“No,” said Mhumhi. He was pacing back and forth, stumbling over tires. “No. No.”
Hlolwa lay in the entrance to her den, her forepaws crossed, her eyes glittering. Above them, Bii’s head poked from his vantage point atop one of the tire stacks, his tiny nose twitching.
“She’s not wrong,” he said.
“Shut up, Bii,” snapped Mhumhi, stumbling again, one forepaw scraping down the pleated rubber side of a tire.
“We can’t stay here,” said Hlolwa.
“We are not leaving,” said Mhumhi, staring down into the tire. A battered hulker shirt and a bit of Bii’s scat rested inside.
“Do you want my puppies to-”
“They’ll be just fine!” Mhumhi snarled, whipping his head around to look at her. “Just fine! The grey pack haven’t even come near here! They scavenge our kills, and they leave!”
Hlolwa raised her muzzle, her upper lip twitching.
“As soon as they learn I have puppies,” she said, “that will change. I can’t keep them in the den forever.”
“They’re puppies! What could-”
“They are my puppies,” said Hlolwa. “Painted dog puppies. Police puppies. Do you think, for one moment, that the grey pack will stand for it? I know what they thought of my pack in the lower city. They will not want to be subjugated again.”
Mhumhi snorted. “Must they be subjugated?”
“And why is that? Why must you be so suspicious? All you have to do is relax a little, share a little, and-”
“The food will run out,” said Hlolwa. “The food always runs out. If I cannot guarantee my pups eat first, what good am I as a mother?” She rose to her feet, her teat-heavy belly swinging. “It will come to a struggle. And we do not have enough dogs in the pack. Only two.”
Mhumhi glanced at Bii, who twitched an ear, and said, “She’s right.”
“In that case only one,” said Mhumhi. “I don’t remember joining your pack.”
“Mhumhi,” said Hlolwa. She lowered her head, fixing him with her stare. “I need you.”
Mhumhi’s stomach churned, and he turned quickly away. “Kutta and Tareq are-”
“They would have found you by now,” said Hlolwa. “They’re-”
Mhumhi raised his lip.
“-hiding somewhere, or perhaps they’ve found a safer place to stay,” Hlolwa said. Bii gave a very soft laugh, above her. “We cannot hope to find them.”
“If I could have more time to search-” Mhumhi’s throat was catching. “It’s only been a few days. If I could just go further- have some daylight-”
“I need you here, in the daytime,” said Hlolwa. “You know that the screamers come at dawn and dusk.”
Mhumhi felt compelled to look at the sun- it was high in the sky.
“I can kill more,” he said, “make a perimeter, give them some meat. If I just… If I speak to Telipa, I know she’d help me.”
Hlolwa’s gaze was utterly flat. “You will not speak to them.”
“It’s because I have to avoid them that I can’t search,” argued Mhumhi, his tail whisking from side to side. “If I could just… Telipa’s all right. She’s got to realize what has to be done now, for everyone to survive. And Kutta- Kutta hasn’t come because it’s just her and Tareq. She can’t leave him. But if I find them-”
“You may not speak to them,” said Hlolwa. Her tone was final.
Mhumhi stared at her for a long moment. Finally he said, “Why should I listen to you?”
He was startled when she shot him a swift, rare look of anger, her lips wrinkling back. But then she turned and went back down into her den without a word, vanishing into the darkness.
“Inspiring,” remarked Bii, the tip of his fluffy tail wagging back and forth over the tire.
“Do you have anything good to say?” retorted Mhumhi. Every bit of him felt sour now.
“Only that I believe she’s right,” said Bii, flexing his whiskers. “But then, so are you. You don’t have to listen to her. Or me. Why speak to me at all?”
“You enjoy this too much,” said Mhumhi.
“Probably,” said Bii. “I do hate her, and I don’t much like you, my friend. But I’m not the enemy here.”
Mhumhi gave a derisive twitter. “Who is? Who are we fighting against? There’s no enemy.”
“Well, starvation, maybe,” said Bii. “Or death. If you don’t want to end up in those teeth, it’s better to stay in a group.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do all along,” said Mhumhi, and started walking away.
The sky was perfectly clear and blue again, without a single cloud. It had not rained since the night Sekayi died, and that barely a drip. It meant water was suddenly a concern again, especially since the gray pack had taken over the concrete house. It was lucky Mhumhi had seen the place where Sekayi had once slaughtered the screamers. There was a tap there, and a hose.
He had not been to see Sekayi’s remains. That night he had stumbled back, in the dark and the wet, draggled and sodden, and slept next to Mini’s stiff body. In the morning there was only one more set of picked-over hulker bones among the rest.
There were getting to be a lot of bones, now.
No dog bones, Mhumhi reminded himself. He’d obeyed Sekayi’s wishes and put Mini into the sea. Though his heart twinged. She couldn’t swim. Or walk. If he could have found that metal thing again… for her to get up, walk to the dead lands again…
He stopped walking, swallowed, shook himself. The dead lands were a painted dog superstition. Or at least, the painted dogs that weren’t him. His mother had told him something else about what happened when a dog died. She had told him that… she had told him…
He couldn’t remember what she had told him. In fact, as he tried to picture her, white and hazy, he found he could remember little at all. Except that she had stolen and lied.
His throat ached, and he put his mother aside, carefully. Sacha. Sacha and… and Maha. If there was anything good about Hlolwa’s walking dead belief, it was that perhaps Maha had snuck out of the sand after they had left her, gotten up, brushed herself off, smiled, and walked away.
But then, Sacha had been eaten by hyenas. The little bit of warmth in Mhumhi’s heart came crashing down, Maha falling back into the sand. No, he could not believe what Hlolwa did.
He shook himself again. There was no point. He had forced himself to keep moving this many times. Kutta and Tareq were what he needed to find now. His family. His living family.
He resumed his steady trot forward, though he couldn’t help but glance at the sun, which was a little lower on the horizon.
It did not take him long to reach the area near the concrete house, with all of its dilapidated shacks and lean-tos and fluttering cloths. The area was littered with the marks and scat of jackals and coyotes. Mhumhi smelled them carefully. What he did find was slightly surprising- the marks were clustered together, by kind. It seemed the gray pack was drifting apart.
Much of the scat was also loose, and he smelled vomit besides. He wondered if some of the gray pack had gotten a taste for bird eggs.
Mhumhi whisked his tail and let out a low hoo-bark. Doubtless he’d been smelled already, and he wanted to be sure they knew he wasn’t trying to sneak up on them.
He crossed over a hill and found that the valley was full of gray bodies, most lying down and panting in the heat. More seemed to be clustered inside the concrete house. They were all looking at him, but few showed any alarm. Maybe that was a good sign.
Mhumhi took a few steps down into the valley, then stopped. Trash slid forward from his weight and slid against the back of a reclining side-striped jackal, which gave him a desultory look before getting up and shaking itself off.
“I’m looking for Telipa,” said Mhumhi, addressing the jackal. “Is she nearby?”
“Don’t know,” said the jackal, exposing a fang to him. “Got any meat?”
Mhumhi’s mood was cooling rapidly. “No. Where can I find her?”
“Don’t know,” the jackal said, in a snide way. There were scattered laughs from the rest of the group.
“Take down a screamer for us around here, will you, big fellow?” called another. “It’s a real struggle walking all that way for our food.”
Mhumhi felt himself stiffening.
“Try it yourself,” he snapped.
The side-striped jackal put his ears back.
“Waste of meat,” he said. “You don’t eat all of it. That other one you’ve got doesn’t eat all of it. It’d all go bad without us.”
“Thank you very much for that,” said Mhumhi. “Does any one of you know where Telipa is?”
“I’ve got a question for you, instead,” said the jackal, passing a glance to one of his cronies. “Do you know where your red sister is?”
“Kutta?” said Mhumhi, and jerked forward, spilling more trash so that the jackal sprang sideways. “Why? Do you know something? Is the little hulker with her?”
The jackal gave a thin whuff. “Maybe I do know something! But what about you, puppy?” He showed his teeth on the last word. “Who’s that other painted dog you’ve been with?”
Mhumhi shifted his weight. Things clinked in the trash beneath his feet, and the jackal’s eyes flicked down and up again.
“Why should you care who I’ve been with?” asked Mhumhi. “This painted dog isn’t one of the police either, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Yeah,” said the jackal. “I hear she’s even better than that. The boss.”
“She’s not the boss of anything,” said Mhumhi, injecting scorn into his tone- it was true at the moment, anyhow.
“That’s no what I hear.”
“Yes? And who are you hearing this from, exactly?” snapped Mhumhi, his tail rising. “You’ve never even seen her!”
A couple more jackals got to their feet at this. One walked up the side of the valley and stood there looking down at them, as though she’d wanted a better vantage point to view the conversation.
“I hear it from someone who has,” the side-striped jackal said. “And that’s where Telipa is, by the way. With her.”
Mhumhi couldn’t speak for a moment, he was so stunned.
“Kutta? She’s with Kutta?”
“Yeah, and-” the jackal started to say, but Mhumhi sprang forward.
“Where? Where are they? Is Tareq- is the little hulker with them? The one that talked? Is-”
“Shut up a moment!” snapped the jackal, turning his ears back. “And back off! She’s not going to see you right now.”
Mhumhi was stunned, again. “Not going to-”
“Yes, not going to, stupid. Until you prove where your loyalties lie.”
Mhumhi stared the jackal down for a long moment, comprehending what he’d just heard.
“That doesn’t sound like Kutta.”
“How long did it take you to drag your rump over here?” snapped the jackal, who seemed to be losing patience. “Five days? Incredible! If you were my brother, I’d- well, I’d be quite angry as well! All for a bit of tie-together!”
Mhumhi showed his teeth, feeling a sort of seething anger, but he was still confused. “Tell me where Kutta is,” he growled. “I’ve got to speak to her.”
“I’ll say it again: doesn’t want to see you, round-ears,” said the jackal.
“Then I’ll find her myself,” snapped Mhumhi, tail quivering, and the jackal took a step back.
“Try it!” he yapped. “Go on!”
Half the others were getting up more, though some seemed disinclined, lowering their heads and flattening their ears. Mhumhi noticed it was mostly the other side-striped jackals that were standing in support.
“You plan to kill me?” he challenged. As he had suspected, this sent a little tremor through the side-striped jackal, though he stood firm.
“We can at least make a few holes in that filthy hide of yours,” he said.
Mhumhi whuffed. Some of the other jackals gave nervous growls.
“Why are you bothering with this?” he asked. “I don’t understand. Why try to pick a fight with me?”
“Because your sister stood up to those other red dogs, and you wouldn’t bother to do the same,” said the jackal. “And sides that, you’re a killer.”
“A killer who’s feeding you!”
“Not on purpose!” cried the jackal, and then he seemed to recover himself. “Anyway, that- that’s not the real issue! Kutta told us about those puppies!”
“Oh, did she?” said Mhumhi. “What about them? Are you frightened of them, too?”
“You watch yourself,” said the jackal. “We could really rip you up.”
Mhumhi wanted to laugh again. It was obvious that none of these jackals had ever done anything remotely like fighting. He kept a hold of himself for the time being.
“If you really do know where Kutta is,” he said, “you better give her a message from me.”
“I will not-” the jackal began, but Mhumhi turned himself sideways, raised a leg, and urinated on his back.
The rest of the jackals burst into collective whuffs and yips as the jackal sprang away and shook himself furiously. He seemed to be wordless with rage, baring his teeth, his tongue swiping over his nose again and again.
“Once she sniffs that, tell her she needs to come where it’s safe,” he said. “Tell her I’m the one who’s been waiting for her. Tell her-” was he really going to say it? “-tell her that if she’d have stayed put, Sekayi and Mini would still be alive.”
The jackal laid his ears back. “Get out of here!”
“Fine,” said Mhumhi. “But don’t forget my message.”
“We might come get you, you know! There’s a lot more of us than you!”
“You could do that,” said Mhumhi. “What do you plan on eating, then?”
The jackal quivered, and then cried, “Get out of here! Go on! Leave!”
Mhumhi turned around, knowing that even if he was technically retreating, he’d won the encounter. There came a sort of vicious satisfaction from leaving the jackal there, urine-soaked and stinking. And Kutta! What was going on in her head?
Something squirmed in his gut as he walked. Would the jackal repeat his message word-for-word? He couldn’t imagine her response to it. No, he could. That made it worse.
But how could she do this?
After a moment, with the anger and confusion still stirring around in his head, he realized that the jackal had never told him whether or not they had Tareq, too.
He suddenly gave a growl and a thrash, snapping at the air. Nearby a white bird lit up from a perch on a cardboard box in a dusty flutter. Mhumhi tracked the movement from the corner of his eye, bunched his muscles, and leapt. To his astonishment, he felt the bird between his teeth as he came back down.
He stood there for a moment, feeling the rapid little heartbeat beating against his tongue. The bird was struggling, making desperate noises, trying to turn its head to peck at him. Mhumhi shook it, first lightly, then harder, then very hard, bouncing up and down on his forepaws. The bird’s head swung from side to side, and as his jaws squeezed, he felt the heartbeat stop.
He dropped the dead bird on the dirty ground, looked at it, and then put a paw on one wing and tore the other off with a growl. The head, next, with a crunching sound. He picked up the rest of it and shook again, feeling that savage sense of satisfaction at its deadness, at the fact that he had done it. Didn’t he kill screamers all the time? How could a bird be any different?
There was one difference. He noticed it when he dropped the body again and licked the spattered blood off his nose. A screamer had a lot more blood, and a lot more meat.
His burst of aggression had left feathers floating everywhere, soft bits of down floating gently to rest on the trash. Mhumhi sneezed and tongued the roof of his mouth. He had no desire to eat the bird; it might have the same effect on it that his eggs had. He left it there, and part of him hoped the jackals would come and see it.
Murderer, he thought, but it was a cynical, cold thought. The world went ’round from murder.
The distant sound of hoo-barking made his ears prick, taking his mind off of dark things. Hlolwa was calling him, and there was urgency in her tone.
The bitter part of him that had gotten roused suggested he ignore it, but he quashed that. Hlolwa would only call for him like that for one reason.
He came back to the tires at a rapid trot, his ears forward and his nose working. To his surprise Hlolwa met him right at the edge of the stacks, not by her den. She was panting, her eyes wide.
She cut him off.
“That fox,” she said, her breath quick. “He took him. Took a puppy. I can’t leave…”
“I’ll find him,” Mhumhi said, at once. “Which way-?”
Hlolwa jerked her head, and Mhumhi took off running. His heart pounded in his ears. His mouth still tasted of bird blood. How much blood, he wondered, would be in a fox?