Hers was a heartbreaking tale, what Dandelion would have called a traditional tragedy, complete with three acts of suffering and depressing death at the end.
The entire world felt like one big tragedy anymore. It was a dark and twisted place where hate became love in the blink of an eye, and strange displays of gratitude turned into unexpected, but beloved children.
Her village burned to the ground by Scoia’tael, she’d been forced to heal their captain of a fatal injury that cost him his eye. She brought him back from the brink of death, and to repay her for her a kindness he probably didn’t deserve, he’d unwittingly given her a child and sent her on her way.
There was nothing Geralt liked less than the mistreatment of women. Especially women who seemed more than perfectly capable of taking care of themselves.
“He didn’t force me,” she said, as if she sensed his ire and felt the need to defend her child’s father in that soft, almost melancholy voice of hers. “He offered me a choice and I accepted his offer. En’ca Minne,” she went on. “A little love, the seidhe call it. He said he never wanted to forget me or what I did for him.”
Geralt had heard that expression before. He knew enough of the Elder Speech to converse fluently, but that particular phrase, En’ca Minne, it stirred an old memory inside him he couldn’t quite place his finger on. A sad memory, the briefest glimpse of a black-winged kite that made no sense at all in conjunction with the thoughts in question, though he was quite sure wherever that memory came from, it involved Scoia’tael and there had also been a child.
“I had a choice, and the gods know I spent years wondering if I made the right one, but every time I look at her… I don’t know, there’s not a doubt in my mind it was right. She was meant for this world, and though the circumstances that brought her into it were beyond painful, I don’t regret any of it and my memories of him are… pleasant because of Invae. I love her.”
“And Cedric? How does he fit into all of this?”
“Cedric found me in the woods hours later, wandering, lost…” Her voice grew distant with lament, and then a soft laugh escaped her. “He told me that he woke that morning and a voice told him he should go to the woods to check his traps. That he would find something that day he hadn’t even known he’d been looking for. He… he saved my life. Blew up a bunch of nekkers with those crazy traps and bombs of his, and then he took me in. He cared for me, listened to my story, nurtured me when I refused to nurture myself and in time we fell into odd routine together. We were a disaster, both of us, but together over time we found a little peace in each other’s company, fell in love. I always felt so safe with him, as if nothing in the world could ever hurt me again. Anyway, he claimed my child, raised her as his own and that was that. He loved her very much, and not just because he fell in love with me. Invaernewedd was Cedric’s everything.”
“Did anyone besides Cedric know she wasn’t his child?”
“Everyone knew,” she shrugged. “Cedric lived a long life before he met me. He was well past the age to get a woman with child, so it was common knowledge, at least among the other seidhe in the village. But no one spoke of it out of respect for him, and none but him knew who her father really was. He took that secret with him to the grave.”
“And her father?” Geralt asked. “Does he know?”
Helti shook her head. “I have not spoken to Iorveth since he set me free outside Flotsam’s gates.”
“Not even on the boat from Flotsam?”
“To be honest, I didn’t even realize we were on a boat with the Scoia’tael until after it set sail. Dandelion ushered us aboard during the riots, then went back to try and save the women in the brothel after Loredo set fire to the place. Before I knew it he was there, belting out commands for someone to haul the bard in from the water and tend to his wounds, hollering to people on the shore. I don’t know why it took me by surprise, but it did. His name was fearfully uttered through Flotsam and Lobinden every day, there were wanted posters of him everywhere, but I hadn’t seen him since… Anyway, I tended to Dandelion, and after that I stayed away from Iorveth and his Squirrels, fearing one of them might recognize me and throw me overboard. I hid below deck with the other women and children on board, and when we came to Vergen I hurried away to avoid coming face to face with them.”
“Are you absolutely sure Iorveth doesn’t know about this?”
“How could he?”
“Cedric was a seer, gifted, or rather cursed, with prophecy, and he wasn’t the only person I’ve met recently afflicted with such visions. Perhaps Iorveth came in contact with someone like Cedric… Someone who told him about this child of his?”
“Perhaps,” she was shaking her head as she said that, but he could tell she didn’t think it likely. “But why would he even care? She’s almost seven. Of what use would she be to him now? What would be the advantage of him taking her, even if he did know? Iorveth does nothing unless it serves him, and right now he has more important things to worry about.”
“Good point,” he agreed. “But perhaps I should ask him about it.”
Her eyes widened, the inevitability of her secret reaching the pointed ears she’d meant to keep it from terrifying her. “I’m telling you, no one knew but Cedric, and now you. Though there was…” She grew thoughtful, and he waited for her to continue, but after a few minutes she said nothing so he prodded her to continue.
“It may be nothing, but then again, it could be everything, I don’t know. A couple of nights before everything went to hell in Flotsam, Cedric and I were talking about something that happened earlier that day. Invae had been bullied by some of the kids in the village. Not an entirely uncommon thing. They were always making fun of her and the other half-elven children because of what they were. They were playing soldiers and Squirrels,” she scowled when she said those words and heaved an exasperated sigh. “They always made her be a Squirrel, and she hated it. She ran home to Cedric, crying. She told him they’d tied her up with fishing net and threatened to hang her in the square with all the other Squirrels Loredo dangled from the scaffold as a warning. I was disgusted to say the least, and I asked Cedric that night, after she’d gone to bed, why we had to stay in that awful place. While we were talking, he mentioned visions he’d had of her.”
“Anything useful? Did Cedric see her disappearance?”
“No, nothing like that at all. He only said that one day she would follow in the trail of her father’s bloody footprints. That Iorveth would welcome her with open arms and rally her to his cause, never realizing it was his own blood he led like a lamb to the slaughter. I asked him again why we couldn’t just leave, avoid her ever even coming into contact with Iorveth at all. We could go somewhere far away, where there were no Scoia’tael at all, but he said we couldn’t hide the truth from her. That one day she would learn he was her father, and there was nothing either of us could do to stop it from happening.”
“Hmm,” Geralt mused. “Do you think she might have overheard your conversation with Cedric?”
“I don’t know. I thought she was asleep. But she was acting very strange just before everything in Flotsam went to hell. She was underfoot, cold toward me, but eager to follow Cedric everywhere he went. She begged to come with him into the woods to check his traps, lingered on the platform pestering him while he worked, even though I told her several times to run off and play. She clung to him, and when your sorceress came to ask for his help and he told Invae she must stay behind, she was very upset. More upset than usual at being told no by her father. Before he departed, he held her, whispered something in her ear I didn’t hear…”
“Maybe Cedric knew he was going to die,” Geralt said.
“I’m sure he did. He told me once he’d seen his own death.”
“Do you think he might have told her something, some last bit of wisdom he passed onto her before he left? Perhaps, that he wasn’t her father?”
“I don’t know why he would have done that. As I said before, she was his everything. He wouldn’t want to bring her anymore unnecessary pain.”
“Perhaps he knew something he didn’t tell you.”
“He knew a lot of things he didn’t tell me in order to protect and spare me from their darkness, but I still cannot imagine he would ever have told her he wasn’t her father, especially knowing he was saying goodbye to her for the last time.”
“Fair point, but maybe he thought it would cull the pain of losing him if she knew the truth. Helti, I didn’t know Cedric very well, but I did talk with him about his drinking problem. Is it possible he may have said or done something without thought? Because his mind and senses were clouded?”
“Cedric may have had a drinking problem,” she began, “but he wasn’t a careless drunk.”
“I wish I had been paying better attention to her when we were on the ship. I wish I’d been less distracted by my own grief while she was playing in the yard these last few days. If she did overhear us… If Cedric did say something to her…”
“She might have been trying to find a way to get close to her real father,” he thought aloud, “especially after having lost the only father she’s ever known. I imagine in the chaos she didn’t get to say goodbye to Cedric.”
“Neither of us did.”
The silence was unbearable, her grief overwhelming as tears sprang to her dark, beautiful eyes again and threatened to spill down her cheeks.
“He was at peace, you know,” Geralt offered. “At the end, he found peace.”
Helti surprised him with the barest hint of a smile. “He would have been at peace. Cedric saw his death long ago, as I mentioned before. He never told me the details, only that I should not grieve for him when he was gone because at long last he would be free from the guilt of his regrets and the torment of the visions that plagued him. He promised that one day when it was my time, I would join him, that he would wait for me. I guess it was easy for him to say that,” she lamented. “He lived a very long life. He saw so many wonderful and beautiful things, dark and terrible things, too. He really lived, and he was ready, but no matter how much he tried to prepare me for his own ending, nothing ever prepares you for goodbye.”
It always felt like such an awkward and foolish thing to say when offering condolences, and Geralt wasn’t one to generally give in to guilt, but if Cedric hadn’t gotten involved in Triss’s plight, he might still be there.
And he really was genuinely sorry about the fact that she hadn’t gotten to say goodbye. Cedric had been one of a rare kind, sardonic at times and nearly as cynical as Geralt himself, but he’d been on both sides of the fence, had seen chaos and war, fought for freedom and independence, but in the end all he genuinely cared about was peace.
He gave her a moment with her thoughts, and then he cleared his throat, curved his fingers absently along his neck and rubbed the stubble there. “It may not be something you want to do, bringing this out into the open, but if, by chance, she did overhear you and Cedric talking, or he said something to her he shouldn’t have before he died, there’s a possibility she’s gone looking for one father to replace the other. He should know. He might even be able to help find her…”
“I haven’t spoken to him in years,” she fretted. “He may not even remember me, and I’m more than fairly certain he will want nothing to do with any of this. Imagine how it would make him look in the eyes of his hanse, acknowledging a child he had with a bloede dh’oine. And when he’s so close to achieving everything he’s always wanted.”
“Freedom, Gwynbleidd. Opportunity and a place for his people in this world.”
“Freedom and opportunity he’s willing to achieve by allying himself with another bloede dh’oine,” he pointed out. “Iorveth is… smitten with Saskia, like a doe-eyed, love-sick pup in her presence, or at least he was until she was poisoned. Now he’s just angry at the injustice of it all.”
She hiked her shoulders in a display of indifference. “That seems all the more reason not to bother him with…”
“It seems the perfect reason to bother him, in my opinion. What if this is all somehow related?”
“I don’t’ see how, unless you’re asking if I poisoned Saskia, in which case the answer would be no. I’ve no emotional attachment to Iorveth, none whatsoever, save for the child he gave me, but in essence that has nothing to do with him, not really. I could care less if he and Saskia take over the world together and live happily ever after in some old elven palace where they rule on high.”
Actually, it had everything to do with him, but it felt pointless to tell her that. It was his child, whether she wanted to acknowledge that or not.
“I don’t think you poisoned Saskia. In fact, the thought never even crossed my mind, but when she brought the Scoia’tael to this place, several people in Vergen were very… put out. Outraged, if you will. If someone is aiming to tear her alliance with the Squirrels apart… To get at Iorveth, what better way than to take his child hostage?”
“In theory, that is all well and good, Gwynbleidd, but I assure you no one but Cedric knew Invae was Iorveth’s daughter.”
“Hmm,” he stroked fingers through the silver shadow of scruff on his chin, playing through everything he’d learned. Almost nothing, at least not anything relevant to finding her daughter. “So once again all we have is speculation.”
“It would seem that way. The very reason I told Dandelion it was pointless to get you involved. Finding lost children isn’t exactly witcher’s work.”
“Dandelion doesn’t understand the meaning of the word pointless, but in this case, perhaps he has the right of it.” The second time in a single day the bard had actually been right. What was the world coming to? “Vergen is a dangerous city, and I’m not just talking about the political entanglements or the war about to break like a storm upon these stone walls. There are monsters in the mines and beyond the walls wraiths fight an endless battle on the other side of the mist. From time to time they break through and attack Iorveth’s scouts on the edge of the city. There are harpies out there, and there’s been a series of strange murders… Right now Vergen is no place for a child to wander, lost or otherwise.”
He hadn’t meant to scare her, or maybe he had. She needed to realize how imperative his help was to finding her child, and not just because he was sure she’d pay him. She hadn’t mentioned the likelihood of coin exchanging hands at all. The simple fact of the matter was it was a child, and even though children were not exactly his favorite kind of people, they were helpless people and he could never say no when it came to helping those unable to help themselves.
“Young men, mostly. There’s word of a succubus nearby. I don’t really think it’s related, but I won’t rule anything out at this point, at least not until I know more.”
“I just don’t know where to begin,” she confessed. “Braelen and I have looked everywhere in the city…”
“Everywhere Cecil Burdon would allow you to search, you said that before,” he remembered. “But children tend to be incredibly crafty individuals. There is a chance she’s gotten into someplace an adult might have difficulty breaking into. The mines, perhaps, or beyond the wall even…”
“She is a very clever little girl,” Helti said. “Cedric taught her everything he knew about survival, hunting, trapping, tracking…”
“And if she’s gone looking for her father…” Geralt gave her a moment to process that likelihood, and then he went on. “I should talk to Iorveth. At least find out what he knows, if anything, and we can go from there.”
“You’ll tell him?”
“No,” he shook his head. “Not yet. Not unless I have no other choice, but I can’t promise he won’t put two and two together himself.”
“Thank you, Gwynbleidd,” Helti nodded understanding and gratitude. “I don’t have much to offer you for your help. I lost nearly everything when we fled Flotsam, but whatever I have is yours if you find her.”
“We can discuss payment after I’ve found your daughter.”
“Helti… When we first started talking, you began to say something, that you woke the night before last as if… and then you never finished your thought.”
“Because it was quite likely that it was completely irrelevant to the matter at hand.”
“Still, I’d like to hear it. Sometimes there is truth in nonsense, and at this point anything could be of use to me.”
“Not this,” she shook her head. “While it felt important to me, it would be useless to you, I think.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
Drawing in a breath, she lowered her crossed arms and looked into his eyes. “You obviously believe in life beyond this life. Being a witcher, I imagine you’ve seen plenty of ghosts?”
“I’ve seen a few in my time.”
“The night Invae disappeared I woke suddenly from a strange, but lovely dream. I was walking through the most beautiful forest I’d ever seen, the sun glinting off the thickness of the mists that whirled all around me, birds singing from the treetops. Everything was so incredibly… green. And he was there. I could feel him all around me. I followed the sound of his flute until I came upon him sitting on a fallen tree. He finished his song, looked up at me and smiled, and then he said, ‘Caed’mil me minne. You should not be here, not now, not yet. It is not your time.’” She took a moment to steady her voice then went on, “I reached out and touched his face as I said to him, ‘But I miss you so, my love.’ Cedric held my hand and told me, ‘I am with you, always, but now you must awake because she needs you. She is in danger, and you must save her.’ I woke up and she was gone, but he didn’t tell me where I could find her. Only that I had to save her.”
She was right, it was irrelevant, and though Geralt didn’t know why, hearing it alleviated some of the brief sadness he’d felt experiencing Cedric’s death. “Hmm, perhaps he watches over you both.”
“Perhaps.” After a moment’s pause, she added, “Cedric was right about you. You are a good man, Geralt of Rivia.”
“We’ll see,” he nodded once, then turned away from the conversation, forgetting for the moment that he’d left Dandelion with Braelen inside, that he’d promised Zoltan he would meet him at the mines and heading toward the house in the center of the commune.
The house where Iorveth was said to stay when he was in the city.