Torn Loyalties

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Chapter 2

Teeth woke her from her dream, clutching at her scruff and shaking her onto her feet. She stayed quiet bar a sullen growl, shaking herself when her leg buckled beneath her. Steadying herself was a struggle, but she managed it without needing the help of the lyko watching her. Though it may have seemed childish, she was fighting the urge to snap at his face and drive him backwards. She’d get her own back at some point, she was sure of it…but for now she felt the cold eyes of Ny’theri on her and she needed to behave.

She kept her limping to a minimum as she moved with the group to hunt, the darkness picking out her coat in sharper relief despite her attempt to bury herself in amongst the hunting kh’in’sha. She was quiet, shrinking down a little before watching as the ath’er’in and l’er’oma conferred together before nodding.

“You will all split into two groups. One of you will hunt deer to the east of here; the other will hunt rabbits to the west. Tia’hin, for your punishment…you will work with those to the east, driving the deer forwards under the trees. K’oughser, as a volunteer, you will work with those in the west.”

The lighter coated lyko’a flinched as the mutters around her beat at her ears…but she shook them off quickly, her uppermost coat layer bristling protectively. She growled under her breath, striding out the pack towards the east as commanded. She didn’t wait for the others, her leg beginning to pain her again already as she heard the hasty sounds of them catching up to her. ‘Not bad for a three year old, eh? They’ll never be able to catch up when I’m finally fully mature!’

She was proud when perhaps she didn’t need to be, but she found it just as easy an emotion to feed off as the vengeance. She felt the small kh’in’sha split around her and leave her alone, but it didn’t bother her. Instead she followed with her head in the clouds, her nose on the ground. She didn’t take notice of the growled commands until a paw cuffed her about the face and for the second time, she was knocked to the ground.

“Will you listen, you muffle-headed flea?! You are to lead the charge. Your coat will startle the deer better than ours, so you can work to repay your debt to us for taking you in.” She flattened her ear briefly before shaking her head and finally nodding.

“I understand. I’ll run first. My coat is light enough that they can see me, even under the trees. I’ll do my job. Don’t worry.” She kept her voice low and respectful, her ears flicked back entirely as she dropped her head in a gesture of subservience and agreement.

Even though she was watched by suspicious, mistrustful eyes, she stayed calm. Her blood may have boiled in her veins, but she held that anger and prepared to use it for her own reasons. She needed to learn to hunt, and why not learn first on the deer? She shook herself off before watching as a number of the kh’in’sha leaped into the trees. They were the lucky ones, with lyk’osk’in not finding it as easily to roam on bare-ground now they were as large as they were.

Tia’hin was drawn into memories of her first ‘hunt’. The rabbit her parents had dropped to her was still half-alive and she was starved, ready to eat there and then. She’d pounced on it in an instant and sank her teeth in. Her head had shaken and she had trembled with delight- there was fire dancing on her tongue! There was food in her mouth, still trembling until she bit down even harder, just letting it spasm in her mouth. The taste of blood had changed her then from a mild-mannered beast to a lyk’osk’in willing to kill. She turned with a snarl upon feeling burning teeth splitting her shoulder, only to realise that it was time to hunt. She snorted softly, shaking her head and stretching out slightly before slinking the best she could.

Stealth wasn’t the best for her, nor was it the easiest thing for a creature with her colour coat but she managed it. Tia’hin moved slowly and softly, her paws treading on the ground carefully as she inhaled the musky deer-scent and drew it into her lungs. All at once, her stomach snarled and she felt a paw thump her hip, almost making her fall over. She flicked her head a little before yawning at the beast that had almost made her leg give way again.

She left them behind as she strode out, her paws purposeful now on the ground as she thundered towards the deer. Her voice lifted in long cries, bone-chilling in their intensity and all the more eerie for the fact that hers was the only voice to lift. She was swift moving, a location in mind as the deer began to mill about uncomfortably. She charged them, her head lowered as she virtually roared at them, the other lyk’osk’in following along behind her in a line.

She was the only one to make sound, but it seemed to work as the deer scattered for the trees. Screams sounded in there as kill after kill was made. The deer were gathered up and dragged towards the den…but no one noticed the missing Tia’hin in the confusion and that was just how she wanted it. She was heading up through the trees, her scent hidden and masked with deer dung. There was a reason for this- she wanted to see these bad lum’ar’ine that everyone seemed to avoid.

She moved quietly- though not enough for the lum’ar’ine watching her with wide, silver eyes. They were stalking her as surely as she thought she was them, though their rosettes helped them to blend into the shadows more than her glowing coat. They didn’t attack her, curiosity instead being the beast that drove them forwards. She almost slipped from the branches a few times, her claws all that kept her from losing her life on the floor below.

When eventually she caught sight of one of those almost mystical cats, she stopped dead. Silver and brown fur meshed together to make a creature that was almost invisible. Enormous whiskers branched out from a small muzzle- a muzzle that was currently wrinkled back threateningly as curved fangs were leered in her direction. With a lashing tail, it kept balance with an ease that she could only envy. The branch was thin, but barely bowed with her weight, though it was the eyes that caught her attention.

Before she could move more than one paw, the lum’ar’ine disappeared, vanishing through the branches in silence. Before she could even make a move towards following, a low howl sought her and she turned reluctantly. She couldn’t resist the call- it was K’oughser calling to her, and she knew he needed her at his side to keep him happy. A disgruntled sigh rolled from her chest before she shook herself off and bounded through the trees, confidence warring with recklessness and supressing caution. She slipped, only one paw each time, more than she should have; at least, more than she would if she had used more caution and less haste.

Her nose wrinkled faintly before she leaped to the ground, eyes as innocent as they could be when she encountered the kh’in’sha led by K’oughser.

“The other group caught enough food for us all, how did you do? Hunting rabbits by moonlight surely shouldn’t wor-” Her lip curled in amazement as she spotted the amount of lyk’osk’in that had a rabbit. Almost every single one did, only K’oughser without the burden…but he had a small boar piglet beneath one mighty paw. She huffed softly and shook her head slowly. Why was it that he could hunt properly, but she wasn’t allowed to?

She threw that thought to the back of her mind, shaking herself off slightly before dipping her head respectfully to K’oughser.

“You should return to your mother, show her how well you did hunting tonight. She’ll be more than pleased that you could hunt rabbits in the moonlight…since they are meant to sleep. As we return, tell me how you managed to waken the rabbits from their slumber. I’m interested to know.”

She kept her voice low as she treated him like the better beast he was to the kh’in’sha. He grinned at her, teeth tugging affectionately at her scruff until she snarled at him, one paw swinging at his face before he turned for home with the rest passing them.

“Well, what we did was find their den and each hole that we could…that took some doing, you understand? Rabbits hide themselves within massive communities that we can’t begin to understand. Then three of us dug at the top, wakening the rabbits with howls and crashing paws. They scampered out, straight into the teeth of the others. I know some escaped, but that’s good.”

His head dropped for a second, before he leaped to the trees, his chin tilting as he peered over his shoulder at her, jerking forward as he commanded her silently to leap up with him. She obeyed him as one should their ath’er’in, though she seemed distracted and lost in thought.

“K’oughser…why does your mother hate me so much?” Her voice was timid and thoughtful, the question posed something they’d both thought of over the last few months but never voiced.

“It’s because of how you are with her. You don’t obey her, and she hates that. You should know that she likes her kh’in’sha to obey her as the only ath’er’in. You know what she’s done to those who disobey her. She pushes them out until they disappear, but I recognise their coats. The humans catch them without their kh’in’sha to keep them safe. Promise me you’ll try to fit in more. I don’t want to lose you to her ways…not until it’s time for her to step down. You are the only young lyko’a here who could take over for her. She’ll push you more and harder than anyone else. You’ll need to last her temper, for when she dies, the kh’in’sha will fall to you. She’s already slowing slightly.” His voice was equally soft, an oddly tender note puncturing the words as he tried to give her hope.

His tongue brushed her cheek, his shoulder her body as he leaped for the next branch and waited. It was only the largest trees that could hold their weight, but in a world where light was at a premium and humans weren’t about to cut them down, each tree had enormous branches that could easily take the double weight of the pair of lyk’osk’in, a few years from being fully developed. They had their route now, and without being burdened, caught up to the others as they broached the den.

Six deer were dropped to the ground, skin torn from the journey through tree and across the ground. More than triple the number of rabbits were thrown on top, and the lyk’osk’in sat in a semi-circle, watching for their ath’er’in to tell them when they could feed and on what.

As her bulky frame stepped from the den, she curled her lip at the sight of her son whispering into the ear of Tia’hin. Jealousy, white-hot and painful, pressed at her heart as she growled under her breath. Why couldn’t she have died? She was abnormal. No lyk’osk’in was born with a coat that light- they couldn’t hunt successfully, nor could they find a mate. The thought made her blood boil but she soon shook herself off and then looked at the gathering of food.

“Well done, my kh’in’sha! I’ll take three rabbits and one of the deer, V’leror will bring them to my feeding place.”

Disbelieving looks passed between the lyk’osk’in. How could she eat so much, but look as slender as she did. It annoyed them, but they couldn’t say a thing. Instead their heads shook before the large grey and black-coated lyko leaped from the trees above their head. He landed on the smallest of deer, gripping it by the neck and dragging it much as one of those big cats would have done if they’d survived.

Only once the pair had left did the others feed, most gripping a rabbit between their teeth and taking off to eat in peace. K’oughser grabbed the smallest of deer with a savage roar, threatening all those that came near him-l’er’oma or otherwise. One at a time, they backed down with their heads averted until he pulled his food to Tia’hin and sat guard while she began to feed first of all. It was the action of a lyko to his mate, which the kh’in’sha knew wasn’t so- they wouldn’t be allowed to mate together at their age.

“It’s your turn, K’oughser…you big brute. Stop menacing everyone and eat. I’m going to go and sleep. I didn’t exactly have a lot of rest…and my leg still hurts.” Her complaint was plainly spoken, and he watched as her barely limping body made its way through the feeding kh’in’sha. He loved to watch the way she moved. She was soft on her paws like a cat, but definitely she took after the more light-boned creatures from which they’d come. She was attacked three times just on her way to her normal sleeping space and each time she repelled the attacker before they could leave more than a mark upon her light coat.

Only once she was laying and safe did he begin to eat, his head dipping into the deer she’d only eaten a few token bites from. He frowned a little at the thought, but soon the food began to press insistently on his mind and he fed as voraciously as a starved lyk’osk’in did. His stomach clenched in disagreement, but he ignored it. He needed to feed to grow stronger for his kh’in’sha…and though he did little to believe it, for Tia’hin. He knew fast came the time when he’d have to make a decision as to where his loyalty lay, and with every bite he found himself wavering.

The lyko’a that had given birth to him had once been important to him…she’d kept him alive despite the war with the humans. But Tia’hin knew his heart and everything he believed. She agreed with everything he said, knew what he meant when it came to his plans for a kh’in’sha that would be strong and would once again repel the humans. And yet, deep inside her there was a violence that he couldn’t agree with. She’d run more than once, returning bloodied and exhausted. The beast inside her was rarely sated, rarely left her alone for long. She was always pulled into the hunt once again.

She quivered faintly now as he watched, blood smeared up her nose as the temperature plummeted and dried it. He abandoned his meal to the still starving lyk’osk’in, watching as they dragged the carcass away. She was still alone, and he didn’t like that. This was one time when he’d flout his mother’s rules and sleep out with the others. Tia’hin was his best friend, after all…and if she was cold and worried about something well…he could only be there for her, couldn’t he? She was dozing fitfully when he curved himself around her, but the press of his head to her shoulder seemed to soothe her slightly.

She was soon sleeping soundly, but he used the fact that the others had forgotten about him to see how they acted without an ath’er’in around. The kh’in’sha split into three groups that he could see. One was solely made up of the lyk’osk’in that his mother ruled, the second those that had arrived with Tia’hin. The third were the ones that confused him. They would have been I’an’in if they were just a little faster, a little bigger or a little more dominant. They muttered together, almost ominously as they let their voices mesh together.

He was curious about what they spoke about, but something within him cautioned him not to approach them. He was better in the darkness of the rock, where he realised Tia’hin always sheltered. He pondered that for a moment while he dozed, until sleep claimed him in a comforting blanket of black. He wasn’t alone with her for long, sadly. The other lyk’osk’in around their age- mainly those that had left their birth kh’in’sha’s too young gathered around and curled in against them.

They were like a mini kh’in’sha themselves, bundled together to conserve heat while they slept and not a single grumble awoke them.

As soon as K’oughser awoke, his nose instantly sought her scent…but he found it fading already and tugged out the pile with a snarl. She’d awoken well before him, and taken off once again. He should have noticed how distracted she’d been, how taken with something only she knew she’d been. Even Tia’hin normally ate more than she had, and only now did that really play on his mind. He shook his head before looking about- his mother wasn’t here, but he knew to leave the area again with Tia’hin would get her in more trouble.

A plan sparked in his mind. Maybe he could find his mother, ask her if he could go exploring and then find that irritating, brilliant lyko’a. He thought that thought over for a few moments before shaking his head. Maybe that’d be a good thing with another ath’er’in, but not her. He couldn’t leave to find her, he’d have to wait and make excuses, yet again. Even as he warred with his urge to hunt her down, his protective side reared its smooth head and demanded he keep her safe.

He whined before whirling suddenly. His mother would know what to do. He had to keep that in mind, something niggling at him that said Tia’hin was in trouble. His stomach pulled tight against his ribs and his growl would have awoken the dead. Instead, it seemed to rouse the formerly guarding, now drearily awake V’leror who instantly, more instinctively than anything else, blocked the route where he could smell his mother.

“Let me at her, V’leror. I mean it, I need to talk to her now, not when you judge it the right time.” His voice was so low and menacing that only V’leror’s long time spent protecting the ath’er’in from upstart young lyk’osk’in prevented him from shivering. Instead of speaking, he advanced forwards, his lips curled back from menacing teeth. There wasn’t anything between them normally, no animosity…but now rivalry seemed to spark to life like a wildfire.

Their battle was short, but savage. Blood was caught on their coats, fur between their teeth and hatred burned red-hot. V’leror had only just beaten down the beast, and even then it had been a struggle. He had been bitten, numerous times across the muzzle and chest, his ear ripped at…and it had dawned on him suddenly that he wasn’t as young as he once was. K’oughser was panting beneath his bulk, stirring him restlessly with each wild inhalation. His blood was spilled in equal quantity, his scruff torn, as was his cheek.

Ny’theri appeared at just the right time, peering between the two with what could only be seen as an amused look in her eyes.

“Now now, lads. Don’t go fighting, you should know better.” Her voice was merry, at odds with the cold way in which she’d spoken last night. The pair of lyko split apart in an instant, their ears folding back faintly before K’oughser spoke.

“He wouldn’t let me come to you, mother. Tia’hin is missing and I want to look for her. Can I go?” The warmth in her seemed to dissipate in an icy blast as the name of her hated rival left the lips of her son once again.

She stepped closer, lowering her voice slightly before snarling at him.

“No you may not! She can go forever, as far as I’m concerned. She’ll be no ath’er’in here, much as you seem to encourage her. She’ll be nothing! She couldn’t even hunt a rabbit as you, my dear son, can. You’ve seen how useless she is, and no ath’er’in that can’t hunt is welcome even in a kh’in’sha.” He recoiled from her venomous words before pushing forwards, young and brash.

“I don’t agree, mother! She’s the best in the trees, the fastest runner. You have something against her and I don’t like it. If you turn her from the kh’in’sha, you lose me as well.” He dropped his voice again, narrowing his eyes before turning away from her. His parting words were shot over his bleeding shoulder, his lip a harsh curl. “And don’t worry, mother. I’ll make sure you don’t lose me yet. I’m going to the river, like a good little pup.” His biting words of sarcasm hit home just as he vanished between the trees and Ny’theri sat down hard.

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