JER’OK AND DARAD stood side by side before the destroyed gate. Without words they passed through the village only to pause before the ruin of what had once been the chief’s home. Aside from the shambled remains of the boma, the only other sign that villagers had once thrived among the clearing’s devastated structures was the large cooking pot from which had spilled stew, now never to be eaten. Chief and war chief looked about them in dismay.
“Perhaps the traps . . . ,” Jer’ok began, but Darad only nodded mutely. “Come, let us find out if any is left . . . ,” Jer’ok persisted, but, before he could finish, Darad turned to stride with a grim determination beyond the enclosure and thence in the direction of the nearest of the deep pits. The beast-man followed, respecting Darad’s measured pace. There chief and war chief might yet discover one who could tell more of the fate of the Sanaca people. But in truth Jer’ok held out no more hope than did his companion.
The quest was in vain. If the traps had met with any success, the surviving Khazarish had not been satisfied merely to remove their victims but had systematically effaced all sign of their existence. Everything else, from crop in the fields to thatched rooftops within the boma, had been set to the torch.
There was no one, no sign, nothing. Darad stood in silence before the tangible emptiness of his village. His sorrow for his people went too deep to permit words. Jer’ok, maintaining his place slightly behind his chief, reached out and grasped the ebon shoulder in a simple but eloquent gesture of understanding empathy.
“It is useless,” Darad shook his head sadly.
“Let us separate and search the edge of the forest,” Jer’ok urged quietly. “There may be survivors who were left behind.”
Darad nodded slowly, “Perhaps. You are right; we cannot leave without further search. A child or one of the old ones may have been left behind undetected by the raiders. Such a one would have crawled into the jungle.”
But, setting forth in divergent directions, the two found only the hoofprints of the Khazarish mounts, the shuffling prints of the unfortunate ones destined for the illicit – and therefore highly profitable – slave trade to the northeast and, impressed on both of the others, the more recent prints of the Sanaca warriors. Chief and war chief crossed paths again at the place where the trail network converged before what was left of the gate. There was nothing more for the saying or the doing in this place. Of one accord the two set off on the trail of their people.
In less than a day of easy travel they came upon the warriors and those elders wily enough to elude capture and possessing the wisdom to bide their time on behalf of the others. It is a tribute to both the nature of the two leaders and the faith of the Sanaca that both Darad and Jer’ok were greeted with joy and heartfelt expressions of relief. No time was wasted before the men hunkered down in council planning for the release of the captives.
Evening found Darad and Jer’ok before the few Sanaca elders who had survived the Khazarish raid. They were as eager as the warriors to take action, but their council continued deep into the night. It was not until the warriors’ course had been fully examined and found to be acceptable that Darad called a close to their urgent council. The beast-man was gratified when the elders nodded in unanimous assent, praising the cleverness of the leaders, Jer’anda as well as San-k’aranda. When approval was brought to the warriors, they and the elders alike urged that the rescuers be sent forth the very next day. But Jer’ok held up his hand in denial.
“We shall wait.”
Jer’ok’s words were received in puzzled silence, but none questioned his decision. Sensing their tentative approval, he elaborated, “It will take the Khazarish no less than four more suns to reach their stronghold. They can travel no faster than the pace of the captives. They have now been on the trail for a full day without incident. We shall let them continue two more days in peace. They will relax, believing the fighting men of the Sanaca unprepared to take vengeance for their crimes. But on the third day the Khazarish will know no Sanaca sleeps like some torpid lizard in the sun while those he loves are in danger. These invaders shall suffer for daring to enter the land of the Sanaca. They will die for the harm that has fallen on you. I, your war chief, pledge it on my life!”
Though the tribesmen commenced to mutter their approval as Jer’ok finished speaking, Chief Darad advanced the war chief’s argument, “Think as the Khazarish would think. When they meet no resistance from the Sanaca captives and are left in peace by the Sanaca warriors, they will become careless. Most of them will be eager to return to the comfort and pleasures of the encampment and thence Camassia itself. They will leave only a few of their number to conduct our people there. Then we shall outnumber them. We can attack without danger to our beloved ones.”
“How can we know the Khazarish will act as you have said they will?” one of the warriors asked for himself and on behalf of his fellows.
“We will encourage them,” Jer’ok replied. “Tonight I will enter their camp to warn the people to bide their time, lest they bring the wrath of the khan upon themselves. Many would come to grief where there is no need.
“I will tell them help is near so they will give the Khazarish no cause to take action against them.”
In the ensuing silence of assent and thought, Darad spoke for all when he nodded and asserted, “It is good. It shall be done.”
But Jer’ok had more, “I must be leaving you then. You all know the methods that are effective against these ignorant men. Use them. Choose your time and your targets well. I will find additional allies. We will meet here before the sun has set five times. All of us!”
Confident in Darad’s ability to turn his brief parting counsel to effective reality, Jer’ok left the Sanaca to find the Khazarish encampment. Along the way he came upon small herds of game animals. These he drove away to the south and west. When he found the Khazarish encampment he circled it slowly from the cover of the trees. At the completion of his circuit he knew all that was necessary to accomplish the purposes of the Sanaca.
After he made a kill and fed, the beast-man lifted the heavy carcass to his shoulder and bore it into the forest. The cowardly intruders were loath to leave the security of the beast fires they scrupulously tended each night, but Jer’ok was too wise to leave such matters to chance. He deposited the remains of his kill high in the branches of a tree while he made a second wide circuit around the camp. All the Khazarish were accounted for. Satisfied, the beast-man returned to his cache.
Again shouldering the heavy load Jer’ok proceeded to smear the blood of Lopus on numerous trees in proximity to the camp. This gruesome task would serve more than one purpose. The mere scent of the blood of one among their timid kind would scatter the game animals away from the Khazarish. It might also lure closer any roaming predator. And if one of the slavers should happen upon any of the marks, it would add immeasurably to his superstitious fears of the jungle and those beings, both natural and supernatural, who inhabited the forest.
But it was still not enough to satisfy the beast-man. Jer’ok’s jungle craft told him the precise route on which the Khazarish would embark in the morning. He spent the rest of the hours of near-dark traversing that trail. Tactics with an effect in the vicinity of the camp would serve the same purpose while the Khazarish were on the march. Tomorrow and each night to follow would find the intruders hungry and filled with fear as they huddled over the scant security of their fires.
Jer’ok waited until the darkest hours just before first dawn before, silent as second shadow, he moved directly to where the mute prisoners lay shackled and bound together. There was an eager stirring when first one and then additional Sanaca discovered the war chief in their midst. But before any could betray his presence with an outcry of joy the beast-man cautioned them to silence.
“Be still, my people,” his voice was barely more than a whisper, “I have come to let you know you are not forgotten. Allow the Khazarish to believe they have defeated you. Cause no trouble. Soon you will be free.”
The captive Sanaca looked at him in questioning wonder. Ever so softly he spoke to them of courage and hope. Their warriors were even now acting to deliver them. Thus was the courage of these stalwart people renewed. They would wait.
The sensitive beast-man, however, observed as he was giving them the heart to endure that one or two of the old ones and a number of the youngest children were weakening. They would suffer cruelly and perhaps succumb, should they remain even a few days more under the brutal hands of the Khazarish. Jer’ok therefore determined to take action to preserve these fading victims. After a moment of thought the beast-man asked if any knew which of the evil ones held the keys to their shackles. More than one eagerly pointed to a tall, thick-boned man in a dark burnous. Cautioning his people once again to silence Jer’ok left for the jungle.
Moments later the beast-man was cautiously reentering the camp near the place where the holder of the keys snored in peaceful oblivion. The beast-man crouched low to avoid the glow of the dying campfire should any of the sleepers be restless and wakeful. Scarcely breathing he slowly withdrew without a sound the great ring of keys from the robes of the Khazarish. Rapidly he intertwined one end of his rope among the heavy metal forms to prevent their clattering contact. Then, still crouched low, he returned to the jungle and thence his captive people.
Urging all to watchful quiet, Jer’ok released those few who must be removed from the tender mercies of the Khazarish. One old woman fell against him as she was released. Weakly she tried to pull away from the war chief as she whispered an apology. But Jer’ok shook his head and held her upright against him.
“Be still, venerable one; rest for a moment.”
As he held the Sanaca grandmother, the beast-man looked over the other captives. Presently he nodded to a youth near manhood with an eager glint in his eyes.
“You are strong and unhurt?”
“Yes, Jer’ok.” The youth looked defiantly about the camp. “The Khazarish will never make me a slave. I’ll kill them . . . . ” The youth subsided as his war chief hissed a warning.
“I understand your feeling, young warrior. But can you also obey orders, my Sanaca friend?”
The youth grinned sheepishly. If any understood his attitude, it was Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk.
“Of course, my chief. Do you have orders for me?”
Jer’ok carefully transferred the woman’s slight weight to another.
“Yes, I do. I want you to take these people to a place where they can rest through the remainder of the night. Do you know of such a place?” Jer’ok paused as the youth nodded eagerly. “In the morning bring them to Darad’s camp, here.” And the beast-man sketched a map in the ground at their feet.
“I know the place, Jer’ok. It will be done.”
“Good, but remember; you must go quietly and at the pace of the slowest.”
None questioned Jer’ok’s selective release. All understood and approved the war chief’s motivations. By the time the last of them had stolen away into the forest, first dawn was approaching. Time was growing short. Working with swift efficiency Jer’ok gathered the empty shackles and buried them under the weeds and debris at the edge of camp. The remaining prisoners drew together to fill the places left by the others. The ropes binding them together were rearranged to conceal the gap that was left.
Only then did Jer’ok dare return the keys to the robes of their unsuspecting owner. Should he be apprehended, the Khazarish might easily be convinced that he was taking rather than returning them. By now the fires had died to cooling embers, and the first rays of Sanjera were finding their way through the dark shadows into the camp. Soon the Khazarish would be up and about their morning routine. Keenly aware of the swift passage of time, the cautious beast-man succeeded in replacing the keys without awakening the sleeper. Unfortunately the keys knew neither the needs nor the ways of stealth.
As the beast-man turned to steal his way out of camp, one of them overbalanced and struck its owner’s leg. Jer’ok heard the slight sound before the Khazarish did. Even as he was turning away he assessed his chances. The jungle was too far. Closer were the bundled bodies of two more sleepers. As quickly as stealth permitted Jer’ok ran to them and flattened prone between them. His fingers touched the hilt of his crystal knife as one of the two moved in his sleep. He did not awaken, and Jer’ok relaxed. The guardian of the keys stirred, groaned and sat up, unsure of what had awakened him. Still groggy from his heavy sleep he looked about. All was as it had been when, full of a comrade’s home-brewed potion, he had dropped to the ground the night before. Absently the man rubbed his thigh where the offending key had struck and slid back into his drugged sleep.
Carefully Jer’ok raised his head. The way was clear now. In an instant the beast-man was on his feet and running silently for the forest. The two Khazarish never knew just how close or how vulnerable their nemesis had been in those brief moments.
Second dawn found Jer’ok reinforcing his efforts to frighten the game away from the path on which the Khazarish would soon be embarking. With unerring reckoning he determined where they would make camp that night and set about making them as uncomfortable as possible. When he was finished Jer’ok observed several predators lurking among the trees; even cowardly Shag was prowling about the edge of camp. The beast-man departed, well satisfied with his night’s work.
HAN KYRSA KHAN cast a jaundiced eye about a hungry and apprehensive troop who made camp that night. He ignored the importunate Khafajah who skulked at his side. Neither man had begun to suspect the reduced ranks of their charges, nor had any other. Men with the slightest sensitivity would have sensed the subtle change in the silence of the prisoners, but the Khazarish remained oblivious.
Two of their number were sent out to hunt. One came back empty-handed. The other never returned. There was none with sufficient courage to search for him.
That the hand of the Lord of Ashtar was behind their discomfiture never occurred to the band of undisciplined cut-throats. The lack of game and the abnormal concentration of predator beasts were both laid at the feet of capricious Nature. Thus was Jer’ok successful in harassing captor without endangering his captives.
The beast-man dared not chance discovery in repeating his forays of the previous night. None among the Khazarish would sleep as well this night or any to follow. Instead, waiting until the enemy slept fitfully, Jer’ok slipped fresh fruit and gourds of water to the deprived Sanaca. Before he left as silently as he had come he cautioned his people to discard all evidence of his gifts well before morning.
AND SO THE remaining days and nights of the Sanacas’ captivity were rendered more miserable for the Khazarish than for their intended slaves. Two more of the cruel outcasts disappeared into the jungle. Khafajah, who had encountered the beast-man face-to-face, commenced to entertain suspicions, but the half-eaten remains of one man found near a waterhole convinced him that the man had simply blundered into a Black Lion and suffered the entirely natural consequences. The Khazarish’s hungry nights were made completely sleepless by the chuckles and howls of hyaenas and jackals, who for some incomprehensible reason persisted in dogging their tracks. The horses were near equine hysteria. Some among the Khazarish considered the lurking of beasts an evil omen and fingered talismans in a vain effort to invoke supernatural protection.
Han Kyrsa Khan snorted in derision at the sight of his comrades’ superstitious activities.
“You fools!” he sneered at them. “Do you really believe that will help? There is some logical explanation for the presence of the scavengers. And it is they who have driven away the game from the immediate area. You have no talent for hunting, but with your rifles you should at least be able to get close enough to shoot something.”
“We have seen nothing at all,” came the sullen reply. “How can we shoot what we cannot see? Bah,” the bold one spat in contemptuous distaste, “this country is haunted well enough, but not by game. It is as if some daimon has driven the game away.”
Another took up where the first left off, “but every time we hunt we find ourselves stalked by one beast or another. It is a daimon, all right – or the Dark One himself.” Less bold than the first to speak, this one suppressed a shudder and stared sullenly into the depths of the despised jungle.
“You fools. There is some logical explanation,” Khafajah unwittingly repeated the khan as the latter strode away in disgust to confirm that the Sanaca prisoners remained secure. On his part, Han Kyrsa found himself staring into the impenetrable mystery of the tangled jungle, but respect mixed with the fear in his expression. “There has to be an explanation.”
The disgruntled troop came close to mutiny on the third morning. Breakfast had consisted of weak qahwa and a meagre supply of unsavoury fruit. Only the Khazarish’s anticipation of the riches they would bring protected the Sanaca from the ugly outbursts each bully visited instead on his own worthless brethren.
“Enough!” Han Kyrsa Khan’s nerves were not much better than those of his surly troops, but he needed to maintain some semblence of discipline if they were to survive to return to the encampment, let alone distant Camassia, with their prize.
“Break camp,” he ordered. “We may have to move slowly, but move we will if I have to beat you along with the Sanaca dogs every step of the way.”
Grumbling, the men got to their feet and set about clearing the camp. Han Kyrsa mounted to wait for them. Still he stared into the jungle. But he was unable to see that for which he looked. Suddenly he heard something from within the forest on the other side of camp. Wheeling his mount about as his ears rang with the sudden terrified cries of his men, the khan screamed a warning. But it was too late for any defensive action.
The ultimate cause of the Khazarish’s demoralisation was this unprovoked charge of a rogue mastodon obviously stricken by a fit of madness. Without warning the massive beast burst out of the jungle and tore through the campsite scattering Khazarish, their skittish mounts and their accoutrements in every direction. Three more of the khan’s dwindling troop died beneath the beast’s feet and tusks. Half the horses were lost when they bolted into the jungle never to be seen again. In the mass confusion and its toll among mutinous survivors neither Khafajah nor Han Kyrsa Khan took note of the fact that the captives went unscathed.
Not far away Jer’ok later greeted his friend Muthus. “You have done well,” he told the great creature in Aranda. Jer’ok as indeed pleased with the effect of Muthus’ mad charge would have on the enemy. The Lord of Ashtar mused what a fine actor the great creature was.
THE SANACA WARRIORS had selected their ambush well. As the line of captives escorted now by only a few mounted outriders plodded into view, each man’s target was selected by means of prearranged silent signals. The battle was violent but swiftly done and entirely successful. The people were freed and joyfully reunited with their friends, husbands, brothers and fathers. Not a Sanaca man, nor any woman or child was slain. But what should have been a great celebration was nevertheless marred by calamity.
In the very last moments of brief but ferocious battle Chief Darad had been wounded and taken prisoner. Many of the frustrated Sanaca had seen it happen. Those who were not themselves engaged in desperate hand-to-hand combat raced to the rescue of the chief. But when speed is the sole resource at hand, a man on horseback enjoys an insurmountable advantage over another on foot. The surviving Khazarish escaped easily, contenting themselves with their last remaining prize. It was but a short ride to the encampment.
WHEN DARAD REGAINED his senses, he found himself securely bound to the ornate saddle of a Khazarish horse. Without lifting his head, still oozing blood from the wound of a chance beam, the chief was able to determine that his mount was being led by one of the enemy, followed by at least two other alert survivors of the ambush. How many more followed behind, the chief was in no position to determine. However many, there was no possibility of eluding more than one or two, had he been able to free himself of the bonds holding him to the horse.
Despite his helpless situation, Darad smiled. His people were free and only these few of the intruders who had captured them still lived to tell of their brief moment of triumph. If the actions of the past several days could yield so great a success, there was hope that the encampment itself would fall. Darad hoped that victory would be accomplished before he was put to death or sold into a place far beyond the reach of his people and, perhaps, even Jer’ok-ta.
At the thought of Jer’ok, Darad took courage. Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk would not permit his Sanaca brother to languish long among the slavers.
JER’OK DID NOT call it honour. He had no name for that which compelled him to act. If pressed he would have offered no words to explain why he must risk his life and, more importantly, the freedom he cherished over life, in what most men would dismiss as a foolhardy attempt to secure the release of the Sanaca chief. Indeed, the beast-man would have felt only scorn for any who, knowing what Darad had done for him, had need to ask his reason for being at the imposing palisade surrounding the Kharzarish permanent encampment just beyond the Sanaca lands.
Jer’ok of the Aranda is no fool – romantic or otherwise. None could know better than he that the rescue of Darad was not capable of accomplishment unless it be plotted with the utmost care. Even then success would strain to their limit the suprahuman faculties of the beast-man.
From the vantage point of a tree above the northwestern wall of the palisade Jer’ok observed the Khazarish and noted the patterns of their daily routine. From what he could see the encampment itself was nestled securely within the foothills of the eastern range of the mountains separating desert from sparsely wooded forest. The only place where slaves could be quartered was marked by a second narrow entry penetrating the base of the hills marking the northern flank of the encampment.
The hills themselves formed a natural portion of the palisade constructed as a nearly impenetrable defence. The jungle encroached farther into the desert to the west in the absence of intervening hills. There the Khazarish palisade, like the boma of the Sanaca village, passed in proximity to the heavy branches thickly entangled with the profusion of semi-tropical vegetation.
Now that the surviving Khazarish had returned, the gate facing southeast remained closed and guarded by two alert sentries. On closer inspection Jer’ok soon discovered that a single rope usually served to hold the massive gate in place. The thick wooden bar was reserved for the unlikely event of massed attack or siege – with weaponry advanced far beyond the Sanaca’s chosen way of life. Along the inner wall of the palisade ran a narrow platform provided for the defending arms-men. It would also serve the purposes of the beast-man’s offensive.
The outlaws themselves were heavily armed. The guards and more than a few of the others bore heavy firearms, some of uncertain vintage, others obviously more recently stolen. Bandoleers of large caliber bullets actually crossed the once-white robes of a few of the renegades. They were nothing if not bound to ancient tradition, the beast-man mused to himself. Almost all wore either a knife or scimitar or both as comfortably as the worn garments beneath. More than one carried the ugly black coils of a whip over one shoulder.
Though the encampment fairly bristled with ostentatious, if anachronistic weaponry, Jer’ok was certain other weapons were hidden by the folds of the disreputable robes. The Khazarish’s day-to-day intercourse with their fellows was marked by frequent altercation that more often than not ended in the flash of a blade. That murder did not inevitably follow was due to Han Kyrsa Khan, who discouraged this method of reducing his forces by summarily executing the first man who had fought another to the death. By the consistent application of brute force the leader of these splendid specimens of humankind maintained an orderly and alert camp.
Jer’ok’s deliberate observations warned him that his only hope for a successful conclusion to this brazen venture required at least the minimal cover of a moonless night. Since Solea was approaching the time when the full orb of her silvery light glowed over the jungle below, Jer’ok hoped Mael might bring thick clouds to cover her face. Otherwise rescue of the Sanaca chief would be delayed by several days. While the beast-man possessed all the patience of the stalking beast, he had no way of knowing what torments Han Kyrsa Khan might devise for his proud, unbowing Sanaca foe. Rescue would be worse than useless had Darad been crippled before it could be effected.
Throughout the day the Khararish contingent seethed with activity, but at night most of the men retired to their barracks or to the inner sanctum within the rocky ledges. Only the guards at the gate remained fully alert. And so would those Jer’ok knew had to be lurking in the area he inferred to be reserved for captives awaiting a caravan to conduct them to the marketplaces far to the northeast. As he reconnoitred and then awaited his chance, Jer’ok noted the number of the outlaws who would stay late into the night before a large fire kept burning between the entrance and the palisade. Most nights, a lone camp follower, more bored than sultry, danced for them.
Jer’ok wasted little respect on these, for they made a habit of drinking heavily as they exchanged lies about their courage and the exploits of a past that never existed except in their malevolent imaginations. If they elected to engage in their wonted practices when Jer’ok chose to put his plan into action, their very noise would serve as an effective cover.
For three days and two nights the cunning beast-man lurked in the area near the encampment. He suppressed the urge to attack any loner who emerged from or ventured into the jungle. To reveal his presence would defeat his purpose. Well into the third day Jer’ok’s patience was at last rewarded. Ominous clouds grew heavy in the west. By night Solea’s face would be well hidden and Jer’ok could at last take action.
BY THE TIME the Khazarish had tended the horses and taken their own evening meal, darkness had fallen with a vengeance. Jer’ok could barely see his hand extended before him. Thunder growled incessantly in the distance, reluctant for the moment to venture closer. It was truly an ugly night. Most of the Khazarish had retreated to their barracks. The contingent of guards paced the palisade in morose cadence. The few horses left in the paddocks shuffled restlessly in the unfruitful search for cover. Three or four diehards among the Khazarish drank in the flickering light of the fire. They seemed to take pleasure from the air of imminent violence. From time to time one or another added more wood to urge the blaze upward to pierce the darkness. The sullen dancer was nowhere in evidence.
Jer’ok slipped down from the trees onto the platform at the northwestern corner of the palisade. In silence he then dropped to the ground and ran past the dark bulk of the barracks. Approaching the span of bare ground allowing easy access to stables on one side and paddocks on the other, the beast-man slowed to a walk to avoid arousing the uneasy horses to the nervous nickers certain to betray his presence. In another moment, he had gained entrance to the slave quarters without incident. Once safely inside he paused to listen and to test the air for the scents of friend and enemy.
The latter numbered two, whom Jer’ok presently observed in some game of chance in the small guardroom. Each faced one of the two entrances, so Jer’ok could neither slip by nor slay one or the other without alerting the whole camp to his presence. After a moment of thought, the beast-man cautiously moved deeper into the dank cave and knelt to feel about him for the inevitable debris that strews the ground of such places. Finding what he wanted, he tossed a handful of pebbles along the ground.
One of the Khazarish muttered sullenly and argued with his fellow over the possible source of the sound and about which one of them should investigate. At length a toss of the dice settled the matter of which could relax while the other went to chase the bold vermin back into the depths of the cave where they belonged.
Reluctantly, the loser stood and reached for his spear. Rubbing a sore spot on his back, he left the small comfort of the guardroom with a loud yawn. He would not really need to take any action. His presence alone would scatter whatever creature had ventured so close. He passed the beast-man’s hiding place without sensing the presence of the enemy. Jer’ok’s knife found the heart of this first guard, who died without ever knowing he was in any danger. As usual, Jer’ok’s kill was swift and silent.
Like the shadow of death, the beast-man returned for the bored winner. This man’s first inkling of doom was the crushing of a coppery arm with the hard strength of steel against his throat and the prick of a sharp knife over his heart. Before he could draw breath to call for reinforcements, a hissed warning chilled him to the bone.
“Silence! Point to the direction of the Sanaca prisoner.”
The man would have demurred but the simultaneous crash of thunder and increased pressure on his throat demoralised him. Out of the awful silence that followed, the cold voice demanded, “Where is he? Now!”
With a hand that trembled the terrorised guard pointed.
“The key. Where is it?”
Once again the shaking hand pointed and then fell heavily away as the cruel knife found its mark. Jer’ok dared leave no one to betray him. Though the beast-man was entirely indifferent, it was a kinder death than the slaver deserved.
Cautiously, Jer’ok felt his blind way through the darkened stone passage. The beast-man used all his senses, but here he was necessarily relying on that sixth sense that no man can name, but which mysteriously serves its possessors when all else must surely fail. At last his nose guided the beast-man to Darad’s isolated cell. Softly, Jer’ok called the Sanaca’s name.
“I am here, Jer’ok. I am unharmed. Do you have the key?”
Nothing could have been more reassuring to Jer’ok than the strong, sure tones of his friend’s voice. Quickly, he told of his entry and intended route of escape while he was working the massive key in its ancient lock. Darad would use the information without need for explanation or prolonged discussion. On silent feet the two ran back through the dark toward the entrance. Once there, they slowed to assess the situation.
The flames of the roaring fire threw shadows in weird undulations against the walls as the two made their stealthy way to the entrance of the impoundment. Instinctively both clung to the wall in the tense hope of avoiding chance discovery. Ahead loomed the open courtyard that stood between them and freedom. Jer’ok’s stealth and cunning had protected the fugitives this far. Now the Stars had seized control. Though the natural caution of the wild beast would not slip for an instant, the Lord of Ashtar no longer had dominion over his own destiny.
The wary beast-man halted and signalled for Darad to do the same. The noisy exchanges of those who lingered outside could be heard over the roar of the fire. Occasionally one would turn to observe the approaching storm. More frequently now the deepening rumble of thunder overcame all other sound. Food had been exchanged and cups of a potent brew were being poured. The ugly laughter of inebriation was carried on the gusts of wind flying in advance of the storm.
The beast-man once again signalled Darad. With a sharp gesture he directed the chief to make his dash for freedom. Briefly the other nodded his assent. Together they raced through the dark for the palisade. Jer’ok lifted Darad to his shoulders to give him sufficient height to attain the platform and thence freedom through the jungle. At that very instant the storm broke.
Ok the thunder deafened every ear as Jera the lightning traced a broad slash through the black of night. Heavy drops splattered tentatively in the dry dirt and then fell in full force. Darad, in mid-leap from palisade to trees, remained invisible, but Jer’ok’s copper hide stood out in stark relief. In only moments his rash entry into the holdings of the most bitter of his enemies would be rewarded with success or punished with cruel captivity.
No matter his own fate, the beast-man had resolved that the chief of the Sanaca would return to his rightful place among his people. Jer’ok felt neither fear nor regret. He had acted as his innate sense of honour required him to act.
“Go on,” his call carried in the wind to Darad to prevent the chief from returning to fight at his side, “I will join you on the trail or in the village.”
Already a number of harsh voices vied with the storm to raise the alarm. Jer’ok sought only to divert the attack from Darad. So long as they heard nothing from the guards only Jer’ok knew to be dead there was a good chance the Khazarish would believe the beast-man had just entered the palisade. To reinforce that mistake, Jer’ok ran toward the northern wall of the barracks instead of making good his own excape. He might yet elude the Khazarish even as their numbers swelled. He could not get through the gate, but he might be able to avoid them long enough to find a way over the palisade to the southeast. The longer he kept the Khazarish in pursuit of himself, the better became Darad’s chance for freedom.
Jer’ok clung to the wall of the structure. He heard the horses nicker in the rain. Once he heard the deep trumpet of the stallion he had seen in the paddock closest to the caves. The shouts continued. Running feet were converging on the beast-man from at least two sides. Deliberately he allowed himself to be seen before ducking into the nearest paddock to mingle among the restless horses. Using their warm forms as a shield, Jer’ok made his way unseen in the direction of the fire, now deserted. He hoped to be able to outdistance the Khazarish and gain the palisade and freedom before they could train their firearms on him.
Now only the bonfire stood between the beast-man and his goal. The Khazarish were milling about as uncertainly as their horses. Jer’ok flattened himself against a storehouse wall. Then a voice called from only a few paces distant.
“He is here, you fools.” Then more loudly to catch their attention, “Come here! It is Jer’ok! Quickly; he is trapped! You can take him alive!”
Han Kyrsa Khan’s voice gloated. Victory was his. The beast-man could not escape. It was impossible. Still this dedicated leader of men hung back, fearing to come too close to the cornered beast-man.
Before Jer’ok could move, the men, who with the khan had emerged from within the caves, moved into position with rifles leveled at the intruder’s heart. But the khan had not accounted for Jer’ok’s loathing of captivity. To him it would be better to be shot down than to submit meekly to slavery. The beast-man broke and ran for the palisade.
Swearing, the khan warned that the man who killed Jer’ok would take his place in the slave quarters.
“Stop him, you fools!” Han Kyrsa screamed. Numerous whining beams and several shots pierced the night, but it is far easier to hit a man one intends to kill than it is deliberately to wound him. The shots went wild as Jer’ok rapidly covered the distance to the palisade, the Khazarish strung out in futile pursuit of him.
THE TWO GUARDS closest to the gate turned at the shouting and saw the copper daemon of the forest race past the flames. They were the only ones who could thwart his escape. With a crafty smile one watched as the nearly constant flashes of lightning revealed Jer’ok’s progress. This guard nudged the other.
“He makes for the palisade – there!”
The two watched as they moved to cut off the beast-man’s escape. It was easy for them to ascertain his ultimate direction.
“Come, we will wait for him. The khan will reward us well if we stop him. Look, there he is!”
Once again Jera revealed Jer’ok to the waiting enemy. Both of the guards were grinning in anticipation of victory and its spoils.
“I have him,” the first whispered to his companion, “be ready.”
As Jer’ok raced past them, they still waited. He was intent on outdistancing those behind him. The storm covered all scent and drowned any sound made by the two over his head. He made an easy target.
The beast-man barely paused. Confidently he gathered himself and launched the stupendous leap that would carry him easily to the narrow platform. As Jer’ok moved, so did the waiting watchers overhead. The whistle of a heavy whip screamed through the pounding rain. The Khazarish guard, still smiling, suddenly flicked his wrist. The lash wrapped a tight grip on the fleeing beast-man’s ankle and pulled him heavily to earth just below the guards, who simultaneously leaped down to meet him.
Jer’ok was disappointed but far from defeated. Though he landed heavily, he had time to protect himself from the fall and landed well. He knew that to fight the lash was to tighten its grip, so instead he moved forward. The Khazarish was not so clever. Surprised by the beast-man’s action, he was not quick enough to counter the unexpected move. The lash fell away as Jer’ok tore the cruel weapon out of the guard’s hand. But the slight delay was enough to bring the others upon him. The beast-man snarled his hatred and defiance, but wasted no other breath.
Jer’ok barely had knife in hand before the horde had engulfed him. Every weapon they could seize was wielded with effect by the enraged Khazarish. Though Jer’ok’s knife, teeth and feet brought many of the foe writhing to the ground, their blows continued to rain upon him without respite. Gradually his desperate battle became sluggish. A heavy blow across his back dropped the beast-man to his knees. He twisted and knew the satisfaction of crystal blade tearing through flesh, but even as he ripped the knife away, Jer’ok felt the cold embrace of metal close on his other wrist.
He was yanked off balance and, before he could act, another shackle was clasped about an exposed ankle. Unable to rise, still the mighty beast-man fought savagely for his freedom. Barring that result, he hoped to provoke one of the Khazarish into striking a death blow.
So effectively did the doomed man battle on against the overwhelming odds that he very nearly succeeded in his secondary goal. Sharp teeth sank into the wrist of one who approached too close in an effort to secure a manacle on Jer’ok’s knife hand. The knife rose and fell. But another of the assailants simultaneously drew a bead on Jer’ok’s momentarily exposed head.
“No!” Han Kyrsa Khan again roared his warning, “The man who kills Jer’ok shall know the full measure of my wrath!”
The rifle was swiftly reversed and, when the seething tide of battle provided another opening, struck Jer’ok a blow that finally rendered him helpless. The beast-man slumped to the ground. The battle was finished.
Quickly, because they held his legendary prowess in the deepest respect, the Khazarish roughly rolled Jer’ok over and shackled the unresponsive wrists together behind his back. The leg-iron was removed. Already the beast-man was regaining his faculties and was struggling to sit up. One of the bruised combatants reached for the knife that had wreaked such havoc among his fellows. This he handed to the khan without taking his eyes off the prisoner for a moment. If the legends could be believed the shackles might not hold him.
“Get up,” the khan issued his first order to Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk. “Get on your feet.”
Jer’ok stared dully about him. He ignored the order. True to the ways of all cowards Han Kyrsa Khan swaggered forward and kicked the helpless man heavily in the side. Jer’ok rolled away from the attack, but all drew back from his snarling growl as the dull eyes focused on the khan with a hardening glint.
“Get him to his feet,” the khan repeated, “I will not order it again.”
Jer’ok still ignored him, but someone grasped the chain between his wrists and hauled him up onto his feet. The beast-man leaned heavily on the two men who then summoned sufficient courage to come forward to hold his arms in a firm grasp.
“That’s better,” The khan gloated. “Take him to the slave quarters. We will secure him there. He will be safe enough until the caravan arrives tomorrow. Then he will never trouble Han Kyrsa Khan again.” And the khan laughed in the face of his defeated enemy.
Jer’ok only stared at him in silence. Not one of the bruised and bloody conquerors of the Lord of Ashtar laughed with Han Kyrsa.
Thoroughly drenched in the downpour Jer’ok and his captors proceeded to the cavernous impoundment from which Darad had only moments before been delivered. Jer’ok was forcibly held upright but made no effort to walk. The two who held his chained arms were obliged to bear most of his weight the entire distance to the entry into the caves.
Though he allowed nothing to reveal his discomfiture to the enemy, Jer’ok’s brave heart missed a beat as he was forced from the clean darkness of night into the foetid darkness of the cavern. The subtle difference, sensed by the beast-man alone, marked an invisible transition from the freedom Jer’ok craved and the captivity his spirit would never accept. It was but a single step from life to a fate that was to Jer’ok more worthy of fear than that peace Death promises to each victim of the incessant punishment Ashtar inflicts on her denizens. And yet Jer’ok accepted the fact that, for the moment at least, he was helpless to prevent his passage into captivity. He did not spend precious strength on useless struggles.
Still without resistance the giant prisoner was dragged into the guardroom where the body of one guard exposed the beast-man’s earlier crime. Han Kyrsa Khan screamed with insane rage,
“Fools! Imbeciles! Have you allowed the Sanaca to escape? You!” He pointed to a man too slow to cower behind the others, “You go to the cell. If he is gone, sound the alarm immediately. There is a slight chance he has not yet left the compound.
“You!” the khan gestured to still another, “You find Said. See if the animal has murdered him as well.”
The khan’s breath was coming in rapid bursts, betraying his barely contained fury. He turned on Jer’ok and struck him repeatedly, forcing him back against the wall, his two guards moving with him as they endeavored to dodge the heavy blows without losing their hold.
“Beast-man, you will pay for this infamy before you leave this place.”
The sharp blows served to revive Jer’ok from the last vestiges of the stupor induced by the earlier clubbing. Now, though he still hung in the grip of the guards, the need was more feigned than real. He now knew that the khan carried his knife in the belt that gathered the loose folds of the burnous at his waist. The beast-man was biding his time. The two men sent into the cavern soon returned to confirm the khan’s worst fears. Said was dead, the Sanaca gone.
“Chain the beast-man to the wall in the Sanaca’s cell. I will consider how best to fix deep in his memory the anger of the Khazarish that he may remember Han Kyrsa Khan throughout the years of his slavery.”
The khan turned away, his fury diminishing to disgusted petulence. Once again Jer’ok was dragged forth unresisting. He walked between the guards with unsteady steps. The khan’s cruel threat was without effect on one whose life had first brought him to near-fatal wounds of mortal combat with adult folk while he was still in his youth. Jer’ok was well acquainted with physical pain. It held no terror for him. It was the knowledge of the unspeakable future Han Kyrsa Khan intended for him that served to shock Jer’ok’s deadened mind into action. He needed no more than a second. His captors would make some mistake. This time they would not take the Lord of Ashtar alive. Jer’ok’s guards roughly brought him to a halt just beyond the entrance to the cell.
“Watch him, I will examine the binding ring,” one directed his fellow. “It has not seen any use for many years.”
“The legend of the daimon-beast does not cause me any fear when the man wears chains and leans against me in weakness,” the other assured his companion.
Though he eyed both the braggart and the prisoner appraisingly, the first man ducked into the dark depths of the cell without futher comment. There, in the absence of a torch, he found it necessary to feel in the darkness for the ring. But after only a moment he grunted his approval and emerged from the cell.
“We’ll have to remove the shackles. Give them to me and I’ll fix them to the ring. Then you can bring him in.”
Roughly Jer’ok’s remaining guard whirled the prisoner around and shoved him into the wall while pulling out the key to release the shackles. The smug bully was unable to resist a gibe.
“This legendary beast-man is laughable. He meekly submitted to the abuse of our khan and now he tolerates whatever treatment we care to inflict. He offers no resistance at all. I had expected more of a legend.”
This was the mistake for which the beast-man was waiting. It was now or never!
The instant the hated manacles fell away from his wrists, Jer’ok burst into action. He would not give them the opportunity to bind him again. Clutching the keys from the guard on his left, he shoved the two men together through the narrow entrance. As the guard to his right stumbled forward, Jer’ok relieved him of his curved scimitar. Slamming the cell door on the infuriated men and locking it before tossing the keys into the darkness, he retraced his steps at a rapid run. The screams of the thwarted Khazarish would bring reinforcements immediately, but Jer’ok was ready with the stolen scimitar in his hand.
Jer’ok did not encounter the khan and his cohort until he had nearly reached the guardroom. In the passageway the beast-man was protected by darkness while they were easy targets silhouetted against the light. Jer’ok pressed himself against the wall. When the guards did not return, Han Kyrsa Khan would no doubt investigate even if he somehow failed to hear their outraged calls for assistance.
No sooner had the beast-man positioned himself than the angry leader dispatched a contingent of men to investigate the delay. Jer’ok stopped breathing, but the Khazarish passed by without knowing they were leaving the khan the only thing between their former prisoner and freedom. Now the calls of Jer’ok’s former guards quickened the men’s pace. Jer’ok took advantage of their distraction. In seconds the beast-man had reached the side of the khan, thrown him to the ground and retrieved the crystal knife. Jer’ok would have killed Han Kyrsa, but the contingent was already returning with reinforcements not distant. The beast-man stood up, snarling, but retreat, not battle, was called for if Jer’ok of the Aranda would live to terminate the Khazarish threat.
Without stopping to assess the damage to the enemy, not caring whether he killed or not; Jer’ok savagely forced his way through, scattering the Khazarish with wicked thrusts of scimitar and knife. He burst out into the compound and ran directly for the paddock in which Han Kyrsa Khan’s excited stallion trotted back and forth as he tried to sight the cause of the violent commotion he sensed through the drenching torrents. Most of the Khazarish had returned to their dry barracks, but some still were milling near the fire. They were not yet responding to the muffled cries emanating from the slave quarters. When the khan’s enraged voice finally alerted them, none saw the treacherous beast-man anywhere.
Suddenly they heard the hooves of a horse from the paddock. Just as Kyrsa Khan emerged from the slave quarters in incoherent rage, he saw Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk guide his stallion in a tremendous leap over the paddock fence and gallop straight for the gate. The wild- man rode as if an extension of his mount, with weight and voice alone guiding the animal. The savage beast-man still carried a weapon in each hand. The khan gasped as the fugitives made for the gate at a dead run. Surely they would both die in the unavoidable impact.
From an astonishing distance the rider tossed the scimitar to sever the rope holding the gate closed. Before he could shout a warning the khan watched his extraordinary prize carried by his incomparable stallion through the swinging gate and into the jungle and freedom beyond. The challenging trumpet of the stallion and the Aranda scream of victory mingled with uncanny harmony. Then the only sound was the incessant drum of the downpour.
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