(Jungle Location, Classified)
A WEEK AND then a month passed. Jer’ok and Amber kept to the larger game trails. Whenever they came within a day’s walk of a native village, the beast-man would leave his mate while he approached the chief or elders in his endless effort to seek out more information to guide either his own mission or Guy Locke’s. Occasionally, the beast-man would pass a day or more among the wandering bands of Aranda.
Now it was that the Stars stepped in to abet their fellow-conspirator. For, though Jer’ok’s persistence was rewarded only infrequently, there was enough to cause him to believe his son had been seen; thus, he and Amber continued to travel south and east. Before many days had passed, the two were far beyond the range of any of Jer’ok’s prior wanderings in a portion of the jungle he knew not at all. He and Amber had, in fact, been carried by circumstances ever and ever farther from Blane and the boy’s Aranda companion. Soon their son’s trail would be hopelessly lost to Jer’ok and Amber.
EVEN WITH HIS mate at his side Jer’ok was finding it possible to travel at a pace only slightly less than he would have maintained alone. And by moving slowly, he found time to investigate their surroundings with particular care. He was disappointed to find no direct trace of the youth’s spoor. Rumour never progressed to verity. The ever-evolving companionship with his mate, however, more than made up for any frustration the beast-man was experiencing in his fruitless search. His early fear for Amber’s safety had long since been cast aside as unworthy of her prowess. Jer’ok’s mighty chest swelled with pride whenever he observed Amber becoming increasingly adept in her jungle craft.
Now it seemed to the beast-man that his jungle had taken on some fresh new beauty he had never before come to notice. Each night was passed in the tranquil security of the trees, far above the haunts of predators. Each day they traveled from Sanjera’s earliest return until the closer Ashtarian sun was high overhead. Then they would seek out a lair and spend the remaining hours of full daylight in hunting or whatever pursuit caught their fancy. Sometimes Jer’ok would explore the area alone – always hoping for the chance encounter that would provide fuel for his hope. Sometimes, when the hunt met with early success, they would swim together, or Jer’ok would take advantage of their immediate surroundings to teach Amber more of the ways of their home world. Now that her fear had mostly vanished, his mate learned quickly. And she was learning to love Jer’ok’s primaeval existence with the same fervour with which the beast-man himself embraced it. Only her lesser strength and the lack of early training for her senses prevented Amber from matching Jer’ok’s incredible ability to thrive where others would soon perish from simple exposure if they survived the countless hazards posed by Ashtar’s fauna and flora.
Sometimes the two of them would simply pass an afternoon in silent communion with each other and with the habitat of which they seemed an essential part.
Amber loved to watch the vast array of jungle creatures to which the beast-man from time to time led her, taking care not to betray their presence. At first she was in turn intrigued and amused at the domestic customs of the families, which she discovered to be unique not just to each species but also to individual family groups. Eventually Amber came to experience a sense of kinship with them, one that went beyond any like feeling for humankind. She pondered this development often when at rest in the company of her own mate.
In the end Amber knew a greater understanding of Jer’ok’s undying need to be of this ageless pattern of life, death, and constant renewal. With that understanding came acceptance – much like Jer’ok’s – of inevitable death as a natural phase in the cycle rather than the thing of superstitious fear experienced by civilised man. Step by imperceptible step Amber Southerly was becoming a creature of the forest.
ONE THING THAT is never far from the lives of jungle dwellers is sudden injury. Let them forget for only a moment to look beyond the fluttering leaf, to listen for the nearly soundless footfall, or to detect the telltale scent in the air, and disaster lurks not far behind. Oh, they may escape today. They might even live through tomorrow. But those who are not constantly on their guard in the jungle are surely doomed. This constant vigilance cannot be taught. It can only be inherent, if not purely instinctive. Jer’ok possessed it because he was of the folk. His human intelligence made up the slight disadvantage of being nearly as much san-k’aranda as Aranda. He could not have taught it to his mate, though his attentive protection of her was almost always sufficient to preserve her. But not even Jer’ok of the Aranda can keep constant watch over his mate.
Sudden injury came to Amber in a moment of inattention.
She and Jer’ok had brought down Phaco, the feral boar. As had become their habit, she approached the still form to dispatch the prey should Jer’ok’s arrow have missed a vital spot. Amber thought Phaco dead and allowed herself to be mildly distracted by Jer’ok’s approach. Before either could act, Phaco proved he had not yet been slain. With sudden animation the boar lifted his head in a final act of futile defence. One wicked tusk gouged her leg just above the ankle.
The mate of Jer’ok had learned her lessons well. There was no fear in her heart. No panic threatened. In less time than it takes to tell of it, she thrust her spear through the maddened creature’s heart. Only when she was certain he was truly dead did she bend to examine the wound.
“It is no more than a scratch,” she assured Jer’ok as she reached for the medicinal leaves he had plucked from his quiver. “I am glad we have been careful to collect these for such an emergency. Until we can get back to camp, I cannot cleanse the wound.” She failed to note the pride that had entered Jer’ok’s golden green eyes.
They returned to camp without further incident though Amber was limping slightly by the time the camp came into sight. Jer’ok refrained from assisting her. He recognised the nascent spirit of fierce independence that was growing in the heart of his mate and would do nothing that might cause it to wither away.
Upon entering the camp, Jer’ok quickly slung their dinner over a branch before assisting Amber. She gratefully settled down at the edge of the stream and allowed him to gently wash away the rude poultice and dried blood. After a moment, he looked up from his task, “I think it wise to allow it to bleed more. Otherwise it might be poisoned.” Gently he moved her closer to the water’s edge to let her leg submerge in the cool water. There he carefully pressed the edges of the ragged tear until it bled freely for several minutes. Presently he was satisfied that the wound was clean: “I will find fresh leaves for a new poultice. I will not be gone long, my dear; you will be all right?”
“Of course, my Jer’ok.”
But she was finding it difficult to conceal from him the increasing pain. Amber wanted nothing more than to forget the throbbing ache in the security of his strong arms. Nevertheless, she kept her silence. Jer’ok must have good reason or he would not leave her.
In fact, the beast-man returned quickly. In addition to a handful of the leaves they had first applied to the wound, he had gathered some green twigs. He smiled as Amber moved to allow him to apply the primitive medicinal. He indicated the twigs: “Darad tells me that an infusion of these in warm water will drain away the pain. Let us see if it will make you more comfortable.” And as Amber watched, Jer’ok set about preparing the primitive salve in a gourd he hollowed out to serve as a vessel.
When at last the mixture satisfied Jer’ok’s strict standards, he carried it to where Amber was waiting. Ever so gently, the coppery forest god tended his consort’s wound. Amber was relieved to discover that Darad had been quite correct. The soothing warmth did in fact ease the dull throbbing that was developing into a steady ache.
This night it was Jer’ok who built their small cooking fire and prepared Amber’s portion of the meat for her. Not long after they had finished their repast, she fell asleep cradled in Jer’ok’s embrace.
Amber did not awaken until late morning, when she found herself in a leafy interlacing of boughs. She sighed softly and looked up into Jer’ok’s eyes.
“You are lazy, Amber. Sanjera has been awake long enough to reach the tops of the trees. Jer’ok is hungry, but his mate would sleep through the whole day.”
“It is so peaceful here,” she sighed. “Could we not remain for the day and continue on the morrow?” Amber reached up to brush the hair from Jer’ok’s eyes. The gesture became a caress. The beast-man bent to touch her lips in a lingering kiss. Amber smiled her contentment. But when she shifted to embrace him, she gasped in pain. For the first time, they observed that her injured leg was not only sore but badly swollen.
Jer’ok was immediately concerned, “Is it bad, my dear?”
Amber sat up and removed the leaves they had used as a bandage. Fortunately, while the wound was uncomfortable, they saw that it was clean and uninfected, the swelling an indication of the healing process uncompromised.
“I will find more of Darad’s medicine,” Jer’ok promised. “You sleep until I return. I will not be long.”
As a result of her injury, Amber and Jer’ok lingered in the camp for several days. Under the beast-man’s care, the wound healed quickly. But when they were ready to resume their trek, Jer’ok left his mate’s side for nearly a full day.
He returned on the back of his great friend Muthus. Amber exclaimed with delight as the massive trunk plucked her out of her leafy bower as tenderly as though she were made of glass. From the great trunk Jer’ok lifted her to ride with him behind the huge ears.
“Muthus will carry us until you can walk without discomfort.”
And so it was that Jer’ok and his mate for the next several days traveled in a style befitting some exotic potentate and his consort. Those days passed quietly without either incident or sign of Blane Southerly. They were now deep in territory far from Jer’ok’s own range. As the land became increasingly unfamiliar, the beast-man became ever more cautious. He was grateful for the company of the giant wooly mammoth. Every additional protect for Amber was welcome.
FROM THE BROAD back of Muthus, the beast-man was afforded a view of this unfamiliar jungle unlike any other. After several days of apparent solitude for Jer’ok and his mate, he began to observe signs of humankind presence, but it was a matter of days before a native of the region was actually espied. It came as no surprise that Muthus inevitably became aware of san-k’aranda presence moments before Jer’ok detected them. Although the strangers made the huge mammoth nervous, he accepted Jer’ok’s boldness as reinforcement for his own courage. In fact, Jer’ok was mildly puzzled by his conclusion that the native population was leery of making their presence known. He was well aware that those they might already have met, had melted into the jungle to avoid contact with the exceptional threesome. That curiosity had yet to lead to an encounter niggled at his consciousness without arousing suspicion. Amber might never have become aware of these elusive natives had one of them not shown greater courage than his fellows.
In fact, this man was not immediately aware of the approach of the mammoth and Muthus’ human burden because his attention was fixed on the still form before which he knelt. Upon sensing the alien presence, he turned and slowly rose, his eyes growing wide at the sight of Muthus and wider still upon spotting the man and woman on the creature’s back. Somehow reassured – or, possibly, resigned to whatever might befall him, the black returned his attention to his slain companion without affording the three any further acknowledgment. Jer’ok knew some profound courage or loyalty made this man the first to hold his ground in the presence of such strangers. Jer’ok brought Muthus to a halt while still several paces away. The beast-man slipped from his place on the mammoth’s back and then assisted Amber to her feet to one side of their mount.
“I will see to this, Amber. Stay by Muthus but do not attempt to interfere with his actions.”
With that mild admonition, the beast-man strode toward the tragic tableau, his right hand raised in the universal indication of peaceful intentions. As he neared the stranger, the chant by which the man was offering a final farewell touched his hearing and eerily resounded within his heart. With his innate courtesy, Jer’ok stood beside the other until the simple ritual was concluded. As he waited, the beast-man inspected as best he could the fatal wound. It was clearly the result of the thrust of a spear. Indeed, the bloodstained weapon itself lay to one side. This, too, the beast-man inspected without moving from the black’s side. The spear was unlike any he had previously seen in all his wanderings across the jungles and savannahs of Ashtar’s massive continent. Yet, to his puzzlement, it seemed familiar somehow. It was not until much later, when he had to opportunity to observe many such spears at close range, that Jer’ok came to realise that he had seen its like in the Confederation interplanetary museums he had frequented in numerous cities on Chimur and Ares, especially those dedicated to the more remote eras of Terran history.
His farewell complete, the lone native stood and faced the giant copper-skinned stranger. He regarded the intruder and his distant companions with well concealed fear that altered after a moment to frank curiosity. At length he spoke in a dialect Jer’ok was able to follow, though the beast-man spoke it without the fluency that was his in other, more familiar languages.
“You are not of those who have slain my brother, yet you are strangers to this land – and much like the invaders. Who are you?”
“I am Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk. I have no reason to harm you or yours. Who are these invaders who cause you to fear any strangers?”
The black did not respond immediately. Instead, he took a moment to examine the pale-skinned strangers and their nervous companion, whose trunk was now raised to ascertain that Jer’ok was exhibiting neither fear nor anger toward the san-k’aranda.
“Even in the company of the old one,” he ventured when his examination was complete, “you will stand little chance against a party of the invaders – if that his your mission,” he added after a slight hesitation. “They are always heavily armed and travel in large numbers. Unless you are endowed with special powers, Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk, you had best depart before you are discovered.”
Jer’ok allowed the many questions suggested in the man’s tone of voice to remain unanswered. A touch of mystery seldom did him any harm, and ofttimes it served his purposes to be deemed other than humankind.
“Is it your custom to bury your dead?” At the man’s sad nod, Jer’ok added, “If it is permitted, I will assist you. Then I would learn more of your people’s troubles.” Without conscious effort, the beast-man yielded to his Aranda nature to assert, “Jer’ok is the Lord of Ashtar. The beasts are his companions in battle. It may be that Jer’ok can help drive these invaders from your land. In return, your people might help Jer’ok in his own quest.”
Once more the beast-man was subjected to an intense gaze. He tolerated the scrutiny without comment. As is so often the case, his calm aura of dignity inspired confidence in one who never before had encountered the Lord of Two Worlds.
“You are welcome to return with me to my village. My chief will welcome Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk if indeed he is all he claims to be.”
JER’OK AND AMBER did not remain long in the village of their new acquaintance. There, however, they learned that the peculiar white marauders, for whom they had initially been mistaken, had earned a powerful reputation for evil. No one was safe from them. Not only were men, women, and children captured alive, but even animals – of all species and without selection for age or gender – were imperilled at the hands of the dreaded white invaders of this land.
Jer’ok listened with unfeigned interest. To his dismay his forays into the forest to only revealed unwonted patterns of behaviour among the denizens confirming what the chief had revealed and suggesting this to be the centre of the devastating raids at which Locke had merely hinted. The situation left the beast-man deeply puzzled: what held the humankind and wild creatures here in face of extreme danger? Why had they not scattered to safer realms? Shortly, his extended travels throughout the region revealed that the beauty actually reflected a bounty beyond the greatest the generous jungle had ever in his experience provided. Had this been his home territory, he would not have willingly surrendered this place.
Whoever these cruel invaders might be, they were clever. Their raids, while devastating, until recently had been rare. But now they had increased to one or even more in any given year. This most recent fatal attach was the third in the space of only a few passages of the moon. These subtly increasing intrusions confirmed the suspicions Locke had shared before the two had parted company in the settlement. It was apparent to Jer’ok that someone, probably Jer’anda, was taking advantage of the raids making them more demanding than in the past.
Jer’ok’s sense of justice demanded that he act to halt the cruelty. But something else motivated him where neither the plight of strangers nor Locke’s charge to him could. There had been two raids in the past month. The second, which had brought death to the tribesman, had been on the humankind residents, the first on the folk. The son of Jer’ok, were he making his home in this remote land, might have been captured in on or the other, if the boy was still in the company of Aran.
Upon his return from the last of his intended forays, Jer’ok first revealed his concern to Amber, who insisted they pursue this tenuous lead. Flimsy though it be, they had been afforded no other prospect. His mate was eager to proceed, but it required all of Jer’ok’s substantial persuasive powers to persuade their hosts to conduct the two of them to the sinister entrance to the caverns through which the invaders had once been seen to emerge. He was warned that none had ever involuntarily or voluntarily entered and returned from the Stygian darkness reeking of evil. Mere hints of the horrors that lay within caused brave men to tremble in terror.
Once conducted to the caverns, Jer’ok and his mate bid farewell to their guides and entered without a trace of fear. As they disappeared from the sight of the outer world, their new friends took up the tribal chant of farewell. The courage of the Lord of Ashtar and his woman, while foolhardy, was the stuff of legend in the making.
The beast-man easily made his way directly through the labyrinth of dangerous passages. His preternatural vision coupled with his sensitive olfactory sense guided him where another would have surely been lost. Thus, in a matter of only a few hours, he and his mate emerged from the foetid darkness into a panorama of unsurpassed beauty. Before them spread lush forest and verdant fields teeming with game. Beyond the valley of extraordinary beauty and shrouded in the mist of early evening loomed the walls of a massive city surrounding what could only be an immense palace built into the northwest face of the range of mounts encircling the valley. Even Jer’ok was taken aback by the sight.
Despite their sense of urgency, Jer’ok knew he and Amber were fatigued and all too soon would be facing unknown dangers. To his relief, she readily acceded to his decision to await the passing of second dawn before approaching the city. Neither voiced the hope each harboured that there would be one in the city who had seen Blane or heard rumours that might suggest his whereabouts.
Just how menacing was their danger and how soon it was to be manifested they fortunately were without prescience. No mere man can turn aside what the Stars hold in store for him.
JER’OK AND AMBER soon entered and followed the shallow valley through which a pleasant steam meandered before it passed the imposing foothills into which the city had been built. At second twilight, they found a small clearing featuring a tree whose interlacing branches would protect their sleep. The stream, sparkling in the fading light, lent its soft song to the ambience of the tranquil setting. While Amber collected soft grasses and leaves to weave into a natural bedding, Jer’ok hunted their dinner.
The beast-man was not long at his hunting. A small Lopus fell to his arrow not far from their camp. He sped back to Amber with a light heart. When he returned with meat and a profusion of fruits, Amber had started a small fire. Now that they were in the land of those who might prove to be enemies, Amber was careful in selecting wood and building her fire to avoid as much as she could the smoke that would betray their presence to any who might lurk within sight and scent.
The beast-man paused at the edge of the clearing to observe his mate and her handiwork with approval. Were it not for the nature of their quest, he would have been finding this trek through the jungle with Amber to be the happiest days of his life. Seldom had the Stars bestowed such contentment upon Jer’ok-ta.
Amber chanced to look in his direction and smiled when she saw her mate laden with provisions fit for the Chimurian high king’s larder. The beast-man returned her smile and surprised her with a lighthearted kiss as he passed her side to drop his burden by the fire. At first puzzled by his mood, Amber searched her own heart only to discover that, if her concern for their son could only be set aside, she had never been happier. This rare pilgrimage as the mate of Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk was idyllic.
Jer’ok deftly cut his kill into small pieces. Some he spitted and placed over the flames for Amber. His own portion he laid out on the grass for consumption raw. Amber smiled to herself. No amount of civilising could alter his preference for fresh raw meat. She suppressed a shudder. Here at least he could indulge himself without the formality of searing, and in his opinion ruining, his meat to avoid offending others. Either way, the meat was just as raw, but those who gulped in horror at the sight of raw meat, daintily relished every bite of the same steak though it differed only in the minuscule layer of charred flesh on either side. So narrow is the line that separates gentleman from savage.
After they had eaten, Jer’ok and Amber talked well into the night as they watched the stars make their appearance by the scattered handful until the rare black velvet of the sky over the valley was bright with tiny orbs sparkling like so many distant, untouchable diamonds. Their talk dwindled to companionable silence until a falling star streaked across the sky.
“Among the Terrans there is a legend that a wish made upon a falling star will be yours,” Amber told him. “What wish would you have granted, Jer’ok of Ashtar?”
“My wish was granted long ago, Amber, my heart. Now I only wish for . . . .”
She silenced him with a touch of her fingers across his lips. Amber’s lightly teasing tone dropped away as she wistfully warned him, “No, my love, you must not say it aloud. If you reveal a wish, the Terrans say it will be denied you.” After a moment, she went on, “We share in that wish, my Jer’ok, but it seems so hopeless.”
Amber sighed deeply and turned in the beast-man’s light embrace to press her face against the copper of his chest. He felt her tears and dropped his head to hers as he whispered words of hope and comfort. But his heart ached for their son as bitterly as did hers. The frustration of his inability to devote his full strength and cunning to the restoration of the boy added its own poignancy to sharpen that ache. Not for the first time he wondered if in fact they were on Blane’s trail after all.
As Amber turned to him for comfort, so, too, did the beast-man turn to his beloved mate. As he held her near, he shut his eyes as if to close out all the world around them. In a sense the woman in Jer’ok’s arms was his whole world. With the sensitivity of a loved shared without reservation, Jer’ok’s embrace became the prelude to mutual passion at the very moment when the ache in Amber’s heart transformed to need for her man.
MUCH LATER AS heavy clouds gathered to obscure the faint glow of the stars, Jer’ok lifted his sleeping mate to their treetop bower and gently lowered her to the soft, fragrant bedding of grasses and leaves. The first hint of rain now touched his nostrils so he drew some of the larger fronds over her in tender gesture of protection. For many heartbeats before he drifted into sleep, Jer’ok sat resting his head in his arms so he might gaze upon her face as she slept. He could not know that this peaceful moment of contented love was to be the one he would come to cherish as a fond but hopeless memory of what once had been.
THE RAIN WAS not to touch the sleeping forms of the beast-man and his mate until long after it had touched the quiet pools and tiny brooks that were the multiple sources of the picturesque stream the two had been following. At first slowly and then with increasing force, the rain lightly touched and then beat these gentle waters into turbulent agitation. Slowly, inexorably, the waters of the pools rose and overflowed their grassy banks. Quietly at first, the brooks ran ever faster until they began to touch the once-dry rocks surrounding them. Then they began to roar their haste to join the waters of the pools in a headlong rush to the lake so far away it lay beyond the vision of the sharp-eyed birds of prey that often flew overhead. Whatever – or whoever – lay in the path would be of no concern to Nea in her rage to reach her distant goal.
Amber was sleeping too soundly to be awakened by the combined roars of Mael and of the torrential downpour. Jer’ok, with his back bent to Mael, shielded her as best he could. Somehow his keen ears failed to hear the ominous third roaring that was Nea. When he did, it was already too late.
Suddenly, the wall of water struck their tree. Jer’ok was swept to solid ground by an elderly branch too rotten with decay to withstand the force of Nea’s blow. Before he lost consciousness, he heard his mate scream his name once. Her voice was filled with terror and grief.
AFTER A STORM Queen Varela of Mithos took pleasure in exploring the lands surrounding her secure walled city. The sky always seemed a deeper blue, the leaves and grasses a brighter green in the crisp, pure morning air that prevailed in the wake of the gods’ spectacular demonstration of their might. The night’s violent storm had originated in the western mountains and progressed across the foothills that nestled between the vast Valley of Mithos and the mountains forming the impenetrable boundary of the land of the Mithonians.
If the Mithonian gods had stooped to impress mere mortals, their effort was lost on Queen Varela. She experienced not the slightest trace of fear as the night’s ragged slashes of the bolts of Zeus seemed to threaten even her sanctuary. Queen Varela did not retreat to her luxurious couch until she had tracked the muted glow of distant lightning far to the east. The queen found it easy to believe that Nature had staged the spectacular event for her majesty’s private entertainment. From her vantage point in the uppermost chambres of the palace, she passed the better part of the night an enthralled spectator of the gods’ performance. Even after the retreating thunder dwindled to a mere rumble slow to follow the diminishing flares of golden light, Varela pensively watched the torrential rain drive across the land until it, too, diminished to a gentle bathing of the lush valley far below. Only when the fury of the storm showed no sign of returning did Queen Varela, leaving the shutters wide in defiance of the warnings of both her childhood nurse and a former palace physician, seek her silken couch with a vow to be about early on the morrow.
SECOND DAWN WAS as beautiful as the promise of the storm. Varela, wholly unmindful of any dark intrigue that might complicate her sheltered life, shivered delightedly in the cool air that blew through the wide opening in the cold stone of her chambre. She inhaled deeply to savour the exciting tang of the capricious breezes. Almost before the chariot of Adonais drove high enough for its light to pour through her unshuttered windows, Drusus was summoned and ordered, with slight condescension to graciousness, to ready her majesty’s chariot and assemble her guard for an early morning ride. She rousted her sleepy attendants.
The king, her husband, had more than once called Varela a spoiled brat to her face. Indeed, she was a child. But she was also a woman and every inch a queen. Varela of Mithos was, in fact, a unique combination of all three. With maturity she might have, with King Stephanos’ guidance, become a lovely woman and gracious queen well beloved of her people. Alas, that person was never to be. That future had been destroyed for all time by the king’s exasperated – and unthinking – epithet.
King Stephanos’ observation still possessed the power to raise in Varela’s breast a rage that would have spelled disaster for any lesser man. The king alone was beyond Varela’s power. For, though her exquisite countenance still bore the open expression of the innocent child-woman, Varela, once merely the spoiled daughter of privileged royalty, had become a harsh mistress and was well advanced along the path of cruel tyranny as a result of her royal husband’s off-handed dismissal. Varela lived for whatever pleasure she could draw from today. Yesterday and tomorrow were of equally slight concern to the beautiful but bitter Queen of Mithos. If her pleasure meant pain to another, so much the better. Without real intent, the queen took vengeance for her mental suffering through whatever anguish she could inflict on others. For one so young, Varela was extremely subtle. Not even King Stephanos was yet aware of the monster, more Siren than Harpy, that was born of his impatience with his young queen.
Only clever Drusus, of the equestrian class and favourite of the queen, was able, thus far, to recognise Varela’s unspoken needs and turn them to his own advantage. Like Varela, Drusus was very young. He, however, was far more ambitious than his naive queen. Drusus knew King Stephanos would not live forever. Of that fate Drusus was, in fact, entirely certain.
This morning Queen Varela banished all unpleasant thoughts from her presence. While the frantic preparations proceeded in instant deference to the queen’s whim, Varela swiftly donned the short tunic she preferred for hunting. Impatient to be on her way, she struggled into the light leather harness designed to resemble masculine armor and sloppily tied the sueded thongs that held it snug about her slim form. Next she perched on the edge of her couch with childlike lack of grace to lace the matching soft leather boots. That task complete, the queen tossed her head to flip a wayward lock of auburn hair from her eyes and glanced about for her jeweled hunting knife. The weapon settled in its sheath on the side of one shapely leg. Queen Varela impatiently took stock. Was she ready?
Reluctantly, she moved to study the effect in the gleaming length of polished bronze that served as a mirror. Looking the part of majesty was a bore. Nevertheless, Varela turned gracefully before the glowing reflection. She was quite satisfied with the overall effect though she tossed her loose hair in a gesture of spirited petulance before swooping it back and anchoring it uncertainly with a few bronze pins and a bit of ribbon she scavenged from a small casket that rested amid the debris on an ornate table of fine ebony. And well the Queen of Mithos might be pleased!
Spoiled she may have been, but in appearance she was a young goddess. Tall and slender, Varela could be stately as befits the ruler of a great people. But she also had moments of coltishness when it was easily forgotten that she was a harsh and unrelenting queen feared by all but the king himself. Today she hovered somewhere between tomboy and queen. Her heavy red hair tumbled in a profusion of gentle waves and curls that already defied her hasty attempt to confine it. Her perfect complexion found added warmth in the rosy tinge of the bronze. Her wide mouth and pert nose were perfectly set off by the deep emerald of her eyes. Her hunting ensemble did little to hide the lithe young body. Varela despaired of her long slender legs. Her people preferred their women short and well fed. Varela pouted at her reflection but was frankly pleased. Long legs and slimness were perfect features for the active life she enjoyed outside the close confines of city and palace.
Varela whirled at the sound of Drusus’ low-pitched voice. It was presumptuous of the equestrian to enter without benefit of announcement, but the day was too beautiful to spoil with tantrums. In any event, it pleased her to be called lovely. Perhaps Drusus meant the compliment. So she swallowed her angry outburst with a pert grin.
“You are too bold, Lord Drusus!”
Before he could respond or, worse, attempt an embrace, the queen demanded whether her chariot was ready as she brushed past him and ran lightly through the doorway. At the last moment she remembered her dignity and strode purposely through the passages down to the courtyard where her team waited in the company of an armed escort. Drusus was hard-pressed to pace her without compromise to his status and surroundings.
Without ceremony, Varela stepped into the chariot, took possession of the reins, blessed the mounted guards with a cursory glance, and yielded her team their heads to hurtle through the courtyard and along the main thoroughfare of Mithos at a pace that scattered all in her path, including the flustered guards at the city gate. It amused her that Drusus barely had time to mount his excited horse before the animal turned to clatter after her, sparks flying from his shod hooves. Varela skillfully reined her team to a sedate walk only when she had entered the silent green valley beyond the clashing racket of the awakening city.
Even Queen Varela was grateful for her surroundings. The city, she supposed, was like any city of any time and in any place. She wrinkled her pert nose in distaste. Varela had never seen another city, so she could not know that Mithos was unique in the world of Ashtar, indeed in all the Gemini system, of which she possessed not the slightest knowledge. But the valley beyond the city itself was a land of extraordinary beauty. The gods had been good to the Mithonians but had been especially generous when they elected to guide the ancient ancestors of the Mithonian people to this remote place before issuing the divine command to build their new home. Varela was not alone in her suspicion that some priest, weary of the interminable journey, knew a good thing when he saw it and issued the command without benefit of consultation with any of the gods.
The scientist of distant Krypta had done his job well. Varela had not the slightest clue that the brief history of Mithos bore not even the slightest resemblance to what she and the people of the city believed to be their remote past.
None, least of all the frivolous young queen of Mithos, knew that origins of those recorded ancestors or what purpose had brought them so far from those origins. All that had survived the untold ages of separation were certain traditions and the pantheon of petty, jealous gods who were wont to interfere in one’s life without the slightest provocation. The irreverent description of those divine beings was Queen Varela’s and she wisely kept it to herself – one of the few opinions she refrained from inflicting upon all around her. Drusus would have been more than a little surprised. The direction of her thoughts might have been the source of some concern to the equestrian were he privy to them.
AROUND THE CITY of Mithos, set in the protective bosom of the southern mountains, were gently rolling hills of lush grass. Here the plentiful game animals were almost as tame as their domesticated counterparts in the outside world. Though Varela would never see that world, long since abandoned by Mithos, she had read of such things in the dry scrolls her royal family had demanded she study in preparation for her reign. But Varela was no scholar. Her unhappy tutor had been beaten many times for his inability to inspire Varela’s attainment of the educational goals established by her parents. The couple was eventually forced to abandon those goals, much to Varela’s relief – and that of her tutor who was a scholar.
Surrounding the Valley of Mithos was a wide belt of forestland where more dangerous game was to be found. It was toward the forest that Varela drove her team at breakneck speed. In addition to the excitement of the royal hunt the forest provided beasts for the arena, the primary source of entertainment in isolated Mithos, at least in the mind of the queen. Perhaps the storm had driven a black lion or other dweller of the mountains down into the forest where Varela could lay claim to him and reflect in whatever brief glory might be his in the arena.
Beyond the forestland the mountains rose high on every side: majestic guardians of the Mithonians. The rare humankind intruder passed through the intricate caverns carved through the base of the mountains almost directly north of the city. Opening on a river that meandered peacefully through the Valley of Mithos after its precipitous plunge somewhere in the highest mountain peaks, the caverns had yielded the secret of Mithos to only a very few. The ancient Mithonians’ maps of those caverns were jealously guarded by certain noble families who were solely entrusted with the occasional forays beyond the mountains in search of Nubian slaves and new blood for the games. Without those fragile maps no Mithonian, not even the most desperate fugitive, would voluntarily enter the labyrinthine passages.
The occasional slave had attempted to return to his own world through the caverns. None knew the fate of those foolish creatures. None doubted that their bones were slowly turning to dust somewhere beneath the mighty mountains after the runaways had strayed from the only known path that led the intrepid explorer through from one world to another. Had any thought to apprise Mithos of the true fate of the rare survivor – fugitive or explorer, there was none who could have believed.
During Varela’s lifetime only one man had found his way from beyond into the Valley of Mithos. Very like the Mithonians was Jason Tiberius, one of the few Caucasians to stumble upon the valley. Though, when encountered by a Mithonian patrol he was actually able to understand some of their language and even to speak it haltingly and with a most peculiar accent, physician Jason Tiberius was taken prisoner. As a barbarian he was destined for slavery. Because his skin was no darker than theirs and his features finer, Jason would enter the service of the royal family. Only should he prove incorrigible would he spend his final days in the arena. Caucasian slaves of any allegiance were virtually unheard of in Mithos, though students of such matters believed them an important part of the everyday life of their ancestors.
Tiberius unknowingly avoided that fate only through a turn of circumstances that resulted in his preservation of the life of the late king, father to King Stephanos and uncle to Queen Varela. In gratitude for that service and in respect for the skill that surely were a gift from Adonais himself, the king allowed Jason Tiberius to remain in Mithos in the honoured position of palace physician. While it was his skills that preserved Jason’s life, it was his name when eventually revealed that made him an object of awe even among royalty. Tiberius was an ancient and honourable family who had long since died out in Mithos. Thus, when an assassin’s knife prematurely ended his father’s reign, Stephanos looked upon Jason Tiberius not only as a skilled physician but also as a trusted confidant. Varela on the other hand feared and therefore hated the physician.
THE FATEFUL EPITHET marring her childhood was far from Varela’s thoughts this morning. She was intent on the faint trail over which her wheels sped. If she was fortunate she would bring word of a prize for the arena. It never occurred to her that she would find a trophy that would cause her name never to be forgotten in Mithos.
At the edge of the forest Queen Varela finally drew her lathered team to a walk. Drusus reined his panting mount to the queen’s side, but her intense stare into the forest brooked no intrusion. Drusus started to speak but wisely thought better of it. The escort gratefully relaxed as their tired horses dropped their heads to catch their breath. Varela was certain she had seen movement through the tangled verdure of the dense forest. Without deigning to confer with Drusus, she proceeded into the forest along the river trail. It was not intended for chariot traffic but was wide enough to accommodate her hunting vehicle so long as the queen drove with her present degree of circumspection.
Though glimpses of the river were revealed whenever the trees thinned, it was necessary to proceed some distance east before picking up the trail. The queen was impatient to discover the nature of the creature of which she had caught no more than a fleeting glimpse but wisely held her tired team to a walk. If there was to be action she wanted her horses alert and responsive to her slightest touch on the reins. Even from her distant vantage point Varela could espy an occasional uprooted tree or carcass of some beast too slow to have escaped last night’s torrent.
As she approached the turn onto the small river trail, Queen Varela signed her entourage to a halt. This close to the river the incredible violence with which the gods had been toying widened even the queen’s eyes. Drusus dismounted and led his nervous horse closer to the normally serene waters. The equestrian actually exclaimed in wonder. The well disciplined troop remained silent on their horses, but they exchanged wary glances, and more than one looked upward with apprehension. The gods, however, had departed the scene in pursuit of other sport. Adonais ruled the sky alone. Not a single cloud marred the perfect blue.
Queen and retainers watched for a long time before she turned her team onto the trail. Varela was unusually pensive; so much so that she forgot to shoot a defiant smile in the direction of Drusus, who disapproved her forays onto the little-used byways. The queen was too distracted to notice his hasty return to the saddle and conference with her guards, who discreetly moved in closer to her light chariot.
The morning’s exploration, however, was unproductive. There proved to be no need for the precautions the equestrian demanded. The hot sun was almost directly overhead by the time the trail dwindled to nothing in a small grove. Queen Varela called a halt and strolled to the river’s edge while her escort tended her horses and unpacked the light delicacies her women had been able to secure from the kitchens in time to accompany their mistress. While the men relaxed, Drusus carried a goblet of wine and a golden plate of the food to Varela. She smiled and seated herself primly on a mossy boulder to accept his service. She offered to share nothing with him, so he stood beside her not quite at attention. The queen pretended not to notice but inwardly resolved to extract greater formality from him in the future. Drusus was dangerously close to insolence of late. She would soon put him in his place.
Varela knew Drusus was anxious to see her safely back in the palace, so she dawdled over her meal even though she was ravenous enough to consume an entire antelope. Eventually, though, Varela’s own empty belly softened her heart, and she ordered the equestrian to prepare for their return. She was tired and hungry for a full meal. She was also disappointed. It seemed the storm would provide her with no sport after all. If Drusus was disappointed, for whatever reason, there was no hint of it in his demeanour.
The trail the small company followed gently sloped downward as it followed aimlessly along the meanders of an earlier riverbed, at the edge of the present riverbank here, surrounded by sparse trees and thick brush there. Varela allowed her team to walk that they might pick their own way along the occasionally treacherous path.
For many minutes the royal party had been separated from the river by a thick stand of trees. As these cleared to reveal the river anew, Varela abruptly signaled for a halt at the peak of the steepest portion of the trail. Below them was a broad expanse of grass and a view of a large portion of the river. But it was not some feature of the landscape that had prompted Varela’s action. Below them, well out of earshot, a man was searching the riverbank for something or someone obviously lost to him. His every action revealed a subdued urgency. Occasionally he would pause in his intense search along the bank to gaze across to the other side of the river or to follow the movement of debris as it passed before him on the current.
The queen had found what she had been searching for all morning.
His copper skin was darker than a Mithonian’s, and he wore only a strip of antelope skin about his loins. Yet, even from the distance that separated him from her party, Varela could see he possessed the physique and features to rival one of the gods. He reminded her of the statue of Hermes in that god’s temple. The queen studied the outlander for a long time.
He moved with care, remaining alert to his surroundings even as he pursued his single-minded search. He almost started each time his eyes were diverted upstream from either grassy bank by a new piece of debris. He seemed relieved when each resolved itself into no more than uprooted vegetation or, less often, an animal or less recognisable flotsam. Once he came across a great clump of tangled weeds. He paused before stepping closer. Then, with a reluctance Queen Varela herself could sense for all the distance between them, he stooped and separated the individual fronds and stems until it was obvious nothing was caught among them. Before rising, he bowed his head briefly. It was as though, Queen Varela scoffed silently, he breathed a prayer of gratitude to the uncaring distant gods. As if any deity cared the slightest about the unknown object of the savage’s anxious search, she sneered to herself.
At that moment one of Varela’s horses stamped an impatient hoof and whinnied to some unseen companion. The man below rose and whirled to face the Mithonian party in a single swift motion. When he did so, dried blood was for the first time visible on his forehead and one cheekbone.
Apparently this outlander was a trusting fool. Instead of making good his escape, the wild man, as Varela instantly characterized him, slowed walked upward to the trail to meet her party. His bearing was that of the finest Mithonian noble. Varela heard the hissing breath Drusus released at her side. Except for the deep copper of his skin, the man was not unlike the Mithonians – more like them than the alien physician. Then Varela caught her breath as his regular features were resolved by the wild man’s proximity. In appearance he was very like the king himself.
“Your majesty?” Drusus ventured, unsure of what her decision would be.
“A moment,” was all she replied.
The savage continued toward them. He was indeed a bold one. His proud gait did not completely conceal his wariness. Once he stumbled and nearly fell, but as he drew closer, he raised his right hand in symbol of peaceful intent and faced them as though their equal. Once again the queen’s party had cause to exchange glances of concern and wonder as each in turn took heed of the resemblance that had stunned Varela.
Several paces away the savage halted as if awaiting the queen’s next move. This close she could see he was unsteady on his feet. He must have been injured during the storm. As Varela’s study of the savage grew prolonged, Drusus’ mount stirred under his restless rider and tossed his head with impatience.
“Take him,” Varela ordered in a low voice. It was possible this one understood their language. If he did not, the savage at least heard and recognised the tone. Before the riders could urge their horses after him, the wild man turned and fled downward from the trail in a desperate effort to reach the river.
Queen Varela was occupied with restraining her team, but when she could return her attention to her quarry, she was astonished to see that the wild man had almost succeeded in eluding her men. His attempt to dive into the turbulence where none would dare to follow was thwarted even as it commenced by the shaft of a javelin that struck him down mere steps from the waters. Before he could gain his feet to make good his escape, two of Queen Varela’s guards risked their mounts by urging them into the shallows to block his way. The savage succeeded in standing and pulled a third man from his horse. But before he could swing into the saddle, Drusus struck him hard with the flat edge of his sword. The queen called out her encouragement. Drusus would know she wanted the savage alive and undamaged. He also knew she would find the capture entertaining, so he would oblige her by prolonging the action.
Stunned, the man fell beneath the hooves of the two horses blocking his escape. The animals were war horses, but the riders did not seek a kill, so their mounts reared and backed to avoid trampling him. The agile quarry rolled away from them and was driven back from the river’s edge only by the flashing sword wielded with all the skill and strength clever Drusus could muster. It was obvious to the amused queen that the savage now understood that his death was not their object. To her surprise his efforts to escape actually took on greater savagery. That the creature prized his freedom highly was apparent.
Queen Varela watched the struggle with interest. This wild man was outnumbered and obviously hurt, yet he fought with the ferocity and skill of some great black lion imbued with the cunning of a man. Blood now flowed freely, mostly that of the wild man. Varela had seen his hand dart to the empty sheath at his side in the instant he became aware escape was impossible. The queen had thought he would yield then, but she was amazed to see him attack with bare hands and slashing teeth. She was shocked at the sound of bestial snarls issuing from his throat. His handsome features were contorted with rage.
Two of Varela’s men died before the others recognised that this man was nothing like any other they had previously encountered. When they saw their highly trained comrades fall to the savage, their fury overwhelmed them. One raised his javelin for the death thrust. Queen Varela recognised his intent and screamed a command.
“Hold!” The queen’s imperious tone somehow penetrated the guard’s rage. “Take him alive!”
To herself Varela muttered, “I have need for a personal bodyguard . . . ” To her own amazement the queen’s mind finished the incomplete utterance: “ . . . if he can be tamed.” It had never before occurred to the Queen of Mithos that there might exist one who would succumb neither to her charm nor to the effective methods of coercion that were hers to command. That fleeting thought was swiftly repressed.
The uneven battle was greatly prolonged, but the outcome had been inevitable from the start. The savage fought hard and effectively, but the sheer numbers and force of arms of the queen’s men were not to be defeated by one half-naked beast of a man. Eventually, the wild man was subdued, bound in the light chains each guard always carried and dragged before Varela.
Queen Varela favoured her prize with a haughty inspection. He bled from a dozen wounds, but her quick glance revealed that all were superficial. Her observations also confirmed the fine features and trained body of one who had lived the life of a superb fighting man – one who had never tasted defeat. Queen Varela chose to be amused by the golden-green eyes that fearlessly returned her own appraising stare. This one had pride and sufficient self-confidence to be arrogant. Those characteristics might be channeled into attributes worthy of service to the queen. Varela amused herself further with thoughts of the stir his presence would cause in court as he protected her from the constant dangers that surround Mithonian royalty. Once he had been properly trained, none would lightly confront this stalwart outlander. Her amusement proved to be short-lived.
“Release me! I am no enemy. I have done you no harm.”
Varela was so astonished she was unable to speak. It was not only that the wild man had actually spoken and in her own language, however brokenly. It was his tone that shocked the Mithonian woman. It was as if he addressed an equal or – the queen’s emerald eyes smouldered with the indignity – an inferior! If Queen Varela was stunned by the outrage, her retainers were appalled. Drusus, who had dismounted to approach his queen, stepped forward and struck the impudent captive an open-handed blow that would have felled the savage were he not supported by two of the guards. But the attempt at discipline was a complete failure.
Instead of yielding to their authority, the captive launched a renewed attack before any could act to prevent it. Queen Varela cried out in sudden fear as Drusus went down choking on a length of the chains that also failed to subdue the savage. The startled horse snorted and backed away from the wildly struggling combatants. The animal interfered with all efforts to counter the wholly unexpected danger to the equestrian. Drusus was far too busy to hold him. When the horse discovered he was free, he promptly turned tail for the security of the royal stables.
In all the times she had participated in the hunt and attended the games, Varela had never before beheld a captive go berserk. It was a terrifying experience. Her heart beat so wildly it threatened to choke her. Her mouth was so dry she could neither call encouragement to Drusus nor order her men to go to his aid. Varela could not even follow the prodigious battle as her attention was necessarily turned to her frantic team, which threatened to overturn her chariot as they scrambled to escape the brutal melee. What she did not see, she could hear. While Drusus was fighting in grim silence, the savage growled and snarled like the beast he was. The queen’s terror was bordering on outright panic.
The guards hardly remained idle. They dared not await their queen’s commands. They anxiously sought an opening before Drusus could be slain by the maddened savage. None chanced to observe Varela’s countenance. It was well for the young queen that they did not. The look of abject horror would have revealed her present inability to take any effective action at all.
Unless the silent queen withdrew her order to take the creature alive there was only one thing to be done. Whenever an opening emerged, the guards struck at the captive with the blunt staffs of their javelins. Thus hindered, they could not be particularly effective. The battle surged first in one direction and then in another with the antagonists constantly changing places. Both had become so entangled in the chain, it was no longer possible to distinguish prisoner from would-be captor. In the resultant confusion Lord Drusus was taking almost as much punishment under the blows of the javelins as the savage. Once, only Varela’s hysterical scream saved the equestrian from a blow that surely would have killed him. At the sound of her voice the furious guard was able to divert his fatal thrust at the last instant before contact.
Despite the queen’s terror the successful outcome of the uneven battle as never in serious jeopardy. Eventually it was the vicious wild man who slumped, barely conscious, under the blows. After the additional moments required to extricate Drusus, the captive was once again hauled to his feet and presented for the queen’s inspection. This time he said nothing, though the angry guards were handling him with little regard to preservation of life or limb.
Varela had now begun to regain control of her emotions. She quickly observed that, if they were not careful, she would lose her prize to a crippling injury. The queen managed to whisper a warning before she turned to observe Drusus carefully, only to be shocked anew to find her favourite ashen and actually trembling with rage. Without bothering to secure her permission, the equestrian once again struck the subdued captive. Fortunately, there was no reaction this time.
“Enough!” The queen was once more fully in control. Her voice was still soft, but she no longer choked in the effort to speak. To the guards she observed, “He cannot fight in a yoke. See to it.”
The small troop was not prepared to handle temperamental quarry. None had thought to bring any means of restraint other than the chains, which served more than one contingency. Who could have predicted that any creature which survived last night’s tempest would have any fight left today? But it was unwise to cause the queen’s ill-concealed impatience to surface. With a word of acknowledgment, one man remounted and galloped to the river bank where he initiated a hasty search for a stout branch of suitable conformation.
Varela stepped down from her chariot. She would calm Drusus she told herself. But it was he who found himself comforting her. Her returning fear served to make her careless. Fortunately, even as he took her in his arms, Drusus retained the presence of mind to cover her lapse in discretion.
“Your majesty, have a care. You are not harmed, I trust.” He glanced up to meet the guards’ curious stares. “You must have been terribly frightened, my queen.” Before she could spit her angry denial at him, Drusus pulled the now furious Varela’s head down to rest against his heart as he called to the soldiers at her back, “Her majesty is merely a little startled. I will tend her. You may see to the captive.”
To the men, who had no reason to believe otherwise, the appearance of the embrace was no more than the innocent act of friend and servitor comforting his royal charge. The unexpected ferocity of the strange outlander must have come as a shock to the sheltered young queen. The guards dismissed any hint of curiosity as they moved to obey Lord Drusus. The equestrian ignored them as he led his queen gently off the trail. When they were out of earshot, he presumed to speak to her more intimately.
“Dearest Varela, my royal kitten; he did not injure you did he?” Her eyes sparked with anger but Drusus chuckled, “Surely my queen is not concerned for my welfare? No savage can best a Mithonian of noble blood in any battle,” he paused to brush some of the drying mud from his once immaculate tunic, “ . . . no matter how primitive,” he added ruefully.
“Do not patronise me, Drusus,” Varela started, but her rising temper gave way to a most unmajestic giggle at the wounded look on his handsome face. “He might have killed you, Drusus. Never have I been more frightened.” With that unwonted admission she turned precipitously to his waiting arms.
“More importantly, my queen,” he whispered into the ear that still somehow peeked through the tumbling locks of hair that had long since escaped her effort to bind it out of her eyes, “more importantly, my little wild cat, he might have killed you!”
Varela succumbed to his altogether disarming concern for her, but somewhere deep in her heart fluttered a tiny tinge of regret that it was Drusus and not her royal husband who cared enough to worry about her safety. It was a long time before she drew away from the equestrian with a sad little sigh.
“We must return.”
Drusus caught her hand and gently pulled her back to him.
“A moment, my queen.”
She grinned at his formality. She did not miss the amused twinkle in his eye that betrayed his real feeling for her. Varela suddenly found herself unaccountably happy. Her recent terror might never have been. She smiled wickedly at Drusus and impishly interrupted him.
“He will be a fine bodyguard, once he is trained, don’t you agree?”
“Who?” asked Drusus in unfeigned perplexity.
“The wild man, of course,” she replied.
There was a prolonged silence. Drusus observed her intently before speaking.
“Varela, he is dangerous. Surely you don’t intend . . . ,” he hesitated at the haughty jutting of the royal chin but proceeded to defy her obvious anger. Not for the first time he dismissed the speed with which her mood shifted from teasing to fury.
“Varela, the wild man should be put to death. You are unwise even to return to the city with him. Have him destroyed now.”
AMBER SCREAMED A warning as the branch descended in the awful slow motion of a nightmare. The wind whipped the sound of her cry from her mouth. Jer’ok could not have heard it. At the same time her wet hair was blown in stringing strands across her face and eyes. She was momentarily blinded. The woman whimpered in pain and frustration. She twisted her head and dared to release one hand from the supporting limb, clinging to precarious safety with the other. But when she could once again see, Jer’ok had vanished into the watery maelstrom.
Amber wasted neither breath nor energy in a search for her mate as dangerous as it would be futile. Until the storm had passed she was helpless. Jer’ok, if he was beyond saving himself, was beyond any small aid she might be able to offer. Amber knew it was no more than common sense to preserve her own life in the hope the copper-skinned Lord of Ashtar still lived. It was all she could do for him.
She was sensible, but Amber was nonetheless a woman who had now certainly lost the two she held most dear. She bowed her head in abject misery. The tears that flowed from her eyes were lost as they mingled with the rain that drove against her exposed face.
SOMEHOW THE TREE and its remaining humankind burden survived to greet the warm sun in the morning. Amber had managed to doze off when the primaeval fury of wind and rain finally abated. She awoke, instantly alert to her surroundings. The first thing she did was look intently in all directions from the vantage point of her tree, but there was no sign of her mate. The river was already receding though it was not yet confined to its banks. The current was still capable of carrying large debris, including those unfortunates who had fallen victim to the storm.
Some of the burden of the river still lived. As Amber watched, a bedraggled black lion was brought close to the reappearing bank just a few metres downstream of her refuge. The carnivore struggled feebly in an exhausted effort to gain solid ground. The river, caught in a capricious instant of kindness, rolled the beast toward his goal. Once-mighty Harr crawled to safety on his belly and dropped to the ground to rest. There he remained so still Amber feared him dead, only to be proved wrong when the distant roars of others of his species brought the great head up. Slowly Harr dragged himself to his feet, shook his wet hide in an effort that nearly toppled him and slunk away in the direction of the sound.
Amber watched with renewed hope. Perhaps Jer’ok had been as fortunate as Harr. The woman watched until the tangled jungle closed behind the survivor before she dared leave the safety of the tree.
Amber carefully lowered herself to the ground and assured herself no other predator lurked before she proceeded slowly downstream. As she walked, the mate of Jer’ok watched for anything that might reveal to her his fate. Occasionally, she called his name and paused in the forlorn hope of a reply, however weak or distant. All the while Amber heeded the early lessons taught by her wary mate and never forget to remain alert for enemies.
For the present there was ample cover. Though she still carried her knife, she had lost her rope and spear sometime during the storm. Her best defence now was flight, and that would be effective only while she remained among the trees. After the river she was following entered the grassland, her only recourse if attacked would be the angry waters. Amber shuddered at the thought of the many enemies she was certain to encounter but doggedly pursued her unhappy search.
Occasionally the woman came across the track of a creature who, like Harr, had managed to survive and escape the clutching waters. With greater frequency, however, she was now encountering the carcass of one who had not survived. The receding flood was yielding its gruesome burden to the scavengers, who would not be long in accepting the bounty of the Stars who, whether by divine design or merely by whim, last night favoured them above all others. Amber prayed that Jer’ok would not be among these, though in her brave heart she had to accept that grim, entirely real, possibility. To her it was unthinkable that her stalwart Ashtarian lord could even now be still and cold in the final sleep. Surely she would have experienced some internal monition had life been wrested from that brave creature of the wild, so quick with animation that all others paled in comparison. If Jer’ok of the Aranda had died last night, surely his mate would have sensed the very moment of his passing. Thus, hope, however tenuous, held Amber resolutely to her path.
Once she nearly yielded to her despair. In her anxiety Amber had forgotten she had tasted neither food nor water for many hours. The urgency of her search overwhelmed any personal needs. But the hot sun and her own steady pace eventually took their toll. Amber at last had to have water before she could continue. The river was no longer safe. Amber stopped and brushed the damp hair away from her face. She would need to find another source. Reluctantly the woman turned aside to enter the tangled vegetation of the thinning forest. As she ducked a low branch, something caught her eye. She halted, for a moment frozen in dread. With a little sob Amber turned and knelt to inspect the object that had distracted her. Carefully she swept the mud away with shaking hands. It was Jer’ok’s crystal knife.
HIGH ABOVE THE events in the valley beyond his palace King Stephanos arose late following the long and bitter session with his council of advisors. Though himself a traditionalist at heart, the king could not hope to be as conservative as that patriarchal assemblage of naysayers. Even now King Stephanos winced at the recollection of the rancorous proceedings. How could he bring the advantages of the modern world to Mithos when he was opposed by advisors who would still live in the days of the Caesars? When would they recognize that they were living in the twenty-second century?
The king’s thoughts began to wander from his immediate troubles. Vaguely Stephanos wondered who was now the ruling power in Rome or in Athens, the two cities most often mentioned in the histories. He supposed Mithos would seem quite provincial in comparison to those sophisticated centres of the civilised world.
Stephanos gazed absently out the window and noticed for the first time a glorious day was spread out before him. He had no idea that a storm had raged through the night. The king of Mithos had been caught up in a smaller tempest of his own. In its own small world of the council chambre the king’s storm had been every bit as violent as that staged by the gods. Nor did he experience any omen of his destined involvement in the events that were proceeding at this very moment in the valley: an involvement that was to profoundly alter no fewer than three lives.
Abruptly, Stephanos decided that even a king must have a few stolen moments of leisure. He summoned his personal servant.
“Ah, Gaius, there you are.” The king did not really see the servant as he rapidly dressed himself for the day. “I would join the queen for a day in the fresh air,” he called. “The palace is as painfully dismal as a prison. It would do us both good to leave the city for a morning in the valley. The weather is splendid. Summon my chariot and ask the queen to join me . . . ”
The disturbed expression that the proper Gaius could not quite conceal finally caught the king’s eye. The good-humoured animation so rare in Stephanos of late faded rapidly to a subdued silence.
“What is it, Gaius; what is wrong?”
“My lord, forgive me. Had you forgotten?”
Forgotten what? Stephanos had to stop and think. Was there some duty he could not avoid on this fine day? Gaius cleared his throat with authority. Stephanos lifted an enquiring eyebrow. The servant was prompt in taking his hint.
“Sir, you were to have taken supper with the queen last evening. It seems she had some minor fete planned for you.” Gaius was too proper to curl his lip in disdain, but his tone was equally effective. “Something involving the palace mimes, I believe.”
Stephanos groaned aloud. “Did someone not tell her I would be engaged with the council until the gods knew when? I asked you to tell her our private supper and entertainment must be put aside for a time. Surely she understood that the affairs of state must come first with the king.”
Gaius was too stately and too proud a man to shrink in trembling fear under his king’s intense stare. Moreover, he was endowed with all the dignity of many generations of servants to Mithonian royalty. He stood his ground but declined to speak before Stephanos demanded his answer.
“Sir, she was told, with as much diplomacy as one can muster in the face of hurled pottery.” With magnificent understatement Gaius allowed that he rather doubted that Queen Valera either understood or much cared for the affairs of state. The tone of voice gently rebuked the king for subjecting his faithful servant to the queen’s notorious ire. Stephanos chose to ignore the rebuke, though he knew he should not allow the liberty.
“That, Gaius, was last night. This is a fine new day and I would spend it with my queen. Use as much diplomacy this morning as you did last night and ask her majesty to join me.” Again there was the expressive clearing of the throat. “Well?” Stephanos demanded.
“Sir, it is too late. Queen Varela has already left the palace. She was seen driving her chariot through the gates not long after dawn.”
“Alone?” The king exclaimed, now on the edge of real anger.
“Hardly, sir. The queen took a mounted escort – and was attended by the Lord Drusus.”
Stephanos could not fail to note the heavy emphasis placed on the equestrian’s name. Gaius was also capable of meaningful pauses. The king sighed in resignation after uttering the necessary warning. Gaius said no more, but his look remained disapproving. Stephanos could not find the heart to reprimand the old man. He knew all too well that Gaius looked upon his king as something very close to a son. Stephanos had been in the care of the faithful Gaius from the time the young prince left his mother’s side as a boy eagerly headed for manhood and eventually the crown.
“She is still very young, friend Gaius. We must make some allowance.”
“Yes, your majesty.” But the expression only became more disapproving for all the stubborn formality.
“Gaius, what am I to do?”
The king was serious, but the elder Mithonian knew he must hold his tongue. He could hardly tell Stephanos that he should set aside the young queen and search out another better suited to be his consort and regent of Mithos. Gaius suddenly found himself missing the former queen, the mother of Stephanos. That had not happened to him for more than a year.
In many ways Stephanos was like his mother, her poise and subtle courage merged with the features and personality of her husband, the old king, to make Stephanos a fine man and the best ruler Mithos had known for many generations. Gaius was proud to serve this man who was like a son and yet so much more. The king’s only blindness was to the danger the queen and her equestrian – companion – posed to the throne. Gaius avoided a more damning word even in the privacy of his thoughts.
“I know, old friend. It is I who must find my own way. You have told me often enough that it is I, and I alone, who am guardian of my fate and that of my homeland.”
And yet, despite the counsel of Gaius – a friend, his master and sovereign conceded in his heart, there was none in Mithos as alone or as lonely as her king. If only there were someone with whom he might share his hopes and dreams. Someone who would listen and advise: someone who would care about Stephanos whether he be king or the most humble stableboy. Gaius interrupted the morose contemplation.
“Do you still wish me to call out your chariot, my lord?”
“Yes. No! Have my horse saddled. I will ride this morning. It is too beautiful a day to remain idle.” Gaius had already turned to do the king’s bidding, but Stephanos stopped him: “And do not encumber me with a guard of more than ten. You would suffocate me with your protection, old friend.”
Gaius bowed in silent acceptance. He kept his thoughts to himself. Either Valera or Drusus would be the death of Stephanos if the king did not have a care. The old retainer of the royal house of Mithos hopelessly wished again that Stephanos might find a woman worthy of the love and trust he wasted on Valera.
VALERA KNEW DRUSUS was not stupid. She also believed he truly cared for her. He was sincere in his warning, but not even he could thwart the queen’s will with impunity. She pulled away, her emerald eyes flashing dangerously.
“How dare you!” she nearly hissed at him. “How dare you tell the Queen of Mithos what she is to do?”
To the surprise of both of them, Drusus stood his ground.
“I dare because I do not want to see you hurt, my queen. Perhaps I have no right, but I love you – not just because you are my queen.” He paused, a little shaken by the feeling he only now discovered to be more truth than studied falsehood.
“The outlander is dangerous. You saw how he fought today. You heard him defy us. He cannot be tamed. You will never get the chance to train him for service in the palace.”
“Are you finished?”
“Would you listen if I continued?”
Queen and equestrian were at an impasse. Valera faced him with her hands belligerently set on her hips and her head held high.
“I will have need for a bodyguard. This outlander will serve me. He will be a member of the queen’s household before the long rains come. Would you care to make a small wager with your queen, my lord?”
“No, I’ll not take your wager, your majesty,” Drusus shook his head unhappily. “Valera, at least take care. The savage will honour neither your rank nor the fact that you are a woman.”
They stared at each other in silence. Valera knew she had won. She always won, but she preferred an adversary like Drusus – and, no doubt, this savage outlander, she mused – who did not fear to do battle with her. At least there was some challenge. Just as expected, the equestrian executed a mocking bow and waved the queen back to her chariot.
The guard, who had retrieved the reins she had carelessly tossed aside in her haste to get to Drusus, now returned them to Valera with a low bow as she entered the chariot. She was pleased to see the wild man had subsided to sullen silence. His arms were lashed to a makeshift yoke in such a manner that his head was forced forward into an awkward position. Nevertheless, his strange eyes followed Valera’s every move as she swept past him.
Once her team settled into an easy jog, Valera cast a curious glance in his direction. His eyes never strayed from hers as he kept pace with the team. She was startled more by the obvious intelligence in those eyes than by the dangerous fire of anger that still burned. Queen Valera was intrigued. No one in the whole of Mithos dared look at her so. Aside from the king, who virtually ignored her, all her so-called companions clearly feared Valera, though most fawned on her in service of their own selfish ends. Her slaves were all cowed creatures who never looked at her directly and spoke in whispers lest she be disturbed by their noise. Queen Valera stared at the captive in wonder. This outlander, even in the bowed position compelled by the yoke, had more nobility in his demeanour than she had ever observed in another, save the king . . . to whom he bore an uncanny resemblance. Valera was visibly startled but covered her reaction by fumbling her reins as Drusus drew alongside. The equestrian at least pretended not to notice this untoward clumsiness.
At Valera’s signal, Drusus directed the guards to return the prisoner to a respectful distance behind the queen’s chariot. Defeated, bound, and surrounded by her guards, the wild man would cause them no further difficulty. Queen Valera did not intend further injury to her new slave, so she turned her team back to the city, allowing them their easy jog. She was pleased to observe that the outlander continued to keet pace without apparent effort.
THE SHADOWS GREW long as the queen’s party made its leisurely return to the city. At one point the road on which they traveled doubled back over a clearing in the forest below. Valera happened to glance in that direction and halted her entourage to watch more intently. The others, including the captive, followed her gaze.
Below, a woman obviously searched for something. She was clad only in a brief costume of softly tanned hide similar to that the queen’s captive wore about his loins. In one hand she held a large hunting knife in an attitude of defence suggesting the skill of a seasoned warrior. The light of the sun glanced off the blade. It was of no substance known in Mithos. Valera needed little insight to grasp that captive and woman were somehow linked. Valera turned her attention to the captive’s face. The savage was watching every move of the woman below them. He might have been alone. He saw nothing but her. Even more revealing than the woman’s appearance was the new expression in the wild man’s eyes. Drusus appeared at the queen’s side.
“She must be his mate.” The equestrian’s tone was unusually thoughtful. “They would have been separated by the storm.”
Queen Valera nodded absently. She was studying her captive and the woman below with more than idle curiosity. She had already reached the same conclusion and mused to herself that together the pair would make a most unusual prize. No one in all of Mithos, perhaps in all the world, would possess so rare a couple. Queen Valera would be the envy of all the court. With calculated cruelty she called to the savage, who remained oblivious to all but the woman below.
“Your mate comes closer to our city. Soon, she, too, will be captured.”
The prisoner momentarily ceased his anxious watch over the female to stare impudently at the queen. Pleased with her success, Valera taunted him further.
“See how she searches for your body. It will give other hunting parties time to discover her.”
The queen’s pleasure proved short-lived. The captive’s unexpected reply, the only words he had uttered since demanding his freedom, drained Valera’s face of all its colour.
“Free me and I will see that she finds it. The chase will afford you all the sport you require.”
For a moment the wild captive’s eyes once again held the queen’s. There was no trace of fear, only defiance in the glowing gold. So that was the way of it, Valera calculated. In that instant she knew she held the key to securing the captive’s undying loyalty to her. The queen smiled at the prospect. He would be a fine bodyguard, worthy to serve a member of the royal family. There would be no need to tame him. Another had already succeeded in that feat. Valera turned to convey the necessary orders to Drusus.
As Queen Valera was about to speak, she saw the woman below come to a sudden halt and look to her left. With a cry of fear the little barbarian turned to run for the scant protection of the trees. Before she had taken more than a few steps, a horseman burst into sight, overtook the fleeing woman, and easily caught her up onto the pommel of his ornate saddle. The queen’s triumphant smile was transformed into an unsightly sneer. The rider was in the service of the king.
Before she could react to the developments below, Valera was distracted by a violent action at her own back. The captured male was in a veritable frenzy to escape. His features were contorted in a grimace of hatred and what could only be the first hint of fear. Valera screamed and desperately reined in her team. Before any could stop him, the savage rushed forward and violently shoved the yoke into the side of her chariot. At the risk of breaking an arm or his neck, he instead succeeded in splintering the heavy yoke. The beast-man already had one hand free. With a magnificent play of deceptively slender shoulder muscles, he easily snapped the remaining wood and tore the loosened chain from his arm. With that he turned to race down the rocky face of the hill supporting the road.
The woman below was struggling and screaming, but her captor was in no danger of losing her. As the savage rushed down the precipitous slope, he struggled to shrug off the remains of the yoke and chain that still held his other arm. But the binding on that side refused to give. He wasted no further time to struggle with it. Encumbered by the clumsy weight and the treacherous footing, the savage was moving awkwardly.
“Drusus! Stop him!” Turning to her guards, “If he escapes, I will every one of you demoted and flogged through the marketplace. Stop him, you fools!”
The queen’s troop met with undeserved good fortune. They might have been too late to stop the fleeing captive, but the trailing length of chain succeeded where they failed. As the savage raced madly to the aid of the woman who could only be his mate, the last link of the chain caught between two rocks. The remaining yoke still refused to yield. In an instant the fugitive came to the end of the chain. It snapped tight, flipping him head over heels and throwing him violently to the rocky ground. He did not get up. He did not stir.
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