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CHAPTER 39

Mirin turned her face up to the sun, closed her eyes, and sighed. She was almost there. Struggling up the hill with the heavy bucket, she told herself it couldn't be much further to the hut. She'd best hurry.

She blew a lock of hair out of her face and trudged onward. Every muscle in her body ached, she was filthy, and more tired than she ever remembered being. Sweat trickled down between her breasts.

Thank goodness she didn't have a looking glass. There had never been a time in her life when she'd worked this hard. Why, she had blisters on her hands! Her nose was sunburned, and she felt quite sure that there must be black circles under her eyes.

But the sun was so warm, the day so bright, the air so clean, she smiled. How she had envied the young mother carrying her water jar in one hand, her babe in the other, hurrying down Derrin Street that day so long ago. How she had envied her the blessing of the Defender of the Faithful.

Now Gabriel of Morevale lay stretched out on a ramshackle bed in an abandoned hut. She hoped he was still asleep, that he'd not awakened when she wasn't there. She straightened her back and picked up her pace.

He was better now. As long as he could see her, be it across the room or from the hut's one tiny window, he would be all right. She'd gotten in the habit, when returning with water from the nearby stream, of calling his name before she was even in sight of the hut, just in case he had awakened. Sometimes the sound of her voice would be enough until he could see her.

But sometimes, she would open the door and he would be huddled beneath the window, moaning in pain, white with it, and then only her touch could calm him. Though he would struggle to his feet and blink the tears from his gray eyes and try, so very hard, to smile, he would barely be able to shuffle to the bed, to fall into it. She'd stay at his side until he slept, holding his hand and whispering his name and smoothing his hair back from his face.

Yes, she'd better hurry.

She nearly went sprawling when she tripped on a stone in the increasingly well-worn path. The water jostled in the bucket, almost spilled, but she caught it just in time. She carefully set it down and sank to the grass with a sigh. She had to rest, just for a moment.

The sun was so warm. It would be so easy to fall asleep. But she mustn't, couldn't, wouldn't do that! Gabriel might awaken. And, she had so much to do. The river mussels she'd just dug out of the stream bed would be delicious with the greens she'd picked earlier. The kindling was low; she'd have to forage for more. The blankets had to be aired out some time today. She'd washed and mended her gown the day before; she meant to mend the extra tunic she'd found in Gabriel's pack along with the needle and thread.

She fell back and smiled as she stretched out full-length and wiggled her fingers and toes. Just for a moment. The grass was soft; her makeshift bed on the dirt floor of the hut was not, in spite of the rushes she'd piled up for padding. She giggled; at least her feet didn't stick out over the end of her bed like Gabriel's. Still, she reasoned, it was better for him than the floor.

His fevers waxed and waned. Sometimes she'd find him trembling under the blanket, his teeth chattering, his eyes glittering, and she'd first stoke the fire and then she'd have to lie down beside him and hold him in her arms until the shaking stopped. No, he shouldn't sleep on the cold, drafty floor, even if he didn't fit in the ramshackle bed too well.

Suddenly, Mirin pulled herself up, grabbed the bucket, and set out. She must get back. She must hurry. Gabriel might have awakened; she had all those chores to do. And, of course, she must find the time to contact Lucian. He would be out of his mind with worry by now.

Or perhaps he would be angry. Glancing down at the amulet at her breast, she shuddered. She must complete her task, she knew; Lucian had entrusted her with their future. This same amulet that now calmed the Defender must be used to destroy him. Only then could Lucian and she, his Chosen, realize their dream. She must nurse the Defender back to health. Then break him.

Perhaps she'd better wait to open her mind to Lucian. Wait until she had completed her task. Yes, that would be the best way. She'd return to Lucian in triumph and he would take her in his arms and his emerald eyes would shine on her and he would love her.

Her eyes were filling with tears. Better to think about it later, when she had more time. For now, she must hurry. Her mouth curved into a smile; she called out, "Gabriel," as she rounded the curve in the path that led to the hut.