JER’OK OF THE Aranda awoke to darkness. Despite the savage’s proud departure from the arena, Drusus ensured the prisoner was unconscious by the time the equestrian’s cohort returned him to his cell. Now he opened his eyes slowly and made no immediate effort to move. The beast-man had learned caution in the wild. Before attempting to rise, he mentally assessed the damage he had sustained.
Fortunately, his injuries were slight and already mostly healed. Jer’ok would be no more than sore for a few days as a result of his violent initiation in the arena of Mithos. Some of his core strength had actually been restored in the heat of Sanjera. Carefully, he regained his feet and stretched his protesting muscles. He looked about the dark cell and found the food and water that had been provided while he was still unconscious. The beast-man ignored the former but gratefully drank deeply of the water. Then he resolutely settled himself to await the queen’s next move.
The days dragged slowly by, but no one approached again to release the beast-man from the confining cell. Jer’ok seethed with frustration. Captivity itself was a bitter experience. But captivity when the fate of the two he most loved remained beyond his power to intervene was a thousand times worse.
Jer’ok paced the tiny cell throughout each interminable day. Two Shadows yielded to Shadow Death. Often unable to sleep, the jungle man spent most of the endless nights pacing the cell or working disused muscles against the inevitable day when he again faced foes in the arena. When the relief of action eluded him, the beast-man lingered long hours at the narrow window onto the world he could not reach.
All he could see from this vantage were the distant stars, but his other senses served where his eyes could not. Mael carried the sounds and scents of the distant jungle to Jer’ok. In his mind he could see the events at which Mael’s messages only hinted.
This night the beast-man lost himself for a while to the life he once had lived. From time to time, his head lifted as the scent of Aranda was carried on a vagrant breeze. At such moments, the lonely captive strained his ears to catch the sounds of his brothers as they went about their nocturnal affairs. Once, he smiled at the faint sounds of a scuffle. One of the young bucks no doubt was seeking to advance his position among them, perhaps to impress a she who looked upon his suit with disdain. For a while Mael turned away from the caged beast-man. Jer’ok waited patiently for the next shift in the wind’s willful game.
When Mael at last returned, the mighty challenge of the Aranda buck was carried to the Lord of Ashtar. Jer’ok’s nostrils flared as he tensed in instant response to the distant challenge. He uttered a low growl and almost involuntarily answered the call. But Jer’ok’s challenge died in his throat to be replaced with the haunting Aranda cry of utter despair before the sounds could be silenced by force of indomitable will.
His unexpected loss of control greatly disturbed the Lord of Ashtar, but his faculties were not so diminished that he failed to hear the approach of the guard dispatched to investigate the horrid scream. All the shaken Mithonian saw was the relaxed from of the giant captive apparently deep in sleep. The guard watched for many long minutes, but the even breathing never altered. It could not have been this one after all.
Though there was no further outcry, the mystified guard proceeded to examine the occupants of the other cells, most of whom had slept through the awful sound. The eyes of those who were wakeful reflected the terror the guard had experienced. The Mithonian shuddered at the thought that perhaps some prisoner long dead had returned to haunt the dark passages. The guard’s conscience was a clear as the next man’s, but that was small reassurance in this place.
As soon as the Mithonian was gone, Jer’ok was back at the aperture. This time he remained utterly silent. As he had pressed his hands against the stones, some of the mortar between two of them had crumbled.
Carefully, scarcely breathing, Jer’ok traced the mortar beneath his probing fingers. Once again a portion of the stuff fell away. Throughout what remained of the night, the beast-man worried the mortar surrounding one heavy stone. If it could be pushed away, freedom would at last be his.
By morning the beast-man had accepted the need for some tool. The mortar eventually would yield to his strong hands, but before it did, his fingers would be torn and bleeding. He would be unable to hide the injuries from his captors. Worse, the progress of his painfully slow labour would reveal his intent long before it sufficiently loosened the stone so that his strong back might be used to good effect.
When next Jer’ok was eating and drinking the first meal of the day, he considered the vessels in which it had been provided. The earthen dish that held the tasteless stew would never stand up to the mortar, but the water was held in a sturdy metal cup. This vessel showed greater promise. When a guard later strolled past, Jer’ok spoke for the first time since he had been brought to this place.
“I have a great thirst.”
He held out the cup, which the startled guard accepted without comment. Eventually, when the dish was removed, the cup was returned to him refilled. By evening it had been forgotten when Jer’ok’s second meal was served and, later, that dish and cup were reclaimed. When it grew dark beyond the cell, Jer’ok eagerly went to work with the edge of the cup.
He worked all through the night. When the glow of dawn appeared, the beast-man was well satisfied with his handiwork. In another night, two at the most, the stone would be loosened. His great strength would dislodge it, and Jer’ok of the Aranda would be free!
The placid exterior was now barely capable of concealing the beast-man’s agitation. This would be the longest of the endless succession of long days. He was hardly able to swallow his food. Jer’ok paced the cell endlessly, pausing only when he detected the approach of a guard.
His pacing, along with the renewal of hope that animated him, was destined to be short-lived. The day was not half over when for the second time Jer’ok heard the noisy approach of armed men. The sounds drew closer. There could be little doubt whom they sought. Quickly, the beast-man settled to the straw-littered floor to assume an attitude of placid indifference.
“Good morrow, wild man,” smiled Drusus. “Queen Varela honours you. Your first performance in the arena has entertained the Mithonian people. The queen is well pleased. She will allow you to fight again.”
When the prisoner made no move in response to his summons, Drusus ceased to smile. He raised his voice in the bantering tone calculated to infuriate those who countered his will. The soldiers at his heels moved in closer. Jer’ok ignored them all.
“Come. Surely, you do not fear the arena. Need I resort to the methods we used earlier?”
The Mithonian reached through the bars to prod the reclining savage with his javelin. Drusus did not ordinarily so misjudge an enemy. The action was a foolish one. With a savage snarl, Jer’ok was instantly on his feet. The javelin now rested lightly in his hands. Before the beast-man could reverse the weapon to turn it against his tormentor, the door swung wide, and two more javelins forced him back. There was no room for the prisoner to maneuver in his own defence. Attack was impossible in such close quarters. Furiously, Drusus followed his men.
“Bind him!” he ordered curtly as he entered the crowded cell. The javelin was wrenched from Jer’ok’s hands. He was forcibly turned about in obedience to the order. He did not see that which caught Drusus’ eye as the equestrian reached to regain his weapon. All Jer’ok saw was the smile that returned to the lips of the nobleman as the beast-man was conducted through the familiar passages. The expression meant nothing – now.
This time Jer’ok was conducted to a smaller, empty antechambre. There were no guards, no other prisoners – only his alert, well armed escort. The queen made no appearance. As he had previously, the beast-man proceeded directly to the gate that opened onto the arena. Abruptly, he strained against the chains on his wrists as he examined the huge expanse of glaring sand.
While Jer’ok waited for the gate to rise, the arena was being cleared to make way for the event shortly to follow. The crowd was restless with boredom. The muffled sound of their voices carried across the arena to the beast-man.
When the sand was restored to a condition satisfactory to the nervous master of gladiators, his unnoticed slaves slowly shuffled back to their places well out of sight. The crowd’s attention still strayed. As Jer’ok watched, the master looked to the loge for the royal signal. When at length it was given, the dull noise of the crowd was drowned in a fanfare of long trumpets. Before the last echo of the pure tones died away, twenty horsemen entered the arena through a wide gate strategically placed between the loge and the gates through which the combatants passed. Jer’ok watched impassively as the twenty rode in precise formation, executing a brief drill at the conclusion of which four of them were positioned directly below the royal loge. In the absence of the king, the queen acknowledged their salute before they wheeled smartly in unison to face into the arena. The murmuring crowd remained unimpressed. At length Jer’ok saw the queen gesture to the master. The answering rasp of an opening gate drew the beast-man’s gaze to his left.
A splendid gladiator, clad in full body armor and bristling with all the tools of his trade – broad sword, leather shield, and a heavy net – strode with arrogant confidence to the centre of the arena. Sanjera glanced off his polished armor in blinding shafts when he bent low in salute. The bored crowd stirred. Their restless murmuring rose to a roar of anticipatory approval. Draco Jovianus was a popular favourite as well as the champion gladiator of Mithos.
Jer’ok watched with interest as the imposing figure strutted and feinted in mock battle before his appreciative audience. This was a formidable adversary, one not to be underestimated. Before the audience’s attention drifted away from the flamboyant posturing, the alert beast-man had learned much of the gladiator’s weaknesses as well as his strengths. The beast-man was also keenly aware of Drusus only a few paces away. The Mithonian did not speak or otherwise interfere with Jer’ok’s intent observations of the man he was about to meet in mortal combat.
Once again Jer’ok’s heart beat hard in anticipation of accepting the belligerent challenge. The frustration of prolonged captivity served to inflame his battle instincts. The beast-man lusted for blood. Today he knew he would kill or be killed. He ignored the equestrian when Drusus unshackled him and tossed a knife into the arena. Jer’ok only watched the gate rise to loose the enraged beast that had no more than the outward appearance of humankind.
A ripple of silence passed through the crowd. Only a few had noticed the smaller gate open. A half-naked savage emerged and, barely pausing to catch up the knife, ran a few steps in the direction of the champion. As individuals scattered through the restive audience sighted the challenger, they broke off conversation and nudged their neighbors that they might not miss the sport that was certain to follow.
Only these fortunate few saw the savage unexpectedly turn and race back under the slowly descending gate. These gasped in delighted horror as the wild man grasped the nobleman within by the back of his armor and hauled him bodily into the arena. The two avoided the crushing weight of the heavy gate by a scant hand’s-breadth. The equestrian’s men slammed into the bars, too late to be of service to their leader.
The reaction of the audience to the untoward tactics of the savage warned Draco Jovianus, who turned in time to see the savage throw Drusus heavily to the ground and attack him with a knife. Drusus was stunned by the extraordinary turn of events, but he was a warrior. A warrior learns to defend himself even when faced with a wholly unexpected attack. Thus, even as he fell, the equestrian managed to pull his sword from its scabbard and easily parried the slashing knife wielded by the crazed wild man. Jer’ok fell back.
Drusus had a great advantage. The beast-man could not slip past the sword to finish the hated Mithonian with the knife or his sharp teeth. Jer’ok’s agility was his best defence against the nobleman, but he constantly watched for any opening. Suddenly, the beast-man darted to his opponent’s back and flung himself to the ground. Drusus had already started to turn in order to swing a wicked thrust at the beast-man’s unprotected flank. As dropped under the sword, Jer’ok kicked Drusus behind the knees. Jer’ok surely would have died had the Mithonian not collapsed under the vicious blow.
Gaining his feet instantly, Jer’ok leapt upon Drusus’ unprotected back. But before he could grasp the nobleman’s hair to haul his head back and bare his naked throat to the blade of his knife, Jer’ok heard the rapid approach of galloping horses.
Even before the whistle of one rider’s descending sword could warn him, Jer’ok instinctively flung himself to one side. Thus, the blow missed both intended target and the equestrian by sheer chance. The two horsemen swerved at the last possible instant to avoid the Mithonian. One turned his horse back to lift Drusus across the animal’s rump. The other turned to drive Jer’ok toward the centre of the arena where Draco waited.
The gladiator had taken no more than a few steps toward the unscheduled battle. The crowd was laughing and cheering the savage on. Jer’ok, however, had no choice but to turn away from Drusus and move toward Draco. Once the slashing sword of his pursuer grazed him. A red streak appeared on the savage’s back from shoulder to waist. The savage ignored the shallow cut, but the crowd screamed its disapproval. The horseman took note of Draco’s approach and pulled up. Jer’ok’s flight became a mad charge without regard for the audience, the rider, or the niceties of proper arena formality. Draco halted to take up a defencive stance.
Jer’ok seethed inwardly with the frustration of his first goal – the slaying of the hated Drusus. Now only the huge gladiator stood between him and his second goal – escape. Jer’ok halted his charge just beyond the reach of the gladiator’s sword. Snarling, the beast-man circled, forcing his adversary to turn with him. Draco tested the savage with tentative thrusts of the sword, but the wild man was never in any danger of being touched by the weapon. The wound he had suffered did nothing to slow him down.
Eventually the aroused crowd tired of the preliminary maneuvering and jeered or called out advice to one adversary or the other. They waited impatiently for the savage’s next unexpected move. He was proving extremely entertaining. Even those who backed the champion hoped for a prolonged contest.
The champion’s face was flushed with annoyance, but Jer’ok was intent only on the imminent clash. He no longer snarled, but his features were set in a grimace of concentrated rage. Nothing, neither the crowd nor his antagonist, would entice him premature action. But when the wily beast-man chose to move, it would be more effective than even the most bloodthirsty could hope.
Suddenly, Jer’ok reached for Draco’s sword arm. The gladiator stabbed at him while simultaneously thrusting his shield forward to knock the daring aggressor off his feet. But the elusive wild man changed direction so quickly Draco was unable to follow. The savage darted close and back. As the two separated, the crowd roared its approval anew. Jer’ok was now armed with his own knife and Draco’s dangerous net. Draco breathlessly retreated a few steps. He was obviously stunned by the challenger’s agility.
Draco Jovianus had not survived to become champion gladiator of Mithos for nothing. The savage fought like no other he had ever faced, but versatility was among the traits that had served Draco’s advancement to his present favoured status. Brute strength was another.
The huge gladiator pressed his attack with all the subtlety of Keros, Ashtar’s rhinoceros. The sword slashed and hacked at the coppery body with such rapidity that the crowd roared its approval ever louder, having yet again switched its allegiance. Jer’ok was forced to retreat as the knife afforded slight defence against the sword, and the net was proving unwieldy. Draco’s strength was sufficient to force the vicious blade through bone should he succeed in his efforts to connect. But as fast as was Draco Jovianus, Jer’ok-ta of Aranda was by far the faster. Unencumbered by the excess weight of bulky armor the beast-man eluded every attack. The audience gaped in disbelief. Draco’s sword blurred as he pressed his advantage, but the wild man evaded the killing strokes with a speed the strained credulity. He seemed able to anticipate Draco’s every move. This was a match the people of Mithos would remember and recount for generations to come.
Jer’ok was waiting his next chance with infinite patience backed by nearly inexhaustible strength. Draco was becoming clumsy with frustrated anger. The beast-man easily evaded the gladiator’s increasingly awkward strokes. The gladiator’s breath began to whistle through his lungs as he tired. At last Jer’ok saw that for which he was waiting. Draco overextended his reach and was minutely overbalanced. Another opponent would never have detected this lapse. Jer’ok drew him still farther into the looming fall before flinging the stolen net at his feet. The heavy cords tripped Draco as they wrapped about his legs to bring him crashing down. Jer’ok followed his attack with a slash of the knife. The sword fell from Draco’s nerveless fingers.
So quickly none was ever to recount the thing accurately, Jer’ok tossed the bloody knife into his left hand and took possession of the sword. In the same fluid motion he rose and, without seeming to take aim, launched Draco’s sword in the direction of the four riders beneath the royal loge.
There was a common gasp of horror as the dead man toppled to the ground without a sound. His horse reared and shied, disturbing the other three mounts. Their riders were busy bringing them under control for several seconds. As the riderless animal raced for the gate and the security of the stables beyond, the nearest rider joined the three remaining beneath the loge. Jer’ok saw neither. He had turned his attention back to Draco, who was struggling to escape the entangling folds of his own net.
The massive gladiator was not stupid. He flung the shield just as the beast-man was turning back from his kill, before Jer’ok could press his advantage. He had no chance to avoid being struck. Had the shield been of metal he would have died on the spot. As it was, all the breath was knocked out of the beast-man’s lungs as the full force of the missile hit him across the diaphragm. Jer’ok went down. His knife flew from his hand and disappeared into the deep sand.
The gladiator finally succeeded in disentangling himself. Delaying only long enough to be certain the knife could not readily be regained, Draco drew himself to his full height and advanced upon his felled opponent. A silence fell over the crowd. Draco’s intent was obvious. With deliberate inevitability the huge hands reached toward the exposed throat.
But Jer’ok still lived. And while he lived, the Lord of Two Worlds was far from defeated. He could hardly breathe, but with perfect judgement the beast-man tensed to meet the attack. Draco noticed nothing. The hands were all but making contact before Jer’ok acted. With all his remaining strength he arched and kicked at the gladiator. Draco was driven aside and rolled nearly a meter before coming to a halt where he immediately doubled over in agony.
Jer’ok rose to his feet without haste and surveyed the crowd in unmistakable disdain. He glanced briefly toward the loge but accepted that escape was not to be his this day. The beast-man faced the distant queen and her glittering company without the slightest hint of deference in his proud bearing. After a long moment, the captive jungle lord turned his back to the loge and strode for the gate through which he had entered the arena.
Jer’ok of the Aranda had killed. His fury was for the moment diminished. The enemy he had been forced to fight was defeated. He saw no reason to slay Draco Jovianus for the pleasure of the crowd. The Lord of Ashtar alone chooses his victims.
Unfortunately for Draco, he did not share Jer’ok’s selectivity. When he grasped that he was not to die, he lifted his head to observe the haughty departure of the day’s apparent victor and was filled with righteous rage. The formalities of the arena were not to be flouted by an ignorant savage. Any caution that might have dissuaded him was cast aside at the sight of the insolent withdrawal of the wild man. Perhaps in that instant he went mad. None shall ever know.
Whatever the stimulus, Draco Jovianus came to his feet with a bellow of rage. Like infuriated Muthus he charged. Jer’ok swung around. Without apparent effort he eluded the charge yet again. Before Draco could halt the momentum of his headlong rush, Jer’ok was on him. The two went down together in a great billowing of sand. As Draco surged to his feet, Jer’ok went with him. From behind, the beast-man had grasped both of Draco’s hands at the wrist. One knee was in the small of the gladiator’s back.
“Surrender,” the beast-man demanded, “Surrender and Jer’ok will not kill.”
His only answer was a howl of inarticulate rage as Draco struggled mightily to dislodge him. But Harr himself might have found himself helpless in this grip of the beast-man. The relentless counter-pressures increased. Draco was no longer thinking clearly. All he wanted was the chance to turn on his opponent. He ignored Jer’ok’s words despite the increasing strain on his spine.
“Lasat-pers!” Jer’ok snarled at him, “Jer’ok kuraku!”
Draco’s rage yielded momentarily to fear as the incomprehensible gutterals issued from the throat of the thing that held him with incredible power. He was beyond surrender at that point. He struggled furiously but without notable effect. Jer’ok, too, was beyond rationality. The silent struggle would not end before one man or the other came to the end of his endurance. There was only one man who knew for certain how it would be concluded. Draco still believed he could shake off this barbarian slave.
Suddenly, a loud crack carried to the ears of the crowd, now profoundly silent. The victorious beast-man instantly released the limp body of his second kill of the day. His head lifted high and the horrid sound of the Aranda cry of victory filled the arena of Mithos. Jer’ok came to his senses before the echo of his scream faded. He lowered his head and looked once around the arena. Then he turned on his heel and strode into the small compound where he scented Drusus and the others. The renewed rage of battle still burned hot and furious. The knife flashed in his clenched fist.
“Beware!” Drusus warned the others back. “The savage has not yet returned to sanity. You will not meet a more dangerous adversary.”
Indeed, Jer’ok snarled at the sight of the first guard who came into his view. His rapid pace quickened as he bore down upon that unfortunate. Blinded by the sudden change from the bright glare of the arena to the dark gloom of the compound, the infuriated beast-man did not notice Drusus lurking in the shadows to one side.
With a swift movement, the Mithonian stopped the rampaging wild man by the simple expedient of striking a vicious blow against the side of his head with the butt of his javelin. The savage collapsed at the feet of the guard he had fully intended to be his third kill of the day. Drusus stood over the prostrate body of his victim. Slowly he brought the point of the javelin to rest over the heart of the savage.
For a long moment there was silence in the compound to rival that of the unseeing crowd beyond, still stunned by the extraordinary events below them. Drusus was torn by indecision. One of the remaining guards unknowingly preserved two lives when he whispered to the queen’s favourite: “You must not do it. They all saw him leave the arena unharmed but for the scratch on his back. They will never believe he attacked us. We are too many.”
The man hesitated before uttering the decisive warning. “The queen would never forgive you, Lord Drusus; there will be another time. Think, my lord; the opportunity to cause his disappearance will not elude you forever. He will lose favour. They all do.”
Drusus relaxed. There was much truth in the advice. The point of the javelin wavered and moved aside.
“Take the savage back.” The smile returned to his lips as he stared after the unconscious man being dragged into the passage. “Remember what I told you.”
ONCE AGAIN DARK had already fallen before Jer’ok regained his senses in the cell. His head throbbed from the blow Drusus had inflicted. His other hurts protested his slightest move. Jer’ok lay in the straw without moving. He knew he was fortunate that his second appearance in the arena had left him virtually unscathed, but the beast-man was deeply shaken by the compulsion to kill that had overwhelmed him. It had served no purpose. He was still as much a prisoner as he had been the first day he had been brought to this place. Only now he would be guarded more closely than ever.
Worse, his will was yielding to the forces Mithos had arrayed against him. That it was no longer fully his own was evidenced by his savagery in the arena. In his mind it was a sign of weakness rather than strength. Every trace of civilisation was being stripped from him. Jer’ok was again more Aranda than San-k’aranda. He shuddered, not entirely from the dampness that night brought with it. Instead of the flush of victory the beast-man was left with a depression of spirit he had never before experienced. His head pounded incessantly.
Food, or at least water might ease his misery a trifle. Jer’ok rose to glance about the tiny cell, but nothing had provided to restore him. Another might have called a guard and asked for food, but Jer’ok of Ashtar had already yielded to this powerful enemy more than he was willing to admit even within his own mind. He lowered himself again to the layer of straw serving as slight protection against the cold stone beneath him. In the manner of the beasts he resigned himself to sleep the worst of the discomfort away. With the coming of a new day his spirit would no doubt be restored.
At least he still had one hope left. The beast-man painfully turned his head to the small aperture as if in confirmation. Until that moment he had not known the reason for Drusus’ enigmatic smile. Now he did. The beast-man’s fixed stare would have betrayed him to his enemies as hope failed him for the first time in his life.
He had been returned to a different cell.
THEREAFTER JER’OK WAS taken to fight in the arena at intervals of approximately a week. The astounding wild man was matched with as many as three opponents in a variety of battles. No matter what form those matches took, they were inevitably weighted against the beast-man, who just as inevitably won them, for each return to sun-baked sand was restoring a portion of his strength. Miraculously, he was not once injured.
Never again was he allowed the slightest opportunity to turn on his captors.
The Mithonian population awaited his appearances with tremendous anticipation. But they were truly a fickle audience. They grew bored with Jer’ok’s constant victories. He had the knack of making the defeat of trained gladiators look like child’s play. The crowd chose to believe that he was faced with inferiors. Worse, the unexpected and entirely hopeless attempt to escape that marked his original foray into the arena was never repeated. Nor were the added thrills of an attack on a nobleman or the vicious slaying of a bystander ever repeated or matched. In fact, the creature declined to slay any of his defeated adversaries. The wild man entered the arena, fought for his life, and departed. The horrid scream following victory never again issued from his lips. His unique attraction, aside from the now-expected victory, was his refusal to participate in any formality. It was as if there were no onlookers at all.
The dull crowd, at first delighted, finally perceived the savage’s disdain of them. As predicted, the beast-man rapidly passed from the pinnacle of being the favourite. Now the atmosphere as he entered the arena was one of spiteful malice. The crowd wanted his death. Failing that, they wanted to see him bleeding and, especially, humbled before them. They wanted the sheer joy of declining his plea for life when an adversary finally brought him to his knees before them.
The Mithonians knew nothing of the mental suffering their newest plaything was enduring. They knew nothing because Jer’ok would not permit it. Had they known that the sights of the arena were tantalising tastes of the freedom he yearned for, that knowledge would have added a certain sharp edge to their thoughtless pleasures, rather like a spicy sauce to heighten the savour of an overly familiar course. Had they known how cruelly the remainder of his endless captivity tormented him, they would have reveled in their power over a creature who, throughout his life, had never acknowledged a master. In short, they were entirely too like those people residing in every place and across all times, who hold themselves out as the best civilisation can produce. Too much of humankind throughout the galaxy have delighted to hold another’s destiny in their control. And such control is inevitably inhumane.
Jer’ok’s destiny, then, was in the hands of the fickle mob of the arena of Mithos. If he were not the man he is, he never would have been subjected to the mob’s cruel and heartless thirst for blood. Were he not the man he is, the deadly circumstances would not have turned to the means of his ultimate escape and the conclusion of the evil off-world trade in beings cursed with ill-fortune still more devastating.
THE NEXT TIME he was brought to the arena, Jer’ok of the Aranda entered alone. The gate crashed down behind him to prevent his withdrawal. A particularly large and well armed contingent of mounted guards lined the arena walls. Puzzled, the beast-man strode purposely to the centre that he might observe his opponents and plan his defence at the earliest opportunity. There was little chance to escape this day, but he nevertheless studied the situation for any weakness in the impressive forces arrayed against one naked savage.
A hush fell over the onlookers as soon as the crowd recognised the notorious Silvaticus – the wild creature of the forest – the only name by which the Lord of Two Worlds was known in this isolated place. What enemy was to stand against Silvaticus was of greater consequence to them than to the copper-skinned giant below them. None dared risk any wager on the outcome of the imminent death-struggle until the identity of the challenger was known.
Queen Varela was gaining tremendous popularity for her diabolical selections. Even if today’s challenge should prove a disappointment, there would be many a Mithonian coin placed on the prospect of the eagerly awaited attempted escape. Not a few of the hushed onlookers experienced a delicious twinge of personal fear. If Silvaticus made his attempt today, he might select a path that would bring him face-to-face with one of them. The men fingered swords or hunting knives in anticipation of the rare sport. The women smiled knowingly at each other, though some had the grace to blush prettily. Each secretly dreamed of personal encounter with the untamed savage – or even the husband or lover who destroyed the creature.
As the tension mounted, the crowd turned its attention from the waiting Silvaticus. There was a sudden intake of breath and tiny gasps of surprise. Scattered bursts of applause erupted, especially among those within sight of the royal loge. The queen graciously nodded her acceptance of her people’s praise, even as Jer’ok turned to face his enemy. Only his long experience in maintaining a calm exterior prevented those who could see his features from recognising the horror the son of Aranda felt as his opponent emerged from the cool darkness.
The hunterfolk buck was in his prime but obviously near starvation. He had been teased to insane rage before being released to face the naked, unarmed Silvaticus. Only the remaining shreds of natural timidity held him in momentary check when he espied the lone San-k’aranda in the vast clearing that spread before him. Jer’ok, too, was enraged as he never had been when faced with human adversaries. Now they would force him to fight his own kind. The furious beast-man took advantage of the hush in a futile attempt to avoid the inevitable.
“Lasat, Aranda! Jer’ok atna Aranda. Lasat kuraku. Nox San-k’aranda . . . ”
Jer’ok’s effort to calm the beast was lost in the sudden roar of the crowd as favourites were chosen and urged forward into the death battle. The magnificent buck roared his defiance to the crowd and beat his massive chest with clenched fists. Only Jer’ok detected the note of fear in the creature’s defiance. Then the challenge of his people rang in Jer’ok’s ears. The buck was facing him now. The crowd was ignored by both. Jer’ok’s mind was racing. Perhaps he might yet communicate their mutual predicament to the hunterfolk buck.
Jer’ok of the Aranda boldly faced the huge creature before turning to one side. He beat his own mighty chest and screamed his challenge, not at the buck but at the cruel k’aranda surrounding them. Then he turned back to the puzzled hunterfolk and uttered a conciliatory sound directed at the creature.
Once again the stunned crowd was momentarily hushed. Jer’ok took full advantage of the opportunity and repeated his overture of friendship.
“Jer’ok, Aranda kuraku nox San-k’aranda,” he urged. But before the beast-man could expand his plea for cooperation, the delighted crowd burst into renewed applause and noisy encouragement to the two beasts below. The terrorised buck responded by charging the only San-k’aranda within reach. Sadly, Jer’ok prepared to meet the mad charge. His brain burned with hatred for the queen of Mithos.
XIV. King’s Ward
KING STEPHANOS AND his ward, the Lady Amber, spent a pleasant day hunting together. The king was anxious to make good his promise to provide her with meat through his own skills at tracking and marksmanship. The promise had been entered lightly, but secretly Stephanos was more than a little resentful of his guest’s teasing remarks to the effect that the stalwart Mithonian monarch would soon starve to death were he not served by countless slaves who did everything from detecting the presence of his meat on the hoof to serving the cutlets in heavily spiced sauces in his comfortable quarters, snug and secure well behind the walls of this fortress city.
Stephanos, not unlike the small boy who performs daring feats before the adoring eyes of the new girl in town, was determined to demonstrate his prowess before an appreciative eye. The two were not long at the hunt when the king came upon the spoor of a young antelope. Stephanos spent the better part of the morning in tracking his quarry. Eventually, he had to leave his chariot to follow the spoor into the forest, thence into a thicket.
As he closed in preparation for the kill, King Stephanos impatiently signaled his nervous guards to remain where they were in absolute silence. None had any doubt that the slightest interference would be met with the direst of consequences. Most were grateful they served the king rather than his consort. Not one begrudged Stephanos the company of his gracious ward. Some even dared to cast an appraising regard on the outlander woman.
Fortunately for their nerves and the king’s self-respect, the young buck was not well hidden in the brush. Presently the king spotted him and made a swift kill. He again waved his entourage aside and proceeded to butcher the meat with his own hands.
At Amber’s insistence, Stephanos allowed his ward to choose a secluded glade where she prepared a fire and cooked their meal herself. Stephanos may have shown remarkable talents for royalty, but he did not lose sight of his royal personage to the extent of permitting his retainers to drift far from their supposedly private “picnic” – the word was Lady Amber’s. Stephanos had never heard such a term before, but she assured him it was a custom popular among her people, even the nobility and royalty. Stephanos could not doubt but that Amber was a member of the one and close to the other.
Sovereigns do not by choice eat freshly slain meat roasted over wood charred by an open fire when such privation is not demanded by the exigencies of war. Nevertheless, Stephanos relaxed in the bucolic setting and was surprised to find that he was quite enjoying the unique experience. He was further surprised to discover that seldom had Stephanos of Mithos had more fun, even as a child. If was not often that the serious business of ruling could be set aside for what his royal parents would have deemed frivolities. Varela, he mused, would have agreed with his parents and long line of progenitors.
Lady Amber did not hesitate to congratulate her companion. The king was boyishly proud to note that she was truly impressed, though her pleased reaction demonstrated how little faith she had in his abilities. Whatever the cause, Amber was clearly enjoying herself. Stephanos had not seen her so content since she had entered his city quite against her will. That her pleasure was to some extent at his expense mattered not at all to the king.
It was with obvious regret that the king recalled their escort as the shadows began to grow long. Amber did not spurn his light embrace as he drove his chariot slowly toward the city. He thought he saw a promise in her eyes as she smiled up to him, and together they laughed for the sheer joy of the lighthearted experience they had shared.
UPON THEIR RETURN to the palace, Lady Amber agreed to share wine with Stephanos before retiring to her own apartments. He suspected she was as reluctant as was he to bring the day to a conclusion. Much to the king’s delight there was no lessening of the new companionship as the darkness of One Shadow fell, and the heavy candles were lit for the evening. Of one accord they sat side by side to partake of a light supper, amusingly reminiscent of Amber’s earlier teasing remarks.
The king was enjoying himself and found himself to be quite human after all. Queen Varela’s accusation that he was nothing but a pompous puppet manipulated by strings in the hands of the long succession of their royal ancestors came to mind and for once was easily dismissed.
Stephanos and Amber conversed on a variety of subjects as carelessly as old friends sharing an evening in the humble cottage of one of them.
Before she rose to depart the apartments for her own, Stephanos dared ask Amber to accompany him in the royal loge at the arena. It was an exceptional honour though he doubted she recognised it as such. In fact, the king had good reason for his invitation and believed he had chosen the right moment, but he was wrong – at least in the latter. There was an immediate chilling of the easy companionship fostered by the day’s events.
“You know how deeply I despise the games, Stephanos.” Amber withdrew slightly and turned away from the king so he could not see her face. “Why do you ask this of me now? You have respected this – caprice – all these weeks. I have not changed.”
Stephanos was torn between fear and hope. He did not wish to add to Amber’s continued melancholia, yet he needed to know if he might someday succeed in his suit. His sense of honour required that he first assure himself that the one who stood between them no longer had that capacity. He spoke in tentative tones no other had ever heard from the Mithonian ruler.
“It is the queen, Amber.” At the unusual timbre of his voice, the woman turned to face him again. Her blue eyes were startled, but she wisely offered no comment. He smiled and shrugged, but his attempt at continued lightness was failing. “Perhaps it is I who now need the support of your courage. The queen is making friends through her newest contribution to the games. I have seen Silvaticus only once. He is most unusual.” His voice faded slightly. In a whisper perhaps not intended for her ear, Stephanos added, “When the time comes, Mithos will need a king with resolve and friends more steadfast than those shallow vassals moved by loyalties as fickle as . . . ” He stopped himself at the fleeting expression Amber could not suppress.
Instead of pursuing the nature of the notorious new gladiator, Stephanos broached the subject he suspected only Amber would fully comprehend. The other matter would have to await her attendance at the games – if he could persuade her.
“There are those who would take advantage of Varela’s new-found popularity before it can fade away, as it no doubt will. It is an auspicious moment for an assassination, to be followed – after a respectful interval, of course – by a royal marriage.” Stephanos’ tone had become more bitter. “Drusus, as prince consort, would soon rule my people with the tightest rein they have ever known. Only the gods know what other forms his cruelty will take.” The king paused. “He remains unaware of the extent of my knowledge.” He had revealed far more than he had intended. For more than one reason he prayed Amber was what she seemed – and no more.
“Before those events can come about, however, he will go too far. Like the lovely Varela, I have friends among the court who will listen and who see that which others seek to hide. I can only trust that my own guards prefer the present ruler to the prospective usurper. Drusus will be stopped. And if the queen is involved, even innocently, she will be punished with him. There have been other queens in Mithos who have dared to plot against the throne. She will join them.” By now his tone had become harsh indeed, and Stephanos stopped in an obvious effort to control his rising ire by taking Amber’s hand in his own.
“For now it is important that I make public appearances. The arena is one of the most important of these – to the people of Mithos. Mithonians like to believe their betters indulge in the same tastes they embrace. It is important to me and to the future of Mithos that you accompany me. Later, your appearances could be allowed to dwindle.”
Amber chose to ignore the daunting implications behind what Stephanos was confiding. “But is it not dangerous for you to appear in the loge, my lord?” The formality was subtle, but Stephanos knew it to be deliberate. Amber was seeking to avoid any dangerous direction in Stephanos’ projections of possible futures. It was too soon. Moreover, she had not yet given up hope, though she knew if Jer’ok had survived he would certainly have found a way to come to her by now.
“It is too public a stage and the loge too well guarded.” Stephanos intruded upon her private reflection. “Whoever my enemies, they are clever enough to wait until it can be accomplished by furtive means. Poison, perhaps. Or an arrow in the back while I am hunting. Such things happen, after all.”
At the unfeigned look of concern on Amber’s face, Stephanos abandoned the morbid details that are the daily concern of Mithonian royalty.
“Forgive me, I have frightened you.”
He smiled and kissed her hand without releasing it. “I am pleased that you should worry for me.”
“You have been kind, my lord.” Her distant formality did not waver, softened by her smile. “Of course, I worry for you. I care deeply for my friends.”
With that, Lady Amber reclaimed her hand, but she did not retreat from the king’s frank regard.
“Am I still no more than friend?”
“No more, Stephanos, but also no less. My love was given to another; he can never be replaced in my affection. And yet you are much like him in many ways . . . ”
This time it was Amber’s voice that dwindled without revealing more. The king had to be satisfied with the little she chose to tell him. The Lady Amber, he had quickly learned, was not one to yield to pressure, however subtle. And her anger could be swiftly fired if a more blatant approach replaced subtlety. King Stephanos was inexperienced in dealing with resistance on the part of the gentle sex, but he had through the years learned patience in many things. And Lady Amber was worth waiting for. Friendship might yet blossom into something more, but only with cautious nurturing.
“If you are my friend, accompany me to the arena tomorrow – as my ward you should take part in Mithonian society. I would not attend; the games mean nothing to me, but I must show my people that I am one of them. Your presence means much to me. I assure you I will be in no danger. As my ward, you, too, will be safe. I would not ask you otherwise.”
The king waited in hope. Any ruse would suffice. He must know if Silvaticus was the one. It hardly seemed possible, but . . .
“That does not alter my opinion of the games, Stephanos.” Amber interrupted his concentration. “You cannot conceive of how very different our civilisations are. We do not set innocent men against one another to die for our entertainment. The mere thought of it sickens me. Please try to understand.”
“You are as sensitive as you are beautiful, Lady Amber.” The king thought for a moment. “We can make a late entrance. That might indeed be very effective. You see, Amber, you are an inspiration to me.”
“How can that possibly make the games, as you call them, more palatable?”
“We will go only for the final two events. There will be a chariot race and then . . . Silvaticus.”
Her head came up. There was a flash of something Stephanos could not identify in her eyes. His imagination no longer seemed so farfetched as he had feared.
“Yes, I have spoken of him before. Do you not recall? He is the gladiator the queen has produced out of nowhere. He is effective, if unorthodox. She has trained him well. He is a crowd-pleaser even though they lately have come to abhor him.”
Amber’s heart was beating so hard it was difficult to believe Stephanos would not actually hear it.
“Who is he?”
“No one knows. A criminal who caught her eye.” A king learns guile early. Stephanos was now watching Amber closely. “He survived a melee and tried to attack us in the royal loge. Most amusing. She must have been training him for months.”
“He is a Mithonian?”
“Of course. What else?”
Amber visibly relaxed. She had taken great care in conveying that her husband was of the nobility, Leede Southerly of Charwick. The king continued to study her. Presently, she was able to smile but said nothing more. Stephanos relented as he slipped an arm across her shoulder.
“Surely, you cannot believe he is . . . ” Then, “you have never given up hope, have you?” Stephanos withdrew his arm
“Silvaticus cannot be your Lord Charwick, Amber. He is a wild beast. Or pretends to be. It is no more than a game he and the queen have plotted for effect. You will see. Come with me tomorrow. It promises to be most entertaining. He has been so successful, the queen no longer sets him against men – whom he has declined to slay. That is why you need have no fear. The people are wagering not on who will win in tomorrow’s final contest but on what creature the queen will have Silvaticus fight and even kill. The last time it was a huge hunterfolk. Silvaticus killed him with no more than a hunting knife.” The king laughed aloud at the sudden recollection. “But not until he tried to engage the beast in an effort to turn against us in the audience.”
Stephanos was laughing too hard to notice the shock that drained Amber’s face of all colour.
QUEEN VARELA WAS greatly pleased with herself. She shared the loge with Drusus and a few fawning members of the nobility who sought her favour. The king’s place was empty. The queen basked alone in the attention of the people. The morning’s clashes, all between skilled gladiators, had been most exciting. The queen was always a delighted winner, and today she even was gracious when her wagers were infrequently lost. She had gone so far as to permit one of her defeated contestants to live, bowing prettily to the will of the crowd.
The afternoon promised to be even more thrilling. There was to be an execution of a detested nobleman who had made an attempt on the life of another of the privileged class. Then there would be a chariot race that her driver was certain to win. And finally Silvaticus. Varela thrilled at the thought. The name the people had given him was particularly well chosen. Some even referred to him as Varela’s Silvaticus least any forget whose largesse it was that provided the unique sport.
The day lost some of its savour when Queen Varela and her companions returned from their riotous midday repast. Upon her return to the loge the presence of guards in the king’s livery told Varela that her husband would be making a rare appearance before they day was out.
If Varela was subdued, Drusus was sullen. Because two places were being held for the king, the equestrian was forced to join the others behind the queen and out of sight of the crowd. But that was not the entire reason for his ugly mood. He had hoped the king would remain in indefinite seclusion. There would be little public sentiment for a king who had declined to mix among them while he ruled, however mysterious the circumstances of his passing. Drusus had looked forward to the marked contrast his participation in the pleasures of the plebeians would furnish when he replaced Stephanos.
Matters did not improve over the course of the afternoon. The condemned nobleman had been swiftly executed. He defied the expectations of the queen and populace by affecting a quiet dignity heretofore wholly hidden by his profligate ways. The crowd kept a watch for the king and was disappointed when he did not appear in time for the execution. The queen deliberately delayed as long as she dared, but eventually gave the signal for the chariot race to commence.
The king quietly entered the loge before the first lap was complete. He was not alone. The foreign woman whom he called his ward was with him. There was a stir among those close enough to be briefly distracted from the race, but no more. The queen stared with ill-concealed contempt at the foreigner. She did not even know how to dress in a manner that did honour to the king, her protector. Queen Varela despised her overdone pretense of gracious interest as Stephanos explained the history behind each team and its driver and backers.
To make matters worse, the queen’s chariot flipped, tossing Varela’s driver well out of the path of the others. Miraculously, her team also escaped without injury. For that reason alone she might permit the fool who had driven them so clumsily to survive. It was, after all, only his first error in the year he had driven for her. In any event, Silvaticus was next. In anticipation of his performance, the queen was inclined to be generous. She even managed to feign delight as King Stephanos urged Lady Amber to present the laurel wreath to the victorious driver. Inwardly, Varela told herself that the king’s new plaything was a cold as the aloof goddess, Athena. It did not improve the queen’s mood that her companions, even Drusus, obviously found the foreigner a charming addition to the events of the day. Queen Varela seethed with jealousy.
EVEN HAD DRUSUS been present to assist, the task of bringing Silvaticus to the arena would not have been easily accomplished. Not since the first day, when the savage had nearly made good his escape, had he been so difficult to handle. It took four strong men, heavily armed, to force the recalcitrant wild man out of his cell, through the long passages, and into the antechambre. He fought them every metre of the way with a savagery beyond belief.
They knew it could not be fear. One look at his contorted features confirmed that it was sheer rage that obsessed the slave. To a man the guards wished that they might kill him and have done with it. They fervently hoped that whatever beast Silvaticus would face today would accomplish that purpose for them. It was most unfortunate that this savage had not disappeared with all the others subject to the control of Drusus.
So effective had been his struggling that the savage was barely present at the gate in time to answer the queen’s summons into the fray. In the absence of the equestrian that guards dared a small revenge. Silvaticus entered the arena unarmed.
Jer’ok did not deign to look into the loge as he was thrust without ceremony into the hot glare of the sands. His fury was without bounds. Once again he would be forced to kill a fellow denizen of the wild or die. The heavy gate slammed with expressive finality behind him. The beast-man had no need to see his enemy of the day when the second gate opened. He had already scented Harr the black lion. And Harr was in a frenzy of rage to match Jer’ok’s own.
As he prepared for the inevitable charge, Jer’ok noticed only that there were no mounted guards present today. He smiled a grim smile. No mere man could be expected to survive close contact with the ferocious king of the Ashtarian jungles. Not when the man fought unarmed.
Black as the night of One Shadow, it was a magnificent Harr, the like of which Jer’ok had never before seen. Even his leonine companion of many an adventure would have been dwarfed in comparison. Here indeed was an opponent worthy of the Lord of Ashtar. If Jer’ok regretted having spent some of his own strength on the useless struggle against his guards, it did not show in his proud stance. If he lacked hope in the absence of knife or spear with which to defend himself, it was not apparent. Straight and tall, he stood in readiness for the imminent charge.
A mighty roar of defiance broke the anticipatory silence that had fallen over the arena. Without hesitations the great lion bored down on Jer’ok of the Aranda. This time there could be no hope. The crowd watched enthralled. Silvaticus would surely die a death almost too horrible to contemplate. Many of the avid witnesses smiled. For these it would be over far too quickly. A few felt a small twinge of regret. Silvaticus had been a rare experience. He would be missed. All strained forward to behold the bloody extinction of a legend.
AMBER SOUTHERLY SWAYED and clutched Stephanos for support. He heard her soft whisper: “No, oh no.”
At first the king, even though he had hoped it might be so, failed to understand. He supported Amber with one arm. There was just a hint of rebuke in his low voice.
“I am sorry, Lady Amber. I did not know she intended his death. Please, my dear, do not draw attention to yourself. We cannot leave before he is finished. Try to . . . ”
He was silenced by the look of anguish that distorted her fair features. Her eyes were not averted to escape the imminent bloodshed. Instead they were riveted on the giant figure below.
Even as the hoped-for recognition dawned, the woman at the king’s side drew herself upright. Stephanos knew that somehow she understood that her frailty at this moment was unworthy of the doomed man below. In that fateful instant the king’s infatuation matured into love, true and unselfish.
Though Lady Amber was outwardly calm, King Stephanos felt the force of her grip on his hand as they watched the tragedy unfolding below them. Even the king was propelled forward as the wild man at the last possible instant stepped aside in a blur of motion to avoid the charging beast.
In confusion the enraged creature came to an ignominious half nearly ten full strides beyond his intended victim. Harr’s tail switched with annoyance. There was a puzzled growl as he whirled about in preparation for a second charge. Once again Silvaticus evaded those sharp fangs and curved talons of death.
No less then five times the black lion charged and missed his quarry. King Stephanos found himself admitting a grudging admiration. Here indeed was a husband worthy of his Lady Amber. He cast an approving glance at her and was surprised to see her earlier terror replaced by an expression of hope. Could she really believe the naked barbarian might forever avoid certain death?
Stephanos could not know, as did Amber, that Jer’ok of the Aranda was not merely postponing the inevitable. Hope had sprung unbidden to her breast because she knew her mate was eluding the mad charges with very little expenditure of energy. Harr, on the other hand, was exhausting himself with his futile attacks. The man would not allow the great cat to close for the kill. Only the Lord of Ashtar has the speed and agility to succeed as so desperate a stratagem. But succeed he did!
Harr’s charges were slowing. It was perceptible even to those far less observant than the beast-man. Harr was no longer roaring or growling. The heavy beast needed all his breath for the business at hand. He was tiring. Jer’ok knew the precise moment when Harr was vulnerable to his strength. Once again the mighty carnivore turned and charged. But this time the man was not satisfied merely to elude the attack. As the panting lion grazed his side, the beast-man grasped a handful of course black man and swung himself astride.
Like an infuriated horse, Harr reared over backward to dislodge his hated humankind burden. Unlike the equine, the feline was possessed of wicked weapons of offense to destroy the man once he was deposited on the ground.
Once again Jer’ok was too swift for Harr. The nimble beast-man rolled free before the creature struck the ground with a grunt. The air rushed from his lungs. Instantly Jer’ok closed again. Incredibly, the heavy head was pushed downward between the massive forelegs.
Jer’ok strained the great head forward. His steel thews and sinews nearly cracked with the extraordinary exertion. If Harr should find a way to break his hold, the beast-man knew he could not regain his grip and outlast the great cat. Almost imperceptibly the head bent ever lower. The cat set his muscles in opposition to the force that threatened his very life. Jer’ok’s endurance was formidable, but even he began to doubt it would be unwavering for all the time that was needed. Then he sensed Harr’s sudden relaxation. With one final mighty effort the man demanded still more of his own protesting muscles. Jer’ok knew the victory was his long before the neck could actually snap.
The hot sun shone on the coppery hide as Jer’ok’s might muscles strained. The lion struggled feebly, but the grip of the beast-man was relentless. The crowd was on its feet. The silent struggle persisted without respite. Even in the extremity of the moment, Jer’ok experienced a deep regret that his magnificent foe would not heed his pers-alata, the Aranda call for surrender. Even should Harr yield, what fate other than captivity and ultimate death be his reward? This beast would suffer no more at the whim of Mithos.
Seconds passed into minutes. It was as though the combatants had been frozen in living marble. The suspense was unbearable. Then a crack as sharp as one of the bolts of Zeus ravaged the ears of the Mithonians. There was even a feminine scream, and several of the men in the audience found their ladies fainting in their arms. For another moment the silence endured before a mighty roar of approval echoed and re-echoed from the very mountains of Mithos. The hysterical crowd rose in acclimation of the victorious Silvaticus.
Jer’ok was oblivious to their acclaim. For a moment the beast-man permitted himself to rest against the coarse hide of Harr. Overtaxed muscles trembled with fatigue. He would not rise until his body was again fully within his control.
When at last the Lord of Ashtar did arise and step away from his slain opponent, only the relentless surging of his massive chest betrayed the extent of his effort. He raised his handsome head to survey his captors. He ignored their continuing cries of praise and turned his attention to the royal loge and its hated occupants. There would be no better opportunity for the escape for which he had long endured in vain. The king and queen were both present. The beast-man did not care that they were surrounded by guards, nor did he recognise the noble lady who leaned against the king’s arm for support. His golden-green eyes were fixed only on Queen Varela. They glinted in hatred.
The beast-man had long ago learned the wisdom of cunning. He tossed his head in pride and approached the loge as if to acknowledge the praise of his royal patroness. The spell of his astonishing performance had not yet broken. The occupants of the loge were mesmerised into complacency. Only one of them was in the slightest prepared for what followed.
QUEEN VARELA OBSERVED her slave’s approach with approval. At last he would bow to her authority. That it would come at his moment of supreme triumph was altogether fitting. It was right that she share in his glory. It was she after all who had provided him with a succession of opponents unprecedented in their unmistakable tribute to his prowess. The queen rose to meet him. In her hand was the laurel wreath she would place upon his brow.
Drusus cried a warning, but it was too late. Instead of executing the eagerly awaited salute Silvaticus sprang into the loge itself. Varela screamed as an alert guard pushed her roughly aside only to die when the savage tore open his throat with his teeth.
Varela saw death in the cold golden eyes. The savage now had the guard’s javelin, and its point sought her heart. She close her eyes in terror and waited for the fatal thrust she could not hope to escape.
When it did not come, Varela’s eyes flew open. What added horror did the unpredictable wild man intend? What Varela saw brought a triumphant smile to her lips. Silvaticus was staring at the king’s ward with an unfathomable expression of wonder. His lapse lasted no more than a second, but it was long enough for Drusus.
Only Varela’s warning cry turned aside the equestrian’s thrust. Instead of severing the distracted savage’s spine, the sword cut deep into his arm. Silvaticus staggered forward toward the foreign woman, but the king’s guards sprang into belated action and beat him backward before he could effect whatever he intended for her. Their fellows joined them now and roughly hauled the bleeding savage backward out of the loge. But Queen Varela had eyes only for the barbarian who was the king’s ward. She had recognised the woman who had evoked unexpected distraction. This indeed was Queen Varela’s moment of supreme triumph.
“AT LEAST TELL me whether he still lives, Stephanos.” Amber pleaded shamelessly with the king for the help only he could give. “He is my husband,” she added softly.
King Stephanos was relieved that Amber was retaining sufficient presence of mind to approach him only when he came to her apartments to share a private supper rather than in the audience chambre. At least he would be permitted to disappoint her in the seclusion this private retreat afforded. Yet he had no cause to be shamed by the Lady Amber or by his necessary denial of her heartfelt pleas. She remained scrupulously true to her noble blood even though her petition was as desperate as any brought to him amid the loudest of lamentations. King Stephanos sensed the sacrifice of pride that this outlander woman would never have made on her own behalf. Though fearing the ultimate result, he relented. This final request at least might be granted.
“He is alive.”
Because he was king, Stephanos did not cringe at the sudden renewal of hope underlying the breathless exclamation. He hastened, however, to forestall any further plea for the barbarian slave’s welfare. Stephanos would be long in accepting the former relationship between his charming ward and the savage Silvaticus.
“I have done what I can, Lady Amber,” more formally than she deserved. “Your – husband – lives.” It was nigh impossible for the Mithonian to accept that word. “I can do no more. His fate is in the hands of the queen.”
The king had to avoid Amber’s steady regard. Seldom had the Mithonian leader felt so ineffective. In truth, he had secretly hoped the man dead. Now he would do anything if only the life of his adversary unaware be preserved. But the boon that hovered unspoken on Amber’s lips was not within his power to grant. Stephanos could not, nor would he, defy the law of Mithos. Personal honour forbade doing so no matter the personal cost.
Stephanos sighed deeply. It always seemed so simple. A king is all-powerful. He need do no more than utter an order and anything might be accomplished. Stephanos was honest enough to admit it frequently was the case. But not this time; not when it meant more to him than anything ever had. He rose from the table that had been placed between the two couches. Neither he nor Amber had touched any of the food. Now it was cold and unappealing, had either any appetite for it. Amber had refused even to taste the light wine.
“Yes, I am the king. The king who loves you, Lady Amber. I would give my life if it would save your Lord Charwick for you.” Missing the irony of the slight emphasis, Amber shook her head in denial, but Stephanos stopped her. “Yes, it is true. You may believe or not as you will.” He paused to allow her to regain a fragment of her calm before continuing. “He has been condemned, Amber, and for good cause. The queen has been merciful.”
At Amber’s fierce denial, Stephanos shook his head in empathy for her helpless cause, “It is true,” he repeated without emphasis. “Had he merely been captured and enslaved I could compel her . . . to transfer ownership. But he has gone too far. He attacked the queen and would have slain her before witnesses, not once but twice. It is a simple matter. It is the queen’s right, and hers alone, to defer execution so long as the slave serves her. Silvaticus pleases Varela or . . . ”
Amber doubted Jer’ok’s execution would be deferred for long. His untamed spirit would never willingly accept slavery. In the arena he might be forced to enter into arranged combats – he would not willingly forfeit his life to another bent on slaying him, but elsewhere . . . , elsewhere, she knew he would accept death rather than submit. She must find a way to secure his release before it was too late. What words would sway Stephanos, her only ally? But before she could find the words to promise that which she knew Stephanos was yearning, he silenced her with his final words on the subject. Amber recognised defeat in his sad eyes.
“No beloved. Say no more. This is not how I would win you. Though you tempt me almost beyond redemption.
“Amber, I cannot tell you how sorry I am. But I am bound by law. Were he any other, I would order his execution myself, despite the queen’s dangerous game. Can you not see? The king more than any other is bound to the laws of Mithos. I can do nothing. When Varela tires of him, he will be put to death.”
“Where is he?”
Stephanos filled his own goblet and drained it to calm his tortured nerves. He had given his heart to a woman only once before. Varela had proven unworthy of him. Now, too late, he had found the one who should be queen. But her love was exclusively for a condemned slave. Until that slave was dead, Stephanos’ love would remain unrequited. He found himself wishing he shared of Varela’s questionable morals. If he did, the slave would not long stand between the King of Mithos and his love. Stephanos refilled his goblet and drank again before speaking.
“Amber, against all custom I have made you welcome here. I have afforded you my protection. You are to me worthy of all that is mine to give you. But you will obey me in this. You will not see Silvaticus. You will do nothing to help him. If you defy me in this, you, too, will be beyond my help. Please, Amber, believe me. Nothing can be done for him. Forget him as swiftly as you can.”
Stephanos replaced the empty goblet on the table. He rose to come to Amber’s side and draw her to him. Tenderly, he kissed her brow. She was like ice. Amber said nothing more, but her head was high in stubborn defiance. He tilted her chin so she would look at him again.
“I am your friend. Believe that. So long as you remain among us, you will be my ward. I ask nothing in return, save friendship.” His voice was sad when he continued. “If you wish to leave Mithos now, or ever, I will help you.”
Amber offered no response. There was nothing more for either of them to say. Presently, Stephanos left Lady Amber alone in her cheerless apartments. He fervently hoped she would regain her trust in him and honour his urgent demands, but he rather doubted she would. He could not fail to hear her vow before he closed the door behind him.
“I will never forget him!”
It chilled Stephanos to the bone.
JER’OK WAS QUIET. He no longer possessed either the strength or the will to fight. The royal physician had at last completed his ministrations. He then bandaged the arm with ungentle efficiency. When he finished, he lifted Jer’ok’s head and forced a foul-tasting liquid between his lips. Jer’ok thought he must be suffering from delirium for, when he refused to drink, the physician leaned closer and spoke coldly in Tae, “Drink it, Lord Charwick, all of it. It will ease the pain. You are not without friends.”
Though he wondered at the physician’s strange manner in contrast to the man’s words in Tae, Jer’ok obeyed.
At the physician’s departure, the guard moved swiftly to retie the thongs that held the injured arm. Queen Varela was taking no more chances. She was not satisfied to lock Silvaticus behind the bars of his small cell. Four stakes had been driven deep into the flooring, and the dangerous savage was bound to them with many strands of tough leather.
The queen may have subdued him at last, but Jer’ok’s mind remained free. One thought sustained him. Amber lived! His mate was alive and well.
The beast-man reflected on what he had seen in the brief moments before he lost consciousness after defeating Harr and making his most recent break for freedom. His mate did not appear to be a prisoner. Certainly she was not subject to the queen’s power. For that at least he was grateful. He searched his memory for more. Her appearance was that of a Mithonian lady. That explained why he had not recognised her more quickly. The beast-man stirred restlessly against his bonds as he also recalled that while she freely accepted the stranger’s support, her eyes reflected her love for Jer’ok when they had met his. It was Amber’s face that Jer’ok had last seen before he was felled.
The beast-man’s physical wound was deep enough to be painful but was far from fatal. Thanks to Jason Tiberius there would be no dangerous fever. That which had at last sapped his strength was not of the body. It was Jer’ok’s spirit which was damaged.
How cruel are the workings of the Stars! Just when Jer’ok of the Aranda should have found hope reborn and the will to live renewed, he had, by his own improvident rage, brought down on his head the certainty of imminent execution. Now that he knew Amber to be alive, his own will to live burned once again. Jer’ok resisted the urge to lunge against the restraints, for he knew it to be futile. For the first time in his life he tasted of the bitterness of defeat.
For the remainder of the night he drifted in and out of drugged sleep. He awoke before dawn. The first light of the new day glowed through the slit in the wall when Jer’ok heard a soft step. The beast-man steeled himself for whatever was to come.
The vestiges of the draught the physician had given him and the uncertain light of the cell were playing tricks on mind. The beast-man detected a soft perfume, not the queen’s – nor Amber’s, as the intruder approached. The sweet face of a woman swam into view and then receded. Despite the certain reality, Jer’ok experienced a moment of poignant hope.
“No, Lord Charwick, I am Lucia. The Lady Amber has sent me to you.
This new voice with its unmistakable message of hope was kind. Jer’ok relaxed. He did not struggle when once again his head was lifted and liquid trickled down his throat.
“My lady says this will give you strength, my lord. She says you are to take courage. Sooner or later you will be together again. She will find a way. Remember this: the king is a friend. Regain your strength and take courage. There will be a way.”
Once again Jer’ok had cause to wonder, but he would heed the encouragement the pretty slave girl, whose courage drained as she breathlessly completed the message as bidden by Amber. He drank deeply of the bitter brew Lucia offered. Its strength instantly began to spread its warmth to his stiffened limbs, and Jer’ok found himself able to think more clearly.
“Is the guard here?”
“No, my lord,” Lucia whispered. “Do you have a message for my lady?”
“Jer’ok let his head fall back into the straw. What could he say that his mate did not already know? While she waited his word, Lucia found a bit of cloth and dipped it in the small vessel of water the physician had neglected to take with him. Gently, she pressed it against the darkening bruise over his eye.
Emboldened, perhaps by the prisoner’s calm, Lucia’s voice rose slightly above a whisper, “If you have some message, my lord, you must tell me quickly. I must go before the guard suspects I was not sent by the queen or the royal physician.”
She rose and returned to the door before Jer’ok spoke. She paused there to listen.
“She has always known.” Before going on, Jer’ok remembered what he had seen in the queen’s eyes in the last moments of their most recent confrontation. “But, Lucia, tell Amber this: she must beware the queen. Warn her. The queen is her enemy.”
THE ENCOUNTER WITH Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk had brought Amber Southerly as close to hysteria as she had ever been. It had only been with the strongest effort of a strong will that the woman had refrained from physically taking a hand in his defence. Neither Mithonian royalty nor the imposing presence of the powerful guards had served to stay her hand. Rather it was the sure knowledge that any move she might make in defence of the rampaging slave would be useless now and would forfeit for all time any help her friendship with the king might afford that slave.
When Jer’ok had been dragged, apparently lifeless, from the loge and the royal party had removed to the palace, it was easy for her to withdraw to the privacy of her own apartments to recover from the shock. Under the circumstances many of the ladies in proximity to the royal loge had found it necessary to go into temporary seclusion to restore their composure. Only King Stephanos correctly interpreted the Lady Amber’s need for privacy. He wisely declined to intrude. Indeed, he had his hands full in dealing with Queen Varela’s understandable hysteria. The fate of the slave who had provoked the widespread terror was for the moment quite forgotten.
Now having failed in her private supplication before the king, Amber firmly dismissed the guard Stephanos left at her door. Ever sensitive to Amber’s moods, Lucia withdrew from the apartments. Amber clearly needed the time alone to compose her thoughts and to contrive the means whereby Jer’ok might be released to the king. Following their private audience over a repast neither of them had touched, even Stephanos might have been shocked at her appearance of calm. He would not soon forget her vow, uncertain though its full import might be. He would never have conceived of her capacity for cool calculation on behalf of her mate.
After her calm entreaties to King Stephanos had met with so little success, Amber defied him only to the extent of confiding in Lucia. In the morning she despatched the girl to Jer’ok with the essentially empty promise of hope. For Amber was, in fact, quite without hope. If Stephanos refused to change his mind and pressure Varela to turn Jer’ok over to the king’s tender mercies, there was nought the frail stranger to the ways of Mithos could accomplish. And Jer’ok would surely die at the queen’s hand, for he would never serve her; Amber doubted he would ever again be permitted the relative freedom of the arena. He was simply too dangerous.
GIVEN ALL THAT had gone before, it was with renewed shock that Amber witnessed an incontrovertible proof that the Lord of Ashtar had at last been tamed. It had begun on a disarmingly pleasant day. King Stephanos had invited his ward to attend him at what promised to be a brief day of audiences. They would then pass the afternoon together riding the quiet paths that wandered through the forests of Mithos. He recognised her deep sorrow and hoped to ease it with a return to their former companionship, the unknown fate of Silvaticus notwithstanding.
Amber was delayed by some small matter and stood behind the chambre’s heavy drapery of royal purple, awaiting an opportunity to enter without distracting the king or drawing the attention of the small gathering of nobles. She had no desire to engage in the dramatic entrances in which Queen Varela delighted. Before she could step beyond the drapery, Amber espied a tall slave in the queen’s livery and armed with a heavy spear enter the chambre and proceed directly to the queen’s throne.
It is not surprising that Amber initially failed to recognise him. He was almost at the foot of the throne before Amber noted first the familiarity of his bold stride and then the handsome features, as devoid of expression as she had ever seen them. With perfect poise Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk paused at the feet of the queen and knelt in the profound obeisance Amber Southerly had first witnessed when she had been thrust into the welcome protection of the Mithonian king. No one, not even the beast-man, took note of her sudden departure, marked only by a disturbance in the stuff of the drapery. It fell to Lucia later to inform the king that the Lady Amber was indisposed and regretted that she would not be able to attend him today.
QUEEN VARELA WAS greatly pleased as she made her way to her place in the audience chambre. Her pride was gratified by the stir her entrance created among those present. Her new bodyguard was indeed most imposing.
Today Queen Varela sat at the king’s side, having only recently made a habit of attending his audiences. According to custom Silvaticus, now serving as bodyguard, was stationed at her side just behind her throne. The subtle rustling sweeping the chambre upon the royal entry did nothing to distract him; his demeanor, stride, and stance upon arrival were flawless, as though he had been born for the presence of royalty and nobility. Varela was pensive as she chanced a glance back to where he stood at stiff attention. The transformation from untamed savage to proper servant was truly uncanny.
Bored with the proceedings, Varela mused on the transformation. It had been almost too easy. After all the extraordinary events of the recent past, Varela had accomplished in only a few moments what Drusus and all his forces had perpetually failed.
The queen reflected on her triumph with a superiour smile that would not be repressed. She had merely waved the guard aside and boldly entered the cell where the savage lay bound. Silvaticus glared up at her. He had yet to learn his place. But his defiance was a thing of the past when the queen departed his cell.
All that was needed was to advise him of the vulnerability of the king’s ward, who could not be protected over every hour of every day. In addition to the queen herself – never one averse to taking violent action against another – there were Drusus and the forces who had previously failed in bringing Sylvaticus to heel. An unarmed woman would be utterly defenceless against so many, despite the best intentions of the king, her sole protector. Obedience and deference on the part of Silvaticus alone would preserve the foreign woman’s life, a matter to be withheld from all concerned, not that anyone would heed the word of a condemned slave elevated to a position of prominence – under questionable circumstances. And should any harm at all fall to the queen herself . . . , she shrugged, leaving the consequences to the slave’s imagination.
Queen Varela left the cell with sullen assurances of service faithful and never less than rigidly dignified. And Silvaticus would die to protect the queen from harm. Her only doubt, now dismissed, was whether the savage could be taught the dignity requisite to serving royalty.
The wound Silvaticus had most recently suffered healed quickly at the hands of Jason Tiberius. The small scar was hidden beneath the sleeve of the slave’s green tunic. There would be no impairment of the use of his arm. That was fortunate. Queen Varela could hardly be served by one who could neither hurl a spear nor pull a bow when needed. The queen had closely watched over the recovery of her prize. This time there had been no mysterious decline leading to fatal results. Only the physician was permitted attendance. She even had him watched – discreetly.
The queen was now accompanied by Silvaticus whenever she appeared in public. Though not endowed with those qualities herself, Varela soon discovered the honour and loyalty that were her’s to command. It was not long before Silvaticus was entrusted with increasingly sensitive missions. The queen’s trust was never once misplaced. And through it all his manner was proper, without flaw. If Silvaticus had been born to serve the Queen of Mithos, he could not have been a more accomplished attendant.
Varela’s thoughts continue to stray over the events of the last several months. Seldom did her attention return to the proceedings before her and never to the actual words exchanged between king and petitioners. She had expected to be bored by the audiences conducted by her husband, and nothing relieved the tedium. Worse, she was annoyed to find the Lady Amber at his left hand. Still, that development might prove amusing. Whenever the queen’s gaze returned to her, the foreign woman’s regard was steady on the succession of Mithonians coming forward to petition the throne for justice. Her attention was unwavering. The queen pouted in petulant bad humour. If only she would look at him.
Varela stole a look at Silvaticus as he stood at rigid attention beside her throne. He was handsome – for a barbarian. Varela wondered if he had seen the Lady Amber. But his eyes remained remote, focused beyond the figures massed about the stage of royalty. The queen turned her attention to the king, who was speaking to a rough fellow who was certainly beneath the notice of the royal couple. Varela sighed with resignation and toyed with the emeralds at her throat. As she did so, her eye turned again onto the foreign woman. The eyes of the king’s ward were now downcast. In the plain white and the few jewels she affected, the Lady Amber was as dull as a barnyard fowl. Varela’s mood lightened as she witnessed the sorrow creeping unheeded over the face of the despised outlander.
Once again the queen glanced at Silvaticus. This time she was rewarded. His eyes now rested on the woman at the king’s side. It was strange. Varela had previously noticed a faint scar across his forehead. The did not, however, recall that its vivid slash so marred his handsome features. She wondered idly how it had come to be and why it should be so obvious now. An intriguing puzzle; the queen’s attention strayed to other matters.
The young queen was not one to take notice of the feral rage that smouldered beneath the placid exterior Jer’ok maintained. Since his final days in the arena, the thin veneer of civilisation that held Jer’ok of the Aranda at bay had never before been more fragile. It could not shatter as it had in the arena, no matter the provocation.
Drusus observed the fascinating pantomime from his place among the nobility in the audience chambre. Where previously he had despised the incorrigible savage, the equestrian now feared what he had become. He feared the influence the admittedly stalwart slave was sure to exert on the impressionable Varela, if not now, far too soon for the jealous Mithonian’s liking. The little fool would probably think herself in love with him. That any involvement with the outlander was strictly against the edicts of Mithonian law would mean little to Varela; human decency was beyond her. It was a trait the queen and the equestrian shared. No doubt she would seek to advance this creature, even grant him freedom if not citizenship itself. There was no end to what Queen Varela might contrive – at least in the mind of her favourite.
As for the slave himself, there was no doubt in the febrile mind of Drusus. He attributed his own ambitions to Silvaticus. Like any other man the barbarian would be besotted by Varela’s charms and would aspire to unknown heights. To the inwardly seething equestrian the throne itself seemed not an unlikely goal to which the savage might harbor an ambition. It seemed that none should notice his state of mind, but Drusus had patience. He, too, was capable of concealing his true nature. He would bide his time. His chance would come. Even should he be forced to wait for the time when he had replaced Stephanos on the throne, Drusus vowed that the savage Silvaticus would one day be destroyed by his hand. Not slain, Drusus promised himself, but destroyed.
THE GODS SMILED on the royal hunting party. The weather was perfect and the game plentiful. So plentiful in fact that, while the king and his party had followed a wily lioness they sought for the arena, Varela and Drusus had separated to follow divergent tracks that promised two splendid trophies. They had laughingly wagered on the outcome. But Varela had to promise she would use only spears. Her arrows, Drusus complained, were guided today by the hand of Artemis herself.
Varela was happy because it was true not one of her arrows had missed its mark. Drusus was content because his relationship with the queen had not suffered in the slightest since Silvaticus had resigned himself to his destiny in Mithos. If anything, Varela was more pliant than at any time Drusus could bring to mind. Better still, Drusus’ ambitions for the future were developing apace. Only one matter marred the perfection of the day. Silvaticus, as always, was not far behind the queen’s light chariot. Drusus was alert for an opportunity to bring his influence to an end.
Already the slain quarry was piled high. The slaves would make many heavily burdened treks back to the city before darkness fell. Jer’ok was sickened by the wanton destruction of his unfortunate fellow beasts.
Now the queen’s party were in pursuit of Lopus, the deer, to complete their tally of destruction. The flighty creature had bolted from his secure place in the thickets. Jer’ok had seen the blind panic of Lopus and experienced an instant of empathy with him. As the beast-man jogged behind the queen’s chariot, his heart was heavy. The forest surrounded them now. If only Jer’ok could turn aside to disappear among the leafy highways of the middle terrace. Silvaticus would be forgotten in the blinking of an eye, and the Lord of Ashtar would live once again. But it could not be. Amber’s life rested in the hands of Silvaticus, the perfect minion of the spoiled Queen of Mithos.
In the absence of Drusus, inevitably, beautiful Lopus fell to Queen Varela’s spear. A morose Jer’ok squatted on his haunches some distance away while the lifeless thing that only seconds before had pulsed with magnificent vitality was prepared for the return to the city. He despised the hunters who would leave the good meat for Shag the hyena. They sought only the head for disgusting display among the other tokens of their poor skills. His own spear lay close at hand, but the queen’s attendant could relax his vigilance for the moment. Jer’ok’s thoughts strayed afar in the infinity of time and space.
Suddenly the beast-man’s head came up. His sensitive nostrils tested the air. The scent of fresh blood had drawn another, more dangerous hunter. Swiftly Jer’ok swarmed to his feet, spear in hand. He moved toward the queen. He prayed he was not too late.
Harr burst from the underbrush. His victim had already been selected long before he launched his charge. Black destruction bore down on the oblivious queen.
Jer’ok called a warning even as he cast the spear. All the power of the giant muscles impelled the missile on its faithful course. It met Harr’s rush as the great carnivore rose in the final stupendous leap that would slay not only Queen Varela but also the Lady Amber. The spear pierced Harr’s heart, but the fatal wound was insufficient to bring the beast’s charge to an instantaneous halt. Belatedly, Varela’s companions moved to protect their sovereign. One of them boldly bore her the ground.
Varela was fortunate. The lion was dead by the time his body struck her, and he collapsed almost on top of her. Thanks to the combined efforts of her slave and her companions, all the queen suffered was a long scratch on her bare leg.
As Jer’ok reached the queen’s side, her remaining companions were dazedly heaving Harr’s body to one side. He saw that Queen Varela was not seriously injured, frightened though she might be. The nobility of Mithos ignored the slave who had preserved the queen’s life, but Varela herself experienced the novel emotion of gratitude. She looked beyond her companions to the tall figure who waited to do her bidding.
“Come forward, Silvaticus.” Her voice shook, whether from fear or some other emotion not even Varela knew. When he stood at attention before her, Varela actually stammered her curt thanks: “You saved my life. I am grateful, Silvaticus; you will be rewarded.”
Jer’ok inclined his head in acknowledgment but said nothing. In confusion Varela turned to one of her mounted escort.
“Go for Drusus. I wish him to assist my return to the city. I will need the talents of
All eyes turned to the presumptuous slave. His recent service did not excuse this boldness. But Varela beckoned for him to speak.
“Queen Varela, if you will permit it, I can travel through the forest more quickly than the swiftest horseman. I will bring Drusus here.” Jer’ok felt no need to reveal his tracking skills would also serve.
Thus did Jer’ok find himself speeding through the swaying trees as earlier he had hopelessly dreamed. It was not the same as it would have been were the beast-man pursuing some purpose of his own or no purpose at all, but the momentary thrill of this unanticipated foray into the friendly forest was an experience Jer’ok would not soon forget. All too soon he found the spot where Varela and Drusus had separated. With a shrug of one copper shoulder, Jer’ok left the swaying branches to locate the equestrian’s party.
It was fortunate for the future not only of Mithos that it was the beast-man who had been dispatched in the place of a Mithonian rider. The beast-man soon discovered Drusus had left the hunt as well as the Queen’s side. Fortunately, Jer’ok experienced no difficulty following the equestrian’s faint spoor, which led eventually led the stalking beast-man to a small clearing. There the caution of the wild beast that never left him served Jer’ok well.
The equestrian was not alone. Lord Drusus was surrounded by an unsavoury assortment of denizens of the portions of the city that no noble should have occasion to frequent. The wary beast-man paused to watch the gathering from a distant tree. Impetuously, Jer’ok decided to determine why it was that the Lord Drusus should be engaged in conversation with this unworthy company in this unlikely location. Silent as a shadow, the beast-man circle closer until he could listen, hidden by the foliage that rustled softly about the sturdy branch bearing his weight. As he witnessed what was unfolding below, the beast-man began to scowl.
Jer’ok waited until the ugly henchmen moved to depart on their way back to the city. Then he once again moved silently through the trees that surrounded the clearing. As a result the Lord of Two Worlds failed to hear the reference to Chimur that never should have issued from Mithonian lips. He was not to know that his identity and that of his lady-wife were no mystery to Drusus.
History has not recorded all the passed between the equestrian and the unknown citizens of Mithos. What has since been revealed by various means might well have gone something like this: “Speaking of the Chimurians,” one of the conspirators grinned, “have you made any progress?”
If the question would not have served to alert Jer’ok, the answer would have brought a snarl to his handsome lips – if only he had heard it.
“Yes,” replied Drusus with lowered voice though there was none about who might overhear. “Yes. Our Kryptane friend, I am nearly certain, has gained the complete trust of the one. The other,” Drusus paused for reflect, and his smile was utterly malicious, “will not matter. Varela can be useful, for all her foolishness.”
“It will not be long before we are able to make another shipment of those who have fallen in the arena.”
“Silvaticus?” came the laconic query.
The smile vanished without a trace. In its place a pensive expression crossed the cruel features.
“Would that I could. Unfortunately, Varela also presents a very real impediment. But his time will come.”
The Mithonian’s tone was a frigid as the deepest reaches of the space that holds prisoner the cold stars beyond the Valley of Mithos. The very tone was a dismissal. No more was said by any of the conspirators.
As he moved through the trees Jer’ok heard only Drusus’ call for his entourage, followed by the sound of the chariot returning to the abandoned hunt. The beast-man swung on through the middle terrace until he came to a bend in the trail the equestrian and his mounted escort were following. He paused until the Mithonian’s chariot was nearly beneath the branch on which he was poised. Then the beast-man dropped lightly to the ground and waved the startled Mithonians to a halt.
“Silvaticus! What does this mean? How dare you leave the queen? If you have deserted her, wild man, I will have you put to death.” The nobleman subsided into belligerent silence. He ran out of breath from the exertion of bringing his startled horses back under control and from the emotion that welled at the sight of the thoroughly hated slave.
Jer’ok placed a calming hand on the nearest horse and bowed before Drusus. His manner Drusus recognised as a studied insult. The equestrian fumed with impotent fury. For the time he had only one weapon, even more ineffective.
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