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CHAPTER 9

Gabriel sighed with weariness as he brought Apple to a halt. He'd been up well before dawn, had ridden hard and fast. Now, the day was almost gone. He squinted in the last rays of sunlight and smiled; far to the south he thought he could see the small tower of Morevale Keep.

Although it was but a country fief, the realm of Morevale stretched for leagues. As a boy, he had loved to accompany his father on the full rounds of his domain. Twice a year, in spring and fall, they'd cover every square foot of it: the lush meadows, the rolling hills, the old forest, the tiny village, the sparse brush land, the clear streams. They'd slept under the stars, hunted for meals, drunk from streams, told stories around a campfire. Gabriel smiled at the memory. It had been a marvelous adventure for a boy.

Now he scanned the length and breadth of Morevale as a man. The leaves of the birchroot and loren trees were just beginning to break through, though the rolling hills were still covered in places with a mantle of snow. Gabriel threw his head back and breathed deep of the clean, country air as the wind built in the trees, rushed toward him, ruffled Apple's mane. He thought there no fief in Brennor, of any size, to rival the beauty of Morevale.

He wanted to ride on. The darkness would not slow him; he could find the Keep from here if he were blind. He shook his head. No, he'd best not. He'd frighten everyone out of their wits; they'd think he was a thief in the night. Midge would haul everyone out of their beds; they'd grumble as she set them to work. Cook would insist on cooking. Gabriel thought of the trail food in his pack. Perhaps he would ride on. But, no, he'd best not.

Apollonia snorted and hung her head.

Gabriel reached out and stroked her neck. "I'll bet you'd like me to stand on my own two feet, wouldn't you, my lady?" She shook her head as if in reply.

Stiffly, Gabriel swung himself out of the saddle and rested his head on Apple's side. He supposed it had been foolish to wear both of them out. But it had been so long since he'd been home; it seemed the services of the Defender of the Faithful were seldom needed in the peaceful southlands of Brennor.

Apollonia turned her head and nickered.

Gabriel gave her a resigned look and forced himself to stand alone.

The sun was almost out of sight behind the hills, the sky glowing orange through the wispy clouds. Gabriel brushed the dust from his tunic, rubbed as much as he could out of his eyes, walked around the clearing to stretch his legs. He arched his back and winced and tried to shake off the stiffness of hours in the saddle.

He untied the pack and hoisted the saddle from Apple's back, speaking softly to her as he did. "Yes, my lady, it's good to be home, isn't it? I'll tell you what, when we get to the keep, after we've eaten, of course, we'll both just put our feet up, do nothing!"

He whistled a tune as he unfurled his bedroll on a patch of grass and laughed when he realized it was the bawdy song he'd heard his last night in Avacar. Thank the gods he hadn't learned the words; it would not do for the Defender of the Faithful of Brennor to sing such verses. But he did know hymns. He remembered the words of childhood tunes. With a smile, he drew in a great breath and started to sing.

Apollonia snorted and tossed her head. Gabriel was glad it was dark; he could not see the reproach in her eyes.

.

Hours later, Gabriel lay flat on his back with his hands clasped behind his head and stared up at the stars. He could pick out and identify every constellation; he'd learned them as a boy. After years of sleeping out in the open they were as familiar to him as the words of his devotions. But nowhere were the stars as bright as in Morevale.

He shifted on the hard ground and smiled. Tomorrow night he'd be in his bed at the keep, with the feather-filled mattress, the plump comforter, the down pillows. A warm fire would be blazing in the hearth, and the dogs would be dreaming at his feet, and the stars would be shining in the window. He'd have had a long, hot bath in the great copper tub, steam rising off the water, with soap! Sighing, he could almost feel it.

He reached out to make sure his sword was within easy reach, an ingrained ritual not needed here, and pulled his woolen blanket more tightly around him. In the stillness of the night, the only sound was Apple's soft snoring, the chirping of insects, the occasional cry of a night bird.

He breathed deeply once again of the scent of Morevale, closed his eyes, and said a silent prayer.

But as had often happened in the months since the Holy War, sleep did not come easy. Behind his closed lids, he again saw the eyes of the fallen Unbeliever, open, staring. Large, liquid brown eyes seeming alive in the dark face that would never again smile, never again draw into a hard line of righteousness.

Gabriel huddled deeper into the blanket and shut his eyes more tightly. He tried to conjure up the eyes, the faces, of others, his fallen comrades. Old Howell would never see his grandchildren; his eyes, too, were dead.

But still, the Unbeliever's eyes stared, locked eternally on his own. If only he had reached out one hand and, in reverence for the dead, shut the man's eyes. Perhaps then he would not see them.

He shifted to his side. He pulled the blanket up over his head. He rolled to his back. He yanked the blanket down. He turned to the other side. He opened his eyes.

They touched on a single, early loren leaf. Though he could not see it in the darkness, he could almost feel its brilliant color. Now his eyes were closing, and the green of the loren leaf had somehow become the eyes of a red-haired girl. He saw her face so clearly, the white skin, the pink lips, the lovely spring green eyes smiling at him with promise. Smiling only at him.

Gabriel grunted and threw off the blanket . He stalked to the nearby stream and knelt and splashed the freezing water on his face, on the back of his neck.

Punish the body. Discipline the mind. Steel the heart. Free the soul. He repeated the basic tenets of his training like a chant as he made his way back to his camp.

Shivering now, wide awake, feeling the gentle strike of snowflakes on his face, he yet smiled.

He was home.