The Thief of Hearts

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Chapter 4

Quinlan made his way downstairs after being summoned for dinner. His plan seemed to be working far better than he could have imagined, thanks to a little thing called murder. Not only was he learning the layout of the Manor, but they had offered him a place to stay. Of course, he could understand why, sending him out into the streets covered in blood just days before Lady Matilda’s meeting could seriously harm her chances of keeping her title and keeping her position as a Guild Master. Julianna had her suspicions of him, but other than those, he felt more confident than ever about his chances to not only make a profit but win Julianna over. Now the only negative part of his plan happened to be was truthfully beginning to like everyone within the Manor. Try as he may, he had to remain neutral about Lady Matilda, his feelings could hamper his desire to steal and run.

He felt somewhat uncomfortable in the late Lord’s clothing, they fit him well enough, but something about wearing a dead man’s garments just did not sit true with him. They were made from a rather excellent material, a dark blue shirt and light brown pants seemed a trifle bold, but he did admire the soft lined boots which fit him almost perfectly.

He entered the dining hall to see Lady Matilda, dressed in a black dress of silk. Quinlan mused to himself, “I do believe the late Lord died from a weak heart, for surely lying in bed next to such a lovely woman would shorten any man’s lifespan.”

“Lady Matilda, thank you for the invitation,” Quinlan said as he bowed.

“You are welcome Sir Quinlan, please have a seat,” She sat at the head of the table and motioned to the chair next to her.

Quinlan had presumed he would be at the far end of the table, but instead, he made his way around and took the seat offered. As he sat, a servant poured him a goblet of red wine.

He picked up the chalice saying, “To Lady Matilda, may she be as blessed as a merchant as she is in beauty.”

She chuckled, “Julianna mentioned you have a way with words. I would do well to hire you on the spot before my competition does, for surely I would lose all of my business to such a witty tongue as yours.”

Quinlan feigned insult, but held his goblet high, awaiting her to do the same, “Milady, if I lie may I be struck by lightning, you are by far one of the loveliest women I have had the pleasure to meet. And by far the most lovely I have ever had a chance to dine with.”

“Why thank you,” She smiled and raised her goblet, “I only hope there are no storms in the area.”

Quinlan laughed and downed his drink, “I want to thank you for the garments. They fit rather well.”

Her eyes turned a little sad as he mentioned his attire, “I am glad they are to your liking, Wilfred would be pleased they have been given to someone rather than merely sitting in a wardrobe being consumed by moths.”

The food arrived, and the meal passed by with idle chit-chat, mostly Quinlan describing Elkcrest and the Northlands to Lady Matilda. Julianna joined them mid-meal and seemed perturbed, she did not say why. Quinlan made it a point to ask when he acquired a chance.

By the time they had finished eating, three bottles of wine were empty, and as the fourth headed toward the table, Lady Matilda suggested they retire to the garden.

“Come now, let us go outside and enjoy this good evening,” She winked at Quinlan saying, “I do not see any thunderstorms approaching,” She laughed, a real laugh, something she had not done in quite a stretch. At the same time she held onto the table for support, it had also been ages since she had drunk so much wine at one sitting.

Julianna seemed a bit upset at Lady Matilda’s present state but enjoyed hearing her laughter. She remained unsure if Quinlan would end up being a decent or corrupt influence on the grieving Lady, but she held fast to the belief that Lady Matilda stood far stronger than most women.

“Milady,” Quinlan offered his arm, which she took to help steady herself.

Once in the garden, the cool night air seemed to help Lady Matilda’s state, she inhaled deeply and sighed in peace. Quinlan looked over to Julianna who for once seemed to have a slight smile on her lips.

“So Julianna, what is your story, what brings you to be here?” Quinlan asked.

She seemed a bit hesitant to answer, but Lady Matilda urged her to relate her tale, “Come on now Julianna. Tell us how I am fortunate enough to have such a capable Shield Maiden under my roof.

“Where shall I begin?” She asked.

“Wherever you want,” Quinlan said.

“Well, I suppose you want to know why I decided to become a Shield Maiden,” She sipped at her wine and continued, “I am originally from Nelaveth. My parents were farmers on the outskirts of Hallowvale. One day when I was a mere thirteen a group of raiders attacked, and I ended up their captive. They made me watch as they slew my parents, laughing as they did. I was taken along as a plaything and used by them for three years before I escaped,” She took another long drink, “Once free, I wanted revenge. So for the next two years, I trained in the art of the sword and bow. Learning all I could from whoever would instruct me. I ended up in Elkcrest, and under their tutelage, I finally felt ready to track down the scum. It took a while, but I found them south of Estroy, waylaying travelers. I waited in the darkness until they were good and drunk, and then I struck. I killed them all, each and every one of them.”

“How many were there?” Lady Matilda asked.

“When they took me there were nine, but by the time I caught up with them, there were only six,” She took another drink. “The other three either died before I found them or they are still out there,” Julianna smiled, “If they are, I am sure they will travel to the other end of the world to stay out of my reach.”

“Why so?” Quinlan asked.

“Because of what I did after I killed them. I hung all of those vile men from a tree by their manhood.”

Quinlan eyed widened at the thought, and Lady Matilda laughed.

“After I had my revenge I went astray for a time, not knowing what to do with myself. Ever since I lost my family, I had done nothing but think of revenge, and once my lust for death was sated, I had no purpose, no thoughts of an ordinary life. I heard the house of Lord Wilfred was searching for a Shield Maiden, to watch over Lady Matilda when he remained away on business, so here I am.”

“I am sorry for what has happened to you Julianna,” Quinlan said, “It is unfortunate some men are so evil.”

“And what of you Quinlan, what is your story. How is it that you came to our doorstep?” Lady Matilda asked.

Quinlan noted she had dropped the Sir Quinlan for the more informal Quinlan, pleased at the prospect of familiarity he began his mostly true tale, “Ah, my story. My parents still live, unless one of my brothers has murdered my father,” Quinlan sat back and smiled, “You see my father found the best way to get our attention was to use a switch. Mind you, the punishment was not always unwarranted, but more often than not, he just liked beating us. Or perhaps I should say he preferred hitting me. I often wondered if my mother had been unfaithful, and he had somehow figured I was not of his seed. Regardless, I grew tired of never being without welt or bruise, so I up and ran away, probably about the same time as you were being stolen, Julianna. I lived off the land and made my way to Ruware, where I made friends with the son of a local merchant. That is where I learned my trade, and I have never turned back.”

Quinlan poured each of them another goblet of wine. After filling his, he finished by saying, “Odd is it not, Julianna and I have both grown up separated from our homes. She was stolen, and I fled, but now we find ourselves here together, products of our childhood.”

“Indeed,” Lady Matilda stated, “But whatever the reason, I am glad you two are here with me now.”

Lady Matilda took another long drink of wine, which pushed her beyond her limit. She slipped down, succumbing to the intoxicating spirits.

“Milady,” Julianna reached out and laid her hand on her arm, “She will sleep well tonight. At least I hope she will.”

“Shall I carry her to her room, or shall you?” Quinlan asked.

“You had better. I think the wine has made me a little unsteady as well.”

Quinlan reached under Lady Matilda and picked her up, surprised by how light she felt. She managed to wrap her arm around his neck and pull close to him before falling back to sleep. Her soft breathing at his neck caused him to gulp heavily, his mind swirling from the combination of her nearness and the wine. The eloquent dress that she wore while quite attractive had hidden well the lithe, supple, form now in his arms which he felt hard press not to imagine as she held tight to him.

Somehow he managed to reach Lady Matilda’s chamber without losing his life, for he felt rather sure he would end up hanging from his manhood if his passion had risen to the point where Julianna could witness.

“Thank you, Quinlan,” Julianna said as he lay her down on the fresh sheets.

“Good night, Julianna.”

“Good night,” She replied as Julianna plopped down on the chair next to the bed, “By the way, what I said in the garden.”


“I made the whole thing up,” Julianna giggled, the wine making her a bit tipsy.

“What? Why?” Quinlan asked.

“Because my past is just that, mine. And I would never tell someone like you “my story” just because I had a bit to drink,” Julianna smiled, “In fact, I dare say your tale is nothing but a fabrication just as much as mine!”

Quinlan glanced at Julianna with a slight smile. He pulled his shirt off, and too much of the surprise of Julianna, his back and chest were riddled with the scars, “Do not presume to know everything about someone, merely because you do not trust them.”

Her eyes widened, and she fell silent, feeling rather decadent about her remarks. She remained silent as Quinlan put his shirt back on. He pulled the blankets up over Lady Matilda and left them to their dreams. He in the meantime made his way to the kitchen, splashing cold water on his face. “What am I doing?” He thought to himself. “And where is Arietta?”

Julianna sat back and closed her eyes, the wine slowly taking over her senses. She had made sure to not drink too much but the levity of the evening and the darkness within the chamber would soon send her into the realm of dreams. In her mind’s eye, she could still see the remnants of so many scars across Quinlan’s torso, and wondered how a parent could inflict such pain upon a child. Then again, was it not also just as horrific to a child to be sold? She remembered the day her mother passed away, and her father dragged her from her room. She was seven at the time, and her future no longer her own. For a bag of gold, she had been thrown into a wagon and sent north to train as a Shield Maiden, and never to see her father or home again.

Nola watched Hamen as he met with a ship’s captain. They conversed for several minutes before ending with a transfer. Hamen tossed what looked like a pouch of coins to the captain, and in turn, the Captain handed Hamen a small box.

Hamen crossed the gangplank and moved rapidly along the docks. Nola slipped from the alley and pursued the black cloaked wizard. His actions seemed rash, running into several people, not even pausing to excuse his actions. Fortunately, his focus on his destination gave no pause to glancing back to check if anyone was following. So Nola gave chase, the only difference being she used her athletic skills to avoid running into the numerous people. She did not slow until Hamen turned down a street and headed up a path to a mid-sized house perched on a steep incline.

Hamen went inside, cursing the captain for keeping him so long at the docks. He had always hated haggling, especially when a price had already been set. Hurrying to his masters’ study he lightly rapped on the door.

“Enter.” The cold voice of his teacher came to him from the other side of the heavy oak door in such an arrogant tone made Hamen’s blood boil.

“Master, I have the box you sent me for,” Hamen said as he entered.

“About time, I am certain you are my punishment for some past misdeed. Why I put up with you is beyond me. You shall never be more than a minor wizard with your lack of focus and dedication.”

Hamen flushed in anger but held his tongue. He wished to inform the overweight idiot about how the captain detained him, how if his rotundness ever did anything but gobble down piles of food, he would see how busy the streets are in the morning. How it took forever to cross from the docks to his so-called Manor, which to Hamen remained nothing more than an oversized dwelling for his royal ton-ness. Instead, he slipped up by saying something almost as bad, “Perhaps if my master would share some of his higher spells I would become more than a minor wizard.”

“Ha, higher spells indeed. You lack focus, and I will not be blamed for you bringing some horrible fate upon the noble people of Estroy by attempting spells beyond your minor understanding of the arts.” He sneered in contempt. “If you spent as much time studying your spells as you did between that wenches thighs you may in a decade or so be ready for some minor, intermediate incantations.”

Hamen bit his tongue once again, fists clenched in anger, his desire to cast a spell and turn his rotund master into a huge pool of goo pushing him to the limit. Hamen thought to himself, “Soon, very soon, you will regret speaking to me in such a way!”

“Yes Master, how may I serve you now?” His simple question brought a smile to “Stezius the Great,” or as Hamen called him “Stezius the Maggot.”

“Go and clean my chambers, and perhaps I will give you a small minor spell to master, something befitting your lack of concentration.” Stezius mockingly snapped.

“Yes master, I will strive to do better master.” Hamen spun and left Stezius to his second breakfast. How he hoped the fat cow choked on a chicken bone before the day came to an end. He smiled at the thought, what a glorious day it would be if his rotund master gasped and choked out his dying breaths. Especially if he happened to be there to watch!

Nola slipped away from the window and found a place to watch the entire house. It occurred to her that Hamen had one of the same problems as her, their peers had absolutely no respect for their abilities. She wondered if Hamen would set out on his own, as she had decided to do. Regardless of the outcome of this merger with Quinlan, she was fed up with her brother and the rest. She would be a freelance just like Quinlan, free to do as she pleased, whenever she pleased.

Nola struck up a conversation with a young boy playing in the street, and before too long had a cup of water and an apple, sitting outside the boy’s home watching him play as she kept watch on Hamen’s dwelling.

Arietta still upset from the murder, found she struggled to keep her focus on the simplest task. To the point where Lady Matilda finally said, “Arietta, your mind is on dark matters, and far from where I need them to be. The Lords will arrive tomorrow, go seek out your Hamen, and return renewed.”

“Thank you Milady, I am sorry I have failed you.”

“Nonsense, we are all upset over what has happened, but Julianna will watch over me today, so go find solace in your Hamen’s arms.” She winked as Arietta flushed. “But before you leave please instruct Keya on what must be done.”

“Yes, Milady,” After finding Keya and telling her what must be done, she rushed to her chambers retrieving the dagger and hurried out of the Manor. Arietta needed to talk with Hamen, more so than ever before.

She made her way to Hamen’s home, the house of Stezius, Magi of Estroy. Arietta remained uncertain as to how she would gain entry, or at the very least, let him know she stood outside, but she had to try.

Her mind was whirling with fears and questions, both of which could not be quenched until her Love explained the events of this morning. She passed a young woman urging on a small boy playing very rambunctiously, and glanced up at the large house and slowed to a near stop. The problem of entry nagging at her every step, she reached the front door and listened. Hoping to hear Hamen’s sweet voice through the thick oak doors, she waited for some sort of miracle. She looked around and other than the boy playing alone, no one else in sight, she wondered briefly where the girl had gone.

Arietta had made plans to meet Hamen in the afternoon, but she needed to speak to him now. She moved to the nearest window shutter and peeked into the gap between the boards, but the room stood dark and empty.

She continued around the house, trying to find her Love through each of the windows, to no avail. About to give up, a door opened on the side of the house, and a servant appeared dragging out a sack of waste.

“Excuse me, but is Hamen within?” She asked the startled man.

“I believe he is Miss,” He answered.

“Could you please tell him I need to speak to him,” She pleaded, “it is of the utmost importance.”

“I am not allowed to interrupt Miss,” He said. Seeming quite perplexed at the request.

“Please,” She pleaded again, tears forming in her eyes.

“I will see what I can do Miss, but you should not be this close to the house, wait over there in the garden,” He pointed towards a large tree with a bench beneath.

“Thank you,” She smiled and proceeded to the seat, hoping the servant stayed true to his word.

Time passed, and she began to think the servant was unable or unwilling to ask Hamen to join her. Perhaps the man had merely told her what she wanted to hear and went back inside. The dagger felt weighty, tucked into her dress, and she wished she did not have to wait much longer. Arietta, feeling duped was about to leave when the door opened and Hamen, her Love, hurried to her.

“What are you doing here?” Hamen snapped.

“I had to come,” Arietta pulled out the dagger, “Can you explain this?”

Hamen took his knife from Arietta, “I can, but not now,” He reached for her, but she recoiled from his touch.

“I do not understand. How could you?” She took another step back as he reached out to her again.

“Arietta, what I did was for us. You must believe me. I would never have killed that poor girl if I did not have to. I thought you were coming to meet me in the cellar, to help me search the crypt. But then she walked in, she was about to ruin everything. I had no choice. It was her or us my dear Arietta.”

“We need to explain what has happened to Lady Matilda.”

“We cannot, she would turn me over to the authorities. We would both end up in the gallows. Believe me, my dear sweet Arietta, what I did, I did for us. Soon we will be free of Estroy, and be on our way to another city, somewhere we can be together forever.”

“I do not know if I can live with this secret,” Arietta broke down and wept. Hamen took her in his arms and tried to console her.

“The fact is, my dear, you were right. There is a curse within Lady Matilda’s Manor, and without our intervention, Lady Matilda will end up as dead as her husband,” He sighed, feigning remorse for his actions. “Tomorrow, when the Lords arrive the house will be in chaos. All you need to do is make sure the door to the cellar is unlocked. I will make my way to Lord Wilfred’s study and take the cursed item away. After that, we can leave this forsaken city forever.”

“But what of your training with Stezius, you are still bound to his service for five more years?” Arietta, not quite understanding everything, but desiring to flee with Hamen, asked as she considered the implications of their actions.

“Forget that fat fool. Stezius is not as powerful as he thinks he is. I doubt the man could even defend himself against a fairy. His bulk slows down his intellect as well as his skills.”

“We could at least pay for the girl’s burial, could we not?” Arietta asked.

“If you wish my dear, we shall bury her as if she were a queen after I have the Heart in my hand.”

“The Heart, you mean the Heart of Silver Falls is cursed?”

“Yes, and at the same time no,” Hamen hesitated, not knowing how much to divulge to Arietta in her current state. “The gem bestowed wealth, but it also contains a magic which drives those who cannot control the magic insane,” Hamen took her face in his hands and looked into her eyes, “Trust me, and in two days we will be together forever.”

She nodded and resting her hands on his slowly removed his embrace. “I will trust you, my Love,” She sighed, regaining most of her composure.

“I need to return before Stezius notices my absence. Meet me here at dusk, and we shall plan for our departure,” He smiled and kissed her lips softly.

She returned his kiss, wanting more but knowing she risked the anger of Hamen’s master Arietta broke their embrace, “Until dusk my Love.”

Hamen smiled, turned and headed back in, however once inside he cursed his luck. “Why did that stupid girl get in my way?” Hamen hurried to return to the chore given. “Cleaning chambers, a task for servants, not wizards, Stezius would cringe if he ever realized how powerful I will become once I have the Heart!” Entering the chambers of Stezius, he was startled to find the wizard there.

“Where have you been?” Stezius demanded. “I gave you a simple task, one I assumed even you could not mess up, and yet once again you have failed.”

“I had important matters to attend to,” Hamen answered.

“Important matters indeed, I can smell the whore’s perfume on you from here!” Stezius snapped. “You will never become a real wizard,” He turned his back on Hamen and gazed out of his window. “I have had enough of this Hamen, you are to gather your things and return to the Circle of Illumination, and tell Solvec Grumand I cannot abide having you as a pupil for another instant.”

“So be it, master,” Hamen reached around, placing his hand over Stezius’s mouth as he plunged his dagger into the wizard’s back. Stezius muffled scream fell on uncaring ears, “You fat fool, tomorrow I will have the Heart of Silver Falls, and never will I have to bow down to someone as lowly as you!” Hamen laughed as he twisted the blade. Stezius tried to struggle free to no avail, “How have I longed for this day, to have you squirming at my feet!” He pushed the heavy magus forward, sending him crashing to the floor.

Stezius fumbled in his robes for a flask, but as he found it Hamen kicked it from his hands, “Oh no, there will be no concoctions to save you from my wrath!” Hamen dropped down onto the wizard’s chest, causing him to spit forth a lung full of blood. “I always figured you would bleed like a fatted calf,” He lowered his blade to the Magus’ throat, and before he could even think of casting the slightest of defensive spells, Hamen slit his throat from ear to ear, spitting in his face as he did.

Hamen stood up over the twitching body of his former master. Stezius’s hands grasping at his throat in an attempt to stop his life’s blood from gushing out, fear and panic mirrored in his bulging eyes.

Hamen looked down at his blood stained clothing and to the dripping blade, “Damn you Stezius. Look at the mess you have made this time,” He laughed, bending down and wiping his blade on the dying magi’s robes, “Do not worry master, I shall have one of the servants clean this up,” He said mockingly. Bowing in one final cruel jest, he backed up as life left his teacher.

Hamen sacked the room then, seeking out everything of magical worth, as well as every coin he could find. It had not been his intention to kill Stezius, even though he had done so in his mind a thousand times. But now that he had, his overall demeanor changed dramatically. No matter how hard he tried, he could not stop smiling.

He snatched up a small bag of sulfur, just what he needed. After filling a bag with everything from Stezius’s chamber, he headed out into the house. He spotted one of the three servants retiring to his room, so he knocked on the door as he passed. The servant opened the door, and seeing Hamen asked, “Hamen, I am sorry if my telling of the girl got you into trouble.”

“No trouble at all,” Hamen said followed by a short incantation as he rubbed the sulfur in between his thumb and forefinger. Magical energy shot forth into the man’s face, sending him flying across the room, lifeless, “No trouble at all,” Hamen closed the door and went downstairs. Where two more servants, unsuspecting and busy doing their tasks met the same dire end. Hamen drug the bodies of the servants to the basement, leaving them to rot. As for Stezius, he remained way too heavy to be moved, so Hamen left him where he laid. Using the minor spells Stezius had bestowed on him, the scene of the other three murders were soon spotless.

Next, he retired to his room, retrieved fresh garments, and went to Stezius’s chambers, and the large bath within. He filled the oversized tub with water and with a word the water heated up. Disrobing, he sat back and washed the blood from his hands and forearms, without the slightest regards towards the dead man lying only feet from him. In fact, each time he looked in Stezius’s direction, a wry smile crept across his face.

He finished bathing and donned his best outfit. It would not seem right to meet Arietta in anything less.

Nola swung down out of the tree after Arietta left, her heart racing. Her new found partnership had definitely taken on a new thrill of excitement, one she had never known. Leading men to receive a thump from her brother’s mace was one thing, but to foil a theft and ruin the plans of a magus were almost too much for her to contain. What joy there was in such an adventure, she never felt more alive! Of course, what to do next played upon her for a moment, should she seek out Quinlan now or what until tomorrow. All she knew for sure was she needed to tell him before tomorrow night. She could no longer see a point in following Hamen, or the handmaiden. Her little jaunt at hiding in a tree like a bird had given her more than enough information. So she left the streets in the high part of town and headed back to the docks, at least there she knew her surroundings, free of murderous magi’s intrigue.

Nola returned to her and Quinlan’s room at the Golden Dragon Inn and packed her things, as well as his. For tomorrow would bring them a profit and the need for a hasty departure from Estroy. Once she finished packing, she went downstairs to watch her former companions perform one last time. They were putting on a familiar act, with Alena dancing about in nearly nothing as Devin played his lute, and Tristan banged on his drum. She smiled wondering if they missed her, for surely they would lose the coin she slipped from unwary customers. It was at this time she noticed her brother staring out into the audience. She followed his gaze to see a young blonde haired girl slinking through the crowd, doing her former job.

She thought, “Those bastards have replaced me!” She glared back at the trio, “My own brother has betrayed me,” She stormed out of the Inn, “To hell with them, I shall flee with Quinlan if he shall have me,” She decided to risk a trip to the Manor. Perhaps she would spy Quinlan and relay the information, and also her desire to go with him after tomorrow.

It was not until the sun had set, and the moon rose into the sky until she saw Quinlan, he was sitting in the garden and making merry with Lady Matilda and a very attractive woman dressed in warrior garb, “Humph, what do they have that I do not?” She stewed in her own dark thoughts, her self-worth diminishing with each laugh from below. Tristan, Alena, and Devin could all rot in hell for all she cared, but if these ladies thought for one instance they would steal Quinlan away just as she decided she was going to run off with him, they had another thing coming.

She nodded off and when she awoke they were gone. The Manor had grown dark, and no one, other than the guards walking along the walls stood in sight. The night air had grown chilly, and with no chance of contacting Quinlan she decided to return to the Golden Dragon. As she went upstairs, she noticed several pieces of furniture had been turned into kindling, and Alena had forgotten to pick up all of her veils, for a red silk scarf, lay among the debris. She stopped, went and recovered the veil and headed to her room. She decided the veil would not only be a good reminder of her former companions, but it would also be a way to gain the attention of a particular thief she wanted to travel with.

Sunrise, gleaming in through the window in Quinlan’s room blinded his eyes. “Why do people want to be up so early, this is truly a torture for a man like me.” He swung his legs out of his bed and stretched, he decided he would need to find a way to contact Nola today, to assure himself he had time to play the part of an ambitious merchant once again. “I will just tell Matilda I need to go and fetch my things, and then I can find Nola and make my final plans,” His mind raced, “Matilda, I mean Lady Matilda,” He slapped himself, “Wake up fool!” He said aloud and strolled into the hall. Two doors down, his actual target remained a merely twenty feet away, behind locked doors sat his prize, the study where Lord Wilfred died, but it was also where they held their wealth. There existed only a single key to gain entrance to the study. He had spied it hanging on a golden chain between Lady Matilda’s breasts as he carried her up the stairs last night. The thought of her in his arms as he carried her up those stairs, the thinnest silk between his touch and her magnificent lithe body made his temperature rise again. As he stood there, trying to quench the thoughts of her from his mind, Julianna emerged from the door adjacent to his. She gave a quick smile, coming over and saying, “Last night Lady Matilda slept through the entire night, something she has not done for many weeks now. I would like to thank you for helping her to get some much-needed rest.”

“I believe the wine played more of a part than I, but I accept your thanks with an invitation to join me for a little bite to eat.”

“I have already eaten, but perhaps you could convince Lady Matilda to have a little something, so far she has refused to partake,” Julianna suggested.

Quinlan remained silent, he stood lost in her eyes again, such a vision. Her little ploy last night, making up a story to hide her real past from him only spurred on his desire to know this woman more. The look on her face changed, and he realized she had just asked something of him, to convince Lady Matilda to eat or something. Her expression made him realize as well that he must have been thinking lustfully as they talked.

“Of course, whatever you want me to do. I am at your service,” Quinlan stammered.

“Good,” Julianna’s face flushed slightly under his intense gaze. She turned and went over to Lady Matilda’s room, knocking softly on the door. She turned to see Quinlan right behind her, with the same longing in his eyes.

“Yes,” The soft voice of Lady Matilda reached the two of them.

“Lady Matilda, I have brought Sir Quinlan, may we enter?”

“Yes, please do, I have a rather large dilemma,” Lady Matilda said as she opened the door.

She wore a thin robe of white silk, and nothing more. She turned and hurried back to the bed, upon which a pile of clothing nearly covered the oversized mattress. “I have no idea what I should wear tonight,” She put her hands on her hips and exasperated said, “Arietta thinks I should wear apparel which shows just enough to entice, but nothing to thrill the Lords. What do you think?”

Quinlan really wished there was a mountain stream or frozen ocean just outside the window, for Lady Matilda stood in front of her window, and the light showed through her robe leaving nothing to the imagination. Arietta noticed, but saying nothing merely pulled the heavy curtains closed to save her Lady’s modesty.

Quinlan cleared his throat and slowly walked over to the bed. He surveyed the numerous garments before settling in on one. He picked up a royal blue dress of modest cut and thick material. “I would suggest this dress Milady.”

“Really, why so?” Lady Matilda asked.

“First, because the Lords are all men, so to wear anything revealing would be unwise. They would see you as an object, something to be won or not taking seriously. Second, the royal blue will play on their minds. They may not snap or attack at someone in the royal hue, and lastly,” He paused and looked straight into her eyes, “You need not worry about what you wear, only how you conduct yourself, as not only a widow but a Merchant Lord.”

Lady Matilda inhaled quickly, and Quinlan wondered if he had overstayed his welcome. She looked first to Arietta and then to Julianna before she replied, “You are bold and speak your mind, and I see I would be wise to listen to your council,” She dropped the yellow and green garment she had been considering and picked up the blue dress. She held it up and looked into the mirror. “Yes, this will do nicely. Thank you for your candor Quinlan.”

He bowed in response, “Milady, perhaps you will accept some more free advice.”

She turned around and smiled, “Yes, go on.”

Quinlan smiled his devilish smile they were all growing accustomed to. “Join me for a bite to eat, and…” he paused to gain her full attention, “and whatever times you told them to arrive, expect them one to two hours early, for the Lords will try to catch you off guard.”

“I had not considered they would do such a thing, but now that you mention it, I believe they would,” Lady Matilda smiled, “Thank you once again.”

“I am at your service,” Quinlan bowed, “I will go to the kitchens and have one of your servants send up something for you to eat,” He turned to leave, “I was planning on returning to the Inn and retrieving my belongings. I will come back for tonight’s activities if you wish me to?”

“Of course you are invited. After all, I have not yet given you my answer.”

“True, I am ever hopeful of your decision,” Quinlan bowed and took his leave.

“Milady,” Julianna said once Quinlan had left, “Do you think it wise to have him around?”

“Yes Milady,” Arietta chimed in, “He is, after all, a man, and you should not let him see you dressed in nothing more than a robe.”

Lady Matilda sat down, “You are warning against my own actions, but I know exactly what I am doing,” She smiled at her two trusted confidants, “I loved Wilfred dearly, and I miss him so. I suppose you two want to know why I have allowed Quinlan to become so familiar, the answer is simple, he reminds me of what it feels like to be sought after.” She looked at both of them, “The poor man can hardly keep his eyes off Julianna, and his same lustful gaze makes me feel desired, more than just a widow.”

“But that is hardly a reason to allow him to see you nearly undressed Milady,” Arietta voiced her concern.

Lady Matilda laughed, “Sweet Arietta, you need not worry about my virtue. Come tomorrow I will send him away.”

“Really, are you going to hire him?” Arietta asked.

“Of course not, why would I want to trade with a bunch of savages. The cost would be far higher than any return,” Lady Matilda smiled and stretched, “Forgive me for wishing to indulge in a little naughty behavior. Besides, I also wanted to keep Quinlan around for another reason,” She disrobed and began putting on the blue dress, “If I have a man here, one who to the Lords appears to be my suitor, I will not have to fend off any of their advances, now will I?”

Lady Matilda and Arietta chuckled at her plan and the tainted logic behind it while Julianna remained the only one to feel somewhat remorseful having Quinlan used the way Lady Matilda intended. He seemed to be a decent fellow and unworthy of such treatment. Of course, she remained the only one to see his scars and know pain drove his actions.

Quinlan, smiling as he made his way along the streets between the Manor and the Golden Dragon Inn, considered his good fortune. His mind swirled in a secret desire to stop his thieving ways and actually become a merchant. In many respects, he found the two trades very similar.

He had felt her presence before he saw her. Nola was trying to sneak up behind him. The slightest scuff of her soft boot on an uneven cobblestone gave her away, however. He spun around bowing down as he did, “Not bad, not bad at all.”

“How did you know?” Nola exclaimed.

He took Nola’s hand and walked her back several steps, and with the tip of his own boot, wiggled the loose stone, “Actually, if I were not expecting you would try something, I would have never given the sound a second thought. And surely my wealth or lifespan would diminish under your skillful hands.”

“Next time I will get you,” She said beaming a brilliant smile at him.

“I have no doubt you will, my dear,” Quinlan scanned about, and seeing several people traversing the street said, “Do you have news?”

She nodded, “But not here,” She looked up at the winding path he had taken her on just a couple of days ago, “Our usual place.”

He grinned. Nola was learning fast how to be more than just a cutpurse. They went hand in hand, and when she tried to let go, he merely said, “Nola, the first thing you should learn about people in our trade is the utter un-trust we have for each other,” To emphasize his point his free hand gave Nola back her coin purse.

She took the pouch and tucked it into her belt, “So what you are saying is even though we are partners we still need to be wary?”

Quinlan snickered, “I only swiped your pouch to teach you a lesson.”

She gave him a sideward glance, with quite a devilish smile, “Me too!” She handed his bag back to him.

“Very well done, I suppose your days traveling with the troupe have been good for something,” Quinlan complimented her, releasing her hand.

Her continence grew dark at the mention of her troupe, so Quinlan probed a bit deeper, “Is everything alright?”

They had already reached the base of the path and as they climbed she simply shrugged while increasing her pace. Quinlan surmised something must have happened between her and her companions, but decided not to push the matter unless he needed to, after all, tonight would either find them richer or in the dungeon awaiting the gallows.

The two thieves reached the rock outcropping, and Nola sat down slowly.

Quinlan joined her and asked, “So what did you find out?”

Nola looked up at him, half in surprise he had not asked about her friends again and more so because she secretly wished he had. It would be easier to ask to leave with him if he knew what they had done to her. So in the resignation of her dilemma, she merely smiled, “You were right, they do plan to steal from the Manor. Both of them are in on the plan, the handmaiden, Arietta I believe her name is?”

“Yes, that is her name.”

“She is going to unlock the cellar door so Hamen can gain entrance to the Manor. From there he plans on going to the study and steal some gem.”

“A gem,” Quinlan’s right eyebrow rose excitedly, “Did he say what kind of gem it was?”

“He named it The Heart of Silver Falls, have you heard of it?” Nola asked.

“No, but it is commonly known the town is in constant need of rescue,” Quinlan smirked, “The citizens of Silver Falls have a tendency for horrendously bad luck.”

“Oh, sounds as if I should move there,” She laughed.

Quinlan chuckled adding, “If you wish, but I am not in the hero business, so do not count on me saving your hide.”

She looked away momentarily, and when she glanced back at Quinlan, he knew she was about to tell him what was going on behind her sad eyes.

“I have a favor to ask,” Nola began and paused while she tried to put her thoughts into some sort of reasonable suggestion, “I want you to take me with you when you leave Estroy.”

“But what of your troupe,” Quinlan asked, “I assumed you would return to them when we were finished.”

“I had intended just that, mind you I planned to rub our success in their smirking faces,” She smiled at the thought. “But that happened before they found someone to replace me,” Her hurt expression pulled at Quinlan’s heart, but also clarified what he expected may be some sort of hindrance to their plans.

Quinlan laughed, and seeing her hurt expression he realized she mistook his amusement. “You scared me, girl, I thought your moping about was because you were going to call the whole thing off. Come with me, of course you can! Stay with me forever if you wish. Ah, what adventures we shall have!” Quinlan stood up and pulled Nola up with him, “Why I could kiss you right now!”

Her fears melted away with Quinlan’s exuberating response. She laughed along with him, even if she felt his overall demeanor a tad bit over the top. Nola pulled him in and gave him a quick little kiss, “Thank you!” She exclaimed.

Smiling Quinlan said, “You are more than welcome.”

Blushing at her childish reaction, she broke his embrace.

“Well, all things considered, I suppose we need to go to the Inn and pack our belongings.”

She giggled, “I already did.”

Quinlan renewed his laughter, “You did not happen to bring my picks did you?”

She handed them over, “I guess you think I am pretty presumptuous.”

“No, just pretty,” Quinlan half expected a slap, but she remained too thankful to be angry, and took the compliment from her new found partner in stride. She doubted it would be the last, and secretly hoped it would not be. He may not be the most muscular man she had ever met or the most suave, but she knew a good man when she saw them, even if he were a thief.

“Now that we have an agreement, and a vague plan here is what I suggest,” Quinlan sat her back down and continued with his plan, “We know Hamen will attempt to steal the gem, and it may well play to our favor. I can either beat him to it or raise an alarm when he attempts to, having him flee and take the blame while I slip in and steal it. Or I can wait until he has stolen the gem and then pinch it from him.”

“I would think stealing the gem first would be wiser, after all, he is a murderer,” Nola chimed in.

“What do you mean a murderer?”

“Oh, I forgot to tell you, he apparently murdered some girl Arietta knew.”

“The servant girl,” Quinlan shook his head in disgust, “She must have walked in on him.”

“Yes, he said he had to, or she would spoil everything,” Nola confirmed.

“I want you to know I never would do something like that, I would never murder for any type of treasure. I may be a thief, but I have a code I live by.”

“I believe you, Quinlan, you appear to be the most honest thief I have ever met,” She joked.

“Of course, this settles my plans. I will need to steal the gem, and then raise the alarm as he attempts to. Lady Matilda seems to trust me so she will believe me, a person invited to her party over a magus sneaking about in the dark, uninvited and in her husband’s study. Even if Arietta comes to Hamen’s defense, he will still appear guilty.”

“It seems rather risky to me, why not just steal the gem and flee,” Nola queried.

“Let me just say. I would like Hamen to pay for his crimes,” Quinlan winked, “Not to mention if he wants the gem badly enough, he may end up pursuing us.”

“But he is a wizard, are you not afraid of his powers?”

“He seems to be no more than a minor magus, and I am sure the guards of Lady Matilda, especially Julianna can handle him.”

“Who is Julianna, the busty blonde?” Nola said sarcastically.

Quinlan laughed, “Yes, the busty blonde, I see Hamen is not the only one to come under the scrutiny of your enchanting emerald gaze.”

Nola playfully smacked Quinlan’s shoulder, “I watch over my partners.”

“Good, it will be fun having someone look over me for a change.”

“And what about you, will you watch over me?” Nola batted her lashes and bit her lower lip seductively.

“My dear, my eyes already burn trying to take in such a fiery, sultry woman as you, I but hope to not go blind trying to steal glimpses of your radiance,” Quinlan winked and scanned her body from her boots up to her now slightly blushing cheeks.

They parted company after deciding when and where to meet, and Quinlan headed back to the Manor while Nola went to the Inn to retrieve their things. As she entered the Inn, she noticed straight away the militia within. Paying them no heed she started up the stairs when she heard the Inn Keeper say, “Yeah, she is the girl who traveled with them.”

Her heart leaped as she turned, two of the militia moved in front of the door, and she heard two more at the top of the stairs. The militia’s leader, the man who stood with the Innkeeper, smiled evilly, “Seize her.”

Nola’s mind swirled, she wondered exactly what was going on, but before she could even think to flee or say a word, gauntleted hands grabbed her shoulders and shoved her down the staircase, she struck the floor hard, and darkness overtook her.

Quinlan stopped at the docks and looked out over the water and to a small boat being rowed out by what appeared to be a father and son. He sighed heavily, wondering how this night would unfold. His actual prize was not merely to relieve Lady Matilda of some of her wealth but to win the heart of Julianna. His intentions were to offer his assistance in retrieving the gem once Hamen stole it, or have her chase him if she caught him in the act. Whatever the outcome he needed to get Julianna alone, and do whatever was necessary to explain his actions. He glanced down at his reflection in the water and shook his head. “This is pure folly. Julianna will never wish to be with me. I am a fool to pursue this course of action, but better a fool than to cast away your own heart.” He turned from the dock and began a leisurely stroll back to the Manor. “I just have to convince a beautiful Shield Maiden I am the man of her dreams, how hard can that be?” Laughing out loud at the absurdity he noticed a few glances in his direction but paid them no heed. His mind stayed set on tonight and whatever it may bring.

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