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Volume 6077

Chapter 11: DILEMMAS
Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 68]
 Narrative Transmission 10
New Beginning

      RAND SOUTHALL AND Guy Locke entered the clearing at a dead run, impelled by Amber’s heart-rending scream.  They heard Amber’s second scream and then nothing.  The jungle taunted them with her unmoved mask of tranquility. The only signs of the events that had transpired were the two creatures – humankind and hunterfolk – both forever silenced, though not by the same hand as the two men initially assumed.  Locke bent to examine the mentor’s body, while Southall followed the game trail, his sidearm adjusted to the killing beam and held unsteadily before him.  It was not, however, fear for himself that caused the young Lord Charwick to tremble.

      There was nothing to be done for either of the Laxtons.  Neither man could read the sign that would have fully informed the least acute Aranda eyes of the events which had brought on and then followed the passing of the two at their feet.  Of Amber there was not the slightest sign.

      To Lieutenant Locke’s skilled examinations the wounds and other details of the scene quickly yielded all the proof he needed that the mentor had been slain by the huge folk male who lay dead nearby.  How the buck had met a similar fate, but at an unknown hand, was a complete mystery to the Diyalan, as were the superficial knife wounds covering much of the hunterfolk’s torso.  Some tremendous force behind two hands and arms, too small to be hunterfolk, had been exerted until the massive neck was broken.

      There was no doubt in the Diyalan’s mind:  Laxton had been slain by a single blow of the buck’s hand and could hardly have inflicted so many wounds before succumbing to the blow by which the beast had felled him.  In fact, the buck had expired some several minutes later than the Arene.

      For all his training and skills, Locke could not read anything more from the signs left in the trampled ground.  He had to assume there were two bucks, the one who had slain the Armerian mentor and another, much smaller, who had battled the slayer to the death and somehow survived.

      Rand returned and shook his head at Guy’s unspoken query.  Swiftly, Locke described the scene he had pieced together.

      “But I cannot find any suggestion of Amber’s presence during these killings.  Did you catch any sight of her at all?  Any sign of another hunterfolk?”

      “No,” Rand admitted, overwhelmed by his own inadequacy.  “The game trail is solid with constant use.  There is no way to distinguish a recent passage.

      “How could she have vanished so completely, Lieutenant?”

      “I have no idea.  We can conduct a search of the area.  Perhaps we will find . . . .”

      Locke broke off at the stricken expression on Southall’s face.  They both understood just what they were likely to find.  There was no need to confirm that knowledge by stating it.  Perhaps, by some miracle, the Arene girl was unhurt.  But if she was lost in the thick jungle, they were unlikely to be able to track her.  Nevertheless, by mutual unspoken agreement, the two commenced a thorough exploration of the clearing and both sides of the game trail.

      Before long they found the place where the confrontation had entered into its final climactic moments, so dreadful to contemplate from Amber’s vantage.  A bit of cloth from the Arene girl’s shirt was caught on the thick branches, where her obvious progress into the green mass of vegetation came to an abrupt halt.

      Locke could hardly bear to face Southall’s grim visage, “She could not have penetrated deeper into that growth without leaving the broken branches of her passage.  She stopped here and must have returned to the clearing.”  Guy did not need to add that he doubted her return could have been voluntary.

      Bleakly, Rand sighed, “Ah, poor Amber, she must have been witness to – to the whole . . . , all of it.  She loved her father,” he added needlessly.  His own throat constricted in empathy for her.

      Privately, the Diyalan suspected Amber was more unwilling participant in than mere witness to the final moments of whatever had occurred in the clearing.  He hoped she was no longer able to experience whatever proceeded from what he now firmly believed to have been an abduction.

      Aloud, Locke conceded, “There is nothing more for us here.  Blane Laxton is beyond our help, and we lack the skills that might take us to Amber.”  He looked intently at the trail, as if willing some revelation on the part of Ashtar herself.

      “If the hunterfolk are responsible,” he mused aloud, “we may well begin to see some indication of her presence among them in the course of our observations.  The best thing we can do now for Laxton and for Amber is to complete the work he started here.”

      Rand nodded in miserable silence.  As he took one last look around the clearing, the Tuathan shuddered with the vivid recollection of Amber’s screams.  It was a sound never to be forgotten in the whole span of a lifetime.  And his own helplessness left him empty inside.

      He was worthless, all his advantages and accomplishments on Chimur for nought here on this deadly world.  Locke was right, of course, but Rand wondered how he could ever again go about any normal course of business here on Ashtar and, thereafter, back in Meridum and at Battersea.  In the enthusiasm of youth in love for the first time, he had made so many plans . . . .  For the first time, just how much Rand Southall had been counting on Amber Laxton as an integral part of his life perversely came home to him at the moment he had to accept that she was gone, irretrievable.  He shook his head in denial.

      “Let us take just a little longer, Lieutenant Locke.”

      Lord Charwick could not quite bring himself to plead, but Locke could not deny the intensity of the Tuathan’s need to go beyond human skill in search for the woman he so obviously loved.

           “There may be something on the trail I missed,” Rand insisted.  “Something your trained eye will find.”

      “I will try,” Locke concurred without much hope.

      At length encroaching darkness forced the Tuathan and the Diyalan lieutenant to return to camp with the mentor’s body but with no Amber and with no explanations to offer the devastated students.  Bridey was inconsolable.  She shed no tear, but her mute withdrawal to the farthest edge of the camp spoke volumes.  None intruded on her grief.  Most of the expedition were familiar with her people’s ways and honoured them.

      BLISSFULLY UNAWARE OF the hurt he was inflicting on her loved ones, and perhaps indifferent to it, Jer’ok carried his mate to the place where he was presently making his lair.  She had regained her senses and was studying his face when he dropped lightly to the ground near the brook which passed the lair of his youth, a full day’s trek upstream.  He carefully set the diminutive she on her feet but knew better than to relax his hold on her.

      She spoke quite deliberately, but Jer’ok could not interpret anything beyond the clear message imparted by her icy tone.  That he chose to ignore.

      The triumphant Aranda buck drew his she closer.  Resistance was not unexpected.  Jer’ok knew the fury would soon transform into something quite different.  He bent his head and claimed her mouth with his own.  But the enamoured buck was doomed to disappointment.  Where her tone had failed to dampen his ardour, her cold reception was far more effective in chilling him.

      The mouth that should have yielded with the first hint of a passion altered in kind remained firm and unyielding.  Worse, Jer’ok found himself in imminent danger of losing his increasingly precarious hold on the she.  The slight Jer’anda fought with all the ferocity of the lithe mate of Pardu, the panther.  Had this Jer’anda she been armed with that beast’s cruel talons, Jer’ok’s copper hide would have been slashed to shreds.  Instead any illusions the astonished Aranda-ta had fostered of taking her as his mate were forthwith ruthlessly sundered.

      When the savage persisted in his urgent demand Amber swirled on the sharp edge of panic.  Perhaps it was guilt which added strength to her futile struggle, for a small part of the woman’s racing heart undeniably demanded that she return his smouldering passion in kind.

      She told herself he was no better than the hideous hunterfolk male which had slain her poor, brave father and then struck her down to bear her off to a life of unspeakable horror.  Amber whimpered, but it was not entirely fear.  She knew no justification, no explanation for the unnamed emotions vying to take possession of her own iron will.  It was not fair that she be forced to fight not only the passion of her godlike rescuer but also that which sent her own senses reeling at his slightest touch.  Amber fought them both with a strength born of desperation.  But she was no match for the mighty thews and sinews that rippled beneath the hide of polished copper.

      She uttered a choking sob.  Amber was near to the end of her strength now.  The creature would soon subdue her.  She told herself she had been a fool to trust him.  This cruel struggle bore no resemblance to her dreams of what her first experience with her chosen man would be.  If he succeeded in overpowering her, this was a man she would hate for a lifetime.

      Jer’ok began to perceive that the she's struggles were not merely her ritual resistance leading to ultimate surrender to his will.  The beast-man was too sensitive to be unaware of her response to him, but he also sensed the very real fear and the anger that was waxing stronger and more desperate rather than waning in favour of surrender.  The she wanted him, but for some reason this was not the proper beginning among her kind.  He longed for the knowledge to do whatever it was her people demanded between would-be mates.

      Presently Jer’ok ceased his rough courtship.  The Jer'anda she obviously deemed it an attack.  The beast-man was not yet willing to relax his embrace, but he allowed his head to rest gently on her shoulder while the hot blood coursing in his veins cooled.  To his surprise the she’s struggles ceased almost immediately.  Beneath his lips he felt the throbbing in her throat slow to a more normal pace.

      Even as Amber steeled herself in face of cruel defeat, the savage abruptly ceased his effort to capture her stubborn mouth.  To her amazement he lowered his head and rested it lightly in the hollow of her neck, his lips pressed gently against the pulse that raced beneath.  His embrace was not relaxed, but Amber suddenly felt herself more secure than she had ever been in a short lifetime surrounded with tender parental care followed by Rand’s circumspect courting.

      With security came a return of the grief of her devastating loss.  Swept suddenly by a different breed of despair, Amber let her head rest against the stranger’s broad chest.  Long constrained, her tears could no longer be held back.  She needed the comfort only humankind presence can provide in such times.  Forgotten – or perhaps tacitly forgiven – for this moment of overwhelming sorrow was the attack only just withdrawn.

      Amber was indeed fortunate in choosing Jer’ok to trust while in thrall to the unbearable vulnerability of untried youth enduring its first devastating personal loss.  He was not so humankind as he appeared.  But at least the beast-man’s motives were honourable, for all his lack of comprehension of humankind ways.

      In all truth, Jer’ok was utterly baffled by this Jer’anda’s swiftly changing moods.  But here was an emotional enervation he could understand.  He remembered his own tears upon witnessing Char's violent death.  He remembered the mingling of grief and rage at Lael’s death.  The she’s tears took on expressive significance – a shared sense of personal loss, the first human emotion the son of Leede and Sabratha had knowingly shared with another of his kind.  Jer’ok held this precious she close without allowing his own passion to threaten her any further.

      Almost imperceptibly Jer’ok’s embrace relaxed as the she allowed the tension in her exhausted form to fade.  Presently she was more at ease.  Her head lifted to rest against his, golden tresses mingling with the strands of dark chestnut.  She steadied herself by placing one small hand on his broad shoulder.

      Jer’ok was awed when he perceived the utter trust in him manifested by Amber’s subtle acceptance of his unexpected gentleness.  Becoming assured of her acceptance of his good intentions, he released her.  She stood unsteady but resolute on her own.  The flow of tears had ceased.  Strangely, he longed to brush the streaks of wetness from her face, but he refrained for fear of frightening her anew.

      Watching her eyes for any hint of annoyance or fear, the beast-man very gently touched her forehead with the back of his hand and then, with some trepidation, took her hand and raised it to his lips before promptly releasing it.  His reward was a wan smile, but truly a smile.  Amber brought his head down to hers and brushed his forehead with her lips.  Jer’ok looked at her in renewed wonder.  He was learning.  And this trust was a thing never to be betrayed.

      AMBER AWOKE TO the rustle of leaves surrounding her bed of fragrant grasses.  In a shelter reminiscent of those of the expedition but woven of light branches and broad fronds, she was protected from both the cool wind between dawns and the harsh glare of the stray beams of sunlight filtering through the multiple terraces of foliage above.  At first she stared in confusion at the unfamiliar sight.

      Gradually a smile began to play at the corners of her mouth.  So, it had not been another dream after all.  She looked about and saw the crystal knife standing at the entrance of her leafy bower.  She touched it in wonderment before looking to the base of the tree for her rescuer.  He was not there.

      Startled, Amber glanced about in search of him.  Surely he would not have deserted her.  More practically, the Armerian woman told herself no denizen of the jungle would leave behind so valuable a weapon.  As she awaited his return Amber pondered her circumstances with a sense of calm she admitted to be entirely inappropriate.  Already her grief had transformed into a sad pride for her father's courageous defence of her.  He and his sacrifice would forever live in her heart.  But her present situation shouldered grief aside.

      Amber had no idea whether she was guest or prisoner.  Was this mysterious Ashtarian savage her rescuer or her captor?  Whoever, whatever he was, her abductor at least was not wholly lacking in honour – or gestures.  She touched the knife that stood as sentinel over her safety against any who might harm her.  The hesitant smile took up residence, banishing the frown engendered by fear and sorrow.

      A slight sound interrupted the sweet reverie.  Amber’s rapt attention was drawn to the far side of the quiet clearing beyond the tree which had supported her peaceful slumber.  There a line of trees formed a natural wall, foliage and epiphytes overhanging a gentle brook sparkling in the soft, filtered patches of sunlight.  She breathed a sigh of relief.  It was the jungle man.

      What an image of primeval savagery he portrayed!  She watched as he carefully tossed his burden of freshly picked fruits in the grass before gracefully leaping the span of the brook.  There he paused to set aside a spear and the bow and quiver of arrows which had been slung against his back to free his hands for the bounteous feast.  Every move was utterly natural and entirely without effort.

      Amber studied the savage creature curiously as he approached.  He could not be hunterfolk.  She recognised him as more like the Tuathans than any other people she knew.  And yet there were subtle differences.  She knew of no people with skin that seemed almost to be of metallic composition.  And his eyes!

      Like those of all Tuathans they were almost the eyes of a magnificent cat, but never before had Amber seen flecks of gold in Tuathan eyes.  Nor had she ever seen other humankind eyes glow like molten flame in the darkness.  There was more than a hint of danger in this man’s manner, but where Amber should have still been caught up in the throes of yesterday’s horrors, she instead found herself longing to solve the mystery of a hunterfolk buck who was quite the most handsome man she had ever seen – and more gentleman than most.  She found she could not think of him as either hunterfolk or savage.

      The approaching man glanced upward.  Amber smiled and waved a cheerful greeting.  Despite all she had experienced in the course of the past several hours, she found that she was surprisingly hungry.  Her empty stomach actually growled when she eyed the profusion of exotic foodstuffs he had gathered for breaking their fast.  The man paused below her before scrambling up into the branches adjacent to Amber's shelter.  He was uncertain of his reception, and Amber recognised the folk timidity in his posture.

      When he moved again to appear at the entrance, she regretted her failure to study the Ashtarian folk closely enough to know how to reassure him.  Instead Amber smiled again and returned the knife with a gracious thank you.  She did not fail to feel the answer to her grip on the hilt.  He is Tuathan she realised with renewed surprise.  She did not yet recognise the crest of Charwick engraved there.

      Her companion returned Amber’s smile as the knife was slipped into the sheath at one coppery hip.  For the first time Amber noticed that his decidedly immodest hunterfolk loincloth was not fashioned from materials supplied by the jungle. Her Ashtarian savage was clothed in material which had to be Chimurian in origin.  Amber felt a blush steal over her features as the man watched her intently.

      She looked into his eyes and then away, blushing even more furiously.  “I’m hungry,” she announced in helpless confusion.

      He reached out to touch her face but she evaded his hand with a shake of her head.  He sat back on his haunches to regard her steadily.  Then he must have come to some kind of conclusion, for he chattered at her most earnestly.  Whoever this savage was, his vocalisations were unmistak­ably hunterfolk, if more complex than anything her father’s work had prepared her to expect.

      Language or mere indications of intent, this time it was the man who spoke uselessly to Amber, so he desisted and offered by gestures to carry her down to breakfast.  The gestures sufficed to convey his simple message.  Amber accepted demurely.  She spoiled the effect, however, when she giggled as her captor lifted her easily in one arm and swung them both to the ground with no greater jolt than the easy touch of the gaily coloured feather of a tropical song bird.

      As soon as she was set on her feet with equal care, Amber ran lightly to the repast Jer’ok had gathered, unconsciously failing to release his hand as he ran easily at her side.  Doing so now, she settled herself with unstudied grace at the side of the brook.  Jer’ok dropped to one knee, still careful to keep his distance.  He handed her one of the choicest fruits of the jungle’s bounty before selecting one for himself.

      As they ate, Amber tried her modest repertoire of languages on her mysterious host.  He watched her with avid attention but shook his head sadly with each new attempt.  It was quite useless.  Amber shrugged with resignation.

      Then Jer’ok made one last attempt, speaking slowly and with great care, but he knew it was futile.  He had encountered only a few non-Aranda with whom he could communicate.  None among them was humankind, much less Jer’anda.  He could not know that all of the humankind who are native to Ashtar have advanced far beyond that early ability of evolutionary progression.  As he feared she would, the Jer’anda shook her head and looked at him with a sad expression clouding her sparkling blue eyes.

      Despite all the horror she had been through and even with her present state of frustration, Amber maintained the vestiges of her lively sense of humor.  It was in part a defence against the circumstances into which she had been thrust.  In this exotic setting she was reminded of nothing other than the antique Terran entertainments she had enjoyed in her school's small museum.  Her eyes danced despite her dismay, and a grin would not be repressed.

      “Jane . . . , Tarzan . . . ,” she sighed as she touched first her own shoulder and then her companion's in a fair imitation of the restored bits of ancient film; yes, that was what her mentor had said Terrans had called the fragile stuff.

      Her only other recollection was that, alas, those two jungle lovers had not progressed much further – in conversation.  Her recollections were brought to an abrupt halt.  To her surprise her companion spoke again.

      “Jer'ok-ta,” he tapped his copper chest.  “Jer'ok,” he smiled.

      Amber laughed in delight.  “Amber,” she replied.

[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 69]
Narrative Transmission 11

     AFTER THAT SHAKIEST of beginnings Jer’ok and Amber passed the next few days in a mutual state of bliss neither had ever dared hope to believe possible.  Jer’ok knew it could not be long before Amber accepted him as mate.  Who can know what dreams of the future must have churned in that untouched mind?

      Amber on her part had never been happier.  Rand Southall would have been quite dismayed at the ease with which she forgot him.  But Amber, like her savage beast-man, this “Jerrock,” was a child of her early environment.  She was doing wrong by allowing the spell woven by Jer’ok and his exotic home to mesmerise her.  She knew she should return to her father's expedition – and to Rand, she blushed anew in suddenly remembering his so very proper courting of her.

      Not for the first time in the past several days, Amber found herself immersed in hopeless confusion.  The beast-man had left her in the clearing to go into the jungle on some business of his own.  She took the solitude as a moment to reflect seriously on her situation.

      Did she want to return to Rand or did she want to present Jer'ok to her people – to Bridey – for their approval?  Was it approval she sought?  Or more?  Or was it something entirely different?

      Amber Laxton was torn between her two suitors, so different and yet also so very alike in so many odd ways.  How could two men, so utterly different – one a civilised member of nobility who treated her like royalty, the other nothing but a speechless savage who had threatened her with rape – be so similar?

      Amber shuddered at her first silent admission of his ugly intent.  She trembled at her own acceptance of the reality of what she had miraculously escaped, not once but twice.  But, with Jer’ok, it would not have been rape, she angrily reminded herself.  I was willing; I wanted him as much as he wanted me.  The trembling persisted, refusing to abide by her will that it cease, until she was breathless.

      Could it be possible that the undeniable emotion Jer’ok aroused in her breast was truly love?  Or was it no more than infatuation, the lure of the unknown?

      Amber was well aware of her wont to entertain hopelessly romantic notions.  Bridey certainly had so informed her often enough.  Amber heard Bridey’s voice in her head:

      “Child, you must not believe such things are real.  Reality is cruel, dearest one, and men are not the heroes of whom you dream.  You must choose those you will trust with care.”

      Something told the little Amber who first heard what proved to be a rare speech for Bridey that the Armerian was speaking from some dire personal experience.  “Not all men are Blane Laxton,” the woman had once added even more mysteriously, but with that hint of personal knowledge hovering between them.  Bridey never said more, for all the importuning of the child as she blossomed into young womanhood.  But Amber would never forget her beloved companion's admonition.

      Thoughts of Bridey and of her secure childhood transformed into the memory of Rand Southall’s gentle advances.  Only a few scant days ago Amber had been on the verge of giving him her promise.  At the very least she owed the Tuathan an explanation.  Perhaps she owed him more than that.

      How could she love Rand and be so attracted to Jer’ok?  It was a mystery to which the inexperienced Armerian woman was unlikely to find any facile solution.  Even to far more sophisticated minds the humankind heart is a thing never easily comprehended.  Amber found herself pondering her uncertain future with increasing frequency but without benefit of consistent direction.

      The sultry afternoon of solitude began to fade into first twilight before Jer’ok returned to the clearing.  He found Amber at the edge of the quiet brook, her legs gracefully curled to one side and her back resting easily against the tree behind her.  She seemed perfectly at east in that setting.  Jer'ok smiled a secret smile as he saw her hand resting on a flower of many fragrant petals.  He paused for countless heartbeats to watch over her without betraying his presence.

      The beast-man drank in the Jer’anda's beauty from the cover of the trees.  She was not much taller than an Aranda ta’el.  Despite her tiny stature she was the very image of grace and loveliness.  Jer’ok knew he would never tire of watching her move.  He was constantly reminded of the graceful flight of the sleekest of the tiny birds found only on the lacy branches high in the uppermost terrace.

      Her golden hair was like nothing he had ever before seen, even among the shadows he watched longingly in his lair.  Amber's hair had the soft texture of Aranda fur, but it swirled about her face and cascaded down her back like Nea playing in the sweet light of Sanjera.

      The beast-man’s gaze lingered on her features.  Certainly, there was none in the whole of the jungle or even from the distant stars with a face that could compare to the sweet features of Jer’ok’s Amber.  Her beautiful eyes were the colour of Nea when, beyond the end of land as far as the eye could see, she danced under a cloudless sky, a part of Sa’nea.  Jer'ok sighed the sigh of every young man throughout the galaxy who has just encountered his first love.  He clutched his gift in his hand and wondered how she would receive it.

      As he studied her, perhaps for clues, Jer’ok noted that Amber’s eyes obviously saw nothing of her immediate surroundings.  From time to time she plucked a petal from the blossom in her hand and absently tossed it into the brook.  Nea obediently caught each and gently bore it from view.

      Jer’ok wondered anew what thoughts held the starfolk she so completely in their thrall.  Dared he hope that it was Jer’ok who rendered her oblivious to her surroundings?

      Not for the first time the beast-man pondered the wisdom of taking her to his lair by the sea.  No doubt many of the things that so mystified him would be quite ordinary in Amber’s eyes.  Perhaps his association with that lair and its contents might somehow serve to advance his courtship of her.

      With those prospects cherished in his mind Jer’ok started again to smile.  He would start with the gift.  But his eager expression quickly transformed to a frown when he saw the tears commence to flow heedlessly from her lovely eyes. Instantly concerned, Jer’ok moved quickly to Amber’s side, his gift forgotten along with his planned course of action.

      Amber looked up to him without a word.  Jer’ok knelt before her and tenderly brushed away a tear before it could spill over and begin its journey along her cheek.  Despite her melancholia, Amber smiled and acknowledged his small service with a light touch of her hand on his arm.

      Savage though he might be, Jer’ok was not a stupid man, and it required no genius to know what tore at Amber’s heart.  Even though he knew she would not understand, the beast-man spoke softly.

      “Jer'ok will return Amber to her people with the return of Sanjera.”

      Somehow she must have understood, for the flow of tears ceased and she nodded in acceptance.  To his chagrin she did not reach out to him for the additional comfort of his embrace.

      True to Jer’ok's promise, it was not long after second dawn that they began their trek to the campsite of Amber’s people.  Though Amber could not know it, Jer’ok’s step had never been slower.  Not once did it enter his mind to go into the trees where he always traveled at his swiftest.

      Nevertheless, all things, for good or ill, must pass.  Even at the slow pace Jer’ok set for them, he brought Amber within sight of the Laxton camp far too soon to suit the lonely beast-man.

      Jer’ok paused at the edge of the clearing.  The camp was quiet.  He detected the presence of no more than three of the starfolk.  Among them was one of the two who earlier had searched unsuccessfully for Amber.

      When the beast-man did not continue into camp, Amber started forward alone.  She expected him to follow, but after a few steps she turned back to find him staring motionless into the camp.  She returned to his side and took his hand in hers.

      “Come with me,” she pleaded.

      But Jer’ok shook his head and backed deeper into the cover of the forest.  He believed in her, but the beast-man was not ready to overcome the natural timidity of the experienced creature of the forests and savannahs of Ashtar.  His memory of the tragic death of Lael held his step where his own good sense told him that Amber’s people would not harm him.  Jer’ok’s jungle training and previous experiences with humankind won out over trust, a trait never highly developed among the children of Ashtar – and for good reason.

      “Jer’ok will watch over his she.  Jer’ok will return to Amber soon,” he promised and, in speaking, meant it.

      Amber looked into Jer’ok’s eyes for a long time before she released his hand.  She shook her head sadly.

      “I must go back,” was all she said.

      It was pointless to try to tell him of the conflicting hopes and dreams that threatened to tear her heart asunder.  For another moment she hesitated and an answering ember of hope flickered briefly in Jer’ok’s breast.  He remembered his gift.

      Before Amber could turn away from him, he touched her shoulder.  She waited.  He pressed the small phial into her hand.  Then he took her other hand and carried it to his forehead before bringing her fingers to his lips.  Much to his surprise, she suddenly pressed close to him in invitation.  He took her in his embrace and kissed her with as much tenderness as he could muster.  They both trembled, and both dared to hope the other would yield.  But the moment passed and they parted.

      Amber resolutely turned away and began the long way back to her own kind.  Never once did she look back to Jer’ok of the Aranda, though he did not move so much as a single muscle until she was beyond his sight.

      The beast-man could not see the tears that streamed down her face.  Nor did he see, when she had passed some internal point of no return, that she opened her hand to examine his gift.  She started, and opened the tiny phial in rapt curiosity. Cautiously, she raised it to her nose.  The heady scent of the blossoms Jer’ok knew to be her favourites actually made her faint-headed.  Jer’ok had concocted a perfume for his beloved.

      ONE OF THE late mentor’s students looked up from his work as he mopped his brow in the fierce combined heat of Pol and distant Castor.  His eyes narrowed and then he rose to his feet with a strangled whoop.

      His two companions looked up with expressions of puzzlement and annoyance.  Then one of them followed his gaze to the slight figure, come from the dark shade of the jungle as though emerging from some dread underworld of the ancients.

      Rand Southall rose to his feet.  It could not be!  He took a tentative step forward, then another.  It was!  Amber Laxton was alive and had returned to them – to him!

      Rand raced to meet her.  Amber saw the Tuathan and stopped.  Then she, too, began to run.  She fell into his arms with great sobs of what Rand knew could only be relief and joy.  His Amber had returned to him alive and unharmed.  He could hardly give credence to his good fortune as he held close that dear form.

      JER’OK DESERTED NEITHER Amber nor the other starfolk.  His wonted wanderlust never touched the great breast.  Only one thing moved Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda:  his love for Amber.  And yet he could not overcome his Aranda nature. He remained aloof.

      As he had when they first arrived he served the starfolk as provider and fierce protector.  Just as before, he never allowed any of them to see him.  Only this time Amber was aware of his presence, and the Arene woman could not quite put aside the memory of those few days of near-complete bliss that had been hers, nor of that mystic recognition which had passed between them in that very first moment when their eyes had met and held.

      Back among her own people, reality, or at least that which passes for that elusive state, quickly regained its hold on Amber Laxton.  But she began to dab Jer’ok’s perfume behind one ear each morning.  On the few occasions when she could escape the concerned overprotection of her companions and the hovering presence of Rand Southall, Amber would slip away during the hours of near-dark in the hope of a tryst with her jungle protector.  Once or twice she was certain she sensed Je’'ok’s presence, but she could not be sure.

      The beast-man, who was in fact never far from her, nursed the hope she would return to him until finally she came to the jungle no more.  Jer’ok was left only with the memory of the scent of her favourite blossoms wafting on the still air about

      Rand, fearful of some uncanny lure of the jungle, was maintaining too close a watch over her.  Amber accepted the wall the Tuathan sought to build around her only because she recognised the love that prompted it.  She had not told him of her experiences beyond the obvious fact of her miraculous survival at the hands of a stranger.

      One evening the two of them slipped out of camp to another small clearing overlooking the Earth-Mother pattern.

      “Tell me, Amber.  I would do anything to ease the burden you are carrying alone.  Do you not trust me?  Do you believe I will think – or care – any less for you, whatever happened?”

      “Suffice it to say, Rand, I was cared for, by the one who had been providing for us.  Leave it at that.  Perhaps the day will come . . . .”  Her noncommittal recitation drifted off as a light breeze stirred her hair.

      Rand held her close to him and stole a lingering kiss.

      “Is that a new scent you are wearing?” he murmured dreamily.  “It suits you perfectly.”  He would have stolen another kiss, but for Amber's violent reaction.

      “No!” she gasped.  “Not now.  Rand . . . .”  But she did not go on.

      “Leave it, Rand,” she said more gently.  “I was not harmed.  That should be enough.”

      “But we would show our gratitude,” he started.

      “Leave it, Rand,” Amber repeated.  With that she broke away from his embrace and virtually stalked back into the camp.

      Southall briefly studied her purposeful stride and stiff posture before following at a discreet distance.  It still was not safe for her to be alone even so close to camp, he explained to himself.  If the Tuathan thought Amber less than gracious in her lack of gratitude, he would offer nothing by way of rebuke.  He attributed that and her reticence to the effort of forgetting the horror of what she had experienced.

      As time went on, it became increasingly difficult and, ultimately, impossible for Amber to confide in Rand about the existence, let alone the inexplicable attraction of Jer’ok.  But the memory of the beast-man stubbornly refused to fade long after the surrounding events had begun to dim, allowing her to remember her father without turning cold with the abject terror and grief rewakened in vivid detail.

      She clung to the tiny phial of Tuathan craftsmanship as to life itself.

      WHEN FINALLY AMBER had need to turn to someone with the details of what had followed the mentor’s death, she went neither to Rand nor to Bridey, but to Guy Locke.  It was a wise choice.  Amber Laxton would never find a better or more loyal friend than the Diyalan lieutenant.

      And before all the events precipitated by the arrival of the Laxton expedition on Ashtar were concluded, she would have need for a friend.




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