Torn Loyalties

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Chapter 3

Tia’hin had left as the sun was rising and warming the ground. She’d barely slept, despite the comfort of K’oughser and the other lyk’osk’in that had joined them. Now tiredness pulled at her muscles, and she was careful in the trees. She didn’t need to fall now; she’d be injured and that could be a deadly mistake. Without the other lyk’osk’in, she’d starve to death or become prey for the lum’ar’ine she now had more respect for…but that was no way for her to go. She shook her head a second before leaping to the ground lightly. Tia’hin was more intelligent than most gave her credit for- she’d left through the river and travelled through the lowest boughs of the trees rather than the higher, and also on the ground.

She was heading to the human inhabitation, drawn there by something inside her veins. There had to be something that could be used against them. They were clearer enough now to know that. Humans had their weapons, and though the lyk’osk’in had their teeth and claws, sometimes they just weren’t enough. She shook her head once she smelt the humans. They smelled wrong to her. There was nothing of the forest about them, though an interesting scent clung to one of the beasts they had leading them. She was more than twice the size of the smallest one, and it was that one that she kept her eyes on.

With a coat not entirely unlike her own in terms of thickness, the eyes were dull and the coat almost boring. It was black, with the faintest of white markings on the face but the scent told her everything. It, or he, didn’t want to be there…and she saw something she could use. A low cry broke from her throat, and though the humans turned the wrong way, each of those lyk’osk’in-like creatures turned her way.

Three reacted to her with snarls and growls that had her being threatened, but the fourth merely wagged his tail back and forth, tugging against the human’s grip on him. She took to the trees, scaling the branches about the dog and then keeping pace as they moved. Humans were so deaf! She took delight in stalking them. She was safe on the branches, but they were not…and she was tempted beyond all recognition to attack. Her coat, all three layers of it, bristled slowly and she quivered, pausing before her jump and…doubting herself.

That doubt led to her falling with a muffled yelp, her head shaking slightly before she realised all four creatures and the humans were staring at her in a mixture of shock, fear and aggression. As she lifted herself up to her feet, as slow as she was able to, a tension rose between them. Her green eyes dulled slightly as she narrowed them. The humans were vulnerable, and it would be so easy for her to do as they did. She could slaughter them and their canine slaves, leave them in view so they became scared.

The humans scattered before she could move, releasing the animals that came towards Tia’hin with deadly intent. She didn’t stop or hesitate. Her greater bulk had her ripping into the throat of one, pausing for a second as the spurts of blood painted her face a grotesque mask of red. Teeth slashing through her fur, meeting skin had her spinning. Two were attacking her at once, their frenzied attack causing her to fall on the still quivering but dead form of their kh’in’sha mate.

She rose up with a roar; blood matting her coat and her teeth now locked around the face of another canine. She bit down as the other worried at her back-leg, but she didn’t stop until bones crunched beneath her teeth and that scrambling, struggling body fell limp. It was then she turned towards the one marked liberally with her own blood- but the startled, fearful face of the smallest canine caught her. Even before she lunged forward, she was checking the move.

Yelps rang out as the final attacking beast bolted; leaving her with the two bodies and the tense, trembling frame of the canine she’d not even attacked. Stepping forward, she watched as he quivered slowly and at her cautious touch, broke into more intense trembles.

“Stop it, are you lyko or rabbit?!” She watched in astonishment as her irritated words seemed to spark a light in those brown eyes and his head lifted.

“W-what did you c-call me? Ly-lyko?” The hesitance in which he spoke was endearing, even though his eyes were carefully kept averted from her bloodied fur. She bent awkwardly to lick the wounds on her back-leg, tongue soothing the punctures before she answered him coolly, her tail wagging slowly.

“Lyko- a male of your species. Whatever you happen to be. You should be strong and brave, not hiding like a rabbit in its burrow…or are you waiting for the murdering scum to return and rescue you?”

She hated the way she spoke to him, but she wasn’t just remembering the excitement that had shone in his eyes…she remembered the pelts outside their home. He must have hunted her kind at one point or another, and that was something she’d never forgive any beast for.

“Lyko? I’m male. And I hid like that so you wouldn’t hurt me, the way you did Jaffe and Babbit. They were protecting the humans, letting them run as they should. M-my name is Rap. W-what’s yours?” His voice was almost like that of the I’ee’di…those at the bottom of the kh’in’sha and she rolled her eyes.

“Tia’hin. That’s tee-a-hee-n.” She sounded her name out, congratulating herself inside for being so thoughtful and nodded her head.

“Tia’hin. That’s an odd name!” He seemed to forget that she’d been a harbinger of death until he lifted his head and spotted the mauled carcasses. “Erm…Tia’hin…you’d better leave. The humans will be back and you’ll join the others on the wall…I don’t think you want that. M-my master. He likes to he-hear animals sh-sh-shriek before they die.” His muttered, ashamed confession warmed her to him as she lifted her head and inhaled.

“Then come with me. He’ll make you shriek as well, surely? If you didn’t protect him?” The thought clearly hadn’t appeared to Rap. His ears fell back and he whined shrilly before she growled. At that sound, he cringed again, more cowardly than any i’ee’di would be normally. She shook her muzzle for a second before she gripped his scruff and dragged him- much as a mother would an oversized pup.

Thankfully, when she finally got him moving, he ran at her side. She was cautious. She didn’t lead him to the dens but instead headed towards her old territory. She knew the way without trying and she’d made sure that the den there hadn’t been taken over by any of the smaller predators. Rap would be safe there; she’d stake her life on it. For the first time, she felt as though she were important again. That was her home, more so than the kh’in’sha with K’oughser and Ny’theri.

At the thought of the large grey lyk’osk’in, her heart tugged hard and she stumbled. Her hind-leg collapsed beneath her and she almost shrieked with the pain. Standing was an effort, not helped by the fact that Rap was everywhere. His anxiety as he fled had been clear, and slightly amusing to her, but now he was irritating. His nose at one point was below her stomach, but he wasn’t strong enough to lift her up.

She got up with a grunt and a growl, unable to put weight on the leg she’d strained and then had savaged. Their haste was slowed to a walk, where she lurched and Rap was forced to put his shoulder against her to keep her from crumbling entirely to the ground and giving up.

By the time they’d reached that abandoned territory, she was quivering and yelping with pain. Thankfully, no enemy ears were about to hear her, though she cringed at the thought of being so weak. She was meant to be strong, an ath’er’in. As soon as she reached the den she’d spent the first year of her life in, she did collapse. She crunched to the floor with a thump that made Rap flinch, but his tongue soon soothed the wounds bleeding openly once again. She flicked her ears back as he tended to her…he seemed to have grown in confidence already and that thought was…well…intriguing.

She sighed as he continued to soothe her, her head resting on her crossed paws as he joined her, blood from her leg smothering the white of his muzzle.

“So…what ARE you, Rap? You didn’t tell me, but you clearly know what I am.” Her voice was almost indistinct. She knew she made barely any sense, but that didn’t bother her too much- she needed to know what he was and she’d be happy again…especially since she’d brought him to this spot where her life had crashed around her.

“I’m a dog! I’m one of the…only beasts that the humans keep at their sides without killing. Babbit and Jaffe were among the best of us…and that’s not saying a lot. We’re not as inspiring as you creatures. You’ve managed to destroy everything that we had set up…but at the same time you’ve helped me escape them.” He was confusing as he spoke, Tia’hin’s head shaking back and forth before she dropped it on her paws with a grunt.

“Wake me when the sun has travelled a bit in the sky. I need to sleep then get back home before I’m noticed to be missing.” And before someone comes after me, finds you and kills you. That bit she added inside, but with her eyes narrowed to slits, she watched the bone-creaking yawn that crossed his maw before he flopped against her and snuggled into her side.

Though she wanted to growl, she was both amused and impressed by the confidence that the dog showed in trusting her. The warmth of the dog at her side only served to help her as she relaxed. Her tail curled around her hind-paws and she dreamed of what could have happened had she actually attacked the humans. She wrinkled her nose briefly before falling into the gentle safety of sleep.

Her body, when an insistent nose pushed at her chest, complained. She followed up her complaint with a growl and a warning snap, almost connecting with flesh before she shook her head and opened her eyes to spot the white-flecked face of Rap peering at her nervously.

“Y-ou said to wake you up, Tia’hin. I did as you told me.” The confidence he’d shown seemed to have dissipated during the brief nap she’d had, but she shrugged.

“Thanks. You best stay here. I’m sure you know how to hunt…I’ll come by as soon as I’ve shown my face to the pack and apologised for disappearing. I’ll blame these wounds on the lum’ar’ine.” She turned without waiting his answer, springing into the trees the second she could. The movements reopened her wounds, but she bolted through the trees with an ease that almost buoyed her like a bird. She felt as though she flew- her paws barely touched bark before she was taking off once again and pushing herself through the trees. Her tail provided the necessary balance on occasion, keeping her on the right path.

K’oughser took her to the ground before she was even near the dens. His teeth had lodged in her scruff as he dropped past her, and she was yanked after him with a rather shrill shriek of annoyance.

“Injured again, Tia’hin? Can you not stay out of trouble? Do you want mother to have an excuse to get rid of you entirely?” He looked almost as bad as she did, blood encrusting his fur as she sniffed lightly around him.

“You have a gall, K’oughser. You are questioning me? I was off making sure that when I leave here, I have somewhere to go. I want to make sure I’m safe, which is more than you can do for me!”

The sharp edge of her voice made him rear back. She was exhausted, torn and tattered and beyond irritable. No longer strong enough to make the immense leap to the trees, nor pushed up by the excitement of having a dog where she’d grown up, Tia’hin travelled onwards alone.

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