Read Challenge Online

Authors: Montgomery Mahaffey

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

Challenge (2 page)

It was such a gaze that propelled him away
from the Northern Brothers. They had been in the Indies for a month
and the trio could never resist the weekly bazaar. Market day was
the day of women. Covered in saris and veils, the women milled
around the booths, their delicate hands touching the wares they
coveted the most. The Wanderer and his friends drifted along the
sea of feminine mystery, the scents and sounds of the women
enchanting. Most were demure, looking away from the Wanderer and
the Northern Brothers, charming them even more as they imagined the
beauty of the face behind the veil.

Then the tease along his flesh let the
Wanderer know somebody was staring at him. He scanned the crowd
until he found her. From her dress, he could see she must be the
concubine of wealth and power. Her sari and veil were the color of
plums and threaded with gold, while an amber pendant hung in the
center of her brow. Her eyes were the same color as the jewel,
elongated and lined with kohl. That was all he saw of her face, but
it was enough. He suddenly remembered how his mother had looked at
him for the last time and he had no choice but to follow the
concubine home.

She belonged to a harem of twenty women,
with six eunuchs as escorts. The Wanderer kept a few paces behind,
but he had no difficulty trailing the group. Their saris made a
festival of color, billowing behind the concubines as they returned
to the house of their master. The spice of their perfume lingered
in the street when he stopped before the majestic residence. He
felt foolish waiting outside, knowing his friends would taunt him
mercilessly when he found them again. Then a window opened from the
top floor and the girl from the bazaar leaned out. Her face was
unveiled and she was even more beautiful than he imagined. Two
other concubines stood behind her, their laughter piercing through
their veils. The women dropped a long silken rope from their
chambers to the ground, their eyes daring their admirer to climb
it.

The Wanderer accepted the challenge, only to
be overwhelmed with the pleasure of a long afternoon. He had known
happiness in his life, but nothing prepared him for the embrace of
the concubine. She took him to the edge of delirium. The women
almost refused to allow him freedom from the harem, only letting
him go after he promised to return the next day.

The Northern Brothers breathed a loud sigh
of relief when he returned, declaring they were convinced he must
have lost his head when they didn’t see him by sundown. Their eyes
widened as the Wanderer gathered his things. His heart squeezed
when he faced them.


Have you lost your mind?”
one of them asked.


We weren’t joking just
now,” said the other. “It will be your head on the chopping block
if you get caught.”

The Wanderer hesitated, but the memory of
his mother closing the door to his bedroom for the last time
flashed in his mind. Then he remembered the earnest desire in the
amber eyes of the concubine.


I know,” he said. “But
you’ve taught me well and I promise to be careful.”

Shaking their heads, they embraced him with
tears in their eyes. It was no less painful for him to say
good-bye, for the Northern Brothers had become his family and the
Wanderer knew he would never see them again.

He returned to the harem and drowned his
sadness in the sensuality of the concubines. Over the next few
months, he made love to them all and learned more about the ecstasy
of the body than he ever would have in the brothels. The concubines
hid him well, camouflaging their young lover as one of them,
dressing him in their clothes and lining kohl around his eyes. When
their master visited their quarters, the women circled close around
the Wanderer so he would never be chosen. Fortunately, their master
was in his elder years and less driven by lust. Thus he seldom came
to the harem. The risk of danger carried the women to euphoric
heights of madness for months, while their silken skin and heavy
musk were ambrosia for the Wanderer.

But one afternoon, he was nearly caught. He
was buried in the embrace of his favorites, the concubine who lured
him from the bazaar and her mentor, when their master came to the
harem without warning. The other concubines were swift and cunning
enough to protect the carnal triad. They convinced the old man that
a few of them were devastated with violent stomach. Nobody could be
certain if supper had disagreed with them, or if it was a malaise
that was going around. Their master left in haste lest he should
fall ill. After he was gone, a heavy silence fell over the harem
and the fear in the eyes of the women made the Wanderer hate
himself.

He left them that night. He thought
loneliness would break him apart. Then he met another traveler
before long, and they shared many adventures.

And so it went for nearly four years.

The Wanderer was never alone. His reckless
passion brought him many friends and lovers along his journey, each
of them sparing him from the pain in his heart. Then he chose the
wrong ship, and stowed away on the vessel that would bring him
home. He wouldn’t be the first wanderer to make that fateful
mistake. Yet he was astounded when he sneaked off the ship, only to
recognize the port where his adventures began and where he saw his
grandfather for the last time.

Once he was home, the Wanderer was seen as
exotic, and made others suspicious. Suddenly, he was unable to make
the friends that kept his anguish at bay. He never knew the tiny
cruelties of people until he came back to his country and was no
longer seen as a citizen. When he could find work, the labor was
exhausting and the pay meager. He was never welcome to stay, no
matter how hard he worked or how well he did. He set up camp in the
woods every night because nobody opened their homes to him.
Sometimes he met another nomad who roamed from town to village. But
if these men had ever known freedom, that spirit was long
destroyed. Every vagabond he met eyed his rucksack as a scavenger,
and he moved on before he was ambushed. He knew people saw him as
the same kind of man, and wondered how long it would be before he
grew that wretched.

As much as the Wanderer hated being treated
like a vagabond, the recurring memories of his parents’ murder made
his return intolerable. He hadn’t thought about that night since he
was a child, but his sleep was haunted from the first he spent in
his home country.

The dream always started with a slam of the
door. The Wanderer realized he was reliving the ordeal as soon as
he saw his mother, but he couldn’t wake up. His limbs were
paralyzed just as they had been that night. She was putting him to
bed when they heard the pound of invading footsteps, then his
father shouting. His mother’s face was pale when she pulled the
covers to his chin.


Stay here,” she
whispered. “No matter what happens, be quiet and do not
move.”

The fear in her voice pinned him to the bed.
She went to the door and turned back before leaving his room. She
had the same black eyes as her father, the same eyes she passed on
to him. She stared hard at him with a finger to her lips, before
closing the door behind her. That was the last time he saw his
mother. He heard her screaming with his father, then heard nothing
but the tread of strangers thundering through the cottage.

One of them came into his room. He would
never forget the knotted hair falling past his shoulders and the
twisted features. He lay still and looked into the bleary eyes
staring down at him. A muffled shout sounded from the hall and the
intruder glanced between the door and him.


Nothing in here!” he
called. Then he left.

He did what his mother told him. He didn’t
move when his parents didn’t come for him and he didn’t make a
sound when their neighbors did. He could hear the mother of his
best friend calling for him, but he stayed quiet because he knew he
must. She rushed into his room and burst into tears when she saw
him in bed with the covers to his chin, his eyes wide and staring.
She embraced him and rocked him back and forth, but he was too
stiff to receive her.

Then his grandfather came and took him to
the cabin. He didn’t speak a word for two months, but the Bard
cared for him without pause. He took him everywhere, and was always
there after a nightmare to comfort him. But his grandfather wasn’t
there now. After a couple of weeks in his home country, the
Wanderer forced himself awake whenever he heard the door slam. But
the old terrors lurked and he felt more alone than ever.

The Wanderer knew he could go home. As the
Bard’s grandson, he would always have a place in the village. But
every time he remembered the cabin, he saw nothing but darkness. He
wondered how long had passed since a fire had burned in the hearth
and imagined how cold the stones would feel under his fingers. Then
he would follow the road leading to another place where nobody knew
him.

He couldn’t believe his good fortune when he
crossed paths with a kindred spirit. It made a welcome reprieve
from his isolation.

 

 

****

 

 

The Wanderer awakened to a languorous
morning. He could almost believe he was on the other side of the
world, stretching and dozing until hunger called him from his tent.
He expected the girl to be up, but she wasn’t. Seeing the stallion
grazing amongst the trees, he knew she hadn’t left. He stared at
her tent while finishing off the last of his bread and cheese. He’d
hoped to meet her before leaving to forage, concerned how she’d
react if she came out to find his tent across from hers. Since
there was no way to know how long he’d have to wait, the Wanderer
took his sack and ventured into the forest.

The sun made streaks of light through the
varying layers of green through the canopy descending to the forest
floor. He breathed deeply, enjoying the spice and tang of woods and
earth and rainfall; then he immersed himself in a sense of
wellbeing he hadn’t enjoyed in a long time. There was bounty in the
trees, and families of mushrooms sprouting in the soil, from the
bark, and among the mossy blankets covering rocks and fallen trees.
The Wanderer always felt close to his grandfather when he foraged.
He heard that deep voice calling from his memory, teaching him the
distinction between poison and nourishment amongst the mushrooms
and berries. His sack was full within a couple of hours, but he
continued exploring the trees surrounding the clearing, enjoying
the sounds and smells and taking note of where he would forage
later.

He returned to camp late in the afternoon.
He saw her stallion in the trees, but the girl was still nowhere to
be seen. Reluctant to lose the peace he found in the woods, the
Wanderer hummed a tune while building up a fire and cutting up some
of everything he’d found. Mixing it all together in his skillet, he
set his hash on the iron weave. His supper was ready as sundown
glowed through the trees and cast a warm light in the clearing. The
hash was subtle, with layers of taste to savor, but he wished his
stomach were a little fuller when he was done.

The Wanderer glanced at her tent and
considered looking in on the girl to make certain she was all
right, then thought better of it. Night was coming on and his
intentions might be misunderstood. But he would check on her in the
morning if she hadn’t surfaced by then.

 

****

 

Drifting into the dreamtime, all was black.
The Wanderer knew he wasn’t heading for the terrors of the past
because of the heat, and warmth always meant safety. Then he came
to the massive hearth and sobbed when he saw the silhouette in
front of the fire.

Before he could speak, the Bard waved him
closer. Sweat beaded his skin as soon as he sat down beside his
grandfather, but he didn’t care. When they embraced, the old man
felt strong, just like he did when the Wanderer was a child who
needed comfort after a nightmare. The Wanderer wanted to hold on to
the old man forever, but the Bard pulled away and gripped him by
the shoulders. His grandfather’s eyes had changed; his gaze was
more penetrating now that he saw from another world. When he spoke,
his voice rang as clear and resonant as the Wanderer
remembered.


Kid, there are some folks
I want you to meet.”

The Bard waved his hand through the fire,
yet remained unscathed. Without warning, he pushed the Wanderer in,
where he tumbled through the flames, but suffered no pain. When he
fell out on the other side, he found himself in the night.

The bitter cold gave him violent shivers.
Wherever he was, he assumed a storm must have just passed because
he noticed the snow piled high on the ground. The sky was black and
dotted with stars. Then he saw the villa. The stately residence was
illuminated from the lamps lined along the outside stairs carved
from green slate. The steps were clear of snow and two servants in
furs stood on either side, puffs of air smoking from their mouths.
Candles glowed from the windows, and the Wanderer heard the sounds
of conversation and laughter from inside. Inside sounded like a
celebration. The Wanderer’s hunch was confirmed when a carriage
drawn by a quartet of horses made its way up the path and the
footmen stood taller. The noble crest on the door of the carriage
seemed familiar, but the Wanderer couldn’t remember where he’d seen
it.


Happy Solstice, Patron,”
the footman said. “Your uncle is eager to see you.”


I can’t believe it’s been
a year since I last came,” the visitor said, stepping
outside.

Although he smiled and his manner was
pleasant, the Wanderer sensed he didn’t want to be there. Then the
nobleman looked at the sky and grimaced.

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