Chapter 23

 

The scream that ripped through his mind nearly unseated Spock from his saddle.  Jerking back on the reins in startled reaction, he caused Brax to rear and squeal as the bit cut into the hox’s mouth and tongue.  They were in the heat of the battle and the hox’s flailing front hooves crashed down on an enemy soldier’s skull, shattering it, before the wild-eyed animal dropped to all fours again.

Spock took no notice, his attention riveted now on the fortress in the distance.  Ansaric!” he yelled above the din of battle.  The young man finished his opponent with a thrust of his sword and looked Spock’s way.  “With me!  Fifty men!  With me!  Shar’ram is under attack!”

Some feet away, Anskar was engaged in a fierce contest with a D’Khahli soldier and could not follow them, but he had heard Spock’s command.  When next he could glance their way, he saw that the group was fighting their way out of the crush of men and weapons.  The Sword of Kh’Liorah flashed with deadly purpose, its bright surface dulled now with the blood of innumerable men, but still sharp and capable of chopping a path through a forest of mail and steel.

And then they broke free and spurred their hoxa in a flat-out gallop towards Shar’ram and the village that was now ablaze.

Anskar turned his head to follow their progress, taking his attention away from the mounted D’Khahli warrior who thundered down upon him.  He didn’t see the flashing lirpa blade until it was too late.

* * *

T’Preve struggled and screamed as Stahl attempted to subdue her.  Elsewhere in the fortress other screams echoed but he paid no attention.  They had come to take Shar’ram and the conquest was being carried out with harsh efficiency.  Stahl had come to take T’Preve and now he had her pinned beneath him, holding her wrists to keep her beating fists away from his face.

“I believe I like you better this way,” he murmured as she glared at him in frustration and fear.  “So much better than simply having you lie there like a scared shanna hare.  I prefer you fighting like a le’matya.”

She spat in his face.  “Kill me now, Stahl, because I’ll do the deed myself before I’ll give myself over to you!”

“No, that wouldn’t suit my purpose at all,” he answered.  “I always intended for you to bear me sons and that’s what you’ll do.  Not this one, of course.  This one will be left for the sehlats to feed on and the alo’oe to pick clean as soon as it’s born.  I’ll have no son of his growing beneath my roof, waiting to usurp my position in his father’s name.”

“Spock will kill you!” T’Preve sobbed.

“What makes you think Spock isn’t dead already on the battlefield?  He can’t help you now.”

She shook her head in denial.  “Because you just told me yourself that you still intend to kill him.  No, I feel him!  He’s alive and he’s coming!  He heard me call him.”

All the better,” Stahl sneered.  “Bid him hurry.  My dagger is thirsty for his blood.”  He freed a hand and dragged up the front of her skirt, baring her legs.  Call him, T’Preve!  Tell him in detail what I do to you while I wait for him.  Call him now!!”

In despair and anguish, she threw her head back and called, the voice of her mind reaching out through the bonding meld to her husband, her sobs building into a scream.

* * *

Half of Spock’s men split off as they reached the village and galloped to the rescue of the townspeople.  Spock and Ansaric reined their hoxa to a stop and stared up at the imposing walls of Shar’ram, the rest of the men falling in behind them.

“The front gate?” Spock asked uncertainly.

Ansaric shook his head.  “I wouldn’t trust that our people still hold it.  Anyway, it’s built to be nearly impossible for an invading force to penetrate.  The postern gate, perhaps.”

One of the older warriors with them pulled his hox up beside them.  “No, sai, we’d never get in that way, either.  I know a way, though.  If I can find it, that is.  I entered that way once with Anskar.  It’s in the hills up there.”

“Hurry, then,” Spock answered.  “We don’t have much time!”  As one, the squad of men urged their hoxa forward and began the ascent up the slopes of Seleya.

They would have had a harder time finding the crack in the cliff had it not been for the trail of fresh hoofprints in the dust leading to it.  They approached quietly and Ansaric dismounted to reconnoiter. 

There proved to be only one man guarding the hoxa there and he was dispatched quickly before he could cry out.  But as Ansaric was straightening something warned him of danger and he whirled to find the second man behind him, his dagger already plunging toward the young man’s back.  Ansaric grabbed the descending wrist, flung himself backwards and pulled the man with him.  Before the stunned D’Khahli could recover his wits, Ansaric had slit his throat.

After a quick look to make sure only two had been there, Ansaric hurried back and leaped up onto his hox.  He motioned the others forward and one by one the men rode into the cavern and down the wide passageway to the upper court.

Once there, their pathway was clear.  They urged their mounts through the stable’s broad aisle and into the main courtyard, and there they surprised a contingent of Stahl’s men.  With a cry, Ansaric and several of the warriors were upon them, swords flashing, and the battle was quickly joined by defectors and D’Khahli soldiers coming their aid.

Spock was already on his feet and running toward the main hall, T’Preve’s cries echoing through his mind.

* * *

For a second, Stahl’s attention was caught by the commotion in the main courtyard and he shifted his weight.  T’Preve saw her chance and slammed the heel of her free hand as hard as she could into his nose.  The force of the blow knocked him off her as he cried out in pain and surprise and reached instinctively for the injury.

She scrambled away from him and bolted for the door.  He lunged after her from his position on the floor, caught the hem of her skirt, then was left with a piece of the garment in his hand as she yanked it away and sprinted out into the hallway.  He leapt to his feet and pounded after her, catching sight of her as she launched herself in panic down the stairs into the main hall.  He thundered after her—

—and nearly collided headlong with Spock who had swept his wife into the protection of his left arm and was brandishing his sword with his right.  There was a fury and cold hatred covering his features that Stahl had never seen there before.  Good, the big warrior thought to himself.  The better to send him down in defeat.

As Stahl drew his own sword from its scabbard, Spock pushed T’Preve away, his hard, dark eyes never leaving his opponent.  “Get out of here, T’Preve,” he told her.  “Get to safety.”

She edged back toward the main door, prepared to run if she had to, but truly not knowing anymore where safety lay.

The two men faced off, both holding their swords at ready with double-handed grips.  They crouched into position, watching for the proper second to attack, then Stahl lunged, bringing his weapon down in a vicious swipe.  Spock countered the impact and they exchanged a flurry of blows as if testing the other, backed off for a few seconds, then clashed with a fierceness that frightened the young woman nearly out of her wits.   She had thought the combat in the Ring was savage, but that had been a mannered dance compared to this.

Stahl pressed Spock back towards the main door and in a moment they were in the courtyard where each had more room to maneuver.  Ansaric and the other men were down near the front wall, engaged in their own battle with the defectors, who outnumbered them two to one.  Spock and Stahl paid no heed to them, so absorbed were they in their own personal combat.  T’Preve had followed them outside and now stood with her back against the stones of the main hall.  She didn’t see the small, hawk-faced man who stood at the corner of the building, watching the proceedings with interest.

Once in the open, Spock launched an attack on Stahl that staggered the larger man.  Battered by powerful blows that he was barely able to counter, Stahl’s self-confidence flickered in the face of the almost berserk warrior who now swung at him with virtually supernatural speed and strength.  For the first time, he almost believed that the Sword of Heya was imbuing Spock with nearly god-like ability.

But then he knew the truth of it.  Spock was still battling him over possession of T’Preve and there lay his weakness. 

As Spock backed off for a second to catch his breath, Stahl asked viciously, “Did she let you know how we spent our time waiting for you?  Did you enjoy her as much as I did?”

“There’s no use taunting me, Stahl,” Spock panted, glaring back at him.  “You can’t goad me into hating you any more than I already do.”

“What a pity that it has to end like this, eh?” Stahl continued.   “And all over a woman.  You could have had any other woman, you know.  But you insisted on pursuing my wife.  Now you’ll die and your child will die, but I’ll still have her.”

“She is my wife, Stahl.  By legal challenge and declaration.”

“Then prove yourself worthy of her,” Stahl snarled, crouching back into stance.  Die for her.”

Spock answered by erupting into a lightning-fast assault on his hated rival.  The swords clashed together once more with a deafening clang of steel and once more blow was met by blow and counter blow.  Stahl allowed Spock to spend his strength in pressing the attack, then, as he saw Spock falter ever-so-slightly, he reversed their positions and became the aggressor, using every trick he had learned in his years of combat.

Now it was Spock’s turn to retreat, countering the blows defensively.  He was beginning to tire, having already engaged in all out combat with the D’Khahli troops before riding to T’Preve’s rescue.  But his hatred and anger kept him going, refusing to allow Stahl to walk away victorious from this combat.  One or both of them would die here and he was determined that it would be Stahl who finished with his blood running green across the cobblestones.

With that thought, Spock drew back to deliver the killing blow, but Stahl countered with an equally deadly swing, and the swords crashed together with such shattering force that both men were knocked off their feet from the impact.  Dazed, Spock shook his head to clear it and saw that Stahl was not in much better condition.  But then he saw something that sent a surge of vicious joy through him — Stahl’s sword had snapped in two by the power of the blow.

For a second, Stahl stared in dismay at the stub of his sword then he threw it to the side, drew his dagger and made a scrambling lunge at his opponent, still on his back and stunned, but with the Sword of Kh’Liorah in his hand.

As Stahl flew at him, Spock instinctively yanked the sword up — and staggered under the impact of Stahl’s body as the blade was jammed through mail, flesh and bone, to emerge clean through the man’s back.

Their faces an inch apart, Spock and Stahl stared in profound surprise at one another.  It was difficult to tell which one was the most startled by the abrupt outcome of their combat.  As he looked up into his rival’s fast glazing eyes, Spock came back to himself, realizing that he had just killed this man.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, meaning it.

Stahl gulped.  “I would have killed you if I could,” he murmured back.  “I would have killed you for her.”

“I know,” Spock answered.

Stahl closed his eyes and took a shuddering breath, coughed blood, and collapsed, dead.  For a few seconds, Spock closed his eyes as well and wished the man’s katra safe journey into the next realm, asking Heya to greet him with full honors due a warrior of Vulcan.  Then he shoved Stahl’s body off him and climbed shakily to his feet.  He bent down and grasped the hilt of his sword, propping one boot on the corpse to pull the gory weapon from the body.

He was just turning to find T’Preve when he heard her scream.  Jerking around in her direction, he was shocked to find S’Von with one arm around her neck, holding his phaser to her head.

“So, this is your wife, Spock?” the smaller man asked with malicious delight.  “What a prize she is.  I can see that I would have had to fight Stahl over her.  Thank you for killing him for me.”  He gave a sharp whistle and his black hox trotted up.  S’Von shoved T’Preve toward the animal.  “Get on,” he ordered the woman, still watching Spock and holding the phaser close on T’Preve.

Trembling and frightened, but not knowing what else to do, she complied, then S’Von quickly swung up in the saddle behind her.  “Your men have defeated Stahl’s warriors, I see,” the scientist continued, taking up the reins.  “I should have followed my original plan to attack Shar’ram with full force.  But no matter.  With Anskar being destroyed on the battlefield with his troops, that leaves this place virtually undefended.  It should be easy to take it shortly.  Until then, Spock — adieu, as the Terrans say.”

With that, he yanked the head of his hox around toward the postern gate and leveled his phaser at it.  Wood and metal blew apart under the weapon’s full power and S’Von spurred his hox through the gaping opening at a gallop, holding T’Preve securely before him.