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CHAPTER 22

Kroelich shifted uncomfortably as he awaited the Defender of the Faithful. He was enthroned in his massive, gilt reception chair, his feet resting on a velvet cushion, his hands clasped together in his lap.

His face was composed in a mask of serenity, stern yet gentle; only the incessant fingering of his ring of office betrayed his unease. He placed his hands on the arms of his chair, straightened his back, and assumed a regal posture.

Although at heart he was still but a humble priest, he had been elevated to this most high office, spiritual and temporal ruler of Brennor, and he must play the part. Sometimes the weight of his responsibilities seemed unbearable; only through the grace of the gods could a mere man carry it.

Kroelich glanced to the small carved chest. From his robes he pulled the golden key. Looking from one to the other, he bit his lip, then raised his eyes and silently asked the blessing of the gods for what he was about to do.

A soft knock on the door interrupted his prayer. He set his face. "Enter."

Father Tomas limped into the chamber. "The Defender of the Faithful approaches, Your Eminence. Do you wish me to attend you?"

Kroelich shook his head and smiled gently. "No, my son, I believe I can manage him myself."

"As you wish, Your Eminence." The priest began to back out of the chamber. He stopped. "Would you like me to pour the wine before I leave, Your Eminence?"

"No, Tomas, thank you."

"Perhaps straighten that cushion for you?"

"No, my son, it is fine."

"Shall I move the other chair closer to yours, Your Eminence?"

Kroelich's smile grew wider. "No, thank you, Tomas. You have prepared everything with your usual efficiency." He looked away, the smile gone. "I must speak with Gabriel of Morevale alone, my son."

"As you wish, Your Eminence." The priest pulled the door shut soundlessly as he left.

Alone. He must take full responsibility himself. Would that he could perform the task himself. But he could not. He was High Patriarch of Brennor. This work needed the services of the Defender.

Gabriel of Morevale had been forged and tempered, through discipline, through deprivation, through suffering, to be the sword of the Holy Church, hardened as steel. His obedience and devotion were without question. Kroelich had only to direct him and the task would be undertaken, brought to completion. He was Chosen.

The Chosen. The folk of Brennor believed the gods selected the Chosen through a miracle at birth, granted them their extraordinary powers, extracted their price of absolute obedience to the Church. Kroelich sighed and looked again to the chest; it held the truth. The truth. Locked away for a thousand years in a little wooden box.

And only the High Patriarch of Brennor held the key. Kroelich's back bent as he once again pulled it from his robes. It felt so very heavy. It hadn't once.

When Dagmun, his predecessor, had rasped, "Remove the key from around my neck, my son," and Kroelich had risen from his knees and reverently, carefully, unclasped the chain, he had been surprised at how light, how delicate, it was, had been shocked at how faithfully, how rigorously, the High Patriarch had always guarded it.

Dagmun had worn it always; his hand most often rested upon it at his breast. As Kroelich lifted the chain from the dying man's neck, the High Patriarch whispered, "Keep it close to you always, my son." Dagmun's breath had rattled; he was seized by a bloody coughing spell. His face was turning blue. Kroelich set the chain aside and bent to aid him.

But Dagmun had grasped Kroelich's arm in an iron grip. "Put the key around your neck, my son. Never take it off. No man, save your successor, must touch it." His voice was but a whisper. "It is the key to the truth, my son."

The old man's face turned gray, but his blue eyes were clear, bright as a youth's, and the wrinkles and the lines of pain softened before Kroelich's eyes, and somehow the voice was strong. Dagmun thundered, "You are the High Patriarch of Brennor now." The gnarled hand fell, the eyes closed, a last shuddering breath was exhaled. Kroelich whispered in the holy tongue, "As the gods will. It shall be done."

Now he gripped the key tightly. His hand shook: it longed to tear the key from the chain, to fling it from him. But it would not. He could not. He was the High Patriarch of Brennor. Until the day when he, too, would find the peace of the gods in a long, last breath, he must wear it. He must bear it.

There was a time he had thought to burn the truth that the chest contained. There was a time he had thought to reveal it. He did neither. He could not. For the good of the Holy Church. For the good of the people of Brennor.

But what of the Chosen? Kroelich felt tears stinging his eyes and hurriedly took a silken cloth from his robes to wipe them. Gods, what of the Chosen? To live one's life without choice. To live one's life without free will. To be taken from the world as a child, as a babe, to be cultivated, shaped, molded, perfected, into a tool, an instrument of the will of the Church.

Kroelich sobbed into the silken cloth.

The Chosen were now marked only by their shorn hair, the tiny brand on their breast. But long ago the iron had burned the holy symbol of the gods upon their foreheads. Long before that, they had been mutilated to prevent their breeding. A thousand years ago, they had been slaughtered. No choice had been given to them then; no choice was granted to them now.

Kroelich lowered his head to his hands and wept.

The Chosen must be identified. They must be controlled. They must be channeled, from as young an age as possible, into the paths directed by the Church. Most important to the welfare of Brennor, they must not be allowed to breed. Their kind was almost extinct; a thousand years of control had seen to that. Their power was too great; the Church alone must wield it.

For the Holy Church must endure, must prevail. It was a sturdy ship in a sea of chaos, an anchor of faith for all the folk. What were the lives of a very few when considered against the peace and order of Brennor? What was the freedom of she who was to be the Intercessor, of Gabriel of Morevale, when measured against the preservation of a civilization?

A thousand years ago, the Chosen had walked the land of Brennor as other men, free and whole. They looked no different. They were no more intelligent. Their talents were not extraordinary. They worked and learned and created and worshipped and bred with other folk. One thing alone distinguished them: they could use their minds in ways other men could not. They could speak to one another through their thoughts. They could manipulate matter with their minds. Their senses were heightened; they saw more clearly, heard more keenly, felt more acutely.

The gifts of the Chosen had been recognized and valued, but so, too, equally, had been those of other men. A thousand years ago, art and science and philosophy and literature had flourished; Brennor's most exalted treasures, its greatest accomplishments, dated from that time. It had been Brennor's golden age.

But one of the Chosen had sought to change all that, to tear down that which had been built, to destroy the brilliant peace, to set himself up as a god. He claimed that the Chosen were superior to other men. He drew followers. He claimed that the Chosen should be masters, other men their slaves. His following increased. He claimed that the Chosen were the only gods, that only they could determine who would live and who would die. The ranks of his followers swelled into an army. Brennor was plunged into chaos; thousands were killed. A civilization had almost been destroyed; the heretic had nearly succeeded.

His story had been documented in the scrolls contained in the wooden box, his name recorded for all time. A name known only to the High Patriarchs of Brennor for a thousand years: a name Kroelich had heard spoken aloud only days ago, whispered by a peasant from the West. Lucian.

Kroelich thought he heard the tread of booted feet approaching. He straightened himself and tucked the silken cloth away, replaced his hands on the arms of his chair. The steps receded. Kroelich sighed.

How much must he tell the Defender? Only of the task required of him. He need not tell him the story, the name. He need not tell him of the pogroms that had followed the capture and punishment, of the Chosen who had sacrificed themselves for the good of Brennor, of those who'd had to be persuaded, of those who had been hunted down. He need not tell him that in spite of the Church's best efforts, the seed of the Chosen had persisted. He need not tell him that somehow Lucian had returned to life after a thousand years.

He had only to command; the Defender of the Faithful would obey without question. For the Chosen now served only the Holy Church. And through their service, the example of their lives, their extraordinary powers, their self-sacrifice, the folk of Brennor were blessed, their faith rewarded. The Chosen walked among them; the hands of the gods touched their lives.

No, Kroelich thought, he need not, must not, tell the Defender. His eyes sought out the key laying on his breast. No one must know. Only the High Patriarch of Brennor would know, could know, the truth. The Church, the bastion of order, of civilization, must not be discredited. It would be destroyed; Brennor would fall into chaos.