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CHAPTER 42

Elienne stood as still as a statue, her hands clasped before her in an attitude of prayer. They had long ago ceased shaking. A single drop of sweat ran slowly down her face. She dare not wipe it away. Her eyes were wide open; she could not afford to blink.

The heretic circled her like a wolf, sniffing and pawing.

But she was not afraid. Her will was as great as his; her power was as mighty. Though he had probed in her mind like an overenthusiastic surgeon digging for a splinter, had crawled nimbly through her brain with the delicate grace of a spider, she had managed to elude him.

But she could not defeat him. She knew that now. She had not the heart to hurt, to destroy. Hers was the gift of love; there was no place for hate. Not even for this man. She prayed the gods would show her what she must do.

Abruptly, he stopped his circling, and she felt the force of his thoughts simply vanish; the very air in the chamber seemed to have stilled. His shoulders slumped. His hands fell limp to his sides.

She dared to quickly brush the back of her hand across her forehead.

He sighed, and his body seemed to fold in on itself: first, his head sunk to his chest, then his back bent, as with a shudder he sank to the stone and lay hugging himself, curled up like a wounded animal.

She dared to blink, then took a step closer.

His head shot up. The emerald eyes glittered through slitted lids. He licked his lips and twisted his mouth into a leer. "Where is your Defender now, Chosen?" He unfolded his body with the sinuousness of a snake and propped his head on his elbow. "I wonder what he's up to?" He giggled and his green eyes sparked.

Elienne threw her hands to her head and prayed, but it was too late. An image formed in her mind. Gabriel! His gray eyes burned like shards of heated stone, and his face, his strong, good face, was contorted, slack, glistening with sweat. As was his body.

Elienne gasped and blushed with shame. Now, through his eyes, she could see the woman, the beautiful woman, lying beneath him, her face made ugly with hatred, with satisfaction, a knowing, hard smile playing on her lips. She looked into Elienne's eyes and winked.

Elienne tried to thrust the sight from her mind, but she could not. Her eyes, through the mist of her tears, could not look away: Gabriel's body, its strength, its rough beauty, its movements, transfixed her. She could feel her face flame and she threw her hands over her eyes, trying to blind herself to the vision.

A shrill laugh sounded in her ear; she opened her eyes to the heretic's face, just inches from her own. His eyes nearly bulged from his head. Like her own, his face was covered with a bright sheen of sweat, and foam flecked the corners of his mouth. With his hands drawn up claw-like before him, his long red hair flying, he threw back his head and laughed.

Spittle flew from his mouth. Gasping, he thrust his nose in her face. "Yes, I see you, too, have considered the possibilities." His breath was hot. "I'll bet your precious Defender is having the time of his life!"

Elienne screamed, "No!"

The heretic staggered backwards, grabbed his head and howled.

When she saw what she had done, she sobbed aloud and again clasped her hands in prayer.

The heretic shook his head frantically and turned to peer at her from under his stringy red hair, then chuckled and shuffled sideways back to her, scuttling like a crab. He stared up at her through the sides of his eyes and whispered, "It's too bad, really. He seemed like a nice enough fellow." He grinned. "That is, until you got through with him." He wagged his finger in her face. "Now, I'm afraid he'll have to pay the price."

Elienne pressed her hands to her forehead, clawed at her brow, closed her eyes so tightly it hurt. What had she done? "Gabriel," she sobbed.

He knelt on a scaffold, stripped to the waist, his feet bare. His black hair hung greasy and lank into his face, and his dark skin was smudged with dirt and sweat and bruises. His shoulders were bowed.

Suddenly, he arched his back and his head shot up. Within the gray face, his eyes were tightly closed. Scars from old wounds stood out white against the thick black hair of his chest. He slumped forward.

Her view shifted, pulled back.

Behind Gabriel stood a man in a black cowl, a barbed whip in his hand. He drew back his arm, then flung it forward with great force. A spray of blood flew out in all directions as the whip connected. Again, Gabriel stiffened. His back was crisscrossed with rivers of blood and fissures of torn skin and muscle.

Elienne whispered a desperate, "No," but still she could see.

The beating went on. Around the scaffold it seemed all the folk of Brennor had assembled. Their faces were utterly mad; they cheered and taunted and spat. An old peasant woman's eyes grew very bright, and her toothless mouth opened in a laugh as she pointed and clapped. Elienne eyes followed the old woman's finger.

Another black-robed figure now stood before Gabriel. He held out his hand, and into it was placed a red-hot brand. The Enforcer jerked Gabriel's head up by the hair and swiftly applied the iron.

Sweat and blood streamed from Gabriel's forehead, down his face, his shoulders quivered, but still he did not cry out. His gray eyes, wide open now, seemed to beg for more pain, more shame.

The sound of the brand searing Gabriel's flesh, the stench, burned into Elienne's mind. Sobbing uncontrollably, she prayed, pleaded, that it would end. It did not.

The crowd was hushed as the High Patriarch of Brennor slowly ascended the steps of the scaffold. He waved away the cowled figures, and stood before Gabriel, stern and implacable, terrible justice in his eyes.

He held high the heavy holy symbol he wore around his neck and solemnly intoned the words of disgrace, of exile, in the holy tongue.

Gabriel stared up at him with something like relief in his eyes, but his body shuddered and his head fell as the High Patriarch spoke the final words. "Gabriel of Morevale, I declare you forever anathema to the gods and the Holy Church."

Gabriel's blessed sword, broken in two, its holy words defaced, yet still shining in the sun, was placed into the High Patriarch's outstretched hands. Dropping the pieces to the scaffold, he ground them beneath his foot. At last, the Ceremony of Disgrace had ended.

Elienne's focus narrowed, she was but inches from Gabriel's face. As she saw a lone tear fall to the wood of the scaffold, her eyes flew open and she fell upon the heretic, beating him with her fists, screaming, "No, no, no!"

The heretic had straightened. He seemed very tall. "Yes, yes, yes! I'm afraid your Church and your gods will not be quite so forgiving of their Chosen." He looked down his aquiline nose at her and stretched taut his thin lips. "What will they do with him, I wonder?"

Insidiously, like a snake slithering its way into her mind, a new image formed.

A naked, bloodied corpse hung upside-down, the handsome face bloated and disfigured, the long, strong body broken, covered with open, fetid wounds. Where his manhood had been only a clotted, gaping hole remained.

Elienne's screams echoed through the chamber.

With infinite slowness, Gabriel's eyes opened. The calm gray eyes looked out of his almost unrecognizable face with love as his broken mouth whispered, "Forgive me, Chosen."

No! She must stop this! She could. She would. The images in her mind, whether conjured by her own guilty imagination or inserted there by the heretic, were only that. Images. Not prophesies.

She was to be the Intercessor; she would speak with the gods. They would answer.

But she was weakening. And if she couldn't resist the heretic, he would slither into her mind and slink into the secret place in her soul and feast on the knowledge there. The knowledge that had allowed her to rape Gabriel's mind and ravage his heart.

Although the emerald eyes glittered with madness, they were bright with intelligence, too.

She must free Gabriel! Gods, she prayed, answer your Intercessor. Speak to me. Show me what to do. She must open the door in Gabriel's mind, lift the veil. She must free him.

The gods answered.

Her eyes rolled back in her head and her body fell to the floor like a dried husk.

.

Lucian approached the slight figure warily. With the toe of his slipper, he gave her a mild kick. She did not react. He kicked her again, harder. She did not move.