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Volume 6207

Chapters 9 and 10

IX.  Strategy

KHAFAJAH RODE AT a disheartened walk the last kilometre or so into camp.  He had no desire to make his report to the khan.  The mission had ended in disaster, and Han Kyrsa was not a man of notable patience when faced with failure among his underlings.  Worse, Khafajah knew the khan for a leader notorious in his inclination to extract from the bearer swift if not justified punishment for tidings that did not please him.  Khafajah’s mission had been a simple one, yet he had failed, and now he alone had survived to tell of it.

For the khan’s chosen lieutenant was returning to the khan’s compound alone.  Of the several horsemen who were sent forth under Khafajah’s command to harass the Sanaca warriors now protecting the women as they tended their fields, four were horribly dead and the survivors had fled into the jungle to disappear without a trace.  Try as he might, Khafajah was unable to conceive of any means by which the day might have been saved.  Nor was his account of the rout one he would have believed had he not experienced the horrors himself.  As his mount picked his way unguided, Khafajah was haunted by the unforgettable course of events.

As the khan’s lieutenant and his followers had traveled a narrow portion of trail wending its way toward the Sanaca village, they were forced to ride in single file.  Since many of the trails Khafajah had previously ridden without incident were narrow, he had seen no need for exceptional vigilance.  That, however, was before the last man in line had vanished.  It seemed a comrade ahead of him in line turned to speak to him.  But, though his horse was patiently plodding behind the others, the saddle was empty.  The man called out a warning to the leader, but at the time Khafajah experienced nothing beyond annoyance.  He had no time to waste on incompetents.  There would be time enough when the mission was completed.  To his everlasting regret, it had not immediately occurred to Khafajah that there might be a more ominous explanation to the disappearance.

The riders had moved on without voicing protest.  Then the anguished outcry of another of their number caused the hair at the nape of more than one neck to rise and a shudder to shake more than few in their saddles.  The horses responded with a contagious edginess of their own.  The ghastly screaming faded into the distance as the victim’s mount whirled and galloped toward the safety of home at breakneck speed.  Not knowing what could be the source of such horror pinned most of the troop to the spot.  Khafajah issued curt orders to discourage any who might otherwise have summoned the courage to follow and investigate.  At his additional direction  his diminishing troop reluctantly dismounted to walk beside their horses on alternating sides.  Partially sheltered by the animals, those on the right scanned the jungle to the left while those on the left returned the favour in a vain effort to protect their flanks.

In the eerie silence enveloping the jungle about them, first one and then a second man fell, a Sanaca arrow through the heart. By then the remaining men, if not Khafajah himself, had had enough.  He started to argue with them, to shame them into continuing, only to stutter into silence.  A  giant off-worlder, dressed and armed as a Sanaca chief, suddenly appeared on the trail so close the Khazarish leader could have touched him had the slaver possessed sufficient courage.  With a thrill of fear Khafajah recognised the intruder as the man they had believed far from this place.  Those who did not surmise the identity of their challenger were so apprised by their shaken comrades.

“Go!” the giant demanded of Khafajah without preliminary.  “Return to your khan.  Jer’ok, Lord of Ashtar, commands it!  Go, before you all die.  The Sanaca are under the protection of the Lord of Ashtar.  Tell your khan every Khazarish who dares defy Jer’ok shall die!  The eyes of the jungle are the eyes of Jer’ok.  Warn your khan!”

By then Khafajah and his thoroughly demoralised troop had been capable of little more than gaping at the apparition.  The cold, harsh tone of his voice chilled them to the bone.  Though it was pitched low, its threat carried to the last of them.  For a moment the tableau remained unaltered.  Not one of the frozen figures moved.  Then one sly Khazarish reached for the knife hidden in the folds of his burnous.  In a motion too fast to follow he flung the knife unerringly to the heart of this self-proclaimed Lord of Ashtar.

The answering howl of agony was not that of Jer’ok.  The offending hand of the man who had so dared defiance was clutched close to his body.  Blood flowed freely about the arrow which had transfixed it at the wrist.  The knife itself was diverted from its fatal course by a heavy spear soaring out of nowhere to meet it in midflight.  At the same instant Jer’ok uttered a blood-curdling scream calculated to  scatter the foremost horses rearing and plunging backward into their fellows.  Khafajah’s men shared their beasts’ panic but, in the midst of the noisy confusion, managed to remount and direct their skittish mounts’ flight back from whence they had come.

Khafajah paused only long enough to watch Jer’ok disappear into the jungle.  Then he, too, remounted and allowed his frantic horse to gallop after the others.  But man and horse never did catch up with their fellows.  Instead Khafajah brought the animal to a rearing halt.  Before them, blocking the trail, swayed the body of the man who had been riding at the end of the original line.  It was hanging from a hidden bough lost in the lush foliage overhead.

Though Khafajah could see no sign of a wound, the man had died with his features forever frozen in a grimace of utter terror.  Worse, the vegetation on either side was mashed flat with the passage of – whom?  what?  The Khazarish lieutenant was too shaken to grasp that his own fleeing men might have chosen this spot to leave the trail of their routing to escape that which was preying upon them with impunity.  With a strangled gasp of superstitious fear Khafajah gingerly guided his dancing mount around the hideous impediment and fled the scene at a dead run.  Neither horse nor rider had calmed before the trail entered familiar territory, unhaunted by jungle daimons.

Now as Han Krysa Khan listened to his lieutenant’s account, the hot blood of anger slowly suffused his already swarthy face.  Khafajah hardly knew what might be deemed credible, what rejected as outright prevarication.   His khan’s piercing black eyes never left the face of his thoroughly rattled henchman.  But, to Khafajah’s amazed relief the inevitable anger for once was not directed at the hapless messenger.  His nervous recitation dwindled and faded into nothing.  He waited, uncertain which he feared more, Jer’ok or Han Kyrsa Khan.  None would believe such a fantastic conclusion to his routine mission.  Thus was the khan’s response wholly unexpected.

“So, the filthy animal has returned,” Khafajah’s master hissed in a voice hoarse with hatred.  “I had thought him dead.”  Han Kyrsa Khan spat his ire before turning his back on his trembling lieutenant.

THAT VERY NIGHT the khan’s lieutenants were all abruptly summoned to a council of war.  Those who had encountered Jer’ok in the past felt the cold chill of fear stir in their bellies when Han Kyrsa relayed Khafajah’s experience at the hands of the Lord of Ashtar.  Those who were unfamiliar with this most dreaded nemesis of the Khazarish were quickly told of the horrors this forest daimon was capable of perpetrating, single-handed.  Though the tales lost nothing in the telling, the beast-man’s jungle craft could scarcely be exaggerated.  His power over the wild things of forest and savannah was legendary.  His skill in the leadership of the Sanaca had in the past raised that powerful tribe to virtual invincibility.

“But this time we are prepared,” Kyrsa Khan silenced the mutters of his surly underlings with a wave of his hand.  “This time the fool has warned us.  I know his ways.  We shall succeed despite his interference.”

The mutterings would have overcome his arguments, but he clapped his hands for silence.  “Fools!  Cowards!” Han Kyrsa barked into the tumult.  When silence fell, he continued.

“Would you surrender the gold the Sanaca people will bring us?  The price for the women alone makes the risk worthwhile.  Think what their chief would bring in the marketplace!  And think you,” the khan’s eyes glittered with malice, “Consider; what price would Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk bring us from the right buyer?”

The muttering again rose and fell away as the leader made his calculated appeal to the trait that most motivated his worthy followers – their greed.  He paused to give them time to consider his words before continuing.

“I tell you Jer’ok is no more than a man.  He will bleed and die just as any mortal man.”  The khan smiled an ugly smile.  “And Jer’ok’s enemies are as many as the leaves of the tall trees in which the beast lives.  I know of more than one who will pay a price equal to that we can expect for the whole Sanaca people just for Jer’ok – if only we can deliver him alive.  Think of it!  We can punish the animal’s insolence and become wealthy beyond our wildest imagining, if only you will take courage.

“Listen, my children.  He is not invincible!

“True, we must take greater care now in our pursuit of the Sanaca.  But if we plan well we shall take this prize.  We have the numbers and the means to devastate whatever forces this beast-man can lead against us.  Even if he could match our numbers and arms, we have something no beast will ever have.  We have the intelligence of men.”

AT THAT VERY moment Jer’ok was holding a meeting of his own.  He had managed to assemble Kuor’s band to hear his words.  He warned them of the danger represented by this evil assemblage of San-k’aranda – humankind creatures.  But the Aranda understood his words only dimly.  When he attempted to explain how they might defend themselves by the time-honoured method of developing a strong offence, he was faced with utter failure.  Kuor and his band saw no immediate danger.  What the future might hold meant naught to them.  Today they were too content and far too lazy to approach the strange – and dangerous – invaders.  Jer’ok had to be satisfied with the hope that the folk would at least respond should one or more of them be directly threatened by the Khazarish.

In truth, the war chief of the Sanaca suspected that time was short, especially now that he had revealed his presence and issued his challenge to the Khazarish leader.  Upon Jer’ok’s return a certain tension among the Sanaca reinforced his own sense of urgency.  In council with Darad and the tribal elders a dangerous strategem was evolved.  It was a perilous plan, but a sound one.   Upon minimal debate, the tribal elders agreed to it with no further reservations uttered.  The remaining discussion merely served to elaborate the details.  But as the elders withdrew to return to their homes and waiting families Darad stopped Jer’ok to speak to him alone.

“It is a dangerous chance you take, my friend.  If the plan fails the Sanaca will lose much.  How can you be certain that we will not lose our war chief as well as our women, children, our cherished old ones?”

“No plan is without its dangers,” Jer’ok conceded, “but I know how these men think.  They will start to close on your defenceless people, but they would prefer to capture Jer’ok.  For that reason I will be able to divert them from the village.”  Jer’ok smiled grimly to Darad.  “They will not kill me if they can avoid it.  And I will assure that they can avoid it.

“I do not wish to make the people a target.  Nor do I intend to become a slave.  But we must accept the dangers involved if we are to drive the Khazarish away.  If we fail, we shall forever live in fear of attack.  Neither the Sanaca nor Jer’ok will be taken to the markets to the east, but personal risk in such ventures is seldom avoidable.”

The beast-man paused without looking at Darad.  His eyes were turned to the jungle as he stated in a cold voice.

“Jer’ok will never serve as a slave to any master.”

Darad shuddered inwardly at the implication of those simple words.  Jer’ok himself did not dwell upon them, but Darad knew his trusted companion would fight to the death to avoid captivity.

“But this enemy has a strength of numbers we cannot match,” Jer’ok continued as though his last words had never been uttered.  “Only by subterfuge can we hope to defeat him.  It is a risk you and I must take.”

“Then we shall do this thing,” Darad assured the war chief.  “We shall defeat this enemy.  None will ever dare enter this land again with evil in his heart.  The Sanaca shall protect their own.”

It was a promise not only to Darad’s people from their chief, but also to Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk who would risk his own liberty to preserve that of these his adoptive people.

Thus the plans were made.  The trap was set.

ONE BEAUTIFUL MORNING, sweet with the fragrance of jungle blossoms, the two Khazarish scouts observed Jer’ok depart the Sanaca village alone.  One of the observers left to advise the khan.  Not long after the beast-man had left, the remaining scout watched as the warriors, fully armed and a war chant on their tongues, departed in the opposite direction.  This scout made his stealthy way back to his horse and galloped off in the knowledge that the long-awaited opportunity had come at last.  From the concealment of a leafy platform in the middle terrace, Jer’ok observed the rider’s departure.  Then the beast-man, too, set about his dangerous business.

With ostentatious display Chief Darad led the warriors’ departure from the village.  As Jer’ok had predicted, the Khazarish believed the Sanaca people unprotected while their men vainly sought battle where there would be none.  The Khazarish would be drawn to the village at a full gallop in the certainty of easy victory.  But another, more valuable prize, would stand in their path.

Jer’o would meet them alone.  The wily beast-man knew well the mind of the Khazarish.  He would be a trophy beyond price for any who could take him prisoner.  So he would make the gesture of attempting to stop them with his arrows.   With greed reinforced by their anger at his presumption they would turn away from the village in a vain effort to capture him.  Thereupon Jer’ok of the Aranda would lead the Khazarish in a frustrating manhunt drawing them ever deeper into the jungle.  As they closed on their elusive quarry they would find not Jer’ok, but a Sanaca ambush.  Jer’ok was confident that the few survivors would lose all interest in their raids and depart the Sanaca land permanently.

ALAS, THOUGH JER’OK of the Aranda made no mistake in his astute assessment of the unsavoury processes of Khararish thought, his cunning plan reckoned without the Stars.  Though neither the Sanaca nor the Lord of Ashtar had acted with foolish pride, the Stars were not about to permit them so easy a victory.  The Stars held out a fate of their own for the future of Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk.

X.  Disaster
S’LISS WAS OLD and irascible.  In him the natural aggression of his kind was concentrated many times over.  Today found him in a particularly ugly frame of mind.  Perhaps his most recent meal had not agreed with him.  Or Sanjera did not shine through the rocks into his protected hiding place at precisely the temperature S’liss preferred.  No, S’liss was in no mood to be trifled with by any, however mighty.

Now, stirred by something few others would have detected, the tiny serpent lifted his head to test the air with a flick of his sensitive tongue. With no further warning Sanjera was suddenly blocked by a huge form.  What now?  The tongue darted again.  K’aranda!

How could so clumsy an intruder have drawn this close without betraying his presence?  S’liss wavered between striking and seeking greater security.  In another moment, before the choice could be resolved, the k’aranda moved out of his sunlight.  Had he not momentarily deprived S’liss of Sanjera’s warmth the great creature would have gone on his way unmolested.

This k’aranda moved with amazing silence as he scrambled down into the rocks surrounding the small cleft which usually provided ample security.  And, even as S’liss poised to strike, the intruder, now mere centimetres away, became absolutely still.  The irascible serpent reconsidered.  There was neither the scent of nor any violent motion suggesting threat.  Presently S’liss relaxed and flowed deeper into his lair.  He was still annoyed but at least the warmth had returned.

S’liss no more than curled himself comfortable when he was aroused anew by a great thundering of hooves, too loud to be Eos or Lopus and too harsh for the loose-limbed Raffa of the elongated neck.  The tiny snake raised his head once again to test the air.  How much would he be expected to bear?  He slowly slithered back to his entrance.  The approaching thunder waxed louder, causing the rocks and pebbles around him to vibrate.  And, as the Stars would have it, just as S’liss emerged through the cleft in the rocks, the huge k’aranda surged to his feet.  One of the rocks at the entrance toppled, barely missing the annoyed serpent.  Enough was enough!

S’liss struck

His venom rushed into the flesh of one sinewy leg.  S’liss barely had time to slither to safety before the k’aranda toppled with a low grunt of surprise and pain.  It was already too late for the two of them.  The fate of both had been sealed.

JER’OK FELL HEAVILY and, completely off balance, rolled down the side of the ravine into the heavy brush below.  He clung to his bow and arrow.  But the Khazarish were riding too fast to notice the small landslide precipitated by their hated foe.  Still, all was not yet lost.  As he tumbled Jer’ok grasped a low-hanging branch with his free hand.  His heroic effort succeeded in halting the momentum of his fall, but his right shoulder was wrenched to the breaking point as it caught his full weight at an awkward angle.

Desperately, the beast-man scrambled to his feet.  Ignoring the warning throb of fire through his leg, he gained enough purchase in the loose rock to clamber upward just in time to catch a final glimpse of the rapidly retreating Khazarish through the coarse dust of their passage.  One arrow could still accomplish his purpose.  The beast-man balanced precariously and raised the bow and arrow to which he had clung.  But as he attempted to draw back the string and arrow he found his right arm quite useless.  Steel thews for once refused to obey his will.

Recognising the futility of further action Jer’ok turned and allowed himself to slide back into the brush.  The plan would be utter failure.  Grimly he struggled to conjure some means to retrieve it.  Jer’ok’s eyes blazed with frustrated fury, and a growl sounded deep in his throat.  The inescapable reality was that beast-man could do naught to succour the families of his brave Sanaca.  Indeed, he would be fortunate to survive to hear the outraged cries of remorse.  For he had recognised S’liss even as the sudden excruciating pain in the muscle of his leg startled him into losing his already uncertain balance.  No more than a single misstep had betrayed more than Darad’s trust.

The sly Stars smiled at their small victory and turned from their victim in search of others who might tempt intervention in their insignificant hopes and plans.

Instinctively the beast-man sought water.  This tiny S’liss was one of those most feared by the creatures of Ashtar.  Jer’ok and his people had once watched helplessly as a mighty Aranda buck died in prolonged agony, brought down by the bite of such a S’liss.  Ironically, it was civilisation which had taught the beast-man the only possible remedy.  Jer’ok knew he must act swiftly to live.  Only if he lived could he right the wrong his misstep was even now allowing to befall the Sanaca.

A fast-moving stream came into view as Jer’ok pushed through the thick vegetation.  At its edge he dropped to his belly and drank deeply, scooping the water to his mouth in both hands.  Then, drawing his knife, he turned his attention to the ugly wound.  His lower leg was already discoloured and swollen.  With his knife the beast-man cut a short portion of the tough reed rope, which he tied tightly above the swelling.  Deliberately he sliced two incisions across the punctures.  Dark blood immediately welled from these new wounds.

As Sanjera traveled uncaring across the span of the trees overhead Jer’ok methodically sucked the tainted blood from the wound in a belated attempt to halt the spread of S’liss’ poison.  All the while his ears remained alert for marauding beasts or any Khazarish who might have left the ragged band to investigate the small rockslide.

When at last he ceased his primitive effort at first aid, the wound had become numb, and the swelling was progressing.  Grimly Jer’ok cut through the strand of his rope and tied another higher.  Replacing his knife in its sheath he took the time to investigate his surroundings with greater care.  His senses were waning noticeably.  He must find shelter and soon.

Swaying with weakness Jer’ok stood and listened.  His nostrils tested the air.  Satisfied that he was not yet being stalked by beast or man, he directed his attention to the jungle at either side of Nea.  After a moment he commenced walking unsteadily upstream.  He felt faint and ill.  As he stumbled onward his heartbeat increased in speed and intensity until breathing became difficult.  There was some respite in the excruciating pain as it yielded to a delusory numbness bringing with it a lethargy Jer’ok recognised as fatal.

As he rounded a sharp bend he suddenly stopped to inspect something which had caught his attention farther upstream.  Once again his head was raised as he strained all his dulled senses to assure himself no predator lurked.  With the last of his strength, the beast-man strode into the swirling waters until Nea was supporting his weight.  He half walked, half swam toward the source of the stream he had been following, a deep pool fed by a waterfall roaring over massive boulders, a lesser extension of the distant mountain range dividing jungle from searing desert.  As he neared the deluge Jer’ok suddenly disappeared from view.

The disturbed pool revealed the beast-man’s progress with no more than barely discernible ripples, quickly lost in the random patterns of Nea’s frothing wavelets.  Much later Sanjera, too, deserted the scene with the coming of first twilight.  Amid the deepening dark preceding second twilight a shadowy rock at the perimeter of the pool took on a different, deeper darkness.  Minute droplets were carried to it in the waters flowing from the base of the falls.  There was no other sign of Jer’ok’s passing.

WHEN JER’OK FAILED to draw the Khazarish band to their ambush, the Sanaca warriors began to cast uncertain glances down the empty trail and surreptiously back to their chief.  If any doubted chief or war chief, none broke the silence with either query or accusation.  Although nothing of his own anxiety was betrayed to his men by his demeanor, Darad knew something had gone very wrong.  As the war chief’s absence drew ominously prolonged, the waiting Sanaca grew increasingly restive.  They looked now to Darad in an unspoken demand for reassurance, some sign of release.  All of them had left loved ones in the undefended village.  Out of trust and loyalty none spoke aloud what all were coming to believe.

Finally, Darad had to acknowledge that Jer’ok had failed in his mission.  By now the Khazarish may have already attacked their undefended village.

“Go!” he urged his warriors.  And as they rose as one, he promised more to himself than to the fighting men of the Sanaca, “I shall find our war chief myself.”  And would bring him home, whatever had befallen.  “Return to the village at your best speed,” Darad urged as he watched with sad eyes as, without so much as a single parting word, his warriors melted into the jungle.

Darad’s heart was aching for his people and for his friend who, he knew, must either be slain or captured.  Nothing less would have deterred the Lord of Ashtar.  There was of course the forlorn hope that Jer’ok had only been wounded, but to be wounded by the Khazarish itself meant death or worse.  With heavy heart the Sanaca chief started for the place where Jer’ok was to have met the enemy.  The ebon features were set in an expression that boded ill for any Khazarish he might encounter.  Darad remembered Jer’ok’s grim resolution to avoid slavery at any cost.

IT WAS NEAR-DARK before the stalwart Sanaca chief came to the place he sought.  There he found the hoofprints of the Khazarish mounts clear in the sandy ground.  Darad stared at them in puzzlement.  They had passed through without pause.  That could only be because Jer’ok had never met them.

Darad shook his head in disbelief.  Jer’ok’s promises were not lightly given.  His word was as law.  In fact, Darad knew of no law that could bind the war chief as did his oath to a friend.  Even his bitterest enemy had reason to believe that whatever Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk promised was a thing already accomplished.

Of their own volition Darad’s eyes turned back to the depths of the forest Jer’ok would have traversed.  It was unthinkable that a Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk primed for battle could have suffered harm in his own jungle.  That left only the boulders in which the beast-man would have sought concealment while he awaited his chance to turn the Khazarish from their path.  With one last glance at the mute but irrefutable testimony of the hoofprints, Darad turned toward the mass of tumbled rocks.  Was there something about the trace of scent hovering in the shimmering heat?

Even as Jer’ok’s senses surpassed his own, Darad’s surpassed those of the pampered sons of civilised man.  In less time than it takes to tell of it, the Sanaca chief had observed the obvious signs of a recent slide.  As he cautiously approached its point of origin his trained eyes picked out a peculiar formation of rocks marred only by the slightest displacement of one.  Not for the first time that fateful day his visage turned grim.  And grimmer still as the crushed body of a viper was revealed beneath one of the fallen boulders.  With supreme care the chief crouched and scratched the pebbles from beneath the edge of the boulder.  Satisfied that the reptile was completely lifeless Darad examined the mouth and fangs.

Swiftly the Sanaca chief stood and cast his anxious glance across the slide.  There was no sign of the beast-man.  Darad strode to the edge of the jungle to examine the ground there.  He was not long in discovering the spoor.  Jer’ok was already clumsy when he passed through the brush.  Now the Sanaca tracked the beast-man with unwonted ease to the place where he had stopped to tend the wound.  The Sanaca bow and arrows lay abandoned at the edge of the stream.  Absently, the chief picked them up as he looked about.  From that point Jer’ok’s spoor was no longer beyond the ability of an ordinary tracker.

Far more swiftly than Jer’ok had traveled before him, Darad followed his friend to the place where he had suddenly entered the water.  Darad gasped and quickened his pace.  Something close to fear touched his heart as he worried what the next bend in the stream would reveal.

By the time near-dark had filled the jungle with its eerie dimness Darad had circled the entire area surrounding the pool.  His heart beat with the slow rhythm of his people’s drum of death.  There was no sign.  None at all.

Darad paused to consider the best course of action.  His efforts would be useless until the return of daylight, but by then it would be too late, if there was any hope left at all.  More out of desperation than any hope of success, he scrutinised the rocks at his feet one last time.  He virtually willed the reappearance of Jer’ok’s spoor.  Suddenly, the Sanaca dropped and touched the dark surface of a rock.  Some of the darkness rubbed off on his fingertips.  Darad brought the hand to his nostrils.  It was all he needed.  Without hesitation the chief dove into the water.

JER’OK KNEW THERE would be a cave behind the waterfall, although there was no surface entrance.  With the last of his strength he swam under the deluge and returned to the surface well behind the formation over which Nea was rushing.  Breaking surface the beast-man perceived more than saw what he had hoped for.  He dragged his unresponsive body onto the low ledge and dropped gratefully into the soft dry bed of fur and grasses long since deserted by the cave’s previous occupant.  The beast-man was instantly asleep.  As his body relaxed, the wounded leg slipped from the ledge into the water.  From the ugly wounds narrow tendrils of blood slowly seeped into the wandering currents.

HE HAD NO way of knowing how much time had passed when the first mild spasms woke him.  At first the beast-man could remember nothing and puzzled over where he might be.  His head ached with fever, dulling his mind.  Then the dire events of the day came back as the poison suddenly arched his body in uncontrollable spasms.  In vain Jer’ok sought a grip on the ledge beneath him in an effort to restore control.  Jer’ok knew he was near the long sleep of death.  He was soon yearning for the release humankind’s Grim Reaper offers the victims of Ashtar’s constant violence.

Even in the delirium of his fever the beast-man perceived the momentary difference in the roar of the falls.  He strained his eyes in the direction of the torrent.  A huge form blocked the pale light of Solea where it sparkled dimly through the water.  Jer’ok numbly accepted his mistake.  The cave was still occupied after all.  Now it was being reclaimed by its rightful owner.  At least death would no doubt come swiftly to end his suffering.

But a spark of the untamed spirit that is Jer’ok’s denied to him the boon of yielding his life easily.  The beast-man blindly sought his knife and grasped it in his left hand, grateful for the weapon’s instant response to his touch.  Jer’ok waited, holding his breath and willing his body to be still; the knife was clumsily poised.

Whatever had discovered his refuge was breathing heavily.  It paused while its eyes became accustomed to the Stygian darkness of the cave.  Still Jer’ok waited.  Sheer will held him steady.  There was another threatening movement.  Jer’ok’s knife lashed out, but once again his body refused to obey his will.  Even as the beast-man moved to protect himself, he was seized by another wave of spasms.  Stubbornly he refused to drop the knife.  He lashed out a second time.  But despite the added genius of his sire’s hunting knife it was a useless gesture.

Jer’ok’s arm was grasped in a firm grip.  A sudden pressure on his wrist caused the knife to clatter to the ledge.  A heavy weight forced him back into the bedding.  The beast-man nearly threw it off, but he was no longer fighting.  Convulsions racked him.  Strangely, his attacker did nothing but hold him pinioned.  Vaguely Jer’ok wondered how the Khazarish could have tracked him to this place.  The convulsions continued until the beast-man lost consciousness, his last hope that the Khazarish had come too late to keep him alive.

DARAD WAS NEARLY as breathless as the beast-man.  It was no easy task to restrain Jer’ok despite his weakened condition.  When at length the Sanaca felt his friend’s struggles lapse, Darad eased his weight to one side and observed the shallow breathing in dismay.  In his heart the chief offered a prayer that it was not already too late.  The moon offered scant light by which to work, but Darad was able to feel the cuts Jer’ok had made in an effort to drain the venom.  Darad traced the swelling and was relieved to find that it had not progressed far above the knee, constrained by the binding of Jer’ok’s rope about his thigh, which the Sanaca now released to restore needed circulation.  Perhaps Jer’ok’s efforts had not been futile after all.  There was nothing more to be done other than to cool the fever that had burned Darad wherever he touched Jer’ok’s coppery skin.

Carefully the Sanaca chief lifted his friend and slipped the strap of the beast-man’s emptied quiver across the broad chest and under his arms.  He tied Jer’ok’s rope of reeds at either side of the quiver itself to form a makeshift sling.  Gently the chief lifted Jer’ok to the side of the ledge and slowly lowered him into the water until only his head and shoulders remained above the surface.  Finally, Darad looped the rope over one of the sturdy stalagmites rimming the floor of the cave.  Satisfied that Jer’ok was in no danger of sliding below the surface to drown, Darad slipped into the cold water to the side of the war chief.

Throughout the remainder of the long night Darad massaged the creeping paralysis from Jer’ok’s limbs.  By the time the sun had cleared the trees and once again filled the cave with light Jer’ok’s fever no longer burned.  Darad gratefully left the water and stretched his own aching muscles before hauling Jer’ok’s form back onto the ledge.  There he judged the quiet breathing before diving into the water.  When he returned Jer’ok still slept.  Darad set down the ripe fruits he had gathered and waited with infinite patience.

Near-dark had once again invaded their refuge before Jer’ok stirred.  His eyes opened, instantly alert.  His hand groped for the missing knife at his hip as he raised himself to face whatever waited.  Then he recognised Darad and relaxed without falling back.

“How long,” he asked in a dull tone of unwonted resignation.

“I tracked you here last night.”

“That was you then.”  Jer’ok paused as Darad returned the knife.  The beast-man shook his head with a rueful grimace.  “I did not harm you?”

In spite of the circumstances Darad grinned back in reassurance, “I am unhurt.”  As the beast-man ate the fresh fruit, Darad told how he had found and tended him.  When he finished there was a long silence before Jer’ok said simply, “Alone I would have died.  I am grateful.”

Darad smiled and nodded his acceptance.  Between the giant Chimurian and the proud Ashtarian it was enough.  Each accepted the bond of friendship that reached between them without need for the elaborate demonstrations required by some.

“Our people?”

Darad no longer smiled.  “I do not know.  We will go to them when you can travel.”

“I can travel now.”  Jer’ok rose and would have started for the water, but Darad stopped him.

“We must wait.  If you do not rest you will not heal.  I need my war chief with all his powers if I am to save the people.  We will stay here at least two more days.”

Jer’ok knew Darad spoke wisely.  So he returned to his place on the ledge.  But the two Sanaca leaders were already running smoothly along a game trail when Sanjera next returned to rule the sky.  Though neither spoke of it, both knew they would be too late.

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