Read Challenge Online

Authors: Montgomery Mahaffey

Tags: #romance, #erotica, #passion, #dark fantasy, #fairy tale, #fable

Challenge (10 page)


Stop it,” she said,
pulling away. “You’ve gone too far this time.”

“You don’t want to do me harm,” he murmured
into her ear. “Do you really think I’m going to make trouble for
you?”

“Trouble was never something I was concerned
about, Wanderer. At least, not for me.”

She managed to wriggle from him and jump off
her horse. The Wanderer dropped to the ground after the girl, and
reached for her again. But Ella Bandita evaded his grasp.

“You already got what you wanted,” she
whispered. “Now it’s my turn.”

She pulled the pendant she always wore from
her blouse and held it out, the crystal facets sparkling in the
moonlight. Then the Wanderer was surrounded by a whirlwind of
colors. His heart pounded hard inside his chest and his pulse rang
in his ears. He remembered that first morning when the girl
collapsed his tent in the clearing, then that day at the hot
springs pool.

“Of course,” he thought. “That’s her crystal
stargaze. How could I not have known?”

The lights swirled faster around him and the
Wanderer was spinning, lifted from the ground by the cyclone of
color. He sighed against his will, the air drawn out of him by an
unseen grasp. His heart beat once in his throat and then there was
nothing. He was released and fell to his knees, struggling for
breath until he had enough. But something was missing. Pain
throbbed inside his chest, its echo resonating in the space that
was now hollow. His hand was shaking when he touched for his pulse
and found it was gone. When he looked up, he saw his heart beating
in the hand of Ella Bandita.

Her eyes glittered and her teeth gleamed.
Her nostrils flared when she inhaled his scent. She moaned softly
and brought the hand to her mouth.


Follow your
heart…”

The memory of his grandfather’s counsel tore
through the Wanderer. He howled and grasped his throat, frantic to
find his pulse. When he looked at the girl again, there was terror
in her eyes. He lunged for her, but Ella Bandita stepped aside. He
catapulted to the ground and crouched on his haunches, ready to
spring. Ella Bandita reached with her other hand for the small
pouch on her holster. Before he could attack again, she blew
between her thumb and forefinger.

“Wolf!”

It couldn’t have been more than a pinch of
dust, but a cloud glistened around the Wanderer before his body
collapsed. The transformation was immediate. Before he knew it, he
stood lower to the ground and was much warmer, suddenly impervious
to the cold. Ella Bandita’s scent was stronger, and he turned
towards her. He could see her easily, his vision unaffected by the
dark. He also saw his heart beating in her hand and growled. He
could feel his pulse vibrating outside of him, and the hairs rose
on the back of his neck.

Ella Bandita cursed when he lunged for her
again. Then he stumbled. When his face hit the ground, pain shot
through his skull. He extended his arms to push himself up and saw
his hands were paws covered in black fur. Then he realized he was
on four legs instead of two, the black coat of fur stretching along
his torso, the thick tail dropping between his back legs. His ears
twitched from the sound of whimpering, and he knew he was the
animal making that plaintive cry. How could this be? He was a man,
not a wolf.

Just before a loud crack made him drop to
the ground, he heard her chuckling. Ella Bandita had her pistol
pointed to the sky and cocked the hammer again. Then she brought
the gun down and aimed right for him. He got up and fled into the
trees before she pulled the trigger. He couldn’t remember the last
time he’d been this confused or frightened. He tripped often as he
ran, stopping once he realized she wasn’t coming after him.

“Follow your heart…”

He remembered his grandfather and his hollow
space throbbed. He had to return. That woman had his heart and he
had to get it back. He stayed in the trees close to her camp and
wailed to the sky. He could hear his heart beating inside her tent.
He could sense her agitation, her tossing and turning while he
howled for the rest of the night.

The next morning, Ella Bandita seemed weary.
There was heaviness in her limbs he’d never seen before, and he saw
shadows under her eyes when she glanced his way. He stared at her
from behind a tree, his body rigid in case she shot at him. But she
turned her back and broke down her camp. His lips quivered while he
watched her pack. He imagined throwing himself at her, sinking his
teeth into the nape of her neck until the bones crushed. This
instinct to violence frightened him. The Wolf needed all his human
will to restrain himself. But the girl took no notice, mounting her
horse and kicking its flanks.

The Wolf couldn’t keep up with her stallion.
But he followed the deep prints and never lost track of that smell.
He stumbled along the way until he discovered his rhythm and ran on
four legs. By evening, he came to a province twenty miles west of
where he started that morning. There were woods outside the town
gates, and he found Ella Bandita’s camp in the trees a few hours
later. His nostrils fluttered at the scent of his heart, his pulse
a relief to hear.

Ella Bandita frowned when she saw him. The
Wolf kept his distance, remaining silent until darkness. Then he
started howling, his grief ululating in waves until the first light
of day. When she came outside, he saw the circles under her eyes
had grown darker. She ignored him, packing up and leaving for the
next town. The Wolf followed.

So it went for a week. He was relentless.
The scent and sound of his heart made him desperate to get it back.
Whenever he saw his reflection in creeks and rivers, he was
shocked. The sight of his big snout, sharp teeth, and long ears was
upsetting. His eyes were the only feature he recognized. Instead of
a feral lupine gaze, he kept the black eyes of his mother and
grandfather. As the days passed, he fed on nothing but water and
the tiny fish he managed to catch. But desperation wasn’t enough to
keep him going. He could feel himself wasting away.

Then the morning came when she didn’t leave.
She had camped at the edge of a forest in the middle of a valley.
From his vantage at the peak of the western hills, he saw she
didn’t get up until late morning. But the circles under her eyes
were nearly black when she came out. The Wolf was as exhausted as
she, and he was relieved she rode off without packing up.

He spent the day trying to hunt something to
eat. But the squirrels escaped him easily, for he was too weak to
catch them. He stopped near her camp to take a long drink from the
creek, swallowing as many silvery fish as he could. The sun was
dropping towards the western hills and his nemesis hadn’t yet
returned. He listened for the beat of his heart and his hollow
throbbed when he heard nothing. Then he realized his heart must
have been in the satchel on her back. Of course, she wouldn’t have
left it behind.

Evening was giving way to night by the time
she rode in. The moon was full, just above the eastern hills and
directly across from the setting sun. Intent on stalking a wild
hare near the creek, the Wolf was dimly aware of the pounding
hooves. But his prey noticed the approaching steed and leapt away
before the Wolf was close enough to catch him. The clap of gunshot
was unexpected and the Wolf dropped to the ground. But the wild
hare collapsed in a dead heap.

He turned and saw Ella Bandita dismount from
her horse. She didn’t glance his way as she gathered her kill. But
he still went back to the western hills, watching her peel the skin
and cut the meat in strips. His stomach rumbled. He didn’t know
which was more painful, his envy or his hunger. He was convinced
his mind played a cruel prank on him when Ella Bandita took the
plate, walked up the hill to where he lay, and set it before
him.

But his nose didn’t deceive him, the smell
of blood made the Wolf lurch for the plate. Then he remembered that
kindness was not her nature and managed to restrain himself.
Perhaps Ella Bandita had only come to torment him, making an
offering only to take it away. He glanced over to see her sitting
on the ground, her arms wrapped around her knees. The Wolf could no
longer resist the fresh meat. But he made himself eat slowly. The
last thing he wanted was to vomit the first meal he had in a
week.

The Wolf was so focused he didn’t notice
what she was doing. He looked up when he was finished, and had to
swallow hard to force his food back down. She had eaten half of it
by then. Blood dripped down her chin, the heart still pulsing in
her hands as she took another bite.


Relax,” she said. “It
isn’t yours.”

She watched him while she ate, chewing
slowly until a mess of blood was all that remained. Even those
traces disappeared after she took a damp rag and wiped her face
clean.


I would have liked that
gentleman’s heart,” she mused. “I would have liked it very
much.”

He was confused. The Wolf didn’t recognize
the face of the arrogant nobleman until he thought back to the
night at the tavern.


I’m certain he’s grateful
to have kept it.”

The Wolf was surprised to hear the thought
spoken aloud. He believed it must be a trick of his imagination
until Ella Bandita smiled, her thick teeth stained with blood.

“Well, well,” she said. “So you can still
talk. The circus would love to have you.”

The Wolf was so relieved that he couldn’t
hear the mockery in her tone.

“Please give back my heart and make me a man
again.”


I can do a lot of things.
But I can’t make a man out of you. That’s your job.”

“Why can’t we just forget about this? I
won’t tell anybody. I’ll leave you alone.”

“But everybody already knows who I am and
what I do,” she replied. “And you should have left me alone a long
time ago.”

“But I’m not the kind of man you prey on,”
the Wolf implored. “In all the stories I ever heard, you go after
the proud, the corrupt, and the wicked. You leave the innocent
alone.”

“What makes you think you’re innocent,
Wanderer?”

He paused, his mind going back to No Man’s
Land. His refusal to leave and his determination to satisfy his
desires was incredible, even to him. He remembered that lust from a
distance. Even when he thought about the days they spent coupling,
it seemed those memories belonged to another. What he could relive
with no effort at all was his anger and pride after their first
confrontation. He even recalled how his wanting increased with his
dislike.

“You make a good point,” he said. “But I
wouldn’t say that I’m not innocent.”
Ella Bandita cocked one brow and leaned back, propping herself up
on her forearms.

“That’s certainly one way of looking at it,”
she said. “But I can’t say I agree.”

“If you feel that way about me, then why did
you come here with food? You must want something.”

“You’re right. I want you to leave.”

“Give back my heart and I will.”

“No,” she said. “You pushed me too far.”

“Then I’ll keep following you. As long as
you have my heart, I’ll follow.”

The Wolf got up and paced back and forth.
Rage throbbed in his hollow and spread through his veins. He
remembered the night he admitted to himself that he hated the girl
in the woods and he remembered pushing that sentiment away because
it made him ashamed. But he didn’t resist now. For the first time
since he lost his manhood, the Wolf felt strong. He saw fear in the
eyes of Ella Bandita as she tracked his every move. He knew there
was power in hatred.


I’ll tell you what,” she
said. “I promise that I won’t eat your heart unless I’m starving or
you give me a reason to break my word. But you have to leave
tonight.”


How kind of you,” the
Wolf snarled. “Do you expect me to be grateful?”

“If you’re not, then you should be.”

Her voice had grown hard, and he saw the
tiny muscle twitching in her jaw again.

“I’ve wanted to eat your heart since the day
I met you,” she continued. “So for me to make such a promise is
rather significant, don’t you think?”

The Wolf kept pacing, his gaze straying to
her long throat. His mouth watered when he thought of sinking his
teeth into her neck and ripping apart the veins. He could feel his
muscles hugging his bones, readying him for the attack, but the man
in him would not be silenced.

“I don’t understand any of this!” he
shouted. “We lived together for weeks.”

“I didn’t exactly want you there,
Wanderer.”

“That’s not the point and you know it.”

“You mean that’s not your point,” she
retorted. “I went against my desires and my nature trying to spare
you. You brought this on yourself. Even you have to admit
that.”

“I don’t have to admit any such thing. I
never did anything to deserve this.”

“I didn’t say you deserved it. I said you
brought this on yourself.”

“Don’t you have any decency?”

Ella Bandita was silent for a few minutes,
as she slowly shook her head.

“I’m sorry you see it that way. I’ve never
gone to so much trouble trying to spare anybody as I did you,
Wanderer. What do you have to tempt me to give you what you want? I
don’t bargain with those who have nothing to offer and I already
gave you plenty of chances.”

“I wasn’t just some rogue you seduced!” the
Wolf protested. “We cooked together and shared our food, bathed
together and shared our bodies. Does that mean nothing to you?”

“Of course it does,” she said. “I gave you
my word I wouldn’t eat your heart. That is an exception I’ve never
made for anybody.”

The Wolf stopped pacing and stood before
Ella Bandita. She still lay back, propped on her elbows, her eyes
fixed on him until he spoke.

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