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Volume 6085

Chapter 27: HONOURS
[Log, ON BOARD SHIP {DELETED}, Date {deleted}]
Narrative Transmission 26
Fatal Consequences

      IN FACT JER’OK’S deliberate progress never did bring the two to the party's small camp, and Jer’ok’s selfless intent promptly to leave the humankind once Amber was restored to her own was never to be realised.  At Jer’ok’s present pace, he and Amber were still a day from the clearing when the Stars again intervened in their lives.

      Jer’ok came to a sudden halt and lifted his head in rapt attention.  Amber stopped beside him and looked to him in puzzlement.  She knew better than to interrupt his concentration but waited for some explanation.  She was not yet alarmed for she had complete faith in her champion.

      Had the Arene known how close they were to the encampment she might have become instantly concerned.  As it was, the woman was for a time protected by her own lack of jungle craft and by Jer’ok’s tender concern.  In the end it would be no easier for her, but the inevitable discovery of calamity was at least deferred for a while.

      The message carried by Mael to sensitive ears and nostrils told the beast-man he must take action, but he could not leave Amber alone in the jungle.  The beast-man hesitated with indecision but for a moment.

      “Come,” he urged, “There is trouble ahead.  Trouble Jer'ok must investigate.”

      Amber did not demur, so he lifted her in one strong arm and held her securely against him as he entered the trees and made his rapid way to the incident of which his keen senses had apprised him.  He dropped to the ground while still many paces away in his small effort to protect Amber from the horror of what was happening.  By now she could make out the awful sounds of the grim encounter.  She looked to Jer’ok for courage.

      “Stay close by my side until I can find refuge for you,” the beast-man demanded without explanation.  Amber grew pale with fear, but she obeyed without question.  There was nothing that could now shake her implicit trust in this man.

      For all her confidence, Amber nearly succumbed to her fear as she raced at his side into an opening in the forest formed about the brook that eventually flowed past the place of their encampment.  At first she was merely taken by the familiarity of the place.  She had not realised how close to home they were.  But then the horror of the scene overwhelmed her.  Were Jer’ok not beside her, the woman would have turned and fled into the jungle itself to escape the tragic events unfolding in that small clearing.

      A pair of massive black panthers were slinking on their bellies in a circle enclosing Guy Locke and Rand Southall.  The two men faced the creatures in the brave attempt to guard each other's back.  Of the two only the lieutenant was effectively armed.  Rand’s sidearm lay well out of reach in the flattened grass at the edge of the forest.

      All that stood between the Tuathan and sudden death was the small hunting knife he held awkwardly in one hand.  His other arm, streaked with blood from a deep slash which had ruined his shoulder, hung useless at his side.

      Amber shrank back but moved to Jer’ok’s side at his hissed warning.  Locke was holding fire in an effort to make whatever charge remained in his sidearm serve them to the utmost.

      Even as the newcomers watched, one of the sleek carnivores moved in for the kill.  Both men swung to face the snarling creature.  Rand went down, but not before he managed to slash a long gash along the sleek flank.  Locke fired once at the beast, and it crumpled lifelessly, taking the Diyalan with him.

      “Wait here.  Do not move,” Jer’ok called over his shoulder to Amber as he ran to the aid of his fallen kinsman and his courageous friend.  He hoped it was not already too late.

      The beast-man knew he had no more than a matter of seconds before Pardu’s mate charged to avenge her fallen lord and master.  For the moment, however, she was perplexed by his stillness and more than a little confused.  The addition to the fray of still another opponent gave the beast pause.

      Jer’ok noted with no little relief that Amber had done as he bid.  He did not see that her eyes were fixed on him, not on the fallen form of Rand Southall.

      Swiftly Jer’ok lifted the slain beast from Locke’s body.  He never took his eyes off Pardu's dangerous mate as he moved.  With one easy motion the beast-man altered his grip on the lifeless thing and flung Pardu into the face of his worried she.

      Locke lifted his head in wonder as the heavy weight was lifted away.  The Diyalan was astonished by the incredible turn of events, but he quickly responded to hope renewed.  He rose just as Jer’ok had satisfied himself that the lieutenant was not badly hurt and, knife somehow coming to his hand, turned back to the defence of Southall.

      “Go to Amber.  Protect her,”  Jer'ok demanded without pausing to confirm that his own beloved she would be protected while he saw to Pardu’s mate.  The beast-man instinctively placed his trust in the Diyalan.

      By now hissing fury had replaced natural timidity in Pardu’s mate.  This fury was fed, rather than diminished, by twofold fear:  apprehension for her fallen lord and innate abhorrence for these strange k’aranda with amazing powers of defence. Pardu’s mate waited no more.  In utter silence she charged.

      Jer’ok had not had time to ready himself after coming to Locke’s assistance.  The beast-man and the sinewy she-panther met with shattering force in midair over the still form of Rand Southall.  The crystal knife flew from Jer’ok’s nerveless fingers.  Before he could effect even a minimal strategic retreat, the raking talons of her powerful hind legs tore at his exposed arm and chest.  The beast-man dropped.  He had no defence now.  Death would be instantaneous.

      IT WAS AMBER’S scream of piteous anguish that revived Jer’ok.  Until she was forced to stand by and witness his certain death, the woman had followed the unfolding tragedy in speechless fascination.

      Jer’ok groggily looked up to see the she-Pardu dragging Rand Southall toward the jungle.  She had inexplicably turned away from the easy kill in the mysterious way of all cats.  Jer’ok’s knife was nowhere to be found.  As his head cleared, the grievously injured beast-man remembered that his kinsman had been wielding a knife, but it must have been caught beneath the man’s body.  Why did Locke not shoot?

      Jer’ok looked around to discover the lieutenant dared not fire for fear of hitting the helpless man.  Jer’ok rose, only to sway giddily from pain and the terrible loss of blood.  Somehow he managed to voice the Aranda challenge as he unsteadily stood facing the panther.  As he had hoped, the great cat opened her jaws and dropped her prey to growl an answering warning.  Slowly Jer’ok backed away and to one side in an effort to draw the beast away from Rand, thus exposing her to Locke’s sidearm.

      The beast-man hoped his trusted friend would fire soon.  He was uncertain of his ability to withstand another attack, much less to render the cat harmless.

      Pardu’s mate charged the waiting beast-man.  Jer’ok heard Amber’s scream for a second time, but there was no whine of the beam that might protect him from the beast.  The she-cat was upon him!

      By some miracle of the powerful thews and sinews that somehow still responded with fluid strength beneath his smooth copper hide, Jer’ok avoided the slathering fangs and blood-coated talons.  With a mighty effort he leaped forward to land astride the creature.  But it was no good.  She staggered beneath his weight but rolled to fall on top of him, driving all the breath from his lungs.  Jer’ok made one last mighty effort to rise, but, for him, the battle for Rand’s life was done.

      He watched Pardu’s mate regain her feet.  He was swamped with her foetid breath.  But she did not sink those fangs in his throat.  Vaguely, the beast-man actually saw Rand beyond her, dragging himself toward them, drawing the beast’s attention.

      “No,” Jer’ok thought he exclaimed aloud, but he did not know where his denial was directed.  Desperately he struggled to rise, to ask Amber’s forgiveness or for some other reason.  He could not remember which.  With a small murmur of resignation the beast-man allowed himself to slip into dark oblivion.

      For all his strength Guy Locke was scarcely able to hold Amber back.  “Wait!” he nearly screamed.  “Let me finish that cat.”

      Amber was hovering on the brink of hysteria, but she had the presence of mind to fall back to give Guy Locke the space he needed.  The panther dropped to the ground between the two fallen men.  Amber would have run forward then, but Locke firmly commanded that she wait.

      “Let me go first, Amber.  Let me find out . . . .  The cat may not be finished,” he added kindly.

      Numbly the woman nodded and stood as if rooted to the ground.  She stared at the bloody scene before her.  It was not possible that any of those three still forms could be alive.  Concerned as he was, Lieutenant Locke first ascertained that both panthers were truly dead before stooping first beside Jer’ok and then Rand.

      By the same miracle perhaps they both still lived, but Rand was injured beyond Locke’s poor power to heal.  Guy looked back to where Amber stood, wondering how he might tell her.  Before he could stop her, Amber approached the two bloody forms.  Her face was a mask of horror Guy Locke would not forget throughout the remainder of his life.

      It was a matter of small comfort that the woman went to the side of Jer’ok where she dropped to her knees.  She reached tentatively to touch the face already pallid beneath the burnished copper.  Then she covered her face with both hands.

      Rand stirred, and Locke steadied him, “A moment.  I will bring her.”  Guy went to Amber and touched her shoulder in the small gesture of friendship.  Amber slumped against him, too shocked for the release of tears, and allowed him to bring her to Rand’s side.

      To her everlasting credit in the eyes of the Diyalan, she instantly dropped to hold Rand when he stirred again and reached out to her.

      “Does he live?” Rand was able to whisper.

      “Yes,” Amber assured him.  “But do not talk, my dear.

      “Rand . . . thank you, Rand.”

      “Amber,” the dying man persisted, “listen:  It was my  father and . . . it is I who stole from Leede his whole life     . . . and everything he loved.”  Rand struggled to focus his eyes on Amber’s, then strained to find Jer’ok.  “Tell him for me . . . I know I had stolen you from him.”  Amber would have stopped him, but Guy shook his head as Rand whispered, “No.  I could not steal your love from him.”  Weakly Rand cast his pleading eyes from Amber to Locke.  “Tell him that Amber’s love was always his alone.  Tell him I return her to the man, the Tuathan lord, who won her heart by virtue of his unsurpassed merits.”

      THE THREE SURVIVORS of the timeless battle between beast and man somehow managed to make their way back to the welcome security of the Charwick shelter and flyer.  While Amber watched over the injured man, Guy returned for the one they were unable to save.  As was fitting, Guy buried Rand beside Lord and Lady Charwick.  The Diyalan stood over the fresh grave to bid a final farewell to this man who had become a close and valued friend.  When he was done, Lieutenant Locke came to rigid attention and saluted smartly.

      “Go with God, Rand Southall, Lord Charwick.  You are worthy both of the name and of your predecessor for whose son you gave up your life.  You name will be honoured by the high king himself.”

      And then Locke offered a more personal tribute, “You will never be forgotten, Rand.  You will live in our hearts forever.  And,” he paused, “I think she loved you . . . more than a little . . . in the end, although not as you loved her.

      “Your gift to Amber is beyond price and she will honour it, my friend.  You have given your life for one who is deserving.  He, too, will honour you and your return of his gift to Amber.”

      Now all that was left for Guy Locke and Amber Laxton was the waiting.  Jer’ok’s terrible wounds were bathed and salved with the crude antiseptic paste earlier concocted by Rand’s own hand for much lesser hurts.  Guy, anticipating the worst, searched Southall’s notes to find directions for preparing a potion with antibiotic properties.  Guy had his doubts, but his first recipe must have been accurate, for Jer’ok never lapsed into the dreaded fever of massive infection.

      For the most part their patient remained as still as death, but when he craved water Amber lifted him to hold his dark head to her heart while Guy slowly pressed the life-giving fluid between his lips in the hope some might be swallowed.

      They knew the beast-man was on the mend when uncounted days later he opened his eyes and announced he was hungry.  He lapsed back into unconsciousness before his astonished guardians could act, but Amber set about preparing a nutritious broth against the next time he came to his senses.  She and Guy exchanged a silent glance.  Neither dared voice the hope that the man would be safely on the mend if he did revive enough to take sustenance.  Guy looked on with a bleakness in his heart as Amber devoted her whole being to her labour of love.

      Still more days passed before Guy was prepared to believe Lee was actually out of danger.  Much transpired in the interim.  The long-delayed scout arrived and arrangements were made to convey the three to a ship with sophisticated medical facilities prior to transfer to another bound for Chimur.  Amber sought unsuccessfully to dissuade Locke and his superiors from transporting Jer'ok to Chimur.  The Arene feared he would not favour being taken back to the planet of his fathers.

[Log, ON BOARD SHIP {DELETED}, Date {deleted}]
 Narrative Transmission 27

      EVEN ABOARD A Gemini ship of the most advanced design it takes precious time to travel about a solar system a large as Gemini.  Time allowed Jer’ok’s magnificent strength to be restored.  Time allowed the beast-man the long-delayed opportunity to speak at length with the woman he had loved since first they had met.

      Jer’ok and Amber spoke of many things as the ship passed silently through the vastness of Gemini space.  But they did not speak of the matter of their relationship or of what the future might hold for them.  Nor did either see fit to reveal to the other the secrets dwelling within those two young hearts.

      To one of Amber’s tender upbringing such a revelation – for all its innocence – was unthinkable.  For the same reason the Arene woman also declined to reveal her refusal to yield to Rand Southall's persistent efforts to complete their marriage vows.  As for Jer’ok, the redoubtable beast-man lacked the courage to tell Amber of his experiences with Reyn of Dalon.  His earlier sense of shame had now returned in full force.

      Only with the maturity of years would either be able finally to overcome the unwarranted personal sense of shame that motivated such reticence.  And, if the truth be told, the lonely beast-man, for all his courage, still feared Amber would reject as husband a savage creature of the forest, whatever title their shipboard companions might bestow upon him.

      But, most important, time allowed Lieutenant Guy Locke the opportunity to persuade the beast-man that he owed a duty not only to Tuatha and perhaps even Chimur, but also to himself to take up the charge that was the Charwick barony, which would otherwise escheat to the throne with the untimely passing of Rand Southall.  The Diyalan’s arguments, while deeply impassioned, were not without a firm foundation.  But they did not conclude with the matter of Charwick and service to the high king.

      Were it not for Guy Locke’s profound devotion to both Amber Laxton and Leede Southerly, the thwarted lovers might have separated again – this time forever.

      Jer’ok was moved by the faith in him manifested by this worldly officer – and trusted friend.  As Locke had hoped, that faith further served him in encouraging Lee in his suit for Amber’s hand.  After one of their lengthy conversations in the cabin of the Diyalan, almost as an afterthought, Locke revealed to his friend that Amber had never loved, let alone wed Southall.  Uncertain whether Lee had still persisted in his selfless forbearance in not seeking Amber’s hand, Guy told his taciturn friend in confidence of the day when Amber had unknowingly revealed to Rand her love for Jer'ok of the Hunterfolk.  He also warned Lee that, at Rand's own behest, Amber remained unaware of her literally unwitting admission.

      “Rand died for you in the knowledge of Amber's faithfulness to him notwithstanding her love for you,” Guy concluded.  And then the Diyalan was emboldened to touch the beast-man on the shoulder.  An ordinary gesture between friends and colleagues, but a dangerous one with the Aranda buck behind the facade of Leede Southerly; “Lee, Rand knew in his heart of hearts you are the true Lord Charwick– in every meaningful sense.  Do not throw it all away in some misguided sense of . . . unworthiness.”

      Locke was encouraged when Lee neither took offence nor shrugged off the distasteful contact.  In fact, Lee looked the other in the eye, bowed his head ever so slightly in acceptance and then placed his own hand on Guy’s shoulder.

      “Jer'ok is grateful, my friend,” the beast-man said simply; “Thank you.”

      THE SHIP WAS scheduled to enter into one of Chimur’s orbiting sectors on the morrow.  It was late when Jer’ok went to the deserted observation deck to ponder all that had passed since his reunion with his humankind friends.  Perhaps he would prepare himself to become the Chimurian alata Guy Locke assured him he would be.  As the Stars would have it, the beast-man found Amber there.

      Jer’ok paused at the entry.  She had cleared the bulkhead and was staring out at the black velvet sky bejeweled with the multi-coloured stars of countless galaxies.  She was staring not at Chimur, whose bright mass lay beneath the bulkhead, but at the smaller jewel Jer’ok recognised as Ashtar.  It gave him needed courage.  The beast-man came to the decision and entered the darkened cabin.

      Though his step was as light as a cat's, Amber sensed his presence and turned.  His heart was warmed by her pleased smile as soon as she recognised him.  The woman moved to give him room at her side.

      “She is a planet of great beauty,” Amber observed beside him.  “I shall not forget Ashtar.”

      “There is another beauty that outshines even that of my homeworld.  It is a beauty Jer’ok can never forget.

      The man spoke lightly, but something in this tone brought Amber’s attention to him and him alone.  She dared not speak.

      “And Chimur, especially Tuatha, is a land I would discover,” he continued.

      Amber hardly dared breathe lest the spell be broken.  The exquisite vista beyond their ship was forgotten.  She had eyes only for the man who proceeded to open his heart to her.  In but a moment the woman found it necessary to drop her eyes as she began to grasp fully what he was telling – and preparing to ask of – her.  Those strange eyes of golden green – seemingly imbued with a life of their own in the pale light emanating from the galaxy itself – were capable of a charm she found quite hypnotic.  Amber missed the better part of what Leede was saying.  She heard clearly only his conclusion.

      “ . . . Guy tells me it is my duty to assume the barony of Charwick.

      “Amber, there has been so little time since Rand was taken from you . . . .  My claim to Charwick could be construed somehow as a condemnation of Rand if pressed so soon.  The sensitivities and impressions of the Tuathan lords are of little concern to Jer’ok – to me, but there is one I would not offend.  I will not seek Charwick if you have reason, however personal, to ask that I desist.  If that is your wish, I will not enquire of your reasons.”

      Numbly Amber shook her head, “You have always been the lord of Charwick.  Rand was a usurper, though in all innocence.  He and I both knew Charwick was his only because of your – sacrifice.”

      Her voice almost broke as she remembered all that had transpired since she had first made her broken vow to Rand.  Amber could not forget that she had in a sense very real to her, cheated the man who had loved her as truly as did Jer'ok.

      “How could I, of all people, be offended?”

      She paused to search for the words to convince this man of her sincerity.

      “Guy is right, Leede.  Charwick should be yours.  It is your right and you will serve Tuatha well.”  In a moment of insight Amber thought she grasped something of the cause for his reluctance, “Leede, never allow anyone to persuade you that – ” she hesitated over the name, “ – Jer’ok – is in any sense . . . unfit.”

      There followed a prolonged interval of silence.  Jer’ok and Amber were loath to break it as each wistfully wished the other’s thoughts at this precious moment might somehow be fully revealed without inflicting additional hurt.  As was proper in the culture he would make his own, it was Jer’ok who broke the silence.

      “I would be highly honoured if Amber Laxton would consent to become Lady Charwick.”  He lifted her head with one gentle hand.  Then he took her hand and pressed it to his forehead before bringing it to his lips with something very like reverence, “Will you become my wife, Amber, my heart?  Are you willing to be the mate of Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda?”

      Amber’s heart leapt for joy.  Forgotten were all the horrors through which she had somehow managed to survive.  The terrifying prospect of life on Ashtar vanished in an instant.  Once again their eyes met and held.  It was as though they had been mated from the very beginning of time, only now reunited after interminable separation.

      Amber took his hand in hers and lifted it until his knuckles lightly brushed her forehead, then she actually brought his fingers to her lips, “I would be honoured,” she whispered so softly Jer’ok could barely hear.

      LEEDE SOUTHERLY, LORD Charwick of Tuatha, and the Arene, Amber Laxton of Armeria, were wed at court by High King Albritton himself, in a private ceremony witnessed only by the native Armerian, Bridey, and the Diyalan, Lieutenant Guy Locke.  Despite the hint of notoriety surrounding the newest baron's prompt investiture to the Council of Lords, there was no public observance at all.  At the conclusion of the quietly august sacrament the Diyalan himself drove Lord and Lady Charwick to the Charwick Manor in remote Battersea on the rugged Rexon coast of Tuatha.

      But before they left court Amber’s new husband drew his bride into a small chambre usually reserved for more formal occasions.  As the ancient lords of Tuatha looked down from their musty frames in stern reproach, the man presented the woman with his wedding gift.  Amber accepted the small casket of velvet and gold with a breathed word of pleased surprise and looked up to him with an unspoken question.

      “Open it, my heart, there is no better way to discover its contents,” he grinned at her.

      For a moment the gift was forgotten as her answering smile drew them closer, and the groom stole from his bride a kiss that threatened to take her breath away.  Amber was trembling when Leede released her.  He grinned again.

      “Go ahead; open it.”

      Amber found it necessary to find one of the massive upholstered chairs where she sat down a trifle more abruptly than was consistent with the dignity of the time and place.  The frozen images about her, including the formidable visage of the long-dead first Lord Charwick, raised no objection.  Leede easily seated himself on the arm of her chair.  Had there been any to observe the scene, they would have been affected as much by the living man's striking resemblance to his remote ancestor as by the ethereal beauty of the newest Lady Charwick.

      Carefully Amber opened the charming casket.  Her eyes shone with tears as she lifted the lovely bauble within to examine it.  She looked to Leede in empathetic recognition of all this gift represented to him.

      On a simple chain of Florentine gold depended a golden locket set with a perfect star sapphire.  On the back was engraved a tiny replica of the Earth-Mother device that had brought them together.  It lay in a field of stars with Ashtar, Ares and Chimur floating above them.  With shaking hands Amber pressed the device at Leede's direction, and the locket opened to reveal miniatures of his parents, taken from the last known holograms taken of them.  There could be no better symbol of the love between Jer’ok and Amber, nor was Amber unmindful of the sensitivity manifested in the man who had conceived of this treasured symbol.

      That night at Charwick Manor the timeless love of Jer’ok and Amber was at last consummated.

      The intensity of Jer’ok’s loving easily awakened the primitive ardour of Amber's long-sleeping desire until her eager young body fairly sang in concert with his.  This, the first mating of Jer’ok and Amber, had little in common with the rape of his mate by the hunterfolk buck.  Yet at the height of their shared passion the beast-man did not fail to note that it was the name “Jer’ok” that Amber murmured over and over.  Leede Southerly might not have existed at all.

      If he had entertained the slightest doubt, Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda knew at that moment that he had indeed chosen his mate well.

      When their exquisite passion was spent Jer’ok and his mate slept through what remained of the night locked in each other's arms.  Never before had either yielded to so perfect a peace.  Neither moved to break the embrace they once had scarce dared to dream would someday be granted them.

      When the first light of morning stole into the chambre to awaken them, Jer’ok and Amber loved a second time.  This loving was marked with a tranquil savour that somehow enhanced even while it was replacing the intense passion of the previous night.  Later they lazily watched as the bright Chimurian sun filled their chambre with a light that was the merest reflection of the glow filling their hearts.  Jer’ok gently brushed his lips across Amber’s golden hair as he whispered his love to her.  She smiled and kissed the hollow of his throat before murmuring, “I love you, my Jer'ok-ta,” for the first time.



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