[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 70]AMONG THE ARANDA the patience of Jer’ok-ta had become a thing of note. Even their uncertain memories retained many images of the ugly but uniquely effective alata who preferred his solitude to the burdens of leadership – a preference that could only be a quirk of the unusual circumstances of his origins, not the least of which was the devastating intrusion of multitudes of Jera in his Pers-Alata. Or, perhaps, that intrusion into Jer’ok’s transition into adulthood had transformed him, after all, into something not-Aranda. The detail was lost with the passage of time, and many of those present had entered long sleep, but the event itself took on a dimension rivaling the Aranda compulsion to attend the tasks on the
Narrative Transmission 12
hillside, which had now drawn a band of Jer’anda.
Whatever the source of the creature's abilities, there was none among the hunterfolk who had ever heard of an incident where Jer’ok had suffered defeat or had led his band into any harm. But, other than his leadership, most vivid of all the images of Jer’ok was that of unswerving patience. His was a patience that never flagged, whether faced with an impish ta’el behaving with risky indiscretion in the presence of the alata or with the need to out wait a stubborn Thera declining to vacate the only protected pathway to the local water hole.
On their passage into incipient humankind state, the Aranda have lost the infinite patience that marks the character of the wild beasts of Ashtar. Perhaps it is the price to be paid for increased intelligence. Jer'ok, however, combined humankind intelligence with many of the more useful traits of both his Aranda and the wild beasts he so closely observed. The fortunate combination made the beast-man well nigh invincible.
But even patience worthy of Aranda note has its limits.
Jer’ok could not give credence to the abysmal ignorance of the Jer’anda companions of his beloved Amber. It was fortunate indeed the foolish creatures passed the major portion of their time huddled in their lairs and slept through the dangerous near-dark. As it was, Jer’ok was kept constantly busy in his never-ending effort to protect them. He learned to go about his jungle fully armed with spear and with bow and a generous supply of arrows. He never knew what the foolish ones would next flush out in their blundering forays into the jungle. The beast-man hardly had time to hunt for them or for himself. He dared sleep only briefly and then only within the sound of their voices. Jer’ok often chafed under the tight rein of
self-imposed responsibility and longed to be away.
Then he would hear the sound of Amber’s soft voice or recall the way she had looked at him when she thought he did not notice. At such times his patience would be restored. It pleased him to serve her despite the restrictions on his cherished freedom. Still it seemed to Jer’ok that there was no hazard in all the jungles of Ashtar to which the inept strangers were immune. With a resigned sigh the exasperated beast-man wondered how they had ever managed to survive in the jungles among the stars from which they had come.
Swift as he is, Jer’ok of the Aranda, like all other mortal men, can only be in one place at any given point in time. Because of his love for Amber he made a heroic effort to protect each and every member of her oddly assorted band. But because of that love he never strayed far from the Armerian woman whenever she ventured into the jungle. Fortunately, her band was endowed with sufficient sense to see to it she was almost never left alone in the camp itself, although what protection they might have provided had danger threatened was beyond Jer’ok’s understanding.
When the Jer’anda bucks and shes were not in the company of Jer’ok’s chosen one, they were on their own. The first to suffer was one of the students. He fell beneath the cruel talons of the mate of Thera when he stumbled upon her with her young ones. When Jer’ok belatedly arrived on the scene he was distressed to observe that the smallest ta’el would have scented the temperamental she from the other side of the glade in which she was making her lair. Had the foolish ta’el nevertheless persisted in the dangerous encounter, he would have detected the unmistakable sounds of the suckling youngsters and retired in dignity.
Not so the stupid starfolk. And so the Jer’anda had died before Jer’ok could intervene.
The next to succumb was another student. This one was woefully – and fatally – ignorant of the ways of Ashtar. He failed to note the subtle differences in the surrounding flora and blundered into a treacherous bog he had mistaken for solid ground. He might have extricated himself but had become entangled in the thick growth beneath the heavy mat of vegetation. In his struggles to free himself, he was drawn into the sucking soft muck lurking about the embedded roots.
If Jer’ok was astonished by the foolish conceit that allowed beings so ill-prepared to enter unfamiliar territory, he was at the same time deeply moved by Amber’s obvious misery as her people were taken from her one by one. He outdid himself in the thankless effort to protect them. But no amount of effort on the part of one lone defender could preserve the Jer’anda from san-k’aranda enemies as powerful as they are devious.
FOR THE FIRST time since the death of Lael, the Khazarish, exiled misfits from distant Camassia, far to the north of the Ashtarian rain forest, had returned to Jer’ok’s territory to resume relations with the scattered cannibals, survivors of the combined efforts of the beast-man and his Aranda to destroy them.
The remaining cannibals gathered by the Khazarish invaders nurtured a consuming hatred for all the creatures of the forest ever since their ignominious routing at the hands of the despised humankind leader of the hunterfolk. The Khazarish leadership listened with scant interest to the outlandish renderings of the tales. Although this is a people who need no specific fuel to fire the malevolence burning in their depraved beings, they might find some use for this daemon, if he existed beyond the imaginations of their allies of the moment.
The Khazarish are among the most dangerous of the foes Jer’ok was to face throughout his lifetime. Among the unmitigated disasters of Chimur's ill-considered gen-anthro-evolutionary studies of ages past, the Khazarish are the despicable outcasts of more than one proud desert society once thriving under the watchful eyes of the scientists.
The scientists are long dead, as are the societies of their creation, but the remnants of the latter roam the desert lands of Ashtar's largest continent, reduced to a nomadic life sustained more by pillage and plunder than by stint of their own skills.
The remote ancestors of the Khazarish had been genetically programmed to be keepers of flocks and breeders of fine horses, to be skilled hunters and workers of exquisite crafts, resorting to warring upon their neighbors only when pressed beyond human endurance. The Khazarish of Jer’ok’s time prided themselves on being thieves and murderers who skulk upon their victims in the darkness with numerous confederates lest there be the slightest chance of failure.
Instead of creating artifacts to enhance life, the Khazarish trade in weapons for the perpetuation of its miseries. Instead of maintaining fine herds, the Khazarish wantonly slaughter the wild game and trade in the greatest known perversion of humankind. The Khazarish are the sole source of the slaves needed to support the decadent raabdoms of the remotest corners of Camassia.
Not even Jer’ok could singlehandedly protect the remaining members of the Laxton party from such malefactors, living evidence of wrongheaded science of ages past gone most dreadfully awry. On the occasion of the first encounter between the Khazarish force and the Laxton expedition, it was only by a matter of chance that Jer’ok was able to thwart the capture of Amber.
AMBER LAXTON WAS intent on her patch of ground, marked off from the others in a grid of her father’s design. She, herself, had taken it from the copious notes the late mentor had organised specifically for this work. If she and her father’s colleagues and students could demonstrate proof of hunterfolk tools actually crafted for the creation of the Earth-Mother design, the late mentor’s controversial prediction of the imminence of their emergence as full-fledged humankind would be irrefutably advanced.
Amber’s own experience with Jer’ok’s use of language had convinced her of her father’s position. But much more was needed to sway the skeptics of Gemini and throughout the Confederation. Acknowledgment of humankind status brings with it new obligations on the part of a nascent culture's fellow members of the Confederation.
And thus it was that Amber was fully engrossed in her delicate work and oblivious to her surroundings. She was only vaguely aware of the presence of her scattered colleagues, each hard at work in their respective segments of the grid. Unbeknownst to any of these inexperienced starfolk, they were being stalked.
As the Stars would have it, Jer’ok was moving through the trees not far in the wake of the intruders. He came upon them well before their intent became manifest. It was the scent of the unexpected intruders which initially warned him well before he could blunder into them. He abandoned his business of the moment to learn what they might be about.
The presence of strange san-k’aranda was a surprise even to the beast-man. Annoyed with his own lapse in allowing their deep incursion, he reasoned with resignation that they had entered his territory while his attention was diverted by the Jer’anda. Constantly alert to any danger, Jer’ok moved closer to investigate, his own passage through the trees now as silent as second shadow.
As soon as the beast-man observed the stealth with which the intruders were skulking through the jungle, he knew they were up to no good, even before he detected the cannibals among them. The beast-man selected a passageway in the uppermost terrace capable of supporting his weight while affording him a broad vantage over the stalkers. They were scattered within sight of each other but well hidden from anyone who was located beyond them. As Jer’ok observed them more closely, he noted something vaguely familiar about them. His nostrils flared in disgust at their scent, also somehow familiar to him.
Suddenly his lip curled in an ugly snarl and his hand crept unbidden to the hilt of his sire's hunting knife. These were the creatures who had slain Lael and made good their escape while her fosterling mourned!
A creature of lesser intelligence would have struck instantly, slaying as many of these hated men as his speed and prowess allowed, without thought of any further consequences of the action. But Jer’ok would know more of what they were about. That they were stalking someone or something boded no good for the object of that seemingly unprovoked attention. Without need for language or overt action, the beast-man harbored no doubt that the k’aranda below him were the aggressors in whatever was forthcoming. He would make it his business to intervene in his own good time.
As the stalkers and their grim stalker slipped noiselessly through the jungle, the curious beast-man turned his attention more closely to the surrounding patterns of vegetation, first to ensure his own orientation and second to discover the identity of the quarry of the coming attack. Another snarl curled Jer’ok’s lip when he determined just how closely they were encroaching upon the range in which the Jer’anda were passing the time of Sanjera’s full presence.
Then, when the distant scents of Jer’anda were wafted to the beast-man’s nostrils by Mael, the flighty wind, a low growl rumbled deep in his throat. A grimace of hatred contorted the handsome face and froze there. Amber’s scent was the closest among those who were the certain victims of these evil k’aranda.
By the time the Khazarish in the company of their allies and the unsuspected presence overhead came within sight of the intent party of scientists, Amber had moved to another segment of the grid at the very edge of the jungle itself.
The infuriated beast-man had no idea what fate awaited his chosen she. It did not matter, as it would never be fulfilled. In his fury, Jer’ok momentarily forgot the ignorance of those he sought to preserve from harm. The Aranda warning cry echoed uselessly from the depths of the jungle to the ears of the Jer’anda.
Even before the eerie sound had faded in the still air, one of the startled stalkers lay dead – a heavy arrow, not unlike those of the cannibal cronies of the Khazarish, through his ribs. This unfortunate one did not die in silence, and his death cry stunned his comrades. They were too intent on their own quarry to witness his passing and too cowed by the Aranda scream from the treetops to stir from their positions. Before they could compose themselves to react, two more of their number died noisily under the superb marksmanship of the being or beings who had attacked without warning or – to their way of thinking – cause.
Before more could die under the mysterious shower of arrows, deadly in the unswerving accuracy, the survivors now turned as one man and scattered further in the hope of escaping their unseen assailant.
At the sound of the horrid scream followed by a series of thrashing disturbances in the jungle growth, Amber and the students actually rushed toward the sounds in some misplaced hope of helping whoever was in distress. They were undaunted by any prospects of personal danger. Someone was in trouble – again. The fact that they had no means of coming to the aid of anyone, including themselves, never entered their heads.
Amber was second in line as she and her companions came upon the scene of devastation wreaked by the marksmanship of Jer’ok. Their greater speed had carried the two companions momentarily beyond the view of the remainder of the students when Amber stopped with a low cry of horror.
Three oddly garbed men lay sprawled in attitudes of sudden death, heavy arrows buried deep in their bodies. She took a step backward, one hand pressed to her mouth to stifle the scream rising in her throat. Her companion raced onward, though even he must have known the strangers were beyond help. Before the others could catch up to their speedier fellows, rough hands caught Amber up and commenced to drag her bodily into the depths of the forest. She would have screamed in earnest then, but a filthy hand closed over her nose and mouth.
There were two of them: Two of the less craven Khazarish leaders had circled back to the place of ambush in the hope of surprising whoever it was that had interfered with their scheme. Their gods chose to grant these two the boon of fortune far better than they had dared to hope.
The victims upon whom they had been stealthily creeping had not been routed by the brief skirmish after all. Better yet, the prize they most coveted, the young woman, was among them – and separated from the others. The gods were admittedly capricious, but, if their uncertain favour held sway, the Khazarish who had taken her captive would disappear with her before her companions could retaliate. They could always come back later for the men.
But the girl would bring a price many times over what all the men together were likely to command. Even though the latter were in or near their prime, most of them, on closer inspection, proved more than slightly out of condition. It was doubtful they would survive the trek to the north and Camassia’s raabdoms. Because of her value, however, the girl would receive the best of care – for the moment.
The girl was easily subdued despite her spirited struggle. Her captors waited in silence to determine what would next transpire. Their hearts pounded with lingering fear and the proximity of this exotic beauty. The milling men who followed in her wake appeared to be at a complete loss. Not one of them seemed capable of following the Khazarish and their valuable prize. Nevertheless, one of the intruders held his firearm at the ready as he chuckled in derision of their ineptitude. In sublime confidence the two Khazarish looked at each other with sneers neither bothered to conceal. This was easy game indeed.
But they had reckoned without the son of the hunterfolk.
This time the challenge of the Aranda shattered the quiet that had fallen in wake of warning and deadly attack. The Khazarish who held Amber were not above looking about in initial terror but relaxed when no action followed. They saw no need to heed what they did not understand. Still, hunterfolk were about and it is always wise to avoid confrontation.
With earlier stealth restored they crept through the brush with their victim. But Amber had heard that call before and recognised its meaning. Of the voice she was not altogether certain, but the arrows she had spied were an additional clue. She clawed with renewed desperation at her captor's smothering hand over her face and succeeded in breaking his grip. Before he could subdue her again, she managed to scream a single word: “Jer’ok!”
He was there almost before the sound of his name faded from her bruised lips. The two Khazarish were startled but unimpressed when they viewed the all-but-naked savage who obviously thought to take the girl from them. The gods alone knew for what purpose. One of the slavers laughed aloud. It was the last sound he ever uttered.
The crystal knife of Leede Southerly flew through the air straight into the black heart of the Khazarish renegade. Jer’ok did not so much as pause to confirm his permanent withdrawal from the conflict. There was no need.
In a single move Jer’ok whirled and leaped upon the Khazarish who still clutched Amber to him. With a surprisingly gentle touch the enraged beast-man pulled his she away and thrust her behind him before roughly twisting the unbelieving Khazarish around to catch him in a grip of steely strength. Before the slaver could take the slightest defensive action he found himself in a hold both unbreakable and inevitably fatal.
As she turned to watch, this vicious, one-sided struggle suddenly became tainted for Amber. She viewed in horror the savage, unrelenting ferocity of the beast-man for whom victory was assured from the first moment. She remembered the felled men nearby and knew very well who had slain them. Amber was suddenly sickened by the extent of Jer’ok’s violence.
Amber screamed for a second time when Jer’ok ruthlessly severed the spine of her erstwhile attacker with his bare hands and tossed him aside as negligently as she had once seen a family dog toss aside a flimsy ragdoll with which it was done playing. As the woman gaped in horror, Jer’ok lifted his face, still contorted with rage, to distant Pol and voiced the victory call of his people.
Amber shrank back in shock and fear reborn. What was this creature that came her aid but with so little concern for taking of the lives of others? No less than five men had died in a matter of mere minutes at the savage hand of the jungle man. Her natural gratitude palled at the thought of what Jer’ok might actually be.
[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 70]
Narrative Transmission 13
THE BEAST-MAN DROPPED his head to look to the she who had called out to him in her need. He was unprepared for what he saw in her pale face. Amber was staring at him as though it was he and not these unworthy k’aranda who had attacked her.
Baffled anew by her unpredictable moods, Jer’ok displaced his unwonted fearfulness in striding to his first victim to reclaim his knife. As he stooped to clean it in the grass beside the fallen intruder, Jer’ok sensed rather than saw that Amber was about to collapse. He rose and went to her in a single fluid motion, returning his knife to its sheath as he did so.
Amber swooned in Jer’ok’s arms just as the other students managed to find their way to her, drawn by her screams and the unearthly cry none could identify. It was only natural that they should assume the worst when they saw what appeared to be a giant hunterfolk buck with Amber’s body strained close to his own. The dangerous pro-hominid was regarding them across Amber’s limp form.
He was obviously suspicious, but the bold creature showed no sign of fear. One of the students slowly drew his knife with greater bravado than sense. Fortunately for the Jer’anda Jer’ok could not defend himself while he held Amber. The knife was launched to flash harmlessly by one great shoulder.
Jer’ok snarled a warning. One of the others lifted his sidearm. Jer’ok backed away. He snarled again. These foolish ones would kill the she if they were not careful. In his arms Amber stirred, senses restored by the sound of Jer’ok’s reaction to the threat he preferred for her sake not to meet. She felt him turn to shield her body from the uncertain marksmanship of her would-be rescuers.
Amber twisted in his arms and lifted her head to look past Jer’ok’s broad shoulder to see the weapon trained on the savage’s back. Though she was repulsed by the beast-man’s violent nature, she could not bear to see him harmed. She did not yet accept as love the contradictory feelings his actions evoked in her heart. Amber struggled to no avail in Jer’ok’s arms as she called out desperately.
“No! Don’t shoot! Please, don’t shoot him.”
To Jer’ok she turned and begged in a quieter voice, “please let me go. They don't understand. Jer’ok, they will kill you. Let me go. I can stop them.”
Already her confused companions were hesitating. Amber seemed to be rational. It would appear she had no fear of the giant savage who held her. Indeed, it almost seemed that he sought to protect her from them. By now it was also becoming apparent to each that this was no hunterfolk. Neither was he in the garb of the dead men. The threatening weapon turned aside in the confusion.
Jer’ok quietly released Amber, who promptly moved to stand between the beast-man and the Jer’anda. He could not help but admire her. Though Amber still trembled in reaction to the events of the last few moments, her voice was steady as she spoke to her atna – her friends, explaining no doubt that Jer’ok of the Aranda would never harm her. The students were astonished by her calm assumption of control over the situation and by her brief words of explanation.
“He is my friend,” she concluded simply, her own reservations about his nature deliberately suppressed.
As Jer’ok looked on, his tiny she succeeded in restoring calm among the angry Jer’anda bucks. Jer’ok was not surprised by the aggressive behaviour of the humankind. He was, however, amazed at the ease with which Amber put an end to the attack upon him.
Was she, then, their alata? Jer’ok had never known of a she who led his people, but he acknowledged the undeniable fact that he had much to learn of the ways of starfolk.
He waited patiently while Amber spoke at length to the others. He recognised his name in her conversation and knew she must be explaining in greater detail who he was. The initial animosity faded away. One by one her band began to eye him with frank curiosity. He endured their regard, for all the challenge it conveyed.
Then the one who had considered doing battle with the Aranda buck came forward to introduce himself with a sheepish grin. The others followed his lead willingly enough, but after these familiar amenities they were at a loss.
They looked at each other and to the she in confusion. Amber herself was regarding Jer’ok with a puzzled expression and then awkwardly signed that he should join them in whatever they were about at the jungle’s edge. Jer’ok shook his head and indicated that instead they should return to their lairs. He was not completely convinced the remaining k’aranda were not still lingering to complete their designs on the starfolk.
A prolonged conversation ensued, at the conclusion of which the starfolk males again took up the trail back to their earlier activity. Jer’ok shrugged. His primary concern was Amber. If the others insisted on taking stupid chances, then they must do as they would and accept the consequences.
Jer’ok had no difficulty in accepting their independent spirits. He had lived the greater part of his life following his own will. That these bucks possessed nothing of the abilities that had preserved Jer'ok's splendid good health while so engaged was a matter of complete indifference to the beast-man.
But then Amber indicated that she would join her band in their foolhardy venture.
Her safety was a different matter entirely. Jer’ok shook his head a second time. Once again he pointed the way back to the place of their lairs. But this time he grasped Amber firmly by the shoulders to emphasize his concern. In confronting Amber Jer’ok made the mistake of turning his back on her departing band.
It was neither a lapse in his defences nor scorn for their abilities. Jer’ok had accepted their good intentions. He relied upon his acute senses to warn him in ample time should one or more of them unexpectedly turn on him. What he did not understand was that what is simply firm to hunterfolk has the appearance of brutality to starfolk. Nor did Jer’ok clearly comprehend the nature of the weapons more than one of the students were carrying as a result of the death of Mentor Laxton and the disappearance of his daughter.
One of the students chanced to look back to see the beast-man cruelly threaten Amber, despite her insistence that he would never harm her. The student drew his sidearm. Unfamiliar with the mechanism, he fumbled at altering the beam to stun rather than kill, in deference to Amber's wishes. Shaking only a little, he took careful aim at Jer’ok’s broad back.
There was no warning. Amber happened to look beyond Jer’ok and her eyes widened in fear. The beast-man’s reaction to her sudden tension was wholly instinctive. Even as he heard Amber’s belated warning he acted.
Jer’ok ducked and whirled, taking Amber with him just as the broad beam pierced the dim light of the jungle and glanced harmlessly off a distant tree. Jer’ok looked from Amber to the buck, who was taking aim a second time. In disgust the beast-man released the she and ran swiftly to the nearby trees where he disappeared into the thick foliage.
The beast-man departed the scene quickly before he could change his mind. In the increasing distance between them he heard Amber call his name more than once. He also heard the sorrow in her call but chose not to heed it.
Had he waited he would have seen Amber stride purposely to her rash companion and strike his face with every ounce of her strength behind the blow. He would have seen her then take the weapon from the other's hand and heave it into the bush before the man could stop her. Buried deep in Amber's growing mental images of the jungle man was the fact that he had retreated rather than turn on her companions with the primitive ferocity that had wantonly destroyed her attackers.
But nothing of this was known to the Aranda buck in his flight from the Jer'anda she and her band, who had offered him nought but long sleep. For her sake he would not slay them, but neither would Jer'ok, peerless fighter among the Aranda, permit them additional opportunities to take his life.
A FEW DAYS after the Khazarish ambush had been foiled, the two Arene women were alone in camp. Even though the events that had nearly taken Amber from them had prompted the expedition to call for a ship and all were preparing to quit ill-omened Ashtar, the students were hard at work on some intriguing curiosity of paleo-anthropology discovered not far distant from the Earth-Mother symbol. They all wanted to make each moment count, for they had resolved never to return to this forsaken planet.
Southall and Locke had departed camp without explanation following a hasty conference upon the lieutenant's return from a lengthy absence. Amber was absorbed in some particularly obscure references in her father's notes and barely looked up when the Chimurians left. She nodded absently when Rand promised not to be long. She failed to notice that both men were heavily armed.
Jer’ok anxiously hovered nearby throughout the remainder of the day. But he had also made a resolution. The beast-man would not again approach Amber.
First twilight passed unheeded. Later the students returned, and a light meal was prepared and consumed with no more than passing reference to the missing pair. Nerves began to grow taut only when the near-dark of second twilight descended with no sign of the two men. The camp went about their evening routine and prepared to retire. There was nothing any of them could do, but Amber was not alone in passing a sleepless night. Her concern deepened with every additional hour without sign of either the Tuathan or the Diyalan.
First dawn broke, but no one left camp. One of the more courageous students suggested a search party, but no one, not even Amber, supported the implicit hope that they might actually be capable of locating the two by any means other than sheer chance. No one found it necessary to point out that thus far good luck had been in short supply since making landfall on Ashtar.
When second dawn followed with no change in circumstance, Amber decided to take matters into her own hands. Reluctantly the students acceded to her demand not to accompany her, but they in turn demanded that she be back before Pol had crossed to the other side of the Earth-Mother clearing. Otherwise, they threatened, they would all storm into the jungle in search of her. They held their tongues when Amber disappeared into the shelter of each of the missing men to return with the hat Rand Southall usually wore and a scarf Guy Locke had frequently dipped in cool water and tied about his throat.
Bridey shook her head and clucked her disapproval, but she wisely held her tongue. She feared for her Amber's safety but accepted that something must be done on behalf of the two men. Bridey had done no prying, but she was well aware that there was much Amber had confided to no one, not even her life-long confidant or her new beau, about the circumstances that had kept her so long in the jungle. Now some part of those circumstances was associated with Amber's conviction that she could find help for the missing Chimurians. Bridey sniffed. She did not approve.
With or without the approval of the loyal Bridey or of her fellow students, Amber was resolved to do all in her power to secure the return of Rand and Lieutenant Locke. Amber would not fail in her mission for lack of trying. She gritted her teeth against her growing fear of Ashtar and deliberately strode down the trail that led to a certain clearing with all the confidence of embarking upon an ordinary but rather important errand in the city of her birth.
Once in the clearing Amber became uncertain of her actions for the first time. She really had no sensible reason for believing she would be able to locate Jer’ok. She did not know whether she could prevail upon the savage to help her friends or even how she would go about explaining what it was she wanted, once she succeeded in making contact with him. Indeed, she was not entirely sure he would come to her at all. The conclusion of their last encounter had done little to advance friendship between Jer'ok and the humankind. That the worst was yet to come Amber could not have known.
JER’OK WAS TAKING his ease, dozing on the broad back of his favourite companion, shaggy Muthus, when he heard his name called out from a great distance. The sound of the she’s voice brought the indolent beast-man to instant attention. Muthus lifted his trunk to test the air only to find nothing of concern to him. He returned to his lazy browsing, with no more than an impatient flap of one great ear to let Jer’ok know he found the disturbance mildly annoying. Jer’ok’s first inclination was to ignore the call. The Jer’anda seemed to him little better than the san-k’aranda bands who had joined forces to make trouble for Jer’ok and all his fellow creatures.
Muthus, himself, bore the scars of the k’aranda malevolence. On one massive shoulder the rough hair was burned away as a result of the dangerous weapons carried by the intruders. The flesh beneath was healing under the ministrations of the Aranda-ta, well versed in the near-miraculous healing properties of much of the Ashtarian flora, thanks to the training provided by his foster parents.
Jer’ok nursed a special hatred for all those who want only to injure their fellow creatures without reason. Had Amber’s band not tried twice to slay him on the very day he had preserved their lives by driving off the stranger-k’aranda? And the she herself had regarded him with the loathing deserved by those k’aranda.
Jer’ok, in disgust, would have returned to his interrupted dozing, had he not next recalled that Amber had done her best to protect him. As always, he smiled at the thought of the beautiful she. Amber could be trusted. Of that much at least he was certain.
So it was that Amber’s call for help brought not one but two allies to the clearing where, until recently, Jer’ok had been making his lair. Amber could hardly believe her eyes when the jungle man appeared before her on the back of what could only be a mastodon, long extinct in the Gemini system except on exotic Ashtar.
With a courageous front that Jer’ok knew to be false, the Arene woman stood her ground. Showing a compassion to which she perhaps was not entitled, Jer’ok halted Muthus before the she was within reach of the sinuous trunk. But he did nothing more. He waited for Amber to act.
As the beast-man sternly regarded her, the fear was slowly displaced by curiosity followed by the return of sorrow. With that Jer’ok relented and spoke to Muthus before jumping lightly to the ground. With dignified step the monster lumbered off to disappear into the jungle growth that closed behind him. The beast-man came to Amber’s side, but his trained features were without expression and he did not speak to her.
Amber started, “Jer’ok, thank you for coming to me. We need your help . . . .” But her words faded when Jer’ok’s expression remained blank.
Her eyes pleaded for her, but it was to no avail when she was without the means to communicate the problem. Amber turned and started to walk away. She was quite unable to think when the strangely compelling golden eyes held her own. The situation was hopeless.
Before she had taken more than a few steps, she felt Jer’ok’s light touch on her arm. When she stopped and turned back, he pointed to the two objects in her hand and lifted the fine brow in an obvious interrogatory.
With renewed hope Amber handed Rand’s hat to him and pantomimed an attitude of hopeless searching. Then she gave him the scarf and repeated the pantomime. Jer’ok regarded her intently. Then he returned the objects and held his hand up, obviously requesting that she remain in place. At her slight nod of acquiescence Jer’ok turned and chattered in a loud voice. In a matter of seconds, Amber saw the shadowy mass of Muthus materialise at the edge of the clearing. Jer’ok went to the huge beast and spoke to him at length while Amber waited in wonder.
At last Jer’ok seemed to be satisfied. He turned to retrace his steps to Amber with the enormous creature not far behind. Amber tried to swallow but found her throat too dry. As she feared, the mastodon proceeded to wrap his trunk about Jer’ok’s body, lifted the jungle man to his broad back and then reached forward for her.
The woman closed her eyes tightly and breathed a small prayer. With surprising gentleness the shaggy trunk grasped her about the waist and lifted her with a care that was nothing short of amazing to the frightened Arene. Then she felt Jer’ok’s hands take her from the beast’s hold. She finally dared to open her eyes as he carefully placed her quite securely in front of him. She looked back to find him smiling his encouragement. Her seat on the great beast proved to be a surprisingly comfortable position. It reminded Amber of a lady riding sidesaddle on a more conventional mount.
Jer’ok looked to Amber for approval before speaking to the creature. Their obedient mount moved out. Amber swayed dizzily at first but soon found it an easy matter to accommodate the rhythmic gait with an answering lazy sway. The woman looked up to Jer’ok, who smiled and this time nodded his approval.
In only a few minutes Amber commenced to recognise features of the jungle immediately surrounding camp. As they drew closer, Jer’ok pointed to the two objects she still clutched in one hand and made a sweeping motion that encompassed the entire perimeter of the campsite. When she frowned in puzzlement, he touched the items again and shrugged his shoulders.
Amber nodded with understanding and indicated the point at which the men had left and the direction they had taken. Then Jer’ok halted the beast he called Muthus and assisted in lifting Amber to the ground. Indicating the she was to return to camp, Jer’ok proceeded to guide his huge companion into the jungle along the trail of the hunterfolk. At the time it mattered not in the least to the generous son of humankind that one of these Jer’anda was already his rival for the affections of Amber while the other was to become a lifelong friend. His acts were entirely selfless.
FOR ALL HIS amazing senses Jer’ok experienced no premonition of the profound alteration in his life’s course that would follow from what was in fact the whimsical decision of a weak moment. To answer the call of the Jer’anda she who had spurned him was not at all the response of a proper Aranda buck. According to the ways of the Aranda Amber had forever forfeited the care of Jer’ok-ta. But the beast-man found himself unable to banish her from his thoughts. And because the son of Char and Lael was also the son of Leede and Sabratha, more than one life was to be vastly diverted from its original course.
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