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CHAPTER 30

He'd disobeyed the High Patriarch. He'd had to. Elienne could not go on, not without the warmth of a blazing hearth, not without the rest of a decent bed, not without a meal of suitable food. Just one night in an inn, just one, would do.

But Gabriel sighed and ran his fingers through his hair as he looked down the rutted street. This was a village, yes, but there was no inn. Ancient and dusty and sad, it seemed played out, like the mines which had once thrived here in the west of Brennor. Not a soul walked its single street, save he and Elienne.

"Gabriel, it is forbidden," she whispered at his back.

He turned, and the sight of her only strengthened his resolve. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how hard she did, the rigors of the trail had taken their toll. Her lovely eyes were huge in her delicate face, the shadows deep against the pallor of her skin.

"I know." He stayed the hand which longed to smooth back the soft curls from her face.

"The High Patriarch said we must not be seen," she said, but she shivered and swayed on her feet.

Gabriel nodded. "I know." He reached down to pull the veil that covered her still-short hair back into place.

A strong wind swept through the empty street. A weathered sign creaked on rusty hinges. A broken door banged. All was silent except for the wind itself; Gabriel's very breath seemed loud to his ears as he gently took Elienne's hand and started down the street.

The single tower of a small temple loomed ahead. Gabriel quickened his pace, pulling Elienne along with him. As they passed the shuttered windows in the broken-down buildings, he straightened his back and grasped the hilt of his sword. The small hand was sweating in his.

.

They stood before the temple. Elienne looked up to Gabriel, saw that his gray eyes were as calm as ever. He stood straight and tall, his face unconcerned. She was not. She started to speak, then stopped, fearful of breaking the strange silence.

The High Patriarch had warned them not to enter any villages. Terrible things had happened, were happening still. It seemed the folk of West Brennor had gone mad. Because of one man. The man she and Gabriel were to find. The man he must kill. Elienne moved closer to his side.

It was so very quiet. Having become accustomed to the song of birds, the steady chirp of insects, even the sound of twigs crunching underfoot, she shivered in the heavy silence. She had been brought up in it at the convent, but there it was sweet, soothing, the silence of sisters at prayer.

.

Gabriel strode to the doors and pulled them open. A familiar stench wafted out; he was well acquainted with it. Glancing at Elienne, he saw her draw back, eyes wide, her hands flying up to cover her face.

He motioned for her to wait, then filled his lungs with fresh air and stepped through the doorway.

It was very dark inside the temple; the stained glass windows had been boarded over from the inside. Gabriel could barely make out the pews a few feet in front of him.

Feeling his way more than seeing, he walked slowly forward. At last he stood in the sanctuary. No light penetrated the consecrated area, but Gabriel could dimly make out something above the altar. Cautiously, he reached out his hand to touch it.

It was sticky, cold. Gabriel stepped back suddenly, holding his hands out before him. He had known what he would find in the temple, had steeled himself for it. And yet this, desecration of the holy sanctuary, shocked him. With a whispered prayer he backed away from the altar.

He strode to a window and ripped the boards from it. Light flooded through the stained glass. He rushed from window to window, illuminating the small temple with weird, beautiful color. At last he turned, chest heaving, and looked to the altar.

He cried out; he could not contain it. The village priest hung above the altar, naked, bloated, mutilated. Only his beaten, tonsured head testified to his office.

He heard Elienne's soft voice call him from the doors. "Stay where you are," he gasped, trying to make his voice firm. Taking a deep breath, murmuring a prayer, he strode quickly to the altar and drew his sword.

He nearly staggered at the sight before him; his hands shook so badly he could barely hold his sword. His head was spinning, rage and pity and horror at this sacrilege fighting within him. Gripping his sword more tightly, he clenched his teeth and, grasping the broken body with one arm, reached up with the other and severed the rope holding the priest by the neck.

Gently, he lay the corpse on the cold stone floor. The priest had been beaten, cut, broken, his face unrecognizable. Unwillingly, Gabriel's eyes strayed downward; he had to bite his lip to keep from crying out again. The priest had been castrated. Gabriel knelt and began to speak the words of requiem.

A shriek cut through the prayer, and he lurched to his feet. The doors burst open. Elienne, her eyes wide, her feet dangling a foot above the floor, was held around the waist by a huge man. Behind them, pushing into the temple, was a mob brandishing scythes, pitchforks, knives.

"Kill the Defender!"

"No, do her first, Parn, do her first!"

"Get 'im, make 'im watch!"

Gabriel stood very still before the altar, holding his blessed sword in both hands before him, his face composed, his eyes granite. "Let her go," he commanded in a quiet voice, outwardly calm yet edged with steel. "She is Chosen."

Immediately, there was silence. The villagers stared open-mouthed at him.

Then the crude oaf ran one filthy hand roughly down Elienne's body, gripped her even more tightly with the other. "Do you think we're blind?" He snarled as he pulled the veil from her hair. Then, with one great tear, the sound of which seemed to fill the temple, to pain Gabriel's ears, he ripped her gown from her breasts, exposing her white flesh.

Elienne's eyes rolled back in her head; she hung limply in the man's brutal grasp.

The villagers erupted in taunts, poured in around the man holding Elienne. "Take her now, Parn, do it! Do to her what the priest did to Cally!"

Gabriel could not tear his gaze from her white, white flesh. The thought, the deed, of its violation brought an unaccustomed emotion: a surge of rage that swelled within him, that exploded in fury. He screamed, "No," and his blood burned, and his eyes swam, and his heart pounded. But his grasp was firm upon the sword, and his strides were long and sure as he advanced toward the mob.

For a moment, the villagers ceased their shouting; their eyes grew wide. Suddenly, a scarred old man wielding an ancient, rusty sword broke from the crowd and with a snarl, lunged at Gabriel.

Striking him aside with the flat of his blade, Gabriel continued toward the peasant who dared to defile the Chosen. His eyes were locked on Elienne's white body; he looked neither right nor left. His sword flashed out as if of its own accord, knocking aside all who stood in his path.

They came at him with their crude weapons, with their hands drawn into claws, with their fists. But he was invulnerable: blood, bruises, would not stop him. He felt nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing. His whole being was focused on reaching Elienne.

At last he stood before them. The delicate flesh was marred with the filth of the peasant. The inviolate had been defiled, the whiteness, discolored, bruised. In that moment, Gabriel could have torn the man apart with his bare hands, could have wrenched his neck from his shoulders, could have smashed his face to a pulp with the heel of his boot.

Now the mob was still, silent. Only the brute who held Elienne dared to lift his eyes to Gabriel; small and black, they sparkled with lust. As his gap-toothed mouth turned up in a leer, his filthy, huge hand pawed at her exposed breast.

Gabriel, enraged beyond thought or feeling, lifted his sword to cleave the man's head from his shoulders. A soft voice called his name. He looked to the sound. Elienne's lovely eyes shone upon him. Knuckles white with strain, he checked his thrust.

He could not lower his sword. It was unimaginable that he would not kill this man, this defiler, this blasphemer, this abomination who dared to masquerade as a creature of the gods.

"Gabriel," she called again, and the sweetness in her voice was unbelievable to his ears. His blood pounded in his brain as his muscles ached with the effort to control his strike.

"Gabriel."

Upon her face was a gentle smile, a warmth so overwhelming, that Gabriel felt the anger drain from him like poison from an infected wound. His knees felt weak; the hand holding the sword shook. There was peace in her brown eyes, forgiveness, hope. He nearly fell to his knees under the power of her gaze.

Unwillingly, obediently, he raised his eyes to look upon the peasant's face; it was ravaged by toil and time, by cruelty and ignorance, by betrayal and despair. Gabriel lowered his sword.

"Let her go," he said gently. "She is Chosen."

A tear trickled down the man's filthy face, then another. Shaking, he awkwardly, but with the greatest care, set Elienne upon her feet.

Falling to his knees, the peasant bowed his head and wept uncontrollably. "Forgive me, Chosen, forgive me," the man cried over and over, his broad back quivering with his sobs, muddy tears coursing down his face.

One by one, the villagers dropped to their knees, laid down their weapons, bowed their heads. Some made the sign of the gods, some murmured pleas for forgiveness, some sobbed unabashedly.

Elienne stepped to Gabriel's side and lay her hand upon his arm. Clutching her torn gown to her breast with the other, she looked upon the people. "The gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it." Their tears ceased; their faces glowed.

She glanced up to Gabriel; he saw her face was filled with joy. She smiled upon him. "Let us now make this temple once again worthy of the dwelling place of the gods."

He strode to the altar and removed the cloth covering it. Reverently laying it over the corpse of the fallen priest, he lifted the broken body and turned to face the altar.

In the holy tongue, he spoke the words of requiem. "Accept, oh gods, thy humble servant. Forgive him of all transgressions and shine the light of thy everlasting grace upon him."

Behind him, the villagers murmured the response. "May he dwell with thee in peace forever."

.

Gabriel awoke just as the sun was breaking over the horizon. Sitting up, he ran his fingers through his hair and blinked. Each day was longer, brighter. Each day brought them closer to the task they had been given.

He turned to look at Elienne. She was still sleeping soundly, her hand clasped tightly around the holy symbol at her breast, her soft brown hair spilling over her makeshift pillow. Her face was serene in sleep.

Two days ago he would have killed for her. She had stopped him. Seeing her now, so young, so fragile, the vision of her standing before the mob, radiating a power more potent than his sword, eluded him. But the sight of her white body, the curve of her small breast, the brand so red upon it, he could not forget.

He took a deep breath and shook his head. Drawing his long body up as quietly as he could, he stood. The stream was close; he'd be washed and back before she awakened.

Elienne shifted. Her blanket fell from her shoulder. The morning was cold; she might be chilled. Picking his steps carefully, he moved to kneel beside her. She did not awaken.

Gently, so gently, he reached for the blanket and pulled it up around her neck.

She smiled in her sleep, her lips curving as if she were in the throes of a beautiful dream, and snuggled into the blanket.

Gabriel smiled.

Softly, but distinctly, Elienne murmured his name.

He froze, his hand still resting at her neck. Her body was so warm; he could feel her pulse, could hear her soft breaths. Slowly, he lifted his hand and reached toward her cheek.

His big hand shook, trembling like a girl's. It moved so slowly, seemingly of its own accord, seeking the softness of her. Just a touch. Just one. It moved so surely, seeking the warmth of her. Just a touch. Just one.

He shuddered. No! Punish the body. Discipline the mind. Steel the heart. Free the soul. With a sigh, he halted his hand in midair, drew it back to fall to his side, clenched it.