From the Journals of the Terran
Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 67
From my distanced perspective it is extremely difficult to imagine Jer’ok’s reaction to his fellow extra-Ashtarians. To him the visitors must have seemed pathetically ignorant of the ecosystem they had entered. They were extremely careless of their lives.
As a result Jer’ok was kept busy performing almost daily rescue missions, although none of the party ever became aware either of imminent danger or of the hairbreadth rescue risked by the beast-man who watched over them in a peevish mixture of awe and perplexed dismay. He could not have helped but wonder how they possibly could have survived so long with so little talent. If it were not for the presence of the mentor’s favorite pupil and only daughter, the members of the party would have been left to meet their no doubt fatal, if divergent ends. But Jer’ok obviously felt a compulsion to protect her and hers. Amber may have been the first woman of his own kind Jer’ok ever set eyes upon, but she was the woman he would have picked out of thousands. (Most men are not so fortunate as to find her, for all our interplanetary travels.)
It was only a matter of time before Jer’ok began to court Amber Laxton in the only way he knew how. Each second dawn brought a gift of fresh meat or the choicest fruits to the entrance of the Arene girl’s shelter.
What the Laxton party lacked in jungle craft it made up in practicality. The gifts were welcomed and savoured. It is only natural that tremendous speculations dominated the conversation over the resultant meals. The mentor attributed the unexpected largesse to members of the hunterfolk band they were studying. He claimed that gifts of food were frequent among the folk of other times and planets. The others argued that the folk almost certainly remained unaware of their presence. Only Amber and one other suspected the presence of a suitor: she aloud with a measure of wholly feminine curiosity and Southall in what for him passed for sullen silence.
Several times when she was certain the others were asleep, Amber would sit at the entrance of her shelter in the hope of catching sight of the bearer of gifts. But each time she dozed off before he appeared. The only result of her effort was a procession of helplessly romantic dreams that left her with little patience for the mere mortals who surrounded her. More than once Mentor Laxton had to speak sharply to jolt her back to reality. Amber would comply with a deep sigh, and the mentor would smile to himself for the impatience of youth and for his own memories of a love lost long ago. He found himself grateful that youth need be endured only once. The vicarious experience of youth relived through one's children is, they say, easily survived from the perspective provided by the wisdom of age.
[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 67]THE MYSTERIOUS COOL depths of the jungle closed behind them like the ominous closure of a massive gate between the familiar and the unknown. Amber Laxton hardly took heed of the erudite notes she was transcribing for her absorbed father. But she experienced no forewarning of the fateful events that in the space of a single day would take from her the person she held most dear and alter forever the path her life would follow.
Narrative Transmission 8
Neither Amber nor her intent father sensed the sudden isolation that fell when the green forest closed them off from the camp and hid the clear sky from their view. The deep silence, which would have warned more experienced adventurers, served as lure with its false hint of utter tranquility. The girl was deeply lost in the musings of one on the brink of womanhood. She was no less immersed than the scholar, her father, in his jungle lore.
Mentor Laxton was discovering Ashtar’s reality to be everything his predecessors had recorded and much more. Laxton despaired of his small ability to observe, much less record. Neither dreamer realised how far they had wandered from camp, where Southall and Locke were engrossed in cataloguing the overwhelming flood of observations recorded daily by the avid naturalists. The mentor and his daughter were completely alone.
In the absence of all the others Mentor Laxton had pulled his daughter from the tedious cataloguing task to record his field observations. She had protested mildly but actually was grateful for the opportunity to enter the jungle without an entourage of eager scholars. Bridey had also voiced a protest, but both Laxtons recognised its tone as merely pro forma. Bridey loved Amber as a daughter and did not begrudge her the little time her father could spare to tutor her in his life’s work.
Had she been a man Amber would have perpetuated her father’s studies. As a woman she had instead been prepared to take up a life complementary to the man she would someday marry, no small accomplishment in itself. Gemini expects much of all who people her planets. There are no external limits imposed; each and every individual is subject only to those limits residing within. Mentor Laxton, however, was nothing if not conservative in matters social. But Amber did not suffer from her father's outmoded ways. The girl was more amused than angry and could have altered the situation at will. Instead, she accepted her father's lead in good grace because it was consistent with her own vision of the future. Amber Laxton had a keen mind and from earliest childhood had used it to her own advantage. Although Laxton was not able to send her to the prestigious universities of Tuatha, her fine education was classical.
Amber enjoyed her studies and was an excellent student. Her wit and charm, more than her quiet beauty (of which the girl was refreshingly unaware), made her a popular addition to any gathering of her peers or of her father’s. None had discovered that streak of pure iron that was to stand the delicate Arene in good stead throughout her life. Only Bridey suspected its presence, as a result of the few occasions when Amber had sought to dissuade her from childhood’s disciplines.
Today, as they walked along the game trail Amber allowed her father’s low voice to blend into the whispers of the fragrant leaves and blossoms. As she stepped through the passage provided by Ashtar, the Arene girl fondly recalled Rand’s recent tender embrace and the romantic words the stalwart Tuathan had whispered to her when last they shared a brief interlude apart from the others. He had also asked the question the girl more hoped for than feared, and yet she had demurred, asking for time he had promised on board their ship. In truth, his sudden need for her evoked a touch of some untoward emotion she could not quite identify. No comparable passion for him was yet awakened in her.
Now she mused about what the future might hold for them: Amber Laxton Southall, Lady Charwick of Tuatha. The promise was bright. Like her father, she was convinced the cloud on Rand’s title was resident in his mind, not real.
Rand indeed possessed all the fine attributes any woman could look for in her husband and yet . . . . Amber’s thoughts drifted without conscious direction to come to rest on her unknown suitor. Here was adventure and the undeniable lure of the unknown! And what proper young lady, particularly one as sheltered as the daughter of a slightly stuffy mentor of ex’archeo-anthropology, does not yearn to take part in high adventures involving handsome heroes and dastardly villains?
Rand Southall hardly fit the mold of villain, but neither was he quite the hero of Amber’s daydreams. And so the Arene tried in vain to create a mental picture of the noble hero who sought to woo her in so primitive a fashion. Could he be Arene or, better, someone from a more remote backwater of the galaxy? Amber was reluctant to return just yet to reality.
Unfortunately, reality has a way of forcibly returning the most recalcitrant dreamer among us to harsh reality.
Amber's stylus ceased its hasty scrawl in mid-sentence at the point where Blane Laxton’s scholarly utterances ended in a most unscientific exclamation. Startled out of her reverie, Amber looked up, her pleasant dreams of the future permanently shattered.
Her father clutched her arm and urgently signaled her to remain silent. The two Arenes stood at the edge of a small clearing interrupting the game trail beneath their feet. At the other side of the clearing, where the path resumed, stood an alert hunterfolk buck regarding them with overt suspicion. Amber saw his nostrils flare as he sought in vain to identify the strangers.
Failing identification by the method he preferred, the buck scanned with dark eyes first the mentor and then, more slowly, the slender girl at his side. The distance separating the buck from father and daughter was not great. Had they been capable of it, a conversation could easily have been carried on between hunterfolk and humankind.
The buck's acute senses informed him these were not merely stranger-folk. The old san-k’aranda buck was uncertain and more fearful than he wished to reveal, but not inclined to aggression. He was rapidly dismissed as inconsequential. He was far too puny to offer much threat. The Aranda observed that the young she was curious and almost completely without fear. What's more she was just different enough from the shes of his own kind to arouse the buck's natural curiosity.
The hunterfolk buck stepped forward with a boldness that brought Amber’s heart to her throat. She offered no resistance when her father quietly stepped in front of her and pressed her into the lush growth, unwittingly moving away from the trail to their camp. As soon as the thick vegetation permitted, Amber slipped from the opening into the bush and tugged uselessly at her father's hand.
Amber’s blue eyes grew large with terror as she watched the approach of the creature. He towered over her father though the mentor was presenting a bold front, still declining to exhibit overt fear or to display any suggestion of aggressive intent.
Among the members of the expedition only Southall and the Diyalan lieutenant bore arms. The latter had urged that each of them should carry both a hunting knife and at least a sidearm, but Laxton had indignantly reminded Locke that this was a peaceful scientific expedition, not a military foray. After many hours of argument a reluctant compromise had been reached. The two experienced Chimurians carried both sidearms and rifles, but the others went unarmed save for a hunting knife for any who cared to carry one.
Today the mentor had reluctantly carried a knife only at the determined insistence of young Southall. The Tuathan did not like to see Amber enter the jungle without at least a gesture toward protection. Now the gesture seemed scant security indeed against the danger that faced Amber and her father.
As the girl watched breathlessly, the huge hunterfolk gradually moved in on them. He made no threatening gesture. None was needed. His bearing alone conveyed menace beyond Amber Laxton’s comprehension. To her horror she saw her father’s hand creep toward the knife. He would do little more than anger the beast without the slightest hope of preserving their lives. Somehow she held her silence.
Then the creature chattered, and her father responded in soft tones, but, of course, neither had the faintest idea of what it was the other sought to communicate. At last Laxton could retreat no farther without revealing Amber's place of supposed concealment. He stopped.
The buck halted simultaneously and engaged in a lengthy discourse accompanied by a variety of gestures and postures, wholly incomprehensible to the mentor, whose fellow scholars had always believed Gemini’s folk incapable of anything remotely approaching language.
Laxton shrugged his shoulders as he extended his hands apart, empty palms upward. The utterly humankind gesture of apologetic incomprehension meant little to the folk. He scratched his head in obvious puzzlement. But following that near-human reaction the buck next gestured in Amber's direction. Once again he chattered, but this time he walked right up to the mentor and shouldered the man aside to peer after his daughter.
The frightened girl drew back deeper into the thick vegetation. The entangling growth impeded her passage, but it was mostly loyalty to her father that slowed her retreat. Her courage was real, but his peril was more immediate and, for the moment, more obvious to Amber than was her own.
Perhaps the buck would have looked briefly for the stranger she and then departed in respect for the solitude preferred by the aloof pair. Or perhaps he was a rogue among his kind and would have disregarded the obvious rejection of his interest. None will ever know. What next transpired set on course yet a third destiny for Amber Laxton.
Blane Laxton stumbled under the force of the buck’s light blow. Ignoring him, the hunterfolk stooped to investigate the spoor of the young she. After a moment's hesitation he began to force his way into the dense growth in an effort to catch another glimpse of her. Once again his initial motivation might have been no more than idle curiosity. But Laxton dared not take the chance.
With an inarticulate cry the courageous mentor rushed forward, knife in hand. Though the mentor’s mind was not assessing the situation with rational detachment, the fact is that only a carefully placed blow would have so much as slowed the beast. From the mentor’s position there were few vital spots he could reach. The mentor had neither the training nor the strength required to use the pitiful weapon with effect.
The unexpected blow caught the buck in the side. He whirled, dragging the knife from Laxton's hand before the man could withdraw it to strike again. For an instant of time the unlikely antagonists poised for battle or flight. None could have predicted which course the hunterfolk would elect. Laxton stood his ground. He could not retreat. The safety of his beloved daughter depended entirely on his resolute courage.
As the Stars would have it, the buck was instantly seized with a fit of madness, rare among the hunterfolk but devastating when it occurs. The hunterfolk scatter rapidly when one of them suddenly demonstrates the unmistakable signs of irrational behaviour that now took possession of the wounded buck. Even the ignorant humankind recognised the horrid glint that entered the beast's eyes. But even were escape possible, his love for his daughter would have prevented Blane Laxton from attempting to retreat, exposing her to a fate too terrible to bear contemplation.
The brave father saw his death in those terrible eyes, but even in his doom he also saw opportunity. In a last desperate effort to protect Amber, the mentor backed slowly down the narrow trail their bodies had cleared to draw the enraged beast away from her. In his present state the creature might forget her altogether. Nevertheless, as he moved, Laxton prayed that Amber would take advantage of the opportunity to make good her own escape. But he reckoned without his daughter's own resolute courage, inherited, in no small part, from him.
In his confusion Laxton moved not in the direction of the hopelessly distant camp but toward the opposite side of the clearing where the encounter had originated. The hunterfolk hesitated long enough to scream a challenge. The mentor raised one fist and howled at the top of his voice. As he hoped, the infuriated creature seemed to forget Amber. He followed, still giving vent to his rage against the old san-k’aranda.
As soon as Laxton saw that his stratagem was going to be successful, Laxton turned and ran as fast as his old legs could bear him. He wanted as much distance as he could possibly gain between the buck and his daughter before the inevitable consequence of this chance meeting was played out.
Laxton knew he could depend on the others to prevent her from returning for him. The mentor had no delusions of what was about to befall. He wished Amber to be spared the horror of his passing.
The puny knife fell from the clumsy hand of the beast as he ran. The hunterfolk did not so much as pause in his single-minded pursuit of his tormentor. The unfamiliar fang meant nothing to him. Nature had endowed him with the only weapons he would require against this unworthy foe.
The buck overtook the human in the clearing. With a scream of incoherent fury that reverberated through the dense forest, the maddened creature charged the last few strides separating him from his victim and struck the man dead with a single blow to the base of his skull.
The buck stood over his victim, more than a little surprised when the stranger failed to rise. The madness vanished as swiftly as it had descended upon him. The buck felt no sense of victory. If he had been human, his reaction to this violent death might have been described as despair. His response to the elderly buck had been entirely without Aranda justification.
After a moment of strangely subdued silence, the buck moved off to retrace the morning's path. But before he could proceed far in the direction of the bachelor band with which he was presently traveling, the weight of a heavy blow struck him from behind. Taken off-balance in mid-stride, he was all but driven to the hard ground.
The she, forgotten by the buck in the aftermath of his rage against the old male, attacked the hunterfolk with all the fury that in him was now fully spent. Her slender arm rose and fell many times in her futile effort to drive her father's knife home. The buck tore her from his back and hurled her to the ground. But he did nothing to threaten her.
Instead, with an emotion not unlike shame, he cast his glance from the she to the slain buck and back. The she was not of his kind. He wished only to leave her and her pathetic defender behind him. With a great weariness he turned to follow the trail back to his fellow bachelors.
But Amber’s fury was far from spent. Her fear for herself and grief for her father’s brave sacrifice were channeled into an unsupportable rage. In truly primitive response her surging emotions would be soothed only by immediate and bloody revenge. Grief had not yet emerged. In those few horrendous moments the untried girl was reduced to abject savagery. Were Amber a boy, there are those who would assert he became a man in that instant.
With a shrill scream that echoed the buck's earlier inarticulate vocalisation Amber Laxton rose to charge the retreating beast with nothing less than murder in her heart. She was all but oblivious to her danger as well as to her surroundings, but, just as she raced into the clearing, she imagined she caught sight of a tall man leaping out of the trees near the body of her father. To her fevered mind it seemed as though his skin glowed in the sun like copper.
[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 67]
Narrative Transmission 9
JER’OK HEARD THE distant cries of a hunterfolk buck. He detected the timbre in the calls that revealed the Aranda to be in the throes of madness. The voice was unfamiliar even to Jer’ok’s finely tuned hearing. Thus, it was no more than insatiable curiosity that drew the beast-man to investigate. Though the beast-man no longer bore the burdens of alata, it is always wise to be aware of any unusual events in his territory.
Jer’ok-ta arrived on the scene too late to be of service to the strangers, had he been moved to intervene. From the trees surrounding a small clearing on a much-used trail of his people, Jer'ok paused to observe the disturbance. The curious creature witnessed only the blow that concluded the old Jer’anda buck’s defence of the young she. The starfolk she was not about, nor did Mael carry her scent to the dispassionate observer. Jer’ok saw no reason to interfere so belatedly in the mutual affairs of Aranda and san-k’aranda, so he paused only to observe the subsequent withdrawal of the buck, noting as he did that the madness was already dissipating. There was no reason to confront the Aranda.
As the bachelor left the clearing to return to his fellows, Jer’ok dropped lightly to the ground and bent over the Jer’anda male. He would confirm the old one’s long sleep before going about his interrupted business.
Suddenly the beast-man came to his feet, hand on the hilt of his crystal knife. Before he could move, the young she who so fascinated him had crossed the clearing and leaped at the retreating buck, her own knife rising and falling with little skill
and less effect.
The son of Aranda was astonished. He had never before seen a she attack a buck unless there was a ta'el to be protected. For an instant he watched in silent bemusement. But the beast-man remained neither silent nor bemused for long.
Jer’ok growled a warning deep in his throat when the buck negligently tossed the she aside with annoyance. Much to his admiring surprise the Jer’anda refused to acknowledge defeat. Instead, with a scream of madness she charged after the buck. This time the bachelor halted. Viciously he grasped her frail wrist in one huge hand and swung her away from him. She fought him furiously, though she was completely helpless in his grip. He crushed her wrist with an easy pressure and the knife slipped from nerveless fingers. This time, instead of tossing her aside, the buck examined her with a critical eye. Jer’ok growled again.
If the she was to belong to Aranda, she would be his, not the mate of a stranger who had dared to slay her protector. It was Jer’ok, not this other, who had troubled to bring the golden-haired beauty offerings of food – offerings that had been accepted in obvious indication of her interest in Jer’ok.
But the son of Aranda stayed his hand. His people’s ritual of mate selection has little in common with the tender exchanges that had recently passed between Rand and Amber. For all Jer’ok knew, his chosen she would accept this brutal buck as her mate. Perhaps she was merely following the mating ritual of Jer’anda.
As Jer’ok watched in glowering silence, the buck made his fateful decision. The she was most peculiar, but one of his age had to take a mate where he could. He was tired of the company of bachelors. This spirited stranger-she was acceptable if obviously too frail to produce more than one or two ta’els. If she entered long sleep prematurely he was resigned to search out another.
Jer’ok waited with bated breath when he observed the expression of satisfaction that crossed the distant buck’s face. If she accepted the bachelor, hunterfolk ways required that he honour her choice. They did not, however, prevent Jer’ok from hoping she would reject selection.
He did not have long to wait. The she belatedly understood the buck’s intentions. Her reaction was obvious to both males.
UNFORTUNATELY, THE BACHELOR who held Amber in his brutal grip was not so bound to his people’s ways as was Jer’ok. Still subject to the last dwindling influence of the passing madness, he chose to ignore the frail she's rejection. His fury renewed by her inexplicable behaviour, the buck struck her a mighty blow and slung her unconscious form over one massive shoulder before turning to continue on his way along the trail. Before he could take more than a single stride, he sensed a slight movement behind him. The buck turned to face Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda.
The awesome challenge of the Aranda was instantly given and accepted. None too gently the she, who in all innocence had provoked it, was unceremoniously dumped onto the ground.
Without further warning, Jer’ok charged the hated bachelor. The beast-man had entered more than one battle to the death in the course of his career both before and since serving as alata, but never before had such a battle been provoked by the beast-man himself. Nor had any been of greater import to the lonely son of two worlds. This battle would decide not only his fate, but also that of the she who would be his mate. For, so long as there was breath left in his body, this she he promised himself would belong to no other. She was Jer’ok’s.
The two magnificent males dispensed with the usual preliminaries so dear to the hearts of hunterfolk. Instead they immediately commenced a wary circling, each observing the other, seeking some weakness that might provide an advantage, however slight. On such minute advantages the difference between victory and defeat can turn.
Of equal height the buck had the advantage of weight behind powerful muscles, while Jer’ok was far more agile. The son of starfolk had the distinct advantage of keen intelligence that served a mind as quick as Jera, the lightning, for whom he had been named. Today Jer’ok also had the further advantage of cool thought. His opponent's irrational ire was an additional enemy the buck could little afford to fend off in this battle.
Jer’ok feinted, luring the buck into closing. But the beast-man was no longer there when the mighty arms reached out to crush his naked chest in their grasp. The lithe creature ducked aside and was behind the slower buck in the blinking of an eye. Before the latter could turn to renew his attack, Jer’ok closed. He gripped the startled Aranda so that the other’s long arms were forced helplessly back while his head was forced forward under an unrelenting pressure brought to bear against the back of his neck. For long moments there was no other sound in the clearing but the laboured breathing of the straining antagonists.
Giant muscles swelled under two hides: one thick with sweat-dank fur, the other glowing with the burnished sheen of copper. When it came, the buck refused to respond to Jer’ok’s demand for surrender. The demand was repeated only once. The subsequent lengthy silence was finally broken by a sharp crack and the sound of a heavy body dropping to the earth. Instantly there followed the reverberating Aranda screams of victory and of defiant challenge. The outcries echoed in the still air of Ashtar. Char would have found nought to criticise in his fosterling’s skills this day!
Presently the victorious Jer’ok-ta lowered his proud head and turned to find the terrified eyes of his chosen she fixed on him. With the grace of the great jungle cats he strode to her side to claim her.
“I am Jer'ok-ta of the Aranda,” he announced without preamble. “You are mine. How are you called, golden one?”
Fortunately for Jer’ok Amber could understand nought of what he said. His forthright tactics were not well calculated to endear him to her. But he could not know of his blunder. He only saw the she shrink from him in obvious fear. Indeed, Jer’ok had much to learn of the ways of women, especially this woman.
Jer’ok waited patiently. His were not the ways of the improvident buck who would have taken her by force with little regard for either the nature of her response or her tender sensitivities. Jer’ok spoke again, this time more softly, “I will not harm you, golden one, do not fear.”
He reached forward to help her to her feet, but she moved back until her retreat was halted by the broad trunk of one of the large trees at the edge of the clearing. The fear never left her blue eyes. Ever so gently Jer’ok lifted her to her feet.
Neither Jer’ok of the Aranda nor Amber Laxton of Ares was prepared for the spark ignited by that first innocent touch.
For an instant each was stunned. Their eyes met and locked. It was as though they had been soul-mates throughout all eternity. The spell was broken only when Amber recalled the dreadful circumstances that had led to this moment. With memory the fear returned.
Jer’ok watched with infinite sadness as the light in his she’s eyes altered. He knew the instant when whatever had passed between them was replaced by earlier fear. Because they shared no common language he knew of no means to reassure her. She spoke once, but he could but shake his head sadly. He knew of no way to communicate with her.
With the inspiration of desperation, according to the ways of his people, the beast-man presented one hand to his she, palm down as if greeting a stranger without malice. To his surprise and delight, she paused but for a moment. Then she took his hand in her own and raised it until his fingers rested lightly on her forehead. She spoke briefly and attempted a smile.
Although the sounds were tantalisingly familiar, Jer’ok could not understand her pretty speech of gratitude. He quite forgot to reclaim his hand. Nothing had ever felt so pleasant as this slight contact with this beautiful san-k’aranda she. But she obviously took no offense. Instead she guided his hand to her lips where she allowed it to linger but briefly. Gently, with her other hand, she turned his over so that it lay palm upward to hold the tips of her fingers. Thus, Amber, despite her grief and lingering fear, revealed to Jer’ok the age-old humankind courtesy which allows a gentleman to kiss the hand of a lady.
The beast-man reclaimed the honoured hand to stare at it, wondering at the sensations it was driving through every last fibre of his being. Then, when she refused the return of his hand on hers, he gently took her arm. The beast-man was loath to release the Jer’anda she, lest she run off into the dangers of the jungle before he could warn her of them. Already the normal sounds of the denizens of the forest again going about their business were refilling the silent emptiness attending the battles that had shattered the Ashtarian peace – always tentative. The she looked about anxiously and tried to evade Jer’ok’s hold on her arm. When his hold merely slackened, her eyes returned to his in obvious query.
No doubt the golden one now sought the buck who had fallen in the vain effort to protect her. As best he could Jer’ok indicated that she should remain where she was. He released her. When he was satisfied that she would heed his unspoken warning, Jer’ok went to the Jer’anda buck and bent to examine him again -- even though he knew nothing could be done.
Memories of Jer’ok’s own grief when first Char and then Lael were violently taken from him helped him to understand something of the she’s anger as well as her grief. Who was this buck who had defended her so bravely yet so futilely? Was he mate or, more likely, sire? He wondered how the Jer’anda dealt with those who had commenced long sleep. Before he could long ponder the question, the beast-man’s head came up in alert attention as he listened and sniffed the air. At least two of the starfolk were approaching along the trail that had brought these two to the clearing.
Without a second thought Jer’ok rose to his feet and raced back to his she. Before she could elude him he lifted her in strong arms and bore her down the trail leading away from her band. The she screamed in terror and struck him repeatedly as he ran. Every bit as furiously as she had struggled in the hold of the stranger Aranda, Amber now turned on Jer’ok. But he ignored her struggles. His stride never faltered. Unaware of the limited capabilities of her people, Jer'ok suddenly entered the trees in an unnecessary effort to delay their pursuit. The terrified she screamed once again before swooning in his arms.
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