Challenge

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Challenge Chapter 4

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Once he left No Man’s Land, the Wanderer didn’t stop moving. He found irony in the strangers who smiled at him, looked him in the eye, and called him citizen. After he sold his mare to a farmer who needed a gentle horse for his daughter to ride, he lived more like a vagabond than ever. He only took on labor he could finish in a day and declined anything more. But hospitality was accepted with gratitude, because he wouldn’t have to go back into the woods.

He couldn’t get the girl out of his mind. In his dreams, he could remember her under his fingers, those cold blue eyes staring through him. Sometimes he’d wake up with his flesh tingling from the memory of her touch, the smell of her lingering in his nostrils. He’d open his eyes and see she was gone, the numbness crushing him just like the day she had left.

The Wanderer hated the girl, but ached for her in his bones and sinews. He was a fool, as the girl had said. He knew he should go home to the people who loved him. For two weeks, he kept moving until he drifted into the port town where his journey started.

He didn’t recognize where he was until he saw the ship. He blinked and had to look again. Except for the name on the stern, the vessel was just like the one he had been on five and a half years before. When the horn blew, he started, suddenly aware he was on the wharf, immersed in a mass of people swarming around him. The crowd blew kisses to the passengers on deck, while they leaned over the railings, waving to their loved ones who were sending them off as the crew hoisted ropes from the dock.

His heart squeezed from the joy and sadness around him. But the sight of an old man crying and shouting good-bye to a youth on the ship stopped him in his tracks. In that moment, he saw his grandfather as he had been on the day he’d left. Their Patron and Patroness had stood on either side of him. The gnarled hand had been at the level of his heart and the Bard had never stopped waving, growing smaller from the Wanderer sailing away. But he had remained on the deck, waving back long after his grandfather was gone.

A swell rose from the depths of his belly and returned the Wanderer to the moment the Bard’s soul passed. The tears streaming down his face flooded his vision, making him blind to the stranger drawing him close. There was warmth and strength in that embrace, and he sobbed into the unknown shoulder. After a time, the other pulled back and the Wanderer looked into the whiskey brown eyes of the old man.

“Son,” he said. “It always hurts to lose someone. But the pain is worse if you hold on when it’s time to let go.”

Before the Wanderer could say anything, the horn bleated farewell. The old man touched his face and slipped away. He turned back to the boy on deck, waving with one hand and blowing kisses with the other. The youth’s face was filled with the bittersweet of excitement and sorrow, and the Wanderer couldn’t stop crying. He left the crowd behind for a lone stump down the wharf. There he faced the sea and surrendered to mourning.

His heart throbbed in the same manner whenever the girl had angered him. But this time, he was thinking of the last time he saw his grandfather. Shocked, the Wanderer tried to push it away, but the sentiment wouldn’t be denied. Breathing deeply, smoke from the ship’s furnace mingled with the salt of the ocean, both acrid and refreshing at once. His tears dried up and he wanted to curse at the sky. His limbs were taut with the urge to run and make his escape.

But he didn’t. The Wanderer finally admitted he was angry with the Bard for insisting he leave, and with himself for going when his heart told him to stay. He remembered his first sight of the boat and the blinding white of its sails. He felt again that rush of guilt when he knew he wanted to get on board more than anything in his life, even while his grandfather was dying. He couldn’t breathe when he thought of how alone he had been since the Bard passed on. Solitude was the one thing in life he found unbearable.

The memory of his parents’ murder rushed in and the tears came again, and a torrent of sobs wrenched him apart. But he allowed the terror to consume him, just as it had that night. He flinched when he remembered the intruder who had come to his room. Then he saw himself, suddenly overcome with tenderness for the terrified child he had been. He finally recognized the shame he carried all his life for surviving an ordeal his parents didn’t. Something lifted from the Wanderer. The relief made him giddy, so much he almost fell over.

Then he continued through the early years with his grandfather. Rage disappeared in the onslaught of love showered on him for the rest of his childhood. He had nothing but a deep gratitude for the man who saved him from the abyss of darkness that could have consumed the rest of his life. He could still see the Bard’s face, with its deep lines and black eyes filled with the wisdom of life well lived. He wept until no tears were left.

Alpenglow streamed across the sky once he was done. The crowd had long dispersed and the ship was tiny at the edge of the horizon. The Wanderer smiled at the last glimpse of the vessel before it disappeared into the eastern mists. He felt as if he were a shade above the ground when he stood up, the buoyancy like nothing he’d ever known in his life.

“Go home.”

The voice was soft. The Wanderer turned around to find nobody was there.

“It’s time to go home.”

Then he realized the whisper came from inside, the voice of his heart echoing through him. Suddenly he yearned for the village, for his friends and neighbors. Then the cabin came to mind, the windows and door lit up from the fire blazing in the hearth. He saw himself enter, and savored the aroma of wood burning, the heat warming him to the bone. Everybody was inside to welcome him home. He could hear their voices tinged with affectionate joy. The image was so vivid he almost believed he was there until the call of the fishermen pulled him back to the wharf.

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

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

Then he saw her.

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

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

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

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

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

“Go home…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go, Wanderer.”

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

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

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

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

“Why do you think?”

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

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

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

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

“Stop it,” she said, pulling away. “You’ve gone too far this time.”

“You don’t want to do me harm,” he murmured into her ear. “Do you really think I’m going to make trouble for you?”

“Trouble was never something I was concerned about, Wanderer. At least, not for me.”

She managed to wriggle from him and jump off her horse. The Wanderer dropped to the ground after the girl, and reached for her again. But Ella Bandita evaded his grasp.

“You already got what you wanted,” she whispered. “Now it’s my turn.”

She pulled the pendant she always wore from her blouse and held it out, the crystal facets sparkling in the moonlight. Then the Wanderer was surrounded by a whirlwind of colors. His heart pounded hard inside his chest and his pulse rang in his ears. He remembered that first morning when the girl collapsed his tent in the clearing, then that day at the hot springs pool.

“Of course,” he thought. “That’s her crystal stargaze. How could I not have known?”

The lights swirled faster around him and the Wanderer was spinning, lifted from the ground by the cyclone of color. He sighed against his will, the air drawn out of him by an unseen grasp. His heart beat once in his throat and then there was nothing. He was released and fell to his knees, struggling for breath until he had enough. But something was missing. Pain throbbed inside his chest, its echo resonating in the space that was now hollow. His hand was shaking when he touched for his pulse and found it was gone. When he looked up, he saw his heart beating in the hand of Ella Bandita.

Her eyes glittered and her teeth gleamed. Her nostrils flared when she inhaled his scent. She moaned softly and brought the hand to her mouth.

“Follow your heart…”

The memory of his grandfather’s counsel tore through the Wanderer. He howled and grasped his throat, frantic to find his pulse. When he looked at the girl again, there was terror in her eyes. He lunged for her, but Ella Bandita stepped aside. He catapulted to the ground and crouched on his haunches, ready to spring. Ella Bandita reached with her other hand for the small pouch on her holster. Before he could attack again, she blew between her thumb and forefinger.

“Wolf!”

It couldn’t have been more than a pinch of dust, but a cloud glistened around the Wanderer before his body collapsed. The transformation was immediate. Before he knew it, he stood lower to the ground and was much warmer, suddenly impervious to the cold. Ella Bandita’s scent was stronger, and he turned towards her. He could see her easily, his vision unaffected by the dark. He also saw his heart beating in her hand and growled. He could feel his pulse vibrating outside of him, and the hairs rose on the back of his neck.

Ella Bandita cursed when he lunged for her again. Then he stumbled. When his face hit the ground, pain shot through his skull. He extended his arms to push himself up and saw his hands were paws covered in black fur. Then he realized he was on four legs instead of two, the black coat of fur stretching along his torso, the thick tail dropping between his back legs. His ears twitched from the sound of whimpering, and he knew he was the animal making that plaintive cry. How could this be? He was a man, not a wolf.

Just before a loud crack made him drop to the ground, he heard her chuckling. Ella Bandita had her pistol pointed to the sky and cocked the hammer again. Then she brought the gun down and aimed right for him. He got up and fled into the trees before she pulled the trigger. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this confused or frightened. He tripped often as he ran, stopping once he realized she wasn’t coming after him.

“Follow your heart…”

He remembered his grandfather and his hollow space throbbed. He had to return. That woman had his heart and he had to get it back. He stayed in the trees close to her camp and wailed to the sky. He could hear his heart beating inside her tent. He could sense her agitation, her tossing and turning while he howled for the rest of the night.

The next morning, Ella Bandita seemed weary. There was heaviness in her limbs he’d never seen before, and he saw shadows under her eyes when she glanced his way. He stared at her from behind a tree, his body rigid in case she shot at him. But she turned her back and broke down her camp. His lips quivered while he watched her pack. He imagined throwing himself at her, sinking his teeth into the nape of her neck until the bones crushed. This instinct to violence frightened him. The Wolf needed all his human will to restrain himself. But the girl took no notice, mounting her horse and kicking its flanks.

The Wolf couldn’t keep up with her stallion. But he followed the deep prints and never lost track of that smell. He stumbled along the way until he discovered his rhythm and ran on four legs. By evening, he came to a province twenty miles west of where he started that morning. There were woods outside the town gates, and he found Ella Bandita’s camp in the trees a few hours later. His nostrils fluttered at the scent of his heart, his pulse a relief to hear.

Ella Bandita frowned when she saw him. The Wolf kept his distance, remaining silent until darkness. Then he started howling, his grief ululating in waves until the first light of day. When she came outside, he saw the circles under her eyes had grown darker. She ignored him, packing up and leaving for the next town. The Wolf followed.

So it went for a week. He was relentless. The scent and sound of his heart made him desperate to get it back. Whenever he saw his reflection in creeks and rivers, he was shocked. The sight of his big snout, sharp teeth, and long ears was upsetting. His eyes were the only feature he recognized. Instead of a feral lupine gaze, he kept the black eyes of his mother and grandfather. As the days passed, he fed on nothing but water and the tiny fish he managed to catch. But desperation wasn’t enough to keep him going. He could feel himself wasting away.

Then the morning came when she didn’t leave. She had camped at the edge of a forest in the middle of a valley. From his vantage at the peak of the western hills, he saw she didn’t get up until late morning. But the circles under her eyes were nearly black when she came out. The Wolf was as exhausted as she, and he was relieved she rode off without packing up.

He spent the day trying to hunt something to eat. But the squirrels escaped him easily, for he was too weak to catch them. He stopped near her camp to take a long drink from the creek, swallowing as many silvery fish as he could. The sun was dropping towards the western hills and his nemesis hadn’t yet returned. He listened for the beat of his heart and his hollow throbbed when he heard nothing. Then he realized his heart must have been in the satchel on her back. Of course, she wouldn’t have left it behind.

Evening was giving way to night by the time she rode in. The moon was full, just above the eastern hills and directly across from the setting sun. Intent on stalking a wild hare near the creek, the Wolf was dimly aware of the pounding hooves. But his prey noticed the approaching steed and leapt away before the Wolf was close enough to catch him. The clap of gunshot was unexpected and the Wolf dropped to the ground. But the wild hare collapsed in a dead heap.

He turned and saw Ella Bandita dismount from her horse. She didn’t glance his way as she gathered her kill. But he still went back to the western hills, watching her peel the skin and cut the meat in strips. His stomach rumbled. He didn’t know which was more painful, his envy or his hunger. He was convinced his mind played a cruel prank on him when Ella Bandita took the plate, walked up the hill to where he lay, and set it before him.

But his nose didn’t deceive him, the smell of blood made the Wolf lurch for the plate. Then he remembered that kindness was not her nature and managed to restrain himself. Perhaps Ella Bandita had only come to torment him, making an offering only to take it away. He glanced over to see her sitting on the ground, her arms wrapped around her knees. The Wolf could no longer resist the fresh meat. But he made himself eat slowly. The last thing he wanted was to vomit the first meal he had in a week.

The Wolf was so focused he didn’t notice what she was doing. He looked up when he was finished, and had to swallow hard to force his food back down. She had eaten half of it by then. Blood dripped down her chin, the heart still pulsing in her hands as she took another bite.

“Relax,” she said. “It isn’t yours.”

She watched him while she ate, chewing slowly until a mess of blood was all that remained. Even those traces disappeared after she took a damp rag and wiped her face clean.

“I would have liked that gentleman’s heart,” she mused. “I would have liked it very much.”

He was confused. The Wolf didn’t recognize the face of the arrogant nobleman until he thought back to the night at the tavern.

“I’m certain he’s grateful to have kept it.”

The Wolf was surprised to hear the thought spoken aloud. He believed it must be a trick of his imagination until Ella Bandita smiled, her thick teeth stained with blood.

“Well, well,” she said. “So you can still talk. The circus would love to have you.”

The Wolf was so relieved that he couldn’t hear the mockery in her tone.

“Please give back my heart and make me a man again.”

“I can do a lot of things. But I can’t make a man out of you. That’s your job.”

“Why can’t we just forget about this? I won’t tell anybody. I’ll leave you alone.”

“But everybody already knows who I am and what I do,” she replied. “And you should have left me alone a long time ago.”

“But I’m not the kind of man you prey on,” the Wolf implored. “In all the stories I ever heard, you go after the proud, the corrupt, and the wicked. You leave the innocent alone.”

“What makes you think you’re innocent, Wanderer?”

He paused, his mind going back to No Man’s Land. His refusal to leave and his determination to satisfy his desires was incredible, even to him. He remembered that lust from a distance. Even when he thought about the days they spent coupling, it seemed those memories belonged to another. What he could relive with no effort at all was his anger and pride after their first confrontation. He even recalled how his wanting increased with his dislike.

“You make a good point,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say that I’m not innocent.”
Ella Bandita cocked one brow and leaned back, propping herself up on her forearms.

“That’s certainly one way of looking at it,” she said. “But I can’t say I agree.”

“If you feel that way about me, then why did you come here with food? You must want something.”

“You’re right. I want you to leave.”

“Give back my heart and I will.”

“No,” she said. “You pushed me too far.”

“Then I’ll keep following you. As long as you have my heart, I’ll follow.”

The Wolf got up and paced back and forth. Rage throbbed in his hollow and spread through his veins. He remembered the night he admitted to himself that he hated the girl in the woods and he remembered pushing that sentiment away because it made him ashamed. But he didn’t resist now. For the first time since he lost his manhood, the Wolf felt strong. He saw fear in the eyes of Ella Bandita as she tracked his every move. He knew there was power in hatred.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I promise that I won’t eat your heart unless I’m starving or you give me a reason to break my word. But you have to leave tonight.”

“How kind of you,” the Wolf snarled. “Do you expect me to be grateful?”

“If you’re not, then you should be.”

Her voice had grown hard, and he saw the tiny muscle twitching in her jaw again.

“I’ve wanted to eat your heart since the day I met you,” she continued. “So for me to make such a promise is rather significant, don’t you think?”

The Wolf kept pacing, his gaze straying to her long throat. His mouth watered when he thought of sinking his teeth into her neck and ripping apart the veins. He could feel his muscles hugging his bones, readying him for the attack, but the man in him would not be silenced.

“I don’t understand any of this!” he shouted. “We lived together for weeks.”

“I didn’t exactly want you there, Wanderer.”

“That’s not the point and you know it.”

“You mean that’s not your point,” she retorted. “I went against my desires and my nature trying to spare you. You brought this on yourself. Even you have to admit that.”

“I don’t have to admit any such thing. I never did anything to deserve this.”

“I didn’t say you deserved it. I said you brought this on yourself.”

“Don’t you have any decency?”

Ella Bandita was silent for a few minutes, as she slowly shook her head.

“I’m sorry you see it that way. I’ve never gone to so much trouble trying to spare anybody as I did you, Wanderer. What do you have to tempt me to give you what you want? I don’t bargain with those who have nothing to offer and I already gave you plenty of chances.”

“I wasn’t just some rogue you seduced!” the Wolf protested. “We cooked together and shared our food, bathed together and shared our bodies. Does that mean nothing to you?”

“Of course it does,” she said. “I gave you my word I wouldn’t eat your heart. That is an exception I’ve never made for anybody.”

The Wolf stopped pacing and stood before Ella Bandita. She still lay back, propped on her elbows, her eyes fixed on him until he spoke.

“You can justify yourself all you want,” he whispered. “But how can you do this?”

“You grew up on your grandfather’s stories, Wanderer. You already know how I can.”

The Wolf couldn’t hold back any longer. He lunged, pinning her to the ground. She pushed him away in time, his teeth snapping just above her neck. She held his jaws the best she could, but he wrung his head from her grasp. His hollow space pounded and pulsed the hate through him, and his lips quivered at the thin muscles lining her throat. Ella Bandita could only fight him off for so long. Her icy gaze seared through him.

“If you kill me, Wanderer, then what do you have?”

The Wolf heard his heart beating from her tent and the pain in his hollow became intolerable. He still had the urge to tear her apart. But if he gave in, he knew his heart would never be a part of him again. He stepped off her.

Ella Bandita was shaking. Her blouse was torn and blood seeped from the wounds on her chest. She bowed her head between her knees and heaved for air. The Wolf couldn’t stop stalking back and forth. He had no remorse for what he almost did. His fur stood on the back of his neck and the growl rumbled in his throat. She pulled her head up and glared at him.

“I can only forgive that once,” she said. “My promise still stands, but you better leave before I change my mind.”

Ella Bandita stood and turned her back to him. She strode with an even gait to her camp, the moon shining upon her. The Wolf could scarcely breathe from the fury and loathing coursing inside him. But he had no choice. He ran along the western ridge of hills above the valley, away from Ella Bandita. He howled as he went. The Wolf was certain his grief would destroy him every time he thought of his stolen heart and his lost manhood.

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