XIV. NEMESISSUBCOMMANDANT GUY LOCKE went directly from the scene of devastation to the Southerly plantation to warn Amber of what had transpired. He was disappointed but hardly surprised when the Arene woman would only receive him in the company of Darad. And the Sanaca chief only allowed the encounter to take place after Locke had informed him what Jer’ok had done. Leaving the commandant to cool his heels outside, Darad had entered the great house to find the Lady Charwick.
“Ambe’lei, the commandant has news you must hear,” was all he told her.
Amber studied her friend and staunch guardian. He knew very well there was no need to inform her of the results of the trial. From the beginning she had known her husband would be destroyed at the hands of Chimur. For a moment she wondered it he might already be dead, but there was nothing in Darad’s expression to lend credence to that conjecture.
“Very well,” but she would not invite Locke into her home. Instead she followed Darad out onto the verandah. There she remained rigidly standing and offered the Diyalan neither the hospitality of refreshment nor so much as a chair. “What has happened?”
“Jer’ok has escaped.”
The news obviously stunned her. Amber gasped and would have fallen back had Darad not steadied her. Guy wasted no words. Without embellishment, he told of one of the guards and the sergeant-bailiff dying in the confusion of belated efforts to stop a beast-man stricken with a madness Locke had never before witnessed. He told it exactly as he had experienced it without sparing her. The mate of Jer’ok would expect no less.
“It all happened much faster than I can describe it,” Guy concluded; “In the last moment only one man stood between Jer’ok and his way to freedom. He could have shot him down at very close range before he was swept aside by the infuriated beast-man.”
Amber studied him closely. After a moment she simply observed, “but you did not shoot.” It was not a question.
Were the circumstances not so grim, Locke would have grinned at her, “I never really had a chance.”
“And the others, was their marksmanship so poor?”
“Well,” he began, this time unable to keep a wry grin from pulling at one corner of his mouth, “in the melee I may have lost my balance and . . . ,” Guy shrugged.
“Thank you, Guy Locke.”
That was all and it was a dismissal, but Guy knew something of her antipathy had faded ever so slightly. It was a start. And now he would take further steps.
FROM THE JUNGLE surrounding the great house Jer’ok saw the k’aranda who had betrayed him speak first to Darad and then to Amber. As the beast-man watched, he was disheartened to see the bitter anger Amber held for the Diyalan fade into something like affection before the Jer’anda returned to his flyer. The beast-man’s lips drew back in a silent snarl. As always Locke’s love for Amber was apparent and grated on Jer’ok’s steady nerves. Today, it brought a wave of fury over him, but he kept his place. The beast-man knew the time had come for him to accept solitude or risk a return to captivity and eventual death at the hands of Gemini’s k’aranda.
He had tasted of lengthy captivity and knew solitude was greatly to be preferred. And when death carried him off into long sleep, Jer’ok would be no meek captive, submitting to the will of Jer’anda, but a worthy opponent, affording his final enemy a battle not soon to be forgotten. His lips curled in a bestial grimace of disgust. The man, Leede Southerly, would have yielded without taking any of those who would slay him into long sleep with him. His humankind dignity would have demanded it. Jer’ok’s eyes narrowed in contempt. It was good to have the humankind gone. He would never return; Jer’ok would see to that. In a gesture requiring no thought, his hand went to the hilt of his crystal knife.
It was not there. It had been taken from him by the departing k’aranda, who had dared threaten Jer’ok’s mate in order to capture Jer’ok and bring him to the lairs of humankind. Golden eyes flashed crimson with hatred. Let that k’aranda enter Jer’ok’s territory again and this time he would not leave. In his mind the son of Aranda tasted Locke’s lifeblood as his sharp teeth tore open the man’s throat. Jer’ok-ta had no need of the stolen knife to slay such weaklings.
Never again would he let them use their vast numbers against him. If one of their kind entered his jungle, Jer’ok would slip away before their puny senses could detect his presence. Ashtar’s jungles were vast, much of them yet to be explored by Jer’ok. With the coming of the first Jer’anda invader Jer’ok would find another territory. Never again would he suffer the presence of their kind.
Except for one. Amber was san-k’aranda, Jer’anda. Yet Amber was his mate. And now she was pausing before withdrawing from his sight, as if she knew he was about and was calling out to him. Even Darad turned and looked intently in the direction from which the beast-man was observing them. But Amber knew her mate would not return to this lair, where he had been trapped by her kind. She knew Jer’ok would be deep in the jungle where most san-k’aranda dared not enter. His mate was the most courageous of shes in all the jungle. He was bursting with the need to boast of her to the other bucks.
Instead, he knew he must keep his silence. There were no Aranda about this humankind place. Jer’ok knew he should leave before san-k’aranda came in search for him. One might actually stumble upon him and bring the others to take him. But he did not yet retreat into the jungle. His heart had brought him to this place. He could not deny that truth. With Aranda thoroughness he strained every sense for the spoor of his enemies. At last satisfied that none lurked, Jer’ok dropped lightly to the ground.
But then he hesitated. Could he ask his mate to come with him now that he had been condemned by her people? He shook his head in regret. He could not. And so he waited for the cover of near dark when activity about the plantation ceased and Amber’s lair became dark and still.
Only then did Jer’ok slip into his former home with all the stealth he could muster. He found his knife, not where it had been tossed so long ago, but on the wall within a frame formed by the Sanaca war-knife Amber would have used to free him, had he allowed her thus to risk her life and freedom for him. Jer’ok paused in thought as he retrieved his knife. Perhaps he should have allowed her desperate act. Another time he just might. His was indeed a worthy mate.
He paused on the verge of a decision. But, in the end, he knew he must make his way alone. He must bring no further hurt to this woman. And Jer’ok left the house as quietly as he had entered. But he could not silence the great painful thumping of his aching heart.
ONCE HE RETURNED alone to the jungle, Jer’ok’s wonted cunning was not long in reasserted itself. His initial intention to leave Amber altogether was replaced with the return of more rational – humankind, he sneered at himself – consideration. He would disappear deep into the interior, but then he would bide his time until finding a way to return for Amber. So far as the outside worlds would ever know, Jer’ok’s mate would simply disappear one day while inspecting the fields or when riding about the plantation environs. Only the Sanaca would suspect the truth and none of them would ever speculate to strangers about what might have occurred.
But then the beast-man continued to be of two minds, a weakness he yet seemed unable fully to suppress. He was loath to condemn Amber Southerly to the life of a fugitive. She no less than he was unwilling to be forever parted from their son and thus far she had done nought to bring upon herself such a parting. Further, Jer’ok had no desire to be eternally harassed should he so much as set foot in what the beast-man considered his own domain. Nor would he compromise Darad and the Sanaca. They would be pressured to assist the governor in returning the condemned man to his executioners. And there was the additional circumstance of his vulnerability to the forces of Krypta and their Ashtarian minions.
Impatient with his own inability to sort through his own musings and come promptly to a clear decision, Jer’ok pondered long before conceding his only recourse was to await the inept forces arrayed against him and to lead them to Khafajah Khan and the Khazarish. There the government forces would discover for themselves the conspiracy threatening to succeed in its deadly purpose.
MAEL, THE WIND, drove the Nea’s rain in torrents and bent all but the mightiest jungle giants to his will. Every creature had sought shelter as best it would to wait out the ferocity of the storm. Jera, the lightning, ripped across the sky with an intensity that caused each to cower or to snarl according to his nature.
At every flash the silhouette of one such creature was revealed against the sky. In him there was no hint of nervous reaction to the tumult of the elements. Jer’ok hunched in dumb resignation as the cold rain beat relentlessly against his copper hide. Though there was no outward sign of his rage, inwardly the beast-man seethed with frustration as the spoor he had been following was irretrievably obliterated. All for nought were the countless hours of tracking rendered tedious by the need to keep his own spoor sufficiently obvious to guide the puny senses of his pursuers. His dangerous manoeuvrings would now go for nought. At best his stratagem could be set back by days.
At last the fury of Mael diminished and turned away from this part of the jungle. Nea withdrew her rains as suddenly as she had dropped them on the jungle peoples. The clouds dispersed, allowing Sanjera to return and begin drying the soggy forest until the next time Mael and Nea combined forces with Jera in an onslaught on the world overseen by Sanjera or gentle Solea. Scarcely had the tempest ceased when Jer’ok left his secure shelter to seek out the Khazarish anew.
First the beast-man returned to his patient circling through the vast forest in search of some sign indicating which way the Khazarish were passing. He knew they, too, would have taken shelter from the storm, as would Jer’ok’s pursuers. As there was no immediate need for stealth, the beast-man fairly flew on his way. Within hours he was as second shadow over the heads of the marauders as he paced them from the trees above.
Jer’ok hoped to discover some clue to their plans now that Aliyan was dead. But his more immediate need was to discover what direction they would be taking over the next several days. Only then could he resume his deadly game of cat and mouse with the mounted – and heavily armed – troop deployed to return him to the capital, a troop led by a Kryptane, who had only recently been joined by Guy Locke. At that development, Jer’ok had very nearly decided to abandon his plan.
Before the darkness of first twilight could descend upon them the Khazarish made camp. While the evening routine held them, Jer’ok hunted far from the camp. His hunger satisfied, the beast-man returned during near dark. Silently, he reconnoitered, taking care to remain in the shadows beyond the flickering glow of the beast fire at the centre of the camp. While most of their fellows slept, isolated groups of the Khazarish were engaged in conversation, most of it of no interest to the lurking beast-man.
As the fire burned down, one by one the stragglers retired to sleep, leaving only the sentries and Khafajah Khan himself still deep in conversation with another. Scanning the trees overhead, Jer’ok found a sturdy branch over their heads, high enough to shield him from view while permitting his keen ears to follow the soft conversation. By the time these two followed their fellows in sleep Jer’ok had learned all he needed to accomplish his purpose.
The beast-man wasted no precious time in sleep that night. Second dawn found him nearing the orderly camp of the governor’s troop. They, too, had lost the spoor they were following, but, unlike Jer’ok, they were incapable of recovering it any time soon. Their quarry, however, had no intention of eluding them. Thus it was that a scout happened to spot the beast-man just off the game trail the scout had been exploring without any real hope of finding sign of the wily fugitive. There he was, hunkered down on his haunches to indulge in a breakfast of some choice fruits at the edge of the river.
The scout stopped in open-mouthed astonishment. Belatedly, he checked the direction of the wind as he took refuge behind a tree, but the beast-man, engrossed in his breakfast, had obviously neither heard nor sensed his approach. Otherwise, he would have already leapt into the trees to disappear yet again.
The scout, near panic, wondered just how long the beast-man might stay put. He looked back in hope that another might have followed the same trail. He watched as Jer’ok tossed aside the remains of one fruit and took up another which he inspected with interest before sinking his strong teeth into it. He was oblivious to his surroundings. The scout made his decision to take a chance. With as much stealth as his agitation allowed, he turned and hurried back to camp.
Jer’ok was aware of the presence and every move of the watching man. As soon as the scout turned back, the beast-man tossed the remaining fruit into the underbrush to the scurrying small denizens of the forest floor. Then he waited. Of all the men in the party only one would be suspicious. But, according to the beast-man’s cool reasoning, Guy Locke was unlikely to betray him this time. The Diyalan would recognise Jer’ok’s ploy, not as a trap but rather as a dangerous plan to acquaint these men of the facts – dangerous, that is, only to Jer’ok himself. He would of necessity be within range of their weapons not infrequently. His only hope was to accomplish his purpose before frustration or anger caused some member of the party to shoot him down for fear of losing the elusive fugitive altogether.
Jer’ok heard what he was waiting for and paused, head high, as he tested the air. He turned his back on the trail and dropped prone to the ground so that he appeared to be drinking at the river’s edge. The party of men, led by the scout, approached cautiously, weapons held ready. Apparently startled, the beast-man suddenly rose and turned to face the intruders. Before any of them could react, he bolted and crashed through the jungle before taking to the trees.
With Locke among them and finding it most difficult not to burst into a mighty guffaw, the men followed the fugitive’s passage as leaves overhead were swept noisily aside and rustled as though the wind had returned with a vengeance. Staying well ahead of the pursuers, Jer’ok later dropped to the moist ground to leave a trail an Aranda ta’el or even a san-k’aranda could have followed. By now Locke was unable to resist a broad grin. Much later that trail led them into view of the stronghold where Jer’ok and Amber had been held prisoner. Locke recognised it from the detailed description Jer’ok had provided upon returning to Battersea with Amber.
His plan thus instituted, Jer’ok thereupon doubled back with his wonted stealth, but at many times the speed that had left breathless the party who sought to arrest him.
Now Jer’ok again paced the Khazarish from the treetops. But this time he no longer had need for information. This time he intended to force their pace. Once again Jer’ok-ta became the terrifying avenger of the people whom the Khazarish persecuted and enslaved. Once again it became dangerous for one of their number to lag behind or to take a side trail. Each time as they stopped to rest or make camp one or more of their numbers would be missing.
Those sent forth in terror to backtrack found no sign of the missing men or so much as a hint of their fate. The jungle remained inscrutable and mocked them with her placid stillness. But at night, just when the last of them finally dozed off and the sentries were nodding with drowsiness, the challenge of the hunterfolk buck sounded in the clear air, so close that they were certain the beast was in their midst. To add to their terror there was never the slightest sign that such a creature had been within kilometres of them. Well earned, indeed, is Jer’ok’s reputation as a forest daemon.
Just as the beast-man had intended, the Khazarish increased the speed of their return to their stronghold. Satisfied, the beast-man returned to the other camp to assure himself that they were still hidden just beyond sight of the stronghold where he had previously left them. As expected, Locke had seen to it that they were served by carefully placed sentinels. This night Jer’ok slept well, neither camp within sight. The Khazarish passed a restless night, but not once did they hear any untoward sound, nor did any of their number disappear that day or the next.
Among the governor’s contingent a second man had become suspicious of what was afoot. On sighting the stronghold, he became certain and one evening Rysidi disappeared. Locke would not allow any to leave camp in search of him. The Diyalan harbored his own suspicions of the man and was certain he had come to no harm. Quite the contrary.
Indeed the Kryptane’s disappearance was not the result of the dreaded jungle daemon working his evil sorcery on the Khazarish. Rysidi made his way into the headquarters to warn his fellow conspirators of the presence of the governor’s troop under the leadership of the Diyalan Subcommandant. It had not yet occurred to Rysidi that Jer’ok’s moves could have any purpose other than escape.
From the cover of the surrounding trees Jer’ok watched the Kryptane leave the camp and followed him to the entrance of the stronghold. The beast-man smiled in satisfaction as his own plans approached their grim conclusion.
Rysidi, upon entering Khazarish headquarters, did not have long to wait. The khan and his men returned by midday. Thereupon Rysidi and Khafajah Khan engaged in mutually accusatory conversation even as the beast-man watched and listened. Presently, their transceiver was put to agitated use and further angry exchanges were carried over the ether. Certain now that his trap was sprung, Jer’ok returned to lead his pursuers to the climax of their hunt.
The region between the jungle trails and the foothills into which the stronghold had been carved was flat and open with outcroppings of igneous rock scattered seemingly at random by volcanoes long dormant. Jer’ok allowed himself to be seen at the edge of the jungle and then moved out at the jog-trot he could maintain for hours. Just beyond the reach of their weapons, he led his pursuers directly to the stronghold. Deftly avoiding the startled sentries, he proceeded directly to the office that was Khafajah Khan’s. Before the khan or Rysidi could react, he had drawn the crystal knife.
“How dare you enter this place?” the khan rose in anger.
“I would surrender to you. I am pursued by a mounted troop and cannot evade them,” Jer’ok looked upon them with hope. “Jer’ok will not be returned to the Settlement to be executed for slaying Aliyan.” He looked from Khafajah to Rysidi. “Is it not true your government has use for Jer’ok, use that would punish the men who would kill him?”
Incredulous but still considering every possibility, the two men glanced at each other and then eyed Jer’ok with mingled suspicion and anticipation.
“Am I to understand you will come to my homeland willingly?” Rysidi stared at the beast-man while Khafajah waved back the armed men who belatedly followed the creature into the office.
“I have no wish to die among the k’aranda,” the beast-man shrugged. “You offer an alternative.”
Rysidi moved behind Jer’ok. He considered this unexpected surrender and then smiled at the khan and shrugged in imitation of the beast-man’s gesture.
“Why not? My colleagues will accept Lord Charwick as a willing collaborator. It is a fitting trade for the life of Aliyan. We will advise them immediately of this turn of events.”
Khafajah Khan, with his greater experience with the Lord of Ashtar, was not so easily taken in by the subterfuge. His experience with Jer’ok had been as informative as painful.
“You had best disarm the beast, my friend.”
“Jer’ok will keep his knife,” the beast-man objected, “until his pursuers are directed elsewhere. He will not harm his friends.”
The khan remained suspicious but offered no further protest. Rysidi considered. The man could hardly escape. Even his crystal Tuathan knife would be as useless as a toy against the sophisticated Krytane weaponry.
“Let him keep it if it gives him needed courage.”
Aliyan would have allowed himself no such mistake, but Aliyan was no longer leader of these men. Rysidi sat at the transceiver to establish the necessary contact. Jer’ok watched, his knife held ready.
At last the beast-man heard what he was awaiting. The pursuing troop had entered the stronghold. Not a shot had been fired. There had been no time for preparation to meet such an invasion. The stronghold was too well hidden and it had been believed the Khazarish would come and be long gone before suspicion brought any government party to this remote region. But here in the office there was more than the incriminating transceiver to tie the Khazarish with Aliyan’s conspiracy. There was a complete written record of the plan Jer’ok had ultimately pieced together. Jer’ok had known when he entered the stronghold that there would be no opportunity to destroy that record.
In confusion the armed men turned from Jer’ok to face this new and far more dangerous invasion. The brief battle was merely delayed by the element of surprise. Now it broke out in a fury of gunfire and whining beams.
Jer’ok with swift animation brought down Rysidi as he sat at the transceiver panel. Quickly retrieving his bloody knife the beast-man turned his attention to Khafajah Khan. Once again the khan knew the terror of Jer’ok’s savage snarl. He had no time to raise his pistol before the beast-man was upon him. For a second time Khafajah Khan went down under the sharp teeth and steely fingers. This time Jer’ok was in no hurry. This time he did not rise from the body until he had completed what he had started so many months before.
When Subcommandant Locke and his men reached the office, not a single Khazarish was left alive in the stronghold. The grim story was revealed by the lifeless bodies of Rysidi and Khafajah Khan, untouched by bullet or beam. The transceiver was crackling with the revealing accents of Rysidi’s contact. On the desk lay a trunk, its lid raised to reveal the papers within. Of the fugitive beast-man there was no further sign. Jer’ok had vanished, his mission accomplished.
FAR FROM THE scene Jer’ok sped through the jungle. He felt unclean and was puzzled by this unwonted sensation. Within days of almost steady progress he found himself at the secluded jungle pond where he and Amber had cherished brief quietude before being swept into the ugliness civilisation was bestowing upon their homeland. Sick at heart Jer’ok once again dove beneath the surface as if the waters could cleanse his spirit as they did his body. With a dull ache in his heart he finally swam slowly back to the grassy bank, allowing his measured strokes to mesmerise him. He could almost forget. Reluctantly he reached the bank and pulled himself from the water.
Suddenly, he was very lonely. He was loath to retrace his course through the jungle and had no desire to explore another pathway to some distant lair for the night. In the way of the Aranda buck, Jer’ok turned sullen. He sat on the ground in morose contemplation of the grass at his feet. The beauty of this place went unnoticed.
Then he happened to look up to the ledge overlooking the pond. Amber was there, as she had been so often in the past. For the first time in many a return of Solea’s full face, Jer’ok smiled. He rose and made his way around to join his mate on the ledge.
Unlike the shes of her kind, Amber did not rush into his arms. More like an Aranda she his mate awaited Jer’ok’s approach. But she did not release the steady regard with which she was holding him as he neared.
He stopped a few metres away to study her long and thoroughly.
“Amber of Ares, who is it you seek in this place?”
“I seek my mate, who was taken from me. I seek Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda.”
Jer’ok held her eyes with his own, “And what of Leede Southerly?” he enquired. She was surprised. The beast-man had not expected that reaction.
“I seek him as well,” she admitted at last. “Is he not here, too, Jer’ok? Leede is where Jer’ok is.”
“No,” he almost turned away from her but stood his ground. “Leede Southerly no longer exists. He died at the hands of his own kind. He is not here, only Jer’ok of the Aranda.
“Will Amber give up Leede Southerly for Jer’ok-ta?”
“Yes,” she whispered at last and ran to close the distance between them. “Jer’ok is my first and only man, my mate. There is no other.”
And Jer’ok took his mate into his arms and held her as though he would never again release her.
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