“They’re sweet as anything,” said Telipa, wagging heartily. “They gave us a fright at first, but I think they’re really just very friendly. And they’re sort of cute, too, the way they don’t talk. Have you met any?”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi. “I’ve met some.”
“Some of the others have really taken a liking to them,” Telipa added, leaning forward conspiratorially. “If we ever do end up going back to the city, I think they’d want to sneak them in as pets. I think it’s a bad idea, though. These things would run right up to the police, smiling.”
“You’re right,” Mhumhi conceded.
“Well, I can understand, though. Maybe the police wouldn’t attack these ones when they realized how gentle they are, you know? Anyway, Mhumhi, I can’t believe you found a dispensary all the way out here! That’s terribly lucky, isn’t it?”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, “no- there’s no dispensary here.”
“No dispensary?” Telipa tilted her head again. “Then where are you getting your meat from?”