THE RIDER WAS upon her before Amber heard the rush of his mount’s hooves in the tall grass. Even as she was swept onto the saddle Amber began to fight to regain her freedom. She wasted no breath after her first cry of surprise and fear. She struck at her captor with her mate’s crystal knife, but it was immediately torn from her grasp. The man who held her merely laughed as he easily restrained her in one strong arm while guiding the horse with the other. He was a superb rider and quite in control of the situation. Amber’s struggles gradually weakened. Her captor turned his horse toward the city.
As he did, something caused him to mutter what Amber interpreted as an exclamation of fear or anger. His grasp relaxed for an instant. Amber did not hesitate in any effort to determine the source of this unexpected reprieve. Instead she twisted wildly and slipped from the momentarily relaxed grip. The instant her feet touched the ground, Amber caught up the knife and raced for the security of the trees. Those closest would provide little protection, but farther away the forest thickened. There she could elude the man easily if he remained on his horse. If he followed her on foot there was the knife. Amer felt its reassuring response in her hand.
Amber fled from the mounted menace more swiftly than she had ever run in her life. In only seconds she heard the horseman urge his mount after her. She increased her speed as she passed among the first scattered trees, but he was closing the distance between them with every stride. At any moment he would catch her up in his grip of iron.
The fleeing woman felt the hot breath of the horse just before she was once again lifted onto the saddle. The crystal knife flashed in its uncannily accurate strike, but the rider avoided the blow with the fluid motion of one experienced in the arts of battle. For the first time he spoke to her. Amber could not understand his language though its sound was somehow familiar to her. She had had no cause to resort to the esoteric RNA transfers that had long ago given her intellectually starved Jer’ok the capacity to understand and, to a lesser extent, speak in the corrupted Latin that was the language of Mithos.
“Let me go!” she demanded breathlessly in Tae. “Please let me go.”
Then Amber remembered her quest and increased her struggles tenfold. The man was forced to bring his horse to a halt to concentrate on evading the dangerous knife and subduing the woman, who was not so frail as she might have appeared. He issued another curt order. But now Amber could hear the sound of numerous horses behind them. Her captor apparently feared whatever approached, because he slapped her hard and uttered what sounded like a curse. His horse reared and bounded off before settling into a steady gallop. Amber lay stunned across her captor’s armored chest. For the moment all the fight was knocked out of her. Her captor had taken possession of Jer’ok’s knife. Her own he had cast aside when first he had pulled her onto his horse.
The rider urged his horse deeper into the forest. Not until he was satisfied that they were well hidden from the sight of the pursuing riders did he draw to a halt. Amber looked to the place where his gaze was directed but could see nothing. But if the intruders were foe to her captor, perhaps they would be friend to her. Amber would have screamed to alert them to her location, but the sound was instantly cut off as his rough hand closed on her mouth with bruising force.
That move was a mistake. Amber had learned to fight from one who, unarmed, had ofttimes defeated attackers by means of the natural weapons with which he had been endowed from youth. There was no weapon Amber Southerly was too timid or too cowed to use. Viciously she bit down hard on the suffocating hand. She fully intended to bite to the bone if necessary. Her captor snarled something and cuffed her with the other hand. Dizzy and unable to catch her breath, Amber found herself reeling. She threw her weight sideways as she felt herself start to fall. She might as well take the man with her.
This time her captor was unprepared. They hit the ground together. Snorting, the horse was backing away from the melee. Amber recovered her senses first, but the man was already stirring. Swiftly she rose and again retrieved the precious knife. Then she forced herself to walk calmly to the horse. The animal snorted anew at her approach but seemed to respond to her soothing croon, though it could not understand the words. The woman climbed gingerly into the oversized saddle. The stirrups were far too long, but she had no need for them. The horse whirled in confusion as Amber sought out a direction that might lead her to safety. As she faced the direction from which she had come, Amber noticed her attacker groggily regaining his feet. She had to make a decision before he could stop her.
The fugitive decided to travel parallel to the road she had seen earlier. But as Amber urged the horse forward, the confused animal turned in an attempt to rejoin its fellows, who were now rapidly bearing down on their place of concealment. Amber was an expert horsewoman, but the unruly creature persisted in its effort to proceed to one side even as she urged it into a canter quite reckless for the uneven terrain. Ths battle of wills gave the horse’s owner the opportunity to regain both the animal and his elusive captive.
The three of them burst into the clearing together. Amber persisted in her struggle to press the horse into a gallop to the east while the unhorsed man clung to the saddle in his struggle to pull her off. The horse alternately cantered and tried to rear away from its enraged master. The pursuers could do no more than watch and wait for an opening.
Before any resolution of Amber’s fate at the hands of these could occur, the pursuers were suddenly alerted to the approach of a second mounted troop. They promptly turned away, leaving the barbarian woman in the hands of her would-be captor. By now Amber was rapidly losing strength. She simply could not shake off the attack. Worse, the horse was beginning to show signs of panic. He tossed his head in agitation, flinging foam on both the antagonists. She heard the horses of the second mounted troop stop just beyond her, but she had no time to assess either the strength or the intentions of the newcomers.
There came the sound of a strong voice, unmistakably authoritative. To Amber’s astonishment, her attacked immediately released her and dropped to one knee, right hand clenched over his heart in a salute. The frantic horse found his head to be free and bounded away. Amber glanced back to see two riders start to follow, but the leader, before whom her attacker still bowed, motioned them back to their places. Amber fought her stolen mount to a steady canter as she considered what her next move should be. The leader called to her. Amber halted the horse. None moved to apprehend her.
Amber needed help. It was clear she was unlikely to find Jer’ok on her own. Whether he lived or not, they had come to this place on a quest which might now be hers alone.
The woman swallowed hard. Then she lifted her head high and rode a stately walk to the waiting party of men. As she drew closer, the leader pulled away from the others and with a gesture invited her to join them. Amber dipped her head in acknowledgment, but she made no obeisance. Intuitively, she knew these people would respect nothing less than the appearance of aloof nobility. Amber knew well the ways of nobility and royalty alike. When she had reason, the former belle of her Amerian land could more than hold her own among the titled heads of Tuatha. After all, Chimur’s high king was kin by marriage. Her noble air stood her in good stead now. The leader halted his horse to return her salute. Then King Stephanos of Mithos greeted Lady Amber Southerly of Charwick for the first time.
THE DISAPPOINTED QUEEN was certain her savage had broken his neck in the fall. Valera leaped from her chariot and scrambled down the hill in the wake of Drusus. As a result the equestrian reached the felled captive only seconds before his queen.
“Is he dead?” the queen panted breathlessly as she tumbled to his side. Drusus automatically reached out to steady her.
“No, unfortunately the beast still lives.”
Drusus continued his examination of the unconscious savage. Valera turned to the milling guards.
“Take the female. I want the wild man’s mate under my control.”
Disregarding hazard to horse or self the guards raced down to the struggling pair below. The rider was startled by the sound of their horses. The female then proved to be as treacherous as the male. She instantly took advantage of her captor’s momentary distraction. As Varela watched breathlessly, she wrenched away and raced for the forest without stopping to determine the source of her deliverance. The king’s man stopped only long enough to identify the queen’s emblem on his pursuers’ armor before he spurred his mount in the wake of the little savage. Varela’s men did not hesitate. They spurred their own horses in hot pursuit. Varela watched until her men disappeared among the trees.
When she turned back to her captive, Drusus caught her eye.
“The savage is merely stunned. He is not damaged. Varela, please; let me destroy him now.”
The young queen experienced an unwonted thrill of fear at the tone of her favourite’s voice. Indeed, she was almost tempted to drop her ambitious project. She had never been faced with so untamed a spirit in the past. But this was proving to be a unique opportunity to enhance Queen Varela’s reputation in the palace and beyond. If she could add this incredible pair to her retinue of slaves, she would be the envy of all.
Her tone was final. Drusus knew better than to argue with the Queen of Mithos when she was in this obstinate frame of mind. He sighed in resignation but dared her wrath with no more than a negative shake of his head. His eyes never left hers. He reached over the body of the captive to take her hand gently in his own.
“My queen, at least permit me to handle him now. Let me see to his taming before you allow him into your presence.”
Varela was young and petulant and stubborn. But she was no fool. She would need all the assistance she could command if this creature was to become a trusted servant – unless she succeeded in her plans for his mate. Drusus was a staunch ally. More, she was disinclined to alienate him . . . yet. Her cold stare softened.
“Take him to the palace physician. Bring him to me when he is ready for training.” She pointedly ignored the look of shock at her first command. The royal eyebrow was lifting dangerously before Drusus nodded his acquiescence. “And remember, Drusus, he is to be in the service of royalty. He must not be blemished.”
With that final warning the queen reclaimed her hand and swept back to her chariot. Because of the uneven ground her royal progress left much to be desired. There was once a time, Drusus sadly recalled, when they would have laughed together over her childish attempts to mimic royal mannerisms. Now he realised he would not only laugh alone but risked forfeiting his life for the presumption.
AMBER SMILED AND shook her head to indicate she could not understand the man who approached. Then she introduced herself in the formal Tae of the Tuathan capital. Her words dwindled to confused silence as he rode to her side.
King Stephanos was tall and Amber was to discover more rugged in appearance than most Mithonian men of the nobility or blood royal. His black hair curled close to his head. The sun had bleached much of it to chestnut highlights that almost matched the dark gold of his eyes. In deference to tradition a slim band of undecorated gold, mostly hidden, rested lightly across his brow. But even had he declined to bow thus far to tradition, Stephanos was certain to be recognised for what he was, even in a first encounter such as this. His bearing and every move were regal. The short white tunic with its narrow hem of royal purple only served to confirm what Amber, a unique stranger in the land of Mithos, had already guessed. She could not help but appraise him as he sat his horse so close to her.
Stephanos believed in a sound mind in a healthy body. He was far too disciplined to allow himself to take on the royal proportions of the majority of his forebears. He was justifiably proud of his athletic prowess and wiry form with its steel bands of deceptively slender muscle, products of his active life. All this Lady Amber of Charwick was to learn in the weeks to follow. But what held her enthralled on this first meeting was that his appearance was not unlike that of Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk, had the latter been ten years older and of another era.
Amber swayed in the saddle. Exhaustion and repeated assaults on her nervous system had at last taken their toll. She would have fallen had King Stephanos not driven his horse even closer to her side and steadied her. Once again he spoke gently to her. She could manage no more than a weak smile of gratitude before she slid forward in a deep swoon. The king rapidly dismounted and lifted her in his arms.
And so Amber Southerly arrived in the City of Mithos cradled gently in the arms of the Mithonian king.
AMBER GRADUALLY AWOKE from her pleasant slumber to the sound of voices. She was confused and for a moment had no recollection of the past several hours. She listened attentively before daring to open her eyes. There were a man and a woman in the room with Amber, but neither voice was familiar to her.
Amber sat up with a start – to a room she had never before seen. She looked around in wonder. It was as though she had been transported to another world and countless years into its past. The appointments of the spacious chambre in which she found herself might have graced the dim shelves of a dark and dusty museum of Terran ancient history, but here they glowed with life and constant use. The woman drew closer and, seeing Amber was awake, spoke to the man. Both were dressed in clean white tunics; the woman’s reaching to the ankle, the man’s ending below the knee. Without thinking, Amber exclaimed in Tae, “Who are you? What is this place?”
The woman looked startled, but the man’s reaction was astonishment. He came to her side.
“Can you be Armerian?” he asked in heavily accented Tae.
“Yes, by birth,” Amber whispered in equal astonishment. “I am Chimurian by marriage. My
name is Amber Laxton Southerly. I am Lady Charwick of Tuatha.”
The woman assisted her to sit upright among the soft cushions at the head of the couch. The man shook her hand warmly. His smile reflected the incongruity of that familiar gesture in this setting. On her part, Amber was reassured by this unexpected link with the worlds so far from the Valley of Mithos. “How is it that you speak Tae and recognise my accent? Who are you?”
“I never thought to see an Arene or a Chimurian again. And now I have both – in a manner of speaking,” he laughed before answering. “I am Jason Tiberius, late of Tara, Mede, in Armeria, now physician to the royal family of Mithos.
“ Who would have believed it back in Mede? Physician to royalty!” He laughed and shrugged. “And I have never been happier.”
Amber looked up at the surprise in his voice.
“I have been here since King Stephanos and Queen Varela were children. As luck would have it, I happened to save the life of the former king. One of the miracle of modern medicine. And, now, here I am.” The man broke off his narrative when he took note of Amber’s quizzical expression.
“Yes, it is strange, isn’t it? Mithos is a curious blend of classical worlds of Terra’s remote past. Not even the Mithonians know when or how their ancestors came to this valley. Or even who they were. It is all lost to history now. Even those who created the Mithonian culture are gone and long forgotten.”
But Amber’s curiosity was directed more to Jason’s recent past than to the ancient past of Mithos.
“How did you come here? However did you come to be the royal physician?”
“I came to Ashtar years ago; I’ve actually lost track of how many, right out of medical school and ready to save the forgotten humankind of the Primeval Planet.”
Amber joined in his whimsical smile. Many of her late father’s students had shared dreams not unlike that of Jason Tiberius.
“As a medical missionary I found much that I could do for the tribes – when they wanted help. As time went by I drifted deeper into the interior. I soon learned there was far more I could not do. Somehow the little I was able to accomplish never made up for that. After a while I began to explore to ease the sense of frustration.
“Eventually my explorations became more important to me than my work. Then I found myself systematically mapping the caverns you have just escaped. In time, of course, I stumbled upon their secret.
“But enough of me. If you have just entered the Valley of Mithos, you must have quite a tale to tell: However did you find your way through that dark labyrinth? Surely you were not exploring the caverns alone.” There was an expression of real concern on her countryman’s face. “Has Tuatha resumed colonisation so far from her settlements?”
Amber had to smile at Jason’s incredulous tone, but, despite her lavish surroundings, she was lonely and afraid. It must have shown in her expression. Jason became more attentive. He smiled in encouragement. That smile served to diminish the woman’s fleeting qualm for the lack of mention of an off-worlder outside the valley.
“Tell me.” Jason’s whole manner served to calm his patient. “Perhaps I can help you. King Stephanos is a close friend. You will need someone to act as interpreter when you are presented to him. You know, he is quite taken with you, Lady Amber.”
His eyes twinkled, but his formal address served as a warning. Her quests would be best served if she assumed the aloof and haughty attitude of a Tuathan lady of high station. Amber composed herself for the tasks ahead.
“It is a long story and I am very hungry. I don’t suppose the Mithonians have discovered mentha?”
Jason laughed aloud.
“Hardly! I know what you mean. I never would have believed a civilised man could survive without his morning mentha. You know, now I don’t even miss it.
“When did you last eat, Lady Amber?”
“I don’t remember. But I am very hungry.”
The woman, hardly more than a child, came forward to receive Jason’s orders. She smiled shyly at Amber before running lightly from the chambre.
“She will bring something in only a few moments. Why don’t you tell me how you came to be in Mithos as the guest of the king.”
“I came with my lord-husband. We are searching for our son.”
Amber’s story could not be told briefly. Moreover, she very much wanted to enlist the aid of this fellow Armerian in her effort. So she talked until the food arrived. She ate quickly, pausing only to fill in a few details in answer to Jason’s many questions. When the empty vessels were cleared away, she was describing their passage through the caverns and the unseasonable storm that had so suddenly engulfed them.
“And so Lord Charwick was swept away be the flood,” she concluded, maintaining her stoic front. “I have discovered no sign of him, except his knife.”
Jason Tiberius listened sympathetically. When she concluded her narrative, he nodded wisely.
“If any can help you in your search it will be Stephanos, though I have heard of no one in the city who could be you son or your husband.”
Amber’s heart grew cold. Had it all been in vain after all? Surely, this man would have known if one or the other of the two she sought had stumbled upon Mithos as he had so many years before. Even if they had come here, she would already be too late to save Blane. It was clear from Jason’s terse comments as she described her own entry into the valley that strangers to this land were not ordinarily welcomed as equals but enslaved as inconsequential barbarians. She had escaped that fate only because she had caught the eye of the king. When she remembered the king’s courtesy and kindness, Amber prayed his intentions would prove honorable.
“Stephanos will grant you an audience when you feel strong enough. I will act as interpreter and assist you in any way I can. You have, by the way, chosen the right course. Lady Amber of Charwick can be assured the friendship of the king. And,” Jason added cryptically, “Stephanos has need for friends, especially those as lovely and charming as you.”
FOR WHATEVER REASON Jason Tiberius never connected the soft-spoken Amber of Charwick with the sullen slave that Queen Varela precipitously handed over to his care. Indeed, there was no reason why he should. Neither Varela nor Drusus was one to confide in servants however highly placed. The slave could have been a Mithonian who had displeased the queen. When he was delivered to Tiberius, the creature was in no condition to speak. Once he was healed, Jason turned him over to Drusus without attempting to discover his identity. After all, he was the property of the queen. In such matters the physician seldom, if ever, interfered.
When the physician eventually came to the conclusion that the silent creature was in actuality Amber’s “lord-husband,” it was far too late for that knowledge to be of service to either Lord or Lady Charwick . . . had Tiberius elected to serve the Tuathans.
XI. At Court
AMBER SOUTHERLY WAS young and in splendid good health. Despite the tremendous strains she had endured over the past months, first on Chimur and more recently on Ashtar, her constitution had the resilience to return the colour to her cheeks in a matter of days. The time between Jason’s professional visits expanded until he came only in the early evenings for the lessons in the Mithonian language that had progressed to a daily affair.
Lucia had obviously been charged exclusively to Amber’s service. But the child proved too shy to engage in Amber’s laughable early attempts to make the Mithonian tongue her own. King Stephanos never approached her, nor did he overtly enquire after her progress.
Jer’ok’s knife had not been taken from her. Despite the courtesies and friendship thus far extended, Amber craftily hid the knife. Even if never put to use, it was a link to her mate, however tenuous. More, it might someday prove the difference between life and death.
Though her mind drifted often to her husband and son, Amber took deliberate advantage of the luxury and allowed Mithos to restore her with its pampering. In truth, she delighted in the hours lost on the graceful balcony overlooking the beautiful valley. It was there she took most of her meals. Lucia would stand stiffly out of her sight, steadfastly refusing to join in the delicate foods. The peace would have been soothing had Amber felt she was somehow serving her missing loved ones. She began to consider the means by which she might use this situation in which she found herself to come to their aid. For the dull ache in her heart never relented.
As she impatiently awaited her audience with the king, Amber explored the chests of colorful Mithonian costumes that had been in her chambre when she first became aware of her surroundings. Lucia so obviously took delight in helping her to dress in the lovely garments, Amber felt compelled to oblige her. After a while the girl overcame her shyness enough to indicate by means of signs and simple Mithonian phrases that she would dress Amber’s hair in the exotic fashion of Mithonian ladies. As Lucia’s deft fingers arranged the golden locks, the two women initiated a serious program to complete Amber’s grasp of the language and ways of Mithos. Lucia gravely assured her new mistress that she must make no mistakes in her audience with the king. Even though a glimmer of friendship was developing between them, Lucia was unable to conceal her surprise that a foreign personage was acceptable as an honoured guest. She, for one, feared what the future might hold for the gentle Lady Amber.
QUEEN VARELA WAS engaged in a rare scene of domesticity when the Lord Drusus was announced late in the afternoon. She and several of her attendants were deeply involved in the weaving of a wall hanging the queen intended to present to her royal husband on the upcoming celebration honouring the anniversary of his birth. For once Varela forgot her high station and with childlike pleasure joined her companions in the placement of the colourful threads to create a caricature of the popular actors involved in a comedy of which Stephanos was particularly fond.
Several weeks had gone by since Varela was disappointed by the report that the female barbarian had been recaptured by the king’s man. Her own guards would have forcibly taken her from him, but he was joined by his own companions before the former could act. Queen Varela graciously allowed them to escape with no more than the threat of a prolonged execution in the event they failed her another time. Drusus continued to enjoy a favoured place at her side, but neither mentioned the captured wild man.
When Drusus was announced, Varela admitted him but waved him aside while she completed a particularly intricate portion of her design. But, despite her limited attention to her favourite, Varela could not fail to notice the bruise that darkened his brow or the ugly cut along the line of his jaw. “Drusus should be more careful in the war games,” she mused under her breath as she bent to her task.
Drusus was pleased to accept a beaker of wine from a slave and settled in to watch the queen discreetly. Varela had infrequently been in so lighthearted a mood of late. He knew she was well aware of the effect she was having on him, though she feigned to forget his presence.
At last the queen set aside her work, dismissed her companions, and strolled to the equestrian’s side. She accepted a beaker of wine and ordered refreshments to be brought for them both before seating herself beside him. While they waited for the servant to return, Varela asked casually after her new slave’s progress. She was anticipating the stir his presence would cause at the king’s celebration. There could be no better an occasion to show him off for the first time.
Drusus was long in answering her. Her emerald eyes regarded him steadily over the edge of the beaker. Drusus was the bravest of the brave, but he stirred uncomfortably as the queen waited. The mysterious disappearance of this slave would be ill-advised.
“You had best tell me.” The queen interrupted Drusus’ train of thought. “What is wrong?” Then . . . , “Have you killed him?”
There was an uncomfortable silence as Drusus pondered how to disappoint the queen without fatal consequences to himself. Queen Varela was unused to failure. She found it unacceptable in those who served her. She waited in cold silence, casually sipping her wine. When the food was brought in, Drusus set down his beaker and rose to pace before his impatient queen until the servants retreated.
Then, “The savage cannot be tamed.” Before Varela could react to that blunt assertion, Drusus hastened to explain. “He is not capable of understanding. He never speaks, and he does not comprehend was is expected of him.”
Varela remembered the intelligence she had recognised immediately upon her first sight of the savage.
“How do you know?”
“Even the beasts we train to do our bidding respond quickly to the methods I have used. Most slaves can be taught their duties in a matter of days. This one does not respond at all.”
Drusus had never before seemed so ill at ease. Varela could see that he was truly puzzled by his failure. The savage was indeed an intriguing problem.
“There is more, Varela,” he admitted. “Since Tiberius released him to me the wild man has already attempted to escape three times – against overwhelming odds. He knows he has no chance, yet he defies us. Only this morning he has killed a man in an effort to escape from his cell. The stupid creature had to know he would be stopped by the other guards.
“We had to bludgeon him unconscious before we could retrieve the guard’s body. The savage would have taken on the entire dungeon force. When we pulled him away, he went mad. He actually tried to tear out my throat.” The equestrian’s hand unconsciously went to his throat as he recounted the incredible ferocity of the attack.
“You mean the savage did that to you?” The queen’s face drained of colour as she indicated the state of her favourite’s face. He merely nodded. Drusus did not care to admit he had nearly been bested by the untrained barbarian.
“Varela, this dangerous foolishness must be stopped. Allow me either to dispose of him or to punish him properly. The other slaves may follow his example. No good can come of treating his defiance with impunity. They see how tolerant we are with him, and they believe us to be weak.”
Valera considered. There were alternatives to putting the savage to death or placing him in the palace. She might have to reconsider her plans after all. She toyed thoughtfully with the delicacies on the plate before her.
“I would see the wild man. Have him brought here.”
Drusus stared at her in horror.
“Now? Here? Varela, you cannot be serious. It is far too dangerous.”
“You wish to handle him differently. It is possible I will permit you to do so. But I wish to see him first. Perhaps he will obey me.
“Would you have me go to him?” She demanded when Drusus failed to obey. “Have him brought here at once: You are dismissed.”
The equestrian was furious. He just avoided spilling his wine as he angrily replaced it on the marble table. Varela smiled as he strode from her presence without so much as a hint of a bow. The savage was not the only one who was not easily trained. Drusus needed to be reminded of his place.
It grew dark. The remains of the light meal had long since been removed, and a slender girl now entered quietly to light the large candles in the queen’s apartments. Varela tapped one small foot angrily. She was preparing to go to the king to demand that Drusus be punished for presuming to defy her when there was a quiet knock on the heavy doors.
There was just a hint of curiosity in the queen’s voice. Her guards opened the doors and preceded Drusus into the room. He was followed by the savage and two nervous guards from the slave quarters.
True to his promise, Drusus had been careful. Though the savage was heavily chained and encumbered by a proper yoke, he was unmarked except for a single ugly bruise over one eye. Varela scrutinised him from a safe distance. There would be no scarring though for the first time she noted the existence of a very old scar on his forehead. He was a warrior. Of that there could be no doubt.
The wild man’s demeanour had not altered in the slightest since his capture. The only differences were an obvious loss of weight and a slight pallor under the dark copper of his skin. The anger still burned in his ferocious eyes. Of fear there was not the slightest trace. That emotion had been reserved for his mate. The savage, even in the presence of Lord Drusus and the alert guards, still presumed to look the Queen of Mithos in the eye. She decided to overlook the presumption for the moment.
“The Lord Drusus tells me you are too stupid to be trained for service in the palace. I do not believe him.”
The queen’s words were met with silence, but Varela thought she detected the start of a smile at the corners of his mouth.
“I also know you are quite capable of speech. You will answer me when I speak to you. Why do you pretend ignorance? It is an honour to serve the Queen of Mithos.”
The guards shifted nervously, but the prisoner remained steadfastly silent.
“In Mithos slaves are treated well. You would serve honourably as guardian of the queen’s safety. If you serve well, you will be granted many privileges. Would you forfeit so great an opportunity?”
“Jer’ok of the Aranda will serve no one. Jer’ok is not a slave.”
Varela paled with the shock of the creature’s temerity. Even Drusus looked startled. The guards looked to the equestrian for orders. Before the nobleman could speak, however, Varela stepped forward and slapped the captive. The reaction was wholly unexpected. Only Drusus was not surprised.
The wild man actually lunged for the queen herself. The guards, the finest of Mithonian manhood, could not hold him back. Varela yelped in fear and tried to escape but slipped and fell. Belatedly her own stunned guards burst into action. She saw one club the prisoner from behind and heard Drusus give a low order. Then she swooned for the first time in her eventful young life.
AT LAST THE day of Amber’s audience with King Stephanos dawned bright and cheerful. The summons had been received the previous night. At Lucia’s insistence Amber retired shortly after dark and rose early to make her toilet. After bathing in water scented with perfumed oils that left their provocative fragrance on her skin, Amber washed her hair and, slipping into a silken robe, allowed Lucia to brush the locks in the morning sunlight until they glowed with a colour finer than spun gold. Then, before dressing, she ate lightly of the foods sent to break her fast.
Lucia had selected a pure white tunic of a soft fabric woven with gold threads in a random design. As Amber moved, light scintillated as the soft fabric clung to her and swirled about her shapely ankles. One her feet were fragile sandals of gold never intended for more than a single day’s wear away from the vagaries of footing and weather outside the palace. A diaphanous palla of the palest blue was settled carefully about Amber’s shoulders and artfully drawn to one side to be held in place by a slender girdle of gold wire. The only other jewelry she wore was the star sapphire that sparkled against the soft palla.
Amber protested when Lucia commenced to apply the heavy cosmetics in which all Mithonian ladies indulged, but the girl was so insistent, she had to succumb. Finally, Lucia dressed her hair in an exotic style that was at least the equal of the heavy makeup. The transformation to Mithonian lady surprised them both. Amber’s delicate beauty was enhanced and subtly altered to mysterious sophistication.
The women had started their preparations early, but Lucia was carefully pinning the last lock into place when there was a rapping at the outer door. Lucia looked to Amber, who nodded. The girl ran to open the door for Jason Tiberius.
“The king directed me to bring these to you, Lady Amber. You may select any you wish to wear before him. I will . . . ”
Jason had been walking briskly toward her when Lady Amber rose to face him. His step halted as suddenly as his words.
“My lady: you leave me speechless. You are truly exquisite. The jewels I bring could not hope for notice in your presence. The king has misjudged.”
“Please, Jason, I am unused to such flattery. It confuses me. Will you accompany me before the king?”
Amber gestured for him to set down the exquisite casket he bore as she urgently sought some guidance for the imminent encounter with the king. She trembled with fear or hope: she was unsure which. But Jason merely smiled to reassure her as he opened the casket. Even in Amber’s present state of nerves, she could not stifle a small cry of surprise when he gently lifted the top. From the casket jewels overflowed in a glittering cascade of exquisite colour.
“You may select whatever pleases you, Lady Amber. The king will be honoured to make a gift of whatever you choose to wear.”
Never before had she seen such an array of beautifully mounted jewels in settings of gold, silver, copper, and ebony. There was every colour of the rainbow and beyond. Amber spread some of them on the white silken cloth that covered her couch.
“They are truly breathtaking, Jason. But surely I cannot accept such a gift.”
“But you must, Lady Amber; King Stephanos would be gravely insulted should you refuse his generous offer.”
“Well, perhaps something simple would be proper.”
Amber cast her eye among the sparkling treasures heaped on the couch. There were diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and many lesser stones. There even some she did not recognise. But among them there was not a single emerald. At that odd happenstance it suddenly occurred to Amber that among all the beautiful clothes provided her, nowhere there anything of green. In passing she wondered at the peculiar coincidence but was not to recall it until much later when she came to know it was no coincidence at all.
Lucia was at her side.
“My lady, your sapphire matches the blue of your eyes. Another would be perfect in your hair. May I?”
At Amber’s encouraging smile, the girl selected a perfectly formed sapphire in a simple setting and placed it in Amber’s hair. The girl looked from Amber to the physician. The latter nodded his approval.
“But you must choose, Lady Amber. Take what you would like.”
Amber smiled at them both and selected a brooch of plain gold, which she placed at the shoulder of her palla. Then she returned the jewels to the casket, selecting only a fine length of gold chain that she took to a mirror of bronze to twist into the intricate coils of her hair. When she finished, she turned to the others.
“I think these will do, will they not?”
Lucia smiled and nodded, but Jason eyed her and whistled. He winked and said in Tae, “You would be the belle of any ball! You will make all the others look tawdry, my dear.”
Then he abruptly switched to Mithonian to resume his entirely proper manner.
“My lady, may I escort you to the audience chamber? The king awaits you impatiently. Lucia, will you see that the casket is returned to the king?”
Hoping she could maintain the brave front behind the mask Lucia had so skillfully fashioned, Amber swept from the room on the arm of Jason Tiberius. A contingent of the king’s guard, resplendent in full dress uniforms fell in behind them in at a courteous distance. Though she was careful not to allow her fear to show, Amber’s heart was in her mouth.
Outside the closed doors of the audience chambre, Jason stopped and whispered to Amber, again in Tae.
“You must enter alone. Don’t worry; I assure you Stephanos is a friend. I will be among the gathered nobility, but he may summon me to translate. Just be the perfect Tuathan lady – no more. He will be intrigued, believe me. He is already quite smitten. Good luck, Amber Laxton Southerly.”
As soon as the physician left her side, Amber turned to the captain of her honour guard and nodded. He saluted and rapped on the door with the shaft of his javelin. The door opened slowly and silently.
Amber paused ever so slightly to take in the setting. The audience chambre was not large. The smooth white walls of marble were rosy with the glow of many torches. Woven hangings depicting victories of early Mithonian warrior-kings hung on the walls to Amber’s left and right. A heavy cloth of royal purple led from the entrance to the raised thrones directly in front of Amber. The thrones themselves were draped in heavy purple fabric. In one the handsome king sat in relaxed dignity. He was flanked by two guards in the same uniform worn by her present escort. She recognised the insignia exhibited by the troops who had accompanied the king on the fateful day of their first meeting.
Two guards in a different uniform stood on either side of the empty throne on the king’s right hand. Amber recognised the insignia of the man who had first pursued her original captor on that now-distant day beyond the city.
Not a bit of flooring was visible at either side of the raised throne. The chambre was crowded with the noble lords and ladies of Mithos. Amber stole a quick glance across the two crowded masses of humankind. The men wore plain white tunics. There was an occasional cloak of bright colour, one or two bands of gold across masculine brows and some brightly burnished armor, but that was all the inclination toward fashion manifested among the men. But the women more than made up for their plain spouses. Not only were colours combined without regard for the preservation of the observers’ eyesight, but cosmetics too had been applied with a lavish hand. And each woman had apparently attempted to out glow all her sisters by her ostentatious display of jewels. Amber found herself dizzy from the visual extravaganza.
It took only a moment for Amber to observe all the major features of the chambre. When she did not immediately enter, the captain of the guard coughed nervously. Amber did not deign to notice him. Presently, she lifted her head high and proceeded through the massive door and down the soft purple path to halt before the throne of King Stephanos. There she paused to look the king straight in the eye before inclining her head to him. She waited for Stephanos to make the next move.
“Lady Amber of Charwick, you are welcome in the city of Mithos.”
The king stepped down to Amber and took her hand. There was a shuffling among the nobility present as Stephanos turned to lead her toward the throne. He ignored the startled reaction and spoke quietly to his unusual guest.
“I understand you are engaged in a search for your family, Lady Amber. The physician tells me your son may have been kidnapped and brought here to Mithos. He tells me also that your husband was almost certainly lost during a recent storm. You seek our help against almost unsurmountable odds.”
He paused to one side of the throne without releasing Amber’s hand before a raised bench to her right.
“Are you able to understand me? Perhaps you would prefer to speak through Jason Tiberius?”
“Your majesty, I can speak your language only a little, but I understand more.”
“Good. We can speak more privately, then. Please stay and observe the Mithonian king’s justice. When the audience is complete we can discuss how King Stephanos and his people can be of service to you. Perhaps you would join us for some wine and some of the delicacies from the royal kitchens.”
Stephanos smiled and gestured for Amber to be seated on the bench. Amber had been advised by Jason that this was a singular honour. Indeed, the murmur of conversation increased on all sides. There were even a few feminine exclamations of astonishment. Amber looked up to see Jason as he took his place near the throne beside her. He winked at her. Neither Amber nor Stephanos took note of the departure from the chambre of a member of the queen’s deserted retinue. It would not be long before Varela was advised of the king’s foreign acquisition. The presence in court of Lady Amber of Charwick might easily overshadow the queen’s present effort at notoriety should the latter still intend to make use of the incorrigible savage languishing in the palace prisons.
Amber merely smiled primly as she turned to King Stephanos, “You honour me, Your Majesty. You are gracious to hear one so far from her own lands.”
AND SO IT was that Amber Southerly was reclining on a soft couch and sharing her first meal with King Stephanos when Queen Varela regained her senses in the arm of Drusus. The equestrian was attempting to revive her with sips of wine. One of her slaves cooled her brow with a gentle fanning of soft feathers. Varela sat up and glanced fearfully about. The savage had been removed from her presence.
“You are unhurt, my queen? Do not fear. The wild man has been returned to his cell. There is no danger now.”
Varela relaxed and gingerly got to her feet with the help of Drusus.
“You will have him put to death now.”
Indeed, Varela knew there was no longer a choice. Even the unruly queen was bound by law. The savage had committed the one crime for which no slave of Mithos could be forgiven. He had dared to touch a woman of high birth, for which offence the irrevocable penalty was death. Worse, he had touched the queen herself in the presence not only of Drusus but also of four members of the elite palace guard. Varela would respect the law of her city.
Varela waved Drusus away as she unsteadily turned to her bed chambre. Drusus had been right all along. Never had she been so frightened. Nevertheless, the queen did not fail to not the look of triumph in her favorite’s face. She turned at the doorway.
“The savage will be put to death. But, Drusus, heed me well. It is I who will determine the time and the manner of it.”
IN THE EARLY morning of the third day following his confrontation with the queen, Jer’ok stood near the tiny aperture that afforded his cell its only light. Through it he could see little more than the blue of the sky. From time to time wispy clouds flaunted their freedom to roam at will above the vast lands beyond – freedom of which the beast-man had been deprived when its loss could be least tolerated.
The captive’s thoughts were not on whatever punishment the queen might mete out for his refusal to bow to her attempts to impose her will upon him. Indeed, had he given it any thought at all, the beast-man would have accepted as inevitable a sentence of death. That fate normally would have produced no more than a shrug of mighty shoulders. Dead he would be beyond the queen’s cruelty; while he lived there was hope that he would somehow elude that cruelty and regain his freedom.
But today Jer’ok’s thoughts were not of himself at all. A single obsession burned in the beast-man’s savage breast. He must escape. Two innocent lives depended upon him.
Though captivity always drove Jer’ok of the Aranda to the brink of madness, his crafty mind had in the past always served to gain his release. Those who dared hold captive the Lord of Two Worlds had paid dearly for their presumption. He was confident his remarkable prowess would serve him as well now. But every moment of captivity was a moment lost to the deliverance of mate and to the search for ta’el.
If either lived.
Jer’ok growled with frustration and commenced pacing the confines of the cell. He could not even be sure Amber had not died after he last saw her pursued by a lone horseman. And then there was his son. Until Jer’ok could succour his mate, the search for the boy must wait. The beast-man’s pacing was an effort to quell the savage fury that welled within. But if Amber had died or had suffered any harm for the deprivation of her mate’s protection; then would Jer’ok of the Aranda take his vengeance on this queen and her people.
At the aperture Jer’ok paused the relentless pacing to watch as the tantalising clouds proceeded about their business. His face was without expression. No one would be allowed to perceive how cruelly this prolonged captivity tormented the Lord of Ashtar.
The days and nights of captivity had not been idle ones. No sooner had the beast-man been deposited in the cell and left to ponder the fate of slaves who proved incorrigible, than he began the meticulous examination of his prison. Centimetre by centimetre he covered the confines of the cell with sharp eyes and sensitive fingers.
Twice and only twice he tried his enormous strength against his prison. Once he sought in vain to dislodge one of the stones framing the aperture. He was thwarted the second time when the heavy bars of the inner door refused to yield in the slightest to steel thews and sinews. The beast-man did not persist. He no longer wasted precious strength against the inanimate. An opportunity would come sooner or later with the animate. Somehow, sometime he would overcome a guard or take the queen or one of her retainers hostage. Then freedom would at last be his. Until then he could do no more than bide his time.
Thus far he had been unmolested since Drusus’ reluctant and wholly disastrous attempt to present him to the queen. Twice each day surprisingly wholesome foods and clean water were slipped into the cell. Otherwise, none approached the queen’s newest and most dangerous possession. The solitude, if intended to punish, was a failure. Under the circumstances Jer’ok preferred that condition. Alone he could take advantage of the long hours to preserve both his physique and his sanity through the limited exercise possible within the small cell. There was very little he could do to preserve the strength that would soon fade with the copper of his skin. The slight exposure to light he could secure would not long defer the inevitable.
This morning he had already eaten, so Jer’ok was surprised to hear advancing steps and the rustle of armed men in the passage leading to his cell. Instantly alert for any opportunity to escape, the beast-man turned away from his position at the tiny window and faced the door in an attitude of alert attention.
DRUSUS LED A contingent of three heavily armed guards through the dim passages to the cell in which the despised savage was being held. Drusus had not yet learned to hate the barbarian. That would come later with knowledge of the latter’s capacity for stubborn defiance and interference with the best of plans. The equestrian halted the guards at the door of the cell. The savage stood facing them. Drusus sneered when he observed the battle stance, but he had learned the wisdom of careful handling since the day the creature had been captured. Without any attempt to conceal his contempt, Drusus addressed the prisoner.
“Are you prepared, wild man? The time has come for you to face the queen’s punishment.”
With that Drusus laughed the ugly laughter that this prisoner was not the first to hear. It was characteristic of the Mithonian’s attitude toward others, especially those he believed to be helpless. The laughter ceased with a low curse when Drusus caught the prisoner’s slow smile. This one had yet to accept his helpless state. As Drusus ordered the guard to open the door, he saw the prisoner balance for instant attack. At first the equestrian through nothing of it.
But as the key grated in the heavy lock, Drusus found himself taking heed of his previous experiences. The first man to enter that cell would face the most ferocious of wild beasts, one that would stop at nothing in its effort to escape. Despite the unspoken order no one moved to enter the cell. All three guards were fighting men. They too recognised the stance and observed the tension with which the giant prisoner’s muscles quivered as they awaited the imminent call to battle.
“Ho!” exclaimed one of the guards from behind Drusus, “the creature would fight all four of us. What think you, Equestrian, should we accept this challenge?”
“I think the queen is too lenient with this wild man.” Drusus was amused neither by the show of spirit nor by the bantering tone of the guard. Under his breath the equestrian muttered the thought that constantly irked him: “Her majesty has made a grave error.” The treasonous thought, however, was best kept to himself.
Drusus cast about for a suitable weapon; “Wait, do not enter the cell yet.” None, however, had moved to do so. Close contact with the waiting savage was a perilous course not to be lightly taken.
The equestrian eyed the torches that provided dim illumination in the dark passage. As he turned back to fetch them, he called out, “Remember I saw the wild man captured and have sought in vain to tame him. Do not be too eager to test him. He is not one to die easily – and he has the skill to use the muscles with which the gods in their infinite wisdom have endowed him.”
Drusus returned with two torches and handed one to the guard at his side. The prisoner neither spoke nor moved. He merely waited. Knowing it would be pointless, the nobleman addressed the savage.
“Move back against the wall, wild man. You shall answer for your disrespect for our queen.”
It was obvious the savage had no intention of obeying. Drusus nodded to the watchful guard who still held the key to the door. The door swung out slowly, grating on ancient hinges as if as reluctant as the troop. Instantly, the savage sprang forward to the attack, only to be driven back by Drusus.
Anticipating the violent attack, the equestrian thrust the torch at the prisoner’s face, deliberately aiming for the eyes. There was no defence against this cruel method of offence. If he would protect his vulnerable eyes from the flames, the savage had no choice but to shield his face with his hands. Drusus moved quickly. He would allow the prisoner no opportunity to use those incredibly effective teeth or feet. The battle would remain uneven if the equestrian had his way.
At first the savage resisted, but then Drusus caught something flicker in his eyes as the flame touched one arm; the prisoner took a single step back. The small retreat gave the now-subdued guard behind Drusus his chance. At Drusus’ hasty signal the man swiftly entered the cell and swung his torch to join the attack. At first it appeared that the wild man might press the battle despite their effective if unconventional weapons, but as the flames licked past his arm to singe one cheekbone, he fell back another step. For a second time Drusus saw something alter in the captive’s eyes. The reluctant retreat was enough to provide the guards an opening. There was a sudden rush, and two javelins touched his chest, sharp points poised directly over his heart. Now it was a simple matter of surrender or death.
For a moment Drusus believed the savage was actually choosing death. The equestrian held his breath. Queen Valera would be furious. Then the equestrian thought he saw that something alter beyond the prisoner’s eyes. As before, whatever it was flickered and was gone before it could be identified. The wild man obediently stepped back until he came up against the cold stone of the prison wall. The two torches were immediately pulled away as were the javelins, but not one of the Mithonians completely relaxed his vigilance. Perhaps the savage believed he would have another opportunity. Whatever the reason, he was conceding defeat for the moment.
Drusus slowly let out a relieved breath. He handed his torch to the guard waiting at the door.
“Turn around,” the nobleman ordered. “Your hands together behind you.”
There was a momentary hesitation, but the prisoner complied. His wrists were swiftly enclosed in manacles. A javelin prodded him. The subdued savage meekly turned and followed his guard into the passage. More relieved than he would ever be willing to admit, Drusus followed with the remaining guard. The torches were replaced as the escort of four marched briskly through the dark passages.
IT WAS A long walk. Not even Drusus spoke further. Jer’ok wasted no breath with questions. He could do naught to alter his fate now. Knowledge of it thus meant little.
Presently, Jer’ok heard the dull murmur of many voices ahead. He peered through the gloomy shadows and saw guards positioned at intervals of several paces. The passage itself broadened and ended at two massive gates. His escort halted just beyond the hearing of the guards at the nearest station. Even at this distance the odor of fear was strong in the beast-man’s nostrils. There was a responsive tingling along his spine, and he resisted the urge to bare his fighting fangs.
As Jer’ok and the guards waited, a hidden door in the wall of the passage softly opened to reveal the Mithonian queen. Jer’ok declined to acknowledge the woman’s presence as she strolled around his nervous escort to face him. As usual the beast-man failed to avert his eyes from the queen’s. This time she addressed him as she returned his appraising examination.
“You do not appear to be any the worse for your days in the care of Mithos. There is a chance you will survive. The queen has decided to be merciful, wild man.” She gestured between the lines of guards to the gates beyond. “Ahead lies the arena of Mithos. I give you the chance to fight for your life.”
The queen waited, obviously annoyed by Jer’ok’s lack of reaction to her words. The beast-man had no idea of the forbearance the queen was exhibiting. Had he known, it would have mattered little to him. He wanted nothing from her but freedom or death. If his was the latter fate, the means of it was of little import now.
“Do you not care to know what lies ahead for you?”
The steady regard never faltered. The queen’s green eyes flashed with fury as Jer’ok’s stubborn silence grew prolonged. The captive remained impassive. He might have been both deaf and mute for all his reaction to her words. Drusus stirred. Jer’ok sensed his profound anger.
The queen was unused to such an adversary. In the end it was she who yielded. Still Varela smiled in unconscious imitation of her favourite. “As the first event of the day we release condemned slaves and criminals to fight among themselves until ten are left alive. Those ten are granted life – for a while. Some whose crimes were minor are granted their freedom. Those who fight well and please the people may be selected for training as gladiators.
“Fight well, wild man, and you may yet find favour with the queen. Perhaps, if you live, I will grant you your freedom – should you ask it instead of demanding it as though you actually believe you have the same rights as a citizen of Mithos.”
As the queen’s words slipped past him, Jer’ok was looking beyond her. Already his quick mind had perceived an opportunity for escape. If any man could fight his way through the unfortunates who were to meet in the arena, that man was the Lord of Ashtar. He failed to see Varella’s flashing eyes, though Drusus saw and smiled.
“Do you wish me to give the beast a knife, your majesty?”
“No. I have changed my mind. Let him enter the arena unarmed. He requires a lesson in humility.”
The queen swept away to disappear through the same door by which she had entered the broad passage. As soon as she was out of his way, Jer’ok moved toward the line of guards. His escort found themselves scrambling to match his long strides. When the beast-man came to the massive doors, he halted and waited for them to open. At Drusus’ sharp command they swung aside.
Jer’ok was nearly overcome by the stench of the compound where the doomed of Mithos were waiting for the gate to their uncertain future to lift out of the way. Crowding near the centre of the compound there must have been a hundred men, most of them sorely unfit for battle. A quarter as many guards were ranged around the periphery. Each carried the whip and sword needed to goad these unwilling combatants through the entrance to the arena. Across the compound Jer’ok found the gate that temporarily barred the way to the glare of the arena beyond.
A man cannot fight what he cannot see. As soon as space permitted, the beast-man boldly entered the compound and made his way directly to the second gate from which most of the others were cringing. His eyes had become accustomed to the dimness of the cell and passages. If he stood near the gate, his eyes would have a better chance to adjust to the glare of bright Sanjera on the white sand. Jer’ok was sufficiently experienced in battles to the death to know that even the slightest advantage could determine the victor. He hardly noticed his escort as he moved to the position he sought. They, however, never left his side.
Lord Drusus was a seasoned veteran. He knew what the savage intended and acted to defeat his purpose. The equestrian strode forward to come between Jer’ok and his goal. He spoke gently so only the beast-man could hear the words.
“If you wish to be free to fight, you will turn around and face the centre of the compound. Or perhaps you believe your eyes will be sufficient defence to overcome bound arms.”
Jer’ok halted and slowly turned around. At that moment the gate slowly commenced its creaking ascent. As it rose, the roar of the crowd in the huge amphitheatre swelled in anticipation. Within the compound there were answering cries of fear and even a few sobs as the relentless guards began to drive the unfortunates forward. Only a few of the latter were armed with knives or short swords. Outside, mounted men waited to drive them well into the arena before allowing them to select opponents and initiate the battles that meant death for most. For the other few it represented at best only a temporary reprieve.
Still Drusus and the two guards restrained Jer’ok. The beast-man knew better than to move while his hands remained shackled. He wondered if the Mithonian dared send him into the arena while so handicapped. As the compound cleared, Drusus permitted Jer’ok to face the arena. As the last few stragglers were forced forward, one of the guards called to the nobleman.
“Lord Drusus, we must close the gate. If the slave is to fight he must be released now.”
Jer’ok’s breathing remained calm and steady, though the urge to enter the battle swept over him as it had not since he left the Aranda of Char and Lael. With the appearance of untroubled calm, he took advantage of Drusus’ deliberate delay to survey the layout of the arena as well as the technique of his more likely adversaries. The beast-man then had no way of knowing just how familiar this arena was to become in the weeks to follow.
Without warning, Drusus roughly thrust him forward. For a moment the beast-man believed he would indeed fight while still bound. But the queen’s favourite lacked Jer’ok’s courage. Drusus would never defy Queen Varela – so long as the queen was likely to learn of his perfidy. Just before he and the Mithonian were separated by the descending gate, Jer’ok felt the shackles slip away.
THE LORD OF Two Worlds raced in a direct line from the compound entrance toward the loge in which lounged the royalty and favoured nobility of Mithos. Any who stood in his way was flung easily aside. If he could gain the loge without entering the combat he would do so. Jer’ok had chosen neither the battlefield nor the combatants. He would not have fought men so clearly his inferiors had he been afforded such a choice. But neither would he die in a misguided sense of loyalty to strangers. If he must fight, he fully intended to be one of the ten survivors. He gained half the distance to the loge before he was required to take part in the battle.
A huge body lunged into him and dragged him down. Another, smaller man armed with a large knife followed the initial attack. Jer’ok easily twisted away from the hold of the larger as his hands reached out to halt the descent of the knife. His mighty thews stopped the blade a scant few centimetres above the heart that now throbbed with the joy of battle. A third man would have choked him, but Jer’ok twisted yet again and went for the exposed throat with flashing teeth. The large wrestler had not yet lost his hold, but even as Jer’ok fought off the other two, the beast-man was able to land a kick that sent his initial attacker flying into the midst of an adjacent battle. The man did not return.
Jer’ok’s sharp teeth tore open the jugular of the third attacker. Stunned by a heavy blow from someone he never saw, the beast-man staggered forward to drive the knife, still in the hands of the second attacker, into the heart of a huge man who was viciously shaking the slight form of a boy already unconscious. Jer’ok did not stop to observe the result of his wholly defencive action. Instead, he leaped forward, intent on his goal: the royal loge. He was oblivious to the incredible confusion that raged about him on every side.
In front of him fell a man from whose lifeless hand a knife dropped. It was not of Tuathan crystal, but the difference mattered little this day. Jer’ok dropped onto one knee to retrieve the precious weapon before slashing his way through five more combatants intent on destroying each other as rapidly as possible so they might still be fresh to meet the next assailants. Thus, perhaps, they would gain another day or another week of life. Jer’ok made no attempt to kill unless he was left with no alternative. His goal was almost within reach. The roar of the crowd now drowned out the diminishing cries of combat. He had not the slightest comprehension that the fickle crowd had seen his entry into the arena and selected him as their favourite for the day.
Once again Jer’ok was faced with battle. Two huge warriors, obviously veterans of earlier melees, stood before him. Each outweighed him by fifty pounds, each was head and shoulders taller, each had the reach of the massive primates, not unlike folk, whom they resembled more than a little. Jer’ok halted his race for freedom and growled a warning. Without preliminary, one of the two reached for him only to draw back with a cry of pain as the knife slashed through his forearm with astonishing speed. As his colleague thus drew Jer’ok’s attack, the other moved with surprising agility for one so large. Before Jer’ok could move to protect himself, that one had pinned his arms to his sides and lifted him bodily in a grip that threatened to crush his ribs. Jer’ok twisted and turned but was unable to squirm free of the vise-like grip. The knife was useless against his assailant as he could not bend his arm to reach him with its blade.
The man whose arm had been slashed now overcame his shock and reentered the fray. Learning quickly from the tactics of the savage beast-man, he first tried to wrench the knife from him but, when that failed, closed his teeth on Jer’ok’s wrist. The three twisted and surged in first one direction and then another.
Theirs was the penultimate battle. If these two could defeat the savage, they would fight for the tenth and last position among those who would survive this day. No one doubted the outcome. Already the struggles of the lithe favourite of the crowd were weakening. Much of his following transferred loyalty to one or the other of Jer’ok’s assailants. The wagering was as spirited as it would have been for the better-known professionals of the arena.
Jer’ok stubbornly refused to drop the knife. Taking advantage of the grip of the man who sought to crush him, Jer’ok relaxed and let the other carry him over backwards. Suddenly the wily beast-man flung both legs forward, kicking the breath from the other, who grunted in surprised pain. The hold on Jer’ok’s wrist was broken.
Overbalanced by Jer’ok’s unexpected action, the man who held him with crushing strength fell backward carrying the beast-man to the sand with him. Jer’ok’s elbow caught him in the diaphragm. The grip loosened but was not broken. Jer’ok’s breath was shallower with each strangled inhalation. The second man came at him again but fell back with a prolonged scream as Jer’ok’s knife was torn from the beast-man’s hand. The deadly pressure increased. Suddenly the savage went limp.
He heard the satisfied exclamation as the killing pressure was at last released. The big man believed himself the victor. Jer’ok rolled lifelessly to one side, but as the giant wrestler pulled away to rise and claim his victory, the long legs of copper gripped his and hauled him to the ground. With a vicious blow, Jer’ok slashed his closed fist into the exposed throat. The battle was over. Jer’ok rose and whirled about, ready for the next of his enemies. But none was left.
The roar of the crowd ceased. The shapely head came back as Jer’ok of the Aranda directed his awesome cry of victory to Sanjera the sun. The grimace of battle did not relax as the echo died away over the silenced Mithonians. Out of the corner of his eye Jer’ok saw the approach of the guards. He would need all his speed. Swiftly he bent and took up the knife.
As one, the crowd found its voice as his intent became clear. The beast-man had no intention of returning meekly to the compound to await the boon of life or a prolongation of the sentence that hung over his head. More rapidly than any would have believed within the capacity of man, Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk raced for the loge and freedom. Seeing his awesome speed, no one doubted that the occupants of the loge were in danger of their lives. The guards who stood on either side pressed forward to protect the royal couple. But those in the arena had taken note of the slave’s intent at the same moment.
The guards on foot had no hope of catching the fleeing savage although one did graze the fugitive’s ribs with a hastily thrown javelin. The savage did not so much as lose stride. In the loge the king rose to his feet and drew his ceremonial sword. Behind him Varela trembled with rapt excitement. But there was no need for Stephanos to use the questionable weapon. It was the mounted guards who were able to put an end to Jer’ok’s desperate attempt for freedom.
The fastest among these closed to block his path. Jer’ok leaped up and brought horse and rider to the ground in a tremendous explosion of sand and dust. But before he could press his unexpected advantage, a second horseman drove his mount into him, knocking the breath from his lungs. The beast-man collapsed to the sand still in possession of the precious knife. Another rider came from behind to drop a heavy net over him. The beast-man roared his defiance, but the net so encumbered him that he could not wield the knife with any effect. In ignominious defeat the struggling savage was about to be dragged from the arena without further ceremony. But the crowd would have none of it.
The swelling roar of their indignation on behalf of their newest hero gave the guards’ pause. Their leader cast his glance to the king. With a wave of his hand Stephanos granted respite before escorting his queen from the loge. In a moment the savage was released and brought to his feet. Now the crowd roared its approval, screaming the name with which they endowed him.
LADY AMBER STROLLED to the small balcony off the antechambre of the king’s apartments. Though she had spent many hours in his company this was the first time since her presentation to the court that his messenger indicated that she was to be granted a private interview. She looked out across the beautiful valley. From her vantage point at the very summit of the palace she could catch glimpses of the river as it glinted from time to time in the sunlight. She imagined she could see the very spot where she and Jer’ok had spent their last hours together. Amber sighed deeply at the memory of his loving ways during their weeks of searching. The time was coming when she must at last concede that Jer’ok had not survived the storm.
“I am sorry that you are so sad on such a lovely day, Lady Amber.”
The woman started before turning to smile wistfully at King Stephanos. He stepped to her and took her hands in a gentle gesture of welcome.
“And I am sorry that Stephanos and Valera do not know the love I have shared with Lord Charwick. One does not miss what one has never experienced.”
“And yet, my lady, it is you who are now close to tears while I suffer only through your sorrow. I know none of my own.”
“Then you have learned nothing?”
“Come, let us talk in a more relaxed atmosphere. I have much to tell you, Amber.”
Stephanos smiled gently as the woman searched his eyes. He knew Amber would be unable to read his expression. It was well she could not. Though concealed by his stern countenance, in the king’s heart there roiled an unprecedented maelstrom of mixed emotions. King Stephanos was loath to convey his failure to Lady Amber. Yet he allowed himself a personal hope because of one portion of his tidings.
With only momentary hesitation Lady Amber allowed him to escort her to the inner chambre. As she placed her slender hand in his, King Stephanos once again marveled at her exotic beauty and elegant grace. Even in the simple gown of white she wore and the few but exquisitely mounted sapphires she permitted him to present to her, Lady Amber of Charwick possessed an extraordinary beauty. Today her unusual hair of gold was simply dressed and her face was innocent of cosmetics but for the kohl that lightly traced her delicately arched eyebrows and outlined her blue eyes. Stephanos mused that their rich colour was only enhanced in the shimmer of unshed tears.
This one had courage the king noted with approval. Not for the first time the lonely sovereign found himself wondering what other fires burned beneath the cool aristocratic reserve. He could come to envy the foreign lord for whom Amber mourned. Stephanos eyed with resignation the hopelessly barbaric trinket of gold and sapphire blue that was so out of place. But the king was honest enough to admit that he disliked it for reasons other than its style. He supposed his charming ward would never surrender it. He wished there were some bauble he might present to her, never to be parted from her. And yet it offered her no more than whatever memories it represented. Even with the strangely rendered portrait hidden within as his guide, Stephanos had failed to find her beloved Lord Charwick. The king found himself grieving for Lady Amber, but not without a certain selfish personal rejoicing. His thoughts inevitably turned to Valera, whose beauty concealed nothing beyond a shallow and cruel nature.
King Stephanos permitted his guest to precede him into his sparse but comfortable office. He was pleased as she paused to take in the treasured furnishings that reflected his personality as did not other part of the palace. She favoured him with a appreciative smile as she passed through the small protected balcony carefully designed so that Stephanos could look off across the valley but remain unseen by any other.
He gestured for her to be seated on one of the two silken couches he had early moved to the balcony. Amber hesitated only a moment before doing so. Stephanos thought he detected relief or disappointment cloud her perfect features as he reclined negligently on the other. Stephanos was astute enough to have observed those qualities at their initial audience. She had not disappointed him over the course of their subsequent meetings.
“May I have food or wine brought for you, Lady Amber?”
“No, your majesty. I find it difficult to eat. The uncertainty . . . ” She broke off and relaxed to a more comfortable posture on her couch. “Perhaps you understand – a little?” She was outwardly calm, but the blue eyes were pleading for whatever tidings he bore. Stephanos dismissed his hovering slave.
“We will take refreshment later. See that we are undisturbed.”
As the man saluted and withdrew, Stephanos collected his wide-ranging thoughts. There had been a chance that the new slave in Plautus Damon’s household was Amber’s son, but the king’s hope had been dashed upon his first sight of the boy. Marcus was obviously of the purest Mithonian blood. This fact was confirmed by Plautus when the frightened boy was allowed to remove himself from the awesome presence of King Stephanos. Plautus then confided to his royal guest that the slave had been sold to him by the boy’s noble but impoverished family.
Stephanos entertained his present selfish hope as a result of his second failure. There was not the slightest sign of Lady Amber’s noble husband. There were no recently captured adult male outlanders in all of Mithos, not even from among the native villages just beyond the caverns. King Stephanos had in all truth expected to find none. He had declined to assume that Lord Charwick had disappeared in the inexplicable manner of countless beasts and more than a few men wounded in the arena. Instead, he himself had led two parties in the more likely search for the foreign lord’s body. That, too, had been to no avail. Lady Amber’s husband had disappeared without a trace. Stephanos could not bring himself to tell Amber, but he was certain the body had been carried entirely through the Valley of Mithos to be dashed to pieces when the raging river plummeted into the distant cave to the east. The ultimate course of the river and the fate of any that it carried were hidden from those of Mithos. Even the power of the king had ever sufficed to reveal it.
Lady Amber smiled encouragement to the king: “Anything is better than the suspense of not knowing, my lord. Whatever it may be, I would know what you have found. You break my heart with your stern frown and your obvious reluctance to speak. Please . . . ”
She stopped as Stephanos rose from his couch opposite to sit at her side. He claimed her hands.
“I am deeply sorry, my lady.”
She forced herself to meet his gaze without flinching.
“Then the boy is not Blane.”
“No, he is Mithonian. Of that I cannot doubt.” He paused before continuing. “There is always the hope that he will enter Mithos in the future, but your son is not in our valley now. I cannot tell you how sorry I am to have failed you, my Amber.”
Either she failed to hear that last or she chose to ignore its portent. Lady Amber gently withdrew her hands and rose to face the unseen valley beyond the small balcony. Stephanos allowed her the private moment of grief. Once again he marveled at her courage. He longed to gather her in his arms and comfort her.
When she did not turn back to him, Stephanos knew he must tell her the rest. It was unnecessarily cruel to await her recovery from the first numbing blow. He rose to stand behind her. When Amber failed to acknowledge him, the king rested his hands lightly on her shoulders. Presently she placed one slender hand over his.
“You have not failed me, King Stephanos. I am grateful. Forgive me for not . . . ”
“Hush, Lady Amber. There is no need for gratitude at such times between – friends.”
His lips brushed her golden hair, but the caress was instantly broken off as he felt her stiffen. Still, she did not reclaim her hand.
“I fear I must break your heart a second time. Lady Amber, have you the strength I suspect can sustain you against the wrath of the gods themselves?”
“You have found Jer . . . , you have found my husband?” It was only a whisper.
“We have found nothing.” Stephanos allowed her time to reach the inevitable inference before continuing. “If you have not exaggerated either his courage or his devotion to you, I fear there is but one conclusion to be drawn. Lady Amber, you must have the courage to accept that he is . . . ”
Amber whirled to touch his lips with her fingers before drawing back in confusion. This time she snatched her hand away in dismay.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty. I do not mean to offend. Please understand: I cannot bear to believe my husband was not conqueror of the waters.” Her voice became soft. As she spoke, Stephanos wished that someday there might be someone who believed thus in him. “You who have never met Lord Charwick cannot possibly envision his strength and agility. Without proof I will never accept his loss.”
Stephanos held Amber in his sympathetic regard. He did not presume further on her grief.
“Lady Amber, you must accept.”
AH, WHAT MISERY is to be laid at the feet of those who seek, even in innocence, to conceal the truth from another. Had Queen Varela of Mithos not sought to gain the love of her people by the expedient of providing unique entertainment in the cruel arena, had her husband the king not secretly hoped to fail in his search for Lord Charwick, had Amber Southerly not declined to reveal fully the nature of her husband – then the search for Lord Charwick might have led to the release of the savage who, at the very moment Stephanos confessed failure to Amber, turned on his heel to leave the arena without the slightest deference to the proper courtesies while the insatiable crowd screamed a name none of the three knew: a name that would not soon be forgotten in the arena of Mithos.
BACK TO CONTENTS