The Holding of Tuldu’un overlooked a picturesque valley in the Asagorn Highlands eighty kh’eet northwest of Seleya. It had been established three centuries before by the brother of Anskar’s great-grandfather and thus was tied by blood to the House of Ni’ikhirch. The Houses had kept close over the years by cross-bonding their daughters, and the present Holder, Sefak, was a third cousin to Anskar. The Seleyan Holder had fostered at Tuldu’un as a boy, following a long-held tradition of passing around sons between related noble houses in order to cement ties and good will.
There were less obvious motives, as well. The ruling Holders assured that they wouldn’t be attacked by their neighbors while the neighbors’ sons were guests, i.e., hostages, of the hosting Houses. Stahl of Elakil Holding had originally come to Shar’ram in that way. And there might be marriages between the sons and daughters of those Houses and that made for a legitimate claim on a neighbor’s property and water should misfortune befall that unlucky House.
To the boys involved, it was a time of learning and adventure away from home, sometimes the only chance they would have to see the world outside of their own lands. Anskar and Sefak had thus grown up together and remained friends and allies as they ruled their respective Households. One of Anskar’s sons, in fact, had married a daughter of Tuldu’un and the two Holders had a grandchild in common.
But on this day Sefak was thinking neither of his granddaughter nor of his youngest son, fostered far to the south in Al’Borak. On this day, his thoughts lay much closer to home — in the courtyard of his Holding as the peace was abruptly shattered by shouts and horns blasting the fortress of Tuldu’un out of its mid-afternoon rest.
The gates opened to admit three battle-scarred men on weary hoxa — all that was left of the patrol Sefak had sent north three weeks earlier to observe the frontier. The men rode slowly into the main courtyard, unwilling to bid their mounts to greater speed, had the animals been able to comply. The people gathered around them as they halted. One of the warriors was too weak to remain in the saddle any longer and slipped from it heavily to the ground.
Sefak appeared at the doorway of the great hall and hurried to them. Women had cradled the fallen warrior in their arms while stable boys and soldiers took care of the hoxa and other two men.
The Holder knelt and grasped the tired man by the shoulders. “Salkar! What happened! Where are the others?”
The warrior gazed wearily at his lord. “Dead. All dead. We were ambushed north of the midlands,” he gasped. The people tittered excitedly among themselves. Sefak stared incredulously at him.
Salkar seemed on the verge of collapse. “Everywhere we went, we heard his name ... He’s coming, lord. He’s on his way. Less than two months, I think, before he overruns us. That’s all.” He began to wilt and the Holder’s strong arms caught him.
“Prepare chambers!” he ordered. “Bring the healers!” Men took Salkar from him and carried him toward the fortress. “I will speak with him shortly!”
Thus, later that afternoon Sefak summoned his war captains and advisers to him and they gathered together in the Holder’s conference chamber, assembled around the big wooden table. Seated to Sefak’s right was a tall, broad-shouldered man, his long black hair pulled back and tied with a leather thong, and a brass-guarded sword with a red stone set into its pommel hanging at his side. Behind this man’s chair stood a young man in the first flush of manhood, strong and serious and ready to serve his master, Lord Tumik, the Sword Bearer of Heya.
Sefak surveyed the men seated at the table and spoke. “I have received Sai Salkar’s report. The situation is worse than we feared. There has been a coup in D’Khahl and Stefin has been murdered. His sorcerer, S’Von, has taken over and has allied with Seka and Elakil. Their combined armies are massing on the plains of D’Khahl, ready to march. It is common knowledge among the troops there, according to information Salkar gathered, that their destination is Tuldu’un and, after us, Seleya.”
“They are very confident of victory, my lord,” Tumik commented, his deep-seated brown eyes grave underneath heavy, slanting brows. “Does S’Von think we will hand over Tuldu’un without a fight?”
“Of course not, but we cannot hope to defeat them alone,” Sefak replied. “This sorcerer, S’Von, has dreadful power. He can burn down whole cities with his power.”
One of the captains gave a harsh, skeptical laugh. “Oh, surely, my lord, you don’t believe tales told by hysterical peasants!”
“There are those who have seen him do it. I would not credit it either except for all the stories that have come out of the north in the past months. Too many have witnessed his power. No... A mortal army I would not fear, no matter the size, but this wizard...” Sefak shook his head and his features settled into a grim determination. “We have no time to lose in preparing. Sentas, gather the troops and call every man you can find in the area to come armed. If a man can fight, he must come. Varan, ride south into Al’Borak and urge them to come. Talak, I send you west to the provinces there. Hurry. Ride quickly and hard.”
“Yes, my lord,” answered the warriors and rose to do his bidding.
The Holder turned to the aristocratic man at his right. “Tumik, my Sword Bearer ... I send you on a special mission. Go to Shar’ram with my greetings to Lord Anskar and tell him the situation we face and beg his help. Say to him, ‘Your cousin Holder Sefak urges that you raise all the troops you can muster and come with all dispatch to our aid. The safety of Seleya itself depends on our joined forces.’ Ansaric, you will act as my courier between our Houses. But first I will send you with a message to my son, Suruhl, at Asagorn Holding to bring his troops, then I want you to go on to Seleya from there. Return at once with any answer Anskar has for me while Tumik acts as my personal emissary to my cousin Holder. Urge them all to hurry! Tumik, I want you to take the fastest route possible to Shar’ram, through Se’han.”
Ansaric reacted to that order. “My lord! You’re sending him through Se’han alone? It is too dangerous!”
Tumik smiled gently and confidently at his squire. “A man traveling alone will make better time. And why do you fear for me, Ansaric? I am the Bearer of Kh’Liorah. No man or beast can touch me. The Goddess protects me.”
“I fear for you, all the same, my lord,” the young man answered, for he was suddenly filled with foreboding. “There are bandits and wild beasts in the Se’han Hills.”
Tumik dismissed his warning with a wave of his hand and stood, swirling his midnight blue cape around his shoulders, fastening the cloak with a silver and sapphire brooch. “Oh, so now you think I’m so foolish that I’ll be eaten by wild le’matyas, eh? Or perhaps be robbed by some ragged wretch at the point of a stone knife.” He smiled indulgently again and laid a reassuring hand on his shi’ka’ree’s shoulder. “I will be fine, Ansaric. Do as Lord Sefak bids you and I will see you in a few days in Shar’ram. Go prepare Brax and your good Kreyla for the journey. I’ll see to my own things.”
Sefak stood to see them out. “Heya protect and speed you, Tumik ... Ansaric. Go now as fast as you can.”
The men bowed in acknowledgment to their Holder and left the council chamber, Ansaric carrying the sudden added burden of the dreadful premonition that his master, Lord Tumik, would never reach Shar’ram alive.
* * *
He was waiting for her in the stables at midnight as they had arranged. He had stood impatiently for an hour, leaning against the back of his hox’s stall, listening for her light footstep and watching for the dark against dark silhouette as she slipped through the door. At last, a light rustle of fabric alerted him and he started up watchfully.
Then suddenly she was there in his arms, her mouth eager and hot against his, as hungry and passionate as the first time. For a long moment, they stood tightly embraced, absorbed in the fervent, ravenous kiss, then he gently pushed her away. “Come,” he whispered, and bent down to pick up the rolled blanket lying in the straw.
Silently, they made their way down the main aisle of the stable, past the many stalls and the dark chamber of the hoxmaster, and out the back entrance. Vulcan had no moon to light their path, but the Eyes, the two companion stars of Vulcan’s primary, burned brightly enough to allow them to make their way.
Behind the stable complex was a large partially roofed-over area where fodder for the hoxa was stored. Secluded and never visited during the night hours, it was an ideal rendezvous spot. In the back shadows of the storage barn, the high stacks of bound hay bundles formed an effective screen from any that might pass by during the night, and the thick flooring of loose tikh-straw gave them a soft, fragrant mattress upon which to spread their blanket. Here they could talk or make love as the mood struck them, without fear of discovery.
And it was making love that they did most, for they could not seem to sate their hunger for one another with their infrequent meetings. Without formal ceremony or witnesses, they had melded their hearts and minds together as bondmates, as husband and wife, and they lived through the tortuous days apart so that they could spend their secret nights together.
T’Preve could not come to him every night. It was too dangerous. But she came as often as she could and they had developed a secret signal to alert him whenever she thought she could slip away after the household had bedded down for the night. As Anskar’s niece, she was privileged to have her own small chamber, which was shared by her waiting woman, T’Kaal. Thankfully, the nurse was an old woman who slept deeply and long and T’Preve was not above making sure that she did so. Somewhere, the young woman had learned of a plant sap that worked as a soporific. On nights when she wanted to assure that the nurse would not awake, a small drop in the old woman’s evening tea sent her yawning to her bed at an early hour. The drug did no harm, just induced a deeper sleep than might be normal, and in fact was a well-known folk remedy in a more diluted form.
But there were other eyes that T’Preve had to avoid when she slipped out of her bed chamber and of these she was most fearful of Stahl or one of his lieutenants. No matter how eager she was to be in Spock’s arms, she exercised extreme caution in gliding through the black shadows of the evening. And sometimes there was just too much late night activity going on, particularly now that the fortress was filling with the growing army. More often than not, she was forced to retire alone to her bed, spending the long hours aching for his embrace and indescribable ecstasy of mind melding with the extraordinary man she had met such a short time before. She could only reach out to him mentally, calling him through the bondlink they shared since their joining. But it could not quench the thirst she felt for him, for she could not reach his thoughts, only the emotions he sent back her way. Only in an extreme case of danger or crisis could actual thoughts be transmitted.
Now, as the war loomed, time was growing ever shorter and both knew that each night together could be their last. The armies were nearly assembled and Anskar would give the order to march at any time. A month had passed since the night she had first come to him and Spock estimated they had only days now before he would be forced to leave her. It made their time together all the more precious and bittersweet.
Tonight as they drew apart from the mind meld that accompanied their lovemaking, they lay quietly in the darkness and looked up through the slatted roof at the multitude of stars that shown in the depthless black sky. Spock found himself searching among them ... for what, he scarcely knew anymore. They still beckoned him but the familiarity, the belonging that was once his had faded away. They no longer meant the same thing to him. In another time, another life, he had been at home there and he had known the paths between them as well as he now knew the road to the village commons. Now they had become no more than points of light in the far away night sky, cold, untouchable.
T’Preve was watching his pensive expression and reached up to trail one fingertip along the dark outline of his profile, along his nose to rest on his lips. “Tell me your thoughts,” she whispered.
He glanced over at her, his brows lifting in bemusement. “You wish to mind meld again? Already?”
She smiled. “No. Tell me your thoughts. Tell me what troubles you so. I sense that it is not the war ... or us.”
Sighing, he let his gaze turn back to the stars. “I was just thinking of my home,” he answered quietly.
“What about it, love? Tell me.”
“I wish I could, t’hy’la,” he whispered back. “But I wouldn’t know where to begin. It would be too strange a tale.”
“Still, I would hear it someday,” she answered sincerely.
“Someday, then,” he promised. “When the war is over...”
“Do you miss it? Your home?”
“Yes,” he responded softly, surprised at the depth of sincerity in that simple statement.
He did miss it, the ship. He missed the constant come and go of the crew, missed the tension and excitement of an encounter with new peoples and species, missed the camaraderie with the Captain and the Doctor, the amiable chatter among the bridge officers, the exhilarating tingle of transporting. He missed the way the deck beneath his feet shuddered when the main phasers fired, and the feeling of self-confidence and power he experienced when the Captain was off the bridge and he was in command. He missed the serene moments when he sat in the command chair and watched the stars stream past on the main viewscreen and listened to the quiet efficiency of his junior officers at their work. He missed chess games with Jim and trading insults with McCoy, missed Scotty’s blustering and Uhura’s sweet voice when she hummed tunes at her bridge station.
And he missed his cabin and its familiar smells and textures. He missed running water and a clean sani unit and a sonic shower. Hot hiralin tea with a hint of cinnamon, and chatty, rambling, totally illogical letters from his mother, and getting out of his uniform at the end of a duty day to relax in a way he would never let anyone see. Meditating in solitude, and the fragrance of Vulcan incense, and playing his lyre late at night with his feet propped up on his bed. He missed his bed.
A constriction had formed unbidden around his throat and, with determination, he drew a deep breath and forced those seductive, futile thoughts from his mind. It did absolutely no good to make himself miserable dwelling on such things. They were gone forever and he must find contentment here in this barely civilized, brash and boisterous time.
T’Preve was watching him closely and observed the play of emotions that drifted across his features. She had also felt the tantalizing touch of those emotions through their bond and, with it, the lightning quick glimpses of faces and events, sensations and surroundings for which she had no basis of understanding. She only knew that they were part of Spock’s past and she felt the deep sorrow he attached to them.
She reached up to caress his cheek, turning his face toward her. “I’m sorry I can’t help you get back there,” she whispered and for a moment he was startled into thinking that she had read his thoughts during his reverie and knew the strange circumstances of his coming here. Then he realized that she was only responding to his melancholy. And, as he watched her, he ceased to care about things past, for all he could see was the soft, loving expression in her eyes and the way her full lips parted in eager anticipation of tasting his mouth on hers once again.
“T’hy’la...” he answered, shifting to face her. “No matter what I left behind there, I would do it a hundred times over to find you. Nothing I had in my homeland compares to what I feel when I look at you.”
He moved to embrace her and T’Preve slid her arms around his shoulders, pulling him down to her, holding him close. After a moment, he realized she was crying softly as she held him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked in concern, raising himself up from her, trying to see her face clearly in the darkness.
“I’m going to lose you, Spock,” she whispered back, the tears on her cheeks glistening in the starlight. “One way or the other, I’m going to lose you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“If you go to war, I’m afraid you won’t come back.”
He tried to smile reassuringly and stroked her wet cheek. “I shall come back,” he promised. “You have made it imperative that I do so. How can you think that I would lose you when I’ve only just found you?”
“If you do come back from the war, there is still Stahl. I am still betrothed to him and he will not release me. It’s not that long until spring now and Life Feast.” She squeezed her eyes closed. “I can’t marry him. I won’t marry him!”
Spock gazed down at her soberly, completely serious now. “He will release you,” he assured her quietly. “No matter what I have to do, he will release you. I swear it. Because I intend to make you my wife.”
Her expression softened and she reached up to caress his face. “Oh, my love, in my heart and in every way that truly counts, I am your wife. For time without end.”
He shook his head slowly and took her hand in his, squeezing it gently. “No, that’s not good enough. I refuse to continue to meet you only in secret and always afraid of discovery. You are my t’hy’la, the mate of my heart, and I intend to marry you openly and legally, before family and witnesses, in public ceremony at the Ring Stones. I don’t care what I have to do to accomplish that.”
Tears brimmed in her eyes and she reached for him once more, drawing him into her embrace. He kissed her soundly in affirmation of his promise then stroked two fingers down the back of her hand in caress. She quickly shaped her hand into an answering form and returned his seeking touch. Her mind reached out again toward his, and their thoughts twined together, his emotions wrapping her in diaphanous webs of love and desire.
* * *
The Eyes had slid far into the western sky as Spock watched T’Preve disappear back into the silent depths of the fortress, returning to her chambers. He waited in Brax’s stall, stroking the animal’s warm silken coat until he was sure that enough time had passed, then he started quietly across the courtyard as well.
Perhaps his mind was still entwined with the rapturous delights of the hours he’d just spent with T’Preve or perhaps the sound of the little fountain in the side garden prevented him from hearing the stealthy movements around him, but in any event he was taken totally by surprise as a leather garrote was wrapped around his neck from behind and he was nearly yanked off his feet as he was dragged into the side garden by strong hands.
Instinctively, he fought to get his fingers underneath the strangling band, then, when that proved unsuccessful, he reached back over his head, trying to get a purchase on his attacker. It was to no avail for the man knew exactly what he was doing.
As Spock began to gasp futilely for air, a low, dangerous voice spoke in his right ear. “Did you think I had forgotten you, stranger?”
Stahl released him just as he was on the verge of blacking out and Spock fell to his knees in the grass of the garden, choking and gulping great lungfulls of air into his oxygen-starved body. At last he was able to turn and look up at the man towering over him. The big warrior was not alone. Three of his cohorts stood behind him, ready to assist him in any way.
“What’s the meaning of this?!” Spock demanded hoarsely, although he knew the answer.
Stahl gazed serenely down at him, still idly swinging the doubled ahn-woon he had used to throttle his rival. “Oh, I should think you know all too well the meaning of this,” he replied. “Did you truly believe that I would not discover your midnight encounters with her? You realize, I’m sure, Spock, that I would be within my rights as her betrothed-husband to spit the two of you over an open fire and sit back comfortably while you roasted alive.”
“You’re no husband to her!” Spock shot back, still gasping for air. “You treat her no better than your hox or your hunting seehn!”
“Silence!” Stahl hissed, his eyes blazing. “How I treat her is my affair. You overlook the fact that she is my property and whether I use her as a bed or a foot cushion is entirely up to me.” The warrior’s face twisted into a sardonic grin. “Ah, now, there’s a thought. I’ll have you skinned and made into a foot cushion. Then you’ll always be where I can keep an eye on you and I can kick you into the corner when you get in the way. What do you think of that idea?”
Spock didn’t answer. Stahl was absolutely right. By Vulcan law and tradition, a cuckolded husband could demand any punishment he wanted and the Holder would back him completely. It didn’t matter that Stahl and T’Preve hadn’t been formally bonded yet. They were pledged and it bound them with almost as much legal force as if the mindlink of marriage and the consummation of that marriage had already occurred.
The warrior went on conversationally. “No ... that would distress T’Preve too much and, besides, she’d still be able to lie with you whenever she wished. No ... I shall give it further thought.” He paced slowly before the man still on his knees in the grass. “I suppose I could simply gut you here and now and be done with it. However, that makes such a messy corpse and I’d hate for the gardener to have to clean up such a pile of filth.” The other warriors chuckled appreciatively at their captain’s wit, exchanging glances of sly humor.
Stahl came back to stand before Spock, becoming serious again.
“If you were any other man, Spock, I would impale you alive on a pennon pole and leave you there until the flesh dropped off your bones and the carrion worms turned you to dust. But you are in high favor with Anskar because you wear Heya’s sword. I would strip you of that honor if I could, but I don’t dare invite disaster with the ancestors and gods if they — for whatever reason — have chosen you to wear it. Therefore, I will show mercy and simply leave you with a reminder that I will not be mocked and made a fool.” He jerked his head at the three other men behind him. “Get him up and hold him.”
Two of the warriors seized Spock by the arms and dragged him to his feet and the third came around behind him, holding his head still in an iron grip. Stahl wrapped the ahn-woon back around his waist and tied it, then pulled his dagger from its sheath and casually strolled up to face his adversary.
“Just a reminder,” he repeated and with a quick movement opened a gash in Spock’s right cheekbone. Spock gave a startled cry and jerked back, but the other men held him firmly. Calmly, Stahl flicked the blade and opened a matching cut on the other side of Spock’s face. Then he slipped the tip of the knife up under Spock’s chin and leaned in close to him. “The next time it will be your throat I’ll cut. And I’ll do it as a public execution in the Ring ... after you watch me slit T’Preve open like a butchered paran.”
He gazed meaningfully at Spock then took his knife away and slipped it back into its sheath. The men holding him flung Spock unceremoniously to the ground and all four walked away into the night.
Breathing hard, shocked and with the sharp pain of the cuts throbbing intensely, Spock got to his hands and knees and slowly pushed himself into a kneeling position. Gingerly, he touched his fingertips to one of the cuts, feeling the hot blood stream down his face and drip onto the grass. Then rage and hatred exploded within him, blazing with the strength of Seleya’s fires. He leaped to his feet and started in the direction that Stahl had taken, his blood-covered hand drawing his sword with lethal intent, the volcano in his soul thundering up into a full-throated roar. The sword itself seemed to burn with the intensity of a lava lake, aching to blast free.
Then his steps faltered, the eruption of vengeance held back by only the smallest capstone of logic and reason. Wait, it pleaded. You’re outnumbered four to one. Tomorrow. Kill him tomorrow when no one will question your right to do so. Tomorrow.
Slowly, trembling with barely suppressed fury, Spock slipped the sword back into its sheath. Tomorrow, he promised himself.
* * *
T’Preve sat up with a gasp and pulled the blanket up over her breasts as the door to her chamber slammed open abruptly and Stahl and one of his lieutenants entered. “Stahl!” she stammered, the blood draining from her face. “What—”
“Get her out of here,” Stahl ordered Temek, the other man, jerking his head toward the old nurse who had come groggily awake at the intrusion.
Temek went over and pulled the old woman gently but insistently from her bed. “Come with me, granny,” he said. “Let’s go down to the kitchens. You need some tea to help you wake up.”
“But ... but ...” she stuttered, not yet awake and thoroughly confused.
“It’s time to be stirring,” he insisted, urging her along toward the door. “Nearly time to get up for the day.” Ignoring her protests, he ushered her out into the hallway.
Stahl shut the door after them and bolted it, then turned to the young woman cowering in her bed. Casually, he walked toward her. “T’Preve, my beautiful darling, I came to apologize to you,” he said. “I realized that I have been terribly remiss in my treatment of you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I should have formalized our relationship months ago. I realize that now. Making you wait for marriage has been absolutely unforgivable of me.” Stahl paused and smiled benevolently down at her. “By not devoting myself to my husbandly duties, I have neglected you shamefully. To the point of other men getting the very wrong idea that you are available to receive their advances.”
She paled even more and shrank away from him with a little gasp of fear.
“Oh, I’ve already discussed the situation with Spock,” Stahl assured her with a smile. “He understands perfectly now, I believe, how I feel about sharing my wife with another man. I came to make sure that you understand, as well.”
Still smiling, he unbuckled his weapons belt and draped it over a chair, then propped one foot up on a stool and began unlacing his boots.