Nine months prior...
With a thundering explosion, the walls of the Telapul Holding gave way before the hellish assault of the phaser rifle’s beam. Sappers had worked for four days undermining the stronghold wall and then S’Von had delivered the coup de grace, causing the weakened stones to collapse.
As the dust cleared, the army of D’Khahl rose from its trenches and charged the breach in the wall, giving vent to a screeching war cry that raised the hackles of those in the holding who prepared to meet them. Mounted hoxmen and foot soldiers both stormed through the gaping hole in the fortress walls, fighting furiously hand to hand with its defenders. Hoxa screamed as they were cut down by bolts and pikes. No less furious were the anguished screams of men and the clang of metal against metal as sword met sword and shield.
After a half hour of carnage, the city’s pennon was draped over the upper wall, a knot of surrender tied into its length. Seeing it, Stefin grinned ferally and shouted hoarsely for his men to cease hostilities. Troop leaders echoed his orders up through the ranks and gradually the fighting stopped, the D’Khahli soldiers ready at a word to resume their slaughter.
Stefin reined his big dun-colored hox in and peered up at the walls where a bedraggled man had appeared, holding his hands out where Stefin could see them. “Supak!” the D’Khahli shouted up to him. “Do you yield or do I set my men back to their work?!”
“What are your terms?!” the man on the wall yelled back, looking ready to weep.
“Terms?!” Stefin responded in scorn. “My terms are that you surrender your city and step down from your Holding! The alternative is that we systematically kill every man, woman and child while you watch — and then we stake you alive and let the hycals have you!” There was appalled silence from Supak and Stefin raised his gory sword in the man’s direction, frowning. “You test my patience, old man! My warriors have blood in their mouths now! They hunger to taste more! Yield or I will set them free!”
“What else can I do?” Supak responded in defeat. “We cannot match your power or that of your sorcerer. Telapul is yours, Stefin.” He hung his head in resignation.
Stefin lowered his sword in acceptance and his warriors let loose a howl of victory. It echoed through the streets and courts of Telapul and bounced off the high stone walls. When it died down, Stefin again addressed the man on the wall. “Supak! I will meet with you in your council chamber. Bring your ministers and war leaders. We will draw up the terms of your surrender and settle this business.”
“I will meet you there,” the man agreed and turned away, disappearing from sight.
Brimming with savage elation, the D’Khahli leader motioned for his captains and for S’Von to follow him. As they rode into the smoking ruin of the city, their hoxa snorted as the stench of blood and burning flesh filled their nostrils. The men had to keep a tight rein on their mounts as they rode to the central hall of Telapul Holding.
Dismounting, they strode boldly into the hall, alert for trouble, but finding only defeated people who backed away from them in fear. Supak and his ministers were waiting for them in the council chamber and the two Holders seated themselves across the table from one another. Deliberately, Stefin drew off his mail gauntlets and slapped them down on the tabletop, enjoying the way Supak flinched.
“Now, let us discuss a settlement of this business,” Stefin began. Leaning back in his chair, he stated flatly, “I am prepared to spare your life on the condition that you swear fealty to me and hold this place in sacred trust to me. In addition, you will pay me an annual percentage of the taxes and earnings on this Holding, to be set at my discretion and delivered to me in full at the turning of the year. To show your good faith in this, you will deliver up a tenth of the wealth of your city now, which I claim as my own. Further, your army will swear allegiance to me and fight in my service as I require.” He stopped and fixed Supak with a cold, purposeful stare. “And one other thing. To seal this agreement between us and to insure against treachery on your part, you will hand over your daughter, T’Kaela, to me in marriage.”
Supak was growing darker and darker in the face and now he burst out, “No! I won’t agree to that!”
“All or nothing, old man,” Stefin warned him. “For, if you do not agree to these conditions, I will give the order to my men to sack and burn this Holding. You know I will do it and I will take what I want in the end. Is your daughter such a great price to pay for the safety and security of your Holding and your people?”
“How can you ask that of me?!” the older man spluttered. “My own child—”
“All or nothing!” Stefin growled out in growing anger.
Supak fumed and glared at the invaders, then finally said, “Let me confer with my ministers.”
Stefin waved a magnanimous hand at him. “As you wish. You have ten minutes. I do not think you will disappoint me.” His dark eyes hard as obsidian, he grinned in a way that said plainly he almost hoped Supak would defy him and allow the massacre to begin. The blood-lust in Stefin’s face sent a chill of terror down Supak’s spine and he hurriedly gathered his ministers together and drew them aside. He already knew what his answer to the invader must be.
* * *
The Ring Stones of Mount Seleya were sacred to the ancestor spirits of Ni’ikhirch and were presided over by the ruling Goddess of the clan. They stood on a natural courtyard at the base of the mountain whose name had been in the old tongue Seyl‑Heya — the Throne of Heya. The word heya was an ancient one and meant “mountain”. In distant times past, people had worshiped the peak itself, particularly when the volcano was active and periodically spewed its wrath across the countryside. It was believed that the goddess, whose name became synonymous with the mountain itself, dwelt within its molten throat and, to appease her, sacrifices had been regularly made — first wines and fruits of harvest, then unblemished paran lambs and s’boxa calves, and finally, when the volcano was especially active, virgin boys and girls. Gradually, over the course of time, the mountain’s fiery rumblings had died away and it had subsided into quiescent slumber.
At some point in its history, a temple to the Goddess had been built at the base of the mountain and, over time, the small natural amphitheater had seen the rise of a ring of giant standing stones, overtopped with lintel pieces weighing many tons. It was still a mystery how the ancient people had erected such a monumental edifice but it remained standing in Spock’s day. Since time immemorial, this place had been the site of judgment and ritual, of marriage and death. Its sands had absorbed countless gallons of blood and witnessed the bonding and breaking of clan ties and bloodlines.
It was to this place that the court of Anskar now gathered to watch the settling of the dispute between Spock hei-Kh’da’Ni’ikhirch and Ansaric hei-Kh’da’Tuldu’un over the issue of the death of Lord Tumik and the right of his possessions. Heya would weigh their claims and choose, making her decision known by allowing one of them to live.
As the onlookers spread themselves around the circle, discussing and betting on the outcome, Anskar settled himself upon his seat of judgment and his ministers and war leaders gathered to either side of him. Ansaric moved to one side of the arena and proceeded to strip down to the waist, handing his clothing and weapons over to those who favored his cause and stood as his seconds.
Spock went to the other side, wondering what he’d gotten himself into. As he reluctantly began to ready himself, an older man stepped up to him. He was gray-haired and gray-bearded, heavy set and well past his middle years. “I am Suvakh,” he said. “I am uncle to the Holder Anskar. I will stand for you, nephew.”
“I thank you, uncle,” Spock acknowledged, grateful that he had at least one ally here. He removed his cloak and then carefully concealed and wrapped his phaser in it, handing it into the older man’s care. He unbuckled the sword and dagger belts, turning these over, and then peeled off his tunic and shirt. Clad now only in pants and boots, Spock took a moment to close his eyes and draw a long, deep breath, calming and focusing himself. He must control the simmering anger that was threatening to consume him. He banked it down with determination, then he and Ansaric turned to the Holder.
“Daggers,” stated Anskar with finality.
At once, those acting as seconds to the two combatants slid the blades from their scabbards and handed them over, hilt first, and the two men crouched into a stance of readiness, each sizing the other up. Ansaric was young, strong and quick, but Spock judged him inexperienced because of his youth. At least he hoped he was. And, while Ansaric had the advantage of pressing his suit for revenge and gain, Spock’s strength lay in fighting for his life and in having years of hand-to-hand combat experience via his Starfleet service.
His brief reverie was ended abruptly as Ansaric lunged at him, barely missing inflicting a deep gash across Spock’s upper chest. Spock jerked back just in time, and Ansaric followed, slashing at him again and again. The third time, Spock parried, locking his dagger’s guard against Ansaric’s, blocking him. For a few frantic seconds, they grappled together, then they broke and moved back apart, circling to find another opening.
“I have no wish to harm you,” Spock informed the young man, all the while maintaining his guard.
“Then you are at a disadvantage,” Ansaric retorted through clenched teeth. “Because I intend to kill you.” And he lunged again.
Spock met his rush and they locked blades again, each testing the other’s strength. They broke and came back together almost immediately. Ansaric attempted to knock his opponent off his balance and both men went down in the sand, clasped in a contest of blades and gripped wrists, rolling as each tried to gain the advantage. After a moment of stalemate, Ansaric kicked Spock hard in the shin, the pain causing him to break his grip for a second. Ansaric scrambled away and leapt to his feet, moving away to catch his breath. Spock quickly did the same.
For a long moment, the two combatants stood apart, breathing hard and planning their strategy for the next assault. Then Ansaric attacked again.
Spock side-stepped him and hooked his ankle, tripping him. Ansaric went down, rolled and was immediately up on his feet and crouched, ready. He got a mental nod from Spock. The boy was better than he’d estimated. He would have to end this quickly.
Spock made a move as if to stab at his opponent, then feinted as Ansaric darted to counter it. Before Ansaric could realize his mistake, Spock ducked under the young man’s swing and came up close behind him, simultaneously switching his dagger from his right hand to his left.
Ansaric whirled to face his adversary, but froze in shocked paralysis as Spock’s right hand clamped expertly on the base of his neck. The young man’s dagger fell from his suddenly lifeless hand as his knees buckled and he collapsed to the sand at Spock’s feet.
Spock straightened and was suddenly aware of the quiet of the spectators. To a person, they were staring at him in astonished silence and he turned to see Anskar on his feet, his face holding the same expression.
He looked around, confused, then turned back to face Anskar, who had stepped out onto the sands and was slowly approaching him. As the Holder reached him, he spoke in awe. “How is this possible? You merely touched him and he died.”
Spock’s eyebrows went up in surprise and he glanced down at the limp figure. “He is not dead, sai. He will regain consciousness in a moment. Do you mean that you do not know totsu’k’hy? The nerve pinch?”
The Holder peered at him blankly. “Is this some strange magic from your land?”
“No, sai, not magic. But it is a form of combat among my people,” Spock explained. “It is a way to incapacitate an opponent without truly harming him.”
Ansaric was beginning to stir and Spock quickly bent to help him to his feet. The youth was confused and some of his friends moved to his side to help steady him, still keeping a wary eye on Spock. “Are you all right?” Spock asked him. “Are you injured?”
Ansaric seemed surprised to be alive and didn’t speak for a moment as he checked himself for stab wounds, then he stared at Spock, baffled, rubbing the sore spot at the base of his neck. “What wizardry is this?” he finally asked. “What did you do to me?”
“It is not wizardry. Just a way of knocking out a person.”
As the crowd began to overcome their amazement, all began to talk quietly among themselves at this wonder. But the warrior Stahl stepped forward to stand beside Anskar. “Master, combat is not done,” he spoke up. “Our tradition says that only one may leave the judgment circle alive. Heya must judge who has the right claim.”
Anskar turned a critical glare on him. “Has not Heya judged this already? Spock has proven himself the victor here. He has prevailed.”
Stahl glanced at Spock with an expression that conveyed a dangerous disposition and ill will. “It is our tradition. If he is indeed the victor, then Ansaric must die.”
There was a good deal of muttering among the spectators, some in agreement, some not, but they quieted as Anskar faced the men and weighed what his judgment would be. “It is tradition,” he admitted finally.
A look of fear began to creep over the young Tuldu’uni’s face, realizing that his life was forfeit now. He glanced at Spock but could read no emotion in the other Vulcan’s features. Spock was staring steadfastly at Anskar, his face grim.
Anskar spoke again. “Spock, I declare you victor of this dispute. You have proved by combat that your word is true and that your claim to Tumik’s possessions is valid. Further, it is your right to slay your defeated opponent, by our laws and traditions. Ansaric’s life is yours.”
Steeling himself, Ansaric tightened his jaw in preparation for death and sank down to his knees before Spock, bowing his head, ready to feel the cold bite of the knife in Spock’s hand as it severed his spinal cord.
But what he felt instead was Spock’s hand resting on his hair. “I return Ansaric’s life to him. I have no quarrel with him and will not slay him. This is not the way of my people.”
“If you are Ni’ikhirchi, it is the way of your people,” growled Stahl, his eyes cold.
Spock turned to stare levelly back at him, matching the animosity he felt emanating from the warrior. “Are you Ni’ikhirchi, Sai Stahl?” he questioned in a low, dangerous voice. “I do not recall naming you ‘cousin’.”
The warrior bristled. “I am Stahl hei-Kh’d’Elakil. And I have more right here than you, stranger,” he spat back. “I have served the Holders since childhood!”
“Served,” Spock repeated contemptuously.
With an oath, Stahl moved toward him, his hand going to his own dagger hanging at his side. His blood still high from the combat, Spock shoved Ansaric, still kneeling, out of the away and stepped forward to meet him.
The ancient command had the power to stop both men in their tracks and Anskar turned to push Stahl back. “This isn’t your quarrel,” the Holder snapped. “I have decided the outcome of this combat! It is Spock’s right to spare Ansaric if he chooses and you have no stake in this matter! It is closed!”
Stahl glared at Spock for a long moment, then whirled and marched out of the arena. The other people gathered there, who had stood silent and spellbound by the exchange, began to wander back to the main hall and their usual pursuits.
Spock turned to offer Ansaric a hand up and the young man bowed to him. “Sai, I thank you for my life. I will call you ‘master’ now and serve you as shi’ka’ree. I see now that you have the blessing of Heya to bear the sword and I was wrong to contest you.” He looked down at the sand. “I deeply regret my actions, sai. I apologize to you. But you shocked me deeply when I saw you wearing my master’s clothing.” He turned to the Holder. “Lord Anskar, I regret any trouble I have caused you this day.”
“Indeed,” Spock seconded. “I grieve for thy loss. Tumik must have been a good man.”
“Yes, he was. A great warrior and a fair master,” Ansaric answered, looking down. “I will miss him. As a kinsman, too, for I had known him since childhood.” His expression was introspective for a few seconds, then he looked back up at Anskar. “Lord, I regret, too, that I allowed this to escalate so that it made me forget the reason I am here. Forgive me my foolishness and inattention to duty. Sai, I bring you a message from Lord Sefak.”
“When you are dressed, meet with me in my council chamber,” the Holder answered. “Then I would hear my fair cousin’s words.” He strode away across the sands.
Ansaric’s friends approached bearing his clothing and weapons and he turned to get dressed. Suvakh came to Spock and held out the bundle he carried. As Spock pulled his shirt on over his head and re-laced it, the older man commented, “I would like to learn this combat touch you have shown us.”
“I will teach it to you,” Spock answered, pulling on the overtunic, then buckling on the sword and dagger belt and slipping the blade back into its sheath.
As Spock dressed, Suvakh commented, “An eventful morning, nephew. And you have traveled a long way. Tell me — how come you here?”
“I remembered stories of the House from when I was a boy. I determined to set out on a quest to find the Family. And also to see places I had never been.”
Suvakh nodded sagely. “A young man’s quest, indeed. The curiosity of youth is admirable.”
“And, more importantly, I am on a mission to locate a man from my homeland who may have passed this way. I must speak with Anskar when he is free. Perhaps this evening.”
“After last meal is usually a good time to see him. I will speak with him and arrange a time for you.”
“Thank you, uncle.” Spock took the bundle of his cloak back from Suvakh, careful not to drop the phaser concealed therein. “Your hospitality to me is most kind. I must tell you that, from the time I was a boy, I have longed to see Shar’ram in all its glory.” That was not a lie. He had spent hours staring out his bedroom window at the ruins on the far away mountain and wondering what it must have been like in its heyday. And now he was here. “It is as magnificent as I’d imagined. But I never dreamed that it was so beautiful, too.”
Settling the sword belt into place, he looked up and immediately halted himself in mid-action. Across the arena, leaning demurely against one of the massive stone pillars of the Ring, almost hiding behind it, was a creature so beautiful that he nearly caught his breath in amazement. The woman was watching him with soulful dark eyes that captured and held him in their direct, provocative gaze. She smiled slowly and sensuously when she realized that he had seen her and he felt as dazed as if struck by a blow. She was young, perhaps in her teens, with a sweet face that nevertheless held a sadness not often seen on one of such tender age. Long black hair drifted around her like a cloud and fell over soft, creamy shoulders and arms.
He gave her a courtly nod of recognition, causing her to blush, then she disappeared among the stone pylons and was gone. Suvakh had seen where his gaze was directed. “Careful, nephew, she is betrothed.”
“Who is she?”
“Her name is T’Preve,” the man said. “The only child of Lord V’Rulk, Anskar’s younger brother, killed in battle. She is the promised bride of Sai Stahl. Their bonding is planned for planting festival in the spring.”
For some reason that disquieted Spock. Stahl had struck him as solely a warrior, rough and ruthless, more at home in battle than anywhere else. He found it difficult to picture the older man bonded with the young woman. And then he wondered why he cared. It was extremely uncharacteristic of him to meddle into the marital affairs of others, particularly those who were total strangers to him. But, still, he could not shake the feeling that something was wrong here, nor would the attraction he had immediately felt for the woman leave him. He stole a quick glance in the direction she had gone but she had vanished with the others in the direction of the main hall.