Read Challenge Online

Authors: Montgomery Mahaffey

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

Challenge (9 page)

The smell of fish made him grimace and he
listened to the salt rough voices of seamen shouting to one
another. But when he looked around, the Wanderer recognized the
changing hour when day people came to their finish and the night
people to their start. Fishermen hauled nets, their muscular necks
straining while the ladies of night sauntered along the dock, their
rolling hips an exaggeration of availability. Dusk was forgiving of
these women, lending the illusion of bloom over their defeated
faces. They loitered near the boats and ignored the disapproving
glares of passersby, their eyes narrowed slits fishing for the men
looking for them. The Wanderer smiled at the furtive couples who
passed him on their way to the bordellos.

Life after dark was the same all over the
world. But here, the night people struck a deeper note inside him.
They were a part of him. They were all citizens and outcasts of the
same country. Listening to them speak in his native tongue, the
Wanderer finally believed he had come home.

Then he saw her.

Her stallion was nowhere in sight. The girl
was on foot at the end of the wharf lined with taverns and
disreputable inns. She would have looked a downtrodden prostitute
in her tattered skirts were it not for her walk. Hers was not the
gait of desperation, but the long stride strut of a man. One
glimpse and his body became a traitor to him again, his longing
more brutal than ever.

The Wanderer didn’t realize he was following
her until a large black carriage caught her attention. A quartet of
horses pulled their burden with a high-stepping trot, the open box
exposing the four noblemen inside. The cape of one soared outside
the carriage, its extravagant length sweeping along the wharf. The
gentleman’s face was hidden with the likeness of a skull, and the
Wanderer realized it must be All Hallows Eve. All the occupants
were in costume, their faces covered in masks. But their voices
were loud, their accents rendered uncouth from drink.

The carriage stopped before the most raucous
tavern on the wharf, and he heard the sounds of merrymaking ringing
from inside. The Wanderer raised his brows. Surely the gentlemen
wouldn’t dream of going there. This was the place for those who
lived and worked on the wharf, not for the guests of a fancy dress
ball. But the garbled discussion about the fun that could be found
on the wharf confirmed that they intended to do exactly that. The
Wanderer shook his head and snorted. The noblemen looked absurd
stumbling out of the carriage, tripping over the capes cascading to
their ankles. When they lifted their masks, they uncovered bloated
features and bleary eyes. But the tallest of the four was the last
to remove his; the grinning violet demon was replaced with a
handsome face.

The Wanderer immediately recognized him as
the type of noble he resented the most. He suspected this was a man
whose pride exceeded his ability. Even his beauty betrayed that
kind of vanity. Sharp cheekbones sliced the midline of his face,
full lips curled in derision, chin at a high tilt. His dark brown
eyes were empty when he looked at his friends, his contempt for
them thinly veiled. But he still followed them into the tavern.

The Wanderer saw the girl watching them as
well. Her eyes glittered as she stared after the billowing cape of
the handsomest nobleman, her thick teeth gleaming when she smiled.
She didn’t hesitate to follow His throat grew tight and the
churning in his belly surged the taste of bitterness to his
mouth.


Go home…”

The call of his heart was endearing in its
gentleness. He tried to capture the lightness of spirit he had from
his vision of going back to the village. But the memory of the girl
was seared into his flesh and the thought of her with the arrogant
nobleman made him burn. Before he knew what he was doing, he found
himself in front of the tavern. His stomach clenched and the
throbbing of his heart was agony. He tried to will himself to turn
around and go home. Instead, he pushed through the doors.

The revelry inside knocked the wind out of
him. Seamen were everywhere, both fishermen and pirates. There were
also vagabonds, conmen, craftsmen, and merchants. All of them
drinking together in the riotous brotherhood of men, the only women
in the tavern were serving wenches and prostitutes. The former were
comely; their blouses laced up their middles, their generous
breasts pushed against their necklines, and their arms were
muscular from carrying mugs of ale, most holding three to a hand.
Others carried snifters of high spirits, their balance impeccable
as they held their trays high and pushed through the crowd. The
wenches were adept at avoiding unwanted touches, leaving room for
the night ladies to move in. Their faces were garish from powder
and rouge, their flimsy gowns cut low to the waist. They stalked
for the amorous embrace, their sharp eyes prowling for the look of
lust, a mouth turned down from hidden sadness, boredom crossing one
face in the company of friends. Those were the signs the night
ladies sought out before sidling near their men and smiling with a
suggestive wink.

The Wanderer couldn’t move at first. The
shouting and singing merged into a loud buzz ringing in his ears,
and his nose was assailed with the smells of sweat, liquor, and
cheap perfume. Then the mass of bodies became a rolling sea that
drew him into its storm, and he found himself winding through the
crowd. He was grateful nobody was in costume, for that would have
been too much to withstand. He was surprised to find an empty stool
at the bar. Before long, he had a frothing pint before him, leaving
him free to scan the room.

The fancy dress quartet was easy to find.
The florid tavern keeper kept them separate from the mêlée,
settling them at a large round table on the stage and gesturing to
the prettiest of his wenches to serve them. She seemed cheerful
with her dimpled cheeks and her round face framed with copper
curls. But she had a taste for the vulgar. The noblemen roared when
she pulled a match from her cleavage and struck it against her
teeth to light their cigars. The stoutest of them smacked her
bottom, chortling at the loathing that marred her features. The
wench made her way to the counter and waited until she was loaded
with snifters and mugs. Then she disappeared with her tray into the
latrine, smiling when she came out and returned to the table
onstage. Her tone was playful as she urged her honored guests to
throw the spirits down their throats, for there were more to come.
She smirked after they drained their snifters and she bowed with a
low curtsey.

The Wanderer laughed with everybody else in
the tavern, but the noblemen had no idea of the crude joke played
on them. Revelers cheered the feisty wench, tossing coins on her
tray and pushing notes down her cleavage. The tavern keeper waited
with raised brows as she made her way through the crowd. He placed
more drinks on her tray and pointed to the stage, but his severity
relented with the grin he couldn’t suppress. The wench made a show
of a loud sigh with longing gaze to the latrine. But her revenge
was enough and she sashayed to her premier table.

He spotted the girl leaning against the back
wall of the stage. She grinned when she looked at the serving wench
delivering the fresh round of drinks. She too had appreciated the
prank. But she still planted herself in the line of vision of the
handsome nobleman. She was a caricature of provocation with her
elbows hooked around the railing and arch of her back exaggerated.
The pose was made more ludicrous by her beggarly garments and
disheveled hair. The Wanderer shook his head, almost embarrassed
for her. He wasn’t surprised when the nobleman glanced at her and
flicked his eyes away, his mouth curled in a sneer. But his hauteur
didn’t affect the girl in the least. She continued her vigil.

The Wanderer frowned. Her intent was clear.
But when she stared down the handsome gentleman, her eyes were
every bit as cold staring as when she had looked at the Wanderer.
When the nobleman glanced her way again, she grinned with a hint of
disdain. An expression her target recognized.

The nobleman scowled and turned away, making
an effort to converse with his friends. But his company grew more
tedious with each round of drinks. The Wanderer knew her target
felt her gaze boring into him from the tension in his back and the
rise of his shoulders. The nobleman couldn’t resist the lure of her
stare and he looked back at the girl again. Her grin had spread
into a smile, her large teeth gleaming. A spark of fear lit up his
dark brown eyes for a moment, and the handsome face paled. The
smirk disappeared from his face when the girl threw her head back
and laughed. He turned towards his friends again, but his
determination to ignore the girl didn’t last long. After a few
minutes of trying to engage with the drunken louts around him, the
nobleman looked back at her. Her blue eyes glittered and she leaned
her head to one side, her chin tilted in much the same way as
his.

His ale suddenly distasteful to him, the
Wanderer struggled to get the liquid down his throat. It wouldn’t
be long before the nobleman succumbed and left his friends to go to
her, his fascination more apparent each time he turned her way. He
had to hand it to the girl. He had never witnessed the arrogant
seduced through insolence. But the thought of the girl with the
nobleman left the Wanderer seething. His fingers were white as they
gripped his mug, and he downed the bitter ale until there was
none.

He hadn’t noticed the drunkard slumped next
to him until the other hiccoughed, the spasm jerking his elbow into
the Wanderer’s side. The stranger mumbled a garbled apology,
glanced at him with reddened eyes, then bobbed his head towards his
mug. Irritation swelled inside the Wanderer. The raucous noise,
putrid scent of spilled ale, being elbowed by a stranger, and the
sight of the woman he desired seducing another man were more than
he could tolerate. Deciding he’d had enough, he slid off his
stool.


That one’s back in town,”
the drunkard muttered. “She’s the devil, she is.”

The Wanderer stopped and peered at the man
slouched over his mug. He wasn’t facing the stage, but instinct
told him the drunkard spoke of the girl he followed.


Pardon me, Citizen,” he
said, touching the slumped shoulder and pointing towards the stage.
“Do you know that girl?”

The drunkard’s head jerked up and his eyes
cleared for a moment as he looked between the Wanderer and the
girl. His face was white.

“Hell no!” he shouted. “And you don’t need
to know Ella Bandita either!”

The drunkard slapped him hard on the chest
before slithering off his stool and weaving through the crowd,
shouting at the foolhardy lust of stupid young men.

But the Wanderer hardly noticed. The room
started to spin at the sound of her name. His vision blurred and
his knees buckled. He gripped the edge of the counter to steady
himself, the shaking in his thighs beyond his control. The Bard’s
stories meshed with images of the girl from the woods, intertwining
until his mind was a kaleidoscope of memory and legend.

The Wanderer looked towards the stage. The
girl was staring at him. Even from a distance, he saw that muscle
twitching in her jaw. Suddenly, everything about her made
sense.

The handsome nobleman of the fancy dress
quartet made his move, leaving his pack of friends to go to her.
But he was already forgotten. The girl pushed off the railing and
disappeared into the crowd, aiming straight for the Wanderer. He
willed his legs to move, but he couldn’t. His limbs were frozen.
Then she stood before him. Her dagger was in hand, the tip pressed
into his belly.


Let’s go,
Wanderer.”

He looked around for anybody to help him,
but the revelers were blind to his distress. Ella Bandita gripped
one of his arms and kept the blade at his side below his last rib.
A sense of unreality pervaded the Wanderer as he made his way
through the crowd. The cheery voices of the bar wenches, the rancid
perfume of the night ladies, and the leering gazes of the men made
a bizarre tapestry of raw living, a mirage that had to be a
dream.

But the moment was real. He knew that as
soon as they stepped outside. The salt of the ocean was cleansing,
the chill of night oddly refreshing. Tall lamps illuminated patches
of the wharf and left others in shadows. The Wanderer looked up and
down, but all was still. After the chaos of the tavern, the
emptiness of the docks was eerie.

Ella Bandita slid her dagger back in its
sheath and slapped him hard across the face.


You stupid fool,” she
growled. “Why did you follow me?”


Why do you
think?”

His cheek stung where she struck him, but he
almost laughed out loud. The Wanderer knew he was in the worst
trouble of his life, yet he still wanted her. His flesh thrilled in
her presence and he had to restrain the urge to grab her. Ella
Bandita shook her head slowly.

“Damn you,” she muttered, and pulled her
pistol from the holster.

Pressing the barrel into his spine, she
pushed the Wanderer off the wharf and into the trees where her
stallion waited. She needn’t have bothered with the weapon. The
turmoil of his mind and body left him paralyzed, unable to resist
her will. When they came to her camp, he saw it was much the same
as the one in No Man’s Land, except the clearing amongst the trees
was smaller. The autumn leaves were past their peak, but they
glowed from the branches and on the ground in the milky light of a
waxing moon.

Perhaps it was her scent that made him do
it. Being so close to the honey musk that haunted his dreams drove
the Wanderer to some kind of madness, taking him back to the night
in his tent when the girl woke him up from a nightmare. Before Ella
Bandita could dismount, he tightened his hold around her waist and
brought his mouth to her neck.

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