Mhumhi found the screamer again- the one who had been looking for her baby. It seemed as though she was still searching, for when he came across her she was scratching through a pile of damp paper.
He approached her, and she rose, cooing and smiling, and walked over to pat his head. He let her do it. His thoughts were muddied and confused.
When Mhumhi had been a puppy, warned to stay upstairs by his mother and sisters, he had been remarkably clumsy. Sacha was always shouting at him to watch where he slapped his big paws, his wagging tail. But whenever he had heard his mother coming back through the door, without fail, Mhumhi would run down the stairs so fast that he stumbled, all four paws scrabbling in opposite directions, and slid and tumbled down into a heap.
That particular emotion- the elation of meeting his mother again, sharply cut off by the realization that he was falling and that he could not stop, no matter how he clawed and struggled- that was something like what he was feeling now.
Every time, he had fallen, because he got too excited. He got bruises upon his bruises. But hearing his mother come back was always so wonderful that he couldn’t help himself.
What was Kutta trying to do?
The screamer had crouched to put her arms around his neck, making little pleased sounds. He supposed he was serving as a temporary stand-in for her missing infant.
Mhumhi let her hold him for a few more moments, the light in his eyes fading to dullness, and then he turned his muzzle, his nose and whiskers brushing across her neck. In a single violent jerk of a motion, he dug his teeth into her throat.
She fell over backwards, with a strangled cry- a thick, wet noise. Her arms slid away from his back. Mhumhi caught her, holding her up by the neck, pressing downwards. His teeth cleaved through her flesh with ease- he was using his rear molars, the ones shaped like shearing blades.
There was a great deal of blood. But he had seen that before.
He felt her pulse coming more erratically through his teeth, and gently laid her head down on the ground. Her black eyes were open, and she gazed up at him. There was no betrayal in them, only an animalistic confusion: from where did this pain come from?
Mhumhi watched her bleeding out, silently urging her to die, hurry up, hurry up. The sun was sinking. He licked the blood dripping from his nose.
He heard a soft pad from behind him. Vimbo was coming up from the other side, licking his chops. Mhumhi was surprised to see him- after he had left Telipa, the two of them had separated, Vimbo turning towards his bony nest, Mhumhi towards the tire stacks.
Vimbo came up and sniffed at the screamer’s bare legs, up towards her abdomen. Suddenly he bit into the area above her hip. The screamer jerked, more blood spurting from the wound in her neck.
“Stop!” cried Mhumhi. “She’s not dead yet- wait, Vimbo!”
But Vimbo kept eating, giggling through his mouthfuls when Mhumhi got too close. Mhumhi stepped back, swallowing. The screamer’s head flopped to one side.
He and Kutta had agreed that they should wait until the screamers were dead before killing them, to reduce the amount of pain they caused- it seemed the kinder thing to do. Now, staring at Vimbo, he wondered how much it really mattered. The screamer was staring at him sightlessly, blood still oozing sluggishly from her neck as Vimbo found her entrails.
There came a yap-howl from his right and Mhumhi jerked his head to see the silhouette of a pointy-eared dog standing on a distant hill. No way to tell if it was Telipa or not, and somehow he didn’t think so. But now the gray pack would be looking for their share.
Mhumhi turned back to the still-twitching screamer and began to eat, thrusting his head beside Vimbo’s, heedless of his growls.
He wondered if the hyena ever felt compassion for his kills; perhaps he simply didn’t care.
Vimbo finished first, and left without sentimentality, scattering the mix of screamers and jackals and white birds that had gathered to watch them eat. The birds flew, the jackals darted, and the screamers shambled, but they all came back to fill the gaps after he was gone. Mhumhi at even more quickly, stained with blood up to his ears; he did not like the feeling of them watching him.
He left quickly when he had finished, feeling the odious stares of the jackals on his back as they rose from their haunches to gobble his scraps.
Hlolwa was sitting with her paws sticking out of the den, looking impatient, when he returned, and she got up at the bloodied sight of him.
Mhumhi stopped short, his fattened belly swaying, and let her lick at the corners of his jaws, twittering with impatience. The meat came back up. She caught pieces before they hit the ground in her hunger.
“Was the hunting difficult?” she asked, between bites. “The screamers gave you trouble?” There was something needling about her tone.
Mhumhi didn’t rise to her bait. “I was taking some time for myself.”
Hlolwa’s eyes thinned, and she gave him a few suspicious sniffs.
“You smell like hyena musk.”
“I did meet Vimbo,” Mhumhi admitted, “but I didn’t take him back with me, so what do you care?”
Hlolwa gave a soft snort, and then she licked him again, bringing up more meat.
Mhumhi watched her eat, feeling that sickening teetering feeling rising up again, and blurted out, “Kutta won’t see me anymore. Not if I keep helping you.”
Hlolwa licked her chops.
“You met her, did you?”
“No… I spoke with one of the gray pack. I haven’t seen her since the night it rained…”
He trailed off miserably. Hlolwa raised her head.
“Haven’t seen her? So it wasn’t her who told you she was angry with you before, either?”
“No… but I knew she was, a little, already. When I told her I still thought I was a painted dog, she-”
“Mhumhi,” cut in Hlolwa. “Aren’t you being a little naive?”
Her tone was so sardonic that he bristled.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know why I would even say this to you,” said Hlolwa, “but you are so pitiful… Did it ever occur to you that they could be lying?”
It had not. Mhumhi felt a strange spark as he turned the idea over in his mind, but… “Why would they lie?”
“You tell me,” said Hlolwa, flashing her teeth at him. “They seem to have an agenda of their own, these little scavengers.”
Mhumhi pulled the corners of his lips back, struggling to perceive what she meant. “But even if they are lying, why hasn’t Kutta come back on her own?”
“Think about it,” said Hlolwa. “Extend that poor mind of yours a little.”
She seemed to be amusing herself, to such an extent that Mhumhi found he couldn’t really get irritated.
“You mean- you think she could be hurt? Or-”
“Or are they stopping her themselves?” Hlolwa filled in. “She’s not much larger than they are. Some of those large male coyotes even look like they outweigh her.”
Mhumhi gave a little jump of distress. “If they’re stopping her, then I have to-”
He was interrupted by an odd squeaking noise, and both he and Hlolwa looked back to the den. Peering over the edge of the tire, squinting in the bright light and rubbing his nose with one paw, was a little black puppy.
“Where are you going?” said Hlolwa, giving the puppy a very stern look. Mhumhi pushed in front of her, tail wagging furiously, and touched noses with the puppy. The puppy jumped at the sudden contact and then sniffed closer.
Hlolwa shouldered him away and picked up the puppy by his scruff, so that his fat little legs stuck out in the air. Even as she picked that one up, another little face popped up over the tire with a squeak. A little female with ears that still flopped forward.
Mhumhi beat the ground with his forepaws with excitement. Hlolwa’s eyes had gotten very narrow, but she could only, unfortunately, carry one puppy at a time.
“I didn’t know they were walking!” said Mhumhi, licking the face of the female so that she squinted even further. A third puppy got her face up over the edge of the tire but tumbled backwards almost at once.
Hlolwa put down the puppy she was carrying, so that he rolled on his round belly between her forepaws. “I’ll have to make the entrance steeper.”
“Oh, let them come out!” So saying, Mhumhi tugged the female forward, so that she half-walked, half flopped her way out of the den. When he let her go she swayed and thumped back onto her haunches, blinking. “They’ve been down there for so long in the dark!”
“Oh, yes,” said Hlolwa, in a highly sarcastic way, “they’re missing the wonderful view, aren’t they?”
That dulled Mhumhi’s excitement a bit. His tail drooped.
“If a screamer catches sight of them…” Hlolwa let the words hang in the air. Mhumhi drooped further. He picked up the little female and deposited her back over the tire. Her little stub of a tail wagged and she looked back over her shoulder at him.
Hlolwa nudged her the rest of the way inside and deposited the male after her, to a loud barrage of squeaks. Mhumhi thought they were certainly of protest. His tail waved slowly.
“Have they got names?”
“No,” said Hlolwa, pushing back a small nose with her own. “We don’t usually name them until their colors start coming in on their backs.”
“Are you going to do anything about your sister?” Hlolwa’s tone was terse as she stared into the darkness of the den.
“Oh- oh, yes,” Mhumhi stammered. “Tomorrow- tomorrow I think I’ll go deeper into the grey pack’s territory and try to look for her. I don’t think Telipa would want to hurt her, but…”
“What will you do when you find her, then?”
Mhumhi sighed and looked down at his forepaws.
“A few more days,” said Hlolwa.
He looked up. “For what?”
“Until I plan to move the puppies.” She caught his eye. “They aren’t going to grow up here.”
“Move them? But- they’re barely walking!”
“Yes,” said Hlolwa, “and the better they get at it, the more danger they will be in here. And if you’re going to go back with your red dog, I won’t be able to protect them by myself.”
“I don’t plan to desert you…”
“I don’t think that,” said Hlolwa. Her voice was cold. “But I am confident that I can protect them from being taken by just you. Not so the two of you.”
Mhumhi drew back, wanting to protest- but he knew exactly what she was talking about. There was no point in denying it anymore. He scuffed at the dirt with a forepaw.
“I- I don’t want to take them from you. I can’t.”
Hlolwa was quiet for a moment.
“It may be easier than you think.”
Mhumhi opened his mouth, but she rode over him. “And in any case, what will you do then? When you have your sister back, will I be just another threat again? Will you bring that hyena back to threaten me?”
“Because I mean to return to the city,” said Hlolwa. She was glaring at him. “With my pups- but even without them.”
“I cannot leave them helpless,” said Hlolwa, her voice rising. “And I cannot ignore this place. They need this food, Mhumhi. They all need it!”
“I understand!” Mhumhi cried. “I understand, all right? I- I don’t want to stop you anymore. I don’t want anything bad to happen to the puppies. But Tareq-”
“Yes, him,” said Hlolwa. “If it weren’t for him, you would have nothing to fear. Not from letting me go.”
“Why do you cling to him? He’s a burden!”
Mhumhi took a trembling breath, then released it. “Of course he’s a burden. He’s a puppy. Aren’t those ones in the den- aren’t they a burden on you?”
Hlolwa’s eyes widened, giving him a shock of pale amber, and Mhumhi couldn’t help tensing. But Hlolwa only laughed softly.
“I planned to kill them,” she said. “When I ran away. Have them, kill them, run along the coastline and find the city.”
Mhumhi found he could say nothing to this. He rocked backwards slightly.
“No way they could survive here,” she said, now suddenly very soft, her eyes flicking up at him. “And they’d be taken away. And I killed. And if they did survive, and I took them back- they’d be too old to mix with the other litters.”
Mhumhi found his voice, and it had a bite to it. “Yes, those are all very good reasons.”
Hlolwa laughed again, turning away.
“I could have had more. I could have had so many more.”
“You didn’t kill them, though.”
“No.” Hlolwa gave a long sigh. “Not from sentiment. From that damnable haze of afterbirth. My mother told me about it. You are so weakened… by the time you get your strength back, you find that you love them. But they are such a burden.”
Mhumhi looked down at his paws again, because he had felt something sneaking and unpleasant in his heart, thinking about Tareq.
“And you want to have them walk with you back to the city now?”
Her reply came sharp and savage.
“What am I supposed to do, Mhumhi?”
Mhumhi shuffled his paws, stirring up a little cloud of dirt. From within the den came a soft squeak.
“I’ll help you take them back.”
“I said I’ll help you take them back to the city.” Mhumhi raised his head to match her glare for glare. “I know a faster, safer way than going along the coast.”
Hlolwa seemed to digest this, drawing her ears back.
“I suppose- you’ll try to extract a promise from me not to harm your hulker?”
“No, because I can’t enforce that,” said Mhumhi. He felt tired. “I can hope that you wouldn’t harm him. But how- to what extent…” He trailed off, because what he had wanted to say was the same guilty thought that had been slinking around inside his mind for a long time: to what extent, ultimately, would he be responsible for Tareq’s life?
A burden? Yes, because nobody he loved would have had to die. And he was… he was tired.
Perhaps Hlolwa guessed his thoughts, because her expression became inscrutable.
“What abut your sister? I don’t believe she’ll share your convictions.”
“What she does is her business,” said Mhumhi. “I don’t… I don’t know if we’re still the same family.”
He brought his head up sharply to stare at Hlolwa, because wasn’t that what she had wanted from him, all along, ever since he’d first met her in the Great Glass Garden?
Hlolwa looked thoughtful. He could not discern about what.
“A few more days, then,” she said. “When I say they are ready to move, you can lead us- or you can not. We’ll find out.”
“I’m not lying to you,” said Mhumhi.
“I know,” Hlolwa said. “Go feed your hulker. He’s been hungry.”