Next to Mhumhi was Vimbo, a semi-conscious Tareq draped over his back, and charging at them at a high speed was Hlolwa, fire and hatred in her eyes. Vimbo was just beginning to raise his tail.
Mhumhi did something foolish: he stepped between the two of them.
Hlolwa hit him like a juggernaut and they both reared up in a furious instant of violence, snarling and snapping, and then in another instant they split apart, quivering. Hlolwa’s sagging belly, teats hanging low, was shuddering.
She seemed unable to speak, so Mhumhi caught his breath and said, “Hlolwa-”
“Why have you come back?” she burst out. Her eyes flicked to Vimbo, who gave a nervous giggle. “You brought- that-”
“I won’t let him harm-” Mhumhi began, but she interrupted him again, showing her teeth.
“You dare-! You dare- I thought you would leave!”
This was an unexpected statement, and while Mhumhi recovered from the surprise she flung herself around him towards Vimbo, jaws open. Mhumhi spun and bit her on the haunch. She whirled and again they clashed, snapping and fencing. Vimbo was backing up, giggling hysterically; Tareq’s limbs hung limply from his back.
Hlolwa weighed just a shade more than Mhumhi, and after a few intense seconds she got him on his side and grabbed him by the nose, snarling. Mhumhi had to give out a whimper. This seemed to snap her back from her bloodlust, and she released him, though she still looked furious.
“You have your hulker,” she spat. “Why did you bring it here? Why did you not bring it to the red dog?”
Mhumhi realized that in all the confusion and excitement of Bii stealing the puppy, he had not informed her about the rift that had opened up between him and Kutta.
“You need more help,” he said, voice steady. “The hyena can help-”
Hlolwa gave him a deadly stare, her pale eyes glittering.
“I’m sorry,” coughed Mhumhi, beginning to feel the pressure from her standing on his chest. “I’m sorry! I know what he did… I know… but you need him just as much as me…”
Her voice had become silky: “That creature will not be allowed to even smell my pups.”
“Fine,” grunted Mhumhi. “Fine! He won’t go near them. Just let me get Tareq off of him…”
He hadn’t really been expecting an easy resolution, but strangely enough Hlolwa’s eyes seemed to flicker and she stepped off of him.
“Take him to the alcove where you kept the other hulker,” she said. “And I don’t want to see that hyena again afterwards.”
She had her tail raised, and her face was stony, but she let Mhumhi get up and nudge Vimbo’s shoulder with his own, pushing him towards the little alcove of tires where Sekayi had rested. Vimbo’s head jerked up, trying to track Hlolwa over Mhumhi’s back.
“Don’t,” growled Mhumhi, shoving him harder. “Just don’t.”
He was feeling a bit sour. The tension between them all aside, it had been a shoddy reminder about Kutta.
He got Vimbo into the alcove, and at once the hyena’s ears pricked forward. He began sniffing all around, moving somewhat faster than he had been, so that Tareq began to slide over his haunches. Mhumhi jumped in front of him to stop him.
“Lie down,” he said, “lie down first, Vimbo…”
Vimbo gave a grunt and swayed a little, and for a moment Mhumhi he was going to get surly, but then he lay down. Mhumhi pulled Tareq off, deciding to be quick rather than gentle, and arranged him on his back on the dirt.
Tareq’s eyes were half-open, but he didn’t make much noise, only gazed blankly out through his lashes. Mhumhi, feeling contrite, licked his cheeks, then sniffed over his injured leg. The foot had gone sideways again. He decided to leave it for the time being; Tareq had suffered enough.
Freed of his burden, Vimbo was now sniffing at a furious pace, his eyes wide and his upper lip drawn back. He scraped at the ground briefly with one blunt paw, overturning the dirt. Mhumhi saw traces of rusty dried blood there.
“He’s gone now,” said Mhumhi, and he sat down. “You’d better go too, Vimbo.”
He felt sour as he said it. He did not exactly want Vimbo to leave. Having the hyena nearby was comforting, even if he wasn’t always reliable, and Mhumhi felt as though their time spent together was getting shorter and shorter each time they met again. Where did Vimbo even go when he left?
Vimbo glanced at him at the sound of his name, then nosed the loose dirt, getting it all over his muzzle. He wandered back towards the alcove entrance, then looked at Mhumhi again.
“You can find his bones, at least, if you still want to,” Mhumhi said. “Sorry you couldn’t kill him.”
Vimbo tilted his head slightly, then lumbered off.
The alcove felt a shade cooler without his large presence. The sun was still sinking. Mhumhi made a discontented noise in the back of his throat and went to lie beside Tareq, chin on his paws.
It felt like he had just closed his eyes when a soft scratch made his ears pick up. Hlolwa was standing at the alcove entrance.
Neither of them said anything right away. Mhumhi did not raise his head, though he noticed how her eyes darted around the alcove, taking it all in. Her nostrils flared.
“The hyena’s gone,” said Mhumhi. His voice sounded more petulant than he had intended.
Hlolwa took little note of this statement; she had eyes, after all. She stepped down into the alcove and walked towards Tareq. Now Mhumhi’s head did come up.
Hlolwa sniffed down the length of his body, her nose never quite getting close enough to touch his skin. Tareq had fallen asleep, and his chest moved up and down slowly. She seemed to examine this for a moment.
Then abruptly she turned and walked back towards the entrance.
“Find some sort of stick, or something stiff and thin,” she said, casting a glance towards Mhumhi. “When he wakes, have him bind it to his leg in two places. It will keep the bone straight so it heals properly.”
Of anything he thought she might say, Mhumhi had not expected this. His ears worked back and forth before he managed to say, “And how do you know all that?”
Hlolwa flashed him that tight, nasty grin of hers. “I know about caring for hulkers. We like them better when they are able to run.”
She left Mhumhi speechless and walked out. He blinked, then surged up with a little growl and ran after her.
“What are you planning?” he snapped, once he was shoulder-to-shoulder with her. “You want to eat him, once he can run?”
“Don’t be stupid.” Her tone was derisive, which riled him up further.
“Don’t be stupid? That’s what you do! Why are you acting like this? Why are you letting him stay here?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” said Hlolwa, stalking further away, but Mhumhi dogged her.
“I can’t just believe that you’d- change- so much!”
“I haven’t changed,” said Hlolwa. Now she turned and faced Mhumhi squarely, her amber eyes flat and cold. “You like to think I am a monster, but I’m quite rational. If the hulker is requisite for you to stay here, than he will stay. The broken leg at least ensures he can’t wander over to my puppies.”
Mhumhi stared at her, and she added, “I told you before that I need you here.”
“Is that why you led me to him?”
Her eyes flicked away, and she turned her head. Mhumhi came around in front of her again.
“Because you said you thought I’d leave. You didn’t think I’d come back, did you? If you need me so much, why’d you show him to me?”
“Why did you come back?” Hlolwa challenged.
Mhumhi’s ears turned back for a moment. “I- I didn’t have a choice.”
“And why did you come back, that day when you left to search for your red dog? That day when my pup was stolen?” Hlolwa gave a soft snort. “If anyone has actions to explain, it’s you. But I don’t care much about the reasons-”
“I came back because- because Kutta wouldn’t have me,” Mhumhi said abruptly, silencing her. “Because she thought I’d betrayed her, by helping you. That’s why.”
Hlolwa said nothing.
“So I couldn’t bring Tareq to her,” he added. “She won’t even let me speak to her. And I don’t trust those coyotes.”
Now Hlolwa gave a sharp laugh.
“I see. That makes sense.” She looked away again. “This is your last resort.”
“Did you think-” Mhumhi had to hesitate, feeling as though his words were teetering on a knife’s edge. “Did you think I would’ve chosen to come back to you, instead of Kutta?”
Now a little anger flared up in Hlolwa’s eyes.
“To me? To your own kind? To the possibility of a future?”
“I’m not interested in making more puppies with you,” said Mhumhi, voice tight.
“I can tell that much,” said Hlolwa. “You’re like Imbwa. No desire. But it isn’t what I meant. What I meant was that some dogs leave their families when they are grown. And you… you seemed…”
She let herself trail off, curling her lips.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not your pack, Mhumhi. And my puppies aren’t yours.”
Mhumhi worked this through his head for a moment.
“Are they really Imbwa’s?”
Hlolwa gave a start, and then she laughed again.
“No. But I would have given them to him.”
“Why did you come out here to chase after us?” Mhumhi asked. “You, personally? When you were so pregnant?”
“You’re more perceptive than I thought you were,” said Hlolwa. She seemed strangely amused, a rare light in her eyes. “Perhaps I was more worried for Imbwa than for these puppies. Perhaps I was guilty. Perhaps I thought he would try to get himself killed chasing the tail of a stupid mission.”
“Did he know they weren’t his?”
“How could he not? Of course he knew. He knew I wouldn’t force anything out of him he didn’t want to give.” She gave a sour laugh. “My whole pack knew. But they kept it to themselves.”
“Why?” said Mhumhi. “What does it matter whose puppies they are, really? Who’s going to get angry at you- aren’t you the Madame?”
“I’m not a ruler,” said Hlolwa. “I’m a centerpiece. I’m a rallying point. And I have rules I must follow, like everyone else… I told you how my pack was formed, didn’t I? We incorporate puppies from all of the others into it.”
“You told me,” said Mhumhi.
“We ourselves do not know who is from one litter or another,” said Hlolwa, “except for me- the Madame chooses her own daughter to succeed her. And she also chooses her a mate, because she is the only one who knows which puppies are not related by blood.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, and sat down.
“You’ve got it, have you…? I would not force Imbwa. But I had to have puppies. It’s how we keep the packs united. And I couldn’t very well let someone from outside know that I had broken the rules… They give us their puppies in the hope that one of them will mate with the Madame. So I had to mate with someone else within my pack.”
“But it could have been your own brother.”
Hlolwa gave him an unpleasant smile. “Most assuredly, it could have been. And I suspect that I’m not the first to do such a thing. It is an unnatural situation, and it has grown more unnatural over the years.”
“You’re the Madame, though,” said Mhumhi, stubbornly. “Why couldn’t you change the rules? Why wouldn’t you? If you explained to the rest-”
“You don’t know how fragile it all is,” said Hlolwa. “That city is bursting with hungry dogs. And so many of them are painted dogs. We must keep our population larger than the dholes and the gray wolves- but the more we grow, the harder it is to stay united. We grow greedy. We compete. We fight among ourselves. And the turning point is coming.”
She swished her tail. “The Madames have been trying to position the painted dogs so that they survive when it all collapses. When we have to scratch and fight for our own meat again. I can’t tear apart their work and doom my own kind.”
She had raised her head, but her eyes were focused far away, and now her nose dropped back towards the ground.
“Of course, it doesn’t matter now. I’ve already done that, with my own stupidity. The city must be in chaos now.”
Defeat was written throughout her posture. Mhumhi studied her.
“If you went back now, could you fix it all?”
“Who knows? Perhaps they’d just tear me apart. Perhaps it’s been too long.”
“The painted dogs- the police- they’ve always done good things, though,” said Mhumhi. “Well- they’ve done things like… break up fights, stop other dogs from stealing meat. Why is that?”
“To keep them busy,” said Hlolwa. “To channel their energy… but that, too, has become an unspoken rule. I suppose we’re more like you than we think, Mhumhi.” She laughed. “When we rub shoulders with other dogs whom we do not fight with, they become our family.”
“How do you figure that?” asked Mhumhi, recalling the intimidating figures of the painted dogs that patrolled Oldtown.
“They want to protect the little dogs they watch over,” said Hlolwa. “If it comes to one kind versus another, we will have difficulties uniting all the painted dogs. The white-tails were bad enough.”
“That isn’t what you told me before. You told me that dogs will always ally with the ones they can breed with.”
“Well, Mhumhi,” said Hlolwa, “like much of life, it’s much more complicated than I wish it could be.”
Now Mhumhi was the one who had to laugh; he understood that sentiment very well.
“Well,” he said, “I never thanked you for leading me to Tareq.”
“Don’t. I regret it.”
He laughed again. Hlolwa gave a little twitch of her tail.
“The sun is starting to go down,” she said. “We should begin watching for screamers. And I must feed my puppies.”
Mhumhi gave a little wag of his tail, and walked with her back to the entrance to her den. She slipped inside and vanished from sight.
The sun was sinking. The sky was painted with colors, sunlight lighting up the edges of clouds and making them blush pink and orange. Mhumhi took up a post near the edge of the tire stacks.
He was doing quite a bit of thinking over his conversation with Hlolwa, and about Tareq, and about Kutta as well. The yap-howl of a distant jackal seemed in tune with his thoughts.
As the screamers began to emerge, their eyes hungry, their hands begging, Mhumhi came to a decision. Perhaps a dangerous decision. Perhaps a foolish one.
But to start it off, he had to figure out where Vimbo was staying.