The air was frozen, and the rain that fell from the sky was transformed during its descent from water into balls of ice, so hard and frozen that when they made impact with Geralt’s head they burned and ached, fiery in the way that only freezing cold can be. His cloak was ripped and torn, no longer serviceable beyond being torn up to make bandages, although Geralt had not even had the energy to do that the last couple of days. It had been weeks since his last contract, weeks since he had had coin to buy food, let alone new clothes to replace the ones ripped by rain and use. And while it was true Witchers could go on for a long time without food or warmth, the lack of anything to eat beyond a meagre few pieces of rotten bread he had found in an abandoned cottage was beginning to take its toll. On top of that, the freezing rain that had relentlessly pounded the coast for days, although it had at first been no more than an annoyance, was now making Geralt begin to shiver and tremble in nothing more than his black shirt and leather armour. The lack of contracts for Witchers inland had driven him to the coast, a place which he had hoped to avoid due to the simple fact that he hated the water (the Trials had that effect on many boys). However, he was desperate, and the general consensus among Witchers that water was a place to be avoided at all costs would hopefully lead to a greater yield of contracts in the coastal fishing villages.
Miserably, he urged Roach on, trying to ignore the way her flesh was trembling just as badly, if not worse, than Geralt’s own. The two of them leaned into the wind, which blew down Geralt’s throat and pushed any exhalations he tried to release back down into his lungs, leaving him breathless. Below, the waves crashed and pounded up against the base of the sharp cliff along which the coastal road ran. Seagulls wheeled and called in the night air, undeterred by the winds pushing them to and fro like so many leaves. The sparse grass, the only form of plant that could survive in such a remote and unforgiving location, rubbed together sharply in the wind as well, a sound that could only be caught by Geralt’s enhanced hearing. The air smelled of a nauseating combination of seawater and dead fish. And still, there were no lights in the distance, no fishing villages approaching, nothing. Just empty road and miserable wind for miles and miles, with night already upon them. Sighing frustratedly and trying to choke down a burgeoning cough (it was just the wind, making his throat dry), Geralt realized that he would not find any better or more sheltered places to camp tonight. It was stop here or ride on through the night, something which his exhausted body would no longer permit.
“I’m sorry, Roach,” he muttered, although he doubted she could hear him over the howling wind and crashing waves, “We’d best make camp here tonight. At least I still have some oats for you.”
Geralt leapt off her back, grunting slightly when knees sore from days of sitting in the saddle came jarred as his feet landed on the ground. He nearly keeled over from the stiffness in his joints before he steadied himself on Roach’s neck, patting her softly by way of a thank you. He hauled what meagre possessions travelled with him from town to town out of the saddlebags, removed Roach’s saddle and bridle, and went about making camp as quickly as possible. He realized that no matter what he did, tonight was going to be uncomfortable. There was no dirt along the high cliffs to soften the rocks that dug through Geralt’s bedroll, and the wind and rain howled and thundered. Geralt tried his best to rub Roach down and covered her with a threadbare horse blanket, one of the few things that had lasted since he had set out from Kaer Morhen.
Sighing miserably, Geralt drew his only other blanket around his shoulders, which were trembling a bit from the cold. Normally, Witchers weren’t bothered by the weather, but Geralt had been freezing cold for days. He couldn’t feel his fingers or toes, and there was too much rain pouring down to even consider lighting a fire to keep warm. Without any food, Geralt supposed there was nothing to do but try and get some rest, in the sheer hope that perhaps the rain would have abated slightly by tomorrow morning. He curled up tightly on his bedroll, muttered a brief goodnight to Roach, although he doubted she heard it over the howling wind and desolate pounding of the waves, and tried to get some rest.
The morning, thankfully, dawned clear and bright, with only scudding, dark clouds in the distance and the strong scent of rain on the wet dirt the only reminders of the gale that had so rocked the previous night’s serenity. Unfortunately, it also dawned on a campsite that had seen no rest. Geralt had spent most of the night tossing and turning in the cold, and by the time the rain had abated he found he was too awake to even consider trying to get some rest. A sleepless night often led to a rallying burst of energy for him, a few hours where he felt well-rested, almost euphoric, before he would slump in the saddle again, sometimes leaning on Roach’s neck, begging his body to let him sleep. Thus had been the pattern for the last several days, and clearly Geralt’s body had no plans to break that pattern now. With an aching groan as his cold, stiff muscles stretched out, Geralt rubbed at his tired eyes with the heel of his hand, and wrung the excess water out of his half-braid.
“Morning, Roach,” he muttered tiredly, voice scratchy from the night, even though he had not slept, “You get any more rest?”
She puffed out her breath sympathetically, sharing in her master’s pain. Clearly, the rain had disturbed both their rests.
“Hopefully we find a village tonight, eh? Somewhere warm and dry where we can sleep before we fulfill a contract? Maybe some apples?”
Geralt found his mouth watering at the mere thought of apples, let alone the other delights one often found at inns. He would have gladly fought his way through a small army for a bowl of hearty stew, full of meat and vegetables and potatoes. It felt like an age since he had had anything even warm to eat, and for several moments he allowed himself to be transported by the fantastical feast his mind conjured up; one that involved at least three bowls of stew, warm, fresh-baked bread, and enough ale to leave him feeling pleasantly warm inside and out. Invigorated by the thought, even though Geralt knew well enough it could be days yet before he got a proper meal if he failed to find a village, the Witcher saddled Roach, who looked wet and indignant, packed up camp, and continued along the coast, resigning himself to another day alone, cold and hungry on the road.
He had not been riding long, however, when he came across a merchant travelling in the opposite direction, his cart empty but full of sacks as though he had just come from a market. Geralt felt a surge of hope; a lone merchant would never travel too far from a town without an escort of some sort, so there must be a settlement nearby. He raised a gloved hand in greeting, and the merchant returned it, clucking to his team and trotting them over to ride abreast with Roach.
“Blessings to you, traveller! What brings you from the North, ’tis a long way to travel from the nearest settlement in that way, especially so close to winter.” The merchant was a jolly-looking man, of about fifty, and very red and ruddy in the face, speaking to a life spent more on the sea than on land. His hands were enormous, and scarred, making the reins he held look no bigger than strings. His accent was strange, although Geralt supposed he had never been this close to the coast before, and thus had had no real expectation of how they might speak.
“The same to you,” he responded, trying to keep the pure exhaustion hidden from his voice, “I’ve come from Blaviken, just past Roggveen, in search of work, but I haven’t had any success in finding a village, let alone one that might be in need of my services.”
Geralt hoped the man wouldn’t notice the way that he skirted around what his actual profession was. Saying he was a Witcher newly come from Blaviken in the same sentence might raise the alarm, even now that he had ventured into Redania. Luckily, the merchant paid his oversight no mind, not even bothering to ask what services he could provide.
“You’re in luck, traveller, the village of Isa is a four hour ride South of here, sticking to the coastal road. Big enough to have a tavern where you can find shelter for the night, and offering more than enough work, especially now that they’re harvesting fish for the final markets before winter. I’d show you the way, but I’m trying to reach Denesle by nightfall, to collect goods to trade on the coast.”
Geralt found himself nearly nodding off during the merchant’s short bout of exposition, only coming back to himself when he felt the man’s enormous, calloused hand shaking his shoulder roughly.
“Say, traveller, you look unwell,” the merchant seemed unfazed as he peered into Geralt’s strange eyes, which were a deterrent to most people, “The least I can do is send you on your way with some hot food. Stop with me for lunch? There’s a good place used by merchants a way down the road where we can build a fire.”
Every fibre in Geralt’s body screamed at him to take the kindly merchant up on his offer; after all, the man had seen his eyes and not so much as flinched, so rumours about what had happened at Blaviken and who had been involved must not have reached this far South as of yet. And yet, he was a monster. The Butcher of Blaviken, the Witcher who could not find work as much because of his brutal reputation as because there were fewer and fewer monsters in these parts to kill. Uncontrollable, untameable. A liability, more likely to cause harm than do good. He couldn’t get involved with someone else, couldn’t accept someone else’s offer of help, no matter how menial. It would only cause harm. So, even as his stomach turned and groaned at the mere thought of a hot meal, Geralt turned away and shook his head.
“My thanks for your offer, but I should be getting on to reach the town before nightfall. I’d like to find a room at the inn before it’s filled up.” Geralt decided not to mention that with no coin in his pockets, he would likely be sleeping in the streets or a ditch outside Isa.
The merchant shrugged his broad shoulder and scrubbed a massive hand through his yellowy-white hair.
“Have it your way, but I wouldn’t stay out here another night; there looks to be another storm coming in,” the man gestured off to the West, where a bank of clouds was forming above the sea, “You look like you could do with a few nights’ rest out of the elements, if you can.”
Geralt couldn’t have agreed more, but unfortunately his wants and needs almost always fell to the wayside, especially when he was short on coin. Bidding the merchant farewell, Geralt urged Roach into a fast canter, letting the rhythm of her gait soothe him almost asleep, rocking in the saddle in a manner that was second nature to him and required no effort. He had long ago stopped feeling the ache in his heels and ankles, and the throbbing ache in his muscles from riding was so familiar by now that it was comforting. Perhaps spending a night outside wouldn’t be so bad. After all, the rain had stopped, and he only felt exhausted now, not frozen.
He was, however, incredibly grateful when he caught a whiff of smoke in the distance, a sure sign he was approaching Isa, or at least a small settlement. Geralt had long ago lost track of how much time had passed since he bid the merchant farewell on the road. He felt exhaustion down to his bones, seeping through his flesh and making his hands feel weak and shaky. Briefly, Geralt considered simply slumping down on Roach’s neck and closing his eyes, but he knew he would not be able to rest. Instead, Geralt watched the barren landscape pass by, from the brittle grass that whisked by quickly under Roach’s hooves to the seemingly immovable skyline, the endless, rippling ocean that reached all the way to the foreboding bank of clouds in the far West. He could see a wispy curtain of rain underneath the dark clouds, blown slightly sideways, and, from this distance, almost beautiful. It reminded him of a cloak he had worn one winter at Kaer Morhen before his Trials, soft and grey and easy on his skin. Geralt shivered softly. What he wouldn’t give to have that cloak now.
When the storm did come, it was nothing like the cloak. It was not soft or gentle, as it had looked from a distance. Geralt reflected that his brain must truly be addled from sleeplessness to have ever even considered that a rainstorm had looked gentle or inviting or soft. Perhaps he was just becoming weak. Either way, whatever romantic notions his brain had entertained about the storm were gone now, as he leaned into the wind, peering through a curtain of silver hair made dark by water that was currently plastered to his face. He could see the lights of Isa in the distance, the scudding clouds having made the sky so dark it was more night than day, even though it had to be late afternoon, at most.
“Just a little further, Roach,” he encouraged, aware he was pushing her far harder than he wanted to after days of cold and only oats to eat. He made a silent vow to himself to buy her some apples at his earliest convenience; the pace and the conditions they had been riding in would have killed a lesser horse.
When they finally rode under the gate to Isa, which was, in truth, more of a city than a village, Geralt breathed a whistling sigh of relief. Normally, he would have cringed at the noises that crowded the streets, tried to avoid it at all costs, but this night the warmth from the torches and the scent of food was intoxicating. He was so tired his chin bounced against his chest as he allowed Roach to find her way through the narrow streets, between two-storey houses that looked like something out of a fairytale with their window boxes and gabled roofs. The cobbles were clean, a rarity, and the scent of cooking food and burning fires overpowered the smell of shit that normally found itself in a miasma over every city street and alley. Geralt blearily reflected that this place seemed rich, and that he would be able to make good coin here, should he find the villagers had need of him.
Roach stopped suddenly outside the doors of a tavern, jolting Geralt from his stupor so suddenly he almost fell out of the saddle. Patting her gently on the neck and offering his thanks for her excellent way finding skills, the Witcher slid down to the ground, wincing yet again as his sore body adjusted to the new position. The rain was still pounding down, and thunder and lightening filled the sky and air with a heaviness. He wanted nothing more than to get inside, somewhere warm, and to drink a warm mug of cider before curling up in a warm bed. However, it was late, and he had not had time nor energy to check if there was a notice posted in Isa searching for a Witcher. He couldn’t bargain for a room on the promise of a completed contract if there was no contract to be completed. Opening his purse, he poked tiredly through the few gold and silver coins left there. Enough for a room for one night, but not for any food. Feeling slightly miserable at the thought of giving up the hot meal he had so been looking forwards to, Geralt led Roach to the stable and removed her saddlebags. Normally he would have left the stableboy with some threats should he not take good care of his mare, especially after the difficult journey they had had. Tonight, though, he was too exhausted, instead slipping the young, wide-eyed boy a piece of silver for his trouble and limping exhaustedly towards the door. In the distance, the thunder and the waves still crashed in tandem, the heartbeat of the night in an otherwise still town.
Inside the inn, there was very little noise, uncharacteristic for a town of this size, at this time in the evening. Most patrons were huddled together, speaking in low tones, or drinking alone, piles of tankards dripping leftover foam and amber liquid onto the floor. No one so much as looked up when Geralt entered, and the barkeep was so preoccupied with polishing glasses that Geralt had to clear his throat several times before the man looked up. He was decidedly exotic looking, not one of the fishing people of the coast, known for their characteristically dark skin. His skin was fair, more pink than olive, and his close cropped hair and beard were the colour of wheat in the fall. His brilliant blue eyes where what set him apart the most; they sparkled in a wise way that suggested there was much more to him than being a barkeep in a coastal village. He offered Geralt a grim smile, the first acknowledgement the Witcher had received since entering Isa.
“Room for tonight?” He asked, in a voice that was curiously melodic. It reminded Geralt of what he had learnt about mermaids at Kaer Morhen, how they had adapted the Elder Speech into a specific variety of tones and cadences that made it more like singing than speaking. If Geralt had ever imagined that form of Elder Speech, he suspected it must be similar to the lilting way in which this foreigner talked.
“Please. I’m a Witcher, looking for work here. You know of any contracts I may be able to pick up?”
The low, hushed buzz of conversation that had previously occupied the inn abruptly stopped, and, as one, the various patrons all looked up. Geralt suppressed a shiver. It was eerie, as though they had been listening the whole time, waiting for him to say exactly what he had said. The barkeep, however, brightened considerably as he went in search of a key.
“I suspect the alderman will be able to speak to you at great length about the troubles that have been plaguing Isa,” he stated, as the conversation in the room returned to normal, “We’ve come on hard times from some slighted sea witches down in the bay, stealing our pearls and our fish, and killing fishermen. Everyone is afraid to go anywhere near the ocean now, and our trade is suffering considerably. We’ve been waiting for a Witcher to come this way for months now.”
Geralt felt a strange combination of relief and an overwhelming exhaustion curling in his gut. He wanted this contract. He needed this contract, if he wanted to buy a new cloak and coat and not succumb to illness from the cold (it was true Witchers were very hard to kill, but not impossible, even when it came to infectious diseases). However, he was so very tired, and cold, and since his trials saltwater had repulsed him. It was part of walking The Path to do what was required of him, though. And this contract held the promise of no difficult choices, no murderous encounters. No choices between greater and lesser evils. Geralt had had enough of those to last him a lifetime.
“I’ll speak to him tomorrow.”
The fair man nodded, and then called for someone named Essi through a small door that presumably led to the back of the inn.
“Bring this man a hot bath and some food, as a gift to thank him for stopping in Isa.”
Geralt opened his mouth to protest, but the man waved away his open mouth with a hand that was too delicate and thin to be used to the rough work of a barkeep. A small woman, so small that at first Geralt mistook her for a girl, appeared from the door. There was no doubt that this woman, who was no more than twenty, was the daughter of the barkeep. She was so small and willowy she almost looked frail, but there was a strength and resolve behind her eyes, which were deeper and more wise even than her father’s. She wore her pale hair so that it nearly covered those eyes, but it did nothing to diminish the force of her character as she gestured for Geralt to go upstairs, clearly intending to follow, and offered him a small, welcoming smile. Not the smile of a whore, but one that was genuinely caring. Geralt searched for words, for something to say to her, but drew an enigmatic blank, and settled simply for nodding and drawing his hood further down over his eyes. He didn’t want to be cruel, but he couldn’t afford to return her friendliness. Not after the last woman who had shown him any kind of kindness had ended up dead by his hand.
Half an hour later, Geralt was cleaner than he had been in months, and full of the first real meal he had eaten in probably two weeks. He even had a clean bed, with real blankets, and four walls and a roof to keep out the storm that was still howling outside. The inn was stone-walled, one of the first such places Geralt had stayed at since leaving Kaer Morhen, and it didn’t even creak and groan when the gale-force wind howled around it. However, even with his situation considerably improved, Geralt couldn’t sleep. He lay in bed, staring at the wall, his mind racing from one thought to the next like a bumblebee from flowers, his heart pounding and sick feeling in his stomach. There was a deep anxiety that pulled at his gut, twisting it and tying his whole body in knots of worry. He knew it was ridiculous to still feel this uncomfortable about saltwater almost a year after he had survived the Trial of the Grasses. But every time he thought about submerging himself in it, about the way it had burned at his eyes and his lungs and the numerous cuts and sickly wounds all over his body, his breath hitched in his chest and his heart rate increased significantly. The worst part was he couldn’t even convince himself it was a purely physical reaction; he was able to control his heart rate in all except the most grievous of situations. Geralt had tried closing his eyes, tried meditating, even tried channelling what he knew Vesemir would say, about Witchers being unable to have any weaknesses, and that in order to purge yourself of weakness you had to face it head-on. Finally, he resigned himself to another sleepless night, and flopped on his back, using a dagger to clean under his fingernails. The inn had gone quiet downstairs, and the only sounds Geralt could pick up on over the howling of the wind and the pattering of the rain were the soft footsteps on men going about their business in their various rooms.
Then, during a brief and rare break in the gale, Geralt picked up on another noise, drifting up from downstairs. It was soft music, the sound of a lute being strummed and a sweet voice accompanying it. This was strange to the Witcher, since he had not seen nor heard any bards at the inn, and he had never known a bard (although he had not known many, and none very well) who would pass up an opportunity to play for a crowd, no matter how small. He lay for a while, trying to recognize the tune, but quickly gave up. He generally harboured an attitude of indifference on the subject of music. It was not something that could be put to any practical use, and he found its disciples to generally be the sort of people who were enamoured by the complications of human relationships, which was not a subject that interested him in the slightest. However, as the music went on, Geralt found himself enjoying it considerably more than he had previously. It was not a bawdy drinking song, nor was it a love ballad, and the chords did not grate at his sensitive ears. In fact, whoever was playing was not singing at all, just humming a simple harmony along with the notes.
Eventually, for the simple reason that he had nothing better to do, and several hours to kill before the alderman would likely be speaking to anyone, Geralt decided to try to seek out the musician, if simply to offer his compliments. He was aware this was not a usual reaction for him, but listening had made him feel more rested than he had in weeks, and he thought that the player at least deserved a few coppers for their trouble. Pulling his aching, tired body out of bed and stifling a dry cough in the crook of his arm, he opened the door and ventured downstairs, finding his way perfectly fine even though all the candles had long since been blown out.
When he arrived in the commons of the inn, he saw a single candle lit on a table near the dying embers of the fire, where a person in a dyed blue dress was sitting cross-legged on top of one of the tables. Geralt recognized her instantly as Essi, the woman who had brought him the bath earlier, who had offered him such a sweet smile. Upon realizing it was her, the Witcher almost turned to go. He shouldn’t, couldn’t, get involved in the intricacies of human interactions, and this woman smelled of nothing but complication. However, he had resolved to thank her for her playing, if nothing else, so he took the last few coppers from his purse and approached her quietly. She had peaceful smile on her face that seemed almost sacred to Geralt, and he was loath to disturb her. Perhaps it would be best for everyone to simply leave the coppers next to her on the table and retreat quietly back up the stairs.
He was sliding the coins across the table when suddenly, Geralt’s breath hitched and he coughed roughly again (clearly the sea air and having spent days outside without a cloak had caused some irritation in his lungs). Essi jumped violently and rounded on him, hand raised like she was about to slap him across the face before she realized what he was doing and lowered it, although she still looked wary, and she was clearly feeling for a knife hidden in one of her tall calfskin boots. Geralt’s respect for her increased, although he supposed working in a tavern taught women to fear all men. He had seen how men behaved like beasts after they had availed themselves of a few tankards of ale.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized softly, not desiring a knife in the gut on top of everything else, “I had hoped to leave these for you. You…play well.”
Geralt was very glad that the ability to blush had been taken from him during his Trials, because he was currently rivalling an ox in eloquence, and felt profoundly stupid. Essi’s clear blue eyes flashed a little, and she looked angry, but quickly rearranged her features into a small smile.
“I don’t play for money, or to please anyone but myself,” she said, rather tartly, although the smile remained fixed on her lips, “But you have my thanks all the same.”
She slid the coins back across the table towards him, leaving Geralt wondering if he would offend her more by pushing them back towards her or by taking them. Eventually, he settled on taking them and dropping them in the empty tankard which was still left out on the bar, clearly where Essi’s father took tips from satisfied customers. He considered rejoining her at the table, to ask what she was doing up so late, but when he turned around again, she had vanished, leaving him deeply unsettled that he had not heard her go.
The following morning, Geralt awoke, which took him by surprise simply because it had been weeks since he had awoken instead of simply roused himself reluctantly from an uneasy doze. He did not feel nearly as rested as he would have preferred before seeking out a contract, and there was a deepening ache in his bones, as well as a cough that had developed quite an impressive bit of mucous overnight, but overall he felt more rested than he had in weeks. Besides, he tried to reason with himself, it was nigh on impossible for a Witcher to catch an infectious disease. In order for that to happen, he would have had to work himself practically into the ground. The cough must simply be residual, his lungs becoming accustomed to the moist sea air, the likes of which he had not breathed since his Trials.
Stretching away the aches and pains as best he could, Geralt descended the staircase into the main room of the inn. He glanced about briefly; a few guests were eating breakfast, several more were deep in their cups. Someone had swept the floor early this morning, and the whole placed smelled pleasantly of wood shavings and fried bacon. The pale barkeep was behind the bar, chatting merrily with a tall, dark-haired, wild looking man wearing the traditional garb of a fisherman. When the Witcher approached them to ask directions to the alderman’s house, the tall fisherman invited to accompany him there, and brightened considerably when Geralt told him he was a Witcher looking for work. The dark fisherman called for Essi, who appeared from the back of the inn, and offered her accompaniment to the market with much blushing and stammering over his words. This made Geralt feel moderately better, at least he had not made such a fool of himself as this man was. Essi declined in a pleasant but distant manner, and just as Geralt was about to turn and follow the fisherman out into the street, he felt a tiny hand wind around his forearm with surprising strength. He turned, about to knock the hand away, and found Essi beckoning to him urgently. She pulled him into an alcove under the stairs.
“Be careful out there,” she whispered urgently, her blue eyes flashing, “I don’t know how much my father told you, but it’s not safe, not for anyone. I’ve been out on the boats with the fishermen, I’ve seen the sea witches. They’re…different. They have magic I’ve never seen before, and Devos, the alderman, is too frightened of cutting off our trade to acknowledge how dangerous they really are. I honestly believe he would kill anyone who tried to tell the people of Isa how much danger they’re actually in. So if you’re going to hunt them, be careful of more than just the witches. There are powerful men here, who will kill for Devos without hesitation. If you want safe passage to the bottoms of the cliff, my brother and I have a schooner in the harbour, we’ll show you the way and make sure none of the fishermen try to meddle where they’re not needed.”
Geralt nodded, feeling the same deep sense of foreboding that he had felt in Blaviken; that this was a situation in which it would be far too easy for him to dive in far too deep to extricate himself from it easily. However, none of this was Essi’s concern, and he did not want to pull her in to any conflict she was no involved again. Giving her hand a rough shake, as he would a man (he was unsure what else to do to send her on her way), he turned, adjusted his swords on his shoulders, and followed the fisherman outside into the bustling streets of Isa.
The alderman was, by far, one of the most unpleasant men Geralt had encountered since leaving Kaer Morhen. He was morbidly fat, and the Witcher briefly entertained the thought that if he stood up, his gut would probably drag on the floor. He was surrounded by food, which he consumed in a disgusting manner with his bare fingers, the juices dribbling down his chin. There was a crusted-over bit of beer foam coating his top lip, which jiggled like a horse’s every time he spoke. And, unfortunately, he had heard the rumours of Blaviken, although clearly not in their entirety, because he did not connect Geralt’s distinctive appearance to the incident. Yet.
The scent of the whole room was so overwhelming to Geralt’s sensitive nose he could hardly stand to stay there, and the incense from several candles burning along the walls had almost caused him to burst out into wet coughs several times. The alderman droned on, seemingly completely unaware of his discomfort.
“Please explain to me,” he began, in a voice that Geralt could only describe as flat, “Why in all the glorious heavens I would want to have Isa involved with a Witcher, so soon after the mess that happened in Blaviken? That bastard destroyed the town’s trade, people are frightened to go within ten miles of the place. The local farmers, I hear, are making evil eyes to ward away the bad spirits they believe inhabit the town and brought bad fortune. If that were to happen here, our economy would be destroyed, our town in ruins. I believe we can defend ourselves from a couple of sea witches without the help of some mutant bastard.”
Geralt had to physically restrain himself from laying his hand across his sword hilt and speaking some choice words to Devos, who looked like he wouldn’t even be able to stand without someone else’s help, mutant bastard or otherwise.
“Witchers do not frequent the coast,” he said tightly, “This will probably be your only chance to be rid of the witches. I heard they laid waste to several boats and killed some men. Surely that can’t be good for your town’s trade and reputation, either.”
Devos gurgled unpleasantly, and Geralt took the opportunity to cough wetly into his elbow, trying to keep the tremors that had begun running through his frame at bay. There was a fire burning in the hearth of the hall, but Geralt felt unpleasantly cold, although he chalked that up to still not being able to afford a cloak. Devos looked revolted.
“You aren’t even well,” he said scornfully, “Not only are you of the same ilk as the bastard that destroyed Blaviken, but you’re barely standing, probably suffering from some horrible mutant infection. And yet you still come here and offer your help? My answer is no. Get the fuck out of my sight, and Isa, and leave well enough alone. Go find someone else to tempt with your devilish ways. We’ll have none of it here.”
Geralt had the good graces to exit the hall with his dignity intact, before allowing his shoulders to slump and leaning back against the outside wall. He had no idea how far away the next town was, and, to be honest, he wasn’t sure even his body would hold up to another week travelling on the coastal road with no cloak and almost no food. If he wasn’t already ill, that would push him over the edge. But there was no point in complaining. That was the path, the way of life he had to walk. If he died, perhaps Roach would carry him back to Kaer Morhen to be buried with his fellow Witchers. Aware that Vesemir would have his hide for being dramatic instead of just getting on with things, Geralt pushed himself up off the wall, and was about to turn away when, for the second time that day, a hand closed around his arm. This time, the hand was large and hairy, And Geralt almost thumped its owner on the head before he recognized the dark-haired fisherman from earlier.
“I saw what happened in there,” the man said lowly, with a voice that sounded like he had spent his formative years chewing on gravel, “Devos is a half-wittted bastard who wouldn’t know a sane idea if it bit him on his overlarge arse. There’s a group of us who’ve raised money to hire you on if he didn’t see sense.”
The man pulled a bag of coin from his belt and placed it in the Witcher’s hands. Geralt turned it over in amazement, this was as much money as he would make from killing a higher vampire, or a very large nest of kikimores.
“That’s an advance, you’ll receive the other half upon completion. These witches are destroying our livelihood, making the waters impossible to fish. Kill them, and we’ll do whatever we can to make it worth your while. Essi Daven and her brother Ered are waiting with their schooner in the harbour. Prepare yourself, and meet them down there at nightfall. They’ll ensure your safe passage to the cliffs where the witches live.”
“Thank you,” Geralt breathed, trying not to allow the cacophony of feelings to enter into his voice, remembering most people believed Witchers to be emotionless, “I’ll do everything I can to rid you of them.”
The fisherman nodded and lumbered off down the alley, leaving Geralt holding more coin than he had held in months, and feeling a strange combination of relief and trepidation for what was ahead of him. On one hand, he was incredibly relieved that he would not need to spend more nights on the road, looking for work. However, there was a cold seeping into his bones, and even though his brain stubbornly refused to admit he could be coming down with some human ailment, his body betrayed him. Fighting sea witches was not something Geralt had any experience with, and it would likely take all of his limited reserves. He only hoped he could survive and take payment, at least to buy Roach some apples for all her hard work before he went somewhere and expired from his wounds.
Feeling morbid and deeply unsettled, Geralt set back off towards the inn, to prepare as best he could for what the night would bring.
When Geralt arrived at the docks that night, he felt considerably worse than he had even in the afternoon. He was exhausted, and his cough was considerably more pronounced, each breath he took rattled in his chest and made him feel as though his lungs were on fire. At least, Geralt thought, he no longer required a cloak. There was a burgeoning fever that burned bright under his skin, heating him from the inside out in a way that was more unpleasant than what he had hoped for the first time feeling warm after several weeks in the cold.
Essi and Ered Daven were waiting for him on the docks, wrapped in warm winter cloaks made of soft blue wool. Ered looked remarkably similar to his sister and father in that he also had the fair, foreign complexion of the people of the mountains, so out of place here by the sea. He carried a sword sheathed at his hip, which Geralt noted was of fine craftsmanship, a steel blade with a simple, leather-wrapped hilt, but one that was excellently forged and well cared for. Essi carried a small, wicked looking dagger in her belt, of Zerrikanian make, curved in the same shape as a small scythe. There was a small pearl embedded in the hilt. Geralt nodded at her by way of a greeting, and shook Ered’s small, almost elvish hand.
“I’m Ered, and I believe you’ve already met Essi at the inn. We have a boat than can take you as far as the sea caves where the witches live, where we’ll leave you and return for you the following morning. If you need us before then, light a fire in one of the caves; we have fishermen who will be watching the coast.”
Geralt nodded his thanks, appreciating Ered’s quick, no-nonsense briefing of the situation, so different from aldermen more used to drinking and feasting than preparing for combat. He did not doubt that Ered had, at one point, been a military man, which made him only more curious about where these fair-haired foreigners had come from and how they had ended up in Isa. The Witcher did not trust himself to speak, however, what with the waves and the wind crashing in the background, and with his throat aching so fiercely he was not sure what noises would come out of it, if any at all. He contented himself simply to follow the two siblings down to the end of the dock, which rocked and swayed under his boots, breathing in the salty sea air which plastered itself against his unpleasantly hot face. He closed his eyes, and almost walked past Essi and Ered and off the end of the dock into the gently rolling sea. Essi’s small, glove-clad hand grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back, catching his eye for a moment with a concerned look as her brother proceeded to undo the knots and loops that secured a small sailboat to the dock.
“Are you alright?” She whispered, low enough that Ered would not be able to hear her over the pounding surf beyond the rock break that allowed the inlet to remain relatively calm, “You look like death warmed up, and you don’t even have a cloak with you. You do realize it’s almost winter, yes? Or are Witchers immune to the cold, as well?”
Geralt felt displeasure streaming off her in waves, but it was not the displeasure he was used to feeling from humans, with undertones of fear and hatred. Her displeasure was softer, warmer, it felt almost gentle in a way he was not entirely sure how to react to.
“I’m fine,” he returned roughly, his voice scraping in his throat like he had picked up a handful of sand from the beach and swallowed it in one gulp, “Not immune to the cold, but fine.”
Essi swung herself nimbly over the side of the small boat, which was rocking gently in the water as Ered prepared it for the voyage. She returned a few moments later with a wool cloak of the same fine make as hers and Ered’s.
“Here,” she stated in a tone that brooked no argument, “You may not want to admit it, but you don’t look well. If you’re going to rid Isa of these witches regardless, you might as well be warm while you’re doing it.”
Geralt took the soft blue cloak in his hands, marvelling at its warmth after several weeks of huddling under his shirt to keep warm. He wasn’t sure what to say; so unused was he to accepting favours from people other than his brothers. He felt numb, uncomfortable with the thought of being beholden to a strange woman who he could more easily hurt than help, even though he felt he at least owed her a thank you. However, when he finally looked up again, Essi had drawn her hood back up over her braided blonde hair, and swung herself easily into the boat, whose blue sails were now raised. She beckoned for him to follow, and, feeling clumsier than normal with his numb fingers and trembling frame, he followed her.
The sea was rough as the three of them travelled along the coast, Essi and Ered working together like a well-oiled machine. Geralt found himself feeling distinctly out of his element, it was clear the two of them had sailed the boat together hundreds of times before, and the Witcher felt more like a large-unfortunate stone in the way than someone who could offer any sort of assistance. He spent most of his time sitting with an arm resting on the gunwale, watching the choppy seas distort the faint reflection of the small wooden boat. He tried to imagine all the types of creatures which must be swimming in the depths, so large and unfathomable most Witchers had barely begun to scratch the surface of cataloguing them. It was a chill night, and the spray of the sea stung Geralt’s cold cheeks. He imagined he was flushed, but out here, Essi and Ered were as well, and even Essi’s shrewd eyes would likely not catch the spots of colour blooming on his cheekbones. The misty night air filled his lungs, aching and chilled, and he fought hard not to give up the ruse and begin coughing. As it was, he took several breaths that hitched and almost gave him away as he choked into his arm, trying his best to make them sound like he was simply clearing his throat. The sea air was clearly not kind on whatever had taken up residence in his lungs, he thought frustratedly.
After Geralt guessed they had been scudding across the sea for about an hour, keeping close to the cliffs, but still far enough back that they would not be dashed on the rocks, Essi approached him.
“You alright?” She called over the crashing waves and calling birds.
Geralt just nodded, definitely not trusting his voice to hold up over all this racket. He felt a little better now he had a cloak, but mostly he just wanted to go back to the inn and collapse in his bed. Tremors wracked his frame, and it took most of his energy just to keep them from becoming apparent to the other two passengers on board the boat. He could hear Vesemir’s gravelly voice in his head even now, telling him that this was his body’s way of warning him, of telling him to turn back and look after it a bit. But what would he do if he turned back? Leave these people in danger of losing their livelihood and their lives? Lie on his back in an inn and rest? That was not what he was good at, not what he was made to do. Better, he thought hazily, to die doing the one thing he was good at than to spend days bringing further stigma on the innkeeper and his family from the alderman by continuing to stay with them while he rested. Besides, when he was not hunting, he was a liability. Someone who attracted danger and chaos and got innocent people killed. Blaviken had shown him that beyond any reasonable doubt. So yes, best to go on. If he lived, he would be able to collect the other half of his payment. Then he would have enough money to buy some medicines that would keep him going until he could get back to Kaer Morhen and rest. If he didn’t live, well, then he would take as many of those witches as he could with him. Perhaps leaving this world doing some good would make up for the hurt he had caused in Blaviken.
So engrossed was Geralt in his internal conflict that he began nodding off without really even realizing that was what he was doing. He awoke from his dazed stupor only when his head dipped so violently with the waves that it smacked into the gunwale. Rubbing it irritably, he looked up and saw the cliffs had increased in both steepness and sharpness quite significantly since their departure from Isa. They looked forbidding, like a giant row of teeth blotting out the feeble light from the stars twinkling in the sky. The waves smacked and crashed against them, And Geralt could see several places where there must have been tunnels from the sea floor up through the rocks, jetting enormous spouts of steaming water that looked like they came straight from the pits of Hell. If Geralt had believed in Hell, that is.
Ered was bringing the schooner inland, swinging the mainsail around while Essi leaned against the rudder at the back. She nodded to him, though he suspected she couldn’t see more than a very vague outline of him against the backdrop of the night sky.
“We’ve arrived,” she called over the pounding surf, “Ered will bring us as far inland as he can, but you’ll have to swim the rest of the way.”
Geralt nodded tightly, not relishing the thought of swimming through what were probably near glacial waters when he could already feel his fever pounding through his flesh with renewed vigour. Essi approached him and laid a small hand on his shoulder.
“Are you sure you’re alright,” she murmured, now that she was closer, “I can see you trembling from the other side of the boat. It would be folly to try to kill those witches if there’s something wrong with you. We can stop on the headlands and try again tomorrow.”
“No. It’s just the potions,” Geralt flung back, stubbornly, hating that she could see through him, “This is what I’m good at. I’ll get it done.”
Essi gave him an impatient look that suggested he was not the first man she had tried to keep from going into a dangerous situation when he was not in good physical condition. However, she simply shrugged and walked back to the rudder.
“Have it your way, Witcher.”
Ered proceeded to drop a heavy iron anchor over the side of the boat, locking them in position long enough for Geralt to down some Cat and Tawny Owl, which sent warmth coursing through his trembling frame and false energy coursing through his veins. Invigorated, he adjusted his swords on his back and stepped up with one boot on the gunwale, holding on to an errant rope with the other to keep his balance.
“Fight well, Witcher,” Ered gave him a small salute, a very military gesture devoid of any emotion, just a simple sending off that seemed practiced, as though he had sent many men to their deaths in his short life. Geralt was almost tempted to hate him for it, hate him for the nobility of his bearing and for honourable deeds he must have done. Ered Daven was not a man who had ever butchered women in the crowded streets of a town, he was not a man who had ever fled a village bearing the title of murderer. And Essi, with the music in her voice, with the gaiety in her eyes that reminded him so much of Renfri, he hoped she would not send him off at all. He hoped she would refuse to care for him at all, refuse to become attached, because he was dangerous to her.
However, she raised her hand in a soft farewell, wind whipping her straw-coloured braids around her face. She did not smile; her solemnity indicative that Ered was not the only one who had seen many soldiers off to battle in his day. He thought he heard her humming a low tune over the heaving sea, a melody he recognized from hearing it too many times in too many taverns. A melody that had played in the tavern in Blaviken the day before he had become a butcher, more beast than man.
Shuddering and swallowing against the ache in his throat that had as much to do with the illness pervading his senses as it did with the feeling that a ghost had just brushed him gently on the shoulder, whispering in his ear that she was cold, that she needed to be held, Geralt raised a hand in a small salute, returning the gesture more than attaching any meaning to it. Renfri’s voice whispered in the wind, in his ear, reminding him of who he was and of why Essi could never mean anything to him, of why he was destined to live and die alone.
He dove into the waves, pushing hard against the current to reach the black sand beach.