SEVERAL TIMES DURING his convalescence small bands of Aranda passed through the area, often stopping at Jer’ok’s pool to drink. One band returned more frequently than any of the others. The beast-man soon began to distinguish among the invididual members.
One day a mature female and her ta’el made their way to a place directly below Jer’ok’s tree where they combined their efforts to turn over a rotting log. The beast-man paused in what he was doing to watch. He had not observed these two previously. As he watched them share the insects and grubs revealed by their joint effort, the beast-man was suddenly aware that the female’s features and certain idiosyncracies were somehow familiar to him. He watched her more closely, but remained puzzled until her scent was carried to him on a wayward breeze. It was Mei!
There had been a time – long before the son of Lael had come to accept that his destiny lay not among the hunterfolk but with humankind – when this she has caused Jer’ok’s youthful heart to beat faster. Today, as he watched his former flame with her ta’el, Jer’ok recalled many an incident from his boyhood and youth. Those had been happy, carefree times, especially while he still enjoyed the protection of both Char and Lael. Even when adult responsibilities had interposed their grim realities on his life, Jer’ok’s prowess allowed him to continue in his own way only mildly inconvenienced by the need for constant vigilance.
Jer’ok pensively tested the strength of his arm. Were he not injured he might have joined Mei’s band as they searched for food. But there was no hurry. Time no longer would control Jer’ok’s life as it had of late. Mei’s band might depart tomorrow or they might remain for weeks. It did not matter. If and when Jer’ok elected to join them he would find time and do so. In the meanwhile any number of events might intervene. It was a matter of supreme indifference to the beast-man in his present frame of mind.
As it happened the band moved on well before Jer’ok left the area himself. His wounds healed quickly, but the beast-man determined to complete not only the woven rope but also a spear before setting out in search of new adventures.
AT LAST SATISFIED with his primitive but effective weaponry, Jer’ok of the Aranda left the safety of the leafy bower and entered the jungle at a steady jog-trot shortly after his morning swim. This time he would not return to the place of his convalescence. Afternoon found him far to the east exploring a portion of the jungle unfamiliar to him. The tangled verdure of forest first thinned and then opened at the edge of the savannah. The beast-man glanced about for familiar landmarks. He could not be far from the territory of the Sanaca.
Mael was not about to cool the stifling air hovering visible over the grasses. Sanjera, reigning alone save for distant Castor, baked the land with his shimmering heat. Jer’ok paused in his explorations and leaned on the shaft of his spear. Once he glanced upward at the glaring haze that bleached earth and sky. Through the shimmering of the intense heat Jer’ok could make out the grazing creatures. Little Eos, Lopus, and Bufa, the massive buffalo, all were grazing peacefully in the knowledge that Harr and Pardu would be lazing in the heat, unmoved to hunt until the cool of near dark.
Keros, the giant rhinoceros, stood apart from the others. Only the small birds who were his constant attendants associated with Keros, whose uncertain temper was respected by all. Even Jer’ok, when at last he moved across the savannah, made a wide path around the near-sighted beast. The hunterfolk buck, too, felt the heat and was in no mood to do battle.
As he walked, entirely casual to any who might have taken notice, the beast-man was in fact keenly aware of all around him. S’liss was sunning himself several paces to his left. Behind him now the mate of Harr slept while her tireless young ones gamboled about her. She had not even lifted her head as Jer’ok passed, though her golden eyes had opened briefly and her nostrils had twitched distastefully at the unfamiliar scent of San-k’aranda. In still another isolated area, irascible Phaco and his mate worried at something in the grass. Jer’ok did not seem to take notice, but his ears interpreted all that the two ugly little feral boars were doing until he was well out of range of their wicked tusks. When the beast-man came among the herds of herbivora, he paused to enjoy the beauty of a sight rarely vouchsafed the few clumsy humankind of the Gemini system who ventured onto the Primaeval Planet to enter her wilderness territories.
The savannah was a relatively small one. Even at the leisurely pace he had assumed, Jer’ok nearly crossed it in the space of the afternoon.
Between twilights, as the beast-man approached the jungle at the far side of the savannah, a familiar shaggy form loomed from among the trees. Jer’ok smiled and called out a greeting in the language of his first people. He was rewarded with a sudden cessation of movement. Then the massive form broke through the brush.
The great mastodon halted and tested the scent with his sinuous trunk. After a moment, he ventured closer. Then with a squeal reminding Jer’ok of the horses in Tuatha, the massive beast came foward and the two drew closer without further hesitation to touch each other in renewal of friendship. The beast-man stood to one side, his hand on the thick hide, while the massive creature ran his trunk gently the length of Jer’ok’s body. Once fully satisfied with the San-k’aranda’s identity, the great creature of the wild arched his trunk to provide the beast-man an effective lift up onto his broad back. In silence the two disappeared into the jungle. Jer’ok was reunited with his great friend, Muthus.
FOR THE SPAN of several days Jer’ok and Muthus remained together. Their’s was a closeness engendered of mutual wildness, far superior to that Jer’ok shared with Chimur’s equine kind. The latter had lost that fierce independence so dear to Jer’ok’s heart and appreciated in his Ashtarian companions. He had missed this shared sense of liberty while on Chimur.
Muthus and Jer’ok moved through the jungles and grasslands, but their meanderings could hardly be dignified as travel. No destination tugged at the mind of either. The days of Muthus were spent in grazing and browsing while the beast-man wandered nearby, hunkered down to laze away the time, or sprawled high atop Muthus’ broad back to survey their surroundings, lord of all he surveyed.
Jer’ok occasionally made a kill in the evening which would keep his belly filled for several days. Most of the time he was satisfied with the fruits, berries and rich nuts he gathered as Muthus stopped for a particularly plentiful harvest of his own preferred vegetation. During the worst heat of the afternoons the two would sleep in the shade of the trees or, wherever they found one of Nea’s rivers or pools, they would submerge themselves in the refreshing water. Jer’ok preferred the fast-running streams. The pools were small and not much better than a kind of liquefied air. With the thick humidity, it could be difficult to discern in just which medium he was immersed.
Muthus enjoyed mudwallows, so both kept watch for a telling dip in the floor of the land with its unique assemblage of vegetation. Jer’ok did not care to join his companion in this sport as he had found as a child that the drying mud made his skin itch unbearably. So the beast-man would lounge at the edge of the wallow or in a nearby tree while Muthus indulged in covering himself in the gooey stuff from the top of his massive head to the tip of his meagre tail.
Jer’ok allowed himself a hearty laugh at the delight Muthus obviously felt. Ah, but it was good to be alive and free to do as he would, without demand or constraint save those enforced by his own abilities. Only the need for food stirred the indolent beast-man to action. Time meant nothing to Jer’ok and his jungle companions. He had already lost track of the days which had passed since his return to Ashtar. At this moment he was content to relax at the edge of the wallow, occasionally ducking as Muthus flung some of the stuff in his general direction. Soon the beast-man would be hungry enough to select some ripe fruits as an appetizer for his evening meal.
The major decision of this particular afternoon was what meat Jer’ok would seek for his dinner. When Muthus at last emerged dripping mud, Jer’ok declined to join his evening trek. He would hunt while Muthus went his own way. Within a day or so they would perhaps join paths again. If they did not, both were grateful for the pleasant interlude of easy companionship.
As the dark between twilights fell, Jer’ok slept peacefully with a full belly, ensconced high in the branches of a tree deep in the jungle. Muthus had wandered far to the south where he rejoined the herd with which he usually traveled. His recent companion was for the moment forgotten.
JER’OK WAS TAKING his ease in the massive branches of a jungle patriarch, older than Aranda and all of Ashtar’s animal kinds. The beast-man’s back rested against the great trunk of the immense tree. His hands were busy weaving new strands into the strong rope of reeds. Although he would have seemed totally relaxed had one of his Meridum friends chanced to observe him, his ears and nose kept him alert to all that was transpiring about him. Suddenly his hands became still and his body tensed in a virtual portrait of attentiveness.
Jer’ok lifted his head and listened, but the sound which had disturbed his work was not repeated. Yet, still unsatisfied, he continued to test the air. Capricious Mael declined to oblige him. No revealing scent was carried to the beast-man. He returned to his task, only to lift his head once again some moments later. He cocked his head slightly, the better to pick up either scent or sound despite the absence of the slightest breeze.
There, to the south; the sound came a second time. This time it told the alert beast-man what he feared. One of the hunterfolk was in trouble. Could it be a member of Mei’s band? At this distance Jer’ok could not identify the voice. Another cry, weaker than the last, was carried to his sensitive ears by a shift in Mael’s lethargic wanderings.
Who can know what moved the beast-man to act? He seldom interfered in the fate Ashtar saw fit to allot her denizens. Perhaps it was boredom. Perhaps it was Jer’ok’s thirst for adventure, never fully quenched. Whatever his motive, the Lord of Ashtar put aside his task and swung south through the middle terrace to investigate.
So minuscule are the threads preferring one pattern in the tapestry of a man’s life over another, Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda had no reason to suspect this selfless action was to determine the course the remainder of his life was to take.
BY THE TIME the beast-man arrived on the scene, the cries had ceased. But it was no challenge for Jer’ok to read the sign. A young Aranda she, hardly more than a ta’el, had been absorbed in a nest of fresh eggs when she had been startled into mindless flight by Pardu. Unfortunately, the direction Bakal took thrust her headlong into a swampy area. Before she could take heed of her danger the she was already beginning to sink into its treacherous centre. Although Bakal instantly moved to save herself, the very momentum of her rash flight carried her still farther from the relatively safety of the shallow edge. The sticky mixture of oozing mud and liquid sand clung to her legs, and Bakal was instantly overbalanced. She fell full length into the shuddering mire. Before she could take further any action to save herself she was hopelessly trapped. The Aranda she struggled only briefly and without effect before thinking to call out for help.
Pardu had not in fact been stalking the Aranda she, but her struggles now attracted his attention. His wicked yellow eyes gleamed in her direction. A tentative forepaw tested the footing only to be carefully withdrawn. Frustrated, the leopard paced back and forth, tracing the edge of the mire. It was larger than first appearance suggested. As the great beast sought a sound foothold, his eyes never left the Aranda she, who was finding it difficult to avoid allowing his eyes to fix on her own. Occasionally the lithe predator uttered a low growl of frustration. Only when the she’s cries brought the other members of her band did Pardu lose interest and retreat with the dignity of his kind.
Bakal’s people were not long in discovering they could not help the young she. Like Pardu before them, all were too heavy to come close enough to reach her. Even with their long arms she was too far away for them to grasp her hands with their own without becoming entrapped themselves. She had saved herself from sinking deeper by remaining more horizontal than vertical but lacked either the wisdom or the skill to pull her way out with a swimming motion. Although a stout limb overhung the very spot where she was trapped, none of the Aranda perceived its possibilities – and all were too heavy to take advantage of its placement in any event. Any who might have dimly seen what might be done also knew instinctively that the bough was too high overhead to permit any of them to reach down to Bakal.
In a matter of moments, they accepted the futility of the she’s plight. It was senseless to remain in this place any longer. There was none of them who could succour the she and thus earn her gratitude. All felt regret, for Bakal was young and strong, but the band felt no further obligation to stand by where they could not be of any assistance. One by one they turned away from her to go about their interrupted business. The young, solitary bucks were the last to leave her to her doomed lot. Her plaintive cries were ignored. As the last of them melted away into the brush, Bakal lifted her voice in the Aranda cry of utter desolation. It was this last desperate call that had drawn the beast-man to the scene.
Although all the participants in this tense drama save Bakal had disappeared into the jungle, Jer’ok easily read the whole story as his quick glance ranged over the scene. What his eyes could not tell him was revealed to his nose. The scent of Pardu clung to the grasses and leaves he had brushed and hung heavy in the air, as did the stronger, fresher scent of the hunterfolk. Clear images of all that had transpired formed in Jer’ok’s mind, and the beast-man was accurate to the minute in judging when the last Aranda buck turned his back on the young she.
The beast-man called an encouraging word to the she, but her eyes followed with terror every move of the strange k’aranda who resembled San-k’aranda but spoke her people’s tongue. She feared her present plight, but she feared this stranger even more. For his part, Jer’ok quickly observed that he would be unable to help the she unless he could reach her with his rope. The stout limb ignored by the Aranda was perfectly placed. Without hesitation the beast-man scrambled up into the trees and out along the bough extending over the she’s head. All the while the Aranda watched his every move, still more fearful than curious or heartened by his peculiar behaviour.
Bakal watched as the creature disentangled one shoulder from a long liana caught there, next to a slim length of some sapling. For all her fear her curiosity was piqued when he proceeded to wrap this vine several times around the limb and, making a loop in the other end, dropped it before her.
But Bakal’s fear of Jer’ok held her from assisting his rescue attempt. She sniffed with suspicion at the thing he had dropped. It was no liana after all and had no place here. It carried multiple scents of Nea and other beings, all unfamiliar. No amount of assurance in the limited language of folk could convince the she that this San-k’aranda meant only to help her. In the course of her short existence, no humankind had ever offered her people aught but harm – when they took note of their fellow creatures at all. Bakal persisted in her refusal to take advantage of the creature’s rescue effort, even when he retreated from the tree to the farthest side of the morass.
Jer’ok knew he had to find some alternative. The beast-man recovered the looped end of his rope and pondered the dilemma. After a few moments of thoughtful head-scratching a plan occurred to him. He unslung the now cumbersome spear from its place on his back and thrust it into the trunk of a nearby tree for safekeeping. Then he went back out onto the overhanging limb, undid the loops he had made, replayed the rope and carefully lowered himself along the dangling end to Bakal’s side. All the while he constantly reassured her that his only intent was to help not harm. Surely, she could not fail to see that he himself was vulnerable and in no position to do her any mischief.
Eyeing him with a new expression, Bakal allowed the beast-man to approach her with the odd thick liana he had looped over his own shoulders for added support. With a glimmer of comprehension, she pulled her arms from the mire to clutch that vine with both huge hands. With signs and more body language than words, Jer’ok urged her to pull herself up along the length of this unusual liana to the thick limb above. But the she’s strength had been squandered in her earlier panic. Bakal was left with no reserve upon which to call now.
Jer’ok was in no position to offer further assistance. He could gain no purchase in the slimy stuff of the swamp. His unceremonious attempts to shove her bulk upward only threatened to mire him without moving her any closer to freedom. Once the beast-man came close to drowning before he could regain the lost rope and haul himself back to the surface.
Still chattering reassurances to the she who, by now, had calmed enough to be of some help to his efforts, Jer’ok pulled himself heavily from the clutching stuff and clambered back onto the limb overhead.
When Jer’ok-ta begins a project he is loath to give up without completing it. Now, even though his own life might be forfeit, he determined not to leave the frightened she to her fate. And so, after much perplexed head-scratching, he conceived of a new plan.
The beast-man considered the length of his rope and scanned the distribution of branches in the tree. The thing was possible. He only hoped the rope was strong enough to withstand these repeated strains. Once again concept was promptly translated to action without prolonged consideration of any potential consequences other than rescue. Without further inner debate, Jer’ok carefully untied the rope, swarmed higher into the tree and cast a loop over a branch no more than two metres above the thick bough on which he would be standing.
Thus, it was his intention to slide the rope to haul the she upward without overloading the lower limb with their combined weights coupled with the resistance of the mire. Returning to that bough, the beast-man formed a loop in the rope and dropped it to Bakal, who at last fully grasped that she was to place it over her own shoulders as the beast-man’s earlier action had demonstrated. As a precaution Jer’ok found a side branch on which he could snag the excess lengths of rope as the she was slowly lifted.
Fortunately, although she could do little to help, Bakal now kept her wits about her. She remained still and was waiting for the bough to come within certain reach before lunging for it. She had at last accepted the good intentions of this San-k’aranda.
By now Jer’ok’s arms and shoulders were aching with the strain of the she’s weight as each tug on the rope drew her minutely closer to his perch. Progress was painfully slow as he measured the space across which the she must reach. It was the beast-man’s intention to pull himself upward along the two lengths of rope into the higher branch as soon as the she could gain a hold of the one on which he was standing. When at last Bakal was within reach of it the beast-man urged her to grasp the bough and pull herself to safety. He feared that one of the limbs or his rope would split apart under the tremendous strain. Both their lives might well depend upon the weakest link, whether it be the man, his rope or the limbs themselves.
Suddenly, without warning, the she did lurch for Jer’ok’s bough – a mere fraction too soon. Bakal missed her hold, and, twisting the reed rope across both of Jer’ok’s feet, effectively pinned him in place. Her swinging weight was enough to bend the bough dangerously. The beast-man could do no more than cry a warning. But it was already too late.
As he had feared, the limb yielded with a menacing groan and splintered beneath him before he could extricate himself. Bakal, to her credit, saw his peril and tried to ease her weight off the loop immobilising him. In doing so, she also moved herself nearer the trunk, easing the weight on the breaking bough. With the sudden release, Jer’ok’s feet went out from under him just as the bough fell with a great shriek of tearing wood and a whoosh ending in a dull thud.
As the portion supporting Bakal fell away, she was propelled upward by sheer terror and clutched the branch overhead just as the length of rope split. Jer’ok, too, was quick enough to save himself as his portion of the limb dropped into the mire below. Only his grasp on the other length of rope saved him. Now Bakal’s greatest effort in all the duration of her ordeal saved her life and was intended to assist her rescuer. Instead it doomed him.
As she swarmed upward her heavy body swung wide. Jer’ok had the presence of mind to maintain his hold on the rope even as her body struck him a stunning blow. He might yet have swung himself to safety. But as Bakal continued her mad upward scramble she inadvertently kicked him. Again Jer’ok withstood the blow, but now his body was set to swinging violently. He struck the trunk of the tree with an impact which caused that ancient patriarch of the forest to shudder to its very roots.
There is an end to the endurance of even one such as Jer’ok of the Aranda. This final blow rendered him senseless. Nerveless fingers released their grip on the rope. As Jer’ok plunged to certain death, the she’s weight simultaneously proved too much for the branch supporting her.
Bakal caught the trunk with her arms as this limb followed its predecessor into the mire. She glanced down only once. Her rescuer had disappeared into the deadly depths. The she dropped to the ground and raced madly in the wake of her long-since departed fellows, her nerve completely shattered by the devastating series of events.
Before Bakal had saved herself in one last surge toward the trunk of the tree, man and branch struck the quicksand. But it was the heavy limb which sank deeper. The queer eddies of the resultant suction actually pulled Jer’ok’s limp body upward. Then his head and one shoulder were caught by the branch when it bobbed up and came to rest on the surface. The combined weight of the two was distributed in such a way that neither sank farther back into the suffocating mire.
Jer’ok regained his senses at almost the very instant his body rolled onto the life-saving limb. For the space of a few heartbeats he was unable to take any action to extricate himself. When he became fully alert, his rapid assessment of the situation told him it was hopeless.
Like the hapless she, he was too far from the solid ground for rescue, had there been a rescuer about. When he attempted to release the limb to pull himself through the sticky stuff in a swimming motion, he found he could make no headway at all. There was a kind of insidious undertow, actually caused by his efforts. Regaining his grasp on the branch, the beast-man found he could neither budge it with the feeble shoves he could effect nor move himself along its length in an effort to gain the solid ground beyond.
Jer’ok looked about. Overhead the remains of the bough on which he had been balancing hung useless against the trunk of the tree. His spear was embedded in another tree well out of reach. Jer’ok’s only tool, the rope he had only just completed before it had been put to the supreme test, had finally given under the successive strains it had never been intended to sustain. The surviving length was uselessly twisted and tangled around the branch supporting his weight. He could do nought on his own behalf beyond clinging to the broken limb until help came to him or . . . . But Jer’ok refused to consider the alternative.
Had Jer’ok-ta been one to surrender himself to situations any other would accept as hopeless, he would not have survived to become Lord Charwick and to return to his jungle home. There was only one chance, but it did exist. He lifted his head and voiced the cry of distress of his people. By now the unfortunate she and her fellows were almost certain to be far out of range, but the sound of Jer’ok’s call for aid might reach the friendly ears of Muthus. That it might also reach ears less friendly was a risk Jer’ok had no choice but to accept.
SHAG, THE JACKAL, is despised by jungle folk, more as a thief preying on honest hunters than as an eater of carrion. Worse, he is notorious for his cowardly attacks on the weak and the helpless, even though he prefers his meat well aged. Thus, when a cry of distress carries through the jungle, cowardly Shag listens and licks his slavering chops in anticipation. He clashes his wicked teeth in yelps of joy to gather others of his kind to participate in a rare kill of their own.
It was Shag who responded to Jer’ok’s call. Shag, who is light of foot, who would be able to tread where a massive Aranda or the lighter beast-man could not.
Jer’ok knew who had come in answer to his call long before the jackals slunk into sight. His hand pushed through the clinging stuff holding him prisoner and found the knife at his hip. His great heart still beat with hope, for his strength remained undiminished. Shag would be unable to launch a concerted attack because of Jer’ok’s position with the downed limb in the mire. Once the savengers worked themselves into sufficient courage to attack, they would be forced to come at him one at a time. The others would turn on each of their brothers felled by Jer’ok’s slashing knife. Jer’ok was prepared to send more than one of the despised scavengers into oblivion.
Though he would not acknowledge it, Jer’ok’s situation was hopeless unless help came. By sheer strength of numbers Shag or some other carnivore would eventually feast on the flesh of the Lord of Ashtar. But what help could there be?
Ashtar is not a civilised world where the cooperation of many effects deeds far beyond the small capacity of one acting alone. The most intelligent of Jer’ok’s fellow creatures had already departed. The she he had helped with such grave consequences to himself had fled in terror. Muthus was certain to be too far away to hear or he would have already answered the beast-man’s call. Nevertheless, Jer’ok would not give up his grim fight for life until the last breath passed between his lips.
Jer’ok did not have long to ponder his pending fate. Shag no sooner made his shadowy appearance from within the cover of the jungle than he attacked with the ferocity of the coward who knows his chosen victim to be helpless. One after another they rushed at Jer’ok out of the shadows. The beast-man drew on every last iota of his strength and agility to fight the beasts off from his awkward position. But fight he did!
Sanjera was descending into first twilight and still the survivors, their packmates slain by Jer’ok and devoured by their voracious brothers, had not killed. Shag no longer hungered now, but he saw no reason to hunt elsewhere. With the inevitable return of hunger the attack on the trapped k’aranda would be renewed.
Darkness between twilights came and passed. In the dim light of near dark the sounds of day were reluctantly yielding to those of Ashtarian night. Other predators began to roam the jungle as their prey sought to be about their own business without succumbing to swift talon and sharp fang. None approached the morass in which the Lord of Ashtar was hopelessly trapped. Long after second twilight the night was closed in with a cover of clouds. Solea hid her face from the jungle below. Although Jer’ok could barely make out the forms of the waiting enemy, Shag’s foetid odor filled the heavy air. Occasionally one of the pack stirred and whined in sleep. Jer’ok, too, slept fitfully.
Suddenly the beast-man was fully alert.
There was another rustle of leaves, though Mael remained still. The beast-man tiredly poised to defend himself yet again.
Shag, sated with the flesh of his fellows, slept more soundly than did Jer’ok. The scavengers failed to hear the sound that alerted the beast-man, the sound which rewarded the undying hope sustaining Jer’ok’s great courage. From the jungle came Aranda to the aid of the San-k’aranda who had preserved the life of one of their most promising young shes. Jer’ok recognised them in the dimness and called a warning: “Ranar – beware; Shag!”
The low call of their prey stirred Shag to the alert. Some of them sniffed the air and whimpered softly. Gradually, all the hideous beasts became aware of the unexpected danger emerging out of the deep darkness of the forest around them. Some rose to pace back and forth, torn between a stand and rapid retreat. Then Shag caught the scent of many Aranda and slunk from the scene. Only a few paused to yap a meaningless challenge to the intruders.
Bakal, hoping her rescuer might have arisen from the depths, had found her band and brought them back to come to the beast-man’s aid. But Jer’ok had to warn them back. There remained one danger that had not yielded to their numbers. After much debate, one of the large bucks came forward to the very edge of the treacherous mire to call out:
“Who is he who looks like San-k’aranda but speaks the language of the Aranda and acts to help a she who is not his?”
“I am Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda,” the beast-man promptly announced, “once alata of a mighty band who ranged in this place. Jer’ok once defeated all who met him in battle to win the place of leadership, but he has been far away across the great skies to the Jera beyond! Now he would add his strength to the Aranda once again.
“Jer’ok-ta has helped one of our people, now he asks your help. But you must await the return of Sanjera so no more are trapped as Bakal was and Jer’ok is now.”
Kuor, the alata, eyed the boastful beast-man sullenly.
“Would Jer’ok-ta be alata again?”
“No,” came the forthright reply, “Jer’ok has no taste for the demands of leadership. He seeks only to live in peace among the Aranda for a time.”
Kuor hunkered down to give the matter due consideration. His band followed his lead and found comfortable positions scattered about the clearing. None interrupted the alata’s profound concentration to speak for or against the San-k’aranda. Bakal was tempted to speak again in behalf of her rescuer but knew her place. She, too, allowed her alata the peace necessary to his ponderous decision-making processes.
Kuor was doubtful but curious about this peculiar creature. At last his curiosity won out. The alata assented at least to remain for a time. The hunterfolk scattered to rest through what was left of the night.
Second dawn found them puzzling over the means of rescuing Jer’ok. The same problems faced them now as had thwarted them in extricating Bakal. And now there were no sturdy limbs to assist the folk, had Jer’ok or the she been able to explain his successful strategy to the others. The remains of Jer’ok’s torn rope, when pulled from the branch, proved too short to reach their long arms. For a space of time they pondered the dilemma anew. But their attention span was short. The bucks and shes began to show the same signs of boredom that had marked their departure on the previous day. Once again they disappeared one by one into the jungle. At last only Bakal remained at Jer’ok’s side. Jer’ok admired her loyalty but knew he must release her.
“Bakal cannot remain here. She must rejoin her people.”
But the she refused to leave him. Jer’ok was reminded of nothing less than the steadfast love of Lael, who had persisted in protecting her weakling ta’el when all his younger playmates had taken their places in full membership in the day-to-day activities of the band. She could not have known that her helpless son would at last grow to full leadership of the hunterfolk. Yet Lael had believed in him and protected him when he needed her strength. She had lived only long enough to catch a glimpse of the fulfillment of what was his humankind potential. Like Lael, this she believed in Jer’ok and would not desert him. Try as he might, Jer’ok was unable to dissuade her from her vigil. Then a plan began to take shape in his mind, a plan to serve them both.
“Bakal is a courageous she,” he announced. “There is a way Bakal can help Jer’ok if she has no fear.”
To his relief she was listening. Jer’ok waited. Bakal did not deny her courage. She was waiting to hear what the stranger would propose.
“Bakal knows Muthus?”
She still listened.
“Muthus is Jer’ok’s friend. He is but a half-day’s walk at the edge of the savannah.”
Jer’ok indicated the direction with a thrust of his chin which also suggested the distance to be covered. The she rose and took a few shuffling steps away, before she looked back over her shoulder.
“Muthus will understand Bakal,” Jer’ok assured her, and added, “Tell him Jer’ok is in danger. Only Muthus can help Jer’ok. Bring Muthus here.”
The she paused again to consider Jer’ok’s words. She regarded him across the hopeless mental distance separating them. The giant San-k’aranda said nothing more. He did not beg, nor did he cajole. He had told her how she could help. The decision was hers.
Never before had Bakal been close enough to Muthus to speak to him. Indeed, she shrank from the thought. The sharp tusks and great trunk could dispose of an Aranda she as quickly as she could catch and dispose of tiny Rodei, the long-tailed rodent. But Jer’ok had called Muthus friend. Jer’ok would not say a thing that was not true. So quickly had Jer’ok impressed Bakal with his honour that she would have come to his side in the swamp itself had he now told her it was safe to do so. She lumbered off in the direction he had indicated, gathering speed even as the trapped beast-man watched.
While the she was engaged in her search for Muthus, Jer’ok did not remain idle. He collected as much of the ruined rope as he could retrieve. Examining it with care, he reinforced it by knotting the weakest areas.
WHEN BAKAL EVENTUALLY returned with Muthus, it was apparent that she had been able to explain Jer’ok’s predicament despite the limitations of communicating across the vast species divide. Muthus greeted Jer’ok with upraised trunk but kept a respectful distance from the treacherous morass. Jer’ok explained what he wanted done. Both his friends understood and accepted their parts.
Muthus advanced to the very edge of the swampy ground, not stopping until the mud was giving dangerously under his feet. The she rode on his shaggy back just behind the large ears. When he came to a stop, Muthus wrapped his trunk about her thick body and lowered her to the deceptive green surface. She reached long arms to Jer’ok. With care the beast-man stretched himself as far forward as he dared. There would be only one chance. If either Jer’ok or Bakal misjudged the toss of his rope, there would be no second throw. For, as soon as the beast-man threw it, he would fall forward, no longer supported by the limb. Unless Muthus and the she pulled him swiftly to the safety of solid ground he would surely drown.
Taking a deep breath Jer’ok wasted no more time. He threw the end of the rope to Bakal’s outstretched arms and fell forward, facedown, with the momentum of his swing. Slowly but inexorably he slipped down beneath the surface of the suffocating mixture.
Nothing happened. The rope remain slack in his hands.
Jer’ok’s last desperate effort had been in vain. Nevertheless, the beast-man felt a surge of pride at the thought of the profound friendship this strange cooperative effort reflected. The lack of success could not be laid at the feet of these two faithful creatures.
Jer’ok fought the suffocating stuff without panic. But not even his methodical effort to lift himself with gentle sweeps of his arms was effective. Already his thoughts were disappearing into darkness, strangely welcoming. Jer’ok saw before him the beautiful face of his mate. In his heart he spoke her name for one final time.
There! Had there been a tautness in the rope?
Hope was renewed in Jer’ok’s breast. He clung to consciousness. There! It was tugged again. The beast-man’s resolve hardened. He must not lose consciousness now. Another tug pulled at him. Instinctively his fingers tightened around the rope. Slowly, ever so slowly, his body began to slide through the resisting stuff of the swamp.
Muthus had very nearly lost his hold on the she when Bakal strained to reach the elusive liana thrown by Jer’ok. Only the great mastodon’s mighty thews saved Bakal from her desperate lurch to catch the end of the beast-man’s vine. In saving the courageous folk she, Muthus also snatched Jer’ok from the sleep from which none awakes. Carefully, so as not to tear the slender thing which held Jer’ok to life, Muthus tightened his hold on Bakal and slowly backed from the swampy ground. When he felt solid footing beneath him, the mastodon turned and dared to increase the speed of his retreat. Bakal’s sharp exclamation of joy told Muthus when Jer’ok at last surfaced.
Hardly resembling a man, let alone one of venerable Chimurian blood, Jer’ok’s body emerged and was dragged well onto solid ground before Muthus and Bakal were satisfied. They watched with quickening heartbeats until the slimy figure coughed, sputtered and finally rolled over onto his back. The trumpet of the mastodon and barks and cries of the folk welcomed Jer’ok as he raised himself on his elbows, shaking his head to fling mud and wet sand from his eyes.
How is one to thank such as these for feats of craft and courage beyond human credulity? Jer’ok himself would not have believed had he not experienced them himself. He grinned as his rescuers celebrated. When their wonted decorum at length reasserted itself, he joined them. He clutched Bakal’s shoulder with one hand and stroked Muthus’ strained trunk with the other as he spoke with simple dignity.
“Jer’ok atna Muthus. Jer’ok atna Bakal,” but “friend” in any tongue speaks volumes when it is used sparingly. Each member of this unique trio was truly honoured by the friendship of the other two.
FRIENDSHIP IS MUCH to be sought for, but kinship means still more to the jungle peoples of Ashtar. The three remained inseparable for a time, but it ended when Muthus came upon others of his kind. Bakal and Jer’ok would have been accepted among the giant beasts, but the she was eager to return to her own band. For the first time since his return to his home world Jer’ok felt the lure of creatures with whom he might converse. So the stalwart beast-man left Muthus and set out with Bakal to find her companions.
ONCE AGAIN THE jungle claimed Jer’ok of the Aranda. It might have taken days or weeks to reunite Bakal with the other hunterfolk. It mattered not to either. Nothing hurried their steps. There was much to distract them from their quest. Jer’ok hunted and shared his kills with the she. He paused without a word whenever Bakal followed with fascination the antics of a k’aranda, the small relative of both the folk and her companion, or was enthralled by some other event staged by the obliging jungle for her sole entertainment. And thus Jer’ok sealed the fate the Stars had chosen for him.
At first amazed that he would voluntarily enter Nea’s embrace of untold horror, Bakal eventually snored through Jer’ok’s daily swim. Much of Jer’ok’s leisure was devoted to the making of new weapons. A new spear would wait until the proper raw materials could be selected, but part of each night was devoted to the preparation of a tough new rope.
Once Bakal awoke and watched with obvious interest the deft motions of Jer’ok’s hands. The next night he tried to teach her the techniques, but Bakal was soon bored and abandoned the task for more rewarding pursuits. Jer’ok later gave her a short length of rope. She slung it over one shoulder as Jer’ok did his and clutched the loops in one great hand for days. Eventually, however, it was dropped and forgotten when Bakal found a tall tree which bore a fruit she admitted to be her favourite as she shyly offered one to her companion.
The two were in the midst of Sanaca country before they came across the spoor of Bakal’s tribe. They followed it with ease, Bakal becoming increasingly excited as her reunion drew clsoer.
As Bakal and Jer’ok made their leisurely trek into Sanaca lands, another less benign then they also came, but deadly purpose directed his progress without deviation from the object of his cruel design.
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