A/N: For Sandy, though this might not be exactly what you requested, the inspiration came from your comment on Invaernewedd.
“The elite of the North is gathering at Loc Muinne. I couldn’t forgive myself if I wasn’t there–it’d be a sin against art.”
“The art of poking your nose in other’s business,” Zoltan Chivay rolled his eyes at the bard.
Iorveth shook his head, “You’ll be needed here until Saskia returns. Order must prevail, there can be no strife. The victory over Henselt was an important step, but only the first on a long road.”
“The hymn I composed could help,” Dandelion pointed out.
“Vergen’ll need many more songs,” the Witcher said.
“I certainly hope our paths will cross again, Geralt of Rivia.”
“Stop dramatizing. You can be sure of that. We’ve got unfinished business of our own.”
“Huh? Oh, aye,” Zoltan agreed.
The city reeked of oil, the billowing smoke near the gates painting the air with a thick black dust that settled in their hair, on their skin and clothes, making the elf feel dirty as an old, Dwarven miner. Being dirty was nothing new; he’d spent half his life in the trenches and gutters, fighting impossible wars, spilling so much blood it could never be washed clean from his hands, or his soul.
Inevitably, he would spill more before all was said and done. To save Saskia, to save the dream they shared, to protect his daughter… He might even meet his end.
“We may well go to our death in Loc Muinne,” Iorveth determined, taking a step toward the bard, his fist tightening at his side. “I know you owe me nothing, Taedhe, but I must ask another favor of you.”
Dandelion retreated nervously, glancing toward the Witcher with a panicked widening of his eyes. Geralt nodded once, a silent plea for the minstrel to hear him out. “Of course, Iorveth. If I can be of any help whatsoever…”
“Watch over Invaernewedd in my absence,” he said, “and her mother as well, of course. Though don’t watch her mother too closely,” he warned. His sources told him Dandelion had been spending an awful lot of time with the healer of late, and he didn’t like it. She was vulnerable, still mourning her husband, and though he highly doubted even in that state she would ever let anyone take advantage of her, he was relatively certain that wouldn’t stop the bard from trying. “Don’t exploit her.”
“I…” the bard stammered. “I would never, and frankly I resent the implication…”
“Don’t act as if you didn’t earn your reputation, Dandelion,” Geralt said in a low tone that immediately curbed the minstrel’s flabbergasted excitement.
Ignoring them both, Iorveth got to the point. “There is no way for us to know what will transpire during this summit of mages and monarchs. If, for some reason, I do not return, plead my case to her mother.” He leaned forward, his voice so quiet only the bard and the Witcher could hear. Zoltan Chivay strained toward the sound, but later it was said he never did hear what was asked. “Ask her to tell our child the truth about her father when she is old enough to understand.”
“Iorveth, I don’t know that she will…”
It humbled him to utter the words, “Please, Dandelion,” as he stepped back to narrow a pleading eye upon the minstrel.
“Of course,” the bard agreed. “I will look after them.”
“And I, as well,” Zoltan interjected.
“And the other?”
“In the event you don’t return, and I am fairly certain you will so this is a useless promise to even have to make, I will… talk to Helti on your behalf.”
Iorveth nodded, then turned to the Witcher. “Let’s go then, Gwynbleidd.”
“You should at least say goodbye,” Geralt told him as they began to back away from the conversation and turn toward the stone stairs that wound through Vergen. “After everything, don’t you think you owe her that much. She’s already lost one father, and though she may not know the truth about you, one day she might. How would she feel looking back on this, knowing you forwent a chance to see her one last time?”
He was almost as bad as the bard when it came to meddling. Couldn’t seem to keep his nose out of other’s business, even though he claimed to pride himself on doing just that.
“If you’re really worried you may not see them again, perhaps it would do wonders for your case to have at least made the effort,” he went on. “Dandelion may have a gifted tongue, but in the short time I’ve come to know Helti, I’ve discovered she is not a woman easily swayed once she sets her mind to something. I’m simply suggesting that a little effort on your part would… bring her to reason?”
“She is a stubborn little bit,” he agreed with a smirk. “Very proud.”
She’d once looked him in the eye, what felt like an entire lifetime ago, and told him she would not beg for her life if he planned to kill her. His respect for her was already far more evident than he was prepared to admit—after all, she’d saved his life—but that was the moment he truly saw her for the first time. And while he would not necessarily have chosen to have a child with a dh’oine, for he despised the dh’oine as a whole, if he’d been given a choice in the matter, he would never take back his seed.
The child they’d made together would be, was already, an incredible force to be reckoned with because of her mother. She was beautiful and strong, though tainted by sorrows no child should ever have to know.
“She would have made one hell of an Aen Seidhe,” Geralt tilted his head appreciatively, flashing that smug, righteous look he always had about him.
Iorveth glanced over at the Witcher, silently approving of his humor. “Now you see why she appealed to me,” he muttered.
He looked toward the path that rose into the outskirts of Vergen. Dwarves and elves worked together to take down the barricades blocking the rest of the city from the battle that transpired below just hours earlier.
He had been away, rallying more Scoia’tael, but in the three weeks since he’d learned he had a daughter he’d stretched his time thin in order to spend time with the girl and get to know her. Well-guarded time, of course, so her mother could monitor every word spoken between them, and under the condition he did not shatter her memory of the seidhe who’d raised her.
He had no choice, save to agree, but it stoked the fire of his anger nonetheless that she didn’t trust him to protect that fragile being’s precious heart.
She was, after all, his daughter.
He may not have been there for her for the years of her life that would shape her, but he would do anything to keep her safe, even from himself.
Surely he had rights, unestablished as they were. In the world, as it was, a mother’s rights were the only rights that mattered, and Helti made sure he was aware of that every time she cast a disgruntled look over something he said to his own child.
He had not abandoned Invaernewedd; he was simply never made aware of her existence. How did that invalidate him as her father? He supposed, had he made love to a Dryad and given her a child, it would have been the same, but this was an entirely different situation. She hadn’t chosen him. They’d shared a single night together, never thinking of the consequences in the heat of the moment, and then he’d sent her away from him to keep her safe and alive.
He understood she knew another to be her father, that Cedric raised her. She was young and her mother did not wish to confuse her, but… surely he deserved more than distrusting glares and stifled tolerance whenever he came by to see her.
He’d missed seven years of her life. If he died for his cause, he would miss the rest of her life.
Didn’t he deserve a few peaceful moments to appreciate her delicate beauty? To love her freely as her father?
And he did love her. The first moment he’d laid eyes upon her in the lamiae’s lair something hard and sharp inside him became painfully soft. In one-hundred and fifty-four years, he had never fathered a child and hadn’t imagined the opportunity would arise for him before he passed into his sterile years. He’d been too busy fighting to give it much thought, even though he thought about the extinction of his people so frequently.
Over the last three weeks, he’d spent his quiet hours contemplating how different his life might have been if he had known the truth, and though he was fully aware he was exactly who he needed to be, he couldn’t help but wonder if the experience might have changed him. If he might have made different choices if he’d known about her.
On the other hand, he already felt fiercely protective of the girl, which in his mind suggested he might have been inclined to do whatever he was required to keep her safe, in essence changing very little about who he was at all. He had never been clearer about what he was willing to die for, and he would die for his daughter’s freedom if necessary.
A free Pontar Valley would mean his daughter could live without persecution. It intensified everything he and Saskia were fighting for.
“I will follow your advice, Gwynbleidd.”
The Witcher nodded. “I’ll meet you by the Mahakam Gate when you’re ready to go.”
“Time is of the essence. I won’t be long.”
He wound upward, bypassing partitions, groups of citizens coming out of their homes to marvel at a victory none thought they could win. And they might not have if Iorveth and his archers hadn’t returned when they did. Dh’oine, dwarves, elves, they all nodded with respect as he passed through, but he said nothing. What was there to say?
You’re welcome? Consider me your hero? The battle may be won, but the war has only just begun?
No, there was nothing. His ego was not so large as many believed it to be. He deserved no thanks. He knew he was not a hero, just as they knew the fighting was not done.
As he climbed to the hilltop, the upper outskirts of the city felt almost unaffected by the fighting below, but only because there was likely little else that could have been done to them to make them any less inhabitable. Having heard news that the battle was won, the few children who inhabited the outskirts emerged from their houses, carefully watched by mothers and fathers with their arms crossed over their chests, heads tilted in wonder at their rare brush with luck.
They were refugees, driven from Flotsam when the commandant rallied the dh’oine against every non-human in the city. Many of them barely escaped with their lives, only to come to Vergen and find themselves embroiled in a war most of them didn’t have the heart to fight. Just a month ago, he thought them all pathetic. Now, he didn’t know what he thought anymore.
Many of Vergen’s dwarves and men had been killed in the battle. A few in Iorveth’s commando had been lost. But everyone knew those deaths had been the barest of sacrifices, a cause worth dying for. If he and the Witcher could get Saskia back, enforce her claim over the Pontar Valley, the sacrificing of those lives would not be wasted.
Still, he hated that his people had to die. He hated the cause as much as he hated the fight itself. He just wanted… peace. Though he was quite certain there were few in the world who’d believe that if he confessed it. That longing for peace made him no different than the Seidhe who’d given up the fight to live among dh’oine, he just wanted it more. He was willing to make sacrifice for it, even if that sacrifice was his own life.
“Iorveth!” Her small voice lifted above the din of other children, her dark head of hair popping up from the gathering over a game of roundstones in the soft dirt. She had a smudge of mud on her pudgy cheek that drew attention to the shine in her brilliant green eyes. She did, as her mother professed to him, have his eyes. “Iorveth!” she called again, pushing through the other children and racing down the incline to throw herself at his legs.
She was a small creature, but the force of her love for him nearly staggered him, his gloved hand lowering instantly to the top of her head as he bent slightly forward to brace himself.
“Mama said you would come back,” she told him, not lifting away but hugging him tighter. “She said you were a good warrior and I shouldn’t worry about you, but I was worried.”
“Nothing to worry for, Luned,” he brought his hand to rest atop her head, stroking the hair from her forehead in an affectionate tousle. “I have seen many battles, and I always return.”
“That’s what Mama said, but I was still afraid.”
“Where is your mother?” He glanced through the yard, but did not see the healer’s face among the others.
“She is inside. They brought a lot of the people who got hurt in the battle, and she’s been healing them.”
“Take me to her, please?”
Drawing back, Invaernewedd reached for his hand and led him the rest of the way up the incline, toward the house where she and her mother had been staying with the other refugees from Flotsam.
The interior was packed with people,dwarves, seidhe, dh’oine, all of them worried as hands clutched to mouths and moans of agony bounced from wall to wall, bodies rolling as they waited for the only healer in the upper quadrant to see to their wounds.
“Wait here,” he told her, nudging her back out the door and promising to return. He then edged his way through the bodies until he arrived at a golden-haired woman, who knelt over a wounded seidhe and wiped the sweat from his brow chanting.
The sound of that chanting, melodic, spellbinding, it carried him back to that strange place where he sometimes dreamed of her. Her hand reaching out across the darkness, drawing him back into the light. In the pitch of fever, she’d cradled him in her arms and bid him to live. He hadn’t wanted to. Some part of him, so tired and angry it seemed the only peace he’d find was in Death’s arms, tried to refuse her call through the darkness, but the sweet sound of her voice drew him back, saved him from… himself.
He waited until she grew quiet before lowering a hand to her shoulder. He hadn’t realized it, but he was trembling, his unsteady fingers gently curving around her to draw her attention to him.
“Iorveth.” She barely glanced back over her shoulder at him. “Invae was worried. I am glad to see she had nothing to fear. Were you injured in the battle?”
“No,” he shook his head, watching as she dropped the rag into a bucket of water beside the palette and leaned back on her heels for a moment.
“I am glad then. Why have you come? Is everything all right?”
“I have to leave for a while,” he told her. “With the Witcher, and…”
For the first time she fully turned head over shoulder to look up at him with dark brown eyes. Those eyes widened with unspoken intrigue. “Where are you going? Vergen needs its heroes, now more than ever.”
He wanted to correct her, remind her he was no hero, but he only said, “Saskia is gone.” His quiet voice was mean only to reach her ears, or so he hoped. “Taken by the sorceress, and we must get her back.”
“I see,” she nodded, lowering her gaze again. “Where did they take her?”
“I understand.” After a moment’s pause, she patted the hand of the soldier she’d been treating and whispered words of comfort before gathering herself from the floor and standing up beside him. Turning inward, she allowed herself to step closer to him, so close that only he could hear her when she asked, “You care for her?”
“Saskia?” Furrowed his brow beneath the bandanna he wore over his scarred face.
“Not in the way your tone suggests,” not that it should matter one way or the other, “but yes, I do care for her. She is important to everything we’ve done here. Without her these people will lose hope. All the things we’ve fought for will be lost. We are so very close, Helti…”
“Of course,” she nodded, a strange expression that reminded him of relief passed across her features. “So you’ve come to say goodbye then?”
“To Invaernewedd,” he explained. “There is no telling what we face there, and I… I may not return.”
“That is always a risk, I suppose.”
“I would like to see my daughter before I go. May I walk with her for a little while? Not long,” he added, “the vatt’ghern awaits. I just… I know you’re busy and cannot be called away, but…”
She seemed to mull over his request for a second, then she waved almost dismissively. “Go ahead. Not too far, and I’m sure I don’t need to remind you…”
“To be careful what I say to her,” he finished begrudgingly.
“Don’t be like that, Iorveth.” Her hand came down on his arm as she began steering him away from the palette. “I understand what you want, and maybe you do deserve it, but now is not the time. Not when you’ve come to say goodbye and not so soon after she’s lost Cedric. I have to think of her, don’t you see that?”
“I see it, yes, and I even understand it, but I don’t have to like it and you can’t fault me for that.”
“No,” she agreed, “I suppose I can’t, but still…”
“I will not taint her, Helti. I only wish to say goodbye in case I do not return. One day she may learn the truth and I do not want her last memory of me to be abandonment.”
The mild annoyance that only moments earlier marred her features changed into something else. Her face lengthening, her lips softening, he watched her dark eyes widen. “Do you really think you may not return?”
“Do you really care one way or the other?”
She’d made it abundantly clear on numerous occasions since they’d been reunited she did not care whether he lived or died, at least he thought that was what she was trying to convey, but maybe he was wrong. Her comment about Saskia gave him pause, but only for the briefest moment.
She loved Cedric fiercely, even though he was gone, and love like the one Iorveth himself unwittingly set her up to share with someone else did not fade with death. She would likely spend the rest of her days alone, waiting for death to reunite her with the love she’d lost. But the bond between them, the bond they shared when they lay beneath the moon on the cold winter ground and made a life together, it was still there. Sometimes he saw it in her eyes when she looked at him.
“Of course I care. It would break Invae’s heart if you didn’t return.”
“And your heart?” he tested boldly. “Would your heart know the difference if I did not return, Helti?”
Raising her dark eyes to meet with his, he could not read them in that moment. “Again, now is not the time for such a conversation.”
“There is no time when it comes to such matters,” he told her.
She looked away from him again, and he took a step back. “Don’t take her far.”
“I will only walk with her just beyond the gate, a short walk by the stream, and then I will return her to your care. I won’t be long, I promise.”
“All right,” she agreed. Nodding once, he took another backward step, but she reached out and held him by his forearm for a moment. He found his gaze lowering to that gentle hand, the delicate fingers curling around his bracer before withdrawing almost self-consciously. “Be careful, Iorveth,” she bid him, “in Loc Muinne. Don’t… don’t get yourself killed. It would be a pretty stupid thing for you to die now, when you’re so close to getting everything you wanted.”
The barest hint of a smile twitched the corner of his mouth. He nodded once and then turned away from her.
So she did care…
Elder Speech used in this chapter: