He first saw her from the edge of No Man’s Land, the stretch of forest between two countries. The Wanderer squinted while looking at the horizon where a black silhouette ran along the ridge in the land to the west. Until the shadow turned downhill, he wondered if this was an apparition born of his loneliness. Then he saw a horse and rider after they left the halo of the setting sun. They ran for the woods, far from the gates where lawmen would check papers and ask questions. He whistled when the fugitive disappeared in the trees. Anyone caught crossing the border in secret would lose a year of life in prison, possibly more depending on the misdeeds that compelled one to flee.
Turning his gaze east, he saw end-of-day glow spread across the hills, infusing warmth into the rain-soaked grasses. The rains always started in the limbo between summer and autumn, followed by sun and then rain again. He knew the rhythm of the seasons well, but felt foreign in his home country. The land of his birth had become less familiar, less comfortable than the places where he couldn’t speak the language.
He was grateful for his last spell of work. Instead of the usual paltry wages, he convinced the Patron to pay him with a workhorse doomed for the slaughterhouse. Besides making travel easier, the old mare’s presence was comforting. The Wanderer inhaled the scent of grass and enjoyed the last rays of sun on his cheeks. The clear sky promised nighttime stars, tempting him to stake his camp where he was. Staring into the heavens while drifting to sleep would take him back to faraway lands, to the traveling mates and lovers he met along the way. When he came back to the solitude of his waking life, those memories kept him going.
But he’d be vulnerable in the open fields. After a day or two, either the closest patron or sheets of water would drive him off. No Man’s Land was a safer choice, because the canopy of trees provided protection and plenty of forage. He might pass a few weeks in there. The constant moving from one town to the next was wearing him down.
Then the Wanderer felt her stare. He knew from the tingling along his flesh that it was a woman who was watching him. He scanned the fields along the edge of the woods and found her up the hill, too far away for him to get a good look at her. But even from a distance, the intensity of her gaze burned into him.
The girl kicked her mount into a canter across the field, circling the Wanderer at a five-stride distance from him. The size of her horse was intimidating; it was the largest stallion he’d ever seen and it stood many hands higher than his old mare. The girl should have seemed overpowered by the animal; her legs didn’t stretch down half its girth. But her back was relaxed in an easy slouch, one hand holding the reins with a loose grip. The Wanderer turned his nag to keep the girl in sight, and noticed the crest of patronage scarred into the horse’s flank. But she looked no more highborn than he did. Her blond hair fell in a long braid to her waist, loose strands mussed around her face. Her skirt was tattered and the once creamy blouse was dingy from overuse.
Yet she had what his grandfather had always called presence, the quality that commands attention in a crowded room. The Wanderer observed the girl looking him over, her cool gaze taking in his patched clothes and rucksack. Then their eyes met. The air snapped around him, teasing along his flesh. He noticed that the muscles of her long thighs were taut, and her shapely calves disappeared into heavy boots. He could see the silhouette of her high breasts underneath her blouse, the curve of her waist swelling into hips.
When the Wanderer looked up, he flushed. The girl’s lips were parted in a knowing smile, her regard penetrating when he met her eyes again. As she raised her brows and chuckled, heat shot through his veins.
“Happy trails, Wanderer,” she said.
He blinked a few times, stunned by her greeting. Before he could answer, the girl turned her steed for the woods and clicked her tongue, disappearing into No Man’s Land. She had actually recognized him as a wanderer. Her voice echoed in his mind. She had the kind of voice he liked best in a woman: deep in tone, yet smooth like well-aged liquor. She must be an adventurer, one of his own. Relief intoxicated the Wanderer and made him restless. Turning his mare towards the break in the trees where she went, he followed the swathe of trampled bushes.
He found her site after an hour. The girl had claimed a wide clearing in the deepest reaches of the woods, and there was plenty of space for him to build his tent across from hers. She was nowhere to be seen, but the Wanderer could tell she’d been settled here for a while. Her tent was large. A pair of breeches and a smock hung from a line tied between trees. She had an iron weave over a pit dug in the ground, and the layers of ashes told on fires already burned. He was surprised she didn’t stir as he worked. But after eating a light supper, he found himself nodding off.
That night, the Wanderer slept the best he had in a long time. Knowing somebody was nearby was comforting, and he drifted easily into the land of dreams. Was it possible he’d only been gone five and a half years? It seemed a lifetime had passed.
The first days at sea had been disappointing. The excitement of following the steward to his berth diminished after he met his neighbors. The passengers around him were dressed in the most exquisite clothes he’d ever seen, cut to fit close to their bodies. They perused his oversized clothes, looking to his private room with disbelief before the smiling mask of good manners came over their faces. His neighbors nodded in passing and acted pleasant, but they never invited him to join them. His heart ached when he thought of how long the Bard must have saved to buy him that ticket. His first week onboard gave him the first dose of loneliness of his life.
But that was trifling compared to how he felt when his grandfather died. The moment the Bard passed on, he could feel it. He’d been at sea a couple of weeks. The morning was lovely; the sun shone through wispy clouds and reflected a bright wake along the sea. But the air stung his cheeks and wind pierced through the patches in his wool coat. His mittened hands were buried in his pockets, but he still had to rub his fingers together to keep them feeling. The other passengers avoided the cold, so he was alone on the deck when a sudden wash of heat crashed over him. He was sweltering when the image of his grandfather backlit by a mountain of fire came to mind.
The vision lingered. The heat absorbed in his skin while the slap of the wind relented to the caress of a breeze. The Bard had come to say good-bye, but the affection of the farewell gave him no comfort. Knowing his grandfather was no longer of this world dropped him to his knees. His hands clenched to hold onto something that was gone.
A steward found him an hour later. He was curled into a ball on the deck; his eyes were squeezed shut and tears were frozen on his cheeks. The steward carried him to his berth, and revived him enough to learn what happened. After that, he knew the crew kept a close watch on him and even his neighbors tried to be kind. But he neither saw nor heard any of them. He avoided people, leaving his cabin only to descend to the decks where nobody went.
One day, his melancholy was disturbed by the whisper of an unfamiliar voice.
“Hey there, Kid.”
The stranger caught him off guard. Too surprised by the greeting to pretend he didn’t hear it, he turned toward the stairwell leading to the lower holds of the ship. From the tour he took on his first day aboard, he knew no passengers stayed down there, only cargo and rats, but there were two men peering at him from the cracked door.
He wouldn’t have seen them but for their bright yellow hair. The men opened the door wider and he saw they must be from the northern countries. They had eyes in the same deep blue as the rivers of ice that covered their lands for centuries. But the warmth and sympathy he saw in their gaze melted the freeze of his isolation, and he no longer felt alone.
“What are you looking so sad about?” they asked.
The captain and stewards were relieved he finally came to the dining room that evening and they were happy to see him eat with so much enthusiasm. They didn’t see him wrapping breasts of chicken and mounds of potatoes in his napkins to hide them in his pockets. His presence in the berth was pretense after that day. He stayed in the bowels of the ship with the Northern Brothers, and the joy and laughter they shared kept the gnawing ache away.
After they came to port, his new friends took him in and he was initiated in the libertine ways enjoyed by wanderers. They got him drunk for the first time, taught him how to ride in caravans, fight off thieves, and steal aboard ships. But after they bought him his first woman, his days were numbered until the day came when he would move on.
It was his eighteenth birthday. The Northern Brothers teased him until he admitted the reason he always declined going to the brothels when they went. His cheeks were hot when he told them he had never known a woman.
“That settles it then,” they said. “Tonight, you’re coming with us.”
He remembered what his grandfather always said about following his heart and tried to refuse. The Northern Brothers wouldn’t hear it.
“You may be blind to how the ladies look at you,” they said. “But we’re not, and you’ll thank us for this later.”
His heart pounded as he followed his friends into the brothel. Yet the Wanderer was disappointed with the prostitutes. They weren’t beautiful. Their faces were painted and their smiles were unnatural. On a second glance, he saw one who appealed to him. She seemed more comfortable in her skin and stood apart from the others. She also gazed at him in a way that kindled something he’d long forgotten. So he went with her and she brought his lust to life.
The Northern Brothers later told him the whore he picked was considered the best of them all, and the Wanderer had no doubt that was true. Once released, his desire became overwhelming. But he lost interest in the brothels, for the women of every day distracted him the most. The leisurely whirl of modest garments made it difficult for him to breathe. The scent of perfume made him wonder how the flesh would taste. But it was the glimpse of eyes following him that made the Wanderer lose his senses for minutes at a time. Every time he caught a woman watching him, memories of his mother were stirred and stopped him in his tracks.
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.
“I loathe cotillions,” he muttered.
The Wanderer smiled. This was the youngest Patron he’d ever seen, only a few years older than he. The Patron was tall and powerfully built with long arms and broad shoulders. He must have forgotten his gloves, or perhaps he didn’t care to wear them. His bare hands were as muscular and calloused as a farmer’s. This Patron was rugged, lacking the fleshiness that usually contorted the features of noblemen. When he went up the steps, the Wanderer knew he should follow. Getting out of the cold was a relief, but he was overwhelmed as soon as they entered the villa.
The Wanderer caught the scents of cinnamon and clove burning from the lamps. He’d never been to a masquerade before, except through the Bard’s stories. Staring down the cascade of creamy stone steps, this Solstice Ball surpassed anything he had ever imagined.
Gentlemen covered their hair with silver wigs; they wore stark white shirts with dress breeches and coats in somber black. For all their fancy dress, the men faded next to the women. The ladies pranced in gowns of deep jewel tones, moving with sluggish ease, holding their skirts with white-gloved hands. The swell of breasts rose from the mounds of silk and velvet, yet they were ghostly from the powder dusting their décolletage, their necks, and their faces. Their lips were stained red, their hair piled high on their heads.
The musicians strung the first notes of the song to prepare the guests for the next dance. The Wanderer was amused when several women discovered the handsome young Patron at the top of the stairs. They were slow to look away, their lashes fluttering - inviting him to ask for them to dance. But he glanced at the Patron and saw from the expression on his face that he was blind to them. The Wanderer followed his gaze and immediately understood why.
He had known many women in his travels around the world. All of them were lovely in their own right. All of them had a grace and allure that was unique to women. He admired most he had known, and even loved a few. But this was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
The Wanderer almost wondered if she was human. Her face implied a world beyond the mists into shadows and dreams. Her bones were elongated; the angle of her cheeks was stark beneath her tilted blue eyes, and in line with her jaw slanted from her ears to the point of her chin. Her high forehead was teased with the arched brows of a coquette, her nose was long and upturned at the tip, and her lips were curved in the smirk of an imp. Her skin was luminous, naked of powder. Her pale blond hair was gathered in lace where her neck rose from her shoulders.
Her gown was airy, bringing to mind the springtime courtship between sun and water. In the shimmers of blue and green and flashes of quicksilver, the Wanderer saw a creek reflecting grasses and hints of morning light. The girl seemed to glide across the floor when she hurried to her place in line, her skirts slithering around her hips and legs.
Even her dancing was liquid grace. When the music started, her arms arced from the sway of her body and her gown made eddies around her waist before swirling away. There was deliverance in her eyes that betrayed the ecstasy of a woman deep inside herself.
The Wanderer followed the Patron to the hall and they edged the mass of twirling couples. With the ladies holding their skirts high and fanning their perfumes around them, it was difficult to breathe. But the Patron never lost sight of that face.
The Wanderer noticed a pink flush across her cheeks. The girl sensed she was being watched. At first, she didn’t seem troubled by that; she was more occupied with keeping her feet safe from the oafish dancing of her partner. But the Patron kept up his vigilance, and the blush deepened and her features grew tight. Finally, the dance was over. The girl curtseyed to her partner, and spun around to face the stranger who had been staring at her for the last quarter hour.
The Wanderer flinched in the face of her fury and braced himself for the onslaught of scorn. Instead, he was relieved to see her wrath dissipate when she saw her admirer. In less than a moment, her color returned to its porcelain glow and she smiled. But the Patron stood paralyzed, his mouth opening and closing but not sounding a word. The girl smiled even wider. There was challenge gleaming in her pale blue eyes, a challenge she expected her suitor to meet.
“Come on, Friend,” the Wanderer murmured. “You can do this.”
As if he could hear him, the Patron pulled upright, proving his instinct to conquer was stronger than his fear. He walked tall when he approached that beautiful girl, his gait at leisure.
From the abyss between sleep and consciousness, he heard the humming growl. He was confused by the sound until the heavy cloth collapsed, and he woke up with the burden of his tent upon him. Flailing through the canvas, the Wanderer pushed his head and shoulders through the flap into a whirlwind of dazzling colors.
“Hey!” he shouted. “What are you doing?”
His heart pounded and the Wanderer was suddenly dizzy. He squeezed his eyes shut until the feeling passed.
“How strange. I was about to ask you the same thing.”
The Wanderer recognized her voice. The girl he followed into No Man’s Land had finally come awake, and she was now standing over him with one hand wrapped around her necklace. He swallowed hard. She had the coldest blue eyes he’d ever seen. She opened her palm and dropped a crystal in the folds of her shirt. Her glare seared into him.
“So what are you doing here?” she asked.
The Wanderer felt foolish on his knees with his tent collapsed around him. The girl’s presence was unnerving. Even though she was angry, she made his flesh come alive as soon as he saw her.
“Making myself at home,” he said, stepping out of the heap. “Same as you.”
He noticed that she was dressed like him, in a loose shirt and pants, but she also wore a holster, a small pouch slung around the belt at her left hip, and a pistol and dagger held in sheaths on her right. The Wanderer glanced at her face and saw the corners of her mouth twitching. She might be an adventurer, but not of his kind.
“I don’t have anything worth stealing,” he said.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she replied. “Maybe you should get going.”
The Wanderer sighed. The thought of packing up was exhausting. If he complied, he would be alone.
“I didn’t mean to scare you…” he said, trailing off. The girl raised her brows. “But I saw you going into the woods the other day and—”
“Yeah, I saw you too,” she interrupted. “Did I ask you to come with me?”
“No, but I thought we’d make good company.”
“Well you were wrong.”
The Wanderer hesitated. He had never met anybody in his life who disliked him. Confronted with somebody who did, he couldn’t think of anything to say. Then he remembered she addressed him as a wanderer, not a vagabond. He noticed that the girl faced him directly and met his eye with a steady gaze. The way she talked also belied animosity— the low pitch and desultory rhythm of her speech pleased him. If anything, the girl acted somewhat bored. He saw tension in the arms crossing her chest. Her muscle twitched in her jaw. He sensed she struggled to maintain her detached poise.
“Can’t we just start over?”
“No,” she snapped. “You need to get out of here.”
The Wanderer shook his head, wondering if he was in another dream. But he looked again to see the girl’s demeanor was unchanged, and her eyes stared right through him.
“Why are you being like this?”
“Because I have no use for wanderers. Now move along.”
She turned and headed for her tent. The Wanderer stared at her back, too stunned to move for a moment. For weeks, ostracism chiseled at his spirit, but she was an outsider the same as he, and her dismissal birthed a fury he never knew he had. Before he knew what he was doing, he caught up with the girl and swiveled her around to face him.
“I’d like to ask you something,” the Wanderer said. “Do you own these woods?”
“Let go of me.”
The calm in her voice made the hairs rise on the back of his neck. Then he remembered the horse and rider, backlit by the sun and running across the ridge before turning towards No Man’s Land.
“You crossed the border through the woods, didn’t you?”
The girl said nothing, but her pupils narrowed.
“I saw someone disappear in the trees,” he continued. “That was you, wasn’t it?”
“Are you threatening me, Wanderer?”
She spoke softly, yet there was no mistaking the menace in her tone. The Wanderer didn’t care, driven as he was by a wrath of his own.
“I don’t want the Lawmen any more than you do,” he said. “But you can’t tell me whether I can stay or go.”
He released the girl and made his way back to his tent.
“You’re a fool, Wanderer.”
The air hissed when she spoke. The Wanderer was pleased to know he had shaken her composure. But her venom gave him pause. His spine heated where her eyes burned into him and he had to force himself to focus on the fallen heap. He heard her running and his ears prickled. The muffled squeal of leather followed, then the click of her tongue. The ground quivered when a giant stallion was spurred to action. The pounding of its hooves resonated in the Wanderer’s feet for what seemed a long time after the girl had gone.