After Geralt met with Iorveth he returned to tell Helti everything he’d learned, which in fact, was absolutely nothing.
It bothered her to hear he’d come close to telling the Scoia’tael commander the truth, blatantly confessing the child hadn’t actually been Cedric’s, but then she’d said it was common knowledge among the people in their village, something not-so-secret no one ever talked about. It was only a matter of time, now that the child was missing, that people began to talk about it.
When Geralt reminded her of this, she only shrugged and shook her head, confessing she wasn’t sure how long she could actually keep the truth from him now that life had planted them in such strategically close quarters.
He didn’t mention that Iorveth asked after her well-being. Maybe he should have, but in the grand scheme of things it didn’t seem important, and for some reason he wasn’t sure hearing that would make her any less apprehensive about the situation.
He promised to keep an eye out for signs of her child while he was searching the mines later that afternoon.
Helti didn’t think the girl would endeavor into the mines, believing she was more likely to have tried to sneak beyond the gates to follow the Scoia’tael when they’d left the city, but she understood he had other priorities to attend to. She would go herself down to the crossroads outside of Vergen, speak to the Scoia’tael there even though the prospect of their recognizing her terrified her. She would swallow her fear, ask if they’d seen anything unusual, question all the guards again, but before he left to meet with Zoltan, Geralt made her promise not to venture onto the road or linger beyond the Mahakam Gate after sundown.
The entryway to the mines was thick with cobwebs, a sure sign that no one, not even Invaernewedd had ventured inside since Cecil locked it up tight. For a few hours he tuned out thoughts of the missing little girl, which was far more difficult than it seemed, and the witcher focused his energies solving the mystery of the monsters that plagued the mines and finding one of the ingredients Philippa Eilhart required to heal Saskia: Dwarven Imortelle.
It was just past sundown when they came out of the mines victorious on a number of levels. He was sore, filthy and exhausted, but Geralt solved the monster problem by collapsing the tunnels the rottfiends were using, found the Imortelle for the sorceress and earned a hefty reward from Vergen’s alderman, Cecil Burdon for getting work back on in the mines.
After collecting the reward, he made his way toward the elven district on the outskirts of the city to find out if Helti had any luck questioning the Scoia’tael beyond the gate and to let her know the mines had not taken her daughter.
He met with the sound of escalated voices as he crested the hill and passed through the archway, nearly rolling over Dandelion and knocking the poet into the dirt as he surged forward toward the angry sound, preparing to draw his sword out of habit. He’d seen too much battle lately, and not just with monsters.
“Well, I don’t know what you’ve done this time, Geralt, but whatever it was, it was equivalent to poking a sword through a hornet’s nest and waving it over a campfire!”
He hadn’t done anything, but there wasn’t time to insist, and besides he had a feeling Dandelion wouldn’t believe him even if he protested.
“What the hell is going on?”
“Well, I haven’t heard much, but the words bloede vatt’ghern spoken like a curse about half a dozen times, and it would seem the Scoia’tael now have vested interest in all matters concerning missing children.”
“There are other missing children?” he balked.
“No, it’s still just the one, but Iorveth believes he has every right to be involved.”
Geralt didn’t mention that he thought the elf was quite probably right.
Dandelion matched stride with him, hurrying his steps to keep up with the witcher as they darted across the wooden planks toward those angry voices. The argument ended before they arrived with Helti shouting, “Because I didn’t see how it was any of your concern!” before slamming the door in Iorveth’s face.
The commander bellowed, “Bloede beanna!” as he pounded his open palm across the wood and spun toward them. “Vatt’ghern!” he roared, finger pointing as he darted down the slope toward them. “You knew!”
“I knew,” Geralt confirmed with a calm, but stiff nod.
He stopped on the platform just short of colliding with the elf and crossed his arms over his chest, wondering if it would come down to a fight and he should have actually drawn steel.
“Knew what?” Dandelion interjected.
“Shut up, Dandelion!” Geralt warned at the same time Iorveth barked, “Thaesse, Taedh!”
The minstrel’s hands shot up before he started to back away, his bright blue boots slipping in the mud and stirring another curse from his colorful vocabulary.
“You knew, and yet you said nothing? After you left, I realized you were questioning me like a suspect because you thought I was somehow involved…”
“She asked me not to tell you, and besides, it wasn’t my place…”
“That’s funny, Gwynbleidd! That’s almost exactly what she said,” Iorveth growled. “That it wasn’t her place to tell me about my own child!”
“Oh,” Dandelion reveled in that bit of information. “Oh, that’s most unexpected. How did I not see that coming? Usually I’m very good at figuring things like that out, but…” His cheerful discovery garnered another glare from the witcher that quickly dissolved the bard’s glee. He drew lips together in silent contrition and lowered his head until all Geralt could see was the wavering feather on his hat.
“Regardless, you know now,” Geralt pointed out. “And either you can help me find her, or…”
“There is no or, Gwynbleidd. We leave through the back gate and head into the forest in five minutes.”
“Why the back gate?”
“It’s the only place no one’s looked yet. We’ll follow the path I took when I departed four days ago. Look for signs that she was tracking the Scoia’tael.” Iorveth brushed past him, the hard nudge of his shoulder making the witcher scowl.
Somewhere behind him, he heard a door slam and then another creak open before him as Helti peered out through the crack to see if Iorveth had gone. Geralt pursed his lips tight together and headed up the path, not stopping until he arrived at the door she’d opened.
“I won’t bother asking if everything’s all right.”
“Because that would be a waste of time. You said you didn’t tell him.”
“And that was the truth,” he told her.
“He showed up here less than an hour ago, demanding I tell him everything.”
“He’s clever,” Geralt pointed out. “He probably did some digging, asked all the right people the right questions. He was bound to put it all together on his own. In fact, I’m surprised it took him the sum of the day to work out why I got him involved.”
“I wish you hadn’t,” she muttered. “Maybe he would have figured it out in time, but it would have been in my time, on my terms. If and when I chose to involve him, Witcher. And now he thinks she was tracking him…”
“Maybe she was,” he suggested. “You said yourself she might have overheard your conversation with Cedric.”
“I suppose there’s only one way to find out.” A long sigh deflated her chest, her shoulder sagging in defeat. Lowering her dark eyes, her long lashes twitched atop her cheeks before she brought them back up to look at him again. “I’m sorry I was short with you, Gwynbleidd. It’s not your fault. Who knows? Maybe he’s right. Maybe I should have told him long ago, though I don’t know how any of that matters now. What’s done is done and none of it has brought us any closer to finding my little girl.”
“He is coming with me into the woods. We’re to head along the route he took when he departed four days ago.”
“Then I’m coming too.”
“Helti,” he started to protest.
“She’s my daughter. I want to be there when she’s found. And besides, Cedric taught me long ago how to use a bow. I don’t know what’s out there, but you might very well need my help, Witcher.”
Geralt hesitated, a thousand ugly thoughts rolling through his mind, including how devastated she would be if something terrible had befallen the child and she was the one to discover the girl’s body. Unfortunately, before he could utter another word, Dandelion, muddy boots and all, stepped up onto the ledge beside him and announced, “I’m coming too.”
“Great,” he sneered, “we’re practically a fellowship. All we’re missing is a sorcerer, a couple of halflings and a magic ring.”
“Good one, Gwynbleidd,” Iorveth said, marching across the planks again, a sword on each hip and his bow strapped across his back. “But this is no time for jokes. Let us go.”
He stepped back from the doorway to let Helti pass through, and for a moment, while she and Iorveth regarded one another, Dandelion leaned in and whispered, “Do you really think we’ll need a sorcerer for this, Geralt?”
The four of them set out, Geralt still tired, still sore, and suddenly noticing how hungry he was. He hadn’t eaten since that morning, but it didn’t look like he would have chance to remedy his stomach’s current complaints anytime soon.
Iorveth led, Helti matching him stride for stride with an elven bow clutched so tight in her hand, Geralt wondered how she’d ever unclench her fingers to use it if the opportunity presented itself.
Passing through the second gate and spilling into the moonlit woods, he edged his way past Dandelion and pushed between Iorveth and Helti, drawing the silver sword from his back as splashes arose from the gurgling stream several feet away. There was a low, throaty growl of warning, followed by a second splash and then two blue shadows began flapping through the stream, headed straight toward them.
The odor of rot and decay preceded them, and suddenly Geralt wasn’t thinking about how hungry he was anymore.
He spun into action, blade glinting and flashing in the moonlight, slicing expertly across the drowner’s chest as he lifted his hand and sent the second one tumbling backward with a weak aard sign. He darted forward, sword stabbing into the chest of the flailing, writhing thing in the water, and then he twisted with a snarling grunt that sounded more animal than man.
Both of them were dead before anyone else even had chance to unsheathe a weapon, their dark blood spilling into the rippling stream and thinning as it spread upstream with the water’s current. The night was quiet again, save for the singing babble of the water’s movement and the distant resumption of deep, throaty frog calls.
His companions stood on the banks of the tributary, all three of them staring at the witcher as he tromped back out of the water and sheathed his blood-slicked silver blade.
“I need to better prepare for this,” he announced.
In truth, he should have insisted upon preparations before they even left the city, but the tension of the argument they greeted him with as he crested the hill distracted him and he’d nearly made a fatal mistake.
“I know you’re all eager to go, but we have no idea what else is out here. Give me a few minutes.”
“Of course,” Helti nodded, swallowing hard against the apprehension in her throat.
“Stay nearby,” he instructed. “No one wander off to try and play the hero alone. There’s no telling what else is out here.”
He looked most intently at Dandelion when he said this, but was sure to pass an equally hard look in the elf’s direction before he cracked his neck and stretched his shoulders to prepare for whatever they might face on the dark path ahead of them.
It was a ritual he’d become so accustomed to over the years that he didn’t even have to think about it in order to participate in it. Mixing the potions, swallowing them one by one, closing his eyes and attuning to the elements of each and every one curdling through his bloodstream, roiling in his empty stomach, which groaned in protest—as poison had not been what he was hungry for.
He cleared his mind, focused on the drum of his own heartbeat and ignored the sound of heated conversation on the other side of the stone pillar where he’d knelt to empty his thoughts.
“Ask,” she bid the elf. He’d stopped pacing, stared at her as if the words were on the tip of his tongue, but he didn’t know how to say them. “I know you want to.”
“Luned me… ess elaine?”
“Very beautiful. She…” a sentimental pause followed and then, “she has your eyes.”
“You chose an unusual name for her. Invaernewedd…. Winter’s Child.”
“Cedric said she was a rare flower, the unexpected bloom from a seed sown in winter’s chill.”
Silence, the frogs’ deep croaking, the gurgling stream and rushing water of the fall.
“Why did you never tell me?”
“You made it perfectly clear that we were never to see each other again when we parted ways. I offered to come with you, remember? You said you must do what you must and I must do what I must. If I wanted to make a difference I should go to Flotsam. You drew that line you said would always be there and sent me to Lobinden to find Cedric. He took care of me, just as you said he would.”
“You should have told me.”
“How was I supposed to tell you? Tie a scroll to an owl’s leg, lift it into the wind and hope it reached you?”
“I don’t know, but I could have…”
“You could have what? Stopped everything you were doing? Given up your violent, vengeful plight for the Aen Seidhe’s freedom, settled down and started a life with a dh’oine? A stranger?”
“We were hardly strangers…”
“We weren’t exactly friends.”
“Perhaps not, but by the end of it all, we were no longer morvudd.”
“You were the one who drew the line, Iorveth.”
“You were brave, you could have crossed it… Cedric would have known how to get word to me.”
“He offered to once, and then I asked him nicely not to make the offer again. I wanted to move on with my life, forget about that darkness. You made a choice and so did I. Cedric was a good father to her. He loved her, taught her about important things, like tolerance, acceptance…”
“Weakness and submission to the dh’oine…”
“That is exactly why I never wanted to tell you. He warned me, said her father will corrupt her if given the chance. Fill her head with propaganda and…and… suffering. You would turn her against her own dh’oine mother and set her on your righteous path and get her killed for a cause no one should have to die for.”
“I would never have turned her from you, but I would have filled her with pride, not corruption,” Iorveth said softly. “Taught her never to be ashamed of who she is, to stand against injustice and…”
“She didn’t need you to teach her not to be ashamed of who she is. She had me.”
“Esseath newid, Dh’oine. You’re much… bolder than I remember.”
“You haven’t changed at all, Iorveth, and though I’m sure you’ve had plenty of time to forget it over the years, my name is Helti.”
And then they were silent again.
Geralt saw their shadows, pacing across the grass.
Every once in a while he heard the sound of Dandelion’s impatient sighs.
Elder Speech used in this chapter:
Gwynbleidd: White Wolf
thaesse: shut up
Luned me ess elaine?: My daughter, is (she) beautiful?
Esseath newid: you are changed ( newid is Welsh.)
Much of the Elder Speech in this world is derived from the Celtic languages of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In cases where words were not available, I borrowed from Welsh and sometimes Gaulish to complete sentences. Sadly, I am no linguist… My Elder Speech probably sucks quite a bit. Advanced apologies. I hope you’ll forgive me.