Six months prior...
Stefin held up the jeweled beaker and asked, “May I offer you wine, my lords?” He made to pour into the golden goblets on the large wooden council table but his two guests lifted their hands in a manner of refusal.
“Not until after negotiations are concluded, my Lord Stefin,” responded Stakkan of Seka Holding, folding his hands together over his large stomach and leveling a slightly skeptical gaze at his host. “I know that you would not wish us to speak with less than clear minds and hearts.”
“Of course not, my dear Stakkan,” the Holder of D’Khahl smiled ferally and replaced the beaker on its serving platter. “But please do feel free to help yourselves to any delicacies that interest you.” He indicated the two young slave girls who stood by silently, identical twins, each bearing a tray of appetizers — cubed, spice-cured s’box meat, pickled h’nan eggs, cheeses made from paran and hox milk, fruits and nut cakes. His sly expression seemed to signify that the girls were included in the category of “delicacies” if his guests so desired.
Stakkan and the other guest, Tylok of Elakil Holding, read his meaning clearly and smiled slowly in appreciation. “I thank you, Stefin,” the older man answered. “Perhaps later we will partake of your hospitality.”
“Very good. I shall see to your comfort.” He jerked his chin at the slaves. “Leave the trays and go now. You will be summoned later.” Hastily they obeyed him and exited the room, closing the chamber doors after them.
“Lovely,” Tylok commented.
“Yes, they are. Who would have thought that the country villages would hold such treasures, hmm?” Stefin reached over and took one of the small blue eggs from the tray, popping it whole into his mouth. “I love these. My chief cook makes them marvelously well. I took him from Telapul when I conquered it. Please, my lords, do help yourselves. And if you won’t have wine, then perhaps hot saya tea would suit you?”
Stakkan appraised him and then relaxed a bit. “Very well. Yes, saya would be welcome. Tylok?”
“Thank you. I will join you in saya.”
“Very good.” Stefin busied himself with the preparation of the tea and in short order the atmosphere in the meeting chamber had warmed considerably.
As Stakkan munched on nut cakes, he cast his narrow eyes at his host and said lightly, “Your circumstances have certainly improved, Stefin. A lot of new-found wealth here.”
“Which you could share, my dear Stakkan,” the Holder responded, directing a knowing gaze at the other man. “S’Von here—” and he waved a hand at his sorcerer who was sitting silently across the room. “—has opened whole new worlds to me since his arrival.”
“So I see. Lord S’Von, I bow to your knowledge and adeptness.”
S’Von nodded in answer. “There is much wealth in this land that we feel is held in the wrong hands, my lord. We would like to see it ... redistributed.”
Tylok gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Redistributed, indeed. Into your own coffers.”
“Oh, not at all, my friend,” Stefin responded. “We are perfectly willing to share. With the right people.”
The tall, thin holder reclined into his cushions. “I see.”
Stefin leaned forward, intent. “Let us get to business, my lords. Our goal is the biggest prize of them all — Seleya.” Stakkan’s eyebrows went up at that and he turned and exchanged looks with Tylok. “But we need help to take it. Your help, Stakkan, and yours, Tylok. With our combined armies, we can defeat Anskar and take Seleya for our own.”
“And into whose coffers would this prize go, if I may ask?” Stakkan questioned.
Stefin waved a hand in dismissal. “We will work out equitable terms. The south holds riches enough for all of us. Tuldu’un is there for the taking as well and that province is nearly as wealthy as Seleya ... and much easier to take, I might add. And there are such easy pickings that they would be only a day’s labor — S’Nyn, Muzhik, Tos’Pah, Al’Borak ...” He smiled. “More than we could ever dream. All it would take is the doing. What say you, my lords?”
Stakkan exchanged appraising glances with Tylok, then turned back to his host and smiled broadly. “I say, pour the wine, my lord.”
* * *
Anskar looked up from his work as Suvakh, Ansaric and Spock entered the council chamber. He had been bent over the large table there, studying maps drawn onto parchment and talking earnestly with his military captains. Stahl, standing prominently beside the Holder, also straightened. There were a number of other men present, perusing the maps and discussing military tactics. As the three men entered, Stahl’s eyes narrowed a bit at the sight of Spock, but he said nothing.
“Anskar, there’s something we must discuss with you,” Suvakh began. “It could significantly affect our defenses.”
The Holder raised his eyebrows and responded, “Indeed? What is it, uncle?”
Ansaric exchanged glances with his companions, then stepped forward and announced, “Lord Anskar, you know that my master, Lord Tumik, was on his way here from Tuldu’un when he was killed along the road. What you don’t know, sai, is that he was the Bearer of Kh’Liorah, the Sword of Light.”
“What?!” Anskar went rigid with shock. The others present reacted with similar amazement and dismay. It took a moment for the implications and all the subsequent developments to sort themselves out in the Holder’s brain, then his gaze moved and locked onto Spock. “Then ... you ...”
“Yes, sai,” Spock answered quietly. “I wear the sword now.”
“Impossible!” retorted Stahl.
“Quiet!” Anskar snapped, then turned back to Spock. “Why didn’t you come to me before?”
“I only just learned of its importance myself, sai,” Spock answered.
“May I see it?”
Spock drew the sword and a false dawn lit the room. As the other men gathered around to see the legendary weapon, the Holder examined it reverently. “Yes ... yes,” he nodded, lovingly fingering the carvings. “I should have realized before... Here ... and here...” He pointed to runes engraved on the blade.
He looked up at Spock and a hint of a smile played about the corners of his mouth. “One was promised ... a savior or champion would be sent to us. That is why you felt compelled to return to Seleya, Spock. You are that one.”
“Lord Anskar, this man isn’t a warrior,” Stahl complained. “He’s a fraud. Isn’t it obvious that he killed Tumik and stole the sword? Why are you taken in by his story?”
Anskar gave him a cold glare. “We have settled that question, Stahl. Heya has decided.”
“I still protest the outcome of that combat, sai. It was not concluded properly. How do we know what Heya decided?”
The Holder swung on his military leader. “We know what I decided! The subject is closed!”
“Lord, Stahl is right in a sense. I am not a warrior as he understands the term. And I did not come prepared for war,” Spock commented solemnly. “Although I have gone into battle many times before ... when it was necessary. I came here on a mission, but not the one you think. As I explained to Lord Suvakh, I am searching for a man of my homeland, a criminal and a madman who has fled here to escape justice. I have come to find S’Von of D’Khahl.”
Anskar’s heavy brows lifted in surprise and he glanced around at Stahl, who was also looking somewhat dumbfounded. “S’Von! Then you have been led here by destiny.”
Spock sighed. “I have argued this very point with Suvakh and Ansaric. Despite the accident that brought the sword into my possession, I did not come here to fight in your war. I seek only to apprehend S’Von and return him for trial. And I shall do so as peacefully as I can.”
“Peacefully!” snorted Stahl in contempt. “You are either a moron or hopelessly naive if you think S’Von can be taken peacefully!”
One of Stahl’s lieutenants, Temek, joined in. “And if you think you’ll be allowed to lead him away like a s’box calf, with a ring through his nose, then I shall be there to see that! After the atrocities that murdering butcher has committed, we’ll make a spectacle of his punishment. You’ll have to stand in line to get your turn at him! Of course, there won’t be much left by that point!” The warriors in the room laughed coarsely at the joke.
Spock didn’t see the humor in it. “So, you’ll commit an atrocity to avenge S’Von’s atrocities?” he asked quietly.
Anskar waved them to silence. “The point is, Spock, that you’d have to fight your way through his entire army just to reach him and then you’d have to fight my people to get him away from their vengeance. No, my cousin. One man — even the Sword Bearer — simply cannot do what you describe. Because it’s not just S’Von that we have to stop. It’s the hordes that follow him. If he’s dead, then another leader will simply take his place and the carnage will continue unabated.”
The gray-haired Holder shook his head and turned back to the map table. “His next target is Tuldu’un. That much is obvious, even though it will take him several weeks to move his army south and into position. Ansaric, I had intended to send for you in the morning and dispatch you back to Lord Sefak to let him know that we will be coming to his aid. I will also be sending riders to my sons and subholders to gather their men and meet us within the next 20 days on the fields west of Shar’ram.”
“Lord, I must find S’Von and take him back with me to face justice. That is my primary mission here,” Spock insisted.
“Perhaps the two purposes are in reality the same,” Anskar mused thoughtfully. “The Goddess will know why you have been brought here. But I do know that she has sent you. Her purpose will be revealed to us in time.”
“As you say, sai.” Spock dropped his chin in resignation, knowing it would be futile to argue, and re-sheathed his sword. The rosy light was smothered off once more.
The Holder sat down at the table and took up a fine hoxhair brush, dipping it into ink. As he began his message in the flowing vertical script of Vulcan cursive, he said to Ansaric, “I will have full instructions for you in the morning. Go now and rest well, for I will send for you at dawn. You, too, Spock. I will call for you as soon as I send off Ansaric on his mission. We have much to plan before the rest of our army arrives and we can march to aid Tuldu’un. You say that you have gone into battle before. Perhaps there are techniques and strategies that you know from war in your land that would be new to us. And new to S’Von as well. And we must bring you current on the things that have been done so far so that we may prepare our defenses. I only pray there is time enough.”