"You should be in bed, girl.”
The voice is barely more than a whisper. It echoes in the stone hallway all the same. Ciri jumps, caught, and turns to see her grandfather materialise from the dark, a corporeal shadow with a familiar smile. His smiles are a staple of Ciri’s childhood memories.
They weren't always so tired.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
Far outside the capital's walls glows the light of a thousand campfires, the smoke so thick she can't see even the North Star. In the distance, a war horn sounds.
Eist glances out at the troops as he moves closer, settling at the window arch, palms resting on the stone. When Ciri joins him there he sways closer, arm brushing against her shoulder. He isn’t wearing his armour.
“I seem to remember a little girl who could sleep through a Yule feast.”
Her grandfather is a droll man. Ciri knows this as well as she knows her grandmother’s temper. Royalty in stories would never make light of war, would never leave their child behind. Once upon a time Ciri had fancied herself the princess of a regal king and queen, gentle grandparents, a mother with flaxen hair and a father in beaten armour.
“I’m not a little girl.”
Below, one of her playmates jogs across the cobbles, chest plate shining in the firelight. He'd let Ciri win a game of knucklebones once, only to give her a prize of bread laced with spice.
“No,” Eist sighs so deeply it pulls him closer to the ground, “You’re not."
Superstition is not taken lightly in the Isles.
Eist Tuirseach is a man born to belief and faith.
“You won’t change my mind.”
“This is madness-“
“The order has been made, Eist.”
“The order can be unmade!” Eist throws his hands up, eyes turned to the canopy in exasperation.
They've locked horns for hours, an argument parried back and forth from the Beltane banquet late into the night and now, still, as the dregs of dawn filter through the curtains. They are no closer to a resolution. Calanthe lifts her head from his chest and fixes him with a hard glare.
“You’re battling against fate,” Eist tells her, and thinks Gods, she is beauteous.
His queen won’t have it. When he reaches for her she slaps away his hand and rises from their bed, naked and flushed with sweat, snatching up her robe.
Here we go, the next step in this familiar dance. She'll proclaim herself sick of his voice, storm out of the room, ignore him for the better part of the day. They’ll trade shrewd barbs at dinner, Eist will smile comfortingly at his newly acquired step-daughter, Calanthe will roll her eyes and glower. At night he'll lie awake until the touch of her hand on his cheek.
They’ll forget the matter. Move on.
Except, this time she stays.
Calanthe sits at the vanity and begins to run a brush through her hair, gaze fixed on her own reflection.
“Must you be so honourable?”
There’s a fragility in her voice Eist doesn’t hear often, the same look in her eye he'd seen at Pavetta’s betrothal. A lioness afraid to lose her cubs. He sighs.
“Geralt of Rivia will not come for Cirilla.”
“How can you know that?”
“He doesn’t want her!”
Eist stands from the bed and goes to her, his own robe a forgotten heap on the ground. Calanthe’s skin is cold. He stands behind her and leans down, brushes her hair aside, lips pressing against her neck. The tension in her shoulders seems to ease. She tilts her head back, then turns, rests her forehead against his cheek, and then his lips.
“No one will take her, my love.” He whispers into her hair, “Spare the Witcher.”
A soft sigh is all the response he needs.
‘tis a strange thing for Eist, becoming a father and a grandfather in quick succession.
He’s been an uncle for half his life, true, but to rambunctious boys who became rowdy men. Taking Crach under his wing had been an easy thing. The lad's a Skelligen, after all, through and through. Eist had taught him how to fight, how to drink, how to sail halfway across the continent in nothing more than a glorified skiff, and for all of this Crach gleefully followed his uncle’s coat tails, eager and itching for the next endeavour. Even now that he’s all of twenty one and Jarl of Ard Skellige, Eist’s visits are met with a face full of ginger beard and a hug worthy of a bear.
Lads… they are easy.
Pavetta, on the other hand, is the very image of a gentle princess.
Of course Eist is no fool as to treat her like one of his nephews. At banquets he fills Pavetta’s cup and they trade gossip on the latest court dramas, giggling over wine and under Calanthe’s glare. He teaches her to navigate with maps so large they pull tables together just to hold them. They visit Skellige often, the Cintran royal family as one, and Eist walks her around his homeland, to Yngvar’s Fang and the old Castle Tuirseach, weaving stories of Tyr and Heimdall, of invaders defeated by drakkars.
It’s at Eist’s home that Pavetta’s daughter is born.
After, when the newlyweds are rested and the babe cleaned and dressed, she beckons Eist closer and presses a small, warm bundle into his arms.
“Cirilla.” She smiles, “Your granddaughter.”
Calanthe returns to Cintra not long later.
Eist writes to her.
My love, I’ve had a terrible dream. I dreamt our promises were never fulfilled and that you and I were never joined on that glorious day. Eist the Childless was doomed to maraud a Great Sea bereft of that which he loves most, the beautiful Calanthe of Cintra. I woke to the scent of you on my bedsheets and the sound of our grandchild shrieking in the sun. If my dreams aren’t filled with your faces I pray I never dream again.
“That one is Yngvar.” Eist points up at the sky, “And there, in his tail," he traces down to the brightest star, "the North Star. If you find it, you know which direction you’re facing.”
Pavetta is fascinated, light reflecting in eyes ringed by deep shadows. The mark of a mother, Calanthe had told him. Her babe is asleep below for the first time in days.
It was Pavetta's request to learn the stars and Eist obliges happily, sprawled on the deck of his longship, hands clasped behind his head. She lies beside him, golden hair pillowed beneath her and a shawl pulled tight around her shoulders.
“Are they all named after animals?”
“Hmm, no, that there is the clock. And there’s the arrow... That one is the triangle.”
“The triangle?” Pavetta laughs at this.
“Named by a creative soul!” He tucks his hand back beneath his head, “There may be one named after a hedgehog, actually.”
At this Pavetta's laughter fades. Eist glances over and is surprised to see her eyes glistening.
“Is it true you can see the future in the skies?” Her voice is quiet as a mouse.
A strange question, Eist thinks, for the child of a sceptic.
“Sadly not, only a myth I like to encourage…” He watches her carefully, “Why do you ask?”
There’s a long silence between them. Long enough that Eist wonders if she'd heard. But then Pavetta draws in a shaky breath and blinks, long and slow. It does nothing for the tears in her eyes.
She turns her head and gives him a small, half-hearted smile.
Condolences are familiar to Eist’s tongue. He murmured them to his mother at his father's deathbed. And to his brother, who lost both a child and a wife at once. After Roegner fell to smallpox, Eist sailed from Skellige to Cintra with the words on his lips and sailed back with the taste of Calanthe.
When he returns to Skellige without Pavetta’s body, Calanthe slaps him and beats at his chest.
“Go back. Go back and keep looking.”
Now Eist would take the loss of a thousand men if it spared his love.
“You shouldn’t have let them go.” She tells him, once as he steps onto the docks, thrice as they seal the tomb, over and over as he holds her in their bed.
It seems a cruel thing to Eist, for soft Pavetta and gentle Duny to rot on the sea floor while he and Calanthe live, decorated monarchs of a bloodthirsty nation.
“My Pavetta.” Calanthe drenches them both in her tears, pulls at his hair and pushes her face into the skin above his heart, “My sweet, sweet girl, Eist!”
Their granddaughter clutches his hand at the funeral, waving goodbye to two empty coffins.
Cirilla becomes his shadow, an impish, headstrong little tyke with her mother’s hair and her grandmother’s temper.
Their home is never quiet, their days never boring.
Calanthe comes back to herself, slowly, nights nestled in Eist’s arms, drifting off to the sound of his steady breath.
“Why can’t I come to Skellige with you?” Ciri asks him one day.
Eist looks up from a set of knucklebones. She’s sat cross-legged in front of him, every bit as serious as a noble at court poised to catch a lie. Tread carefully, old man.
“You went in summer.”
The look his granddaughter gives him in reply borders on petulance. When he tosses up a knucklebone she snatches it out of the air and scowls.
“So? It’s winter now. We always go in winter.”
Ach, the tone of this girl.
“Your grandmother wants you to focus on your studies-”
“But I don’t have any studies!”
Eist doesn’t reply to Ciri’s outburst, only gives her a look stern enough she presses her lips together and hands the knucklebone back to him. He rolls it between his fingertips, feels the jagged edges rub against his skin.
“You’re keeping things from me.”
Gods, she sounds so like her mother. Eist blinks, and for a short second he sees Pavetta and her unshed tears, asking about stars and futures.
By all rights Ciri deserves to know who marches on their doorstep. Calanthe had won Hochebuz at this age, Eist had command of his own ship.
But that was their lot in life. Their fate.
Ciri’s fate is far away from both Eist and Calanthe.
“There’s nothing you need worry about.” He tells her, and thinks of monsters and a man with yellow eyes.
This is the last thought in Eist’s head:
Ciri looks at her grandfather, at the slump of his shoulders, the dark beneath his eyes, and it occurs to her she may never see him again. The torch flames flicker and for a moment he's already a skull, lying beside her grandmother in some far off field.
Eist glances sidelong at her. The lines in his cheeks deepen. His eyes glisten.
“Don’t look at me like that.” He says, and Ciri’s face creases.
He reaches for her then, pulls her into his arms, presses her head against his chest and rests his lips on her crown, squeezes as if he doesn’t intend to let go.
“Oh, Ciri." He whispers, "My girl. Don’t look at me like that. Do you think I'd leave you? Could I ever leave you?”
Even if Ciri has an answer for this, she can't bring herself to say it.
The slow thrum of her grandfather’s heart beats against her ear. Behind his shoulder, the sun begins to rise and bathes the stones of the citadel in a bright and brilliant red.