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CHAPTER 35

Mirin shivered. Where was she? She opened her eyes: they focused on a sky bright with a full moon, and her ears heard the hooting of an owl, and her nose breathed in fresh air, and her body felt the moist softness of grass beneath her.

Startled by a sound, she turned to see by moonlight the Defender of the Faithful of Brennor lying at her side. His big hands clasped his head; he moaned and shivered. Cautiously, she reached out to touch him, then drew back. This was the Defender of the Faithful! But she was close enough now that she could see the tears streaking through the grime on his face though his eyes were closed.

What could she do? What should she do? She buried her face in her hands and drew in a deep breath. Lucian would know what to do. She had only to seek his mind and ask him. His emerald eyes seemed to shine upon her in the darkness.

The Defender thrashed and cried out. Mirin bent to him. Whatever nightmare was possessing him, it seemed it would kill him if he was not released from it. She reached out and gently touched his lips. His eyes flew open. She smiled, though she was trembling. The lines of pain disappeared. She murmured, "It's all right now," and smoothed the hair back from his forehead. The amulet rested on his chest. His eyelids fluttered and finally closed. There were no more moans, no more tears. Upon the face of the Defender was a gentle smile.

Mirin felt suddenly dizzy; the drug must still be affecting her. She felt so weary. Perhaps if she just closed her eyes for a little while she might be clear-headed enough to think, to know what to do, and, failing that, to contact Lucian. Suddenly seized by a violent shiver, she drew closer to the warmth of the Defender. Yes, she would rest awhile, just a little while.

She lay her head on his chest; his heart beat steadily. The smell of sweat, the coarseness of his tunic, was somehow reassuring. Mirin felt her eyes closing as she curled herself into the warmth of the strong arms that wrapped around her. The wolves were howling, but they seemed very far away.

.

She awakened in his arms. For a moment, she didn't move, didn't stir, barely breathed. Her eyes roamed the small valley. The sun was already high; the dew had burned off. No wolves howled this day, but birds were everywhere, chattering, cooing, singing. A bright blue wildflower caught her eye and she smiled. Had there ever been a more beautiful morning? Not that she'd ever seen.

A gentle wind washed over her; she snuggled deeper in the warm, strong arms. The wind swept through the trees and rustled the leaves. She looked up to see the sun glinting off the green of a loren tree. Emerald green it was.

Lucian! She stiffened. So much time had passed; he'd be frantic. She must concentrate now and seek him out. She must tell him what had happened, ask him what to do. She moved slowly, cautiously, and began to inch her way out of the Defender's embrace. But though he still snored quietly and the rhythm of his breaths didn't waver for a moment, his arms tightened and one big hand gently stroked her hair.

She turned her face up to his. In spite of her predicament, in spite of herself, she had to smile. His thick black hair sprouted forth from his head in crazy tufts; his wide mouth was turned up at the corners; his nose, too long, like his arms and legs, twitched as a butterfly lighted on it for a moment. But the Defender of the Faithful of Brennor slept on as peacefully as a well-fed babe; his spiky black lashes didn't flutter once.

Something cold touched her breast. She glanced down. It was only the amulet; it had slipped beneath her gown. The amulet. Lucian. She must concentrate.

The sun was even higher in the sky now. She must do something or she'd spend another night shivering under the stars. Her stomach growled. How long had it been since she'd eaten? She licked her lips. Gods, she was thirsty. She had to do something.

She pushed as hard as she could against the grip of the Defender's arms and struggled free. She looked to his face; his eyes flew open. He stared straight ahead and blinked several times, then one long arm reached up to run his fingers through his hair. The gray eyes widened. He blinked again. Abruptly, he shut his eyes tightly and clutched his head and curled his body up like a wounded animal.

Mirin bent to lay her hand on his shoulder. As before, her touch had an immediate effect. His limbs relaxed, his hands fell, his eyes opened. And he smiled.

"Come," she said softly, "we must find shelter."

He nodded and began to struggle to his feet. Mirin held her breath as the long, long body rose higher and higher. But though he swayed, he stood.

The height which had so impressed her was exaggerated by his leanness: it seemed he might topple over. And though his face was gray beneath his tan and his eyes were deeply shadowed, upon his haggard face was a gentle smile. Though his tunic was rumpled and stained with sweat and his hair was shaggy and his beard was ragged, he looked upon her with eyes the color of storm clouds on a summer day, and she saw before her not just a man, but the Defender of the Faithful.

Wordlessly, he held out his hand to her. It was huge. It seemed that his hands were too big, his arms and legs too long, his shoulders too broad. And yet he had an ungainly grace; perhaps it was the sheer size of him, or perhaps it was the strength that radiated from him.

Speechless, Mirin placed her hand in his, and he pulled her to her feet.

He reached out and stroked her hair. Only that. She could feel the tension in his touch, the heat. That, and the warmth of his smile. She studied his face, so open, his eyes so honest, and she could not help but return his smile.

He was lost. The amulet had done its work. Lucian had been right, as he always was. Lucian. He would be waiting, wondering.

She had only to open her mind to him. Surely he was calling her. She, his Chosen, must, would, answer.

Mirin shivered. The Defender gently pulled her into his arms, and she buried her face in his chest. As he drew her closer, she could feel the pounding of his heart, swore she could feel the blood rushing through his veins.

The sun was so warm; she felt so safe. There was time enough to know what to do, to call to Lucian, to think. Later. Now, she closed her eyes and she felt herself falling into a dream, the same dream she'd had so many times after a bitter night's work in Avacar: to be held, just like this, by a good, strong man who truly loved her.

He lifted her chin. She opened her eyes.

His smile was so fine. His whole face smiled, like that of a happy child. And yet his face was unaccustomed to such a smile; it was not that of an innocent. As his body had been hardened by suffering, by toil, by war, so too his face was weathered, darkened and lined by the sun and the wind, gaunt with inner strength, inner torment.

No! These eyes were gray, not emerald green. And though they shone on her now with a gentleness that made her want to weep, soon enough they would change. They would harden. The soft smile would twist in lust. The strong arms would no longer be tender; they would capture and not yield.

Gabriel of Morevale was simply a man. There were no gods. Only Lucian would make her his queen. Only he knew, and wielded, the true power of the Chosen. She felt the amulet pressing into her flesh. He was right; he always was. And she was Chosen. By him.