T’Preve was dancing for him. Never mind that she was only one of a group of the family girls performing a dance routine for the people gathered in the main hall. As far as Spock was concerned, she dipped and swayed for him alone, moving sensuously to the music of drum and ka’athyra.
As his eyes followed her lithe form twisting and whirling, he found himself unable to tear his gaze away from her. Moreover, his breath began to come a little faster and his heart to beat a little harder. Suddenly, to his alarm, he realized that his body was responding to hers and, with a cold tremor of fear, he knew the only other time he had ever felt this way — when the plak tow had overtaken him and he had undergone pon farr. That one time had been a hell he had barely endured, when his entire being had been consumed by a fire of sexuality and rage. In his civilized, logical world, it had nearly driven him to the brink of death with its furies. What it would be like here, in this barbaric and untamed timespan, was beyond his comprehension.
But then he realized that, while those same flames of sexual desire were just below the ignition point of a full-fledged conflagration, it didn’t feel exactly that same as the plak tow. There was no incipient madness setting fire to his mind nor berserk rage consuming him. Instead, what he was feeling was a deepening ache in his chest and a hunger for the woman he watched, a rising tide of powerful emotions that threatened to overwhelm him.
Finally the girls ended their dance with a whirl and a flourish, and their audience responded with loud enthusiasm. As they dispersed to their various tables, T’Preve cast an expectant glance in Spock’s direction and a pleased little smile lifted the corners of her lips as she saw the obvious desire in his eyes.
But Stahl appeared beside her and took her arm, almost marching her over to the table where his lieutenants were sitting. He shoved her down onto the bench, then settled in beside her.
As he watched, Spock felt his emotions changing into a slowly simmering rage. Across the hall’s space, Stahl hovered over T’Preve, monopolizing her conversation, clearly feeling very possessive of her although they weren’t formally bonded yet. His show of dominance wasn’t lost on Spock, who had barely tasted the bowl of stew before him. That it was paran stew, with chunks of lean meat mixed in with the vegetables, hadn’t seemed to register on him. Or else he had reverted to the point that he didn’t care anymore. In any case, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the couple two tables away.
T’Preve appeared distinctly unhappy about Stahl’s attentions but was enduring them because it was her duty as his betrothed. Still, Spock found himself closely watching her body language and was beginning to read it as one of disgust. As Stahl slid an arm around her shoulders, she flinched away and attempted to get up from the table. Roughly, he yanked her back down and bent his head close to her face, speaking to her in a low voice.
She regarded him disdainfully and he gave her a little shake as if to emphasize his point, then removed his arm and turned back to his platter of food. Glancing up, he caught Spock’s gaze on them and asked loudly, “What are you looking at, stranger?”
Something in Spock bristled at the tone but he kept his voice even, “I am Family, Sai Stahl. I am no stranger.”
“You’re a stranger to me, sai,” the other man answered defiantly. “Why do you watch me?”
“Why do you treat the lady so roughly?” Spock replied, his irritation growing despite his attempts at maintaining control.
Stahl threw his eating knife down on the table and leaned forward in a challenging manner. “What business is that of yours? She is mine, therefore I treat her as I will.”
The hall had quieted and all eyes were on them now. T’Preve had begun looking a bit fearful and her gaze swung back and forth between the two men.
“A betrothal does not make her your chattel,” Spock answered, his voice hard.
“Doesn’t it?” Stahl retorted and stood up, his stance full of menace.
Spock came to his feet as well, staring back unblinking at the other. Stahl grasped the hilt of the sword by his side and Spock did likewise, prepared to draw.
“Enough!” Anskar snapped from the head table. “Spock, sit down! You, too, Stahl! I will not tolerate this quarreling!”
Both men continued to glare at one another for a long moment, then with an effort Spock turned away and faced the Holder. “Lord, I beg your pardon. I find that my appetite for evenmeal was less than I thought. I ask permission to go now and check on my hox before I retire.”
“Granted,” Anskar replied. “Pleasant night to you, cousin.”
Spock made a cursory bow to the Holder and the others present, fixed Stahl with a stony look, and exited the hall. Marching out into the cool evening air of the courtyard, he took a deep breath and managed to get himself under control, wondering at his actions. Why had he become so enraged at Stahl’s treatment of T’Preve and then of his challenging words? Stahl was correct. His relationship with his betrothed was none of Spock’s business. But he couldn’t stand the way the warrior handled the young woman and he was rapidly losing patience with the man’s belligerent jealousy. But the persistent logical little voice inside him reminded Spock that the man was a seasoned soldier, bigger and more experienced than he. To let his surging emotions take control would be the height of foolishness.
Resolving to stay away from Stahl and his touchy temper, Spock went down to check on Brax and spend some time with him. The animal seemed pleased to see him and rubbed his big head against his master’s torso. Spock stroked the hox between the eyes and scratched a couple of spots around Brax’s ears that he seemed to know were itchy, and promised him, “I’ll bring you a sweetrind tomorrow if I can. You like those, don’t you?” Brax made a purring noise deep in his throat and butted Spock with his head. “Okay, I’ll bring two. Will that please you?” Brax purred again and closed his big dark eyes in contentment.
The time with Brax calmed Spock considerably as he rested his cheek against the animal’s warm, sturdy neck and listened to the muffled rumbling deep in the hox’s throat. His senses wrapped themselves in the serenity of his surroundings — the sounds of the animals moving lazily in their stalls, the soft champ of jaws working at grinding grain, the odors of hox and fragrant straw and harness oil, the tactile sensation of silken hide gliding over hot, firm muscle — all combined into a peaceful environment. There was an elemental happiness that he felt from Brax, without complication, something Spock had never known before. Man and hox were one in their contentment.
After a time, Spock straightened and stroked his hand down the length of Brax’s neck, ending in a playful tug on the long silver mane. He was turning to go back to the Holding when the hox pricked his ears toward the door and snorted. Spock was surprised to see T’Preve slip in through the door, looking back as if to check on whether anyone had followed her. After a moment, she turned and scanned the stable interior then came rapidly to the stall where hox and rider stood.
The stable was dark at this time of evening but still, as she reached them, she drew Spock around on the other side of Brax, so that the hox stood between them and the doorway, shielding them from view. Then she spoke in a whisper, “I came to warn you.”
“About what?” he answered, lowering his voice as she motioned for him to speak quietly.
“I overheard Stahl talking with his lieutenants,” she responded. “He’s decided to teach you a lesson.”
Spock’s eyebrows lifted in surprise at that. “Indeed? That may prove more difficult than he knows.”
“Spock, he’ll kill you if he can. Don’t provoke him. He’s very dangerous.”
“I won’t run and hide from him, T’Preve,” he answered and felt the anger of earlier that evening beginning to build again in him.
She closed her eyes for a moment and then looked back at him pleadingly. “Spock, I know him. He’s killed many men in combat and duel. He won’t hesitate to kill one more.”
He was silent for a moment then asked her, “And you would bond with a man like that?”
“I have no choice. Don’t you understand?”
“No, I don’t understand.”
She looked saddened. “He told you the truth at evenmeal. I am his chattel. Before his death, my father gave me to Stahl to settle a debt of honor. He has not yet wed or bedded me because he plans to wait until the spring at Life Feast when the new planting begins, so that fertility will be assured.” Her mouth compressed grimly. “He intends to ‘plant’ me, too, you see. I’m to bear him many sons.”
Spock was appalled. The vision that sprang into his mind of Stahl with T’Preve, brutal and uncaring, using her merely as an object to satisfy his lusts and further his ambitions, sent his emotions seething with rage and jealousy. And then the anger in him really did explode into hatred for the other man.
Before he knew what he was doing, he had reached up and grasped T’Preve by her shoulders, pulling her against him. “No!” he whispered hoarsely, painfully, like a man seeing his last hope for salvation fade away. “No! He will have to kill me before I allow that.” And then he was kissing her, hard, his arms sliding around her slim, warm body. For a second, she stood rigid in surprise, and then she was returning it, hungrily, desperately, her arms going around him, clutching him as if her life depended on it. Loneliness and desire and an overwhelming need for one another poured out through the frantically deepening kiss, a wellspring of emotions colliding in this dizzying moment of revelation.
But then she broke the kiss, pushing him away. “No ... no, Spock,” she breathed with a sob. “We can’t! He would kill us both! Please, just be careful of him.” And with that, she spun and ran out into the night, clutching her cloak around her.
Spock leaned against Brax’s side, a bit dazed at what had just occurred. The hox eyed him knowingly and made a peremptory little sound. Spock shook his head and slapped him on the shoulder. “Yes ... I will,” he promised absently and left the stall where the big animal stood watching him. Brax snorted in answer and stamped one foot in frustration.
Spock paid him no heed. He was confused, physically tired and emotionally drained as he made his way back across the dark courtyard and into the main hall. Last-meal had broken up and kitchen women were clearing away the leavings, pushing the tables back against the walls to make sleeping room for those who bedded down before the hearth.
Wearily, Spock ignored them as he crossed the room and went into the back halls to his sleeping alcove. A tremendous burden he neither wanted nor understood had been placed on his shoulders by virtue of the sword he carried and now his outburst of emotion with T’Preve had complicated matters. He had enough to think about without adding a feud with Stahl on top of it.
Closing off the curtains, he undressed then knelt on his mattress and attempted for a time to meditate. But the whirl of thoughts and passions consuming him prevented him from clearing his mind and he finally gave up, crawling between the blankets of his bed. The straw mattress beneath his bedroll caressed his tired body and he turned over onto his side, falling quickly asleep.
He had been asleep for some time when he suddenly woke, aware that the curtain had moved back and someone had slipped through it. Spock did not stir, listening intently, analyzing the situation. For a moment there was silence, then he reached quietly for the dagger he kept close at hand.
“No, Spock. It’s only me,” came a soft, feminine murmur.
He propped himself up on one elbow and stared at the dark figure. “What are you doing here?” he whispered back. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Please ... don’t scold me,” she breathed in answer. “I ... I had to ask you something.”
“What?” he demanded.
She stood silent for a moment. “Did you mean what you said tonight in the stable?”
He didn’t answer for what seemed like a long time, sorting through all the forces at work here. Then he answered solemnly, “Yes. I meant it.”
He heard her sigh. “I prayed that you did. I’ve been lying awake since I went to bed and the longer I lay there, the more I knew that I ... I couldn’t bear it any longer.” Her voice trembled as she stood in the dark. “I want you, Spock. With every fiber of my being. I need you... Oh, Goddess, you’re all I’ve thought about since the day you arrived here.” Her voice trailed off in a little tremor.
“T’Preve...” he said helplessly, at a loss for words.
“Please, Spock, if you won’t have me, just let me share your bed tonight,” she murmured. “Let me be close to you for a few hours.”
He said nothing, not trusting his dry throat to answer. His heart was pounding wildly and he was beginning to feel a puzzling urgency deep within himself at the thought of her lithe body beside him. The fire he had felt as he watched her dance had sprung to life again and he found that he had no desire to quell its heat. But there was more to it than that, an emptiness inside that ached for her, a gaping void that had ripped through his soul the moment he had held her in his arms and drunk in the incredible sweetness of her lips. It yawned in him now, growing ever deeper, and he finally knew that he could not send her away.
She stood waiting expectantly, her own breathing a little ragged and fast, and he silently pulled back the blanket in consent and lay waiting for her. She gave a soft little sound of relief and, with quivering fingers, began to unlace her chemise. As he watched, his heart pulsing quick and hard, she let the garment slip from her shoulders to the floor. Then, clad only in her long black hair, she slid between the blankets beside him.
The heat of her body pressed along the length of his was nearly more than he could stand and he was forced to close his eyes and labor to take control of his emotions. The sensations she evoked were fast eroding the disciplines he had always practiced and the untamed appetites of his ancestors were surging within him. He couldn’t tell if she was broadcasting her need to him, or whether what he was feeling came from the depths of his own soul. Or if both were reverberating with echoed and shared desire.
Her voice was soft as she snuggled against him, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder and slipping her fingertips lightly across the firm muscles of his bare chest. “I’ve wanted you from the moment I saw you. I can’t explain it but I’ve felt as if we were meant for each other, as if we were bonded together long ago and now you’ve come back to me. Then tonight I knew for sure ... I will never marry Stahl. I don’t care what I have to do, but I’ll be free of him. Because I knew tonight that I love you, Spock. I love you more than life itself.”
His fingers tightened almost convulsively on the blanket as her words gripped his heart. Was that the strange hollowness he felt when he looked at her? When the memory of the scent of her skin or the sound of her laughter refused to leave him as he lay alone at night? When he felt her absence most acutely?
His resolve crumbling to dust, he turned on his side toward her and took her in his arms, pulling her close. She was warm and eager in his embrace and her soft breath caressed his mouth as she turned her face up to his. Touching his fingertips to her temple and cheek, he opened his thoughts to her and felt her mind reaching out to his in return, ripe with a passion that wound about him and dissolved any hesitation he might still possess. There was a completeness here, a fulfillment that nearly staggered him in the precision of it all. Their souls fit together perfectly, each one complementing the other, the balance of male and female meshing together into one being, one psyche.
Unable to contain his emotions any longer, he surrendered to the chasm in his heart and to the one thing that could fill it. “T’Preve...” he whispered and their lips came together in the darkness, their minds melding together into consummate fusion, establishing a link that opened electric currents of excitement between them. Verbal speech was no longer necessary as they joined together in a glorious mixture of mind and body. For the rest of the night, they spoke an ancient language of bonding hearts and impassioned union, of twining thoughts and melding souls.