“They say witchers feel nothing.”
If only that were true. He’d done nothing but feel since he walked away from the Kingslayer, wrestling and battling with everything inside him, trying to make sense of it and determine how to proceed. Yen was alive, and he remembered.
His death, her sacrifice. Ciri’s gift and the peace they shared in that beautiful place. The scent of apples always invading his senses, and Yennefer. Her touch, her smell, the taste of her on his lips…
A second chance—their second chance.
He should have known it was too good to be true. Good things usually were. It was just the way his life had always been. Eskel used to say if it was bright as a summer day, smelled like a flower and tasted of honey, there was a strong possibility it was a pile of shit. It summed everything up rather nicely. As long as he could remember, Geralt’s life had been just that: a steaming pile of shit.
Most days he resigned himself to that fact, but sometimes it was just too much.
The healer touched a cloth steeped in alcohol to the wound on his back. It reeked of witch hazel and some other pungent herb he didn’t recognize, but which made his nose twitch above his curled lip. A hiss of pain escaped through clenched teeth, but before he could set her straight on the matter of witchers feeling no pain, she added, “Clearly, that’s not true.”
“My tolerance for pain is higher.” He stretched his neck, tilted his head away from the wound in such a way that he felt it gape open again, the stringent concoction she dabbed across the broken skin seared like fire. “There isn’t much I can’t take, but some part of me is still human,” he went on. “I still feel… pain.”
He ground his teeth tighter and stared over at Triss, who continued to offer him that put-out and guilty look she’d been giving him ever since they’d arrived in the healer’s house.
They’d been gone a little less than a month, but in that time Cecil Burdon moved Helti and her daughter into a small house in the outskirts, a show of gratitude for the numerous lives her healing hands saved after the battle with the Kaedweni.
Dwarf, Seidhe, Human, Halfling, Helti did not judge those who came to her, though the witcher felt relatively certain the healer would have gladly left Triss bleeding out on her doorstep if Geralt brought the sorceress to her wounded.
He shouldn’t have brought her at all, but the injuries he sustained in a skirmish with a cockatrice outside its cave about three miles from Vergen made it difficult for him to walk. It came up on him from behind. He hadn’t been prepared for the battle, his own fault, and Triss exhausted her magic helping him defeat the beast.
It wasn’t a fatal injury, but it was deep.
Iorveth, likely eager to see his daughter, offered to help Geralt to the healer’s quarters, but Geralt knew it was equally imperative the Scoia’tael commander stand beside Saskia as they announced her return to the free people of Aedirn, at least the ones still awake, and so he had no choice but to lean on Triss as they wound through the streets toward the healer’s new home.
Now he wondered if he might not have been better accompanied by Iorveth. Helti had done nothing but stare at the sorceress while tending to his wounds, a cold, distant look in her eyes each time he managed to glance over his shoulder at her. At first he hadn’t made the connection, chalking her scowl up to the lateness of the hour upon which they arrived, but it was Triss’s presence that made her uncomfortable.
The healer wore her pain on her sleeve, not unlike the coat of arms Iorveth tore from commanders he killed in battle and sewed across his armor.
“Iorveth is all right?” It was the first time she’d brought up the commander, father to the little girl sleeping peacefully on the pallet beyond the partition.
“None the worse for wear. He was scouting ahead when we were attacked, came in at the last minute and saved the day like a true hero.”
“Invae will be pleased,” she noted. “She was very worried about him. Nonstop questions night and day.”
“He will be glad to see her.”
The elf hadn’t said much on the journey back from Loc Muinne, none of them, but from time to time, at night when they made camp, Geralt watched him quietly fingering a flower petal the child gave him just before he left. A petal from a Rose of Remembrance, he’d explained while the two of them traveled toward the summit in Loc Muinne. Probably taken from Cáelmawedd, the elven gardens above Lobinden and Flotsam. Perhaps even a gift to the child’s mother from her elven husband, Cedric.
Cedric, who’d died in the forest outside Flotsam after attempting to help Triss. The connection sunk in. Gods, he was tired. Normally he drew those types of conclusions without delay, but he was wounded, exhausted, uncertain about where they might go from Vergen. He had so much on his mind, making the simplest of deductions was almost more than he could take.
“He wanted to accompany me, but Saskia…”
“No need to explain, Gwynbleidd.” She shook her head before ducking back to the table beside her for the needle and twine to stich his wound. “It is late. I wouldn’t have woken her, even if he had come.” Though there was a hint in her tone that suggested that wasn’t entirely true. “And besides, he will still be here come morning. Won’t he?”
“As far as I know,” he nodded. “I’m glad you decided to let him spend time with her, after everything.”
“I still have my reservations,” she confessed, “but sometimes I can’t help but feeling it’s something Cedric would have wanted. I don’t know why.”
Geralt didn’t tell her he agreed, nor had he ever mentioned the ghost he’d seen outside the ruins beyond Vergen’s gate the night the four of them, Dandelion, Iorveth, Helti and himself, had saved the half-elven child from a lamiae. Just as they were leaving, the witcher spied rustling movement in the trees, the ethereal lingering of an old ghost who seemed quite content at having united the little girl and her birth father.
“Cedric?” Triss brought her head up, the name spilling curiously from her soft lips.
Geralt had yet to tell her about Cedric’s death. She’d been through enough, and though at times her ruthlessness—a trait all sorceresses seemed to share—made her seem calloused, the witcher knew her heart, and it was all-too-often riddled with guilt. She’d done many things she wasn’t proud of, even after he’d returned, and some part of her silently believed she’d paid a heavy price for her manipulations the day he and Yennefer were killed. And again when she’d been taken by Letho in Flotsam.
Geralt himself wasn’t sure of her innocence.
For the first time in a long time, he didn’t know if he could trust Triss. She claimed to have had no involvement in the Lodge’s plot against Demavand, but there were other memories, things he’d chosen to block out because of his feelings for her. She hadn’t always been forthright with him. Not when it really mattered. But then, when had it ever really mattered?
Yennefer hadn’t always been honest with him either, and he’d loved her nonetheless.
Sometimes he thought he loved Triss, perhaps not with the same ferocity, but still…
“Helti was Cedric’s wife,” he said in a low, gruff voice. He hoped from his tone and inflection Triss gathered enough sense not to press the issue. Warning flashed in his eyes, Triss’s slightly parted lips pinching together as her own stare widened.
Maybe she already knew what became of the Seidhe she’d asked to help her, to shed blood for her. She pushed off the chair where she’d made herself at home, excused herself and announced she would wait for him outside. She needed air, the look on her face suggesting that she felt guilty, but he hadn’t told her about Cedric.
The door closed quietly at her back and Geralt felt the tension in his neck loosen just in time for the needle to bury into his skin and make him wince.
“I know,” he hissed over his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought her here.”
“Vergen is a free city, and besides it wasn’t her fault what happened in Flotsam. He knew what he was doing.”
The healer punched needle through flesh and tugged torn skin back together with a certain amount of admirable grace. It still hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, but the witcher bit his tongue.
“He told me once he glimpsed his death in a vision, and though he didn’t know exactly how it would happen, he said he would recognize the signs when it was time. I should have known myself the end was nigh. He started acting so strange when you and your sorceress arrived in Flotsam, and yet… I don’t know. Part of me doesn’t want to forgive her for getting him involved, even though he knew exactly what he was doing.”
“I asked him why. Why did he get involved?”
He closed his eyes, tighter as another sharp poke and tug wound through his pulsing hide. He could almost hear the lament in the dying elf’s tone as he confessed, I killed the dh’oine guarding the door, and we broke in. Again, I killed a dh’oine.
“He asked the same of me and said, ‘Sometimes we must.’ I don’t know, maybe he knew at the time, but it was something I needed to hear.” Shaking his head, he felt the hair brush across his brow. “For the greater good, sometimes we need to get involved, even if it goes against everything we think we stand for. Even if it means we face our end.”
Her hand stilled a moment. Geralt waited for the next puncture, the eerie sensation of thread drawn through skin, but it never came. The subtle shuffling of her movement at his back followed a soft, hitching breath she attempted to hide behind her hand. Guilt flooded through him.
“Hey,” he turned in the chair, the movement tugging the thread from her slack hand. He felt the cold needle drop, bouncing mid-back and rustling with the turn. “Helti, I…” He hated making women cry. It seemed to be something he excelled at, almost as skillfully as he excelled in battle. It was uncomfortable once it started, and he never quite knew how to make it stop. In truth, it was one reason he preferred the company of sorceresses. They rarely, if ever, allowed their emotions to escape their tight-fisted grip. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought her here. It was… insensitive of me.”
She shook her head, drawing in stifled breath as she lifted her hand to brush away the tears dripping down her cheeks. “Don’t be sorry, Gwynbleidd. He tried to prepare me. From the moment we met, I knew our time together was limited. Cedric would not want me to hold this grudge in my heart, nor would he want me to suffer the way I do. And I know this, but it is so hard for me to honor his unspoken wishes.”
“Letting go of someone we love is never easy,” he managed.
And that was why he’d go after Yen. Even though he cared for Triss, he would never, could never let Yennefer go. So long as there was a chance she was still alive, still out there, he would search for her, no matter the cost. Even if it meant losing Triss.
Wiping her tears on her apron, she walked to the wash basin and cleaned her hands again with soap and water before returning to her task. He turned to watch her, his blood smudged her cheek, but she either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. Gathering the thread in her careful, delicate hand again, she returned to the task of stitching him back together without another word.
She was just drawing the last stitch when the shadowed door on the other side of the house drew open. The hinges squealed like a stuck pig, so loud both of them cringed and turned their heads toward the sleeping child on the other side of the room. She didn’t stir, and with a sigh of relief, Helti glanced toward at the shadow lingering in the doorway.
“Iorveth,” she said in a low voice.
“Helti,” he stepped into the light, head tilted and gaze focused on the witcher. “Gwynbleidd.”
“Are you injured?” she asked.
“Then come back in the morning. It is late and she is asleep…”
“I wish to talk.” There was an air of discomfort in his tone, inspired, the witcher assumed, by his presence. “To you,” he added, “and though I’m sure it could wait until morning, I would rather not.”
“All right,” she agreed with a shrug. “I’m nearly finished here.”
Iorveth came inside, lowered himself into the chair Triss had been sitting in, and leaned forward, resting his forearms across the tops of his thighs with a long, weary exhale. He turned his head toward the sleeping child just beyond the partition and stared while Helti finished tending to the witcher’s wound.
It was none of his business, what the two of them had to talk about, and sitting there between them in that strange and awkward silence made him feel as uncomfortable as the elf looked when he brought his stare back to watch her work. She’d saved the elven commander’s life once, an act she claimed established an unbreakable bond between them. That bond slept just feet away from them, nestled safely on the palette with a threadbare blanket draped across her small body.
No one said anything while she finished the job she’d started. Clipping the thread with a small pair of sheers, she stepped back and admired her handiwork. She applied a cool salve that instantly took the throbbing edge off the pain.
“I know witchers heal more quickly than the rest of us, but rest for a day or two before you rush out to save the world, Gwynbleidd.”
Not the world, just Yennefer. The world could go to hell, for all he cared.
“Try to keep it clean and in no time you’ll have another scar to add to your vast collection.”
Geralt couldn’t help the grin that twitched the left corner of his mouth. “Thank you, Helti.”
Rising from the chair, he stretched into his coat, carefully drawing the heavy leather across the wound. Kayran-skin armor, crafted by the healer’s husband before all hell broke loose in Flotsam. He’d have to find someone skilled to repair the damage. He didn’t bother strapping his swords across his back, but slung the belt over his shoulder with a loose clang of silver and steel.
He took out his coin pouch, drawing open the strings to pay her, but she immediately reached out to stay his hand. Shaking her head, she insisted, “You owe me nothing, my friend. You helped Cedric, and you helped me find my daughter. As long as I live, I will owe you, Geralt of Rivia, though I don’t advise you to carry on getting yourself wounded in this fashion.” A weak smile formed on her lips.
It never failed to touch something inside him when someone expressed their gratitude. Few ever made the gesture, even fewer extended their hand in friendship. He didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing, only nodded his head before returning his pouch to his belt and backing away from her with a bit of effort. The pain in his back made it hard for him to walk, but he’d been through much worse. The wound, as she said, would heal and he’d have another scar.
Walking toward the door, he made every effort to keep it from shrieking on its old hinges as he slipped into the night.
Triss waited on the other side, back to the wall and arms cross over her chest. She was shivering in the damp, night air, her teeth chattering a little when she pushed off the wall and fell into step beside him.
They walked several paces away from the house before she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me about Cedric?”
“You’d already been through enough,” he shrugged, the movement making his shoulders ache, the wound between the blades twitching. His swords jostled with the movement, rattling noisily. “I didn’t want you to feel guilty for something he chose to do, something he saw coming the minute you and I climbed his platform to ask about the kayran.”
“What?” she shook her head, the loose wisps of her bright red hair sliding down her cheek. “What do you mean, Witcher?”
“Cedric knew,” he said, following the path downward, digging his boots in with every step to keep from losing his footing in loose gravel. “He made a choice. Helti told me when I first met her that Cedric saw his own end, not the details, but enough that he would know when his time had come.”
“But…” she stammered, head shaking again. “If… if he knew, why? Why would he come with me if he knew what waited?”
He avoided the inclination to shrug again. “Sometimes we must, Triss. Even when we know it will only bring us to our end.”
She blinked, her eyes so large and green, his heart so soft and yet so hard.
Damn, if what he felt her wasn’t love, he didn’t know what else to call it. Damn him if he didn’t love Yennefer just a little bit more.
He always had, and he always would. Surely Triss knew that. She’d known it all along, and yet she’d stuck by his side, through it all. She’d go with him to the very end, help him find Yen, and then what?
“Come on,” he urged her, the downward momentum quickening his step. “I’ve got a room at The Cauldron. I’m tired, you’re tired. Maybe we can sneak in without alerting Dandelion, grab a few hours of rest before the inquiry and ballad writing begins.”
Triss only nodded. There was nothing to more to say, not for the moment. Soon enough, they’d talk about Yennefer, about leaving Vergen to search for her. And Triss would come with him, because she must.
She owed him that much.