In the morning Serlo, true to his word brought food and water to Quinlan and Nola. “Here you go Quinlan,” Serlo said as he handed the bread, salted meat and water to Quinlan. “How is the girl? Will she make it?”
Quinlan took the items and placed them beside Nola, “I think she will. I stopped her bleeding, and she has a good strong heart.”
“Good to hear, I am afraid I will need to tell the Captain what I have done though.”
Quinlan looked up at Serlo, a patch now covered his left eye, but a sincere look of concern remained etched upon his face, “I understand, and I would not put you or this ship in jeopardy, so whatever the Captain decides we will not cause any trouble. All I ask is to be put ashore somewhere south of Estroy’s patrols.”
“I will do what I can,” Serlo smiled broadly, “Thank you again for saving my hide.”
Quinlan nodded as Serlo left to inform the Captain. He scooted over to Nola and lightly moved the hair from her face, kissing her forehead gently. She stirred and slowly opened her eyes. The sadness of the previous night still shown in her eyes, but she smiled as Quinlan came into focus.
“Good morning my lovely,” Quinlan said with a touch of concern in his voice.
Nola tried to sit up but quickly realized she should not try and push herself, “Where are we?”
Quinlan poured some water onto a cloth and wiped her face with the refreshingly cold rag, “We are on the Thane, a merchant ship out of Pinemead.”
“Can you help me to sit up?” Nola asked.
“Certainly,” Quinlan helped her sit, but the waves outside had started to swell, so he ended up sitting behind her, wrapping his legs around her so she would not tumble over. She lay back, enjoying the comfort he gave her.
“How do you feel?”
“Weak, but I am alive and ready for whatever you have decided to do,” Nola answered softly.
“I have a small plan, nothing set in stone yet. I think we should travel to Silver Falls.”
“Alright, but for some reason, I do not believe you are not telling me everything.”
“Very perceptive my dear and you are right. The Heart is from the mines located in Silver Falls, so perhaps someone there can provide us more information as to why Hamen wanted it so desperately, and what he intends to do with the Heart.”
“Do you think we can stop him?”
“I am not sure, but magic is a fickle mistress, perhaps with a little luck we may be able to still walk away with more than a small bag of gold.”
“I would like that,” Nola said and added, “And then what?”
Quinlan had a feeling the question was coming, were they a one mission team, or partners for life. He considered his words carefully, not wishing to lead her on, but not entirely wanting her to have no hope, “I never try to think too far ahead. It always leaves me with a dreadful headache. Besides, you may grow tired of me before this is all over.”
Nola sighed, “I just hope you do not grow tired of me too soon, for you are all I have left in this world.”
“I am sorry your brother and friends perished, especially in such a horrible way, but it is the chance we all take when we choose to live a lifestyle of crime.” Quinlan stated softly, “From what I saw of your friends’ performance, they should have just been content with the gold they received for their act.”
“They often thought about being bard’s full time. However, the added coin from the crowd always seemed to them a necessary risk,” Nola sighed, “I think they just liked the thrill of it.”
“I used to feel that way, but I found the real joy of my lifestyle was the freedom I enjoyed more so than the coins.” Quinlan stated, adding, “To explain it more simply, I would rather scale a hundred foot tower and steal a rare item than cut a thousand purses.”
“If my friends had followed your way of life, they would be alive today.”
Lady Matilda showed the last of her guests the door, and once they were gone she hollered, “Arietta!” When she did not answer or appear she went searching for her. All the other servants were there, and Julianna had not yet returned from searching for Quinlan.
She gave up on Arietta, and called for Keya, who quickly appeared from the hall, “Yes Milady.”
“Do you know where Arietta has gotten to?”
“No Milady, I have not seen her since the commotion started.”
“Follow me.” Lady Matilda ordered and went to the cellar door, seeing it unbolted she opened the door and asked Keya to fetch a torch. When she returned, they both headed down into the vaults, opening the crypt door Lady Matilda saw the last embers of a second torch glowing in the rear of the cold dark tomb. She hurried past her husband’s coffin and by the body of the serving girl and found the secret passageway open.
“I am ruined,” Lady Matilda said in anguish.
“Milady, is there anything I can do?” Keya asked.
She shook her head negatively, leaving the crypt she made her way to the study, and upon seeing the shambles made of her dear Wilfred’s sanctuary she sat in his chair, staring blankly ahead. Keya watched as her patron’s continence grew cold and hard.
Julianna returned an hour later, entering the study she said, “I was unable to catch him Milady.”
“So he has gotten away and stolen the Heart of Silver Falls. You were right not to trust him.”
“Yes Milady, but if you had not sent me after him he might well have gotten away with it before we discovered his treachery,” Julianna added.
“Too little too late, I am certain the other Lords are already sending word to the King.” She rested her arms on the desk, cushioning her head and wept. Then she shot up, “Julianna, I want you to track him down! Find him and bring him back here so I can watch him swing from the gallows.”
“Yes Milady, but I have no idea where to find him,” Julianna confessed.
“He will take the gem to Silver Falls, looking to sell the treasure back to the townsfolk!”
“How can you be certain?” Julianna asked.
“Because he is an opportunist, he will guess the best place to sell the Heart is the very place it came from.” She stood up and walked over to the wall, pulling a secret lever a drawer popped up, she reached in and grabbing a bag of gold coins tossed it to Julianna, “Do whatever is necessary, hire whatever help you need, and bring him back!”
“Yes Milady, I shall see to it,” She answered and in afterthought added, “The Captain of the militia wants him back just as much as you do. Apparently, he liberated a prisoner before making good his escape.”
“Then perhaps you should hire him, and some of his men,” Lady Matilda suggested.
“I will Milady.” Julianna turned and went to make preparations for her journey after Quinlan. She decided to not mention what Quinlan had said to her, implicating the wizard Hamen without proof would serve nothing, other than to disturb Lady Matilda further. She would travel to Silver Falls, find the gem and locate the thief, and if Quinlan stood innocent, she still would find whoever stole the jewel, and bring them to justice for Lady Matilda.
Captain Swale and Serlo returned a short time later, and Serlo made the introductions. “Captain Swale, this is Quinlan and his lady, they are the ones who sprung me from the dungeon.”
Seeing the condition Nola was in, still resting back against Quinlan he nodded saying, “I thank you for saving Serlo, heaven knows the man deserves a good thumping every once in a while, but Estroy’s new militia captain is one cruel man. I have no doubt Serlo would not have survived to see our return.”
“I did what I did to free Nola, Serlo just got lucky,” Quinlan said honestly.
“True, but luck usually favors the foolish,” Captain Swale said sarcastically.
Serlo looking downcast shuffled his feet and took the jab in stride, “Aye Captain.”
“However I presume your lady friend here, wrapped in bandages spent some time with Captain Trevil as well, which means either she is a criminal, or you both are.”
“What we are is no matter,” Quinlan said, “but I swear we mean you no harm or ill will, we just desire to be away from Estroy.”
Captain Swale regarded them for a moment or two before answering, “You two seem harmless enough, so here is what I will do. In two days we will be near a little fishing town called Glistening Cove, we will set you off there.”
“You are more than gracious Captain. I do appreciate you standing by your man’s word,” Quinlan said sincerely.
“Aye, like I said, he is a fool, but he is also an excellent sailor and true shipmate,” He turned to leave and paused, “I will send you down some spirits. They should help Nola get some color back in her cheeks.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Quinlan and Nola said in unison.
Once alone, Nola whispered, “I do not think the Captain likes having us on board.”
“I believe you are right, but I do not mind having you all to myself for a few days,” Quinlan whispered in her ear.
He could not see the smile which played across her face, but he could feel her relax her body and say, “I could get used to this, you make a comfortable pillow.”
Quinlan laughed, as did Nola, which in turn made her wince in pain, “Do you think we will make it to Silver Falls in time?”
Quinlan had begun to wonder the same thing, after all, Nola could hardly be expected to travel very fast, but he wanted to keep her spirits high, so he answered. “We have a fair chance, after all, Hamen will have to travel over land, while as we will have had a two day trip by sea.”
“I hope you are right, I want to help you succeed,” Nola said in earnest.
“Succeed or fail, at least you have done all I have asked of you.”
The Captain sent a bottle of Dwarven Spirits, quite a strong drink which placed warmth in your bones and a burn in your throat. Nola sipped lightly, trying to put on a brave face swilling down the potent concoction, “If Dwarves drink this all the time I can see why they never grow very tall.”
Quinlan agreed, laughing at the ridiculousness of the highly intoxicating drink. Before long the brew had caused Nola to succumb to the effects, so Quinlan made her comfortable and wandered out on deck for some fresh air. Several crewmen were in the rigging above tending to the sails, while others rechecked the ropes holding down the cargo. Captain Swale stood at the wheel, his shoulder length black hair blowing back. Quinlan admired all of the crew’s ability to stay so sure footed as the ship rolled over the waves and turning to see the coastline gave his stomach quite a turn.
Moving to the rail, he rejoiced feeling the spray from the sea splash on his face. To the far south, he could just barely see the peaks of Eagle Mountain. He smiled broadly. “Two days will see us just north of the range. We will only need to cross the plains north of the mountains and south of High Keep, then we will be at Silver Falls.”
Spying Serlo, Quinlan asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Although Serlo had received quite a rough go in the dungeon under the lash and wrath of Captain Trevil, the sea had reinvigorated the man’s spirit. Smiling he said, “Have you any knowledge of knots?”
“Aye, I know a few,” Quinlan replied as Serlo tossed him the end of the rope he was holding.
“Good, fasten this to the far side of the bale,” He nodded to a rather cumbersome bundle positioned mid deck.
Quinlan smiled and wishing to show his worth wrapped the rope lightly around his wrist and with a two-step sprint leaped onto the bale, rolled across the top and landed on the far side just as easily as any man walked across a pitching ship. Once on deck again, Quinlan quickly lashed the rope with a knot used by most seafarers, a double square.
Serlo made his way around and smiled, “Have you been on a ship before my friend?”
“Never as a crewman, but I have a fair amount of skill,” Quinlan boasted.
“How about a challenge?” Captain Swale hollered over.
Quinlan shrugged, for the distractions of helping took away from the rolling waves which were mirrored in his stomach. “What did you have in mind?”
Captain Swale smiled, “Drake seems to be having some difficulties with the rigging, want to lend him a hand?” He followed the Captain’s nod up to a man lying on the gaff. He was half way across the gaff on the foresail tying off a rope attached to the fore topsail. The man seemed a shade green even from Quinlan’s vantage point.
“I will have a go of it,” Quinlan answered and headed to the foremast.
“Be careful,” Serlo said.
Quinlan just winked and murmured, “I figured the Captain would do something to test my character.” He made his way over to the shrouds and quickly climbed to the gaff, the waves had decreased down to the point where the ship took on a slow rocking, which reminded Quinlan of a comfortable hammock. Glancing down he saw that most of the crew had paused in their work to watch him. As to whether they were trying to judge his worth, or watch him fall to his death, he could not decide but with a smile and a nod to Serlo, he walked on top of the gaff. His arms stretched out to keep his balance he took one, then two precarious steps. He laughed at the gawking faces of the crew and took the remaining few steps to Drake, who merely smiled to keep from retching all over the sail and deck below. Reaching the sick seaman, who reeked of ale, Quinlan squatted down and then sat on the gaff. “What do you need me to do?”
“I seem to be having a problem with this blasted rope. It keeps twisting about and getting caught.” Drake cursed and handed the rope to Quinlan. “See if you can straighten the damn thing out!”
Unaccustomed to the rigging of ships it took the wily thief a few minutes to untangle the rope from gaff to the foremast, but eventually Drake said, “You got it, that will hold her.” Satisfied, the two of them made their way back down to the main deck to a hail of applause and shouts of approval from the crew, glancing over to the Captain. Quinlan was pleased to see a smile etched on his face and a slight nod of approval.
Serlo patted Quinlan shoulder saying, “Well done.”
“Thank you, I think I am going to head back down to Nola now.”
“Aye, you have earned the respect of the ship, I appreciate that. Now perhaps Captain Swale may not hold me in contempt for so long for bringing you aboard.” Serlo grinned and shook Quinlans’ hand.
When Quinlan returned below decks, he found Nola sitting up and in somewhat better spirits, although her head ached from too much drink, “I am feeling better. Hopefully, I will not slow us down once we make land.”
“I told you not to worry my dear, this little sea voyage of ours should put us just where we need to be,” He happily said as he sat down across from her, “You look better, but I should change your bandages.”
Nola smirked, “You just want to get me naked again.”
“So true,” With a smile on his face, Quinlan rubbed his hands together, “nothing better than wrapping up such lovely curves.”
Nola blushed slightly, “I could probably manage to do it myself.”
Quinlan knelt down and collected the new bandages, “Aye, but there would be no fun for me in that!”
“True, but you need to keep the focus on the prize, and figure out how we are going to get the Heart of Silver Falls,” Nola grinned and held her hand out.
Quinlan, looking entirely rejected handed her the bandages, “It was not the Heart of Silver Falls I was trying to win.” He chuckled as he rose, “Since my services are not required, I am going to go back on deck, and if I am lucky, a rogue wave shall wash me away.”
Nola almost fell for his dejected response but having the charge of duping so many men over the last two years she saw right through his wily plot to get her undressed. “Then maybe you should leave me some gold, you would not want me to be poor in such a savage world now would you?” She batted her eyelashes and put on her most charming smile.
“My dear Nola, I do believe traveling with you will be quite the adventure,” He tossed the bag of gold he had pilfered from Lady Matilda between her outstretched legs.
Nola blew him a kiss, “I hope so.”
Hamen and Arietta dismounted from their horses and made camp east of Estroy. The moon was full and the weather fair, but the night’s activities had left both of them tired and in need of rest.
Arietta giggled in pure glee, “I cannot believe we are free to be together my Love.”
“Yes my dear, never again will we answer to another,” Hamen replied happily. He smiled as he considered the night’s triumphant results. After Arietta had opened the door to the cellars his spell of invisibility had made traversing to the study virtually effortless. Finding the door unlocked was another bonus to the fortunes of the night, slipping in he went to the hidden panel which Arietta had described to him. Inside the concealed panel sat the small box which held The Heart of Silver Falls. Hamen’s trembling hands snatched it up, he could feel the magic within pulsing forth. Fighting the urge to open the box, he tucked it into his cloak.
Next, he went about throwing things about in an attempt to make it appear as a random robbery, instead of warning Lady Matilda against Arietta’s betrayal. He was just about to leave when a man in black slipped through the door and started rummaging about. Who he was and why he was there at first puzzled the wizard, but he soon realized the man happened to be seeking the same thing as he, so he let the man walk right by him and once the way to the door stood clear Hamen slipped through unseen. He nearly laughed at his good luck as Lady Matilda’s Shield Maiden came up the stairs, pulling the door to the study closed loudly alerted her to trouble. She ran to the door and entered ready for a fight, calling the man in black a thief.
Sneaking back down to the cellars he found Arietta near the kitchen and whispered in her ear to meet him. She nearly jumped, not knowing Hamen was invisible, but upon hearing her Love’s voice, she nodded and hurried to get her bag, which she had tucked away in her room.
Hamen broke his spell of invisibility and when Arietta arrived the two made their way through the twisting tunnel until they reached the trap door, which opened up into a side street just south of the northern gate. Once out of the tunnels, they strolled hand in hand to where Hamen had horses waiting for them, saddled and ready to ride. As the gong echoed in the night, alerting the militia of trouble the magus and handmaiden rode beneath the gates of Estroy, and into a new beginning for both of them, Hamen free of masters and Arietta free of servitude.
Speaking a minor incantation, Hamen started a fire for the two to warm themselves by. Arietta’s heart still raced from the exhilaration she felt, finally able to live her life with Hamen, she could not remember another time or place when she felt so happy. Looking up at the stars and moon she only gave Lady Matilda a thought, for she had refused their help. If she had listened to her, Hamen could have released the curse, and all would have been right, but instead she insisted on doing things her way. So now her little game with Quinlan was over, the curse removed from her Manor, and Lady Matilda could have a peaceful life once again. A quick shiver went up her spine as a cold breeze swept along, she placed her hands into her pockets, and her heart stopped. The letter she had meant for Lady Matilda was still in her pocket, in her haste she had forgotten to leave it in her room. Hamen would be mad at her for forgetting, so she took the letter out and tossed it into the fire. The parchment flared up momentarily and then it was gone.
Captain Swale took Quinlan’s hand, shaking it heartily, “Have a safe journey.”
“Thank you, Captain, may the winds always fill your sails, and keep you from harm,” Quinlan replied as he swung over the side and climbed into the waiting longboat. Nola came over next, and Quinlan gladly supported her on the way down. She smiled and slapped him lightly for grabbing her posterior, much to the delight of the crew. They waved and sat down as four crewmen pulled on their oars and headed to the pier.
Turning their attention to the beach, Quinlan and Nola got their first view of Glistening Cove. One or two dozen small houses clustered together formed the small fishing community. A dock ran some hundred feet out into the sea, devoid of boats as most of the fisherman were out plying their trade.
“It seems to be a peaceful place,” Nola said as they neared the wharf.
“Yes, it does,” Quinlan glanced sideways at Nola. She had a serene smile on her lips so he decided to try some humor, “So shall we buy a hut and settle down here, or do you want to live in a city?”
Laughing Nola answered, “I cannot see us living here. We would surely perish from boredom within a fortnight.”
The longboat came alongside the pier and Quinlan, and Nola climbed out. Serlo handed them their packs and said in parting, “Thank you once again, and if you ever get to Pinemead, I will buy you both a drink.”
“We may take you up on that Serlo. I met a man from Pinemead recently who seemed to need a slight bit of humbling,” Quinlan stated as he bowed a touch.
Serlo laughed, “Best not speak of such things to such an honest man as me.”
Quinlan and Nola watched the Longboat make it back to the Thane before they turned to the village. The smell of fish permeated the air, roasting fish, smoked fish, raw and even some rotting fish attacked their sense of smell immediately.
“We are definitely not settling down here,” Nola said as the two broke into laughter.
Quinlan was glad to see Nola in such good spirits. It confirmed what he felt all along, her lust for life outweighed the grief she felt. He had truly picked a partner to match his own character, determined and focused on the future, not the past.
“I was going to suggest we could find you something to wear here, but I fear smelling like some kind of odd walking fish you would only attract wolves, my dear.”
“Ha, you do not smell so good yourself right now,” Nola countered, “in fact, I would say we will both be attracting wolves, my dear Quinlan,” She added sarcastically.
“True enough, we will need to find a stream to bathe in along the way.”
They made their way through the quiet village, women and children worked or played, and for the most part, nearly every one of them paused long enough to glance at them, but nothing more. Climbing up the road which leads from the town, they struck out across the plains. Tall oaks gave way to open fields of knee-high grass which pulled and tugged at their pants. Wildflowers of various shades of blue and yellow dotted the landscape and the cool spring air made the overall walk a pleasant one. The mountains to the south gutted from the ground sharply, as if the earth merely belched it forth, no slowly rising foothills surrounded the ragged rocks and other than the few trees which sprouted about the base the peaks were barren.
“How far away is Silver Falls?” Nola asked after they had traveled a few hours.
“It will take us about three days to walk there,” Quinlan answered.
“Three days, are you sure we will get there in time?”
“I hope so, if not we will find some coins needing liberation and find another place to travel to, perhaps south, I have always wondered what Nelaveth was like,” Quinlan answered, and seeing a minor bead of sweat on Nola’s forehead he slowed his pace. He was going to ask how she was faring, but figured she would lie, so he made a mental note to keep the pace slow and steady, less Nola fall ill from her still fresh wounds.
Two injuries still bothered her, one across her bosom and the other across her left thigh, Nola had not told Quinlan about her ordeal, and how the merciless Captain Trevil drooled at the opportunity to inflict pain upon her, even after she had divulged everything. His cruel eyes staring in a lustful way with each stroke of his whip, the man plainly enjoyed inflicting pain and torment upon his victims. She shuddered remembering the suffering and tried to keep her mind from such thoughts, but each time she felt the pain bite at her leg or chest she could mentally see his demented smiling face as he pulled back the lash for another swing.
Quinlan stopped them a short while later, sitting down in the grass and handing Nola the water skin after taking a drink, “It was nice of the Captain to give us these skins, and at such a reasonable price,” Quinlan joked.
“Yes, I would have called him a pirate when he named the price, except I was afraid he would cast us overboard if I did,” Nola handed the water skin back to Quinlan, “Should we get going again?”
Quinlan lay back in the grass, “Not yet, sometimes you just need to stop and enjoy the little things.”
Nola smiled and lay down beside him. They stared up into the bright blue skies, watching the small white puffy clouds amble by. Nola dozed off, and Quinlan checked his gear and weapons. They had enough food for the trek, but not enough water. However Quinlan felt certain they would cross at least one or two creeks before reaching the forest which surrounded High Keep, so he felt no reason to worry or ration what they had. He strung his bow in case any small game happened by, or wolves looking to make them into a meal. He unsheathed his blade, inspected it for damage, and finding none put it back into its sheath.
Quinlan watched Nola sleep for an hour before waking her, then the two climbed to their feet and began walking once again.
Perhaps Julianna should have hired men from the local fighter’s guild, or even sailors who had missed their ships, but with little time to waste she enlisted the help of Captain Trevil and two of his men. She considered striking out alone to capture Quinlan, but the Captain of the militia seemed quite eager to join her. Apparently, he took personal responsibility for allowing Quinlan to break in and free two of his prisoners. Stating his honor had been tarnished by the act, and wished to see justice done, no matter how long it took or how far they had to travel.
Who was she to refuse such enthusiastic help, especially if Quinlan had two associates?
The four set out in the morning, heading towards Silver Falls, the most likely place to start searching for the fugitives according to Lady Matilda. They rode fast in hopes of catching them within a day’s ride, for after checking with the watchmen only one pair had ridden out, and they went to the north, but several had made their way out of Estroy on foot to the south.
To her dismay they failed to find Quinlan on the first day, and as night hindered their progress they were forced to make camp.
Julianna spotted the three men talking in hushed tones as they tended their horses, but she suspected they were discussing how long they would follow her on her quest, or about some other private matter not meant for her ears. Little did she know she was the topic of their conversation, for if she had overheard what they were saying, Julianna would have fled into the night.
“Captain, how long are we going to wait?” Warwick, the larger of the two henchmen, asked. He had agreed to come along after spying the beauty of Julianna.
“Do not be too impatient my friends,” Captain Trevil said, “After all, she is like an expensive bottle of wine, which should be enjoyed at leisure.”
Reed, the last of the trio, and the smallest in stature cleared his throat, “I hate to bother you Captain, but can we take her before you have your fun?”
“Sure lads, I know you missed out on the girl we had in Estroy.” Trevil smiled evilly, “But who knows, we may get her back,” Trevil said, “For now we will let Julianna lead us to the one that got away, and when we grow weary of the chase we can have some fun with our lovely leader.”
They rejoined Julianna after their horses were cared for. Captain Trevil popped a cork on a wine bottle and took a drink, offering the bottle to Julianna who refused the offer.
“I have always said there is nothing like fine wine, right men?” Trevil said offering the bottle next to Warwick.
“Aye Captain, nothing better, especially when there is enough to go around,” He answered with a sly grin, taking a few gulps before passing the bottle to Reed.
Reed took a drink, handing the bottle back to Trevil, “Have any of you been to Silver Falls?” He asked.
“I stayed there a few seasons back,” Warwick said, “I wanted to try my luck mining, but there were too many problems to make it worthwhile.”
“What kind of problems?” Reed asked.
“I called it bad luck, but most just say it was Silver Falls luck. First, my mine flooded, which cost me a week and most of my gear, and then when I found some silver I was robbed before I could even turn the ore into coins.” He smirked, “After that I decided to join the militia, making my living smashing thieves is easier than pounding rocks.”
“What about you Shield Maiden, ever been to Silver Falls?” Trevil asked.
“Yes, I have been to Silver Falls several times for the fall festivals,” Julianna answered, “But it has been three or four years since my last visit.”
“This will be my first time to Silver Falls,” Trevil offered, “I had planned on visiting for some time now, but Estroy has been keeping me very busy, I still have more thieves to round up.”
“With such ambition, perhaps you should join Ardain’s army,” Julianna remarked, “I am confident you would rise in rank quickly with such dedication to your work.”
“Perhaps one day, but for now I am quite satisfied dealing with Estroy’s scum,” Trevil stated. A grin crossed his face as he lay back. “But for now we should get some rest, I feel as if finding your thief may be harder than you think.”
Less than a mile away Hamen and Arietta were celebrating their new found freedom in the way only “lovers” can. Lying beneath the stars in the afterglow of passionate lovemaking Arietta gazed up at the moon. Her thoughts wandered back to Lady Matilda, hoping with their removal of the cursed gem she would finally find peace and a full night’s sleep. Forgetting the letter still played upon her mind, but joy soon replaced the sadness as she snuggled up next to her Love.
Hamen found sleep came sluggishly, peace was the last thing on his mind, and the events leading up to this point began to weigh heavily. Killing Stezius hardly bothered him at all, but the follow-up murders of his servants, as well as the servant of Lady Matilda, did cause him some sort of guilt. Those four were all in his way of claiming the Heart of Silver Falls, not directly, but Hamen tried to justify to himself why they had to perish.
Dreams of blood and death haunted him. He dreamt it was Arietta he had murdered in the cellars instead of the servant girl. And as his mind continued to twist the line between reality and chaos, he watched in horror as his face replaced the faces of Stezius’s servants.
Waking in a cold sweat, he sat up quickly and pulling the small box containing the Heart from his cloak he noticed a slight blue glow emanating from the thin gap between the lid and the box. He glared at the object as if he could calm the gem’s curse by intimidation.
Glancing over at Arietta sleeping peacefully, he got up and went to the bag containing the items stolen from Stezius. With a word the flames grew in the campfire, then thinking how foolish it was to use magic to increase the fire, he tossed another branch into the conflagration. “I must not waste my power now. I will need every bit of it to harness the power of the Heart.”
Slowly, and with the highest degree of caution, Hamen unrolled each scroll to determine the nature of spell contained within the mystic writing on each of the parchments. With every examination, his own beating heart jumped with joy, the number of spells and level of mastery thrilling him beyond belief. After going through the last he picked up Stezius’s spell book, flipping through the pages until one, in particular, grabbed his attention, a binding spell.
Hamen smiled in delight, this spell was even better than the spell he had thought to use to unleash the power of the Heart. He read the spell over and over again until his mind was made up, this invocation remained the one to use, he would gain the full power of the gem once he bound the strength of the jewel to his being, and his soul would be imbued with the gem.
He put the spell book away along with the remaining scrolls and miscellaneous items which he had taken, which included a dagger with an enchantment yet to be determined, and a small bag which could hold ten times its size. The sun was already beginning to rise as he gently woke Arietta, his desire to reach Silver Falls and use his new found spell burning in his core.
“Arietta, wake up my dear, it is time to go.”
“Ahhh, it so peaceful here, I slept so well,” She stretched and sat up while straightening her hair, “Can we just stay here today?”
“No my dear, we must get to Silver Falls as fast as we can,” Hamen answered as he headed over to saddle the horses, “The sooner we get there, and I release the power of the Heart the better.”
Before long and after a quick bite to eat they found themselves riding southeast once more, Hamen determined to reach Silver Falls in five days or less. The plains turned to woods of poplar and elm and cloaked them in their shade for the better part of the day. Small chipmunks and squirrels scrambled as they rode past, and birds squawked their warnings, but Hamen hardly took notice, his eyes were always set on the horizon, towards Silver Falls.
Arietta, if upset over their steady and rapid pace kept it to herself, she understood Hamen’s desire to gain the magic of the Heart, especially since his Master had held him back for the last two years. She, however, took the time to gaze about enjoying the trees and wildflowers, the songs of the small colorful birds, and the lush vegetation carpeting the ground. Life within the Manor was not a wicked or terrible life. Indeed, Lady Matilda considered her a confidant, and never treated her harshly, but the small garden of the Manor grounds and the four walls of her room could never compare to the splendor of these woods. She reached into the saddlebag and pulled forth an apple, she felt sure Hamen would grow angry with her if she asked to stop for a bite to eat.
By nightfall, they were nearly a third of the way to Silver Falls, and even though Hamen would have preferred to travel through the night, he felt sure Arietta would protest, so they stopped beneath a grove of birch trees. Another quick spell and their fire came to life for the night.
Arietta prepared them a meal as Hamen took a walk about their campsite. He wanted to make sure they would not be dinner for any of the predators which roamed these lands. Searching for tracks and any other signs of life took a while, but by the time he returned Hamen felt fairly confident they would not be bothered.
“Is everything alright?” Arietta asked as he returned.
“Yes, I believe so,” Hamen replied taking a seat beside her on the bedrolls, “Just making sure we have no unwelcome visitors.”
“Now who would be out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Not who, what,” Hamen said, “These lands are home to mountain lions, wolves, and spiders of unusually large size, not to mention a possible rogue Orc-band in search of easy prey.”
“Oh my, I had not even thought about such things,” Arietta confessed, “I suppose living in the city has shielded my eyes to the ways of nature.”
“You need not worry my dear, I am quite capable of defended us from such creatures,” Hamen smiled assuredly.
“I know you will never allow any harm to come to me, my dearest Hamen.”
Quinlan and Nola were nearing the end of their first day of walking when they came across a lazy little stream cutting across their path. “I knew we would find a creek before we ran out of water,” Quinlan happily said.
“Can I ask a favor of you?” Nola asked.
“Could you give me some privacy so I could bathe?” Nola asked.
Quinlan smiled, “Oh I do not know if that would be wise, what if you were attacked by wolves. I should probably stay and watch over you.”
“Humph, watch over me, more like look at me!” Nola exclaimed.
Laughing Quinlan said, “True enough, you stay here, and I will go downstream. I could stand to get a little less dirty.”
“Especially that mind of yours,” Nola joked.
“I would need to drown myself to wash away my thoughts of you.” Quinlan bowed deeply and trotted off downstream.
Calling after him she hollered, “And no sneaking back and spying on me!”
Quinlan stopped and spun about, “My dear Nola, I may be a lustful man when in the company of such a gorgeous creature as you, but I would never do such a thing,” He laughed, winked and spun about.
She grinned as he left and waited a few minutes before undressing. The water was much colder than she expected, but she immersed herself anyway. Remnants of her blood gave her skin a reddish hue, and the wound on her thigh stung awfully. The deep gash, tender to the touch gave her fright, dark purple along the wound and streaks snaking away from the four-inch stripe made her feel woozy. She scrubbed her body as fast as she could, followed by her clothes. Nola wanted to be bandaged and redressed before Quinlan returned, for she did not desire him to slow down or fret over her injuries.
Quinlan found the cold water quite refreshing. Taking his time he washed both of his outfits, as well as their cloaks. Clean at last he made his way back to Nola calling out as he did, “Nola, are you dressed.”
“Yes,” She waved as he came around the bend, “I was starting to wonder if you were coming back.”
“Of course, I took some extra time to clean our cloaks and fill our water skins.” Quinlan answered then asked, “I think we have at least another few hours of daylight, do you want to keep going or stay here?”
Nola looked off to the east, the forest surrounding High Keep resting on the horizon, and the sun slowly dipping down. Thinking of the condition of her leg, she sighed and said, “If you do not mind, could we just stay here.”
“I was hoping you would say that. I am tired of walking, and I saw a few fish swimming around, with some luck we may have fresh trout for dinner.” Quinlan beamed at Nola as he admired her sitting on a large rock with her feet still dangling in the creek, she had also trussed up her hair into braids he had first seen her, which in Quinlan’s opinion gave her a more youthful appearance.
Putting on a brave face she followed him away from the creek a short distance, offering to make camp and get a fire started while he attempted to catch some fish, “Do not tell me you have a fishing pole hiding in your pack!”
“No, I prefer to have the odds in my favor,” He winked and began stringing his bow. “I will be right back.”
Laughing she spread out their cloaks and gathered grasses and a few sticks to start the fire. Looking about there was not very much to burn, grasses swayed in the breeze for as far as she could she, and other than the occasional bush near the creek no other fuel for a fire stood in sight.
Quinlan returned with two medium sized trout a short time later, just as Nola brought the fire to life, “Well done my mighty hunter!” She joked playfully.
“Why thank you, my mighty fire starter,” Quinlan returned the jest plopping down beside her, “Not much in the way of wood around here, now is there?”
“No, I am afraid we may have a rather cold night unless you want to burn the grass.”
“Not very wise, we may burn Ardain to ashes if we were not careful,” Smiling wickedly he added, “We will just have to keep each other warm.”
Nola laughed, which caused her to wince slightly, fortunately, Quinlan did not notice as his attention stayed focused on preparing the fish, “You planned this all along, dragging me out here knowing there would be no fire. Not to mention getting our clothes all wet,” She said quite sarcastically.
Quinlan, with his quirkiest grin, glanced over at her, “Precisely my dear, for how else am I to snuggle without my teeth chattering all night unless I am pressed against such a treasure as you?”
Nola smiled, enjoying the playful banter with Quinlan. She batted her eyelashes and tilted her head ever so slightly, “Why you could have just asked.”
Quinlan fell back laughing, “You and I are one in the same, I have not had this much fun in many a moon!”
With some effort, she hid her pain and lay down beside him saying, “Feed me if you wish me to warm your bones tonight!”
Still chuckling Quinlan did just that, peeling off chunks of meat and handing them to Nola or actually placing the tasty fish to her lips, he only wished they had some wine to go with the scrumptious meal and sunset. In Quinlan’s mind, the only thing which would have made this perfect was if it were Julianna beside him.
A mild breeze began just as the sun cast its last rays of warmth upon the world, so instead of trying to stay up they huddled together beneath their cloaks and tried to fall asleep. Try being the word for Quinlan, for having Nola’s body pressed up against him did nothing to help the situation. With Nola’s injuries where they were, he snuggled in behind her, and having Nola’s body pressed against his in such a way, he tried thinking of things to keep his mind from lustful thoughts of this enchanting female which gave off such warmth to his cold body.
She only complained once about his fidgeting, mainly due to his hand brushing against her bandaged chest, and the discomfort it caused her. By morning her condition had worsened immensely.
“Nola, can you hear me,” Quinlan said as he tried to rouse her.
She merely moaned and rolled over, at which point he knew something dreadful had transpired during the night. Placing his hand near her bandaged chest he felt no difference in heat, but when he did the same to her thigh, it radiated much hotter than it should. No wonder he had felt so much warmth coming from her last night as they huddled together, her leg had become infected.
Quinlan stood up and started pacing back and forth while trying to determine what to do. Behind them sat the sleepy little fishing village and he doubted they would have any type of true healer. Perhaps a witch! “No, going back is not the option!” Looking east he stopped in his tracks, Silver Falls still remained too far away, but perhaps he could find help at High Keep.
Packing quickly he placed everything into a single backpack, casting aside anything unneeded. Strapping his sword on his waist he slung his bow across his back and gingerly lifted Nola up.
“What are you doing?” She asked in a hazy sleepy speech.
“I am going to get you some help,” Quinlan said, “If you think I saved your life just to bury you out here you are gravely mistaken,” Quinlan snickered, “Gravely mistaken, get it.”
His attempt at humor fell on deaf ears for she had fallen into a state of unconsciousness. So Quinlan began the most strenuous walk of his life, carrying Nola to the most highly defended castle in the land, High Keep, home to some of the most powerful wizards of the known lands.
Quinlan walked with a steady gait, placing one foot in front of another for what seemed to him an eternity, and as midday came and went the looming Castle grew larger with each agonizing step.
The octagonal castle, which sat on a rise of granite, utterly out of place with the surrounding landscape, baffled logic to the thief. He entered the forest, and could only catch a glimpse as he trudged along. Stopping to catch his breath, he placed Nola down and drank deeply from the water skin. Nola, pale and feverish tossed her head back and forth in either pain or delirium, as to which Quinlan could only guess. Stretching to relieve his sore and cramped muscles he picked up Nola as gentle as one would hold a baby and pushed on.
By afternoon he stumbled upon a trail which led to the castle, somewhat steep, at least it remained clear of brambles and hidden obstacles. The path took him to the base of the castle, which shot up some three hundred feet at its highest point, the eight towers which marked the corners of the formidable structure. The sound of soldiers running in his direction would have typically sent Quinlan rushing for cover, but for once in his life he stood his ground.
There were six in all, wearing the matching armor of High Keep, Black clothing, silver breastplates bearing the High Keep etched upon them. However, Quinlan thought their helmets adorned with horse mane or exotic feathers were a tad bit over the top.
“Hold,” the guard ordered as they surrounded him, “What is your purpose here!”
Quinlan scoffed, “Is it not apparent, I am in need of help. She has taken ill and needs a healer.”
“This is High Keep, home to Wizards, not clerics,” The leader stated.
“Surely there must be someone inside who can help?” Quinlan asked. His heart racing, he had never felt so emboldened, but with Nola in his arm, he felt compelled to confront whatever or whoever to see her healed.
The leader asked of the soldier next to him, “Who is next on the list?”
“Skylar sir,” He answered.
Chuckling he said, “Come with us, and we will see if Skylar will assist you.”
It remained the custom of High Keep to help any who asked, however over the years fewer and fewer ever dared to seek the wisdom of the magus within, for the way of wizards is not always the ways of the rest of the world. Most of the wizards who resided in High Keep kept to their own personal indulgences, whether it was one of research, enlightenment, or meddling in the affairs of the various kingdoms. So over the years the wizards devised a method of “fairness,” each of the wizards would be called on in sequence when those seeking help arrived at the gates. As it turned out, it happened to be the wizard named Skylar who was to help the next visitor, so with Nola draped in his arms, Quinlan followed the soldiers to the main gates of High Keep.
Standing close to twenty feet tall the two large gates stood wide open, several of the soldiers were just inside sparring with unsharpened swords and wooden shields. The inner courtyard went off in both directions until it meets with the large dwelling within, Stones of ancient appearance climbed high until the lowest level of entry, narrow windows set thirty feet above the courtyard floor. Quinlan hardly marveled over the imposing structure for Nola seemed to be succumbing to the poison slowly creeping through her veins. The soldiers took them to the main entrance, another set of double doors, these were bound in iron and set with copper nails which had turned green with the ages.
Stepping within the castle proper, they stopped just within, a staircase stood before them leading to the upper levels, and off in either direction, more solid oaken doors, closed to view whatever lay beyond gave the overall appearance a gloomy one. Several benches lined the walls to this inner sanctum, to which Quinlan was directed to sit.
“My name is Captain Jarvis, I will go and inform Skylar of your request, please wait here.”
“Thank you Captain, but please hurry,” Quinlan said as he gently laid Nola upon one of the cushioned benches.
With a quirky smile etched upon his lips Captain Jarvis said, “I will see what I can do.”
He spun about and climbed the wide stairwell, and once he was no longer in sight Quinlan turned to one of the soldiers and asked, “It appears your Captain thinks I am daft for coming here, should I be concerned?”
The remaining five soldiers exchanged glances, and each of them wore the same expression, a hint of humor at some unseen jest. None of them answered the question, so Quinlan sat down beside Nola and cradled her head in his lap, slightly stroking her hair and wiping the sweat from her brow.
A wrapping on the door broke Skylar’s concentration, looking up from the massive tome he was reading. The wizard appeared to be no more than thirty years of age, with black hair to his shoulders and sky blue eyes, wearing the customary robes of his station as a master of High Keep. He glanced sideways over to his apprentice. She was sitting crossed legged on a large chest while levitating an apple before her. Skylar motioned to the door, “See who it is Lorelei.”
“Yes Skylar, I mean master,” She jumped up snatching the apple and taking a large bite.
Skylar shook his head as a small smile crossed his face, “Now how are you going to master levitation if you keep eating all the apples?”
She giggled as she skipped to the door, bringing a scowl to Skylar’s once amused face. He watched his young apprentice skip over to the door, her waist length strawberry blonde hair flowing back and forth with each playful step, he wondered if she took any of her training seriously.
She opened the door and had a brief conversation with Captain Jarvis, shrugging she stood aside and allowed the Captain to enter.
“Yes Jarvis, how may I help you?” Skylar said as he sat back and closed the tome.
“There is a man seeking assistance, he has a woman in need of aid.”
Skylar sat there a moment, wondering why he was being bothered for such a small matter. However, he noticed the slightest of smiles pursed on Jarvis’s lips, so he said, “In other words, I am next on the list.”
“Yes sire, shall I send him away or see him up?”
Skylar contemplated the matter for a moment, “Send him up, by all means, good Captain, I would never turn down my obligations to help those who come here for aid.”
Captain Jarvis bowed slightly and turned to bring the man upstairs.
Lorelei skipped back to the large table Skylar sat at, “This could be exciting!”
Skylar laughed, “What makes you say that?”
“Well I have never seen you so quick to stop your studies, so either you think this is a matter which needs your special attention, or you are just doing this so your name goes to the bottom of the list.” She smiled when he did not answer, “I knew it, but please help the man if you can.”
“I will do whatever I deem necessary,” He said stoically, “Now get back to your levitation practice.”
“But I ate the apple.” She smiled cleverly.
“True, but I do not believe you can eat what is on my desk.” He motioned to the numerous items before him, tomes, vials, various instruments and a small globe of obsidian.
“Very well master,” She closed her eyes in concentration. Speaking in a low tone in the ancient speech of magic each and every item slowly began to rise from Skylar’s desk.
“You choose the ancients language, a good choice.”
Lorelei opened her eyes watching as the things floated higher. A sly grin her only expression. However, it remained short lived as the knocking on the door broke her concentration and everything came down with a massive crash.
Skylar laughed, “Better luck next time. Go and answer the door.”
“Yes Skylar, I mean master,” She hurried to the door red faced with embarrassment.
Quinlan was ushered in, Nola cradled in his arms.
Skylar’s eyebrow raised in surprise, he merely said, “Do come in.”
Quinlan took several steps in and stopped, “I need help.”
“More precisely I believe you meant to say, she needs help,” Skylar said flatly.
“Me, her, what is the difference, we need help,” Quinlan’s demeanor reflected one of sarcasm and anger, his throbbing legs and stiff shoulder lowering his threshold for witty banter, “She is near death, can you save her or not?”
Skylar interlocked his fingers, resting his elbows on the arm of his chair, “Well that all depends on what is wrong with her.” Looking at the Captain he added, “Captain Jarvis, thank you for your concern, but I believe we are in no danger, thank you for bringing this charming couple to me.”
“Very well sire, shall we wait outside?”
“I do not think it will be necessary. I will send Lorelei when our guests are ready to depart.”
“Sire,” Captain Jarvis saluted by banging his right fist to his heart. He turned and left followed by the other soldiers, leaving the four of them alone.
“So what ails this woman, snake bite, poison, or some evil spell?” Skylar asked.
“She has suffered an injury, and it has become infected,” Quinlan answered as he tried to rearrange Nola, his arms nearing the point of failing him.
Skylar stood up and walked around his desk, looking over to Lorelei he said, “Well, continue. I need somewhere to examine the poor woman.”
“Yes master,” Lorelei said and with a flick of her wrist the items floated quickly above the desk and began flying about, landing in their proper place.
“Please,” Skylar said motioning to his desk, “put her there.”
As the hair stood up on the nape of his neck, Quinlan did as he was told. He felt sure his time in this world was quickly coming to an end. His only regret was he did not wish to be turned into a frog the one time in his life he happened to be doing something selfless. Gently placing her down, he stepped to the side to allow the wizard access.
“Where is the injury?” Skylar asked.
“Her thigh and another on her chest,” Quinlan answered.
“So what did you do, beat her too badly?”
“I did not harm her, it was another,” Quinlan snapped. “I am not in the habit of hurting women.”
“I am sure Lorelei is happy to hear that, and who am I speaking with,” Skylar asked.
“My name is Quinlan, and this is Nola,” Quinlan answered.
“Would you be so kind as to get the small knife from off the table over there?” Skylar motioned towards a table off in the corner to the left.
Quinlan hurried over and grabbed the blade, turning around he noticed the apprentice, she was not only hovering in the air while in a crossed legged sitting position, but she was staring at him in such a way to make him shudder.
Nola coughed, bringing Quinlan’s attention back to the problem at hand, and so he rushed over with the blade. Trying to give it to Skylar, the wizard held up his hand, stopping him.
“She is yours to attend to, please remove the bandages,” Skylar stepped back so Quinlan could proceed.
With shaking hands, he cut at the putrid blood soaked bandages.
Skylar turned to Lorelei and tossed her a small empty vial, winking as he did, “So the real question today is where she came by these most grievous wounds.”
“A man in Estroy did this to her,” Quinlan answered, “Can you help her?” He asked as he stepped away, the gash having a greenish hue, and smelling quite awful.
“She is not beyond healing, but I would harken to say, why should I bother if she is to meet the same end,” Skylar said rather coldly. “These wounds appear to be from a whip, and since Estroy is devoid of slavery, I find it hard to proceed without knowing why she received the beating she did.”
Quinlan stood rigid, not exactly knowing what to say to convince the wizard to help Nola.
“Keep in mind. It is up to you to save her,” Skylar said, “I am after all a wizard, not a cleric, I cannot merely call upon the Maker to see this girl back to health.” He moved over next to Lorelei who still hovered several feet above the floor.
“I knew it was a long shot bringing her here, to a place full of self-righteous wizards more concerned with toppling kingdoms then helping common folk,” Quinlan blurted out, “She was with a group of traveling bards, one of which stole from a patron. The rest of her troupes were condemned to the gallows, and if I had not rescued Nola, she would be swinging from the gallows by now.”
“You see, honesty is not such a bad thing,” Skylar said flatly, “Did you say you rescued her?”
“I see. Then either you are a warrior of high renown or a thief,” Skylar smiled, “Do not take this the wrong way, but you do not look like a heroic warrior.”
Quinlan rested his hand on the pommel of his sword, knowing quite well that if he drew it, he would more than likely be turned into a frog or newt, but he would die before heading to the gallows.
Skylar glanced down at his hand, and looking up to Lorelei floating beside him he asked, “Lorelei, what do you make of our guests?”
She smiled and straightening her legs until she touched the floor, strolled over to Quinlan and circled him twice. “He has a good heart, but has not yet to find his calling,” Next she went to Nola and bent over her, placing her hand on her forehead, “This one is alone, lost and in fear.”
“I have means to save her, but they are costly, potions of healing are not cheap, so what would you offer to save the girl?” Skylar asked.
“I am not a man of wealth, but I can come by it when needed, so name your price and I promise to repay you,” Quinlan answered in all sincerity.
“It is not money I desire, but your skill, that is if you are a thief and not a warrior,” Skylar smiled and said, “Walk with me, and we shall discuss the terms unless you are not willing to barter for her life.”
Quinlan looked to Nola and then back at Skylar, and his expression must have told Skylar he agreed, for he turned and headed towards a side door. They left Skylar’s chambers and strolled down the hall together.
As soon as they were gone, Lorelei opened her closed hand and examined the small vial. “I knew Skylar was not as heartless as he pretends to be.” She stood next to Nola and said, “Heal.”
A slight blue glow began to emanate from within and around her wound, “Well lady, looks as if you will live, but we can hardly have you running about in such torn and tattered things now can we?” She smiled gleefully, “I know just what you should wear.”
Skylar started the conversation. “My name is Skylar, one of the several wizards of High Keep, and I have found from time to time the necessity to employ such as you, men of cunning and quick fingers.” Opening the door at the end of the short hallway he walked through and continued, “And it so happens I am in such a need once again. I, however, would prefer a man I can count on for more than a single venture.”
“If you wish me to steal something for you I will, but I have no intention of staying in some musty old castle while waiting for you to send me somewhere,” Quinlan answered.
“I would not require such of you, after all, the other wizards would hardly care for me hiring a thief to roam about High Keep,” Skylar smiled, “No I would only bother you when needed, by messenger hawk.”
“So what is it you wish me to obtain for you?” Quinlan asked, not bothering to try and pretend he was something other than a thief.
“At the moment, I am still preparing my journey, so you and your lady will be free to proceed wherever you want,” Skylar smiled as he opened another door, “I will show you my dilemma.”
Within was a rather large circular room. Along the walls ran bookshelves from the floor all the way to the ceiling some thirty feet above. The floor was truly a piece of art. It stood covered in a mosaic of tiles and stones and depicted the known world. In all of his travels, Quinlan had never seen anything quite as magnificent. Oil lamps burned on desktops and sent shadows across the world as if clouds passed over the lands. Glancing more closely the mosaic took on the appearance of more reality than a patchwork as if they were flying high above the ground.
“What kind of sorcery is this?” Quinlan asked, his mind trying to comprehend what he was seeing.
“Not quite sorcery, and not quite magic, but something in between,” Skylar spread out his arms, “This is a representation of what we know of the lands. And with the right amount of magic it can be very useful,” He pulled a pinch of diamond dust from a pouch and spoke the words to activate the magic, “Show me, my apprentice, Lorelei.”
A blue pulse began over High Keep, marking her location.
“Impressive,” Quinlan said, “But hardly a dilemma.”
“Show me, Kaleb of Ardain,” Skylar said, but no blue pulse began to form anywhere on the map.
“Who is this Kaleb of Ardain?” Quinlan asked, “And what has he to do with me?”
“You are truly a suspicious fellow, are you not?” Skylar laughed, “Kaleb is an old friend of mine, and I believe he could, well just let me say he could cause some serious problems if I do not get to him.”
“But unless your map is broke, he is nowhere,” Quinlan said blankly.
“Exactly why my journey is not ready, it means he has ventured forth from the known lands, as to why I can only guess. But once he returns I would like for you to help me track him down,” Skylar proposed his offer.
“Sounds as if you need a ranger, not a thief,” Quinlan grumbled.
“I have a ranger, but I seem to find having a balanced group increases my chance of success,” Skylar headed back towards the door when Quinlan stopped him.
“Could I try?” Quinlan asked.
“The magic is still active, you may request to find no more than two before it fades.”
“Show me the wizard Hamen.”
A red mark appeared on the map, northwest of High Keep and moving easterly towards Silver Falls. Quinlan made a mental note of his location, and since he had the opportunity, he said, “Show me Julianna the Shield Maiden.” A blue mark appeared north of Hamen’s, following the same path to Silver Falls.
Skylar watched with interest but kept his questions to himself for the moment.
Quinlan turned and said, “Thank you.”
“My pleasure,” Skylar said, “We should be getting back. I have found it wise to not leave Lorelei alone for too long. She does enjoy getting into mischief,” After they had left the map room, Skylar asked, “So do we have an agreement?”
“I do not see as if I have any choice, other than letting Nola die,” Quinlan scoffed, “So yes, I suppose you have found yourself a thief.”
“Thief is such a negative description. Instead, you should refer to your skills as item acquisition expert,” Skylar mused, “And you do have a choice, so before we go any further you must decide if you wish to lead a more accountable way of making a living?”
“I actually believe, other than the chance of certain death, traveling with a wizard and stealing from monsters or other magus quite intriguing. However, I will still need to pursue my career in between your excursions,” Quinlan answered honestly, “After all. The world is harsh to those without a coin in their pockets.”
“Honest answer, one to which I may have a remedy,” Skylar smiled, and as he opened the door to his chambers he added, “Shall we ask your lady how she feels about the whole matter?”
Skylar was expecting to see Nola and Lorelei chatting or something to that effect, but to his surprise the room stood empty.
“Where are they?” Quinlan loudly asked, fearing he had been duped.
“My apologies,” Skylar said, “I should have known Lorelei would get into trouble.”
Quinlan rushed to the table, the bandages were the only thing still there. Feeling trapped he spun on Skylar who was merely stroking his chin with his thumb and forefinger.
“Well, where is Nola?” He echoed resting his hand on his dagger this time.
Skylar ignored the vain threat, “Lorelei must have taken her, as to whether to eat, bathe or something else I can only guess,” He shook his head in disappointment, “My apprentice is a slight bold when it comes to these matters. She sometimes forgets her place, acting as if she is a master of the arts instead of my underling. I really must address her on this. I just hate to quench such initiative,” Skylar smiled, “Come with me, there are only a few places my young ward would take her.”
Leaving Skylar’s chamber, the two headed back into the main hall. Heading off to the left Skylar led them towards the kitchens, going down a minor spiraling staircase they came to another passage with several doors on either side. They reached the kitchens, which happened to be the last door on the right. Skylar scoffed as none save the staff were within.
“We will try the baths,” Skylar’s expression made Quinlan feel sorry for his apprentice, and the discussion the wizard would have with her.
The Wizard led them downstairs and into the courtyard. It was at this time Quinlan could actually appreciate the grandness of this citadel. The thick walls and massive portcullis aside, he felt confident the castle must be protected by magic. Straining his neck to see the spiraling towers he noticed the stone gargoyles perched high above, and they appeared to follow their movements as they headed towards a door in another of the towers.
Skylar took notice of Quinlan’s gaze and said, “Yes they are watching us.”
“You mean…” He trailed off.
“Yes, High Keep is watched over by several creatures, least of all the gargoyles.” Skylar stated, “But you need not worry, they are most active at night.”
Opening the door they were struck by a wave of steam from the baths, “No need to fret Quinlan, we have the good fortune of having hot springs issuing up from beneath.”
Moving into the steamy room, with visibility nearly null, Skylar called out, “Lorelei, are you in here.”
The hissing of the steam as it escaped the underground recesses from whence it came the only reply. Skylar sighed, “I am afraid they are not here either.”
Quinlan laughed, “I see some things are true no matter where I am, such as the trouble women put us through.”
Skylar was not amused, heading back out into the courtyard he paused, “I should have known, I know where they are, follow me.”
They returned to the central keep, climbing the stairs to the second level. Passing individual soldiers on guard, Skylar paid them no heed as they hurried down the hall. The sunlight began to fade quickly, and servants rushed about lighting torches and lamps. Stopping at one of the less impressive doors which to Quinlan appeared to be everywhere Skylar stopped and rapped on the door, “Lorelei, are you in there?”
“Yes, master,” The surprised voice from the other side answered. The door opened and to both of their relief were the two apprentices, Magus, and thief.
Nola was not only up and about, but looking quite splendid. She wore a long green dress of excellent material, and her radiant smile broadened upon seeing Quinlan. Lorelei, in contrast, seemed quite disturbed, knowing she was about to be reprimanded.
Skylar’s gaze appeared to be enough to harm Lorelei’s usually easy going demeanor.
“I am sorry master, but I just could not bring myself to have her wearing such a pitiful outfit.” She stammered looking downcast, “I also thought your discussion with Quinlan would be far longer.”
“Indeed,” Skylar scoffed. “But you should have considered the reaction of this man upon returning to find his lady missing.”
“Yes master,” She humbly responded.
Quinlan moved past the two and hurried over to Nola, who met him halfway, and before he knew what was happening Nola wrapped her arms around him, “I am so happy to see you.”
“Not as happy as I am, I thought you were lost to me forever,” Quinlan returned the embrace and picking her up spun her around, “But I must wonder as to how you were nearly gone from this world.”
“I gave her a potion before our little stroll,” Skylar confessed.
“So she would have lived even if I had refused to help you?” Quinlan asked.
“I would not have let her die, whether or not you chose to accept my offer. Your actions did, however, sway me to believe you are a man of honor, even if you felt trapped into agreeing, your compassion to see her well again speaks of a man to be trusted.” Skylar smiled and went on, “Not to demean your profession, but most thieves care little for others and worry for their own safety and well-being above all else. However, when you told me you rescued her from what I presume were the dungeons in Estroy, I felt confident you were a man I could do business with.”
Quinlan smirked, “Do you hear this Nola? I told you wizards are crafty.”
Lorelei giggled, but Nola merely smiled and held onto Quinlan a little tighter, “Do you mean to tell me that you made a bargain with the magus to save my life?”
Quinlan frowned, “Yes, it seems I made a deal I did not need to,” Quinlan looked into Nola’s eyes and said, “But I would have struck any bargain to see you whole again.”
“It has been a long day for you two,” Skylar said flatly, “I shall have Lorelei take you to the baths and then find you a room where you can get some much-needed rest.”
Quinlan felt a little apprehensive, but Nola seemed quite excited at the opportunity to stay here, so he shrugged in defeat and allowed the now gleeful Lorelei sweep them off to the steamy baths.