BOTH LEEDE AND Amber allowed themselves to become lost in private thought as their closed vehicle sped them to their refuge on this world – and from it. Amber was pondering the events of the last months.
Only the closest of their friends had known of the existence of the savage beast-man. From the first, Guy Locke had confided Jer’ok’s full history only to her. Little of it had been revealed to Rand, her fiancé as well as usurper to Leede’s title. The subsequent escapades of “Lee S. Jerock” in Faxon were yet to be connected with the current Lord Charwick, for which all the principals were duly grateful. None was aware of the extent to which Locke had acted to preserve their anonymity and most of the detail from the curious, no matter how highly placed.
Amber suppressed a shudder as she stole a glance at her husband’s grim visage. But then the Arene woman smothered a playful grin and snuggled closer to him in the darkness. Not all the memories of those past times were hurtful.
Tonight Amber was rewarded with the slightest relaxation in the arm holding her and in the giant frame against which she had come to expect strength and solace. Amber could not help but think of the first time Jer’ok had ever held her so. From that first moment she had known a deep need for this man’s prowess and for the remarkable quietude he willingly shared with her.
Jer’ok! Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda. A thrill went through Amber causing her heart to beat faster. In response her husband turned his head from whatever he was seeing beyond the dark of Tuatha’s byways. Whenever a passing light revealed his features he was regarding her as though he had never before seen her clearly. His eyes warmed to hers, but the stern features had yet to relax.
Although Amber no longer uttered that name even in the privacy of their solitary moments, it was, after all, Jer’ok she had first encountered. It was he she had chosen as mate, no matter how often she told herself she preferred being lady-wife to the ever so proper Lord Charwick. That there was a distinction she was only now commencing to grasp.
On his part, the ever so proper Lord Charwick was not as shaken as his wife by the narrowly averted murder of Sir Rushton. The sudden madness distressed him, of course, but it had come as no surprise. The beast-man had become reconciled to the need to hold his every instinct under strict restraint. In the privacy of this moment his features had not lost their grim set because each time the slumbering Jer’ok was aroused it was more difficult to suppress the urge to revert to the brutal savage. Jer’ok-ta slept only as does Pardu, the leopard; deceptively quiet. Nature’s deadly weapons might be concealed, yet they remained lightning quick in defense when baited.
Leede Southerly had accepted the jungle known as civilisation with a patience that would have brought a sneer to the lips of the son of Ashtar. But it was Leede’s wish to fulfill the legacy of his ancestors. By some quirk of the Stars he had been plucked from the unfettered life of hunterfolk and plunged into the humankind state. He would avail himself of all the wonders that unique status carried with it. Of them all the greatest wonder was Amber Laxton Southerly. And Leede’s lady-wife had made it clear that she wanted no part of Jer’ok’s primitive ways.
Leede had no way of knowing that, while Amber truly feared the land of his birth and had never been happier than now as Lady Charwick, the Arene woman had been irresistibly drawn to that primeval savage and still loved the beast-man. Still, after he had confessed the events of the day, Southerly had to wonder at the ease with which she invited him to find respite in their embrace. He continued to study her as he allowed himself the boon of relaxing with her.
Jer’ok of the Aranda had not been long in finding the intricate workings of the feminine mind beyond his powers of comprehension. Women have confused and confounded their men since before the dawn of history on the very first planet to support humankind forms. But seldom do they love them as deeply as Amber loved her chosen. And seldom are they loved so completely in return.
Grimly indeed, Leede contemplated his situation. After the misery attending their most unconventional courtship, Amber Southerly’s beauty and spirit had blossomed in the months following their equally unconventional wedding before the high king himself. Chimur and marriage to the man she loved were two parts of the whole that made Amber’s life. If Jer’ok must succumb to preserve that life, Leede Southerly would see to it that he did. But one day he feared the beast-man would be pushed too far, and he would kill.
It had nearly happened in Faxon when Lieutenant Guy Locke had first introduced him to all the strange new ways to be accepted were he ever to win Amber Laxton’s hand. At the first, Rand had been spared only because his death at Jer’ok’s hands would have obliterated any lingering hope for Amber’s acceptance of his futile claim for her love. But the beast-man had found it necessary to distance himself from these Jer’anda to avert tragedy for them all. Hence his return to Ashtar under the auspices of Lieutenant Locke’s mission, a mission which did not forbid the slaying of humankind identified as foe.
But if Jer’ok killed now in this civilised place, Leede Southerly would be branded an outlaw and punished by Chimur’s humankind laws. Those Aranda strictures he had accepted from earliest youth no longer held sway. Worse, he would lose Amber forever.
How long would it be before Jer’ok would succumb to Leede Southerly? Could that free spirit be defeated before it destroyed the man or his new way of life? In the deepening darkness Lord Charwick’s jaw clenched tighter still. Within his heart cool reason was doing endless battle with savage fury. Those stern features relaxed only when Amber stirred in his embrace and placed one hand over the steady beat of his heart. It was as if she would soothe his unease with her touch. And, in fact, she could.
The silence remained unbroken as the powerful vehicle carried them homeward. The Charwick driver was accustomed to long silences, but this night the air was heavy with tension. He often glanced at the reflection of the couple in his mirror. At length he saw Lady Charwick smile to herself and cling to her formidable husband. Presently his lordship, too, relaxed. As the tension drained away, the driver resumed breathing without noticing he had ever stopped.
Jer’ok held his mate gently in arms strong enough to crush life from Pardu, the panther, or Thera, the beast of the deadly fangs. Amber sighed with oddly mingled contentment and apprehension. Now more than ever she needed the loving security of her husband’s presence. But did she have the right to hold him? Was she destroying the untamed spirit she had so quickly learned to love?
LORD CHARWICK SLIPPED out of the manor house before second dawn. There was no activity so early, not even in the stables. Seavans and Robson, the horseman and young groom, would only now be enjoying their breakfast. Sir Leede entered the stable silently and shivered as he closed the heavy door against the bone-chilling dampness of Tuatha’s first dawn.
Gratefully, he sniffed the richly mingled scents of leather and well kept horses. The only sound to assail his sensitive ears here was the quiet breathing and an occasional crunch as one of the shadowy animals discovered a stray wisp of hay left from the night before. It was so early there was not even the chorus of nickers and whinnies demanding the morning feed.
The man passed quietly from stall to stall until he reached the spacious box at the end of the aisle. The stallion within snuffed anxiously and then with anticipation as his master entered the stall with a murmur of greeting. With a light hand on the horse’s crest the man led him into the aisle and then outside through a doorway opening onto the mist-shrouded trees beyond the stableyard. The stallion now fairly danced at the first whiff of unanticipated freedom. Hardly more controlled himself, Jer’ok swung lightly onto his back and allowed his mount to select the way into the forest.
Once beyond the sight and hearing of any early riser Jer’ok crouched low on the stallion’s neck and spoke into the turned-back ear. The horse shrieked a challenge to the world at large and reared before gliding into an effortless canter. Guiding with his weight and an occasional quiet word Jer’ok was as one with the horse. Like his mount the beast-man exulted in this momentary freedom, chafing only at the restrictive clothing demanded by the dank climate, if not by Amber’s hastily hidden expression of shocked dismay upon his return from his first pre-dawn ride.
Leede grinned at the memory.
He had, after all, departed and returned from that excursion through their bedroom window. The servants had remained blissfully unaware that the new master of the house had come and gone while his fashionable riding attire remained untouched on the chair where it had been proudly displayed by Lady Charwick for her husband’s approval. Amber had quickly recovered and spoke no word of rebuke, but Leede took her reaction to heart. There would be no more excursions au naturel. But this morning, even with its lingering chill, the man missed the intimate contact of his own hide and thew against the warm back and sides of another creature nearly as wild as he. With a trace of Leede’s latent humor, the beast-man wondered if a loincloth of Aranda design would serve Amber’s sense of decorum.
As horse and rider turned onto an abandoned highway long overgrown with rough grasses, Jer’ok allowed the stallion to break into a gallop. With the mount’s head dropped to lengthen his stride, a casual observer might have suspected the tranquil Tuathan morning invaded by a centaur of Terran myth. Riding with the ease of natural instinct and perfect coordination Jer’ok lifted his head to sniff the wind but at the last moment stilled his own challenge. The Aranda call to battle would not so easily be dismissed as that of a stallion. Jer’ok grinned as he considered the consternation his scream would have engendered.
The thrill of the moment of solitary freedom swept him, dampened by only one thing. If only his mate would join him in the exhilaration of these flights from daily routine. He would teach her to love the freedom of such an existence as did he. Then she would understand the constant lure that beckoned him away from this place of cold and noise and crowds.
Eventually the stallion’s pace slowed. Jer’ok allowed him to drop into a jog and then walk. Presently they came upon an isolated meadow both knew well. As his mount stretched his neck to reach for the deep grass, Jer’ok slid to the ground and strolled to the edge of the small lake. The thin skin of ice shattered under the pebbles he idly tossed over the surface, and the resultant ripples scattered the light of the rising sun until it danced. Were he in his own home territory Jer’ok would have enjoyed an early swim before proceeding with the day’s adventures. There on his home world every day brought new adventure, as often as not a matter of life and death. Woe unto those who relaxed their vigilance as Jer’ok did now.
Yes, he missed it. He pined for the scents of home and the thrill of pitting his skills against the hazards of Ashtar. He missed the sounds and the silences of the jungle.
It was a life the beast-man cherished. To know that each day’s challenge would be unlike any other. To know that Jer’ok-ta would meet and overcome those challenges by his wits and his steel thews and sinews. To be free to go wherever and whenever the whim of the moment directed! If only he could express this longing to Amber.
Jer’ok’s musings were suddenly broken by a heavy push all but thrusting him into the lake. He braced and turned in one easy motion so rapid the horse reared away, prepared for flight. Then when Jer’ok remained still, the horse returned to him. The stallion was ready for his breakfast. Jer’ok stroked the shiny neck.
He could not even communicate with this fellow beast, so long among civilised men. How could he expect to communicate his discomfiture to a woman who, before coming to Ashtar where tragedy had rudely deposited her before him, had never associated with anything more bestial than a large hunting dog who snoozed away his days before the fireplace? Jer’ok vaulted to the horse’s back, but, despite his mount’s increasing impatience, returned home slowly along the cliffs high above the roaring sea.
LORD CHARWICK DISMOUNTED at the open stable door. The morning’s activities were now in full swing. The horseman looked up and grinned as his lordship led the hungry horse back to his stall. No one had ever subdued the creature until the present lord of the manor took up residence.
“Good morrow, sir. Did ye enjoy the ride?” the stableman grinned his welcome.
“Yes, indeed, Seavans. He is a splendid animal.”
Struck by an odd intonation in that last word, Seavans paused in his morning chores to watch his lordship with the stallion. Whenever he saw them together that first introduction to the young Lord Charwick came unbidden to mind. With no more than a nodded greeting, without so much as a by-your-leave, Sir Leede had entered the stables one afternoon, examined the four-legged occupants and, before any thought to stop him, entered the stall at the back. To the amazement of the two-legged observers he was not precipitated out of the confined space at the receiving end of bared teeth or flashing hooves. Seavans had cocked an eyebrow at Robson, who promptly went for a saddle and bridle, his own grin irrepressible. This was going to be great sport even should his lordship be without a sense of humor.
Before Robson had gone more than a few steps he heard the stall door open and the clatter of hoof, surprisingly sedate. The groom halted to watch. First Sir Leede and then the intractable occupant of the stall emerged as quiet as ye’d please. His lordship’s hand rested lightly on the beast’s neck. Together they paused in the stableyard where the man mounted in one effortless motion – without benefit of the equipment for which Seavans had dispatched Robson. Two Tuathan jaws dropped as the big horse stood quietly until a word from Sir Leede released him in the direction of the forest. Horseman and groom exchanged a wordless look. Quite unnecessary, the saddle and bridle were forgotten.
Now, as Seavans looked on with tacit approval, the stallion walked with perfect docility to his morning grain under the deceptively light touch of the tall man’s hand. The horseman never tired of witnessing this rare communion between man and beast. Not a hair on the stallion’s body was out of place. For all the strenuous workout he had obviously enjoyed, there was no streak of sweat to mar his sleek coat. Lord Charwick acknowledged the horseman with a nod as he returned from the stall to walk back to the manor house. Both lord and retainer thought he saw the merest hint of an approving smile twitch at the corner of the other’s mouth.
As he leaned on the handle of the tool he had forgotten the horseman shook his head and rubbed one rough hand against an irrepressible grin. His lordship was even more immaculate than the horse. There couldn’t have been a tired bone or sore muscle in his body. Seavans regarded the lithe form until Sir Leede disappeared into the manor house. As the horseman resumed his work, he wondered why he should be reminded of the great cats. He shrugged a shoulder in dismissal of the odd notion. But the grin actually erupted into a chuckle as a heavy sigh interrupted the pensive munching in the stallion’s stall. His lordship had a way with horses and no doubt about it.
HIS LORDSHIP MAY have had a way with horses, but he was fighting a losing battle with a certain beast-man. The incident in the Council of Lords was a warning that Jer’ok would soon crack Leede Southerly’s fragile overlay of civilisation with tragic result. Even as Leede greeted Amber with a broad smile and the brush of his hand over her shoulder before joining her at breakfast, he knew he must soon break her heart. No matter what course Leede should finally follow, Amber Southerly was certain to suffer.
As the days went by, Jer’ok increasingly longed for the freedom and primitive ways of his beloved jungle. He was utterly bored with the pretensions of Tuathan society, for all the ways humankind could touch his heart. He knew Amber would never consent to a life as the mate of the beast-man. Ashtar’s jungle and its denizens terrified her. Jer’ok was honest enough to accept the fact that he, too, could be a source of horror for her.
It had been in her eyes at their first face-to-face encounters. Amber had never confessed her fears to him, even after they were safely returned to Chimur, not once but twice. Though love was obliterating the last traces of fear here at Battersea and in Meridum, though Amber completely trusted Leede Southerly’s inherent nobility; there were still times when the traits of his hunterfolk nurturing emerged upon some unexpected provocation. At such times, if he happened to observe his wife’s expression, Southerly would be dismayed to see the horror momentarily mar her serene features. And so the incident in Meridum led to many hours of introspection at the Charwick estate.
FOR A FULL day the air was heavy with Leede Southerly’s impenetrable silence. Even Amber was chilled by her husband’s withdrawal. Once she found him in the library. She paused at the threshold. A tape spun out before him, but he saw neither it nor her. His eyes held a faraway expression she was observing ever more frequently. Discreetly she left him to his own thoughts.
When later she sought him at the hour of tann he had never left the library. But now his lithe frame was ranged against one of the great windows. One arm stretched upward to hold back the heavy stuff of the drapery. His body was rigid with some inward tension. Whatever Leede Southerly saw beyond the window, it was not the formal gardens gracing the cold stone fortress that was the ancestral home of Charwick. For all the long moments Amber watched over him, her husband relaxed not a muscle. When at last she turned away to take tann alone her eyes were filled with tears.
Leede joined his wife for dinner, but the meal was of little comfort to either. Their conversation was stiff and formal. He was clearly distracted, often breaking off in the midst of a thought never to complete it. Amber dismissed the servants and served their after-dinner mentha herself. As she poured the fragrant brew for Leede, she rested her free hand on his broad shoulder. For the first time all day he looked at her without shifting his eyes away from hers. He took her hand in his own and kissed it with the special tenderness characteristic of men wholly secure in the knowledge of their own prowess.
But the moment passed. Amber returned to her place. Without touching the steaming mentha Leede Southerly abruptly rose and strode from the confining room and out of the manor house.
Yet another week crawled by on dragging feet. Amber knew that her husband was making a supreme effort for her. But with each passing day his silence grew more morose. Each evening he walked alone to the cliffs at the edge of the sea where he saw nothing of the cold stars and ever-changing waters. Amber had never seen Jer’ok-ta a captive. If she had she would have recognised the look in Leede’s bleak eyes. Because she loved him, Amber had no need for explanation. She understood all too well what was drawing him to that desolate place. But she needed time to steel herself for acceptance of the inevitable with the calm she knew to be essential.
THE NIGHT WAS clear. Moonlight bathed the rugged cliffs in silver. The stars were close enough to touch if one could reach just a bit further. Lord Charwick had been alone for nearly an hour when he heard a quiet step. Lady Amber said nothing as she glided into his welcoming embrace. The only sound was the hiss and roar of the surf below. Once she shivered and he drew his warm cloak about her. Amber was the one to break the silence.
“You must go back.”
Jer’ok bowed his head and gently kissed his mate’s tear-filled eyes, but he said nothing.
“You must go back,” she repeated with a voice steadier than she would have believed possible. “You are miserable here. It is an unforgivable cruelty to chain Jer’ok to a life he abhors.”
When Leede did not respond, Amber looked up into his quiet eyes, “I will not be the one to enslave Jer’ok of the Aranda.
“How long will it be before love dies and resentment usurps its place? Leede, I do not wish to be apart from you, but I cannot bear to lose your love. If you go back to your jungle our love will still live on in our hearts. And, perhaps, one day you will return to me.”
“Will you not come with me?” he said at last, his voice hoarse with suppressed emotion. “Jer’ok would not leave his mate unprotected.”
She stopped him with a sad shake of her head, “I am afraid, especially now. . . . ” There was a long pause during which neither spoke or moved. “ . . . Even with you,” Amber confessed at last. She did not ask his forgiveness; she felt too unworthy, but she had suffered much and deeply on Ashtar.
“It is not as if I will be alone,” she reminded him. “Here and in Meridum I will be surrounded by friends . . . . ” She did not add that she would also be surrounded by the protection which is one of the trappings civilisation offers its charges.
Jer’ok considered her words. Although stung by what is to an Aranda buck an irrevocable renunciation, his love for Amber could never be swept away. He was not capable of hating her even should she in truth possess the cruelty to which she alluded. But he was dying as surely as if she had thrust his crystal hunting knife deep into his breast. Not even with Amber could Jer-ok-ta of the Aranda be content to live the life of a country gentleman.
And so he would leave her . . . for a while.
IN THESE DAYS of routine galactic travel it is time alone which separates the planets of Gemini. Jer’ok was soon on his way home to Ashtar, the Primeval Planet. Passage had been arranged all too quickly for Amber Southerly, after far too long a delay to suit her husband.
THERE WAS MUCH speculation among the crew when their shuttle entered unscheduled orbit over the Primaeval Planet. Then, none less than Pilot-Captain Reigart himself was summoned to meet a passenger on the flyer deck for transport to the planetary surface. At the captain’s query, landfall was to be at a destination that passenger would specify by visual sighting. For all his training, the officer must have gaped for one brief moment, but he asked no further questions. Obviously dismissed, he saluted smartly and turned on his heel. He was to report immediately to the flyer deck.
Reigart was told nothing of his anonymous passenger, nor was he advised of the man’s mission on the planet below, whether official or personal. Long in Gemini’s service, Pilot-Captain Reigart seldom if ever enquired where enquiry was so obviously unwelcome. Over the years he had found he was always told whatever was required to serve and to do so with all his native intelligence. And so Reigart met this nameless one on deck and, with no more than a handshake – surprisingly cordial, the two boarded and awaited clearance for their flight.
The pilot was not, however, loath to study his passenger during the delay and in the course the brief flight. The details he readily took in and filed away in some corner of his mind for recall as demanded by the exigencies of his chosen trade. The tactic, a personal idiosyncrasy, had never failed to serve him well.
Reigart was not put off by the silence of the other. Indeed, a taciturn man himself, he appreciated that trait in others. While they awaited release orders, Reigart observed the man poring over the flyer’s display of fractal maps, obviously studying coastal outlines stepwise from the present orbital scale down to a small region where he would presumably disembark. Professional as well as natural curiosity made the pilot wonder what it was that caused the most subtle suggestions of eagerness to mark the other’s study. Then with a clipped request for permission, the passenger entered the course he had plotted out in his mind.
As he surreptitiously confirmed the plotted course along with his preflight routine, Reigart was impressed in spite of himself. Obviously among the younger members of Tuathan nobility, this man had a dignity about him far beyond his years and obviously privileged position. And, Reigart conceded, he knew his way around navigation. Moreover, he was headed for an extraordinarily remote region of jungle, on a planet notorious for the deadly hazards awaiting the uninitiated.
Once free of the shuttle and safely into the arc of their flight there was time for further mental explorations. The passenger was as relaxed as Reigart himself and immersed in his intense contemplation of the planetary surface. With one hand the pilot absently rubbed his chin in a gesture characteristic of the man’s dredging deep into his store of memories. Most recently, there had been a series of lurid tales of lost Ashtarian expeditions marked by numerous fatalities, among them some renowned scholar – and another youth of noble birth . . . .
Reigart’s private reverie came to an abrupt halt. His hand actually paused over the control for which he was reaching. It required all his considerable will power to avoid a gasp and a renewed study of the man at his side. But he was not so subtle as he believed.
“Is something amiss?” the young nobleman asked quietly, without a trace of the alarm most passengers could not conceal when they suspected something out of the ordinary in flight. This one did not even pause in his own observations to turn to Reigart with his query. But Reigart knew without doubt that the other would have come to his aid in an instant – or accepted any contingency with equal aplomb.
Beside him was the Tuathan of noble birth – whose identity had never been divulged – who had been restored to his title and lands only after spending the better part of his life as some wild creature of Ashtar. The man’s reputation was widely known but ordinarily dismissed as pure fabrication among seasoned members of Gemini’s fleets. None who knew Ashtar was likely to accept the wild tales of survival from infancy to adulthood, and fully competent adulthood to boot. Now Reigart, for one, knew the legendary chronicles must contain a substantial kernal of truth. He was regarding the other with unfeigned respect when the man did turn to him in query.
Mildly flustered, Pilot-Captain Reigart realised he had not answered that calm question; “No, not at all, . . . ,” the honorific hovered between them as Reigart swiftly recovered. “No, we should be making landfall in a matter of minutes.” He had the wisdom to refrain from adding some inanity about how pleased his lordship must be to be returning to the place of his birth.
Once detail of Ashtar’s major continent took form on the viewer, Reigart flew without hesitation under the direction of his renowned passenger. It was with that passenger’s guidance that the pilot made an ill-advised landing on an isolated beach along an undistinguished portion of the tropical coastline.
“Nicely done,” the Tuathan observed when Reigart managed to settle the flyer on the uncertain ground with neither mishap nor so much as the slightest jarring.
“A privilege to serve you, sir,” Reigart replied.
Then, with no more than a brief word representing both thanks and farewell the passenger dropped lightly to the sandy ground of Ashtar. Reigart did not lift off immediately. From his place at the controls he watched the Tuathan glance about as if assuring himself that no foe lurked in the brush marking the edge of the jungle. Then he left the beach with a bold stride and disappeared into the depths of that forbidding forest. Reigart had to grin as the man began to strip away his clothing even before the tangled vegetation closed around him. The bemused pilot shook his head in reaffirmation of his good fortune in encountering the reality behind the growing legend. Something to tell his grandchildren, he grumbled wryly to himself – if he had ever found the time for a wife and family. With only a twinge of regret, Pilot-Captain Reigart fired the rockets and lifted off in a final burst of fiery salute to his former passenger.
JER’OK HAD SUCCESSFULLY searched out and found the contours of the shoreline nearly concealing the small harbor beyond which stood the place of his birth. Without so much as a glance to the departing flyer and the civilisation it represented, Jer’ok tore off the restrictive clothing as he made his way unerringly for the clearing he remembered so well.
Indeed, Jer’ok’s heart was light. It was as if some kindly Providence of old had touched a slave and relieved him of his heavy fetters. With one momentary twinge of honest regret Jer’ok reminded himself of Amber’s courageous sacrifice. Perhaps after their child was born she would reconsider her refusal to join him here on Ashtar. Himself nearly fearless, the beast-man sympathised but could not fully comprehend her fear of this place of exquisite beauty. True, she had experienced horrors of which few women of this safe era had ever dreamed, but that was in the past. The nemesis of Pardu and of Thera, the undisputed leader of the Aranda, the companion of mighty Muthus; Jer’ok-ta was all the protection Amber would ever need. Surely she knew Jer’ok would allow no harm to befall his beloved mate.
Presently the beast-man came upon the place he was seeking. Before him the abandoned shelter of the late Leede Southerly, his father, stood empty and forlorn. It and the wrecked flyer beyond were just beginning to succumb to the encroaching jungle. This younger Leede admired his father’s handiwork. Perhaps he felt the loss of never knowing either the man or the woman who had given him life.
Whatever was passing through that keen mind, the beast-man lifted his head high to inhale the familiar scents of home. Then with a characteristic toss of his head, he ran one hand through the shock of dark chestnut hair and proceeded the last few steps to the shelter in which Sabratha Hyland Southerly had borne him.
The beast-man did not linger in the cramped flyer and shelter that once had been his sole link with civilisation. He paused only long enough to confirm that all was as Guy Locke and Amber Laxton had left it upon the death of Rand Southall. Jer’ok could not bear the confinement the rude structure now represented. It is possible his last memories of this place haunted him. He started for the entry but then paused.
With sudden resolution he turned back and moved thoughtfully to the small desk built by the hand of his father. The neglected drawer was stubborn, but Jer’ok was determined. He wrestled with it until it slid open without damage. From the back he removed a crystal hunting knife in its sheath. Absently Jer’ok slid the drawer back into place before he slipped the knife from its protective covering. The beautiful weapon scintillated in the uncertain light penetrating the shelter.
Simply holding the responsive weapon in his hands caused a myriad of recollections to sweep through the beast-man’s mind. Brought to this remote place by the father, the knife had been found by the son. The child swiftly discovered its value, if not any sentimental attachment, and the knife became Jer’ok’s constant companion. The youthful Jer’ok had later fashioned the sheath with his own hands, having seen its like on the peoples who occasionally intruded upon his domain.
Now the mature Jer’ok vaguely remembered that Amber, stunned with grief, had retrieved the knife from its bloody place of rest. Sometime over the following days she had cleaned it thoroughly, only to leave it here when they departed for Chimur and Meridum. At the time the beast-man had been in no condition to protest any of her actions. He was barely conscious following the futile effort to preserve the life of the man he believed to be Amber’s mate. That Jer’ok was alive at all was the ultimate of gifts bestowed by Rand Southall upon his rival for the Arene woman’s hand.
Indeed, Jer’ok had no quarrel with Amber’s decision to hide the weapon at the back of the drawer. At the time he, too, sought to leave the past behind and take the place that was his by right of inheritence.
Now he was uncertain. What path was the right one for him? How was he to reconcile the two lives, each so insistently beckoning? Even now as he prepared to re-enter the jungle to resume something of his former life, his thoughts were constantly straying to the lovely features of Amber Southerly.
The beast-man impatiently shook his head as though the physical action might clear his inner vision. He would not long survive on Ashtar if he continued to permit such distractions to work their insidious way with him.
With resolution renewed the beast-man squared his shoulders and departed the shelter with the same sure stride that was once the mark of the alata of Aranda. Once outside Jer’ok halted before entering the jungle. He circled behind the shelter and flyer to stand before the graves of Sir Leede and Lady Sabratha. Nearby was the final resting place of his kinsman, Rand. What little Leede knew of his parents came from Guy Locke’s reading aloud from the elder Leede’s journal and accounts from Charwick lore Rand had shared on the few occasions when the cousins had been thrust together at Battersea. Jer’ok remained before the rough memorials to his lost family for many heartbeats before he finally crossed the clearing and melted into the tropical forest.
SANJERA WAS DESCENDING through a sky of gold and scarlet when Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda made his kill at the edge of a forest pool. It was a watering place his band had frequented in what seemed a distant past. Strong white teeth tore at the succulent flesh of Lopus, the deer, as the wild creature of the forest feasted on raw meat for the first time in many months. When he had eaten his fill, the beast-man buried the remaining meat for future meals. Then he dove into the inviting water to wash away the last vestiges of civilisation’s clinging stench. The time on board ship had been a deadly confinement, worse even than the cities of Faxon and Meridum. There were times during the voyage when Jer’ok had actually found himself missing those humankind places he had found so restrictive.
As he swam, Jer’ok’s keen eyes detected the shadowy figures of hunterfolk as a band moved from one to another of their familiar feeding grounds. They neither noticed nor approached him, and the beast-man felt no impulse to join their ranks.
At the moment Jer’ok was content with solitude. He made no move to make his presence known to his former companions, although he did wonder if there was any among them who remembered Jer’ok-ta and his leadership. When at last he tired of swimming, the beast-man returned to the hide of Lopus, which he had carefully stripped away from the carcass to clean and fashion into a loincloth.
Until full dark he worked assiduously at his task, content to take his ease at the edge of the pool. When the last light of Sanjera’s passing faded, Jer’ok gathered his meagre belongings and swung high into the trees to search out a place where he might avoid the dangers attending the dim hours of near dark. Once he heard the cough of Thera, the beast of the long fangs, from the nearby underbrush and was grateful for the safety of his primitive couch, though the accommodations lacked the comfort to which he had become accustomed. Jer’ok’s lip curled in contempt. He was becoming a soft San-k’aranda, unfit for the company of the hunterfolk.
Jer’ok slept until the light of Solea touched his face and awakened him. By the faint glow of the immense tropical moon he finished the task he had commenced earlier. Before dawn he had donned the new apparel with more pride than he had ever experienced in assuming the custom-tailored garments that are the uniform of a peer of Tuatha. When he had adjusted the loincloth to his satisfaction he twisted a length of tendon about his waist to secure his sire’s sheathed crystal knife along one hip, the hilt within ready reach of his hand. As often as the sharp weapon had come to hand to preserve him from enemies in the past, it was certain to do so again, now that Jer’ok had returned to his home world.
Impulsively Jer’ok threw his head back and voiced the eerie challenge of the savage Aranda buck. Without awaiting any answer the beast-man swung down to the ground and ran silently along the faint game trail until he reached the sandy shoreline. He would commence the first full day of his return with a refreshing swim in the sea.
After his vigorous exercise, the beast-man emerged from the surf and turned slowly to allow Sanjera to dry his hide. As always, his keen senses were taking in every detail of his surroundings in the course of that seemingly careless indulgence. Then, with nothing better planned for the day, he elected to follow the shoreline around to the narrow brook that made its tranquil way to the sea from a source far to the east, well beyond the Southerly shelter. This friendly manifestation of Nea Jer’ok followed at a comfortable pace until it widened into a lazy stream and Sanjera was high over his head. Jer’ok dropped to his belly and slaked his thirst at the water’s edge.
Suddenly he froze. He strained his ears to catch a repetition of the slightest of movements, more sensed than actually heard. His nostrils flared as he tried to scent the author of whatever had alerted him. The jungle was deathly still.
Jer’ok was being stalked.
With quiet deliberation the beast-man rose to his feet. He stretched with the luxurious nonchalance of the feline. Then he turned and slowly strolled farther upstream where he would find better cover. Already his unpredictable actions had served to confuse that which was stalking him.
THERA’S PREY ALWAYS remained still until the fatal charge was launched, or else the unfortunate one would plunge into desperate flight, provoking a charge with the same fatal result. This creature did neither. Thera’s curiosity was thus aroused. His hunger was momentarily forgotten.
The San-k’aranda moved with a casual gait that was deceptive in its gathering speed. Except for the knife Jer’ok was unarmed. The steel thews and sinews were not yet restored to the prime condition that was their wont before the beast-man had taken on the identity of Chimur’s Leede Southerly. Jer’ok would prefer to regain that former strenth and agility before meeting any of his formidable foes in mortal combat. Hence he now sought escape, in the form of strategic retreat.
Briefly he regretted that he had not yet had time to weave a new rope from the tough stems of the water reeds growing in abundance along Nea’s muddy banks. Nor had he sought the saplings and slender, straight twigs to be fashioned into a sturdy spear and a bow and arrows. Should attack come, his sole hope was the knife at his hip.
No mind! Jer’ok had faced more than one enemy with only his bare hands and lived to boast of the victory to his fellow hunterfolk. With knife in hand the beast-man was well nigh invincible.
When the water became deep enough, Jer’ok entered it and swam beneath the surface as far as the mighty lungs could sustain him. When he surfaced Jer’ok continued to swim until the water once again became too shallow. There he remained crouched low in Nea’s embrace and listened. Presently, the softest of footfalls warned him. Soon his nose revealed to the beast-man that this most persistent of predators was Thera himself.
The immense sabre-toothed cat paused to seek out his elusive prey with equally sensitive eyes, ears and nose. For many heartbeats there was no sign of the wily San-k’aranda. Then there was an abrupt change in the capricious wind. Mael bore the faintest of scents, mingled with that of Nea and the brown and green stuffs through which she was wending her way. There was no sound, no other sign. Thera instinctively advanced to a precise distance from the place where he knew the k’aranda was seeking concealment. Disturbed by the k’aranda’s unusual behaviour the great beast settled only briefly in preparation for the charge. Curiosity had long since been displaced by the ache of an empty belly. Not even Nea herself would deter him now.
Thera’s snarling roar shattered the torpid stillness of midday. His charge was no more than minutely altered as the San-k’aranda actually rose to meet him, something shining in his grasp. Ferocious beast and splendid man collided and went down together as one freakish chimera in a wildly twisting whirling of battle primaeval!
The man sought to maneuver the great carnivore fully into the water where he would be at a lesser disadvantage. Frustrated in his effort to make his usual swift kill, Thera plied sharp fang and deadly talon in a vain attempt to rend the life from what should have been easy prey. But the beast-man was too quick for the heavy carnivore. He constantly bent and swerved to avoid crippling injury while seeking an opening of his own. But Thera could not be lured into Nea’s embrace. The combatants rolled onto the grassy bank, face to face.
The foetid breath choked the imperiled beast-man, but he deftly avoided giant teeth that clashed on empty air where an instant before his exposed throat had been. Then the weight of Thera’s body threatened to crush the breath from his lungs as the beast-man was thrown to one side. He could not entirely evade the swipe of the great forepaw, sharp talons gleaming hideously in the sun, but protected his vulnerable belly by dropping his shoulder and arm into the blow.
Instantly the scent of fresh, hot blood clogged the air. It was a stimulant to impel Thera’s killing frenzy into frothing madness itself, while galvanising Jer’ok into one last tremendous bid for survival. Somehow he eluded Thera’s fangs yet again and found himself able to thrust his uninjured arm under one foreleg and upward to grip the enraged beast in a clumsy approximation of some unbreakable hold familiar to humankind wrestlers. This was a strategem the beast-man had stumbled upon and rapidly learned to turn to his advantage while still in his youth. Now he made the most of the momentary advantage to swing onto Thera’s back before the beast made good his frantic effort to eviscerate him.
Jer’ok’s present position was hardly less precarious. He clutched at the hairs of the rough coat covering Thera’s bulging neck to maintain his desperate hold on the beast. The great cat reared upward, growling terribly as his head swung from side to side in a furious effort to sink those fangs into the soft body of the despised k’aranda. When this tactic failed, Thera flung himself sideways and rolled to crush the tenacious creature beneath him.
But Jer’ok was no mere passenger on this crazed mount. Despite the excruciating pain of slashed muscles, his free arm rose and fell whenever the tide of battle provided sufficient space to allow the movement. With each slashing blow the knife cut deeper into Thera, and the carnivore became weaker with pain and lost blood. Finally, the great brute stiffened and fell heavily to the crushed grass, slippery with the mingled blood of both antagonists. This time Jer’ok was borne down beneath Thera, at last losing his grip on the knife as he fought for breath.
But the primitive weapon of Chimur had already given Jer’ok his victory. Thera was dead. Weakly, the beast-man thrust the heavy weight aside and scrambled from beneath the slain predator. He found his knife and wiped it clean in a patch of untouched grass before returning it clumsily to its place at his hip. Then he went about the tending of his wounds.
He quickly ascertained that, though the slashed arm was stiff and sore, there was no permanent damage. Jer’ok washed away the coating of bloody debris in the clear water of the stream, pausing only to gulp great draughts of the pure liquid to quench his awful thirst. When at last the flow of bright blood was staunched, he sought out the healing herbs growing among the reeds. These he crushed into a paste with Nea’s soft mud and smoothed the mess generously into the slashes Thera had inflicted. This poultice he wrapped well with the softest of the nearby leaves before resting from the painful effort.
Then, after a respite of no more than a matter of minutes, Jer’ok rose to return to the scene of his earlier kill to retrieve the carcass. In a few days he would be sufficiently mended to resume his normal activities. For the while he would need to find a safe lair in which to wait out the time of healing. The flesh of Lopus would sustain him and afford him strength until he could safely hunt again. Jer’ok wrapped the meat in a strong frond and slung it across his shoulder before he gingerly entered the lower terraces in search of a suitable place to protect his convalescence.
Not long before Sanjera had found his fiery way down into the distant jungle for the night, Jer’ok found what he sought. An interlacing of large branches from neighboring trees was transformed into an ideal bed with layers of soft fragrant branches torn from the shrubs growing in the shade beneath them. In a nearby branch Jer’ok could safely cache his modest larder. Directly below was a small pool of water, with low trees heavy with fruit forming a border between it and the more massive trunks supporting Jer’ok’s lair. With a sigh of utter contentment the beast-man stretched out in his primitive bed chambre and fell immediately into a deep slumber.
AS SOON AS his wounds healed, Jer’ok began work on the woven rope that was the next item in his planned arsenal. He carried countless armloads of the long tough aquatic plants up to his high lair. Then he commenced the tedious task of forming the length of rope he desired. As he worked, he was able to observe the comings and goings of his new neighbors.
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