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Volume 6206

Chapters 7 and 8

VII.  Aranda

HAN KYRSA KHAN called a halt in a small clearing to make camp.  They were still two or three days’ ride from the site he had arranged to utilise as the headquarters for the intended slaving raids.  But it is never too soon to commence the necessary planning that underlies any major undertaking, legitimate or otherwise.  Gratefully Han Kyrsa lowered his bulk from the saddle.  He swallowed an oath as one of his ugly cut-throats accepted the reins and led the fractious horse away.  Before his band set about the business of making camp he announced a meeting of his lieutenants.  Amidst the surly grumbles that automatically issued from the mouths of both leaders and the ranks, the two groups assorted themselves.

The khan led his lieutenants to an isolated spot in the shade where the motly assortment of Khazarish leaders could settle as comfortably as was possible in the bush.  Each sat in sullen silence or engaged his neighbor in desultory conversation until one of the lesser members of the entourage distributed beakers of fermented mare’s milk and a platter of fruits.  For a time silence reigned as the khan indulged his palate.  When he had eaten his fill, this worthy leader of men wiped his hands fastidiously along his dusty robe and cleared his throat noisily.  His men obediently turned their attention to him.

“We are about to enter the land of the Sanaca.”

Thus Han Kyrsa Khan launched again a lecture each had already heard innumerable times before, but, the khan knew, would forget absent his persistent reminders along the way.  It would be easy for these men to underestimate the Sanaca, who were unlike any of the pitiful black tribes they had previously encountered.

“There is no greater fighting man than the Sanaca warrior,” the khan intoned with pedantic tedium.  “It is not without reason that the Sanaca are alone in their country.  They have been a mighty fighting force for as long as any can remember.  I have spoken to none who knows of any tribe who has ever dared to enter the land of the Sanaca.

“Do not mistake these people for the low cannibals we have so easily taken in the past.  The Sanaca will fight with a ferocity we can defeat only by force of our numbers and our firearms.

“But the spirit that gives the Sanaca their strength in battle is highly valued in the market.  They will bring us a fine price.”

Han Kyrsa Khan proceeded to detail the unique nature of the Sanaca and the forcible methods he would use to conquer them.  Were he not so cruel a leader the men would have turned away in utter boredom from the repetitive recitation.  The khan knew their nature well.  He hoped constant repetition would overcome profound ignorance and unsurpassed stupidity, character traits that served his nefarious purposes.  But he entertained few illusions of his contingent.  His lecture at last complete, both leader and the led heaved a deep sigh of relief, though that of the latter was surreptitious.

“Well then,” the khan concluded in a tone of satisfaction reserved for a tedious duty performed and well out of the way.  “Have you any questions about how we are to proceed?”  Expecting none, the Khazarish was already on his feet and on his way to his dinner when one of his lieutenants brought him to an abrupt halt.

“What about Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk?  Does he not lead the Sanaca?  I have heard he is an invincible enemy, invulnerable in battle.  I have heard . . . . ”

“Enough!” Han Kyrsa Khan turned on the man who dared to ask these impertinent questions.  “I care not what you have heard,” he began, voice dripping with contempt.  But the khan eyed his followers.  He did not notice his own rapid breathing or feel the blood that suffused his swart countenance.  Without attention to the untoward effect, he launced into a tirade on the alleged exploits of the notorious beast-man that threatened to extend over the better part of an hour.  Han Krysa did not hear the hysteria in his voice, but his audience did – and they remembered.  Eventually the khan had to desist or run the risk of apoplexy.  Once again his eyes narrowed on his men.

“The so-called Lord of Ashtar is nothing more than a man.  The legends lie; he has no immunity to protect him from a killing beam or bullet.  He is no daimon.

“We could best him and the Sanaca,” the khan concluded lamely as his men stared at him.  When he went on, his voice was once again under control.

“In any event, it matters not.  Jer’ok is no longer among the Sanaca.”  The khan smirked before continuing, “It is said he has taken a wife and followed her across the very skies.  I do not believe this tale.  It is a fabrication to hide the death of the beast.  No doubt the other beasts turned on him and devoured this legendary daimon.”

Han Kyrsa allowed his scorn to enter his voice.  He eyed his lieutenants one after the other as they absorbed his words without comment.

“Whatever his fate, he is no longer in the jungle.  He will not be a factor to prevent our taking of the Sanaca.  And if he does live and should try to stop us, we shall make him wish he never left the side of the blushing bride.”

With that the khan laughed as though he had uttered the most amusing of jests.  Nervously his lieutenants exchanged glances as they joined uncertainly in the laughter.  Never before had they witnessed such a display of fear in Han Kyrsa.  As the result of the leader’s untoward outburst, their fear of Jer’ok was both initiated and magnified beyond reason in but a moment.

JER’OK WAS UNAWARE of the intruder.  Had he known of the presence of Han Kyrsa Khan and his band of outcasts, the beast-man in his present mood might have merely shrugged a copper shoulder before returning to his own devices.  Had he known the Khazarish’s evil intent the Lord of Ashtar would have exacted swift retribution for their temerity.  For these were the remnants of the slaving Khazarish he had once before driven from this place.

What might have stirred Jer’ok from the nonchalance of blissful ignorance was the spirited stallion who cavorted and danced beneath the clumsy weight of Han Kyrsa.  That the khan was an uncertain rider at best was evidenced by his curses and blows when his mount gave vent to his spirit.  No Khazarish would have legitimate possession of such a horse.  This stallion was the proud result of the time-honoured breeding guided by the Camassian peoples from whom the Khazarish descend by means best left unexplored.

FOR THE MOMENT matters of more immediate concern than the intrusion of humankind in the lands of the Sanaca – whom Jer’ok had befriended when last on Ashtar – demanded the attention of the beast-man.  The spoor of Bakal’s Aranda had become tainted with the more recent spoor of Pardu.  Jer’ok quickened his pace before Bakal detected the sign, but she soon became agitated and the two moved swiftly to overtake her band before Pardu could.

As Jer’ok and Bakal closed the distance separating them from the hunterfolk, Pardu’s spoor came to reflect the great cat’s sudden caution as he neared his quarry and selected a victim, a ta’el isolated from his fellows.  Having gained ground in pursuit of Pardu, Jer’ok and Bakal picked up the scent of the ta’el at almost the same instant.  Bakal’s nostrils flared and her eyes flashed with anger.  Had not Jer’ok promptly cautioned her to silence the she would have screamed her rage.  But Pardu was close enough to strike.  Should he be alerted to the presence of his trackers, he could carry off the ta’el before they or the Aranda could act to warn the young one or to protect him.

In the softest of voices and with the silent language of his body, Jer’ok directed Bakal to move from one Aranda to another, warning them of the danger and urging stealth in their response.  Jer’ok watched her blend into the groupings of the band before turning his attention to Pardu.  He would close on the beast and distract him from the youngster.  Bakal initially kept one eye on her companion to regard his relatively puny form with doubt.  But then the memory of those slender muscles actually lifting her great bulk reassured her.  His strength had not failed him then.  Perhaps Jer’ok was a match for Pardu.  Bakal went about alerting the individual members of the band.  As she passed among them, individuals commenced to make their ways in the direction of the ta’el, while appearing to be engrossed in nothing more than the food stuffs they were plucking from Ashtar’s rich store.

Jer’ok promptly turned to the task of stalking the stalker of the young Aranda.  As he did so, the beast-man could only be impressed with the skill of this Pardu.  He was taking every advantage of the jungle growth to conceal himself as he cautiously slunk ever closer to his chosen prey.  His final charge would be certain to meet with success.  In the thick vegetation the only weapons Jer’ok could use were those nature had provided him – and the crystal knife of his long-dead sire.  But that meant coming very close to the wily cat indeed.

Only a shadow moves as silently as the Lord of Ashtar when he elects to move by stealth.  What might follow his dangerous course only time would reveal.  As always Jer’ok had dismissed any consequences to himself with no more than a flitting thought, barely reaching his conscious mind.  As the beast-man kept watch in closing the distance between them, Pardu dropped and flattened on his belly in preparation for the fatal pounce.  Still the foolish ta’el remained completely oblivious to the spotted peril threatening his life.  The very stillness about him should have been ample warning.  Instead, all the warning the ta’el received was that of the predator himself.  As Pardu intended, the youngster froze in fear.

With a blood-curdling scream Pardu leaped forward – only to be brought up short against the solid body of a k’aranda who had appeared from nowhere.  For a split second it was impossible to determine which of the three players in this mad scene was most stunned.  Only the beast-man had any inkling of what had happened.  Although he had known the precise moment of Pardu’s charge, he could not interpose himself between predator and prey in time to prevent it and dropped to the ground the merest fraction of a second late.  At first nothing happened as the three stared at one another with eyes widened in various emotions.

Then everything happened at once.  The ta’el, at last cognisant of his danger, ran screaming into the arms of his dama – mother, who appeared through the trees as if to his call.  Jer’ok sprang to his own defence, prepared to face Pardu with his knife held ready before him.  Pardu scrambled to his feet with a veritable torrent of hissing, growling and spitting.  And then from all around him Kuor’s band began to converge from among the bushes and low trees.  The air was filled with their screams of rage.  Many of the Aranda brandished heavy branches torn from trees along the way for use as makeshift clubs.

Pardu chose the wisdom of retreat.  And he determined to make his escape by the easiest route.  With another scream calculated to freeze the rash k’aranda where he stood, the leopard turned on Jer’ok.  But Pardu had miscalculated.  Instead of giving ground, the beast-man snarled a warning of his own.  Nothing daunted, Pardu rose to the attack, sharp claws raking the air where Jer’ok had just been.  To the cat’s amazement this creature moved with a speed and agility to match his own.

But before Jer’ok could find an opening to dispatch Pardu with his knife if he would not be driven away, the hunterfolk took the matter into their own hands.  The folk were not merely on the defensive.  In their rage they wanted nothing less than death for the cat.  Both Jer’ok and Pardu recognised the signs.  Before Pardu could turn his attention from the lone k’aranda to the massed attackers, one of the makeshift clubs descended to his skull to conclude for all time his treacherous attacks on their ta’els and old ones.

But the sudden death of Pardu did not bring this incident to a close.  With a whoop of pride, the buck who had thus put an end to Pardu’s career tossed aside his rude weapon to lift the leopard’s limp form high.  Thus burdened, the Aranda danced around the small clearing as he proclaimed his prowess and boasted of deeds done and yet to be done.  One by one the others joined him until the forest was echoing with the sound of their celebration of victory.  It was a contagious frame of mind.  Before long Jer’ok joined the throng.  None, least of all he, noticed his difference.

At first random, the motion began to take on a semblance of order.  Presently, the folk formed a disorderly queue and followed their momentary leader through the forest along a faint path leading to a natural amphitheatre familiar to all.  There would be a Pers-Alata tonight.

THE RARE ARANDA ritual of Pers-Alata, never beheld by purely humankind eyes, does not take place until the hidden jungle location is plunged well into a darkness deepened by the thick growth of the thick ranks of surrounding trees.  Jer’ok’s new companions reached their destination just before first twilight.  Not only was it too early to commence the savage ritual, but they were also exhausted by the revelry attending the long journey from the place where Pardu had been slain.  The sentinel was posted, and the folk dispersed until instinct would call them back to this primaeval precursor to all the vast array of theological rituals practiced among humankind.  Although the mind of this most advanced of the galaxy’s prohominids would never conceive of a deity, some evolving area of the Aranda brain nudged them to participate in the ritualistic expression of what was dimly perceived as thanksgiving.

Until the midpoint of the night the object of the Pers-Alata rested undisturbed on the earthen mound whose form was readily recognisable as an altar.  The three stumps left by Jera, the lightning, during a violent storm countless years before waited in silence for the hairy fists which would bring them to temporary semblance of the throbbing of life itself.

Pers-Alata is rare not only because of the habits of the hunterfolk, but also because nature alone can provide the primitive natural drums which give the ritual its throbbing heart.  After Jera has provided the raw material of no less than two stumps, tiny insects enter the heart of the once-great trees.  If for some reason they abandon their industry before the stumps are rendered dust, the remains may stand forever.  If then, in the course of Nature’s inscrutible design, its surface should come to be beaten with club or fist, the hollow stump will issue a sound whose resonance can be heard far and wide.

On those infrequent occasions when the Aranda make such a discovery, they experience a sensation akin to that felt by the religious man fortunate enough to witness a vision confirming his faith.  Quickly the band is summoned to such a finding; soon the earthen mound is constructed and the first sacrifice offered.

No such discovery had been made in Jer’ok’s lifetime, though the beast-man had more than once participated in Pers-Alata.  This particular sanctuary was unique to all of Aranda in the extraordinary presence of the third stump.  Nowhere else throughout Ashtar’s vast jungles had folk found such a treasure.

Midnight found Bakal’s band reassembled.  First one and then another wily old male had returned independently and assumed the honour of striking the natural drums in the uncanny cadences of Pers-Alata.  By right, the buck who had stood sentinel whilst his fellows pursued their own affairs took up the position of honour at the third drum.  Their rhythmic beating eventually drew the others in small family groups.  As they approached, all took up the beat in a grotesque dance that slowly circled Pardu’s still form on the altar.  The beat steadily increased in tempo, carrying the dancers with it.

At the climax of the Pers-Alata the turbulent gyrations of the surging hunterfolk graduated into a veritable maelstrom of hairy bodies centered upon the dark altar.  Among them, Jer’ok-ta, proud son of Char and Lael, dipped and whirled and leapt into the air with no less abandon.  Only the copper glow of his smooth hide taut against the rippling muscles set the Jer’anda apart from his fellow dancers.  Entirely forgotten now was the elegant Lord Charwick who had last danced a charming Terran waltz to the lilting strains of romantic violins, his delicate lady-wife swirling to the music in her velvet gown of sapphire blue.  No longer quite humankind at all, Jer’ok responded only to the savage throb of the primaeval rhythms.

Suddenly the drums were silenced as one.  Instantly the dance ceased and the celebrants fell upon the body of Pardu, each seeking to tear away a choice bit of flesh from the bones before his fellows could prevent him.  In their midst the Lord of Ashtar rushed forward growling and snarling.  A young bachelor threatened him, but Jer’ok’s brain flamed with the fury of Pers-Alata.  There was a brief scuffle as the two hissed and snapped harmlessly at each other, but Jer’ok was experienced in battle and easily eluded the blow that followed.  Before the buck could follow with a second blow the agile beast-man had dodged to one side and slipped between two others to reach the grisly remains on the stained altar.  The young bachelor preferred to take his own trophy, so he made no futher effort to engage the audacious beast-man.

ALL THE JUNGLE breathed with relief at the sudden cessation of Pers-Alata.  The nocturnal creatures resumed their customary activities.  The others yawned mightily and sought slumber too long delayed.  First dawn would come early to them all.

Han Kyrsa Khan lifted an aching head from his clutching fingers and swore an ugly oath.  Darad, Chief of the Sanaca, sighed with relief.  His busy mind would not permit sleep this night, but he needed silence to ponder the uncertain fate of his people.  He remembered one who once had helped in a time of need.  Though the haunting sound of the distant gathering of hunterfolk had triggered the poignant memory, Darad had no reason to suspect that the one his people needed was at this very moment gnawing at a tough morsel of Pardu with a swaggering air of arrogant self-satisfaction.  Few had dared dispute his claim to Pardu’s rank flesh.  None dared approach to deprive him of his prize.

JER’OK WAS ACCEPTED by the band without further ceremony.  True, he was unbearably ugly.  He was boastful and proud and failed to defer to authority as he should.  But he had sacrificed his own safety to save the lives of two of Kuor’s band, and he made no overt move against Kuor or the other powerful bucks who were already calculating for future reference their respective talents in comparison with those of the alata.  So long as the newest among them did nothing to disrupt the status quo he would remain unmolested as part of Kuor’s band.  If the truth were known even Kuor would think twice before challenging the newcomer.  He had seen something of what those underdeveloped muscles could do.  Kuor expanded his own mighty chest and flexed his knotted muscles as he strutted a crude pantomime of what would happen should this frail Jer’ok-ta dare challenge his leadership.  But secretly the alata hoped the challenge would never come.

THERE WAS NONE to measure the days that found Jer’ok one among Bakal’s people, unique only in conformation and the sleek naked hide.  Jer’ok, himself, neither counted nor cared.  Nor did he know when it was that the restlessness first gnawed in the back of his mind.  Slowly he commenced to drift apart from the hunterfolk until at last he was again ranging the jungle alone.  So gradual was his withdrawal that the Aranda did not miss him when at last his appearances among them ceased altogether.

Several times when Jer’ok was first apart from the hunterfolk he had encountered a solitary Sanaca warrior in the forest.  That none of the san-k’aranda knew of those encounters was attributable to Jer’ok’s incredibly keen senses and forest craft.  Because the beast-man did not desire human contact, the encounters were always at a distance and known only to him.  He had no way of knowing that the Sanaca would soon suffer bitterly as the absence of their war chief of some moons past was prolonged.

The lone warriors Jer’ok observed from afar were tracking the progress of Han Kyrsa Khan whose encroachments on Sanaca land grew daily bolder.  The khan had acted on vague rumors of the absence of the feared Lord of Ashtar and was emboldened upon determining the veracity of the whispers which traveled on wings swifter than those of the hawk.  When the Khazarish in addition met no more resistance than could be laid at the feet of mortal men, the immense profits of the old slaving trade beckoned, as irresistable as the ancient Sirens of distant Terra.

VIII.  Sanaca
AT LAST THE day came when Jer’ok found himself on a narrow trail which led directly into the Sanaca village.  This time he did not turn aside.  He knew it was no accident that he was in this place.  Though he had not actively decided to seek out the Sanaca, that intent had been gradually maturing into reality from the first day the beast-man had wandered away from Kuor’s people.

While he was still some distance from the protective boma surrounding the neat Sanaca huts, Jer’ok was becoming aware that things were gravely amiss within.  The carefully tended fields that lay between the jungle and the outward face of the boma were deserted and unkempt.  Absent was the happy laughter of Sanaca women gossiping as they walked gracefully to and from the river which supplied the village with fresh water.  Jer’ok quickened his pace and entered the middle terrace from which to observe the gate which regulated ingress and egress through the boma.  Ahead the gate yawned open before him.  No guard measured a steady pace, nor did any hail echo from the inner tower.

Jer’ok quickened his pace again, but as he came closer and the eerie silence persisted, he halted while still some distance away.  Like all creatures of the forest Jer’ok is quick to suspect a trap wherever the hand of humankind is known to have left its hated mark.  Thus, instead of boldly accepting the invitation of the open gate, the beast-man turned aside to disappear into the jungle.

The far side of the boma nestled close to the edge of the forest.  From the safety of the trees Jer’ok found a perfect vantage point from which to assess the situation without personal danger.  The beast-man swiftly determined that the village was truly deserted.  None lurked to trap the unwary intruder.  But all the domestic impedimenta of the Sanaca people bore mute testimony to the fact that the disappearance had been sudden and, Jer’ok hoped, was a temporary one.

Jer’ok swung lightly to the ground from the overhanging branch from which he had reconnoitred.  There was nothing unusual among the huts which were the tidy homes of individual Sanaca families.  But as he proceeded to Chief Darad’s hut and the outsized structure in which all tribal business was conducted, the beast-man found sign which caused a low growl to rumble in his chest.  Over the prints left by the bare feet of the Sanaca people were superimposed the countless prints of horses shod in the Camassian manner.  A faint but familiar and abhorrent stench hung in the still air.  The Khazarish had raided the village several days before Jer’ok’s arrival.  The beast-man explored now with intense concentration.

When he was satisfied that he had learned all the village could reveal, the beast-man left through the gate at a ground-covering trot.  He turned to the west without hesitation and was soon swallowed up by the dark shadows of the jungle.  He was indifferent to the fact that hoofprints showed that the Khazarish had taken the broad eastward portion of the network of trails encircling the village.  He knew where he would find the Sanaca people if he did not meet them returning to their homes.

Jer’ok was no more than an hour on the trail when the sounds of many feet reached his ears.  He smiled and for the first time since departing the village increased his steady pace.

CHIEF DARAD STRODE at the head of the long column of his people.  Though his proud head was high, he was deeply ashamed that the stalwart Sanaca had been required to desert their homes to avoid confrontation with the hated Khazarish.  His great heart beat for battle as did those of his warriors.  The Sanaca wanted nothing else so much as they wanted to be the instrument of the Khazarish’s destruction.  But the Sanaca were not yet ready for battle.  They were all fortunate indeed that their scout had discovered the mounted Khazarish troop already headed for the village.  The enemy were too many.  Success depended more upon strategy than upon brute force.  Clearing the village of not only those who must be defended but also all warriors was a necessary strategy if the Sanaca would live to join this war declared by the invading Khazarish.  Darad and the tribal elders accepted the situation because the choice was not with the Sanaca – this time.  But it rankled in their proud hearts to yield thus to an enemy even momentarily.

Darad mused on the future in a studied effort to forget what he considered an ignoble recent past.  If the truth be known, he was concentrating more on that path than on the one beneath his feet.  Otherwise he would not have been taken by surprise.

Suddenly, on the pathway before Darad and his people, there appeared a giant, whose skin glowed like copper.  The chief halted and signalled the others to wait, hardly able to give credence to what his eyes beheld.  Jer’ok-ta stood regarding them in silence before coming forward with a rare smile.  Recovering quickly, Darad raised his hand in salute and went forward to acknowledge the return of the war chief of the Sanaca.

The pride of these two leaders was a restraint on their reunion, although each knew the other to be as profoundly moved as he.  The Sanaca people, on the other hand, had no heart for aloof restraint.  Their war chief had been sorely missed.  Never had their need for his leadership been greater.  As soon as Jer’ok moved among them, he was surrounded by his overjoyed people.  Both men and women crowded close, eager to clasp his hand in welcome.  Some reached out to touch his arm or shoulder.  The awestruck children, a few of whom knew him only by reputation, looked upon his giant form and smiled shyly when they caught his eye.  Because of his love for the Sanaca the beast-man readily shed his wonted reserve like a cloak in the warmth of the sun.

Those farther back picked up a chant of welcome that somehow became a tribute to Jer’ok’s incredible feats during the time he had previously been among the Sanaca.  Before long even the voice of Jer’ok was raised in laughter as the tales of his prowess grew more and more preposterous.  It was good to be back among them.  Of all the forest creatures only the beast-man has a sense of humor.  That is a trait that until now he had sorely missed among his jungle companions.

When Darad elected to make camp on the trail rather than to push on to the village, there was none who demurred.  Hunters were dispatched, and great fires were kindled for the feast of welcome.  There was much of which Darad wished to speak to Jer’ok, but he knew the needs of his people included a moment devoted exclusively to relaxation and gaiety.  So the chief wisely bided his time.

IT WAS VERY late before Sanaca chief and war chief could be found alone before a dying campfire.

“You are most welcome, my friend,” Darad began.  “The Sanaca are proud to follow Jer’ok as war chief.  And I am honoured to have his friendship.  We had feared you dead.”

“I, too, am honoured by the friendship of Darad and his people.  I would not have left this place, but I have heard the call of others in a place far from here.  My ancestors left me many obligations I am still discovering.”

Darad nodded gravely.  “You are a leader born of many leaders.  It is unmistakeable in you, my friend.”

Jer’ok shook his head ruefully, “Yet on my world nobility is now little more than the shell the insect leaves behind as he grows to follow his destiny.  The voices of those my people call noble are like the constant chatterings of small monkeys.  They are very loud.  Sometimes they are angry.  But they are soon forgotten, if they are heard at all.”

“You do not lead them?”

“No, there is no need.”

“But you are, at least, a mighty hunter among them?”  Darad’s voice reflected his disappointment in the oversight of Jer’ok’s people.  They were obviously unworthy of him.

“My people have no need to hunt.  For them it is no more than sport.”

  Darad shook his head in disbelief: “It is little wonder you have returned to the Sanaca.  Here Jer’ok is needed.  Here the strength of Jer’ok joined with that of the Sanaca can defeat any enemy.”  He stopped, a question unspoken out of deference to the war chief’s personal code of honour.  The two men exchanged a glance.

“You do not ask why I live among them,” Jer’ok said at last, “but I will tell you.  You have a right to know why Jer’ok cannot remain as war chief of the Sanaca.”  And Jer’ok told Chief Darad the incredible tale of his birth and of his life as the son of the hunterfolk, Char and Lael.  He told him of Amber and of his heritage as Lord Charwick in a place unimaginably far away, not merely in time and space but also in tradition and beliefs.

Darad listened attentively.  Sometimes his eyes grew wide with wonder, but he remained silent as Jer’ok spoke, oftimes, it seemed, more to himself than to the fascinated audience of one.

“And so, you see why I cannot always be of the Sanaca,” Jer’ok concluded.  “Some day one or the other of my peoples will call to me and I will answer.”

The fire had burned out, but neither the giant Jer’anda nor the proud Ashtarian San-k’aranda noticed.  Each sat in thoughtful silence until the stirrings of light in the east brought back the exigencies of the present clamouring for their attention.

“But the Sanaca are your people as well,” Darad observed in a carefully neutral tone.

Jer’ok did not hesitate so much as a moment before concurring, “Yes, the Sanaca are my people.  And you and I together will lead them to destroy the Khazarish.”  There was a hint of a snarl in his voice.

“It is enough that today you have heard the Sanacas’ call and are now here to lead us.  Now victory is surely ours.”  Darad smiled warmly at his war chief and friend.  The two men clasped hands in a gesture eloquent in its simplicity.

Until the people awoke to prepare for the final march of their homeward trek, the chief and war chief turned their conversation to the strategies which would put the Sanaca numbers and talents to their most effective use.  Both men were clever strategists, wise in the ways of what elsewhere in the galaxy is called guerrilla warfare, but it was no easy task they had undertaken.

THE MOST ARDUOUS of journeys is commenced with its perhaps deceptively easy first step.  The Sanaca war on the hated Khazarish was commenced that very day.  Scouts were sent forth to assess the position and full strength of the enemy.  Jer’ok’s instructions had been both detailed and precise.

The warriors, already imbued with the time-honoured battle techniques of the Sanaca, would be taught the ways Jer’ok had learned while among the Aranda, along with those learned from humankind on distant Chimur.  The women and older children also had been given assignments.  A series of ingenious traps were set for any who might approach the village unawares.  Elsewhere, within a matter of days, the tally of Khazarish losses began to reflect the presence of a new strategist among their enemy.

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