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The Lady of the Lake

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Language: english
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The Lady of the Lake

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THE LADY OF THE LAKE





ANDRZEJ SAPKOWSKI





CONTENTS





Cover

Title Page

Acknowledgements



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven



Also By Andrzej Sapkowski





Special Thanks to the Community at the Witcher.com forum & TheWitcher.wikia.com





CHAPTER ONE





They kept riding until they came to a large, beautiful lake full of crystal clear water, and in the middle of the lake, Arthur saw an arm clothed in white cloth holding a beautiful sword.

‘Behold, there is the sword of which I spoke,’ pointed Merlin.

Suddenly they saw a girl walking on the surface of the lake.

‘Who is that girl?’ asked Arthur.

‘That is the Lady of the Lake,’ said Merlin.

Sir Thomas Malory

Le Morte D'arthur



The lake was enchanted. About that there could be no doubt.

Firstly: it lay beside the mouth of the enchanted valley Cwm Pwcca, the mysterious valley perpetually shrouded by fog and famed for its magical properties and phenomena.

Secondly: one look was enough.

The surface of the water was a deep blue like a polished sapphire and smooth as a mirror. So much so that the peaks of the mountain Y Wyddfa that were reflected in it were more beautiful than those that loomed over the lake. From the water blew a refreshing coolness and the dignified silence was disturbed by nothing, not even the splashing of fish or the cries of a bird.

The knight shook off the impression. But rather than continue riding along the crest of the hill, he led his horse down to the lake. As if drawn by the magnetic force of a spell that slumbered there, deep down in the dark waters. The horse stepped timidly among the broken rocks, giving a snort indicating that he sensed the magical aura of the place.

Upon reaching the bank the knight dismounted. He took the stallion’s bridle and led him to where small waves disappeared among the colored pebbles.

His armor rattled when he knelt. Startling fry and fish as vivid as tiny needles, he scooped water into his hands. He drank slowly and cautiously, the ice cold water numbed his tongue and lips and hurt his teeth.

When he bent down to collect water a second time a sound travelled over the surface of the lake. He raised his head. The horse whinnied, confirming that he also heard it.

He listened. No, it was not an illusion. What he heard was singing. A woman singing. Or rather a girl.

Like all knights he had been raised with bard tales of chivalry. In these tales a girl singing or calling was in nine cases out of ten, a lure. The knight who followed inevitably fell into an ambush. Often fatal.

But curiosity won out. The knight was only nineteen years old. He was very courageous and very foolish. He was famous for one and known for the other.

He checked that his sword was in its sheath, then led his horse and set off up the beach in the direction of the singing. He did not have to go far.

The shore was strewn with huge boulders, dark and polished to a bright shine, giant toys carelessly tossed here and forgotten about after completing the game. Some of the boulders were lying in the water of the lake, under the dark surface. Some rose above the surface and were licked by small waves, giving the impression of being ridges of a sleeping Leviathan. But most of them were lying on the shore, from the beach to the forest. Some were buried in the sand and were only partially sticking out, leaving the imagination to guess how big they really were.

The singing which the knight heard came from just behind those boulders. The singing girl remained invisible. He pulled his horse, holding him buy the muzzle and nostrils so as to stop him from neighing or snorting.

The girl’s clothes lay on one of the boulders lying in the shallows, flat like a table. The girl herself stood naked, waist-deep in the water and was washing, singing and splashing in the process. The knight listened to her singing but did not understand the words.

And no wonder.

The girl, he would be his head, was not human. This was demonstrated by the slender body, the strange hair color and the voice. He was sure that if she turned around he would see big almond shaped eyes. And if she swept her ashen hair back he would see ears ending in points.

This was a resident of Faerie. A fairy. One of the Tylwyth Teg. One of those, which the Picts and the Irish called Sidhe Daoine, the People of the Hills. One of those that the Saxons called elves.

She stopped singing for a moment and immersed herself up to her neck, she panted and snarled and cursed. The knight, however was not fooled. Fairies, as everyone knew, knew how to swear like a human being. Some said as obscenely as a stable boy. And the curse was often a prelude to some malicious trick, which fairies were famous for – for example, increasing the size of someone’s nose to the size of a cucumber or reducing the size of someone masculinity to the size of a bean.

The knight had no interest in neither the first or the second option, so he tried to slip away quietly. He was betrayed by a horse. Not his own mount who he still held it’s nostrils so he was quiet and calm, but the horse belonging to the fairy, which the knight did not initially noticed between the boulders. Now the pitch-black mare stamped at the gravel and neighed in greeting. The knight’s stallion shook his head and replied politely. The echo reaching across the water.

The fairy came splashing out of the water, presenting the knight for a moment all her glory pleasant to the eye. She threw herself toward the rock on which lay her clothes. But instead of grasping clothes to decently cover herself with, the fairy grabbed a sword and pulled it from its scabbard with a hiss, clutching the steel with amazing skill. It lasted a brief moment, after which the fairy quickly knelt down, hiding in the water up to her nose and holding her arm with the sword in it above the surface of the water.

The knight blinked in amazement, dropped the reins and bent his knee, kneeling in the wet sand. He understood immediately who it was before him.

‘Hail, O Lady of the Lake,’ he breathed while stretching out his hands, ‘it is an honor, a tremendous honor… I accept your sword.’

‘I’d prefer if you rose and turned around,’ the Fairy poked her mouth above the water. ‘ Maybe stop staring? And let me get dressed?’

He obeyed.

He heard her leaving the water and the rustling of clothes and the sound of her swearing softly as she pulled them onto her wet body. He busied himself staring at the black mare, its coat soft and shiny like the skin of a mole. It was definitely of noble blood and fast like the wind. It was undoubtedly a magic horse, and also an inhabitant of Faerie, as well as its owner.

‘You can turn around.’

‘Lady of the Lake…’

‘And introduce yourself.’

‘I am Galahad, of Caer Benice. A knight of King Arthur, Lord of Camelot, ruler of the Kingdom of Summer, as well as Dumnonia, Dyfnaint, Powys, Dyfed...’

‘And Temeria?’ she interrupted. ‘Redania. Rivia, Aedirn? Nilfgaard? Would you say any of these names?’

‘No. I have never heard of them.’

She shrugged her shoulders. In her hand, besides the sword she was holding boots and a shirt, washed and wrung out.

‘I thought so. What day is it?’

‘It is,’ he replied with surprise, ‘the second full moon after Beltane... Lady...’

‘Ciri,’ she said unthinkingly, twisting her shoulders to better position the clothes drying on her skin. She spoke with a strange accent. Her eyes were green and huge...

She instinctively brushed back her wet hair and the knight sighed involuntary. Not only because her ear was normal, human and in no way elven. Her cheek was marred by a huge, ugly scar. She had been injured. But how can you injure a fairy?

She noticed his astonished gaze, she narrowed her eyes and wrinkled her nose.

‘A scar, yes!’ she said with her striking accent. ‘Why do you look so frightened? Is it such an uncommon thing for a knight, a scar? Or is it so ugly?’

He slowly, with both hands pulled down the hood of his chain mail and passed his hands through his hair.

‘Certainly not an uncommon thing for a knight,’ he said with youthful pride, demonstrating a barely healed scar running from his temple to his jaw. ‘And nasty are the scars of honor. I am Galahad, son of Lancelot du Lac and Elaine, daughter of King Pelles, Lord of Caer Benic. This wound was caused to me by Breunis the Cruel, an undignified oppressor of women, even though I beat him in a fair duel. Truly, I am honored to take this sword from your hand, Lady of the Lake...’

‘What?’

‘The sword. I am willing to accept it.’

‘This is my sword. I don’t let anyone touch it.’

‘But...’

‘But what?’

‘The Lady of the Lake has always... Always emerges from the water and gives her sword.’

She was silent for some time.

‘I understand,’ she said finally. ‘Well, another country, another custom. I’m sorry, Galahad or whatever your name is, but apparently you have not found the lady of which you have heard. I am not giving away anything. Or letting anything be taken. Let’s be clear.’

‘But yet,’ he dared to say, ‘you’ve come from the Faerie, Lady, is it so?’

‘I come,’ she said after a moment, her green eyes seemed to stare into the abyss of space and time. ‘I come from Rivia, and from the city of the same name. Next to the lake Loc Eskalott. I came here on a boat. It was foggy. I could not see the edges. I heard neighing. Kelpie… My mare had followed me.’

She spread her wet shirt out on a stone. The knight gave a start again. The shirt was washed, but not very thoroughly. He could still see traces of blood.

‘The river current brought me here,’ continued the girl, without seeing that he had noticed or pretending not to see. ‘The river current and the magic of the unicorn… What do you call this lake?’

‘I do not know,’ he admitted. ‘In Gwynedd there are many lakes…’

‘In Gwynedd?’

‘Of course. Those are the mountains, Y Wyddfa. If you keep them to your left and if you go through the forest for two days you’ll arrive at Dinas Dinlleu and beyond that Caer Dathal. And the river… The nearest river…’

‘It’s not important what the nearest river is. Do you have anything to eat, Galahad? I’m starving. Why are you looking at me like that? Are you afraid that I’ll disappear? That I’ll fly off with your sausage and biscuits? Don’t be afraid. In my world I have created enough mess and I won’t be going back for some time. So I will stay in yours for a time. In a world in which I search in vain for the Dragon or the Seven Goats in the night sky. Where we are now in the second full moon after Belleteyn and Belleteyn is pronounced Beltane. Why do you stare at me, I ask you?’

‘I did not know that fairies eat.’

‘Fairies, sorceresses and elves. They all eat. They drink. And so on.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘It does not matter.’

The longer he studied her, the more she lost her magical aura and became more humane and ordinary – almost mundane. He knew, however, that such was not the case, it could not

be. A plain, ordinary girl would never have been met alone at the foot of Y Wyddfa, on the edge of Cwm Pwcca, bathing naked in a mountain lake and washing a blood-stained shirt. No matter how the girl looked, in no case could she be an earthly creature. Despite knowing this, Galahad could look calmly and without superstitious fear at her mouse colored hair, which to his amazement now that it was dry, was traversed by shiny streaks of grey. He could now look at her slender hands, her little nose, her pale lips her male clothing with a strange cut, made with an extremely delicate fabric. And her sword, with its strange design and ornaments, but did not seem like an ornament for parades. And her bare feet, covered with the dry sand of the beach.

‘To be clear,’ she spoke, wiping one foot with the other, ‘I’m not a fairy or an elf. A sorceress, that is, a fairy, I’m... a little unusual. Ehh, I’m not.’

‘I’m sorry, really.’

‘Why are you sorry?’

‘They say...’ he blushed and stammered. ‘They say that fairies, if they happen to encounter a young man, they lead them to Elfland and there... Under the bushes in a forest, on a bed of moss, show them...’

‘I understand,’ she looked at him quickly and firmly bit the sausage. ‘In regards to the Land of the Elves,’ she said swallowing, ‘I fled there some time ago and I’m in no hurry to return. With regards to the bed of moss... Indeed, Galahad, you have not found the lady that was needed. Nevertheless, thank you for your interest.’

‘Lady! I did not mean to offend you...’

‘Do not apologize.’

‘It’s because you are so beautiful.’

‘ I thank you again. But this changes nothing.’

They were silent for a while. It was hot. The sun at it zenith warmed the stones nicely. A slight breeze wrinkled the surface of the lake.

‘What does it mean..’ Galahad suddenly said in a strangely exalted voice. ‘What does it mean, a spear with bloody tip? What does it mean and why does the King suffer so, from a pierced thigh? What does a lady in white carrying a grail a silver cup...’

‘Are you feeling alright?’ she interrupted.

‘I’m just asking.’

‘I do not understand your question. Is it a password? A signal with which to recognize initiates? Explain it to me.’

‘I cannot explain better.’

‘Then why do you ask?’

‘Because...’ he said, fidgeting. ‘Just... One of us did not ask we he had the opportunity. Either he could not find the words or her was ashamed... He did not ask and that is why many misfortunes have occurred. So now I always ask. Just in case.’



‘Are there any wizards in this world? You know, those dealing in magic. Mages. Seers.’

‘There is Merlin. Or Morgana. But Morgana is evil.’

‘And Merlin?’

‘About half.’

‘Do you know where to find him?’

‘Of course. In Camelot. In the court of King Arthur. I’m headed there.’

‘Is it far?’

‘From here to Powys, to the river Hafen, then up the Hafen to Glevum. From there it is near to the plains near the Kingdom of Summer. All in all about ten days riding.’

‘Too far.’

‘You can,’ he stammered, ‘shorten the journey by going through Cwm Pwcca. But it is an enchanted valley. It is horrible. There live the Y Dynan Bach Teg, evil dwarves...’

‘Do you only wear your sword for show?’

‘And can a sword do anything against magic?’

‘Can do, can do, do not doubt. I’m a witcher. Have you heard of them? Eh, of course you haven’t heard. And I’m not afraid of dwarves. I have many friends among the dwarves.’

Sure, he thought.



‘Lady of the Lake?’

‘My name is Ciri. Do not call me Lady of the Lake. It brings back unpleasant memories, painful, harmful. So they called me in the Land of... What did you call this land?’

‘Faerie. Or as the Druids say: Annwn. Or Elfland by the Saxons.’

‘Elfland...’ she covered her shoulders with a checkered blanket. ‘I was there, you know? I entered the Tower of the Swallow and bam, I was among the elves. And that’s what they called me. Lady of the Lake. I even liked it at first. It flattered me. Until I realize that in that land, in that tower over the lake, I was no lady, but a prisoner.’

‘Is that,’ he could not hide his curiosity, ‘where you stained your shirt with blood?’

She paused for a long time.

‘No,’ she said at last, and her voice it seemed was trembling slightly. ‘Not there. You have keen eyes. In short, you cannot escape the truth by hiding your head in the sand... Yes, Galahad. I’m often covering in blood in recent times. With the blood of the enemies I’ve killed. And with the blood of friends who I tried to save... and who died in my arms... Why do you look at me like that?’

‘I do not know if you are a goddess or a mortal woman. Or a supernatural being born on earth...’

‘Get to the point if you please.’

‘I wish,’ Galahad’s eyes flared, ‘to hear thy story. Would you tell me, O Lady?’

‘It is long.’

‘We have time.’

‘And it does not end happily.’

‘I do not believe that.’

‘Why?’

‘You were singing as you bathed in the lake.’

‘You are observant,’ she turned her head, pursed her lips and a wrinkled marred her face suddenly. ‘Yes, observant, But very innocent.’

‘Tell me thy story. Please.’

‘Well, if you want,’ she sighed. ‘I will tell.’

She sat down comfortably. The horses walked along the edge of the forest, grazing on grasses and herbs.

‘From the beginning,’ Galahad prompted. ‘From the very beginning...’

‘More and more, it seems to me’ she said after a moment, tightly wrapping the plaid blanket around her, ‘my story actually has no beginning. I’m not even sure whether it has actually ended. Know that the past and the present intermingle terribly. There was an elf who told me that it is like a snake that bites it own tail. This snake, so you know, is called Uroboros. And if he bites his own tail it means the circle is closed. In any moment of time is hidden the past, present and future. In any moment of time lies eternity. Do you understand?’

‘No.’

‘It doesn’t matter.’





CHAPTER TWO





Truly, I say, who believes in dreams is like one who wants to catch the wind or is grasping at shadows. Fooled by deceptive images in a curved mirror that lies or twists the truth like a false woman. It is a fool indeed who gives faith to the dream and walks the path of deception.

But even he who has few dreams should not put faith in them and wisely does not. Why, if dreams would not have any meaning, would the gods gift us the ability to dream?

The wisdom of the prophet Lebioda, 34; 1

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

Edgar Allan Poe



A breeze wrinkled the steaming cauldron that was the surface of the lake, scattering thin ribbons of morning mist. The oarlocks squeaked and rumbled rhythmically, a bright spray of droplets showered from the oars.

Condwiramurs put her hand on the railing. The boat was sailing at a slow speed and the water rose and fell just over her fingers.

‘Ah ah,’ she said, putting as much sarcasm in her voice as she could. ‘What a speed! We seem to be flying over the waves. My head is spinning!’

The rower, a short, stocky, thickset man, growled something angry and indistinct, not even raising his head of overgrown curly hair, worthy of a sheep. The adept was already fed up of the muttering, grunting and growling, with which the man used to answer her questions.

‘Careful,’ she said with difficulty, maintaining the peace. ‘From rowing so rapidly you could overturn the boat.’

This time the man lifted his face, with skin that was as dark as if it had been tanned. He muttered, coughed and pointed with his gray stubble chin to a line mounted on the rail on a wooden reel that disappeared into the water, straining with the motion of the boat. Apparently convinced that the explanation was enough, he continued rowing. With the same pace as before. Oars up. Pause. Lower the oars half into the water. Long pause. Pull. An even longer pause.

‘Ah,’ Condwiramurs said looking at the sky. ‘I understand. It is important that the lure that you drag behind the boat must move at the proper speed and the proper depth. Fishing is important. Nothing else matters.’

It was so obvious that the man did not even both to grunt.

‘Well, who cares,’ Condwiramurs continued her monologue, ‘that I have been travelling through the night? That I’m hungry? That my ass hurts and itches from the hard, wet bench? That I have to pee? No, it is only important to catch fish. And it is pointless anyway. The lure that we are dragging behind us in the middle of the stream is not going to catch anything.’

The man raised his head and gave her an ugly look. Condwiramurs flashed her teeth in a sly smile. The man continued to row slowly. He was angry.

She collapsed on the bench at the stern and crossed her legs. So that the slits in her shirts were as visible as possible.

The man grunted and pulled on the oars with his calloused hands, pretending not to watched anything but the tow rope. Of course, the speed of the rowing did not accelerate. The adept sighed in resignation and turned to watch the sky.

The oarlocks creaked, shiny droplets splashed from the paddles.

From out of the quickly lifting fog appeared the outline of an island. And rising above it the dark obelisk of a domed tower. The man, sitting with his back to it was aware that they had almost arrived. Taking his time, he placed the oars inside the boat, stood up and began to slowly wind the rope on the reel. Condwiramurs still with her legs crossed, whistled and watched the sky.

The man slowly rolled up the end of the fishing line and began to view the lure – a shiny brass spoon equipped with a triple hook tail of dyed wool.

‘Oh, nothing caught,’ Condwiramurs said sweetly, ‘What a shame. I wonder why you were so unlucky? Maybe the boat was moving too fast?’

The man gave her a look that said a lot of ugly things. He sat down, coughed, spat overboard grabbed the oars in his gnarled hands and bent his strong back. The oars splashed, stirring in the oarlocks and the boat was launched across the lake like an arrow, the water roared and foamed at the bow and circled in whirls at the stern. The distance separating them

from the shore was about the quarter of the length of a crossbow shot and they covered the distance in two grunts. The boat slammed into the sand with such force that Condwiramurs fell off the bench.

The man muttered, coughed and spat. The adept knew that translated into the language of civilized people as “Get out of my boat, annoying witch!” She also knew that she couldn’t count on his arms to get her out. She took off her shoes, lifted her skirt of a provocative height and lowered herself from the ship. She swallowed a curse as the shells on the shore dug painfully into her feet.

‘Thank you,’ she said through clenched teeth, ‘for the ride.’

Without waiting for the next grunt and not looking back, she walked barefoot towards the stone stairs. All the hardships and pains had fled without a trace, erased by her growing excitement. She was here on the island of Inis Vitre, on the lake Loc Blest. It was an almost legendary place where only a chosen few visited.

The morning fog had lifted almost entirely, the red ball of the sun began to shine strongly in the heavens. Above the water, crying seagulls circled and flew around the battlements of the tower.

At the top of the staircase leading from the shore to a terrace, leaning against a statue of crouching, grinning chimera, was Nimue.

The Lady of the Lake.



She was delicate and small, she was no larger than five feet. Condwiramurs heard mention that as a young girl they called her “Thumbelina,” now she saw the nick name was appropriate. But she was sure that for a least half a century no one had dare say that to the little sorceress.

‘I’m Condwiramurs Tilly,’ she introduced herself with a nod, a little embarrassed, still with her shoes in her hand. ‘I am happy that you have invited me to your island, Lady of the Lake.’

‘Nimue,’ the little sorceress corrected. ‘Nimue and nothing else. We can forgo the titles and epithets, Lady Tilly.’

‘In that case, I’m Condwiramurs. Condwiramurs and nothing else.’

‘Then, with your permission, Condwiramurs. We’ll talk over breakfast. I guess you are hungry.’

‘I will not deny it.’



The breakfast was rye bread, cottage cheese with chive butter, eggs and milk. Serving it was two very young, quiet and maid who smelled of starch. While dinning Condwiramurs felt the stare of the small sorceress.

‘This tower,’ Nimue said, watching ever movement of her visitor, her every bite, ‘has six floors, including one underground. Your room is on the second floor, you’ll find all the necessary comforts. On the ground floor, you see, is for the management of the house, here is where then rooms for the servants are. In the basement is the laboratory and in the first and third floors are the library and the gallery. To all these floors you have free access and use to all the equipment that is in them, whenever you want.’

‘I understand. Thank you.’

‘In the upper two floors are my private rooms and office. In those rooms I was absolute privacy. For the future to avoid misunderstandings, note that in this respect I am very sensitive.’

‘I respect that.’

Nimue turned her head towards the window, through which one could see the gruff fisherman who had managed to unload all of Condwiramurs luggage and now carried in his boat a reel, nets and other paraphernalia of the art of fishing.

‘I’m a little old fashioned,’ she continued. ‘But some things I’m used to using some things with exclusive rights. Toothbrushes, for example. My private rooms, my library, my bathroom. And the Fisher King. Please do not try and use the Fisher King.’

Condwiramurs nearly choked on her milk. Nimue’s face expressed nothing whatsoever.

‘And if...’ She continued before the woman regained speech. ‘And if he was interested to use you, reject him.’

Condwiramurs, swallowed and finally nodded her head, refraining from make any comments. Although she was about to say a stinging rejoined, that rural fisherman were not her type. Especially when they have a gray head and manifest themselves as morose louts.

‘So,’ Nimue said emphatically. ‘We have made our introductions. It is time to move on to more specific things. Do you want to know why out of so many candidates I choose precisely you?’

Condwiramurs, if she thought a bit before answering, would only show that she was pretending not to show too much pride. She however, concluded that to show Nimue false modesty, even if it was only a very small degree, would sound too fake.

‘I’m the best at the academy,’ she replied coolly, objectively and without boasting. ‘In my third year I had the second best rating in oneiromancy.’

‘I could have brought to me the first.’ Nimue said, painfully sincere. ‘Incidentally, you were proposed to me with honors. Even quit strongly, because apparently you are the daughter of someone important. As for dreaming, dear Condwiramurs, you know, that oneiromancy it is a somewhat fickle gift. Failure can happen to even the best dreamer.’

Condwiramurs again refrained from a brisk replay that its failures can be counted on the fingers of one hand. After all, she was speaking with a master. It is necessary to know peace in matters large and small, as one of her professors are the academy was fond of saying.

Nimue’s reward for her silence was a nod of approval.

‘I have detailed reports on you,’ she said. ‘I know that you do not need the help of dreaming dugs. I am glad, because I do not tolerate drugs.’

‘I dream without drugs,’ Condwiramurs confirmed with pride. ‘With oneiromancy it is enough for me if I have an anchor.’

‘What?’

‘Well, an anchor,’ the adept cleared her throat. ‘Something that the subject who I’m dreaming about is somehow associated with. Any personal belongings. Or a picture...’

‘A picture?’

‘Yes. I’m never wrong with a picture.’

‘Oh.’ Nimue smiled. ‘Oh if a picture helps, then we will not have a problem. If you have finished breakfast, let’s go, the best and second best among the oneiromancers. It would be good for me to explain the other reasons why it is I chose you as an assistant.’

The stone walls emitted cold, which even the dark wood paneling and carpeting wasn’t able to stop. She felt cold even through the soles of her shoes.

‘Beyond these doors,’ Nimue pointed out, ‘is the laboratory. As I mentioned, you can use it as you wish. Of course, I recommend caution. Moderation is advised, especially if you try and force a broom to carry water.’

Condwiramurs laughed out of politeness, even though it was an old joke. All the professors in her lectures entertained jokes that related to the mythical trouble of the legendary magician’s apprentice.

The staircase wound up like a sea serpent, and it seemed to have no end. It’s stages were high and steep. Before they arrived, the young adept was panting and sweating, but Nimue seemed to appear not affected in any way by the effort.

‘This way please,’ she opened a oak door. ‘Beware the threshold.’

Condwiramurs entered and sighed.

The room was a gallery. Its walls were covered with paintings from floor to ceiling. There hung huge oil paintings, old chipped and cracked miniatures, engravings, and yellowed woodcuts, faded watercolors and sepia. There also hung here recent works – vivid colors, modernist tempera and gouache, aquatints and etchings of clean strokes, contrasting prints and mezzotints, which attracted the eye with its sharp black spots.

Nimue stopped before a picture that was hanging closer to the door, depicting a group of people gathered under a huge tree. She looked at the canvas, then Condwiramurs and her silent gaze was extraordinary eloquent.

‘Dandelion,’ the adept said, realizing the point was not to wait, ‘singing ballads at the foot of the oak Bleobheris.’

Nimue smiled and nodded. She took a step and stood before another picture. Watercolor. Symbolism. Two female figures on a hill. Gulls circling above them, beneath them , on the slopes of the hill, a procession of shadows.

‘Ciri and Triss Merigold. The prophetic vision at Kaer Morhen.’

Smile, nod, step, another picture. A rider on a galloping horse, a misshapen double row of alders, stretching out their arms their branches towards him. Condwiramurs felt a chill go through her.

‘Ciri... Hmmm... Apparently her night ride to her meeting with Geralt at the Halfling Hofmeier’s farm.’

The next picture, a dark oil painting. A battle scene.

‘Geralt and Cahir defending the bridge on the Yaruga.’

Then faster and faster.

‘Yennefer and Ciri, their first meeting in the temple of Melitele. Dandelion and the dryad Eithné, in the woods of Brokilon. The company of Geralt during a blizzard on the mountain pass of Malheur...’

‘Well done,’ Nimue praised. ‘A excellent knowledge of legend. Now you know the second reason why you are hear and not someone else.’



Above the ebony table at which they sat, was dominated by a large canvas depicting a battle scene, it seemed to be the Battle of Brenna, a key moment in the battle or a tacky scene of a death of a hero. The canvas was beyond a doubt the work of Nicholas Certosy, you could tell by the expression, the perfect attention to details and the artist’s lighting effects.

‘Yes, I know the legend of the Sorceress and the Witcher,’ said Condwiramurs . ‘I dare say, down to the smallest detail. As a child I loved this story, I literally listened to the story and read it many times. I dreamed to be Yennefer. But I’ll be honest – even if it was love at first sight, even if they were explosively passionate... It was not eternal.’

Nimue raised her eyebrows.

‘I learned that the history,’ said Condwiramurs, ‘was a popular abbreviation for young people, Later I naturally read a few of the so-call full and serious versions. Dilated to the border of redundancy and sometimes beyond. Then my passion was replaced by cool

reflection and the passionate flare turned into something like a marriage of convenience. You know what I mean?’

Nimue’s nod was barely perceptible confirming that she knew.

‘In short, I prefer those legends that cling more to the legendary conventions, and do not mix fiction with reality and do not try and combine the simple and straightforward moral of a fairy tale with amoral historical truth. I prefer the legends without the prefaces of the encyclopedists, archaeologists and historians. Those whose conventionalism are free of experiments. I prefer that if the prince comes to the top of Crystal Mountain and kisses Sleeping Beauty, she wakes up and the two live happily ever after. Yes, no other, should end a legend... Who painted this portrait of Ciri? The one on the stand?’

‘There is not one portrait of Ciri,’ the voice of the little sorceress was dry. ‘Neither here nor anywhere in the world. There remains not a single portrait or miniature painted by someone who has seen Ciri or even remembers her. The portrait on the stand shows Pavetta, Ciri’s mother. It was painted by the dwarf, Ruiz Dorrit, the court painter for the rulers of Cintra. It was documented that Dorrit portrayed Ciri when she as ten years old, but the picture had not been preserved. Let us go back to the legend and your relationship with it. In your opinion how should legends end?’

‘They should have a good ending,’ she insisted. ‘Good must prevail. Evil must be punished by way of example; the lovers are joined together until the end of life. And none of the good heroes may due, dammit! And the legend of Ciri? How does it end?

‘Exactly. How?’

Condwiramurs was speechless for a moment. She had not expected such a question; she smelled a test, an exam, a trap. She stopped to avoid being caught.

How ends the legend of Ciri and Geralt? After all, everyone knows that.

She stared into the dark tones of the watercolor depicting the clumsy barge moving along the surface over a misty lake, a figure standing on the barge was only visible as a black silhouette.

This is how the legend ends. That’s right.

Nimue read her mind.

‘It is not that certain, Condwiramurs. It is not that certain.’



‘The legend,’ said Nimue, “I first heard from the lips of a wandering storyteller. I was village child, the fourth daughter of a poor cottager. The most beautiful memories from my childhood are days when the wandering storyteller Pogwizd came to our village. I could forget for a few moments my work and in my mind’s eye I could see these fabulous wonders, see this wide open world... A beautiful and miraculous world... Further and more wondrous than the town nine miles away... I was about six or seven years old. My sister was fourteen and she was beginning to slouch from the eternal toil. A woman’s destiny. We were preparing for it since childhood. Slouching! We were constantly stooped, bending our backs to work, to care for the child because the weight of your gut has yet to recover from childbirth... It was these stories of the old man that made me begin to desire more than just toil and bending, dream more of giving birth, a husband and children. The first book I bought with the money I got for the sale of blueberries I picked in the forest was the legend of Ciri. This version as you aptly put it was softened and modified for young people. This was the version for me. I read poorly. But even then I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be like Philippa Eilhart or Síle de Tansarville, and Assire var Anahid...’

Both looked at the gouache, representing a table in the hall of a castle with women sitting around it. Legendary women.

‘At the Academy,’ continued Nimue, ‘in which I entered on the second attempt, I was concerned with only the legend of the Grand Lodge and its aspect in the history of magic lectures. I had no time for reading for pleasure at first; I had to occupy my time… to keep pace with the daughters of earls and bankers for which everything was easy, they laughed at a village girl…’

She paused, then snapped her fingers.

‘Finally,’ she went on. ‘I found time for reading, but then I realized that the adventures of Geralt and Ciri held far less interest to me that they did in my childhood. It appears to be a similar syndrome with me as with you. What did you call it? A marriage of convenience? That was until…’

She paused and wiped her hands over her face. Condwiramurs noticed with astonishment that the little sorceress’s hand trembled.

‘I was about eighteen when… when it happened. Something that revived the legend of Ciri in me. I started to deal with it seriously and scientifically. I devoted my life to it.’

The adept was silent and listened intently.

‘Do not pretend like you did not know,’ Nimue said sharply. ‘Everyone knows that the Lady of the Lake is possessed by an almost unhealthy obsession with the legend of Ciri. Everyone gossips about how it started out as a harmless hobby that gradually turned into something like a drug addiction, or even mania. There are a lot of truth in these rumors, my dear Condwiramurs, a lot of truth! And you, if you chose to assist will also falling to mania and addiction. Because I demand it. At least for the duration of your practice. Do you understand?’

The adept nodded.

‘You seem to understand,’ Nimue controlled her emotions. ‘But I’ll explain. Gradually. And when the time comes, you’ll know everything. But for now…’

She paused and looked out the window at the lake, at the black silhouette of the boat of the Fisher King, a contrast to the shimmering, golden surface of the lake.

‘For now, rest. Look around the gallery. Look in cabinets and shelves and you’ll find albums and cardboard prints, all related to the legend. In the library are all versions and transformations of the legend and almost all the scientific literature. Give them some time. Look, read, concentrate. I want you to get inspiration to dream. An anchor, as you say.’

‘I’ll do it. Lady Nimue?’

‘I’m listening.’

‘The two portraits. These hanging side by side…Are these not Ciri?’

‘There are no portraits of Ciri,’ Nimue patiently repeated. ‘Later artists portrayed her only in scenes, each according to his own imagination. As for the portraits, the one on the left is a variation on the chosen topic, it is the elf Lara Dorren aep Shiadhal, a person who the painter could not have known. The painters name is Lydia van Bredevoort. One of her surviving oils still hangs in the academy.’

‘I know. And the other portrait?’

Nimue looked for a long time at the portrait of a young girl with blond hair and sad eyes. She was dressed in a white dress with green sleeves.

‘Robin Anderida painted it,’ she said, she turned to look Condwiramurs straight in the eye. ‘And whom it portrays… That is for you the dreamer and oneiromacy to find out. Dream this. And tell me your dream.’



Master Robin Anderida saw the Emperor approaching first and bent low in a bow. Stella Congreve, Countess of Liddertal, stood up, curtsied and with a quick gesture motioned for the girl sitting in the carved chair to do the same.

‘My greeting, ladies,’ Emhyr var Emreis nodded his head. ‘And my greetings to you, Master Robin. How is your work?’

Master Robin grunted embarrassed and bowed again, nervously wiping his fingers on his apron. Emhyr knew that the artist suffered from severe agoraphobia and was pathologically shy. But who cared about that. What mattered was how he painted.

As usual, when he was travelling on the road, the emperor was wearing an officer’s uniform of the “Impera” Guard Brigade – black armor and cloak embroidered with a silver salamander. He stepped closer and examined the portrait. First the portrait, then the model, a slender girl with blond hair and sad eyes. In a white dress with green sleeves and wearing a necklace with a single jewel.

‘Excellent,’ he said deliberately into space and in such a way that it was not possible to estimate what was praised. ‘Excellent, Master. Please continue, do not pay any attention to me. If you will allow me a moment, Countess.’

He walked a few steps towards the window forcing her to follow him.

‘I’m leaving,’ he said quietly. ‘Affairs of state. Thank you for your hospitality. And the princess. Well done, Stella. You really should be commended. Her too.’

Stella Congreve curtsied deeply and with grace.

‘The Imperial Majesty is exceedingly kind to us.’

‘Do not praise the day before sunset.’

‘Oh…’ she pursed her lips slightly. ‘Is that so?’

‘It is.’

‘What is it, Emhyr?’

‘I do not know,’ he said. ‘In ten days we resume the offensive in the North. It promises to be a difficult, very difficult war. Vattier de Rideaux reveals new conspiracies and plots directed against me. The reasons of state my force many different things.’

‘This girl is not guilty of anything.’

‘I said: reasons of state. Reasons of state have nothing to do with justice. At the end of the day…’

He waved a hand.

‘I want to talk to her. Alone. Come on, Princess. Faster. Closer. The Emperor commands.’

The girl curtsied deeply. Emhyr measured her with his eyes, looking back to that fateful audience in Loc Grim. He was full of praise, nay, even admiration for Stella Congreve, who, within the six months that had elapsed since then, had managed to transform a clumsy ugly duckling into a young aristocrat.

‘Leave us,’ he said. ‘Take a break, Master Robin, say, to clean your brushes. You, Countess, please wait in the anteroom. And you, Princess, follow me to the terrace.’

The wet snow that had fallen during the night had melted in the early morning sun, but the rooftops and towers of the caste Darn Rowan were still wet and blazing in the sun like fire.

Emhyr approached the balustrade. The girl, according to court etiquette kept one step behind him. With an impatient gesture, he beckoned her to come closer.

The Emperor was silent for a long time, he leaned with both hands on the railing, staring out at the hills and the evergreen yews that grew on them. Clearly distinguishable from the white rocky limestone recesses. Below them the river gleamed lick a silver river winding through the gorge.

The wind brought the scent of spring.

‘I seldom come here,’ Emhyr said. The girl remained silent.

‘I seldom come here,’ he repeated, turning away. ‘It is a beautiful and peaceful place. Beautiful surroundings… Do you agree?’

‘Yes… Imperial Majesty.’

‘You can smell spring in the air. Have you noticed?’

‘Yes, Imperial Majesty.’

From the lower courtyard they heard a noisy clatter disturbed by singing and the ringing of horseshoes. The escort, which had already received the order to depart, were in a hurry to get ready to leave. Emhyr remembered that among the guards was one who sang. Often regardless of the circumstances.



Look down on me regretfully

Eyes of azure

And give me graciously

Your charms

Remember me regretfully

In the dark night-time

Do not deny me graciously

The desire that dwells within you



‘A beautiful ballad,’ he said thoughtfully, passing his fingers over his heavy gold, imperial chain.

‘Beautiful. Imperial Majesty.’

Vattier assures me that he is already on Vilgefortz’s trail. That locating him will be a matter of days, weeks at most. The heads of traitors will fall and the true Ciri, Princess of Cintra will be delivered to Nilfgaard.

And before the genuine Cirilla, Princess of Cintra comes to Nilfgaard, I will have to do something with the double.

‘Lift up your head.’

She obeyed.

‘Do you have any wishes?’ he asked sternly. ‘Requests? Complaints?’

‘No, Imperial Majesty, I do not.’

‘Really? That’s interesting. No, but then I cannot command that you had. Raise your head, as befits a princess. Stella taught you courtly manners?’

‘Yes, Imperial Majesty.’

In fact, he thought, they trained her really well. Rience first and then Stella. They taught her the role – certainly under threat of torture and death. They warned her that the part that she would have to play before a ruthless and unforgiving audience. Before the terrible Emhyr var Emreis, Emperor of Nilfgaard.

‘What is your name?’ he asked sharply.

‘Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon.’

‘Your real name.’

‘Cirilla Fiona...’

‘Do not try my patience. Name!’

‘Cirilla...’ the girl’s voice broke like a reed stalk. ‘Fiona...’

‘Enough, by the Great Sun,’ he said through clenched teeth, ‘Enough!’

In a breach of etiquette, she sniffed loudly. Her lips trembled but etiquette did not forbid it.

‘Calm down,’ he ordered, albeit in a low voice, almost soft. ‘What do you fear? Are you ashamed of your own name? Are you afraid to tell me? Does it raise unpleasant memories? I only ask because I would like to address you by your real name. But I must know what it is.’

‘It’s nothing,’ she said, her big eyes suddenly sparkled like emerald in the glow of candles. ‘Because it is a bland name, Imperial Majesty. A person who wears it is a nobody. As long as I’m Cirilla Fiona, I mean something... As long as...’

Her voice stuck in her throat so rapidly that she instinctively raised her hands to her neck, as if what she had on was not a necklace, but a choking garrotte. Emhyr continued to measure her with his eyes, still full of praise for Stella Congreve. At the same time he also felt anger. Unfounded anger and therefore even more terrible.

What I do want from this child, he thought, feeling the anger rising in him, as it boiled and seethed like soup in a cauldron. What I do want with this child whose...

‘Know that I had nothing to do with your kidnapping girl,’ he said sharply. ‘I had nothing to do with your kidnapping. I gave no such orders. I was fooled...’

He was angry with himself, aware that he was making a mistake. He should have ended this conversation long ago, ended it with grace, with power, menacing, like an emperor. It was necessary to forget about this girl with the green eyes. The girl did not exist. She was a double. An imitation. She did not even have a name. She was nobody. The emperor does not ask for forgiveness, does not apologize to someone who...

‘Forgive me,’ he said, the words sounded strange, unpleasantly sticking to his lips. ‘I made a mistake. Yes, it’s true, I am guilty of what happened to you. Guilty. But I give you my word that you will come to no danger, no injustice, no harm, no threat. Do not be afraid.’

‘I’m not afraid,’ she lifted her head and etiquette notwithstanding meet his gaze. Emhyr flinched, struck by the honesty and trust in her eyes. He immediately straightened, the proud and noble emperor once more.

‘Ask of me what you want.’

She looked at him again, and he involuntarily recalled countless time when he had bought in this way the peace of mind for the damage of his meanness. He secretly enjoyed selfishly paying the off so cheaply.

‘Ask of me what you want,’ he repeated and by the fact that he was tired, his voice became a little more human. ‘I will fulfill your every wish.’

Do not look at me, he thought. I cannot bear that look. People are apparently afraid to look at me. What do I have to fear?

Fuck Vattier and his reasons of state. If she asks for it, I’ll take her home to where she was abducted. Perhaps in a golden coach with six horses. She simply has to ask.

‘Ask of me what you want,’ he repeated.

‘I thank you, Imperial Majesty,’ said the girl, lowering her eyes. ‘His Imperial Majesty is very noble and generous. If I could ask for anything...’

‘Speak.’

‘I want to stay here. Here at Darn Rowan. At the home of Lady Stella.’

He was not surprised. He sensed something.

Tact prevented him from asking the questions that would be humiliating to them both.

‘I gave my word,’ he said coldly. ‘My will be done.’

‘Thank you, Your Majesty.’

‘I gave my word,’ he repeated, ‘and I will honor it. However, I think you chose wrong. You did not choose that which you desire. If you change your mind...’

‘I will not change,’ she said when it was clear that the emperor was not going to finish. ‘Why would I change my mind? I have chosen Lady Stella, I have chosen things that I have experienced in my life so little... A house, warmth, kindness... Love. You cannot make a mistake when choosing something like that.’

Poor, naive, little thing, thought Emhyr var Emreis, Deithwen Addan yn Carn aep Morvudd – The White Flame Dancing on the Barrows of his Enemies. It is such desires that are filled with the most terrible mistakes.

But something – perhaps long-forgotten memories, prevent the Emperor from saying it out loud.



‘Interesting,’ Nimue said, when she heard the story. A very interesting dream. Were there any others?’

‘Bah!’ Condwiramurs cut the top off of the boiled egg with a knife. ‘My head is still spinning after that parade! But this is normal. The first night in a new place always produces chaotic dreams. Do you know, Nimue for us, it is claimed that our talent lies in the fact that we have dreamlike visions. We do not use hypnosis or a trance; our visions are no different from other people’s dreams, in intensity, or abundance or content. Unlike us, and this is what our talent determines. We remember our dreams. Rarely do we forget what we dream of.’

‘Because you have atypical and typical activities in your endocrine glands,’ said the Lade of the Lake. ‘Your dreams are, and I’m trivializing a bit, nothing more than a body dedicated to endorphins. Like most innate magical talents, yours is also prosaically organic in origin. But why am I explaining something that you yourself already know. Do you remember any more dreams?’

‘A young boy,’ Condwiramurs frowned, ‘travelling with a pouch over his shoulder through fields. It is early spring, the fields are empty. Willows... along the edges of the road. Willows bent, hollow and deformed... and bare, yet still with leaves. The boy walks and looks around. It is dark. In the sky there are stars. One of them is moving. It is a comet. A reddish, flickering spark, diagonally crossing the sky...’

‘Good,’ Nimue rejoiced. ‘While I have no idea about who you were dreaming of, I can pinpoint the date. The Red Comet was visible for only six days in the spring of the year of the Peace of Cintra. More specifically, in the first days of March. In other dreams do you experience time stamps?’

‘My dreams,’ Condwiramurs snorted, taking solace in her egg, ‘are not an agricultural calendar. They do not have dated subtitles. But for the record, I also dreamed of the Battle of Brenna, probably because I looked for a time at the canvas by Nicholas Certosy in your gallery. And the date for the Battle of Brenna is also known. It was also in the same year as the comet, unless I am mistaken.’

‘No, you are not wrong. Was there something special about the dream of the battle?’

‘No. A chaos of horses, people and weapons. People screamed and killed. Someone, surely a mad man, shrieked – “The Eagles! The Eagles!”’

‘What else? You said that there was a whole parade of dreams.’

‘I do not remember…’ Condwiramurs paused.

Nimue smiled.

‘Well,’ the adept said, wincing hard, preventing the Lady of the Lake from delivering any mocking comments. ‘Yes, sometimes I forget. Nobody is perfect. I repeat, My dreams are visions, not some organized shelves in a library…’

‘I know,’ Nimue said. ‘We are not doing this to test your abilities as a dreamer, we are analyzing the legend. The riddles and blank spaces. It goes pretty well for us, as in the first dream you’ve discovered who was the girl in the portrait, The double of Ciri who Vilgefortz attempted to deceive Emperor Emhyr…’

She stopped because into the kitchen came the Fisher King. He bowed, muttered and pulled out a loaf of bread, a bottle and a package wrapped in cloth from the cupboard. Then he turned to leave, not forgetting to bow and grunt.

‘He is lame,’ Nimue said with ill-concealed sympathy. ‘He was seriously wounded in a hunt with a wild boar which gored his leg. That’s why he spends so much time on the boat. With the oars and fishing he forgets about his injures. He is a very decent and good man. And I…’

Condwiramurs remained politely silent.

‘I need a man,’ said the little sorceress impartially.

I also, thought the adept. The devil, as soon as I return to the Academy, I’ll let someone seduce me. Celibacy is food, but not for longer than one semester.

Nimue snorted.

‘If you’ve finished eating and dreaming, let’s go to the library.’



‘Let’s get back to your dream.’

Nimue opened a folder, she turned and took out several sheets of sepia wash drawings. Condwiramurs immediately recognized the captured scene.

‘The audience at Loc Grim?’

‘Of course. The double is present in the imperial palace. Emhyr pretending that he has been deceived and putting a good face on things. Here, look, the ambassadors of the Northern Kingdoms, for who his performance is played. And here we see the Nilfgaardian dukes. They feel humiliated, the emperor has rejected their noble daughters and so despised their offers of alliances. They stand aside, whispering, planning revenge, conspiracy, murder. The double stands before the throne with her head bowed. The artist has done this to emphasize her mystique, even her features are hidden under the veil on her face. This is basically everything we know about the false Ciri. No version of the legend mentions what happened to her later.’

‘It’s not hard to imagine,’ Condwiramurs said sadly, ‘that fate was not kind to the girl. When Emhyr got the original, and we all know that he acquired her, he got rid of the forgery. In the dream I sensed no tragedy, and in principle I should have felt something if… On the other hand, what I see in dreams is not necessarily the real truth. As with any person, my dreams reflect my desire, longing… And fears.’

‘I know.’



The discussed until lunchtime, looking through folders and bundles of prints. The fishing must have been good to the Fisher King because the lunch was grilled salmon. For dinner, too.

That night, Condwiramurs slept poorly. She had eaten too much.

She did not dream of anything. She was a little angry and embarrassed by it, but Nimue showed no concern.

‘We have time,’ she said. ‘Before us are many more nights.’

***

The tower of Inis Vitre had several bathrooms, truly luxurious, plush, lined with marble and gleaming with brass, it was heated by pipes whose furnace was located somewhere in the basement. Condwiramurs could laze in the bath for hours, but today she met Nimue in the

sauna, a small log cabin with a landing that went out into the lake. They sat together on a bench in the steam rising from red-hot stones washed down with water, flicking themselves with birch brushes. Salty sweat ran down into their eyes.

‘If I understand correctly,’ Condwiramurs wiped her face, ‘the end result of my experience on Inis Vitre should be to answer all the riddles and blank spaces in the legend of the Sorceress and the Witcher?’

‘You are correct.’

‘By day, by examining images and discussions, it should prepare me for the night, when I have the power to dream, about that event that is now completely forgotten and what really happened? ‘

This time Nimue did not consider it necessary to confirm this. She got up and poured water from a bucket onto the stones. The hot steam took their breath away for a moment. The rest of the bucket of water, Nimue poured on herself. Condwiramurs admired her figure. Thought tiny, the sorceress was built extraordinarily proportionately. The body and supple skin of the sorceress could envy many a young girl. Condwiramurs was only twenty-four and she envied her.

‘But even if I dream of something,’ she continued, wiping her sweaty face again, ‘how can I be sure that what I dreamed was the true version? I certainly do not know...’

‘Let’s halt this discussion for a while,’ cut off Nimue. ‘We go out. I’m already tired of sitting in this slow cooker. Let’s refresh. And then we’ll talk.’

As it was part of the ritual. They ran out of the sauna, their bare feet pattering on the boards of the landing and with a loud cry jumped into the cold water. Once they had dipped, they swam to the landing and wrung out their hair.

The Fisher King, alarmed by the splashing and yelling, looked back from his boat, he shaded his eyes with his hand, then immediately turned around and devoted himself to his fishing tackle. Condwiramurs considered this behavior offensive and reprehensible. Her opinion of the Fisher King had greatly increased when she noticed the time that he did not spend fishing he spent reading. He walked with a book, even to the bathroom, and it was nothing less than Speculum Aureum, a work both profound and intellectually challenging. So if it was true that in her early days on Inis Vitre, Condwiramurs was somewhat astonished by the inclinations of Nimue, they had now stopped. It was clear that the Fisher King was an uncouth lout only in appearance. Apparently, such behavior was considered a secure mask.

Nevertheless, thought Condwiramurs, it is an unforgivable insult and an affront turning towards this rods and bait when there were two women parading naked, with bodies worthy of nymphs, from which the eyes should not be able to break away.

‘If I dream something,’ she returned to the subject at hand as she wiped her breasts with a towel, ‘what guarantee do we have that it is the true version? I know all the literary versions of the legend, from Dandelion’s Half a Century of Poetry, to Andre Ravix’s Lady of the Lake. I know all of Reverend Jarre’s, various scientific treatises on the popular editions that I will not even mention. All of these readings have left a trace, had an effect, I am not able to eliminate this from my dreams. Is there a chance to break through the fiction to dream the truth?’

‘There is.’

‘How high?’

‘The same as,’ Nimue nodded towards the boat on the lake, ‘which the Fisher King has. You see how he tirelessly checks his hooks. They anchor weeds, roots, submerged stumps, trunks, old shoes and the drowned devil knows what else. But from time to time he catches something.’

‘So happy fishing then,’ Condwiramurs sighed and began to dress. ‘Let us set the bait and start fishing. Look for the real version of the legend inside the upholstery and lining of an old

trunk and hope to find a false bottom. And what if there is no false bottom? With all due respect, Nimue, but we are not the first in this fishery. What are the chances that some details escaped the attention of historians and the researchers who fished in front of us? Do we even have a minnow left?’

‘They left,’ Nimue said with conviction, combing her hair, ‘Blank spaces filled with rhetoric and fabrications. Or wrapped in silence.’

‘Like what?’

‘For example, the witcher’s winter stay in Toussaint. All version of the legend dispose of this episode with a short sentence: “The heroes spent the winter in Toussaint.” Even Dandelion, who devoted two chapters to his adventures in the Duchy, is surprising enigmatic in terms of the witcher. Is it not worth it to find out what happened this winter? After escaping from Belhaven, and meeting with the elf Avallac’h in the underground complex of Tir ná Bea Arainne? After the skirmish in Caed Myrkvid and the adventure of the Druids? What did the witcher do in Toussaint from October through to January?’

‘What did he do? Hibernated!’ snorted the adept. ‘Before the spring thaw, he would not be able to cross the mountain passes, and so he spent the winter bored. It is not surprising that later writers relieved piece of boredom with a terse: “Winter passed by.” But if you need, I’ll try to dream something. Do we have a picture or a drawing?’

Nimue smiled.

‘We have lots of pictures.’



The rock painting represented a hunting scene. Lean casual strokes depicted little men carrying bows and spears hunting a large buffalo. The buffalo was purple, striped like a tiger and above its curved horns hung something that resembled a dragonfly.

‘This,’ Regis said nodding his head, ‘is the work of the elf Avallac’h. The elf that knew much.’

‘Yes,’ Geralt confirmed dryly. ‘This is his painting.’

‘The problem is that we have thoroughly explored the caves and there is no trace of either elves or any other creatures you mentioned.’

‘They were here. Now they are hiding. Or gone.’

‘This is an indisputable fact. Do not forget, you were only awarded the audience through the intercession of the flaminica. Apparently it was concluded that one hearing was enough. After the flaminica categorically refused to cooperate, I really do not know what else you can do. We have been wandering around these caves all day. I‘m afraid there is no point’

‘Me, too,’ said the witcher bitterly. ‘I cannot resist such an impression. I’ve never understood the elves. But at least now I know why most human have no sympathy for elves. Because it is hard to shake the feeling that they are mocking us. In everything that they do, what they say, what they think, elves make a mockery of us and scoff.’

‘The anthropomorphism is speaking through you.’

‘Maybe a little. But the impression remains.’

‘What do we do?’

‘Return to Caed Myrkvid, to see Cahir, who no doubt has had his scalp wound healed by the Druids. Then we get on the horses and take full advantage of the invitation of Countess Anna Henrietta . Do not look at me like that vampire, Milva has broken ribs, Cahir a broken head, and rest in Toussaint will benefit both of them. And we will also have to remove Dandelion from the mess he has gotten into, because I fear he has gotten into a good one.’

‘Well,’ sighed Regis. ‘Have it your way. I’ll have to avoid mirrors and dogs and will have to beware of sorcerers and telepaths... And if I’m still exposed, I’m counting on you.’

‘You can count on me,’ Geralt said seriously. ‘I’m not in the habit of leaving a friend in need.’

The vampire smile and because they were alone, he did not hid his fangs.

‘Friend?’

‘The anthropomorphism speaks through my mouth. Come on, let’s get out of this cave, my friend. Because here we will find only rheumatism.’

‘Probably. Unless... Geralt? From what you saw, the Elven necropolis of Tir ná Bea Arainne is behind this wall. We could get there if... you know. If we broke through. Have you thought about this?’

‘No. I had not thought of it.’



The Fisher King had again prospered because there was lake trout for dinner again. The fish was so delicious that the lesson went out the window. Again Condwiramurs ate too much.



Condwiramurs belched. It is time to sleep, she though, when she caught herself for the second time mechanically turning the pages of a book without perceiving the content. It is time to dream.

She yawned and put down her book. She rearranged the pillows from a reading position to resting. With a spell she put out the lamp. The chamber was immediately plunged into darkness as thick as molasses. The heavy velour curtains were fully drawn, as the adept discovered, it is best to dream in total darkness. What to choose? She thought, stretching between the sheets. Go with the current and dream or try and anchor?

Despite their proud statements, Dreamers did not remember half of their prophetic dreams, a significant portion of them remained in the minds of the oneiromancers as gibberish images, changing colors and shapes like a kaleidoscope - a child’s toy with mirrors and glass. If the dreamlike visions were stripped of all pretence of order and meaning, then they could safely ignore them. According to the rules: “If I do not remember it, it means, it was not worth remembering”. In the jargon of the dreamers these dreams are called “lemons”.

Worse and a somewhat embarrassing affair are “ghost” dreams, from which the dreamer only remembers fragments, and very short snippets of events, after which the next morning is left only a vague feeling of a messaged received. If the “ghost” is repeated several times, it is certain that it is a dream which is important for some reason. Then the dreamer, through concentration and autosuggestion tries to force the dream again, this time a more specific “ghost”. The best result are to force oneself to dream again immediately after waking up – called “hooking”. If the dream does not produce a “hook” they try and produce a vision during one of the following session by concentration and meditation prior to going to sleep. Such pressure programming is called “anchoring”.

After twelve nights on the island, Condwiramurs already had three lists of dreams. There was a list worthy of pride, a list of “ghosts” that she had “hooked” or “anchored” successfully. Among them there was the dream of the rebellion on the Island of Thanedd and the journey of the witcher and his companions in a blizzard in the pass of Malheur, and the spring downpours softening the roads in the Sudoth valley. There was also a list that Nimue had recognized as a list of failures, dreams that despite all their efforts remained an enigma. And there was also a working list, a list of dreams waiting their turn.

And there was a dream, strange but very nice that was coming back in bits and pieces in elusive sounds and silky touches.

A nice, pleasant dream.

Well, thought Condwiramurs, closing her eyes. Let it be.



‘I think I know what the witcher did during the winter in Toussaint.’

‘Well, well,’ Nimue looked over the edge of the leather-bound grimoire that she was reading. ‘So you finally dreamed something?’

‘Of course’ Condwiramurs said boastfully, ‘I dreamed! Of the Witcher Geralt and a woman with short, black hair and green eyes. I do not know who it could be. Maybe this Countess, Dandelion writes about in his memoirs?’

‘You must not have read carefully,’ the sorceress said somewhat coolly. ‘Dandelion described Countess Anarietta in detail and all sources confirm that her hair was, quote “Chestnut colored and truly shining like a halo of gold.”’

‘So it was not her,’ admitted the adept. ‘My woman had black hair. Like coal. And the dream was… hummm… interesting.’

‘I’m eagerly listening.’

‘They were talking together. But it was not an ordinary conversation.’

‘What was so strange?’

‘Most of the time her legs where on his shoulders.’



‘Tell me, Geralt, do you believe in love at first sight?’

‘Do you?’

‘I believe.’

‘Now I know why we are together. Opposites attract.’

‘Do not be cynical.’

‘Why? Cynicism reportedly shows intelligence.’

‘That’s not true. Cynicism, for all its aura of pseudo intelligence is disgustingly hypocritical and insincere. While we’re at it... Tell me, witcher, what do you most love about me?’

‘This.’

‘You go from cynicism to triviality and banality. Try again.’

‘What I most love about you is your reason, your intelligence and inner depth, your independence and freedom, your...’

‘I do not understand where you get so much sarcasm.’

‘It was not sarcasm, it was a joke.’

‘I cannot stand such jokes. Especially at the wrong time. Everything, my dear, has its time, and under the sky all are assigned their time. There is a time to be silent and a time to talk, a time to weep and a time to laugh, time to sow and a time to pick, sorry, collect, a time for jokes and a time for seriousness...’

‘A time to touch and a time to refrain?’

‘Oh, do not take it so seriously! Assume instead that it is a time for compliments. Loving without the compliments becomes just mindless activities to satisfy physical needs. Tell me, compliments!’

‘From the Buina to the Yaruga, there is no one with such a beautiful ass as yours.’

‘Now you go and compare me to barbaric rivers from the north that I do not know. Leaving aside the quality of your metaphor, could you have not said from the Velda to the Alba? Or from the Alba to Sansretour?’

‘I’ve never been to the Alba. I try to avoid forms of flirting that I cannot back up with factual experience.’

‘Oh, really? So I guess that you have seen and experienced so many asses, that you are able to judge? What, white-haired one? How many women have you had before me? Well? I asked you a question, witcher! Put away those hand, you will not escape having to answer. How many women did you have before me?’

‘None. You’re the first.’

‘Finally!’



Nimue had already spent a long time contemplating a picture that appeared in a subtle chiaroscuro of ten women sitting around a table.

‘Too bad we do not know that they really looked like.’ She said at last.

‘The great teachers?’ Condwiramurs snorted. ‘there are dozens of portraits! Only in Aretuza itself...’

‘I said: really.’ Interrupted Nimue. ‘I did not mean embellished imaginations based on other embellished imaginations. Do not forget, there was a time of destruction of the images of sorceresses. And the same of sorceresses. Then came the era of propaganda, the teachers had to build up the appearance of respect, admiration and reverent fear. Then from the reunion of the Lodge came oaths and convents, pictures and paintings recording those present at the table were often wonderful and alluring women. But there are no authentic portraits. Except for two. The portrait of Margarita Laux-Antille which hangs in Aretuza, on the island of Thanedd and was by a miracle saved from fire. And a picture of Síle de Tansarville in Ensenada in the palace of Lan Exeter.’

‘And what of Francesca Findabair’s image by an unknown elvish painter, hanging in the gallery in Vengerberg?’

‘A fake. When the Gate opened and the elves left, they took with them or destroyed all their works of art and left not a single image. We do not know if the Daisy of the Valley was really as beautiful as they say. We do not know the appearance of Ida Emean. And the images of the Sorceress of Nilfgaard were destroyed thoroughly and systematically, we have no idea of the true appearance of Assire car Anahid or Fringilla Vigo.’

‘Let us assume,’ sighed Condwiramurs, ‘that they looked as they were later portrayed. Dignified, noble, good, wise, honest and generous. And beautiful, dazzlingly beautiful... Let us assume that. Then it is somehow easier to live.’



The daily tasks on Inis Vitre gradually fell into a dull routine. The analyst of dreams started after breakfast and usually lasted until noon. Before lunch, Condwiramurs went for a walk, but walks soon became boring. No wonder, in an hour it was possible to circle the island twice and look at things as interesting as rocks, dwarf pines, sand, clams and sea gulls.

After lunch and a long nap, they began discussions, reviewing books, scrolls and manuscripts, viewing pictures, images and maps. And long, protracted disputes in the night on the relationship between legend and truth.

And then at night came the dreams. Different dreams. Celibacy began to be noticed. Instead of dreams of the enigma of the legend of the witcher, Condwiramurs dreamed of the

Fisher King in a variety of situations from the non-erotic to the extremely erotic. In the extremely non-erotic dreams the Fisher King dragged her behind the boat tied to a rope. He rowed slowly and lazily, so she sank into the lake, swallowing water and she felt a terrible fear, because she felt something rising from the bottom, something huge and hungry, something that wanted to swallow the bait, which she was. When it seemed the something was about to catch her, the Fisher King pulled powerfully on the oars, the rope tighten and she was pulled away from the jaws of the unseen predator. She felt like she couldn’t breathe, then she awoke.

In her undoubtedly erotic dreams she was kneeling on the rickety boat, clinging to the rail and the Fisher King held her around the neck from behind as he fucked her enthusiastically, grunting, spitting and growling the whole time. Apart from the physical pleasure, Condwiramurs felt an apprehension that chilled her bowels: what if Nimue caught them? Suddenly in the water of the lake she saw the wobbling, threatening face of the little sorceress... she woke up, drenched in sweat.

She got up, opened the window and felt the cool night air, and saw the moonlight falling on the mist from the lake.

And then she dreamed on.



The tower of Inis Vitre had a balcony that overlooked the lake. At first Condwiramurs paid it no attention, but over time she had reason to ponder. The balcony was special because it was inaccessible. It was impossible to get to it from any room she knew.

Aware that the home of the sorceress cannot go with such a secret anomaly, Condwiramurs did not ask questions. Even when taking a stroll around the lake she saw Nimue watching. Apparently in was only inaccessible to those unauthorized and uninvited. She was a little angry because it was considered rude but pretended that she did not see anything.

But it did not take long to before the mystery was solved.

It was after a series of dreams, caused by Wilma Wessely’s watercolors. The author was apparently fascinated by the adventures of Ciri and the Tower of the Swallow, because all of her works had been devoted to them.

‘I’ve had weird dreams,’ she complained one morning. ‘...I dream images. Not scenes, no scenes, but pictures. Ciri and a tower... A still picture.’

‘And nothing more? Nothing except the visual experience?’

Nimue, of course, knew that as a capable dreamer, like Condwiramurs used all her senses, she doesn’t just receive the dream through her eyes like most people, but also through hearing, touch, smell – and even taste.

‘Nothing,’ said the adept. ‘Just...’

‘Well?’

‘A thought. A stubborn thought. In this tower, I’m not a lady, but a prisoner.’

‘Come with me.’

As Condwiramurs had guessed, access to the balcony was only possible going through the private chambers of the sorceress. Clean rooms that were meticulously neat and fragrant smelling of sandalwood, myrrh, lavender and mothballs. It was necessary to use a small secret door and a spiral staircase leading down.

Then they came to where they had to go.

The chamber, in contrast to the other rooms, did not have wood paneling on the walls, or tapestries, it was only whitewashed so it was very light. Even more clear light, because there

was a huge triple window, or rather a glass door, which led directly to the balcony overhanging the lake.

The only furniture in the room were two chairs, a huge oval framed mirror and a sort of mahogany stand with a horizontal framework where a tapestry had been hung. The tapestry measured about five feet seven and reached its fringes to the floor.

The tapestry showed a rocky bluff overlooking a mountain lake. A castle was embedded in the cliff that seemed to be part of the stone wall. Condwiramurs knew the castle well, she had seen it in many illustrations.

‘Vilgefortz’s citadel, where he imprisoned Yennefer. Where the legend ended.’

‘Yes,’ Nimue said, apparently indifferent. ‘That is where the legend ended, at least in the traditional versions. We know these versions, so it seems to up that this is the ending. Ciri escaped from the Tower of the Swallow, were, as you dreamed, she was being held as a prisoner. When she realized what they wanted to do, she ran away. The legend give many versions of this escape...’

‘I,’ interrupted the adept,’ liked the best version, we the objects are thrown behind her. A comb, and apple and a handkerchief. But...’

‘Condwiramurs.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘As I said, there are many versions of the flight. But it still remains unclear how Ciri went directly from the Tower to the Swallow to Vilgefortz’s castle. If you cannot dream of the Tower of the Swallow, then try and dream of the castle. Look carefully at the tapestry... Are you listening?’

‘This mirror... It’s magic, right?’

‘No. I squeeze pimples in front of it.’

‘Sorry.’

‘It is a mirror of Hartmann,’ Nimue said, seeing the adept’s wrinkled nose and angry gesture. ‘You may want to look. But be careful, please.’

‘Is it true,’ Condwiramurs asked, her voice trembling with excitement, ‘that with a mirror of Hartmann you can move to others...’

‘Worlds?’ It is. But not immediately, not without long preparation, exercise, mediation and many other things. When I urged caution, I was thinking of something else.’

‘What?’

‘The mirror of Hartmann works in both directions. It is always possible someone or something may come out.’



‘Do you know, Nimue… When I look at the tapestry…’

‘Did you dream last night?’

‘I dreamed. But strangely. A bird’s eye view. I was a bird… I saw the castle from outside. I could not get inside, something was guarding the entrance.’

‘Look at the tapestry,’ Nimue ordered. ‘Look at the citadel. Look carefully, focus your attention to every detail. Concentrate hard, record this image in your memory. I want you, if you can get there in the dream, to go inside. It is important that you enter.’



Outside, beyond the castle walls, raged a blizzard but inside, fuelled by thick logs a fire blazed. Yennefer reveled in the warmth. Her current cell was indeed better than the wet cell, in which she had spent the last two months, but even so, her teeth chattered with the cold.

While imprisoned she had lost track of time, they were in no hurry to inform her of the date, but she was certain it was winter, in December, maybe January.

‘Eat, Yennefer,’ Vilgefortz said. ‘Do not hesitate.’

The sorceress did not allow for embarrassment or accident. She ate slowly only because her barely healed fingers were stiff and awkward and it was difficult to hold the cutlery. And she would not eat with her hands, she was eager to show her superiority to Vilgefortz and the rest of the guests of the sorcerer. She knew none of them.

‘It is with great regret I must inform you,’ said Vilgefortz, his fingers caressing the stem of his cup, ‘that Ciri, your ward, has departed from this world. You can only blame yourself, Yennefer. And your foolish stubbornness.’

One of the guests, a short man with dark hair, sneezed loudly, wiping snot on a cambric handkerchief. His nose was red, swollen and undeniably congested.

‘To your health,’ Yennefer said, not upset at all by Vilgefortz angry words. ‘How did you come by such a terrible cold, noble sir? Did you stand in a draft after a bath?’

Another guest, an older, taller, thin man, with unnaturally pale eyes, laughed. The man with the cold, though his face flushed with anger, thanked the sorceress with a short bow and a short, nasal response. It was not short enough to hide the Nilfgaardian accent.

Vilgefortz turned to face her. He no longer wore on his head the golden structure or the glass lens over his eye socket, but it looked even worse than in the summer, when she saw him maimed for the first time. The left eyeball had regenerated sufficiently, but was much smaller than the right. The appearance was breath-taking.

‘You, Yennefer,’ he drawled, ‘probably think I’m lying to deceive you. Why would I? The report of the girl’s death has crushed me like you, if not more. After all I had far-reaching plans for her, which would decide about my future. Ciri is dead and now my plans have collapsed.’

‘Good,’ Yennefer, barely keeping the knife in your fingers, clumsily cut into her second course of stuffed pork chop.

‘On the contrary,’ continued the sorcerer, ‘to you Ciri was only a silly sentiment, consisting of equal parts of the penalty of your infertility and your guilt. Yes, yes, Yennefer, a sentiment of guilt! After you had actively participated in genetic experiments, by which Ciri came into the world. Incidentally the experiment failed because the experimenters lacked knowledge.’

Yennefer saluted him in silence, praying that the cup would not slip from her fingers. She slowly came to the conclusion that at least two of them would be stiff for a long time. Maybe permanently.

Vilgefortz snorted at her gesture.

‘It’s too late,’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘you have to know, Yennefer, I have enough knowledge. And if I had this girl, I would use this knowledge. In fact, you have nothing to regret, even though you are dry and barren as a desert, I wanted to strengthen the weak maternal instinct and give you not only a daughter, but even a grandchild. Or at least an ersatz grandchild.

Yennefer snorted dismissively, although inside she was boiling with rage.

‘I’m sorry to spoil your good humor, my dear,’ said the wizard coldly. ‘Because I have the sad news that the witcher, Geralt of Rivia is also dead. Yes, Yes, the same witcher Geralt, with whom, as with Ciri, you associated your surrogate feelings, foolish, embarrassing and nauseating to the stomach. Know Yennefer that our dear friend, the witcher, said goodbye to the world in a truly fiery spectacular. On this occasion, you should not have any remorse. For the witcher’s death, you are not guilty to even the smallest degree. All the credit belongs to me. Taste the candied pears, they are really delicious.’

Yennefer’s violet eyes blazed with hatred.

Vilgefortz laughed.

‘Such is your will,’ he said, ‘Indeed, if not for your dimeritium bracelets, your eyes would have burned me to ashes. But since the dimeritium is working, you cannot burn me, only look.’

The man with the cold, sneezed, blew his nose and coughed until there were tears in his eyes. The tall man looked at her with his unpleasant fish eyes.

‘And where is Mister Rience?’ Yennefer asked, emphasizing the words. ‘Mister Rience, who has promised to do so much to me. And where is Mister Schirrú, who never failed to hit or kick me? And why does my guard, who until recently, were violent and vulgar brutes, started to behave in timid reverence? No, do not answer, Vilgefortz. I think I know. What you told me is a lie. You have lost Ciri and Geralt escaped, while organizing a bloodbath for your minions. Now what? Your plans have collapsed, turned to dust and you yourself have recognized that your dreams of power have faded like smoke. And the sorceresses and Dijkstra draw closer and closer. It is not without reason and not out of pity that you have stopped torturing me. And Emperor Emhyr tightens his network, and this is turning out to be very, very bad. Ess a tearth, me tiarn? A’pleine a cales, ellea?’

‘I understand elder speech,’ said the Nilfgaardian with the cold. ‘And my name is Stefan Skellen. And I do not have full pants. Rather, I believe I am in a considerably better situation that you, Lady Yennefer.’

After the speech he took a breath, coughed again and blew his nose into his soaked handkerchief. Vilgefortz slapped the table with his opened hand.

‘No more games,’ Vilgefortz said, rolling his miniature macabre eye. ‘Know Yennefer that you are no longer needed by me. In fact, I should put you in a sack and drown you in the lake, but I tend to draw on such methods with the greatest distaste. Until such a time circumstances permit me or force me to another decision, you will remain isolated. But I warn you – don’t cause me any problems. If you try to go on a hunger strike again, I will no longer waste time trying to feed you through a tube. I will simply let you starve. And if you try and escape, the guard’s orders are clear. And now, farewell. Unless you haven’t satisfied yourself…’

‘No,’ Yennefer stood up and crumpled her napkin on the table. ‘Maybe it was something I ate, but the company has taken away my appetite. Goodbye, gentlemen.’

Stefan Skellen sneezed and coughed. The tall man with the pale eyes measured her with anger and a sinister smile. Vilgefortz looked away.

As usual, when being led from cell to cell, Yennefer tried to figure out when she was, to get some scrap of information that could help her plan her escape. And as usual, she was disappointed, the corridors down which she was led, had no windows, so there was no chance to see the surrounding countryside, or at least the sin in order to determine the cardinal points. Telepathy was prevented by the two heavy bracelets and a hoop around her neck, all of dimeritium, which effectively blocked any attempt to use magic.

The chamber in which she was imprisoned, was as cold and bleak as a hermit’s hut. Yennefer remembered, however, how happy she was when they had moved her here from the dungeon. From the basement, in whose bottom there was always a stinking pool of water, and the walls dripped with nitrate and salt. The basement where they fed her leftovers in which the rats tore the bits from her mangled fingers effortlessly.

When, after about two months he removed the chain, took her from there and allowed her to change clothes and bathe, Yennefer was beside herself with joy. He took her to a small room where she it seemed to be the bedroom of a king and the slurry that was served, bird’s nest soup, worth of an emperor’s table. Then things cleared. After a while the soup became a nasty slop, the bed a hard cot and the room a prison. A narrow cold prison, in which in just four steps you would come to the other wall.

Yennefer cursed, sighed and sat on the stool that was, apart from the cot, the only piece of furniture she had.

He came in so quiet that she almost didn’t hear him.

‘My name is Bonhart,’ he said. ‘I would be nice that you remember this name, witch. That you engrave it in your memory.’

‘Go fuck yourself, pig.’

‘I am a bounty hunter,’ he growled. ‘Three months ago, in September, I caught your little bastard in Ebbing – the famous Ciri, which you were talking about.’

Yennefer listen carefully. September. Ebbing. Caught her. But she isn’t here. Maybe he is lying?

‘The grey-haired witcher was trained at Kaer Morhen. I told her to fight in an arena, to kill people while people in the audience screamed. Slowly, slowly I turned her more into a beast. I taught her this role with whip, fist and boot. She learned for a long time. But then she escaped me, the green-eyed snake.’

Yennefer imperceptibly sighed with relief

‘She escaped into another world. But we will meet again, I’m sure of it. You know, witch, the only thing I regret is that your lover, the witcher Geralt was burned at the stake. I wanted to give him a taste of my blade, damn mutant.’

Yennefer snorted.

‘Listen, Bonhart, or whatever your name is. Do not make me laugh. The witcher was not brought up to heel. You cannot compare with him. You can only hunt puppies. Only small dogs.’

‘Look here, witch.’

With a sharp movement he parted his shirt and pulled out a chain with three silver medallions hanging from it. One had the shape of a cat’s head, the other an eagle or a griffin. The third she did not see exactly, but she thought it was a wolf.

‘Such trinkets,’ she said, feigning indifference, ‘you can buy at any fair.’

‘These are not from a fair.’

‘Whatever you say.’

‘It was once so,’ hissed Bonhart, ‘that good people were afraid of the witchers more than the monsters. Monsters, after all, sat in the woods and caves, however, witchers had the nerve to walk the streets, enter taverns, and hover near shrines, temples, schools and playgrounds. Decent people were offended, so they started looking for someone who could bring the insolent witchers to order. They found someone. Not easily or soon, not even close. But they found someone. You see, I have killed three. Not another mutant appeared in the area to upset the honest citizens. And if he appeared, I do to him what I did to the previous ones.’

‘Really,’ Yennefer said, ‘with a crossbow from around a corner? Or by poisoning?’

Bonhart put the medallions back under his shirt and took a step towards her.

‘You insult me, witch.’

‘That’s what I wanted.’

‘Oh, really? Now I will show you, witch, that I can compete with your Witcher lover in any field and even be better than him.’

The guards standing at the door jumped upon hearing the crash, bang, howling and whimpering from the cell. And if the guards had ever happened in their life to hear a panther caught in trap, they would have sworn that the cell held a panther.

Then the guards heard from the cell a terrible roar, like a wounded lion, which they had also never heard on watch and only ever seen on their coat of arms. They looked at each other. Shook their heads and entered.

Yennefer sat in the corner of the room, among the remains of the stool.

Her hair was disheveled, her dress and shirt torn from top to bottom, her breasts rose sharply with her heavy breathing. Blood flowed from her nose, a bruise was quickly growing on her face, and there were scratches on her right arm.

Bonhart was sitting in the other corner of the room, among bits of stool, holding his head in both hands. He too was bleeding from his nose, the blood coloring his moustaches a deep crimson. His face was marked by bloody grooves. Yennefer’s barely healed fingers were a terrible weapon, but the dimeritium bracelets had some wonderfully sharp edges.

In Bonhart’s cheek, neatly along the cheek bone, embedded deeply was a fork, which Yennefer had silently stolen at dinner.

‘Only small dogs,’ the sorceress gasped, trying to cover her breast with the remains of her dress, ‘And stay away from the dogs, you are too weak for them, bastard.’

She could not forgive herself for not getting him where she was aiming – his eye. But the target was moving, and besides, no one is perfect.

Bonhart grunted, stood up, grabbed the fork and roared and reeled with pain. He swore horribly.

Meanwhile, two more guards had entered the room.

‘Hey, you!’ Bonhart roared, wiping blood from his face. ‘Come here! Hold this whore on the floor, stretch open her legs and hold her!’

The guards looked at each other, then at the ceiling.

‘You’d better leave, sir,’ said one. ‘There will be no hold or stretching here. It is not our job.’

‘Besides,’ added the second in a whisper, ‘we do not want to end up like Rience and Schirrú.’



Condwiramurs put down the paper which had an image of a prison cell. In the cell was a woman, sitting with her head down, shackled and chained to a stone wall.

‘They imprisoned her,’ she muttered. ‘while the witcher was in Toussaint with some dark haired lady.’

‘Are you condemning him?’ Nimue asked sharply. ‘Without knowing practically anything?’

‘No. I’m not condemning him, but…’

‘No buts about it. Be quiet, please.’

For some time they sat there silently and flipped through prints in a folder.

‘All the versions of the legend,’ Condwiramurs identified one of the images, ‘give this place as the end, the decisive clash between Good and Evil, the castle of Rhys-Rhun. All versions. Except for one.’

‘Except for one,’ Nimue nodded. ‘Apart from the little known anonymously version called The Black Book of Ellander.’

‘The Black Book states that the end of the legend took in Stygga castle.’

‘Correct. Some of the events presented in the book differ considerably from the canon.’

‘I wonder,’ the adept raised her head, ‘which of the two castles is in the picture? Which castle is on your tapestry? Which image is real?’

‘We will probably never know. The castle, where the legend ends, was destroyed and there remains no trace of it, which is confirmed by all versions of the legend, including the Book of Ellander. None of the proposed locations are convincing. We do not know and will probably never learn what the castle looked like and where it stood.’

‘But the truth...’

‘The historical truth is of no importance,’ Nimue sharply interrupted. ‘Remember that we do not know what Ciri really looked like. But here, in this picture drawn by Wilma Wessely, in a violent conversation with Avallac’h set against the background of macabre statues of children, is Ciri. There is no doubt.’

‘But,’ Condwiramurs did not give up, ‘your tapestry...’

‘Shows the castle where the legend ended.’

There was a long silence. The rustling of pictures being turned.

‘I do not like,’ Condwiramurs spoke, ‘the version of the legend in the Black Book. It is so... so...’

‘Frighteningly realistic,’ Nimue finished, shaking her head.



Condwiramurs yawned and put down the book Half a Century of Poetry, the supplemented edition with the afterword by Professor Everett Denhoff Junior. She changed the position of the scattered cushions in the configuration for sleeping. She yawned, stretched and turned off the lamp. The chamber was drowned in darkness, brightened only by slivers of moonlight coming through the gap in the curtains. What to chose for this night, she thought, squirming between the sheets. Leave it to chance? Or try and anchor?

After a moment she decided on the latter.

There was a vague, recurring dream that she could not remember the end of, it got lost and disappeared among other dreams, like a thread that gets those among the colorful patterns in a fabric. A dream that escaped her memory, although it was stubbornly there.

She fell asleep instantly. As soon as she closed her eyes, the dream came.

There was a cloudless night sky, with a moon and stars. On the slopes of a snow-dusted hill she saw vineyards. The black angular outline of buildings with jagged walls and corner towers. There were two riders. Both entered the empty courtyard, both dismounted, both headed for the portal. However, into the dark hole, only one entered.

The one with white hair.

Condwiramurs moaned in her sleep, she thrashed on the bed.

The white haired one followed stairs that went deep, deep underground. Walking down dark corridors, he pauses at regular intervals, lighting torches in their iron brackets. Shadows dance on the walls and ceiling.

More halls, stairs, another corridor. A room, a domed cellar had barrels along the walls. Rubble, a heap of bricks. Then the corridor forks. In both forks there is darkness. The white-haired one lights another torch. He pulls a sword from the sheath on his back. He hesitates, he doesn’t know which for to follow. Finally he decides on the right. It is very dark and twisted, full of debris.

Condwiramurs moaned in her sleep, a mortal fear seizes her. She knows that the path that the white-haired one has chosen, leads into danger. But at the same time she knows that the white-haired one is looking for danger.

Because it is his profession.

The adept stirs between the sheets, moaning. She is a dreamer, the dreamer is in a oneiromanic trance, suddenly she is able to predict what will happen in a moment.

Watch out, she wants to scream but she knows that she will not be able to shout. Watch out, watch out!

Be careful, witcher!

The monster attacked in the dark, from behind, silently, with malignancy. It materialized suddenly from the darkness like a fire that explodes. Like a tongue of flame.





CHAPTER THREE





At dawn of day, when falcon shakes his wing,

Mainly from pleasure, and from noble usage,

Blackbirds too shake theirs then as they sing,

Receiving their mates, mingling their plumage,

O, as the desires it lights in me now rage,

I’d offer you joyously, what befits a lover.

See how Love had written this very page:

Even for this end are we come together.

Francois Villon

Although he was in a hurry and pushed himself hard and did not rest, the witcher stayed in Toussaint almost the entire winter. What were his reasons? I will not write about it. It happened and that is enough, there is no reason to go breaking my head. To those who would condemn the witcher, remember that love has many names, judge not, lest ye be judged.

Dandelion

Half a Century of Poetry

Those were the days of good hunting and good sleeping.

Rudyard Kipling



The monster attacked from the darkness, from its hiding place, quietly and with premeditation. It materialized suddenly from the darkness like a fiery explosion. Like a tongue of flame.

Geralt, though surprised, reacted instinctively. He dodged to the side, brushing up against the wall of the dungeon. The beast flew by and bounced from the stone wall like a ball, waved it wings and jumped again, hissing and opening its horrible beak.

But this time the witcher was prepared.

He struck with a short attack from the elbow, aiming at the throat, the red flap of the gizzards. He succeeded. He felt the blade penetrate the body. The momentum of the blow knocked the monster onto the floor near the wall. The skoffin howled with a cry that almost sounded human. It threw itself among the broken bricks, flapping its wings, spewing blood and thrashing its tail around like a whip. The witcher was sure the fight was over, but the nasty monster gave him an unpleasant surprise. It unexpectedly launched at his throat, screeching, showing its claws and snapping it beak. Geralt jumped, bouncing his shoulder against the wall and launched a blow from below, using the momentum of the bounce. He was successful. The skoffin fell once more between the bricks, its fetid blood spilled down the dungeon wall forming a fanciful pattern. The monster shook, screeched and stretched its long neck, its throat swell and shook. The blood flowed rapidly from it and disappeared among the bricks where it lay.

Geralt could easily finish it off, but he did not want to destroy the skin. He waited calmly until the skoffin bleed to death. He moved a few steps away, undid his pants and took a piss while whistling a nostalgic tune.

The skoffin was silent and still. The witcher moved closer to it and nudged it carefully and gently with the tip of his sword. Seeing that it was over, he grabbed the monster by the tail and held it up. He held the base of the tail at the height of a human’s waist; the skoffin’s sharp beak reached the ground. Its wing span was just over four feet.

‘You’re not particularly heavy,’ Geralt shook the monster that weighed no more than a fattened turkey. ‘Fortunately for me I get paid per piece not by weight.’

***

‘Wow,’ Reynart Bois-de Fresnes whistled through his teeth, which for him, Geralt knew, meant the highest expression of astonishment and admiration. ‘This is the first time I have seen something like this with my own eyes. A true monster, on my honor. So this is the dreaded basilisk?’

‘No,’ Geralt lifted the monster a little higher so the knight would see better. ‘It is not a basilisk. It is a cockatrice.’

‘So what is the difference?’

‘The essentials. The basilisk is also known as the regulus, is a reptile. The cockatrice, also called a skoffin, is an ornithosaur – that is, half reptile, half bird. It is the only representative of the subclass, which scientist call Ornithoreptilia and after long disputes they came to the conclusion that...’

‘And which of the two,’ Reynart Bois-de Fresnes interrupted, apparently without interest of the discussions of scientists, ‘can kill or turn a man to stone with a glance?’

‘None. Those are stories.’

‘Then why are people so afraid? This thing here isn’t so large. Can it be so dangerous?’

‘This thing here,’ Geralt shook the dead monster, ‘usually attacks from behind and without error goes perfectly between the vertebrae or the aorta or under the left kidney. Usually all it takes is a single thrust of its beak. With regards to the basilisk, it will kill you no matter where it bites; it has the strongest know poison which is a neurotoxin that kills within a few moments.’

‘Brrr... Tell me, which one can you kill with a mirror?’

‘All of them. If you slam it hard enough in the head with the mirror.’

Reynard Bois-de Fresnes burst out laughing. Geralt did not laugh, the joke about the basilisk and the mirror was one the teachers in Kaer Morhen repeated often. Equally funny were the jokes about virgins and unicorns. There was also a story of foolishness about a young witcher from Kaer Morhen who made a bet to shake hands with a dragon.

He smiled. Memories.

‘I prefer it when you smile,’ Reynart said, watching him carefully. ‘Like you are at this moment. Not like back in October when we first met in the Druidic woods. Back then you were gloomy, bitter and resentful at the world like a moneylender who had been cheated, and on top of that, like a man who throughout the night has come to nothing. Even in the morning.’

‘Really, I was like that?’

‘Really. So do not be surprised that I prefer you such as you are now. Changed.’

‘Therapy through work,’ Geralt again shook the cockatrice he held by the tail. ‘The beneficial effects of exercise on mental health. And to continue the therapy, I’ll get straight to business. The skoffin can earn more than the agreed upon price for capture. There is little damage to it, so you could take it to a taxidermist for stuffing, but do not take less than two hundred for it. If you have to sell it in pieces, remember that the most valuable feathers are those above the tail, especially these, the central rudders. They are far softer than those of a goose and write very nicely and cleanly with little wear. An experienced scribe will not hesitate to give you five per pen.’

‘I have clients to collect the body,’ the knight smiled. ‘The Guild of Coopers. They saw in Castel Ravello that stuffed ugly thing, that monster, or whatever you call it... Then you, the day after Saovine, went into the basement and killed it.’

‘I remember.’

‘Now the Coopers had seen that stuffed ugly bitch and asked me about obtaining a similar rarity to decorate their guild hall. In Toussaint, the Coopers cannot complain about a lack of work, and as a result they are prosperous so they will not think much if we charge two hundred and twenty for the cockatrice. Maybe even a bit more if we try to haggle. In regards to the feathers… They are not going to know if we took some feathers from the things ass to sell to the county chancery. The chancery does not pay out of pocket, but the county will pay cash, without haggling, not five but ten per pen.’

‘I bow to your cunning.’

‘Nomen omen,’ Reynard Boris-de Fresnes’ smile broadened. ‘My mum must have known something, baptizing me after the sly fox from the nursery rhyme.’

‘You should be a businessman, not a knight.’

‘I should,’ agreed the knight. ‘But if you are born the son of a knight, you will die the son of a knight and will sire another knight. And it does not change, even if you are broke. You know how to count, Geralt, and the culture of the market.’

‘No, not culture. For similar reasons as yours. With the sole difference that I won’t be siring anything. Let’s get out of these dungeons.’

Outside, beneath the walls of the castle, the frost stung and the wind blew from the mountains. The night was a clear and cloudless sky full of stars and the moonlight sparkled on the fresh snow.

The waiting horses snorted in welcome.

‘We could go directly to my customer and make a deal,’ said the knight. ‘But you probably need to get to Beauclair, huh? To a certain bedroom?’

Geralt did not answer, because he did not respond to such questions on principle. He tied the cockatrice onto the back his horse then mounted, Roach.

‘We will visit the customer,’ he said. ‘The night is still young and I’m hungry. I would also like to drink something. Let’s go to town. To Pheasantry.’

The knight laughed and adjusted the red and gold checkered shield hanging on the high saddle so he could scramble up.

‘As you wish, my friend. We go to, Pheasantry. Forward mount.’

They went down the slope to the road lined by a row of poplars.

‘You know what, Reynart,’ Geralt suddenly said. ‘I like you as you are now. Speaking normally. Back when we first met, you used annoying, moronic mannerisms.’

‘Upon my honor, witcher, I am a knight-errant,’ chortled the Reynart Boris-de Fresnes. ‘Have you forgotten? Knights always talk like morons. It is as much a part of their character as this shield here. Thanks to the speech and the coat of arms we know who belongs to the brotherhood.’



‘On my honor,’ said the Checkerboard Knight, ‘you are unnece