The man lay prostrated on the cold stones before the altar.
Garbed in coarse, threadbare robes, his hands and feet nearly blue with the cold, his long black hair falling over his face, he lay with his arms outstretched, his forehead pressed to the stone.
The man could be found here every night. His presence was as regular, as dependable, as the seasons. It had been late spring when he had come. Through summer, then autumn, now nearly winter, he had not missed one night before the altar.
He was very tall, and his big bones stuck out from his thin frame. He was a man designed for leanness, yet now the angles were too sharp, the lines too long. Beneath the skin, though, his muscles were hard, tight. His face was gaunt, lined and weathered, his gray eyes hollow.
He was as silent and dark and cold as the chapel itself.
At this hour, the only sound in the chapel was the rattle of the stained glass windows straining to keep the wind out.
At this hour, the only light in the chapel was the lurching flame of the sanctuary lamp upon the altar.
At this hour, the only warmth in the chapel was the hot breath of the man lying on the stones.
During the day, when he could not be at his place before the altar, he labored.
He was very strong. He carried the heavy buckets from the well. He shouldered the massive beams for repairs to the walls; he hoisted the stone blocks. He pushed the plow through the hard-packed earth. He dug the graves.
Nothing repulsed him. He emptied the sickroom bowls. He changed the stinking bedding. He washed the sick when they soiled themselves and held the dying in his arms as they coughed out their last bloody breaths.
No task was too mean for him. He cleaned out the latrines, swept the stables, laundered the linen. He was an excellent dish washer, an exemplary floor scrubber.
He fasted. He did not join the monks at their meals; he ate his meager rations in his cell. Everyday, he choked down the bread, swallowed the wine with a great gulp. Try as he might, he could not deny his body that; it betrayed him, everyday.
He had not uttered one word since the day he had come.
He appeared to embrace suffering like a lover, yet his love went always unrequited. He seemed addicted to penance; he could never get enough. He wore his shame like a badge, or a brand, and his eyes pleaded always to be despised, to be reviled, to be punished. There was not a monk at Linborn Abbey who could bear to meet those eyes, save the abbot.
In the dim light, Abbot Bregar could see his breath as he exhaled. His bones ached, and his hands shook within the sleeves of his robe. He longed to return to his bed, to have Brother Samuel prepare him a mug of warm milk, to fall into a dream of summer on this bitter night.
He shivered and huddled deeper into his woolen cloak and slowly made his way up the long aisle. Past the massive columns, past the wooden pews, past the stained glass windows, his soft leather boots making not a sound on the stones, he limped toward the sanctuary.
At last his old eyes made out that which he sought: the man prostrated before the altar.
Wearily, painfully, Bregar ascended the steps. He did not genuflect before the altar; his knees were too stiff. Even the feeble attempt to bow caused his joints to shriek. He shut his eyes tightly against the pain and whispered a silent prayer, then looked upon the man before him and called his name.
The man made no reply, appeared not to have heard.
Again, Bregar called his name.
The man's outstretched hands clenched, yet still he lay upon the stone.
Bregar took a deep breath and forced his back to bend, his arm to extend, his trembling hand to touch a cold shoulder. "My son," he whispered. Beneath the hand, he could feel a shudder.
Slowly, reluctantly, it seemed to Bregar, the man pushed his long body from the stone and knelt, head bowed.
Bregar lifted the ravaged face to his. "I must speak with you, my son."
Bregar raised his eyes to the gods in thanksgiving as he rubbed his hands together before the fire, then turned to the man ducking through the doorway. The sight of the tall, thin man, his wrists and ankles conspicuous in his too-short robe, never failed to make him smile.
Now that he was back in his study with the fire in the hearth and a mug of warm milk, Bregar could allow himself the luxury of a smile. "My son, either be seated or come warm yourself," he said. "And close the door behind you. The gods have sent us a fearsome chill this night."
The man, his head still bowed, silently turned and pulled the heavy door shut, then crossed the room and awkwardly lowered himself into the chair facing the desk.
Bregar seated himself and sipped his milk. Over the rim of his mug, he considered the man before him, who sat with his shoulders bowed, his big hands clasped tightly together, his bare feet planted stiffly on the floor, his eyes downcast.
In spite of the gauntness and the lines etched more deeply in the weathered face, in spite of the long hair, in spite of the bent back, Bregar saw still the man who had come to Linborn Abbey in the spring.
Bregar had felt ever so much younger then.
Everyone at the monastery had been busy that day with the yearly rituals of spring planting and spring cleaning. He himself had been out in the fields, his robes hiked up, the warm earth squishing through his toes as he trudged through the rows overseeing the sowing. He whistled a favorite hymn as he basked in the warmth of the sun and blinked at the blue of the sky.
Then Brother Jarl had come bounding across the fields, dirt flying, unmindful of the seeds he was plowing up, and skidded to a halt.
Bregar shaded his eyes with his hand and squinted into the young monk's flushed face. "You have permission to speak, my son."
"I assume you have something most urgent to tell me," said Bregar, glancing meaningfully at the ruined rows.
The monk licked his lips and swallowed hard. "Forgive me, Father Abbot, but there is a man at the gate who seeks to enter the monastery!" Unaccustomed as he was to speaking, his voice came out as a croak.
Bregar raised his brows. "Brother, as you know, many men seek to enter our monastery. By all means, open the gates and admit him."
The monk cleared his throat noisily. "But, Father Abbot, the man is armed! Brother Talbot explained to him that no weapons are to be brought onto the monastery grounds, but the man refuses to surrender them!" He sucked in another breath. "He rides a huge warhorse and has a great, long sword." Jarl lowered his eyes. "We were afraid to open the gates."
Bregar nodded and wiped off the sweat that had suddenly broken out on his forehead. "You were correct, Brother, to inform me." Gods, he thought, let it not be happening again, not so soon. Only weeks ago he had ordered that the gates be kept locked at all times; the theft of the sacred treasures and the vandalism of the chapel had necessitated it.
Jarl was looking at him expectantly.
Bregar forced himself to smile. "Let us go, Brother, to meet this man who dares to challenge the rule of Linborn Abbey."
The monk nodded anxiously and bowed low.
Bregar, with Jarl at his heels, strode swiftly and purposefully to the gates. He held his head high, his long gray hair swirling about his shoulders, his black abbot's robes flowing out behind him. The shield of his office, the holy symbol of the gods, gleamed at his breast. He willed steel into his normally merry blue eyes and went to confront the man.
As he approached the massive gates, he saw that Brother Jarl had been accurate in his description. Astride a great black charger, sitting stiffly erect, was a man in a hooded cloak, who was, if the size of the animal could be used as a measure, of extraordinary height. The sun glinted off the hilt of a sword.
Bregar grasped his holy symbol tightly and marched past the cringing Talbot. He peered up at the man through the thick iron bars. "My son, I am told you seek admittance to this monastery."
At this, the man turned and, apparently recognizing the robes of an abbot, swung from the saddle with an agility that belied his great height and dropped to his knees. Head bowed, he replied in a soft, deep voice, "I seek to enter Linborn Abbey to do penance."
Bregar's mouth nearly dropped open, but he gazed steadily at the man. "My son, do you understand that all who enter our monastery must put aside their weapons?"
The man nodded slowly, the movement barely perceptible within the hood.
"Then you must surrender your sword to me now."
The head fell, the back bent lower, and a huge hand drew the sword slowly, reverently, from its scabbard. Over four feet of shining steel, its blade caught the light of the sun.
Bregar heard Jarl gasp, Talbot, too, and he himself clenched his fists to suppress a shudder at the sight of the weapon.
The man's hand was shaking as he laid the sword before him upon the ground. He stood and stepped back.
The gates were opened.
With a small gesture, Bregar sent Jarl to retrieve the sword.
The monk hurried through the gates, his eyes never leaving the figure of the tall man. As he reached down to pick up the sword, he brushed the blade with his hand and cried out when the edge bit into his palm. The sword fell to the dirt.
For a moment, the four men simply stared at the bright blade lying in the dust. Then the man leaned down and grasped the hilt.
Bregar held his breath, tensed, and clutched his holy symbol more tightly, but the man only used his cloak to wipe the dust off the blade. Cradling it in his hands, he presented the hilt to the monk.
Jarl took a halting step forward to retrieve it.
Bregar held up his hand. "Brother, perhaps we should let our penitent carry his sword himself." He looked up to the man with a relieved smile. Deep within the hood, gray eyes, sunken, filled with pain, met his. "My son," Bregar said gently, "let us place your weapon in my study and discuss the matter of your penance there."
The man nodded slowly as he sheathed the sword, then turned to speak softly in his horse's ear, to ruffle its mane.
Bregar strode through the gates.
The man, the horse at his side, followed him.
The weapon had been placed under lock and key and through it all the man had said not a word. Huddled in his cloak, big hands twisted together in his lap, he had not raised his eyes again. There was a sense of such weariness about him, such despair, that it seemed he bore too great a weight on his shoulders, that it threatened to crush him.
"Be seated, my son," said Bregar as he lowered himself gratefully into his own chair. "As Abbot of this monastery, I bid you welcome." He received no reply, not even a nod of acknowledgement from the bowed head. "Will you tell me your name, my son?"
The man opened wide his hands and placed them on his knees. His back heaved with a great sigh as he reached up to slowly lower the hood of his cloak.
Bregar blinked and his eyes widened. The man's thick black hair was shorn to within an inch of his scalp. Chosen!
"I am Gabriel of Morevale," said the man in a tired voice.
Bregar glanced to the cabinet where the sword had been placed. If the man spoke truly, the blessed sword of Brennor lay within!
He pushed himself to his feet. "You are Defender of the Faithful of Brennor?" Bregar's voice shook as badly as his hands and knees.
Without lifting his head, the man nodded and drew back the left side of his cloak, then his tunic, to expose the mark of the Chosen, branded on his breast, over his heart.
Bregar felt his jaw drop, heard himself gasp, as he grasped the edge of the desk to steady himself. In all his years, he had never come face-to-face with one of the Chosen. Yet, truly, the man before him was Gabriel of Morevale, Defender of the Faithful! He stared open-mouthed at the cropped hair, the brand. Chosen! He felt an urge to fall to his knees before he whom the gods favored, to prostrate himself before he whom the gods blessed. Trembling with joy, he made the sign of the gods.
Then Gabriel of Morevale raised his eyes; there was no joy in them.
Bregar flinched. He wanted to turn from the gray eyes, from the pain that lurked in them. Suddenly, the Defender of the Faithful of Brennor was no more; a man, beaten and broken, was in his stead.
"I must do penance," said Gabriel of Morevale.
Bregar stepped clear of the desk, strong now in his purpose, clear in his duty. By the grace of the gods he was Abbot of Linborn Abbey. By the grace of the gods he would soothe this tortured soul. "The gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it." The solemn words in the holy tongue came unbidden to his lips. "Do you wish to confess, my son?" he asked gently.
The gray eyes lowered. The long body stiffened in the chair.
"Confession is not a requirement to undertake formal penance at this monastery."
At this, a deep sigh.
"But it is your right."
Still, Gabriel of Morevale remained silent.
Bregar moved to stand before him. "Although it is not required, I have often found that unburdening ourselves of our sins in confession frees us to perform the tasks the gods require of us. The sacrifice of formal penance is not always needed." He hesitantly placed his hand on the bowed head. "Are you certain that you do not wish to avail yourself of this privilege?"
He felt a shudder beneath his hand, but Gabriel of Morevale made no reply.
"Then I must make it clear to you, my son, what is required if you choose to undertake your penance here at Linborn Abbey." He lifted his hand and let it fall heavily to his side. "When you leave this room, you will leave the life you had behind. You will be bound by the vows of silence and obedience. You will perform servile duties. You will spend hours on your knees in prayer. You will possess nothing. You will deny everything you have been."
As he looked upon the Defender of the Faithful, unmoving, it seemed uncaring, Bregar felt a surge of anger. This man was Chosen! Surely the gods did not wish their beloved to so humble themselves. And how could he, abbot of the most remote, the poorest of the gods' houses, presume to give comfort to their Chosen? He clenched his hands to still them; they longed to commit the ultimate blasphemy, to strike the Chosen of the gods.
He took a deep breath. When he could speak again, his voice still wavered. "You will rank lower than our most humble monk."
Gabriel of Morevale simply nodded.
Bregar could not help himself.
"But you are Chosen!"
The Defender of the Faithful of Brennor raised his head at last. So great was the anguish that showed in his face, every line deep with agony, the mouth set as though to stifle a scream, the eyes brilliant with pain, that Bregar felt the urge to take this tortured soul to him as he would a child, to envelop him in an embrace, to soothe the sadness. But this was not a child. This was a man. Chosen.
Chosen, yes. But still a man.
Bregar sighed. “Gabriel of Morevale, is it your intention to undertake formal penance at Linborn Abbey?"
"Yes," was the barely audible reply.
"Is it your intention to keep the vows required of a monk?"
Again, a whispered, "Yes."
"Is it your intention to obey without question the edicts of this monastery?"
Bregar straightened his back. "Is it your intention to forego all knowledge of or contact with the world outside the walls of Linborn Abbey?"
Fervently, with a voice like a choked sob, Gabriel of Morevale had replied, "Yes."
Bregar shook his head as he remembered that day. Gabriel had indeed undertaken a harsh penance. No monk within the walls of Linborn Abbey embraced the rule of austerity with greater fervor. No monk practiced the rite of atonement with greater dedication. And in all this time, Gabriel had not spoken.
"My son, I have received a proclamation from the High Patriarch of Brennor." He clasped his hands together to still their shaking. "I have chosen to speak with you this night because I can at last give voice to that which I have felt to be right since the first time I saw you."
At those words, Gabriel lifted his head. His eyes were bleak, resigned.
With a little cough Bregar continued, forcing his old body to assume a more commanding posture in his chair. "You do not belong here, my son."
The pain in Gabriel's eyes was so terrible that Bregar's heart ached. Still, he went on. "For many months I have watched you try to destroy that which you were. You try to forget. You try to find forgiveness." He grasped the holy symbol at his breast. "But you cannot, can you, my son?"
Gabriel never took his eyes off the abbot. That wrinkled old face, those blue eyes filled with wisdom and compassion had been the only solace he'd had these past months. A brief, gentle smile, a solemn blessing, a gnarled hand laid on his weary shoulders, had eased his suffering from time to time. How he longed to lay his burden at the abbot's feet! To confess. To be forgiven. But he could not. The gods help him, he could not.
In all these months, he had not broken the vow of silence. If he had been permitted to speak, he did not know if he would have had the strength to bear his pain alone. He would confess. He would be forgiven. But, by the gods, he did not deserve forgiveness! He had broken his solemn vow. He was Chosen!
Bregar waited patiently for an answer. He saw a hardness settling in the gray eyes as Gabriel's big hands clenched the arms of the chair, as his back stiffened. He saw again the mighty man astride his warhorse that spring day.
When at last Gabriel spoke, his voice was clear and strong. "No, Father Abbot, I cannot find forgiveness."
Bregar stood stiffly and limped to the ornate cabinet into which Gabriel had placed the blessed sword of Brennor so many months ago; it had not been opened since. He removed a silver key from his robes and, without hesitation, unlocked it. He opened wide the doors.
Gabriel felt like he had been struck a blow. He prayed the abbot could not see his face flush, the shock and pain in his eyes.
He pried his fingers loose from the chair and stood woodenly. He had to force himself to turn, to put one foot in front of the other, to reach into the cabinet. He had to force himself not to fall to his knees and grab the abbot's robes and plead for forgiveness, for the catharsis of confession.
The abbot gestured at the carefully wrapped bundle within the cabinet.
"Take now this sword, Gabriel. Go to your cell. Shear your hair. Cleanse yourself in the ritual of purification. Gird yourself in your armor. Arm yourself with the blessed sword of Brennor."
Gabriel felt a gentle hand laid upon his arm.
"You will then return here to hear the words of the High Patriarch as you should: as Defender of the Faithful of Brennor, Chosen."
For just a moment, Gabriel's heart leaped. The abbot's words had touched a part of him that he thought buried. They stirred in him a fierce need to serve the gods, the people, as he had been trained to do. With trembling hands, he reached out to take the tool of his profession.
Abruptly, his arms dropped to his sides, his shoulders sagged, his chin fell to his chest.
"I cannot, Father Abbot, I cannot." His voice was but a sob.
Bregar took Gabriel's strong hands in his own feeble ones and grasped them tightly. "These are the hands of the Defender of the Faithful, Gabriel, not a monk! They were made to wield a sword! They were made to heal!" His eyes hardened. "You are Chosen!"
Gabriel shuddered and shook his head. "You do not understand, Abbot! I am anathema to the gods!" His voice trailed off as he sank to his knees. "I have broken my solemn vow."
At last. Looking upon Gabriel, at the once proud shoulders, now bowed, Bregar’s eyes filled with tears, yet he silently thanked the gods for their wisdom. Perhaps now this man would find peace. But before he could accept the words of the High Patriarch, he must find forgiveness within himself. He lay his hand on Gabriel's head. "My son, you will tell me now of this sin. You will confess to the gods through me."
Gabriel shook his head, his eyes wild, his face contorted with agony. "I cannot, Father Abbot, I cannot expect the gods to forgive me!"
"Do you dare to presume to know the will of the gods," Bregar thundered. "Only the High Patriarch may speak for the gods!" He touched the holy symbol at his breast. "You are Chosen! Favored of the gods, blessed." His old eyes burned with conviction as well as tears. "Know this, Gabriel of Morevale, the gods have already forgiven you! Remember the holy words, 'the gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it.'" His voice grew gentle. "All that remains is for you to forgive yourself."
Wearily, Bregar shuffled to his chair. "Now, my son, you will come and kneel at my side and you will confess. You will receive the absolution of the gods and you will know, truly, that you are forgiven." Bregar raised his eyes in thanksgiving as Gabriel stood stiffly and strode to his side; the gray eyes held the faintest spark of hope.
The Defender of the Faithful of Brennor fell to his knees, drew a deep breath, and made the sign of the gods.