DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Kate Birkel and is copyright (c) 1981 by Kate Birkel. This story is Rated PG. Originally printed in Fermata, July 1981.
by Kate Birkel
It took a few seconds for Christine to realize it was she the deferential voice was summoning. She looked up from her microscope and gave the technician a half apologetic little smile. The ink on the Ph.D. she had worked so hard for was barely dry and it was still difficult for her to realize she had joined those exalted ranks where people were addressed as "Doctor".
"Yes, Miss Denison?"
The young girl held out a package she was holding. "Here's the reagents you ordered from Central Supply."
"Thank you." Christine indicated a corner of the lab table.
The girl set the package down, then fished around in her coat pocket, producing a piece of paper. "You have to sign for them, ma'am."
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Christine exclaimed, annoyed by the further delay. She seized a nearby pen and scribbled her initials in the proper slot. "You'd think we were all dopers around here instead of responsible researchers."
"Sorry, Dr. Chapel, but those are the rules." Denison stuffed the slip back into her pocket. "This is a government project and any substance that might produce an hallucinatory effect has to be signed and accounted for."
"I know," Christine sighed.
"Oh, and Dr. Korby asked me to tell you he would be running a little late tonight, and would you mind waiting for him."
"No, I won't mind." Christine smiled ruefully, then glanced down at her left hand where the diamond sparkled. That, too, was a new addition. Roger had given it to her right after the graduation ceremony, saying he didn't want it spread around he made a habit of seducing his students, but now that she had her diploma, it was legal. Christine had made a tart rejoinder, reminding him it was common knowledge Roger Korby had spent more than one night at Christine's apartment off-campus, but she had been pleased with the gesture, especially since it indicated his belief the relationship was more than just a passing affair on both their parts. It was a shame, though, Roger was scheduled to leave on a hush-hush project in such a short time. Well, it could not be helped and he had promised it would not take long. "Thank you, Miss Denison."
Even before Denison had left the tiny laboratory, Christine's attention was back to her microscope and the virus she was attempting to isolate. Getting that Ph.D. had not changed much for her. She was still attached to the University as Roger Korby's assistant, only now, instead of earning credits toward her degree, she was earning money. The job and responsibility was the same, only now her reports did not have to be countersigned by one of the senior staff to guarantee its reliability. The reagent sat on the corner of the table, temporarily forgotten. Christine had ordered it three days ago, grown tired of waiting for it, and moved on to another aspect of the project. It would be tomorrow before she got around to the original reason for requesting them.
Christine finished studying the slide in the microscope, switched it for a new one, then, with one eye still on the 'scope, began patting the top of the table for a pencil. One unwary move and there was the tinkle of breaking glass.
Thoroughly disgusted, Christine swivelled her stool around to survey the damage. Both vials were broken, and the stench was already beginning to assault her nostrils. Christine slammed her pencil down on top of the stack of papers she had been working with, and slid off her stool. Fetching two cleaning towels from the tiny cabinet by the door, she knelt down, careful not to get her pant legs near the foul smelling mess, and began mopping it up. That done, she stood up and carried the filthy cloths to the disposal chute at arm's length. Then she returned to the 'scope, making a mental note to reorder the chemicals from Central Supply. If it took them as long this time to deliver, it would easily be a week before...
* * *
"My Lady." The lady-in-waiting dropped a respectful curtsy, "Lord Coeurbe wishes an audience with you."
Lady Christina de la Chappelle put aside her embroidery and rose to her feet. "Did Lord Coeurbe inform you what he wished to speak to me about?" Christina's hands smoothed the black velvet of her surcoat. Lord Guillaume de la Chappelle had been laid away in the family chapel only two weeks prior, and Christina would be in mourning for her father for another twelve months or until her wedding day -- whichever came first. The King had been notified of Lord Guillaume's unexpected demise, which had left Christina sole heiress to the extensive de la Chappelle estate, and legally the ward of the crown. The law of the realm was quite explicit -- as an unmarried and unbetrothed female, Christina's fate lay in the King's hand. She could neither contract for marriage nor marry without the King's express permission, and that would come at a high price. Until that day, the de la Chapelle revenues reverted to the Throne.
"No, my Lady, but he did say it was most urgent."
Christina reseated herself in the great oaken chair. "Very well, I will speak with him."
The lady-in-waiting dropped another quick bob, then departed. Christina did not pick up the embroidery hoop, instead allowed her hands to rest on the arms of the chair. Coeurbe. What could he possibly want with her? The Coeurbe lands marched several leagues with the de la Chappelle estates, and it had once been in Lord Guillaume's mind to propose a merger with the Coeurbe family. But in an age known for brutality and cruelty, Roger Coeurbe stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries. Vicious, cunning, and bestial beyond belief, Roger Coeurbe was feared and despised by his saner neighbors. But there could only be one reason for Roger Coeurbe to seek an audience with Christina. Now that Lord Guillaume was no more, Roger Coeurbe no longer had to accept the old warrior's refusals.
"Lord Coeurbe, my Lady."
Roger Coeurbe was a tall, well built man whose pleasing face hid the rottenness of his soul. He had taken considerable care in dressing -- clean hose and jerkin over a snowy blouse, covered with an elegant, sweeping cape.
"You wished to speak with me, my Lord?" Christina's voice was cold. Well she knew Coeurbe's reputation and feared it.
"I have come to express my condolences on your recent loss, Lady." His tone was respectful, but the eyes that raked over Christina were not.
"Thank you, Lord Coeurbe." Christina inclined her head with a stiff nod. Lord Coeurbe took this as encouragement and came closer to the chair in which Christina sat. It took all of her considerable will not to shrink back.
"You have been left in a most unenviable position, Lady Christina." Coeurbe stopped scant feet from Christina's chair. "You have no close male relatives to protect the de la Chappelle interests at court."
"You forget, my Lord," Christina said coldly, "my mother's brother, the Bishop, is well able to take care of my interests."
"Ah, but I have heard his Majesty has taken offense with my Lord Bishop," Coeurbe countered smoothly. "I believe my Lord Bishop told his Majesty that His Majesty had no right to levy an extra tax against Church lands simply to finance another foolish war. His Majesty, I am told, was exceedingly wroth!"
Christina bit her lip and looked away from Coeurbe's near face. She had received a missive just that day from her uncle setting out the argument, and advising his neice he would be hard pressed to protect his own interests, much less those of his dead sister's daughter. She would be well advised, he had written, to close her eyes and accept whatever the King decided concerning Chappelle and her future. This king would not scruple to disinherit a recalcitrant female subject and absorb the vast Chappelle estates into the Royal Estates.
"Lord Coeurbe, I fail to see why you should interest yourself in my estates." Christina's tone was sharp. "You have no claim on Chappelle."
"I should I like to remedy that, Lady Christina." With that declaration, Coeurbe went down on one knee before Christina. "It was always my father's fondest wish the Coeurbe and Chappelle estates be joined. I offer myself to you as husband."
"No! Never!" Christina shrank back from the kneeling figure in revulsion. "My father told you any number of times he would not accept you for son!"
The loathing evinced by his chosen did not seem to disturb Coeurbe in the least as he smiled genially. "But your father is dead now, Lady Christina. You have but to say the word, and I shall write the King and buy your hand from him."
"No!" Christina repeated. She sprang from the chair, evading the hands that would have grabbed her. "Get out of here! I do not wish you for my husband! Not now, not ever! Leave I say!"
Still smiling, Coeurbe rose to his feet and began stalking his prey. "You are merely shy, Lady Christina. Such maidenly conduct shows your good breeding. But enough now. With or without your consent, I shall petition the King for your hand."
Retreating, Christina shook her head violently. "I, too, shall write the King!" she declared wildly. "I shall reveal you for the liar you are!"
"But you have nothing to offer him, Lady." Coeurbe continued his relentless advance. "Your revenues? They belong to him until you are married. The bride price will have to be paid before he will agree. Do you have another candidate in mind, Lady?"
Christina bumped into the wall, then began edging along it and away from her tormentor. "Leave me alone!" she cried desperately. "Else I shall summon the guard!"
That threat seemed to have some effect. Coeurbe stopped in his tracks, an unpleasant gleam in his eye. "Are you that ready to condemn your retainers to death, Lady?" he taunted.
At that moment the door to the chamber burst open. "Vlarik!" Christina exclaimed. "Save me!"
Coeurbe spun around, his hand on his sword hilt. But then he was checked as he realized who he was facing. Vlarik the Wanderer was a newcomer to Lord Guillaume's service, having joined only days before Lord Guillaume's demise, but Coeurbe hesitated to charge. By his clothing and dark visage, Vlarik the Wanderer was readily identifiable as a Valcainian, one of those fierce, violent warriors from the North. Even Roger Coeurbe knew better than to take a Valcainian on in single combat.
Vlarik strode into the room, long black cape cast over one shoulder, his sword drawn. "You ... out!" he directed in deep tones.
Coeurbe's glance traveled back and forth between the grim Northerner and the flushed Lady Christina. Rage flamed in his eyes, but his hand did not move on the sword hilt. At last, he drew an angry breath.
"I shall leave you now, Lady! But you will pay for this insult! And I tell you this; the letter to the King goes out today by my fastest courier!"
"He will indeed have to travel fast to beat mine!" Christina retorted.
Coeurbe glared one last time at the poised Vlarik, then swept from the room his face dark in its anger.
Christina allowed a sigh of relief escape her, then advanced toward her savior. "My deepest gratitude, Vlarik." She smiled up at the lean, swarthy face with its peculiar eyes. "What brought you to this chamber?"
The sword was sheathed with a hissing sound before the Northerner deigned to answer. "I was passing by when I heard loud voices, Lady. I simply came in to investigate."
"No matter," Christina replied. "But again, I speak my thanks to your well timed arrival."
The Valcainian was silent for a moment, then spoke. "I would judge, Lady Christina, the Lord Coeurbe means you no good, and that we have both made an enemy this day."
Christina had to admit the truth of his statement. "He wishes to marry me," she explained. "When you entered the room, he was attempting to force his suit upon me. I had already told him 'no'."
"Indeed." No betraying emotions marred Vlarik's stern face. "That is why he threatens to write your King?"
"Yes." Christina sighed. "I must write a letter, too, and pray it reaches the eyes of His Majesty before Lord Coeurbe's."
"Then write it quickly, Lady. If you have it written and sent within the hour, Lord Coeurbe's messenger will not be able to overtake your own," Vlarik advised. "It had best be young James. His horse is swift and he is an excellent rider. Your letter will be safe in his care."
"As you say, Vlarik. Send my servant to me with writing paper and quill and tell James to hold himself in readiness to travel to the capital.
Vlarik inclined his head in a stiff bow, his strangely shaped ears showing clearly in the light. "As you say, Lady."
Within moments, a servant rushed in with the requested materials and Christina sat down to compose her missive to the King. Sealed with her own personal signet, it was given into Vlarik's hand, he promising that young James was waiting without the door to start his journey.
Scarce an hour later, Vlarik begged to inform her the messenger from Lord Coeurbe had been seen speeding down the same road James had taken.
"But he will not reach the King first, Lady," Vlarik assured her. "James has the better horse and a ten league lead. He will reach the King first."
"Thank you, Vlarik." Christina's hands busied themselves with her embroidery once again.
"I shall be down in the guard room should you require anything further of me." Vlarik bowed himself from the room.
In the light of the setting sun, Christina sat in her chair mechanically plying her needle, her thoughts on the man who had just left her presence. Vlarik the Wanderer he had styled himself the day he came into Lord Guillaume's presence to request employment. He had volunteered nothing of his background, saying only that he hailed from Valcain, which he could not have denied in any case, and that he was a trained warrior. Lord Guillaume had told the young man there was little to do these days since the King no longer looked upon him with favor and preferred to leave him out of whatever plans he had. Guillaume had heard the King was planning some great venture to the South, and that Vlarik would doubtless find much loot and fighting down there rather than on Chappelle's backwater estates. But Vlarik was not to be denied. He said he was weary of war for the time and wished only to serve with a man as distinguished and well thought of as Guillaume. At last the lord had surrendered to the younger man's importunities and given him a place among his personal guard. But with Guillaume's death two weeks previous, many of Guillaume's retainers had taken their leave of Christina, saying she would have little use for their services and that it was foolish for her to be paying them to idle around their quarters all day. Christina had bid them a sad farewell, knowing they spoke only truth. She would not lead them to war and they would be a drain on her slender resources. And further, when and if the King bestowed her hand, her future husband would establish his own retainers at Chappelle. But Vlarik had not come to seek his release from her service. Instead, he had knelt before her, swearing his loyalty until the time should come when she no longer needed his services. Left with but a few aged and the youngsters. Christina had made him the head of the guard that remained at Chappelle. There had been some outcry at this decision. but Christina had stood firm. saying the Valcainian was the ablest of those left and there would be little call upon his services as head of the guard since few men would be foolish enough to attack the lands of the King's ward.
Christina found herself wondering about this man who called himself Wanderer. It was no uncommon thing for a Valcainian to leave his frozen homelands for one reason or another. Fighting for the sheer joy of fighting, they often enlisted in the armies of their Southern neighbors, establishing a mighty reputation for themselves as bold warriors who feared none and bowed their heads to none but their employers, and that only rarely. There were also many Valcainians who had been banished southwards because they were too bloodthirsty even for their own kind. It was common for the banished one to serve out his exile in the armies of the highest bidder and, if he survived, to return home with many campaigns' worth of riches and loot. But this Vlarik was not like the many Valcainians Christina had met in the course of her years. His voice was soft spoken. and appeared oddly gentle for one of the northern barbarians. His word were those of an educated man, a rarity even in the South. And he seemed less willing than most to quarrel with his fellow soldiers; although once aroused he was not to be taken lightly, as he had proved soon after his arrival at Chappelle by defeating handily the second in command of Guillaume's hand picked guards. The defeated man had been so embarrassed he'd left Chappelle with six weeks wages owing him. Since then, the Valcainian had not been forced into another confrontation but had been left to walk his own path with let or hindrance.
A servant entering the room with a branch of candles interrupted Christina's thoughts and soon she was summoned to the evening meal, where she dined in state and alone at the great table.
* * *
"Do you think it wise to go riding, Lady?" Respectfully, Vlarik stood by the head of Christina's horse. "I have received no word of intruders upon Chappelle land, but that is not to say there are none."
Christina smiled down at the frowning Valcainian. "Your concern is well taken, Vlarik, but I think needless in this case. As you can see, I have my groom with me. And besides, who would be rash enough to attack my person on my own estates?"
Vlarik took a step back, his brown eyes dark with thought. "You should still have a care not to travel far from the walls of this house, Lady."
"I shall remember that, Vlarik," Christina agreed. Then she put her crop to her horse's flank.
Eyes narrowed, the Valcainian watched Christina and her groom pound out of the manor courtyard, then swung around to summon the stable boy who had just turned to go back. Within minutes, Vlarik's great charger was also flying out of the courtyard, the black cloak Vlarik invariably wore streaming in the wind.
After many minutes of steady galloping, Christina brought her mare down to a more genteel canter along the path that wandered the side of the creek wending its way through the de la Chappelle lands. Christina enjoyed her daily rides, all the more so since Guillaume's death. No more did his friends stop at the Manor to seek her hospitality and company, and Christina missed the excitement sorely. It would be many long months before she could remove herself from Chappelle to go to Court, so she was reduced to Guillaume's extensive library, her needlework, and this daily ride.
The path took a twist and, at the end of it, Christina pulled up to confront a group of armed men led by Lord Roger Coeurbe himself. Christina stared haughtily at the man.
"You are blocking my path, Lord Coeurbe!" she informed him through clenched teeth.
"No more than you block mine, Lady Christina." Insolently, he nudged his horse toward hers until they were touching shoulders. "As you can see, I do not take 'no' for an answer."
Christina sat her horse rigidly, forbidding herself to show fear.
"You presume too much, my Lord. I rule Chappelle, and you are but a trespasser!"
The men with Coeurbe circled their horses around her. Her head still erect, Christina made her horse take several steps backwards, but to no avail. Coeurbe reached out and grabbed the bridle in his hands.
"Now, Lady, you will not escape me!" he taunted her. "Where is your Valcainian guardian?"
Desperately, Christina lashed out with her crop, but Coeurbe was able to deflect the blow with an upraised arm.
"Thomas, run!" she screamed at the groom. "Get help!"
No sooner had the words left her mouth than one of Coeurbe's men had his bow from his shoulder and was fitting an arrow to the string. The bow twanged and the groom cried out. Christina heard a thump, and the whinny of the man's horse, and finally, the sound of the riderless horse fleeing.
"There will be no help for you, Lady," Coeurbe mocked her. Salacious glee lit his eyes as he surveyed Christina's anger flushed face and heaving bosom. "Do you come with me quietly, or will it be necessary to drag you?"
Even though it was useless, Christina refused to admit defeat. "I go nowhere with you, Roger Coeurbe! This is madness! What have you to gain by kidnaping the King's ward?"
"Chappelle," he answered carelessly. "I have a priest who will marry us, and a host of witnesses who will swear that you came of your own free will. The King will fuss and fume, but once the deed's done, there is little he can to do to cut the knot, especially, my Lady, when you tell him on bended knee you were so anxious to become my wife you could not await his approval."
"Never!" Christina swore. "Besides, have you forgotten the letter I sent to him? He will hardly believe your charade in the light of that!"
"This letter?" Coeurbe, with his free hand, reached into the pouch at his belt and produced a sheet of paper, holding it so she could see the seal clearly. "Your messenger was fleet enough, but too stupid to see the trap before him."
Christina's mouth went dry. She was trapped now; no way to escape. Coeurbe had destroyed her messenger while his went free, and his retainers would have no compunctions about lying in his behalf.
Coeurbe read the defeat in her eyes and laughed, an unpleasant sound. "Oh, yes, Lady, I have you now! Better for you had you accepted my suit yesterday when I was in a mood to court you. No more will I bend my knee to you. It will be you who bends to my will!"
"Not while I have breath in my body!"
So intent had Coeurbe and his companions been on their game, they had failed to notice Vlarik pull his horse up, then enter the glade at a slow pace that made no sound.
"You, again!" Coeurbe dropped Christina's bridle, hatred in his voice.
Once more, Vlarik had his sword out. The mocking sneer on his face taunting Coeurbe. "I pledged my word to my dead Lord that I would see his daughter safe from your depredations, Lord Coeurbe, and I keep my word."
At a gesture from their master, Coeurbe's men gathered behind him, their swords now also drawn.
"You will die then, Valcainian." Coeurbe bared his teeth in a mirthless smile. "Even you cannot hope to win against seven armed men."
"Perhaps I shall not win, but I shall take care that you do not win either," Vlarik replied in his deep, even voice.
Christina seized the chance to remove herself from Coeurbe's reach and retreated around, then behind the battle ready Valcainian. She was poised to run, but unable to until she had seen the outcome of this unequal combat.
"I strongly suggest you flee now, Lady Christina," Vlarik addressed her without turning around. "It will do little for you to stay and watch, and perhaps be recaptured, which would mean I will have given my life for nought."
Still Christina hesitated, torn between her desire to leave this place far behind, and to watch this brave man fight what would undoubtedly be his last battle.
"Whether I catch her now or later, Valcainian, it matters not!" Coeurbe boasted. "In the end, I will have both her and Chappelle."
"Lady Christina ... go!" Vlarik twisted around in his saddle for one short moment, hard brown eyes under frowning brows catching her own. Coeurbe chose that moment to attack, now that his foe's attention was focused elsewhere.
Christina shouted once in warning, then hauled her horse's head around and fled back down the path she had ridden only moments before. She heard other hooves pounding behind her and thinking it was Vlarik, eased her horse up. A quick glance behind showed it wasn't the Northerner, but one of Coeurbe's followers, a tall, cavernous faced man. Christina's hand applied the crop to her horse's rump and the animal surged ahead, but the other hoofbeats were drawing ever closer. Then, just as she would have burst out into the plain surrounding the manor, her horse stumbled, tossing Christina into a stunned, breathless heap by the side of the path. Gasping for breath, she heard the other horse pull up, then the thud of footsteps. Unable to flee, she looked up at her pursuer.
"You will come with me, lady," the man said in a slow mechanical voice. "I will take you to Coeurbe." Hands reached for her.
"No!" Christina screamed. She scrabbled in the brush, trying to raise herself up to flee, but the hands were on her arms now, preventing her escape. "No! Vlarik! Vlarik!"
* * *
"Christine." The voice came from a distance. "Christine. Wake up, honey. Christine!"
Christine opened her eyes, her breath coming in gasps. A face was bent over her own, a familiar face. Christine shrieked in fear. Hands caught hers, and the face spoke again.
"Christine, wake up. It's only a bad dream. Wake up now."
Christine stopped fighting and her thoughts gradually pulled themselves back together again.
"Roger," she said weakly. She moved her head, realizing she was lying, not on a patch of dirt, but on a bed. The infirmary. "What am I doing here?"
Dr. Korby released her hands, then sat down on the edge of the bed next to her. "How do you feel, darling?"
"Funny," Christine replied. "I had the strangest dream."
"I wouldn't doubt it." Korby smiled. "You've been unconscious for about twelve hours now."
"How?" Christine asked, but then she remembered -- the lab, she had dropped the vials of reagent, the ones that caused hallucinations.
"You took quite a trip there, sweetheart." Korby's voice was gentle and concerned.
"Didn't I just!" Christine chuckled. "You were in it -- only it wasn't really you. You were an ogre who tried to kidnap me to get my father's lands. And I was saved by a -- a Valcainian, I think. But he actually looked like a Vulcan."
"You saw a Vulcan as a knight in shining armor?"
Christine nodded, and then Korby began laughing. Christine had to admit it did sound pretty funny.
"A Vulcan -- saving you from me!" Korby continued to smile. "You do have a vivid imagination, my dear." He brushed a hand along her forehead, then stood up. "I'll stop back later to see you, Christine. But here comes the doctor now, and I'm sure he'll want to examine you."
"Yes, Roger." Christine watched the tall man walk away, still smiling to herself. It was foolish to think of Roger as some sort of inhuman monster and then to have cast a *Vulcan* in the role as her knight in shining armor! But then, he hadn't been in shining armor -- just a black cape, black trousers, and blue tunic.