Authors: Montgomery Mahaffey
Tags: #romance, #erotica, #fantasy, #Fairy Tales; Folk Tales; Legends & Mythology
“Peppo,” his grandson said, rolling his eyes to the heavens. “Are you ever going to admit she lives only in your imagination?”
“I promise you if I ever dreamed her up, I’d force myself awake.”
“You’ve been telling stories about Ella Bandita since I was five,” the youth continued and smirked. “She must be getting too old to be so seductive by now.”
“She has eternal youth.”
The handsome couple smiled at the banter, relieved no tension lingered from the boy’s birthday. Everybody from the village was at the cabin to wish the grandson well and witness his surprise when the Bard gave him his birthday present. The ticket on a steamer bound for the Orient was his last gift to the youth who yearned to travel the world since he was a child. He was overjoyed until he heard how soon the ship would depart, and then he refused to leave during his grandfather’s illness. The ensuing quarrel between the Bard and his grandson ruined the celebration.
The carriage turned off the main road to a winding path. All the passengers were surprised, thinking it was too soon to arrive in port. Yet one glance out the window, and the boy saw the ship he would be on in the harbor. The Bard’s grandson glowed at the sight until he turned to his grandfather, his brows drawn close.
“None of that, Kid,” the Bard grumbled. “This is the most glorious day of your life.”
“I can go later-”
“You go today or you don’t go at all. And you’re going today.”
The Patron looked at his wife, who nodded.
“If I may interrupt,” he said. “I could make inquiries and see if the boy’s ticket can be changed to a later date.”
“You’re very kind, Patron,” the Bard said. “Thank you, but no.”
“I don’t think it’s right to leave you now,” his grandson argued. “I can go-”
“How many times do we have to argue about this? I won’t have you watch me die.”
“I’m seventeen. I’m old enough to handle it.”
The Bard peered at the youth for a few minutes. When he spoke again, his manner was gentle, his voice gruff.
“You have already been mercilessly close to death.”
The color drained from the boy’s face at the reminder of his parents’ murder, but he was swift to recover.
“I don’t remember anything about that.”
“I do,” the Bard said, “and I remember the terrors you had every night for a year.”
“This is not the same thing,” his grandson said. “You’ve had a long life.”
“Death is death, and you don’t need to witness mine.”
His grandson turned his head to the window. Swarms of people were in the streets, and he recognized the travelers from the anticipation sparkling in their eyes. All was festive beyond the carriage, the conversation animated and the laughter boisterous, yet some had tears in their eyes. Loved ones embraced the passengers waiting for the horn to call them aboard.
The Patron pulled the latch and opened them up to the world outside, his wife joining him. They were adamant on the need to check in early at the hotel where they would stay the night and make certain of the rooms.
“We want the Bard to be comfortable,” the Patroness said, touching the youth’s cheek with one gloved hand. “I give you my word your grandfather will be given every care and we’ll be back in time to see you off.”
The driver closed the door behind the noble couple. The old man chuckled watching their backs disappear down a narrow avenue and turned to his grandson.
“I know you don’t understand why I want you to go now,” the Bard said. “Any more than I understand your desire to be a wanderer. That scares me to no end, but isn’t this what you’ve always wanted?”
“Yes, it is.”
“So, if I can honor your wishes, why can’t you honor mine?”
The youth squeezed his eyes shut and nodded.
“It’s rare that one man can give another his dream,” the Bard said, taking his hand. “Will you please let me enjoy this?”
His grandson traced the bones in the old man’s fingers. He still couldn’t believe the Bard was so fragile, waiting for the knot in his throat to dissolve before he spoke.
“Thank you, Peppo. This means everything to me.”
“Then allow yourself some happiness, so I can be a part of it.”
The youth nodded, but all he could think about was that this would be the last time he saw his grandfather. He wanted to savor this time and pushed his tears away, talking to the Bard with a false cheeriness that didn’t fool the old man. They were relieved by the return of the Patron and Patroness, their smiling faces easing the tension in the carriage.
“We have a gift for you,” the Patron said.
His wife pulled a necklace from its wrapping, a man with ardent devotion in his features carved into the silver charm.
“This is the saint who looks out for travelers,” she said, draping the chain around his neck. “He’ll keep you safe.”
The youth started at the sound of the horn calling the passengers on board. The whistle rang in his ears and his heart pounded and ached. He wondered how it was possible to feel excited for adventure and overcome with sorrow in the same moment. The Bard swallowed hard, but smiled to his grandson.
“Well, this is your send off,” he said. “Remember to always follow your heart. At least, I don’t need to worry about you crossing paths with Ella Bandita.”
His grandson laughed, relieved he might leave in high spirits like the old man wanted.
“Now that I’m about to leave,” he said. “Will you now admit you made her up?”
“But if I did,” the Bard retorted. “My last words to you would be lies.”
All four of them laughed, clinging to the suddenly buoyant mood.
“But Peppo,” his grandson said. “There’s one thing I never understood. It’s not possible Ella Bandita could eat all those hearts she stole.”
“You got that right.”
“So if she’s real as you say,” he pressed, “then where does she keep them?”
“That’s a good question, and one I don’t know the answer to.”
The Bard pulled his grandson close and held him with the last of his strength, one tear sliding down his cheek.
“Enough about her,” he said, kissing his cheek. “Dreams don’t wait forever, Kid. It’s time for you to go.”
She found it by accident years ago.
She was camped deep inside a forest a few miles inland from the north shore, far from the hunting grounds of villages, cities, and towns. She spent winters in this grove because of the hot spring she had found deep in the woods, which made the perfect hiding place where survival wasn’t difficult. She had found the tower after a storm. She was riding her stallion that day, carving paths before the snow hardened between the springs, her camp, and beyond. The air was crisp, stinging her cheeks, the sky deep blue against the white stretching as far as she could see. She traveled farther than usual, for she’d never seen the trees end at a peak arising from nowhere.
The mound was covered with snow, but the shape was strange, more like a cone than a mountain and standing alone. She stopped her mount and frowned. Its presence in an otherwise flat landscape was bizarre. Her eyes climbed up the face where she saw even rows of dents in the snow up to the pinnacle. This couldn’t be the work of nature. She walked her horse around the base, scraping snow and pushing her hand through the dents, making hollows to open space. She’d come full circle when a broad swathe of snow fell to the ground, revealing a passage leading inside. The corridor was too low for the stallion, but not for her. She peered through the passage and saw beams of sun lighting up an inner chamber.
She dismounted and walked the passage. She stroked the walls and streaks of soil marked her palms, the earth dense yet pliable, giving way where her fingers dug. She entered the cave, her eyes following shelves curving around the walls to the apex, interrupted only by the windows to the outside and intersected with eight columns of vertical stairs climbing far enough to reach the highest shelf. The room was round and in perfect symmetry. The route of shelves, the placement of windows and stairs were balanced. She had no doubt this tower was built by man and thinly camouflaged by nature, and that it had been long abandoned.
She climbed the stairs, pushing snow from all the windows, and came back down to spin around slowly. She watched beams of light pour inside to ignite pink tones in the dull brown walls, and she remembered the hearts she had in her satchel. She went up the stairs across and to the left of the passage, opening her satchel and placed one of the hearts on the top shelf. The organ's pulsating beat sounded against the hard surface and ricocheted off the opposing wall, doubling the rhythm with its echo. She reached into her bag and pulled out another and set it on the shelf below. Then she went to the opposite stairs at the right of the passage and emptied her stash to the shelves directly across the other two hearts. Back on the ground, she stood in the center of the tower and closed her eyes. She smiled listening to the rhythms of dissonant pulsing. This cave was the perfect cache and now it was hers. She came back whenever she had hearts to hide.
She could hear her lair beating from far away, riding through the forest in the violence of its final bloom before winter came and stripped the trees bare. She had a good hunting season and hadn’t been here in a long while. Her satchel was heavy, slung over both shoulders. She dismounted and went through the passage to the cacophony of sound.
The den was filled with hearts beating along the shelves curving to its peak, but there was no harmony. They pulsed in different rhythms, with varying tones and speeds. Some rocked steady in a low hum, others had a rapid beat and a high pitch, while others skipped and changed pace and tone until skipping again, their beats doubled in echo. The inner chamber was a symphony of dissonance, a massive yowl vibrating through the tower.
Several lay silent. She took the hearts that were far from the freshly dug graves of their deceased and dropped them in her satchel. Then she replaced the dead with the living. She stepped down to the center and closed her eyes, letting the riot of noise pulse through her. She turned in circles, her ear attuned to the individual pulses and remembered the men from which they came. She saw again the disdain in their eyes, the sneer of their lips, and the arrogant tilt of their chins. She could never resist the superior ones who believed they were invincible. All of them held their hubris dear until the last moment. They were humbled when their hearts beat in her hand, panic in their eyes just before their light went out.
She savored the roar. The violent pulsing filled her up with its chaos, but the relief was short before her hunger was provoked. Once the hollow inside her breast started to throb, the pressure increased until she could bear the pain no longer.
She scanned her collection, waiting for one to grab her attention. Her gaze kept returning to one of the seducers. Her memory of the Rogue was as clear in her mind as the night she rode away with him, leaving the Marquis and his daughter behind. She was surprised he was calling for her now so many years later. He must be ready to die.
She took her time eating. Her empty space soothed with each bite and grew quieter with each step she took down the corridor to the world outside, the hearts screaming when she left.
Montgomery Mahaffey is a fantasy writer who has told her stories all over the country. Alaskan winters shaped Mahaffey as a writer, and her work is built off of the myriad of personal and collective experiences formed underneath that mystical landscape. Born in the south to a family of storytellers, Mahaffey has developed her own voice that is suffused with the temperament of the wanderer instinct. Set in a world where magic is at once subtle and pervasive, her novels bring to life symbols and stories of the old fairy tales told with wry humor and passion. In 2005 she was granted the Individual Artist Project Award from the Rasmuson Foundation in Anchorage, Alaska.
Ella Bandita and the Wanderer
is her first novel.