Chapter 22

 

In the bloody light of the morning sun, the armies of Anskar and Sefak stood silent and waiting, stretching out along the plain.  In the center of the first column, beside the two Holders, Spock waited astride his hox, straight and unmoving, his eyes on the far side of the plain.  His long cape snapped in the chill wind sweeping the flat and he held Brax’s reins lightly in one firm hand, his war helm cradled in the crook of his other arm.  Looking out over the valley that lay before them, its far side black with the enemy’s number, Spock said softly to himself, “Once more into the breach, dear friends...”

Anskar looked over at him.  “What’s that you say?”

“A quote, lord, from a very old story from my mother’s homeland.  ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more. Or close the wall up with our English dead!  In peace, there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility; but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the actions of the tiger: stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage and lend the eye a terrible aspect!’”  He looked over at the older man.  “From a story about a king who went to war to reclaim that which was rightfully his.

Anskar nodded.  “A good song, Spock.  You must sing it for us when we return to our own peace.”

Spock smiled a little and shook his head.  “It is an epic, my lord.  I don’t know it all.  It requires many singers to tell it fully.”

“Perhaps someday we can arrange for it to be told.”

“Perhaps, lord.  Some day.”  With that, the two men turned their attention back to the gathered hordes awaiting them.  Brax champed at his bit and pawed the ground impatiently, letting his master know that this waiting was intolerable to him.  Spock sat quietly in the saddle, however, and would not respond to the hox’s urgings.  It was not yet time, though they all sat straining “like greyhounds in the slip.”  The ancient words whispered through Spock’s mind now as he viewed the battlefield, thinking of all the times throughout history when men sat poised on the brink of death and disaster and glory.  It might be the French they faced across the field of Agincourt instead of fellow Vulcans across a valley in his homeland. Cry God for Harry, England and St. George!

Suddenly there came an eerie wail floating across the plain like a voice from hell.  Hollow and lost it was, and chills swept over the men.  The hoxa began to rear and snort, but the men held them firm.  And then there could be seen advancing across the plain a black tide, flowing inexorably toward them, and the tramping of many boots rumbled through the morning air.

The army stopped as one, but their master kept going, his black hox wild-eyed, prancing as they continued onto the field.  Halfway out, he halted and sat like silent death, waiting.

“He wants a parley,” Anskar said and made to go out onto the plain.

“No, wait, my lord,” Spock interrupted him.  “Let me.”  He squeezed his legs against Brax’s side and urged the hox forward.  The big gray stallion cantered out onto the plain where S’Von waited for them.  About ten feet apart, they halted and the adversaries stared at each other across the distance separating them.

S’Von was the first to speak.  “So, Spock, we meet again. I thought I had escaped you.”

Slowly Spock shook his head.  “No, Doctor.  It has always been my mission to apprehend you and take you back.  If it is within my power, I intend to do so.”

The other laughed harshly.  “Back?  To where?  How?  There is no Gateway here.”

“Nevertheless.  I shall find a way, S’Von.  Either that or kill you.”

“You can try,” S’Von grinned unpleasantly.  “But I think you will find either prospect rather difficult.  I don’t intend to go back or die quietly.”

“Then, if requiring fail, I shall compel you,” Spock responded and the menace and resolution in his voice was unmistakable.

S’Von gave him a look of mocking dismay. “Quoting Shakespeare, Spock? Or misquoting it, actually.  Really, how trite.  Why not something from the Tenets of Surak?  That would be more appropriate. Well, just do me one favor, then.  Don’t launch into ‘St. Crispin’s Day’.  I really couldn’t bear it.” 

The other did not respond so S’Von continued, “All right, then.  Have it your own way.  Shakespeare it is.  I think I shall compel you to compel me.  For ‘in fierce tempest am I coming, in thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove’.  And I will take no mercy ‘on the poor souls for whom this hungry war opens his vasty jaws; and on your head turning widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries, the dead men’s blood, the pining maidens’ groans, for husbands, fathers and betrothed lovers, that shall be swallow’d in this controversy’.  Go make yourself ready, Spock, because I intend to make your England bleed!”  With that, S’Von yanked the head of his hox around, spurring it into a gallop as he returned to his army. 

Spock did likewise, rejoining the front line with Anskar and Sefak.  The older man glanced at Spock’s grim, angry visage and knew that any hope of negotiation had failed.  Turning back to the battle before him, Anskar slid his war helm onto his head and all the other men, Spock included, followed suit.  Removing his cloak, Spock tossed it to one of the pages, as did anyone else similarly attired, and turned back to the battle lines, awaiting Anskar’s signal.

The Holder of Seleya drew his sword and held it aloft, and there was the ring of steel all along the line as every man with a sword pulled blade from scabbard.  Spock was the only one who did not.  He would keep the silver sword sheathed until they charged.  The sight of its blazing wrath suddenly appearing in their midst would make its impact doubly terrible.

There was a tense moment of quiet, broken only by the restless stamp of hooves, jingle of harness and creak of leather.  Mounted lancers and swordsmen sat their hoxa like statues.  Beside them, pikemen and men-at-arms with long axes and light-weight battle lirpas, crossbowmen and archers and those armed with the boomerang-like parakh, foot soldiers with a variety of weapons — all waited and watched.

Then from across the field arose a cry of hatred and malice and S’Von’s mounted warriors launched forward as one, thundering toward the army of Seleya. Behind them, their foot soldiers dashed after them, screaming their war cry.

Anskar thrust his sword into the air and hauled back on the reins in his hand, causing his hox to rear and shriek.  The cry was echoed by thousands of throats as the troops roared their defiance at the advancing horde.  Then the mounted warriors sprang forward in unison, the sound of their hoxa like thunder reverberating across the plain.

Spock’s throat was one that bellowed the battle cry and at last he drew the Sword of Kh’Liorah from its sheath, and Brax leaped forward, eager for battle.  The sword blazed in his hand and the sight of it caused an even louder shout to go up from their men.

The two lines of cavalry collided in mid-field and immediately disintegrated into a maelstrom of clashing steel, screaming hoxa, blood and dust.  Flights of arrows shrieked over their heads as both sides launched attacks on the others’ infantry.  The cries of stricken men and hoxa joined the din and men on both sides began to fall, trampled underfoot by hooves and booted feet.  Undaunted, the foot soldiers caught up with the hoxa and fought their way into the fray.

Spock was in the midst of it all, fighting with a fury he had never felt before.  The overwhelming hate and savagery that radiated from every man around him suffused him and blotted out everything but the need to kill.  There was no time or inclination for second guessing or logical thought.  He only knew that men were doing their best to kill him and he must respond in kind or die. With a ferocity that roared up from his ancestral blood, he swung and hacked and clashed swords with other mounted warriors, the spirit of the ancient King Solan, whose katra he carried, giving preternatural strength and surety to his strikes.

With blood lust screaming in his ears, the Heir of Kh’Liorah killed and killed and killed.

* * *

Not all of S’Von’s men and allies charged forward into battle that morning.  On the hill overlooking R’uhn s’vat, Stahl and Temek sat astride their hoxa, watching the first clash of the battle with satisfaction.  The twenty men who had defected with them waited as well and within a few minutes, a man on a black hox galloped up the hill to them, leaving the raging battle below.

It was S’Von.  Unlike Anskar and Sefak, he did not feel compelled to thrust himself into the heat of combat and risk having his head sliced from his body by an errant swing of an enemy sword. He preferred to direct his troops from an observation point and let others die for his conquests.  It was illogical, he felt, for a military leader to needlessly expose himself to death and thus risk the whole operation collapsing.  Besides, the battle waging below was nothing but a diversion from his real purpose.

The group of hoxmen made their way down from their vantage point on the hill and guided their mounts onto a trail that led back toward Mt. Seleya.  Waiting below were one hundred D’Khahli warriors who fell into the procession.  Behind them, the sounds of battle faded, although the high-pitched screams of hoxa and the clash of metal remained audible.

It was a little over three kh’eet from R’uhn s’vat to the village lying below Shar’ram and the town was basically undefended.  Every able-bodied man in the area was on the battlefield, leaving only old men, women and children behind them.  S’Von smiled with delight and motioned a group of his D’Khahli warriors forward to carry out the carnage they had become so adept at performing.  With a chorus of wild whoops, the invaders spurred their hoxa forward into the wide-open village.

But, for S’Von and the rest, their mission lay ahead and now it was Stahl’s turn to take the lead as they guided their hoxa up the foothills of the mountain.  A frontal assault on the main gates was impossible, but there were other ways into Shar’ram that few were aware.  Stahl had lived and worked in Shar’ram for most of his life and he knew every entrance and strong point, every weakness and trap that lay in the fortress.  Now he guided S’Von and his men up into the hills behind the fortress and around to where the walls of the stronghold met the sheer heights of Seleya itself.

S’Von reined in his hox and stared at the high, invulnerable walls and cliff towering above them.  “What is this?” he demanded of Stahl.  “You told me you knew a way in!  It would take a siege army to get through these walls!”

Stahl turned a cold, hard gaze on him.  “Yes, it would.  But we’re not going through the walls.”

“What?”

“Just follow me and trust that I know what I’m doing.”  With that, Stahl jerked his hox around and headed for the base of the cliff not far from the wall terminus.  The other men followed, only Temek smiling in knowledge of what his captain had in mind.

As they neared the rugged cliff face, the rock began to show cracks and indentations in its surface that hadn’t been evident before.  It was for one of these cracks that Stahl now headed and, as they reached their destination, the crack proved to be wide enough and tall enough for a man on hoxback to enter.  Without hesitation, Stahl disappeared into the darkness inside and Temek followed.  S’Von paused for a second, then kicked his black hox and guided it through.

Inside was a sizeable cavern, the floor smoothed and spread thick with straw to cushion the footsteps of man and animal.  It was large enough to hold fifty men and hoxa and the rest of the men began to ride in behind them.

“This is Shar’ram’s back door,” Stahl announced with a nasty grin.  “There aren’t many who know of its existence.  That passageway leads into the upper courtyard and through the stableyard to the main hall.  Anskar won’t have left many on guard inside the walls.  The fool believes it’s invulnerable.”  His grin widened.  “It is ... from frontal assault.”

“Well done!” S’Von remarked, truly impressed.  “Once we hold it, let Anskar try to get back in!”  He laughed uproariously at the absurdity of the joke, the irony of it.   “Lead on, my good sai.  Lead on!”

Stahl did just that.  Leaving the hoxa in the cavern stable with two men to guard them, only S’Von still mounted, the group of invaders made their way through the wide passageway and emerged into the sunlight of the upper courtyard.  It was deserted and they quickly slipped through and into the entrance of the stable area.  The long structure was nearly empty of hoxa, only the draft animals waiting in their stalls. All the mounts of the warriors were gone.

As they began to make their way through the stable, they were suddenly confronted by the hoxmaster, an older man with a lame leg.  “What are you doing—” he began and then recognized the men for who they were.  Immediately, the old man seized a hay fork and brandished it at them.  “Guards!  Guards!” he began to scream.

Temek sprang forward and silenced his throat by slitting it.  “Quiet, you old fool!” he commanded as the hoxmaster crumpled to the straw-covered floor and clutched at the gurgling gash, his voice reduced to a burbling splutter of blood and air flowing out through the wound.  They left him and hurried on down the row of empty stalls.

At the door into the main courtyard, they met two of the guards left on duty, running to the hoxmaster’s summons.  Both men were quickly and quietly dealt with and the invaders moved on out toward the main hall.

Most of the guards were gathered on the outer wall, attracted by the commotion in the village below, where smoke was beginning to billow from the fires set by the looters.  As Stahl had envisioned, there weren’t many men left to guard the supposedly impregnable fortress.

“I’ll take care of those,” S’Von said and drew out his hand phaser.  Stahl and his men stared at it uncomprehending, having never seen anything like it before.  Then they leaped back with cries of fear as S’Von aimed and pulled the trigger, burning down the men on the wall with the brilliant blue beam that screamed out of the phaser barrel.

“Are you children?” S’Von sneered at the astounded men as he turned back to them.  “Get inside the hall and secure it.  I’ll take care of any opposition out here!”

Recovering from their shock, Stahl motioned to his men and they charged into the main hall.  Servant women screamed and scattered, running for the kitchen areas of the hall.  One of the few men who had remained guarding the fortress was old Suvakh, too elderly to join in the ride to battle.  But he now met the invaders in a furious assault with his sword.  The weapon had lain too long in its scabbard, unused, and both it and its master were dull with lack of service.  Still, Suvakh managed to catch the first two D’Khahli by enough surprise to chop them down in quick fashion. 

But he halted for a second in shock as he came face to face with Temek, whom he had known since boyhood.  The warrior, however, was not so sentimental and plunged his blade through the body of the old man.  “I’m sorry, uncle,” he whispered as Suvakh crumpled to the floor, staring up at him.  Then Temek left him and ran on, following the rest of the defectors and invaders as they moved their search up to the second level.

Dying, Suvakh looked after him and feebly reached out his hand to the boy he had raised.  The man didn’t look back. 

Stahl was in the lead and he knew exactly where he was heading.  Upon reaching a certain doorway, he slammed his mail-covered shoulder hard against the wood and it sprang open before his assault.

T’Preve had been standing at the window watching the battle raging in the distance and she screamed in fear as the warrior burst in.

“Oh, don’t act so surprised, my dear,” Stahl announced, a grin of victory and vengeance spreading over his face.  “Surely you knew I would come back for you.”

“No!” T’Preve begged, edging away from him.  “Stahl, please...”

“Please what?” he asked, continuing his advance.  “Please forget that your father gave you to me as my wife?  Please forget that you carried on faithlessly like a common whore with a murderer and thief?  Please go meekly away and allow you to consort with a krenath stranger who takes my place at Anskar’s side?”  She had backed into the bed and could go no further. 

Roughly, he grabbed her upper arms and shook her.  “Not very likely, my dear!  And I’ll tell you why.  I don’t love you any more than you love me, but you are Anskar’s niece and the heir to your father’s lands.  As your husband, I hold those lands and become subholder to the House.  You are my stepping stone to wealth and prestige and I don’t intend to lose that chance!  Spock will die at my hands — and I intend on taking both you and the Sword away from him.”

T’Preve wrenched away from him and scrambled across the bed so that it stood between them.  Her long black hair falling into her face and her mahogany eyes flashing fire, she ground out in a low voice, “I will never marry you, Stahl!  Spock and I were bonded before Heya in the Ring Stones and I am his legal wife!  We pledged our hearts and minds two months ago and consummated our bond fully!  I carry his son and heir!”

Stahl’s face drained of blood at her statement, then he roared with fury and launched himself across the bed at her.  She tried to get away from him but he was too fast and tackled her, knocking them both to the floor.

As T’Preve fought desperately to free herself from his brutal clutches, her mind and voice screamed out the only thing she could think of —

Spock!!