Griff was the first to wake, a week after the horrific fight between he and Lily. His sapphire eyes fluttered open. He cried out as he tried to right himself. Kona jumped up, “Shhhh. Stay still!” Silak heard the commotion and woke. She hugged Griff tightly, running her fingers through his mane. It was still stiff with blood, but she didn’t care.
A few hours later, Griff got to his feet. It was agony, but he managed to walk to the pump well outside the barn and Silak scrubbed the blood from his body. He limped back to the barn, leaning heavily on Kona. They padded by Lily’s stall. The sphinx’s ribs barely moved with each breath. Griff stopped walking and watched her. He began to limp in. Kona stopped him, thinking he might do something in revenge. But his eyes only looked sad and the older male let him through.
Griff nosed his alpha, lifting her head slightly. It rolled back into the blanket limply. Kona backed away, sensing Griff was about to cry. The grey male settled into the blanket nest with Lily. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “It’s my fault. I should have just stayed behind you. I was so hungry.” The grey licked at a patch of dried blood between her ears. “I’ll be an omega. I’m not even mad about my ear. Please wake up,” he said, barely audible.
Lily didn’t stir. Not even a bit. Griff buried his sore muzzle under her paw and went to sleep, fighting back tears. In the morning, Griff woke to find Lily in the exact same position. He sighed and began to groom her, avoiding her wounds. Eventually he fell asleep again, feeling empty and ashamed.
Griff was woken by a deep growl. Lily was sitting up, her short fur puffed up and her lips drawn. Griff backed away from her. “Lily, you’re awake!” he gasped. Her eyes were confused and angry.
“You did this. I remember. You tried to kill me!” she snarled. She tried to lunge for him but fell flat. Griff felt a flare of grief. He’d reduced her to this. Kona suddenly appeared at the stall door. He charged in, putting himself between the two greys. “Griff. Go.”
The male didn’t argue, and left, tail tucked tightly between his legs. Kona settled down in the straw next to his alpha. Lily groaned and pushed her spine against his warm bulk, feeling cold all the way to her bones. The older male wrapped himself around her as best he could. For a long moment, nothing was said. Finally, though, Kona spoke. “He didn’t want to kill you. I saw it all. As soon as he realized what he was doing, he let go and gave up.”
Lily’s ears flattened and she stared at the wall. Her gaze was so intense, Kona was sure the timber would burst into flame. “Maybe. Maybe not. I figured it would come to this, some day. He was too proud, even when I took the alpha-ship. He thought he could win it back someday. Now… I don’t know if I can even keep him around. If we were fully wild I would exile him, but Silak needs him.”
Kona grimaced, hearing her talk about his adoptive son like this. “You both had hunger madness come over you. Some good food and you’ll both be in a better place to work out your differences.”
Lily didn’t like the idea of keeping Griff around, but Kona was always a good source of council. She nodded. “Very well. Could you get me something to eat?” The tawny nodded, leaving the sphinx alone for a few moments. He returned with a haunch of moose. It didn’t smell fully natural, like some human had let it hang in a warehouse for a bit, but Lily was so starved, she didn’t care. It was gone within a half hour. With her belly full, she felt warmth returning to her limbs. A wave of exhaustion rose over her and she leaned on Kona before dozing off.
It was another week before the sphinx was on her feet again. As soon as she was strong enough to do so, Lily called a pack meeting. Every single tokota gathered outside the barn. From grizzled and wise Kai to the young, unnamed pups, they all spilled forth from the barn and woodland dens.
Lily limped to the stack of crates she used to address her pack and painfully hauled herself up. The tokotas gathered below gave a quiet cheer to see their leader on her paws again. She quieted them with a gesture.
“I’m sorry to have worried you all. You’ve probably heard what happened, but allow me to explain,” she said. The sphinx told her tale of how Griff had turned on her after stepping out of line. The pack growled low, glancing around to see where their erroneous former leader was. Lily waved a paw. Kona and another male, Czar, went into the barn. They returned with Griff between them, head hung low. Lily had never seen him so broken. His misery seemed to drip from his coat. Each step stirred up a small plume of dust. He couldn’t even pick up his paws.
He sat down in front of the crates, ears drooping to each side. Lily had to squash down the sudden well of pity in her heart. “Griff, what do you have to say for yourself?” she demanded, trying to sound harsh.
The greying male ducked his head even further. “What she says is true. I attacked my alpha when I was in the wrong to begin with.” The pack growled in unison. They hadn’t exactly forgotten that Griff had once ruled them with a strict paw.
Lily signed deeply. “I told this to Kona a quarter moon ago, and I will say it again. If we were not linked to the humans, I would have you banished, Griff.” He flinched as if he’d been struck. “But because we are allies with Silak, I cannot do that.”
She turned to address the whole pack. “We have not had a true omega since I took leadership and I did away with it. I believe no tokota should have to serve another without some reward for it. But this recent episode has changed my mind. I have decided to create an omega role for this special circumstance.” She heard a few gasps, but no words of protest.
She picked her way down from the crates, ignoring the pain flaring in her shoulder. “Griff. I’m not without reason. I understand that we were both starved at the time of our… spat. For that, I will have mercy. Especially because I wounded you badly as well. You will be stripped of your beta position and will take on the responsibilities of an omega. You will clean the barn and dens. You will help our elders groom themselves. You will live in a forest den or one of the sheds. You will eat last, even if you have made a kill. That being said, I do not want to see you grovel like you made other tokotas do during your time as leader. I will not strip you of your dignity. Now stand tall.”
Griff did as he was told, squaring his shoulders. Lily thought he still looked pathetic. It was if his spirit was suddenly too small for his frame. The pack could sense it too, and Lily saw pain in their eyes. Her heart reflected it. Punishing one of her pack hurt her more than any wound ever could.
“You will serve as an omega for six months, at which time we will revisit this. If you have proven that you can swallow your pride and be an aid to your pack, you will be moved to the role of hunter. You need to understand here and now that you are not allowed to make a challenge for a position change for the next two years at a minimum. Do you understand?” Lily said. Griff nodded once, just slightly, as if any large movement would cause him to break into pieces.
She was about to pull away when he stepped forward and lifted his head. His eyes begged for forgiveness. Lily hesitated, then pushed her neck into his mane. He pressed down, pulling her close. Lily felt a wave of relief come from him as she accepted him. The tension of the pack around them dissolved as they accepted their alpha’s choice. She dismissed them with a wave of her tail.
The two greys broke apart, staring into each other’s eyes. “Go get to sleep. In the morning we will figure out your new sleeping area and duties. I think one of the sheds will do fine.” Griff nodded and padded away. Lily bit back a whine of regret. His pelt, once so lustrous, was now drab. It wasn’t just a lack of food. Only a broken soul made a tokota look like that. He was covered in so many scars, but none as severe as the still angry red wounds on his belly or the rip in his ear.
Lily sighed and began to walk into the trees. She wanted to be alone for a while. She settled herself against a fallen log. Eyes heavy, she fell away into deep sleep without a second thought.