Stefin slammed his fist down on the council table and shouted, “I tell you again — we are not strong enough to march on Seleya! Shar’ram is the most heavily fortified city on Vulcan and it would take an army three times this size to even begin to lay siege to it! Where do you propose that we find that many men?!”
S’Von glared at him icily. “Ally yourself with the holders of Seka and Elakil. Promise them lands and riches in exchange for their aid.” He leaned forward in his chair, his caramel-colored eyes locked on Stefin with a fanatical light. “Promise them Seleya itself if that’s what it takes! You know yourself what a prize that mountain is. The springs there are everflowing. There are many who would sacrifice their entire holdings to be able to control the water there.”
“And why do you think the Ni’ikhirchi fight so fiercely to hold it,” Stefin hissed back at him. “Shar’ram is impregnable because of those springs! We can never launch a successful siege against it! The bigger the army we send against it, the more supplies and water it will require. How do you propose that we provision an army that size?”
“Then draw them out of Shar’ram,” S’Von replied, leaning back again. “Get them out of their fortress and onto an open battlefield. Defeat them there.”
“Easily said,” Stefin grumbled, turning his back and walking away.
“Anskar is powerful and his neighbors rely on him for protection. All you have to do is attack one of them. Tuldu’un, for instance. Sefak is his cousin. He’ll come to his aid, surely enough.”
The Holder stared out the window onto his courtyard and to the new stone wall that was going up in place of the old wooden one. “Possible,” he mused at last, unwilling to admit to his sorcerer that his advice was sound. “I will consider it.”
Abruptly, he turned and walked to the doorway connecting to his bedchamber. Flinging open the door, he demanded without preamble, “T’Kaela! Attend me!” In a moment, the young woman appeared in the doorway, unsmiling but unflinching before her husband. “Did I not tell you to have my mid-meal served here?”
“I told the serving women to bring it here,” she answered stiffly, loathing plain upon her face.
“Then why is it not here?!”
“I don’t know.” Her voice was defiant, hard.
“Watch your tone, woman! Get down to the kitchens and get it!”
She seemed to grow taller. “I will have the steward do so.”
Without warning, Stefin backhanded her, sending her crashing to the floor. “I did not say send the steward, did I?” he growled. “You bring it. And then I’ll feed part of it to you just to make sure you haven’t poisoned it as well. Now, get up!”
T’Kaela climbed shakily to her feet, her expression murderous, but she answered meekly, “Yes, my lord.” She gingerly touched the livid green bruise where he had hit her, already swelling. Straightening herself proudly, she turned and left the room.
S’Von had watched the exchange with satisfaction. Stefin would buy his own death and then the sorcerer would be done with the fool. And, once done, he himself would lead the army to Seleya and Ni’ikhirchi defeat.
* * *
Disturbed by the turn of events, Spock sought to do what he always did when troubled. He went in search of a secluded place in which he could be alone and meditate in order to clear his mind and sort through all that had happened. Walking away from Suvakh’s second floor chambers, he spied stairs at the end of the hallway leading up and he took that route.
The steps led him to the upper ramparts of the fortress and to the curtain wall surrounding the complex. From here, the valley spread out before him and he could see the little village and the fields scattered below. To the southwest Sas-a-shar rolled to the horizon, its icy whiteness belying the inferno it became in daylight hours. To the west and northwest the Llangon Hills undulated into the distance, the red sun now sinking below their dark rims, shooting its final rays across the ochre-colored sky. Several alo’oe rode the last thermals of the evening, searching the desert for prey. Closer to the fortress, flights of teresh’kah were coming in to roost on the cliff face below Shar’ram.
In the village, Spock could see people returning from the fields, leading teams of s’boxa and a hox or two. Lights were beginning to wink on in the houses and smoke was rising from chimneys as fires for last-meal were lit. In the quietness of the evening, he could hear faint laughter on the gentle breeze and the bleat of paran as they were herded into night shelter, away from hunting le’matya or sehlat.
The peace of his surroundings drained the troubles of the day away from Spock’s soul and he rested his hands on the thick yellow sandstone blocks of the wall, leaning to breathe in the clean air. The light wind ruffled his dark hair and plucked at his clothing, imparting the first hint of the night’s coolness. He was so absorbed in his reverie that he failed to notice he was not alone until a faint footstep caused him to spin to his right.
T’Preve had been standing in the shadows and now she stepped forward into the light. “Good evening, cousin,” she said, clutching her cloak around her as the breeze gusted up a little. “Now it is my turn to startle you.”
“Good evening,” he answered. “I didn’t know anyone was here. I hope I didn’t disturb you.”
“No, not at all. I had just come up to watch the sunset.”
He nodded and turned back to the vista. “Yes ... it’s lovely tonight.”
“Yes...” Their conversation faded away awkwardly and she stepped closer to the parapet.
He couldn’t help noticing the way the rosy sunlight limned her features and painted highlights into her long black hair, rippling about her face and shoulders. Again, from deep inside came the surge of attraction he had felt when he’d first seen her, the indefinable longing he’d experienced in her presence. He had to remind himself that she was betrothed to another man and that the feelings building in him were impossible and wrong. But when she turned and looked up at him with her beautiful mahogany eyes, he could scarcely contain the rush of emotions that leapt up within him.
She seemed to be having her own internal struggle, for her expression mirrored his own for a moment, then she turned pointedly away, back to where the sun had at last moved below the horizon. “I must go,” she said softly. “It would be very awkward to explain our being together here.”
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You didn’t seem upset when I saw you in the garden. Has something happened?”
“I’m afraid my pledge-mate would be unhappy if I were seen in the company of another,” was all she would say.
“Stahl,” answered Spock in the same quiet tone, understanding.
She nodded. “He saw you coming away from the garden this afternoon. He was ... not pleased.”
“Would it help if I spoke with him? Assured him that I have no evil designs on you?”
“No, please—” She caught herself and gave him a long, searching look. “No, don’t do that. It would only make him worse. I told him that you were only being kind in speaking to me, but he... He doesn’t like other men showing me any attention.” She looked back toward the darkening horizon. The breeze teased tendrils of her dark hair around her cheeks and lips and he had to forcefully contain an urge to reach up and brush them away from her face.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, almost in a whisper, unable to pull his gaze away from her delicate features. “I did not intend to cause you any trouble.”
Turning back to him, her eyes met his for an endless moment. Again the inexplicable longing surged in him, as though there was something about her that his soul recognized and cried out to reclaim.
As if she had intercepted the aura of his thoughts, she caught her breath slightly and exhaled with a barely audible little sound. A hint of the same emotions he was feeling flashed over her face, then she said, “I must go. Good evening, cousin.” She hurried past him, disappearing down the staircase, her skirts swirling in a last flourish.
She nearly knocked down Ansaric, who moved quickly out of her way and nodded as she passed. “Lady! I’m sorry — I didn’t see you.” He then stepped out onto the landing and turned to walk toward Spock. “Ah, master ... there you are.”
“I’m not your master, Ansaric,” Spock answered, feeling suddenly irritated again, and turned back to gaze out over the darkening valley.
“You are the sword bearer and I am your shi’ka’ree,” the young man retorted, coming to stand beside him. “That makes you my master.” Spock merely grunted in answer, refusing him any further reply than that. “Lord Suvakh sent me to inquire if you will be meeting with Lord Anskar later tonight.”
“If he will see me.”
“Good. Then he will be most interested to learn that you wear the sword. It could make a difference in his plans for the war.”
Spock spun on him. “I am truly weary of hearing about this sword and how I am now supposed to be a great, god-like figure that has come to save Shar’ram,” he said acidly. “That is not why I am here!”
“Our missions are one and the same, master,” Ansaric answered. “You are sword bearer now.”
“Then I will find someone else to take this marvelous sword. I don’t want it!”
Ansaric regarded him coolly, exasperation simmering under his stony expression. “Very well, get rid of it then ... if you can. Throw it away. Or give it to me.”
“Gladly!” Spock reached down and unbuckled the sword belt. Removing it from around his waist, he shoved it toward the young man who stood before him.
As Spock did so, inexplicably his heart began to pound and his hand began to tremble. The harder he tried to thrust the weapon into Ansaric’s grasp, the shorter his breath became and the more violently his arm shook. The muscles in his hand refused to work, to loosen their hold on the sword belt. Finally, as if to prove his point, Ansaric reached to take the sword — and Spock cried out and yanked it back, clutching it against his chest.
Ansaric didn’t seem surprised. “You see?” he asked quietly. “You cannot rid yourself of it. Solan won’t allow it. You bear his sword and his katra. And you will, until either you die or Heya brings forth the next bearer. And I am your shi’ka’ree, as I was Tumik’s. Your squire, your aide, your companion. I am appointed by the Goddess to serve you. I am as bound to my destiny as you are to yours.”
Spock suddenly knew that it was true. He had felt that his heart would burst had he allowed the sword out of his keeping. The interloping katra inside his head had reared itself up with a roar and prohibited such action. He could more easily sever his hand from his arm than voluntarily give the sword up into another’s possession. As soon as he had attempted it, he knew to whom this sword truly belonged. It was yet another indication that he was forever trapped in this time period, with any hope of returning home fading away like the last vestiges of the sunset in the deepening western sky.
With a sigh of defeat, Spock bowed his head and strapped the sword belt back around his waist, settling the weapon at his side. “What must I do?” he asked, almost rhetorically.
“Right now? Come down to last-meal,” Ansaric answered kindly, taking his master’s upper arm to gently pull him toward the staircase. “You have had a day that few would envy and you’re tired and hungry. Afterwards, you’ll feel more like talking with Anskar about what is to come. But first — eat! I hear Cook’s made s’ruk tarts for sweet course tonight! And have you ever had her honey cakes? Unbelievable!”
* * *
“What do you have?” asked Jim Kirk as he seated himself at the conference table. Dr. Amy Dean and the two Vulcan analysts, Salek and Tokohl, all had grim expressions. At least, Dean did. It was hard to tell with the Vulcans, but they certainly didn’t look any too pleased. “Bad?” Kirk continued.
“Bad enough, Jim,” the archaeologist replied. “We’ve found a major discrepancy in the timelines.” She turned and nodded at Salek, a short, rather stocky man who appeared to be in his 40's.
Salek keyed up the sequence on the viewing screen. A shot of a castle-like fortress topping a cliff appeared, golden underneath an orange-tinted sky. In the background rose the bulk of a gigantic mountain, sporting a side canyon where part of the mountain had splintered off at some unknown date. A slender bridge joined this splinter to the main bulk of the mountain and the small pinnacle was crowned by a shrine complex. “Here is an excerpt from the records we brought from Vulcan.”
Salek worked the keys again and the screen split into two images, almost identical. This time, however, the fortress lay in ruins, only tumbled, eroded blocks marking its presence above a neat, circular city that the starship officer knew to be ShiKahr. “And here is the same bit from the Gateway timeline.”
The three scientists turned to look at him. Kirk could feel the air of tension and confusion permeating the room. “I don’t get it,” he said.
Tokohl, a tall, gaunt young man, spoke up. “Captain Kirk, when we left Vulcan, the fortress of Shar’ram was intact and in use as an educational center.”
“But that’s impossible,” the captain stuttered. “Shar’ram has been in ruins since recorded time.”
“Has it, Captain?” asked Salek. “Not according to our records. Nor our memories. I assure you, I saw it myself from the shuttle window as we were leaving the spaceport at ShiKahr.”
“God,” Kirk murmured, causing the Vulcans to both twitch up an eyebrow at almost the same time. It would have been funny if the situation hadn’t been so serious. “Then which is correct? Should Shar’ram be standing or in ruins? And why does it matter?”
“That is what we must now seek to answer, Jim,” responded Dr. Dean.
“No,” Kirk said suddenly. “No, Shar’ram should be in ruins. The timeline here, on Gateway, is the correct one. Spock or S’Von has done something in the past to change it, but that fortress was not meant to be standing today.”
“Perhaps,” Tokohl nodded. “I am unwilling to concede that fully at this time. We will continue to compare the timelines.”
The captain nodded. “You’re right. Maybe this has nothing to do with Spock or S’Von. Maybe this is just a coincidence and stems from something else entirely. For all we know, S’Von could have killed someone important or Spock could have prevented someone from being killed who was meant to die.” Abruptly the lovely face of Edith Keeler flashed through Kirk’s mind and he felt a stab of old pain, then forced it down. “Or the great-grandson of someone they affected could have had a significant effect on something. It could be any of a million things. Keep looking. On the other hand, you may have just narrowed down our search pattern.” Kirk rose from his chair. “My gut feeling is that Shar’ram may be the focal point to concentrate our search. Now we just have to find out what it was that changed history ... and how — or if — Spock and S’Von were involved in whatever happened there.”