An Interlude to Rinden’s Story
More than ten years ago, I laid down the framework of a story of a cheetah called Rinden, whose parents were taken by poachers when he was a cub, forcing him to flee his homeland to be raised by an amiable leopard, finally returning home with a thirst for justice in his heart. His tale has changed a good deal since I first wrote about him and started drawing him, and it has only been a few years ago since I first wrote down his saga in its entirety.
But there were gaps of considerable size in his story -- what happened during his stay with Huanu the leopard or what his youth prior to that was like is anyone’s guess, but a more perplexing quandary is what his return to his homeland was like. I never mentioned it in any great deal; I always jumped to the point where Rinden’s mate Sarala gives birth (I planned on their having two separate litters at first, but now I wonder whether having Jacko and Xandra be part of the same litter, with Xandra being a runt, would be a little more appropriate to real cheetahs’ reproductive behavior without having to go into detail about multiple cub casualties).
Anyway, what happens between the moment when Sarala persuades Rinden to return to his homeland and Jacko’s (and Xandra’s?) birth was a pretty gray area. A lot can happen in that span of time. One possibility I only thought of recently was the matter of Sarala’s parents, whom I only designed a few years ago, and only recently started developing as characters. Yamin’s fear was a spur-of-the-moment idea, but it combined with Rinden’s unusual “friendship” makes for some lovely complications. I actually had a hard time sorting this mess out myself.
I tried to remain faithful to the first “official” draft of Rinden’s story, although one or two elements of the story have been changed, mostly in favor of making the story a little more realistic (disregarding the fact that it has talking animals in it). Sarala’s talking with Stuart about Rinden’s disappearance was a bit much, as were one or two other things -- I also tried to explain why Sarala would be in Rinden’s homeland as a cub, despite Yamin’s problem and the land not being her parents’ territory.
I intended to have this story be simply a brief interlude, and now it’s almost seventy pages -- longer than the original story. I guess I got a little carried away, but it was still a fun run. Incidentally, the title of the story is a more upbeat variation of the phrase “Memento mori” -- this phrase literally means, “Remember that you must live”.
The lone male cheetah perched atop the stunted tree, surveying the yellow land that stretched to the horizon on all sides. It was midmorning, and the burning sun of the dry season had not yet reached its zenith. The cheetah remained still, lifting his pale yellow head as high as he dared to search for prey or enemies, turning it this way and that with an abrupt, almost nervous movement. The tree he stood on grew parallel to the ground for several feet and provided him with a convenient vantage point.
A sound of snapping grasses made him spring into a defensive posture, ready to either flee, cower, or leap at whatever was swiftly approaching him. His muscles soon relaxed as he realized that it was not only a female member of his own kind, but one that he was very familiar with -- quite intimately so, in fact.
“Yamin!” she gasped, sounding winded (not nearly as winded as a cheetah would be after chasing something down, but still fairly exhausted), “Sarala -- she’s back!”
“Sarala?” Yamin echoed, rising to his feet, “You mean, our daughter Sarala?”
“Unless it’s another cheetah that smells exactly like her, yes,” replied the female.
“Wow,” said Yamin, jumping down from the tree to join his mate. “But what is she doing back here, Nimesha? I thought she had gone out -- “
“ -- Seeking new territory, yes,” Nimesha confirmed, “But apparently something came up, so now she’s come back here. I caught her scent near the northwest border of our land.
“And Yamin…” she said, with a glint of mischief shining in her voice, “Guess what else I caught a whiff of?”
“What? Cubs?” Yamin ventured.
“No, she hasn’t reached that stage quite yet…”
“Exactly,” Nimesha purred delightedly, “And unless I’m mistaken, she’s probably bringing him here to meet us!”
“Well, that sounds promising,” Yamin said, flicking his tail reflectively. “Could you tell that from their scents? Are they headed straight here?”
“No,” said Nimesha, the joy in her voice suddenly much less pronounced, “Not straight here, not yet anyway…”
“Then where were they going?”
“Well…I may have been mistaken, but they seemed to be headed towards…Twin Cheetahs.”
“Twin Cheetahs?? The two facing peaks?” Yamin asked, his eyes growing wide, his limbs growing rigid.
“Yes,” Nimesha admitted, lowering her head slightly.
“Doesn’t Sarala know about the land around Twin Cheetahs?” Yamin cried, panic starting to rise in his voice. “The cheetah family that once lived there vanished long ago, and the only Hunters that live there now are…”
“Lions,” Sarala said, rolling her eyes. “Of all the creatures in your homeland you could have introduced me to first, why did it have to be lions?”
“It’s not ‘lions’, it’s ‘lion’,” corrected the bright yellow male cheetah that walked beside her. “I met him when I was a cub, and he’s sure to remember me. And even if he should be less than hospitable, we’ve got backup. Right, Huanu?”
He yelled this last line over his shoulder. From several feet behind them came an affirmative snort from an animal invisible in the tall grasses, following them at a moderate crawl, its body flattened against the ground .
“I suppose if you can befriend a leopard as a cub, you can easily befriend a lion as an adult,” mused Sarala, glancing cautiously over her shoulder in an attempt to catch a glimpse of Huanu, who she still didn’t trust completely. “But, Rinden, you’ve never seen a pride before. I have -- albeit from a distance.”
“Then how did you come to know so much about Stuart’s family?” asked Rinden.
“I got most of my knowledge from the birds. They’re real gossips, and they have practically nothing to fear from the lions. I was curious about them when I was growing up, and though I couldn’t explore this land on my own, I learned nearly everything there was to know about it and its inhabitants from those little feathered creatures.”
“Nice to know they’re good for something other than picking ticks off of the larger plant-eaters,” Rinden joked. A loud chuckle from behind them indicated that Huanu had heard and appreciated the comment too.
“Are you sure we’ll be safe if the lions try to attack us?” Sarala said, “Even with a leopard on our side, they outnumber us ten to one.”
“If all else fails, we run,” said Rinden.
“It is what we’re best at,” Sarala muttered.
They continued through the dry grasses in silence, the hotness of the sun interrupted by all-too-fleeting windows of shade beneath dry, gnarled trees. After about a quarter of an hour, Rinden stopped and looked forward, squinting intently at the horizon.
“What is it?” Sarala whispered.
Rinden pointed forwards with his nose. Shivering on the heat-distorted plains were two gigantic, distant pillars of rock, mostly overgrown by vegetation. Even from this distance, their resemblance to a pair of facing cheetahs’ heads was uncanny.
“Twin Cheetahs,” He said. ”My…home.”
Upon speaking the word, he suddenly seemed to grow meek and insecure, like a frightened cub. He lowered his head and shut his eyes.
Sarala pressed against him, afraid to worsen the situation with words. Her parents weren’t taken away by humans when she was barely old enough to hunt. She hadn’t nearly died of starvation and thirst and grown up in a foreign land, raised by a leopard…how could anything she said make her mate feel that she understood how he felt?
After a few moments, Rinden raised his head, shaking it in the hopes of dislodging some of the memories that clung to his mind. Sarala looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to speak again.
“Let’s keep going,” he finally managed. “We should find Stuart’s pride soon.”
They had barely gone half the distance to Twin Cheetahs when Rinden’s prediction came to pass. Beneath a sparse grove of trees were several large, still, tawny bodies. In the middle of the bodies was one that appeared larger than all the others, with a thick, dark gold fringe around its head.
“There they are,” Rinden whispered, “And that must be Stuart.”
“I hope it is,” Sarala murmured.
“Hope’? I thought you were keeping tabs on the pride!” Rinden said, slightly taken aback.
“I’ve never gotten this close to them,” Sarala hissed, “And I’ve certainly never gotten near enough to see what their king looks like. We’ll just have to hope that Stuart didn’t get overthrown while I was away.”
Rinden shrugged. “I guess,” he agreed.
They watched the lions for several minutes. There were no cubs to be seen, though there did appear to be one or two lionesses that had not yet reached adulthood. Stuart -- or the lion they fervently hoped was Stuart -- was the only male. All of them were dozing in the heat, some resting against each other, some even lying on top of one another.
“What do we do now?” Sarala asked. “We can’t speak to the lion without waking the others.”
“I’m afraid that is what we’ll have to do. We should wake them now so they aren’t startled and provoked to attack.”
“And how to you propose we go about that?”
“Just leave everything to me,” Rinden assured her. “Crouch down here and don’t do anything until I give the word. If I should be attacked, Huanu will be ready to come to my aid. If everything fails, both of you run, okay?”
“Rinden, why are you doing this?” Sarala asked, with deep concern welling in her throat. “Any one of them could kill you with one swipe, and even if that lion is Stuart, he isn’t the harmless cub you once met…”
“You’ll have to trust me,” said Rinden. “If we are to make our home here, we must make peace with the lions first. My family…my family maintained a relatively peaceful relationship with them, and if they could do it, then so can we. Now get down.”
Sarala drew in breath, ready to protest again, but the look in Rinden’s eyes made her pause, furrow her brow in contemplation, nod, then delicately lower herself into the protective grasses. Rinden took several steps closer to the pride, paused, carefully examined every individual, then let out two loud, ringing chirps.
Most of the younger lionesses were awake with their heads erect in an instant, while the majority of their elders were merely blinking dazedly. Rinden stood stock still as they slowly became alert and started looking about for the source of the unusual, birdlike call. He was well aware of the odd vocalizations that were unique to his species, and how they would often catch other animals off-guard.
Then one lioness spotted him. Rinden fought against the instinct to turn and run, and fortunately, the lioness didn’t rise to her feet and come his way; she was probably still torpid from her heavy slumber. One by one, the lionesses began to notice the golden cheetah standing several yards away from them. They all shared the same slightly puzzled expression, probably wondering why this vulnerable cat had purposefully alerted them to its presence, and why it wasn’t running away at the sight of them awakening. Actually, Rinden himself was starting to wonder the exact same thing.
Finally, after several agonizingly long seconds, he gathered up enough courage to speak:
“Please forgive my unwelcome intrusion,” he began, quickly continuing before he could curse himself for such a bad choice of words:
“My name is Rinden, and I wish to speak with the lion that I am told is your king -- Stuart.”
“What?” asked a deep, masculine voice from within the lolling circle of lionesses, “Who wants to speak to me?”
A head rimmed with long, thick, fiery fur appeared above one of the tawny forms. It then rose higher, revealing a large, muscular body supporting it. Having assumed a regal (yet still slightly drowsy) sitting position, the pride’s single male looked in the direction the females were looking, and fixed his gaze upon Rinden, who shuddered but still managed to remain where he was.
“A cheetah?” the lion asked, “What are you doing here, this close to a lion’s pride? You must be crazy!”
“Maybe,” Rinden said, a slight tremor in his voice, “But I came here to speak with King Stuart. I met him once before as a cub, and I was told that he -- “
The lion’s greenish eyes suddenly grew wide with surprise. He slowly rose to his feet and stared intensely at Rinden.
“Met me?” the lion queried.
“Yes,” Rinden replied. The lion gazed downwards for a moment, then reestablished eye contact with an almost curious expression on his face.
“What did you say your name was?” he asked.
“Rinden, the son of Khan of the white pelt, both of whom vanished from this land three seasons ago?”
“Yes,” said Rinden, nodding.
The lion’s face slowly molded itself into a mask of joy. He let out a short roar that Rinden realized was the leonine equivalent of a shout of delight.
“It’s you, then!” the lion that Rinden was finally convinced was Stuart exclaimed, starting to pick his way out of the protective ring of lionesses. “That tiny spotted thing with the mane down its back that I met near the west head of Twin Cheetahs! My, how you’ve changed. Looks like you’ve lost some of your hair, though!”
“And it looks like you’ve gained some,” Rinden retorted, relief seeping through his frazzled nerves. “Um…would you mind telling your lionesses not to attack me, please?”
“Of course,” said Stuart, donning his serious face and voice and turning to face the other members of the pride. “Please stay where you are, all of you. This cheetah is an old friend, and he is not to be harmed. Understand?”
Several sounds of consent were heard amongst the lionesses, and with a satisfied murmur, Stuart stepped out of their midst, making his way to where Rinden was standing.
“Well, old friend, it truly is amazing to see you alive and well,” Stuart said, stopping a few feet away from him. Even without being close enough for the cheetah to touch the lion’s mane with his nose, Rinden still had to tilt his head back in order to look Stuart in the eyes. Even though he was no longer a potential enemy, Rinden trembled in the presence of the huge cat.
“It’s truly amazing that you remember me,” Rinden replied.
“Indeed,” Stuart agreed, “But where in the world have you been all this time?”
“I was raised by another cat in a neighboring land,” Rinden said simply, “And when I met another cheetah that had known both me and my family, I returned home with both of them.”
“Oh?” Stuart asked. “Who is this other cat? Are it and the cheetah here with you?”
“They are. I just asked them to hide until I could gain your pride’s trust. Do you think it’s safe to introduce them now?”
“I suppose it is,” said Stuart, “But first, I’d like to know who this other -- “
At that moment, there was a rustling in the grass behind Rinden, and Huanu, who had apparently been slowly sneaking closer and closer over the course of Rinden’s conversation with the pride and Stuart, popped his head out of the grass barely a yard away from where Stuart stood.
“Does this mean it’s okay for us to -- “ Huanu began, until he noticed the gigantic lion less than a pounce’s length in front of him. At this, his pupils dilated, his ears flattened against his head and he shrank pitifully into the grass.
“…Cripes, he’s big,” was all he could manage.
After an appreciably uneventful introduction of both Huanu and Sarala to the pride, Stuart requested some time alone with Rinden, Sarala (who still didn’t feel entirely comfortable around the lionesses) and Elfleda, the fiery-eyed lioness that Stuart loved and trusted the most.
“I truly am amazed to see you living, Rinden,” Stuart said. “From what you and Sarala have told me, she was the only one to see you run away. Everyone else in these lands must have assumed that you were killed.”
“I just got lucky,” Rinden admitted. “I ran into a leopard whose attitude towards cheetah cubs was completely different from every other leopard’s. If it weren’t for Huanu…I would have died out there.”
“Perhaps,” said Stuart, “But it wasn’t just that one brief meeting in our cubhood that made me remember you. It was your parents -- or, to be more specific, your father.”
A strange amount of reverence began to show in Stuart’s voice. This, coupled with the mention of Rinden’s parents, made the cheetah prick up his ears and peer more closely at the powerful lion.
“What about my father?” Rinden asked.
“My family knew very little about Khan of the white pelt,” Stuart said, “And over time, I came to realize that my parents’ lack of knowledge wasn’t because of a mere disinterest in him, but because of fear.”
“This pride feared your father. None of its members -- even my father, the king -- dared to approach him or his mate. It was as if Khan held some sort of sway over the animals of this land, and that it was impossible for any creature to harm him.”
“Really?” Rinden breathed, eyes wide with wonder at hearing such things.
“It made sense to me as a cub, and it doesn’t make any less sense to me now,” Stuart replied, shrugging slightly. “How else could a family of cheetahs safely live so close to a pride of lions?”
He paused after this to allow Rinden to take in this new knowledge. During the silence, Elfleda suddenly spoke up:
“There were rumors that your father was one of the Great Ones,” she said quietly. “They said that he that decided to assume an earthly form, but he still retains his power. There are some who even say that he cannot be killed, even by humans, and even though he and his mate have been taken by them, they will return here one day to restore balance to these lands, which have grown more and more restless and turbulent since their disappearance.
“And for those who wondered whether their son would return too…well, here he is!” she said brightly, looking at Rinden directly. “For some of the pride, this can only mean that the return of Khan and Surina can’t be too far off.”
Rinden gazed at the lioness, trying to make sense out of her words, which were obviously the end result of years of gossip. As odd as each rumor about his father was, together they seemed to make sense…in a convoluted, yet oddly convincing way. Sarala stared at Rinden, looking just as awestruck as he was.
Stuart finally broke the silence:
“There have also been rumors that Khan means to take revenge upon the humans responsible for tearing his family apart. When they return to this land, it is said, he will be there to meet them.”
The lion looked solemnly at Rinden, blinking his large emerald eyes slowly.
“Those…those are all great prophecies,” said Rinden, finally getting his voice back, “But I don’t think any of that is ever going to happen. The way my father was captured…it seemed like nothing for the humans. They just threw what looked like a giant spider’s web over him and he…he was theirs. Anything that can catch another being that easily wouldn’t be so quick to let it escape.”
“Maybe,” Stuart agreed, “But many of the members of the pride say that if Khan himself doesn’t avenge this injustice…then his son will.”
The quiet that followed this statement was so deep and so long that for a while, all that could be heard was the whisper of the warm breeze in the grasses and the faint breathing of the four animals.
“I must admit, I was starting to believe all they were saying about my father up until that last ‘prediction’,” Rinden muttered irritably as he walked by Sarala’s side.
“It was only a rumor borne from the mouths of lionesses who spent most of their lives weaving stories,” Sarala said. “Why has it gotten you so upset?”
“I only came back here because you thought it was the right thing to do,” Rinden snapped, the fur between his shoulders bristling. “I don’t want to be part of some mystical prophecy and right past wrongs. My parents are both gone, and I can accept that. I came here to start a new life, not to start living the old one again.”
“I know you have, Rinden. I want to move on as well, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t move forward without putting things behind you completely to rest.”
“So what are you saying?” Rinden asked, slightly calmer now. “Are you saying that I should try to live up to the pride’s little dreams?”
“At least try to play along with them,” Sarala urged. “We may be in their good graces now, but we have to make sure we stay there. I don’t want to end up on those lionesses’ bad side because my mate said that he thought their prophecies were pointless stories.”
“All right,” said Rinden with a submissive sigh. “I’ll try to act like their spotty savior.”
Sarala smiled at this remark.
“You do that,” she said, rubbing gently against him. “Of course…you can act like whatever you want when we’re alone.”
Rinden stopped walking and nuzzled her, taking in the fine details of her pale face: the dark lines that ran from the corners of her eyes to her muzzle, the solitary spot in the middle of her forehead…the intricacies of Sarala’s mind and spirit were more than matched by her beauty.
“Sure,” he agreed. “Hopefully your parents won’t see me the same way that this pride does…”
At this, Sarala suddenly pulled her head out from under his and stood erect.
“What is it?” Rinden asked. “What’s wrong?”
“My parents,” Sarala gasped. “I forgot all about them!”
“Well, that’s nothing big, is it? I mean, we’re barely half a day’s walk from the border of your homeland, and they should…”
“I’m not concerned about our finding them,” Sarala explained, anxiety breaking out on her delicate features, “However, I am concerned about the fact that I’ve got to explain to them that my new mate has befriended a leopard and a pride of lions!”
“Oh,” Rinden said, suddenly feeling embarrassed. Having the sort of companions he had was not only unusual, but something that other cheetahs would deem almost suicidal.
“I guess I’ll just have to win their trust as well,” he shrugged. “Once I’ve explained the way Huanu raised me, it shouldn’t be too hard for them to see why I have faith in him. As for the lions, they pretty much revered my family, and their feelings toward me are…”
“It’s not the explaining that worries me,” Sarala interrupted. “It’s how my father will take it.”
“Your father? Why, is he the overprotective type?”
“No, not particularly,” Sarala said, “But…well…he’s incredibly afraid of lions. Of all cats bigger than us.”
“What self-respecting cheetah isn’t?” Rinden quipped. “Most lions and leopards outside of these lands are our sworn enemies. It seems perfectly normal to be afraid of them.”
“Yes, I know, but my father is really, really afraid of them. He thinks that every big cat alive is out to get him, especially lions. He’s the most ordinary cheetah under the sun until he either sees a lion or somebody mentions lions in his presence. Then he becomes a trembling bundle of paranoia and anxiety.”
Rinden stared at Sarala disbelievingly. “How in the world did he manage to live this long with a mind like that?”
“He wasn’t born that way,” Sarala explained. “Something happened to him when he was younger…my mother’s never told me exactly what, though. All that I do know is that when he finds out that you are friends with a lion and a leopard…”
“…He’ll never want you to get within two miles of me ever again,” Rinden concluded dully.
“Wow. You seem to know him almost as well as I do,” Sarala marveled.
“When do you think you’ll be back?” Rinden asked.
He and Sarala had slept peacefully the night before beneath a tree in which Huanu had rested, some distance from the pride. When morning had dawned, Sarala had proposed a plan to Rinden that would hopefully convince her father that Rinden’s unconventional friends posed no threat to his future mate.
Rinden approved of the plan, and its first phase was now being carried out. The pair was heading south, away from Twin Cheetahs, towards lands that were new territory for Rinden. By now, the sun was riding high in the sky, beating down upon the dry grasses.
“I shouldn’t be gone more than a day,” Sarala replied, “But I may be gone longer than that, depending on how reprimanding or panicky Dad gets.”
“He’s really that fragile?”
“I’m afraid so. Your walking me to the border of my land should help convince him that you’re just like any other male when it comes to protecting their mate.”
“I hope so.” Rinden said.
Suddenly there was a loud rustling in a nearby patch of shrubbery. Both cheetahs turned their heads in the direction of the noise just in time to see a tawny, scruffy thing appear from the foliage. Before either Rinden or Sarala could make another move, the thing was bearing down upon them at a speed only another cheetah could reach.
Rinden was about to turn and run when he glanced at Sarala, and was stunned to see that instead of preparing herself for a quick retreat, she was still standing motionless, her eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching stranger. However, Rinden’s frantic query as to why she hadn’t reacted never left his lungs, for the thing was now upon them.
Almost upon them. It halted barely a tail’s length in front of them, its head down, panting briskly. As Rinden was cautiously craning his neck closer to examine the intruder, it quickly snapped its head up and met Rinden’s eyes with a pair the color of fire.
The eyes were -- as Rinden had guessed -- in the head of a cheetah, which was attached to the body of one as well. It was a female cheetah of average build, normal in every way…yet still, there was something about her that made her seem completely abnormal.
Perhaps it was the way the fur on the top of her head was longer than most cheetahs’, and the way it stuck up in the middle like a porcupine’s quills. Perhaps it was her overall scruffy appearance -- the slightly shaggier tip of her tail, the larger ruffs around the cheeks that made her appear almost male, the scraggly chin, the thick tufts of hair protruding from each ear and the odd, thick, lighter patch of fur that graced each brow.
Or perhaps it was her blazing orange eyes -- Rinden had never seen a cheetah with eyes this color -- and the way they locked into his with a gaze so intense that Rinden could almost feel his mind being pierced by their sharpness. However, as fierce as her expression was, there was also an odd inquisitiveness about it.
Slowly, Rinden realized that by making eye contact she was not threatening him, but merely observing him -- taking in every possible detail of his face that she could see from where she stood.
Finally, after several agonizingly tense seconds, the cheetah moved its head to look at Sarala. Then it smirked.
“Quite a nice mate you’ve got here, Sweetie,” it said in a perky, slightly unnerving voice. It was so high-pitched that Rinden suspected that the voice she had as a cub must have been exactly the same.
“Thanks, Amita,” Sarala replied in a rather unamused tone. Rinden snapped his head in her direction.
“You know her?” he gasped in astonishment.
This sentence had quite an effect on the stranger. Her expression changed from a smug smile to a look of extreme adoration combined with unswayable fascination as she turned to face Rinden once more.
“Oooh, and what a pretty voice he has too,” she crooned. “And with a body like that, he’s got to be a good hunter too, right?”
Here she turned swiftly back to Sarala, almost birdlike in the unnatural rapidity of her movements. To Rinden, the odd point formed by her head’s fur was even starting to resemble a feathery crest.
“Well, he’s no better than any other cheetah when it comes to hunting,” Sarala began.
“But he’s good, right?” the stranger pestered.
“Well,” said Sarala, glancing at Rinden for a moment, “Yes, I suppose.”
“Oh, I knew you’d find him,” the stranger trilled, trotting in place for a moment, overcome by her own excitement, though Rinden could hardly see what there was to be excited about. She even wagged her tail enthusiastically, something which puzzled Rinden, as that was something he’d only seen jackals and wild dogs do. “Good looks, good voice, good skills -- he’s perfect for you, I know it, I know it! I’m surprised another female hasn’t tried to steal him from you yet!”
Suddenly her mouth curled at the corners and her eyes narrowed, creating a mischievous look. On any other cheetah, it would have looked ordinary and relatively harmless, but on this one, it made Rinden feel as if he were much too close to a terrible, imminent danger.
“It makes me feel tempted to steal him for myself,” she purred. She suddenly drew close to Rinden, turning to the left just before touching his face, then rubbing along his left side. She stopped just before reaching the base of his tail, then gently laid her chin in the shallow curve just before Rinden’s hips. Her tail, now level with Rinden’s shoulders, played teasingly about his forelegs and tickled his chest.
“Whaddaya say, ‘Ralla? Can I borrow him for a moon or so? Or perhaps just a few days, so I can ‘break him in’ for you?”
Rinden was too dumbfounded to do anything but gaze over his shoulder at this odd, promiscuous cheetah that seemed to know his mate and vice versa, but he couldn’t for the life of him think why. Why in the world would Sarala be friends with this bizarre character?
Sarala’s face, meanwhile, had the look of exasperation and thinning patience upon it. She looked at the stranger, and when she spoke, she spoke with a tone that suggested that she had gone through this routine many times before.
“Amita, please leave him alone,” she said calmly.
“But he’s so pretty,” the stranger chirped, lolling her head so that her cheek rested against Rinden’s spine. Rinden was still afraid to move -- who could say how this creature would react to any sudden movements?
“Well, you’ll have plenty of time to admire him later,” Sarala said. “Besides, don’t you think he’s a little young for you?”
The stranger quickly raised her head, moved away from Rinden, then turned to look him in the face once more. Rinden suddenly realized how old she looked. Not particularly ancient, but definitely older than him and Sarala…old enough to be Sarala’s mother, it seemed.
“You’re right,” the stranger said, after a moment’s contemplation. “He is a bit too green for old, gnarly ‘Mita. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be friendly with him, does it?”
“Just try not to bother him so much,” Sarala urged. “He may not be like Dad, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to treat him like you treat Dad.”
“Okay, okay,” said the stranger, rolling her eyes, “I’ll be nice.”
She looked downcast for a moment, but she perked up in as much time as it takes most animals to breathe in.
“So where’re you two headed?” she asked, her perkiness back in full force.
“Home. My home,” Sarala replied.
“Well, that’s just great,” the stranger said, prancing excitedly and wagging her tail again. “I should be seeing you again then…” here she turned to Rinden with that same horrifying, mischievous look, “…And you too.”
Here she turned away and went bounding away through the grasses. It wasn’t until she was out of both sight and earshot that Rinden turned to Sarala, completely spellbound.
“Who…” he began, “What…?”
“I guess I should have told you about her,” Sarala said with a shrug.
“But who is she?” Rinden managed, still shivering in the places where the stranger had touched his fur. He might have welcomed the contact of any female had Sarala not come along, but there was something about the touch of that female that made his skin crawl.
“She is my aunt.”
“Yes. Aunt Amita, on my mother’s side. She always stayed with Mom, so I’ve known her ever since I was a cub.”
“Has she always been…been…?”
“Eccentric? Crazy? Insane?”
“Yeah, all of those.”
“I think she’s always been a bit…‘off’.” Sarala said. “Mom said she was like that when they were cubs, and she’s just gotten a little weirder over the years.”
“But what is wrong with her?”
“Nothing is really wrong with Amita,” Sarala said, with a tiny note of irritation in her voice. “I promise you, she’s completely harmless. She’s just a little too friendly and inquisitive at times. Think of her as a cub in an adult’s body. Don’t let that amorous act of hers fool you -- she’s nothing more than a mischievous cub having a little fun…Ever play ‘mates’ when you were young?”
“I never knew any other cubs my age,” Rinden said.
“Sorry,” Sarala apologized. “It’s a game where two cubs pretend to be mates, sometimes with a third playing their offspring. I think Amita still sees the whole ‘mate’ concept as that -- just a game and nothing more.”
“I think I understand that,” Rinden admitted, finally recovering from his experience with Sarala’s relative. “But how is she in terms of hunting and family?”
“She’s a pretty good hunter,” Sarala replied, “In fact, sometimes she gets a little too into hunting to care about anything else -- but she’s never had a family of her own. Me, my mother and father are the only family she’s known besides my mother’s parents, and of course, they’re both gone now.
“I see,” said Rinden. “One more thing: What did you mean by her not treating me the way she treats your father?”
Sarala looked uneasy. She was silent for a moment, but then she relented.
“That’s a long story, I’m afraid. The shortest form of it is that Amita likes to…well, ‘have fun’ with Yamin -- my Dad -- meaning that she likes to tease him and attempt to persuade him to play with her. However, as you found out, Amita has a certain ‘presence’ that makes the ordinary cheetah uneasy, but for someone as fragile as my dad, it almost pushes him into a nervous breakdown if she is persistent enough. Half of the time, my mother has to intervene to make her stop. She just doesn’t seem to realize that what she thinks is just a game is driving my dad almost crazy with anxiety.”
Rinden furrowed his brow in disbelief. “How did your dad wind up with your mother if she was always accompanied by someone like that?”
“Good question,” Sarala admitted. “I’ve never learned the answer myself, but from what I’ve observed and heard over the years, I think Yamin puts up with Amita because he loves and trusts me and my mother Nimesha so much …though sometimes I’ve wondered if he hasn’t been so devoted to us because he figures he stands less of a chance being caught by a lion or a leopard if he stays in the company of another cheetah or two…’safety in numbers’ or something like that.”
“Do you really think that?” Rinden gasped.
“Sometimes. Perhaps he stays with us both out of love and out of a desire to keep himself safe from those lions that are ‘out to get him’,” Sarala muttered. “But he’s my dad, and I still love him, no matter what the reason he fell in love with Mom is.”
Sarala sighed and gazed south, the direction of her homeland.
“I’m just afraid that the realization that I’ve decided to take a cheetah with two big cats as best friends as my mate might be a bit too much for him,” she continued. “I almost wonder whether I shouldn’t just tell him that I’ve found a territory of my own and keep you a secret.”
“I don’t know if we can do that now,” Rinden said.
“Well…Amita knows about me now, and as unfamiliar as I am with her, she didn’t look like the type who would keep such knowledge to herself.”
Sarala turned and looked at him analytically. Then she turned and stared blankly at the horizon.
“You certainly do know my relatives,” she sighed.
“It’s been almost two days,” Yamin said from his perch atop the stunted tree. “She should have arrived hours ago.”
“They should have arrived a few hours ago,” corrected Nimesha. “And don’t be so concerned about their being late. Your daughter can’t always be punctual. She and the male probably stopped somewhere to rest or hunt.”
“It’s not their being late that I’m worried about,” Yamin said, standing up and turning around to face his mate, who was lying on the ground behind him. “It’s the fact that every minute they aren’t here is a minute spent…”
“…dangerously close to them,” Nimesha finished.
“Yes,” said Yamin, quivering slightly. Yamin was paler than most cheetahs, and much of his cubhood mane -- which had a curious black tint to it -- had remained with him through adulthood. Even more remarkable were the four marks that he possessed, one on each shoulder, one on each hip -- each one was a black ring surrounding a smaller-than-normal black spot, eyelike in appearance.
Nimesha was pretty plain in comparison to her mate -- she was golden with dull brown eyes. The only things that set her apart from most cheetahs were the two white bands bordered in black near the end of her tail -- most cheetahs only had one band, not counting the white at their tail’s ends.
“Why they haven’t arrived earlier instead of later is beyond me,” Yamin continued. “No sane cheetah would stay there for more than ten minutes…”
“Does that make the two of us plus our daughter crazy?” Nimesha asked pointedly.
“What do you mean? What are you talking about?”
“We went there three seasons ago looking for more prey, remember? It was the dry season and there was hardly any prey in our lands, so we went north in the hopes of finding some. It was for Sarala’s sake, since she was still a cub then, and…”
“And we almost lost her,” Yamin cried, lashing his tail. “One minute she’s with us, the next she’s gone! Our daughter was nearly killed by them!”
“Don’t exaggerate,” snapped Nimesha. “She was only gone for a few minutes, and we found her safe and sound. Plus, there wasn’t so much as a whiff of a lion where we were, let alone one in the flesh.”
Yamin winced at this sentence.
“Besides, what about that cheetah family that lived at Twin Cheetahs, right next to the pride?”
“The cheetah family? They disappeared! And I’d bet my tail that the lions did them in.”
“Pah,” Nimesha spat, rising to a sitting position and stretching. “Nobody knows what happened to them, not even the birds. And you know that if anything larger than a ground squirrel has died, there will be at least one vulture who knows about it.”
“Maybe they didn’t leave any big enough pieces for the vultures to bother with,” Yamin muttered.
“Oh, stop it,” Nimesha muttered, rolling her eyes. She froze suddenly and peered straight ahead, past Yamin and past the tree he stood upon, towards the wide savannah.
“Besides, you’ll have a lot more than lions to worry about in a few minutes,” she said.
Yamin craned his neck and looked over his shoulder at the golden grasses, which were presently being quickly parted by a slim, yellow figure with an unnervingly ecstatic face and a prominent peak to the hair on its head.
“Oh no,” groaned Yamin, squeezing his eyes shut. Before he had even completed both actions, Amita had bounded into the air and landed just right of him on the tree trunk.
“Yammy! How ya doing, huh?” she chirped eagerly.
“I was doing fine,” Yamin murmured, refusing to make eye contact.
“Does that mean you don’t wanna play with me?” Amita asked, lowering her foreparts while keeping her hindquarters elevated, swishing her tail.
“Yes,” Yamin replied flatly, still not looking up, his ears starting to droop.
“Really?” she said sadly. “Don’t you even wanna wrestle? Or play fetch?”
“I thought I told you the last time you asked me this that I never have, and never will play ‘fetch’ with you,” Yamin snapped, looking up and immediately realizing his mistake.
The sight of his eyes had a magnetic effect on Amita. She leapt to her feet and drew so close to him that their noses almost touched, causing Yamin to fall into a sitting position and let out a small yelp of surprise.
“But why not?” Amita whined. “We’re dogs, aren’t we? Why shouldn’t we play fetch together?”
“We are not dogs,” Yamin stammered. “I don’t know where you got that idea, but…”
“We have claws that are out all the time, we bark, and we like to fetch things! Don’t those things make us dogs?”
“Would you stop with the dog talk,” Yamin anxiously hissed through clenched teeth, trying to back away from Amita without falling off the tree trunk.
“Amita, that’s enough,” said Nimesha tiredly. “Come here. I’ll get you something to fetch if you leave Yamin alone.”
Amita looked at her sister, then at Yamin again, who cringed even more as her eyes met his again. Then she lightly sprang from the tree and began trotting towards Nimesha.
“Honestly, ‘Mita, sometimes I think you take pleasure in harassing my mate,” she said in a voice that she hoped Yamin couldn’t hear as Amita came within whispering range. Fortunately, in his shaken state, he was unable to hear Nimesha’s hushed words.
“I was just asking him to play fetch,” Amita said dejectedly.
“That’s the point,” Nimesha replied. “He doesn’t want to take any part in these little dog fantasies of yours. You frighten him when you bear down on him and ask him to play over and over when he’s made it quite clear that he doesn’t.”
“But he’s so cute when he’s like that,” Amita said with a wide, sheepish grin.
“He’s much cuter when he feels secure and unthreatened,” Nimesha whispered. “Like when he’s sleeping with me and you’re nowhere around.”
“Wow,” Amita sighed. “You think I could ever see him like that?”
“With the way you treat him these days, I highly doubt it. Sarala and I are the only cheetahs he feels safe with, and the way you tease him only makes him less likely to trust anyone else.”
Amita fell silent at this statement, then lowered her head in what looked like genuine shame. She traced a claw in the dirt and sighed deeply. Then, a few seconds later, her head sprang up, the look on her face now a joyously excited one.
“Oh yeah! Sarala! I almost forgot!”
At the sound of this sudden outburst, Yamin (who had up until this moment been hunched over on the gnarled tree, trying to pull himself together) nearly jumped into the air, and had to scramble madly with his claws to regain his balance.
“What?” asked Nimesha, a little angry that her scolding had had no effect.
“Sarala! She’s almost here! I met her and her boyfriend at half-day! They should be here within the hour!”
Yamin, now fully recovered from his too-close-for-comfort encounter with Amita, jerked his head up in surprise.
“Her what?” he nervously asked, secretly praying that Amita wouldn’t try interrogating him again.
“The male,” Nimesha said exasperatedly. “Have you forgotten what we’ve been wondering about for the last two days?”
“Oh…now I see,” said Yamin. Since Amita hadn’t even glanced his way when he spoke the first time, it seemed that it was now safe to venture down to ground level. He delicately picked his way down the length of the trunk towards the stump, then stepped down onto the dusty earth.
“So, Amita,” Nimesha said, “What does this ‘boyfriend’ of Sarala’s look like?”
“Oh, he’s terrific!” Amita cried. “Strong, beautiful, and he’s got such a pretty voice too!”
“So you talked to them?” Nimesha asked.
“Did you ask where she found this male or what his name was?”
“Nope. I figure that if you’ve got a male with good looks, good skills and a good voice, you don’t need anything else from him.”
“Hmm,” Nimesha sniffed.
“Um,” Yamin said, slowly approaching the two females, “I guess you didn’t ask them how they survived in the lands to the north, did you?”
“They were up there?” Amita said in astonishment. “Wow! I sure wish I’d asked.”
Yamin sighed and looked away.
“Well, it shouldn’t matter what you didn’t ask in another hour,” Nimesha said. “Sarala and her new mate…”
“Her new possible mate,” corrected Yamin.
“Right. They should both be here soon. Then we can ask anything we want to know about this mystery male.”
“Oooh,” Amita whispered. “I like the sound of that.”
Nimesha was only half right, however. Only one cheetah neared the warped tree almost an hour later, and all three of the cheetahs already there recognized it immediately.
“’Rally!” Amita chirped, bounding up in her usual ecstatic way.
“Sarala!” Nimesha cried, running up to her daughter and rubbing up against her affectionately, purring deeply as she did. “It’s so good to see you again, love!”
“Indeed,” said Yamin, approaching at a more resigned pace and gently touching noses with Sarala. “I’m so relieved to see you alive, though, Sara. When I heard that you were passing through the lands to the north…I was afraid that I might never see you again.”
“It was just fine, Dad,” said Sarala gently. “Don’t worry, I was okay. Nothing even remotely dangerous happened to me in the north.”
“Really?” said Nimesha with a slight smirk. “Tell me, sweet: Did your mate help protect you at all?”
Sarala looked at her mother in surprise.
“You know about him? Did Amita tell you?”
Amita grinned slyly as Sarala glanced her way. The older cheetah, deciding that her part in the conversation had run its course, made her way back to the tree, where she flopped down on the dry soil.
“Yes, but not before I caught both of your scents near the border. We’ve known of your homecoming for at least as long as you’ve been in the land near Twin Cheetahs.”
“And I’m still wondering how you survived those lands,” interjected Yamin.
“Rinden protected me well,” Sarala said. “He also stayed with me as we came into my own lands, just to make sure I’d be safe here as well.”
Yamin’s brow furrowed.
“Hmm. He sounds like a good mate so far,” he said contemplatively. “Rinden, you say?”
“Yes. I met him in the lands to the far northeast. That place is mostly forest; not the best place for a cheetah to live. I managed to talk him into journeying here with me.”
“A forest?” Nimesha queried. “Quite an odd place for a cheetah. Any family?”
“No,” replied Nimesha. “Not anymore.”
“And he has proven himself to be a good hunter?” Yamin asked.
“Yes -- just as good as the average cheetah, anyway. I watched him chase down a gazelle in the land I found him in. It took him a few tries, but he did manage to catch it. And he let me eat my fill of it before he took his first bite.”
“Skilled, protecting and courteous. He sounds like an excellent match for you,” purred Nimesha. “But one thing your father, your aunt and I would all like to know is where this wonderful male of yours is.”
Sarala giggled at this and shifted her weight from one side of her body to the other.
“Oh…he’s still a bit shy about meeting you, especially after our encounter with Amita. He thought that if I sort of introduced him to you without him actually being here, it would be a little less shocking when he actually shows up. This is all pretty new to him after all, after…”
“All right, Sarala, what’s the secret?” Nimesha asked sternly.
“What?” Sarala asked innocently.
“You’re keeping something from us,” Nimesha said. “Whenever you start weaving on your feet and shuffling like that, it means that you’re hiding something. And when you start babbling like that as well, that means that you’re hiding something big. So what is it, Sara?”
“Yes,” Yamin seconded. “It’s about the male, isn’t it? What’s wrong? Does he have some sort of crippling disease?”
“No…” Sarala said, beginning to look worried by this time.
“Is he deformed in some way?” Nimesha asked. “Or…an albino, perhaps? Because you know that we would have nothing against something like that, as long as you were happy with him…”
“Is he infertile?” trilled Amita in a singsong voice from beneath the tree.
“Quiet, ‘Mita,” snapped Nimesha irritably.
“No,” Sarala said again. “There’s nothing wrong with him. Nothing at all.”
“Then what’s the problem?” Nimesha asked. “Go on, tell us. We’re your parents. There’s no problem of yours that we haven’t encountered ourselves.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Sarala. “This is pretty…pretty different. I really don’t know if I should tell you this.”
Though the comment was addressed to both parents, Sarala had her eyes fixed on Yamin as she said this. Nimesha, observant as always, noticed the gesture and immediately became a shade more concerned.
“I’m afraid that you should tell us, dear. There won’t be any peace of mind for either us or you and your mate until you’ve told us the truth. Whatever you want to tell us may be horrifying, but keeping secrets of such magnitude isn’t healthy either. So please tell us what’s wrong, Sarala. Please.”
Sarala was silent for a moment, looking from her mother to her father with a face distorted with anxiety and conflict.
“Promise not to…well, overreact?” she asked.
“We’ll handle it as calmly as we can,” Nimesha said solemnly. “Won’t we, Yamin?”
Yamin looked uneasily at his mate and his daughter before replying:
“Yes…yes, we will.”
“Good,” Nimesha decided. “Go on, then, Sarala. Tell us the truth.”
After an agonizingly long pause, Sarala inhaled deeply, then spoke as clearly and evenly as she was able:
“Rinden was orphaned as a cub and raised to adulthood by a leopard. He also befriended a lion cub in his youth, and now he has managed to gain the trust of that lion’s pride.”
A deathly silence descended like a mist over the four cheetahs. Nimesha stared at her daughter with concern and disbelief in her face. Is this true, her eyes seemed to ask.
Sarala put her ears back and bowed her head slightly, looking quite helpless and ashamed. I’m afraid so, her eyes replied.
After staring mutely at each other for several seconds, Nimesha and Sarala both turned to look at Yamin, and both were equally shocked by what they saw.
The pale cheetah was completely rigid, staring straight ahead with dilated pupils. Even his ribcage didn’t expand and contract. It was as if the autonomic part of Yamin’s nervous system had forgotten what steps were necessary in order to work the lungs, and now the various organs of his body were currently holding a meeting to determine what could be done about it.
“Yamin,” Nimesha whispered. “Are you all right?”
It was a stupid question to ask, but it did gain Yamin’s attention -- or rather, his eyes’ attention. They both swiveled in Nimesha’s direction. His ocular muscles had apparently taken a brief recess from the meeting to check on what was happening in the outside world.
“Yamin,” Nimesha tried again, “Please say something.”
Yamin finally managed a weak cough, the various parts of his anatomy apparently having come to a consensus on the breathing issue.
“Father?” Sarala asked, nervously taking a step towards him. Yamin glanced at the young cheetah who had just become a new source of anxiety and fear for him, gasped, then turned away, his head down and his shoulders quivering.
“No,” he muttered. “No, no, no, no, no.”
“Yamin,” Nimesha began, gently yet firmly.
“No,” Yamin continued without looking up, “This is a dream -- a nightmare. It’s not happening. Not happening. Not -- “
“It’s not a dream, Yamin,” Nimesha snapped. “You’ve been awake since sunup, and I’ve been with you every minute since then. Your daughter has just told us something about her mate that is…well -- ” here she glanced awkwardly at Sarala, “ -- unusual for a cheetah.”
“A nightmare,” Yamin muttered, starting to wobble slightly on his legs, “Worst nightmare I’ve had in -- “
Nimesha growled under her breath, rose onto her hind feet and forcefully shoved Yamin over with her forepaws, causing him to hit the dry grass and tough soil with a hollow thud. The force of the impact seemed to break Yamin out of his shock-induced state. He looked up at his mate and daughter with wide, blinking eyes, as if he had just been awakened.
“I was shocked when I first learned about the leopard and the lion too,” Sarala whispered to her mother while Yamin still seemed to be recovering, “But think about it: becoming friends with either of them would mean a safer life for us! All other Hunters steer clear of them, and it would just be a matter of being willing to share our territories.”
“You really believe this?” Nimesha hissed.
“Yes, and I came to realize this on my own,” Sarala replied. “Rinden obviously trusts the leopard -- who wouldn’t trust the one that raised you to adulthood? -- and the leopard still cares for him as if he were his own son. Also, the mere fact that the lion didn’t attack Rinden when he made his presence known is enough to convince me that he has gained the lion’s trust as well.”
“Lions?” came a curious trill from behind Nimesha. “Your mate has lions as friends?”
“Just a lion,” Sarala said quietly, glancing past her mother to where Amita now stood, her tail slowly undulating like a lethargic snake.
“Wow,” Amita said, her eyes filled with wonder and amazement. “Lions...”
She turned to look at Yamin, who was still sprawled on the ground, looking dazed.
“They’re so funny, those lions,” she suddenly purred, bounding up to Yamin with such momentum that she almost landed on top of him. “The males with all that hair around their heads…their brains must roast when it gets hot!”
“Stop it,” Yamin said in a tiny whisper, not looking up.
“It must be great for the males to have all those females to themselves,” Amita continued, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a pride, Yamin?”
“Stop it,” Yamin repeated through clenched teeth.
“I actually saw one once,” Amita persisted. “A female. She started to chase after me, but I was way too quick for her! She stopped running when I still had plenty of strength left. No silly lion is quick enough to catch Ami -- “
Yamin’s strangled cry cut Amita’s words short. Nimesha, who had been watching the exchange nervously, narrowed her eyes and stepped between her sister and her mate.
“Amita, I told you to stop this,” she snarled. Amita flattened her ears and stared pitifully at her sibling.
“But I was just…”
“You were doing what I told you to quit doing an hour before -- and two days ago, and countless times before that! Yamin isn’t yours to treat like this.”
“I’m sorry,” said Amita meekly, lowering her head.
“Now,” said Nimesha sternly, “Unless you’ve changed your mind about me getting you something to fetch, leave us alone until we’ve sorted this mess out. Understand?”
“Okay,” said Amita quietly.
“Then go,” Nimesha said, gesturing towards the tree. Amita shamefully turned and padded towards it. When she was out of earshot, Nimesha turned back to her daughter with a heavy sigh.
“I tell you, Sarala, it’s like raising you all over again -- but with twice as much stress for me and four times as much for Yamin.”
“Looks like not much has changed since I left,” Sarala muttered.
“Too true,” Nimesha said with a nod. “Ah…what were we talking about, Sarala?”
“Lions. And a leopard.”
“Oh yes…Well, dear, I think I understand what you’re saying about those animals protecting you and your mate, but by the stars, Sara, do you have any idea what those animals are really like? They’re huge, powerful, dangerous and…”
“I know,” Sarala said coolly. “I’ve met them.”
“You what??” Yamin choked from where he lay, still trembling slightly. Sarala looked levelly into her father’s wide eyes.
“I’ve met them. The leopard followed us out of the land I found Rinden in and I was with Rinden when he introduced himself to the pride. None of them made as much as a single aggressive move towards me.”
Yamin shakily rose to his feet.
“Sarala, Sarala,” he moaned, “I didn’t spend all of your childhood warning you how dangerous those creatures are just to see you give yourself to someone you think understands them! Has all that time I spent teaching you been in vain?”
“I’m quite sure it hasn’t,” Nimesha interjected. “Sarala has become very perceptive thanks to your lessons, but there were some areas that you didn’t cover completely, Yamin.”
“I can speak for myself, Mother,” Sarala said with slightly strained patience, “Dad, Rinden was raised differently than I was, and like Mom just said, perhaps this leopard and this lion are different than the ones you’ve been telling me about…”
“Or perhaps,” countered Yamin, “They are conspiring to kill both of you when you think you’re completely safe! Has that thought ever crossed your mind?”
“That leopard had a thousand opportunities to kill Rinden,” Sarala said, “And as for the lion…”
“Enough,” Yamin yelled, turning his back on the two females. “I’m leaving. If this is all about asking for my approval of this mate of yours, you know my answer, Sarala. Nimesha, please keep an eye on her and make sure she stays close to home. Also make sure that that male stays as far away from here as possible. Good-bye.”
He slunk away through the brittle grasses, head held low. When he was out of sight, Sarala and her mother gazed at each other with equal amounts of concern and sadness.
“I should have known,” Sarala muttered, her ears drooping.
“Yes,” Nimesha sighed. “If I had known about this beforehand, I wouldn’t have expected any other sort of reaction from Yamin.”
“So…you’re not against me and Rinden being mates, then?” Sarala asked. He mother looked at her contemplatively.
“As unusual and potentially dangerous as living with cats like that is liable to be…no. I’m not against it. You wouldn’t stay with him if his relationship with that leopard meant trouble for you, and if what you said about the lions is true…”
“It is,” Sarala asserted.
“…Then living in the same territory as them would indeed be safe, provided that the lions behaved themselves. No other Hunter would intrude on a pride’s territory, and it does seem like a safe place to raise a family.
“Still…” Nimesha continued, slightly more serious now, “I don’t know these lions -- or the cheetah you say has befriended them. I would like to meet either of them just to make sure I know that you will be safe in your new life, Sarala.”
Sarala smiled. She glanced towards the twisted tree and saw that Amita, utterly bored with having nothing to do, had fallen asleep beneath it. Perfect.
“Really?” Sarala asked.
“In that case, follow me,” Sarala replied, turning away from the tree and slowly walking northward. “I’ll take you to both of them.”
The two animals sat silently on a slight hill, overlooking the wide, tree-speckled savannah. The sun was sinking in the sky, and the world was beginning to turn red with its dying light.
Both of the animals were cats, however, they were quite different in size and shape. One was large, muscular and thick with a uniform golden coat and a thick fiery ruff of hair around its neck; while the other one was small, thin and sinewy, with a coarse coat splattered with black spots and dark smears that ran from its eyes to the corners of its mouth.
Both animals stared straight ahead, surveying the land before them, which sloped smoothly away from where they sat, becoming flat and remaining that way for several hundred yards. Some distance away, beneath one of the larger twiggy trees, were nearly a dozen lionesses. They occasionally glanced in the direction of the pair atop the hill, but for the most part paid them no mind.
After a long, still silence, the larger of the two cats spoke:
“They seem to have accepted you, don’t you think?”
The smaller one glanced at his companion without turning his head.
“Who? The lionesses?”
“Yes. If it weren’t for your family’s reputation, things might have been different. Most lions won’t tolerate cheetahs.”
“I know,” Rinden replied. “But why does your kind hate us? We only catch food that is too fast for you, and it’s usually too small to satiate a lion’s hunger.”
“I’ve actually wondered about that myself,” the huge feline rumbled. “A small family of cheetahs would be no threat to a pride…yet I know that some lions kill them if they can find them. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
“I’ve heard that as well,” Rinden said, inclining his head slightly. “Leopards and lions…they both seem to have made us their enemies.”
Stuart sighed heavily.
“My parents told me a legend about the cats of this land,” the cheetah continued. “When they were created, the cheetah was given more agility, while the lion was given more strength. Because of this, they became jealous of each other and became rivals, the lion becoming more hateful of the cheetah because of the cheetah’s ability to outrun him so easily.”
Stuart turned and looked at Rinden in surprise.
“It’s strange that you should mention a story like that,” he said, “Because my mother told me one just like that when I was a cub…except in this story, the cheetah stole the gift of speed from the Creator instead of allowing it to be divided equally between him and the lion, and as punishment, the cheetah was given less strength, while the lion received the…well, the lion’s share of it.”
Rinden looked into Stuart’s eyes with an equal amount of amazement.
“You know…Huanu once told me that story as well -- except the leopards were the ones that had speed stolen from them, not lions -- and the cheetahs were punished by receiving less strength and plainer spots than the leopards.”
“Fascinating,” said Stuart quietly.
“One of Huanu’s ancestors must have learned that story from one of yours,” Rinden suggested. “Or maybe our ancestors heard it from them…or perhaps it was the other way around...”
“Or maybe all of our species once lived in harmony and had only one legend,” Stuart remarked.
“I don’t think things were ever like that,” Rinden said flatly.
“Maybe not,” Stuart replied, “But with the way you’ve coexisted with a leopard, perhaps the three of us may be able to live together peacefully one of these days.”
“Maybe,” Rinden said cautiously.
“It seems like lion cubs are taught from birth that cheetahs are inferior,” Stuart muttered. “But when I first met you, it made me realize that this wasn’t true…you were certainly smaller and skinnier and different in appearance, but otherwise, you were just a cub like me.
“I just couldn’t take my parents’ stories to heart after that, and all the questions I asked about the cheetah family that lived so close to us they didn’t answer…it was as if they were fearful of it.”
Rinden’s expression changed slightly, but he didn’t respond to what the lion had said otherwise. He continued to gaze out at the darkening savannah.
A large flock of mousy brown birds began to depart the large bush where they had been concealed from the eyes of the two cats. The little creatures were flapping across the plains at a brisk speed when suddenly a large, dark figure swooped down from the skies above, where it had been waiting unnoticed. It moved with such great speed that there was only enough time to comprehend the figure’s diving into the small flock and the explosion of birds caused by the intruder’s attack. After the chaos had settled, Rinden and Stuart could clearly see a falcon clutching one of the brown birds in its talons and making its way on sharp, thin wings to a suitable perch to devour his catch.
A small, throaty exhalation leapt from Stuart’s throat, a sound of surprise and amazement.
“My,” he said quietly. “I’ve never seen one of those Sky Hunters so close before. I never knew they were that swift.”
He gave Rinden a smug glance.
“I bet even you couldn’t move that fast,” he chuckled.
Rinden shrugged. “Of course I couldn’t,” he admitted. “Sky Hunters have nothing to slow them down. They don’t have to deal with this...”
Here he scratched the earth they stood on with a coarse-padded paw, then glanced thoughtfully at the red sky.
“If I could sail through the air like they could, though, without this hard, dusty ground underfoot…I’m sure I could go that fast.”
“You’ve dreamed of flying, then?” Stuart asked. “The way you cheetahs run, I wouldn’t think you’d dream of something like that…it’s almost as if you fly without leaving the ground.”
Rinden put on a pained smile.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” he said sadly. “It takes so much strength to go that fast, and not every Hunted is slower than us either. If we’re lucky enough to catch something, we can’t even eat it until we’ve gotten our breath back, even if we’re starving…and those less fortunate than me have to deal with other animals stealing their kills during that time.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know…”
“But still,” Rinden said, “For just a brief fluttering of a moment, the moment when you’re halfway to your prey, not quite sure whether you’re going to catch it or lose it, when your only goal is to eliminate the distance between yourself and the Hunted, unable to do anything but run…for that tiny instant, it is almost like flying.”
Stuart smiled, but his eyes shone with pity.
“Do you try to make light of every situation like this?” he asked.
“I suppose,” Rinden replied. “It’s one thing that gives me the incentive to keep living.”
“Always good to have one of those, I guess,” Stuart muttered. He yawned widely and flexed his thick shoulders slightly.
“You cheetahs live a very difficult life,” he observed. “I can’t help but wonder why.”
“We’re just a little different,” Rinden said.
“A little?” Stuart asked in amusement. “Your claws are always out, you chirp like birds and you never scavenge. I wouldn’t call you a little different.”
“You should talk,” Rinden retorted. “You males wear that fringe around your heads, you have tufted tails like zebras, and you live in groups like wild dogs.”
“Our prides have helped us survive,” Stuart said, a note of defensiveness coming into his voice. “They give us strength and a sense of belonging. Our cubs are raised in a safe world.”
Rinden nodded and turned away.
“It makes me wonder why you cheetahs don’t start a pride of your own,” Stuart continued. “Think about it: your females would bring you food, hunting as a group rather than alone. If you got injured, your pridemates would help you and bring you food. There would be more individuals to look after your children.
“It’s better than living alone in every way,” he said gently. “Why don’t you do it?”
Rinden looked back at him and sighed.
“We’re just not built for being in prides,” he said. “We have always lived alone, before, now, and after, except when we take mates. It’s the same thing with leopards, servals, caracals, and all other cats. You lions are the exception. Just because you’re the most powerful Hunters on the plains doesn’t make the way you live the way all other Hunters should live.”
Stuart looked down at his paws thoughtfully.
“I suppose you’re right,” he decided. “Now that I think about it, I can’t help but wonder what made us live in prides in the first place. My parents could never answer that question.”
“Maybe the Creator told you to do it so that you would have an advantage over the ones who stole the gift of speed from you,” Rinden suggested playfully.
“Maybe,” he mused. “I still wonder how this pride is going to fare with you and your mate living in this land, and what would happen if a rogue male wandered by and saw you sitting with me like this. He’d probably think I was crazy...or too cowardly to fight cheetahs.”
“I never thought of that,” Rinden said, a ripple of worry flashing across the surface of his mind.
“Do you suppose he’d believe me if I told him, ‘Oh, this is just my son. He didn’t get enough food growing up so he never filled out or got his mane, so we’re keeping him here until he’s strong enough to survive on his own. As you can see, his cubhood spots also never faded either…’”
“I thought you were serious for a minute there,” Rinden snorted.
“I’m doing the same thing you do,” Stuart explained, “Looking at the lighter side of something.”
“How does it feel?”
“It feels a little like I’m willfully ignoring what shouldn’t be ignored,” Stuart reflected, “But somehow, it makes me feel that as long as I say it and believe it…things just can’t go bad.”
“Same here,” Rinden agreed.
“Actually,” Stuart said, “I just had an idea.”
“Regarding what?” Rinden asked.
“Your place in these lands,” Stuart said. “Though I don’t see you or your mate as creatures that need to be eliminated, I still have a lingering feeling that my lionesses will. Someday they might decide to take you out, despite what I told them.”
“You never can trust females, can you?”
“In most cases, no,” Stuart sighed. “Us males aren’t always trustworthy either, though. Still, I’ve come up with an idea that could help you earn the favor of the lionesses, especially the younger ones who think those stories of your family are nonsense, or the older ones who still think you should be treated like any other cheetah family next to a pride.”
“Ah,” said Rinden, his discomfort quite audible. “So what’s the plan?”
“My girls may be fast, but they aren’t nearly as fast or enduring in their chases as even the slowest members of your species. They can only catch slow-moving Hunted, and many of them put up quite a fight, even the ailing ones.
“But you -- you can catch the swiftest Hunted on the plains -- and all by yourself too! I’ve always longed to hunt down one of those, especially in my wandering adolescent days…but they’ve always been beyond my reach.
“I’m proposing that on days when you’re up to it and I’m in the mood, try chasing down one of those swifter creatures. I and one or two of the pride members will eat of it, but I promise by my father’s mane to leave enough for your mate and you. That way, I am satiated and my lionesses don’t have to hunt as much. They would have no reason to dislike you if you did this. It might mean a little more hunting for you two, but in return, you have the pride’s protection against pretty much any other Hunter that might come our way.
“So…what do you think, Rinden?”
Rinden gazed ahead with a look of deep thought and slight amusement playing upon his sharply contrasting face. After a few moments, he turned to face Stuart with a small smile.
“That’s quite an idea,” he said softly. “It’s great, but…do you think it will work?”
“As long as I keep hoping it will, I don’t see why it shouldn’t,” Stuart rumbled confidently. “How about you?”
“I think it just might work,” Rinden said. “It’s not the carefree haven I first expected, but it still seems fair: Our safety in exchange for your dinner…”
“Just tidbits,” Stuart smirked. “I know you can’t bring anything down big enough to feed a single lion, but pretty much anything will do. It will be tougher during the dry months, but I’m sure we will both endure. You may not always be able to catch something for me, but I’ll understand that. And I promise not to let you go hungry. Just a few bites of gazelle or impala will be enough for me.”
“I hope so,” Rinden said with a shaky chuckle.
“Trust me, old friend,” Stuart purred. “It’s the best deal I could come up with. So, what do you say? Do you want to try it?”
After a pause, Rinden shrugged and sighed, as if he were expelling a heavy thought from within his chest.
“All right,” he said firmly. “I’ll do it.”
Stuart’s green eyes shone brightly in the last rays of the sun as it buried itself in the distant savannah.
“I knew you would,” he said. “I promise you to hold up my end of it as well as I can. I’ll tell my girls about it first thing tomorrow.”
“I’d better tell Sarala about this too,” Rinden said. “I wonder when -- “
He stopped in mid-sentence as Stuart flicked back an ear and began slowly peering over his shoulder.
“What is it?” Rinden hissed.
“Something -- two somethings -- are approaching us. Not big, but large enough to make the grasses rustle.”
Rinden cautiously turned his head in the direction of the “somethings”, then almost chirped with happiness at what he saw. Stuart quickly glanced at the somethings as well.
Standing a short distance away were two cheetahs, one slightly paler and much younger than the other, with a single dark spot on her forehead. Stuart smiled broadly at the sight.
“Your mate certainly has excellent timing, doesn’t she?” he asked Rinden.
“…So that’s Stuart’s plan,” Rinden concluded. The sun had vanished completely and the gibbous moon had started to rise by the time he had introduced himself and Stuart and finished the story of Stuart’s proposal for Sarala and her mother.
“I suppose something like that would keep the peace between you and the lions,” said Nimesha, “But I still can’t help feeling nervous about all this.”
Her initial shock at meeting a male lion had slowly abated, but an aura of anxiety still hung about her like a nest of stray spider webs. Sarala was also slightly uneasy at being in the lion’s presence, but her previous encounter with him combined with Rinden’s presence helped her feel just a touch more secure. It would still be some time before she could look at a lion or a leopard with the same near-fearlessness as her mate.
“You’re a mother,” Rinden said with a knowing smile. “It’s a mother’s job to be concerned for their cubs’ safety, isn’t it?”
“True,” agreed Nimesha, “But not every cheetah mother has to deal with their daughter deciding to live next to a pride of lions.”
“Like I said before,” said Stuart in a deep, gentle voice that still made Nimesha jump slightly, “Rinden’s family wasn’t a normal one, and most of the lionesses feel that harming the son of a pair of cheetahs that even the lions didn’t dare to attack would be either ill-advised or impossible. Certainly the mate of that son would be treated with equal respect. This arrangement that Rinden and I have made is just a precautionary step.”
“I see,” Nimesha quavered. She suddenly pricked up her ears and snapped her head in the direction of a sound of crackling grasses.
“What’s that?” she gasped in a hollow, frightened voice. Rinden, Stuart and Sarala all turned as one. Slowly approaching them though the moon-bathed grasses were two large cats approximately the same size -- one plain, the other spotted with rosettes.
“Huanu,” Rinden said.
“Elfleda,” Stuart said. “What brings you here?”
“You,” the plain one replied with an amused snort. “We saw that you had company, and we decided to see who it was. Well, I decided to see who it was, but Treesleeper here insisted on coming with me.”
“Trees are my home,” said the spotted one proudly with a flick of his white-tipped tail. “They’re the only place where I’m safe from you lions as well.”
“Point taken,” said the plain one with a smirk. “So who are your visitors, Stuart?”
“Our Rinden’s future mate, Sarala, and her mother Nimesha,” said Stuart with a dignified air. “Friends, this is my closest lioness, Elfleda, and Rinden’s friend…erm…”
“Huanu,” Rinden and Huanu said in unison. Nimesha peered at the leopard as if he were a long-lost friend that she couldn’t quite recognize.
“Is…is that the leopard who raised you?” she asked Rinden, who nodded in response. Huanu stood cooperatively as Nimesha stared in amazement at him, marveling at his size and build and the intricate patterns formed by his spots that made her own seem so plain. It was easy to see that this was the first time she had seen a leopard up close.
“But…why did you do it?” she finally asked him in a tiny voice. “Raising a young cheetah would be out of place even for a female leopard…what made you raise him?”
Huanu looked at her with his compassionate emerald eyes, gave her the smallest of smiles and sighed gently.
“We’re all Hunters and we’re all cats,” he said. “We’re all in this world together. When I found Rinden, I was living in a plentiful land where there were hardly any other Hunters to give me problems, and I knew that this little cub wouldn’t steal my prey or drive me out of my territory when he grew up. As far as I was concerned, he was a distant cousin, and I couldn’t just leave a family member to die of thirst and hunger.”
“But you’re a leopard,” Nimesha said. “Leopards kill cheetahs. Why didn’t you…kill him?”
Huanu looked thoughtfully at Rinden, then returned his gaze to Nimesha with a very serious expression on his face.
“No two leopards are alike. I know that’s what everyone says, but our spots aren’t the only parts of us that vary. Things were…a bit different for me when I was growing up, and I just couldn’t see cheetahs as an enemy…I couldn’t even hate lions.
“I just don’t see why we should fight amongst ourselves when we are all part of the same family. We need to kill, eat, drink and sleep to survive, but our efforts to do so are made harder from our fellow cats attacking us and quarreling with us. Think how much easier the world would be without all this fighting.”
His words seemed to have a calming effect not only on the five cats, but on the surrounding life. The insects’ chirps grew quieter; the grasses seemed to rustle together instead of crackle together. It was as if an odd peacefulness had settled upon the knoll, but just as soon as it had, it was gone again, and the world returned to normal.
Nimesha was the first who dared to break the silence:
“He does have a point,” she said quietly.
“Amazing,” said Stuart. “How many have you shared this idea with, Huanu?”
Huanu shrugged and looked ashamed.
“Not many,” he admitted. “Most of the ones I talked to about this either thought I was crazy or looking for a fight. Rinden was the first one I felt confident enough to tell my thoughts to in a long time.”
“You certainly are different,” Nimesha said, her voice heavy with wonder. “You’re nothing like the leopards my parents taught me about…”
Here she turned to look at Stuart.
“…And you are nothing like the lions they taught me about.”
“I’m afraid Huanu and I are just exceptions to the rule,” Stuart admitted. “But you have my word that my pride will keep your daughter and Rinden as safe from the ‘typical’ examples of our species as we are able.”
“And I’ll take care of her as well,” Rinden said. “After all, that’s what males do, isn’t it?”
Nimesha laughed in response to this, then after a pause, looked sadly at her daughter.
“Well, Sarala, you’re not a little cub anymore, and I know I can trust you to make the right choice. You do seem to be in good paws with these cats. If you change your mind, I won’t reprimand you for doing so, but if you really want to do this, then go right ahead.”
“You know I would,” Sarala said, “But there’s just one last thing…Dad.”
Nimesha’s anxiety suddenly resurfaced, and she groaned loudly.
“That poor father of yours -- I doubt he’ll ever listen to reason, Sarala.”
“What’s the problem?” Huanu asked curiously.
“Sarala’s father has a disproportionably great fear of big cats, especially lions,” Rinden explained. “Just mentioning them in a conversation freaks him out.”
“Oh,” Huanu said, in a dismayed, almost queasy tone. “That isn’t good.”
“Well, what are we going to do about it?” Sarala asked. “What if I just took Rinden as my mate and went to live here? Yamin wouldn’t run here and try to rescue me, would he?”
“No, but if he found out that you did that, who knows how that news might effect him?” Nimesha said with a shudder. “He may be impossible at times, but I still love him and I’m going to do everything I can to keep him well of mind.”
“Why don’t you just keep us a secret?” Rinden ventured. “You could tell him that Sarala found another mate in another land, and -- “
“Have you forgotten about Amita?” Nimesha said coldly.
“Oh,” Rinden said, her words sending his hopeful scheme crashing to the ground.
“She would find out about you, either by finding you herself or hearing about you from the birds. There’s no way of keeping secrets with her on the prowl.”
“So…” Sarala said.
“So unless you want to start looking for a new territory in another land, we’ll have to somehow convince Yamin that you’re not going to be killed on your first day with Rinden as your mate. The problem is that the first mention of lions or leopards will set him off! There just doesn’t seem to be any way…”
It was Elfleda who spoke. The lioness had genuine concern in her orange eyes.
“Why what?” Nimesha sighed.
“Why is he so afraid of us?” Elfleda asked. “Did he almost get killed by a lion when he was younger?”
“Were his parents killed by…”
“No, no, nothing like that at all,” Nimesha said. “In fact, as far as I know…he’s never even seen a lion in his life.”
“What?” Rinden yelped in surprise.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” cried Huanu.
“I wish I was,” Nimesha grimaced. “But no. I’m not. He’s never seen a lion…at least…” -- she paused for a moment -- “…not a live lion.”
Even Stuart looked uneasy at her words. Something about the tone of her voice drew all the cats slightly closer to her, where they sat in silent anticipation.
“Mother,” Sarala whispered, “What do you mean?”
“He told me the whole story during one of his breakdowns,” Nimesha recalled. “It has to be the reason why he is what he is today. I can’t make much sense out of it myself, but in some ways, it explains everything. I’ve never told anyone else this story, not even Amita -- not that she would understand its importance anyway -- but I think it’s time that you were told this, Sarala -- both you and your mate…and even you three as well.”
The silence, as impossible as it was, seemed to grow even greater, and even the moon’s light seemed to fade slightly.
“Yamin was young on the day it happened -- he had left his parents, but his mane was still thick on his shoulders…”
“Don’t worry, you can do it,” the cheetah that sat at Yamin’s side chortled. “You’ll be in and out in less time than it takes you to blink.”
Yamin shivered a little at the cheetah’s words and shifted his weight from one foreleg to the other. On his other side, another cheetah gently nudged his flank.
“Come on,” she purred. “We’ve seen others do it before. It’s a cinch! And don’t you know how good chickens taste?”
Yamin shrank slightly, but managed a reassuring laugh in spite of his fear. The cheetahs beside him were slightly older than he was, but that wasn’t what frightened him. Their coats didn’t have the typical polka-dot pattern of most cheetahs, but an intricate, striking network of blotches and stripes. Still, this didn’t frighten him either.
What frightened him was that these two cheetahs were urging him to run down to the ranch at the bottom of the hill they were sitting on and steal a chicken from the fenced area beside an intimidating house that may or may not have contained humans.
“See that fence?” said the first cheetah, gesturing to a section of the chain-link affair that separated them from the ranch. “There’s a hollow right there, and the metal isn’t rigid. You can slip right under there.”
“But the humans,” Yamin protested. “They could be anywhere...with thundersticks.”
“Well, they’re not here now,” the first cheetah said, “So now’s your chance to grab one of those birds.”
Yamin squinted at the enclosure with the odd, plump birds that strutted about and pecked at the dusty earth inside it.
“How could I get in there, though?” he asked.
“There’s a small gap between the wire and the post on the right,” said the second cheetah, the only female present. She and her companion were king cheetahs, and Yamin had become their target for teasing and playful pranks because of his appearance -- his black-tipped fringe and the “nested” spots on his shoulders and backs made him look like an “unfinished” king cheetah.
Their behavior wasn’t merely spiteful, however. King cheetahs were quite uncommon, and they often formed small “gangs” wherever they met -- their arrogant, bullying behavior was only a mask for their feelings of alienation and vulnerability that all king cheetahs had in some quantity. These two saw Yamin as a potential brother, but since he still had the overall appearance of normal cheetah, they still gave him trouble. Yamin was a mild-mannered cheetah, and he had been trying to get away from these two kings for nearly his entire adolescence.
“The chickens can’t push through that gap, and you can,” continued the female. “You probably won’t even need to go into the cage -- you can just stick your paw in there and smack one down!”
Yamin’s spirits dropped. He’d hoped that he’d found a flaw in the cheetahs’ plan that would convince them to call it off -- instead, he had just made his situation even worse.
“Think how fun it will be!” The first cheetah chuckled. “Think what you’ll look back on!”
“What if I don’t live long enough to look back on this?” Yamin remarked.
“Hey, we’ll be here in case anything goes wrong,” said the female cheetah gently, shifting her beautifully patterned body slightly. “Besides, you’re quick enough to get out of trouble…what cheetah isn’t?”
She and her friend shared a laugh that Yamin took no part in.
“Come on, little king,” the first cheetah said, giving one of the odd spots on Yamin’s shoulder a swat. “You know we won’t leave you alone until you do this. You’ve come this far -- why back out now?”
“All right, all right,” Yamin groaned. “I’ll do it. Just don’t leave me.”
“King’s honor,” said the male, raising a paw. “Good luck, Yammers.”
Yamin cringed at the nickname, turned, and began making his way down the hill as slowly as he was able, trying to formulate a way to get out of this situation without the king cheetahs noticing. He grappled with several ideas that involved running away at top speed, but no matter which direction he considered going, none seemed to be a surefire way to escape this mess with his dignity intact.
After reaching the chain-link fence, he realized that since he hadn’t come up with any plans in time, his only choice was going through with his friends’ scheme (though “friends” was hardly the word he would use to describe them now). He found the place where the fence was slack, pushed his nose under, and cautiously slipped underneath. He was so small that the fence barely creaked at all as he did.
Now he was inside the ranch. The large, slightly ramshackle wooden house in front of him was the only structure in sight. Trees and shrubs grew sparingly around it in the bare, dusty ground. Behind the house was a wide, sweeping expanse of grazing land bordered by a split-rail fence. On the land grazed hundreds of cattle of many colors and sizes. Yamin thought he saw one or two glance his way, but they seemed strangely unperturbed. Perhaps he wasn’t close enough to them to be considered a threat…yet.
But the cattle didn’t concern Yamin. The small fenced area attached to the house was all that was on his mind. He could see the gap in the fence now. Amazingly, it did seem big enough for him to slip through. All he would have to do was to squeeze in there, grab a chicken and run.
He cautiously looked back to make sure that his “friends” were still sitting on the hill. They were. He could still see the hollow under the outer fence clearly as well. It would be easy to make a quick retreat…that was what he kept telling himself.
He eyed the chickens. Some of them seemed to be acting a little more agitated than before, so some of them had to have noticed him. They weren’t making any noise yet, so all was well so far. Yamin quickly glanced up at the huge, square eyes of the house that were said to be called “windows”. He didn’t detect any movement from behind them, nor was there any noise from inside the house. Good.
He knew that he wouldn’t be able to ambush the chickens by speed. He would have to slowly approach them and then pounce, like a leopard would -- that was the way his parents told him they hunted, though he had never seen a leopard in action himself. He flattened his sinewy body against the ground as well as he could, and began slowly approaching the cage. The chickens flapped and clucked, but otherwise, took little notice of him.
The birds stayed strangely calm as he neared their enclosure -- perhaps this generation of chickens had never seen a cheetah before and didn’t realize that he was a threat or that he could easily get to them. Yamin kept on crawling their way, eyes fixed on the sunlight that glinted off of the fence. He could do this. He would survive. He’d made it this far…it was all downhill from here.
Suddenly, a noise split the world apart. It was loud and startling, and it froze Yamin in his tracks. It had the intensity and volume of thunder, yet there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. He knew it could only be one thing -- a thunderstick. And when a thunderstick spoke, that meant humans.
Yamin almost panicked, thinking that the stick had bitten him, but a quick inspection revealed no wounds. He looked around, but saw no humans. Now that he thought about it, the stick’s call seemed to have come from somewhere out of sight, somewhere on Yamin’s left. As much as the sound had frightened him, he still harbored a sense of cub’s curiosity about it. He wondered what a thunderstick looked like, and how humans made them speak…and what about the humans?
If Yamin caught a glimpse of the humans, those bullies would never talk him into doing something like this again -- he would be revered among the cheetahs! He would tell his story to others, and anyone who dared to call him a liar would be told to go take look at the humans themselves to see whether he was being truthful about them or not -- that would shut them up.
With this in mind, Yamin began moving in the direction that the thunderstick had sounded from. He imagined that the two cheetahs on the hill were watching him in horror, wondering what had gotten into his head. Wouldn’t they be dumbstruck when Yamin came back to tell them that he had seen a human!
The thunderstick sounded again. It didn’t seem nearly as loud as the first call, though it did seem slightly closer. The trees and shrubs became more numerous. Soon, only the presence of the wooden fence on his right and the chain-link fence on his left reminded Yamin that he was in human territory.
The thunderstick called a third time, and this time, Yamin could feel the vibrations from the sound in the earth as well as the air. He ventured on a little further. There was a small grove of thick trees ahead, but just beyond them was a large clearing. Yamin carefully made his way towards it.
He halted abruptly when he heard the stick a fourth time and realized that the human holding it was barely a stone’s throw away. He scrambled back a few feet, but soon calmed down when he saw that the human hadn’t seen him -- in fact, it wasn’t even facing him. He then realized that there were two of them -- tall, dark creatures swathed in all those strange, intricate hides, their hind feet bound in thick skins as well. Each one held a thunderstick, and Yamin watched in horrified fascination as one of them held the stick in a certain way, and it called again in that incredibly loud explosion of sound.
Yamin couldn’t help but wonder what they were doing with the sticks -- facing the same direction, several paces apart, pointing the sticks the same way, staring straight ahead so intently…at what, he wondered. He followed the humans’ gaze to the trees on the far side of the clearing. He couldn’t see anything but trees…why were the humans shooting at trees? Then one of the two thundersticks spoke once again, and something in the trees moved as it did.
Yamin peered at the thing that had moved -- it was a small, flat, circular object hanging on one of the trees that had jumped when the thunderstick spoke. Upon closer inspection, Yamin saw a mate to the object hanging on a nearby trunk as well. Both were small and round, with a distinctive pattern: a broad red stripe circling the objects’ edges, a white stripe inside the red one, then another red stripe, another white stripe, and a red dot in the very center. A thunderstick’s call rang out again, and the thing on the left quivered slightly as a tiny hole appeared in the middle white stripe.
Yamin suddenly felt a cold shiver of dread cascade over him as he observed the flat patterned circles. He glanced around at his right hip. There, as usual, was the odd marking which he had in four separate places on his body, a black ring surrounding a ring the same color as the rest of his fur, with a small black dot in the center.
He stared back at the circles -- red ring, white ring, red ring, white ring, red dot.
He looked at his marking again -- black ring, yellow ring, black dot.
Red ring, white ring, red ring, white ring, red dot.
Black ring, yellow ring, black dot.
Red, white, red, white, red -- black, yellow, black…
Another thunderstick call, and this time, when a hole appeared in one of the circles, Yamin felt as if his markings were burning. The thundersticks were being pointed at those circles…and those circles were just like the ones that Yamin had. They were part of his body, he couldn’t tear them off…and the thundersticks, the sticks that killed without touching…they spat death at those circles.
Yamin’s heart was jounced into a faster rhythm so suddenly that he almost lurched forward. Panicking, he scrambled to get away, but in his terror, he made so much noise in the shrubbery that the humans turned and saw him. Yamin only heard shouts from them as he ran away, his markings burning, never letting him ignore them, not now, after what he had seen. The fence…if he could just get to the gap in the fence, he would be safe…he wouldn’t be killed…he wouldn’t die…
As these thoughts sped through his mind, Yamin suddenly halted again. He was in sight of the house again, facing the west wall, which he hadn’t seen the first time he had been there. Fear paralyzed him, and he was unable to do anything but prostrate himself and stare at what had brought him into this state:
It hung on the wall of the house, tawny, flat and limp, but not without an aura of greatness about it. Its shape was all too familiar: four long protrusions, one on each corner, and a slightly thinner protrusion at its base. It was the skin of an animal, but what animal? It wasn’t from one of the cattle or even from a wild Hunted…it seemed strangely familiar to Yamin, though…
That’s when he noticed the huge, dark ruff of hair around what was once the animal’s head. Thick, bushy and unmistakable. Yamin suddenly remembered the huge cats that his parents had told him about, the ones with the thick manes of hair that covered their heads, the ones that they warned him to avoid, for they kill cheetahs…
Yamin trembled violently at the thought of what the animal that owned this skin would have looked like…a big, powerful, deadly beast that killed…
A thunderstick called out again, but to Yamin, it wasn’t a thunderstick call, but the roar of a lion, hunting him down, out to kill him…the marks on his body itched terribly. He took one last look at the lion skin, then took off as fast as he was able, to considering his ringing mind and shaken limbs.
After much frantic scrabbling, he was able to find the opening in the fence, which he squeezed through as quickly as he could, scrabbling frantically at the hard-packed earth. When he finally made it through, he continued running, not even noticing whether the two king cheetahs were still there or not, running from the humans, running from the circles with the patterns on them, running from the lion, the noises, the terror…running…running…running…
“…And that’s it?” Rinden asked cautiously.
“Yes,” Nimesha sighed. “That’s it.”
“So,” said Sarala, her eyes growing wider and wider as her mother’s tale progressed with this newfound knowledge of her father, “Seeing those circles’ similarity to his own markings and the lion skin made him think that lions were out to kill him because those markings were getting hit by the thundersticks?”
“That’s pretty much it,” Nimesha sadly said with a shrug. “If things had happened any other way, he might have developed a rational fear of humans or thundersticks, but he ended up with an overblown fear of lions and all big cats. The circles’ patterns, his own markings, the thunderstick calls, the lion skin…he somehow linked all of these together and came up with the notion that because of his markings, because of what he is…he is in danger from all lions under the sun. The events of that day that imprinted that terror in his mind, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to help him overcome it.”
“Poor Dad,” Sarala said, her voice breaking. “I want to help him, but now that you’ve told me what happened to him…”
“I know,” Nimesha said, sighing again. “I think that even his own name is a source of anxiety for him.”
“His name?” Rinden asked. “Why?”
“It means ‘night’ in one of the languages from the East -- the old country,” Nimesha explained. “He got that name because of his dark mantle…but night is the time when most lions do their most brutal killings, isn’t it…Stuart?”
This was the first time she had addressed Stuart directly. He blinked in surprise.
“Why yes…we do take down some large Hunted in our night kills,” he said.
“I think Yamin somehow realized that,” Nimesha muttered. “It’s a wonder he can still sleep well. He left his homeland shortly after that incident and wandered for some time, finally meeting me in our territory, to the south. Sometime after that, Sarala was born, and you probably know the rest.”
“So he’s completely convinced that every lion alive is planning to kill him,” Rinden said. “What do you think we should do about it?”
“I was hoping you’d come up with something,” Nimesha said.
“If he’s never even seen a live lion,” Huanu mused quietly, looking up at the stars as he spoke, “Perhaps if he did, that would make some difference in the way he perceives them.”
“Maybe,” Nimesha said. “But I’m too afraid that he’d lose his grip on his sanity completely if he did.”
“He has no idea what lions are like other than what his parents told him,” Rinden argued. “I can’t think of a more direct way to break this complex of his.”
“And what do you know about problems of the mind?” Nimesha snarled.
“Didn’t Sarala tell you what happened to my parents when I was young?” Rinden said coldly.
Nimesha’s fire went out. She lowered her head and flattened her ears in shame.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry…wasn’t thinking…”
“It’s all right,” Rinden said in a stern but forgiving way. “Maybe showing Yamin a lion isn’t the best idea…not yet, anyway. Perhaps we could work our way up to showing him one somehow.”
“’Work our way up’?” Sarala echoed. “How would we do that?”
“We could try introducing Yamin to a cheetah that has been around lions and knows what they’re really like,” Rinden said slyly.
“You mean…you?” Nimesha asked.
“Who else?” Rinden chuckled.
“No,” Nimesha said, “He knows about you already, and he wouldn’t talk with you even if one of us pinned him down.”
“I know,” said Rinden. “But I’ve got a plan.”
“I sure hope it’s a good one,” Sarala said warily.
“Me too,” Rinden said. “I’m actually still trying to put it all together.”
The land to the south was much flatter and more barren than the land surrounding Twin Cheetahs. In the rainy season, it was probably just as rich as the lands to the north, but now, it was quite dry and dusty.
Rinden stood out in one of the more open stretches of savannah, casually watching a herd of oryx grazing in the distance. He casually wondered what one of those huge beasts would taste like, and whether Stuart might consider having his proposition go both ways, letting Rinden and Sarala eat some of the prey that the pride brought down -- but he quickly let this idea go. He was taking a big enough risk as it was.
There was also a small herd of delicate antelope near the oryx, but Rinden had no need to hunt them. He had caught himself a young gazelle that morning, which he and Sarala shared, letting Stuart have a taste as well, per their bargain. Nimesha, however, had refused a portion of the carcass when Rinden had offered it to her, which was probably just as well, given the gazelle’s small size.
Rinden slowly scanned the horizon. Nothing had shown up on it in the last hour, and it was getting hot. He wondered how much longer he would have to wait. Nimesha had said that she and Sarala would come to Yamin with the news of a “stranger” near the northern border and ask him to investigate. Hopefully Yamin wouldn’t ask too many questions about their absence and Amita wouldn’t have told him too much…it was a big “hopefully”, but they just had to have faith that it would hold.
Finally, just as Rinden was starting to pant from the heat, he saw a cheetah walking slowly towards him. As Rinden watched, it suddenly stopped, stared ahead intently, then began approaching him at a swift walk. Rinden stood his ground until the cheetah was close enough for him to see the stranger’s eyes. Then he quickly lowered himself to show that he was no threat.
The stranger drew close and looked down upon Rinden.
“This land is my territory, wanderer,” it said in a stern, yet non-aggressive tone.
“I know,” Rinden said, averting his gaze. “And I know you as well. You’re Yamin, mate of Nimesha. I only wanted to speak with you, to discuss something personal both to you and myself.”
Yamin looked quizzically at Rinden. Then his expression suddenly became anxious and worried.
“You’re not…you’re not that mad cheetah that claims to have befriended a lion and a leopard, are you??” he quavered. “Because if you are, you can take your delusions and leave this land and my daughter! No cheetah that is insane enough to trust a lion will ever…”
“No,” Rinden managed. “No, no, I’m not that cheetah.” His mind began working frantically to formulate an answer to the question that he knew was coming.
“Then who are you?” Yamin asked.
“I’m his brother…Duma,” Rinden said as steadily as he was able, the name being the first one that came to mind.
“Duma?” Yamin said reflectively. “Not the most unique name for a cheetah, I daresay.”
“I know,” Rinden replied, faking his best chortle, “Rinden was the first born, so he got the best name first too.”
The wisp of humor in Yamin’s voice made Rinden feel safe enough to rise to his feet as he said this and look Yamin in the eyes, which were a rich brown, redder than most cheetahs’ eyes. Rinden took this opportunity to examine the rest of Sarala’s father’s appearance.
Yamin’s pelt was much paler than Rinden’s, an insipid yellow reminiscent of the sun’s first rays. Of course, Yamin wasn’t nearly as pale as Rinden’s father, but he was still colorless enough to make him stand out. It was easy to see where Sarala had gotten her slightly lighter coat. There was even a solitary spot on Yamin’s forehead, just like Sarala’s spot.
Then there was the mane -- Yamin still had a large portion of his cubhood mane, and most of it congregated on the top of his head and drooped down one side of his face. This wasn’t too unusual to Rinden, as he vaguely remembered his mother having a large patch of mane between her shoulder blades, but what was unusual was the color of Yamin’s mane: it started out pale at the roots, but it turned completely black towards the tips. There was still a thick fringe of black along the back of his neck.
What caught Rinden’s eye the most was an unusual mark on Yamin’s left shoulder -- one of the eyelike marks that Nimesha had mentioned in her recollection of Yamin’s unfortunate experience. As Rinden looked more closely, he noticed that there was a mark just like it on Yamin’s left hip, and as the pale cheetah moved, Rinden could see identical marks in the same locations on Yamin’s right side. As odd as these markings were, they added an odd sense of beauty to him. Rinden imagined that Yamin’s unique look attracted many females in his youth.
“So you’re his brother,” Yamin said, shaking his head slightly, tossing his dark forelock.
“Yes,” Rinden replied. “I came with him and your daughter to your land, and Rinden sent me to speak with you on his behalf. He…didn’t think you knew him well enough to speak with him yet.”
“I think I know all that I need to know about him,” said Yamin scornfully. “And as little as that is, it’s enough to convince me that he isn’t well in the head. Saying that he befriended lions and was raised by a leopard…ugggh.” He shivered convulsively at this last word, then slowly managed to regain his composure as Rinden attempted to swallow the anger he felt at being so insulted.
“So what’s your history, Duma?” Yamin asked. “You weren’t raised by…by them as well, I hope?”
“No,” Rinden fibbed, “I grew up with my parents. Rinden…he got separated from us one day. In a rainstorm. He apparently couldn’t find his way home, and we thought he was dead. It turns out that a leopard found him, and decided to raise him as a foster son. It wasn’t until Sarala found him and convinced him to return to our homeland that we realized he hadn’t died.”
Yamin winced slightly at the mention of the leopard.
“Are you sure the leopard didn’t intend to eat him when he reached a certain size?” he asked.
“No, no,” Rinden said, almost laughing. “From what my brother told me, this leopard refuses to fight or kill other cats. He has his own philosophy about the way the Hunters should live that has actually made him an outcast among his own kind.”
“Hmm,” said Yamin. “I still say that that leopard had to be plotting something.”
“Maybe,” Rinden said, deciding not to argue this topic any longer, “But with the lions, it was completely different.”
Yamin had tensed like a bent branch at the word “lions”. He lowered himself so low that Rinden could see all four of his eyelike marks.
“Don’t talk so casually about them, Duma,” he hissed urgently. “Have you no idea how dangerous they are??”
“Of course I do,” said Rinden, pretending to shudder a little himself, “But Rinden says that he met a lion cub when he was younger.”
“And he survived??” Yamin trembled.
“Without so much as a scuff,” said Rinden. “And he got to know the lion too. That’s how he was able to befriend the lion and his pride when he returned. I was with him when he did, and to tell you the truth, I was so frightened that I was ready to run until I reached the horizon…”
“You should have run!” shouted Yamin, springing to his feet and fixing Rinden with a look of both rage and terror. “This Rinden is insane! He must have lied when he told you about meeting the cub! He must’ve! They must be preparing to kill him, the lions and the leopard! And if I let him have my daughter, they would kill her as well…and then they would track me down…”
Yamin had started pacing by this time, his path forming a narrow ellipsis which became smaller and smaller with each word, until he was making small, tight, worried circles in the grass. Rinden looked on, uncertain of what to do next.
“They’re always looking for me,” Yamin whispered, his head bowed, his ears back, “Always…always. All these years I’ve kept my daughter safe, and I’m not going to let her become the mate of a male that thinks he has made friends with a leopard and a pride of lions…I’d sooner let her take a cobra as a mate.”
He looked up at Rinden. His face was contorted into one of anger, but the fear still showed in his reddish eyes.
“Tell your brother to go back to his…his friends, Duma. Just promise me you’ll stay away from him…whatever he has could be contagious, and I wouldn’t want a healthy young male like you to start developing the same insane ideas that that Rinden has. Now please…go.”
Rinden was about to say something, but thought better of it. The pity he felt toward Yamin had eclipsed his indignation at being called mad. He took one last look at what must have once been a proud, strong cheetah that was now nearly consumed by the overblown anxieties and phobias that plagued its mind. He sighed, then slowly turned and padded away, occasionally looking back over his shoulder at the lone, pale form with its low head and drooping tail.
Sarala, Nimesha and Amita were waiting for Rinden at the spot by the warped tree when he showed up in the late afternoon.
“No luck?” Sarala asked. Rinden sighed and shook his head dejectedly.
“I pretended to be my brother and speak for Rinden -- I mean me. It was going just fine until…”
“…You brought up lions? ” Nimesha guessed.
“Yep,” Rinden muttered. He walked up to the tree and flopped down underneath it.
“Mister Handsome Mate Friend!” Amita trilled, bouncing to her feet and prancing over to Rinden’s side. “It’s so great to see you again!”
“Wish I could say the same thing to you,” Rinden remarked. “Did you or your mother come up with any more ideas while I was gone, Sarala?”
“No, sorry,” Sarala admitted. “Amita kept asking us too many questions for us to think straight.”
Rinden groaned and gazed heavenward. The prospect that had brought him back to his homeland was fast becoming an impossible one, all because of a middle-aged cheetah with an irrational fear of something he had never even seen in the flesh before.
“You look funny when you do that,” Amita grinned, wagging her tail. Rinden looked at her incredulously.
“Are you okay?” he asked suspiciously.
“No, I’m a dog,” Amita replied, barking to prove herself.
“Ah…that’s nice,” said Rinden, not feeling fearful for his life quite yet.
“Got anything to throw that I can fetch?”
“Um…” Rinden murmured, scanning the ground immediately in front of him. His eyes lit upon a large, rounded stone, and an idea sprang to life in his head.
“Here’s something,” he said, gesturing to the stone. Amita looked eagerly at it. “I’m going to hit this rock very, very hard, and it’s going to go flying off into the grass. I want you to run out there and find it, okay?”
“Okay,” Amita agreed. Rinden positioned his forepaw to swat the rock.
“You’d better stand back a little. I’m really going to hit this thing,” Rinden cautioned. Amita jumped back a few feet, looking back over her shoulder at Rinden with a look of anticipatory euphoria.
Rinden drew back his paw and viciously swatted not the rock, but the air directly above it. Amita, however, failed to notice his ruse and went tearing off into the grasses. Nimesha and Sarala watched her leave, then looked back at Rinden in astonishment.
“What possessed you to do that?” Sarala asked, thunderstruck.
“You told me that Amita was like a cub in an adult’s body,” Rinden said simply, “I just did something that I figured my younger self would fall for…and it looks like I remember by youth pretty accurately.”
“I guess,” Nimesha chuckled. Her sister’s disappearance didn’t concern her that much; she knew that Amita would be back eventually. Rinden’s face soon turned serious again.
“I just wish I could get through to Yamin,” he growled. “He just won’t listen to me.”
“He won’t listen to anyone who mentions lions or leopards,” Nimesha said sadly. “Those words just drive him mad.”
“And he accused me of being crazy,” Rinden snorted angrily. “If he only knew all that Huanu has done for me, and what Stuart plans to do for me and Sarala…”
He breathed deeply and exhaled slowly and deeply. Then he looked up with what looked like suppressed grief in his eyes.
“Do you know why Huanu has such an unusual philosophy about the way fellow Hunters should treat each other?”
“No,” Sarala said softly.
“He was forced out of his homeland by humans,” Rinden said coldly. “Not only that, but some of his family was killed by humans too. Even though he tries his best to make light of whatever hardships come his way, he still carries that memory with him.”
He lowered his head and breathed deeply again.
“Ever since it happened, he’s felt that us Hunters shouldn’t waste their strength fighting and killing each other when it could be better spent standing up against a much greater threat.”
Nimesha and Sarala looked down at Rinden with pity in their hearts as they remembered the jovial leopard that had approached them the previous night.
“And now…I’m sorry, but hearing Yamin talk about Huanu as if he is a scheming creature planning to kill me is just…it’s just too much for me. That leopard has been like a second father to me…my first father was taken by the humans, and now, though my father-in-law refuses to admit it, he has been destroyed by them as well.”
He trembled and kneaded the earth with his claws, still not looking up. Sarala slowly padded up to him.
“Rinden,” she whispered, “Remember the lions’ prophecy?”
“That prophecy isn’t worth a pile of -- “
“You say that because you don’t want to be part of it,” Sarala interrupted. “But the prophecy was that either Khan or his son would return to his homeland to restore balance to it and take revenge on the humans that broke their family, remember?”
“Yes, yes,” Rinden snarled.
“Well, you have returned to your homeland…and what if that prophecy included extended family as well as immediate family?”
Rinden stopped quivering and looked at Sarala with wide-eyed bewilderment.
“I thought you said you were just going to ‘play along’ with this prophecy, not fulfill it,” Sarala smiled.
“I have no intention of fulfilling it,” Rinden snapped.
“Maybe not, but oddly enough, it seems to slowly be coming true on its own, and all you have done is act like yourself.”
“I still don’t have any plans to ‘take revenge on the humans’,” Rinden argued.
“No,” Sarala said, “But you didn’t have any plans for convincing my father that living with a pride of lions and a leopard wouldn’t result in my being killed either, did you?”
“No, but I haven’t convinced him of anything,” Rinden said.
“Yet,” Sarala reminded him. “Just keep trying and have a little faith, and I know you can achieve anything…look what you’ve achieved so far.”
Rinden sighed. Sarala gently brushed up against him and purred, and Rinden grudgingly did the same. Nimesha smiled at the sight of them together. It reminded her of her own youth and the time she had known Yamin…and before she had known about his little “problem”.
Suddenly, there was a loud rustling sound from the grasses behind her, and Amita bounded exuberantly out of the foliage.
“I couldn’t find the rock,” she reported sadly. “I looked everywhere too!”
Rinden hastily placed his paw in front of the rock that still rested in front of him -- the same one he had fooled Amita into running after. He was about to respond to her words when Sarala spoke up:
“You did?” she asked sympathetically.
“Yeah -- I even checked the squirrel holes, just to make sure it didn’t fall into one of them,” Amita said.
“But Rinden only kicked it a few feet away…that rock didn’t just run away from you, did it?”
“It did not,” said Amita indignantly.
“I’ll bet it did,” said Sarala mischievously. “I bet it sprouted legs and scurried off when you weren’t looking.”
“It did not!” Amita repeated.
“If it didn’t run away, then it should still be out there,” reasoned Sarala.
“But it’s not.”
“Maybe not, Amita, but I’ll tell you what: go out and look for it one more time, and if you can’t bring back that rock, bring back a lizard instead. Deal?”
Amita stood still for a moment, her frazzled hair suddenly motionless as she peered upwards in deep thought. Then her gleaming eyes met Sarala’s with renewed enthusiasm in them.
“Deal,” she barked, turning and sprinting back through the grasses. Nimesha and Rinden stared at Sarala in surprise.
“Just trying the same thing you did,” she explained to her future mate. “Looks like it really does work.”
Nimesha giggled at this, but Rinden merely smiled knowingly.
“You just have to think like a cub,” he said.
Sarala grinned at this, but then she sighed and glanced at the ground. Rinden could see why -- living with a relative like Amita was no laughing matter.
“So…” he said after an ample pause, “Amita has really always been like this?”
Nimesha nodded mutely.
“Yikes…it must have been horrible for you as a cub, putting up with her,” Rinden said to Sarala.
“Horrible?” Sarala asked in surprise, looking up. “Why no…it wasn’t horrible at all.”
“It wasn’t?” Rinden said.
“No. When I was a cub, Amita was just like a big sister to me…a really big sister, though. As I grew up, I began to realize that she wasn’t my sister, but just a crazy aunt that never really grew up herself, but we had so much fun playing together while Mom was out hunting and I was little…too much fun sometimes. She tired me out so easily…she was stronger than me, of course.”
“Yes,” Nimesha agreed with a sigh. “I remember watching the two of you tumble together…a lot of your sparring matches never seemed that fair to me, with Amita being so much bigger. It reminded me of my own cubhood and the times I spent frolicking with her.
“In fact, now that I look back on it, the only times Amita seemed the most happy and the most -- well, ‘normal’ -- were the times she spent with you when you were a cub, Sarala. As you grew older, you spent less time playing with her, and she got a little moody because of that. It’s like the only cheetahs Amita feels at home with are cubs. The trouble is that I’m not one anymore and neither are you, so she’s pretty much alone again. I suppose Yamin’s fragility reminds her of a cub’s, and that’s what draws her to him. I can’t think of any other reason why she just won’t leave him alone.”
She sighed again and looked down at her paws.
“I just thought of something,” Rinden said.
“Yes?” Nimesha asked, slowly raising her head.
Rinden carefully explained his idea to the two females. By the time he was finished, both of them were looking less despairing, but still just as concerned as before.
“It’s quite a proposition,” said Nimesha, sounding impressed.
“I’ll say,” Sarala seconded. “But it’s definitely worth a try, Rinden.”
“Remember, though,” Nimesha said quietly, “If he doesn’t accept this ‘bargain’, he won’t accept any other one, so you’d better make this last conversation with him count, Rinden.”
“I will,” said Rinden. “Where do you think I should meet him this time?”
“Right here,” said Nimesha. “Sarala and I will go off hunting. You wait for him nearby. He should be here before dark. He always comes back home before the sun goes down. Well…I wish you luck, Rinden.”
“Thank you, Nimesha,” Rinden replied. “I hope I get through to your mate this time…maybe I just need to have a little faith.”
Just as the sun was beginning to paint the land red, Rinden spotted Yamin approaching the bent tree. The older cheetah cautiously looked around for his mate and daughter, called for them, then climbed onto the tree and sat there gazing at the horizon, his back to Rinden.
Rinden slowly came out of his hiding place between two thick bushes and quietly drew closer to Yamin. When he had gotten close enough to see the four “eyes” on Yamin’s back, he stopped and spoke the cheetah’s name.
Yamin jumped slightly and snapped his head around at the sound of the voice, but relaxed when he realized who it belonged to.
“Ah…you again,” he murmured, resuming his stare towards the horizon.
“I have something I have to confess to you,” Rinden began, coming closer to the tree.
“I’m not Rinden’s brother. In fact, there never was a brother. I am Rinden.”
“Yes,” said Yamin calmly. “I know.”
It was now Rinden’s turn to jump in surprise.
“You know?? How did you know?”
“I suspected it throughout our last conversation,” said Yamin, turning slowly to face Rinden. “There was something so familiar about your scent, but I just couldn’t place it.
“Then later, I remembered where I’d encountered it before -- I’d smelled it on Sarala. That’s when I knew that you couldn’t be who you said you were -- why else would my daughter have the scent of the brother of a potential mate on her fur, and no scent of the mate himself? Besides, all that talk about your getting…reacquainted with a…a lion from the lands to the north…there was only one cheetah family that lived next to a pride in those lands, and they had only one surviving son.”
Rinden sheepishly drew back his ears. He should have known that his little ruse wouldn’t fool a cheetah much older and more experienced than him. A cheetah as intelligent as Sarala had to have had at least one equally smart parent.
Once again, Yamin turned away, but continued the conversation nonetheless.
“So…no sense of self-preservation when it comes to avoiding dangerous predators and a habit of lying. As if I needed more reasons to keep my Sarala away from you.”
“I only lied about my identity so that I could talk to you,” Rinden protested, reaching the base of the tree. “You would probably have run away from me if I hadn’t. I needed to get you to trust me.”
“I figured a cheetah like you would be deceptive and scheming,” Yamin said. “I just didn’t know how deceptive and scheming you could be.”
“Yamin,” said Rinden, loud enough to make Yamin look his way, “Why are you afraid of l -- “ he stopped himself just in time and cautiously completed his sentence with, “ -- of Them?”
Yamin winced at this, but his pupils didn’t dilate and he didn’t start shaking as Rinden feared he would.
“It was a long time ago,” the pale cat sighed. “I hardly remember anything from that day…except that I learned the truth about Them. That’s all I know…and all I need to know.”
“Yamin, your mate told me what you told her about that day,” Rinden said. Yamin looked at him with more surprise than anger. “She said that you saw two humans pointing thundersticks at some circles that looked like your markings -- “ Yamin twitched slightly at this “ -- and that you saw a li -- one of Their skins. She thinks that you got all of those mixed up so that you got the idea that They were out to get you.”
“But they are,” Yamin said, almost automatically. “I know they are!”
“You think They are,” Rinden said, cautiously climbing onto the tree and approaching his future father-in-law. “Try to remember that day, Yamin: the king cheetahs, the dare, the chickens…don’t you remember?”
Yamin fell silent, staring at the horizon with confusion and fear in his eyes.
“I…I seem to remember those two kings,” he said, “And going down to a human place to get something…but other than that, there’s nothing. Nothing at all.”
“That place changed you,” said Rinden gently. “You may not realize it, but it has. You talk about how fierce and murderous They are, but you’ve never even seen one, have you?”
There was another pause as Yamin stared straight ahead, a quietly seething web of emotions.
“No,” he said quietly. “I haven’t.”
“You know, when I was growing up, I thought that all females were weak, fragile creatures…until I first saw your daughter.”
“My daughter and one of those murderers are not the same thing,” Yamin snapped.
“How do you know if you’re never even seen one?” Rinden retorted.
“I just -- “ Yamin exploded, but something made him stop in mid-yell.
“I don’t know,” he said in a near-whisper. “I used to think what happened on that day was just a revelation, but now that you’ve brought it up like that…I don’t know what happened anymore.”
“I think you do,” Rinden said. “Your mind just won’t let you remember. You must remember it otherwise you wouldn’t have told it to Nimesha.”
“When she finally asked me about that day, I…I wasn’t well,” Yamin said quietly. “For some reason, I seemed to remember everything that happened, but even then, it didn’t make sense. She and Sarala are the only creatures in this world I trust, and I don’t want to lose either of them to the ones that are bent on killing me.”
“Yamin,” Rinden said forcefully, “Try to recall what really happened that day. You didn’t see or hear Them…you saw humans and heard their thundersticks. The same creatures that took my parents from me and drove my foster father out of his homeland have torn your mind, but you just can’t see that, can you?”
Yamin didn’t respond. He kept staring straight ahead, expressionless.
“It was all just an unfortunate combination of happenings that day. Those cats may have a reputation for killing us,” continued Rinden, “But believe me when I say that they aren’t all after you…and I know that for two of them, hurting a cheetah would be the last thing on their minds.”
“And how do I know that you’re not just lying about all this?” Yamin asked bitterly.
“You don’t,” Rinden replied. “You’ll just have to trust me when I say that I will not put your daughter in danger, and I’ll guard her with my life if circumstances call for it.”
Yamin slowly turned to face him. There was still a wary look in his reddish eyes, but at the same time, there was sympathy as well.
“She truly wants to be your mate?” he asked.
“Sarala is very intelligent. She wouldn’t do something like this unless she was certain it was safe.”
“She must trust you, then…I just can’t bring myself to do the same, though.”
Rinden sighed in despair. He looked down at his paws and dug his claws into the bark of the tree. Then he remembered something, and he looked up at Yamin again.
“There is only one cat that I know is really out to get you, Yamin.”
Yamin whirled around to face the younger cheetah, limbs rigid with shock.
“Your mate’s sister, Amita.”
Yamin moaned quietly and turned away again with a shudder.
“The only reason she treats you like that because she doesn’t have any playmates anymore,” Rinden explained. “She is an adult in body, but a cub in mind -- and cubs are the only ones she can coexist with, so after her sister and her niece became adults…”
“…She turned to me, is that it?” Yamin asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Rinden said. “But the way I figure things, if you had some grandchildren to keep her occupied…”
Yamin slowly raised his head, blinking dazedly.
“…she wouldn’t have a reason to bother you again.”
Yamin stared at Rinden in mute bewilderment.
“It would fulfill both of our wishes, wouldn’t it? Sarala and I want to start a family, you want Amita to leave you in peace…”
“That’s right,” said Yamin in a faraway voice.
“So what do you say? You trust me with your daughter and we help keep your sister-in-law at bay. How does that sound?”
Yamin’s anxious look had returned, and he stared at the horizon with it for some time, breathing deeply, furrowing his brows in contemplation. Finally, he looked back at Rinden.
“It sounds like you really are determined to have my daughter as a mate,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t have been this persistent if Nimesha had a father like me that I had to deal with. I’m still worried about Sarala and you living so near those l -- “
He seemed to swallow the word at first, looking quite worried, but something made him attempt it once more:
“Lions,” he said in a slightly quaking voice, “But…if your parents were really lucky enough to live by them, then perhaps you will be as well.”
Rinden hazarded a smile. His last hope was pulling through after all. But there were still one or two other things he had yet to mention to Yamin.
“What do you know about my parents other than where they lived?” he asked.
“Not much,” Yamin admitted. “I seem to recall something about one of them being some sort of spirit, though.”
“He wasn’t a spirit when I knew him,” Rinden said reverently, his throat tightening slightly. “His fur was white, and his name was Khan, and no one in that land seems to know how he and my mother Surina were able to live that close to a pride.
“However -- one of the legends is that Khan couldn’t be killed or even wounded. And some say that he will return to bring balance to these lands one day.”
“Doesn’t sound that different from any other prophecy I’ve heard,” Yamin muttered.
“I know,” Rinden shrugged. “But the more I think about it, the more I think that something big is coming. There’s an odd feeling in the air, and the dry season seems hotter than it usually is. I’ve felt strange myself lately, and I can’t help but wonder if this prophecy is coming true or not. Maybe Huanu’s teachings will catch on and we’ll all live harmoniously with our fellow hunters, fighting only the ones that threaten our way of living…it’s something to hope for, anyway.”
“You certainly do have a lot to say,” Yamin muttered. “I suppose we’ll just have to wait for this big something to come to pass, though. In the meantime, as reluctant as I am to do it…I give you my permission to take Sarala as your mate.”
Rinden’s shoulders slackened as the anxiety that had been riding on his back ever since he learned about Yamin took to the air. He smiled with an open mouth, not knowing whether to whoop with happiness or thank his new father-in-law profusely. He couldn’t decide on either, however, so he continued grinning ecstatically.
“Smart and subtle, bold and blunt,” Yamin said to the landscape. “So different, yet so similar. You two seem made for each other, Rinden.”
“I guess,” Rinden chuckled. “By the way, Yamin…you visited the land by Twin Cheetahs three seasons ago, didn’t you?”
“Why yes,” said Yamin in surprise. “How did you -- ”
“And Sarala got separated from you on that journey?”
“Yes…and she was so quiet when we found her again that I was afraid she had seen a…a lion.”
“She never told you what happened that day?”
“No…but how do you know about this?”
Rinden smiled warmly.
“We talked about that day when we first met. She didn’t see a lion on that day. She told me that she saw a cheetah cub running as fast as he could to the east…and while he was running, she saw him trip and cut his leg…”
Here Rinden lifted his left foreleg, which had a small but noticeable scar between two spots.
“So you see…your daughter has known me a lot longer than you might have thought.”
“By the stars,” Yamin breathed.
“Not only that,” Rinden said, a bit solemnly, “But that was the very same day my parents were taken. Strange, isn’t it?”
Yamin nodded slowly, still looking astounded by this flood of new knowledge.
“It makes me think that we’re all tied together in this somehow, even if the prophecy isn’t real at all -- you family, my family…and Huanu and the pride. But like you said, all we can do for now is wait.”
“Yes,” Yamin agreed. He had flinched at the mention of the pride, but an odd calmness seemed to have worked its way over him. “We’ll just have to see what happens.”
He was silent for a while, then he began shaking in an unusual manner. Rinden looked at him with concern that quickly changed to relief when he saw that Yamin was only laughing very quietly.
“I can hardly believe this is happening,” he snickered. “It’s like I’m dreaming this…but I can’t tell if it’s a dream or a nightmare.”
“Take my word for it, it’s neither,” Rinden assured him.
“My little daughter has finally found a territory and a mate,” Yamin laughed, speaking more to himself than Rinden. “She’s bound to be happy now…”
His face suddenly grew anxious once more.
“But still…how would I know how Sarala was faring in that land?” he asked. “I wouldn’t be able to visit her…The lions…I just couldn’t go there…”
“Well,” said Rinden contemplatively, “You could ask one of the birds about her, they’ll always keep you informed…or you could wait for us to come and visit you…Or…”
Here he paused and smirked mischievously.
“…you could take a step towards overcoming this paranoia of yours and actually look at a living, breathing lion for yourself.”
Yamin stared at him with all the calm understanding of one who has just been asked to shove a live ground squirrel up his nose and uttered a few stammered syllables punctuated by a terrified, mute mask of fright.
“Just a suggestion,” Rinden shrugged.
“I caught a lizard!” shrieked a nearby figure with bright orange eyes, a pointed tuft of fur on its head and a rapidly wagging tail.
Rinden and Sarala stared at the two gigantic facing peaks known as Twin Cheetahs. From where they sat, the formations didn’t quite resemble two cheetah heads, but their sheer size and perfect symmetry alone were enough to provoke amazement in the two cats.
“There’s a small cave near the top of each,” said Rinden softly, “Right below the cheetahs’ brows.”
“So that’s where you were born?” Sarala asked, pointing her nose at the left head.
“Yes,” Rinden confirmed, “And it’s where our children will be born too, if all goes well.”
Sarala breathed deeply as she took in the awesome presence of Twin Cheetahs.
“And you say the lions live in the right head?” she finally asked.
“We sleep there, give birth there and allow our injured to rest there,” said a deep voice. “We don’t really live there, but it is a safe retreat. Even lions need a place to hide sometimes.”
The cheetahs turned to see Stuart approaching them at a stately pace.
“Hey, Stuart,” Rinden called. “You’re right on schedule. He should be showing up any time now.”
“Right,” Stuart agreed. “But are you sure this is a good idea, Rinden? After the story his mate told us…”
“His mate promised to drag him here even if she had to do it literally,” Rinden assured his friend, who drew close and sat down beside them. “Besides, at least I’ve got Sarala now.”
Sarala smirked and gave Rinden a sharp nudge in the ribs.
“At least we’ve got each other, you mean,” she purred.
Rinden returned the nudge, which Sarala countered with a playful bite to his ear. This was followed by a brief exchange of swats and tumbles until the two cheetahs finally calmed down and assumed their stoic positions once more.
“So,” Rinden ventured, “Amita has agreed to leave Yamin alone?”
“As notorious as she is for making promises and then breaking them,” Sarala said, “I think I’ve actually got her word on this one. Yamin should be fairly safe over the next few months…with luck. Amita will just have to wait for a grandniece or nephew, though, just as we’ll have to wait.”
“Yes…We’ll also have to wait for whatever it is that’s coming.”
“Whatever what is?” Sarala asked, slightly confused.
“Ever since Elfleda brought up that prophecy and that story about my father…Maybe I’ve been taking it to heart too much, but I can’t help but feel that something is going to happen…and soon.”
“What makes you think that?” Stuart asked.
“I’ve been noticing changes in the air, things being different than usual…I don’t even feel quite like myself anymore. I’m almost convinced that something is coming our way…something big.”
“But you don’t know what it is?” Sarala asked nervously.
“No…but I can’t help but think that the humans are part of it.”
Sarala and Stuart fell silent.
“Are you sure about this, Rinden?” Sarala asked in a shaky whisper.
“Maybe,” Rinden said. “But maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe I’m just making this whole thing up.”
“In the brief time I’ve known you, you haven’t shown yourself as the type who would make up something as dire as that,” Stuart said solemnly. “Even if this hunch of yours is false, you still have my pride to stand behind you. No matter what this premonition of yours turns out to be, we will be there to face it with you -- and if your leopard friend is as protective of you as he appears to be, I have no doubt that he will be there as well.”
Rinden sniffed nonchalantly, staring at a large, grassy hill some way distant with eyes that seemed both happy and sad.
“I just want to live a normal life -- hunting, eating, sleeping, raising cubs -- I just don’t understand why I have to be all tangled up in this prophecy.”
“You don’t have to be,” reminded Sarala. “If you’d never heard of this prophecy, your life would have gone on just the same -- in fact, I think it would be better if you just ignored it and thought about other things that are more tangible than an old lioness’s tale.”
“Such as?” Rinden asked warily, looking her way out of the side of his eye. One corner of Sarala’s mouth curled upwards and she half-closed her eyes.
“Me. And Huanu and Stuart, this land, Twin Cheetahs…”
“Of course,” said Sarala with a coy smile. “Ominous premonitions or not, it’s all just a matter of time.”
“I guess,” Rinden said quietly.
“Speaking of time,” Stuart interjected, “When exactly is our guest going to be here, Rinden?”
“He should be here soon -- ” Rinden began, but a scrabbling noise from over the crest of the hill made him stop and prick up his ears.
“Make that now,” he whispered. “Don’t move, Stuart…just sit right there, as still as you can. Don’t even make eye contact. Be like a stone.”
“I will,” Stuart said in a barely audible murmur.
The three cats sat in silence as the scrabbling sounds grew nearer. Gradually, two voices began reaching their ears -- one irritated and feminine, one markedly nervous and masculine.
Finally, vague forms began to show just beyond the hill’s highest point. Occasionally a tail would lash the air or a paw would swat at something. The voices became louder and more intense until they suddenly stopped altogether.
A minute or so later, a slim, solitary, spotted figure sluggishly made its way to the top of the hill, head held down, its pace methodical. It paused at the zenith, still staring at the ground, every part of its body still.
From this distance, not even the keen-eyed cheetahs could see the eyelike markings on his shoulders and hips, but his huge, black forelock and his pale pelt made his identity all too apparent. Sarala drew in a quick, nervous breath and Rinden clenched dirt with his paws.
After several agonizingly long seconds, the lone cheetah slowly lifted its head at a barely perceptible rate. When his head was high enough for Sarala and Rinden to just see his eyes, Yamin tentatively looked up. In less time than a rapid blink would take, it was obvious that he had noticed Stuart.
The cheetah’s limbs splayed out rigidly in all four directions and quivered. His ears were pressed against his skull like a Hunter’s jaws around a Hunted’s throat. His eyes were wide and unblinking fixed on Stuart while his jaw hung slack. Rinden and Sarala cringed inwardly, but after several seconds, one awestruck realization flashed through their minds:
He was standing his ground. He wasn’t running away -- he was still there.
And then he was gone. One moment he was there, the next and there was nothing but a slightly disturbed clump of grass.
Then another figure began ascending the hill, one that was slightly smaller and darker -- Nimesha. She looked at the three cats, looked in the direction her mate had gone, then back at the cats. She shrugged, and then -- although it was difficult to tell from such a distance -- she smiled slightly.
“Well,” Rinden said with a sigh that was more relieved than despairing, “It’s a start.”