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Challenge Chapter 3

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He saw their horses before he saw the Lawmen. The Wanderer spent the morning foraging along the eastern hill approaching the hot springs. The woods were generous with his favorite mushrooms, and his sack was overflowing by afternoon. Eager to start the fire and make his hash, he came back to camp early. But the sight of two horses with their braided manes and cropped tails made the blood drain from his face.

The Lawmen looked like phantoms. Dressed in black coats flaring to their knees, they prowled around the camp. The Wanderer watched the shorter one come to the girl’s tent with pistol in hand, while the taller one crouched at the fire pit. The iron weave was cast aside and he sifted through the ashes with one hand, the other holding his baton with a firm grip.

But they were afraid. The Wanderer could smell their fear, the sharp pungency assailing his nostrils. He also knew from the weapons trembling in their hands, their tight lips and pale faces. Then he stepped on a twig and the loud crack shattered the stillness, catapulting the Lawmen into aggressive defense. The taller one stood, the baton high over his head while the shorter dropped to the ground and aimed his pistol for the Wanderer.

His sack slipped from his fingers, spilling mushrooms, berries, and herbs at his feet. The Wanderer was transfixed on the man lying belly to the ground, a gun shaking in his hand. He couldn’t stop staring at his face, thinking it strange that any Lawman should resemble an aging cherub. He even forgot the other one until he stepped into his line of vision. The taller Lawman peered at him with watery green eyes, relaxing once he realized the Wanderer couldn’t move.

“I assume this is your camp,” he said, after his partner stood up and joined him.

The Wanderer nodded.

“Where do you come from?” the shorter one asked.

“I’m from here,” he replied, pointing to his tent. “I have my papers in there.”

He retrieved his documents and the Lawmen flipped through the pages, perusing the stamps of all the countries he’d been in the past five years. The taller Lawman even whistled when he turned back to the first page and read the name of his family and village.

“You’ve certainly traveled far from home,” he said. “How long have you been back?”

“About three months.”

The Wanderer cursed his absence of mind when both Lawmen looked up.

“What are you doing in these woods?” the shorter one asked.

“Am I breaking the law?”

“No. But why are you living like this now that you’re home? Don’t you have people?”

The Wanderer flinched as if he’d been slapped. His throat closed up and he crossed his arms, leaving the Lawmen waiting for an answer. When none came, they frowned.

“You were asked a question,” the taller persisted. “What are you doing in these woods?”

The Wanderer knew he was foolish to remain silent. They might arrest him if he didn’t cooperate, but he couldn’t respond. He glanced at the shorter Lawman. He seemed more bewildered than offended, his round eyes flicking to the page his partner held open. Then his brow furrowed and he bent his head, looking closely before staring into the Wanderer’s face. He thought it must be his imagination when he saw recognition in the Lawman’s eyes.

“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.


“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.”


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.

“You don’t seem especially troubled by that,” he shot back.

The girl chuckled. Her demeanor was seductive, yet also terrifying. Her eyes glittered when gazed at him, and her large teeth gleamed when she smiled.

“That’s because I want something from you too, Wanderer.”

Her voice grew soft, a rumbling whisper that made the heat rise from the depths of his belly and the hairs prickle on the back of his neck. The Wanderer wondered if the girl could see inside his darkness, knowing the desires he dared not think about. Then the vision of a hungry wolf stalking prey came to his mind.

“And the longer you stay,” she said. “The more likely I’ll take it.”

“Why don’t you tell me what it is? Maybe I’ll give it to you.”

“I’d really like to spare you, Wanderer. But you’re exhausting my good intentions.”

She chuckled again and stood up. Her movement was so swift and fluid, the girl had already taken his plate and skillet along with hers before he understood what she was doing. Just like that, the mood shifted. Her eyes were empty when she glanced at him, her manner distant.

“I’ll wash up,” she said. “My way of saying thanks for tonight’s supper.”

But the girl had only taken a few steps in the direction of the nearest creek before she turned back. Shadows from the dimming fire flickered across her face.

“Take the Lawman’s advice, Wanderer, and go home. There’s nothing for you here.”

He didn’t move for a few minutes. Listening to the splash of water as the girl cleaned the dishes, he could still feel the light slap of her braid against his cheek, the brush of her fingers when she took his plate, and the honey musk scent of her he tried to force out of his mind.

The Wanderer knew she was right. He had no reason to stay once he finally recognized the emotion borne in him during her fit of laughter. It was hatred.

The dream started like the others. He drifted through heat until he came to the cabin, but this time the Bard held onto him longer. He wanted more than anything to rest in the safety of that embrace, but the Wanderer knew their reunion wouldn’t last. When the old man pulled back, there was sorrow in his deep black eyes.

“There was something I never told you,” he said. “Sometimes it can destroy a man to follow his heart.”

Before the Wanderer could answer, his grandfather pushed him through the fire and he came out in the garden surrounding the manor. He knew it was summer from the sweat on his brow and the scent of lilies. Then he saw the couple.

The Patroness had never looked more beautiful. Her eyes sparkled and she had a robust bloom in her cheeks as she strolled with her husband through the garden paths. The Wanderer arrived in time to hear her say she was pregnant. The Patron gave a shout of joy, picking up his wife and spinning her through the air. His beloved was light as a feather floating and fading away.

Her chambers were the next destination in this journey of dreams. The Patroness seemed ready to give birth, her belly swollen and round beneath the sheets. But the Wanderer was aghast at her appearance. Her cheeks were hollowed, her skin the color of ashes, dark circles under her eyes. He suspected she’d been confined to bed for months. The Patron was at her side, reading a parable in the rhythm used to lull a child to sleep. But his wife was agitated.

“Be good to her.”

Her voice that once rang with the clarity of a silver bell was ravaged, now raspy and hoarse. She gripped her husband’s hand and pressed her lips to his palm.

“Please,” she whispered.

The Wanderer had to look away from the desperation in her eyes. The Patron paused, then set his book aside to stroke her forehead.

“My love, please don’t distress yourself.”

“The baby is a girl. Girls need…”

She trailed off, her face crumpling before she turned away. Her husband caressed her and murmured soothing words, but she turned back to him with a hard set to her features.

“Give me your word that you’ll be good to her.”

“Everything will be fine,” the Patron said. “You’ll mend after the baby comes.”

“Promise me!”

She tightened her grip on his hand until his fingertips were white. The ferocity in her gaze forced the Patron to look away.

“If you love me, then you will be good to our daughter no matter what—”

“That’s enough!” the Patron shouted. “Of course I’ll be good to her. I give you my word along with the promise that we will make wonderful parents for our little girl.”

Her features softened and the terrified urgency in her eyes was gone. The Patroness was almost beautiful again and she kissed her husband’s hand with ardor, disappearing from the Wanderer’s view as he drifted back into the mist between dreams.

But there was no warmth and all was black around him. The chill on his skin reminded him of nights in early spring before winter was ready to let go. Then he heard her screaming.

He came back to the chambers of the Patroness, startled when a servant walked through him. He realized she must be the midwife and the birth must have gone horribly wrong. The woman’s features had the distortion of grief and the bundle she held in her arms was silent. The Wanderer thought the baby must have been stillborn, for the Patron’s anguish was deafening. He sat in a pool of blood, the cords along his neck bulging from the howling threatening to tear the room apart. He held his wife in his arms, rocking her back and forth. Her head rolled aside and the Wanderer stared into eyes that had gone black, seeing only into the land of death.

He knew this was only a dream and struggled to come awake, but he couldn’t. The dead stare of the Patroness blurred, leaving the Wanderer gazing into the black eyes of his mother. He never realized how frightened she had been that night until he saw her as a man. He reached out to her, but she looked right through him, standing at the door with a finger to her lips.

“Be quiet,” she said. “And do not move.”

The Wanderer turned around and saw himself. He was a little boy in bed with the covers up to his chin, his eyes wide with terror. Then his mother closed the door and thrust him into the darkness. He couldn’t do as she told him this time. When his mother screamed, the Wanderer screamed with her. Silence and stillness had killed her. He would yell and fight. He would rail against the demons he was blind to, the intruders who had murdered his parents.

He felt a touch on his shoulder and swung his arm. His hand balled into a fist, his fingers crushed against skin and bone. The punch was gratifying, but it wasn’t enough. Suddenly his wrists were gripped, his arms pressed above his head, and one of the demons was upon him.


He wasn’t a child anymore. He knew he was stronger than his attacker, pushing back until the weight on him gave way. Then she leaned into him and he heard her voice in his ear.

“Wanderer, wake up!” she said. “You’re having a nightmare.”

He opened his eyes and saw nothing. He pushed again, but confusion exhausted him enough she was able to keep his arms pinned above his head. He knew it was the girl from her scent. The honey musk was undeniable. Her breath was warm on his face.

“Wanderer, do you remember where you are?”

He was shaking, and before he could stop himself, began to sob. He felt the girl stiffen and her weight shift. But he sat up and grabbed her, burying his face in her neck.

“Let me go, Wanderer!”

But he had to hold on. He couldn’t see anything but the nightmares and memories still haunting him. The images were slow to disappear, but as he became aware of his surroundings, they did. He felt the hard ground underneath his legs, the chill on his skin, the feeling of his rough blanket fallen around him. The girl was rigid in his arms, but warm and soft. He held her tight, breathing in her aroma. He was surprised when he noticed her folded legs hugging his hips. She must have climbed on top of him during his nightmare. Then he remembered.

“Did I hit you?”

“Yes, you did,” she said. “Now that you’ve finally come back to your senses, will you please let me go?”

He strained to make out her shape, but, in the darkness of his tent, that was impossible. Her smooth liquor voice and sweet pungent smell disoriented him. Only the feel and smell of her made this seem real. He wished she would touch him. Maybe then he could stop shaking.

“Can’t you just hold me for a while?” he asked.

“You can’t be serious. You want me to comfort you?”

“Is that really asking so much?”

“Yeah it is,” she said. “I’m not exactly the comforting type.”

“You woke me up from a nightmare, didn’t you?”

“Because you were screaming and woke me up. What else was I supposed to do?”

The girl sounded as bored and detached as always. For once, the Wanderer welcomed the bitter hardness to pulse inside him, anything to make the terror go away. But his rage wasn’t enough. His limbs were overpowered with a violence of trembling he couldn’t stop. He didn’t know who he despised more, the girl for her indifference or himself for needing her not to be.

“I’d like to know something about you,” he snapped. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Go ahead,” she said. “Ask whatever you want.”

“Do you ever hate yourself?”

He savored the sharp intake of her breath. He had actually gotten to her. The Wanderer knew for certain when she didn’t answer right away, a victory he hadn’t foreseen.

“Well,” he persisted. “Do you?”

“All the time,” she said. “If you must know.”

“I dare you to try something different. You might surprise us both.”

“I have no idea what you want of me, Wanderer.”

“That’s crazy,” he said. “Hasn’t anybody ever calmed you down when you were upset?”

She fell silent, but the Wanderer didn’t push her to answer. The thrill of cruelty was already wearing off and left him ashamed. It was strange talking to the girl without being able to see her. The blackness made their dialogue a specter floating in the abyss where it would be forever suspended.

“Yes,” she finally said. “Once, there was somebody who did.”

There was weariness, even sadness, in her voice he never heard before. The Wanderer was surprised by the flush of sympathy pouring into him. He was even relieved. His compassion brought him back to the man he had always been, whose kindness and goodwill made him friends all over the world - the man his grandfather had raised him to be.

“All right,” he said gently. “Why don’t you start with that and go from there?”

The Wanderer couldn’t believe it when the girl did as he asked. She leaned into him and wrapped her arms around him, her head falling to his shoulder and nestling against his neck. She gave a long sigh when he pulled her close, her body melting into his and her hands slowly stroking the length of his back. The Wanderer gripped her until the shaking subsided in smaller waves. Then he loosened his arms and they continued to hold each other, their breathing merging and rolling in mirrored rhythms. His lungs expanded with the air she pushed out and, every time he exhaled, his breath flowed into her.

Then his trembling was gone. His face was still buried in her neck where her scent was lighter. He inhaled deeply and let his hands roam over her back. The girl didn’t resist, returning his caresses with her own. Before the Wanderer knew what he was doing, he brought his lips to the flesh below her ear. He felt the offering she made of her neck, her sighs longer and louder as he nibbled down the canal to the base of her throat. In a swoon, the Wanderer collapsed to the ground and the girl fell with him.

Her head rested on his chest, and her moaning reverberated into him before her lips pressed his left nipple. The subtle bite of her teeth made his heat surge, and the Wanderer clutched at her blouse, the rough fabric irritating his skin and keeping him from the flesh underneath. Her arms gave and stretched above her head when he pulled her shirt off, her breasts crushed against his chest. The Wanderer pulled her head down, bringing her mouth to his. Her lips were surprisingly soft, her taste hinting of salt and savory.

Then the girl spread her legs and opened those lips, moving along his shaft. He could feel her through the cloth of their pants and groaned. The pressure was exquisite, making him harder as he clawed his hands down her spine. Her scent was changing to pure musk and her back arched into his fingers. The girl cried out, but she hadn’t reached her peak yet. Her taut muscles still quivered under his fingers. She gripped his hands and took them away, her undulating rocking harder waves upon him. Pleasure gave way to pain, catapulting the Wanderer back to that day at the hot springs. He remembered her smoldering gaze just before the girl iced over and pulled away from him.

She was right at the edge. Her cries reached a higher pitch the moment she was ready to fall. But the Wanderer rolled her off him, making her suffer the denial she brought on him. But he couldn’t restrain the urge to bring his mouth to her breast and suck. The girl whimpered at first, her body soft against him. Then she chuckled, a low and nasty sound reverberating in the darkness. Her hands came to his waist; her deft fingers untied the laces and pulled his pants down. She slipped from his grasp and the Wanderer’s breath was trapped in his throat when she took him in her mouth. Her steady rhythmic suckling built the pressure slowly. The Wanderer saw white spots in the blackness and he rocked his hips to push deeper in her mouth, his belly quivering as he reached for the climax. The girl pulled away, and agony clenched his innards.

He doubled over in pain. Her chuckle taunted him, prodding him back to that day at the pool. He could still see her tresses he had just combed into silk, the golden strands slapping him in the face when she whipped her hair back. The Wanderer snarled, gripping the girl around the waist with one arm, undoing the string at her pants with his free hand and pulling them off. Then he cupped her pubis with his hand, pressing the heel of his palm into her mound until her resistance melted. He waited until her breath caught in her throat before bringing his fingers up the lips, parting them where he found the nub. With tender firmness, he embraced the moist flesh between his fingers and rubbed slowly. Her long humming sigh sang in his ears and her scent inflamed his senses. The girl arched her pelvis towards his fingers, and the Wanderer brought his mouth down on hers and sucked on her lips. He wanted to engulf her, but forced himself to hold back. The girl must have sensed he was about to stop. She brought her forearm down, pressing his phallus and she pulled until her hand came to his head. She gripped and kept pace with his rhythm.

Then he couldn’t stop. The pressure built inside him, he saw white spotting in the darkness again, and the moan borne from the depths of his belly escaped from his mouth. The girl’s tension also rose; her breath came in rapid puffs, the nub grew hot and her musk turned to sweet. She undulated her hips, the wetness between her legs inviting him to push his fingers inside her. She was at the precipice, but the Wanderer didn’t give in. The girl cried out, biting his shoulder. The sharpness of her teeth pulled him back from the edge to another memory of the springs. He could still see the disdain in her cold blue eyes when the girl held her hand out to take back the comb.

The Wanderer was reaching his own crescendo, wanting more than anything to give in to the wave, its crest frothing before the crash. It took all of his strength to stop. He took both of the girl’s hands and pulled them above her head. Then he rolled on his back, and brought the girl with him to rest on his chest.

“Damn you, Wanderer!” she snarled. “What are you doing?”

“I was curious as to why you haven’t told me no.”

“Because I don’t want to.”

Then she spread her legs and took him. The Wanderer gasped when the soft jaws devoured him. He reveled in her moist before the blackness went completely white. The girl screamed and shuddered the moment he exploded inside her.

Darkness gave way to light, but the Wanderer hardly noticed. Immersed between her legs, his hands roamed over her belly, and the soft melted under the tips of his fingers. She gave herself over to another climax, her moaning alto hum resonating in his bones while he drank from her. He wanted more of her nectar. But the girl brought him up, engulfed his mouth with hers, wrapped her legs around him, and let him enter her again. The Wanderer lost himself in the storm that went on without end, the girl shuddering in his arms. Her head was thrown back, and a low growl escaped from her mouth the instant her body was no longer her own.

Then it was night again. Falling with the rise of the sun and going down when the moon rose, the Wanderer and the girl came together and apart in a rhythm of their own, the union of their bodies different each time. She fell over the edge time and again, but she would never surrender. She was never pliant in his arms, lying on him with her head against his chest and her face averted. The more they made love, the more he craved that softening. He tried to enfold her in tenderness, but the girl always pushed him away. The Wanderer had never known a lover like her. She had the delicate flesh of a woman and the hard drive of a man, a lust equal to his. He saw it in the hunger blazing in her eyes every time she reached for him, and his heart beat violence inside his chest.

The Wanderer lost count of the days that passed, their carnality both bliss and torment. He yearned for the girl to melt in his arms just once. But after each shudder that claimed her body, she grimaced like one in pain, moaned and turned her face away.

“Are you all right?” he would ask.

But the girl never answered. Before she fell upon him again, her gaze was primal, ensnaring the Wanderer in a delirium of coupling that left him exhausted and exhilarated. He fell into near unconsciousness while making love to her. When he woke up joined to her again, his peak crested into his dreams and blurred his reality, their bodies churning in a rhythm that left them breathless.

Eventually, they had no choice but to stop. The girl collapsed, too spent to resist. She was soft in his arms, the closest to surrender he would ever get from her. His pulse slowed and the Wanderer dozed. The slumber was a relief until the bite of her teeth woke him up. He saw the girl gnawing on him, her thick teeth piercing his flesh where she sucked below his left nipple.

“Stop it!” he yelled, jerking away. “That hurts!”

The Wanderer was shocked at the blood dripping from the wound, his skin mottling around it. When he looked at the girl, his heart started pounding hard against his ribs. The ferocious longing in her eyes stirred up tentacles of fear.

“What was that about?” he whispered.

She groaned, that muscle twitching in her jaw. The girl reached for her naked throat, her fingers groping for nothing. Then her gaze turned to ice and she started to laugh. He heard the edge of hysteria in the sound, and wondered if this was the start of a fit. But the girl heaved for air until she stopped, and wiped the blood from the corner of her mouth.

“You are one lucky fool, Wanderer,” she said. “You’re the luckiest fool I’ve ever seen.”

She reached for him again and the madness of coupling continued. Finally, the Wanderer fell off his last peak to soar into the realm of dreamlessness.

How long he stayed there, he didn’t know, but he knew the girl was gone before he opened his eyes. The soreness of his flesh permeated his bones and he ached. Her absence was as acute as her presence had been. He fought to stay in the limbo between sleep and waking, but the crack of burning wood and the smell of smoke pulled him awake. He almost collapsed when he sat up, his hunger making him dizzy. The scent of savory was a relief, a hint of food made ready. The girl must have gotten up early to prepare the meal for them.

The Wanderer came outside his tent to an explosion of color. He was shocked to find the autumn season reaching its peak. The trees had been mostly golden when last he remembered, but the clearing seemed on fire with the orange and red leaves glowing from the evening sun. He was spellbound for a moment before he saw the girl had left.

The camp was desolate without her things to fill it up. The only trace of her was the iron mesh resting over the pit. On top was his skillet filled with the meat, herbs, and mushrooms she had cooked for him. The fire was nearly dead, the embers spitting their last flares. Next to the pit, she’d staked a pole where the carcasses of two squirrels dangled. They were skinned from their necks to their hind feet, the meat of their bodies still fresh, their eyes filmy and unseeing.

Too weak to forage, the Wanderer couldn’t ignore the meal she prepared for him. But he tasted nothing as he ate, knowing emptiness would consume him later.

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