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CHAPTER 37

He smiled in his sleep. A goddess stood before him, her long golden hair framing her perfect face, her slender white hands reaching out to him. She was garbed in a gown of gossamer that caressed every voluptuous curve.

She, too, smiled; the lush red lips held all promise, all wisdom, all joy. And her eyes! Against the porcelain whiteness of her skin, framed by impossibly long black lashes, they gazed upon him, and they were the color of wild violets, the wellsprings of peace, the fulfillment of every desire.

In the dream, the goddess spoke, and her voice was soft and low and breathless. "Gabriel."

Gabriel. That was his name. She was calling to him. He must answer. But he couldn't speak; he was mute with awe. Again, she spoke. His name. He reached out a shaking hand.

And awakened.

Before him stood the goddess, but she was not a dream. She was real. He could reach out and touch her.

But dare he? He stared at his hand, big and rough and dark, poised in mid-air. To touch that white, white flesh with it would be sacrilege; to not touch it would be impossible.

His eyes followed the movement of his trembling hand toward the goddess. Powerless to stop it, unwilling to, he held his breath as one finger extended. Though calloused and crooked, it was gentle as it touched her.

So warm was the flesh of the goddess, so soft, so smooth! His breath rushed out in a great sigh. He watched his fingertip trace the back of her hand and he knew he should snatch it away, but he could not.

"Gabriel," called the goddess again. His hand froze. Yes, that was his name. The big, coarse hand belonged to him, Gabriel. The crooked finger belonged to him, Gabriel. A dull ache began to throb in his head. He was a soldier. Yes. He had scars. A sword was propped up in a corner. The scars, the sword, belonged to him, Gabriel.

The finger began again to stroke the softness. A soldier was he, accustomed to the feel of leather, of steel, accustomed to the smell of sweat, of horse, accustomed to the taste of dirt, of blood, accustomed to the harsh voices of men, to screams.

He winced as the pain in his head sharpened. He, Gabriel, was a soldier. His world was filled with hard lines, angles. But here, in the flesh of the goddess, was a world of curves, of warmth, of the scent of flowers, of the taste of sweetness, of a breathless voice whispering his name.

"Gabriel," spoke the goddess yet again. Yes, that was his name. He was a soldier. The pain in his head intensified, spread. There was something he must remember, something he must do. He cried aloud as a knife of agony rent his thoughts.

And suddenly the goddess was kneeling beside him and her voice covered him like a rich, soft cloak. He raised his eyes to her face and he could not look away. He could not speak. There was nothing in the world but those beautiful eyes. No past, no future, only this. He could dwell here, in this moment, forever.

"I am Mirin," she whispered.

"Mirin," he repeated, his voice low and hoarse, and it sounded strange to his ears. His name was Gabriel. He was a soldier. He had a voice.

Her violet eyes shimmered as she looked upon him. A soft, soft hand was laid upon his forehead. Her touch was as light as the caress of a butterfly's wing. He shuddered.

"Lie still now, Gabriel." She rose to her feet and began to walk away.

"Mirin," he croaked. His arm flailed out to her.

"I am only going to get you some water." She turned back to him for a moment and smiled.

The smile, radiant, only for him, calmed his pounding heart, enabled him to draw breath, allowed his arm, so heavy, to fall.

His eyes followed her, never left her. The room around her, the mud walls, the crude hearth, the broken table, were like unnoticed details in the background of a painting.

And yet his mind registered these things. The dull ache crept into his brain again. What was this place? Where was he? The pain intensified. What was he doing here? The pain was excruciating. What had he been doing a moment ago? He was holding his head, howling in agony, but he did not know it.

He felt a touch; the pain ceased. Mirin knelt beside him once more. Her hand stroked the tears from his cheeks, her beautiful face soft with pity.

There was no need. The pain was gone. Her touch, her presence, had banished it.

"You must rest now, Gabriel."

He tried to reach for her hand, to kiss it, to cradle it, to never let it go. He tried to speak.

She lay her fingers on his lips. "Shhh, Gabriel, sleep now."

He did not want to sleep; he wished never to close his eyes again. But he was so very weary. His eyes were closing and he could not stop them. He felt her lay her head upon his chest, felt the gentle fluttering of her pulse even as he felt his own heart pounding mercilessly in his chest.

"Sleep," murmured the breathless voice of the goddess.

He slept. And dreamed. And smiled.