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CHAPTER 45

Mirin lay very still in Gabriel's arms, her head resting on his shoulder, her arm draped across his chest. Beneath her hand, his heart pounded steady and sure. At her ear, his breath was slow and even. The arms that held her close were firm, strong even in sleep.

Slowly, she turned her face to his. The movement prompted a tender smile on his lips, a tightening of his grip.

Her eyes drank in his face: the dark, weathered skin, the chiseled features, the wide mouth so generous, so gentle, the shaggy hair shining black as a raven's wing in the dim light from the hearth. She gazed at his closed eyes, almost willing them to open, to see the quiet strength in those gray eyes, to see the joy in them when he looked upon her, and then to see them grow stormy with passion, to feel the warmth of the love they reflected.

A tear stole down her cheek, then another. They flowed from her eyes in a steady stream, falling to his chest, pooling in the thick black hair.

She dared not wipe her eyes. She dared not move. She must memorize his face, his body. This moment must last forever.

If he awakened now, she would be lost. Never would she be able to blind herself to the happiness in his eyes, to harden herself to the feel of his hands upon her, to deafen herself to the sound of his voice whispering, "Beloved," to turn her face from his kiss.

No, she must not wake him. Not yet.

His face was in repose now, composed with quiet joy. Yet still, so clearly, she could see it seamed with deep furrows, taut with effort, ravaged with pain. The healing! Even now she could feel the release from agony, the peace that had poured over her, into her. Even now she could see his face aglow with goodness. He was Chosen.

Lucian had been wrong. There were gods; Gabriel was their Chosen.

Slowly, ever so slowly, she began to pull herself from his arms. They tightened. But she whispered, "Sleep, Gabriel," and slid from his grasp. She rose from the bed and drew on her gown. The dirt floor felt cold on her bare feet; she shivered in spite of the fire in the hearth. How she longed to simply lay back down beside him, to feel his strong arms holding her close, his warmth banishing the cold. To simply forget about what had gone before, both their lives, to go on.

She reached for the amulet at her neck and turned it over in her hand. Its power would never fade. Gabriel was happy now, so happy. Had he ever been before? Why shouldn't they just go, go away, go on? They could make a new life, a good life, a life in which no one need know: that he was Defender of the Faithful of Brennor; that she was a whore.

She tightened her grip. The gods knew. Gabriel was Chosen.

He was snoring softly, his mouth curved in a gentle smile. As Mirin looked upon him, memorizing the sight of him at peace one last time, her hand stroked the amulet. Perhaps it had never bound him; perhaps it had freed him.

No! Shaking her head, she grasped the amulet and with one firm tug, broke it free of the chain at her neck. Her hand trembled as she held it out before her. "Gods, give me the strength," she whispered. Her hand opened and the amulet fell. She stared at it lying in the dirt.

The light from the hearth illuminated the gold; it shone with a greenish glow. Green, like Lucian's eyes. She tried to conjure up their beauty. After all, he had given her this. He had given her Gabriel. But she could no longer see the emerald eyes, could no longer hear the silky voice, could no longer feel the sensuous touch.

Lucian mattered not. The Holy Church, the folk of Brennor, the gods themselves, mattered not. Only Gabriel.

She looked to him, then back to the amulet. Slowly, she began to bend to it, her hand moving closer, closer. No! She straightened with a start, turned and ran to the bed. She knelt beside him and stretched out her hand to his face and softly stroked his cheek.

Gabriel's eyes opened, shining as they always did when they looked upon her. With a great yawn, he stretched his long arms above his head, then ran his fingers through his hair. He yawned again and idly scratched the hair on his chest. His whole face broke into a huge smile. "It is early." He reached down to pull her into his arms. "And cold."

Mirin couldn't move. She braced for the shock, the moment of recognition, she knew would come. Why did his eyes have to be so soft, his smile so warm, his arms so strong? She could not turn away.

He pulled her gently, effortlessly, to his side. "You're shivering," he said, as his big hands moved over her body and his lips sought hers.

She couldn't stop shaking, though she was suffused with warmth; her body, her heart, her soul, recognized home. When would the light go out in the gray eyes? When would the big, tender hands stiffen? When would the loving kiss become a scream of agony? Gods, give me strength, she prayed.

Gabriel whispered, "Beloved," into her hair.

"No," she screamed as she tore herself from his arms and ran to where the amulet lay. "No!" Sobbing, she bent to it, fought to reach it, strained to see through the tears that were blinding her. "Gods, I cannot," she cried, "I cannot." No, she could not free him. Would not. No.

The first rays of sunlight began to filter through the window. They touched on her; her eyes followed their progress as they moved slowly across the room. To the corner. Where stood the blessed sword of Brennor.

Gabriel was behind her, his arms around her, holding her close, and his soft, deep voice was whispering in her hair. She stared at the sword and she saw, reflected on its scabbard, the face of a lovely young mother, and other faces, too, all the folk of Brennor, the high and the low, glowing, and she saw a big black horse and a tall man upon it with gentle eyes and a gentle smile who raised his hand, the healing hand, the hand of justice, and blessed them. Blessed them all. Even she, the most expensive whore in Avacar.

Mirin turned in Gabriel's arms and raised her eyes. The Defender of the Faithful of Brennor looked upon her. "As the gods will," she said.

"It shall be done." His voice was perfectly even, perfectly dead. There was no recognition in it, no acknowledgement. He spoke again, and although Mirin could not understand, she knew they were the same words, in the holy tongue. He repeated them, and his hands fell away from her and his gray eyes no longer saw her, they sought something far away.

She crossed to where his sword stood. Reverently, she lifted it and carried it to him. "Your sword, Defender." She knelt before him like a squire.

He reached out to it, hesitated. Haltingly, he placed one big hand on the hilt, the other on the scabbard. He grasped it. "Let thy blessed sword smite thine enemies," he whispered as he drew the blade.

Mirin felt tears pouring down her face. Before her stood the Defender of the Faithful, Chosen of the gods, holding aloft the blessed sword of Brennor. "Forgive me, Chosen," she cried, and her tears, of awe, of loss, fell to the dirt at his feet.

.

"The gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it." The words were merely a function of habit, not will. Gabriel's eyes were fixed on the sword. He stared at it but did not see; he spoke the words but did not hear.

In his mind, the door stood wide open before him. Beyond it, the veil billowed as if touched by a gentle wind. He had only to walk through the door, draw aside the curtain.

The sharp edge of a blade came into focus. It was his sword. He was Defender of the Faithful of Brennor. It meant something; it meant everything. He could read the words on the blade, but he could not comprehend them.

"As the gods will," he whispered as he stepped up to the door in his mind. He paused. On this side there was light, warmth, beauty, joy. Such joy. Another step would take him beyond; he took it and closed the door behind him.

It was dark, cold. He turned back to the door. It wasn't locked. He could simply open it and step through and once again be in the light and the warmth and lock the door from the other side and never enter it again.

But his father was beyond the veil, that he knew, his whole life was beyond it, and he could at last reclaim it, relive it. He turned and strode to the curtain and slowly drew it aside. There was a life, his life, every thought, every feeling, every action, every memory.

Places: the meadow at Morevale where the clover grew sweet; the Holy Shrine, resplendent with the light from a hundred candles; the chapel at the Keep with the worn prie-dieu; Derrin Street in Avacar where the world always seemed brighter, more alive; dozens of places, hundreds. He'd been there: a plain of red mud; his austere cell; the opulent reception chamber of the High Patriarch. He'd been there.

Faces: his father's, his eyes twinkling in the light of the hearth; Kelwyn's, his mischievous grin showing brilliant white teeth; a little boy's, Willis was his name, with a shock of yellow hair and bright blue eyes and dirty face; Elienne's, her huge brown eyes shining on him, gracing him, with her love. Elienne: her small face, shining with innocence, with goodness.

He gasped and staggered and fell to his knees. A gentle hand touched his shoulder; he shook it off. Elienne. In his mind, he drew himself up to his full height and reached out and tore down the curtain and threw it aside. A soft voice called his name; he covered his ears. Elienne. In his mind, he turned and strode to the door and hacked it open, hacked it to pieces.

He opened his eyes. Violet eyes looked up to him, brimming with tears. He could not look away; his arms fell to his sides. In his mind, he could still see the faces in his memory, summon them at will, but this face obscured all others. Her beauty shone without; it shone from within. It outshone all.

"Forgive me Chosen," she had said. But what would he, could he, forgive? Must joy be forgiven? Must loving hands and tender lips and giving flesh be forgiven? Must the sparkle of laughter, the sigh of desire, the whisper of passion, be forgiven? Must the taste of sweet lips, sweet flesh, be forgiven? Must warmth? Must beauty? Must love?

There was nothing to forgive. There was everything to lose. He could take her in his arms and forget, for just a moment, his task, his purpose. He could look into her violet eyes and be lost again. He could whisper into her hair, tell her that he who had been so alone, who had never known joy, who had never really loved, was now more than he had been, that she was a part of him: one flesh, one heart, one soul.

But he would not. He could not. He was Chosen.

He sheathed his sword and turned away, then set about the task of collecting his gear. His tunic, clean and mended, was laid out neatly on the rickety chair he'd tried to fix so many times. As he dressed, he could feel Mirin's eyes upon him; every scar on his body felt wounded anew. He belted on his sword.

His boots were set, side by side, beneath the bed. He placed one hand on it as he reached down; it still felt warm. This close, he could smell her scent, his, theirs. His hand stroked the blanket, smoothed it, then, abruptly, he grabbed his boots and, standing, awkwardly pulled them on.

The contents of his pack were stacked on the shelf above the hearth; the pack itself hung on the iron peg he'd finally succeeded in hammering in the other day. He snatched it off and began to throw in his gear. Last was his hauberk, polished, shining, the gift of his father. Taking a deep breath, he slipped it into the pack.

He was ready. He must go. Elienne.

He shouldered his pack, gripped the hilt of his sword, and strode to the door.

.

Mirin still knelt on the floor. But her head was no longer bowed; her eyes had followed his every step. Now he stood at the door. His big hand grasped the handle.

"Defender," she said, her voice barely a whisper. He did not turn. "Gabriel," she cried, and though his back was still to her, his hand was stayed.

"Gabriel, before you...," she felt her voice breaking; she willed it not to. "...go, you must listen to me."

His back stiffened and she thought he would leave, but he stood unmoving.

She drew herself to her feet and took a step forward. Then stopped. She could not approach him, could not run to him and throw herself in his arms, cradle his beloved face in her hands and cover it with kisses. No, she must stand where she was, his broad back to her. For a moment, her tears blinded her and her voice choked in her throat.

There was so much she wanted to tell him. Everything. But he stood at the door with his hand upon the handle and he, Defender of the Faithful, must complete his task. She must warn him, arm him with the knowledge of what he was about to face. "The man you seek wields great power." Emerald eyes, sparkling with intelligence, with malice, seemed to be boring into her; thin red lips drew back in a grin. "You must not go there," she sobbed, but she saw Gabriel begin to pull the handle and her words spilled out in a rush. "You don't know his power. You can't imagine it!"

Gabriel opened the door.

She gasped and stumbled as she moved to stop him. The amulet lay at her feet. She scooped it up and held it out to him. "Look upon this, Defender," she cried. "It holds his power!"

He turned his head.

"Look upon it! You know it! It was this that robbed you of your mind, your will. It was this that allowed me to enslave you." Her tears spilled down her cheeks. Choking back her wrenching sobs, she cried, "It holds but a fraction of his power."

His eyes had been fixed on the amulet. Now, running his fingers through his hair, grasping his sword, he turned again toward the door and stepped through. A gentle breeze rushed in, and she saw him sigh.

There was no more time. "Gabriel!" She ran to him and held out the amulet. "Take it, please. You must!" Her hand was shaking so badly; it was so hard not to touch him. "Take it! You are Chosen. Perhaps you, too, can access its power."

He took another step.

"My love," she whispered, "please take it." She fell to her kneees. "Please, only that, please." The sun, warm and bright, illuminated the doorway; she felt so cold. "My love," she sobbed.

And then she felt the big hands grasp her arms, and they, too, were trembling. He pulled her gently to her feet. She raised her face to his and met his eyes.

His love for her shone in the gray eyes, a love untouched by the power of the amulet, a love deep and strong and good, as he was.

The Defender of the Faithful of Brennor reached out and took the amulet from her hand and turned and walked away.