Gabriel knelt to the Abbess, his head bent in respect, the impatience in his eyes hidden. He had ridden all night. As he blinked the melting snow out of his eyes, brushed it off as it trickled down his nose, a pool of water formed at his feet. He smelled of wet leather, wet wool. The room felt very hot.
The Abbess stifled a yawn behind her plump hand. "To what do we humble sisters owe the honor of a visit by the Defender of the Faithful of Brennor at such an early hour?"
Her eyes turned to the small window, the sight of the barely risen sun shining on the night's newly fallen snow bringing a smile to her face. "It must be a matter of great urgency to rouse us from our beds."
The Defender was on his feet immediately, tugging his sodden cloak from his shoulders. His face brightened as he nodded. "Yes, Mother Abbess, it is." He glanced at the inner door, his gaze lingering a moment, then looked back to her. "I must see someone. One of the lay sisters." His soft, deep voice was brittle with excitement. The big hands clenched as he again turned toward the shuttered grate on the inner door.
The Abbess raised her brows as she considered the tall man standing before her. So this was the Defender of the Faithful! Somehow she had not expected this, a shaggy-haired giant with, seemingly, a nervous condition, a dreamy look in his eyes, his breath coming hard and fast, sweat beading on his forehead.
With a sigh, she drew herself up to her full height, even with his chest. "I am certain, Gabriel of Morevale, that you know our convent is cloistered. The sisters here, both religious and lay, have chosen to withdraw from the world." She shook her head. "I am afraid that you have made your journey for nothing. I cannot permit it." Looking up at him, she calmly met his eyes. "Not even to the Defender of the Faithful."
For a moment, Gabriel of Morevale's face fell; his hands hung limp at his sides, his shoulders slumped. For a moment, the light went out of his gray eyes. Running his fingers through the short black hair, he took a deep breath. Then, straightening, he said firmly, "Mother Abbess, I must see her."
His eyes were as hard as stone, yet within them she saw such warmth, a great need. His voice lowered to a whisper, desperate. "I must see her."
With a sigh, the Abbess lowered her head and clasped her hands. She could not bear to look into those ill-defended eyes. "Who is it you wish to see, Gabriel of Morevale?"
"Her name is Mirin," he whispered in a voice nearly like a prayer.
The Abbess nodded, bit her lip. "Sister Mirin has been with us for several months." She hesitated, but only for a moment. The Defender's worn face had brightened with such fierce, naked joy at just the sound of that name, the Abbess could not bring herself to tell him no. "She has been of great help to us, ministering to our neediest, the desperately ill, the dying. It is she who performs the most distasteful tasks, the most unpleasant."
The Abbess' eyes misted with tears; she blinked them away. "We have all come to love her." She eyed the Defender almost defiantly. "There is a goodness that shines from her, a beauty that transcends the physical. We have all seen it."
Gabriel of Morevale had seen it, too. His open face, his honest eyes, betrayed the knowledge.
"She has been the final comfort to many, thank the gods. She has a gift, you know." The Abbess sniffled again and brushed at her eyes. "She -"
"Mother Abbess, you must come! I am sorry to disturb you, but the old man who was brought in yesterday..." The voice that spoke from the grating halted in mid-sentence. Eyes the color of violets met the gray ones that had turned to the door at the sound of that voice.
Staring in wonder, looking from one face to the other, the Abbess swallowed and caught her breath, unwilling to break the power of what she saw in their eyes, yet knowing she must.
She lay her hand on Gabriel of Morevale's arm; he did not seem to feel it, did not even seem to know she was there. The gray eyes did not waver. She dug in her fingers. "You will remain here." He did not move.
She walked swiftly to the grating, paused a moment and took a deep breath. She looked steadily into the violet eyes, but they seemed not to see her. They looked past her, through her, to him. "Sister Mirin," she said gently, but it was as if she hadn't spoken, as if there were only one voice Mirin could hear, his. "Sister Mirin," she repeated, raising her voice.
"Yes, Mother Abbess," Mirin replied automatically, never taking her eyes from Gabriel of Morevale.
The Abbess lowered her head and smiled. "Do you wish to speak with this man?"
The violet eyes, the soft voice, sparkled. Her face shone with joy. "Oh, yes, Mother Abbess, yes!"
Gabriel's whole body trembled; his heart pounded in his chest. He wanted to shout her name, to kick in the door, to gather her in his arms, to carry her off. It seemed to him impossible to look upon her and not touch her. He knew every curve, every pulse, every secret place. But it would be enough now to simply hold her in his arms. He held himself back, but it was the hardest thing he had ever had to do.
Mirin reached for the door handle, grasped it firmly. As she did, she dropped her gaze for a moment, and stopped, transfixed.
"Are you certain, dear Sister?" The Abbess' kind voice broke.
Mirin stood with her eyes downcast, unable to move, unable to raise her eyes. If she did, she would be lost; she could not look away again.
If she did, she would see him, tall and proud, filling the small anteroom, his face aglow. She dared not meet his eyes, those calm gray eyes shining on her with love. She would never look away again.
Slowly, she released the handle and closed her eyes. A single tear streaked down her cheek.
Gabriel's eyes never left her face. His heart was pounding so hard that the blood was rushing in his ears. She had only to open the door. It was such a little thing, to open the door; it took but a moment.
He could not wait another moment.
His voice was low and hoarse with need, with desire, with love, as he spoke but one word. "Beloved."
That one word, spoken so many times, whispered with his face buried in her hair, murmured as he held her in his strong arms, loving her, made Mirin gasp.
All doubt, all fear, fell away from her. Raising her eyes to his, she pulled the latch and pushed open the door. She stood poised in the doorway, one hand resting on her swollen belly, a serene smile on her lips.
Gabriel looked upon her with awe, unable to move, so powerful was his shock, his joy. Her beauty took his breath away. With her glorious hair veiled, her lovely curves robed, her elegant body rounded, she was, impossibly, more beautiful to him than before. Speechless, he nearly fell to his knees.
Then Mirin called his name, softly, breathlessly.
He rushed to her and tenderly enfolded her in his arms. Holding her against his chest, his cheek resting on her head, he tried to control his trembling, tried to calm the pounding of his heart. He could not.
Like a starving man, he raised her face to his and hungrily kissed her eyes, her lips, her neck. His shaking hands lowered the veil. The golden hair had not been shorn; it fell in soft waves down her back. He buried his face in it, breathing in the scent of her, and whispered, "Beloved."
Drawing in a deep breath, he knelt before her. His hands moved gently down her body until they came to rest, reverently, on her belly. His eyes widened in wonder: within her rested another flesh; within her beat another heart; within her lived another soul. His fingers gently traced the contours of the child within her. Their child. Laying his head upon her belly, Gabriel wept tears of joy.
He felt soft hands touch his hair; she raised his face. He looked into her violet eyes, and there was nothing else, no one. He would not, could not, ever look away.
She spoke his name again, her voice as regal as a queen's, as powerful as a goddess', as tender as a mother's, as intimate as a lover's. He smiled. She was all these things. She was his.
Kneeling before her, his eyes seeing only her beloved face, his hand caressing their child, Gabriel murmured a prayer of thanks.
Truly, he was favored of the gods.
Truly, he was blessed.
Truly, he was Chosen.