Torn Loyalties

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Chapter 5

K’oughser watched as Tia’hin slept alone. He wanted nothing more than to ask her where those wounds had occurred, but he knew she’d rip a strip from his pelt if he woke her. The blood coating her was almost frightening, and he wasn’t the only one to think so. He could see the worried glances of the others in the kh’in’sha and in a way, that frightened him even more. Normally it was only he who saw her vulnerable; this at risk. His mother and V’leror had yet to appear and for that he was thankful. She’d be at risk if they showed up and he knew it.

Eld’pol, V’leror’s own mate and fellow l’er’oma slipped close to K’oughser and paused as her eyes locked onto the battered lyko’a. Wincing in sympathy, she shook her head before stepping close. She couldn’t resist the maternal urge that pulled her to the orphan’s side. Her tongue lightly swept across the wounds and from where he stood, he could see Tia’hin’s eyes open. She flinched once, and that was only when the tongue of the female swept deep into a cut.

He didn’t wander nearer; the emotional words from her tongue-lashing were still too prevalent. He shook his head briefly before yawning himself. Maybe now he’d be able to rest himself, though soon his tail twitched and he lifted his head. As though alerted to the appearance of Ny’theri, Eld’pol covered Tia’hin with her body, settling down as though for sleep. Though the thought that he wasn’t the only one to want to protect her eased him a little, the triumph in his mother’s eyes burned him. She was meant to protect all in the kh’in’sha and for better or worse, that included Tia’hin.

He curled his head away from her knowing glance, tucking his paw underneath his chin only to settle there. The others soon joined him, bundling about him and warming him up. A careful eye upon his mother, now unseen from the heap of lyk’osk’in upon the ground showed that she was gone again, disappearing not into her den as he expected, but along the pathway that headed deep into the territory he just knew they weren’t allowed to travel.

That bothered him almost as much as the secrets Tia’hin had to be hiding. The wounds on her back came from no lyk’osk’in- she’d have been rent about the face or dead, should that have happened. Neither could it have been a lum’ar’ine; they possessed long, slender claws that could tear the flesh but left thin lines. He could tell from where he lay that, when Eld’pol began to lick once again, cleaning away the last of the blood, the marks were made by smaller, blunter teeth than their own.

The warmth of his own ‘friends’ pulled him into a doze, but this one he kept on top of, vowing to himself that he wouldn’t let Tia’hin escape again. She was his best friend and the reason that he had for still being here- he may have been the same age as her, but that didn’t mean a single thing. It wouldn’t have stopped him leaving his kh’in’sha and founding another. He had the making of an ath’er’in and he knew it already. He was already leading the hunting kh’in’sha, and that was something most of his age didn’t get to do. He sneezed briefly before settling back down, the comforting murmur of voices soothing his worries.

Eld’pol was a steadfast l’er’oma, one that knew everything at the glance of wizened eyes. She’d keep Tia’hin safe from his mother as long as she was able to, but he knew that a direct order meant that she’d have to step aside. That thought more than anything let him sleep. He’d hear the ruckus that would mean a challenge had been called and he’d waken, in time to stop everything from getting out of paw.

Sleep was a sanctuary to him. He had the reassurance that Eld’pol wouldn’t let Tia’hin go before she was recovered enough and that was enough to make him sleep at peace. His breathing was slow and even, though one by one the lyko and lyko’a around him shifted away, sprawling at will wherever they fell for the second time. He shivered for a time, but soon adjusted to the fact that he was sleeping alone. His nose wrinkled once, baring considerable fangs to no one before sleep took him entirely.

When he woke again, his eyes went straight to Tia’hin, sleeping alone now. Her wounds looked much tidier this morning, and that pleased him. In a gesture of friendliness and a light apology for the way he’d treated her, K’oughser grabbed the last rabbit left uneaten and dropped it in front of her nose where she’d see it as soon as she opened her eyes. He didn’t try to wake her up; she was an utter beast whenever that happened. Eld’pol bumped into him, making him spin with a faint growl before realising who it was.

“Thank you for looking after her, Eld’pol. She’s my friend, even when she’s acting like a fool.” His voice was kept low as he smiled faintly at her, his tail waving faintly behind him like a banner.

“Well watch her. I don’t know what attacked her, but she won. She’d not be here otherwise. She fought more than one attacker; I got her to admit to that.” Her voice was soft, offering the information freely. He growled his sigh and shook his head, his head dropping slightly.

“She won’t talk to me. I don’t even know where she goes; unless I’m with her, of course. I like to be with her as much as I can. I can keep her out of trouble and away from my mother. She may not care if she ends up hurt or not, but I do. I can’t let my best friend die because my mother can’t stand her, can I?” His last few words begged an answer of the older lyko’a, he knew they did…but he couldn’t help. He needed her wisdom when no one else would help him…when there was no one else to ask.

He sighed softly when she didn’t reply, her eyes warm before she nudged his cheek gently and huffed.

“Just watch your mother and V’leror. Whatever they do isn’t necessary for the good of the kh’in’sha. They do things their own way for a reason, though that that is they don’t want to share.” She spoke over the others stirring, keeping her voice low even as she made to move past him. “Why V’leror isn’t her ath’er’in, I don’t know. We may bond for life, but there’s nothing left for us since K’lyedan died.”

K’oughser flinched a little. Just the mention of his father’s name was enough to send a lightning strike of pain through his chest. Just the memory of that death, the way he’d gone so suddenly, was horrible. The nightmares occasionally racked him of an evening. Humans had killed him, using a pit dug in the ground that had been lined with sharpened branches. Even the punctures through his body hadn’t killed him. His roar of pain had been loud enough to startle the birds from the trees.

They’d come then, ignorant of the quivering lyko pup in the trees. He’d watched them as they’d hacked at his proud father…tearing his coat from his living body. He’d been stunned into stillness by a blow to the head; but they were watched by just the single lyk’osk’in. His entire being had been reshaped and moulded into a less forgiving beast that day, burning inside him so much that when he’d met Tia’hin, something inside her spoke to him.

She’d calmed him, as though the mere waft of her scent was enough to calm him again. His tail twitched faintly as he lifted his head, suddenly aware that Eld’pol had spoken to him during his wool-gathering.

“I’m sorry, l’er’oma. Can you repeat your question?” He kept his tone respect, aware of eyes upon his back and the way that Eld’pol lifted herself into an altogether more dominant pose.

“I told you that your mother would wish to see you as soon as you have woken. She needs to talk about what you did to V’leror. Since you are awake, you had better disappear that way now.”

Her voice was crisp. The kindness seemed to have been shut out but her eyes betrayed her. He nodded his head, lower than a normal gesture of respect before turning and heading towards his mother’s den. No more words were needed when his path sent him past the now feeding Tia’hin. He relaxed a little, the tension in his shoulders easing as he waited by the entrance where he always believed his mother to sleep.

Of course, this being a day when he was distracted, that meant she popped up beside him, her eyes brightened in amusement. His snarl of warning hadn’t gone down well, he could see by the way her cheek brushed his own but her eyes remained hooded as though threatening him.

“My son…you looked so serious out there. What were you thinking about?” Her words felt oily on his newly bruised heart. It took a moment for him to realise what was meant, but when he did, he jumped back and shook his head.

“Dad. I was thinking about dad. There’s no one else I can think of, is there? I’m not allowed near Tia’hin and the others aren’t good enough for me.” He couldn’t help speaking his mind. He wanted to be allowed to do as he wanted, just as any creature such as he would. That his mother would still dictate to him now what was happening in his life was almost unbearable- like the winter shed happening ten times over at once. His head dipped for a moment, before lifting again. His voice rang out once again, and this time he didn’t care what she thought or did to him. “If you want me to remain part of the kh’in’sha, then you will let me free. Let me make my own choices, mother. I don’t want to end up like father, dying at the hands of the humans.”

His words seemed to strike home with all the subtlety of a snapping branch. She stepped back, peering at him with narrowed eyes as her chest rumbled in a threatening growl.

“Don’t. You. DARE. How dare you speak of him? You aren’t even a quarter of the lyk’osk’in that he was, nor could you ever be. I keep you here to keep you safe, you foolish pup! You are no lyko! You are better suited as a pup, hiding behind the nursing-lyko’a’s legs and staying there. Life will linger longer for you if you remain here, under my rule. Tia’hin…she’ll lead you to your death. Just as your father died, so would you. I will not stand to watch a pup of mine die! That is entirely wrong! You should respect me. I birthed you, I fed you. I kept you warm!”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t have bothered!” His reply to her was biting. There was no other description for it, but it hurt her. That was all too clear. Her eyes were widened and her ears flattened back against her head before she shook her muzzle.

“And that was why I didn’t want you hanging about with…her. You’d never have said that when you didn’t know her. You are turning against me, which means you turn against the kh’in’sha. That’s not something you should do. You know what we do to traitors. You’ve helped, remember?”

She didn’t mean to hurt him, he was sure of it. There was just…no motherly spark in her eyes. They were dead. Gold and bright, but still dead. That she didn’t care enough about him as her pup spoke volumes and he turned with disgust, his lip curling faintly.

“Don’t worry…mother. I won’t be leaving yet. I know it’s not quite time. And besides, if you drive Tia’hin away or kill her, I’ll never forgive you and then you lose me entirely. If that’s what you want, then carry on. Keep being this…lyko’a not that no one wants to be with. You don’t even hunt with us anymore. Only V’leror can keep your tyrant side under wraps, can’t he?”

The sneer in his voice was obvious before he leaped into the trees, pulling himself up and then fleeing. He was heartbroken, deep inside. There’d been doubt before, that his mother may have cared…but now she’d proven otherwise and that knowledge joined everything else burning inside him, raging into a tight ball in his ribs.

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