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CHAPTER 24

Kroelich tried to suppress a smile as Gabriel of Morevale ducked through the doorway. The Defender needn't have; everything in the palace was oversized, built, it seemed, to the scale of the gods, not of men. But it was the habit of a man who had learned, painfully most probably, that he was too tall. Watching Gabriel of Morevale approach, his long strides making the chamber seem not so large, his dusty tunic and ragged hair making it seem not so solemn, Kroelich could not help himself; he smiled.

The Defender knelt and bowed his head.

"My son, you may rise," Kroelich said as he extended his hand.

Gabriel of Morevale nodded and kissed the ring of office, then unfolded his long body and stood, bowing formally, his left hand resting on the hilt of the blessed sword, his right arm crossed on his breast in the accepted manner of respect.

"Come, my son, let us not adhere to ceremony, only good manners. Please, sit, be comfortable." Kroelich waved to the chair at his left. "We have much to discuss."

But he thought, no, they had little to discuss. They had nothing to discuss. He, the High Patriarch of Brennor would command; the Defender of the Faithful would obey.

For over twenty years Gabriel of Morevale had served the Holy Church. Since the day of his investiture, this scene had been played out many times. Never once had the Defender failed. Never once had he questioned. As Kroelich had not. Looking upon him now, the big hands seeming not to know what to do with themselves, first clasping in his lap, then reaching for the arms of the chair, now raking through his hair, now spreading flat on his knees, Kroelich saw him, for the first time, as a man.

He felt tears stinging his eyes and drew in a deep breath and straightened his back. It mattered not. The good of all of Brennor was at stake; only the Defender of the Faithful could fulfill this task. It mattered not that Gabriel of Morevale had changed so little through the years; it mattered not that he had changed so much.

The gray eyes still looked upon the world without guile, without malice. The lean, honest face still shone with an almost childlike innocence. The long body seemed still to have the energy, the awkwardness, of youth.

And yet was there not a sadness buried deep, deep within those serene eyes? Were there not many, so many, too many, lines of care, of worry, of pain, etched in that strong face? Was there not a stiffness, a weariness, in that formidable body?

Kroelich steepled his fingers. It mattered not. He looked to the locked chest and fingered the key at his breast. It mattered not.

"My son, I have summoned you here to perform another service for us."