The trio made their way down from High Keep and entered the forest. Quinlan felt relieved to be away from the castle, whereas Lorelei remained positively giddy with anticipation.
“You cannot imagine how wonderful this is for me,” Lorelei offered, “I have been begging Skylar for a chance to go to Silver Falls for the last three months.”
Nola asked, “Is he a strict master?”
Lorelei winked, “He is, but you know how men are, they usually can be persuaded if you pressure them enough.”
“I did not take Skylar as a man so easily manipulated,” Quinlan chimed in.
“He is quite the exception,” Lorelei smiled, “Perhaps it is his age which makes him so.”
“His age,” Nola said, “He did not seem to be beyond thirty.”
Lorelei chuckled, “True, he is young, but once you take in the number of times he has lived a lifetime he is rather old.”
“What does that mean?” Quinlan asked before Nola could.
“My master has found a way to make himself young once he has grown old,” Lorelei confessed, “He refuses to tell anyone how, and he says it is more of a curse than a blessing.”
Quinlan scoffed, “I could name a thousand who would want youth a second time.”
“Really? And when you are old, and then become young again, what happens to the ones you loved,” Lorelei said, adding, “You sit by and watch them wither away to nothing, and with each lifetime of making new friends, new people whom you really love, you watch them perish. I feel sorry for Skylar. He has taken it upon himself to live life after life for the good of all, but never has he shown sadness for his fate.”
“I see,” Quinlan sighed, “I am finding it harder to dislike this wizard.”
Nola chuckled, “Watch out Quinlan, or you may grow to trust him.”
They continued for another hour before calling it a day, Quinlan surmised they were running parallel to Hamen and Arietta, or at least close behind. As for Julianna, he worried they may run into her along the way.
Night came quickly beneath the trees, blocking out the sun and as they ate their dinner of cheese and dried meat, Quinlan made a note to thank Skylar for the wine which was packed into Nola’s bag. “It appears your Master has thought of everything Lorelei.”
“He does that, sometimes to the point of madness,” Lorelei said without thinking and then clarified by adding, “I meant to say he drives me mad with his attention to every little detail, I much prefer just going with the flow of things.”
Quinlan lamented, “I cannot believe I am saying this, but Skylar is correct, knowing as much as possible is a good tactic, whether you are casting a spell or robbing a tower.”
“No wonder he has chosen you,” Lorelei chuckled as did Quinlan and Nola.
A slight breeze stole along the valley floor, and all of them shuttered as one. Nola commented, “I think it is going to be a cold night.”
“Aye,” He winked at Nola, “I suppose we will all need to huddle together to keep warm.”
“Dream on,” Nola quaffed.
Lorelei had picked up on Quinlan’s attempt to embarrass her, so she decided to take it even farther. “I believe you are right, we would not want you getting ill again,” She smiled over to Nola, “Quinlan can lie in the middle, and we can snuggle either side of him.”
“I, um,” Quinlan started, but Nola had in due course picked up on the thief’s attempt at humor. So she joined in.
“I believe I heard it said if you actually want to raise one’s temperature you should lay together naked.”
The look on Quinlan’s face was priceless as he stared at the two vixens sitting across from him, they could not keep the façade going, and both broke into laughter.
“I am beginning to think Skylar sent you along to punish me for my past deeds.”
As their mirth died down, a scream sounded off in the distance.
“What was that?” Nola exclaimed.
“It sounded like a woman’s scream,” Lorelei answered.
Quinlan stood up just as another scream reached them, “It sounds as if someone is in trouble.”
The ladies stood up as well, “We should help,” Lorelei stated.
“I agree,” Nola concurred with the apprentice.
Quinlan looked at both of them, he stood outnumbered, and even though he wanted nothing to do with playing the hero again. He knew there would be no living with either of these two if he refused. He picked up his bow and strung it quickly, “Just so you know. This is probably a terrible idea.”
As if to make his point, a third scream sounded, and Quinlan hurried off in the direction it came from, with Lorelei and Nola a few steps behind.
A slight glow from a campfire slowed Quinlan’s advance, scouring the woods for signs of bandits or monsters. He stopped them short and whispered, “I will go ahead and see what is happening. Stay here.”
He crept along the hillside until he could just peek over the top. To say he was surprised would be an understatement, there was Julianna, nearly nude and hanging before three men, who seemed to be arguing over the misfortune of the smallest of the three.
Quinlan smirked, “Serves her right.”
He slunk back to the women and said, “Believe it or not Nola, it is Julianna, the Shield Maiden of Lady Matilda. She seems to be having some trouble with her men.”
“Julianna, why is she here, and what kind of trouble is she in?” Nola asked.
“Ah, now that is where the irony comes into play. Julianna made up a story about her youth, saying she had been stolen away from her parents and used as a plaything for some evil bandits. And now she is exactly that, or about to become one.”
Quinlan looked back towards the camp, “As to why she is here, that is simple, she is hunting us.”
“So you know the woman in distress,” Lorelei asked.
“Aye, she thinks I stole a gem from her mistress,” Quinlan smirked, “Funny thing is someone beat me to it, so for once in my life I am innocent.”
“If you are innocent, should you not help her?” Lorelei asked.
“Even if I were guilty I would still help her. No woman deserves what she is about to go through,” Quinlan loosened his sword in its scabbard and put an arrow to the string. “Wish me luck.”
“How many men are over there?” Nola asked.
“Three,” Quinlan answered.
“I can help,” Lorelei offered, “I am not without certain skills.”
Quinlan contemplated her offer for just a moment and then said, “You are no longer in High Keep. Helping or not is entirely up to you.”
Quinlan moved forward, and Lorelei hesitated for only a moment before she followed. Nola drew her dagger, but held back, not really knowing if she could help or merely get in their way.
Stealth existed as second nature to Quinlan, and he used it to his advantage, reaching the hilltop unheard and unseen. He was actually impressed at how light on her feet Lorelei was, moving almost as silently. Looking down on the campsite they watched as the thin bandit yanked on the rope holding Julianna’s arms, she screamed as her body fell back, her legs still stretched wide pulled beyond what they should. She slammed down hard on the ground as the large bandit snatched up a piece of torn clothing and stuffed it into her mouth. Julianna bit down with all her might, but the big man yelled and punched her in the face, freeing his hand he exclaimed, “You are going to pay for that!”
He moved between her overly extended legs, grabbing and tearing the remnants of her blouse off. Leering as she lay there helpless, He started to reach for her as an arrow pierced his back and protruded from his chest.
“Ahh!” He screamed as the arrow struck home. Falling forward onto Julianna, causing her to cry out once more as his weight added to the strain the ropes were inflicting on her.
Trevil spun about, and Reed rushed towards the lone figure standing on the rise. Quinlan put his next arrow to the string, pulling back as far as the light bow allowed and loosed once again. The missile ran true and struck Reed in the stomach, toppling him to land near the blazing fire. Shrieking in pain, he tossed in agony, sword cast aside as he clutched at the arrow lodged in his midsection.
Trevil ducked behind a tree, not wishing to charge a man with such archery skills. The horses were on the far side of camp, no escape there, so he stayed hidden hoping to find a way to get close to the archer. He decided his only course of action was to run away, so he positioned himself exactly opposite Quinlan and took off just as fast as he could. It was to no avail as he lunged forward with a burning sensation, Lorelei’s magical bolt of energy striking his leather armor and sending him flying forward to wallop the ground.
Quinlan moved forward cautiously, not taking for granted that the three men did not have friends lingering about. The scene was quite surreal, one man rolled about in agony, Julianna continuing to scream into her gag, and the campfire sent shadows dancing about the area in a macabre fashion.
Once satisfied the danger was gone, Quinlan hurried over to the nearest rope holding Julianna and with one downward slice, the tension gave way and her legs were free from the torture inflicted on them. Lorelei came over and did the same to the other rope.
The heavyset bandit still lay upon Julianna, so with a mighty heave, Quinlan pulled the heavy man off of her. Unfortunately, Quinlan’s arrow had passed through the man in such a way that when he fell forward, it had pierced Julianna’s stomach. She let out a yelp as the arrow pulled free, and began to sob anew. Lorelei removed the cloth wedged in the Shield Maiden’s mouth, and gently wiped the sweat from her forehead saying, “It is alright, you are safe now.”
Both Quinlan and Lorelei turned as the man with the arrow in his stomach shouted out in pain, Nola stood over him twisting the shaft and kicking him repeatedly.
“Nola, what are you doing?” Quinlan shouted.
Nola looked over at him, hate filled her eyes, “These are the men who killed my friends and brother. They deserve no pity, and I will show them none!”
Quinlan could understand her rage, and so instead of showing these thugs mercy by stopping her wrath, he allowed Nola to extract her vengeance as he turned to address Julianna’s wound. She was pale from the pain, and her arms were still extended above her heads, but as Lorelei moved to release her bonds Quinlan stopped her, “Not yet, just cut the rope above her wrists.”
Lorelei looked at him quizzically but complied with his request. Julianna brought her arms down, covering her breast and at the same time wincing in pain from her dislocated shoulder blade.
Julianna wept openly, the pain and humiliation overwhelming her generally calm and confident demeanor.
“Lorelei, go and get some bandages unless you have one of those potions handy.”
Lorelei wide-eyed in amazement over the whole experience nodded and hastily stood up, but then she said, “We left them back at our camp.”
“Damn, I forgot about that. See if you can find something here we can use.” Quinlan suggested.
Lorelei nodded again and looking about ran over to the horses.
“She’s gone, you can kill me now,” Julianna said between clenched teeth.
Quinlan looked into Julianna’s eyes, “Now why would I do that?”
“Because I am a Shied Maiden, and if you let me go I will drag you back to Estroy to face justice.”
“Ah, justice, the type these men enforce,” Quinlan said mockingly, “Well here is some news for you, my dear Julianna. I was not lying to you. I did not steal the Heart.”
Her eyes widened, but she said nothing, the pain becoming unbearable. Nola, with splattered blood covering her legs came over and kneeled beside Quinlan, “So this is Julianna.”
“Yes, be a dear and fetch her something to wear,” Quinlan said.
Lorelei returned with bandages and fresh water, “Perhaps you should leave her in our care.”
“Aye, I think she would prefer that.” Quinlan held pressure against her wound until Lorelei stood ready to take over, and then cut the bindings from around her wrist and stepped aside as Nola returned.
“I am going to make sure the last one is dead,” Quinlan said and turned away from the three women.
Making his way over to Trevil, who remained on his back, a trickle of blood running from his mouth, Quinlan kicked the man’s sword from his outstretched hand.
Trevil laughed, spitting up more blood, “The little bitch hit me in the back.”
Quinlan spat on Trevil’s face, “You hardly deserve an honorable fight.”
“Join me, and those three will be the first of many we can enjoy,” Trevil offered.
Quinlan nearly ran the man through, but then he had a better idea as a wolf howled in the distance, “Hear that, sounds as if the wolves are hungry tonight, and I reckon they will find a pig like you quite tasty.”
Trevil laughed the laugh of the damned, knowing full well he was finished, “I will see you in Hades!”
“Perhaps, but as for you, you will be there today!” Quinlan smirked, and picked up Trevil’s sword, “I would hate for you to deprive the wolves of fresh meat.”
Quinlan took the man’s coin purse, dagger, and whip, leaving the man cursing him as he walked away.
When he returned Julianna was dressed and bandaged, but she had succumbed to the pain and fallen unconscious.
“How is she?”
Lorelei answered, “Her stomach will be fine, the arrow did not go too deep, but her left shoulder and leg have been pulled to the point of tearing, she will need time to heal.”
“Time we do not have,” Quinlan said, “Can she be moved?”
Lorelei thought about it for a moment, “I think she can, but we need to be careful.”
Quinlan smiled, “Worry not, for the Maker watches over heroes.” He pointed to his left, “For see, he has provided us with horses.”
They gathered up everything worth taking, and Nola insisted Quinlan allow her to kill Trevil. “He deserves to die for what he did!” Nola exclaimed.
“And he will, by the sound of those wolves he will be torn to pieces before too long.”
“You have no idea what this man did to my friends or me.” Nola broke down into tears, “Not to mention he killed my brother!”
“I know you wish to extract vengeance, but the wolves may find us a tasty meal if we linger,” Quinlan reminded her of the impending danger as another howl echoed closer in the night.
Nola turned and snatched the whip off of the saddle, “I just want him to know the bite of his own whip before I go.”
Quinlan looked over to Lorelei for help, but she was busy with Julianna. With a heavy heart, Quinlan stood aside saying, “Make it quick, as soon as we are able I am leaving, with or without you.”
Nola’s eyes darkened with a hurt expression, but she still brushed past Quinlan and over to Trevil. The crack of the whip sounded several times, along with the screams of Trevil until the first wolf came into view. At which point Nola spat in Trevil’s face and kicked him in the groin for good measure. She returned to the others quickly, tossing the blood-soaked whip into the fire as she passed.
Quinlan mounted one of the horses, and Nola and Lorelei lifted Julianna up to him. Quinlan mused to himself, “This is the second woman in a week I have had to carry like a baby.”
Life was fleeting in a world when men similar to Trevil held offices of power, Quinlan glanced over to Nola, and seeing the look in her eyes knew she would never be the same. Vengeance remained a fickle mistress, one which usually took as much as she ever gave. He hoped Nola was young enough to recover from the trauma of the last few days but only time could heal her spirit.
Once astride her horse, Lorelei asked, “Should we go back to High Keep?”
“No,” Quinlan answered, “I do not wish to bring every woman I rescue to Skylar for healing. I may get a bad reputation.”
Nola chuckled while wiping away her tears, but Lorelei wondered what he meant so she asked, “What do you mean, what kind of reputation?”
“A hero who is just a little late,” Quinlan smirked, “I can hear it now. Here comes Quinlan, call the healers!”
They all snickered at the absurdity, and as they reached their campsite, another scream pierced the hushed silence which had engulfed the night, as the wolves tore into the wounded Trevil. They placed Julianna near the fire, she grunted in pain at the handling but fortunately for her, she would recover.
“Quinlan, what are we going to do about Julianna?” Nola asked.
“I was wondering that myself. I suppose it is up to Julianna, but I thought we could ask for her help,” Quinlan answered.
“Really, do you think she will?” Nola asked.
Quinlan, with a devilish smile, said, “Well I saved her life, so unless she wants to reward me the way you did, it is the least she could do.”
“Humph,” Nola scoffed, “Am I not enough for you?”
Quinlan laughed, “Aye my dear, more than sufficient.”
Lorelei watched the couple’s playful banter with interest, having been a student of the arts for most of her life, she remained curious about how couples interacted. Her own attempts to gain Skylar’s attention had for the most part been unsuccessful, he saw her more as a child than a woman. She suspected her playful manner, and only being seventeen had something to do with it as well. She ran her hands through her long auburn hair and wondered if Skylar would be impressed with her actions tonight.
They decided it would be wise to keep watch, for though the wolves may have full stomachs tonight, other creatures may still hunger.
Julianna awoke to see Quinlan staring down at her, “How are you feeling?”
“I am not certain,” She tried to get up, but the pain in her left shoulder made her fall back again.
“Take it easy, you have been through a lot,” Quinlan said as he offered her some water.
She nodded, and he helped her take a drink.
“I wish to thank you for saving me from those men,” Julianna said with all sincerity.
“Yes, you seemed to have picked the evilest people in Estroy to track me down, I am not too certain how I feel about that,” Quinlan said as he sat back.
“I am honor bound to fulfill my mission,” Julianna said, “I did not have the time to find anyone else to help me.”
“So the question is my dear Julianna, what does your honor call for you to do now.”
Nola came over and sat down beside Quinlan, while Lorelei sat absently staring into the fire as Julianna pondered her answer, “You told me you did not steal The Heart of Silver Falls, and when I caught you in the Manor, you said it was Hamen. So do you still hold to that?”
Quinlan smiled, “I do, but to be honest with you. I would have stolen the gem if he had not beaten me to it.”
Julianna would have laughed if the pain had allowed her, “An honest thief.”
“Aye, and to me, it would seem it is better to be an honest thief, than a dishonest militiaman.”
“Not to mention we could have left you to your fate last night,” Nola added.
Lorelei, listening ever since the mention of the Heart of Silver Falls moved closer as the conversation continued.
“I need to know what you plan to do with me,” Julianna stated.
Quinlan glanced over to Nola, who wore a slight jealous look upon her features, but no animosity. He answered for the group, “Our intention is to see you to Silver Falls, and have the healers take care of your injuries, after that you are free to go, or you can join us. We intend to stop Hamen.”
Julianna smirked, “You mean you are going to steal the Heart from Hamen.”
“Yes, but there is one more thing you need to know about Hamen. He was also the one who killed the girl in the cellars.”
Julianna’s eyes widened and after her initial shock she said, “If I am able to help you bring Hamen to justice I shall, but as for the gem, it belongs to Lady Matilda, and I must take it back to her.”
Quinlan smiled with as much charm as he could, “First things first, for stopping Hamen will not be easy, wizards are crafty and full of horrid surprises,” Looking over to Lorelei he winked and added, “Of course I do not include you among the evil nasty type of wizard.”
“Indeed,” Lorelei said with a wry smile, “And why have you not asked for my help?”
“Skylar asked us to travel with you to Silver Falls, and by what happened last night to poor Julianna here, I can see why. But I am convinced he will turn me into some small critter if I was to have you fall in harm’s way.”
In fact, Skylar had sent Lorelei for that precise reason. As he had explained to her before sending her on this quest, “It is time for you to explore the depths of your mastery over the arcane arts. Go with these two and protect them from this rogue magus, put your magic to use for the good of others, and then we shall both know where to take your training.”
“If my master were here, he would help you against a murderous Magus, so I will act on his behalf in this matter,” She smiled playfully and added, “As long as I get to spend some time at the festival.”
Quinlan and Nola laughed, and Julianna shook her head. The Shield Maiden was trying to decide which of them were the maddest.
Julianna asked, “Did you bring my armor and sword?”
“Yes, they are packed on your horse,” Quinlan answered, “Do you think you can ride?”
“To be quite honest, I am not too confident I can stand.”
Quinlan, with concern for her wellbeing, said, “Then I shall continue to carry you, Silver Falls is not too far. We should make it there by nightfall.”
Julianna nodded, feeling a bit helpless. Something she was not familiar with. For since she started her training as a Shield Maiden she had always been self-reliant. Learning to never count on anyone, even those she fought beside. Now, to be carried by a thief of all people was almost more than Julianna’s pride could bear.
Once they ate and saddled the horses, Quinlan mounted and Nola, with the help of Lorelei picked Julianna up and handed her to Quinlan. She hated being so weak, but the pain in her left hip and arm nearly made her swoon, so she resolved to allow this embarrassment to continue.
Quinlan sat with Julianna before him. Her pain did not allow her to ride straddling the horse, so she sat sidesaddle, with Quinlan’s arms keeping her from tumbling off. To make matters worse for her pride, Julianna needed to wrap her good arm about Quinlan to keep balanced.
“Let us be off,” Quinlan said.
Lorelei took the lead, for Skylar’s comment on the numerous paths was clearly not untruthful. By midday, they had crossed no fewer than seven trails, and as for danger, they were evident as well. They came across the remains of a wagon and two corpses, to which Lorelei cited the cart, had crossed over a magical trap. They all exchanged glances, but none of them spoke what all four of them were thinking, Hamen had placed the trap there hoping to ensnare them.
Just before the sun dipped below the horizon, the glow from the numerous torches and lamps of Silver Falls came into view.