The Thief of Hearts

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Chapter 15

Lorelei rode out from High Keep that very morning with eight men at arms. She pondered the guarded words of Skylar, wondering exactly what threat would leave them wishing for “time.” Eventually, she gave up, for she considered worrying about such things quite irritating. She had no doubt. Skylar was hiding some dire information, but knowing the wizard for as long as she had, Lorelei knew his lips would not utter a thing, nor would she find out by prying. Resolved to alleviate some of his worries, she set her mind to the task set before her, convincing Julianna to quest with Skylar to who knows where to find who knows what. Lorelei frowned at the notion, she should have at least found out what Skylar would be going after but after the excitement of the Silver Falls quest, and her advancement to wizard she forgot to ask the most important questions. She felt sure Skylar was laughing over his morning meal at her expense.

The trip to Estroy was bereft of excitement, and the guards were down-right boring to Lorelei, they kept to themselves and barely said a word to her. She understood why, after all, she now holds the title of Wizard, which they would not only defend with their lives but have to answer to if something went amiss. She also noticed each of the members of her guards was new to High Keep, which she undoubtedly attributed to Skylar, wishing her to stay out of trouble.

So Lorelei changed her focus to the surrounding countryside, the forest surrounding High Keep turned to fields of tall grass which swayed in the hot afternoon breeze. Her cloak of blue silk billowed in the wind as the steady trot of her horse cantered across the well-worn road. Songbirds tweeted, and insects buzzed, but no threats, seen or unseen presented themselves. With little else to do, she silently contemplated exactly how she was going to convince Julianna to join Skylar’s quest.

Another day and a half found them at the gates of Estroy. After inquiring with the guards at the gates as to the whereabouts of Lady Matilda’s Manor, Lorelei, and her escort dismounted and led their mounts through the busy streets, upon reaching the Manor she handed her bridle over to one of the men and proceeded to knock on the door. She smiled thinking about how Quinlan had done the same thing not too long ago, and with that simple gesture started this grand adventure for her.

The door opened, and an attractive girl answered, slim and well dressed, she appeared somewhat awkward as she swept at the sides of her dress. “May I help you, good Lady?”

“Yes, is Lady Matilda available?”

“Not presently, she is at the warehouse at the moment.”

“Oh, I see, my name is Lorelei, a wizard from High Keep, is perhaps the Shield Maiden Julianna available?”

Keya seemed a bit apprehensive as to whether she should answer or not, but choose to not upset a wizard, fearing magic beyond anything Lady Matilda would or could do to her. “Yes, Julianna is available, shall I send for her?”

“Please do,” Lorelei said as she passed by Keya and entered the house.

Keya, taking back by the bold move hastened to call for Julianna.

Lorelei glanced about, and at the evident disarray. Wooden crates were stacked everywhere, and as she waited several servants scurried by, each with an armful of one sort or another.

Julianna, with Keya in tow, arrived shortly, and Lorelei was pleased to see the Shield Maiden smile at her. At least she held no ill-will over their last meeting and the loss of the Heart of Silver Falls.

“Welcome Lorelei, what brings you here?” Julianna asked as they reached the entryway.

Keya remained at Julianna’s side so Lorelei suggested, “Is there a place you and I could speak in private?”

“Of course,” Julianna turned to Keya, “Do you not have more important things to attend Keya?”

“Yes, if you need anything simply call out,” Keya answered and bowing slightly turned and headed up the stairs rather quickly.

“You must forgive Keya. She has taken over the duties of Arietta, and is in over her head if you ask me.”

Lorelei started to ask if she could help in any way, but decided the fate of Keya was not a high priority. She bit her tongue and thought to herself, “Skylar is going to be proud of me for not interfering.” So she merely asked Julianna, What is going on here?”

“I suppose there is no reason to not tell you, but come, let us retire to the garden.” Julianna turned, and the two of them made their way to the gardens, or perhaps what remained of the gardens would be a more accurate description. The statues were all down and crated up, and nearly every flower had been trampled on at least once. There was, at least, still a table and two chairs left among the ruined gardens.

As they sat down, Julianna waved at one of the servants and asked for wine, the servant nodded and ran off towards the kitchens without hesitation, “Quite a mess is it not?” Julianna asked.

“Quite, has something happened in your absence?”

“Yes, Quinlan happened. The loss of the Heart of Silver Falls has brought Lady Matilda’s trade routes to an end.”

“I fail to see how Quinlan could be blamed for that?” Lorelei stated, “After all it was Hamen and Arietta which stole the gem, not Quinlan.”

“True, but when he tossed the gem into the lake, it sealed the fate of Lady Matilda.”

“Oh, what has become of Lady Matilda?” Lorelei asked, not quite understanding what Julianna was hinting at.

“The theft of the Heart, during a dinner with the other Guild Masters, was enough for them to petition the King, and about the same time Quinlan stood at the falls and tossed away the Heart. Lady Matilda was losing her trade routes to the north,” Julianna answered, “Not to mention, that when he threw away the gem, he cast away the only chance for me to fulfill my mission to return it to Lady Matilda.”

“Then he did you both a favor,” Lorelei stated.

Julianna laughed, “I hardly see how tossing away the Heart of Silver Falls stood as a favor to me or Lady Matilda.”

“Perhaps in your haste to condemn Quinlan’s actions you have forgotten the gem is cursed, and a prison for a demon. No good would have come from returning the Heart, only more heartache, and pain,” Lorelei smiled, “Perhaps wealth is valued more than peace, but as far as I am concerned, he did the right thing, not to mention he did it for you.”

“What do you mean, “He did it for me”? Julianna asked.

“I will answer by asking you a question. What would you have done if Quinlan had tried to keep the Heart of Silver Falls for himself?” Lorelei inquired.

“I would not have allowed him,” Julianna jumped to answer, and then added humbly, “I was honor-bound to return the gem.”

“So how far would you go to get the gem back, would you have killed him?” Lorelei asked.

“I do not know,” Julianna looked away, pondering her answer, “He did save my life after all,” She returned her attention to Lorelei, and before she could continue Lorelei interjected.

“Enough of the past, I have brought you a chance at a new future,” Her mischievous smile returned, and she smiled broadly.

“Oh really,” Julianna responded. Her attention peaked and allowed her thoughts of Quinlan to fade, “Have you another rogue wizard to hunt down?”

Lorelei chuckled, “Not entirely, but it does involve a wizard. I bring an offer from Skylar of High Keep.”

“I see. What kind of offer?” Julianna asked as she poured them another wine.

“Skylar is planning an expedition, and would like you to join him and a few others,” Lorelei smiled again, “And as for compensation the terms are simple enough, Skylar maintains the right to any and all arcane items found and all monetary wealth shall be split evenly.”

“It sounds as fair as any offer, but why me?” Julianna asked.

Lorelei smiled, “Well it seems that part may have to do with my retelling of the adventure we all shared in Silver Falls. You see Skylar only chooses people with honor and a strong heart, and after what we went through I convinced him you would make an acceptable addition to his party.”

Julianna smiled slightly, “So I am to believe this Skylar wants to hire me solely on your recommendation?”

“Not quite, I believe the fact that you were trained as a Shield Maiden played heavily upon his desire to have you accompany him,” Lorelei sipped her wine and added, “May I inquire if the thought of going on an adventure even interests you?”

“If you had asked that a month ago, I would have said no, but ever since Silver Falls I have had a desire to do more with my life than protecting Lady Matilda,” Julianna sighed. “I am very thankful for my time here, but since Lady Matilda is heading to the King’s court, I have been considering another line of work.”

“So it appears I have arrived at an opportune time,” Lorelei winked and added, “Does this mean you will join Skylar’s mission?”

“Perhaps, but I would like to know exactly what we are doing and where we are going, not to mention who I will be traveling with.”

“Then it is settled, you should come with me to High Keep and meet with Skylar.”

Julianna appeared slightly shocked at her statement, for it seemed Lorelei had already made up her mind for her. The truth be told, she was quite interested in something different. The thought of watching over Lady Matilda day after day at one after another social gathering seemed downright mind-numbing compared to the thrill of excitement a real adventure would bring her. Despite the fact she was nearly ravished by three vile men, she had enjoyed the time in pursuit of the Heart of Silver Falls. As she considered her next words a small smile reached her lips, thinking back on Quinlan carrying her here and there, and tending to her as if she was the “lady” instead of just another hired hand. But then a slight glimmer of mistrust crept into her consciousness, “What kind of man is this Skylar?”

Lorelei grinned broadly, “He is quite a wise and powerful wizard, and not bad on the eyes either,” She blushed slightly and hastily continued, “He has been a Wizard of High Keep since nearly the building of the fortress, but I have found him to be most kind and forgiving.”

“Is he Elvin to be so old?” Julianna asked.

Lorelei giggled, “No, he uses magic to stay young.”

“This wizard seems interesting, so yes I will go and meet with Skylar, and if his quest is worthy I will join him,” Julianna, with a sudden surge of enthusiasm, had made up her mind. For better or worse, her days of guarding Lady Matilda were coming to an end, as to what lay ahead only the Maker knew, but she looked forward to whatever may come.

Quinlan stretched as he slowly climbed out of bed. His room stood large in comparison to the attic in which he stayed with the three lovely ladies, especially when he remained the only occupant. Nola had left him shortly after the events at the falls, saying she hardly felt a future with a man who threw away such wealth, whether the gem was cursed or not. Quinlan merely smiled at her reasoning, knowing full well she did not know the actual reason he tossed away the gem. Instead of fighting to keep her by his side he helped her to find employment in one of the Inns as a serving matron. He stopped by from time to time to check in on her, but seeing her with a smile on her face and a happy laugh on her lips he deemed her choice a good one.

His thoughts often strayed back to Julianna, and he wondered how she would respond if he sought her out. It had been nearly a month since he had seen her, and whenever he found himself alone, his mind drifted back to her. Each and every curve of her body and every last detail of Julianna’s lovely face etched in his memory. He strode over to the window and threw the shutters wide, allowing the bright sunshine to wash over him. Sighing, he decided he should seek the fair maiden out, if for no other reason to see if she would run him through, or perhaps with a little luck, she would give him one of those most incisive smiles which set his heart on fire.

The thief’s’ mind made up, Quinlan turned to gather his things, and just as he finished a squawk came from the window. He turned and spotted a messenger hawk staring at him, a small tube tied to its leg.

“Wrong windows,” Quinlan smirked, “find another Quinlan.”

Once again the bird squawked, this time, louder than the last.

“Alright, alright, give me your message,” Quinlan walked over and removed the small wooden tube and pulled forth the message scrolled on the parchment. He unrolled the note, read it and spat out the window. “Just like a wizard to tell you nothing and expect the world from you,” He looked at the hawk, “Well my friend listen to this, ‘Quinlan you are needed at High Keep’, signed Skylar.”

The bird cocked his head to one side, squawked loudly and launched into the air, “That is right, fly back to your master!”

Quinlan frowned and contemplated his options, ignore the summons or repay a debt. An hour later, he left Silver Falls after saying goodbye to Nola, deciding to not break the deal he had made with Skylar.

He had risked all to acquire the greatest treasure Estroy possessed, but so far his plan had produced nothing but loneliness.

High Keep stood a good day’s travel by foot, so Quinlan started at a brisk pace, wishing to reach the ancient castle before night fell. The forest surrounding High Keep still held many a danger, ones which Quinlan did not wish to face.

Summer insects chirped, and numerous birds were twittering their melodies. However, Quinlan kept a wary eye towards the skies, and the dark clouds approaching quickly. “Great, not only do I have to go to High Keep, but I am going to be rained on as well.” He kicked a rock down the path, “You would think a wizard would send a Pegasus or some other flying beast to fetch their cohorts, instead of making them walk.”

The woods loomed just ahead. Quinlan stopped and scanned the area, he had never liked these woods, and they always seemed to him to portend trespassers ill will. To add to his foreboding, a crack of lightning flashed, and thunder rolled past him. Sighing he pressed forward, still determined to reach High Keep as soon as possible. He pondered what horrible expedition lie before him, for even though his experience with Lorelei had not resulted in death, he still held an absolute disdain for wizards.

Quinlan reached the castle just before sunset, drenched and miserable. He was met by the guards and Lorelei at the front gate.

Lorelei laughed at the soaked thief, “I am surprised to see you here so soon, I thought for sure you would require several hawks before responding to Skylar’s summons.”

“Lorelei, nice to see you too,” Quinlan smirked and looked up at the looming inner walls, “I figured I may as well come see what Skylar wants. I was starting to get bored, and thinking of capers which may get me killed. Perhaps it is about time for another adventure,” Quinlan turned his attention back to Lorelei, “I guess you should take me to him, so I can find out what I am in for.”

“Skylar is busy tonight attending to some minor details for your upcoming journey,” She motioned towards the Keep. “Come on, I will take you to your room so you can change into something dry, tomorrow Skylar will tell you about the grand venture he has planned to make you a part of.” She smiled broadly and started skipping to the front doors.

Shaking his head in a mix of amusement and disgust, he mumbled, “Madness, this is complete madness.” Sighing he thought, “I should just say no and track down Julianna, and demand she tell me whether I pursue her for naught.”

Once inside and away from the guards, Quinlan decided to pry Lorelei for some information, so he asked, “Do you know why Skylar asked me here?”

Lorelei looked over to Quinlan with her girlish grin, “Now Quinlan, you know we wizards never tell anyone anything until we have to.”

“Humph, I was just hoping you may be the exception.”

She stopped, “How is Nola?”

“She is doing just fine. She is working at the Drunken Seagull and turning many a head. No doubt she will be married by the time I see her again,” Quinlan answered.

“So you two are no longer together?” Lorelei asked as they started down the hall again.

“No, she decided we would never be able to see eye to eye after I tossed the Heart of Silver Falls away. Apparently, if I do not have a treasure to share, I have no one to share my life with,” Quinlan said solemnly.

“I am sorry you two had a falling out, but it is for the best,” Lorelei giggled.

“What do you know that you are not telling me?”

Lorelei winked, “Who me, I am just a wizard, and you now we wizards never say anything unless we see some type of benefit. As for now, I see no reason to say a thing.”

“Humph, I think I may be able to persuade you. You have always seemed to me as one who likes to break the rules.”

“True, but only when it amuses me to do so, and as for now, I think I like having you in the dark,” Lorelei laughed, “I do so love surprises, do you?”

“Not really?”

They reached the same room Nola, and Quinlan had stayed in, and Lorelei opened the door, “Here you go. I will come and fetch you in the morning.”

“Can you answer me one question?” Quinlan asked.

“Depends on the question,” Lorelei smiled playfully. “Ask away.”

“Are you able to use the map room’s magic to find people?”

“I have the knowledge, but not the permission,” Lorelei answered, “Let me guess, you are wondering the whereabouts of a particular Shield Maiden.”

Quinlan squirmed, “Perhaps.”

Lorelei smiled in her devilish way, “If you are in search of Julianna, maybe I will break the rules for you, but not tonight.”

“Lorelei, you are by far my favorite wizard,” Quinlan bowed, “But next time Skylar summons me could you cast some spell so I do not get drenched getting here.”

Lorelei laughed again, “I am a wizard, not a druid.”

Quinlan changed into dry garments and set his wet items near the fireplace. A smile crossed his face as he remembered his last time in this room. He hoped Nola continued to enjoy her new life.

Bright and early Lorelei knocked on Quinlan’s door, and then merely walked in, “Good morning Quinlan,” She said as he sat up in bed.

“Little early is it not?”

“Is it?” Lorelei grinned, “Skylar would like to see you now.”

Quinlan stretched and wiped the sleep from his eyes, noticing Lorelei had not left but instead went and sat by the fireplace, adding another log.

“Could you at least tell me if I should run for my life now?” Quinlan joked as he put his now dry clothes back on.

Lorelei chuckled, “Too late, you are already here.”

“Aye, but I could slip away before we reached Skylar’s chambers,” Quinlan suggested, “Or you could just make me invisible.”

Lorelei laughed, “An invisible thief, I would be thrown from the castle walls for allowing you to slink around unseen,” She stood up and walked over to Quinlan, straightening his shirt, “No need to worry about the mission, Skylar takes great pride in leading successful quests.”

They made their way to Skylar. Finding him thumbing through one of the many books piled high on his desk, “Quinlan, nice to see you again, how have you been?” Skylar asked.

Taking somewhat by surprise by Skylar’s jovial attitude he answered, “I was doing quite well until a hawk showed up.”

Skylar smiled ruefully, “I see you still hold a certain bias towards wizards, but I do not hold that against you, in fact, it is one of the reasons I need you.”

“I am not too certain that makes very much sense to me, but I assume you are about to tell me why I am here,” Quinlan stated

Skylar sat back in his ornate chair and remained silent for a moment, “I have been doing a little research,” He emphasized by waving his arm over the pile of books, “And I believe I have found the location of a lost treasure.”

“I would think a wizard such as you would be beyond treasure hunting.”

“It all depends on the treasure,” Skylar smiled. “As for gold and silver, I would not waste my time unless the reward would be far above the cost, but for a magical item, I gladly find the trip worth taking.”

“And no doubt this magical treasure is surrounded by magical traps and nasty creatures wanting to rip our limbs off.”

Skylar smiled, “No doubt at all.”

“And what is to be my reward if we return?” Quinlan asked.

“Equal shares of all non-magical treasure, to be split up among the members I have assembled,” Skylar answered, “As for magical items, they are for me to do with as I please.”

“You said members, how many are going on this little journey?”

“I have planned on four, but things being as they are, I may add to the number.”

“Only four, so who are the other two fools you have talked into this?” Quinlan asked sarcastically.

Skylar was about to answer when Lorelei shook her head negatively and mouthed the word “no.” He figured Lorelei was up to her usual mischief, so he answered vaguely. “We shall be joined by a warrior and a ranger,” Seeing Lorelei sigh in relief he saw through her plan immediately. He was not certain as to what enjoyment she would gain in holding back the identities of the other members but gave her leave to continue with whatever idea was driving her actions.

“You said you may add to the number, will four of us be enough?” Quinlan asked.

“It should be, after all, the treasure is hidden, and a group of four can slip by much easier than a larger group,” Skylar smiled, “You of all people should understand the value of stealth.”

“Humph, so when do we leave?”

“We should be ready by tomorrow,” Skylar saw Lorelei shaking her head again so he added, “Or the day after at the latest.”

Lorelei smiled and bowed her head in thanks.

“As for now, enjoy the hospitality of High Keep, I believe Lorelei has already informed you of what areas are dangerous, but feel free to explore the grounds and partake of the baths if you so desire.”

“One last thing, how are we getting to this hidden treasure?” Quinlan asked.

“By horse at first, and for as long as possible,” Skylar answered, “Lorelei already informed me you came by foot but do not worry, a stead shall be provided for you.”

Quinlan nodded saying, “I think this little adventure may be just what I need.”

“How so,” Skylar asked.

“I failed my last quest, and wish to put it behind me.”

“I see,” Skylar said, “Lorelei and I need to discuss some matters at hand, would you mind giving us a moment.”

“Not at all, I need something to eat anyway,” Quinlan smiled at Lorelei and left them to their conversation.

“Lorelei, what are you up to this time?” Skylar asked as soon as Quinlan had left.

“Nothing bad, I promise you,” She answered assuredly.

“Is there any reason I should worry?”

“No, I believe it will be a beautiful thing,” Lorelei giggled, “And quite amusing to me.”

“Really, now I am concerned. Tell me why you shall be so amused.”

Giggling once more she came over to Skylar and whispered what she was up to, and why she did not want Quinlan to know. Skylar smiled and shrugged, “I will hold you responsible if my quest is delayed.”

“Yes, Skylar,” Lorelei bowed, “I need to make some last minute preparations for my little surprise. May I go?”

Skylar grinned, “Be off with you, and see to your games.”

Quinlan took advantage of Skylar’s offer to explore High Keep and ended up on one of the battlements next to the tower which the wizard called home. The view was magnificent. He could see the towering Eagle Mountains to the south and the silver trail of the river which flowed south from Twin Rivers City, and the fields of grass swaying in the gentle breeze. His mind wandered back to Estroy and to the prize he so desired to win. Peering over the wall he looked straight down at the jagged rocks. Fortunately, he did not suffer from vertigo. Hearing a scraping behind him, he turned to see one of the several gargoyles which guarded High Keep staring at him.

Quinlan cleared his throat and headed back down, and as he did he ran into Lorelei coming up the stairs, “I have been looking for you,” She chirped.

“Why so?” Quinlan asked, “I thought we were not leaving until tomorrow.”

“Oh, Skylar is not ready yet, but I have been thinking about your request, and I have decided to help you,” Lorelei answered.

“You mean the map room. You are going to break the rules for me,” Quinlan queried.

Lorelei smiled playfully, “Come with me,” She answered, “Before Skylar needs me again.”

They moved with great haste through High Keep until they reached the map room, and Quinlan marveled once more at the mosaic design showing every town and city, each mountain and river of the known world.

“So Quinlan, I need to ask, whom do you wish to find?” Lorelei answered.

“I already told you, I seek Julianna,” Quinlan answered.

“But why, have you committed another crime?” Lorelei joked.

“Ha, ha, very funny,” Quinlan seemed a bit befuddled, but he added, “Last time I was here Skylar asked you what you thought of me, so you already know why.”

“I know why, but I still want to hear you say it,” Lorelei specified with a glint in her eye.

Quinlan began to lose his cool, he was ready to call the whole thing off, but at the same time, he really wanted to know the location of Julianna, “Very well I will tell you. I seek Julianna, Shield Maiden and the true treasure of Estroy. Compared to her the Heart of Silver Falls is nothing more than an ugly rock to tread upon. I set my sights on Julianna the first time I saw her, prizing her more than any wealth obtained from mere theft, and I risked everything to win her heart.”

Lorelei giggled devilishly, “And once you know where she is, what will you do then?”

Quinlan paused, not really knowing the answer, “I am not sure. I suppose I will attempt to convince her that a fool like me cast away a fortune to try and win her love.”

“I see,” Lorelei smiled, “It seems breaking the rules for such a noble cause would be worthy of the punishment I will receive,” She turned and headed towards the door.

“Where are you going?” Quinlan asked.

“Oh, I have things to attend to,” Lorelei answered.

“But what about the map, I thought you were going to help me find Julianna?” Quinlan stammered.

“There is no need, she’s standing behind you.”

Quinlan’s heart sank, Lorelei had set him up, and now he felt as if his world had been turned upside down. How much had she heard? He already knew she must have been hidden in the room the entire time because he would have heard her enter. There stood nothing left to do but turn and face Julianna’s wrath.

Quinlan turned around slowly, and there she stood as lovely as ever. She stood with her hands on her hips and a scowl in her eyes. She had her armor on, which now included a solid breastplate, and also a veil concealing her face from the nose down. Her flowing blonde hair pulled back and held in place with a leather strap.

Julianna walked over to him slowly, glaring at Quinlan with every step until she stood no more than an arm’s length away, “You would have me believe you tossed the Heart of Silver Falls into the whirlpool to gain my heart? What gives you the right to think I would be impressed by such a thing? Do I look like some harlot who fawns over such baubles, or perhaps you think because you saved my life I owe you something more than my thanks?”

As she raised her hand, Quinlan prepared for the slap of a lifetime, but instead she loosened the veil and let it fall away. Just as he was beginning to feel like a fool for expecting the worse, she swung and slapped him hard across the cheek.

Quinlan went to take a step back, but she grabbed his arm and stopped his retreat. “I thought a lot about what you said at the falls, and for the life of me, I could not believe the only answer I could come up with, that you sought another treasure, and that treasure is me.”

“So are you here to extract vengeance for my advances?” Quinlan asked. “For if you are, I will not blame you, I am by far a man unworthy of your affection.”

Julianna started to smile saying, “The slap is for all the inappropriate remarks you made, this is for saving my life,” She pulled him in and kissed him.

Shocked, Quinlan just stood there as she broke off the quick kiss. She took a step back and smiled broadly, “I believe I said I was going to thrash you, and you boasted you could evade me.” She laughed as Quinlan still stood paralyzed in amazement, “In fact, I think you bet me you could. Do you still think you can escape me?”

Quinlan relieved and surprised at this turn of events smiled and then laughed, “What kind of contest do you suggest?”

“Hmmm, as it is midday, let us wager I can catch you by sundown,” Julianna suggested.

“Seems fair, but what is the prize to be won?” Quinlan asked.

Julianna smiled, “As I am a poor Shield Maiden, shall we say three pieces of gold?”

“Hardly seems worth the time, how about something more personable?” Quinlan said with a slight smile.

“You are going to get another slap!” Julianna smirked.

“Dear lady, I would never suggest something so lewd, I was thinking along the lines of say, a day of servitude to the loser.”

Julianna smiled, “I suppose that seems fair, my armor could use some polishing, and my horse would enjoy some extra tending.”

“So we have a deal?” Quinlan asked.

“We do,” Julianna answered.

“Shall we start then?” Quinlan said as he jumped to the side while Julianna lunged forward. He had expected her to do as much.

“We already have thief!” She said missing him by a mere hands width.

Quinlan ran to the door hollering back, “I shall see you at sundown to collect my prize!”

Julianna, a broad grin on her face sprung after him, “It will be I who claims the prize this day thief!”

Lorelei giggled from the hallway, delighted to see the two engaged in such a playful manner. Perhaps it stood as their own way of bonding or sizing each other up, but whatever the outcome of the contest Lorelei felt certain they would grow closer, just as she had hoped.

She had watched Julianna practicing in the courtyard with the guards, and knew her to be quite the opponent with a sword, but this would be a contest of another sort.

Quinlan sprinted down the hallway, and paused at the far door, turning to see Julianna charging after him. Her heavy armor slowed her down, but she still possessed lots of speed, “Come on now, you will have to be quicker than that!” He teased and slipped through the door, he spied the bolt, and even though tempted to slide it home he choose not to, after all, she deserved some sort of chance.

Quinlan took off down the next corridor while uncoiling the rope wrapped around his waist. Julianna was fast on his heels but slowly falling behind. He made his way down a flight of stairs and decided to put a little more distance between him and Julianna. Quickly slipping the noose about one of the heavy benches lining this hall, he tossed the end of the rope out of the window. Slipping through he began to repel down, as he reached the halfway mark of his fifty foot decent the rope jerked upwards. Glancing from where he had left the hall he spied Julianna’s smiling face as she began to haul him up, her continence betraying her sense of victory.

Quinlan had to give her credit, she was doing quite well hauling him up, but he had no intention of losing this contest. Slipping down the rope to nearly the end, he grabbed hold of the stone window ledge two flights down and just as she was about to pull once more he let go of the rope. It was music to his ears to hear a thump from up above and a disgruntled mumbling more befitting a sailor than such a fair lady.

Julianna glared down at him, and upon seeing his face with such a condescending smile took off her helmet and threw it at him. It skipped off the wall and struck him on his elbow.

“Ouch!” Quinlan hollered, “Watch where you throw your garments.”

“You will not escape so easy!” Julianna taunted as she grasped the rope and began to follow him.

Glancing up Quinlan could not resist the urge to embarrass her, “With such a view, I may have to wait here for a while.”

“Keep saying things like that, and instead of this friendly game I will thump you!”

Quinlan laughed and took off down the next hallway, but instead of going down the stairs he chooses to go up, not only one flight but all the way to the top. He went to the wall and looked down, but he could not spot Julianna anywhere. Laughing aloud he sat down and decided to take a break, he figured it would take her some time to find him if she was even able to.

Quinlan nearly dozed off, just as the door opened and Julianna appeared, she had taken the time to remove her heavy armor, and as Quinlan sprang to his feet, she held up her hand, beckoning him to wait, “Just a minute.”

Pausing he waited for her next move, “Have you decided to concede defeat?”

She stood holding her side and breathing heavy, “You are quite quick and nimbler than I thought you would be, especially giving the fact that on our first meeting you fell twice.”

“Oh, well I wanted you to think I was nothing more than a merchant,” Quinlan grinned, “If I had shown my true sure-footedness, you might have suspected me.”

She stopped and put her hands on her knees, and from Quinlan’s vantage point her cleavage was nearly exposed. He should have realized she was playing him for a fool, but try as he may the sight of her made his heart skip. When she dropped the charade and leaped for him, he barely had time to react. Jumping back he lost his balance, falling backward he started to roll away when Julianna’s momentum caused her to trip over his feet and come crashing down on him instead of the hard stone battlements.

Quinlan cursed his luck for falling for her ploy but admitted he was thankful to cushion her fall as he ended up with Julianna fully on top of him. He squirmed to the side to evade complete capture, but she recovered just as quickly and grabbed hold of his arm as tight as a python snares a lamb.

Quinlan had grown weary of the game, and decided to not try to slip free, but instead wrapped his free arm around her waist and held her tightly.

“Ha, I win!” Julianna exclaimed at the same time she realized she stood just as much his prisoner as he stood hers, “Do you concede?”

He looked into her eyes, smiling softly, “I do, since I have been captured by your beauty and those brilliant blue eyes of yours since I first laid eyes on you.”

“Good, then you can let go now,” Julianna smiled and tried to get up, but he held her tight, “Quinlan, I said you can let go now.”

“I know, but I wanted to hold onto you for one more minute before I start whatever menial tasks you have in mind for me,” Quinlan said in a vain hope to win her over.

Julianna chuckled, “I see even in defeat you still hold out for some sort of victory.”

“I think I have won,” Quinlan grinned, “I do have you right where I want you after all.”

She struggled briefly until Quinlan lessened his grip, and propping herself up smiled down at him, “I do believe you will never stop saying such things to me, even if I were to thrash you.”

“I must be true to my heart, dear lady,” Quinlan replied, “And you are correct, as long as I have a tongue to speak with, I shall always tell you how I feel.”

She got up, and offered him her hand which he took gladly, “You know I think I like you this way.”

“What way?” Quinlan asked.

“Filled with desire for me,” She smiled, more so with her eyes than her lips, “Keep this up and I may start to believe you.”

Quinlan raised her hand and kissed it, “Whatever it takes to prove to you how much I care.”

Julianna laughed, and Quinlan joined in, “This is going to be an odd adventure we are going on, will it not?” She asked.

“You mean Skylar has talked you into going on his quest as well?”

“Yes, he has. Do not tell me you will not enjoy my presence.”

“Are you jesting, I look forward to it, especially if you allow me to carry you around again.”

Julianna gave him a quick evil glance, “Ha, ha, hilarious.”

“I for one wish to take a bath before we venture forth,” Quinlan stated, “want to join me?”

She shook her head, “You are truly a wicked man.”

“Only when I am faced with such beauty as yours, then I find it impossible to restrain from saying such, on the off chance you slip up and take me up on one of my manner offers,” Quinlan remarked as he straightened his clothes from their recent struggle.

“I think I will pass on having a bath with you,” Julianna smiled coyly and added, “this time.”

“By the Maker, I think you may well be the death of me.”

Julianna decide to tease him again before parting ways by biting her lower lip and inhaling deeply, “Perhaps, but would it not be worth it to die in my arms?”

Quinlan gulped deeply, and hoped there was a cold bath he could dive into instead of the hot springs, “No doubt,” he stammered and as she walked away he could not take his eyes off of her, “May I ask you a question?”

She paused at the doorway and glancing back said, “Why not.”

“You have caught my heart Julianna, but what of you, did I catch yours?”

She smiled, “Almost.”

Quinlan laughed loudly, “I figured there would be a downfall to my plan. For even if I were to win you over, I knew you would be a handful.”

“You just confessed a desire to carry me, and I do not recall you complaining about me being a handful in Silver Falls.”

Quinlan shook his head, “True enough my dear lady, and since the day has come and gone, and I am no closer to another kiss. I bid you one final favor.”

Julianna sighed, “Ask your favor Quinlan, and I may be willing to oblige you.”

“May I ask what became of Lady Matilda?”

Her smile diminished, “Your little plan, along with the theft of the Heart left Lady Matilda in a bad way. She lost her trade route to the north and with it a significant portion of her wealth. She has left Estroy and traveled to the King’s court.”

“Oh, I see,” Quinlan frowned, “I never meant for her to lose everything.”

Julianna smiled, “Fret not, she will marry again, and in time Estroy will be nothing more than a distant memory to Lady Matilda.”

Julianna proclamation finally registered with Quinlan, “So now I will all the time in the world to win your heart.”

She laughed, and closed the gap between them, staring into his eyes with such a lustful gaze he faltered as his heart began to pound in his chest. Licking her upper lip she slowly moved in for a kiss. As their lips came to within an inch, she whispered, “I look forward to you trying.” She took a step back, “Until tomorrow thief,” She smiled and left him standing there.

Quinlan sighed, “I am doomed.” He flopped down on the hard stone and lay back, “No doubt she is my punishment from the Maker for leading such a wicked life, but if Julianna is to be my punishment, I welcome all of the Maker’s decisions.”

Julianna, quite content with leaving Quinlan wondering about her feelings, made her way to her room. She had not lied, she thought long and hard about everything which transpired, and came up with the same conclusion every time, Quinlan had forsaken riches for her approval. Doubt had crept into her mind several times, thinking Quinlan must have played a slight of hand trick and keep the jewel, but each time this idea surfaced her own recollection reminded her she had seen the gem flying into the whirlpool. She was not in love with Quinlan, or was she? Julianna did hold him in high regard, being one of the few men who had acted against his own instincts. Many men had sworn their unending love to her, and promised her the world, but Quinlan was the first to act in such a noble manner. Casting away wealth for her, Julianna assumed he merely wished to be free, knowing full well that she would do whatever necessary to take the gem. Then the realization that Quinlan may have cast the gem away to show her how dedicated he is to make her see him in a different light. Julianna finally admitted to herself that his plan had indeed worked. He stood more than a mere thief in her eyes. She grinned happily, “If he keeps this up he will win my body, for I know he has won my heart.” Reaching her room she found Lorelei waiting for her.

“So who won?” Lorelei asked.

Julianna smiled, “I did.”

Lorelei’s eyes showed her devious manner, “And yet you are alone. You know you are going to drive him mad by not giving in to his passion for you.”

“He will survive,” Julianna smiled, “I am not ready to give myself to any man, no matter how I feel about him. Quinlan is special to me, I hate to admit this, but between you and me, he did manage to steal a part of my heart. I just want to make sure he is true, after all, he is a thief.”

Lorelei laughed, “Quinlan is much more than a common cutpurse. He is a thief of hearts!”

“Just keep that between you and me. The last thing I need right now is to be worried about him when a quest begins tomorrow.”

Lorelei said in a joking tone, “Your secret is safe with me. However, if you two are not together when you get back I may have to cast a spell on you both, for your own good of course.”

They both laughed, and Julianna added, “I do enjoy having you around, I will miss you.”

“Do not worry, one way or another we shall keep in touch.”

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