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Volume 6081

Chapter 18: SOLITUDE
Chapter 19: REYN
[Log, ON BOARD SHIP {DELETED}, Date {deleted}]
Narrative Transmission 18
     JER’OK HAD WANDERED far indeed from the territory of his youth.  Following the series of events that had taken him from Diyala to Camassia and then deep into the jungle of his home world, the beast-man found he could not long endure inaction.  Idleness, which once the beast-man had savoured between adventures, now gave his active mind too much time for dwelling upon the unpleasantness that had attended what he fervently hoped were his last encounters with humankind.  It was with the greatest difficulty that the Aranda-ta accepted the inescapable fact of his kinship with the despised ones.

      The love of exploration and the deathless hope that someday he might encounter others, k’aranda or not, with whom he might share the day-to-day adventures of life without demand or betrayal, lured Jer'ok ever farther from those places where humankind was likely to have invaded.  He traveled fast but with many seemingly pointless detours.  He fed when he could upon what was provided by the jungle's bounty.  Never far from Nea in one of her myriad of forms, he never thirsted.

      When Ashtar’s heat grew oppressive he would spend long intervals swimming, sometimes using the exercise as a mode of travel, but just as often for the simple pleasure of the strenuous activity.  Because he traveled with speed the beast-man was armed only with the crystal knife that was the legacy of his long-dead sire and with his woven reed rope slung over the sheath which held the knife.

      It was good to rely on the gifts that are truly Aranda.  The knife was seldom put to use; the rope not at all.  Yet the Aranda buck never went hungry, nor did he have reason to fear the great multitude of enemies lurking in the jungle in wait for such as he to become incautious or otherwise vulnerable to their own effective weapons.

      At some point during the day, depending upon the time in Ashtar's endless sequence from shadow death to shadow return and back, Jer’ok would seek out a place to make his lair.  There he would sleep in relative safety or observe the always fascinating cycle of life about him or fix his eyes upon the distant stars.  At such times, when the distant points of bright Jera toyed with his imagination, the beast-man found himself haunted by a face of surpassing beauty.  A pair of flashing blue eyes would once again threaten to catch his breath away.  Only then would Jer’ok of Ashtar admit to his aloneness.  Only then did solitude carry with it the heavy burden of loneliness.

      When Amber found her way back to his thoughts and refused to be banished, Jer’ok would resume his endless trek, be it day or night, the searing heat of two shadows or the dangerous storms of shadow return.  Whenever his lost love haunted him, Jer’ok left his lair and sought a new range where, perhaps, she would refrain from searching him out.  It was as if the violent extremes of Ashtar served as a balm to Jer’ok’s wounded heart.  The only relief for so deep a wound was to be found in the thrill of untried danger challenged, and the Ashtarian jungle willingly obliged her stalwart son.

      Though the beast-man never openly courted long sleep, the dreaded Death of humankind, it had become his wont to take desperate chances posing threat to both life and limb.  Always the mighty buck prevailed, for he knew well the limits as well as the extent of his magnificent powers.  Even at this, the peak of his young manhood, Jer’ok-ta was wise enough to retreat in dignity when Ashtar’s challenge was beyond his capacity.

      But even the best among us will eventually misjudge and accept a challenge only to discover, too late, that we cannot meet it.  Such a mistake is seldom survived, especially when one lives each heartbeat according to the strict tenets of the law of the Ashtarian jungle.

       THE SON OF Ashtar was in a playful mood when the storms first threatened.  He had no better plan for the day so he hit upon the notion that he might outrun his namesake.  The place where he was presently making his lair was of little interest to the peerless hunter, mighty fighter.  The game-beasts were all fat and lazy.  Jer’ok felt shamed each time he took his meat.  By some peculiar quirk of Ashtar the predators seldom ventured near this place.  If he were not careful Jer’ok, too, would soon become fat and lazy.  Then what would result when next the Aranda met Pardu, the leopard, or fierce Thera, the tiger of the long fangs?  The beast-man would meet his end as the tough dinner of his fellow hunters.

      The storm was distant.  For Jer’ok the race commenced with the long strides of his walk but soon advanced to an easy jog-trot that swiftly swallowed up great distances.  After a while he grew bored and swung up into the quiet trees.  Once in the middle terrace the beast-man fairly flew along his way.  In accord with his lighthearted mood the beast-man allowed the storm to select his path for him.  Always the great creature moved in the same direction as Jer'ok, the storm.  For nearly the full space of a day he actually remained ahead of it, though by nightfall it had commenced to gain on him.  Jer’ok, the man, elected to continue his race with the storm through the darkness.  With luck he might find a lair that would protect him from
Nea’s drenching and the chill Mael that travels with the storms of one shadow.

      By the time the jungle should have been turning its face to the return of Sanjera, Mael touched Jer’ok lightly at first and then with increasing force.  It had been a good race, but now it was time to concede defeat and find shelter.  Jer’ok drew to a halt.

      There was no hint of the exertion that had marked nearly one full day.  Jer’ok breathed easily.  The copper hide was not darkened with sweat.  He raised his fine head and laughed aloud as Mael whipped the dark strands of his hair first one way and then another.  It was the easy laughter of the sheer joy of being alive.

      The beast-man cast his glance about.  Not far away a lone patriarch of the jungle stood straight and tall, untouched by the dark shade of others.  Seeking out the spoor of enemies as he moved, Jer’ok dropped to the thick grass beneath his own tree and jogged easily to its isolated fellow.  From its massive upper branches Jer’ok could see for miles beyond the edge of the forest even in the absence of Sanjera.

      The country was more rugged than much of that where Jer’ok had spent his youth.  Except for the lush rain forest and rich savannahs, it was very like the harsh land of Camassia.  Almost beyond his vision the beast-man made out what appeared to be an escarpment.  It began to rise slowly out of the savannah, disappeared into the thick-grown trees and then rose abruptly with and above them to be lost in the lowering clouds.  Curiosity as much as the need to find shelter lured the beast-man onward without hint of the fate that awaited him.

      AT THE FOOT of the great cliff Jer’ok found a series of caves that were in fact entrances to a tangled network of caverns, though he was not to learn of them until much later.  One of the smaller caves would be a fine place from which to observe the passage of the storm while remaining warm and dry.  Better yet, a spring burbled to the surface in the rich grass at the very edge of the first of the boulders marking the base of the cliff's cold stone face.  Jer’ok drank the delicious water with obvious relish before selecting some fruit to ease his hunger before sleeping.  As he ate, the beast-man eyed the looming presence of some ancient cataclysm of Ashtar’s uncertain surface, ever subject to violent change.

        Who can know what thoughts, trivial or profound, might have touched that active mind at such a moment?

      The first huge drops of cold rain touched him.  The beast-man gathered the last of the fruit he had selected and strolled to the cave he had located earlier.  For a long time he watched the play of ragged Jera through the heavy rain, driven in torrents by Mael, who was fiercer now than when he had earlier toyed with Jer’ok-ta.  Presently, fatigue claimed the beast-man.

      Before he curled up in the snug cave to sleep through the remainder of the storm, Jer’ok promised himself that he would learn the secrets of what was for now hidden in the thick clouds.  With that promise tantalising the last of his waking consciousness Jer’ok entered the profoundly deep slumber usually reserved to the very young, who have no cause for restless wakefulness.  Unless disturbed by some enemy, who would experience the surprise of his life should he seek to take advantage of the sleeping beast-man, Jer'ok would sleep through a full cycle of light and darkness.

      The afternoon glow of bright Pol penetrated deep into the caves lining the base of the escarpment.  Before it was blocked by the distant trees, the Gemini sun’s warm light touched the relaxed features of the sleeping man within.  Jer’ok stirred and awoke, instantly alert to his surroundings.  He sniffed the air delicately and then drew great draughts of its sweetness deep into his lungs.  With the langorous grace of a lithe coppery panther, the beast-man rose and stretched his sleepy muscles before leaving his comfortable lair.

      Jer’ok passed the remaining hours of full light in exploration of the unfamiliar territory.  He had already determined to climb to the top of the escarpment.  He was not only intrigued by the unique demands the endeavor would require of his prowess, both mental and physical, but also prompted by inevitable curiosity.  What wonders might he find once he scaled the top?  But curiosity must wait until he learned all that his senses could reveal of this place.

      By the time he returned to his cave Jer’ok’s sharp eyes had picked out the most likely route to the top.  It was more than a little indirect, but it would serve his purpose.  In his mind it was relatively safe, though few others would have concurred in the beast-man’s assessment.  Once again he slept well, touched by neither fear nor undue anticipation of the harrowing endeavor ahead.  The best equipped and most skillful of trained humankind climbers would have thought no less than twice before attempting the face of the Dalon Escarpment.

      By first light Jer’ok had already eaten lightly following a brief swim to awaken the finely tuned muscles upon which his life would depend.  He found his way to the place he had selected on the previous day to start his ascent.  Cautiously but without a single wasted motion the beast-man took on the unspoken challenge of the Dalon Escarpment.

      His path had been well chosen.  Here an isolated clump of brush, there a tiny indentation in the sheer face of massive stone.  The ascent required Jer’ok’s complete attention.  A mistake, however slight, would not be forgiven by the untouched face of the great cliff.  Though the beast-man's progress was sure, it was painfully slow.  But without a single mistake his supple hands and feet bore him surely upward.

      On a narrow ledge barely providing room for him to hunker down, the beast-man rested about midway to the top.  Without the slightest sign of the vertigo that would have incapacitated most of us, Jer’ok looked out over the beautiful land of his birth.  For miles around him the verdant forests spread in all directions.  Occasionally he could make out the meander of a river or smaller stream by the framing trees growing thick and tall on either bank.  The vegetation was too thick to reveal the waters themselves, but Jer’ok knew they were there.  He had traveled along some of them before being diverted by the storm.  From the hazy blue-green of the horizon Jer’ok’s eyes were drawn upward.  The blue of the sky was utterly untouched by cloud or unwelcome sign of human endeavor.  No sleek ship marred the perfection of Jer’ok’s world.  Instead, a distant raptor soared silently on the wind.  Presently, another of his kind joined in the stately dance of soaring flight with Mael. Something unnamed stirred in the beast-man's heart as the two disappeared together behind the trees.  He stared out over the vastness of his home with a great unnamed melancholia catching at his breath.

      Jer’ok would never tire of the incredible vista Ashtar spread before him, but it would be wise to complete his climb before darkness descended.  With one last glance around, Jer’ok gingerly rose and returned to the task at hand.  Though the final portion of the climb was the most difficult, he gained the top just as Sanjera gratefully dipped into the edge of the hazy jungle for his well earned rest.  At the very edge of the precipice Jer’ok watched Gemini’s Pol set in a blaze of crimson flame that tinged all the jungle with its sanguine reflection.

      Suddenly it occurred to the beast-man that he had a great hunger.  He wondered what this new land might provide in the way of game.  Nothing less than rich red meat would satisfy his growling belly.  First he would quench his thirst, then he would hunt.  Jer’ok casually turned his back on the feat that for you or me would be the major accomplishment of an entire lifetime.

      Jer’ok left the edge of the precipice without a backward glance for his extraordinary day’s work.  He tested the air before boldly moving out in search of a likely place for lying in wait for game.  As the beast-man directed his attention to his next meal he did not fail to detect the scent of strange k'aranda, most likely san-k'aranda, in the air.  It was strongest from the direction well back from the edge of the cliff.  The hair at the back of the Aranda-ta’s neck bristled and a low growl rumbled
in his throat.

[Log, ON BOARD SHIP {DELETED}, Date {deleted}]
 Narrative Transmission 19

      LIEUTENANT GUY LOCKE would have been greatly dismayed at the ease with which Jer’ok of the Aranda had shrugged off every sign of civilisation the former had so staunchly endeavored to instill in the stalwart son of two worlds.  The reversion to beast had been completed almost before Jer’ok had shed the superbly tailored garb of Leede Southerly.  And that divestment he had accomplished at the earliest opportunity.

      Only the strong bond of friendship that had developed between the two men had held the Ashtarian to the mission he had undertaken – until Jer’ok himself was witness to the misery the Khazarish and their offworld colleagues had spread to his jungle home.  Then the beast-man took a personal interest in the routing of the evil by every means available, whether of his jungle domain or that of the civilised neighboring worlds.  And when Jer’ok of the Aranda takes a personal interest in the nefarious affairs of humankind, those affairs are doomed to extinction.

      But neither Leede Southerly nor Jer'ok alone could have accomplished the defeat of this enemy.  Only the unique combination of the two identities provided the needed skills.

      For today all the recent past was forgotten by the beast-man, whose exclusive interest of the moment was to silence his insistent belly.  Tomorrow or the next day Jer’ok might become sufficiently curious to learn more of the k’aranda who dwelled here, but not now.  Whether the learning would lead to friendship or to enmity was a matter of complete indifference to the buck.  If he chose to investigate at all, he was supremely confident of his ability to handle either outcome with equal ease.  If circumstances demanded, there was always swift flight to put substantial distance between an enemy and himself.

      Jer’ok halted and his wandering mind came to full alert.  A broad pool of shimmering water spread before him.  As his keen eyes scanned the surrounding clearing he saw the shadowy game peacefully grazing.  Occasionally one or more would approach the water’s edge and cautiously drop its head to drink.  While the creatures were wary, they demonstrated none of the timidity of their counterparts in Jer’ok’s homeland.  The beast-man circled the small pond and discovered no sign of predator, including the k’aranda whose spoor he had detected earlier.  Were it not for the protests from his now thoroughly empty belly Jer’ok might have sought out more challenging game.  Instead he fell upon striped Kiwasa, so much like the more familiar Eos.  The startled nearby game stampeded at the scent of fresh blood and did not return while the beast-man fed.

      When his repast was complete Jer’ok bathed in the cool waters of the pond.  It was so relaxing that he soon discovered himself to be extremely tired from the day's exertions.  The beast-man trod water as he looked about for a likely lair. There were no trees that suited his purpose so the beast-man left the water, shook off the majority of clinging Nea and, lifting the remainder of his meal to one shoulder, disappeared into the forest in search of a suitable place for his sleep.  He found it in a jumbled clump of rocks.  In addition to holding the warmth of Sanjera against the chill of night, particularly noticeable at this altitude, the circle of rocks provided a certain degree of protection from the beasts that stalk through the dark.  Within the natural circle soft grasses grew thick.  Jer'ok's sleep would be cushioned without any additional effort on his part.  Breakfast was soon cached in a nearby tree, and the beast-man lowered himself into the grass where he curled up and was instantly asleep.

      JER’OK AWOKE ABRUPTLY, sensitive nostrils testing the air and ears attuned to whatever it was that had disturbed him.  For several heartbeats the beast-man did not move.  Had any observed, it would have seemed he still slept. Satisfied that personal danger was not imminent, Jer’ok opened his eyes and rose to scrutinize the surrounding land.  Suddenly he froze.

      Jer’ok’s hand went to the hilt of the crystal knife at his hip.  With effortless ease he scaled the surrounding rock and raced across the grassland to the place where a huge Thera was menacing a humankind woman armed with a spear she handled with practised ease.  But, even as the beast-man raced to her side, the humankind's spear flew harmless past the side of the great carnivore.  She was uselessly raising a dagger in one slender hand in instinctive defence against the coming charge when Jer’ok’s roared challenge turned the great head of the tiger toward him.

      The beast-man’s inherently chivalrous nature was undaunted by previous experiences.  Though he was not entirely certain just how he would take on this incredible Thera with no more than a knife, he could not allow the stranger she to die for want of a champion.

      Without thinking, Jer’ok demanded in the language of his adopted people that the she run for shelter.  He would distract Thera while she made good her escape.  Then he would follow with all the speed he could muster.  Alas, neither the woman nor the great cat chose to participate in his wild plan.  The woman stood her ground to watch in amazement.  The cat charged the interloper without warning.

      Thera is quick, but his great size makes him a clumsy beast.  Jer’ok’s agility is backed by a lithe form for which thought is instant action.  Though the charge was unexpected, Jer’ok was fully prepared for it.  He stepped aside only at the precise moment Thera thought his victim within easy reach of his cruel talons.  Surprised to find empty air where the brazen creature should have been, Thera nevertheless was quick enough to alter his attack.  One great forepaw raked across the naked flesh before Jer’ok could leap entirely clear.

      Fortunately, the bloody wound was in the beast-man’s left arm and shoulder.  The hand that gripped the knife was untouched.  The beast-man rolled to his feet and was already crouched to meet the second charge before Thera could overcome his own momentum to halt and turn to face the elusive enemy.  Yellow eyes and eyes of golden green glared hatred across the grass separating them.

      This time Thera moved with greater caution.  His original victim was forgotten.  The puny creature who dared challenge his might would not live to boast of his foolishness.  The cat’s tail twitched with annoyance.  The scent of the creature’s blood filled his nostrils and inflamed his predator's brain with the lust to kill.  He shook his massive head and roared a warning.  The light of Sanjera glanced off the polished surface of his horrid fangs.  Soon they would be buried deep in the soft body of the one who dared challenge him, the lord of all he surveyed.

      Jer’ok stood his ground.  For the first time he saw that the woman had not fled.  Perhaps she had not understood the warning he had called to her.  Whatever the reason, she was demonstrating much courage and uncommonly good sense.  If either of them tried to flee now, Thera would charge and bring that one down long before the relative safety of the trees could be reached.

      Ignoring the ugly wound Thera had already inflicted, Jer’ok walked very slowly toward the calm she.  Thera watched every move, but he was biding his time, perhaps deliberately permitting his prey to hope in vain that there would be no attack.  Thera delights in playing with his prey though those unfortunate ones seldom join in the spirit of his game.

      Presently Jer’ok had made his cautious way to the woman’s side.  To his intense surprise she spoke to him in a language laced with Aranda, although there was much in her speech he could not fully comprehend.  More, her language was not attended by the body language rendering the limited speech of his people rich with nuance.  Her intent, however, was quite clear.

      “Thank you, stranger,” she began.  “But how would you conclude with Thera?”

      “Walk away slowly, remaining behind me at all times,” the beast-man admonished, hoping she would understand pure Aranda.

      Though she looked at him in surprise, the she nodded her acquiescence.  Jer’ok continued, “When you reach a point opposite that tree,” he indicated an isolated tree about midway between their stand and the jungle, “run as fast as you can. Find a tree you can climb to take you beyond the reach of Thera.  I will hold Thera here as long as I can.”

      With that Jer’ok turned his attention to Thera who was working himself into a second charge.  The beast-man naturally assumed the she would obey.  He did not see her appraising look and tiny shrug before she did as he had bid her.  Thera paid scant attention to the she.  Baleful eyes rested steadily on his chosen victim.

      As Jer’ok waited for Thera with apparent lack of concern, the beast-man listened for the she’s progress.  Only when he heard her begin her run for the trees would he make his own move.  He, too, would back in slow retreat until he reached the point where he stood a good chance of outrunning the agitated carnivore.  Jer’ok was surprised that he had not yet made his second charge, but Thera is always an unpredictable beast.  The creature might attack at any moment without regard for Jer’ok’s actions.  Or he might allow Jer’ok to follow the she into the trees and escape without further harm.

      Before Jer’ok could commence his own studied retreat Thera’s tail came down straight behind him, and with a blood-curdling scream he charged the beast-man.  The scream was intended to freeze the buck in terror.

      It failed.

      Jer’ok crouched to meet Thera on his own terms.  As the tiger rose for the kill Jer’ok once again slipped to one side, but this time it was he who left a deep gash along Thera’s flank with the single fang he carried in one hand.  The infuriated tiger turned in mid-air, his own long sharp fangs flashing in the effort to rend the sleek hide.  But the buck was never there to feel the fury of the enraged beast.  Always he eluded the slashing fangs by the scantest fractions of time and space.

      Thera was beyond fury now.  Stricken by utterly unreasoning madness he slashed and raked the air with fangs and talons in a veritable frenzy of hatred.  Jer’ok took note of the change in his opponent and knew he had won.  He evaded the death-dealing blows easily now and awaited his chance.  Soon his knife would find the heart or throat of Thera.

      Then, from out of nowhere, a searing pain cut across the beast-man’s temple.  He staggered and only by a miracle of fading will evaded Thera’s next blow.  With the last vestiges of his consciousness the beast-man tried in vain to reach the jugular, but Thera seemed to fall away from him as he himself collapsed bonelessly to the crushed and bloody grass.  Before oblivion overcame him Jer’ok imagined he heard the scream of a woman.

      With returning awareness Jer’ok’s ears indeed rang with the screams of the she whose life he had sought to preserve.  At first they were meaningless cries, but as his senses cleared he heard her cry out not to kill him.  Vaguely, Jer’ok wondered why Thera should not die.  He opened his eyes then and would have struggled to his feet but for the spears that pinned him to the grass.

      Jer’ok obediently fell back against the ground but not before observing the form of the sabre-toothed tiger sprawled lifeless at his side.  That and the fact that he still lived puzzled the beast-man most.  He was certain his knife had not touched the creature.  The spears were dismissed as the result of his helpless floating in and out of awareness.  Before he could attempt again to raise himself from the ground, Jer’ok’s mind went completely blank and he slipped into total darkness.

      He awoke at the touch of a cool cloth to his aching head.  Someone eased water between his lips slowly so he would not choke.  Jer’ok was exhausted beyond endurance.  His eyes remained closed.  The effort to lift his eyelids was beyond his strength.  Surely Thera had not so seriously wounded him.

      Jer’ok’s wandering thoughts were interrupted by a male voice: “You will take him to Solea, the Moon, High Shamana?”

      The soft voice of the she he had sought to protect responded with what sounded like a particularly firm denial.  There were several sharp intakes of breath suggesting surprise, not necessarily of a pleasant sort.

      In another moment a second male voice enquired in awe, “High Shamana, will you give this one to Sanjera, the Sun?”

      This time the denial was less certain.  Curiously Jer’ok opened his eyes.  Deep violet eyes swam into focus above him.

      “Ah, he has returned from his sleep.  Vral, help me with him.  He is heavy.”

      Strong hands gripped Jer’ok and raised his upper body to hold him upright while other hands bathed the deep gashes left by Thera’s sharp claws.  The agony of the ministrations nearly overcame Jer’ok anew, but the beast-man gritted his teeth and refused to succumb to the darkness that beckoned.

      It was over quickly enough.  Some salve was smoothed into the wounds.  At first the flesh protested until Jer’ok’s head swam, but then the soothing effect of the substance took hold and the agony receded.  When it had disappeared, Jer’ok pulled away from the buck who was supporting him.  He swayed dizzily but managed to remain upright without assistance.  There was a chorus of approving grunts from all sides.

      “You are a buck of courage and great strength.  Who are you who would serve the High Shamana of Dalon?”

      Jer’ok lifted his eyes.  He was uncertain he cared for the words chosen by the she, but he answered her query with respect.

      “I am Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda.  I have come from the jungle beyond the great cliff of rock that guards Dalon.”

      Again there was a chorus of murmurs  that seemed this time to signify either surprise or disbelief.  Jer’ok ignored them.

      “Jer’ok has served the shamana because she was in danger.”  He regarded the woman and her assembled warriors, “Who are you and who are these?”

      An expression of shock briefly distorted the beautiful features of the she, but the shamana recovered quickly.  Jer’ok studied her and her male attendants with frank interest.  The high shamana endured his scrutiny with an air of amused tolerance, but her followers became agitated under Jer’ok’s cold eyes of golden-flecked green.  The warriors were reminded of the fire in the eyes of Thera and his lesser kin.

      The shamana gracefully rose to her feet.  Jer’ok’s gaze followed her.  She was exquisite.  Hair with the blue-black sheen of the wing of a raven swept back from a face of perfect ivory to tumble in smooth waves to her waist.  The graceful arch of black brows gave her a look of haughty disdain the unusual circumstances did nothing to diminish.  The violet eyes were framed in long black lashes the shamana did not hesitate to use to considerable effect.  High cheek bones contributed to the overall effect of superiority if not majesty.  Jer’ok saw the beauty of the shamana’s generous mouth but failed to note the still-subtle hint of cruelty that was taking up residence.  He did note that the shamana was slightly younger than he.

      Jer’ok rose to his feet to face her with open curiosity.  The grumbling entourage allowed him to do so without interference at a quick gesture and the slight narrowing of the shamana’s eyes.

      The woman was nearly as tall as the giant beast-man.  She was slim with long limbs perfectly formed for the speed and agility required for life on Ashtar.  She wore little more than did the nearly naked savage who faced her without hint of deference to her exalted status.

      In addition to the soft white material draped attractively about her hips, the shamana wore a harness of woven metal which enhanced more than concealed her well-rounded figure.  A narrow girdle of the same fine metal bound her narrow waist and held a magnificently bejeweled dagger at one hip.  A similarly ornamented diadem encircled her brow to disappear into the black hair.  Finely crafted wristlets and anklets encrusted with gems of intricate cut completed her barbaric finery.

      “Who are you?”  Jer’ok repeated, ignoring the agitated band who surrounded him.

      “I am High Shamana Reyn of Dalon.  ‘These,’” she mimicked with perfection Jer’ok’s earlier tone, “‘these’ are my attendants.”

      While the shamana watched in amusement Jer’ok cast a casual glance across the band that served their alata.  It was not so casual as it might have appeared.  Jer’ok had been taking the measure of the stranger bucks ever since regaining his senses.  If they were not now enemies, they might be before long.  It is well to know an enemy before rather than after he has betrayed his intentions.

      Reyn’s band were greater in stature than Aranda and most san-k’aranda – and even than Reyn herself.  They were impressively built, far although less massive than Aranda.  Unlike the shamana, they were covered with a smooth coat of fur much shorter and finer in texture than that of the Aranda.  They and their alata, the high shamana, might have been two closely related species of k’aranda, one closer to san-k’aranda, the other to Aranda.  They did share the same fine features of facial bone which gave the shamana’s countenance its stark beauty.

      Jer’ok’s insatiable curiosity, always a primary motivator for the beast-man and finely honed by his readings under the tutelage of Guy Locke, was piqued.  He recognised a certain danger but chose to ignore it for the moment.  He regarded the shamana and saw the amusement in her eyes.

      “You are well enough to travel, Jer’ok of the Aranda?”  She barely paused for his gesture of confirmation.  “You will join us in Dalon.  We would show our gratitude for your brave defence of the high shamana.”

      It was more command than invitation, but Jer’ok had no better plan for the day.  He wanted to observe for himself this place of Dalon.  It also occurred to him that Reyn was a woman who aroused a certain interest.

      And so the beast-man entered the city without the need for the prompting of the warrior bucks.  If these attendants of the high shamana were disappointed, they knew better than to allow their disappointment to show.  They were wise enough to bide their time.  They knew their patience would ultimately be rewarded.



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