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CHAPTER 21

Elienne sat on the narrow wooden bench with her hands folded in her lap, her mouth curved in a small smile, her eyes wide open but seeing nothing. Soon she would be invested as the Intercessor; she must practice her meditation at every opportunity.

Her coarse white robe and sandaled feet identified her as an acolyte, the lowest position in the Church's hierarchy, yet those who passed her did so with deference, almost awe. She was Chosen. She was to be the Intercessor. She would speak with the gods.

She felt a soft touch on her shoulder; her concentration was broken. She looked up. Sister Danya stood before her with her eyes lowered. The elderly sister bowed low, and with a motion of her hand, indicated that Elienne should accompany her.

They walked through the cloister, their footsteps silent on the polished stone. Elienne smiled as she felt the sun shining through the grillwork. Beyond, she could see the first elden flowers trying to break through the thin layer of snow.

She loved the spring; who did not? Yet she had to believe that here at the convent, her home, spring was more beautiful than anyplace else in Brennor. The formal garden in the courtyard would soon burst into glorious color, the loren trees that lined the walls would unfold their brilliant emerald leaves, the chatter of a thousand birds would once again be heard.

Down the hall, Elienne could hear muffled laughter. She smiled. She could imagine some of the younger sisters huddled with their heads together, giggling and blushing over some man they had chanced to see passing within sight of the low east wall. They would be chattering about how tall he was, or how handsome, or how he had looked their way and winked.

She'd heard them before, in the garden, in the refectory, in the wash room, sometimes even in the chapel, though Mother Abbess would swiftly put a stop to that with a look.

Elienne loved the sound of their laughter. It was almost as happy a sound as the chirping of the sparrows in the garden. She'd learned not to show herself long ago; it was not permitted to speak of such things in the presence of she who was to be the Intercessor. It was an infraction more severe than giggling in the chapel.

Except for the priests, all very old and very solemn, who came to conduct services, she had never seen a man. But she had seen a boy once, two summers ago.

She'd been strolling under the loren trees near the west wall, humming as she read her prayer book, when she was startled by a loud, "Pssst!" She looked up. A boy perched on top of the wall, his legs dangling, his eyes twinkling in his lean face. "Pssst! Are you a sister?"

She smiled up at him, admiring his bright red shirt, his long straight hair, his sprinkling of freckles, his huge smile. "Well, yes, in a way."

The boy narrowed his eyes. "What d'you mean, in a way? You live here, don't you?" His smile widened. His eyes grew merrier. "Or did you sneak in like I did?"

Elienne clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle and, for what seemed like the one and only time in her life, she felt mischievous and adventurous and positively daring. "Perhaps I did!"

"Well, then," said the boy, reaching down to her, "we'd best be on our way, hadn't we? If they catch us in here, they'll bring the wrath of the gods down on our heads!" He laughed, and Elienne was dazzled by his strong, white teeth.

She looked up at the outstretched hand. What would it be like to simply reach up and take it, to scale the wall, to see the other side? She tilted her head back further to meet the boy's eyes. The veil fell from her shorn hair.

His eyes widened. He snatched back his hand. The rakish smile faded, and his face went pale beneath his freckles. With a sharp intake of breath, he whispered, "You are Chosen!"

Elienne's face felt hot; she knew she was blushing. Her eyes burned; she thought she was about to cry. "Yes, I am Chosen." She drew the veil back over her hair. "But my name is Elienne.”

The boy gulped. Elienne feared he would topple off the wall as he struggled to find space to kneel. "Forgive me, Chosen," he stammered.

She shook her head and smiled. "There is nothing to forgive."

The boy looked all about him and blinked. He awkwardly raised himself from his knees, and Elienne thought he appeared ready to run. But he didn't. He settled himself cross-legged on the wall. "I've seen the other Chosen, too."

"The Defender of the Faithful?"

He nodded.

Gabriel of Morevale! Elienne blushed again. She'd heard the sisters speak of him, too. They said he was the tallest man in Brennor, the most handsome. They said his eyes were as gray as a perrinbird's feathers and as gentle, as kind, as a dog's. They never giggled when they spoke of him; a silence would always follow the words. "Gabriel of Morevale," she whispered.

"That's him! I saw him when him and the knights left for the holy war.”

Elienne didn't take her eyes off him and didn't say a word.

"Of course, I knew it was him right away because of the short hair, but even if he'd been hooded, you'd have known it was him..." The boy stopped in mid-sentence and grinned. "Ah, you probably know all about him, being Chosen yourself." He shrugged and rubbed his hands on his legs, stared at them.

"Oh, no, I don't. Do go on, please!"

The boy looked up. "Well, for one thing he's the tallest man I've ever seen." He picked a winter weed from a crack in the stones and stuck it in his mouth. "At first, you think it's that horse of his; you've never seen such a big mare!" His eyes shone as he stared beyond her. "But then the Defender got down and he just sort of sticks up above everybody." The boy met her eyes. "Do you think maybe the gods made him that way so's everybody can see him when he gives the blessing?"

Elienne nodded and clasped her hands and whispered, "Yes, I do."

He told her of the crowds, of the knights, of the High Patriarch. He described the weather, the Temple, the streets of Avacar, in startling detail.

She listened raptly.

Until footsteps had sounded on the path, and the boy had disappeared over the wall with a wave.

Now, even after two years, she could still recall every detail of the boy's face; she could still hear the resonance of his voice. She smiled.

Sister Danya was staring at her. Elienne met her eyes; the sister quickly lowered her head and nodded once, then knocked on the door and entered.

Elienne rolled her eyes. She'd given the sisters something else to worry about. How would Sister Danya put it to Mother Abbess? She who is to be the Intercessor was daydreaming with a smile on her face? Elienne stifled a giggle; she could just see them.

They fussed, they fawned, they clucked like mother hens. She'd thrown the whole convent into a panic a few weeks ago when she'd got that terrible headache during services and cried out. They'd hovered over her for days; their knees must have been sore from all the praying they did. Elienne was used to it. It was all she'd ever known. Still, sometimes it all seemed so silly.

She'd been taken into the Church as an infant; this convent was her home. The sisters should be used to her. Elienne sighed and looked to the door. She guessed they never would.

For she was Chosen. She was to be the Intercessor. So they had pampered her, deferred to her, raised her with exquisite care. She had always been bathed in flower water. Her skin must be soft and white. She had been excused from physical labor. Her hands must not be calloused; her back must be straight; her eyes must not be shadowed. She was always spoken to in pleasant, soft tones. Only the Abbess would meet her eyes. She was fed a special diet of the finest foods. She slept on silk sheets; her rest was never interrupted. She must be pure, pristine, perfect, for her role as Intercessor to the gods.

But she had won a small victory in being permitted to wear the robe and sandals of an acolyte. The Abbess had been horrified. The sisters had wrung their hands and shook their heads. She must wear the white silk robe, the delicate slippers of her station, they said. But Elienne had insisted. She had won.

Sometimes she would catch sight of her reflection in a brightly polished window. She would pause before it and try very hard to see what made her so different. She'd run her hands through her short hair and she would think, if not for this, she would look like anyone else; no one could see her brand. She had two eyes, two ears, a nose and a mouth, just like all the other sisters. She could see no difference; she wished no one else could either.

Elienne rubbed the coarse fabric of her robe. How good it felt! Too much softness was not a good thing. She smiled. Now sometimes the other sisters would not recognize her right away, and, for a moment, they would forget she was Chosen.

She flushed with shame and hurriedly whispered a silent prayer. She had been chosen by the gods! She must give thanks for this great privilege, must be worthy of this great responsibility.

The door opened. Sister Danya motioned her into the office. Elienne entered and went to kneel before the Abbess.

"My child, I have received a summons from the High Patriarch." The Abbess lay her hand on Elienne's head. "You must perform a service for the Holy Church."

Elienne's eyes widened. "Yes, Mother Abbess."

Firm, gentle hands pulled her to her feet. "I do not know what is required of you, my child." The Abbess' face creased in concern. "You have not yet been invested as the Intercessor." She looked into Elienne's eyes. "Do you feel ready to take your place in the world as one of the Chosen, Elienne?"

"Oh, yes, Mother Abbess, yes!" Elienne felt herself blush. "I have been waiting for the gods to have need of me." She lowered her eyes. "The gods willing, I will do my best to be of service."

"I have no doubt of that, my child," said the Abbess with a gentle smile. "I only hope that we have prepared you well enough for whatever task is required of you."

Elienne trembled with joy. For the first time in her memory, she was about to see the other side of the wall; beyond it lay the city of Avacar.

Sometimes, when the wind was just right, she could hear the sounds of the city, smell its rich odors. Now, she was to see it.