IT WAS TOO dangerous for Jer’ok to approach Amber directly. He dared not provoke the queen’s displeasure with so much as a petty disobedience. But there could be no harm in the chance meeting of the queen’s slave with a member of Lady Amber’s household. So Silvaticus contrived a way to tell Lucia what had transpired between Drusus and the malefactors the equestrian had met in the clearing. He omitted that which was of interest exclusively to Diyala. It was wholly unrelated to the plans ambitious Drusus cherished for Mithos.
Lucia promised to relate the incident to the Lady Amber that she might warn the king, but the girl was frightened and uncertain. Part of her fear was attributable to the fact that she was quite intimidated by this foreign lord who for reasons of his own had assumed the identity of a slave. Lucia feared Lord Charwick, but, somehow, she dared to plead with Silvaticus until he promised to meet her again in the event her lady required any clarification. Jer’ok was reluctant because of the chance his intrigue would be discovered by the queen, or, worse, Drusus himself. He yielded to Lucia’s tearful pleas only because Amber might be placed in yet greater danger as a result of the nobleman’s evil plotting. Moreover, he felt some sense of obligation to the king he had never met, for had he not protected Jer’ok’s mate while Jer’ok could not?
So it was that the beast-man was lurking in the shadows behind a little-used stairwell two nights later. He had been dismissed early so there was a little time before he would be missed by the master of the queen’s household. Still he was nervous, a state that heretofore Jer’ok had never experienced. Perhaps that is why he failed to hear the light step. The first warning of her presence was the soft sound of her voice.
The beast-man’s blood suddenly ran cold. Reluctantly, he turned to face Amber.
“We must not be seen together. Why did you not send the girl Lucia?” The tension of the situation added a sharp edge to his terse demand. Amber’s life depended on his maintaining isolation from palace intrigues – and from Amber herself.
Jer’ok backed into the shadows. Amber would have followed, but he stopped her with a sharp warning. She came to a halt, but the alert beast-man did not miss the fleeting expression that clouded her countenance. The stubborn chin lifted in challenge. Were the situation not fraught with danger he would have grinned at that familiar expression. He knew from past experience that the mate of Jer’ok was not easily dissuaded from her designs, whether great or small.
“Keep you distance, my lady,” was all he said and that in a formal tone he affected with the queen. “You place all of us in jeopardy.”
He was relieved when Amber at last took heed of his unwonted caution. She placed her hand against the base of the stone stairway and pretended to examine the intricate lacing of one sandal. She lowered her voice.
“The king wishes me to thank my informant. And he wishes to know whether Queen Varela is involved in the conspiracy.”
She broke off in confusion at the advancing sound of heavy boots. Jer’ok retreated deeper into the shadows.
“My lady, what are you doing there?”
This time Amber took advantage of the heavy shadows. She placed her hand over one small earring. Jer’ok’s heart stirred with pride at her cool courage as she handled the curious intruder without any loss of composure.
“I dropped one of the jewels from the king’s most recent gift.” She stooped into the shadows, nearly brushing Jer’ok with one shoulder. “Ah, I have found it. Thank you, I need no assistance. You may go about your duties.”
Jer’ok listened to the retreating steps. Amber remained so close he could feel her breath on his arm as she straightened to face him squarely. Only with the greatest of difficulty did Jer’ok refrain from sweeping his mate into his arms to hold her close to his aching heart.
Disappointed in as well as puzzled by Jer’ok’s unexpectedly cold reaction to her presence, Amber sensed only some odd element behind in his reserve, and it frightened her. Suddenly, it all became too much for Amber Southerly to bear. Confusion and an unreasoning anger threatened to choke her. Amber nearly sobbed: “Please, Jer’ok, take me away from Mithos – now, tonight! I cannot bear to stay another moment in this place.”
Of the two only Jer’ok did not yield to the overwhelming despair both were experiencing. The beast-man merely shook his head with infinite sadness, “I cannot.”
Amber could not hide the further shock his denial evoked. This was not the reunion of which she had been dreaming every night since that distant day in the arena. This was not the man for whom she was spurning the overtures of a king. What had happened to Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk in this cruel, living relic of an off-world past? Could he have been so greatly changed that he dared not at least cross so slight a space to confirm the reality of this meeting, a reunion for which she had almost relinquished all hope?
Neither could find words that would not draw them into certain betrayal to their enemies. To touch or to speak became impossible for both.
Jer’ok on his part could not easily control the sharp pang occasioned by the revealing expression on his mate’s face. He needed the faith and trust Amber had always in the past given him without the slightest question. Could she truly fail to understand something powerful lay behind his singular submission to the queen’s will? He could reveal nought lest the queen somehow perceive in Amber’s demeanour her awareness of his forbidden revelation.
Instead, “You forget, my dear, Jer’ok is a slave,” he hesitated before adding, “not in the favour of royalty.” He allowed all the bitterness that was the product of his long captivity to enter his voice. That alone should have reached his mate. “Merely to speak to you is for me a crime punishable by death. I do not easily leave the city or the palace.”
Jer’ok was not alone in his seemingly untoward reaction to the hurts each had endured at the whim of a tempest. “How is it that this Queen Varela of Mithos has succeeded where no other has before?” Amber’s tone was as bitter as Jer’ok’s. “What magic has she turned on you, Jer’ok? Had I not witnessed it for myself, I would never have believed that Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk merely bows his head and accepts the fate of some craven lackey enthralled by a woman who pretends to enjoy some mysterious power. What magic does this child-woman possess, Jer’ok?”
None but the thrall of threats against you, the beast-man longed to utter aloud. In truth, he sensed and was stung by her angry rejection even before Amber spoke. Her cold queries revealed that their situation had put more of a barrier between Jer’ok and Amber than mere physical separation, however protracted, could raise.
The beast-man’s faith remained steadfast even in the face of Amber’s thoughtless attack. He recognised the underlying fear that gave birth to her anger. But he had given Queen Varela his promise – a promise that would be honoured until she who held him to it was surely delivered from the queen’s power. Jer’ok spoke more gently now, still trying to reach Amber through her defensive wall of hurt anger: “We must wait, my heart. We must wait.”
Amber searched his eyes for some explanation. Jer’ok’s expression revealed no more than did his silence. He was not going to explain whatever it was that bound him to Varela. That steely strength had seldom been used against Amber. She found herself more afraid than she had been for all the days she had passed in Mithos. Amber tried desperately to control the spiteful words that were her only weapon, against the Stars, if not her beloved. In her heart she knew Jer’ok was not her enemy. Varela was.
“Why?” Her tone had softened. “At least tell me why, Jer’ok.”
“You must trust in me, Amber. For the moment accept that the slave of Varela cannot remove the ward of King Stephanos from the palace. It is too dangerous.”
“Too dangerous!” Jer’ok had never heard that tone in Amber’s voice before. “Too dangerous – for whom?”
Yet again Amber Southerly waited in vain for a response she could believe of Jer’ok. When it was not forthcoming, her head came high in bitter anger or deep hurt; Jer’ok could not be certain which.
“Forgive me,” she demanded in icy tones, “I thought I was speaking to Jer’ok of Ashtar. Indeed, I find it is Varela’s Silvaticus who stands before me. You are quite correct; the ward of the king does not conspire with slaves.”
With that Amber turned on her heel and haughtily withdrew. Jer’ok watched in helpless frustration as his infuriated mate turned her back on him. Once again Lady Amber succeeded where Queen Varela has failed. For the first time Jer’ok felt as a slave must feel. His will was wholly subjected by another. He was prevented from taking any action to alter what had just passed between Amber and himself. If he made the slightest effort to stop her, to reason with her, he took the risk of bringing down the direst of retribution upon both of them. How had Amber put it? He must stand by with the meekly bowed head of the craven lackey while Amber sought solace in the company of another.
Jer’ok did not move out of the shadows, but his eyes followed Amber until she turned down the hall onto which the king’s chambres opened. Jer’ok of the Aranda seethed anew with futile hatred for Varela and all things Mithonian.
Amber maintained the appearance of steady calm as she trod the endless distance from the sight of Jer’ok without once casting so much as a glance back. She returned to King Stephanos, who was waiting for her in his office. Though she endeavoured to conceal her emotion, Stephanos could hardly be insensitive to her mood as Amber coolly provided answers of her own invention to the questions he had put to her informant.
Stephanos watched her closely. He was not certain it was Amber’s husband who had sent the life-saving warning of the planned assassination, so her obvious distress was initially misinterpreted. Thus, the king had no forewarning of her blurted plea when he drew the formal interview to a close.
“You once promised to help me leave Mithos. I want to go now. I can no longer bear this city or anyone in it.”
Stephanos regarded her calmly as he attempted to imagine the cause of her outburst. In his heart, however, he already knew without need to ask.
“The slave, Silvaticus, is the author of my safe delivery from Drusus, isn’t he, Amber?” In truth it was more statement than question, and she neither admitted nor denied his conjecture, so Stephanos went on. “You saw him and something happened between you. Can you not tell me how he has hurt you, my Amber?”
With that endearment she suddenly burst into hysterical weeping before he could say more. Tenderly Stephanos held Amber until her fit of wild weeping was exhausted. He whispered comforting words she would not be able to absorb until her calm was restored. Even as he comforted his beloved, the king found within himself a certain gratitude and a shocking sense of respect for this incredible slave of Varela’s. But what could he have done to Amber to bring on this completely uncharacteristic loss of control? The king’s heart hardened against his admitted benefactor. He would be punished for any hurt he had caused the ward of Stephanos.
As Amber began to calm, he asked again what Silvaticus had done. The woman withdrew from his embrace and shook her head, “It is not what Jer’ok has done to me, but what I have done to him.” She did not even note that she had revealed this alternative identity in her Lord Charwick.
“Tell me about it, Amber. Perhaps it is not so wrongful as you believe. How could you do anything worthy of so extreme a repentance? Tell me, I will not betray your confidence. I will do nothing to harm him. Have I not promised to take no action for his crimes?”
Her calm now outwardly restored, Amber confided in the only person in Mithos who might comprehend her grief for the taunting Jer’ok had received at the hands of the woman he had always loved more than life itself.
It Stephanos was shocked to hear of Amber’s effort to lure a condemned slave into an attempt to escape, he was able to conceal his reaction from her. He merely repeated the words of the slave, “You must wait, my dear. It is too dangerous. You must not conspire with a slave.”
As Jer’ok had before him, Stephanos thought only of the safety of the woman he had come to love. He cared as little as Jer’ok that the slave with whom she was found to be conspiring would suffer a hideous death for his part, however trivial, in any conspiracy.
“I will help you when the time is right.”
But Amber already knew she would never leave Mithos unless it was in the company of Jer’ok. If something bound him to the queen so that escape was impossible, she, too, would remain in this prison, though Amber was honest enough to concede that her prison was far more pleasant than his. If only she could go to him and beg his forgiveness. How was he to know she was lashing out at the mutual helplessness, not at him. Amber’s pleasant surroundings did little to ease her misery.
WHEN JER’OK MADE his obeisance before Queen Varela in her apartments the following afternoon, she confronted him with anger she made no effort to suppress. “You were delayed in reporting to the steward last night!”
When he did not reply to the implied accusation, the queen demanded to know where he had been. The beast-man would have told her that he had paused for a word with one of her escort, but she interrupted him with a sly comment.
“The Lady Amber was seen at the north stairway. Is that not on your way?” Before he could speak, the queen continued, “Silvaticus, surely I need not remind you that the continued safety of the Lady Amber depends entirely upon your absolute deference to my bidding. And your silence,” she added unnecessarily.
Jer’ok had passed the entire night without sleep because he was unable to forget that it was he alone who stood between Amber and whatever gruesome fate Varela might devise for her. The pent-up frustration of captivity and the calculated scorn Amber had heaped upon him combined to torment Jer’ok more cruelly than any physical punishment Varela or Drusus had inflicted. The beast-man accepted physical pain with the stoicism of the beasts, unmatched by that of any man. But the mental anguish caused by the angry words hurled at him by his mate cut through his courage to touch his brave heart with a pain beyond all endurance.
Although Amber had turned her hurt against its most immediate source, Jer’ok knew it would not last. Jer’ok did not turn on his mate. His anger was for the one who forced him to reject his mate’s plea Though it echoed his own desperate yearning. It was Varela who had been the source of the cruelty Jer’ok endured for Amber. The beast-man’s anger with Varela burned the hotter for her previous warning that should the Lady Amber learn of the reason for his submission, it was she who would suffer the consequences. His fury mounted dangerously.
The beast-man bowed his head in humble acceptance of the queen’s rebuke, but Varela caught in his eyes the flash of anger that would not be hidden.
“You are an insolent rogue.” Varela had no idea of the danger that stood before her in the form of a submissive servant. “Did you speak to the king’s ward last night – in defiance of my direct command?”
The beast-man was almost beyond reason. He struggled for control without looking up. The queen would misunderstand and think him afraid to speak. It gave the beast-man needed time to consider the path he would take. But there was in truth no longer any choice. Fortunately Varela had seen no need for additional attendants. They were alone.
Jer’ok lifted his head. He looked the youthful Varela straight in the eye. For a moment she remained oblivious to her danger. Then she recognised what was in his shimmering eyes. She shrank back in terror. It was the Lord of Ashtar, not her conquered Silvaticus, who faced the queen now. Her terror grew at the low sound she heard. That sound had more than once pierced the deadly silence of the arena when Silvaticus was about to make his kill. With a savage growl the wild man boldly stepped forward and held Varela by brute force on the couch where mere seconds ago she had been reclining at negligent ease to taunt her prize.
“Be silent,” he demanded in a soft voice that did not deceive the queen for a moment. “Jer’ok of the Aranda has never slain a woman, but he will kill you if you call out.” His glare would have silenced her without need for the spoken threat. Varela was trembling now, but he took no notice. His grip hurt. Jer’ok went on before the stunned queen had the presence of mind to recall the many defences available at her summons.
“Now, Queen Varela of Mithos, you will listen to Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk. If you wish to live you will not threaten the mate of Jer’ok. You will no longer impose your puny power on the Lord of Ashtar!
“It is time you remembered you are a queen. If you would continue your reign in Mithos, you will use your wiles and whatever power you do possess to protect the king, your husband.”
As Jer’ok regarded her without pity, some of Varela’s terror faded. She was after all a queen. The violent trembling eased a trifle. Not until the terror for self was replaced with a new kind of fear in her heart did Jer’ok continue. His brutal hold on her arms was not relaxed.
“If you would protect your king, you will stop Drusus. It is he, not I, who is under your spell.”
With that Jer’ok informed the thoroughly frightened Varela of the assassination that her favourite was plotting against King Stephanos. As the beast-man suspected, this foolish child-woman had taken no part in the equestrian’s treachery. She had merely been flirting with Drusus and believed him to be no more serious than she. She had never grasped his true intentions. But Varela was too intelligent to be completely fooled by his pattern of flattery. Jer’ok saw that Varela fully understood all the implications of what he was revealing to her. He released the queen and stepped away.
“I have warned your husband through my lady-wife. But it is not enough, Varela. Only the assassins know exactly how and when the attack will come. Drusus must be stopped. You are the only one who can do so. He will not go through with his evil plot if he knows you will not reward him with marriage.”
Varela regarded him with eyes stark not only with the shock of his physical attack but even more with the guilty fear aroused by his unexpected warning. Silvaticus had made a perceptible effort to calm himself in the course of his lengthy discourse. But Varela recognised the competence and skill that were far more subtle than she would ever had credited to her noble companions, let alone this savage barbarian. She looked at her slave with new eyes. As he had from their very first encounter, Jer’ok returned her scrutiny without backing down in the slightest. Instinctively, she knew he spoke the truth. In that brief moment the petulant child was banished forever. Varela’s voice shook, but she controlled it in an instant.
“I will see to it.” The queen gradually regained her composure as she pondered the future. Presently, she looked up at her waiting slave. She had never known another remotely like him. The royal manner resumed. “I will forget your threat. You will be rewarded for this, Silvaticus. For now you are dismisssed. I will summon you later.” She misunderstood his hesitation. “Have no fear; none – no other – would dare harm me here.”
Silvaticus departed without the slightest courtesy, but Varela wisely elected to overlook the affront. To herself she privately admitted she was glad he had freely left her presence. She shuddered as she viewed the marks his rough hands had left on her arms. Until now she had forgotten it was not force that had served to tame him.
DRUSUS HAD NO idea why the queen summoned him to a private audience in her apartments. She had never been so bold in the past. He was far more puzzled when he found her totally alone. Even Silvaticus was absent. The equestrian smiled a knowing smile, but it rapidly faded with just a glance at his queen’s face.
It was a brief audience. At its conclusion Drusus vowed his undying love for his beautiful Varela and swore he had misunderstood her through all the past months. Although Drusus professed his innocence, Varela persisted until he promised to put a stop to any attempt on the king’s life. With that assurance, she fell into his arms. The lonely queen did not find it difficult to believe the man’s newest lies and to forgive any treachery he renounced in her name. As the equestrian held this new Queen Varela in his arms, he silently vowed that Silvaticus had defeated him for the last time. He would warn his superiour that something must be done about this dangerous interloper.
JER’OK RECOGNISED THAT Queen Varela’s gratitude was insufficient to restore his freedom. He could not chance that it would serve to protect Amber. He had submitted to the queen’s will far too long. The Lord of Ashtar would bow no more.
The beast-man did not immediately return to his cell. Instead he sought out Lucia to ask her to arrange another meeting with the Lady Amber. He would wait for her each night after the queen’s dismissal until she could come to him in relative safety.
“You will escape with her, my lord?” The girl ventured, obviously dismayed by her own boldness.
“Yes, Lucia, I will take her away from Mithos. You will not betray her?”
“Never, my lord. I know better than any other, except perhaps his majesty, how she has mourned for you. Since that day at the arena when she learned that you are alive, she has lived only to escape with you.”
ON THE THIRD night of the third week following his conversation with Lucia, Jer’ok strode purposely in the direction of the appointed corner of the palace. He little expected that Amber would find a way to meet him. Four times in those long nights Varela had prevented him from keeping their tenuous assignation. Because of Amber’s earlier display of distrust, Jer’ok was uncertain of her reaction had she waited in vain for him on one of those nights. The beast-man was greatly puzzled by Amber’s anger. She must know he would never betray her with another, certainly none so unworthy as Varela.
Resolutely, the beast-man redirected his thoughts to the matter at hand. This escape attempt must not fail. If it did, Silvaticus might be punished, but it was certain Amber would die. Varela had not retracted her threat against Amber’s life. This was the most dangerous time. Until they met and left the city, they remained vulnerable. Amber could move about at will, but no slave dared wander about the palace without purpose. If stopped, he would explain he was on a minor errand for the queen. Should Varela put the question to him, he mused, he would concoct a small gift for which he was searching on her behalf. Despite the sudden maturity, Varela was certain to misjudge both her ability to hold him and the strength of his passion for freedom, at least to the extent of believing so slight a fabrication.
But Jer’ok hoped none would challenge his presence and that Amber would come tonight. This dangerous game could not long be played. If somehow his intent was betrayed to Queen Varela, he did not for a moment doubt that Amber’s life would be the price for the renunciation of his vow. The king might be able to protect the Lady Amber, but there would be none to warn him of her danger. A slave, Jer’ok reminded himself bitterly, would be granted no audience with the King of Mithos.
Jer’ok neared the place he sought. A slight sound alerted him, and he halted with the instinctive caution that never left him. The beast-man breathed a sigh of relief. It was his mate who waited in the shadows of the staircase. Jer’ok sensed her solitude but dared take no chance. He moved toward her as if coming upon her unexpectedly.
“My lady, are you ill? Do you feel faint?” Amber would have rushed forward, but he lifted one hand in warning.
“May I escort you to your apartments?”
The beast-man now was close enough to be certain they were alone as well as unobserved. He drew Amber with him deeper into the shadows. Jer’ok knew the hazards of delay, but this time her light touch on his arm was enough to overcome his caution for the moment. The embrace and hot kisses that followed were eloquent testimony to their abiding love, which had, after all, survived intact the worst and the best of Mithos. Reluctantly Jer’ok drew back from his mate.
“Can you ever forgive me, my Jer’ok,” she begged. “I am so . . . ”
“Hush, my heart, hush,” he stopped her with a lingering kiss. “There is nothing to be forgiven. I understand.” He looked long at her. “You are even more beautiful than the dreams that have kept my hope alive,” he whispered. “I cannot bear to be parted from you again.”
Amber nearly sobbed as she replied, “This time there is none who can separate us. Jer’ok, no matter what happens tonight I want to be with you – forever. Please, promise me . . . ”
There was no need for her to complete her plea. Jer’ok shared her desire. His strong arms gathered her closer to him. “I promise,” he vowed; “whatever happens, we will be together.” In his heart he knew this was a vow never to be broken. Together they would live or together they would perish.
“Are you ready, my heart?”
It was no more than a whisper. Amber shivered as Jer’ok took the hooded cloak she held close and placed it over her shoulders.
“Are you afraid?”
She smiled up to him. “How can I have fear when Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk is at my side? I am ready, my Jer’ok.”
Lady Amber stepped out of the shadows and walked with graceful purpose through the marble halls. At the prescribed distance behind her, the stalwart bodyguard followed. Her face was now hidden in the folds of her hood. It might have been Queen Varela herself embarked upon an assignation or other secret affair of no concern to lesser mortals. Some would have recognised the queen’s slave and wondered at Varela’s lack of judgement. King Stephanos was no one to be trifled with so blatantly.
The mysterious lady and her slave passed through the palace without challenge. Even the guards at the courtyard gates bowed profoundly and opened the way into the city. There were few who cared to risk the queen’s wrath. Jer’ok knew the guards were unlikely to find this excursion remarkable. By the time anyone became aware that the cloaked figure was not the queen, he and Amber would have gained to protection of the forest. Now they needed only to make their way through to the gates of the city itself. This would have been a simple matter had Jer’ok dared to call out the queen’s chariot. They simply would have driven through the main thoroughfare directly to the valley beyond. But so bold a move could as easily betrayed the two of them to the queen.
Thus Jer’ok and Amber turned away from the wide street as soon as they passed through the gates. Still there was no suspicion among the guards they passed. More than once they had seen Queen Varela affect some thin disguise in order to enter the more notorious regions of the city in the company of Drusus or, more recently, attended only by Silvaticus.
The hour was late. Most of the streets were deserted. Jer’ok directed Amber by a route that would eventually take them out of the city while encountering only a few who might find remarkable the presence of members of the royal household. If the curiosity of these became too persistent, Jer’ok would be able to take action without witnesses.
He could not have known that Drusus had chosen that very night to call off his assassins. The equestrian was even now hastening back to the palace. He, too, had concealed his features and was taking care to choose a route along which he was unlikely to encounter another member of the royal court.
Jer’ok watched the approach of the muffled figure and found it familiar. He hissed a warning to Amber, who proceeded without altering her step. The beast-man was upwind of the other so there was no further warning. The woman continued without pause, but when Drusus recognised Silvaticus, the nobleman stopped to call our Varela’s name. The woman ignored him as did her slave.
“Varela, hold; I would speak to you, my queen.” There was a pause until Drusus realised the pair had no intention of acknowledging his presence. “Silvaticus, ask the queen to stop. The Lord Drusus wishes to speak . . . ah!” Recognition had dawned.
“Run, Amber; I will join you at the gates,” Jer’ok urged his mate. The beast-man stopped and turned back to face Drusus.
“My lady has no wish to speak with you, Equestrian. Return to the palace.”
Jer’ok waited in vain. Drusus already knew it was not Varela whom Silvaticus attended.
“What does this mean, slave?” Who is this woman?”
“It is the Lady Amber, Lord Drusus. I am engaged in the king’s business. You would be wise not to interfere.”
Amber had not fled at Jer’ok’s urging. She now lowered her hood and stared haughtily at the equestrian. Drusus remained suspicious, but her manner served to confuse him. He hesitated, but he was a crafty enemy.
“How is it the queen’s slave serves you, my lady?” He smiled, sure of himself now. “Is it not true you are somehow related to this savage?”
Drusus started forward, drawing his sword.
“Hold,” Jer’ok demanded in turn. The spear with which he was always armed in the service of the queen was poised. “The lady has told you her business. I serve those whom I am directed to serve. Do you dare intrude in the private affairs of royalty?”
Drusus was infuriated, but he was uncertain enough to reconsider his actions. At this juncture he had no desire to thwart the will of King Stephanos. Nevertheless, “I dare hinder the escape of a condemned slave. Where are you going?”
Jer’ok could afford to delay no further. Their voices might at any moment draw curious passers-by. He doubted that Drusus would be satisfied with any explanation involving the prolonged absence of Silvaticus from the queen’s side. His only answer was a nonchalant toss of the spear before he turned and grasped Amber’s hand to flee to the gates by the most direct route.
But for his training and skill as a seasoned soldier of Mithos, Drusus would have died. The spear was turned aside by the wholly instinctive stroke of his sword. Still the missile grazed his arm after shattering the deflecting blade. Alone, the frustrated equestrian was helpless. He was well aware of the skills Silvaticus had demonstrated in the arena. Drusus turned for the palace. There – or sooner if the opportunity arose – he would swiftly spread the alert and mount a troop in hot pursuit of the fugitives.
JER’OK AND AMBER fled the city without further interference. But they could not proceed along the road that led to the caverns that were the only route of escape from Mithos. Instead they had to enter the forest as quickly as possible and circle the valley. Thus, they would soon lose the slight advantage of time. But they were only two against many and unarmed now. Jer’ok was well aware that Drusus would not allow him to escape if the equestrian could prevent it. King Stephanos was an unknown factor.
Once in the forest he loved, Jer’ok was in his own element. The sense of freedom, however premature, was as intoxicating to the beast-man as the finest champagne to a Terran. With Amber at his side there was little more for which Jer’ok would ask save the restoration of their lost son, well beyond their reach on this fateful day in Mithos.
As he ran along the intricate paths through the natural maze of trees, Jer’ok’s mind was constantly active. Presently he signed for a halt. He allowed Amber to catch her breath before he spoke. There was a quizzical expression on her face.
“Should we not make all speed to the caverns, Jer’ok? I need no rest.”
“That, my heart, is exactly what they will expect of us,” Jer’ok smiled at her. “What if we did not come to the caverns tomorrow? Or next week? How long do you think they will wait?”
He looked about him: “You and I could live in the forest of Mithos indefinitely. It would be no less comfortable than the forest beyond the caverns.”
Amber paused before conceding, “As always, my Jer’ok, you are wise.”
Her pause did not go unnoticed, but Jer’ok knew it was a matter of their shared desire to continue the search for Blane, but he knew as did she that there had been no clue as to how they might carry that search forward. The trail of the boy was no longer cold. It had been obliterated by the passage of time.
In fact, the beast-man’s ploy was a clever one. If the Stars were with Jer’ok and his mate there would be no Mithonians barring their escape when eventually they approached the dark caverns. If the Stars were unkind, Jer’ok and Amber would at least have these last few days of freedom. And whatever might befall them, they would be together as Jer’ok had promised his mate.
At once, they delved deep into the forest where no Mithonians would be able to seek them out.
WITH THE DANGER of immediate pursuit behind them, Jer’ok gradually slowed his pace. It was not long before the nearness of his mate took on new meaning. The void of the recent past demanded to be filled. He stopped and turned to her, his need an exquisite ache that would brook no denial. In the instant their eyes met in renewed recognition, all of Mithos vanished from their senses and memories. Amber was breathless with a need as profound as her mate’s. Her eyes shimmered with tears – and something more. Kissing those tears away, the beast-man gently bore his beloved mate to the velvet mosses beneath them. Their desperate kisses deepened.
Jer’ok’s urgent passion instantly ignited Amber’s answering flame. She uttered a small sound of need and eager anticipation as her body arched in undeniable invitation to his. Once more their eyes met and locked before their union became complete, and each was once again made whole. Locked in the embrace of long-denied passion, the lovers surrendered utterly each to the other.
“You are heart of my heart, the soul of my soul,” Jer’ok whispered hoarsely when at length his head nestled in the soft comfort of the golden hair scattered in abandoned disarray about his mate’s face. Amber turned to let her gentle sigh touch him with the warmth of her breath, “And your heart is mine as is your soul. There is no other for me, only my beloved Jer’ok-ta.”
Though they hovered on the edge of the sleep of perfect peace marking the fulfillment of their passion, Jer’ok and Amber suddenly strained together as though some malign force would physically drive them asunder should they not expend every fibre of their beings to its complete annihilation. The fearsome moment passed as must all of such intensity, but Jer’ok was moved to renew his vow, “We will depart Mithos or remain for all time – together! It is my promise, Amber, my heart.”
Her answering breath signaled utter trust tearing at the wounded soul of the courageous beast-man, who spoke no further. He could only hope his courage would not fail him, were it to be put to the ultimate test. Could Jer’ok see his mate die by his own hand should long-sleep become the only escape for him? For all his strength, inner as well as physical, Jer’ok knew in his heart he could never again submit to the grinding despair of servitude subject to the queen’s impetuous will.
After some unmeasured interval, their bodies relaxed and then their troubled minds, seemingly of mutual accord. But a silence between them now persisted until sleep, now a respite, at last overcame them.
JER’OK OF THE Aranda moved as silently as Second Shadow. He moved with a care that would have put to shame the most timid of the small creatures of the forest. And why should he not exercise every caution? The life of his mate depended upon his detection of any who waited to ensnare this wily quarry. Jer’ok dismissed with little thought the fate of Silvaticus, who would not be allowed easily to avoid the queen’s retribution.
The wary beast-man was not satisfied with the observations of a single day. He returned during the night and again after the passing of a second day and night. Once he deliberately exposed his presence by striding boldly along the wide path that halted at the forbidding mouth of the waiting caverns. None challenged him. No arrow sang from the swaying branches on either side of the path. Jer’ok’s sharply attuned senses detected no enemy lurking. More importantly, the jungle creatures afforded the beast-man no warning. At last satisfied, Jer’ok took a stronger grip on his new spear and returned to the place where his mate was hidden. Today they would complete their flight from Mithos. Jer’ok suppressed a shudder as he remembered the hideous cell that had confined him all those endless days. Never before had his indomitable spirit been so close to breaking. But, as was his wont, he quickly forgot the unpleasant past as he sped through the trees to Amber and their future. Unkind Fate smiled and the Stars waited.
Jer’ok returned with Amber within hours but delayed their entrance into the caverns until the light of Sanjera, the sun, entered before them. The beast-man could easily retrace their earlier passage though the lapse of time had erased much of their spoor, but he wanted every advantage. When at last the time was right, Jer’ok and Amber entered boldly without a single backward glance. There were no side passages for hundreds of paces. By the time they reached a point where the internal passageways took on increasingly labyrinthine complexity, the caves would be plunged in Stygian darkness. Until then the dimming of Sanjera’s light was gradual, reinforced by minute breaks in the massifs overhead. Jer’ok’s unique eyes could accommodate to the alterations in light. By the time it was too dark for Amber to see at all, her mind would also have accepted the lack of light.
Jer’ok strode forward without the slightest hesitation. Amber followed close behind, her right hand in the security of her mate’s left hand. He carried the spear lightly in the other. His constant vigilance did not relax for a moment. Even with deprived sight, his other senses guided him.
He stopped so suddenly Amber almost collided with him.
“What is it?”
“Be silent, Amber,” he whispered. “I thought I detected a break in the darkness ahead.”
Both knew they had far to travel before they would be able to discern the first hint of light that would mark the end of their journey. Light now could only herald danger. Presently, Jer’ok moved forward again. After another few cautious steps, Amber, too, could make out the faintest of glows that had alerted him. Jer’ok turned to speak to his mate but never uttered whatever warning he intended.
The small cave in which they had paused was suddenly filled with the bright light of many torches. Jer’ok lifted the spear to strike in the same motion that brought Amber directly behind him. Blinded by the sudden excruciating light, Jer’ok had no idea in what direction to cast his sole weapon. One and then two arrows flew out of the darkness beyond the circle of light to pass harmlessly by. The third struck home.
The spear clattered to the ground as the beast-man clutched vainly at the missile protruding from his chest. The instinctive action could not begin to staunch the flow of his life’s blood. Somehow remaining upright, Jer’ok backed unsteadily to one side, still keeping Amber behind him. Even as he did so, he stumbled and then started to fall. For a moment he was wholly unaware of his surroundings.
It was Amber’s low exclamation of fear and surprise that brought consciousness with it. Jer’ok forced himself to raise his head and looked up to see Drusus only a few paces away. The equestrian held a heavy war arrow poised in his massive bow for the fatal flight. At this distance the trained warrior could not miss. Jer’ok sought in vain to regain his feet that he might protect his mate, but instead he fell back unconscious.
A COLD RAIN was drenching the dispirited city on this grey day in One Shadow. The chill in the drear Faxon office was only partially a result of the downpour. Commandant Guy Locke stared out over the boulevard below. He did not see the bustling traffic or hear its muffled clamour. The important papers on the desk before him were sadly neglected. The commandant’s thoughts were countless kilometres from Faxon and his official duties, far from Chimur itself. In his hand was the last of a series of messages wholly disreputable in appearance. The arrival of each had caused a mild stir among Locke’s staff though these were men and women selected for their special qualifications, not the least among which were the ability to take the unusual in stride and the good sense to keep a still tongue in their heads. Not one of the missives had been written on paper with a proper instrument. Most had been scratched on the bark of an unfamiliar tree with what appeared to be charcoal, albeit strangely permanent. They might have been in an unfamiliar code, for they were nothing more than sketchy directions involving some unknown location, not necessarily on-planet.
The Diyalan smiled at some memory evoked by the crumbling documents he kept in a small metal box to which he possessed the only key. Lee jealously guarded the secret of his identity with those remote local legends not yet known far beyond the Ashtarian land in which they had first arisen. But Locke had received no word of Jer’ok and Amber for nearly three months. They had embarked on the search for their son more than six months ago. He dared wait no longer. Locke’s first concern naturally was for their safety, but there was a second matter to be considered.
Eventually official queries would arise from Meridum regarding the prolonged absence of Lord and Lady Charwick. The discovery that they were not, in fact, to be found on their remote Ashtarian plantation would give rise to a perhaps unpleasant incident on the distant but troubled world. While the interplanetary uproar would not doubt be short-lived, the preservation of Lord Charwick’s privacy would nonetheless fall victim to the voracious appetite for bizarre rumour indulged by the curious.
The only sound in the small office was the irregular beat of rain against the cleared window. Locke pondered long how he might best serve Lee. When at last he determined the most appropriate means at his disposal, Locke sought an audience with his superiours.
Lord Charwick, in the person of Lee. S. Jerrock, had earlier performed a great service for Locke’s government and the Rune Silentio. Rune members had also been advised of his more recent pledge to aid Commandant Locke should an opportunity present itself. Its representatives were, therefore, pleased to be provided an opportunity to repay him in kind, admittedly while serving their own diplomatic purposes. Nevertheless, nearly another full month passed before the matter could be painstakingly planned to the satisfaction of all concerned. The delay was due in part to the mutual understanding that discretion was a premier feature of any action to be taken. In that time Locke received no message that would render the intricate preparations unnecessary.
In the end, Commandant Locke was dispatched to an Ashtarian outpost not far from the land of the aloof Sanaca tribe. Meanwhile, a small detachment of skilled and highly trained paladins were making their way inland from the west coast of Ashtar’s largest continent, guided by a map drawn by the Diyalan officer. Their was no grumbling among this elite cadre but for the tedium of the march and the lack of explanation for the absence of any flyer or shuttle to serve their mysterious mission. Locke himself proceeded directly to Chief Darad of the Sanaca immediately upon the Diyalan’s arrival from Chimur.
In two days an extraordinarily will equipped safari, headed by a tall off-worlder and none other than the stalwart Sanaca chief himself, departed the village. In another day it had passed out of the Sanaca lands and was marching in a more southerly direction. In due course the ebon warriors of Darad joined the best of Diyalan young manhood, and the large party marched together to a certain point known only to the commandant, who has since steadfastly refused to reveal it to any other – notwithstanding the pressure exerted by more than one powerful government on two planets. All the maps and other documentation have vanished.
At that mystery-shrouded location Guy Locke had traveled as far as Jer’ok’s cryptic directions could guide him. Now the future of Lord and Lady Charwick was transferred to the capable hand of Chief Darad and two of his warriors, skilled above all their fellows in the arts of tracking.
In another week the oddly commingled party took up the march once again. This time they did not come to a halt until they reached an unusual configuration of caves and caverns nestled within the base of a mighty range of mountains, the entrance apparently undiscovered and undisturbed through many generations of humankind. Here the party made its permanent camp, whereupon the commandant accompanied Chief Darad’s warriors into an undistinguished cavern pointed out by the Sanaca trackers. The Chimurian contingent remained at the permanent camp – on alert for attack on either flank. They had orders not to allow any to pass into or out of the caverns.
KING STEPHANOS HAD expected the Lord Drusus to pursue the Lady Amber and the slave Silvaticus but had no notion of the single-minded malice that would hold the equestrian committed to their destruction long after all the court had returned to their own day-to-day lives. Like one of the Furies, the equestrian pursued his vengeance. Even Varela, though she bowed to the king’s urgent demand, was unable to sway Drusus from his chosen path. He had become obsessed with the destruction of the slave who had successfully defied his authority and threatened his other lucrative activity. Whatever his motivation, however, the equestrian was well within his rights, indeed his duties, as a Mithonian. Stephanos could do nothing. The king did, nevertheless, resolve to have Drusus closely watched.
As a result of his prophetic caution, Stephanos was well prepared to deal with the ambush that awaited Lady Amber and her companion. As Fate would have it, some inner warning brought the king to his watching guards on the very day the fugitive slave endangered Amber’s life with his foolhardy bid for freedom. Even so, the king delayed action too long to come to the aid of the slave.
It was not a calculated act of malevolence. Not for the first time, Stephanos found himself torn between his profound loyalty to Mithonian custom and his unrequited love for the Lady Amber. Even more was he irresolute with regard to the slave with whom she had determined to cast her lot. King Stephanos would never be able to accept Silvaticus as Amber’s husband, much less as a man of blood well nigh as ancient and noble as his own. So great a rejection of the hoary tradition that attended the Mithonian king’s every action could not be accomplished in a matter of weeks or even months. That the status of her husband had not reflected adversely on Amber’s place of honour in Mithos was a tribute to the king’s ability to rise above tradition. Thus, while Stephanos could not bring himself to preserve the slave’s life, no such hesitancy marked his efforts on behalf of the Lady Amber.
From his place of concealment, Stephanos impassively watched the Lord Drusus strike Silvaticus down. The thing was done with less thought than either Mithonian would have afforded a hunted beast. The king’s noble heart turned against his countryman. But, in truth, this was the first time Stephanos had seen this, or any slave, as humankind. Stephanos watched in sympathetic distress as Lady Amber sought in vain to protect the fugitive slave before turning to defy Drusus. The king was proud of this foreign noblewoman’s show of courage. His heart went out to her yet again.
To the king’s astonishment Amber’s courage did not fail her upon confrontation with Lord Drusus. He heard her threaten the equestrian, and he heard Drusus’ ugly retort. He saw the arrow Drusus was prepared to release turn away from the slave toward Amber. In that instant Stephanos knew where his true loyalty belonged. The king’s spear was cast only an instant before Drusus released his arrow.
AMBER, LIKE JER’OK, had been momentarily blinded by the sudden flare of torches that banished the inky blackness to which her eyes were only now becoming accustomed. She heard the deadly song of the three arrows but did not immediately know that one had found its mark. She knew only that Jer’ok was unusually rough in his effort to guide her to safety. At the last moment, when she hit the wall with bruising force under the impact of Jer’ok’s weight, Amber realized he was falling.
Desperately, Amber Southerly tried to remain upright and to support her husband’s dead weight. But the woman did not possess nearly the strength required to succeed in either effort, much less both. Slowly she slid down the rough stone of the cavern wall. With her she took Jer’ok’s body, protecting his fall as best she could. She thought she detected the steady beat of his heart. In her own breast relief replaced horror.
But not for long.
In a moment Amber looked up. Her eyes had at last adjusted to the flickering light of torches. She was able to watch in horrified fascination as the queen’s favourite strolled out of the shadows, bow and arrow held steady on the equestrian’s target. Amber desperately cast her glance about her and beyond. She hoped to find some weapon, but there was none within reach. Jer’ok’s spear rest just beyond her outstretched hand. Silvaticus had been allowed no other weapon within the palace.
The beast-man’s crystal knife, which she had so carefully hidden away, had disappeared. Lady Amber had never carried the small jeweled dagger affected by many Mithonian ladies. Jason had advised her that the fanciful custom was in disfavour with the king, and Amber had no reason to doubt the physician. Stephanos would have been insulted had his ward deemed it prudent to go about the palace armed, even with so marginal a weapon. There had been no time to obtain one when she learned of Jer’ok’s plan for escape. Now she bitterly regretted her compliance with the king’s whim: not that so minuscule a weapon would cause Drusus more than the briefest of pauses.
The situation was hopeless. Their escape had failed at the last possible moment.
Amber Laxton Southerly had not lived as the mate of the Lord of Ashtar for nothing. She did not, as another might have, prepare to meet her Maker with resigned submission. She knew how the beast-man she loved would react were it he who faced the inescapable menace of the unwavering arrow in the equestrian’s bow. Amber shifted so that she could better support her mate’s body. Jer’ok’s head fell heavily against her shoulder as she cradled him in her arms. At least, she mused, we will die together. Jer’ok’s promise would be kept by his mate. She favoured Drusus with a look that conveyed without room for doubt the contempt in which she held him.
“Your cowardly ambush has succeeded, but you had best kill us both, Equestrian. If I live you will die for this – by my own hand if there is none who will serve me.”
She did not avert her eyes from his, even as his arrow moved slightly to threaten her instead of the lifeless figure in her arms. Drusus could not fail to recognise her reference to the king. The hideous expression on the Mithonian’s face went far beyond mere hatred.
“Savages!” He spat his spiteful words at the despised outlander woman. “You should have died in the storm that strewed our land with its carrion and other offal. You had no right to become Mithonian. You can never comprehend what that – animal – has done. But now you, too, will pay for his evil with your life.”
Amber longed to lower her head to Jer’ok and close her eyes to the inevitable doom the maddened Mithonian represented. But her courage held firm. Her eyes were as steady on Drusus as was her arrow on her breast.
“Goodbye, my beloved,” she whispered under her breath, “I have never stopped loving you. Not even death can forever separate us. I will know you when our souls are again reunited.” But Jer’ok could not hear her farewell.
The woman stared as the Mithonian’s fingers tightened on the string. She held her breath and waited. Suddenly, there was a sound from behind the nobleman. Almost at the same instant the arrow flew from his touch.
Drusus fell dead before he could see his deadly missile of vengeance fly harmlessly over the head of the outlander Arene. Amber stifled a startled exclamation and buried her face in the dark strands that had fallen forward over Jer’ok’s pale forehead.
Leaving the equestrian to his men, Stephanos stode to Amber’s side. She must have heard his approach, but she did not raise her head. Amber was not weeping. Her feelings went far too deep for tears.
“Lady Amber, allow me to assist.”
Stephanos waited, but there was no response. After a moment, he stooped to place his hand gently on Amber’s shoulder.
“Let me take care of him now. You have done all you can for him, my lady.” Her total lack of response caused his heart to stir in fear. “You have not been harmed, my Amber?”
Amber shook her head in the manner Stephanos had learned to be a denial, but she still refused to look up to him. He had to ask her to repeat her muffled whisper. Presently, she looked up to meet his regard, still outwardly composed.
“You will not return him to the city? You cannot return him to Varela. Please, Stephanos.”
To hide his confused indecision, the king very gently lifted the slave’s weight from Amber that she might find a more comfortable position. That she had scraped her arm and back deeply escaped her notice. Gently pulling her aside, Stephanos carefully lowered the slave to the cold dirt of the cavern floor to examine the wound before she could do so. At least the arrow had passed through the muscles near the point of connection between chest and upper arm. But the wound was again bleeding freely as a result of the slight movement. The king was relieved to see there were no signs of returning consciousness.
“The problem now, Lady Amber, is to keep him alive.” She swayed and would have fallen but for the king’s steadying hand. “And you are in need of attention, too.”
Lady Amber flashed him a look of defiance. “I will not return to Mithos.” She instantly regretted the intensity of her outburst against the kindly man and attempted to make amends. “Stephanos, you must understand that my place is at his side. I cannot leave him.”
Because his pride was hurt, the king was brutal in his honesty. “If he does not have a care, it is he who will leave you – and soon. I dare not leave you here alone, Amber.” The king gave the matter of stemming the flow of blood his full attention, oblivious to his attendants who were gathering just out of earshot. When at length he arose, he commanded her. “Do not touch him yourself. I have stopped the bleeding, but the wound is beyond our abilities. I will have the physician summoned.”
With that promise, King Stephanos rose to post a guard – whether to protect the fugitives or to prevent the completion of their escape Amber neither knew nor cared – and departed with the remainder of his party.
The time passed very slowly for her. Jer’ok showed no signs of returning consciousness. She did not know whether to be frightened or relieved. Amber held tight his unresponsive hand, grateful for the slightest sense of contact with her mate. In the faint torchlight he already seemed as pale as death. As she maintained her lonely vigil, she steadfastly denied persistent mental images of the horror he must have been enduring while she enjoyed the privileges of the king’s hospitality. She tried to forget how close she had come to accepting as fact her mate’s certain death and turning to Stephanos for all the comfort he offered. Instead, Amber endeavoured to recall the all too brief moments of bliss Providence had lately granted Jer’ok and his mate. Would there be a future for them? Dare she hope?
Amber must have dozed in spite of herself. She awoke with a start when her guard challenged someone who approached them for the direction of the valley.
The king had kept his promise. It was Jason Tiberius who emerged with Stephanos from the shadows. The king was followed by Lucia. All three were heavily laden with bundles. Jason did not pause to acknowledge the guard or to respond to Amber’s exclamation of gratitude. He quickly set aside his burdens to examine the unconscious beast-man. It did not take long.
The physician said nothing, but his face revealed all to the grieving heart of Amber Southerly. Her courage faded and she turned away from the heartrending scene, unable to force herself to witness Jason’s urgent effort to fan the flickering flame of life ere it could be forever extinguished.
Jer’ok regained consciousness briefly. He watched helplessly as Stephanos half carried Amber away into the enclosing darkness of the caverns. Then the view of his departing mate was obscured by a hovering mass that resolved into the form of a man. While Jer’ok was returning to oblivion, the emerald green eyes of the physician held him fascinated.
JER’OK OF THE Hunterfolk clung to life with all the tenacity of his indomitable spirit. After a few days Jason agreed to allow him to be moved to a small cave some distance from the main passages. Stephanos was insistent that every precaution be taken to preserve the secret of the fugitives’ continued presence within the domain of Mithos. He posted guards at the cavern entrance on the pretext of preventing their escape should they somehow have survived in the valley. Amber never learned how the king explained the death of the equestrian, had he deigned to do so at all.
Because of the suspicion that would be aroused by his prolonged absence, Jason was not permitted to remain to attend his patient. That was left to Amber and to Lucia, whose absence from the palace would not be noticed. Jason slipped out of the palace whenever he could, but without the facilities of a modern surgery he confessed to Amber there was little he could accomplish. All he allowed was that the man had been fortunate; the arrow had been struck the victim higher than intended; no major damage had been done. The wound looked much worse than it was. He did offered no explanation of how it was Jer’ok seemed to be failing rather than rallying as Amber had expected. When pressed, Jason alluded to the massive loss of blood.
When Jer’ok regained his senses, he could spare no breath to speak. It was as if his lung had been struck, despite Jason’s assurances to the contrary. Without so much as a murmur of protest he fought the injury for his life. He did not even seem to know when Amber was near.
As the grim vigil dragged on, Amber welcomed the small comfort of Lucia’s friendship. Without that kindness the Arene would have been desolate. She tried not to allow herself to hope. Lady Charwick had no strength left to withstand the shock of hope dashed yet again. Seldom had she felt so utterly helpless. Steadfastly, the mate of Jer’ok refused to allow Stephanos or Jason to return the beast-man to Mithos that he might receive the full benefit of the physician’s skills. It was far too dangerous. Jer’ok would not thank her for returning him to captivity.
The other avenue of hope was equally beyond her reach. Jer’ok’s wound, she feared, required the facilities only modern civilisation could provide. But Amber knew this could not be. She had no way to find her way to the outside world alone. More than once she wondered sadly how far Guy Locke had been able to follow their trail before finally losing them.
All that was left to Amber Southerly was prayer. She had finally accepted that her son was not to be found. Perhaps kindly Providence would at least restore her the soul of her soul.
SHE HAD NOT heard the sound of his sandals. Only when he spoke her name did Amber realise that Stephanos had returned to her side. She leapt to his comforting arms without shame. He held her without speaking, and Amber took strength from his strength. He kissed her brow with the reverence he should have reserved for one of the goddesses who watched over those he loved.
“I have brought you something, Amber. Come, sit with me for a moment.”
He led her closer to a torch he had placed in the passage. For a moment he seemed to be collecting his thoughts. Or perhaps he sought to choose the words that were least likely to offend.
“You will not be returning to Mithos, whatever happens?”
Amber did not easily respond to his unspoken request, though she searched her soul and knew there was only one answer. Sadly, she shook her head. For both their sakes she wished she could accept his offer. For both their sakes she must not.
“You deserve no less than the truth, Stephanos. I cannot. My love is given once and only once. We would both suffer if I pretended more than I can give. I would not choose to hurt you, my friend.”
“I feared you would answer thus,” Stephanos smiled sadly. “Does he know how fortunate he is in his lady?”
“We each have accepted that the other’s devotion is bestowed without reservation. But I, too, am fortunate in being the object of his love. He knew from the very beginning there would never be another for either of us. Being of a more ‘civilized’ world I was longer in accepting. Now there is nothing I would not give up for his sake. Nothing.”
Amber’s tone became softer as she remembered all that had transpired since first she had encountered the Lord of Ashtar. Stephanos respected her memories and held his tongue though his heart ached as it never had before. He took her hands and pressed first one and then the other to his lips.
“I have not forgotten my promise, Amber. When you are ready to leave my land, I will help you.”
She smiled her gratitude but did not speak.
“For now I have something for you,” the king went on. “I do not wish you to forget Stephanos.” He pressed something into her hand. “You left behind all that I have given you when Lord Charwick reclaimed his lady.”
It was the sapphire that had been his first gift to her. Amber stared at the priceless bauble and found herself close to tears. Even more meaningful to her than the jewel was the king’s recognition of her husband’s noble heritage. “I could never forget Stephanos of Mithos. I will cherish his memory, and his last gifts to me will be a reminder of his many gifts. But I have nothing to offer in return . . . ”
“On the contrary, Lady Amber of Charwick. You have given me many gifts I will cherish forever. You have taught the King of Mithos the meaning of true love – and that it does truly exist though it must be the rarest of gems. And you have given him the precious gift of friendship. That gift is uniquely yours, Amber of Charwick.”
He rose, lifting Amber to her feet with him. “I must return to the palace. I will be back. If you need me, one of the guards at the entrance to the caverns will summon me. Ah, I had nearly forgotten. You will have need of this when you re-enter the world beyond Mithos.” Stephanos pulled a heavy knife from the sheath at his back and handed it to her.
To Amber’s astonishment she recognised the weapon to be Jer’ok’s crystal knife. She was speechless with gratitude. Overcome with emotion, she flung her arms about the tall king without the slightest hesitation and kissed him as he had long hoped she would. Stephanos was so taken aback that he lost his balance and came close to toppling them both. Amber’s eyes flew open to see a sudden movement in the passageway behind him. She screamed and the knife dropped from her hand to clatter against the cold rocky surface. Before the king could react to her incoherent warning, the cold voice of the intruder issued from the dark.
“If you touch that woman again I will kill you!”
King Stephanos understood not the words but the tone, which was unmistakable in its relentless threat. His instinctive reaction was to shield the Lady Amber. There was little more he could do for he had set aside his weapons before meeting his beloved.
Amber Southerly understood the words, though it was the first time she had heard the Tae of Diyala in many months. How welcome it was! And yet how strange and foreign it fell upon her ears.
Commandant Guy Locke had not failed Jer’ok and Amber after all.
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