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Volume 6054

I.  First Encounter
THIS WAS A hunt remarkable even in the last remote corner of Gemini where the unusual is commonplace.  But this was not the first time the two magnificent beasts had hunted together.  Each knew the subtle signals conveyed by the other in the cooperative effort.  There was no need for vocalization beyond the occasional snuff of query and answering low growl of assent or dissent.

But the Black Lion was growing tired of the stalk.  His belly was empty and he knew there was to be no meat to reward this hunt.  He stopped to scratch an ear and uttered a mild complaint.  His companion hissed a warning.  The man's attention was not to be diverted although he, too, was hungry.  Sometimes there are more important matters at hand.  An empty belly can wait.

One of the great savannahs of Ashtar's largest continent spread far and wide behind them.  Unusual scents and a faint sound had drawn their attention to the rolling bank of hills separating the savannah from the bush marking the edge of the lush jungle growth beyond.  They could not yet discern the source of the intrusion, and the caution of the wild demanded stealth as they crept closer to investigate.

But for the unpredictable wanderings of Mael, the wind, the savannah was stifling hot.  It was the time of day when Ashtar's abundant beasts made themselves scarce.  Each in the manner of its kind took refuge from Sanjera's fierce glare.  It was a poor time for the hunt.  And yet these two persisted in their stealthy movements, unmistakably those of the prowling predator.  They were undaunted by the fierce heat of Sanjera, the sun.  It was playful Mael who threatened them.  While steady, Mael not only cooled them in the shimmering heat of the grasslands but carried to them the scent of their quarry.  At the same time their own mingled scents were carried safely across the dry grass.

The two edged forward as Mael again touched their faces and held steady.  And stopped when the wind deserted them yet again.  This time the Black Lion, maned but more like a Terran cheetah than that planet’s leonine creature, whined a mild protest, but again it was met with no more than a quick movement of the other demanding silence.  Saar shook his great mane and then lifted his muzzle to a new and more promising scent wafted from the jungle with Mael's latest return.  Without further ado, the lithe beast rose and stretched.  He looked over to his companion with an expression that conveyed hope and then, when it was clear Jer'ok was not about to desert his own hunt, strode with great dignity in pursuit of the tantalizing spoor.

No sooner had Saar made his departure, than Jer’ok had their quarry nearly within sight.  Their patient stalking had brought the beast-man to the very edge of a steep rise overlooking the intruders.

From the rise Jer'ok crept close enough to observe while remaining undetected.  Below him the white-robed Khazarish carried out their affairs all unaware of the dangerous scrutiny.  These, not game, were the objects of his hunt, the most dangerous of all predators: humankind.

The man harbored no doubt about the motives of this dangerous enemy.  That their presence here so near his territory was of malevolent intent was certain.  The Khazarish, little known beyond that small bit of the Primeval Planet over which they hold brutal sway, are the most dangerous of humankind on Ashtar.  And they had reason to hate the beast-man who was now watching their every move.

If the stalker was perturbed by the defection of his companion, he shrugged it off.  The relationship of Jer'ok-ta of the Aranda – Hunterfolk – with Saar, the Ashtarian Black Lion known to Aranda as Cita, had never been that of master and slave but of equals.  Their binding was one of mutual respect.  For all his san-k'aranda appearance, Jer'ok had earned that respect.

INDEED, SHOULD ONE explore the feline mind of Cita, Jer'ok was unlike anything in Saar's experience.  He looked nothing like the Aranda among whom he was most often to be found.  Far taller with his upright stance and slim by comparison, Jer'ok's body was as naked as those of the occasional san-k'aranda Saar always scrupulously avoided upon recognition.  While Hunterfolk were covered with a fine fur – nothing to compare with the lion's black coat with its multi-coloured highlights – Jer'ok's hide was smooth, yet unlike that of humankind.  It shone with the colour of the sands near the great salt Sa'nea beyond the trees in first twilight, when the very air seemed to be drenched in the mingled bloods of many strange beings.

Jer'ok's inadequate mane was so short it barely touched his shoulders, but it, too, was a rich dark colour, nearer to the hue of his skin than to the darkness of Saar's own luxuriant mane which swept back from his noble head nearly halfway to the root of his tail.  Sly Saar was not above allowing Jer'ok to see how superior he really was with the proud toss of his head to lift the long thick strands for a truly formidable display of feline presence.

At such times Jer'ok would bare his teeth with a sound unique to him.  It was not a rise to Saar's challenge but promised the onset of a romp.  At first the Black Lion had been very gentle in play with Jer'ok, but he soon discovered the beast-man was not so frail as he looked.  Jer'ok was as quick as any of Saar's kind, and his strength could be downright dangerous even if he did lack the formidable talons of Cita.  Jer'ok's forelimbs were powerful enough, and should he wield the odd fang that rested against one long hind limb, the beast-man might be invulnerable.

Saar had been tempted more than once to unsheathe his own deadly talons, but that would have been a betrayal.  Moreover, the Black Lion had no desire to face that fang.  He had witnessed the lethal wounds it could inflict.

Strangest of all, however, were Jer'ok's eyes.  They were totally unlike the eyes of Aranda.  Saar believed, incorrectly, that they were san-k'aranda.  Usually Jer'ok's eyes were like those of Cita:  a golden green with a proper dark slit that widened as darkness approached.  But there were times when those eyes were as different as Jer'ok's skin; they actually glowed with a light the same color as Sanjera, the sun.

A scar further marred Jer'ok's already smooth and hairless face.  Sometime in his life a foe had sorely damaged him.  It had been long ago, for the scar was all but unnoticeable unless the beast-man was aroused by threat or call to battle.  The faint mark ran from a place over one eye until it disappeared into Jer'ok's mane.  Along its path the fine hair was as white as that of the oldest leader of Aranda Saar had ever known.

Once Saar had learned to accept Jer'ok's disturbing form and otherness, the Black Lion found him truly Aranda in some ways, but far more amenable to the solitary life of a Cita bachelor than are any hunterfolk.  Indeed, hunterfolk bands, like san-k'aranda, were to be avoided as extremely dangerous, although the bands were mild enough if left unprovoked _ as was Jer'ok.

Saar was no longer disturbed by the look and ways of Jer'ok.  He was a skilled hunter to be trusted to take a stalking and its deadly climax to success.  Saar always ate well whenever he hunted with Jer'ok, despite today's odd departure from the business of feeding.  And when the hunt was over and their bellies full, Jer'ok's silent presence and willingness to scratch the itchy places on Saar's dark hide were pleasant indeed before sleeping away the heat of day or the span of near-dark.  Each could rest secure in the knowledge that the other would offer protection if a stranger should be so bold as to attack them.

JER'OK'S FEELING FOR Saar was no less respectful.  As the beast-man patiently watched over the activity below, he allowed his active mind its wanderings into his own past.  When he was still Ta’el-Char – a  child not yet named – as soon as his mother, Lael, allowed him to stray from her side, Jer'ok had spent entire days in observation of all the creatures of his adoptive homeland.  Sometimes Char, Lael's mate and the only father the beast-man had ever known, led Ta’el to others who shared the land over which the hunterfolk ranged.  Char, as best his meagre Aranda communication allowed, had taught young Tael the lessons to be learned of each beast they sought out or came upon in their roaming.

Of them all, Jer'ok found Cita most enticing, although he grew to a fondness for Muthus, the great shaggy mastodon, as well.  And in recent years, he might actually consort with striped Kiwasa or the spirited Khazarish stallion now grazing himself fat among the mares at the Southerly plantation on the other side of the jungle.

As he grew in understanding and jungle craft, Ta’el had often ventured alone among the other beasts.  His human mind had stored and retained far more detail of the ways of Ashtarian fauna than Aranda needs actually demanded.  Ta’el had learned for the sheer joy of knowing.  Once he had become Jer'ok-ta – Son of Storm – he was able to combine san-k'aranda abilities with Aranda.  As Saar would later discover, he had become formidable indeed.  But Jer'ok knew the proper behaviour of Cita and had clearly conveyed companionship from the very beginning.  Friends it was to be.  And Jer'ok's friends had good reason to rely upon the beast-man – and his enemies to fear him.

A smile softened the harsh countenance of Jer'ok at the recollection of his childhood and youth on Ashtar.  Those had been good times, and he often missed them when he was far from Ashtar's jungles and his life as Aranda.  But for the need of the moment, the smile might have become a low chuckle.  The Chimurian acquaintances of Leede Southerly would never have recognised this Jer'ok-ta as the Lord Charwick who frequented the court in Meridum and the estates at Battersea.

Jer'ok now understood that his companionship with Saar was possible because the beast-man was far closer in temperament to the creatures of Ashtar than to the people to which he had been born.  But this time, though neither would have forfeited the friendship, both Black Lion and beast-man would have reason to grieve as a result of their freedom to serve – or to desert – each other.  The unkind Stars were poised to intervene in their lives.

 SANJERA'S LIGHT GLISTENED along the coppery hide as the beast-man stetched full length in his watch over the activity below.  Jer'ok wore only the rough loin cloth some Aranda bucks fashioned more for decoration than for any san-k'aranda sense of modesty, a concept that had never occurred to Aranda.  Today his deceptively lithe body was free of any additional decoration.  The beast-man had been distracted from the Aranda band he had briefly joined this first dawn before he could find the leaves and feathers and other small treasures it pleased the bucks and shes to weave together and don.

As Jer'ok keenly observed the scene below him, Saar roared a last challenge to any who might question his right to the succulent young Kiwasa he had brought down.  His belly rumbled importantly, and Saar licked his chops in anticipation before methodically going about his feeding.  He wondered if Jer'ok might join him in the feast but would have soon forgotten his companion were it not for a vague unease.

The Black Lion was not long at his repast before he lifted his head to listen as intently as he had just been gnawing at the flesh of his prey.  He returned to feeding, but the distraction hovered.

As the stillness about the scene of carnage refilled with the song of bird and rustle of small creatures in the undergrowth, the scavengers drew near the abandoned kill.  It was unusual for the patience of their kind to be rewarded so readily.  Slowly, they slunk in to claim the unexpected bounty provided by Cita's strange discomfort.

WITH ALL THE caution of the wild beast mingled with his human need to determine what harm was being plotted below, Jer'ok had remained a silent observer until first twilight fell and was gone with the encroachment of near-dark.  With the loss of light, he became bolder and moved in closer to learn what he could from the conversation of the intruders.  He listened well into near-dark.  Torches were lit in the tent below.  The Khararish were plainly visible, and their voices carried in the altered atmosphere.

Remotely reminiscent of Terra's Bedouin in what roots they had, the Khazarish of Camassia seldom ventured south of their own territory into the jungles and savannahs.  The experienced marauders among them warned them away from the lands where they knew Jer'ok of the Hunterfolk ranged.  Only malignant intent would explain their presence in this place and at this time of the year.

They had long absented themselves from Jer'ok's territory.  But rumor of their renewed activity had reached the beast-man in the very heart of his own domain.  Curious, Jer'ok had been taking steps to pursue the rumors well before setting out today with Saar to stalk the strangers to determine their identity and likely intent.  Now the rumors were confirmed.  But what could be the Khazarish's purpose?

They were among the most notorious of the remnants of primitive Ashtar's slave traders, but Jer'ok had driven them out of his territory years before.  And now the native Ashtarians as well as Chimurians were taking an active stand to eliminate any remnants of slavery on Ashtar.  Thus, there was little profit to be found in the endeavor.

Jer'ok avoided most humankind contact while on Ashtar, but it was important to him that these Khazarish fail in whatever purpose they might have.

So it was that the beast-man became all too intent on the earnest conversation among the three leaders of the expedition.  He had heard enough to know that far more was at stake than his personal peace and security.  The ugly odour of Gemini politics was heavy in the air, and it disgusted the beast-man.  He would have to follow the conversation to its conclusion in order to secure evidence sufficient to satisfy the authorities of the High King.

But that was not to be.

Engrossed in the low conversation below and momentarily distracted by the far-off roar of Saar touched with an unwonted note of apprehension, Jer'ok was unaware of the steady regard of two pairs of cruel eyes.

The Khazarish guards had neither seen nor heard Jer'ok when the beast-man had first slunk close to the camp to commence his recogni¬sance.  Nor had they observed him as he closed in the better to hear their leaders.  Only by the merest chance had they caught sight of him as they made their rounds in the last fading light marking the onset of near-dark.

One, who recognised and knew the reputation of the beast-man, silently raised his weapon to his shoulder with a nasty smirk of anticipation.  But the other restrained his comrade-at-arms.  This one knew the importance of complete secrecy as well as the potential for gaining crucial information from local peoples.  He knew nothing of Jer-ok of the Hunterfolk.  He would take this naked savage prisoner.  The savage would reveal whether anything of the Khazarish plans had been betrayed and would provide them with whatever valuable information they sought of him.  If he survived, he might make a useful guide.

Angrily the ignorant one shouldered past his comrade and ap¬proached the savage with his own weapon reversed to become a heavy club.  Still Jer'ok remained unaware of their presence.

Jer'ok heard the approach and noted the change in pace even as the guard charged.  His senses and agility saved the beast-man from instantaneous defeat but not from injury.  The guard's makeshift club caught Jer'ok a stunning blow across the shoulders just as the beast-man turned, reaching for his knife, to defend himself.  In an instant all three found themselves in a battle for life.

THE THREE KHAZARISH leaders jumped free from their ornate camp chairs as the three antagonists suddenly burst into their tent, seemingly from out of nowhere.  As the startled leaders strained to follow the action, the torches cast an eerie glow on the combatants. The watchers' hearts chilled within them as, amidst the sounds of battle, the frustrated epithets of the guards were mingled with bestial growls of the savage they struggled in vain to subdue.  Precious seconds were lost before one of the leaders regained the presence of mind to clutch a short spear with which he sounded the imperious gong to rally the camp to their aid.

Jer'ok fought with all his savage fury, but he had been weakened by the initial blow.  He was unable to break free from his attackers before the remaining Khazarish came to the call of the leaders.  They burst into the tent.  At first they were unable to distinguish foe from comrade.  Then, in the violent confusion, they at last saw the naked savage locked in combat with the white-clad guards.

In less time than it takes to tell of it, the horde of Khazarish swept forward into the fray and overwhelmed the beast-man by sheer weight of numbers.  In another moment the knife was swept from Jer'ok's hand by the sharp slashing of a spear haft and he was dragged to his feet to face the Khazarish leaders.

"Who is this savage?" one of the two younger occupants of the tent demanded scornfully even as he found himself avoiding Jer'ok's baleful glare.  The guard who had recognised the beast-man rose unsteadily to his feet and, upon discovering himself only mildly damaged, was about to speak up only to lose his chance.  It was the oldest of the leaders who responded.  His quiet voice demanded immediate silence.

"This savage is the most dangerous of our enemies.  He is Jer'ok of the Hunterfolk."

Those who knew of the man or had heard the legends knew an instant of cold, sickening fear before reality restored their smug superiority.  Could it be true the infamous creature was actually in their power?  Those who restrained the passive beast-man wished in vain for a more substantial hold.  Alert now, their leaders called for heavy chains to be fetched.

"We have orders regarding this one . . . ," one began, only to be silenced by the hissed warning of another.

"It is essential that we discover just how much the creature has overheard,"  the oldest leader unknowingly affirmed the earlier thought of the guard.  But this one's momentary self-congratulations were chilled as the khan's cold gaze fell upon him.  There had been failure in allowing the savage to precipitate the three of them into the supposedly well guarded tent.  Somehow the guard avoided a servile cringe.

"How long, Zor, had he been observing us?"

The man known as Zor paused before electing truth the safest course.

"I know not, Khafajah Khan," the man replied with a voice stronger than he had feared, and then he confessed, "it was the merest chance we saw him at all.  The play of the changing light on the copper of his skin drew our attention."

The khan turned to Jer'ok and demanded the information of him.  But Jer'ok was not heeding the idle chatter about him.  He sensed the stealthy approach of his companion, Saar.

Deliberately the beast-man had remained relaxed in the grip of the Khazarish while his strength returned.  Grimly he had resolved that no chains would so much as touch his skin, no matter the cost.

The ploy had worked.  As a result of his apparent inability to defend himself, Jer’ok’s crystal knife still lay within reach, and his captors had relaxed their vigilance as they followed the exchange with interest.

Now the Khazarish committed yet another error.  Khafajah Khan repeated his question,  "How long were you listening?"

In the unearthly silence that followed, only the sputtering of the torches could be heard until the elder khan nodded to the younger man at his side.  Kurok Khan strode to Jer'ok and struck him with a heavy fist.  Jer'ok allowed himself to fall backward under the blow, taking with him the men who held him.

But Jer'ok did not collapse.  Instead he twisted out of the rough grasp of his captors and called to Saar as he reclaimed the crystal knife.

"Kuraku, ranar!  They will kill, beware!"

It was a threat and a warning that only Cita could understand.  Once again the close air of the tent was filled with the sound and fury of battle, and the torches guttered until they were almost extinguished.  But this time the melee included the harsh caterwaulings of a Black Lion and the terrorised screams of men finding themselves in close quarters with not one but two infuriated beasts.  The crazily twisting flames rendered the devastation surreal as shadows cast upon the combatants seemingly took on a life of their own.

The outcome, however, was inevitable.  Eventually, Jerok knew he and Saar would have to flee if they were to survive the night.  They could not hope to succeed against an entire camp of heavily armed san-k'aranda.

At one brief moment when in the tide of the uproar they were brought close together, Jer'ok touched the black lion and muttered to him in Aranda.  Then they were again swept apart.

Suddenly, the beast-man slashed his way through the Khazarish and, with the Black Lion at his flank, he broke free of the suffocating tent.  Gaining clear, the two ran through the dim light of near-dark for the protection of the jungle.  Several Khazarish had the presence of mind to follow and fired after them with no real hope of scoring.

But score they did.

Just as the two fugitives gained the protective cover of the forest, Saar crumpled beside Jer'ok and fell panting to the cooling undergrowth.  Jer'ok whirled in mid-stride, expecting the worst.  Hatred darkened his golden green eyes as he felt for the wound.  Once he glanced past the fringe of the trees to assure himself they had not been followed.  The distant stars cast enough of their dim light over the ground to reveal the hills to be empty of san-k'aranda.

Saar endured his pain and the gentle probing by the beast-man in absolute silence.  His fierce eyes fixed on the man's face reflected utter trust and faith.

To Jer'ok's relief the wound was bloody but neither fatal nor so severe as to threaten Saar for long.  The beast-man urged his injured companion to his feet to make their way to a nearby stream.

As they moved through the thickening brush the beast-man selected leaves and berries from certain plants known to him through the teachings of Char and the Sanaca.  Once on the bank of the stream Saar dropped to the ground with a great sigh and allowed Jer'ok to tend him.  As gently as he could, the man cleaned the wound with the clear water of the stream and applied a poultice prepared from a mixture of the crushed plant stuffs he had collected.  When Jer'ok completed his ministrations, Saar weakly ran his rough tongue across the beast-man's arm and sank back gratefully to sleep.

Jer'ok expected no intrusion but maintained an alert guard throughout the remainder of near-dark and well into the next day.  Time was meaningless to the beast-man when he ranged at will through his Ashtarian domains.  Even in stalking the Khazarish he had felt no special urgency.  Now, when Saar was sufficiently recuperated, the two would make their way back to Jer'ok's home in the land of the Sanaca.

Eventually the beast-man would enter the Settlement to advise the government of the High King's newest territory of the matters under discussion among the Khazarish.  Perhaps, he mused, he would then return alone or with the Sanaca to interfere with Khafajah Khan's activities.

A grim smile played at the corners of his mouth as he contemplated the means of  interference.  Jer'ok-ta was an implacable enemy with a cruel and very broad sense of humor.  The Khazarish had tasted of both in the past, a past of which Khafajah Khan was perhaps the only survivor.  He would do much to set the stage for Jer'ok's intended activities.  Anticipation would only render their fear the more harrowing.

With the first hints of the coming of first dawn, Jer'ok shrugged aside his musings.  That would be another day.  Today was today and was to be lived for itself.  Inevitably as he relaxed, Jer'ok's thoughts turned to his beautiful and beloved mate.  But even she did not yet draw him homeward.

IN THE DAYS following the confrontation on the savannah, Saar slowly began to recover some of his strength under Jer'ok's tending.  The two made their leisurely way home.  Often they stopped on their journey for the one to rest and the other to hunt.  Each near-dark they slept, Jer'ok's every sense alert to any intruder upon their peace.  But any would-be hunters cut a wide swath around the strangely commingled spoor of san-k'aranda and wounded Cita.

As they neared Sanaca country, the beast-man calculated the likely date.  So far as he could figure, Amber was still at home in the company of their son at Battersea.  Idly Jer'ok wondered what activities the family group might be pursuing as the lord of the manor lazed away his time in the shade of a lofty jungle giant.

Nearby, Saar was sleeping through his final healing under Jer'ok's watchful eye.  It was good to know that Amber was safely home in Tuatha and well protected, far from the dangers of Ashtar.  Still, Jer'ok preferred his Ashtar even on those occasions when he encountered the cruelties of her denizens.  As always upon Jer'ok's contemplation of Amber, the corners of his mouth lifted in a smile, but this time there was a gentleness that gradually found its way to his eyes.

The returning hunters were within a day of home when Jer'ok was met by a runner with a message from Amber.  She would be arriving at the Settlement in a matter of days.  The spell of quietude was forever broken, but Jer'ok anticipated nought but the coming reunion with his mate.

IT IS OFTEN a kindness that we are not to know what the future holds.  Saar had paid a small price, but Jer'ok and Amber were to suffer gravely through the temporary incapacity of the Black Lion.  But, for the moment at least, the man and woman were both content, though worlds apart.

I took this moment to wonder aloud how it was that Jer'ok had come to befriend an Ashatarian Black Lion, especially so ferocious a specimen.  There was nothing in the legends heretofore to suggest any rapport with the big cats _ quite the contrary.

The Admiral allowed that he hadn't the slightest idea.  Having learned many strategems by this stage in our relationship I fixed him with a steely gaze of my own.  He merely shrugged.  How would he know details not provided in the legends?

By this time it was difficult to conceal my exasperation.  I didn't really try.  Certainly Leede Southerly was every bit as real as the Admiral and I, and the Admiral, of all people, knew it.

The Admiral laughed aloud, but then he grew serious, almost morose.  Even if the legends are true, he commented, how close do you think I could be?

I didn't answer, but my eyes held his as I told him.  That at least restored his humor.  "Hardly," was his only comment.


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