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CHAPTER 43

"Do you see those stars to the north just above the horizon?" whispered Gabriel, holding her back close against his chest.

Mirin raised her brows as she turned to look at him. "Of course! It is the constellation of the Dove. Everyone knows that."

He grinned. "Ah, yes, but do you know that it is also the constellation of the goddess Solan?"

She smiled with feigned innocence. "I am afraid, sir, that I am not familiar with the goddess of whom you speak." She leaned her head back against his shoulder and closed her eyes. Softly, she said, "Perhaps you could tell me more of her."

His lips brushed her neck. "Solan, my beloved, is the goddess of joy."

Mirin's eyes flew open. "She is not! She is the goddess of love and you know it very ..."

Gabriel laughed, then gently, slowly, turned her to face him. He kissed her, his breath warm and urgent. "Indeed, just as I said."

Joy. His eyes shone with it. His body trembled with it. His voice sparkled with it. For him, love was joy. Not pleasure, not possession, not giving, not taking: it was all these things, and more. Joy.

Mirin drew a deep breath and wrapped her arms around his neck, eager to be loved. The amulet dug into her flesh. As Gabriel's gray eyes swept over her with desire, with love, with joy, as his strong, sure arms effortlessly lowered her to the ground, as his huge, gentle hands pushed the gown off her shoulders, down her arms, and moved to caress her, as his long body covered hers, tears stung her eyes. The chain about her neck felt so heavy. She felt it would strangle her, though without it, she knew she would not have this man. The amulet was performing flawlessly.

But was it the amulet that made him love her so well? Was it the amulet that made him touch her with such tender strength that she thought she would go mad with joy? Was it the amulet that made him whisper, "Beloved," with his face buried in her hair?

Yes! She tried to blink away her tears. She must end this, must awaken from this dream. She had no choice. Her past, her future, bound her to her task, shackled her with heavy chains, as surely as the amulet had imprisoned Gabriel.

She focused on the gray eyes and felt herself returning his smile. How could she not? His smile was pure delight, his touch pure pleasure, his laugh pure joy. He had no past to regret, no future to fear.

She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. She wanted to laugh. But all she could think to do was to abandon herself to this dream, to surrender to pleasure, to be loved.

One flesh. One heart. One soul.

She trembled with joy.

Suddenly, Gabriel stiffened. He cocked his head, shook it; the smile faded as the gray eyes widened. Mirin touched his face and called his name, but he turned his head away and began to raise himself up. She reached out to him, but he was already on his feet, staring at something in the distance. Her eyes followed his: to the mountain, barely visible in the moonless night.

He stood with his head poised as if listening for something, his body tense. She saw his brow furrow, saw him cringe in pain. She rose to her feet and lay her hand upon his arm, but he did not seem to feel it. He took a few stiff, halting steps, like he was being dragged, then shook his head and strode off quickly toward the mountain.

She watched him disappear into the darkness. Her eyes fell to the amulet at her breast. Grasping it so tightly its edges cut into her flesh, she ran after him.

She stumbled on the overgrown path in the darkness, but picked herself up and ran on. With every step her sense of dread grew greater. Lucian lay in wait in the mountain like a wolf in its lair; the amulet felt so heavy on her breast.

Gabriel's long strides had already carried him to the base of the mountain. She watched in horror as he beat his fists against the granite cliff, his face contorted with pain. She ran to him and gently touched his shoulder. She called his name. He turned, and she breathed a sigh of relief. But he did not see her; he brushed past her as if she wasn't there.

She cried out as he slipped his foot into a crack in the cliff face, then another, and began to climb. Shaking with fear, paralyzed with terror, she watched him scale the wall of stone like a fly, higher and higher, till she could no longer see him.

"Gabriel!" she screamed and rushed to where he had begun his ascent. "Gabriel," she whispered as she pressed her forehead to the granite wall. He did not answer.

The stone was cold, so cold. As cold as the walls of the tomb, as cold as Lucian's eyes could be. She shivered. Would be.

No matter. She must follow.

Her fingers swept across the stone, seeking a handhold. She stretched, found another, and pulled herself up as she frantically sought a foothold. Slowly, cautiously, she inched her way up the mountain, sweat running into her eyes to mingle with her tears.

Suddenly, her hand touched warmth. She was so startled she nearly lost her grip. "Gabriel," she gasped.

He did not answer. Other than the howling of the wind, the only sound was the tortured rasp of his breath, his desperate sobs, the dull, useless thump of his fists against the stone.

She clung desperately to the cliff face. Her arms and legs were tiring; she shivered in the wind. She could not move. She could not think.

One foot began to slip. She called to him again, but she had so little breath that her voice seemed not her own; it sounded so small, so far away. Gods, let him hear!

The foot slid out of its niche; she dug her fingers into the stone as she shifted her weight to the other. But it did no good. Her foot was cramping, her hands ached, the vibrations of her pounding heart, her chattering teeth, were shaking her off.

She slipped. She clawed frantically at the stone and screamed. As she fell, she thought she could see Gabriel's long body anchored precariously on the ledge, his strong arm reaching down an impossible distance, his big hand grasping, pitifully, at nothing.

.

Gabriel strained every muscle in his body to reach her, but he could not; he had stretched too far. He plummeted down the mountain and slammed into the ground with a sickening crunch.

The pain nearly made him faint. But he closed his eyes tightly for a moment, drew in a deep breath, and willed himself back to consciousness. Slowly, painfully, he crawled toward her.

She lay still, face-down on the ground, one arm outstretched.

Frantic, he dragged himself to her side. She was so white! His expert eyes scanned her body for a wound, for blood. He saw none. With a shaking hand, he dared to touch her hand. It was cold. So cold. Gasping, he brought it to his cheek. It moved, feebly.

Tears of joy spilled from his eyes as he gently covered her trembling body with his own. "I thought I had lost you," he whispered. He buried his face in her neck and wept. His arms tightened around her body; he would never let her go.

She moaned. He raised his head to see her struggling to pull her other arm from underneath her body. He forced himself to release her, and pushed himself to his knees. Gently, he turned her onto her back. And gasped again. Her right arm hung limp: the bone of the upper arm stuck out through the skin. Here was the blood.

.

Mirin's eyes were closing in shock; she fought to keep them open. For above her, looking down on her, Gabriel's gray eyes were serene and soft, though his face was tight and his jaw was clenched.

"You must lie still now," he said, and his eyes commanded, and she obeyed. At the edge of her vision, his hands moved, and her eyes began to stray, to see what they were about. "Beloved," he whispered and captured her with his gaze. "Lie still."

She felt his hands gently grasp her broken arm. Tears began to well in her eyes as she bit back a scream and braced for the pain. Gabriel's eyes closed.

She could feel the pressure, hear the sound of the bone being slowly, slowly, pushed back into place, but the searing pain she had steeled herself for never came. With each moment that passed, her pain grew less and less. It was draining from her, letting loose its grip; it was nothing.

But Gabriel's body bowed ever lower as the minutes passed. He trembled. Then, he shook. His brow, beaded with sweat, creased with ever deepening lines. His breaths, first slow and even, became ragged, harsh, too rapid. A drop of sweat fell from the end of his nose.

Mirin tried to cry out for him to stop, but she had no breath to do so. Breathless, she was, with awe.

The sense of peace was overpowering. She tried to fight it, but it stole over her, robbing her of the will to do so. As her eyes closed, she saw Gabriel's pale face change: the lines of pain and exertion faded, the gray eyes, open now, shone on her once again with joy, the wide mouth turned up in a crooked, soft, smile.