I have wanted to write a story in The Witcher universe for a long time, but never quite knew where I wanted to go with it. One of my favorite characters, the witty and charismatic troubadour, Dandelion, has been a source of fascination and imaginary love since I first met him, so it seemed only natural to start there: with Dandelion.
This story is set shortly after the death of Geralt of Rivia, who died, according to a book titled The Rivia Pogrom from the PC game, during a non-human massacre that took place in the city from which he took his moniker, Rivia. His death was witnessed by Triss Merigold and Zoltan Chivay, but the body was never found.
You should be able to read and hopefully enjoy this story, even if you have never read any of The Witcher books or played the games.
And now, without further fanfare or ado…
The Nature of Inspiration: Part One
The campus buzzed like a hive of angry bees, voices carrying the chatter to her ears and making her head hum. She wasn’t even sure half of the people lining up outside the doors were students at the university. Many of them looked like girls from the city, their lips plumped and painted, their eyes wide with intrigue at the prospect of catching a glimpse of someone famous.
Nyannah edged her way through the crowd gathered outside the lecture hall, excusing herself repeatedly just to reach the doors in time for the lecture to begin. In truth, she didn’t even want to be there, but Master Genivere had signed her up for the series at the end of the previous semester. Claiming she could learn a lot from the veteran troubadour, insinuating in not so many words it might even rejuvenate her love for the very art that brought her to Oxenfurt nearly four years earlier and put her on the bard’s path.
World famous troubadour.
There was not a student of trouvership or poetry in all of Oxenfurt who hadn’t been required to study the volumes of work he’d published over the years, including his memoirs, titled Half a Century of poetry, even though Nyannah wasn’t sure the man was even half a century old. Maybe only just, but she highly doubted he’d actually reached fifty.
Her father, an esteemed professor at Oxenfurt before he passed away, said Dandelion was a student at the academy thirty years earlier, just before he retired, which made him close to half a century old, but not quite if her calculations were correct.
Forty-eight, it was quite possible he was as young as forty-seven, but there was no way he was actually fifty.
And though her father was long gone, ten years almost to the day, the good doctor of medicine never had anything kind to say about the poet the rest of the world often raved about.
Lazy, her father called him.
A grinning idiot.
A boastful vagabond with an uncanny flair for words and an insatiable appetite for things not appropriately discussed in front of children.
She’d been eleven at the time, and couldn’t begin to imagine what types of inappropriate foods this poet Dandelion craved that made her father dislike him so. She was seventeen by the time she’d heard enough stories outside the walls of her father’s estate to understand it hadn’t been food Benzier Vel Andolay was talking about when he mentioned the bard’s insatiable appetites.
He was a womanizer, a lady’s man, to put it more kindly, and she’d heard plenty of stories about his entanglements with women of high standing, besmirching and defiling their good name, including but not confined to the Lady Duchess Anna Henrietta of Toussaint, who was so smitten with the troubadour that she banished him from Toussaint after discovering him in the arms of a young, beautiful baroness named Veronique.
A lout and a troublemaker. Some even claimed he’d once played the dishonorable role of spy.
But every time the university received word from the bard that he’d like to appear for a series of guest lectures, everyone was over the moon with glee at the prospect. He’d seen the world. Participated in so many grand events his poetry was rife with love and war and politics and monsters of the most unexpected variety.
Nyannah herself couldn’t deny she’d been intrigued when Master Genivere penciled his series of guest lectures into her academic schedule. At the time she hadn’t thought much about all the work she’d have to do to simply graduate on time, but Master Genivere insisted it was beneficial to the completion of her thesis on the nature of inspiration. That it would provide her with valuable insight, and perhaps even change her theories.
They were all to take place in the evenings, finals were just around the corner and the Belleteyne fires were only a few days away.
She honestly didn’t have time to sit through the lectures of a braggart, or fawn over some celebrity guest speaker who’d barely managed to finish his own education, if all the things her father said were true about the man.
As much as she hated to say it, she’d much rather be studying, going over the final words of her sonnet groupings to make sure they were metered perfectly, reviewing her final thesis… Anything other than listening to some world-famous boaster talk about adventures, but when she finally made her way to the doors, gripped the knob in her hand and pulled it open to let herself in, the music that reached her from the lower half of the lecture hall was so heart-wrenching she actually stopped in front of the door to catch her breath. It caught her off guard, instantly carrying her away as the sweetest and most melodic voice she’d ever heard sang, that when the door slammed at her back as though forced by a gust of wind, and the silence struck with an unexpected twang of strings. Nyannah’s heart leapt into her throat and her face suddenly as if someone had splashed oil and struck a flint, setting her skin aflame.
The lecture hall was packed with people, every body in the room twisting toward the door with scoffing mouths agape, but none more appalled than the handsome man standing center stage, the broken strings on the lute laying slack against his chest still bouncing and wavering from having snapped in his surprise. Even from the back of the hall, the intensity of his stark blue eyes was fierce, the offense of her interruption wrenching his lips into a scowl just seconds before he called out, “This is a closed lecture. Registered students only.”
Nyannah swallowed against the jagged lump in her dry throat, clutching the required reading to her chest as she took a tentative step forward. “I am registered for this lecture,” she squeaked.
“Interesting,” the bard declared. “I was under the impression that lectures began promptly on the hour here at Oxenfurt. At least that was the case when I was a student here. Perhaps that rules has changed and I was left unawares.”
She bit her tongue and refused the urge to ask how often he arrived on the hour, remembering the stories her father told of the world-famous Dandelion when she was a girl. Late for every lecture, if he even bothered to appear at all. And there he was calling attention to her tardiness, which would not have been an issue were it not for the horde of bodies crowding not just the entryway, but creating a rowdy line that wound out of the building and halfway out into the center courtyard.
Clearing her throat, she pinched her lips tight and began walking toward the only open chair in the hall. “I apologize, Master Dandelion, both for arriving late, and for disrupting your melody.”
He was still scowling, the bright feather in his rich purple hat fluttering as he shook his head. “Nothing for it now that it’s done. Take your seat, go on already, before any more of our brief time together in this hall is wasted.”
She shuffled down the aisle, her chin tucked so close to her chest that her neck hurt by the time she sat down, and then she couldn’t concentrate on a single word the man said during the following seventy-five minutes because all she could think about was how much she’d embarrassed herself and insulted a world-renowned poet guest lecturer in the process, ruining his song and making him leer at her several times while speaking in depth on the nature of inspiration.
And it was a shame, too, because that was the very nature of Master Genivere’s recommendation that she attend the lecture in the first place.
Nyannah felt… uninspired. In truth, she was quite bored, and questioning her decision to continue pursuing the arts she’d spent the last four years of her life training.
She felt in no way, shape or form ready to set off into the world, and she could not imagine a single scenario in which she dazzled, entertained or inspired anyone else with words she truly believed lacked emotional resonance and meaning. Unless something drastically changed, she would never be world-famous, or even very memorable and that made her incredibly sad. She’d come to Oxenfurt, much to her aging mother’s dismay, intent on taking the world by storm, filling the hearts and souls of the people with poetry and song, and though her rhyme and meter were impeccable, her voice clear and beautiful as she sang, her fingers skilled enough, she often felt very little about the songs she sang and the poems she penned.
Everything about the experience was… flat.
Before she knew it, their time was up and the students were leaping out of their chairs, either darting toward the doors or gathering into hungry packs to swoon at the feet of their guest lecturer. Nyannah sat in her chair several minutes longer than she should have, looking down at the empty page of notes in front of her and wondering why she was even there at all.
Finally gathering her things, she stood up and attempted to slip quietly from the hall, but Dandelion spied her over the shoulder of a second-year student practically throwing herself at the man, and pushed off the stool before calling out to her, “Miss Vel Andolay?”
She froze where she stood, back toward the lecture hall and clutching her parchment roll and quill to her chest.
“A word, Miss Vel Andolay.” The soft tap of his boots upon the stone floors grew closer by the moment, and when she finally gathered the courage to turn and face him, he was standing nearly face to face with her, the absurd feather in his hat twitching and fluttering at the back of his bright purple hat.
“I apologize again, Master Dandelion, and beg your forgiveness for disrupting your song and arriving late to your lecture,” she said before he had chance to bombard and berate her. “Tomorrow evening I will leave my dorm room several hours before the lecture to ensure I can navigate through your crowd of admirers gathered outside the doors and arrive early.”
“Or, perhaps, it would behoove you not to bother coming at all,” he suggested in a cutting tone that brought the familiar flare and fire of humiliation burning back into her cheeks. “Clearly, you have no desire to be here, and an empty seat would provide an open space for someone who actually wishes to hear what I have to say on the subject of inspiration.”
The second year student who’d been squeezing her breasts together to deepen her cleavage took that as her cue to shuffle out of the lecture hall with her head hung in shame, leaving the two of them alone. Behind her, as the door swished open and banged closed, Nyannah heard the certain calamity in the hallway again and knew getting out of that hall would be equally difficult, that she would not arrive back at her dorm until well after midnight if that ridiculous crowd had anything to say about it, and for what?
To catch a glimpse at a world famous poet, as if they’d never seen someone of great celebrity before.
It was… disgusting.
Her tongue darted out to moisten her dry lips, eyes flitting everywhere in the room but the face of the man standing in front of her, expectantly awaiting her response. Her heart fluttered nervously in her chest, blood pressure rising as her nerve grew and then she asked, “And from what do you surmise I’ve no desire to be here, Master Dandelion?”
Before he could respond, she went on, “From the fact that I was not jumping up and down on the tips of my toes outside the door, waiting for you to open it up and let me stream through with the rest of the milksops who simply couldn’t wait to get a look at you? Or are you simply offended that I disrupted your beautiful song and drew attention away from you to me for a moment in time so fleeting none will even remember I arrived late to your lecture tomorrow but you.”
Stunned by her response, she saw from the corner of her still unfocused eyes that his mouth was agape, lips parting and touching like a fish out of water, gasping soundlessly.
“I’ve already apologized for my mistake,” she pointed out. “And I’ve asked your forgiveness. What more can I say?”
It was at this moment she chose to make eye contact. She’d noticed from afar how blue his eyes were while he was speaking during the lecture, but up close their color was beyond inspiring. Cornflower blue, flecks of violet and yellow making them appear so intense staring into them nearly took her breath away. At the corners of those eyes were the only true signs that he was a day over thirty years, the etchings of crow’s feet that deepened as he further narrowed his gaze to study her. Such sad, beautiful eyes, she thought. They’d seen so many things, things she couldn’t even begin to imagine, not even in her wildest and most fleeting dreams…
“Do you deny your lack of desire to be here then?” he asked, disrupting her from her reverie.
“With full conviction,” she assured him.
“I see,” he nodded, hand lifting to stroke thoughtfully through the triangle of hair positioned just beneath his lower lip.
Her gaze was drawn to the movement, to the sparse appearance of silver hairs tracing through the otherwise chestnut color of that small tuft of hair. Flitting her eyes toward the curling locks that edged the rim of his collar and clung to the brim of his hat, she saw traces of silver there too, but these signs did not make him appear old anymore than the crow’s feet that edged the corners of his eyes.
He was distinguished, worldly, and, though she really had no desire to admit that small truth—not even to herself—roguishly handsome. Though she highly doubted he’d ever scowled at the Lady Duchess of Toussaint, she immediately understood what Her Belovedness saw in the man.
“Perhaps you’ll share your thoughts with me, then, on the intuitive nature of inspiration in relation to physical, worldly experience when compared to scholarly experience gained from tomes and texts.”
“There is no comparison between the two,” she answered quickly, almost too quickly. “Information unearthed from texts and tomes cannot be counted as experience, no matter how many times one’s read through the pages of any one particular book.”
The very topic of her final thesis for Master Genivere, the nature of inspiration, and she had spent the last year of her life arguing with herself on paper, trying to prove her beliefs even though at the best of times even she wasn’t entirely convinced.
The very reason her advisor suggested she attend Master Dandelion’s lecture in the first place all those months ago.
In the throes of academia, Nyannah was completely uninspired, and though she’d imitated the emotional resonance of great poets from a very young age, she’d come to think over the last four years of her life at Oxenfurt she lacked the life experience needed to create meaningful poetry and art to share with the world.
Nothing she created was memorable, simply put, because her life was not memorable.
“True inspiration cannot be found in the pages of a book, Master Dandelion,” she went on.
“Perhaps not, but it may light the barest flame within the soul.”
“The words of another may capture experience, shed light upon it and bring pleasure to the reader who experiences them vicariously through the poet, but without the worldly experience of hearing them read by the author or poet who spun them, they cannot truly inspire.”
“So,” he began, “it is your opinion, then, that there is no inspiration in the written word, but if that word is spoken by the artist who penned it, inspiration will be found by the listener of those words? The same words? The words written on the page?”
“Yes,” she instantly doubted herself when he put it that way. She wanted to change her answer, to convince him that it went so much deeper than that, but what did she know? What could she possibly teach a man who’d seen the world about the nature of inspiration?
“Perhaps you do need this lecture then.” His brows shot up, the edges of his mouth tightening with smug, self-satisfaction. “However, if you arrive late for tomorrow’s session I am afraid I will have to ask you to leave, and I assure you I will not ask politely. This lecture is only four periods, a total of six hours of your life that may very well change the way you approach your future. You are considering a future as a bard, are you not? Otherwise you would not be here. Nevertheless, if you cannot make the sacrifice of experiencing six full hours in my company, Miss Vel Andolay, you are not committed to understanding the nature of inspiration, and therefore have no business in this art, or in this school. And I assure you that your place in the world beyond the illustrious halls of academia will not be easily found.”
“I am committed,” she assured him, and though his words felt like a slap, she hid the sting quite well.
“We shall see.” And then after a few dreadfully long moments, during which he studied her the way a medical student might take in a cadaver during an autopsy, he tipped his hat forward and said, “You are dismissed. Good evening, Miss Vel Andolay.”
It wasn’t until later, after she’d waded through the horde of people still buzzing outside the classroom door, lingering in the hallways and stuffing up the courtyard, when she was slipping into her nightgown and drawing down the sheets to crawl into bed in her private dormitory room, that she realized she’d never told the guest lecturer who she was. She wasn’t sure if he’d called attendance before she arrived and simply deduced her name because she was the only one who hadn’t announced her presence, or if there was some other reason he knew it. Perhaps Master Genivere had pointed her out to him, spoken at length with the man on Nyannah’s thesis and asked him to guide her.
In the end she didn’t know why it mattered, only that it did. Because even after she turned down the lantern and lay alone in the dark, all she could think about was the beautiful melody of his rhythmic, perfect voice, the incredible color of his eyes, the way the occasional thread of silver in his hair caught the light from the overhead chandelier and made him look worldly and distinguished and… so very, very smart.
And arrogant. He was definitely arrogant, but hadn’t he earned the respect he expected her to give him? Hadn’t he already done enough to prove to the world that his voice was more than just worthy of its ears?
Rolling onto her side, she stuffed her hands beneath the pillow, closed her eyes and tried to block out thoughts of a man she barely knew, but couldn’t stop thinking about.
She wasn’t starstruck.
She was far from a fawning girl prepared to drop and kiss the boots of a man who’d earned his right to fame. He’d humiliated her, called into question her personal philosophy and guessed the one thing she hadn’t admitted to anyone but herself: that she wasn’t really sure she belonged there. Surely Master Genivere had guessed her doubts, but they’d never discussed it.
How had he read so much about her with so little conversation?
And then her thoughts drifted back to his eyes, to the sharp, distinguished shape of his brow. The deceiving cut of his cheekbones, which made him appear as ageless and beautiful as one of Elven blood. The curve and fullness of his lips, how soft and perfectly kissable they appeared, even when he’d been scowling at her.
But mostly she thought about his eyes. So deep, so filled with sorrow. The kind of eyes someone could get easily lost and possibly drown inside.
The man had everything, did he not? Position, prestige, freedom to continue pursuing his dream while gallivanting and adventuring from one end of the world to the other.
Why was he so sad? And why did it suddenly seem to matter to her? She didn’t know him. Not at all beyond their brief encounter and the time she’d spent learning his work over the years.
She only knew she wanted to capture the memory of that sorrow, the way it flashed in his eyes, most especially when he laughed, as if the world itself was a cruel joke and only he knew the punchline.
If only she could memorialize the depth of his sadness in song, but even as she tried exhaustion carried her away.
The poet Dandelion followed her into her dreams, flitting through a field of yellow flowers that became wishing seeds that danced and pirouetted on the wind. He strummed the strings of his lute and sang the most breathtaking ballad about a little girl who lost sight of her worth, while Nyannah sat on a blanket in the grass and joined him for the chorus.
So beautiful, so powerful, it filled her so completely with emotion that when she woke, she swore her pillowcase was still damp with tears she shed while dreaming.
She rose late, had only a few moments to get dressed and ready to attend her first class, but inspiration struck her.
It dragged her from responsibility, pushed her into the chair that sat angled away from her desk and thrust her headlong into the most intense relation with words she’d had in so long it took her breath away.
What is a whisper in a dream, if not
the spectral ash of streams that reek of rot
and dark decay, and tear the memories
away? Wherein the wind they flit like bees
until even the wisest men forget
the nature of things which haven’t come yet.
And who is he to question me, and ask
that I refrain from the dauntless, hope-filled task
of slaying spectres that taunt and memories
which haunt the pale and ever once demure
eyes of a man who will never forget
things that once happened, the things he now frets?