Heath reached Aleria long after dark. He guided the bay through the softly lit streets towards the Black Crow Tavern, the sound of horseshoes on cobblestone echoing down the nearly empty streets. Reaching the stables to the side of the weathered tavern, Heath set about removing the saddle along with the bit and bridle before rubbing her down. He made sure there was water and fresh hay in her basket before ducking into the tavern.
Wordlessly, he gave a nod to the young bartender working the night shift and wearily made his way up to his back room. He set his pack to the side, and began undoing his equipment and armor. He grimaced as he stretched his ribs, glancing down at the darkened skin. Too tired for anything else, he tossed his shirt to the side and kicked off his boots before collapsing on the bed. He stared at the ceiling for a moment before feeling beneath his pillow to reassure himself that the thin bladed dagger was still there. The cool touch of metal greeted his fingers and with a last sigh, he let himself drift off to sleep.
The next morning, Heath woke with the early sunrise casting narrow beams of light across his room through the narrow slats of the shuttered window. He checked his ribs, carefully feeling each one to fully assess the extent of his wounds. Two felt cracked, likely broken but not displaced even after a day of riding. Four more felt badly bruised. He took a thick piece of bandage cloth, and tickly wrapped his midsection to brace his torso. It limited his movement, and taking a full breath was difficult, but at least it no longer hurt to breathe.
He put on a clean shirt, pulled on his boots, and buckled his belt with his hunting blade before making his way downstairs. He sat at the bar as Mo set a steaming plate of food in front of him.
“Heard ye came in late last night,” the old sailor chuckled. “Knew ye’d be wantin’ food as soon as ye woke.”
Heath nodded appreciatively. “You’re worth every penny, Mo.” He lifted his fork and dug into what looked like an omelette with vegetables and sausages. It was often difficult to discern what the Black Crow’s food actually was, but it was always delicious. As Heath ate, a muscular figure shifted from a booth on the far side of the room and slid into the seat next to him.
“Well you look like you got pulled behind a horse all the way from Riverford,” Ciriel chuckled as Mo set a plate in front of her. “Rough couple days?”
“You could say that,” Heath said through a full mouth. He swallowed. “Took some time out of the city.”
She smiled. “Looks like it did you some good.”
He looked at her, raising an eyebrow.
“No, I mean, not that it’s good you look like-” she said quickly, her smile dropping as her words tumbled over each other. “You look more relaxed, like you used to. Y’know, the last couple weeks… you’ve almost looked like a caged animal.”
Heath snorted, waving her off. “I’m messing with you, I know what you meant. I suppose you’re right, I think it was overdue. Getting away.”
They finished their meals quickly, and Heath thanked Mo for the meal.
It was still early, with a faint mist from the Silverfrost River quickly burning off in the summer sun as Heath walked through the wide dusty streets. He had left his affects in the tavern room, content to walk anonymously through the street without drawing the unnecessary attention a longbow and armor demanded. He made his way towards Turen, expecting to find most of the member of Guild #237 still there preparing for whatever the day ahead held for them.
To his surprise, Heath walked through the heavy doors to see only Cassian and Wendell at the long table in the center of the hall. They regarded him with nods as the door shut behind him with a heavy thud.
“Where is everyone else?” Heath asked, looking around the empty chamber.
“Already out,” Cassian said, looking up from a stack of parchment. “Everyone has their own affairs to look into while the Guild doesn’t have work. You aren’t the only one that gets to just walk away whenever you feel like it.”
Ignoring the jab, Heath looked to Wendell. “Where’s Kriv? Any progress on his investigations?”
“Hrm?” The old man mumbled. “Oh, well, Master Kriv does not necessarily keep me apprised of his every progress, but he had mentioned that he is looking into a series of murders in the lower city that potentially match his prior suspicions. They were brought to our door a few days ago, a smattering of lowlives that have gone missing or found deceased.”
Heath frowned, uninterested. Wendell continued, oblivious to Heath’s expression.
“He set out the last couple days with a young woman, slight in figure and somewhat dirty. She supposedly was to assist him in some manner. I overheard them speaking this morning before they set out, they were looking into some suspicious newcomers to the city. Master Kriv seemed to think they were potentially connected to these murders somehow. A family called the Motovani, I believe they were called.”
Heath had begun to dismiss Wendell’s words, but froze at the mention of the family. He cursed under his breath and spun, his entire body tense as he leveled his gaze at the elderly man.
“Where did Kriv go? Where are these newcomers? What is he planning to do?”
Wendell’s eyes grew wide. “I- I don’t know, I told you he doesn’t tell me everything. He’s been looking into it for several days, but I didn’t hear that name until this morning. They left early, but they may have been heading for the Docks-”
Heath was already striding towards the door. “When he gets back, tell him to wait for me,” he said over his shoulder. Without waiting for a response, he pushed his way out onto the street.
Heath took a shaky, unsteady breath as he rushed from the guild hall. The Motovani were in Aleria. Impossible. Why would they be here? Which members of the family would be here? Only one? No, that would be too easy. More than one, who would that be. The odds of Uzo traveling all the way to Aleria was unlikely. Marco was likewise tied to Bordova, and his responsibilities as the defender of the republic kept him there. So it was the brothers. The worst case scenario.
As memories nearly a decade old began to filter through his mind, Heath maneuvered his way through the narrow streets south towards the Docks. Of course this was the day he left his equipment behind. That’s what he got for getting complacent.
Wendell had said that the murders had been nobodies, lowlives that wouldn’t be missed. They were in the lower city. Those details, as vague as they were, had a dark echoing that Heath couldn’t ignore. They were the reason Heath hadn’t seen the Motovani in years. They were the reason he had given Rodrigo his ultimatum. They were also likely the reason the Motovani had acquired so much power and stability throughout their republic, despite the cost.
Heath quickly gathered his equipment from his room at the Black Crow Tavern, cursing under his breath as he fastened his quiver to his back and pulled on his hunter’s hood despite the summer heat. His thoughts went briefly to Victra, thinking about returning to the guild hall to ask Wendell about Victra’s whereabouts or whether she had been involved in Kriv’s investigations, then decided against it. Everything had caught him off guard, and he didn’t know how much history needed to be dredged up just yet.
If it was the Motovani, and if they were somehow involved in the killings, there were only a few people in Aleria who would be able to confirm it. It had been too long since Heath had been drawn into anything like that, he was out of practice. It had to be different.
Drawing his hood to obscure his features, Heath started his investigation in the Graveyard District. He hung to the shadows around the low building where Jurien “Halfhand” conducted his no-so-subtle business. Heath lingered for close to an hour, disciplined in his surveillance. He saw two different people come and go, neither of whom had the complexions of people living south in Bordova. And Jurien briefly glanced through a dingy curtain in the single window, and was obviously alive. So the Motovani hadn’t come to the Halfhand. He was too compromised for their operations, and the only time he would see them would be in the final moments before his body went cold, if at all.
Satisfied, Heath returned to the Black Crow Tavern at midday, seeking out Thren. Fortune would have it that the large half orc was still in the city, and hadn’t yet left on his next contract. Thren knew most of who was coming and going by way of the river, as most of his work was done on the deck of a ship. Without asking questions, he told Heath about the new ship that had sailed into Aleria in the last week, one that stood out from the regular trade ships and barges. This ship was strong and sleek in design, built for swift sailing on the open seas but small enough to make the journey upriver to reach Aleria from the Silk Coast. It was certainly a ship not built in Aleria, nor the shipyards of Aldea, overwhich Aleria ruled. This was a ship that sailed from southern ports, likely Askator or Bordova. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Heath thanked Thren and returned to the streets, his suspicions all but confirmed.
If the connection was the recent killings, Heath needed someone with more information. Kriv had kept most of his findings close to the chest, and Heath had not desired to press him for information before. The lower city afforded him limited options, but Heath knew the Sparrows had eyes and ears everywhere. Time to speak with the most moody half elf he knew.
Minutes later, Heath stared through narrowed eyes at Arynas as the slender youth groaned exaggeratedly. Heath held his shoulder against the stone wall of the alley.
“I told you,” the half elf muttered resentfully, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, this doesn’t concern-”
“Right, of course none of you have any interest in what’s happening in the lower city,” Heath said, not relaxing his grip. “None of your little birds hear anything, none of your people know anything about suspicious killings or people going missing? Or about someone coming by Guild #237 to look into it?”
Arynas’ eyes fell as he struggled against the shorter, but much stronger, man’s grasp. “Fine, fine. Will you at least let me go?”
Heath continued to stare at him, not moving.
Another groan. “It’s been a couple days, but Elyean went to speak with the dragonborn when we found out one of our own was one of the victims. They left years ago, joined a mercenary company. Their body was found a few days ago, that got us involved. They might have walked away for the money, but they were one of us.”
“What did you tell the guild? What do you want from them?”
“I don’t know, probably just to look into the murders? The City Watch doesn’t care about some street rats who wind up dead, maybe people like Guild #237 would care.”
Heath clenched his jaw. If Kriv thought the killings were targeted too close to home, he might do something rash, adopt a head-on approach. The dragonborn was careful and suspicious, but a threat to the city he saw as his home was something different.
“What else do you know?” Heath asked, frustrated. “Who’s behind the attacks, where they’re looking for them?”
“No, nothing like that. Elyean is working with the dragonborn, that’s her job.” Arynas struggled, pressing against Heath’s hand. “I swear to you, I don’t know anything else! Go talk to Elyean.”
Heath released Arynas’ shoulder and stepped aside. The half elf muttered darkly under his breath and vanished into the crowd in the street. Heath watched him go, lingering in the alley a moment longer. If Kriv found enough of a connection between the Motovani and the killings, that might be enough to rationalize acting out his own measure of justice.
With no other leads, Heath returned to the crisscrossing network of docks that lined the northern shores of the Riverfrost River. Thren had told him the berth where the Motovani ship had docked at, which was the best place to begin his own search. It didn’t take him long, the ship was hard to miss regardless of its unique design. It was made of a golden brown wood, with deep crimson stripes along the guardrail and where the rail met the hull. A gold, crimson and black flag fluttered gently in the wind, and half a dozen armored guards walked the deck.
Heath studied the ship from a distance, his eyes soaking up as much detail as possible. Thren had suggested it was likely a passenger ship, bringing tradesmen, political dignitaries, or members of the nobility to Aleria for any number of reasons. Perfect cover for two sons of the most powerful man on the Silk Coast.
Convinced there was nothing to be gleaned from watching the ship, Heath directed his attention to the nearby avenues that housed several of the most welcoming inns and hostels. While his experience was largely confined to the Black Crow and the occasional sheltered alley, Heath knew which establishments were the best regarded, and which catered to the more privileged, and discrete, clientele.
There were dozens of inns, hostels, and boarding houses and the crowds were bustling by late afternoon, so it was only by great fortune or some divine blessing that Heath’s keen gaze narrowed in on an old familiar face.
Miguel de Motovani was a handsome man several years older than Heath, but could have passed for a much younger man. His olive skin was smooth and his short brown hair held a soft curl and was combed back, glistening in the sunlight. His face was disarmingly charming, an easy smile that made others feel at ease. He didn’t look a day older than when Heath had seen him last, nearly six years earlier. He walked tall, his athletic frame accentuated by a very fine, tailored jacket of black and silver, with fitted trousers and tall riding boots. An elegant rapier hung from his hip and the hilt of a dagger on the opposite. Two athletic men with similar complexions and closely shaved dark hair followed behind him, wearing clothes of the same style, though much less fine.
Heath wasted no time, disappearing into the crowds with his shorter stature to follow closely behind. As he watched, the two guards kept a vigilant watch on the jostling crowds around them. Quickly glancing to the side, Heath marked the direction Miguel was headed before ducking down a wide alley.
He darted down its length, turning down a more narrow alley, then down another. Reaching a dead end, Heath leapt up the walls, grasping at narrow ledges and bits of broken masonry. On handholds smaller than most people could notice, Heath scrambled his way up the wall, reaching the rooftop three stories above the street. Exhaling once to slow his breathing, he rolled to his feet and darted across the wooden shingles of the roof, keeping low and out of sight of the street below. He reached the roof corner, overlooking a wide intersection of two streets, and there, right where he should be, Heath saw Miguel casually walking with his two Bordovan bodyguards over each shoulder.
Where are you staying, Heath thought from his perch, carefully shadowing his prey from above, staying low. Are you with your brother? Are you here for your father? Or something more personal?
Miguel led Heath another few blocks before he turned into an inn, nodding to another three Bordovan guards seated outside as he entered. The building had a dark green exterior, the windows and doors detailed in black and gold. Heath had never been inside, it was far too rich for his blood and his presentation made sure he’d never get past the front doors.
He saw the shift of movement in one of the upper rooms, but it was hard to make out whether it was Miguel or one of his guards in the room. It was more likely Miguel would be in a room that didn’t have a window that opened to the street, but then again the man was more than capable of defending himself.
Heath grimaced as another four guards dressed in the same dark style of the other Bordovan guards. That made at least nine, and he hadn’t even seen Rodrigo yet. That was a problem. Miguel was the diplomat. Rodrigo had a lot to learn from his brother in that regard. But it was the younger brother that worried Heath more. Rodrigo was not the kind of man to be content to remain shuttered in an inn all day.
Heath knew it was only a matter of time before Kriv or another member of Guild #237 found one or both of the Motovani brothers. He looked across the streets near the inn, but caught sight of no watchers or lurking eyes. At least they hadn’t beat him there. Grimly recognizing that he couldn’t watch Miguel and hunt for his younger brother at the same time, Heath ducked out of sight of the street. He dropped down to an alley that met a back street, pulling back his hood as he raced towards the Central Market. Resigning himself to the truth that he had a better chance finding the one he knew best, Heath could only hope that Rodrigo didn’t cross paths with the guild members while either party was feeling particularly impulsive and confrontational.
Heath ducked around the back side of an harblist’s shop, making his way to the low structure butted up against the back of a bakery. The smell of fresh bread still hung in the air, even as the ovens would have been cold for several hours. Heath felt for the thick lock, producing a key and opening it with a click. He pulled the chain away, and ducked through the door after a quick glance around, shutting it quickly behind him.
In the darkness, he felt out for the lantern, flicking the piece of flint. A spark flashed, and light filled the small space. The single room had a long workbench on one wall, an array of woodworking and fletching tools hanging on the wall above it. Bundles of arrows were stacked on one end of the bench, with raw strips of yew preparing to be bound as longbows. A small lockbox was open with a few dozen iron arrowheads sat next to a pile of goose feathers and arrow shafts. Tucked under a low cot was a weatherproofed pack, one that Heath took on extended expeditions into the mountains. At the foot of the cot was a well-maintained riding saddle and pair of saddlebags.
The safehouse was stocked with gear and supplies that Heath couldn’t risk storing elsewhere. He went to the bench, rhythmically undoing the buckles of his quiver and belt. He reached beneath the bench to the long, dust covered chest of dark wood, bound in iron bands. Clenching his jaw, he took a long, careful breath before lifting the lid.
He saw oiled black leather, with strips of steel woven in. The armor was made of layered pieces to flex and move freely around each other. The gauntlets had flattened metal studs over the knuckles, and the chest piece had buckles that fastened up the left side of the chest, and others on the shoulder and back to directly accommodate a quiver. A sheath for a long knife sat flush to the lower back, and a band of narrow sleeves lined one of the thigh pieces.
Heath stared at the old armor, momentarily pausing as he wondered, worried what it might mean to wear it again, to bring his past back to the surface. Could he allow it to live again in the light?
With a sense of foreboding, he pushed it aside and began putting on the armor. It was more important to reach Rodrigo before Kriv or the others brought violence to bear. And perhaps bringing back the shadow from another time would be able to reach him before something happened that no one would be able to take back. Before he left, he lifted the black lacquered recurve bow from its place on the wall, flexing the limbs and smiling with grim satisfaction.
A short while later, Heath crouched on the peak of a building watching the street below. A crescent moon hung in the sky above, and the streetlamps afforded dim light down below. Beneath a cowl that hung low over his face and obscured his mouth and jaw, Heath was a shadow clinging to the darkness above the city. He had returned to the inn where Miguel and the Bordovan guard were staying, and began making wide sweeping arcs with the inn at its center.
If Rodrigo was in Aleria, he would be returning to his brother before long. If he was returning from being out in the day, he’d have an escort with him. If he had an escort, he’d be confident and walking the main streets. Rodrigo knew how to keep a low profile, but his pride was his greatest weakness. Fortunately, that made him predictable for someone like Heath.
It was the two hulking bludgeoners that Heath caught sight of first. They shadowed a shorter figure, much like the guards following Miguel, though these two were significantly more menacing. They drew attention from the man they followed, but Heath instantly recognized the movement, the smooth gait of a man who moved almost like a cat, confident and silent, unbothered by others. His features were hard to make out in the low light of the street, but it was unmistakable.
Even from a distance and in the light of the stars, Rodrigo had changed. His bearing was different, he walked with purpose and with a complete lack of concern for being seen. He was a walking threat, unidentifiable, but completely noticeable.
Heath followed the trio as they walked from the wide avenues to a back street, connecting to the main streets only through tight alleyways. As Heath shifted his path to not lose sight of his quarry, he no longer had line of sight to the streets running parallel to them, or to what Rodrigo was intent upon. For he was intent, and their path was purposeful. There was a shift, and Heath saw the visual change in both Rodrigo and the men with him, and they immediately pulled away, tracking deeper into the maze of alleys and back streets.
Whoever they are following, or whoever is following them, they know where they’re going now, Heath thought, the movement all too familiar. They’re trying to beat them there, head them off before their destination.
Heath threw caution and stealth into the wind, moving quickly across the peaked rooftops to follow Rodrigo. The path wound and doubled back on itself, but both men had been trained at the same time, and Heath had surprise on his side. They reached a wide intersection, one that Heath had seen earlier in the day. Only a few blocks from the inn, Heath watched as Rodrigo and his two guards took opposite sides of the street, watching down the all but abandoned street towards the inn.
Momentarily confused, Heath turned his gaze down the street and spotted a group of four individuals making their way in their direction. Cursing under his breath, Heath frantically scrambled back from the edge of the rooftop, looking for a higher vantage point. Knowing he only had moments before they reached the crossroads, he clambered his way up a peaked tower, taking him more than fifty feet above the street. He clung to the lip of the roof with one hand, hanging precariously as he looked below.
Kriv was leading three others, distinct figures even in the low light. Mars and Iden towered over each shoulder, and Svrcina’s slender frame walked beside the hunched dragonborn. As they reached the intersection, Heath watched with a sinking feeling as Rodrigo stepped out into the light of the streetlamps, his two guards from the opposite side of the street. Unspeaking, they moved to the center of the road, blocking the path of the guild members.
It only took a moment to see that even if they hadn’t been expecting it, everyone in the street was itching for a fight. Rodrigo walked with cold resolve, blades shining in each hand. There must have been a threat against his brother for him to be acting so blatantly. Mirroring the Bordovans, Iden and Mars were already hefting their axes as Kriv and Svrcina were on the cusp of brandishing their own weapons.
Everyone’s so ready to fight without even a word exchanged, Heath’s bitterness roiled in his stomach. As the two Bordovan guards drew slender hand-and-a-half swords, Heath rocked back and settled onto the balls of his feet, precariously balanced on the narrow ledge. The moment the two groups began stepping towards each other, he sent two black-fletched arrows through the air in rapid succession.
The first went through Rodrigo’s forearm as he raised a narrow stiletto dagger, the second sprouting from the back of one of his guard’s knees less than a heartbeat later. Rodrigo’s forearm spasmed as the arrow penetrated through, the muscles momentarily useless, and the stiletto fell to the cobblestones. The guard grunted in pain, collapsing beneath the weight as the severed tendon gave way.
Rodrigo spun, immediately looking up to where Heath now stood on the rooftop, barely silhouetted by the crescent moon behind him. His arm at his side, the arrow sticking through it largely ignored. The shot was one Heath had taken hundreds of times, and wouldn’t damage anything permanently. It was also a practiced shot that he knew Rodrigo would recognize. The others all turned their gazes to the rooftop as Heath took a single step forward, dropping from the height to the street below.
He landed heavily, more than he had expected. He gritted his teeth against the pain, but stood smoothly, his expression hidden beneath the cowl. I’m more out of practice than I thought. He kept his attention on Rodrigo, unmoving but he kept his bow lowered for the moment as the handsome Bordovan glared at him.
In the light of a streetlamp, Heath saw the familiar dark, curly hair that fell to his shoulders, framing the same olive skin as his brother, but Rodrigo had grown a thin mustache and goatee. His jacket was longer than his brother’s and not nearly so fine, buckling up the side of the chest. It was a style that belied an influence outside of Bordova. The stiletto still lay on the ground at his feet, but a twin blade was clutched in his other hand.
Heath growled through the cloth of the mask, making sure his voice carried across the empty crossroad. “Not them, not now. Walk away before I put the next arrow through your eye.” He let his fingers twitch, a movement so small and familiar only Rodrigo would recognize. He would know that no matter how fast he was, it was a shot that Heath could make. It was also a shot the huntsman could make without killing the target. If there had been any doubts in Rodrigo’s mind, Heath’s shot through his arm proved who he was and that his skills hadn’t faded.
Rather than the heated rage Heath had seen from his youth, Rodrigo regarded him coldly as he snapped the arrowhead off, tossing the broken pieces of the arrow to the side. Heath saw the frigid fury dancing in his eyes, but held at bay by some new restraint. Rodrigo didn’t spare a glance at the members of Guild #237, but picked up his stiletto from where it had fallen and motioned to his guards to follow him as he walked off, heading down the intersection street. The guard who hadn’t been injured helped his companion to his feet, supporting him as they walked away, unquestioning and obedient.
Kriv and the other members of Guild #237 regarded him suspiciously, their weapons raised. Heath watched Rodrigo vanish down the street before letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. But it still wasn’t over. He stepped forward, pulling back the hood and cowl to reveal his face.
Kriv narrowed his eyes as the others visibly relaxed. His gaze danced across Heath, regarding him suspiciously. “What’s going on? What are you doing here, ‘bounty hunter?’” He emphasized the title, as if questioning the truth of it.
“Not now,” Heath said quietly. “We can talk back at the hall.”
“We can talk here,” the black dragonborn hissed. “Why should we trust you?”
“Shut up and walk home,” Heath snapped, fixing an intense glare at the dragonborn, causing him to start. “Or you can wait here and hope he doesn’t come back with more men.” He turned and began walking away. “We need to talk, and the street isn’t where we’re going to do it. We all have things that need to be discussed, so you can put aside your paranoid tendencies for a moment so I can tell you exactly how dangerous this all is.”