Five days prior...
“What’s the matter with you?” S’Von demanded of the weary and begrimed captains who stood before him in his tent. “Your men should have been through this mountain pass two days ago.”
“Lord, we have not been met like this before,” one of them, an Elakili, answered, frowning with fatigue. “The Tuldu’unis have the pass fortified and heavily manned. Sefak had enough warning that he was able to prepare for our attack and moreover he got word through to the surrounding provinces. They may be able to hold this pass indefinitely.”
“Indeed,” spoke up the other captain, the Sekani. “And how long do you think it will take Anskar to arrive with reinforcements? We can’t stand against that size force.”
“You can and you will,” S’Von growled back, leaning forward. “Because we aren’t going to wait for Anskar to bring his troops up as he pleases. We are going to take this pass — today — and then we are going to march on Seleya before he is ready to move.”
The captains exchanged incredulous looks. “You can’t be serious,” the Elakili responded.
The caramel-colored eyes glittered with deadly purpose and the captain backed down in apprehension. “I have never been more serious in my life,” S’Von hissed. “Captain Sukim, hold your men in reserve. Captain Volon will launch a mass attack against the fortifications. I want an attack there that will draw the majority of Tuldu’uni troops to those points. At the height of the battle, I will blow a hole in that mountain pass that will allow your troops and yours, Captain Sukim — all of them — to storm the breach. We will be through and into Tuldu’un by sundown.” S’Von sat back in his chair and gazed at them as if daring a challenge.
The captains glanced at each other once more than both bowed. “As you wish it, lord,” answered Sukim.
“Go and prepare. We attack in one hour.”
* * *
Shar’ram was crowded, as was the town that surrounded it. The army of Seleya was anxious to be off and was spending this final evening making preparations to march with the rising of the sun, packing gear and saying farewells. There had been many marriages performed that day, many babies conceived without benefit of formal vows, and many virgins who were not so when the troops left. There had been a boom on tikh-beer, ale and wine and the taverns had been continually full.
In the fortress main hall, however, evenmeal was quiet as the family of Anskar and the company of the court enjoyed a last time of togetherness. One of the young minstrels sang a bittersweet love song, strumming his ka’athyra softly, knowing that he too would be leaving for battle on the morrow. No one spoke while the young man sang, each too engulfed in his or her own thoughts to make comment.
At their table, Spock and his bride exchanged a long glance and he took her hand silently, squeezing it. She inclined her head and gently brought his hand up to her lips, then held it against her cheek. In the subdued atmosphere, the meal was soon ended and couples began to beg leave of the Holder and drift away to their private places. Anskar soon retired as well and the gathering disintegrated rapidly.
Hands clasped, Spock and T’Preve climbed the stairs to her chamber. She said nothing, but the sadness in her large brown eyes spoke volumes. It was their wedding night, what would normally have been the beginning of their Joining, when they would have secluded themselves for ten days and lost themselves in each other and the glorious ecstasy of their bonding. Now, it would be their only night together as husband and wife and neither knew if he would be coming back to her.
They undressed by the light of the flames crackling in the fireplace, the rosy glow and dancing shadows lending an other-worldly quality to their preparations. It felt strangely intimate and somehow exciting to be able to come together this way, in the privacy of a bed chamber, openly and legally bonded, husband and wife. And yet T’Preve could not help but feel uneasy and reticent. The memory of what Stahl had done to her in this room just the night before was a fresh and painful wound. Spock realized what made her cling to him and turn her face away from their awaiting bed.
“He’s gone,” he whispered to her, holding her close. “You’re mine now, my wife, and he will never bother you again.”
She looked up at him, her features kissed by the warm light of the fire. “How can you be sure, s’hy’la?”
“Anskar has set guards to be doubly watchful for Stahl or any of his men. Anskar knows what type of man Stahl is. You’ll be safe here in Shar’ram.”
She sighed and caressed his face, ever-so-lightly touching the healing wound on her husband’s cheek. “I can’t help but fear him. And with you gone...”
“I have not gone yet,” he answered softly and swept her up in his arms, carrying her to their Joining bed.
He made love to her with a tenderness and urgency that clearly bespoke the short time they had left together. And she responded with the desperation and yearning of a woman clutching her lover’s straining body for a last fevered night of love before he marched away to blood and death.
Later, she lay in the shelter of his arms, feeling very small next to him. Gently, he brushed her hair back from her face and stroked her cheek, seeking to touch her thoughts. Wordlessly, she sank against him, clutching him, her body beginning to shake with sobs. He gathered her to him, loving the fragrance of her hair, the silkiness of her skin.
“The fighting won’t last long,” he said softly. “And I have to go. I am duty bound.”
“I’m so afraid I’ll lose you,” she whispered. “To have had you such a short time...” She sobbed again then said, “You won’t come back to me! I know it! Please don’t go, s’hy’la, please...”
“I have to,” he answered seriously. “I have no choice. I came here searching for S’Von and I must find him and take him back to face trial. If it means taking him on the battlefield, then that is what I must do.” Stroking her face, he gazed deep into her eyes and whispered, “I hadn’t planned on finding my heart in the process, but now I know that I was led here for a reason. Whether it was fate or coincidence or the Hand of Heya, we were meant to find each other. And I promise you, t’hy’la, I promise you — I will come back for you. I vow it. If there is life left in me, I will come back for you.” He drew her close and kissed her long and fervently, in pledge to her. And through their bonding meld, she felt his determination to return and his desire for her.
When she looked back at him, although her lashes were still wet, her eyes held only a love and need for him that spoke of an enduring bond of their hearts and minds. “I know you will,” she answered softly. “But for now I only want to be near you, to love you with all my heart.” She reached up to touch her fingers to his face and he did the same. Their thoughts opened and intertwined in an intimacy that reached the very depths of their souls. And she unveiled parts of her consciousness that she had carefully shielded from him before now.
Abruptly, Spock broke the link and drew away, staring at her in amazement, his breath coming in a short gasp. T’Preve smiled at him with tears in her eyes and gently took his hand, placing it against her abdomen. “Yes,” she told him. “A child. A son ...”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner? How long have you known?” he asked, his voice hoarse.
“I felt the quickening this morning and knew it for certain,” she answered softly. “I wasn’t sure before and there was no need to tell you until I was.”
“You knew before I challenged Stahl? T’hy’la, what would you have done if he had won? He would surely have known that it was not his child.”
She gazed back at him solemnly and suddenly he knew the answer. She had vowed never to marry Stahl, no matter what she had to do to prevent it. If Spock had died in combat, she would have joined him in death ... and taken their child with her. Anything to prevent either of them falling into Stahl’s cruel hands.
Absolutely speechless, Spock blinked at her then drew her quickly to him, burying his face in her long black hair. At last, still reeling with amazement at this woman who had captured his heart, he drew away and kissed her tenderly. She slipped her arms around his shoulders and drew him down to her, reaching out to him with thoughts of passion and yearning. In response, the fire in his soul surged up again, roaring back into radiant and jubilant flame.
They said nothing more that night.
* * * I
It was barely light the next morning when the armies of Seleya began their march north. The Holder of Seleya rode out first and his sons followed with their respective armies, their hoxa and banners blazing in the sunlight, rainbow hued. The people of the village, the women and children and old men, lined the streets to see them off.
Ansaric had slipped into his role as the Sword Bearer’s shi’ka’ree and had prepared Brax before Spock and T’Preve ever came down to the main courtyard. The young man now stood waiting, holding the reins of both Brax and his own hox, Kreyla, prepared to depart. Brax pawed the ground restlessly. He had been brushed until his coat shone like silver and draped in his red trappings, the Eye of Ni’ikhirch gleaming from his saddle drapery. As Spock checked him over one last time, securing the saddlebags and testing the fittings of the harness, Brax fixed him with one great dark eye and bespoke eagerness and passion for the fight ahead.
Satisfied, Spock patted the hox’s neck and then turned back and reached for his wife one final time. She fell into his arms and tears spilled down her cheeks as she embraced him frantically, knowing it might be the last time. “Goodbye, my love! Heya go with you!” Their lips came together in a last, urgent kiss, then he forced himself to pull away from her and turned to where Ansaric was holding the fitful Brax. Pulling on his leather gauntlets, Spock swung up into the saddle and took up the reins. Beside him, Ansaric mounted up on Kreyla’s broad back and turned the hox’s head toward the main gate.
T’Preve moved over beside the big gray animal her husband rode and held up a small velvet pouch to Spock. “Take this part of me with you into battle, s’hy’la. It will bring you luck.”
Curious, he opened the pouch and peered inside, then looked back down at her, a mixture of love and sorrow on his face. It contained a lock of her inky black hair, curling gently in on itself. Unable to speak, he slipped the pouch inside his tunic and reached down to take her hand, unwilling to let go of her.
It was finally Brax who took the initiative. The big hox moved away toward the gate, drawing Spock and T’Preve apart. He lifted his hand to her in farewell and she waved shakily back, one hand sheltering the spark of life within her, her long dark hair playing around her face and shoulders as the chill morning breeze picked up strength.
Overhead, the low winter clouds that covered the sky began to shed a light rain, adding to the bleakness of the day. Spock pulled the hood of his cloak up to ward off the light rain and called to his men, who were likewise caught up in goodbyes with their lovers or wives and children. He urged Brax forward and the garrison fell into formation behind him through the main gate, leaving Shar’ram behind, their hoxa’s hooves clattering emptily on the wet cobblestones.