Chapter 20

 

For a full day the armies rode north toward the cold mountains that rose in the distance.  It was early winter and the day grew cooler and wetter and a chill wind began to blow down on them.  Late in the day, they met refugees, fleeing south from S’Von’s armies.  And hard on their heels came an even bigger surprise — the remains of Sefak’s troops, battle-scarred and weary, retreating toward Seleya as well.  They had fought two hard engagements with the D’Khahli army and each time had broken off and fled further south, drawing the invading warriors away from Tuldu’un.

Anskar dismounted and went to embrace his cousin.  Sefak definitely looked the worse for his ordeal.  Dirty, his face streaked with blood, he staggered as he came forward on foot to meet his kinsman.  His troops and their hoxa looked ready to collapse and Anskar quickly gave the order to set up camp.  The sun was beginning to sink behind the western fringe of mountains that separated the uplands from the Sas-a-shar Desert and Anskar only prayed that the madman S’Von would not attack them after dark.  Surely his troops were as weary as the Tuldu’uni soldiers they pursued and would need to rest before launching another assault.  Nevertheless, he posted double guards around the perimeter.

They were now in the foothills of the mountains, about a day’s ride before they reached Tuldu’un.  But it looked now as if S’Von would bring the fight to them.  Anskar didn’t like their position here.  It was too vulnerable and they were on strange ground.  As long as S’Von was pursuing Sefak south, he’d lead him on further, back to territory that Anskar knew intimately and where he would have a strong fortress at his back should he need it. 

The two Holders sat hunched over battle plans with their captains, their warrior sons, and Spock.  When Ansaric had first brought word to him of Lord Tumik’s death on the road to Seleya weeks earlier, Sefak had reacted with shock and grief.  Now, as he met Spock for the first time, the new Sword Bearer, he nodded with acceptance of Heya’s Will, and greeted him wearily.  Now the men sat around the fire, drinking bowls of hot sufa wine to ward off the chill.

All looked up as Selhga, a sturdy northern farmer whom Anskar had employed to spy out S’Von’s position, strode up and nodded a stiff bow.  He was a big rough man with a bushy beard and piercing black eyes.  Anskar motioned for him to be seated.

“Tell us what you know,” said Anskar, leaning forward.

“He’s near, lord,” Selhga answered in his gruff voice.  “No more’n a half-day’s march.  They’re camped over on the other side of the highlands there.”

Anskar nodded and looked at Sefak.  “I don’t propose to wait on him to come to us.”

“There’s no good place to stage a battle between here and Tuldu’un,” Sefak answered.  “I know.”

“Then that just confirms my plan to lead him back to Seleya.  We’ll meet him in the Valley of R’uhn s’vat.”

Selhga snorted.  “The Place of Bones.  Appropriate name.”

Anskar shrugged.  “It’s called that because the bones of ancient animals have been found there.  At one end, a mineral spring comes out of the ground and animals gather there to lick the salt, that’s all.”  He pointed to a map spread before them.  “We’ll move before dawn.  I want to make sure we’re back on home ground, prepared, before they catch up with us.”

“How soon?” Sefak asked.

“We’ll march there tomorrow and wait.  We should be there by nightfall.  If my instincts are correct, then his armies will arrive far after dark and will be too weary to fight after the long march.  We’ll be in place two days hence, with a night’s rest before we engage them,” the older man replied.  “They won’t be as fresh for the fight.”

Spock felt very cold inside.  Two days.  A full day’s ride back the way they had come, then a battle that his intuition told him would be the confrontation with S’Von that he had been awaiting all these weeks.  He recalled his original mission here, to apprehend S’Von and return him to the future for trial.  How foolish that seemed now, when he knew of no way to return to their time period.  Both were trapped here in the past and would live out the remainder of their lives here.  How long those respective lives turned out to be would be determined by the battle coming so swiftly upon them.  He could see only one end to it all.  He was going to have to kill S’Von and end his rampage once and for all.

Feeling the need to be alone, Spock stood up and left the campfire.  One of the men moved to stop him, but Sefak caught his arm and shook his head.  They let him go.

He walked to the edge of the camp and sat down with his back against a boulder.  Wrapping his cloak close around himself against the cold, he sat silent and thoughtful for a long time, a feeling of despair overcoming him at the terrible burden fate was forcing him to bear.  Uncertainty sent a chill down his spine, for there was the possibility that killing S’Von would be the wrong thing to do, that that action would change history.  How could he know?  How could he be sure?  Sighing, he let his gaze turn upward.

The rain had stopped earlier and the clouds blown south on a steady northern wind.  In the clear night sky above him, a multitude of stars shone, sharp and frosty in the winter air.  The sight made Spock remember when he’d moved among them with little thought to the wonder of the deed, when he had viewed them with scientific detachment and pure logic.  Almost without volition, he began to name them over in his mind, some deep well of knowledge supplying magnitudes, number of planets, cities on those planets, populations...  He picked out locations of star bases, systems he had visited, sites of battles.  Specific memories attached to specific stars.  People he had known there, things he had done, another life in another time. And in his mind’s eye, he saw a sleek white ship streaking between those stars, a rainbow-hued blur in the warped bubble of subspace in which it traveled, his home for the past two decades.  He would never see that home again or the friends he had known and respected.  All lost to him, forever lost.

With a pulse of sorrow, he thought of how long he’d been here, of the weeks that had passed since he’d found himself lying on a dusty hillside, of all that had happened since.  There was no use thinking about the Enterprise or his lost comrades.  He’d long ago given up any hope of returning to his own time.  His captain and crewmates must have stopped searching for him weeks ago and gone on about their mission.  If they even existed.  He still had no way of knowing how his presence here — or S’Von’s — had changed the timeline.  He thought for a second of Zarabeth and of something she had said to him: “This is my time now. I’ve had to accept that.”

He sighed again.  Well, this was his time now and he was irretrievably caught up in circumstances that would determine his fate and the fate of his planet.  Like it or not, he was now a part of what Vulcan would become, and whether that future would see the birth of a child named Spock, the son of Sarek cha’Skon and his human wife, Amanda, he had no way of knowing.

He shook his head.  There was the time paradox again.  If no such future existed, then would he cease to exist here in the past?  Would time then switch onto yet another pathway and branch into a completely different direction?  It was a maddening, completely illogical problem.  And his logic had practically ceased to exist here in the past.  He could no longer puzzle out such equations and solve them.  He was no longer the man he remembered.  In the here and now, he had become exactly like his ancestors, the people who surrounded him — violent, emotional, savage. 

A swell of anger surged up in him.  He didn’t want to be here!  But where he’d rather be divided him into warring camps.  Part of him wanted to be back on the Enterprise, in the world he remembered and had understood, among his friends and colleagues, exploring the galaxy as the scientist he had been.  That part of him longed for the cool, logical Mr. Spock, first officer of a Federation starship, surrounded by his computers and instruments, at his familiar bridge station, confident in what he did and where his life was going.

But the other part of him, the now part of him, wanted to be back in his firelit chambers at Shar’ram, T’Preve warm and safe in his arms.  He wanted to watch her grow heavy with child and bring forth a son and then see him grow into manhood. He wanted to ride into the desert with his little son before him on the saddle and there show him the beauties and dangers of his home, to teach him survival and riding and combat, until he was a man his father could be proud to call his own.

And yet there was no hope of that, either.  He did not know how he knew it, but T’Preve and their child and Shar’ram had been lost to him from the moment he had climbed onto Brax’s back.

No ... not quite.  Spock reached into his tunic and pulled out the little velvet pouch that held the lock of T’Preve’s hair.  It smelled of the flower garden where he had first approached her and he smiled remembering it.  For a long moment, he held the pouch to his face, then he tucked it away, feeling somewhat heartened.  Getting to his feet, he went and found his bedroll where Ansaric had laid it out near one of the fires.  He was so tired that he fell asleep almost immediately.

T’Preve danced in his dreams that night and for a time he chased her through a meadow until he caught her, and they wrestled and made love in the sweet long grass.  But then, suddenly, she was gone from beneath him and he was alone in a world that was his, yet not.  His dream became filled with stars and instruments and faces from his past. One in particular hovered before him, a hazel-eyed man who told him, “We’re coming to get you, Spock. Don’t give up.”  But the face became S’Von’s and his mocking visage insisted, “Yes, I’m coming, Spock.  Why not surrender now and avoid the slaughter?  It is hopeless.”  Then there came the nightmare of slain men around him on the battlefield, drenched in mud and their own blood and S’Von laughing over them.

Spock awoke with a start and sat up, breathing hard.  The night was cold and tranquil, the silence broken only by snores and hox-sounds, or the clink of metal as the guards paced.  Feeling weakened by the dream, he lay back into his bedroll and closed his eyes, trying not feel the sense of doom settling over him.

* * *

S’Von looked up as guards entered his tent, escorting a big, broad-shouldered warrior.  He wore no insignia or house sigil and, beneath the mail coif lying bunched around his neck, there was a bandage encircling his throat.

“Who are you?” S’Von demanded, his eyes narrowing.

“Lord, I am Stahl hei-Kh’d’Elakil.  I have come to join you, bringing twenty men with me to fight in your ranks.”

“Indeed.  And why is that?  Where do you come from?”

“We have been in the service of Lord Anskar of Seleya but no longer serve that House.  I offer our services to you.”

S’Von cocked an eyebrow in surprise and sat back in his chair, away from the table on which was spread maps of the area.  “You left Anskar to fight with me?  What makes you believe I’m fool enough to believe that?”

Stahl fixed him with a hard stare.  “Because it’s true.  Anskar betrayed me in favor of another, a stranger who came into our midst two months ago and claimed kinship.  With trickery and lies, he established himself in Anskar’s favor and finally I was banished from Seleya, threatened with death should I return.  To add salt into that wound, Anskar took my wife and awarded her to this man.”  The big warrior leaned over the table, his dark eyes glittering with hatred.  “I can help you, my lord.  I can get you into Shar’ram and help you defeat Anskar.”

S’Von studied him with a half-closed gaze, his light eyes cold as amber.  “You sound very much as if you’re bent on revenge, Sai Stahl.”

Stahl’s face hardened into granite.  “I want two things, my lord.  Just two.  I want my wife back.  And, with my own hands and blade, I want to kill Spock hei-Kh’da’Ni’ikhirch.”

“Spock?!” exclaimed S’Von in surprise, then his gaze turned inward.  “So, he’s here.  I was wondering when he’d show up.  Oh, this is even better than I’d hoped.”

Then Stahl watched incredulously as S’Von’s face broke into a smile and he began to laugh, loudly, heartily, and with great satisfaction.