Note: This story takes place about eight years after the events in Veloë Vort, just weeks after Cedric’s death, Triss Merigold’s disappearance and the scourging of Flotsam that saw the violent death and persecution of many of the town’s non-human residents. Beyond the prelude, the story is entirely from Geralt of Rivia’s point of view.
Invaernewedd cáemm aép Lammas! She comes with the seventh savaed. With the harvest we shall reap the seed sown in winter’s chill…–Cedric of Lobinden
Cedric laid down the trap he’d been repairing as the little girl approached, her quiet sobs reaching him long before she did. His hands were shaking, his mind muddled and foggy. He needed a drink, but the noon hour hadn’t even come upon them yet and there was already so much to do. He’d promised Helti he would not drink in the mornings anymore, to try and hold himself back until he’d at least had a noon meal, but since the white-haired vatt’ghern had come with the red-headed sorceress, Cedric’s already frayed nerves were beyond frazzled.
They were heralds to his ending, the harbingers of death and chaos he’d glimpsed long ago in a vision. His death. Chaos for all who survived him.
Her head was down, her lower lip forced outward in a pout. The tangles of her dark-brown hair clung to the tears that stained her cheeks.
“Why do you cry, wedd me?”
Reaching out with unsteady hand, he gripped her chin and tilted her face upward so she had no choice but to look at him. Her hazel eyes, flecked with rich green, glossed over with tears that ran in small rivers down her face when she blinked. The golden-brown waves of her loose hair clung to her cheeks, where the tears had fallen. She was so beautiful, like her mother, but there was an intensity inside her that made him uneasy.
“What is it? Have you fallen and skinned your knees?”
“Nasin pushed me,” she whimpered, lower lip sucking inward with her staggering sobs. “And all the other children laughed and said terrible things about me, Ater.”
It was, at times, difficult for him to look into those eyes of hers, to touch her small, oval face with loving fingertips and not see glimpses of her future. She would be so tall, so proud, so… confused about who she was and where she was meant to stand in a world rife with so much destruction. She would struggle all her life, trying to figure out where she belonged, where she fit in.
And he would not be there to guide her.
“Let your ater hold you in his arms,” he held them out to her and she went to him.
Invaernewedd was not his daughter, at least not in the traditional sense. He’d not been the elf who made love to her mother and sparked life in her womb, though the child knew no different. He was the only father she knew. He’d been there for her mother not long after she’d been conceived, come to know, care for and eventually love her. He had been there when the child was born, the midwife drawing her into the world, purple and silent and serious as the winter for which she’d been named.
He claimed her and called her his own with pride, even though it was an impossibility that he could ever be her father. He loved her mother, and though she’d not been born of him, she was still his little beauty, his perfect flower.
Wrapping her against his chest, he stroked fingers through her hair while she sobbed into his shoulder.
He loved her well, but sometimes the nearness of her brought on flashing glimpses of her future that filled him with sorrow and dread. Especially when there was no alcohol in his system to dull his senses.
She’d been born with her father’s spirit, the anger and injustice she felt, even after having seen barely seven years in the world, was tantamount to an elf several hundred years her elder, and she’d yet to see the world beyond Lobinden and Flotsam. She was complicated, filled with fire and yet so very fragile, and there was nothing he could do to change who she was inside.
Soon he would be gone, his death filling her with emptiness and sorrow that would carry her to that place where she only allowed emotion to cloud her judgment and form her decisions.
“My little beauty, my winter flower. It’s all right. I’m here now.”
“It’s not all right, Ater,” she insisted, drawing back to look at him. “It’s not all right at all. Whenever we play soldiers and Squirrels, they make me be the Squirrel because you are my father and my ears are pointed like yours. But I don’t want to be a Squirrel, Ater. I want to be a soldier, like everyone else.” She hiccupped those words, the last one squeaking through the tightness of her sobs. “When I told them no, I wouldn’t be a Squirrel, they pushed me down and tied me up with rope from Haren’s father’s fishing net, and then they said they would hang me in the market square with all the other nasty Squirrels.”
“Such a ridiculous game.” Helti appeared in the cottage doorway, arms crossed, the braid of her fair hair dripping over her shoulder and rustling as she shook her head in dismay. “I’ve asked you before not to play it at all. Children running through the streets with wooden swords, pretending to fall as imaginary arrows strike them dead from the trees, crying, ‘Death to Iorveth! Death to the Squirrels!’ And now they’re mocking hangings, Cedric. Do you hear this? It is a dangerous and disgusting game. Playing at furthering racial cruelty and injustice. Eventually someone is going to get hurt, or even worse…”
Tucking the damp locks of her hair away from his child’s face, Cedric leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “Your mother is right, of course,” Cedric agreed. “It is a cruel and senseless game you should not play at all.”
His declaration and agreement with her mother angered the child and she drew away just as his lips met with her skin. “It’s all the other children wish to play. Maybe if I cut off the tips of my stupid, pointy ears, they will let me be a soldier!”
Helti reached out and grabbed the child by her shoulder, dropping onto her knees in front of her. Her wild brown eyes were filled with anger and dismay, clenched fingers trembling and tightening as the girl attempted to squirm away from her shaking grip. “Never say that,” her mother hissed. “Never, ever say that again. Your ears are beautiful. You are beautiful and perfect and you must be proud of who you are. Do you hear me? Do you understand, Invae?”
“Helti,” Cedric rose and lowered an unsteady hand to her shoulder to calm her. “I’m sure she didn’t mean it.”
Invaernewedd started to cry harder, falling against her mother’s chest. When Helti turned her head up to look at him, she, too, had tears in her eyes.
The world was filled with cruelty and injustice.
And Cedric needed a drink.
His mind was calm, awash of visions and dreams and swimming in a haze of vodka that made him waver where he sat as if he were on the deck of a ship. The rain on the rooftops soothed him. The half-empty cup in his hand trailed between the table and his lips, and when it emptied he filled it again.
Drowned in a sea of drink, it was the only time he could think clearly.
Soon the sorceress would come. She would ask him for his help and he would give it to her because he must. It had been written. It was his path. His destiny was to die among the trees, in the arms of his beloved forest…
“Cedric?” Helti’s fingers curled around his shoulder, squeezing gently as she leaned down beside him and rested her cheek against his. “I think you’ve had enough to drink. Why don’t you come to bed?”
“The injustice of this place will make her like her father,” he muttered, leaning the back of his head against her chest. He took another drink, warm, liquid emptiness filling him, dulling the sound of the voices that whispered in his head, curbing the harsh visions that all too often plagued his mind. “The Scoia’tael become ever bolder in their attacks. Loredo uses their raids as an excuse to persecute nonhumans in Flotsam who want nothing more than peace and a roof over their heads.”
But not for long. Everything in Flotsam was on the verge of collapse. Soon, darkness would descend on black wings and tear the city apart. The riots would start, everything would burn and so much blood would be spilled.
They would have to run away; he wouldn’t be there to protect them…
“And yet we stay here.” Her tone was stiff with something that sounded like indifference, but he couldn’t be sure. “Why do we stay here, Cedric? Moril has been missing for so long, and we both know she didn’t just walk off into the woods and not return. Tension is rife, the darkness only deepening by the day. Moril was not the first to disappear, and she won’t be the last. They will pick seidhe off, one by one, until every last nonhuman in this hideous place is dead or made an example of, and then they’ll turn to those of us who love without discrimination. You know they call me such hideous names when I go into the market in Flotsam. Some of them even threaten to turn me back to my own kind with a plough I won’t soon forget.”
“Who says these things to you?” he slurred, leaning out to look at her. “Dh’oine who have the audacity to ask me for my help?”
“Some,” she shrugged. “Mostly I ignore them, but sometimes it gets under my skin, especially when those same men come and ask you if the woods are safe so they may enter. And the children are equally cruel. How long before they exclude her entirely from their games, all because her ears look different than theirs? How long before they really hurt her, acting out in the same ways they see their parents acting? This is not a good place for her to grow.”
“The rest of the world is no different, Helti. It will not matter where you are. If you stay here or go a thousand miles from this place, the truth will always find you. People are cruel.”
“You’re not cruel,” she murmured, resting her head atop his and kissing his hair.
But I will not be here much longer, he thought. I won’t be able to protect you and all the lessons I’ve taught that child will fade with time and hardship, and she will forget.
“Invae will learn the truth, sooner or later, Helti. And when she discovers that Iorveth is her father, she will feel betrayed, by you, by me…”
“Then I will never tell her that truth. She must not know how she came into this world.”
“You cannot keep it from her. She will follow in the blood of his footsteps, and far worse is that he’d welcome her with open arms, never knowing it is his own blood he corrupts with cries for independence and justice that all too often end strangled to silence by the tightening of a noose around one’s neck. He would lead his own daughter to her death, revel in the spilling of her blood and the righteousness it further brings to his failing cause…”
“Have you seen this?” she asked, her fingers tightening on his shoulder. There was fear in her voice, which cracked in her throat as if tears would follow. “In your visions, Cedric? Have you seen this future for her?”
“I have seen a great many things in my visions,” he murmured, dulling the sound of his voice with another drink. “You know this. I have not seen her ending, no, but I have seen her on his path.”
Only in the tangle of visions and prophecy that obscured his mind, neither Cedric, nor Helti saw the child peering from behind the partition that separated her bed from the central part of the cottage. Her green-flecked, hazel eyes were wide with horror and revelation, her entire world shattered in the muttering of a few words she should never have had to hear that way.
“I wish we could go away from here,” Helti said. “Somewhere far from this place, where there are no prejudices. Where people are just… people.”
“There is no such place in this world, minne me, and there probably never will be.”
Elder speech used in this chapter:
savaed: the eight parts of the year on the elven calendar
Invaernewedd: Winter’s child