मुख्य Blood of Elves
Blood of ElvesAndrzej Sapkowski [Sapkowski, Andrzej]
For over a century, humans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over, and now the races are fighting once again. The only good elf, it seems, is a dead elf. Geralt of Rivia, the cunning assassin known as The Witcher, has been waiting for the birth of a prophesied child. This child has the power to change the world - for good, or for evil. As the threat of war hangs over the land and the child is hunted for her extraordinary powers, it will become Geralt's responsibility to protect them all - and the Witcher never accepts defeat.
पुस्तक ऑनलाइन पढ़ें
You may be interested in
Most frequently terms
For over a century, humans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over, and now the races are fighting once again. The only good elf, it seems, is a dead elf. Geralt of Rivia, the cunning assassin known as The Witcher, has been waiting for the birth of a prophesied child. This child has the power to change the world - for good, or for evil. As the threat of war hangs over the land and the child is hunted for her extraordinary powers, it will become Geralt's responsibility to protect them all - and the Witcher never accepts defeat. OceanofPDF.com 2 Andrzej Sapkowski Blood of elves The Witcher: 3 ePub r1.0 Watcher 25.03.17 3 Original title: Krew elfów Andrzej Sapkowski, 1994 Translator: Danusia Stok Cover design: Watcher Digital editor: Watcher ePub base r1.2 4 CHAPTER ONE Verily I say unto you, the era of the sword and axe is nigh, the era of the wolf’s blizzard. The Time of the White Chill and the White Light is nigh, the Time of Madness and the Time of Contempt: Tedd Deireádh, the Time of End. The world will die amidst frost and be reborn with the new sun. It will be reborn of the Elder Blood, of Hen Ichaer, of the seed that has been sown. A seed which will not sprout but will burst into flame. Ess’tuath esse! Thus it shall be! Watch for the signs! What signs these shall be, I say unto you: first the earth will flow with the blood of Aen Seidhe, the Blood of Elves… Aen Ithlinnespeath, Ithlinne Aegli aep Aevenien’s prophecy The town was in flames. The narrow streets leading to the moat and the first terrace belched smoke and embers, flames devouring the densely clustered thatched houses and licking at the castle walls. From the west, from the harbour gate, the screams and clamour of vicious battle and the dull blows of a battering ram smashing against the walls grew ever louder. Their attackers had surrounded them unexpectedly, shattering the barricades which had been held by no more than a few soldiers, a handful of townsmen carrying halberds and some crossbowmen from the guild. Their horses, decked out in flowing black caparisons, flew over the barricades like spectres, their riders’ bright, glistening blades sowing death amongst the fleeing defenders. Ciri felt the knight who carried her before him on his saddle abruptly spur his horse. She heard his cry. “Hold on,” he shouted. “Hold on!” Other knights wearing the colours of Cintra overtook them, sparring, even in full flight, with the Nilfgaardians. Ciri caught a glimpse of the skirmish from the corner of her eye – the crazed swirl of blue-gold and black cloaks amidst the clash of steel, the clatter of blades against shields, the neighing of horses— Shouts. No, not shouts. Screams. “Hold on!” Fear. With every jolt, every jerk, every leap of the horse pain shot through 5 her hands as she clutched at the reins. Her legs contracted painfully, unable to find support, her eyes watered from the smoke. The arm around her suffocated her, choking her, the force compressing her ribs. All around her screaming such as she had never before heard grew louder. What must one do to a man to make him scream so? Fear. Overpowering, paralysing, choking fear. Again the clash of iron, the grunts and snorts of the horses. The houses whirled around her and suddenly she could see windows belching fire where a moment before there’d been nothing but a muddy little street strewn with corpses and cluttered with the abandoned possessions of the fleeing population. All at once the knight at her back was wracked by a strange wheezing cough. Blood spurted over the hands grasping the reins. More screams. Arrows whistled past. A fall, a shock, painful bruising against armour. Hooves pounded past her, a horse’s belly and a frayed girth flashing by above her head, then another horse’s belly and a flowing black caparison. Grunts of exertion, like a lumberjack’s when chopping wood. But this isn’t wood; it’s iron against iron. A shout, muffled and dull, and something huge and black collapsed into the mud next to her with a splash, spurting blood. An armoured foot quivered, thrashed, goring the earth with an enormous spur. A jerk. Some force plucked her up, pulled her onto another saddle. Hold on! Again the bone-shaking speed, the mad gallop. Arms and legs desperately searching for support. The horse rears. Hold on!… There is no support. There is no… There is no… There is blood. The horse falls. It’s impossible to jump aside, no way to break free, to escape the tight embrace of these chainmailclad arms. There is no way to avoid the blood pouring onto her head and over her shoulders. A jolt, the squelch of mud, a violent collision with the ground, horrifically still after the furious ride. The horse’s harrowing wheezes and squeals as it tries to regain its feet. The pounding of horseshoes, fetlocks and hooves flashing past. Black caparisons and cloaks. Shouting. The street is on fire, a roaring red wall of flame. Silhouetted before it, a rider towers over the flaming roofs, enormous. His black-caparisoned horse prances, tosses its head, neighs. The rider stares down at her. Ciri sees his eyes gleaming through the slit in his huge helmet, framed by a bird of prey’s wings. She sees the fire reflected in the broad blade of the sword held in his lowered hand. The rider looks at her. Ciri is unable to move. The dead man’s motionless 6 arms wrapped around her waist hold her down. She is locked in place by something heavy and wet with blood, something which is lying across her thigh, pinning her to the ground. And she is frozen in fear: a terrible fear which turns her entrails inside out, which deafens Ciri to the screams of the wounded horse, the roar of the blaze, the cries of dying people and the pounding drums. The only thing which exists, which counts, which still has any meaning, is fear. Fear embodied in the figure of a black knight wearing a helmet decorated with feathers frozen against the wall of raging, red flames. The rider spurs his horse, the wings on his helmet fluttering as the bird of prey takes to flight, launching itself to attack its helpless victim, paralysed with fear. The bird – or maybe the knight – screeches terrifyingly, cruelly, triumphantly. A black horse, black armour, a black flowing cloak, and behind this – flames. A sea of flames. Fear. The bird shrieks. The wings beat, feathers slap against her face. Fear! Help! Why doesn’t anyone help me? Alone, weak, helpless – I can’t move, can’t force a sound from my constricted throat. Why does no one come to help me? I’m terrified! Eyes blaze through the slit in the huge winged helmet. The black cloak veils everything— “Ciri!” She woke, numb and drenched in sweat, with her scream – the scream which had woken her – still hanging in the air, still vibrating somewhere within her, beneath her breast-bone and burning against her parched throat. Her hands ached, clenched around the blanket; her back ached… “Ciri. Calm down.” The night was dark and windy, the crowns of the surrounding pine trees rustling steadily and melodiously, their limbs and trunks creaking in the wind. There was no malevolent fire, no screams, only this gentle lullaby. Beside her the campfire flickered with light and warmth, its reflected flames glowing from harness buckles, gleaming red in the leather-wrapped and iron-banded hilt of a sword leaning against a saddle on the ground. There was no other fire and no other iron. The hand against her cheek smelled of leather and ashes. Not of blood. “Geralt—” “It was just a dream. A bad dream.” 7 Ciri shuddered violently, curling her arms and legs up tight. A dream. Just a dream. The campfire had already died down; the birch logs were red and luminous, occasionally crackling, giving off tiny spurts of blue flame which illuminated the white hair and sharp profile of the man wrapping a blanket and sheepskin around her. “Geralt, I—” “I’m right here. Sleep, Ciri. You have to rest. We’ve still a long way ahead of us.” I can hear music, she thought suddenly. Amidst the rustling of the trees… there’s music. Lute music. And voices. The Princess of Cintra… A child of destiny… A child of Elder Blood, the blood of elves. Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, and his destiny. No, no, that’s a legend. A poet’s invention. The princess is dead. She was killed in the town streets while trying to escape… Hold on… !Hold… “Geralt?” “What, Ciri?” “What did he do to me? What happened? What did he… do to me?” “Who?” “The knight… The black knight with feathers on his helmet… I can’t remember anything. He shouted… and looked at me. I can’t remember what happened. Only that I was frightened… I was so frightened…” The man leaned over her, the flame of the campfire sparkling in his eyes. They were strange eyes. Very strange. Ciri had been frightened of them, she hadn’t liked meeting his gaze. But that had been a long time ago. A very long time ago. “I can’t remember anything,” she whispered, searching for his hand, as tough and coarse as raw wood. “The black knight—” “It was a dream. Sleep peacefully. It won’t come back.” Ciri had heard such reassurances in the past. They had been repeated to her endlessly; many, many times she had been offered comforting words when her screams had woken her during the night. But this time it was different. Now she believed it. Because it was Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, the Witcher, who said it. The man who was her destiny. The one for whom she was destined. Geralt the Witcher, who had found her surrounded by war, death and despair, who had taken her with him and promised they would never part. She fell asleep holding tight to his hand. 8 The bard finished the song. Tilting his head a little he repeated the ballad’s refrain on his lute, delicately, softly, a single tone higher than the apprentice accompanying him. No one said a word. Nothing but the subsiding music and the whispering leaves and squeaking boughs of the enormous oak could be heard. Then, all of a sudden, a goat tethered to one of the carts which circled the ancient tree bleated lengthily. At that moment, as if given a signal, one of the men seated in the large semi-circular audience stood up. Throwing his cobalt blue cloak with gold braid trim back over his shoulder, he gave a stiff, dignified bow. “Thank you, Master Dandilion,” he said, his voice resonant without being loud. “Allow me, Radcliffe of Oxenfurt, Master of the Arcana, to express what I am sure is the opinion of everyone here present and utter words of gratitude and appreciation for your fine art and skill.” The wizard ran his gaze over those assembled – an audience of well over a hundred people – seated on the ground, on carts, or standing in a tight semicircle facing the foot of the oak. They nodded and whispered amongst themselves. Several people began to applaud while others greeted the singer with upraised hands. Women, touched by the music, sniffed and wiped their eyes on whatever came to hand, which differed according to their standing, profession and wealth: peasant women used their forearms or the backs of their hands, merchants’ wives dabbed their eyes with linen handkerchiefs while elves and noblewomen used kerchiefs of the finest tight-woven cotton, and Baron Vilibert’s three daughters, who had, along with the rest of his retinue, halted their falcon hunt to attend the famous troubadour’s performance, blew their noses loudly and sonorously into elegant mouldgreen cashmere scarves. “It would not be an exaggeration to say,” continued the wizard, “that you have moved us deeply, Master Dandilion. You have prompted us to reflection and thought; you have stirred our hearts. Allow me to express our gratitude, and our respect.” The troubadour stood and took a bow, sweeping the heron feather pinned to his fashionable hat across his knees. His apprentice broke off his playing, grinned and bowed too, until Dandilion glared at him sternly and snapped something under his breath. The boy lowered his head and returned to softly strumming his lute strings. The assembly stirred to life. The merchants travelling in the caravan whispered amongst themselves and then rolled a sizable cask of beer out to the foot of the oak tree. Wizard Radcliffe lost himself in quiet conversation 9 with Baron Vilibert. Having blown their noses, the baron’s daughters gazed at Dandilion in adoration – which went entirely unnoticed by the bard, engrossed as he was in smiling, winking and flashing his teeth at a haughty, silent group of roving elves, and at one of them in particular: a dark-haired, large-eyed beauty sporting a tiny ermine cap. Dandilion had rivals for her attention – the elf, with her huge eyes and beautiful toque hat, had caught his audience’s interest as well, and a number of knights, students and goliards were paying court to her with their eyes. The elf clearly enjoyed the attention, picking at the lace cuffs of her chemise and fluttering her eyelashes, but the group of elves with her surrounded her on all sides, not bothering to hide their antipathy towards her admirers. The glade beneath Bleobheris, the great oak, was a place of frequent rallies, a well-known travellers’ resting place and meeting ground for wanderers, and was famous for its tolerance and openness. The druids protecting the ancient tree called it the Seat of Friendship and willingly welcomed all comers. But even during an event as exceptional as the worldfamous troubadour’s just-concluded performance the travellers kept to themselves, remaining in clearly delineated groups. Elves stayed with elves. Dwarfish craftsmen gathered with their kin, who were often hired to protect the merchant caravans and were armed to the teeth. Their groups tolerated at best the gnome miners and halfling farmers who camped beside them. All non-humans were uniformly distant towards humans. The humans repaid in kind, but were not seen to mix amongst themselves either. Nobility looked down on the merchants and travelling salesmen with open scorn, while soldiers and mercenaries distanced themselves from shepherds and their reeking sheepskins. The few wizards and their disciples kept themselves entirely apart from the others, and bestowed their arrogance on everyone in equal parts. A tight-knit, dark and silent group of peasants lurked in the background. Resembling a forest with their rakes, pitchforks and flails poking above their heads, they were ignored by all and sundry. The exception, as ever, was the children. Freed from the constraints of silence which had been enforced during the bard’s performance, the children dashed into the woods with wild cries, and enthusiastically immersed themselves in a game whose rules were incomprehensible to all those who had bidden farewell to the happy years of childhood. Children of elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes, half-elves, quarter-elves and toddlers of mysterious provenance neither knew nor recognised racial or social divisions. At least, not yet. 10 “Indeed!” shouted one of the knights present in the glade, who was as thin as a beanpole and wearing a red and black tunic emblazoned with three lions passant. “The wizard speaks the truth! The ballads were beautiful. Upon my word, honourable Dandilion, if you ever pass near Baldhorn, my lord’s castle, stop by without a moment’s hesitation. You will be welcomed like a prince– what am I saying? Welcomed like King Vizimir himself! I swear on my sword, I have heard many a minstrel, but none even came close to being your equal, master. Accept the respect and tributes those of us born to knighthood, and those of us appointed to the position, pay to your skills!” Flawlessly sensing the opportune moment, the troubadour winked at his apprentice. The boy set his lute aside and picked up a little casket which served as a collection box for the audience’s more measurable expressions of appreciation. He hesitated, ran his eyes over the crowd, then replaced the little casket and grabbed a large bucket standing nearby. Master Dandilion bestowed an approving smile on the young man for his prudence. “Master!” shouted a sizeable woman sitting on a cart, the sides of which were painted with a sign for “Vera Loewenhaupt and Sons,” and which was full of wickerwork. Her sons, nowhere to be seen, were no doubt busy wasting away their mother’s hard-earned fortune. “Master Dandilion, what is this? Are you going to leave us in suspense? That can’t be the end of your ballad? Sing to us of what happened next!” “Songs and ballads” – the musician bowed – “never end, dear lady, because poetry is eternal and immortal, it knows no beginning, it knows no end—” “But what happened next?” The tradeswoman didn’t give up, generously rattling coins into the bucket Dandilion’s apprentice held out to her. “At least tell us about it, even if you have no wish to sing of it. Your songs mention no names, but we know the witcher you sing of is no other than the famous Geralt of Rivia, and the enchantress for whom he burns with love is the equally famous Yennefer. And the Child Surprise, destined for the witcher and sworn to him from birth, is Cirilla, the unfortunate Princess of Cintra, the town destroyed by the Invaders. Am I right?” Dandilion smiled, remaining enigmatic and aloof. “I sing of universal matters, my dear, generous lady,” he stated. “Of emotions which anyone can experience. Not about specific people.” “Oh, come on!” yelled a voice from the crowd. “Everyone knows those songs are about Geralt the Witcher!” “Yes, yes!” squealed Baron Vilibert’s daughters in chorus, drying their 11 sodden scarves. “Sing on, Master Dandilion! What happened next? Did the witcher and Yennefer the Enchantress find each other in the end? And did they love each other? Were they happy? We want to know!” “Enough!” roared the dwarf leader with a growl in his throat, shaking his mighty waist-length, red beard. “It’s crap – all these princesses, sorceresses, destiny, love and women’s fanciful tales. If you’ll pardon the expression, great poet, it’s all lies, just a poetic invention to make the story prettier and more touching. But of the deeds of war – the massacre and plunder of Cintra, the battles of Marnadal and Sodden – you did sing that mightily, Dandilion! There’s no regrets in parting with silver for such a song, a joy to a warrior’s heart! And I, Sheldon Skaggs, declare there’s not an ounce of lies in what you say – and I can tell the lies from the truth because I was there at Sodden. I stood against the Nilfgaard invaders with an axe in my hand…” “I, Donimir of Troy,” shouted the thin knight with three lions passant blazoned across his tunic, “was at both battles of Sodden! But I did not see you there, sir dwarf!” “No doubt because you were looking after the supply train!” Sheldon Skaggs retorted. “While I was in the front line where things got hot!” “Mind your tongue, beardy!” said Donimir of Troy flushing, hitching up his sword belt. “And who you’re speaking to!” “Have a care yourself!” The dwarf whacked his palm against the axe wedged in his belt, turned to his companions and grinned. “Did you see him there? Frigging knight! See his coat of arms? Ha! Three lions on a shield? Two shitting and the third snarling!” “Peace, peace!” A grey-haired druid in a white cloak averted trouble with a sharp, authoritative voice. “This is not fitting, gentlemen! Not here, under Bleobheris’ crown, an oak older than all the disputes and quarrels of the world! And not in Poet Dandilion’s presence, from whose ballads we ought to learn of love, not contention.” “Quite so!” a short, fat priest with a face glistening with sweat seconded the druid. “You look but have no eyes, you listen but have deaf ears. Because divine love is not in you, you are like empty barrels—” “Speaking of barrels,” squeaked a long-nosed gnome from his cart, painted with a sign for “Iron hardware, manufacture and sale”, “roll another out, guildsmen! Poet Dandilion’s throat is surely dry – and ours too, from all these emotions!” “—Verily, like empty barrels, I tell ye!” The priest, determined not to be put off, drowned out the ironware gnome. “You have understood nothing of 12 Master Dandilion’s ballad, you have learned nothing! You did not see that these ballads speak of man’s fate, that we are no more than toys in the hands of the gods, our lands no more than their playground. The ballads about destiny portrayed the destinies of us all, and the legend of Geralt the Witcher and Princess Cirilla – although it is set against the true background of that war – is, after all, a mere metaphor, the creation of a poet’s imagination designed to help us—” “You’re talking rubbish, holy man!” hollered Vera Loewenhaupt from the heights of her cart. “What legend? What imaginative creation? You may not know him, but I know Geralt of Rivia. I saw him with my own eyes in Wyzima, when he broke the spell on King Foltest’s daughter. And I met him again later on the Merchants’ Trail, where, at Gildia’s request, he slew a ferocious griffin which was preying on the caravans and thus saved the lives of many good people. No. This is no legend or fairy-tale. It is the truth, the sincere truth, which Master Dandilion sang for us.” “I second that,” said a slender female warrior with her black hair smoothly brushed back and plaited into a thick braid. “I, Rayla of Lyria, also know Geralt the White Wolf, the famous slayer of monsters. And I’ve met the enchantress, Lady Yennefer, on several occasions – I used to visit Aedirn and her home town of Vengerberg. I don’t know anything about their being in love, though.” “But it has to be true,” the attractive elf in the ermine toque suddenly said in a melodious voice. “Such a beautiful ballad of love could not but be true.” “It could not!” Baron Vilibert’s daughters supported the elf and, as if on command, wiped their eyes on their scarves. “Not by any measure!” “Honourable wizard!” Vera Loewenhaupt turned to Radcliffe. “Were they in love or not? Surely you know what truly happened to them, Yennefer and the witcher. Disclose the secret!” “If the song says they were in love,” replied the wizard, “then that’s what happened, and their love will endure down the ages. Such is the power of poetry.” “It is said,” interrupted Baron Vilibert all of a sudden, “that Yennefer of Vengerberg was killed on Sodden Hill. Several enchantresses were killed there—” “That’s not true,” said Donimir of Troy. “Her name is not on the monument. I am from those parts and have often climbed Sodden Hill and read the names engraved on the monument. Three enchantresses died there: Triss Merigold, Lytta Neyd, known as Coral… hmm… and the name of the 13 third has slipped my mind…” The knight glanced at Wizard Radcliffe, who smiled wordlessly. “And this witcher,” Sheldon Skaggs suddenly called out, “this Geralt who loved Yennefer, has also bitten the dust, apparently. I heard he was killed somewhere in Transriver. He slew and slew monsters until he met his match. That’s how it goes: he who fights with the sword dies by the sword. Everyone comes across someone who will better them eventually, and is made to taste cold hard iron.” “I don’t believe it.” The slender warrior contorted her pale lips, spat vehemently on the ground and crossed her chainmail-clad arms with a crunch. “I don’t believe there is anyone to best Geralt of Rivia. I have seen this witcher handle a sword. His speed is simply inhuman—” “Well said,” threw in Wizard Radcliffe. “Inhuman. Witchers are mutated, so their reactions—” “I don’t understand you, magician.” The warrior twisted her lips even more nastily. “Your words are too learned. I know one thing: no swordsman I have ever seen can match Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf. And so I will not accept that he was defeated in battle as the dwarf claims.” “Every swordsman’s an arse when the enemy’s not sparse,” remarked Sheldon Skaggs sententiously. “As the elves say.” “Elves,” stated a tall, fair-haired representative of the Elder Race coldly, from his place beside the elf with the beautiful toque, “are not in the habit of using such vulgar language.” “No! No!” squealed Baron Vilibert’s daughters from behind their green scarves. “Geralt the Witcher can’t have been killed! The witcher found Ciri, the child destined for him, and then the Enchantress Yennefer, and all three lived happily ever after! Isn’t that true, Master Dandilion?” “’Twas a ballad, my noble young ladies,” said the beer-parched gnome, manufacturer of ironwares, with a yawn. “Why look for truth in a ballad? Truth is one thing, poetry another. Let’s take this – what was her name? – Ciri? The famous Child Surprise. Master Dandilion trumped that up for sure. I’ve been to Cintra many a time and the king and queen lived in a childless home, with no daughter, no son—” “Liar!” shouted a red-haired man in a sealskin jacket, a checked kerchief bound around his forehead. “Queen Calanthe, the Lioness of Cintra, had a daughter called Pavetta. She died, together with her husband, in a tempest which struck out at sea, and the depths swallowed them both.” “So you see for yourselves I’m not making this up!” The ironware gnome 14 called everyone to be his witnesses. “The Princess of Cintra was called Pavetta, not Ciri.” “Cirilla, known as Ciri, was the daughter of this drowned Pavetta,” explained the red-haired man. “Calanthe’s granddaughter. She was not the princess herself, but the daughter of the Princess of Cintra. She was the Child Surprise destined for the witcher, the man to whom – even before she was born – the queen had sworn to hand her granddaughter over, just as Master Dandilion has sung. But the witcher could neither find her nor collect her. And here our poet has missed the truth.” “Oh yes, he’s missed the truth indeed,” butted in a sinewy young man who, judging by his clothes, was a journeyman on his travels prior to crafting his masterpiece and passing his master’s exams. “The witcher’s destiny bypassed him: Cirilla was killed during the siege of Cintra. Before throwing herself from the tower, Queen Calanthe killed the princess’s daughter with her own hand, to prevent her from falling into the Nilfgaardians’ claws alive.” “It wasn’t like that. Not like that at all!” objected the red-haired man. “The princess’s daughter was killed during the massacre while trying to escape from the town.” “One way or another,” shouted Ironware, “the witcher didn’t find Cirilla! The poet lied!” “But lied beautifully,” said the elf in the toque, snuggling up to the tall, fair-haired elf. “It’s not a question of poetry but of facts!” shouted the journeyman. “I tell you, the princess’s daughter died by her grandmother’s hand. Anyone who’s been to Cintra can confirm that!” “And I say she was killed in the streets trying to escape,” declared the redhaired man. “I know because although I’m not from Cintra I served in the Earl of Skellige’s troop supporting Cintra during the war. As everyone knows, Eist Tuirseach, the King of Cintra, comes from the Skellige Isles. He was the earl’s uncle. I fought in the earl’s troop at Marnadal and Cintra and later, after the defeat, at Sodden—” “Yet another veteran,” Sheldon Skaggs snarled to the dwarves crowded around him. “All heroes and warriors. Hey, folks! Is there at least one of you out there who didn’t fight at Marnadal or Sodden?” “That dig is out of place, Skaggs,” the tall elf reproached him, putting his arm around the beauty wearing the toque in a way intended to dispel any lingering doubts amongst her admirers. “Don’t imagine you were the only one to fight at Sodden. I took part in the battle as well.” 15 “On whose side, I wonder,” Baron Vilibert said to Radcliffe in a highly audible whisper which the elf ignored entirely. “As everyone knows,” he continued, sparing neither the baron nor the wizard so much as a glance, “over a hundred thousand warriors stood on the field during the second battle of Sodden Hill, and of those at least thirty thousand were maimed or killed. Master Dandilion should be thanked for immortalising this famous, terrible battle in one of his ballads. In both the lyrics and melody of his work I heard not an exaltation but a warning. So I repeat: offer praise and everlasting renown to this poet for his ballad, which may, perhaps, prevent a tragedy as horrific as this cruel and unnecessary war from occurring in the future.” “Indeed,” said Baron Vilibert, looking defiantly at the elf. “You have read some very interesting things into this ballad, honoured sir. An unnecessary war, you say? You’d like to avoid such a tragedy in the future, would you? Are we to understand that if the Nilfgaardians were to attack us again you would advise that we capitulate? Humbly accept the Nilfgaardian yoke?” “Life is a priceless gift and should be protected,” the elf replied coldly. “Nothing justifies wide-scale slaughter and sacrifice of life, which is what the battles at Sodden were – both the battle lost and the battle won. Both of them cost the humans thousands of lives. And with them, you lost unimaginable potential—” “Elven prattle!” snarled Sheldon Skaggs. “Dim-witted rubbish! It was the price that had to be paid to allow others to live decently, in peace, instead of being chained, blinded, whipped and forced to work in salt and sulphur mines. Those who died a heroic death, those who will now, thanks to Dandilion, live on forever in our memories, taught us to defend our own homes. Sing your ballads, Dandilion, sing them to everyone. Your lesson won’t go to waste, and it’ll come in handy, you’ll see! Because, mark my words, Nilfgaard will attack us again. If not today, then tomorrow! They’re licking their wounds now, recovering, but the day when we’ll see their black cloaks and feathered helmets again is growing ever nearer!” “What do they want from us?” yelled Vera Loewenhaupt. “Why are they bent on persecuting us? Why don’t they leave us in peace, leave us to our lives and work? What do the Nilfgaardians want?” “They want our blood!” howled Baron Vilibert. “And our land!” someone cried from the crowd of peasants. “And our women!” chimed in Sheldon Skaggs, with a ferocious glower. Several people started to laugh – as quietly and furtively as they could. 16 Even though the idea that anyone other than another dwarf would desire one of the exceptionally unattractive dwarf-women was highly amusing, it was not a safe subject for teasing or jests – especially not in the presence of the short, stocky, bearded individuals whose axes and short-swords had an ugly habit of leaping from their belts and into their hands at incredible speed. And the dwarves, for some unknown reason, were entirely convinced that the rest of the world was lecherously lying in wait for their wives and daughters, and were extremely touchy about it. “This had to happen at some point,” the grey-haired druid declared suddenly. “This had to happen. We forgot that we are not the only ones in this world, that the whole of creation does not revolve around us. Like stupid, fat, lazy minnows in a slimy pond we chose not to accept the existence of pike. We allowed our world, like the pond, to become slimy, boggy and sluggish. Look around you – there is crime and sin everywhere, greed, the pursuit of profit, quarrels and disagreements are rife. Our traditions are disappearing, respect for our values is fading. Instead of living according to Nature we have begun to destroy it. And what have we got for it? The air is poisoned by the stink of smelting furnaces, the rivers and brooks are tainted by slaughter houses and tanneries, forests are being cut down without a thought… Ha – just look! – even on the living bark of sacred Bleobheris, there just above the poet’s head, there’s a foul phrase carved out with a knife – and it’s misspelled at that – by a stupid, illiterate vandal. Why are you surprised? It had to end badly—” “Yes, yes!” the fat priest joined in. “Come to your senses, you sinners, while there is still time, because the anger and vengeance of the gods hangs over you! Remember Ithlin’s oracle, the prophetic words describing the punishment of the gods reserved for a tribe poisoned by crime! ‘The Time of Contempt will come, when the tree will lose its leaves, the bud will wither, the fruit will rot, the seed turn bitter and the river valleys will run with ice instead of water. The White Chill will come, and after it the White Light, and the world will perish beneath blizzards.’ Thus spoke Seeress Ithlin! And before this comes to pass there will be visible signs, plagues will ravish the earth – Remember! – the Nilfgaard are our punishment from the gods! They are the whip with which the Immortals will lash you sinners, so that you may —” “Shut up, you sanctimonious old man!” roared Sheldon Skaggs, stamping his heavy boots. “Your superstitious rot makes me sick! My guts are churning —” 17 “Careful, Sheldon.” The tall elf cut him short with a smile. “Don’t mock another’s religion. It is not pleasant, polite or… safe.” “I’m not mocking anything,” protested the dwarf. “I don’t doubt the existence of the gods, but it annoys me when someone drags them into earthly matters and tries to pull the wool over my eyes using the prophecies of some crazy elf. The Nilfgaardians are the instrument of the gods? Rubbish! Search back through your memories to the past, to the days of Dezmod, Radowid and Sambuk, to the days of Abrad, the Old Oak! You may not remember them, because your lives are so very short – you’re like Mayflies – but I remember, and I’ll tell you what it was like in these lands just after you climbed from your boats on the Yaruga Estuary and the Pontar Delta onto the beach. Three kingdoms sprang from the four ships which beached on those shores; the stronger groups absorbed the weaker and so grew, strengthening their positions. They invaded others’ territories, conquered them, and their kingdoms expanded, becoming ever larger and more powerful. And now the Nilfgaardians are doing the same, because theirs is a strong and united, disciplined and tightly knit country. And unless you close ranks in the same way, Nilfgaard will swallow you as a pike does a minnow – just as this wise druid said!” “Let them just try!” Donimir of Troy puffed out his lion-emblazoned chest and shook his sword in its scabbard. “We beat them hollow on Sodden Hill, and we can do it again!” “You’re very cocksure,” snarled Sheldon Skaggs. “You’ve evidently forgotten, sir knight, that before the battle of Sodden Hill, the Nilfgaard had advanced across your lands like an iron roller, strewing the land between Marnadal and Transriver with the corpses of many a gallant fellow like yourself. And it wasn’t loud-mouthed smart-arses like you who stopped the Nilfgaardians, but the united strengths of Temeria, Redania, Aedirn and Kaedwen. Concord and unity, that’s what stopped them!” “Not just that,” remarked Radcliffe in a cold, resonant voice. “Not just that, Master Skaggs.” The dwarf hawked loudly, blew his nose, shuffled his feet then bowed a little to the wizard. “No one is denying the contribution of your fellowship,” he said. “Shame on he who does not acknowledge the heroism of the brotherhood of wizards on Sodden Hill. They stood their ground bravely, shed blood for the common cause, and contributed most eminently to our victory. Dandilion did not forget them in his ballad, and nor shall we. But note that these wizards stood united 18 and loyal on the Hill, and accepted the leadership of Vilgefortz of Roggeveen just as we, the warriors of the Four Kingdoms, acknowledged the command of Vizimir of Redania. It’s just a pity this solidarity and concord only lasted for the duration of the war, because, with peace, here we are divided again. Vizimir and Foltest are choking each other with customs taxes and trading laws, Demawend of Aedirn is bickering with Henselt over the Northern Marches while the League of Hengfors and the Thyssenids of Kovir don’t give a toss. And I hear that looking for the old concord amongst the wizards is useless, too. We are not closely knit, we have no discipline and no unity. But Nilfgaard does!” “Nilfgaard is ruled by Emperor Emhyr var Emreis, a tyrant and autocrat who enforces obedience with whip, noose and axe!” thundered Baron Vilibert. “What are you proposing, sir dwarf? How are we supposed to close ranks? With similar tyranny? And which king, which kingdom, in your opinion, should subordinate the others? In whose hands would you like to see the sceptre and knout?” “What do I care?” replied Skaggs with a shrug. “That’s a human affair. Whoever you chose to be king wouldn’t be a dwarf anyway.” “Or an elf, or even half-elf,” added the tall representative of the Elder Race, his arm still wrapped around the toque-wearing beauty. “You even consider quarter-elves inferior—” “That’s where it stings,” laughed Vilibert. “You’re blowing the same horn as Nilfgaard because Nilfgaard is also shouting about equality, promising you a return to the old order as soon as we’ve been conquered and they’ve scythed us off these lands. That’s the sort of unity, the sort of equality you’re dreaming of, the sort you’re talking about and trumpeting! Nilfgaard pays you gold to do it! And it’s hardly surprising you love each other so much, the Nilfgaardians being an elven race—” “Nonsense,” the elf said coldly. “You talk rubbish, sir knight. You’re clearly blinded by racism. The Nilfgaardians are human, just like you.” “That’s an outright lie! They’re descended from the Black Seidhe and everyone knows it! Elven blood flows through their veins! The blood of elves!” “And what flows through yours?” The elf smiled derisively. “We’ve been combining our blood for generations, for centuries, your race and mine, and doing so quite successfully – fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t know. You started persecuting mixed relationships less than a quarter of a century ago and, incidentally, not very successfully. So show me a human now who hasn’t 19 a dash of Seidhe Ichaer, the blood of the Elder Race.” Vilibert visibly turned red. Vera Loewenhaupt also flushed. Wizard Radcliffe bowed his head and coughed. And, most interestingly, the beautiful elf in the ermine toque blushed too. “We are all children of Mother Earth.” The grey-haired druid’s voice resounded in the silence. “We are children of Mother Nature. And though we do not respect our mother, though we often worry her and cause her pain, though we break her heart, she loves us. Loves us all. Let us remember that, we who are assembled here in this Seat of Friendship. And let us not bicker over which of us was here first: Acorn was the first to be thrown up by the waves and from Acorn sprouted the Great Bleobheris, the oldest of oaks. Standing beneath its crown, amongst its primordial roots, let us not forget our own brotherly roots, the earth from which these roots grow. Let us remember the words of Poet Dandilion’s song—” “Exactly!” exclaimed Vera Loewenhaupt. “And where is he?” “He’s fled,” ascertained Sheldon Skaggs, gazing at the empty place under the oak. “Taken the money and fled without saying goodbye. Very elf-like!” “Dwarf-like!” squealed Ironware. “Human-like,” corrected the tall elf, and the beauty in the toque rested her head against his shoulder. “Hey, minstrel,” said Mama Lantieri, striding into the room without knocking, the scents of hyacinths, sweat, beer and smoked bacon wafting before her. “You’ve got a guest. Enter, noble gentleman.” Dandilion smoothed his hair and sat up in the enormous carved armchair. The two girls sitting on his lap quickly jumped up, covering their charms and pulling down their disordered clothes. The modesty of harlots, thought the poet, was not at all a bad title for a ballad. He got to his feet, fastened his belt and pulled on his doublet, all the while looking at the nobleman standing at the threshold. “Indeed,” he remarked, “you know how to find me anywhere, though you rarely pick an opportune moment. You’re lucky I’d not yet decided which of these two beauties I prefer. And at your prices, Lantieri, I cannot afford them both.” Mama Lantieri smiled in sympathy and clapped her hands. Both girls – a fair-skinned, freckled islander and a dark-haired half-elf – swiftly left the room. The man at the door removed his cloak and handed it to Mama along with a small but well-filled money-bag. 20 “Forgive me, master,” he said, approaching the table and making himself comfortable. “I know this is not a good time to disturb you. But you disappeared out from beneath the oak so quickly… I did not catch you on the High Road as I had intended and did not immediately come across your tracks in this little town. I’ll not take much of your time, believe me—” “They always say that, and it’s always a lie,” the bard interrupted. “Leave us alone, Lantieri, and see to it that we’re not disturbed. I’m listening, sir.” The man scrutinised him. He had dark, damp, almost tearful eyes, a pointed nose and ugly, narrow lips. “I’ll come to the point without wasting your time,” he declared, waiting for the door to close behind Mama. “Your ballads interest me, master. To be more specific, certain characters of which you sang interest me. I am concerned with the true fate of your ballad’s heroes. If I am not mistaken, the true destinies of real people inspired the beautiful work I heard beneath the oak tree? I have in mind… Little Cirilla of Cintra. Queen Calanthe’s granddaughter.” Dandilion gazed at the ceiling, drumming his fingers on the table. “Honoured sir,” he said dryly, “you are interested in strange matters. You ask strange questions. Something tells me you are not the person I took you to be.” “And who did you take me to be, if I may ask?” “I’m not sure you may. It depends if you are about to convey greetings to me from any mutual friends. You should have done so initially, but somehow you have forgotten.” “I did not forget at all.” The man reached into the breast pocket of his sepia-coloured velvet tunic and pulled out a money-bag somewhat larger than the one he had handed the procuress but just as well-filled, which clinked as it touched the table. “We simply have no mutual friends, Dandilion. But might this purse not suffice to mitigate the lack?” “And what do you intend to buy with this meagre purse?” The troubadour pouted. “Mama Lantieri’s entire brothel and all the land surrounding it?” “Let us say that I intend to support the arts. And an artist. In order to chat with the artist about his work.” “You love art so much, do you, dear sir? Is it so vital for you to talk to an artist that you press money on him before you’ve even introduced yourself and, in doing so, break the most elementary rules of courtesy?” “At the beginning of our conversation” – the stranger’s dark eyes narrowed imperceptibly – “my anonymity did not bother you.” 21 “And now it is starting to.” “I am not ashamed of my name,” said the man, a faint smile appearing on his narrow lips. “I am called Rience. You do not know me, Master Dandilion, and that is no surprise. You are too famous and well known to know all of your admirers. Yet everyone who admires your talents feels he knows you, knows you so well that a certain degree of familiarity is permissible. This applies to me, too. I know it is a misconception, so please graciously forgive me.” “I graciously forgive you.” “Then I can count on you agreeing to answer a few questions—” “No! No you cannot,” interrupted the poet, putting on airs. “Now, if you will graciously forgive me, I am not willing to discuss the subjects of my work, its inspiration or its characters, fictitious or otherwise. To do so would deprive poetry of its poetic veneer and lead to triteness.” “Is that so?” “It certainly is. For example, if, having sung the ballad about the miller’s merry wife, I were to announce it’s really about Zvirka, Miller Loach’s wife, and I included an announcement that Zvirka can most easily be bedded every Thursday because on Thursdays the miller goes to market, it would no longer be poetry. It would be either rhyming couplets, or foul slander.” “I understand, I understand,” Rience said quickly. “But perhaps that is a bad example. I am not, after all, interested in anyone’s peccadilloes or sins. You will not slander anyone by answering my questions. All I need is one small piece of information: what really happened to Cirilla, the Queen of Cintra’s granddaughter? Many people claim she was killed during the siege of the town; there are even eye-witnesses to support the claim. From your ballad, however, it would appear that the child survived. I am truly interested to know if this is your imagination at work, or the truth? True or false?” “I’m extremely pleased you’re so interested.” Dandilion smiled broadly. “You may laugh, Master whatever-your-name-is, but that was precisely what I intended when I composed the ballad. I wished to excite my listeners and arouse their curiosity.” “True or false?” repeated Rience coldly. “If I were to give that away I would destroy the impact of my work. Goodbye, my friend. You have used up all the time I can spare you. And two of my many inspirations are waiting out there, wondering which of them I will choose.” Rience remained silent for a long while, making no move to leave. He 22 stared at the poet with his unfriendly, moist eyes, and the poet felt a growing unease. A merry din came from the bawdy-house’s main room, punctuated from time to time by high-pitched feminine giggles. Dandilion turned his head away, pretending to show derisive haughtiness but, in fact, he was judging the distance to the corner of the room and the tapestry showing a nymph sprinkling her breasts with water poured from a jug. “Dandilion,” Rience finally spoke, slipping his hand back into the pocket of his sepia-coloured tunic, “answer my questions. Please. I have to know the answer. It’s incredibly important to me. To you, too, believe me, because if you answer of your own free will then—” “Then what?” A hide-ous grimace crept over Rience’s narrow lips. “Then I won’t have to force you to speak.” “Now listen, you scoundrel.” Dandilion stood up and pretended to pull a threatening face. “I loathe violence and force, but I’m going to call Mama Lantieri in a minute and she will call a certain Gruzila who fulfils the honourable and responsible role of bouncer in this establishment. He is a true artist in his field. He’ll kick your arse so hard you’ll soar over the town roofs with such magnificence that the few people passing by at this hour will take you for a Pegasus.” Rience made an abrupt gesture and something glistened in his hand. “Are you sure,” he asked, “you’ll have time to call her?” Dandilion had no intention of checking if he would have time. Nor did he intend to wait. Before the stiletto had locked in Rience’s hand Dandilion had taken a long leap to the corner of the room, dived under the nymph tapestry, kicked open a secret door and rushed headlong down the winding stairs, nimbly steering himself with the aid of the well-worn banisters. Rience darted after him, but the poet was sure of himself – he knew the secret passage like the back of his hand, having used it numerous times to flee creditors, jealous husbands and furious rivals from whom he had, from time to time, stolen rhymes and tunes. He knew that after the third turning he would be able to grope for a revolving door, behind which there was a ladder leading down to the cellar. He was sure that his persecutor would be unable to stop in time, would run on and step on a trapdoor through which he would fall and land in the pigsty. He was equally sure that – bruised, covered in shit and mauled by the pigs – his persecutor would give up the chase. Dandilion was mistaken, as was usually the case whenever he was too confident. Something flashed a sudden blue behind his back and the poet felt 23 his limbs grow numb, lifeless and stiff. He couldn’t slow down for the revolving door, his legs wouldn’t obey him. He yelled and rolled down the stairs, bumping against the walls of the little corridor. The trapdoor opened beneath him with a dry crack and the troubadour tumbled down into the darkness and stench. Before thumping his head on the dirt floor and losing consciousness, he remembered Mama Lantieri saying something about the pigsty being repaired. The pain in his constricted wrists and shoulders, cruelly twisted in their joints, brought him back to his senses. He wanted to scream but couldn’t; it felt as though his mouth had been stuck up with clay. He was kneeling on the dirt floor with a creaking rope hauling him up by his wrists. He tried to stand, wanting to ease the pressure on his shoulders, but his legs, too, were tied together. Choking and suffocating he somehow struggled to his feet, helped considerably by the rope which tugged mercilessly at him. Rience was standing in front of him and his evil eyes glinted in the light of a lantern held aloft by an unshaven ruffian who stood over six feet tall. Another ruffian, probably no shorter, stood behind him. Dandilion could hear his breathing and caught a whiff of stale sweat. It was the reeking man who tugged on the rope looped over a roof beam and fastened to the poet’s wrists. Dandilion’s feet tore off the dirt floor. The poet whistled through his nose, unable to do anything more. “Enough,” Rience snapped at last – he spoke almost immediately, yet it had seemed an age to Dandilion. The bard’s feet touched the ground but, despite his most heart-felt desire, he could not kneel again – the tight drawn rope was still holding him as taut as a string. Rience came closer. There was not even a trace of emotion on his face; the damp eyes had not changed their expression in the least. His tone of voice, too, remained calm, quiet, even a little bored. “You nasty rhymester. You runt. You scum. You arrogant nobody. You tried to run from me? No one has escaped me yet. We haven’t finished our conversation, you clown, you sheep’s head. I asked you a question under much pleasanter circumstances than these. Now you are going to answer all my questions, and in far less pleasant circumstances. Am I right?” Dandilion nodded eagerly. Only now did Rience smile and make a sign. The bard squealed helplessly, feeling the rope tighten and his arms, twisted backwards, cracking in their joints. “You can’t talk,” Rience confirmed, still smiling loathsomely, “and it 24 hurts, doesn’t it? For the moment, you should know I’m having you strung up like this for my own pleasure – just because I love watching people suffer. Go on, just a little higher.” Dandilion was wheezing so hard he almost choked. “Enough,” Rience finally ordered, then approached the poet and grabbed him by his shirt ruffles. “Listen to me, you little cock. I’m going to lift the spell so you can talk. But if you try to raise your charming voice any louder than necessary, you’ll be sorry.” He made a gesture with his hand, touched the poet’s cheek with his ring and Dandilion felt sensation return to his jaw, tongue and palate. “Now,” Rience continued quietly, “I am going to ask you a few questions and you are going to answer them quickly, fluently and comprehensively. And if you stammer or hesitate even for a moment, if you give me the slightest reason to doubt the truth of your words, then… Look down.” Dandilion obeyed. He discovered to his horror that a short rope had been tied to the knots around his ankles, with a bucket full of lime attached to the other end. “If I have you pulled any higher,” Rience smiled cruelly, “and this bucket lifts with you, then you will probably never regain the feeling in your hands. After that, I doubt you will be capable of playing anything on a lute. I really doubt it. So I think you’ll talk to me. Am I right?” Dandilion didn’t agree because he couldn’t move his head or find his voice out of sheer fright. But Rience did not seem to require confirmation. “It is to be understood,” he stated, “that I will know immediately if you are telling the truth, if you try to trick me I will realise straight away, and I won’t be fooled by any poetic ploys or vague erudition. This is a trifle for me – just as paralysing you on the stairs was a trifle. So I advise you to weigh each word with care, you piece of scum. So, let’s get on with it and stop wasting time. As you know, I’m interested in the heroine of one of your beautiful ballads, Queen Calanthe of Cintra’s granddaughter, Princess Cirilla, endearingly known as Ciri. According to eye-witnesses this little person died during the siege of the town, two years ago. Whereas in your ballad you so vividly and touchingly described her meeting a strange, almost legendary individual, the… witcher… Geralt, or Gerald. Leaving the poetic drivel about destiny and the decrees of fate aside, from the rest of the ballad it seems the child survived the Battle of Cintra in one piece. Is that true?” “I don’t know…” moaned Dandilion. “By all the gods, I’m only a poet! I’ve heard this and that, and the rest…” 25 “Well?” “The rest I invented. Made it up! I don’t know anything!” The bard howled on seeing Rience give a sign to the reeking man and feeling the rope tighten. “I’m not lying!” “True.” Rience nodded. “You’re not lying outright, I would have sensed it. But you are beating about the bush. You wouldn’t have thought the ballad up just like that, not without reason. And you do know the witcher, after all. You have often been seen in his company. So talk, Dandilion, if you treasure your joints. Everything you know.” “This Ciri,” panted the poet, “was destined for the witcher. She’s a socalled Child Surprise… You must have heard it, the story’s well known. Her parents swore to hand her over to the witcher—” “Her parents are supposed to have handed the child over to that crazed mutant? That murderous mercenary? You’re lying, rhymester. Keep such tales for women.” “That’s what happened, I swear on my mother’s soul,” sobbed Dandilion. “I have it from a reliable source… The witcher—” “Talk about the girl. For the moment I’m not interested in the witcher.” “I don’t know anything about the girl! I only know that the witcher was going to fetch her from Cintra when the war broke out. I met him at the time. He heard about the massacre, about Calanthe’s death, from me… He asked me about the child, the queen’s granddaughter… But I knew everyone in Cintra was killed, not a single soul in the last bastion survived—” “Go on. Fewer metaphors, more hard facts!” “When the witcher learned of the massacre and fall of Cintra he forsook his journey. We both escaped north. We parted ways in Hengfors and I haven’t seen him since… But because he talked, on the way, a bit about this… Ciri, or whatever-her-name-is… and about destiny… Well, I made up this ballad. I don’t know any more, I swear!” Rience scowled at him. “And where is this witcher now?” he asked. “This hired monster murderer, this poetic butcher who likes to discuss destiny?” “I told you, the last time I saw him—” “I know what you said,” Rience interrupted. “I listened carefully to what you said. And now you’re going to listen carefully to me. Answer my questions precisely. The question is: if no one has seen Geralt, or Gerald, the Witcher for over a year, where is he hiding? Where does he usually hide?” “I don’t know where it is,” the troubadour said quickly. “I’m not lying. I 26 really don’t know—” “Too quick, Dandilion, too quick.” Rience smiled ominously. “Too eager. You are cunning but not careful enough. You don’t know where it is, you say. But I warrant you know what it is.” Dandilion clenched his teeth with anger and despair. “Well?” Rience made a sign to the reeking man. “Where is the witcher hiding? What is the place called?” The poet remained silent. The rope tightened, twisting his hands painfully, and his feet left the ground. Dandilion let out a howl, brief and broken because Rience’s wizardly ring immediately gagged him. “Higher, higher.” Rience rested his hands on his hips. “You know, Dandilion, I could use magic to sound out your mind, but it’s exhausting. Besides, I like seeing people’s eyes pop out of their sockets from pain. And you’re going to tell me anyway.” Dandilion knew he would. The rope secured to his ankles grew taut, the bucket of lime scraped along the ground. “Sir,” said the first ruffian suddenly, covering the lantern with his cloak and peering through the gap in the pigsty door, “someone’s coming. A lass, I think.” “You know what to do,” Rience hissed. “Put the lantern out.” The reeking man released the rope and Dandilion tumbled inertly to the ground, falling in such a way that he could see the man with the lantern standing at the door and the reeking man, a long knife in his hand, lying in wait on the other side. Light broke in from the bawdy-house through gaps in the planks, and the poet heard the singing and hubbub. The door to the pigsty creaked open revealing a short figure wrapped in a cloak and wearing a round, tightly fitting cap. After a moment’s hesitation, the woman crossed the threshold. The reeking man threw himself at her, slashing forcefully with his knife, and tumbled to his knees as the knife met with no resistance, passing through the figure’s throat as though through a cloud of smoke. Because the figure really was a cloud of smoke – one which was already starting to disperse. But before it completely vanished another figure burst into the pigsty, indistinct, dark and nimble as a weasel. Dandilion saw it throw a cloak at the lantern man, jump over the reeking one, saw something glisten in its hand, and heard the reeking man wheeze and choke savagely. The lantern man disentangled himself from the cloak, jumped, took a swing with his knife. A fiery lightning bolt shot from the dark figure with a hiss, slapped over the tough’s face and chest with a crack and spread over him 27 like flaming oil. The ruffian screamed piercingly and the grim reek of burning meat filled the pigsty. Then Rience attacked. The spell he cast illuminated the darkness with a bluish flash in which Dandilion saw a slender woman wearing man’s clothes gesticulating strangely with both hands. He only glimpsed her for a second before the blue glow disappeared with a bang and a blinding flash. Rience fell back with a roar of fury and collapsed onto the wooden pigsty walls, breaking them with a crash. The woman dressed in man’s clothing leapt after him, a stiletto flashing in her hand. The pigsty filled with brightness again – this time golden – beaming from a bright oval which suddenly appeared in the air. Dandilion saw Rience spring up from the dusty floor, leap into the oval and immediately disappear. The oval dimmed but, before it went out entirely, the woman ran up to it shouting incomprehensibly, stretching out her hand. Something crackled and rustled and the dying oval boiled with roaring flames for a moment. A muffled sound, as if coming from a great distance, reached Dandilion’s ears – a sound very much like a scream of pain. The oval went out completely and darkness engulfed the pigsty again. The poet felt the power which gagged him disappear. “Help!” he howled. “Help!” “Stop yelling, Dandilion,” said the woman, kneeling next to him and slicing through the knots with Rience’s stiletto. “Yennefer? Is that you?” “Surely you’re not going to say you don’t remember how I look. And I’m sure my voice is not unfamiliar to your musical ear. Can you get up? They didn’t break any bones, did they?” Dandilion stood with difficulty, groaned and stretched his aching shoulders. “What’s with them?” He indicated the bodies lying on the ground. “We’ll check.” The enchantress snicked the stiletto shut. “One of them should still be alive. I’ve a few questions for him.” “This one,” the troubadour stood over the reeking man, “probably still lives.” “I doubt it,” said Yennefer indifferently. “I severed his windpipe and carotid artery. There might still be a little murmur in him but not for long.” Dandilion shuddered. “You slashed his throat?” “If, out of inborn caution, I hadn’t sent an illusion in first, I would be the one lying there now. Let’s look at the other one… Bloody hell. Such a sturdy 28 fellow and he still couldn’t take it. Pity, pity—” “He’s dead, too?” “He couldn’t take the shock. Hmm… I fried him a little too hard… See, even his teeth are charred— What’s the matter with you, Dandilion? Are you going to be sick?” “I am,” the poet replied indistinctly, bending over and leaning his forehead against the pigsty wall. “That’s everything?” The enchantress put her tumbler down and reached for the skewer of roast chickens. “You haven’t lied about anything? Haven’t forgotten anything?” “Nothing. Apart from ‘thank you’. Thank you, Yennefer.” She looked him in the eyes and nodded her head lightly, making her glistening, black curls writhe and cascade down to her shoulders. She slipped the roast chicken onto a trencher and began dividing it skilfully. She used a knife and fork. Dandilion had only known one person, up until then, who could eat a chicken with a knife and fork as skilfully. Now he knew how, and from whom, Geralt had learnt the knack. Well, he thought, no wonder. After all, he did live with her for a year in Vengerberg and before he left her, she had instilled a number of strange things into him. He pulled the other chicken from the skewer and, without a second thought, ripped off a thigh and began eating it, pointedly holding it with both hands. “How did you know?” he asked. “How did you arrive with help on time?” “I was beneath Bleobheris during your performance.” “I didn’t see you.” “I didn’t want to be seen. Then I followed you into town. I waited here, in the tavern – it wasn’t fitting, after all, for me to follow you in to that haven of dubious delight and certain gonorrhoea. But I eventually became impatient and was wandering around the yard when I thought I heard voices coming from the pigsty. I sharpened my hearing and it turned out it wasn’t, as I’d first thought, some sodomite but you. Hey, innkeeper! More wine, if you please!” “At your command, honoured lady! Quick as a flash!” “The same as before, please, but this time without the water. I can only tolerate water in a bath, in wine I find it quite loathsome.” “At your service, at your service!” Yennefer pushed her plate aside. There was still enough meat on the chicken, Dandilion noticed, to feed the innkeeper and his family for breakfast. A knife and fork were certainly elegant and refined, but they weren’t very 29 effective. “Thank you,” he repeated, “for rescuing me. That cursed Rience wouldn’t have spared my life. He’d have squeezed everything from me and then butchered me like a sheep.” “Yes, I think he would.” She poured herself and the bard some wine then raised her tumbler. “So let’s drink to your rescue and health, Dandilion.” “And to yours, Yennefer,” he toasted her in return. “To health for which – as of today – I shall pray whenever the occasion arises. I’m indebted to you, beautiful lady, and I shall repay the debt in my songs. I shall explode the myth which claims wizards are insensitive to the pain of others, that they are rarely eager to help poor, unfortunate, unfamiliar mortals.” “What to do.” She smiled, half-shutting her beautiful violet eyes. “The myth has some justification; it did not spring from nowhere. But you’re not a stranger, Dandilion. I know you and like you.” “Really?” The poet smiled too. “You have been good at concealing it up until now. I’ve even heard the rumour that you can’t stand me, I quote, any more than the plague.” “It was the case once.” The enchantress suddenly grew serious. “Later my opinion changed. Later, I was grateful to you.” “What for, if I may ask?” “Never mind,” she said, toying with the empty tumbler. “Let us get back to more important questions. Those you were asked in the pigsty while your arms were being twisted out of their sockets. What really happened, Dandilion? Have you really not seen Geralt since you fled the banks of the Yaruga? Did you really not know he returned south after the war? That he was seriously wounded – so seriously there were even rumours of his death? Didn’t you know anything?” “No. I didn’t. I stayed in Pont Vanis for a long time, in Esterad Thyssen’s court. And then at Niedamir’s in Hengfors—” “You didn’t know.” The enchantress nodded and unfastened her tunic. A black velvet ribbon wound around her neck, an obsidian star set with diamonds hanging from it. “You didn’t know that when his wounds healed Geralt went to Transriver? You can’t guess who he was looking for?” “That I can. But I don’t know if he found her.” “You don’t know,” she repeated. “You, who usually know everything, and then sing about everything. Even such intimate matters as someone else’s feelings. I listened to your ballads beneath Bleobheris, Dandilion. You dedicated a good few verses to me.” 30 “Poetry,” he muttered, staring at the chicken, “has its rights. No one should be offended—” “ ‘Hair like a raven’s wing, as a storm in the night…’ ” quoted Yennefer with exaggerated emphasis, “ ‘…and in the violet eyes sleep lightning bolts…’ Isn’t that how it went?” “That’s how I remembered you.” The poet smiled faintly. “May the first who wishes to claim the description is untrue throw the first stone.” “Only I don’t know,” the Enchantress pinched her lips together, “who gave you permission to describe my internal organs. How did it go? ‘Her heart, as though a jewel, adorned her neck. Hard as if of diamond made, and as a diamond so unfeeling, sharper than obsidian, cutting—’ Did you make that up yourself? Or perhaps…?” Her lips quivered, twisted. “…or perhaps you listened to someone’s confidences and grievances?” “Hmm…” Dandilion cleared his throat and veered away from the dangerous subject. “Tell me, Yennefer, when did you last see Geralt?” “A long time ago.” “After the war?” “After the war…” Yennefer’s voice changed a little. “No, I never saw him after the war. For a long time… I didn’t see anybody. Well, back to the point, Poet. I am a little surprised to discover that you do not know anything, you have not heard anything and that, in spite of this, someone searching for information picked you out to stretch over a beam. Doesn’t that worry you?” “It does.” “Listen to me,” she said sharply, banging her tumbler against the table. “Listen carefully. Strike that ballad from your repertoire. Do not sing it again.” “Are you talking about—” “You know perfectly well what I’m talking about. Sing about the war against Nilfgaard. Sing about Geralt and me, you’ll neither harm nor help anyone in the process, you’ll make nothing any better or worse. But do not sing about the Lion Cub of Cintra.” She glanced around to check if any of the few customers at this hour were eavesdropping, and waited until the lass clearing up had returned to the kitchen. “And do try to avoid one-to-one meetings with people you don’t know,” she said quietly. “People who ‘forget’ to introduce themselves by conveying greetings from a mutual acquaintance. Understand?” 31 He looked at her surprised. Yennefer smiled. “Greetings from Dijkstra, Dandilion.” Now the bard glanced around timidly. His astonishment must have been evident and his expression amusing because the sorceress allowed herself a quite derisive grimace. “While we are on the subject,” she whispered, leaning across the table, “Dijkstra is asking for a report. You’re on your way back from Verden and he’s interested in hearing what’s being said at King Ervyll’s court. He asked me to convey that this time your report should be to the point, detailed and under no circumstances in verse. Prose, Dandilion. Prose.” The poet swallowed and nodded. He remained silent, pondering the question. But the enchantress anticipated him. “Difficult times are approaching,” she said quietly. “Difficult and dangerous. A time of change is coming. It would be a shame to grow old with the uncomfortable conviction that one had done nothing to ensure that these changes are for the better. Don’t you agree?” He agreed with a nod and cleared his throat. “Yennefer?” “I’m listening, Poet.” “Those men in the pigsty… I would like to know who they were, what they wanted, who sent them. You killed them both, but rumour has it that you can draw information even from the dead.” “And doesn’t rumour also have it that necromancy is forbidden, by edict of the Chapter? Let it go, Dandilion. Those thugs probably didn’t know much anyway. The one who escaped… Hmm… He’s another matter.” “Rience. He was a wizard, wasn’t he?” “Yes. But not a very proficient one.” “Yet he managed to escape from you. I saw how he did it – he teleported, didn’t he? Doesn’t that prove anything?” “Indeed it does. That someone helped him. Rience had neither the time nor the strength to open an oval portal suspended in the air. A portal like that is no joke. It’s clear that someone else opened it. Someone far more powerful. That’s why I was afraid to chase him, not knowing where I would land. But I sent some pretty hot stuff after him. He’s going to need a lot of spells and some effective burn elixirs, and will remain marked for some time.” “Maybe you will be interested to hear that he was a Nilfgaardian.” “You think so?” Yennefer sat up and with a swift movement pulled the stiletto from her pocket and turned it in her palm. “A lot of people carry Nilfgaardian knives now. They’re comfortable and handy – they can even be 32 hidden in a cleavage—” “It’s not the knife. When he was questioning me he used the term ‘battle for Cintra’, ‘conquest of the town’ or something along those lines. I’ve never heard anyone describe those events like that. For us, it has always been a massacre. The Massacre of Cintra. No one refers to it by any other name.” The magician raised her hand, scrutinised her nails. “Clever, Dandilion. You have a sensitive ear.” “It’s a professional hazard.” “I wonder which profession you have in mind?” She smiled coquettishly. “But thank you for the information. It was valuable.” “Let it be,” he replied with a smile, “my contribution to making changes for the better. Tell me, Yennefer, why is Nilfgaard so interested in Geralt and the girl from Cintra?” “Don’t stick your nose into that business.” She suddenly turned serious. “I said you were to forget you ever heard of Calanthe’s granddaughter.” “Indeed, you did. But I’m not searching for a subject for a ballad.” “What the hell are you searching for then? Trouble?” “Let’s take it,” he said quietly, resting his chin on his clasped hands and looking the enchantress in the eye. “Let’s take it that Geralt did, in fact, find and rescue the child. Let’s take it that he finally came to believe in the power of destiny, and took the child with him. Where to? Rience tried to force it out of me with torture. But you know, Yennefer. You know where the witcher is hiding.” “I do.” “And you know how to get there.” “I know that too.” “Don’t you think he should be warned? Warned that the likes of Rience are looking for him and the little girl? I would go, but I honestly don’t know where it is… That place whose name I prefer not to say…” “Get to the point, Dandilion.” “If you know where Geralt is, you ought to go and warn him. You owe him that, Yennefer. There was, after all, something between you.” “Yes,” she acknowledged coldly. “There was something between us. That’s why I know him a bit. He does not like having help imposed on him. And if he was in need of it he would seek it from those he could trust. A year has gone by since those events and I… I’ve not had any news from him. And as for our debt, I owe him exactly as much as he owes me. No more and no less.” 33 “So I’ll go then.” He raised his head high. “Tell me—” “I won’t,” she interrupted. “Your cover’s blown, Dandilion. They might come after you again; the less you know the better. Vanish from here. Go to Redania, to Dijkstra and Philippa Eilhart, stick to Vizimir’s court. And I warn you once more: forget the Lion Cub of Cintra. Forget about Ciri. Pretend you have never heard the name. Do as I ask. I wouldn’t like anything bad to happen to you. I like you too much, owe you too much—” “You’ve said that already. What do you owe me, Yennefer?” The sorceress turned her head away, did not say anything for a while. “You travelled with him,” she said finally. “Thanks to you he was not alone. You were a friend to him. You were with him.” The bard lowered his eyes. “He didn’t get much from it,” he muttered. “He didn’t get much from our friendship. He had little but trouble because of me. He constantly had to get me out of some scrape… help me…” She leaned across the table, put her hand on his and squeezed it hard without saying anything. Her eyes held regret. “Go to Redania,” she repeated after a moment. “To Tretogor. Stay in Dijkstra’s and Philippa’s care. Don’t play at being a hero. You have got yourself mixed up in a dangerous affair, Dandilion.” “I’ve noticed.” He grimaced and rubbed his aching shoulder. “And that is precisely why I believe Geralt should be warned. You are the only one who knows where to look for him. You know the way. I guess you used to be… a guest there…?” Yennefer turned away. Dandilion saw her lips pinch, the muscles in her cheek quiver. “Yes, in the past,” she said and there was something elusive and strange in her voice. “I used to be a guest there, sometimes. But never uninvited.” The wind howled savagely, rippling through the grasses growing over the ruins, rustling in the hawthorn bushes and tall nettles. Clouds sped across the sphere of the moon, momentarily illuminating the great castle, drenching the moat and few remaining walls in a pale glow undulating with shadows, and revealing mounds of skulls baring their broken teeth and staring into nothingness through the black holes of their eye-sockets. Ciri squealed sharply and hid her face in the witcher’s cloak. The mare, prodded on by the witcher’s heels, carefully stepped over a pile of bricks and passed through the broken arcade. Her horseshoes, ringing 34 against the flagstones, awoke weird echoes between the walls, muffled by the howling gale. Ciri trembled, digging her hands into the horse’s mane. “I’m frightened,” she whispered. “There’s nothing to be frightened of,” replied the witcher, laying his hand on her shoulder. “It’s hard to find a safer place in the whole world. This is Kaer Morhen, the Witchers’ Keep. There used to be a beautiful castle here. A long time ago.” She did not reply, bowing her head low. The witcher’s mare, called Roach, snorted quietly, as if she too wanted to reassure the girl. They immersed themselves in a dark abyss, in a long, unending black tunnel dotted with columns and arcades. Roach stepped confidently and willingly, ignoring the impenetrable darkness, and her horseshoes rang brightly against the floor. In front of them, at the end of the tunnel, a straight, vertical line suddenly flared with a red light. Growing taller and wider it became a door beyond which was a faint glow, the flickering brightness of torches stuck in iron mounts on the walls. A black figure stood framed in the door, blurred by the brightness. “Who comes?” Ciri heard a menacing, metallic voice which sounded like a dog’s bark. “Geralt?” “Yes, Eskel. It’s me.” “Come in.” The witcher dismounted, took Ciri from the saddle, stood her on the ground and pressed a bundle into her little hands which she grabbed tightly, only regretting that it was too small for her to hide behind completely. “Wait here with Eskel,” he said. “I’ll take Roach to the stables.” “Come into the light, laddie,” growled the man called Eskel. “Don’t lurk in the dark.” Ciri looked up into his face and barely restrained her frightened scream. He wasn’t human. Although he stood on two legs, although he smelled of sweat and smoke, although he wore ordinary human clothes, he was not human. No human can have a face like that, she thought. “Well, what are you waiting for?” repeated Eskel. She didn’t move. In the darkness she heard the clatter of Roach’s horseshoes grow fainter. Something soft and squeaking ran over her foot. She jumped. “Don’t loiter in the dark, or the rats will eat your boots.” Still clinging to her bundle Ciri moved briskly towards the light. The rats 35 bolted out from beneath her feet with a squeak. Eskel leaned over, took the package from her and pulled back her hood. “A plague on it,” he muttered. “A girl. That’s all we need.” She glanced at him, frightened. Eskel was smiling. She saw that he was human after all, that he had an entirely human face, deformed by a long, ugly, semi-circular scar running from the corner of his mouth across the length of his cheek up to the ear. “Since you’re here, welcome to Kaer Morhen,” he said. “What do they call you?” “Ciri,” Geralt replied for her, silently emerging from the darkness. Eskel turned around. Suddenly, quickly, wordlessly, the witchers fell into each other’s arms and wound their shoulders around each other tight and hard. For one brief moment. “Wolf, you’re alive.” “I am.” “All right.” Eskel took a torch from its bracket. “Come on. I’m closing the inner gates to stop the heat escaping.” They walked along the corridor. There were rats here, too; they flitted under the walls, squeaked from the dark abyss, from the branching passages, and skittered before the swaying circle of light thrown by the torch. Ciri walked quickly, trying to keep up with the men. “Who’s wintering here, Eskel? Apart from Vesemir?” “Lambert and Coën.” They descended a steep and slippery flight of stairs. A gleam was visible below them. Ciri heard voices, detected the smell of smoke. The hall was enormous, and flooded with light from a huge hearth roaring with flames which were being sucked up into the heart of the chimney. The centre of the hall was taken up by an enormous, heavy table. At least ten people could sit around that table. There were three. Three humans. Three witchers, Ciri corrected herself. She saw nothing but their silhouettes against the fire in the hearth. “Greetings, Wolf. We’ve been waiting for you.” “Greetings, Vesemir. Greetings, lads. It’s good to be home again.” “Who have you brought us?” Geralt was silent for a moment, then put his hand on Ciri’s shoulder and lightly pushed her forward. She walked awkwardly, hesitantly, huddled up and hunched, her head lowered. I’m frightened, she thought. I’m very frightened. When Geralt found me, when he took me with him, I thought the 36 fear wouldn’t come back. I thought it had passed… And now, instead of being at home, I’m in this terrible, dark, ruined old castle full of rats and dreadful echoes… I’m standing in front of a red wall of fire again. I see sinister black figures, I see dreadful, menacing, glistening eyes staring at me— “Who is this child, Wolf? Who is this girl?” “She’s my…” Geralt suddenly stammered. She felt his strong, hard hands on her shoulders. And suddenly the fear disappeared, vanished without a trace. The roaring red fire gave out warmth. Only warmth. The black silhouettes were the silhouettes of friends. Carers. Their glistening eyes expressed curiosity. Concern. And unease… Geralt’s hands clenched over her shoulders. “She’s our destiny.” 37 CHAPTER TWO Verily, there is nothing so hide-ous as the monsters, so contrary to nature, known as witchers for they are the offspring of foul sorcery and devilry. They are rogues without virtue, conscience or scruple, true diabolic creations, fit only for killing. There is no place amidst honest men for such as they. And Kaer Morhen, where these infamous beings nestle, where they perform their foul practices, must be wiped from the surface of this earth, and all trace of it strewn with salt and saltpetre. Anonymous, Monstrum, or Description of the Witcher Intolerance and superstition has always been the domain of the more stupid amongst the common folk and, I conjecture, will never be uprooted, for they are as eternal as stupidity itself. There, where mountains tower today, one day there will be seas; there where today seas surge, will one day be deserts. But stupidity will remain stupidity. Nicodemus de Boot, Meditations on life, Happiness and Prosperity Triss Merigold blew into her frozen hands, wriggled her fingers and murmured a magic formula. Her horse, a gelding, immediately reacted to the spell, snorting and turning its head, looking at the enchantress with eyes made watery by the cold and wind. “You’ve got two options, old thing,” said Triss, pulling on her gloves. “Either you get used to magic or I sell you to some peasants to pull a plough.” The gelding pricked up its ears, snorted vapour through its nostrils and obediently started down the wooded mountainside. The magician leaned over in the saddle, avoiding being lashed by the frosty branches. The magic worked quickly; she stopped feeling the sting of cold in her elbows and on her neck, and the unpleasant sensation of cold which had made her hunch her shoulders and draw her head in disappeared. The spell, warming her, also muffled the hunger which had been eating at her for several hours. Triss cheered up, made herself comfortable in the saddle and, with 38 greater attention than before, started to take stock of her surroundings. Ever since she had left the beaten track, she had been guided by the greyish-white wall of mountains and their snow-capped summits which glistened gold in those rare moments when the sun pierced the clouds – usually in the morning or just before sunset. Now that she was closer to the mountain chain she had to take greater care. The land around Kaer Morhen was famous for its wildness and inaccessibility, and the gap in the granite wall that was a vital landmark was not easy for an inexperienced eye to find. It was enough to turn down one of the numerous gullies and gorges to lose sight of it. And even she who knew the land, knew the way and knew where to look for the pass, could not allow herself to lose her concentration for an instant. The forest came to an end. A wide valley opened before the enchantress, strewn with boulders which ran across the valley to the sheer mountain-slope on the other side. The Gwenllech, the River of White Stones, flowed down the heart of the valley, foam seething between the boulders and logs washed along by the current. Here, in its upper reaches, the Gwenllech was no more than a wide but shallow stream. Up here it could be crossed without any difficulty. Lower down, in Kaedwen, in its middle reaches, the river was an insurmountable obstacle, rushing and breaking against the beds of its deep chasms. The gelding, driven into the water, hastened its step, clearly wanting to reach the opposite bank as quickly as possible. Triss held it back lightly – the stream was shallow, reaching just above the horse’s fetlocks, but the pebbles covering the bed were slippery and the current was sharp and quick. The water churned and foamed around her mount’s legs. The magician looked up at the sky. The growing cold and increasing wind here, in the mountains, could herald a blizzard and she did not find the prospect of spending yet another night in a grotto or rocky nook too attractive. She could, if she had to, continue her journey even through a blizzard; she could locate the path using telepathy, she could – using magic – make herself insensitive to the cold. She could, if she had to. But she preferred not to have to. Luckily, Kaer Morhen was already close. Triss urged the gelding on to flat scree, over an enormous heap of stones washed down by glaciers and streams, and rode into a narrow pass between rocky outcrops. The gorge walls rose vertically and seemed to meet high above her, only divided by a narrow line of sky. It grew warmer, the wind howling above the rocks could no longer reach to lash and sting at her. 39 The pass broadened, leading through a ravine and then into the valley, opening onto a huge depression, covered by forest, which stretched out amidst jagged boulders. The magician ignored the gentle, accessible depression rim and rode down towards the forest, into the thick backwoods. Dry branches cracked under the gelding’s hooves. Forced to step over fallen tree trunks, the horse snorted, danced and stamped. Triss pulled at the reins, tugged at her mount’s shaggy ear and scolded it harshly with spiteful allusions to its lameness. The steed, looking for all the world as though it were ashamed of itself, walked with a more even and sprightly gait and picked its way through the thicket. Before long they emerged onto clearer land, riding along the trough of a stream which barely trickled along the ravine bed. The magician looked around carefully, finally finding what she was looking for. Over the gully, supported horizontally by enormous boulders, lay a mighty tree trunk, dark, bare and turning green with moss. Triss rode closer, wanting to make sure this was, indeed, the Trail and not a tree accidentally felled in a gale. But she spied a narrow, indistinct pathway disappearing into the woods. She could not be mistaken – this was definitely the Trail, a path encircling the old castle of Kaer Morhen and beset with obstacles, where witchers trained to improve their running speeds and controlled breathing. The path was known as the Trail, but Triss knew young witchers had given it their own name: The Killer. She clung to the horse’s neck and slowly rode under the trunk. At that moment, she heard stones grating. And the fast, light footsteps of someone running. She turned in her saddle, pulled on the reins and waited for the witcher to run out onto the log. A witcher did run out onto the log, flitted along it like an arrow without slowing down, without even using his arms to aid his balance – running nimbly, fluently, with incredible grace. He flashed by, approaching and disappearing amongst the trees without disturbing a single branch. Triss sighed loudly, shaking her head in disbelief. Because the witcher, judging by his height and build, was only about twelve. The magician eased the reins, nudged the horse with her heels and trotted upstream. She knew the Trail cut across the ravine once more, at a spot known as the Gullet. She wanted to catch a glimpse of the little witcher once again – children had not been trained in Kaer Morhen for near to a quarter of a century. 40 She was not in a great hurry. The narrow Killer path meandered and looped its way through the forest and, in order to master it, the little witcher would take far longer than she would, following the shortcut. However, she could not loiter either. Beyond the Gullet, the Trail turned into the woods and led straight to the fortress. If she did not catch the boy at the precipice, she might not see him at all. She had already visited Kaer Morhen a few times, and knew she saw only what the witchers wanted her to see. Triss was not so naïve as to be unaware that they wanted to show her only a tiny fraction of the things to be seen in Kaer Morhen. After a few minutes riding along the stony trough of the stream she caught sight of the Gullet – a leap over the gully created by two huge mossy rocks, overgrown with gnarled, stunted trees. She released the reins. The horse snorted and lowered its head towards the water trickling between pebbles. She did not have to wait long. The witcher’s silhouette appeared on the rock and the boy jumped, not slowing his pace. The magician heard the soft smack of his landing and a moment later a rattle of stones, the dull thud of a fall and a quiet cry. Or rather, a squeal. Triss instantly leaped from her saddle, threw the fur off her shoulders and dashed across the mountainside, pulling herself up using tree branches and roots. Momentum aided her climb until she slipped on the conifer needles and fell to her knees next to a figure huddled on the stones. The youngster, on seeing her, jumped up like a spring, backed away in a flash and nimbly grabbed the sword slung across his back – then tripped and collapsed between the junipers and pines. The magician did not rise from her knees; she stared at the boy and opened her mouth in surprise. Because it was not a boy. From beneath an ash-blonde fringe, poorly and unevenly cut, enormous emerald eyes – the predominant features in a small face with a narrow chin and upturned nose – stared out at her. There was fear in the eyes. “Don’t be afraid,” Triss said tentatively. The girl opened her eyes even wider. She was hardly out of breath and did not appear to be sweating. It was clear she had already run the Killer more than once. “Nothing’s happened to you?” The girl did not reply; instead she sprang up, hissed with pain, shifted her weight to her left leg, bent over and rubbed her knee. She was dressed in a sort of leather suit sewn together – or rather stuck together – in a way which would make any tailor who took pride in his craft howl in horror and despair. 41 The only pieces of her equipment which seemed to be relatively new, and fitted her, were her knee-high boots, her belts and her sword. More precisely, her little sword. “Don’t be afraid,” repeated Triss, still not rising from her knees. “I heard your fall and was scared, that’s why I rushed here—” “I slipped,” murmured the girl. “Have you hurt yourself?” “No. You?” The enchantress laughed, tried to get up, winced and swore at the pain in her ankle. She sat down and carefully straightened her foot, swearing once more. “Come here, little one, help me get up.” “I’m not little.” “If you say so. In that case, what are you?” “A witcher!” “Ha! So, come here and help me get up, witcher.” The girl did not move from the spot. She shifted her weight from foot to foot, and her hands, in their fingerless, woollen gloves, toyed with her sword belt as she glanced suspiciously at Triss. “Have no fear,” said the enchantress with a smile. “I’m not a bandit or outsider. I’m called Triss Merigold and I’m going to Kaer Morhen. The witchers know me. Don’t gape at me. I respect your suspicion, but be reasonable. Would I have got this far if I hadn’t known the way? Have you ever met a human on the Trail?” The girl overcame her hesitation, approached and stretched out her hand. Triss stood with only a little assistance. Because she was not concerned with having help. She wanted a closer look at the girl. And to touch her. The green eyes of the little witcher-girl betrayed no signs of mutation, and the touch of her little hand did not produce the slight, pleasant tingling sensation so characteristic of witchers. Although she ran the Killer path with a sword slung across her back, the ashen-haired girl had not been subjected to the Trial of Grasses or to Changes. Of that, Triss was certain. “Show me your knee, little one.” “I’m not little.” “Sorry. But surely you have a name?” “I do. I’m… Ciri.” “It’s a pleasure. A bit closer if you please, Ciri.” “It’s nothing.” 42 “I want to see what ‘nothing’ looks like. Ah, that’s what I thought. ‘Nothing’ looks remarkably like torn trousers and skin grazed down to raw flesh. Stand still and don’t be scared.” “I’m not scared… Awww!” The magician laughed and rubbed her palm, itching from casting the spell, against her hip. The girl bent over and gazed at her knee. “Oooh,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt any more! And there’s no hole… Was that magic?” “You’ve guessed it.” “Are you a witch?” “Guessed again. Although I prefer to be called an enchantress. To avoid getting it wrong you can call me by my name, Triss. Just Triss. Come on, Ciri. My horse is waiting at the bottom. We’ll go to Kaer Morhen together.” “I ought to run.” Ciri shook her head. “It’s not good to stop running because you get milk in your muscles. Geralt says—” “Geralt is at the keep?” Ciri frowned, pinched her lips together and shot a glance at the enchantress from beneath her ashen fringe. Triss chuckled again. “All right,” she said. “I won’t ask. A secret’s a secret, and you’re right not to disclose it to someone you hardly know. Come on. When we get there we’ll see who’s at the castle and who isn’t. And don’t worry about your muscles – I know what to do about lactic acid. Ah, here’s my mount. I’ll help you…” She stretched out her hand, but Ciri didn’t need any help. She jumped agilely into the saddle, lightly, almost without taking off. The gelding started, surprised, and stamped, but the girl quickly took up the reins and reassured it. “You know how to handle a horse, I see.” “I can handle anything.” “Move up towards the pommel.” Triss slipped her foot into the stirrup and caught hold of the mane. “Make a bit of room for me. And don’t poke my eye out with that sword.” The gelding, spurred on by her heels, moved off along the stream bed at a walking pace. They rode across another gully and climbed the rounded mountainside. From there they could see the ruins of Kaer Morhen huddled against the stone precipices – the partially demolished trapezium of the defensive wall, the remains of the barbican and gate, the thick, blunt column of the donjon. The gelding snorted and jerked its head, crossing what remained of the bridge over the moat. Triss tugged at the reins. The decaying skulls and 43 skeletons strewn across the river bed made no impression on her. She had seen them before. “I don’t like this,” the girl suddenly remarked. “It’s not as it should be. The dead should to be buried in the ground. Under a barrow. Shouldn’t they?” “They should,” the magician agreed calmly. “I think so, too. But the witchers treat this graveyard as a… reminder.” “Reminder of what?” “Kaer Morhen,” Triss said as she guided the horse towards the shattered arcades, “was assaulted. There was a bloody battle here in which almost all the witchers died. Only those who weren’t in the keep at the time survived.” “Who attacked them? And why?” “I don’t know,” she lied. “It was a terribly long time ago, Ciri. Ask the witchers about it.” “I have,” grunted the girl. “But they didn’t want to tell me.” I can understand that, thought the magician. A child trained to be a witcher, a girl, at that, who has not undergone the mutations, should not be told such things. A child like that should not hear about the massacre. A child like that should not be terrified by the prospect that they too may one day hear words describing it like those which were screamed by the fanatics who marched on Kaer Morhen long ago. Mutant. Monster. Freak. Damned by the gods, a creature contrary to nature. No, I do not blame the witchers for not telling you about it, little Ciri. And I shan’t tell you either. I have even more reason to be silent. Because I am a wizard, and without the aid of wizards those fanatics would never have conquered the castle. And that hide-ous lampoon, that widely distributed Monstrum which stirred the fanatics up and drove them to such wickedness was also, apparently, some wizard’s anonymous work. But I, little Ciri, do not recognise collective responsibility, I do not feel the need to expiate the events which took place half a century before my birth. And the skeletons which are meant to serve as an eternal reminder will ultimately rot away completely, disintegrate into dust and be forgotten, will disappear with the wind which constantly whips the mountainside… “They don’t want to lie like that,” said Ciri suddenly. “They don’t want to be a symbol, a bad conscience or a warning. But neither do they want their dust to be swept away by the wind.” Triss raised her head, hearing a change in the girl’s voice. Immediately she sensed a magical aura, a pulsating and a rush of blood in her temples. She grew tense but did not utter a word, afraid of breaking into or disrupting what 44 was happening. “An ordinary barrow.” Ciri’s voice was becoming more and more unnatural, metallic, cold and menacing. “A mound of earth which will be overgrown with nettles. Death has cold blue eyes, and the height of the obelisk does not matter, nor does the writing engraved on it matter. Who can know that better than you, Triss Merigold, the Fourteenth One of the Hill?” The enchantress froze. She saw the girl’s hands clench the horse’s mane. “You died on the Hill, Triss Merigold.” The strange, evil voice spoke again. “Why have you come here? Go back, go back at once and take this child, the Child of Elder Blood, with you. Return her to those to whom she belongs. Do this, Fourteenth One. Because if you do not you will die once more. The day will come when the Hill will claim you. The mass grave, and the obelisk on which your name is engraved, will claim you.” The gelding neighed loudly, tossing its head. Ciri jerked suddenly, shuddered. “What happened?” asked Triss, trying to control her voice. Ciri coughed, passed both hands through her hair and rubbed her face. “Nn… nothing…” she muttered hesitantly. “I’m tired, that’s why… That’s why I fell asleep. I ought to run…” The magical aura disappeared. Triss experienced a sudden cold wave sweeping through her entire body. She tried to convince herself it was the effect of the defensive spell dying away, but she knew that wasn’t true. She glanced up at the stone blocks of the castle, the black, empty eye-sockets of its ruined loop-holes gaping at her. A shudder ran through her. The horse’s shoes rang against the slabs in the courtyard. The magician quickly leaped from the saddle and held out her hand to Ciri. Taking advantage of the touch of their hands she carefully emitted a magical impulse. And was astounded. Because she didn’t feel anything. No reaction, no reply. And no resistance. In the girl who had, just a moment ago, manifested an exceptionally strong aura there was not a trace of magic. She was now an ordinary, badly dressed child whose hair had been incompetently cut. But a moment ago, this child had been no ordinary child. Triss did not have time to ponder the strange event. The grate of an ironclad door reached her, coming from the dark void of the corridor which gaped behind the battered portal. She slipped the fur cape from her shoulders, removed her fox-fur hat and, with a swift movement of the head, tousled her hair – long, full locks the colour of fresh chestnuts, with a sheen of gold, her pride and identifying characteristic. 45 Ciri sighed with admiration. Triss smiled, pleased by the effect she’d had. Beautiful, long, loose hair was a rarity, an indication of a woman’s position, her status, the sign of a free woman, a woman who belonged to herself. The sign of an unusual woman – because “normal” maidens wore their hair in plaits, “normal” married women hid theirs beneath a caul or a coif. Women of high birth, including queens, curled their hair and styled it. Warriors cut it short. Only druids and magicians – and whores – wore their hair naturally so as to emphasise their independence and freedom. The witchers appeared unexpectedly and silently, as usual, and, also as usual, from nowhere. They stood before her, tall, slim, their arms crossed, the weight of their bodies on their left legs – a position from which, she knew, they could attack in a split second. Ciri stood next to them, in an identical position. In her ludicrous clothes, she looked very funny. “Welcome to Kaer Morhern, Triss.” “Greetings, Geralt.” He had changed. He gave the impression of having aged. Triss knew that, biologically, this was impossible – witchers aged, certainly, but too slowly for an ordinary mortal, or a magician as young as her, to notice the changes. But one glance was enough for her to realise that although mutation could hold back the physical process of ageing, it did not alter the mental. Geralt’s face, slashed by wrinkles, was the best evidence of this. With a sense of deep sorrow Triss tore her gaze away from the white-haired witcher’s eyes. Eyes which had evidently seen too much. What’s more, she saw nothing of what she had expected in those eyes. “Welcome,” he repeated. “We are glad you’ve come.” Eskel stood next to Geralt, resembling the Wolf like a brother apart from the colour of his hair and the long scar which disfigured his cheek. And the youngest of the Kaer Morhen witchers, Lambert, was there with his usual ugly, mocking expression. Vesemir was not there. “Welcome and come in,” said Eskel. “It is as cold and blustery as if someone has hung themselves. Ciri, where are you off to? The invitation does not apply to you. The sun is still high, even if it is obscured. You can still train.” “Hey.” The Enchantress tossed her hair. “Politeness comes cheap in Witchers’ Keep now, I see. Ciri was the first to greet me, and brought me to the castle. She ought to keep me company—” “She is undergoing training here, Merigold.” Lambert grimaced in a parody of a smile. He always called her that: “Merigold,” without giving her a 46 title or a name. Triss hated it. “She is a student, not a major domo. Welcoming guests, even such pleasant ones as yourself, is not one of her duties. We’re off, Ciri.” Triss gave a little shrug, pretending not to see Geralt and Eskel’s embarrassed expressions. She did not say anything, not wanting to embarrass them further. And, above all, she did not want them to see how very intrigued and fascinated she was by the girl. “I’ll take your horse,” offered Geralt, reaching for the reins. Triss surreptitiously shifted her hand and their palms joined. So did their eyes. “I’ll come with you,” she said naturally. “There are a few little things in the saddle-bags which I’ll need.” “You gave me a very disagreeable experience not so long ago,” he muttered as soon as they had entered the stable. “I studied your impressive tombstone with my own eyes. The obelisk in memory of your heroic death at the battle of Sodden. The news that it was a mistake only reached me recently. I can’t understand how anyone could mistake anyone else for you, Triss.” “It’s a long story,” she answered. “I’ll tell you some time. And please forgive me for the disagreeable moment.” “There’s nothing to forgive. I’ve not had many reasons to be happy of late and the feelings I experienced on hearing that you lived cannot compare to any other. Except perhaps what I feel now when I look at you.” Triss felt something explode inside her. Her fear of meeting the whitehaired witcher, which had accompanied her throughout her journey, h