Read Challenge Online

Authors: Montgomery Mahaffey

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

Challenge (4 page)

Stifling his irritation, the Wanderer threw
his blankets off and shivered. The sudden blast of frigid air made
him reach for the wool sweater that he’d managed to hold onto
during the years of his travels. It had been too large for him when
he first set sail, but now it fit him perfectly. His Patron’s
housekeeper had knitted it for him in the months before his
seventeenth birthday. The Wanderer inhaled and smiled as he put it
on. Despite all the countries and places where he had worn that
sweater, the garment always smelled like home.

The monotony of the thump, rustle, crunch,
and whish brought the Wanderer back to his present reality. He was
a vagabond camped in the woods of No Man’s Land near a woman who
despised him. For a moment, he wondered why he was being such a
fool when he had a home to go back to. Then he thought of the
Bard’s empty cabin, and immediately pushed the image from his mind.
Pulling on the rest of his clothes, the Wanderer rushed out of the
tent.

The girl had just released the dagger. Her
arm was stretched to its full length while her opposite leg seemed
to dangle behind her; the blade sliced through the air in a muted
whisper until it stabbed the midsection of the tree in front of
her. The tree had been under attack for a while. Several wounds
marred its trunk. The rustle and crunch of leaves began as the girl
made her way to the target, pulled the dagger free, and returned to
the starting position fifty paces away. Instead of making aim and
throwing the knife directly, the girl whirled in circles with the
speed of a dervish caught in the throes of spiritual ecstasy before
she stopped abruptly, catapulted her form in precarious balance,
and threw the dagger again.

Again the blade sunk into its target, right
next to the wound left in the previous assault.

The Wanderer shook his head. It was far too
early for this. At least the girl kept some distance from the pit.
With twigs and branches left from the day before, he started a
fire, tending to it and mixing his hash in turns. He worked to the
steady rhythm of his neighbor’s practice, setting the skillet and
small pot of water on the iron weave. Occasionally, he looked up to
watch her. The girl moved with animal grace, her motions
extravagant and sparse as she spun around with the blade flashing
through the air. Her arrest was always sudden when she stopped and
set the knife free. The dagger sunk into the trunk every time.

The water heated and his hash was ready
before long. The Wanderer was slightly embarrassed to have used
almost all the wood. That was never good form amongst travelers,
especially since he was with hostile company. He considered calling
to the girl to use the fire before it went out, then thought better
of it. She was completely absorbed in her knife-throwing dance, and
her occupation was a reprieve from the discomfort between them.

The Wanderer emptied the hash onto his plate
and poured hot water over the herbs in his mug. Sitting back, he
ate several forkfuls while his tea steeped. He closed his eyes as
he sipped, savoring the mild bitterness. He was grateful for the
drink made with medicinal herbs he had found during his forage the
day before.

The Wanderer opened his eyes. The dagger was
the first thing he saw, whirling with the same furious speed as the
girl’s dance. Too stunned to move, the Wanderer stared at the knife
coming right at him, the air hissing as the blade cut a path over
his left shoulder, uncomfortably close to his ear. He sat frozen
until he heard the dull thump when the dagger stabbing the tree
behind him. This time, the girl had dropped to a crouch when she
released her weapon. She was watching him closely, her eyes
glittering. The Wanderer knew it was irrational to wish he could
stem the flow of blood draining from his face, because going pale
was physical proof that she’d frightened him. The girl’s mouth
curved in a sardonic, knowing grin. But the Wanderer forced himself
to take another sip of his tea before he spoke. Although the mild
bitterness now tasted unpleasant, he repressed the urge to grimace
as he swallowed. Meeting her eye, he kept his voice neutral, his
tone milder than boredom.

“Your aim is not as impressive as I
thought,” he said. “You missed me.”

The girl’s smirk opened to a broad smile,
and her thick teeth gleamed.

“No, I didn’t.”

She stood up and made her way to the tree.
She pulled the dagger free and continued her practice, aiming for
the tree right behind the Wanderer who refused to move. They stared
each other down while the girl threw the knife past the Wanderer
again and again. He forced himself to eat slowly, never letting his
attention stray from her. Yet his stomach clenched often. Every
time she threw the dagger, the girl’s eyes were fixed on the
Wanderer, and not on the tree behind him.

The Wanderer hated himself for the
restlessness that surged through him. It was all he could do to
stop himself from grabbing the girl.

Days became weeks, and there was no relief
from the rancor between them.

The Wanderer foraged every day, always
gathering in the woods south of their camp. Once he tried to
venture north on his mare, but the girl appeared out of nowhere,
glaring at him with more ferocity than usual and turning her
massive steed to block him. He took the hint she’d claimed that
part of the woods and never went that way again. He didn’t mind too
much. The border patrol was to the north and he didn’t wish to
attract the law.

The woods of No Man’s Land made a good
refuge for the Wanderer. When the forest wasn’t quiet, the trees
whispered from the motion of animals, the song of birds, and
breezes ruffling the leaves, releasing scents spicy and sweet.
Immersing himself made him forget everything and, every day, he
found something new. Nuts, berries, leaves, and edible flowers
added taste to his hash, while fresh varieties of mushrooms
sprouted after each rain. Although he foraged enough for breakfast
and supper, his appetite was barely sated and he was losing weight.
He had to admit that his craving for meat and fat had grown past
the point of pain.

He found himself avoiding the girl, often
waiting until she was gone before he left his tent in the morning.
Yet they cooked next to each other every night. His stomach rumbled
every time he watched the precious drops of fat go to waste in the
fire. He knew they’d both eat better if they only shared, but he
never offered his food to her again.

He suspected the girl found his cooking more
appealing, especially on the day he returned with a stalk of
rosemary and sprigs of thyme. He thought he saw her nostrils
quivering while he cut the herbs to bits, the aroma irresistible
from the heat of the fire. It was almost enough to distract him
from the roasting partridges, but he still wanted to reach his
skillet under her spit. He was glad he resisted the urge when he
saw her glance away.


I caught you looking this
time,” he said.

She scowled and turned from him.

As time passed, his animosity for the girl
grew as hers did for him. His ill will made him uneasy, for the
Wanderer never disliked anybody in his life. What made it even more
upsetting was that his body had become a traitor to him. His lust
for a woman he had come to hate had transformed into a physical
yearning that terrified him, for his desire increased with his
antipathy. No woman had ever affected him like this. His limbs
would go rigid as the Wanderer fought the animal urges pushing him
beyond his reason. To make matters worse, the girl knew the effect
she had on him. The glint in her eyes and her vicious smile were a
daily humiliation, and the tingling along his flesh made the
Wanderer loathe himself.

Summer finally gave in to autumn; the leaves
started turning to gold, and the Wanderer realized that staying
where he knew he wasn’t wanted made the worst kind of loneliness.
After a month, his obstinacy seemed foolish. Every night, he was
determined to pack up and leave the next morning, a surrender that
brought him much relief.

Then he fell asleep and floated into the
dreamtime. He always came to the cabin first. When he saw the
silhouette before the fire, the Wanderer longed to remain with his
grandfather, so he could tell him about his adventures and truly
thank him for his last gift. But their reunion never satisfied.
Before he could begin, the Bard pushed him through the fire to send
him to the lovers from the Solstice Ball.

The Wanderer was there when the Patron
brought his beloved home - their wedding carriage rolling uphill
through an avenue of peach trees to a white manor. The Patron never
looked more handsome than he did on his wedding day, his face
radiant with sweet disbelief. His bride was ravishing in layers of
creamy lace, her expression glowing behind her veil.

The carriage stopped at a path leading to
the front door where a procession of servants stood waiting to
welcome their new Patroness. She saw nothing but the garden of
lilies encircling the house. Even in his dream, the Wanderer
smelled the earth of freshly turned soil. Yet lilies of every size
and color were in full bloom. The bride tore the veil from her head
and threw her arms around her husband’s neck, raining kisses over
his face. Before they entered the house, the Patron and his wife
strolled through the maze, weaving amongst her favorite flowers in
every shape and color. She leaned her head back, her nostrils
almost closing when she savored the fragrance at leisure. Then they
faded from the Wanderer’s vision.

Oftentimes, he came to them during supper.
These were formal affairs, the table covered with linen, and set
with silver and crystal. The courses were served on delicate china
by their servants. The atmosphere was romantic; the parlor soft
from candlelight and mandolin players strumming their melodies. The
Patron and his wife sat close at one end of the table. They
preferred to feed each other with their fingers, touching hands
while talking and laughing.

After the last course, they adjourned to her
favorite parlor, a spacious room facing the west where three
windows stretched from floor to ceiling. During the summer months,
the parlor came alive from the evening dusk. The troupe of
musicians followed and the evening would end with dancing. The
Patroness was as graceful as ever, melting in her husband’s
arms.

The Wanderer resented these dreams. Instead
of being with his grandfather, all his sleeping hours were spent
with the Patron and his bride. He also envied them and the blessed
vision of their lives. He couldn’t understand why the Bard insisted
he go to them, but every morning when he woke up, his resolve to
leave the girl behind in No Man’s Land had disappeared.

 

 

****

 

 

He couldn’t believe his luck when he found
the pool. After exploring the woods for weeks, he thought it must
be his imagination when he glimpsed steam floating into the rays of
morning light. The Wanderer sniffed the air. The odor of spoiled
eggs was faint but distinctive, drifting from the eastern woods
where he seldom went. He found a stream running downhill to the
south, and dipped his hand in. The water was still warm, proving
this came from a hot spring.

The Wanderer rushed back to camp, savoring
the thought of a bath while collecting his soiled clothes and
bottles of soap and oil. As he followed the creek uphill, the
pungent aroma grew stronger and the drafts of steam left a film on
his skin. When he found it, he recognized the intervention of man
in nature. The origin was in the center; bubbles broke along the
surface and revealed where the fissure was, the opening where water
heated in thermal depths of the earth came up to make a hot spring.
The pool was dark in the middle, and the trail of bubbles led to a
small cave from which clouds billowed. Only a violent disturbance
of the earth could have made such a crevice. But there was a lower
shelf built round the center, the water so clear he could make out
the fine mineral grains at the bottom. Just above the shelf, flat
stones were arranged to form a ledge over the pool. Another stream
poured in from the northwest where the water numbed his fingers in
less than a minute. He followed the stream and found dry beds where
water had once flowed before being rerouted. Any doubt he had that
this spring was the work of fellow travelers disappeared.

The Wanderer undressed and lowered himself
where the warm creek left the pool. There, the water was perfect,
stopping below his hips. Then he dove into the black depths and the
heat grew intense. The temperature was more than he could bear
along the fissure and he didn’t dare go towards the cave. Instead,
he swam against the incoming stream, reveling in the fluid caress
of hot and cold. It wasn’t long before dreaminess overtook him, a
sensation unique to mineral springs. Before he melted into
perpetual laze, he dove under and swam through varying degrees of
heat to the other side of the pool and back again. When he came up
for air, the woods were spinning. Already, he’d been in the water
too long.

But the girl had come. He knew she was there
from the quiver in his flesh and the tension in his limbs before he
even saw her. She must have approached from the north. Her arms
were folded casually and she leaned against a tree to the right of
the incoming stream. Their eyes met for an instant before her gaze
swept over him, her mouth parting in a near smile.

The unabashed roguishness of her look
startled the Wanderer. He even had to resist the urge to dive back
in the water, holding her regard for a moment before he got out and
stretched along the ledge. Reaching for his canteen, he sipped
slowly until the flask was empty and he was steady again. Then he
glanced to the tree. The girl still hadn’t moved. Her eyes were
fixed on him.

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