The road to Avacar was lined with people. Country folk in tattered homespun, their feet in well-worn leather or rags or bare, yet all with shining eyes, stood ankle deep in snow and mud to see the spectacle of the High Patriarch's train as it made its way to the city, where the victorious Defenders of the Church were to be honored in Ceremony at the High Temple.
At the back of the procession, Gabriel sweated in the bright winter sun. He tugged at his hauberk, stretched his neck. He had been trained to wear armor; his body had been conditioned to bear its weight. That was for war. Now he felt the hauberk to be an instrument of torture, a tool of the Inquisitors.
The sweat trickled down his forehead into his eyes, down his back, down his chest. It soaked his armpits. His long white surcoat, so effective in the baking sun of the heathen lands, seemed now to serve only to hold the heat in.
His head ached. He reached up to scratch under the golden circlet and sighed. He could not remember the last time he'd had to wear the ceremonial raiment. Gods willing, it would be a long, long time before he had to again.
As Apollonia tossed her head and snorted, Gabriel stroked her mane. She was probably every bit as uncomfortable as he, with her golden bridle and heavy barding. He leaned forward and whispered in her ear, "Be steadfast, my lady, we're almost there."
Up ahead, the procession moved slowly toward the gates of the city. Led by the surviving knight Defenders, resplendent in their spotless surcoats and gleaming armor, followed by chanting priests, then the High Patriarch's litter, and finally, in the rear, Gabriel, the procession was at last reaching its destination. The city was in sight, the golden pinnacle of the High Temple, shining in the sun, clearly visible over the stout walls.
Gabriel stood in the stirrups and craned his neck.
The knights were making little progress through the throngs of people. Although it had been months since the High Patriarch had arrived at the Holy Shrine with a fresh garrison of knights, months since the solemn ceremony of reconsecration, months since the bloody battle in which so many had been lost, the Defenders of the Church, weary, eager to return to their homes, rode proudly, straight and tall.
For weeks, ever since they had crossed into Brennor, more and more people had gathered along the route to Avacar. Now, nearly to the gates, the road was almost impassable, swarming, alive, with the cheering common folk of Brennor.
Gabriel shifted in the saddle and tried to straighten his back. Apple walked as gently, as carefully, as she could, but though the wound had healed, his back ached worse with every step. The surgeon had said that the fact that he could even walk was a miracle of the gods; Gabriel knew it was only a function of the hauberk.
Forcing his back to stiffen, he squared his shoulders and lifted his head. The folk expected a certain decorum in their Defender of the Faithful. He looked out across the sea of shining faces. He could not, would not, disappoint them.
At every step, as the High Patriarch's ornate, gilded litter was carried past by four burly priests, the crowd grew hushed, bowing as one in respectful silence to the ruler of Brennor. Reclining on silken cushions, bedecked in jewels and garbed in velvet robes trimmed with gold and gems, the High Patriarch raised his hand in blessing, his long white hair and beard bobbing as he did.
At every step, as Gabriel came into sight, the crowd would begin to murmur, then break into a cheer. Gabriel smiled and waved as Apple deftly picked her way through the throng. Now that the gates were in sight, the people poured into the road. Above the press of bodies, over craning necks and pointing fingers, he could see children perched precariously on the shoulders of their elders. Amid the shouts and cheers, he could hear the pleas of the old and sick, begging for his touch.
A gnarled hand reverently touched the hem of his surcoat; he lay his hand upon the gray head. A little girl smiled, then buried her face in her father's shoulder; he smiled back. A voice called out, "Bless us, Defender!"; he lifted his hand in blessing.
Apollonia held steady as the people pressed upon her, standing stoically as children fondled her tail, as men patted her flank, as women kissed her muzzle. Gabriel tried mightily to answer the clamors for a touch, a smile, a word. Suddenly, the crowd parted in a wave as a knight rode to Gabriel's side. "You look like you could use a little help," whispered Kelwyn. He turned to the crowd, a wide smile on his face, his brown eyes warm. "Good people, make way for the Defender of the Faithful! Make way!"
The folk, mouths agape, dazzled, it seemed, by Kelwyn's gleaming armor and more brilliant smile, shuffled back without a murmur of protest. Gabriel's eyes widened; he smiled in admiration. As he reached out to lay his hand on Kelwyn's shoulder, a young woman ran up to them, her wild red hair flying out behind her. She bowed low to Gabriel, then looked to Kelwyn with green eyes the color of spring. Her hand shook as she held out a single winter rose. "For you, Sir Knight."
Kelwyn turned to Gabriel to flash his mischievous grin and raise his brows, then reached down and carefully took the delicate flower. Pressing it to his nose, the young knight breathed deeply and sighed. "Thank you, my lady."
"Sir Kelwyn, you will return to your place at once." Maddox of Yorgren, his mouth tight, left no doubt he expected to be obeyed.
With a last, longing look at the girl, a wave to the crowd, and a wink at Gabriel, Kelwyn trotted his charger in Maddox' wake, back to the head of the procession.
Gabriel shook his head and returned his attention to the people. As Kelwyn had instructed, they held back in respectful silence, but the warmth and longing on their worn faces utterly defeated him.
He threw his leg over the saddle and stepped down. He heard a collective gasp. He turned. All around him, people fell to their knees and made the sign of the gods. Gabriel swallowed hard.
With Apple at his heels, he strode up to a dirty little peasant boy perched on his father's shoulders, his eyes as round as saucers, his mouth open in a perfect "O." The boy's face broke into a huge smile as Gabriel ruffled his hair and clapped him on the shoulder.
An old woman shambled up to him with her head bowed, then reached out a withered arm to take his hand and kiss it. She raised her wrinkled face to him; there were tears in her eyes. Gabriel blinked away his own.
Hesitantly, the folk approached him, one by one. He responded to all he could, smiling, blessing, touching, until a rough voice called out, "They're leaving without the Defender!"
Gabriel looked to the gates and saw the High Patriarch's litter disappearing through them. He must be off.
The people had fallen back unbidden, standing quietly, almost formally, to line the sides of the road.
Gabriel gazed out over them. On this day, the city gates would remain open from sunup to sundown, but the great courtyard of the High Temple would be packed already with the citizens of Avacar; these country folk would find no place. There was nothing he could do. The Defender of the Faithful of Brennor must not be late for the Ceremony.
Gabriel mounted Apple and leaned forward to whisper in her ear. She reared up on her back legs and pranced. The splendid trick brought applause from the older folk in the crowd, delighted laughter to the young. Gabriel raised his hand; the people cheered. Standing in the stirrups, hugging Apple's neck, he raced through the gates.
It had been over two years since he had been to Avacar.
He would never forget his first sight of the great city, when his father had brought him on one of his many visits to the Council of Lords.
Outside the massive city gates, his father had knelt before him and took his small hands. "Now, Gabriel, you must be at your very best in the great city. We don't want anyone thinking that the Lords of Morevale are country bumpkins, do we?"
Gabriel had squared his slight shoulders, straightened himself to his full height, and stuck out his chin.
His father had laughed out loud. He tousled Gabriel's thick mop of hair. "There's my boy!"
When the gates had been opened, Gabriel's eyes had grown wide and his mouth had dropped open. Never had he seen such wonders: the gleaming buildings, the colorful bazaars, the soaring towers, and the thousands of people who filled the streets of Avacar, wiry knaves and fat merchants, jewel-laden nobles and richly garbed clerics, beautiful painted ladies and filthy old hags.
Remembering the admonition, he had clamped his mouth shut, swallowed noisily, and gripped his father's big hand more tightly.
Even now, every time Gabriel entered the gates of Avacar he was overwhelmed with its excessiveness, its garishness, its life. In his quarters in the brothers' residence, he would listen to the raucous rhythms of life, would breathe in the potpourri of scents that filled the air, would watch the riot of color from his window. Apart from it always, it amazed and delighted him still.
And yet he never thought of the city where he lived as home. Home was Morevale, though he'd spent less than a third of his life there. Morevale. He'd be there soon.