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CHAPTER 41

Gabriel yawned and stretched in the bright morning sun; it was warmer out here than in the hut. He glanced back. Perhaps he'd better make sure Mirin was still covered with the blanket. Perhaps he'd better stoke the fire in the hearth. He shook his head. No. If he didn't go now, he never would. He would not be able to tear himself away from the sound of her voice, the graceful movements of her body, the light in her eyes. He drew in a deep breath and forced his feet to move.

He gingerly picked his way down the path to the stream; he was barefoot. But it was hard to keep his eyes on the ground, for the day was glorious: blue sky, drifting clouds, the scent of spring flowers, the warmth of the sun. And Mirin. A perfect day, just as the day before must have been, just as the one to follow would surely be.

He had little sense of time. The sun came up to Mirin, the sun went down. There was no past, no future, only the moment. Sometimes he could almost see past it, grab onto some elusive shred of his history, but never quite. It was like a door had been closed on his memory, shut and locked, and he could not find the key. His world existed, time existed, only in the moment.

In this moment, he stood on the bank of the stream, listening to the rush of the water, breathing deep the clear air, basking in the sun's warmth. He stripped off his tunic. Running his fingers through his hair, he puzzled over how best to catch a fish.

He'd considered using the sword, but as his hand had moved toward it he'd started to shake and he'd broken out in a sweat, and the pain had begun. So it remained propped up in the corner in the hut. He wouldn't use it; he dare not even touch it.

He'd considered the idea of fashioning a spear, rejected it. He had neither the patience nor the will to spend any more time away from Mirin than he had to.

Vague, unsettling thoughts always flickered through his mind the longer he was apart from her. His head would start to hurt, the pain would grow. Only the sight of her beautiful face could banish it. At her warm touch it was instantly dispelled. In her arms there was only joy, total peace.

Unbidden, his eyes were drawn to the mountain. The dull ache began to form behind them. The mountain, constant, unchanging, strangely alluring, was calling to him again. He took a step toward it. A sharp pain shot through his temples.

No. He must hurry. He must once again see Mirin, hear her, touch her. He shook his head to clear it, then turned to the stream where the sunlight danced on its surface and sparkled like the light in her eyes.

He smiled. If he was going to catch a fish and catch it quickly, he'd have to do it with his bare hands. Shrugging, he rubbed them together and took a step into the stream.

He stopped. He'd done this before. Many times. The feel of the icy water swirling around his ankles was familiar; the challenge, the anticipation, of catching a fish was, too. He closed his eyes.

He saw a ragged-haired little boy with a huge grin lacking two front teeth desperately clutching a wriggling fish. The boy was looking up with wide gray eyes, saying, "It's a big one, isn't it," and his lisping words were punctuated with a giggle.

Gabriel became the boy. It was he who smiled up as a burly, yellow-haired man with merry blue eyes reached down with a hand as big as a ham to tousle his hair and clap him on the back. The fish nearly went flying, but Gabriel grasped it more tightly, and his smile widened as the big man threw back his head and laughed and said, "Aye, it's a beauty, Gabriel."

The man was his father.

Gabriel gasped. The pain had been building. It screamed now; it tore at him. But he would not let this go. No, he'd opened the locked door just a crack and peeked underneath the curtain. He had only to draw it aside.

The pain! Gabriel staggered as he clawed at his head and moaned. No, he mustn't! He tried to back out, to close the door, to flee, to forget again. But it was too late; he was caught. Blackness descended, and he fell.

.

Mirin knelt at Gabriel's side in the water and gently lifted his head onto her lap. Her tears splashed onto his face. She shouldn't have slept so late! He shouldn't have been alone. Tenderly, she smoothed his hair back and bent to kiss his forehead.

His eyes opened, and his mouth curved into a smile.

There was no clue as to what had happened in the gray eyes shining so softly upon her. There was no answer in that warm smile. There never was. All she knew was that whatever tortured him so was dispelled as soon as the amulet was near enough to affect him.

Without a word, Gabriel lumbered to his feet, bent down and kissed her hand, winked, and stalked into the water as if nothing had happened. She brushed her tears away as she watched him wade deeper into the stream.

Holding his hand up to shade his eyes, Gabriel looked all about him. Mirin rose to her feet and peered out over the clear water; fish were darting everywhere, but impossibly fast. She smiled. He'd best be quick!

Suddenly, Gabriel lunged. She held her breath. With a huge grin, he turned to lift the fish in triumph. She clapped. As he began to carefully make his way back to the bank with the fish gripped tightly in his hands, she giggled. Though his brow was furrowed in concentration and his long strides were cut short, awkward and unwieldy in the water, he beamed like a boy.

He placed one foot on the bank. The fish gave a mighty wriggle and leaped from his hands. He spun and grabbed at it. His feet slipped out from under him and he fell backwards into the water.

Mirin laughed out loud.

.

Sitting in the mud, his legs stuck straight out in front of him, Gabriel splashed the water in frustration. Suddenly, laughter like tinkling bells rang out. Mirin's hands covered her face, trying to stifle her laughter, but her eyes sparkled with mirth.

He stared up at her sheepishly, then burst out laughing. He laughed until his sides ached, laughed until tears streamed from his eyes. Still laughing, he extended his hand.

Mirin daintily hiked up her gown, tiptoed into the water, and reached out her hand, laughing all the while. He grasped it, flashed a smile of pure mischief, and pulled her in.

.

Mirin gasped and sputtered, struggled, came up for air. Gabriel's strong arms were around her, his gray eyes smiling, his breath warm on her face. She wrapped her arms around his neck, pressed her body close, kissed him long and luxuriously, then braced her feet in the mud and, with one mighty push, shoved him backwards again into the water.

She dragged herself from the stream, rose with as much dignity as she could in her sodden gown, and turned to look down upon him him, haughty as an empress. He struggled to his elbows in the shallow water and lay there, his eyes sweeping over her like the warm rays of the sun. She was trembling, she knew, but not from the cold.

He slowly pushed himself to his knees and splashed through the water until he knelt directly before her, like a supplicant at a shrine. He gently took her hands in his and pulled her down. They knelt face to face.

The time was now. She must fulfill her task. She knew what she must do; she certainly knew how to do it. The amulet lay upon her breast. It weighed so heavily; she could not wish it away.

Lucian was waiting. She tried to see past the gray eyes that softly shone on her, to see those emerald eyes that mesmerized. She was his Chosen. He would rule the world and she would be his queen.

Yes, she was his Chosen. It was only because of him that she was here, that the Defender was here. It was only because of him that Gabriel had smiled upon her, had held her, had kissed her. It was only because of the amulet; the amulet was Lucian's. It was his power that made possible the love she saw shining in the gray eyes.

She was the tool of Lucian's bidding, but someday she, too, would have power. Not to be used, but to use. When she had finished with this, when she earned her reward, she would wield that power like a sword, she would cut down anyone who dared to try to take it from her.

Gabriel's chest rose and fell heavily as he brought her fingers to his lips. His wanting, his need, was almost painful to see. But he would not force her; he would not even try. An inner strength, an unconquerable will, a supreme confidence, shone from him through the power of his desire. He would not take what was not rightfully his; he would not take what was not freely given.

She, too, had felt wanting, need, desire. Lucian had awakened senses she never knew she had; he had brought her to heights of pleasure she never knew existed. She had quivered and moaned for the magic of his touch. Even pain had been transformed. As she had been.

Now, as she knelt before Gabriel, looking into his gentle gray eyes, she felt something she'd never felt before. She wanted this man: not only to be held in his strong arms, and kissed, caressed, possessed, but to be a part of him, one with him. She wanted to be loved; more, she wanted to love him. "Thou art one heart, one soul, one flesh." The solemn words of the ceremony of joining echoed in her mind.

Now, as the water swirled about them, she felt washed of her past, cleansed of her purpose, free of her task. She let it fall away from her as she would a heavy cloak when coming out of the cold to the warmth of a hearth.

Gently, she removed her hands from Gabriel's and stroked his face. Gracefully, she rose to her feet. Looking down upon him, for the first time in her life she was unsure, not certain if the offering of her body was worthy. She felt like a virgin bride on her wedding night: trembling, flushed with excitement, shy and fearful that she would not be pleasing to her husband, her lord. Keeping her eyes focused on Gabriel's, she slipped the gown from her shoulders and let it fall.

.

Gabriel gasped. He had never seen a woman like this before, never touched one. He could not speak; he could not move. She was as beautiful as a goddess, as regal as a queen, as radiant as a bride. He felt he should do homage to such beauty, make obeisance to such perfection. Had he not been on his knees, he would have fallen to them.

And then it struck him. She was his. He could take her, hold her, possess her. She was his.

He was ravenous. Before him was a great banquet: he had only to feast. But he would not be a glutton. No, he would taste and savor. He would have his fill.

He must be careful with such treasure. Such softness. Such warmth. Such beauty. He had been given a great gift; he would cherish it. He would show his thanks. She was his.

Mirin shivered, and her eyes shimmered, with uncertainty, with desire, with love. No goddess she, but a woman. She was his.

He stood and took her in his arms. She lay her head against his chest, upon his heart. Gently, he moved his hand down her back; its graceful curve was soft beyond belief, so warm.

She smiled up at him with her beautiful violet eyes as he lifted her in his arms.