Main Sword of Destiny

Sword of Destiny

,
Year: 2015
Language: english
ISBN 10: 1473211530
ISBN 13: 9781473211537
File: EPUB, 272 KB
Download (epub, 272 KB)

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The Limits of the Possible

i

"He's not coming back out, I tell you!" stated a pimply-faced man, shaking his head with finality. "It's been an hour and a quarter since he went in. He's done for."

The townsfolk, huddled together in the midst of the ruins and rubble, watched the gaping black hole of the entrance to the tunnel in silence. A fat man dressed in a yellow smock shifted slightly from one foot to the other, cleared his throat and pulled his wrinkled cap from his head.

"We have to wait a bit longer," he said as he wiped the sweat from his sparse eyebrows.

"Why wait?" snorted pimply, "There in the caves lurks a basilisk, or have you forgotten, burgrave? Anyone goes down there, that's the end of them. Have you forgotten how many have died down there already? What are we waiting for?"

"This was the agreement, wasn't it?" murmured the fat man uncertainly.

"An agreement you made with a living man, burgrave" said the pimply-faced man's companion, a giant of a man in a leather butcher's apron. "He is now dead, as surely as the sun shines in the sky. It was plain from the beginning that he was headed towards death, like all the others before him. He didn't even take a mirror with him, only a sword - and everybody knows you need a mirror in order to kill a basilisk."

"At least we've saved some coin," added pimples "there's no one to pay for taking care of the basilisk. You might as well go home. As far as the sorcerer's horse and baggage... well it would be a shame if they went to waste."

"Yes," said the butcher, "It's a fine old mare and the saddlebags are full. Let's take a look."

"What are you doing?"

"Shut up, burgrave. Don't get in the way unless you want a punch in the face," threatened the pimpled man.

"A fine old mare," repeated the butcher.

"Leave the horse alone, my darling."

The butcher slowly turned around towards the stranger who had suddenly appeared from behind a collapsed wall, just at the back of the audience gathered around the tunnel entrance. The stranger had thick curly brown hair and wore a dark brown tunic under a puffy cotton coat and tall riding boots. He had no weapons.

"Step away from the horse," he repeated with a menacing smile. "What have we here? A horse and saddlebags belonging to another and yet you eye them greedily and paw through them. Is that honourable?"

Pimply slowly slipped a hand inside his overcoat and glanced at the butcher. The butcher gave a nod and signalled toward the crowd, out of which stepped two strong, close cropped, youths. Both carried heavy clubs, like those used to stun animals in the slaughterhouse.

"Who are you?" demanded the pimply-faced man, whose hand remained hidden inside his overcoat, "to tell us what is and isn't honourable?"

"That's none of your business, my dear."

"You carry no weapons."

"That's true," the stranger's smile grew even more poisonous, "I don't carry weapons."

"That's no good," pimply drew a long knife out from inside his coat, "Too bad for you you're not armed."

The butcher also drew a blade; a long hunting knife. The other two men approached, brandishing their clubs.

"I don't carry weapons," responded the stranger, not budging, "but I'm always armed."

From behind the ruins, two young women stepped out lightly and confidently. The crowd quickly parted, retreated then thinned out.

The girls smiled, flashing their teeth, and blinked. They had blue stripes tattooed from the corners of their eyes to the tips of their ears. Lynx pelt clad their strong muscles from thigh to hip and their bare arms curved above their mail gauntlets. From behind the mail-clad shoulder of each rose the hilt of a sabre.

Pimply got down on one knee and slowly, very slowly, placed his knife on the ground.

From the hole in ruins came a rumble of stones, grinding, and then from the darkness there emerged two hands clutching the jagged edge of the wall. Following the hands, a white head appeared, the hair powdered with brick dust, a pale face and then, finally, shoulders, above which stood the hilt of a sword. A murmur escaped the crowd.

The alabaster-haired man straightened and pulled a strange shape from the hole; a small, odd looking body covered in dust and blood. Holding the beast by its long lizard-like tail, the man tossed it to the feet of the burgrave without a word. The burgrave jumped backwards and tripped on a fragment of wall, his eyes glued to a curved bird-like beak, webbed crescent-shaped wings and claws like sickles on its scaly feet. Its slashed throat, once carmine, was now a dirty red-brown. Its sunken eyes were glassy.

"Here's the basilisk," said the white-haired man as he brushed the dust from his trousers, "As agreed, that'll be 200 lintars, good ones, not too worn. I will check them, I'm warning you."

With shaking hands, the burgrave produced a large purse. The white-haired man looked around at the townsfolk, his gaze resting on the pimply-faced man, his discarded knife at his feet. He also noticed the man in the brown tunic and the young women in the lynx pelts.

"It's always the same," he said as he took the purse from the burgrave's nervous hands, "I risk my neck for a few measly coins and you, meanwhile, try to rob me. You people never change, damn you to hell!"

"We haven't touched your bags," the butcher muttered, backing away. The men armed with the clubs had long since hidden themselves in the crowd. "Your things have not been disturbed, sir"

"I'm glad to hear it," the white-haired man smiled. At the sight of his smile, which bloomed on his pale face like an open wound, the crowd began to disperse. "And that is why, brother, you have nothing to worry about. Go in peace. But go quickly."

Pimply, backing away, was about to run. The spots stood out on his pallid face making him look even more hideous.

"Hey! Wait a minute!" called the man in the brown tunic, "You've forgotten about something."

"What's that... sir?"

"You pulled a knife on me."

The tallest of the young women, who stood waiting with her long legs apart, turned on her hip. Her sabre, drawn faster than the eye could see, cut through the air. The head of the pimply-faced man flew upwards, tracing an arc before disappearing into the gaping hole. His body rolled stiff and heavy, like a freshly felled tree, amongst the broken rubble. The crowd cried out in unison. The second girl, her hand on the hilt of her sabre, turned agilely, covering her back. It was unnecessary - the crowd rushed and stumbled through the ruins towards the town as fast as their legs could carry them. At the head of the crowd, leaping impressively, was the burgrave - slightly ahead of the butcher.

"A beautiful strike," commented the white-haired man coldly as he shielded his eyes from the sun with a black-gloved hand. "A beautiful strike from a Zerricanian sabre. I humbly bow before the skill and beauty of free warrior women. I am Geralt of Rivia."

"And I..." the unknown man indicated to a faded coat of arms emblazoned on his brown tunic representing three black birds aligned on a field of gold, "I am Borch, also called Three Jackdaws. And these are my bodyguards Tea and Vea. At least that's what I call them because their true names are a tongue twister. They are both, as you so finely guessed, Zerricanian."

"Thanks to them, or so it would seem, I still have my horse and belongings. My thanks to you, warriors, and also to you, noble lord."

"Three Jackdaws. And I'm no gentleman. Is there anything keeping you in this region, Geralt ofRivia?"

"Nothing at all."

"Perfect. In that case, I have a proposition. Not far from here, at the crossroads on the road to the river-port, is an inn called The Pensive Dragon. The food is unequalled throughout this whole region. I'm on my way there now with the intention of dining and spending the night. It would be an honour if you would accompany me."

"Borch," replied Geralt, white head turning away from his horse, looking into the bright eyes of the stranger, "I'd like you to know so that there be no misunderstanding between us. I'm a witcher."

"I thought as much. And you said that as if you were saying, 'I'm a leper.'"

"There are some," Geralt replied calmly, "that would prefer the company of a leper to that of a witcher."

"And there are others," replied Three Jackdaws with a smile, "who would prefer the company of sheep to that of young ladies. In the end, all I can do is pity them. I stand by my proposal."

Geralt took off a glove and shook the stranger's outstretched hand.

"I accept. It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Let's be off then, I'm starving."

II

The landlord wiped the uneven surface of the table with a cloth, bowed and smiled. He was missing two front teeth.

"Yes..." Three Jackdaws stared for a moment at the blackened ceiling and watched the spiders walking playfully across it. "First... some beer. On second thoughts, a keg of beer. And with the beer... what do you recommend, my dear?"

"Cheese?" the landlord suggested uncertainly.

"No," frowned Borch, "Cheese should be for afters. With the beer we'd like something sour and spicy."

"At your service," the landlord smiled even wider. His two front teeth were not the only ones that he lacked. "How about eels marinated in garlic and vinegar, or green pickles..."

"Perfect. For two please. And after that, some soup. Like the one I ate last time with the mussels, small fish and other crap floating in it."

"Seafood soup?"

"Yes. Next, roast lamb with eggs and onions. Then about sixty crayfish. Throw some fennel into the pan, as much as you can muster. Then ewe's cheese and a salad. After that... we'll

see."

"At your service. Is that for everyone? All four of you?"

The tallest of the Zerricanians shook her head and patted her belly significantly, accentuating the way her linen shirt clung to her body.

"I forgot," Three Jackdaws winked at Geralt, "The girls are watching their figures. Landlord! Lamb only for us two. Bring the beer and eels immediately, leave the rest for a while so that the other dishes don't get cold. We didn't come here to stuff our faces, just to spend time in pleasant conversation."

"I understand completely, sir," replied the landlord, bowing once more.

"Understanding - this is an important quality in your line of work. Give me your hand, my beauty," gold coin jingled and the landlord smiled as widely as possible.

"This is not an advance," specified Three Jackdaws, "it's a little extra. Now get back to your kitchen, my good fellow."

It was hot in the alcove. Geralt loosened his belt, removed his doublet then rolled up the sleeves of his shirt.

"I see you're not troubled by lack of silver," he said, "Do you live by the privileges of knighthood?"

"Partly," Three Jackdaws smiled in answer and didn't elaborate.

They made short work of the eels and quarter of the beer barrel. Although the Zerricanians were obviously enjoying the evening, they did not drink much of the beer. They spoke together quietly until Vea suddenly burst into throaty laughter.

"Do the girls speak the common language?" asked Geralt as he watched them out of the corner of his eye.

"Badly. And they're not exactly chatterboxes, which is nice. How's your soup, Geralt?"

"Hmm."

"Drink up."

"Hmm."

"Geralt..." Three Jackdaws gestured with his spoon and belched discretely, "Returning for one moment to the conversation we had whilst on the road: it's my understanding, witcher,

that you wander from one end of the world to the other, killing any monsters you meet along the way - for pay. That is your job, isn't it?"

"More or less."

"What if somebody personally appeals to you to go somewhere specific? Say to carry out a special order. What do you do then?"

"That depends on who's asking me and what they have in mind."

"And the wages?"

"That too," the witcher shrugged, '"Everything becomes more expensive if you want to live well' as one of my magician friends likes to say."

"Quite a selective approach, and I would say very practical. Yet there is a certain principal underlying it, Geralt. The conflict between the forces of Order and those of Chaos, as one of my wizard friends likes to say. I imagine that you always take missions that involve protecting humans from the Evil that is all around us. Undoubtedly this places you on the good side of the fence."

"The forces of Order, the forces of Chaos... what grand words, Borch. You want at all costs for me to place myself on one side of the fence in a conflict that all regard as eternal, a conflict that's been going on since before we were born and will continue long after we're gone. On which side should the blacksmith place himself in this business? Or the landlord who hurries to bring us roast lamb? What, according to you, defines the boundary between Chaos and Order?"

"It's very simple," Three Jackdaws looked the witcher right in the eye, "Chaos represents a threat. It is on the side of violence and aggression. Order, on the other hand, opposes it. That is why it must be protected and needs someone to defend it. But let us drink and make a start on this lamb."

"Good idea."

Still concerned for their figures, the Zerricanians had taken a break from eating to devote themselves to drinking at an accelerated pace. Vea leaned on the shoulder of her companion, and murmured something in her ear, her braids brushing the tabletop. Tea, the shorter of the two, burst into laughter, her tattooed eyelids blinking merrily.

"Well," continued Borch, gnawing on a bone. "Let us continue our conversation, if you'll permit. I see that prefer not to take sides in the conflict between the forces. You just want to do your job."

"Yes."

"But you cannot escape the conflict between Order and Chaos. In spite of your comparison, you're not a blacksmith. I saw how you work; you enter an underground tunnel and come out of it with a small, mangled basilisk. There is a difference, my pretty, between shoeing horses

and killing basilisks. You've already indicated that you'll journey to the other side of the world to slay a certain monster if the pay is worth it. Let's say a fierce dragon destroys..."

"Bad example," interrupted Geralt. "You see, the boundary becomes blurred already. I don't kill dragons, in spite of the fact they no doubt represent Chaos."

"Why is that?" Three Jackdaws licked his fingers, "But that's outrageous! Surely of all the monsters, the dragon is the most dangerous, vicious and cruel. Most terrible of all the reptiles. It attacks humans, spits fire and it even steals virgins! Haven't you heard enough stories about that? Is it possible that you, witcher, do not have a few dragon slayings in your list of accomplishments ?"

"I do not hunt dragons," Geralt replied dryly, "Giant centipedes, yes. Dracolizards, dermopterans but not real dragons, greens, blacks or reds. Make no mistake about it."

"You astonish me," replied Three Jackdaws, "But nevertheless, I get the message. Enough talking about dragons for now. I see something red on the horizon; undoubtedly our crayfish. Drink up!"

They noisily broke the shells with their teeth and sucked out the white flesh. Salty water, stinging painfully, ran down to their wrists. Borch served up some more beer, scraping the bottom of the small cask with the ladle, while the Zerricanians amused themselves by watching the goings on around them. They laughed unpleasantly at a soothsayer on the next table over and the witcher was convinced that they were looking for a fight. Three Jackdaws also noticed it and waved a crayfish at them threateningly. The girls giggled, Tea blowing him a kiss and giving him an ostentatious wink. Her tattoos made the gesture slightly macabre.

"They truly are wildcats," murmured Three Jackdaws to Geralt. "They must be watched all the time otherwise, in less than two seconds flat and without warning, the ground is likely to be strewn with entrails. However, they are worth all the money in the world. Did you know that they can..?"

"I know," replied Geralt, nodding. "It is difficult to find a better escort. Zerricanians are born warriors, trained in combat from a very early age."

"I wasn't talking about that." Borch spat a crayfish pincer onto the table. "I was thinking about their performance in bed."

Geralt watched the young girls out of the corner of his eye. Both smiled and Vea seized a shellfish, as quick as a flash. She cracked the carapace with her teeth and blinked as she regarded the witcher. Her lips glistened with the salty water. Three Jackdaws belched loudly.

"So, Geralt," he continued, "you don't hunt dragons, green or otherwise. I'll bear it in mind. Why categorise them by these three colours, may I ask?"

"Four colours, to be precise."

"You only mentioned three."

"You seem to have a great interest in dragons, Borch. Is there a particular reason?"

"I'm just curious."

"These colours are the customary categorisation, although not a precise one. Green dragons are most widespread though in fact they are rather gray, like dracolizards. To tell you the truth the reds are more red brown, the colour of brick. The large dark brown dragons are usually called black dragons. Rarest of all are the white dragons. I've never seen one. They live in the far North, apparently."

"Interesting. Do you know what other types of dragons I've heard of?"

"I know," replied Geralt, swallowing a mouthful of beer. "I've also heard of them: the gold. But they don't exist."

"But how can you be sure? Just because you've never seen one? You've never seen a white one either."

"That's not the point. Across the seas, in Ofir and Zangwebar, there are white horses with black stripes. I've never seen those either, but I know that they exist. The golden dragon is a myth, a legend, like the phoenix. Phoenixes and golden dragons do not exist."

Vea, leaning on her elbows, looked at him curiously.

"You certainly know what you're talking about - you're a witcher," said Borch drawing some more beer from the small keg. "However, I think any myth, any legend, can contain a grain of truth that sometimes can't be ignored."

"That is so," confirmed Geralt, "but that is the territory of dreams, hopes and desires: it's about the belief that there is no limit to what is possible, just because there is sometimes a wild chance that it might be true."

"Chance, exactly. It may be there once was a golden dragon; the product of a single, unique mutation."

"If that's the case, that dragon would've suffered the fate of all mutants," the witcher bowed his head. "It couldn't survive, because it's too different."

"Now you oppose natural law, Geralt. My wizard friend was in the habit of saying that each and every being can prevail in nature in one manner or another. The end of one existence always announces the beginning of another. There is no limit, at least when it comes to nature."

"Your wizard friend was a huge optimist. There is one element he didn't take into consideration; errors made by nature or those that play with it. The golden dragon and all the other mutants of its species, even if they have existed, could not survive. A natural limit inherent in them has prevented it."

"What's that?"

"Mutants..." the muscles in Geralt's jaw tensed, "Mutants are sterile, Borch. Only legends permit what nature condemns. Only myths can ignore the limits of what's possible."

Three Jackdaws remained silent. Geralt saw that the girls' faces had suddenly become serious. Vea quickly leaned towards him, embracing him with her hard, muscular arms. He felt her lips on his cheek, wet with beer.

"They like you," said Three Jackdaws slowly, "The devil take it, they like you!"

"What's so strange about that?" replied the witcher, smiling sadly.

"Nothing. But a toast is necessary. Landlord! Another keg!"

"Not that much. A tankard at most."

"Make that two tankards!" shouted Three Jackdaws. "Tea, I must leave for a moment."

The Zerricanian picked up her sabre from the bench as she rose before inspecting the room with a tired glance. The witcher noticed several pairs of eyes sparkle with greed at the sight of Borch's overstuffed coin-purse, but nobody dared to follow him as he staggered in the direction of the courtyard. Tea shrugged before following her employer.

"What's your real name?" asked Geralt of the girl who remained sitting at the table.

Vea smiled revealing a line of white teeth, much of her shirt was unbuttoned as far as the last possible limit of decency allowed. Geralt did not doubt for an instant that her demeanour was designed to test the resistance of the other patrons in the room.

"Alveaenerle."

"That's beautiful." The witcher was sure that the Zerricanian now gazed at him doe-eyed, seductively. He was not mistaken.

"Vea?"

"Hmm..."

"Why do you ride with Borch? Warriors love of freedom. Can you tell me?"

"Hmm..."

"Hmm, what?"

"He is..." the Zerricanian wrinkled her brow while she tried to find the right words, "He is the most... the most beautiful."

The witcher shook his head. The criteria used by women to assess the desirability of men had always been an enigma to him.

Three Jackdaws burst into the alcove re-buttoning his trousers and gave a loud command to the landlord. Tea, two steps behind him, feigned boredom as she looked around the tavern, the merchants and the mariners present avoiding her eyes. Vea sucked at a crayfish while casting the witcher knowing glances.

"I'll have another order of eel for everyone, braised this time," Three Jackdaws sat down heavily, his still open belt jangled. "I'm tired of crayfish and I'm still hungry. I have reserved

you a room, Geralt. You have no reason to be wandering this night. Let's have some more fun. To your health, girls!"

"Vessekheal," Vea replied, holding up her glass. Tea blinked and stretched. Her lovely breasts, contrary to Geralt's expectations, did not burst out of her shirt.

"Let's have some fun!" Three Jackdaws leaned across the table, and slapped Tea on the behind, "Let's party, witcher, Hey! Landlord! Over here!" The landlord quickly approached them, wiping his hands on his apron. "Do you have a large tub? Like one for washing linen in: solid and roomy."

"How big, sir?"

"For four people."

"For... four," repeated the landlord smiling widely.

"Four," confirmed Three Jackdaws, pulling his full coin-purse out of his pocket.

"We'll find one for you," promised the landlord as he moistened his lips.

"Perfect," replied Borch, all smiles. "Order one and bring it up into my room and see that it's filled with hot water. Get to it, my dear chap, and don't forget beer and at least three tankards." The Zerricanians laughed and winked at the witcher.

"Which do you prefer?" asked Three Jackdaws. "Huh, Geralt?"

The witcher scratched his head.

"I know it's a difficult choice," continued Three Jackdaws with a knowing air. "I also have trouble sometimes. Well, we will decide when we're in the tub. Hey, girls! Help me up the stairs."

Ill

There was a barricade on the bridge. A long and solid beam positioned on trestles barred access to the other bank of the river. Halberdiers in buttoned leather jackets and mail were gathered there, standing guard on both sides. Aloft, a crimson pennant bearing a silver griffin flapped in the wind.

"What the devil?" exclaimed Three Jackdaws as they approached the barricade. "We can't pass?"

"Do you have a pass?" asked the nearest halberdier, without removing from his mouth the straw he was chewing to stave off hunger or quite simply to kill time.

"What pass? What's going on? An epidemic of cattle plague? War? In whose name do you block the road?"

"On the order of King Niedamir, Lord of Caingorn." the guard moved the straw to the other corner of his mouth and indicated to the pennant. "Without safe conduct, you cannot pass."

"How stupid," interrupted Geralt in a tired voice. "We are not, however, in Caingorn but in the county of Holopole. It's just as well that Holopole and not Caingorn collects the toll on the bridges of the Braa. What's it got to do with Niedamir?"

"Don't ask me," replied the guard, spitting out his straw. "I'm only here to check the passes, if you want, you can ask our commanding officer."

"Where is he?"

"Over there, making the most of the sun behind the toll collector's booth," replied the guard, looking not at Geralt but at the naked thighs of the Zerricanians which lay nonchalantly across their saddles.

A guard was sitting on a pile of dry straw behind the hut of the toll collector. He was drawing in the sand, with the end of his halberd, a picture of a woman; a rather detailed view from an unusual perspective. Next to him there was a thin man, half dozing, delicately strumming chords on a lute. An eccentric plum coloured hat decorated with a silver buckle and a long egret feather drooped over his eyes. Geralt recognized the hat and the feather so famous in Buina and Iaruga and known in all the manors, castles, guesthouses, inns and brothels. Especially in the brothels.

"Jaskier!"

"Witcher Geralt!" merry blue eyes appeared from under the hat. "What a surprise! Is it really you? You wouldn't happen to have a pass, by chance?

"What's all this business about passes? What's going on here, Jaskier? I'm travelling with the knight Borch of the Three Jackdaws and his escort and we want to cross the river."

"I'm also stuck here." Jaskier rose and lifted his hat before bowing to the Zerricanians with a courtly flourish. "They won't let me pass either, me, Jaskier, the most celebrated of minstrels and poets for a thousand miles around. It was the lieutenant who refused; and he's also an artist, as you can see."

"I can't let anyone cross without a pass," stated the lieutenant with a disconsolate air before adding the finishing touches to his sand picture with the tip of his weapon.

"We'll take a detour along the bank. It will take longer to get to Hengfors, but we don't have much choice," said the witcher.

"To Hengfors?" the bard looked surprised, "You mean you're not here to see Niedamir? You're not hunting the dragon?"

"What dragon?" asked Three Jackdaws, looking intrigued.

"You don't know? You really don't know? In that case, I shall tell you all about it, my lords. As I am obliged to wait here in the hope that somebody with a pass accepts my company, we have lots of time. Sit down."

"Wait," interrupted Three Jackdaws, "It's nearly midday and I'm thirsty, plague on it! We can't discuss such matters with dry throats. Tea and Vea, hurry back to town and buy a keg."

"I like the way you think, lord..."

"Borch, also called Three Jackdaws."

"Jaskier, nicknamed The Unrivalled... by certain young ladies."

"Get on with it, Jaskier," interrupted the witcher, impatient. "We haven't got all day."

The bard seized the neck of his lute and violently strummed some chords.

"What would you prefer? In verse or in prose?"

"Normally."

"As you like." Jaskier did not lay down his lute. "Listen well, noble sirs, the events took place one week ago, not far from a free city named Holopole. Ah yes, in the small hours of the morning, dawn tinting red the veil of mist in the meadows..."

"It was supposed to be normally," the witcher pointed out.

"That is normally, isn't it? Okay, okay, I understand. Briefly, without metaphors. Near the town of Holopole, a dragon alit."

"Oh really?" exclaimed the witcher, "That seems incredible - nobody has seen a dragon in these parts for years. Isn't it just a dracolizard? Some of them can be quite big..."

"Don't insult me, witcher, I know what it is. I've seen it. By chance I just came to Holopole for the market and I saw it with my own eyes. My ballad was already prepared, but you didn't want..."

"Carry on. Is it big?"

"It's as long as three horses, to the withers no bigger than a horse, but much fatter. Gray as sand."

"Green, then."

"Yes. It swooped down without warning on a herd of sheep. The shepherds ran away and it killed a dozen animals and ate four of them before taking flight."

"It flew away..." Geralt nodded his head. "That's it?"

"No, it returned the next morning, nearer to the city this time. It dived down onto a group of women who were washing their linen at the edge of the Braa. And did they run, my friend! I have never laughed so much in my life. Then the dragon executed two turns above Holopole before attacking some ewes in a nearby pasture. What a lot of panic and confusion it started! The day before, well, nobody had believed the shepherds... the burgrave then started to mobilise a militia and the guilds, but before he had time to organize them, the people had taken matters into their own hands and sorted it out themselves."

"How?"

"With a very popular method. The master shoe-maker, a certain Kozojed, conceived of a means to finish off the reptile. They killed a sheep then stuffed it full of hellebore, belladonna, hemlock, sulphur and shoemaker's pitch. To be on the safe side, the local

pharmacist added two quarts of boil remedy and had the priest of the Temple of Kreve bless the offering. Then they staked the stuffed sheep in the middle of the herd. To tell you the truth, nobody believed that the dragon would be attracted by one stinking piece of shit surrounded by a thousand others. But reality exceeded our expectations. Forsaking the sheep that were alive and bleating, the reptile swallowed the bait along with the stake."

"What then? Tell me more, Jaskier."

"What else can I do? I'm not going to stop now. Listen to the rest: barely enough time had passed for a skilful man to untie the corset of a lady when the dragon started roaring and emitting smoke from both front and behind. Next it did a somersault, tried to fly away and then fell down motionless. Two volunteers approached it to check if it still breathed. They were the local grave-digger and the village idiot, conceived by the lumberjack's daughter, a deranged girl who had been knocked up by a company of pikemen passing through Holopole during the rebellion of the Voivod Tracasse."

"What lies you speak, Jaskier."

"I do not lie; I do nothing but colour gray reality. There's a difference."

"Not really. Carry on, we're wasting time."

"As I was saying, a grave-digger and a courageous simpleton went as scouts. We then raised for them a nice burial mound, small but pleasing to the eye."

"Ah, good," said Borch. "That means that the dragon still lived."

"And how," replied Jaskier merrily. "It lived, but it was too weak to eat the gravedigger and the idiot; it only sucked their blood. It then flew off... to the great anxiety of all, even though it found it difficult to take off. The dragon crashed with a roar every cubit and a half then took off again. Sometimes it crawled, dragging its hind legs behind it. The more courageous followed it at a distance without losing sight of it. And you know what?"

"Speak, Jaskier."

"The dragon plunged into a ravine up in Big Kestrel Mountain, not far from the source of the Braa. It remains hidden in the caves."

"Now it all becomes clear," announced Geralt. "The dragon lived in these caves in state of lethargy for centuries; I've heard of similar cases. Its treasure must also be there. I know now why soldiers are blocking the bridge. Somebody wants to lay their hands on the treasure and that somebody is called Niedamir of Caingorn."

"Exactly," confirmed the troubadour. "The whole city of Holopole boils for this reason, because the people consider that the dragon's treasure belongs to them. But they fear to oppose to Niedamir. The king is a young featherbrain who has not yet started to shave, but he knew how to show that it was dangerous to take him on. Niedamir wants this dragon more than anything. That's why his reaction was so prompt."

"He wants the treasure, you mean."

"I'm convinced that the dragon interests him more than the treasure. Because, you see, the principality of Malleore has aroused the appetite of Niedamir for a long time. After the strange death of the prince, there remained a princess of marriageable age. The powers of Malleore did not see Niedamir and the other suitors in a good light because they knew that any new power would want to keep a tight rein on them; a situation that a gullible, young princess would not know how to deal with. They therefore dug out a dusty old prophecy that assured that the crown and the hand of the girl would belong to the one who conquers a dragon. They believed that this would keep the peace, knowing that no one had seen dragons in the region in such a long time. Niedamir didn't care about the legend. He tried every possible means to take Malleore by force but when the news of the appearance of the dragon of Holopole reached his ears, he understood that he could consequently conquer the noblemen of Malleore with their own weapon. If he returns to Malleore triumphantly brandishing the head of the dragon, they will welcome him as a monarch sent by the Gods, and the powers that be will not dare say a word. Don't be surprised that he seeks this dragon like a cat stalks a mouse. All the more so as this dragon crawls along with difficulty. For Niedamir it's a pure godsend, a smile of destiny, damn it."

"And it cuts out the competition."

"Well, I guess so. It also cools the ardour of the inhabitants of Holopole. He must have given a pass to all of the horsemen in the vicinity who might be able to strike down the dragon, because Niedamir is not keen to enter the caves himself, sword in hand, to fight the dragon. In a flash he had the most celebrated dragon slayers gathered around him. You probably know most of them, Geralt."

"It's possible. Who? "

"Eyck of Denesle, for starters."

"Son of a..." The witcher whistled softly, "The god-fearing and virtuous Eyck: the dauntless knight, beyond reproach, himself."

"You know him then, Geralt?" Borch asked. "Is he really such a specialist in dragons?"

"Not just dragons; Eyck knows how to deal with all monsters. He's even struck down manticores and griffins. He's also defeated a few dragons, or so I've heard. He's good, but the lunatic ruins business by refusing to take payment. Who else, Jaskier?"

"The Crinfrid Reavers."

"The dragon doesn't stand a chance, even if it recovers its health. Those three are a famous band of experienced hunters. They don't fight within the rules, but their efficiency is without question. They exterminated all the dracolizards and giant centipedes of Redania, killing three red and one black dragon along the way, and that really is something. Is that everyone?"

"No. Six dwarfs also joined them: five bearded men commanded by Yarpen Zigrin."

"I don't know him."

"You've undoubtedly heard about the dragon Ocvista of Mount Quartz."

"I've heard of it. I've even seen stones that came from his treasure; sapphires in incredible shades and diamonds as big as cherries."

"Know that it was Yarpen Zigrin and his dwarfs that slew Ocvista. I also composed a ballad about this adventure but it was quite boring and you lost nothing by not hearing it."

"Is that everybody?"

"Yes. Not counting you. You insisted that you knew nothing about the dragon. Who knows, maybe it's true. Anyway, you now know. Now what?"

"Now nothing. I'm not interested in the dragon."

"Ah! Very sneaky, Geralt. In any case, you don't have a pass."

"I repeat: the dragon doesn't interest me. What about you, Jaskier? What brought you to these lands?"

"The usual." The troubadour shrugged. "I have to be near events and stimulating situations. People will talk about this battle with the dragon for a long time. I could, of course, compose a ballad from the tales they'll tell, but it will be better if it's sung by somebody who saw the battle with their own eyes."

"Battle?" asked Three Jackdaws. "It's more of an act reminiscent of an autopsy or the butchery of a pig. The more I listen to you, the more you astound me. A bunch of warriors stumbling over each other to finish off a half-dead dragon that's been poisoned by some yokel, I don't know whether to laugh or puke."

"You're mistaken about the half-dead part," replied Geralt, "If the dragon didn't die straight after it swallowed the poison, it means that it will have recovered. It's of no great importance; the Crinfrid Reavers will kill it all the same, but the battle, if you must know, will not be quick."

"Your money's on the Reavers then, Geralt?"

"Definitely."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that," the artistic guard who had kept silent until then interrupted. "The dragon is a magical living being that can only be killed by spells. If somebody helps the sorceress who crossed the bridge yesterday... "

"Who?" Geralt's head tilted to look at him.

"A sorceress," repeated the guard. "As I said."

"What was her name?"

"She gave it, but I've forgotten. She had a pass. Young, attractive in her own way, but those eyes... you know the type, lords... they send a shiver down your spine when they look at you.

tt

"Do you know who it might be, Jaskier?"

"No," replied the bard, grimacing. "Young, attractive and those eyes... it's not much to go on. They all answer this description. None of these girls who I know - and I know a lot - seem to look more than twenty-five, thirty years, but many of them remember the days when Novigrad was still a forest of conifers. But don't women make elixirs of mandrake? That can also make their eyes shine. It's definitely a woman, that's for sure."

"Was she a redhead?" the witcher asked.

"No, sir," answered the lieutenant. "She had black hair."

"What was the colour of her horse? Chestnut with a white star?"

"No, it was as dark as her hair. I'm telling you, lords, it is she who will exterminate the dragon. Dragons are magician's business. Human strength can do nothing against these monsters."

"I'm curious to know what the shoemaker Kozojed thinks about it," said Jaskier, laughing. "If he had had something stronger to hand than hellebore and belladonna, the dragon's skin would be drying on a fence, my ballad would already be finished and I would not be drying out in the sun today... "

"Why didn't Niedamir take you with him?" Geralt asked, giving the poet a dirty look. "You stayed in Holopole when he left. Doesn't the king like the company of artists? Why are you here drying out instead of playing for the king?"

"It's because of a young widow," answered Jaskier with a despondent air. "Damn it! I romped about with her and when I awoke the following day Niedamir and the troops had already crossed the river. They even took this Kozojed and the scouts of the militia of Holopole, but had forgotten about me. I tried unsuccessfully to explain it to the lieutenant, but he..."

"If you had a pass, there wouldn't have been a problem," explained the halberdier dispassionately, leaning against the wall of the toll collector's booth. "No pass, no debate. An order is an order..."

"Ah!" Three Jackdaws interrupted him. "The girls are back with the beer."

"And not alone," added Jaskier getting up. "Look at that horse. It looks like a dragon."

The Zerricanians emerged at a gallop from the birch wood flanked by a horseman riding a large nervous stallion, dressed for war.

The witcher also rose.

The rider wore a purple velvet tunic and a short jacket adorned with sable fur. He looked at them arrogantly from his saddle. Geralt knew this type of look and didn't much care for it.

"Hello, gentlemen. I am Dorregaray," the horseman introduced himself as he dismounted slowly and with dignity. "Master Dorregaray. Magician."

"Master Geralt. Witcher."

"Master Jaskier. Poet."

"Borch, otherwise Three Jackdaws. The girls opening the barrel are with me. I believe you already know them, Lord Dorregaray."

"Indeed," replied the magician without smiling. "The beautiful Zerricanian warriors and I have already exchanged greetings."

"Oh well! To your health!" Jaskier distributed the leather goblets brought by Vea. "Drink with us, sir magician. Lord Borch, can the lieutenant also join us?"

"Sure. Join us, good warrior."

"I think" said the magician having taken a small sip in a distinguished fashion, "that you're waiting at the bridge for the same reason that I do."

"If you're thinking of the dragon, Lord Dorregaray," replied Jaskier, "that is it exactly. I want to be present at the battle and to compose a ballad. Unfortunately, the lieutenant here, a man some might say is lacking in manners, refused me passage. He demands a pass."

"I beg your pardon." the halberdier clucked his tongue and drank his beer. "I can let nobody through without permission. I have no choice in the matter. It seems that all of Holopole prepared wagons to hunt the dragon in the mountain, but I must comply with orders... "

"Your orders, soldier," Dorregaray interrupted, frowning, "concern the unpleasant rabble, the prostitutes likely to spread immorality and riot, thieves, scoundrels and that type. But not me."

"I let nobody through without permission, " retorted the lieutenant pointedly."I swear..."

"Don't swear," Three Jackdaws interrupted him, rather coldly. "Tea, pour another one for the valiant warrior! Let us sit down, my lords. To drink standing up, quickly and without appreciating the merchandise, is not fitting for the nobility."

They sat down on logs scattered around the keg. The halberdier, newly promoted to noble, became crimson with contentment.

"Drink, brave captain," pressed Three Jackdaws.

"I am only a lieutenant, not a captain," he answered, going red with renewed vigour.

"But you will become a captain, it's obvious." Borch grinned. "Boys as clever as you get promoted in a jiffy."

Dorregaray turned to Geralt having refused an additional glassful:

"In town they're still talking about your basilisk, noble witcher, and you are already taking an interest in the dragon," he said in a low voice. "I'm curious to know if you intend to slay this endangered species for pleasure or for pay."

"Such curiosity is unusual," replied Geralt, "when it comes from somebody who flocks double quick to the execution of a dragon to rip out his teeth. Aren't they precious for the making of your medicines and magical elixirs? Is it true, noble magician, that those ripped from still living dragons are the best?"

"Are you sure that's why I'm here?"

"Yes, I'm sure about that. But somebody has beaten you to it, Dorregaray. One of your female colleagues crossed the bridge armed with the pass that you lack. A sorceress with black hair, if it interests you."

"On a black horse?"

"Yes, apparently."

"Yennefer," said Dorregaray with a worried air.

The witcher shuddered, unnoticed by anyone.

A silence set in, that the future captain disrupted with a belch:

"Nobody... without a pass."

"Would 200 lintars be enough for you?" Geralt offered, retrieving the purse acquired from the fat burgrave from his pocket.

"Geralt," said Three Jackdaws, smiling in an enigmatic way. "Really..."

"Please accept my apologies, Borch. I'm sorry I can't accompany you to Hengfors. Another time perhaps, if we meet again."

"Nothing is compelling me to go to Hengfors," Three Jackdaws replied carefully. "Nothing at all, Geralt."

"Please put the purse away, sir," threatened the future captain. "It's corruption, pure and simple. Even for 300,1 won't let you cross."

"And for 500?" Borch took out his purse. "Put away your silver, Geralt. I take responsibility for payment of the toll. It's starting to amuse me. 500, soldier. 100 per head, considering my girls as a single and beautiful unit. What do you say?"

"Goodness me," the future captain was anxious as he hid Borch's purse inside his tunic. "What shall I tell the king?"

"You should say to him," suggested Dorregaray as he stood up and withdrew an ivory wand from his belt, "that you were scared senseless you when you saw the show."

"What show, sir?"

The magician drew a form with his wand and shouted out a spell. A pine growing next to the river exploded; wild flames consumed it from base to top in an instant.

"To the horses!" Jaskier jumped up nimbly and slung his lute onto his back. "To the horses, gentlemen! And ladies!"

"Raise the barrier," the wealthy lieutenant with a promising career as a captain shouted to the halberdiers.

On the bridge, behind the barrier, Vea pulled on the reins. Her horse danced, the beat of its hooves resounding on the planks of the bridge. The girl, braids flitting in the wind, gave a piercing cry.

"Right, Vea!" Three Jackdaws replied. "Let's get to it Zerricanian! Like the wind in an uproar! "

IV

"So," declared the oldest of the Reavers. Boholt, imposing and powerful like the trunk of a thousand year old oak. "Apparently Niedamir did not scatter you to the four winds, noble lords. Though I could have sworn he would have done so. Well in the end, it's not down to us, the commoners, to discuss royal decisions. Come and share the fire. Make a place, lads. Just between us, witcher, tell me the subject of your conversation with the king."

"We spoke of nothing," Geralt replied, leaning comfortably against his saddle positioned near the fire. "He didn't even come out of his tent to meet us. He only sent one of his footmen, what's his name..?"

"Gyllenstiern," Yarpen Zigrin told him, a stocky and bearded dwarf whose huge neck, tarry and covered with dust, shone in the light of fire. "A bombastic clown. An overfed pig. When we arrived, he put on lofty airs, drivelled on and on, 'remember well, dwarves,' he said, 'who commands here and to whom you owe obedience. It is King Niedamir who commands and his word is law,' and so on. I just listened, all the while wanting to send the boys in to throw him down and trample him into the ground. But I had self-control, you know. They only would have said that dwarves are dangerous, aggressive sons of bitches and that it's impossible for... for... as it's said, for the devil... to coexist or something like that. And there would have been another race riot in a small city. So I just listened politely, nodding my head."

"It seems from what you say that Sir Gyllenstiern doesn't know how to do anything else," Geralt continued, "because he dressed us down in exactly the same way. Of course, we also deferred to his opinion."

"In my opinion," another Reaver intervened as he deposited a large blanket onto a heap of firewood. "It's a pity that Niedamir didn't send you away. Everyone is hot on the heels of this dragon, it's incredible. The place is teeming. It's not an expedition any more, it's a funeral procession. I don't like to fight in a crowd."

"Calm down, Nischuka," Boholt cut in. "It's better for us to travel with one another. Haven't you ever hunted a dragon? There's always a whole crowd nearby, a veritable fair, a brothel on wheels. But when the reptile shows itself, you well know who stays put. Us. Nobody else."

Boholt remained silent for a moment. He drank a good mouthful from a demijohn covered with wicker and sniffed loudly. He then cleared his throat:

"All the better," he continued, "as it so often happens that feasting and butchery begin just after the death of the dragon and before you know it heads are rolling like pears in an

orchard. When the treasure is found, the hunters launch themselves at one another's throats. Geralt? Huh? Am I right? Witcher, I'm telling you."

"I know of such cases," confirmed Geralt in a dry tone.

"You know, so you say. Perhaps from hearsay, because I have never heard of a witcher hunting a dragon. Your presence here is all the stranger."

"That's true," interjected Kennet, nicknamed Ripper, the youngest of the Reavers. "It is strange. And we..."

"Wait, Ripper, I'm the one doing the talking," Boholt interrupted him. "Besides, I don't intend to dwell on the subject. The witcher already knows what I'm getting at. I know it and he also knows it. Our paths have never crossed before and never will again. Imagine, my lads, for example, that I want to disturb the witcher while he's doing his job or that I try to steal his dues from him. Would he not immediately strike me with his sword, and rightfully so? Am I right?"

Nobody confirmed or denied it. Boholt did not seem to be waiting especially for a reply.

"Yep," he went on, "It's better to travel with one another, I say. The witcher could prove to be useful. The area is wild and uninhabited. If a chimera, ilyocoris or striga happens upon us, we'll have problems. But if Geralt remains with us, we'll avoid these problems because it's his speciality. But the dragon is not his speciality. Right?"

Again, nobody confirmed or denied it.

"And Lord Three Jackdaws," Boholt continued, handing the demijohn to the leader of the dwarves, "is a companion of Geralt. This guarantee is enough for me. Whose presence bothers you then, Nischuka and Ripper? Surely not Jaskier!"

"Jaskier," Yarpen Zigrin intervened, handing the demijohn to the bard, "is always found where something of interest is happening. Everybody knows that he neither helps nor hurts and that he never slows down operations. He's like a tick on a dog's tail. Don't you think so, boys?"

The 'boys', robust dwarfs, burst out laughing, making their beards tremble. Jaskier slid his hat back onto his neck and drank from the demijohn.

"Damn! This is strong," he groaned, gasping. "It'll make me lose my voice. What's it distilled from? Scorpions?"

"One thing I don't like, Geralt," said Ripper, taking the bottle out of the minstrel's hands. "Is that this magician is with you. There are already far too many."

"That's true," confirmed Yarpen. "Ripper is right. This Dorregaray is about as useful to us as a saddle on a pig. We already have our own sorceress, the noble Yennefer. Ugh!"

"Yes!" Boholt chimed in, scratching his bullish neck which he had just freed from a leather gorget, bristling with studs. "There are too many magicians hereabouts, my dear fellows, in the heat of the royal tent they conspire, these wily foxes: Niedamir, the sorceress, the

magician and Gyllenstiern. Yennefer is the worst of all. Do you know what they conspire about? How to rip us off, that's for sure!"

"And they stuff themselves with venison!" added Ripper with a despondent air. "And us, what do we eat? Marmots! The marmot, what is it, I ask you? A rat, nothing more than a rat. What do we eat? Rat!"

"That's nothing," Nischuka replied, "Soon we'll dine on dragon's tail. There's nothing like it when it's been braised over coals."

"Yennefer," continued Boholt, "is a totally despicable, vicious woman, a shrew. Nothing like your girls, Lord Borch, who certainly know how to behave and keep quiet. Look, they stayed near the horses to whet their swords. When I passed by them, I greeted them amiably. They smiled at me in return. I like them. They are not like Yennefer who schemes and connives. I'm telling you: we must watch out, because our contract could just be hot air."

"What kind of contract, Boholt?"

"Yarpen, can the witcher be put in the picture?"

"I don't see a problem with that," answered the dwarf.

"There's no booze left," Ripper interrupted them, turning the empty demijohn upside down.

"Get some more then. You're the youngest. The contract, Geralt, was our idea, because we aren't mercenaries or some other unscrupulous kind. Niedamir can't just send us into the dragon's clutches and then give us a pittance of gold pieces. The truth is that we don't need to slay the dragon for Niedamir. On the contrary, he needs us. In this situation, who has the most significant role and who should get the most silver are obvious questions. We therefore proposed a fair deal: those who will personally take part in the battle against the dragon will take half the treasure. Niedamir will take a quarter by virtue of birth and title. The others, if they contributed in any way to the enterprise, will equally share the last quarter. What do you think of it?"

"What did Niedamir think of it?"

"He answered neither yes nor no. It would be in his best interest to cooperate, that greenhorn, because I'm telling you: alone, he will never slay the dragon. Niedamir remains dependent on professionals, that's to say on us, the Reavers, as well as on Yarpen and his boys. It's us, and nobody else, that will come within a sword's length of the dragon. If any others help out, including magicians, they will be able to share a quarter of the treasure."

"Besides the magicians, who do you count amongst these others?" Jaskier asked with interest.

"Certainly not musicians and authors of trashy verse," Yarpen laughed. "We include those who toil with the axe, not with the lute."

"Ah good!" Three Jackdaws interjected, looking up at the starry sky. "And what did the shoemaker Kozojed and his band toil with?"

Yarpen Zigrin spat into the fire, muttering something in the language of the dwarves.

"The Holopole militia knows these shitty mountains and will be our guide," explained Boholt in a low voice. "It's fair to include them in distribution. As far as the shoemaker's concerned, that's a bit different. When a dragon arrives in a region, it's no good that the people think they can force-feed it poison with impunity then carry on screwing girls in the fields instead of calling professionals. If such a practice carried on, we'd be reduced to begging, wouldn't we?"

"That's true," replied Yarpen. "That's why I'm telling you: the shoemaker should be held responsible for that mess rather than be declared a legend."

"He's got it coming," punctuated Nischuka firmly. "I'll do it."

"And Jaskier," continued the dwarf, "can write a comedic ballad about it, so that his shame and ignominy can live on forever in song."

"You forgot an important element," said Geralt. "There is one who can confuse matters by refusing any payment or contract. I'm talking about Eyck of Denesle. Did you talk to him?"

"For what purpose?" Boholt murmured under his breath while stirring the fire with a branch. "Regarding Eyck, there's nothing to discuss, Geralt. He doesn't know what he's doing."

"We encountered him," Three Jackdaws said. "On the path leading to your camp. Kneeling on the stones, dressed in his complete armour, he was gazing at the sky."

"He always does that," explained Ripper. "He meditates or prays. He says it's his divine mission to protect humans from evil."

"Back home, in Crinfrid," muttered Boholt, "They lock madmen such as him up in the in the back of a cowshed, tie them to a chain and when they give them a piece of coal, they draw marvellous pictures on the walls. But let's cease wasting time by endlessly discussing our fellows: let's talk business."

A young petite woman, with black hair covered with a gold mesh and dressed in a wool coat, silently entered the circle of light.

"What stinks so?" Yarpen Zigrin asked, pretending not to notice her. "Is it sulphur?"

"No." Boholt sniffed ostentatiously looking away "It's musk or some kind of incense."

"No, it's probably..." the dwarf grimaced: "Ah! It's the noble Lady Yennefer. Welcome, welcome!"

The sorceress' gaze slowly took in the gathered individuals. Her shining eyes stopped for one instant on the witcher. Geralt smiled slightly.

"May I sit?"

"But of course, benefactor," replied Boholt, hiccupping. "Take a seat, there near the saddle. Move over, Kennet my friend, and give your seat to the sorceress."

"My Lords, I hear that you're talking business." Yennefer sat down, stretching out in front of her shapely legs sheathed in black stockings. "Without me?"

"We wouldn't dare bother such an important person," replied Yarpen Zigrin.

Yennefer blinked, turning to the dwarf:

"You, Yarpen, you would better off being silent. Since the first day we met you've treated me like a bad smell. Now please continue and don't mind me. It doesn't bother me in the least."

"What are you saying, fair lady?" Yarpen smiled showing a row of uneven teeth. "Leeches devour me if I do not treat you better than a bad smell. I sometimes pollute the air, but I would never dare to do so in your presence."

The bearded 'boys' burst out laughing. They were immediately silent at the sight of a grey light which had formed around the sorceress.

"Another word out of you and you'll be polluted air, Yarpen," Yennefer shot back at him in a metallic voice. "And a black stain on the grass."

"Very well" Boholt broke the silence which had just descended with a cough. "Be silent, Zigrin. Let us hear what Lady Yennefer wants to tell us. She regrets that our business discussion is taking place without her. I deduce from this that she has a proposal to make to us. Let's listen, my dear fellows, to what this proposal consists of. However, let's hope that she doesn't offer to slay the dragon alone with her spells."

"Why not?" Yennefer reacted, raising her head. "Do you think it impossible, Boholt?"

"It is perhaps possible. But for us not very lucrative, because you would then demand half of the dragon's treasure."

"At the very least," the sorceress replied coldly.

"You see that's not a good solution. We, madam, are only poor warriors. If we don't get paid, hunger threatens. We've only been eating sorrel and white goose..."

"After a festival, sometimes marmot," added Yarpen Zigrin in a sad voice.

"... We drink only water." Boholt drank a good draught from the demijohn and snorted. "For us, Lady Yennefer, there's no other solution. We get paid or it's death outside in the icy cold winter. Because the inns are so expensive."

"Beer too," added Nischuka.

"And the whores," continued Ripper, dreamily.

"That's why we're going to try to slay the dragon without your spells and without your help."

"Are you sure about that? Remember that there are limits as to how to go about it, Boholt."

"There are perhaps. I've never encountered them for my part. No, madam. I repeat: we shall kill the dragon ourselves, without your spells."

"What's more" added Yarpen Zigrin, "spells, too, are subject to certain limits."

"Did you figure this out by yourself?" Yennefer asked slowly. "Perhaps somebody else has told you? Does the presence of a witcher at this so noble gathering explain your egotism?"

"No," replied Boholt looking at Geralt who pretended to be dozing, lazily stretched out on a blanket, his head resting on his saddle. "The witcher has got nothing to do with this. Listen, dear Lady Yennefer. We offered a proposal to the king and he has not honoured us with the answer. We'll wait patiently till morning. If the king accepts, we'll continue on our way together. Otherwise, we shall leave."

"Us too," murmured the dwarf.

"No possible negotiation," Boholt went on. "Take it or leave it. Please repeat these words to Niedamir, dear Yennefer. And I'll also add that the deal could be favourable to you, to you and also to Dorregaray, if you agree with the king. We don't care about the dragon's carcass. We want only the tail. All rest will be yours. You have only to help yourself. We shall claim neither the teeth nor the brain: nothing of interest to magicians."

"Of course," added Yarpen Zigrin, sneering, "you can also have the carrion. Nobody's going to steal that from you, except perhaps the vultures."

Yennefer got up, drawing her coat around her shoulders.

"Niedamir will not wait until the morning," she announced firmly. "He accepts your conditions forthwith. In spite of my advice, as you suspected, and that of Dorregaray."

"Niedamir," stated Boholt slowly, "has proved himself of sound judgment for such a young king. Because for me, Lady Yennefer, the wise show an ability to remain deaf to the advice of stupid or hypocritical people."

Yarpen Zigrin sniggered. The sorceress put her hands on her hips and retorted:

"You'll be singing another tune tomorrow when the dragon falls upon you, skewers you to the ground and breaks your legs. You'll kiss my arse and beg me to help you. As usual. I know you well, as I know all those of your kind. I know you so you well, it makes me sick."

She turned and walked away into the darkness, without saying goodbye.

"In my time," said Yarpen Zigrin, "magicians remained locked up in their towers. They read learned books and mixed potions in their cauldrons with a spatula without sticking their noses into the affairs of warriors. They minded their own business without flaunting their arses at all the boys."

"And a very pretty arse it is too, to be frank," added Jaskier, tuning his lute. "Eh, Geralt? Geralt? Where's the witcher gone?"

"What's it to us?" Boholt grumbled, feeding the fire with some more wood. "He left. Perhaps to satisfy the usual needs, my dear lords. That's his business."

"Of course," replied the bard, playing a chord on his lute. "What would you say to a song?"

"Sing, damn it," Yarpen Zigrin grumbled, spitting, "but don't expect that I'll give you a shilling for your bleating, Jaskier. This is not the royal court, my lad."

"That's for sure," replied the troubadour, shaking his head.

V

"Yennefer."

She feigned astonishment as she turned around. The witcher knew that she had heard his footsteps from afar. She deposited a wooden bowl on the ground and lifted her head, pushing back a lock of hair which fell across her forehead. Her curly tresses, now freed from the gold mesh, cascaded onto her shoulders.

"Geralt."

As usual, she wore only two colours - white and black. Her hair and long black eyelashes invited a guess as to the colour of her eyes, which they hid. A black dress, a small black jerkin with a white fur collar. A white shirt of fine linen. Around her neck, on a black velvet ribbon adorned with small diamonds, was a star of obsidian.

"You haven't changed, Yennefer."

"Neither have you." Her lips tightened in a line. "And in both cases, nothing more normal than that. Or, if you prefer, nothing more abnormal. But talking about the effects of time on our appearance, even if it is a very good means to start conversation, is slightly absurd, don't you think?"

"That's true."

He raised his head, looking to the side of Niedamir's tent at the fires of the royal archers, who were hidden by the dark silhouettes of the wagons.

At a fire located farther away, they heard the tuneful voice of Jaskier singing Stars Above the Road, one of his most successful romantic ballads.

"Indeed," said the sorceress, "preamble over, what do you have to say? I'm listening."

"You see, Yennefer..."

"I see," she interrupted him wildly, "but I don't understand. What's the reason for your presence here Geralt? Certainly not the dragon. From that point of view, I imagine nothing has changed."

"No. Nothing changed there."

"Then why did you join us?"

"If I tell you that it's because of you, would you believe me?"

She looked at him in silence. Her bright eyes expressed something unpleasant.

"I believe you," she said finally. "Why not? Men like to see their former lovers again to reminisce about the good old times. They take pleasure in imagining that their bygone love affairs assure them a perpetual right of possession on their ex-partners. It's good for their self-esteem. You're no exception, apparently."

"Apparently" he replied, smiling. "You're right, Yennefer. The sight of you has boosted my self-esteem. In other words, I'm happy to see again you."

"Is that all? Oh well, let's say that I'm also happy to see you again. And now we're both contented, I wish you good night. I'm going to bed. Before that, I intend to have a bath and so need to undress. I kindly ask you to go away to grant me a minimum of privacy."

"Yen."

He reached out to her.

"Don't call me that!" she hissed furiously, drawing back. Blue and red sparks flew from her fingers which the sorceress aimed at him. "And if you touch me, I'll burn out your eyes, you bastard."

The witcher backed off. The sorceress, somewhat composed, pushed back her hair which had fallen across her forehead. She stood before him, resting her hands on her hips.

"What were you thinking, Geralt? That we would talk casually and cheerfully? That we would remember the old times? That after this conversation we would go to lie down in a wagon and make love on the furs... just like that, just to refresh our memories? Is that it?"

Geralt, not sure whether the sorceress knew how to read thoughts or just successfully guessed them, remained silent and smiled crookedly.

"These past four years did their job, Geralt. I overcame the pain at last. It's only for this reason that I did not spit in your face as soon as I saw you. But don't let my courtesy deceive you."

"Yennefer..."

"Silence! I gave more to you than I have to any other man, you piece of shit. I didn't know myself why I had chosen you. And you... Oh no, my dear. I'm neither a whore nor an elf met at random on a forest path that you can run out on the following morning without waking, leaving a bunch of violets on the table. A girl you can turn into a laughing stock. Watch out! If you say even one word, you could end up regretting it."

Geralt did not say a word as he sensed Yennefer's seething anger. The sorceress once again pushed the insubordinate curls from her forehead. She looked him closely in the eye.

"We met. Too bad," she continued in a low voice. "We're not going to put on a show for the others. Let's preserve our dignity. Let's pretend to be good friends. But don't be mistaken, Geralt: between us there is nothing more than that. Nothing more, do you understand? And rejoice because it means that I've abandoned some plans I've been cooking up for you. But it doesn't mean that I forgive you. I shall never forgive you, witcher. Never."

She turned wildly, grabbing her bowl so violently that she splashed herself with water, and disappeared behind a wagon.

Geralt shooed away a mosquito which flitted around his ear making an irritating noise. He slowly took the path back to the fire where sparse applause expressed approval for Jaskier's singing.

He looked at the dark blue sky gaping above the black, jagged crest of the mountains. He wanted to laugh. He didn't know why.

VI

"Watch out there! Pay attention!" shouted Boholt, turning round in the driver's seat towards the rest of the column behind him. "You're too near the rocks! Look out!"

The wagons moved onward behind each other, bouncing along on the stones. The drivers swore and cracked their whips; anxious, they leaned over to check that the wheels remained a respectable distance from the ravine and always in contact with the narrow, uneven path. Down in the bottom of the chasm, the River Braa bubbled with white foam between the rocks.

Geralt kept his horse very close to the stony wall covered in patches of brown moss and white blooms of lichen. He allowed the Reavers' wagon to pass. At the head of column, Ripper led the train along with the scouts of Holopole.

"Good!" he called "Make some effort! The way becomes broader."

King Niedamir and Gyllenstiern caught up with Geralt on their chargers. Several archers on horseback flanked them. Behind them, all the royal wagons followed, making a deafening noise. Far behind them followed that of the dwarves, driven by Yarpen Zigrin, swearing incessantly. Niedamir, a thin and freckled lad in a white sheepskin coat, passed the Witcher, shooting him an arrogant, but clearly bored look. Gyllenstiern straightened up, stopping his mount.

"If you please, Sir Witcher," he shot with an air of superiority.

"I'm listening."

Geralt spurred on his mare and rode alongside the chancellor behind the wagons. He was surprised that with such a fat gut, Gyllenstiern preferred riding a horse rather than in the comfort of a wagon.

Gyllenstiern pulled lightly on his reins adorned with golden studs and pushed a turquoise coat off his shoulders.

"Yesterday, you said that dragons did not interest you. In what, therefore, are you interested, Sir Witcher? Why do you travel this road with us?"

"It's a free country, Lord Chancellor."

"At the present time, Lord Geralt, everybody in this convoy must know his place and his role in accordance with the will of King Niedamir. Do you understand?"

"What are you getting at, Lord Gyllenstiern?"

"I'm already there. Lately I have heard that it is difficult to come to an agreement with you witchers. It seems that when somebody asks a witcher to kill a monster, he prefers to meditate

on the legitimacy of this act rather than to just take up his sword and kill it. He wishes to consider the boundaries of what is acceptable by wondering whether the killing, in this particular case, does not contradict with his ethical code and if the monster is indeed a monster - as though it were not obvious at first glance. I think that your financial security hinders you: in my time, witchers did not stink of money. The only stench was from the bandages with which they covered their feet. There was never the slightest hint of procrastination: they killed whatever they had been ordered to kill, that's it. It didn't matter whether it was a werewolf, a dragon or a tax collector. Only the effectiveness of the job. What do you think, Geralt?"

"Do you want to entrust me with a mission, Gyllenstiern?" replied the witcher roughly. "I await your proposal. We shall make a decision then. But if that's not case, there's no point in waffling on like this, is there?"

"A mission?" the chancellor sighed. "No, I don't have one for you. Today we hunt the dragon and apparently it exceeds your abilities, witcher. I fancy that the Reavers will fulfil this task. I simply wanted to keep you informed. Pay close attention: King Niedamir and I will not tolerate this type of fanciful dichotomy consisting of separating monsters into good and bad. We don't want to hear, and even less to see, how witchers apply this principle. Do not meddle in royal business, Lord, and cease conspiring with Dorregaray."

"I'm not in the habit of collaborating with magicians. How did you come to such a hypothesis?"

"The fancies of Dorregaray," replied Gyllenstiern, "exceed even those of the witchers. He goes beyond your dualistic dichotomy by considering that all monsters are good!"

"He exaggerates a bit."

"There's no doubt about that. But he defends his views with amazing tenacity. Frankly I wouldn't be surprised if he's up to something. It's odd that he's joined this strange company

"I don't really like Dorregaray; the feeling's mutual."

"Don't interrupt me! I must say your presence here seems strange to me: a witcher with more scruples than there are fleas nesting in the coat of a fox; a magician who never stops spouting druidic incongruities regarding the balance of nature; a silent knight, Borch Three-Jackdaws and his escort from Zerricania - where, as everybody knows, they make sacrifices before effigies of dragons. And they all suddenly join our hunt. It's strange, don't you find?"

"If you say so, yes."

"Know then," the chancellor went on, "that as is so often the case, the most difficult problems always result in the simplest resolution. Do not force me to use to it, witcher."

"I don't understand."

"You understand. You understand only too well. Thank you for this conversation, Geralt."

The witcher halted his mount. Gyllenstiern sped up his pace to join the king behind the wagons. Eyck of Denesle, dressed in a jerkin stitched with pale leather still carrying the

impression of a breast-plate, passed by at walking pace leading a sleepy horse loaded with armour and carrying a silver shield and a powerful lance. Geralt waved to him, but the knight errant looked away, pursing his lips, before spurring his horse onwards.

"He doesn't like you very much," said Dorregaray, joining Geralt. "Don't you think?"

"Apparently."

"He's a rival isn't he? You both lead a similar activity. The difference being that the knight Eyck is an idealist and you a professional. The difference of no importance to the beings whom you slaughter."

"Don't compare me to Eyck, Dorregaray. Who knows which of us two would come off worse as a result of your comparison."

"As you wish. To tell the truth, to me you are just as loathsome as he is."

"Thank you."

"Don't mention it." The magician patted the neck of his horse, frightened by the shouting of Yarpen and his dwarves. "As far as I'm concerned, witcher, to make murder a vocation is disgusting, base and stupid. Our world hangs in the balance. The destruction, the murder of any living being in this world threatens this balance. The absence of equilibrium leads to extinction, and thus the end of the world as we know it."

"Druid theory," declared Geralt. "I know of it. An old hierophant introduced me to it before, in Rivia. Two days after our conversation, rat-men tore him to shreds. It wasn't evident that any kind imbalance had occurred as a result."

Dorregaray looked at Geralt indifferently.

"The world, I repeat, remains in balance. A natural balance. Every species has its enemies, each is a natural enemy for the others. This fact also applies to human beings. The complete destruction of the natural enemies of man - to which you contribute, Geralt, as we can see -threatens our degenerate race."

"You know, magician," replied the witcher, losing his temper, "Perhaps you should visit a mother whose son has been devoured by a basilisk and explain to her that she should be delighted with her misfortune, because it will enable the salvation of the degenerate human race. Wait and see how she answers you."

"Good argument, witcher," interrupted Yennefer, who had joined them on her big black horse. "Dorregaray, be careful about what you say."

"I'm not in the habit of keeping my opinions to myself."

Yennefer slipped between the two. The witcher noticed that she had replaced her golden mesh with a white neckerchief rolled into a headband.

"Consider suppressing them, Dorregaray," she replied. "At least in front of Niedamir and the Reavers, who suspect you of wanting to sabotage the hunt. They will continue treating you as an inoffensive maniac as long as you restrict yourself to words. But if you try to do something, they will break your neck before you have time to take a breath."

The magician smiled contemptuously.

"Besides," continued Yennefer, "by uttering such views, you undermine the foundations of our profession and our duty."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You can apply your theories to grand creation and vermin, Dorregaray, but not to dragons. Dragons remain the worst natural enemy of man. It's not a matter of the degeneration of humanity, but its survival. In the end, mankind must get rid of his enemies and anything else that threatens it."

"Dragons are not the enemies of man," interrupted Geralt.

The sorceress looked at him and smiled, only with her lips.

"On this issue," she replied, "leave the discussion to us humans. You, witcher, are not made to judge. You are only there to carry out certain tasks."

"As a servile and programmed golem?"

"Your words, not mine," she retorted coldly, "even if I consider them, it could be said, rather appropriate."

"Yennefer," said Dorregaray. "For a woman of your age and education to talk such nonsense is shocking. Why would dragons appear among the main enemies of man? Why not other living beings with a hundred times more victims than dragons? Why not hirikkhis, giant centipedes, manticores, amphisbaena or griffons? Why not wolves?"

"Let me tell you. The superiority of man over other breeds and species, the fight for his rightful place in nature, his vital place, will only succeed when man has put an end to his aggressive, nomadic search for food, where he moves about in accordance with the changing of the seasons. Otherwise, it will be impossible for him to multiply quickly enough. Humanity is a child without any real independence. A woman can only give birth safely sheltered by the walls of a city or a fortified town. Fertility, Dorregaray, is what's needed for development, survival and domination. Then we come to dragons: only a dragon can threaten a city or fortified town, no other monster. If dragons are not exterminated, humans will scatter to ensure their security instead of uniting against it. If a dragon breathes fire on a densely populated quarter, it's a catastrophe - a terrible massacre with hundreds of victims. That's why every last dragon must be wiped out."

Dorregaray looked at her with a strange smile on his lips.

"You know, Yennefer, I'd prefer not be alive when the time comes that your idea of man's domination will come true and the time when the same will take up their rightful place in nature. Fortunately, it will never arrive. You will consume each other, you will poison yourselves, you will succumb to fever and typhus, because it will be filth and lice, not dragons, that will threaten your splendid cities where the women give birth every year, but where only one newborn baby out of ten will succeed in living more than ten days. Yes, Yennefer, of course: breeding, breeding and more breeding. Take care, my dear, go and make some babies, as it's a more natural function with which to occupy yourself rather than wasting time spouting nonsense. Goodbye."

The magician spurred on his horse and left at a gallop to join the head of the column.

Seeing Yennefer's pale and tense face, Geralt instantly felt sorry for the magician. He grasped situation perfectly: Yennefer was sterile, as were most sorceresses, but unlike the others, she suffered as a result and became wild with rage when reminded of it. Dorregaray undoubtedly knew this weakness. He was, however, unaware that Yennefer had a cold-blooded thirst for vengeance.

"He's going to make trouble," she hissed. "Oh, yes! Watch out, Geralt. If it comes to that, don't hope that I'll defend you if you don't exhibit some common sense."

"Don't worry," he replied, smiling. "We witchers and servile golems always act reasonably. The limitations within which we can act are clearly and distinctly fixed."

"Look at you!" Yennefer's face turned even paler. "You're as upset as a girl who's just had her lack of virtue exposed. You're a witcher, you can't change that. Your duty... "

"Stop going on about my duty, Yen. This argument is starting to make me sick."

"Don't speak to me like that, I'm warning you. Your nausea as well as your restricted range of actions are of no interest to me."

"You'll witness some of them, however, if you don't cease bating me with grand ethics and talk of the struggle for the good of humanity. Or talk about dragons, dreadful enemies of the human tribe. I know better."

"Oh yes?" The sorceress blinked. "What do you know about it, witcher?"

"I know this." Geralt ignored the violent warning of the medallion hanging around his neck. "If dragons didn't protect treasure, not even lame dogs would be interested in their fate. Magicians even less so. It's interesting to note that, in every hunt for a dragon, there is the presence of magicians who are strongly linked to the guild of jewellers. Yourself, for example. Later, while the market is saturated with stones, the ones from the dragon's hoard disappear as if by magic and their price remains constantly inflated. Therefore don't talk to me about duty and battles for survival of the species. I know you too well and for too long."

"Too long," she repeated with a hostile air, grimacing. "Unfortunately. But don't think that you know me well, you son of a bitch. Damn it, what a fool I was... Go to hell! I can't look at you anymore,"

She cried out, launching her dark horse into a flat-out gallop towards the head of the convoy. The witcher stopped his mount to let through the wagon of the dwarves who shouted, swore and played on bone flutes. Among them, sprawled out on some bags of oats, Jaskier strummed his lute.

"Hey!" cried Yarpen Zigrin from the driver's seat, pointing at Yennefer. "What's that black thing on the path? I'm curious, whatever can it be? It resembles a mare!"

"Undoubtedly!" replied Jaskier, shouting and pushing back his plum coloured hat. "It's a mare riding a gelding! Incredible!"

The beards of Yarpen's boys shook with a chorus of laughter. Yennefer pretended not to hear them.

Geralt stopped his horse to let Niedamir's archers through. Behind them, a little way off, Borch rode slowly and right behind him, bringing up the rear guard, the Zerricanians. Geralt waited for them. He positioned his mare next to Borch's horse. They rode on in silence.

"Witcher," Three Jackdaws said suddenly. "I'd like to ask you a question."

"Ask away."

"Why don't you turn back?"

The witcher looked at him in silence for a while.

"You really want to know?"

"Yes," replied Three Jackdaws, turning to him.

"I walk in the column because I'm only a servile golem, only a strand of oakum carried by the wind on the highway. Where should I go? Tell me. For what purpose? In this company there are plenty of people to talk to. Some don't even cut short their conversations when I approach them. Those that don't like me tell me to my face, rather than talking behind my back. I accompany them for the same reason that I went with you in the bargemen's inn. Because it's all the same to me. I'm not expected to be anywhere in particular. There's nothing for me at the end of the road."

Three Jackdaws cleared his throat.

"At the end of every path, there is a goal, a purpose. Everybody has one. Even you, in spite of your difference."

"It is now my turn to ask you a question."

"Go for it."

"Do you see a goal at the end of your path?"

"I see one."

"Lucky."

"It's not a question of luck, Geralt. It's all a matter of what you believe and to what you devote yourself. Nobody can know this better than... What witcher?"

"Nobody stops talking about their ambitions today," murmured Geralt. "The ambition of Niedamir consists of conquering Malleore. That of Eyck of Denesle to protect the humans from dragons. Dorregaray feels called to accomplish a diametrically opposite purpose. Yennefer cannot fulfil her ambition owing to the changes to which her body has been subjected, and it upsets her. By the devil, only the Reavers and the dwarves seem not to need ambition. They simply want to make a packet. Perhaps that's why they appeal to me. "

"No, Geralt of Rivia, it is not they who appeal to you. I'm neither blind nor deaf. You didn't take out your purse to the soft music of their name. It seems to me that..."

"It's in vain," the witcher said without anger.

"I'm sorry."

"No need to apologise."

They stopped their mounts to avoid a collision with the archers of Caingorn who had stopped at the head of the column.

"What's happened?" Geralt stood up in his stirrups. "Why have we stopped?"

"I don't know," replied Borch, looking around.

Vea uttered something, looking strangely worried.

"I'm going to the front," declared the witcher. "I'll find out."

"Wait."

"Why?"

Three Jackdaws remained silent, staring at the ground.

"Why?" repeated Geralt.

"On second thought, go," Borch said finally. "I think perhaps it will be better to."

"Why will it be better?"

"Go."

The bridge linking up both edges of precipice seemed solid. It had been constructed with imposing logs of pine resting on a square pillar against which the current broke with crash in long rivulets of foam.

"Hey, Ripper!" shouted Boholt, approaching the wagon. "Why have you stopped?"

"I'm not sure about this bridge."

"Why are we going this way?" Gyllenstiern asked, going up to them. "I'm not keen on crossing this bridge with the wagons. Hey! Shoemaker! Why go this way? The track goes on farther westward!"

The heroic poisoner of Holopole went up to him and took off his sheepskin hat. He cut a comical air in his frockcoat covered with an old-fashioned breast-plate dating from at least the time of King Sambuk.

"This way is shorter, noble lord," he replied not to the chancellor but directly to Niedamir, whose face still expressed deathly boredom.

How's that?" demanded Gyllenstiern, his face contorted.

Niedamir did not deign to look at the shoemaker.

"Well," explained Kozojed, indicating the three jagged summits dominating the area. "Over there are Chiava, Big Kestrel and Steed's Tooth. The track leads towards the ruins of an ancient fortified town, winds around Chiava to the north, and carries on beyond the source of the river. By taking the bridge, we can shorten the way. We can follow the ravine up to a body of water located between the mountains. If we find no trace of the dragon there, we can head eastward to examine the adjacent gulches. Even farther eastward, there are flat mountain pastures, then a path leading directly to Caingorn, towards your domains, lord."

"How did this knowledge of mountains come to you, Kozojed?" Boholt asked. "While planing down clogs?"

"No, lord. I was a shepherd in my youth."

"The bridge will hold?" Boholt got up from his seat and looked down at the foaming river. "The chasm is forty fathoms deep."

"It will hold, my lord."

"How do you explain the presence of such a bridge in this wild land?"

"The trolls," explained Kozojed, "constructed this bridge in ancient times to set up a toll. Whoever wanted to cross had to pay a hefty sum. But there were rarely any takers, so the trolls packed up and left. The bridge remained."

"I repeat," Gyllenstiern interrupted angrily, "that we've wagons filled with equipment and food just in case we get stuck in the wilderness. Isn't it better to stay on the track?"

"We can follow the track," replied the shoemaker, shrugging, "but the road will be longer. The king had expressed his eagerness to battle the dragon. He beamed with impatience."

"Burned with impatience," corrected the chancellor.

"Burned then." the shoemaker acquiesced. "All the same, the road will be shorter if we take the bridge."

"Well, let's go, Kozojed!" decided Boholt. "Forward march, you and your troops. Where I'm from we have a habit of sending the most valiant first."

"No more than one wagon at a time!" Gyllenstiern ordered.

"Agreed!" Boholt whipped his horses: the wagon clattered onto the logs of the bridge. "Look behind us, Ripper! Watch out that our wheels go straight."

Geralt stopped his horse, his way barred by the archers of Niedamir, their crimson and yellow jerkins huddled together on a stone gable.

The witcher's mare snorted.

Then the earth shook. The jagged edge of the rocky walls suddenly blurred against the background of the sky and the wall itself issued a dull, palpable roar.

"Look out!" shouted Boholt, who had already crossed to the other side of the bridge. "Look out!"

The first stones, still small, began rustling and hitting the slope as it shook with spasms. Geralt saw a black fissure forming across the path behind him. It broke and collapsed into space with a deafening crash.

"To the horses!" shouted Gyllenstiern. "My lords! We have to cross quickly!"

Niedamir, his head leaning on the mane of his mount, rushed onto the bridge followed by Gyllenstiern and some of the archers. Behind them, the royal wagon bearing a standard marked with a griffin crashed with a dull thud onto the faltering beams.

"It's a landslide! Get off the path!" shouted Yarpen Zigrin in the back as he whipped the hindquarters of his horses.

The dwarves' wagon crashed into some of the archers as it overtook Niedamir's second wagon.

"Move! Witcher! Get out of the way!"

Eyck of Denesle, sitting stiff and straight, overtook the dwarves' wagon at a gallop. If it wasn't for his deathly pale face and jaw clenched in grimace, one might think that the knight errant didn't notice the rocks and stones tumbling down onto the track. A wild cry went up from a group of archers who remained behind. Horses neighed.

Geralt tugged on the reins, his horse rearing. Just in front of him, the earth trembled under the impact of the rocks that hurtled down the slope.

Rumbling over the stones, the dwarves' wagon jolted just before it reached the bridge and overturned with a crack. One of its axles broke and a wheel bounced off the balustrade before falling into the turbulence.

The witcher's mare, struck by shards of sharp rock, chewed at the bit. Geralt tried to jump from his mount, but his boot remained stuck in the stirrup. He fell. The mare neighed and rushed onto the bridge as it wobbled over the gap. The dwarves ran across shouting and swearing.

"Faster, Geralt!" Jaskier shouted over his shoulder as he ran behind the dwarves.

"Jump, witcher!" shouted Dorregaray, jostling around in the saddle and struggling to control his now wild horse.

Behind them, a whole section of path collapsed. A cloud of dust went up, created by the landslide and the crashing of Niedamir's wagons as they broke to pieces. The witcher managed to hang on to the straps of the magician's saddlebags. He heard a scream.

Yennefer fell with her horse, then rolled aside. She threw herself to the ground and protected her head with her hands, trying to remain out of reach of the hooves that kicked out blindly. The witcher let go to rush toward her, avoiding a rain of stones and jumping over the fissures which formed under his feet. Clutching an injured shoulder, Yennefer rose to her knees. Her eyes were wide and there was a cut above her eyebrow. Blood trickled down to her earlobe.

"Get up, Yen!"

"Geralt, look out!"

An enormous block of rock, which had broken loose from the wall with a grating noise, came down directly behind them with a thud. Geralt dropped to shield the sorceress with his body. The block exploded and broke into thousands of fragments as fine as wasp stings.

"Hurry!" cried Dorregaray. From his horse, he waved his wand, reducing to dust the other rocks that had come loose from the wall. "To the bridge, witcher!"

Yennefer made a sign with her hand, stretching out her fingers. Nobody understood what she shouted. Stones evaporated like raindrops on white-hot iron upon the bluish arch which had just formed above their heads.

"To the bridge, Geralt!" cried the sorceress. "Follow me!"

They ran behind Dorregaray and some unhorsed archers. The bridge swayed and cracked, beams bending, throwing them from one balustrade to the next.

"Quickly!"

The bridge collapsed all at once with a deafening racket. The half that they had just crossed tore itself apart and fell with a crash into the void, taking with it the dwarves' wagon which smashed onto a row of rocks. They heard the dreadful neighing of the panicked horses. The party that remained on the bridge continued holding on, but Geralt realized that they ran on an increasingly steep slope. Yennefer, breathing heavily, cursed.

"We're falling, Yen! Hold on!"

The rest of the bridge creaked, split apart and swung down like a drawbridge. Yennefer and Geralt slid, their fingers clutching at the cracks between the log. Realizing that she was gradually losing her grip, the sorceress gave a shriek. Holding on with one hand, Geralt drew his dagger with the other and drove it into a crack before hanging on to it with both hands. The joints of his elbows started to strain as Yennefer held on tightly to his sword belt and scabbard that he wore across his back. The bridge gave way and tilted more and more towards the vertical.

"Yen," groaned the witcher. "Do something... damn it. Cast a spell!"

"How?" she replied in a low, hot-tempered growl. "I'm holding on with both hands!"

"Free one of your hands."

"I can't..."

"Hey!" shouted Jaskier from higher up. "Can you hang on? Hey!"

Geralt didn't consider it helpful to reply.

"Throw a rope!" demanded Jaskier. "Quickly, god damn it!"

The Reavers, the dwarves and Gyllenstiern appeared beside Jaskier. Geralt heard the muffled voice of Boholt:

"Wait a minute. She'll fall soon. We'll pull the witcher up afterwards."

Yennefer hissed like a snake as she clung to Geralt's back. The bandolier bit into the witcher's torso painfully.

"Yen? Can you get a hold? Can you use your feet?"

"Yes," she groaned. "In theory."

Geralt looked down at the river boiling between the sharp stones against which rolled a few logs from the bridge, the body of a horse and a corpse dressed in the vivid colours of Caingorn. Amongst the rocks, in the emerald, transparent depths, he saw a body of huge trout moving against the flow.

"Can you hold on, Yen?"

"Somewhat... yes..."

"Pull yourself up. You must get a handhold."

"No... I can't..."

"Throw a rope!" shouted Jaskier. "Have you all gone mad? They're both going to fall!"

"Wouldn't that be for the best?" murmured Gyllenstiern quietly.

The bridge trembled and tilted even more. Geralt began to lose all feeling in his fingers as he gripped the handle of his dagger.

"Yen..."

"Shut up... and stop fidgeting..."

"Yen?"

"Don't call me that..."

"Can you hold on?"

"No," she replied coldly.

She no longer struggled, she just hung on his back; dead, inert weight.

"Yen?"

"Shut up."

"Yen. Forgive me."

"No. Never."

Something slid along the beams, very quickly, like a snake.

Radiating a cold and pale light, wriggling and writhing as though it were alive, gracefully groping about with its mobile end, the rope found Geralt's neck, wormed its way under his armpits then formed a loose knot. Below Geralt, the sorceress moaned and caught her breath. The witcher was sure that she was going to burst into tears. He was mistaken.

"Look out!" Jaskier shouted above. "We'll hoist you up! Nischuka! Kennet! Pull! Heave-ho!"

The rope jerked and tightened around them painfully, making it hard to breathe. Yennefer signed heavily. They were pulled up quickly, scraping against the wooden beams.

Above, Yennefer got to her feet first.

VII

"Out of the whole fleet," announced Gyllenstiern, "we saved only a baggage wagon, Majesty, not including that of the Reavers. Of the escort, only seven archers have survived. On the other side of precipice, the path has completely disappeared. As far as we can see, to the curve of the cliff, nothing but a pile of rocks and a smooth wall remain. It's not known if all the individuals present on the bridge at the time of its collapse still live."

Niedamir did not answer. Standing to attention in front of him, Eyck of Denesle fixed him with a fevered gaze.

"We are incurring the Wrath of the Gods," said the knight, raising his arms. "We have sinned, King Niedamir. It was to be a crusade; a crusade against evil. Because the dragon is evil, yes, every dragon is evil incarnate. Evil is nothing to me: I'll crush it under my foot... destroy it... yes, just as is commanded by the Gods and Holy Scripture."

"Is he delirious?" said Boholt, becoming sullen.

"I don't know," replied Geralt, readjusting his mare's harness. "I didn't understand a thing he said."

"Hush," demanded Jaskier "I'm trying to memorize his words. They might be able to serve me for my rhymes."

"The Holy Book says," Eyck continued, all in a rage, "that a serpent shall appear from the chasm, a dreadful dragon with seven heads and ten horns. On its hindquarters shall sit a woman dressed in purple and scarlet, a golden chalice in her hands, and on her forehead shall be inscribed the mark of her profound and complete debasement!"

"I knew it!" interrupted Jaskier merrily. "It's Cilia, the wife of Burgrave Sommerhalder!"

"Keep quiet, sir poet," Gyllenstiern commanded. "And you, Knight of Denesle, speak further, by the grace of the Gods."

"In order to fight evil," continued Eyck with grandiloquence, "it is necessary for oneself to have a pure heart and conscience with head held high! But whom do we see here? Dwarves, pagans who are born in blackness and revere dark powers! Blasphemous magicians, assuming divine right, power and privilege! A witcher, odious mutant, accursed and unnatural creation. Are you therefore surprised that punishment smites us? Let us cease

pushing the limits of divine grace! I urge you, O King, that you purge this vermin from our ranks before..."

"Not even a single word about me," Jaskier interrupted him, complaining. "No word about poets. And yet I tried my best!"

Geralt smiled at Yarpen Zigrin who stroked the sharp edge of the axe that hung on his belt with a slow and steady movement. Amused, the dwarf grinned. Yennefer turned her back on the scene ostentatiously, showing greater concern for her dress which had torn up to the hip than for the words of Eyck.

"We perhaps went a little too far," Dorregaray granted, "but for noble reasons, Lord Eyck, without a doubt. I consider, however, your comments regarding magicians, dwarves and witchers unseemly, even if we're used to these types of opinions they are neither polite nor worthy of a knight, Lord Eyck. And I will also add: all the less comprehensible as it was you, and no one else, who a short while ago ran up and threw the magical elven rope which saved the witcher and the sorceress from certain death. From what you're now saying, I don't understand why you didn't pray for them to fall instead."

"Bloody hell," murmured Geralt to Jaskier. "It's him who brought the rope? Eyck? Not Dorregaray?"

"No," muttered the bard. "It was definitely Eyck."

Geralt shook his head in disbelief. Yennefer cursed under her breath and straightened up.

"Knight Eyck," she said to him with a smile that all, except Geralt, believed kind and benevolent. "Can you explain why? I am vermin, but you saved my life?"

"You are a lady, dear Yennefer." The knight bowed stiffly. "Your charming and sincere face makes me think that one day you will break free of your accursed magic."

Boholt snorted.

"I thank you, sir knight," Yennefer replied coldly. "The witcher Geralt also thanks you. Thank him Geralt."

"The devil take me first," replied the witcher with absolute sincerity. "Why should I thank him? I'm only a detestable mutant whose vile face brooks no improvement. The Knight Eyck pulled me from the void by accident, only because I was stubbornly held by a lady. If I'd been alone, Eyck wouldn't even have lifted his little finger. Am I mistaken, knight?"

"You are mistaken, Lord Geralt," replied the knight errant serenely. "I never refuse assistance to those that need it. Even a witcher."

"Thank him, Geralt. And beg his forgiveness," the sorceress told him firmly. "Otherwise, you confirm all that Eyck says about you. You don't know how to live with others because you're different. Your presence in this expedition is a mistake. An absurd purpose brings you here. It would be more reasonable for us to leave. I think that you understand this yourself. If not, it's high time that you did understand it."

"What purpose are you talking about, madam?" Gyllenstiern intervened.

The sorceress looked at him without answering. Jaskier and Yarpen Zigrin smiled at each other significantly, but so as not to be seen be the sorceress.

The witcher fixed his gaze on Yennefer's eyes. They were cold.

"Please excuse me, Knight of Denesle, my sincere thanks you," he announced, bowing his head. "I also thank all persons present for our hasty rescue. Hanging from the bridge, I heard how all and sundry rushed to our assistance. I beg you all for forgiveness. Except for the noble Yennefer, whom I thank without asking anything in return. Goodbye. This vermin is leaving the company, because this vermin has had enough of you. Take care, Jaskier."

"Hey, Geralt," said Boholt. "Stop acting like a spoiled little girl throwing a tantrum. There's no need to make a mountain out of a molehill. Damn it..."

"Mylooords!"

From out of the gorge ran Kozojed and some of the Holopole militiamen who had been sent out to scout the narrows of the ravine.

"What's happening? What's wrong with him?" asked Nischuka, raising his head.

"My lords... my... dear lords," the shoemaker finally managed, out of breath.

"Stop wheezing, friend," said Gyllenstiern, jamming his thumbs into his gold belt.

"The dragon! Over there, the dragon!"

"Where?"

"On the other side of the ravine... on the flats... lord... It..."

"To the horses!" commanded Gyllenstiern.

"Nischuka!" shouted Boholt, "To the wagon! Ripper, to your horse and follow me!"

"Get to it, boys!" yelled Yarpen Zigrin. "Get to it, damn it!"

"Hey! Wait!" Jaskier had slung his lute over his shoulder. "Geralt, take me on your horse!"

"Jump on!"

The ravine ended with a scattering of pale rocks spread increasingly further apart, creating an irregular circle. Behind them, the ground sloped slightly before becoming uneven and grassy pasture, enclosed all around by limestone cliffs studded with thousands of holes. Three narrow canyons, ancient beds of dried up mountain streams, overlooked the pasture.

Boholt arrived first and, galloping up to the rocky barrier, stopped his horse suddenly and stood up in his stirrups.

"By the plague," he said. "By the yellow plague. This... this... it cannot be!"

"What?" asked Dorregaray, going up to him.

Next to him, Yennefer jumped off the Reavers' wagon, pressed her chest up against a large boulder and looked in turn. She stood back, rubbing her eyes.

"What? What is it?" shouted Jaskier, trying to see over Geralt's shoulder. "What is it Boholt?"

"The dragon... It's gold."

Not more than one hundred paces from the narrowing of the ravine from which they had just emerged, atop a small hillock on the gently sloping path leading to the main northern canyon, sat a creature. Resting its narrow head on a rounded chest, it stretched its long and slender neck in a perfect arch, its tail wound around its outstretched paws.

There was in this creature an ineffable grace, something feline that clearly contradicted its reptilian provenance, for it was, without a doubt, reptilian. The scales it bore gave the appearance of being finely painted on. Furiously brilliant light shone in the dragon's bright yellow eyes. The creature was most certainly gold: from the tips of its claws planted in the earth up to the end of its long tail that moved slowly amongst the thistles proliferating upon the height. The creature opened its big, amber, bat-like wings and remained still, looking at them with its huge golden eyes and demanding that they admire it.

"A golden dragon," murmured Dorregaray. "It's impossible... a living legend!"

"For crying out loud, golden dragons don't exist," asserted Nischuka, spitting. "I know what I'm talking about."

"What, therefore, do you see upon the height?" asked Jaskier.

"It's trickery."

"An illusion."

"It is not an illusion," said Yennefer.

"It is a golden dragon," added Gyllenstiern. "Most certainly a golden dragon."

"Golden dragons exist only in legends!"

"Stop," Boholt intervened with finality. "There's no need to make a fuss. Any fool can se