THROUGH ALL THE days of riding and nights of loneliness Amber never gave up hope. Each near dark she strove to feign sleep as she listened intently for some sound that would reveal to her ears alone the comforting proximity of her mate. And each night pretense became fact as sleep eventually overcame her senses.
Still Jer’ok did not come.
When at last she was dragged from the saddle at the well hidden Khazarish stronghold Amber looked about her with renewed dread. There was every indication that this whole affair was no random uprising of a minor desert tribe abetted by a lone Chimurian renegade, but a sophisticated effort on the part of some dedicated foe.
Set back in a vast, but artfully concealed system of caverns, the enclave with its bustle of comings and goings betrayed a grim sense of unremitting purpose. Still absent any spoken command the horses were led away while Amber was conducted to the obvious centre of activity by a subordinate with a countenance of stone. Her Chimurian abductor paced them but showed no interest in Amber. He appeared to have specific business to attend in this place. Amber was stunned to catch a glimpse of a sophisticated communications panel before she was hustled beyond the hub of activity and secured in the tiny chambre, carved from the surrounding rock, that was her prison.
Her heart turned cold when the voices of the Chimurian and a leader among the Khazarish carried to her. For the first time names were revealed as Derk Aliyan was greeted by Khafajah Khan. It could have been coincidence but Amber knew better.
Before the voices could drift away as the two conspirators entered one of the chambres, Amber heard Aliyan ask a question she found troubling even in the absence of more, “He is here?”
The Arene woman could not hear the khan’s answer. And yet she found herself hoping it was a denial.
Except for the silent servant who brought Amber’s meals, the Arene woman was not approached for two full days after entering the cold cell of stone. Then Aliyan came alone.
“Ah, Lady Amber, I hope you are comfortable,” he smiled slyly. “I regret we cannot provide the charming hospitality to match that of your home.” When Amber regarded him coldly without deigning the faintest response, the Kryptane continued, “You know who I am?”
Amber's chin came up in defiance, “I know only that your name is one I have every reason to detest. I heartily regret that you should have found hospitality at my hands. I am confident my husband will see that you are justly rewarded for your presumption.”
Amber was silenced by Aliyan's unpleasant laughter.
“I shall let that pass for the moment. It is with you, not Lord Charwick, that I have business. For the moment.”
Derk Aliyan let his implication hover between them before asserting, “The beast will be dealt with later – in my homeland. Perhaps you are aware of the efficacy of our methods? You have heard the rumors of our ways?”
Aliyan allowed Amber little chance to ponder his remarks or respond to his disturbing questions, “I think you know why you are here?”
It was another question calculated to demoralize, but Amber was not so easily cowed: “I haven't the remotest notion.”
With a supreme effort of will Amber turned her back on the man with apparent lack of interest, let alone concern. After a moment to control her voice she turned to face her antagonist again.
“You would be well advised to return me safely to my home before my absence has led to a manhunt unlike anything in your experience.”
Again she was favoured with that enigmatic and singularly unpleasant laughter, “Your disappearance was long since discovered, my lady, and that manhunt launched shortly thereafter.”
Before Amber could fully appreciate the implications of his assertion, Aliyan continued, “You claim to have no idea why you have been brought here, yes?” He interrupted her attempted rejoinder with a wave of his hand, “I shall try, then, to be patient.
“It has come to our attention that certain information believed to be ours alone is finding its way to the, ah, shall we way, other side.” This was no question, and to her annoyance Amber's heart raced and her breath caught in her throat, despite her valiant effort at least to maintain an air of indifference to whatever Aliyan might say to her.
“Also,” the Kryptane continued without reacting to her obvious distress, “information is being transmitted among agents of the high king with a rapidity that can only be explained by the presence of an operative here on Ashtar. At first suspicion fell upon the beast, your . . . husband.” His tone was scathing in its scorn. “But, after more realistic consideration, my superiors concluded that he is not so subtle.
“There is only one other who might be.” Aliyan now favoured Amber with an ironic inclination of his head, “And we discovered she is only recently returned from a sojourn in the ancestral homeland. Moreover, she has been traveling in the company of a known agent of Diyala.
“Does Jer'ok know what his innocent mate has been up to, what she has been dealing in, Lady Amber?”
Amber Southerly strode to Derk Aliyan and struck him as hard as she could. But she had to wonder just how much he knew of her interactions with Guy Locke. Her guilty blush was lost in the flush of her outraged anger.
Neither guilt, however unwarranted, nor anger is in the service of a cool head. Provoked now, as well as frightened, Amber made a dangerous mistake.
“He knows nothing. And neither will you. I will not . . . ,” realising the mistake even as she spoke, the Arene woman was quick, but not quick enough, “In point of fact, I cannot be of any assistance to you.” Amber's emotions were betraying her, and her desire to protect Jer'ok from any suspicion was the Arene's undoing: “I have been told nothing and never even understood . . . . ”
She stopped again, woefully confused and ashamed of her unnecessary admission. Derk Aliyan regarded her with an amused tolerance she found unbearable, but the damage was done. There was no going back.
“You are naive, my lady, but you have revealed nothing we did not already know. What we want is the dates of your transmissions. And as much as you know about the senders and recipients.”
“You are a fool, Aliyan, if you expect to force me to give you any information.” It was a bold front and not entirely without the will and courage to sustain it indefinitely. Amber Southerly was nothing if not courageous.
“I think not.”
With that Derk Aliyan left Amber to ponder what might lie in store for her. When she was certain she was truly alone Amber finally allowed herself the luxury of tears for the first time since she had been abducted.
THAT VERY AFTERNOON Aliyan and Khafajah Khan concluded preparations for the events planned for the morrow.
“You are certain this will be effective?” Aliyan repeated as they were about to part, “You understand we cannot take a chance on injuring him. My superiors require that he be fully competent, at least mentally and, preferably, physically as well.”
Khafajah Khan merely chuckled, “Do not fear, she will be most impressed, but he will suffer no permanent damage. Zor is skilled and has been informed that his object is only to frighten the woman. Our antiquated ways put on an impressive show even for offworlders. Even you may find it distressing. We may lack finesse, but . . . ”
Aliyan abruptly interrupted with a grunt of disgust. Indeed, the Kryptane was not fully convinced, having just glimpsed something of Amber's fortitude.
“It is to be hoped we are not forced to resort to more authentic methods,” Aliyan allowed.
“I fully understand,” was the rejoinder, “Today we will shock the lady with the beast's deplorable condition. It will be easy after that. Physical brutality will offend her tender sensibilities. No offworld woman can withstand the pressure of our archaic ways; such fine ladies are – overly civilised.”
Clearly, the khan would have chosen a characterisation more akin to “effete,” but he knew better than to raise the Chimurian's ire. He was, after all, of that same pampered breed of humankind.
“If she loves the man, any offworld woman will find the sheer physical violence appalling, but no real damage will result,” the khan sneered in conclusion. “And this Jer’ok will recover swiftly, unless, of course, his lady-wife proves stubborn.”
The Khazarish was relieved that Derk chose to ignore the insult. Khafajah Khan knew better than to believe this astute operative from Chimur had missed it. “If she does – then the choice will be yours. Which do you need more?”
Aliyan did not respond, but he did in truth wonder what his best course of action would be should Amber Southerly’s loyalty to the high king prevail over love for her husband. He dared not risk permanent harm to the beast-man.
AMBER HAD COMPOSED herself and was able to demonstrate a cold aura of calm when she was conducted to Khafajah Khan in the evening following her confrontation with Derk Aliyan. The khan sat at a massive desk for which Amber knew he would have little real use. The only conceivable purpose would be intimidation of his ignorant fellows. She cast a glance in the direction of Aliyan, who was negligently leaning against the rock wall at the khan’s side. He looked amused as if he shared her barely concealed contempt. She broke off the momentary contact. It was dangerous to feel the slightest camaraderie with either of these men.
As her eyes swept the accoutrements surrounding the khan, they rested briefly on a heavy whip at the khan's hand, which with studied effect the Khazarish was ignoring. It was a fitting touch in this provocatively primitive setting. Despite herself, Amber was reminded of nothing other than the comedies of Meridum's stage, based in Terra's ancient romantic melodramas of bold rogues, evil sheykhs and swooning maidens in distress. Somehow the humor now seemed horribly out of place. But the Arene woman took her cue from the overdone trappings. She met the khan's eyes coldly.
“Your amateurish theatrics will do you no good – as you must know.” The last was directed more to Derk Aliyan than to the khan. Khafajah Khan’s hand fondled the whip as if noticing it for the first time. He smiled at Amber.
“It is not for you; it is for Jer’ok.”
Amber stared at Aliyan, “Even were he in your power, there is no Khazarish who would dare strike Jer’ok-ta with that thing. They know all too well he would kill with his bare hands any who tried.”
The silence of the two men was prolonged until Amber could not help but feel the dreadful fear arise again in her breast. Aliyan made a careless signal with one hand. There was a sound behind her, and Amber turned to face – Jer’ok.
Something was very wrong, but she could not at first identify what it was that warned her. His hands were behind his back. She could not see if or how they were bound. Only one guard stood beside the beast-man, and that Khazarish lounged with the negligent air of complete confidence. There was none of the tension that should have marked a man who would hold the Lord of Ashtar prisoner.
What was wrong? Why was no threat felt by these criminals? Amber scrutinized Jer’ok, but there was no mark on him. Then she looked into his eyes. Drugs!
She gasped, “You've poisoned him!”
In a fury Amber turned on Aliyan, who was closer. Had the Arene mate of Jer’ok-ta possessed the strength of a man she might have slain the Kryptane without a thought for the consequences to herself. But her rage was far stronger than her physical prowess. Aliyan easily caught her wrists and contemptuously held her as she struggled in impotent fury and frustration.
Still amused, Aliyan easily turned her to face Jer’ok, who was watching her impassively without the slightest reaction of any kind.
“What do you suppose he will experience tomorrow if we release him from the subduing effects of the substances we have administered to render the beast tractable? It should make an interesting experiment, don't you think?”
Amber twisted futilely in the Kryptane's unbreakable hold, “Let him go! I am the one you should punish. Jer’ok has nothing to do with this. He is not involved.”
“The innocent are born to suffer,” Khafajah Khan intoned piously.
“Neither of you need suffer, Lady Amber.” Aliyan spoke in a kindly tone belied by the increased force of his cruel grip on her wrists. “But you alone can prevent it.
“You are both no more than pawns,” he lied smoothly, “in an interplanetary game you cannot hope to comprehend. Simply provide the information I am seeking, and we will restore your liberty – when we have gained the end we seek,” he added mysteriously. “You will not be required to wait long. If you persist in your obstinate refusal to assist us, Jer’ok, alone, will suffer the consequences.”
“Another Aliyan once threatened me thus to no avail! Kill him if you dare. I will not cooperate. And the death of Jer’ok-ta will bring down a retribution beyond anything you or your superiors, wherever they may be, can imagine.”
It was a desperate chance, but Amber's bluff to Larin Aliyan so many years before when he had threatened her loved ones had gained her precious time. Perhaps bluff would succeed a second time.
But it was not to be. Derk was not Larin.
“I said nothing of killing,” Aliyan looked over to the khan, who shook his head and then shrugged. “Lord Charwick, Jer’ok, if you prefer, will simply disappear from the ken of humankind as he has so often before.
“Who knows, he might even return within the space of a few months. It is regrettable he will have been taken with that madness that has caused occasional rogues in most of the species with the means of wreaking havoc among friend as well as foe, before they are finally humanely destroyed. Not a pleasant prospect for one of your sensibilities, Lady Amber. I suppose even Jer’ok would be offended in his manifestation as a Chimurian, rather than an Ashtarian lord.”
It was no more than a whisper without substance behind it, but it startled even Aliyan.
“No, you will not use Jer’ok this way. Amber, what have you done?”
The response to Jer’ok’s obvious victory over the skillfully administered regimen of chemical restraint was stunned silence. Only Amber was unaware of the extent of that victory. Only she had to accept the accusation that accompanied it. Khafajah Khan recovered before Aliyan. With a nod he dismissed Jer’ok, who was led away by his lone guard. Then he called for an attendant who took Amber from the Kryptane to return her to her prison chambre.
Only when both prisoners were well out of earshot did Aliyan turn to Khafajah: “When was the most recent injection administered?”
The khan declined to be cowed in face of the implicit accusation, “I assure you, we have followed your instructions to the letter. It is a matter of a few hours only. He would not be due another dose until well after near dark. Do you wish to alter the program?”
“No,” the Kryptane conceded after a moment's consideration, “continue as we discussed, but double the guards after you cease the injections tonight. After tomorrow resume the regimen if the woman proves stubborn.” For the first time Aliyan thought to himself that the woman might not be so easily frightened after all.
AMBER WAS SPENDING yet another sleepless night. Guilt and despair are hardly companions of repose. The night was but half over when two guards burst into her chambre to roughly drag her forth and thrust her in a similar prison still deeper in the great cavern.
There she found Jer’ok had been left to suffer the result of sudden deprivation of the chemicals that had robbed him of his dauntless spirit.
Amber knew there was no kindness behind this gesture reuniting her with Jer’ok. Even the slightest touch would be agony to one whose every nerve was excruciatingly awakening from its forced slumber. Aliyan wanted Amber to be fully aware of the effect of her intended silence on the man who had sought to prevent her involvement in these matters – in an effort to protect her. Amber's faced burned with the acceptance of the cruel irony.
Before the guard could leave, she broke away and knelt beside Jer’ok. She refrained from touching him. She did not even call his name. Gradually the beast-man became aware of her presence. His eyes focused on hers with difficulty, but he marshalled the strength of will to speak to her.
“Do not fear for me, Amber. It is not so bad as I am allowing them to believe.” Jer’ok’s intelligence had not deserted him. He was well aware of what was being done, “They reduced the dosage when I feigned deeper response than was actually induced. Derk Aliyan may be in for an unpleasant surprise tomorrow.”
Jer’ok drew a ragged breath and closed his eyes in exhaustion. “Still, it is bad enough,” he murmured so low Amber barely heard. She knew he never intended for her to hear his unwonted admission of vulnerability.
The woman thought he had lapsed into sleep or unconsciousness, but Jer’ok managed to speak once more, “Why, Amber? Why did you defy me in this? Is it so important to you?”
Amber dreaded his suggestion of betrayal. She did not put it in words – now was not the time. But her answer would have been, yes, it was that important – to both of them. It still was, even now. She only hoped the gains had been worthy of the vengeance that was to be taken on the morrow. If Jer’ok survived the ordeal, perhaps one day he would forgive her.
NO TIME, NO motion was wasted when they came in the morning. Aliyan again held Amber in his unbreakable grip while two guards lifted Jer’ok to drag him from the chambre. The beast-man appeared to be utterly helpless as he submitted meekly to the brutal force of the guards. They had learned a valuable lesson upon their earlier encounter with this creature.
Jer’ok’s ruse, though more truth than he would admit even to himself, was successful. It was Aliyan’s turn to miscalculate the enemy. The Kryptane passed off the previous day’s unexpected show of strength as an insignificant fluke. Certainly the beast’s condition today was exactly as predicted.
He would be incapable of enduring in silence what now faced him. And the woman would be incapable of bearing his involuntary cries. And yet the beating, however prolonged, would, as the khan had assured Aliyan, do little permanent damage. The beast would recover for the next phase of the Kryptane program. Thus, the information he sought would be Aliyan’s, Jer’ok would be dispatched without delay to his future career in the service of Krypta, the woman’s disappearance would become permanent.
With swift efficiency Jer’ok was secured by a single chain fastened to his wrists and passed through a ring in the roof of the cave far above his head. Released without warning by the guards, Jer’ok pitched forward only to be brought up short by the chain. Even Amber was convinced of his weakness. But she took the chance. With a sob she ran to embrace him. Khafajah Khan would have stopped her, but Aliyan restrained him.
“Let her have this moment. It will add a certain poignancy to what follows.”
The khan smiled and watched the display of affection with interest. But Amber intended more than a final embrace. She whispered to Jer’ok, hoping no one would hear or stop her words – and that he was indeed feigning his inability to defend himself.
“Take courage, my Jer’ok. But do not wait too long. I will be prepared to follow your lead, however I can.”
There was no response to her words. Jer’ok passively depended on the chains for support, his listless eyes hooded. After a moment Aliyan tore her from Jer’ok’s side. Still the beast-man seemed indifferent to everything around him.
Zor stepped forward at the khan's signal. Fascinated with horror Amber followed the whip as the lash dropped to the ground before snaking out to cut across Jer’ok’s body.
There was a sound from the chained man, but it was not the first cry of pain Aliyan confidently expected. It was the initial challenge of a hunterfolk buck incited to anger.
Amber recognised it and hope revived within her heart. Uncomprehending, Zor drew the whip back for the second strike. The chained victim raised his head and golden green eyes surveyed Zor with an ugly glint.
The second slashing blow never landed.
Before his dull mind could perceive his danger Zor was dead, his neck broken. Only the khan had seen the sudden ripple of giant muscles as Jer’ok’s steel thews overcame the steel of his chains in one single motion. The khan drew his ancient pistol, but Amber, too, had been watching.
With a warning cry she threw herself against the Khazarish and his shot went wild. Aliyan backed away cursing and turned to summon help. Then he, too, drew his sidearm. Jer’ok arose from the body of Zor and turned to see Amber still struggling with the Khazarish.
Khafajah Khan cringed at the low growl behind him and felt the deadly grip clutch his throat before he could turn to defend himself. The Khazarish was pulled away from Amber as though he were weightless. The grip tightened. The thing behind him no longer growled. Strangely, the khan’s last conscious thought was that the silence held even greater terror. He lifted the pistol in a last, vain effort to turn it on his attacker, but in a moment it dropped from his hand.
Jer’ok was fully aware of the multiple dangers Aliyan represented. Even as the beast-man yanked Khafajah from Amber, he used the man’s body as a shield while always keeping himself between his mate and the Kryptane. He was simultaneously directing the struggle ever closer to the entrance. There was no time to finish either man.
Even as Khafajah Khan fell unconscious, Jer’ok directed Amber to secure the key to the shackles and to find whatever weapon she could. Already the Khazarish were responding to Aliyan’s calls. When Amber was again at his side, Jer’ok caught her hand and in one swift movement thrust Khafajah aside and kicked the pistol from Aliyan’s hand.
The beast-man would have slain at least the Kryptane, but Amber touched his shoulder in warning. In seconds the Khazarish would cut off their only escape route. Swiftly unlocking the shackles Jer’ok snarled his frustration but, with Amber held close, turned to flee the stronghold.
Even then the Kryptane tempted fate. As the beast-man and his mate ran from the chambre, Derk Aliyan screamed after them his vow to kill Amber no matter where she might be found.
Jer’ok turned but could not stop to terminate forever that threat. Twisting and weaving as he ran, Jer’ok held Amber close to him, shielding her body from the coming barrage with his own. The Khazarish hesitated, unsure of what their target should be and whether they should kill of merely stop.
“Shoot, you fools,” Aliyan screamed. The Kryptane wrenched the rifle from the unsteady hands of the nearest Khazarish. There ensued a veritable explosion of shots.
Jer’ok increased his speed yet again, and the two fugitives reached the jungle untouched. The beast-man was forced briefly to stop in order to shift Amber’s weight so that he could take them to he safety of the trees.
It was a pause of the merest fraction of a second, but it afforded the pursuing Aliyan the chance he needed. Just as Jer’ok swung upward there was one final shot.
Amber felt him start, but there was no slackening in her mate’s speed. Jer’ok carried her far from the stronghold before he dropped lightly to the ground and released her. She was about to speak when he suddenly dropped to his knees and then collapsed slowly to one side in the deep grass. To her horror blood flowed freely from the wound in his flank.
Visit our thousands of other sites at:
BILL and SUE-ON HILLMAN ECLECTIC STUDIO
ERB Text, ERB Images and Tarzan® are ©Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.- All Rights Reserved.
All Original Work ©1996-2016 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners
No part of this web site may be reproduced without permission from the respective owners.