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Volume 6068

VICE ADMIRAL GUY Locke had finally succeeded in his personal mission before the territorial governor and High King Strahm Thurston Albritton.  Now he had to find a way to succeed in realising the remainder of  his intent.  No amount of persuasion could move Darad of the Sanaca to make any promises.  Possibly the chief deemed himself unable to keep them.

Amber had disappeared every bit as thoroughly as Jer’ok himself.  Darad professed no knowledge whatsoever of her whereabouts.  But, he conceded, there was nothing to suggest she had met with accident or, worse, untimely demise somewhere in the dangerous jungle surrounding the Southerly plantation.  When Locke offered his conjecture that the two of them were together somewhere in the jungle, Darad merely gazed at him in serene silence.

“I have news I believe they will want to hear,” Locke repeated, not for the first time.  “Perhaps you or your people can somehow reach them.”

But nothing would break through the barrier of the stalwart Sanaca’s defences.  However, Guy Locke could be equally stubborn, when circumstances demanded persistence.  At last the Diyalan conceded defeat.  As he turned to go, one final thought occurred to Locke.

“Were they about the jungle and still in Sanaca territory, where might they find a message, should one be left for them?”

Darad smiled.  He had always respected this friend of his war-chief – until the infamous betrayal.  And, the Sanaca mused, that had proved to be a matter of what the other deemed a higher loyalty.  Darad could appreciate loyalty, whatever the source or consequences.  And, as always, the Sanaca chief held Jer’ok’s best interests in his heart.  He suspected this offworlder joined him in that sentiment.

“There is a place,” he allowed finally, “just beyond the village, where the river widens and slows on its journey to the sea.  There, in the past, it was not unusual for our war-chief or his Ambe’lei to launch or beach a dugout when the mood for exploring upriver struck them.  There is a tree there.  Sometimes they would secure their dugout by slipping a rope around the base of its trunk.”  Darad allowed himself a sly look at the offworlder,  “Amber once confided in me that one or the other of them would occasionally leave a message in a hollow out of sight in the portions of the trunk hidden by foliage, but just below the first branches.”  With that the Sanaca shrugged and turned his back on Locke to signify the exchange to be concluded.

“Thank you, my friend,” Guy murmured in the wake of the Sanaca’s departure.

The place Darad had described was not difficult to locate.  Locke stared long over the flowing waters, perhaps hoping against hope that the two of them would somehow emerge out of the morning mists and greet him with the pleasure they once would have revealed upon meeting him unexpectedly.  Knowing his urgent search futile, the Diyalan sighed and looked about for the tree Darad had mentioned.  It, too, was not difficult to pick out from its fellows.  On a whim, Guy went to it and looked upward for the hollow.  Ah, there it was.  Still following his whim, the Diyalan reached in.  There was nothing there, but he could feel the soft particles of wood and debris where a message could be placed for one who knew of the cache.

With one last longing glance upriver, the Diyalan returned to his flyer, where he spent the entire afternoon composing his message.  Its import was that Lee had been wholly exonerated.  More, in belated acknowledgment of his ongoing service to the throne and to the territory, the entire record of his indictment, trial and its outcome of conviction and condemnation had been expunged.  There was no record whatsoever that Leede Southerly had ever been cited for any wrongdoing at all.  It was as though Tuatha and Gemini had never challenged his loyalty and branded him traitor.

Between twilights, Locke left his message in the cache.  Before he returned to his flyer and his Rune Silentio duties he lingered long, straining his eyes upriver.  But his waiting was in vain.  He returned to the orbiting ship and thence to his never-ending tasks for the Rune Silentio.  But his memories of Lee and of his lady-life refused to fade.  Nor could Guy rid his mind of the events at the plantation.  If only he could let the two of them know how difficult it had been for him to take the actions he had.  If only he  could find a way to explain all the motivations behind that act of apparent betrayal.  But it was never to be, and in his heart of hearts the Diyalan knew it.

SOME WEEKS LATER an urgent message was forwarded to the Vice Admiral from the Chief of the Sanaca on distant Ashtar.

“Come at once,” it demanded without explanation.  And Locke did so, as soon as his duties permitted him to leave Chimur.  If the truth be told, some of those duties were set aside for another day.

“WE FOUND IT as you see,” Darad told him in a voice still hoarse with supreme grief.  “There was the body of a monstrous water lizard, obviously slain by thrusts of a knife, but there was also blood in the remnants of the dugout.  We do not believe it could have been that of the beast.”

“But you found nothing more?” Guy Locke clung to that tattered shred of hope.

“Nothing more.  We have repeatedly searched both sides of the river upstream and down.  Nothing.  We believe the creature had a mate.  That the two were unusual in hunting together . . . ”  And the stoic Sanaca declined to elaborate.  There was no need.

With that, Locke shook his head in denial.  Presently, he walked slowly to the tree.  He could not avoid the devastation of the dugout, left where it had been found, and his heart lurched within him at the grisly remains.  It could not be.  Sadly, he reached into the cache, fully expecting to find his message untouched.

His heart lurched again, this time with the swelling of a very different emotion.  The message was gone.  The Diyalan allowed himself a smile of hope.  What he was trying so hard not to believe was almost certainly untrue after all.

He nodded back to Darad who was watching him intently. Guy wondered just what the Sanaca chief did believe – or actually know.

Then the Diyalan again stared upriver long and hard.  He knew the matter of obliteration of all the charges against him would matter not in the least to Jer’ok and his mate.  Guy Locke knew better than any other that Jer’ok-ta of the Hunterfolk would never forget, nor would he forgive, what had befallen him at the hands of civilisation.  For many a steady heartbeat the Diyalan stared morosely into the mystery that is Ashtar’s jungle.

“How long will Ashtar protect you, my friend,” he silently asked over the still waters.  “How long will we let her jungles survive to protect those who love her?”

He turned and walked to Darad.  Gravely, he grasped the Sanaca’s hand in something more than a simple farewell.  Neither man spoke further.  Ever so slowly, a flood of memories crowding his mind, the Diyalan returned to his flyer and set the instruments for a return to the waiting ship.  The son of Lord and Lady Charwick must be informed before Locke returned to Faxon for his new orders.  Blane would now assume all the privileges, as well as the  duties of Charwick.

The most important era in the Diyalan’s life was irretrievably concluded.

Book Contents and Author Bio
Meet Jer'ok: ERBzine 6052
Foreword: ERBzine 6053
From the Journals of the Terran

I.  First Encounter: ERBzine 6054
From the Journals of the Terran

II.  Deception: ERBzine 6055
III.  Intrigue: ERBzine 6056
IV.  Reunion: ERBzine 6057
V.  Captured: ERBzine 6058
VI.  Terror: ERBzine 6059
VII.  Solace: ERBzine 6060
VIII.  Final Encounter: ERBzine 6061
IX.  Manhunt: ERBzine 6062
X.  Arrest: ERBzine 6063
XI.  Intervention: ERBzine 6064
From the Journals of the Terran
XII.  Trial: ERBzine 6065
XIII.  Condemnation: ERBzine 6066
XIV.  Nemesis: ERBzine 6067
Epilogue ERBzine 6068

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