THE CARAVAN ARRIVED and departed without the promised Sanaca slaves. But it had yet to dawn on Han Kyrsa Khan that there would never be Sanaca slaves to be sent to the marketplaces in the north.
The rain continued for the better part of a week. The sullen Khazarish did not set foot outside the palisade. When at last they did emerge, they discovered that, though the palisade provided near-perfect defence – with the one notorious exception of Jer’ok-ta, the walls also formed an effective prison. The first man sent forth to bring back fresh meat for the depleted cooking pots found himself suddenly face to face with an ugly creature that looked like one of Ashtar’s primitive humankind but was something else entirely and even more dangerous if aroused.
Without provocation the creature attacked, screaming horribly. The Khazarish hunter would have backed off but found himself without any choice. In self-defence he was forced to shoot the beast, already in mid-charge. Unnerved, the man rapidly departed the area to resume his hunting elsewhere. The game beasts he sought would have scattered in any event.
KUOR HEARD THE sharp report of the Khazarish weapon and went to investigate, moved more by curiosity than any other motive. As he approached the scene, he heard the anguished cries of a ta’el. This development caused his leisurely passage through the middle terrace to acquire incredible speed. When the young alata arrived on the scene he found the terrified ta’el next to the still body of the young one’s dama. She lay bleeding from a tiny wound over her heart. Glancing about, the alata cautiously moved closer to the felled female, not knowing what to expect. Once at her side, he reached out one tentative hand to shake her gently. To Kuor’s surprise, the she had entered long sleep. He stared, wondering how so small a hurt could have sent her into the sleep from which there is no awakening.
Only when the ta’el was safely back within the security of his band and in the arms of a kindly foster-mother, was the little one persuaded to describe the oddly covered k’aranda who was responsible for his grievous loss. The evil one had come close enough to just avoid stepping on the youngster who, engrossed in a particularly productive nest of wood-eating insects, had been oblivious to his surroundings. His more wary dama was unfortunately upwind and discovered the interloper too late to warn her heedless ta’el. Mother-love impelled her to instant attack. Without apparent cause she had dropped as she raced to his aid, the shrieks of mingled threat and warning abruptly silenced with a noise like thunder, though neither so ground-shaking nor so prolonged. The grief-stricken ta’el had not noticed which way the slayer of his mother had taken.
Kuor long pondered this strange happening. Jer’ok-ta had described similar k’aranda who were not Jer’anda, from certain of the Jera high above their heads and beyond even Sanjera’s vast realm. The beast-man had warned that they were dangerous. Then he had asked Kuor and his people to help drive them away. When Kuor had in effect said that he no time for matters solely of interest to Jer’ok, his former guest had warned the alata at least to avoid the strangers.
Had Jer’ok not spoken of strange weapons which could kill even from countless paces distant? Kuor’s memory of Jer’ok’s words was hazy at best, but the inexplicable death of the she prompted her alata to search for Jer’ok that they might speak again of these strange intruders.
As he set out on his quest, Kuor listened to the peculiar warnings of small, chattering k’aranda who spoke of strange new creatures in the forest in their own limited version of the Aranda vocalisations. Through the means of this primitive but effective jungle network, Kuor then traced the giant San-k’aranda who seemed more Aranda in his ways. Fortunately, Jer’ok was not far away. The puzzled alata found him in a small clearing beside a waterfall.
Kuor, as is the wont of the jungle creatures who would survive to see their ta’els grow to adulthood, approached the beast-man’s lair with caution. It was well he did, for from his place of hiding the alata soon discovered that the clearing harboured a creature even more peculiar than the beast-man. It looked like striped Kiwasa, but with a skin whiter than Jer’ok’s and unmarked with any colouration. Its scent also reminded Kuor of Kiwasa – or little Eos, but there the resemblance ended. Many heartbeats passed while the alata watched the beast, but it kept to its placid grazing with no more notice of the hunterfolk’s presence than a widening of nostrils and twitching of the alert ears.
Satisfied, the buck returned his gaze to the San-k’aranda. Now Kuor’s eyes grew wide in astonishment. For some unknown reason Jer’ok had allowed himself to be caught in Nea’s dangerous embrace. Kuor watched in consternation, but the beast-man was apparently totally at ease and actually seemed to be enjoying himself. Kuor shuddered at the sight as he glanced about for the spoor of some predator who might have driven the beast-man to Nea as the lesser hazard. There was no sign. Bewildered by too many mysteries in the space of a single passage of Sanjera, the alata nearly departed without conveying his sad news to the beast-man.
In fact, Kuor had turned away to return to his band when Jer’ok emerged from Nea’s cold clutches and called his name. Surely, no San-k’aranda would have scented the alata or otherwise detected his presence. The leader of hunterfolk felt the shaggy hair at the back of his neck rise at this newest mystery surrounding the mysterious stranger. He was torn between curiosity and flight, his mission in seeking Jer’ok completely forgotten.
As the beast-man approached, he spoke again, “Jer’ok atna Kuor – Jer’ok is Kuor’s friend. Why has Kuor come here?”
With that reassurance Kuor decided to remain after all. There was something of import he wished to discuss with Jer’ok, but he hesitated. It was not only his faulty memory that gave the alata pause. He looked about anxiously. The brother of Kiwasa had been sniffing Mael’s messages while Kuor was exploring the clearing. Now the creature tentatively approached Jer’ok out of curiosity but prepared for flight. The beast-man stroked the arched neck and spoke to him in a language Kuor did not recognise as speech at all. In a moment the creature turned away and resumed his interrupted grazing.
Consumed with curiosity himself, Kuor overcame his timidity and moved closer to his former guest.
“Kuor atna Jer’ok.” With that belated response to the beast-man’s greeting, Kuor hunkered down at Jer’ok’s side. Puzzled, Jer’ok followed the alata’s lead. What could have prompted the buck to take the initiative to seek out the beast-man’s lair? Jer’ok knew he might never discover the cause of Kuor’s unique effort. The folk mind is notorious short of retention unless prompted by intense emotion, notably terror or rage. It was a source of constant frustration to the beast-man whenever his sojourns in their exclusive company drew prolonged.
“What sort of Kiwasa is that?” Kuor jutted his bearded chin in the direction of the stallion. Jer’ok confirmed that he was a brother of Kiwasa, but one who would carry a man on his back in comfort and relative safety. Kuor pondered this new thing.
“The bad k’aranda who are not Jer’anda ride such creatures,” he growled at Jer’ok.
“Yes, they do. This one belonged to their alata until Jer’ok took him to escape from their lair.”
“You were in their lair?” Kuor’s interest was unmistakeable. Despite the limited vocabulary and paucity of concept in the Aranda tongue, Jer’ok pursued the subject with the alata. Perhaps his band would now take up the cause of driving the Khazarish from the homeland Kuor’s people shared with Darad’s.
“Jer’ok was in the camp of the evil ones to release the alata of his friends, the Sanaca k’aranda. He had been taken prisoner.”
“Were they going to eat him?”
Jer’ok was not shocked by the question as a more civilised man might be. The hunterfolk are not cannibals nor do they eat human flesh, but they are unlikely to conceive of any other reason for capturing an enemy alive. Nevertheless, Jer’ok tried to explain the intent of the Khazarish. Who knows what impact the concept of slavery might have on the peculiar workings of the folk mind? Jer’ok, like his hirsute companion, is extraordinarily curious.
“No, they would have forced him to serve them or they would have sent him far from his home and family where others would have used his strength for their own purposes. It is as if Kuor caught one of the wily small k’aranda to fetch his breakfast for him so the alata could sleep until Sanjera was high overhead.”
Kuor merely grunted. Jer’ok would learn nothing of the alata’s impressions this day. But that the Aranda was deep in thought was evidenced by the degree to which his brow descended over his small eyes. Jer’ok appraised the mood of the Aranda buck before continuing.
“Jer’ok released the Sanaca, but the evil ones tried to take Jer’ok in his place.”
Kuor’s interest increased, “Jer’ok escaped on the back of Kiwasa’s brother? Did the evil ones not try to kill Jer’ok with their weapons which turn Ok the thunder into instant long sleep?”
So that was what had brought Kuor to him. One of his band must have been shot to death by a Khazarish. Jer’ok considered how best to channel Kuor’s anger. As is so often the proper course when engaged in a diplomatic mission, the Lord of Ashtar elected not to pursue the most direct route to the matter at hand. Instead, he engaged in preliminary rhetoric before proceeding.
“When Jer’ok would elude an enemy he is as quick as Jera himself. He freed the k’aranda and killed many of the evil ones. Jer’ok is a mighty fighter. They were unable to stop Jer’ok, even with their weapons of thunder.
“Has Kuor heard these weapons speak?”
No diplomat himself, Kuor went straight to the point: “One of our shes has died because an evil one turned his weapon upon her. She was protecting her ta’el.
“What can Kuor do to protect his people? We do not wish to leave this place.”
Jer’ok knew that the folk might have fully intended to move on until the attack on the she had stirred in Kuor’s savage heart a need for retribution. Most men could have readily recognised the leader’s taste for vengeance. As the beast-man considered how best to serve Kuor’s purposes in concert with his own, the hunterfolk alata rose to his feet and began to work himself into a rage. Jer’ok’s long years among the bucks of Bran and later as alata himself made him familiar with the facility with which one of them slips from one mood to another wholly dissimilar.
Kiwasa’s brother squealed and shied away from the enraged buck and would have forced his way through the jungle, had Jer’ok not called out to him in a reassuring tone. Still the creature trembled and moved to keep his trusted humankind companion between himself and the dangerous rantings. The beast-man himself waited patiently, knowing the rage would pass if not provoked further.
Kuor circled the small clearing and stomped the ground with massive feet and raised hairy fists to Sanjera himself. The young alata stretched to his full height and pounded his chest as his circles drew him ever closer to the beast-man, who remained where he was, casually hunkered down on his haunches, silent but watchful. The challenge of the Aranda buck filled the air.
“Kuor will kill the evil ones! He will gather all the band and we will attack them in their lair! Ranar, nox k’aranda. Kuor kuraku! Beware, evil ones, Kuor brings death to you!”
The alata eyed Jer’ok to assess his reaction to this tremendous show of power. To the buck’s disappointment the beast-man seemed to be wholly unimpressed. Jer’ok had not changed his position though Kuor’s feet came within centimetres of his relaxed form. The challenge had not affected him in the slightest. Kuor hesitated and then ceased his fine display of leadership to peer more closely at the beast-man’s bland white face. And to hear what he might have to say.
“Many of Kuor’s band will die. It will be a sad day for him when he attacks the evil ones in their lair.” Before Kuor could draw breath to impugn the beast-man’s courage or to vent his frustrated anger on him, Jer’ok went on, “But there is a way. A way that in the past has brought victory to Jer’ok and his band.”
Kuor circled the beast-man several more times with threatening gestures directed not only in the general vicinity of the Khazarish encampment but also toward innocent Sanjera and the impassive beast-man himself. But the alata held his tongue. Jer’ok hoped the silence was the silence that makes way for thought. At last the buck again hunkered down at his side.
“What is this way?”
Jer’ok explained in simple Aranda how to carry out what the civilised worlds call guerrilla warfare: how to harass with eerie cries of challenge through the nights; the effectiveness of isolating the lone individual merely to terrorise him or even to kill. The beast-man repeated his words several times until Kuor looked him in the eye.
“San – it is good,” the leader of the Aranda pronounced. But Jer’ok was not satisfied.
“Come, let us tell your people of your plan,” the beast-man suggested in his most diplomatic manner. The methods may have been the same, but he had found this exercise in diplomacy less of a strain on his patience than engaging with Chimur’s Council of Lords.
AND SO THE Khazarish’s days in the land of the Sanaca became numbered. It is true they were secure behind their great palisade. No one dared attack them there. But woe unto any who dared leave the security of that high wall. As horrible as had been their ill-starred homeward trek with the Sanaca captives, this time of horror was infinitely worse. The great carnivora prowled about the palisade in alarming numbers. The scream of some primate they were unable to identify kept most of them sleepless through the endless nights. No man dared step outside alone. An manlike creature was certain to pursue him to the very edge of the palisade unless he was so unfortunate as to be slaughtered before ever getting back. A huge herd of particularly aggressive mastodon had usurped the local waterhole. However, it mattered little whether the Khazarish could hunt, because the game had deserted that and all other waterholes of which the intruders were aware. The stored provisions of the Kharzarish were rapidly depleted and the disgruntled men soon found themselves on emergency rations.
As a result of their rapidly deteriorating circumstances, Han Kyrsa found himself in the midst of an intense debate with Khafajah, which the other leaders observed without contribution. The khan was adamant. Before the troop departed the region he wanted to teach the Sanaca and their hated offworlder war-chief a violent lesson. Khafajah, having had more direct experience with the ways of the Lord of Ashtar, wanted no part of any such foolhardy venture into the heart of Sanaca territory. But the khan was nothing if not persistent.
“We will slay many of them, perhaps even their chief or that animal who dares to call himself a man.”
Han Kyrsa was still smarting from the ease with which the beast-man had gained his freedom against odds that would have prevented most men from contemplating resistance. It pleased the khan to believe that only one with the mentality of the lesser beasts would defy so many. He conveniently put aside any acknowledgement of the cunning mind and superiour ability that lent success to the instincts of the beast. Only a man could be blessed with the combination of abilities that regained his liberty for the beast-man.
“But, master,” pleaded Khafajah, “the whole of the jungle has been arrayed against us. If Jer’ok does not destroy us himself, the Sanaca or others will.”
Khafajah would have gone on, but his khan interrupted him with a sneer, “What others?”
He had not been in Khafajah’s party when the beast-man turned them back from the village. Nor had Kyrsa Khan been among those who attempted to bring the Sanaca slaves to the encampment. Never was Han Kyrsa Khan among those who sought in vain for meat. His single confrontation with Jer’ok-ta of the Hunterfolk had not impressed him with the bestial ferocity the others had experienced. He had encountered the beast-man only after he had been beaten into submission – and still he had lost. Had the beast-man not been weakened, Kyrsa Khan would be dead, his throat torn open. But Khafajah had not enough courage to utter these treasonous thoughts to his master. Though the beast-man brought terror to his heart, his khan was a far more immediate threat. Khafajah swallowed hard.
“He is indeed a beast, my khan, but he leads the other jungle beasts against us. How can we succeed when every creature in the jungle is our enemy?”
Han Kyrsa fixed his outspoken lieutenant with his ugly stare. The lieutenant subsided. The khan was not to be frustrated, at least not by Khafajah.
A LARGE PARTY was formed to attack the Sanaca and the hated instigator of the misfortunes suffered by the Khazarish. The party rode from the encampment without incident. On the way to the village, however, there was no way to avoid the narrow trail where Khafajah and his men had earlier come to grief. Han Kyrsa boldly pressed onward. Khafajah, the sole man to return from Jer’ok’s previous ambush, was the only one among them to experience a thrill of horror as the riders passed beneath the overhanging branches thick with lianas. Kyrsa’s lieutenant knew better than to speak out again in defiance of his khan. Thus, he rode mechanically, lost in morose contemplation. He alone heard the ominous silence that spread beyond the rustle and clatter of the intruders. They were half way to the village before the significance of the phenomenon occurred to Khafajah, and he proceeded to act upon his belated revelation.
Even as Khafajah blasphemously attempted to spur his horse past his comrades to warn the khan, a rain of arrows suddenly fell upon the Khazarish with devastating effect. A crescendo of blood-curdling screams of pain and terror shattered the silence that should have served as warning. The deadly arrows came from everywhere. Yet the incredibly accurate archers could be seen nowhere. The mysterious jungle protected the invisible attackers completely.
The horses sensed the panic of their masters and added their own terrified snorts and shrill whinnying to the pandemonium on the narrow trail. In the midst of the rout Han Kyrsa Khan bellowed orders with an incoherence matched only by the confusion of those few who heard and sought in vain to obey. Round after round, beam after beam was fired into the trees. But the Khazarish never once heard the scream of a wounded or dying man among their invisible attackers.
One of the first lessons to be learned of armed battle is recognition of defeat. Han Kyrsa Khan knew at last that he had failed completely. All that remained was to lead those of his troops who still lived in ignoble retreat. It was no easy task, but at length the confused riders were marshalled for a return to the encampment. The retreat was hastened, first by all the lifeless bodies of the fallen being hurtled into the midst of the surviving slavers, then by the occasional arrow which flew unerringly from the thick vegetation into the evil heart of more than one Khazarish. Han Kyrsa Khan still rode at the back of the dispirited line of horsemen, from which position he had once been their leader. As the Khazarish rode out of the menacing jungle onto the broad road back, the defeated khan cast a nervous glance along the trail they were so eagerly departing. There he caught a glimpse of the hated offworlder savage. With a certain foolish bravado the khan pulled his nervous mount to a halt.
The beast-man regarded him in silence. Neither moved. Han Kyrsa Khan craftily judged the distance that separated him from the bold nemesis of his avaricious dreams. Before he could reach for his firearm, however, Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk lifted his voice in the proud Aranda scream of victory.
Before the eerie sound had faded from the handsome lips, an arrow struck the ground between the hooves of Han Kyrsa’s mount. Though the man did not echo the animal’s squeal of terror, he did naught to impede the mad rush for safety that accompanied the cry.
WHEN THE NEXT caravan arrived at the encampment the cowed Khazarish who survived departed with it, empty-handed. Han Kyrsa Khan would never forget Jer’ok of the Aranda. Nor would he ever forgive the beast-man for depriving him of a great fortune while marring forever his well earned reputation as a canny leader of highly successful, if totally dishonourable forays. Some day, Han Kyrsa vowed, he would take his vengeance on the Lord of Ashtar. And, through him, on the people and beasts of the beast-man’s jungle.
THE LORD OF Ashtar neither knew nor did he care what might be in the depraved mind of Han Kyrsa Khan. The Aranda’s mighty hunter, mighty fighter was well satisfied with the success of his most recent campaign. The Khazarish had dared to enter the territory of the Sanaca. They had even dared to believe they could hold Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk prisoner. They had swiftly learned the folly of their foolish misdeeds. Jer’ok was proud of his people, the Sanaca. They had fought bravely and well. He was proud of what he had accomplished with the incredible cooperation of Muthus and Aranda. He knew only one disappointment. The beast-man was unable to gain any measure of control over the actions of Thera or Harr.
Truth be told, he could conceive of no way to approach these great carnivora. The wild dogs of Ashtar and their close cousins, Shag, were not worthy of Jer’ok’s notice. Cita or even Pardu could be a tractable hunting companion, but each is an elusive loner – a trait the beast-man could appreciate and to which he would defer. Ah, but if he could find a way safely to approach the largest of Ashtar’s big cats and to gain their confidence; there were allies worthy of the Lord of Ashtar.
But Jer’ok was not so foolhardy as to approach either Thera or Harr face to face. Past experience told him they have no understanding of Aranda, though Jer’ok frequently had cause to wonder if this lack were not in fact a matter of choice. But even if he could find a way to entice them to his side, Jer’ok suspected these most independent of Ashtar’s beasts would at best make uncertain companions. In the carnage of battle they might just as easily turn those wicked fangs and flashing talons on friend as on foe.
Following the rout of the Khazarish Jer’ok spent many a steamy afternoon in indolent musings upon the inscrutable ways of the feline kind and contemplating methods of channeling that independent spirit with which he so closely identified. But for the moment at least, he could conceive of no method to achieve his purpose. He would be patient. Someday an opening might present itself. For now the beast-man was content to pursue this challenge only in his mind.
Those steamy Ashtarian afternoons found Jer’ok drifting apart from the Sanaca, just as earlier upon return to his home planet he had drifted from the hunterfolk. The solitude of the lone hunter suited his restless spirit for a time. He still enjoyed the company of the stallion who had carried him to freedom. Though the beast-man remained unable to communicate with the horse to the extent he could with Aranda or Muthus, he found the ancient companionship which develops between man and steed soothing, once the sustained rage of warfare with the Kharzarish at last could fade away, to be forgotten until once again circumstances aroused it.
Jer’ok knew Solea would wax and wane countless times before the Khazarish again tried the strength of the Sanaca or their savage war chief, if ever again the craven cowards dared so rash an intrusion. Jer’ok was free once more to revert to the aimless jungle creature he so readily became. Now only his association with the fiery horse set him apart as humankind.
As the days drifted by, Jer’ok rode in the savannahs and along the game trails to explore the beautiful and vast lands of the Sanaca. Essentially untouched by Jer’anda, the land teemed with game. All were fat and content. Because game was abundant, the predators, too, lived well. There was no outside force to disturb the ways that had served them both over the centuries. Sanjera shone brightly upon them. Mael brought with him more than enough of Nea’s rains to support the lush vegetation which in turn supported the herbivores, some of whom were destined for the never long-satisfied bellies of the carnivores. The cycle, initiated by Chimur in Gemini’s deep historical past, was seemingly eternal.
Ever eager for new adventure, Jer’ok took to hunting his meat from horseback. It added to the challenge. He was exhilarated by the speed and agility of his stolen mount and was able to instill something of his own fearlessness to overcome any tendency toward equine timidity in face of novel unknowns. Perhaps it is also that the son of generations of fine Camassian sires reminded Jer’ok of another far away.
SO ASHTAR’S DAYS came and went without notable incident. Jer’ok lived each one as it came, just as he had as a child and youth. But now a new essence began to intrude upon his contented liberty. The loneliness that touched him from time to time as he was growing to manhood in the jungle now haunted him constantly. Only one had the power to draw the irresolute beast-man out of his self-imposed exile.
The stallion represented Jer’ok’s sole link with the she whose presence had the ability to make the beast-man forget he had ever been alone or would be again. Sadly, the beast-man wondered if he had forever forfeited Amber’s love by returning to this place, his true home. Strangely ill at ease and unable to bring himself to choose a course of action, the listless beast-man continued to allow the days pass as they would.
THERE CAME A morning, however, when the stallion’s nervous dancing awakened Jer’ok from his own disturbed sleep. If Jer’ok ever dreamed, he was never aware of those elusive fantasies upon awaking. Reality quickly drove them from his mind. Yet this morning some phantasm did persist in its flickering between sleep and wakefulness and would not be exorcised by reality. The beast-man went to soothe the stallion, but the animal nervously skittered away from his touch. Jer’ok inwardly shared the animal’s anxiety but could put no name to it.
The beast-man sniffed the morning air but at first detected nothing unusual. His ears strained until they rang with the awful silence. That was it!
Mael carried no spoor, no sound. The land that yesterday teemed with life was bereft today. Jer’ok looked about him, but he could see nothing that might be the source of the odd retreat. Overhead the sky was deep blue without a cloud to mar its perfection. Sanjera was just embarking upon his daily journey.
And yet if all was well, why did Jer’ok feel the hair at the nape of his neck rise as though Pardu was staring at him hungrily? Abruptly, the beast-man whirled, hand on the responsive hilt of his knife. But nothing was there.
Neither Pardu nor any other stalked him. In profound perplexity, Jer’ok drew his free hand though the shock of chestnut hair. He would have dismissed this utterly strange sensation, but for the equally nervous attitude of the stallion.
On an impulse Jer’ok climbed high into the gently swaying branches of the upper terrace to scan the horizon. The serene landscape revealed nothing. But neither the small k’aranda nor the brightly feathered birds were cavorting among the slim uppermost branches as they should. Now thoroughly concerned about something he still could not identify, Jer’ok scrambled down through the terraces and dropped lightly to the ground. The stallion squealed in terror and broke in the direction of the savannah. In vain Jer’ok called for him to return. Not even the beast-man’s familiar voice could check the horse’s unaccountable panic.
Confident he would eventually catch up with the stallion on the savannah, Jer’ok started after him at an easy jog-trot. After a few moments, however, the beast-man halted, puzzled anew by the wave of unease which swept over him. He wondered if he might be ill but experienced no physical symptoms. Annoyed with his own reactions, the beast-man once again jogged along the trail. Soon, however, something urged him up into the trees. There he maintained his deliberate pace through the middle terrace, refusing to yield to the impulse to race madly away as though pursued by an enemy too terrible to contemplate.
When the jungle growth grew sparse and then opened onto the savannah, Jer’ok was amazed to find that it, too, was empty of all fauna. Where there had teemed vast herds of every description the empty grasses swayed and rustled loudly in the slight breeze. Again Jer’ok strained every sense. Still he was rewarded only by the elusive warning of the sixth sense that has no name.
Jer’ok returned to the jungle to make his way to the rocky foothills near the waterfall where he had frequently been making his lair of late. Still the pervasive silence assailed his quivering nerves. He deliberately halted in an effort to shake off the persistent urge to flight. Once again he whirled on an enemy that was not there. And stood in puzzled exasperation.
He shook his head. The mighty Jer’ok-ta was becoming as flighty as little k’aranda. For a moment the beast-man stood in unwonted confusion. He could not fight an enemy he could not detect. He would not flee from his own imagination. But the danger that now faced the confused beast-man was not of his imagination. The danger was all too real and now too close for escape.
Without any further warning whatsoever, Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda was suddenly thrown to the ground as the earth itself sounded a groan the like of which the beast-man had never before experienced. Jer’ok tried vainly to regain his footing, but the ground shook and twisted like a thing alive with evil intent.
In seconds, as suddenly as it started, the violent tremour was over. Jer’ok lay flat for a moment before standing. Even now he was uncertain which way safety lay. He was uncertain he needed to seek safety. Then the ground again trembled beneath his feet. Jer’ok balanced carefully on the balls of his feet, ready to move as the developing circumstances might demand. The trembling subsided.
Instantly, Jer’ok broke in the direction of the savannah. He would use the trail the Khazarish had taken between their encampment and the Sanaca village. Inexperienced as he was in the ways of earthquakes, the beast-man instinctively made for open ground. Unfortunately, his actions came too late.
Another incredible, groaning convulsion of the ground threw the running beast-man heavily. He rolled with the momentum of his fall and bounded to his feet but found himself wholly incapable of remaining upright as Ashtar seemingly proceeded to do her worst. But the worst had not yet come.
Grimly the beast-man managed to maintain his balance on the shuddering earth, forcing his unsteady legs to bear him away from the dangerous rocks. As he did so, the ground suddenly yawned beneath his feet with a high-pitched sound like Jera rending through a thousand trees at once. The beast-man kept his wits about him. Before the widening chasm could claim him Jer’ok surged forward in a leap prodigious even by the peerless standards of his mighty thews and sinews. The leap preserved his life for yet another moment.
Before he could catch his breath, Jer’ok was again flung to the ground at the very edge of the gaping wound in the surface of the planet. Even as he struggled to drag himself away, he found himself lifted high as the edge of the new chasm raised itself into a precipice newer still. Unable to move, Jer’ok clung to its summit. The random throes of the convulsed land precluded the decision prerequisite to the agile beast-man’s scramble for safety.
Once again Ashtar paused. Had she finished with the tortured land or was she merely gathering her forces in preparation for the next onslaught?
Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk learns quickly. This time he remained prone. He made no effort to regain his feet. His steady heartbeat measured the interval. When more time had passed between tremours than had before, Jer’ok rolled away from the edge of the deep crevice that pulled at him. Still the wary beast-man waited. The continued absence of the beasts bore down on his every sense. So long as the jungle surrounding him remained a lifeless void, Jer’ok knew the great force still lurked, ready to toss the land with the ease of Aranda tossing a ripe fruit.
Jer’ok’s grim sense of humor brought a wry smile to his lips despite the horror of his situation. How often he was tempted to consider himself superiour to the other beasts! But where his sixth sense merely warned him of impending doom, theirs had led them safely away from the scene. Even the horse, with senses deadened by generations among humankind, had made his escape while Jer’ok of the Aranda foolishly allowed his lethargic mood to defeat his uncanny inner warning of the cataclysm that had been coming.
With immense care, the beast-man crawled still farther from the edge of the precipice, not yet daring to walk upright. So much for the dignity of humankind he grinned to himself.
Jer’ok did not have time to get far enough from the edge. The ground trembled. Then the trembling increased to a veritable convulsion. With it came the appalling sounds of a tortured earth. Jer’ok soon found himself dizzy and faint. Suddenly the ground on which he was stretched hurled him high into the air. The beast-man had no time to take any action, if he could have thought of any that might serve to preserve him.
The chasm heaved a great sigh of disappointment as the copper body flew past as though suddenly endowed with wings. His crazy momentum carried the beast-man clear of that awesome hazard and precipitated him into another.
As the earth heaved and twisted into its new configuration, the trees that had once been many paces away from the wide trail were literally pulled closer. Jer’ok’s body struck one of them, bringing his ungainly flight to an abrupt halt. The heavy foliage cushioned the unlikely collision. It was not fatal.
But upon the impact of the cessation of his flight, Jer’ok was too stunned to move. His body toppled inexorably downward, narrowly missing some of the heavy boughs, rebounding from others. Once he made a feeble effort to guide his descent, but his weight and the momentum of the fall were too great a burden for the muscles earlier injured in this same ill-omened place. Jer’ok felt the mighty thews part.
At the last possible moment he released his desperate hold while straining the other arm to the scant security offered by yet another branch. By the time he reached the ground, the beast-man was more or less in control of the direction and speed of his fall.
Still he struck the ground with a jolt that set the muscles of his injured shoulder to screaming. Never particularly impressed with unavoidable pain, Jer’ok would have scrambled to his feet and made for a safe lair, but the steel thews and sinews had long since been strained beyond their capacity. Slowly, like the ancient jungle patriarch uprooted by the force of a great storm, Jer’ok toppled back to the earth.
WHEN HE REGAINED his senses, Jer’ok found himself too weak to move. Forced to accept the fact that the Lord of Ashtar was no match for the forces of Ashtar when she chose to display her awesome power, Jer’ok did not struggle. With rest his strength would return. If it did not or if it returned too late to preserve him from his many enemies, the final battle had been one in which he could take pride. It was a fitting end, decreed by Ashtar herself.
As the helpless beast-man contemplated his life he found only one cause for regret. As he lay passively awaiting the ultimate decision of the Stars, the creature of the jungle finally acknowledged to himself that the one thing which gave any meaning to his life was millions of kilometres away, unconscious of his peril and perhaps by now even uncaring. The thought that Amber might no longer care what became of Jer’ok of the Aranda brought with it an agony sharper than any mere physical pain. Jer’ok drifted into unconsciousness with his mate’s lovely features floating unreachable before him. It was her sad expression in the final moments of their recent farewell that haunted him without mercy.
WHEN NEXT HE regained his senses, the beast-man was fully alert. The weakness had passed. Jer’ok rose to his knees, supporting the injured arm against his body with his other hand. He shook the shock of dark hair from his eyes. He lived!
As Jer’ok lived, so did the jungle. A lone bird now called plaintively from the empty sky. Somewhere a tiny creature scuttled to find a new place of sanctuary. Mael brought the faint scents of distant Lopus mingled with others of the grazing and browsing creatures. Jer’ok stirred his unwilling muscles. Where there was Lopus, there would soon be others less innocuous.
Jer’ok looked about. He unconsciously expressed annoyance with a very human sigh. He would need a safe lair while once again his body went through the long, painful process of healing itself. He stood up and swayed dizzily before he was able to take a step. Then, despite his weakness and pain, the beast-man lifted his head high. He dared to hope the waterfall and the safe refuge it hid had escaped unaltered.
They had not.
Jer’ok stared in wonder. In place of the waterfall and its refuge was an exquisite pool of sapphire water in a parklike setting surrounded by trees which, like Jer’ok, had miraculously survived the devastation of the earthquake.
The surviving trees stood straight, clean and tall with scant underbrush to mar their graceful lines. The only sound was the gentle rustle of leaves as Mael played among them. Throughout his life the beast-man had experienced the horrors of the jungle. As though in compensation he had been granted countless glimpses of her beauty as well. Both were essential traits of the world so beloved of Jer’ok. But here was a beauty that took his breath away.
How often Ashtar and her jungle had cruelly sought his life only to reward his stubborn resistance with a change in their capricious whims that provided a vista almost too exquisite to be believed. For a while the throbbing of his torn shoulder was forgotten. As whimsical as the jungle herself, the beast-man set about cautiously exploring her newest treasure.
It did not take long. The pool was not large. The ground on which Jer’ok stood was just downstream of the place where the waterfall had once roared. There the level of the ground still rose sharply, but now it formed a low cliff of exposed bedrock lifting over the pool, fed by a stream now deep underground. At the summit the beast-man could see the smooth rocky masses through which the roaring waters formerly had swirled in their rush to the precipice. Everywhere else the ground was as smooth and level as a carefully manicured lawn at distant Battersea. Many years would pass before brush and stunted saplings could replace the fine grass in the shallow soil.
By the time Jer’ok had made his exploratory circuit, his shoulder was demanding that he rest. Jer’ok strolled toward the jumbled boulders and rocks. There he found one that Nea had carved into the unmistakeable conformation of a couch. Tired and sore as he was, Jer’ok needed no leafy branches to soften this natural bed. Gratefully he lowered himself to its beckoning surface and slept.
IT WAS SOME two weeks before Jer’ok was able to leave his new home. While his shoulder completed its mending he began to explore the changed landscape surrounding the glade. All was beautiful in a myriad of differing aspects. When he was again whole, Jer’ok increased the periphery of his explorations. A wonderful plan was forming in his mind. He went to Darad to speak of it with the Sanaca chief.
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