Chapter 11: A Return to Hillhold

As the light of the dawn slowly illuminated the horizon, Heath stirred himself from his stoic vigilance. After the Heroes for Hire left with the City Watch and their prisoner, the night was dark, quiet, and thankfully uneventful. The members of Guild #237 had each held their own silence, but they gathered at the front of the warehouse as the first rays of light fell upon the city. 

Before long, a detachment of mercenaries and laborers arrived, and after speaking with Kriv, showed their writ from the same employer who had hired them to guard the site. The four watched as the crates from inside the warehouse were loaded atop three wagons, armed guards watching the whole time. Before they went on their way, both Kriv and the captain of the mercenary guard each signed the contract of the other, both of which would be presented to their employer upon the goods being delivered and completion of the contract. When both were satisfied, the wagons lurched and slowly rolled down the street. Kriv jerked his head to the others, and they began a slow walk back toward the guildhall.

As they walked, Heath noticed Kriv’s mood was as dark as it had even been since the exchange with the Heroes for Hire. Rather than push the issue with him, he stepped up beside Svrcina.

“What’s the history between you all and the Heroes?” He asked, carefully watching her expression from the corner of his eye. “I’ve heard some of the rumors, something about a rivalry..?” He let the question hang in the air. 

The slender tiefling took a breath, considering her words carefully. “I’m not sure exactly when it began, but it was a thing when the first guild was working. Before… before we became #237.”

“Were they involved in that?” Victra asked, walking up silently. 

Svrcina shook her head. “No, nothing like that. But I think it had something to do with their time in the army, during the war. Cassian and Nambu were both soldiers in the same fight, and those men and women were hailed as heroes when they returned, I think it put a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.”

“Not that they didn’t accomplish some remarkable feats during the war,” Svrcina continued, “but they got far more recognition for it than most. Several battles they were involved in were turning points in the war, and they were instrumental. They were able to leverage that renown to create a highly sought-after mercenary company. Since then, they’ve wielded their reputation to criticize any other group attempting to compete with them. With our less colorful presentation and few, but very public, missteps, they’ve been clear in their disdain for what we do. Cassian is very proud of what we’ve created, and Nambu is likewise invested. But it’s been hard when a streak of bad luck and the most recognizable mercenary guild in the city continues to critique us.”

Heath inclined his head towards Kriv walking ahead of them. “And him?”

Svrcina regarded the hooded dragonborn almost mournfully. “I think he cares about this more than all the rest of them. He’s put far more into the guild than I think we’ll ever really know. And when the Heroes for Hire show up with ludicrous contracts in shining armor to the applause of the people, it’s hard not to compare. Perhaps there will be a day when we can distinguish ourselves well enough, but living in their shadow has been difficult.”

“Who cares what others think,” Victra muttered venomously. “That bunch of perfumed hirelings can keep their rich contracts and fancy friends. I’d rather live life on my own terms.”

“Working for the people means you’re beholden to their goodwill,” Heath said begrudgingly. “At least to some extent. Contracted through the city means there are strings attached.”

“All the better reason to be independent,” Victra replied, cocking an eyebrow at Heath. “Or be a bounty hunter, eh?”

“Exactly,” he agreed. “And while we’re on the topic, what got you fired up and ready to throw down with the big one, Gerard? I get why Kriv was ready to leave him bloody in the gutter, but you?”

Victra shrugged nonchalantly, tapping the hilt of her sword with a finger. “I didn’t like his attitude. Acting like the world was ready to bend over backwards at his word. Plus I thought I could goad him into strike first, which was all the excuse I’ve ever needed.”

Svrcina laughed at that.

“Maybe we try to be a little more careful since we know they have friends in high places,” Heath muttered. “We have enough trouble it seems with criminal elements making moves in Aleria without you picking a fight with everyone who looks at you sideways.”

Victra grinned. “No promises.”

Back at the guildhall, Heath settled against one of the tall supporting pillars, declining the offer of coffee. The others accepted gratefully. Heath was tired, but he knew as soon as the debrief was concluded, he could return to his room above the Black Crow and sleep. He could bear these people for a little while longer.

Cassian and Nambu joined them at the long table, with Iden looming over Cassian’s shoulder. It was still early, and around breakfast and coffee they spoke about the events of the night at the warehouse. 

“… so we should hear about the interrogation in a few days, if not sooner.” Kriv finished, sitting back in his chair.

Cassian and Nambu exchanged looks. The tall bugbear leaned forward, one elbow on the table. 

“It’s unfortunate that you weren’t able to question them, or even get a chance to search the bodies. There might have been some clue or sign that we could have used.” Nambu’s voice was rough, but held no malice or judgement. 

“Unlikely,” Victra said between mouthfuls of food. “Those outlaws weren’t amateurs. They wouldn’t have any markings or clues on their person that we could have followed. They knew what they were doing, and I personally doubt any amount of interrogation will get anything out of the survivor.”

Cassian glowered at her. “Your optimism is so refreshing.” 

“There’s something else about last night you should all know about,” Heath said, speaking for the first time. The others all looked at him. “It wasn’t anything the Watch needed to know, but there was a second attempt last night. Nearly at the same time as the other.”

“And you’re just telling us this now?” Kriv growled.

“Telling you sooner wouldn’t have changed anything, and I don’t like having to repeat myself.” Heath glanced between the faces all intently watching him, Victra’s slightly amused. “A group of goblins from Drechton were making their way across the river as the warehouse was being attacked. They made it close to the docks, but as soon as I made it clear they were seen, they scattered like roaches.” Heath continued to describe what he had seen, ending with his recognition of Nybarg. 

Cassian’s brow furrowed. “Did it look like they were coming for the same warehouse?”

Heath shook his head. “Unlikely. Their path was headed to a different one, farther up from where we were. But it’s the contents of that warehouse that troubled me. There was a broken window, and after dealing with the Heroes for Hire, Victra helped investigate the contents.”

He felt the disapproving glares of both Cassian and Kriv, but Heath ignored them as he continued. “It was a storehouse for the City Guard. Filled with arms and armor. I have no idea what they wanted it for, and I don’t know whether it’s connected to the attempt on the other warehouse. But we’ve already had one dealing with that little vermin, and I don’t tend to put much stock in coincidences.”

“It’s true,” Victra said. “I saw crates and crates of supplies, and the badge of the Guard is easily recognizable. Hard to mistake. Pretty ridiculous that it was left unguarded.”

Nambu looked over to Kriv. “Does this make any sense to you? What are the chances that these two attempts, on the same night, are connected?”

The dragonborn growled softly to himself, deep in thought. “Low. The most important thing to know about the Rats is that they work alone. And if we believe these attackers were professionals, then they certainly wouldn’t be working with goblins. Crossing the river how they did is ingenious, but ill-advised. Especially trying to break into a City Guard storehouse.”

“Even more to the point, the two are entirely different types of plunder. One is for means, the other for money. The contents of the warehouse would be valuable if they are able to sell them. The storehouse has goods that can’t be sold, but are extremely dangerous to house, move, or utilize in any capacity. And if Nybarg and his crew are involved, I can say they’re not smart enough to formulate both attempts at the same time. The most likely explanation is that one group caught wind of the other, and tried to use the distraction of the other to increase their chances of success.”

“I’m not convinced,” Cassian said, idly scratching at the tabletop as his food sat forgotten to the side. “Keep looking into it. I want to know who was behind these attacks, as well as whatever you can find about why a goblin criminal gang would want arms and armor such as that. Arms smuggling isn’t what they’re known for, so either there is something new happening, or we don’t know as much as we think we do.”

Kriv nodded. 

Heath slowly began walking around the table, hands clasped behind his back. “Do you think this has anything to do with the other leads your contacts have been following? Might last night’s attack have been from one of these new factions?”

“That would be ideal,” Kriv muttered. The others looked at him curiously. “If that were the case, then I’d already have leads to begin to run down. That means they’re sloppy, and we’ve learned about them even before we even started looking. If they’re something new… The influx of criminal factions and syndicates looking to establish themselves into the Alerian network is already troubling.”

Heath paused, watching his expression. Cassian spoke up.

“You think there’s a reason behind it?”

Kriv snorted humorlessly. “There’s always a reason. I think this is just another indicator of the state of Aleria. As a kingdom and a city. In a few short years after the War for Vengeance, the military has been exponentially downsized even though the peace has been tenuous and short-lived at best. I’ve heard of similar stories in other large cities, when the laws of the land become lax, those in power become complacent, and before anyone has a chance to react, the criminal elements are already too established to root out.”

Heath clenched his jaw. “Like in Bordova,” he whispered softly. 

Kriv’s eyes met his from across the table. “Exactly like in Bordova. Criminal syndicates vying for power and influence until only one remains, holding all the cards and influencing trade through an entire region for a generation.”

The table fell silent. Svrcina stood slowly, looking around at the darkened expressions around her. 

“Well,” she said seriously, “I suppose we ought to make sure that doesn’t happen here.”

The next few days brought no actionable intelligence from any of Kriv’s contacts. He explained that it would take some time to begin to uncover anything substantial about the new factions in Aleria, especially to do so carefully. The other members of Guild #237 seemed content with that, and despite the anxious feeling of helplessness, Heath took their lead. Taking a more cautious approach was wise, especially if there were groups that they were not aware of. Heath knew where his expertise ended, and for a change he left the investigations to another, trusting in Kriv’s paranoia and experience. 

Leaving the criminal activity in Aleria to Kriv allowed Heath to turn his focus to the newest addition to his list: giants. Like a darkened stormcloud, they had been looming in his mind ever since Hillhold. It had been the first time in a long time he had felt truly out matched, where his skills had fallen short against a new enemy. He knew he needed to do more, he needed to be able to stack the deck in his favor for the next time.

He began by seeking out Ciriel. She had taken several jobs up north as a mercenary, near the mountains that marked the borders of the Alerian Kingdom. Ciriel had scant little experience with giants herself, but she told Heath about an old dwarven giant hunter that frequented a tavern called the Shattered Tankard in the Dwarven Quarter. That was the second best thing about Ciriel, she knew just about every other mercenary that worked out of Aleria, whether by reputation or experience. 

Graccus Thrahak was a sour old dwarf, with a glare that could curdle milk and skin like leather on an old boot. He and Heath understood each other immediately. They would speak many times over the coming weeks, but their first conversations were about the most important information Graccus could impart to Heath: how to hunt and kill giants. 

Graccus had been the leader of the Giantsbane, a company of mainly dwarven mercenaries that specialized in hunting roaming hill giant clans through the northern reaches of the Grandual Plains. He told Heath about their strategies as a group, using skirmishing tactics to harass them, to never let them know when battle would strike. They relied on heavy shields and pikes to keep the giants at bay, bracing them as though facing cavalry. Years later, when all his fellows had fallen in glorious battle, old Graccus had continued as a rogue mercenary and giant hunter, fighting from a distance with a heavy crossbow and up close with his battleaxe. The years and scars of his work left him twisted and broken, but Graccus was too stubborn to die.

The old dwarf spoke a little about giant culture, a hierarchy of living they called the ordning, in which different castes of giants were always considered above others. As such, giant tribes and clans rarely worked together and never intermixed. Heath mentioned the stone giant emissary they encountered amongst the hill giants, which Graccus agreed was most unusual, but not unheard of. 

They spoke many times, but as the city of Aleria came to feel oppressive and stifling, Heath felt the urge to leave it all behind, to put space between himself and the labyrinth of stone. He considered heading south, only for a moment, a long buried memory pulling him. He pressed it back down, hiding it away, and set off before the morning light, riding north. 

Heath traveled for a full day before he felt the weight begin to lift from his shoulders. It had been too long since he had gone beyond the city walls for anything other than a contract. He slept beneath the stars that first night, waking to the old familiar stiffness that came from sleeping on the ground. He rode on that day, not thinking, not wondering. The day wasn’t the time to question his path, to second guess his decisions. There would be time for that later. Time when things eventually caught up with him. 

Instead he watched the landscape as it passed. It was familiar, the rolling hills to the east and the roots of the mountains stretching across the northern horizon. The mountains where home used to be. He saw herds of elk grazing in the swaying sea of grass. He heard the cries of hawks circling high in the sky above. For a moment, it felt good to be at peace. 

By midday, Heath reached a stretch of rocky hills, lightly forested with tall pines. As he passed under the shade of the first trees, a broken cluster caught his eye. Dismounting and patting his faithful horse, a bay, on the nose, Heath slowly walked over. Three massive pine trees had been splintered and lay in a pile of shattered timber and brush. 

Kneeling to get a closer look, Heath saw that while the trees had broken off above the ground, they hadn’t been dead when it happened. The trees had been alive. Something had broken them.

Looking at the forest floor around him, Heath saw what he had first thought to be natural erosion were in fact large footprints, at least four feet in length. Giants. Looking back to the trees, whatever had broken them had struck at least ten feet off the ground, with enough force to pull the roots up upon impact. Heath paused, listening intently for a moment. The gentle sound of wind in the trees mixing with the chirping of birds allowed him a breath of ease. 

He quickly scouted to be certain of the path that the giants had taken, for there were three distinct pairs of tracks, before leading the bay up the rise where he picketed her. He left the pouch of oats on the ground along with an apple before throwing his hood over his head and descending the ridge. 

It took an hour of careful tracking to reach the giants, not because their path wasn’t easy to follow, but Heath took care to move silently and stealthily. Graccus had warned him that while hill giants were dull and slow, other giants were far more dangerous and cunning. On the rocky ridgeline and moving through the trees, Heath was in his element, but he hadn’t survived by being cocky. 

He first saw them from a distance, three tall, slender giants with slate grey skin and smooth features. They wore furs and carried carved clubs of heavy stone or what looked like bone. Stone giants. They were marked with red and white paint, covering their arms and faces with patterns and glyphs, though Heath was too far to make out any details. They were gathered around in a circle, one carving a massive tree branch while another chipped away at a piece of stone. Graccus had said stone giants were known craftsmen. 

Graccus had also said it was rare for stone giants to leave the mountains. They didn’t live in the hills, not even small elevations like where they stood. They lived on the high peaks where they were content to be left alone. If they were down in the lowlands, it wasn’t a good sign.

As good a reason as any for Heath, he drew an arrow as he braced himself against the trunk of a tree. The musky smell of the dry ground and juniper filled the air around him, his breathing slowing, steadying. 

Like the buzz of a wasp, the arrow cut through the air, impacting just beneath the arm of the closest giant. Even at their size, they were nearly four hundred feet away and difficult targets through the trees. Before the giant had a chance to react, Heath sent a second arrow after the first and ducked below the ridgeline. Stone giants didn’t have their name simply because they were skilled at working stone. Their skin was thick and tough like the rock they worked, tougher than hardened leather. Even for a marksman such as Heath, unless he could put an arrow through their eye, his arrows wouldn’t pierce deep enough to kill individually. This would take time. 

As the roar of fury echoed around the trees, Heath set about his work with grim satisfaction and stoic determination. For the rest of the day and into the night, Heath stalked the giants. From the ridgeline above and through the trees, he tracked and hunted the stone giants. He harassed them at a distance, sometimes taking only a single, careful shot before disappearing to relocate. Their fury rose as the day stretched on, frustration only feeding Heath’s determination. 

After the first giant fell, Heath’s confidence betrayed him and he strayed too close. The giants heaved heavy spears and massive stones as he revealed himself, narrowly avoiding being impaled upon a spear. More than once, he ducked behind a tree only to find himself thrown to the ground, the tree splintered into pieces behind him. Even with their limited success, Heath recognized how lethal even one of those boulders could be.

It was his namesake that saved him. Many archers had the skill to hit a target beyond a hundred paces, but beyond that even seeing the target became a difficult task. Heath had earned the moniker “Longsight” in the mountains, catching the smallest detail lost in the chaos around him. And as he hunted giants through the forest, it served him again. Distance was his ally, his woodcraft his greatest tool, and the arrow sent by his bow only the final exclamation of his prowess. The sun set and a crescent moon rose into the sky before the hunt finally came to an end.

As he sat next to a small, sputtering fire wrapping a bandage around a jagged cut across his side, Heath regarded the still body of the final stone giant where it had fallen. Each giant had taken nearly a dozen arrows, most of which were ruined. Once again thankful he had learned the benefits of an expanded quiver, he stared at the painted markings that covered the giant’s body. A red cloth was wrapped around one shoulder, bearing similar markings in white.

Wincing as he stood, Heath braced a hand against his side. At least one broken rib, more bruised. Riding was going to be unpleasant in the morning. 

Walking over to the giant, he pulled away the cloth and held it up in the firelight. It was marked with runes and symbols, similar in form to dwarven runes, but they were sharper, more primal, though with an art to them that simple runes lacked. Woven into the cloth was a bone amulet, likewise marked with runes and symbols. 

Wondering about the meanings of the cloth and the amulet, Heath tucked them away as he mused about bringing them to Graccus or even the hobgoblin warlord, Blahgrut. He had sent them after the giants first, and as a military commander might know more than he had initially revealed. 

Heath paused mid-step, his mind rushing. He cocked his head, running through the events of the day. Where he had ridden. Where he found the track. The direction the giants had been heading. East. That would take them towards… 

Grunting in pain, Heath quickly gathered his things, throwing his tunic over his heavily scarred chest, fresh with bruises. He slung his quiver over his shoulder so as to not catch on the underbrush as he walked. He kept his hood down, but set an arrow to the string of his bow as he set off through the trees.

Moving quickly, he reached the small clearing where he had left his horse. She tossed her head as he approached. Rubbing her nose, Heath made sure she had enough lead to walk before he settled down into the crook between the roots of a great pine tree. Closing his eyes, he drifted off to sleep, only trusting himself to rest for a few hours. 

Long before dawn, Heath rose, broke camp quickly, and began leading the bay through the trees. By dawn they reached the edge of the forest where the song of a creek matched the morning tunes of songbirds. 

As the long streams of light danced through the trees around them, Heath let his horse drink deeply of the stream while he washed away the dried blood and dust of the day before. His bruised ribs had already begun to shift to a dark purple, and a sharp pain shot through his side as he reached to wash them. He wrapped them tightly before mounting up again and turned the bay’s head towards the sun.

Hours later, as the sun hung high in the sky, Heath tugged on the reins as the bay came to a halt at the top of the hill. The great expanse of the Grandual Plains extended around him, only dark lines on the horizon, shimmering in the noonday heat, marked where the mountains were. In front of him, less than a quarter mile away, a solitary structure stood on a hill. 

Its rough timber walls rose tall, a single watchtower extended upward from the west wall, and Heath could see the arch of the gates facing southward. The thatched roof had been repaired and likely reinforced, and thick smoke belched from three chimneys rising from the center of the structure. Hillhold. 

Small figures bustled around the exterior of the fortress, working away and ushering materials into the open gates as the shouts of overseers and the clank of machinery drifted towards Heath. Larger, muscular figures patrolled around them, with burnished armor and long spears. Several standards bearing the spears and chains of Blahgrut Redmane’s Bound Legion flapped in the breeze. 

The hobgoblins were guarding the fort, but the others… The smaller figures were gnomes. They were too slender to be dwarves, and far too intent on their work to be halflings. But what were they doing there? There had to be dozens of soldiers and workers numbering double that. The warlord had said the giants had posed a threat to Aleria and the people of Gradual Plains, but seeing Hillhold as a reborn hub of industry not much more than a week later made Heath suspicious. There was more to Hillhold than Blahgrut Redmane had revealed, and those implications worried Heath.

He watched the bustle around the fort for some time, before gently tapping his heels against the bay’s flanks and guiding her south. Guiding her back towards Aleria.

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