Nola and Lorelei made their way out onto the streets of Silver Falls, excited to see what the town’s nightlife resembled at night. The midnight hour had already come and gone as they strolled into the town square, musicians played flutes and lyres as townsfolk and visitors danced about in drunken revelry. Before they knew it they were swept up in all the commotion, they danced and laughed for over an hour, enjoying the freedom the lively town provided.
“We should be getting back,” Nola said as the two sat winded from their exertions.
“But we cannot,” Lorelei, her eyes as mischievous as always said, “We have not even tried to find the thieving magus.”
“You are right, but if that was truly our intent, I think we can rule out the town square now.”
“Come on Nola. Let us go up to the falls,” Lorelei jumped up and dragged Nola from her seat. They made their way from the center and worked their way towards the right side of the lake, and everywhere they went the scene replayed itself. People were celebrating, singing, dancing and merrymaking on each of the narrow winding roads. Several times Nola and Lorelei were forced to stop and change course, lest they may be swept up again in the ever present carousers.
Once they reached the wide pathway which led up to the falls, the crowds thinned out. Perhaps the roar of the falls was too loud for the townsfolk, or maybe the mist from the falls, which made the walkway precarious, was simply too dangerous at night for even the most sure-footed drunkard. Either way, the two ladies were happy to be free from the chaos below.
The moon stood nearly full, another day and the solstice would be upon them. The lake mirrored the glowing orb in all its brilliance and shimmered off the falls adding a surreal feeling to the whole area.
“I wonder if the people of Silver Falls ever sleep,” Nola mused.
“They must,” Lorelei said, “However it may make finding Hamen and Arietta easier.”
Lorelei smiled playfully, “They will be the only people walking around tomorrow.”
They both laughed as they reached the falls, the mountainside had been carved away behind the falls to give the inhabitants access to the once rich veins of silver. Dozens of tunnels splintered out from the main corridor, undoubtedly the newer shafts were made by men and not the dwarves. The contrast stood so evident it would have been noticeable to a blind man. Whereas the oldest tunnel, made from sturdy stone blocks were arched and appeared as if they would stand forever, the newer shafts were square and held up by timbers, most of which were rotting from the constant moisture from the falls.
The two of them made their way behind the falls, which roared and echoed off the walls, making it that much louder. They found the floor extremely slippery, so Lorelei smiled gleefully and said, “Watch this!” She took two quick steps and slid across the slick stones.
Nola laughed and followed suit, gliding behind the young magus. They stayed there for a little while, sliding back and forth until they had enough of falling onto their backsides. For with each slide they had turned it into a competition to see who could glide the furthest.
“Now we really should head back,” Nola said after a while.
“Why, are you afraid Quinlan may be getting his reward for saving Julianna?”
Nola frowned, “He had better not be!”
They started back, and that is when Nola and Lorelei noticed the guards half way down the main tunnel. Nola said, “I was beginning to wonder if they guarded the mines.”
Lorelei, about to answer stopped as she spotted something out of the ordinary. She grabbed Nola by the arm and drew her into a shadowy recess beyond the falls.
Within the depression, there stood a naturally formed dais about two hands wide, and cylindrical in shape. At first glance, it appeared to be no more than a broken stalactite jutting out from the ground. Lorelei muttered a few arcane words and her palm glowed with a faint light.
“Look there. Do you see the runes etched in the stone?” Lorelei asked with thrilled amusement.
“Yes, can you read them?”
“No, they are not familiar to me,” Lorelei frowned in disappointment. “I suppose Skylar would be disappointed I cannot, but I never really paid much attention to some of the older languages,” Seeing Nola’s expression she clarified herself, “These are neither Dwarven nor Elvin, they are either from the Ancient’s or they could be Demonic in nature.”
“Then we should leave them alone,” Nola backed up a step.
Lorelei smiled at her reaction, and yelled, “Boo!”
Nola jumped and when she landed she slipped and landed on her rump, “Not funny!”
They both broke into laughter as they moved away and made their way back to Quinlan and Julianna.
When they reached the attic, both Quinlan and Julianna, were sleeping peacefully. Nola smiled seeing her bedroll next to Quinlan. Lorelei went over to the gap in the wall and gazed at the moon for a while before turning in, she too, was wondering what tomorrow would bring.
Arietta could not remove the smile from her face, even when she glanced over to her somber Lover. Hamen looked exhausted as if he had not slept in days, but since he never complained about a lack of sleep, she merely concluded his haggard look must be from worrying about her, “Is this not the most remarkable place Hamen, I have never seen so many people enjoying themselves.”
“Ha, they are all daft,” Hamen complained, “They act as if they will never see hardship or sorrow again.”
“Oh Hamen, relax. We are free and once you do whatever you have to do, can we please stay and have some fun before we move on?” Arietta pleaded.
He was about to scold her for being as bad as the rest of the feeble minded townsfolk of Silver Falls, but her eyes held his heart, so he answered, “Why not, once I have completed the ritual there will be no need to fear anything.”
If Arietta had picked up on his demeanor, or perhaps the underlining tone of arrogance she merely ignored it, wishing only to hear what she wanted to, “Oh thank you, my Love, I cannot wait to dance the night away.”
Hamen smiled, thinking his lady was in some ways as crazy as the rest of Silver Falls, but she amused him to no end. They arrived early enough to get one of the last rooms available at the Drunken Seagull Inn.
“These people are all mad,” Hamen shook his head in disgust, “They name an Inn after a bird which stays by the sea.”
“Oh Hamen, you should just see the humor in the name, not everything has to make sense,” Arietta grinned and pulled him towards their room.
Once inside Hamen flopped down on the bed while Arietta undressed, she climbed into bed to enjoy a lovemaking session with Hamen only to find him fast asleep. She smiled and cuddled up next to him, wanting to have her Love to have a good rest, in the hope his gloomy attitude would lighten.
Hamen awoke in a cold sweat, another nightmare stirring him from his slumber. His heart raced, and his fists were balled up in anger as his temper rose. Arietta was lying next to him, sleeping peacefully. He thought, “Why should she be allowed what I am denied, she has no idea what I am going through for us!”
He stripped and awoke Arietta by climbing on top of her, his passion is quick and almost violent, but Arietta only assumed his desire for her had driven him into such abrupt lovemaking. After all, she thought, “He is under a lot of stress, I should not expect him to worry about my needs,” She merely wished he had not been so forceful, for she hurt dreadfully from his savage lovemaking.
Hamen climbed from the bed, “Stay here, I must see to matters,” He snapped.
“Why can I not come with you?” Arietta asked.
“I must concentrate on my preparations, and you distract me,” Hamen admitted, but seeing the hurt in her eyes, he added, “Tomorrow is the solstice, an ideal phase of the moon to bind me with the Heart. Once I have completed the ritual we shall have all the time in the world to be together my dear.”
She smiled and curled up into the blankets, “My Love, please hurry back.”
He smiled and left to find the remaining items he would need to cast the exceedingly powerful incantation.
When Arietta awoke a few hours later, she slowly went about straightening up their room, and once that was complete took some time to cover up the bruises on her arms and legs. “Hamen will be upset if he finds the room a mess, or if he spies my frailty. I know he must have been too caught up in the moment to realize he was hurting me.” She sighed and went to the window, casting it open to see if she could spy her Love, but she would need to wait another hour before his return.
Quinlan awoke to find Nola curled up next to him. She slept soundly, and once again she impressed him with her stealth, for he had not awakened when she slipped into the bed he had made for them. He hugged her around the midsection with his free arm, to which she merely cooed and snuggled closer. Peeking up over Nola he saw Lorelei sitting cross-legged, reading from a small book, which Quinlan assumed must be her spell book. Julianna still slept, and even in her dreaming state the pain from her shoulder and hip were etched on her lovely face.
Crawling his way around Nola, Quinlan scooted over to the gaping hole in the wall to see the town by daylight. Dozens of miners were making their way towards the mines behind the falls, and two or three small boats sat in the middle of the lake, with fishermen dropping their nets repeatedly into the water. The sun’s bright rays already cast its warming embrace onto the numerous buildings and caused them to steam from the vastly different temperature.
Lorelei finished memorizing her spells and seeing Quinlan murmured, “Good morning Quinlan.”
“Good morning Lorelei, are you ready for today?”
“I believe so, but I still am uncertain as to what is going to happen, could you tell me everything you know?”
Their quiet conversation, combined with a group of people shouting from the street below stirred and awoke the two sleeping ladies. Julianna winced in pain as she sat up, and Nola, still quite sleepy sat upright wrapping her blanket tightly around her.
“Good, everyone is awake,” Quinlan said noisily, “Here is what I know, and what I think we need to do,” Nola and Julianna turned their attention to Quinlan as he continued.
“Hamen stole the Heart of Silver Falls for a reason, undoubtedly one of two as I see it. Either the Heart has some sort of magical powers, or he intends to sell it so he and Arietta can live comfortably,” Quinlan winked at Lorelei, “More than likely the Heart is magical.”
Julianna interrupted, “According to Lady Matilda the gem gave the owner a boon of wealth.”
Lorelei said, “Most magical items which give usually take from the owner as well.”
“No matter what Hamen intends to do with the Heart, we first must find him,” Quinlan looked at each of them in turn and went on, “Julianna, and I are known to Hamen and Arietta, so I need you to be my eyes and ears again Nola.”
“I can help as well,” Lorelei interjected.
“Thank you Lorelei, just make sure you tell Skylar it was your own decision, I really do not wish to live my life as a frog.”
Lorelei had still not told them she was sent along to help, instead preferring to leave them guessing at her motives. So she answered, “Skylar would want me to lead the group if he were here, for he believes only those who have suffered the disciplines of the arcane arts truly have the insight to make wise decisions.” She followed that statement with her usual playful smile, “I have no problem following you Quinlan, for if this goes badly, I do not wish to be blamed.”
“Thanks for the words of encouragement,” Quinlan chuckled, “So on with my plan for today. We have two things going for us. First, unless Hamen has used some sort of magic to locate us, we can hope he does not know we are here. Second is the festival, with so much commotion, and with people running around in those colorful masks Julianna and I may be able to hide in plain sight.”
“Not if I cannot walk,” Julianna snapped.
“Do not worry, I have thought of a way around that,” Quinlan smiled and sat back against the creaking wall boards, “Nola and Lorelei can go and get both of us some costumes and masks to wear. Nothing too outlandish minds you, just something so we blend in with the rest of these decent, insane townsfolks.”
“Then what?” Nola asked.
“After we get Julianna to a healer, we can all split up and search for Hamen and Arietta,” Quinlan smiled as he completed telling his plan.
“I will need to get my chain mail repaired,” Julianna said flatly.
“And how will we know if one of us find them if we are not together?” Lorelei asked.
Quinlan frowned, “Well I never said the plan was perfect, have any of you a better idea?”
They all shook their heads negatively. Quinlan sighed, “We shall decide on a meeting place, and check in every two hours, but if one of us finds them, it is more important to discern where they are staying then checking in.”
“If that is your plan,” Lorelei said, “I suggest the town center for the meeting place and each of us should look in different directions. That way if only three return, we know where to look.”
Smiling Quinlan agreed, “So if we are all of one mind, you two need to go get us some disguises as soon as you can.”
“Come on Nola, we will get some breakfast as well,” Lorelei said as she half lifted, half dragged Nola to the door.
“I suppose you will have to toss me over your shoulder again?” Julianna asked.
Quinlan smiled broadly, “Afraid so, although I must admit I prefer carrying you in my arms,” He winked as she rolled her eyes.
“If I did not owe you my life, I would thrash you once the Healers take care of me,” Julianna said with a smile, which made Quinlan wonder if she would thump him once she was able.
“Thrash me, I would think a kiss more appropriate for saving you,” Quinlan laughed, and Julianna merely rolled her eyes.
“Quinlan, you seem to only have one thing on your mind.”
“What can I say, I know what I want, and I see no reason not to pursue what my heart desires.”
Julianna shook her head and wore a slight smile on her lips, “Do you actually ever think before you open that mouth of yours?”
“For some reason, I seem to forget to do that when you are around me.” Quinlan laughed anew, and Julianna, much to her dismay joined in, the pain brought on by her mirth resigned her to thumping Quinlan once again.
An hour later Nola and Lorelei returned with the needed items. For Quinlan, they had chosen a bright blue shirt and a pair of burgundy pants. Holding them up Quinlan said, “Really?”
Nola and Lorelei giggled, and Nola explained, “There was not much to choose from, after all, the festival is already underway,” She smiled broadly, trying not to laugh as she produced the mask. It was in the design of an Eagles face with outlandishly long feathers sprouting from the top.
Quinlan expression was priceless, which sent all three of the women into laughter, even Julianna who held her sore shoulder with her good hand.
“I would not laugh if I were you,” Lorelei said as she held up two skimpy pieces of red silk.
“What is that, my scarf?” Julianna, her eyes wide asked in horror.
“Nola was not lying, there seemed to be very little to choose from.”
“Little being the word,” Quinlan chimed in.
Julianna’s mask was somewhat better than Quinlan’s, painted yellow with blue about the eye cutouts, and the back looked like a horse’s mane.
Quinlan took the shirt and pants and dropped them on his bedroll, “Well if this is all we have there is no reason to wait. I fear, once again, time is not on our side.” He pulled off his shirt and started to undo his pants.
“Quinlan,” Nola exclaimed, “Have you no shame?”
“If you do not want to look, turn away,” Quinlan smiled, “And no, I do not think I have any shame.”
Nola shook her head as Julianna held up the two pieces of silk, “I may need some help putting this on.”
Quinlan was already pulling on his burgundy pants as he said, “I will help!”
“Oh no, you will not,” Nola said, “Go wait downstairs while we help her.”
Quinlan laughed, and looking over to Lorelei he noticed a slight blush on her cheeks. He smiled as he realized she had not looked away. He wondered if Skylar knew what trouble he could be in with such a spirited apprentice, “Very well,” He joked, “Maybe next time.”
Quinlan literally jumped through the trap door before Nola could reach him. Looking up he winked as Nola slammed the door shut.
A short time later, the trap door reopened. “Quinlan, she is ready,” Lorelei said.
Quinlan climbed the stairs and laid his eyes on Julianna. The phrase “skimpy outfit” was an understatement. The red silk top covered her bosom and nothing else, while the bottom wrapped about her waist with strips of silk running down and lacing around her ankles.
Julianna said, “If you say one word I swear I will kill you!”
Quinlan stood stiff as a board, open-mouthed as he was about to say something, clamping his mouth shut he said, “Are you ready?”
Surprised he did not say something inappropriate, and secretly hoping he would, Julianna answered with, “As ready as I will ever be.”
Quinlan walked over and grabbing her about the midsection lifted her over his shoulder. “Nola, remind me to teach you about how to choose apparel to blend in with a crowd after this little adventure of ours.”
That comment earned him a smack in the back by Julianna, which caused Nola and Lorelei to stifle their giggles. Once downstairs Quinlan returned to cradling Julianna in his arms, the pain was still evident on her face. Her face was crimson as her outfit as Lorelei placed the mask on her face as Nola put Quinlan’s on.
Quinlan thanked the Maker for the mask, which held his broad grin as he gazed into Julianna’s eyes. For once he did not see anger directed towards him. In fact, he could have sworn she was smiling beneath her mask.
Dozens of people staring at the two followed Quinlan and Julianna as they exited the Inn. “You may as well get used to the stares and the comments,” Quinlan said.
“I am just glad I am wearing a mask.” Julianna admitted, “I could never show my face in Silver Falls again if people knew who I am.”
Quinlan laughed, “Quite the contrary, I believe if they knew who you were, you would never have a day without at least one suitor following you about.”
Julianna said, “And would you be one of those pursuing me?”
Quinlan could not see her face, so there remained no way to know whether she was teasing him or not. Deciding she must be, he answered, “I would consider stealing your heart the greatest challenge of my career and undoubtedly the most rewarding,” Then for good measure, he added, “If you were dressed in sackcloth I would still hover around you like bees to honey.”
Julianna remained silent, to which Quinlan guessed he had overplayed the moment. In fact, Julianna continued to have mixed emotions over Quinlan. He seemed to be noble at heart and loyal to his comrades. This thief had risked his life to not only save Nola from the dungeons of Estroy but to save her from the ravishing of those evil men who planned her own agonizing demise. She had always assumed if she found a man with such morals and fortitude he would be a knight or warrior of renown, and not a man who stole for a living.
Lorelei had held Nola slightly back as they exited the Inn, and whispered into Nola’s ear, “You had better hope Julianna does not look for another outfit after she sees the healers.”
Nola giggled, “Why, do you think she will be mad?”
“Most definitely, why did you pick such an outfit?”
“I think Quinlan’s idea about humbling those who need it made me do it,” Nola admitted.
Lorelei grinned devilishly, “I am not too certain your plan will work. She is after all breathtaking, and your choice shows off her perfect shape.”
Nola chuckled, “She is beautiful but frigid. Having all the men of Silver Falls staring and making advances at her will knock her down a notch or two.”
Lorelei asked, “Even if one of those men is Quinlan?”
“Oh, I guess I did not consider Quinlan,” Nola answered somberly, “I think I may have made a mistake.”
“I would not worry too much. Quinlan seems to be a man of good character.”
“Maybe I should tell them what I did?”
“No, let them find out. We would not want you two brawling in the street now would we?” Lorelei smiled devilishly.
“I am sure I can outrun her,” Nola winked, “And besides, I like it when Quinlan is in such an uncomfortable state, for he will end up in my arms in tonight, not hers.”
Nola and Lorelei looked over at their comrades, Quinlan held Julianna in his arms, with her arm wrapped around his neck.
Quinlan glanced back at them and said, “Come on, it will take the whole day to find them at this rate.”
They caught up in a few steps, and Lorelei said, “We do not all need to go to the Healers, perhaps we should split up now?”
“Good point,” Quinlan said, “Which directions will you two take?”
“I will head west,” Lorelei answered.
Nola added, “And I will go north. Oh, and the temple is next to the lake on the western bank.”
Quinlan nodded, “Alright, remember the plan, we will all meet in the square in two hours.”
Nola and Lorelei nodded and headed off in search of either Hamen or Arietta.
“I am a lucky man,” Quinlan said as they disappeared into the crowds.
Julianna asked, “How so?”
“Well we were just talking about how all the men would be pursuing you, and here I am with you in my arms and where are we headed, the temple no less.”
Julianna laughed which brought her another jolt of pain, but it was worth it, “We are going to find a Cleric to heal me, not to marry us.”
Quinlan chuckled, “Are you certain, I think we may be able to get a discount if we combine services.”
“You know I can easily beat you once I am healed right?”
“Aye, but first you will have to catch me, and in your Nelaveth dancing girl outfit that may be a little more complicated than you think.”
“Oh, I think I can catch you easily,” Julianna said assuredly.
“Sounds like a challenge to me, one I look forward to.” Quinlan mused to himself, “Funny how she would be chasing me since I have been chasing after her for what seems a lifetime.”
With the festival day at hand, the happy people of Silver Falls came to life, slowly at first as the pre-celebrations the night before still pounded in many a head. So by the time Quinlan and Julianna reached the temple, the streets were teaming with merrymakers.
Three couples stood just outside of the temple, and as Quinlan tried to get to the doors the other couples stopped them, “Get in line you two, we all have business with Jacos.”
“It looks as if you are going to have to carry me a little longer,” Julianna said as they took their place in line.
With the mask on Julianna could not see the big grin on his face, “You do realize these couples are in line to get married, right.”
Quinlan said with a laugh. “So we could still ask for a discount. Two services for the price of one, healing and marriage, what do you say?”
“I say you keep swaying me towards thumping you once I am healed,” Julianna replied adding, “You do work fast, just a moment ago you would pursue me, and now you are ready to marry me.”
“Anything to save a coin or two,” Quinlan joked, “Although I will add carrying you around for the last two days has been quite enjoyable, especially in your new attire.”
“You just tipped the scales to a good thumping again.”
They both chuckled as the door to the temple opened, and the first couple gleefully rushed in. Stepping forward to keep their place in line as another couple arrived. Quinlan adjusted his hold on Julianna. He had no delusions as he stood there holding her in his arms, she was definitely going to beat him half to death when this was all over, of course, Quinlan felt as if he deserved it for some of the things he had said. With the inevitability of what she threatened to do to him, Quinlan figured he may well have some more fun, “May I ask a favor of you Julianna?”
“I suppose it is the least I can do after carrying me around, so ask,” Julianna answered.
“When this is over, and you are ready to thump me, could you at least wear this outfit when you do?”
Hidden behind Julianna’s mask were cheeks as crimson as any cherry. She did not answer him immediately as the second couple went in and the first, now married couple exited. Hidden behind his mask, Julianna could not discern what Quinlan was playing at, was he just trying to make her feel embarrassed for wearing something so revealing, or was he just being his usual naughty self. She decided to win this little battle of sexual suggestions saying, “As you wish, if a beating is all you want from me, a beating is all you will get.”
“Oh, you are good. You had me going there for a moment,” Quinlan said as the doors opened and he carried Julianna into the temple. In a hushed voice, he added, “Last chance, I still think we can get a special rate on two services.”
“Keep saying that, and I am going to tell Nola!”
A young boy, about ten years of age, dressed in the robes of an acolyte for the Maker greeted them. “Good morning, are you ready to meet Jacos, High Priest of Silver Falls?”
“We are,” Quinlan answered.
The boy bowed, apparently bored to the never-ending parade of people he had to escort daily. He turned and beckoning them to follow as he opened the second door just beyond the entrance.
The temple’s first two floors were Dwarven in construction, one of the very few buildings to have a second story of stone. However, this did have one major setback. The ceilings of the main level were only seven feet high. Quite tall for the dwarves which once called this home, but it made Quinlan and Julianna feel rather claustrophobic. Within the second room, which was no larger than thirty foot in diameter, there stood an altar of white marble and thick dark tapestries on each of the walls. Behind the altar stood Jacos, with a long white beard which matched the flowing robes he was adorned in. His puffy eyes, rather bloodshot smiled brilliantly as Quinlan and Julianna came in. “My, oh my, what do we have here, hidden beneath such festive masks.”
Quinlan lowered Julianna down until she could support herself against Quinlan, “Our apologies,” They said in union, as they removed their masks.
“That is more like it,” Jacos said with a big smile, “With those masks on you two may have married someone by mistake, now look at each other and make sure you are here with the right person.”
Quinlan looked over, but Julianna continued to look towards Jacos, “I need healing, not a husband.”
Jacos’s lips curled in disapproval, “Are you sure you do not need both?”
“Quite certain,” Julianna said adding, “My shoulder and leg have nearly been torn from their sockets. Are you able to heal me?”
Jacos laughed, looking at Quinlan he said, “Son, you need to be more gentle, you will never find a wife if you are so rough.”
“I will keep that in mind Sire, and I have an offering to make if it would sway you to help,” Quinlan stated.
“Come forth to the altar of the Maker, and receive His blessing,” Jacos said in a rather ostentatious tone.
Quinlan had merely planned on helping Julianna hop to the dais, but after one step she stumbled, so he lifted her up and carried Julianna the rest of the way. Placing her lightly down on the altar he took one step back, but Julianna grabbed hold of his forearm, bidding him stay.
Smiling, Quinlan produced a small bag of coins and tossed them to the acolyte, who deftly caught the bag with one hand, “A token of our thanks for your coffers.”
Jacos closed his eyes and prayed for several minutes, and then he placed one hand on Julianna’s forehead, a light white emanated where his hand met her head. Grimacing in pain Julianna fell back as the healing wave swept over her, her shoulder twisted and popped back into place, and her hip glowed even as she broke into a cold sweat.
Jacos took a step back, “She is healed.”
Julianna slowly tested her arm and leg, and finding them sound she swung her legs over the altar and jumped off.
“Thank you Jacos, High Priest of Silver Falls,” Julianna said.
“Are you two sure you do not wish to get married as long as you are here?” Jacos asked.
Before Julianna could answer Quinlan jumped at the opportunity, “Well my dear Julianna, what do you say, do you want to be my wife?”
“You should be asking Nola that, not me.”
“Aye, but she may accept so I would rather ask you, knowing the answer to be no.”
“Hmm, I should marry you. It would be enjoyable to watch Nola turn me into a widow,” Julianna grinned as she saw Quinlan’s eyes grow wide, so she added, “I wonder how she will take the news, hearing you asked me to marry you.”
Quinlan laughed, “Jacos, you were wise to join the church and stay clear of women, for they shorten a man’s life dramatically.” Turning his attention back to Julianna he added, “And I thought you would prefer to marry me so you could kill me slowly over the years of wedded bliss.”
With the pain relieved Julianna’s spirit returned to a feeling of euphoria, so she responded with a wink of her own and said, “What makes you think you would survive our wedding night.”
Quinlan surveyed her lovely form from head to toe, and when he met her eyes, he said, “To be married to you and perish within your arms is more than a man like I could ever hope, no, dreams for.”
“Well played,” Julianna remarked, “I think for once you said the right thing.”
“Does that mean you will reconsider my offer, and become my bride?”
Julianna began to laugh, so to hide his sincere proposal being rejected Quinlan joined in. “Overplayed once again Quinlan, you will never win her heart with such stupid comments.” He scolded himself as they left the temple and headed back towards the center of town.
With their masks back on, they fit right in with the masses of revelers and purveyors of spirits and food. Julianna had asked for some gold before they split up, to which Quinlan hesitantly agreed. He watched her briefly walk off, and noticed she went into the first store displaying festival outfits. Smiling broadly he imagined Nola and Julianna rolling about on the floor as the Shield Maiden taught Nola a lesson. Quinlan had quickly noticed when they had first headed to the temple the numerous outfits existing and Nola’s explanation as to there being nothing else available being no more than a ruse. As to why she had done such a thing, Quinlan could only guess, but as to the choice of the outfit, Quinlan could not have been happier.
Shaking his head, he headed south, in hopes of finding Hamen or Arietta as soon as possible. For some unknown reason, Quinlan felt as if time was quickly running out.
Nola slowly made her way north, stepping over those who found the streets a good place to sleep off the effects of last night revelry. At first, she struggled with the overwhelming urge to relieve these drunken festival goer’s of their coin purses, but after what had occurred in Estroy she felt a fear creep into her heart. She stopped and looked down at a ragged man with his pouch in plain view. Nola’s heart pounded, and her hands trembled, not by being caught by this man, for surely a dragon flying overhead could not wake him, but at the mere thought of being captured by the militia, she froze. She took a step back, and a new anxiety began to grow, if she was no longer able to steal, would Quinlan still want her around, and if not what would she do? Nola never felt more alone then at that very moment. Turning back towards the ramp leading to the falls she ran, tears streaming down her face.
She stopped running halfway up the ramp and wiped the tears away. Glancing about she sighed heavily. Continuing up she came across several miners coming down from the falls, some smiled happily while others seemed as solemn as a funeral march. The distinction between those who had found silver and those who had not was quite evident. Nola moved over to the railing and leaning against it, she marveled at the beauty of the falls and the rippling surf crossing over the lake. Spying a fisherman yanking on his rod she smiled as the man pulled a rather large fish from the water. But a moment later an even bigger fish soared from the depths and seized the large fish, pulling it free from the hook and sending the fisherman tumbling over the far side of the skiff with a huge splash. “So that must be Silver Falls luck.”
Shaking her head and chuckling she let her fears slip away. Quinlan had told her she was beautiful, and even if Julianna held his attention for the moment, she would leave once they recovered the Heart. The Shield Maiden’s sense of duty would require her to run back to Lady Matilda, and there was no way Quinlan would ever go back with her. As for her own heart, she felt strongly about Quinlan, as to where it would lead. Only the Maker knew for certain.
She looked up at the falls, and then back down to the town, the people were out in force, with song and drink. The smell from various dishes wafted through the air, and as they reached Nola, her stomach grumbled. With the massive number of townsfolk and visitors teaming the streets below, she headed back towards the center of town, concerned she would be late for the two-hour deadline.
Another problem became quite evident as soon as Nola reached the throngs. At least half of the people wore the decorative face masks. At first, they were pleased to have such an easy way to disguise Quinlan and Julianna, but as she looked around the crowd her heart sank, she could literally run into Hamen or Arietta and not be able to recognize them if they were wearing masks as well.
A passerby shoved a wine bottle at her, offering her a drink which she gladly took. As she went to return the bottle the man had already moved on, so she shrugged and pushed her way through the crowd, eager to reunite with the others in the company.
Lorelei had headed west, but after a few minutes, she realized this plan was futile. There was absolutely no way she would ever run into Hamen or Arietta, and the description Nola had given her could have described a dozen people she had seen already. She stopped and looked about, seeing an Inn which had several tables set up outside for the overflow of customers they were expecting, she made her way to one of them and sat down. A serving girl came over, and she ordered food and drink. If she must search for people she did not know, she may as well do so by merely watching people come and go. Besides, she had one thing the others did not. She was a student of the arcane arts. Eating very slowly she began to concentrate on the magic which Skylar had told her lived in everything. She recited the spell from memory, and all at once her vision changed, runes carved into one of the Dwarven foundations beamed a bright white, then a ring on a gentleman’s finger shimmered as he passed by. Glancing down her blade glimmered where blade met sheathe. She may not be able to spy Hamen by his description, but surely she would see anything magical he carried glowing as brightly as the midday sky.
Eventually, her spell wore off, spent in a wishful hope. Glancing up she decided it was time to make her way back to the others, perhaps they had succeeded in finding some clue as to where Hamen and Arietta were.
Lorelei had considered this plan futile from the start but had kept her concerns to herself. The last thing she wanted to do was come across as a know it all, especially considering Quinlan’s outward attitude towards wizards. His distrust would only grow if she appeared arrogant or pushy, so she chooses to merely follow and see how it played out, hoping another idea came to mind.
Several times she nearly ended up being pulled into groups singing and dancing as she made her way to the town center, but with a firm hand and with a resolve she had not known she possessed, she made her way forward. She smiled thinking how proud Skylar would be at her not running off to dance and frolic when there remained a task at hand.
She stopped in her tracks as a shudder ran through her. A wave of magical power had just passed by. Somewhere close a magic had been used or loosed, which she could not be entirely certain. Closing her eyes she reviewed the encounter in her mind, smiling she turned northeast, that was the direction where the mystic energy first extended to her.
Smiling broadly, she skipped down the narrow street, excited to tell the others about her discovery. “What an incredible adventure I am having!”
Quinlan and Julianna did not have very much time to search, for the time spent at the temple ate away at their two hours rapidly. And for Julianna, who decided to change into something less revealing she had no time at all. Placing her mask on, she milled through the masses in the town’s center, no less than four hundred were packed into the square. Loud drums pounded out a steady beat as they sang songs about finding fortune within the mines and plentiful crops.
Julianna kept to the sides as best as she was able, not wishing to get caught up in the swirling masses. She hated being here. She had never felt comfortable being this close to people.
Julianna had always felt that way, ever since she was a young girl. Her beauty she saw as a curse, for no one had ever treated her like the other girls. The lecherous looks, the suggestive leers, and comments disgusted her as the years went by to the point where she wished to be stricken deaf and blind. That remained one of the greatest advantages of being trained as a Shield Maiden in Elkcrest. The fair and lovely Elvin folk were less forward when it came to her beauty and figure, but staying with the elves was not what she wanted, Julianna craved adventure, she wanted to see the world. Gaining the skills of combat stood as but the first step to how she envisioned her life.
She joined a merchant caravan and made her way south once her training was complete, but soon she found even being able to fend off men with her sword, things were still the same. The comments and lustful glances would never end. So when she took service with Lord Wilfred and Lady Matilda’s she finally found a place where she could hide from the world. Now, however, she was once more among those who saw her as an object of desire instead of a warrior.
When Quinlan had arrived at Lady Matilda’s she hated his attention, all of her past encounters with men like him came rushing back to her. She had told Lady Matilda she did not trust him when in fact, she admitted she did not trust any man, especially one who would stare at her so intensely.
Quinlan had saved her from three such vile men. Vermin who would have used and killed her thinking she stood as nothing more than a plaything for their enjoyment as if her feelings meant nothing.
Quinlan, on the other hand, had asked for her help, and even though he continued to make inappropriate comments, they seemed more in jest than in earnest. Julianna knew her looks would send most men into a lustful state, she learned that early on, but the thief also showed a kindness she did not expect to find. She decided to not take him back to Estroy when this affair had run its course, but allow him to go his own way.
Quinlan walked briskly through the crowds, casting a glance at every face not hidden by a mask. Cursing his luck he paused and darted into an alley. “This is futile!” he said aloud. He reached under his mask and scratched his sweat covered forehead, and then he pulled the mask off. “There must be another way to find them!”
Blocking his way, just as he was about to step back onto the street, a large crowd singing and marching to the sound of a drum passed by the alley. He waited until they had all went by before joining in the parade.
Once Quinlan made it to the center, he quickly realized their meeting place was an unwise idea. It teamed with people shoulder to shoulder. Jumping up onto a small wall, which surrounded the courtyard Quinlan, tried to find the others. After several minutes of scanning the crowds, he managed to spot Nola and Lorelei standing together on the far side of the square. He nearly missed Julianna, but he spied her mask in a crowd off to his left, so he hopped down and hurried to where he last saw her.
“Julianna, is that you?” Quinlan asked.
Julianna had chosen not to purchase a new festival costume, and instead, she now wore loose fitting clothes of a dark brown material. Her intent was clear, she meant to be dressed as what she was, a Shield Maiden. She lifted her mask, “Yes, have you seen the others?”
“They are on the other side of this mob.”
Sarcastically Julianna rolled her eyes saying, “Great, did you find Hamen or Arietta?”
“No, they could be anywhere,” Quinlan shrugged, “Hopefully Nola or Lorelei found them.”
“Regardless of whether they did or not, I am useless without my sword. I am going to go and get my armor fixed, and I will meet you back at our attic.”
“Sounds like a good idea. If they were unsuccessful as we were, I want to change our plans.” Quinlan smiled, “See you soon.”
Julianna nodded and headed off towards the front gate while Quinlan started weaving his way to Nola and Lorelei. It took Quinlan several minutes to reach them, as the sheer number of people made traversing the courtyard nearly impossible.
“Any luck?” Quinlan asked.
“Yes, I felt the use of magic, powerful magic,” Lorelei said excitedly, “Either Hamen or someone else is using their power.”
“Do you know where?”
“Northeast,” Lorelei answered, “But as to the exact location, I cannot be certain.”
“Well that is better than nothing, Julianna went to get her sword and armor, and I am of the same mind,” Quinlan tugged on his shirt, “I am going to change into my own clothes.”
“What do you want us to do?” Nola asked.
“Head to the northeast of course, but if you find them, do not get too close,” Quinlan grinned, “It appears to me this night could be kind of interesting.”
“Night, but it is not even noon yet,” Lorelei commented.
“Hate to say this, but evil deeds seem to always occur at night, and I suspect whatever Hamen is up to is wicked.” Quinlan relayed to her, “We must be on our guard, we know Hamen is capable of murder, as to what else, I suppose we will find out soon enough.”
They both nodded in agreement, and as Quinlan turned about to leave Nola grabbed his arm, “Quinlan, I am not too certain I will be of much help other than being your eyes.”
“You may not be a fighter, but you have many talents which may come into play, stay safe and hidden, and I will be back as soon as I can.”
Quinlan melted back into the crowd and slowly made his way beyond the courtyard. Once free of the masses he hurried to the attic and changed back into his own apparel, dark brown pants and shirt, and lastly his heavy cloak. Hiding a thirty-foot length of thin yet strong rope wrapped around his midsection, he strapped on his short sword and slung his bow over his shoulder. If their encounter with Hamen turned violent, he would at least attempt to stop the wizard before he cast any spells.
The trap door opened just as Quinlan made ready to leave. Julianna came through the opening carrying her sword and chain mail. Upon seeing Quinlan dressed so, she smirked, “Now you look the part of an assassin or thief.”
“Hopefully, I will not have to kill anyone tonight, but if left with no choice I will do what I must,” Quinlan said with a grin, “Do you need help getting dressed?”
Julianna shook her head, “You are persistent. I will give you that. But to answer your question I think I can manage, I have been attending to my own armor for the last several years.”
“Where is the fun in that?” He winked.
Julianna smiled, not really having a real answer. For the briefest moment, she wondered what it would be like to lay with a man again, for it had been many years since she had succumbed to the advances of suitors. She mistakenly sighed, giving Quinlan an insight into her mind of thinking, so to cover her mistake she just said, “I suppose you could make a good squire, however, I would worry you would steal my sword when I was not looking.”
“Ha, ha,” Quinlan smirked, “I will wait downstairs for you.”
Julianna slipped her mail over her head and started tightening up the new straps that the three wicked men had cut apart. She shuddered, remembering the horror of that night. Lastly, she sheathed her scimitar, feeling its reassuring comfort for the first time in days.
Going down stairs she meets up with Quinlan, they both put their masks back on and headed out into the streets of Silver Fall.
Arietta, at first happy when Hamen returned soon found his attention remained focused on tonight’s business decided to leave Hamen to his preparations. She left their room and headed out into the festive streets, and soon found herself smiling and laughing at all of the outrageous antics. Dancing with a lively group of women from the town and singing along with as best she was able. She wished Hamen had joined her, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized he would not have enjoyed himself. Frolicking about was not of his nature, only the pursuit of power.
After an hour or so she began to tire, even her exuberance began to subside with the passage of time and worry. The sun had started to set, and she would need to return to help Hamen in any way she could. Taking another swig of mead she sighed in resignation, her time of merrymaking had come to an end until her Love could join her.
Stumbling slightly from the effects of the heavy brew she bid her new friends farewell and headed to the Drunken Seagull. Arietta had not even noticed a woman following her, her eyes were set forward, mainly due to her intoxicated state, but mostly because she could not wait to see Hamen again.
Hamen hastily placed the remaining items of theirs into the backpack. He did not intend to stay in Silver Falls after he bound himself to the Heart, for he had his sights on loftier places. He grinned wickedly thinking of what he would do first, return to the Circle of Illumination to extract revenge on some of his former peers, or strike out for Ardain to usurp the throne. “They will pay, they will all pay!”
Arietta came in just as he finished, “I was beginning to wonder if you would make it back in time,” Hamen smirked.
“I am sorry, the crowds slowed me down,” Arietta lamented.
“It is time,” Hamen smiled, taking Arietta in his arms and kissing her passionately, “Tonight I will gain all the power I need.”
Arietta swooned from the passionate kiss and alcohol coursing through her veins, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Only witness my ascension to the rank of the most powerful wizard of Ardain!”
Arietta giggled at his enthusiasm, which earned her a glare from Hamen.
“You doubt me, do you not?”
“No Hamen, I am only happy to see you so excited.”
Hamen continued to scowl as he snapped, “It is time, and there is much to do up at the falls.”
“I was hoping to get a close-up look at the falls,” Arietta happily said.
“This is no sightseeing trip. We go to invoke old magic,” Hamen snapped, “Come on. Let us leave before the sun sets!”
They headed to the western side of Silver Falls and the less used egress, which led up to the falls. Less utilized for the deplorable condition, it stayed in. Rockslides had knocked away two sections of the wide path, causing them to clutch onto the face of the surrounding cliff. Far below, the lake lapped upon the ancient rock, further eroding the already precarious footpath.
They managed to reach the falls just before the sun dipped below the peaks, and Hamen hurried to the cylindrical dais.
“What is that?” Arietta asked.
“This is the precise place the Heart of Silver Falls was found,” Hamen said excitedly, “When I stayed up north I had the arduous duty to carry all sorts of scrolls from place to place at my master’s whim. Although I hated the task, I did manage to find some useful information from time to time. For example, this shrine is home to the Heart,” Hamen began to pour salt in a large circle about the dais, “I find it only fitting to claim the power of the Heart of Silver Falls from the very place it was unearthed.”
The climb to the falls had cleared Arietta’s head from the intoxicating drink, now she only felt the overwhelming urge to sit down and rest. She looked about and spied a rock jutting out behind the dais. She quickly scurried over and took a seat before Hamen could protest. She wanted nothing more than to witness her Love’s triumph.
Hamen looked over at her, about to scold her for the close proximity to the circle he was constructing, but held his tongue. Surely, she would be far enough away not to interrupt the casting of his incantation.
Nola and Lorelei could scarcely believe their luck, for after Lorelei had discerned someone had used magic, the four of them followed her lead and searched the area she had indicated. Although they had yet to spy Hamen, they did run across Arietta, looking somewhat amused and at the same time bored they convinced her to dance with them.
Julianna and Quinlan were nearby, scanning the crowd for the rogue wizard, but to no avail. Hamen never showed up, but at least they knew the two would eventually be reunited so they bore their time waiting for Arietta to return to him instead.
“I can hardly believe how much energy the inhabitants of Silver Falls have for merrymaking,” Quinlan mused.
“Agreed, if they worked as hard as they celebrated I dare say this town would be awash in riches,” Julianna said and then added, “I am surprised you would be so outspoken about their attitude.”
Quinlan smiled coyly, “I never said I disagreed with their enthusiasm, merely the amount of it. I would never turn down a good celebration, or even a bad one, especially if you were to join in.”
Julianna gave him a quick smile, “At least I can say one thing for certain about you Quinlan, no matter what the situation you manage to find some way to make it about us.”
Quinlan laughed, “Just as a good Shield Maiden stays focused on her objective, I too spend my time pursuing what my heart desires.”
She did not answer his remark, but instead merely smiled at him and turned her attention back to the three ladies spinning about, acting as if there were not a dire confrontation looming shortly.
Time passed, and eventually, Arietta slightly unsteady on her feet, broke away from the festivities and her new found friends to stumble off to where she and Hamen were staying.
Nola and Lorelei followed her from a safe distance until she made her way to the Drunken Seagull. Nola turned to Lorelei, “Well now we know where Arietta and Hamen are staying, we need only follow them from here.”
“I suppose you are correct, but if they stay another night, it may be wiser to steal the gem from them while they sleep,” Lorelei suggested.
Nola laughed and in hushed tones said, “And here I am thinking I was a thief.”
They met with Quinlan and Julianna a short time later to discuss what their next course of action should be, wait or strike first.
“Well done you two,” Quinlan said, “Now we need only wait for Hamen to make his move.”
“Lorelei thinks you should steal the Heart tonight while they sleep,” Nola stated.
Quinlan laughed, “I am certain Skylar shall turn me into a frog for corrupting his apprentice,” Shaking his head he continued, “However, what Lorelei may have forgotten is timing is everything.”
“What do you mean?” Lorelei asked with a slightly indignant tone.
“Tonight is the solstice, and as such, no one will end up sleeping in Silver Falls. I would have as much chance stealing the Heart from Hamen as convincing the three of you to marry me.”
“Quinlan, you are so incorrigible,” Nola said with a small glare in his direction.
“So what shall we do?” Julianna asked.
Quinlan turned his attention to Julianna, “Why we shall do exactly what every spell caster hates the most.”
Lorelei smiled, “You intend to wait and then disrupt his spells.”
Quinlan nodded, “I believe he wants to use the Heart for some type of magic, for if he intended to sell the gem, we would have heard of its sale by now.”
“But what if you are wrong?” Julianna asked.
“If I am wrong, we will have to find another way to relieve him of the Heart, and I am hoping we do not have to go that route. After all, he has killed to obtain the gem, what more will he do to keep it?”
Julianna nodded, “Then we should prepare.”
“Agreed,” Quinlan said.
“There is another thing to consider,” Lorelei said, “If Hamen is to cast magic. He may well do so tonight, for many spells are amplified during a full moon.”
“I am truly happy you are with us,” Quinlan bowed to Lorelei, “For I can think of no better way of stopping a magus then using another wizard to tell us how.”
“For all of our sakes, I hope I will be able to,” Lorelei confessed.