ONCE WITHIN SANACA lands Saar grew increasingly edgy. He would have left Jer’ok’s side immediately upon their encounter with san-k’aranda but for Cita’s abiding trust in his companion and the vaguely familiar scent of the other. Cita's intent observation of the man confirmed what his instincts suggested: the man belonged in this, Jer’ok’s home range.
For all that trust, however, Saar lingered in the brush for the duration of the exchange. It pleased the Black Lion that, when san-k’aranda made his departure, Jer’ok’s step took on a new purposefulness and a different direction.
Saar was less pleased when his nose began to twitch with a plethora of scents, most of which the Black Lion could not identify. He was mildly reassured in recognising the spoor that often lingered about Jer’ok when he first entered the jungle. Still, Saar misliked the increasing intensity of the oddly mingled scents toward which Jer’ok was now obviously hastening.
A rapid succession of violent sneezes told Jer’ok that Saar was catching the odors Mael was wafting from the beast-man’s plantation. Saar’s step slowed, and he cast an occasional worried glance upon the beast-man. Presently, the Black Lion seated himself with a determined air and seemed disinclined to move. In truth, Jer’ok was surprised he had come so close to the plantation grounds. He paused for Saar to come to his own decision.
Then, as Mael fell away and returned from a different direction, the two companions caught something new in the air. Jer’ok eyed Saar, whose sharp visage indeed expressed considerable interest as Cita tasted the air with his head lifted to the best advantage. The beast-man almost ruined the moment with a hearty laugh of complete understanding. In Tae he muttered, “I know just how you feel, my friend.”
The beast-man strolled in a nonchalant path without particular direction, intent upon carefully selecting an armful of fruits from the nearby bushes. Then he hunkered down to spread the delectable array before him for a snack that promised to occupy him for the remainder of full daylight. Saar's expression was painful to behold. He whined in protest.
In Aranda Jer’ok growled shortly that he was busy with his eating. He shrugged Saar away when the Black Lion bumped him with his head, but the beast-man did return the courtesy before pointedly selecting from the best of the fruit he had gathered.
“Go to her, Saar, Jer’ok will eat and then he will rest.”
Saar was off with a flick of his tail. He never once looked back. Presently, the beast-man caught the coughs and snarls as Saar introduced himself to the lone female. Apparently, each Cita was impressed with the other. The sounds of their introductory banter grew faint as the two departed the area for another region where the honest scents of the jungle were uncontaminated with those of san-k’aranda habitations. Jer’ok knew it could be months before he and Saar were reunited. The Cita she would see to the final healing of the Black Lion’s wound and, no doubt, his new-found mate would make Saar forget all about the hurt of it. Jer'ok wished his late feline companion a memorable sojourn in the company of his she – and a brood of healthy cubs.
The beast-man, now within an easy walk of home, lingered over his meal.
AT THE PLANTATION Jer’ok confirmed the date of Amber’s expected arrival in the Settlement before advising his Sanaca retainers of Ambe’lei’s imminent return. He returned their pleased grins and promised to relate tales from his most recent adventures before that evening’s bonfire in celebration of his return and anticipation of Amber’s. Then he took his leave from the Sanaca. He would spend the remaining hours of full light inspecting his crops and herds.
Jer’ok knew the Khazarish stallion had sensed his return. There were eager whinnies from the spacious paddock. Absently, Jer’ok pulled a handful of the stallion's favourite roots and whistled his approach. To Jer’ok’s amusement, he noted that the horse greeted the man almost as warmly as he did the treat. The beast-man stroked the glossy neck and murmured Aranda greetings. As soon as the roots were consumed, the stallion nuzzled him hopefully. Laughing, Jer’ok gently slapped the insistent nip away and sprung easily to the horse's back.
Although no overt sign passed between the two, the horse cantered in widening circles and then straightened to leap the paddock fence. Jer’ok allowed him his run and then slowed the animal to a walk and an occasional jog as the beast-man completed his rounds of the plantation from the stallion’s back.
By the time Jer’ok returned to the great house it was almost first twilight. Preparations for the evening’s feast were well underway, and Darad, Chief of the Sanaca, had arrived.
According to the preference of both men, Sanaca chief and his war-chief consulted on recent events and rumors of events as they strolled side by side on the network of game paths linking the Charwick plantation with the Sanaca village. There was little in this land that one or the other ever missed.
Upon their return the festivities commenced and lasted well into near-dark. In fact, first dawn was fast approaching when Jer’ok finally withdrew. He apologised that he must start immediately for the Settlement if he was not to keep Amber waiting on her arrival.
Smiling, Jer’ok declined an escort.
“I do not expect to travel alone,” he assured the Sanaca.
“Have a care, my friend,” was all Darad said. “These are dangerous times.”
“Yes, I know – and I will not underestimate our enemies. Jer’ok will not take the roads or the preferred trails,” he grinned in the relaxed camaraderie with the Sanaca chief.
The easy grin was returned as both men watched as their people returned to the singing and dancing. When at last the drums became silent and the dancing came to an exhausted standstill, Jer’ok was gone and Darad was making his own way back to the village.
JER’OK HUNTED WITH Muthus, the shaggy mastodon, and Farr, his small k'aranda companion of many years. Jer’ok in fact was chafing at the delay in his further investigation into the Khazarish presence, but so long as this known enemy invaded no deeper into his jungle, Jer’ok’s thoughts turned elsewhere and the Khazarish were forgotten. Any further incroachment would be dealt with by Darad and the Sanaca. It was their land as well, and no intruder was welcomed.
For now the beast-man cherished thoughts of Amber’s return as he enjoyed the renewed companionship of his two attendants on the trek. Farr had found the beast-man shortly after the latter had slipped into the jungle surrounding the plantation. These two had come upon Muthus when Sanjera was high in the sky that same day.
After a long day of travel and the hunt, the oddly assorted triumvirate gloried in the exquisite first twilight. As they seemingly lazed in each other’s company, each was taking close note of every message carried to their unparalleled senses.
Muthus and Jer’ok were by their natures silent. Farr, on the other hand, was of a garrulous race and a most garrulous representative of that race. Shortly after their meal was consumed and hardly had time to be digested, Farr was anxious to be off into the forest for choice tidbits of food or gossip, whichever it would be mattering little to Farr. But Jer’ok would have prolonged the contentment of the peaceful night and declined to move from the place where he was reclining. Farr could be counted upon for any gossip of true interest to the beast-man. Nearby, Muthus drowsed and occasionally flapped an impatient ear when Farr broke the peace with an exceptionally piercing comment. Muthus was not at all displeased when Farr ceased his importuning to jump from Jer'ok's shoulder. Muthus snuffled in contentment as the k’aranda’s incessent chattering dwindled with distance.
Farr returned to his companions every morning without fail. Muthus merely snuffled his mild annoyance at the shattered peace before going about the business of filling his immense belly. As each day passed, Jer’ok moved at a leisurely pace until he felt the pangs of hunger. Muthus browsed and grazed as the three proceeded. Farr on the other hand constantly insisted that the time had come to pause to eat something of real substance, long before Jer’ok was ready. Muthus was content to move with the beast-man and revealed no inclination to be about any pressing business of his own.
Once, Jer'ok made a kill and shared the larger portion of it with a nearby pride of Ashtarian lions he had scented in the course of the hunt. On closer inspection, the beast-man observed that they were seriously hampered in their own hunting by an injury to the paw of their primary huntress.
When he had made his kill and eaten of it with Farr, he approached the pride with his offering. They were suspicious, but the beast-man observed the proper courtesies and dropped the carcass in front of the wounded female. As she ate, he inspected the wound to satisfy himself that it was healing of its own accord. Before departing, the beast-man stood at the side of the lioness, one hand absently stroking her head as he wondered about Saar's whereabouts and contemplated his reunion with his own mate.
On the last night outside the Settlement, the three paused not far from a tranquil lake before the separation of the morrow. The jungle was enjoying a splendid night presaging one shadow. The surface beauty of the water and surrounding jungle were for once unmarred by the activity of the sleepless denizens. For this night they were scattered elsewhere in the jungle or on the savannah. Quietly, Muthus and Farr departed in opposite directions, each on some mission of his own. It was early for sleep, and Jer’ok, thoroughly at ease, was open to the stimuli of his surroundings. The beast-man studied the lake and surrounding grasses thoughtfully as he ate.
When he had eaten his fill of one last fresh kill before entering the realm of san-k’aranda, the beast-man wiped his bloody mouth with one forearm before cleaning and sheathing his sire’s crystal knife. Then in a swift motion he rose and ran to the edge of the water to dive in without a splash. With long strokes he swam across the surface, leaving a wake of disturbed water that glittered in the silent moonlight.
He turned over on his back and, thoroughly relaxed in the water, watched as the stars sparkled back their eternal messages. Now and then they were obscured by the shadowy flight of a bird of prey.
Jer’ok would not have believed anyone who would convince him that there could be greater contentment than was his this night. In silence he revelled in his freedom and the beauty about him. He alone among the jungle beasts knew the tinge of emotion evoked by such beauty. All the others were oblivious to it. It was one of the many differences that marked Jer’ok, but it was one of the few for which he was grateful. Were Amber at his side, he would know a perfect world.
But in the space of no more than a heartbeat Jer’ok found himself admitting that he was also the only one to be aware that this world could disappear in the blink of an eye. Mildly uneasy, the beast-man lazily turned over to swim, this time with measured slow strokes that barely disturbed the quiet Nea had restored. As he pulled himself through the dark water, Jer’ok’s thoughts were equally measured and deeper than Nea’s pool.
He alone knew that there are dangers beyond Ashtar’s traps for the unwary, that the sameness of daily life could be marred beyond anything his fellow beasts could grasp. Among the san-k’aranda Jer’ok had discovered the future’s divergent lines of possibility. He had discovered that the pang of emptiness he had experienced since childhood had a name – loneliness. And this loneliness was only one of any number of emotions only san-k’aranda endured. For each the Star Folk assigned a name, sometimes many names, each only slightly divergent from the others.
Yes, the beast-man mused, some humankind emotion is deeply pleasurable, but far too many of these feelings are disquieting or worse. No beast knew any such hurting. Jer’ok paused mid-stroke and rolled onto his back in bemusement. Why this sudden turn of mind? What had brought so melancholy a sense to chill his heart?
THE PEACE AND the beauty of near-dark on Ashtar were largely ignored and went entirely unappreciated by the men who were at that very moment about to enter upon discussions of strategems that would disrupt Jer’ok’s uneasy peace with fatal results.
Jer’ok would not have known the face, but the name would have brought snarl to his lips. Derk Aliyan was distantly related to the late Larin Aliyan by blood, but was his brother by temperament.
Derk Aliyan’s considerable talents were for sale to any buyer who could afford them, but he made no secret of the fact that he was involved in this particular intrigue in the hopes of repaying a family debt. While most of his confederates fervently hoped that Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk would find himself far removed from the scenes of their endeavors, Aliyan hoped that the beast-man would take an active interest in their deeds.
While entirely selfish, Aliyan’s motives were not exclusively familial. Unknown to his present colleagues-at-arms was Aliyan’s membership in the deeply feared secret – and entirely illegal – forces of his homeland. If the opportunity should be forthcoming his confidential orders were to deliver Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk to his superiors alive and as undamaged as the beast-man's notorious talents would allow.
There was much they wanted of this uniquely dangerous – and uniquely talented – man of two worlds. If he survived their exhaustive enquiries, they had still greater plans for his admittedly somewhat involuntary service on Ashtar. Aliyan smiled at the prospect. By that time the animal would scarcely be able to distinguish the involuntary from the voluntary.
He, Derk Aliyan, would avenge the slaying of his kinsman while carrying on the man’s scientific works. The virus was already being injected into hunterfolk specimens smuggled into well hidden laboratories on Chimur, carefully distanced from Krypta. Once the effect was confirmed they would be returned to Ashtar where the specimens should easily assume leadership among their tribes. That was when Jer’ok’s talents would be brought to bear – and there was none who did not know that the Sanaca are already programmed to follow the beast-man without question; out of trust, Aliyan smirked with cynical disdain. Fools, it was only a matter of time . . . .
Derk Aliyan’s pleasant reverie was interrupted by an exclamation by one of his party.
“Khafajah Khan has arrived.”
Aliyan rose and left the camp to stand out in the broad trail. There he signalled the approaching Khazarish.
MANY HOURS LATER, while Jer’ok slept peacefully unaware of the existence of this scion of the Aliyan name, the meeting of the conspirators at last was drawing to a close.
“You understand, then, how you are to proceed, Khafajah Khan?” Aliyan had neither faith nor patience in his dealings with such inferior creatures. He took no care with his tone or his countenance.
“Indeed.” The khan’s own manner and tone were ice in the tropic night. “And what do my people gain from this effort, other than to taste the might of your people in addition to that of your high king's governor?” Khafajah Khan was not unfamiliar with the scent of treason, nor was he above the subtle insult.
Inwardly Aliyan assessed the khan as a fool, but a dangerous one. Outwardly, he restored a modicum of diplomacy.
“Your people will keep whatever they gain in property.” Aliyan let his voice dwell on that last word so the Khan would not fail to catch its implication. “Also they will be well paid upon our success. When the governor invites my nation to assist in driving off the scourge from the jungles, you will be advised. You will then begin your, ah, shall we call it a strategic retreat?”
Khafajah Khan eyed the Chimurian shrewdly. “We will have ample notice, then, to draw our marauding to the north and thence . . . who knows where?”
“Exactly,” Aliyan confirmed. “We will remain in contact, you and I. You will be paid in coin which will be untraceable, thanks to certain of our earlier engagements. Somehow, it will come to pass that your people will never come in contact with the troops that we deploy in response to the governor’s urgent plea. The reports, however, will suggest your annihilation.” Aliyan paused again for effect.
“And we will be free to take up a new identity and enter into other profitable ventures. There will be neither Jer'ok nor Darad – or any Sanaca at all – to stand in our way.
“Perhaps our services could be useful elsewhere?” The Khazarish shrugged.
Aliyan grinned, but remained silent. As usual, his superiors had planned well. It could not be long before this part of Ashtar was under complete control by his govenment. And then, who knew? This success was no more than a start. Derk Aliyan’s superiors were known to be most appreciative of major successes. He did not waste time in the unnecessary contemplation of their responses to failures.
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