WHERE JER’OK’S BEARING had been without direction, it was now without deviation; where it had been without haste, it was now without pause. But this is not to say it was lacked caution. Jer’ok was never so foolish as to allow his immediate wants to obstruct his wonted vigilance. He was fully alert to his surroundings as he sped with easy grace on his homeward journey. Nor did he relax his guard when the jungle took on the familiar sights and scents of home.
It was near-dark when Jer’ok reached the plantation. The great house was lit from within, but no one was about the grounds. All had settled in for the night. Ever cautious, the beast-man did not enter the house until he assured himself no enemy lay in wait inside or out. His sensitive nostrils tested the air, and his ears were alert to any untoward sound – or absence of sound. At the last from the verandah his eyes scanned the jungle’s edge one final time, but there was no sign of any intruder. Long before he opened the front door and strode inside, Jer’ok knew Guy Locke was a guest of Amber. What even his finely attuned senses could not reveal to him was that a party of the governor’s intraplanetary police, led by one Rysidi, the late Derk Aliyan’s lieutenant, was encamped less than fifty kilometres beyond the plantation grounds.
Amber and Locke were in the library. From the doorway, the beast-man could sense but not clearly identify a deep unease in both of them. After a moment of observation, Jer’ok entered the room and swept his mate into an embrace he found himself prolonging. When at last he released her with obvious reluctance, Jer’ok turned to Guy.
“Would you protect the mate of Jer’ok while he is away in the jungle, my friend?”
It was Amber who answered, without preamble, “Leede, there is much trouble. You have no friends. Every hand has turned against you.”
Her voice was steady and quiet, but her intensity demanded he hear her out without interruption. With a puzzled glance at Locke, who with Amber had risen to face him upon his entrance, Jer’ok drew his mate back to him. She resisted at first and then relented. But she would not be swayed from her warning. She continued, her voice soft through a supreme effort of the iron will Jer’ok knew better than any other.
“They know it was you who killed Aliyan in the Settlement.” In her distress, Amber’s breath failed her and the words came out in gasps painful to Jer’ok’s heart. “To them it was unprovoked murder. There were witnesses. They will identify you without hesitation. You must not stay here, Leede. You must return to the jungle.” She stopped, as if he might turn on his heel and depart with nothing further passing between them.
Jer’ok held his beloved mate close to him, aching to ease her anguish. He turned his head to Locke and asked quietly, “What is your part in this, my friend?”
Guy had never deceived nor lied to this man. He would not do so now. “My orders are to return you to the Settlement for trial.”
The beast-man stared at him as Amber shuddered. She was holding back tears only by a supreme effort. She would no more succumb to emotion before another than he would. With one gentle hand, Jer’ok caressed her hair and then kissed it lightly. If only his own inner calm could somehow be transmitted to his mate.
“And if Jer’ok is returned for trial, what then will happen? Will the san-k’aranda free him with gratitude for ridding two worlds of a great evil?” Before Guy could so much as shake his head in mute denial, Jer’ok answered for him, “I think not.” He smiled at Amber in encouragement before returning his hard gaze to Guy. “Do you think Jer’ok should return with you?”
“Yes, my friend, I think you should.” If Guy had thought to say more, to offer an explanation, he was forestalled by Amber’s protest.
“Guy, no! They will kill him. Surely you know that.” Falling in with the speech patterns that revealed the absence of Leede, she held her mate’s eyes with her own, “Jer’ok, you must not.”
The beast-man knew Amber was right, but he knew Locke well enough to doubt that a betrayal was imminent. What was Guy doing? Jer’ok stroked Amber’s hair a second time, and she smiled without relaxing in his embrace. Jer’ok could feel her fear through the whole of his being and was shaken by the intensity of it. He searched his friend’s grave countenance.
“Yes, Lee, there is great danger for you.” Somehow the Diyalan met and held the beast-man’s cold regard without flinching; “But the eyes of the whole Confederation will be on us. You can accomplish much in standing trial – and not just for the Sanaca and this planetary territory. You can assure that another Aliyan will fail in his efforts.”
Jer’ok remained unconvinced but waited in silence for Guy to go on. Amber sighed and dropped her head into the security of her mate’s massive chest. There in his embrace there was always comfort, no matter the circumstances.
“There is another reason, Lee,” Guy continued; “you are even now a hunted man. Amber is right. Every hand has turned against you. To return to Chimur – ever – is out of the question. My friend, unless you leave this region, disappear deep into the jungle, you will never again draw a secure breath.
“Not even Jer’ok-ta can be on guard at all times. One day you will make a mistake and you will be killed or taken. Even if you are safe now because you recognise the danger; Lee, what will happen months or even years from today when you have forgotten, but some man has not? And what of Amber? She will be in nearly the danger you face.”
“What would you have me do?” Amber trembled in his arms as Jer’ok waited for Guy’s answer.
“Come back with me willingly. Surrender to the governor himself. Tell him all that has transpired.”
“I will consider what you have said. You will remain as our guest?”
“Lee, do not delay long. It would be best to return soon. We must avoid the others who hunt you.”
In fact, Jer’ok had already made his decision. He believed Amber would concur. They both owed Locke much, but this time friendship must be put aside. Jer’ok would not surrender, not even to Guy Locke. If Amber would agree, they would leave for the interior and live out their lives together.
Jer’ok wished never to face the ways of civilisation again. As he was confident in his own abilities, he was also confident of Amber’s love and her willingness to give up all that this place and their homes on Chimur held dear without hope of return, if he asked it of her now. Their life would be as it should have been from the very beginning. Together in solitude they would meet each day and whatever it might bring. Jer’ok alone would protect and provide for his mate. Never again would she need fear the stranger who approached, for never again would they need accept another into their lives.
“Will you remain this night as our guest?” Jer’ok repeated.
After a moment Guy nodded, “Yes, Lee. Thank you.” The Diyalan dropped his gaze to Amber. “She has been a gracious hostess. Lee, I . . . . ”
But Leede shook his head, “It is late. We will speak of this when we have rested. Good night.”
The dismissal was final. With one last haunted glance at the two of them, Guy bowed slightly and left the library without saying anything further.
When his footsteps faded up the stairs and a distant door closed softly behind him, Jer’ok lifted Amber in his arms. She roused to look deeply into his eyes before dropping her face into the angle between his jaw and one broad shoulder. She might have been content to remain there forever.
“What will it be, Amber my heart? Shall we stay here or go for a walk about the grounds? The night is a beautiful one. Do you wish to talk?”
Amber shook her head. “No.” He waited. “Love me, Jer’ok-ta,” she whispered.
The beast-man needed no further invitation. With a gentle laugh he kissed her soundly, “So be it, mate of Jer’ok.” And he swirled her about and swept her from the room and up to their bedchambre as though neither she nor their concerns weighed any more than a feather drifting with Mael’s capricious wanderings.
IN THE MORNING Jer’ok hunted with a heart that carried him through his beloved jungle with joy. In the sultry aftermath of their fervent loving he and his mate had quietly talked and planned long into what remained of the night. It was Amber herself who had insisted that they disappear from the cognisance of humankind. He had needed no words to tell her what his mind and heart demanded. She had known and for the first time felt the same demand. She would have no regrets.
Jer’ok would have slipped into the jungle before second dawn to commence their trek into oblivion, but Amber insisted that Guy was too good a friend to leave behind without a proper leave-taking. Jer’ok knew Amber further hoped to leave a message for their son with the Diyalan. In that hope the beast-man concurred.
Guy had risen when the beast-man returned from his hunting. But what Jer’ok and Amber had hoped would be a gentle farewell between the closest of friends was not to be. The tension of the previous night was a jarring element from the moment Jer’ok joined them in breaking their fast. Amber had dismissed the Sanaca attendants to afford them privacy, but the three ate in silence without tasting any of the food before them. At last Jer’ok broke the brooding silence and told Guy of his decision.
At first the beast-man thought Locke would not respond. With every steady heartbeat Amber became more uncomfortable until she was as distressed as Jer’ok had found her upon his return to the plantation. And then Jer’ok knew.
The beast-man slowly rose to his feet, his hand on the hilt of his crystal knife. At the very same instant, Guy had stood to level his deadly campaign sidearm at Jer’ok’s heart. He had not dared set it to stun.
“I cannot allow you that choice. Take your hand away from the knife.”
With a practiced eye Jer’ok gauged the distance between them as he slowly obeyed. It was too long a leap even for his mighty thews. His only weapon was the knife. But Guy’s hand was steady. Jer’ok’s quick reflexes were no match for the deadly beam. He knew and suspected Locke did as well, that, though mortally wounded he might be, his knife would be unerring.
Both of them faced certain death in the brief moment of the beast-man’s unwonted hesitance. Jer’ok, always quick to decide and to act on his decisions without contemplation of the consequences, for once deferred. It is not an easy thing to attack a friend.
Were Jer’ok truly Aranda, he would have seen no friend before him. Here was an enemy to be slain without compunction. But Jer’ok was as ever of two minds, two natures. It was fortunate indeed for Guy Locke that it was the san-k’aranda who now faced him. The man recognised a friend torn between two loyalties. The man was also sly enough to know that the trek to the capital offered numerous opportunities for escape without the need to attack Locke. Jer’ok’s muscles relaxed almost imperceptibly, but both Amber and Guy breathed an inward sigh of relief.
“I cannot kill you,” the beast-man shook his head. “Jer’ok has become soft and weak under the influence of your civilisation. He no longer can think as his brothers, the hunterfolk. Jer’ok is a fool, but he will not attack you, Guy Locke.”
Deeply saddened at Jer’ok’s admission of what to the beast-man was absurd weakness, Guy nevertheless remained resolute in his purpose. But his nerves were stretched beyond his wildest expectations. Without knowing he did so, Locke caught his breath in an involuntary shudder.
“Amber, you take his knife and hand it to me.”
The woman, frozen in an attitude of horror, looked to Locke without doing what she was told. But Guy was still watching her husband. The moment passed. The knife remained.
“There are restraints in my pack, Amber. Get them.”
This time Amber rose to her feet, but still she refused to obey. “No,” was all she said, but her eyes were unusually hard and bright. For a moment, the rush of conflicting emotions caught Guy, for all his training and years of experience. He wavered. To his own astonishment the sidearm turned in Amber’s direction. Jer’ok snarled and started forward before the weapon returned to menace him anew.
“Do not threaten the mate of Jer’ok-ta or you will surely die.”
Another dangerous moment passed among the three of them. It was Jer’ok, his eyes never leaving Locke’s, who spoke at last: “Leave us, Amber,” he said quietly, “do what he asks.”
Neither man spoke further to her. Slowly, Amber backed away from them, fearing that turning her back would release them to fly at each other. She had no delusions of the outcome. Both would die. She tripped over the threshold before turning to make her way to the room Guy had been making his own. Her mind raced with hopeless schemes to free Jer’ok. Could she kill Guy? There were weapons to hand, were she courageous enough to choose one. In her heart she knew the answer. With a coolness of which Jer’ok could take considerable pride, the Arene found what she was seeking.
As soon as Amber was beyond hearing them, Jer’ok spoke to Guy in a deceptively quiet tone, “Do you believe your chains can hold Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk? Others have tried. They are all dead and Jer’ok is free.”
Looking to the doorway to ascertain Amber was out of range, he lowered his voice again, “You know what awaits me, Guy. I will never be permitted to stand trial in the capital. Aliyan’s threats were clear and did not die with him. Do you think I will allow myself to be so used?”
“Lee, were there any other way . . . ,” Guy paused, “I have no choice, my friend. You will stand trial – the governor has promised this much. I cannot tell you how deeply I regret that this thing must be done.”
“No more than I,” Jer’ok responded with his grim humor. Then he caught a motion out of the corner of his eye and held his breath. Guy, intent on maintaining his watch on the dangerous beast-man, remained oblivious. Jer’ok thought quickly. Dared he allow what was about to transpire? He knew the answer before the question was fully formed in his mind.
“No, Amber my heart, you must not. Come here to me, beloved.”
Warned as much by the direction of Lee’s gaze as by the man’s warning, Guy turned to see Amber no more than a few metres away, armed with a wicked Sanaca war-knife and holding it in the correct manner for inflicting death so swift the victim never sensed its coming. Wisely, the Diyalan kept his attention and unwavering bead on Jer’ok. He knew the woman would obey her husband’s plea.
“You cannot commit murder, mate of Jer’ok. Put it down on the floor. I ask it of you for both our sakes.”
Shaken to her core by the events of the last hours and by what she had every intention of doing, Amber stared miserably into Jer’ok’s eyes. It was as though they were alone.
“Is it not enough that Jer’ok must answer to these k’aranda? Must his mate be placed in their power as well?”
Slowly, seeing every detail of the tableau before her, Amber stooped and placed the knife on the floor with exquisite care. She remained in that position, fearful of swooning if she regained her feet too swiftly. She would not dishonour her mate by any show of weakness. When she was certain the dizziness had passed, Amber lifted her head to face Jer’ok and rose to her feet. But she did not move closer.
“Amber,” Locke’s voice was strangled with emotion he could not quell. She refused to look at him, keeping her eyes steady on Jer’ok’s. Then she advanced to her mate’s side. Only then did she turn her gaze on the Diyalan. She waited. Jer’ok, too, regarded Locke in silence. It was obvious neither would move without a command.
“The knife,” Locke demanded. And Amber placed one hand on Jer’ok’s arm as she withdrew the crystal knife from its sheath. She marveled, as Jer’ok so often did, at the response of the hilt in conforming itself to her grasp. The temptation arose unbidden, but Jer’ok shook his head ever so slightly and mouthed a denial.
“Toss it aside.” Amber did as she was bid, defiance in her every motion. She looked at Locke, refusing to do anything without further commands.
“The restraints,” Locke gritted his teeth, “do it.”
Amber returned to the atrium where she had left the restraints to take the war-knife from its place on the wall. She returned to Jer’ok’s side and turned to Locke without doing more.
“Behind his back, Amber, now.”
Jer’ok stiffened beside her. Had Amber truly been an Aranda she, she would have snarled, hissed, and spat her defiance at this enemy of her mate.
Instead, with hands that trembled, Amber moved behind him to clasp one of the shackles about Jer’ok’s wrist. He reassured her with a gentle touch before deliberately pressing both wrists together to ease her task. When Amber was finished, she looked back at Locke with nothing less than hatred.
“I shall never forgive you for this betrayal, Subcommandant Locke. And if Jer’ok dies, I will find a way to repay you if it takes the rest of my life.”
“If Jer’ok does die, I will find the burden of my part in his death beyond my power to endure,” Guy responded bleakly, adopting her formal tones of ice. “Nothing you can say or do could be worse, my Lady Amber.”
As the three emerged from the great house, Darad of the Sanaca was awaiting them with a fully armed party of Sanaca warriors. The unusual events of the prior evening and Amber’s dismissal of the household retainers could hardly go unnoticed. There was a rustling among the warriors when they saw that Jer’ok was shackled.
“What is the meaning of this?”
Ignoring his war-chief’s offworlder friend, Chief Darad directed his question to Jer’ok alone. “There are more intruders in the jungle to the west of the roadway,” he announced. “What are your orders, my war-chief?”
Locke stiffened and Amber knew a brief moment of hope. But Jer’ok stepped forward.
“Allow this man and the others to go their ways unharmed, my chief. Jer’ok thanks Darad and our Sanaca people for their offer of succour, but this is a matter to be settled among the leaders of Gemini. The Sanaca must not intervene.”
With that Jer’ok moved down the steps to meet Darad, the two resplendent with generations of inherent pride despite the war-chief’s bonds. Locke and Amber followed in the beast-man’s wake and paused behind him as he stopped before Darad. Chief and war-chief exchanged no more than a look. After a moment, Chief Darad moved back and motioned his warriors to do the same. With that, Jer’ok honoured his chief with the slightest nod of his head and turned to stride proudly along the dirt drive toward the roadway beyond. As Locke and Amber turned to hasten after him, the Sanaca party as one man raised their spears aloft in salutation to the departing war-chief.
When Locke caught up with his prisoner with Amber just behind him, he touched Jer’ok’s shoulder. The beast-man stopped and whirled on the Diyalan.
“I think it best we do not take the main road,” Guy said evenly. “I would convey you alive and well to the Settlement. Surely, there is another way, less open? Speed is not of the essence.” The words “my friend” hovered unspoken between the two. Guy turned to Amber, “It is not too late for you to return to the plantation. Darad will see to your safety here or escort you to the Settlement to return to Tuatha.”
“No. I will not leave him.”
Both men knew there was nothing more to say. Amber was adamant. Jer’ok nodded and, without a word, turned to enter the forest.
In deference to Amber Locke called for an early camp that first night. In truth, he was in no hurry to carry this mission to its inevitable end. He half hoped Jer’ok would make his escape. The Diyalan might even allow it, although he wondered if he could justify his failure without evoking charges of conspiracy. Unable to eat the food he had prepared for their evening meal, Guy’s heart sank as Amber, refusing to eat herself, awkwardly fed Jer’ok from her plate. The beast-man ate with good appetite. He knew the wisdom of maintaining his strength.
Guy put his own plate down, the food untouched. “Give me your word, Lee, and I will remove those,” his nod indicated the shackles. But Jer’ok ignored him and the bonds remained. It was clear that only the Aranda buck, a captive as dangerous as he was sullen, was present now.
As soon as he had eaten his fill, the beast-man nodded his thanks to Amber and then settled himself as comfortably as he could. Then he fell into what appeared to be a deep slumber. Neither Amber nor Locke could follow his lead. They faced each other in stony silence across the dying fire. Amber had not spoken to Guy since she spat her final defiance of him at the great house.
Locke decided it was worth a try. She had seated herself as far from him as she could. He could not reach across the fire to touch her, but he would try to explain. She could not evade his words.
“I am the only one who can take Lee directly to the governor and his courts. I want him in this jurisdiction and none other. It is the only way to secure the protection not even he knows he needs. Above all, he must not fall into the hands of Krypta.”
But Amber did not so much as look at him. After a moment she rose to lie down beside Jer’ok, the only one who would sleep through this night.
JER’OK NEVER DID find the opportunity for escape. Despite Locke’s precautions, in less than three full days on the trail, the paths of Locke with Amber and his sullen prisoner and of the company dispatched by the governor converged. But if Jer’ok could no longer hope for escape, neither could Rysidi, worthy successor to Aliyan’s stratagems, effect his intentions for the beast-man. There were simply too many witnesses. In addition to the Diyalan commandant and the creature’s woman, Governor V’Ran Sethor had placed men of uncompromising loyalty to him in positions of leadership among the cohort. The Kryptane even failed in his effort to subdue the beast-man by additional means, ostensibly to prevent any calls to his jungle allies. The commandant staunchly refused to silence or to tranquilise the prisoner, and the minions of the governor backed the Diyalan.
Thus, what might have happened had either Locke alone or Rysidi been in sole charge of the prisoner will never be recorded. Jer’ok, for good or ill, would be delivered, alive, to the capital to stand trial, just as Locke had promised – to himself as much as to the governor and Chimur.
DARAD ACTUALLY REACHED Governor V’Ran Sethor before the prisoner had been delivered. Without appointment or protocol the giant chief of the Sanaca burst into the office of his fellow native Ashtarian. In keeping with the respect this man and his people commanded, Sethor rose to meet him and waved off the guards who followed Darad into the office.
“I am honoured,” V’Ran Sethor began, “how can I serve the Chief of the Sanaca?”
“You can release my war-chief,” was the steady reply.
“Alas, that I cannot do, Chief Darad. But let us talk of this.” He motioned the stalwart Sanaca to a chair, but Darad remained standing. There would be no easing of formalities this day.
The two Ashtarians conferred at length, but to no avail. Jer’ok would not be tried by the Sanaca under Sanaca prescript. In the end Darad faced his fellow Ashtarian in rigid fury barely restrained.
“Whose law is to prevail on Ashtar?” he demanded. “Who is to judge when yet another native of this world stands accused of another world’s crimes? By what laws?
“Jer’ok is of the Sanaca; he deserves to be tried as one of us, not as a traitor to a world so far away we cannot so much as see it in the sky between twilights. Are we to be colonised, too, V’Ran Sethor of the Methallo? Are your people and mine to be made Gemini? Rendered Terran subject to the Confederation?
“Jer’ok may be the first to be condemned by the laws of offworlders, but he will not be the last. Think well of what you are starting here, V’Ran Sethor. It is not Jer’ok-ta of the Hunterfolk alone you doom.”
With that, Darad turned on his heel and, brushing the burly guards aside as so much vegetation, stalked from the office and from the building. Jer’ok would stand trial as a Tuathan and a traitor to Chimur’s high king.
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