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CHAPTER 18

Gabriel heard the mug hit the floor, turned to see his father's head fall to his chest. Already Rhys was snoring lustily, drowning out the crackling of the fire.

Every night, his father fell asleep in his big chair. Every night, Gabriel would open the chest at the foot of the bed, pull out the blanket, drape it over his father, tuck it in. Every night, he would blow out the lamp and whistle softly and Jyps would be at his side. Every night, he'd whisper a prayer for his father as he pulled the door to the chamber shut.

It was time, but Gabriel didn't move. He stretched out his legs and sprawled back on his elbows and studied his sleeping father.

Rhys had aged in these past years, but to Gabriel's eyes he was as formidable as ever. The long mane of gray hair was no longer streaked with the yellow-blond of his youth, the eyes were more sunken, the lines deeper, but the leathery face, sunburned as always, still held the strength of the Lord of Morevale. The gods willing, his father would rule his domain for many more years.

Gabriel turned away. His eyes were drawn to the miniature painting, surrounded by a few precious winter flowers, enshrined above the hearth. His mother, whom he had never known, smiled upon him, her lovely face aglow with love. Gabriel shook his head. This was why his father had never remarried, had never had more sons.

He felt a tightening in his chest; he clenched his fists, released them, drew in a deep breath, let it out. His father should have had more sons, sons to carry on the line, sons to hold Morevale for another thousand years. For Gabriel could not. He was Defender of the Faithful of Brennor. He was bound to his vow. He was Chosen.

He crossed the room and knelt at his father's side. Gently, he lifted the dangling arm and placed it carefully on his father's knee. Gabriel slumped to the floor and laid his head on the arm of the chair. The room was warm, too warm; the heat from the fire was making his eyes water.

His father snorted and shifted in the chair; Gabriel felt a heavy hand upon his head. How strange it felt, how good. He closed his eyes; he thought he, too, might just fall asleep.

A cold nose pressed against his arm. A warm, wet tongue licked his face. Jyps whined. Gabriel opened his eyes: the dog's long tail swept slowly back and forth; the brown eyes pleaded. Gabriel smiled and reached out to stroke Jyp's silky fur. Beneath his hand, the dog sighed. It seemed all creatures longed for the warmth of a touch.

.

A log popped in the hearth. Rhys straightened in the chair with a start and blinked. "Damn, it's cold in here," he grumbled, rubbing his arms. He caught sight of Gabriel lumbering to his feet and laughed. "Son, I haven't seen hair like that since Briskin fell in the pond over by Rufus' place. That dog was a sight, let me tell you." He laughed harder as Gabriel smiled sheepishly and ran his fingers through his hair.

"Speaking of Rufus, I've thought about what you told me, son." Rhys scratched his beard and yawned. "I thought maybe we'd go after those wolves tomorrow. You know, just like the old days. Maybe even catch those poachers." He snorted. "Come on my land, will they? Steal my sheep? I think not. We'll teach 'em to defy the Lords of Morevale, won't we, son?" He looked up to Gabriel.

His shoulders began to sag when he saw Gabriel take a deep breath. His hands began to shake when he saw the gray eyes that didn't want to meet his, but did, unwaveringly.

"Father," said Gabriel softly. His son's big hands were lifted for a moment, fell to his sides. "I didn't want to tell you until I had to, but I..."

Rhys felt the color drain out of his face. "You have to go," he said gruffly.

Gabriel nodded. The hands curled into fists. "That messenger yesterday, from Avacar. The High Patriarch has summoned me..."

"And you have to go."

Gabriel nodded and released his hands.

Rhys cleared his throat noisily. "When, son?"

"Tomorrow, Father. At dawn." Gabriel glanced to the portrait of Jehna. "I should have left today."

Rhys gripped the arms of his chair. He suddenly felt so very cold, chilled to the bone. He suddenly felt very old.

The gray eyes were upon him again. Rhys struggled to meet them. They were calm, serene; they were bleak with pain. By the gods, did Gabriel think to fool him? He was his father! He knew those gray eyes, knew that lanky body of his son's. Now the shoulders slumped, the hands didn't seem to know what to do with themselves, the chin was not held so high. He knew his son!

Rhys felt his eyes stinging and reached up to brush the wetness away with the back of his hand. He'd sworn he'd never burden Gabriel with his grief again. He'd had an excuse when he was younger; the wound of their taking him had still been raw. But not now. No, now it was an old wound, and like an old wound, it should flare up only sometimes. It should have healed. It should be scarred over.

Rhys sobbed aloud; he tried to choke back the tears. He looked upon his son and he saw, so clearly, with an old man's uncanny recall, a raw-boned sixteen year old, garbed in a pure white robe, his black hair shorn, his feet bare. He saw the boy rise from his knees and turn to the congregation, and in his hands he held the blessed sword of Brennor. He saw his son's radiant face, the serene gray eyes shining, seeking. Seeking the face of his father.

And what had he, Rhys, done? He had stared upon his fine son and the wound had ripped open and he had sobbed aloud. The tears ran down his face, into his beard. The wound bled; his back heaved with the force of his sobs. Someone had put an arm around his shoulders, had said, "You must be so proud." But he was not proud. He was desolate. The wound throbbed; it would kill him.

And all the while he looked upon his son and he saw the glow in the gray eyes fade, the shoulders slump, the chin fall, the sword tremble in the big, unwieldy hands. He had wounded Gabriel, too.

The gods knew how his son had been hurt already. The training. The years of conditioning, of self-mortification, of self-denial. Suffering was part of the training. Pain. And he, Rhys, had hurt him, too. He had sworn he never would again.

Now he had only to force the bitterness from his voice, the sorrow, and ask, "So, son, what service does the Church require of you now?" Gabriel was so without deceit, so devoid of artifice, that he would never consider that the father he loved and respected would be capable of it. The gray eyes would smile again.

But, the gods forgive him, he could not. He lowered his head to his hands and sobbed. He was an old man. He was no longer strong. He needed a drink; perhaps it would deaden the pain.

He felt a gentle touch. He heard the deep voice. "I must go, Father. The High Patriarch has summoned me." There was a sigh. "And I must go."

Damn the High Patriarch. His son's place was here! The keep should be filled with the sound of his grandchildren's laughter; it needed the gentle touch and soft voice of a Lady. This fief should be the finest in the south of Brennor; it needed the strong arm and sure hand and sound mind and simple heart of his son. Morevale would be lost.

Rhys slowly raised his head, braved the gray eyes. Gabriel was on his knees, and the dog was again licking his face, its tail beating a slow, hesitant rhythm, its eyes mournful. As Gabriel reached out to scratch its ear, the dog wagged its tail furiously and pushed its muzzle against the big hand.

"Aye, old Jyps will miss you, son." Rhys blinked the tears from his eyes.

"We all will."