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Challenge Chapter 2

Her hostility was relentless.

When the Wanderer woke up in the morning, he was relieved to find his tent undisturbed. He heard the girl moving around the site, but doubted she was in a better humor. He lay inside his tent until the grating of metal on metal irritated him enough to get up. When he came outside, he was blinded again from the piercing rays of light. The girl was sharpening her dagger, and the blade caught glimpses of sun as she swept it along a rod.

Two slain rabbits were draped across her lap. She must have gotten up before dawn to hunt. Finally, the grating that worked on the Wanderer’s nerves stopped. The girl tested the edge of the blade, satisfied that it was sharp enough, and then she set to work on the rabbits, pulling their hides off with sure strokes of the dagger. The Wanderer watched, mesmerized. He’d never met a woman who could hunt before, and her skill made it clear that she was very comfortable with it. After a few minutes, the Wanderer saw the girl’s stare riveted on him while the blade of her knife carved meat from bone.

The hairs prickled on the back of his neck and he averted his gaze. The Wanderer ignored her the best he could and went to the fire pit. He was surprised to find some acknowledgement of his presence in the camp. The girl had staked two forked branches on either side, leaving the iron weave for him to cook upon. By the time he got the fire going, she was ready. Pieces of rabbit were impaled along a spit she’d carved from a thick branch and set between the prongs. Without thinking, the Wanderer put his hash beneath the meat to catch its drippings. But the girl glared at him and pulled her spit away until he moved his skillet to the side of the fire. Once their food was done, the Wanderer hoped for a trade. So ignoring her previous slight, he offered his hash.

“Do you want try some of mine? It would go well with the rabbit.”

The girl flicked her eyes between him and the skillet, then walked away and settled down at the base of a large tree. She took her time with the rabbits. She tore through the tender meat with her thick teeth and chewed slowly. She even licked her fingers when she was done. Although the girl didn’t glance his way, the Wanderer suspected her exaggerated manner was a performance meant for him. Her piece of theater made him so angry he had to wait until she left before he could eat. By then, his hash had gone cold.

The Wanderer was more confused than affronted by the girl’s deliberate antagonism. As the days passed, he was determined to ease the tension between them.

“Your accent is unusual.”

The morning was warm. Indian summer. The girl was hanging clothes she had just washed in the creek. She stood in profile to the Wanderer. He was surprised how refined she looked from this angle. Her features had none of the raw primitivism she showed when she faced him directly. To invite conversation, the Wanderer kept his tone light. He waited for the girl to turn, but she continued with her chore.

“I can tell we’re from the same country,” he continued. “I’m usually pretty good at figuring out the region people are from by how they talk, but I can’t place yours. What parts did you grow up in?”

Finally, the girl looked his way and cocked one brow. Her savage features were almost shocking after the delicacy of her profile. The expression in her eyes was dismissive. After peering at him for a moment, the girl turned her back.

A few days later, the Wanderer woke up to the rhythmic sounds of a dull thump, followed by the rustle and crunch of leaves underfoot, a soft whistling of air, then another dull thump, the crunch and rustle of leaves, then another whishing through the air. This continued. The Wanderer sighed. By the glow of light against the tent’s canvas, he could tell the sun was just reaching over the horizon. The air was crisp, almost cold, and it was perfect for a deep slumber that could have lasted until mid-morning. But his neighbor was awake, and she made enough of a disturbance to keep him from going back to sleep.

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.

“You could do with a wash,” he said, dropping into the pool. “So are you getting in, or are you just going to watch?”

She smiled, then kicked off her boots and unbuckled her holster. Her oversized blouse fell just below her hips when her breeches dropped to the ground. The Wanderer admired the long muscles gripping her thighs, the meat of her calves tapering to shapely ankles. The girl hesitated, but he floated on his back and kept watching. She cocked one brow at him before taking hold of her shirt.

His breath caught in his throat when she pulled her blouse over her head. Before the garment fluttered to the ground, the Wanderer ducked underwater, propelling himself against the icy current flowing into the pool. His heart pounded from the image etched in his mind. He usually preferred lush womanly curves, but he couldn’t deny the girl was lovely. Her body was a marriage of muscle and flesh that created a harmony of softness and strength. Her modest breasts stood high. Ropy sinews carved her waist and held her belly flat, then swelled into the subtle round hips that guarded her pubis.

The Wanderer didn’t come up for air until his arousal tapered off. He was embarrassed when the girl smirked at him, but he didn’t look away. Her skin was golden in the beams of light filtering through the trees, that star-shaped pendant she always wore resting between her breasts.

Then she stepped to the pool. The sun hit the facets of the crystal and he was suddenly dizzy, blinded by a swirl of color. His pulse roared in his ears and sharpness burst inside his chest, the unexpected pain sinking him. The Wanderer choked and kicked hard to push his head above water, lunging for the shelf. His knees scraped against the grains at the bottom and he leaned over the ledge, wracked with coughing until he expelled the water he swallowed.

But the girl was more agitated than he was. Collapsed against the tree, her face was white and her eyes had gone black. Her features contorted and she heaved through her nose, biting her lower lip. One hand gnarled and trembled between her breasts, holding the pendant tight. She pulled the necklace over her head, her fingers unfolding slowly and dropping the crystal into the heap of clothes.

The Wanderer had the sense he’d been released somehow. His breath came easier and he got out of the pool, lying prone on the ledge with his head resting on his arms. His heartbeat slowed gradually and the quivering in his limbs settled down. The girl also needed a few minutes to steady herself; so she sat at the edge of the pool with her legs dangling in the water. Then she dropped in to her shoulders, her hair waving on the surface.

When she stood up, the water rose to the crest of her hips. She strolled around the shelf, ignoring the Wanderer as she passed until she found a place where the water seemed pleasing to her. Using handfuls of the fine grains, she scrubbed herself, getting as much of the grime from her skin as she could. Suddenly, she stopped and glanced at the Wanderer. The corners of her mouth turned down when she saw him still watching her.

He flushed. Remembering why he came to the pool, he reached for his clothes and soap. Following her example, he scrubbed himself with the mineral grains before opening the bottle. Both the soap and oil had been parting gifts from a clan of nomads he’d traveled with a couple of years ago and he used these sparingly. A small coin of liquid was enough to make a generous lather from his head to his hips. The scent of myrrh made him sigh and he allowed the soap to linger on his flesh as he soaked his clothes, rubbed them against the rocks, and washed them with excess suds.

He glanced at the girl and considered offering his soap, but she had summoned her steed, reaching inside the saddlebag to retrieve a speckled cake and the wooden comb she used on the horse’s mane. She rubbed the crude soap between her hands until the suds were thick, and spread the lather everywhere, her hands spiraling over her rump, belly, and breasts. Without thinking, the Wanderer stared until he noticed the tense line of her shoulders. Then he looked away before she caught him watching her again.

Returning to his task, he rinsed the garments and laid them along the ledge. The dark cloud floating downstream made him grimace. Sitting on a wide flat stone beside his clothes, he worked up the lather in his hair, using the suds to massage his legs and feet until his skin tingled. Then he breathed in and fell headfirst into the pool. He loved that moment best. The earth and sweat lifted, making him lighter before he came up for air, the remains of his lather swirling at the mouth before flowing downstream.

The girl was still turned away. Her hands works through her hair thickened with soap. While she was occupied, the Wanderer admired the lines of her back. Her sides tapered before swelling into her rump. Before his gaze rested on her too long, the Wanderer dove underwater, swimming to the other side of the pool before taking a breath. Then he floated on his back, kicking his legs to return while pushing his fingers through the thicker snarls in his hair. He opened the other bottle and sprinkled several drops in his hands, working the oil into his scalp. After several minutes, his fingers ran smooth through the heavy curls.

Once he was done, the Wanderer saw the girl struggling with the comb. He looked at the bottle and then at her, reluctant to share his oil. But her skin was luminous and rivulets of water trickled down her spine. Then he heard the muffled ripping of hair and winced.

“I have something that can help you with that.”

The Wanderer spoke without thinking. The girl didn’t even react, keeping her back to him. But his body was treacherous, his hand reaching for the bottle and his legs striding to where she stood. The girl started when he pressed the cool glass in the crux of her arm and shoulder. Then she turned her head, glancing at the bottle before peering at the Wanderer with a glint of cold amusement in her eyes. In that moment, he despised himself.

“Go on and try some,” he said. “You only need a bit.”

Her wide mouth curved upwards and a hint of mischief came into her eyes. She shifted her gaze slowly between the bottle and the Wanderer. Then the girl pulled the comb from her hair and held it out.

The Wanderer stared at the instrument. The wide handle was grasped between her fingers, the blunt teeth pointing to the sky. His blood quickened in his veins and his heart pounded. He knew the girl was tormenting him on a whim, taunting him with the temptation of possibility. But he still accepted the comb. The girl turned and swept her hair down her back.

He stepped close. A soft heat wafted from her, teasing along his skin and shooting through his hand when he reached for the small of her back. She tensed when the Wanderer touched her, but he still brought his other arm across her shoulders to guide her down to the water. He leaned her back and ran his fingers through the floating strands, relaxing as many gnarls as he could. Her body offered no resistance when he pulled her up, bringing her to the ledge to sit before him, his legs embracing hers.

He spread a dollop between his palms before fanning his hands through her scalp. With slow twirling motions, he worked the oil down the length of her hair. The girl shivered whenever his fingers brushed her skin, but she didn’t pull away. The Wanderer made several passes with his hands before switching to the comb.

Then he gathered the lower length of hair with one hand and tugged gently through the tangles with the other, the strands giving way a little at a time. He combed through with several clean strokes, and moved his gripping hand to the nape of her neck. The girl shivered again and he smiled. The Wanderer was careful as he worked through the knots in the second length, patient until the wooden teeth of the comb made tracks, bringing out the gold in her tresses.

As he worked, the tips of his fingers often touched skin and the thrill shot to the depths of his belly, where his core descended to his pelvis. But he forced himself to focus on his task. He pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth and breathed to temper his ardor. During his travels, a sage had taught him this cooling breath – especially valuable in those moments when serenity was threatened from desire. The balance was a fragile tension; a sliver of clarity that scarcely held him above the ecstatic abyss while the Wanderer coaxed the knots from her hair.

Her body gave way with each tug of the comb. The girl leaned into him, her hands dangling to his thighs. The longer he worked, the more pliant she became, eyelids fluttering and whimpers escaping from her mouth. Her surrender was provocative and impossible to resist. The Wanderer succumbed. The girl now seemed like a lover and he grew tender, working through her scalp with mild persistence until the tangles became silken threads.

Then he was done. He put the comb down and finished with his hands, weaving his fingers through her hair, then brushing down to the ends. Her tresses glimmered, cascading across her shoulders and over her breasts. Her long sigh moan trilled through the Wanderer, and he couldn’t stop himself from combing his fingers through her hair again.

Her head swayed and dropped back to his shoulder, her face turned towards him. Her breath warmed his cheek and her mouth was close to his the moment she opened her eyes. Her gaze smoldered when she looked at him, and the Wanderer had no doubt she wanted him as much as he wanted her. Then she iced over. The girl swept away with one smooth motion, taking a few steps from him before running her hands through her hair. She seemed pleased. She whipped the entire length behind her, a few golden strands striking the Wanderer in the face. But she didn’t appear to notice. She glanced at him with a curt nod, her hand out to take back the comb.

The cool dismissal in her eyes made him seethe. The Wanderer flipped the comb at her and dove for the black depths of the pool. Fury propelled his arms as he went against the current, his legs kicking brutally and his heart roaring inside his chest. He was exhausted, but couldn’t stop until he was empty of wrath and lust. By that time, the girl had gone.

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