It was only a dream.
I kept reassuring myself as I fell into the kaleidoscope of images created from memories of the distant past and recent days coupled with the fears from a wounded psyche.
Terror intruded on déja vu, and scenes replayed with tinges of frightening possibility.
Random pieces from the past broke apart as shards of a shattered mirror, rearranged in freakish patterns of the darkest recesses of my heart and soul, and made an insidious nightmare in this journey through the DreamTime.
“Is she dead?”
Adrianna’s low, creamy voice rang out in my dream as her image came into focus.
She stood in a ring of fire that blazed pink flames. She was ferociously lovely with her sparkling amber eyes larger than life as she stared hungrily at me.
“I have hated her for years. So how did Ella Bandita die?”
Adrianna disappeared in the blink of an eye and I was back in that horrific tower of stolen hearts.
The racket of their dissonant pulses echoed insanity to the peak as hundreds of hearts spiraled up the walls. They beat to different rhythms in unpleasant pitches, and created the most ghastly sounds I’ve ever heard.
In the center of the tower stood my Woman, now known as Ella Bandita. She looked serene and relaxed, while the whirlwind of stolen hearts pumped their ear-splitting melody all around her.
Woman shook her head slowly, then threw her head back and laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“You’ve really gotten yourself in a mess now, Shepherd. Wasn’t I enough trouble for you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about your fancy Courtesan.”
“Adrianna? Do you know her?”
“I know the type. She won’t stop until she gets what she wants.”
“Woman, she wants you dead.”
She threw her head back and laughed again, her large teeth gleaming.
“I know she does. Adrianna the Beautiful has lusted for my blood for a long, long time.”
“It doesn’t matter why.”
Then I was in darkness and away from the tower.
But I still heard the hideous noise of the heartbeats until I came to the next scene.
The Wanderer and I stood before the Mayor, inside the parlor where he received the general public.
The chamber was stifling with massive, dark furniture throughout and somber tapestries lining the walls.
His astonishment at the sight of us made me ashamed.
I suddenly remembered that the Mayor’s son, Anthony, had been one of Ella Bandita’s victims.
Suddenly, a vision of Adrianna the Beautiful in the rosy glow of her back patio came to mind.
Her large feral eyes glittered and her mouth grimaced.
“Is Ella Bandita dead?” she snarled. “We all want her dead.”
Then I catapulted back to the past of more than twenty years ago.
I traveled with my flock of forty sheep to the Capital City, where I went every year to pay my tariffs for new lambs born, and profits from sheep sold.
As happened on an annual basis, I was cursed to come across young Anthony, the Mayor’s son, who took great delight in torturing young boys considerably younger, smaller, and weaker than himself.
As I always did, I pulled Anthony off the helpless child he was beating on. And as occurred yearly, the loutish youth threatened to send his father after me and have me thrown in prison.
Of course, that never happened.
Just like Anthony was never punished for bullying younger children.
Adrianna appeared again, lounging on one of the divans on her back patio, a blazing fire behind her. Her wildcat eyes glittered.
“What about young Anthony?” she taunted. “Doesn’t Anthony deserve vengeance?”
“Hell no!” I retorted. “That vicious little brute got exactly what he deserved!”
Then I returned to the day I had heard Anthony, the Mayor’s son, had fallen victim to the predatory Thief of Hearts as a young man.
I had come to the Capital City on my yearly stop to pay my tariffs, and everybody was talking about it.
Two merchants in line ahead of me gloated in low voices that would not be heard beyond the few people around them.
“I’m sorry for our kind Mayor,” one muttered. “But if anybody had such a miserable fate coming to him, it’s Anthony.”
“I know what you mean,” said the other. “He was awfully horrid to my son ten years ago.”
“Mine too,” said the first. “He won’t be pounding little boys or slapping young ladies around any time soon. Have you seen him?”
“Yes,” said the other, who couldn’t stop sniggering. “He’s an imbecile! A drooling mess of a fool!”
“That’s what I call just desserts!”
“Sometimes Ella Bandita truly is a conquering hero!”
Silently, I agreed.
Although I was shocked at the news, I hadn’t even a shred of pity for Anthony.
I savored the same grim satisfaction of the merchants ahead of me in City Hall that Anthony would never be able to harm another vulnerable being again.
Then I reappeared inside the heavy formality of the receiving parlor in the Mayor’s mansion.
Blissfully unaware of the Mayor’s loss, the Wanderer succinctly explained who he was and what he had been, the talking Wolf bewitched by Ella Bandita who had traveled with me for years.
That the Mayor was both surprised and disappointed was clear in his facial expression and his words.
“It’s a miracle that you’ve been liberated from her evil!” the Mayor exclaimed. “But is this the only news of Ella Bandita you came to share?”
“No,” I said, stepping forward.
I brought the crystal stargaze out from my pocket and allowed it to drop from my palm, where the odious charm swung wildly from its broken chain.
The whirlwind of color swirled around the parlor before I whipped the pendant back into my palm.
“The Thief of Hearts is no more,” I declared.