Arietta embraced Hamen as tight as she could, “I will not let you down Hamen.”
“I know,” He answered, “and to think by this time tomorrow we will be together forever.”
“I cannot believe your teacher is allowing you out of his service,” Arietta said as they broke their tight embrace.
“Well, I really did not give him a choice, since he gave me none,” Hamen smiled and sat down. He patted his lap, and she happily took a seat.
“What do you mean?”
“He said I needed to send you away. Lord Stezius, my rotund master of nothing. He dared to call you a harlot and said I needed to return to my former teacher,” Hamen laughed, “I told him to go to Hades, and welcomed my departure from his company.”
“Thank you for standing up to him for my sake, but I hope this will not get you into trouble with the Circle of Illumination,” Arietta said as she stared lovingly into his eyes.
“I am not worried about the Circle of Illumination, or even the Wizards of High Keep.” Hamen smirked, “Come tomorrow I will not have to worry about any other wizard, The Heart of Silver Falls shall bestow enough power for me to make any other wizard nothing more than a mere inconvenience.”
So lost in her desire to be with her love, she ignored his boast asking, “Where shall we go?”
Hamen grinned, “First we must travel to Silver Falls, where I will perform the spells to bind the magic within the gem to me.” He kissed her passionately saying, “After I have been imbued with the power we can go anywhere you want, just name where, and we shall journey together as if we were king and queen of the world.”
“Oh Hamen, it sounds too good to be true.”
“No, my dear, nothing is too good for you,” Hamen picked her up as he rose and spun her about, “Now this is what you must do.”
He placed her down onto her feet and kissed her once again, “I will take the secret passageway to the crypt, and move to the door at the top of the stairs. Then when I hear the bolt slide away, I will wait until you have made your way back to Lady Matilda.” He smiled thinking of the ease with which he could reach the gem, “As soon as I see the path is clear, I will make my way upstairs and enter the study, seize the treasure and make my way back through the hidden passage.”
“And then I am to meet you once the guests have left and Milady has turned in for the night.”
“Exactly,” Hamen smiled, “We shall ride from Estroy and head toward Silver Falls immediately. By the time the house of Lady Matilda awakens, we shall be miles away, with none to suspect us.”
“But Lady Matilda will wonder why I have left and suspect I have stolen the gem?” Arietta poised the question.
“I have already given the issue much thought. I want you to write Lady Matilda a letter, telling her we have left Estroy to pursue our love together. Tell her we are traveling to the Circle of Illumination for my final training, and once complete we shall return to Estroy to repay her for the kindness she has shown both of us.”
“That may work. I do not believe Lady Matilda would think ill-will towards me,” Arietta frowned and with growing concern, she added, “Could I not just tell Lady Matilda instead of writing a letter.”
“No, my dear, she may not allow you to leave her service, or convince you to stay,” Hamen kissed her adding, “You have every right to leave. You are a servant not a slave after all.”
Arietta halfheartedly smiled shaking her head affirmatively, “You are right, I have a right to leave and to be happy.”
“Indeed we do,” Hamen swept her up into his arms and spun her about, “I have not felt this free in so many years!”
She giggled at his boyish enthusiasm, “Hamen, I do not believe I have ever seen you so happy.”
Chuckling he put her down, “How can I not be happy, I am free of Stezius and tomorrow I ride away with you and the Heart of Silver Falls.”
Quinlan’s mind raced, as he tried to find some way to slip from the table and make his way upstairs. Fortunately, Lady Matilda gave him the opportunity as she suggested they retire to the gardens to discuss the future trade agreements between their houses.
“My dear, I seem to have misplaced my ring, I believe I have left it in my room,” Quinlan said as they all rose to make their way outside, “I shall be right back.”
She looked at him suspiciously, but merely replied, “Hurry back my dear Quinn.”
He nodded his head down in a respectful bow and strolled up the stairs as the others slowly made their way to the gardens.
Once upstairs Quinlan hastened to the study door which stood slightly ajar, listening for sounds of Hamen within he heard nothing. Pushing the door open and slipping in his heart sank, for the room was a shambles. Scrolls lay everywhere, books and boxes turned upside down lay about the chamber. The window stood wide open, and a rope, tied to the hefty desk hung out the opening. Quinlan made his way quickly to the window and peered outside. Off to his left the guests were seating themselves, and on the walls, the guards marched in their usual slow gait. He turned quickly about as he heard a soft scraping sound, the same sound as a boot scuffing along the floor. Seeing nothing did little to calm his nerves, something felt unnatural, almost supernatural.
On the desk sat a pouch of coins, forgotten or ignored by Hamen as he searched for the gem. Quinlan took a step forward and reached out for the bag.
Before he even touched the bag, the door opened up wide enough for someone to pass through. And even as the hair on the nape of his neck rose the door slammed shut.
“Damn!” Quinlan exclaimed and snatched up the pouch. As he started for the door, he heard someone running in the hall so he backed up behind the desk. The door swung open, and there stood Julianna, sword in hand and eyes narrowed, ready for a fight.
“Quinlan, so you are just a thief!” She exclaimed as she stepped inside blocking his exit, “I will see you swinging from the gallows for this!”
Quinlan backed up until he stood at the window, “Hold on Julianna, I did not do this, it was Hamen the wizard.”
“I see only you thief!”
She took a step forward and Quinlan a step back, his posterior resting on the window sill. He drew his sword saying, “Do not be too hasty my dear, you have already misjudged me once.”
“Misjudged your past perhaps, but I know I can best you in combat!” She took another step forward, raising her blade menacingly.
Quinlan laughed loudly. “No doubt my lovely Julianna, but how should I put this, oh I know, perhaps in another lifetime you could have caught me, but not tonight!” he snatched up the rope tied to the desk and dropped out of the window, sliding down to land lightly on the ground.
“Guards, seize him!” Julianna shouted as she reached the window. Quinlan took several steps into the garden, and even as the guards rushed to the stairs four of the merchants drew their swords, prepared for anything.
Quinlan turned to Lady Matilda, “Thank you for your hospitality Milady.” He bowed deeply and ran towards the stables. The guards were reaching the bottom of the stairs and rushing towards him from both sides, but to no avail. Quinlan leaped up, grabbing the roof of the stable, and swung up easily. The veil of a clumsy merchant raised, Quinlan displayed his surefootedness as he rolled onto the roof and sprang up even as the guard spun to rush towards the stairs in an attempt to catch him.
Quinlan paused on the top of the wall. Julianna had followed him down the rope and was running across the garden grounds straight towards him. He bowed to her, smiling broadly, “My dear Julianna, how I will miss your grace and beauty!”
Slipping over the side he dropped into the street, even as the alarm for the militia, a large gong echoed along the walls. Quinlan ran down one street and turning down another his path was set. Even as the sound of pursuit became distant, Quinlan’s new plan remained hardly as profitable or well designed as his quest for the Heart of Silver Falls.
Making his way to the Golden Dragon Inn, he retrieved his and Nola’s things. Strapping his sword onto his back and slinging his bow over his shoulder the thief turned hero rushed towards the militia barracks, he would see if saving Nola was even possible, or if the poor girl already swung from the gallows.
As he made his way away from the Golden Dragon, he was surprised to see Julianna leading her guards, along with several militiamen towards the Inn. She must have surmised he would come here before disappearing into the night. Smiling, he knew where he headed next would be the last place in Estroy to look for a thief. He climbed a small wall and jumped up onto a roof of a lightless home. Running and jumping from one roof to another he hurried towards the docks and the barracks of Estroy’s militia.
He paused as he neared the barracks, torches illuminated four bodies swinging from the gallows, two male, and two females. Dark sacks covered their heads, but their silhouettes marked them for what they had once been. Quinlan’s heart sank, but then he realized Nola did not swing along with the rest of her troupe. The fourth body must be of her replacement, and to his dismay, the cause of their untimely capture and death.
Sighing in relief, he slid down off the roof and landed quietly next to the barracks. Slinking along the wall, he silently thanked Lady Matilda for the black clothing which made him nearly invisible in the shadows. “Invisible, the crafty magus must have made himself invisible, which is why I did not see him in the study.” He shook his head in disgust, not even considering the chance Hamen would be so cunning.
Moving to the side door, he tried opening it, finding it locked, he quickly pulled out his picks and worked on the simple padlock. He was surprised to even find a lock on the door, considering the irony of securing the door of those meant to stop crimes.
“Click,” The lock opened quickly enough. Opening the door slightly, Quinlan could see no one, he had suspected as much, as night would undoubtedly be the busiest time for them. He made his way quickly across the room to a staircase in the middle of the chamber, torches hung in sconces every ten feet, the bright flame light clearly showing the heavy door at the bottom of the stairs. “I must be crazy, breaking into a dungeon.” He trotted down the stairs softly and peered into the small barred window placed at eye level. A single guard sat within. Cell doors, a total of twenty ran along both sides of the hallway, and of those, only three of the cell doors were closed.
Pulling one of the torches free he opened the door and strolled in rapidly closing the distance between him and the guard.
“Who goes there?” The guard said as he rose to his feet.
“It is just me,” Quinlan grumbled. He purposely kept the torch at eye level to obscure his face.
The guard drew his blade. Quinlan came to within several feet of the guard before tossing the torch right at the man’s face, drawing his own sword and swinging as the sentry batted away the fiery projectile.
Quinlan’s short sword lashed out striking the guard with the flat of his blade against his head, sending the man into the wall, to slump down unconscious. Grabbing the keys from off his waist, he quickly moved to the first locked cell. A man lay in the first cell. Battered and beaten he glanced up with his one good eye, shielding it from the bright torch light.
Hurriedly he moved to the second, there hanging from shackles was Nola. Dropping the torch Quinlan tried each key until he found the right one. Pulling the door open he rushed in. Nola had not had an easy time of it, her clothes were shredded, and the streaks from the lash still trickled blood. He took her chin in his hand and raised her head up, “Nola.”
She came awake and started to scream, but Quinlan placed his hand over her mouth, “It is me.”
As recognition set in she calmed down and wept. Quinlan removed his hand and started unlocking the shackles, “Damn girl, they beat you pretty bad, do you think you can walk?”
“You came for me,” Nola sobbed, “I cannot believe you came for me.”
“I will leave you if you do not answer me, can you walk?”
“I will try,” Nola murmured.
“Damn,” Quinlan unlocked the second shackle and caught her as she fell, “Serves me right for playing the hero.”
He picked her up and cradled her assaulted body, her gasp hardly hiding her pain. Leaving the cell, the one-eyed man called to them, “Get me out of here and I will see you both safely out of Estroy.”
“How so?” Quinlan asked.
“I am from the Thane, a merchant ship out of Pinemead. Free me, and I will guarantee you safe passage.”
“What is your name?” Quinlan asked.
“Serlo of Pinemead,” He answered.
Quinlan cursed his luck but seeing no alternative unlocked the sailor’s cell. Serlo wasted no time snatching up the guard’s blade and saying, “Follow me.”
The three hurried up the stairs and as Serlo headed towards the front door Quinlan snapped, “Side door.”
Serlo nodded and headed out into the night air, breathing deeply he headed towards the docks with Quinlan and the cradled Nola close behind. Within minutes they stopped as Serlo surveyed the waterfront, “We are in luck, the Thane is about to cast off with the midnight tide.” He motioned for them to follow, and slunk along the boxes and barrels which lined the docks.
Once they reached the gangplank, Serlo ran aboard, “Hail Dobbin.”
“Serlo, we figured you for dead,” The sailor on watch said.
“Aye, and I would be if not for this fellow. I have given my word, Quinlan would receive safe passage from Estroy,” Serlo told Dobbin.
“You best see them below deck then, I am not too certain how the Captain will care for this,” Dobbin stood aside as Quinlan came aboard.
“Thank you Dobbin, and once we are free of port, the Captain will not care.”
“For both of our sakes, I hope you are right.”
Serlo led them below deck, and took them to the stern, shifting some cargo about he made a makeshift wall for them to hide behind, “This should do, for now, I will bring you some food and bandages for the lass.”
“Thank you Serlo.”
Quinlan laid Nola down and quickly opened his backpack, pulling forth his cloak he spread it out and moved Nola gingerly onto it, next he started to inspect her wounds as Serlo returned with bandages and clean water, “The cook is sleeping, so the food will have to wait.”
“No problem, she is in no condition to eat anyway,” Quinlan lamented.
“I will leave you two alone for now, and check on you tomorrow.” Serlo paused before leaving, “I owe you my life, and I do not even know your name.”
“Quinlan,” He answered, “My name is Quinlan.”
“Well met Quinlan. I sincerely hope she survives,” Serlo said as he walked away.
Quinlan hardly knew where to begin. Nola had lost consciousness as they ran to the ship. He figured she had lost too much blood to stay awake. Peeling back the tattered remains of her shirt.Quinlan took one of the bandages and began wiping away the blood from her bosom, red streaks crisscrossed her breasts, and one long gash still bleeds freely, He pressed a bandage onto this cut, and she stirred in pain, eyes fluttering open she gasped, “Quinlan, what are you doing.”
She glanced down at her exposed chest and tried to cover herself.
“Forget your modesty girl, or you will not see the morning, I need to stop your bleeding before you are bled dry!”
Her arms slumped back down, and she cried softly, “I thought I was going to die.”
“And you would have if I had not risked my neck to get you out of there.”
“Did you see my brother or the others?” Nola asked.
“Brother,” Quinlan did not realize one of the troupes was her brother until she asked. His heart ached at what he must tell her, but no other way came to him. If he kept the news from her, she would hate him, not to mention she would wish to return in an attempt to rescue them just as he had rescued her. So with a heavy heart, he said, “I saw them Nola, and I am sorry, but they are dead.”
Nola wept, not only for the loss of her brother and friends but from the agony the lash had inflicted on her. Quinlan did his very best to minimize her pain, delicately sponging away the blood, applying bandages where needed and allowing her to grieve. When he completely attended her upper half, he helped her sit up and put another shirt on. She wrapped her arms around him tightly and cried anew. Quinlan held her softly, but she required more tending, or his selfless act of heroism would be for naught. He laid her back down and moved to her lower half.
“I have no idea why they treated you so badly as if the gallows were not punishment enough,” Quinlan said as he sliced away the remains of her pants.
“They wanted names. They thought I worked with one of the local thieves guilds.” Nola answered in a soft, almost vacant voice, “I may have told them about you, I cannot remember.”
“Fear not, I have no desire to return to Estroy anytime soon.”
“May I keep some modesty?” Nola asked blushingly.
Quinlan smiled, “Of course my dear.” He pulled another shirt from his backpack and draped it over her midsection as he tended her legs. “We will find you a cleric or druid once we leave the ship.”
“I do not care. The scars will remind me of my brother,” Nola sniffled, and tears began to flow again.
Quinlan paused in his caring and wiped away her tears, “Now you and I have even more in common,” He opened his shirt, exposing his own crisscrossed scars for Nola to see.
At that moment she felt bound to him, tied not just in deed and trade, but more. He had saved her, risked death to free her from the sadistic Captain of the militia with his gleeful strikes of his whip. Even now, he tended to her as if she were his child, taking every effort to ease her pain and tend her wounds.
“Well Nola, you may look more the part of mummy then of the delicate and beautiful girl I met a few days ago, but you will live, and these wounds will not leave as many scars as you think,” He sat back after covering her legs with her cloak.
“Quinlan, where do we go from here?” Nola asked as she started to fall back asleep.
“Leave such thoughts to me, my dear girl. Just you rest for now, for though I enjoyed carrying you in my arms I do not wish to make a habit of it.”
She smiled as her eyes slowly closed. The lack of blood and the loss of her brother and friends forcing her to seek comfort in the world of slumber and dreams, instead of the reality of how the harsh world had taken away all she had ever known.
The ship cast off, and after the commotion of the crew scrambling to see her seaworthy, it grew quiet and peaceful. Quinlan stayed up for a while, trying to determine Nola’s last question, “Where do we go from here?” Quinlan’s heart remained torn between caring for Nola in her weakened condition, and a desire to foil Hamen, who tricked him into falling into the trap he had set for him. Looking over to Nola, a minor sheen of sweat on her whip-lashed body gave him a reason to reconsider going after the magus but try as he may, the desire to steal the gem grew. The only thing to consider was how to go about finding Hamen and Arietta. If he took the handmaiden with him, that is. Quinlan smiled after a while, a rough plan formulated within his mind. And as the slowly rocking ship turned south and the sails caught the wind, he fell asleep dreaming of a fiery maiden, scimitar in hand, chasing him across the lands.