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CHAPTER 6

Gabriel folded his surcoat with great care, as best he could, and placed it on top of the other items in the chest at the foot of his bed: the golden spurs, a ceremonial cloak he never wore, Apollonia's barding and golden bridle.

The last rays of the setting sun glinted off the golden circlet lying on the bed. Gabriel scratched where it had rested on his brow as he snatched it up and laid it atop the surcoat. With a sigh, he slammed the lid of the chest shut.

His stomach growled again; it had for hours. Standing at his place at the side of the altar in the High Temple, he'd prayed that no one else heard. But the ceremony had proceeded: the solemn procession, the formal convocation, the hymns, the chants, the blessings, the litanies, the invocations, the final dismissal, and no one had taken notice.

Gabriel yawned. He should strip off his sweaty tunic, his even sweatier undergarments, should bathe, should shave. Evenmeal would be served in the refectory at six bells; he couldn't very well join the brothers like this. And join them he would; Brother Nirvin was an excellent cook. Gabriel's stomach groaned in anticipation.

He glanced to the window. The sun had not yet set; the bells would not ring for awhile. He winced at the stiffness in his back, ran his fingers through his hair, and looked from the bed to the wash basin. Back again. The bells would not ring for quite some time. He collapsed on the bed and stretched out flat on his back. Though his feet stuck out far beyond the end, though the mattress was filled with lumps, though the bed was so narrow he didn't dare turn for fear of falling out, it felt wonderful. He drew in a great breath, closed his eyes. The bells would not ring for a long time...

.

A bell tolled. Gabriel opened his eyes; he couldn't see a thing. How many times had the bells rung? He sat up, cringed. He pressed a hand hard against his back and struggled to his feet.

Awkwardly, unable yet to straighten up, he stripped off his tunic and undergarments. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness now; he lumbered to the wash basin, took a deep breath, and plunged his face into the icy water. He came up gasping for air, and, shuddering, shook the water from his hair like a dog.

Quickly, before he could change his mind, he splashed the water all over his body. He shivered and shook, but at last he felt awake. He rummaged in his pack for his underclothes and the only other tunic he owned, the clean one, and tugged them on.

A strong wind was coming up; there might be snow yet this night. He strode to the window and reached out to pull the shutters closed.

Avacar was ablaze with light. It seemed every torch and lantern in the city had been lit. The sounds of laughter, of song, the scent of ale and wine, blew in with the wind.

The cold was forgotten, the meal, too. Gabriel stood at the window and looked and listened; he could not tear himself away. He saw a group of knights, unmistakable in their surcoats, staggering down the street with their arms draped over the shoulders of some brightly-dressed, elaborately-coiffed ladies. Their voices boomed in song. Gabriel tried to catch the words; he couldn't make them out. One of the ladies punched her companion in the chest at the completion of the verse, but her red-lipped mouth was smiling, and the knight only pulled her closer and whispered something in her ear that caused her to guffaw.

Gabriel smiled. No doubt young Kelwyn was among the revelers this night; Gabriel was sure he was. He was quite certain that every knight who had no wife, no family to return to, and he suspected even some of those who did, would be celebrating in the streets of Avacar.

He was suddenly aware of the cold. He was suddenly aware of his empty stomach. He must find his hose. He must find his shoes. Although it was nearly as bright as day outside, his cell was dark; he'd have to light the candle. He'd have to close the shutters.

But he didn't move from the window. He thought he was probably too late for dinner. He thought he probably wasn't so hungry after all. His entrance into the refectory would only interrupt the brothers' meal. The gentle conversation would stop; their food would grow cold as one by one they would slide their chairs back and kneel to ask the blessing of the Defender of the Faithful. No, he wasn't nearly as hungry as he'd thought.

Perhaps he should have gone with Kelwyn. Perhaps he could have. Oh, for a mug of ale and a generous portion of tavern fare! He'd eat a thick slab of beef, and a great mound of potatoes, and a whole tartberry pie. And have another mug of ale, just for good measure.

Gabriel smiled as he saw again the young knight's face, filled with a mixture of genuine courtesy, honest kindness, and equally sincere trepidation. "Defender, is it, uh, permitted, I mean, would you, could you, that is, join me for the evenmeal?"

Gabriel had been moved by the gesture. For Kelwyn's eyes were artless; he wanted nothing more than to join in the celebrating, to drink, and laugh, and maybe share the company of a pretty girl.

No, it was better that he'd sent Kelwyn on his way with a smile, that he'd replied, "No, thank you, Kelwyn, I have much to do this night."

He closed the shutters. Yes, he had much to do. He must make certain that all he needed was packed. He must make his devotions. He and Apple would start out for Morevale before dawn.

He turned from the window. There was no need to light the candle; he knew his pack was ready. He knelt at the foot of the bed and clasped his hands.

The words of the eventime devotion came to him, flowed out of him, without conscious thought. He stopped, clasped his hands more tightly. Began again, this time reflecting on the phrases he was whispering, meaning them.