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Volume 6210

Chapters 15 and 16

XV. Choices
JER’OK PAUSED AT the edge of the forest.  For a long moment he let his gaze dwell on the place of his birth and the blue water beyond.  His quiet countenance did not reflect whatever images were evoked by the scene, nor the emotions that accompanied them.  His eyes took in the entire vista and all it represented to the beast-man without change in expression.  Then he returned to the downed flyer, covered with new jungle growth, and the shelter beyond.  Lost in thought, he walked around to the back of the shelter and deeper into the jungle behind it.  Already the three graves nearby had almost completely disappeared into the encroachment of the eternal jungle.

As the pensive beast-man returned to the flyer, he looked out over the vista beyond it.  Lopus and his mate grazed serenely in the remaining patch of lush grass before the lonely and crumbling monument to one man’s will to live.  Gulls swooped and screamed their oddly human cries over the breaking waves beyond the fringe of forest growth.  Jer’ok heard but could not see them from this the place where his parents’ craft had plunged to earth.

As the beast-man watched, a band of hunterfolk crossed the clearing with the singlemindedness that told him that they sought a lair for the night.  One buck stopped and looked curiously at the shelter.  His intense study served to isolate him from his fellows.  As they disappeared into the jungle he belatedly ambled after them, only to pause again at the frontage of trees before he turned away to catch up with the others.  The shelter for some reason known only in the mind of that single folk fascinated the creature.

Jer’ok wondered what he would have made of its contents had he entered.  Might the curious buck have opened the way to a world beyond anything he could imagine, as had the young manling other hunterfolk had nurtured so long ago?  Jer’ok wondered what turns his own life might have taken had he never opened the door to the treasures within.  Would he, like the buck, have briefly parted from his fellows to ponder the handiwork of humankind before disappearing forever into the jungle?

Or would Jer’ok-ta have lived and died in total ignorance of civilisation, his only association with humankind a few unfortunate encounters with the diminishing tribes of depraved cannibals?  It was a meaningless question without answer, but it caused the lonely beast-man to linger even longer between forest and shelter.

The passage of the hunterfolk had disturbed Lopus.  With annoyed flicks of their short tails he and his mate strolled without haste to the jungle opposite the point where the band had entered.  Presently, as Sanjera set in the spectacular blaze of colour found only in the tropics of Ashtar, a silence descended.  Only the soothing sound of breaking surf remained.

Jer’ok looked longingly after the hunterfolk.  But the call of the contents of the shelter was strong.  Would he forever be torn between the free life the Aranda know and the disturbing lure of jer’anda ways?

FOR THE NEXT several days Jer’ok lived in the flyer where the beast-man reread the library his parents had selected for their years of anticipated isolation at the remote Ashtarian outpost to which his father had been assigned.  The beast-man began with the slim volumes that had been lovingly added for the child who was to join the young couple not long after their arrival.  Then he moved on to the classics and more massive taped references.  These had been the key to Jer’ok’s entry into humankind society where he was destined to take his father’s place as Lord Charwick.

Jer’ok avidly read each book from cover to cover and scanned elements in each tape from beginning to end, but the library was meagre in comparison to those he had discovered in Faxon and Meridum.  The volumes he needed were not to be found here.

He would be required to return to civilisation to accomplish his purpose.  At near dark, when the light dimmed each night, Jer’ok wandered along the nearby beach.  For the first time in his life the Lord of Ashtar found himself uncertain of the course he should pursue.  Was it possible for him to live in both worlds?

Jer’ok still pondered that question so crucial to his future.  Neither world was for him complete.  He longed for the freedom of Ashtar, but in time the isolation had become intolerable.  There was none here who thought as he did; none who was capable of appreciating the undeniable gifts only civilisation could offer.  Jer’ok’s life was equally empty without them.  Jer’ok could not live solely as the Lord of Ashtar, nor solely as Lord Charwick.  Both contributed something essential to the man he was.  Neither could be eliminated without destroying that man.  The world of Char and Lael and the world of Leede Southerly constantly pulled at his heart until it seemed he would be torn asunder.

Even stronger was the hold Amber Laxton Southerly had on Jer’ok’s heart.  He had already accepted that he could live in neither world without her.  Life without his mate was unthinkable to the beast-man.  That, too, had been a hard lesson learned over the months since their marriage.  Their time together as well as the time of separation told Jer’ok that he was incomplete without her.  To his chagrin, he realised he did not even know how long it had been since he departed Battersea, Tuatha, Chimur – and Amber.

But could she accept him as he was?  Amber, like Jer’ok, had had this time of solitude in which to consider.  There was only one way to find out.  He must act on the decision he had long since reached.  Jer’ok must take courage.  Surely the Lord of Ashtar could not fear to approach a tiny she with his question.

THOM BROOKSTONE HAD served in this remote Ashtarian settlement for more than a decade.  The questions put to him by the tall baron were the first he had ever been required to research in depth.  It was obvious the man himself was well informed and knew precisely what he wanted.  Brookstone listened carefully and told the baron to come back in a month for the answers.  Thom had hardly ushered the man out of his office before the settlement’s Chimurian archon eagerly commenced the intriguing project.  The month flew by as he worked.

“SIT DOWN, MY lord,” Brookstone indicated a comfortable wicker chair in his surprisingly airy office.  “I have been most successful.  You will be pleased, I think.”

The baron slipped into the chair.  Although he was one of the largest men Brookstone had ever met, he seemed incapable of a clumsy move.  Where most men would have been nervous or excited about the charge on which Brookstone was prepared to report, this one sat utterly relaxed, long legs stretched out and crossed casually at the ankles.  The leather of his boots glowed as though brand new.  None of his attire had the appearance of recent purchase, but the shirt was dazzling white and the breeches a light brown without a hint of the inevitable dust or grime of the climate.  The baron himself looked like one who would never take note of heat or humidity.  With a resigned sigh Brookstone mopped his own dripping brow before sitting at his cluttered desk.

“May I offer you refreshment, my lord?”

“Thank you, no.  I would like to tend to this business as quickly as possible.  When the matter is concluded I expect to send for my wife.  Even then it may take months for her to arrange to join me.  I am anxious to see her.”

With this interesting revelation Brookstone stole a freshly appraising look at the baron before beginning, “The information you provided made my job easier than I could have hoped.  You were correct.  The land in which you are interested has belonged to the Sanaca tribe for many years.  In fact, there is no record of a time when any other held it.”  The archon paused.  “The Sanaca are a very interesting tribe.  They . . . . ”

”I know the Sanaca well.  Please go on with the history of the land.”

Curious, but ever the efficient servitor to the elite of Chimur or Ashtar, Brookstone reluctantly abandoned the fascinating history of the mysterious and aloof Sanaca for the mundane recitation concerning their wide holdings on the largest continent of Ashtar.

“As I said, the Sanaca have held the land for as far back as our records go.  As you requested, I have recorded that history and contacted Meridum with a legal description of the territory.  As you hoped, the Council of Lords has officially recognised their title and entered its durable quiet, in effect ab initio ad infinito.

“Most unusual, I might add.”

Once again Brookstone paused to examine the baron’s serene countenance.  The official was disappointed at the lack of expression there.  So far as his lordship’s reaction was concerned, they might have been passing the time in casual conversation regarding the weather or the time of day.  The Council had yielded any authority over this land to the exclusive hands of the Sanaca.  No one, not even the high king himself, could counter that people’s decisions about its future.

“Please go on.”

The baron’s voice was low and utterly calm, but there was unmistakable authority behind it.  Brookstone’s interest increased.  What could possibly bring a man such as this to so primitive a planet?  Brookstone lit his pipe and surveyed his visitor with frank curiosity.  When the pipe was burning to his satisfaction, he resumed his narrative.  His lordship waited with no show of impatience.

“The documents arrived only this morning.  I have recorded them, but I kept the original for you.”

The official handed his lordship the parchment with its impressive signature and seal.  The baron took it and read through the contents quickly.  When he was finished, he looked up with a quizzical expression.  Brookstone returned his look with amusement.  At last there was some reaction from the impassive stranger.

“Yes, it is signed by his majesty’s own hand.  Not he nor any to follow him to the throne can take the Sanaca’s holdings from them.  And the matter has been removed from both the Council and the Hua – for all time.  I need not tell you how unusual this is.”

Brookstone wondered if the baron could be a personal friend of the high king.  From the beginning he had suspected that this was a man for whom the unusual was commonplace.  It was not in the least difficult to believe him a confidant of the monarch of an empire that spanned all of Chimur and beyond.

His lordship returned the document.

“Darad will be proud.  He is an exceptional leader who truly cares for his people.  It is good to know his people’s lands will never be taken from them or their rights usurped in any way.”

Only good manners kept Brookstone’s jaw from gaping open.  To his knowledge, none of his fellow Chimurians had ever dared to intrude upon the Sanaca.  Yet this impeccable gentleman knew the name of their chief.  This was even more of a surprise than his lordship’s extensive knowledge of the territory to which the tribe held claim.  If anything could match friendship with the high king of Chimur, it was familiarity with the chief of the Sanaca people.  On the rare occasions when communication was necessary, Brookstone had always dealt with Chief Darad through the latter’s emissaries.  But his lordship has still a greater surprise in store for the astonished official.

“The land of which I have spoken is entirely within the Sanaca holdings?”

“Yes,” the archon responded tentatively.  What could be this man’s interest in the remote piece of Ashtarian real estate?

“You have been able to determine a fair price for it?”

Brookstone cleared his throat, “It is a most difficult request, my lord.  The circumstances are highly unusual.  I have researched the worth of the land and discussed setting a price on it with my colleagues.  But I cannot believe the Sanaca could be induced to sell.  There is no one who is authorised to enter their territory.  As you know, they are . . . . ”  Brookstone’s lecture on the ways of the Sanaca was once again interrupted.

“It is enough to set a price on the land.  Have you done so?”

“Yes, I have.  But . . . . ” The baron raised his eyebrows.  “Yes, I can give you a price.”

And Brookstone swallowed hard before revealing an extravagant but entirely fair sum.  For a moment there was no sound in the office.  The sounds of the jungle beyond drifted into the room.  Brookstone puffed at his pipe as he waited for whatever next would transpire.  At last the silence was broken by the baron.

“Yes, that is a good price.”  His lordship opened the leather portfolio that had rested at his side throughout the meeting.  Reaching in, he withdrew a carefully rolled, thick strip of hide.  As he unfolded it, Brookstone could see hand-written script with an occasional blank.  At the bottom he spied something that caused him to choke on a mouthful of smoke he inadvertently inhaled.

“You are familiar with the signature and sign of Chief Darad?”  Brookstone nodded his shocked assent.  “Then you will see that the chief has signed the parcel of land to me in fee simple.  It is necessary only to fill in the amount, here – and here.”  The baron indicated the two blanks as he handed the astonishing document to the stunned Brookstone.

As the archon accepted it and carefully filled in the amount with a hand that shook, his lordship went on, “I will have a draught transmitted today from my bank in Meridum.  It should be deposited in the name of the Sanaca people.  Then you can record the transaction.”

Brookstone handed him the document which the baron paused to study for a moment.  Then he altered the term of the transfer before signing and dating the document, which he returned to the official.

“But you have given yourself but a life estate,” the archon looked up to him from his quick scan of the alteration.

The baron fixed Brookstone with a stare the official could not meet.  Not another word passed between them.  Thereupon the archon scanned, then looked more closely at the bold signature: “Leede Southerly, Lord Charwick.”  Brookstone nodded his acceptance of the completeness of the business between them.

   “How is it that you could persuade Chief Darad to sell his land to you, a Tuathan of Chimur?”  Brookstone’s curiosity finally overcame his courtesy as the two rose to shake hands.

Leede Southerly had instinctively liked this dedicated representative of the Chimurian Empire.  He approved of the official’s obvious respect for the Sanaca.  Leede chose to answer the question he would have deemed impertinent from any other.

“Darad is the chief of the Sanaca, but, as you know, Sanaca tradition requires a war chief as well.”

Brookstone nodded idly, wondering how this particular Sanaca tradition might have any bearing on the baron’s unique communication with Chief Darad.

“I have the honour of being the Sanaca war chief.

“Good day, Archon Brookstone.”

As this incredible Lord Charwick thanked Thom Brookstone for his able assistance and took his leave with feline poise, it dawned on his stunned fellow-Tuathan that the obvious pride with which Leede Southerly announced his Sanaca title went far beyond the matter-of-fact tone in which he had first announced himself as Lord Charwick the month before.

Shaking his head in wonder Thom Brookstone returned to his desk to examine the strip of hide on which an Ashtarian king had set his seal granting lands to his unlikely Tuathan baron, who had thereupon relinquished a substantial portion of that grant.

XVI.  Homecoming
TWO TRANSMISSIONS BEAMED from a remote Ashtarian outpost to Meridum on Chimur and from Meridum to Ashtar.  Both revealed little of the depth of emotion that lay beneath their placid surfaces.  The first read simply:

“Have returned from jungle to make changes in shelter and flyer.  Please join me at earliest convenience.  Leede, Lord Charwick.”

The second responded in kind:

“Party of three will embark on Chimur Crusader within the month.  Meet us at settlement four weeks thence.  Amber, Lady Charwick.”

       AS HE HAD predicted to Brookstone, it was months before Lord Charwick met his lovely young wife at the settlement, but far fewer than the beast-man expected.  And with his lady-wife came her beloved former nurse and friend, Bridey, now in charge of the tiny son Jer’ok had never seen.  The three of them were met at the settlement’s primitive docking facility by the tall baron who had so impressed Thom Brookstone.

As Jer’ok of the Aranda gently held his first ta’el in strong arms, he looked at his mate with love and pride and something very like awe.

“I have named him for you and for my father,” she said softly, her own loving pride reflected in the glow of her eyes.  “We call him Blane.  He looks like you, . . . ,” Amber paused, uncertain what name her husband awaited.

The beast-man had almost forgotten how beautiful Amber was.  Motherhood had brought a special glow that was new and intriguing.  Jer’ok handed his son to the beaming Bridey and swept Amber into his arms.  They clung together as though each feared the other might vanish without warning.  Their separation had lasted an eternity.  Now each fervently hoped the other shared the wish that their next separation would be an eternity away.

“I love you more than life itself,” Jer’ok whispered before he kissed his mate with all the passion that had marked their very first embrace.  This time, however, the small fists did not pummel his massive chest in fierce rejection.  Amber’s hands reached up to draw his head still closer.  The couple did not draw apart until Blane’s angry squall assailed their ears.

“He has Jer’ok’s lungs; there’s no doubt about that!” Amber laughed as she reclaimed the baby and held him close.  “There are nights when the entire household remains sleepless.”

Blane gurgled in the private language of the very young as his bright eyes assessed the big man whose golden green eyes and dark chestnut hair were reflected in his own.  With the typical reticence of infants he was not yet prepared to accept this stranger as a member of the immediate family.

“When do we leave the settlement, my dear?” Amber’s voice told Jer’ok nothing.  Was she anxious to see their new home or did she dread entering the jungle?  Jer’ok could only hope and pray he had judged correctly.  Their transmissions had been necessarily terse and there had been no opportunity for an exchange of letters.

“The Sanaca will guide us to their territory in the morning.  I knew you and Bridey would prefer to travel in their company.  I have arranged for us to spend the night here in the settlement.”

Now it was Amber’s turn to wonder what her husband’s quiet voice hid.  Was he saddened by her silent admission that she was still more secure in the jungle with askaris than under the sole protection of Jer’ok?  Amber was glad she had not asked him to provide an escort, but she was also relieved to learn the three of them would be protected on their trek by both Jer’ok and well armed Sanaca.  Her fear of the Ashtarian jungles was not without cause.

IT WAS A merry safari that marched from the settlement into Sanaca country.  The Sanaca were delighted with the war chief’s beautiful wife and their small manchild.  Bridey was made welcome and soon forgot her own terror of returning to the land of the sabre-toothed cat and giant lion who made her heart quake with fear even in the safety of distant Armeria or Meridum.  Only her love for Amber and her faith in Jer’ok lent her sufficient courage to accompany Lady Charwick and the young heir to the title – he of the lusty lungs – to the terror that was the Primaeval Planet.

Besides, as she had huffed to her Amber while the household prepared for their long absence, that man would have no sense when it came to the child.  The first thing that man would do would be to haul his infant son high into the trees on the perilous journey to meet his prohominid friends.  She, Bridey, was the only one bold enought to tell Jer’ok “no” and to enforce the injunction.

Amber had laughed at her mental picture of the confrontation between Bridey and Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk.  Bridey probably outweighed the Lord of Ashtar by nearly a hundred pounds, but, Amber suspected, he would have the decision.  She only hoped his sense of humor would prevail to save the situation.  Bridey had regarded her Amber darkly as the Arene laughed, so Amber had been quick to make amends.

“Forgive me, Bridey.  I do not think it will come to that.  Besides Jer’ok has no friends among the great carnivores.  And I think he will wait a few years before he introduces Blane to the hunterfolk.”

The remark was lightly made, but it revealed to the surprised Lady Charwick that both she and Bridey had seldom referred to her husband by any other name than Jer’ok.  And she had easily assumed that she and Blane would be in the jungle for years.  Somehow the thought carried no connotation of fear.  Instead Amber felt a warm glow at the homely picture of the little family together in the cosy shelter built by her husband’s father.  She had sighed a lonely sigh and continued with her packing.

Now she and Jer’ok were reunited and on their way, Amber believed, to the shelter near the sea.  Amber had never been happier.  She walked along the narrow trail hand-in-hand with her husband.  He was once again naked but for the loin cloth of the skin of Lopus, the deer.  The Sanaca chanted as they marched.  Jer’ok translated for her.

They sang of Jer’ok’s prowess first.  Amber had no way of knowing that Jer’ok’s translation was far more restrained than the original.  Then they sang of Bridey.  Blane was next.  Finally, it was Amber’s turn.  There was no doubt that they already loved her.  They had adopted the name “Ambe’lei,” suggesting something more than “Lady” in Tae, which honour she graciously accepted.

Amber noted with pride that the Sanaca treated Jer’ok as one of themselves with no more or less deference than that to which their war chief was entitled.  She mused that here was a man who could move with ease and grace among the finest of the cultures on two planets and yet more than once had confessed to being at peace only among the beasts.  Her heart was filled with pride in her knowledge that his love was reserved for her.

Jer’ok walked at the side of his mate with joy in his heart.  In only a few short days his surprise for her would be sprung.  He and the Sanaca had worked hard to please her.  The Sanaca, of course, were privy to his secret but remained true to the war chief.  Ambe’lei would not be deprived of her surprise because of them.  But like Jer’ok, they could hardly contain themselves to a dignified march through the jungle.  Amber could not help but sense the lively excitement in the air, but she kept her own counsel.

The safari came to the village first.  Darad greeted Jer’ok and his Lady Amber with immense dignity.

“We have prepared a feast of welcome; please join us.”

“We would be honoured,” Jer’ok spoke for them both.  “If we may, we will spend the night here before going home.  Amber and Bridey are not experienced on the trail.  They are both tired.”

THE NEXT MORNING Jer’ok awakened his mate before first dawn but cautioned her to silence.  Together they ran on silent feet through the still-sleeping village, beyond the gate and into the jungle.  There Jer’ok stopped and embraced his mate to kiss her until she was breathless.  Then he scooped her up and swept her into the trees with him.

They traveled through the forest at breakneck speed for the better part of an hour.  As suddenly as he had entered the trees Jer’ok now swung to the grassy jungle floor and set his mate on her feet.

“Come, Amber, I have something to show you,” Jer’ok held her closer than might actually have been necessary as they walked along a narrow trail.  The profusion of thick vegetation hid whatever lay ahead.  Amber looked up at her husband’s face, but she could tell nothing from his expression.

Suddenly the game trail opened onto a vista that made her gasp in awe.  Jer’ok was looking ahead but stopped when she did to watch her face.

“Oh, Jer’ok, it is beautiful!  When . . . , how . . . ?”  Then, “Is it ours?”  Jer’ok was rewarded by Amber’s beautiful smile.  “It is, isn’t it?  Show me, my love.”

Jer’ok led Amber down the narrow game trail into the picturesque shallow valley in which nestled as charming an estate as had ever graced the Tuathan countryside.  There were several fields already green with crops.  Huge pastures held serene cattle and prancing Camassian horses.  And in this perfect setting was the principal jewel, a two-storey main house of stucco crowned with a thatched roof.

Lord and Lady Charwick spent the entire day touring their new Ashtarian plantation.  Lady Amber explored her lovely new home with increasing delight.  The room set aside for their child at last brought tears to her eyes.  Here Jer’ok had lovingly placed all the treasures of his birthplace.  All the books, tapes and personal belongings that had meant so much to him were there.  Amber looked at him with an expression that made his heart melt within his breast.  Then she left his side to walk slowly around the room, gazing fondly at the treasures of his childhood and touching a book here, an object there.  Many of the latter had been fashioned by his father’s own hands.

In a place of honour lay the late Lord Charwick’s diary of the tragedy that had taken first the gentle Lady Sabratha and then her brave Sir Leede.  Only the presence of their beloved son lightened the brittle pages with humor and hope for the future.  Lady Amber returned to the present Lord Charwick and surrendered her deep emotion to his loving embrace.  Gently he held her and kissed her golden hair until she turned her face up to his.  He kissed away the salt of her tears before he lifted her in his arms and lightly carried her to another room where the remainder of the day passed them by without their notice.

IN THE EVENING Lady Amber prepared dinner for her husband.  As they ate, they spoke of many things both trivial and profound.  It was the happy conversation of any young couple deeply and most contentedly in love.  Suddenly Amber broke off what she had been saying in astonishment.

“Leede,” she exclaimed, “we have been gone since before dawn!  Blane and Bridey!  Whatever will Bridey think?  She will be so worried.  We must go back to the village.”

Amber’s expression of mingled urgency and disappointment brought an understanding laugh from Jer’ok.

“Do not be concerned, my dear.  I told Darad we would remain here for several days.  I am certain he has told Bridey.  The chief of the Sanaca has the diplomacy needed to convince even Bridey that I have not stolen her Amber and carried her away to live among the folk.  They will be joining us in a few days.  Do you mind?”

“No,” Amber smiled to Jer’ok, “Not in the least.”

“Then you think you could make this your home?”

“You have already done that, my Jer’ok.  It needs only the remaining two members of the family to make it complete.  Yes, I can spend the rest of my life here.  So long as you are with me.”

“It will not be necessary, Amber.  None of you could tolerate the season of one shadow in Sanaca country.  Even Jer’ok is miserable on Ashtar when the rains come.  We will spend a part of each year in Meridum and at the Charwick estate.”

Amber’s radiant smile again rewarded Jer’ok.  “It will be perfect,” she murmured, “truly perfect, my love.”

After dinner the couple strolled out to the verandah.  The primary sun was not yet setting.  Jer’ok leaned against one of the hand-hewn supports with Amber in his arms as they watched the shadows grow long.

“Come,” said the beast-man, “come with me.  There is something else I want you to see.  If we hurry we can be there before the sun sets.”  And with that he ran toward the jungle, adjusting his speed to accommodate Amber’s slower pace.  But as Sanjera dropped lower in the sky, Jer’ok swept Amber into his arms and ran faster toward his goal.

Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk set his mate down on the high grassy cliff overlooking the tranquil pool beside which he had spent many a long day and longer night dreaming of his distant love.  Amber beheld the enchanting island of tranquility in the midst of the teeming jungle.  She did not speak.  Jer’ok took her hand to lead her to a natural couch carved in the rock overlooking the water.  Together they watched Sanjera plunge into the jungle, leaving behind a trail of vivid colour no artist has ever been able to capture with his dull pigments.  It was a long time before either broke the silence.

Amber intuitively understood that this place had special meaning for Jer’ok.  “Tell me,” she whispered, “tell me of your experiences while here in your jungle.”

Jer’ok did not speak at first.  When he did, the reply was characteristically laconic.  “It was as it always is,” he said at last.  “There is no more beautiful a place, nor one so dangerous.  We live each day as it comes.”  He broke off, unwilling to mar the moment.

“There was some trouble between the Sanaca and the Khazarish,” he admitted at last, “but it is over now.  The peoples of the jungle are free again to live out their lives without the interference of those who do not belong.”

With that brief description of the adventures he had experienced, Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk dimissed his return to Amber’s only rival: the planet that endeavored with so little effect to end his intrepid career.

“The jungle does not change her ways, Amber my heart.”

There was a prolonged but strangely tranquil silence between them as each contemplated the loneliness that had attended the days of their separation.  Neither had failed to mark the special perfection of this exquisite interlude of shared peace.  Jer’ok leaned his head back against the smooth stone.  Such contentment had rarely been vouchsafed him.  He watched as the deepening darkness slowly revealed the bright infinity of stars above them.  Amber’s head rested lightly on his broad chest.  Her eyes were closed.  She had never felt so cherished as she did at this moment.

The thought had just passed through her mind when she felt him turn to look down at her.  Amber looked up into Jer’ok’s golden eyes.

“Can you teach me the ways of our home?” she whispered her thought aloud.

His heart lifted in joy.  Jer’ok pressed his mate closer.

“I can and I will.”  He must have somehow sensed her deeper thoughts, for he smiled at her before adding: “The first law of the jungle commands the male of each kind to protect his mate and to cherish her above all else.  Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk will surpass all the jungle-bred in his obedience of the first law.”

From deep in the jungle came the call of a tropical nightbird to his mate – haunting in its poignant hint of inexpressible aloneness.  But Lord Charwick, the Lord of Ashtar and of Chimur, heard naught but the soft words of his beautiful Lady Amber as she pledged her love to him for all time.

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