It was a short jaunt, back across the wooden planks, up a small hill to the bright red door of the small stone house where the Scoia’tael were said to sleep when they actually relaxed their stern dispositions, which was not often. He’d heard from Dandelion on the way into the district to speak with Helti that Iorveth and the members of his commando that left four days earlier to recruit more Squirrels to their cause, had returned that morning. In truth, he didn’t know why he was going to the elf with the missing child at all. They were gone two days before Invae disappeared, probably already on their way back to Vergen the night she went missing, but he couldn’t help feeling her disappearance was in some way connected.
Call it a hunch, the witcher thought, but he’d been wrong in his hunches before. The girl’s disappearance might not have anything to do with her biological father at all and the whole thing might very well blow up in his face, further upsetting Helti and not bringing them any closer to finding her daughter, but it seemed stupid to ignore what she’d told him.
Geralt entered without knocking but no one seemed to care, save for a few careless mutters about his not being welcome or wanted. Someone even called him a white-haired freak, though not boldly. It was murmured under the breath, just loud enough that he could hear it, but not identify the source.
The Woodland Fox, as Iorveth was sometimes known, was surrounded by his Squirrels, who all passed suspicious judgment on the witcher as he made his way through them. Arriving at the table, Geralt was surprised to see the elf without the bandana he generally wore to hide the mangled scar that disfigured the right side of his face and left a gaping, empty socket where his eye had once been. He’d never seen the elf without his bandana before, and though scars rarely shocked him as he had plenty of his own, he couldn’t help marveling at the difference Iorveth’s mutilation lent to his otherwise delicate and chiseled elven beauty.
The imagination did that scar no justice. A boldly puckered, winding trail, a reminder of whatever blade once dragged between his damaged eye all the way down to his lip, he realized with quiet admiration that it could have been much worse. The healer who treated him had been skilled, not only mending the wound to the best of her ability under harsh and unforgiving circumstances, but staving off a fatal infection.
He wondered if Iorveth even knew how much he owed the woman he’d unwittingly left with child before steering her into the nekker-infested woods outside of Flotsam.
It seemed Iorveth, who often hid that scar from the rest of the world, sported it with pride among those who revered and followed his command. It was a bold statement, one that spoke of grave determination in the face of battle, ceaseless dedication to a cause that might very well mean death for them all before the end—and yet his maiming, a prime example of the risks that needed to be taken to make ill-begotten points, brought Geralt a silent sense of respect for the seidhe sitting before him.
It was not enough to forgive the awful things he’d done in the name of freedom, but he respected him far more than he had Vernon Roche. After all, he’d chosen to side with Iorveth in the end. Iorveth was violent, a cunning and ruthless seidhe who would stop at nothing to make his point. Roche, on the other hand, had been little more than a glorified pirate, lifted above his station and given a king’s blessing to slaughter countless elves, women and children among them.
Geralt himself did not know the facts, nor thrive on speculation, but he’d spent enough time with Roche and his Blue Stripes on the ship to Flotsam that he believed the things Iorveth said about them. Roche was arrogant in his beliefs, self-righteous in his quest for justice, reckless and cruel enough to turn Geralt’s iron stomach on more than one occasion.
But was Iorveth really any different?
“Caed’mil, Gwynbleidd.” He drew the pipe from his lips and lifted a cup to the witcher in greeting. “We’ve only just returned. Join me for a drink and tell me what news brings you?”
“We need to talk, Iorveth.”
“Is it Saskia?” He tensed and leaned forward in the chair, the casual air dissolving from his demeanor. “Have you found something… Is she…”
“No, it’s nothing to do with Saskia. I’m still searching for the ingredients Philippa needs. I’m venturing into the mines later this morning to search for Dwarven Imortelle with Zoltan and a few others. I come about another matter entirely, one you may or may not be able to help with.”
The disappointment was evident in his expression as he relaxed back into the chair, but he quickly looked away as if to hide it. “Well, speak then. Do you want a drink? There’s wine, vodka if you prefer that.”
“No, thank you.” Geralt glanced around, it was mostly elves from Iorveth’s unit, a handful of dwarves as well.
As his gaze passed across the faces in the room, Iorveth seemed to intuit what he was thinking and he waved them all away, declaring they should leave him so he could talk to the vatt’ghern in peace. One by one they filed out of the house until the two of them were alone and only the sound of their voices outside the door could be heard.
The elf gestured toward the chair across from him at the table and Geralt pulled it away to sit down.
Geralt didn’t get nervous about things, and he certainly wasn’t apprehensive about the situation, but his mind was picking and racing through thoughts, trying again to quickly process the story Helti told him, attempting to imagine the two of them together and failing miserably. Despite Iorveth’s strange obsession with Saskia, Geralt couldn’t see the Scoia’tael commander lowering himself into a dh’oine woman’s arms, no matter the circumstances or the woman’s beauty. And Helti was beautiful.
But hardship and war did strange things to people, forged the oddest of alliances—the witcher’s own alliance with the Scoia’tael included.
How did he go about having that conversation without betraying Helti’s secret? It wasn’t his place to inform the Scoia’tael leader about his unexpected child. On the other hand, if he already knew that secret, how was Geralt to discover that and get to the bottom of her disappearance if Iorveth were somehow involved?
Very carefully, the witcher mused, his thoughts coming together in his mind until he finally arrived at the best avenue of approach.
A missing child; it should concern everyone.
“What conspiracy do you bring before me, Witcher? I don’t usually hide things from my men, it’s bad for morale. No doubt they are muttering under their breath outside, wondering what the two of us are plotting behind closed doors. What decisions I make without consulting with them first…”
“If they trust you so little, how will you ever manage to unite them?”
“Good question, but I don’t believe you came here to discuss my strengths and weaknesses as a leader, Gwynbleidd.”
“No, I didn’t.”
Iorveth poured wine into his cup and took a drink before narrowing his expectant gaze on the witcher.
“A little girl went missing from Vergen the night before last. A refugee who traveled with us on the ship from Flotsam with her mother. One of yours.”
“Oh?” he cocked his head with curiosity. “I hadn’t heard, but then we only just returned this morning. I hadn’t made my way down to the gates yet to get updates from my hanse.”
“No one’s talking about it… yet,” he explained. “At least not openly. As far as I know only a few people are even aware of the seriousness of it. The child’s mother, the people she’s staying with, a couple of guards, Cecil Burdon, Dandelion…”
“And you,” he pointed out. “It sounds like quite a few people know, and if they’re trying to keep it a secret, surely they realize it won’t be long before the whole city knows if the bard’s got the details. He’s probably composing a ballad about it as we speak.”
Geralt actually laughed. “I’m sure the girl’s mother has her reasons for keeping the matter quiet, though you’re right. Telling Dandelion about it probably wasn’t exactly the best idea if she didn’t want it getting out.”
“Well, fortunately, he hasn’t spread the word just yet. It’s the first time it’s reached my ears, and I’ve been here for hours. But why bring this to my door, Gwynbleidd? Half-bred brats have never been the interest of the Scoia’tael, not even when they turn up missing.”
“And yet those half-bred brats are quite possibly the only children any of you might ever have,” he offered, gauging the elf’s reaction, watching his eye for signs of understanding. There was none, only a brief flare of contempt at the suggestion of diluting the sacred blood flowing through their ancient veins by coupling with dh’oine, or other less than righteous races.
“What is your point, Witcher?”
“I was only curious as to whether or not you might have heard anything, that’s all. Seen any signs on the road when you were returning to Vergen this morning, maybe?”
“Not by the road we traveled, no. Harpies, mostly, the nasty bitches,” he spat over his shoulder, “and there’s a troll lair up the road a ways, but we saw no signs of wayward children. Do they think she was kidnapped?”
“More likely that she ran away,” he said. “Her father was killed in Flotsam during the chaos and she’s very distraught.”
He seemed completely unmoved, so Geralt switched tactics.
“I told her mother I would help search for her, look in places they haven’t been able to gain access to. You know children, if she’s anywhere, it’s someplace she’s not supposed to be.”
“I can ask my scouts keep an eye out,” he offered, “their ears to the ground for whispers of conspiracy.”
“Thank you. I’m sure her mother would appreciate that. The child’s name is Invaernewedd,” he told him.
“Invaernewedd,” he repeated. “Winter’s child. An interesting name. Whose daughter is she?”
Geralt hesitated, turning his golden gaze toward the fire in the hearth. After a few minutes, during which he could feel the elf’s narrowed eye staring as if willing him to speak, he said, “She was Cedric’s daughter.”
“Cedric?” he repeated. “From Lobinden?”
“Bloede cáerme. Cedric is dead?”
“And here I thought there was nothing your Squirrels didn’t know.” Leaning back in the chair, he crossed arms over his chest. “Cedric died helping Triss during the chaos in Flotsam as it all went to hell. Letho killed him before fleeing with Triss.”
“Shame, that,” he noted, a hint of sadness in his tone. “Cedric was one of us once.”
“That’s not how he told it, but I’ll take your word for it.”
“He grew tired of the fighting, soft some say, unwilling to sacrifice anymore of himself for a cause he no longer believed in. He said it was pointless to fight the dh’oine. They were too many and we too few, but if we only found common ground… Maybe he had the right of it, I don’t know. I’ve heard it told he saw things, visions… that he knew what would become of Dol Blathanna at the end of the war. He said the Scoia’tael would never be welcome there, even though it was the shedding of our blood that won the place, but nobody believed him. Shame…” he said softly. “Turns out he was right. He retired to live in the woods, among the enemy before the war even ended. Later I heard he took a dh’oine for his wife, but I did not know they had children.”
“Just one child.”
“Wonders never cease,” he mused. “Cedric was old, older than most seidhe who still walk this world. I’d have thought him sterile.”
“Perhaps the child wasn’t really his,” Geralt proffered.
Iorveth shrugged his shoulder, brought the pipe back to his lips and puffed on it thoughtfully until the coal within glowed orange, catching its light against the brilliant green iris of his eye. Plumes of smoke lingered around his face.
“Nevertheless, I will tell my Scoia’tael to keep an eye out for this child,” he said. “Let you know if we hear or see anything that may help locate her.”
“Thank you, Iorveth.” Geralt started to push his chair away from the table, but before he rose Iorveth stopped him with an unexpected question.
“The healer, Gwynbleidd,” he started, hesitating for a moment, “the child’s mother, is she… all right?”
“She’s lost everything she cared for and now her child is missing,” the witcher pointed out. “No,” he shook his head, “she’s not all right.”
Lowering a heavy lid over his eye as he cast his gaze downward, Iorveth only nodded, and then he said no more.
Elder Speech used in this chapter:
bloede cáerme: bloody fate
Dol Blathanna: Valley of Flowers