The Thief of Hearts

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Chapter 3

Lady Matilda’s Manor bustled with activity, for the day she would host her fellow guild masters was fast approaching. Two days remained until she had to suffer through their prying and probing for weakness. In their attempt to take her late husband’s trade route, she felt confident they would stop at nothing. In fact, she began to believe someone had indeed employed a magus or dark cleric to send such horrifying dreams her way. Everything must be perfect. She could not fail the legacy Wilfred left to her. It had been bad enough he had died before she bore a child and heir, but to have to fight for her position worked on her last nerve.

“No, I want the bear skin rug in the main gallery, not the dining hall!” She snapped at one of her handmaidens. The young girl nearly in tears muttered an apology and hurried to remedy the problem.

“Arietta,” She hollered, “Where are you!”

“I am here Milady,” Arietta answered rushing from the kitchen.

“Must I do everything myself?” Lady Matilda barked, “You know we have very little time before they arrive.”

“Yes, Milady, I shall take care of everything. Why do you not go and have a rest in the garden,” Arietta suggested.

Lady Matilda sighed heavily, “I suppose I should, please make sure the other girls follow my instructions.”

“I will Milady. I will have Keya bring you something to calm your nerves.”

Lady Matilda spun and headed for the garden just as a substantial booming came from the front door. She froze, could the other guild masters have arrived early. Her heart pounded as Arietta went to answer the door.

She took a deep breath, steadying her nerves as the door opened. To her everlasting delight, she saw but a single person standing in the egress. The man was of middle age and height, and though dressed in the garb of a merchant, he was assuredly not a guild master.

Arietta spoke to the man for a moment and then came over to Lady Matilda, “Milady, this man says he is a trader from the town of Gilim and has come to see your husband.”

Sighing in relief, she placed a hand on Arietta’s forearm, “I will meet with him in the garden, send for Julianna and have Keya bring two goblets.”

“Yes, Milady,” Arietta returned to the waiting man, “Sir Quinlan, please come in, Lady Matilda shall see you presently.”

“Thank you,” Quinlan replied and bowed ever so slightly. Once Arietta had left to do her Lady’s bidding, he took a few steps into the entryway. A large staircase to the second floor stood before him. Off to his right a dining hall, rather large and over decorated and being wiped down by two servants. To his left, a girl carrying a bottle of wine and two goblets emerged and headed around the stairs to the right. He could only guess at what lay down the hallway. Quinlan’s attention immediately shifted as the Shield Maiden came down the stairs. She was even more attractive then he remembered. Flowing blonde hair encircled a beautiful face, and eyes he could swim in forever. He snapped out of his lust filled thoughts as fast as he could. His wrestling with Nola had stirred his blood, and he knew all too well that a lovely woman could bring down the greatest man as surely as his bow could bring down a sparrow.

“Good afternoon sire, I shall escort you to Lady Matilda,” Julianna said, and to Quinlan, it sounded as if angels were singing to him from those ruby lips of perfection.

He cursed his shameless thoughts and said, “Thank you.”

Beckoning him to follow, she led him down the hallway. His attempt to peer into the rooms was pure folly. Each of the four doors they passed stood closed. He may as well have been a blind man stumbling around for all the good this trip to the Manor was doing.

She opened a door at the end of the hall, which opened into the garden. Of course, Quinlan already knew this from his late night visit. This time, however, the sun shone down on a variety of brilliant colored flowers, and statues of various heroes from the last hundred years or so.

“Lady Matilda, it is an honor to meet you,” Quinlan said as they reached her at a small oak table. He bowed deeply and awaited her.

“Sir Quinlan, welcome to my Manor,” She held out her hand which he took and lightly kissed as all the noble folk cared to do.

“Milady, I want to thank you for welcoming me into your home. I was hoping to meet with Lord Wilfred on a matter of trade,” Quinlan stated plainly.

“My dear husband is no longer with us, but I would be welcome to hear your proposal,” Lady Matilda said as she motioned for Quinlan to take a seat.

“Thank you, Milady,” Quinlan said as he sat down, “I am truly sorry for your loss. It must have been recent, for I have only been traveling for the last three months.”

“Yes,” She appeared slightly saddened but tried to hide her emotions. She changed the subject quickly, “I now run the guild, so please feel free to propose your offer.”

“First, I offer a toast to your husband, may he find peace with the Maker.”

“Peace with the Maker,” Lady Matilda echoed.

Quinlan slid his goblet across the table top. Sitting back he cleared his throat and began, “As I said I have traveled from the north, with the intent of proposing a trade route from Gilim to the barbarian clans.” Seeing her eyebrow rise in surprise he continued, “You may think the clans would have nothing to offer in the way of trade, but hear me out. Ever since the clan’s liberation from Veyhanerr they have had a rough time trying to reestablish their individual tribes. Many of their hunters fell to the swords of the Orn Hordes and the treacherous Cuantre Ferlusum. So many in fact they look to Elkcrest and Gilim for dry goods and food. As for payment, they barter furs and gold,” Quinlan picked up his goblet again and took another long draft, letting the word gold sink in, “My proposal to your late husband was to sponsor a trade route from the remaining clans to…, well anywhere we could trade furs for a nice profit. As it stands now, the tribes I feel are taking advantage of, since the Elves could care less for furs they offer little in trade. And as for Gilim, their merchants are even worse, caring slightly for the plight of the clans, and knowing the clan’s reluctance to travel far to receive due compensation gives them an unfair advantage. One in which they are quite happy to exploit.”

“So why do you seek out my guild?” Lady Matilda asked, “Certainly there are other houses which could do as you have suggested.”

“True, but do the other houses have the right to trade in Gilim, or the ships to transport them on. I think not, at least I do not believe they do unless something has changed since last I traveled this far south.”

“And what would the cost be?” Lady Matilda asked.

Quinlan smiled, he liked this Lady, for she seemed a shrewd barterer, “Ay yes, expenses. As with every undertaking such as this, there would most definitely be costs. First, you would have to dispatch one of your merchant ships, but since they travel to Cliffside Bay, I see no real value there. However from the bay to Gilim and beyond we would need horses and wagons. And of course, goods to barter with once we arrive.”

“Do not forget guards, and an able scout,” Lady Matilda added, “Along with a person to do the bartering,” She smiled at Quinlan, “But I suppose that is where you come in?”

Quinlan poured the Lady and himself another goblet of wine. “I would be honored to help in any way possible,” He smiled and took another sip, “Working with such a distinguished house would indeed be more than I could ever ask for.”

“I will need time to consider your most gracious offer Sir Quinlan,” Lady Matilda also took a drink, “Perhaps two or three days.”

“Two or three days would be just fine. It will give me time to explore this most lively city,” Quinlan nodded his head slightly. He looked up into the bright blue sky and then glanced about the gardens, “You certainly have a lovely place here.”

“Why thank you. Perhaps once I have made my decision I can show you about,” Lady Matilda offered as she rose.

“I would enjoy that immensely,” Quinlan stood and bowed once again. “Exactly when shall I return?” He asked, hoping to delay his departure so as to explore more than what he had seen, which by his standing was not enough to even attempt to pick a pocket.

Lady Matilda paused momentarily in consideration, and before she could give the answer, a scream came from somewhere within the house. Julianna freed her blade, “Milady, I cannot leave you with this man.”

Quinlan smiled and said, “I will help if you wish me to?”

Lady Matilda glanced between the two and nodded.

Julianna sprinted with Quinlan hard pressed to keep up. They entered the Manor just as Arietta reached the door. Julianna’s hard rush and push sent the poor handmaiden flying. She landed hard on her rump and seemed a bit stunned, “Arietta, what were those screams?”

Arietta looked up at Julianna, fear etched upon her face, “The cellars.”

Julianna leaped over the girl and continued deeper into the house, Quinlan followed along. Curiosity had gripped him, and the sight of Julianna running alone headlong into action helped sway him to pursue. They ran around the base of the stairs and down the other hall, stopping as they came to the second door which stood wide open.

A torch placed in a sconce illuminated the stairs. Julianna made her way down slowly. Quinlan followed slightly behind, not wishing to get in her way should she need to swing her blade. They reached the bottom and found the cause for the scream, a serving girl lies some twenty feet away, but even from here Quinlan could see the dagger handle protruding from her chest, and a pool of blood slowly spreading out from her motionless form. The two slowly made their way over to her, Julianna checking every shadow as they went.

They stopped, and Quinlan knelt down, confirming she had left this world. The two met one another gaze, and as one they peered down the darkened hall. Quinlan slid his sword free and struck his blade just above a second torch. The sparks flew as steel met stone and the torch burst to life.

With the light of the second torch, they could see the remainder of the basement, so to speak. Along the left wall shelves held dozens of wine bottles and to the right two more doors closed and in the eerie flickering torchlight, they looked quite ominous to Quinlan.

“What is down there?”

“The first door goes into the crypt, the second is storage,” Julianna answered as she moved slowly forward. Quinlan took a step but slipped in the blood. He landed with a dull thud and sickening splash, “Blast this wench had a lot of blood.”

“Mind how you talk about the fallen,” Julianna snapped. She reached the door to the crypt and pulled it wide open, sword at the ready. She glanced inside but saw naught, so she quickly shut the door.

“See anything?” Quinlan queried.

“Only the dead,” Julianna replied, “Prepare yourself.”

She moved over to the storage room door, this time choosing to kick it open. Her massive kick knocked the door off of its top hinge, causing it to topple into the room, twisting the bottom hinge at a right angle.

“I do not understand. This room is vacant also,” Julianna exclaimed.

Quinlan stepped on the ruined door, causing the hinge to snap off entirely. He caught himself from falling by grabbing hold of one of the numerous boxes stacked along the wall.

Quinlan turned and shrugged, “It would appear whoever has slain the poor girl has made good their escape.”

Julianna sheathed her blade and went back to the scene, avoiding the pool of blood she reached down and pulled the dagger free. Quinlan had followed her and asked, “Do you recognize the blade?”

“No, I have not laid eyes on it before,” She wiped the blood off on the fallen girl’s dress, “Come on, there is nothing more we can do down here.”

They returned to the top of the steps where Lady Matilda, a trembling Arietta, and two guards awaited them. Seeing the lowermost half of Quinlan covered in blood was enough to have Arietta swoon, falling to the floor where she stood.

“One of you needs to carry her to her room,” Lady Matilda ordered and then turning to Julianna and Quinlan asked, “What has happened?”

“The new girl, Gina, has been murdered,” To emphasize the fact she raised the dagger up for Lady Matilda to see.

“Oh no. Of all the times for something this horrid to happen, why did it have to transpire now?”

“I am afraid I do not understand,” Quinlan said, “Why is now not the right time?”

“I suppose I should have told you Sir Quinlan, but the Lords of the other guild houses are coming here to pay their respects and determine if they will petition the King to take my trade routes from me.”

“Oh, I see,” Quinlan feigned astonishment and added, “If there is anything I can do to help, please do not hesitate to ask.”

“You are quite a gallant man, Sir Quinlan,” She sighed and looked to Julianna for some help in the matter.

“Milady, I think it may be wise to ask Sir Quinlan to remain here, we could use a man who does not turn away from danger.” She glanced back at Quinlan and then to Lady Matilda again, “If nothing else, we need to offer him a bath and something to wear before we send him back into the streets.”

“Yes, indeed we do,” She turned and looked around the staircase to see the other four servants huddled together in the dining hall, “Keya, take this gentleman to the bath, and find something of my husbands’ which will fit him.”

“Yes, mistress,” Keya slowly let go of her compatriots and came over, she seemed a bit revolted from Quinlan’s appearance, covered in blood, but she followed her ladies bidding and motioned for him to follow her.

Once Quinlan and Keya were out of sight, Lady Matilda dismissed the guard and told the other girls to get back to work.

“Milady, what shall we do with the body?” Julianna asked.

“Once we have finished talking have the guards place her in the crypt. After this business with the Lords is over with, we shall see her properly buried.”

“Yes, Milady.”

“I am surprised at you Julianna. I never thought you would want the help of a man to protect me.”

Julianna smiled, “And I never will, but I do not believe we could just let him leave covered in blood, especially since I do not trust him.”

“Why not?”

“I find it a bit suspicious that we have a murder shortly after his arrival, so I would prefer to know where he is before I find him with a dagger to your throat.”

Lady Matilda paled slightly, “I see what you mean,” She sighed heavily and leaned up against the wall, “May I ask you a question, one which you will not repeat?”

“Yes, Milady.”

“Do you think I can run this guild alone, or should I just give it to another?”

“I…” She began but Lady Matilda stopped her, “Do not answer that, I know what I must do.”

Quinlan soaked in a large tub in one of the second-floor rooms, leisurely glancing about as Keya added more hot water. A small table with several towels rested off to his right, just beneath a small window. He turned to see Julianna entering the room and suddenly seemed a bit uncomfortable. Sitting in a tub with Keya attending him was by far quite different than a woman he found to be breath-taking. He slipped down into the water until only his head remained above the crimson-tinted bath.

“Is there anything you require?” Julianna asked.

“No, unless you wish to join me for a glass of wine?”

She frowned back, “If you want I will send someone to find you a wench.”

“I am sorry. Sometimes I speak before I think. It is just...; it has been a while since I have seen a woman of such beauty. I just thought you may need a drink after what happened in the cellar.” Quinlan wished he had kept his mouth shut.

She laughed, “Nice try but I am a Shield Maiden, and the sight of blood does little to unnerve me.” Julianna sat down on the only other furniture in the room, a cushioned stool, “My position in this house is the safety of Lady Matilda, and so I ask you, what are your intentions?”

“I am sorry, but you were present when I gave my proposal to Lady Matilda, were you not.”

She stared at him intently, trying to discern his real intent. Her nerves were wound tight, lack of sleep and now a murder had left her testy and short-tempered. Perhaps he was just what he claimed to be, a trader. Perhaps his arrival remained nothing more than a coincidence, “Lady Matilda extends an invitation to join her for dinner.”

“Please tell Lady Matilda I am honored to be her guest,” Quinlan added, and as she turned to leave, “And let her know my offer still stands, I will do whatever I can to help.”

She glanced back at him as she opened the door. Somewhat unnerved seeing him stare at her with such a look of…lust. She gave a little smile as she closed the door behind her. She had been under contract with this house for a long time, and not stepped outside the Manor since Lord Wilfred’s death. She had almost forgotten what it was like to have someone look at her in such a way, she felt herself blushing and angry at the same time. Who was he to make her feel so… She cursed the intrusion of his ogling, but she cursed herself even more for being affected by his desire. She needed to get her mind off his lustful gaze. More pressing matters were at hand. Julianna hurried down the stairs and headed towards the cellars.

Heading down the staircase, she stopped and searched for anything unusual, finding naught she continued to the damp spot on the floor where the blood had been mopped up. She stood there for a moment, looking back at the staircase. Where had the murderer hidden? The door to the crypt remained the closest hiding place, but surely the girl would have seen the door open, so what had transpired to have the blade buried in her chest and not her back?

Next, Julianna moved over to the crypt door itself. Opening it up all the way, she started inside when the door began to close on its own. She drew a dagger and wedged it under the door, a sudden creepy thought of being trapped in the crypt caused the hair on the nape of her neck to rise. Thrusting her torch into the crypt, she stepped future inside. The serving girls’ body, wrapped in linen lay just inside. She glanced at it for just a moment. Moving deeper into the thirty-foot long chamber, she paused and rested her hand on Lord Wilfred’s coffin. She said a silent prayer to help his soul on its eternal journey. She walked further into the room, musing to herself she was walking back in time, as each in the line of Wilfred rested. By the end of her journey, twelve generations lay side by side. She turned and surveyed the crypt, noticing as she did that none of the coffins seemed disturbed in any way. She began to wonder if she was only wasting her time when she saw the torch flame being drawn to the side and away from the entrance. Turning, she attempted to find the source of the draft affecting the flames. She spotted it quickly, as swiftly as she spotted the footprints in the thick dust.

Running her fingers along the recently disturbed entrance marking the hidden door, she looked for a way to open it. Finding none she stepped back, frustration etched upon her face. She stepped next to one of the footprints, comparing the two. Hers stood slightly smaller and not quite as full, she surmised it must be a man’s footprint. She combed the area for more disturbances to the thin layer of dust which covered everything. Julianna was just about to give up when she noticed a lack of dust on the emblem to the house, the sign of the wyvern on a shield. Pressing against the seal the hidden door swung in silently. She drew her sword and peered inside. A rough honed passageway snaked its’ way along until it disappeared from sight. Pressing the emblem again, the door of stone closed.

Julianna sighed, she had not realized there stood another access to the Manor, and she had heard the rumors there may be one, but considered them nothing more than speculation until now. Her torch was nearing its end so she used it as a wedge to seal the door until she could discuss the matter with Lady Matilda.

Arietta awoke with a start, sitting up quickly, almost too quickly as the sudden movement left her lightheaded. She swung her legs off the bed and sat for a moment, trying to compose herself. She looked down at her hands, still slightly shaking, “I must be strong now. I really must get a hold of myself.” She said as she walked over to her window and peered out.

Lady Matilda stood in the garden instructing two of the servants. She looked around for Julianna but did not see her. She opened the door in between her and Lady Matilda’s room and peeked in, empty. She snuck in and crossed the room quickly to Julianna’s room. Kneeling down she looked beneath the door, seeing nothing she slowly opened the door. Once inside she quickly moved about the chamber, searching the table and wardrobe, and with trembling hands, she snatched up the dagger from this mornings’ hideous crime and ran back to her room. She wrapped the blade in an old scarf and hid it in a vase. Arietta sighed heavily, straightened her dress and headed for the gardens.

Arietta walked up apologizing, “Lady Matilda, I am sorry I have not been available.”

“I understand Arietta. It must have been horrible coming across such a hideous scene.”

“Yes Milady, what do you wish me to do?”

Lady Matilda reached out and placed her hand on Arietta’s forearm, “See to the rest of the garden preparations my dear, I am headed to the kitchens to make sure all is ready there.”

“Yes, Milady,” Arietta said as she rapidly made her way over to the closest servant.

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