††††††††††† No one knew it could happen. Not even the gods. The rising and falling of an animalís chest stirred the darkness of the confining cave.
††††††††††† Khan was sitting outside, like a sentinel guarding the savanna. He had been there all night, watching the moon rise like an egg through the tenebrous womb of the sky. The stars pierced the heavens, then slowly withdrew as the great golden sphere began its ascent from the eastern mountains, reflecting in His eyes.
††††††††††† At the sound of a cry from within the cave, Khan turned and padded in, his tail rippling with the movements of a black-and-white snake. Surina lay panting in the darkness, her mouth stained with blood, like the red of the rising sun. A scraggly, damp cub was by her side, licking her nipples in an effort to taste her milk. She raised her head and nuzzled her alabaster-skinned mate and let him lick her own golden coat. The cub was also golden, and like his parents, spotted all over, with shadows of black trailing from his eyes to his mouth.
††††††††††† I thought it could never happen, said Khan. And look what we have here!
††††††††††† They left the cave during a glistening summer day. The yellow grasses snapped under their paws, reflecting the vulnerable state of the plains. Rinden had grown into a healthy young cub, sprinting ahead of his parents, then reappearing behind them. His father spoke to him about the balance of life, and how everything eventually must die, then be reborn. The cub asked questions, and his father gave answers.
††††††††††† Everything was peaceful and serene. Then, a panicked flock of birds alerted the attention of the three animals. A mud-stained, sun-scorched safari jeep screeched to a stop beneath a baobab tree several hundred yards from the catsí position. Rindenís mother told him to remain silent and still while she and her mate led the predator away. The cub obeyed, and watched as his parents sprinted around the great tree, past the fierce, metal monster and nearly barreling into two creatures standing beside it. They were strange, hairless, ape-like beasts standing on their hind legs, clutching strange, long rods in their hands. Humans. They had to be.
††††††††††† The gaunt one raised his rifle and brought it down on the head of the cubís mother. She fell like a broken tree. Her mate halted and walked towards her body, greatly concerned. Instantly, the larger of the two humans threw a net over the animal, who snarled and tried to escape from his spider-web prison, but in the end, he was won.
††††††††††† The fat man hoisted the captured beast into the rear of the jeep. The other picked up the femaleís battered carcass and did the same. Then both of the humans got into the jeep and sped off, leaving a cruel set of tire-tracks behind.
††††††††††† Rinden knew that he was on his own now. The only thing he could do was run. So he did. He careened across the plains, tripping on a sharp rock once and injuring his leg. No time to worry about future scars. He had to leave. He ran on, away from the only home he had ever known, unaware of the small pair of eyes that watched him from the tall grasses.
For two days Rinden ran, seldom stopping to rest. The cruel, sharp grasses bit his feet and huge mountains seemed to leer at him. Thoughts stabbed at his mind, sometimes drawing tears from his eyes. Dad is gone. Mom is dead. No one. Alone. Alone. Help. Must findÖ
The cave. Rinden was born in a dark cave which led out onto a stone ledge, a precipice. It was on a high hill, and it faced another cave nearly identical to it.
The lions. A family of lions lived there. So close, yet they left his family alone. Father said that when Ahieu created the animals, he gave the cheetahs more speed and the lions more strength. The two cats were jealous of each other, and had a strong enmity towards each other as well. ButÖ
The cub. Rinden met a lion cub while he was hunting. Sandy fur with moist green eyes. A tail with a mind of its own and an orange tuft of fur between the ears. It was a male. Said his name was Stuart. Stuart. What a funny name. The cub didnít like that. But he never asked what Rinden was. Why?
Then his father called him away. Oh, Father, Father. Gone. Taken.
What was he like. So different. Fur like a cloud. Probably soft as one too. With pinprick black spots and tear lines from his eyes.
Why was Rinden yellow like the grass. Oh, yes. His mother. Lean and muscular, silky and smooth. She had fur spun from the fabric of the sun. Golden and speckled. Raspy tongue to lick Rinden, to keep him pureÖmust runÖmustÖ
He stopped and collapsed, his thoughts weighing heavily in his heart and lungs, slowing his breath. His coarse mane was interwoven with grasses and dirt, his young paws were calloused and scarred. The cut on his left foreleg had also left a scar, not large, but not small enough to pass by, like the other memories that were still pounding in his head.
A grove of treesÖyes. Good place to stop. Must stop. Must drink. WaterÖyes, here.
Rinden dropped to his knees and lapped up the reviving, cool water from the sheltered oasis. His cramped stomach slowly subsided and his breath reached a steady rhythm. The lilac sunset reflected and distorted in the still pool. New thoughts now began to reverberate in his mind.
How will I live. I must huntÖbut I am so young. Who will teach me. How can IÖhow can IÖ
His tear-stained, swollen eyes began to close and blur his vision. Images from old dreams flashed before him. Lionsí manes. Violet butterflies. Bloodied skin and torn muscle.
Suddenly, a new picture walked past Rindenís eyes. A huge cat, with rounded ears, delicate whiskers, tawny fur and spotsÖnot the splattered coat of his parents, but rather a repetitious pattern of dark rosettes, black and brown flowers blossoming on the animalís hide. He was about to brush it off as another daydream, but then it spoke.
Well, well. What have we here? A runaway?
††††††††††† She had appeared more than a week ago. Every night she gazed at the moon with her water-droplet eyes, reminiscent of Rindenís father. Rinden did not know who she was, even when she told him her name. Sarala. Like a roaring waterfall or whispering grasses. He asked questions. So did she. How long have you been here? Why did you come here? Well, the leopard, Huanu, took me in. Taught me to survive.
††††††††††† Sarala didnít know who he was until she saw the ebony gash on his left foreleg. A flaw in a crystal. Then she remembered.
††††††††††† Rinden, youíre alive.
††††††††††† How did you know, he asked.
††††††††††† I saw you get that. I watched you. I saw Them. They took your parents. Khan. Khan, your father. Pure white. Stuart told me about you too.
††††††††††† Stuart? You mean the lion cub, Prince Stuart?
††††††††††† Heís not a cub anymore, Rinden. His mane is fully-grown and he has taken a mate. Elfleda of the fiery eyes.
††††††††††† What about his father?
††††††††††† His father died a year ago and his mother was kicked in the head by an antelope. May they rest in peace.
††††††††††† But that makes Stuart king, doesnít it, Sarala?
††††††††††† Yes, it does. But I think you are more regal than any lion, Rinden.
††††††††††† She rubbed her cool cheek against his and purred like spring grasses in the wind. Then she gently breathed in his ear:
††††††††††† Weíre going home. Together.
The yellow shape darted about in the grasses, a fly on the pelt of a cat. Two spotted figures watched it in silence. They had returned home more than a year ago, and their only son, Jacko, was growing stronger and smarter by the day. He could now hunt and run nearly as fast as his father.
Now he darted about in the laughing grasses, on his own. He spotted a ground squirrel and sprinted after it, clearing rocks and dodging trees, the burning sphere in the sky causing his cubís mane to perspire. The squirrel swerved under a large rock, and Jacko nearly ran into it before he screeched to a stop.
It wasnít a rock. It was a strange, metallic creature with four round legs that felt like the hide of an elephant. Huge, glassy, unblinking eyes. Fearful memories began to pound in Jackoís young mind. Was this creature the same one that his father told him about?
A hoarse voice resounded across the plains. Jacko snapped his head in the soundís direction and saw a huge, hairless beast advancing toward him, yelling and waving its arms. Gasping in fear, the cub ducked under the heavy, metal monstrosity, trying to hide from the other creature, which reached a calloused, long-fingered hand right after him. Jacko shrieked and escaped from behind the rubbery, rounded structure, sprinting for his fatherís cave. Strangely, the hairless creature did not pursue him.
At the sight of his son running as if the spirit of death was snapping at his tail, Rinden called Jacko to his side and asked what was wrong. After listening to the ragged, gasped descriptions of the clothed, ape-like monster, Rindenís memories suddenly broke through the wall of his mind. He remembered the vision he had several weeks ago, shortly after his sonís birth. His fatherís face in the vault of the night sky, speaking in His voice, telling Rinden that They had returned.
The humans had returned.
††††††††††† They had returned. There were two of them, hairless, pale and standing on their hind legs. Humans. The same ones that had killed Rindenís mother and abducted his father had returned.
††††††††††† He was ready for them. His mate Sarala and the rest of the cheetahs in the region would fight with him. Huanu the leopard had formed a pact with King Stuart. The lion agreed that he and his wife would defend their pride and their spotted neighbors. Negasi, Stuartís young son, and Rindenís son, Jacko were going to be watched by the lionesses while the battle raged on.
††††††††††† By now, Rinden had learned much about the humans. Huanu told him how they destroyed his forest home and forced him out. They tore the land apart, establishing their own crude villages. The humans were now closing in on Rindenís home, and he would do anything to defend it.
††††††††††† The day of the battle dawned gray with an approaching thunderstorm. Rinden and his comrades were posted near an enormous crevice in the earth, waiting for the two humans.
††††††††††† The sun was setting when they appeared, but it was invisible behind the raging, dark clouds. The gaunt one tapped his partner on the shoulder and gestured towards the line of wild cats. The fat human raised his rifle and fired it in Rindenís direction, near the front of the assembly. Rinden ducked just in time, but the bullet seared the hair on his back. The others knew the war had begun. They rushed at the two beasts, ready to defend the land that was rightfully theirs.
††††††††††† The battle that took place that day would not soon be forgotten. The lionesses and the cheetahs were snarling and leaping on the two humans, trying to convince them that this land wasnít theirs. Rinden careened around the battlefield like a spark of electricity, dodging bullets from the rifles and baying in his dog-like voice. Sarala clawed at the fat humanís neck once, but he reacted quickly and threw her off. Stuart, his mane blazing, roared and reared up on his back legs, claws unsheathed. His mate, Elfleda fought with incredible endurance. The thin human cut her chest with a knife once. She was wounded but still ready to attack.
††††††††††† Though the cats fought bravely and vigorously, it was obvious that they were loosing the battle. Most of the cheetahs and lionesses were so injured that they could no longer help, and the number of able-bodied cats was dwindling.
††††††††††† Rinden was growing desperate. He needed help, and soon. The deafening rumble of the thunder suddenly forced his fatherís name out of his lungs.
††††††††††† Before the echoing call had died away, the great feline demigod himself exploded out of the bushes. Lightning reflected off his coat, pure white, speckled with black spots. Two black lines ran down from his burning amber eyes to his muscular jaw. Khan had come.
††††††††††† The humans looked shocked, then angry. As the white cheetah raced towards them to bring them down, the gaunt one struck the animalís head with the butt of his rifle. Khan sailed through the air and collapsed to the earth several yards from the deep crevice.
††††††††††† Rinden felt tears come to his eyes. The humans that killed his mother had now murdered his father. Deep anger welled in his heart, and suddenly he opened his jaws and unleashed an earthshaking roar.
††††††††††† Cheetahs have never been known to roar; only to purr, chirp and bark like dogs. But when Rinden actually did this, the whole world seemed to stop. It was a mixture of wrath and despair, a screaming call that seemed to last an eternity. The humans looked nervous. They stood near the fissure, their backs to it. As if in slow motion, Rinden flew through the air and struck both humans in their chests, sending all three of them into the air and straight to the very bottom of the great crevice.
††††††††††† Sarala dared not look over the edge of the crevice. She could not even imagine what lay at the bottom. She wept softly while the other females tried to comfort her. Suddenly a pattering of paws alerted the attention of Stuart and Elfleda. Jacko and Negasi had escaped from their lioness guardians to find their parents. Jacko looked into his motherís eyes and realized that something was wrong. Sarala drew him close and sobbed. Negasi hung his head and Stuart sighed deeply at the loss of his friend. Rinden had avenged his parentsí deaths and killed himself in doing so. It couldnít be true, thought Sarala sadly.
††††††††††† She was right. Against all odds, Rinden was alive. There have been many speculations as to why he survived the fall; some say his fatherís immortality reached out to him, sparing his life. Others say the humansí bodies cushioned his landing, but whatever the truth may have been, Rinden awoke on the floor of the crevice, rain splattering his bedraggled coat. He heard voices coming from the top of the fissure, so soft that he could barely make them out.
††††††††††† Poor friend.
††††††††††† Son of Khan.
††††††††††† Khan, the Lord of the Cheetahs.
††††††††††† Son of a god.
††††††††††† Rinden could hardly comprehend what he was hearing. Son of a god? But that would make him a god himself. It couldnít be trueÖbut still, no son of Khan would give up without a fight. He rose to his feet, his legs quivering. The chasm grew less steep at one end, forming an earthen ramp leading to the surface. Rinden thought he felt several broken ribs and possibly a broken femur. His pains slowed him little as he ascended, his skin growing wet with the falling rain.
††††††††††† Meanwhile, at the top of the crevice, Sarala had ceased her weeping and had gone into a praying chant with the other cheetahs. Stuart and his wife hung their heads in mourning. No one saw Rinden crawling out of the fissure until he collapsed near the top, panting heavily. No one came to him to ask how he survived his fall. They were mourning for another death.
††††††††††† Khan. His body still lay near the great crevice, pale and still in the light of the moon, which had finally emerged from the shroud of the clouds. Rinden limped over to his fatherís carcass and rubbed his head against the white fur. The others watched in silence, barely breathing. Rinden sat down and closed his tear-stained eyes.
††††††††††† Suddenly, a golden light shone through his eyelids. Rinden lifted his head and was startled to see that his fatherís body was glowing with a light brighter than the sun. Slowly, Khanís still form was lifted from the ground and into the air. He hung suspended for a moment, then the light exploded from his body, dazzling the catsí eyes. Spotted silhouettes burned into the dry earth around them, then vanished. Still glowing, Khan slowly descended and was placed on the ground before Rinden.
††††††††††† Whether Khan turned golden like his son or retained his pure white fur is uncertain. But whichever color stayed with him, Rinden slowly walked up to his fatherís body and watched in amazement as Khan opened his hazel eyes, smiled and rose to his feet, alive as the grasses of the savannah.
††††††††††† All the tears Rinden had shed before were nothing compared to those that flowed from his eyes to see his father alive. Khan nuzzled his brave, youthful son and spoke to him gently, in the voice of a god.
††††††††††† You have done well, Rinden. The two humans who murdered our people and invaded our lands are gone. But there will be more of them. They will attack your successors and do many things best left unmentioned. Not all humans are like this, Rinden, but you must defend your land against those that are. Perhaps someday we can trust them. But until then, do as I say, Rinden. Raise your children and rule with peace.
††††††††††† Rinden expected his father to vanish, but this did not happen. Khan walked his son over to the anxious lions and cheetahs. Sarala embraced her mate and Jacko licked his father, knowing that they were safe.
††††††††††† There was much celebration afterwards when Rindenís mother, Surina, returned to her sonís birthplace. She wasnít killed, or so many believe. She may have only appeared in spirit, but regardless of what form or shape she took, Rinden was overjoyed to see her again. Several months later, Sarala gave birth to a saffron-coated female, whom she named Xandra. As Rinden looked into his daughterís eyes, he could see visions of future peace, a time when humans would let them be. But now, he had to defend his country and his fellow beasts. Humans still enter his land and bring death and destruction, but some are rumored to heal the lands and bring hope to the animals.
††††††††††† Are you one of these people?
††††††††††† If so, may Khan bless your heart.