Chapter 18

 

Five days prior...

 

“Get men back on that ridge!” Sefak shouted over the din of the raging battle.  “There!   I need reinforcements there!  The Holder of Tuldu’un reined his hox around and directed the bulk of his warriors to take up a position where D’Khali warriors were beginning to breach the fortifications that blocked the mountain pass opening the way into Tuldu’un and the regions to the south.  It was a holding action, he knew, and one that they couldn’t maintain indefinitely.

Ansaric! Ansaric! To me!”  The young man thundered up on his bay hox and sat awaiting his Lord Holder’s orders.  Hastily, Sefak scribbled a note on a scrap of parchment, using his thigh as a writing table, then rolled it and handed it over to the courier.  “Ride for Seleya as hard as you can!  Tell Anskar he must come now!  We will hold them here as long as we can but it won’t be more than two or three days before they’ll break through.  Then they’ll be pouring through the pass in full force.”

“I can make it to Seleya in about four days, lord, but it will be four or five more at the very earliest before Anskar can be here,” Ansaric answered.

Sefak looked wearily back at the fighting.  “I know.  We’ll retreat once they break through. We’ll be massacred if we stay here and fight them against these cliffs.  We’ve got to move before they come through.”

“You mean desert Tuldu’un?” Ansaric asked incredulously.

“No, not desert,” Sefak answered.  “We’ve got to get out in the open where we can maneuver.  Retreat and lead these animals away from the city.  If they’re following us, they won’t be sacking the city.”  The courier nodded in understanding.  “Plus, Anskar may already be on his way.  Now, ride, Ansaric.  Heya speed you!”

Ansaric nodded a bow and yanked his hox around to the south, urging the animal forward with a shout of urgency.  They were gone within a minute, leaving Sefak and one of his captains watching the fast moving cloud of red dust that marked their path.

“Do you think your courier will get through?” questioned the warrior of his commander.

“Goddess willing.  Say a prayer up to her, Stehk, that he does and Anskar arrives in time.  But if we have to wage a running fight all the way to Seleya, so be it.”  Sefak looked grim.  “Captain, prepare your men.  The enemy will overrun that ridge in moments.  As soon as they do, I want all of our troops into that breach before they can launch their assault there.  They won’t be expecting us to attack them through their own breach.  It’s our only hope.  Good luck!”

Heya be with us all,” Stehk responded and the two men melted back into the running, shouting chaos around them.

* * *

Stahl was in an unusually boisterous mood at first meal, sitting with his arm pointedly around a very pale, withdrawn T’Preve.  The warrior laughed and talked with his cohorts in the crowded main hall, alternately drinking from a tankard of tikh-beer and tearing at a joint of paran lying on the platter before him.  T’Preve hadn’t touched the bowl of boiled grain before her.  She had searched for Spock at the morning meal but had not found him.  She was consumed with a feeling of dread.  Not that she feared him slain, because she could feel through their bondlink that he was very much alive.  But, although he had shielded his mind from her, she could feel the heat of his anger and hatred breaking around the edges of that shield like flames licking around a forge stone.  She was terrified of what would happen when those flames burst free.

As if her thoughts had summoned forth the very demon she feared, the heavy carved doors from the outer courtyard slammed open and Spock strode into the hall, dressed in the formal attire of a warrior.  The crimson tabard of the House overlay a coat of mail and he was fully armed with sword and dagger.  His midnight blue cloak sweeping the floor, he advanced purposefully across the hall, his face like granite, his destination dreadfully evident.

The noise in the hall shut off as if a switch had been thrown and at the head table Anskar rose apprehensively to his feet.

Spock halted in front of the table where Stahl sat with T’Preve, and his hard, obsidian-dark eyes flicked her way for a brief instant.  In that instant he noted her wan, frightened expression, the desperate light in her eyes, the shock with which she beheld the ghastly evidence of Stahl’s handiwork on his face.

Turning his furious, unyielding gaze back on the man before him, Spock drew his dagger and slammed the point into the wooden surface before Stahl, leaving it upright and quivering, then declared in a loud, angry voice that filled the hall:

“Stahl cha’S’Khil hei-Kh’d’Elakil, captain of war to Anskar, Holder of this House — I challenge you for possession of the woman T’Preve t’cha’V’Rulk hei-Kh’da’Ni’ikhirch!”

His breath hissing out through clenched teeth, Stahl rose with terrible deliberation to his feet and drew his own dagger, forcefully driving it into the table so that it trembled next to the other.

“Spock cha’Sarek hei-Kh’da’Ni’ikhirch, Sword Bearer of Heya and warrior of the House of Anskar, I accept your challenge!  Name your time and place!”

“The Ring Stones of Heya!  And right now, Stahl!  Right now!

* * *

The man who had stepped into the Ring a little under two months before to face a barely grown boy had been uncertain of his position, a bit bewildered at the sudden turn of his fate, and still attempting to orient himself in a strange world.  Moreover, he had been a highly civilized, sophisticated and logical scientist, raised to control his emotions and to think in a calm rational manner. The man who now took his place in the circle bore scant  resemblance to that former persona. The last vestiges of Starfleet Commander Spock, executive officer of the Federation starship U.S.S. Enterprise, had died with the first bite of Stahl’s knife across his cheek.

The man who now prepared himself for personal combat was a fully realized Vulcan warrior, seething with barely controlled rage, out for vengeance against an opponent whom he hated with all the savage passions his ancestors had possessed.  The fire he felt in his blood threatened to ignite into the inferno of plak tow and he knew now where the madness of pon farr had originated.  He fought to vanquish a detested rival and to win the mate he had chosen and taken to his heart and his bed.  This fight would not end with the simple expedient of a nerve pinch.  This would end with one of them lying dead on the sand.

It seemed that the entire population of Shar’ram had turned out to watch the contest and much speculation and gambling was going on in the ranks of soldiers and civilians.  The object of the combat, T’Preve, had taken her place on the judgment dais with Anskar and she had to clutch the back of his chair to stay on her feet, so fearfully did her knees shake.  Indeed, she felt that she would faint before the combat had reached its inevitable conclusion.  Anskar noticed and ordered her to sit beside him, which she gladly did.

The first time Spock had come into the Ring Stones, he had been alone and it was only Suvakh’s charity that had provided him with a second.  This time, he had the backing of a large group of supporters, men who had grown to know and respect him over the past weeks.  Suvakh was there as well and many other family members of the House who accepted and stood by him as a kinsman.

But Stahl had the backing of a great number of warriors, loyal to their captain.  Anskar eyed this contingent with a bit of concern, for of such loyalty was insurrection born.  Many of his better warriors stood among this group and he wondered where their dedication lay — to Stahl or the House of Ni’ikhirch.

Temek, Stahl’s chief lieutenant, had fetched his captain’s armor and sword as soon as the challenge had been issued and accepted.  Now Stahl stood to one side donning his mail and preparing himself for the combat.  As they waited for Stahl to ready himself, Spock turned his gaze on T’Preve, sitting beside Anskar, and saw that she was watching him with a stricken expression, fear written plainly on her face.  He closed his eyes for a moment and reached out to her with his mind, sending comfort and assurance, and felt her answering surge of heartache and hope wash over him in return.  Then he broke the mind-touch and straightened, taking a deep breath and focusing on his opponent.

He was surprised to see a figure push through the crowd and make his way hurriedly toward Anskar.  It was Ansaric, the young man again dressed in riding clothes, dirty and tired and obviously just arrived.  He halted before the Holder and dropped down in a bow, then rose and presented the older man with a scroll.  Anskar opened it and read it, then nodded and spoke gravely to Ansaric.  The courier bowed to him once more and went to stand tensely at his side, staring with ill-concealed apprehension in Spock’s direction.

Stahl was now outfitted and armed.  Slipping on his war helm and taking up his shield from Temek, he turned to face his challenger.  Spock, similarly attired and armed, did likewise, then the two men moved to drop to one knee before Anskar in tribute.  In unison, both rose to their feet and drew their swords and saluted the Holder.  There was a gasp and murmur all around the Ring as the Sword of Kh’Liorah shown forth in Spock’s hand, but to the two principals, there was no acknowledgment made of the fact. 

Anskar likewise seemed indifferent as he rose and looked at each man in turn.  “Here begins combat for possession of the woman T’Preve,” he announced loudly.  “Challenge has been lawfully issued and accepted.  T’Preve, are you prepared to become the property of the victor?”

“I am,” she answered in a small voice, her eyes locked on Spock’s face.  He gazed back at her with a grim determination that both frightened her and gave her hope.  But Stahl’s visage held an almost identical expression and hatred tinged the auras of both men almost palpably.

“Let combat begin,” Anskar commanded.  “It is finished when one man lies dead or yields.”  He sat back down.

Spock and Stahl both nodded a bow at him then turned and strode back onto the sand.  Stahl hung back for a step or two and allowed the other man to go ahead of him.  Just as Spock noticed his ploy and turned, Stahl attacked, slamming his shield hard into Spock’s left shoulder. 

The blow staggered Spock and knocked him off balance for a second, but it was the advantage Stahl was looking for.  He leveled a vicious slash of his sword at Spock, who ducked away just in time and countered with his shield.  Before he could recover, Stahl swung at him again and once more Spock blocked it.  Then, rage taking the place of surprise, he counterattacked with a powerful swing of his own sword.

Stahl met it with his shield and slashed back at him.  Sword met sword and sparks flew as the blades crashed together.  Again and again and again the two weapons came together in equal force, then the two men backed off for a minute, both breathing hard and warily circling each other.

Stahl lunged again, a series of hard blows that ultimately knocked the shield out of Spock’s grasp and sent it flying.  A flash of triumph crossed the warrior’s face but was gone in an instant as Spock grasped the hilt of his sword with both hands and launched into a devastating attack, battering  Stahl backwards with staggering blows to his shield.  After retreating a dozen paces, Stahl suddenly slammed his sword up in a jarring clash with Spock’s.  The guards locked for a long moment of fierce struggle, then the two men broke apart once more, gasping for breath and marshaling their strength for the next assault.

This time Spock attacked first, springing forward with a harsh cry and a slash of his sword that knocked Stahl off his feet, loosing his grip on his shield and sprawling him in the sand.  Spock swung a downward blow aimed at his opponent, but Stahl rolled out of the blade’s path an instant before it connected.  Scrambling, he got to his feet and tossed his shield away, crouching into defensive position, his grip on his sword two-handed as well.  Spock came at him again and the two swords met in a cacophony of ringing steel.  Stahl was bigger in stature, but Spock was pressing the attack and forcing the larger man back.

Stahl came up against one of the stone pylons and could retreat no farther.  With murderous intent, Spock drew back to deliver the final blow, but Stahl used the leverage of the pylon to abruptly place his boot in Spock’s midsection, shoving him back and off-balance enough for Stahl to lunge at him with a clumsy blow to his head.  The impact sent Spock backwards into the sand, his helmet flying off, and knocking his sword out of his hand as he hit.

Stahl gave a mirthless, victorious laugh and sprang at him, bringing his sword blade down in a two-handed blow.  But as Stahl had done, Spock rolled as the blade bit into the sand where his body had been an instant earlier and leaped to his feet, snatching up his sword as he did so.  Now, however, it was Spock’s turn to retreat from Stahl’s attack, countering the blows sword to sword.

Stahl swung at his head and Spock ducked the blade, then abruptly moved behind Stahl as the warrior’s momentum spun him past and brought the pommel of his sword down hard on Stahl’s shoulders.  The bigger man staggered with the blow and the shock radiating down his arms caused him to lose his grip and drop his sword.  Before he could recover, Spock kicked it far out of his reach, then danced back out of his range, sword at ready and catching his breath.

Stahl was down on one knee, panting with exertion, and glaring at his opponent, obviously thinking hard about his next move.  After a moment, he got to his feet and unwrapped the ahn-woon from around his waist and began moving to find an advantageous angle. Spock countered, watching him closely, fully aware of how deadly the long leather strap could be.  It could be used as a whip, a bola, or a garrote and, in practiced hands, could blind an opponent or break bones with ease.

As Stahl began slowly swinging the long whip-like weapon over his head, Spock tensed, trying to calculate Stahl’s target.  He was prepared when Stahl snapped the ahn-woon at his ankles and leaped back just in time, scrambling to keep out of the weapon’s range.  A sword was an uncertain match for an ahn-woon and Spock backed away, thinking desperately.  Then, as Stahl pulled the strap back to him for another assault, Spock suddenly sprang at him, his sword drawn back to strike.

Stahl, though taken by surprise, recovered with the ease of an experienced combat veteran and used Spock’s momentum against him, grasping the front of the crimson surcoat and throwing them both into a dive that landed both men hard on the ground.  Spock was unprepared and had the breath knocked out of him as he hit, but more importantly his sword was knocked out of his grasp and away from his reach.

Before he could recover, Stahl was on him, wrapping the ahn-woon around his throat and yanking it tight.  For an instant, Spock panicked and clawed at the constricting band, then he heard T’Preve’s cry of anguish and despair echo across the arena — whether out loud or in his mind, he was never sure — but it spurred him into furious action. 

Locking his opponent in a murderous glare, Spock reached down and drew his dagger from its sheath then brought it up to his own throat.  Stahl’s brows twitched in surprise and alarm, clearly wondering if Spock intended to kill himself rather than allow Stahl the victory.  But Spock somehow managed to dig his fingers underneath the leather band around his neck, allowing him just enough room to slide the blade of the dagger underneath it — and suddenly, with a snap of parting leather, he was free.

Instantly, he had flipped Stahl over onto his back and was sitting astride him, the blade jammed up into the muscles beneath the warrior’s jaw, blood already spurting from the long cut across Stahl’s throat.

Stahl started to make a grab for the dagger, but Spock simultaneously caught his wrist and thrust the dagger harder against the bulging veins in Stahl’s neck.  “Yield or die!” Spock ground out hoarsely, homicidal rage darkening his face.

Stahl made a move to struggle, but Spock demanded again, “Yield or die!” and was clearly prepared to bury his blade all the way into Stahl’s throat.

At last, Stahl croaked, “Yield!  I yield!”, his face contorted with the shame of defeat and the agony of not wishing to die at his rival’s hand.

Kroykah!came Anskar’s voice in absolute command and suddenly strong hands were dragging Spock to his feet and away from his defeated opponent.  It took him a moment to realize that the hands belonged to Suvakh and Ansaric.

Temek and Stahl’s other supporters were helping him to his feet, Temek wrapping a bandage around his captain’s neck to staunch the flow of blood from the cut sliced across his throat.  Anskar came to stand beside Spock, who was slowly regaining control of himself, his bloody dagger still clutched in his right hand.

Loudly, Anskar announced, “Stahl has yielded combat to Spock! I declare that Stahl has forfeited all rights and possession to the woman T’Preve and that she is now the property of Spock.  Further, in yielding, Stahl has forfeited his life into Spock’s hands.  Spock — declare judgment! The right is yours!”

The crowd grew silent and Stahl glared in hatred at the victor of their battle, waiting breathlessly to hear his fate.  Spock drew himself up and took a deep breath, glowering back at the man who had tormented him ever since his arrival here.

“Stahl, hear me!” he said in a voice that carried throughout the Ring Stone complex.  “I give you back your life but I hereby banish you from Shar’ram and the Province of Seleya!  If you set foot within 50 kh’eet of this mountain and Holding, your life shall be the price!  A sentence of death is hereby laid upon you within this area!  You have one hour to gather your belongings and get out!”

Stahl gave a cry of rage and sprang toward him, but was held back by his more prudent lieutenants.  “You s’lata spawn!” he hissed through clenched teeth.  “How dare you presume to banish me!  And you, Anskar — after a lifetime of service to you — will you now stand there silent and allow this ... this bastard of no Household to disgrace me?”

Anskar sighed and straightened, his scarred face seeming older than its years.  “Combat has been fairly completed and judgment lawfully pronounced.  I have no choice, Stahl, but to accept it by our laws and traditions.”

Stahl’s face darkened with rage and he jerked loose from the hands holding him.  “A plague be upon your laws and traditions!”  He spat vehemently into the sand in disgust then turned his glare on Spock.  “As for you, this banishment goes both ways.  Set one foot outside of your imposed limit and I will subject you to a death beyond your worst nightmares.  And if she is with you, before you die, you will watch me feast on her heart and the hearts of her children!  Mark me well and remember my words!”

With that, Stahl spun and marched away toward the Holding to gather his belongings.  Temek went with him and, after a few seconds of hesitation, so did two other warriors, then four, and finally his entire cohort of twenty.  All were gone from Shar’ram within the hour.

As soon as the men had left the Ring, Spock staggered and nearly fell from exhaustion.  Ansaric lunged to catch him and then T’Preve was by his side, also supporting him.  As he looked down into her pale features, wan with stress and streaked with tears, he felt strength coming back into him and he pulled her to him, folding her in an embrace of relief and love.

Then, removing his mail gauntlets and passing them to Ansaric, Spock held out his right hand to T’Preve, his first two fingers extended.  She blinked up at him in surprise and amazement, then a smile of utter adoration broke across her face and she touched her fingers to his.   Solemnly, he led her before the Holder Anskar. 

“My lord,” he said, his gaze focused on T’Preve’s beautiful face.  “Before this company and in the sight of our ancestors and the Goddess, I declare this woman my legal wife. I bequeath to her all my lands and possessions, and acknowledge that her children are my children, her House is my House. And I pledge to her my loyalty and faithfulness, my honor and industry, all the days of my life.”

T’Preve’s mahogany eyes were shining with tears as she smiled in devotion at the man beside her. “My lord,” she said, “before this company and in the sight of our ancestors and the Goddess, I declare this man to be my legal husband.  I give him all my lands and possessions and acknowledge that my children are his children, my House is his House.  And I pledge to him my loyalty and devotion, my faithfulness and industry, all the days of my life.”

They turned to each other and placed their fingertips on the other’s face, reaching out to each other with their minds, strengthening the bond that had already been formed between them.  Anskar placed a hand on each dark head and mentally probed the mindlink between them, then backed off and lifted his hands above each.

“In the name of the Goddess Heya and by the laws of this House, I declare that this man and this woman have bonded in mutual consent and shall henceforth in all aspects be husband and wife!  May their union be long and fruitful!

As Spock and T’Preve embraced, a cheer went up from the crowd surrounding them and then they were mobbed by well-wishers, the tension of a short while before becoming exultation at the unexpected outcome of the morning’s events.  Tragedy had turned to celebration, death into life, and for a moment — an oh-so-brief moment — the coming war was forgotten.

Anskar allowed the congratulations to go on for a few moments more, then signaled his steward to sound the metal gong that hung inside one of the arches of the pavilion.  The stentorian tone shocked everyone to silence and they turned to face the Holder.

“We honor the joining day of Spock and T’Preve but our celebrations must be set aside until later.  Ansaric has brought me an urgent message from Sefak of Tuldu’un.  The armies of Tuldu’un have engaged the forces of D’Khahl at the Gateway Pass in the Asagorn Mountains.  Sefak doesn’t expect to be able to hold them there long.  Prepare yourselves for departure!  We march to their aid at dawn tomorrow!”