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CHAPTER 28

The rain had stopped. It was dark. Elienne yawned and blinked and rubbed her eyes and shrugged off the blanket. Through the overhanging branches she could see the fire leaping; it cracked and popped in the stillness of the night. Her stomach growled, and she sniffed at the scent that was wafting her way.

Struggling to her feet, she almost cried out; the blisters had broken open again. She took a deep breath and hobbled from beneath the tree. Now she could see Gabriel, lying on his back before the fire, his hands clasped behind his head, his long legs crossed at the ankles.

He turned her way. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, then he ran his fingers through his hair. Elienne smiled. The familiar habit, performed a hundred times a day, was, as always, ineffective. His hair, hers, too, was growing out. Elienne reached up in wonder. The soft curls barely reached the nape of her neck, but never in her memory had her hair been this long. She felt a sudden urge to see it, then blushed with shame. As soon as this was over, she would have it shorn. She was Chosen.

As was Gabriel, though with his thick, straight hair sticking out all about his head and his worn tunic stained with sweat and dirt and his hose riddled with holes and soiled with mud and his soft leather boots nearly worn through, misshapen from constant wear, he didn't much look it.

Neither did she, Elienne thought as she brought her hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle. She'd seen herself in a still pond one day: hair tangled and matted, face smudged with dirt and sweat, robes filthy and torn.

If only the High Patriarch could see them now! Elienne was quite certain that he had not intended this when he had commanded them to leave their hair unshorn, to dress in simple garb, to draw no attention to themselves as they made their way to the West. He had even forbidden the use of mounts; her feet were testament to that.

How long had it been since they had left Avacar? She didn't know. It had taken so long just to reach the city gates; she'd stopped and gasped at every street, every building, every face, the dogs and the cats and the carts and the signs. And every time, Gabriel had unfailingly, with a few long strides, returned to her when he realized she was not behind him. He'd stand quietly, his big hands first raking his hair, then fumbling with his belt, then seeking the hilt of his sword, finally hanging useless at his sides, and wait till she was ready to move on.

But she hadn't wanted to leave. Each sight, each sound, each scent, simply took her breath away. As they'd made their way through the gates, she'd looked back over her shoulder longingly.

Until they'd left Avacar far behind. The wonders of the city had dazzled her; the beauty of the countryside was enchanting. She had never seen a river, a deer, a wild tartberry bush, the stars, huge and brilliant, in the Brennor sky. She had never heard a wolf howl, a nighthawk screech, a brook rushing over rocks. She had never smelled a forest, a field of winter roses, moss. She had never touched a fox's fur, a birchroot branch, a swiftly running stream. Every hard-earned step brought new delights.

Everything was new; it felt strange and wonderful to live without walls. If it were not for Gabriel, she might even have been afraid.

She watched him in the light of the campfire. In spite of his shabby appearance, the mythic hero the sisters had breathlessly described at the convent stood before her. The height, the chiseled face, the deep gray eyes, belonged to the Defender of the Faithful of Brennor.

And yet, she had seen him kneeling with his huge hands clasped together like a child at prayer. She had seen him hunched over his spare tunic, his big fingers awkwardly pushing a tiny needle through a torn seam. She had seen him cut himself while shaving. She had seen him when he woke in the morning, his clothes rumpled with sleep, his hair sticking out in tufts. She had seen him eat. She had seen him sleep. She had seen him sweat. She had seen him bleed. He was a man.

Gabriel glanced her way. He snatched up his blanket and carefully draped it over the log he'd placed before the fire, nodded, then quickly looked away.

Elienne took a deep breath. She must not stumble, must not limp. She'd caused Gabriel enough trouble already, though the gods knew she tried not to. She tried very hard: to keep up, to not complain, to not cry. She choked down the trail food; her insides rebelled. She slept on the hard ground; her body was sore and bruised. She trudged along; her feet were raw. She sweated with exertion. She shivered in the chill of the night. Yes, she was trying very hard.

As Gabriel was. He seemed always to be busy: foraging for berries or nuts to ease her hunger, though this early in spring there were almost none to be found; ferreting out elusive leaves and tender boughs to make her bed; surveying the varying terrain with a practiced eye for the least strenuous path; studying the sun and the stars for the most direct route; building the fire, porting the water, sorting through the packs; keeping her alive. And always, every time, his long, strong arm was there to catch her when she fell.

Elienne stepped forward, into the light. She heard his quick intake of breath, saw him swallow hard. She lowered her eyes, praying that he would not see the blush that flamed on her cheeks. She bit back the pain of her blistered feet and moved gracefully to the seat he had prepared for her. She didn't look up; she didn't dare.

She suppressed a sigh of relief as she lowered herself to sit and blinked back her tears. Before her, on a makeshift spit over the campfire, their dinner roasted: a bird, naked now, its lovely plumage lost, mute. Elienne's mouth felt suddenly dry. Her stomach heaved. Grease dripped steadily to spark the fire with a loud pop; the smell of it suffocated her.

Gabriel knelt to the spit and reached out to tear off a wing. With a nod, he extended it to her, smiling softly, a mixture of pride and humility on his lips.

The bile rose in her throat. The thing was pitiful, the skin singed and crinkled, so frail, so small, and Elienne thought she was about to be sick. She looked up into Gabriel's eyes; the gentle smile lit them, too. Swallowing her revulsion, she reached out to take the meat.

Her fingers closed on it. The grease dripped. The tiny bones simply collapsed. The flesh gave way. She began to raise it slowly to her mouth.

The fire flared and sparked. It startled her so, she dropped the meat. Gabriel's big hand deftly caught it; his gray eyes still shone as he presented it to her like an offering. She sighed and licked her lips and swallowed and scooped it up from his palm and brought it to her lips. She closed her eyes and sank her teeth into it.

Her stomach churned. She broke into a sweat. With a sob, she lurched upward and tried to run, but her blistered feet screamed in pain. She fell. And she could not help herself; she burst into tears.

She felt strong arms lift her. She smelled leather and sweat. Held close against Gabriel's chest, she could hear his heart beat, could feel his breaths. Looking up through her tears, she saw the gray eyes no longer shone; they were clouded with concern. She wished never to be anywhere but in his arms.

Her hand reached toward his face. The gray eyes did not waver from hers. Gently, reverently, she touched his cheek. The gray eyes did not blink; the arms tightened. Her fingers traced the rough angle of his chin. The gray eyes widened almost imperceptibly. She moved her shaking hand to his mouth; her fingers lay upon his lips. The gray eyes closed. The strong arms trembled. One deep, shuddering breath convulsed his breast.

Elienne's hand fell away.

And then the rain began again, steady and cold, and hid her tears.

He carried her to the sheltered place beneath the tree and stood looking down at her, the rain running down his face, his hair plastered to his head, his tunic, his boots, soaked, his gray eyes bleak.

.

Gabriel lay on his side, facing the trees, his sword close at hand, his eyes wide open. He couldn't sleep. It was not the horror of the staring eyes of the fallen Unbeliever, not the wrenching guilt for his father's sadness, not the hollow ache for the home he loved, not the immutable despair of his role of assassin, not the constant emptiness of solitude. These things did not plague him this night. Still, he could not sleep.

He shifted onto his back again and pulled the thin blanket up to his neck, though he felt a maddening urge to turn on his left side; he felt quite sure that if he did he would be sound asleep within seconds. But he would not. Elienne lay but a few feet away from him.

In the stillness of the night, he could hear her breathing, could smell her fresh scent. In the darkness, the cold, he could not forget the feel of her against his body.

He rubbed his eyes and stared up at the sky. The stars were not so bright this night; the moon was full. He tried to pick out the constellations. He tried to count the stars. He could not close his eyes.

There was a soft sound: a sigh. Gabriel could hear her moving. He held his breath. The movement ceased. He let the breath out.

Gods, she was so close! So close he could almost feel the warmth he had felt when he had held her in his arms. Sometime during the long night she had moved her blanket nearer. She was within his arm's reach; he had only to turn, to stretch it out.

He blinked up at the moon and clenched his fists. Punish the body. Discipline the mind. Steel the heart. Free the soul. He'd repeated the words over and over in his mind. He'd prayed them, shouted them, screamed them. In his mind. His nails cut into the palms of his hands as he began the chant again.

If only he could turn. If only he could move. If only he could breathe. Sweat beaded on his forehead. He forced his eyes to close. He set his jaw. He took a deep breath. Let it out. Punish the body. Discipline the mind. Steel the heart. Free the soul. Punish the body...

The words were fading. Sleep, blessed sleep, was at last overtaking him. Punish the body... Yes, punish it, make it suffer. Deny it. Deprive it. Punish the body...

Gabriel's eyes flew open. This was not punishment! No, punishment was pain, that which burned or slashed or cut or crushed or pierced: the pain of a brand, of a flail, of a sword, of a mace, of an arrow. What right had he to hurt so? What right had he to ache?

Elienne, too, knew pain. Long hours ago, he'd gasped when he saw the blood seeping through her thin boots. She'd never complained. He'd shuddered when he saw her feet, raw and festering, as he pulled off the boots. She hadn't cried out. He'd flinched when he took the pain into himself as he healed her. Yes, she, too, knew pain.

She who had not been trained to endure, who had not been hardened by the years, who had not been toughened through conditioning, had withstood agony, had surmounted it. There was a strength in her that astonished him, that awed him.

Gabriel swallowed and reached up to run his fingers through his hair. He must sleep. He would sleep. Gods, let him sleep!

A soft voice, tentative, almost a whisper, broke the silence of the endless night. "Do you ever wish you were not Chosen?"

Gabriel stiffened. Did she know he was awake? Was she only talking in her sleep? Was she speaking to herself? He heard her moving then, a soft rustling sound, moving nearer. He closed his eyes.

He could feel her kneeling beside him, and he knew if he opened his eyes hers would be the first thing he saw.

"I do," Elienne whispered.

She sighed, and it was the saddest sound Gabriel had ever heard.

He seemed to have lost his voice; it was as if he'd forgotten how to speak. Nothing in his experience had prepared him to respond; he'd spent a lifetime learning not to. He didn't think he knew how.

Of all the words he had spoken, had heard, there had never been words such as this. Talk, endless talk, but never like this. Never to him. There had never been anyone to talk to, not like this.

But Elienne was as open as the sky, as frank as a child, as artless as an innocent; she said what she felt.

He opened his eyes. Her lovely face was illuminated by the moon's glow; her brown eyes shone. He heard himself say, "I, too."

He looked upon her. She, upon him.

Then, with a sigh, she stood and dragged her blanket closer. She lay curled beside him, almost touching, her warmth so near.

He wanted to reach out and gather her in his arms, to hold her close, to fend off the emptiness with his strength. But he could not. He would not. They were Chosen.

The moon moved across the sky. He watched it until the sun vanquished it from his sight.