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CHAPTER 20

He wouldn't look back.

Gabriel fixed his eyes straight ahead, on the road. He had to. The village was just past the next curve; between the mud and the ruts that grew ever worse as he approached it, he'd best watch where Apple stepped.

He wouldn't look back. But Apollonia did. She turned her head every few steps and snorted.

"You didn't want to leave, did you, my lady?" Gabriel reached forward to stroke her neck. He'd thought about leaving her at Morevale, taking one of his father's riding mares. Right now Apple would be grazing and the sun would be just starting to glint off her black coat and the scent of the clover would be hanging over the east meadow, fresh and sweet.

Gabriel shook his head. "We'll just have to make the best of it, Apple. I don't know what the High Patriarch has planned."

She tossed her head back once again, and Gabriel smiled and ruffled her mane. "I may need you, my lady."

"Um, Master Gabriel, Sir, why are you talkin' to your horse?" A small, breathless voice spoke from behind him.

Gabriel whipped around to see a filthy, yellow-haired boy whose skinny chest heaved within his ragged tunic.

"My pa says there's somethin' wrong with people that talks to animals." The boys blue eyes widened and his cheeks turned bright red. His hand flew up to his mouth. "But I don't think he meant Defenders, though," he gasped.

Gabriel smiled and nodded. The boy was one of the peasant children who, like the dogs, always seemed to be about the Keep.

The boy returned the smile as he rubbed at his nose. "'Sides, pa ain't always right about ever'thing, just most things."

Gabriel nodded.

"Like he said I couldn't catch up with you and Apple," at this, the boy turned to Apollonia with shining eyes, "and I did, didn't I?" He looked back to Gabriel with a face that demanded an answer.

Gabriel nodded again. "How?"

"Oh, that was easy for me," said the boy as he puffed out his chest. He lifted a skinny arm and pointed. "I gots me a secret path through the timber there."

Gabriel smiled as his eyes followed the boy's finger to the stand of loren and birchroot trees to the southeast. He, too, had run beneath the branches, thrilling at his prowess, as a boy.

"That's why Midge is always sending me on errands to the village. I'm th'only one who's can find my way through it." His eyes shone. "And I'm fast!"

Gabriel nodded and smiled. He took a deep breath. "Well, Apple and I must be on our way now."

"I know," said the boy, "I know'd you had to get to Avacar real fast, else Midge wouldna' been so mean when she sent me to catch you." He dug into his grimy tunic and withdrew a small, loosely-wrapped bundle tied with string. He held it in his hands like an offering. "She says to me, 'Willis, you'd best not dawdle at the brook, cause if you do I'll give you more than a cuff on the ear,' and I says, 'What's so important,' and then she cuffs me on the ear and says, 'not that it's any concern of yours, young man, but I'll not have Master Gabriel settin' off to Avacar without no food,' and she hands me that bundle and says 'and don't you squish it. It's some pastries Cook made up special for him,' and I got out of there as fast as I could." The boy gulped in a great gust of air and thrust forth the bundle. "I hope they ain't squished, Master Gabriel."

Gabriel took the bundle and carefully tucked it away in his tunic. "Thank you, Willis," he said solemnly as he reached down and extended his hand.

The boy's blue eyes got very big. His mouth dropped open. With great dignity, he put his small, dirty hand in Gabriel's.

With a nod, Gabriel turned to the road ahead, nudged Apple a step forward.

"Master Gabriel, sir," said the boy, hovering at his side, "is it all right if I bring Lord Rhys his ale?"

Gabriel pulled Apple up short.

"Cause if you say it is, I don't care what Midge or anyone else says." The blue eyes were unwavering.

Gabriel swallowed and took a deep breath.

"See, Midge caught me at it one day and did I get a lickin' for it. She says 'don't give Lord Rhys no ale, he's had enough,' but, Master Gabriel sir, I figure Lord Rhys ought to have his ale if he wants it, him being the Lord of Morevale and all, and besides he told me Midge hides it sometimes and that ain't right, is it, Master Gabriel?"

Gabriel turned and looked back. Back to Morevale Keep. His chest tightened.

"'Specially now, with Lord Rhys cryin' like he is, and here it is still early morn. I ain't gonna keep his ale from him, not me." The boy shook his head so hard his yellow hair flew about his face. He lowered his eyes. "Lest you says I should, Master Gabriel."

Gabriel swallowed again, hard, and ran his fingers through his hair. He should go back. He couldn't. The boy was waiting for an answer, and he had none to give. He simply nodded.

The boy followed the nod, his head bobbing up and down, his blue eyes grave. He stepped back from Apple's side. "Well, you'd best be on your way, Master Gabriel," he said, and darted off toward the trees with a wave.

Gabriel watched the small figure enter the grove. The boy would be at the Keep within minutes if he stayed on the path, if he didn't dawdle at the brook.

Gabriel nudged Apollonia forward, north, away from Morevale Keep. He wouldn't look back again.