(Rune Pellucid; Battersea)
CHIEF INSPECTOR CHAUNCY Glynn Lorin was gruffer than ever. He was also preoccupied to the extent that he failed to notice that his men were carefully avoiding him this morning. One unfortunate had blundered into his office on a routine matter only to face an explosive tirade concerning some trivial detail overlooked in the morning routine. The word traveled fast. The chief inspector’s office was to be avoided at all costs, at least until the mid-morning interview was concluded.
Failure always rankled in the overly sensitive soul of the grizzled veteran of twenty years at Rune Pellucid. So, too, did informing a distraught parent that a missing child was likely never to be found. And dealing with the effete, anachronistic nobility was a rare duty usually deftly avoided. This morning the disgruntled Chauncy Glynn Lorin faced all three. In short, merely to state that the chief inspector regretted the necessity of his imminent interview with Sir Leede Southerly fails to do justice to the frame of mind that had brave men cowering away from the former’s office.
The fact that the baron had demonstrated the good sense to leave Lady Charwick at their remote country estate placated Inspector Lorin only slightly. Such a display of common sense, after all, hardly balanced Southerly’s reported attempt to interfere with the Rune Pellucid’s investigation of the case under Lorin’s direction. That this interference implied criticism of their abilities was perhaps the most immediate source of Chauncy Glynn’s ugly scowl. He was also deeply disturbed by the lack of any contact by anyone claiming responsibility or making demands on either the family or the court of the high king.
Thus, the chief inspector was unusually cold when Sir Leede was announced and ushered into his drab office. Lorin eyed the baron sourly. Courtesy was for the moment another victim of the inspector’s mood.
“You are Chief Inspector Lorin?” the baron demanded, deepening the official’s scowl.
“I am,” he announced shortly. After a moment Lorin took notice that some basic courtesy was in order. He indicated an uncomfortable chair too close to his desk for the occupant’s sense of well being. It was usually reserved for his infrequent interviews with suspects who declined to cooperate with his men.
Without a word, the intruder on Chauncy’s peace of mind moved the chair back as far as the confines of the office permitted and sat down. Still evaluating Lord Charwick’s appearance with trained expertise, Lorin reluctantly acknowledged a certain grudging respect for this Leede Southerly. Clearly he was not one to be easily baited. Moreover, his attitude was neither cowed nor arrogant. Nor did it show any signs of the anguish ordinarily attended the disappearance of a child.
A full minute passed while Lorin continued to study the baron with the same discerning eye that caused even the most hardened denizens of Meridum’s darker byways to squirm in the uncomfortable chair and glance about for routes of escape. Lord Charwick tolerated the scrutiny in silence. His strange golden eyes did not shift away from the chief inspector’s glare. Instead Chauncy Glynn Lorin found himself being examined with reserve equal to his own. There was no hint of discomfiture. Lorin found himself breaking the eye contact. He had never been in that position before. The atmosphere thawed a trifle.
“Would you care for tann or mentha?”
“Nothing, thank you.”
“As you will.” The chief inspector turned to the laser plate behind his comfortably worn chair and poured himself a cup of black tann. He indulged in several sips of the scalding brew as he composed his thoughts. The baron waited patiently.
“We have found nothing to lead us to your son.”
Inspector Lorin halted in sudden confusion. He was not in the habit of addressing the citizenry with so brutal an attack on their hopes. Hastily he sought to make amends even though the baron had not visibly reacted to the verbal blow.
“Sir Leede, forgive me. I am not often . . . . I seldom have had so little success in tracking a missing person, especially a child. Usually we find children very quickly, one way or another.” Lorin was aghast at his own lack of tact. “It has been extremely frustrating,” he ended lamely.
“Then the lack of evidence suggests some cause for hope that my son is still alive?”
“Yes, I suppose it does,” Lorin admitted, equally reluctant to raise false hope. He assessed the intruder again. The lack of reaction disturbed the veteran policeman. It would seem Leede Southerly was utterly uncaring. Lorin seldom misjudged those who came under his scrutiny. He cleared his throat authoritatively.
“Tell me, Sir Leede. I take it there still has been no contact?” At the confirming shake of the man’s head, Lorin turned onto another difficult avenue, “Was there any difficulty at home? Was Master Blane a problem in any way?”
Chief Inspector Lorin’s skin crawled under the impact of the cold gold-green stare that provocative question evoked. The vivid scar across the other’s forehead and disappearing into the dark hair fairly pulsed with whatever emotion was being suppressed.
The denial was final and invited no further enquiry. Certainly there was nothing in the growing file that suggested anything untoward within the close family circle. Lorin vaguely recalled, however, that Lord Charwick’s own past was cloaked in considerable mystery. Nevertheless, Rune Pellucid had never been afforded reason to penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding the man’s past. Lorin’s memory was phenomenal. The sparse files had revealed one incident not more than two years or so after Leede Southerly had assumed the title.
“Your son was kidnapped as an infant, was he not?”
“Is there any . . . ?”
“All those who were involved are dead. The perpetrator was a criminal of Krypta who was killed on Ashtar. Most of his henchmen died with him. The others have scattered.”
“Oh?” Lorin responded noncommittally as he considered this turn of events. Why and how had Ashtar, of all places, been involved?
“In any event, as it turned out, Blane was almost immediately returned. There was a plot . . . ” Whatever the “plot” had been, the baron did not elaborate. “My wife and I were reunited with our son only upon our return.”
“Return? You were away at the time of the kidnaping?” The chief inspector almost literally pounced on his victim. The calm response shed new light on the character of the man before him. But the baron’s next words forced Lorin to retreat from the path he had intended to pursue.
“Both my wife and I tried to reach our son. Each of us fell into the criminals’ hands, although we both thought the other safe. Eventually I was able to escape and come to her aid, but we were much delayed in making our way back to Chimur.
“Tell me, what actions have you taken to find our son?”
Still curious about the earlier circumstances, Lorin nevertheless described in detail every step of his investigation. He knew and Lord Charwick suspected that no new lead would be uncovered, but each man was driven in his own way by meticulous attention to every detail, every clue that might lead him to his goal.
“You see, there was nothing for us to go on. No one has seen your son since you and Lady Charwick escorted him to the train.” Lorin concluded his report. Then a curious coincidence came to mind.
“It is odd. You told us that Master Blane defied you and Lady Charwick in an attempt to communicate with that unfortunate hunterfolk male – Aran, I believe he was called. Have you seen the newspapers?” Lorin paused as the baron shook his head in denial. “Aran has freed himself and disappeared. The temporary keeper was found dead. I am not at liberty to divulge any details, but it is almost certainly murder.” Lorin shook his head, “or homicide. I should be more careful; it depends, of course, on just what or who is responsible.”
For the first time Lord Charwick reacted with something of the violence he had thus far been controlling. Leede Southerly rose to his feet and towered over Lorin.
“Well what, Sir Leede? It is no more than a peculiar coincidence. There is nothing to tie the two incidents.” The inspector shrugged and sipped at the tann.
“You mean to tell me that Rune Pellucid has lost both my son and a prohominid hunterfolk – in Meridum? Extraordinary!”
Only the size of the drab office kept the baron from pacing. Lorin was singular aware of the new tension between them. He wondered if he was actually in danger of physical attack. But the inspector would not allow his own professional facade of calm to slip.
“There is something even more extraordinary, Lord Charwick. The folk male is said to have responded strangely to the boy. In fact he seemed almost . . . friendly.” When the baron declined to comment, Lorin went on. “My colleagues who are investigating the matter tell me that a member of the Council of Lords made a number of visits to the creature and was arranging for his return to Ashtar.” The chief inspector paused for effect, but Lord Charwick merely raised one eyebrow in query. “He was not unlike the boy in appearance.”
Lord Charwick’s sober expression grew grim indeed. He ignored the obvious but unspoken query.
“There was no sign of my son?” The voice was quiet but deadly. For the first time Chief Inspector Lorin realised he was facing not the indifference to the boy’s fate he had initially suspected but a father’s rage against the Rune Pellucid – and himself – barely restrained. Lorin shook his head in frustrated denial.
“It is most unlikely Blane was in any way involved. The circumstances of the keeper’s death – the very night of your son’s disappearance – suggest that the boy could not have been involved. Only a large man or a beast could have damaged the body as it was. We of course have concluded that the hunterfolk went berserk – probably in grief.”
Lord Charwick was as near to violence as any man the chief inspector had ever seen. His control was admirable.
“You dare suggest my son . . . ”
“I suggest nothing, my lord, but I am obliged to follow every lead no matter how far-fetched it may seem. I know, for example, that Master Blane spent much time with Aran and his keeper on the day the beast escaped. I also know that you and Lady Charwick were on the way to your estate at Battersea when the man was killed.
“How many times have you killed, Lord Charwick?”
The baron made a visible effort to bring his rage under control. He turned away from the chief inspector but found the office still too small for pacing. As he considered what he had learned he ran his fingers through his hair in what Lorin recognised as a characteristic gesture of concentration.
“It was you, was it not, who killed those who had kidnapped your wife and son? Was it also you who was to have financed the beast’s – the hunterfolk’s – return to Ashtar?” Lorin waited, but Lord Charwick merely regarded him in stony silence. It would seem the usual ploys would have no effect with this man. Chauncy Glynn relented slightly, “I can sympathise with your need to take action, my lord, but here in Meridum I must insist that you allow the law to take its course.”
“The law!” Lord Charwick’s scorn was scathing. “When has your law ever succeeded in such a matter?” He turned on the chief inspector. “You have prevented me from tracking my son. You have failed to find him with all your sophisticated, civilised methods. What will you do now, Chief Inspector Lorin?”
“Nothing, my lord,” Lorin admitted with a shrug of sincere regret. “Unless there is some demand or some new information in either matter – and soon, we must consider the cases inactive. We cannot move where there is no lead, none.”
Lorin remained puzzled, if not suspicious over the odd lack of any clues. And he continued to wonder at the coincidence of events. He sighed and shook his head, and the enraged baron yielded enough to step back. “Rest assured, my lord, we will close neither case until it is eventually solved.” But Chauncy Glynn shuddered inwardly as he considered the vast number of unsolved crimes languishing in Rune Pellucid files.
“Then you have no objection if I pursue this matter on my own?”
The chief inspector said nothing. He considered how best to handle this enraged father who somehow was maintaining a tight hold on a dangerous temper. Lorin was maintaining his own calm with difficulty.
“You are of course free to investigate – within certain limits. I cannot object so long as you do not violate the law.”
Lord Charwick nodded grimly as he turned to depart.
“One moment, my lord.”
The baron halted but did not turn back to meet Lorin’s regard.
“I am certain you are a most capable man. However, if you violate any law, I will personally see that you are fully prosecuted. There is nothing more dangerous to society than the amateur who plays at being a policeman. If you find something, come to us for assistance. Do not take the law into your own hands.”
There was no response. As soon as the chief inspector concluded his remarks, Lord Charwick left the room. From his cleared window Chauncy Glynn Lorin watched him stalk out of the building. He was tempted to assign a man to follow him but decided against it. It would serve no purpose.
WHEN LEEDE SOUTHERLY returned from Meridum, he could only tell Amber that there was no further news. It was as if Chimur had opened to swallow up their son without leaving a trace. With a forlorn effort to accept her husband’s lack of success philosophically, Amber smiled pensively and commented that at least they might still continue to hope.
They looked at each other, both thinking that so long as there was no indication that Blane was dead the hope of finding him would live on as well. Amber Southerly was grateful for the knowledge that Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk would never give up that hope. Perhaps his faith would be sufficient to sustain them both. She sometimes found it difficult to reflect her husband’s abiding faith even though it had shielded him in circumstances so deadly that none other than he would have survived.
GUY LOCKE ENDURED the cold silence that marked Lee’s return from Meridum. Lee’s face told him immediately of his lack of success. After a dinner which was largely ignored, Lady Amber apologised for her distraction and retired to her boudoir. Lee invited Guy to join him in the library.
The clock ticked away the hours as Leede Southerly remained deep in conversation with his closest friend. Guy knew Lee was faced with a major decision that would profoundly affect at least his own life and Amber’s. Locke was startled when presently he perceived that for once Lee found himself unable to act without first seeking the counsel of a trusted friend. Though he was hiding it well, Leede Southerly chafed at his own uncharacteristic indecision. Guy pondered the situation from the perspective of their unusual friendship.
As Chauncy Glynn Lorin had just this day discovered, Guy Locke had long known everything about Lee was unusual. Fortunately, the passing years of association with civilised peoples were sufficient to allow the beast-man to come to grips with his dual nature. Now he seemed at home in both his worlds. Guy was convinced Lee would be able to combine the uncanny abilities of Jer’ok with the knowledge and experience of Leede Southerly. His present conviction and the decision it demanded were an indication of his unique nature.
The conversation between the two friends dwindled as the Tuathan exhausted his account of the fruitless discussions at Rune Pellucid and the events which had followed. Presently, Lee turned to look intently at Locke. He repeated the conviction, which refused to be set aside.
“I cannot seem to shake my belief that Blane is on Ashtar. How he could have managed it – and why he has not contacted his mother or me – is beyond comprehension, but I am convinced that he and Aran somehow are making their way to Aran’s territory.”
Locke returned the solemn gaze but ventured no comment. He was willing to listen to any theory, no matter how incredible, posed by the man he had first known as Jer’ok of the Aranda. Like those of the creatures of the Ashtarian forest, the beast-man’s intuitive powers were not to be taken lightly.
Southerly rose from his chair and paced the spacious library like a captive panther. He continued, encouraged by Locke’s failure to challenge his theory: “You know I finally had to tell Blane of the existence of Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk. I have wanted to reveal my background to him for years, but Amber felt it best to remain silent. The episode with Aran and his mate forced my hand.
“Within a matter of days the keeper is dead and Blane and Aran have both disappeared. How can that be dismissed as mere coincidence? But how is it that a boy and a hunterfolk buck can elude both the authorities and Jer’ok of the Aranda – in Tuatha of all places?
Never before had Guy seen Lee so openly exasperated. Were the matter not so deadly serious, Locke might have found it amusing.
It was a measure of Lee’s unwonted confusion that he could not long remain on a single topic as he paced to release the unrelenting nervous energy. Guy was relieved to see that the scar had at long last faded into the copper of Lee’s face. A dangerous explosion had somehow been averted. The initial tragedy of Blane’s loss would only have been compounded had the superficial facade of civilisation restraining Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk been stripped away under the strain.
“Amber accepted my decision in good grace, but now I am uncertain. Guy, did I do the right thing?” Before Locke could respond to the question, Southerly went on. “I fear the story of my youth among the Aranda was all the boy needed. You know, he has felt an echo of that which in the past nearly destroyed me. Were it not for our experience when he was an infant I fear I would still be torn by the irresistible desire to return to that life. Even now I occasionally . . . ”
Lee stopped again. His pacing ceased as he stared out into the darkness beyond the library windows. Presently he looked at Locke as he ran his hand through the thick dark hair in a gesture Guy knew very well.
“Guy, I know the boy could not have inherited a knowledge – or memory, if you will – of my experiences, but he has inherited much of my character and would have – will – ,” there was a strong emphasis on the correction. “He will inherit my strength.”
“You believe Blane and – Aran – have somehow managed to get passage to Ashtar,” Guy interrupted for the first time.
“Yes, I do.
“I examined the records of every ship that showed a destination within shuttle distance of Ashtar. There was of course no record of a single passenger who fit Blane’s description. There was one, though.” Guy heard the subtle change in Lee’s voice. “There was a youth traveling with a companion either crippled or ill. Their passage was open-ended. I have spoken with the captain and officers by communicator. The companion boarded in an airlitter and remained in their cabin throughout the course of the voyage. His face was never seen. The captain does not recall where they disembarked, but they were not on board when he made his first port of call beyond Ashtar.
“Yes, I believe Blane has gone home with Aran. And I believe he has met with some manner of difficulty that has prevented him from contacting his mother or me.”
There followed another painful interval of silence. Guy Locke’s heart ached for his friends. Lee had suffered much in his search for his identity. Each time happiness touched him, it had been swept away by the machinations of the Stars and the evils of the corrupt representatives of the civilised worlds he endeavoured to accept – or at least to understand when acceptance proved entirely impossible. Lee interrupted Guy’s line of thought as it was turning to Amber.
“Blane is spirited – as I suspect I would have been had I grown up as he has among the Tuathans.”
Guy noted the slip that reflected the alienation that was usually skillfully concealed. That it went unnoticed by the speaker was one more indication of his state of mind.
“I admit my son has an independent spirit, but he is neither thoughtless nor unkind. He is on Ashtar. Something, however, has prevented him from contacting us. That worries me more than I care to say.
“This blow has crushed Amber. If Blane is . . . ” Having yet again jumped to a new area of anxious concern, Leede poised on the edge of the unthinkable as Amber had earlier, but for once the beast-man withdrew, another sign of his unwonted agitation. “If he is lost to us by whatever trick of the Stars, I fear it will be more than she can bear.
“How can I add to her burden?”
Guy knew that Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk had grown to manhood without ever asking another for help. True, Char and Lael, his Aranda foster parents, had preserved him from death many times, but never had their fosterling known the need to seek out help. With the strength all but matching his fellow bucks and the human cunning rendering any physical lack all but meaningless, Jer’ok had lived independently in the jungle even before Lael was slain. It had never occurred to him to ask another for help. Indeed, once Char and Lael were gone, there had been none who would have come to his aid. Few of the folk indulge in cooperative efforts for the benefit of one of their number. Once again his agitation was evident to the beast-man’s closest friend, who knew better than to reach out to him. The pride remained undiminished.
“You want to got to Ashtar in an attempt to pick up his trail.”
Lord Charwick’s pacing had resumed, “Yes.”
“You know full well that your chances of success are virtually non-existent.”
The pacing continued for a long time before Locke spoke again, “My friend, you cannot leave her here. For Amber to lose both of you even for a matter of only a few weeks or months will be too much for her to bear.”
The relentless pacing was dreadful. Guy could bear it only because he knew it served to ease the mental anguish where physical action was denied. Lee had greater need of friendship now than ever he had in the past.
“She must be obsessed with the events that followed Blane’s kidnapping.”
“Then there is only one choice, Lee. You must go to Ashtar, but you must take Amber with you.”
“Guy, I do not know if I have the courage.”
It did not surprise Locke that Lee obviously had already reached the conclusion that he must not leave Amber on Chimur, but the extraordinary admission shook him. For a moment the Diyalan failed to notice that the pacing had ceased. Locke’s reaction must have been revealed by something in his expression, because Lee was looking at him in startled dismay. Lee shook his head with an expression Guy could not read before the distraught beast-man finally sat down in a chair that hid his face from the Diyalan. Lee actually had to bring his roiling emotions under control before he could speak. And then Locke could barely hear him over the muted sounds of the library.
“I, too, am obsessed with the events of our past. After the Kryptanes died . . . . It was the only time in my life when I was grateful to depart my home world. It was years before I went back.
“If I go to Ashtar in search of my son, I fully expect to encounter all the usual dangers. Only Providence knows what additional hazards will stand in my way. Whether I succeed or not, it may well be that Jer’ok will be forced to face death.
“You know I would willingly die in the quest. I do not fear it, nor do I seek it. If it comes . . ”
Lee shrugged his shoulders. It was not bravado but merely recognition of his own mortality. Sooner or later Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk would inevitably meet the adversary who would be victorious against him. While, like the creatures whose mental processes were akin to Jer’ok’s, the beast-man would not openly court Death, neither would he avoid the ultimate confrontation which would deliver him to the Grim Reaper. To die in the attempt to succour his son was an end worthy of the Lord of Two Worlds.
“But to expose Amber to such danger. It is unthinkable. She is my lady-wife. She is the mate of Jer’ok-ta. There is no greater duty than Jer’ok’s charge to protect his mate. It is not right that Amber be exposed to death at my side. If she is with me, how can I search for my son while I protect my mate?”
Locke knew that Lee’s instincts were only remotely those of his civilised brothers. One does not erase the nurture of nearly two decades in a few short years of exposure to an utterly foreign moral code. Lee still reacted to threat as does the savage beast. Only his innate sense of honour, inherited from his true parents, tempered his behaviour so he could live among humankind. Only when the threat was to wife or child did that thin veneer of civilisation strip away to reveal the Aranda buck forever lurking behind the noble facade of Leede Southerly. Guy was amazed that Lee had so long remained in control since Blane’s disappearance.
It did not take long for these thoughts to flash through Locke’s quick mind. Lee’s question was not rhetorical. Guy’s friendship for both Leede and Amber Southerly demanded the answer sought with such uncharacteristic urgency.
“But, Lee, Blane is Amber’s son, too. She will be prepared to die for him, just as you are. Would Lael not have died for you?”
Jer’ok nodded. Although Guy could not see it, the beast-man’s grief was etched deep in the handsome features.
“Don’t you see, Guy? That is just it. If either of them or, God forbid, both of them should die, my life will have been wholly in vain.”
There was no answer to such a statement. If it sounded extravagant to Locke, he nevertheless knew it was a simple statement of truth. This was not a man given to high-sounding utterances, their pomposity matched only by their insincerity.
“Blane may be dead. He may be lost in the jungles of Ashtar, which in itself suggests he will soon die. How can I now expose Amber to the dangers of a manhunt with so little hope of success? She has come to love my home world. Her old fear is nearly forgotten. Now we would tempt the Stars by embarking together on such a quest.”
“You must explain to her, Lee. She has a right to know what it is that is tearing you apart. More importantly, my friend, she has the right to make the decision herself. You cannot make it for her.
“Can you truly believe that she is less committed to finding Blane because she is a woman – or because she is not of the beasts? Lee, her needs and motivations are every bit as strong as yours. You are too quick to dismiss as inadequate the integrity of humankind.”
No other except perhaps Amber would have dared to speak so to Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk. The words were offensive, but the tone was kind. The honesty that is a mark of true friendship lay behind both. But there was no reply.
Guy Locke knew the virtue of silence in the presence of the beast-man. He sadly watched as his friend, still as a statue carved of the hardest marble, sat staring into the dying fire.
V. Chimur (Battersea);
Ashtar (Sanaca Lands; Unspecified Coastal Settlement)
IT WAS LATE before Leede Southerly finally composed his thoughts and retired. Perhaps sleep would clear his mind that he might face his wife on the morrow without betraying to her his inner turmoil. Amber had waited for him in the cheerful boudoir, but sleep had finally overcome her as the chill of the early Tuathan morning crept into the room. The Arene woman was curled up in a light blanket before the fire, which had burned down to rosy embers. Southerly closed the door softly behind him as his gaze fell upon those fair features and lingered there. In the privacy of this haven, his usually impassive countenance relaxed to reveal something of his profound feeling for this woman, his first and only love.
Silently Leede crossed to Amber and tenderly kissed her brow. Then he lifted her in strong arms and, without waking her, carried her into the room beyond as if she weighed no more than a ta’el.
But Leede was unable to sleep. Throughout what remained of the night he held Amber’s sleeping form close. In this place and at least for this moment, Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk could protect his mate from the cruelty of their enemies, human or otherwise. But for once their closeness brought no respite to the beast-man.
Amber slept peacefully in the security of Jer’ok’s arms until the bright midmorning sunlight filled the room. The cheerful light fell across the woman’s face. Her eyes opened reluctantly and focused on her husband’s. At first she murmured a sleepy endearment and would have gone back to her slumber, but he playfully ruffled her hair.
“Would you sleep away the whole day, by dear? Come, let us ride together before we join Guy at breakfast.”
Leede Southerly’s studied effort to lighten the gloom which had descended upon them by a return to the easy informality of more contented times met with a certain success. Heartened by his teasing tone Amber lifted her head and smiled. It was not the dazzling smile that never failed to cause his heart to beat faster, but it nevertheless cheered him. Perhaps soon the former gaiety of his lady-wife might be restored.
AFTER AN INVIGORATING gallop through the crisp morning air, the couple slowed their mounts to a leisurely walk. Leede and Amber both rode in silence, each lost in thought. Presently Leede Southerly turned his stallion off the main path. Amber followed without taking notice of their surroundings. When they reached the meadow where years before Amber had told her husband that she bore their first child, Southerly dismounted and lifted his wife to the ground. He smiled at her without speaking, but she burst into tears when she tried unsuccessfully to smile in return. The beast-man took his mate into his arms and led her to a place by the lake where sturdy Tuathan eldfells surrounded a pleasant glade.
“You have been so strong, my Amber. We are completely alone now. Do not try to hold back, my dear, it is time you released those tears.”
Holding her close, he supported her gried as best he could. In a very real sense the woman’s tears were as profound a release for the man as for her. The duration of her racking sobs was a measure of the depth of their shared emotion. Amber was close to hysteria. Her husband willingly lent her his special strength. Only his eyes, hidden from her view, revealed the depth of his own bereavement.
When at last Amber grew calmer, Leede led her to the edge of the lake, where he gently bathed her streaked face.
“I fear you will have a headache, my dear.” She shook her head without a word. “Do you feel better?”
This time she nodded. Amber did not speak, but she did manage a smile and claimed her husband’s hand in hers. By mutual assent they sat down in the grass at the water’s edge.
Although the mood had subtly lightened, for a long time Amber stared dully at the sparkling blue water. The only sound was the buzz of an occasional insect and the cheerful calls of Tuathan songbirds. Absently Amber reached out to trace a line through the water. Suddenly Leede interrupted her reverie, “Why don’t we swim?”
She looked at him in surprise, “Don’t be absurd: This is rural Battersea, not Ashtar’s remote jungle.” But Amber was not really as shocked as she pretended. Her husband saw the start of an impish twinkle in her eye. It served to encourage him.
“Don’t be so infernally civilised, my dear,” he retorted in perfect imitation of the clipped accents of their Meridum friends. “It is, after all, our land and wholly private. Who is to know if Lord and Lady Charwick care to dally in their own lake in the privacy of their remote country estate?
“I am going to swim. It is unseasonably warm and my clothes itch abominably. I will leave it to you to explain to any chance passerby why Lady Charwick sits wrapped from head to toe in proper riding attire while a naked savage invades the sanctity of her land.”
And he scanned the surrounding trees for the hypothetical trespasser with exaggerated care. With that fraudulent deference to convention, Leede began to divest himself of the abominable clothing with such outrageous a pantomime of relieved glee that Amber found herself laughing aloud.
“I’ll not be the one who must explain to the neighbors,” she assured him as she rose and stripped even more quickly than he. “They’ll have to catch me before they can demand an explanation!” And with a happy giggle that could not quite be dignified as laughter, Lady Charwick dove gracefully into the inviting water. She surfaced with a gasp.
“It is cold! I forgot this is truly not our retreat on Ashtar,” she laughed and added wickedly: “I doubt that Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk can long tolerate so uncomfortable a swim. He is accustomed to a lazy romp in the sultry arms of Nea.”
Jer’ok paused only briefly at the edge of the lake, “Ah, would Amber taunt her mate by casting aspersions on his courage? We shall see who it is who is driven from Nea’s cold embrace.”
Although Amber had already turned to flee, his long dive and powerful strokes brought Jer’ok to her before she had gained more than a few metres. When he reached her side, he shortened his strokes to match hers. The steady exercise in so peaceful a setting was intoxicating. For this brief interlude the grieving parents were able momentarily to put aside the heartache they shared.
Before reclaiming their clothes, with which they must resume the grim responsibilities facing them, the two dropped to the fragrant grass to let the warmth of the sun dry them. But for the cheerful calls of the drab lennets and the occasional raucous outbursts of a distant verla, Jer’ok and Amber might have been sharing an indolent afternoon in the exotic land of his birth. The time drifted by. Pollux, though he paled as spring reasserted her diminishing authority, was not once obscured by the smallest of clouds.
Amber looked at her husband. His eyes were closed, and his breathing scarcely stirred the mighty chest. He seemed utterly relaxed. The woman almost envied his innate ability to restore an inner calm in the face of calamity. It enhanced rather than diminished the steely strength unique to the beast-man. For the first time Amber noticed that the scar which marred the aristocratic brow of Leede Southerly of late, had faded to be lost in the tawny copper of his skin that alone was sufficient to set him apart from his countrymen. Her abiding love for him brought a sudden ache in her heart. In truth, Amber’s greatest fear was losing him. It was near-impossible to refrain from strangling their love by trying to bind him even closer. With a major effort of will Amber diverted her thoughts away from her loved ones.
Without stirring, Jer’ok watched as Amber sat up and shook her head to untangle her wet hair. The sun was not too pale to cast a golden glint to the fair locks as they stirred with the gentle breeze. She commenced to hum a pleasant tune currently popular in Meridum. Yet again Jer’ok marveled as he had countless times before. How beautiful Amber was. How grateful he was for the quirk of the Stars that had contrived the encounter of an Armerian from Ares and an exiled Chimurian lord countless kilometres from the home world of either.
Deliberately the beast-man turned his thoughts back to his conversation with Guy Locke of the previous night. There could be no better time than the present. In a moment reality would intrude on Amber’s restored gaiety and destroy it. Jer’ok quietly interrupted her song.
“Amber, our son is alive.”
He could not see the hope suddenly light her eyes. Jer’ok waited. There was a moment of hesitation before she turned to examine his face as he continued.
“I believe Blane is alive and somehow has managed to secure passage to Ashtar.”
“How can you be so sure?” Amber’s breathless voice revealed the extent of her emotion where the simple question did not.
Choosing his words with care, Leede Southerly did not look at his lady-wife as he described in detail his interview with Chief Inspector Lorin. As he spoke, Southerly observed nothing of his surroundings. He saw only his young son alone and nearly defenceless in the primaeval forest where he himself had survived only because Jer’ok had been raised a beast among beasts. Closing his eyes to erase the imagined horror, Southerly calmly described his efforts to find Blane on his own. When he concluded the lengthy narrative with his suspicion that the boy and the invalid who had booked passage aboard the undistinguished ship bound for Ashtar and beyond were in fact Blane and Aran, Amber gasped in pleased surprise. Only then did Jer’ok turn his gaze upon her.
“But it is more than the successful result of my investigation, Amber. Call it instinct – whatever you will. I know our son is alive and on Ashtar.”
Amber was too excited to notice her husband’s sad expression. She accepted without question the veracity of his intuition.
“What will you do?”
“I must follow wherever Blane’s trail may lead – until I find him.”
Amber’s heart turned cold. Her gay mood evaporated as quickly as it had emerged. In order to avoid her husband’s steady observation, she rose and proceeded to dress with studied calm. When she could no longer bear the cold silence between them, she asked in a steady voice, “How long will you be gone?” She barely avoided adding a bleak, “this time.”
Even a man far less sensitive than Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk could not have failed to detect the despair beneath the seemingly casual question. He did not answer immediately but looked out across the tranquil water to the forest beyond. He had put off the fateful decision as long as humanly possible. This was a moment of truth few men have come to face. Characteristically, once the decision was made, however, the beast-man would not stint on his commitment to it.
“I had hoped you might be willing to join me. It will be dangerous, Amber; I cannot lie to you. We may fail utterly. The authorities hold out no hope. But at least we would face together whatever the Stars have in store.”
Amber’s heart raced with hope reborn. Unlike other women, she did not ask if he meant what he said. Jer’ok had never learned the fine art of manipulating those he loved. Yet she hesitated. It was not fear for herself which gave her pause. She had long since fathomed the singular protectiveness with which her mate instinctively surrounded her. Amber’s own sensitivity told her his sheltering would not relax for a moment. Some part of his instinct for self-preservation and of his devotion to the search for Blane would suffer for the beast-man’s preoccupation with the safety of his mate. She knew Jer’ok would have weighed all the consequences before speaking to her. It was an extraordinary sacrifice but a willing one. Amber owed him an equally thoughtful response.
“The authorities have no knowledge of the abilities possessed by Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk,” she mused aloud. “There is always hope for the success of his endeavours. It is right that we search for our son together, my Jer’ok. It is right that my fate be joined with yours, whatever may befall.”
UPON THEIR ASHTARIAN landfall, Amber returned to the Charwick plantation in the Sanaca lands to enjoy the protection of Chief Darad while Jer’ok and Guy Locke proceeded to the coastal settlement where the ship’s shuttle had first landed. Jer’ok promised his mate she would join him as soon as he picked up the trail that would lead them to their son.
The tiny shuttle that was the sole clue to Blane’s whereabouts had landed at a number of ports along the coast of Ashtar’s largest continent. But the searchers were rewarded with the most extraordinary good fortune. The boy and his invalid companion had disembarked at the first to which they proceeded.
Graciously accepting a bottle and three grimy glasses Leede Southerly engaged in a long conversation across the small table with the proprietor of the dismal settlement’s disreputable inn. Guy Locke listened but did not join in the conversation. He was glad he had elected to accompany Lee in civilian attire. No one, least of all their reprehensible host, would have willingly discussed the whereabouts of a pair of missing Tuathan subjects in the presence of a highly placed officer of any command. The casual attitude combined with unmistakable signs of wealth of the two gentlemen who searched for the young fugitive and his mysterious companion had loosened more than one tongue before they turned to this outcast.
Locke casually observed Lee’s profile as the unbearably hot afternoon wore on. How well the seething emotions were concealed beneath the placid countenance. The Diyalan was fully aware of the violence of which the Lord of Ashtar is capable. He knew his presence aided his friend’s taut control, but he could not help but wonder what effect he might have, should Leede’s grasp on civilisation yield at last to the strain, now prolonged over a matter of weeks. Strong as he was, Locke was no match for Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk even under normal circumstances. Should the beast-man be provoked to a killing rage – the Diyalan shrugged the mental picture aside. He could do naught but hope and try his best if the worst should befall. None of the three noticed that the proprietor was the only one among them who imbibed of the fiery liquor. It served to loosen the man’s tongue.
In the space of that one afternoon Jer’ok learned all he needed to know. Escaping the foetid interior of the inn as rapidly as minimal decorum permitted, he went directly to the back of the building. He looked up to the filthy windows staring blankly out onto the green of the jungle. His only comment was in reference to the cleanliness of the jungle as he scratched ruefully at a spot on one shoulder. The beast-man had always been fastidious about such matters.
The two moved directly to a lone tree that stood near the central windows. Feeling quite useless, Guy watched as Lee made his rapid inspection of the scene. In a matter of seconds the beast-man knew more than Rune Pellucid would have gleaned as the result of many tedious hours spent poking about the scene and among the wonders of modern science in the forensic laboratory. Presently Lee concluded his observations and looked longingly into the jungle. His head came high as he inhaled deeply the messages whose existence Locke could merely surmise. The Diyalan watched and waited, uncertain of the beast-man’s next move. Instead of moving off in the direction of the jungle, Lee returned to Guy’s side.
“There is no doubt,” he announced without a hint of the feeling that must have filled the father’s heart. “Blane and Aran departed this – place – by the window in their room.” He indicated the location. “But it has been too long. Their spoor has been obliterated.” Lee placed one hand on Guy’s shoulder as they slowly made their way back to their meagre, but refreshingly tidy camp, well upwind of the port. Had it been any other than Jer’ok, Guy would have suspected it was more need for support than companionship that prompted the unusual familiarity. “I will return for Amber in the morning. Then we shall see if the son of Jer’ok has made a life for himself on the planet of his father.”
JER’OK AND LOCKE ate a light meal before retiring. They took the time to consider what part the Diyalan might play in the unfolding drama. Both accepted the irrefutable fact that Locke would be of no use on the hunt. But both also knew of the dangers that would attend every moment in the jungle, especially if the beast-man and his mate moved into the still-unknown interior. Here Locke would be of no little assistance, and Jer’ok gratefully accepted his offer.
“So long as Amber and I remain in proximity to the tribes who know of me from past encounters, I will remain in communication by messenger. But if we must travel into territory where Jer’ok is unknown, it may become difficult to secure a reliable native willing to enter the local villages, much less approach Chimurian officials.”
As he considered the alternatives the commander had suggested, Lee sipped the strong black mentha Guy had brewed.
“Suppose we do this: If you hear nothing of us for four months, bring a safari of the Sanaca to our last known location. If anyone can track us through the jungle, Darad can.
“Guy, be sure to keep all our letters. Whenever it seems . . . prudent, I will provide a rough map and indicate our intended direction.” He stopped. There was only one reason Jer’ok would be willing to so subject himself to the restricting protection of another. Even now the beast-man was obviously chafing at the need to rely upon the help of others, even a trusted friend.
“You need not be concerned, my friend,” Guy assured the other. “I will take no steps to interfere with your hunt. There will be no troops tramping through the trails and getting in your way. No one else will know where you are. But if something should happen to you, nothing will stand in my way. You have my solemn promise Amber will be found and brought safely home. I will see she has every protection we can provide. You have my word, Lee.”
Locke chose this moment to advise Lee of his most recent assignment on behalf of the Rune Silentio, a matter of disappearances, human and others, occurring in a remote inland region. Thus far, there was no evidence beyond vague suspicions raised by data collected via satellite telemetry. Jer’ok heard him out and accepted the situation with a slight nod. He had suspected the situation upon his discovery of Aran. There were no need for promises. He would be more watchful for Guy’s warning. If there was something he could do, it would be done. The two men did not speak further of either matter.
Before they retired, Jer’ok made one last observation, “You must use your own judgement in the matter of dispatching an armed contingent from Chimur. I know you will not forget the courage and loyalty of the Sanaca.”
Guy Locke slept surprisingly well through the tropical night. When he awoke at first dawn, Jer’ok had already left the camp to rejoin his mate.
(Jungle Location, Classified)
THE LONG SHADOWS preceding first twilight fell across the edges of the open clearing, deceptive in its apparent serenity. Amber, pressing close to the ground to allow the grasses to conceal her form, was intent on a small herd of antelope. Mael, the wind, was momentarily still, permitting the mate of Jer’ok to approach without prematurely revealing the dangerous presence of a San-k’aranda huntress.
Even in the company of Jer’ok, Amber Southerly had seldom ventured far into the dense jungle surrounding the grounds of the Charwick plantation. Yet, through her years as the mate of the Lord of Ashtar she had come to learn much of the ways of his primaeval existence. This Amber would have viewed with exasperated pity the terrified girl who once had trembled in fear when Harr, the giant lion, called to his mate or when Pardu, the leopard, rustled in the thick vegetation without the stealth marking his search for prey. This Amber knew when Harr merely called and when he growled in hunger or warning. This Amber was aware that a noisy Pardu is as harmless as any wild beast – that is, harmless for this instant in time. She also knew well how swiftly the mood of any of the predator beasts might alter, to the peril of the unwary.
Armed with a reed rope and with spear and knife scaled for her diminutive stature, the mate of Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk was nearly the wild creature of the forest that is he. The beast-man would not have permitted even Amber to join in the hunt for food were it not so. There is no place for sentimentality in such endeavours. Survival is only for the fit, and food means survival.
At her mate’s low call in perfect imitation of some inquisitive k’aranda, Amber suddenly arose from her place of concealment and rushed among the antelope to drive the quarry within range of Jer’ok’s bow. Her mouth watered at the thought of the succulent meat soon to be roasting over her fire. Though she was unable to enjoy the raw flesh Jer’ok preferred, Amber Southerly did not miss in the slightest the elaborate banquets of her recent past. How could they compare with the unspoiled savour of fresh meat secured by dint of one’s own skills and prowess?
As the lithe huntress ran gracefully among the startled creatures, the archer stood ready with bow-string stretched taut to loose the unerring missile. It was as though Apollo and Diana of Terra’s dim distant history had deigned to appear briefly to grace a world which never before had been so fortunate as to know them.
There was a rapid succession of small sounds signaling the release of the arrow, its flight, and the fatal impact. The huntress came to a halt, her spear held ready to dispatch the stricken prey. But she knew there was no need. With a merry laugh she saluted the successful archer with her spear as he neared. With an answering smile he returned her salute. Then he stooped to take up the carcass on one coppery shoulder. Without need for spoken communication, the two turned back toward the forest. As they melted into the jungle the stalwart archer drew the delicate huntress to him, his free arm resting lightly across her shoulders.
JER’OK PLACED THE last soft fronds within the small shelter he had constructed for his mate. High above the stream where the tall trees grew close to the grassy banks, the interlacing branches would protect Amber from all but a few enemies. Her weapons would serve where the shelter did not. Satisfied with his handiwork, the beast-man dropped lightly to the ground where Amber waited, having already extinguished the small cooking fire and strewn the tell-tale debris of her culinary efforts. After pausing briefly to cast an approving eye upon her handiwork, Jer’ok found a place on the bank beside his mate. There he joined in her silent contemplation. The stream they had followed westward out of the Sanaca lands flowed with the comfortable tranquillity possessed by such waters everywhere. Although perpetually on the alert, the beast-man allowed himself to relax slightly. This was not the preferred watering place among the beasts of this region. Jer’ok knew he and his mate were alone except for the occasional timid creature who came to drink, undisturbed by the two who were taking their ease nearby.
“I will be gone no more than three days, my dear,” Jer’ok said at last. “It is not wise for you to accompany me into the villages. It would be better if Jer’ok is believed to be alone in the event we should encounter an unexpected human enemy. You know what to do.”
Proud that the last was statement rather than query, Amber nodded and smiled. “You need have no concern for me. There could be no better place for me to await your return.”
The beast-man did not return her confident smile but moved closer to reach out and lightly trace the line of her cheekbone with one finger before observing, “Amber is indeed a fit mate for Jer’ok of the Aranda. Only do not become incautious, my dear. Ashtar has a way of punishing those who are too proud.” He knew there was little need to emphasize this truth for Amber’s sake. She would not betray his confidence in her.
“All you will need is close by. You will not travel far from this place?”
“There will be no need,” she agreed. “Please do not fear for me, Jer’ok; I will be careful, and it is not as if I were defenceless.” She glanced up to the shelter in which her spear and tough rope had already been placed. “You must be free to concentrate on the search.”
Impulsively, the woman clasped the man’s hand in hers. In the dim light of Solea he could see her eyes were bright with tears she steadfastly refused to shed.
“Every moment without you will seem without end,” she whispered softly.
The man took her in his arms and held her close, but he offered her no words of false hope. Nor did she have need for such reassurance. Amber trusted Jer’ok’s uncanny abilities without reservation. If their son could be found, Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk would find him. Wherever the beast-man should fail, no other would have succeeded. No further conversation passed between them. There was no need. Jer’ok and Amber each rested secure in the night’s serenity and in the unspoken assurance of the other’s abiding love. Before the great carnivora might stray to this isolated watering place, Jer’ok had taken his mate into his arms and lifted her into the leafy bower he had prepared for her use during his absence.
Though Amber awoke before second dawn, Jer’ok had already left for the village. She bravely smiled with indomitable hope as she leaned against the support of a thick branch and dreamily watched as one and then another small antelope approached to drink before returning to their daytime habits. Obviously mates, the male nuzzled the female with affection and a dripping muzzle before the two disappeared into the thicket, their shoulders brushing. As Pol rose to burn off the lingering mist of morning Amber idly stroked the star sapphire she always wore. It was impossible to interpret the new smile touching one corner of her mouth as she gazed unseeing into the jungle beyond her leafy retreat.
JER’OK OF THE Hunterfolk entered the boma and was conducted promptly to Chief M’wambaso, who received him cordially. The Lord of Ashtar was well known and respected, even among the tribes at this distance from his home territory within the lands of the Sanaca.
In his turn, Jer’ok saluted the chief. This particular tribe was known among the Sanaca for walking the paths of honour. They lived in peace with their fellows and hunted only to live. More, they remained aloof from the nefarious deeds of the offworld and Camassian adventurers who invaded Ashtar’s vast junglelands, there to perpetrate their uniquely destructive ways. This tribe had no cause to hold Jer’ok in fear or hatred. In fact, their chief welcomed his unexpected guest with an impromptu feast for which the beast-man in truth had no appetite, but of which he nevertheless partook with apparent relish. The demands of courtesy and of polite society must be scrupulously observed among all peoples, especially when one would seek a private boon.
When the ceremonial repast was complete and the diplomatic preliminaries accomplished, the chief at last enquired of Jer’ok, by the indirect paths so dear to the hearts of local officialdom wherever in the galaxy it may be located, his reasons for coming to him. Jer’ok patiently observed the requisite social niceties before answering.
“I seek a boy, one who is about to enter manhood. He is of my world and may be accompanied by a large hunterfolk, an old male. Has Chief M’wambaso seen such a child or heard rumours of him?”
There was a long silence as the chief pondered the odd circumstances that might have led the Lord of Two Worlds to engage in a search so singular. Presently he cleared his throat and shook his head in denial.
“I have not. But you are welcome to seek word of this child among my people. Perhaps one of my warriors or a hunter has seen him in the jungle. You may wish to ask our healer. He has strong powers. He may know of the one you seek.”
Jer’ok nodded in acceptance of the chief’s courtesy, “I am grateful.”
“Is this child important to Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk?” asked the chief with studied indifference.
Again the beast-man nodded, “He is important to me.” But his voice revealed nothing more to the other.
The chief sighed in disappointment, but he knew better than to antagonise his eccentric guest. Jer’ok was said by some to be of an uncertain temper. Others attributed supernatural powers to him. In the past the chief had scoffed, but that was before he personally had been in the presence of the Lord of Ashtar. Chief M’wambaso was not one to take unnecessary chances with one who might indeed be the daemon Jer’ok’s chastened enemies considered him.
“We will rest now. With the coming of the new day you may speak at will to my people.” The chief hesitated for he disliked the need to disappoint his guest. “I fear you will fail, Jer’ok; surely my people would have brought the word of such a boy had they seen him.” The crafty chief eyed his guest with interest, “It must be as though the child who was once Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk has returned.”
THE CHIEF HAD been right. None of his people had any knowledge of Jer’ok’s son. Even the tribal holy man knew nothing of Blane and Aran. This one generously offered to employ a variety of methods for divining the location of the odd companions, but Jer’ok politely declined.
Disappointed, Jer’ok prepared to depart the village. Claiming the urgency of his hunt, he refused the offer of sharing another meal with the hospitable chief and his wives. First twilight was already cooling the darkening forest when Jer’ok passed through the boma.
The beast-man knew immediately that someone followed. He delayed entry into the passageways of the swaying middle terrace in order to ascertain the motives of the sly pursuer. Thus, they were not far beyond earshot of the village when the beast-man heard the other call his name. Hand on the responsive hilt of his crystal knife, Jer’ok waited to allow the pursuer to come close enough to speak in conversational tones.
“You are not of M’wambaso’s tribe,” Jer’ok observed when the man stood within a metre or so of him. “Have you reason to fear being seen speaking with Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk?”
“You are wise, Lord Jer’ok. I have dwelled among M’wambaso’s people only since early in Shadow Return. That is why I have said nothing.”
The beast-man was thoroughly familiar with the native thought processes. He waited in silence. It would only defeat his purpose to influence in the slightest whatever the man might have to say. He offered no encouragement. And, for once, his uniquely perceptive abilities told him nothing. They could not reveal deception in the absence of strong emotion on the part of the one who would practice the art.
“I have only recently been accepted as a hunter,” the stranger confirmed before Jer’ok’s silence grew prolonged. “M’wambaso’s people have made me one of them. Yet I feared what they might think of me.”
Though Jer’ok remained outwardly impassive, a surge of hope swept him. “Then you have heard some rumour?” he asked more patiently than his heart would have preferred.
“No, Jer’ok.” The other looked about as though some eavesdropper might be lurking in the deepening darkness. Then, “I have seen such a boy and a folk male – companions, as you have said.” Encouraged by Jer’ok’s breathed exclamation, the man continued. “I was hunting far beyond the village, farther than I have ever before ranged.” The man gestured vaguely south and east. “I was waiting for game when a humankind boy and a hunterfolk male entered the clearing. I had been asleep, I thought. Surely this is no true vision.”
He stopped as if awaiting some sign that Jer’ok gave credence to what he had seen. The beast-man merely nodded his encouragement, and the stranger added, “They seemed able to speak to each other, for they stopped in the midst of the clearing before turning to run toward a tree that could bear the weight of the buck. They were gone in only a few heartbeats. I never saw them again. I have not spoken of them. I did not know how my new people might interpret such dreams. Then I forgot what I had seen – until Jer’ok came seeking such a boy.
“Do you think he could be the one?”
“I have no doubt. And I thank you for your help. Is there any way in which Jer’ok might acknowledge your courage in speaking to him?”
“It is enough that I may take some small part in the quest of Jer’ok. I seek no other reward.”
With that the native turned back to his adoptive village. Before the man had taken more than a few steps Jer’ok lost no time in swinging into the trees to return to Amber with his news and hope renewed. He did not see the native turn back to glance at the place where he had been standing. He did not see the sly sneer or hear the hoarse, “I will be well rewarded, oh devil-god of the copper skin.” Only then, had Jer’ok turned back to observe, would the faint aura of hatred been detectable. And then it might have seemed to be fear. The antipathy was one of long duration and smouldered deep within without breaking through to speed the heart or mar the expression of its bearer.
In fact, this treacherous native Ashtarian was wholly unimpressed with the powers of the dreaded daemon. This Jer’ok could not even detect a simple falsehood, the man scoffed to himself. The betrayer of the Lord of Ashtar nevertheless shuddered as he hastily resumed his steps toward the village. He had taken a desperate chance, but it was small payment if he could effect retribution for the former interference of the beast-man in the affairs of the tribe to which he had been born. The fellow ran his tongue over his teeth. He would forever miss the feel of the sharp points which all cannibals painfully execute upon their young men as a mark of their tribal affiliation. The one painful loss only reminded him of the other, the devastation his true people had endured and the shame of hiding the marks of his origins in order to survive among strangers.
JER’OK RETURNED TO Amber as swiftly as ever he had flown through his jungle. His heart was lighter than it had been for many a long day. Jer’ok reveled in his new-found lightness of spirit. His incredibly rapid passage from limb to swaying limb was accelerated by the news he would share with his beloved Amber.
It was not long before Jer’ok recognised that part of the forest where his mate awaited him. Now love for her lent wings to his feet. It was too soon for a cry of victory. Yet, from afar the beast-man announced his return with an Aranda call indicating good hunting, that Amber might know of his success the sooner.
Despite his announcement of his proximity, the beast-man’s sudden appearance overhead startled his mate into a low cry of fright. Had Jer’ok not called out her name, Amber might have brought his return to a tragic conclusion. For she was an alert sentry and heard the slight sound of his bare foot on the limb just above her shelter. Only his soft call stayed the spear which would in a moment have transfixed him. Instead Amber dropped the weapon and whispered his name as he swung down to her side and gathered her to him for a kiss as hot as the red blood that coursed through his veins. Nor did the mate of Jer’ok shrink from the embrace of her jungle lord.
WHEN SANJERA RETURNED to the lair of Jer’ok and his mate, the beast-man had already departed and returned with arms laden with sweet fruit for Amber’s breakfast. While she ate, he tore strips of bark from a nearby tree and composed a brief message to the distant Diyalan with a bit of charcoal he selected from the previous night’s cooking fire and treated with the substance Locke had provided. When Amber completed her meal, Jer’ok slipped the message into his quiver until he could deliver it to Chief M’wambaso as they passed in proximity to the village. Then Jer’ok and Amber began the trek to the south and east.
How far that trek was to carry them and what lay in store for them before it was concluded fortunately was withheld from their knowledge. For an embittered enemy had persuaded Jer’ok-ta to take the direction directly opposite that in which Blane Southerly and Aran were even now ranging.
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