As Gabriel of Morevale ambled into the circle of light at the campfire, a hush fell over the knights gathered around it. Faces which had been, just a moment ago, animated by conversation or slack with exhaustion, now turned, almost as one, to him.
Gabriel met their eyes with a small smile, a slight nod.
Some of their faces were familiar to him. He had lived with them for over two years: old Howell, his long, once flame-red hair now nearly white, his beard wispy, his green eyes pale with age; Maddox of Yorgren, his straight nose jutting out from his proud face, his eyes as dark and hard as well-seasoned wood.
Some of their faces were fresh, new. They fairly glowed; their eyes were still bright.
Gabriel moved to fold his long body into the place that had been hurriedly made for him. He unsheathed his sword and began to polish the blade.
A minute passed, another. The silence was broken only by the crackle of the flames, the screech of a nighthawk. Gabriel carefully inspected the sword for any imperfections, then ran his thumb down the blade. It was indeed sharp; he resisted the urge to suck at the wound he'd just inflicted on himself.
There was a loud pop; the fire leaped. Conversation resumed.
"No, lad, the Unbelievers don't have three eyes, they don't ride wild boars, and they don't eat fallen knights in a victory feast," Howell said, his fleshy old face creasing in mirth.
The young knight to whom these comments were addressed blushed. "I didn't mean I believed all those stories, Sir Howell." He glanced quickly to Gabriel. "I'd just like to know what to expect."
Gabriel spoke quietly. "The Unbelievers are merely men, flesh and blood."
"Then they are much like us, Defender?" Hope shone in the young knight's eyes.
"Much like us," said Gabriel.
"Aye, and like us, they're willing to die for the Holy Shrine," Maddox grumbled. "That's the only thing you need to know about the Unbelievers."
The group grew quiet, sobered by these words. The faces, illuminated by the campfire, grew solemn. Gabriel slid his sword into the scabbard, leaned back on his elbows and stretched out his legs.
Another young knight, his eyes as warm and brown as his long curly hair, broke the silence. "Well, I for one will be glad to meet the Unbelievers in battle in the morning." His voice was amplified by ale, high with passion. "Once we've beaten them and retaken the Holy Shrine, we can all go home."
For over two years the knights of Brennor, the Defenders of the Church, had fought their way east, across the heathen lands, through vistas strange and terrible. Of the thousand men who had set out from Avacar in glory, who had sat astride their chargers in gleaming armor and spotless surcoats, who had bowed their heads to receive the blessings of the High Patriarch, few remained to stand before the Holy Shrine.
The veterans, hardened by two years of warfare, were stoic about the battle on the morrow. They approached it almost with a sense of relief.
The younger knights, too, anticipated the battle. Some had fought before; some would see their first action in the morning. They looked covertly to the veterans for some clue as to what they would face, some reassurance that they would survive, some promise that they would win.
All looked to Gabriel of Morevale, Defender of the Faithful, the Sword of the Church.
Those who had survived with him knew well the might of his blessed sword, the strength of his faith. Each sought the privilege, and measure of protection, of fighting at his side. They knew he was flesh; they had seen him bleed. Yet they knew he was Chosen. Two years of living with him in their midst, of fighting, of eating, of sleeping, of praying, of hurting, had not cured their awe. He was among them, one of them, and yet he was apart.
The new recruits were at first nearly struck dumb in his presence. In their unblemished armor, their faces bright, their eyes shining, they looked upon him with open-mouthed admiration, with reverence. Although his manner was easy, his smile always at the ready, just the sight of his tall figure approaching made them straighten their backs, firm their chins, puff out their chests.
Few of the Defenders of the Church seated around the campfire on the dusty plain before the Holy Shrine would presume to speak directly to the Defender of the Faithful of Brennor.
Emboldened perhaps by nerves, perhaps by drink, the brown-haired knight turned to Gabriel. "Defender, what will you do when you return to Brennor?"
Gabriel's face lit up in a quiet smile. "Go home."
"I, too, shall go straight home." Howell ran his hand over his grizzled face and chuckled. "I should have a few more grandchildren by now."
"And you, Kelwyn, what are your plans?" another knight shouted.
Kelwyn laughed and his brown eyes grew merry, flashing with mischief in the firelight. "I will find the most beautiful wench in Avacar and spend many happy hours in her company, of course!"
Silence, heavy as a shroud, once again fell over the campsite. Some of the knights shifted uncomfortably and turned to scowl at Kelwyn. Gabriel only smiled his easy smile and traced circles in the dirt with a crooked finger.
A violent red had crept up Kelwyn's neck and now flamed on his cheeks. "With the Church's blessing for a job well done," he said as he scrambled unsteadily to his feet.
Not a sound issued forth from the group.
Gabriel could not break the silence. He could think of nothing to say; there was nothing he could say. He scanned the faces around the campfire. Not one, no one, would meet his eyes. He must leave.
His smile still firmly fixed, he pulled himself up and strode to Kelwyn's side. He lay his hand on the young knight's shoulder, steadying him as he swayed on his feet. With a nod to the others, Gabriel headed for the makeshift stables where Apollonia was tethered.
She stood companionably among others of her kind, great warhorses, the finest chargers in all of Brennor. Although her black coat blended into the night, a soft whinny at her master's approach led him directly to her.
The sound of men talking, men laughing, came to Gabriel's ears in the stillness of the night. He smiled and roughly caressed Apollonia's neck, just the way she liked it. "So, my lady, what will you do upon your return to Brennor?"
She nudged the pouch hanging from his belt.
"Ah, I see. You'll eat."
He fumbled at the strings, managed to open the pouch, and fished out a lump of sweet cane. "Doesn't sound very exciting to me." He held out the treat. "Still, I see your point. I could do with a well-cooked meal myself."
Gabriel drew the strings of the pouch taut with his teeth and replaced it at his belt.
"Just think, we'll soon be home." Staring into the blackness, his mind, his heart far away from this dusty plain, he could almost see Morevale Keep. "Yes, Apple, we'll be dining on Cook's wondrous food soon enough." He laughed and ruffled her mane.
Kelwyn stumbled from the shadows.
"That's a fine lady you have there," he said, scrunching up one eye in an exaggerated wink. "Of course, I prefer the company of a lady who can talk back." He giggled. "Then again, maybe I don't!"
Gabriel smiled softly, but said nothing. The ale notwithstanding, he could see that the young knight was nervous about tomorrow, his smile too brittle, his tongue too loose. Kelwyn had come late to the crusade, one of the many young nobles of Brennor who had left their homes to seek glory and the gods' favor as Defenders of the Church.
As Gabriel peered at him in the darkness, at his smooth, unscarred face, at his bright, brown eyes, he silently prayed that the gods would watch over him in the battle tomorrow.
Although the Defenders had fought long and hard to reach this plain before the Holy Shrine, the battle they faced in the morning was all that now mattered. Both Defender and Unbeliever knew this to be the end of the Holy War, win or lose. Neither would yield.
Gabriel stroked Apollonia's silky coat, then let his hand fall to his side. The battle would begin at first light; he had not yet performed his devotions. "We'd best get some rest," he said, wishing he knew the words to somehow make sleep possible for the young knight, for himself. With a nod, he set off toward his tent.
Kelwyn lurched after him, almost running to keep up. "Defender, how do you think the battle will go tomorrow?"
Gabriel stopped and turned. "I think it is in the hands of the gods."
The knight's face grew pale. Gabriel laid his hand on Kelwyn's shoulder. "Though many of us will fall, I believe the gods will grant us victory." He smiled gently.
Kelwyn nodded and bit his lip. "Defender, are you afraid to die?"
Gabriel scratched at his beard as he considered his words. "There is much I yet wish to do in this world. Much." The young knight stared at him intently, his eyes searching. "Yet I do not fear death. I know that I will be with the gods."
Kelwyn turned away and hung his head. "I am not ready to meet the gods." His voice was small, almost a whisper.
Gabriel reached out to again grasp the young knight's shoulder, but Kelwyn shook his head, tossed his hair out of his face, and staggered back.
"It is easy for you! You are Chosen!" He raised his eyes; they looked bruised. "Some of us are merely men." Kelwyn's gaze did not waver, but his chin trembled. "Have you never felt a human emotion, Defender? Have you never wondered what it feels like to get drunk, to touch a woman?" He thrust his face closer. "To shake with fear?"
Gabriel's arm fell to his side. Looking down into the young knight's face, he was suddenly overwhelmed with a wave of loneliness, of sudden emptiness, but his eyes betrayed nothing. Calm, serene, they met Kelwyn's. "I am Chosen."
Kelwyn stared into his face, searching, it seemed, seeking some answer, some understanding. Finding none. The brown eyes grew hard; the smooth face twisted into a grimace. "How simple you make it sound," he said through clenched teeth. "How simple it is!" He stumbled as he jerked away and nearly fell. Gabriel reached out to steady him, but Kelwyn threw off his hand. "You are Chosen! You do not fear. By the gods, you do not feel!"
Gabriel's hand, still poised in mid-air, slowly lowered as he watched the young knight stalk off into the night.
Five thousand men faced each other across the dusty plain. To the east, the Holy Shrine towering at their backs, was the army of the Unbelievers, four thousand strong. To the west, the vast steppes rolling out behind them, were the Defenders of the Church.
Two armies, each arrayed in a vast, long line. Seemingly, there was no strategy, no tactics. This battle would be won through strength, through courage, through faith.
The battlefield was silent, unbroken by speech or coughs or clearing of throats. Unbroken even by the snort of a horse, a hoof pawing the ground. The treeless plain harbored no birds. The insects that scurried underfoot went about their tasks quietly.
And yet, in spite of the stillness, the battlefield was clearly alive. The smell of sweat, of polished leather and polished steel, of horse, of the sour breath of five thousand men preparing to die, cloaked the plain with its heavy richness.
As the sun began to rise above the mountain, it touched on steel: armor, sword, stirrup, spur, bridle, the glint in every Defender's eye. They squinted and blinked, but never took their eyes off their enemy.
At this distance, the Unbelievers were merely a blur, dabs of color against the gray stone of the mountain, bright patches against the dark symmetry of the Holy Shrine.
A signal was given. A thousand knights, as one, began to ride slowly forward. Now the only sound was the rhythmic pounding of the chargers' hooves as the Defenders of the Church advanced with unrelenting precision.
Gabriel sweated in his hauberk in spite of the chill of the morning. His heart was beating so hard, his blood pulsing so wildly, that his face was flushed under his sun-darkened skin. He gripped the hilt of his sword more tightly and took a long, deep breath.
The gap was closing quickly. He could almost make out the faces of the Unbelievers, could almost see their eyes, dark yet bright, could almost see their mouths, set in hard lines as grim and purposeful as his own. Astride their ponies, bows in hand, they waited.
Still the Defenders rode steadily forward. Over the thundering of the horses' hooves, Gabriel heard the metallic clink of visors being lowered into place, the grating shriek of swords being drawn from their scabbards. They were almost in range of their enemies' arrows.
Gabriel ran his fingers through his hair and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. He wore no helmet, not even a mail coif. Had it not been given to him by his father, he would wear no hauberk. Briefly, he lay his hand upon his breast where the holy symbol of the gods was embroidered on his surcoat, where it was branded on his skin.
He and the other veterans, in the middle of the line, were poised to meet the full onslaught of the Unbelievers. He did not need to look right or left; he knew every knight's face would be focused, ready. Drawing his sword, he whispered a prayer in the holy tongue. "Let thy blessed sword smite thine enemies."
A thousand knights, almost as one, turned to the Defender of the Faithful as he held aloft the blessed sword of Brennor. He did not see them; he stared straight ahead. But his great height and bare head were visible to every Defender. A thousand knights, almost as one, then lowered their heads and made the sign of the gods.
The Unbelievers' arrows began to rain upon them. The Defenders' mounts broke into a gallop and charged, the ground trembling at the onslaught of their heavy hooves, churned into a cloud of dust. Above the roar, over the screams of falling men and falling horses, cries of "For the gods!" and "For the Holy Church!" were heard.
As the Defenders advanced, the Unbelievers became a blur of motion: shouldering their bows, drawing their swords, kicking their ponies forward. Their cries were shrill and incomprehensible.
The two armies came together with a mighty crash. The neatly arrayed lines dissolved into chaos. No longer were the cries of valor heard; over the din of clashing steel and crunching bones were shrieks of rage and pain, and moans. The dusty plain itself seemed to become a living thing, complete with sweat and blood and voice and movement.
Gabriel's heavy sword slashed first left, then right, forward, back. He did not think. He did not feel. He heard only the pounding of his heart; he saw only what he must kill. He and Apollonia and his sword were one, their only purpose to win. Unbelievers fell before him, all around him, yet more still came.
Unnoticed, unheeded, the sun moved across the sky. The ground had become a quagmire of blood and bodies, and every man on the plain, especially the fallen, was anointed in crimson spray, awash with red mud. Horses and ponies slipped and stumbled, biting and trampling as they fell. Swords became heavy, armor became hot, eyes became blinded, legs became weak, shouts became whispers.
Gabriel, still silent, still grim, still busy, flailed about him with deadly precision. He pulled his sword free from yet another fallen Unbeliever. So many there were. Apollonia tripped and stumbled among them, upon them. Gabriel blinked and swiped his arm across his eyes; he could not see for the blood and the sweat. It only took a moment.
In that moment, he was nearly hurled out of the saddle by a blow to his back. The breath was knocked from his lungs, and he slumped forward, gasping. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he drew a ragged breath. As he wheeled Apple about to face his attacker, he straightened, grasped his sword in both hands, and brought all the strength of his upper body to bear as he cleaved through the Unbeliever with one mighty blow.
His head reeling, Gabriel struggled to remain upright. He gasped again with pain and shook his head to try to clear it. A wave of dizziness washed over him; the sword fell from his limp hands. He lunged for it. The blood drained from his face and he swayed in the saddle, then tumbled to the dirt.
Apollonia circled him, rearing, snorting, her great hooves smashing anything that came too close. But the press of bodies was overwhelming; without her master's steady hand, his calm voice, she could not hold. As Gabriel grabbed hold of his sword and struggled clumsily to his feet, Apple, eyes wild, glistening with sweat, was lost in the fury of the battle.
Gabriel gripped his sword tightly with both hands, his knuckles white with the force of his grasp. The hilt was slippery, the blade red. Alone now, it was he who must step among the bodies of the fallen, who must kick them aside, who must crush them underfoot.
His muscles ached with weariness. His sword arm was nearly numb. Sweat and dirt and blood ran in rivulets down his face, blinding him. The deep gash in his back bled freely; his blood dripped steadily to the red mud at his feet. He remained standing only because he had to, his long legs planted as solidly as the roots of a tree.
Unbelievers were drawn to him like a magnet; a tall, bare-headed man without a horse was impossible to resist. Yet he stood, and he struck, and they fell.
The vigor of the battle was nearly spent; its life was draining away as inexorably as the blood of its participants. The sun, unaffected by the drama played out beneath it, sank unhurried, luxuriously, to the west. No longer did it reflect off shining armor and shining swords. The armor was filthy, the swords, dull.
Few yet stood upon the dusty plain.
Those who did conducted their business listlessly. Man and horse, Defender and Unbeliever, went through the motions of battle. A sword thrust was parried. A blow found its mark. Men fell, horses fell: some in pain, some in exhaustion, some in death.
It was quieter now.
Gabriel willed himself to calm his ragged breathing, to slow the pounding of his heart, to control his terrible trembling. He blinked the sweat and blood from his eyes. For the first time since the battle had begun, he no longer heard the familiar sounds: the clash of steel, the cries of men and horses. He looked about and found himself with nothing left to kill.
Still clutching his sword, he staggered back. He stumbled and fell to his knees. He groaned and pressed his hand, hard, against the bloody wound on his back and tried to stand, using his sword as a brace to pull himself up. But his strength was spent; he was so weary he couldn't lift his head.
He fell forward, cradling his sword to his breast, and laid his cheek upon the muddy ground. Through bleary eyes he saw one of the fallen Unbelievers lying where his mount had thrown him, his eyes wide open. The man's mouth, contorted still in pain, or rage, or protest, seemed about to speak. With a deep sigh, Gabriel turned his head away and closed his eyes.
He awoke with a start. Apollonia's great black head hung over him, her dark eyes closed. He grasped her mane, her neck, and dragged himself to his feet. He lifted his sword and frantically scanned the battleground. The muddy plain was littered with the bodies of the fallen, men and mounts, Defenders and Unbelievers. Gabriel's anguished gasp was the only sound; the battlefield was silent, save for the buzzing of flies, the greedy gabble of feasting vultures.
His sword fell from his fingers. Dropping to his knees, he buried his face in his hands and wept for his fellow Defenders, his tears streaking through the blood and grime on his face, spilling into the mud. He did not move for many minutes, his back bent, his shoulders shaking with the force of his sobs.
At last, he lifted his head and swiped at his nose and eyes with the back of his hand. He picked up his sword and carefully wiped the blade on his surcoat, once white, now red. Slowly, he slid it into the scabbard.
He stood stiffly, straightened his back, squared his shoulders. Once again, he let his eyes roam the battlefield. He tried to distinguish Defender from Unbeliever, warhorse from pony, but in the shadows of twilight the masses of dead blurred together in his vision, became as one. He still did not know who had won the day.
The Shrine held the answer. There, to the east, it jutted out from the mountain, huge and magnificent, its facade no longer obscured by ranks of Unbelievers, the setting sun glinting on the golden doors. The Shrine of the gods, seemingly untouched by the hand of man, looking like an outgrowth of the holy mountain into which it was built. Against the darkening sky, it appeared unapproachable, unreachable. A vast sea of dead lay before it.
With a great sigh, he set out, Apple following unbidden. He stumbled over the bodies of the fallen, slipping in the gore only to lift himself yet again. His eyes were fixed on his goal; he would not, could not, look about him. He must know if the Shrine was taken, if the Holy Church had regained its most sacred site, if his fallen brethren had gained the prize.
A small sound caused him to tear his eyes away from the Shrine. It was so faint, so feeble, that he did not know if he was only imagining it. He forced himself to quiet his pounding heart, his ragged breaths. It came to him clearly then, a soft moan, pitiful and lonely in the silence.
Gabriel clawed through the bodies, frantic to find the man, be he Defender or Unbeliever. He was unmindful of the blood, of the faces of the dead, of the open, staring eyes.
His hand touched warm flesh. He gasped. The young knight, Kelwyn, lay with his blood draining out into the dirt from a great wound in his shoulder. His face was gray, his eyes closed. Yet from his lips came still the pathetic moans.
Gabriel dropped to his knees and gently grasped Kelwyn's wrist.
The knight's eyes flickered open, and his pale lips curved into a small smile. "Ah, the gods have sent their Chosen to guide me to them."
Gabriel could barely feel a pulse. "Shhh, Kelwyn, lay quiet now." Beneath his fingers, the flesh was growing cold.
Desperate, he placed both his hands on the ugly wound. He took a deep breath, then threw back his head and called on the gods to give him strength. Every muscle in his body, every nerve and bone and sinew was tensed, ready. He bent to the task.
Although Kelwyn's eyes had again closed, his lips blue, his skin graying, the blood still pumped out between Gabriel's fingers. The young knight was yet alive. Gabriel clenched his jaw in concentration and began.
Sweat beaded on his forehead as he probed the wound. His face grew pale; the lines deepened. Slowly, carefully, his fingers sought the rent muscles, the severed vessels, the broken bone, and made them whole, one by one.
Now the sweat coursed down his face; it blinded him; it broke out from every pore of his body. His shoulders bowed. His back bent lower, lower. Though he shook with exhaustion, his hands remained steady, almost delicate in their work. The sweat dripped off the end of his nose.
Kelwyn's chest began heaving. His breath, barely a whisper before, now came in great gasps. Beneath his fingers, Gabriel could feel the beating heart growing stronger, could feel the blood coursing swiftly through the veins, could feel the flesh warming.
He heaved a great sigh and dragged his hands back from the bloody wound. Blinking away the sweat, he raised his eyes.
Kelwyn was staring at him. His young face, just minutes ago gray and drawn, now glowed. His eyes, just minutes ago dull and vacant, now shone. "You, you have healed me!" Kelwyn whispered, his voice shaking.
Gabriel swallowed hard and struggled to find his own voice. He could not; he simply nodded.
"You are Chosen!"
Gabriel wearily raised his head and wiped his bloody hands on his surcoat. His eyes were drawn once again to the Shrine, to the holy place of the gods who had given him this power. He must know if it was won.
He felt a touch. The young knight's hand lay softly, reverently, it seemed, on his arm.
"Now I understand, Defender." Kelwyn's voice broke. "I am sorry I did not before."
Gabriel nodded; a tired smile lit his face. Awkwardly, he struggled to his feet.
The young knight forced himself to his knees, his face blanching with the effort. He hung his head and whispered, "Forgive me, Chosen," as he made the sign of the gods with a trembling hand.
Gabriel sighed and licked his suddenly dry lips. "The gods have blessed us with our lives this day, Kelwyn." He glanced to the Shrine. "Let us see if we have fulfilled their task."
They stood before the Shrine. It towered over them, one with the mountain. In the darkness, it seemed to blend with the sky, reaching to the stars, reaching to the gods. Gabriel could not tear his eyes from it. At his side, Kelwyn gasped. For a moment, neither could move.
Apple's soft muzzle rubbed against Gabriel's cheek; the spell was broken. He stroked her neck and strode forward to the massive doors.
He pressed his ear against the cold metal; there was not a sound. He turned to Kelwyn, shivering now at his side. He could not see his young face clearly in the darkness, but the brown eyes shone bright with hope.
Within lay the answer. He must open the doors. Setting his jaw, steadying his wild heartbeat, Gabriel grasped the heavy handles and pulled. Instantly, light as bright as a hundred torches flooded out through the doors.
Blinking, squinting in the brilliant light, Gabriel saw before him a vast room, so long he could not see the far end. He stepped through the doors.
All around the perimeter, as far as he could see, were candles, hundreds of white candles, illuminating the majesty, the grandeur, of the immense chamber. The walls were carved with elaborate reliefs, and Gabriel grew dizzy trying to make them out; every god, every goddess of Brennor seemed to come to life in the dancing candlelight. The floor was tiled in fabulous mosaics. His eyes grew wide; the history of ancient Brennor lay beneath his feet. The ceiling, so high that he had to bend his neck back painfully to see, was covered with glorious paintings. Gabriel blinked tears from his eyes; the paradise of the gods soared above him.
Kelwyn had fallen to his knees, his young face transfigured in the candlelight, his mouth hanging open in awe.
Gabriel could barely breathe. He trembled in wonder. This was what they had fought for, had died for; this was what he would live for.
He still did not know who held the Holy Shrine, but standing in the huge chamber, filthy with blood and dirt and sweat, torn and bleeding and bruised, he felt himself the most humble, the most exalted of men. He fell to his knees.
He imagined that he heard voices raised in the holy tongue in a familiar solemn chant. He shook his head to clear it. Still, the voices droned on, rising and falling, filling his head. He glanced at Kelwyn; the young knight's face was alight with joy. Slowly, Gabriel stood, then helped Kelwyn to his feet. They walked forward, deeper into the Shrine, toward the voices.
At last they came to the sanctuary. There, before the high altar, knelt the victors. The Defenders of the Church, their faces radiant, raised their voices in thanks to the gods. Gabriel knelt, clasped his hands, and joined them.