The boy tripped on the flagstones as he ran up the steps to the great oak doors of Morevale Keep. He stared up at them, breathless, his face flushed, then reached up on tiptoe and pulled the heavy ring. The doors creaked loudly as they slowly swung open.
As the boy stumbled into the great hall, his eyes widened. A huge fireplace, big enough to roast a whole deer in, was blazing at the far end of the room beyond a long, long table with carved chairs as big as thrones at either end. He craned his neck toward the beamed ceiling, so high it made him feel like he was in the big temple in the village his pa had taken him to once. There were pretty pictures on the walls, their colored threads as bright as spring flowers. And, best of all, hanging all about the hall, were swords and shields and other shiny things that he knew were used for war.
He rubbed his grimy hands on his ragged tunic and straightened his slight shoulders. An old dog, laying before the hearth, lifted its head, opened one eye and stared at him balefully. The boy glanced furtively about himself as he tiptoed across the room, his toes curling in the softness of the heavy pelts covering the floor. His small hand shook as he reached up to touch the blade of a long, jeweled sword.
"Boy, what are you doing in here?"
He snatched his hand back and whirled about, his mouth hanging open.
"I asked you what you are doing in here, boy." Midge, Lord Rhys' housekeeper and the one person in Morevale who could strike terror into his heart, waddled up to him and tapped her foot.
The boy remembered what he was doing here. He swallowed hard and started to answer in what he considered a dignified voice, but it broke as he croaked, "Tis Master Gabriel, Ma'am! I seen him on the north road."
A pudgy hand cuffed his ear. "And how, boy, would you know it's Master Gabriel? You weren't much more than a babe suckling at your mother's breast last Master Gabriel was at Morevale." Midge narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms on her ample bosom.
"Well...," began the boy, his eyes shining, licking suddenly dry lips. "He's so very tall I'll bet he could pick the fruit off the tops o' the trees. And he's got real short hair, sorta spiky like, and black, like a crow's wing, and his skin's as dark as an Unbeliever's." The boy sucked in a long breath. "And he's riding a giant black horse." Suddenly, he lowered his eyes and traced a circle on the floor with his bare toes. "'Sides, old Girard told me it was him."
The boy dared to look up. Midge's eyes were shiny and her face had gone soft; she didn't seem to notice him for a moment. Then, dabbing at her eyes with the edge of her apron, she caught sight of him staring at her. "Well, what are you waiting for, boy? Go find the stable hand! Oh, and tell Cook, and, let's see, find Marnie and have her freshen Master Gabriel's chamber."
The boy, his head bobbing up and down, whirled about. He took a step. Midge's voice brought him up short.
"And don't let me catch you in here again!"
Lord Rhys of Morevale snored lustily, huddled in his favorite chair by the hearth in his bedchamber, an open book lying across his knees. A blanket covered his legs, and a shawl was draped around his shoulders. The sun shone through the narrow window on his bent gray head.
He was awakened by an urgent knocking at the door. He snorted and struggled to rise. The effort seemed too great. He grunted and called out, "Enter."
Midge burst into the room, her hands clasped to her breast, her fleshy face aglow, shining with tears. "M'Lord, 'tis wonderful! Gabriel is here!"
Rhys stood suddenly; the book and the blanket fell to the floor. "My son is home?"
Midge's eyes were bright. "Yes, M'Lord, Willis saw him out on the north road."
Rhys looked to the miniature painting on the mantle above the hearth. Jehna, his wife, Gabriel's mother, seemed to smile at him with her calm gray eyes so like their son's. "My son is home," he whispered.
They'd let him out, their prize. They'd let him off the leash. After all these years, he, Rhys of Morevale, was to be permitted to see his only child again.
He looked to Midge and the tears just spilled out over his grizzled cheeks; he couldn't stop them. Midge only nodded. Then Rhys' brow furrowed. Why would Gabriel be here? Had he been maimed, lost a limb, lost his mind? War could do that to a man; Rhys had seen it happen. "Is he," he swallowed, "is Gabriel all right?"
Midge's brow furrowed, too. "All right, M'Lord?"
No, Rhys thought, his son would be whole, thank the gods. He was Chosen. He was Defender of the Faithful of Brennor. Anything less than perfection was not permitted.
But it was hard not to see a gangly boy with a shock of unruly black hair and trusting gray eyes pull open his torn tunic to reveal a deep bloody gash running across his skinny chest. It was hard not to hear a small voice saying, "I'm sorry I ruined my tunic, Father." The scar still cut through the thick hair on his son's chest.
But no, he needn't worry. The Defender of the Faithful was invincible, untouchable, inviolate. Gods willing, he was still a man.
Rhys grunted and wiped his eyes, swiped at his nose. "Damn," he grumbled, "I should have had Kynn replace those broken flagstones." He stomped around the chamber, his shawl trailing from his shoulders like a robe of state. "And what of a feast? We can't have salt pork on the day my son comes home!"
"But, M'Lord, there's nothing else. You haven't been hunting for nigh on a fortnight..."
"Well, just have Cook catch one of those damn geese that are always hanging about."
Midge smoothed her rumpled apron and sniffed. "Yes, Lord Rhys." Her plump face managed to look dignified and wounded at the same time.
He softened his scowl and, sheepish, ran his fingers through his hair.
"M'Lord, would you like me to take your shawl and put it up?" The wounded look was gone.
With a start, Rhys glanced down at himself. He looked like a feeble old man! He tore the shawl from his shoulders, grabbed the blanket from the floor, and piled them both onto Midge's outstretched arms. He tried to smooth his tunic; it was wrinkled, stained with ale and the gods knew what else. When was the last time he'd changed his clothing? When was the last time he'd washed?
He opened his mouth to ask Midge to fetch the looking glass. She already had it clasped in her hand. He nodded and took it and raised it to his face. His thick gray hair was matted and greasy; it hadn't seen a brush in days, hadn't seen water and soap in weeks. His beard was straggly; crumbs and the leavings of many meals clung to it. His eyes were so old, rheumy, bloodshot. His nose was red. In despair, he let the mirror fall.
But Midge had been busy. A clean tunic lay on the bed. She held the brush in one hand, a sharp dagger in the other. She looked pointedly to the wash basin on the chest. "He'll be here soon, M'Lord."
Rhys nodded dumbly, then met her eyes. A look of quiet joy passed between them. For ten years they had raised Gabriel together, watched him grow, loved him. The tall, proud Defender of the Faithful was just an illusion. Their boy was home.
Gabriel made his way slowly up the road, savoring the sights and smells and sounds: the rolling fields, the great old trees, the sheep huddling on the hillside, and the people! He recognized many of the folk along the road, peasants who had, like their ancestors, worked this land for the Lords of Morevale for generations. They waved as he passed, and their eyes shone as they called out, "Welcome home, Master Gabriel!"
Seeing a familiar face, he halted Apple and swung out of the saddle. With her at his side, he strode up to the man and grasped his hand. "How are you, Rufus?"
Rufus stared at him wide-eyed, snatched his battered hat from his head, clamped his mouth shut and dropped to his knees.
Gabriel pulled him to his feet and shook the well-worn hand. "The flocks look fine, Rufus, very fine."
The shepherd's face brightened. "Aye, Master Gabriel! We'll have more lambs than we gots grass to graze 'em on." He kneaded his hat and sighed. "Course, them wolves've been gettin' alot of 'em."
Rufus nodded vigorously. "Poachers, too."
"Aye. Lord Rhys says don't pay 'em no mind. Says the few they takes we won't be missing anyhow." Rufus lowered his eyes. "But, Master Gabriel, sir, them sheep's all I got. I mean, them that Lord Rhys in his goodness gives to me for me own."
Gabriel laid his hand on the shepherd's shoulder and opened his mouth to speak.
"And, Master Gabriel, sir," said Rufus, shaking his head, "Nym says, you know Nym, him that oversees the fields, well, he says that them barley fields have got to be let to go fallow this year."
Gabriel rubbed the back of his neck and nodded.
"But, Master Gabriel, Lord Rhys says no one's to mess about with them barley fields. His ale, you know. So Nym don't know what to do now. He really don't." Rufus' head dropped and he took a deep breath. When he looked up, he said, "We'll all be thankin' the gods that you've come home safe and sound from the holy war, Master Gabriel." He flushed and lowered his eyes. "I mean, Defender."
"Thank you, Rufus," Gabriel said with a nod, then reached for the pommel and placed his foot into the stirrup. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw Rufus on his knees again. With a sigh, he threw his leg over the saddle and rode off at a gallop toward the Keep.