HAD HE NOT lifted Amber into the trees with a mighty leap at the very moment Derk Aliyan fired, the beast-man would have succumbed instantly. The beam, which in his fury the Kryptane had forgotten to broaden to avoid destroying the valuable prisoner, did graze Jer’ok. Jer’ok knew the wound was superficial, but, in his flight with Amber, the beast-man shuddered inwardly at the prospect of leaving his mater at the mercy of this formidable enemy.
Knowing it wise to put as much distance between themselves and their recent captors, Jer’ok ignored the searing injury to cover many kilometres through the easy passages of the middle terrace. He deliberately avoided a direct homeward route in the event any among the Khazarish was capable of tracking their course. Later he would circle around and bring Amber home to the plantation. But loss of blood in combination with reaction to the regimen of drugs used to subdue him overcame the beast-man as soon as he dared slacken the pace of his flight.
Belatedly, the Stars were with the two. No sooner had Jer’ok collapsed, throwing Amber into the soft grasses, than Darad and a party of Sanaca trackers cam upon the scene. Alerted by the discovery of Jer’ok’s crystal knife in his study at the plantation’s big house, the Sanaca knew more was amiss than the disappearance of Amber’lei. Under Darad’s leadership, parties of the most skilled trackers had been engaged in a search for the missing war chief and Amber. By now even Darad was close to losing hope of discovering their whereabouts. At the sight of the woman kneeling at the side of the fallen war chief, the searchers rushed forward. At the first sound of their approach, the woman rose, looking about her for something that might serve as a weapon.
Upon recognising Darad and his tribesmen, she turned back to tend Jer’ok. When the Sanaca drew near enough for a quiet exhange of words, she looked up to warn them of possible pursuit. Darad gestured to the others to assure themselves no one was seeking the couple within the vicinity before turning his attention to the war chief, who was already regaining his senses. Then, to Jer’ok’s disgust, the returning Sanaca swiftly constructed a litter that he might be carried the rest of the way home to their village, where the shaman would attend his wounds.
THE SHAMAN OF the Sanaca was skilled in healing physical hurts, but the wound was not a dangerous one demanding of such skills. Jer’ok would have set out to destroy the conspiracy of Khazarish and Kryptane. But, though there was no need for prolonged recovery, Amber persuaded her husband to accompany her home to Chimur where the Khazarish could be relegated for the moment to the realms of memory and nightmare. Moreover, for all his craft, the Arene suspected the shaman was not prepared to minister to the additional wounds Jer’ok had suffered. She knew Jer’ok to be adept at concealing such hurts from those around him.
In fact, though he was unaware of the extent of it, the beast-man was successfully denying to himself the full extent of these deeper, more dangerous hurts. The first indication of the harm he had sustained at the hands of his foemen was the prolonged delay in the restoration of full control of mind and action. Once in the comfort and security of Battersea there lingered a trace of weakness for which the stalwart beast-man was completely unprepared. He spoke of it to no one, not to Amber nor to his son or his closest friend.
THAT THE HAZARDS Amber and he had endured were common knowledge within the Southerly circle suggested something more was afoot than Jer’ok had yet to comprehend. To the beast-man’s deep dismay, the warmth of their reception in Meridum and at Battersea was an indication that their circumstances had been the source of considerable consternation at court and throughout the Rune Silentio network. Nevertheless, neither he nor, to his knowledge, Amber offered any explanations for their untimely arrival on Chimur and prompt return to Battersea.
Of course, both Guy Locke and Blane Southerly had separately been informed of the disappearance of Lady Charwick and later of her rescue by Jer'ok, who was reported to have been injured in the effort. But there had been no detail in the terse reports, and neither Locke nor Blane knew that both Amber and Jer'ok had been held prisoner. Nor were they yet aware of the involvement of one Derk Aliyan of Krypta.
Upon full physical recovery and the waning of the other disquieting sensations, Jer'ok was loath to remain on Chimur, far from whatever was developing on his home world. He fretted with inactivity, knowing too well he should have run the dangerous Khazarish to ground and been taking up Aliyan's trail to determine exactly what this Kryptane criminal was about. In truth, the beast-man was eager for his former captors to taste the fury of his vengeance. But his most urgent concern was to assure Amber's future safety.
He would not soon forget Aliyan's threat against his mate. Amber's life depended upon her isolation from Aliyan – and isolation sufficient to satisfy the grim beast-man demanded Aliyan's death.
Jer'ok was also coming to acknowledge the very real danger he, himself, faced should he be recaptured. That brief foretaste of Aliyan's methods was sufficient to instruct the beast-man that even his strength would in the end yield in total defeat under their prolonged application. Jer'ok therefore would not allow himself to be recaptured. For both their sakes, it was essential for Amber to desist her involvement immediately. He determined to resolve the matter while his mate was secure in the respite provided in their retreating together behind the massive walls of his forefathers' fortress home.
LEEDE DID NOT broach the matter with Amber, nor did he press his lady-wife to explain her surreptitious involvement in affairs of the Rune Silentio. Confrontation with the woman he loved was neither his way nor hers.
Some several days after their calm routine had been fully restored to the manor house, Amber began of her own accord to speak of it over dinner. Leede remained silent to allow his lady-wife to relate it in her own way. In their comfortable solitude he would hear her out without interruption. When she was unable to continue, he simply rose from his place at the table to stand behind her, his hands lightly resting on her shoulders, rigid with tension. But she could not relax and refused both tann and the seri he offered her. After a while, she reached for one of his hands and let her own rest on it. Then she abruptly rose and told him gently she needed some time to herself, an inclination Leede could hardly deny her.
As Leede watched after her, Amber wandered out beyond the formal grounds. Once on the network of pathways, the distraught woman picked her way through the ancient forests to the point where woodlands gave way to rock-strewn grasses overlooking the cold ocean far below.
Within the hour Leede Southerly followed without haste and found his lady-wife just where he suspected she would be. It had required none of Jer’ok’s skills to trace her steps. When she noticed his approach, Amber ran to him and together they proceeded hand in hand along the rugged tor until they reached a certain outcropping of rock. There a curvature worn over countless ages of wind and salt spray provided just enough space for the two of them. The massive granite sheltered them from the elements without interfering with the vantage over the ocean the two had come to love.
For a long time Amber said nothing, content in Leede’s calm. Such silences served to strengthen the bond between these two. A profound companionship attended their marriage, a warmth complementing the heat of passion each so easily aroused in the other. That these two were soulmates none could deny, whatever might befall them.
Neither would ever know how much this wild place at Battersea had meant to Leede’s long-dead parents. This Leede and his Amber knew nought of the occasions those two came to this very place when the elder Leede or the Lady Sabratha was disturbed and needed time to think out a problem. Quite by accident the son and his lady-wife had discovered the spot shortly after their marriage and made it their own.
As his father before him had held Sabratha, the present Lord of Charwick held his beloved in his arms to protect and comfort her with the strength his closeness always afforded her. And Amber, like Sabratha before her, clung to her husband’s powerful presence and was comforted.
As Amber’s silence grew prolonged, Leede respected her need for gathering herself before either of them concluded the matter that clouded their abiding trust in each other. It never ceased to please Leede that Amber always found respite in his solid quietude. Even were it not so between them, the beast-man was not of a nature to take his mate to task, though she in her deception, for all its innocence, had very nearly delivered him to a fate beyond even his powers to overcome.
After a long interval accompanied only by the hypnotic rhythm of the breakers below and the low murmur of the sporadic breezes blowing off the great ocean beyond Tuatha, Amber ever so slowly began again to talk, almost to herself rather than to him. Without sparing herself or any of them, she revealed to her husband all that had transpired when last she was here at Battersea. In the end Leede understood her motives – and those of Blane and the members of the Rune, though he could not but disapprove Amber’s involvement.
When at last she looked up to him and asked forgiveness, he silenced her with a kiss that expressed beyond any room for doubt that his deep-felt love for her remained quite untarnished. The moment passed and he reluctantly released her.
“Amber, my heart,” he assured her gently, “there is never reason to apologise for doing what you believe in. I know you had no thought to harm me. But you and I have not the temperament to deal with this new kind of trouble – on the enemy's terms.
“I think we have learned much, you and I. We are fortunate the sacrifice thus far has been minimal. When next I meet these foemen it will be in the time and place of my choosing. They will not have another opportunity to take Jer'ok-ta prisoner or to steal his mate!
“But you, Amber; I would that you refrain from taking any further part in this. I cannot fight these men if I must hesitate, wondering whether you are secure. Or what retribution you might have brought upon yourself. Let me ask this of you.”
He grinned at her to lift her lingering melancholia, “Jer'ok will punish these men without the need for governments and their deceitful tools.”
Leede waited. Amber must make her own decision freely or she would be resentful of what seemed to her his over-protection. But she had to know the truth of all he was saying. They had each underestimated the enemy and had suffered for it. But, just as he said, they had learned.
“You are right,” she whispered at last, “I will return tomorrow to Meridum and talk with Strahm Thurston.”
Leede pressed Amber closer as she clung to him, still seeking the reassurance of his understanding. She was trembling with emotion and could not suppress a shudder. He lifted her head to hold her eyes with his. The trembling only became more violent.
“Hush, my heart, it is over now. We cannot be harmed; it is over.” The beast-man had no reason to know how little truth resided in his assurances.
“I would not have you suffer again through fault of mine.” There was a world of regret in Amber's choked whisper, and Jer’ok’s heart went out to his mate.
Even in the security of his strong arms it was a very long time before her trembling showed any sign of subsiding. Amber was miserably lost in persistent images of her captive mate. She would never doubt whatever he told her, but she could not shake the lingering fear on his behalf. For all her strength of will, Amber could not repress yet another shudder at her recollection of Jer'ok's drugged countenance. Never before had she ever seen her beloved so utterly despirited.
As the two lovers took comfort from each other, a subtle change in them occurred without their awareness of it. All either sought was to help the other through the aftermath of suffering. All either knew was the waxing solace the other provided merely by being one with the other. But that which bound these two was deepening and becoming richer still.
As she felt a calm suffuse her being as though transmitted by her husband's embrace, it began to dawn on Amber that here at Battersea and at this moment she was truly in the presence of Leede Southerly. It was a very different sensation from that of the extraordinary presence of Jer'ok-ta, with all the prowess Ashtar evoked from within him.
But it also occurred to Amber that, in that chambre deep within the stone heart of Ashtar, what had so chilled her was not the immediate plight either Jer’ok or she faced. Her profound distress was the result of something far more devastating: neither presence had been resident in those dead eyes.
Amber gasped in spite of herself and vainly sought to refrain from shivering with cold dread. Leede tilted her head back so that her eyes could not evade his. With a gentleness she could hardly fathom he kissed one eye and then the other before claiming her mouth with such sweet tenderness, she felt herself almost literally melt with him into a combined essence, a healing wholeness for them both.
OTHER THAN TO High King Strahm Thurston Albritton, neither Leede nor Amber would reveal in any detail their recent experiences among the Khazarish and the agent provocateur from Krypta. Amber was still too shaken by the events, while Leede dismissed them as a portion of the perils only to be accepted when one sets about interfering with an enemy who is as much cunning as overtly dangerous.
In a matter of days after confiding in Leede, Amber, accompanied to Meridum by Blane, was ushered alone into the high king’s private audience chambre. There Strahm Thurston listened without comment to the reasoning behind the Lady Amber’s decision to withdraw her services from the Rune. At the conclusion of her recitation, Strahm assured her there could be no question but that she had served to the fullest extent possible. Further activity would not only be foolhardy but quite useless now that she had been discovered. At least the motives behind the Khazarish's activity was gradually clarifying, attributable in part to her service. Amber found Strahm Thurston’s mood to be one of distant gratitude, but she attributed the lack of personal warmth to no more than the press of his duties in face of what might well be treason lurking in Krypta.
The high king’s friendship and his knowledge of all that had recently transpired was one reason his imminent violation of that friendship was a betrayal never to be forgiven by Amber Laxton Southerly throughout her lifetime.
LADY CHARWICK AND her son did not depart Meridum immediately following her audience with Albritton. Blane had matters of his own to attend while in the city. It was approaching second twilight before they were able to meet for their return to the Charwick townhouse.
Of mutual accord, mother and son chose a private supper at home in preference to dining in any of the crowded establishments serving the court and Meridum society. The air was clear and mild, inducing them to stroll through a sparsely landscaped park not far out of their way. There was no particular reason either should have been on guard. Instead they were engaged in the light conversation of two whose genuine camaraderie extends beyond ordinary bonds of familial caring. As a result, even Blane, who surely should have known better, allowed himself to lapse into a certain complacency.
The attack came seemingly out of nowhere and stunned them both in its astonishingly swift execution. The target was, beyond doubt, Lady Charwick.
ALMOST FROM THE time the two left the building where Amber met Blane in anticipation of an early supper in town, a closed vehicle was following their progress at a discreet distance. Their unanticipated change in plans rendered the target an easy one. The time of day assured the assailants traffic light enough for their driver to maintain a discreet distance without risk of losing the the target.
The passage of the younger Southerly and Lady Amber through the park presented an opportunity much sooner than had been predicted. Under different circumstances Amber might have been flattered. A team of highly skilled assassins had been retained and were burdened with only one charge, and that subject to no deadline. Instead they were at liberty to take advantage of whatever openings presented themselves. In fact, the team leader had been given reason to believe there was no harm in allowing the target to suffer the anquish of being aware she was being stalked.
As the vehicle drew slightly ahead of the intended quarry, he who had retained their services directed the three assassins to take up the pursuit on foot. They committed only a single blunder, but it was fatal to their mission. They ventured to challenge Garel of the Hunterfolk and the wary mate of Ashtar’s Jer'ok-ta with an elite force, yes, but one woefully unprepared for jungle warfare.
First Garel and then Amber sensed the coming attack in the last moments before it was actually launched. Amber moved aside just as the knife flashed to her former place at the side of her son. With an efficiency of motion worthy of his jungle sire, Garel, no trace of Blane in his lithe form, swiftly turned the attack to drop the wielder of the knife, turning the man’s own weapon against him. In the eerie silence unbroken by any of the participants, Garel swung around, crouching, to face the remaining assailants.
These two, like their fallen confederate, were wielding knives, but even thus armed they had more than met their match in the son of Amber and Jer'ok. They had not been properly warned. The woman herself was not without resources. To their great consternation she neither screamed in panic nor withdrew from the fray.
Overmatched, the remaining two lifted the wounded man and retreated with speed far exceeding that with which they had attacked. Belatedly one attempted to snatch the woman's portfolio in a futile attempt to disguise the nature of the attack. This action, too, was notable in its lack of success, and the foolish one was fortunate to escape with no more than badly bruised ribs.
It was indeed fortunate for them that their vehicle had been pacing them and was idling nearby. The three barely reached its security before Garel, who paused only long enough to assure himself Amber was unhurt, could catch hold of any of them. As it was a large strip of one's jacket was left in the pursuer's grasp. From within the vehicle Aliyan unceremoniously ushered them in with obvious disgust, and they sped away with one elite team of assassins at least throughly chastened if not humbled outright before skills far greater than their own.
Aliyan and his thugs made their getaway, but not before Amber, not far behind her son, came close enough to catch a glimpse of the man within the vehicle and recognise her enemy. She could not prevent her low exclamation of surprise. Blane, of course, heard it and turned to her for an explanation.
At first, all she would say say was to herself, “It has already started.”
In some puzzlement, for he had wondered that his mother and not he was the obvious target, Blane considered the faces of the men with care. None of them was known to him. In a restored calm characteristic of Jer'ok's loved ones, Blane took Amber’s arm and the two continued on their way to the townhouse with an ease suggesting attempted assassination to be no more than a normal routine in their lives.
But, once within the relative safety of their Meridum home, Blane turned to his mother, “Now it is time to tell me what happened on Ashtar.”
Blane rejected his mother’s protestation with a negative shake of his head, “It is not like Jer'ok to return to Chimur with so little advance preparation – at Battersea, if not here in town.” More gently he added, “It does not require hunterfolk sensitivity to know he has suffered some injury. And, my mother, that you have suffered some grievous hurt. Tell me.”
Amber saw the concern in her son's eyes. That, more than the voice gruff with fear for what had almost befallen told the Arene woman that nothing less than the full story would suffice. Reluctantly, she yielded to his entreaties.
“Come, let us at least relax in the sitting room. I will pour us some seri. It will calm my human nerves, Blane.” She smiled at him and presently his features relaxed as he succumbed to Amber’s notorious charms and his mood lifted marginally.
“I am still unaccustomed to the risks Jer'ok and Garel deem the spice affording life its full flavour,” she added quite unnecessarily.
Amber was attempting without notable success to maintain a light mood through gentle banter. Her son was more immune than most of the gentlemen on whom she turned that charm. But Blane did allow Amber to take his arm in a small gesture he remembered from his childhood. He escorted her to the room she suggested, where he seated himself and watched this intrepid woman as she poured their seri with a hand showing no sign of a tremor. She gracefully slipped into the chair beside his and they took a moment to enjoy the steadying liquor.
But, as she recounted the events following her return to the Primeval Planet, Amber rose to pace in obvious agitation. Blane – the true son of his father – listened in silence. When at last she concluded with Jer'ok's collapse when their escape was a certainty, Amber sat down rather abruptly on the nearest chair. Blane rose to refill her glass. Long training of more than one ilk was all that kept his own hand steady. He shook his head as she gratefully accepted the spirit.
“You and Jer'ok have made a dangerous enemy. I think it no more than common sense to learn what is known of this Derk Aliyan. I suspect there is more to this than a personal vendetta. I will have our files searched and advise Guy of this new development. It may well connect with his current assignment.”
Amber protested that too much was being made of the incident. And protested again when Blane urged that Jer'ok be informed of tonight’s attack. This time Amber was adamant.
“I greatly fear the consequences,” was all she would say. But Blane knew he was defeated. “Fear” was not a word often heard in the Southerly household.
“Jer'ok,” Amber did not need to tell his son, “would seek vengeance. We must prevent him from doing so – especially here in Tuatha. He cannot disregard the law with impunity.”
She hesitated, searching Blane’s eyes for a signal of his assent. “And there is always the danger he would fail in his effort,” she added none too convincingly.
Blane doubted that Jer'ok would for a second time suffer defeat at the hands of Aliyan. But Amber's concern about his father's potential brush with the law had a firmer foundation. Even Blane and his colleagues of the Rune were repeatedly admonished of the consequences of any failure to work within the law to the fullest extent circumstances allowed.
Any extra-legal activity brought to the attention of Rune Silentio leadership resulted in a scrutiny that would have been the envy of the opposition. With dismaying frequency such activity was deemed unwarranted. On standing order of the high king a few operatives had been abandoned to stand trial as best they could; others were spared trial but were permitted eventually to resign. Most, to Blane's uncertain knowledge, saw fit to retire from Meridum society and even to leave Chimur for Ares or other systems throughout the Confederation.
Reluctantly, Blane finally admitted that Amber was correct in her determination to avoid any reference to the evening's events, but inwardly he resolved to advise Subcommandant Locke of the full detail, including the threats of future action against Amber. But the opportunity never arose – before it was too late.
INDEED, ALIYAN'S GOVERNMENT had, within the week of the Southerlys’ return to Chimur, officially announced its intention to aid the governor of Ashtar’s most advanced territory in putting down the insurgent renegades. Politically astute, the governor had graciously declined, although he did accept Derk Aliyan, in his most recent incarnation, as an advisor of unofficial status. But this development was long delayed in its transmittal to Lord and Lady Charwick in Tuatha.
UPON THEIR RETURN from Meridum, Jer’ok, always – even in the guise of Leede Southerly – preternaturally alert to mood, sensed the tension in his mate and their son. But recognising the strain each was experiencing, the beast-man questioned neither of them. In a private moment Amber assured him that she no longer had any part in the matters they had discussed.
He held her hand when she would have returned to the task she had interrupted, “No regrets, Amber, my heart?”
She shook her head and held his eyes with her own, “No regrets, my love.”
And Jer'ok could perceive nothing more than a lingering sadness. In token of his gratitude he lifted her hand to his forehead and then to his lips in a shared gesture they still cherished.
Although impatient to return to his quest on Ashtar before the trail grew cold or the marauding even more intolerable, Jer'ok did hope to see Amber relax before leaving Chimur. But an unwonted wariness tinged with subliminal fear in his mate seemed only to increase with time. Jer'ok wondered at this development but finally concluded, whatever the cause, Amber could hardly be more uncomfortable in the jungle. Perhaps civilisation had at last begun to grate on her nerves as it grated on his. So he suggested they return. It pleased him that she agreed readily enough.
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