The Thief of Hearts

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Chapter 9

Hamen and Arietta continued towards Silver Falls, following the road from Estroy. Neither of them seemed in good spirits after the previous night, for the nightmare Hamen awoke from nearly cost them both of their lives. It was similar to the first, except this time every one of the five murders Hamen had committed stood against Arietta, the servants, and even his rotund master all had the appearance of Arietta. Screaming he jumped from his bedroll and cast a spell to ward off the demon laughing at him. The fireball streaked across the campsite and struck a birch tree, which in turn came crashing down on the fear-struck duo and their horses. One of which stood wounded to the point where Hamen was forced to put the animal out of its misery.

Arietta did not mind wrapping her arms around Hamen. She merely rested her head against his back as they rode along, happy to be with her Love. Hamen, on the other hand, had begun to lose his patience. The loss of a horse slowing their progress, he dreaded another night in the wild, wishing only to reach Silver Falls and gain control of the power of the Heart of Silver Falls.

Shortly before sunset, they had reached the foothills northeast of High Keep. Hamen glared up at the citadel perched on top of the ridge, once he had the power of the Heart, he may even take down the ancient castle with its arrogant wizards.

As they crossed the highest rise before their descent into the forest, Hamen pulled on the reins and helped Arietta down. “We could use a break.”

Arietta rubbed her backside agreeing wholeheartedly, “What a fantastic view.” She marveled at the vistas from their vantage point. The forest which wrapped about High Keep and Silver Falls were swaying slightly, and the shimmering river sparkled under the slowly dipping sun. Stretching, she beheld High Keep, standing cold in contrast to the brilliant colors of the surrounding countryside.

“I thought we could eat here, it seems peaceful enough,” Hamen stated as he sat down on an outcropping of rock, “But we will need to get off of this rise before nightfall.”

“Alright,” She said absently, for she had spotted something on the plains below, “Hamen, there are riders on the same road as us.”

Hamen walked over to stand beside Arietta, following her outstretched arm to the four figures. He said, “I have a spell which I have been dying to try, it will give me the sight of an eagle for a short time,” Smiling broadly he said, “Let us see who is going to Silver Falls, shall we?”

Arietta giggled, “Magic is so delightful, maybe you could teach me some?”

Hamen smiled warmly but said, “My dear, I believe one wizard per household is more than enough.”

He pulled forth the required elements to cast the spell, and once prepared he spoke the phrase and blinked several times to adjust to his new vision.

“Hamen, your eyes,” Arietta exclaimed, “They look like bird eyes!”

“Precisely, but do not worry they will change back,” Hamen grinned and turned his attention towards the four riders. However, his smile left his face immediately.

“Arietta, you did leave the letter for Lady Matilda did you not?”

Her heart sank at the question, “I, I meant to, but I forgot in all the commotion.”

Hamen turned and struck her across the face, “You fool. You have ruined us.”

She recoiled from the slap, tears streaming down her face, “I am sorry.”

Hamen recovered from his rage taking a step towards her as she, in turn, took a step away, “I regret that I hit you. But Lady Matilda’s Shield Maiden is following us!”

Arietta gasped in shock, “Why would she, how could she know we have the Heart?”

Hamen turned his attention back to the riders, “I am not sure, but she is definitely headed to Silver Falls!”

“What shall we do?” Arietta asked.

“We must reach Silver Falls before they do!” Hamen sighed in resignation. “We will need to hurry now, and ride through the night.”

Arietta hurried over to the horse and got them something to eat. Her face still stung, but her heart refused to blame Hamen. Instead, she blamed herself for making such a grave mistake. Her Love had counted on her, but she had failed to do such a simple thing, she felt as if the slap was not only justified but lenient.

Hamen cursed his luck, the Shield Maiden was yet another obstacle he would need to take care of, and he only hoped Arietta would understand why Julianna would need to die. He took the food offered and ate solemnly, glancing towards High Keep, the spell which had begun to fade still allowed him to see a solitary man walking along the highest wall. He blinked twice trying to make out more details, but the spell faded.

They ate quickly, remounted their tired horse and rode down into the forest. Picking up the road, they settled into a slow, steady pace. Arietta sighed, relieved in a way now that her mistake stood in the open. Her face no longer stung from the slap, but in her heart the pain lingered, she only hoped in time Hamen would forgive her.

Just before the sun sank beneath the horizon, they stopped. Hamen flipped through the pages of Stezius’s spell book until he found the spell he needed. Then he started to etch out a pattern in the center of the road.

“Hamen, what are you doing?” Arietta asked.

“I am doing what I must to keep us safe,” Hamen answered with a lie, “I am merely placing a minor spell here which will confound the Shield Maiden and her compatriots’ senses.”

“Oh, it will not hurt them will it?”

Lying once again he answered, “No, it will merely confound them, they will lose their sense of direction and go astray,” He smiled over at Arietta, “I feel certain the four of them will survive being lost for a day or two.”

Arietta returned Hamen’s smile, happy with the knowledge her mistake could be so easily rectified. She felt confident as well with Julianna’s ability to live off the land for a few extra days, and by then Hamen would have done whatever he needed to do in Silver Falls, and they would be on their way, free to live their lives together, forever.

Hamen finished his spell. Standing back he watched as the circular pattern of cryptic writing glowed red for a moment then vanished. He only wished he could be here to see it activate. It was, after all, the first mid-level spell he had cast in some time. Master Stezius never allowed him such spells. He smiled as he thought of his former master lying in his lifeblood.

Julianna regarded High Keep as it came into view, and she half debated seeking shelter within the citadel of the wizards. But glancing back at her companions she made up her mind not to, feeling as if they may offend the wizards in some way or another and end up in shackles. Her regret over having these men with her grew with each passing hour. Warwick never ceased his complaining, and Trevil always had some sort of grin on his face, as if he held the secret to the greatest mirth on Earth. Glancing over at Reed, she surmised the man did not have very many wits, for he seemed to always say or do something entirely foolish.

“How much further are we to travel today?” Warwick whined once again, “My backside is unaccustomed to traveling so far by horse.”

“Stop complaining,” Trevil snapped, “I know our guide here will stop when she deems it time, and not a moment sooner or later.”

“I could ride until we reached Silver Falls,” Reed chimed in, “It beats walking.”

Julianna sighed as they entered the forest, the sun was beginning to dip low, and she needed to silence the oversized brute, perhaps hearing him complain about dinner would be better than the idle ramblings about the pain his posterior was suffering.

“We will stay here tonight,” Julianna surrendered to their never ending complaints. She reined in her horse and dismounted, “By this time tomorrow we shall be in Silver Falls.”

“You hear what she said, men,” Trevil chirped, “Tonight is the last night we sleep with rocks for mattresses.”

“Aye,” Warwick agreed, “I cannot wait to have something soft beneath me. I am too large to sleep on the ground. Each rock feels like a boulder and each twig a branch.”

Julianna tuned them out as she tied her horse to an elm tree and began to remove the saddle. She stood determined to find Quinlan and return the Heart to Lady Matilda, but the further into her quest the more she hated the thought of traveling with these men. Trevil seemed to be hiding something, and the others two perturbed her to no end. She looked over and saw the three of them talking together in hushed tones once more, and she started to get the feeling something was amiss. Dismissing the notion she made up her mind when they reached Silver Falls she would pay them for their inconvenience and send them on their way, facing Quinlan and whoever he may be traveling with alone seemed a welcome relief to going with these three men.

“Tonight’s the night boys,” Trevil whispered, “Once the little lady falls asleep. We shall fall upon her.”

“Aye,” Warwick grinned evilly, “I say we draw straws to see who goes first.”

Reed spat on the ground, “I always lose when we do that.”

Warwick smirked, “Not my fault you have no luck, blame your whore of a mother.”

Reed tensed up and seemed about to react when Trevil held up his hand, stopping the ensuing fight, “Stop your bickering, save your energy for tonight, unless you make me change my mind and have my fun first!”

Both men stood down, wishing to ravish the Shield Maiden before their twisted leader took the whip to her. They all glanced over to Julianna as she threw her bedroll on the ground, practically drooling as they plotted their next move.

Trevil said, “Reed, I want you to take the first watch, and once she is asleep, you get things ready. Then wake us up and we shall enjoy a little sport before going to Silver Falls.”

“Yes, Captain,” Reed answered.

They made a fire and ate a somber meal, Warwick continued to complain, and Reed seemed preoccupied. Trevil tried to start a conversation with Julianna, but her mood put her off such pleasantries, she just wanted to reach Silver Falls and bid farewell to these three men. So before long she excused herself and curled up to get some sleep. The three wicked men smiled amongst themselves, as their evil plan was put in play.

An hour passed until Reed nudged Trevil and Warwick from their slumbers. The trio encircled Julianna as she slept. Warwick, the heaviest of the three stood straddling her as Reed and Trevil moved to her feet and head respectively. With a nod, Warwick dropped down onto Julianna’s midsection as Reed fell onto her legs and Trevil grabbed her wrists.

Julianna screamed in shock, “Get off me! What are you doing?” Warwicks’ weight pinned her down just as Reed’s made it impossible for her to kick him off. Her only hope of escape was to free her hands from Trevil’s firm grasp. Pulling and twisting her arms she fought to get away as the three men laughed evilly.

“Now, now, you are going to hurt yourself if you keep struggling!” Trevil smirked.

“I am going to kill you!” Julianna screamed.

“Warwick, give me a hand here,” Trevil ordered.

Warwick pressed down on both of Julianna’s arms, pinning them to the ground as Trevil tied her wrists to the ropes Reed had prepared. Once he finished he stood up and tossed the rope over the limb of the birch tree she had chosen to sleep under. Heaving up hard he nearly pulled her shoulders out of their sockets as Warwick and Reed scrambled to get off of her.

Screaming in pain, this time, Julianna tried to kick at Trevil, but with another strong heave, she found herself dangling a foot above the ground.

“Let me go you bastards!” She screamed at them, “Have you lost your minds!”

“Hardly,” Trevil smiled evilly, “Well boys, you know what to do.”

Reed and Warwick rushed in and grabbed her legs. She tried kicking them to no avail. They attached a rope to each leg and proceeded to tie her legs to two other trees, she wept as she realized she was now completely at their mercy.

Reed and Warwick returned from securing her, and ignoring her curses and screams cut away at her armor, leaving her nearly naked under the leering gazes of the three men.

“Well Trevil, I think you are right,” Warwick cackled, “This one was definitely worth the wait.”

“Indeed boys,” Trevil smiled wickedly, “I told you a beauty such as hers needs time to be truly appreciated.”

Julianna wept, her shoulders ached, the ropes dug into her wrists and ankles. Seeing the evil faces before her she knew no mercy was to be given to her, no kindness given. These letches would rape her and afterward kill her. She cursed herself for refusing to believe they would do such a thing. Over the last few days of traveling she had deemed the men as scum, devoid of honor, but this was too much for her to believe.

“Where are those straws?” Warwick said.

“I will go get them,” Reed said and scurried over to the tall grasses growing beside the campsite.

Julianna glared at them with pure hatred.

Trevil smiled, “Look at her Warwick, so full of rage. I cannot wait to break her beneath my whip!”

Julianna’s eyes widened, “Go to hell Trevil, I will never submit to you!”

“Is not that what the girl traveling with the bards’ troupe said?” Trevil asked.

“Which one,” Warwick smirked.

“The redhead,” Trevil said, “I think she said that when I got my hands on her.”

“Aye, she may have,” Warwick smiled in recollection of their last rape. “Of course, I think Reed and I were busy with the other wench when you introduced your whip to her.”

Reed returned with two twigs, for he could not find a suitable grass. Handing them to Trevil, for he had agreed to allow them to take her before he ruined her body beneath his whip.

“Funny they thought we would not send them to the gallows just because they complied with our lust,” Trevil added, “And if we catch up to the one that got away, I will do the same to her.”

Quinlan paced back and forth in their room. He felt half tempted to pick the lock, allowing them an exit from their room. Nola, on the other hand, seemed quite content on waiting, saying she did not mind lingering at the Keep. Her mind leaning towards the fear of trying to steal from a wizard, and what could happen to both of them if they failed.

“We will never make it to Silver Falls in time if we do not get started soon!” Quinlan grumbled.

Nola, sitting in a chair with her feet propped up on the bed said, “Would staying here another night be so bad?”

Quinlan glanced over at Nola. She was smiling with a devilish grin, “Not if the sleeping arrangements stay the same,” He winked and flopped down on the bed, “I just wonder why we have not heard from Skylar or Lorelei.”

“I have noticed they do not seem too concerned with time,” Nola pointed out.

“Aye, I just cannot stand being cooped up inside for long periods of time,” Quinlan jumped back up and moved over to the door, checking to see if it was still locked. As it was, he walked over to Nola, bent over and kissed the top of her head, “Do you think me a fool for making a deal with Skylar?”

“Not at all, in fact, I think we will both do well working for wizards instead of robbing from them,” She took his hand and squeezed lightly, “We just need to trust them.”

“Trust is something I have a hard time giving too quickly,” Quinlan admitted.

“Do you trust me?” Nola asked.

With a devilish smile of his own, Quinlan said, “Not until last night.”

She smacked him, “Well I will have you know I have put my trust in you since we met, and I would not be here if I had not.”

He pulled her up by the hand until she was standing and wrapped his arms around her, “I put my trust in you when we started this little escapade, and you were true to your word,” Smiling sweetly he added, “I am glad you tried to rob me.”

She laughed, “You are incorrigible.”

“Aye, that I am, and if they do not come for us soon you will see just how bad I can be,”

Nola chuckled, “Do not sell yourself short, you were pretty good last night.”

Quinlan laughed and kissed her fervently. They may have ended up in bed again, but the door finally opened, Skylar and Lorelei stood in the hallway, both with a knowing smile.

“Sorry to keep you two waiting for so long, but we had some matters to attend to before we sent you on your way,” Skylar said, “If you could gather your things, we can discuss your trip.”

Quinlan said, “We are ready,” He moved over to the table putting on the backpack containing their few possessions and slung his bow over his shoulder.

The four of them made their way slowly down the hall as Skylar informed them of what he had decided would be a wise course of action. “The way to Silver Falls is not inherently dangerous or treacherous, but if one is not familiar with the paths and roads, they could become hopelessly lost.” They reached the stairs and headed down as Skylar continued, “I have decided to send Lorelei with you as your guide so you may arrive in Silver Falls without incident.”

“I believe we can manage,” Quinlan said, not really wishing for the apprentice to tag along.

“I know you can, however, you would be doing me a tremendous favor,” He stopped and turned to Quinlan. “You see, Lorelei has been here for quite a long time, and I may or may not have promised her she could go to Silver Falls for the spring festival,” He glanced over at Lorelei, “I do not recall the conversation, but she assures me it happened.”

Quinlan thought, “So now I have to babysit, but held his tongue. He considered the proposal for a moment as they started down the stairs once more before he said, “I can see no sound reason to refuse your aid, so we graciously accept.”

Quinlan instantly regretted his decision as the two women giggled behind them. Skylar shot a sideward glance at Quinlan, mirth etched on his lips as Quinlan rolled his eyes.

They entered the courtyard and Quinlan scoffed, “We will not get very much traveling in today,” For the sun had already reached its zenith, and had begun its downward slide.

“My apologies for keeping you so long, but before I could allow Lorelei her outing, I needed to make sure she stood up to the task,” Skylar said as one of the servants brought Lorelei her backpack. Another servant carried a second pack which he offered to Nola.

Skylar smiled politely, “I have taken the liberty of supplying you with enough food and drink to make the journey as pleasant as possible.”

“You have been most cordial,” Nola said as she bowed slightly to the wizard.

Quinlan agreed, and the three made their way out of High Keep. Skylar watched them go for a short time, debating if he had made the correct choice sending Lorelei into a conceivably deadly situation. Finally, he shook his head in condemnation. His fondness for Lorelei may have tainted his treating of his apprentice. If she stood to become more, she would need to put her skills to the test in the world beyond High Keep.

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