THE MAN WATCHED in fascination as the stalking carnivore paused and turned baleful eyes toward his place of concealment. Some inner sense was unerringly directing the glare of the great sabre-toothed beast to his intended prey. The man shrugged a coppery shoulder at the trick of the Stars, abetted by the wayward games of Mael, the wind. He allowed himself a wry smile. Today it seemed all of Ashtar was arrayed against him in revealing him to this, the most formidable of all his enemies.
As brief as his rueful smile was the man's regret for the earlier loss of his strong rope of tough reeds and his spear, weapons primitive yet effective even when wielded against Thera, the cat of the great fangs.
It would not be the first time Jer'ok of the Aranda had thus faced mighty Thera and won survival for yet another day. His right hand went to the crystal knife at his hip. Without a trace of fear, the beast-man awaited Thera's charge.
The huge cat, only slightly disturbed by the alien scent of San-k'aranda, shifted his head to stare more intently into the brush. There— only partially concealed by the lush vegetation— the slightest of movements betrayed the presence of his prey. The beast turned and crouched flat. Only the tip of his sinuous tail suggested his agitation. Then it, too, was still.
Ears went flat and muscles tensed.
Surprise would be the man's last ally. Thera would expect the immobilised terror his charging roar always engendered. If not frozen in fright, timid Eos and sleek Lopus relied upon flight. Never would such creatures rise to meet Thera in full charge. Indeed, such a foolish tactic would have resulted in death even more swift, as fragile bones shattered under the impact of Thera's immense weight.
But this particular Thera was about to experience the surprise of his life.
Predator and prey became utterly still. A silence fell across the forest as if Ashtar herself was pausing to witness this latest episode in the never-ceasing saga of life and death. Jer'ok held his breath —and visibly started as the anticipated roar suddenly beat against his ears from all sides.
IT IS NOT the wont of Ashtar so easily to withdraw the threat of certain death. Any other man would have known instant relief upon the dissipation of so horrible a prospect into the wispy fragments which are the destiny of all our daydreams.
Leede Southerly felt no such relief, nor would he concede any such certainty. Slowly the light of battle faded from his eyes. Reality reasserted itself as the exhilarating tension drained from his body to be replaced by keen disappointment.
As he joined in the enthusiastic applause around him, Lord Charwick twisted his head against the suffocating collar about his throat and shifted uncomfortably in the perfectly tailored formal attire he wore. Would that he could in fact be freed of his stifling clothes, stripped to no more than the loincloth preferred by Jer'ok and Ashtar's denizens, hunterfolk as well as humankind.
Amber, Lady Charwick, had been watching her husband as the last moments of the stage-play unfolded unseen below their box. Leede met her gaze with a sheepish grin as his eyes again focused on a reality far too safe for his liking. Her eyebrow lifted in query, but he merely shook his head ruefully and turned his attention back to the stage from which it had strayed.
Neither of the two looked about to assure the odd moment had passed unnoticed. But in a nearby box another pair of eyes, as kindly as they were intelligent, had not failed to discern something out of the ordinary had just occurred. Sir Arden Westerbrooke already felt protective of Leede Southerly and his bride, though in truth he had reason to suspect there was little call for any concern. A more serenely self-possessed couple was not to be found in Meridum.
At length the smiling and bowing Thespians disappeared from the stage for the last time and Lord Charwick shared in the lingering enthusiasm for their delightful efforts. In truth, he had thoroughly enjoyed their talents up until the moment when he had found himself returned to the home planet so recently abandoned. Something of Ashtar lingered about his mind as well. Waiting by mutual accord for the crowded theatre to empty, Leede and Amber shared a moment of silent empathy. Already they knew each other's moods well enough to have no need for words. Yet, if there was ought to mar their newfound happiness, neither was prepared to concede the prospect. The mood set on stage was too sprightly to permit dark thoughts to take up any prolonged residence this night. The couple’s growing reputation for quietude would be preserved that much longer.
When the crowd thinned, Leede and Amber rose together. Gently he took her arm to guide her from the box, and as one they paused at the unexpected thrill provoked by the light touch. Their eyes met briefly and Leede could not resist a light kiss. Amber responded with a stifled giggle and the mood was broken. She caught his hand as it slipped from her arm and they strolled together hand-in-hand as do young lovers of any time or place throughout this galaxy.
As they moved together through the lobby to the cool air of the street, Leede pondered the incredible sequence of events that had brought him from savage prohominid to distinguished Tuathan gentleman. He had to smile the same wry smile with which he had faced the phantom Thera. His recent entry into the Meridum scene had prompted tremendous speculation and rumor.
From the theatre the Southerlys strolled without haste the few blocks to the club where they joined their new friends, Sir Arden and his Lady Maeve, for a late supper. Arden Westerbrooke, Leede's distinguished colleague at court, was one of the few who refrained from intrusive importunings into Leede's past. Otherwise, there would have been no friendship.
IN FACT, THE older man, himself notorious at Meridum for a taciturn restraint better suited to an earlier time, had made it his business subtly to encourage this newcomer of so aloof a refinement. Something undeniably alien about Leede Southerly intrigued Westerbrooke. Arden took a certain pride in Sir Leede's quiet dignity and few, but steadfast alliances. Everything about the man only served to reinforce the honour that was his by inheritance. But here, without doubt, was a mystery worthy of the most popular concocters of mystery-adventures.
Arden had pieced together some of the story of the newest of the lords on his own. What more he sought came from the high king himself, although Arden was quite certain Strahm Thurston Albritton knew more than he was revealing. This was an interesting development, and Westerbrooke promptly made it his business to discover what it was that had recommended Southerly to Chimur's sovereign.
The late Sir Leede and his Lady Sabratha had been lost years ago. A nephew had only recently inherited the title upon the death of his father, only to defer investiture. In fact, young Rand Southall had not succeeded to the title at the time of his mysterious death on distant Ashtar. Word gradually spread that Southall had participated in an earlier expedition to the melodramatically dubbed Primeval Planet during which sojourn he had uncovered the fate of his long-lost relatives and found the rightful heir to the Charwick title. Characteristically, Arden had snorted with disdain at the sobriquet imposed on Ashtar but was not so sophisticated as to miss the faint thrill along his spine prompting him to cast about him for lurking enemies. This prompting he did successfully resist.
The Tuathan was persistent in his quiet investigations. But any emerging scandal was continuing to meet the swift end scandal deserves. Indeed, the present Lord Charwick had only to fix the unfortunate interrogator with the cold stare of golden green that had stopped many an Aranda— hunterfolk — in his tracks to quash impertinent questions put directly to him. Under different circumstances in Council chambres and elsewhere, Sir Arden had himself met that stare on more than one occasion, but he had declined either to back down or to accept the tacit challenge. Apparently, his tactic had succeeded. The two men, much alike but for the difference in age and diversity of nurturing, entered into a friendship, still tentative but waxing in strength.
Arden was secretly amused when Meridum society found it necessary to turn to other sources for enlightenment as a result of Southerly's dignified silence. None other had approached the high king. The story eventually pieced together credited both Leede Southerly and his cousin, Rand, with the highest honour demanded by Tuathan tradition.
While the younger Rand knew the privileges of noble birth, Leede had very nearly died as had his parents not long after his birth. Incredibly—no one was able to discover how—Leede had survived on Gemini’s primitive tropical planet without humankind aid. His claim to the Charwick title was quietly raised only after an unsuccessful attempt to preserve the life of Rand, who had succumbed in a second expedition to Ashtar's largest continent. Rumors circulated to the effect that the cousins had been rivals for the hand of Amber Laxton, but these soon dwindled and were extinguished for lack of fuel.
Once he assumed the title, Leede, Lord Charwick took seriously the duties of Tuathan nobility and was, by common consent, discharging them with wisdom and justice—and a truly unique sense of the ridiculous, often taking the form of metaphors with a twisted wildness about them. The truth be known, Leede’s duties were proving not far removed from leadership of Jer'ok's band of hunterfolk. Often he pondered this new life in his Meridum office, and Lord Charwick would smile at the thought of the naked beast-man debating in the august chambres so rich in staid Tuathan tradition. The observant Arden had seen that smile and wondered at its source.
THIS EVENING, OVER aperitifs the jovial Sir Arden soon persuaded the young couple to defer until the morrow the long drive to the Charwick estate on the coast at Battersea. The distinguished Tuathan settled back in his chair to watch Amber over his drink as she swirled in her husband's arms to the music of the discreetly placed orchestra.
Arden was finding the delightful young Lady Amber entirely charming for an Amerian, and she seemed unusually radiant this evening. Her blonde hair shone in the flickering candlelight of the venerable hall in which they were dining. The deep blue velvet of her gown brought out the vivid blue of her sparkling eyes. Arden's colleague, Sir Leede, was a congenial companion but far more reserved than his bride. The contrast added to a certain air of mystery about them.
The music swelled to a close. As the young couple returned to their secluded table, Sir Arden rose to kiss Lady Amber's hand as he complimented her graceful dancing. All three, even Lady Maeve, who was watching him closely, failed to see the light that instantly smouldered in Leede's gold-green eyes.
"May I say, Amber, you are lovely this evening!" Arden beamed at her, happily oblivious to the dangerous threat looming at her side. "You and Leede must try to spend more time with us in Meridum. You really brighten up our drab city." He turned his pleasant gaze to her husband.
"My friend, must you return to the country so soon? Is there nothing to hold you at court?"
The ugly glint that had touched Leede Southerly's eyes had already been controlled. He knew his protectiveness of Amber was misplaced in these surroundings and, especially, with this man. He returned the smile easily as he and Arden resumed their seats by their ladies.
"Yes, I think we must. Amber and I have had little time together. We both enjoy the seclusion of the country. Meridum is nervewracking, I must admit. We are neither of us accustomed to the Tuathan social life."
As Arden watched, Amber placed her hand protectively over her husband's, "You must forgive us, Arden,” she said quietly, “newlyweds never seem to have enough time together. And you must admit Meridum is no place to become acquainted with a new husband."
Maeve supported her, "Arden, my love, don't press them; certainly you haven't forgotten how annoyed we were when friends persisted in intruding on our privacy."
With that Arden and Maeve launched into a hilarious account of their immaturity and of their outrageous escapades in eluding well meaning but insistent friends during the first year of their married life. The Southerlys joined in their laughter until the subject eventually drifted into other areas. When the lilting strains of a waltz wafted from the orchestra, the Southerlys met each other's eyes and their smiles grew tender. Arden claimed Maeve's hand as the older couple exchanged an understanding glance.
"Why don't you two dance?" Arden relented. "We understand just how you feel."
Neither Leede nor Amber needed a second invitation. As he handed her to her feet and escorted her to the other couples already moving to the music, the Westerbrookes watched. Lady Maeve's eyes inexplicably brimmed with tears. Sir Arden turned to her and kissed her cheek lightly.
"Do you suppose we were ever that young and that much in love?" he chuckled.
"Oh, yes," she sighed, "and we still are."
"Well, at least we are still very much in love," Arden acknowledged and rose to draw her chair back that they might join the dancers.
But as Leede Southerly and his beautiful bride swept close and then away in the graceful patterns of the music, Sir Arden knew that here was something already far deeper even than the love he had shared with his Maeve for more than a score of years. Still, the memories stirred and new ones promised. Arden and Maeve shared a glance that spoke volumes.
SIR LEEDE AND Lady Amber did not retire before early morning traffic had begun to clatter in the streets of Meridum. As a result they did not return to their estate until the following afternoon. At last alone to talk of it, they easily laughed away the incident at the theatre. The intervening hours of congenial company, as always, had lent a certain perspective to the incident. But Jer'ok was well aware that other incidents were no laughing matter.
WHILE AMBER WAS riding with a closely knit party who shared her appreciation of the equestrian arts, Leede retired to his den. He gazed out over the grounds of Charwick spreading beyond his windows as he pondered the situation he was facing. The mass of humanity on the streets appalled him. The walls of the Council of Lords, of the buildings he entered from day to day, of his own spacious office stifled him. Even his clothes seemed to be bonds forged of iron. It was as though he were physically suffocating.
Jer’ok knew his precious senses, gifts which had preserved his life despite constant danger, were deteriorating. His ears were deafened by the persistent growl of voices and the perpetual racket of machinery. His nose at first wrinkled with the myriad of stimuli rising from the city, but eventually it ceased transmitting to the brain unable to cope with all the sensations it was receiving. His eyes remained as sharp as when he had depended upon them to judge distances between the heavy branches and swaying lianas once forming his highways, but disuse would soon induce them into slumber along with his nose and ears.
In the solitude of this private place the beast-man shook his head sadly. The only respite was found on the vast grounds of his ancestral home. Here he could momentarily free himself of Leede Southerly and pretend the late creature of the forest, lord of all he surveyed and answerable to no one, still lived. Here for a moment he could taste the joy of being invincible predator unshackled by the deadly monotony of daily routine embraced by civilised man. And if for once he might find himself prey rather than predator, that would be just the spice needed to complement the adventure that his life once was.
Only in the remote Charwick estate was he able to find moments of complete seclusion with the woman he loved. That he had nearly lost her made him exceptionally protective now that she was truly his. It irked the beast-man, still more folk than human in his instincts, to share her company with others or to leave her without his protection. Though he trusted Amber without question, his long years among the Aranda and the denizens of Ashtar had taught him never to count on the good intentions of others, especially strangers; and Meridum was crowded with enormous numbers of strangers.
IN THE EVENING when Amber returned from her ride, Lord and Lady Charwick dined alone as both preferred when at home in the country. After dinner they wandered aimlessly through the gardens and then along an isolated foot path through the ancient forest beyond. As they walked, they listened to the sounds of early evening. Now and then one said something to the other. Once they stopped in a moonlit meadow and engaged in an animated conversation before Lord Charwick gathered his lady-wife to his broad chest for a long embrace.
As they turned to retrace their steps Leede Southerly suddenly swept his wife into his strong arms. She laughed merrily as he carried her as, many months ago, he had carried her into another forest far from the safety of Tuatha and into the promise of a life unlike any she had ever imagined could be hers. She kissed him lightly. He stopped and they kissed once again. The promise had been too long deferred, and the tendency of its fulfillment to catch at their hearts without warning would be far more protracted.
As her stalwart husband proceeded with his even, sure strides along their homeward path, Amber rested her head on his broad shoulder. She watched in delight as the shadows played against the strong profile and the light of the moon glanced from the golden eyes.
THE DAYS OF their tranquil solitude passed far too quickly, but they provided Leede Southerly a respite he sorely needed. His time with Amber relaxed him, and his solitary explorations of the forest, so different from that of his childhood, helped him forget the many intolerable contacts with man and his works.
LORD CHARWICK RELUCTANTLY returned to Meridum to resume his neglected duties. His free spirit was refreshed by the time spent in the isolation of his remote holdings on Tuatha’s rugged Battersea coast. The happy news Amber had so eagerly shared with him on the night of their arrival strengthened his resolve to yield to the ways of civilisation. It was, he mused with a rueful shake of his head, not so terrible a fate. And there were many humankind advantages that only Meridum or Faxon could offer him.
During the months in Tuatha, Leede had come to enjoy the intellectual benefits of civilisation that had been sorely missing from his youth. And to the beast-man’s mild surprise the company of his few friends and even the occasional acquaintance was as cool pure water to a man dying of thirst. Lord Charwick was acquiring a taste for the cosmopolitan unlikely to become jaded from overindulgence in any foreseeable future. And through it all, the good times and the difficult ones, Amber was an ever-present joy. Their singular love deepened and matured in the serenity of a life Jer’ok of Ashtar could never have imagined.
And so the time passed swiftly. The ballet, opera, and theatre, the museums and libraries were not Lord Charwick’s sole haunts. He avidly read a wide variety of musty volumes in the extensive private collections of the Charwick townhouse and at the royal residence of the high king. Other doors opened to him when his favour at court was noted. He visited the consulates of nations treating with Gemini from worlds throughout the Confederation. The highest placed diplomats were affording this remarkable Lord Charwick carte blanche to view tape after tape, allowing him to absorb all his questing mind could assimilate of the galaxy beyond Gemini. The wily beast-man was quick to discover that there was even more to be gained from the simple expedient of listening to the conversations surrounding him and the tones of voice in which they were conducted.
The sheer joy of learning was itself a revelation. And it rendered the use of his own abilities Jer’ok’s preferred method. But the beast-man was stunned by the vast store of knowledge missed over too prolonged an interval. When he became discouraged, Amber sensed his frustration. In a private moment, Leede’s lady-wife assured him that, no matter the capacity of a humankind mind, there comes a time when its ability to embrace the novel peaks and thereafter dwindles. Jer’ok had been isolated on remote Ashtar when his Tuathan mind reached its peak of accessibility. He could not begin to assimilate all he would so belatedly discover.
Guy Locke took note of the impasse Lee reached but was not likely to volunteer to others, no matter friendship. Locke had learned this was not a man to yield to impediment or to admit defeat. Respecting Lee’s jungle-bred disposition, the Diyalan considered the situation. Eventually, on one of his infrequent visits to Meridum, Locke urged the son of two worlds to undergo a series of RNA-transfers to add to the vast store of information, mundane as well as exotic, he fervently wished to make his own. The beast-man might not have yielded so readily to the temptation had he known the Diyalan was reluctantly acting at the behest of Strahm Thurston’s personal intermediary in the Rune Silentio.
Every self-identified civilised nation and planetary coalition throughout the humankind galaxy maintains some equivalent of Chimur’s Rune Silentio. Chimur’s elite version of these clandestine cadres is among the most effective while remaining the least to be feared by honest citizens, whatever their political stripe.
Strahm Thurston Albritton and officers of Guy Locke’s ilk had little tolerance for the practices that lead to the notoriety shrouding too many such organizations. Still, Guy knew Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda an unlikely candidate for involvement in chicanery on behalf of political – or personal – ends. With a wince for his own self-assessment, the Diyalan acknowledged that Leede Southerly was already repulsed by humankind guile, so different from the cunning demanded by life among Jer’ok’s fellow creatures on Ashtar.
Guy could almost hear Leede’s polite tones become icily remote as his queries and observations drew the Diyalan’s honest responses. From the very beginning Guy Locke had never been less than openly straightforward with Lee in revealing to him all the nuances of his Tuathan birthright. Whenever Guy found himself being mentor to the beast-man’s full assimilation in Chimurian society, Locke recalled the Ashtarian setting in which the lessons had commenced. To his amazement, he missed them and the jungle itself. If Ashtar could have that effect on him, he wondered how Jer’ok was bearing the separation. Guy shrugged off his reverie. No one, save possibly Amber, would ever be allowed to know what dwelt within that mind, still as much Aranda as san-k’aranda.
UNAWARE OF ANY future demands his own kind might impose upon his unique talents, Jer’ok went about the nurture of his mighty physique as well as filling his keen mind to repletion. Each Meridum dawn found him running through the more remote paths in the parks of his adopted homeland. Strangely enough to his colleagues at court, he declined to take up any of the exotic arts promising inner peace acompanied by superlative physical prowess – in service of self-preservation, all were quick to assure him, mistaking the nature of his reluctance. But Leede did sail with certain of those colleagues and, according to his preference, alone whenever circumstances permitted. At Battersea and in Meridum he even joined hunts, much to Lady Amber’s amusement. Though he despised the hoary hue and cry as beneath the dignity of any true predator, the thrill of not only testing one’s own mettle but also of evoking and guiding that of another creature was one the son of Ashtar could fully appreciate. Jer’ok took to Chimur’s blooded horses as though he had been born among them.
And so it was that, while the bestial nature of Jer’ok-ta was subdued, the underlying abilities were being allowed some degree of freedom as new ones bloomed under meticulous nurturing. The inevitable was thus long delayed.
WHAT SIR LEEDE’S fellow peer sought is now lost to history. It matters not to this chronicle. It is important only because it prompted the unfortunate Sir Rushton to provoke the son of Ashtar, who was constantly lurking behind the thin and fragile crust of Lord Charwick’s polished manners.
“What do you, Sir Leede, intend to do?”
Leede, seated with a casual air near the desk in his austere office, merely returned the regard of the man looming from the chair he had drawn forward – in a proximity all too fraught with danger, to which Rushton remained blissfully ignorant. It was not the first time the question had been asked in the course of the interview not quite demanded by the congenitally imperious Sir Rushton. It was the first time the foolish man condescended to address Leede Southerly by name. The emphasis on the honorific was heavy with scorn and, whatever Leede’s answer when it came, it was unsatisfactory. Despite the level tone of civility, the uncompromising words provoked the thoroughly frustrated Rushton to verge that much closer on the verbal abuse that served anger in this place replete with centuries of honourable debate unmarred by any physical violence.
No small man, Rushton rose to tower over Leede, who remained seated, apparently calm, utterly undismayed as well as unmoved by the other’s arguments and rash tone of voice.
But then Sir Rushton grasped Leede Southerly by one shoulder and actually shook him to emphasize his point. A peer of the realm could hardly be expected to take heed of the hard glint that abruptly flared in Sir Leede’s eyes. The look which had caused more than one young Aranda buck to turn back to his mate and ta’el, rash challenge dying in his throat, was without effect on this ignorant san-k’aranda. And so Rushton made the mistake of persistence where others far bolder than he had given way.
In fact, Jer’ok no longer heard the words uttered by his tormentor. He heard only the tone. That had become more bantering and now downright ugly. The ignorant humankind’s posture and manner waxed bolder still. The unfortunate Rushton missed the curl of Jer’ok’s lip presaging a snarl of warning. As the silence of his victim lured the ignorant man still closer to the brink from which there is no honourable retreat among Aranda, Sir Rushon made a sudden move.
Most of the Council of Lords would have taken no offense. It was an ordinary gesture of frustrated emphasis. But this was no longer a baron with whom Sir Rushton had picked his quarrel and taken liberties. This was Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda.
To the beast-man the gesture was an unmistakeable threat. The lurking creature of the forest could no longer be held at bay. He snarled the warning, but the deceptively soft vocalisation was followed by instant attack.
In a move so lightning swift the other man never saw it, Jer’ok rose and lifted Sir Rushton to hurl him bodily from the confines of Leede Southerly’s office, in every meaningful sense the beast-man’s personal territory. Jer’ok’s sharp teeth were set in a grimace of hatred that might be mistaken for a smile. Fortunately, he was quite aware that this challenger was hardly a worthy adversary. The beast-man was not yet provoked to a killing rage.
Sir Rushton struck the wall with a dull thud and slid to the floor. Had Jer’ok used those teeth as was his wont, his story would have come to a swift conclusion through the less than kindly offices of the Tuathan judicial system. But the danger was not yet passed.
The infuriated beast-man swarmed into the hallway in the wake of the other.
IN STARK CONTRAST to the confrontation in Lord Charwick’s office Arden Westerbrooke’s luncheon with Nord Sernas, an admiral-by-courtesy and member of the high king’s loyal opposition, had proceeded with genteel discussion hardly rising to the level of argument. Neither voice was so much as raised in the heat of debate. Like Sir Leede, Sir Arden declined to concede to the entreaties of his colleague, but their confrontation concluded with nothing stronger than polite exchanges over a final smoke and mentha. They were strolling in amiable conversation along the corridor leading to Westerbrooke’s office when without warning a body hurtled across their path and slammed into the wall opposite.
The two passersby halted in shocked alarm.
TO SIR RUSHTON’S horror, steely fingers were reaching for his throat when he glanced up from the place where he had crumpled in a sprawling heap. The felled man actually saw death in his adversary’s golden green eyes, now to his horror shimmering blood-red. Somehow Rushton managed to gasp an inarticulate cry for respite or help – whichever might be forthcoming.
Vaguely, Jer’ok heard but failed to comprehend the words. The inexorable fingers closed.
“Lasat-pers!” the beast-man demanded.
But the demand for surrender went unheeded. All the others heard was an ugly growling. The snarling face of the attacker was unrecognisable as that of the refined Lord Charwick.
Westerbrooke’s companion was an active man with greater courage than judgment. Admiral Sernas reached down to pull the attacker away from his victim. Only when the snarling visage turned to confront him did he draw back with shocked recognition. But before Nord Sernas could speak, he too had been tossed against the far wall in an undignified heap. As he endeavored to pick himself up without further loss of his ordinarily unshakeable composure, Sernas spoke in a voice hoarse with emotion.
“Lord Charwick, what has come over you?”
Arden Westerbrooke heard the words of his fallen companion in disbelief. But then he scanned more carefully the contorted features only to experience the same shock of recognition. More quietly, he approached the assailant, who, undisturbed by these meaningless interruptions, had turned back to the business at hand.
It is indeed fortunate for Leede Southerly that the second man was Westerbrooke. Arden had long suspected that there was far more to the history of this Lord Charwick than even his close friends had been told. A reticent man himself, he had not been numbered among those who had pushed Leede or Amber for more information than he had been able to glean through his own sources. Now he instinctively took the right course.
Westerbrooke knelt beside the savage who was in fact becoming his trusted friend, but he refrained at the last moment from placing even a gently restraining hand on the other’s shoulder. Unlike Rushton’s earlier histrionics, Arden’s voice was quiet and sure.
“My friend. Sir Leede.” In hope of having the desired effect, he paused between the simple phrases. It was clear Southerly needed time to return to sanity. “My friend . . . , listen to me. . . . Leede, you are killing this man. . . . What wrong has he done you?”
Jer’ok heard the soothing tone and gradually began to grasp the meaning of the words. To his confusion they were in Tae, not Aranda. To Rushton’s profound relief those inexorable fingers relaxed their throttling pressure, but the tension was still present. All three men could sense it.
The beast-man on his part dared not relinquish his advantage in the presence of enemies. He did not yet fully grasp the nature of his surroundings. He recognised neither of the two mature bucks presuming to interfere in the battle provoked by this other, who persisted in stubborn refusal to terminate it by yielding to Jer’ok’s superior abilities. Jer’ok-ta never withdrew from battle prematurely. To do so is an irrevocable stupidity among the hunterfolk. One never knows when the challenge will be renewed without warning. An ambush might await at any time or place. No, Jer’ok’s battles always ended decisively, even when it required that he kill.
Westerbrooke was a stubborn man and a caring one. He continued to speak quietly to the man he knew only as Leede Southerly, appealing to his inborn chivalry. By now the man Jer’ok had so roughly thrust aside returned to the scene, much recovered.
“Lord Charwick,” Nord Sernas pronounced with all the thunder of the accomplished orator he was, “you cannot commit murder. You must cease this insanity.”
This new, sharper voice at last completed the transformation to Leede Southerly that Westerbrooke’s quiet tones had initiated. Jer’ok’s vision cleared and he saw before him not a hated and dangerous enemy, but a rather foolish Tuathan of gentle birth, wholly ignorant in the ways of the beasts of Ashtar. The beast-man released his hold. He leaned back on his haunches and looked up to Arden and then to the other.
“Oh, my God,” Lord Charwick murmured so low none of the others could make out the words. “What have I done?”
Uncharacteristically unsteady, the beast-man slowly rose from the body and backed away. Westerbrooke grasped his arm and, moving with Leede, eased him through the open door into the sanctuary of his office. Sernas followed, supporting Sir Rushton who was still trembling with emotions he could not have identified. Though the corridor remained empty of any traffic, the door was closed on the explanations to come. Silence reigned for many long moments as the tension at last began to drain.
It was Westerbrooke who took charge. As he led Sir Leede aside he called over his shoulder to Sernas, “Perhaps Sir Rushton would be revived with some spirits. There is Terran whiskey in the cabinet.”
Sir Rushton sat down abruptly on the leather davenport. He heard without comprehension the urgent sound of Sir Arden’s voice and the calm responses of Sir Leede. Gratefully Rushton downed in a single gulp the potent spirits Sernas proferred and without thought returned the empty cup for a refill. Presently Rushton recovered to the point of assessing the damages to find himself more frightened than injured. The old habits were restoring themselves unbidden. The second offering he sipped with far greater composure. He did not notice the assessing glance of Nord Sernas. Fear was retreating, but righteous anger was advancing to the fore. At last fully restored, Rushton was compelled to a characteristic demand.
“I fail to understand,” he announced in a loud and surprisingly steady voice. “Whatever possessed you . . . ?”
At the sound of that imperious voice, Sir Leede whirled to face his recent antagonist. At the look in that cold stare of golden green, Sir Rushton had the good sense to moderate his challenge. He remembered the crimson in those eyes only moments earlier. The anger in his voice dwindled. In fact, he shut his mouth with all but an audible snap. But the unfinished question hovered in the air. Lord Charwick visibly relaxed but said nothing.
“Leede. There is a reason, isn’t there?” Westerbrooke’s own quiet voice carried a note of troubled warning. “Under the circumstances, my friend, I do believe an explanation is in order. It was a fit of madness was it not? What brought it on?”
Leede Southerly looked from face to face. Then he turned away from them to stare at the scene beyond the still-cleared wall. If he was disappointed to find there the normalcy of the great city instead of the lush jungles of Ashtar, there was no sign of any discomfiture. Once again the beast-man was fully in control of more than his countenance.
“My friend,” Arden persisted, “Do they occur with some frequency, then? Is it a result of your long isolation on Ashtar?”
Lord Charwick ran one hand through the shock of unfashionably long hair before he turned his attention to his three uncomfortable guests. One of these men was his friend, the others colleagues. They were not merely curious. Arden was right. Under the circumstances they did have a right to know his background. In their view he must indeed seem quite mad. The bleak admission that they might be right he considered and dismissed in less time than it can be recounted.
“Often enough,” he admitted, “but never before in Meridum. If you have the time perhaps I can explain.”
Charwick took a seat. To his chagrin, the others visibly relaxed. Eyeing Rushton with a touch of suspicion, Sernas sat down beside him on the davenport. Arden found a place a tactful distance between Leede and the others. Leede ducked his head in an odd gesture and almost smiled. “You see I never knew my real parents,” he began. “They died while I was an infant. The only family I ever knew . . . . ”
Thus for the first and only time Lord Charwick launched into the full story of his former life. He concluded with the difficulty he was experiencing in constantly striving to maintain the decorum required of his new identity when faced daily with challenges that would drive any self-respecting folk male into mad, killing rage. In the end attacker and victim shook hands warmly. Both had learned much in a few short hours. Without need to ask, Lord Charwick knew his past would remain a secret with Arden and both Rushton and Sernas. That each had his own reasons for silence would not yet occur to the beast-man.
LADY CHARWICK WAS not ready for concern, but her husband was very late indeed. She paced the carpet in an unwonted state of nerves and cast frequent glances at the clock. Resolutely she told herself that nothing could have happened to Jer’ok of the Aranda in the safety of Chimur’s most civilised city, but the attempt at self-assurance fell flat. Amber was honest enough to admit to herself she was more concerned about what her husband might do than about anything likely to be done to him. She had not failed to discern the tension he was experiencing over the months since their marriage and his assumption of the title and its obligations. It was the tension of an animal that finds itself in unfamiliar surroundings.
Eventually the Arene woman tired of her pacing. Lady Amber stamped her small foot in impatience, “This is silly,” she exclaimed without real conviction. With renewed resolution she spurned the cabinet of tapes and selected an old-fashioned romantic novel from the shelves of leather-bound volumes and settled herself to read. She could not quite relax to the point of retiring without Leede safely home, if not at her side.
When at last her husband entered the library of their spacious townhouse, Amber was already aware that something untoward had occurred. For all her apparent composure, upon first hearing his entry and enquiries of a servant her heart skipped a beat and was racing before his footsteps approached the library and his presence filled the room. Uttering a little cry of dismay, Amber tossed aside her unread book and moved to his side.
Leede Southerly drew his beloved wife to him and engulfed her in his arms. He gratefully buried his face in the scented cloud of her golden hair. For a time neither spoke. It was Amber who broke the silence when her heart had resumed a normal rate and she led him to his favourite chair.
“Leede, tell me what has happened. You are never so late, and I can see you are disturbed by something. Whatever it is, I would share it with you, my love.”
He gratefully accepted Amber’s calming influence. As always, his agitation diminished in her presence. Before he commenced his explanation, however, he took a moment to sort through the circumstances in an effort to conceal from her at least for the time the greater burden he bore. Today’s near-tragedy was merely one symptom of the malady threatening to destroy their brief happiness.
DESPITE LEEDE’S EFFORT to protect her, Amber was deeply shaken by the time he had quietly told her of the events of the day. He spared himself not a whit. Arden might have been more generous. Nord Sernas even more so. That one had not liked what he saw in Sir Rushton but had found something extraordinary in the person of Leede Southerly of Charwick.
For the first time Amber Southerly began fully to comprehend the effort that had been required to hold Jer’ok of the Aranda safely behind the facade Meridum society and the court knew as Leede Southerly. She embraced him fiercely, for all the world as though she could either protect her husband or imprison the dangerous beast-man by sheer force of will.
Though it was very late, by mutual accord Lord and Lady Charwick returned to Battersea in silence that very night.
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