I sighed, tugging the pages of the old book out from between Kuba's fingers. He stirred slightly from where he had fallen asleep at my desk, cat eyes blinking at me before letting out a small yawn. He offered the same sheepish grin had always given me, glanced at the clock sitting on the mantle, and let out another small yawn before carefully getting to his feet and dismissing himself from the study.
Even if someone had warned me what it would mean when that child glared at me that day and demanded I teach him how to defend himself, I would not have taken them seriously. Kuba was, and had always been, the storm I couldn't control. But now, years later, I still saw that preteen with missing teeth and bruised knees. I still remembered sitting by his bed and waiting with the darkest fear in my heart for his fever to break after his Trial, waiting for the first time he would open his eyes as one of us. And he wouldn't understand why my careful gaze would soften when I watched him and Olwen spar in the courtyard out back or why Eskel was so hard on him during drills.
I wish someone had told me what a wild ride it was going to be turning that runt of a kid into someone I was soon planning on giving his first silver sword of his own, or how I knew he would make me proud when he took his first solo contract.
I wished someone had told me that this is what it felt like to be a mother.
But forgive me, I'm getting ahead of myself.
I'm adding character tags as I add chapters, trying to avoid spoilers or disappointing people looking for fics featuring those characters as main characters and not just as mentions. Either way, I hope to update at best once a week. Part 1 I had already written so it was easier to just reformat and rewrite some stuff to throw it up on here. Part 2 I'm writing as I go, so please be patient and be sure to check back frequently for any changes made as I edit.
Thanks for taking interest in my little fledgling and her adventures.
Chapter 2: On Walls And Moats
Scowling against the cold rain, two hooded women led their horses through the city gates. Barely older than the other, one was dressed in mainly blue with a dark hood. Her horse, a black gelding that almost looked like it danced when it walked, tugged at the reigns yet tried to follow when left at the stable near the gates. The younger of the two seemed completely unbothered by the rain, tugging along her own gelding who whinnied nervously and dug its hooves into the stone stubbornly.
“Modolf, shush, c'mon then,” she sighed, turning to rub the horse's nose for a moment before it would follow her past the guards checking entry passes.
Part of the older woman wished they had stayed in Toussaint in the sun and warmth that it offered. It felt different from the realms further up north and most startling to her was the reverence almost every citizen had for the reigning monarch, and how she seemed to make common appearances in the public- not put on a pedestal and kept in the relative safety of her castle. Despite the real reason for being there, the two had taken a few smaller contracts and the older woman had a truth further reinforced for her: Kovir and Poviss paid the best for menial tasks. Torn between the spirited warmth of the south and wanting to finish settling things back home in Enna, the two had chosen to slowly make their way back north after a month stay near Beauclair.
With a letter ahead of them calling in a favor from a friend, the two were to stay at the recently refurbished Chameleon just past the Glory Gate in Novigrad for a few days before continuing on north. The tavern itself was something else entirely from the rest of the district, a small group of minstrels entertaining a group of drunks out front. Coated in white stucco, it easily stood out against the dark wood buildings surrounding it.
The younger of the two women grinned, looking to the older for only a moment. “Hopefully someone'll play me.”
“And lose what little contract money you have?” She sighed, shaking her head in disbelief, and carefully made her way past the few swaying witch hunters and townsfolk gathered.
There was a hearty laugh that bounced off the buildings around them in response, following after her. “As if it's any fortune to be lost! C'mon, Cerissa, have some fun, will ya?”
“Olwen, please. When my greeting to the city is-”
“You ain't afeared of them hunters are ye?” She flexed dramatically as her companion stepped into the welcoming warmth of the tavern.
Cerissa rolled her eyes, “Well go on, get a drink and find someone to play with. And I'll go get us settled.”
“Don't want to play? Heard you got some new cards you've been itchin' to play.”
Olwen was usually the more easy going of the two, not visibly bothered by much- even the charred corpses on the bridge that had greeted them on their way into the city. She grinned as she ordered a pint of the strongest beer the tavern offered, getting settled at a table near the small stage that took up a corner of the room. It was only a few minutes before she had found someone to play with her and her laughter could be heard throughout the bottom level of building. Shrugging off her wet cloak, she tossed her coppery locks out of her face before scowling and hastily braiding them to get them out of her face.
Cerissa turned her attention to the middle aged man dressed in flashy clothing tending to the scantily dressed dancers dotted about the room. He greeted her at first with caution, face scrunched into something of a scowl that was quickly replaced with a laugh when he realized who she was and excitedly shook her offered hand.
“Cerissa Lamonia!" He beamed, "The Griffin of Enna!”
She groaned, “Don't tell me those stories have spread this far, Master Dandelion.”
“But of course!” The bard laughed, clapping Cerissa on the back. “Who doesn't love a good story?”
“That was almost a year ago.”
“And it gets grander with each month that passes,” he winked with a mischievous grin, ducking behind the counter before tossing a key to her. “But there will be plenty of time for talk later. Go and get out of those wet clothes.”
Cerissa caught it easily, finding the bard's enthusiasm contagious when she found herself smiling too. “Thank you.”
In the darkness, the shapes of the forest started to blur together and yet Olwen strode forward without any notice of the wolves howling in the distance. She walked with an easy lightness in her steps, not needing to pause to adjust to the shadows as Cerissa had. The cawing of a group of gathered crows set the older of the two on edge while the smile on Olwen's face had not left her lips since they left the tavern. She paused in a small clearing, taking a deep breath, and jumped back when a clump of roots shot out of the ground at her.
She shook her head, scowling. “Well that's not very nice.”
“I really don't think it wants to talk like the one we ran into further south,” Cerissa sighed, one hand going to hilt of her silver sword.
Olwen waved her off, “Nonsen-”
The group of gathered crows dove at them, both girls barely managing to roll out of the way before there was a puff of smoke. A tall form took shape out of the smoke, a stag's head with log limbs that looked like branches. Wrapped in places with what looked like leather, the figure creaked as it strode forward.
“We don't want to-” Olwen tried again, but the leshen let out something of a roar before reverting back to the group of crows that once again dove at them.
“I really don't think peace talks will work this time!” Cerissa quickly shielded them, pulling Olwen closer into the glimmering golden dome and kneeling to reduce fatigue from casting.
Olwen scowled, waiting until Cerissa released her sign casting, and turned to face the creature when it took its full form again. She was aware of the sound of scraping metal as Cerissa drew her sword, aware of the ground trembling at her feet. She set her jaw, there had yet to be a relict she couldn't calm or persuade to relocate. This one was young, she reasoned with herself, obviously new to the forest and only defending what it saw as its home- no different than she and Cerissa would if the manor in Kovir was attacked. She didn't flinch or draw silver when one of its roots grabbed onto her arm and squeezed though she could feel the bone begin to crack under the pressure.
“I'm not 'ere t'fight,” she said in an even tone, trying to ignore the pain in her arm. “I don't want t' hurt ye.”
Another root grabbed at her opposite leg, squeezing so firmly that her leg nearly snapped in half. Olwen screamed out, vision flashing white from the pain, and shuddered. Casting a glance at Cerissa, she nodded, and watched as her friend hastily dug through her hip pouch for a green-tinted bomb and tossed it at the leshen, making it roar and release Olwen from its roots.
“Cast quen!” Cerissa advised, rushing forward in a wave of sparks that caught one of the leshen's limbs aflame.
Olwen weakly did so, collapsing to the ground and clutching her arm to her chest. She was sure she had done nothing wrong and yet, she reasoned, perhaps it was because the creature was younger that it could not be reasoned with. Perhaps there was already too much anger at the mortals that claimed the land as their own and aimed to strip it of its trees. Olwen watched as Cerissa parried a blow, the grin that usually flashed on her face after a successful one missing. She gritted her teeth instead, grip too tight on her blade.
She was distracted.
Cerissa held back a yell of pain when it swiped at her, barely managing to get back as far as she did and instead earning a slash across the small patch of exposed forearm between her sleeve and glove. Again she cast igni, breath starting to grow heavy, and with a clean hit tore one of the leshen's limbs from its body. The creature looking as through it's root-shaped body collapsed in on itself, it toppled forward.
Cerissa waited for a moment to be sure it was dead before hurrying over to Olwen, who released her casting. “Can you stand?”
“It'll hurt like a bitch, but I ain't no Continental-”
“Olwen, I can see the bone in your leg. No need to play brave.”
“Just 'elp me on Modolf and splint it for me and I'll be right as rain.”
Cerissa sighed, whistling for the horses, and rubbed some crushed celandine flower on Olwen's leg to help ease the pain. The bone hadn't pierced the skin, that much was a blessing, but it would still take some time to heal properly and while she was sure Olwen wasn't going to be off her feet long enough for it to set right, she hoped against her better judgment that maybe for once her friend would listen to reason. After helping Olwen into her saddle, Cerissa carefully cut the creature's head from it body with her hunting knife for a trophy and secured it to Moose's saddle with a small length of rope.
“Sorry I had to kill it,” Cerissa muttered, feeling oddly guilty about the points of the creature's antlers that poked at her legs with each step the black gelding took.
Olwen scowled, shaking her head. “We're witchers, and not every monster can be reasoned with. Did what you had to. We're trained t'kill, lass.”
Arm in a sling and leg propped up on the opposite bench, Olwen grumbled as she nursed her drink long after last call. The downstairs had cleared out of most of the patrons, the more drunk ones asleep or trying to persuade a few of the dancers to give them a private show. Cerissa sighed, spinning her ring and trying to fight the fatigue that was starting to fog the back of her mind. The two idly played a very slow game of Gwent, more so their hands had something to do.
“You don't sleep well without 'im,” Olwen said suddenly.
“I don't sleep well in unfamiliar places,” Cerissa corrected with a scowl, “And you talk about Amriel in your sleep so don't pretend I'm the only one.”
“Uh-huh. So all those sleepless nights up in the study when the pup was away on contract?”
“Worried for him. I can worry about someone important to me.”
“He's a grown man, lass.”
“And Amriel will probably out live you, but you worry.”
“He's a mage and an elf.”
“And the two of us are both witchers.”
Olwen grumbled but let the topic drop, instead noting the deep shadows under her friend's eyes. “Go get some rest, lass. Been a long day.”
“I'll manage to find some brawny lad to help me upstairs,” she nearly sang the words.
“The day you play the maiden in distress is the day I hang my swords up in retirement.” Cerissa shook her head in disbelief, but went upstairs to their room anyway.
The steps came easily even though she hadn't run this exercise in years, almost effortlessly keeping her footing and managing to dodge the pendulum. Eyes closed even though she wore a blindfold, she was aware of her companion watching her carefully a few minutes in. She smirked, welcoming the challenge of an observer.
Nothing was said between the two until she came back to resting position, flipping backwards off of the poles and stumbling on her dismount. Cerissa scowled, untying her blindfold to look at Eskel who only shrugged.
“Alright, then you show me how it's done,” she challenged with a huff, swearing she would never forget the grin that came to his lips.
It was almost noon before she rolled out of bed, sighing when she realized how high the sun already was in the sky. She had been planning on spending some of the early morning exploring the square without the bustle of the afternoon crowd, but from the already almost too loud conversation from the tavern below Cerissa knew her plans were best forgotten. Asleep in a heap in the room's other small bed, Olwen's leg had been splinted as best they could manage at the hours when most would have been asleep. Cerissa could tell it was already starting to heal, the bone bending at an odd angle from being hastily set. She winced, knowing they would have to crack it again to reset it once Olwen woke up.
Dressing quickly and going downstairs, Cerissa managed to dodge their host to avoid the questioning she knew she wouldn't be able to avoid for long. She instead made her way to the main square and despite the nearly overwhelming sense of danger that had first enveloped her the previous night, the sunlight made the city seem a little brighter.
A crowd had gathered to watch the latest burning, a whole stack of books scattered at the base of the stakes that would become some poor wretch's funeral pyre. A young elf was lead onto the platform, his face defiant despite knowing his fate was sealed. The crowd cheered as he was tied to the wooden stake and the witch hunter made a speech about the dangers of non-humans, eyes scanning the crowd and seeming to rest for a moment longer than necessary where Cerissa stood. She narrowed her eyes at him, daring him to make a scene with this gathered crowd, and he spat at her unspoken challenge before tossing the torch he grasped with one hand onto the kindling.
The elf did not scream, even as the smell of burning skin and flesh started to fill the air. Meeting his eyes as the flames traveled up his body, his eyes showed a moment of disbelief and he mouthed the Elder Speech word for witcher before the flames managed to start licking away at his features.
Vatt'ghern. It was a word she was once used to hearing, the elves near the keep had called her that when she wandered through the woods to town once she was allowed the time. Amriel had only used it once before he knew her name, but it had seemed more of a title coming out of her friend's mouth. This elf had instead looked at her in wonder, as if not believing there were any of them left. It had been out of respect that it was his last word and there was a small sinking feeling at the thought that maybe her kind could still be considered anything but vagabonds and legends.
“What are you still doing here, freak?” The hunter's words pulled her from her reverie, tearing her gaze from where it still rested on the elf's face despite the fire eating away at any recognizable features. “Waiting for your turn in the cleansing fire?”
Cerissa forced herself to take a deep breath, fighting down memories of a flaming castle and the rough hands that had torn at her armor. These men believed themselves holy, they were righteous. And yet, there were those who would glare at her the same way Cerissa now glared at them. This man had nothing to do with the way her path had unfolded, and yet, she told herself, he did. It was the thought he was more than her, the thought that anything other than the blindly following human had to be punished for a crime that was a fabrication of a religion that only served as a tonic to the terrified masses.
There was a shuffling and she sighed, shaking her head and deciding anything that she could say would only fall on deaf ears. So instead she turned, the jeers of the gathered crowd following after her.
“Look how it spreads disease!” The priest overseeing the burnings called after her, making her pause just beyond the crowd. “Look how this abomination comes to our city and claims to fight the very forces it forms covenants with. Look upon its unholy form, how it looks like a human, but do not be fooled, fair folk! This creature is a horror, it only wishes for-”
“Curious,” Cerissa turned, tilting her head slightly. “How many wraiths have you banished? Ever fought a griffin? Freed a village from a curse? Driven off a leshen? Ever had to tell a mother her child died at the hands of one of your hunters because he might be a mage?”
“Listen not to how it tries to deceive you!” The priest shouted over her questions, easily drowning them out. “This is a false protector!”
“Where was your holy fire when hunters killed innocent children?!” She challenged in a shout, “Where is your holy fire when the only thing standing between life and death for the people you claim to protect is my blade that you so fear?”
A few murmurs spread over the crowd as she snorted and turned her back to the priest who continued to yell at her, instead pausing at a vendor to buy some fruit before making her away back to the tavern. It had been awhile since she had seen people duck out of her way as she passed, some even pausing to stare at her in disbelief. Crunching on an apple she bought, she swore one woman was going to faint when Cerrisa offered a small smile and a light wave.
You'd think these people had never seen a witcher.
Dark eyes watched the woman pass, thinned fingers wiggling excitedly at the boy's sides. So the rumors had been true- she was everything they said she was. Yellow-green eyes bright against her pale skin, she walked with a lightness in her step that was hard to describe. Always seeming to be searching the people around her, the boy smirked when she stopped to look at an art vendor's wares, shaking her head in disbelief at the paint splattered canvas.
She paused, perhaps feeling him watching her, and turned to look at him. One hand resting on the pommel of her steel sword out of habit, she cocked an eyebrow at him.
“Are you lost?” She prompted, voice having a small lilt to it.
Were it not for her two swords and her eyes, the boy would have never believed this woman was a witcher. She was too small for what he pictured, voice too gentle. Not nearly enough visible scars to have been caught in many fights, hair worn down around her shoulders. She looked more noble from the silver studding in her leather armor and the ring on her finger than a monster slayer. And yet, when she shifted her stance to fold her arms impatiently against her chest, he could see a spark in her eyes that made him visibly brace himself.
“Can I help you?” Again she spoke, voice gaining a small edge that made any retort he would have thrown at her freeze on his tongue. He shook his head, already taking a half step back.
Maybe the stories were true. Maybe they did snatch children and torture them, maybe he should just-
There was shouting and she tore her gaze from him, making him shudder. Cursing to herself, she snorted then looked back at him.
He shook his head.
“Go,” she urged, eyes darting up the street, narrowing at a sound he couldn't quite make out yet.
Several men in long, leather jackets chuckled as they walked up to her, already brandishing their own weapons. The woman cursed, taking a few steps to position herself between him and the hunters, not doubt narrowing her eyes further. One of the men stepped forward, chuckling when she glanced behind her with an oddly desperate expression.
“How noble of our blasphemer to protect a child. Now come boy,” the hunter addressed him, holding out a hand, “We must punish this-”
“She's more a hero than you ever will be!”
The woman drew in a purposefully deep breath, drawing the sword at her hip. Purple runes danced down the length of the blade and she tested it in her hand, dropping into a defensive position but did not step any closer. The hunter glared at the boy, outstretched hand clenching into a fist.
“I am your opponent, leave the boy,” the woman reasoned, “He knows not the truth.”
“They just preach nonsense!” He insisted, “You actually-”
“Go,” she begged, stopping him.
“Enough of this!” The hunter roared, stepping forward and slashing at the woman in a wide arc. She ducked under his arm and spun, bringing her blade up under his arm and severing it from his torso at the arm pit. The other two shouted at her, rushing forward at the same time. One hand outstretched towards one of the men, he froze suddenly and she simply rolled out slightly to dodge a blow from the second, still managing to keep herself between the hunters and the boy.
Getting to her feet, she managed a deep cut to the man's exposed side. Blood sprayed onto the cobblestone from the first two hunters' wounds and the boy gasped, covering his mouth with now trembling fists. The third, breaking whatever trance she had put him in, instead turned his attention to the boy. The woman cursed, gritting her teeth, and set the second hunter aflame with a wave of her hand before bringing her blade around in a shallow arc and carving a deep line into the back of the third hunter. The second had now collapsed into a screaming heap, burns covering his exposed skin.
“Eyes on me,” she growled at the last remaining hunter, spinning her sword in her hand and adjusting her stance.
“What does this child mean to you?” He laughed at her challenge, glaring at her.
“Nothing,” she shrugged, “but I was made to protect mortals from monsters.”
The boy screamed when she stepped forward so quickly the hunter barely had time to react, stabbing upwards between two of his lower ribs. Her sword stopped just short of the boys own chest and he swallowed nervously, taking a half step back. Blood splattered his tattered clothes and he continued to scream. The man coughed, blood trickling from his lips when she withdrew her sword with a savage flourish, bringing the blade around to sever the man's neck. The body toppled to the ground with a heavy thud.
“Still think me a hero?” She sheathed her sword, eyes still narrowed and face now spotted with blood
The boy stopped screaming, breaking off into a hiccup, and he wiped a grimy hand across his face to get some of the blood spray out of his eyes. “Yes, ma'am.”
She sighed, “What's your name, boy?”
“Kuba, m-miss.” He stuttered out.
Stepping over the hunter's corpse, she came to kneel in front of him and dug through her pouch to produce several gold coins. Kuba's eyes went wide with surprise, and a faint smile flashed on her face. “Get yourself something for dinner, Kuba,” she pressed the coins into his trembling hand. “And be more careful about which strangers you trust.”
“Thank you, miss-” he stopped, hoping she would fill the silence with her name.
“Cerissa,” she provided, standing and pushing him down the street away from the carnage. “Now run along, before more show.”
“Alright,” Cerissa spoke up over their game of Gwent that evening long after last call, shuffling her hand and not tearing her eyes away from the cards in front of her. It was a losing battle, she knew, “I know you've questions you're dying to ask, Master Dandelion.”
He pursed his lips, carefully surveying the cards before playing another of his own and passing the turn to Cerissa. “So I got the general idea from Geralt's letter, but how did you two meet, exactly?”
“I'm assuming you mean myself and him?” He nodded and she sighed, “Friend of a friend,” she answered too quickly, shooting a glare at Olwen when she snickered to herself.
“I already know,” he waved his hand dismissively, “A witcher wearing another school's symbol?” He laughed, “That's easy enough. You, on the other hand,” Dandelion pursed his lips in thought, looking at Olwen, “I'm assuming you didn't ever visit because he didn't mention anything about you.”
“I won her in a card game,” Cerissa muttered, earning a blank stare from the bard, and her laugh filled the room. “Went to a wedding with her now boyfriend and she was losing pretty badly at cards, so I played off her debt,” she explained after she caught her breath.
“Boyfriend?” He smirked.
“We're not-” Olwen started, a light blush coming to her cheeks.
“An eleven mage that lives with us at the manor in Kovir and Poviss,” Cerissa provided.
He couldn't help but roll his eyes, “A mage and a witcher. Where have I heard this before?”
Olwen's flush only deepened. Cerissa couldn't help the soft giggle as he continued, “No wait, let me guess. Both have trouble expressing their emotions in a healthy way?” He flipped the cards in his hand face down and leaned down from the bench as if to pick up a book from the floor, “Alright surely I already have something written about this...”
“To be fair, at least there's no mention of destiny in this romance.”
He waved a hand dismissively, not trying to fight the smile tugging at his lips, and glanced at Olwen as he continued in a dramatic voice that filled the room. “Ah yes, will just need to get rid of a stanza here and change a few words here and-” He paused, “What does this mage look like? How does he just ensnare your senses?” Cerissa fought to control her laughter, Olwen huffing with an ever deepening flush. “Never mind, I'll figure out something.” Dandelion smirked, making motions as if setting the imaginary book aside, and instead picked up his hand again. “I'm assuming by your hasty denial that you two haven't gone very far with this budding romance.”
“Lass, I swear, if ye open yer yap I'm gonna-”
Cerissa shrugged, narrowing her eyes at the cards in front of her with something of a scowl and passed the turn to lose the round and in turn, the game. “No because he's something of a flirt so whenever he does something for her she thinks he doesn't mean it or-”
“Witchers, I swear.” He shook his head, “Another game?”
“Sure,” she scooped up her cards, pausing when she noticed writing on one of her cards she hadn't before.
Smiling faintly at the familiar portrait of a witcher with silver-white hair and nearly glowing yellow eyes, her fingers lingered on the new lettering across the bottom of the card. Penned in plain handwriting with a blue ink that shone dimly against the darker background art, it was easy to miss if she wasn't looking too closely.
“He signed my card,” she almost laughed at the thought, shaking her head at the concerned eyebrow raise from Olwen and holding it out for her to see, tilting it so the ink showed.
Olwen couldn't help the laugh as Dandelion leaned over to steal a glance as well.
“Seems you have a fan as well,” he mused, a faint smile playing at this lips.
I edited this awhile back and added the slight difference in reaction to finding out Geralt basically signed Cerissa's copy of his Gwent card in a way fitting of an older witcher just looking out for a younger one. (Or the fact she's close with one of his oldest friends, either way)
“Great, just what I wanted,” Eskel groaned to himself, pressing against the ruined outer wall of a long forgotten castle. Silver sword already slick with oil, it had been a long day of following the leads of villagers that were less than helpful and tracks that were just as sparse.
Bent over the corpse of what seemed to be the missing young man from the town, the fiend showed no sign that he was aware of the witcher's presence. A deep russet color with dark stripes, the collar of fur around its neck matched the strips in its coat. While he had counted on something big, it wasn't quote a fiend the witcher had been expecting. While the oil he had chosen would be effective as originally planned, he silently regretted not having more than two samum bombs. He would have to time his throw perfectly in order to inhibit the creature's third eye that could prove just as deadly as the thick rack of horns on it's head or sheer size.
A small smile came to his lips despite the unease, picturing the countdown of the woman who had become his most recent partner.
Bomb in hand, already on the hilt of the silver sword on his back.
He slowly rose from his crouched position, careful not to step on a branch that would spook the creature.
Turn the corner with several quicksteps, aim just over the head of the fiend. It screeched in response, the bomb exploded just over its third eye on its forehead. Roaring as it charged him, Eskel barely managed to roll out of the way in time. One of the creature's antler points grazing his thigh, he hurried to feet and drew his sword in one fluid movement. Again the creature roared, giving him enough time to land a clean hit to its flanks. It turned, swiping at him with one of its massive paws so suddenly he didn't manage to escape in time, getting thrown a few feet away and feeling a claw dig into his side.
He grimaced as he hurried to his feet, head pounding, but managed to jump out of the way of another charge. Another deep slash to the creature's same flank brought blood and it limped slightly as it tried to turn away, screeching as it reached for him. Eskel easily dodged this time, rewarding the creature with a deep cut across its clawed foot. It withdrew, trying to back away, but he pressed forward, cutting deep into the fiend's throat and grimacing at the blood spray that greeted him.
Hurrying back, it let out one final roar before falling forwards into a crumpled heap.
Cerissa would have loved this, he thought to himself, wiping the blood from his sword on a scrap of cloth he carried with him before sheathing it.
His entire body ached from where he had crashed into the ground but his head hurt the worst, pulsing with each slow beat of his heart. Trying his best to ignore it as he carefully cut off the creature's head with his hunting knife, he instead let his thoughts wander for a moment while he worked.
Cerissa's chest heaved, fingers on her dagger as she glanced around the corner of a building before hurrying down the street. Her fight with the other hunters that afternoon had not gone unnoticed and now any that saw her were apparently given orders to attack on sight. She cursed, knowing she couldn't go back to the Chameleon being pursued like this and would first have to either lose the small group that had been trailing her all afternoon or find a place to dispose of them.
“This way,” came a small, familiar voice, something gently pulling at the back hem of her jerkin. The same boy from earlier that afternoon regarded her with wide eyes. “They don't use side streets all that much. You're staying at that cabaret, right?” She slowly nodded, eyes narrowing suspiciously at the boy. Kuba swallowed nervously, looking down for a minute, before looking back up at her face. “I know a better way back. Come on, follow me.”
Without waiting to see if she actually would follow her, he turned and ran back down the alley. Cerissa sighed, deciding it best to follow.
“It doesn't worry ya, lass, that ya seem t'have a wee shadow now?” Olwen nearly hissed at her later that evening while Cerissa reset the bone in her arm that had cracked.
Cerissa ignored her for a moment, applying enough pressure to the already weakened bone until she felt a pop under her fingers. Olwen sucked in a hiss of an inhale, burying her face in her pillow as Cerissa gently manipulated the broken pieces into place. Holding it firmly in place, she laid a metal rod she had gotten the blacksmith in the market to hammer flat over the skin and carefully wrapped the arm in thin linen.
“What's the worst that could happen?” Cerissa finally spoke, easily shrugging off her friend's concern. She carefully tied off the fabric holding her makeshift splint in place with thin strips of linen torn from the main piece.
Olwen wiggled her fingers, testing to make sure she could still move them. After a purposefully deep breath she finally unclenched her jaw, resting her head against the pillow instead. “He goes runnin' off to someone he shouldn't? He gets caught and blabbers off about the kind witcher that helped 'im?”
“Nothing that couldn't happen with anyone else I interact with,” she sighed, “He's just a kid, Olwen. Will probably forget all about me once we leave the city.”
“And if he instead is trying to get you to take 'im in?”
“And why would anyone-” An even look from Olwen made her stop mid sentence, the weight of the medallion of her neck suddenly pulling at the corners of her awareness. She had been that kid, she had sought out an older witcher and asked to be made a mutant. “Right,” she conceded, one hand tracing the outline of the already worn griffin.
“Sounds like you met your match, lass,” Olwen smirked. “Like master, like student.”
“Like I'm in any position to be training apprentices right now.” Cerissa half-huffed, opting to leave the Olwen's leg alone for now. Already sandwiched between two wooden stakes and tied off much like her arm, the bone break in her leg was starting to heal straight without any intervention. With any luck, and Olwen staying off of it for a short time, it would heal quickly.
As much as she had wanted to see the rest of the Northern Kingdoms, Cerissa was aching for home. While she knew the smiling face of an elderly gentleman would not be there to welcome her and make sure her bath was run just warm enough with her favored rosemary oil, she missed the relative safety of knowing the layout of a town and familiarity it offered. Perhaps a more experienced witcher would laugh at her sentimentality centered around the musty books and racks of weapons she no longer used, or laugh even harder at how she had decided that the manor house where she rested her head was not home but the feeling of the people she shared it with.
Or maybe, she decided, it wasn't all that different from what the other two witchers she kept as company would tell her.
Cerissa plopped heavily on her bed, groaning as she examined the wood planks that ran through the ceiling and nervously spun the ring on her finger. “I know how to do all the Trials and could make everything that I would need to do them but I just-”
“Getting ahead of yourself, ain't ye? That's even if that's really what the kid wants. And if ye even decide to take 'im on as yours.”
“The manor isn't a training ground,” Cerissa sighed, letting her eyes close gently. “And if it were to happen, I would need you and Eskel's help with everything. And then Amriel's, too, since traditionally mages taught younger witchers signs.”
“I'm sure Amriel wouldn't have a problem with getting to teach someone. From what I understand, he's the reason you know some of the tricks you do.”
Cerissa nodded, “But teaching someone from scratch is different than teaching someone who already knows the basics of how to control the flow of energy.” She sighed, “And that's all I'm good at- signs and potions.”
“Now you're just lyin' to yourself, lass.” Olwen shook her head, “We both know you're skilled with a blade and wicked fast on your feet.” She sighed gently, readjusting how she was laying to get more comfortable. “Regardless of what you decide, lass, it seems the lad's taken a shining to you.”
“Kids tend to do that when someone is kind to them. Besides, he probably already has parents or a sibling to look after him.”
“Didn't stop them from taking me.” Cerissa opened her mouth to say something but Olwen cut her off. “Look, Cerissa, you'd at least have my support if you were wantin' to try.”
“I don't know if I could put someone through that and then risk their death in spite of it all.”
“You might not have the choice,” Olwen muttered, refusing to say anything for the rest of the night.
The boy glared at the man who stood before him, setting his jaw and pulling his knees in tight to his chest. He remembered the gentle green-yellow glow of Cerissa's eyes that afternoon, how her hands had been gentle even though she was dotted with the blood of the hunter's she had just killed. Kuba glared at the hunter as he raised a hand to smack the boy, not flinching when the gloved hand stopped a mere inch from his face.
“I'll try this again, you little brat-”
“No,” Kuba very nearly growled, pushing the hunter's hands away. “You're just afeared of her because she's a witcher and you know she could kill you.”
“Now, now, just remember who's been feeding your ungrateful little mouth.”
“I don't need you,” he spat, bracing himself for the slap he thought was coming.
“I see then,” came a soft sigh, “I guess I just have to lure her out into the open again. Perhaps with a certain child?”
“She wouldn't risk her life for me.”
“Do you know how those freaks come into this world, child? They aren't born, they're created.” He shook his head to keep Kuba from talking, “And it seems she's taken a liking to you, maybe meaning to make you like her. And you have very little idea how important that would be to her.”
A letter delivered to the Chameleon a day later read in a hurried hand, spots of ink staining the page as the two women read over it.
I don't know what happened. There's this thick fog over the whole town now, it's cold and feels almost like a blanket when you step outside. I've warded off the manor as best I can, as always, but I can't seem to find anything in any of you three's books about anything like this. Thought it was a curse at first, but I can't seem to be able to trace it back to anything. No voices, no wraiths. The air is unnaturally cold, but I can't see my breath. No frost. Nothing seems even out of place. It's just...odd, I think is the word. It feels magic, but even I'm useless right now.
I'll try to wait for a letter back, but I may have to dip into your savings, Cerissa, to hire one of your own.
Wish me luck,
“I'm guessing it's too much to hope the pup's anywhere near the manor,” Olwen groaned, adjusting her leg on the bench in front of her with a scowl.
“Last I heard from Eskel, he was making a trip up north to check on what's left of the keep,” Cerissa scowled, “Then go looking for work just south of the Koviri border.”
“And even if we pushed it-”
“With your leg and even pushing the horses their hardest, it'd a week or two's ride. Plus, I don't have quite enough to cover travel costs right now.”
“Let's just hope whoever comes along agrees with his terms.”
“At this point,” Cerissa sighed, folding the letter, “Let's just hope he can hold out long enough for someone to come along period. From the sound of it, it is a curse. But we're too far away to do anything at this point but hope.”
“Could still write him and maybe refer him to someone.”
“We're here, Eskel's probably nowhere where he can get a letter, we're the last of our respective schools, Geralt's in Toussaint, and who knows where Lambert is at this point since Eskel hasn't heard from him in almost a year,” Cerissa waved her hand dismissively. “Just have to trust Amriel's judgment on this one.”
He was bruised but still managed to keep the glare on his face, tripping again and scraping his knees on the pavement as he ran. It had been easy enough to sneak out once the hunter turned his back on Kuba, climbing out a window and down some scaffolding. At best he would be able to warn her about the storm that was coming.
Part of him wandered if it was simply because she had defended herself after they came after her or if it was something else entirely that made them chase her like they were. Cerissa had been in town for less than a week and already the hunters seemed damned set on making sure she left Novigrad in a body bag- or never even left at all.
Kuba skittered backwards at a corner, trying to avoid a patrol that happened by. He held his breath even though he knew it would make no difference and peered around the corner once the men had passed, glancing over his shoulder before sprinting down the street and ducking around another corner. He was so close he could hear the small band of musicians playing out front of the cabaret and again he peered around the corner before creeping around the back, sticking close to walls while he searched the crowd that filled the room.
Behind gilded masks true intentions were hidden
True natures denied or outright forbidden
Denying what she was for only one night
She only knew that she was in for a fight
Cerissa groaned, rolling her eyes. Of course he had to have his own version of the story, and of course he had to perform it while she was in attendance. Sipping from her ale with Olwen at a table near the stairs, most of the patrons were too interested in the new piece to notice the chuckling from Olwen after the second line.
“Seems even the master bard wants his turn at the tale.”
“At this point, I'm trying to figure out who on the continent hasn't. There's so many great love stories, but no.”
Olwen elbowed her suddenly, narrowing her eyes at the back door as a boy crept in. His eyes darted about the room, wringing his hands together. A large, fresh bruise took up almost the whole left side of his face, his bare knees skinned but starting to scab. “Cerissa,” she lowered her voice, “I think your shadow needs you.”
Behind visions of silk and lace
It was carried out with such grace
Feeling blind as a bat in the crowd
There wasn't much that was allowed
Cerissa followed Olwen's careful gaze, her eyes widening slightly at the sight of the boy. He met her gaze from across the room and she pointed towards the door with a nod of her head. He shook his own, now fiddling with the hem of his shirt, and shifted from foot to foot.
Meet me out back, she mouthed to the boy and he nodded, sneaking back out the door. “I'd say watch my back, but-”
Olwen snorted, “The second I hear trouble, I'm comin'. Splint or no, lass.”
Cerissa cast one careful sweep over the room with her eyes, actually wishing she could stay to listen to Dandelion's poetry, and nodded to the bard in apology before ducking out the back door. In a way, the bard could be blamed for a few things that had come to pass and while she wouldn't say it to his face, it felt like coming full circle that she was now staying at his cabaret at the behest of the subject of many of his ballads she had come to enjoy.
Kuba paced the alley behind the cabaret, kicking a rock along, and looked up the instant he heard the door click shut behind her. He hurried over to her, nearly tripping over his own feet. He was panting, chest heaving, eyes wide. “The hunters-” he stopped, gulping down lungfuls of air, “They want you dead and-”
“Calm down, Kuba,” she sighed, tracing axii in the air in front of the boy and smiling gently when he blinked and shook his head. He stared at her blankly for a moment, and she modeled a deep breath that he mirrored for a few moments before the sign's effects waned. “Better?”
He nodded slowly, but narrowed his eyes with a shake of his head. “That was...”
“One of my witcher's signs,” she offered in terms of explanation. “Now, calmly, please finish what you were saying about the witch hunters.”
“They...really don't like you. Kept saying having to burn you or something, punishing the sinner, I think,” his face crumpled, trying hard to remember what he was told through the lingering fog in his mind, “They...they keep saying they're going to use me to get to you.”
“Wise choice,” she nodded, folding her arms against her chest. “They're more perceptive than I gave them credit for being.”
“What...” He blinked, eyes widening as he looked up to meet hers.
She offered a pained smile in response, putting a firm hand on one of the boy's shoulders and pushing him gently towards the door. “Come in, Kuba. We have a lot to talk about.”
The boy snored gently, stretched out across Cerissa's lap. Olwen watched the two with a gentle smirk, holding back every teasing comment that bubbled to the surface. It was written all over Cerissa's face what she wanted, and had she not chosen to walk the Path, Olwen could have easily seen as the doting mother by now. The elder of the two women had made sure the boy had gotten some dinner in him while asking general questions about where he lived or what he did to survive on the streets. Once he started to nod off and the downstairs crowd started to thin enough she no longer felt comfortable asking questions for fear it would be easier to hear them, Cerissa had asked permission from their host before taking the boy upstairs with them.
“You're seriously thinking about it, aren't you?” Olwen sighed, rolling more comfortably on her side. She propped her head up on her good arm, the other loose from the sling she wore it in during the day. Phrased like a question, it was a statement of fact. She knew her companion had it set in her mind that she wasn't leaving the kid behind, but still wanted to give him the option to change his mind.
“I want the thought of it so badly,” Cerissa admitted, barely above a whisper. “But what kind of teacher will I be? Will I go too easy on him? What if after all of the prep and training he doesn't even-” She stopped when Kuba shifted restlessly in his sleep, curling into a slightly tighter ball with something muttered under his breath. “He doesn't even survive the trials?”
Olwen shrugged, “Comes with the territory, lass. But I know you've been wantin' to take on an apprentice o'yer own.”
“Tried once before,” she admitted with a scowl, “Lost him on the second day once I started with the mutations, and he went into convulsions that never broke. Haven't tried or even wanted to since.”
“What makes this lil'un different, you reckon?”
“He picked me.” There was a decisiveness in her voice that caught Olwen off guard for a moment, the gentleness in her friend's eyes replaced with a steely resolve she usually only wore during combat. The smile stayed on her face, though, when Cerissa lifted the sleeping boy from her lap and tucked him in amid a small nest of sheets. “I'll just use my bed roll,” she more muttered to herself, careful when moving from her position so she didn't disturb him.
“If it counts fer anything, lass, I think you'd be a fine teacher.”
“I'd like to hope so.” Cerissa sighed, “Thinking we leave in a day or two since the hunters are itching to get at me and your leg should be set enough to ride by then without the heavy splint.”
“You're just achin' to get back home.”
“Home isn't at the manor,” Cerissa shook her head, and Olwen only smiled softly when she absently kissed her ring.
Forgive my horrid attempt at poetry in this chapter, please.
He was usually the last person one would expect to be interested in local celebrities, but the chatter of a young witcheress making a name for herself had caught his attention. At first he had dismissed it as Cirilla starting to gain some renown of her own, but soon learned it was instead the head of one of the oldest noble families in Kovir and Poviss. Odd, he thought, to have someone of prestige on the Path that didn't earn it with their blade.
Far more interesting than the woman herself was rumors of her home in the port town of Enna being consumed by a thick fog. It would only be a day ride to investigate more than what he could learn from a few rumors, though he wondered if the manor belonged to a witcher why it had lingered long enough for rumors to spread to the surrounding towns without already being resolved.
“What the hell,” he grumbled aloud to himself, “Might as well. Nothing here.”
Kuba kept within arm's reach of her, Cerissa browsed the vendors in the market the next day for that vied for her business. Handing a few things for the trip back up north to the boy that trailed her, Cerissa paused when her attention instead fell on one of her fellow shoppers. His red and brown leather coat stood out against the subdued blues and greens that seemed to be in fashion, the metal spikes that dotted his upper arms dimly sparkling in the afternoon light. The people around him gave him a wide berth while the guards nearby watched him closely, no doubt wary of the two swords on his back. She tried to hold back a grin, tapping Kuba's shoulder to tear his attention from a street performer, and instead tried to look calm when she approached. Not making eye contact with him, she tried acting like she was browsing the stall.
“There's an elven blacksmith near the red light district who may better suited to your tastes. He was very helpful with resetting the runes on my sword,” she smiled gently when he looked up at her, “We really need to stop meeting randomly like this, love.”
“This time wasn't intentional I swear,” Eskel shook his head in disbelief, not bothering to fight the bark-like laugh that escaped him. “Honestly thought you'd stay in Toussaint longer.”
“He and the lady sorceress have enough to worry about without me bothering them,” she shrugged, waving her hand dismissively. “They wanted to get away from all the drama of outside life, no need to linger.”
“I'm sure Wolf didn't mind having you around, honestly, Cerissa,” he folded his arms against with his chest, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Yeah, didn't seem in a hurry to be rid of my afternoon visits but-”
“Who's that?” Kuba interrupted suddenly, practically clinging to her but pulling the hood of the cloak Cerissa bought him up as if he could hide behind it.
Eskel scowled, looking between the child and Cerissa for a moment before letting out a long sigh. “Don't tell me-”
“He chose it willingly and I have done nothing to him yet,” she shook her head, pushing Kuba around in front of her though he pressed back against her. “Kuba, meet Eskel. He's very important to me.”
“Is he the one who gave you the ring?” He narrowed his eyes at Eskel for a moment before spinning on his heels to look at Cerissa, eyes widening in excitement.
“You told me your ring was from someone important! It matches his necklace too!”
“I think he thinks we're married,” Eskel provided with a choked back laugh, ducking his head to the side in an effort to hide his amused smile.
Cerissa flushed slightly at the suggestion, “Yes, but- we're not, that is,” she cursed herself for stumbling over her words.
“He's scarey, though, Cerissa!” Kuba protested.
“Intense, yes. And the scars certainly don't help,” she sighed, ruffling his hair then turning her attention back to Eskel. “Olwen and I are staying at Dandelion's cabaret for now, planning on leaving tomorrow.”
Eskel rolled his eyes, still fighting a small smile. “Because of course you are.”
“Heading out with us tomorrow or did you have some other business? Because this is pretty far south from what you told me to be just an accident,” she quirked an eyebrow at him with a smirk, “I'm sure Olwen wouldn't mind watching Kuba for awhile if you were hoping for some alone time.”
“Ew,” the boy interjected, sneering.
“A romantic walk by the docks, my favorite.”
“Better than catacombs at midnight,” they both retorted at the same time, smirking at each other. The two witchers paused for a moment, then laughed when Kuba simply stared, not understanding the inside joke.
“So how'd you meet your little shadow before we get carried away.”
Cerissa sighed, trying to pick her words carefully before speaking. “Watched a public burning of an elf, I spoke out against the priest who started spit the usual vitriol of witchers being cursed and all that,” she motioned dramatically with a roll of her eyes, “I questioned the sanctity of the Eternal Fire, had witch hunters chase me down for blasphemy. Kuba just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and watched the whole fight.” She kicked at a loose paving stone, satisfied when it popped out of place and she could kick it along. “They were going to try and use him as leverage against me.”
“And how can you be sure he's not relaying information to them despite being with you?”
“To be honest, I'm not,” she shrugged, “I figure the sooner we get away from Novigrad and remove more variables from the equation, the better.”
He nodded quietly, the two lapsing into silence for a few moments. Cerissa paused to watch a street performer balance a blunt sword on the tip of his nose, the small gathered crowd clapping in delight when he ducked down his chin enough so that it fell and spun in a tight circle before catching it. He feigned several staged attacks then bowed to another round of applause. She smiled despite herself, pursing her lips in thought and watched as a juggler took his place in front of the band of musicians.
“How far do you plan on going?” Came the quiet question she had been expecting, the words so soft she almost wasn't sure if they had been spoken aloud.
She scowled, taking a deep breath and holding it for a moment before letting it out in a heavy sigh. She refused to look at him, feeling the weight of his gaze already. “I know you probably won't agree with me but-”
“All the way then.” Eskel's words lacked the edge she had been expecting, instead sounding more concerned than anything else.
Cerissa snorted, but nodded, the next words heavy on her tongue. “I know how to make and administer everything used in the trials properly.”
The silence that followed was what she had feared. Anger would have been better, frustration, even, but the silence weighed heavy on her and she found herself dropping her gaze to the ground and forcing another deep breath. What she didn't expect was the firm hand on her shoulder and the soft squeeze that followed. Her head snapped back up, meeting his eyes.
It was the same even look he always gave her when waiting for her to say something, but instead he only nodded.
“It'll take take more than two to train a new witcher.”
Olwen had been more than happy to let Cerissa stay with Eskel in his room that night, content that her usual nocturnal habits wouldn't be interrupted by her friend's recent sleeplessness. Kuba had complained about this seemingly new person becoming the focus of Cerissa's attention, but a well-placed glare from the older witcher had sent him cowering to Olwen. Cerissa elbowed Eskel in the ribs and he sighed.
“He has to learn pouting isn't going to work if he's going to be your apprentice,” he reminded her not unkindly, “You're his teacher, love, not his mother.”
Giving Kuba a boost into Moose's saddle before turning to Dandelion, Cerissa smiled at the soft yawn from the boy as he rubbed sleep from his eyes. It was still early when the three left the next morning, the horizon just starting to brighten. She had been the first one awake, mostly to make sure the newest member of the traveling party was awake enough to sit upright in a saddle. Even slower a waker than Olwen, she did have to keep in mind that he was still young and wasn't used to being awake at odd hours like the rest of them. He had pouted about having to leave so early but his mood quickly shifted when Moose licked at his hair, Modolf sniffing the boy with interest. Scorpion had all but ignored him until Kuba offered him a bite of his breakfast.
“Thank you for everything,” it was a gross understatement on her part and she knew it. He had risked a lot by sheltering her and Olwen for the past week, and then welcoming Eskel in as well for the last night. He easily shrugged it off as a 'paying off a debt to a friend' with a laugh, but no amount of coin she could offer would truly show how grateful she was. “And I'm sorry if you get into any trouble because of us.”
The bard laughed, waving with her off with a wide grin. “Obviously he hasn't told you everything if you don't think I can handle it!”
“That's why I'm concerned, the stories Geralt told me of you seem to be him or the lady sorceress fishing you out of some impossible situation most of the time,” she snorted, shaking her head in disbelief.
“They're hunters, Cerissa,” he assured her with a much softer smile, “Nothing I don't deal with all the time. Don't worry about me. And good luck on your Path.”
Leaning against the trunk of a tree that been there long before the humans that wore the path nearby in to the ground, Olwen looked up from the book she had balanced on her knees to survey the camp. Modolf stretched out on the soft grass free from the weight of his saddle, Scorpion dozed standing nearby while Moose kept his own sort of watch. The dark gelding seemed to meet Olwen's eye after a moment, flicking its tail in disinterest, and instead turned its attention to the darkness just beyond the soft glow of their dying campfire.
Though the two lay on separate bedrolls, Olwen couldn't help but smile at the way Cerissa in her sleep had backed up against Eskel and yet managed to keep Kuba within arm's reach. Though she was asleep, breathing even and body relaxed, Olwen smirked at how she still managed to look ready to fight. The boy was awake but pretending to sleep, his racing heart obvious from where Olwen sat. She sighed, readjusting how she was sitting, and noted the page she was on before closing her book.
“Can't sleep?” She spoke softly but the boy started slightly, Cerissa's fingers curling slightly at the vibration. “You don't have to be afeared of me, boy.”
He curled into a tighter ball in response with a whimper, instead scooting closer to Cerissa.
Olwen sighed, shaking her head. She was young when her master had taken her from her family, but she had been excited to learn how the bear of a man did what he did. All the stories he told of the creatures both magical and not that wandered this plane had easily overridden her fear of the unknown. She had been scared, that she would readily admit, and there were nights alone that she was afraid to close her eyes but this boy was something different.
Since leaving the walls of Novigrad, he was out of the place he had known all his life. He would think that any of the survival skills he had come to rely on were now rendered useless since he wasn't familiar with his setting anymore. Even under Olwen's careful watch, he trembled slightly. Moose snorted, coming over to sniff at the boy, but jumped back with a whinny when Kuba waved him off.
“Kuba, come 'ere.”
“The lass will be alright. Come 'ere.”
Careful not to disturb Cerissa, Kuba skirted the still smoldering coals before coming to settle near Olwen. She smiled softly as he crossed one leg over the other, wide eyes glancing out into the darkness before coming back to settle on Olwen's face. He wrung his hands before shaking them in an effort to stop himself, wiping them on his pants legs before resting them in his lap. Instead he bounced his knee, looking down at the ground though his eyes continued to dart about.
“The lass and pup won't do this, probably too afeared of what yer goin' t'ask, but I see those questions in your head, boy.”
“What...” Kuba started, not looking up at her, but stopped and shook his head. He gnawed at this bottom lip for moment before starting again. “What's going to happen?”
“Yer going to have t'be more specific, lad,” Olwen quirked an eyebrow at him, smirking as she settled more comfortably among the tree roots she had been leaning on. “A lot is goin' t'happen in the comin' months.”
“Is what...is what people say about witchers true with consorting with witches or-”
Olwen blinked, not being able to hold back the laugh, and shook her head. Cerissa stirred restlessly, muttering something in her sleep while Scorpion opened his eyes for a moment before the stallion tossed his mane and closed them again. “So they really haven't told ye what they're plannin', eh? Nay, lad, you won't be some hag's dinner. They, aye all of three of us, are aimin' to make ye one of us.”
“Make me?” He repeated, puffing his cheeks.
Olwen paused, choosing her words carefully. “Witchers, no matter their school, are made, Kuba.” She sighed heavily, mindlessly toying with her bear head medallion, “We're human, but different. It will be painful, I'm not going to lie to ye, but the lass ain't goin' t'force you to do anything, she's too soft for that. The pup will push ye and you'll want to break, but he'll be doin' it for yer best interest.”
“But...made? How?” He glanced up at Olwen, jumping when she reignited the coals between them with a wave of her fingers then settled another log on top of them.
“It'll be the lass' turn t'take watch soon, but I figure I can tell ye.” She smiled when he sat up, finally tearing his eyes from the ground to look up at her. “We're subjected to a series of trials, the first havin' to deal with several toxic concoctions instilled directly into yer blood.” Her smile stayed even when his eyes darkened, and he finally sat still. “Many die, their bodies can't take the stress of what we call the Grasses. These break down your tissues from the inside out and make ye more susceptible to the mutations. It hurts, more than ye could ever imagine, Kuba. You'll convulse, grow feverish, even throw up from the stress. And if the lass does what she's supposed to, though, and you're willing to fight, you'll make it through. It won't be easy, I'll warn ye now, but I'm thinkin' ye might just have what it takes.” She paused, watching tears start to well up in the boy's eyes just as she heard a soft yawn.
Though it was Cerissa's turn to take watch, it was Eskel instead who pushed himself upright with something of a groan and tossed his head to get his tangled hair to settle. Sparing Cerissa a gentle glance that tugged at his lips, he instead turned his attention to Kuba and Olwen.
“Since we're getting everything out in the open now,” he started with a sigh, running his fingers through his hair and rubbing at a knot in his shoulder. “Now would be the time to say you're too scared and don't want to do this, Kuba.” The boy opened his mouth to say something but an even look from the older witcher made him stop, Olwen having to smother a chuckle at how his eyes caught the firelight just right to make them smolder. “What Olwen says is true, it will not be easy.”
“And I-” he stopped, swallowing even though his mouth was dry, “I could die?”
“It's a very real possibility, yes.”
He didn't say anything, instead looking back down and again chewing at his bottom lip.
“We're not goin' to turn ye out on the streets if ye say no, lad,” Olwen provided gently after several long moments, making him look back up at her. “Just know it was Cerissa's intention to train ye t'be a monster killer like us.”
New character introduced, not tagged as of yet to avoid spoilers. <3
The familiar safety of the manor was a welcoming sight almost two weeks later, frequent stops made to allow the horses rest and switch whom Kuba was riding with so as to not injure one of the mounts. He proudly said the ride was easiest astride Modolf, but enjoyed the view from higher up on Scorpion more, even though he admittedly spent the most time with Cerissa and Moose. Cerissa guess it was relative comfort level he had with each rider as well that lent to his opinions. Olwen's attention was instead on what had become of Amriel and who he had managed to find to help him resolve whatever befell him during their absence.
The stable-hand's brow furrowing when Eskel helped Kuba down from Moose, he didn't say a word and instead turned his attention back to the other animals with something of a huff. Olwen had been the first inside, quickly tracking down the elven mage and drilling him for several minutes before Cerissa managed to escape the probing questions of Marian when she saw the boy not far behind her.
“Please, not now, Marian. His name is Kuba, and yes he's staying for the foreseeable future.” she sighed, “More worried about what happened while we were gone. Any idea who Amriel got to help him, if anyone?”
“Looked older than you, mistress,” the maid allowed while she fussed over the boy, paying no mind to his protests or the stubborn set of his jaw. “A man with a tongue sharper than any I've ever heard,” she shook her head, pursing her lips and Cerissa had to chuckle to herself, unsure whether her head maid's reaction was to Kuba or the topic of discussion. “Not as old as the young master, though he still had seen his own share of troubles, I'm sure. Wasn't outright rude to any of us staff, before you ask, Amriel wouldn't stand for it.” She looked up at Cerissa finally with something of a scowl, “What is with you witchers and having scars on your faces?”
Cerissa was surprised into a laugh, “You'd think it was part of the trade, wouldn't you? Honestly probably because it's the only part of us not covered by anything so it seems more obvious. We're covered in scars, Marian, you know that.”
She nodded, her expression somewhat saddened, “Some days I wish it didn't have to be this way. For you three, especially.”
“If it weren't for us being witchers, we probably would have never met,” Cerissa pointed out with a shrug, “C'mon, Kuba, let's go find Amriel and Olwen.”
The boy was more than glad to wriggle free of Marian's assessing fingers and instead follow after Cerissa.
“You paid well, right?”
Amriel rolled his eyes, turning his attention back to the papers he had scattered on the desk in what had become their shared bedroom. While the study wasn't just a place for Cerissa's things anymore, it certainly didn't have the room for another desk and he wasn't going to ask her to move any of her things, certain she had them placed just so for her own ease. After all was said and done, the manor was her home before anyone else and it had only been in recent memory that Amriel felt so welcomed into the fray.
“Olwen, I live with three witchers- one of whom is this one's brother in arms. Of course I'm going to pay well,” he huffed when Olwen folded her arms against her chest with a hard set to her jaw.
“Wait,” she blinked, glancing behind her at the soft knock at the door and and offering a half smile at Cerissa before turning her attention back to Amriel.
“Wait what?” He sighed, resigning himself to the fact that his plans for the afternoon had changed. Amriel scowled, tugging open one of the desk drawers and plopping the stack of papers into the vacant space amid the nest of other scraps and notes he had collected. His hand lingered on the knob of the drawer, wishing he could focus his attention on his notes instead, but knowing he wasn't going to get any peace until he revealed what happened with the other three were away. “From the same school as Eskel, considering you two are the last ones of yours,” he spared sideways glance at Cerissa, who shrugged, “That we know of.”
“Rino was a surprise,” Cerissa provided, waving her hand dismissively.
“You got lucky,” Olwen grumbled, finally conceding.
Amriel shook his head, pushing his chair back from his desk so the legs dragged across the floor with a loud screech. “Can we go somewhere other than our bed room while I regale you with this tale?” He stretched his arms over his head with a soft yawn.
The shadows under his eyes had long become permanent along with the calluses that lined his knuckles. Amriel had kept himself busy in the few months that the rest of the company had been away on their own business, helping Marian to keep the manor in order and often keeping track of the bookkeeping tasks the chambermaid knew little about. It had surprised the older woman at first that the elf could read, much less write, and had he been any other city elf, he might have taken offense. It was true, most born in this realm were associated with poverty or were instead involved in the rebel bands that fought at the border of many of the realm's forests. He wondered if Marian knew part of his literacy had come about simply out of necessity in order to keep himself sane, reading every book on magic he could gather and learning to control his abilities from the first moment he set foot in the manor.
And were she to read his notes, she would find most of them were not in Common, but Elder Speech.
Cerissa nodded, “Parlor?”
“Meet you there.”
Amriel groaned when Marian called for him one evening not even a week after Cerissa and Olwen had left for Toussaint. The manor was a different place without the evening games of Gwent between the two women, no talk of contracts or traveling filling the parlor in the few hours that the whole group was usually awake at the same time. Amriel had long admitted that for a trio of people that were rumored to be devoid of emotion, he had seen more than enough late night dares and drinking matches to easily tell anyone else that those were just rumors. He wondered where it had come from, maybe something within their training. Maybe, he reasoned, it was just easier to pretend.
Keep your head down, don't feel pain or get attached, Cerissa had explained once.
But if that were the case, they had more than broken those few simple instructions. Cerissa took contracts from a monarch and with each high paying contract gained more notoriety that Amriel once joked was starting to gray her hair from the stress. There had been a time she would have shied away from anything even close to what she had been undertaking as of late, and he wondered when the shift had happened. Olwen was much too passionate about her pursuits to be an empty vessel, her loud voice often ringing out over any conversation and was more often than not accompanied by a hearty laugh that shook her shoulders and stomach. The soft look Amriel occasionally caught her watching him with echoed the one Eskel often gave Cerissa, his careful affections for the noblewoman witcher showing in almost everything he did.
Marian had once voiced her confusion at how three seemed be the opposite of what she had been told as a child, save for the steely resolve and grisly scars they had- both visible and not. And yet only in this week alone that passed while the three tended to their own business it had been Marian that commented the most often that the home felt strangely empty without the routines or comings and goings of each witcher. More often than not the fireplace in the foyer and parlor went unlit at night, the few remaining animals in the barn and stables seeming to wander in their pens without the horses to keep them company. And while Amriel often snuck into Cerissa's study to reference one of her many books, the counters and shelves now devoid of the characteristic chaos of her alchemy ingredients told him not to linger.
Yawning and pushing his hair out of his face, Amriel scowled when the head maid handed him a letter with his name written on it in flourishing script. It wasn't any of the others, Cerissa's handwriting ornate but lacking the flourishing loops this script had. Olwen and Eskel had much plainer styles, having learned more out of necessity than the luxury Cerissa's family name afforded her. And it had been sealed with a plain clump of wax with no other distinguishing markings, while each had their own way of making sure it was known who was writing the letter.
Thanking Marian, Amriel retreated into the parlor and collapsed into his favored armchair with a huff. Scowling, he popped the seal and practically glared at the greeting.
My Dear Big Brother,
The nature of your associates has come to my attention. How you managed to get yourself so entangled in their mutated world that you believe them to be your friends is beyond my understanding, but I offer a way out of working for every coin and cleaning up after a woman who only seems to make a mess out of everything she touches. Should you be interested, you know where to find me.
“Out of everything I touch?” Cerissa huffed, shifting to more a comfortable position but somehow not disturbing Kuba who now dozed against her leg. Sitting on the floor next to her despite multiple offerings of a more comfortable seat, Amriel could easily see the fear darkening the boy's eyes. He didn't wander too far from Cerissa's side, clinging to one of the few familiar things in the room.
“If the shoe fits,” Amriel mumbled, his laugh more a puff of warm air at the feigned hurt on her face, lips pressed into a thin line. Her scowl only deepened when Eskel laughed as well, looking as though he wanted to say something but deciding against it with a soft shake of his head.
“So what did they mean, 'ye know where t'find me'?” Olwen scowled, brow furrowed. She sat forward in her chair, eyes narrowed as she listened to each word.
“The slums. Our old house,” Amriel waved a hand dismissively, sitting back in his own chair and crossing his hands over his stomach. “We agreed that should we ever need to meet up, we'd do it there.”
“Why there, why not the manor or-”
“And endanger everyone here?” He shook his head. “By the way, Cerissa, can I finally address the elephant in the room?”
“I'd call him a pup, but go ahead.”
“What was your- ah, intentions...”
Olwen huffed when Cerissa looked at her and Eskel for any help with an explanation, “And here I thought it was obvious.”
Amriel nodded, biting at his lower lip and hesitated to say anything further. It was their decision, after all, and surely none of them had forced the boy into anything, seeing as he constantly looked to them for cues. Previous abuse, he figured, or neglect could have also made him that way. His eyes always came back to rest on Cerissa or Olwen, but the women's interest in what Amriel had said so far had put him on edge. Hearing mention of him, Kuba perked up slightly with a small yawn, stubbornly rubbing his eyes. Amriel had to chuckle, the boy was trying and he had to give him credit where it was due. He wanted to be part of the group and be involved like any child his age would, but the time on the road had taken an obvious toll on him. Shadows clung to his eyes though he fought to stay awake, focusing on every word said in the room even with his eyes closed.
“Name's Kuba,” he grumbled, trying sit up straight.
“Amriel,” he nodded in assent, then looked back at Cerissa, “If we're going by tradition, I suppose I'll be the one to teach him signs later on?”
“If you're willing. Not forcing anyone to do anything.”
“Signs?” Kuba looked between the two, puffing out his cheeks when they ignored him.
Amriel shrugged, “Honestly surprised this is the first attempt I've seen out of you with your bleeding heart and all.”
“Being a witcher isn't a mercy, Amriel,” Cerissa shook her head, “You know that.”
“How much do you want to bet we'll have to start locking the door?”
Cerissa scowled and rolled her eyes, settling heavily on the familiar bed and pulling her shirt over her head. “You were probably just as curious running around as a pup at Kaer Morhen, I certainly remember being an insufferable little punk. What's even worse is I can confirm you and Geralt were little terrors when it suited you two.”
“Honestly a little curious which stories he told you,” Eskel was surprised into a laugh.
“Only the good ones,” she nearly sang, grinning.
“Which means the ones that ended with us having to scrub the floor or do an extra lap during conditioning,” he smoothed down her hair when she settled in his lap, wrapping an arm around her.
Cerissa leaned against him with a heavy sigh, shoulders visibly sagging. “I missed you.”
“We've been traveling together for a few weeks now.”
“You know what I mean,” she scowled, then snorted softly. “Just worried in general about all of this. The manor has its own share of stories and secrets, but it's no keep. There's not the constant coming and going of older witchers; long winters spent sharing stories of contracts; or-”
“Cerissa,” Eskel stopped her gently, shaking his head. “He'll be fine. There's more than enough for him to get into and keep busy with between lessons. Your family crest may hang on the wall in the foyer, but it's just as much a witcher's keep as a castle in the woods or mountains. If anything, there will finally be a reason for you to keep the study somewhat orderly.”
She rolled her eyes, conceding. “Where'd this come from?” She mumbled, tracing a thin, pink line that ran along his side with her fingers.
“One of your favorites,” he scowled, “Didn't get back in time and caught me with its claws.”
“You have all the fun,” she grumbled.
“I would think Toussaint would be preferable over hunting a fiend.”
“They pay coppers for jobs I can get gold coins for here,” she groaned.
“Did you at least get to participate in daring feats of heroism like you wanted?” He smirked at the small furrow in her brow.
“If by heroism you mean taking the occasional job from the local carmelengo meant for knights to stave off boredom, then yes. None of the local knights seemed to take a lady witcher seriously, that is until a particularly mocking one ran into a kikimore nest,” her lips split into a grin. “Funny how quickly I went from being a common freak to a hero then.”
“You and Olwen were supposed to be enjoying yourselves.”
“Right, enjoying myself. Only so many rounds of Gwent you can play at the local taverns or with your lover's brother in arms. Plus, I had just gotten my steel sword repaired and a new silver one forged so-”
“You were itching test it,” he finished her thought, smiling though he shook his head in disbelief. “Remember, Cerissa, you're someone's teacher now. You don't have just you to worry about.”
“I wasn't then,” she shrugged but from the set of her jaw, Eskel could tell she knew what he meant.
It was going to take some adjustment on Cerissa's part, he knew this. She was used to not having to look over her shoulder at the other person with her, whether it was himself or Olwen, because there was an unspoken rhythm in combat that all three of them understood despite their differing styles. But now she would have to look out for someone else, just as he first did for her. The only difference was Cerissa was already trained, she already understood the flow of combat, and Eskel had only been watching to learn her style and how to help her with it. While he had played the part of helping train not just her but the younger boys at Kaer Morhen through the years, she didn't have the same experience. From what he understood, she had been mostly involved with the Trials themselves and wasn't frequently found on the training grounds during drills.
Cerissa was going to have to learn how to be a teacher.
“You're an example now,” he sighed gently, smoothing down her hair. “Just remember that.”
“I know,” she huffed, although he couldn't tell exactly why. Frustration made the wrinkle in her brow deeper and her lips press together. She absently spun the ring on her finger, gaze growing distant.
Trying to untangle her thoughts, he could see tiny flickers of emotion come and go with some internal debate she was having. The tension coming back to her shoulders, she opened her mouth as if to say something but shut it again with a shake of her head. As always, Eskel would wait for Cerissa to find a starting point of her own, knowing she wouldn't want him to push. This had become increasingly rare as she learned to trust him, but it was in the recent weeks that he started to see her retreat back into herself. While she had expressed parts of it, he knew the questions she asked were only dodging the real subject. Worry over Kuba not surviving the Trials was what Cerissa would say was making her hesitate, but he could see in the darkening of her eyes it had little to do with the boy directly.
“I-” She tried to start again, but instead clamped her mouth shut so tightly her temples reddened with the force. Her eyes darted around room, not focusing on one thing in particular for long. Fingers moving from spinning her ring to now picking at the skin around her nails, Cerissa narrowed her eyes into something of a glare.
“Cerissa,” Eskel called her gently, trying not to let her run away with her thoughts. He rested one hand at the back of her neck, fingers gently tangling in her hair and resting his forehead on hers. A smile played at his lips when she reached up to mimic his grip, letting her eyes close and calming her breathing again.
He felt the tension drain from her slowly before she opened her eyes, letting out a small huff. “I'm going to fail him.” Cerissa muttered in a surprisingly frail voice, looking down so she didn't have to meet Eskel's eyes.
“How do you know for sure?”
“Because you already care too much,” he gripped her neck that little bit tighter, scowling when her eyes flickered to the wall behind him and her gaze started to grow vacant. “Cerissa,” he called again, but there was too many unspoken thoughts in her head.
She didn't even try to open her mouth this time, the words just tangling in the back of her throat with a small, strangled sound. Squeezing her eyes shut tightly, Cerissa's fingers curled in against his skin and she pulled him closer. “I'm scared,” she allowed herself, voice hollow.
Eskel didn't say anything, knowing that spoken reassurance wasn't what she wanted. He knew her confession wasn't as simple as those two words, but the middle was the only place she could pull a string from the tangle to tell him what was bothering her.
“I once met a woman who even though she set her shoulders with confidence would shrink from the glares of strangers,” he started softly with a small sigh, “But with some experience I saw her test her wings more often until even I marveled at what she was capable of. She was never bad at what she did, she just needed to show herself that she was as capable as I knew she was.” Eskel smiled when Cerissa finally met his eyes again, “This isn't any different, Cerissa.”
“That was different, I-”
“It isn't,” he stopped her, “It's a new role and something you haven't done before. If you're half the teacher you are witcher,” he let out a low whistle and his smile softened when she rolled her eyes.
“Says the man nearly a century old who has done this more times than he can count.”
“So you should trust me on this, love,” he pulled away to press a kiss to her forehead. “Fate picked well when it chose you for Kuba.”
Lambert will get his official tag next chapter, since he's not actively in the story yet though he's been mentioned several times. When I first set out to write OGW, I wanted to give all of the wolf school roles in some capacity since the short appearance of Eskel turned into, well, this. And while I include Ciri among them, it's hard to maintain the almost neutral world state I'm going for and write her either way so she, sadly, will most likely not be making an appearance. Part 2 will focus mainly on the growing tension with Amriel's sister and training Kuba. <3
As always, thank you for reading and forgive any typos.
Chapter 7: Of Bared Fangs
Amriel already knew this wasn't going to end well long before he stepped into the house that he once called home. He lacked the innate intuition of his chosen companions, but a chill had been digging its fingers into the base of his spine and insistently crawling its way up. He swallowed nervously though his mouth was dry and practically glared at the younger looking woman who was lounging on a long crumbling chaise.
Dressed in a gown he could easily see Cerissa wearing with a long slit up the thigh, her hair was pinned back out of her face to show off and not hide the pointed ears that were adorned with multiple piercings. The slow smirk that snaked it way across her lips when she sat up, delicately resting her chin on her hand. No calluses, no signs that she had worked for the silk she was dressed in. Her face and any skin he could see was clear of markings or scars, her eyes painted with kohl and he could pick up the faint smell of rosewater.
“You've certainly done well for yourself, Ewelina.”
“And yet here is my older brother dressed like a common thug working for those-”
“Keep Cerissa's name out of your mouth.” He snorted, “Or Olwen and Eskel's too, for that matter. A witcher's work is often hard, but honest, thankless work. Something you wouldn't understand.”
Her serpentine smile soured for a moment before she forced herself to smile again, eyes shining. “You don't have to lie to me, brother. They aren't here to punish you for speaking out against them.”
Amriel's brow furrowed, lips pursing in thought. “I don't think you see this the same way I do, Lina.”
“Then do enlighten me. Why else would you stay in those conditions?”
“I choose to dress like this. I choose to stay. I choose to go repeatedly into the underbelly of any city in the near vicinity and gather any scrap of information I can. I run a network of spies that spans the entirety of Kovir and Poviss. I'm fluent in common and Elder Speech. I have friends that care for me,” he gritted his teeth when she scoffed at the suggestion. “You don't see the late nights up playing cards until we're all so drunk or tired we dissolve into laughter at the smallest of things. You don't see me willingly caring for Cerissa or Olwen's wounds when they come home from contracts injured. You-”
“This proves nothing other than whatever spell they've put you under is surely very effective,” she cut off anything else he was going to say, waving her hand dismissively. “Come with me, Amriel. I know none of those freaks are home right now. Come, I'll show you something beyond eavesdropping in dank taverns and trudging through sludge in tunnels.”
“Like selling flesh as if those people were cattle?” He shook his head, crossing his arms against his chest when she feigned injury. “You speak ill of the supposed blood money a witcher makes, and yet here you are trading your own brethren like chess pieces. Your silk dress is no less bloody than Cerissa's sword.”
“Surely it must be better than-”
“No, Ewelina. I'm not going to agree to this. I'm glad to know you're alive, but I'm sorry. Whatever grudge you hold against them is between you and them.”
“Don't you remember?” She practically screamed at him suddenly, “One of those freaks killed ma and pa?!”
He blinked, staring at her in disbelief for a moment. “City guard they didn't know who killed them. Besides, the only one who lived around here at that time was Cerissa and she had just come back from-” He stopped himself and the smile returned to his sister's lips, widening into a toothy grin.
“She hides so many things from you,” Ewelina hummed, getting up and coming to stand in front of Amriel. Gently pulling his hands loose from where they buried against his sides, she lowered her voice. “Come, let's get vengeance for-”
Amriel yanked his hands away from her instead, shaking his head. “She wouldn't hide this.”
“Are you so sure, my dearest? How are you even sure the girl you lay with really loves you? You are a mage, a talented one I hear, she could be using you for-”
“No!” He screamed, sending her stumbling backwards with a sudden shock-wave of force that punctuated his denial. “You're using me,” he managed in a more even tone, though his eyes shone with a magic summoned from emotion.
Olwen choked back a sudden sound of pain from her seat next to Amriel, making him reach out to take her hand. Cerissa looked up from where she had been looking over Kuba as he stumbled his way through the heavy tome in front of him, his brow furrowing as he struggled with the words on the page. She practically glared at Amriel, the disappointment that he had even listened to his sister for a moment apparent on her face.
“Cerissa, I know you didn't kill them.”
She only looked back down at Kuba, instead helping him through a seemingly simple sentence just as she did when she was first teaching Amriel to read. Her voice was gentle as she coached the boy, but Amriel could see the not so subtle set of her jaw or how one hand went to her medallion to press a finger against one of the sharp edges. Letting out a silent huff that made her shoulders sag, she didn't look up but spoke again.
“Of course I don't track the movements of others, so I can't say.”
“I'm not blaming anyone in this room,” Amriel held up his hands defensively, “Hell, I'm sure she made it up just to make me not trust you three.” Olwen gritted her teeth, shifting as though she was going to get up to leave the room, but Amriel tightened his grip on her hand. “And I know you're not using me.”
“Go on, Amriel,” Eskel spoke up softly, watching Cerissa carefully with a slight narrowing of his eyes.
“Well, not much else to say Ewelina at that time,” Amriel shook his head, scowling. “I called her a liar, she cried and begged me to listen. When I refused, she promised I would see the error of my ways, etc...”
The elf was hiding something, that much he was sure of, but it wasn't really of any concern at the moment. What more interested him was the person, or people, who called the manor home alongside the elf, who introduced himself as Amriel. It was obvious enough that it wasn't just a noble's home, the swords hanging in the foyer too worn to be simply ornamentation. What struck him as even odder was the relative ease the head maid had with a witcher, making only one small comment he hadn't even heard clearly before leaving the foyer.
Amriel had been nervous, and while that was usually the case when discussing the terms of a contract, there was something more to the story than he was willing to share. He had smiled faintly, though, after asking the witcher's name.
“Thought so.” Amriel chuckled at the confused wrinkle of his brow, “There's only a handful of wolf school left from what I understand,” he indicated the medallion the witcher wore, “And since Eskel is probably down south looking for Cerissa and Olwen, they're heading back from visiting another of your school, that only leaves-”
“You know Eskel?!”
Amriel was surprised into a laugh, “Know would be putting it lightly. He's quite involved with the young miss of the house.”
The laugh that escaped Lambert was sharp, as if enjoying some sort of inside joke. He shook his head dismissively at the quirk of Amriel's eyebrow, “Don't worry about it. Now, back to business...”
The basement had been left mostly undisturbed in years, cobwebs clinging to almost every inch of the passageway. Relatively fresh footsteps disturbed the dirt, but his concern focused on the runes carved into an entry that otherwise lead into a rough stone hallway. Not part of Amriel's warding, the elf's spells focused on the traditional phrasing of Elder Speech that were scattered about the grounds of the manor, the runes glowed slightly in response when he passed by. Otherwise, the chamber mostly empty save for a drying rack from which bundles of common herbs hung.
“For sins he did not commit, a shadow haunts a soul.”
“Great,” Lambert groaned under his breath with a scowl, trying to ignore the persistent thudding of the medallion on his chest.
“I have been bound by one of flesh to this place.”
“Spare me the theatrics. Let's just skip to the part you explain who or what you are and how you got imprisoned in a witcher's manor.”
“Twas not the mage who lives here, nor the woman who owns this place, though we once crossed paths. Instead I was bound by one of blood to the mage.”
“So that confirms it was his sister at least, if I can even believe one word of what you're saying.” He sighed, cursing under his breath. “Wait-”
“I owe a debt to the lady of the house.”
“Still doesn't explain anything, really.”
“Cerissa once freed a spirit bound to the form of a man, what she would call a spirit anyway, in something of a riddle challenge,” Amriel provided, he leaned in the doorway. Beyond the entryway were the stairs that lead to Cerissa's study, the flickering of the fire he had lit in the worn fireplace making his shadow dance on the wall.
“Sounds more like a djinn or demon to me.”
“She wasn't sure what to call it either,” Amriel shrugged, he pushed off the wall and brushed past the witcher. “But you asked earlier why I hadn't left the manor. The runes you see,” he reached out into the doorway they were carved into and winced as his fingers started to burn.
“A containment spell. Shouldn't you be able to dispel that yourself?”
Amriel pulled his hand back, shaking it and wiggling his fingers. He sighed, shaking his head. “If I could, I wouldn't have sent Marian out to post a notice for a witcher.” Amriel scowled, the expression feeling foreign on his face after spending so much time feeling safe in the manor.
“So let me get everything straight. Everyone goes off on their own business for awhile, leaving you here. Your sis comes calling, insisting you're being used or whatever, you turn down her offer to leave. So she binds a spirit owing a debt to the witcheress that freed it to said witcher's home and basically imprisons you here?”
“Sounds about right.”
“When it rains it certainly pours,” he groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Alright. The spirit is easy enough to take care of, find whatever physical thing is keeping it here and destroy it. The runes, I'm not sure how the young miss” the words came out with something of a snarl, Amriel not sure why the thought of Cerissa seemed have to gained his ire, “would feel about-”
“I'm sure she's more concerned about the spell it's casting and less the wood paneling.”
“If there's anything I can do, just-”
“Just go back upstairs and close the door behind you.”
“Glad to know Lambert's at least alright,” Eskel sighed, his expression softening. “Hope he wasn't too much of an ass.”
“Eh, I've dealt with worse,” Amriel shrugged with something of a smirk, looking over at Cerissa.
Kuba had long wandered off, frustrated with both the attempt at reading and Cerissa's being distracted. She pursed her lips slightly with something of a snort as she listened and Amriel laughed, already knowing what she was going to say. When a pause came in his retelling of the story, though, she got up from her chair without a word to go make sure Kuba didn't go looking for trouble.
“Ye got lucky,” Olwen grumbled.
Eskel's laugh filled the room, “Depends on what you mean by lucky, Olwen. Meaning he's not the most likely to kill you, sure.”
“That's exactly I mean. Just because we three know and trust each other doesn't mean us witchers are the most savory bunch as a whole. No offense.”
“None taken. More offended he still thinks me incapable of keeping a woman when his tongue certainly doesn't make him much of a prize himself.”
“That could be open for discussion,” Amriel muttered, earning a full laugh from Olwen and an eye-roll from Eskel.
Cerissa sat at the bottom of the stairs to the cellar, listening to the soft dripping echoing through the stone passage. A shadow passed over her, paired with a sigh before footsteps started down the stairs. Her medallion hummed gently and she smiled, one hand reaching up to trace it's edges as if to calm it.
“You're not mad at me, right?”
“Amriel, what reason would I have for being upset with you?”
“And here I thought you were taught to not answer questions with questions.”
She smiled despite herself, getting to her feet and crossing the small space to run her fingers over the singed wood. The inside of the frame was tinged with ash, the runes carved through with a blade to disrupt them.
“Was I wrong about the paneling?” Amriel chuckled, taking her seat on the bottom step.
Cerissa ignored him. She had pulled someone else into whatever this mess was by not being home. She could have prevented it, she told herself, could have made it so it never happened. Scowling, she snorted at the slight damage and shook her head to answer Amriel's question, instead squinting as she peered into the blackness of the tunnel.
“Do you know where Ewelina is right now?” Her voice was soft despite the obvious tension in her shoulders.
“Cerissa,” Amriel started with a sigh, shrugging with a frown. “It's family stuff. You don't have to get involved.”
“I got involved when she threatened you, my oldest friend and confidant. I got involved when my home got involved. She involved me when she tried to say I murdered your family,” she growled the words, not turning to look at him.
Amriel shivered at the chill that ran over him at the sound of her voice, making him tense. “Cerissa...”
“You don't feel forced to be here, right?”
“I have a roof over my head, a warm bed to sleep in, a job, friends...” Amriel's brow furrowed, frown deepening. “I would have left if I didn't like it here.”
She nodded, forcing herself to take a deep breath, and her shoulders fell slightly. “Let me help.”
“You know I can't pull you into this.”
“Yet you pulled in a witcher you barely knew.” She sighed, finally turning to face him and leaning against the door frame. “Sound logic, really.”
“I didn't have a choice.”
“So there should be no excuse to deny a friend asking to help.”
“Witchers don't work for free.” It was a lame excuse and he knew it, she would see right through it.
Cerissa sighed, the smallest smirk coming to her lips. “If that's what is keeping you from saying yes, then we can work something out.”
Amriel groaned, throwing up his hands in mock surrender. “You're incorrigible!”
“When have you known me to give up easily?”
“Never, stubborn as they come.” He scowled when she grinned. “I have a question now that we're out of earshot of the pup.”
“What really are his chances of making it?”
“Slim to none, but such as it is with every apprentice to undergo the mutations.” She shrugged, the scowl coming back to her lips. “Best chances even in ideal settings are three out of ten. But something tells me he'll be fine.”
“So you're putting faith in a feeling?”
“Tell me, oh mage, what is magic again?”
“I'll have stories to tell one day too, right?”
The question was simple enough, and yet it gave Cerissa pause. Settled on the smaller of the wooden stools in her study, Kuba bounced impatiently as he watched Cerissa bottle the batch of Swallow she had made. The boy had sniffed at one of the uncorked vials, scrunched up his nose, and instead turned his attention to the swords hanging on the wall.
“I'm sure you'll have grand stories one day,” Cerissa assured him with a nod. “But it will take a lot of work to get there, Kuba, remember that.”
He nodded, bouncing happily in place for a moment and walking over to the wall to examine the two swords more closely. Wrapped in darker leather, the pommels bared the same griffon head as her own swords, her's instead were proudly displayed on a stand nearby. “Miss Cerissa?”
“Where'd these come from? Why do you have two sets?”
“I-” She sighed, forcing a stubborn cork into place before turning to look at the boy. “That set belonged to a teacher of mine. He was killed trying to protect me.”
“...Did you...did you get into really bad trouble?”
She shook her head, “No, but Kuba, a lot of people hate witchers. They call us all kinds of things and honestly, some of them we've earned and others, merely superstition. So a group of men attacked the keep where I trained. We were few in numbers to begin with, but with it being Spring, most were out looking for work.” She sighed, “So he did what I would do if someone were to threaten you- he traded his life for mine.”
“But I'm not even a witcher yet,” he huffed.
“All the more reason to be protective.”
Olwen's voice carried down the stairs to the study easily, full laughs following Kuba's excited questioning as she told both the witcher and common folks’ descriptions of her favored relicts. Cerissa had worn a soft smile since this all started in earnest a few months ago, and though Olwen had often prodded her gently about it, there was a sort of glow to the younger woman as well. Settled at her desk and wearing an expression Eskel could only explain as concern, the smile had faded while she read a letter that been delivered earlier in the day.
Bearing a heavy wax seal adorned with a crest that stole the smile from Cerissa’s lips when she saw it, the scowl and only deepened now that she was reading what it contained.
“Not the letter I was hoping for,” she sighed, setting it aside, and glancing over at Eskel.
“Expecting more than one?”
“Well, yes and no. Expecting another as if it's a certainty I will get it? No. But hoping for another of a more pleasant topic? Yes. No, this more has to do with my title of nobility.” He only quirked an eyebrow and waited for her to continue. “Simply, I don't have an heir to the march that the Lamonia family is responsible for along the coast. I had it written that should I die during my duties as a witcher that Antony take over as head of house since he was my second cousin or some such. The duke is now inquiring what my plans are.”
"Does it have to be a blood heir?”
“I'm sure it would be preferred, but I've explained to the peerage that I'm sterile. So at this point, they would probably be grateful for any I can name.”
“Kuba.” Eskel provided without pause.
Cerissa stared at him blankly for a moment, not sure whether he was serious or not. Expression blank and gaze even, there had been no hint of humor in his voice, either. “You mean…” her brow furrowed, eyes narrowed slightly.
“Just a thought,” he shrugged, expression lightening into a soft smile. “I'm sure he'd be thrilled. And it gets the duke off your back. He doesn’t have to know the child’s in training to be a witcher.”“
"With all the soirees he’ll no doubt shadow me at, it would be hard to hide it.”
“His trials are at least a few years off yet,” he shook his head, “And the accelerants don’t affect him in ways someone could tell just by looking at him.”
“I'll consider it. Just as always, I'm not going to force Kuba to do anything without consulting him first.” She sighed, instead turning to the small fire that was starting to die off. Sitting back in her chair with a soft groan of worn leather, she lapsed into silence. The smile came back easy enough to her lips when a laugh paired with a heavy sigh from Olwen drifted down the stairs. “Sounds like lessons are dying down for the day,” she absently thought out loud. “How long are we staying up tonight?”
His sigh was almost soundless, crossing the room to stand next to her. Cerissa, for all of her passions and recklessness, was at heart simple. She cared too much about everything and more than once he had to remind her that she only was one person, witcher or no. Since Antony's death she had been retreating back into herself and undoing all of certainty Eskel was sure their time together had instilled in her.
“Meaning you've got something on your mind.”
Cerissa held out her hand and he took it, gently kissing the back of her fingers. Her smile was faint, focus still on the dying flames. A residual heat still lingered in the room though the cold stone of the walls had long stolen most of it. She shivered slightly, the thin gown she wore around the manor doing little to help ward off the encroaching chill.
“Checked out the tunnel in the cellar just to be sure yesterday...”
“What are you really tossing around in that head of yours?”
She scowled and yet her her lips still looked as though they were quirking up into a smile. “Perceptive as always.”
“I've had practice.” He let go of her hand, instead coming around to crouch in front of her chair. “You know you can trust me, right?”
Long ago she had lost count of how many times this man's eyes had derailed any thoughts she had managed to untangle or how many times the smallest of smiles would catch her tongue. She gently ran a hand through his hair, earning herself an approving hum when it came to rest on his neck.
“At first I-” she stopped herself.
“When I first took Kuba in and then you three agreed to help, it seemed to be the thing I needed to distract myself from Antony's death. The trip to Toussaint was short lived and while I thoroughly enjoyed myself, his death was partially the reason I was there to begin with. What no one warned me about was that grief feels so...empty.” Her fingers absently worked at a small clump of wispy hairs at the back of Eskel's neck and it was taking considerable effort not to let the slow circles distract him. “I was expecting anger or even terrible, painful sadness. But no,” her voice gained a hard edge, gritting her teeth and her nails digging into his skin so suddenly he couldn't help the sharp intake of breath, “there's nothing but a void where he once was. And I'll only get the pleasure of feeling this again and again as I watch every mortal person I've surrounded myself with slowly die. Who knows, it could be even sooner when I'll-”
“Cerissa,” his voice was a firm, dropping to his knees and placing his hands on her own. “Don't. No one teaches us how to deal with this, you know what.”
“Don't feel pain, don't get attached. It's easier if you don't feel anything at all,” she recited along with him, voice flat. Her fingers relaxed against his skin but he made no attempt to remove them completely, content to feel her begin the slow circles again instead.
“It hurts to lose someone you loved and looked up to,” he gripped at her knees, pain flashing in his eyes for a moment, “I know. But it's not your fault. Don't torment yourself with “what if”s or “if I had been there”s. What do I always tell you?”
He nodded. “You may never truly get over the pain. I know you still listen for his voice at times, and I see your face fall when you walk into the parlor and he's not sitting there reading. And it's okay.” Reaching up with one hand, Eskel gently cupped her jaw. She let a faint smile sneak across her lips, turning her head to press a kiss to his palm. “I will be here when you need me. You just have to talk. I'm not a mage- I can't read your mind.”
Cerissa hoped for a moment when she heard the scraping of chairs across the floor upstairs they would have a few more moments before Kuba came creeping down the stairs to say goodnight. She closed her eyes, listening to the thudding of their hearts paired with the sizzle of the fire as the log finally splintered into small fragments. There was the creaking of the wood floor above and the faint whistle of the winter wind outside. Her medallion pulsed gently against her chest, reacting as it always did to the older witcher's presence. She once asked Eskel if his did the same when she was near and while he had smiled, he insisted that if it did, he was so used to it that he didn't recognize it anymore. Truthfully, it was the same with her, only creeping into her awareness when she was most still.
“Sometimes it feels like you can,” she muttered against his hand.
“Like I said,” he smirked, “I've had practice. I want you to remember one thing.”
“Don't go looking for trouble?”
He rolled his eyes, snorting out a laugh. “I love you.”
She blinked, letting her fingers tangle in his hair. “Say it again,” her voice was soft, almost desperate. “That's the first time you've said it without embellishment.”
“You've called me “love” and you've referred to me as the “woman you love” but you've never said those three words in succession, no. Please say it again.”
He grinned, tugging her down to him as he shifted to something more like he was kneeling. “I love you, Cerissa,” he practically breathed against her lips, loving the the tightening of her grip when he kissed her.
First, thank you for your hospitality during my visits. I hope to meet again one day. It made a period of time that otherwise would have been very dark enjoyable. And while my time in Novigrad was not the most pleasant, either, I would also like to thank you for being the mediator that helped make the short stay a little more welcoming. Master Dandelion certainly is a character in himself and speaks fondly of you. I hope you have been doing well in these past few months.
Second, I would like to ask for your advice on something, if I may. During my time in Novigrad I acquired a shadow of sorts and while I wasn't certain at first what to do about the child that had taken a liking to me, I decided at the very least that I wasn't going to leave him in the city. I know, a dangerous decision. Eskel says my soft heart will be the death of me one day. I'm often inclined to agree.
I'd like to try and make this boy a witcher- mutations included. I can't imagine how you feel about that, and I apologize if this puts a divide between us. But I find I have little experience with children and while I do not want to be too strict, I find it hard to find the balance in how I want to approach not just his training, but making myself available as someone he can trust with his thoughts as well.
I asked Eskel for his thoughts but he instead pointed me in your direction. Insisted you would be the better one to ask.
P.S. Lambert sends his regards, helped with trouble at the manor while Olwen and I were in Toussaint.
The letter had been delivered earlier in the week for him, work keeping him away from the vineyard for a short period of time. When told he had a letter from the capital of Kovir and Poviss, it was a different sender he had been expecting to pen it, but it came as a pleasant surprise to find the wax seal stamped with a griffin. Geralt could practically hear Cerissa's nervous laugh throughout the letter, picture her nervous ticks of spinning her ring or rubbing the scar at her neck. He couldn't imagine how hard it had been for her to write it, why he made the younger witcher so nervous remained something of a small mystery, and even harder to say that she was interested in trying to bring a new generation of their trade into the world.
Surely she been expecting anger on his part, or even revulsion, yet it was simply interest that met her request. Geralt wasn't aware there was someone left in the world among the living who knew how to properly handle the process that was the Trials and it certainly posed an interesting opportunity. His own feelings aside, she would try regardless of any aversion he might have, he instead focused on how to best answer her question.
It seems "I've had practice" is becoming a favorite comeback for Eskel. And I realize there's multiple ways that can be taken, so take it as you will.
Chapter 9: On Growing Pains
The cold air burned at his throat, following the route that had become his morning routine. Over the past few months, Cerissa had laid out a path for him to follow and slowly added to it as he built up endurance. What had started as a jog to the edge of the dockyards and back evolved into the winding route through the warehouses near the docks and beyond the city walls, retracing his steps before coming back home. After a small breakfast, it was usually either alchemy lessons with Cerissa or sparring with Olwen.
At first Kuba hated getting out of bed before the sun even began to contemplate rising over the horizon, the mornings often cold. Cerissa's encouraging smiles had only deepened his frown, grudgingly following her through town for the first week or two until he learned the route well enough to do it on his own. His solo runs in the morning had began as an attempt to surprise Cerissa, surprising himself after a week and coming to enjoy the time alone.
If Kuba estimated right, his birthday would be soon and he would finally be twelve years old. Of course, the tonics and mixtures Cerissa had been carefully working into his meals made him seem so much older. Or at least she said they did. He couldn't quite see it yet, he still saw the same scrawny kid from Novigrad when he looked in the mirror. But he could run longer without getting tired, and it took frequent trips to the local seamstress to keep his clothes from growing too tight so he guessed Cerissa was at least partially right.
He kept telling himself he had to trust her.
It had been little over half a year since he had come to the manor and most of the staff had grown used to the young boy who lingered wherever there was activity and soaked in as much of it as he could. More often than not he would gather up an armful of books from the study and settle at the table in the salon, the leather armchairs almost feeling like they were eating his small frame. The chairs too, had started to feel more like they were the proper size.
Although his ribs were lined with bruises, sparring lessons with Olwen were some of his favorites. While sometimes impatient with him, it was more often Kuba that grew impatient with her. Olwen's copper eyes were always soft as she helped him through the movements, though, taking his restlessness in stride and sometimes muttering under her breath how he resembled “a certain lass.” He wanted to learn swords, spending several evenings in a week watching the trio practice together in the back gardens.
It was Olwen who insisted he wouldn't get a blade, dull or no, until he could keep from tripping over his own feet.
He froze suddenly, eyes narrowing at the figure that stood in the middle of the snowy street. Skidding to a halt suddenly on the ice just below the surface of white, he let out something of a small cry but managed to catch himself. The person took a few steps towards him and he took just as many back, glancing over his shoulder to see if he had been followed as well. Although much further away than the person in front of him, another figure waited for him down wind.
Kuba cursed, instead ducking into the small gap between two of the warehouses. In his spare time he explored almost every inch of the dockyards and warehouses open to the public, and some not. Sliding in to an open basement vent when he heard heavy footsteps following not far behind, Kuba pressed himself against a wall and tried to slow his breathing.
There was shouting just outside of the window, angry voices that sounded more like snarls cursing him. Heat flooded his cheeks, fear making his mouth go dry although he swallowed. A hand reached down suddenly, managing to grab a fistful of his hair. Smothering a shout, he reached up and managed to hook a few of his fingers around the gloved hand's thumb. Yanking it down with everything he could muster, he grinned at the shout of pain he was rewarded with and the person let go. Hurrying to his feet, he kept close to the large piles of crates that filled the building. There was the sound of shattering glass and a muffled grumble as one of the figures dropped in through the same vent he had used.
C'mon, Kuba, he coached himself. Think. You're a witcher. You can do this.
“Come out and play, little pup,” called a voice, a man if he judged right, sounding like there was gravel caught in their throat. “Don't want to hurt you.”
Closer the footfalls came, their boots heavy on the stone floor. Gnawing at his lip and glancing around, Kuba instead turning his attention to a stack of boxes three high. With enough force, he decided, it would be easy to knock them over on top of the person and at least buy himself some time to escape through the back door near the stack.
His heart sank when the door slammed open, another man stepping into the room. The man grinned, a mouthful of broken and mangled teeth showing from behind split lips. Kuba instead set his jaw, straightening himself when the second man started towards him.
He's about Eskel's height. Stay low, I'm probably faster.
Drawing a knife from his belt, the man's grin split even wider when Kuba assumed a fighting stance- right foot back and knees bent. “We were given orders to take you alive, little pup. Now be a good boy and come along now.”
I'm behind on pace, Miss Cerissa will start to worry if I don't hurry this up.
“Feisty aren't we?”
The man ran at him, blinking in surprise when Kuba easily stepped aside and instead ran behind him.
A well placed kick made the man drop to his knees, howling in pain. He released the knife as he did and Kuba made sure to kick it out of his reach.
“Save it,” he spat, pushing the man forward at this waist and making him fall forward.
The first man grabbed him from behind, reaching down to wrap an arm around Kuba's neck. Kuba took as wide a step as he could, bringing one of his arms up and pushing at the man's elbow until he released his grip with a half-smothered curse. Keeping low, he ran forward and practically grinned when the man toppled backwards into a stack of boxes. The heavy wooden crates collapsed on themselves and the man screamed before falling still.
Not sparing the first a second glance, Kuba slipped out of the open door and hurried down the back alley- deciding reporting back was more important than finishing his run.
Olwen caught him in the foyer as soon as he pushed open the door, relief flooding her features. Face flushed and chest heaving, Kuba had taken as intricate a path as he could on the way back home in case he was followed. His lungs burned and his throat was long worked raw, he scowled and pushed the door shut behind him.
“And 'ere the lass just went out lookin' fer you.” Olwen's smile was soft, allowing him to collapse heavily into one of the armchairs. “Slow yer breathin', boy. And tell me what happened.”
“Someone's learned my route through town,” he managed between lungfuls of air, speaking in starts and stops. “I think, I think they were trying to-”
“Slow down, Kuba,” she traced a sign in the air with a sigh, the fireplace coming to life with a small fizzle. “Yer safe 'ere.”
He nodded, soaking in the warmth of the fire for a few moments in silence. Forcing himself to slow his breathing, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the chair. It felt like he was so close to being caught and some small part of him wondered that if he had, would anyone had gone looking for him. It was easy enough to replace a skin street orphan, he scowled at the thought, no one would miss him. And yet, Olwen had said Cerissa had gone to look for him regardless.
He couldn't imagine any of the three getting genuinely worried about someone like him.
He was just starting to get feeling in his toes again when the front door creaked open and Cerissa stepped inside, wearing her favored riding cloak to ward off the worst of the cold air. Shrugging off the snowy fabric, she scowled but her green-yellow eyes were warm. Kuba offered a sheepish smile in turn, squirming when she crossed the small space to come stand by the fire.
“I'm guessing you ran into trouble.”
“Got into a fight by the docks,” he admitted quietly, starting to feel less like someone was dragging their nails down his throat. “These two men were waiting for me and-”
“I'm guessing the warehouse brawl was your doing, then,” she sighed.
“You found that?” He dropped his gaze to the side, already biting at the inside of his cheek. “I know, I should have been more careful and-”
“You've obviously been paying attention to Olwen,” Cerissa stopped him gently, a mixture of a smile and a scowl flashing on her lips. She sighed, “And it's time that if he agrees,” Kuba straightened slightly, hopeful Cerissa's hesitation signaled heavy words he had been wanting to hear, “maybe you could start working on swords with Eskel when he gets back.”
“Yes!” He whooped bouncing just once in place.
“If ye don't trip over yer own feet,” Olwen chuckled knowingly but a warm smile came to her lips, reaching over to ruffle Kuba's hair. “Don't go thinkin' I'll let ye off easy, pup.”
“Granted, yours will be wood for a time, but I think it's time you start learning how to use a blade, little witcher,” Cerissa barely managed to fight back a grin. “But we'll see what our resident wolf thinks.”
“Why can't you teach me?” Kuba huffed.
“I'm not much of a fighter, dear.”
“Bollocks," Olwen nearly spat, catching them both by surprise. “Give yerself credit, lass. You killed a vampire in less time than-”
“You killed a vampire?!” Kuba gushed, eyes going wide.
Cerissa sighed, "A katakan, but yes, and-"
Olwen grinned, stopping Cerissa. “Oh she hasn't told ye about it then."
“I believe I owe ye one fer yer little quip to the bard in Novigrad,” Olwen's grin widened, “Come along, Kuba. Boy, do I have a story fer ye.”
He had memorized the guard's patrols, waiting until the group of three armored men disappeared around a corner. The gate to the stables was left open as it usually was, the guard inside sleeping slumped over on his stool. Eskel had five minutes until the patrol passed by again to be inside the main mansion, easily making his way up the ladder into the hayloft and crossing a short cat walk from construction scaffolding to a door on the upper level that was rarely locked.
Amriel had managed to track down three possible places his sister used to coordinate her operations. At first, the elf scowled and insisted it should have been him that was being put in danger, even as he grudgingly laid out all of the papers that detailed everything he had learned on his own. Cerissa had commented that it looked like her collection of papers during her pursuits to figure out who betrayed the Griffin School, her fingers carefully combing through the crude maps and hastily written notes for anything of interest. Disappearances were rarely recorded, and even harder to come back any of the written records unless the victims happened to be wealthy humans.
The guards that rounded the building didn't wear the colors of Koviri soldiers, instead wearing improvised armor that looked as though it had been cobbled together. And while several of the windows were illuminated, the street that the house sat on didn't look as though anyone bothered with it on a regular basis. Most of the buildings were boarded up or surrounded by wooden construction scaffolding, the railings long turned white from the build up of bird droppings.
Slipping inside with time left to spare, it seemed the majority of the second level's doors from where he stood were barely clinging to their hinges. Any remaining furniture was covered with white sheets and cobwebs clung in clumps from the ceiling. The carpet lining the floor of the hallways was torn so badly that it was missing entirely in places.
This house didn't look like it had been lived in for at least a year.
There were voice drifting upwards from the downstairs, one a woman's. Eskel's brow furrowed, a small scowl coming to his lips and he lightly leaned against the railing. Listening in closely, he could make out bits of the conversation.
“Ma'am, to put so many resources into one child-”
“They took something from me so I must take something from them,” the woman snarled, cutting the first speaker off. “I hear the marchioness,” the word almost dripped of acidic hatred, “is quite fond of the child, though I doubt it since witchers are incapable of love.”
Sounds like Kuba won't be taking his morning runs alone anymore.
“Isn't she also with someone?” Another spoke up quietly, “And surely if she wanted to hurt your brother, she would have-”
“Silence!” The woman snapped. “I gave my orders, now go! Bring me the street urchin she calls her pup.”
“Ma'am!” The two men answered in unison, the door creaking as they left.
The woman sighed, turning from the table they were standing around and looked up the staircase with a small gasp of surprise. One hand going to her chest, her wide eyes were quickly replaced by a glare. Eskel smirked when the woman balled her hands into tight fists, opening her mouth as if to call the men back. He shook his head, pushing off the bannister and coming to stand at the top of the stairs.
“For one so sure she can handle a group of witchers, you seem so willing to ask your lackeys for help. Men at your beck and call, a nice silk dress. You proudly show your ears while Amriel hides them behind an illusion. Pleased to meet you, Ewelina.”
“And who might you be? Why don't you go run after them and try-” She demanded.
“As if you don't already know,” he waved a hand dismissively, “Yellow eyes, dark hair, and a garish scar?” Her lips were pressed into thin lines so tightly they blanched, dusty brown eyes glaring up at him from beneath thick lashes colored with the same kohl that lined her eyes. His smirk widened, and she gulped nervously as one hand reached for his steel sword. “So you have heard of me.”
The long train of her dress sweeping the floor behind her, Cerissa barely held back the smirk at the gasps that filled the room. Neckline low to show every scar she would normally hide when presenting herself to court, a worn griffin head medallion with a coppery colored smudge sat heavily on her chest. Kuba knew it wasn't her own, this one she had taken out of a hidden panel in one of her desk drawers and hesitated before slipping the chain over her head. She put the one she usually wore in the drawer in this one's place, flashing him a smirk that he was sure he would one day understand.
Cerissa had taken great pains pinning her hair in elaborate curls out of her face, her fingers were adorned with glistening rings. It didn't escape their notice she still wore the wolf head one on her left hand and a few shifted nervously when she came to stand on the dais in the middle of the room. Kuba lingered by the door, half wanting to hide and ducking behind the door frame but not being able to resist the temptation to watch and peeking around the frame. A few eyes turned in his direction but he set his jaw and tried imitating the same even look he often saw Cerissa wear. They quickly looked away and he felt a swell of warmth in his chest, finding it hard to fight the small smile that tugged at his lips.
Folding her hands in front of her, Cerissa turned slowly to carefully measure every expression though a knowing smile never left her own. She winked at Kuba as she faced the door for a few seconds, and he could barely hold back the strangled laugh at the back of his throat.
“Marquis Cinidari,” she spoke quietly, not looking at any one person in particular, “I trust your daughter is well?”
“But- I-” the man flushed, now nervously biting at his lip as he paused to debate his answer. “You are mistaken, I do not have a daughter.”
“You have a mistress in Cintra who became pregnant after a business trip you took five winters ago. Your wife does not know of the girl or why you spend a few months every year there- she assumes it's the family trade,” Cerissa sighed softly, “You pay her mother well, making sure your daughter is clothed and fed. She's your pride and enjoy, and yet-” she tutted the man, “You can't bring yourself to leave your barren wife for her because you know the marquesa feels terrible about not providing an air.”
“Count Bradford,” she continued, turning dramatically to make sure her dress flared behind her, “Your business is failing because you embezzled all of that money from last year's investors to keep up your appearances of wealth.” Several gasps sounded in the room and she could no longer hide her smirk, “Baroness Lapina's husband, the honorable baron himself, beats her and that is why she wears high collars. She has reported this to the guard but nothing has come of it because he pays them off to look the other way.”
Kuba beamed as he watched her, the fire in Cerissa's eyes and the thin press of her lips was something had grown used to seeing, but usually only when sparring with the other two witchers that called the manor home. And yet, here she stood not armed with steel but words and information that left many open mouthed and gaping at her accusations. The challenge from her comrades was physical, but this was something she faced far less common and she was relishing in the chance to show her skills. The letter came not even a month ago that stated the council of peers had received a petition to remove the Lamonia name as one of nobility due to her inability to properly maintain the march the family was charged with. Cerissa at first had paid it no mind, knowing that the land was well defended by men of her own hire and once the witch hunters had been finished off last year that there was no reason why she shouldn't be free to ply her trade as well when a contract suited her fancy.
But it had bothered Cerissa more than she wanted Kuba to know, the set of jaw harder than normal and her tone short. Calling in a favor from Amriel, she had spent the past month gathering any information she could and attending any salons and soirees she was invited to. And this time, she explained to him, she was not going to pretend to be something she wasn't. If they wanted to try and slander her name based off of fear of her trade and desire to have her removed from the council, they were going to see her all that she was. They would be reminded of why they tread carefully in her presence and why they were afraid to speak too loudly at a soiree.
She turned slowly as she spoke, meeting the eyes of every person she commented on, and came to finally rest on the duke. The sole man she had not named, small emotions flickered across his face with each detail she divulged. Cerissa smiled, titling her head thoughtfully, “Perhaps those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw the first stone. I am a witcher, sir, but I do not claim to be without fault. I But it would do the court good to remember that.”
He smiled, a warm and genuine thing that sent many shuffling in their seats again. “And one that has come to not just my aid but that of His Majesty the king many times, Miss Lamonia. Kovir and Poviss owes you a great deal,” he stood, the sound of the chair scraping across the floor filling the small room. Folding his hands behind him, he straightened and attempted to meet the eye of every noble but instead his smile grew wider with each one that dared not challenge her accusations and instead looked away. “The petition is dismissed. Although I have a matter to broach about the child.”
“Kuba?” It was a call for him as much as a clarification. He set his shoulders as he strode into the room, trying his best to mimic her confident air. Cerissa glanced at him as he came to stand beside her, flashing a soft smile at him and resting her hand on his shoulder before looking back up at the duke, “What of him?”
“I approved your petition to adopt him. May I ask what your-”
“You may not,” her tone was firm, “Witcher matters are not court matters, I made this clear when I returned to my family manor in Enna. Kuba will be named my family's heir and that is all you need to know.”
“Of course,” he conceded with a nod.
“So you aim to make him like you!” The count accused, nearly jumping from his chair. “This all started after that mutt saved your life! Your grace, surely we cannot allow-”
Kuba snorted, his voice ringing out over the gasps at the true accusation. His voice held an edge to it, he decided he would clear the air if Cerissa wasn't going to. “With all due respect, I can speak for myself, esteemed lords and ladies. And I want to make something clear.”
Cerissa choked back a laugh, the glare directed at the count quickly melting way, and the duke flushed. The man coughed quietly, clearing his throat, and gestured for Kuba to step forward. “But of course, young master. What is it you wish to say?”
“He is a child!” The count interjected.
“And the rightful heir to a family line much more influential than your own with more manners than to insult a man who is not even present,” the duke spoke with a voice that had an edge. “Now please, count, do sit before I have you removed from the chambers.” He turned instead to Kuba, sighing softly with a small shake of his head. “My apologies. Now, what is it you wished to say?”
Kuba looked at Cerissa for approval, who only shrugged. “The floor is yours, dearest one. Up to you what you want them to know.”
He took a deep breath, nodding and taking a step in front of her. Cerissa smiled and let her hand fall from his shoulder. “I- don't remember my mother. I was told she died of a fever when I was very young and I didn't like the lady who ran the orphanage. It feels like lifetimes ago I left that crowded building and instead took to the streets of Novigrad trying to be something-anything.” He paused, forcing himself not to turn and look at Cerissa for approval, visibly tensing. “I met a witcher who opened her mouth against those who acted out of fear. She never does anything on my behalf without asking me for my opinion and though she does not always take it to heart, she still listens. And I-” he hesitated, “She's hard on me, forces me to work until I'm sore and study until I fall asleep on my books, but I don't...I don't think she's using me, like I think many of you worry. She doesn't force me to do anything- she let me choose to do this. She let me choose to come home to Kovir with her. She loves deeply, me and all those she shares her home with, and while you see another witcher, well,” he smiled, “I see the woman I'd happily call my mom.”
The duke's smile softened even more, nodding. “Duly noted, young master. You are truly lucky to have someone who cares for you so deeply. And I apologize on behalf of the count.”
“No offense taken,” he finally turned, and though her expression was even, Kuba could see the smile in Cerissa's eyes. “Can we go home now? I was looking forward to lessons with you and Olwen.”
“You are dismissed,” the duke nodded, “Cerissa? Take care of the child will you?”
“With all due respect, sir, I think he just proved he can handle himself.”
“I want her found, or at least more information on where she's hiding or what she's planning,” Amriel practically growled the words, trying to keep himself from clenching his jaw and realizing he was failing when his temples ached. “I won't accept excuses, do you understand?”
The messenger, a girl about Kuba's age, nodded with wide eyes and trembling hands. Blond hair falling in a mess of tangled ringlets, she was one of his newer recruits. Her parents were traders, well liked by many, and she often had small pieces of information she would bring to Amriel that she learned while working with her father in the shipyards in exchange for a varying amount of coin. Face dotted with freckles across her nose and round cheeks, the girl was also one of his most reliable informants, often being able to charm more than a rumor out of some of the other traders' and craftsmen's children. She bit at her bottom lip for a moment, hesitating, before shaking her head. “What if...we can't find anything, sir?”
“What did I just say?”
She audibly squeaked and it took everything in Amriel not to apologize for scaring the girl as she turned and hurried back down the side street the way she had came, glancing over her shoulder as she hesitated to round a corner. Looking as though she wanted to say something, Amriel reached out to the girl instead with his mind.
A skill he used only on those he knew weren't magically sensitive, it often proved useful when many of his informants were often too terrified to tell him the whole story or hesitated. He had used it once on Olwen when she struggled with words and helped her finding a starting point to untangle the anxious jumble her thoughts had become. The girl's mind too was a tangled mess of uncertainty, perhaps sensing that this request could possibly be very dangerous to undertake. And yet, somehow, she felt obligated to fulfill it to the best of her ability, regardless of the risk it had posed. Her father, he learned, was once a dockhand and owed a young woman with nearly glowing green-yellow eyes his life.
She knew he worked with this woman and in a way was repaying that debt because the woman had settled on the few coppers the man carried with him.
“Oh Cerissa,” Amriel sighed, releasing the spell as the girl finally swallowed nervously and hurried back home. “What a tangled web you have woven, my friend.”
“Miss Cerissa?” Marian called from the top of the stairs leading to the study one evening, Kuba carefully redrawing the runes Cerissa had drawn for him first. She sighed, pushing her hair out of her face, and shook her head, rising from her seat next to him and coming to stand at the base of the stairs.
“Why didn't Eskel come find me himself?” She scowled slightly.
“Master Amriel insisted he get his wrist looked at first.” Marian answered simply with a shrug, as though it should have been obvious to Cerissa.
“His...” Cerissa sighed, shaking her head. “C'mon, dearest one. Sounds like a story if I've ever heard one.”
“Let's find out what happened first. It's almost dinner time anyway. Then we'll pick back up after dinner, alright?”
Closing her eyes for a bit longer than a standard blink, Cerissa let the vague annoyance with her apprentice leave her in a soundless sigh. It was hard for her to remember being that age and being excited about the new skills being learned or how every book was a new mystery waiting to be uncovered. She corrected herself quickly, recalling that it wasn't too long ago that she sat amid several small stacks of books at Kaer Morhen that she had never seen nor read, copying passages of interest into her own notebooks for later with the same sparkle in her eyes that he had during his lessons. That passion came in short bursts, though, and she would admit the monotony of the script contracts seemed to follow quickly muffled the spark brought on by learning anything new. She took a moment to hope Kuba would never lose his insatiable curiosity, but only learn to temper it with caution.
She smiled, despite herself, and ruffled his hair. “Promise.”
Her fingertips were featherlight as they brushed over his facial scar, the gentle caress a stark contrast to the almost stabbing pain in his right hand. Amriel had insisted Eskel lay down while working on his wrist, shushing the witcher when he tried to insist he would be able to tolerate the pain enough to just sit. Instead Cerissa had gotten him to rest his head on her lap, one arm across his shoulders in a familiar gesture of comfort- the roles simply reversed this time. “Eskel,” Cerissa almost cooed, trying to divert his attention from Amriel's assessing fingers at his wrist. He was trying his hardest to hold still, sucking in sharp inhale when Amriel pressed down and was rewarded with a small pop sound.
“Think…” his voice was distant, focusing in the task at hand, “Think if I can realign the bone, thankfully it was a relatively clean break, a dose or two of that one potion…”
“Swallow,” Cerissa provided.
Amriel nodded to show he had heard her, a small smile tugging at his lips. Of course she'd want him to use the proper terms. She had been trying very hard to get everyone to use the correct names for everything so Kiba grew accustomed to hearing them, hopefully learning some of his new trade passively. “And it should be okay with a splint for a week. Alright, on three. One-”
“Eyes on me,” Cerissa muttered and were it not for the fog of pain blurring his senses, Eskel would have laughed at the irony of her turning his own mannerisms against him. “You trust me, right?”
It didn't escape his notice Amriel nodded to Cerissa and hesitated for a moment before continuing his count, or that Cerissa stopped tracing his scar. “Two.”
Truthfully she didn't know if it would work at all, but Cerissa decided in the very least it was worth a try. She knew that even if it did work at all, it would only be a few seconds of a stun at best. And given that his personality was certainly more grounded than her own and that witchers by nature were resistant to bewitching magic, her fingers hovered uncertainly as she met Amriel's eye.
She traced the sign in the air a split second before Amriel pressed the bone into place. As she thought, it was only enough to make Eskel freeze for a little more than a second. She winced in sympathy at the cracking sound of bone, grimacing when his eyes gained focus again and practically glared at her with a hard set of his jaw that made her inwardly cower though she met his eye with an even expression.
“You said you trusted me.”
“You could have warned me.”
“You would have fought it,” she shook her head. “You were mildly relaxed and trust me, so if it was going to work at all, it would be right then. Besides, Amriel suggested it.”
“Don't throw me under the carriage. I just know short of a sleeping spell, nothing I know would have worked. Figured a sign would be a little easier to manage.” Amriel chuckled quietly to himself, splinting Eskel's wrist as best he could. “Alright. Don't know exactly how fast witchers heal, but at the very least give it a week.”
“That's the most it will take,” he grumbled, still glaring at Cerissa as he sat up and shook his head to chase away the lingering haze in his mind. “Thank you, Amriel.”
“Don't hold it against her,” Amriel whispered when Cerissa slipped out of the room to go check on Kuba and Olwen in the salon. He grimaced in sympathy, watching Eskel suspiciously eye the vial Cerissa had left for him with a sneer.
“I hate these vile things.” Eskel sighed, uncorking the bottle and his scowl only deepening at the smell. “And I'm not angry at either of you, actually impressed it had any effect at all.”
“You know that it will help.”
“Funny, considering most witcher potions are poison to anyone else.”
“Good thing you're the one taking it and not me,” Amriel shrugged, sighing when Eskel finally drank it in one quick sip as if taking a shot of strong spirits.
He shuddered with a scowl. “Don't know how she uses these without so much as a wince.” Eskel sighed, changing the subject after a moment of silence. “Whatever your sister has gotten herself mixed up in, Amriel, it's going to be a much bigger headache than we thought.”
“I'm guessing that's how you broke your wrist.”
He nodded. “Come on, let's go meet up with everyone else and I'll explain what happened.”
Eskel glared at the hooded man that stood over him. Face wrinkled and looking as though it had been melted in places, the man laughed when he reached down suddenly. Lifting him by his throat and holding him over the railing of the stairs, his smirk only deepened when Eskel tried tracing aard and while he was rewarded with the blast he wanted, the man's clothes only rustled as though it had been a light breeze.
“This is the best the School of the Wolf has to offer?” He tutted, squeezing tighter and smirking when Eskel winced, even when he forced himself to stay calm. “No wonder you witchers are a dying breed.” His eyes narrowed, watching Eskel reach one hand behind his back, and gripped harder at the sound of metal scraping.
It was something he had learned from Cerissa with how easily she switched between her swords and knife, quickly pulling his own knife and driving the blade into the man's arm. He screamed in response, blood rushing the surface. He tossed Eskel aside who managed to roll on landing, noting a shooting pain up his arm because of the bad landing. He drew his steel sword in one fluid movement as he got back to his feet, trying to catch his breath as the man ripped his knife out and tossed it aside. The room shifted slightly, his head spinning, and the man's hands glowed at his sides. He smirked as he took several steps forward, delighting in the tension in the witcher's shoulders and how he narrowed his eyes.
“Couldn't just die, could you?”
The air in the house was suddenly as though it had shifted to midwinter, his breaths coming out in warm puffs. Eskel waited, braced himself, wasn't going to chance closing the space as even as the man took another step forward. This man did not have such patience, the hallway suddenly filled with a wave of ice and frost. Eskel cursed to himself, casting quen and dropping to one knee to decrease the fatigue from holding it.
The man laughed, turning back to Ewelina before calling forth a portal and shoving the woman into it.
“Until next time, witcher,” he stepped through as well, the magic dissipating several seconds later so suddenly that Eskel almost felt a tangible pop in the air from the release of tension.
He sighed heavily, surprising himself by releasing his casting and catching himself before slumping forward. Breathing ragged, he shook his head and managed to get to his feet before sheathing his sword and collecting his knife.
“Well,” he ran a hand through his hair, rubbing at the scar on his cheek and snorting soundlessly. “Fuck.”
“A mage?” Amriel scowled from his perch on the stairway banister, brow furrowed.
“Seems like it.”
“Well shit.” Amriel sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I really can't get you three more involved than you already are. Look, I appreciate the help, but-”
“No,” Eskel stopped him, looking at Cerissa and Olwen who both nodded in agreement. “We take care of our own.”
“We know what we're signing up for,” Cerissa agreed.
“And no amount of yer whinin' will keep us out of it,” Olwen snorted, though there was a soft smile on her lips.
Sorry this one took so long, OGW2 is one of those fics I write in chunk not in order and then write the bridges between chunks. I already have a good chunk of end game written, haha. Thank you to all who are sticking around and to anyone who might have just found my fic just by searching the Witcher tag- hi. Thanks for giving Cerissa and Co. a chance.
Chapter 11: On Trust
“Kuba, do I have to splint your wrists like Fareal did me?”
Cerissa sighed, admitting to herself that it was probably his first time trying to hold a weapon at all, wood or not, and that it would take some time for Kuba to get used to the feeling. He huffed when she bent to his level, not noticing her pause. How fast it come that now she didn't kneel to be on the same level as him, and even more surprising was that she almost didn't need to bend at all. Of course the brews and teas she gave him certainly had something to do with the growth spurt, and his age certainly was starting to show in how his face was starting to thin out.
She scowled, pushing the thought from her mind, and instead tapped her foot against his to align them better. “Elbows in, and wrist straight. Should form a straight line from your elbow to your fingers at a ready position. Good.” Kuba allowed himself a small smile at her praise, “One of the important things to keep in mind is your weapon is just an extension of you. You control it, never the other way around. And you have to dedicate yourself to an attack once you initiate. Don't hesitate, same as fighting with your fists but now you have several pounds of steel to manage.”
“Now, onto basic attacks....”
Eskel smiled faintly as he watched from the bottom step of the manor's back porch, snorting soundlessly at the faint memories of a much younger him with a wooden sword getting the same speech from Vesemir, albeit in different wording from the small amount of softness the manor's setting allowed obvious in Cerissa's words. He watched her walk Kuba through basic lunges, parries, and strike points, demonstrating each with a wooden sword of her own and watching him attempt to copy the motion before she corrected his technique. He had to commend her on her patience, keeping a faint smile of her own even when Kuba got restless after repeating the same motion nearly a dozen times in a row.
“But Miss Cerissa!”
“You wanted to learn swords. Eskel told you he wasn't going to help train you until you mastered the basics from your master, did he not?”
“Feints, counter strikes, pirouettes, and escapes all come after you know how to hold and move with a sword. Now again. And watch your footing. No wonder Olwen always chides you about it- it's atrocious.”
“You've done this longer than I have!”
“Kuba, a beast won't care if it's you're first time. It'll take your too wide stance as an opportunity and you'll wind up dead in a monster nest somewhere. Now shoulder width,” she nodded when he adjusted, setting his jaw stubbornly. “Better.”
Cerissa glanced over her shoulder at Eskel who barely managed to hold back the laugh gathering in his throat, instead shaking head with a soft sigh. It was the same with any novices just starting with their weapons training, they always wanted to skip to the flashy and dramatic parts. He was no different, and he was willing to wager that while Cerissa had been older, she had been the same as well. Olwen, of course, was going to be the one to teach him how to throw certain weapons, and the she-bear had told the child the same as Eskel, she wouldn't teach him anything about projectile weapons until he mastered the basics from Cerissa. The two reminded him constantly that he was Cerissa's student, and while that didn't mean that they were not going to answer any questions or help, he should be focused on the foundation she was trying to lay for him before he set his sights higher.
The back door opened behind him and Amriel sneaked out of the small gap he had created, resting his elbows on the railing and peering into the dimming evening light. “Stubborn as she is, huh?”
“To a fault,” Eskel nodded.
“She may not have given birth to him, but he's definitely her child.” Amriel sighed, “Came out here because a courier just brought her a letter, but lessons are more important.”
“Depends on the seal if she'll even bother.”
“Looks like...” Amriel flipped over the thick, folded enveloped he held and smiled instantly. “She'll be thrilled.” He held out the letter to Eskel, who only had to glance at the clump of red wax with a vineyard's seal, then turned back to watching Cerissa and Kuba.
“It can wait,” he agreed, “But she'll certainly be pleased.”
The letter started simply enough. She had practically cooed when Amriel gave it to her after Kuba's lesson that afternoon, shooing away her apprentice after his repeated attempts to read it over her shoulder. Now she collapsed into the armchair in her study, surprised at how long the letter was. She scanned through a good portion of it, smiling softly at the scattered, awkward praise and stilted small talk until it began in earnest.
I know why Eskel sent you to me to ask this, and I can't say I'm surprised. Honestly, Cerissa, anything I can offer to help you already know or I'm willing to bet are doing already. I'll be honest, this is not going to be easy- but you already knew that or you wouldn't have asked for help.
First is to be honest with each other. Always. Even when it seems the easier and safer thing to lie to Kuba, you have to trust that he's mature enough to handle the truth. He has to be able to trust you, even if its just you. Be the person he can come to without fear of retaliation. Let him speak his mind, even if what he wants may not be in his best interest. His confidence will follow.
Along with that, you have to trust yourself and those you have surrounded yourself with. There will be times when you'll want to protect him, but you must trust that your training and the skills you taught him are enough. You are more than capable and you've chosen a damned reliable partner to keep at your side. The boy will be more than ready when the time comes.
You won't be able to protect him from everything, it's a truth of our profession. The only thing you can do is be there to help him recover and deal with the choices he makes. You're training a witcher, not a pet. He has to be able to make his own decisions without your, Olwen, or Eskel's approval and be able to adapt to the consequences.
You're one hell of a witcher. Eskel is proud to call you his partner and it's an honor to list you among those I know. I have full confidence Kuba will be the same when his time to travel the Path comes.
No signature, not even an initial. It wasn't needed, she knew. No mention of his reaction to her plans, or even that he particularly cared. Instead, he had simply answered her question the best he could. And he was right- she already knew most this. But somehow, she admitted to herself with a soft smile, it felt better to see it.
“Kuba, come get cleaned up.”
Cerissa's voice carried down the stairs into the study and he paused, glancing out the window at the setting sun and scowled. Now was usually the time he was usually gathering up materials for whatever lesson either she or Olwen had planned for him. And with Olwen gone for a few days to look for work, he was looking forward to the rune lessons Cerissa had been promising him. He pursed his lips in thought, maybe he had misheard her. Maybe she meant-
“Kuba, I won't repeat myself,” her voice gained an edge that he had never dared try.
He sighed, flipping the book he was reading shut with a heavy thud and went upstairs.
Seated in front of Cerissa's vanity in her and Eskel's bedroom, Kuba squirmed as Cerissa coaxed him into a silk overcoat that he knew was going to pinch in odd places. A deep mauve, it had an almost iridescent pattern on the chest that looked like lilies. Part of him hated to admit it, but with the way he had started to fill out, he looked almost like any other noble's son. More fit than most, the coat was a tinge too tight across his shoulders where his frame was beginning to broaden and he rolled them in an attempt to get the jacket to settle properly. Cerissa loosened the gathering just above his elbows and he almost sighed with instant relief.
“I don't see why I have to go,” he whined as she tied the fastenings of the overcoat with a small smile, humming to herself. “Don't you usually take Amriel or Olwen to these things?”
“Olwen left this morning to find work, remember? And since Amriel went with her and Eskel is looking into something for me, the duty falls on you to be my escort for the night.”
“Sounds like an excuse to get me to go with you,” he grumbled when Cerissa turned her attention instead to his hair, running her comb through it. He held back a whine when it caught on a tangle. She tutted, dipping her fingers into a small container of pomade and attempting to tame the tuft of hair that stuck up in the back of his head. “Soirees are so boring. Just a bunch of rich people bragging about how rich they are and trying to ruin one another.”
“You're not looking in the right places, then, my dearest one,” she shook her head. “Besides, you are my son now. You're expected to make regular appearances with me at court events. Consider this a lesson of a different kind. You don't have the heightened senses yet, but you must learn to be aware of your surroundings.” Cerissa smiled, wiping her hand on a towel and meeting his eyes in the reflection of her vanity mirror. “Besides, you are a rather handsome young man maybe you'll find someone to catch your interest.”
“And dazzle them with what?” He huffed, “Tales of my daring feats of pulling weeds from the gardens?”
“It certainly won't be your wit or love of conversation, that's for sure.”
At first he had stayed close to Cerissa, groaning and trying his best not to roll his eyes each time she was stopped to ask the same questions she was by the previous person. Kuba tried, he would honestly say he did, to play the part but he failed to see how the room so thick with perfume it was suffocating was any kind of lesson besides how to measure his breathing so he wouldn't choke. Again and again he was introduced to another member of the aristocracy or peerage that he knew he wasn't going to remember the second they excused themselves from the conversation, so instead he turned his attention to the small gathered crowd of dancers in the main hall. While Cerissa had chosen the same trailing dress she had worn to present him to the peerage, most women favored gowns with more modest necklines. Where they had cascading necklaces of gleaming jewels she had opted for nothing, not even her medallion, and he wondered how she could be so at ease without the usual comfort wearing it brought her.
A younger woman, looking at best a few years older than himself, brushed her way through the crowd with a smirk to come and stand beside him. She swayed her hips obviously, he noted, and her hair had been pinned up to better show the gathered lace frill at her collar. A few steps away, she paused to curtsey and he returned it with a shallow bow, for once grateful Cerissa had made him rehearse the movement several times before.
“Master Lamonia,” her voice had a purr to it, and admitted to himself that he was still getting used to the sound of the title in reference to him. In all honesty, it still felt hazy and far off that he was Cerissa's son now, legally, and had full rights to all that came with his new last name and title of nobility. He made to note to himself that while he certainly was not completely comfortable in his role, there are those who would already take advantage of him.
“I had hoped I would get the chance to meet you tonight. Someone such as yourself is certainly the talk of the party.” Her lips, painted pink with some glistening paste that made them sparkle as though she had just licked at them, quirked into a smile.
“And why would someone like me be so interesting?” She giggled at his easy response, a light flush showing across her cheeks. It took everything in him to keep his expression from souring into a scowl with the way his stomach twisted. Suddenly he understood why Cerissa had gifted him a hunting knife and carefully taught him the fine art of concealing it in his boots. He tried to keep the scowl off of his face, knowing the art of The Game was something he would have to learn just as he did his footwork in combat and runes.
Regardless of his unease, Kuba returned the smile and lightly kissed the back of the young woman's offered hand. “The honor is all mine, miss, I assure you. And what may I call you tonight?”
“Lucina,” she smiled, offering her arm for him to walk with her. “You met my father already when the marchioness presented you to the council. I hear you stood your ground when he protested.” He accepted the unspoken invitation, wordlessly linking arms with her before she lead them out of the main ballroom. “A young witcher,” she almost purred with approval, “Tell me, is it any of it true?”
“The depends on what you've heard, miss,” he mustered his best grin, surprising himself with his tone of voice.
She giggled and he relaxed slightly, she was probably simply curious and not out to hurt him. Her eyes sparkled at the idea, taking him out to the front courtyard and sighing as she eyed the red roses in the garden. “A life protecting the innocent must truly be more interesting than these silly parties.”
He choked back the immediate reaction that stopped just short of his lips, remembering something Olwen had told him. You can't take away their hope, pup. It's the strongest drug you'll ever find. “More than you could ever imagine,” he nodded. It was close enough to the truth that he didn't feel like he was completely lying to the girl, and just mysterious enough to keep her interest. “But it is dangerous and often many do not see the value of the help I can offer.”
“But surely you just started your training!” She gasped, tearing her eyes from the roses to look at his face, “You can't possibly face things too terrible yet!”
“There are more terrifying things than monsters.”
“I see you've made a friend,” Cerissa teased after he stepped off the dance floor and came to find her, not being able to help the pleased smirk on her lips. Settled on a low chaise in one of the side rooms, he knew from the look on her face she was listening to every whispered conversation around her. He balanced himself on the end of the footrest, grateful when she gathered up her train so he could sit more comfortably with her.
“Not quite sure what she wants yet,” he sighed when she offered him an hors d'oeuvre from her plate, deciding the little cube of ham looked safe and chewing at it thoughtfully.
“Not every person will want something from you, dearest. She could simply be interested in pursuing a relationship with you. ”
“Miss Cerissa, may I ask you something?”
“Swallow before you speak, Kuba. We're not at the manor,” she reminded him gently, nodding approvingly when he did.
“You call me that all the time.”
“What? Dearest one?”
He nodded, “And yet you rarely use pet names for Eskel.”
“I don't follow, I'm afraid.” She scowled, setting her plate on the table nearby and sitting forward to show she was listening.
“I'm the only one you use pet names with. And I know I'm not the only one you love.”
“There's different kinds of love, you know that.” She provided in terms of answer, sighing when he puffed his cheeks.
“You promised no secrets.”
“There's no secret here to hide. You are precious to me in ways no one else is.”
“Because you want to make me like you,” he set his jaw, not able to keep the impatience from adding an edge to his voice.
“Partially, and originally yes, but the full reason is silly and I doubt you want to-”
She snorted soundlessly, shoulders slumping with the heavy exhale. “All of you are my family now. It wasn't just for appearances that I adopted you, Kuba. It isn't just for fun that I use pet names for you more frequently than my love. I lost my teacher and everyone like me that I knew very early in my career and our little group has helped fill that void. But I don't want you to ever feel that same loss I did.” She smiled, and his throat tightened, embarrassed at the burning sensation in his eyes. “Silly boy, why are you crying?”
Kuba stubbornly wiped the back of a hand across his face, scowling though he sniffled. “I'm not crying. Witchers don't cry.”
“We do,” she shook her head, “We get upset and emotional the same as everyone else- don't let anyone tell you the lie that we don't. Now, why are you getting so worked up?”
“I was just-” he sniffled, “Worried that you only wanted me to train me and-”
He stopped, noticing how Cerissa's attention had shifted to the something behind him. Without a word, she reached for him and pushed him down, simultaneously casting quen with her other hand. A gasp went over the others in the room, many taking several steps back with muttered comments about how brazen she was to use her magic in the company of other nobles. He muffled a shout of surprise, eyes wide at the bubble that surrounded them. Kuba cursed himself for flinching at the loud clink of a knife bouncing off the shield just above his shoulder where his head had once been, watching it clatter to the floor before looking back at Cerissa's face just as she let go of her casting.
“Seems you're still a target, dearest one,” she murmured, glaring into the shadows of one of the alcoves that surrounded the room.
“How did you even-”
Cerissa carefully slipped off the chaise, pushing her long skirt behind her with something of a snort. Kuba swallowed despite his dry mouth, pressing himself against the back of the chaise with something of a whimper. He squinted to try and see what she was looking at over her shoulder, making out the faint glint of metal just behind the curtain. To the gathered nobles' horror, she pulled up the edge of her skirt to draw a knife not too different from the one she had given him from the holster on her thigh. Many hurried out of the room when she took a step forward, then with a speed he was sure baffled them, reached behind the curtain and grasped a younger woman by the lace collar of her dress.
The woman spat and cursed, Cerissa pressing her arm against the woman's shoulders and throat. The woman only laughed at the unspoken threat when Cerissa pushed harder. Kuba smothered a gasp, it was the count's daughter he had just danced with. She glared at him and Cerissa, the gentle curiosity that once made her eyes sparkle replaced with a hatred that darkened them.
“You're so focused on me, witcher,” she croaked, “You're leaving your pup vulnerable.”
“He can defend himself,” Cerissa hissed, pressing harder against Lucina's windpipe until she coughed and let out a wet, choked sound. “One chance to buy your life. Did Ewelina tell you to-”
“Cerissa!” Kuba managed just as a flat blade slid from under Lucina's sleeve and into her hand, gripping it and driving the blade into Cerissa's side.
Cerissa shuddered slightly with a sharp inhale, but held her grip firm even when she gritted her teeth. “So you freaks do feel pain,” Lucina choked out with a raspy laugh that sounded more like a cough.
Red blossomed to the surface, a dark puddle slowly starting to ooze out of a spreading stain. It was superficial, Cerissa knew this, the cut clean from the sharpness of the blade. It would bleed profusely for a few moments but posed no real threat. Instead she glanced over her shoulder at Kuba, his eyes wide and for once she was reminded of how young he really was. He played brave for her, putting on a front until he had the confidence to believe his own lie.
“Your father is involved, isn't he?”
Lucina instead pushed the blade deeper into Cerissa's side and earning a hiss of pain and spat in her face. There was a tense moment of silence before Kuba yelled out in surprise, feeling one arm wrap around his shoulders and another hand clasp over his mouth. Wiggling the slightest bit in the grip, Kuba managed to make the hand slip down enough that he could open his mouth and bite down on it. It was a man's voice that screamed in response and Kuba bit down harder, trying not to gag when he tasted blood.
Cerissa turned her attention back to Lucina, not hesitating this time to draw her knife across the woman's throat and toss her aside before the life left her eyes. A pool of crimson quickly formed under the young woman's body as she gargled on a mouthful of blood that trickled from her lips.
The man quickly pulled his hand away, giving Kuba enough space to slip an arm under the one holding him and push outwards, turning his hand so he could grab at the man's forearm. He turned quickly, getting to his knees, and yanking the man down to his level. He fought back the wave of nervous nausea at the face that glared at him. Dark hair and eyes that mirrored those of his daughter, it was indeed Count Bradford, the same one that had so loudly protested Kuba's adoption and Cerissa's plans to make him a witcher. His hands calloused unlike the smooth ones of a merchant noble, there was an acidic smell that hung about him and burned at Kuba's nose.
“Stupid little whelp.”
Kuba clenched his jaw, feeling Cerissa carefully watching him but letting him handle this alone. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the count reach flick his wrist and a modified blade fell from his sleeve much as Lucina had. He had enough time to use the count's arm as a shield and grinned when he drove the blade into his own arm. The man attempted to pull away, screaming when Kuba tightened his grip instead and pushed down, pressing the count's elbow against the back of the chaise.
“I know, Miss Cerissa,” Kuba sighed, but didn't release the man. “Don't kill unless you have to.”
A handful of guards came rushing into the sitting room, the sound of scraping metal filling the room as they drew their swords. “Release him, boy!” One commanded, another turning his attention to Lucina's body near Cerissa and glaring at the witcheress.
“Do as they say, Kuba,” Cerissa dropped her knife, holding her hands up to show she was unarmed.
“He started it,” he protested, but released the count, snorting as the man crumpled to the ground and cradled his arm against his chest.
Four guards carefully examined the room, their gambeson's a dark blue and pants black. Weapons forged from a dull steel, the one near Cerissa appeared the oldest. His face was weather worn, the skin almost leathery across the nose and under his eyes from years of exposure to wind and sun. He had seen real combat, a small scar poking out from under the collar of his coat. It was the duke's private guard, Cerissa decided, dressed in simpler armor to fit the soiree versus the grand ball he had held the previous year.
“What happened here?”
Came the voice of the duke himself, full face flushed when he pushed one of the younger guards aside to glare at Cerissa. Watery blue eyes ablaze, he looked from her to the now lifeless form of Lucina, then Kuba. He sighed after a moment, closing his eyes and forcing himself to take a deep breath. His broad shoulders sagged, taking another deep breath and releasing it before speaking.
“I hope you have a good explanation, Miss Lamonia.”
“These two were conspiring to kill myself and my apprentice,” She spoke plainly, nodding when Kuba turned to look at her. He slumped on the chaise, guilt making his eyes dart about the room. He did his best to fight the urge to gnaw at his lip.
“And why in the blazes would they want one witcher and her student dead?” He sagged, leaning against the entry way and pinching the bridge of his nose. “Stand down, you fools! She's not going to kill you if you don't attack her first.”
The younger three of the guards sheepishly sheathed their weapons, stepping out of the room even when the oldest lingered. He instead sighed, picking up Cerissa's knife and handing it back to her as he stood. “You have defended His Grace more than I would like to admit, Your Ladyship, I hope you have a good explanation for this.”
“I was talking with Kuba about the young lady here,” she motioned to Lucina, just as one of the younger guards returned with a sheet to cover her body. “And she threw a knife at him from behind one of the curtains. I intervened, shielded him, and held her against the wall. It was not my intention to kill her until her father grabbed Kuba from behind and made his own attempt at Kuba's life.”
“Is this true, boy?”
“He's her son, sergeant,” the duke corrected, “Show proper respect. And do be kind to escort the count to the holding cells to await proper arrest.”
“Oh course, Your Grace,” he quickly corrected himself, standing at attention for a moment before gathering the still whimpering man and pausing at the door. “My humble apologies, My Lord, I did not realize-”
Kuba snorted, meeting Cerissa's eye, and she smiled at the disdain in them. “Don't see the big deal. I'm just a little kid.”
“You're the heir to one of the oldest and powerful families in Kovir,” The duke provided, turning his attention to the sergeant, “At ease and dismissed.” The older man saluted the duke again, pushing the count along against his whimpers of protest. The duke sighed heavily, scowling and looking back at Cerissa, “Is this all really over one kid, Cerissa?”
“It's about one of my associates, sir,” She shook her head, “Kuba's merely the target since he's so young.”
“The darker gentleman that usually accompanies you?”
“Not Eskel, no. The mage. His sister is none too pleased about his choices in friends. Already cursed the manor while I was in Toussaint and targeted Kuba once before. I imagine she sees her brother and Kuba, who aren't witchers,” she shot Kuba a sharp look that made him clamp his mouth shut, “as victims and herself as a liberator.”
He considered her words for a few moments, assessing Kuba for a moment before looking back at Cerissa. “Will you need help with this?”
“I did not realize I stuttered, Miss Lamonia.” He straightened, “You have offered your assistance to me numerous times in the past, it's time I repay the favor.”
“Sir, with all due respect, you paid me for those times that I helped you.”
“I paid you to banish spirits and slay those death eaters, not save my life,” he corrected, “So again I ask: Will you need help with this matter?”
“I would rather those not needing to be involved to become so,” she shook her head. “Should I need assistance, though, you will be among the first to know.”
“I really liked that dress too,” Cerissa feigned her best pout, sinking into the water of her bath with a contended sigh and smirking at Eskel who watched from his place against the opposite wall. She winced when the water touched the wound on her side, making quick work of the clotted blood on the surface and a thin ribbon of red formed in the water. Cerissa grimaced, feeling how deep it was with her fingers, and snorted.
“You and Kuba could have been seriously injured, arrested for murder, or killed yourselves and you worry about a piece of silk.”
“Naturally. A lady has her priorities.” He quirked an eyebrow at her and she laughed, brushing her wet hair over her shoulder. “It takes more than two paid off nobles convinced that I'm evil incarnate to take out a witcher, love, you know that.”
“Kuba doesn't quite have the luxury of being able to say the same yet.”
“He kept pace pretty well,” she ducked under the water's surface, staying under for a few moments before surfacing again and tossing her wet hair out of her face. “Worried if she's willing to have people attack us at a semi high profile event if she's willing to try an attack on the manor.”
“It would be suicide if she did.”
“Still a possibility.” She sighed, “I wonder if I asked would the duke allow me to interrogate the count.”
“Not sure what he'd be willing to divulge since he watched you kill his daughter.” She wiggled her fingers suggestively and he rolled his eyes in response, scowl deepening. “Not always the answer, Cerissa.”
“Better alternative than torturing him by ripping fingernails off one at a time. Or toenails. Or plucking his eyebrows. Or-”
“I get it. Cerissa, please, be careful.”
“You know I won't be.”
He sighed, crossing the room and bending to kiss her forehead. “I know,” he whispered against her skin, Cerissa letting out a soft hum. “But sometimes I wish you would be.”
“When our little pup isn't listening in,” Eskel stopped her, raising his voice slightly, and Cerissa giggled when there was soft shuffling from the other side of the door and heavy footsteps of a hasty retreat.
“Takes after you,” she beamed, though he rolled his eyes.
“Not nearly quiet enough footsteps to take after me. And he breathes too heavily when he gets excited about something.”
“Like you,” she reached up, combing her fingers through his hair with a soft smile when he scowled. “But honestly, you find out anything useful?”
“Finish up your bath, then we'll talk.”
“Cerissa, don't fight me on this. Just this once, please."
Chapter 12: On Time
Hair still dripping from her bath, Cerissa scowled at the subtle set of Eskel's jaw when she settled on the bed in their room. For several long moments she wordlessly examined his expression. Eyes narrowed, he hadn't so much as nodded to show he knew she was there when she sat next to him. Leaning forward but back still painfully straight, he had a distant look that somehow still darkened his eyes instead of hazing them over.
“Count was the least of your worries from the mortal side,” he muttered after several long moments.
“And from the immortal side?”
“The mage that was with Ewelina isn't a humanoid.”
She blinked, pausing from wrapping her hair up in the towel she had draped around her bare shoulders. “You mean it's a demon or something?”
“Your deduction skills never cease to amaze me, Cerissa.”
She rolled her eyes, “Alright so we're dealing with a demon on one side and in the mortal ring?”
“If it wasn't for the you having the duke in your back pocket, your title would have been stripped long ago and we'd be having this conversation by a fire or an inn that smells like piss.” He shook his head, sighing and closing his eyes. “Not every noble you've pulled out of their own muck appreciates you knowing that have their lives in your hands.”
“That much I already knew.”
“And they especially don't like the idea that you've taken in Kuba, or that the duke approved your petition to adopt him.” He paused for a moment, “Did as you asked and was the uninvited shadow at the soiree, not finding much beyond the normal rumors in the main halls...”
The music from the chamber orchestra was barely audible in the hallways around the main ballroom. Anyone who had been watching the unannounced stranger slip into one of the side hallways to the lower wings and servants quarters wouldn't have thought anything of it besides him being an out of place party guest. No one paid any mind to the dazed looking guard who came upstairs to instead stand watch at the staircase several moments later either.
The first floor was the servant's quarters, the main corridors forming a large cross. The tip of the shape was the kitchen, staff far too occupied preparing silver platters of small portion foods to notice the footsteps coming down the steps. One of the servers apologized as he bumped into Eskel, nodding a respectful bow as he hurried back upstairs muttering something about nobles and their demands. One side of the cross was the larder, the other a more humble dining room where the staff would take their meals.
From the moment he stepped off the bottom step, there was almost dizzying smell of blood.
Easy enough to follow, it lead him to the longer end of the cross. Most of the doors to the rooms on either side of the hall closed, there was a muffled shouting on the other side of one of the doors he passed. Sighing to himself, Eskel debated for a few moments and just wishing he had enough forethought to ask Cerissa if she could have had his steel sword stashed away as well as her own. Hers was hidden behind one of the curtains in the main ballroom, blade already coated with an oil of her own design that would cause painful muscle contractions and unbearable burning at the wound. Bracing himself inwardly, he tested the handle.
There was a clattering from the other side, sounding as though something had been knocked over, and the another scream- this time much clearer than the one from before. Taking only moment to curse his dedication to his partner, Eskel pushed the door open with his shoulder.
A younger woman in a blue dress crawled backwards, bloodied hands up to defend herself. A man with a hood, face scarred from looked like chemical burns, stood over her with a dripping dagger in his hands. At the sound of the door slamming against the wall, the woman turned his wide eyes to Eskel, a silent scream on her lips just as the man followed her gaze. He smirked, shaking his head.
“Little wolf, you should know better than to go snooping where you don't belong.”
“Unfortunately, that's how I make a living,” he returned the smirk with one of his own, one hand already reaching for the pouch at his hip for a samum.
“Now, now, do I have-”
“Close your eyes!”
Lighting the fuse with igni, it took only second before he tossed it to fill the room with a blinding light. Somewhere in the back of his mind, even as he rushed forward to pull the young woman several paces away from the man, he faintly recalled the sounds of a bruxa screaming and the sickly smell of a witcher's blood hanging in the air. The woman screamed as the man charged forward, one fist raised. Swinging around to hook Eskel, who instead caught the fist in an open hand with something of a wince and drew his hunting knife.
Huddled against the wall, the woman whimpered when Eskel shoved the man's hand aside, pushing froward and managing to leave a deep gash up his side to his arm pit. There was surprisingly little blood, no sign of pain, the man smirking as the edges of the wound started stitching themselves back together. Eskel cursed and the man laughed, the sound filling the room.
“You are not my target today,” he tutted, shaking his head and instead turning to summon a portal. “That's twice now we've met and you've let prey escape. That fledgling has made you weak, witcher.”
The same pop of energy once he stepped through the portal and it snapped shut as before. Eskel sighed, slipping his knife back into place and instead turning his attention to the young woman. Openly sobbing into her hands, her blue dress was stained with blood. Her hands were littered with wounds, a deep gash on her side now starting to clot over. While injured, her blood wasn't the same smell that greeted him at the base of the stairs. He waited a few moments for the woman to collect herself, stopping herself with something of a sniff.
“I knew it was a mistake to listen to father!” She sobbed, pulling her hands away from her face. Tears streamed down her face, eyes now puffy and red.
“Listen to him about what exactly?”
“Lady Lamonia has a son now, and that should be fine! Other nobles adopt kids all the time! But she said something about father at a council meeting and now he wants revenge for damaging his reputation or whatever!” She sniffed, wiping the back of her hand across her nose and hiccuping back a sob. “I'm sorry, I should introduce myself- Lucina Bradford. Thank you for helping me.”
“Eskel, and it seems we have a mutual acquaintance.”
He nodded, “Cerissa is very dear to me, and I need your help to help her. You should also have those wounds looked at.” He stood, offering a hand to help the young woman up and half pulling her to her feet when she tripped over her long skirts. “Can you walk?”
She nodded, still sniffling. “But I don't know how much help I can be to a witcher like this.”
“By giving me any answers you can. Who was that man? Do you know where your father is? And is it only the humiliation he seeks revenge for?”
Lucina sighed, tossing her once curled hair out of her face. “Father should be on the second floor, he said something about needing to see Her Ladyship tonight. That man...he was a mage of some sort, was of the other members of court let him take refuge at their estate after they fled Novigrad. There was a rumor a few months ago that the count and his wife were murdered under mysterious circumstances, but no one could link the two.” She shook her head, “Father always hated that Her Ladyship is a witcher, calls you nothing but freaks and mutants.”
“Not entirely untrue,” he allowed with a shrug. “Anything else you can tell me?”
“That man...he came to father soon after the council meeting, said something about how he could make the shame go away if he helped the man first. Said something about a coming reckoning.” She puffed her cheeks, narrowing her eyes for a moment, “I'm sorry, that's all I can think of.”
“You've been a great help, thank you. Go back upstairs and get some help.”
“What about you?”
“I need to look into something down here first."
“So the girl I killed...”
“An imposter, perhaps a doppler. Not sure either way. But it wasn't actually Lucina, no. You're innocent of that, at least.” He shook his head, “Cerissa...” Eskel stopped himself, sighing heavily, then shook his head. “We may have to adjust our time line with Kuba if this goes any deeper than just a family feud.” He finally turned to look at her, gaze even. “I know, you wanted to take your time, but it may turn into a now or never soon.”
“Why? What else did you find? Why would I need to-”
“It may be better for him to be a full fledged witcher, for his own safety.”
“That's if he even lives through the trial!”
He only shrugged, “And if he doesn't, that threat is still eliminated either way.” He reached out to ruffle her hair, sighing when she ducked away. “I'm not going to tell you how to raise your apprentice, love, but there's been some changes.”
“Tell me everything,” she growled, glaring at him.
The worried whispers of a few workers filling the intersection of the cross, one of the older women took Lucina upstairs to look for the duke and have her explain what had happened. A few doors further down the corridor, the smell of blood was so strong it almost coated Eskel's tongue. He hesitated for a moment in the doorway, eyeing the candles that once been laid out on the floor in an elaborate pattern on the floor with a sense of disdain. Now knocked off the clumps of melted wax that had pooled at their bases, it looked as though the had been swept over from the center of the design. The body of a young woman was pinned to the wall by iron nails in her hands and feet, the spikes drove into her flesh at her wrists and ankles. The bodice of her modest dress was torn open and her chest slashed into so deeply that her ribs showed and her abdominal organs hung from the laceration. Blood pooled onto the floor beneath her, staining the unfinished wood and plaster on the walls. From the callouses that lined her fingers, he had to guess it was the daughter of one of the servants.
Stepping into the room, he noticed several small stacks of books scattered about the room.
All of them detailing different aspects of demons.
“Always blood magic,” he groaned, trying to fight back the sense of dread creeping up his spine.
The sound of boots echoed down the hallway suddenly, coupled by shouting. A few of the duke's personal guard paused at the room down the hall, another coming down the hallway and stopping just short of the doorway.
“What in the blazes...” An older member of the guard, face aged with sun and repeated exposure to the elements. He looked tired, eyes long shadowed and skin hanging loose around his neck. His spare hair clung to his scalp in short, silver clumps. Though he scowled at Eskel, he could see the nausea creeping up on the man after a few deep breaths filled him with the smell of fresh death.
“Someone with access to the servant's quarters summoned a demon, or at least looks like it.”
“And who the fuck are you?”
“A witcher,” he answered simply, trying to ignore the persistent throbbing of his medallion that had steadily become a second heartbeat.
“There's two of you plowing freaks here tonight?”
“It would seem,” came a familiar voice, the duke pushing the guard aside and sighing sadly. “Why is it every time I have the honor of having either of you two at my estate that things go awry?”
“Bad luck follows those freaks no matter where they go,” the guardsman spat, sneering.
The duke ignored the guard, dismissing him for the moment with a wave of his hand. The guard grumbled, watching Eskel with something of a glare, and grudgingly joined the rest of his men further down the hallway. “Eskel, if memory serves, correct?” Eskel nodded, and the duke leaned against the wall in the hallway opposite the door, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. “Something tells me this goes beyond Lady Lamonia's little whelp.”
“Probably far beyond Kuba, correct.”
“And this?” He motioned to the carnage inside the room.
“Haven't had the chance to look too closely myself.”
“Should I send for someone to get the miss as well?”
Eskel shook his head, “No. Although, by the look on your face, I'm assuming something happened upstairs as well.”
“I remember the count not being pleased with the marchioness' decision to adopt and train the boy, but I never expected him to attack the two of them at a court event,” the duke sighed.
“Are they okay?”
“Oh, both more than okay. The young master is quite a terror on his own, I have to applaud her efforts with him, certainly impressive. But no, what troubles me is that one of my guards pulled Lady Lucina Bradford's corpse out of the side room after she made the mistake of attacking Lady Lamonia, and yet the girl comes running upstairs with my head housekeeper covered in blood and crying about she had almost been killed in the servant's quarters but a witcher had saved her.” The duke paused, tilting his head in thought. “Are you alright?”
He hadn't realized he was gritting his teeth against the ringing in his ears, his medallion continuing to be a second heartbeat. Against better judgment, he nodded, but joined the duke in the hallway in attempt to put as much space between him and those bloody designs as possible. “I would recommend housing the staff somewhere else for a few days and letting Cerissa, Olwen, or myself cleanse the first floor.”
“Demons are not to be trifled with, Your Grace. And the entire time we've been speaking, something is still trying to latch onto me.”
Cerissa only stared at Eskel for several minutes, whose hands had wound so tightly into fists that his knuckles went white. She sighed, only putting a hand over his and sighing. “I'm guessing we're heading back to the estate.”
“At least one of us is, I wouldn't leave Kuba with Amriel right now and I don't think this is any place for a novice- changes or no.”
“I think you should do it, either way.”
“Exorcism has always been one of your specialties,” he disagreed, shaking his head and opening one of his hands enough hold Cerissa's.
She nodded, allowing that much. “Eskel?”
“I think you're right. We should think about it soon.”
Chapter 13: Of Changes
“So you'll be like her one day?”
Kuba tried not to beam at the thought of it, knowing these kids knew of his future profession more from stories and rumors. Surely at least a few of them had heard tales from the local troubadour about Cerissa, or how she had a reputation for protecting the downtrodden. The girl who had spoken had a round face framed with thick blond ringlets, her wide green eyes shining. Kuba recognized her as one of Amriel's informants, one of his newer ones if he remembered right, and one Amriel was particularly fond of. She was an excitable girl, wearing her emotions on her sleeve, and often was the one within the small group they had formed who spoke up for the shier ones.
There was another girl younger than him by a year or two, the space between her eyebrows puckering from where she had been kicked by a horse when she was younger. She was thin, her face pale and sickly, though both parents lived and had more than enough money to feed the small family. The oldest of two, her younger brother was barely more than a baby. She practically glared at Kuba with dark eyes, the set of her jaw obvious. He had to wonder if maybe her parents weren't the kindest, the girl often flinching away when the others in the group would raise their voices. It had been the hardest to teach her how to square her hips and shoulders, and even longer until she would look him in the eyes instead of staring at the ground.
A pair of twin brothers had started coming to the meetings in the abandoned warehouse by the docks soon after Kuba started having them, putting his newly learned skills to work for others without having to pick up a sword. The brothers were older than him, both fifteen. One wore his reddened hair shoulder length while the other had cut it nearly to the skin. Save for their haircuts, there was little in ways of how to tell them apart. They acted so similar that they once joked their mother shared not just her womb for a time but their soul as well.
Teaching the other kids in town how to defend themselves wasn't betraying any secrets, he figured, and from what he could tell it would only help them to be able to defend themselves should they find themselves in danger. He didn't know how bad things were going to be, but Cerissa had started pushing him even harder than before, which he thought impossible until recently. Olwen sat with a set to her jaw, not humming as she usually would and her laugh much too loud. Eskel had grown restless, going away more often than Kuba remembered and when he was at the manor, more frequently out in the back gardens practicing his swords than settled in the study with Cerissa while she worked on her brews and oils. Her collection had grown beyond the nearly routine formulae she kept on hand, numerous vials of liquids in all colors now settled in any empty space they could find on shelves.
There was something wrong, very wrong, but they didn't want him to get distracted from his training.
Kuba sighed, jumping down from his seat on a partially broken box and nodded. “Yeah. But it's hard work. It's not glamorous or even grand most of the time.”
“But she's a defender of the weak!” The brunette insisted, snorting. “Surely there's some of honor in that!”
“They all come home muddy and smelling like death after hunts,” Kuba shook his head. “She only has money because she's a noble, Olwen and Eskel are always short changed or not paid at all. Cerissa dedicates herself to protecting humans, sure, but-”
“Most see her as a freak,” one of the twins piped in, the other nodded.
“Our mum said to stay clear of the manor and doesn't go to soirees if she's invited or we'll catch a pox!”
The blond girl whirled on the brothers, puffing her cheeks. “Not true! She saved my Pa from those monsters by the docks!”
“And she probably wanted payment for it, too!”
“Witchers don't work for free,” Kuba provided quietly, “Your parents wouldn't do their jobs without pay, why would mine be any different?”
The twin with longer hair looked away, kicking at the ground nervously while the other stuck his tongue out at the little girl who beamed in victory. Most quiet of the group was another boy about Kuba's age, pigeon toed and having trouble with his hands at times. His hands would sometimes contract on their own, making the boy cry out in frustration each time his fingers would get seemingly stuck curled in against his palm. Kuba would always take the time to talk him through it, now carrying an ointment of chamomile, yarrow, and lemon balm to work into the boy's hands when they started to stiffen.
Named Mirek, he had a smile that was just shaky as his voice that cracked with his changing body. Thinner than the other children, he spoke in hushed tones and was often at the back when Kuba was demonstrating an escape technique. He flushed furious red when Kuba would pull him to the front to be his demonstration partner, often stumbling over words when the witcher in training rubbed the balm into his hands.
“W-where did you l-l-learn how to make this?” He stuttered once when Kuba slowly bent his fingers back from his palm, working the ointment into the joints after the rest had left for the night.
“Cerissa,” Kuba beamed. “She makes it for me when I get hit hard during training or when I ache after Eskel is in charge of conditioning,” an odd mix of a smile and a scowl crossed his lips that made Mirek laugh quietly. “So I asked her how to make it so I could have some all the time. She's really good at potions and the like-” Kuba stopped suddenly, realizing he was babbling, and looking back up at Mirek who was only smiling.
“I like when you talk about your family,” he gritted his teeth when Kuba worked at the pad of his thumb, pressing at a small knot before working his way up the finger and trying to unfold it. “You must love them a lot.”
There was a yearning to the boy's voice that tugged at Kuba's chest, making him scowl and look up at Mirek. The other boy looked away, gnawing at his lip. “Ma isn't around much, and Pa comes home drunk and-”
“I know. It's okay, you don't have to say it.”
That would explain why Mirek had been so eager to learn, or why the boy often came to the meetings covered in bruises. Or why he hid in the back, usually dressed in long sleeves that hid the bruises that peeked out from under the sleeves when Kuba pushed them up to get at his hands. He sighed, raising a silent eyebrow at Mirek who only flushed and chewed at his lip.
“Kuba,” he started quietly, looking up from the dirt floor of the warehouse to meet his eye, “There's trouble coming, isn't there?”
“A storm is coming, or so Olwen tells me,” Kuba nodded. “I don't know what, though.”
“You can handle it,” Mirek's eyes shone with the words, making Kuba flush at the praise and look back down at the other boy's hands. “You're a witcher, after all.”
“In training,” he corrected in a mumble, cursing the renewed heat rushing across his cheeks.
“You call yourself one, so you are one.” Mirek shook his head, taking his hand away so Kuba looked up at him and ruffled the other boy's hair with a loud laugh. “You can do this, Kuba. Whatever's coming you guys' way, you'll be able to handle it.”
Cerissa smiled as she listened in, eyes closed and head resting against the brick of the building that was still warm from the afternoon's sun. Beside her sat Amriel, not able to fight the goofy grin that tugged at his lips and spread all the way to his eyes. Cerissa's smile was much softer, chest swelling with a warmth she couldn't quite place as she listened to Kuba's voice, once again trying as patiently as he could to try to explain how to break a choke hold from behind. Neither of the two said anything for a long moment before Cerissa slowly got to her feet and dusted off the knees of her trousers with a soundless sigh.
“Let's leave him be for now.”
“Is that really smart with all the attempts made on you two's lives?” Cerissa frowned, torn between wanting to give him some form of relative privacy in a place away from the manor and the truth in her friend's words. Amriel smiled, noticing the hesitation, “I can linger if you want me to, so you don't feel like you're betraying his trust but he has someone to keep an eye on him.”
Fate was a sometimes touchy subject among their caste, but Olwen couldn't find any other way to describe the strings that tied she and all her friends together. It was a tangled web she saw when she looked to the stars, some threads tighter than others, and she particularly amazed at how quickly Kuba had wound himself around the fate of Cerissa.
She would smile as she watched the two, admiring the calm patience in her friend's eyes no matter how many times she had to correct his stance or encourage him to practice the signs that Amriel had begun to teach him. The child pulsed with magical energy, more mimicking the energy feel of the eldest in their group instead of his chosen mother, but often grew frustrated with the runes he would repeatedly draw or how he could only manage a spark even when he concentrated his hardest when Cerissa could easily call forth flame without second thought. Olwen had reassured him that all of them had years of practice and that it would take time for him to learn the skills Amriel was trying to encourage.
Kuba had been a change to say the least.
Olwen chuckled as she flipped over the cards in front of her, laid out in a shape resembling a cross. The cards for his future had changed almost constantly from day to day and it was sometimes that Olwen set her cards aside and instead resorted to other methods. His impatience and insatiable curiosity aside, the boy's future was never something she could get a comfortable feeling like she was being accurate about her readings.
Cerissa had been similarly hard to read when they first met, the younger witcher's denial of her infatuation with her now partner and how closely she became entwined with him had been frustrating to say the least. Even Olwen hesitated to say at first they were fated, but it became painfully clear just by watching them alone that something other than a shared trade and a chance encounter had brought them together.
She was willing to put a wager that even were she not a witcher, they would have somehow crossed paths.
But Kuba was much different.
He was the chance thread that at first looked like it was supposed to have been cut soon after he and Cerissa met, but his stray end had instead tangled in her ever growing web of connections. From there, her protective nature had taken over and even sitting in the Chameleon discussing the boy with her, Olwen could see that Cerissa had her mind set:
If nothing else, she wasn't going to leave that boy behind.
But even her friend who had little interest or ability in divination had started to feel a shift in the air, subtly starting to push Kuba harder and giving him less free time, instead busying him with helping the manor staff or longer lessons. There was a growing sense of unease, a tension brewing that had nothing to do with Amriel's sister and would decide the boy's fate in ways only fate itself could control.
And Olwen could only hope the cards that she kept seeing were lying.
Chapter 14: Now
“My first time getting to wear it in almost a year.”
Cerissa sighed, turning in the mirror and a small smile crept across her lips. It was only the second time she was wearing it for a contract, the scale littered with little nicks from the contract she and Olwen had taken on the leshen near Novigrad. Since taking on Kuba as her student, she had had little time to take contracts of her own even though she would readily admit she missed the small thrill of following a trail and the seconds before a fight when the air felt heavy. She missed letting Moose run along an open stretch of road with the wind howling in her ears. She would even say she missed the wet sound of her swords tearing into flesh.
She rolled her shoulders, trying to get the chain shirt under her outer jacket to settle right. “Still not used to wearing so much metal.”
“Could always just wear your leathers if you're more comfortable in them.”
“From what you tell me,” she shook her head, “I'm going to need the dimeritium in the scale.”
Eskel sighed and stood from his seat on the edge of their bed where he had been watching her dress with a scowl at the nervous movements of the younger witcher, her movements too forceful. Her fingers were impatient with the buckles on her sword harness and potion bandolier, the leather of her jacket felt too tight. The chain she wore under it pinched, the scale on her jacket wouldn't settle. She had tested her silver sword when she picked it up, giving a small leap of a pirouette and frowning when she slid her sword into its sheath.
Something felt different, wrong.
“Just please be careful.”
“You're sounding more like me each day,” she allowed a dry laugh when he planted a soft kiss on the back of her head.
He gripped her shoulder tightly, squeezing once and meeting her eyes in the mirror. “People tend to worry about the ones they love.”
Cerissa visibly winced even before the guard let her through the door, gritting her teeth when she stepped down onto the first of twelve stairs. Each one felt a little taller than the last, the time in the past few days giving whatever energy was lingering time to seep into nearly the entirety of the first floor. Cerissa groaned, a persistent throbbing starting at her temple and only sharpening until she felt as though someone was driving a spike through her skull.
The loud thud of the guard closing the door behind her hung in the air, making her headache worsen until the sound finally died off.
Cerissa practically choked on the air, sickly hot though it seemed the duke had taken Eskel's advice and had everyone another floor of the estate. Pausing at the intersection of the cross the first floor formed, she produced a small piece of charcoal from one of the pouches at her hip. Placing it in the middle of the intersection, she lit it with a spark of igni and cast yrden at her feet before settling in the relative safety her sign's circle afforded her and closing her eyes.
Standing once again in the main foyer of the manor, Cerissa scowled at the unlit fireplace. The bannister to the main staircase stood in splinters, the painting of she and her parents that once hung over the fireplace now just an empty frame that hung at an angle. The stairs looked as though someone had taken a heavy hammer or axe to them, chunks of wood torn away or crushed to leave gaping holes. The carpet under her feet was tattered, soaking wet from the holes in the high ceiling.
The grand chandelier had long collapsed to the floor, the glistening crystal ornamentation broken and scattered about the room.
Cerissa sighed, ignoring the images of her life in shambles. She knew the windows were broken, she could feel the draft behind her. The door was probably ripped from it hinges and tossed aside like a forgotten toy. She could hear the rats scratching around behind the paneling. The hearth was long cold, not even ashes or the rack for the logs taking up residence in the fireplace anymore. The brick at the mantle piece was chipped, the hooks were her first steel sword once hung now missing altogether.
Picking her way over the shards of crystal that cracked under her boots, she instead focused on finding her way to her study. The center of everything during the best times, it would be the best starting point she decided. The table in the formal dining room it had been flipped on its side, the chairs all broken into pieces around it. There was a clean line in the floor where it looked as though something had cleaved through not just the heavy table but the floor as well, cutting through the wooden floorboard to show the cellar down below her study.
No corpses. No blood. No lingering traces of magic or discarded weapons.
Cerissa tried to push the gathering dread out of her mind as she skirted the table and pushed open the heavy doors to her study. The rush of cold air that greeted her made her brace herself, scowling deepening when a soft sobbing sound followed it up the steps. Drawing her silver sword, Cerissa slowly crept down the familiar stone steps until she stood in the doorway of her study.
Her shelves had been knocked over, the large cast iron pot that hung in the fireplace torn from its stand and thrown against the wall where it had left a deep dent in the plaster. It was pitch dark, the only light coming from faint red glow of her sword. Fareal's swords that previously hung on the wall between two shelves were now missing, the majority of the desk drawers torn open and rifled through.
There was nothing here aside from a vague chill that was faint compared to the gust that met her at the top of the stairs.
Still trying to listen for even the smallest sound, Cerissa picked her way over the messily toppled stacks of books and papers to pull open the top drawer of her desk. Looking as though it had never been disturbed, a worn griffin head medallion sat amid a nest of crumpled papers now faded with age and the ink smudged as though the paper had gotten wet.
“Why are you showing me this?”
“This is what will come to pass if you hesitate,” a man in a surgeon's costume suddenly appeared, materializing in the armchair opposite the fireplace. “So good to see you again, little witcher. My, how you've grown.” He smiled not unkindly, shifting how he sat to cross one leg over the other. “In truth, I never left you. You see, I owe you a debt. And I detest being in another's debt.”
“For freeing you?”
“And for your lover's brother doing the same,” the man nodded, “Though I will admit he resorted to much more direct methods.”
“So what do you need from me?”
The man threw his head back and laughed, the sound filling the room. It took several moments before he stopped, instead reaching out a skeletal hand to point a finger at her. “The question is, little fledgling, what do you need from me? You face a foe from another plane. You face fear of losing someone you hold dear. You face the destruction of everything you have come to love and treasure.” The man smirked, leaning forward in the chair and his grin only growing wider. “Tell me, witcher,” he laughed, “what you hold most dear. What is most important to you? Your cub? Your wolf? The memory of a man long dead? If you could save one thing, what would it be?”
“Kuba,” she answered without hesitation. “I would make it so I knew he lived through the changes.”
“Is that your price for my freedom?”
“I don't understand-”
“Choose quickly, time is running out, little witcher.”
He laughed again and she blinked, feeling as though she had been shaken awake and staring down the long corridor of the first floor back at the duke's estate. Her casting of yrden wavering at her knees, the charcoal still burned next to her. The once stifling air was now chilled just as it had been in the vision version of her study and she shivered despite herself.
“Eskel...” she sighed to herself, voice barely audible as she released her casting and slowly go to her feet. “What did you send me into?”
One hand resting on the hilt of her silver sword, she crept down the hallway. Tension made her stomach twist, cold dread snaking its way up her spine with each soft footfall that echoed down the hallway. Pausing in the doorway he had mentioned, Cerissa shook her head and sighed heavily.
The girl's body had been taken down but the bloodstains where she once hung were still clearly defined. It was obvious that it had probably been Eskel who had taken her body down, or at least someone who was very careful not to disturb the drawings on the floor or the scattered candles that still remained. Whoever had given the girl some form of last dignity had taken great pains to preserve the rest of the scene for her, walking around the designs on the floor that looked as though they had been initially drawn with chalk then painted over with blood.
Everything in Cerissa screamed not to step over the threshold, her medallion thudding heavily against her chest. And yet, she still found herself feeling as though something was pulling her forward. Similar to the pull of the young woman's spirit back during her investigation of the hunter's base below Enna, there was an almost desperation to the sensation that didn't feel as though it was a malevolent presence.
Taking a deep breath and steeling herself, Cerissa finally allowed herself to step over the threshold. The candles flared to life, the form of a young girl standing against the wall where her body once hung. Her form dark and uncertain as though made of swirling smoke, the sobbing sound from earlier came from her. Huddled over on her knees, her hands were up as if to protect herself.
Cerissa took another step forward, the fireplace flaring to life with a blue fire that let off neither chill nor heat. A few of the stacked books clattered to the floor suddenly as if they had been pushed from their stacks, several of the ones dotting the room opening and the pages rustling in a breeze she couldn't see or feel.
“No!” The girl screeched when Cerissa knelt in front of her, trying to push back against the wall more, “Get away! Please don't hurt me!”
“I want to help you.”
“Get away! You'll hurt me just like he did!”
“Listen, I won't hurt you. I'm a witcher, I'm here to help you, but you have to help me first.”
The girl paused, what Cerissa could make out of her expression twisting into something of a scowl, but she dropped her hands to her knees. “Mother always said not to trust a witcher, they never work for free.”
“You don't have to give me anything,” she shook her head, “But you can help me find the person who did this to you.”
“I can't..I can't remember.”
“You can. Try.”
“I was supposed to be helpin' mother in the kitchen, she was cooking for the party the master was havin' that night. I went back to our room to get somethin' to hold my hair back, it kept falling in my face. There was a knock at the door, I thought it was mother come lookin' for me since I was taking so long. But it was a man it a dark coat that covered his face. He grabbed me, said I would...” she hesitated, trying to remember what he had said, “open a path or something. I remember pain, he was cutting my chest. I was screaming, I swore I was,” her voice started to break, words becoming hurried, “Why didn't anyone come find me? Couldn't they hear me screaming?”
“Your spirit might have been experiencing what your body was even though you were long dead.”
“Oh,” the girl looked down, “It's so cold here, is death always so cold?”
“I don't know, but I can help you cross over.”
“...Will I cease to exist? Will they forget about me again?”
“I'm sure your mother misses you terribly. Long as there are people alive who loved you, you won't be forgotten. But you can't stay in the world of the living.”
“How do I...How do I go?”
“Do you feel as though something ties you here? Something you wanted to have done before you left?”
“I...I wanted to make sure mother would be okay. Could you...take something to her for me?”
“I could,” she nodded. “What would you want to give her?”
“In the box on the table over there,” the girl pointed to a desk against the same wall as the door. “There's a necklace she gave me. Give her that, please. And tell her...I'm sorry.”
Fear gripped him, quickly shifting into near panic as he tossed his bed covers aside and hastily tugged on his trousers. He knew it was pointless to get so worked up, there was nothing he could do even if he was there, but his hands shook and he was much too restless to simply close his eyes again. A hard knot formed in his throat and Kuba tried swallowing it back, his mortification at his reaction to a nightmare only making the burning tears pool more in his eyes.
He made his way to the salon, hoping Olwen had come home sometime after he had gone to bed. Her bag lazily tossed into one of the empty armchairs, Olwen looked as though she had collapsed into her chair in exhaustion. Hair and clothes dripping from the downpour outside, she looked away from the lit fireplace long enough to smile at Kuba.
“What's on yer mind, pup?”
Just like Olwen to do that, he thought to himself. “I…” he stopped himself, knowing he had no idea where to start. He just didn’t want to be alone. “Cerissa-”
“Nightmare about the lass?” Olwen nodded understandingly, putting the two together and motioned for Kuba to come closer. “First contract she’s taken since we took you in, huh? You must be worried.” Kuba nodded, biting at his lower lip. Hoping he didn’t look too eager, he quickly crossed the space between the two of them and settled in the chair next to Olwen’s. She smiled in turn, closing her eyes and finally letting her head fall back against the chair. “She won’t leave you alone, pup,” Olwen spoke up quietly, not opening her eyes. “Tell me what happened.”
“She was in a big mansion, and there was this man following her around. He didn’t seem like he wanted to hurt her, but he was there for her? I think?” Olwen nodded understanding but let him continue, “There was a girl, she was trying to help the girl. But something dark grabbed her and pulled her into...this place. She couldn’t see or feel anything there. And it was black. She was hurt, she could tell because her side was wet….”
He didn’t realize he had started talking faster until Olwen stopped him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. Tears trickled down his cheeks, his voice breaking, and he sniffled. Kuba set his jaw, running a hand across his cheeks to wipe away tears, and flushed when more tears quickly took their place. He was shaking, he realized.
“Cerissa will be okay.”
“She wasn’t that time,” he shook his head with a hiccup.
Olwen looked up suddenly, a faint smile on her lips when she glanced over Kuba's shoulder at the doorway, but reached over to ruffle his hair. “Might not be, yer right. But you have to have some faith in yer ma.”
It had been as a gesture of understanding that Cerissa chose the room across from their own for Kuba's, knowing that the boy would be terrified for the first few weeks at the manor. But in the months that followed, the young novice had needed the gentle guidance of his adoptive mother less and less at night. Although Cerissa had frequently offered a room that would provide a boy of his age a little more privacy, she insisted the manor had more rooms than she would ever be able to use, Kuba insisted on keeping the one with the creaking door hinges across from their own.
And while his partner often snored gently against his chest, Eskel would listen to the squeaking of the door hinges in the hours where morning and night seemed to blur together. The second floorboard from Kuba's door always creaked under the attempted soft footsteps of the boy, his nervous breathing that he tried to soften much too loud to the ears of a practiced witcher. It had become a ritual of Kuba's, sneak out of his room as if he would be scolded for being up before the dawn and hope to catch Olwen before she retired early in the morning. The other witcheress of the house often rose just before dinner, yet her schedule had changed in recent months to accommodate their new charge. What hadn't changed about the woman from the isles was the she frequently was up at hours most were tucked away in bed, waiting for Amriel to return from his business that more often than not took him from the manor just after dinner and had him returning just as the sun peaked over the horizon.
Sometimes not until the next day.
So Kuba had come to wake early in hopes of catching Olwen, excitedly listening to her tales of creatures in words that sounded much different than how Cerissa would speak of them. For the past week, though, Olwen had been away looking to something. The same something that made of them nervous, the same something that made Cerissa carefully dance around her promise to not lie to Kuba.
The rain hitting hard against the windows did little to hide Kuba's almost too eager footsteps. His heart was racing. Eskel could practically smell the fear coming off the boy, not worrying about dulling his footsteps. Sighing quietly, he waited until he couldn't hear the boy's bare feet against the carpet and crept of bed, dressing and following him to the salon. While Olwen was expected to return in the coming nights, he wanted to be sure that Kuba wouldn't just spend the next few hours pacing the floor of the foyer until dawn.
The voice of Olwen drifted up the main stairs, her heavy islander accent even more pronounced with the obvious fatigue that slurred her words. She was trying to be patient, trying to be the shoulder she had always been for their mutual pup, and he had to credit her on being able to hide her weariness well behind soft sighs and pregnant pauses. She must have heard Eskel's soft footsteps on the staircase because she looked up over Kuba's shoulder, flashing a frail smile at the older witcher, and turned her attention back to Kuba.
I'll sit with him if you want me to. He mouthed, hesitating in the darkness just beyond the doorway.
The look in Olwen's eyes was grateful, and she nodded softly. She ruffled Kuba's hair gently, “Might not be, yer right. But you have to have some faith in yer ma.” She punctuated her sentence with an obvious yawn, standing and stretching before scooping up her bag.
“Wouldn't think of leaving you alone right now,” Eskel sighed gently when he stepped into the room, making note of the relief that washed over Kuba's features even as Olwen brushed past him with a grateful nod. “Get some rest,” he called after her with a vague smile. He had to admit, the woman had grown on him in ways he didn't think she ever would.
Olwen waved over her shoulder in a way that almost mirrored Amriel, “Don't have t'tell me twice, pup.”
“Cerissa is going to be okay, right Eskel?”
He had a feeling the boy had the same dream he did, Cerissa lost in a battle-torn version of the manor with a man following her. Settling in the chair Olwen had vacated and scowling lightly at the still wet cushion, he was painfully aware of the wide eyed stare of the boy who had become much more than just a new student to him. At first, he would admit he agreed with Cerissa's plan simply because it was Cerissa, sure she wouldn't keep to her plan or grow impatient with the boy as she had several of her other failed plans in the past. And yet, both of them had surprised Eskel, one as driven as the other and keeping each other focused on the task at hand.
“Had a dream about her?”
“You did too,” Kuba accused correctly, setting his jaw and practically glaring at the witcher when he leaned forward in the chair and rested his elbows on his knees. “You were worried when she left, worried when we all got back from the duke's mansion. You've been on edge since your wrist got hurt.” He sniffed, “You watch me and Cerissa more carefully. You don't think I notice, but I do.”
“You take after Olwen,” he muttered thoughtfully, eyes focused on the dying fire.
“And she says I take after Cerissa,” he snorted and was quiet for a few minutes before speaking again in a much softer tone. “You saw it too, right? She was being followed. And she was hurt.”
“Kuba, she was also told by a fortune teller that I would die trying to protect her.”
“But that wasn't two different people having the same dream! That's not timed with whatever-it-is that's making you three nervous- and don't act like I don't notice.” He sniffed again, wiping a hand cross his face in a failed attempt to keep himself from coming apart. “I'm young and stupid- not dense.”
“Never said you were dumb or dense.” Eskel shook his head, “Always were perceptive and clever.”
“So stop treating me like I'm not! I know you saw it too, why else would you be awake at the same time I was? I know you woke up to find yourself alone in bed and-”
“And you felt the same fear I did,” Kuba ignored him, voice gaining the edge back and voice raising until he was practically shouting. “For someone that tells themselves you don't have emotion, you make it obvious you do! Cerissa is in trouble, you know it. Something is trying to tell us that.”
He paused, sighing softly when the flue in the chimney leaked and the log sizzled with a few errant drops of rain. “Even if she were in danger,” he started calmly, voice even despite Kuba's obvious unease, “What would have me do? By the time I saddled Scorpion and rode to the duke's mansion too much time would have passed and whatever shadows were lurking would have time to strike.”
“Yeah, but-” Kuba deflated slightly, knowing he was right.
“I could help with injuries, but I'm no medic. She and Amriel are the ones gifted in dealing with wounds. I,” he paused, the next few words heavy on his tongue and he hoped Kuba could hear the tension in his voice, “would only be a hindrance. As much she acts otherwise, griffins hunt alone.”
“Kuba, listen to me. I understand you're scared for her. But just as she trusts you, you have to trust her.”
“You're scared too,” Kuba murmured, pressing against the back of his chair and practically hugging himself.
“You're...not wrong,” he sighed, the sound harsh and heavy. “But listen to me. This fear, this unease, is a witcher's constant companion. What's important, as I know Cerissa has told you, is-”
“Not letting it stop me,” Kuba finished.
Eskel nodded to show he was listening, “She's a witcher, the same as Olwen and myself-and as you will one day be. We face the things that normal humans wouldn't dare. And you have to trust that your abilities are enough to see you through. Just as you have to trust yourself, you have to trust the abilities of those you surround yourself with.”
Kuba nodded, quietly picking at his fingers before speaking up in voice that pulled Eskel's gaze from the dying fire. “Eskel? Can I...can I ask you something?”
“Are you....are you the last of your school too?”
“Like Olwen and Cerissa?” He laughed, the sound light despite himself. He shook his head in disbelief, “No, I'm not. You should know that,” he tilted his head, quirking an eyebrow. “Weren't you listening when Amriel told us about how Lambert lifted the curse on the manor?”
“Oh, I didn't...” he paused, puffing his cheeks.
“And I know for a fact Cerissa has told you stories of Geralt, unless you think them legends like she did for the longest time.”
“He's real?!” Kuba's eyes went wide and surprised Eskel into another laugh.
“You're too much like Cerissa for your own good,” he shook his head after a few moments, sighing softly. “Even if she isn't okay, Kuba,” he lowered his voice to a much gentler tone, “It will take an act of the heavens to keep her from you.”
“Trust her. She'll come back to us, even if broken.”
The room darkened the moment she stood, the girl's form vanishing altogether in a puff of smoke. Instead there was a laugh behind her and Cerissa drew in a purposefully slow breath, her fingers flexing at her sides. Looking up so that her eyes were level with the form of a young woman who now hung from the wall by steel nails, she rolled her neck with something of a grin. Already feeling the chill shoot through her and leave a tingling sensation its wake. Her smile grew somewhat drunken as she let the sensation take her, her medallion thudding out a frantic rhythm against her chest.
“I missed this so much,” Cerissa almost purred, rolling her shoulders and turning to face the figure that stood in the doorway.
Rows of sharp teeth showed from an otherwise dark form that resembled something of a human. It grinned with Cerissa's unspoken challenge when she drew her blade, her breathing measured and her own twisted smile mirroring that of the creature. It had been a ruse, she knew that from the moment she walked down the stairs. While she had no doubt that some presence of a girl would cling to these walls long after this battle, it wasn't the sobbing form of a helpless young maiden that had cowered before her.
No, it would be a vengeful spirit twisted by its own confusion and fear.
The creature in front of her flexed its fingers at its sides, dropping into an animalistic crouch and creeping its way froward. Cerissa braced herself, savoring the slight quickening of her heartbeat when the creature pounced. Sword parallel to the ground with its blade up, Cerissa nearly laughed when she easily parried the blow, knowing the creatures arm away and spun in a half pirouette. Letting her sword drop to almost scrape the ground, she brought it around in a tight arc and connected easily with the creature's side to leave a deep gash in the swirling black mass.
It hissed and jumped back against the wall out in the hallway, gums pulling back into a snarl. Cerissa snorted, resetting her stance and again simply waiting. It had learned, she noticed when it more carefully crept forward this time, keeping low to the ground. The realization made her grip her sword a little tighter, setting her jaw and fingers of one hand ready when it bunched up similar to the way a cat would.
Just as it leapt forward, mouth agape to show rows of razor sharp teeth amid in a dark mawl, Cerissa let go of her sword with her left hand and first cast igni. Holding back her grin when the creature screamed but insisted on pushing forward through the wall of sparks, she dropped to a knee and braced herself with quen kept close to her skin. With the shattering sound that filled the room when the creature's teeth merely bounced off her skin, Cerissa drew her sword arm back enough to clear the ground and holding the blade parallel, drove it into the creature's chest.
It screamed when she twisted, retching out a mouthful of dark liquid that burned at her skin as it twitched on her blade before falling still. Setting her jaw, Cerissa forced herself up and pushed the creature down, removing her blade from its form and watching as it dissolved into an inky blackness.
Her medallion continued to pulse.
She paused, half expecting the darkness to recede around her and instead there was a soft clapping from the room behind her. Cerissa spun, sword at the ready, and glared at the man with the scarred face who leaned against the blood-stained wall with a blank expression.
“Good to see the stories of the Griffin of Enna aren't just the ravings of court nobles but have some weight.” Cerissa set her jaw. The man sighed, feigning disinterest as he pushed off the wall and let his cloak fall from his shoulders. “The same expression your beloved dog gave me when he challenged me. Tell me, is throwing yourself against uneven odds a habit of witchers?”
Cerissa swallowed back every biting remark that bubbled to the surface, keeping the tongue that was famous in court for its duplicity well in its place. The man tilted his head interest, narrowing his eyes as he walked a slow circle around the room. Candles flared to life as he passed them, the fireplace roaring and the flames reaching out to brush at his clothes. They almost kissed her even where she stood, shooting from its brick prison and making sweat bead on her brow. The covers of the books flew open, a gust filling the room when the man came to stop just a few inches in front of her.
“Tell me, young witcher, what you hold dear,” he purred. “Will you give me the pleasure of taking it all away?”
The man grabbed her wrist suddenly, squeezing and twisting it until she smothered a shout of pain and dropped her sword. It clattered to the wood floor loudly and he laughed as he kicked it away. “A witcher without their blade, a griffin without its claws.”
“Guess again,” her fingers twitched, a steady stream of sparks sprayed at the man's face.
He barely smothered a shout of surprise, cursing her when he released her and took several steps back- gloved hands shielding his already burned face. Setting her jaw, Cerissa hurried forward and dropped to the floor, sliding on one leg to scoop up her blade before rolling to slow her momentum. She propped herself up on one knee in the doorway to the room after coming to a stop, panting with the effort her multiple castings in such a short amount of time had taken.
“You little witch!” The man screamed, his hands dropping away from his face to show oozing blisters that dotted his already discolored skin. “You snake!” He screamed, hands flexing at his sides and she felt the air being pulled past her from the hallway and rushing into the room to gather at the man's feet. “You will learn, child!” His voice split into multiple, dropping into a low growl that made her stomach twist. “You have no idea the-”
I would recommend casting your shield if you have it left in you, girl.
Cerissa did without question, wincing from the physical effort it took to hold the glimmering shield against the torrent of ice that man sent her way. She trembled, head growing heavy as she forced herself to hold the casting, fingers starting to quiver where they gripped her sword in front of her. The man saw this and laughed, releasing his casting long enough to step forward and reach through her wavering shield. His laugh grew more pronounced when he again tried to knock her sword aside, eyes going wide when she willingly dropped it and instead reached for the knife on her thigh. A quick upwards cut carved faithfully into his outstretched arm and brought a slow trickle of blood to the surface.
He took several steps back when she forced herself to her feet, again sheathing her knife and stooping long enough to retrieve her sword. As much as she longed to slowly savor the panic now flooding the man's glowing eyes, she instead focused on the dying light that had been in Antony's eyes when he told her company to look after one another or the blaze that she sent the mayor's office up into when he told her of a man with glowing eyes. How she had screamed and clutched a blood crusted griffin's head medallion against her chest, her armor torn and could see the same glowing eyes that now glared at her against a wall of flame.
Cerissa screamed, bringing her sword around in an arc with a tight pirouette and finding some sick pleasure in the man's scream that echoed her own, now twisting beyond that of a man and sounding like the screech of a banshee. Instead of blood blossoming to the surface on his chest, the skin slowly started to weave back together like a lattice of vines. Cerissa scowled, wishing she had silver dust with her, but pulled a small vial from one of her pouches and hastily poured it down the length of her blade as the man panted, now slumping against the wall.
“Tell me again how I dulled Eskel's fangs,” she growled, not being able to fight the tears that burned at her eyes and blurred her vision. She cried out when brought her sword around and left a deep gash in the man's chest that this time oozed a dark liquid that she would never think to call blood. The man, no creature she corrected herself, cried out in pain when again she again raised her blade and this time drove it into its chest. She savored the dark liquid that trickled to his lips when he crumpled to the ground, reaching behind him with trembling fingers.
Cerissa kicked them as hard as she could, not bothering to hide pleased smirk on her lips at the cracking of his bones. “Tell me again why I should stop when you are the reason I lost Fareal and Antony,” she hissed, reaching out and gripping the creature's hair with her free hand.
“Like you spared Fareal? Like you spared my school?” She tossed her head, sweat soaked hair sticking to her forehead and gripped his own hair harder, slamming his head against the wall behind him and practically laughing at the cracking sound that filled the room.
The air was sweltering from the fire that now threatened to overtake the room. Her lungs, she realized, were starting to ache from the smoke. And though the flames danced dangerously close to her skin, she felt no pain when they licked at the leather of her trousers and they left no scorch mark where they touched.
“I won't let you take anyone from me again,” she hissed, bringing her blade up and driving it into the creature's chest, gritting her teeth at the ear piercing screech it let out and twisted her blade with a savage flourish.
Then everything went black.
Destiny, it turned out, came in many forms and while it was often mentioned in muttered tones when witchers would claim children as their prizes, Cerissa instead found herself staring into the eyes of she could only describe as a demon and yet, she held no fear for the being in front of her. Sitting back on her knees, the large cat only tilted its head in interest at the witcher and yawned at her unease in being in the company of a cat that didn't screech at the flash of her eyes. It instead blinked, yellow-green eyes not unlike her own staring at her.
“What an odd place you have found yourself in, human.” The voice came from nowhere but also seemed to come from the cat itself though its mouth did not open. “I had heard we had a visitor, but not one such as yourself. There is a dark energy about you. Tell me, what are you.”
The cat's eyes narrowed, “Now now, we both know that wouldn't cause such a dark cloud to follow you. Let me try again, what are you?”
“A marchioness of a human court and an adoptive mother to an orphan. I'm partner to one such as myself and-”
“You fail to understanding what I'm asking you. Look at yourself. You are none of those things here. You are marked with death, but it did not follow you because of the blades on your back. Destiny, young witcher, is not kind to you.”
“Am I...am I dead?”
“And there she understands.”
“No,” she shook her head, “Too many things to do. I- I can't be dead. No.” Her words seemed to blur, “I promised Kuba I'd never leave him alone again. I swore I wouldn't-” she stopped herself. “I need to get back.”
“Pain only waits for you. Agony in a half-dead fog.”
“I made it through the Grasses, I can manage some injuries.”
“Blood and wounds are not what ails your body, witcher. You are haunted and cannot sense it. It steals your energy, eats your soul, but you cannot even tell it is there- slowly killing you. You go back now, and you will surely perish.”
“If I'm already dead, there's nothing to lose by not staying.”
“You will suffer before you surely perish.”
“They said the same thing when I chose to give up my life as a normal human.”
“Foolish girl,” the cat sighed. “Have it your way. Welcome to your second trial, witcher. And good luck,” it finally flashed a smile full of bright white fangs, “on your Path.”
“Kuba, you'll wear a path into the ground if you don't calm down.”
Mirek watched Kuba carefully as the witcher in training paced circuits in the dusty warehouse floor, dark eyes wide and hands rhythmically clenching and unclenching at his sides. The Sun had just started to peak over the horizon, the sky streaked red with the few wispy clouds that dotted it. Kuba paused for a second, looking out over the harbor from the back door of the warehouse, and growled to himself before starting another circuit.
“Kuba,” Mirek practically whined, picking at his fingernails and gnawing at his bottom lip. “Please.”
“I can't,” Kuba's voice was sharper than he meant it to be, making the other boy visibly flinch and only making him grind teeth harder until his jaw ached. “Sorry, Mirek, I'm so sorry, I just-” He groaned, grinding the heels of his hands against his eyes to try and stop the tears brimming up in them. “I can't-”
“You're scared. You feel helpless,” he acknowledged, sighing and crossing the small space between them. Mirek lightly rested a hand on one of Kuba's wrists, gently trying to tug his hand away from his face. “That's normal. You tell me that all the time, Kuba. It's normal to feel cornered when something frightens you.”
“It's different,” Kuba deflated, knowing the other boy was right, and practically fell back against a nearby stack of long empty crates. “It's-” he stopped himself, shoulders tightening again. “I-”
Mirek sighed, gnawing at his lip, and lowered himself to the ground as well. Kuba frowned, knowing his joints always ached, and was about to protest how his friend crossed one leg over the other when Mirek shook his head. “You always listen to me when I'm scared. My turn.”
“Witchers aren't strong all the time,” he smiled, flushing slightly. “Even your mom gets scared, I'm willing to bet.”
Kuba snorted, scowling deepening. “Cerissa doesn't get scared, neither do Olwen or Eskel.”
“Lies and you know it,” Mirek protested, puffing his cheeks.
“Mirek, it's just,” Kuba sighed, closing his eyes and enjoying the breeze from the warehouse's open door. “Last night I kept having nightmares of her dying. She was hurt, she could barely stand, and yet she-” he sighed, the sound harsh.
“Take your time.”
“Something is trying to tell me she's hurt,” his voice was thin when he spoke again, feeling the burning of barely restrained tears in his eyes again. “I know it. And I can't do anything about it. And I just have to trust she'll be okay?” He spoke in starts and stops, almost groaning when he hesitated at the beginning of each sentence. “I know I should but it's hard. She's smart and strong, but she's human under all that. She makes mistakes. She gets hurt. And I just-” he stopped suddenly, cursing under his breath.
“You can't do anything to help.”
“And that's the problem, Mirek!” Kuba practically glared at him, opening his eyes. “She defended me from witch hunters in Novigrad, brought me back here and gave me something to do and-”
“Kuba, listen to me. You can't do anything.”
He stopped, blinking. “I-”
“You want to do the same,” he frowned, visibly trying not to be upset with Kuba's outburst. “But you can't do anything, there is no way to help her.”
“But I just-”
“Kuba,” Mirek sighed, voice pained, and putting a hand over one of Kuba's, only then making the witcher in training realize how tightly he was balling his hands into fists. “Stop. Worrying isn't going to help Miss Cerissa.”
Kuba laughed despite himself, the sound harsh. “You sound like Eskel.”
“Someone has to keep you focused,” Mirek smiled, taking the comment as a compliment, and slowly loosening Kuba's fingers from their fist.
Kuba hesitated, gnawing at his lip for moment before sighing heavily. When he spoke again, his tone was much softer. “Thank you, and I'm sorry for scaring you.”
“You're human, you make mistakes.”
“I shouldn't have snapped, I knew it scared you.”
“Kuba,” he sighed, smiling as he rubbed at Kuba's fingers, mimicking how he would do the same for Mirek. “It's okay. Just promise me something, okay? When you're a real witcher, don't forget about me.”
Kuba closed his eyes for a moment, pushing himself upright, and surprised the other boy when he suddenly pulled Mirek into a tight embrace. “Never,” he promised.
Her heart was racing, blood roaring too loudly in her ears. The cool floor beneath her, warmth somewhere far off. A small light. Cerissa pushed herself upright in the darkness, smothering a shout when a searing pain spread up her sides. The sound didn't echo, sounding more like she was surrounded by walls and was absorbed instantly. She was chilled, arms trembling when she rolled onto her knees to be on all fours.
Smooth ground, almost like glass was beneath her. Shaking. Cerissa gritted her teeth with the effort of sitting up straight, smothering another shout and doubling over when the blinding pain came back. Clutching her side, she again tried to sit upright and instead cried out, crumpling to the ground.
I haven't felt like this since...
The cool breeze from an open window, linen sheets beneath her. A soothing hand on her forehead. Soft humming from a gruff voice.
No. This isn't real.
Cerissa forced herself to separate from what she was experiencing, instead finding herself standing against the wall opposite the low bed. A man with a full beard and a face too kind to match the worn medallion around his neck sat next to the bed, gently brushing away the sweaty bangs of the young woman who lay in the bed. She twitched, fingers tight against the sheets and groaning in her sleep.
The man smiled, sighing softly when he dipped his hand into a basin of water and fished out a cloth. He rang out most of the water, folding it in half, and placed it gently on the woman's forehead.
“I know why you keep looking for me, Cerissa,” he sighed sadly, not looking up from the woman in the bed, “But I'm long gone, you know that.” He finally turned when after several long moments she said nothing, frowning with something of a snort.
“I don't mean to,” she mumbled, looking away and suddenly feeling like his apprentice all over again. She bit at the inside of her cheek, “I don't-”
“My loss affected you deeply.” She didn't say anything, only nodding. “Still the silly child whose wrists I splinted during sword drills,” he chuckled knowingly. “You don't have to ask forgiveness from me, luned. It wasn't your fault. Maybe it's time you forgave yourself?” Again she said nothing, embarrassed to instead be fighting the burning sensation of tears in her eyes.
“No one's called me that in years,” she muttered instead, a small smile on her lips.
“You have new people to seek council from,” he continued as if she said nothing. “Friends, a partner who loves you very deeply, and an extended family you've built for yourself. You're not replacing me, luned. I'm not angry.” He smiled, eyes sparkling. “You've grown splendidly and I'm proud of you- but it's not your time to rejoin me.”
“How do you-”
“Cerissa, my dearest one, go. You have people waiting for you. I can wait a little longer.”
“Fareal, please, I just-”
“Go,” he shook his head.
Again she fell to her knees with a scream.
She forced herself to open her eyes, to draw a deep breath. She realized with some measure of certainty she was in the duke's mansion, the unfinished wood floor rough under her fingers. Her head pounded, fingers worked raw from where they had repeatedly rubbed against the uneven surface. Ragged and tearing at her throat, each breath made her lungs ache. A dark liquid dripped to the floor from above and she forced herself to look up.
Vision hazy around the edges, she could feel the unnatural coldness of the energy in the room that contrasted sharply with the stifling heat from the roaring fire in the hearth behind the man. The candles still glowed with a blue flame. Many of the stacks of books scattered around the room had been toppled over, the design in the middle of the room now smeared and the circle disrupted. He had thrown her against the bookshelf opposite the wall, her mid-back aching from where it felt like she had connected with one of the heavy shelves and slid down the case to a crumpled heap on the floor.
A man stood over her, his scarred face twisted into a sneer. Scalp looking as though it had been ripped open, a dark liquid poured down his face from a deep laceration. One hand hung uselessly at his side, fingers bent at impossible angles and turning purple. Cerissa laughed despite herself, the sound dry, and tried forcing herself to her feet. The same pain as in that abyss flared in her side, one hand clutching it. She grimaced at the sticky wetness on her fingers, not remembering being hit and knowing whatever force had hit her managed to tear through the chain under her leather.
“Thanks, old man, for just sending me back to my death,” she grumbled.
“You little witch,” the man snarled, voice sounding anything but human. He reached down with his good hand and she quickly drew the sign of aard, satisfied with the small blast that made him tumble backwards a few steps and buying her enough time to get to her feet.
Cerissa huffed, using the shelf behind her as support to stand. “Takes more than that to kill a witcher.”
“You're nothing but a bug!” He roared, recovering his balance and rushing forward. Good hand wrapped around her throat, he pushed her back against the shelves again. “A nuisance! You always have been! You should have died in that fire with your damned parents!”
Again that warmth from before filled her, the pain quickly draining from her awareness. Those glowing eyes that now glared at her had always been there in her most painful memories, she realized, and she screamed, the sound strangled in the back of her throat. The man only gripped her throat more tightly, squeezing until she coughed. Her fingers worked helplessly at his and it wasn't long before her vision started to fog around the edges.
“Some griffin,” he cackled. “Tell me, little bird, where are your claws?”
A crack of lightning lit the room, a roar of thunder following close behind. Everything hurt. Her head throbbed, throat long worked raw and breaths ragged. The figure, she hesitated to call this person human, only smirked to show mouthful of crooked teeth as he suddenly pulled her from the wall and instead threw her heavily onto the ground. She felt several cracks and pops, thudding heavily on the wooden floor and lay in a crumpled heap gasping like a land locked fish for air.
“Now I finish what we started those years ago,” the figure cackled.
Sorry, old man, seems I'll be back sooner than you think. She had little left in her to fight back, finding it a tremendous effort to crawl backwards a pace or two so that she could see the blue flames in the hearth behind the figure that stood over her. Her hand trembled as she raised it, fingers fumbling to form the correct shapes but she managed a dry swallow and forced each shape with purpose as though she was reviewing with Kuba.
Please, she begged when the logs only sizzled, the man turning to look at what she was focusing on so intently and was about to laugh when the fireplace roared to life with orange flames that licked at the man's clothes, suppressing his own blue flames until they were overtaken in a blaze of vibrant red. He suppressed a shout of surprise when a nearby pile of books caught from the renewed fire, the flames quickly spreading through the room and catching his clothes on fire.
“Ashes to ashes,” she muttered, coughing as the room filled with smoke and the man's skin began to melt away where the flames had eaten away at his clothes. Cerissa scowled at the splatter of blood on the ground she had brought up with her cough, trying to force herself up against the bookshelf and only managing to collapse again into a crumpled heap.
Couple of things:
1. I'm sorry this update took so long. But this chapter is long so hopefully it makes up for it. c:
2. Kuba and Mirek's relationship is heavily inspired by one of my favorite fics, Young Wolves by dreadelion. It's EskelxGeralt and follows the two through their training as witchers. Go read it, it's top notch, really.
2. b. No, Cerissa is not going to take Mirek in as well. (....that I plan. The woman has a mind of her own sometimes)
3. We're getting close to the end of part 2, folks. <3
4. Luned, what Fareal calls Cerissa, is Elder Speech for "daughter" or young girl.
Kuba stayed silent, grip tightening on the other boy and glaring at the figure that stood in the doorway of the warehouse. A woman, she was dressed in a gown that looked more like she belonged at one Cerissa's soirees instead of the working district of a port-side town. She smirked at Kuba when he met her eye, setting his jaw. Brushing hair over her shoulder with a sigh, pointed ears showed from behind a few loose strands.
“Mirek, when I let go, get down as fast you can. And stay back.”
“And I'm sorry you have to see this part of me.”
“Come now, little boy, no need to get violent.” The woman purred, stepping forward. Kuba glared at her, once letting go or Mirek and creeping in front of him. The woman laughed, eyes shining, “And what is a pup like you going to do to me?”
“Last time I checked, you're not a mage like Amriel. And you can't fight,” Kuba snorted. She gritted her teeth when Kuba slowly rose to his feet, casually brushing the dust from his trousers. “I'm not like the others, but I can tell you're alone.”
“A kid like you?” She laughed, but the sound was harsh, “What are you-”
He stepped forward, she stepped back. He smirked. “I'm unarmed. And I'm a kid. But you're scared.” She blinked, shoulders bunching up practically to her ears, and he suddenly stood a few feet away. A chill ran up her spine, making her stomach feel as though it was full of rocks and acid come to the back of her throat. The boy was no witcher and yet his eyes had a glow to them that made her bite at the inside of her cheek.
“What do you plan to do, boy? You said it yourself, you're unarmed.”
“I don't need a weapon to kill,” he flashed a crooked, toothy grin and she involuntarily shivered.
No child should smile like that.
“Leave,” he whispered, though his voice was firm enough to sound as though he had shouted it. “You know you can't win.”
She barely held back a roar of anger at this child's insolence, raising one hand to smack him. While the other boy flinched away though he was across the room, Kuba only shrugged. Red hazed the edges of her vision, blood roared in her ears. This child had no idea she was a feared trader in this region or what power he was challenging by threatening her death! Who is he, she thought, to think he has the right to kill me! Her hand connected with his cheek and before the sound of skin meeting skin could fill the room, he gripped her wrist and wrenched her arm so hard she let out a scream of pain from the burning sensation that spread all the way to her shoulder.
He hooked one leg around her own and tugged her forward without letting go, making her shout and fall to her knees. It was barely a second before he twisted her arm and was behind her, arm pulled back and one grimey boot pushing at the space between her bare shoulders. Though he was grinning, Kuba listened carefully to each sound that echoed in the cavernous room. She hadn't been followed as far as he could tell and it only made his grin widen.
“Not so tough now, huh?” She spat and cursed him under her breath, suppressing a whimper when he tugged at her arm. “Swear you'll leave, swear you'll stop trying to catch me, and I'll let go.”
“And if I refuse, you little freak?” She hissed.
She could almost hear the glee in his voice. “Amriel did say I needed to practice my signs more.”
Heavy bootsteps. Voices shouting. She felt someone touch her, the sensation was torture. She screamed, tried pulling away. Fumbling. Coughing, gagging. Her throat burned, chest ached. Head pounded. More hands on her. Again she screamed.
“Cerissa!” The duke called as he hurried down the smoke filled hallway, heart feeling as though it stopped in his chest at the sight of his oldest guardsman pulling her seemingly lifeless body from the smoke and fire filled room.
The leather on her right side torn, the chainmail looked as though it had been torn apart with great force. Fishing his handkerchief from his pocket and holding it over his nose and mouth, the duke crept forward cautiously and cast a questioning look at the guardsman. One of the witcheress' temples was bleeding profusely, the wound in her side deep and seeping blood. Her breathing was ragged, pale face drained of any remaining color. He was amazed he was still alive.
“Orders, Your Grace?”
“Get a medic for the witcher,” the duke nodded, “Take her to the guest wing and get her wounds tended to. And put out these damned flames!” He sighed, shaking his head. “It will be a miracle if you cheat death this time, my old friend.”
“I control your mother's fate.”
“Cerissa can handle herself,” Kuba snorted with something of a growl when Ewelina tried reaching back. He quickly grabbed her wrist and squeezed tightly, feeling several pops under his fingers. She sucked in a hiss of an inhale and he squeezed tighter, hand aching with the effort. “Last chance.”
“Until what, you little-”
He let go suddenly, pushing her forward and turning into a kick. Heel of his booted foot connecting with her temple, Kuba grimaced at the loud crack, sending small vibrations through his foot. He swallowed though his mouth went dry the instant she dropped to the ground limply, the small rush his victory brought him replaced by a sickening wrench of his stomach that brought acid up his throat.
“Is...is she dead?” Mirek looked from Ewelina to Kuba.
Kuba knelt next to her, feeling at her neck and relieved to feel a gentle pulsing under his fingers. “No, she's alive. Mirek, do me a favor?”
“Of course,” he nodded, gnawing nervously at his lip and slowly creeping forward.
“Go to the manor, the gates are easy to slip through if you can't push them open, and ask for Amriel.” Kuba sighed, sinking back on his knees and rubbing at his temples. “Marian, Cerissa's head maid, will probably answer the door and ask a million questions about who you are. Just say you're a friend of mine.”
“What if she doesn't answer? And what if-” Mirek looked down at his hands, picking at his fingers. “What if-”
“Olwen or Eskel answer?” Kuba sighed, of course the other boy would be nervous about having to meet one of the full-fledged witchers. “The stories about snatching kids aren't true and both of them are genuinely warm people. Do the same: Say you're my friend and I sent you to get Amriel. In all honesty,” Kuba laughed despite himself, “Olwen might give you more trouble than Marian. Now please go.”
Mirek scowled, but nodded a little too quickly, “Why would he want-”
“This is Amriel's little sister. Please, Mirek, do this for me. Just trust me.”
His throat burned long before he managed to squeeze between two of the bars of the front gate to the manor. Swallowing in an attempt tp quench his throat though his mouth was dry, Mirek bit at his lip and part of him debated instead turning to leave. The gardens looked normal enough even though there were herbs that shouldn't have been able to grow in Kovir under normal circumstances dotting the flowerbeds, hidden under wide leaved flowers and more common plants. Strange plants he had never seen took up a bed all their own, sheltered by a small building that resembled a greenhouse with darker glass. Some of what grew inside seemed to glow.
He shook his head, nervously eyeing the dark stallion that snorted at him as he crept past the stables. The stable-hand, a young man older than him, looked up from brushing the stallion long enough to squint at the younger boy before shaking his head and returning to his task. Mirek gritted his teeth, not sure why everything in him screamed to turn and run.
Kuba had never harmed him, never put him in the way of danger. Kuba wouldn't have asked him to come here if something was going to happen. But maybe the stories were true. He only knew what his friend had told him, maybe only what he was willing to trust Mirek with. But Kuba's eyes lacked the unnatural glow of his mother's, and while he moved much faster than a boy his age should be able to, it wasn't enough to show what he was going to be. He was normal enough, lacking the multitude of scars and their accompanying stories.
But not lacking the same ability to kill.
The hands that smoothed ointment into Mirek's hands were the same ones that could have easily killed that woman, that made her bones crack and creak under those calloused fingers. And he had smiled while he did it, Mirek had seen the proud gleam in his eyes and how his face had flushed. Kuba wouldn't say it out loud, but he enjoyed feeling powerful.
He raised one hand to knock at the heavy wooden door, pausing before shaking his head and tightly balling his hand into a fist. “Kuba needs me,” he muttered, knocking three times as hard as he could.
For several moments that felt far too long, he bounced from foot to foot and was almost relieved when he heard the click of the lock being undone. The man who pulled the door open was dressed in ratty clothes that more looked like they belonged to a street beggar, the earthen tones contrasting starkly with the rich colors of the manor's foyer. The tips of his ears pointed and nose dotted with light freckles, he lifted a thin eyebrow and his eyes went wide at the sight of the boy now shifting from foot to foot.
“Can...can I help you?''
“You're Amriel, right?” The elf frowned, brow furrowing, but nodded. “Kuba sent me to get you.” Mirek gushed all at once, “We were in one of the abandoned warehouses and this woman showed up. So he kinda fought her and kicked her! We thought she died but she didn't and-”
Amriel sighed, shaking his head, and stepping outside before pulling the door shut behind him with a soft thud. “You must be Mirek then,” he spoke in a gentle voice that helped to soothe the boy's nerves. He lifted the large hood that hung in loose folds around his shoulders to hide his ears with a knowing smile. “Lead the way, my little friend.”
“And everyone else?”
Amriel smiled, eyes sparkling when he winked, “They won't miss me for a few minutes.”
Cerissa groaned, scowling when she tried to push herself into an upright position and only toppled back over into sheets that smelled of clove instead of lavender and rosemary. They were damask and not silk, the mattress too soft. The blankets too cold. The bed feeling at once too small and too big.
“So you're awake,” came a gentle laugh, “Didn't expect you to still be among the living this time, my friend.”
Cerissa scowled, forcing one eye open and nearly wincing at the sharp throbbing in her head even in the dim candle light brought. “Sorry for lighting the downstairs on fire, Your Grace,” she rasped, wincing at how frail her voice sounded.
The duke paused for a moment, staring at her with wide eyes before letting loose a deep laugh that filled the room. “Of all the things...” he sighed, calming himself with a soft cough. “That fire didn't burn anything, Miss Lamonia. If you notice, you do not have a single burn either.”
Cerissa forced both eyes open, “Beg your pardon? That was- I cast-” she stopped herself. “It should have burned. It burned that...creature like real flame.”
“You and the room are unharmed, save for a few streaks of ash along the ceiling and that seemed to be more from the smoke.” The duke shook his head. “I will admit, for all the heat and smoke it produced, it certainly caused no collateral damage. I have to ask, Miss Lamonia...”
“The flames were red. Forgive me if I am mistaken, but the flames you cast are no different than normal fire.”
“That's correct,” she nodded. “Igni would not have made those flames. And yet-” she winced at a sharp pang in her side, wishing she had the forethought to have brought a dose or two of Swallow with her. Cerissa grimaced, trying once again to push herself upright and nearly cried out when a burning spread up her side. Breathing ragged as she leaned against the wall for support, she wrapped one arm around her waist and cradled her side.
Linen bandages were wrapped around the majority of her torso, and from the insistent tug at her skin, she was willing to bet the medic tasked with fixing her latest adventure had to stitch the skin back together. Her chest armor lay draped over the nearby dressing table, the leather near her wound ripped into and stained a deep red. The dimeritium scale across the shoulders was missing scales, the remaining ones tinged with ash and scratched. The scale that was deposited over the back of the chair was badly mangled at the same site the leather was torn, several of the links twisted or missing altogether.
She grimaced, knowing that it would take more than a handful of coppers to get that repaired.
Cerissa's medallion only pulsed once against her chest, pulling her attention from the sorry state of her armor, and she smiled despite herself. One hand reaching up to absently trace the runic designs, she shook her head at the curious eyebrow raise of the duke. “May I ask one more favor of you?”
“Tell your partner you're not dead?” He guessed with a gentle smile, and nodded. “Dispatched one of my men out soon after we found you.”
“Thank you,” she offered, closing her eyes and resting her head against the wall with something of sigh.
“But of course,” the duke's smile softened. “It'll be some time before then. Get some rest, miss. I shall make sure someone frequently checks on you, should you have any needs.”
The second set of knocks at the manor's door went mostly unheard that day, Olwen grumbling from her crumpled heap in one of the parlor's armchairs. She snorted with distaste, repositioning herself to better balance the book she was reading on her knees, and scowled when the knocks came louder. Marian called out a reply, hurrying into the foyer from the dining room. Drying her hands on her apron, her normally spotless apron was dusted with flour from where she had been helping to prepare dinner that evening. She tugged open the door after undoing the complicated lock Amriel had put into place in light of recent events, and there was a muttered shout of surprise as the older woman took several hurried steps back.
Olwen almost instantly snapped the book shut with something of a glare, hurrying to the front door and putting a firm hand on the woman's shoulder. One hand to her chest, Marian stared wide eyed at the armored older man who stood on the front steps with something of a saddened look. Marian looked over her shoulder at Olwen, tears already coming to her eyes, before looking back at the man.
“Is the master of the manor home?”
“Nay, the lass ain't 'ere right now. Out on witcher business. And the pup ain't here either, bein' her son and all, he'd be-”
“No, ma'am,” the man shook her head, “I'm looking for her lover.”
Olwen's scowled deepened, squeezing Marian's shoulder gently. “Eskel should be in the back gardens, saw 'im practin' his swords last.”
Marian nodded too quickly, gathering up her skirts with a flush across her cheeks and hurrying to the back doors. Olwen snorted, crossing her arms against her chest, “Care t' tell me what's got the maid all bothered?”
“The miss might not be with us much longer.”
Amriel had to admit, he had forgotten how much the brews and teas Cerissa gave Kuba affected the boy, and when compared to another child his age, the difference was striking. Mirek was much slower, taking the same length stride but not able to hasten his steps with the same ease. Perhaps it was the relentless conditioning his elders put him through, but Kuba wouldn't have even started to get flushed in the face by the time Mirek was forcing himself to slow his breathing, now leading Amriel back into the shipping district.
There was the sound of shouting and Amriel grabbed the boy's arm, pulling him back into the darker street and holding a finger to his lips when several armed men hurried past. Mirek's eyes went wide in fear, face flushing anew and looking up at Amriel as if to ask what they should do.
“How far is the warehouse from here?”
“It's the big one on the hill,” Mirek pointed, and Amriel nodded.
“I'm afraid this is where our paths separate for the time being, then.”
“I know you care deeply about our little witcher, but me getting there to help is what is most important right now. Continue there on your own if you must, but I'm going ahead.” Mirek swallowed, fighting the lump in his throat, but nodded. “There's a good lad. I'll send Kuba along shortly.”
No matter how times he tried to tell himself that would be able to handle the men, Kuba did not believe even his own words. One of them disarmed, he winced at how heavy the man's sword was in his own hands. Laying face down on the pavement with a dark puddle quickly spreading around him, Kuba had little time to ponder what had been his first kill with a weapon before feeling hands grab his shoulders from behind.
Ducking into a roll, it was easy enough to break the contact. Now facing three more men, Kuba cursed the tremble in his hands and hated every failed attempt at calming himself. Sword raised in a defensive position, he parried one swing from one of the men and had almost managed a strike of his own before he felt a ripping at one shoulder and he screamed.
There was a pop in the air, a sudden snap, and it stole at least two of the men's attention long enough for him to follow through with his strike. Gritting his teeth against the pain and rounding in a tight pirouette in an emulation of his teachers, he severed the sword arm of one man and grimaced at the blood spray that splattered on his face before jumping back one pace's length and turning his attention to the other man who no longer was looking at him. Craving a deep arc through the air at height of the man's waist, the sword cut deep and blood gushed to the surface as he let out a scream. The first toppled to the ground, screaming and trying to staunch the bleeding with trembling fingers.
The familiar voice pulled a smile to his face and he did so without questioning it, dropping the borrowed weapon and putting as much distance between him and the group as possible before the ground erupted with a column of flames. He watched with wide eyes as the three remaining men crumbled into little more than ash, clutching his shoulder. Amriel cast one sideways glance at his still unconscious sister before settling his gaze instead on Kuba. His eyes narrowed at the sight of the red oozing from between the witcher in training's fingers, he shook his head and crossed the room.
“Let me see,” he urged when Kuba tried to resist, holding on tight and gritting his teeth from the renewed pain the added pressure brought.
“Kuba, let me look at it before infection sets in. And I can't give you any of Cerissa's potions yet if that gets bad, they're still toxic to you- you know that.” Amriel sighed, “Your mind hasn't probably realized how bad it is yet because it's still racing from the fight. Please. I'm not going to hurt you.”
Kuba scowled, but nodded. Looking down at his blood coated fingers, he closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath when the world spun around him. His body gradually relaxed, the slight stinging in his shoulder now a powerful burn that spread down a good portion of his back as well. He forced himself to take deep breaths, leaning his head against Amriel when the elf crouched to his level. Gentle fingers probed at the worst of his wound where the blade connected with his shoulder before tracing the line down his back. The slash down his back had been from Kuba trying to free himself, the tip of the blade dragging along before he managed to get far enough away that it lost contact.
“Breathe for me, Kuba. And if you feel like you're going to faint, tell me.” There was a sensation that almost felt like sand being rubbed into his shoulder, Amriel's fingers pressing hard against the wound.
“I'm sorry,” Kuba muttered.
“What do you have to be sorry for? You defended yourself not once but twice, and as confused about it as you are now, I'm willing to bet our trio would be proud of you. Though your footwork is messy, I do have to admit. Olwen and Cerissa are right on that front. But you did a marvelous job copying Eskel,” Amriel spoke in a low voice, trying to soothe the boy.
Kuba laughed softly against his shoulder, nodding. “Hasn't taught me how to pirouette yet, but I think I got it. Sort of.”
“Can't say I know much about sword fighting, so I can't judge your performance faithfully, but it was a good attempt for your first time with a real blade.” Amriel smiled despite himself. “Alright, shouldn't bleed too much now. It will be painful for awhile, but that will pass. I left your friend a few streets back. I'll tend to my sister, you go find Mirek. I'm sure the poor boy is worrying himself sick by now.”
“Thanks, Amriel,” Kuba let the corner of his mouth quirk up into a mockery of a smile, the expression lasting for less than a second before he shook his head and forced himself to open his eyes.
“You did well, Kuba,” Amriel offered, leaning back enough to meet the boy's eyes. “Cerissa would have been so proud.”
Too hot, too cold. Everything hurt, the sheets too rough. Her skin was too tight, heartbeat too loud. She was screaming, calling after someone, feeling like she was chasing them. A coughing fit, the phlegm she brought up gray with dust from the smoke.
Sleep came in fits that left her more tired than before, and every time the door opened she tensed as though that creature would be the one coming through it. She could hear the maids whisper in the hallway, but couldn't make out the words. There was a fog blurring her senses, fatigue making her eyelids heavy.
No. Not again. Don't send me there again.
She coughed again, doubling over and clutching her aching chest and sides. The bandages under her fingers felt wet but she didn't call out for help, instead trying to hold back the miserable sob that formed a lump at the back of her already raw throat when the whispering of the maids went quiet and the door clicked open yet again.
The sound too loud, her head pulsed. Cerissa groaned, wishing she could simply vanish, when there was a calloused hand gently coaxing her own from her bandages.
“Cerissa, it's alright. Let me look,” whispered a voice that sounded like grinding metal and she couldn't help the pathetic sob she let out.
None of the mansion's staff looked at him as he and the chamberlain passed, the older man's face grave. Most he had seen during the few times he had been to the estate with Cerissa, so many at least knew him as her partner. One maid shook her head sadly as he passed, sighing and turning to one of the younger ones who barely managed to hold back a line of tears in her eyes.
“She woke once and spoke with the duke, and after that,” the chamberlain shook his head.
“Fits, master. Screams as though someone is torturing her. Begs for mercy. Cries out at all hours and doesn't fall silent for more than a two hours before the screams start again. Maids say she's feverish, soaking the sheets. Medic says her wounds are clean, shouldn't be infection, but what else would be making her cry out like that?” He sighed, fixing the thin monocle he wore on his right eye, “It might be best to say your farewells.”
“You don't know Cerissa like I do.”
The chamberlain glanced back at Eskel over his shoulder, raising an eyebrow. “It was my understanding your caste is immune to most illnesses.”
“Not every infection is physical.”
“I fear I do not understand. Then is it a witcher matter?”
“Most likely not, but will certainly take a familiar hand,” a knowing smile crept to his lips for only a few seconds before fading, a cluster of maids outside a doorway falling deathly silent when the two men approached.
The chamberlain grimaced, lips pulled thin and offered a small nod indicating the room the maids stood at. “Then I wish you the best of luck if you think you can save her.”
The air in the room was thick, smelling heavily of blood. The chest pieces of her armor laid over the dressing table and chair, he grimaced at the now mangled chain and the ragged hole in the leather overcoat. He knew she would fuss over the missing dimeritium scales and how expensive the ore was even when her family owned a mine of the material in hopes to cover she was more upset about she had managed to so heavily damage a set that was essentially a gift- and easily among her favorites.
He knew as well as Cerissa that armor was the reason she was still breathing.
With a soundless sigh, he turned to Cerissa who had managed to curl in on her side. Trembling hand clutching at bandages that were now stained with blood, her face was tight with unshed tears clinging to her eyelashes. Eskel knelt next to the bed and gently placed one hand over hers, gently coaxing her flexed fingers away from the bandages. She started at the contact, trying to pull away with a soft whimper.
“Cerissa, it's alright. Let me look.”
“Eskel...” she managed, voice a thin rasp. “It hurts so much.”
“Digging at it won't help,” he chided her, a faint smile tugging at her lips despite himself. “Think you already may have popped a few stitches...”
The maids marveled at how Eskel had managed to calm Cerissa, even keeping her from screaming while the medic revised his stitches he had placed earlier that day. The coughing fits had managed to dislodge several of them, causing her wound to pucker and bleed anew. As soon as the man left, making sure to stress that she needed to stay calm for the wound to heal properly, Eskel managed to get her to sit up long enough to give her the dose of Swallow he knew she was wanting.
She shuddered at the sour taste, resting against him heavily. “Get some rest, I promise I'm not going anywhere.”
She shook her head, eyes closed. “Nightmares come when I sleep,” she whispered, voice slurred with fatigue. “I see that creature again. Except he wins.”
“But you did,” he repositioned her in his lap, leaning against the wall so he could better support her weight.
“Think it was the same one you fought when you broke your wrist. He was there...for everything. Willing to bet he was the cause-” she stopped suddenly and he sighed.
“Kuba's back home if that's what you're worried about.”
“Not him, trained him. Know what's he capable of. Damned good novice,” she shook her head, trying to sit up and scowling when Eskel held her against him. “Everything comes back to this...demon I think is the right word. Didn't know I could kill them like that...” her words trailed off, her body starting to go limp against him again.
“Cerissa, we can talk when you wake up. Get some sleep. It will be okay for a few hours.”
“Told you, the nightmares come...”
“And just like before, I'll be here when they do.”
Alright, guys, we've hit the end of what I've written so far so if updates become few and far between, I apologize. <3 Please bear with me.
Chapter 17: Something Ends
Searing pain nearly blinded her when she opened her eyes, panting with the effort sitting up took. Spitting out a mouthful of blood, she yelled out when another white hot shock shot through her. She glared at the man she once called her bother, glared at the blood -her blood- on his fingers and splattering the floor around her. His jaw set so tightly she could see the tightness in his cheeks, he had barely said a word to her when she first opened her eyes- only continuing to demand why she chose to hunt those he called his friends.
They had replaced her, those freaks! Those mutants over his own flesh and blood! He slept with one of them and willingly helped to train a new one! So she had laughed when he asked not unkindly if they could start over, her laugh had filled the warehouse when Amriel suggested maybe trying to put everything behind them. She had lunged at him, screamed at him, accused him of his hands being just as bloody as his friends'. Accused him of ruining everything by choosing to go home with “that damned marchioness” when she offered him a safe home and warm bed.
Punched him and screamed how he had forgotten what humans had done to elves like them. Cried at his lack of response, cursed how impassive his face was.
“I'm sorry, Ewelina,” was all he offered her, even as one eye was almost swollen shut.
Amriel hadn't resisted even as she fisted her hand in his hair and slammed his head on the concrete, a sickening crack spreading up her arm. And when she fell back on her knees and buried her face in her hands, he simply pushed himself upright and asked if she was finished. Her frustration only flared back to life and she raised her hand to slap his stupid, flat expression off his face but glared when he instead grabbed her wrist.
“Fair is fair,” he only growled and squeezed her wrist.
“So it'll be soon?”
Kuba at first hesitated to say anything, feeling as though his voice caught in his throat. There was no way of telling his closest friend anything for certain, only knowing the morning of when he woke up could be his last. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to make more memories in the coming days or just quietly slip away in case of the worst, and even less sure that he would go through with it like he planned. Cerissa always left him an out, always gave him a way to back out.
Except for this.
She was going to hold his feet to the fire, going to follow through on the entire point of the past year. And now that he wanted to tear away from a grip that once felt like safety, tears hazed his vision. Kuba snorted, angrily rubbing his eyes and wiping the moisture off on his pants.
“You're scared,” Mirek noted when Kuba didn't say anything.
“How can she say she loves me and then not leave me a way out like she always has?” He scowled, trying to swallow back the tightness in his throat.
“She believes in you."
“Mirek, I don't think you understand. The mutations, I could-”
“She believes in you,” Mirek repeated with a firmer voice, shaking his head.
“How can you be so calm knowing I could die?!”
Mirek for once didn't flinch away, didn't withdraw. He instead sighed softly and gently coaxed one of Kuba's tight fists open, humming a familiar melody. Kuba blinked, knowing the ballad fairly well. Telling the story of a young woman who faced a terrifying creature armed with only what the narrator called spells, the story told she was bloodied and yet stood in front of a man who was nothing but a traveling merchant. Sparks had danced on her fingers, green eyes sparkling in the darkness.
“Cerissa protected Rita's father,” Kuba muttered, “Was attacked just outside of town by a draconid and she happened to be out riding Moose. No silver sword, and yet...”
“And that witcher picked you. Of all the kids in the world, she saw something in you.” Mirek offered a thin smile, “I know you could die, but-” he stopped himself, voice getting thick, “the world needs more people like you.”
He shook his head, leaning a little closer with a deep blush on his cheeks. “More willing to make a stand against the darkness," he muttered, making Kuba's breath catch in his throat with a soft whisper of a kiss.
He didn't speak, slumping into chair in the foyer and dropping his head into his hands. The elf groaned, rubbing at his temples and sighing so heavily his shoulders sagged. Cuffs of his sleeves dotted with blood, Olwen's eyes narrowed when she followed the splotches down his arms. Crouching in front of him to look at his face, her lips pressed into a thin line even as she gently brushed her fingers over his swollen eye. Ringed with a red so dark it was almost purple, his lashes were wet and a thin line of tears trickled down his cheek. Blood clung to the back of his head, so thick a portion of his messy hair clumped together.
He shook his head, instead turning in her touch to kiss her palm. “I'm sorry,” he sobbed, burying his face in her hand, “I'm so sorry.”
“Sorry for what? You've done nothing t'me,” she scowled, “Amriel, hon, talk to me.”
Again he shook his head. “One day, Olwen, but please.” He forced himself to take a shuddering breath, “Please not today.”
Sighing, the witcheress instead stood and gathered her lover in her arms the best she could, rubbing gentle circles in his back. Amriel clutched at her shirt, hating the miserable sobs that shook him. Hating that she saw him like this.
And hating the blood that now stained him.
By the time you receive this letter, I'll know if there's a new witcher among us. Thank you, for everything, and just like you once sent a letter along to invite me south, I extend the same invitation for you to come north. Kovir isn't too terrible, if you don't mind humidity so thick you feel as though you could swim in the air. I don't have much to offer save for a few rounds of gwent, drinks, and silky sheets, but our pup has taken the same shining to the ballads of you that I once did.
I'm constantly teased that sometimes he's too much like me for comfort. I hope he gets Olwen's patience and not mine.
I'd also like to thank you again for giving me copies of the diagrams, I'd like to say that chainmail is the only reason I'm still among the living after one of my recent adventures. Naturally, I can hear the correction now, Eskel would say it had more to with the ability of the witcher wearing the armor, but skill only goes so far. Sometimes good gear carries the weight of my faults and keeps them from being fatal.
But, forgive me, my thoughts have wandered. Perhaps we can hope to see you soon?
All My Best,
Cerissa would have laughed at how fitting the rain was, were she able to fight the looking sense of dread twisting her stomach. Carefully brewing substances she never thought she would again, she winced at the smell and shivered at the faint memories of her own turn with them. Walking down the stairs to the cellar was the part she dreaded most, her body still aching from her injuries and her mind racing. The twelve steps already felt they were taller than she remembered when she checked her set up that morning, double and triple checked everything.
Focus, she coached herself, swallowing back the acid in her throat and adding a few fresh leaves of something to one of the smaller pots the bubbled away on top of her desk.
Kuba's usual bravado gone, she could hear the fear in his voice while Olwen bound him to the table Cerissa had prepared earlier in the week. Olwen reassured him the best she could, but even from the top of the stairs the falter in her voice was unconvincing. He snorted, trying to play tough, and the words he said in response trailed off
“Last chance to back out.”
“Last chance was a long time ago,” Cerissa shook her head, glancing over her shoulder at Eskel. “He knows too much now. One way or another, it's now join us or die.”
It started with screaming, for three days he thrashed and yelled out. Clutching at the air, at the rails on the table. Once he fell still, he was given another dose of the brews and the seizing started again. Screaming, high pitched. Broke out in a thick, foul smelling sweat that clung to his skin. His breathing grew frantic, eyes wide but unseeing. Glassy, pupils wide. Fits of coughing. Coughing turned to dry heaves. A thin trail of blood from his nose.
Then, on the fourth day, he fell still again. Drenched in sweat, breathing calmed. No screaming. No thrashing. Pulse slowed.
Cerissa rarely left his side, often foregoing her bed upstairs for a pile of rough blankets down in her study just at the top of the stairs so she could listen. What little sleep she got was fitful, cold sweats of her own breaking out on her skin. More than once she woke screaming, shoving aside anyone's attempts to calm her. It was only when Olwen insisted there was nothing she could do, practically forcing her friend upstairs out of her study to bathe and eat something.
“Yer of no use to the pup if ye don't take care of yerself. Take a few hours off. Nothing to give 'im, right? Then ye don't need to be here.”
Grudgingly sinking up to her chin in a bath, Cerissa tried her best to ignore the concerned watch of her lover. The fleeting thought of appreciating the dark tunic he was wearing passed through her mind, the smallest of smiles coming to her lips before the tension came creeping back. The water smelling heavily of her preferred rosemary oil, she closed her eyes and tried to focus on the tepid water. About her body temperature, with her eyes closed it was difficult after several moments to tell where she ended and the water started if she held still.
“Cerissa,” Eskel gently cut her off, voice firm. “He'll make it.”
“Yeah but day four is usually-”
“He's still breathing. That's a good sign.”
“I was told that's when most in my cohort passed. Slipped away in their sleep. Seemed fine one moment then-”
“Stop dwelling on it. It's out of our hands now. You did your part, let him do his.” He sighed, “You trust him, right?”
Cerissa sighed, laying her head back on the edge of the porcelain tub and opening her eyes to look up at the ceiling. The rain that lingered on the first few days had long cleared up, giving way to skies scattered with dark gray clouds that had little interest in staying long. Olwen said something about it being a good sign, and some small part of Cerissa had clung to that sliver of hope.
“Then give Kuba some faith."
The world was blurry when he first opened his eyes, squinting at the dim candlelight that now seemed all too bright. He could barely remember someone picking him up what felt like ages ago, cradling him against their chest before settling him among a nest of warm blankets that still felt like torture. Now, they returned to the same softness he remembered and he thankfully buried his face in them for a moment and took a deep breath, savoring the tug of his muscles with the breath.
He made it.
The soft breathing of his teacher was much louder than he remembered it being, easily hearing her soft heartbeat in the relative quiet of the room. The thought of how he had changed since he last opened his eyes was dizzying, groaning when he tried to roll to look at Cerissa who snoozed in a chair next to his bed, arms resting on his bed.
“Cerissa,” he muttered, wincing at how frail his voice sounded. His throat ached, voice hoarse and barely a whisper. Kuba sighed, reaching for one of Cerissa's hands and scowling at how much effort the motion took to nudge her hand with his own. “Mom,” he called again and this time she stirred slightly.
Her eyes circled by dark shadows, he could vaguely remember that she had been there through almost everything. He could remember her voice through his screaming, remember cool rags on his forehead to ease the discomfort of fever long after that blinding, sickening pain had stopped. He smiled softly, thankful for the small amounts of light buried in the past few...however long it had been.
Cerissa had kept her promise from the very beginning back at camp on the way home that she wouldn't let him do this all alone.
Cerissa always had kept her promises to him, no matter how small they seemed to be or even when he forgotten them himself. A word once given can never be broken, she always smiled when she reminded him. She had always been there, always watched his lessons or listened in even when she wasn't the one teaching. Always had been the one when he asked what he should do to turn the question around and ask what his thoughts were. Always acknowledged his small triumphs and helped him correct his missteps, ever pushing him forward and not letting him rest on his laurels.
As tired and sore as he was during the past year, he was starting to see what she did.
“Cerissa, please wake up,” he tried again, this time rewarded with something of a small grunt when she blearily blinked at him. “Hi?”
She smiled faintly, yawning as she sat upright and stretched. He noted to himself it was the first time he saw her actually look tired, her hair disheveled and eyes darkened by the heavy shadows clinging to them. It didn't escape his notice her heartbeat quickened by a few beats as she brushed a hand over his forehead to push the sweaty hair out of his face. Amusing to him enough that a smile tugged at his lips was the small widening of her pupils, a smile of her own echoing his.
“You didn't think I would make it,” he accused when she didn't say anything for several minutes, instead wetting a washcloth in a basin of cool water before turning to help him sit up.
She shook her head, “In all honesty, dearest, no.”
Kuba let her support him with an arm across his back, his head spinning for a few minutes before she released her gentle hold. He was grateful for the chance to wipe his face clean with the offered cloth, leaning against Cerissa like when he was younger once she set it aside.
“Tell me it gets better quickly,” he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to fight the wave of lightheadedness his movement brought.
“It does,” she sighed, shaking her head and putting an arm around him. “Some rest, something to eat, and once we get you moving you’ll feel much better. It was three days of you screaming while the mutations took effect, then another two before your fever broke so it’s been awhile. It’ll take some time to adjust.” He nodded from where he tucked in against her shoulder, surprised to feel her once again brush the hair out of his face. “We need to get this mop of yours cut. “
“And you’re back to being Mom again.” He laughed, the sound strangled. “Stay with me until I fall asleep?”
“If that’s what you want.”
“You sound like Eskel,” Kuba smiled, letting his eyes close.
Her chest tightened in a soundless snort of a laugh, “As if that's a bad thing. Get some rest for a little while, I'm not going anywhere.”
She waited until Kuba was fast asleep, limp against her, and long enough to see if the nightmares that plagued her for almost a year after her trials had found him yet. Content when he simply curled on his side amidst a nest of blankets, she left him only when she was sure his sleep would be restful. Lingering for a few moments, her smile grew soft when she bent to press a gentle kiss to his forehead.
“I'm so proud of you, Kuba,” she whispered, watching him nestle himself into his bed covers more comfortably, “You will never understand how much.”
Her face must have been fallen, the obvious fatigue mistake for sadness, when she closed the door. She leaned heavily against it, letting her pretenses for the sake of easing Kuba's nerves slip away. Eskel's smile was gentle, recognition lightening his eyes, when he came to brush a few strands of hair out of her face. She could relax now, she reasoned with herself, the tension from the past few days that made what little sleep she got feverish and broken draining when it finally settled in her mind that her charge still drew breath. She was thankful for Eskel's customary relative silence, letting her eyelids that were steadily growing heavier finally fall when he slipped an arm around her shoulders.
“I'm proud of you,” he murmured. “You both did so well.”
The small whimper she let out in response earned herself a tighter hold from her partner. Cerissa knew she should get rest of her own, but found herself unwilling to move when everything in her was yearning for rest. Relief flooded her, leaving her numb and trembling in the wake of the near constant adrenaline rush she had ridden for the past few days.
Eskel sighed, smirking when she didn't move. “Need me to carry you, fair maiden?”
“I wouldn't mind, oh brave master witcher. Don't trust my legs right now.”
“Come on then, little griffin,” he sighed, scooping her up with a small grunt of effort. “Need to get you back on the Path, you're getting plump,” he teased.
“It's all the blueberry scones for breakfast,” she snorted out a soundless laugh, resting her head against his chest and letting her eyes close. “Got all the time in the world now. Have a new novice that needs to see the world.”
Chapter 18: Something Begins
“Still hear you, Kuba.”
Eyes closed, Cerissa had mostly hidden herself in amid the flower beds. Legs tucked up under her and breathing controlled, she was enjoying the warmth of the afternoon light in one of the rare breaks in the clouds that seemed to constantly hang over Enna. The quieted click of the back door opening and closing had been painfully obvious, her apprentice's breathing still too heavy.
Kuba had made it his personal task to somehow surprise her in the time that followed his Trial, trying to test out the new lightening of his steps with mixed results. He had almost managed one afternoon while she bottled a new batch of potion, humming gently to herself and only realizing he was peering into the study from the cracked door by the excited quickening of his heartbeat.
After that, she swore she was going to treat him like a house cat and put a bell on him.
Now it was the door that betrayed Kuba, or how a paving stone caught his foot when he stepped off of the bottom step of the porch. Breath hitching in his throat, he cursed under his breath and managed to straighten himself before stilling himself and waiting for her to properly address him. Cerissa sighed softly, letting her eyes open and turned to look over her shoulder at him.
Plucking at the hem of his shirt, he dropped his gaze and looked away. “You can always talk to me, dearest one,” she tossed her head to get her hair out of her face, letting her head drop again and her eyes close.
“I...was wondering about something,” he started slowly.
“...Do I get a medallion too?”
The innocence in the question gave her pause, eyes nearly flying open and making her finally rise to one knee in order to better turn to look at Kuba. “We...Olwen, Eskel, and myself had wondered how we were going to handle that,” Cerissa admitted in a soft sigh, “The plan when I originally took you in was to give you mine, and I would wear Fareal's.” Kuba nodded as she explained, “And the offer is still there, but Olwen made the point that you may want something different since you had three different styles taught to you and you don't have much interest in alchemy like a traditional griffin witcher would.”
He nodded again, the motion sharp, and gnawed at his lip for a moment and opened his mouth as if to say something but stopped himself. Cerissa only raised an eyebrow and he snorted, the inner struggle making his eyes dart about for a moment before he nodded to himself once more and set his shoulders before looking up to meet her gaze.
“I want my own.” There was a certainty in his voice that made a small smile pull at her lips. His hands dropped from the hem of his shirt, balling into loose fists at his sides. “All three of you are making me what I am, and I'm not just like one of you. I want...” he almost paused but forced himself to keep talking, “I want something new. Something that shows I'm a new kind of witcher.”
“Did you have something in mind?”
“Symbols of change, messengers. A good choice,” she nodded, getting to her feet and dusting her knees off. “If that's what you want, we can go see a jeweler about getting a pedant made for you, than get Amriel to help you enchant it.” A wide smile spread across his face, eyes widening slightly at the suggestion. “Just remember, this will be part of your proof of what you are for the rest of your life.”
“I know,” he grinned, “I just...”
“Finish your thought.”
“I made it. I'm like you. I just wanted something to show for it other than cats hating me.”
“You're still new, Kuba. It's a few years off before we send you off on your own for awhile or I give you your first silver sword. There's time.” Cerissa smiled, crossing the small gap and ruffling his hair gently. “But I'm proud of you.”
Kuba beamed, holding back the urge to squeeze her tightly, when one of the younger maids opened the back door and coughed gently to get their attention.
“Forgive my intrusion, madam and young sir, but the young master's friend is here and-”
“Mirek's here?” Kuba spun, eyes narrowing at the worry in the maid's voice. Without waiting for Cerissa he hurried up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and brushed past the maid on the way to the foyer.
The young woman blinked, watching him for several moments, before turning back to Cerissa who shrugged. “What's wrong?”
“His nose is broken. Amriel is looking at it, but-”
“His father hit him again,” Cerissa sighed, running a hand through her hair and finally coming to join the young woman on the porch. “Kuba ran off last week when Mirek's father came close to killing his mom,” she pinched the bridge of her nose, rubbing at it, “Don't know what I can do about that. I can't just keep taking in kids,” she sighed, and young woman hesitated, hand hovering in the air as if unsure she could rest it comfortingly on Cerissa's shoulder.
“Mirek, it's okay,” Kuba rubbed his back, the other boy throwing his arms around the young witcher and sobbing into Kuba's shoulder.
“No, it's not!” He shook his head, fingers curling in tightly against Kuba's skin. “He...he...”
“Shh, slow down and tell me what happened.”
“He-” Mirek hiccuped, fingers only digging in more against Kuba's back so sharply he winced from Mirek's nails digging into his skin. Kuba wiggled slightly in his grip to get him to loosen it, trying to wait patiently for him to continue. “He...was out drinking again. Came home...and he-”
“Did he beat you two again?”
“He-” Mirek tried again, breaking off into another sob, making Kuba look over his shoulder helplessly at Amriel.
Amriel nodded, wiping his bloodied fingers off on a towel, and gently reached into the boy's mind.
Screaming. His heart raced, shielded his mother who huddled in a corner. Tears hazed his vision. Sound of slapping skin, vision went white for a moment. A fist came down on his face, felt a crack in his nose. A man screamed at him and his mother, blamed them for everything. The boy put his hands up, fighting tears as his mother begged for him to run.
Blood stained her torn dress, she had shielded him when the man threw a clay pot at him. The man stormed into the kitchen, stomped back into the room brandishing the woman's cooking knife.
Amriel blinked, shaking his head to clear the images that made his heart race. He drew in a purposefully slow breath, trying to keep his voice even when he spoke. “Kuba, you should go. Leave Mirek here, get your knife and sword, and go.”
Mirek only buried his face deeper in Kuba's shoulder, the fabric of his shirt now soaked from the boy's tears.“Go where? Amriel, what-”
“His house. You know the way.”
“What about Cer-”
“I'll tell her you had an emergency. Go.”
The woman was long dead, he knew that before he even walked into the house. There was only one heartbeat when he hesitated in the doorway, one hand on the hilt of his sword. Despite his best efforts, Kuba was trembling and his knees almost gave out when he rounded the corner into the living room and found a woman with dusty brown hair laying in a pool of blood. Grimacing as he knelt, blood quickly soaked through the linen of his pants. He gently tilted the woman's head up to look at her neck, thick red lines lining her throat. A thick knot of blood crusted the back of her head, the bone cracking under Kuba's gentle fingers. Her lips blued and skin pale with the thin blued lines of broken capillaries that only asphyxiation could bring, her hands had multiple deep cuts across the palms and forearms.
“She tried to defend herself,” Kuba muttered to himself, gritting his teeth and dreading going back to manor already. That's what he was trying to tell me.
“You back after I told you to get out, boy?!”
The smell of alcohol reached Kuba before the source of the smell did, Mirek's father lumbering into the room and leaning heavily on the doorway. He peered into the darkened room, blinking to make his eyes focus, and his glassy eyes went wide when he realized the boy in the room was not his son.
“What the hell are-”
“Someone who kills monsters,” Kuba managed to keep his voice even as he got to his feet and drew his sword in one fluid movement.
Cerissa had said something similar what seemed like a lifetime ago, brandishing her sword much like he was now. His lacked the colorful glimmer of runes or the engraving down the blade. He lacked the trademark animal head medallion. He even lacked the fluidity that a witcher's movements should have, but the sword alone was enough to make the man take one step back.
Kuba gritted his teeth, took the deepest breath he could manage, and tried not to focus on the blood that sprayed his face when he drove his blade through the man's ribs.
“Kuba!” Mirek nearly shouted when the young witcher pushed the manor doors open, pausing when he saw the look on his face.
Bright yellow-green eyes suddenly darkened, his face was smudged with blood Kuba had tried to wash off. His shirt sprayed with blood and knees damp with it, he didn't greet the other boy after pushing the door shut behind him. Instead turning to Cerissa who sat on the bottom step of the staircase, he opened his mouth to say something but instead let his head hang.
“I couldn't save her,” he muttered, hands balling into fists. “I had one job and-”
“But you saved Mirek,” She sighed, shaking her head. Though her eyes were narrowed and lips pressed into a thin line, she spoke gently when she rose to her feet. “I'm assuming you...” she let her voice trail off.
“Very well,” she smacked her lips against each other with a loud pop, turning to one of the chambermaids that lingered nearby. “Ready a room for our new guest, will you?” Kuba's head shot up and she smiled, “Like I'm going to let a child wander the streets without parents, dearest one. But do not let this distract from your lessons. Your training is the priority, okay? And this conversation is not done, Kuba.” Her voice gained a hard edge, “I want you to clean up and meet us in the study.”
“You are not to leave the manor alone anymore. You will have an escort until you learn to control your temper. I should take your sword for this. If I find you leaving alone, I will have your blades.”
Kuba lowered his head, accepting his punishment. This was the only time he could remember Cerissa being genuinely angry with him, her lips pressed into a thin line and jaw set so tightly her temples were red. She visibly forced herself to take a few deep breaths, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“There's a reason we have a reputation for being worse than common murderers, Kuba,” Olwen added from her perch on the corner of Cerissa's desk. “And your actions tonight certainly did not help.” Her voice was more even than his mother's, face near devoid of any emotion. She only shook her head, “Expected better of you, honestly. You always seemed to have a level head.”
He looked up enough to glance at Eskel, who hadn't said anything the entire time. Meeting Kuba's eye, the smallest frown flashed across his face before breaking eye contact to instead look at Cerissa. Kuba's stomach sank, gnawing at his bottom lip, and dared not looked at Cerissa.
“And if I find you staying up late with your friend,” Cerissa added after several long moments, “I'm sure I can arrange more immediate accommodations while I figure out what to do with him.”
“Are you going to-” Kuba started quietly.
“With you to worry about?” Olwen snorted, “You're enough work.”
Cerissa nodded, “No, wouldn't dream of it. Have my hands full with you already. Dismissed. Say goodnight to Mirek and get some sleep. You'll be up early with Eskel in the morning.”
She stirred out of her shallow sleep, lazily rolling to drape an arm around Eskel's waist. “Hm?”
He smiled, she could hear it in his voice, and bumped her forehead with his. “May I borrow your apprentice for a week or two?”
She sniffed, finally opening her eyes and letting them adjust to the darkness of the room. His face gave nothing away, as usual, but the faint smile on his lips. She gently reached up to trace the small part of his lip that always seemed to be turned up into a sneer where his scar made the skin pucker and chuckled softly at the flash of Eskel's eyes reflecting the available light.
“Think he needs a taste of what life for us is really like. He's used to the manor and the routine,” he continued after a few beats.
“So what's your plan? Take him out on a hunt?”
“If you'll allow me.”
“My only request is nothing too big.”
Eskel barely held back something of a smothered laugh that sounded more like a snort, “He's still a novice. As frustrated with him as we are, the biggest I was willing to pit him up against is maybe a forktail. Maybe a pack of nekkers.”
She yawned, but nodded. “I'll get up with you tomorrow and make him a pack. Just Eskel? Please be careful with him?”
“I know, he's precious to you,” he sighed, kissing her forehead gently. “But he has to learn.”
The view from up on Moose seemed so much higher without Cerissa's protective arm around his waist to hold him in the saddle. His fingers more than once running over the griffin head etched into the leather, Kuba was suddenly very aware of the weight of the steel sword on his back. He scowled against the rain, frequently shaking his head in a vein attempt to keep it from running into his eyes from his overgrown bangs.
He shifted restlessly in the saddle, the seat feeling too big for him and the sword harness around his chest suddenly feeling much too loose. Eskel had said little to him since they left Enna that morning, Kuba's face flushing when Cerissa met him at the base of the staircase with a pack in her hands. The elder witcher rode a few paces ahead, showing little regard for the rain and only speaking to soothe Scorpion once when the black stallion startled at a bright flash of lightning.
Every sound from the frost-kissed forest around them seemed to be right beside him, not getting much chance to doze off to the gentle motions of his mount when each snap of a twig made him snap back to attention. Fingers gripping the reins tightly, he wondered when it was that he could climb into the gelding's saddle without a boost. And at the same time, he didn't remember the dark horse being so high. Or the metal edges of its gilded blinders being so sharp.
“Kuba, keep up.”
Kuba swallowed though his mouth had long gone dry, spurring Moose into a faster pace and came alongside the man who he knew little about. Rarely more than a few paces away from Cerissa, it was a regular occurrence for him to leave for a few months at a time and reappear without much fanfare or explanation. Kuba swore he had only seen him smile once, and even then it was while the younger witcher had peered into the crack of the study doors and watched he and Cerissa late one evening. Her laugh had filled the room at some joke Eskel muttered to her while reading off potion ingredients to her, the sound pulling the smallest smirk to his lips.
And yet, Cerissa adored him. Less than a year ago, Kuba failed to see what the vivacious and witty witcheress saw in her chosen partner, but the grin that split her face as he watched the two duel in the back gardens only gave a glimpse.
Whatever warmth he shared with her wasn't afforded to Kuba.
The whispers started two days later as he clambered down from Moose, scowling at how roughly he landed on his feet. Kuba gnawed at his lip as Eskel asked about a notice the local lord had posted about a nearby village. Kuba scowled as he read over the parchment once it was handed to him, recognizing the coat of arms that adorned the top of the page. A deep blue shield with an overturned red chevron, the motto written on the scrolled ribbon was something he had never heard before. An elaborate griffin emblazoned on the front of the shield, its mouth open into a silent scream.
In the name of the Lamonia Family I humbly request the services of a witcher.
“But Cerissa is a witcher,” Kuba's frown deepened, reading over the account of a nearby abandoned village that had been ravaged by disease.
“Do not use your last name here,” Eskel advised him later after they had found a place to stable the horses.
“Cerissa, if you haven't realized, is the black sheep of court. That's why the notice was posted instead of just writing her directly. It's not common knowledge the marchioness and the Griffin of Enna are the same person, and even less commonly known is the fact that you exist.”
The man sniffed, covering the lower half of his face with a handkerchief, and kept looking down at Kuba who was trying his hardest to pay attention to the conversation. Much more interesting to him, though, was the trophies of deer and bears that hung from the man's walls. A stuffed fox adorned a large wine cabinet, and Kuba couldn't shake the creeping feeling that its glass eyes were watching him.
“Forgive me, master witcher,” the man paused, “But the child...”
The man pursed his lips, not satisfied with the answer, but a well placed glare from the older witcher made him bite back any other questions. “The village was once one of farming but a illness came over most. Some believed the water was poisoned, others thought it a curse. But now any who get too close say they see the figure of a woman dressed in all white wandering the village.”
“Wraith associated with disease,” he glanced back at Kuba, “I'm assuming your mother taught you how to make wraith oil?” Kuba nodded silently, resisting the urge to chew at his cheek. “Good,” he looked back at the lord, “We'll see what we can do.”
Kuba winced, already breathing heavily when he reached down and focused on his casting of yrden. Eyes focused on the ghastly figure in front of him, the woman's form seemed to crawl with insects that made homes in her rotting flesh. The smell made his stomach twist, sympathetic itching spreading up his arms at the sight of the sores that lined the wraith's skin. Rats scurried out from under her torn dress that swirled as though it was made from mist.
The wraith screamed in rage when the already wavering purple sigils rendered it tangible, crying out when Kuba cut through it with his sword. It raised a clawed hand and swiped at him just as he hopped to the side. He gritted his teeth, feeling nails rip through his cloth chest piece easily and tear across his skin. Again it swiped, and this time he stumbled, earning much deeper marks across his shoulder and upper chest.
Try to step back, his foot caught on a root and he barely suppressed a shout of surprise when he tumbled back. He gritted his teeth, trying to get back to his feet, and eyes went wide when Eskel slid in front of Kuba to shield him, glimmering bubble surrounding the two. Kuba grimaced at the burning spreading across his chest, managing to get his feet back under him. Letting the casting fall, Eskel renewed the casting of yrden at their feet and with one well placed slash, the wraith dissolved with a scream. The elder witcher sighed, tossing his hair out of his face, and turned to offer a hand to help Kuba up.
“Come on, shouldn't linger here.”
“You...you said you'd let me handle it.”
“I also promised Cerissa I wouldn't let you die. And one promise means more to me than the other.”
*The remains of the castle covered almost completely in snow, Cerissa sighed and ducked under a few planks that remained of the second floor. Snow still falling in small flakes around her, she shivered and pulled her cloak tighter around her. The memory wasn't nearly as sharp this time, the feeling of being watched completely absent. Instead there was only the soft crunch of her footsteps coupled with the gentle snorting of Moose as he nosed around in the exposed grasses.
The walls around the keep mostly caved in from the heavy snow that had been sent down the mountain at it, the watch tower on a far off peak still stood mostly undisturbed. The courtyard stood covered with snow, small piles gathered where the wind had gathered the fresh powder. The front gates broken off the hinges and laying in wooden splinters just inside the entry arch, Cerissa instead turned to what remained of the hall. Walking the length of the floor, she ignored the trap door to the basement and instead hoped something remained of the collection that had once taken up residence along the back wall.
The shelves were mostly either toppled over or scorched, she picked her way over the water logged volumes and hoped some survived the years on the mountain's peak exposed to the elements. Most illegible, there were a few that were salvageable and while they certainly weren't the ones she was hoping for, they were books that she didn't already have in the study at the manor. She set them aside all the same, soon having a small stack that she carefully packed into Moose's saddlebags.
Pausing, she noticed another set of footprints. Relatively fresh, larger. They were spaced evenly, light in the snow and made with booted feet. She scowled, closing her eyes, and listened carefully but instead only found the dampened silence of the snowy mountain meeting her.
“Too much to hope for, I guess,” she mumbled to herself, not being able shake the sudden feeling that she wasn't alone.
There was the sudden click of the study door's latch being undone and Cerissa smiled gently to hear the doors swung open. The soft, even heartbeat that she heard long before the doors opened brought a sense of easy familiarity. She looked up from her books for only a moment, smirking at the scowl on her partner’s face, and shrugged when she looked back down at the volumes.
“It seems you had a grand time with our little raven.”
Eskel grumbled in turn, letting out something of a disgusted snort, and bent to kiss the top of her head. “Don’t remember that one,” he noted, looking over her shoulder at the book she was meticulously studying.
“Made a trip back to Kaer Y Seren while you were out with Kuba,” she muttered absently, “See if there was anything left of the library on the ground floor. Doubt it, since part of the rebellion against the Griffin School was the supposed squandering of magical formulae.”
He noted the name to himself, it was the first time she had used it. “And yet you found something.”
“A few tombs, yes,” she motioned absently to the small stack on the spare stool next to her desk. “Not the one I was looking for, though. Once, I knew I could send for the bookseller in Novigrad off the square and he would be able to locate me a copy. Now?” She shook her head, “And I doubt any of the remaining lectors from Aretuza would humor a witcher.” She paused, turning on her stool to face him and smirking at the oddly colored stains in his leather outer coat.
A few new scratches dotting the exposed parts of his forearms, his hair was soaked from the heavy downpour earlier that evening. No doubt he and Kuba had ridden through it on their way back into town as the clouds moved south. She tilted her head in thought, reaching for one of his still gloved hands and kissing the back of his knuckles.
“Almost missed you coming back disgusting.”
His bark-like laugh filled the room and she found herself laughing as well. “You are without a doubt the only noble, or even woman, I will ever hear say that.”
“Most nobles aren’t witchers, love. And romanticizing of the heroic bits aside, most certainly would not keep one in their home, much less allow their priceless family manor to become a makeshift hideout for a group of misfit witchers and their odd friend.” She shook her head, calming herself. “I’m assuming things went well?”
“Mostly, Moose got spooked over something and nearly bucked him. But otherwise, fine. Small village just south of the border was overtaken by disease, local lord put out a contract in,” he snorted, “your name.”
She smirked, “As a service to the Lamonia March or asking after the Griffin of Enna?”
“Serving the marchioness, naturally. Wouldn’t want some wandering vagabond finding out the woman fourth in line for the throne of Kovir is a mutant,” he shrugged, “Didn’t seem to recognize Kuba at all, despite practically swearing on his mother’s grave that he serves you faithfully.”
“Ah, must have been Nathaniel,” she nodded, “A former merchant with a good head for money and logistics. He was in training to be a majordomo last I checked, but continue.”
“Pesta was seen wandering the abandoned village.”
She let out a low whistle, tilting her head in interest. “Flashy for a first contract. Find anything else interesting while you two were out? Someone says I'm getting flabby.”
He chuckled, “Did find a posting for what seemed like bigger game on the way back, but I’ll go check it out without Kuba to worry about. Of course, unless a certain witcheress wanted to join me…”
“Wouldn’t dream of missing it. I'm assuming Kuba's sulking somewhere licking his wounds?”
“Most likely. He ran in ahead of me. But it's good to be home again.”
“Home is silk sheets and a marchioness' manor?”
He shook his head, pressing a gentle kiss to the top of her head. “Home isn't a place, Cerissa.”
“What do you think will happen to us?”
It was a simple enough question, whispered into the dim candlelight of the room over a game of gwent. Kuba using hand-me-down cards that were fraying around the edges, most had either been Olwen or Cerissa's at one time. Cards bordered with black and gold, he looked up from surveying the messy layout on the blanket spread out between them with a furrow in his brow. Hidden under a thick blanket stretched between two chairs, the sheets stripped from the two boys' beds had formed the walls of their makeshift tent.
Mirek hadn't bothered to hide being impressed when Kuba refused to look for a match to light the candle, instead using igni without second thought. It was only when he looked at the other boy's wide eyes of surprise he remembered not everyone was used to the simple spells being used so prolifically as his mother did. But while it was more a flick of her fingers, it had taken what he saw as an embarrassingly long time.
“It's like swords,” Mirek provided once the two started work on their blanket tent. “You have to keep doing it to get any good.”
“And I'm only mediocre at best at that!”
“Well, when you compare yourself to your family, then yes.” Mirek huffed, puffing his cheeks. “But you're getting better!”
“I'm a witcher,” Kuba grumbled, “I'm supposed to be good at it.”
“You just started!” Mirek let go of the sheet corner he was carefully tucking under the bed's mattress to slap Kuba's arm, scowling. “Stop talking like that. Now help me with this.”
Kuba had slunk back to his room to retrieve his gwent card collection, cobbling together two decks from what he had and trying his best to explain the rules to the other boy. While gwent during late night talks were common at the manor, Mirek had blushed when he muttered that he had never played and was surprised at how quickly had gotten up to retrieve his cards from his room. He toyed with the idea of grabbing Cerissa's deck out of her desk in the study, but he knew the study was off limits without her and some of the cards meant a great deal to her for varying reasons. So while it was tempting to play a faction he hadn't, he had quickly decided he was in enough trouble as is without adding to it.
His ribs already ached, pulsing even when he repositioned how he was sitting. Left shoulder burning whenever he moved from the wraith's claws, he gritted his teeth and leaned against the mattress for support. Pursing his lips and sighing, he flipped his hand of cards over and sat forward, sucking in a sharp inhale when the skin tugged at the healing wound.
Kuba shook his head to dismiss him, but still rubbed at his aching side. “Come again?”
Mirek gnawed at his lip, visibly shrinking back. He looked down at the cards between them for several long minutes, flushing furiously, and Kuba tried to keep his face from giving away too much. The other boy's heart was racing, pounding, and his shoulders rose and fell several times before he finally spoke. “Us,” he managed, “You'll already going out and killing monsters-”
“That was a punishment,” Kuba interjected.
Mirek nodded, still not looking up, “But you're going to be doing it more soon, and you were hurt pretty bad this time. But what...what will happen to us? Are you supposed to forget about me? Your ma loves another witcher. They travel together, it works. Olwen's with a mage. There's nothing special about me. I'm just...me.”
Kuba blinked, slackjawed, when he realized what Mirek was saying. He bit his lip, cursing his own racing heart, and hoped his face didn't betray him when he scooped up his hand again and deftly plucked a card from it. Setting it down in its appropriate place, he sighed nearly silently and looked back up at Mirek as if prompting him to take his turn.
“You don't need to be anything special. Trust me. Magic is a lot of hard work and while you love the stories I tell you about my family, it's not all glory and gold. It's hard, it sucks.”
“I know but-”
“Eskel always comes home injured. Olwen's barely scraping by. We only have the manor because of Cerissa's family name. There's books of what I could tell you about them. Books worth of things any of them won't tell you. Mom loves it, she does, but-”
“That's not what I was talking about,” Mirek pouted, shuffling his hand restlessly and passing the turn, letting Kuba take the win for the round. He laid down his hand for Kuba to sort through, leaning forward to better see the cards.
“Could have played this one,” he tugged a card out of the lot, holding it up to one identical, “See the symbol in the corner? That means they make each other stronger when you play two of them. And this one,” Kuba pointed to a card of a training dummy, “Could have used it to get rid of my spy. Eskel plays the same kind of deck. There's a lot of planning involved with it,” Kuba nodded, then gathered up his deck's cards and set them aside, sighing. “Dunno, Mirek. It'll be a few years until I walk the Path myself and until then,” he looked up at the other boy and flashed a lopsided grin, “Take what we can get?”
Mirek nodded, his own smile gentle as he scooped up his cards and set them aside as well. “I'll grab the pillows, you have to be up early.”
“It's already late,” Kuba shrugged, prompting wincing.
“You should get some sleep,” he chided, ducking under one of the sheets and gathering up the armful of pillows that had been pushed out of the tent to make room for cards. He threw one at Kuba and laughed when the young witcher caught it easily and threw it right back at him. “Do the thing again to put the candle out?”
“I can try,” Kuba bunched up his nose and focused, grinning when the sudden darkness was punctuated by a tight hug.
* According to the new RPG rule book, Kaer Y Seren is the name of the keep for the School of the Griffin, placed in the Koviri mountains. It was attacked by mages not to happy about the witcher's supposed keeping of magical secrets, as Griffin (spelled Gryphon in the rule book) witchers were very talented in the use of signs that bordered on more magic as we know it. It is said that an avalanche was the school's undoing.
Chapter 20: Epilogue
Kuba grinned, near constantly running his hands over the relief of a raven's head encircled with its wings. He had beamed when the jeweler attempted to hand Cerissa the small package and she instead nudged Kuba forward. Silver like hers, it sat nestled in tufts of cotton to keep it from getting scratched while waiting to be picked up. Heavier than he thought it would be, he turned it over in his hands several times before looking up to measure Cerissa's expression.
“Your medallion, dearest one,” she shrugged and tilted her head, her smile soft as she watched him. “Are you satisfied with it?”
He nodded, looking back the older man who stood behind the counter. “Thank you.”
“Pleased you find it to your liking, young master,” he nodded, a smile making the wrinkles in his face even more pronounced.
Cerissa stepped forward, already counting out coin for payment, but Kuba shook his head. “My medallion. I'm paying.” She smirked, now understanding why he had been carefully gathering every coin that came his way over the past few months, slowly going on more hunts with her and Olwen but understanding when he was refused. There were some things the older witchers were still unwilling to expose him to, mostly due to him still getting used to the changes in his perception.
While he was a good actor most days, nights were still littered with screaming fits that had only gotten worse as time passed. He would deny it, of course, but she knew he spent most nights after waking from a nightmare shivering under his covers clutching his chest. Not sneaking out of his room to look for Olwen and Amriel in the early hours of the morning, most would think the shadows under his eyes were simply from stress.
Cerissa knew it would be one of the hardest years of his young life.
Carefully checking what he had against the price quoted by the older man, he tucked the extra back into a pouch and put the rest in a spare pouch to hand to the jeweler. The man nodded with a brighter smile, “Fine young man you're raising, Lady Lamonia,” he helped Kuba slip the chain over his head. “And good luck on the Path, young witcher.”
Passing by the stables on the way back to the manor house, Kuba was the first to notice the brown mare that now stood in one of the empty stalls. Lifting its head from the water trough, there was a white blaze running down its nose and Cerissa tried her best to smother a surprised laugh at Kuba's wide eyes as he froze in place.
“Didn't think he would actually take me up on that offer,” she shook her head in disbelief, quirking an eyebrow at Kuba.
“We don't have a brown horse...” he looked away from the mare up at her, puffing his cheeks.
“And all of ours are male, yes,” she ruffled his hair. “Her name is Roach.”
“Like-” His eyes widened even more, jaw dropping.
“Exactly who you think, yes.” She laughed, shooing him inside.
Laughing greeted them just beyond the doors, and admitted to herself it had been awhile since she heard the sound of Eskel's laugh so clearly. Glancing up at her as if to ask permission, Cerissa instead clapped a hand on Kuba's shoulder and walked with him into the parlor. Smile growing wider at the slight sparkle in the novice's eye, the two witchers of the School of the Wolf were settled in the armchairs near the fireplace though no log was burning. The ease on their faces obvious, Cerissa almost wished she and Kuba had taken the long way home.
“Didn't think the turn around on my offer would be so fast. Good to see you as always,” Cerissa offered, gently squeezing Kuba's shoulder when he shifted foot to foot restlessly.
“Couldn't refuse,” Geralt shook his head, carefully looking over Kuba before continuing. “Kuba, I assume?”
Kuba stiffened, but nodded, pulling another laugh out of Eskel. “He doesn't bite.” He paused, considering something, “Much.”
Geralt shot him a scowl, before looking back at Kuba. “Heard so much about you from your parents, pleased to meet you.”