The Wizards Guild has been shattered by a coup and, in the uproar, Geralt was seriously injured. The Witcher is supposed to be a guardian of the innocent, a protector of those in need, a defender against powerful and dangerous monsters that prey on men in dark times. This is the third of the Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski.
Birds were chirping loudly in the undergrowth.
The slopes of the ravine were overgrown with a dense, tangled mass of brambles and barberry; a perfect place for nesting and feeding. Not surprisingly, it was teeming with birds. Greenfinches trilled loudly, redpolls and whitethroats twittered, and chaffinches gave out ringing ‘vink-vink’s every now and then. The chaffinch’s call signals rain, thought Milva, glancing up at the sky. There were no clouds. But chaffinches always warn of the rain. We could do with a little rain.
Such a spot, opposite the mouth of a ravine, was a good place for a hunter, giving a decent chance of a kill–particularly here in Brokilon Forest, which was abundant with game. The dryads, who controlled extensive tracts of the forest, rarely hunted and humans dared to venture into it even less often. Here, a hunter greedy for meat or pelts became the quarry himself. The Brokilon dryads showed no mercy to intruders. Milva had once discovered that for herself.
No, Brokilon was not short of game. Nonetheless, Milva had been waiting in the undergrowth for more than two hours and nothing had crossed her line of sight. She couldn’t hunt on the move; the drought which had lasted for more than a month had lined the forest floor with dry brush and leaves, which rustled and crackled at every step. In conditions like these, only standing still and unseen would lead to success, and a prize.
An admiral butterfly alighted on the nock of her bow. Milva didn’t shoo it away, but watched it closing and opening its wings. She also looked at her bow, a recent acquisition which she still wasn’t tired of admiring. She was a born archer and loved a good weapon. And she was holding the best of the best.
Milva had owned many bows in her life. She had learned to shoot using ordinary ash and yew bows, but soon gave them up for composite reflex bows, of the type elves and dryads used. Elven bows were shorter, lighter and more manageable and, owing to the laminated composition of wood and animal sinew, much ‘quicker’ than yew bows. An arrow shot with them reached the target much more swiftly and along a flatter arc, which considerably reduced the possibility of its being blown off course. The best examples of such weapons, bent fourfold, bore the elven name of zefhar, since the bow’s shape formed that rune. Milva had used zefhars for several years and couldn’t imagine a bow capable of outclassing them.
But she had finally come across one. It was, of course, at the Seaside Bazaar in Cidaris, which was renowned for its diverse selection of strange and rare goods brought by sailors from the most distant corners of the world; from anywhere a frigate or galleon could reach. Whenever she could, Milva would visit the bazaar and look at the foreign bows. It was there she bought the bow she’d thought would serve her for many years. She had thought the zefhar from Zerrikania, reinforced with polished antelope horn, was perfect. For just a year. Twelve months later, at the same market stall, owned by the same trader, she had found another rare beauty.
The bow came from the Far North. It measured just over five feet, was made of mahogany, had a perfectly balanced riser and flat, laminated limbs, glued together from alternating layers of fine wood, boiled sinew and whalebone. It differed from the other composite bows in its construction and also in its price; which is what had initially caught Milva’s attention. When, however, she picked up the bow and flexed it, she paid the price the trader was asking without hesitation or haggling. Four hundred Novigrad crowns. Naturally, she didn’t have such a titanic sum on her; instead she had given up her Zerrikanian zefhar, a bunch of sable pelts, a small, exquisite elven-made medallion, and a coral cameo pendant on a string of river pearls.
But she didn’t regret it. Not ever. The bow was incredibly light and, quite simply, perfectly accurate. Although it wasn’t long it had an impressive kick to its laminated wood and sinew limbs. Equipped with a silk and hemp bowstring stretched between its precisely curved limbs, it generated fifty-five pounds of force from a twenty-four-inch draw. True enough, there were bows that could generate eighty, but Milva considered that excessive. An arrow shot from her whalebone fifty-fiver covered a distance of two hundred feet in two heartbeats, and at a hundred paces still had enough force to impale a stag, while it would pass right through an unarmoured human. Milva rarely hunted animals larger than red deer or heavily armoured men.
The butterfly flew away. The chaffinches continued to make a racket in the undergrowth. And still nothing crossed her line of sight. Milva leant against the trunk of a pine and began to think back. Simply to kill time.
Her first encounter with the Witcher had taken place in July, two weeks after the events on the Isle of Thanedd and the outbreak of war in Dol Angra. Milva had returned to Brokilon after a fortnight’s absence; she was leading the remains of a Scoia’tael commando defeated in Temeria during an attempt to make their way into war-torn Aedirn. The Squirrels had wanted to join the uprising incited by the elves in Dol Blathanna. They had failed, and would have perished had it not been for Milva. But they’d found her, and refuge in Brokilon.
Immediately on her arrival, she had been informed that Aglaïs needed her urgently in Col Serrai. Milva had been a little taken aback. Aglaïs was the leader of the Brokilon healers, and the deep valley of Col Serrai, with its hot springs and caves, was where healings usually took place.
She responded to the call, convinced it concerned some elf who had been healed and needed her help to re-establish contact with his commando. But when she saw the wounded witcher and learned what it was about, she was absolutely furious. She ran from the cave with her hair streaming behind her and offloaded all her anger on Aglaïs.
‘He saw me! He saw my face! Do you understand what danger that puts me in?’
‘No, no I don’t understand,’ replied the healer coldly. ‘That is Gwynbleidd, the Witcher, a friend of Brokilon. He has been here for a fortnight, since the new moon. And more time will pass before he will be able to get up and walk normally. He craves tidings from the world; news about those close to him. Only you can supply him with that.’
‘Tidings from the world? Have you lost your mind, dryad? Do you know what is happening in the world now, beyond the borders of your tranquil forest? A war is raging in Aedirn! Brugge, Temeria and Redania are reduced to havoc, hell, and much slaughter! Those who instigated the rebellion on Thanedd are being hunted high and low! There are spies and an’givare–informers–everywhere; it’s sometimes sufficient to let slip a single word, make a face at the wrong moment, and you’ll meet the hangman’s red-hot iron in the dungeon! And you want me to creep around spying, asking questions, gathering information? Risking my neck? And for whom? For some half-dead witcher? And who is he to me? My own flesh and blood? You’ve truly taken leave of your senses, Aglaïs.’
‘If you’re going to shout,’ interrupted the dryad calmly, ‘let’s go deeper into the forest. He needs peace and quiet.’
Despite herself, Milva looked over at the cave where she had seen the wounded witcher a moment earlier. A strapping lad, she had thought, thin, yet sinewy… His hair’s white, but his belly’s as flat as a young man’s; hard times have been his companion, not lard and beer…
‘He was on Thanedd,’ she stated; she didn’t ask. ‘He’s a rebel.’
‘I know not,’ said Aglaïs, shrugging. ‘He’s wounded. He needs help. I’m not interested in the rest.’
Milva was annoyed. The healer was known for her taciturnity. But Milva had already heard excited accounts from dryads in the eastern marches of Brokilon; she already knew the details of the events that had occurred a fortnight earlier. About the chestnut-haired sorceress who had appeared in Brokilon in a burst of magic; about the cripple with a broken arm and leg she had been dragging with her. A cripple who had turned out to be the Witcher, known to the dryads as Gwynbleidd: the White Wolf.
At first, according to the dryads, no one had known what steps to take. The mutilated witcher screamed and fainted by turns, Aglaïs had applied makeshift dressings, the sorceress cursed and wept. Milva did not believe that at all: who has ever seen a sorceress weep? And later the order came from Duén Canell, from the silver-eyed Eithné, the Lady of Brokilon. Send the sorceress away, said the ruler of the Forest of the Dryads. And tend to the Witcher.
And so they did. Milva had seen as much. He was lying in a cave, in a hollow full of water from the magical Brokilon springs. His limbs, which had been held in place using splints and put in traction, were swathed in a thick layer of the healing climbing plant–conynhaela–and turfs of knitbone. His hair was as white as milk. Unusually, he was conscious: anyone being treated with conynhaela normally lay lifeless and raving as the magic spoke through them…
‘Well?’ the healer’s emotionless voice tore her from her reverie. ‘What is it going to be? What am I to tell him?’
‘To go to hell,’ snapped Milva, lifting her belt, from which hung a heavy purse and a hunting knife. ‘And you can go to hell, too, Aglaïs.’
‘As you wish. I shall not compel you.’
‘You are right. You will not.’
She went into the forest, among the sparse pines, and didn’t look back. She was angry.
Milva knew about the events which had taken place during the first July new moon on the Isle of Thanedd; the Scoia’tael talked about it endlessly. There had been a rebellion during the Mages’ Conclave on the island. Blood had been spilt and heads had rolled. And, as if on a signal, the armies of Nilfgaard had attacked Aedirn and Lyria and the war had begun. And in Temeria, Redania and Kaedwen it was all blamed on the Squirrels. For one thing, because a commando of Scoia’tael had supposedly come to the aid of the rebellious mages on Thanedd. For another, because an elf or possibly half-elf had supposedly stabbed and killed Vizimir, King of Redania. So the furious humans had gone after the Squirrels with a vengeance. The fighting was raging everywhere and elven blood was flowing in rivers…
Ha, thought Milva, perhaps what the priests are saying is true after all and the end of the world and the day of judgement are close at hand? The world is in flames, humans are preying not only on elves but on other humans too. Brothers are raising knives against brothers… And the Witcher is meddling in politics… and joining the rebellion. The Witcher, who is meant to roam the world and kill monsters eager to harm humans! No witcher, for as long as anyone can remember, has ever allowed himself to be drawn into politics or war. Why, there’s even the tale about a foolish king who carried water in a sieve, took a hare as a messenger, and appointed a witcher as a palatine. And yet here we have the Witcher, carved up in a rebellion against the kings and forced to escape punishment in Brokilon. Perhaps it truly is the end of the world!
She started. The short dryad leaning against a pine had eyes and hair the colour of silver. The setting sun gave her head a halo against the background of the motley wall of trees. Milva dropped to one knee and bowed low.
‘My greetings to you, Lady Eithné.’
The ruler of Brokilon stuck a small, crescent-shaped, golden knife into a bast girdle.
‘Arise,’ she said. ‘Let us take a walk. I wish to talk with you.’
They walked for a long time through the shadowy forest; the delicate, silver-haired dryad and the tall, flaxen-haired girl. Neither of them broke the silence for some time.
‘It is long since you were at Duén Canell, Maria.’
‘There was no time, Lady Eithné. It is a long road to Duén Canell from the River Ribbon, and I… But of course you know.’
‘That I do. Are you weary?’
‘The elves need my help. I’m helping them on your orders, after all.’
‘At my request.’
‘Indeed. At your request.’
‘And I have one more.’
‘As I thought. The Witcher?’
Milva stopped and turned back, breaking an overhanging twig of honeysuckle with a sharp movement, turning it over in her fingers before flinging it to the ground.
‘For half a year,’ she said softly, looking into the dryad’s silvery eyes, ‘I have risked my life guiding elves from their decimated commandos to Brokilon… When they are rested and their wounds healed, I lead them out again… Is that so little? Haven’t I done enough? Every new moon, I set out on the trail in the dark of the night. I’ve begun to fear the sun as much as a bat or an owl does…’
‘No one knows the forest trails better than you.’
‘I will not learn anything in the greenwood. I hear that the Witcher wants me to gather news, by moving among humans. He’s a rebel, the ears of the an’givare prick up at the sound of his name. I must be careful not to show myself in the cities. And what if someone recognises me? The memories still endure, the blood is not yet dry… for there was a lot of blood, Lady Eithné.’
‘A great deal.’ The silver eyes of the old dryad were alien, cold; inscrutable. ‘A great deal, indeed.’
‘Were they to recognise me, they would impale me.’
‘You are prudent. You are cautious and vigilant.’
‘In order to gather the tidings the Witcher requests, it is necessary to shed vigilance. It is necessary to ask. And now it is dangerous to demonstrate curiosity. Were they to capture me—’
‘You have contacts.’
‘They would torture me. Until I died. Or grind me down in Drakenborg—’
‘But you are indebted to me.’
Milva turned her head away and bit her lip.
‘It’s true, I am,’ she said bitterly. ‘I have not forgotten.’
She narrowed her eyes, her face suddenly contorted, and she clenched her teeth tightly. The memory shone faintly beneath her eyelids; the ghastly moonlight of that night. The pain in her ankle suddenly returned, held tight by the leather snare, and the pain in her joints, after they had been cruelly wrenched. She heard again the soughing of leaves as the tree shot suddenly upright… Her screaming, moaning; the desperate, frantic, horrified struggle and the invasive sense of fear which flowed over her when she realised she couldn’t free herself… The cry and fear, the creak of the rope, the rippling shadows; the swinging, unnatural, upturned earth, upturned sky, trees with upturned tops, pain, blood pounding in her temples…
And at dawn the dryads, all around her, in a ring… The distant silvery laughter… A puppet on a string! Swing, swing, marionette, little head hanging down… And her own, unnatural, wheezing cry. And then darkness.
‘Indeed, I have a debt,’ she said through clenched teeth. ‘Indeed, for I was a hanged man cut from the noose. As long as I live, I see, I shall never pay off that debt.’
‘Everyone has some kind of debt,’ replied Eithné. ‘Such is life, Maria Barring. Debts and liabilities, obligations, gratitude, payments… Doing something for someone. Or perhaps for ourselves? For in fact we are always paying ourselves back and not someone else. Each time we are indebted we pay off the debt to ourselves. In each of us lies a creditor and a debtor at once and the art is for the reckoning to tally inside us. We enter the world as a minute part of the life we are given, and from then on we are ever paying off debts. To ourselves. For ourselves. In order for the final reckoning to tally.’
‘Is this human dear to your, Lady Eithné? That… that witcher?’
‘He is. Although he knows not of it. Return to Col Serrai, Maria Barring. Go to him.