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CHAPTER 49

The Defender was silent.

No longer required to bend low to hear the hoarse, whispered words of confession, Abbot Bregar straightened in his chair, wincing at the pain.

But Gabriel of Morevale did not straighten. He remained on his knees, as he had all night, his back bent, his head bowed, his big hands clasped together before him.

Bregar arched his back and pried his stiff hands from the arms of the chair. His bleary eyes were drawn to the sunlight filtering through the high window above his desk. Though the fire in the hearth burned low, he was not cold.

Indeed, in spite of his infirmities, the curse of his age, the product of his posture, he smiled. Truly, the gods were wise. Now, at last, Gabriel of Morevale was ready to hear the words of the High Patriarch. But first he must hear the words of absolution.

"The gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it," Bregar pronounced in the holy tongue as he raised his hand in the ritual gesture. "In their name, I absolve you of your sins and commend you to their grace." With a sigh, he leaned forward again and placed his hand on the bowed head. "Rise, my son," he said gently.

But Gabriel did not rise. He did not speak. He did not move.

Bregar shifted in his chair and lifted his hand. "Gabriel, my son, look at me."

The face that turned up to his was ravaged, eyes sunken with tears and pain.

Bregar gripped the arms of his chair and drew himself up. "You have been granted absolution, my son." He stared into the gray eyes. "Now rise, Defender of the Faithful, and know you walk in the grace of the gods."

Gabriel's head dropped to his chest. His shoulders heaved with a great sob.

Bregar repeated in a voice that rang with authority, "Rise, Defender of the Faithful!"

Gabriel remained kneeling, silent, motionless except for the gasping sobs.

"You have confessed your sins!" Bregar's voice rose. "You have served your penance!" He grasped the holy symbol at his breast to still the shaking of his hand. "You have been forgiven, my son." Weary now, he grasped the desk to steady himself. Gods, he prayed silently, show me how I can give this man peace.

Looking upon the broken man before him, his heart swelled with pity. "My son," he said gently, "you must now forgive yourself."

Gabriel slowly shook his head. His voice was barely a whisper. "I cannot forgive myself, Father Abbot." He raised his eyes, and Bregar drew back from the fierceness of his pain. "For I sin still."

"How do you sin, my son?" He forced himself to confront the gray eyes.

Gabriel's fists clenched and his eyes hardened. He struggled to his feet and looked down from his great height. "How do I sin?" His voice shook; his hands trembled. "I will tell you, good Abbot! Every night I burn for her! Every day, I ache for her! Her face, her body, the sound of her voice, the smell of her hair, the touch of her flesh, are always with me! When I work, when I pray, when I sleep, when I wake, every moment!"

Bregar's expression did not change. He only nodded, his eyes fixed on Gabriel's face.

"I have tried to rid myself of her! I wear the hair shirt, I fast, I pray! I have spent every night prostrated before the altar, every day on my knees or hard at labor." He gulped in a great draft of air. "I have punished my body! I have disciplined my mind!" Shaking his head wildly, he cried, "But I cannot steel my heart! I cannot!" He shuddered; his gray eyes softened. "Father Abbot, I love her still."

Gabriel's head fell to his chest, the fury spent. Wearily, he whispered, "Even now, even after confessing, even after reliving my betrayal of everything that ever meant anything to me," his chest heaved, "I love her still."

Bregar had not moved, not spoken. But as he looked upon the Defender, a gentle smile crept onto his face. "My son, do you think that you are anything but a man? Do you think that you are immune to desire? Do you think that you alone of all men do not need love?" Bregar sighed and placed his hand on his breast. "Gabriel, we are all but men."

Gabriel's voice shook and the pain flared in the gray eyes. "But I am not just a man!" He stopped, his voice lowering to a sad whisper. "I am Chosen."

Bregar nodded and pointed a gnarled finger. "Indeed, my son, and so you are still! Do you not question how it is that you even now have the power to heal, to wield the blessed sword?"

His voice shook with conviction. "Do you not question why the gods permit you to do these things? You are their Chosen, Gabriel! And they have need of you." Sighing, he lowered his weary bones into his chair. "As does the Holy Church, as do the folk of Brennor," his eyes were soft with compassion, "as do those who love you."

Gabriel staggered back as if he had been struck a blow. The gray eyes widened. "But what can I do, Father Abbot?" Clutching his hands to his head, shaking, he repeated in a lost voice, "What can I do? I am Chosen."

"You must make a choice, my son." Bregar laid his hand gently on Gabriel's arm.

His hand was shrugged off; the gray eyes flamed with something like rage.

"I am Chosen!" The long body seemed to shrink, and the gray eyes grew dull. "I have no choice."

Bregar limped to his desk and lifted the parchment which had been bound and sealed with the signet of the High Patriarch. "My son," he said softly, "although you have served the gods faithfully and well, it has been at the cost of great suffering: yours, and of those who love you."

The gray eyes shimmered.

"You have at last found the key to that suffering. You are Chosen. You have no choice."

Gabriel stood stiffly, his hands clenched. His face was hard, his mouth set.

Bregar sighed as he gestured with the parchment. "Do you really believe the gods would be, could be, so cruel to their Chosen? Do you really think they would wish to see their beloved suffer? Would you?" The gray eyes blanched. "Do you think they would deny their beloved the simple gift, the burden, of choice given to every other man?"

Bregar unfurled the parchment. His face lit with joy as he scanned again the words it contained. "My son, I hold in my hand a Patriarchal Decree, issued only days ago at the High Temple in Avacar."

Gabriel's chest heaved as he drew in a deep breath.

Bregar cleared his throat, made the sign of the gods, and began reading aloud in the holy tongue. "By the grace of the gods, I, Kroelich, High Patriarch of Brennor, Chief Defender of the Holy Church, Supreme Ruler of Brennor, do issue the following proclamation."

He glanced to Gabriel; the gray eyes were fixed, unwavering, on the parchment.

"Let it be known this day, throughout all of Brennor and beyond, that all vows imposed upon the beloved of the gods, known as Chosen, are hereby rescinded, unbound, abrogated, in the eyes of the gods and men." Bregar again sought Gabriel's face; it was tight with concentration. "Henceforth, the beloved of the gods, known as Chosen, shall be free to choose, as are all men under the gods."

.

Gabriel did not move, made no sound. He did not because he could not. Afraid to move, afraid to speak, afraid to breathe, he stood trembling, his chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm, the tears spilling silently down his face. He dare not wipe them away. Any movement might awaken him from this most perfect dream.

Yet the Abbot of Linborn Abbey was but a few steps away and his old blue eyes shimmered with tears and his wrinkled old face was creased in a quiet smile. There was a half-finished cup of milk on the worn desk. Sun streamed through the high window. The hearth burned low. Somewhere a cat meowed, and the sound of the brother monks chanting the second office came clearly through the door. Every detail of the study appeared in sharp focus, even through his tears.

With a great sigh, Gabriel turned his face upward, to the sun, to the gods, and his body shuddered. This was no dream.

He whispered, "I have a choice."

Like a man who has been relieved of a terrible burden, like a prisoner who has been freed, like a dying man who has been given the gift of life, he threw back his head and laughed.

.

The sound was rich and joyous, filling the small room, warming it. It took Bregar's breath away. He had never heard Gabriel of Morevale laugh; he had never heard any man laugh with such pure joy. The Defender's face was transformed. The sad gray eyes now sparkled, the weathered face glowed, the drawn mouth broke into a great smile. For a moment, Bregar could not find his voice. There were no words that could be said.

But he caught his breath and straightened. There were words that would be, should be said, and he, Abbot of Linborn Abbey, must say them. "Indeed, my son, you have a choice." Gabriel looked to him, and although the laughter had ceased, the eyes still shone. Bregar prayed his next words would not dim them. "Consider well, my son, what choice you make. Never forget that whatever vows you may take, be they those of poverty, chastity, and obedience, or those of joining, one flesh, one heart, one soul, they must be freely embraced, freely implemented, fully lived. They must last a lifetime."

Bregar stepped forward and lay a hand on Gabriel's arm. "We are all called by the gods, my son. We serve them as we choose." He peered steadily at the Defender, holding his gaze with his own. "Some of us are called to a life of contemplation," he gestured to the holy symbol at his breast, "and some of us are called to follow a more difficult path, to be in the world, of the world."

"Never before, my son, had you need to choose which path you would take. That which was chosen for you was simple, you had only to obey." Bregar sighed and made a sweeping gesture. "As it is for us, here in our fortress. Within these walls, behind the locked gates, we are shielded from both the pleasures and the pain of the world. It is easy, so easy, to be good."

Taking a deep breath, he fixed Gabriel with a stern gaze. "It is when we must become a part of the world that the courage of our faith is tested. It is harder to live in it, to truly be a part of it, to be needed, to be loved."

Bregar's voice rang out clear and strong. "You, Gabriel of Morevale, beloved of the gods, are Chosen. You are Defender of the Faithful of Brennor. Your hand alone may wield the blessed sword; your hand alone holds the power to heal."

Gabriel nodded, his gray eyes serene.

"You have the courage, the strength, the faith, to walk whatever path you choose." Bregar sought his chair and slumped into it, spent, drained, at peace.

The Defender bowed his head. "As the gods will," he said in his soft, deep voice. He strode to the cabinet, lifted the heavy bundle, and turned to meet Bregar's eyes. "It shall be done."

.

In his cell, Gabriel set the bundle on the iron cot, and slowly, with great care, unwrapped it. The sun shone through the small window, illuminating the items lying before him. As he looked upon them, his heart swelled; his whole life lay there before him.

He set aside his clothing and pack, then paused a moment before picking up his hauberk. It shone with a deep glow in the soft light, the delicacy of its craftsmanship belying its strength. Running his rough hand over the links, so fine even Brother Mellon's needle could not have been inserted between them, he smiled. His father's face had beamed with pride when he had presented it to him; the blue eyes had sparkled with tears. With a sigh, Gabriel set the hauberk aside.

Now he dared to look upon the sword which lay alone upon the wrapping, his eyes taking in its length and breadth, its deep sheen, its deceiving plainness. Except for the blessings inscribed on the long blade, it appeared unremarkable. But this was no ordinary sword. Haltingly, Gabriel reached toward it, feeling himself drawn to it, knowing that he was meant to wield it. Firmly, he grasped the hilt.

He felt a power surge through him, become a part of him, and his eyes filled with tears of joy. Holding aloft the blessed sword, his whole body was filled with the spirit of the gods.

Words thundered in his mind, "Take ye now this sword, Gabriel of Morevale, and go forth as Defender of the Faithful of Brennor." An image came to him of a raw-boned boy garbed in pure white robes kneeling before the altar, grasping the mighty sword with reverence, nearly reeling. He heard his voice uttering the response in the holy tongue. "Let thy blessed sword smite thine enemies."

He had wielded this sword for the glory of the gods and the Holy Church; its blade had been bathed in the blood of their enemies. He had wielded this sword for the peace of the folk of Brennor; its blade had flashed with justice. If need be, it would again.

Reluctantly, he laid the sword upon the wrapping. He stared at his hand, turned it over, raised the other. So unsuitable were these hands, so worn, so awkward. And yet they held the power of the gods, the power to heal. He clasped them together before him, whispering, "As the gods will." He lowered his head. "It shall be done."

He removed his gray monk's robes, stripped off the hair shirt, stood naked in the cold. This body, scarred and ungainly, had served well as a weapon of the gods. Honed and ready to be wielded, it would again, when needed.

He broke the ice in his water bowl and bathed, the ritual of purification coming unbidden to his lips. With his shaving dagger, he hacked off the long black hair and beard. He dressed quickly, slipped the hauberk into his pack, and buckled on the sword belt. Slowly, reverently, he slid the blessed sword into the scabbard.

His eyes swept over the monk's cell. How small it seemed, how cold. And yet a man could find peace here at Linborn Abbey, a simple life of work, of prayer, fulfillment in devotion to the gods. Not in bondage; this was not a prison. Indeed it was a fortress, but its walls, its gates, held freedom. A man could choose this life.

With a deep sigh, Gabriel straightened his shoulders and ran his fingers through his hair. Grasping the hilt of his sword, he strode to the door; he didn't look back. Yes, a man could choose this life. Smiling, he ducked through the doorway. Not this man.