IT WAS SHORTLY after she returned from her morning ride that Amber’s guest convinced his hostess he could no longer impose on the hospitality of the Southerly plantation. Fragments of Woodston’s memory of events leading to the loss of his flyer were being restored. His recollections suggested that, although not urgent, the business requiring his ill-fated flight over the vast forest of the Sanaca lands did require his prompt attention. Over her mild protests Woodston prevailed upon Amber to map the most direct way to the Settlement for him.
Because neither Leede or Amber nor any other member of the plantation household ordinarily chose to travel by the small flyer or the plantation’s land vehicles, she returned to the stables with Woodston to select a horse for his trek. Amber apologised profusely for any inconvenience the ride might cause, but Woodston readily acceded, professing to be charmed by this mild idiosyncrasy. Once mounted, however, he did confess to some uncertainty over her directions.
Amber hesitated. It would be a shame to pass up another ride on so glorious a day. Fall and Ashtar’s season of rains were imminent. In the end, over Woodston’s own protests, she saddled one of the mares to accompany him as far as the intersection about which he seemed most confused. As they headed down the drive for the dirt roadway eventually linking the plantation and the lands of the Sanaca to the Settlement Amber casually returned the waves of the youth on the verandah and at work in the fields.
There was nothing particularly unusual in her unannounced ride. No one felt any concern at her departure. Some grinned; they knew how she felt about this fine day late in two shadows.
THE TWO RODE in silence until they were nearing the place where Amber had planned to turn back. Woodston drew his mount to a halt at a point where the roadway split in three directions. Amber rode on several metres before realising her companion was no longer with her. She turned back to enquire whether there was some problem.
Without answering, the Chimurian dismounted and led his horse toward her. Without the slightest suspicion of what was about to transpire, Amber waited, noting that Woodston’s mount showed no sign of lameness. More curious than disturbed, Amber’s first intimation of personal danger did not come until, without warning, the Chimurian suddenly wrested her reins from her. Then, before she could protest, he forcibly drew her down from the saddle.
So rapidly did her recent guest alter Amber’s status from hostess to prisoner, the Arene woman was astonished and shocked by the wholly unexpected turn of events. Her mind was quick, but she was afforded no opportunity to elude Woodston, on horseback or on foot. In so remote a location, there was little to be gained in screaming or calling for help. Amber resigned herself to a haughty glare and a frigid silence after her first demand for an explanation was met with a knowing silence.
Upon suffering no immediate physical harm the woman experienced no fear. In fact, she was angered by the temerity of the man. She entertained no doubt that swift rescue at the hands of Jer’ok would be followed by severe retribution for this foolish move against her.
But had Amber Southerly been aware of the true identity of this man who had betrayed the hospitality of the Southerly plantation she might well have been overwhelmed by fear, in retrospect as well as for what boded for the future.
Amber Southerly had suffered greatly at the hands of the late Larin Aliyan and would expect little mercy from his successor in her life.
Without so much as a word her treacherous guest bound her hands loosely. Then there was a pause while her captor obviously awaited something along this roadway so far from the great house. Neither Derk Aliyan nor the Arene woman spoke, and Amber, having learned much from Jer’ok over the years, wasted no strength in futile struggles. She welcomed the silence and was listening intently for any change in the sounds of the forest which might reveal the presence of the Sanaca, Jer’ok, or even little Farr. Only in the hope any of them represented would she indulge in a struggle with her captor – and then only to attract the friendly attention.
She caught her breath at the sound of horses approaching from one of the branches in the roadway. The soft thuds of hooves with the creak of leather and faint jingle of equipment suggested a large group. For a moment Amber hoped for immediate succour, even at the hand of strangers.
The first wave of fear hovered when Amber caught sight of the approaching horsemen. The woman instantly recognised them as the deadly Khazarish, and they were leading two riderless horses. Any lingering doubt that this was a well planned abduction vanished when, without a word being spoken, one of the ruffians dismounted and assisted her captor in roughly lifting Amber onto the clumsy saddle on one of the skittish animals. The Charwick mounts were swiftly divested of their tack and driven down the roadway toward the Settlement. Left to make their way home at will, any prompt rescue was delayed by the grazing Amber knew to be nearby. The animals might not return home before second twilight, if then.
Her former guest watched the two cavort around a bend in the roadway before he swung into the saddle of the other Khazarish horse. It was clear it would be some time before the Southerly mares took it into their heads to return to their own stables. Satisfied with the rapidity of their success, the Chimurian promptly took command of the ragged troop of horsemen with no more than a nod and knowing smirks all around. The cold-blooded efficiency caused Amber for the first time to experience real dread for herself – and for Jer’ok.
In the perturbing silence the riders broke into a gallop back along the branch of the jungle roadway from whence they had emerged. Surrounded by Khazarish Amber was allowed to guide her mount herself. Amid the jostling riders there was no room to make a break for freedom, even in the unlikely event her horse possessed any speed.
The riders maintained their furious pace until coming to a well traveled game trail, to Amber indistinguishable from numerous others branching off on either side of the roadway. To the Arene’s increasing dismay, her abductors obviously knew precisely where they were headed and possessed enough jungle craft to take advantage of the smaller game trails. It would require all the skill of a Jer’ok to track the unshod horses. And either wind or rain would virtually obliterate their spoor.
AS INTERMINABLE HOURS merged into interminable days without sign of Jer’ok, Amber's own jungle craft told her they were headed northeast despite the deliberate twists and turns along the game trails intended to render her disappearance complete if not swift. Amber had plenty of time to ponder her plight.
Days into their trek the band paused to rest their horses in an opening in the forest surrounding a rocky pool of good water. The horses were turned loose to graze on the lush grasses growing in the rich but shallow soil. Here the captive, too, was allowed the respite of a disturbing degree of freedom and privacy.
This enemy was too certain of their security for Amber’s increasingly fragile peace of mind. But she took advantage of the situation and gratefully bathed in the pool before finding a place among the jumbled boulders where she could consider her situation in welcome solitude. This far from her home range she knew better than to slip into the forest to elude the Khazarish and attempt to find her way back. If Jer’ok was to find her, she must remain with her captors. To strike out on her own would be foolhardy indeed.
Not for the first time she pondered the ramifications of her abduction as objectively as circumstances allowed. If the raiders were so intent on evading any search, it was unlikely her captivity was intended to lure Jer’ok into their clutches. Her heart sank as the Arene concluded with little room for doubt that the most likely motive behind her capture was somehow related to the service she was providing her adoptive homeworld.
But how could she reveal anything of significance? The messages she had transmitted were in code. To her they were gibberish, quite impossible to commit to memory, much less translate. Yet she knew the fact that she was still alive meant they wanted something of her. Amber studied her surroundings, oblivious to the beauty of the place the Khazarish had chosen. The most haunting detail in her mind’s eye was the vague hint of the familiar about the Chimurian leader. Who could her former guest be? Could he be someone she had met on Ashtar or Chimur? He and the Khazarish were disturbingly laconic. Throughout the trek, even in camp and now in this bivouac not an extraneous word passed among them and no one had addressed this leader by name. And yet Amber was beginning to find something about the man to bear a familiar but unpleasant aura. What was his part in her captivity?
Amber’s frail hope that they might linger in this place were dashed. After no more than one full day the trek was resumed. As the time dragged on and she found herself ever more distant from the plantation and the lands of the Sanaca, Amber’s expectation of rescue took on a desperate tenor. Were it not for the woman's utter faith in her husband, she might have lost all hope. She did constantly regret the intense surveillance which forestalled any opportunity to leave some sign of her whereabouts to speed Jer’ok’s effort to deliver her from an enemy she suspected both of them had cause to fear and hate. Under the cruel eye of their Chimurian leader the Khazarish had made certain she had left no sign of her presence, particularly while enjoying the relative freedom of the lengthy bivouac.
But Amber knew Jer’ok of the Aranda would need no such devices to apprise his magnificent senses of her tortuous progress through the forest. And the beast-man would trace her to the ends of the galaxy when no other would have the faintest inkling of her passage.
As time passed Amber fervently hoped her mate was not so distant that her spoor would be obliterated before he could take it up.
WELL INDEED IT is that we are seldom allowed knowledge of the immediate circumstances of those whom we love and upon whom we depend however distant they be from our side. For Jer’ok on the very day of his mate’s relative freedom stood before the gloating Khafajah Khan, who delighted in detailing the trick that had been perpetrated upon the kindness of Lord and Lady Charwick.
SUPREMELY CONFIDENT OF his abilities, Jer’ok was present, unarmed, in the khan’s camp by deliberate choice. Upon being informed of Amber’s capture and his own expected self-sacrificing surrender Jer’ok never doubted he could easily gain his mate’s freedom with danger to neither of them. But he sought to learn what was behind this newest strategem of the Khazarish.
Only by appearing to be completely in the power of this enemy could the beast-man hope to gain the information he sought. So Jer’ok had gone directly and willingly into the camp of the Khazarish. When he learned all he needed, Jer’ok would depart the camp and Khafajah Khan and any who abetted the Khazarish would be suitably punished for their temerity.
The heart that had never quickened in fear of any humankind could not conceive of the insidious subjugation endured by the people of his Chimurian enemy’s nation at the hands of a still-clandestine faction. Jer’ok had deemed the late Larin Aliyan to be a rogue in the company of few others of his ilk, bent on his evil ways for his own malign purposes. And Jer’ok did not yet know of the Kryptane’s successor in the person of Derk Aliyan nor that this was the identity of the erstwhile Woodston. Moreover, the beast-man held in little esteem the ineffective weapons which had been turned against him when most recently he had encountered the Khazarish.
In making his decision Jer’ok badly misjudged the combined forces of the foemen arrayed against him and all he held dear. The beast-man had no inkling of the arsenal the Khazarish now commanded through the intervention of Derk Aliyan and those the Kryptane served on distant Chimur.
Jer’ok’s questions of the khan yielded little more than the beast-man already knew. A calculating look came into his eyes, but the betrayer of Amber was the target of the moment. So the beast-man began to back away from the khan. Surprisingly, Khafajah said nothing. He made no threatening move and refrained from calling out for reinforcements. Jer’ok watched a man behind the khan and slightly to one side taking aim with a firearm.
Still the beast-man put his trust in his speed and agility to take him into the trees before this enemy’s reaction to his unexpected departure could be translated into action. But as Jer’ok turned in his last step before launching himself into the trees, something – not an insect – stung him at the same moment he heard a shot fired.
Jer’ok knew of the morphobeams used by Chimurians to immobilise game without killing. Though he had never observed them in use, he was immediately aware that such a tranquiliser had been used against him rather than the projectile he expected.
Even in this awareness Jer’ok never abandoned his intent to make his escape by melting into the jungle growth. But will that cannot be subjugated by physical means will yield to chemical; thews always under perfect control will succumb, deprived of that control.
Without so much as a murmer of protest Jer’ok collapsed at the base of a tree festooned with epiphytes and lianas swaying just beyond his grasp. Immobilised but fully conscious, he watched the bold approach of Khafajah Khan and his men. This time there would be no Saar to stand guard over the inert form of his fellow hunter.
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