The gates to Morevale Keep were wide open, the guardhouse unmanned except for the honking geese. As Gabriel rode through, he threw his head back and laughed. The chickens scattered in a flurry of feathers. The dogs, barking, tails wagging, came running. An old, one-eared cat eyed him with feigned disinterest from the rim of the well.
As a boy, he'd run through the bailey, raced up the flagstones, without really looking, without really seeing. Now, he looked. He saw: the ivy climbing the tower, the pigeons roosting in the battlements, the broken steps, the warm burnish on the great oak doors. His home. Morevale.
The servants stood in a line before the Keep, arranged, it seemed, in order of rank. The stable boy, a harness slung over his shoulder, stood outermost, his eyes shining as he looked on Apollonia. Next was a pretty maid, buxom and blonde, looking up at him through her lashes. Marnie was her name, Gabriel recalled. Then Cook, no one ever called her anything but Cook, and last, Midge.
The stable boy rushed up to him. "Master Gabriel, shall I get her settled in for you, sir?"
Gabriel stroked Apple's neck and nodded, smiling at the boy as he dismounted. "Yes, I think she's ready for a bit of pampering, aren't you, my lady?" She nuzzled his cheek. Gabriel untied his pack and gently slapped her flank.
As the boy stood on tiptoe and stretched to grab the bridle, Gabriel laid a hand on his arm. "You won't need that. She'll go with you."
The boy shrugged. "Yes, sir, Master Gabriel." He eyed Apple a bit warily. "Come now, m'lady, let's get you something to eat." She followed willingly to the stables.
As he watched the boy lead Apollonia away, Gabriel heard the heavy doors open. He turned and saw his father standing with his hands on his hips, his burly form almost filling the wide doorway. His hair was fully gray now, yet long and thick and wiry as ever and his grizzled beard stuck out like a brush. His merry blue eyes, though not so bright now, still sparkled.
"So you've finally decided to come back from your damn war and see your poor old father, have you?"
Gabriel dropped his pack and ran up the steps, nearly tripping on a broken flagstone. He almost felt like a boy again, though he stood a good head taller than his father, though his shoulders were nearly as broad.
His father threw his arms around him, hugging him so tightly that Gabriel's arms were pinned to his sides. The old man's tears flowed freely, soaking Gabriel's tunic. Gabriel could not move, could not speak. He simply stood with his cheek resting on his father's head and closed his eyes. He was home.
Midge watched the two men with shining eyes. Looking upon the tall, rough man before her, she still saw only her beloved boy.
She had been a young woman when Lady Jehna had died giving birth to Gabriel. Lord Rhys had been mad with grief; it had been she who'd had to take charge of the wee babe, to find a wet nurse, to care for him, to coo to him.
Even then, she knew he was Chosen. She didn't tell. He was her beloved boy.
But Lord Rhys had finally acknowledged his son, and Midge had been forced to sadly and selflessly give him up as hers alone. No longer could she protect him, shield him, hide him. His father would see, must see, that Gabriel was Chosen. Everyday, she studied Lord Rhys to see if he knew; everyday she lived in fear.
Until the day she had seen Gabriel, only two years old, cradling the head of old Meg, one of the mongrel dogs that Lord Rhys permitted to roam the keep. One tiny hand stroked the dog's muzzle, the other lifted a long silky ear and whispered, "S'allright now, Meg." Midge had smiled.
Until she had seen Lord Rhys bend down to his son and say, "Did you get her all healed up?" and Gabriel had looked up at his father with those calm gray eyes and nodded and smiled, and Lord Rhys had shaken his finger at the dog and said, "That'll teach you to mess with that tomcat, Meg," and laughed as he drew the boy into his arms.
She and Lord Rhys never spoke of it between themselves; they were silent conspirators. They raised him with love. They raised him with care. Together they protected him. Morevale was a remote country fief; no one need ever know Gabriel was Chosen. But, of course, the day had come when they did.
It was such a chance thing, it could only have been the intervention of the gods. If only it had not been fair day in the village, if Lord Rhys and Gabriel had not left the blacksmith's shop just then, if the horse had not lamed itself in a rut in the street, if the boy had just not seen it.
But he had. Before Lord Rhys could grab him, Gabriel had rushed into the street and knelt at the horse's side and reached out his small hands and grasped the horse's leg and healed it.
As the horse had struggled to its feet, the villagers had dropped to their knees. Midge could never forget the sight of the skinny, ragged-haired boy blinking as he looked about him, then rushing from person to person, pulling them to their feet. She would never forget the tears standing in Lord Rhys' eyes.
A few days later, the Inquisitors had come to Morevale. A day after that, they had taken him away. Gabriel had been ten years old.
Now he bent down and enveloped her in his long, strong arms. His hands, though huge now, were just as gentle; his eyes, though surrounded by fine lines, were just as calm; his smile, though softer now, was just as warm; and his hair, though cropped short, was as unruly as ever. Midge smiled through her tears as he stepped back and ran his fingers through it.
Gabriel lay flat on his back in the big bed. The stars were shining in the window, just as he had imagined. The fire crackled in the hearth. The dogs snored softly; an old one wheezed. Gabriel stretched his arms above his head and yawned. He sighed at the softness, the warmth, then shook his head and laughed. He'd been away too long, spent too many nights on his thin mattress or on the ground. He wasn't used to this. The bed was too soft; he was too hard. The years of training, of conditioning his body to endure, had been successful. Idly, he scratched the great scar that cut across his back. So many scars. Yet, with the exception of the last, he couldn't remember when he had received them, or where.
He reached down to stroke Jyp's silky ear. Gods, it was good to be home! He'd spent an hour in the tiny chapel on his knees making his devotions, praying his thanks, filled with a sense of peace, of joy. Nowhere did he feel as close to the gods as here in the chapel at Morevale.
The day had been so fine. Gabriel was tired, so tired, happily so. The dreams would not plague him tonight, not here at Morevale. That is, if he could ever get to sleep. Sighing, he scattered the dogs, clambered out of bed, and threw the covers to the floor. With a rueful smile, he lowered his lanky body. The familiar hardness felt just right.