Four months prior...
The larger of the two h’nan cocks expanded its neck scales up to their fullest extent and stood on its hind legs in full threat display. The other cock, though lacking the impressive size of its rival, matched the display move for move. The two animals strutted in a circle about each other, oblivious to the boisterous ring of men shouting and wagering on the outcome of the duel.
The larger h’nan male opened its mouth and hissed, showing its multitude of needle-like teeth. The challenger did likewise and the animals moved closer, a practice lunge here and a swipe there with extended talons as each tested the strength and mettle of the other. To one side, the caged female chirped and ran nervously up and down the length of her confining bars, seeking release. Whether to escape or join the males was unclear, for she was in oestrus and hot to mate with the victor of the battle erupting before her.
The two males knew it well and this spurred their combat to a fever pitch. The smaller h’nan refused to back down before the ranking male and, with a screech, launched itself forward. Its charge was met with vigor and in seconds the two animals had exploded into a blur of teeth, talons and blood. The noise of the spectators at the cock fight grew even louder and the pace of the betting picked up rapidly.
The larger cockerel had its opponent down now, teeth locked onto its throat, but the smaller animal was fighting hard, hind legs scrambling, ripping claws viciously against the belly scales of the other. The big one was tough and experienced, however, and just managed to keep the talons from gashing open its underside. It beared down on the throat hold and shook its rival, closing off the windpipe. The smaller cock began to fight more for survival than conquest, but it was too late. In two minutes’ time, it lay limply between the victor’s teeth.
Angrily, the owner of the dead h’nan stepped into the ring and tried to take the body away from the other h’nan cock. The winning animal refused to relinquish its prize so easily, however, and flew at the man, snapping its vicious jaws furiously. The man jumped and danced out of its way, to the great amusement of the warriors surrounding the pit. The ring vibrated with raucous laughter and bets began to be paid over with much commentary.
S’Von had been watching with as much interest as the others. He had never seen this cruel sport before coming to D’Khahl, the Vulcans of his own time being much too civilized to condone such a savage pastime. But he had to admit that it was exciting and the outcome never certain. And it kept the barbaric fervor of killing high in the men gathered here in the campsite outside the walls of D’Khahl Holding. They would be marching soon, he knew, and then they would have more sport than a simple cock fight.
The next bout was beginning, this time not mere h’nan, but fighting seehn, the canids long domesticated for companionship and work. These had been bred for their aggressive tendencies and muscle. They were great favorites, apparently, for the roar of adulation that went up from the warriors at the sight of the straining, frothing animals startled S’Von. The owners of the seehn could scarcely restrain the slavering beasts in their eagerness to get at one another and, finally, at a signal, released them. The seehn collided into a maelstrom of slashing white teeth and flying blood and fur.
S’Von slipped away from the commotion and moved back toward the stronghold. For a moment, listening to the snarls of the animals and the shouts of the men, even he wondered what tide of savagery he had unleashed upon his world. Then he smiled in satisfaction, knowing that such sadistic brutality would win him that world. And very soon now, too.
Very soon now.
* * *
Over the next two weeks, men and weapons began
arriving from the outlying provinces envassaled to Anskar. Three of his four sons arrived with their armies
and their own subholders. The fortress began to fill with people, then
the town below, and finally the fields around the town were peopled with
soldiers, hoxa and followers, all
bringing in supplies and ordnance. The
Anskar had sent Ansaric back to Tuldu’un with his message and had dispatched Stahl and two others to go with him as escort. It was as much to separate Stahl from Spock as it was for the stated mission. The Holder could read the signs as surely as he could the seasons and there was no doubt in his mind that there was a battle brewing between the two. He had no idea why Stahl had taken such an instant dislike to the visitor from the desert, but the coming war gave him more than enough worry just now.
As for Spock, he spent his days drilling and practicing with the swordmasters, improving his feel and handling of the sword he now possessed, never forgetting the fact that each day brought S’Von closer to their confrontation. He chafed at this forced waiting, eager as he was to search out and apprehend the renegade. But as always he ran up against the inescapable dilemma. What then? He had always intended to return S’Von to the present and transfer him back to Federation custody. He was sure that this time S’Von would be remanded to a maximum security mental facility for treatment, Tantalus Colony in all probability. But how to return to the future?
Some part of him still hoped for rescue by his
So, he practiced and drilled with the sword, and in the afternoons and evenings, he met with Anskar and his captains and plotted out strategies. As he got to know the men with whom he worked and they became acquainted with him, mutual respect began to grow and Anskar quickly learned that Spock’s military experience was no mere boast. The new-found cousin of the Ni’ikhirch clan possessed a knowledge of tactics and warfare that surprised them all and, even though he steadfastly maintained that he was no warrior, they all came to believe that he had commanded men with the assurance and courage of an experienced military leader.
One morning, feeling that he needed to improve his riding ability in preparation for the coming battle, Spock took Brax outside the village to a clearing that had not yet filled with an encampment. There, he exercised him, letting him gallop until he had stretched his muscles, then working him in turns, stops and starts, getting used to the feel of the hox’s moves. Again, Spock wondered at the ease he felt when riding, at the natural way he and Brax meshed together. The two of them were in perfect harmony and, after a while, Spock began to experiment with guiding the hox only with pressure from his knees. He would need both hands free and, to his delight, he discovered that Brax was fully trained in such skills. Indeed, it was Brax who seemed to be doing the training here. He projected to his rider all of his movements before he did them so that Spock was never taken off-guard and unseated. The ballet of their movements was wondrous to behold.
They worked together for a couple of hours before Brax let Spock know that it was time for a break and stopped under a little stand of trees that provided shade from the growing heat of the late morning sun. Spock took the hint and dismounted, unsaddled and unbridled the hox, and turned him loose to graze for a while.
Propping the saddle up in the shade of the trees, Spock leaned back against it and stretched out in the short grass to watch the gray hox feed. The morning was quiet and he let his mind drift as he listened to the faint sounds of the countryside — the soft breeze sighing through the leaves above him, the tinkle of horn-bells on the paran herd grazing near the village, someone laughing far away. In the distance, he could hear the sounds of the encamped army — the clink of swords as men practiced, the neigh of hoxa, the shout of sergeants drilling their men.
It was unbelievably peaceful here. He’d become so accustomed to the constant background noises of the Enterprise — the underlying thrum of the engines through the deckplates, the hiss of the ventilation system, the constant peep and chirp of the instruments, the soft mutter of people’s voices — that he’d forgotten what real quiet was. In his own day, it was nearly impossible to find a spot this serene on Vulcan unless one went into the deep desert, and even there one was subjected to the whispered roar of ships dopplering out to space, of passenger transports humming through the sky, of the very planet seeming to vibrate with life. One was always aware of the busy, 23rd century world in which one lived. Here, it was easy to forget about the world he’d inadvertently left behind and to sink into this time and place. He already half-felt that he belonged here, that this was his real place in the continuum of things.
He had closed his eyes to meditate when he heard running footsteps rapidly coming his way and he sat up to see a paran lamb galloping toward him, two people in hot pursuit. One was a half-grown girl with a look of determination on her face, a paran stick in one hand. The other was T’Preve, her skirts flying, looking just as determined to catch the lamb as the girl was.
The lamb was bent on escape and it didn’t notice Spock until the man suddenly bolted up from behind the tree and made a grab at it. The lamb bleated in shock, leaped out of Spock’s reach, did a twist in the air and took off in another direction.
The girl changed her heading in mid-stride and followed, running hard, but T’Preve skittered to a halt, gasping, “Spock!”
“I missed him. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right. T’Lynn may be able to catch him,” she panted, out of breath.
“Here, drink some water,” he said, bending down to retrieve the water bag from his saddle and handing it to her.
She gladly accepted and took a mouthful, quenching her dry throat. “Thank you, m’lord,” she finally was able to say.
“I thought we were cousins,” he reminded her, smiling.
She looked contrite and smiled in return, then handed the water bag back to him. “Yes, of course.” She got her breathing back under control and turned her attention to where the young girl had finally managed to trap the lamb against a little outcropping of rocks and get her hands on it. Looking triumphant, she was now coming back their way with the fugitive in her arms.
T’Preve applauded and called, “Good work, T’Lynn!”
The girl grinned in answer and returned to them, dropping down beside the two other people. She tied a line around the lamb’s neck before she accepted the water bag and took a good drink. Spock and T’Preve settled themselves back onto the grass beside the herding girl, Spock crossing his long legs tailor-fashion and resting his forearms on his knees.
It did not escape his notice that T’Preve had lost the tenseness and solemnity that had blanketed her when they had met on the upper wall of Shar’ram. Since Stahl had left on his mission to Tuldu’un with Ansaric, the girl had visibly relaxed and her delightful personality was shining through. His heart beat a little stronger simply being with her and he wondered if she could feel the contentment he was enjoying at the moment.
She didn’t seem to be giving him any obvious attention, but was instead focusing her attention on the herding girl. “I thought sure you’d lose him,” T’Preve told her. “If he’d gone up that hillside instead of against that outcropping, you’d never have caught him.”
“I know,” T’Lynn panted, stretched out beside her. “Pa woulda striped me good if I’da let this little woolyhead become sehlat meat.” The paran tugged at its tie line and bleated loudly. “Ah, holler all ya want. I got no sympathy for ya! Not after the chase ya led me!”
Spock did something totally unexpected — he laughed. It surprised him and he caught himself, wondering what had made him do it. True, he was thoroughly enjoying the incident but still, this was a complete lapse of his emotional control. T’Preve and T’Lynn didn’t seem to think it was unusual, however, and they laughed with him. He realized abruptly that these people seemed to smile and laugh a lot. The rigid control of emotion didn’t exist here and he wondered how he must appear to them — serious and lacking in humor? But he knew that he could not simply negate lifelong training and conditioning. His control seemed to be slipping away as more and more time passed, but he would not just give it up. He doubted that he could even if he tried.
Two smaller children came running up, a boy and another girl. “T’Lynn! You caught him!”
“Yeah, and he’s caused enough trouble! I’ll enjoy taking this one back to Pa,” the girl answered. Changing topics with the ease of a child, she looked over at Spock and asked, “Sai, would it be all right if we petted your hox? We won’t hurt him.”
“I see no reason why not, providing it is agreeable with Brax,” Spock replied and watched the children walk happily across the field where the big gray animal raised its head and made a soft purring sound.
T’Preve gave a little sigh. “I was hox-crazy when I was her age. I suppose most children are that way.”
“I’m afraid I have never been around children,” Spock answered, watching the young girl expertly scratch behind one of Brax’s ears. The big animal closed his eyes blissfully and moved his head so that she could get at the spot better. Other little hands found places on shoulders and flanks to scratch.
“There are no children in your village?” T’Preve responded, looking at him in a puzzled manner.
Watch it, he warned himself, realizing he was about to say more than he wanted to reveal about himself. Instead, he replied, “That’s not what I mean. I just don’t generally have direct contact with children.”
She nodded acceptance at that. “Where is your village, Spock? Is it far away?”
“Very far away,” he hedged. “I don’t think you would ever have heard of it.”
She tilted her head and peered at him with a perceptive gaze. “You don’t like to talk about yourself, do you? Why not? Did you do something wrong that forced you to leave?”
He glanced over at her then looked back at the children patting and stroking the big hox. “You are very inquisitive, T’Preve. No, I did nothing wrong. I left home because my father and I had a falling out over the path my life would take. It’s as simple as that.”
“Sometimes following the path another wishes you to take can lead in the wrong direction,” she answered softly, introspectively. “A person must follow his or her heart, don’t you think?”
“Indeed,” he responded. “But the following is not always easy. Sometimes making peace with yourself is the hardest thing a person can do.”
She smiled at him. “You are so different from any of the men I’ve ever known. My father chose Stahl to marry me because he is a great warrior and very tradition-bound. You don’t strike me exactly as a warrior, Spock, although I sense that you know war and battle and have led men.”
“I have fought,” he answered simply, his gaze far away. Suddenly he looked older than his years and she could see the facade of a hardened commander settle over him. Now, she could imagine him leading men into battle, a warrior who would ride into the teeth of death if that’s what his duty demanded and never flinch at the prospect. She shivered at the vision and changed the subject to a softer one.
“Do you have a bondmate, Spock? Or someone to whom you are pledged?”
The warrior faded away and he was the more philosophical man again. As the breeze ruffled his thick, black hair, beginning to grow long now, he absently plucked at the grass around his ankles, silent. Then, shaking his head, he answered, “No. I am not bonded. I was pledged once but ... she wanted someone else and I released her.”
“I find that very hard to believe,” T’Preve said softly and he turned to find her looking at him with a deep, searching expression. Her beautiful mahogany eyes studied him as if trying to read his soul and he found himself gazing back with a matching intensity. Something about this woman touched him profoundly, calling to a place inside him that set his heart to pounding. She set other emotions stirring as well, emotions that he had felt only a few times before and which he had kept rigidly in check. He struggled to bring them under control now, knowing he could not afford to even acknowledge their existence, lest they burst free of the logical and disciplined cage in which he kept them tightly imprisoned.
All the same, he discovered that his throat was dry as he managed to say, “What ... what is hard to believe?”
“That she would want someone else,” T’Preve whispered back, still holding his enraptured gaze. Her frank and intent scrutiny was lending strength to the emotional storm building inside him. Something indefinable was passing between them and, without conscious volition, Spock reached up to touch her face with his fingertips.
Brax snorted loudly and quite nearby, and they jerked their attention around to find the hox standing in front of them. As the tension broke, Spock nearly laughed again, because the thought went through his mind that, if Brax could have raised a reproving eyebrow at his master, he would have. At any rate, his stare said clearly, It’s time to go home and Spock agreed.
Getting to his feet, Spock reached down to give T’Preve an assist then he turned back around to the children who were standing beside the hox. “Would you like to ride him home?”
The youngsters’ expressions said all that was needed and they stood by, bouncing in eagerness, as Spock got the stallion ready to go. Then he gave T’Lynn a boost up into Brax’s saddle and lifted the little ones up with her, and the group started back across the meadow toward the village, the hox trailing behind the two adults, mindful of the children on his back. T’Preve carried the paran lamb in her arms.
Other children joined them as they walked through the village, the riders definitely the center of attention. They had quite an entourage by the time they reached the westernmost gate of the wall surrounding Shar’ram. There, Spock halted Brax and handed the children down from the saddle. T’Lynn dropped him a very pretty curtsy and beamed at him, then took the lamb from T’Preve, turned and ran off with her companions, all of them chattering eagerly.
“That was very generous, cousin,” T’Preve said as they started through the gate complex into the stronghold courtyard.
Spock shrugged. “Brax wanted to do it,” he answered.
She glanced over and smiled at him then said, “And thank you for our walk. It was very pleasant.”
He nodded a bow in response. “By all means, cousin. I enjoyed it as well.” He left her and led Brax toward the stables. T’Preve watched him go, a bemused expression on her face, then she turned and headed into the main hall.
Neither saw Stahl standing to one side of the courtyard, watching the couple with a darkening expression settling over his face. As Spock crossed near him, the big warrior strode toward him with a purposeful step and blocked his path.
“What were you doing with her?” he demanded.
Spock drew up in surprise, only just managing not to blurt out, You’re back! He hadn’t expected the warrior to return so soon. Instead, resentful of Stahl’s accusatory tone, he answered shortly, “Walking.”
Spock’s brows lowered dangerously. “Walking from the meadow with a hox, fourteen children and a paran lamb in tow. Or isn’t that enough chaperonage for you?”
Stahl glared at him. “I give you fair warning,” he ground out in a low, threatening voice. “Stay away from her. Or, sword bearer or no, you’ll be sorry you ever set foot in Shar’ram!”
He spun and marched away before Spock could think of a suitable answer, leaving the Vulcan fuming in anger.