“I’m sorry, Helti. I don’t know anything about plants,” Dandelion apologized, “unless it’s which ones to stay away from in order to avoid a painful and itchy rash. If you send me out there, I’m liable to poison her far worse than she already has been.”
“What do you need?” Geralt approached from behind,.
“Madder root,” she said, not even taking her eyes from the child in front of her. “Gooseberry, beleric. Neem if you can find it.”
The witcher nodded. “I’ll see what I can find.”
He disappeared into the woods, searching for the ingredients she needed, but on the wind he could hear the words of magic she uttered, the healing spell she spoke to draw her child back from the darkness and into the light. His medallion trembled ever-so-slightly against his chest with the nearness of magic. He lifted a hand to steady it, and focused on the task she’d given him, seeking out the herbs she required.
The sound of footsteps through the weeds at his back did not surprise him, but he didn’t turn to face the shadow behind him. The elf went immediately to work, searching for plants as well, silent for a long time before he cleared his throat and said, “She was not what I expected.”
“Hmm,” he witcher grunted because he didn’t know what else to say.
“I wasn’t expecting a grown child,” he confessed. “All day in my mind I saw this small blessing, barely large enough to fit in the crook of my arm. Her whole life ahead of her… Even tonight while we traveled to find her, it was all I could see. The beginning of someone’s life, someone I helped to bring into this world, but that’s not true at all. Perhaps you wouldn’t understand, but… she’s already been shaped by life, Gwynbleidd, and I had nothing to do with that shaping.”
“She’s barely seven. A drop in the bucket for the seidhe, even a half-blood, if I’m not mistaken.”
“But I wasn’t there to bond with her during one of the earliest and most crucial times of her life. She’s already cried on the shoulder of another after skinning her knees, called him Ater when he cradled her in his arms. He sang her to sleep, shared his memories and his wisdom with her and taught her to track and hunt, things I would have taught her… Maybe in another life. I don’t know.”
“Maybe you can teach her now. If what you and Saskia are fighting for is really attainable, who knows what could happen?”
“Perhaps,” he shrugged a shoulder toward his chin and tilted his head. “Though I do not think Helti wants me in her life at all. And maybe she shouldn’t.” There was no bitterness in his tone, no self-loathing, only introspection. “What kind of father would I be?”
“Circumstances change, Iorveth. People change.”
He’d known the elf only a short while, but in that time he’d already proven himself quite different than the preconceptions formed by the opinions and statements of others along the way. Most who knew nothing but the violent side believed Iorveth was little more than a bandit and a terrorist, and maybe he was. Nothing could wash away the trail of blood he’d left in his wake, but there was more to him than murder and cries of injustice and inequality. Perhaps it was true, what he’d said. He only wanted peace for his people, equal opportunity, acceptance. Perhaps he’d have a chance to share that part of himself with his daughter in a way that wouldn’t destroy her the way Helti feared.
Only time would tell.
“You want to hear something funny, Gwynbleidd?”
“She would probably never believe me, and I will probably never tell her, but I loved her in some way even I didn’t understand at the time, a way that stayed with me through the years. She saved my life, brought me back from the undying lands where it was peaceful and calm and whispered in my ear that I had things yet to do here. She didn’t have to bring me back, but she did and I never forgot that kindness. There was some part of me that always hoped I’d see her again, even if I didn’t know what to say when I did.”
Iorveth didn’t say anything else, only drew his hand gently along the branch of a gooseberry bush, gathering the unripe, green fruit in his gloved palm. He crushed one, spilling its fragrance into the air for the briefest of breaths and reminding Geralt of a love hoped he’d see again, even if he didn’t know what he would say to Yennefer when that time came.
“Here,” Geralt held out the herbs he’d gathered. “Take these back to Helti while I see if I can find the last ingredient she needed. She may be able to use these now to brew the potion and we shouldn’t keep her waiting.”
The elf nodded, accepting the herbs and heading back toward the healer.
Through the trees, Geralt watched as Iorveth knelt down beside her in the grass on one knee. He held out his hands. His voice was quiet as he asked what more he could do to help. For the briefest of moments Helti’s hands lingered over his, her fingers curling around his knuckles and offering a gentle squeeze before she took the herbs to make a detoxifying potion.
Earlier in the day he hadn’t been able to picture the two of them together, couldn’t imagine a world in which two people—one who took lives and one who restored them—found a little love together, but the look they exchanged when she squeezed his hands said everything. There had been a bond between them, one no one else could ever understand, except the two of them.
Iorveth stayed crouched beside her, hands tensely folded between his legs, eye focused on his unexpected child while Helti ground herbs into a paste she mixed with a strong alcohol Dandelion begrudgingly handed over.
When she was ready, Iorveth gathered the child and held her aloft while her mother poured the potion between her slightly parted lips all the while repeating the same magical string of phrases over and over. A pale gold light formed around the three of them, emanating outward before drawing back in again to circle around the small body between them. Iorveth held her steady, even when she began to thrash. He brushed the hair from her face when she gulped it down until she began to choke and sputter and then whimper softly in protest, turning her head away. Moments later she began to vomit, ejecting the poison from her body until she collapsed into her mother’s arms sobbing.
Helti laughed. Iorveth sighed relief, leaning in to look at the girl’s face, once more combing the tangles of brown hair from her cheeks.
“You’re okay now. It’s all right. Mama’s here.”
“And Iorveth,” the little girl turned her head to inspect the elf beside them. “Ater said he would come, that I should trust him.”
“Ater said that to you?” Helti asked. “When?”
“Before he went with the sorceress. He told me that if Iorveth and the Squirrels came, we should go with them. That it would be all right.”
“Your Ater was a wise hen seidhe,” Iorveth told her.
“Oh, Invae,” her mother hugged her again. “Why did you run away like that? You must have been so afraid.”
“I wasn’t afraid,” she was still crying, her voice weak and whiny as she protested.
“Well, I was afraid,” Helti told her. “I was so afraid. Why did you run away?”
The girl hiccupped as she tried to stop the hitch of her own sobs, and it was several minutes before she was able to confess, “I woke up and I heard music from far away. I thought Ater had come to take us back home, so I went to find him in the woods. I was going to show him where to find you, but…”
“It’s all right,” Helti soothed her. “You’re safe now.”
“I couldn’t find him, Mama. I looked everywhere,” she whimpered. “I miss him so.”
“I know you do, my darling. I miss him too, but we cannot follow where he went. Not now.”
“Why? Why did he leave us?”
Helti clutched her closer, her hand coming down atop Iorveth’s as she lowered the girl’s head to her shoulder. She kept her voice steady as she said, “The forest called him home, and one day, after we have done all the things we’re meant to do here in this world, the forest will call us home to join him.”
“He will wait for you there, luned, among the trees,” Iorveth told the child, tilting his head to look at her. “Dy ater esse shaent a addan ynddyn eate gleanna. Time will pass so quickly for him there while he waits. The forest will keep him company, and it will feel as though he’s only blinked before you’re there with him and he can hold you in his arms again.”
“But… He always took such good care of us?” Drawing back to look at her mother, her teary eyes widened as she asked, “Who will look after us now?”
“We will just have to learn to take care of ourselves, my flower.”
“Your mother is very strong, Invaernewedd,” Iorveth said. “Sometimes you will have to help her. You’ll have to be brave and strong.”
“Very brave?” she asked.
“Like how the Squirrels are brave?”
It was a rare smile that touched his lips as he nodded again and said, “Exactly like that.”
“No one likes a snoop.” Dandelion shuffled through the grass to join him, lowering his voice as if conspiring to ask, “What are you doing out here, Geralt?”
“Giving them space,” he muttered, drawing his attention toward the bard.
“She’s really going to be all right.”
“I think she will. Her mother seems a strong woman, a skilled healer. There will be much need for those with her skills, I fear. In time she will make more than enough coin to take care of herself and her child. Though I don’t know why she sent me off to look for Neem. Everyone knows that only grows in more tropical climates.”
Dandelion shrugged and dropped a hand on the witcher’s shoulder, squeezing. “Well, I’m buying new boots with the reward from this little excursion,” he declared.
“There isn’t going to be any reward, Dandelion, and even if there was, you did nothing to earn a share in it, unless people are paid for complaining these days.”
“That’s not true at all. I directed you to Helti. I got you the job. I think I at least deserve a finder’s fee, don’t you?”
“She has nothing to offer, and besides, I don’t think I’d take anything from her even if she did. I’m just glad we found her little girl.”
“Oh, you’re probably right,” he sighed and drew him forward, Geralt falling into step beside his friend. “Hey, didn’t you get a heavy sack of coin from Cecil Burdon today for clearing out the mine?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but maybe.”
“Good, then you can buy me a drink when we get back to the tavern, and new boots. I’ve had my eye on this beautiful pair…”
Rolling his eyes, Geralt couldn’t help the small grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. He was already thinking about meat pies and roast duck, a good, stiff drink and maybe a beautiful, raven-haired woman to warm his bed.
They came out of the woods just in time to see Helti scooping the conscious but weary little girl into her arms before rising. She shifted her weight several times in an attempt to make her more comfortable so she could carry her all the way back to Vergen, but the child’s weight was exaggerated by her exhaustion, her arms loose, her legs dangling uncooperatively.
“Here,” Iorveth stepped forward and awkwardly held out an arm in offer to carry her back to the city. Helti hesitated, then nodded concession, hefting the girl’s weight into her father’s arms.
“All’s well that ends well, eh, Geralt? Hey, do you think Iorveth would mind if I wrote a ballad about this? What an epic story it would be. The Tale of the Squirrel’s Daughter… I could go all the way back to the beginning…”
“I think he’d cut your fucking hands off at the wrist so you could never write another ballad again if you even mentioned the idea to him.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Dandelion mused. “I think he’s changed. I said it before when you asked me, remember? I mean, I still wouldn’t trust him with my child, but…”
“It’s a damn good thing you don’t have any children…”
“…but who knows, maybe he won’t be so bad with his own daughter if Helti gives him a chance to prove himself.”
“Maybe,” Geralt shrugged, watching as the elf in question started toward the path holding his child in his arms for the first time.
“Hey, did I ever tell you about the weird dream I have sometimes? The one where you never came back from the dead and I fell in love with a beautiful young student from Oxenfurt who came to one of my guest lectures at the academy? We traveled the world together, bringing light and love and music… And we have a child.”
“Oh brother,” the witcher’s eyes widened before he blinked and rolled them toward the heavens.
“What?” the bard leaned out to look at him, his blue eyes shimmering playfully. “I’d be a great husband and father.”
“Maybe in another world, Dandelion,” he said, then added, “You know, I heard there’s a succubus outside Vergen, in the old burned down village…”
“Really?” Dandelion quirked an eyebrow. “Have you seen her? What does she look like? You know, I’ve only ever see one, the one in Toussaint, remember, Geralt?”
The bard shuddered. “Fascinating things, succubi, oddly…attractive.”
“I’m glad you think so,” the witcher leered over his shoulder in an almost menacing fashion. “You can earn those boots you wanted me to buy you.”
“Oh no,” Dandelion brought up his hands to shake them in protest in front of him. “I think I’m done with monsters, Geralt. This time for good.”
“We’ll see, Dandelion.”
And then they fell into step behind Helti and Iorveth, following a broken, yet somehow reunited family back to Vergen. He felt his medallion tremor as they passed through the trees, the barest twitch of magic that gave him pause. Turning his head, he spied movement among the branches, broad, ethereal shoulders passing through the trees, a long, tattooed neck, black braids framing a familiar face alight with contented smile.
The old saov in the woede…
“I’ll be damned,” he muttered.
He lowered his ethereal head in silent gratitude. The witcher blinked and the ghost was gone.
Elder Speech used in this chapter:
aen seidhe: elf/elves
Dy ater esse shaent a addan ynddyn eate gleanna: Your father will sing and dance in the summer glen.