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CHAPTER 15

Rhys slouched happily in his favorite chair before the hearth, his leg dangling over the arm. He sighed and gulped down another great swallow of ale. Although it hadn't snowed in days, this night was bitter cold. It didn't bother him. The stiffness in his joints had vanished; he felt twenty years younger.

His son was sprawled on his side on the floor, trying to fend off the dog that was licking his face. Gabriel was smiling. That smile that reminded Rhys of Jehna every time it graced him, lit up a room. A soft smile, it was. Not a smile of bared teeth and laughing eyes. No, it was a smile of a gently turned-up mouth, of gentle gray eyes.

Rhys drained his mug and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He patted his belly and shook his head. "I can't believe you missed that buck today,” He chuckled. “You had a perfect shot, you know." His eyes sparkled as he pointed a finger. "The gods know you never were much of a hunter."

Gabriel drew his long body up to sit cross-legged on the floor. He ran his fingers through his hair and nodded. "You did your best to teach me, though."

"Damn right I did, son. Damn right." Rhys pushed himself from the chair and lurched to his feet. "A father's got to teach his son, I always said." He staggered to the the table, managed to refill the mug, and carefully made his way back to the chair without spilling too much. He was getting drunk. He didn't care.

"Everyone would tell me I should send you away, let someone else teach you, that that's the way it's done." He blinked and felt, like a blind man, for the arm of the chair, gripped it firmly, and turned himself around. "But I always said no, Gabriel stays here, right here at Morevale where he belongs." Suddenly dizzy, he fell back into the chair, sloshing his ale on the floor where the dog raced to lap it up. "Aye, that's what I always said." And suddenly his eyes blurred as he looked upon his son.

Gabriel had been only a boy when they had taken him. That day, he had looked up at Rhys with his calm gray eyes and had spoken with great solemnity, like a man, only his unruly black hair and a missing tooth belying the child he truly was. "Father, I am going to be the Defender of the Faithful."

Rhys had been mad with grief, with rage. He had stood before the doors of the keep with his arms crossed on his chest and scowled at the Inquisitors who had come for his son, his eyes hard, his mouth turned down.

But when Gabriel had spoken, Rhys' anger had vanished; only the grief remained. He'd lowered himself to one knee so that his eyes were level with his son's and said simply, "I know." Then he'd pulled Gabriel's slight body into his arms, held him close, kissed the top of his head.

He had wanted to shake him, to take him by the shoulders and shout, "But you must someday be Lord of Morevale! You will own all this land, and you will be liege to the people who live and work here." He had wanted to look sternly into those gray eyes and say, "And someday, Gabriel, your son must become Lord of Morevale."

Instead, he had let him go, had held him at arm's length and nodded toward the waiting priests. His son was Chosen. He belonged to the gods.

Damn the gods! Now as Rhys looked upon him, he felt such an overwhelming pang of regret that he nearly cried out. He downed the rest of his ale in one great gulp.

"Well, at least one of us can hit a deer at a hundred paces. I didn't much fancy soup for supper again." He forced himself to smile and tried to rise. "I've a fearsome thirst tonight, son," he said as he sank back into the chair and sighed.

Gabriel drew his long body up. Rhys felt the gentle eyes upon him, but he wouldn't meet them, not even when Gabriel reached down to take the mug. He watched him stride across the room to the table where the pitcher was. "Thank you, son," he whispered.