Torn Loyalties

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Chapter 6

Tia’hin, along with everyone else in the kh’in’sha had heard the argument. Seeing as the fact that she was the subject of it again, she hid in the shadows beside the rock. Her stomach churned uncomfortably, the rabbit stirring about as she fought back heaving. Maybe she should just…leave them all? Stay on her own with Rap until the other kh’in’sha’s sent out their young and she could gather her own one together. That thought strengthened her inside. She knew that if she called, some of those that she’d brought her would return with her, taking back their territory with ease.

She flicked her ears for a moment, forgetting her wounds and trying to stand. All of a sudden, her body collapsed, crumpling to the ground as she whimpered, her ears flicking back briefly. Pain flickered, white-hot across her body and her eyes closed as she inhaled. She shivered, able to feel her back twitching before she met the eyes of Eld-pol. The wise l’er’oma nodded her head, watching as she gathered her strength and stood finally.

Though pain continued to wash over her in waves, she stepped. One paw in front of the other, she moved. Every step at first almost sent her crashing to the ground, but in time she settled. How she’d climbed the trees and run, she didn’t know. She had a newfound respect for Rap. If he had lived with the beasts that had caused her to feel like this, then he must be stronger and braver than he looked. Her tail curled over her back as movement became easier and she slunk through the others as easily as she could.

They gave way before her, but she wasn’t to leave unmolested. A thud ahead of her made her head lift and her lips curl back from her teeth. The muscles in her cheek clenched as she forced down the growl that rumbled when she saw Ny’theri watching her.

“You aren’t leaving us so soon, are you?” The words were purred maliciously at her and once again her hackles lifted and the growl…well this time she didn’t bother to bite it back. She was furious, and it showed in the way her body rumbled with the sound.

This was the first time she’d directly challenged Ny’theri, and it showed in the way she stepped back. The second time, that day. It was a shock to her system and she reacted with violence. Tia’hin snarled, pressing forwards when before she may have stepped back. She needed to press her case and it showed as Ny’theri’s head flicked backwards before sitting down. There wasn’t much of a reason for it, but it showed for the kh’in’sha. They were shocked to see their ath’er’in back down to a lyko’a as young as Tia’hin was.

She felt it- felt the heat of their eyes upon her and her ears perked. Even when injured, she felt stronger for that sign of weakness.

“I’m not leaving, Ny’theri, oh wise ath’er’in. You are, after all, the best of us all, aren’t you?” Her head tilted to the side as her sardonic words sprinkled through the air. “I was just going for a wander. If you can’t tell, I got a little bashed up last night and sleeping has made me stiffen up. I just want my muscles soft so I can walk properly. Am I allowed to leave?” She couldn’t fight the sarcasm, her words bitten off as she explained.

Before Ny’theri could answer, Tia’hin pushed pass her and disappeared into the trees. Every leap was painful and hesitant, only her claws keeping her clinging to the branches as she gathered herself up for yet another leap. She needed to check on Rap, no matter how injured she was herself. Suddenly realising that the dog could be hungry, she shook her muzzle and sighed a little. Maybe a rabbit would tide him over for now…

She landed with barely a thump, back almost as flexible as the lum’ar’ine that had caught her attention and allowed her so close before. She shook her head once down, wincing faintly before lifting her head and inhaling. Rabbits were best hunted in pairs on the ground, but she was alone. There had to be a way in which she could hunt…but her mind was blank. The first she knew that she wasn’t alone was the sudden waft of lyk’osk’in scent- forest and musk. The second breath inwards warned her that this was a lyko’a, and not one she knew.

Spinning with a snarl, she crouched lower despite the pain in her joints and uttered a faint threat into the air between them. As soon as the sound left her lips, she stopped. This was no strong lyko’a, ready or willing to take her on. This was a young creature, so skinny as to have all her bones showing. She whined, cringing closer to the ground and flattening her ears submissively. Her voice was a hoarse mesh, burning into the air as she hacked up bloody phlegm.

“I apologise, ath’er’in. I didn’t mean to intrude. I’m just…I’m so thirsty. And hungry. Can you help me? Please?” The pleading was what caught her heart first, but it was the title bestowed upon her that gave her heard a song.

“You don’t need to ask my help. If you help me hunting, then I shall show you somewhere safe. You’ll have to promise to be civil to my friend there, however. If you don’t, then I won’t hesitate in tearing your throat from your body. You are injured, and no threat for anyone. You’ll be safe where I take you.” The way her eyes filled with emotion told Tia’hin all she needed to know. She was clinging against her side in an instant, her head drooping down as limp as her patchy dark-grey coat.

“What’s your name, ath’er’in? I’m Itsy’ia.” She had an unusual name, but it was fitting oddly. She’d surely be a beauty as soon as she was fed up and strong again. “And I promise not to hurt your friend.” That promise had her tail wagging faintly, before she turned her head to lick at the larger lyko’a’s nose.

“My name is Tia’hin. And I’m no ath’er’in. Believe me, I’m no ath’er’in yet. I’m too young. I’m not even fully grown yet.” She stretched her head out and then flattened her ears briefly, inhaling with gusto before freezing. There were rabbits here. That much was obvious.

“Shh now Itsy’ia. Hunt from the ground with me and prove your worth.” The command slipped easily from her lips, taking charge seeming to come natural to her as she shook herself off before slinking into the bushes. Her nose flared and she heard the yelping cry that sent the rabbits into a frenzied rush.

Tia’hin was swift. Her paws and teeth dealt death about her, savage but quick. She flopped with a grin when there were rabbits enough for the three of them to feed.

“Itsy’ia, can you still climb the trees with a maw of rabbits?” She waited for the decisive nod before grabbing as many as she could grab, not caring how her teeth damaged them as long as they were secured in her mouth. The jerk of her head was meant to tell the lyko’a to follow her, and it seemed to as when she leaped into the trees, the other followed.

She stretched as she ran, fleet through the trees as she hastened towards that territory she was slowly determined to make her own once again. Itsy’ia was slower, but followed her scent clearly. Tia’hin dropped in front of the den easily, dropping the rabbits and lifting her hackles as the scent of human and blood spilled across her lungs. Death had come here, and she could only hope that Rap hadn’t been the one to lose his life. Itsy’ia plunged to the ground beside her, looking about naively.

“Where is your friend? Shouldn’t here be here to greet his ath’er’in?”

The words rumbled her ears and her head shook briefly before she sighed. A low yip called out as she looked about carefully, and the black and white bundled dog hit her side on. His yelps cheered her, his tail wagging made her woof her laughter and the pair cavorted for a second until the low rumble of a warning etched the air between them. Itsy’ia was crouched low in defence, her tired amber eyes flicking back and forth warily.

“Ath’er’in, why treat this human slave with such affection? Surely he is the reason your friend isn’t here?”

Tia’hin rolled her eyes and shook her head once again, growling faintly.

“He is my friend. My friend, who left the humans to run WITH us just like creatures of old. We can’t turn him away because he looks and smells different to us both now, can we? We would be murderers as they are, should that happen. Now take yourself some rabbits and eat. You need to feed yourself up properly. Hunger will keep you warm unless you feed properly.”

Her words were met with faint suspicion and dawning trust, though she turned to Rap and nudged him roughly in the side.

“You too. Go eat, little dog then tell me exactly what happened here. I smell blood and death…and humans. I want to know how they knew to come here.” Her voice was soft as she spoke to him, her brief affection for the dog growing as she broke her ties with the kh’in’sha she’d used to be raised for so long. She sneezed a little at the dry dust before lifting her head and sighing. “I wish the rains would come. The ground is too dry here and the grass seems to refuse to grow, as though it mourns the deaths of those that came before me.”

Though she spoke to herself and the air around her, the lyko’a and the dog lifted their heads and watched her, curiosity brimming in their eyes before they straightened their gaze upon the rabbits. They feasted until their stomachs complained and refused to hold any more. When they stood, they headed for the lone lyko’a, head lifted as though looking to the sky for inspiration or guidance.

“So you both know. I’m not a leader, nor should I be a leader. That you both look towards me as the ath’er’in is troubling. I’m young, too young to build a kh’in’sha that is strong. We will have one aim. We will bring down the humans. Rap, I expect you to do the same. We’ll only take those in that want to be part of this. Any…dogs that want to, can join us. We’ll accept all canines. Lyk’osk’in may be strong for what we can do in the trees, but all know the humans and their ways. You will be helpful.” She spoke before they could, whirling like a twister of silken silver fur to face them both.

“If I am to lead you, you will honour my every command. When I tell you not to attack, you will not attack. You will work together as though our kind were born to do so. If I make myself clear, you can both speak. Itsy’ia, you speak first. You have less to inform me, I’m sure.” She was keeping control somehow, though it was possibly just by the skin of her teeth.

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