Κύρια Time of Contempt

Time of Contempt

Χρόνος: 2013
Γλώσσα: english
File: EPUB, 448 KB
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TIME OF CONTEMPT





ANDRZEJ SAPKOWSKI

Translated by David French





GOLLANCZ

LONDON





CONTENTS





Cover

Title Page



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven



Endnotes

Also By Andrzej Sapkowski

Copyright





CHAPTER ONE





Blood on your hands, Falka,

Blood on your dress.

Burn, burn, Falka, and die,

Die in agony for your crimes!

Vedymins, called witchers among the Nordlings (q.v.), a mysterious and elite caste of warriorpriests, probably an offshoot of the druids (q.v.). In the folk consciousness, they are endowed with magical powers and superhuman abilities; v. were said to fight evil spirits, monsters and all manner of dark forces. In reality, since they were unparalleled in their ability to wield weapons, v. were used by the rulers of the north in the tribal fighting they waged with each other. In combat v. fell into a trance, brought on, it is believed, by autohypnosis or intoxicating substances, and fought with pure energy, being utterly invulnerable to pain or even grave wounds, which reinforced the superstitions about their superhuman powers. The theory, according to which v. were said to have been the products of mutation or genetic engineering, has not found confirmation. V. are the heroes of numerous Nordling tales (cf. F. Delannoy, Myths and Legends of the Nordlings).

Effenberg and Talbot

Encyclopaedia Maxima Mundi, Vol. XV





When talking to youngsters entering the service, Aplegatt usually told them that in order to make their living as mounted messengers two things would be necessary: a head of gold and an arse of iron.

A head of gold is essential, Aplegatt instructed the young messengers, since in the flat leather pouch strapped to his chest beneath his clothing the messenger only carries news of less vital importance, which could without fear be entrusted to treacherous paper or manuscript. The really important, secret tidings – those on which a great deal depended – must be committed to memory by the messenger and only repeated to the intended recipient. Word for word; and at times those words are far from simple. Difficult to pronounce, let alone remember. In order to memorise them and not make a mistake when they are recounted, one has to have a truly golden head.

And the benefits of an arse of iron, oh, every messenger will swiftly learn those for himself. When the moment comes for him to spend three days and nights in the saddle, riding a hundred or even two hundred miles along roads or sometimes, when necessary, trackless terrain, then it is needed. No, of course you don’t sit in the saddle without respite; sometimes you dismount and rest. For a man can bear a great deal, but a horse less. However, when it’s time to get back in the saddle after resting, it’s as though your arse were shouting, ‘Help! Murder!’

‘But who needs mounted messengers now, Master Aplegatt?’ young people would occasionally ask in astonishment. ‘Take Vengerberg to Vizima; no one could knock that off in less than four – or even five – days, even on the swiftest steed. But how long does a sorcerer from Vengerberg need to send news to a sorcerer from Vizima? Half an hour, or not even that. A messenger’s horse may go lame, but a sorcerer’s message always arrives. It never loses its way. It never arrives late or gets lost. What’s the point of messengers, if there are sorcerers everywhere, at every kingly court? Messengers are no longer necessary, Master Aplegatt.’

For some time Aplegatt had also been thinking he was no longer of any use to anyone. He was thirty-six and small but strong and wiry, wasn’t afraid of hard work and had – naturally – a head of gold. He could have found other work to support himself and his wife, to put a bit of money by for the dowries of his two as yet unmarried daughters and to continue helping the married one whose husband, the sad loser, was always unlucky in his business ventures. But Aplegatt couldn’t and didn’t want to imagine any other job. He was a royal mounted messenger and that was that.

And then suddenly, after a long period of being forgotten and humiliatingly idle, Aplegatt was once again needed. And the highways and forest tracks once again echoed to the sound of hooves. Just like the old days, messengers began to travel the land bearing news from town to town.

Aplegatt knew why. He saw a lot and heard even more. It was expected that he would immediately erase each message from his memory once it had been given, that he would forget it so as to be unable to recall it even under torture. But Aplegatt remembered. He knew why kings had suddenly stopped communicating with the help of magic and sorcerers. The news that the messengers were carrying was meant to remain a secret from them. Kings had suddenly stopped trusting sorcerers; stopped confiding their secrets in them.

Aplegatt didn’t know what had caused this sudden cooling off in the friendship between kings and sorcerers and wasn’t overly concerned about it. He regarded both kings and magic-users as incomprehensible creatures, unpredictable in their deeds – particularly when times were becoming hard. And the fact that times were now hard could not be ignored, not if one travelled across the land from castle to castle, from town to town, from kingdom to kingdom.

There were plenty of troops on the roads. With every step one came across an infantry or cavalry column, and every commander you met was edgy, nervous, curt and as self-important as if the fate of the entire world rested on him alone. The cities and castles were also full of armed men, and a feverish bustle went on there, day and night. The usually invisible burgraves and castellans now ceaselessly rushed along walls and through courtyards, angry as wasps before a storm, yelling, swearing and issuing orders and kicks. Day and night, lumbering columns of laden wagons rolled towards strongholds and garrisons, passing carts on their way back, moving quickly, unburdened and empty. Herds of frisky three-year-old mounts taken straight out of stables kicked dust up on the roads. Ponies not accustomed to bits nor armed riders cheerfully enjoyed their last days of freedom, giving stable boys plenty of extra work and other road users no small trouble.

To put it briefly, war hung in the hot, still air.

Aplegatt stood up in his stirrups and looked around. Down at the foot of the hill a river sparkled, meandering sharply among meadows and clusters of trees. Forests stretched out beyond it, to the south. The messenger urged his horse on. Time was running out.

He’d been on the road for two days. The royal order and mail had caught up with him in Hagge, where he was resting after returning from Tretogor. He had left the stronghold by night, galloping along the highway following the left bank of the Pontar, crossed the border with Temeria before dawn, and now, at noon of the following day, was already at the bank of the Ismena. Had King Foltest been in Vizima, Aplegatt would have delivered him the message that night. Unfortunately, the king was not in the capital; he was residing in the south of the country, in Maribor, almost two hundred miles from Vizima. Aplegatt knew this, so in the region of the White Bridge he left the westward-leading road and rode through woodland towards Ellander. He was taking a risk. The Scoia’tael1 continued to roam the forests, and woe betide anyone who fell into their hands or came within arrowshot. But a royal messenger had to take risks. Such was his duty.

He crossed the river without difficulty – it hadn’t rained since June and the Ismena’s waters had fallen considerably. Keeping to the edge of the forest, he reached the track leading southeast from Vizima, towards the dwarven foundries, forges and settlements in the Mahakam Mountains. There were plenty of carts along the track, often being overtaken by small mounted units. Aplegatt sighed in relief. Where there were lots of humans, there weren’t any Scoia’tael. The campaign against the guerrilla elves had endured in Temeria for a year and, being harried in the forests, the Scoia’tael commandos had divided up into smaller groups. These smaller groups kept well away from well-used roads and didn’t set ambushes on them.

Before nightfall he was already on the western border of the duchy of Ellander, at a crossroads near the village of Zavada. From here he had a straight and safe road to Maribor: forty-two miles of hard, well-frequented forest track, and there was an inn at the crossroads. He decided to rest his horse and himself there. Were he to set off at daybreak he knew that, even without pushing his mount too hard, he would see the silver and black pennants on the red roofs of Maribor Castle’s towers before sundown.

He unsaddled his mare and groomed her himself, sending the stable boy away. He was a royal messenger, and a royal messenger never permits anyone to touch his horse. He ate a goodly portion of scrambled eggs with sausage and a quarter of a loaf of rye bread, washed down with a quart of ale. He listened to the gossip. Of various kinds. Travellers from every corner of the world were dining at the inn.

Aplegatt learned there’d been more trouble in Dol Angra; a troop of Lyrian cavalry had once again clashed with a mounted Nilfgaardian unit. Meve, the queen of Lyria, had loudly accused Nilfgaard of provocation – again – and called for help from King Demavend of Aedirn. Tretogor had seen the public execution of a Redanian baron who had secretly allied himself with emissaries of the Nilfgaardian emperor, Emhyr. In Kaedwen, Scoia’tael commandos, amassed into a large unit, had orchestrated a massacre in Fort Leyda. To avenge the massacre, the people of Ard Carraigh had organised a pogrom, murdering almost four hundred non-humans residing in the capital.

Meanwhile the merchants travelling from the south described the grief and mourning among the Cintran emigrants gathered in Temeria, under the standard of Marshal Vissegerd. The dreadful news of the death of Princess Cirilla, the Lion Cub, the last of the bloodline of Queen Calanthe, had been confirmed.

Some even darker, more foreboding gossip was told. That in several villages in the region of Aldersberg cows had suddenly begun to squirt blood from their udders while being milked, and at dawn the Virgin Bane, harbinger of terrible destruction, had been seen in the fog. The Wild Hunt, a spectral army galloping across the firmament, had appeared in Brugge, in the region of Brokilon Forest, the forbidden kingdom of the forest dryads; and the Wild Hunt, as is generally known, always heralds war. And a spectral ship had been spotted off Cape Bremervoord with a ghoul on board: a black knight in a helmet adorned with the wings of a bird of prey . . .

The messenger stopped listening; he was too tired. He went to the common sleeping chamber, dropped onto his pallet and fell fast asleep.

He arose at daybreak and was a little surprised as he entered the courtyard – he was not the first person preparing to leave, which was unusual. A black gelding stood saddled by the well, while nearby a woman in male clothing was washing her hands in the trough. Hearing Aplegatt’s footsteps she turned, gathered her luxuriant black hair in her wet hands, and tossed it back. The messenger bowed. The woman gave a faint nod.

As he entered the stable he almost ran into another early riser, a girl in a velvet beret who was just leading a dapple grey mare out into the courtyard. The girl rubbed her face and yawned, leaning against her horse’s withers.

‘Oh my,’ she murmured, passing the messenger, ‘I’ll probably fall asleep on my horse . . . I’ll just flake out . . . Auuh . . .’

‘The cold’ll wake you up when you give your mare free rein,’ said Aplegatt courteously, pulling his saddle off the rack. ‘Godspeed, miss.’

The girl turned and looked at him, as though she had only then noticed him. Her eyes were large and as green as emeralds. Aplegatt threw the saddlecloth over his horse.

‘I wished you a safe journey,’ he said. He wasn’t usually talkative or effusive but now he felt the need to talk to someone, even if this someone was just a sleepy teenager. Perhaps it was those long days of solitude on the road, or possibly that the girl reminded him a little of his middle daughter.

‘May the gods protect you,’ he added, ‘from accidents and foul weather. There are but two of you, and womenfolk at that . . . And times are ill at present. Danger lurks everywhere on the highways.’

The girl opened her green eyes wider. The messenger felt his spine go cold, and a shudder passed through him.

‘Danger . . .’ the girl said suddenly, in a strange, altered voice. ‘Danger comes silently. You will not hear it when it swoops down on grey feathers. I had a dream. The sand . . . The sand was hot from the sun.’

‘What?’ Aplegatt froze with the saddle pressed against his belly. ‘What say you, miss? What sand?’

The girl shuddered violently and rubbed her face. The dapple grey mare shook its head.

‘Ciri!’ shouted the black-haired woman sharply from the courtyard, adjusting the girth on her black stallion. ‘Hurry up!’

The girl yawned, looked at Aplegatt and blinked, appearing surprised by his presence in the stable. The messenger said nothing.

‘Ciri,’ repeated the woman, ‘have you fallen asleep in there?’

‘I’m coming, Madam Yennefer.’

By the time Aplegatt had finally saddled his horse and led it out into the courtyard there was no sign of either woman or girl. A cock crowed long and hoarsely, a dog barked, and a cuckoo called from among the trees. The messenger leapt into the saddle. He suddenly recalled the sleepy girl’s green eyes and her strange words. Danger comes silently? Grey feathers? Hot sand? The maid was probably not right in the head, he thought. You come across a lot like that these days; deranged girls spoiled by vagabonds or other ne’er-do-wells in these times of war . . . Yes, definitely deranged. Or possibly only sleepy, torn from her slumbers, not yet fully awake. It’s amazing the poppycock people come out with when they’re roaming around at dawn, still caught between sleep and wakefulness . . .

A second shudder passed through him, and he felt a pain between his shoulder blades. He massaged his back with a fist.

Weak at the knees, he spurred his horse on as soon as he was back on the Maribor road, and rode away at a gallop. Time was running out.

The messenger did not rest for long in Maribor – not a day had passed before the wind was whistling in his ears again. His new horse, a roan gelding from the Maribor stable, ran hard, head forward and its tail flowing behind. Roadside willows flashed past. The satchel with the diplomatic mail pressed against Aplegatt’s chest. His arse ached.

‘Oi! I hope you break your neck, you blasted gadabout!’ yelled a carter in his wake, pulling in the halter of his team, startled by the galloping roan flashing by. ‘See how he runs, like devils were licking his heels! Ride on, giddy-head, ride; you won’t outrun Death himself!’

Aplegatt wiped an eye, which was watering from the speed.

The day before he had given King Foltest a letter, and then recited King Demavend’s secret message.

‘Demavend to Foltest. All is prepared in Dol Angra. The disguised forces await the order. Estimated date: the second night after the July new moon. The boats are to beach on the far shore two days later.’

Flocks of crows flew over the highway, cawing loudly. They flew east, towards Mahakam and Dol Angra, towards Vengerberg. As he rode, the messenger silently repeated the confidential message the king of Temeria had entrusted to him for the king of Aedirn.

‘Foltest to Demavend. Firstly: let us call off the campaign. The windbags have called a council. They are going to meet and debate on the Isle of Thanedd. This council may change much. Secondly: the search for the Lion Cub can be called off. It is confirmed. The Lion Cub is dead.’

Aplegatt spurred on his horse. Time was running out.

The narrow forest track was blocked with wagons. Aplegatt slowed down and trotted unhurriedly up to the last wagon in the long column. He saw he could not force his way through the obstruction, but nor could he think about heading back; too much time would be lost. Venturing into the boggy thicket and riding around the obstruction was not an attractive alternative either, particularly since darkness was falling.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked the drivers of the last wagon in the column. They were two old men, one of whom seemed to be dozing and the other showing no signs of life. ‘An attack? Scoia’tael? Speak up! I’m in a hurry . . .’

Before either of the two old men had a chance to answer, screams could be heard from the head of the column, hidden amongst the trees. Drivers leapt onto their wagons, lashing their horses and oxen to the accompaniment of choice oaths. The column moved off ponderously. The dozing old man awoke, moved his chin, clucked at his mules and flicked the reins across their rumps. The moribund old man came to life too, drew his straw hat back from his eyes and looked at Aplegatt.

‘Mark him,’ he said. ‘A hasty one. Well, laddie, your luck’s in. You’ve joined the company right on time.’

‘Aye,’ said the other old man, motioning with his chin and urging the mules forward. ‘You are timely. Had you come at noon, you’d have come to a stop like us and waited for a clear passage. We’re all in a hurry, but we had to wait. How can you ride on, when the way is closed?’

‘The way closed? Why so?’

‘There’s a cruel man-eater in these parts, laddie. He fell on a knight riding along the road with nowt but a boy for company. They say the monster rent the knight’s head right off – helmet and all – and spilt his horse’s gizzards. The boy made good his escape and said it was a fell beast, that the road was crimson with gore—’

‘What kind of monster is it?’ asked Aplegatt, reining in his horse in order to continue talking to the wagoners as they drove on. ‘A dragon?’ ‘Nay, it’s no dragon,’ said the one in the straw hat. ‘’Tis said to be a manticore, or some such. The boy said ’tis a flying beast, awful huge. And vicious! We reckoned he would devour the knight and fly away, but no! They say he settled on the road, the whoreson, and was sat there, hissing and baring its fangs . . . Yea, and the road all stopped up like a corked-up flagon, for whoever drove up first and saw the fiend left his wagon and hastened away. Now the wagons are backed up for a third of a league, and all around, as you see, laddie, thicket and bog. There’s no riding around or turning back. So here we stood . . .’

‘Such a host!’ snorted the horseman. ‘And they were standing by like dolts when they ought to’ve seized axe and spear to drive the beast from the road, or slaughter it.’

‘Aye, a few tried,’ said the old wagoner, driving on his mules, for the column was now moving more quickly. ‘Three dwarves from the merchants’ guard and, with them, four recruits who were heading to the stronghold in Carreras to join the army. The monster carved up the dwarves horribly, and the recruits –’

‘– bolted,’ finished the other old man, after which he spat rapturously. The gob flew a long way ahead of him, expertly falling into the space between the mules’ rumps. ‘Bolted, after barely setting their eyes on the manticore. One of them shat his britches, I hear. Oh, look, look, laddie. That’s him! Yonder!’

‘What are you blathering on about?’ asked Aplegatt, somewhat annoyed. ‘You’re pointing out that shitty arse ? I’m not interested—’

‘Nay! The monster! The monster’s corpse! They’re lifting it onto a wagon! D’you see?’

Aplegatt stood in his stirrups. In spite of the gathering darkness and the crowd of onlookers he saw the great tawny body being lifted up by soldiers. The monster’s bat-like wings and scorpion tail dragged inertly along the ground. Cheering, the soldiers lifted the corpse higher and heaved it onto a wagon. The horses harnessed to it, clearly disturbed by the stench of the carcass and the blood, neighed and tugged at the shaft.

‘Move along!’ the sergeant shouted at the old men. ‘Keep moving! Don’t block the road!’

The greybeard drove his mules on, the wagon bouncing over the rutted road. Aplegatt, urging on his horse with his heel, drew alongside.

‘Looks like the soldiers have put paid to the beast.’

‘Not a bit of it,’ rejoined the old man. ‘When the soldiers arrived, all they did was yell and order people around. “Stand still! Move on!” and all the rest of it. They were in no haste to deal with the monster. They sent for a witcher.’

‘A witcher?’

‘Aye,’ confirmed the second old man. ‘Someone recalled he’d seen a witcher in the village, and they sent for him. A while later he rode past us. His hair was white, his countenance fearful to behold, and he bore a cruel blade. Not an hour had passed than someone called from the front that the road would soon be clear, for the witcher had dispatched the beast. So at last we set off; which was just about when you turned up, laddie.’

‘Ah,’ said Aplegatt absentmindedly. ‘All these years I’ve been scouring these roads and never met a witcher. Did anyone see him defeat the monster?’

‘I saw it!’ called a boy with a shock of tousled hair, trotting up on the other side of the wagon. He was riding bareback, steering a skinny, dapple grey nag using a halter. ‘I saw it all! I was with the soldiers, right at the front!’

‘Look at him, snot-nosed kid,’ said the old man driving the wagon. ‘Milk not dried on his face, and see how he mouths off. Looking for a slap?’

‘Leave him, father,’ interrupted Aplegatt. ‘We’ll reach the crossroads soon and I’m riding to Carreras, so first I’d like to know how the witcher got on. Talk, boy.’

‘It was like this,’ he began quickly, still trotting alongside the wagon. ‘That witcher comes up to the officer. He says his name’s Geralt. The officer says it’s all the same to him, and it’d be better if he made a start. Shows him where the monster is. The witcher moves closer and looks on. The monster’s about five furlongs or more away, but he just glances at it and says at once it’s an uncommon great manticore and he’ll kill it if they give him two hundred crowns.’

‘Two hundred crowns?’ choked the other old man. ‘Had he gone cuckoo?’

‘The officer says the same, only his words were riper. So the witcher says that’s how much it will cost and it’s all the same to him; the monster can stay on the road till Judgement Day. The officer says he won’t pay that much and he’ll wait till the beast flies off by itself. The witcher says it won’t because it’s hungry and pissed off. And if it flies off, it’ll be back soon because that’s its hunting terri–terri– territor—’

‘You whippersnapper, don’t talk nonsense!’ said the old man driving the cart, losing his temper, unsuccessfully trying to clear his nose into the fingers he was holding the reins with. ‘Just tell us what happened!’

‘I am telling you! The witcher goes, “The monster won’t fly away, he’ll spend the entire night eating the dead knight, nice and slow, because the knight’s in armour and it’s hard to pick out the meat.” So some merchants step up and try making a deal with the witcher, by hook or by crook, that they’ll organise a whip-round and give him five score crowns. The witcher says that beast’s a manticore and is very dangerous, and they can shove their hundred crowns up their arses, he won’t risk his neck for it. So the officer gets pissed off and says tough luck, it’s a witcher’s fate to risk his neck, and that a witcher is perfectly suited to it, like an arse is perfectly suited to shitting. But I can see the merchants get afeared the witcher would get angry and head off, because they say they’ll pay seven score and ten. So then the witcher gets his sword out and heads off down the road towards where the beast’s sitting. And the officer makes a mark behind him to drive away magic, spits on the ground and says he doesn’t know why the earth bears such hellish abominations. One of the merchants says that if the army drove away monsters from roads instead of chasing elves through forests, witchers wouldn’t be needed and that—’

‘Don’t drivel,’ interrupted the old man. ‘Just say what you saw.’

‘I saw,’ boasted the boy, ‘the witcher’s horse, a chestnut mare with a white blaze.’

‘Blow the mare! Did you see the witcher kill the monster?’

‘Err . . .’ stammered the boy. ‘No I didn’t . . . I got pushed to the back. Everybody was shouting and the horses were startled, when—’

‘Just what I said,’ declared the old man contemptuously. ‘He didn’t see shite, snotty-nosed kid.’

‘But I saw the witcher coming back!’ said the boy, indignantly. ‘And the officer, who saw it all, he was as pale as a ghost and said quietly to his men it was magic spells or elven tricks and that a normal man couldn’t wield a sword that quickly . . . While the witcher ups and takes the money from the merchants, mounts his mare and rides off.’

‘Hmm,’ murmured Aplegatt. ‘Which way was he headed? Along the road to Carreras? If so, I might catch him up, just to have a look at him . . .’

‘No,’ said the boy. ‘He took the road to Dorian from the crossroads. He was in a hurry.’

The Witcher seldom dreamed at all, and he never remembered those rare dreams on waking. Not even when they were nightmares – and they were usually nightmares.

This time it was also a nightmare, but at least the Witcher remembered some of it. A distinct, clear image had suddenly emerged from a swirling vortex of unclear but disturbing shapes, of strange but foreboding scenes and incomprehensible but sinister words and sounds. It was Ciri, but not as he remembered her from Kaer Morhen. Her flaxen hair, flowing behind her as she galloped, was longer – as it had been when they first met, in Brokilon. When she rode by he wanted to shout but no words came. He wanted to run after her, but it was as if he were stuck in setting pitch to halfway up his thighs. And Ciri seemed not to see him and galloped on, into the night, between misshapen alders and willows waving their boughs as if they were alive. He saw she was being pursued. That a black horse was galloping in her tracks, and on it a rider in black armour, wearing a helmet decorated with the wings of a bird of prey.

He couldn’t move, he couldn’t shout. He could only watch as the winged knight chased Ciri, caught her hair, pulled her from the saddle and galloped on, dragging her behind him. He could only watch Ciri’s face contort with pain, watch her mouth twist into a soundless cry. Awake! he ordered himself, unable to bear the nightmare. Awake! Awake at once!

He awoke.

He lay motionless for a long while, recalling the dream. Then he rose. He drew a pouch from beneath his pillow and quickly counted out some ten-crown coins. One hundred and fifty for yesterday’s manticore. Fifty for the fogler he had been commissioned to kill by the headman of a village near Carreras. And fifty for the werewolf some settlers from Burdorff had driven out of hiding for him.

Fifty for a werewolf. That was plenty, for the work had been easy. The werewolf hadn’t even fought back. Driven into a cave from which there was no escape, it had knelt down and waited for the sword to fall. The Witcher had felt sorry for it.

But he needed the money.

Before an hour had passed he was ambling down the streets of the town of Dorian, looking for a familiar lane and sign.

The wording on the sign read: ‘Codringher and Fenn, legal consultation and services’. But Geralt knew only too well that Codringher and Fenn’s trade had little in common with the law, while the partners themselves had a host of reasons to avoid any kind of contact either with the law or its enforcers. He also seriously doubted if any of the clients who showed up in their chambers knew what the word ‘consultation’ meant.

There was no entrance on the ground floor of the small building; there was only a securely bolted door, probably leading to a coach house or a stable. In order to reach the door one had to venture around the back of the building, enter a muddy courtyard full of ducks and chickens and, from there, walk up some steps before proceeding down a narrow gallery and along a cramped, dark corridor. Only then did one find oneself before a solid, studded mahogany door, equipped with a large brass knocker in the form of a lion’s head.

Geralt knocked, and then quickly withdrew. He knew the mechanism mounted in the door could shoot twenty-inch iron spikes through holes hidden among the studs. In theory the spikes were only released if someone tried to tamper with the lock, or if Codringher or Fenn pressed the trigger mechanism, but Geralt had discovered, many times, that all mechanisms are unreliable. They only worked when they ought not to work, and vice versa.

There was sure to be a device in the door – probably magic – for identifying guests. Having knocked, as today, no voice from within ever plied him with questions or demanded that he speak. The door opened and Codringher was standing there. Always Codringher, never Fenn.

‘Welcome, Geralt,’ said Codringher. ‘Enter. You don’t need to flatten yourself against the doorframe, I’ve dismantled the security device. Some part of it broke a few days ago. It went off quite out of the blue and drilled a few holes in a hawker. Come right in. Do you have a case for me?’

‘No,’ said the Witcher, entering the large, gloomy anteroom which, as usual, smelled faintly of cat. ‘Not for you. For Fenn.’

Codringher cackled loudly, confirming the Witcher’s suspicions that Fenn was an utterly mythical figure who served to pull the wool over the eyes of provosts, bailiffs, tax collectors and any other individuals Codringher detested.

They entered the office, where it was lighter because it was the topmost room and the solidly barred windows enjoyed the sun for most of the day. Geralt sat in the chair reserved for clients. Opposite, in an upholstered armchair behind an oaken desk, lounged Codringher; a man who introduced himself as a ‘lawyer’, a man for whom nothing was impossible. If anyone had difficulties, troubles, problems, they went to Codringher. And would quickly be handed proof of his business partner’s dishonesty and malpractice. Or he would receive credit without securities or guarantees. Or find himself the only one, from a long list of creditors, to exact payment from a business which had declared itself bankrupt. He would receive his inheritance even though his rich uncle had threatened he wouldn’t leave them a farthing. He would win an inheritance case when even the most determined relatives unexpectedly withdrew their claims. His son would leave the dungeon, cleared even of charges based on irrefutable evidence, or would be released due to the sudden absence of any such proof. For, when Codringher and Fenn were involved, if there had been proof it would mysteriously disappear, or the witnesses would vie to retract their earlier testimonies. A dowry hunter courting their daughter would suddenly direct his affections towards another. A wife’s lover or daughter’s seducer would suffer a complicated fracture of three members – including at least one upper one – in an unfortunate accident. Or a fervent enemy or other extremely inconvenient individual would stop doing him harm; as a rule they were never seen or heard of again. Yes, if someone had a problem they could always ride to Dorian, run swiftly to Codringher and Fenn and knock at the mahogany door. Codringher, the ‘lawyer’, would be standing in the doorway, short, spare and grizzled, with the unhealthy pallor of a person who seldom spent time in the fresh air. Codringher would lead them into his office, sit down in his armchair, lift his large black and white tomcat onto his lap and stroke it. The two of them – Codringher and the tomcat – would measure up the client with identical, unpleasant, unsettling expressions in their yellowish-green eyes.

‘I received your letter,’ said Codringher, while he and the tomcat weighed the Witcher up with their yellowish-green gaze. ‘Dandelion also visited. He passed through Dorian a few weeks ago and told me a little about your concerns. But he said very little. Really too little.’

‘Indeed? You astonish me. That’s the first time I’ve heard that Dandelion didn’t say too much.’

‘Dandelion,’ said Codringher unsmilingly, ‘said very little because he knew very little. He said even less than he knew because you’d forbidden him to speak about certain issues. Where does your lack of trust come from? Especially towards a professional colleague?’

This visibly annoyed Geralt. Codringher would probably have pretended not to notice, but he couldn’t because of the cat. It opened its eyes wide, bared its white fangs and hissed almost silently.

‘Don’t annoy my cat,’ said the lawyer, stroking the animal to calm it. ‘Did it bother you to be called a colleague? But it’s true. I’m also a witcher. I also save people from monsters and from monstrous difficulties. And I also do it for money.’

‘There are certain differences,’ muttered Geralt, still under the tomcat’s unpleasant gaze.

‘There are,’ agreed Codringher. ‘You are an anachronistic witcher, and I’m a modern witcher, moving with the spirit of the times. Which is why you’ll soon be out of work and I’ll be doing well. Soon there won’t be any strigas, wyverns, endriagas or werewolves left in the world. But there’ll always be whoresons.’

‘But it’s mainly the whoresons you get out of difficulties, Codringher. Paupers with difficulties can’t afford your services.’

‘Paupers can’t afford your services either. Paupers can never afford anything, which is precisely why they’re called paupers.’

‘Astonishingly logical of you. And so original it takes the breath away.’

‘The truth always has that effect. And it’s the truth that being a bastard is the basis and mainstay of our professions. Except your business is almost a relic and mine is genuine and growing in strength.’

‘All right, all right. Let’s get down to our business.’

‘About time,’ said Codringher, nodding his head and stroking his cat, which had arched its back and was now purring loudly, sinking its claws into his knee. ‘And we’ll sort these things out in order of importance. The first issue: the fee, my friend, is two hundred and fifty Novigrad crowns. Do you have that kind of money? Or perhaps you number yourself among the paupers with difficulties?’

‘First let’s establish whether you’ve done enough to deserve a sum like that.’

‘Decide for yourself,’ said the lawyer coldly, ‘and be quick about it. Once you feel convinced, lay the money on the table. Then we’ll move on to other, less important matters.’

Geralt unfastened a purse from his belt and threw it, with poor grace and a clink of coins, onto the desk. The tomcat jumped off Codringher’s lap with a bound and ran away. The lawyer dropped the purse in a drawer without checking the contents.

‘You alarmed my cat,’ he said with undisguised reproach.

‘I do beg your pardon. I thought the clink of money was the last thing that could scare it. Tell me what you uncovered.’

‘That Rience,’ began Codringher, ‘who interests you so much, is quite a mysterious character. I’ve been able to ascertain that he was a student at the school for sorcerers in Ban Ard for two years. They threw him out after catching him thieving. Recruiting officers from the Kaedwen secret service were waiting outside the school, as usual, and Rience allowed himself to be recruited. I was unable to determine what he did for the Kaedwen secret service, but sorcerers’ rejects are usually trained as killers. Does that fit?’

‘Like a glove. Go on.’

‘My next information comes from Cintra. Rience served time in the dungeons there, during Queen Calanthe’s reign.’

‘What for?’

‘For debts, would you believe? He didn’t stay long though, because someone bought him out after paying off the debts along with the interest. The transaction took place through a bank, with the anonymity of the benefactor preserved. I tried to uncover the identity of this benefactor but admitted defeat after checking four banks in turn. Whoever bought Rience out was a pro. And cared a great deal about preserving their anonymity.’

Codringher fell silent and then coughed loudly, pressing a handkerchief to his mouth.

‘And suddenly, as soon as the war was over, Mr Rience showed up in Sodden, Angren and Brugge,’ he continued after a moment, wiping his lips and looking down at the handkerchief. ‘Changed beyond recognition, at least as regards his behaviour and the quantities of cash he had to throw around. Because, as far as his identity went, the brazen son of a bitch didn’t bother with secrecy: he continued to use the name “Rience”. And as Rience he began to search intensively for a certain party; to be precise a young, female party. He visited the druids from the Angren Circle, the ones who looked after war orphans. One druid’s body was found some time later in a nearby forest, mutilated, bearing the marks of torture. Rience showed up afterwards in Riverdell—’

‘I know,’ interrupted Geralt. ‘I know what he did to the Riverdell peasant family. And I was expecting more for my two hundred and fifty crowns. Up to now, your only fresh information has been about the sorcerers’ school and the Kaedwen secret service. I know the rest. I know Rience is a ruthless killer. I know he’s an arrogant rogue who doesn’t even bother to use aliases. I know he’s working for somebody. But for whom, Codringher?’

‘For some sorcerer or other. It was a sorcerer who bought him out of that dungeon. You told me yourself – and Dandelion confirmed it – that Rience uses magic. Real magic, not the tricks that some expellee from the academy might know. So someone’s backing him, they’re equipping him with amulets and probably secretly training him. Some officially practising sorcerers have secret pupils and factotums like him for doing illegal or dirty business. In sorcerers’ slang it’s described as “having someone on a leash”.’

‘Were he on a magician’s leash Rience would be using camouflaging magic. But he doesn’t change his name or face. He hasn’t even got rid of the scar from the burn Yennefer gave him.’

‘That confirms precisely that he’s on a leash,’ said Codringher, coughing and wiping his lips again with his handkerchief, ‘because magical camouflage isn’t camouflage at all; only dilettantes use stuff like that. Were Rience hiding under a magical shield or illusory mask, it would immediately set off every magical alarm, and there are currently alarms like that at practically every city gate. Sorcerers never fail to detect illusory masks. Even in the biggest gathering of people, in the biggest throng, Rience would attract all of their attention, as if flames were shooting out of his ears and clouds of smoke out of his arse. So I repeat: Rience is in the service of a sorcerer and is operating so as not to draw the attention of other sorcerers to himself.’

‘Some say he’s a Nilfgaardian spy.’

‘I know. For example, Dijkstra, the head of the Redania secret service, thinks that. Dijkstra is seldom wrong, so one can only assume he’s right this time, too. But having one role doesn’t rule out the other. A sorcerer’s factotum may be a Nilfgaardian spy at the same time.’

‘You’re saying that a sanctioned sorcerer is spying for Nilfgaard through Rience?’

‘Nonsense,’ coughed Codringher, looking intently into his handkerchief. ‘A sorcerer spying for Nilfgaard? Why? For money? Risible. Counting on serious power under the rule of the victorious Emperor Emhyr? Even more ludicrous. It’s no secret that Emhyr var Emreis keeps his sorcerers on a short leash. Sorcerers in Nilfgaard are treated about the same as, let’s say, stablemen. And they have no more power than stablemen either. Would any of our headstrong mages choose to fight for an emperor who would treat them as a stable boy? Filippa Eilhart, who dictates addresses and edicts to Vizimir of Redania? Sabrina Glevissig, who interrupts the speeches of Henselt of Kaedwen, banging her fist on the table and ordering the king to be silent and listen? Vilgefortz of Roggeveen, who recently told Demavend of Aedirn that, for the moment, he has no time for him?’

‘Get to the point, Codringher. What does any of that have to do with Rience?’

‘It’s simple. The Nilfgaardian secret service is trying to get to a sorcerer by getting their factotum to work for them. From what I know, Rience wouldn’t spurn the Nilfgaardian florin and would probably betray his master without a second thought.’

‘Now you’re talking nonsense. Even our headstrong mages know when they’re being betrayed and Rience, were he exposed, would dangle from a gibbet. If he was lucky.’

‘You’re acting like a child, Geralt. You don’t hang exposed spies – you make use of them. You stuff them with disinformation and try to make double agents out of them—’

‘Don’t bore this child, Codringher. Neither the arcana of intelligence work nor politics interest me. Rience is breathing down my neck, and I want to know why and on whose orders. On the orders of some sorcerer, it would appear. So who is it?’

‘I don’t know yet. But I soon will.’

‘Soon,’ muttered the Witcher, ‘is too late for me.’

‘I in no way rule that out,’ said Codringher gravely. ‘You’ve landed in a dreadful pickle, Geralt. It’s good you came to me; I know how to get people out of them. I already have, essentially.’

‘Indeed?’

‘Indeed,’ said the lawyer, putting his handkerchief to his lips and coughing. ‘For you see, my friend, in addition to the sorcerer, and possibly also Nilfgaard, there is a third party in the game. I was visited, and mark this well, by agents from King Foltest’s secret service. They had a problem: the king had ordered them to search for a certain missing princess. When finding her turned out not to be quite so simple, those agents decided to enlist a specialist in such thorny problems. While elucidating the case to the specialist, they hinted that a certain witcher might know a good deal about the missing princess. That he might even know where she was.’

‘And what did the specialist do?’

‘At first he expressed astonishment. It particularly astonished him that the aforementioned witcher had not been deposited in a dungeon in order to find out – in the traditional manner – everything he knew, and even plenty of what he didn’t know but might invent in order to satisfy his questioners. The agents replied that they had been forbidden to do that. Witchers, they explained, have such a sensitive nervous system that they immediately die under torture when, as they described quite vividly, a vein bursts in their brains. Because of that, they had been ordered to hunt the witcher. This task had also turned out to be taxing. The specialist praised the agents’ good sense and instructed them to report back in two weeks.’

‘And did they?’

‘I’ll say they did. This specialist, who already regarded you as a client, presented the agents with hard evidence that Geralt the Witcher has never had and could never have anything in common with the missing princess. For the specialist had found witnesses to the death of Princess Cirilla; granddaughter of Calanthe, daughter of Queen Pavetta. Cirilla died three years ago in a refugee camp in Angren. Of diphtheria. The child suffered terribly before her death. You won’t believe it, but the Temerian agents had tears in their eyes as they listened to my witnesses’ accounts.’

‘I have tears in my eyes too. I presume these Temerian agents could not – or would not – offer you more than two hundred and fifty crowns?’

‘Your sarcasm pains my heart, Witcher. I’ve got you out of a pickle, and you, rather than thank me, wound my heart.’

‘I thank you and I beg your pardon. Why did King Foltest order his agents to search for Ciri, Codringher? What were they ordered to do, should they have found her?’

‘Oh, but you are slow-witted. Kill her, of course. She is considered a pretender to the throne of Cintra, for which there are other plans.’

‘It doesn’t add up, Codringher. The Cintran throne was burnt to the ground along with the royal palace, the city and the rest of the country. Nilfgaard rules there now. Foltest is well aware of that; and other kings too. How, exactly, can Ciri pretend to a throne that doesn’t exist?’

‘Come,’ said Codringher, getting up, ‘let us try to find an answer to that question together. In the meanwhile, I shall give you proof of my trust . . . What is it about that portrait that interests you so much?’

‘That it’s riddled with holes, as though a woodpecker had been pecking at it for a few seasons,’ said Geralt, looking at a painting in a gilt frame hanging on the wall opposite the lawyer’s desk, ‘and that it portrays a rare idiot.’

‘It’s my late father,’ said Codringher, grimacing a little. ‘A rare idiot indeed. I hung his portrait there so as to always have him before my eyes. As a warning. Come, Witcher.’

They went out into the corridor. The tomcat, which had been lying in the middle of the carpet, enthusiastically licking a rear paw extended at a strange angle, vanished into the darkness of the corridor at the sight of the witcher.

‘Why don’t cats like you, Geralt? Does it have something to do with the—’

‘Yes,’ he interrupted, ‘it does.’

One of the mahogany panels slid open noiselessly, revealing a secret passage. Codringher went first. The panel, no doubt set in motion by magic, closed behind them but did not plunge them into darkness. Light reached them from the far end of the secret passage.

It was cold and dry in the room at the end of the corridor, and the oppressive, stifling smell of dust and candles hung in the air.

‘You can meet my partner, Geralt.’

‘Fenn?’ smiled the Witcher. ‘You jest.’

‘Oh, but I don’t. Admit it, you suspected Fenn didn’t exist!’

‘Not at all.’

A creaking could be heard from between the rows of bookcases and bookshelves that reached up to the low vaulted ceiling, and a moment later a curious vehicle emerged. It was a high-backed chair on wheels. On the chair sat a midget with a huge head, set directly on disproportionately narrow shoulders. The midget had no legs.

‘I’d like to introduce Jacob Fenn,’ said Codringher, ‘a learned legist, my partner and valued co-worker. And this is our guest and client –’

‘– the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia,’ finished the cripple with a smile. ‘I guessed without too much difficulty. I’ve been working on the case for several months. Follow me, gentlemen.’

They set off behind the creaking chair into the labyrinth of bookcases, which groaned beneath a weight of printed works that even the university library of Oxenfurt would have been proud to have in its collection. The incunabula, judged Geralt, must have been collected by several generations of Codringhers and Fenns. He was pleased by the obvious show of trust, and happy to finally have the chance to meet Fenn. He did not doubt, however, that the figure of Fenn, though utterly genuine, was also partially fictitious. The fictitious Fenn, Codringher’s infallible alter ego, was supposedly often seen abroad, while the chair-bound, learned legist probably never left the building.

The centre of the room was particularly well lit, and there stood a low pulpit, accessible from the chair on wheels and piled high with books, rolls of parchment and vellum, great sheets of paper, bottles of ink, bunches of quills and innumerable mysterious utensils. Not all of them were mystifying. Geralt recognised moulds for forging seals and a diamond grater for removing the text from official documents. In the centre of the pulpit lay a small ball-firing repeating arbalest, and next to it huge magnifying glasses made of polished rock crystal peeped out from under a velvet cloth. Magnifying glasses of that kind were rare and cost a fortune.

‘Found anything new, Fenn?’

‘Not really,’ said the cripple, smiling. His smile was pleasant and very endearing. ‘I’ve reduced the list of Rience’s potential paymasters to twenty-eight sorcerers . . .’

‘Let’s leave that for the moment,’ Codringher interrupted quickly. ‘Right now something else is of interest to us. Enlighten Geralt as to the reasons why the missing princess of Cintra is the object of extensive search operations by the agents of the Four Kingdoms.’

‘The girl has the blood of Queen Calanthe flowing in her veins,’ said Fenn, seeming astonished to be asked to explain such obvious matters. ‘She is the last of the royal line. Cintra has considerable strategic and political importance. A vanished pretendress to the crown remaining beyond the sphere of influence is inconvenient, and may be dangerous were she to fall under the wrong influence. For example, that of Nilfgaard.’

‘As far as I recall,’ said Geralt, ‘Cintran law bars women from succession.’

‘That is true,’ agreed Fenn and smiled once more. ‘But a woman may always become someone’s wife and the mother of a male heir. The Four Kingdoms’ intelligence services learned of Rience’s feverish search for the princess and were convinced that’s what it’s all about. It was thus decided to prevent the princess from becoming a wife or a mother. Using simple but effective means.’

‘But the princess is dead,’ said Codringher, seeing the change the smiling midget’s words had evoked on Geralt’s face. ‘The agents learned of it and have called off their hunt.’

‘Only for now,’ said the Witcher, working hard to remain calm and sound unemotional. ‘The thing about falsehoods is that they usually come to light. What’s more, the royal agents are only one of the parties participating in this game. The agents – you said yourselves – were tracking Ciri in order to confound the other hunters’ plans. Those others may be less susceptible to disinformation. I hired you to find a way of guaranteeing the child’s safety. So what do you propose?’

‘We have a certain notion,’ said Fenn, glancing at his partner but seeing no instructions to remain silent in his expression. ‘We want to circulate the news – discretely but widely – that neither Princess Cirilla nor any of her male heirs will have any right to the throne of Cintra.’

‘In Cintra, the distaff side does not inherit,’ explained Codringher, fighting another coughing fit. ‘Only the spear side does.’

‘Precisely,’ confirmed the learned legist. ‘Geralt said so himself a moment ago. It’s an ancient law, which even that she-devil Calanthe was unable to revoke – though not for want of trying.’

‘She tried to nullify the law using intrigue,’ said Codringher with conviction, wiping his lips with a handkerchief. ‘Illegal intrigue. Explain, Fenn.’

‘Calanthe was the only daughter of King Dagorad and Queen Adalia. After her parents’ death she opposed the aristocracy, who only saw her as the wife of the new king.

‘She wanted to reign supreme. At most, for the sake of formality and to uphold the dynasty, she agreed to the institution of a prince consort who would reign with her, but have as much importance as a straw doll. The old houses defied this. Calanthe had three choices: a civil war; abdication in favour of another line; or marriage to Roegner, Prince of Ebbing. She chose the third option and she ruled the country . . . but at Roegner’s side. Naturally, she didn’t allow herself to be subjugated or bundled off to join the womenfolk. She was the Lioness of Cintra. But it was Roegner who was the formal ruler – though none ever called him “the Lion”.’

‘So Calanthe,’ Codringher took up, ‘tried very hard to fall pregnant and produce a son. Nothing came of it. She bore a daughter, Pavetta, and miscarried twice after which it became clear she would have no more children. All her plans had fallen through. There you have a woman’s fate. A ravaged womb scuppers her lofty ambitions.’

Geralt scowled.

‘You are execrably crude, Codringher.’

‘I know. The truth was also crude. For Roegner began looking around for a young princess with suitably wide hips, preferably from a family of fertility proven back to her great-great-grandmother. And Calanthe found herself on shaky ground. Every meal, every glass of wine could contain death, every hunt might end with an unfortunate accident. There is much to suggest that at the moment the Lioness of Cintra took the initiative, Roegner died. The pox was raging across the country, and the king’s death surprised no one.’

‘I begin to understand,’ said the Witcher, seemingly dispassionately, ‘what news you plan to circulate discreetly but widely. Ciri will be named the granddaughter of a poisoner and husband-killer?’

‘Don’t get ahead of yourself, Geralt. Go on, Fenn.’

‘Calanthe had saved her own life,’ said the cripple, smiling, ‘but the crown was further away than ever. When, after Roegner’s death, the Lioness tried to seize absolute power, the aristocracy once again strongly opposed this violation of the law and tradition. A king was meant to sit on Cintra’s throne, not a queen. The solution was eventually made clear: as soon as young Pavetta began to resemble a woman in any way, she should be married off to someone suitable to become the new king. A second marriage for the barren queen wasn’t an option. The most the Lioness of Cintra could hope for was the role of queen mother. To cap it all, Pavetta’s husband could turn out to be someone who might totally remove his mother-in-law from power.’

‘I’m going to be crude again,’ warned Codringher. ‘Calanthe delayed marrying off Pavetta. She wrecked the first marital project when the girl was ten and the second when she was thirteen. The aristocracy demanded that Pavetta’s fifteenth birthday would be her last as a maiden. Calanthe had to agree; but first she achieved what she had been counting on. Pavetta had remained a maiden too long. She’d finally got the itch, and so badly that she was knocked up by the first stray to come along; and he was an enchanted monster to boot. There were some kind of supernatural circumstances too, some prophecies, sorcery, promises . . . Some kind of Law of Surprise? Am I right, Geralt? What happened next you probably recall. Calanthe brought a witcher to Cintra, and the witcher stirred up trouble. Not knowing he was being manipulated, he removed the curse from the monstrous Urcheon, enabling his marriage to Pavetta. In so doing, the witcher also made it possible for Calanthe to retain the throne. Pavetta’s marriage to a monster – even a now unenchanted one – was such a great shock to the noblemen that they could suddenly accept the marriage of the Lioness to Eist Tuirseach. For the jarl of the Isles of Skellige seemed better than the stray Urcheon. Thus, Calanthe continued to rule the country. Eist, like all islanders, gave the Lioness of Cintra too much respect to oppose her in anything, and kingly duties simply bored him. He handed over his rule wholesale to her. And Calanthe, stuffing herself with medicaments and elixirs, dragged her husband into bed day and night. She wanted to reign until the end of her days. And, if not as queen mother, then as the mother of her own son. As I’ve already said, great ambitions, but—’

‘You’ve already said it. Don’t repeat yourself.’

‘It was too late. Queen Pavetta, wife of the weird Urcheon, was wearing a suspiciously loose-fitting dress even during the marriage ceremony. Calanthe, resigned, changed her plans; if it she couldn’t rule through her son, let it be Pavetta’s son. But she gave birth to a daughter. A curse, or what? Queen Pavetta could still have had a child though. I mean would have been able to. For a mysterious accident occurred. Pavetta and the weird Urcheon perished in an unexplained maritime disaster.’

‘Aren’t you implying too much, Codringher?’

‘I’m trying to explain the situation, nothing more. Calanthe was devastated after Pavetta’s death, but not for long. Her granddaughter was her final hope. Pavetta’s daughter, Cirilla. Ciri; a little devil incarnate, roaring around the royal palace. She was the apple of some people’s eyes, particularly the older folk because she was so like Calanthe had been as a child. To others . . . she was a changeling, the daughter of the monstrous Urcheon, the girl to whom some witcher or other was also claiming rights. And now we’re getting to the nub of the matter: Calanthe’s little darling, clearly being groomed as her successor, treated almost as a second incarnation, the Lion Cub of the Lioness’s blood, was already viewed by some as bereft of any right to the throne. Cirilla was ill-born. Pavetta’s marriage had been a misalliance. She had mixed royal blood with the inferior blood of a stray of unknown origin.’

‘Crafty, Codringher. But it wasn’t like that. Ciri’s father wasn’t inferior in any way. He was a prince.’

‘What are you saying? I didn’t know that. From which kingdom?’

‘One of the southern ones . . . From Maecht . . . ? Yes, indeed, from Maecht.’

‘Interesting,’ mumbled Codringher. ‘Maecht has been a Nilfgaardian march for a long time. It’s part of the Province of Metinna.’

‘But it’s a kingdom,’ interrupted Fenn. ‘A king reigns there.’

‘Emhyr var Emreis rules there,’ Codringher cut him off. ‘Whoever sits on that throne does so by the grace and will of Emhyr. But while we’re on the subject, find out who Emhyr made king. I can’t recall.’

‘Right away,’ said the cripple, pushing the wheels of his chair and creaking off in the direction of a bookcase. He took down a thick roll of scrolls and began looking at them, discarding them on the floor after checking them. ‘Hmm . . . Here it is. The Kingdom of Maecht. Its coat of arms presents quarterly, azure and gules, one and four two fishes argent, two and three a crown of the same—’

‘To hell with heraldry, Fenn. The king, who is the king?’

‘Hoët the Just. Chosen by means of election . . .’

‘By Emhyr of Nilfgaard,’ postulated Codringher coldly.

‘. . . nine years ago.’

‘Not that one,’ said the lawyer, counting quickly. ‘He doesn’t concern us. Who was before him?’

‘Just a moment. Here it is. Akerspaark. Died—’

‘Died of acute pneumonia, his lungs having been pierced by the dagger of Emhyr’s hit men or Hoët the Just,’ said Codringher, once again displaying his perspicacity. ‘Geralt, does Akerspaark ring any bells for you? Could he be Urcheon’s father?’

‘Yes,’ said the Witcher after a moment’s thought. ‘Akerspaark. I recall that’s what Duny called his father.’

‘Duny?’

‘That was his name. He was a prince, the son of that Akerspaark—’

‘No,’ interrupted Fenn, staring at the scrolls. ‘They are all mentioned here. Legitimate sons: Orm, Gorm, Torm, Horm and Gonzalez. Legitimate daughters: Alia, Valia, Nina, Paulina, Malvina and Argentina . . .’

‘I take back the slander spread about Nilfgaard and Hoët the Just,’ announced Codringher gravely. ‘Akerspaark wasn’t murdered, he bonked himself to death. I presume he had bastards too, Fenn?’

‘Indeed. Aplenty. But I see no Duny here.’

‘I didn’t expect you to see him. Geralt, your Urcheon was no prince. Even if that boor Akerspaark really did sire him on the side, he was separated from the rights to such a title by – aside from Nilfgaard – a bloody long queue of legitimate Orms, Gorms and other Gonzalezes and their own, probably abundant, offspring. From a technical point of view Pavetta committed a misalliance.’

‘And Ciri, being the child of a misalliance, has no rights to the throne?’

‘Bullseye.’

Fenn creaked up to the pulpit, pushing the wheels of his chair.

‘That is an argument,’ he said, raising his huge head. ‘Purely an argument. Don’t forget, Geralt, we are neither fighting to gain the crown for Princess Cirilla, nor to deprive her of it. The rumour we’re spreading is meant to show that the girl can’t be used to seize Cintra. That if anyone makes an attempt of that kind, it will be easy to challenge, to question. The girl will cease to be a major piece in this political game; she’ll be an insignificant pawn. And then . . .’

‘They’ll let her live,’ completed Codringher unemotionally.

‘How strong is your argument,’ asked Geralt, ‘from the formal point of view?’

Fenn looked at Codringher and then at the Witcher.

‘Not that strong,’ he admitted. ‘Cirilla is still Calanthe, albeit somewhat diluted. In normal countries she might have been removed from the throne, but these circumstances aren’t normal. The Lioness’s blood has political significance . . .’

‘Blood . . .’ said Geralt, wiping his forehead. ‘What does “Child of the Elder Blood” mean, Codringher?’

‘I don’t understand. Has anyone used such a term with reference to Cirilla?’

‘Yes.’

‘Who?’

‘Never mind who. What does it mean?’

‘Luned aep Hen Ichaer,’ said Fenn suddenly, pushing off from the pulpit. ‘It would literally be not Child, but Daughter of the Elder Blood. Hmm . . . Elder Blood . . . I’ve come across that expression. I don’t remember exactly . . . I think it concerns some sort of elven prophecy. In some versions of Itlina’s prophecy, the older ones, it seems to me there are mentions of the Elder Blood of the Elves, or Aen Hen Ichaer. But we don’t have the complete text of that prophecy. We would have to ask the elves—’

‘Enough,’ interrupted Codringher coldly. ‘Not too many of these matters at one time, Fenn, not too many irons in the fire, not too many prophecies or mysteries. That’s all for now, thank you. Farewell, and fruitful work. Geralt, if you would, let’s go back to the office.’

‘Too little, right?’ the Witcher asked to be sure, when they had returned and sat down in their chairs, the lawyer behind his desk, and he facing him. ‘Too low a fee, right?’

Codringher lifted a metal star-shaped object from the desk and turned it over in his fingers several times.

‘That’s right, Geralt. Rootling around in elven prophecies is an infernal encumbrance for me; a waste of time and resources. The need to search out contacts amongst the elves, since no one aside from them is capable of understanding their writings. Elven manuscripts, in most cases, mean tortuous symbolism, acrostics, occasionally even codes. The Elder Speech is always, to put it mildly, ambiguous and, when written down, may have as many as ten meanings. The elves were never inclined to help humans who wanted to fathom their prophecies. And in today’s times, when a bloody war against the Squirrels is raging in the forests, when pogroms are taking place, it’s dangerous to approach them. Doubly dangerous. Elves may take you for a provocateur, while humans may accuse you of treachery . . .’

‘How much, Codringher?’

The lawyer was silent for a moment, still playing with the metal star.

‘Ten per cent,’ he said finally.

‘Ten per cent of what?’

‘Don’t mock me, Witcher. The matter is becoming serious. It’s becoming ever less clear what this is all about, and when no one knows what something’s about it’s sure to be all about money. In which case a percentage is more agreeable to me than an ordinary fee. Give me ten per cent of what you’ll make on this, minus the sum already paid. Shall we draw up a contract?’

‘No. I don’t want you to lose out. Ten per cent of nothing gives nothing, Codringher. My dear friend, I won’t be making anything out of this.’

‘I repeat, don’t mock me. I don’t believe you aren’t acting for profit. I don’t believe that, behind this, there isn’t some . . .’

‘I’m not particularly bothered what you believe. There won’t be any contract. Or any percentages. Name your fee for gathering the information.’

‘Anyone else I would throw out of here,’ said Codringher, coughing, ‘certain they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes. But noble and naive disinterestedness, my anachronistic Witcher, strangely suits you. It’s your style, it’s so wonderfully and pathetically outmoded to let yourself be killed for nothing . . .’

‘Let’s not waste time. How much, Codringher?’

‘The same again. Five hundred in total.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Geralt, shaking his head, ‘I can’t afford a sum like that. Not right now at least.’

‘I repeat the proposition I laid before you at the beginning of our acquaintance,’ said the lawyer slowly, still playing with the star. ‘Come and work for me and you will. You will be able to afford information and other luxuries besides.’

‘No, Codringher.’

‘Why not?’

‘You wouldn’t understand.’

‘This time you’re wounding not my heart, but my professional pride. For I flatter myself, believing that I generally understand everything. Being a downright bastard is the basis of our professions, but you insist on favouring the anachronistic version over the modern one.’

The Witcher smiled.

‘Bullseye.’

Codringher coughed violently once again, wiped his lips, looked down at his handkerchief, and then raised his yellow-green eyes.

‘You took a good look at the list of sorcerers and sorceresses lying on the pulpit? At the list of Rience’s potential paymasters?’

‘Indeed.’

‘I won’t give you that list until I’ve checked it thoroughly. Don’t be influenced by what you saw there. Dandelion told me Filippa Eilhart probably knows who’s running Rience, but she didn’t let you in on it. Filippa wouldn’t protect any old sucker. It’s an important character running that bastard.’

The Witcher said nothing.

‘Beware, Geralt. You’re in grave danger. Someone’s playing a game with you. Someone is accurately predicting your movements, if not actually controlling them. Don’t give in to arrogance and self-righteousness. Whoever’s playing with you is no striga or werewolf. It’s not the brothers Michelet. It’s not even Rience. The Child of the Elder Blood, damn it. As if the throne of Cintra, sorcerers, kings and Nilfgaard weren’t enough, now there are elves. Stop playing this game, Witcher. Get yourself out of it. Confound their plans by doing what no one expects. Break off that crazy bond; don’t allow yourself to be linked to Cirilla. Leave her to Yennefer; go back to Kaer Morhen and keep your head down. Hole yourself up in the mountains, and I’ll root around in elven manuscripts, calmly, unhurriedly and thoroughly. And when I have some information about the Child of the Elder Blood, when I have the name of the sorcerer who’s involved in it, you’ll get the money together and we’ll do a swap.’

‘I can’t wait. The girl’s in danger.’

‘That’s true. But I know you’re considered an obstacle on the way to her. An obstacle to be ruthlessly removed. Thus, you are in danger too. They’ll set about getting the girl once they’ve finished you off.’

‘Or when I leave the game, withdraw and hole up in Kaer Morhen. I’ve paid you too much, Codringher, for you to be giving me advice like that.’

The lawyer turned the steel star over in his fingers.

‘I’ve been busily working for some time, for the sum you paid me today, Witcher,’ he said, suppressing a cough. ‘The advice I’m giving you has been thoroughly considered. Hide in Kaer Morhen; disappear. And then the people who are looking for Cirilla will get her.’

Geralt squinted and smiled. Codringher didn’t blench. ‘I know what I’m talking about,’ he said, impervious to the look and the smile. ‘Your Ciri’s tormentors will find her and do with her what they will. And meanwhile, both she and you will be safe.’

‘Explain, please. And make it quick.’

‘I’ve found a certain girl. She’s from the Cintra nobility, a war orphan. She’s been through refugee camps, and is currently measuring cloth in ells and cutting it out, having been taken in by a Brugge draper. There is nothing remarkable about her, aside from one thing. She is quite similar in likeness to a certain miniature of the Lion Cub of Cintra . . . Fancy a look?’

‘No, Codringher. No, I don’t. And I can’t permit a solution like that.’

‘Geralt,’ said the lawyer, closing his eyes. ‘What drives you? If you want to save Ciri . . . I wouldn’t have thought you could afford the luxury of contempt. No, that was badly expressed. You can’t afford the luxury of spurning contempt. A time of contempt is approaching, Witcher, my friend, a time of great and utter contempt. You have to adapt. What I’m proposing is a simple solution. Someone will die, so someone else can live. Someone you love will survive. A girl you don’t know, and whom you’ve never seen, will die—’

‘And who am I free to despise?’ interrupted the Witcher. ‘Am I to pay for what I love with contempt for myself? No, Codringher. Leave the girl in peace; may she continue to measure cloth. Destroy her portrait. Burn it. And give me something else for the two hundred and fifty hard-earned crowns which you threw into a drawer. I need information. Yennefer and Ciri have left Ellander. I’m certain you know that. I’m certain you know where they are headed. And I’m certain you know who’s chasing them.’

Codringher drummed his fingers on the table and coughed.

‘The wolf, heedless of warnings, wants to carry on hunting,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t see he’s being hunted, and he’s heading straight for some tasty kippers hung up as bait by a real hunter.’

‘Don’t be trite. Get to the point.’

‘If you wish. It’s not difficult to guess that Yennefer is riding to the Conclave of Mages, called at the beginning of July in Garstang on the Isle of Thanedd. She is cleverly staying on the move and not using magic, so it’s hard to locate her. A week ago she was still in Ellander, and I calculate that in three or four days she will reach the city of Gors Velen; from there Thanedd is a stone’s throw. On the way to Gors Velen she has to ride through the hamlet of Anchor. Were you to set off immediately you would have a chance of catching those who are pursuing her. Because someone is pursuing her.’

‘They wouldn’t, by any chance,’ said Geralt, smiling hideously, ‘be royal agents?’

‘No,’ said the lawyer, looking at the metal star he was playing with. ‘They aren’t agents. Neither is it Rience, who’s cleverer than you, because after the ruckus with the Michelets he’s crawled into a hole somewhere and he’s keeping his head down. Three hired thugs are after Yennefer.’

‘I presume you know them?’

‘I know them all. Which is why I suggest something to you: leave them alone. Don’t ride to Anchor. And I’ll use all the contacts and connections I possess. I’ll try to bribe the thugs and reword the contract. In other words, I’ll set them on Rience. If I succeed . . .’

He broke off suddenly and swung an arm powerfully. The steel star whirred through the air and slammed with a thud into the portrait, right into the forehead of Codringher senior, cutting a hole in the canvas and embedding itself almost halfway into the wall.

‘Not bad, eh?’ grinned the lawyer. ‘It’s called an orion. A foreign invention. I’ve been practising for a month; I never miss now. It might come in useful. This little star is unerring and lethal at thirty feet, and it can be hidden in a sleeve or stuck behind a hatband. Orions have been part of the Nilfgaardian secret service equipment for a year now. Ha, ha, if Rience is spying for Nilfgaard, it would be amusing if they found him with an orion in his temple . . . What do you say to that?’

‘Nothing. That’s your business. Two hundred and fifty crowns are lying in your drawer.’

‘Sure,’ said Codringher, nodding. ‘I treat your words to mean you’re giving me a free hand. Let’s be silent for a moment, Geralt. Let’s honour Rience’s imminent death with a minute’s silence. Why the hell are you frowning? Have you no respect for the majesty of death?’

‘I do. Too great a respect to listen to idiots mocking it. Have you ever thought about your own death, Codringher?’

The lawyer coughed heavily and looked for a long time at the handkerchief in front of his mouth. Then he raised his eyes.

‘Of course,’ he said quietly. ‘I have. Intensively, at that. But my thoughts are nothing to do with you, Witcher. Will you ride to Anchor?’

‘I will.’

‘Ralf Blunden, a.k.a. the Professor. Heimo Kantor. Little Yaxa. Do those names mean anything to you?’

‘No.’

‘All three are pretty handy with a sword. Better than the Michelets. So I would suggest a more reliable, long-range weapon. These Nilfgaardian throwing stars, for example. I’ll sell you a few if you like. I’ve plenty of them.’

‘No thanks. They’re impractical. Noisy in flight.’

‘The whistling has a psychological element. They’re capable of paralysing their victim with fear.’

‘Perhaps. But they can also warn them. I’d have time to dodge it.’

‘If you saw it being thrown at you, you could. I know you can dodge an arrow or a quarrel . . . But from behind—’

‘From behind as well.’

‘Bullshit.’

‘Let’s try a wager,’ said Geralt coldly. ‘I’ll turn my face to the portrait of your dullard of a father, and you throw an orion at me. Should you hit me, you win. Should you not, you lose. Should you lose, you’ll decipher those elven manuscripts. You’ll get hold of information about the Child of the Elder Blood. Urgently. And on credit.’

‘And if I win?’

‘You’ll still get that information but you’ll pass it on to Yennefer. She’ll pay. You won’t be left out of pocket.’

Codringher opened the drawer and took out another orion.

‘You don’t expect me to accept the wager.’ It was a statement, not a question.

‘No,’ smiled the Witcher. ‘I’m sure you’ll accept it.’

‘A daredevil, I see. Have you forgotten? I don’t have any scruples.’

‘I haven’t forgotten. After all, the time of contempt is approaching, and you keep up with progress and the zeitgeist. But I took your accusations of anachronistic naivety to heart, and this time I’ll take a risk, though not without hope of profit. What’s it to be then? Is the bet on?’

‘Yes.’ Codringher took hold of the steel star by one of its arms and stood up. ‘Curiosity always won out over good sense in me, not to mention unfounded mercy. Turn around.’

The Witcher turned around. He glanced at the face on the portrait riddled with holes and with the orion sticking into it. And then he closed his eyes.

The star whistled and thudded into the wall four inches from the frame of the portrait.

‘Damn and blast!’ roared Codringher. ‘You didn’t even flinch, you whoreson!’

Geralt turned back and smiled. Quite hideously.

‘Why should I have flinched? I could hear you aiming to miss.’

The inn was empty. A young woman with dark rings under her eyes sat on a bench in the corner. Bashfully turned away to one side, she was breastfeeding a child. A broad-shouldered fellow, perhaps her husband, dozed alongside, his back resting against the wall. Someone else, whose features Aplegatt couldn’t make out in the gloom of the inn, sat in the shadows behind the stove.

The innkeeper looked up, saw Aplegatt, noticed his attire and the badge with the arms of Aedirn on his chest, and his face immediately darkened. Aplegatt was accustomed to welcomes like that. As a royal messenger he was absolute entitled to a mount. The royal decrees were explicit – a messenger had the right to demand a fresh horse in every town, village, inn or farmyard – and woe betide anyone who refused. Naturally, the messenger left his own horse, and signed a receipt for the new one; the owner could appeal to the magistrate and receive compensation. But you never knew. Thus a messenger was always looked upon with dislike and anxiety; would he demand a horse or not? Would he take our Golda, never to be seen again? Or our Beauty, reared from a foal? Our pampered Ebony? Aplegatt had seen sobbing children clinging to their beloved playmate as it was being led out of the stable, saddled, and more than once had looked into the faces of adults, pale with the sense of injustice and helplessness.

‘I don’t need a fresh horse,’ he said brusquely. It seemed to him the innkeeper sighed with relief.

‘I’ll only have a bite to eat; the road’s given me an appetite,’ added the messenger. ‘Anything in the pot?’

‘There’s some gruel left over. I’ll serve you d’reckly. Sit you down. Needing a bed? Night’s falling.’

Aplegatt thought it over. He had met Hansom two days before. He knew the messenger and they had exchanged messages as ordered. Hansom took the letters and the message for King Demavend and galloped off through Temeria and Mahakam to Vengerberg. Aplegatt, meanwhile, having received the messages for King Vizimir of Redania, rode towards Oxenfurt and Tretogor. He had over three hundred miles to cover.

‘I’ll eat and be on my way,’ he declared. ‘The moon is full and the road is level.’

‘As you will.’

The gruel he was served was thin and tasteless, but the messenger paid no attention to such trifles. At home, he enjoyed his wife’s cooking, but on the road he made do with whatever came his way. He slowly slurped it, clumsily gripping the spoon in fingers made numb from holding the reins.

A cat that had been snoozing on the stove bench suddenly lifted its head and hissed.

‘A royal messenger?’

Aplegatt shuddered. The question had been asked by the man sitting in the shadows, who now emerged to stand beside him. His hair was as white as milk. He had a leather band stretched across his forehead and was wearing a silver-studded leather jacket and high boots. The pommel of the sword slung across his back glistened over his right shoulder.

‘Where does the road take you?’

‘Wherever the royal will sends me,’ answered Aplegatt coldly. He never answered any other way to questions of that nature.

The white-haired man was silent for some time, looking searchingly at the messenger. He had an unnaturally pale face and strange, dark eyes.

‘I imagine,’ he finally said, in an unpleasant, somewhat husky voice, ‘the royal will orders you to make haste? Probably in a hurry to get off, are you?’

‘What business is it of yours? Who are you to hasten me?’

‘I’m no one,’ said the white-haired man, smiling hideously, ‘and I’m not hurrying you. But if I were you I’d leave here as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t want anything ill to befall you.’

Aplegatt also had a tried and tested answer to comments like that. Short and blunt. Not aggressive, calm; but emphatically reminding the listener who the royal messenger served and what was risked by anyone who dared touch him. But there was something in the white-haired man’s voice that stopped Aplegatt from giving his usual answer.

‘I must let my horse rest, sir. An hour, maybe two.’

‘Indeed,’ nodded the white-haired man, upon which he lifted his head, seeming to listen to the sounds which reached him from outside. Aplegatt also pricked up his ears but heard only crickets.

‘Then rest,’ said the white-haired man, straightening the sword belt which passed diagonally across his chest. ‘But don’t go out into the courtyard. Whatever happens, don’t go out.’

Aplegatt refrained from further questions. He felt instinctively it would be better not to. He bent over his bowl and resumed fishing out the few bits of pork floating in the gruel. When he looked up the white-haired one was no longer in the room.

A moment later a horse neighed and hooves clattered in the courtyard.

Three men entered the inn. On seeing them the innkeeper began wiping the beer mug he was holding more quickly. The woman with the baby moved closer to her slumbering husband and woke him with a poke. Aplegatt grabbed the stool where he had laid his belt and short sword and pulled it a little closer.

The men went over to the bar, casting keen glances at the guests and sizing them up. They walked slowly, their spurs and weapons jangling.

‘Welcome, good sirs,’ said the innkeeper, clearing his throat. ‘How may I serve you?’

‘With vodka,’ said one of them, short and stocky with long arms like an ape’s, furnished with two Zerrikan sabres hanging crossed on his back. ‘Fancy a drop, Professor?’

‘With the utmost pleasure,’ responded the other man, straightening a pair of gold-framed glasses made of bluish-coloured crystal, which were perched on his hooked nose. ‘As long as the liquor hasn’t been adulterated with any additives.’

The innkeeper poured. Aplegatt noticed that his hands were trembling slightly. The men leaned back against the bar and unhurriedly drank from the earthenware cups.

‘My dear innkeeper,’ began the one in the glasses suddenly. ‘I conjecture that two ladies rode through here not long ago, speeding their way towards Gors Velen?’

‘All sorts ride through here,’ mumbled the innkeeper.

‘You could not have missed the aforementioned ladies,’ said the bespectacled one slowly. ‘One is black-haired and exceedingly fair. She rides a black gelding. The other is younger, fair-haired and green-eyed and journeys on a dappled grey mare. Have they been here?’

‘No,’ interrupted Aplegatt, suddenly going cold, ‘they haven’t.’

Greyfeathered danger. Hot sand . . .

‘A messenger?’

Aplegatt nodded.

‘Travelling from where to where?’

‘From where and to where the royal fortune sends me.’

‘Have your travels adventitiously crossed the path of the women on the road about whom I enquired?’

‘No.’

‘Your denial is too swift,’ barked the third man, as tall and thin as a beanpole. His hair was black and glistened as if covered in grease. ‘And it seems to me you weren’t trying especially hard to remember.’

‘Let it drop, Heimo,’ said the bespectacled man, waving his hand. ‘He’s a messenger. Don’t vex yourself. What is this station’s name, innkeeper?’

‘Anchor.’

‘What is the proximity of Gors Velen?’

‘Beg pardon?’

‘How many miles?’

‘Can’t say I’ve ever measured it. But it’ll be a three-day journey . . .’

‘On horseback?’

‘By cart.’

‘Hey,’ called the stocky one suddenly in a hushed voice, straightening up and looking out onto the courtyard through the wide-open door. ‘Have a butchers, Professor. Who would that be? Isn’t it that . . . ?’

The man in glasses also looked out at the courtyard, and his face suddenly tightened.

‘Yes,’ he hissed. ‘It’s indisputably him. It appears fortune smiles on us.’

‘Will we wait till he comes in?’

‘He won’t. He saw our horses.’

‘He knows we’re—’

‘Silence, Yaxa. He’s saying something.’

‘You have a choice,’ a slightly gruff but powerful voice resounded from the courtyard, a voice which Aplegatt recognised at once. ‘One of you will come out and tell me who hired you. Then you may ride away without any trouble. Or all three of you may come out. I’m waiting.’

‘Whoreson . . .’ growled the black-haired man. ‘He knows. What do we do?’

The bespectacled man put his mug down on the bar with a slow movement.

‘We do what we’re paid to do.’

He spat on his palm, flexed his fingers and drew his sword. At the sight of it the two other men also bared their blades. The innkeeper opened his mouth to shout but quickly shut it on seeing the cold eyes peering above the blue glasses.

‘Nobody moves,’ hissed the bespectacled man. ‘And keep schtum. Heimo, when it all kicks off, endeavour to get behind him. Very well, boys, good luck. Out we go.’

It began at once. Groans, the stamping of feet, the crash of blades. And then a scream of the kind that makes one’s hair stand on end.

The innkeeper blanched, the woman with the dark rings under her eyes screamed too, clutching her suckling to her breast. The cat behind the stove leapt to its feet and arched its back, its tail fluffing up like a brush. Aplegatt slid into the corner on his stool. He had his short sword in his lap but didn’t draw it.

Once again the thudding of feet across boards and the whistle and clang of blades came from the courtyard.

‘You . . .’ shouted someone wildly, but even though it ended with a vile insult, there was more despair in it than fury. ‘You . . .’

The whistle of a blade. And immediately after it a high, penetrating scream shredded the air. A thud as if a heavy sack of grain had hit the ground. The clatter of hooves from the hitching post and the neighing of terrified horses.

A thud on the boards once more and the quick, heavy steps of a man running. The woman with the baby clung to her husband, and the innkeeper pressed his back against the wall. Aplegatt drew his short sword, still hiding the weapon beneath the table. The running man was heading straight for the inn, and it was clear he would soon appear in the doorway. But before he did, a blade hissed.

The man screamed and lurched inside. It seemed as though he would fall across the threshold, but he didn’t. He took several staggering, laboured steps forward and only then did he topple, falling heavily into the middle of the chamber, throwing up the dust gathered between the floorboards. He fell on his face, inertly, pinning his arms underneath him, his legs bent at the knee. The crystal glasses fell to the floorboards with a clatter and shattered into tiny blue pieces. A dark, gleaming puddle began to spread from beneath the body.

No one moved. Or cried out.

The white-haired man entered the inn.

He deftly sheathed the sword he was holding into the scabbard on his back. He approached the bar, not even gracing the body lying on the floor with a glance. The innkeeper cringed.

‘Those evil men . . .’ said the white-haired one huskily, ‘those evil men are dead. When the bailiff arrives, it may turn out there was a bounty on their heads. He should do with it as he sees fit.’

The innkeeper nodded eagerly.

‘It may turn out,’ said the white-haired man a moment later, ‘that their comrades or cronies may ask what befell these evil men. Tell them the Wolf bit them. The White Wolf. And add that they should keep glancing over their shoulders. One day they’ll look back and see the Wolf.’

When, after three days, Aplegatt reached the gates of Tretogor, it was well after midnight. He was furious because he’d wasted time at the moat and shouted himself hoarse – the guards were sleeping sinfully and had been reluctant to open the gate. He got it all off his chest and cursed them painstakingly and comprehensively back to the third generation. He then overheard with pleasure as the commander of the watch – now awake – added totally new details to the charges he had levelled against the soldiers’ mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Of course, gaining access to King Vizimir was out of the question. That actually suited him, as he was counting on sleeping until matins and the morning bell. He was wrong. Instead of being shown to his billet he was rushed to the guardhouse. Waiting for him there was not the king but the other one, immense and fat. Aplegatt knew him; it was Dijkstra, confidant of the King of Redania. Dijkstra – the messenger knew – was authorised to receive messages meant exclusively for the king’s ears. Aplegatt handed him the letters.

‘Do you have a spoken message?’

‘Yes, sire.’

‘Speak.’

‘Demavend to Vizimir,’ recited Aplegatt, closing his eyes. ‘Firstly: the disguised troops are ready for the second night after the July new moon. Take care that Foltest does not let us down. Secondly: I will not grace the conclave of the devious old windbags in Thanedd with my presence, and I advise you to do the same. Thirdly: the Lion Cub is dead.’

Dijkstra grimaced and drummed his fingers on the table.

‘Here are letters for King Demavend. And a spoken message . . . Prick up your ears and pay attention. Repeat this to your king, word for word. Only to him, to no one else. No one, do you understand?’

‘I do, sire.’

‘The message runs thus: Vizimir to Demavend. You must hold back the disguised troops. There has been a betrayal. The Flame has mustered an army in Dol Angra and is only waiting for an excuse. Now repeat.’

Aplegatt repeated it.

‘Good,’ Dijkstra nodded. ‘You will leave at sunup.’

‘I’ve been on the road for five days, Your Excellency,’ said the messenger, rubbing his rump. ‘Might I but sleep to the morning . . . Will you permit it?’

‘Does now your king, Demavend, sleep at night? Do I sleep? You deserve a punch in the face for the question alone, laddie. You will be given vittles, then stretch out a while on the hay. But you ride at dawn. I’ve ordered a pure-bred young stallion for you. It’ll bear you like the wind. And don’t make faces. Take this purse with an extra gratuity, so as not to call Vizimir a skinflint.’

‘Thank you, sire.’

‘Be careful in the forests by the Pontar. Squirrels have been seen there. But there’s no shortage of ordinary brigands in those parts anyway.’

‘Oh, I know, sire. Oh, what I did see three days past . . .’

‘What did you see?’

Aplegatt quickly reported the events in Anchor. Dijkstra listened, his powerful forearms lying crossed on his chest.

‘The Professor . . .’ he said lost in thought. ‘Heimo Kantor and Little Yaxa. Dispatched by a witcher. In Anchor, on the road to Gors Velen; in other words the road to Thanedd and Garstang . . . And the Lion Cub is dead?’

‘What’s that, sire?’

‘It’s of no concern.’ Dijkstra raised his head. ‘At least not to you. Rest. And at dawn you ride.’

Aplegatt ate what he was brought, lay for a while without sleeping a wink, and was outside the gate by daybreak. The stallion was indeed swift, but skittish. Aplegatt didn’t like horses like that.

Something itched unbearably on his back, between his left shoulder blade and his spine. A flea must have bitten him when he was resting in the stable. But there was no way to scratch it.

The stallion danced and neighed. The messenger spurred him and he galloped away. Time was short.

‘Gar’ean,’ Cairbre hissed, peering from behind a branch, from where he was observing the road. ‘En Dh’oine aen evall a strsede!’

Toruviel leapt to her feet, seizing and belting on her sword, and poked Yaevinn in the thigh with the toe of her boot. He had been dozing, leaning against the wall of a hollow, and when he sprang up he scorched his hand as he pushed off from the hot sand.

‘Que suecc’s?’

‘A rider on the road.’

‘One?’ said Yaevinn, lifting his bow and quiver. ‘Cairbre? Only one?’

‘Only one. He’s getting closer.’

‘Let’s fix him then. It’ll be one less Dh’oine.’

‘Forget it,’ said Toruviel, grabbing him by the sleeve. ‘Why bother? We were supposed to carry out reconnaissance and then join the commando. Are we to murder civilians on the road? Is that what fighting for freedom is about?’

‘Precisely. Stand aside.’

‘If a body’s left on the road, every passing patrol will raise the alarm. The army will set out after us. They’ll stake out the fords, and we might have difficulty crossing the river!’

‘Few people ride along this road. We’ll be far away before anyone finds the body.’

‘That rider’s already far away,’ said Cairbre from the tree. ‘You should have shot instead of yapping. You won’t hit him now. He’s a good two hundred paces away.’

‘With my sixty-pounder?’ Yaevinn stroked his bow. ‘And a thirty-inch arrow? And anyway, that’s never two hundred paces. It’s hundred and fifty, tops. Mire, que spar aen’le.’

‘Yaevinn, forget it . . .’

‘Thaess aep, Toruviel.’

The elf turned his hat around so the squirrel’s tail pinned to it wouldn’t get in the way, quickly and powerfully drew back his bowstring, right to his ear, and then aimed carefully and shot.

Aplegatt did not hear the arrow. It was a ‘silent’ arrow, specially fledged with long, narrow grey feathers, its shaft fluted for increased stiffness and weight reduction. The three-edged, razor-sharp arrow hit the messenger in the back with great force, between his left shoulder blade and his spine. The blades were positioned at an angle – and as they entered his body, the arrow rotated and bored in like a screw, mutilating the tissue, cutting through blood vessels and shattering bone. Aplegatt lurched forward onto his horse’s neck and slid to the ground, limp as a sack of wool.

The sand on the road was hot, heated up so much by the sun that it was painful to the touch. The messenger didn’t feel it. He died at once.





CHAPTER TWO





To say I knew her would be an exaggeration. I think that, apart from the Witcher and the enchantress, no one really knew her. When I saw her for the first time she did not make a great impression on me at all, even in spite of the quite extraordinary accompanying circumstances. I have known people who said that, right away, from the very first encounter, they sensed the foretaste of death striding behind the girl. To me she seemed utterly ordinary, though I knew that ordinary she was not; for which reason I tried to discern, discover – sense – the singularity in her. But I noticed nothing and sensed nothing. Nothing that could have been a signal, a presentiment or a harbinger of those subsequent, tragic events. Events caused by her very existence. And those she caused by her actions.

Dandelion, Half a Century of Poetry





Right by the crossroads, where the forest ended, nine posts were driven into the ground. Each was crowned by a cartwheel, mounted flat. Above the wheels teemed crows and ravens, pecking and tearing at the corpses bound to the rims and hubs. Owing to the height of the posts and the great number of birds, one could only imagine what the unidentifiable remains lying on top of the wheels might be. But they were bodies. They couldn’t have been anything else.

Ciri turned her head away and wrinkled her nose in disgust. The wind blew from the posts and the sickening stench of rotting corpses drifted above the crossroads.

‘Wonderful scenery,’ said Yennefer, leaning out of the saddle and spitting on the ground, forgetting that a short time earlier she had fiercely scolded Ciri for doing the same thing. ‘Picturesque and fragrant. But why do this here, at the edge of the wilderness? They usually set things like that up right outside the city walls. Am I right, good people?’

‘They’re Squirrels, noble lady,’ came the hurried explanation from one of the wandering traders they had caught up with at the crossroads. He was guiding the piebald horse harnessed to his fully laden cart. ‘Elves. There, on those posts. And that’s why the posts are by the forest. As a warning to other Squirrels.’

‘Does that mean,’ said the enchantress, looking at him, ‘that captured Scoia’tael are brought here alive . . . ?’

‘Elves, m’lady, seldom let themselves be taken alive,’ interrupted the trader. ‘And even if the soldiers catch one they take them to the city, because civilised non-humans dwell there. When they’ve watched Squirrels being tortured in the town square, they quickly lose interest in joining them. But if any elves are killed in combat, their bodies are taken to a crossroads and hung on posts like this. Sometimes they’re brought from far away and by the time they get here they reek—’

‘To think,’ snapped Yennefer, ‘we have been forbidden from necromantic practices out of respect for the dignity of death and mortal remains; on the grounds that they deserve reverence, peace, and a ritual and ceremonial burial . . .’

‘What are you saying, m’lady?’

‘Nothing. We’re leaving, Ciri, let’s get away from this place. Ugh, I feel as though the stench were sticking to me.’

‘Yuck. Me too,’ said Ciri, trotting around the trader’s cart. ‘Let’s gallop, yes?’

‘Very well . . . Ciri! Gallop, but don’t break your neck!’

They soon saw the city; surrounded by walls, bristling with towers with glistening, pointed roofs. And beyond the city was the sea; greygreen, sparkling in the morning sun, flecked here and there with the white dots of sails. Ciri reined in her horse at the edge of a sandy drop, stood up in her stirrups and greedily breathed in the wind and the scent.

‘Gors Velen,’ said Yennefer, riding up and stopping at her side. ‘We finally made it. Let’s get back on the road.’

They rode off down the road at a canter, leaving several ox carts and people walking, laden down with faggots, behind them.

Once they had overtaken them all and were alone, though, the enchantress slowed and gestured for Ciri to stop.

‘Come closer,’ she said. ‘Closer still. Take the reins and lead my horse. I need both hands.’

‘What for?’

‘I said take the reins, Ciri.’

Yennefer took a small, silver looking glass from her saddlebags, wiped it and then whispered a spell. The looking glass floated out of her hand, rose up and remained suspended above her horse’s neck, right before the enchantress’s face.

Ciri let out a sigh of awe and licked her lips.

The enchantress removed a comb from her saddlebags, took off her beret and combed her hair vigorously for the next few minutes. Ciri remained silent. She knew she was forbidden to disturb or distract Yennefer while she combed her hair. The arresting and apparently careless disarray of her wavy, luxuriant locks was the result of long, hard work and demanded no little effort.

The enchantress reached into her saddlebags once more. She attached some diamond earrings to her ears and fastened bracelets on both wrists. She took off her shawl and undid a few buttons on her blouse, revealing her neck and a black velvet ribbon decorated with an obsidian star.

‘Ha!’ said Ciri at last, unable to hold back. ‘I know why you’re doing that! You want to look nice because we’re going to the city! Am I right?’

‘Yes, you are.’

‘What about me?’

‘What about you?’

‘I want to look nice, too! I’ll do my hair—’

‘Put your beret on,’ said Yennefer sharply, eyes still fixed on the looking glass floating above the horse’s ears, ‘right where it was before. And tuck your hair underneath it.’

Ciri snorted angrily but obeyed at once. She had long ago learned to distinguish the timbre and shades of the enchantress’s voice. She had learned when she could get into a discussion and when it was wiser not to.

Yennefer, having at last arranged the locks over her forehead, took a small, green, glass jar out of her saddlebags.

‘Ciri,’ she said more gently. ‘We’re travelling in secret. And the journey’s not over yet. Which is why you have to hide your hair under your beret. There are people at every gate who are paid for their accurate and reliable observation of travellers. Do you understand?’

‘No!’ retorted Ciri impudently, reining back the enchantress’s black stallion. ‘You’ve made yourself beautiful to make those gate watchmen’s eyes pop out! Very secretive, I must say!’

‘The city to whose gates we are heading,’ smiled Yennefer, ‘is Gors Velen. I don’t have to disguise myself in Gors Velen; quite the contrary, I’d say. With you it’s different. You ought not to be remembered by anyone.’

‘The people who’ll be staring at you will see me too!’

The enchantress uncorked the jar, which gave off the scent of lilac and gooseberries. She stuck her index finger in and rubbed a little of it under her eyes.

‘I doubt,’ she said, still smiling mysteriously, ‘whether anyone will notice you.’

A long column of riders and wagons stood before the bridge, and travellers crowded around the gatehouse, waiting for their turn to be searched. Ciri fumed and growled, angry at the prospect of a long wait. Yennefer, however, sat up straight in the saddle and rode at a trot, looking high over the heads of the travellers – they parted swiftly for her and made room, bowing in respect. The guards in hauberks also noticed the enchantress at once and gave her free passage, liberally handing out blows with their spear shafts to the stubborn or the overly slow.

‘This way, this way, noble lady,’ called one of the guards, staring at Yennefer and flushing. ‘Come through here, I entreat you. Make way, make way, you churls!’

The hastily summoned officer of the watch emerged from the guardhouse sullen and angry, but at the sight of Yennefer he blushed, opened his eyes and his mouth wide and made a low bow.

‘I humbly welcome you to Gors Velen, Your Ladyship,’ he mumbled, straightening up and staring. ‘I am at your command . . . May I be of any service to you? Perhaps an escort? A guide? Should I summon anyone?’

‘That will not be necessary,’ replied Yennefer, straightening up in her saddle and looking down at him. ‘My stay in the city shall be brief. I am riding to Thanedd.’

‘Of course, ma’am,’ said the soldier, shifting from foot to foot and unable to tear his eyes from the enchantress’s face. The other guards also stared. Ciri proudly pulled her shoulders back and raised her head, only to realise no one was looking at her. It was as if she didn’t exist.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ repeated the officer of the guard. ‘To Thanedd, yes . . . For the conclave. I understand, very well. Then I wish you—’

‘Thank you,’ said the enchantress, spurring her horse, clearly uninterested in whatever the officer wanted to wish her. Ciri followed her. The guardsmen bowed to Yennefer as she rode by, but none of them paid Ciri so much as a glance.

‘They didn’t even ask your name,’ she muttered, catching up with Yennefer and carefully guiding her horse between the ruts worn into the muddy road. ‘Did you put a spell on them?’

‘Not on them. On myself.’

The enchantress turned back and Ciri sighed. Yennefer’s eyes burnt with a violet light and her face radiated with beauty. Dazzling beauty. Provocative. Dangerous. And unnatural.

‘The little green jar,’ Ciri realised. ‘What was in it?’

‘Glamarye. An elixir. Or rather a cream for special occasions. Ciri, must you ride into every puddle in the road?’

‘I’m trying to clean my horse’s fetlocks.’

‘It hasn’t rained for a month. That’s slops and horse piss, not water.’

‘Aha . . . Tell me, why did you use that elixir? Did it matter so much to you to—’

‘This is Gors Velen,’ interrupted Yennefer. ‘A city that owes much of its prosperity to sorcerers and enchantresses. Actually, if I’m honest, chiefly to enchantresses. You saw for yourself how enchantresses are treated here. And I had no desire to introduce myself or prove who I am. I preferred to make it obvious at first glance. We turn left after that red house. We’ll walk, Ciri. Slow your horse down or you’ll trample a child.’

‘But why did we come here then?’

‘I just told you.’

Ciri snorted, thinking hard, then pursed her lips and dug her heels hard into her horse. Her mare skittered, almost colliding with a passing horse and cart. The carter got up from his seat, ready to unleash a stream of professional abuse at her, but on seeing Yennefer sat down quickly and began a thorough analysis of the state of his clogs.

‘Try to bolt like that once more,’ enunciated Yennefer, ‘and we’ll get cross. You’re behaving like an adolescent goat. You’re embarrassing me.’

‘I figured it out. You want to put me in some school or orphanage, don’t you? I don’t want to go!’

‘Be quiet. People are staring.’

‘They’re staring at you, not at me! I don’t want to go to school! You promised me you’d always be with me, and now you’re planning to leave me all by myself! I don’t want to be alone!’

‘You won’t be alone. There are plenty of girls your age at the school. You’ll have lots of friends.’

‘I don’t want any f