The streets of Estroy began to come to life as the sun broke the horizon. Estroy stood, by far, as the largest port in the kingdom of Ardain, and perhaps the known world. Quinlan strolled along the wooden docks, glancing towards a massive warship. Equip with three masts which held enough sails to chase down most any ship. Upon her decks sat a pair of catapults, while forward and aft were mounted with ballistae, and her crew of over a hundred insured her prowess against any foe. This ship happened to be one of several belonging to a fleet which patrolled the Ardainian coastline, searching for pirates and securing safe passage for the trade ships which plied their wares from the northern kingdom of Iliathe to the southern ports of Nelaveth and beyond. Ardain, perhaps the most enlightened lands inhabited by humans held piracy, as well as theft of any kind in high disregard. Since Quinlan’s primary source of livelihood happened to be one of thievery, he pulled his cloak forward to further hide his appearance from the watchman observing him pass by.
Quinlan had arrived in Estroy two days ago, having traveled from the Elvin kingdom of Elkcrest after a particular necklace turned up missing. The elves were not as brutal when it came to punishing theft but in their own way, the penalties could be just as lethal. The long-living elves would toss a thief in prison for fifty years without a second thought. Of course, to the long-living elves, fifty years transpired quickly but to a human, an entire lifetime passed by. The missing necklace, owned by an Elvin noble who desired to halt all ties with the outside world, did not hold any spectacular value. A golden chain which held a brilliant blue diamond, worth no more than a thousand gold pieces stood more than a mere piece of jewelry. Trareth, the Elvin Lord, and owner of the necklace flaunted the piece with impunity, for the necklace had been worn by one of the greatest heroes of the Elvin people, and for this reason, Trareth tried to convince the populace he could speak on behalf of the dead hero. Quinlan decided he must remove the necklace, not because he wished to meddle with the elves, but he wanted any discussion to be rational instead of emotional. At least that is what he told himself as he slipped into Trareth’s room and stole away with his prized necklace. The elf’s arrogance and argument slipping away just as surely as Quinlan, “Let Trareth sway the people without his necklace” Quinlan thought while absconding from Elkcrest.
Actually, Quinlan never considered his profession as wicked or evil. After all, he would tell himself, “I only steal from those with more than enough to lose, or those deserving a good case of chastening.” His dark brown eyes combed the alleys for individuals in his trade, not content on stealing from the rich, and smiled considering the irony of being waylaid by fellow thieves as he made his way to the nearest tavern.
Quinlan elects to remain a freelance thief, not affiliated with any of the three thieves’ guilds which claimed dominion over Estroy. Of course, this meant he had to be even more cautious, avoiding not only guards but fellow cutpurses as well. Quinlan did not consider himself superior to the guilds but did have a problem of conscience with the way Guild’s operated. Each of the Guilds, as with every Thieves Guild he had encountered looked for opportunity more so than anything. To steal from a shop just because they could, to wipe out a working man’s fortune in an evening with no concern with the consequences seemed wrong in Quinlan’s mind. For this reason, he would always remain a freelance thief, never taking away a person’s livelihood for his own gain.
There existed one minor drawback to non-affiliation, trying to sell merchandise when not part of a Guild lowered the price dramatically. So for all of his hard work stealing the necklace, a mere two hundred coins exchanged hands. A night of revelry and other purchases of gear and lightweight leather armor left Quinlan in need of work. It was time to find someone worthy of his talents.
Once clear of the watchman’s gaze, he pulled his cloak back as the sun crested the buildings lining the docks. His brown hair, cut at the shoulders blew as a breeze from the bay whipped through the sheltered cove. Quinlan tried his best to stay as inconspicuous as possible, and since he was not overly handsome or flamboyant, he managed to pass by unnoticed most of the time, blending in with crowds easily. He glanced up at the placard hanging above the entrance, a Kraken wrapped about a ship, with the words “The Happy Kraken” etched in the common tongue beneath. Quinlan thought the name in bad taste, given the fate of ships crossing paths with a Kraken but he did appreciate the humor in the name at the same time.
Over the years Quinlan had never been disappointed with the knowledge one could so easily obtain in a tavern. Strong drink and loose tongues always seemed to go together, and a much faster way to find information than even torturer’s administrations. Who had enough coin to spare, which store stood overflowing with too many goods, and who was beholding to whom? His search of Estroy for a suitable target since his arrival had been fruitless, and the funds from selling the necklace from Elkcrest would only last him another two or three days at most.
Pulling the worn down door open, Quinlan slipped inside the tavern. The large public room stood nearly empty of patrons, only a few sailors sitting at a large table, and a solitary man dressed in dark black robes. The lone man held the appearance of a magus or cleric and seemed to be lost in thought, sipping a mug with a wisp of steam escaping as he brought the drink to his lips. A loud thud brought Quinlan’s attention back to the sailors, one which had fallen from his seat and lay unmoving. The other sailors laughed and stumbling rose from their seats to carry their drunken shipmate back to their ship before he was carried off by Estroy’s militia.
Quinlan gave them a wide berth as he made his way over to an empty table near the dark cloaked man.
A serving girl, not so young but still curved in all the right places came over and asked, “What can I get you?”
“Some food and spiced mead,” Quinlan answered and slid a pair of silver coins across the table. “Will this cover the cost?”
She smiled and answered, “Aye, I will be right back.”
Quinlan surveyed the tavern. It reeked of ale and sour milk. The later he could only guess as to why. A large fireplace, open on both sides seized the focal point of the room, and even though the flames were small and more embers than conflagration, the warmth spread out to where Quinlan sat. Timbers, bent with age creaked as footfalls from patrons in the rooms above moved about, and the décor mirrored the locale. Nets for fishing hung on three walls, and a heavy harpoon swung from ropes above the saloon. Dozens of ale casks lined the wall, and several bottles of wine rested on a rickety shelf. The barman, slightly heavyset sat on a stool and barely managed to keep his eyes open.
The serving girl returned with a tankard of mead and a plate of cheese and sliced beef.
Quinlan nodded thanks and determined the aroma of sour milk must have come from moldy cheese. Sitting back he sipped the warm spiced mead while absently smelling the cheese before taking a bite. He may well have to wait some time before any useful information came his way.
Several customers arrived, mostly sailors from a newly docked merchant ship from the north. Quinlan listened to the sailors intently, but lost interest when they divulged the contents of their ship as nothing more than furs from the town of Gilim, and a few travelers returning to Nelaveth.
The morning passed by, and as he ordered a midday meal, he realized the man in the cloak still sat at the table beside him. This peaks his interest, for seldom did a wizard or cleric wait for extended periods of time without a reason. At least, until now he had never known of the word patience being associated with those which dabbled in the arts, whether they were spiritual or arcane.
His meal arrived, the same as his breakfast with the addition of a slice of thick bread. Quinlan seemed resolute at first to wait until an opportunity presented itself, but decided to seek out another tavern after his meal if nothing more exciting than sailors entered the bar.
Just as his mind was made up to leave after his lunch a young woman, wrapped from head to toe in a dark blue cloak entered the tavern. Her eyes searched the common room quickly, and as she spied the cloaked man she hurried to join him. Quinlan smiled, thanking his luck to whatever deity had smiled upon him for choosing the Happy Kraken.
The maiden sat down beside the cloaked man and reaching out took his hand gently, “I am sorry I am so late my Love, but Milady required extra of me this morning.”
“How so, my dear Arietta?” The cloaked man asked.
Quinlan quickly pulled his cloak up over his head, hiding his face from the newcomer. After all, if this happened to be the break he had been hoping for, so much the better if she did not recognize him at their next meeting.
“She had another nightmare, but Lady Matilda still refuses your offer to help.”
“Did you do as I instructed?”
“Yes Hamen, of course I did, but she refused to tell me, she did, however, say the dream concerned her husband.”
From the corner of his eye, Quinlan spotted the right eyebrow of the cloaked man raises up in either surprise or concern. Quickly snatching up the bread Quinlan appeared lost in thought as the cloaked man glanced about.
“I fear for Lady Matilda, she may be in grave danger.” Hamen lamented.
“I too, fear for her, but what are we to do if she refuses our help.” Arietta sighed.
“For now, without her willingness to allow me to help, we can do nothing.” He tapped his fingers on the table, seemingly in thought. “Unless...” Hamen trailed off, leaving the statement hanging.
“Unless what?” Arietta asked.
If Quinlan suspected something amiss, he outwardly showed no signs, but inside he almost laughed. Thinking this Hamen character may be leading the young maiden right into a trap.
“No, it is nothing. I was going to suggest you help me gain entrance to the Manor so I could discern if any foul magic or curse had been placed within. However, I feel I may be overstepping my bounds, especially if she does not wish my help.”
“But if you found a spell or curse, all would be forgiven,” Arietta said smiling.
“No, I would not put you in jeopardy, my dear Arietta.”
Arietta sighed heavily and took a drink from Hamens’ tankard. “I will find a way to get you in the house unseen before Milady loses all sense of sanity.”
Hamen smiled slightly and grasping Arietta’s hand he said, “Lady Matilda is blessed to have you as her handmaiden, for no one would risk so much to help a widowed woman, especially one for whom they are employed. I for one would never go to such lengths to help out Stezius.”
Ignoring Hamens’ comment about his own master she said, “Please do not bring up Lord Wilfred. I still cannot believe he is gone.” Arietta, with a look of dismay, looked about the tavern. “Can we go somewhere else? I do not care for this tavern very much.”
“Certainly, my dear, how about we stroll over to the Golden Dragon?” Hamen suggested.
“That would be great.”
Quinlan watched as the pair stood up and departed the tavern hand and hand. Smiling broadly he waited a few minutes before leaving the Happy Kraken, not wishing to alert the magus and handmaiden. Without knowing, they had given him sufficient information to peak his curiosity. A widowed lady meant a possible disruption in the norms of a household, one he may well be able to use to his benefit.
Once Quinlan left the tavern, he made his way to the market. His next step would be to discern if this Lady Matilda would be a worthy mark. The streets of the marketplace thronged with people. Quinlan surmised every nation in the known world traveled through this port at one time or another, and today was no exception. People dressed in the garb of southern Nelaveth, and from the northern kingdoms shopped and bartered everywhere he looked. Elves from Elkcrest and even dwarves from Deep Helm did the same, squabbling to get the best price for their goods, or pay the least amount possible.
The variety of products for sale mirrored the diversity of the populace. From furs from exotic animals far to the north to exquisite pottery from the south were on display. Quinlan decided to not push his luck trying to steal from any of the numerous booths, but he did happen to bump into a rather large merchant with rings on every finger. He seemed so labored in breathing from his thick frame Quinlan felt compelled to lighten his burden by removing the weight of his heavy purse about his rotund waist.
Stopping at one of the tables, covered in gaudy baubles Quinlan asked the middle-aged man behind the stall, “Where do these come from?”
He smiled broadly, seeing a possible sale and replied, “Why these are from Pinemead, finest makers of jewelry in the south.”
Quinlan picked up a necklace with a large blue stone tied in place, the leather was worn but still pliable. “How much are you asking for this necklace?”
“I see you have discerning taste, choosing one of my best pieces, and for such a gentleman I could part with such an exquisite necklace for a mere five silver pieces.”
“Not a bad price, may I inquire as to which guild house travels so far for such quality merchandise?”
“Certainly, the house of Lord Delfry controls trade between Ardain and Pinemead.”
“I thought Lord Wilfred controlled the trade to the south?” Quinlan asked with a slight smile.
“Nay, Lord Wilfred runs trade to the north, at least he did until his untimely demise.” The peddler answered, and then he noticed a young boy standing close to the table. “Be off with you.”
The boys’ eyes widened, and he darted off running through the crowd. “You may want to make sure you still have your coin purse mister, these little thieves are notorious for taking advantage of unwary gentlemen and ladies.”
Quinlan bought into the shock of possibly being robbed and quickly felt for his pouch of coins within his cloak. Feigning relief when his hand came to rest on the bag, he thanked the man. “Thank you for the warning. I have but limited funds to complete my mission here.”
He put the necklace down and picked up a plain silver ring, “How much?”
“Three silver pieces,” He answered.
“I will take it,” Quinlan said as he fished through the plump merchants’ purse for the proper amount of coins. “By the way, would you happen to know what happened to Lord Wilfred?”
“Some whisper he was murdered by his wife, but most just think his heart failed,” He made a cryptic motion with his hand to ward off evil spirits. Speaking of the dead remained a taboo to many who live along the coast.
“Was Lord Wilfred a young man, to make people think he may have been murdered?”
“Aye, no older than me,” The man answered, “And his wife no older than you.”
Quinlan slipped the ring onto his finger, acting as if he had just purchased a new heirloom which he would pass down to his children.
“I wish you the best of luck, good sir,” Quinlan said as he departed. The peddler started on about “yet another happy customer” as Quinlan moved on. Now he knew even more about the mysterious conversation at the Happy Kraken.
He stopped at several other booths along his way, making conversation with the peddlers. As he conversed, he would leisurely change the subject until he discovered the whereabouts of Lady Matilda’s shop and Manor.
Lastly, Quinlan made his way to the stands of Lady Matilda. Covered in furs and dry goods from the north, including strong spirited drinks which rivaled the thick Dwarven brews, the rest of the merchandises in the market seemed meager in comparison. He would definitely have to pay a visit to Lady Matilda’s house, and soon.
Quinlan rented a room at the Golden Dragon, and for the rest of the day, slept. This Inn was much more elaborate than the Happy Kraken, with new floorboards and rafters which gave the entire place an aroma of the nearby forest. Tables were set with candles, and the staff all wore matching garb, bright blue tunics with gold trim. The clientele matched the décor, mostly merchants and town officials. However, a few of the patrons seemed of lesser stature, perhaps ship’s captains or warriors of renown.
Tonight he would spy upon the house of the late Lord Wilfred, and see if Lady Matilda was indeed overburdened with wealth. If the marketplace stood as a reflection of the guilds fortune, she had more than enough to share.
The day passed by, and as dusk turned to twilight Quinlan prepared for his night venture. He strapped his short sword to his back and wrapped a thin elven rope about his waist before donning his cloak. The tavern beneath his room had come to life, as a traveling bard began his performance. The sound of a lyre and a small drum emanated from the floor boards, and from the hoots and hollers the Bard must be doing something other than a mere ballad.
Heading down the stairs Quinlan spotted the Bard, dressed in a brightly covered red shirt, and matching pants, and strumming away on a worn silver plated lyre. He was not alone either, a second performer, dressed in similar garb, was thumping away on a medium sized drum. However, it happens to be the third member of this traveling troupe who caught his eye, as well as every other man in the place. She was quite stunning, with long auburn hair reaching down to her waist, and sparkling green eyes. She spun and twirled in a skimpy outfit of veils made of silk which clung to her every curve. Quinlan quickly scanned the tavern, and just as quick picked out the final member of the company, another young girl, perhaps sixteen years of age was slinking through the crowd of gawking men, brushing up against them.
Quinlan thought to himself, “Well at least I will not be the only thief plying their trade tonight,” and made his way outside into the brisk spring evening air. Clouds to the north lit up as a thunderstorm rolled slowly towards Estroy. Cursing his luck, for the illuminating bolts would help the guards spot a thief as quickly as the midday sun. Quinlan hurried to Lady Matilda’s Manor, time would no longer be on his side tonight. He would need to monitor the security of the Manor, and probe for weaknesses quickly before the storm reached Estroy.
Quinlan walked briskly, slowing only when a group of militia came into view. People out for a stroll or going from place to place walked much too slow for his purpose, so he reduced his gait until he turned down a less traveled street. Several more turns found him at the back of the Manor, walls of fifteen feet wrapped all the way around the Manor grounds. Perhaps a hundred feet square, quite an impressive size for a Manor within a city, and from all appearances, it seemed to be in good repair. He moved to the base of the wall and surveyed the gray stone carefully, his keen eyes searching for the easiest place to ascend. Fortunately, as with most every wall which he needed to climb, Quinlan found a section with stones not as tightly fitted as the others. Smiling he glanced left and right, and seeing no one in sight reached up and gripped the rough stones. Scaling the wall quickly, he slowed as he neared the top and listened for the sound of guards patrolling, hearing none he pulled himself up and peeked over. To the right a solitary guard, walking slowly and at least twenty feet away, and to the left, no guards were visible at all. This may be a wealthy Manor, but the Lady of the house seemed to not worry very much about security. Quinlan finished pulling himself up and silently crouched on the top of the walkway.
The Manor was a large two-story building, made of the same stone as the walls, with several windows on each level. A neatly manicured garden sat to the rear of the main house, and just below his location, a small horse stable containing three or four horses rested against the outer wall.
Quinlan was just about to descend when a scream from the Manor stopped him in his tracks. It was loud enough to be heard, yet muffled mostly from the thick walls. He quickly glanced in the direction of the guard but noticed the guard merely stopped, looked at the Manor for a moment, and then continued to slowly make his way towards the end of the walkway.
Thinking this odd behavior, Quinlan hesitated. Wondering why a guard would not rush to the sound of a woman’s scream, he eased himself down onto the stables and hid in the dark shadows against the wall and waited.
Lights from lamps illuminated first one, then two rooms on the second floor. Quinlan stayed close enough to spy through the window and see a middle-aged woman climbing out of bed. She appeared quite disturbed and began pacing back and forth. A second lady, the one he had seen in the tavern lingered mere steps behind her. She seemed to be attempting to calm the distraught woman who must be Lady Matilda. Lastly, Quinlan spied one other female in the room, she held a scimitar in her hand and watched the two women walking back and forth.
The guard had turned and began walking slowly in his direction, he felt confident he would not be seen, so he returned his attention to the Manor. The storm still remained far enough away that the lightning would not give his position away, and his dark clothing made him appear as nothing more than another shadow.
Lady Matilda opened the doors to the balcony and took a step outside. She inhaled deeply. Quinlan admired her figure as the wind from the approaching storm caused her nightshirt to press against her ample breast. As she turned he was drawn to the female warrior, she stood in his mind even more fetching. A prize beyond all others, and no doubt the greatest treasure Estroy had to offer. A woman so fair and lovely, if her nature happened to be as divine as her appearance, he would do whatever he could to win her heart.
He almost felt uncomfortable spying on the three, but then he just smiled and thought, “Who am I not to look when they walk around in such a manner?”
Lady Matilda returned to her bed, sat down and began crying, shaking her head as the handmaiden spoke to her, and with a wave of her hand she was dismissed. A brief conversation between the lady and her bodyguard ended with Lady Matilda lying back down and the Shield-Maiden sitting in a chair beside the bed as she extinguished the lone lamp.
Quinlan waited for a few moments for the guard to pass by one more time and then he quickly fled back over the wall. He would need to find another way to enter the Manor house. If the conversation he overheard this morning stood correct, this Lady awoke nightly from these nightmares. How could he go unnoticed, with nightly disruptions which awoke the staff and put them on alert? Perhaps he could follow the wizard from this morning, and when the handmaiden sought to allow him entrance he could sneak in behind. Something nagged at Quinlan, there was something definitely wrong with the house of Lady Matilda, discerning what may be the key to fulfilling his quest. As he made his way back to the Golden Dragon, visions of the Shield Maiden continued to fog his mind. She was truly a treasure worth pursuing, perhaps to his undoing. He had to meet her, for even in that brief moment, he decided to do whatever he could to win her over, whatever the cost.
Lady Matilda’s latest nightmare stood out as the most disturbing to date, a horrifying image of her husband, being tormented by a demon, tortured and screaming for help, calling out to her for help! In the darkness, lightning flashed, and she took comfort seeing Julianna sitting by her side. Slowly she fell back to sleep.
Julianna stayed awake for quite a long time, pondering over what she could do for Lady Matilda. She suspected something or someone stood behind these dreams, but with no clear suspects her skills with a blade were useless. The upcoming meeting between the heads of the merchant guilds offered Julianna’s best chance at attempting to discern if any of the guild leaders wished to see Lady Matilda lose her title and position. Perhaps one of them employed a wizard to cast these evil dreams. Regardless of what happened with the meeting, she would do whatever deemed necessary to protect Lady Matilda.
Arietta, after being dismissed by Lady Matilda so harshly did not return to her chambers, but instead headed downstairs. To one side there was the hall where guests were entertained, she entered the great hall and glanced about. Everything seemed in order, the large table which could easily sit twenty ran the length of the room, and each chair sat in its place. The fireplace, now cold and dark howled slightly as the storm outside neared, and the tapestries along the walls ruffled in due course. She walked over to the doors which opened up into the courtyard and peaked out through the crack. She caught her breath as a guard happened by, giving her a fright. She shook her head negatively and sighed. The dining hall would definitely not be the place to give Hamen access to the Manor.
Next, she slunk along the corridors, quickly eliminating rooms in the interior of the house off her list of possible entries. She ended up standing before the entrance which led beneath the Manor. Her hand shaking as she reached for the handle, Hamens’ warning of a possible curse pounding in her heart and head, telling her to turn from folly and find another way. Arietta, although never having visited the cellars, had heard tales from the staff of a passageway which opened up outside the Manor, a door hidden and meant to be an escape route for the owners if they needed to flee hastily.
How the servants knew of such an exit gave her pause, perhaps there was no exit, only tales contrived by over active imaginations. Her hand retreated from the handle as she considered the likelihood of such a door. Arietta tried to steady her nerves, Hamen was counting on her, but a bright flash of lightning sent her racing back to her chambers.
She hopped into her bed and covered herself with the blankets, still shivering from fright. Cursing herself for acting like a small child, afraid of some invisible monster she cried softly. “What will Hamen think of my failure at such an easy task?” Wiping her tears away she breathed deeply. “I do hope he forgives me, I would hate to disappoint my Love.” She thought back to a time when she had mistakenly spilled a goblet of wine onto a scroll he was studying. Absentmindedly she rubbed her cheek where he had struck her. “I must find a way!”