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CHAPTER 34

Elienne rested her head against the broad back. Gabriel had stopped, but for just a moment, she knew. Through the rough fabric of his tunic, she could feel, could hear, his heartbeat, slow and sure, his breaths, reassuringly steady. She could almost fall asleep.

He still had not moved; perhaps he didn't know where to go. Elienne opened her eyes to the ugly gray wall of the shaft: the wall that seemed endless, that looked like every other wall in this place.

How long had they been here? She could not know. The shaft had twisted and turned and branched. Slowly, cautiously, Gabriel had led them steadily downward, stopping only for mere moments to run his fingers through his hair and determine his course. Now, Elienne wondered if they were lost, if they would ever find the heretic, if they would ever leave this place.

Gabriel took a step forward. Elienne almost fell, but as always, the long, strong arm was there to catch her. For a moment, she met his gray eyes; they were calm, serene. Had she only imagined that they had ever looked upon her in any other way? No, she had not.

But now Gabriel quickly turned and continued down the shaft. Elienne hurried to keep up with him. If he was lost, he didn't show it. Anymore than he would ever again show what she had seen once in his eyes, had felt in his touch, had heard in his voice. He would not. He was Chosen.

And she? She could not. She, too, was Chosen.

She kept her eyes fixed on Gabriel's back and stumbled down the shaft after him.

He stopped suddenly. Elienne's eyes widened as she saw him draw his sword slowly, soundlessly, from its scabbard and take a step forward. Elienne peeked around him. She caught sight of a glimpse of gold. Abruptly, Gabriel sheathed his sword and, without turning, handed her the torch.

He strode forward. She hurried after him, holding the torch high. Now she could see clearly: the gold was hair, golden hair. A woman lay on the stone floor of the shaft.

Gabriel fell to his knees at the woman's side. As Elienne took a step closer, he held his hand up to stop her. The huddled figure, face down on the stone, became clearer. Elienne gasped at the pool of blood, at the bound ankles, and her hand flew to her mouth. The golden hair hung over the woman's face like a curtain.

She looked to Gabriel. His face looked strange, pale, pained, and his body was held stiffly, as if to keep from falling. She could see his arm shaking as he reached out to brush the hair from the woman's face; she heard him gasp.

Elienne's gaze shifted to the woman. Surely this was the face of a goddess! Awed, she nearly dropped the torch. Gabriel's breaths, the very pounding of his heart, echoed through the cavern. As Elienne took a step forward, she saw his hands move. They shook so; the big, dark hands trembled as he bent to untie the bonds at the woman's feet. They lingered on the slender ankles, then drew away as if burned.

For a moment, Gabriel's head fell, his shoulders slumped, and he clenched his hands tightly against his sides. Slowly, so slowly, his head came up, his back straightened, his hands unfolded themselves and reached out. Gently, he turned the woman onto her back.

Elienne gasped again. The woman's gown had been torn; blood stained the whiteness of the gauzy fabric, as it did the whiteness of her breast. The face she had caught just a glimpse of was unmarked, but oh, so still.

Elienne's hand shook as she struggled to keep the torch aloft. How could any woman be so beautiful? Not even the statue she'd seen of Solan, the goddess of love, could compare with this woman. Perhaps because this woman was alive, her breasts rising and falling, her cheeks touched with a rosy blush, her lips very red against her porcelain white skin.

Elienne could see Gabriel's back heave with the force of his sigh. She could see his mouth forming words.

.

Gabriel knew she wasn't hurt. The blood staining the gown could not be hers; a ripped garment was not a wound. His practiced healer's eye had noted the steady, unlabored breaths, the relaxed posture, the high color of health. She slept, that was all. Drugged perhaps, but otherwise uninjured.

He should get up, let Elienne stay with this woman, finish his task. Clenching his fists to still their shaking, he tried to force the muscles in his legs to lift him from his knees, tried to tear his eyes away.

But he could not.

Punish the body. Discipline the mind. Steel the heart. Free the soul. He knew the words meant something, meant everything, to him. Chanting them, over and over, Gabriel fought to remember, to understand, what the meaning was, but as he looked upon the woman, he no longer knew, no longer cared. Afraid to move, afraid to breathe, afraid to think, he looked upon her and he could only feel.

Beauty had surrounded him all his life, he knew: of the first spring flower, of a sky full of stars, of a summer day at Morevale, of a lovely young woman who loved him. But never had he seen beauty such as this. It washed over him, surged through him; he would drown in it. Faced with it, he was left with nothing but shuddering breaths and sweaty palms. He could not move.

His hands longed to touch her. Yes. He could lay his hands upon this beauty. He was a healer. Elienne would expect him to. She could not see that the woman was unharmed. Yes. And perhaps, at his touch, the long black lashes would flutter and the red lips would part, and he would touch this beauty and learn every secret, explore every curve, taste this sweet, sweet flesh.

No! Punish the body. Discipline the mind. Steel the heart. Free the soul. Desperately, he whispered the words as the sweat beaded on his forehead and the nails dug into his palms and his body shook.

This woman had been left here for a purpose; she was bait. Gabriel knew this, but though his mind acknowledged it, his body was incapable of acting on it, his raw, untried emotions were unable to accept it.

His head began to ache. He gritted his teeth. He spoke the words. Punish the body. Discipline the mind. Steel the heart. Free the soul. He'd struggled with desire before; he'd been trained to suppress it. Repeat the words. Reflect on their meaning. And if the words, their meaning, couldn't dampen the flame, quench the thirst, appease the hunger, then act on them. Punish the body.

Get up off your knees! Avert your eyes! Ram your fist into the wall! You are Chosen.

His head was pounding. He could not move. Surely the gods had created this woman to be loved. No! Punish the body! Surely the gods had created her to be stroked, kissed, possessed, by man.

But he was not a man. Gabriel bent his back and grabbed his head. He was Chosen. He tried, so hard, to shut his eyes. He was Chosen.

Men made choices: for good or for ill. Whoever had done this, to tempt, to torture the Defender of the Faithful of Brennor, had made a choice. All men did. But he, Gabriel of Morevale, made no choices. He was Chosen. He did what he was told. He was not a man.

A knife of agony cut through his head, illuminated his mind with blinding intensity. He sobbed aloud. No, he was not a man, but he had made choices: to slaughter countless men, to break his father's heart, to become an assassin, to deny a young woman who loved him even the warmth of a touch.

.

Elienne knelt at Gabriel's side and lay her hand on his shoulder. He didn't even seem to feel it. Clutching at his head, his mouth forming words she couldn't hear, he swayed back and forth on his knees and moaned.

The woman was forgotten. The heretic was forgotten. Only Gabriel, his pain, existed for her. The strong, broad back was bent; the big, sure hands shook; the serene gray eyes spilled tears. He was in agony.

She threw her arms around his shoulders and lay her head upon his back. His heart raced; his breaths convulsed. Gods, she prayed, let me heal him, let me take his pain away.

The gods answered, and she cringed and caught her breath and almost let go. She bore down and held on; in a few moments, endless moments, she would have it all and she would vanquish it. Just a few moments more.

But the moments passed and the pain did not lessen. It swelled and surged and Elienne drew it in and staggered and gasped. Gods, she prayed, give me the strength to heal him, show me how! And again the gods answered.

She faced a door. Beyond it lay such overwhelming emptiness, such longing, such guilt, such loss, such regret, such sadness, that she nearly turned away, nearly let go. But she opened the door, and beyond it, she saw faces: a drunken old man weeping; a dark-skinned man screaming; a handsome young man waving farewell; a red-haired girl with spring-green eyes smiling. She saw more, faces she knew: that of the High Patriarch, creased and troubled; of the peasant who had assaulted her, ravaged and shamed; of the village priest, his last expression that of despair. And then, she saw her own.

She looked into her own brown eyes: stripped of all pretense, achingly honest, they were naked with love. No! Gods, she prayed, let me not be a part of this, of his, pain. Again, the gods answered.

She saw so clearly what she must do. Swiftly, she gathered up the memories, the faces, the pain, the hurt. Hid them. Ever so gently, she lowered a veil over his misery, drew a soft blanket over his torment, then backed out and closed the door and locked it.

Within the cradle of her arms, she could feel Gabriel's shaking stop, his heart slowing to a steady beat, his breaths falling into an even rhythm. With one great sigh, he straightened his back, and Elienne let her arms fall away, let him go.

He drew himself up to his full height. Elienne looked upon him, strong and tall, his hands no longer balled into fists, his body no longer rigid, and her eyes blurred with tears. The Defender of the Faithful of Brennor stood before her.

Abruptly, he bent to lift the woman in his arms. For a moment, he held her with his arms outstretched, like she was an offering to the gods, then slowly, ever so slowly, he brought her closer to him, till she was cradled tightly against his chest. At last he turned and faced Elienne.

The gray eyes shone out from the familiar face. The spiky black hair sprouted in all directions. The long legs, the long arms, the big hands belonged to Gabriel. But it was not him; a stranger met her gaze.

Elienne grasped the holy symbol at her breast. Her voice sounded so small to her ears as she called his name. He did not hear her. He did not see her. He clung to his burden as if it were the only thing in the world, as if it were the whole world. He took a step forward.

"Gabriel," Elienne cried, holding her hand out, praying he would stop, praying he would come back to her.

Still he walked forward. His eyes had never left the woman's still form; it seemed impossible he could see where he was going. But his steps were sure, set upon a course from which he would not waver. Frantic, Elienne placed her small body directly in his path and called his name again in a clear voice. "Gabriel!"

He stepped around her, never looking up, and started back up the shaft. For a moment, Elienne was transfixed as she saw his broad back disappearing into the darkness. The man who wore Gabriel's body like a garment had passed by her as if she were not there. She must stop him! "Gabriel," she cried, but his long strides had already taken him into the blackness.

She raced after him. But she could not see him, could not hear him. Ahead, she saw a branch in the tunnel; perhaps, she thought, she prayed, he'd taken it. Shaking so badly her teeth chattered, she ran toward it.

The sharp drop in the shaft must have been there; she simply hadn't noticed it before. Her foot stepped onto air. She felt the torch fly from her hand as she fell, saw it strike the damp stone and sizzle even as her head struck the wall.