They were not his area of expertise, those small, helpless beings in need of protecting, and yet Geralt of Rivia somehow always found himself on the giving end of their care and keeping. He didn’t know how the task kept falling into his hands, but it did, and for reasons he did not quite understand, he couldn’t say no. Children were innocent, almost entirely unable to look after themselves, but that was what parents and guardians were for. He was neither of those things.
“I’m only asking you to talk to her,” Dandelion insisted. “She’s hysterical, Geralt! Completely out of her mind with worry. And you would be too if…”
The witcher was not amused. “Tell me again why this is my problem, Dandelion,” he interrupted, pushing past his friend and taking three steps into the tavern so he wasn’t blocking the door, where he’d been accosted before it was even fully opened. “I’m not a babysitter. I’m a witcher…”
“Which is precisely what makes this your problem, Geralt. Vergen is a dangerous place for an adult, but a child lost in this place… All alone and afraid.”
Geralt sighed, the loud, heavy sound of it cutting off the ceaseless rattle of the bard’s voice. It didn’t happen often, but the minstrel was right and he knew it. “Fine, Dandelion. I’ll talk to the parents.”
“Parent,” Dandelion corrected. “Cedric was her father.”
“Cedric from Flotsam?”
The bard nodded.
There was a lamenting sorrow in Dandelion’s eyes, and though Geralt didn’t often give way to emotion himself, he felt it tighten in his own gut like a clenching fist. Hearing that it was Cedric’s child only made him feel all the more obligated to help.
Cedric died helping Triss; he interfered trying to save her, and he’d gotten killed in the process. Geralt had been with him as he drew last breath and turned unseeing eyes into the beauty of the forest closing in all around them.
Before Geralt had a chance to say anything, Dandelion went on, “So you see why it’s so important to find this child? Her mother has already lost so much. To lose her only child too…”
“I said I’d talk to her,” he reiterated.
“She’ll pay you,” he assured him, as if he hadn’t heard Geralt agree. “Handsomely if you find her, I’m sure.”
“What’s her name again, and where can I find her?”
“Helti,” Dandelion said. “She’s staying in the northern outskirts with the other refugees from Flotsam, where the Scoia’tael are stationed.”
“Helti. Seems a strange name for an elf?”
“That’s because she’s not an elf. She’s human.”
While it wasn’t all that odd to hear of human/elven pairings, it was usually the other way around. A human male and elven woman, but hearing that, Geralt vaguely recalled nodding greeting to a dark-eyed human beauty lingering in the doorway of Cedric’s cottage as he climbed down the ladder after picking up the kayran trap the craftsman constructed for him. He hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, or of the wide-eyed, half-elven little girl standing close to her mother, asking in a low voice, ‘Why does he carry two swords, Mother? Does he lose one often?’
“I suppose you took advantage of her grief on the ship from Flotsam, got to know her in that way you’re famous for…”
“Your suppositions are completely unfounded, Geralt, to the point of insulting my noble character.”
“That would be a first,” Geralt quirked a brow at the bard.
“She’s a good friend. I’ve known Helti for months, ever since I arrived in Flotsam with Zoltan after the wedding that never was. She was the healer there. She brewed a potion for me once. And anyway, I saw her little girl running through the market square every single day. Invae, she’s called. She used to pluck dandelions from the grass and bring them to me as an offering. Five yellow flowers, like my name, and I’d sing a song just for her. Now that I think on it, she had a quite a crush on me. You’ve got to find her, Geralt!”
“How sweet, but don’t you think she’s a little young for you?”
“Really, Geralt, this is no time for jokes. You should go and talk to Helti, offer your assistance. Her daughter is barely seven, you know. She’s probably more terrified than her mother, out there alone, cornered by harpies or wraiths… What if she’s in lost in the mists?” he shuddered. “My gods, the longer you sit here, the more likely she’ll never be found.”
“You’re hysterical, and in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not exactly sitting down, Dandelion.”
He’d only just walked through the doors to the tavern to seek out a dwarf who claimed he’d seen a red-headed human woman fall from the sky. It was the first and only lead he’d gotten on Triss since she’d teleported from Flotsam with the Kingslayer, and though it wasn’t much of a lead, he had to investigate it nonetheless.
“Before I go, there’s a dwarf here,” he started, “someone who says he saw a woman fall from the sky.”
Dandelion didn’t hide his disdain as he snorted a bemused chuckle into his tankard and swallowed a drink before declaring, “Every ear in this tavern has heard that story about half a hundred times. Nonsensical drivel, Geralt. Don’t even bother with it.”
“It could have been Triss,” he countered. “She did teleport from Flotsam, Dandelion. Cedric said she didn’t have the proper coordinates for Sile’s megascope…”
“You can talk to him, I guess,” Dandelion shrugged. “It wouldn’t hurt, but really, Geralt. A missing child seems far more important to me than the ramblings of a drunk, old dwarf. And even if he did see someone fall from the sky, that was over a week ago. I’m sure the story has changed in that time, growing only more embellished by the pint.”
“Dandelion, I have to find Triss.”
“And you will, I’m sure of it, but…”
“Yeah, yeah. I got it, Dandelion, a missing child is more important,” he grumbled.
“Do you want me to come with you?” he asked.
“Let me just finish my drink, and we’ll be on our way.”
The bard did not stop talking for a second as they wound the stairs through Vergen and headed toward the northern outskirts where the elven refugees from Flotsam and Iorveth’s Scoia’tael were stationed while he continued to gather forces to their cause. It should have winded him, but it didn’t. There was nothing Dandelion liked more than the sound of his own voice. He prattled on about a song he was composing for the united people of Vergen and their fight for freedom beneath the bold and courageous Virgin of Aedirn, but Geralt skillfully tuned him out.
He’d been doing it for years, or so it seemed. He couldn’t really remember, only knew that according to Dandelion the two of them had been the best of friends practically since the dawn of time. Geralt had lost his memory, so he couldn’t exactly confirm that, but surely the ease with which he blocked out the sound of the minstrel’s ramblings was an acquired skill. Maybe Dandelion had been telling the truth about their friendship, though he found himself wondering on a regular basis why he’d ever purposely agree to keep company with such a pretentious and troublesome loud mouth.
Since they’d reacquainted in Flotsam, he’d already had to save the bard from the noose, and he’d nearly gotten himself burned to death in an attempted rescue on a burning brothel. Geralt had gotten them women out himself, but they all cooed and fussed over Dandelion, the would-be hero with nary a burn scar to prove he’d actually tried to go into the building. Geralt’s own blisters from the event were only just starting to heal.
Scanning the city from beneath the shadow of his hood, it rained the night before and the stone steps and partitions were still slick, the dirt pathways all mud their boots slipped through as they climbed higher into the city to reach the outskirts. Dandelion complained about that too, whining that his favorite boots were going to be ruined, and again Geralt blocked him out.
The dampness of the air stirred the smell of rotting wood and mingled with the unsettling gases from the temporarily out-of-service mine that ran below the city. Still, it smelled a hell of a lot better than Flotsam, which had stunk of river-washed blood, a mutated old kayran, racial unrest, poverty and deception.
Vergen was equally run down by poverty, but the stench wasn’t so apparent with every breath and the racial unrest, noticeable as it was, didn’t seem as suffocating to the senses. Vergen was a dwarven city, predominantly inhabited by miners and craftsman, and though the largest part of the population consisted of dwarves, there were humans, elves and halflings roaming through the streets in abundance, and they all seemed to tolerate each other without much issue.
The tavern, filled with squat, broad-shouldered men who talked a tough game, wasn’t as tense a place as the inn at Flotsam, but then the people in Vergen knew their very freedom depended upon allying their forces beneath the banner of the peasant, virgin dragonslayer, and setting their racial resentments aside, at least for the time being.
The people of Upper Aedirn were all in love with Saskia, who at that moment lay poisoned, possibly even dying, in a room guarded by Scoia’tael, while Geralt searched for elements so the sorceress, Philippa Eilhart, could bring her out of the dark and return her to the helm of her revolution for a free Pontar Valley.
“…at which point I said, ‘Oh-ho no, absolutely not! I like my women without a cock, thank you very much. Honestly, Geralt, I’ve seen a lot of pretty elves in my day, but usually you can tell their sex without much issue. This elf looked like a gods damned princess, complete with an odd little tiara and everything. I’m just glad I figured it all out before he tried to kiss me. That would have been embarrassing.”
“Mhm,” Geralt mumbled. “I’m sure it’s not the first time your sexuality has been called into question.”
“Well, no, but… wait…”
“Where the hell is this place?”
“Just up here,” Dandelion pointed through the stone walkway and Geralt followed the crook of his finger, making brief eye contact with a scowling elf who quickly turned his glance away as they passed through the walkway. “She’s staying in one of these houses. I think it’s maybe on the left side of the street.”
“It’s either on the left side of the street, or it’s not.”
“I’m sure of it.” He pushed past Geralt and approached a tall elven woman with dark, black hair and exotic blue eyes. She glanced cautiously over Dandelion’s shoulder at the witcher, holding his gaze as the bard spoke with all the pomp and fanfare of a professional sycophant. “I beg your pardon, my lady, but I was wondering if you might help us. We’re looking for the healer.”
She gestured toward a house on the right side of the street, settled back from the main walkway and accessible via several planks of wood stretched in makeshift bridges over the deep puddles filling the road. Like most of the other occupied houses, it boasted a red door and several seidhe who obviously didn’t know what else to do with their time stood milling outside in the still-damp grass watching a very small handful of children play in the mud.
“Right side of the street, imagine that,” he mumbled under his breath. “And you were so sure it was on the lef…”
Ignoring him entirely, Dandelion tromped across the boards, splashing muddy water as they sunk under his weight and soaked it onto his already ruined boots. He headed straight to the door, swearing with every step, much to the dismay of several of the elves loitering outside, who, judging from the narrowed glares they gave, thought they had no right to be there.
They stepped closer to the children and kept careful eyes on the witcher and his companion.
Edging up beside the bard, Dandelion knocked on the door and the two of them waited for someone to answer.
An elven man with golden braids and large grey eyes pulled it open, squinting as he looked between the two of them before finally focusing on Dandelion expectantly. “What are you doing here, Taedh?”
“Braelen,” he bowed his head almost humbly and then said, “I brought the witcher to see Helti, just like I promised.”
The elf called Braelen grunted, a very un-elven display if Geralt had ever seen one, and then he stepped back from the doorway and gestured with his head for them to come inside.
The interior of the house was small, a single room boasting a blazing hearth, a table with three chairs and seven palettes strewn across the floor where half a dozen elves lay sprawled and still sleeping. The palettes were so cramped and so many, there was barely a pathway to walk to the table, but they managed to do so without stepping on any elves.
The woman called Helti, whom Geralt only vaguely recognized from their brief exchange of glances in Flotsam, was sitting at the table with a steaming mug of something curled in her pale white hands, her glassy stare focused on nothing worldly. Her golden hair was curled and looped in a series of elegant braids he could easily see hadn’t been tended to in a couple of days, and her long face, though beautiful as it was, appeared so haunted he didn’t know what to make of her.
Her brown eyes held that glassy appearance that often came with fisstech use or unfathomable grief, and when Braelen said her name and announced they’d come, she didn’t even stir. She only stared into the nothing until Dandelion knelt down in front of her, snapped his fingers to get her attention and then offered a placating smile when she shook her head and found his stare.
“Helti, have you slept at all?”
“Not a wink,” she confessed. “How can I sleep, Dandelion? Knowing she’s out there somewhere, alone, so scared?”
“Well, I promised I would bring the witcher to help find Invae, and so I have.” Glancing over his shoulder, Geralt assumed this was his cue to step up and introduce himself.
“Geralt of Rivia,” he said. “You must be Helti.”
She nodded, a meek gesture, and asked, “You are the one they call Gwynbleidd? The White Wolf?”
“I knew Cedric.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “My husband spoke very highly of you, and Dandelion told me on the ship from Flotsam that you were with my Cedric at the end.”
“I was, yes.”
“Then for that I am glad he was not alone. As for the matter of my daughter, I already told Dandelion that I’m not even sure you can help. Braelen and I have been all over Vergen several times, searching thoroughly in all the places Cecil Burdon gave us clearance to go, and I’m afraid she is nowhere to be found. It’s as though she’s vanished.”
Geralt turned a scathing glare toward his friend, who shrugged his shoulders, pinched his lips and widened his eyes, silently willing him to hear the whole story before he decided the bard was a useless friend and regular meddler in things he should keep his nose out of. “I’d like to help, if I can. Do you think someone might have… taken her?”
“No, I really don’t think so.” She tapped her finger against her mug, the gold band chinking against the metal. “I mean, they could have, but the truth is I believe she might have run away. She was distraught when we fled Flotsam.”
“And with good reason,” Geralt agreed, “but why would she run away? Surely not to attempt returning to Flotsam?”
“She thought we were leaving her father behind, and when I told her that he was…” Her voice trailed off, her eyes taking on that far-off look again before she shook it off and strengthened her resolve with a stoicism that rivaled his own under ordinary circumstances. “Well, when I told her what happened, that he wouldn’t be able to come with us because he’d moved on from this world, she was very upset.”
“Of course,” he nodded.
“She didn’t talk to me on the ship at all after that. She barely ate a thing. She just laid there staring at the wall when she wasn’t sleeping. Even when Dandelion came and sang to her to try and cheer her up, she just ignored him, which is strange because she adores him. By the time we arrived here she was edgy, despondent. She kept getting ahead of me, as if she were trying to run off even then, but then they put us all up here. There were people she knew here and for the first few days she seemed almost normal. I kept my eye on her, of course, and when I wasn’t able because duty called me, Braelen watched after her for me.”
Geralt glanced over his shoulder at Braelen, who stood behind them with his arms crossed.
“Who was watching her when she disappeared.”
Helti looked down at the table, her lips pinched together until they turned white, and then she parted them again. “No one,” she confessed. “But not because we were neglecting her. We were all asleep,” she explained. “The night before last, I woke up from a deep sleep as if…” Her voice trailed off, she shook her head again as if quieting some inner-voice and then continued, “Anyway, I woke up and she was just gone. Vanished… I ran screaming into the yard outside, but the guards said they hadn’t seen her. We searched everywhere, all the houses, every shed and alcove.”
It sounded suspicious, that was for sure. Narrowing his eyes, Geralt glanced over at Dandelion, and then returned his attention to Helti. “Did anyone in the house see anything?”
“Everyone was asleep.”
“And the guards claim they saw nothing at all?”
“Nothing at all.”
“Is there anyone you can think of who might gain something from taking her?”
Geralt watched her face, waiting for tell-tale signs she might be withholding information. He watched her head move slowly back and forth, and though she said she couldn’t think of anyone, she was definitely holding something back. Taking a step toward her, Dandelion moved out of the way as Geralt knelt down in front of her. Braelen shifted uncomfortably at his back, but Geralt didn’t acknowledge the elf’s discomfort, nor did he care.
“Helti, listen to me.” Channeling his energy, he stared into her eyes and cast the axii sign at his side to capture her attention, calm her nerves and make her more compliant. The hex was successful, and he watched as her already distant eyes softened, becoming almost entirely vacant as she grew submissive to his suggestions. “I get the feeling you’re not telling me everything I need to know in order to help you, but I can only help you if I know all there is to know. Is there something you’re holding back?”
She nodded, her large brown eyes darting over his shoulder toward Braelen before returning to him.
“Would you like to come outside with me so we can talk in private?”
He didn’t want to force her into telling him some strange, dark secret, but if he was going to help her find her missing child, he needed to know everything. He could only begin to imagine what kind of secret it might be. Some elven/human conspiracy he really didn’t want to get involved in, but would wind up up to his neck in anyway because that was how it always seemed to work.
“I will come with you,” she agreed.
The barest hint of a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth as he backed away, stood up again and turned to Dandelion. “You stay here and keep Braelen company,” he said, his voice just stiff enough that he knew the minstrel would gladly do just that.
With a gentle hand on the woman’s shoulder, Geralt guided her through the small dwelling, out into the silver light of mid-morning. He walked her across the makeshift bridge of wooden planks and up the path, toward the gateway that led beyond the city walls and into the woods.
As they walked, he tried to gauge her emotions, but he’d never been very good at that sort of thing. All he picked up from her was a heavy sadness, which under the circumstances didn’t seem the least bit unnatural at all. She’d lost her mate, violence and madness drove her from her home and her child was missing. She had every right to be sad.
Arriving at the doorway of the gates leading into the forest, he scanned the area, crossed his arms once he was satisfied they were entirely alone, and then he asked, “Do you think someone took your daughter?”
“No, I don’t. I really think she may have run away.”
“What are you holding back? There’s something you’re not telling me, and I think it’s something important.”
Helti’s mouth tightened, deepening the lines in her face and making her look far older than she surely was for just a moment. “It may be important, but even for me it’s only a guess. I think she may have gone looking for… her father.”
“Cedric?” Geralt’s face gave away his instant disbelief. “You said yourself that you explained to her that her father…”
Before he could finish his sentence, she cut him off, shaking her head again and quietly declaring, “Cedric was not her father, not in the sense that he contributed to her creation. I was already with child when I met him, only just. He knew before I did, actually. He saw… visions of her.”
Blinking, he took a step back. “If Cedric wasn’t her father than…”
“It’s a long story.”
He glanced toward the sun again, gauging the hour as he squinted. He was supposed to meet Zoltan at the mines, and there was nothing he hated more than being late.
“I’ve got time,” he said in a gruff, but thoughtful tone. Even though he didn’t have time, not really, he would make time for her. “Tell me this long story of yours.”
Elder Speech used in this chapter:
Taedh: bard, poet
seidhe: elf, elves