The horde of hunger.
Despite his concerns, Mhumhi did not have to see the two hulkers for a few days after that. The fuss Sacha kicked up about the way both of them smelled after they returned seemed to convince Kutta that it would be good to lie low for a while. She merely took Bii’s portion of meat from Mhumhi every day before traveling to the sewer herself. She also seemed to be encouraging the notion that she was visiting someone, something that Mhumhi himself was uncomfortable with. Every time Kutta dropped a casual hint, Sacha seemed to become more withdrawn.
When he confronted her about it, though, Kutta seemed unrepentant.
“I’m not really going anywhere,” she told him. “Sacha will come back around once she realizes.”
Mhumhi didn’t argue, though later he wished he had. He didn’t like keeping secrets from his oldest sister, especially when he could see that it was hurting her. What exactly would Sacha do if they told her, anyway? He tried to think about it, but he really could not fathom what her response would be. It would probably not be good, though.
Sacha certainly knew something was going on with the two of them, but she did not know what, so she spent a great deal of time venting her frustration on the newest member of their household. If she spotted Bii she would go over to him and try to posture and get him to roll over and fawn over her, like Mhumhi and Kutta would. But it was not really in the fox’s nature to do so, which tended to result in a great deal of bad-natured growling between the two of them. Bii ended up retreating mostly to the upstairs with Kebero, Sacha, to the downstairs, and the two of them would not sleep touching one another.
It was frustrating for Mhumhi, to see them at odds, especially Sacha, so he took to trying to spend a lot of time with her himself, wiggling and wagging like a puppy at every opportunity. He wasn’t sure if this didn’t just annoy her, though. It could be hard to tell.
One afternoon he tried to cheer himself up by playing with Kebero. The puppy, at least, seemed happier with the new family arrangement, since Bii spent nearly all of his time doting on him. He was bounding around the bedroom with frenetic energy, leaping clumsily on the bed and down again, coming to thrash and mock-bite at Mhumhi and away again. Mhumhi was hardly having to do a thing; he just sat back and watched him tire himself out.
Bii was sitting on the bed, stretched out on his side. Whenever Kebero jumped on he would rise and lazily snap at him, which was enough to send the puppy out on another delighted romp around the room.
“Be careful, Keb,” admonished Mhumhi, stopping the squirming puppy briefly with a leg over his back. “Watch for his leg.”
“Oh it’s all right, Mhumhi,” said Bii, and he got up and stretched, yawning, showing them his tiny little teeth. “It’s feeling much better these days.”
“Is it? That’s good.” Mhumhi let Kebero thrash his way onto his back between his front legs, kicking and snapping, and opened his mouth and teased him for a moment.
“Yes,” said Bii. “I think I’ll be able to go back to the sewers soon and do some proper hunting.”
Mhumhi’s head came up. “Back to the sewers?”
Kebero squirmed around as well. “Bii, you’re not leaving, are you?”
“Of course not,” the fox said, hopping off the bed so he could come and lick the top of Kebero’s head. “I’ll be here as long as your siblings let me stay.”
Kebero wagged his tail. Mhumhi thought, wryly, that they wouldn’t be making him leave anytime soon, not with the extra meat he was giving them. They needed every last bit they could get.
“What do you hunt down in the sewers, Bii?”
Bii gave him a surprised look. “The usual, I suppose… cockroaches, and things. There’s always some meat and offal left over around the dispensary pipes, so you can get maggots there, too. I’ve seen some pretty large rats, but I don’t care for them myself. I know a few foxes that do.”
“Can I come with you to the sewers, Bii?” asked Kebero. Bii gave him his impish little smile.
“Certainly you may. We’ll make an insect-eater out of you yet, won’t we?”
Kebero smiled and wagged his tail. Mhumhi tried to picture what Sacha’s thoughts would be on this, but again he could only fathom the negativity of them.
“Do a lot of foxes go hunting down there?”
“Quite a few,” said Bii. “We try to keep out of each others’ way though. Too many spoil it for everyone.”
“So I guess there are a lot of foxes who don’t eat any meat?”
“I’m sure some are supplementing with it,” said Bii, “but yes, I think it’s fair to say that many don’t use it. Why, are you thinking of getting a few more helpers like me?”
“Hm,” replied Mhumhi, who had in fact been thinking of something along those lines. More meat would certainly help, even in small portions.
“Be careful about that, if that is what you’re thinking,” said Bii, looking at him with his black button eyes. “I’m not the only fox who trades, you know. Most of the ones that do aren’t trading to the families from Oldtown, either.”
“What do you mean- that they’re trading to…?”
“The police, yes, and other wealthier packs. A lot of them do it for access to fruit, some of them do it for protection, and some… well.”
“Well what?” asked Mhumhi, intently curious. Bii glanced at Kebero, who was now lying down between Mhumhi’s front paws, half-engaged.
“A lot of them will do it for access to hulker meat,” Bii said quietly. “A lump of cold flesh for a mouthful of warm. That’s what I hear, anyway.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, feeling a weird tremor in his stomach. “Is it really that good?”
“I don’t know,” said Bii, flicking his tail at him. “I’ve always preferred the cold flesh that crunches, myself.”
“I see,” said Mhumhi. “Is that why you decided to come here, instead of to one of those better-off families?”
Bii sneeze-laughed. “I came here because I once knew your mother, and liked her all right. And because I’d rather give my meat to someone who needs it. And because, well, I like looking after puppies.” He gave Kebero a fond little nuzzle.
“I’m glad you came here,” said Kebero, smiling at him.
“I am, too,” said Bii. “You just wait, little wolf, I’ll take you down to the sewers and make a rat-catcher out of you!”
“Yes, yes!” Kebero yapped, standing up and wriggling out of Mhumhi’s grip. “I’ll get all those rats! Eat ‘em, down to their tails!”
“Down to the tails?” Bii asked, amused. “Where did you learn to say such things?”
But Kebero was off again, whirling around the room, pouncing on a piece of the tattered bedspread and growling and tugging at it.
“Hey, Bii,” Mhumhi said. “When you were down the sewers, have you ever seen a… a hulker?”
Bii pondered this for a moment.
“No,” he said, finally, “but I’ve heard of them being down there, creeping around to avoid the police. It’s dark and strange down there- if you hear an odd noise, you run for a little tunnel and you don’t look back. There can be strange smells, shapes… not just hulkers.”
“Not just hulkers?” Mhumhi asked, intrigued.
“I’ve heard strange sounds,” Bii said quietly, “and a strange scent… darker and more powerful than anything I’ve ever smelled… heavy footsteps… a kind of moaning, from far away. Almost like the way a hulker sounds, but…” He hesitated. “It isn’t a hulker. Or at least, I don’t think it is. Maybe a different kind of hulker.”
“A different kind of hulker?” Mhumhi repeated, feeling chilled.
“Yes,” said Bii. “One with sharp teeth.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, trying to keep his tone light, “more like a proper dog, then.”
“I suppose so,” said Bii. “Still, I’d be careful. If you ever come across something like that down there, Mhumhi, don’t stop to find out what it is. Dogs have been disappearing lately.”
“I don’t plan to be brave again,” said Mhumhi, adding quickly, “and anyway, why would I be down in the sewers?”
“Of course, why would you be?” said Bii, shooting him a look, and then trotted over to Kebero with his tail hanging in a playful arch.
Mhumhi, a bit shaken, wondered again exactly how much the fox’s big ears were privy to.
He didn’t have much time to think about it, though, because in the next minute Kutta came thumping up the stairs.
“Hey, Mhumhi,” she said, and Mhumhi wagged his tail and went over to plant sloppy kisses on her chin.
“Why don’t you go to the dispensary with me and Sacha today?” she asked, backing away a bit from his affection. “The three of us haven’t been together much lately.”
“We’ve been in the house,” Mhumhi pointed out.
“Yes, but we haven’t moved anywhere, really, and I think it would be good,” said Kutta, giving him a kind of searching look. “I know you’ve already eaten yours, so you don’t have to, but…”
“No, no, I’ll go,” said Mhumhi, bouncing on his front paws a bit at the prospect. Having the three of them out together did sound like fun, now that he thought of it. They hadn’t gotten a chance to romp around outside together since their mother had left, since someone always had to be looking after Kebero.
This made him ponder, as he tromped down the stairs after his sister, and he asked, “But will Sacha be all right with Kebero just staying with Bii?”
“Ask her yourself, she’s the one that suggested it,” said Kutta, stopping short, because Sacha was waiting for them at the foot of the stairs. Mhumhi pushed by Kutta at once and bounced over to go lick her, and she jerked away irritably.
“Come on, Mhumhi, we’ve been in the same house, we haven’t even separated!”
“I missed you,” said Mhumhi, pushing against her lovingly, so that she tottered on her short legs.
Kutta laughed. “Mhumhi says he wants to go, Sacha.”
“Well, we should go, then,” said Sacha, pushing back against Mhumhi. Mhumhi pretended he was being shoved back and her stub tail wagged. “All right, Mhumhi, that’s enough, let’s not be stuck at the end of the line.”
“Right!’ Mhumhi cried, and bounded over to the doorway, falling into a half play-bow from excitement. “Let’s go, let’s go!”
“Now he’s all riled up, Sacha,” Kutta told her older sister reprovingly, but Sacha’s stub tail was still wagging and she gave a pleased little grunt as she passed Mhumhi on the way out.
They fell into their customary formation, single-file, with bear-faced little Sacha at the front, Kutta trotting behind, and Mhumhi loping and wagging at the rear. Sacha led them on a zig-zagging path, sniffing, brazenly ignoring the other little foxes that had to jump out of her way. Mhumhi was panting happily at the sight. There was a certain comfort and power at traveling in a group, even a group as small as three- when he was with his sisters, they filled him with confidence.
He entertained a lazy, happy vision of what it would be like when Kebero was big enough to join them, when he didn’t look so much like a puppy anymore. Then they’d be four. Bii could even come, though Mhumhi felt more neutral on that point. Then they’d be five. And with his mother…
His wagging tail slowed. He hadn’t spared much thought on his mother lately. It had been hard to, with the new, pressing worry of the two hulker children weighing on him, and the ever-present need for more meat. He had not tried to go to Big Park to look for her.
If she was even there, his mind added desperately. If she was not long dead…
That thought effectively obliterated the rest of his good mood. He trailed after Kutta, head low.
“What’s going on,” Sacha growled suddenly, from up ahead. He raised his head again.
They had reached Wide Street, and had found it already very crowded with a mass of dogs. Mhumhi felt a strange chill. Many of these dogs were not little foxes. They were large ones, ones he knew he had never seen around Oldtown before. And when he looked around, he saw many, many more painted dogs prowling on top of cars, overlooking the crowd, than there usually were.
The Oldtown dogs had noticed this, and there was a great deal of yapping and tail-puffing at the sight of these amassed interlopers. The little dogs had never been much for solidarity, and indeed fought more often than not, but the sight of strangers before their food supply united them. Loud growls reverberated all across the street. Mhumhi realized that Sacha was adding hers, and Kutta was showing her teeth. He put his ears back.
There came a short howl, and the fur on Mhumhi’s back bristled. Standing on top of a large van prowled a massive dog. The biggest of them all. A gray wolf, panting, yellow-eyed. She howled again, briefly.
Silence fell over the crowd of dogs as they looked up at her.
“Listen!” she barked, and then a painted dog bounded up beside her.
“Yes, listen,” he said, voice clear in the new silence. “Do not start fighting. These dogs have come from Zoo Park. Their dispensary is malfunctioning.”
That set off a great deal of alarmed yapping and barking through the crowd, and the wolf howled again for silence.
“Don’t worry!” said the painted dog. “The dispensary will be fixed soon. We must be patient. In the meantime, you must allow these dogs- your brothers and sisters-”
There was an angry murmur in the crowd at this, and the gray wolf gave a warning snarl.
“These dogs will feed from the Oldtown dispensary until the Zoo Park dispensary is fixed,” continued the painted dog. “That is our final decision. Fighting will not be tolerated.” He fixed a sharp eye on the crowd, and Mhumhi heard the other painted dogs give chirps and chatters of agreement from their vantage points on the cars.
“There is enough food for everyone,” the painted dog concluded. “Arrive early. Wait patiently. That is all.” He turned and loped down from the van. The wolf remained, fixing her yellow eyes on the crowd.
“What a pile of scat!”
That had been Sacha, and she shot a glare at the wolf before turning around to face Mhumhi and Kutta. “You see what they’ve done? Zoo Park is a long walk from here, there’s got to be dispensaries closer- but they’ve taken them all here, because these dogs are so little. They’re counting on their fear stopping them from standing up for themselves!”
“You’re probably right, but so what?” said Kutta. “What’s the point of fighting? He said it himself, there is enough meat for everyone. All we have to do is wait a little longer…”
“You don’t understand,” growled Sacha. “You know why the littlest dogs cluster here, in the worst part of the city? It’s to get away from those big brutes, who bully them and steal their meat. And now they’ve brought them here. There’ll be fighting, and the little fellows will be driven away… probably down to the sewers, to scrape up what they can, poor things…”
Kutta caught Mhumhi’s eye in a worried way at this.
“What did he mean when he said the dispensary malfunctioning, though?” asked Mhumhi. “Malfunctioning how? And how did he know it would be fixed soon?”
“I suppose he means it’s not giving any meat,” said Kutta. “Or something like that. I heard from the fennec fox that the East Big Park dispensary wasn’t working either. I wonder where they’ve gone?”
“It shouldn’t matter to them, they’re off in Big Park eating red meat and fruit from the Great Glass Garden until they can only roll around on their bellies,” Sacha sneered. “What effect would one little dispensary not working have on them?”
“Well, if it’s a police dispensary, maybe they do know how to fix it,” said Kutta, furrowing her brow. “In the center of the city… they’ve got lots of things there, after all, that we haven’t got…”
“You think they’ve been inside a dispensary?” Mhumhi found himself fantasizing again, about what that would be like. Rooms and rooms and rooms of meat…
Sacha snorted. “Not likely! I think they’re lying, so as not to cause panic. No dog’s been able to get inside one of those things, and it’s no wonder they’re starting to run out of meat. Every bitch in the city has been whelping where she squats, after all, and all those milksop puppies need more meat…”
“No, no,” said Kutta, actually backing up a few steps in her anxiety. “The dispensaries can’t just run out, that’s impossible. The police was right, they’re just not working properly.”
“Hm,” grunted Sacha, but she looked worried as well. Mhumhi looked between the two of them, his tail tucked. “There’s no point in working ourselves up over it, you’re right, Kutta. There’s nothing we can do. Let’s get in line before this rabble takes up all the good spots…”
She started moving away through the crowd again. Mhumhi noticed a swift fox and two bengal foxes watching her, and when Kutta and Mhumhi started following behind her they hastened to run back and take up the rear. In fact, there were a few foxes around them that had seemed to be paying attention to their little conversation, and they were all clustering behind them.
Kutta shot Mhumhi a nervous look, and Sacha let out a soft growl, but she kept moving, stumping forward on her short legs, leading their little train to a spot in line behind one of the sliders.
They had ended up close to the front, near some of the strange dogs, because all of the little Oldtown foxes seemed more keen to stand in place behind them. Ahead of them was a Tibetan fox, small but heavy-headed, turning to give them a dour look with her narrow yellow eyes. Ahead of her was a little group of dholes.
Mhumhi looked at Kutta, to see what she thought of this, but she had her eyes steadfastly trained down on the asphalt beneath their paws. The stranger dholes were not looking back at them, anyway; they were wagging their tails and play-fighting, wrapped up in their own sense of warm packishness.
Mhumhi allowed himself a furtive glance around, but though he could see more dholes, and other large dogs like golden jackals and Simien wolves, he couldn’t spot any groups of painted dogs lining up, aside from the supervising police. He found himself rather relieved.
They went through the line without much trouble, thankfully. Mhumhi noted that most of the stranger dogs, despite Sacha’s words, seemed more interested in getting their meat than anything else. When it was the dholes’ turn they congratulated each member of the pack with whistles and bark-howls as they received their meat. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and Mhumhi found himself smiling and waving his tail. Kutta still kept her head down.
When the Tibetan fox went to take her turn, Sacha looked back and gave a soft, warning whine. Mhumhi looked and realized that there were two painted dogs watching them from atop a nearby car, speaking softly to one another.
“Don’t look at them,” Sacha said, voice low. “We’re attracting too much attention… keep together but don’t touch each other. Don’t talk to anyone.”
Mhumhi and Kutta put their ears back and obeyed her, studiously looking at different parts of the asphalt, keeping their profiles low. Not for the first time, Mhumhi wished he didn’t have such a distinct spattered coat.
The Sacha and Kutta took their meat without incident, and the three of them managed to retreat to the concrete ramp that Mhumhi and Bii usually ate under. Sacha led them to the lowest and darkest part of it, growling to dislodge a startled pair of hoary foxes.
“We’ll have to be more careful now,” she said, voice low, after she had dropped her small packet of meat. “More police… they’ll get more suspicious, and they’re antsy anyway, looking for trouble. I might pass for a little solitary fox, but you two they’ll be suspicious about, especially if you look like you’re together… We’d better stick to moving separately from now on.” She let loose a heavy sigh through her nose.
Kutta gave Mhumhi an anxious look, and then said, “Well, the worst they can do is stop us, isn’t it? Mixed packs aren’t unheard of, after all. There’s no reason for them to suspect us of- you know.”
“No,” said Sacha, “but lots of the little dogs around here know of our-” She stopped short.
Mhumhi looked behind himself. Three painted dogs were striding purposefully towards them.
Sacha gave him a swift, meaningful look, but he could not decipher it, only stood there fearfully with his tail tucked and his head low. Kutta nudged him and turned to speak with them.
“Is something wrong? May we help you?”
The three painted dogs stopped a few feet away under the shadows of the overpass, white-flagged tails waving slowly.
“Hello,” said one, glancing between Mhumhi and Kutta. “We’d like to hear your names.”
“Why?” asked Kutta. “Have we done something wrong?”
The lead dog smiled, but it wasn’t in a very friendly way.
“We’d just like to learn a little more about all of you here. We’re police from Zoo Park, and we’ve heard some interesting stories from the ones who patrol this area.” Her gaze flicked down to Sacha, who was being uncharacteristically meek, keeping her head turned away and her tail low.
“You know how little foxes like to gossip,” said Kutta, smiling genially. “And I’m sure this place must be boring to patrol. I’m sure the stories will be much more interesting than the truth.”
One of the dogs behind the lead dog laughed, eyeing her companions, but the leader merely kept smiling.
“Tell me, how did the two of you- no, I should say the three of you-” She looked at Sacha, and her tail wagged slowly. “How did you come to be so close?”
“Dogs come together after bad times,” said Sacha, her little head suddenly jerking up, meeting the painted dog’s gaze. “We’ve all simply had bad times. Places we can’t go back to.”
The painted dog looked down at her, bemused. “I see. That’s terribly unfortunate.”
“Yes, well-” Kutta began, but the dog interrupted her, still looking down at Sacha.
“I have another question for you,” she said. “Have you seen a domestic dog that is white, with a curled tail and folded ears? I believe she goes by the name of Pariah.”
“Of course we have,” said Sacha, much to Mhumhi’s surprise. Her gaze was still steady. “She’s well-known around these parts. She even stayed with us for a little while. But she’s long gone now.”
“Yes,” said Sacha. “She left several weeks ago. I don’t know where to, and frankly I was glad to be rid of her.”
“I see,” said the dog, again. Very suddenly she looked directly at Mhumhi. “And you, do you know where she’s gone?”
“What?” said Mhumhi, shrinking away, pressing his ears back. “No, I- I don’t know where she is.”
“And did you know if she had any puppies?” The painted dog was stepping closer to him, her eyes intent on his.
“Puppies…? No, no, she didn’t…” Mhumhi cringed, shutting his eyes against her gaze.
Kutta suddenly bounced up on her forepaws.
“Oh! This is about that absolutely vicious rumor, isn’t it?”
“What rumor?” asked the lead dog, turning away from Mhumhi. He felt as if a searchlight had been snapped off of him.
“The one that Pariah stole puppies,” said Kutta, very derisively. “Honestly, if I find the filthy fox that started that, I’ll- I’ll shake him! Dogs just have to go out of their way to be cruel to domestics, and I’ll never understand why.” She gave a sorrowful whine. “Pariah never harmed a soul in her life, and people had to say such terrible things about her… I don’t doubt that that’s why she left.”
The three painted dogs exchanged more looks, then the lead one said, “You three never saw her doing anything of the sort?”
“What, stealing puppies?” said Kutta, sounding appalled, but Sacha broke in with a growl.
“We don’t know what she did before she lived with us.”
“Oh, don’t say that, it’s really no wonder she left, with you in the house-”
One of the other painted dogs finally spoke up, looking at Mhumhi. “And you, silent brother? What did you think of her?”
Mhumhi licked his lips, aware that everyone was now looking at him, Sacha and Kutta with a certain desperation in their gazes.
“I didn’t… I didn’t know her very well. Didn’t speak to her much.”
“Didn’t speak to her much, hmm?” The dog flicked an ear towards Mhumhi, disbelieving. “Is that so? You’re an awfully quiet one.”
“Leave him alone,” said Kutta, suddenly sharp-toned, and when they all turned to look back at her, added more quietly, “He’s had a hard time.”
The lead dog twitched her tail, and then suddenly the three of them seemed to converge on Kutta, surrounding her, so that she backed up nervously against the concrete.
“Quick to bite, little red dog,” said one.
“Quick to defend that pup-thief, too,” said another, tail wagging stiff and slow. She pressed closer to Kutta, who had gone into a kind of cringing crouch, jaws tightly shut and eyes fearful.
“Maybe the domestic isn’t the one we’re looking for,” said the lead dog, pacing slightly in front of her. “Maybe it’s a little red dog like you. You look like you could use some puppies.” She laughed, letting her teeth show.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Sacha. Mhumhi saw that she was so stiff she was nearly trembling, and her eyes looked savage, but her tone somehow managed to be calm and dismissive. “She’s no more a pup thief than I am. I’m certain you realize that.”
“We’re not certain of anything,” said one of the dogs. “But if you knew where the domestic was…” She leaned close to Kutta, who shook. “We’d like to speak to her too.”
Mhumhi saw Sacha’s hackles rising, her small eyes narrowing, and felt petrified himself. The air was so charged there was certain to be a fight, and the police dogs would call more of their pack over, and that would be it for all of them, finished, then and there under the bridge…
There came a sharp whistle.
The painted dogs all whirled around, their leader with a growl. The pack of dholes Mhumhi had seen earlier had come trotting under the ramp, seven or eight of them, waving their long brushy tails in the air. In their lead was a male, laughing with his tongue hanging out.
“Leave that poor red girl alone, police!”
The dogs behind him were laughing too, at least with their mouths, but Mhumhi noticed that they seemed to be fanning out, making a line of red fur and teeth.
The painted dogs drew close to one another, seeming to confer for a moment, and then their leader said, “What’s your name?”
“My name’s Rakshasa, ol’ spot,” said the lead dhole. “I guess you’ll remember it, huh? I can tell you all the names of my brothers here, too. That one’s Lal-”
“That’s enough,” said the painted dog, exposing a canine. “We will remember it.” She flicked her tail at her companions, and they retreated, legs and tails stiff as they walked around the edge of the line of dholes. The dholes let loose derisive whistles and chirps as they passed, until Rakshasa sent them a swift look.
“That’s enough,” he said, and his brothers came and bunched up around him again, wagging and whining. The painted dogs were disappearing over the hill.
“You clear off too, you dumb spotty,” said one of the other dholes to Mhumhi.
“That’s enough,” said Sacha, shooting him a glare. “He’s not police. What are all of you up to?”
“What’re we up to?” exclaimed Rakshasa, letting his tongue hang out. “Hey, we can’t let the police bully another red, can we?”
His brothers whistled and chirruped their agreement, and Mhumhi noticed Rakshasa looking hopefully at Kutta. Someone from the back called, “Have you got any sisters?”
Rakshasa laughed, and even Mhumhi smiled a little, feeling the tension ebb, but Sacha lifted her lip.
“I see what you’re after. Well, you can plainly see she doesn’t want anything to do with any of you. So go on! Move along!”
“Sure, sure, little war-dog,” said Rakshasa, shooting one last wistful look at Kutta, who was still sitting pressed against the concrete, head turned away. “Come on, let’s go, before we have our ankles bitten off, then.”
Sacha growled at them, but they merely laughed and made their noisy way off again, over the hill in the direction the painted dogs had gone in. Mhumhi was almost sad to see them go- almost, until he saw how relieved Kutta looked. Sacha had already gone over to her and stood on her shoulder to lick her neck.
“You get yourself into trouble quick,” she was saying, but there was nothing reproving to her tone. Mhumhi whined and went to roll over and lick under Kutta’s chin as well.
“Let’s eat our meat and go home,” was all Kutta said, after a little while.
“Right,” said Sacha, giving her one last lick, and then trundled over to her meat packet, where it lay untouched. She paused suddenly. Sitting curled up beside it was the little fennec fox.
“I thought you might need someone to get those police off your back,” he said, wagging his tail against the ground.
“And get a little meat for yourself, as well?” said Sacha, looking displeased, but the fennec stood and they saw he’d been lying on top of his own tiny packet.
“For the little one,” he said, and then bared his teeth in a grin. “I mean Bii, of course.”
Sacha sniffed at the meat suspiciously. “What’s this all about?”
“Take it,” said the fennec, getting up. “I bet we’ll be seeing less of it soon, and I at least can catch mice. You big dogs should fill up while you can.”
“What do you mean by that?” Sacha’s small eyes had gone flinty again. “What do you know?”
The fox merely blinked at her, and walked away, swishing his little tail. Sacha glared after him.
“You eat it, Kutta,” she said.
“Me?” said Kutta, faintly.
“Yes, you, you’re too skinny and tired.” Sacha gave a little growl and batted at the tiny packet with her front paws. “Not that it’ll make much of a difference, really.”
Kutta did not respond to this, only glanced at Mhumhi and drew him to one side while Sacha tried to tear her packet open.
“You’ve got to go to visit the puppies tonight,” she murmured. “I’ll give you some of my meat…”
“What? Why now?”
“They haven’t had enough today- Tareq is getting sicker- and Sacha’s right.” She exhaled softly. “I am too tired.”
Mhumhi stepped back a little, staring at her, and was frightened to realize how tired she looked- how skinny she looked.
“You’re giving up to much meat for them,” he hissed.
“No,” said Kutta. “Not enough…”
“Eat all your meat, Kutta,” said Mhumhi. “I’ll give them some of mine.”
She looked at him, surprised. “But you haven’t eaten since this morning-“
“Well, I mean, I’ll take a little,” he admitted. He’d sort of forgotten about that.
Kutta gave him a little smile, but it faded fast. “Mhumhi,” she said softly, “what do you think the police will do if they discover…?”
“If they discover Kebero?”
They both jumped, for that had been Sacha, who had moved to sit down by their feet and glare up at them.
“You two and your little secrets,” she growled. “If they discover Kebero, I don’t expect them to show us any mercy.”
“But we weren’t the ones who…”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Sacha, and she cast her eyes over to the distant horde of dogs still waiting to receive their daily meat. “The fewer mouths there are to feed, the better.”