Torn Loyalties

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Chapter 8

K’oughser watched her from in the bushes. She must have been exhausted if she’d not noticed him drying off in the shadows…but when she’d flopped herself in a patch of sun and slept…well all he could do was guard her from afar. She may not like him much at the moment, but he’d rather she not like him if he could keep her safe. His lips curled back at the thought of their friendship ending over something so silly. Maybe this was just a…tree-root in the way of their friendship?

He kept that thought in mind as he watched her. Even when the wavering cry of their kh’in’sha came, loud enough to make him start, her even breathing didn’t change. Worry began to flare across his veins, sparking in his coat and making it bristle before he stepped loose of the bushes. The shadows were long now, and his nose pressed against her cool shoulder experimentally. As soon as she turned with a snarl, he’d taken a leap backwards that would have been astounding had he not stumbled.

“K’oughser?! What are you doing here…wh-why did you wake me? I was sleeping…I’m so tired.” Her voice was so sleepy that his heartstrings were tugged like a deer-skin between the teeth of two pups. He whined softly, stepping closer and nudging into her shoulder before humming a soothing tune. The howl that rose again became insistent, seeming to move closer towards the pair so they sprang up and apart. Tia’hin almost sprinted to the water, gulping down as much of it as she could before leaping the water. She disappeared into the trees and K’oughser watched before turning himself and trotting towards his nearing mother. His tail flicked back and forth before his head rose on an arch and his lips curled faintly.

“Mother. You called me?” He kept his voice almost dominant, his tone cold as he met the eyes of his mother, head tipping faintly to the side with his question.

“Yes. We need to look for Tia’hin. With how injured she was, Eld’pol brought her anxiety to me and I decided we’d find her out. We need to make sure she’s okay.” The false sympathy in her voice had his hackles lifting imperceptibly. As he opened his muzzle to answer her, the white coated lyko’a leaped to the ground in front of her, head dipping in supplication and ears back.

“Forgive me ath’er’in. After my run earlier, I fell asleep. Sleep and the occasional movement is the best for healing, I believe?” With her question, she lifted her head and turned it from side to side, looking between Ny’theri, Eld’pol, V’leror and K’oughser. “I’d like to apologise formally. I don’t mean to antagonise you, ath’er’in, though I know I often do. It’s wrong of me, I know.” She kept her voice humble as her head dropped faintly before looking up through her eyelashes at the gathered lyk’osk’in.

K’oughser stifled his growl of amusement. He knew just what she was doing. By making a public apology, she was forcing his mother to accept it. His tail wagged before he looked at Ny’theri, tilting his head to the side as she stared at the clearly smirking lyko’a.

“I accept, Tia’hin. No more will you suffer to be treated as you have been. You are banished, for forgetting whose kh’in’sha you belong in. You may not step foot in this territory for a year. If you do, then anyone following you will be torn apart in front of your arms and you will be torn to shreds only when their last cry is left to resound into the air.”

K’oughser watched as Tia’hin stepped back in astonishment. Just as he’d thought she’d finally got the drop on the ath’er’in, she had to prove him wrong. Her ears fell in front of him and she whimpered, entreating eyes catching onto Eld’pol’s wise eyes before catching the amusement in V’leror’s. He stepped forwards before she threw herself at the l’er’oma.

“I’ll escort her out, mother. Make sure she doesn’t get into any trouble, you know.” He kept his voice as emotionless as possible, even when he felt betrayed eyes meet his own. Her nod was all her needed before he herded her around and with a gentle nip, launched her into the trees.

He followed, flinching at the thought of her words when they were finally out of hearing of the kh’in’sha. He was leaping two branches behind him, her hurt and anger seeming to lend her speed and strength that he just wasn’t able to access…but her scent was locked in his nose and unforgettable. She was ahead of him still when she slowed and plunged downwards recklessly. Without pausing, the lyko followed after her, heading to the ground easily before stepping and stilling his body. She was flat on the ground, her ears to the ground and…submitting to him. He couldn’t accept her submission; it made him feel sick to the stomach seeing such a proud lyko’a driven to such depths.

“Stand up, Tia’hin. She’ll have lost herself favour with that stunt. You were apologising and she threw you from the kh’in’sha. She’s unreasonable, and they know it. You heard her, one year and you can come back. A year and you can be back…with me.” He hesitated before making that thought known, a mental shrug all that he could force out at the thought. “Stand up, my ath’er’in.” His words seemed to have some reaction with whatever in her was still listening. She lifted her head first, opening her eyes to look at him before her body rolled, agile as a lum’ar’ine onto her belly.

From there, she met his gaze, somewhat cooler than she’d ever looked at him in the past.

“K’oughser. My friend, longest and most loyal friend…I’m already an ath’er’in. Come with me, join my kh’in’sha and get our revenge! We can wipe that human village out…do what the other lyk’osk’in failed to do. I have a way to find out everything about them, and it won’t ever hurt us. Rap will help!” She let slip a name he didn’t understand, but just her ideas had him frowning slightly before growling.

“Wipe out the humans and more will come. Have you not worked that out? They are like fleas. You think you’ve killed off every egg by rolling in deer dung, but one always survives to lay more eggs. We aren’t strong enough…all we can do is work out a way to make a pact with them…to live where we can and hunt as we do now. We may need to move our territory further into the mountains, but that’s our land, anyway. We’re safe there…aren’t we?”

Her snort hurt him. His ears flattened faintly before her growling laughter burned his ears.

“You are that naïve? They will take us all. Haven’t you heard what they do to us? What they did to creatures before the winter took over? We were all almost wiped out. Nearly made extinct, because humans decided that we weren’t under their control and they didn’t like it. We can’t leave like that…no beast can.” Her words made his head shake as he denied everything she said.

“That’s not true, we are, after all, meant to be ruling the forest. There’s not much that we can do to stop them.” He tried to talk sense into her, but pride and dark thoughts of revenge were clearly latched onto her.

“We kill them, they kill us. It’s a vicious, horrible circle, isn’t it? We don’t end up surviving, except as dogs, pets at their feet! I know what dogs are like…I know a dog. Dogs aren’t fun to be around. They can’t hunt as we do. They can’t fight as we do…they can’t even take to the trees. We have all the advantages. Advantages we need to use, each time.”

Her words made him freeze. She knew a dog? One of the things that may have once been kin to them…and now was nothing more than a faint cousin. She snorted at the look of shock on his face, curling her lips up as she stepped closer.

“If you can’t agree with what I think, then run back to mother, K’oughser. Run back to mother and think about what I said…remember the way they killed your father and remember that I will be the one to wipe that village out.” Her voice remained hard as she spoke, her head lowered before she turned and leaped into the trees. She was free from him, he from her…but pain burned through his veins.

How could he have judged her so wrongly? Yes, he hated what his mother did and how she did it, but that was exactly why death wasn’t the answer. His ears fell to his head as he turned, stepping through the trees on the ground. He was too depressed to take to the trees, but the insistent cries of his kh’in’sha soon pulled him closer. As soon as he stepped foot into the clearing, his head turned faintly and his nostrils flared faintly.

Was that…blood? The copper-scent was betraying and he plunged through the ringed kh’in’sha. Roaring encouragement at the battling lyko’a, they didn’t bother to look at him…but he was torn between rage and shock. His mother and Eld’pol were fighting, blood splattering both their bodies. Eld’pol was the elder, more experienced lyko’a but his mother was strong and lean. Youth was triumphing over age as he watched, his ears falling as he noticed the pools of blood below the l’er’oma.

A triumphant roar rang out as his mother tugged at her throat, overturning her as she tore a hole in the elder lyko’a’s throat. She collapsed and he darted to her side, whining anxiously before nosing her fast-breathing body.

“K’oug-hser. She’s challenged…me. I-I lost. S-sorry. I just…wanted to see…” Her voice drifted off as she spoke, becoming softer the longer he listened to her.

“Wanted to see what? Eld’pol?” His nose pressed her shoulder before he recoiled. She’d gone before revealing her secret, and he spun to confront his mother…only to spot her tail vanishing up that long, low path behind her den and V’leror settling into place, guarding it once again.

He shook with anger, turning and pushing through the kh’in’sha to Tia’hin’s old sleeping space. It was there he balled himself up, able to catch both her scent and Eld’pol’s fleeting scent. He’d never know now what she meant…but he wanted to talk to his mother. Maybe she’d pull back this banishment now she was a lyko’a down…

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