Mars closed the heavy double doors of the great hall with a resounding thud. Heath walked the length of the room, standing facing the fireplace. The others gathered around him, but Heath kept his face on the slowly dying embers. Kriv’s raspy voice cut through the silence.
“You want to explain what just happened?” The hunched dragonborn asked Heath, his arms crossed.
Heath’s mind had been racing since they had started walking back to the guildhall, but his expression remained stoic as he turned.
“I could ask you all the same thing,” he replied evenly as he looked across their faces. Kriv’s expression was cold, but otherwise hard to read. Mars was uncharacteristically grim, and Iden looked like he was itching for a fight that wasn’t coming. Svrcina seemed the most steady of the group but cautious, though that was to be expected. Heath turned his focus to Kriv.
“You all nearly got caught in a bloody fight in the middle of the city. Brawls I understand, but those men were ready for your blood, without even a word being said. What happened?”
Kriv hesitated as though not sure where to begin, gathering his words. “What do you know? You were gone, when did you return?”
“Last night. I only heard from Wendell this morning that you had leads about a series of murders, and it took the day to find you.”
The dragonborn grimaced as he dropped into a chair, a heavy sigh escaping his lips. “The threads of these murders seemed to match some of what I have already been looking into. Low life, underworld, beyond the desire and interest of civilized authority, that sort of business. And when I received word from a gang called the Sparrows about a more recent rash of murders, they gave us a starting point. The series of killings coincides too conveniently with a recent arrival of outsiders to Aleria.”
“So it’s simply the matter of timing then?”
“No, they don’t all match cleanly. But it’s certainly worth noting. And following to the source. The other… occurrences I have been investigating quietly for weeks now. Really ever since Adrian and the Magebreaker. Those are likely the work of another faction, though these newcomers might just be the ones pulling the strings, revealed now. The few killings that I am aware of that happened in the weeks before they arrived were random, unpredictable, without any rhyme, reason, or pattern I could uncover. These newer ones, at least six over the course of barely more than a week, are too open and too daring. They had a special disregard for the lives they took, but not for being caught. They were very, very careful in that regard.”
Heath crossed his arms, frowning as he held his tongue.
“So we followed the leads,” Kriv continued, noting Heath’s lingering silence. “We found the ship at the Docks, and where the newcomers were staying. The two men, one of whom we met in the street, could very well be our culprits, as could any number of their guards. They have the means, so to say. I want to know more.”
“Are you saying your intuition is guiding this?” Heath asked carefully. “Or are they just the most apparent suspects?”
“We spoke to the elder,” Kriv said, absently waving with a clawed hand. “Didn’t like him. Don’t trust him. Too well spoken, too careful with the way he wove his words together. Politician. And clearly practiced in the smooth, oily ways of those southern trade lords. He could tell we didn’t trust him, but made no attempt to dissuade us. And if the other, his brother, was willing to drop in and fight the lot of us in the open street, it doesn’t make either of them more innocent in my eyes.”
“There is something they wouldn’t tell us,” Svrcina agreed. “The elder was very careful in his speech, and he made it clear that he was weighing each of us as we spoke. He had a particularly discerning eye.”
“Trade lords are known for acting on their first impressions,” Heath muttered.
Iden shifted, grunting through the metal of his helmet. “And their escort was not made of simple or cheap mercenaries. Each of those men were killers, and they had a lot of them. Far more than simple young nobles should have while traveling.”
“And you almost came to blows with a few of them,” Heath said humorlessly.
“Twice,” Mars corrected him with a shrug. “We almost had to beat a few of them senseless outside their inn. Disrespectful halfwits.”
“Which brings us back to my unanswered question,” Kriv hissed, fixing his gaze on Heath. “Why were you there? Where did you go, and how did you know to help?”
“And what are you wearing?” Mars chimed in. Kriv shot a glare at him before looking back to Heath.
The ranger lowered his gaze, leaning back against the still-warm stones of the hearth. “I felt that the situation here was largely in hand, and there wasn’t much I could offer. So I left. This city isn’t my home, and I needed a reminder of that. I needed a moment away. I rode north, and took some time to scout around the hills and regions around that hill giant fortress. There were details that didn’t sit right with me, so I wanted to assess the situation on my own terms. I don’t trust the warlord or his legion. But that’s a discussion for another time.”
“I came back and heard from Wendell about the new contract, how it might have been connected to those occurrences of the past several weeks. Neither he nor Cassian seemed concerned, but I had a feeling so I went looking. They pointed me to the ship, and I put together a few of the threads I think you all were following. When I was sure it was men from out of the city, particularly from the southern ports, I began to get worried. My work has made me more than aware of certain factions, even those from other cities, in bounties that took me beyond the reaches of the Alerian Kingdom. Some of those from the south could have certainly arrived on a ship like the one at dock.”
“Other factions?” Kriv asked, narrowing his eyes. “Why not mention this before?”
“There are several, but I never believed they would try to extend this far north. I figured any criminal elements here would be local, which is your speciality,” Heath said. “But the arrival of the ship and the scant details Wendell had shared made me second guess my assumptions. The one I am most worried about is a group called the Red Spiral, who are known for their bloody, ruthless murders. As unlikely as it might seem, if these murders are the work of the Red Spiral, or another like them, then anyone looking into it would be in for a fight. Looked like even if my assumption was wrong, I still showed up at the right time.”
Heath turned to Mars, tapping his hardened leather armor interwoven with metal studs. “This is the old armor I used when I started bounty hunting, something that brought a little more notoriety. I tend to prefer the safety anonymity provides now, but something like this sometimes makes a brave man reconsider doing something foolish, even for a second. So it did its job this evening.”
Kriv interjected, still watching Heath carefully. “You said your assumption was wrong, you don’t think these men are working with this Red Spiral group? Why so quick to dismiss that option?”
“They’re nobles, members of high society. Their family name, along with what you said about speaking with them all points to noble birth, or at least some place within the upper echelons of society.” Heath shook his head. “No, the Red Spiral despises the nobility. They crave chaos and anarchy, though they aren’t foolish enough to pursue it at every turn. They are most known in the southern republics for their frequent butcherings of prominent members of high society in their campaigns of chaos. So if these men are involved with a group such as that, they must have done something incredible to earn their trust. If that is the case, I agree it is important to follow and confirm. If not, it might be just as important to mark off the list.”
The black scaled dragonborn studied him carefully, then nodded. “Their presence in the city is suspicious, and their actions more so. Even if they are not directly responsible for these murders, I am convinced they are somehow connected. They are in Aleria for some reason they refused to divulge, and I for one want to know what it is.”
Heath walked into the low light of the Alerian streets later that evening, feeling the heavy weight pulling on him as he returned to the Black Crow tavern. He was not confident that the guild members had believed him, but they seemed to have believed enough, and they still trusted him. Their suspicion of the brothers was more than their careful trust of him. He could use that, especially if he wanted to keep them all safe. If they pulled too much on the threads they were clutching, they might end up bloodied, whether it was connected to the murders or not.
There was no way the murders were connected to Miguel and Rodrigo. He needed to make sure there was no reason for anyone else to suspect them. They needed an alibi, or the true killers needed to be revealed. It couldn’t be them. Miguel was too honorable, and Rodrigo too careful. No possible way that the murders could be connected to them. Just an unfortunate coincidence that everything was happening over the week where they arrived in Aleria.
Heath felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as he walked, trying to convince himself of the dark reality that threatened to overwhelm him. He needed to speak to Rodrigo. He needed to know for sure, especially after the events of the night. He could have Mo send a message to their inn, he would be able to get word to them secretly without anything finding out.
The following evening, after a day spent around the guildhall going over details of Kriv’s investigations with Svrcina and Mars, as well as sharing bits of what he had seen while out of the city, Heath walked to a small, obscure alehouse near the edges of the district surrounding the Market. He was more than uncomfortable with all the sneaking around, having to go behind the backs of people who trusted him. He was good at it, and he knew it was important, but it didn’t make going back to skulking around in the shadows heading to secret meetings any less abhorrent in his mind. He had left it all behind, but yet it came back, unable to be so easily forgotten.
As Heath walked towards the tavern, he glanced up and down the street, watching the faces as they passed. A quiet hiss cut through the otherwise steady din of the crowd, causing him to hesitate and glance to the side. A hunched, hooded figure stood in the alley, barely glowing eyes fixed on him. Heath froze, but the figure motioned him over, body language urgent. Heath glanced around and moved into the shadows of the alley.
Stepping out of sight of the street, Kriv pulled back his hood. “I’m glad I caught you.”
“Why, what’s going on?” Heath asked, hoping Kriv didn’t pick up on his surprise. Had he been following Heath? How much did he know?
The dragonborn glanced from side to side. “I’ve been following the Motovani, the younger one. The one that tried to attack us last night.”
“He’s here?” Heath asked, allowing himself a glance to either side, as though suddenly alert to danger.
“I’m not sure,” Kriv whispered. “I’ve been shadowing him most of the day. Lost him a couple times, but haven’t seen anything suspicious yet. I’ve got that girl from the Sparrows, Elyean, keeping an eye on the other one. But I followed my mark to the Market, until he turned in this direction and I lost him. Busy streets and he moves well, better than a stuffy nobleman should.”
“Do you want help looking for him?”
“No, no, I just saw you and wanted you to know to be careful. Your face was covered last night, but regardless… What are you doing here anyway?”
“Just grabbing a drink,” Heath said, hiding his relief. “Spent the day going over details with Svrcina and Mars back at the hall. Thanks for the warning, but I can take care of myself.”
Kriv nodded absentmindedly, his expression worried. “I don’t know what this all means, but I want us all to be safe. These men are dangerous, so watch your back.”
Heath nodded. Kriv held his gaze for a moment longer, then turned and vanished deeper into the alley. Heath breathed out, composing himself before he stepped back into the street and moved towards the alehouse.
How much longer could his luck last? Kriv spotted him walking to the tavern and happened to have lost Rodrigo? What if he hadn’t? What if he had waited, or seen them both enter the alehouse? He was getting sloppy, he should have checked. The stakes for everyone were too high.
Heath walked into the low lit interior, taking a booth on the far side of the alehouse without looking at the other patrons. He motioned for two drinks at the serving girl walking between tables, then set his back against the wall, watching towards the door. A few minutes later the drinks were brought, and Heath paid silently, waving the girl away. Another moment passed before a hooded figure walked across the room and sat opposite the grizzled archer.
“I wondered if I was going to hear from you,” Rodrigo de Motovani said, pushing back his hood and shaking his hair from his face. His expression was cold, the bulwark against the emotions Heath knew the younger man felt so strongly.
“You might have gone unnoticed if you weren’t so rash,” Heath said evenly, studying the face of his old friend. A new scar traced the side of Rodrigo’s cheek, but he was otherwise unchanged. His long, curly dark hair was messy, obviously less preoccupied by his appearance than his brother.
“I saw your friend,” Rodrigo said casually as he took a drink. “The scaly one. Followed me around most of the day. Luckily I was able to lose him before coming here. That might have been awkward.”
“Then you’re smarter than you used to be,” Heath replied. “We might have had a repeat of last night where someone doesn’t walk away.”
“Indeed,” Rodrigo said, his dark eyes boring into Heath. The white wrappings of a bandage peeked from beneath his glove, just above the forearm where Heath’s arrow had struck him the night before. Rodrigo didn’t seem to speak with malice or anger, though his words were steady and cold.
Heath offered no acknowledgement or apology. He lowered his voice so that only Rodrigo could make out his words. “I don’t know why you and your brother are here. I don’t know what happened to make you so ready to fight in the street last night. But those men and women are part of an organization that holds enough authority in this city that you can’t simply make them disappear because they’re inconvenient or disrespected you. Your father’s reach can’t protect you here.”
Rodrigo’s jaw clenched, and Heath saw a flash of the hot, fiery emotion that Rodrigo had been known for, but the man held his tongue.
“They think that the two of you are somehow connected to a series of murders in the city,” Heath continued. “I know Miguel would never be party to something so trivial, and I would think you aren’t stupid enough to leave a trail. Whatever it is, you need to both be beyond suspicion. Make sure there are no connections, real or otherwise.”
Rodrigo said nothing, but his eyes spoke of silent acknowledgement. That was all that Heath needed to say on the subject.
“Now why are you here?” Heath asked, not changing his posture. His muscles flexed automatically, tension filling his body. Sitting opposite Rodrigo, after so many years, was something neither of them had ever expected. When they had parted ways, the falling out had been the last resort before spilling blood and more collateral damage. Sitting there, pretending that their past was behind them, was almost unbearable. “Why would the two sons of Uzo de Motovani journey hundreds of miles to Aleria, and so close to the anniversary celebration of the end of the War of Vengeance? You must know the people here still hold little love for you southerners.”
Rodrigo snorted. “The people… You must be a fool to think we care what they think of us.”
“You’d be a fool to forget what these people are capable of doing to those that they hate.”
“Even if their hate is misplaced?” Rodrigo stared at Heath, his eyes holding condemnation. Heath averted his gaze and said nothing. Rodrigo sighed. “We are here under the guise of expanding peaceful diplomatic ties between my father’s trade empire and the noble families of Aleria. We kept ourselves separated enough during the War, and now offer trade to the families who might not hold the same old grudges based on borders. Miguel is poised to take his place as the head of the family soon, and he needs to begin building his reputation beyond just the southern republics and city-states. I am accompanying him to demonstrate a unified front for the family, and he has come to expand trade, make deals, and establish a presence in the north.”
“You said ‘under the guise,’ so there is more?”
Rodrigo nodded. “The value of Miguel’s presence and necessity of trade contracts is real, though our true purpose for being here is much more important. We are hunting for signs of the Marauders, a band of raiders and pirates from the coast. These are not simple ravagers, we suspect that these are the scattered remnants of the Warden’s forces that have banded back together.” Heath felt his blood run cold, and Rodrigo noticed the reaction. “You know we broke the Warden years ago and scattered his forces, but the rumors of raiders up and down the coast that have reached my ears in Bordova in recent months are all too familiar. We sent ships out to scout, but only one returned. I shared my concerns with Miguel, and together we formulated our plan. We sent more scouts up the coast to learn as much as possible while the two of us would travel farther north to determine if their influence had reached inland.”
Heath leaned forward, his drink forgotten. “What have you learned? And does your father know of this?”
Rodrigo shook his head. “He has been wanting Miguel to act like his heir for some time, so as far as the family knows, we are here for trade purposes. We haven’t discovered anything yet, but while Miguel does his noble-son-building-ties mummery, I am digging and investigating on my own. Or I would be if I didn’t have hungry dragonborn sniffing at my heels wherever I go.” Heath ignored the jabe. “I sent riders out this morning, both to the coast and south to home to bring back any news. If these Marauders are the successors of the Warden, and they have their eyes on ranging farther inland, we need to know. The threat they could pose is bigger than any of us might recognize until it is too late.”
“And bigger than any personal feud,” Heath added. Rodrigo nodded and took a long drink from his tankard. The man seemed genuinely worried, which Heath could hardly blame him for. His mind ran through memories, faded but still there. He shook his head.
“I’ll do what I can to help.” Heath said. Rodrigo looked up, a shadow of surprise crossing his features. “Don’t do anything to make them think you’re connected to these murders, and they’ll find suitable answers soon enough. The mercenaries might be foolhardy at times, but if they’re utilized correctly, they might be able to play a useful role if these Marauders are as dangerous as you say they could be. But on the condition that they remain completely separate. Nothing of our past or my direct involvement comes to light unless absolutely necessary. They trust me, and don’t trust you. All they need is to no longer suspect you. I don’t need them suspecting me as well. There are too many questions that would need to be answered, too many lies that I’ve told, and they would only lead to more questions. Better for them not to know, it would threaten to cast too much suspicion on the task at hand. They aren’t a danger, and you won’t present one to them.” He added a cold finality to the statement, holding Rodrigo’s gaze until the younger man nodded.
“We’ll keep our distance,” Heath said, leaning back in his seat, “and have to play our hand very carefully. I can start to turn some investigations towards the Marauders, find out if there has been any word of them in the city. We’re already looking into new players in town, perhaps they are one of the interested parties.”
Rodrigo nodded, downing the last of his drink. “Then I shall be dutiful in making sure not to appear as a suspect in a series of strange, unsolved murders.” He stood, pulling his hood up. He turned to leave, then paused. “It was a surprise to see you. Both last night and today. I don’t think it was an unpleasant one.” And he walked away.
After pacing the lonely streets of the city, Heath returned to the upper room in the Black Crow Tavern. He was exhausted, but the tension in his body from meeting with Rodrigo had only been replaced by news of the Marauders. As he lay back in his bed staring up at the ceiling, his mind rebelled against sleep and drifted through memories nearly a decade old.