Read Challenge Online

Authors: Montgomery Mahaffey

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

Challenge (6 page)

“I don’t believe it!” he cried. “I haven’t
seen you since you were a bitty boy!”

Official formality disappeared from his
manner and the Lawman broke open with a smile. His eyes sparkled
when he laughed, clapping the Wanderer on the shoulder.

“I don’t expect you to remember me,” he
continued. “But we come from the same village. You look a lot like
the old Bard. Do you also tell stories like your grandfather?”

The Wanderer froze for an instant, uncertain
he heard correctly. Then he expelled a bellow of air, his limbs
shaking from relief.


I don’t know if I’d make
that claim,” he said. “But I do the best I can.”

The Lawman from his village chuckled. He
opened his mouth as if to speak again, but his partner
interrupted.


As happy a chance as this
is, you still haven’t told us why you’re living in these
woods.”

“He has a point,” the shorter one said. “I
know you have people waiting for you.”

The Wanderer looked away from the Lawmen,
swallowing a hard lump down his throat.

“I’m sure you’re right,” he said. “Except
for one.”

The shorter Lawman’s face cleared and he
nodded slowly, his eyes filling with sympathy.

“It was a sad day for us all when the Bard
passed on,” he said. “I can only imagine what a terrible loss that
must be for you.”

The Wanderer nodded, but said nothing else.
His former neighbor pulled his partner aside and they conferred in
voices too low to be heard, and the Wanderer was relieved when the
taller nodded and headed for the horses. As his partner mounted,
the Lawman from his village approached with his hand outstretched.
His hold was firm when he grasped the Wanderer’s hand with his
own.


It’s good to meet you
again,” he said. “You’ve grown up into a fine young
man.”


Thank you.”


So do your grandfather
proud,” he continued. “Stop living like a wretch and go home. Some
folks worry about you. They need to know that you’re all
right.”


I…uhhh…” the Wanderer
hesitated. “I never thought of that.”

The Lawman nodded, satisfied to make his
point and went to his horse. While he climbed into the saddle, the
taller one looked between the two tents.

“By the way,” he said. “Your campmate’s been
gone for some time.”


I guess so,” the Wanderer
said and shrugged. “That’s not unusual.”

“Really? Where do you think she could
be?”

From the edge of his vision, the Wanderer
saw the Lawman from his village glare at his partner. But his gaze
never wavered from those watery green eyes.

“She?”

“Yes,” the taller Lawman persisted. “She.
You are camped with a young woman, aren’t you? So where is
she?”

“No sir,” the Wanderer replied. “I’ve been
traveling with a friend I met on the ship and I suppose he’s still
out hunting.”

“Can you be certain of that?”

“Of course I can. He hunts every day.”

“Very well then,” he said and touched his
hat. “Welcome home, Citizen.”

With a final nod, they took their leave. The
Wanderer couldn’t move, staring into the woods long after the
Lawmen were gone. Citizen. In his mind, the word lilted before
echoing through him, soothing a desperation he didn’t know he had,
the first time he’d been addressed as such since he came home.

He became aware of her gradually. He turned
his head slightly, and saw her deep in the woods beyond her tent.
He wondered how long she’d been there. Her gaze locked with his
when their eyes met and they didn’t waver, not even when she
cantered her stallion through the trees to stop before him. He
glanced at the pheasant dangling from the saddle.


So I was wondering,” he
said. “Do you think we could share our supper tonight?”

The girl didn’t answer right away, swinging
her leg over to dismount. She glanced at the fallen sack, the
harvest strewn on the ground and back to him. She fingered her
star-shaped crystal, the muscle twitching in her jaw, and looked
beyond him. The Wanderer went numb when the girl walked to her
tent, shocked that she would continue to slight him. Then she
pulled the necklace over her head and dropped the pendant
inside.


All right,” she said,
turning to face him. “I suppose we can.”

He blinked when she spoke and didn’t move
when she came back and untied the pheasant from her horse. She
glanced at him and raised her brows.


I’ll need an hour to get
the bird ready.”

The Wanderer was too stunned to do anything
other than go to the pit. To his surprise, they worked well
together, falling into each other’s rhythm with ease. The girl had
the pheasant dressed and lined along the spit by the time the fire
was ready. She laid it between the prongs and placed one of her
pans underneath to catch the droppings while the Wanderer made up
his hash. His mouth watered when he poured the fat over his dish,
stirring it in with his spoon and inhaling the savory wafting from
the skillet. Tonight, his hash would be perfect.


I think the pheasant is
done.”

The sound of her voice startled him. He
looked up, surprised the evening dusk was growing darker and that
the girl already pulled the spit from the fire. Without a word, he
gestured for her to hand the pheasant over. He tore the meat to
shreds, mixing it all into the hash until it was moist, then loaded
a mound on each plate. The aroma made his head swim, but the
Wanderer knew it was only a hint of the tastes and textures to
come. Rubbing his palms briskly and hovering them over his plate,
he closed his eyes to give thanks, a blessing ritual he hadn’t done
in months. He opened his eyes to the girl staring at him, her fork
dangling from her fingers.


Did your grandfather
teach you that?”


Yes, he did.”


So tell me about him,”
she murmured. “He was a bard, right?”


Why should you
care?”


Why wouldn’t I?” she
shrugged. “Just a mention of him got the Lawmen out of
here.”


Are you going to tell me
what brought them here looking for you?”


I’d rather hear about
your grandfather instead.”


Was it because you
crossed the border illegally?”


It could be for lots of
reasons.”


Give me one.”

The girl shook her head and took her first
bite. The Wanderer was gratified when she closed her eyes and
sighed deeply, but hunger pulled his attention to his own plate.
The supper was better than he expected, the meat tender and the
hash softened, the infusion of herbs stronger with the base of
animal fat. He chewed until he no longer distinguished one flavor
from another. When he took his next mouthful he moaned, amused to
see the girl scowling at him.


I take it you prefer
silence while eating.”


I don’t care how much
noise you make,” she retorted. “But are you going to talk about
your grandfather or not?”


Why do you want to know
about him?”

The girl didn’t answer right away. She ate
until her supper was half finished. Then she turned towards the
Wanderer again.


I don’t know,” she said.
“I guess he sounds like an interesting topic of
conversation.”

Although her voice held the casual tone of
boredom, the Wanderer narrowed his eyes. He even set his plate down
and peered at her.


Well if you’re going to
be like that,” he said. “Tell me why the Lawmen showed up and I’ll
entertain you with stories about my grandfather.”

“Forget it,” she snorted. “I didn’t ask you
to lie for me.”

“I know you didn’t. But—”

“But nothing. I don’t owe you an
explanation.”

They finished the rest of the meal in
silence. The Wanderer had to exert himself to eat slowly, for his
relish had diminished. He couldn’t stop thinking that this strange
girl who refused to speak to him for a month had shown interest in
the Bard. The lure was irresistible.

“So what do you want me to tell you?”

“Whatever you wish to share,” she said. “Did
he teach you how to cook?”

“Not really. He taught me how to
forage.”

At first, the Wanderer found talking to her
difficult. Her inscrutable expression implied indifference,
stemming the flow of his memories and making his speech come in
hesitant bursts. But her face grew soft as she fixed her eyes on
him and unlocked his past. Then the Wanderer lost himself in
stories of the Bard. He even smiled as he described how strict his
grandfather had been in the woods, refusing to let him gather alone
until he’d made no mistakes for a year. Growing up, he’d always
been frustrated with the Bard’s exacting standards. But later, he
was grateful. He could always feed himself when he had nothing, the
marks of nourishment and poison similar all over the world.


You learned that much
during visits?” she asked.


I grew up with
him.”

His throat tightened and the Wanderer
stopped talking. The girl frowned, waiting for him to continue.
When he didn’t, she held up her empty plate.


Supper was quite good,”
she said. “If your grandfather didn’t teach you, how did you learn
to cook?”

The Wanderer was relieved the past rushed
back so easily. He opened up again to the vivid images in his mind,
returning to the nights for stories when he taught himself how to
pair herbs and spices through his sense of smell. He could hear the
logs crackling, his back warm from the flames of the past, the
Bard’s voice ringing through the cabin. Drifting in the sea of
those memories, he murmured the adage his grandfather had repeated
as the years passed.


Follow your
heart.”


What!”

Her voice had taken on a jagged quality. The
sharp point of one word pierced the images from the past and those
memories dissolved. The Wanderer was pulled back to the present, to
the woods of No Man’s Land, to the lingering aroma of supper, and
to the fading light of a dying fire and his neighbor. She seemed
feverish with her cheeks flushed.


What did you just
say?”


That was something he
liked to end his stories with,” he replied. “A lesson of sorts. I
don’t understand why that would upset you.”


Just what was your
grandfather trying to teach you, Wanderer?”

He paused, taken aback by her sudden
insolence. The effect was both unsettling and offensive, making the
Wanderer reluctant to continue. Yet something in the way she looked
at him was mesmerizing. He had no choice but to heed its call.


My grandfather cherished
love more than anything,” he said. “He always claimed that
everything in life that truly mattered always came back to
love.”


I’m sure that’s very
nice,” the girl snapped. “But so what?”


So he made up these
stories about a woman who destroyed men with too much pride by
stealing that which they never valued. Hence, he often finished his
stories with ‘follow your heart.’ So we’d grow up and live in a way
that honors love.”


She stole their hearts?”
she asked. “This woman that your grandfather…imagined?”

The Wanderer nodded, frowning slightly as
her expression shifted to incredulity. The girl covered her mouth,
but not before he saw the corners twitching. Then her shoulders
started to shake, a sign she was helpless against the fit of
laughter coming on. He watched the girl try to resist the pull of
mirth until she couldn’t hold back any longer. But the Wanderer was
still stunned when she collapsed, her entire body quaking as she
laughed.

Minutes passed and she didn’t stop. Then his
confusion mounted to rage. For the first time in his life, the
Wanderer was tempted to hit a woman. He had never understood the
fighting instincts of brutal men. But as the girl howled and rolled
on the ground, it was all he could do to restrain himself. Staring
at the girl gripping her stomach, the Wanderer felt something burst
in his heart, an emotion he didn’t recognize. The sentiment was
violent but not impulsive; it had a lingering quality, an enduring
relentlessness. The girl stopped laughing as soon as she saw his
face. She even pulled up and moved away from him.


Did you ask me about my
grandfather just to mock him?”


Wanderer, I’m not mocking
your grandfather,” she replied. “I’m mocking you.”


You’re going to have to
explain what you found so funny. Because I can’t see
it.”


Look upon the obvious and
you might. You certainly didn’t learn your lessons
well.”


What’s that supposed to
mean?” he snapped.


If you’ve been taught all
your life to follow your heart,” she said. “Then this is the last
place you should be. Yet here you are. And you insist on
staying.”

She chortled and shook her head.


Really, you have a better
place to go. So what are you doing here?”


I have my reasons,” he
retorted. “Why should you mind anyway? I don’t want anything from
you.”


Don’t be such a
hypocrite, Wanderer. I know what you want.”

A hard edge came into her voice. But the
glint of knowing in her eyes still made his heart beat faster, and
the air teased along his flesh just as it had the day he had first
seen her. A current shot the quiver delicious up his spine, making
him restless.

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