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Volume 6082

Chapter 20: DALON
Chapter 21: RETURNS
[Log, ON BOARD SHIP {DELETED}, Date {deleted}]
 Narrative Transmission 20

      JER’OK, NEVER ONE to be bound by the constraints of time, lost track of the days he spent as the guest of the High Shamana of Dalon.  His wounds healed swiftly under the medicinal potions of the Dalonians.  The beast-man was soon on his feet and eager to explore the place in which he found himself.  Reyn was amazed at the speed of his recovery.  Though the wounds inflicted by Thera had been deep, there was no trace of them now.  The copper hide might have escaped wholly unscathed.

      STARVED FOR MALE companionship she deemed worthy, the young Reyn forgot her exalted place among the Dalonians and opened her lonely heart to the courtly son of two worlds with almost pathetic eagerness.  Against all tradition and the training that had ruled her for a lifetime, Reyn found herself infatuated by the handsome outlander.  He was unlike her own people for all the ease with which he moved among them.  Never before had an outlander remotely like Jer’ok been brought to Dalon.  To her own bemusement Reyn was hardly unaware of the fact that she had evoked no little interest in the stalwart hunterfolk who was not folk at all.

      Reyn found herself telling Jer’ok not only of the memorised history of Dalon, but also of her own doubts and fears of its meaning, especially as it touched upon her, the high shamana.  She revealed her loneliness to him in the absence of any other with whom she could share her impressions of what her life was to be or how it might compare to the lives of her subjects or of those in the forbidden world below the escarpment.

      But whenever Jer’ok asked how she had come to encounter other peoples and where they might have come from, the shamana grew vague.  She refused to meet his questioning eyes and lapsed into a morose silence.  After a time one or the other of them always changed the subject of conversation.  Jer’ok never observed anyone he could identify as outlander.

      High Shamana Reyn escorted her unusual guest throughout her city with much pomp and circumstance until the beast-man simply refused to be exhibited – as he finally put it to her with a bluntness he had been avoiding in deference to the feelings of his hostess.  Reyn took his refusal in good grace.  Thereafter the two of them effected disguises and went among the people incognito.  Jer’ok had long since learned that the trick of blending into the background of whatever place in which he found himself could reveal far more interesting and useful detail than a more direct approach.

      As time went on the beast-man discovered he could bear the confines of Dalon no better than he could those of the more civilised cities of Chimur’s great nations.  It did not take lengthy persuasion to entice the bored shamana to accompany him on an independent foray into the jungle.  Jer’ok wished to hunt again.  But the shamana assured him he would find the hunt on the escarpment little more than target practice.

      “We must go into your jungle if we are to have any sport, Lord Jer’ok.”

      Reyn had conferred the title without knowledge of her companion’s rejected Tuathan birthright.  It merely suited her purpose that he be held above her own entourage.  It was a singular honour.  Among the Dalonians it was the rare male, indeed, who was granted noble status.  The high shamana and her lesser priestesses were the only privileged class of Dalon.

      Jer’ok earned little by his title.  It meant nothing to him personally.  The other bucks were bitterly jealous and the several shamana clearly despised him all the more.  He ignored them all.  He preferred to remain aloof from them in any event. Moreover, he had already determined that his stay in Dalon would soon come to an end.

      He was bored and restless.  Not even the undeniable allure of Reyn was sufficient to stay him.  The freedom and adventure of the jungle called again after having maintained a lengthy silence.

      Jer’ok did not hide his astonishment at her suggestion, “But certainly you cannot make so dangerous a descent, and I . . . ”  His protests subsided at her gay laughter.

      “There is no need for so dangerous an undertaking, Lord Jer’ok.  There is another way.  Come, I will show you.  Let us go before Sanjera, the Sun, grows too bright and our game has gone into hiding.”

      Armed only with spears, their knives, and Jer’ok’s rope, Reyn and the beast-man eluded the shamana’s disgruntled attendants and disappeared into the relative safety of the escarpment’s jungle.  First assuring herself that they were not being followed, Reyn led the puzzled Jer’ok by a devious route to the small pond where he had made his only kill on the escarpment.  It seemed to the beast-man that a long time had passed since that last exercise of his carefree way of life.  He was anxious to become Aranda again.

      Reyn stopped him by an apparently natural outcropping of rocks.

      “Only the high shamana knows of this way into the jungle below.  All the others to whom the secret has been revealed have died with that knowledge.  You must swear to me that you will tell no one that you have been here.  It is a matter of life and death.

      “Swear it, Lord Jer’ok!”  Her violet eyes came near to pleading with him.

      Jer'ok was in a light mood: “I will swear that your secret is safe with me, High Shamana.”  His voice held more derision than respect for her exalted title, but his open smile stayed Reyn’s angry retort.  “How do I know my life is safe once you reveal this secret to me?”

      The shamana remembered her proud tradition and suppressed a shudder, “This secret poses no danger for you, Lord Jer’ok.  You will tell no one of this world or among the outlanders.  And I alone will know that it has been revealed to you. Certainly you who have scaled the very face of our protector, the escarpment, can have no fear of one helpless woman.”

      Jer’ok did not state the obvious.  High Shamana Reyn could hardly be considered helpless.  Since the day he had stepped in to protect her from Thera he had often had cause to wonder if he had indeed risked his life needlessly.  He suspected there was more to the High Shamana of Dalon than had yet been revealed to him.  Another man would have experienced the cold touch of fear, but Jer’ok merely regarded the tall warrior-woman at his side with curious interest.  She laughed as she turned and dove cleanly into the still water.

      Without hesitation Jer’ok followed.

      It was well he did.  Reyn had already found what she sought beneath the surface.  To one side of the rock formation extending deep underwater her slim form seemed to be disappearing into the bank.  Jer’ok followed, swiftly overtaking her in the narrow underwater passage.  They swam only for a few steady heartbeats before she broke surface in a dark underground cavern.  While Jer’ok waited, Reyn located and lit several stubby torches at the water’s edge.

      The cavern was wide but not high.  Neither of them could stand upright.  Reyn touched Jer’ok’s shoulder and indicated a second passage beyond the torches.

      “It is an easy descent.  Our ancestors must have constructed the stairway.  There are others that most of the shamana and some of the priest-warriors are aware of.  This one is the secret known to the high shamana alone.”

      Before Jer’ok could respond, Reyn smiled at his obvious surprise and encouraged him, “Come, let us be on to the game.  If Jer'ok is the clever hunter he claims to be, we will return by another passage before Sanjera yields the sky to Solea.”

      His return to the jungle below Dalon was a joyous occasion for the Aranda-ta.  The pleasure of returning to the life he loved was only enhanced by the presence of the sleek she at Jer’ok’s side.  No longer high shamana or even of Dalon, Reyn was a perfect hunting companion.  Though her senses were not so sensitive as those of the beast-man who had been reared by the cleverest of the hunting beasts, she knew how to move with the silence of second shadow.  Reyn could be trusted in the jungle to obey the low commands of her buck with instant action.

      It was not long before they had each found and swiftly slain game of their choice.  Jer’ok’s they prepared for return to Dalon.  Reyn’s they butchered on the spot and avidly devoured side by side, the shamana’s enjoyment of the warm flesh no less than Jer’ok’s.  When their hunger was satisfied, the two hunters strolled in silence to a swift stream where they bathed away the blood on their hands and mouths.  By mutual, unspoken consent they rose and followed Nea on her hasty journey. Before long they heard the great roaring of a massive waterfall.  In a few moments playful Nea led them to it.

      Both Jer'ok and Reyn were taken by the primaeval beauty of the spot, unseen and untouched for all time by the presence of other humankind.  Nea tumbled and roared her defiance to the uncaring jungle as she sped between and over the massive boulders lined with a veil of ferns that grew deep in among the encroaching trees forming the jungle at either side.  Below the shimmering spray of the plummeting fall and many metres beyond the turbulence, half hidden in the multiple bands of colour provided by Sanjera’s touch, lay a still pool, the special place to which Nea was rushing.

      There was no surface outlet.  Nea seemed to be content with this serene resting place.  Both Jer’ok and Reyn were curious and sorely tempted to learn more of this secret hideaway to which Nea sped so recklessly, but by accord again unspoken they left the capricious being her secret.

      It was a decision wiser than they knew.  Had either of the stalwart hunters dared enter those tempting still waters, it would have proven a fatal mistake.  Laughing Nea would have instantly claimed the unfortunate one and deposited the broken bones many leagues downstream where countless others were forever resting in a great subterranean chambre.

      Someday that chambre would reveal to scientists throughout the galaxy the whole natural history of life on Ashtar.  There had been and would continue to be others less fortunate or less wary than Jer’ok and Reyn.

      With a kind of inexplicable sadness Jer’ok and his companion of the hunt retraced their steps to gather the day’s quarry.  Reyn led the beast-man, as she had promised, to a second entrance to the passageways that would bring them back to Dalon.  But Jer’ok did not enter the cavern.  He turned back to the vast jungles of Ashtar.  After a moment Reyn came to his side.


      “Jer’ok is not going back to Dalon.  Jer’ok will remain in his jungle now.”

      The beast-man was regarding with longing the swaying trees silhouetted against departing Sanjera.  He did not see the gathering storm that darkened Reyn’s features.  He still had not looked back to her.

      “Come with me, Reyn,” he asked simply.  “You are of the jungle.  You can be no happier in Dalon than is Jer’ok.”  Now he turned to the she and saw only her tears.

      “I cannot,” she whispered in unknowing repetition of another she of whom Jer’ok had once made a similar request.  “I am high shamana, the Queen of Dalon.  I cannot desert my people.”

      The two proud folk regarded each other, neither likely to yield to the other’s will; neither of them really able to do so, however sorely each was tempted.

      “Jer’ok cannot live in Dalon.  He would not survive in the confinement of the city,” Jer’ok admitted finally.

      There was in the beast-man’s mind nothing more to be said.  His decision was irrevocable.  He lowered to Reyn’s feet the game they together had slain.  He had offered his life to a woman for the second time.  For a second time he had been rejected.  He turned to leave with dignity far surpassing that of High Shamana Reyn at her most imperious.

      With an incredible suppression of centuries of inherited pride the shamana spoke in a quiet voice, her own demeanor momentarily the worthy companion of Jer’ok’s, “Stay with me, Lord Jer’ok.  You will not find it unpleasant; you have the shamana’s promise.  You will rule with me.  Together we will be free to enter your jungle at will.  Please . . . ”

      She stopped, for Jer’ok had turned back to stare sadly at her.  He did not come closer.  The haughty ruler of ancient Dalon saw rejection in his rigid stance.

      “It cannot be, Reyn.  Jer’ok cannot rule at your side.  Jer’ok,” he repeated gently to soften the blow to her pride, which this proud son of Tuathan princes could understand better than she knew, “Jer’ok cannot survive in Dalon.

      “Goodbye, my shamana.  May Sanjera and Solea, your gods, always guide your step and keep you from harm.”  The beast-man spoke sincerely, innocent of any hint of the irony lurking in his farewell blessing.

      He dipped his dark head in an unwonted acknowledgment of her exalted place among Dalonians.  Without another word, for he held prolonged farewells in distaste, Jer’ok turned and took several long strides before breaking into his easy, ground-covering jog-trot.  Her words were almost lost in the evening sounds of the jungle.

      “If Jer’ok will not live in Dalon, Jer’ok shall die there!”

      Jer’ok needed little warning to defend himself.  Even as he turned back, the spear in his hand was swung into a defensive position.  Reyn’s accurate cast was aimed to cripple rather than kill.  Jer’ok easily deflected it with his own spear.  He offered no threat of retribution.  They faced each other defiantly across the distance that separated them.  Never before had Jer’ok seen a she exhibit such fury.  She glared at him in speechless hatred.  He waited in patient silence for her next move.

      “You will die for this affront, Jer’ok of the Aranda,” she all but spat at him.

      Under different circumstances he might have laughed aloud at her impotent rage.  Instead Jer’ok turned away with a great sadness in his heart.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw Reyn raise the jeweled dagger in one hand as she had on the occasion of their first meeting.  This time there was no rampaging beast between them.  This time Jer’ok of the Aranda was her intended target.  Ignoring the shamana’s peculiar reaction Jer’ok continued on his way.  He was well out of the range of the scintillating weapon.

      Before he could break into a jog, a searing pain, not unlike that he had experienced not once but twice in the recent past, burned across Jer’ok’s back.  He started to run in earnest then, but this time his legs were burned.  Jer’ok stumbled, recovered, and ran a few more steps before stumbling beyond any hope of recovering his balance.  Where the burning sensation had been there was now a numbness that left the beast-man helpless.  From the ground he raised his spear for a killing cast.

      It no longer mattered to Jer’ok that the enemy was a woman.  She had the power to channel the heat of Jera if not that of Sanjera himself.  Jer’ok would not die easily, and he would kill if he must.

      But before he could make the fatal cast Reyn set the point of her dagger in line with the arm which was poised for the throw.  This time Jer’ok actually saw the narrow tongue of Jera.  He felt its fire along the whole length of his arm.

      Nevertheless, he willed his thews and sinews into clumsy obedience.  The spear flew from his hand only to clatter harmlessly among the rocks forming a backdrop behind the two unlikely combatants.  The last thing he saw before the shamana’s final flame dropped him lifeless into the soft grasses was the angry flare of crimson hatred in Reyn’s dark eyes.

[Log, ON BOARD SHIP {DELETED}, Date {deleted}]
 Narrative Transmission 21
       “BUT I HAVE absolutely no desire to return to Ashtar – for any reason!”

      Amber Laxton’s blue eyes flashed her adamant defiance to both her frustrated fiancé and Lieutenant Locke.  The former turned away before he allowed himself to say too much.  He had quickly learned that confrontation was not the method to bring this woman around to his way of thinking.  The latter had to stifle a conspiratorial grin.  Better than anyone else, Locke had some understanding of Amber’s feelings.

      If truth be known, the two men braving the wrath of the tiny Arene woman had entirely disparate reasons for urging her to join Locke’s planned foray to Ashtar.  The mission this time was neither scientific nor overtly related to Locke’s service to Diyala.  This time it was a personal matter.  He and Southall both sought conclusively to resolve any lingering mystery of the deaths of Leede and Sabratha Southerly.  They also hoped to discover what they could of the youth and young manhood of Southall’s cousin, the redoubtable Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk.  It was nearly impossible for any of these three to think of Jer’ok as Leede Southerly, though secretly not one of them found it strange that he could be the Lord of Charwick.

      Even though Jer’ok had disappeared into the mysterious interior of Ashtar’s major continent after the successful completion of his mission for Diyala, the mystery that was his past remained to intrigue both Guy and Rand.  In Locke’s mind there was always the chance that there was a conspiracy behind the loss of the late Lord and Lady Charwick.  For Rand there was the remote possibility that their son might someday return to Tuatha to claim his title despite his promise to Amber.

      The Arene woman had confided to Rand something of Jer’ok’s last visit to Charwick Manor.  His selfless parting gift to the woman he so obviously coveted was the major revelation of her – confession.  Southall found himself unable to characterise Amber’s revelation and their ensuing conversation in any other terms.  Yet, he was forced to concede, she had given him no reason to suspect either herself or his kinsman of anything that might be construed as a betrayal.  Rand’s own vicarious guilt coloured everything he learned of this Leede Southerly.

      But still Rand postponed any attempt to secure his own investiture, despite enquires from both Tuatha’s court and the throne of High King Albritton himself.  And still Amber endlessly deferred the ceremony that would unite them as husband and wife.  To Rand’s dismay her mood since Jer’ok had bid her farewell had rarely risen above what could only be described as morose.  Hardly the gaiety of a prospective bride.

      Bridey was less patient than Rand.  She unmercifully upbraided Amber for her sullen attitude toward those who loved her and wanted for her no less than the best Gemini could offer.  Bridey’s kindly intended tactic was worse than ineffective. Amber stared at her wordlessly before running off to disappear in the ancient forest that covered the major portion of the Charwick grounds.  She did reappear before Rand could organize a search, but her mood was darker than ever.  Bridey shook her head in unfeigned dismay and apologised to the Tuathan for the behaviour of her charge.

      Thus, it was Rand’s fervent prayer that Amber would accompany him to Ashtar where the ghost of Jer’ok, whether the man lived or not, might be exorcised, again making room in her heart for him.  Furthermore, he hoped that their time alone together in that exotic setting might impress upon his beloved his own worth.  He liked to believe that Amber would soon forget the beast-man once she had spent time alone with a man of her own kind in the same exotic setting.

      It was easy for Rand to forget that Jer’ok was in fact Tuathan despite their wholly unexpected introduction to Leede Southerly.  And Amber, probably because she was a mentor’s daughter, seemed more Tuathan than Armerian.  Wisely Southall refrained from letting Amber know of his entirely Chimurian disdain for the unseemly “raw” and “raucous” nations of Ares.

      Guy, on the other hand, had evoked Leede Southerly’s incredible abilities and only begun to probe their depth, while they remained undisclosed to either Amber or Rand.  The Diyalan suspected they both had some inkling of the man’s character, and Guy continued to harbor the unspoken hope that Amber Laxton would be bold enough to follow her heart at last and renounce her ill-considered vows to Rand.

      The Diyalan, an astute judge of character, had been given cause to assess the situation with considerable depth of contemplation for the future.  Rand Southall would be more than adequate in the Charwick barony.  But Lee would be extraordinary.  And Amber – ah, there was a woman who was born to be queen.  She would be a worthy “mate” to either Jer’ok or Leede Southerly of Charwick.

      Jer’ok and Amber were born for each other.  Rand and Amber would never know the same quality of their life together, and Locke knew it if they did not.

      Rand, believing the argument lost, retired early.  Amber went from the dining room to her favourite haunt at Charwick Manor.  After a long interval Guy Locke joined her in the library, where he found her staring sightlessly into the fire.  Amber seemed, Locke mused, always to keep a fire burning in this room, no matter the season.  He hoped it the start of a charming custom.

      If Amber was surprised by his intrusion she did not allow Guy to sense it.  When Locke sat down in the chair at her side she merely looked up with a wan smile and returned immediately to her private reverie.  At first she did not seem to notice when the Diyalan began speaking to her.

      Before night yielded to the new day, however, he had her promise to accompany the private expedition to Ashtar.

      Guy Locke sought his bedchambre in a mood of hopeful victory.  He could not have known that Amber Laxton sought out Bridey, her confidant from earliest childhood, with little regard for the awful hour.

      At first the startled Armerian woman was at a loss as her precious child wept convulsively in her arms through what remained of the night.  It was a long time before Amber could begin to reveal what was tearing at her heart.  And when she did, there was nothing Bridey could say.  All the Armerian could do was offer the comfort of her familiar presence.  Amber had to make the decisions for herself – and reconcile the rights and wrongs for herself.  Bridey wondered if the mentor or Amber's own mother might have possessed some magic formula to aid their daughter at such a time.  But Bridey knew there is no help in reaching such a decision, nor should there be.

      The future of the young people was in their own and no other human hands.  If it happened that the Stars determined to reunite this Jer’ok and her own dear Amber on Ashtar, then the ultimate result of that determination would remain with Amber.  Rand Southall might be deeply saddened by the loss of his beloved, but time does in fact heal.  Eventually he would recognise what Bridey and Lieutenant Locke already knew, and he would go on to find another who would be eager to share his life without reservation – or regret.

      Nor would Rand suffer for the loss of the Charwick title should young Southerly at last accept his birthright.  The Southalls held estates of their own not far from Charwick.  Young Southall was the sort who would quickly make his own way among the Tuathan Council of Lords, if that was the future he sought.  But Bridey had no special insights.  What she had gleaned of the circumstances, Amber must independently discover for herself.  No other could tell her.  If it demanded a return to Ashtar to bring it all home to Amber, it would be as decreed by a force greater than any solely of humankind nature.

      AND SO AMBER Laxton joined Rand Southall and Lieutenant Guy Locke in their private missions to Ashtar.  At the Diyalan’s insistence the three went alone.  The matters he was pursuing were too delicate to chance any interference.

      Locke landed his tiny flyer in the clearing where Leede and Sabratha had faced their doom.  This party, unlike their predecessors to this place, would enjoy the protection of routine scout-flyers from their own and passing ships.

      Leadership, to the extent circumstances demanded it, came naturally to Locke.  Rand might have assumed a stronger role in directing their activities, but his interest proved to be diverted by his dogged pursuit of Amber.  Even his staunch Tuathan trait of studied indifference in the face of the most devastating events about him had a tendency to slip more than a little under Amber's entirely innocent provocations.

      Despite the distracting private concerns each harboured, the three of them comprised an effective team.  On Locke's recommendation they set up their small but well equipped camp in the centre of the clearing in which the Southerlys had passed the months of their ill-fated sojourn on Ashtar.  That placement provided an unobstructed view of the jungle on all sides – and time to respond to most threats.

      As soon as that task was out of the way, they commenced a systematic examination of all the contents of the long-deserted shelter and flyer, which they elected to make their temporary home.  A luxury craft, it was actually roomier than Locke’s flyer with all its modern conveniences.

      Part of each day was devoted to exploration of the surrounding jungle.  Locke insisted that the three of them never stray beyond calling distance of one another.  As a result of sustained proximity the lieutenant could not fail to see the expression that often clouded Amber’s features as she experienced for herself the environment which had nurtured the son of the hunterfolk.

      Within a matter of a few short weeks the companions had learned much of Lee’s background but little more of his life as Jer’ok.  They were disappointed to find that the hunterfolk no longer frequented the territory of the beast-man's childhood.  At least, Guy Locke told himself, there was some satisfaction in forensic confirmation of the sabotage he had uncovered.  But if there had been any conspiracy, there was nothing to lend credence to that private theory of Locke’s.

      But the sojourn on Ashtar evolved from its origins of focused analyses to something of a pleasure jaunt, the working holiday neither of the men had previously enjoyed.  In a childlike spirit of adventure they determined to follow the lead of the late Lord Charwick and live off whatever Ashtar might provide.  They all were imbued with a certain innocence of the speed with which disaster can claim victory over humankind.  Neglecting the hard lessons of the ill-fated Laxton expedition,  They contacted their support ship to defer departure indefinitely.

      FOR A TIME the hunting was excellent.  In preparation for his contribution to the Laxton expedition, Rand had made a study of the flora of the Primaeval Planet and was thus able to find fruits and even tasty, if unfamiliar, vegetables to enhance the variety of their simple meals.  He was well aware of the vegetation to be avoided.  In the event the need should arise, the Tuathan also had some knowledge of the medicinal properties hidden in the lush green herbs and tropical foliage growing in profusion wherever they looked.

      It was a welcome interlude for all three – a brief interlude of content each was to remember for a lifetime.

      GUY SHIFTED IN the surprisingly comfortable chair, the handiwork of the late Lord Charwick, and tried again to return his wandering thoughts to his most recent reading of the Tuathan’s journal.  No sooner would he manage to do so than Locke would find himself again lost in the circumstances of the present.  The matter of the eternal triangle in which he was more than an interested bystander remained unaltered.  If it had been his hope to encounter Jer’ok here, he had been disappointed.  Whatever might have followed that reunion was lost forever.

      The lieutenant looked up from his reading, content in the company of Rand and Amber despite the lingering tension between them.  He located his pipe and lit it as he turned his attention on Rand.  The Tuathan was reviewing his uncle's official log of the ill-fated voyage from Chimur to Ashtar.

      The present heir-presumptive was of nearly the same age as his kinsman when the latter was felled in the clearing beyond the shelter.  That Leede’s image appeared on Rand’s viewer.  Guy watched with interest.  Rand was in many ways very similar to the late baron.  Guy continued to study the image until it faded.  He was startled by the uncanny resemblance of Lee to his father.

      Except for the subtle but inevitable changes in fashion that had occurred, the gentleman he had introduced into Chimurian society might have been none other than the late Leede Southerly somehow returned to his homeland through some warp in time.  Guy idly wondered how it was the son might assume so many of the mannerisms of the father he had known only briefly and well before the child could have been cognisant of the world around him.

      Locke savoured the aromatic blend of his pipe.  He cast a casual glance about the shelter, trying to put himself in the elder Southerly’s place.  Amber caught his eye and smiled.  Then she put down her notes to rest her head against the back of the rude couch on which she had curled in graceful relaxation.

      As Guy observed her, Amber’s eyes closed and she appeared to be dozing.  In the uncertain light of the shelter the Diyalan thought she seemed to be flushed.  He rubbed one hand across his eyes.  He was overtired.  A good night's rest was in order.  This kind of peace was not likely to endure much longer.  He must return to his duties on Chimur and foreswear matchmaking.  It was not a skill at which he excelled.  With that rueful admission Locke retired, and he heard Rand and Amber seek out their cabins shortly thereafter.

      Morning brought with it the threat of tragedy in a guise the late Lord Charwick would have known all too well.

      When Amber failed to join them at their simple morning’s meal, Locke suggested that Southall wake her.  It had become their custom to review the work of the previous day and to confer on the plans for the coming day over their morning meal.  There was much they hoped to accomplish today, for which they had counted on an early start.

      Rand was back in an instant.  His face warned the lieutenant before the Tuathan had a chance to speak.  Guy swiftly rose from the table and followed in Rand’s wake without question.  Last night’s vague premonition had prepared him.

      Amber was barely conscious.  A furious fever burned her with its relentless heat.  Both men knew the symptoms.  It was the very fever to which Sabratha Southerly had succumbed in this place years before.  Rand placed a cool hand on the woman's brow as he looked up to Guy.

      “It is . . .  My kinswoman, Lady Sabratha . . . .”

      Guy stopped him with a shake of his head.  Amber might be able to hear them.  It would be difficult enough without breaking her spirit.  Amber’s will to live might spell the only difference between life and untimely death.

      “That was years ago, Rand,” Guy spoke softly.  “And so far as we know Sir Leede had no knowledge of natural medicines.  You do.  Surely there is something you know of?”

      Guy cringed inwardly at the pathetic expression of hope that animated Southall’s features.  Was he being unnecessarily cruel in raising the man's expectations?  Or was he thoughtlessly providing false hope for himself because of his own feeling for this remarkable woman?

      “There is!”  Rand exclaimed, “but I will have to do some searching.  The herb clings to the ground.  It is not easily found.”  He hesitated, as he recalled the adamant position the lieutenant had taken on individual forays into the menacing jungle. “But you will have to remain with Amber.  She should not be alone.”

      He turned back to regard the innocent countenance of the stricken Arene.  Not for the first time Locke found himself strangely moved by the unguarded expression of longing that fell across the Tuathan’s own features.

      “I do not doubt you, Rand, but it will require great care.  Be sure you do not lose yourself in the search.  Stay alert and be prepared to defend yourself if you must.  I will stay with Amber.”

      With one last kiss gently pressed against Amber’s burning brow Rand rose without another word.  He left so quickly Guy had to suppress a rueful grin.  No doubt the Tuathan feared the lieutenant would change his mind before he could get away.  Had he truly been so tyrannical?

      Guy remained at Amber's side throughout the long morning.  He was content merely to watch over her, but the time passed slowly for him.  He hated the feeling of helplessness.  Once the woman had opened her eyes and focused with some difficulty on his face.  He hastened to reassure her though there was nothing of fear in her expression.

      “It is going to be all right, Amber.  You must not be frightened.  Rand and I will care for you.  You have my promise – in only a few days you will be begging us to let you go back into the jungle.”

      Locke was rewarded with a twitch of her dry lips, the merest shadow of her dazzling smile.  But then she painfully lifted her head to look about the tiny cabin and back to him.

      “Where is Rand?”

      “He will return soon, Amber,” Locke evaded her question.  “He knows of an herb that will cool your fever.”  At her startled expression he quickly added with only slight misgivings, “Do not fear for him.  Rand will come to no harm.”

      Amber turned her head away, but not before Guy caught the glitter of her tears.

      “I would never forgive myself if . . . ,” she whispered before the Diyalan could silence her.

      “He wanted to go – for you.  It means much to Rand to be able to serve you.”

      “I know,” was all she could say before drifting back into her feverish slumber.

      Much to the lieutenant’s relief and, he had to admit with a touch of chagrin, his surprise, Rand returned not much later.  He had found a place where the needed herb grew abundantly.  Not even the sight of Amber on the brink of delirium could dampen his enthusiasm.  Rand knew without room for the smallest doubt that they would preserve her life.  For once it was he who would offer needed protection to his beloved.

      Amber’s crisis came the next day.  Both men were at her side despite the fact neither had known a moment's rest since they had first discovered her illness.  The delirium reached its peak in the latter part of the afternoon when the shelter was enclosed in a gathering darkness.  The faint light of the cabin’s interior did little to cheer the dreary tableau of anxious vigilance.

      Amber had been mumbling incoherently as she tossed and resisted their every effort to sooth her.  Then for a time she was so quiet Locke's heart sank within him.  Rand moved closer and picked up her unresponsive hand.  He held it in his own, head bowed in prayer or grief.  Guy was uncertain which.

      The small cabin became deathly quiet.  Even the jungle beyond the shelter was silent, caught between the activities of day and those of the night.  Rand slumped in uneasy rest.  Amber’s breath was so shallow Locke despaired for her.  Like Rand he was constantly searching her face for some sign of change, for good or ill.  Then without warning the large eyes suddenly opened and searched wildly about.  There was terror in them – and something else Locke could not identify.

      “Rand,” he warned quietly.

      Southall started and bent forward to Amber just as her eyes cleared and came to rest on his face.  There was a fleeting expression of disbelieving recognition on the woman's face before she relaxed and a gentle smile touched her lips.

      Then Amber sat upright in an effort to embrace Rand.  Southall moved quickly to catch her in his arms before she could fall back.  For the first time since she was stricken the woman spoke coherently.  Locke almost wished she had not.

      How could it be he had never fully connected the family resemblance?  There was no opportunity to warn Rand Southall.

      “Jer’ok,” Amber cried softly from her dreams, “you have come to me.  I have been so afraid!  Hold me, Jer’ok.  I know I am safe now.”

      Locke would never forget the expression that crossed Rand Southall’s features as he obeyed her without the slightest hesitation.  He reassured Amber even as the anguished tears blurred his vision.

      “I am here, Amber; do not fear, my beloved.  I am here and all is well.”

      The medicinal herb Rand had lovingly gathered and prepared was more effective than either man had dared hope.  But there was another, more powerful kind of medicine at work here.  Amber relaxed in Rand's arms, secure in the love she mistook for another's.  There fevered unconsciousness yielded to refreshing sleep, Nature’s own best curative.




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