Strona główna Sword of Destiny
Sword of DestinyAndrzej Sapkowski [Sapkowski, Andrzej]
Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety.
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Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety. OceanofPDF.com 2 Andrzej Sapkowski Sword of Destiny The Witcher: 2 ePub r1.0 Watcher 25.03.17 3 Original title: Miecz przeznaczenia Andrzej Sapkowski, 1993 Translator: David French Cover design: Watcher Digital editor: Watcher ePub base r1.2 4 THE BOUNDS OF REASON 5 I ‘He won’t get out of there, I’m telling you,’ the pockmarked man said, shaking his head with conviction. ‘It’s been an hour and a quarter since he went down. That’s the end of ’im.’ The townspeople, crammed among the ruins, stared in silence at the black hole gaping in the debris, at the rubble-strewn opening. A fat man in a yellow jerkin shifted from one foot to the other, cleared his throat and took off his crumpled biretta. ‘Let’s wait a little longer,’ he said, wiping the sweat from his thinning eyebrows. ‘For what?’ the spotty-faced man snarled. ‘Have you forgotten, Alderman, that a basilisk is lurking in that there dungeon? No one who goes in there comes out. Haven’t enough people perished? Why wait?’ ‘But we struck a deal,’ the fat man muttered hesitantly. ‘This just isn’t right.’ ‘We made a deal with a living man, Alderman,’ said the spotty-faced man’s companion, a giant in a leather butcher’s apron. ‘And now he’s dead, sure as eggs is eggs. It was plain from the start he was heading to his doom, just like the others. Why, he even went in without a looking glass, taking only a sword. And you can’t kill a basilisk without a looking glass, everyone knows that.’ ‘You’ve saved yourself a shilling, Alderman,’ the spotty-faced man added. ‘For there’s no one to pay for the basilisk. So get off home nice and easy. And we’ll take the sorcerer’s horse and chattels. Shame to let goods go to waste.’ ‘Aye,’ the butcher said. ‘A sturdy mare, and saddlebags nicely stuffed. Let’s take a peek at what’s inside.’ ‘This isn’t right. What are you doing?’ ‘Quiet, Alderman, and stay out of this, or you’re in for a hiding,’ the spotty-faced man warned. ‘Sturdy mare,’ the butcher repeated. ‘Leave that horse alone, comrade.’ The butcher turned slowly towards the newcomer, who had appeared from a recess in the wall, and the people gathered around the entrance to the dungeon. The stranger had thick, curly, chestnut hair. He was wearing a dark brown tunic over a padded coat and high riding boots. And he was not carrying a 6 weapon. ‘Move away from the horse,’ he repeated, smiling venomously. ‘What is this? Another man’s horse, saddlebags and property, and you can’t take your watery little eyes off them, can’t wait to get your scabby mitts on them? Is that fitting behaviour?’ The spotty-faced man, slowly sliding a hand under his coat, glanced at the butcher. The butcher nodded, and beckoned towards a part of the crowd, from which stepped two stocky men with close-cropped hair. They were holding clubs of the kind used to stun animals in a slaughterhouse. ‘Who are you,’ the spotty-faced man asked, still holding his hand inside his coat, ‘to tell us what is right and what is not?’ ‘That is not your concern, comrade.’ ‘You carry no weapon.’ ‘’Tis true.’ The stranger smiled even more venomously. ‘I do not.’ ‘That’s too bad.’ The spotty-faced man removed his hand–and with it a long knife–from inside his coat. ‘It is very unfortunate that you do not.’ The butcher also drew a knife, as long as a cutlass. The other two men stepped forward, raising their clubs. ‘I have no need,’ the stranger said, remaining where he stood. ‘My weapons follow me.’ Two young women came out from behind the ruins, treading with soft, sure steps. The crowd immediately parted, then stepped back and thinned out. The two women grinned, flashing their teeth and narrowing their eyes, from whose corners broad, tattooed stripes ran towards their ears. The muscles of their powerful thighs were visible beneath lynx skins wrapped around their hips, and on their sinuous arms, naked above their mail gloves. Sabre hilts stuck up behind their shoulders, which were also protected by chainmail. Slowly, very slowly, the spotty-faced man bent his knees and dropped his knife on the ground. A rattle of stones and a scraping sound echoed from the hole in the rubble, and then two hands, clinging to the jagged edge of the wall, emerged from the darkness. After the hands then appeared, in turn, a head of white hair streaked with brick dust, a pale face, and a sword hilt projecting above the shoulders. The crowd murmured. The white-haired man reached down to haul a grotesque shape from the hole; a bizarre bulk smeared in blood-soaked dust. Holding the creature by its long, reptilian tail, he threw it without a word at the fat Alderman’s feet. He 7 sprang back, tripping against a collapsed fragment of wall, and looked at the curved, birdlike beak, webbed wings and the hooked talons on the scaly feet. At the swollen dewlap, once crimson, now a dirty russet. And at the glazed, sunken eyes. ‘There’s your basilisk,’ the white-haired man said, brushing the dust from his trousers, ‘as agreed. Now my two hundred lintars, if you please. Honest lintars, not too clipped. I’ll check them, you can count on it.’ The Alderman drew out a pouch with trembling hands. The white-haired man looked around, and then fixed his gaze for a moment on the spotty-faced man and the knife lying by his foot. He looked at the man in the dark brown tunic and at the young women in the lynx skins. ‘As usual,’ he said, taking the pouch from the Alderman’s trembling hands, ‘I risk my neck for you for a paltry sum, and in the meantime you go after my things. You never change; a pox on the lot of you.’ ‘Haven’t been touched,’ the butcher muttered, moving back. The men with the clubs had melted into the crowd long before. ‘Your things haven’t been touched, sir.’ ‘That pleases me greatly,’ the white-haired man smiled. At the sight of the smile burgeoning on his pale face, like a wound bursting, the small crowd began to quickly disperse. ‘And for that reason, friend, you shall also remain untouched. Go in peace. But make haste.’ The spotty-faced man was also retreating. The spots on his white face were unpleasantly conspicuous. ‘Hey, stop there,’ the man in the dark brown tunic said to him. ‘You’ve forgotten something.’ ‘What is that… sir?’ ‘You drew a knife on me.’ The taller of the women suddenly swayed, legs planted widely apart, and twisted her hips. Her sabre, which no one saw her draw, hissed sharply through the air. The spotty-faced man’s head flew upwards in an arc and fell into the gaping opening to the dungeon. His body toppled stiffly and heavily, like a tree being felled, among the crushed bricks. The crowd let out a scream. The second woman, hand on her sword hilt, whirled around nimbly, protecting her partner’s back. Needlessly. The crowd, stumbling and falling over on the rubble, fled towards the town as fast as they could. The Alderman loped at the front with impressive strides, outdistancing the huge butcher by only a few yards. ‘An excellent stroke,’ the white-haired man commented coldly, shielding 8 his eyes from the sun with a black-gloved hand. ‘An excellent stroke from a Zerrikanian sabre. I bow before the skill and beauty of the free warriors. I’m Geralt of Rivia.’ ‘And I,’ the stranger in the dark brown tunic pointed at the faded coat of arms on the front of his garment, depicting three black birds sitting in a row in the centre of a uniformly gold field, ‘am Borch, also known as Three Jackdaws. And these are my girls, Téa and Véa. That’s what I call them, because you’ll twist your tongue on their right names. They are both, as you correctly surmised, Zerrikanian.’ ‘Thanks to them, it appears, I still have my horse and belongings. I thank you, warriors. My thanks to you too, sir.’ ‘Three Jackdaws. And you can drop the “sir”. Does anything detain you in this little town, Geralt of Rivia?’ ‘Quite the opposite.’ ‘Excellent. I have a proposal. Not far from here, at the crossroads on the road to the river port, is an inn. It’s called the Pensive Dragon. The vittals there have no equal in these parts. I’m heading there with food and lodging in mind. It would be my honour should you choose to keep me company.’ ‘Borch.’ The white-haired man turned around from his horse and looked into the stranger’s bright eyes. ‘I wouldn’t want anything left unclear between us. I’m a witcher.’ ‘I guessed as much. But you said it as you might have said “I’m a leper”.’ ‘There are those,’ Geralt said slowly, ‘who prefer the company of lepers to that of a witcher.’ ‘There are also those,’ Three Jackdaws laughed, ‘who prefer sheep to girls. Ah, well, one can only sympathise with the former and the latter. I repeat my proposal.’ Geralt took off his glove and shook the hand being proffered. ‘I accept, glad to have made your acquaintance.’ ‘Then let us go, for I hunger.’ 9 II The innkeeper wiped the rough table top with a cloth, bowed and smiled. Two of his front teeth were missing. ‘Right, then…’ Three Jackdaws looked up for a while at the blackened ceiling and the spiders dancing about beneath it. ‘First… First, beer. To save your legs, an entire keg. And to go with the beer… What do you propose with the beer, comrade?’ ‘Cheese?’ risked the innkeeper. ‘No,’ Borch grimaced. ‘We’ll have cheese for dessert. We want something sour and spicy with the beer.’ ‘At your service,’ the innkeeper smiled even more broadly. His two front teeth were not the only ones he lacked. ‘Elvers with garlic in olive oil and green pepper pods in vinegar or marinated…’ ‘Very well. We’ll take both. And then that soup I once ate here, with diverse molluscs, little fish and other tasty morsels floating in it.’ ‘Log drivers’ soup?’ ‘The very same. And then roast lamb with onions. And then three-score crayfish. Throw as much dill into the pot as you can. After that, sheep’s cheese and lettuce. And then we’ll see.’ ‘At your service. Is that for everyone? I mean, four times?’ The taller Zerrikanian shook her head, patting herself knowingly on her waist, which was now hugged by a tight, linen blouse. ‘I forgot.’ Three Jackdaws winked at Geralt. ‘The girls are watching their figures. Lamb just for the two of us, innkeeper. Serve the beer right now, with those elvers. No, wait a while, so they don’t go cold. We didn’t come here to stuff ourselves, but simply to spend some time in conversation.’ ‘Very good.’ The innkeeper bowed once more. ‘Prudence is a matter of import in your profession. Give me your hand, comrade.’ Gold coins jingled. The innkeeper opened his gap-toothed mouth to the limit. ‘That is not an advance,’ Three Jackdaws announced, ‘it is a bonus. And now hurry off to the kitchen, good fellow.’ It was warm in the snug. Geralt unbuckled his belt, took off his tunic and rolled up his shirtsleeves. ‘I see,’ he said, ‘that you aren’t troubled by a shortage of funds. Do you 10 live on the privileges of a knightly estate?’ ‘Partially,’ Three Jackdaws smiled, without offering further details. They dealt quickly with the elvers and a quarter of the keg. Neither of the two Zerrikanians stinted on the beer, and soon were both in visible good humour. They were whispering something to each other. Véa, the taller one, suddenly burst out in throaty laughter. ‘Are the warriors versed in the Common Speech?’ Geralt asked quietly, sneaking a sideways glance at them. ‘Poorly. And they are not garrulous. For which they deserve credit. How do you find the soup, Geralt?’ ‘Mmm.’ ‘Let us drink.’ ‘Mmm.’ ‘Geralt,’ Three Jackdaws began, putting aside his spoon and hiccoughing in a dignified manner, ‘I wish to return, for a moment, to the conversation we had on the road. I understand that you, a witcher, wander from one end of the world to the other, and should you come across a monster along the way, you kill it. And you earn money doing that. Does that describe the witcher’s trade?’ ‘More or less.’ ‘And does it ever happen that someone specifically summons you somewhere? On a special commission, let’s say. Then what? You go and carry it out?’ ‘That depends on who asks me and why.’ ‘And for how much?’ ‘That too,’ the Witcher shrugged. ‘Prices are going up, and one has to live, as a sorceress acquaintance of mine used to say.’ ‘Quite a selective approach; very practical, I’d say. But at the root of it lies some idea, Geralt. The conflict between the forces of Order and the forces of Chaos, as a sorcerer acquaintance of mine used to say. I imagine that you carry out your mission, defending people from Evil, always and everywhere. Without distinction. You stand on a clearly defined side of the palisade.’ ‘The forces of Order, the forces of Chaos. Awfully high-flown words, Borch. You desperately want to position me on one side of the palisade in a conflict, which is generally thought to be perennial, began long before us and will endure long after we’ve gone. On which side does the farrier, shoeing horses, stand? Or our innkeeper, hurrying here with a cauldron of lamb? What, in your opinion, defines the border between Chaos and Order?’ 11 ‘A very simple thing,’ said Three Jackdaws, and looked him straight in the eye. ‘That which represents Chaos is menace, is the aggressive side. While Order is the side being threatened, in need of protection. In need of a defender. But let us drink. And make a start on the lamb.’ ‘Rightly said.’ The Zerrikanians, watching their figures, were taking a break from eating, time they spent drinking more quickly. Véa, leaning over on her companion’s shoulder, whispered something again, brushing the table top with her plait. Téa, the shorter of the two, laughed loudly, cheerfully narrowing her tattooed eyelids. ‘Yes,’ Borch said, picking a bone clean. ‘Let us continue our talk, if you will. I understand you aren’t keen on being placed on either side. You do your job.’ ‘That’s correct.’ ‘But you cannot escape the conflict between Chaos and Order. Although it was your comparison, you are not a farrier. I’ve seen you work. You go down into a dungeon among some ruins and come out with a slaughtered basilisk. There is, comrade, a difference between shoeing horses and killing basilisks. You said that if the payment is fair, you’ll hurry to the end of the world and dispatch the monster you’re asked to. Let’s say a fierce dragon is wreaking havoc on a—’ ‘Bad example,’ Geralt interrupted. ‘You see, right away you’ve mixed up Chaos and Order. Because I do not kill dragons; and they, without doubt, represent Chaos.’ ‘How so?’ Three Jackdaws licked his fingers. ‘Well, I never! After all, among all monsters, dragons are probably the most bestial, the cruellest and fiercest. The most revolting of reptiles. They attack people, breathe fire and carry off, you know, virgins. There’s no shortage of tales like that. It can’t be that you, a witcher, don’t have a few dragons on your trophy list.’ ‘I don’t hunt dragons,’ Geralt said dryly. ‘I hunt forktails, for sure. And dracolizards. And flying drakes. But not true dragons; the green, the black or the red. Take note, please.’ ‘You astonish me,’ Three Jackdaws said. ‘Very well, I’ve taken note. In any case, that’s enough about dragons for the moment, I see something red on the horizon and it is surely our crayfish. Let us drink!’ Their teeth crunched through the red shells, and they sucked out the white flesh. The salt water, stinging painfully, trickled down over their wrists. Borch poured the beer, by now scraping the ladle across the bottom of the keg. The 12 Zerrikanians were even more cheerful, the two of them looking around the inn and smiling ominously. The Witcher was convinced they were searching out an opportunity for a brawl. Three Jackdaws must also have noticed, because he suddenly shook a crayfish he was holding by the tail at them. The women giggled and Téa pouted her lips for a kiss and winked. Combined with her tattooed face, this made for a gruesome sight. ‘They are as savage as wildcats,’ Three Jackdaws murmured to Geralt. ‘They need watching. With them, comrade, suddenly–before you know it–the floor’s covered in guts. But they’re worth every penny. If you knew what they’re capable of…’ ‘I know,’ Geralt nodded. ‘You couldn’t find a better escort. Zerrikanians are born warriors, trained to fight from childhood.’ ‘I didn’t mean that.’ Borch spat a crayfish claw onto the table. ‘I meant what they’re like in bed.’ Geralt glanced anxiously at the women. They both smiled. Véa reached for the dish with a swift, almost imperceptible movement. Looking at the Witcher through narrowed eyes, she bit open a shell with a crack. Her lips glistened with the salt water. Three Jackdaws belched loudly. ‘And so, Geralt,’ he said. ‘You don’t hunt dragons; neither green nor any other colour. I’ve made a note of it. And why, may I ask, only those three colours?’ ‘Four, to be precise.’ ‘You mentioned three.’ ‘Dragons interest you, Borch. For any particular reason?’ ‘No. Pure curiosity.’ ‘Aha. Well, about those colours: it’s customary to define true dragons like that, although they are not precise terms. Green dragons, the most common, are actually greyish, like ordinary dracolizards. Red dragons are in fact reddish or brick-red. It’s customary to call the large dark brown ones “black”. White dragons are the rarest. I’ve never seen one. They occur in the distant North. Reputedly.’ ‘Interesting. And do you know what other dragons I’ve also heard about?’ ‘I do,’ Geralt sipped his beer. ‘The same ones I’ve heard about. Golden dragons. There are no such creatures.’ ‘On what grounds do you claim that? Because you’ve never seen one? Apparently, you haven’t seen a white one either.’ ‘That’s not the point. Beyond the seas, in Ofir and Zangvebar, there are white horses with black stripes. I haven’t seen them, but I know they exist. 13 But golden dragons are mythical creatures. Fabled. Like the phoenix, let’s say. There are no phoenixes or golden dragons.’ Véa, leaning on her elbows, looked at him curiously. ‘You must know what you’re talking about, you’re a witcher,’ Borch ladled beer from the keg, ‘but I think that every myth, every fable, must have some roots. Something lies among those roots.’ ‘It does,’ Geralt confirmed. ‘Most often a dream, a wish, a desire, a yearning. Faith that there are no limits to possibility. And occasionally chance.’ ‘Precisely, chance. Perhaps there once was a golden dragon, an accidental, unique mutation?’ ‘If there were, it met the fate of all mutants.’ The Witcher turned his head away. ‘It differed too much to endure.’ ‘Ha,’ Three Jackdaws said, ‘now you are denying the laws of nature, Geralt. My sorcerer acquaintance was wont to say that every being has its own continuation in nature and survives in some way or another. The end of one is the beginning of another, there are no limits to possibility; or at least nature doesn’t know any.’ ‘Your sorcerer acquaintance was a great optimist. But he failed to take one thing into consideration: a mistake committed by nature. Or by those who trifle with it. Golden dragons and other similar mutants, were they to exist, couldn’t survive. For a very natural limit of possibilities prevents it.’ ‘What limit is that?’ ‘Mutants,’ the muscles in Geralt’s jaw twitched violently, ‘mutants are sterile, Borch. Only in fables survives what cannot survive in nature. Only myths and fables do not know the limits of possibility.’ Three Jackdaws said nothing. Geralt looked at the Zerrikanians, at their faces, suddenly grown serious. Véa unexpectedly leant over towards him and put a hard, muscular arm around his neck. He felt her lips, wet from beer, on his cheek. ‘They like you,’ Three Jackdaws said slowly. ‘Well, I’ll be damned, they like you.’ ‘What’s strange about that?’ the Witcher smiled sadly. ‘Nothing. But we must drink to it. Innkeeper. Another keg!’ ‘Take it easy. A pitcher at most.’ ‘Two pitchers!’ Three Jackdaws yelled. ‘Téa, I have to go out for a while.’ The Zerrikanian stood up, took her sabre from the bench and swept the room with a wistful gaze. Although previously, as the Witcher had observed, 14 several pairs of eyes had lit up greedily at the sight of Borch’s bulging purse, no one seemed in a hurry to go after him as he staggered slightly towards the door to the courtyard. Téa shrugged, following her employer. ‘What is your real name?’ Geralt asked the one who had remained at the table. Véa flashed her white teeth. Her blouse was very loosely laced, almost to the limits of possibility. The Witcher had no doubt it was intentionally provocative. ‘Alvéaenerle.’ ‘Pretty.’ The Witcher was sure the Zerrikanian would purse her lips and wink at him. He was not mistaken. ‘Véa?’ ‘Mm?’ ‘Why do you ride with Borch? You, free warriors? Would you mind telling me?’ ‘Mm.’ ‘Mm, what?’ ‘He is…’ the Zerrikanian, frowning, searched for the words. ‘He is… the most… beautiful.’ The Witcher nodded. Not for the first time, the criteria by which women judged the attractiveness of men remained a mystery to him. Three Jackdaws lurched back into the snug fastening his trousers, and issued loud instructions to the innkeeper. Téa, walking two steps behind him, feigning boredom, looked around the inn, and the merchants and log drivers carefully avoided her gaze. Véa was sucking the contents from another crayfish, and continually throwing the Witcher meaningful glances. ‘I’ve ordered us an eel each, baked this time,’ Three Jackdaws sat down heavily, his unfastened belt clinking. ‘I struggled with those crayfish and seem to have worked up an appetite. And I’ve organised a bed for you, Geralt. There’s no sense in you roaming around tonight. We can still amuse ourselves. Here’s to you, girls!’ ‘Vessekheal,’ Véa said, saluting him with her beaker. Téa winked and stretched; and her bosom, contrary to Geralt’s expectations, did not split the front of her blouse. ‘Let’s make merry!’ Three Jackdaws leant across the table and slapped Téa on the backside. ‘Let’s make merry, Witcher. Hey, landlord! Over here!’ The innkeeper scuttled briskly over, wiping his hands on his apron. ‘Could you lay your hands on a tub? The kind you launder clothes in, sturdy and large?’ 15 ‘How large, sir?’ ‘For four people.’ ‘For… four…’ the innkeeper opened his mouth. ‘For four,’ Three Jackdaws confirmed, drawing a full purse from his pocket. ‘I could.’ The innkeeper licked his lips. ‘Splendid,’ Borch laughed. ‘Have it carried upstairs to my room and filled with hot water. With all speed, comrade. And have beer brought there too. Three pitchers.’ The Zerrikanians giggled and winked at the same time. ‘Which one do you prefer?’ Three Jackdaws asked. ‘Eh? Geralt?’ The Witcher scratched the back of his head. ‘I know it’s difficult to choose,’ said Three Jackdaws, understandingly. ‘I occasionally have difficulty myself. Never mind, we’ll give it some thought in the tub. Hey, girls. Help me up the stairs!’ 16 III There was a barrier on the bridge. The way was barred by a long, solid beam set on wooden trestles. In front and behind it stood halberdiers in studded leather coats and mail hoods. A purple banner bearing the emblem of a silver gryphon fluttered lazily above the barrier. ‘What the devil?’ Three Jackdaws said in surprise, approaching at a walk. ‘Is there no way through?’ ‘Got a safe-conduct?’ the nearest halberdier asked, without taking the stick he was chewing, either from hunger or to kill time, from his mouth. ‘Safe-conduct? What is it, the plague? Or war, perhaps? On whose orders do you obstruct the way?’ ‘Those of King Niedamir, Lord of Caingorn,’ the guardsman replied, shifting the stick to the other side of his mouth and pointing at the banner. ‘Without a safe-conduct you can’t go up.’ ‘Some sort of idiocy,’ Geralt said in a tired voice. ‘This isn’t Caingorn, but Barefield’s territory. Barefield, not Caingorn, levies tolls from the bridges on the Braa. What has Niedamir to do with it?’ ‘Don’t ask me,’ the guard said, spitting out his stick. ‘Not my business. I’m here to check safe-conducts. If you want, talk to our decurion.’ ‘And where might he be?’ ‘He’s basking in the sun over there, behind the toll collector’s lodgings,’ the halberdier said, looking not at Geralt but at the naked thighs of the Zerrikanians, who were stretching languidly in their saddles. Behind the toll collector’s cottage sat a guard on a pile of dry logs, drawing a woman in the sand with the end of his halberd. It was actually a certain part of a woman, seen from an unusual perspective. Beside him, a slim man with a fanciful plum bonnet pulled down over his eyes, adorned with a silver buckle and a long, twitching heron’s feather, was reclining, gently plucking the strings of a lute. Geralt knew that bonnet and that feather, which were famed from the Buina to the Yaruga, known in manor houses, fortresses, inns, taverns and whorehouses. Particularly whorehouses. ‘Dandelion!’ ‘Geralt the Witcher!’ A pair of cheerful cornflower-blue eyes shone from under the bonnet, now shoved back on his head. ‘Well, I never! You’re here too? You don’t have a safe-conduct by any chance?’ 17 ‘What’s everyone’s problem with this safe-conduct?’ The Witcher dismounted. ‘What’s happening here, Dandelion? We wanted to cross the Braa, myself and this knight, Borch Three Jackdaws, and our escort. And we cannot, it appears.’ ‘I can’t either,’ Dandelion stood up, took off his bonnet and bowed to the Zerrikanians with exaggerated courtesy. ‘They don’t want to let me cross either. This decurion here won’t let me, Dandelion, the most celebrated minstrel and poet within a thousand miles, through, although he’s also an artist, as you can see.’ ‘I won’t let anyone cross without a safe-conduct,’ the decurion said resolutely, at which he completed his drawing with a final detail, prodding the end of his halberd shaft in the sand. ‘No matter,’ the Witcher said. ‘We’ll ride along the left bank. The road to Hengfors is longer that way, but needs must.’ ‘To Hengfors?’ the bard said, surprised. ‘Aren’t you following Niedamir, Geralt? And the dragon?’ ‘What dragon?’ Three Jackdaws asked with interest. ‘You don’t know? You really don’t know? Oh, I shall have to tell you everything, gentlemen. I’m waiting here, in any case; perhaps someone who knows me will come with a safe-conduct and let me join them. Please be seated.’ ‘Just a moment,’ Three Jackdaws said. ‘The sun is almost a quarter to the noontide and I have an awful thirst. We cannot talk on an empty stomach. Téa, Véa, head back to the town at a trot and buy a keg.’ ‘I like the cut of your jib, sire…’ ‘Borch, also known as Three Jackdaws.’ ‘Dandelion, also known as the Unparalleled. By certain girls.’ ‘Talk, Dandelion,’ the Witcher said impatiently. ‘We aren’t going to loiter around here till evening.’ The bard seized the fingerboard of his lute and plucked the strings vigorously. ‘How would you prefer it, in verse or in normal speech?’ ‘Normal speech.’ ‘As you please,’ Dandelion said, not putting his lute down. ‘Listen then, noble gentlemen, to what occurred a week ago near the free town of Barefield. ‘Twas thus, that at the crack of dawn, when the rising sun had barely tinged pink the shrouds of mist hanging pendent above the meadows —’ 18 ‘It was supposed to be normal speech,’ Geralt reminded him. ‘Isn’t it? Very well, very well. I understand. Concise, without metaphors. A dragon alighted on the pastures outside Barefield.’ ‘Oh, come on,’ the Witcher said. ‘It doesn’t seem very likely to me. No one has seen a dragon in these parts for years. Wasn’t it just a common or garden dracolizard? Dracolizard specimens can occasionally be as large as—’ ‘Don’t insult me, Witcher. I know what I’m talking about. I saw it. As luck would have it I was at the market in Barefield and saw it all with my own eyes. The ballad’s composed, but you didn’t want—’ ‘Go on. Was it big?’ ‘The length of three horses. No taller than a horse at the withers, but much fatter. Sand grey.’ ‘In other words, green.’ ‘Yes. It swooped down unexpectedly, flew right into a flock of sheep, scattered the shepherds, did for about a dozen beasts, devoured four of them and flew away.’ ‘Flew away…’ Geralt shook his head. ‘And that was all?’ ‘No. Because it came again the next day, this time nearer to the town. It swooped down on a knot of women washing their linen on the banks of the Braa. And how they bolted, old friend! I’ve never laughed so much. Then the dragon circled Barefield a couple of times and flew towards the pastures, where it fell on the sheep again. Only then did the chaos and confusion begin, because few had believed the herdsmen before. The mayor called out the town constabulary and the guilds, but before they could form up, the plebs took matters into their own hands and did for it.’ ‘How?’ ‘In a forceful peasant manner. The local master cobbler, a certain Sheepbagger, came up with a way of dealing with the brute. They killed a sheep, stuffed it full of hellebore, deadly nightshade, poison parsley, brimstone and cobbler’s tar. Just to be sure, the local apothecary poured in two quarts of his concoction for carbuncles, and the priest from the temple of Kreve said prayers over the carcass. Then they stood the poisoned sheep among the flock, held up by a stake. If truth be told, no one believed the dragon would be lured by that shit, which stank to high heaven, but reality surpassed our expectations. Ignoring the living and bleating baa-lambs, the reptile swallowed the bait and the stake.’ ‘And what then? Go on, Dandelion.’ ‘What do you think I’m doing? I am telling you. Listen to what happened 19 next. In less time than a skilled man needs to unlace a woman’s corset, the dragon suddenly began to roar and vent smoke from its front and rear ends. It turned somersaults, tried to take off, and then collapsed and lay still. Two volunteers set off to check whether the poisoned reptile was still breathing. It was the local gravedigger and the town halfwit, the fruit of the union between the retarded daughter of a woodcutter and a squad of hired pikemen who marched through Barefield at the time of Warlord Nelumbo’s rebellion.’ ‘Now you’re lying, Dandelion.’ ‘Not lying, just embellishing, and there’s a difference.’ ‘Not much of one. Speak on, we’re wasting time.’ ‘Well then, as I was saying, the gravedigger and the doughty idiot set off as scouts. Afterwards, we built them a small, but pleasing, burial mound.’ ‘Aha,’ Borch said, ‘that means the dragon was still alive.’ ‘And how,’ Dandelion said cheerfully. ‘It was alive. But it was so weak it didn’t devour either the gravedigger or the halfwit, it just lapped up their blood. And then, to general consternation, it flew away, taking flight with some difficulty. Every furlong it fell with a clatter and then rose again. It walked occasionally, dragging its back legs. Some courageous individuals followed it, keeping it in view. And do you know what?’ ‘Speak, Dandelion.’ ‘The dragon disappeared among the ravines of the Kestrel Mountains, near the source of the Braa, and hid in the caves there.’ ‘Now everything’s clear,’ Geralt said. ‘The dragon has probably lived in those caves for centuries, in a state of torpor. I’ve heard of cases like that. And his treasure hoard must be there too. Now I know why they’re blocking the bridge. Someone wants to get his greedy hands on the treasure. And that someone is Niedamir of Caingorn.’ ‘Exactly,’ the troubadour confirmed. ‘The whole of Barefield is fair seething for that reason, because they claim that the dragon and its hoard belongs to them. But they hesitate to cross Niedamir. Niedamir’s a young whelp, who hasn’t started shaving, but he’s already proved it doesn’t pay to fall foul of him. And he wants that dragon, like the very devil, which is why he’s reacted so fast.’ ‘Wants the treasure, you mean.’ ‘Actually, more the dragon than the treasure. For you see, Niedamir has his eye on the kingdom of Malleore. A princess, of a–so to speak–beddable age was left there after the sudden and odd death of the prince. The noblemen of Malleore look on Niedamir and the other suitors with reluctance, for they 20 know that the new ruler will keep them on a short leash–unlike the callow princess. So they dug up some dusty old prophecy saying that the mitre and the lass’s hand belong to the man who vanquishes the dragon. Because no one had seen a dragon there for ages, they thought they were safe. Niedamir, of course, laughed at the legend, took Malleore by force, and that was that, but when the news of the Barefield dragon got out, he realised he could hoist the Malleore nobility by their own petard. If he showed up there clutching the dragon’s head, the people would greet him like a monarch sent by the gods, and the noblemen wouldn’t dare breathe a word. Does it surprise you, then, that he rushed after the dragon like a scalded cat? Particularly since it’s dead on its feet? For him it’s a real godsend, a stroke of luck, by thunder.’ ‘And he’s shut the competition out.’ ‘So it would appear. And the people of Barefield. Except that he sent riders with safe-conducts throughout the countryside. They’re for the ones who are supposed to actually kill the dragon, because Niedamir himself is in no hurry to walk into a cave wielding a sword. In a flash he drafted in the most renowned dragon slayers. You probably know most of them, Geralt.’ ‘Possibly. Who has turned up?’ ‘Eyck of Denesle, to begin with.’ ‘Damn…’ the Witcher whistled softly. ‘The pious and virtuous Eyck, a knight without flaw or blemish, in person.’ ‘Do you know him, Geralt?’ Borch asked. ‘Is he really the scourge of dragons?’ ‘Not just dragons. Eyck is a match for any monster. He’s even killed manticores and gryphons. He’s dispatched a few dragons, so I’ve heard. He’s good. But he spoils my business, the swine, because he doesn’t take any money for it. Who else, Dandelion?’ ‘The Crinfrid Reavers.’ ‘Well, that’s the dragon done for. Even if it has recovered. That trio are a good team. They fight pretty dirty, but they’re effective. They’ve wiped out all the dracolizards and forktails in Redania, not to mention three red and one black dragon which they also dispatched, and that’s no mean feat. Is that everybody?’ ‘No. Six dwarves under the command of Yarpen Zigrin have joined in.’ ‘I don’t know him.’ ‘But you have heard of the dragon Ocvist from Quartz Mountain?’ ‘Yes. And I saw some gemstones from its hoard. There were sapphires of remarkable colour and diamonds as large as cherries.’ 21 ‘Well, know you that because Yarpen Zigrin and his dwarves did for Ocvist. A ballad was composed about it, but it was lousy because it wasn’t one of mine. You’ve missed nothing if you haven’t heard it.’ ‘Is that everybody?’ ‘Yes. Not counting you. You claim not to know about the dragon. Who knows, perhaps that’s true? But now you do. Well?’ ‘Nothing. That dragon doesn’t interest me.’ ‘Hah! Very crafty, Geralt. Because you don’t have a safe-conduct anyway.’ ‘The dragon doesn’t interest me, I told you. But what about you, Dandelion? What draws you here?’ ‘The usual,’ the troubadour shrugged. ‘I need to be near the action and the excitement. Everyone will be talking about the fight with the dragon. Of course, I could compose a ballad based on reports, but it’ll sound different sung by someone who saw the fight with his own eyes.’ ‘Fight?’ Three Jackdaws laughed. ‘More like some kind of pig-sticking or a carcass being quartered. I’m listening and I’m astounded. Celebrated warriors rushing here as fast as they can to finish off a half-dead dragon, poisoned by a peasant. It makes me want to laugh and vomit.’ ‘You’re wrong,’ Geralt said. ‘If the dragon hasn’t expired from the poison, its constitution has probably already fought it off and it’s back at full strength. It actually doesn’t make much difference. The Crinfrid Reavers will kill it anyway, but it’ll put up a fight, if you want to know.’ ‘So you’re betting on the Reavers, Geralt?’ ‘Naturally.’ ‘Don’t be so sure.’ The artistic guard, who had been silent up to then, spoke up. ‘A dragon is a magical creature and you can’t kill it any other way than with spells. If anybody can deal with it then it’s that sorceress who rode through yesterday.’ ‘Who was that?’ Geralt cocked his head. ‘A sorceress,’ the guard repeated, ‘I told you.’ ‘Did she give her name?’ ‘She did, but I’ve forgotten it. She had a safe-conduct. She was young, comely, in her own way, but those eyes… You know how it is, sire. You come over all cold when they look at you.’ ‘Know anything about this, Dandelion? Who could it be?’ ‘No,’ the bard grimaced. ‘Young, comely and “those eyes”. Some help that is. They’re all like that. Not one of them that I know–and I know plenty– 22 looks older than twenty-five, thirty; though some of them, I’ve heard, can recall the times when the forest soughed as far as where Novigrad stands today. Anyway, what are elixirs and mandrake for? And they also sprinkle mandrake in their eyes to make them shine. As women will.’ ‘Was her hair red?’ the Witcher asked. ‘No, sire,’ the decurion said. ‘Coal-black.’ ‘And her horse, what colour was it? Chestnut with a white star?’ ‘No. Black, like her hair. Well, gentlemen, I’m telling you, she’ll kill the dragon. A dragon’s a job for a sorcerer. Human strength isn’t enough against it.’ ‘I wonder what the cobbler Sheepbagger would have to say about that,’ Dandelion laughed. ‘If he’d had something stronger to hand than hellebore and deadly nightshade the dragon’s skin would be drying on the Barefield stockade, the ballad would be ready, and I wouldn’t be fading in this sun…’ ‘Why exactly didn’t Niedamir take you with him?’ Geralt asked, looking askance at the poet. ‘You were in Barefield when he set off, after all. Could it be that the king doesn’t like artists? How come you’re fading here, instead of strumming an air by the royal stirrups?’ ‘The cause was a certain young widow,’ Dandelion said dejectedly. ‘The hell with it. I tarried, and the next day Niedamir and the others were already over the river. They even took that Sheepbagger with them and some scouts from the Barefield constabulary; they just forgot about me. I’ve explained it to the decurion, but he keeps repeating—’ ‘If there’s a safe-conduct, I let you through,’ the halberdier said dispassionately, relieving himself on the wall of the toll collector’s cottage. ‘If there isn’t, I don’t let you through. I’ve got me orders—’ ‘Oh,’ Three Jackdaws interrupted him, ‘the girls are returning with the beer.’ ‘And they aren’t alone,’ Dandelion added, standing up. ‘Look at that horse. Big as a dragon.’ The Zerrikanians galloped up from the birch wood, flanking a rider sitting on a large, restless warhorse. The Witcher also stood up. The rider was wearing a long, purple, velvet kaftan with silver braid and a short coat trimmed with sable fur. Sitting erect in the saddle, he looked imperiously down at them. Geralt knew that kind of look. And was not fond of it. ‘Greetings, gentlemen. I am Dorregaray,’ the rider introduced himself, 23 dismounting slowly and with dignity. ‘Master Dorregaray. Sorcerer.’ ‘Master Geralt. Witcher.’ ‘Master Dandelion. Poet.’ ‘Borch, also known as Three Jackdaws. And my girls, who are removing the bung from that keg, you have already met, Master Dorregaray.’ ‘That is so, indeed,’ the sorcerer said without a smile. ‘We exchanged bows, I and the beautiful warriors from Zerrikania.’ ‘Well then, cheers,’ Dandelion distributed the leather cups brought by Véa. ‘Drink with us, Master Sorcerer. My Lord Borch, shall I also serve the decurion?’ ‘Of course. Join us, soldier.’ ‘I presume,’ the sorcerer said, after taking a small, distinguished sip, ‘that the same purpose has brought you gentlemen to the barrier on the bridge, as it has me?’ ‘If you have the dragon in mind, Master Dorregaray,’ Dandelion said, ‘that is so, indeed. I want to be there and compose a ballad. Unfortunately, that decurion there, clearly a fellow without refinement, doesn’t want to let me through. He demands a safe-conduct.’ ‘I beg your pardon,’ the halberdier said, draining his cup and smacking his lips. ‘I’ve been ordered on pain of death not to let anyone through without a safe-conduct. And I’m told the whole of Barefield has already gathered with wagons, and plans to head up after the dragon. I have my orders—’ ‘Your orders, soldier,’ Dorregaray frowned, ‘apply to the rabble, who might hinder; trollops, who might spread debauchery and foul sicknesses; thieves, scum and rabble. But not to me.’ ‘I won’t let anyone through without a safe-conduct,’ the decurion glowered, ‘I swear—’ ‘Don’t swear,’ Three Jackdaws interrupted him. ‘Better to have another drink. Téa, pour this stout-hearted soldier a beer. And let us be seated, gentlemen. Drinking standing up, in a rush and without due reverence, does not become the nobility.’ They sat down on logs around the keg. The halberdier, newly raised to nobility, blushed with pleasure. ‘Drink, brave centurion,’ Three Jackdaws urged. ‘But I am a decurion, not a centurion,’ the halberdier said, blushing even more intensely. ‘But you will be a centurion, for certain,’ Borch grinned. ‘You’re an astute fellow, you’ll be promoted in no time.’ 24 Dorregaray, declining a refill, turned towards Geralt. ‘People are still talking about the basilisk in town, Witcher, sir, and you now have your eye on the dragon, I see,’ he said softly. ‘I wonder whether you’re so short of money, or whether you murder endangered creatures for the simple pleasure of it.’ ‘Curious interest,’ Geralt answered, ‘coming from someone who is rushing not to be late for the butchering of a dragon, in order to knock out its teeth, so crucial, after all, in the making of magical cures and elixirs. Is it true, sorcerer, sir, that the best ones are those removed from a living dragon?’ ‘Are you certain that is why I am going there?’ ‘I am. But someone has already beaten you to it, Dorregaray. A female companion of yours has already gone through with a safe-conduct, which you don’t have. She is black-haired, if that’s of any interest to you.’ ‘On a black horse?’ ‘Apparently.’ ‘Yennefer,’ Dorregaray said, glumly. Unnoticed by anybody, the Witcher twitched. A silence fell, broken only by the belching of the future centurion. ‘Nobody… without a safe-conduct…’ ‘Will two hundred lintars suffice?’ Geralt calmly took from his pocket the purse received from the fat Alderman. ‘Ah, Geralt,’ Three Jackdaws smiled mysteriously, ‘so you—’ ‘My apologies, Borch. I’m sorry, but I won’t ride with you to Hengfors. Another time perhaps. Perhaps we’ll meet again.’ ‘I have no interest in going to Hengfors,’ Three Jackdaws said slowly. ‘Not at all, Geralt.’ ‘Put away that purse, sire,’ the future centurion said menacingly, ‘that’s sheer bribery. I won’t even let you through for three hundred.’ ‘And for five hundred?’ Borch took out his pouch. ‘Put away that purse, Geralt. I’ll pay the toll. This has begun to amuse me. Five hundred, soldier, sir. One hundred a piece, counting my girls as one gorgeous item. What?’ ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ the future centurion said, distressed, stowing Borch’s pouch away under his jacket. ‘What will I tell the king?’ ‘Tell him,’ Dorregaray said, straightening up and removing an ornate ivory wand from his belt, ‘that you were overcome by fear when you saw it.’ ‘Saw what, sire?’ The sorcerer flourished his wand and shouted an incantation. A pine tree on the riverbank burst into flames. In one moment the entire tree was 25 engulfed from top to bottom in a blaze of fire. ‘To horse!’ cried Dandelion, springing up and slinging his lute across his back. ‘To horse, gentlemen! And ladies!’ ‘Raise the barrier!’ the rich decurion with a good chance of becoming a centurion shouted to the halberdiers. On the bridge, beyond the barrier, Véa reined in her horse. It skittered, hooves thudding on the planking. The woman, tossing her plaits, screamed piercingly. ‘That’s right, Véa!’ Three Jackdaws shouted back. ‘Onwards, my lords. To horse! We’ll ride in the Zerrikanian fashion, with a thundering and a yelling!’ 26 IV ‘Well, just look,’ said the oldest of the Reavers, Boholt, massive and burly, like the trunk of an old oak tree. ‘So Niedamir didn’t chase you away, my good sirs, though I was certain he would. But it’s not for us paupers to question royal commands. Join us by the campfire. Make yourselves a pallet, boys. And between you and me, Witcher, what did you talk to the king about?’ ‘About nothing,’ Geralt said, making himself comfortable by leaning back against his saddle, which he had dragged over beside the fire. ‘He didn’t even come out of his tent to talk to us. He just sent that flunky of his, what’s his name…’ ‘Gyllenstiern,’ said Yarpen Zigrin, a stocky, bearded dwarf, who was rolling a huge resinous tree stump he had dragged from the undergrowth into the fire. ‘Pompous upstart. Fat hog. When we joined the hunt he came over, nose stuck up towards the heavens, pooh-pooh, “remember, you dwarves”, he says, “who’s in command, who you have to obey, King Niedamir gives the orders here and his word is law” and so on. I stood and listened and I thought to myself, I’ll have my lads knock him to the ground and I’ll piss all over his cape. But I dropped the idea, you know, because word would get around again that dwarves are nasty, that they’re aggressive, that they’re whoresons and it’s impossible to live with them in… what the hell was it?… harmonium, or whatever it is. And right away there’d be another pogrom somewhere, in some little town or other. So I just listened politely and nodded.’ ‘It looks like that’s all Lord Gyllenstiern knows,’ Geralt said, ‘because he said the same to us and all we did was nod too.’ ‘And I reckon,’ the second Reaver said, spreading a blanket over a pile of brushwood, ‘it was a bad thing Niedamir didn’t chase you away. Doesn’t bear thinking how many people are after this dragon. Swarms of them. It’s not a hunting expedition no more, it’s a funeral procession. I need elbow room when I’m fighting.’ ‘Come off it, Gar,’ Boholt said, ‘the more the merrier. What, never hunted a dragon before? There’s always a swarm of people behind a dragon, a noisy rabble, a veritable bordello on wheels. But when the reptile shows up, guess who’s left standing in the field. Us, that’s who.’ Boholt was silent for a moment, took a long draw from a large, wickerbound demijohn, blew his nose loudly and coughed. 27 ‘Another thing,’ he continued. ‘In practice it’s often only after the dragon’s been killed that the merrymaking and bloodletting begins and the heads start rolling. It’s only when the treasure’s being shared out that the hunters go for each others’ throats. Right, Geralt? Oi? Am I right? Witcher, I’m talking to you.’ ‘I’m aware of cases like that,’ Geralt concurred dryly. ‘Aware, you say. No doubt from hearsay, because I can’t say I’ve ever heard of you stalking a dragon. Never in all my born days have I heard of a witcher hunting dragons. Which makes it all the stranger you’re here.’ ‘True,’ drawled Kennet, also known as Beanpole, the youngest Reaver. ‘That’s strange. And we—’ ‘Wait, Beanpole, I’m talking,’ Boholt cut in, ‘and besides, I don’t plan to talk for too long. Anyway, the Witcher knows what I’m on about. I know him and he knows me, and up to now we haven’t got in each other’s way and we probably never will. See, lads, if I wanted to disrupt the Witcher’s work or snatch the loot from under his nose, the Witcher would waste no time slashing me with that witcher razor of his, and he’d be within his rights. Agreed?’ No one seconded or challenged this. There was nothing to suggest that Boholt cared either way. ‘Aye,’ he continued, ‘the more the merrier, as I said. And the Witcher may prove useful to the company. It’s wild and deserted round here, and should a frightener, or ilyocoris, or a striga, jump out at us, there might be trouble. But if Geralt’s standing by there won’t be any trouble, because that’s his speciality. But dragons aren’t his speciality. Right?’ Once more no one seconded or challenged this. ‘Lord Three Jackdaws is with Geralt,’ continued Boholt, handing the demijohn to Yarpen, ‘and that’s enough of a guarantee for me. So who’s bothering you, Gar, Beanpole? Can’t be Dandelion, can it?’ ‘Dandelion,’ Yarpen Zigrin said, passing the demijohn to the bard, ‘always tags along whenever something interesting’s happening and everybody knows he doesn’t interfere, doesn’t help and won’t slow the march down. Bit like a burr on a dog’s tail. Right, boys?’ The ‘boys’–stocky, bearded dwarves–cackled, shaking their beards. Dandelion pushed his bonnet back and drank from the demijohn. ‘Oooh, bloody hell,’ he groaned, gasping for air. ‘It takes your voice away. What was it distilled from, scorpions?’ ‘There’s one thing irking me, Geralt,’ Beanpole said, taking the demijohn from the minstrel, ‘and that’s you bringing that sorcerer along. We can hardly 28 move for sorcerers.’ ‘That’s true,’ the dwarf butted in. ‘Beanpole’s right. We need that Dorregaray like a pig needs a saddle. For some time now we’ve had our very own witch, the noble Yennefer. Ugh.’ He spat her name. ‘Yes indeed,’ Boholt said, scratching himself on his bull neck, from which a moment earlier he had unfastened a leather collar, bristling with steel studs. ‘There are too many sorcerers here, gentlemen. Two too many, to be precise. And they’re a sight too thick with our Niedamir. Just look, we’re under the stars around a fire, and they, gentlemen, are in the warm, plotting in the royal tent, the cunning foxes. Niedamir, the witch, the wizard and Gyllenstiern. And Yennefer’s the worst. And do you want to know what they’re plotting? How to cheat us, that’s what.’ ‘And stuffing themselves with venison,’ Beanpole interjected gloomily. ‘And what did we eat? Marmot! And what’s a marmot, I ask you? A rat, nothing else. So what have we eaten? Rat!’ ‘Never mind,’ Gar said, ‘We’ll soon be sampling dragon’s tail. There’s nothing like dragon’s tail, roasted over charcoal.’ ‘Yennefer,’ Boholt went on, ‘is a foul, nasty, mouthy bint. Not like your lasses, Lord Borch. They are quiet and agreeable, just look, they’ve sat down by the horses, they’re sharpening their sabres. I walked past, said something witty, they smiled and showed their little teeth. Yes, I’m glad they’re here, not like Yennefer, all she does is scheme and scheme. And I tell you, we have to watch out, because we’ll end up with shit all from our agreement.’ ‘What agreement, Boholt?’ ‘Well, Yarpen, do we tell the Witcher?’ ‘Ain’t got nothing against it,’ the dwarf answered. ‘There’s no more booze,’ Beanpole interjected, turning the demijohn upside down. ‘Get some then. You’re the youngest, m’lord. The agreement was our idea, Geralt, because we aren’t hirelings or paid servants, and we won’t be having Niedamir send us after that dragon and then toss a few pieces of gold in our direction. The truth is we’ll cope with that dragon without Niedamir, but Niedamir won’t cope without us. So it’s clear from that who’s worth more and whose share should be bigger. And we put the case fairly–whoever takes on the dragon in mortal combat and bests it takes half of the treasure hoard. Niedamir, by virtue of his birthright and title, takes a quarter, in any event. And the rest, provided they help, will share the remaining quarter between themselves, equally. What do you think about that?’ 29 ‘And what does Niedamir think about it?’ ‘He said neither yes nor no. But he’d better not put up a fight, the whippersnapper. I told you, he won’t take on the dragon himself, he has to count on experts, which means us, the Reavers, and Yarpen and his lads. We, and no one else, will meet the dragon at a sword’s length. The rest, including the sorcerers, if they give honest assistance, will share a quarter of the treasure among themselves.’ ‘Who do you include in the rest, apart from the sorcerers?’ Dandelion asked with interest. ‘Certainly not buskers and poetasters,’ Yarpen Zigrin cackled. ‘We include those who put in some work with a battle-axe, not a lute.’ ‘Aha,’ Three Jackdaws said, looking up at the starry sky. ‘And how will the cobbler Sheepbagger and his rabble be contributing?’ Yarpen Zigrin spat into the campfire, muttering something in dwarven. ‘The constabulary from Barefield know these bloody mountains and will act as guides,’ Boholt said softly, ‘hence it will be fair to allow them a share of the spoils. It’s a slightly different matter with the cobbler. You see, it will go ill if the peasantry become convinced that when a dragon shows up in the land, instead of sending for professionals, they can casually poison it and go back to humping wenches in the long grass. If such a practice became widespread, we’d probably have to start begging. Yes?’ ‘That’s right,’ Yarpen added. ‘For which reason, I tell you, something bad ought to befall that cobbler, before the bastard passes into legend.’ ‘If it’s meant to befall him, it’ll befall him,’ Gar said with conviction. ‘Leave it to me.’ ‘And Dandelion,’ the dwarf took up, ‘will blacken his name in a ballad, make him look a fool. So that he’ll suffer shame and dishonour, for generations to come.’ ‘You’ve forgotten about one thing,’ Geralt said. ‘There’s one person here who could throw a spoke in the wheel. Who won’t assent to any divisions or agreements. I mean Eyck of Denesle. Have you talked to him?’ ‘What about?’ Boholt said, grinding his teeth, using a stout stick to move the logs around in the campfire. ‘You won’t get anywhere with Eyck, Geralt. He knows nothing about business.’ ‘As we rode up to your camp,’ Three Jackdaws said, ‘we met him. He was kneeling on the rocks, in full armour, staring at the sky.’ ‘He’s always doing that,’ Beanpole said. ‘He’s meditating, or saying his prayers. He says he must, because he has orders from the gods to protect 30 people from evil.’ ‘Back home in Crinfrid,’ Boholt muttered, ‘we keep people like that on a chain in the cowshed, and give them a piece of coal so they can draw outlandish pictures on the walls. But that’s enough gossip about my neighbours, we’re talking business.’ A petite, young woman with black hair held tightly by a gold hairnet, wrapped in a woollen cloak, noiselessly entered the circle of light. ‘What reeks so much round here?’ Yarpen Zigrin asked, pretending not to see her. ‘Not brimstone, is it?’ ‘No,’ Boholt, glancing to the side and sniffing pointedly, ‘it’s musk or some other scent.’ ‘No, it has to be…’ the dwarf grimaced. ‘Oh! Why it’s the noble Madam Yennefer! Welcome, welcome.’ The sorceress’s eyes slowly swept over the company, her shining eyes coming to rest for a while on the Witcher. Geralt smiled faintly. ‘May I join you?’ ‘But of course, good lady,’ Boholt said and hiccoughed. ‘Sit down here, on the saddle. Move your arse, Kennet, and give the noble sorceress the saddle.’ ‘From what I hear, you’re talking business, gentlemen.’ Yennefer sat down, stretching out her shapely, black-stockinged legs in front of her. ‘Without me?’ ‘We didn’t dare,’ Yarpen Zigrin said, ‘trouble such an important personage.’ ‘If would be better, Yarpen’–Yennefer narrowed her eyes, turning her head towards the dwarf–‘if you kept quiet. From the very first day you’ve been treating me as if I were nothing but air, so please continue, don’t let me bother you. Because it doesn’t bother me either.’ ‘Really, m’lady,’ Yarpen’s smile revealed uneven teeth. ‘May I be infested by ticks, if I haven’t been treating you better than the air. I’ve been known, for example, to spoil the air, which there’s no way I’d dare to do in your presence.’ The bearded ‘boys’ roared with thunderous laughter, but fell silent immediately at the sight of the blue glow which suddenly enveloped the sorceress. ‘One more word and you’ll end as spoiled air, Yarpen,’ Yennefer said in a voice with a metallic edge, ‘and a black stain on the grass.’ ‘Indeed,’ Boholt cleared his throat, relieving the silence that had fallen. 31 ‘Quiet, Zigrin. Let’s hear what Madam Yennefer has to say to us. She just complained that we’re talking about business without her. From which I conclude she has some kind of offer for us. Let’s hear, my lords, what kind of offer it is. As long as she doesn’t suggest killing the dragon by herself, using spells.’ ‘And what if I do?’ Yennefer raised her head. ‘Don’t think it’s possible, Boholt?’ ‘It might be possible. But it’s not profitable, because you’d be certain to demand half the dragon’s hoard.’ ‘At least half,’ the sorceress said coldly. ‘Well, you see for yourself there’s no profit in it for us. We, my lady, are poor warriors, and if the loot passes us by, hunger will come beckoning. We live on sorrel and pigweed…’ ‘Only once in a blue moon do we manage to catch a marmot,’ Yarpen Zigrin interrupted in a sombre voice. ‘… we drink spring water,’ Boholt took a swig from the demijohn and shuddered slightly. ‘There’s no choice for us, Madam Yennefer. It’s either loot, or freeze to death in the winter huddled against a fence. For inns cost money.’ ‘Beer does too,’ Gar added. ‘And dirty strumpets,’ Beanpole said, daydreaming. ‘Which is why,’ Boholt said, looking up at the sky, ‘we will kill the dragon, by ourselves, without spells and without your help.’ ‘Are you certain about that? Just remember there are limits to what is possible, Boholt.’ ‘Perhaps there are, but I’ve never come across them. No, m’lady. I repeat, we’ll kill the dragon ourselves, without any spells.’ ‘Particularly,’ Yarpen Zigrin added, ‘since spells surely have their own limits, which, unlike our own, we don’t know.’ ‘Did you come up with that yourself?’ Yennefer asked slowly. ‘Or did someone put you up to it? Does the presence of the Witcher in this select company give you the right to such brazenness?’ ‘No,’ Boholt replied, looking at Geralt, who seemed to be dozing, stretched out lazily on a blanket with his saddle beneath his head, ‘the Witcher has nothing to do with it. Listen, noble Yennefer. We put forward a proposition to the king, but he hasn’t honoured us with an answer. We’re patient, we’ll wait till the morning. Should the king agree to a settlement, we ride on together. If not, we go back.’ 32 ‘Us too,’ the dwarf snarled. ‘There won’t be any bargaining,’ Boholt continued. ‘Take it or leave it. Repeat our words to Niedamir, Madam Yennefer. And I’ll tell you; a deal’s also good for you and for Dorregaray, if you come to an agreement with him. We don’t need the dragon’s carcass, mark you, we’ll take but the tail. And the rest is yours, you can have whatever you want. We won’t stint you with the teeth or the brain; we’ll keep nothing that you need for sorcery.’ ‘Of course,’ Yarpen Zigrin added, chuckling, ‘the carrion will be for you, sorcerers, no one will take it from you. Unless some other vultures do.’ Yennefer stood up, throwing her cloak over her shoulder. ‘Niedamir won’t wait until morning,’ she said sharply. ‘He has agreed to your conditions already. Against mine and Dorregaray’s advice, mark you.’ ‘Niedamir,’ Boholt slowly drawled, ‘is displaying astonishing wisdom for one so young. To me, Madam Yennefer, wisdom includes the ability to turn a deaf ear to foolish or insincere advice.’ Yarpen Zigrin snorted into his beard. ‘You’ll be singing a different tune,’ the sorceress put her hands on her hips, ‘when the dragon lacerates and perforates you and shatters your shinbones. You’ll be licking my shoes and begging for help. As usual. How well, oh, how very well do I know your sort. I know you so well it makes me sick.’ She turned away and disappeared into the gloom, without saying goodbye. ‘In my day,’ Yarpen Zigrin said, ‘sorceresses stayed in their towers, read learned books and stirred cauldrons. They didn’t get under warriors’ feet, didn’t interfere in our business. And didn’t wiggle their bottoms in front of a fellow.’ ‘Frankly speaking, she can wiggle all she likes,’ Dandelion said, tuning his lute. ‘Right, Geralt? Geralt? Hey, where’s the Witcher?’ ‘What do we care?’ Boholt muttered, throwing another log on the fire. ‘He went somewhere. Perhaps he had to relieve himself, my lord. It’s his business.’ ‘That’s right,’ the bard agreed and strummed the strings. ‘Shall I sing you something?’ ‘Sing, dammit,’ Yarpen Zigrin said and spat. ‘But don’t be thinking, Dandelion, that I’ll give you as much as a shilling for your bleating. It’s not the royal court, son.’ ‘I can see that,’ the troubadour nodded. 33 34 V ‘Yennefer.’ She turned around, as though surprised, though the Witcher was in doubt she had heard his steps well before. She placed a small wooden pail on the floor, straightened up and brushed aside some hair which had freed itself from her golden hairnet and fell in curls onto her shoulders. ‘Geralt.’ She was wearing just two colours, as usual: black and white. Black hair, long, black eyelashes forcing one to guess the colour of the eyes concealed beneath them. A black skirt and a short, black tunic with a white fur collar. A white blouse of the sheerest linen. On her neck a black velvet ribbon adorned with an obsidian star bestrewn with tiny diamonds. ‘You haven’t changed at all.’ ‘Neither have you,’ she sneered. ‘And in both cases it is equally normal. Or, if you prefer, equally abnormal. In any case, the mention of it, though it may not be a bad way to begin the conversation, is meaningless. Am I right?’ ‘You are,’ he nodded, looking to one side, towards Niedamir’s tent and the fires of the royal bowmen obscured by the dark shapes of wagons. From the more distant campfire floated Dandelion’s sonorous voice singing The Stars above the Path, one of his most popular romantic ballads. ‘Well, now that we have the preliminaries out of the way,’ the sorceress said, ‘I wonder what’s coming next’. ‘You see, Yennefer—’ ‘I see,’ she interrupted sharply, ‘But I don’t understand. Why did you come here, Geralt? Surely not because of the dragon? I presume nothing has changed in that regard?’ ‘No. Nothing’s changed.’ ‘Why, then, I pray, have you joined the party?’ ‘If I said that it was because of you, would you believe me?’ She looked at him in silence, and there was something in her flashing eyes which Geralt did not like. ‘I believe you, why not?’ she finally said. ‘Men like to meet their former lovers, like to relive memories. They like to imagine that erstwhile erotic ecstasies give them some kind of perpetual ownership of their partner. It enhances their self-importance. You are no exception. In spite of everything.’ ‘Nevertheless,’ he smiled, ‘you’re right, Yennefer. The sight of you makes 35 me feel wonderful. In other words, I’m glad to see you.’ ‘And is that all? Well, let’s say I’m also glad. Having said that, I wish you goodnight. I am retiring for the night, as you can see. Before that I intend to bathe and I usually get undressed to perform that activity. Withdraw, then, in order graciously to assure me a minimum of discretion.’ ‘Yen,’ he held his hands out to her. ‘Don’t call me that!’ she hissed furiously, springing back, blue and red sparks streaming from her extended fingers. ‘And if you touch me I’ll scorch your eyes out, you bastard.’ The Witcher moved back. The sorceress, somewhat calmer, brushed her hair aside once again and stood before him with her fists resting on her hips. ‘What did you think, Geralt? That we’d have a nice, cheerful gossip, that we’d reminisce about the old days? That perhaps at the end of our chat we’d get onto a wagon and make love on the sheepskins, just like that, for old times’ sake? Did you?’ Geralt, not certain if the sorceress was magically reading his mind or had only guessed right, kept silent, smiling wryly. ‘Those four years left their mark, Geralt. I’m over it now, which is the only reason why I didn’t spit in your eyes during today’s encounter. But don’t let my civility deceive you.’ ‘Yennefer…’ ‘Be quiet! I gave you more than I’ve ever given any other man, you scoundrel. I don’t know, myself, why I gave it to you. And you… Oh, no, my dear. I’m not a slut or an elf-woman met by chance in the forest, who can be discarded in the morning, walked out on without being woken, with a posy of violets left on the table. Who can be made a mockery of. Beware! Utter a single word and you will regret it!’ Geralt did not utter a single word, correctly sensing the anger seething in Yennefer. The sorceress once again brushed aside some unruly locks and looked him in the eyes, from close up. ‘We’ve met, that’s too bad,’ she said softly. ‘But we shall not make a spectacle of ourselves for everybody. We shall save face. We’ll pretend to be good friends. But don’t be mistaken, Geralt. There is nothing between us now. Nothing, understood? And be glad of it, because it means I have now abandoned the plans which, until recently I still harboured regarding you. But that in no way means I’ve forgiven you. I shall never forgive you, Witcher. Never.’ 36 She turned around suddenly, seized the pail, spraying water around, and disappeared behind a wagon. Geralt chased away a mosquito whining above his ear and slowly walked back towards the campfire, where Dandelion’s performance was being rewarded with half-hearted applause. He looked up at the dark blue sky above the black, serrated saw blade of the mountain peaks. He felt like bursting out laughing. He did not know why. 37 VI ‘Careful up there! Take heed!’ Boholt called, turning around on the coachman’s seat to look back towards the column. ‘Closer to the rocks! Take heed!’ The wagons trundled along, bouncing on stones. The wagoners swore, lashing the horses with their reins and leaning out. They glanced anxiously to see if the wheels were sufficiently far from the edge of the ravine, along which ran a narrow, uneven road. Below, at the bottom of the chasm, the waters of the River Braa foamed white among the boulders. Geralt reined back his horse, pressing himself against the rock wall, which was covered with sparse brown moss and white lichen. He let the Reavers’ wagon overtake him. Beanpole galloped up from the head of the column where he had been leading the cavalcade with the Barefield scouts. ‘Right!’ he shouted, ‘With a will! It widens out up ahead!’ King Niedamir and Gyllenstiern, both on horseback, accompanied by several mounted bowmen, came alongside Geralt. Behind them rattled the wagons of the royal caravan. Even further back trundled the dwarves’ wagon, driven by Yarpen Zigrin, who was yelling relentlessly. Niedamir, a very thin, freckled youngster in a white sheepskin jacket, passed the Witcher, casting him a haughty, though distinctly bored, look. Gyllenstiern straightened up and reined in his horse. ‘Over here, Witcher, sir,’ he said overbearingly. ‘Yes?’ Geralt jabbed his mare with his heels, and rode slowly over to the chancellor, behind the caravan. He was astonished that, in spite of having such an impressive paunch, Gyllenstiern preferred horseback to a comfortable ride in a wagon. ‘Yesterday,’ Gyllenstiern said, gently tugging his gold-studded reins, and throwing a turquoise cape off his shoulder, ‘yesterday you said the dragon does not interest you. What does interest you then, Witcher, sir? Why do you ride with us?’ ‘It’s a free country, chancellor.’ ‘For the moment. But in this cortege, my dear Geralt, everyone should know his place. And the role he is to fulfil, according to the will of King Niedamir. Do you comprehend that?’ ‘What are you driving at, my dear Gyllenstiern?’ ‘I shall tell you. I’ve heard that it has recently become tiresome to 38 negotiate with you witchers. The thing is that, whenever a witcher is shown a monster to be killed, the witcher, rather than take his sword and slaughter it, begins to ponder whether it is right, whether it is transgressing the limits of what is possible, whether it is not contrary to the code and whether the monster really is a monster, as though it wasn’t clear at first glance. It seems to me that you are simply doing too well. In my day, witchers didn’t have two pennies to rub together, just two stinking boots. They didn’t question, they slaughtered what they were ordered to, whether it was a werewolf, a dragon or a tax collector. All that counted was a clean cut. So, Geralt?’ ‘Do you have a job for me, Gyllenstiern?’ the Witcher asked coldly. ‘If so, tell me what. I’ll think it over. But if you don’t, there’s no sense wasting our breath, is there?’ ‘Job?’ the chancellor sighed. ‘No, I don’t. This all concerns a dragon, and that clearly transgresses your limits, Witcher. So I prefer the Reavers. I merely wanted to alert you. Warn you. King Niedamir and I may tolerate the whims of witchers and their classification of monsters into good and bad, but we do not wish to hear about them, much less see them effected in our presence. Don’t meddle in royal matters, Witcher. And don’t consort with Dorregaray.’ ‘I am not accustomed to consorting with sorcerers. Why such an inference?’ ‘Dorregaray,’ Gyllenstiern said, ‘surpasses even witchers with his whims. He does not stop at categorising monsters into good and bad. He considers them all good.’ ‘That’s overstating the case somewhat.’ ‘Clearly. But he defends his views with astonishing obstinacy. I truly would not be surprised if something befell him. And the fact he joined us keeping such curious company—’ ‘I am not Dorregaray’s companion. And neither is he mine.’ ‘Don’t interrupt. The company is strange. A witcher crawling with scruples like a fox’s pelt with fleas. A sorcerer spouting druidic humbug about equilibrium in nature. The silent knight Borch Three Jackdaws and his escort from Zerrikania, where–as is generally known–sacrifices are made before the image of a dragon. And suddenly they all join in the hunt. Strange, isn’t it?’ ‘If you insist, then yes it is.’ ‘Know then,’ the chancellor said, ‘that the most mysterious problems find–as experience proves–the simplest solutions. Don’t compel me, Witcher, to use them.’ 39 ‘I don’t understand.’ ‘Oh, but you do. Thank you for the conversation, Geralt.’ Geralt stopped. Gyllenstiern urged his horse on and joined the king, catching up with the caravan. Eyck of Denesle rode alongside wearing a quilted kaftan of light-coloured leather marked with the impressions of a breastplate, pulling a packhorse laden with a suit of armour, a uniformly silver shield and a powerful lance. Geralt greeted him by raising his hand, but the knight errant turned his head to the side, tightening his thin lips, and spurred his horse on. ‘He isn’t keen on you,’ Dorregaray said, riding over. ‘Eh, Geralt?’ ‘Clearly.’ ‘Competition, isn’t it? The two of you have similar occupations. Except that Eyck is an idealist, and you are a professional. A minor difference, particularly for the ones you kill.’ ‘Don’t compare me to Eyck, Dorregaray. The devil knows who you wrong with that comparison, him or me, but don’t compare us.’ ‘As you wish. To me, frankly speaking, you are equally loathsome.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘Don’t mention it,’ the sorcerer patted the neck of his horse, which had been scared by all the yelling from Yarpen and his dwarves. ‘To me, Witcher, calling killing a vocation is loathsome, low and nonsensical. Our world is in equilibrium. The annihilation, the killing, of any creatures that inhabit this world upsets that equilibrium. And a lack of equilibrium brings closer extinction; extinction and the end of the world as we know it.’ ‘A druidic theory,’ Geralt pronounced. ‘I know it. An old hierophant expounded it to me once, back in Rivia. Two days after our conversation he was torn apart by wererats. It was impossible to prove any upset in equilibrium.’ ‘The world, I repeat,’ Dorregaray glanced at him indifferently, ‘is in equilibrium. Natural equilibrium. Every species has its own natural enemies, every one is the natural enemy of other species. That also includes humans. The extermination of the natural enemies of humans, which you dedicate yourself to, and which one can begin to observe, threatens the degeneration of the race.’ ‘Do you know what, sorcerer?’ Geralt said, annoyed. ‘One day, take yourself to a mother whose child has been devoured by a basilisk, and tell her she ought to be glad, because thanks to that the human race has escaped degeneration. See what she says to you.’ 40 ‘A good argument, Witcher,’ Yennefer said, riding up to them on her large, black horse. ‘And you, Dorregaray, be careful what you say.’ ‘I’m not accustomed to concealing my views.’ Yennefer rode between them. The Witcher noticed that the golden hairnet had been replaced by a rolled up white kerchief. ‘Start concealing them as quickly as possible, Dorregaray,’ she said, ‘especially before Niedamir and the Reavers, who already suspect you plan to interfere in the killing of the dragon. As long as you only talk, they treat you like a harmless maniac. If, however, you try to start anything they’ll break your neck before you manage to let out a sigh.’ The sorcerer smiled contemptuously and condescendingly. ‘And besides,’ Yennefer continued, ‘by expressing those views you damage the solemnity of our profession and vocation.’ ‘How so?’ ‘You can apply your theory to all sorts of creatures and vermin, Dorregaray. But not to dragons. For dragons are the natural, greatest enemies of man. And I do not refer to the degeneration of the human race, but to its survival. In order to survive, one has to crush one’s enemies, enemies which might prevent that survival.’ ‘Dragons aren’t man’s enemies,’ Geralt broke in. The sorceress looked at him and smiled. But only with her lips. ‘In that matter,’ she said, ‘leave the judging to us humans. Your role, Witcher, is not to judge. It’s to get a job done.’ ‘Like a programmed, servile golem?’ ‘That was your comparison, not mine,’ Yennefer replied coldly. ‘But, well, it’s apt.’ ‘Yennefer,’ Dorregaray said, ‘for a woman of your education and age you are coming out with some astonishing tripe. Why is it that dragons have been promoted in your eyes to become the foremost enemies of man? Why not other–a hundredfold more dangerous–creatures, those that have a hundredfold more victims on their consciences than dragons? Why not hirikkas, forktails, manticores, amphisbaenas or gryphons? Why not wolves?’ ‘I’ll tell you why not. The advantage of men over other races and species, the fight for their due place in nature, for living space, can only be won when nomadism, wandering from place to place in search of sustenance in accordance with nature’s calendar, is finally eliminated. Otherwise the proper rhythm of reproduction will not be achieved, since human children are dependent for too long. Only a woman safe and secure behind town walls or 41 in a stronghold can bear children according to the proper rhythm, which means once a year. Fecundity, Dorregaray, is growth, is the condition for survival and domination. And now we come to dragons. Only a dragon, and no other monster, can threaten a town or stronghold. Were dragons not to be wiped out, people would–for their own safety–disperse, instead of cleaving together, because dragon’s fire in a densely populated settlement is a nightmare, means hundreds of victims, and terrible destruction. That is why dragons must be utterly wiped out, Dorregaray.’ Dorregaray looked at her with a strange smile on his face. ‘Do you know what, Yennefer, I wouldn’t like to see the day your idea of the dominance of man comes about, when people like you will occupy their due place in nature. Fortunately, it will never come to that. You would rather poison or slaughter each other, expire from typhoid fever and typhus, because it is filth and lice–and not dragons–which threaten your splendid cities, where women are delivered of children once a year, but where only one new-born baby in ten lives longer than ten days. Yes, Yennefer, fecundity, fecundity and once again fecundity. So take up bearing children, my dear; it’s the most natural pursuit for you. It will occupy the time you are currently fruitlessly wasting on dreaming up nonsense. Farewell.’ Urging on his horse, the sorcerer galloped off towards the head of the column. Geralt, having glanced at Yennefer’s pale, furiously twisted face, began to feel sorry for him in advance. He knew what this was about. Yennefer, like most sorceresses, was barren. But unlike most sorceresses she bemoaned the fact and reacted with genuine rage at the mention of it. Dorregaray certainly knew that. But he probably did not know how vengeful she was. ‘He’s in trouble,’ she hissed. ‘Oh, yes. Beware, Geralt. Don’t think that when the time comes and you don’t show good sense, I’ll protect you.’ ‘Never fear,’ he smiled. ‘We–and I mean witchers and servile golems– always act sensibly. Since the limits within which we operate are clearly and explicitly demarcated.’ ‘Well, I never,’ Yennefer said, looking at him, still pale. ‘You’re taking umbrage like a tart whose lack of chastity has been pointed out to her. You’re a witcher, you can’t change that. Your vocation…’ ‘That’s enough about vocations, Yen, because it’s beginning to make me queasy.’ ‘I told you not to call me that. And I’m not especially bothered about your queasiness. Nor any other reactions in your limited witcher’s range of 42 reactions.’ ‘Nevertheless, you’ll see some of them if you don’t stop plying me with tales about lofty missions and the fight between good and evil. And about dragons; the dreadful enemies of the human tribe. I know better.’ ‘Oh, yes?’ The sorceress narrowed her eyes. ‘And what do you know, Witcher?’ ‘Only,’ Geralt said, ignoring the sudden warning vibration of the medallion around his neck, ‘that if dragons didn’t have treasure hoards, not a soul would be interested in them; and certainly not sorcerers. Isn’t it interesting that whenever a dragon is being hunted, some sorcerer closely linked to the Goldsmiths’ Guild is always hanging around. Just like you. And later, although a deal of gemstones ought to end up on the market, it never happens and their price doesn’t go down. So don’t talk to me about vocation and the fight for the survival of the race. I know you too well, have known you too long.’ ‘Too long,’ she repeated, sneering malevolently. ‘Unfortunately. But don’t think you know me well, you whore’s son. Dammit, how stupid I’ve been… Oh, go to hell! I can’t stand the sight of you!’ She screamed, yanked her horse’s reins and galloped fiercely ahead. The Witcher reined back his mount, and let through the wagon of dwarves, yelling, cursing and whistling through bone pipes. Among them, sprawled on some sacks of oats, lay Dandelion, plucking his lute. ‘Hey!’ roared Yarpen Zigrin, who was sitting on the box, pointing at Yennefer. ‘There’s something black on the trail! I wonder what it is? It looks like a nag!’ ‘Without doubt!’ Dandelion shouted, shoving his plum bonnet back, ‘It’s a nag! Riding a gelding! Astounding!’ The beards of Yarpen’s boys shook in general laughter. Yennefer pretended not to hear. Geralt reined back his horse again and let Niedamir’s mounted bowmen through. Borch was riding slowly some distance beyond them, and the Zerrikanians brought up the rear just behind him. Geralt waited for them to catch up and led his mare alongside Borch’s horse. They rode on in silence. ‘Witcher,’ Three Jackdaws suddenly said, ‘I want to ask you a question.’ ‘Ask it.’ ‘Why don’t you turn back?’ The Witcher looked at him in silence for a moment. ‘Do you really want to know?’ 43 ‘Yes, I do,’ Three Jackdaws said, turning his face towards Geralt. ‘I’m riding with them because I’m a servile golem. Because I’m a wisp of oakum blown by the wind along the highway. Tell me, where should I go? And for what? At least here some people have gathered with whom I have something to talk about. People who don’t break off their conversations when I approach. People who, though they may not like me, say it to my face, and don’t throw stones from behind a fence. I’m riding with them for the same reason I rode with you to the log drivers’ inn. Because it’s all the same to me. I don’t have a goal to head towards. I don’t have a destination at the end of the road.’ Three Jackdaws cleared his throat. ‘There’s a destination at the end of every road. Everybody has one. Even you, although you like to think you’re somehow different.’ ‘Now I’ll ask you a question.’ ‘Ask it.’ ‘Do you have a destination at the end of the road?’ ‘I do.’ ‘Lucky for you.’ ‘It is not a matter of luck, Geralt. It is a matter of what you believe in and what you serve. No one ought to know that better than… than a witcher.’ ‘I keep hearing about goals today,’ Geralt sighed. ‘Niedamir’s aim is to seize Malleore. Eyck of Denesle’s calling is to protect people from dragons. Dorregaray feels obligated to something quite the opposite. Yennefer, by virtue of certain changes which her body was subjected to, cannot fulfil her wishes and is terribly undecided. Dammit, only the Reavers and the dwarves don’t feel a calling, and simply want to line their pockets. Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to them?’ ‘You aren’t drawn to them, Geralt of Rivia. I’m neither blind nor deaf. It wasn’t at the sound of their name you pulled out that pouch. But I surmise…’ ‘There’s no need to surmise,’ the Witcher said, without anger. ‘I apologise.’ ‘There’s no need to apologise.’ They reined back their horses just in time, in order not to ride into the column of bowmen from Caingorn which had suddenly been called to a halt. ‘What has happened?’ Geralt stood up in his stirrups. ‘Why have we stopped?’ ‘I don’t know.’ Borch turned his head away. Véa, her face strangely contorted, uttered a few quick words. 44 ‘I’ll ride up to the front,’ the Witcher said, ‘to see what’s going on.’ ‘Stay here.’ ‘Why?’ Three Jackdaws was silent for a moment, eyes fixed on the ground. ‘Why?’ Geralt repeated. ‘Go,’ Borch said. ‘Perhaps it’ll be better that way.’ ‘What’ll be better?’ ‘Go.’ The bridge connecting the two edges of the chasm looked sound. It was built from thick, pine timbers and supported on a quadrangular pier, against which the current crashed and roared in long strands of foam. ‘Hey, Beanpole!’ yelled Boholt, who was driving the wagon. ‘Why’ve you stopped?’ ‘I don’t know if the bridge will hold.’ ‘Why are we taking this road?’ Gyllenstiern asked, riding over. ‘It’s not to my liking to take the wagons across the bridge. Hey, cobbler! Why are you leading us this way, and not by the trail? The trail continues on towards the west, doesn’t it?’ The heroic poisoner of Barefield approached, removing his sheepskin cap. He looked ridiculous, dressed up in an old-fashioned half-armour probably hammered out during the reign of King Sambuk, pulled down tightly over a shepherd’s smock. ‘The road’s shorter this way, Your Majesty,’ he said, not to the chancellor, but directly to Niedamir, whose face still expressed thoroughly excruciated boredom. ‘How is that?’ Gyllenstiern asked, frowning. Niedamir did not even grace the cobbler with a more attentive glance. ‘Them’s,’ Sheepbagger said, indicating the three notched peaks towering over the surrounding area, ‘is Chiava, Great Kestrel and Harbinger’s Fang. The trail leads toward the ruins of the old stronghold, and skirts around Chiava from the north, beyond the river’s source. But we can shorten the way by takin’ the bridge. We’ll pass through the gorge and onto the plain ’tween the mountains. And if we don’t find no sign of the dragon there, we’ll continue on eastwards, we’ll search the ravines. And even further eastward there are flat pastures, where there’s a straight road to Caingorn, towards your lands, sire.’ ‘And where, Sheepbagger, did you acquire such knowledge about these mountains?’ Boholt asked. ‘At your cobbler’s last?’ 45 ‘No, sir. I herded sheep here as a young ’un.’ ‘And that bridge won’t give way?’ Boholt stood up on the box, and looked downwards at the foaming river. ‘That must be a drop of forty fathoms.’ ‘It’ll ’old, sir.’ ‘What’s a bridge doing in this wilderness anyhow?’ ‘That there bridge,’ Sheepbagger said, ‘was built by trolls in the olden days, and whoever came this way had to pay them a pretty penny. But since folk seldom came this way the trolls were reduced to beggary. But the bridge remains.’ ‘I repeat,’ Gyllenstiern said irately. ‘We have wagons with tackle and provender, and we may become bogged down in the wilderness. Is it not better to take the trail?’ ‘We could take the trail,’ the cobbler shrugged, ‘but it’s longer that way. And the king said ’e’d give ’is earteeth to get to that dragon soon.’ ‘Eyeteeth,’ the chancellor corrected him. ‘Have it your way, eyeteeth,’ Sheepbagger agreed. ‘But it’s still quicker by the bridge.’ ‘Right, let’s go, Sheepbagger,’ Boholt decided. ‘Forge ahead, you and your men. We have a custom of letting the most valiant through first.’ ‘No more than one wagon at a time,’ Gyllenstiern warned. ‘Right,’ Boholt lashed his horses and the wagon rumbled onto the bridge’s timbers. ‘Follow us, Beanpole! Make sure the wheels are rolling smoothly!’ Geralt reined back his horse, his way barred by Niedamir’s bowmen in their purple and gold tunics, crowded on the stone bridgehead. The Witcher’s mare snorted. The earth shuddered. The mountains trembled, the jagged edge of the rock wall beside them became blurred against the sky, and the wall itself suddenly spoke with a dull, but audible rumbling. ‘Look out!’ Boholt yelled, now on the other side of the bridge. ‘Look out, there!’ The first, small stones pattered and rattled down the spasmodically shuddering rock wall. Geralt watched as part of the road they had followed, very rapidly widening into a yawning, black crack, broke off and plunged into the chasm with a thunderous clatter. ‘To horse!’ Gyllenstiern yelled. ‘Your Majesty! To the other side!’ Niedamir, head buried in his horse’s mane, charged onto the bridge, and Gyllenstiern and several bowmen leapt after him. Behind them, the royal wagon with its flapping gryphon banner rumbled onto the creaking timbers. 46 ‘It’s a landslide! Get out of the way!’ Yarpen Zigrin bellowed from behind, lashing his horses’ rumps, overtaking Niedamir’s second wagon and jostling the bowmen. ‘Out of the way, Witcher! Out of the way!’ Eyck of Denesle, stiff and erect, galloped beside the dwarves’ wagon. Were it not for his deathly pale face and mouth contorted in a quivering grimace, one might have thought the knight errant had not noticed the stones and boulders falling onto the trail. Further back, someone in the group of bowmen screamed wildly and horses whinnied. Geralt tugged at the reins and spurred his horse, as right in front of him the earth boiled from the boulders cascading down. The dwarves’ wagon rattled over the stones. Just before the bridge it jumped up and landed with a crack on its side, onto a broken axle. A wheel bounced off the railing and plunged downwards into the spume. The Witcher’s mare, lacerated by sharp shards of stone, reared up. Geralt tried to dismount, but caught his boot buckle in the stirrup and fell to the side, onto the trail. His mare neighed and dashed ahead, straight towards the bridge, dancing over the chasm. The dwarves ran across the bridge yelling and cursing. ‘Hurry, Geralt!’ Dandelion yelled, running behind him and looking back. ‘Jump on, Witcher!’ Dorregaray called, threshing about in the saddle, struggling to control his terrified horse. Further back, behind them, the entire road was engulfed in a cloud of dust stirred up by falling rocks, shattering Niedamir’s wagons. The Witcher seized the straps of the sorcerer’s saddle bags. He heard a cry. Yennefer had fallen with her horse, rolled to the side, away from the wildly kicking hooves, and flattened herself to the ground, shielding her head with her arms. The Witcher let go of the saddle, ran towards her, diving into the deluge of stones and leaping across the rift opening under his feet. Yennefer, yanked by the arm, got up onto her knees. Her eyes were wide open and the trickle of blood running down from her cut brow had already reached her ear. ‘Stand up, Yen!’ ‘Geralt! Look out!’ An enormous, flat block of stone, scraping against the side of the rock wall with a grinding, clattering sound, slid down and plummeted towards them. Geralt dropped, shielding the sorcereress with his body. At the very same moment the block exploded, bursting into a billion fragments, which rained down on them, stinging like wasps. 47 ‘Quick!’ Dorregaray cried. Brandishing his wand atop the skittering horse, he blasted more boulders which were tumbling down from the cliff into dust. ‘Onto the bridge, Witcher!’ Yennefer waved a hand, bending her fingers and shrieking incomprehensibly. As the stones came into contact with the bluish hemisphere which had suddenly materialised above their heads they vaporised like drops of water falling on red-hot metal. ‘Onto the bridge, Geralt!’ the sorceress yelled. ‘Stay close to me!’ They ran, following Dorregaray and several fleeing bowmen. The bridge rocked and creaked, the timbers bending in all directions as it flung them from railing to railing. ‘Quick!’ The bridge suddenly slumped with a piercing, penetrating crack, and the half they had just crossed broke off, tumbling with a clatter into the gulf, taking the dwarves’ wagon with it, which shattered against the rocky teeth to the sound of the horses’ frantic whinnying. The part they were now standing on was still intact, but Geralt suddenly realised they were now running upwards across a rapidly tilting slope. Yennefer panted a curse. ‘Get down, Yen! Hang on!’ The rest of the bridge grated, cracked and sagged into a ramp. They fell with it, digging their fingers into the cracks between the timbers. Yennefer could not hold on. She squealed like a little girl and dropped. Geralt, hanging on with one hand, drew a dagger, plunged the blade between the timbers and seized the haft in both hands. His elbow joints creaked as Yennefer tugged him down, suspended by the belt and scabbard slung across his back. The bridge made a cracking noise again and tilted even more, almost vertically. ‘Yen,’ the Witcher grunted. ‘Do something… Cast a bloody spell!’ ‘How can I?’ he heard a furious, muffled snarl. ‘I’m hanging on!’ ‘Free one of your hands!’ ‘I can’t…’ ‘Hey!’ Dandelion yelled from above. ‘Can you hold on? Hey!’ Geralt did not deign to reply. ‘Throw down a rope!’ Dandelion bellowed. ‘Quickly, dammit!’ The Reavers, the dwarves and Gyllenstiern appeared beside the troubadour. Geralt heard Boholt’s quiet words. ‘Wait, busker. She’ll soon fall. Then we’ll pull the Witcher up.’ Yennefer hissed like a viper, writhing and suspended from Geralt’s back. His belt dug painfully into his chest. 48 ‘Yen? Can you find a hold? Using your legs? Can you do anything with your legs?’ ‘Yes,’ she groaned. ‘Swing them around.’ Geralt looked down at the river seething and swirling among the sharp rocks, against which some bridge timbers, a horse and a body in the bright colours of Caingorn were bumping. Beyond the rocks, in the emerald, transparent maelstrom, he saw the tapered bodies of large trout, languidly moving in the current. ‘Can you hold on, Yen?’ ‘Just about… yes…’ ‘Heave yourself up. You have to get a foothold…’ ‘I… can’t…’ ‘Throw down a rope!’ Dandelion yelled. ‘Have you all gone mad? They’ll both fall!’ ‘Perhaps that’s not so bad?’ Gyllenstiern wondered, out of sight. The bridge creaked and sagged even more. Geralt’s fingers, gripping the hilt of his dagger, began to go numb. ‘Yen…’ ‘Shut up… and stop wriggling about…’ ‘Yen?’ ‘Don’t call me that…’ ‘Can you hold on?’ ‘No,’ she said coldly. She was no longer struggling, but simply hanging from his back; a lifeless, inert weight. ‘Yen?’ ‘Shut up.’ ‘Yen. Forgive me.’ ‘No. Never.’ Something crept downwards over the timbers. Swiftly. Like a snake. A rope, emanating with a cold glow, twisting and curling, as though alive, searched for and found Geralt’s neck with its moving tip, slid under his armpits, and ravelled itself into a loose knot. The sorceress beneath him moaned, sucking in air. He was certain she would start sobbing. He was mistaken. ‘Careful!’ Dandelion shouted from above. ‘We’re pulling you up! Gar! Kennet! Pull them up! Heave!’ A tug, the painful, constricting tension of the taut rope. Yennefer sighed heavily. They quickly travelled upwards, bellies scraping against the coarse 49 timbers. At the top, Yennefer was the first to stand up. 50 VII ‘We saved but one wagon from the entire caravan, Your Majesty,’ Gyllenstiern said, ‘not counting the Reavers’ wagon. Seven bowmen remain from the troop. There’s no longer a road on the far side of the chasm, just scree and a smooth wall, as far as the breach permits one to look. We know not if anyone survived of those who remained when the bridge collapsed.’ Niedamir did not answer. Eyck of Denesle, standing erect, stood before the king, staring at him with shining, feverish eyes. ‘The ire of the gods is hounding us,’ he said, raising his arms. ‘We have sinned, King Niedamir. It was a sacred expedition, an expedition against evil. For the dragon is evil, yes, each dragon is evil incarnate. I do not pass by evil indifferently, I crush it beneath my foot… Annihilate it. Just as the gods and the Holy Book demand.’ ‘What is he drivelling on about?’ Boholt asked, frowning. ‘I don’t know,’ Geralt said, adjusting his mare’s harness. ‘I didn’t understand a single word.’ ‘Be quiet,’ Dandelion said, ‘I’m trying to remember it, perhaps I’ll be able to use it if I can get it to rhyme.’ ‘The Holy Book says,’ Eyck said, now yelling loudly, ‘that the serpent, the foul dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, will come forth from the abyss! And on his back will sit a woman in purple and scarlet, and a golden goblet will be in her hand, and on her forehead will be written the sign of all and ultimate whoredom!’ ‘I know her!’ Dandelion said, delighted. ‘It’s Cilia, the wife of the Alderman of Sommerhalder!’ ‘Quieten down, poet, sir,’ Gyllenstiern said. ‘And you, O knight from Denesle, speak more plainly, if you would.’ ‘One should act against evil, O King,’ Eyck called, ‘with a pure heart and conscience, with head raised! But who do we see here? Dwarves, who are pagans, are born in the darkness and bow down before dark forces! Blasphemous sorcerers, usurping divine laws, powers and privileges! A witcher, who is an odious aberration, an accursed, unnatural creature. Are you surprised that a punishment has befallen us? King Niedamir! We have reached the limits of possibility! Divine grace is being sorely tested. I call you, king, to purge the filth from our ranks, before—’ ‘Not a word about me,’ Dandelion interjected woefully. ‘Not a mention of 51 poets. And I try so hard.’ Geralt smiled at Yarpen Zigrin, who with slow movements was stroking the blade of his battle-axe, which was stuck into his belt. The dwarf, amused, grinned. Yennefer turned away ostentatiously, pretending that her skirt, torn up to her hip, distressed her more than Eyck’s words. ‘I think you were exaggerating a little, Sir Eyck,’ Dorregaray said sharply, ‘although no doubt for noble reasons. I regard the making known of your views about sorcerers, dwarves and witchers as quite unnecessary. Although, I think, we have all become accustomed to such opinions, it is neither polite, nor chivalrous, Sir Eyck. And it is utterly incomprehensible after you, and no one else, ran and used a magical, elven rope to save a witcher and a sorceress whose lives were in danger. I conclude from what you say that you should rather have been praying for them to fall.’ ‘Dammit,’ Geralt whispered to Dandelion. ‘Did he throw us that rope? Eyck? Not Dorregaray?’ ‘No,’ the bard muttered. ‘Eyck it was, indeed.’ Geralt shook his head in disbelief. Yennefer cursed under her breath and straightened up. ‘Sir Eyck,’ she said with a smile that anyone other than Geralt might have taken as pleasant and friendly. ‘Why was that? I’m blasphemous, but you save my life?’ ‘You are a lady, Madam Yennefer,’ the knight bowed stiffly. ‘And your comely and honest face permits me to believe that you will one day renounce this accursed sorcery.’ Boholt snorted. ‘I thank you, sir knight,’ Yennefer said dryly, ‘and the Witcher Geralt also thanks you. Thank him, Geralt.’ ‘I’d rather drop dead,’ the Witcher sighed, disarmingly frank. ‘What exactly should I thank him for? I’m an odious aberration, and my uncomely face does not augur any hope for an improvement. Sir Eyck hauled me out of the chasm by accident, simply because I was tightly clutching the comely damsel. Had I been hanging there alone, Eyck would not have lifted a finger. I’m not mistaken, am I, sir knight?’ ‘You are mistaken, Geralt, sir,’ the knight errant replied calmly. ‘I never refuse anybody in need of help. Even a witcher.’ ‘Thank him, Geralt. And apologise,’ the sorceress said sharply, ‘otherwise you will be confirming that, at least with regard to you, Eyck was quite right. You are unable to coexist with people. Because you are different. Your 52 participation in this expedition is a mistake. A nonsensical purpose brought you here. Thus it would be sensible to leave the party. I think you understand that now. And if not, it’s time you did.’ ‘What purpose are you talking about, madam?’ Gyllenstiern cut in. The sorceress looked at him, but did not answer. Dandelion and Yarpen Zigrin smiled meaningfully at each other, but so that the sorceress would not notice. The Witcher looked into Yennefer’s eyes. They were cold. ‘I apologise and thank you, O knight of Denesle,’ he bowed. ‘I thank everybody here present. For the swift rescue offered at once. I heard, as I hung there, how you were all raring to help. I ask everybody here present for forgiveness. With the exception of the noble Yennefer, whom I thank, but ask for nothing. Farewell. The dregs leave the company of their own free will. Because these dregs have had enough of you. Goodbye, Dandelion.’ ‘Hey, Geralt,’ Boholt called, ‘don’t pout like a maiden, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. To hell with—’ ‘Look out everyoooone!’ Sheepbagger and several members of the Barefield constabulary, who had been sent ahead to reconnoitre, were running back from the narrow opening to the gorge. ‘What is it? Why’s he bellowing like that?’ Gar lifted his head up. ‘Good people… Your… Excellencies…’ the cobbler panted. ‘Get it out, man,’ Gyllenstiern said, hooking his thumbs into his golden belt. ‘A dragon! There’s a dragon there!’ ‘Where?’ ‘Beyond the gorge… On level ground… Sire, he…’ ‘To horse!’ Gyllenstiern ordered. ‘Gar!’ Boholt yelled, ‘onto the wagon! Beanpole, get mounted and follow me!’ ‘Look lively, lads!’ Yarpen Zigrin roared. ‘Look lively, by thunder!’ ‘Hey, wait for me!’ Dandelion slung his lute over his shoulder. ‘Geralt! Take me with you!’ ‘Jump on!’ The gorge ended in a mound of light-coloured rocks, which gradually thinned out, creating an irregular ring. Beyond them the ground descended gently into a grassy, undulating mountain pasture, enclosed on all sides by limestone walls, gaping with thousands of openings. Three narrow canyons, the mouths of dried-up streams, opened out onto the pasture. 53 Boholt, the first to gallop to the barrier of rocks, suddenly reined in his horse and stood up in his stirrups. ‘Oh, hell,’ he said. ‘Oh, bloody hell. It… it can’t be!’ ‘What?’ Dorregaray asked, riding up. Beside him Yennefer, dismounting from the Reavers’ wagon, pressed her chest against the rocky block, peeped out, moved back and rubbed her eyes. ‘What? What is it?’ Dandelion shouted, leaning out from behind Geralt’s back. ‘What is it, Boholt?’ ‘That dragon… is golden.’ No further than a hundred paces from the gorge’s rocky entrance from which they had emerged, on the road to the northward-leading canyon, on a gently curving, low hill, sat the creature. It was sitting, arching its long, slender neck in a smooth curve, inclining its narrow head onto its domed chest, wrapping its tail around its extended front feet. There was something inexpressibly graceful in the creature and the way it was sitting; something feline, something that contradicted its clearly reptilian origins. But it was also undeniably reptilian. For the creature was covered in distinctly outlined scales, which shone with a glaring blaze of bright, yellow gold. For the creature sitting on the hillock was golden; golden from the tips of its talons, dug into the ground, to the end of its long tail, which was moving very gently among the thistles growing on the hill. Looking at them with its large, golden eyes, the creature unfurled its broad, golden, bat-like wings and remained motionless, demanding to be admired. ‘A golden dragon,’ Dorregaray whispered. ‘It’s impossible… A living fable!’ ‘There’s no such thing as a bloody golden dragon,’ Gar pronounced and spat. ‘I know what I’m talking about.’ ‘Then what’s sitting on that hillock?’ Dandelion asked pointedly. ‘It’s some kind of trickery.’ ‘An illusion.’ ‘It is not an illusion,’ Yennefer said. ‘It’s a golden dragon,’ Gyllenstiern said. ‘An absolutely genuine, golden dragon.’ ‘Golden dragons only exist in fables!’ ‘Stop that, all of you,’ Boholt suddenly broke in. ‘There’s no point getting worked up. Any blockhead can see it’s a golden dragon. And what difference does it make, my lords, if it’s golden, lapis lazuli, shit-coloured or chequered? It’s not that big, we’ll sort it out in no time. Beanpole, Gar, clear the debris off 54 the wagon and get the gear out. What’s the difference if it’s golden or not?’ ‘There is a difference, Boholt,’ Beanpole said. ‘And a vital one. That isn’t the dragon we’re stalking. Not the one that was poisoned outside Barefield, which is now sitting in its cave on a pile of ore and jewels. That one’s just sitting on its arse. What bloody use is it to us?’ ‘That dragon is golden, Kennet,’ Yarpen Zigrin snarle