The following morning Quinlan waited patiently for the handmaiden to emerge from the Manor. After last night’s folly, he decided to change his tactics. There was just too high a chance of discovery with Lady Matilda waking the staff nightly with her screams. Perhaps there was another way to gain access to the Manor, one which would minimize his chance of detection. Quinlan had first considered following the magus as foolish, for a wizard would be a far more dangerous obstacle then any guard, but if this magus stayed focused on something other than who may be slipping into a door behind him, then there may be a chance. Of course, there was also the fact the wizard was up to no good, after all, sneaking in after hours was meant for mischief. Quinlan grinned as Arietta slipped out the gate and hurried down the street.
Moving from his hiding place, Quinlan followed her from a distance. She never even glanced back as she made her way along. This led Quinlan to believe the handmaiden actually thought she was helping Lady Matilda, for if she felt guilty about sneaking someone into the Manor, then her mind would suspect danger, and a quick glance to see if someone followed would seem inevitable.
Arietta moved quickly as if late and attempting to make up time. Turning down one street and then another until she reached a horse stable, a plaque with two horses reared up and facing away from each other hung above the rather well-kept structure. Beneath the sign in the common tongue were the words, “Royal Steeds.”
Arietta glanced about, looking to and fro, as for what Quinlan could only guess as he stopped and glanced at the store he stood in front of. A clothing store named “The Steady Stitch,” sneaking a peek back towards the stable he spied Arietta still looking up and down the street. Apparently, she must be waiting for Hamen.
Quinlan sighed and entered the store, not wishing to alert the handmaiden to his presence. As he crosses the threshold, a middle-aged man greeted him, “Good morning sire.”
“Good morning,” Quinlan answered, and seeing Arietta sit down on a bench outside the stable, he returned his attention to the store keeper. “I need a new set of clothes, something more befitting a guild house.”
“Yes, sire, which guild house?” He asked.
Quinlan had not considered which house, after-all this was merely a chance happening, but at the same time, a new plan began to form in his mind.
After trying on several outfits and a fair amount of time later, Quinlan emerged from the Steady Stitch dressed in an outfit befitting a man from the north. Beneath a fur and wool cape his shirt was made from a thick brown fabric, and britches of the dense, sturdy material favored by northern seafarers. Arietta had apparently met with Hamen, for she was no longer outside the stable. Shrugging, Quinlan headed in the direction of his room, a new scheme forming in his mind as he ambled idly back. The plan he came up with, on the surface seemed simple enough. He would pose as a merchant from the north, which had just arrived, prepared to make an agreement with Lord Wilfred. Of course, upon hearing the sad news, he would still seek to not only gain favor with Lady Matilda but access to her Manor.
The only factor to Quinlan’s plan which could cause him some trouble is the timing, when should he act. He thought about the wizard and handmaidens’ plans. Were the two of them, or at least Hamen in search of some type of item, perhaps a valuable one? If so, he may need to act fast, and strike before the conspirators. Then, and only then, his real prize could be sought.
He returned to the Inn, a minor noon time crowd sat at several tables, but Quinlan found a small table tucked away in a corner to sit and contemplate his next move. The food and drink he ordered sat before him, untouched as he tapped his fingers on the table, lost in contemplation until a single shadow darkened his view.
Glancing up he looked into the eyes of the young girl who traveled with the bard’s traveling troupe. She smiled and sat down across from him. “Mind if I sit?”
“Since you have already taken a seat, I would say you could care less if I mind.”
She laughed one of those fake laughs only a young girl could master. One of flattery and contempt rolled into a single sound to put men at ease. She ran both hands through her hair, smiling coyly. Batting her eyelashes she asked sweetly, “Do you want me to leave?”
Quinlan laughed, “You are good, what is your name?”
“I am Nola, from the kingdom of Nelaveth, and you are?”
“Just Quinlan?” She asked leaning forward slightly, picking a piece of cheese off of his plate and brought it slowly to her lips.
Ignoring her question he asked, “What is your angle Nola of Nelaveth?” It occurred to him at this time he was still donned as a merchant, alone and without protection from would-be thieves and assassins. She had not answered him but merely stared into his eyes with quite a provocative smile. He smiled back, and leaning forward until they were mere inches away asked, “Perhaps we could go somewhere to talk, and then I may be inclined to tell you where I am from.”
She smiled wickedly, “Follow me.”
She took his hand as they rose from their seats, and led him outside. The afternoon clamor from the docks drowned out her words as she pulled him along. Turning down an alley he let her take a few steps before switching his grip on her wrist and thrusting her up against the wall. His dagger pressed slightly against her throat. “Shhh, not one peep my dear.”
Her breathing had increased, and a slight hint of fear mirrored in her eyes, but she nodded her compliance with his demand. Seeing her nod he smiled reassuringly, “How many await us down this alley?”
She shook her head negatively, “No one, I do not know what you are talking about.”
“My dear Nola, I saw you last night, plying your trade.” Her eyes grew wider as he continued, “Worry not my dear. I have no intention of turning you over to the militia.” He winked at her and lowered his blade.
Once free from the possibility of death her composure switched quickly, she could run if she was actually able to break his grip, or reach for her own dagger, but she hesitated, awaiting his next move.
She did not have to wait long, “I have a proposition for you and your friends.” Quinlan started, “However I would discuss the deal with you first, then we can go down the alley and meet your companions.”
“Go on,” She said, “I am listening.”
“Oh no, not here, let us take a little walk shall we.”
Nodding he took her hand in his and led her back to the docks. Looking left and right, both for guards and the other members of the troupe he headed north with Nola in tow. They made their way past the busy docks and onto a winding path, which wound upwards just within the outer fortifications. After several minutes Nola asked, “Where are you taking me?”
Glancing back, and seeing no one in sight, Quinlan stopped and sat on an outcropping of stone jutting out from the wall. “This will do,” He patted the rock beside him, “Have a seat.”
Hesitantly she sat down beside him.
“My guess is your fellow members not only know of your, let us say attributes but encourage them,” Quinlan smiled at her silence and continued, “Very well, you need not answer but may I ask if you are a member of one of the guilds?”
She stared at him, contemplating whether or not to tell him anything. He had not turned her into the militia, yet it could be a ploy to have her confess before he hauled her off to the authorities. So trying to turn the tables on her predicament she asked, “Are you?”
Quinlan smiled, she was as quick of mind as her fingers, “No, I am a freelance,” His decision to not only seek help, but also risk everything had been a hard choice, but the longer he considered how to best go about his new plan, the more problems presented themselves. How could he follow the magus and handmaiden, and infiltrate the Manor at the same time? He could perhaps join one of the guilds, but if he did the guild would take more than he was willing to give up. When Nola sat down at his table, it came to pass as if by fate. For here was the solution to his problem plopping down across from him.
After seeing Nola “working” the crowd last night, he hoped and prayed they were unassociated since they were a traveling troupe. If they were members of a guild, he would give up his plot and contrive another way, perhaps a more dangerous method of proceeding with his plans.
Nola sighed in relief, being caught off guard was bad enough, but to have been duped by another guild would have even worse consequences. Her cohorts would never let her live it down, “I am a freelance. Traveling from place to place makes it nearly impossible to join a guild. Although I am certain I could learn quite a few new things from one.”
Quinlan smiled slightly, “You seemed quite able last night, without a guilds backing,” He looked about to make sure they were alone and continued, “Normally I would not take on partners, but due to timing I am in need of help. I have a plan but not enough time to do everything necessary,” With as much charm as he was able to muster, he smiled warmly and added, “All I need is a little help, and in return, I will split whatever I make.”
She relaxed a little more, knowing her fate was not to end up in the gallows but to return to her troupe with a profitable proposition would be a pleasant change. “Exactly what do you need from me?” She did not offer her friends help, not knowing if they would or not.
Quinlan sat back against the stone wall, “I need a few people to follow a couple whom I believe may be trying to beat me to the prize.”
“Is that all?” Nola asked.
“For now, yes,” Quinlan stated then added, “Of course, there may be more as the time draws near.”
She sat silently for a few moments before saying, “So you never answered me, where are you from?” Nola asked as Quinlan stood up.
“A little place called Willow Creek,” Quinlan answered. “Now that we know who and what we are, how about I buy you a drink.”
Smiling she stood up and ran her hand through her hair, “Why not partner. I can see no downside to my part of this bargain so I will join you.”
Quinlan laughed and held out his hand, “Shall we hold hands again.”
This time, Nola laughed, but then she smiled and wrapped her arm around his, finally interlocking their fingers, “How is this?”
Quinlan cleared his throat, “Nice.” He replied and they slowly made their way down to the docks.
Quinlan had more preparations to see to, so after a single drink the two parted company with the intent of meeting around dusk. Nola glanced about the tavern and then headed into the alley she had led Quinlan down. Half way down she called out, “Tristan, are you there?”
Slipping out from behind several empty crates the drummer from the night before answered, “Aye, I was about to come and see where you were.” He shook his head and added, “What is going on, do not tell me you have lost your touch.”
“Humph,” She wiggled her hips and shook her chest provocatively. “Does it look as if I have lost my touch?”
He laughed, “Perhaps it is the darkness of this alley, but I could have sworn I saw a small girl run by.”
“Next time I will leave you here all day,” She retorted angrily. “Where are Alena and Devin?”
Tristan shrugged, “I assume they are still back at the tavern, where we left them.”
“Well come on then, I have news.”
Tristan fell in line behind Nola and soon they arrived at the Golden Dragon. Alena and Devin were nowhere in sight, so the two climbed the stairs and hearing muffled sounds coming from their room, knocked on the door. There ensued a noise of two people scrambling about and then a set of footsteps approached the door, “Who is it?”
“It is me and Tristan, open up,” Nola said impatiently.
The sound of a bolt sliding preceded the door opening. Devin, somewhat covered in a light sheen of sweat opened the door wide, “Come on in you two, we were just wondering if you would be back in time for tonight’s performance.”
Once inside Nola secured the bolt, the room stood sparse on furniture, two beds with somewhat fresh straw on one side and a table with four chairs on the other. A lone window looked out of the room straight at the building across the alley, and the small fireplace was as cold as the midnight sun.
“So my dear,” Alena said as she tapped the bed next to her, “How did you two make out this morning?”
Nola sat down beside her and looked down at the floorboards, trying to find the words to explain what had transpired.
“I think Nola fell asleep, for I know I nearly did waiting for her to bring someone.”
Nola glared at her brother, “It is not easy trying to find a drunkard you can surprise, and besides I found a deal, I think we can turn into a nice profit. Something even Tristan cannot mess up.”
Alena and Devin chuckled, and Tristan’s cheeks reddened, “Last time was not my fault, you should have known better than to pick a nobleman’s son.”
“Enough you two,” Alena interjected, “What is this news you have for us?”
“I have met a,” she paused, “a man in need of our help.”
Tristan laughed, “Since when are we in the business of charity?”
“Since you messed up in Twin Rivers, we need to be more discreet!” Nola shot back, silencing her brother, “Hear me out, and then we all can decide.”
Alena and Devin exchanged glances and then nodded in agreement. Alena turned to Nola, “Well, what is it?”
Nola went about telling them of her meeting with Quinlan, and his call for aid, leaving out the part where she misread the stranger, and of how easily she could have ruined them all. She elaborated on minor details, trying to prove how she had outmaneuvered the fellow thief at every turn. As to whether they bought the exaggerated story or not, she remained uncertain. When she finished, they all sat silently for a moment.
“I do not like the idea of partnering up with another thief, how do we know if we can trust him?” Tristan asked.
“And then there are our performances, what if he needs us when we are supposed to perform?” Alena asked.
Devin looked at Nola’s pleading eyes before speaking, stroking his neatly trimmed goatee before answering, “Well Nola, we have taught you how to read people for the last three years, so you tell us. Can we trust this fellow, or better yet, do you trust him?”
Nola stood up and paced back and forth for a moment, “Yes, I trust him. I do not have a particular reason to, but I do.”
“Very well then,” Devin crossed his arms over his chest, “We have a guaranteed two weeks work here, so as long as your new friend is done whatever he needs to do in that time, I say go and help him.”
Nola looked shocked, “Alone?”
“Why not, you have already struck a deal with him. We may be somewhat unscrupulous, but that does not mean we are dishonorable,” Devin smiled and flopped down on the bed next to Alena.
Tristan added, “Whatever comes from this deal of yours had better be worth it.”
Feeling somewhat betrayed by her companions Nola sat at the table and poured a glass of wine, drinking it down she sighed and said, “Do not worry. I am sure I will make a good profit!” Slamming the glass onto the wooden table, she rose and headed for the door grabbing up her bag on the way.
“Where are you off to?” Alena questioned sarcastically.
“If I am to do this alone, I shall!” She stormed out of the room slamming the door as she went. She wiped a tear from her cheek as her companions laughed.
Quinlan returned to his room and changed from his merchant garb into his regular clothes. Now was the time to obtain even more facts on the merchant guilds, armed with a pocket full of stolen coins he roamed the market probing each and every stall for information, who ran which trade route, and from where. He even found out which guild masters were deemed reliable versus those who had a reputation for some shadowy dealings. All and all the best information up to now remained the upcoming meeting of the guild masters in the regards to Lady Matilda. With the passing of her husband, the guilds would meet with her to determine if she would be able to keep the northern trade route, or forfeit it to a competitor.
The sun was beginning to dip as he returned to his room, and if Nola would indeed secure the help of her troupe in the upcoming caper.
As he climbed the stairs he was surprised to see Nola awaiting him, “Good afternoon,” He said as he reached her.
She nodded saying, “Yes, it is a good afternoon,” Smiling she added, “Where can we talk?”
Quinlan motioned to his room, opening the door for her. She went in and took a seat at the small table. His room stood as sparse as her own, a single bed with a table and two chairs.
Quinlan sat down and gazed into Nola’s eyes, trying to discern her answer before he asked the question. The slight redness and puffiness about her eyes gave him a minor pause, thinking he knew the answer already he said, “So your friends do not wish to help?”
She tried to remain steady and confident as she answered, “Not exactly, they gave me leave to help you, just me.”
“I see,” Quinlan sat back in his chair, reflecting on her proclamation.
“I am more than capable, and besides, there will be just the two of us to split the profits,” Nola enthusiastically stated, “Unless you want to find another group to help you.”
Quinlan smiled slightly, “I do not believe I have neither the time nor the patience to discover another,” Reaching into his pack he fumbled about until he found a padlock. He tossed it onto the table and said, “Let me see what you can do with this.”
Nola grinned, “Alright,” She picked the lock up and examined it carefully. Reaching into her belt, she produced a pair of picks and began working on the inner mechanism. Minutes later a dull click sounded.
“Here you go,” She tossed it back over to him.
“Not bad, how about something a little more challenging?”
“If I must,” Nola smirked, not quite expecting to have to undergo a test to help him with whatever he had planned. After all, he said she would merely be needed to follow someone, not pick locks.
Quinlan picked up on the sarcasm so he said, “Last one,” He procured another lock from out of his bag. This lock, however, was attached to a small box.
She picked up her final challenge and quickly glanced at the lock and box. Just before starting she spied a thin round hole just behind the lock. Trapped! She hesitated for only a moment before taking another pick out and jammed it into the hole. Smiling at her foiling his attempt to stop her she deftly worked on the lock. Click, the lock popped open and at the same time, a sharp pain shot into her forefinger.
She looked down, turning pale as she fixed her gaze on the small needle stuck into her finger, she plucked it out quickly. Her gaze stayed transfixed on the single drop of blood slowly running down to her palm. Nola’s first reaction was one of pure terror, which turned to anger just as quickly, “What have you done, I do not deserve to be poisoned by you. I came here to help!” She jumped up, baring her dagger and leaped towards Quinlan.
Not taken off guard, he grabbed her wrist and let her momentum carry the two of them to the ground in a not very elegant tumble. Her anger had left her unsettled, and Quinlan quickly managed to roll on top of her pinning both hands to the floorboards, “You are not poisoned girl!”
He laughed as her expression turned from one of hate to something he just could not put his finger on, “What!” She exclaimed, “You tricked me!”
“Not quite,” He sat up but stayed on top of her, still pinning her to the floor, “It was a double-trapped box.”
She started to smile and then laugh at her reaction. As Quinlan loosened his grip ever so slightly, she lifted her right leg up and wrapped it around Quinlan’s neck and pushed heavily.
Quinlan seemed a bit surprised at the move, but he managed to keep his grip on her wrists, which yanked her off the floor as he went backward from her powerful grappling move. Resisting the urge to choke as her leg pressed hard into his throat, he rolled to his left. Several moves and minutes later the two ended up lying on their sides, completely entangled. Neither one wanted to yield, but both were breathing heavy and covered in sweat from the exertion.
“Perhaps we should stop?” Quinlan suggested.
“Why, are you afraid to lose to a girl?”
“No, but if this keeps up, you will end up showing me a bit more than I think you want to,” He glanced down at her chest. She followed his gesture, and if she were not already red from wrestling with Quinlan, she would be now, for during the struggle her blouse had become undone and her bosom mostly exposed.
She looked back to Quinlan smiling lecherously. He locked eyes with her and said, “One more move and I will get to see it all.”
She relaxed her grip, as did Quinlan. The two rolled onto their backs, both exhausted from the grappling match. After a few minutes, Nola asked, “Now what?”
“I think, if I can stand up, it is time for me to tell you how we are going to make some gold.”
She laughed and rolled onto her side, “Can we get something to eat?”
Quinlan smiled and answered, “Most definitely.”
Slowly they both managed to get up and straighten their apparel. Quinlan admired her form as she fixed her blouse and pants. Nola’s ability to hold her own against him left Quinlan smiling, feeling he had indeed chosen a worthy partner. Her long brown wavy hair which ended just above her waist had come undone from the braids she normally preferred, but she was too tired to try and fix them, so instead she let her trusses remain free.
She turned to face him, a smile on her face and in her brilliant green eyes, “I am ready.”
Quinlan, who had just wrestled with this stunning woman found himself gawking at her as if seeing her for the first time. Her genuine smile transformed her as much as her free hair changed her appearance.
“What?” She asked the slack-jawed Quinlan. His dark brown eyes stared at her as if she lay open to the bone.
“You are quite lovely,” He said before he could stop himself. Not being an overly handsome man, just an average comeliness to most, he felt somewhat self-conscious being in her presence.
She put her hands on her hip, “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, I will need to wear my sword tonight to fight off the men pursuing you.”
Nola had become accustomed to the taunts of her brother and the lovely Alena to the point where she considered herself unattractive. Her cheeks flushed at the compliment and not really knowing how to take the flattery, she merely laughed saying, “If you keep up saying things like that, we will end up wrestling again.”
Quinlan smiled and headed for the door, “Come on, I am hungry, we can always fight later if you want.”
She chuckled, “We are partners in crime, not the bed.”
“Shame we could not be both.” Quinlan joked as they both made their way downstairs.
Nola wondered if her friends heard their tumbling around since their room stood right below Quinlans’, and if they would have come to her aid if she was truly in danger.
They purchased some food and a bottle of wine and headed back to the rock along the fortifications. The sun’s last rays of light lightly illuminated the pair.
“So what is this grand scheme of yours?” Nola asked.
Quinlan glanced over and smiled at her, “Where to begin,” He remained silent for a moment, and then continued, “My plan involves the guild house of Lady Matilda. From what I have gathered she is by far the wealthiest merchant in Estroy, and I plan to relieve her of some of her wealth. The outfit you found me in this morning is part of the scheme. I am going to introduce myself as a trader from Gilim, hoping to seal a trade deal with Lord Wilfred.”
“But Lord Wilfred is dead,” Nola interjected.
“Exactly, and I will use that to my advantage. I will exclaim my deepest regrets, and after that, I will still offer a trade deal to the Lady,” He smiled thinking about the upcoming venture. “I am hoping she takes the bait and offers me an audience. Once inside I will find out the layout of the Manor as well as where she may be hiding her wealth,” He looked over at Nola, looking even lovelier as her hair blew in the evening breeze.
“So what do you need me to do?”
“Ay yes, your part is crucial. During my reconnaissance, I found another planning something similar to my own, as to why I have not yet determined.”
“Would it not be the same reason?” Nola asked.
“If the other happened to be a thief, I would agree, but the other is a magus.”
“A magus, what can I do against a wizard?”
“Nothing, what I need is for you to follow him, make sure he does not make his move before we do, nothing more,” Quinlan handed her the bottle, “I was hoping all four of you would help, in that way he would never suspect he was being followed.”
“I see,” Nola said taking a swig from the bottle, “And if he catches me?”
Quinlan looked at her seriously, “Do not let him.”
She took another drink and handed Quinlan back the bottle, “Maybe Tristan and Alena are right, maybe I am in over my head.”
He reached out and took her chin into his hand, forcing her to look into his eyes, “Do not let others tell you what you can and cannot do, believe you can and you will.”
She cursed herself for being weak as Quinlan wiped a tear from her cheek, “From what I have seen of your skills, you will succeed. And when you do Nola, no one will be able to take that away from you.”
She smiled and wiped the tears from her eyes, “Thank you for that, I just…” She trailed off, lost in thought.
Quinlan had seen this before. In fact, Nola seemed to have the same problem he had as a youth. Always having his shortcomings pointed out, with never a compliment to counter the numerous insults. Quinlan had left home for just such a reason. However, he had done so much earlier than her. How Quinlan wished he had someone to tell him it would be alright when he ran away from home.
“I agreed to help, and I will,” Nola murmured, “It is a decent plan after all.”
“How old are you Nola?” Quinlan asked before thinking.
She slyly looked over at Quinlan, “I have seen eighteen summers, and you?”
After a moment of contemplation Nola asked, “Why did you want to know how old I am.”
“When I first spied you at the Inn, you seemed no more than sixteen, but as I sit beside you, I realize just how much of a woman you really are.”
She had regained her composure, and her sense of humor swiftly, “I would have thought you would have noticed that when we wrestled.” She smirked and added, “So old man, what is our next move?”
Quinlan laughed, served him right for asking a woman, no matter how young her age. He stood up and offered his hand.
She took it and pulled him down slightly and slapped his face, “That is for tricking me earlier.”
Quinlan laughed even harder, “Well played Nola, I see you are even more wily than I thought.” He rubbed his cheek feigning injury, “Now I want to show you the Manor, and tomorrow morning I shall point out Hamen, the wizard you are going to get sick of hiding from.”