Authors: Montgomery Mahaffey
Tags: #romance, #erotica, #fantasy, #Fairy Tales; Folk Tales; Legends & Mythology
All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2014 by Montgomery Mahaffey
Cover Illustration by BANE
Ten years later…
In the dusky lavender of twilight, the village young filed into the cabin built at the edge of the forest. As the children were settling down, the Bard came home from the woods with his grandson.
His hands boasted the marks of time. One of his hands made a cradle for the small hand of the boy, which the old man held with great tenderness. In the other, he carried a basket filled with gifts found in the trees. The woods had been generous with its abundance of mushrooms, berries, nuts, and herbs. The Bard would fry up a savory hash that night while he talked, sharing a tiny feast with his audience before they went home to bed. Nobody knew better than he how to forage in the woods, and he was already passing his knowledge to his grandson.
A thrill of excitement crackled through the cabin when they came inside. Tonight was the night for stories. The Bard would talk late into the night, and the children would make their way home in the light of moon and stars. But even if night were black as pitch, they wouldn’t mind. They piled the leaves, sticks, and logs in the massive hearth the way the Bard taught them. The older boys blew the sparks in the logs, their cheeks bellowing to hurry the blaze. The Bard never began until there was an inferno burning. His love of heat was legendary.
He built this cabin as a young man. The villagers who were alive during that time said his home started with the fireplace. They said he needed almost ten years to finish his cabin because of that massive hearth. He allowed himself this one indulgence in life and he wanted it to be special. The only stones the Bard laid for his fireplace were favorites he found on his walks. He explored for years, his black eyes searching for rocks with the unique patterns and subtle hues of earth: deep gray, pale green, earthy red, and soft pink. The stones were layered to make the back wall of the cabin. The deep pit stretched wide and tall with iron mesh so it would contain the spits of flaming wood. His hearth was a masterpiece.
During this time, the Bard had fallen in love, gotten married, and had a child. His wife was a hearty soul and their daughter had an independent spirit even as an infant. Until the log cabin was built, they were content to live in a canvas tent held from ropes tied amongst the trees. He told stories to his family every night, talking in front of the blaze burning behind him. He drew the notice of villagers who were fascinated by the spectacle of a family gathered around a fireplace in the open air. The villagers would stroll by the unfinished cabin with lingering glances. One relaxed evening in early winter, the small family invited their neighbors to join them. That would become the first night the villagers came to hear the Bard. After the cabin was built, the parents listened from the outside while their young gathered inside. As the years passed, only the children came.
They gathered every week no matter the weather or the event. They came the night after the Bard’s daughter married and left home. They came after he was widowed; the Bard assured the children they were more than welcome. Many in the village shook their heads at the strength of his will. The old man kept to his routine, lending a hand to his neighbors. The more difficult their project, the more he preferred it. He especially loved to build, for hard work that required concentration gave him relief from his mourning.
A year later, the Bard thought his heart would perish. He was grateful his wife didn’t live to suffer through the murder of their daughter and her husband by a band of thieves. Whenever the Bard thought of their last moments, he couldn’t escape the anguish coursing through his veins. However, he kept his demons to himself. The cutthroats spared the life of his grandson, but his innocence was under assault from night terrors that pulled him screaming from his sleep, his dark eyes vacant and staring into nothing. The boy was four when he came to live with his grandfather. The Bard was determined to redeem his grandson from the torment of his soul, casting his own grief aside to care for a child who needed him desperately. It was a year before the nightmares stopped. Light returned to the boy’s eyes and he was finally able to see the world he was living in, and the child’s new world was made of nothing but love.
Through it all, on the same night every week, the children always arrived at the Bard’s cabin to listen to his stories. The Bard was forever thankful because their presence brought a harmony that was lacking until his grandson was healed.
As fire climbed the mountain of logs, the youngest child moved to sit with the little boy who had the same large black eyes as his grandfather.
The Bard took his place before the hearth, his figure a dark silhouette in front of the fiery mound. The children heard the soft hiss of deep breathing. Before he spoke, he always claimed a moment to enjoy the fragrance of wood burning. Then his voice rang clear, rising from the depths of his belly and rolling in subtle cadence. The Village Bard began another tale about his favorite villainess, the woman known as the Thief of Hearts.
“In the south of this country, there’s a fashion town built into the upper walls of high cliffs where the sea crashes into the walls below. The buildings of this village change color throughout the day, depending on the place of the sun in the sky. In evening time, the town is invisible. The buildings have the same muddy pink hue of stone bluffs at sundown. Nobody knows how this town was built. The structures are ancient, and those skills were not passed to the masons of today. They don’t have the knowing to carve deep into the rock, to find the support for buildings jutting out from the cliffs and hanging over the ocean. During winter storms, the waves get high enough to flood the streets with salt water. Yet the village stands, half buried in stone, half suspended over the sea.”
“The road to this fashion town is treachery. Guests must wind down a steep slope to reach the gates. Many a horse digs its heels in and refuses to go down that road. It’s wise to travel light here, for more than one carriage has toppled at a curve and fallen down to the rocky sea, taking the horses, driver, and passengers to certain death.”
“Who would go to such a place, you wonder. But it’s a fashion town. It’s the place for the rich, the beautiful, and the very indulgent. The commerce of this village is pleasure and the danger of getting there is part of the appeal. The season is short— only three months from the peak of spring to mid summer. Then the heat becomes uncomfortable.”
“This is the place for decadent Patrons who would rather play than work, hiding their excesses from the peasants who toil hard for their wealth. This is the place for the spoiled, indolent sons of nobility. They arrive in packs, handsome wolves on the prowl for something unique to excite their senses. This is the place for the powerful whose decisions affect us all. They come to this fashion town for relief from the responsibilities of state and commerce, from their families and their mistresses. They escape for a brief holiday of stolen freedom. It is only through invitation that one can pass through the town gates. The guest list changes every year.”
“Desire is promised gratification in this fashion town. This is the place for courtesans, the women who bring fantasy to life. Ecstasy is their art. The pursuit of pleasure is their livelihood. Only the most beautiful and notorious are invited to work their trade in this decadent oasis for the elite. Those who are both gifted and sensible can retire after three seasons. The very best of them make a fortune that rivals the wealth of their lovers; then they are free to leave this life before it erodes their looks and allure.”
“All roads lead to the casino in this fashion town. It’s the oldest gambling house in the country. This is the place where the beautiful people meet. Gentlemen dress in velvet coats and breeches in colors of hunter green, midnight blue, and classic black. The ladies of ill repute are a sight to be seen in their glossy silks of ruby, emerald, sapphire, and pearl. Their gowns fit to their flesh like a second skin, and are cut to reveal their luscious curves.”
“The casino is the place where gamblers discover just how beloved they are by Fortuna, the capricious lady of chance. The guests infected with greedy fever often lose regrettable pieces of their estate, for she is fickle in her favorites.”
“But this fashion town has no protection from Ella Bandita.”
Last year, she struck big at the peak of their season. She took down the highest roller that was ever seen there.
He was winning when he first saw her.
He was a young nobleman from the north. He was a gambler to his core and that night belonged to him. Like most indulgent sons of the upper class, he came with a large party of friends. They were at his side that night, cheering with each roll of the dice. He could do no wrong with his predictions. Every time the dice stopped and revealed the numbers he called, the dealer pushed large piles of chips his way each time.
His father was a Patron of great property, but he had no interest in learning the business of the estate. His passion for gaming came first, before work, study, love, drink, and pleasures of the flesh. Nothing gave him the euphoria he craved more than rolling the dice, calling the numbers and calling them right. His luck was uncanny. They say he won every season he was invited to this fashion town. He could have easily lost the family fortune with the bets he made.
But the Gambling Man always won.
That night, he was in company with the most sought after courtesan that season, a beautiful woman known as Isabella. Fancy name she had, but it wasn’t the one she was given at birth. The Courtesan Isabella would have been grateful to have her origins amongst people like us. She was born wretched poor, but there was no proof of it that night. She stood next to and one step behind a young man blessed in birth, wealth, and luck. She was dressed in a gown the same color as her skin, the neckline cut low. She had her shining hair piled high on her head. Her brown eyes were sparkling, more likely from drops of belladonna, but perhaps it was happiness.
Her escort was young and her favorite kind of handsome. She preferred gentleman built for elegance— slender with long limbs, the neat features of his face perfectly balanced. His muddy hazel eyes were empty when he wasn’t at the tables, but Isabella was not such a woman to take notice of that. She was in company with a gambler on a winning streak and all she thought about was the promise of a lucrative reward. She may have felt something akin to joy that night, or as close as she would ever know.
Just before the Gambling Man first saw the Thief of Hearts, the dealer pushed the rest of his chips to him and whispered to the watchman that he hadn’t enough for the next round. The company of the Gambling Man laughed and cheered when they heard, but the friends standing at his side resented him. Whoever placed their bets on the Gambling Man was sure to win, but his friends were almost as bitter as the opponents betting against him. Those spoiled noblemen were jealous of his touch with the dice, and envy seared through them all every time the comely Isabella pressed into the back of the Gambling Man.