AUTHORS' NOTE: STOP! Attention all Zerca fans! The set up for this story was introduced in chapter 28 of "You Belong with Me", updated on 1/8/2006. If you have not already read that chapter, please go do so now so that you know what the Zerca is going on here!

Please note that this is another spinoff of our Zerca series. It isn't a sequel or a prequel. It occurs at the same time as the other two. We are planning another spinoff, more updates on the originals and sequels. (Prequels may come later, describing Sariphan's parents and whatnot, but we haven't yet decided.)

Lastly, we hope you enjoy the new stories we're introducing as much as the originals.

Chapter One

Marrow's face was void, an emotionless mask as he gazed at the whole of the Reyl camp a kilometer or so before him. His green eyes appeared glazed as they ran dully over the colorful tents that proclaimed what tribe they were with to all others like them, or so Marrow had learned these past few weeks that he had spent visiting these camps. There were torches lit all around, as well as a large bonfire in the center of the gathered tents. He assumed the latter at least, as the tribes he had previously visited had been rather similar to one another. His ears twitched as a rather lively tune began to play, which soon was accompanied by clapping hands. He waited, wondering what sort of words and tone would go with such a tune, but he heard no voice forthcoming.

Marrow ran his tongue over his teeth, savoring the blood that dripped as it went over his extended canines. These had burst into his mouth as the beast within him roared a clear warning in his head. He could remember coming to many camps like these as a child, following his life-bearer and weaving in and out of the many Reyls in an attempt to keep up with the careless man. He had gotten lost many times, his sensitive nose stinging and useless from the many incense and fires that burned with sweet oils all around him. Carefree faces twirling around and around him, blocking his sight of anything other than them. He could remember shape-shifting into his leopard form, his belly dragging atop the ground as he attempted to weave through the many legs. It was the first time Marrow had ever experienced fear, having been raised as a young warrior nearly from birth it was appalling that these outcasts could incite this in him.

He closed his eyes and shook his head to clear the fuzzy memories of the laughing faces from his head, knowing now, as an adult, it was more likely he felt so uneasy because he was abandoned by his life-bearer. Still, the faces would forever be distorted in his mind, leering and ominous to him. The people, however, hardly instilled fear in his heart. If indeed he even had a heart after what he had seen his life-bearer do and heard him say. He turned his eyes away from the camp in a vain attempt to shake the unpleasant thoughts from his head for the time being.

"Are we to stare at the place all night or will we go take a look?"

Marrow turned a sharp glare at the lippy youth next to him, and the younger man immediately raised his chin in challenge. A quick baring of the older Zercan's teeth, however, gave the other clear warning of the consequences of issuing such a thing. Marrow was seasoned and harsh, perhaps a little more ruthless than most as well. Not bothering to acknowledge the boy further, he moved his gramba forward, leading the other seven toward in the camp where they would once again search the ranks for their mates. Not that any thought they would find one, but the sooner this matter was done the sooner they would be able to look elsewhere.

Tying their animals to the nearest makeshift rail, they made their way to the center of the camp. The music did not stop or waver as they approached, but continued as if strangers joined the tribe every day. Looking around the fire, Marrow supposed they probably did. He recognized some of his own people sitting with these outsiders, some laughing in enjoyment at others as they danced in the center. Others scowled, clearly not pleased with having been forced to visit such a place. More than likely these were some who had been raised to dislike and disapprove of anything that was not considered "normal" to them.

Marrow turned his gaze to the center of the night's entertainment, as most everyone did, and watched as tribesmen used rattle-like instruments to shake out sounds of anticipation before a slow, more sultry tune began to play. The music, however, was not what held anyone's attention. Instead every eye in the vicinity seemed to be trained on the thinly toned man moving within the circle.

His hair was long and sleek, its red color bright and shiny as it fell past his shoulders and over his bare chest. His face was that of a youth, and not the least bit feminine, but sensually beautiful nonetheless. Fiery lilac eyes were hooded, but not so much so that one would miss such striking coloring. His skin glowed a dusky gold that told of the days he spent in the sun in this remote area of the planet, Marrow thought the boy's coloring was wondrous even as he felt a slow burn begin to seep through his veins to light his skin afire. His own light green eyes traveled farther down the dancer's chest to the sheer shorts he wore over his vital areas that seemed to flow down his thighs to rest just above his knees. The redhead's legs were finely shaped and colored, just like the rest of him, and led down to surprisingly dainty ankles. A dancer's ankles, he mused.

He could feel himself begin to harden as the boy began to gyrate his body, moving in a seductive dance that seemed to invite the eyes of every man there to look on his ... attributes. Marrow growled low in his throat at that thought, the idea of so many looking at what was his enraged him. The knowledge that so many men were looking at what was his forced a harsh snarl to erupt from his throat, which drew the attention of many. But only that one pair of lilac eyes registered in Marrow's mind as they turned to him and widened.

He could sense it as those eyes raked over him, feeling very much like a subtle touch as they did so. The fire within his insides seemed to spread as the beast within him clawed, demanding he take what was his and hide his newfound mate from the hungry eyes of so many others. He knew from the dancer's facial expression that the youth knew what had come to pass, however, the quick scowl he received in the next moment told Marrow much about how he was going to accept it.

Stars, Marrow too felt like fighting his own emotions. He had no wish to be mated to such a wild and careless creature. A Reyl, no less, and not just any male ... one that just happened to be putting his body on display for any who cared to look. Marrow clenched his jaw, preparing himself for the rage he knew would come were he discover that his mate was a damned mistress.

Taking a few steps closer to the frozen man, he hissed in a low, hard voice, "I require a word with you. Now."

Tamber hadn't really wanted to join the evening festivities that night, truth be told. Knowing there would be yet another crowd of city-dwellers to entertain, he had originally intended to pass the time alone in his tent, catching up on sone much-needed sleep. He didn't mind the visits from the city-dwellers at first. Really, it was exciting to explore a new lover at times, knowing that in the morn the other would ride off, never to be seen again. It wasn't often Tamber felt the need to dally with another, but on the occasion he did, it was a nice feeling not to worry about attachments of any sort.

Zerca, these strangers were a tiresome bunch, though! As he understood it, it seemed that in a bid to ease the tensions of his restless (and mateless) citizens, the Shodan had ordered them to take to their grambas and roam the land to seek out every Reyl tribe to be found in their search for their mate before he allowed to take to space. Apparently, the witless fools were eager to explore a previously little-known, outer-planet called Earth. Tamber heard talk of two Zercans recently returning from the place with mates, one being the Shodan himself. Not that Tamber cared. He answered to no king. It just amused him to no end to watch, as Earth, when it was first discovered a couple of Zercan years prior, had been labeled a "backwater planet" filled with ancient-era technology and old ways. Not unlike the way of the Reyls, he remembered musing. And now look at the city-fools, falling all over themselves to get the trips to the Reyl tribes out of the way so they can earn permission to travel to the outer-planet to find a mate.

Sure, there were a few earthlings among the mated population of city-dwellers, but none on the open land in the Reyl communities. And Tamber preferred it that way. From what he'd heard, all of the earthlings were life-bearers ... weak and pliant. The Shodan's mate was reportedly younger than Tamber himself was, and much smaller. Though he knew himself to be a life-bearer, Tamber took pride in his determination to remain untethered until he chose to allow himself to be mated. No one was going to claim him and saddle him down with a brood of needy kits any time soon. And when he decided he would seek a mate, he was equally determined to negotiate his future. There would be no such surrender, he vowed. He'd seen what such had done to his own life-bearer. Though his "mother" said he was happy with Tamber's father, the boy could see once-proud eyes burn with the sting of humility when his father and the rest of the tribe's elders barred all life-bearers from the monthly meetings to cook the feast-day meal. No doubt, his mother remembered his youth, when he was free go where he wished, beholden to no one. Tamber would not tolerate such treatment.

Yet, when he announced his intentions to stay abed while the rest of the trivbe entertained the strangers, his father steadfastedly argued against it, pointing out that Tamber was the tribe's best dancer. All of the elders had decided at the previous meeting to welcome the strangers as if they were from fellow tribes. They had reasoned that the new and open exchanges would breed better relations with the city-dwellers, and perhaps erode the silly notions that Reyls were unruly and feral. Tamber didn't care what the city-dwellers thought. They were mindless sheep, as far as he was concerned, eager to follow the orders of one leader, rather than the suggestions of a group of elders. But no amount of discussion could make his father see his side of it. tamber had looked to his mother for support but the man only smiled benignly at him. Sighing in defeat, Tamber had donned his sheer dancing shorts and brushed out his dark red hair.

Now, as he lost himself in the beat of the music, the youth decided he would block out everything around him but the dance. In truth, it was his favorite pasttime anyway, so he might as well enjoy it as much as everyone else seemed to like watching him. The bodies around him blurred as lowered his eyelids and swayed his hips to the clapping hands. All was going well, as his mind closed to his surroundings and he began to gyrate more sensually. But then an angry snarl cut through the air, pulling everyone's attention away and stopping the music.

Tamber froze and looked up in hazy confusion as his mind snapped back to reality. His eyes were drawn immeduately to a newcomer ... a tall, well-built warrior-looking man with short, light brown hair and piercing, pale green eyes - which were locked onto his own lilac-colored orbs. Tamber's heart kicked into high gear, his blood pounded though his veins and deafened his ears. No! Not yet! I'm not ready for this yet, his mind screamed. But the possessive look in the warrior's eyes showed no signs of disappearing. As quickly as his fear set him, so did his rage follow and Tamber gathered all of his strength together, setting his chin and hardening his eyes. He desperately hoped the man understood his silent defiance, as he coldly watched the man stride the few steps upo to him. But the warrior's manner remained steadfast.

"I require a word with you. Now."

Clipped and to the point, Tamber thought to himself as he glared back silently. If he followed the warrior, everyone would assume what was probably to follow. And Tamber would be damned to Blanserta if he would fall in line as many other life-bearers would do in such circumstances. The warrior held out his hand boldly, as if daring Tamber to defy him. Which he was only too happy to do. He shot the hand an icy look and shoved both of his own arms behind his back in an age-old sign of rejection.

"I do not see the need," he spat out and backed away from the man, whose eyes followed Tamber's movements carefully before he dropped his proffered hand and moved toward the boy again.

"I do not believe I gave you an option."

All watched in rapt attention as the city-dweller pursued the dancer past the bonfire. The bigger man reached a hand out again, seemingly intending to grab the youth and force the handfast when a tribal elder stepped into his path.

"Please do not interfere," the warrior gorund out.

"In matters concerning my son, I feel compelled," the elder bit out harshly as he faced the younger man equal in both height and stature.

"He's ... he's mine!" the warrior growled.

"It is not the Reyl way to force a mating," Doriuq, the elder, said sagely.

Tamber looked back and forth between them, sighing in relief.

Marrow's clinched jaw was the only visible sign of his displeasure. Well, that and the clear bite to his voice. Ignoring the fact that a great many of his own people were watching his embarrassment as a Reyl, of all creatures, rejected his claim, he tore his eyes from the scowling face of the younger man to that of the boy's apparent giver. His teeth bared in an age-old challenge, even as his thought roiled around what the man had said. What cared he of Reyl ways? He was a Zercan warrior and had no time for these ridiculous games. His body burned for a mate and his heart reached through a cold exterior for this man's child. It was time for them to join, why didn't the boy realize that?

He felt a brief, unfamiliar panic as the thought crossed his mind that perhaps his mate did not find him to his liking, but then quickly dismissed it. They were made for one another and would fit together as proof of that, or so he had been told this would happen when he found his mate. He had assumed that most people upon Zerca acknowledged a rightful claim and bowed to it. Obviously, he had been mistaken. Yet did he allow neither his emotions nor thoughts to surface as his face remained blank.

"And it is not the Zercan way to deny a rightful claim," he finally said in reply to the elder man's words. "He is mine and he knows it." Marrow's eyes burned into his mate's as he said this, daring him to deny what he could not.

Doriuq was an elder known and respected for his wisdom among all Reyls. In fact, he was often sought out by many, outsiders and his own people alike, to give counsel. Unlike others he could name, he held no ill will against those under the Shodan's rule as he had found that it was not in him to hate, for he had seen that every race, no matter how perfect they presume to be, did indeed have some flaws. He was well aware of the Zercan's rights just as he was most Reyls and though he could understand this fellow's trials, so too could he understand his son's, though he was sure the boy would argue the point if given the chance.

"You are within our camp now, son, and so are subject to our words and ways."

Doriuq could feel his own son's annoyance that he acknowledged the man's claim as valid, particularly by calling him 'son'. But well did he remember when he had just found his own mate and kit bearer, his other half. He had dearly wished then that his mate's father would have given him the relief of acceptance. And he was determined that his new 'son' would be given what he was not.

Besides, Doriuq could not identify exactly why, but the younger man seemed familiar to him. His facial features, even as blank and emotionless as they were presently, werea near copy of a face he had known so long ago. It was a face he had never thought to see again after the grief he had witnessed thrust upon such a young kit, and it was a face that was so very similar to its bearer's. He felt his heart ache at the memories of Kailo and what he had done to his mate and son. These were events that no doubt contributed to the making of the face of the man before him, cold and ruthless looking as it was now. Knowing full well that the youth would not care to hear of his parent or how well he was known, Doriuq remained silent on it.

Marrow felt himself relax a bit at his giver's acknowledgement, raising a sleek light brown eyebrow in arrogant fashion at the shirtless bearer who presently used his father much like a shield. Still he could feel those heated lilac eyes upon him and knew that the boy was not exactly disappointed with what he saw, but regarded him as an unwelcome nuisance. He had little doubt that the dancer would very soon start to feel the discomfort and depression of not having his mate close by, now having encountered Marrow and in so touching auras and souls. The unease would not hurt as much as if the boy had taken Marrow's hand, thus linking their hearts, but it would be a dull ache the boy would not be able to avoid. Marrow took cool solace in the knowledge that only he could provide the boy with comfort now.

"If I take him from this camp then he is subject to my word as his mate," he said testily, sensing all of his people stand from their seats as a silent threat to back him up in his decision.

"And you would do this? Start your lives together with such violence?" Doriuq asked, appalled by the thought. Though he secretly admired the way each Zercan stood beside one another in mutual respect and support.

"What lives?" the boy spat, glaring at his so-called mate. "I am not going with that slave driver!"

"Quiet yourself, Tamber! Your mate can be reasonable, I believe," Doriuq said this more for Marrow's benefit than Tamber's. "He would not take you from your home without allowing you to become accustomed to such an idea and perhaps learn a bit more of where you will be residing." The elder secretly hoped the man would understand the need to do just that.

Tamber, Marrow repeated the name in his mind, finding pleasure in finally knowing such a small thing warmed the chill in his lonely bones for a moment. Then he rolled the other words the elder had said around in his mind. He knew that the Shodan would not be pleased did he not concede a bit and at least allow the boy to gain some knowledge of his future home so he wouldn't feel too much the outcast in civilized company. However, he couldn't help but feel a little wary, thinking that perhaps Tamber would take this as an added incentive to be difficult.

"Residing? I am not going anywhere!"

"You will share my home in the capital city-"

"Blanserta, I will!" Tamber said, clenching his fists and glaring.

Marrow didn't think that particular statement deserved a reply and so he returned his attention to his mate's giver. "Despite the fact that I do not particularly care for your camps and am rather eager to return to my home, I will allow your son some time. Though I warn all of you now, he is mine and I will not tolerate any others touching or looking upon him in such an intimate manner any longer. And should he try to escape me," his green eyes met lilac once more, "I will immediately take him."

Immediately take me? Tamber fumed within the confines of his small tent, throwing his clothes around in rage. Who the Zerca does he think he is? I don't give a flying gramba whether he is my mate or not! No one will tell me what to do. No one! Tamber picked up his brush and threw it with force at the pile of linens he used as his bed. Most Reyls slept upon simple cots and straw-filled mattresses within their tents, but Tamber preferred the cloth-covered ground. He was about to follow his brush with a book when the flaps of his tent opened and his bearer anxiously entered.

"Tamber, please," the mild man pleaded softly. "Calm yourself."

"Why?" the boy raged, throwing the book down with a violent force he hadn't felt in a long time. "Is your mate worried I will offend the blasted city-dwellers?"

"My mate happens to be your giver!" Reelle replied as he watched his now-grown kit pitch another of his infamous fits.

"I no longer acknowledge that!" the boy seethed, crossing his arms and looking away in disgust.

Tamber was even more wild than most Reyls were stereotyped to be. Reelle knew his son highly valued his freedom and worried overmuch about what his mate would do it when he appeared. The man didn't know what to do to ease those fears either, and had hoped for everyone's sake that Tamber would have a few more years to mature before it happened. Truthfully, most bearers would be overcome with relief and happiness at even finding their mate. Yet did Tamber revile the idea altogether. Sometimes he wondered if his son resented him for his being born a bearer, not that Reelle could have done anything to influence fate. The boy was what he was, is all. Yet did the man feel a sense of guilt now at his son's anger.

"Please believe me when I tell you he only wants what's best for you, dear."

Tamber snorted and raised a dark red eyebrow in disbelief. How could he make his bearer understand when the man would not even admit his own unhappiness with his role in life. Oh, the boy knew Reelle loved Doriuq ... but there was no denying the wistful sadness in the expression the bearer sometimes wore when he watched the tribe's unmated and younger bearers frolic and carouse whilst he and the other mated bearers were tied to responsibilities. Zerca, Tamber was supposed to be free to travel on his own the following Zercan year! He'd wanted to explore some of the other Reyl tribes without his giver's watchful eye upon him. He wasn't a kit anymore! This was the worst thing that could happen to him, he'd decided.

"My life has been decided for me by your mate and some city-dweller, and all you can do is tell me that my giver wants what's best for me?" he hissed. "After all of the plans you know I made for myself?"

"Finding one's mate is so rare, my son," Reelle smiled sadly. "I'd hate to see you live your life barren and alone."

"And be oh-so-happily mated, as you are?" Tamber shot back, instantly cursing his thoughtless tongue upon seeing the other's hurt expression and the accompanying tears that pricked his bearer's eyes.

"I'm sorry," Tamber whispered.

"So am I," Reelle murmured before turning on his heel and leaving the tent.