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School of the Cat

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Chapter 1

‘Griffon! Griffon!’ Barof cried pointing upward running wildly into the village. ‘It's got som’un.’

‘What? Who?’  Thomas called. A crowd began to gather.

A burly smith stepped from his forge looking upward. An elder opened her shutters and adjusted the shawl around her neck her eyes skyward. Adults and children stopped what they were doing to see.

Sure enough an ear splitting screech sounded and the enormous monster flew overhead to the gasps and screams of scattering villagers. The enormous wingspan cast a frightening shadow over cottages and yards. Beneath it hung someone swinging a blade at its leathery underbelly where blood could clearly be seen.

‘Who is it?’

‘A young lad by looks.’ Thomas said.

‘Got balls then.’ The smithy muttered his eyes following the flash of a sword overhead.

‘I’ve had enough of this. Get Haddon.’ Thomas ordered picking up a pitchfork.

‘Steady on Tom, we don't owe any stranger anything.’

‘How do you know it's not Narlina’s lad or that merchant that came through here yesterday?’

‘He’s got two swords.’ Said the normally quiet smithy. ‘He's a witcher.’

‘By the gods!’

‘He's dun for.’

‘Not unless we use ‘im to kill the bloody thing before it takes another of our own.’ Thomas shouted rallying the crowd. Blank faces flashing fear and doubt greeted him. ‘While the griffon is tryin to kill the witcher we kill im! Easy!’ As if suddenly understanding, doubt turned to fortitude.

‘Yeh.’

‘Right.’

‘Grab som’thin’ to kill it with.’ Thomas shouted over the growing chaos.

The smithy watched them run off and heaving a mace over his enormous shoulder sighed heavily and followed.

 

Excruciating pain made her eyes see spots but she gripped the rough scaly skin of the claw with her left hand. Easing the pressure on her armour and collarbone where the griffon’s claw had picked her up.

Swinging another blow to its leg and underbelly it screeched again furiously. Moved its leg in flight away and tried to drop its sharp burden. Its claw remained caught in her flesh and the Feline armour. Gritting her teeth she let off another expletive. The attempt to find ever more gross colourful words to describe her stupidity and her predicament taking her mind off the pain long enough to notice they were losing altitude.

Shit! She had to get the blasted thing out of her shoulder before they landed without killing herself. The burning pain made it hard to see but the creature was clearly aiming for that hilltop. She had a small opportunity to act so she waited three painful breathes then dropping her beloved silver sword noting where it fell and drew out her sharpest hunting knife and slid it under the curved talon. Using her armour and leverage she shoved the short sharp blade up and through the beast’s tendons to remove the claw. Her cry of pain lost under the angry screech of the monster flying wildly and trying to rid itself of her. It took another two quick jerking attempts before the talon finally released from her flesh and armour.

Agony then relief, she was free. She felt air and controlling her fall as best she could hit the ground hard by way of tree branches and bushes, gravity pitching her forward down the slope. Sliding and rolling to break her fall as much as possible through shrubs and meadow grasses until she came to a stop. Bruised but not broken she gasped for air gathering herself. She didn’t have much time. Moving her fingers then lifting her left arm caused sharp pain over the throbbing ache but the injury could have been far worse. Now bleeding to death was her main concern and getting her sword back.

A griffon cry got her moving. Where was it?

Another screech. Getting closer.

Rolling carefully onto her hands and knees, she almost laughed at her luck that there were no other injuries. Any bruising would disappear quickly enough. The mutations she had undergone made her heal faster than most of the boys who had made it through the witcher school.

She’d been very lucky. Well, as far as dropping from a griffons claw could be. Relieved but determined she stood up cautiously checking her injuries, eyes skyward, Witcher senses focused. The arm was no longer useful to wield a weapon but it would be useful enough. Her satchel had miraculously remained over her other shoulder. She felt for the only bomb she had left, a Samum bomb and unsheathed her steel walked back up the hill. Her silver was over the other side and there wasn’t enough cover or time to get there safely. The griffon was closing in, hunting her. It screeched angrily swooping up and down the area.

Looking at the beasts wounds as it flew overhead and prepared to attack she walked calmly out into the open, swapped her blade to her weakened left hand and prepared an Aard sign.

Coming around, the griffon saw her and adjusted its descent. She planted her feet standing broadside turning her body to face it as it curved around to make its approach and waited for that perfect moment when the physics of the world worked synergistically with magic. Ignoring the horror of what flew at her, training and practice keeping her focused.

The creature screeched, talons came forward, wings changing from that glide to air beating control. The aard shoved at the monster just as its velocity reached its crucial point when it was using it to add power to its strike. Instead it was shoved awkwardly over her making it twist so its wings were fouled and velocity, momentum and mass translated into a griffon sprawled on the ground a few feet away. The bomb came next, blinding the creature so she could attack with some stealth. Sword again in her right hand, her feet took her swiftly to the monsters head. Aiming the blade into the back of its huge skull it let out a screech that was deafening. Suddenly there were humans spilling around her attacking it mindlessly as it died.

A messy death but it was done.

She staggered back a few steps before realising that she was covered in blood. It was on her armour, her face and in her hair. The warm wetness at her shoulder she knew was her own. Feeling light headed she turned to go find her sword. She needed a bath. Managing to stagger down the slope it was in her sight when she fell to her knees. A man came up to her and tried to help her but pride and a fear of him taking her away had her shrugging off his hands and muttering something.

Have to get the sword. Ignoring offers to get it later. She couldn’t lose it. Not now. She had promised.

‘Come on now son you need to go rest.’

The shouting from up the hill was dying down when a woman joined them and started ordering the man holding her up.

‘Help him up and bring him back to the cottage.’

‘Won’t leave without a sword.’

‘Thomas, go help them find the sword.’

She nearly sobbed with relief when they found it. The sword was wiped and sheathed in its rightful place on her back but she noted the man’s look of envy and the careful way he handled it. Thick hands, broad shoulders, blackened leather apron. A smithy.

After that she lost track. Pain and griffon blood mixed with perspiration was blurring her vision. The voices were hard to understand as she was lifted painfully onto her feet.

‘Do you play gwent.’

Propping up her good shoulder with his own, his stinky breath was too close making her swallow convulsively.

‘No.’ She said through gritted teeth. ‘Can't stand the game.’

‘What have you got against gwent?’

She smiled at his immediate dislike of her response.

‘I lost something… very precious…’ She breathed between bursts of pain.

‘Don’t think that should stop you playin’ gwent but I understand.’

Leaning more heavily on the man beside her she said more quietly.

‘No… don't think you do.’

Chapter Text

The captain was a lean surly man with a beak for a nose that the Nilfguardians would have thought elegantly regal. He just looked mean to Geralt as he stood watching a man being beaten by each of the men in the barracks in turn. Punishment for stealing.

Amidst the man’s cries of pain, a far off sound caught his ear. Cockatrice?  He turned his head enough to listen, eyes never leaving the Captain. No, a griffon.

‘Here is your coin, Witcher.’

Again, that open dislike. Taking the coin, Geralt weighed it in his palm and stowed it in one move.

‘Noticed a griffon in the area.’

‘Yes there is a griffon’ he sneered ‘but it has only taken villagers to date.’

Geralt was dismissed and then promptly ignored.

Letting his mind indulge on the rather pleasant thought of the captain confronted by said griffon, he walked down the wooden stairs into the courtyard of the small barracks. It reminded him of the one in White Orchard except this one was not at the top of a hill as the other was but in a valley of rocks and meadows. Gouls and nekkers had nests throughout the area making life a little difficult for the soldiers here. Well, they were.

His gauntlet felt for the pouch. He didn’t have half of what he needed. Winter was coming and Geralt needed coin to cover living expenses when he wasn’t out killing monsters. A living that was always harder in winter.

The day was getting brighter. The torches were being put out up top.

Mounting Roach, he headed back the way he came. Ignoring the bodies hanging on pikes or by ropes from random trees, all in various states of decay. Scavengers including humans cleaning the bodies of everything.

Reaching the crossroad he was deciding whether to follow the griffon or not when four men came galloping through. One pulled up his horse, hard. It’s mouth contorted, eyes wild, it pranced awkwardly around on the muddy uneven surface. The heavy set armoured man on its back wrenched the horses head around to gain control, his eyes on Geralt.

‘You there. You're a Witcher, are you not? We are in need of your assistance.’

Geralt assessed him quickly, a personal guard maybe. Not local but well spoken. His accent placing him nearer the Blue Mountains.

‘A thief has run off with something of great importance to our king and we need to track it down before someone else does.’

‘There are four of you. Why do you need me?’

A hesitation. ‘They have proven difficult to locate. We need a professional.’

Geralt didn't move. He didn’t like people who took his profession for granted. He wasn’t a mercenary nor a murderer but a trained monster killer.

‘I have coin and men to help.’

Geralt still didn’t move. It was clear the man was not telling him the whole truth and as much as he needed the coin, he had principles.

The man swore and wrenching the nervous horse around again. ‘A griffon has… complicated matters.’

Keeping his face neutral, he nodded. ‘Lead the way.’ Geralt was willing to assist track a griffon down but there was something about the man’s manner, the urgency and tentative glances. He was just as sure this would end unpleasantly but he needed the coin. Whatever was going on, he would not get involved.

‘Quickly.’

They galloped after the other men eventually following a narrow path heading into a sparse woodland with cut tree stumps. Letting Roach have her head to navigate the obstacles, he was last to reach a small clearing where the remains of a griffon were ignored by two armed men who stood toe-to-toe arguing. Geralt senses easily hearing the words tossed between the two men well before they approached.

‘No, she has it.’

‘Bitch stole it.’

‘Like I'll steel your tongue if you go on again.’

‘You and who else?’

‘Don’t push your luck Levon after what you did.’

‘Just because you weren’t man enough to plough her…’

‘You whoreson...’

‘Shut up. Both of you.’

Geralt was watching the situation carefully when they arrived and remained silent. Their women’s problems were not his concern.

The man turned to him still on horseback. ‘Introductions are required. Raymon Barlot.’ His armoured gauntlet a fist on his chest and a nod of acknowledgement.

‘Geralt of Rivia.’

Eye brows rose a fraction a smile as he reassessed him.

‘Well my luck seems to have finally changed. A pleasure.’ Smiling he turned to the others.

‘Men, come meet the famous White Wolf.’

The two men arguing stopped glaring at each other, turned suspicious eyes on him before walking over to join them. They were about the same height and size, both looked like guardsmen in their armoured uniforms. The sandy haired one was older, a trimmed beard his hair tied off his face. The younger dark haired man held himself tall, a more youthful looking beard trying to show around a sharp jaw line. The fourth man, standing deceptively quiet near the horses, was a shorter solid man with calculating eyes that had assessed Geralt as soon as he arrived. Leaning on an axe, he straightened and spat on the ground already close enough, he was the first to reach them.

‘Harod is our axeman. Usually makes the final cut although he hasn't had any luck this time around.’ Raymon tilted his head towards the dead griffon.

‘Levon, Darlov this is Geralt of Rivia.’ Raymon addressed each man as he approached and they nodded to Geralt in turn.

‘Levon. Report.’ A clipped order that put an end to their joking.

‘The griffon’s dead and there's no sign of the Witcher.’ A sneering glance at Geralt then back to Raymon. ‘Again.’

‘So we hunt them down and take back what is ours.’

‘It could be dropped somewhere.’ Harod suggested. Even if the expression was one of innocence it was clear he was stirring things up. What exactly, Geralt didn’t know.

Darlov shook his head looked to Raymon and said firmly.

‘Never.’ Before Darlov could say any more Raymon held up his gauntleted hand.

‘We need to find it.’ Raymon ordered dismounting. His boot brushing a heavy cloth off the hilts of a couple of weapons he had strapped there.

‘We also need to find the Witcher.’ Levon fisted his palm with enthusiasm. The sneer showing a vicious pleasure at the opportunity.

Geralt got a bad feeling about the men surrounding him but that wasn’t unusual. The country was infested with soldiers whose morals were stretching without restraint.

‘Darlov, show Geralt what you found. Levon you go with Harod and scour the area.’ Raymon waved his hand around the wooded area.

A glint of light. The distinctive downward pointing cross guard on a silver sword caught Geralt’s eye before Raymon casually covered them again.

‘I hate to state the obvious but what do you need me for? The griffon is dead.’ Geralt kept his eyes firmly on Raymon.

‘We just need to know which way to go and you get your coin.’ Raymon spoke politely but his eyes remained cold.

‘Then lead the way.’

They all went to work.

Chapter Text

Dismounting, Geralt followed Darlov to an open meadow in soft rolling hills. Missing nothing, Geralt did a quick assessment. Noting the marks in the ground as he approached and the general lay of the land. Stepping around the huge griffon carcass when Darlov pointed to some scuff marks in the grasses, Geralt was already putting together a picture of events. His eyes noting how the  bomb was used in conjunction with Aard...

‘Fonten followed the griffon here.’ Raymon spat carelessly and dug his thumbs into his belt. ‘Must have finished it off and rode on.’ His dark eyes watching Geralt’s reaction. ‘Just need to know which way.’

Geralt said nothing getting the distinct impression this was a trap and started walking the area. Stopping occasionally to crouch down and have a closer look.

‘Where do you think he’s gone?’ Geralt asked casually and didn’t miss the look passed between Darlov and Raymon.

Geralt’s experienced eye had noted the griffon wounds, the lay of the meadow grasses, blood spatter and more. ‘Wouldn’t the witcher, Fonten kill the griffon and return to you?’ Darlov’s comment was in his mind. His eyes meeting the youth’s that widened and shifted nervously to Raymon.

‘We were tracking the griffon. The witcher got there first.’ His eyes looked back to the bloody carcass.

‘Must have gone to get the reward and scarpered.’ Raymon answered.

‘So they stole something that was yours, killed a griffon for the coin then rode off to get the reward.’ Geralt clarified the story knowing it to be an untruth. The reward would only be paid if evidence was offered. The carcass was still whole.

‘That’s the score of it.’ Raymon said with better authority than Darlov could manage.

Geralt observed Raymon would be a good Gwent player while his offsider Darlov wouldn’t. The young man fidgeted and couldn’t look Geralt in the eye. Darlov’s disgruntled tone inferred the tone of a promise broken. Loyalty betrayed? No it was more. A jilted lover maybe? A young soldier enamoured by a witcher’s skills. Not unheard of. Raymon on the other hand was harder to read and watched him carefully.

Deciding to keep his thoughts to himself Geralt looked at the carcass finding the usual cuts and sword marks. A silver sword did more damage as was evident here. Shifting the mane at the back of the skull away from a bloody wound he found what he was looking for. The fatal strike of a witcher. A method that was well documented but difficult to apply every time. This witcher showed a level of skill he appreciated. Stepping back again, he walked the area of flattened herbs and grasses. Suspicion crept deeper as he noted the size and types of boots that told the story before him. A story he nearly missed with Darlov and Levon stomping over the area.

‘Hmmm.’ So the griffon killer was a witcher and judging by the boot size it was a small light man or a woman. They had spoken about a woman earlier. Sounded like she had taken something of Levon’s. Dismissing the idea Geralt went back to work. Witchers were male in his echelon not female. The possibility disturbed him in too many ways to think on it now. It was bad enough remembering his own boyhood training, the trial of the grasses, the mutations, the tests. He was just a boy and he saw so many others die. The thought of a girl being put through all that... Darkness writhed in his soul. He dragged his thoughts back to his purpose and the thickening woodland ahead of him.

Using his witcher senses, he followed a trail of blood past an old stone circle. Moss covered the weathered old monuments to old gods that had sunk awkwardly into the wet earth over time. Hearing familiar sounds Geralt cut downwind and around the wolf pack who were clearly enjoying a meal of horse meat. The saddle remained on its back and it was the younger members of the pack that ate now. No need to bother the wolves feasting. Returning to the clearing he noted small leafy branches sliced from the trees.

Hearing raised voices he was only half listening in until Darlov said something that made his boots stop in their tracks.

‘What’s so bad about him knowing who she is?’

‘He’s the White Wolf stupid. He’s no fool, he already has doubts because we hunt a thief who is a witcher. Witcher’s have codes. We throw that she’s a woman into the mix and he might start asking some very sticky questions.’

‘What does it matter if she’s a female witcher?’

‘The Wolf has morals. Remember what they are?’

‘So what? She’s still a thief so we still have to bring her in.’

‘You think she’s going to come quietly after what you and the boys did to her? Melitele’s tits. She’ll try and kill us first.’ He rubbed the side of his armour as if it ached. ‘So no mention of it to Geralt or he might turn on us, refuse to help us hunt her down.’

‘Then we get someone else!’

‘All right smart arse, who?’ He crossed his arms. ‘You wanna go knock on the nearest Witcher School door and ask for another witcher? Go ahead but we are quickly running out of time before the ritual’s supposed to take place and I need the Wolf focused on the job. I’ll take care of the rest.’ His arms loosened, shoulders looming as he pointed aggressively at Darlov’s face. ‘So keep your trap shut. Got it? My ‘getting old plan’ had me with all my arms and legs boy so don’t fuck it up.’

Geralt came up slowly from the opposite side of the clearing. Raymon noticed first, watching his arrival carefully to see if he heard anything before getting on with business.

‘Do you know which direction?’ Raymon asked, anger in his tone.

‘Southwest.’

‘Tracks lead into the woods.’ Darlov argued. His plate and leather gloved hand pointing in the opposite direction as he spoke.

‘It seems your witcher has taken flight.’ Geralt spoke with all seriousness then changed to droll sarcasm. ‘You hired me to track a thief. I have given you a direction, my job is done.’

Walking with purpose across the clearing to stand face-to-face with Geralt, Raymon met his gaze with a challenge.

‘We have passes to hunt… collect what’s ours. You want to make good coin helping us then, all well and good. If not? You can sod off.’ Raymon whispered.

Geralt noted the dislike in Raymon’s tone but wasn't sure if it was for him or the circumstances. Probably both and the feeling was mutual. If he hadn’t heard the conversation the bluff might have worked. He may well have walked away. The feeling that there was something wrong about this job had followed him since the crossroads. Now he knew what the stink was from, he would deal with it but in his own way. To do that he needed to talk to this witcher. Female or not, Raymon was right. Witchers had a code and Geralt was not about to go kill another witcher because Raymon made some claim and offered him coin to do it. The knowledge made his gut turn viscously but the sensations riding him right now would have to wait. There were too many questions unanswered. Judging by what he learned he may never hear the answers. If he wanted any opportunity of meeting this female witcher, a concession would have to be made.

Shrugging his shoulders and relaxing his stance he held Raymon’s gaze. ‘All right. You aren't the first men to look for treasure or go on a man hunt. You may be interested to know I've spent the last three years in these parts killing monsters. So where ever your witcher is, I can help.’ Now it was Geralt’s turn to cross his arms. ‘That is if the witcher is still alive.’ Geralt watched the man before him ease back from the aggressive stance. Noted the glance at Darlov.

‘What do you mean? The griffon is dead and there’s no body...’

‘Your witcher didn’t ride out of here, they were taken.’

‘Taken, by who?’

‘A griffon.’

‘The griffon is dead.’ Darlov said not comprehending what he was hearing.'

‘There were two.’ Geralt added.

‘Two what?’ Levon asked joining them.

‘That's how she was taken, by the second.’

‘Nah…’ Darlov looked incredulous.

Geralt met Raymon’s glare with one of neutral practicality. ‘The dead one’s mate. It will be a rather pissed off male, slightly smaller in wingspan but equally as vicious. Bad luck really.’ He added thoughtfully a gauntlet rubbing his bearded chin.

‘Why is that?’ Harod asked walking up beside Levon. ‘We just wait ‘til she is carrion and take back what we want.’

‘Males won't stick around their territory once they've lost their mate.’

‘So we have to travel. How far could that be?’

‘They have been known to cross sea to Skellige and even further afield.’

‘Crap!’

‘Gods.’

Geralt hid the smirk he felt rising to his lips. So not as easy as you imagined huh boys? He thought.

‘He’s lying.’ Levon sneered stepping forward. ‘It’s a bluff.’

‘Then you tell me how your witcher rode out of here while their horse is being eaten by wolves?’ Levon’s sneer remained so Geralt stepped closer. ‘Saddle has the symbol of an oak leaf on the side.’

'He's right.' Darlov said, not bothering to hide his surprise. 

‘Can you tell which way it was heading?’ Raymon spoke, breaking the growing tension his head jerking for Levon to back down.

Geralt didn’t like them but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t take their coin. ‘Let's talk about my fee.’

‘We haven't got time.’

‘Maybe not but this isn't going to be an easy job either. Firstly I am not convinced what is more important to you. The witcher or the blade?’ The surprised expressions confirmed his suspicions.

‘Told you…’

‘Shut it Darlov. He's a smart one.’ They tried to stare him down but they were dealing with the wrong witcher.

‘Fine. Here. Take this and I will give you double that for the blade and half again for the witcher dead or alive.

‘Raymon, you can't…’

The black look on Raymon’s face and the hand on his sword stopped the young man from uttering another word. He turned back to Geralt expecting agreement.

‘Let’s start with the griffon.’ Geralt agreed knowing that this would lead him to the witcher, dead or alive and then maybe he could work out what he would do from there.

‘If we find Fonten before the griffon you won’t get double.’ Raymon spoke all business. ‘You'll be paid in full when it is done.’

‘Fine with me.’

Taking the coin Geralt measured and stowed it feeling cold. So he was hunting a witcher. Never liked the job. Had done it several times and it seemed a fifty-fifty chance the witcher had strayed too far off the path. He wasn’t one to judge but he wouldn’t tolerate the taking of innocent lives or mistreatment without a damn good reason.

‘I was just coming from a garrison when I crossed your path. Heard the griffon while I was there. If we can catch it before it reaches the coast we’ll find Fonten.’ The witcher had a name.

Their sceptical looks changed to determination.

‘Let's go then. Levon and Harod, you travel the northern road, make sure it’s not been dropped. Check local merchants get more supplies. We'll travel further south and see if we can't track the beast as the crow flies. Meet you at the Lotharn Inn by nightfall if we don't meet up before.’ The two men were mounted and galloping off as Raymon addressed Geralt. ‘How far will it fly by day?’

‘Depends if it’s hungry. If not then maybe the coast by nightfall.’

Raymon’s face became grim. 'Let's hope it's hungry.' Turning to Darlov he made a decision. ‘You go to the inn and leave a message that if we don’t arrive by nightfall then we travel to…’ turning to Geralt he asked. ‘Where is the nearest town down that way?’

‘Parybon.’

‘But I…’

‘Go.’ The sooner you go the quicker you'll return.’ Scowling but following the order, the man walked to his mount and loitered there when Geralt came back to Roach.

‘Don't trust him to pay you Geralt.’

‘Why?’

‘He'd rather kill you than pay you coin.’

‘Thanks for the tip. Why is she hunted? The blade?’ Geralt noticed the look of surprise and the nervous shifting of his eyes. There was fear in them.

‘They’re saying she stole it.’

‘Did she?’

‘Get going Darlov.’ Raymon growled from his horse.

Mounting Roach, they were riding at speed once again.

Geralt’s mind worked through what he knew of the witcher. The evidence from the carcass and the way the griffon died pointed to a skilled witcher that was capable of dispatching a griffon efficiently. Steeling an item from a King’s treasury was a bit of a stretch only because he didn’t understand the why of it. Darlov’s comment inferred she was innocent. No doubt all would be revealed when the time came. When it did, would she even be alive? If she was, would he be able to stand back and watch them kill her? If she was a witcher like himself then they helped each other out. Would she let him? Or would he be the one to make the fatal cut? Geralt had done it before. He killed a witcher in Velen for killing an entire village except one child. It was in self defence, he had said but he didn’t have to kill the innocents as well. He was from the School of the Cat.

‘Shit.’ He growled. This whole thing stank more than an exploded Rotfiend.

 

Chapter Text

 

‘I thank you but I must go.’

The elderly healer looked down at her with eyes filled with far seeing wisdom. Kathryne shuddered. The amulet against the skin between her breasts trembled. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know what the elderly healer saw.

‘Keep the wound dry and open when you can. Use these herbs.’

‘Thank you for your kindness.’ Her tone was bland and she felt like it was a routine. Remembered, practiced, habit now to ignore the griping aches and stabbing pain of wounds. Ignore any concern or feelings of sympathy or pity and show nothing. Any weakness was dangerous.

Here and now, she was what she was. A Witcher from the School of the Cat in the Blue Mountains, she would heal quickly enough but she could not afford to lose time. This was the first opportunity to go where she needed to go. To cauterise those wounds that were of the heart and soul. Put an end to things that bled her constantly every day. Like a noonwraith that returned over and over to suck the life from you. She shuddered at the remembered dream.

‘Dennia! The healer called. Waving in a young girl, nearly a woman, who walked awkwardly and handed the healer Kathryne's weapons. 

Kathryne assessed the woman. Spinal deformity? Hunchback maybe?

The healer's hand hovered over the hilt of the silver sword. Closing her eyes she mumbled something Kathryne couldn't quite understand. The sword appeared to glow slightly but maybe that was the candle light and moonlight from the open window mixing together on the rune marked silver surface.

The amulet she wore trembled. The elder healer was using magic.

Witcher senses couldn't pick up magic and eyes could be fooled but the trembling amulet between her breasts couldn’t. Her hearing hadn't mutated as well as they said it should and her other senses were all better than that of a human but she wasn't quite as good as the beasts of nature.

The Trial of the Grasses was never equal.

Kathryne was the first of the girls to survive and as far as she knew the only one. She was lucky to be alive. The girls rarely made it through training let alone make the Trial of the Grasses. The boys often went out of their way to be cruel to the point of deadly. Then there were the instructors. The mage that professed a new mutagen for more witchers had also been the mad bastard that thought girls should be witchers too. Orphans and girls sold off from families too poor to keep them like she was, were subjected to the same treatment as the boys who grew stronger and crueller. She had good constitution and was generally bigger than most of the pretty things that were favoured by the mage. Maybe that’s why she had survived and the others hadn’t? Glad to be alive, she was drilled and tested to see what abilities had mutated. Eyesight, hearing, sensitivity to warmth and cold… the testing went on and on.

Her thoughts were interrupted.

‘You will need your weapons. Here. You were here for a day and two nights and you left before the following dawn.’

Kathryne's wariness was met with cool grey eyes.

‘That’s all they need to know so you will be ready.’

‘The Smithy?’

‘Yes, yes, he is disappointed but he will play along. The coin you gave him will get more than one of his beloved Gwent cards so he will keep your secret.’

‘Good.’ Kathryne sighed and sitting on the edge of the thin wood frame, straw and fleece pad, pulled on her boots.

Straightening her aged frame the healer’s eyes seemed to glaze over for two breathes then they focused on her with piercing intent.

‘You have to be wiser now with every choice you make leaving this place. Do what they don't expect. Be who they won't see.’ Her face softened a little, wrinkles populating the leathery skin around her eyes and cheeks then her eyes seemed to glitter with new knowledge. ‘The White Wolf follows your path. He will miss nothing.’

‘White wolf?’ Where had she heard that before?

‘He is curious… for now.’

‘Is he dangerous?’  Shaking her head Kathryne decided she didn't want to know how a seer knew what followed her. White Wolf…  Raymon was a bloody scoundrel and Darlov an arrogant high bred little pisshead. Levon a cruel prick and Harod a mean bully in the worst form. All wanted her dead for many reasons, least of all for taking the blade from under their noses to complete the promise sworn by her king.

He was ill but she was sure he would have laughed at her audacity. They had stopped playing chess a year ago his health keeping him away from her. She came each month at the same time to show respect to the old man. In hindsight her visits were probably ignored and word never passed on.

Grimacing, Kathryne pulled on the pauldrons over her shoulders tightening the buckles and then with the help of the healer strapped the two swords to her back.

‘I need to buy a horse.’

‘You haven't got time. Head up the river and catch a barge to Hathern. Don't tell those on the river who you are and they will only pass on what they see. And if you give them coin they’ll abandon their barge for the inn. Mugwood Forest will be your best place to hide. Dangerous place that, very dangerous. Monsters, ravines, old paths. A useful place.’ She said helping her, then added in a bright if not obtuse statement. ‘You can get a horse there.’

The rather strange instruction seemed to make sense but to achieve it Kathryne needed to hide her armour and swords. Thinking about what she had on her horse and what she had now she noted the drape of dark woollen cloth on the peg by the door.

‘May I buy your cloak lady?’

A smile creased her wrinkled features. ‘You might even buy my skirt.’ She cackled. ‘Yes that will work.’

The woman's mirth was catchy and gave Kathryne heart for the first time. She realised what she must do…become what they won’t see.

Her knotted fingers pushed the clothing folds into the bag. For a while it didn’t appear any progress was being made, then the bag was thrust into her.

 ‘Take it.’ Gnarled bony hands handed Kathryne a heavy cloth bag shoving a voluminous skirt into it with much enthusiasm and little efficiency. ‘Yes yes! This will work.’ She muttered her chuckles sounding out in the small cottage

Kathryne took the items and handed her a few coin for her help then was pushed to a back room where a rug was pulled aside and a trap door opened. Nodding for Kathryne to go down the ladder she closed the door moments after her head cleared the floor space and the candle light was gone a moment later when the mat was replaced. The healers cackles all she could make out in the darkness.

Closing her eyes against the dust, she gave them a moment to adjust then looked around her. Carefully, Kathryne worked her way down the ladder her senses alive to any sounds smells or drafts in the cold darkness. A soft roaring, the sound of rushing water. The smell of carrion. Sounds of vermin. A draft of air shifted slowly around her. Fresh and cold.

Feeling for the torch she spotted from the ladder Kathryne lit it using a fire spell she copied from watching her mentor setting camp fires. Privately thrilled when she finally worked out how to create the spell herself, she kept the knowledge from her mentor. It was the first and wouldn't be the last time she deceived him to give herself a small advantage. He never liked her having more power than him so used spells against her frequently yet taught her little. It was how he kept her under control and it worked for a while. She had met someone later that had enlightened her to many things. It was the first time she had felt anything close to hatred towards her mentor.

Lighting torches when she found them, Kathryne made her way down the narrow passage. Climbing over a rock pile from a small cave-in, was a junction.

Checking each tunnel carefully she took the one to the right. It seemed to have the most traffic and there were only old human footprints in the dirt. There was no unusual smell, it had a little light and the sound of water was closer.

The end of the tunnel was barred by roots and rock. Looking out Kathryne could see the water rushing past a few feet away. Well if traffic came through here, how did they get out?

The roots were too thick to cut with her blades the gaps too narrow for a human so she looked around the small space carefully looking for wear marks. Shifting her focus and a little concentration, her sensory mutations allowed her eyes to see what could not be seen by ordinary folk. It took a while to find but a secret latch opened a small door enough to get a small person or goods through. Kathryne slipped through to stand on the edge of a narrow path beside a swollen river when the door latched behind her. A sound of connection that was very final. A sense of freedom lifted her spirits but it was followed by a sense of resolve. She knew what to look forward to. Survival with a good dose of justice thrown in. Sure it was probably closer to revenge. If caught it was a hanging offense but the future was shifting like the sands in a swollen river. Now was more important.

A smile lifted the corner of her mouth, the moonlight bright enough for her to see and shadows dark enough to hide in. 

Where was that barge?

Chapter Text

It took time to find the place where the other griffon had fallen. They had made camp and found it by noon the following day. The merchants they passed were wild with stories of a griffon being killed by the local villagers fed up with losing stock and family. A just revenge. Who needed soldiers or garrisons when the brave and courageous did it themselves. The stories came thick and fast and the location of the griffon soon after.

Geralt eyed the area carefully while Raymon and Darlov searched for the sword no doubt. Levon and Harod had split off to help search the area. They had barely exchanged more than a few words but that suited Geralt.

Interesting, the blood was definitely from a blade but not a clean strike. The spatter and flesh around the beast indicated a hacking. Axe maybe. More wounds …pitchfork there. Walking around to where the head used to be he moved the feathers of the neck and peered into the flesh and bone exposed now to insects and other carrion eaters. He could hear wolves not far away and birds overhead…

Well, well. A stab wound. Right in the back of the head.  A witcher made this killing strike. Yet it was thicker than the other. A different weapon. Steel not silver. Maybe the silver sword had been dropped after all? Calling Raymon over he mentioned his findings. Rayond immediately sent Levon and Harod into a wider search back the way they came.

He stood and looked at the meadow grasses and brush. The spread of the wings was awkward the feet and angle of the body. Yes. She would have stood over there and thrown Aard. The flattened grasses yet to recover showed him her position clearly enough. He paced the area until he came to the spot where she had stood. A glitter of glass? Moving around the dead monster he kicked a piece. Looked like a samum bomb. A smell of the dried fluid on the glass confirmed it. So if she used samum and Aard it would not be enough on its own to kill it if she was injured. She'd need to… his eyes saw a dark blood mark then another. Standing up Geralt cast his eyes outside the area where he saw more linear blood splatter from a gushing wound of a griffon still in flight. She had injured it enough to make it drop her then survived the fall to kill the thing. Damn hard to believe any witcher could survive that let alone a woman. It would explain why there were four men tracking her down. What sort of mutations did she have he wondered? Foot falls led away from the site. A person fell to their knees. Others helped. Foot falls moving away to the south. Walking back up the hill he walked to the southern edge.

Looking south a village was celebrating. A festival was in full flight. His eyes travelled back to the carcass of the griffon and the men wandering around the site looking for something that wasn’t there. Geralt had to admit if the witcher was still alive, his respect for her abilities had grown. He wasn’t one to make judgements about people without hearing all sides. The picture Raymon painted of her was not a good one. In his experience groups of men rarely treated a woman travelling with them with respect. She would have to be strong willed and capable of defending herself. Ves, Vernon’s second was the sort of woman. Any of the sorceresses he had met were all capable of holding their own in a fight. This witcher was proving no different. If she could do this to a griffon... and given the company she was keeping, her trust in people may be the biggest hurdle to talking to her. Geralt knew he couldn't blindly kill her like a common mercenary no matter how much coin he was offered. He would get her story first and if he was honest, he looked forward to it.

Raymon and Darlov joined him again.

‘…needed healing.’ Darlov spoke up.

‘No might about it.’ Raymon interrupted with irritation. ‘What is that village witcher?’

‘Let's find out.’

The three of them rode into the village and were greeted by dancing and music in the small space between what looked like a makeshift inn and a stable yard while opposite was a bench with older folk smoking pipes clapping and smiling toothily. A woman sat amongst them watching their arrival.

They dismounted and tied their horses onto a yard fence. Found a bench at the inn and put down their coin where they were heartily welcomed. Then they had to sit through three different renditions of the griffon killing by three different men at different stages of inebriation. Raymon tried to ask about the witcher but it seemed that no one was interested in having help killing the griffon. They all seemed surprised at any mention of a woman being present. Then it was more back patting and ale drinking. He could see Raymon and Darlov getting irritated. The crowd spilled out into the yard where make shift benches and chairs were used to eat and drink.

Geralt excused himself and started to ask around. Spying a man who leaned on a long handled mace he took a seat to hear if the rendition would be different. Apparently not…

‘Awe it was magnificent. Huge an’ all!’

‘How was it killed?’

‘Why the villagers all had a hand in it.’

‘And someone else, not from the village? Someone not local or they would be out here celebrating getting a wife with such bravery.’

‘Aye. Your right.’

He sighed took a pull of his ale wiped his moustache and beard then looked over Geralt's shoulder just as Raymon walked up.

‘You’re the smithy right?’

‘Aye I am.’

‘You'd know a work of swordsmanship if you saw it wouldn't you?’

‘Aye I would.’ His eyes went to Geralt and his swords still on his back then back to Raymon.

‘We're lookin for a sword that fell from the witchers hand while she fought off the griffon.’

‘The war's been through here a while back leavin’ swords of all sorts.’ Unable to get a maids attention he muttered, ‘I must get another…’

Raymon stopped the smithy from standing up by placing his hand on the man’s lower arm pinning him securely to the table. Geralt frowned at the heavy tactics then noticed his medallion begin to vibrate.

‘We're looking for a silver elven crafted sword.’

‘Oh yeh someone brought it to me after the hunt.’ When Raymon eased off, he took another pull and smiled at the men sitting around him.

‘Well?’ Raymon asked.

‘Well what?’

‘Where is it?’

‘Oh you want to buy it?’

‘No we look to take it back.’ Darlov sneered menacingly rising from his seat.

‘Let go.’ The sounds around the table quietened.

Geralt felt the medallion vibrate more violently. He remained seated. Darlov’s expression seemed to soften, was he dazed? Raymon was easing back too. Watching them, Geralt addressed the smithy. ‘They'll pay a fair price master smithy if it is what they seek.’

Raymon nodded and releasing the smithy’s arms and in concert Darlov and Raymon sat down. If they got any more threatening the smithy would bale and then they'd have a fight on their hands. Not something they wanted to incite amidst the puffed up bravery of the griffon killing villagers. All good arguments under normal circumstances but no arguments were necessary it seemed.

Geralt knew magic was controlling this event if not the entire festival. He’d seen Sile` cause lightning storms, Yen covered all of Kaer Morhen with a shield when the Wild Hunt attacked in search of Ciri. This was a compulsion spell in a concentrated area. It had focus too. Geralt’s eyes flicked back to the three men. The Smithy smiled and drank. His foot tapping to the music. All was good.

Geralt couldn’t see who was responsible for the spell but they didn’t necessarily stand on top of a tower shouting and waving their arms to make this sort of thing happen. He’d have to search them out and he would bet a pouch of coin it was to do with their witcher.

Using his medallion like a compass,  Geralt stood to leave, ale in hand. ‘I’m going to ask around some more.’

Raymon nodded but remained. ‘Sure.’

Geralt walked into the crowd and managed to get to the other side where he started looking for someone to talk to. His medallion a constant purring against his chest. He let his senses explore. An argument was brewing to his left. Elders clapping and talking as they watched over their village. Women and men strolling and moving through the crowd for food or ale. Three men. One pointing upwards and then flailing his arm as if he brandished a sword. More words then Geralt walked up nice and casual.

‘Hear you were all heroes today.’ He smiled ale in hand.

‘Nah not today two days ago.’

Curious. Geralt thought, the griffon wasn't dead that long. They would have had to kill wolves at least.

‘Two days huh?’

‘Yeh.’ another said.

Geralt felt another tremor in his pendant making him alert and his senses actively aware of everything around him. Magic like this could be broad compulsion but it would be from a powerful sorceress. Using Axii he moved his hand as he drank his ale. The spell worked nicely. Keeping his tone relaxed and conversational to reap the benefits of the spell, Geralt looked into the man’s eyes as he spoke.

‘How long had the griffin been around?’

‘Weeks but never for long. Then it disappeared for about a year.’

‘Nah it was back before then and it was darker.’

Geralt nodded and took a mouthful of ale. The vibration in his medallion remaining the same.

‘How did you folk kill it?’

‘It took a lad so we killed it.’

‘How'd that go then?’

‘The thing had a witcher lad in its claws.’ Thomas piped up and then belched noisily.

‘Go on.’

‘Rubbish, Thomas you'd been on the piss.’ Someone interrupted.

Not that much, Geralt decided.

‘It was I tell you.’ His eyes were glazing a little but his focus was still on the memory. ‘He had a sword and was gutting the thing with a sword as it flew over. Hanging from the monsters claws he was, swinging at it and cursing like a soldier. You ask the smithy.’

‘So how did you come to kill it?’

‘The thing had hit the ground, the lad jumped up and stabbed it then we were all killing it.’ He shook his head. ‘Covered in blood and dirt he was. Awful sight. Could barely see his face.’

‘Did you get to speak to the lad?’

‘Yeh. Witcher lad, dark hair and wearin’ leathers. Interestin’ eyes. Like yours.’

‘Where is he?’

‘Hmm?’ Thomas shook his head a little as if vague.

Geralt felt the vibration again. ‘The witcher?’

Two others joined them.

‘There was no witcher, told yah. Thomas was on the piss that day.’ They laughed and slapped each other’s backs and when it seemed that Geralt was to get no more Thomas leaned forward.

‘He was bad injured. Lots of blood.’ Thomas’ gaze moved to the elders lined up on the bench.

‘Hmmm thanks Thomas.’ Geralt placed a coin on the table and it disappeared beneath Tomas’ hand.

‘Sure.’

Geralt watched the elders seated on the bench for a while. Those grey eyes locked with his and he stayed on his bench seat just as Raymon and an excited Darlov came to sit nearby.

‘We've got it.’

Darlov said then leaning forward as if he couldn't help himself unwrapped the hilt of a sword that was dark leather worn and bejewelled with cheap cut gems. The blade was steel not silver to Geralt’s keen eye and the workmanship definitely not elven. Then he felt his medallion. Gently at first then more violently. As he went to speak the magic focus intensified then it stopped altogether. Raymon and Darlov had smiles on their faces and all seemed well.

The atmosphere seemed to relax and Raymon was invited to dance by one of three young women. He stood and they joined the others dancing in the square to three musicians. Darlov clapped, the wrapped imaginary elven relic on the table in front of him.

Geralt took the chance to wander over to the elder with the enigmatic smile on her face.

Standing to one side of her. ‘Lady may I offer my respects?’

‘You may.’

‘May I ask a question or two?’

She didn't look up. Her focus remained on the group of dancing and laughing villagers before her. Her smile never changing. Taking a seat on the bench beside her he said. ‘This is a fine celebration.’

‘Isn't it?’ She smiled. ‘My great granddaughter is dancing with your… friend.’

‘Hmm.’ He said noncommittally. ‘Where you ever a member of the Lodge?’

She chuckled but after her eyes turned to him widening. ‘How did you know?’

‘I was witness to a similar event with a sorceress a long time ago.’ She seemed to lose interest in him and her eyes drifted back to the crowd. ‘So why the deception?’

‘A delay. She needs time to prepare.’ Her eyes turned on him. ‘White Wolf.’

A sorceress and a seer. Geralt thought troubled. They were always ambiguous but the hairs on his neck rose in warning. Like that old man that killed his gwent hand in Skellege. Sighing he took another gulp of ale.

‘She will not like how you smell.’

Knowing better, he remained quiet.

Her chuckle was a surprise.

‘So where is she? Resting?’

Those eyes held his again. ‘She is not what you expect.’

‘I haven't judged her.’

‘You won't be able to.’ She chuckled again.

‘Where can I find her?’

‘Why do you need to find her?’

‘I want to talk to her.’

‘There is time. You all have time. Enjoy the festivities. Ah my granddaughter is free. You must dance.’

‘That is kind but like you said, I have been on the road too long and dancing would make me more offensive than I already am.’

She laughed heartily. ‘A thoughtful witcher.’

‘I am not sure these men would make good partners for any of your women.’

She nodded sagely. ‘So you are as they say you are…’ That enigmatic smile returned. ‘They won’t stay long, but long enough.’

Long enough for what? Geralt suspected she knew the answer to that. He sat quietly , drank his ale feeling relaxed and wondered if the compulsion spell was being turned his way.

‘Their friends join them.’ Her smile never faltered and her hands never stopped clapping. ‘They come with a warning.’

He followed her line of sight to the stables behind the revellers and saw all four men on horseback readying to leave.

Shit. There goes my commission. He hadn’t received payment for the contract and the woman was a mystery. He made to move but the elders hand grabbed his arm.

‘Don't let them kill her witcher, she needs to complete her task.’

His concern changed to a look of determination.

‘Tell me which way they are going.’

‘Big cities don’t attract me any more...’ She smiled at someone a young woman dancing past them. ‘You will have no trouble finding your way White Wolf.’

He waited knowing there was more but irritated at the ambiguity of seers instructions. Seeing the four men ride out of the village at speed the urge to follow them strong, he pulled the leash on his physical responses. It was nearly dusk.

‘Follow the bodies.’ She smiled her focus back on the villagers dancing but her hand never released his arm. ‘She will need your help.’

‘Why should I help her?’

‘She seeks to return it ...home.’

Geralt had no idea what she meant by the comment but couldn’t help asking. ‘What is that to me?’

‘Have you no place you yearn for? A place of contentment and peace you can call home?’

Geralt thought for a moment and realised the closest thing to home was a cottage in Velen’s south west where he had killed the werewolf owner, a huntsman. A place of tragedy yet it was comfortable, peaceful. He had been back several times. Even kept it repaired but it wasn’t home. Knowing who he was answering he simply said. ‘Not yet, no.’

‘No.’ She laughed, ‘You are not thinking like a man yet.’ Her hand slowly lifted from his arm.

Not at all insulted, Geralt simply knew he didn’t understand her meaning. He wanted to ask more questions but thought better of it. If there was anything he had learned over his decades on the path, it was Seers were always ambiguous and he would be a fool to think more on it. Geralt nodded, said his goodbye and headed back to Roach.

He felt her watching him until he cleared the village.

Chapter Text

The disguise had worked well enough with the bargeman. She had hidden her swords beneath her cloak and used a walking stick she fashioned from a dead branch. Keeping her eyes hidden from view she had offered the man double his meagre fee and made it down river to Hathern without any trouble.

Once across the river the bargeman walked her as far as the inn. Leaving Hathern she walked the road in the darkness. Finally reaching the junction she recalled the bargeman’s advice. Telling her only soldiers and mercenaries took the left way. Monsters made surviving the journey difficult without weapons. Locals took the longer but safer road to the right.

Kathryne walked the road into  the forest as far as the junction, buckled her weapons into place and stashed the skirt and tunic into the old bag. Settling her burden, she headed left confident that her hunting skills would come in good use. Dawn was coming, she had to hurry. If she was lucky, by days end she’d get a horse to ride and one to trade for supplies and armour repairs. If she was very lucky, she would have four horses and the coin to go with it. Her nose wrinkled a little. Maybe she could use some coin for a room somewhere with a bath...

 

By late afternoon there had been no sign of her pursuers. It had given her time to set two traps and enjoy a meal of cooked hare for luncheon. The only problem had been the nekkers in the area. They had quickly devoured the bait she set on a sapling pole and sprung her trap in their enthusiasm so she had to lure the nekkers away so she could reset it. This time she wouldn’t stake the bait until later if at all. They were never far away from the site after that.

Her weapons were as ready as she could make them. Testing the crossbow until she had a feel for it had been time consuming but worthwhile. Keeping light, she only carried what she absolutely needed. Killing the nekkers was not one of them, not here, not yet. They were useful and as long as she stayed out of their range and her wound didn’t reopen she would be fine.

A sense of urgency kept her moving. It was getting late and Raymon and his men couldn’t be far behind now.

Kathryne made her way to her watch point, an old oak that had large convenient branches. From this vantage point she would know if the first trap was successful and be close enough to set the second. It was also safe and comfortable enough to meditate and gather her strength.

Dappled light turned into shadows and darkness fell over the forest.

 

‘Which way?’ Harod said yanking his horse around one handed, a torch held high in the other.

‘You and Levon take the left way and we’ll go right. Meet back here after half a league and report.’

‘Lookin forward to a little recompense.’ Levon sneered shifting in his saddle. Harod grumped beside him otherwise distracted.

‘What about the Witcher. He must have seen us go.’ Darlov added not liking the idea of travelling through a forest at night rumoured to have monsters and bandits. He had looked forward to finding a soft woman to sleep with and some food and rest. They had been on the road without stopping for an age and disappointment corroded his morale.

‘What of it. He’s done shite to find the wench. He’s got his money finding the griffon so we’re done with him.’

‘Wipe that frown off your face Darlov. We’re better off without him.’ Raymon said agreeing with Levon’s summary of the situation.

‘They were nice back there, we could have had a little fun before…’

‘Are you damaged? It was sorcery. If not for Levon and Harod spotting the blade we would have never left that cursed village.’

‘Let’s stop yapping and go.’ Harod snarled. Yanking the reins he gave his horse a kick that put blood on his spurs. Levon followed.

‘Are you sure he won’t follow us?’

Raymon looked at the younger soldier his eyes narrowing. ‘What did you say to him back at the griffon carcass?’

‘I told you. I didn’t say anything. He’s just smart so I don’t trust him. That’s all.’

‘He’s smart all right but I doubt he will care either way. The freak is probably still caught up in the spell to notice anything.’

‘He asked me…’

A man’s shout. A horse screamed and a cry for help had Raymon and Darlov galloping back the way Harod had gone.

 

Kathryne’s eyes opened as she listened for a moment.

Horses coming. A man cursed then a horse neighed in distress, scrambling sounds. Shouting. Earth moving, giving away. A cry for help. More shouting.

She waited… had to be sure.

More horses, more neighing, the sound of hooves on the earth, then panicked men all yelling at once. An anguished cry from somewhere farther away.

Cat-like eyes in the dark.

Time to set the next one.

A moment later the old oak was empty.

Chapter Text

Follow the trail of bodies… the seer wasn’t smiling when she said it. Geralt's thoughts were broken when Roach threw her head up and almost jumped backwards managing to sidestep away off the path.

‘Easy, Roach.’ His witcher senses on high alert he dismounted and heard the sounds coming from in front of him but below. Further inspection found a large gaping hole into a deep cave. Branches and other forest materials, leaf litter scattered around had been used to camouflage a hole big enough for a horse to fall. Even a horse standing close to it would cause the damp ground to crumble.

The smell of carrion greeted him. A torch lay dropped by the roadside. Lighting it he dropped it down into the hole. The flame scattered the necrophages temporarily. Beneath him nekkers were fighting with rotfiends to feast on flesh. The cavern floor was rocky. There was the body of a horse and beneath it a man. Recent by the looks of it. He recognised the armour and stature. It looked like Harod.

‘Hmm.’

Taking a few steps back, the view along the path allowed him to see the nearly dead bushes that had been staked into the right side of the path forcing travellers left and over the hole. Clearing the path to make it safe once again for travellers he found the familiar foot falls of the witcher. They disappeared back into the forest. The need to follow was strong.

Straightening he looked down the dark shadows of the forest road. Rough and narrow it was uninviting yet three men had gone on. If they realised it had been a trap their friend had fallen into then they would be out for blood. Blood of a witcher he had yet to glimpse but her personality was slowly forming.

Not surprising he wanted to know more about her. Mystery surrounded her. Who she was, where she came from and how she came to be a witcher? All questions he had refrained from asking Raymon and his men while they scoured the area in search of her. Now he had to know the answers. In all good conscious he could not draw a sword against her without knowing more about her. Raymon had contracted him to find either her or the sword. That obligation was no more when Raymon and his men felt it was not worth mentioning their change of plans to him when they left the village.

Well it made this decision easy for him.

Taking the reins Geralt walked off the road to follow the witcher’s tracks needing to know what she was up to. They took him deeper into the forest. It was darker here and high shrubs protected much of the forest floor. Her path changed when it was clear there was a nest of nekkers. Odd for a witcher to avoid such easy prey. As he continued, her tracks shied away again from an easy cleansing of nekker numbers where the nests were close by. This behaviour was another mystery.

The trail cut back and up around through a gap between trees. She had come here a couple of times. There were hoof marks too. So she had a mount now. Walking between the trees, he came out into a tiny grove surrounded by trees and bushes. Discarded items from the saddlebags littered the ground. A bottle of liquor, a bag of clothes and a repair kit. Geralt looked over everything carefully. The clothes were old and consisted of a skirt and woman’s vest. A useful disguise maybe? A couple of herbals in a small bag. He smelt them and recognised the mix. Reminding him she had been injured by a griffon. The bottle was half full, his hand reached for the repair kit. A quick look at it then he too discarded it. She was careful about her weapons. The whetstone had worn badly and cracked. The tools were poor quality. She could barely keep anything sharp with them let alone repair anything worth keeping.

Noises off to his left. Nekkers. Not a threat yet.

'What's this?'

At the base of a large tree tucked between a split in the thick bark and a bush there was a wrapped item. Geralt unwrapped the tunic that was used to hide it.

So this is what Raymon and his men were after? An exquisite elven blade and sheath. Not the weapon he had seen.  That had been a poor decoy. This one was much finer. The workmanship was superb. The long blade had markings on it in the old elven language. It would explain why the appearance of Levon and Harod at the village would have changed the situation. They would not have been under the compulsion spell when they saw Darlov’s coveted treasure. They must have heard something to send them into the forest. It mattered little.

Looking over the small stash of items, Geralt knew she would come back later to retrieve them while leading Raymon on a merry chase.

Roach mouthed her bit nervously, ears twitching.

More noises. He had to move. Geralt looked around. A perfect hiding place surrounded by nekkers.

Following the horse trail out of the small grove he mounted up and on alert for any other traps or disturbances, headed off again. He found where she had left the horse. Dismounting he checked the ground. She had been active through here. Another trap perhaps? Walking Roach back onto the hard packed dirt road, a grisly sight lay before him.

A man, or what was left of him was hanging from a rope by the ankle for nekkers to consume. A crossbow bolt in his hip and shoulder would have been painful but he had bled out judging by the amount of blood pooled in the dirt beneath him. A good thing too, the smell of blood would have alerted the nekkers. Judging by what was left of his head and body beneath the uniform he guessed it was Levon. The body turned around slowly swaying as the nekkers took what they could. He could also hear wolves not too far away. A clunk and the breast plate fell to the ground scaring the nekkers feasting on him momentarily. Something else lay on the ground catching Geralt’s eye.

Letting Roach roam safely away, he stalked forward pulling his silver smoothly from its sheath and throwing the protective quen spell around him in smooth practiced moves. There were six nekkers taking their turn to feast and two others roaming around. It wouldn’t take long.

 

‘Die you bastard’ she muttered letting the bolt on her crossbow release. Darlov’s horse had moved giving her a clear shot just at the right moment. The second bolt wasn't deadly but it would hurt, make him bleed. The cry of pain that came out of Darlov wasn’t as satisfying as she thought it would be.

A wolf howled nearby, the horse spooked and Darlov couldn’t hang on. He slid to the ground like a sack of vegetables.

‘Raymon, help me.’

Raymon had dismounted and used his shifting horse as cover, not bothering to help his fellow soldier. It didn’t surprise her when he moved further away behind a tree trunk.

Kathryne reset two more bolts into the crossbow with some difficulty. Balancing on a tree branch and using her body weight and strength for leverage to set the weapon was a little challenging. Laying back down along the branch she watched to see if Raymon would help Darlov. He looked too scared to move. She thought satisfied. Bastard will get everything he deserves.

Sliding coldly back out of sight along the tree branch she smiled satisfied that she would complete her task. Raymon stood half hidden by a tree trunk fisting the air and cursing angrily.

‘Lucky last.’ Kathryne murmured.

It had worked better than she had expected. Raymon always took the easier path. That had pushed Harod and Levon to her first. Harod’s own brutality led him to his death in the stinking cavern. Shame about the horse though.

Levon, she knew would be vicious so the trap worked well to immobilise him. Her glove was the lure that got him off his horse. A bolt under the collarbone didn’t kill him, the crossbow’s accuracy was proving difficult to master. She wasted a bolt to warn off Raymon and Darlov from cutting him down. The nekkers had turned up then. It took another bolt to finally kill him. He may have deserved worse but she was not a monster. Death by nekker was pitiless and cruel. His horse had conveniently run in her general direction. A tall chestnut with dark points. She’d always liked that gelding.

Darlov’s mare had moved into the forest to the south of her but she had time to safely collect it. Raymon remained behind the tree shouting obscenities at her and Darlov was now quiet.

Carefully she listened for other sounds before silently climbing down. There was a nekker nest further along the road where the ground was swampy. A rabbit or two would lure them out. That would flush out Raymon...

Raymon’s voice called out.

Another rider? From the village? Unlikely. Not alone at night. A glance upward indicated it would be dawn soon. She climbed the tree again crossbow still at hand. Raymon couldn’t live. Not after what he did.

Chapter Text

Lord Dathol looked over the men standing before him with a practiced eye. These mercenaries looked the part but were they really capable of doing what he asked or not? He would have to wait and see. The leader was a wiry sort with black eyes that made you want to look behind you. Two others were the usual keen types and to his delight a witcher was also amongst them.

‘You have an interesting mix of men Pavon. How do you intend to use them?’ An odd question to ask mercenaries, that was true but every test needed a point and his confidence in these cut throats required boosting.

‘Once we locate the last place of contact, I have a skilled tracker, hunters and an excellent negotiator.’ His head nodded from the witcher to the largest man in turn, ‘just in case there is any resistance to our enquiries...’ His toothy grin emerged insincere from beneath thin lips on a sickly grubby face.

A face cloth of the finest fabric, scented with Dathol’s favourite herbs was lifted to his face to hide the revulsion he felt for the man. ‘You know how to contact me?’

‘Yes, the mage has showed us how to use the device.’ He became serious, bowing slightly. ‘When would you like us to leave?’

Walking across the tiled floor to the window he did not make the mistake of turning his back to these rogues. ‘Answer me this first. Why is there a witcher in your midst? Witchers are known for being monster hunters not mercenaries.’ There was a pause but only a very short one.

‘Forgive me my Lord but I was under the impression that it was a monster that we sought?’ Black eyes glittered with metaphorical query.

Confidence assured, Lord Dathol walked to a small ornamental chest set on the exquisite cloth of the flourished table and removed a small but substantial pouch of coin. ‘Here is your advance. Use it well. If you succeed, you will receive double upon your return. Remember, I must have the item in my hand before you receive another coin.’

‘Of course,’ Pavon said bowing but the mercenary’s eyes never left his own pale blue ones.

Once again, the urge to check no one was behind him with a knife in their hand nearly overcame him. He watched them leave. The door closing behind them. As soon as it closed he gave in to the shudder beneath his fine robes. A soft click and the sound of soft leather shoes on the slate floors.

‘My Lord? Are you well?’

‘Yes, of course. Can you give me good news Cabble?’ He turned back to his desk allowing the alchemist full access to his chamber.

‘I believe so my Lord. The patient is responding as expected to the treatment.’

‘Very good Cabble. Make sure it continues and you will be handsomely rewarded.

‘Yes my Lord.’

Cabble backed and bowed his way out of the chamber, turning only once the secret door was closed in front of him, leaving by way of the servants hollows. A labyrinth of narrow corridors and hidden doors, the hallows enabled lovers trysts, secret meetings, scandalous murders and a flurry of other occurrences over the life of the castle that to his mind, could be easily thwarted by the simple application of locks at strategic places. The keys, of course, remained with him at all times. The Lord had been so thrilled by this demonstration of sudden security he had implemented it immediately. The ensuing chaos was unexpected but dealt with.

Lighting a candle, Cabble made his way to the laboratory. He was running low in the serum. There was a larder set up in the laboratory but it had failed. Mouldy growths had affected the key ingredients and other herbs being stored there. The Hodonwood root had become mouldy and there would be no more supplies over the winter so he had to expand the search to the neighbouring kingdom.

The logistics were proving quite a challenge as trade in this kingdom had ground to a halt over the winter. Apparently this was normal. A frown creased his features beneath his burgundy  cap. The cook had been right all along and the feeling was not a welcome one. A spiteful urge to poison her porridge came upon him.

Entering his laboratory he smiled.

Chapter Text

Geralt came across Raymon cursing and swearing from behind a tree in a dead end road. Watching Raymon rave was not heartening. Darlov was slouched on the ground either dead or dying. He didn't feel pity for him either. The bolts sticking out of the downed man placed much the same as they had been in Levon.

So she was good with a crossbow. That made sense. If she was still injured taking these men out by sword, one against four, was not a good option. Range attacks and ambushes had proven very successful.

Geralt watched the road before him, assessing the situation.

The witcher must be in the trees blocking their exit, hidden from view. There was a lot of underbrush but the trees were large and broad of limb so she could easily be thirty to forty paces away and still have a clear line of site. A ravine opened up on his left and the steep hill to the right had been washed over the road and into the ravine below taking the road ahead with them. An excellent use of a natural trap.

This witcher was proving to be an efficient hunter.

Yet something still bothered him.

Why were they really hunting her? If she was a thief they simply would have put a price on her head and made it known across the borders from Kaedwen into Temeria. Hired mercenaries to hunt her down but not a court guard. It just didn’t fit.

Then there was the matter of their dealings with him. The contract dismissed when it didn’t suit them. The suspicious nature of their behaviour and disrespect for the witcher had been clear. Would they have shown the same amount of disrespect for him if he hadn’t been who he was? Geralt knew that if given a choice of two strangers to trust, one a witcher and the other a court soldier, he would lean towards a witcher. So he felt the need to acquit the witcher of any wrong doing. But witchers were not above the law nor did they all have morals.

As Roach grazed, Geralt knew there had been times when he had involved himself too quickly and the price for it had been too high. He shouldn’t care about it. Shouldn’t get involved. The money for the coming winter was the reason for his being here…

Liar. He admonished himself. He was curious to know more about this female witcher. There was a part of him that still didn’t believe it was true. Didn’t believe that Darlov was speaking of a female witcher but someone else, and the footprints were of a small male not a woman. That the seer was just another strange elder who had mentally begun the drift, moving too close to the next life.

Female or not, the witcher had managed to kill two men and a third was not far away judging by Darlov’s wounds. Raymon would have run off if given half a chance and he suspected the witcher knew he would too. He could not deny that this witcher intrigued him but it could very well bite him in the arse.

So, decision time.

Did he want to help Raymon? Did he want to get involved with their problem? No, he didn’t and if he did get involved it would be for the right reasons. Reasons he didn’t have without knowing the truth and that had never been the currency of trade. Until now.

Walking Roach out from the trees and onto the dirt road Raymon waved him over with obvious relief.

‘Geralt? Is that you? Geralt, I'm glad you’re here.’

Of course you are. Geralt let his senses expand as he approached Raymon’s hiding place.

‘I need your help.’

Darlov groaned and Raymon pushed on without even a glance at his downed comrade. ‘The witcher we asked you to hunt has got the better of us and has struck down Levon and now Darlov. She’s gonna kill us all.’ Raymon oozed fear and urgency his eyes scanning the trees around him keeping himself as close to the trunk as he could.

Geralt dismounted and crouched down next to Darlov. He saw the bolts in his side and shoulder, heard the gurgling of lungs filling with blood and the slowing pulse of his heart. A slow death but death it would be.

‘Harod went berserk and galloped into the forest. His horse spooked and he fell down a ravine. Bad luck really.’ Raymon managed to pace on the spot, eyes flicking around him. ‘Bloody Levon was next to fall. Did you see that trap? Nekkers everywhere. We tried to fight them off but there were too many. Ate him alive. Evil she is. You must kill her.’ His eyes moved nervously around the trees.

Darlov’s head lifted slightly. He struggled to breath, eyes half closed. ‘He left him.’ He breathed in shallow gasps. ‘Wouldn’t stay… I couldn’t… on... my own. Geralt… had to... leave him…’ The guilt Darlov felt, even for a man who he had hated in life, showed in his fading eyes.

Geralt nodded. ‘He was dead before a nekker touched him.’ Placed his hand on the man’s shoulder.

Darlov relaxed, shrinking with relief beneath his leather and plate. Geralt recognised that the young man may have become a decent soldier if given the chance.

Standing, he moved slowly towards Raymon.

‘Where do you think she is?’ Raymon worried.

Geralt remained unmoved by Raymon’s plight. Knowing the witcher could be waiting, ready to kill Raymon at the first opportunity. Something told him she’d be listening so it was a good time to ask some questions. Even if she wasn’t there Raymon would easily be intimidated. Approaching Raymon he felt little danger to himself. It was unlikely she would think him an enemy. Well, until she found out Raymon hired him then things might change.

‘Could be setting the next trap.’ Geralt watched the man’s eyes shift around him.

‘How do you know?’

‘She hasn't shot me yet.’

‘You're right. The bitch has planned slow deaths for me too. Hasn’t she?’ He dashed out from safety to grip Geralt’s arm imploring him. ‘Help me get outta here. Please witcher. Do something.’ He whispered.

‘Do what? You made it clear you no longer seek my services back at the village. Thought we had a contract?’

‘Wha’ do ya mean?’ Raymon’s face showed panic. ‘We were merely following a lead. Levon had heard from some merchant who had passed through the village that a woman was being healed. Said there was no one in the healers cottage. Thought it was the witcher...’ When Geralt’s expression didn’t alter, Raymon changed tack. ‘That cursed village. Should burn the place down and the witch who cast that spell on us.’ His eyes returned to Geralt. ‘I would have sent a man back. On my honour!’

A groan from the ground was pierced by the heavy thud of another bolt. Darlov died before them.

So the witcher was back or she didn’t like what she was hearing… Hmm.

‘Do something witcher.’ Raymon screamed and tried to hide behind him.

‘She's not after me.’ Turning his back deliberately so it shielded Raymon he crossed his arms. Hoping she would prove his theory right and he wouldn't get a crossbow bolt in the back.

‘Why, Raymon? Why does she seek to kill you in such a manner? If she is a witcher, she is not interested in the world of men and politics. Witchers are trained to kill monsters. So why is she hunting you? Why has she wrought painful deaths on all of your men?’ His voice was low, demanding and loud enough for her to hear.

‘She's mad… the toxins.’

Geralt stepped slightly to the side and Raymon knew exactly how low his chances of surviving were left unshielded.

‘She stole a sword.’ Her blurted desperately.

A thunk of a bolt in the tree trunk to Geralt’s left had him turning towards the witcher, a scowl making his scarred face look more dangerous. He wanted to handle this. All she had to do was sit tight and remain a threat.

‘I don't think she agrees with you and I tend to agree with her. A thief would simply have run. Sold the sword and hidden from you. Try again.’ When he said nothing, Geralt moved left watching the man’s already sweaty face turn pale with fear.

‘All right, all right. She did steel it but she stole it from us. We heard it fetched a handsome sum in the elven territories. Had a buyer and everything. So we took it. She stole it back. Then told us she was just going to give it back to those pointy ears anyway. Said something about time running out. Was taking it to some ancient place. We thought we could put a hunting party together to retrieve it before she got there… said as much to the King.’

‘The King wants her dead?’

‘We didn’t speak to the King, Lord Dathol gave us the orders.’

‘Let me guess, you were going to kill the witcher then sell it on and come back with some story about the witcher having sold it before you got to her?’

‘Maybe... We caught up with her and the sword doing the griffon contract for coin. Thought we had her.’

‘Where was she taking the sword?’

‘We asked but she wouldn't tell us even after the boys ploughed her good.’ His eyes held the memory of the gang rape with a lascivious gleam until he met the witcher’s cold mutated stare. Realising his mistake he added. ‘We didn't know what else to do to get it out of her and she's a… well…’

‘Go on.’ Geralt dared him, eyes boring into the man and seeing guilt written all over his features.

‘She never said no.’ He yelled angrily realising his chances of surviving were suddenly much lower.

Thunk. Another bolt hit the tree above and to the left. This one a little too close for Geralt.

‘It was Levon’s idea.’

Anger raged through Geralt’s blood but outwardly there was only icy calm. Cold blooded freezing calm.

‘Fuck! She can't get away with murder. You're still on contract Geralt…’ Raymon’s desperation was getting to breaking point.

‘You stole the blade with the intention of selling it on to make some coin. I don’t know about the law in your lands but here you’d be thrown into the royal dungeons then hung for stealing from the Kings coffers.’

‘Just help me get out of here. I’ll pay you double.’

Geralt knew exactly what would happen if he was allowed to go free. Raymon certainly wouldn’t be announcing his involvement in the theft of the sword to this Lord Dathol. Geralt needed to speak to the witcher. If he got Raymon out of here alive without talking to her, he doubted they would ever cross paths again. He had the impression she would make for a long and difficult hunt if he had to seek her out later. So it was now or never.

‘Fine. Stay there.’

‘What are you going to do?’ Hope entered the man’s voice.

‘Wait here.’ Geralt ordered and turning towards the witcher, started walking. Raymon quickly retreated behind the safety of the tree trunk.

After a few cautious paces he addressed her calmly. ‘We need to talk.’ He said knowing she could hear him.

Silence greeted him. He hoped she was thinking about it. As he stalked towards her he waited for her decision. The bolt came flying his way, knew she wasn't aiming to kill by the trajectory. A smooth flick of his shoulders and hips and it easily missed him. It was an eloquent warning.

‘Fine. We'll do this your way.’ He growled and drew his steel. Listening for the cocking sound of the crossbow he deflected the next bolt with his steel closing the distance between them. Heard Raymon’s expletive behind him.

He had a good idea where she was. In a tree it would be awkward at best. The arc of the shots and the angle… and now that he was closer he could hear the giveaway sounds of the device being set and loaded.

‘Don't kill him witcher.’ Geralt said. ‘Not yet.’ He continued forward. Heard the bolt loosen, followed the shallow arc and deflected one more. ‘I just want to talk to you.’ He reassured her slowing his steps as he drew closer. Heard the crossbow being set and prepared for another bolt but it went over his head. Geralt heard a cry of pain followed by a string of cursing. A quick glance over his shoulder showed Raymon had tried to run away. He wasn’t running now. He was collapsed on the trail edge amongst the undergrowth with a bolt sticking out of his thigh.

‘Good shot.’ Geralt muttered, impressed.

A few more paces. The noises of the forest were slowly returning when he heard it. An unusual soft creak of wood and steel. The slight rattle under tension. A snapping sound of the straining twisted ligament so it was just as likely to… a loud crack. A feminine gasp then a soft expletive. The device fell by way of the branch above and the brush below, down out of sight to his left.

Geralt’s mouth lifted slightly.

It would have hurt. Really hurt. Especially since he knew she didn’t have a glove on one hand. He’d be reaching for throwing knives if he were her.

‘Come down and talk.’ He said in a voice that was slightly disgruntled yet spiced with a little masculine persuasion. It was a tone he usually reserved for Yen when he wanted to continue a disagreement in a bed.

‘He deserved to die witcher. Don't get added to the list.’ She said with cold temper and he heard her jump softly down from height onto the leaf covered ground. Catching a glimpse of dark armour beneath a darker cloak he moved more quickly stopping beneath her branch.

Silence.

A soft query off to his right and out of sight. ‘Did you clear the path in?’

‘Yes.’ Geralt said to the trees and dense undergrowth of shrubs and herbs.

‘Good.’ She sounded relieved and a little weary if he was any judge of women. ‘He will die witcher.’ There was a quiet pause then soft running footsteps going away from him.

So, definitely a woman.

It came as a little surprising but he liked her, yet he'd never set eyes on her.

Turning back, Raymon was gone. A quick look around and he knew he was on foot and leaving a nice blood trail.

Whistling for Roach he walked to Darlov and crouching down, gently closing the dead man’s staring eyes. When Roach didn’t show  he whistled again. Focusing his senses he could hear nothing of the mare. Whistling one more time, long and hard his eyes went to where he had seen her last. His feet took him to her familiar tracks and followed them until they intersected with the bloody trail of Raymon’s.

‘Damn.’ Now Geralt felt like killing Raymon himself. The coin would have been useful... and might still be.

Heading off at pace, Geralt followed a clear trail back towards the forest entrance. It didn't take long to catch up with the rogue. Having fallen from Roach, he was in poor shape.

‘Whoring bitch is going to kill me.’ He muttered and groaned painfully.

‘What did you expect?’ Geralt growled. Checking Roach and his belongings were all in order including the wrapped weapons he had collected and items for trade. An extra coin pouch was hidden away in a saddle bag that appeared untouched. The man’s desperation turned to anger as Geralt took Roach’s reins in hand.

‘Keep your sermon to yourself. Just get me outta here.’ He responded bitterly.

Geralt remained where he was.

‘The bitch will pay for this.’

‘Is that your horse?’ he pointed back up the track to a horse grazing not far from where Roach had been.

‘No, it’s Darlav’s nag.’ Raymon watched Geralt collect the horse.

Geralt offered his arm to help Raymon to his feet. Grabbing it the man grit his teeth against the pain and failed to get to up. His legs collapsing beneath him. Raymon’s trembling grip weakening on Geralt’s arms.

‘I can’t feel my legs.’ Fear slipped under his guard, his pale features going grey.

‘Both legs?’

‘I can’t feel my legs.’ He repeated more anxiously.

‘What about your fingers?’ Geralt said, letting him return to the dirt. He watched Raymon look in disbelief as he rubbed his fingers together then shake his head.

‘Nothing. I can’t feel my...’ Turning to the side he threw up the contents of his stomach.

When he had finished, Geralt dragged him away a little to the side of the road, letting him lean on a large rock. He wasn’t looking good.

‘How’s your eyesight?’

Looking up at Geralt a dazed expression settled on the man’s rough features. Geralt knew what most poisonings looked like but this was new to him. Whatever the hell was on the bolt that shot Raymon was acting quickly.

‘I’m gonna die aren’t I?’ Raymon said in a pained, exhausted voice.

‘I think you’ve been poisoned.’

‘How?’

‘The bolt she fired into your leg.’

‘Oh.’ He seemed to think about it for a while. ‘You’re not gonna tell me it’s gonna be all right, are you?’

Geralt slowly shook his head.

‘Didn’t think so.’

Chapter Text

She was sure the horse had come this way.

Kathryne searched the area carefully. Focusing her senses so they picked up the slightest trace of the animal, she headed off further west hoping to loop around the area so she could... There, a soft snort out of sight. Familiar sounds of a horse grazing. As she got closer her excitement grew. It wasn’t Darlov’s mare but Raymon’s grey gelding. His reins had been broken but everything else appeared intact. She approached, talking softly. It lifted its head, tense and ready to flee. The grey carried Raymond’s belongings and with any luck, much more. Levon’s mare had nothing of value except the man’s spare weapon and a bag of clothes she wouldn’t even give away.

Kathryne walked the grey back to a campsite that she had made safe so she could see to her own care and consolidate the situation. She had checked her wounds from griffon and crossbow, as best she could. Her left arm and hand needed a healer but she would have to wait. She had used her last Swallow potion and there was enough ingredients for a couple more but that required time and meditation. A herbal brew to ease some of the pain could only be used if she was safe and had the time to rest properly. That was not now. Instead she tended the horses, treating their wounds and checked the contents of the saddle bags.

Delighted, she found her own silver sword and another steel wrapped and strapped behind the gelding’s saddle. Taking both out she buckled on the silver. It was taken from her when she was captured by Levon and the others. Having it back would make her life much easier. They were expensive to replace and she didn’t want the attention. It had become blatantly obvious that a woman travelling with a sword on her back was an oddity worth taking advantage of by soldiers and common folk alike. She had avoided trouble as best she could and disliked using the elven sword for witcher work. Although a little too long for her, it was the most beautiful, deadly weapon she had ever used but it hummed with magic and inevitably gave her nightmares after use.

Picking up the steel Kat measured it’s balance, weight and length.  A few practice cuts and strikes into the air above the fire and she changed grip to ease the ache in her hand and shoulder. Again she tested it. The steel was too long and the balance was off but she’d be able to trade it for repairs to her armour. If she gave it a little attention she may even get more for it.

Sorting through another bag, she found some food and a healthy pouch of coin and gems. It was the gift she needed to make her feel like things were looking up again. She hadn’t returned to collect her other items yet. They were safe enough for the moment. It was coming up to luncheon and she was weary, the injury and all night hunt had taken its toll.  Meditating for an hour or so would be the sensible option. Her enemies were dead so she was safe, from them at least.

Carefully wrapping and packing the items she wanted to take, her mind wandered back to the elven sword. An uneasiness crept into her thoughts. The sword was safe from the likes of her enemies. Raymon, Harod and Levon. Even Darlov wouldn’t have looked there but what of the witcher? He had a contract with Raymon. Would he still complete any obligation after Raymon’s death? Her eyes fell on the bag with the gems and coin. The witcher wouldn’t get anything for his efforts unless Raymon had the coin on him.

She weighed the pouch in her hand with easy movements. She was no judge of coin value by weight but this pouch was heavy. Would the witcher come hunting for the coin after Raymon died?

She would.

The hoof prints in the soft soil reminded her that where there were track’s, she could be followed. Calculating how far she had travelled from the confrontation site and the time and distance from where Raymon had taken flight, a quick glance upward indicated she probably had some time before the Witcher tracked her back here. The wind direction was favourable so her camp fire wouldn’t be noticed from the road.

A frown marred her features. The man was clever not to mention persuasive. Dragged the whole sordid story from Raymon’s loose mouth. It had upset her, more than she was willing to admit, that this stranger had found out something about her that was very private and so...  

Gods! She wanted to kill them all over again. Anger rose in a rush, turning her stomach with the memory. Situations like that... she could never get used to them. Surviving because she outwitted them was expected but it was never without a price.

As if reaching for a distraction, her thoughts went back to her confrontation with the witcher. Her stomach did very different things when he came to mind. She shook her head.

Nope, she didn’t want to think on it. Wouldn’t...

Fumbling the tie on the bag of supplies she cursed herself. ‘Blessed Melitele! Who am I fooling?’ Kat muttered at the horses whose interest had been captured with her little outburst.

Taking control of her breath, her thoughts firmly turning to her purpose, words spoken a long time ago came back to her.

Don’t regurgitate past events, it solves nothing to dwell on them. Survival means leaving things behind.

What she would like to know was what happened after she left? The poison would have worked. There was no hope of Raymon making it back to the village. It would be a miracle if Raymon made it out of the forest alive. If he lived and returned to Staggenhorn, she would become a hunted woman for the rest of her life. But the witcher’s presence made her doubt her plan had worked.

Hmm, maybe the Scoia’tael would take her in? Kat smiled at her own joke. She was only tolerated in the elven lands because she was a witcher. Without that she would be treated no differently than a trespassing dh’oine.

‘Stop thinking silly thoughts Kathryne.’ She quietly admonished herself. Back to sensible, Kathryne took out what she needed, cleaned and checked her weapons, preparing for the long journey to come. When she finally had things in order she banked the fires against the cold and any unwanted visitors, animal or monster and knelt down to meditate knowing she didn’t have long.

Back straight, eyes forward and nearly closed, hands relaxed on her thighs. Breathing evenly she let her mind turn inward, slowing her heart beat... A chant going through her mind as part of the process, eased her temper and soothed her allowing her mind to quieten while her body healed and...

 ‘We need to talk.’ A voice of gravel and earth...

She didn’t want to engage him... he was a witcher. Silver white hair pulled off his scared face watching for her, waiting for her... She fired a warning shot but the angle was off. It could have hit him but his shoulders and hips moved with a decisive shift without loss of balance or step as if he knew it was coming. He kept walking. Stalking her...

‘Enough of this...’ Kathryne said quietly. The horses ears twitching her way. ‘Concentrate.’ Taking a deep breath and clearing her mind again she returned to meditation but her memory seemed to mock her efforts.

‘Fine. We'll do this your way.’

It came out like a growl as he drew his steel with lethal grace and deflected her crossbow bolts like they were children’s toys. His determination challenged her, yet she felt amazed and respectful of the witcher’s skill but as he got closer his eyes golden yellow, glowed slightly in the shadows. A mixture of fear and excitement sent a disturbing thrill through her.

Dangerous...very, very dangerous.

... ‘Come down and talk.’ His deep voice changing to persuasive and charming. It made her feel... safer and all...

‘Damn it!’ Kathryne opened her eyes again and felt a flush on her cheeks. Irritated and feeling the now familiar creeping exhaustion, she prepared the horses. Recognising the symptoms, Kathryne decided a bath and a good night’s sleep would set her right again but that too would have to wait.

Cutting back through the old growth forest towards Hathern and her hiding place, rain started to fall. The hushing downpour would be useful to cover her tracks and any noise she and the horses made so Kat didn’t begrudge the feeling of chilling wetness sneaking under her oiled armour to the layers beneath.

Once the sword was back in her hands she would have the freedom to return the blade to the Source. The sword had been taken from the same locked chest that the treaty had been. It was the binding symbol of the commitment of both peoples to the treaty. Soon she would have that symbol in her hand again.

Returning it will save the King. A noble cause, if only she wasn’t seen as a traitor for such an accomplishment.

Chapter Text

‘You were right. There have been several requests for Hodonwood extract. Healer Nenneke has the only living specimens this side of the Jaruga.’

‘Did she part with them?’

‘No, she said there was not enough coin or gems that would make the extraction worthwhile.’

‘I hear it is a tidy sum for herb roots. Was she not tempted?’

‘Apparently not. The knave was sent away and Nenneke locked the access to her inner gardens from everyone.’ The megascope image undulated for a moment then steadied. Kiera Metze watched the dark haired sorceress carefully for any signs or clues that would give her more information.

‘Hmm, I suspect they will be back. Hodonwood is not normally available west of the Blue Mountains. Climate is wrong but there may be places elsewhere...’

‘You’re not thinking Skellige? We won’t be alive long if we go there without an invitation. Yennifer destroyed any respect the local clans had for us during her search for Ciri. Apparently any relations with those barbarians, diplomatic or otherwise, are now forfeit.’

‘We do know someone who is welcomed there and has unlimited access to the isles.’

‘Yennifer would never allow it...’

‘Why does Yennifer need to know? She is no longer the girl’s guardian. In point of fact, the girl is a woman in her own right.’

‘Do we even know where she is?’

‘That shouldn’t be a problem.’

‘Why go to all that trouble? Were the terms of payment that good?’

‘The Lodge wants to know who proffers such funds for a herb and what they are using it for.’

‘It’s only a herb and why would the Lodge care of the goings on east of the Blue Mountains?’

‘The Lodge doesn’t like being excluded from a source of power and influence. There are too many risks..’ The stance of the sorceress’ image shifted sensuously. ‘Anyway, we have little to lose in simply taking a peek.’ A knock at a door within the image had the woman straightening and turning her attention back to Kiera. ‘See what Nenneke knows about propagating the herb. I will contact you soon.’

The image faded and Kiera waited, thinking, before she turned around.

‘Well, what do you think?’

Chapter Text

Geralt had been travelling for some time when he felt the vibration of his medallion. A place of power was nearby. Not one to pass up such an opportunity to increase his fighting advantage he moved Roach carefully off the rough road into the shadowy meadows between the thickening trees leading Darlov’s horse. On alert, his witcher senses heard animals and other creatures in the forest but nothing to fear.

The hilly area was filled with large ancient oaks whose canopies met overhead keeping the light mottled and the air cool. Towards the top of a rise there was a tall carved stone easily hidden behind a broad ancient trunk. Beyond it the earth fell away into a steep ravine. Dismounting, Geralt tied the horses together, then stepped up the hill to use the power when he heard noises.

The muffled thunderous stomps and the grinding tremor of earth moving with magic not far away. Using the place of power first, he decided to follow the ridge around. It opened out into a deep ravine. Below him was an earth elemental stomping about. Something had pissed it off. He crossed his arms to watch when, to his surprise, the female witcher rolled into view out of the way of an earth strike then nimbly dodged an arm the size of one of the nearby oaks. She ran and slid under the creature’s waving arm with ease, kicking up dust before using her sword with two hands to attack the elemental from behind then nimbly dodge out of the way again as it swung around to face her.

This routine had been going for a while. The creature’s anger and frustration clear in the way it moved. She nearly had it. Geralt estimated four or five good strikes if she added a dimeritium bomb and Axii to the mix. As he watched the ground leap up too close to her making her cry out in pain, he realised she had no protection. Why didn’t she use Quen? The magical barrier would offer protection from the worst of the creatures attacks.

‘Are you going to stand… and watch… or are you going to help?’ Came a stoic feminine voice.

‘That depends.’ He said tracking her around the elemental, his feet taking him closer to the edge. This was the first opportunity he had to see a female witcher in action. He took in everything about her with studious interest. How she moved, the footwork and counter attacks. Defence and spells she used, or didn’t use. He saw as much that was familiar as equally unusual. She was favouring her left hand side. Injury from the griffon perhaps? She had hidden it well. He’d nearly forgotten all about it.

‘I've been here a while… run out of bombs…’ She called out before delivering a downward strike, pivoting then another strike. Dodge and run. The elemental drew back, focused its energy. The witcher took a chance and flanked the creature and added another hit. Too soon, and Geralt sucked in a breath as the elemental used its magic in a deadly display.

Wham! The earth lifted in huge shards of rock around the roaring creature throwing her into the air. She controlled the flight and twisting at the last minute managed to land heavily crouched and using her injured arm nearly sank to the ground. The elemental slammed the ground again in quick succession knocking her off her feet. Her dark plaited hair flopped on the dirt beside her gasping form. But as she went to get up she hesitated then had to quickly roll the other way to save herself.

Too slow, the creature was moving more quickly now it could see its quarry falter.

‘Better move witcher.’ Geralt called moving forward pulling a dimithrium bomb from his own belt and tossing it at the creature. It exploded violently but not before the huge creature made to swing at her and staggered sideways nearly treading on her. She moved at the last minute just making it out of the way but she was running out of time. Her injuries clearly causing her problems now.

‘Get up. Get up.’ Geralt urged quietly, watching her move clumsily, gathering herself again. Then she was up and moving with a burst of speed until she was out of sight. The elemental searching for her.

‘At least give me a hand to get out if here.’ She shouted from somewhere beneath his feet. The elemental was now heading for her voice.

‘Give me one good reason?’

‘Quickly. Help me out of here.’

He didn't move. Holding himself in place knowing it would only last a few moments before he would relent. Not willing to leave someone at the mercy of a monster. Especially a woman. But this was no ordinary woman...

‘You wanted to talk. I'll talk.’

‘Over to your right. Climb on that boulder and jump.’ The thunderous roar was nearly on top of her. She ran and leapt up onto the rock. Her left arm obviously giving her trouble as she scrambled for a moment. Then she was up and jumping towards Geralt. He grabbed her mismatched gloved hands and lifted her out. Heard her hiss of pain as he shifted his weight. A moment later he faced her for the first time. The impression memorable.

Her eyes were like his own but paler and much more intense. There was pain there but it was hidden behind a sense of humour yet revealed. Like a secret left untold. She looked fit and healthy if not a little too lean although it was hard to tell beneath armour. There was blood stain on her left shoulder that looked wet beneath sand and dirt caked on the armour surface. Her hair too was covered in dust and her braid was no longer doing its job. Wounds and bruising on her jaw and neck were more recent than those he saw on her face. A recent split lip under dirt and blood didn’t stop the slow smirk she gave him. She was average height, her physique definitely feminine. The feline armour fitted her well but in a practical sense...

‘Thanks.’ She said breaking the thrall and stepped back, almost reluctantly from his embrace but the smirk remained. Any pain hidden when she turned back to see the elemental stomp around beneath them.

‘Talk about grumpy.’ She grinned, her breath quickly coming back under control.

Geralt remained silent, still taking in the woman standing before him.

‘I was wondering when I...’ With a thunderous roar, the earth beneath their feet lifted then crumbled and both of them fell. Dust and dirt filled the air. Geralt was on his feet first, Quen in place and silver drawn. Grabbing Kathryne by the right arm he dragged her up onto her feet. She nodded, coughing, a moment later silver clasped in both her hands. Both spread outwards as the large dark angry mass came at them.

‘Come on.’ Geralt said loudly moving, spinning his sword around him to distract the elemental before it saw Kathryne who didn’t appear to have any protection except her sword. ‘Use your Quen.’ He called to her.

‘Sure, what’s quen?’

What’s Quen? ‘Use Aard then.’ He said his eyes following the enormous rocky shape building momentum.

Seeing Geralt the huge elemental humanoid picked up speed with a thunderous roar, arms thrashing about, ground trembling.

‘Aard won’t help.’

Dodging the fists. Geralt came down hard once, then twice with his silver. Yelling back over the noise, ‘Use it to distract it and redirect it’s attack. I can hit it’s weak points.’

Pivot and strike.

‘This thing has weak points?’

Rolling away on the third as the elemental swung around to redirect its power. Geralt threw another bomb before it could gather any magical forces.

‘Let’s finish this.’ He growled.

They worked together to distract and attack the elemental until the dimitherium wore off.

The earth leapt from the ground like huge stone teeth then Geralt attacked again.  Once, twice then rolling out of reach of the elemental magic that could easily kill him in two strikes. The monster was objecting to Geralt’s efforts angrily. One more strike was enough to have the thing on its knees then it was done.

Walking around the fallen rubble that was once the elemental, he collected what he could from the area. Picking up Kathryne’s sword he waited for a comment that didn’t come. He looked around for her. Silence greeted him.

‘Witcher?’ He called. For a moment he thought she had run off and left him. Not an unusual occurrence on this job but the sword in his hand told him it was no discarded war debris but a personal item. The refined detail and the care showed.

Walking back around, the dust slowly settling, he saw her still on the ground and ran over to her. She lay unconscious, blood beneath the pauldron on her left side and behind her temple. Pulling off his glove, he checked her pulse and the temperature of her cheek. It felt soft and cool even with the muddy smudges. Witchers healed quickly so he would give her time to recover. Then he was going to get some answers to his questions.

Her head turned slightly into his warm palm. She looked feminine and harmless, even with the dirty armour and mess of the fight. Her wounds weeping blood beneath the dirt and dust. A protective urge filled him and he cursed himself silently yet he watched for the slow intake of breath. Evidence this female witcher was alive. That she was real.

Chapter Text

Pain throbbed mercilessly but she dare not move. Cold had seeped into her bones. Memories returning, Kathryne assessed her condition then tried to use her witcher senses to find out where she was and what, or rather who, was about. No thunderous noise so it appeared she was safe from the monster but what about the...

‘Are you hungry?’

Her stomach lurched. No point trying to pretend... Carefully she  sat up gritting her teeth against the pain.

‘No, thank you.’ She croaked. Her eyes drifted closed as another wave of pain hit her. Breathing carefully, Kathryne waited until the pounding eased to vascular throbbing.

Warmth from a fire nearby. Sticky wetness of blood on her face and throat. Gods, she was sore and very tired. Shoving the pitiful thoughts aside she slowly looked around her. The witcher was the only other man around and for some reason she relaxed a little. He seemed honourable enough although he was reluctant to pull her from the ravine. But the witcher hadn’t looked at her the way the others had. No sleazy smiles or mocking laughter. Even when they fought off the elemental together, he treated her as an equal…

Well that would be something new.

‘You don’t look so good.’ He offered her a small bowl. ‘Here drink this.’

Taking the bowl from him she eyed it suspiciously. Her fingers going to her dirty matted hair and pushing it out of the way.

‘I’m guessing you’re thirsty.’ He said not offended by her hesitation and unaware of her meagre attempt to straighten the bloody rats nest that was her hair.

Slowly bringing the bowl closer, she sniffed it then took a tiny taste, rolling it around her mouth for the slightest hint of anything unusual. There was Nettle and a honey flavoured flower but it was natural to remain cautious. Prepared to spit it out with any hint of numbing on her tongue, sharp bitterness or metallic aftertaste, she watched the white haired witcher poke at the fire then test the rabbit skewered over it.

The tea was pleasant enough and so she finished it. He glanced over and held out his leather covered palm to her.

‘Another?’

He watched her. Uncomfortable, she looked at the bowl as she handed it back to him with a stiff small nod. He filled it and handed it back, turning back to the fire and what appeared to be dinner. The tea had been brewed in what looked like a helmet. A water bag lay beside a small cloth bag. The shadows were getting long.

‘How long have I been…?’

‘A while.’

They were still in the ravine but under an overhang of rock and vegetation that provided shelter from the drizzling rain and a cold wind. The witcher must have moved her. A couple of horses stood nearby dozing in a gentle downpour that was slowly lit by late afternoon sun appearing through clouds. Like a candle lighting a room through a open door, a golden curtain filled the ravine for one breath, two breathes, three, before fading. The door closing and the shadows from the forest filled the ravine. She didn’t realise she was holding her breath until her eyes fell on the horses again. They weren’t hers. They must still be up on the ridge somewhere. Aware the witcher was watching her she took a sip of tea, ignored the heat rising up her throat and nodded to the horses.

‘You didn’t happen across another horse or two when you found yours?’

‘Roach generally finds me.’ Cool witcher eyes gave her a meaningful glance. ‘I had to cut down a mess of necrophages before even Roach would show her face.’ Nodding up the ravine, ‘Your horses are probably around somewhere.’ Geralt turned back to the fire. 

‘They were tied safely far enough away.’ Kathryne said with a little too much defence.

‘Was that before or after you left the bait?’

Her trap was a precaution that had obviously failed so all that time she spent making it was wasted... Kathryne felt somehow disadvantaged when faced with this witcher. The urge to leave and get her stash was stronger now like a thrumming. Then again the place of power was nearby and the thumping in her head was still there.  ‘I better go look for them.’

Attempting to rise had the effect of making her wobble like a drunk and want to vomit at the same time. She compensated for the balance issue and swallowed but not before the man seated in front of her saw it.

‘Sit down before you fall down.’ He growled softly. ‘And we made a deal.’

Her butt hit the dirt a little harder than expected jarring her teeth and sending a sharp pain through her head. ‘That was before we fell back down.’ She said swallowing convulsively.

‘And before I killed the elemental for you, so let’s talk.’

She shrugged as if it didn't matter, trying to ignore the persistent need to throw up. Bruises added to the pain and were going to colour her skin like a thespian in coloured tights.

‘Is there any of that tea left?’ When he held out his hand again she gave him the empty bowl.

‘So, Fonten is it?’ Geralt refilled the bowl and handed it back. ‘That’s how they referred to you at the first griffon site.’

Kathryne took the bowl and sniffed it and sipped more slowly this time. ‘Kathryne du Fonten.’

‘School of the Cat.’ He thought out loud then introduced himself. ‘Geralt of Rivia.’

‘How did you work that out? My sneakiness or did the armour give it away.’

‘Your medallion.’ He smiled watching her surprise turn to a soft flush. Slender fingers tucked it back under her armour. ‘Though the Feline armour is a good set. Had one myself. Added some enhancements to it before I commissioned the Griffon gear.’ He tore off some hare from the spit and handed her some. She took it but didn’t eat straight away.

‘Very nice.’ She nodded noticing more about the man than the armour. His features were lean, angular but her assumption about the man’s age was totally off. ‘The griffin looks too heavy for me.’ His eyes lifted to look at her and she felt heat rise along her throat so bent her head to sip at the bowl.

‘It's not too bad. You're small enough so the weight of the plate wouldn't be much of a burden but you'd need to get a feel for it.’

‘Think I'll stick to Feline.’ She said nonplussed. He nodded acceptance of her decision.

‘The silver you have is a good solid piece. It will be exceptional with a few upgrades.’ He added casually. ‘I know an elven weapon smith in Novigrad who produces excellent master crafted blades. A good investment if you have the coin.’

‘I did want to get a better sword. I inherited my silver but haven’t thought to replace it. What’s so good about the upgrade?’ She nibbled at the meat in her fingers while listening to Geralt speak on the benefits. The best runes and whetstone to use. He answered her questions without judgement only genuine interest. The conversation easy, she found her bowl filled again and more rabbit in her hand that she ate while distracted by Geralt and his easy manner.

‘I have armour damage, is there anyone near that can do some repair work?’

He nodded, calm and relaxed.

‘There’s an armour smith in Novigrad main square who isn't too bad. Look for the pyres for burning witches.’

Then he reached behind him and tossed her something. Her gauntlet. A warning bell went off in her mind but it seemed far away and his deep voice and engaging way easily distracted her.

‘Pyres for burning witches? Truly?’

‘They haven’t been used since the assassination of King Radovid II but the threat still feels very real to some.’

‘I can imagine.’ A question in her eyes, interest in her features. ‘I heard the best armour smith was a dwarf call Farris? Do you know of him?’ She took a bite of hare then looked to him again.

‘He's more Ferrier than armourer.  Ivanke is the master armour smith and hails from Skellige.’

‘Where is she?’

‘Velen in the old barons fort near the Cops.’ Kathryne nodded thoughtfully.

‘Too far from where you’re going?’ the witcher asked, eyebrow arching.

‘Maybe. Is Novigrad far from here?’

‘South, about a days ride.’ Wondering how Dandelion would describe it he said, ‘It is a colourful, bustling town. Has market squares, inns, craftsmen, tailors, bath house…’

‘Book stall?’

‘Uh-huh. The main square has one that has whole floors of books.’ Her interest made him smile and the urge to tease her was strong. ‘You might like to visit the bathing house too.’ Geralt heard the teasing note in his voice but Kathryne seemed unaffected.

‘Mmm that would be nice too.’ Her thoughts turned inwards and her focus shifted to the roasted meat she picked at.

Geralt had enjoyed talking of armour and weapons with her but needed to know more about her circumstances. Something about this still had him feeling itchy. As if reading his thoughts she spoke quietly.

‘So how much did he offer you?’ She said coolly.

‘That depends.’

‘On what? If I’m dead or alive?’ She raised an eyebrow at his sidestepping the topic but he didn’t rise to her challenge. ‘Does it matter now?’

‘You mean now he’s dead?’

She shrugged that careless way she did but her eyes never left his as if she was waiting for him to make a move. It reminded him of something...

‘Are you still obligated to a contract Witcher?’

He met her gaze and a smile lifted his features. ‘No, I took payment in the form of a dead man’s  horse.’

Kathryne felt a little relief at the statement, her eyes looking over to his horses.

‘I’m glad they’re dead you know.’ Her chin lifted as if expecting an argument. ‘I’d do it again if I had to.’

‘I thought as much.’ His mouth lifted a little at the side. ‘So what are your plans now?’

‘I have some things to do then I head east again.’

‘East?’

‘You know of the Pontar Valley?’

‘I do, merchants travel there by boat from Novigrad.’

‘Sounds like an easier way to travel.’

‘Were you on the way there when the griffon attacked?’

‘More or less. Raymon and his men were proving difficult to shake off and I was running out of time.’

Geralt offered her a small decorated skin she recognised as Darlov’s drinking skin. She licked her lips and took it. The liquor was strong and made her gasp a little but it was good. Handing it back she watched the witcher take a swig too.

‘So what brings Kathryne du Fonten from the Blue Mountains to Redania?’ He asked with a persuasive tone.

‘It’s a long story...’ She said.

Geralt offered her the drinking skin again and she took it a little more cautiously as if expecting trouble.

‘I’m in no rush.’

Chapter Text

Kathryne realised that she was enjoying Geralt’s company now she knew his intensions... or did she? She found her hand reaching for the skin without any further thought. There was something about him...

‘I followed them when I overheard Raymon and Levon talking about what they were planning. Now I know that was a trap. They let me try and steal the sword back then had Harod flanked me. I wasn’t prepared for Darlov’s betrayal...’ A shrug of hindsight.

Geralt watched her and listened.

‘They wanted to know where I was going to take it.’ Her eyes drifted to her fingers that trembled a fraction before she wrapped them around her knees. ‘I escaped then they came looking for me.’ Her glance at Geralt told her he wasn’t going to argue over details about her story. Not surprising given how much Raymond had said but she’d rather die than repeat it. ‘I was chased by a griffon, that I managed to kill but lost my horse in the process. Then I got caught by the other one.’ A frown of self criticism.

‘Take it from me, a griffon catching someone usually ends in tragedy. Yet here you are, talking about it.’

There was respect in Geralt’s voice. She felt a gentle heat at his praise then shrugged her shoulder.

‘So you sliced the griffon until it decided you were too much trouble to carry away somewhere to eat then killed it. Smart.’ Geralt offered her more food, a slight smile making his rough scarred features almost handsome.

‘I’m full. Thanks.’ Kathryne indicated, a hand on her armour.

‘So where did the blade originally come from?’

‘Which one? My silver or my steel?’

His expression showed an almost playful tolerance. ‘I worked out that you had another blade back at the griffon site.’

‘Fine.’ She smiled. ‘It's elven and belongs to my King.’

‘Your King? In my experience witchers don't usually have political alliances. It usually leads to shortened lives and moral misuse.’

She sighed quietly but Geralt heard her. ‘Alright tell me, why take sides?’

‘He has been more than a King to me.’ Geralt remained silent, listening. ‘He has been there since not long after I left training. His interest genuinely friendly… fatherly.’

‘Fatherly?’

‘Fatherly.’

‘How old were you when you left on the path?’

Kathryne looked at him oddly as if she didn’t know what he meant then said. ‘I was about sixteen. I had a trainer with me but he was more interested in my...ah... bedroom education than my sword skills by then so I decided to go out on my own… path.’ She saw him darken at her words. Stab a little at the fire. Strange how that made her feel. ‘I did all right too. Cleaned up villages overrun by gouls or nekkers. Helped salvage heirlooms in Bragoais fields after the civil war. Even took down a cockatrice using a couple of traps in the forest of Jalaus mountain.’

'Interesting approach.’ Geralt rubbed his chin. ‘The sword?’

‘It was getting into winter and I was looking for work when my trainer caught up with me. Thought I should be punished for leaving without his permission. Or tried to. He was my first human kill. He had the sword on his back at the time. I thought it was a silver sword like any other. It was too long for me so I used it to barter for gear to keep me going through the winter.’

‘How did the king come to have it?’

‘He was standing by the vendor with his entourage when I tried to sell it for a price I thought it was worth. He saw it and offered me much more…’

Geralt threw a bone into the fire and recalled in quiet respectful tones, ‘Vesemir followed me for the first month to make sure I didn’t starve before leaving me to it. Made some excuse about getting special potion ingredients for some herbalists.’ Sadness still tightened his chest when he thought of his old friend.

‘It is hard when you start out on your own.’ Kathryne added quietly, sensitive to him. ‘I stayed off the tracks and roads. Bandits and soldiers were easy prey if they wanted trouble with a witcher. It seemed they thought I was easy game because I was a woman.’ She smiled with easy confidence. ‘Don't get me wrong Geralt, I left before they did anything more than yell lewd statements most of the time but there have been a few who refused to leave me alone…’

‘Raymon? Levon?’

‘Darlov too. They were much later and from the same court so it was... difficult to avoid them all the time.’ She tossed her food scraps into the fire watching it for a moment. ‘Harod was late to the gang. But very enthusiastic. Liked to watch pain and torture. He was banned from most of the brothels within a week of arriving in town.’

‘Raymon is dead.’

‘I know.’ Again that shrug.

‘Revenge isn't always the best way.’

‘I have one more to go but if I return the sword I won’t need to do anything.’

‘One more?’

‘The Old Man… my King does not take kindly to his people being...’ Shifting her seat, she hissed softly with pain and moved cautiously easing her stiffening body.

‘How’s the wound?’

‘I’ll survive.’ She smiled hoping he wouldn’t think her weak. ‘I have what I need.’

‘You know you are the first female witcher I have ever met.’ His eyes seemed to dig into hers. ‘I remember how difficult it was for me. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for you.’

‘Why because I was a girl?’ She felt disapproval rising at such an assumption. ‘The boys cried as often as the girls did. The only difference was that I didn’t see any other girl survive and they thought that they could…’ She couldn’t say what she had come to realise was true. Dread and anger seemed to be interwoven with lots of other feelings to do with those memories.

More silence.

Heat rose in her face and anger followed it. Geralt remained quiet out of respect or not having anything he could say. She didn’t know nor did she care...

Damn it! She did care.

‘Excuse me, I have to go pee.’

She was up and limping out of sight too soon. Roach was in full view while Geralt considered the situation.

So she was an only female survivor of what must have been some sort of experimentation. To what end he didn’t understand. Her training was thorough yet there were gaps. Why wasn’t she taught Quen? Why wouldn’t they teach her to protect herself? The ugly truth couldn’t be so simple? Indeed, why arm someone you wanted to control? Yet she had weapon skills and hunting skills. Hunting skills... The traps were more like those used by the likes of a royal huntsman than a witcher.

He poked the dying flames from the fire, his thoughts drifting back to when he found her unconscious in the dirt and stones...

 

Geralt had stood over her and watched her sleep until even Dandelion would have thought him strange.…

There was so much he wanted to know. She had survived the trial of grasses and the other tortures that made her a witcher.

Her sword skills were limited because of her injuries but he wanted to see her in action again. She reminded him of Ciri yet very different. Kathryne was exotic to watch. Fluid and graceful. He thought she had only been fighting the elemental for a short time, cutting down the creature with sure strikes. Yet curiously, she was unaware it had weaknesses.

Witchers didn't survive without intelligence.

Kathryne managed to damage the earth elemental significantly without a protective barrier or knowing what it was she fought. One well timed strike could have killed her. His lips thinned at the thought. It nearly had. He also would have liked to see her make the final strike on that griffon, and what of her surviving the second? The villagers had spoken of a cursing man swinging a blade at the griffon’s underbelly while still gripped in a talon. It was so unbelievable yet the evidence proved it true.

He’d shaken his head.

‘She is a Witcher. That's what we do.’

Saying it out loud hadn't changed things.

Looking down at her he’d wondered if any serious damage had been done to keep her asleep for so long. Her armour had seen better days. Under the shoulder of leather there was a blood stained puncture mark and it needed other minor repairs from what he could see. The armour looked worn and old. The workmanship was undoubtedly master crafted. His eyes saw the gentle curve in at the waste flaring out at her hips and he forced himself to look at her face. Mentally moving to safer subjects while she was vulnerable. Dark lashes on dusty blood smudged pale skin. Dark hair loose and equally dirty, lay tangled... nothing a bath...

Not good. He growled to himself turning away, clenching his fists.

He tried rationalising the growing attraction for the woman. A strong woman. A fighting woman. He didn't care if she was elf or dwarf, male or female. He'd come across fighting females before. Most had been sorceresses or fighters in the more traditional sense. If not with magic then bows and arrows or swords and poisons.

The woman breathing quietly, sleeping in the dirt was a witcher.

‘A Witcher.’ He quietly repeated to himself.

He looked over at her. Her features looked plain enough until she smiled then she was beautiful. He noted her armour was a little loose as if she had shrunk inside it. How long had she been on the run? Was that the reason for her frail state?

Realising it was getting late and he had been standing over her since he had found her Geralt decided that it was time to find Roach and get a fire started. Nekkers were not too far away and she'd be hungry and thirsty, if his own needs were anything to go by.

He had dragged to a protective overhang. One last glance and he turned away. His legs taking him further away when his instincts urged him to stay.

The sounds of nekkers were greeted by the sliding of silver from a scabbard and a deep growl of unsatisfied anger that was to be released on the monsters.

 

A voice from above and to his right dragged his thoughts back to the present.

‘Thank you for your help.’

Looking for her, Geralt replied. ‘Any time.’

‘A good life to you Geralt of Rivia.’

Geralt spotted her high over to his right up to the bank. She was on horseback. The dark cloak casting her features in shadow.

‘You too Lady Kathryne Du Fonten.’ Again with the charm and platitudes. He couldn’t seem to help it. Didn’t know why he made such an open offer. Maybe because there was a good possibility he would see her again.

She laughed. ‘I’m no lady Geralt. I’m a Witcher.’ A proud, confident statement then she turned and left.

Geralt turned back to the dying fire. He had learnt much about the mysterious witcher. She had many good qualities while her nature alluded to that stubborn determination witchers are often accused of having. He wondered what the passionate witcher would be like. Thinking how Dandelion would ask the question… Would passions such as challenging anger or feminine frustration sparkle in those witcher eyes?

Breaking camp, spirits lifted, Geralt smiled with anticipation. He was looking forward to finding out.

Chapter Text

‘That wraith-kissing, endrega sucking... Foglet!’

The cursing continued while Kathryne stormed the small grove swinging the token Geralt had left for her. No doubt his idea of a joke. Gripping the rusty Redanian sword in one hand and fisting the soft cloth that should have held an exquisite elven blade in the other, she cursed him again. A flush of colour at having said such vile things didn’t change how she felt.

What stung the most was Kathryne knew it wasn’t the witcher she was directing her anger at but herself. She had ignored him as not important. She was used to fumbling soldiers. So caught up with her dealings with the court guard that she didn’t notice the subtle hunting of the experienced witcher.

More anger. At her failure to recognise that experience when he avoided her traps. That very experience had found her and the sword. Even when she met him face to face, he managed to sneak behind her defences. Even had her thinking ...things about him. Him and his easy manner and powerful grace.

Struggling with the contradictions, her gut still didn’t want to think of him as a selfish thief. Wanted to think of him as more. A man who was honourable enough to make the path into the forest safe for the innocent. Returning her gauntlet without recompense. Fighting alongside her as an equal. Talking to her about weapons and armour without sniggers or innuendo.

All smooth talking ... and...

‘Argh!’

Rubbing the heel of her hand over her chest absently she admonished herself again. Who was the fool now?

‘Damn him!’

She stalked back to the remaining bags. It was her own fault she had misjudged him. Well, that won’t happen again and there was no point shouting at him from here.

She'll put a knife to his throat and make him give the sword back. The picture was a good one even if it wasn’t a complete plan. Resolution in mind, she gathered what she wanted to take, quickly packing it up and rode back towards the ravine.

Once there of course, there was no trace of him. Well that wasn't true. He hadn't exactly covered his tracks.

Chapter Text

Geralt threw back another vodka amidst the happy crowd of the Rosemary Inn and considered the consequences of his decision to take the sword. Kathryne will think he stole it for himself. May even think he’d planned to do it from the start.

Well that was partly true. He was hoping to use it to get the truth out of Raymon but that turned out to be unnecessary. He had revealed enough when he lay dying on the roadside to warn Geralt of others who were interested in the destiny of the sword. Others willing to kill for it and the power it held. So he was painting a target on his back simply knowing where it was.

He knew it was magical when his medallion trembled whenever it was in his hands. Knowing how troublesome magical items could be he wondered again why he hadn’t just  given it back? He had returned her gauntlet so why not the sword? Again, he consoled himself with the knowledge that she didn’t really give him the chance. Kathryne had just up and disappeared.

 It had struck him as a little odd at the time. They had been getting along well enough. He enjoyed her company and it felt good that, despite her efforts, he had done the right thing. By the time she had left, her wounds no longer wept blood, she had quenched her thirst and eaten. Shaking his head he knew he had no reason to go to such efforts but he had wanted to. These simple things were essential when travelling alone and she was a witcher.

He had done her the favour of getting her away from the elemental and then fighting with her to kill it, hoping she’d considered this while they talked. Maybe she had? Maybe what she told him was all he would ever get?

Again he asked himself, why put himself out for a witcher who had tried to shoot him with a poison bolt?  

Geralt had no answer.

 Throwing back the vodka, he wouldn’t lie to himself. He wanted to meet her again. Wanted to warn her. Wanted to...

‘Geralt! How have you been?’

‘Zoltan.’

‘Is that Geralt?’ Pricilla came up and gave him a hug but her smile faltered. ‘It’s good to see you again. I hope you are staying a little longer this time? Maybe for a bath…?’ Eyes twinkling with humour but not giving him a chance to respond, she turned towards the crowd. ‘This deserves a celebration. Dandelion!’ She headed off through the crowds.

‘Zoltan before this all gets out of hand I need to ask a favour.’

‘Sure. Whadda ya need?’

‘Keep an eye and ear open for rumours of a female witcher.’

‘Did I hear you right?’

‘She'll be looking for me.’

‘A glitter lit up the dwarfs eyes. I take it you’re not playin hard to get?’

‘Don't make it too hard for her.’ He smiled almost cheekily for a man that rarely cracked a grin and it didn’t go unnoticed.

‘You got it. Should I tell Dandelion?’

Geralt thought of the secretive witcher and the traps and trouble she had got him into and decided the distraction may help his efforts. ‘Sure, he'll find it very interesting. May even flush her out of hiding.’

‘She's in Novigrad?’

‘Not yet but knowing her, she soon will be.’ He said thoughtfully.

Zoltan looked back at Geralt the dwarf deep in thought. ‘How good a witcher is she?’

‘Make yourself plain Zoltan.’

‘Is she like yourself Geralt or does she slide to the shadows without your charm and wisdom to keep herself out of harms way?’

‘Let’s say that a woman of any profession or status is in danger. She also knows how to defend herself a lot more efficiently than most.’

‘So why is she here?’

‘I have something of hers that she wants back so I expect she’ll try and find me or my belongings.’

Dandelion and Pricilla chose that moment to join them.

‘Oh how intriguing,’ Pricilla swooned, smiling. Geralt frowned at the entertainer who usually had everyone else swooning to her singing and lute playing.

‘Well my doors are open to anyone of honest and…’ Dandelion sniffed the air frowning. ‘…clean morals. I have no doubt she will find her way through those very doors before long.’ A maid with a platter of drinks came to them and they all took one.

‘I have to know though, how is it a woman has become a witcher? Is she the real thing?’

Geralt finished his drink, took another and nodded. ‘Yeh, someone thought making girls into witchers was a good idea.’ The reasons for this still eluded him. His frown deepened with memories of what Kathryne had said about her trainer. His face darkened then Dandelion added innocently.

‘I take it she didn’t talk about herself much?’

‘Not a lot of time to. One minute I am trying to prevent her from shooting a man in cold blood the next we are fighting off an elemental in a ravine.’

‘Sounds exciting. Although that seems to be your lot in life my friend.’ Dandelion crossed his arms.

‘Well, if she asks we’ll point you out…if you’ll excuse me...’ Zoltan wandered off yelling and waving his fist at someone drunkenly undoing his pants in the corner.

‘What I want to know is what a female version of Geralt is like?’ Pricilla added, unfortunately keeping Dandelion’s thoughts on the topic Geralt wanted to drop.

‘Indeed, my mind is awash with a woman in witcher armour facing down a cockatrice against a sunset of orange and gold in a meadow of burnished hues…’

Dandelion continued with a tone that set mood into poetry but the imagery was all a little too close to the bone for Geralt.

‘Enough Dandelion.’ Starting to feel the growing interest and not liking it, he asked rather abruptly, ‘Hold me a room would you Dandelion? I’ll be back later.’ Then headed out the door.

‘Consider it done my friend.’

Zoltan returned to see Dandelion and Pricilla staring at each other.

‘Was he a little strange tonight?’

‘He’s a witcher, he’s always a little strange. But now you come to think of it…’ Dandelion rubbed his fashionably trimmed beard.

‘Friend or lover?’ Pricilla smiled at Dandelion provocatively.

‘Agh, don’t make him go through any more than he already has. You remember what happened after Yennifer.’ Zoltan added knowing full well it would be the hot iron in a bale of hay, and it was. Watching as the two of them started firing questions he had no intention of answering. Zoltan took a long swig of Mahakaman ale and consoled himself with the knowledge that it was only because they cared so much for Geralt that their response was what it was.

Zoltan’s eyes went back to the door, the crowd no longer offering a clearway out as they had when he left. His friend had a darkness hanging over his head. He had seen it before and didn’t like it one bit. It ended with Geralt’s soul being eaten away a little more. One less smile over a drink, one less laugh from one of Dandelions tales.

Zoltan sighed deeply, looked to his friends knowing he’d do anything Geralt needed him to do and he’d have Geralt’s back, even if he didn’t ask for it.

Chapter Text

Novigrad was a walled town with every gate lined with merchants and people trying to get in. People with their lives on their backs and grubby children in their arms. Where merchants bickered and lords and their ladies primped and articulated their displeasure to no avail. Their voices carrying their bloodline of some lord from another land or great grand niece of the late somebody or other.

Apparently passes were required to gain access to this town no matter who you were.

Turning her horses off the main road she followed the river through a small village until she came to an inn. Keeping her cloak over her face she left the bloody skins of the pack of wolves she had encountered leaving the forest and a few heads on meat hooks to put off prying eyes and wandering fingers. Paid the stable boy to water and feed them and walked into the inn proper.

It was warm and a lad was spreading straw over the floor in the corner. A fire burned and the walls had smatterings of brightly coloured flowers painted here and there. There were herbs hanging near the table behind a barrel of ale that sat in pride of place in the large open room. A girl came in wearing an apron and carrying more dishes and platters than she looked capable of lifting.

‘What can I get you?’ A quick glance and Kathryne found herself assessed and judged quicker than clergy on a witch hunt. ‘Ale and some mutton stew?’

‘An ale would be welcome.' A couple of coins were placed on the table and the inn keeper smiled.

‘You need a meal in your belly.’ She yelled to the man sweating over a pot at a stove in a small annex behind her.

Settling wearily with her ale at a nearby table it wasn’t long before a lean older man sidled up beside her, his eyes looking at her bowl while another man pulled up a stool on her other side.

‘I'm not wanting company.’ Kathryne said keeping her eyes lowered and her witcher senses alert.

‘Everyone likes company’ the man grinned leaning closer and breathing fetid breath over her.

Waving off the stench she caught herself. Was it wise to let them know a female witcher was in town? They were an oddity in this land.

‘What's wrong with you that you don't like company?’ The other said starting to crowd her.

‘What about an easy game o gwent?’

‘I don’t like gwent.’

‘Ev’ryone plays gwent! A few coin, a litl’ bet or two. How bout it?’

The dagger came out from beneath her cloak with a quick flick and she held it up. The shiny sharp surface and fine leatherwork lost on the two men who suddenly appeared to change tactics. It could go two ways. They'd back off or they'd think it a challenge. Kathryne was prepared for both.

‘I'll give you one last chance to go away.’

‘Gods have mercy.’

‘There's no need to get violent. We was only being friendly.’ Said the other.

‘Stop botherin my customers Durol go play a game of gwent or somethin.’ The inn keeper casually threw their way while clearing table space and kicking the floor clear of rubbish.

‘We was try’in to...’

The woman looked at them clearly unimpressed with their excuses.

‘Aw we never have any fun anymore.’

‘No cos your never willin to pay for it… Speaking of payin…’ She continued.

‘Come on now Tamin darlin we are good to you. You know that?’

‘If you were good to me you wouldn't be bothering my payin customers and you'd have paid me for last night’s ale.’

‘Aw Tamin… you kicked us out b’fore we could...’

‘Are they your clothes on your back cos you didn’t leave with them after playin’ gwent with ol’ Rogars. You should be thankin’ me for saving your pants as well.’

‘Aye we’re grateful an all but one more round…’

‘Don't give me that rot. Why should I waste good ale on the likes of you? You can't follow simple instructions on a good day.’

‘Now Tamin we watch out for you know who, like ya say every night for an ale from that sweet barrel o yours.’ His toothy grin and sparkling eyes made Kathryne’s stomach turn but Tamin went soft for a moment then stiffened, kicking a piece of dried something away.

‘You were out there for as long as it took to walk back to that so called apprentice carvers place. So don't try that ol lick on me.’

‘Nar we didn't.’

‘In fact why don't you git your arses out back and work off some of what you owe? At least I can keep an eye on you both.’ Turning to the back. ‘ Dafid!’ She called for the stable hand but the men grumbled and weaselled their way out the door.

‘We should watch for …’

‘Yeh let’s go out front and watch…’

Tamin returned to her serving table muttering, ‘...they'll be scavenging off their mates until they get sick of em then they'd be back in my inn again...’

 

Kathryne watched the sequence of events with interest. She'd always approached that situation differently. Usually bluff turned into a fight but the inn keeper dealt with it efficiently enough. Hmm.

Resettling herself at her table, she felt naked without both swords on her back but they seemed to invite trouble around here. A lad came quickly into the room, glanced around, walked up to the inn keeper. The exchange of words was hushed and then he disappeared again. She didn't look too happy. Something about Arton and some mates? Interesting that he also pointed out that Kathryne carried a silver sword on her horse. Cheeky little goddling. She’d have to have a quiet word with him later. 

The mood of the inn had relaxed and she finished her meal in peace and was ready for another ale when the door slammed open and three large men came in staggering and raving boisterously. Drunk, they slammed their hands on the table. Tamin put up a brave face and then gave them all a mug of ale. Coin passed hands but Tamin didn't look pleased. Looking up, the inn keeper caught her eye. Kathryne saw the warning and watched the situation carefully.

They were large, drunk and abusive. A hand came out slamming the table.  A roaring demand that had spittle flying. Words were exchanged and the man slapped the inn keeper so hard she spun away to the floor. The men cheered and began helping themselves to her ale.

Kathryn picked up her mug, pulled the cloak from her shoulders and casually wandered over to the table where Tamin was now pulling herself up off the floor, trembling with fear and shaking her head.

Reaching the table Kathryne stepped up beside the brute and clearing her throat placed the mug carefully on the table. She slid a coin down towards the inn keeper.

Brute glanced at her, took the coin then ignored her. Idiot to the right of him looked her up and down from behind the huge arse end of brute then leered at his mate pox moving to her left.

Clearing her throat again brute turned on her nastily.

‘Fuck off.’ He said leaning heavily on the table, ale spilling from his other hand.

She lifted her eyes to his. ‘You first.’ Her hand moved with practiced speed. A dagger hit the table the blade landing in the gap between brutes fingers.

He went still then glanced at his fingers realising that the blade had somehow missed landing neatly between. Leaning down to her face he sneered.

‘Ya missed.’

Her right fist gripping a dagger hilt snapped out and caught him in the nose with a cracking sound that had him howling. Her knee came out a moment later hitting the soft squishy part of his large fleshy body between his thighs. The howl turned to a squeaking sound and he fell to his knees grabbing his crotch.

Idiot blocked by brutes collapsing figure, egged pox on to the attack. As Pox reached for his own blade somewhere around his ample beltline, Kathryne’s booted foot connected with the arch of his and then her fist, dagger hilt sill in hand, punched his throat in a quick jab that had him stumbling backwards making gagging noises.

Two down. Idiot decided to join in, a short blade in hand. She met his slicing swing. Her left hand blocked his arm and her good right hand pulled, unbalancing him. Turning and pivoting him around and over her shoulder he flew down like a sack of vegetables.

Her knee landing with her weight behind it onto his chest making his eyes pop and his mouth open like a fish gulping for air. Grabbing her dagger hilt in her fist she punched him in his nose. Another satisfying crack.

Brute was pulling himself up with a look of vengeance when Kathryne noticed him and smiled.

‘Go on, give it a go.’

His bloody face glared back at her. His hand leaving red smears across the wood of the table. A toothy sneer peeling his lips apart, his chest sucking in breath that was to become a sound of rage.

It was then that a metal pot came swinging down against his head.

Bo-n-ng!

He barely flinched then flopped sideways down onto the floor. A panting Tamin standing over him just starred, the pot still swinging from the handle. Straightening her spine she addressed everyone in the inn, her lip bloody and her cheek swelling.

‘No more. Do ya hear me? Pay up or leave and never come back.’ Anger lit her face with a resounding stoic force that left her flushed. A few of patrons warily pulled a few coin from their pockets and put them on the table for her. ‘Now get them out of my premises.’ As the groaning men were lifted, dragged or walked from the inn she added. ‘Payin customers only. Do ya hear!’ The cook and a young woman came over to her with a chair and an ale. The cook tried to prise the pot handle from her white knuckles.

Kathryne decided this was a good time to leave. Trouble would come calling for her if she stayed. Pulling the cloak around her again, she was about to go when the inn keeper saw her.

‘You! I need to talk to you.’ Still flushed and wide eyed, Tamin’s voice trembled.

Kathryne nodded and quietly pulled a chair up beside her.

The young serving girl was wiping the blood off the table and pouring more ale. People were drifting in through the doors as if the news had already travelled. Smiling faces and coins seemed to flow across the table as tales of what happened started to spread.

‘I can’t stay. They will come back and cause you trouble.’ Kathryne looked at the older woman trembling as she drank the ale clutched between her worn wrinkled fingers.

‘I need you to do something for me and after tonight, you will need my help.’ When Kathryne looked like she was going to refuse, Tamin added quickly. ‘I can get you inside the town walls.’

Kathryne looked at the woman, suspicion on her face.

‘If you do this, you may even have a room and a bath for a couple of days.’

Hmm, that sounded too good to pass up. It will take her some time to find out the witcher’s location and where he put her sword. It was the best offer she had and time was running out.

‘Let’s talk privately.’ Kathryne eyed the flushed cheeks and the wide irises of the woman beside her. ‘Tomorrow?’

‘Tonight! I need your help tonight. And seein’ as you’re partly to blame,' Her eyes glanced nervously to the door of the inn. 'I was hopin you could start now.’

Kathryne’s suspicions grew but she nodded and helped Tamin up.

‘It has to do with that brute and his friends, doesn’t it?’

Tamin nodded. ‘And my sister.’ The dread and worry now darkening Tamin’s features was enough for Kathryne to do the job but she would hear her out.

Chapter Text

The downpour subdued the sounds of mewling children and rowdy adults, human and non-human, scattered along the main road into Novigrad. Their horses hooves splashed and stumbled over the uneven ground that was the main road. Pavon cursed as his horse stumbled again but as he looked at the forms sheltering from the rain and clustered around fires, he was surprised at the number of dwarves and elves littering the road’s edge and mingling with the humans. Pavon eyed the non-humans with suspicion and dislike.

A gust of icy wind had Pavon pulling his robe closer around his leather armour. He didn’t realise how cold it would get this side of the Blue Mountains. He half expected desert lands and warm evenings but the lands had been varied and mostly inhabited by poor people on the edges of survival. He was looking forward to some comforts. Not the grisly tasteless stews from the inns or the watered down ale. Even the beds had things that bit and left him itching for days.

Determination solidifying, Pavon knew if they completed this job they’d be set up for a comfortable winter in the inns back in his home town. The smile of pleasure never made it to his leathery scarred face. The sounds of stone beneath his horses hooves were a relief as the track turned into a paved entry road to the gate where they were confronted by guards.

‘Papers!’ One yelled. Two armoured men pushed their pikes across in front of them and stood waiting. Their helmeted features offering little expression. Another guard came over, spitting to the side but keeping his distance, a plate covered hand resting on his sword.

‘Well? What are you waiting for?’

Pavon pulled the scroll pouch from his bag and opening it as if it was a message directly from royalty, offered the clean crisp scroll over to the guard who waved a boy over with a torch. In the flickering light Pavon could see the rain landing on the poor quality paper and the edges soften. The wax seal was what they were looking for and the signature of their own court. A letter giving them safe passage throughout Redania.

A moment later and the soldiers gauntlets were rolling it up roughly while waving and yelling to the guards ahead. Shoving the paper back at Pavon he waved them through as if they were nobodies making Pavon want to stab the man in the eye and watch him twitch.

‘Go on through.’ He said meeting Pavon eye to eye then each one of his men. ‘Make no trouble on your travels and you won’t end up visiting our dungeons.’

When their witcher didn’t get the usual extra curse or threats, Pavon glanced back. Nope, Norsen sat as the others were. No hiding his eyes behind a hood and twin swords on his back. So they had seen witchers before. Maybe there was one already around? They moved through the rough fence lines of wood and wagons before walking their weary horses through the tall gates. Beggars approached them first clearly hoping them as naïve as they were new to the town. Pavon decided to take the opportunity, leaning down to a fellow with no teeth begging for coin.

‘Where can we find a place to eat and drink?’ He said lifting a coin pouch that distracted the beggar.

‘There be the Rosemary Inn with board and entertainment.’ He said pointing one way. ‘ The Sturgeon is quiet like down near the wharf.’

When he seemed to lose Pavon’s interest the man rushed to point out the brothel and bath house and another inn of higher class. All good options for Pavon to explore.

‘Have you seen or heard of a woman witcher around?’

The surprise and even disbelief was hidden quickly but not quickly enough. ‘There be a witcher in town...’

As the beggar held out his hand and looked up at Pavon expectantly he received a swift kick. Laughter quickly followed as they moved on.

The beggar landed heavily in the mud muttering something darkly but remained where he was. Pavon cared little as his men laughed and made fun of the beggar.

A witcher, his arse. Pavon sneered beneath his hood. Probably the usual male with a couple of swords on his back and a stolen pendant. It had surprised him when they had come across two of these fools on their journey. Different places yet both masquerading as witchers.

Witchers had little or no value back home. They were the myth hunters of the mountains. Seeking out monsters that no longer existed. Mind you, he never said his views out loud. Not since Norsen had joined his men. The silent one, they called him. He never spoke unless he absolutely needed to. His sword skills would be useful but his witcher senses picked up more than any hunter and that had given them the advantage. They had eventually found the kings court guard. All dead. But the weapon had not been found. The witcher’s tracks had been lost in the forest and they had to leave one of their men behind when he was injured. The village healer had been fair about her fee but he hadn’t paid it. He had a suspicion that Norsen had though. Her information had also been a rouse leading them in a wide circle around the very town they now entered. He had wanted to slit her throat for wasting his time. Instead he listened to the music that was horses hooves clattering on the slick surfaces of the wet cobbles. Civilisation at last.

 

 

Brushing the muck and mud from himself, the old man limped to the wall where a saturated pad of horsehair and a meagre bag of belongings awaited him.

A man loomed up beside him making him jump and step backwards fearing for his life but a gloved hand came out, a couple of coins glinting in the torch light. He looked to the shadowed face waiting for permission. A small nod then a question. He answered it adding anything else he thought would be useful. Another order and another coin. Then the stranger was gone. Swallowing, heart thundering, he knew he could get into a lot of trouble but starving men were easy to find. He had also made a commitment for more coin if he passed on new information. At least his place near the gate was his now. A smile came over his toothless face. He would have enough for a slice of pie and an ale or two for himself and Mabela… If he watched his tongue, she might even let him sleep under her roof tonight.

Looking back at the gates, now firmly shut, he decided to call it a night when a mounted man approached. He stopped and looked to the gate then slowly turned his horse around.

‘You won’t be getting through the gate this night… opens on the mornin.’ He announced casually as best he could. It was then he recognised the hooded figure as one of the band of men that had passed earlier and his eyes widened in horror of such a foolish mistake. He may well end up with his throat slit open. Heart hammering in his old chest he prepared to run as fast as his arthritic bent body could take him when the man stopped his horse and turned towards him. Torchlight hit his face and he saw witcher eyes.

‘You spoke of a Witcher?’

A gloved hand flicked a coin his way encouraging him to speak.

‘Aye, the White Wolf’s ‘ere.’

‘Where can I find him?’

‘He’s welcomed at the Madam’s, as he is at the Rosemary.’

The man on horseback nodded to him and left.

Too terrified to move, he watched the cloaked figure walk his horse back the way he came until he disappeared around a corner then his eyes went to the dirt in front of him. A silver coin sparkled up at him. The man with cruel black eyes had asked about a witcher too. A female witcher. He had doubted his ears. The other stranger asking for information about the man with black eyes and his men hadn’t been so generous and said he would be back.

The beggars hunger and greed never made him question what and who he had committed to by taking the coin. He didn’t honestly know but he was sure that if his honour could be bought it was the witcher on horseback who had it.

A drip of morality entered his thoughts. What of his allegiance to his own, his king? What of honour and self respect?

Aw stuff the king, stuff honour, he’d be right.

A noise of another beggar coming his way had him scooping the coin from the mud. With cold, grubby hands he gathered his belongings then disappeared into the darkened alleyways of the poorest part of town.

Chapter Text

‘Well you proved yourself tonight. Arton is sleeping it off in the sty and my Riama is packing her belongings. Ere have some food.’ Tamin said happily placing a food platter in front of her as another woman hurriedly pulled clothing from a bag.

‘She’s a bit old but I’ll be able to get her in as a replacement for Madams whorehouse.’ The woman said holding up a corset of garish colouring against Kathryne’s back as she ate.

‘I just need a pass, not a job as a whore.’ Kathryne said not caring her irritation showed. She was tired, hungry and in desperate need of a bath. ‘Tell me about this job Tamin?’

‘You’re not getting a job but a place on a wagon through the gates.’ The woman laughed at the possibility of the armoured witcher playing at being a whore, chuckling she pulled a petticoat and pair of silk and wood shoes from the bag.

Tamin leaned forward next to Kathryne conspiratorially. ‘We need to move some liquor inside the walls of Novigrad and only need a horse and a willing couple of ladies to assist with the disguise. You got a horse right?’

Mouth too full to answer she nodded but the frown on her face made it clear she wasn’t happy. Finally swallowing she turned her scowl on the other woman who was now measuring her up for some kind of lace and bone indecency. The fabric and frills grubby and the colours in need of washing.

‘You know I have a horse but not sure either will stand in front of a wagon.’

‘My sister Riama will assist you.’ Then more enthusiastically. ‘You can hide your stuff under your pelts that will also help hide the liquor. If all goes well you and all you brought will end up on the inside of the walls. You need only be another distraction for the guards and keep Riama safe.’

‘From guards?’ Soldiers were not to be trifled with in a town this size and the thought of dressing like a loose woman and the consequences of such a thing made her too uncomfortable to sit still. ‘This can't be the only way to get a pass?’ Tamin shoved her back down into her seat.

‘What? You think you can climb over them?’ The other woman cackled with laughter.

‘Suit yourself but you still earned the meal so eat up.’ Tamin poured an ale and pushed it in front of Kathryne. ‘It's the only way I know of getting you through the gates.’ Tamin turned to her then and gave her a worried look that almost begged for mercy. ‘I have no other way of payin’ for your services Witcher. I owe you my inn and my sister’s life. Arton would have surely killed her. She’s already lost two babes to that man’s fist. Inside she’ll have safe lodgings and work. A new life.’ Hands clasped together, eyes dark with bruising and lack of sleep, Tamin made a pitiful picture.

‘Fine, but I’m not wearing petticoats and my boots stay on.’ She added gritting her teeth then scooping up more of the tasty stew with the wooden spoon.

‘Thought you’d understand. We’ll set off as soon as the wagon’s loaded up.’ Tamin smiled, satisfied it would all work out fine.

Kathryne wasn’t so sure.

Chapter Text

‘Geralt. What brings you to my fine establishment?’

‘Dekstra.’ A cloth around his naked hips, Geralt stepped from the changing room into the corridor that would take him to his allocated bath. ‘Thought it was obvious.’ He added watching his gear being taken away.

‘Don't think you can fool me. You’ve been here little more than a day and I'm hearing strange things.’

The larger man was one of Novigrad’s underworld bosses who ran the city, apparently for grander reasons than just power. Or so he said. The ex-spy master still limped from the injury Geralt had given him all those years ago but he kept his eyes on Dekstra’s rounded face and remained quiet. ‘Can I bathe first?’

Dekstra lead them to a quiet room away from his other guests before speaking. They entered a smaller more private chamber where the bath water misted a little across the surface. Perfect. Unable to resist, Geralt moved forward standing on the edge his feet almost white against the bright tile.

‘Melitele’s tits Geralt… is it true?’ Dekstra hissed.

Dropping his towel, he stepped into the heated clean water.

‘I can't say. Haven't met Melitele…’

Geralt relaxed back letting the heat soak through into his bones while the mildly scented water removed the noticeable stench he had acquired being on horseback so long. He stifled a groan of pleasure but remained alert. Dekstra was not unknown to smile and shake your hand while pulling a knife and stabbing you with the other. ‘You’re talking in riddles Dekstra.’

‘Hrmph. Why not save me the time and tell me what you know Geralt?’ He crossed his arms over his chest.

‘You’re the ex-spy master. Why are you asking me?’

Watching the witcher carefully, there was one thing he knew about Geralt, it was getting information out of him was extremely expensive. He began to pace. ‘A court guard from Staggenhorn in the Blue Mountains has gone missing in Redania. That’s ten men. Coincidentally, there is a handsome reward for a thief and a stolen item to be returned to Lord Dothol from Staggenhorn. A country, I’ll remind you, that we have no treaty of war or trade with…’ He stopped pacing and faced Geralt now relaxing back with his eyes closed. The witcher presented as relaxed and uncaring. Dekstra was tempted to put a knife to his throat but knew that Geralt would be moving before he got the chance. It wasn’t human the way he knew what was going to happen.

Going to a tray of wine and food, he poured a glass of wine. Threw it back and then refilled it. ‘This would be a minor concern if the Redanian lords were not now looking on Novigrad again. I can almost hear them rubbing their hands together with enthusiasm.’ He took a gulp of wine. ‘Then there are the foreign assassins… Geralt are you listening to me?’

‘I’d rather not Dekstra but I hope you will get to the point?’

‘You’re right, these issues are of little concern except that they all seem to be somehow connected to a female witcher in the area.’ He took another drink, watched Geralt as if expecting him to show something, anything to deny or confirm what he was about to say.

Geralt remained stubbornly calm and quiet.

‘She is said to have sorted out some riff raff at the Seven Cats Inn. If I hadn’t heard it from my own men I would have stabbed them for blatant lies.’ The ex-Spy master smiled with self-satisfaction. ‘So you know who she is? I knew it. Tell me what you know.’

‘Why would I want to tell you anything Dekstra?’ Geralt opened his eyes and focused them on the man beside him. Dekstra was met with a somewhat familiar stubborn look on cold, scarred features.

‘Let’s start with something easy. What is she doing here?’

‘Passing through I guess. I did meet her, briefly on my way through. Other than that...’ He shrugged his shoulders, the water sloshing gently over his skin.

‘You know more than that, I’ll wager.’ Dekstra said in a tone that spoke volumes about how difficult life could become on Dekstar’s bad side.

The witcher sighed. ‘What do you want to hear?

Silence filled the chamber.

‘If I didn’t know you better Geralt, I’d say she’s turned you back.’

‘Back to what?’

‘Back to life. Back into a man who has hope.’ The scowl that creased Geralt’s features made Dekstra laugh. ‘So tell me, why isn’t she here with you?’

‘What makes you think she is of any interest to me?’

‘You weren't improper Geralt?’ Mocking disbelief clear on his smiling face, he grabbed the bottle of wine from the tray. Dekstra enjoyed stirring up the witcher.

Geralt knew Dekstra very well. The old spymaster was someone he had many years of history with so the relationship was tangible now and teasing was tolerated. Geralt relaxed back into the water his arms spread along the edge of the tile.

‘You know as intriguing as the girl witcher is I have more pressing things to deal with.’ Dekstra said rising from his position on the lounger.

‘Leaving Dekstra?’ The desire to bathe in peace clear.

‘I have a visiting diplomat here on business. Has a vested interest in what we’ve been talking about. Has a signed order from his king and all. Rather interesting really, comes from a far off kingdom...’ Dekstra watched Geralt carefully. ‘Says he wants to speak to you about business of some importance.’

‘You playing whorehouse Madam now Dekstra?’

‘You shouldn't demean the Madam or her Ladies Geralt.’ He admonished. ‘After all, they are the ones who keep your reputation so much larger than life!’ He chuckled at his own joke.

Sighing with friendly tolerance, Geralt spoke with a good dose of boredom. ‘I don't know any kings from far off kingdoms Dekstra. Not living ones anyway. I do know an Emperor but he made it clear he never wanted to see or hear from me again.’ Geralt wanted to return to the pleasure of having more of the travel grime soaked away. ‘What have you been telling him?’

‘Nothing. He has obviously heard of the White Wolf.’

Dekstra refreshed his glass again. ‘He would like to meet with you… when you are cleaner than you currently are I guess.’

‘Good. Then I can bathe in peace.’ He growled up at Dekstra who was looking smug. ‘And leave me some of that wine.’

Clapping his hands Dekstra looked down at Geralt with a calculating smile. The eunuch doorman entered and looked to Dekstra. ‘Send a couple of girls in here to speed things up.’

A bow and then moments later two scantily glad girls come in quietly and placing some items on the bath edge, stepped into the bath and began the not all together unpleasing chore of washing Geralt’s muscular frame.

‘I'm not paying for this Dekstra.’

‘Geralt you insult my hospitality.’

‘What do you want?’

Feminine hands with soap and fine sands rubbed over muscle and tendon easing tightness and going places that made rational thoughts difficult.

‘I want to be kept informed.’

‘Of what? You know more than I do.’

‘Come now Geralt. Who killed the men who contracted you to get the stolen item back? Where is that valuable now? What does the witcher want with it?’

‘That information seems to be a lot for a simple wash Dekstra, nor am I one of your spies.’

‘A room at the Madam’s for the duration of your stay? I know Viola can be made available…’

‘Dekstra...’ He was about to tell the man to shove his offer but he decided he could use it to his advantage. ‘I tell you what. I need a certain person to find their way unhindered and safely into town.’

‘Who?’ Dekstra’s eyes went from narrow slits of suspicion to wide with understanding. ‘The witcher? Why?’

‘We have unresolved business.’

‘So you were knocked back?’ Dekstra teased and chuckled, ‘The great lover was shunned by a female witcher… Ironic don’t you think?’ Watching the black look on Geralt’s face he became more serious. ‘I could have her tied up in a dungeon in the blink of an eye... but I see by your expression that is not your wish. It will not be an easy matter …’

Geralt just stared at him.

‘Fine. Anything else?’

‘Yes, those nights at the madams, I’ll take as well.’

‘Done.’

There was a delightful peace in the room for some time. Geralt could almost pretend Dekstra was no longer there until he spoke again.

‘You know this witcher may be female but frankly there are weirder things out there.’ Dekstra said with pragmatic perspective.

‘I doubt it’s the witcher that is of interest unless they want a scapegoat for the deed of stealing the icon.’

‘Icon?’

‘All right Dekstra. The icon is apparently an ancient relic that is symbolic of a treaty between two factions or countries. It goes missing and then the two factions start getting nasty.’

‘Our diplomat has been a little cagey on this topic.’

‘Not surprising. Were treaties mentioned?’

‘Hmm, vaguely, so keeping your witcher out of trouble could be very interesting.’ Dekstra scratched his chin knowing the Geralt had got the better of him this time. ‘Why is she coming here I wonder?’

‘I may have mentioned there were a few armour smiths here.’ Geralt said dropping his head back to enjoy the girls ministrations and closing his eyes. He certainly wasn’t going to lead Dekstra’s men straight to Kathryne.

Dekstra nodded his approval at the witcher’s logic and method. ‘So what’s this other business?’

‘None of yours. What’s your view of this diplomat?’

‘A lying half elf but all diplomats are liars. He says he represents a human country who dislikes elves judging by his reaction to his servant.’ Dekstra smiled conspiratorially. ‘But he loves my Bath House so I will humour him... for a price.’

‘It’s good business.’

‘Like those thieving dwarven bankers. Since I had that fortune stolen from my basement I’ve had to use the bank. It’s a wrought Geralt...’

The girls soon finished and Geralt wiped his trimmed beard as he was rinsed off and given a towel. Feminine eyes and soft hands offering invitations hesitated to leave him until Dekstra asked Geralt to follow him to another chamber.

More private and luxurious it offered a large bath and a change room behind carved panels at the back, out from which stepped a man Geralt judged to be no older than Dekstra with better skin and a somewhat leaner elegance about him. He assessed Geralt with a quick glance and came to meet him. Holding out a long slender hand Geralt was surprised to feel softened calluses. So, he knew his way around a sword.

‘I have heard of you White Wolf.’ Dismissing Dekstra the man walked to the bath.

Geralt remained silent.

‘Or is it the Butcher of Blaviken? Ah I see you don’t prefer the latter, so how do you wish to be addressed?’

‘Geralt of Rivia will do.’

‘Geralt then.’ He seated himself on the edge. ‘Please, join me.’

‘I have been attended to already thank you.’

‘You are no doubt curious about my intentions.’ Removing his towel he slid into the waters and sat comfortably with a sigh. ‘The roads were not kind and the mage refused to send me directly by portal.’

‘Not unusual. Novigrad was recently known for torturing then burning mages at the stake in the town square.’

‘I did not know this.’

‘I'm surprised he didn’t tell you. A court advisor or sorceress should have known this.’ Geralt knew he was provoking the man but he wanted to put him off balance as he had tried to do with Geralt with that Butcher of Blaviken comment. His pendant trembled ever so slightly so he walked slowly around the room as he spoke.

‘They hold other places in the court where I come from.’ His tone spoke of cold dislike. Long elegant fingers took some berries and nuts from a platter he placed a couple into his mouth, chewed carefully, then began talking.

‘Forgive me, my name is Lord Dothol of Staggenhorn. On behalf of my king, I require your services. Apparently your tracking ability is renowned and I need to track and capture another witcher.’ Another sigh. ‘Novigrad does have the best bath house.’

‘Don't tell Dekstra his prices will go up.’

A self satisfied smile. ‘I doubt he doesn't know this already.’

He cast a meaningful look at Geralt. Eyes the colour of glacier lakes that nearly glowed met his. Geralt had only seen that colour eyes in certain individuals of a certain non-human race. He would have to be careful.

‘So will you help me?’

Settling back against a stone column he crossed his arms. The actions making his scarred muscular chest stand out in sharp relief in the lamp light.

‘I don't hunt humans.’

‘Ah yes. The witcher ethos. You're a monster killer. Does species rule the definition of a monster or can it be a case by case decision?’

Geralt knew where this was going so remained silent.

‘Ten of the best and most loyal guardsmen went after this witcher and appear to have failed in their task. We have not heard from them in some time. My information tells me you were seen with them recently?’

‘I was.’

‘Please, tell me what you know.’ The request was polite enough and Geralt knew this was all a facade.

‘I was hired by Raymon who had three men, to track a thief. However they left without giving me my payment when we reached Hathern?’

‘Ah. May I ask what happened?’

A polite question filled with a tension he couldn’t identify.

‘I followed them.’ Geralt shrugged passing the change room and noting a chest inside. His medallion trembled with more energy.

The Lord remained silent as Geralt continued.

‘Your guardsmen all fell to someone who was good at setting traps and excellent with a crossbow.’ Geralt scratched his chin. ‘I came across Raymon on my way through to Novigrad. He was injured and begged me to get him to safety. He said a witcher was hunting them.’ Geralt met the Lord eye to eye. ‘My knowledge of witchers is solid, Lord Dothol. We are not murderers so I wanted an explanation. He gave it to me on one condition that I get him to safety which I did.’

‘He never made it back.’

‘No, the bolt that injured him was poisoned. He died that day.’ Geralt watched the Lord sitting in his luxurious bath as he thought on his response.

‘How did the poison present?’

Geralt told him and Dothol nodded. ‘Hoddonwood is an exceptional poison.’

‘You said Raymon was with three men? Do you know of the others?’

‘He never spoke of any others.’

‘So I have ten guardsmen who have family and friends yet unavenged. A lost treaty, by a witcher who remains dubiously elusive. Will you not help us, and take the contract to bring this renegade to justice? I will be very generous. Winter will not feel cold this year or next.’

‘I thank you but I must decline.’

‘No matter what you think or know witcher, those ten Court Guards were doing their job and she killed them.’ Dothol shrugged. ‘She stole the icon that binds two countries together. It was the only treaty and now our countries are growing tense. I’m here to fix that.’ He shifted in the bath then looked up at Geralt lazily. ‘Raymon didn’t reveal anything about where the item is?’

‘Item, icon...’ Interesting choice of words. ‘Even I know it is a sword.’

‘Hmm. You know of the sword?’

‘Your so called special guards tried to sell it to a common blacksmith who simply couldn't afford it. Even he knew its value. So I would guess that all Redania and lower Velen knows about your sword by now. A rather magnificent piece I hear.’ Geralt hid his grin when Dothol frowned and whispered elven expletive that, of course, he heard and understood clearly.

‘My understanding of events was somewhat different.’

‘I'm sure it was.’ Geralt tried not to feel smug.

‘She still needs to be brought to justice.’

‘Then you had better arrange some soldiers. More than ten is my guess.’

‘Kathryne Du Fonten enjoys the courtly luxuries. I dare say she will be heading to Novigrad soon enough.’

‘If there is nothing else?’ Geralt looked to Dothol keeping his face neutral. The male sneered making him look very human.

‘You are being a fool, witcher.’ The words were spoken with venom. ‘She has manipulated you as she does all men. Then she kills them. She is an evil creature that needs to be put to death and prevented from torturing other men in this land...’ The tall lean male wrapped a robe of fine fabric around his body as he spoke.

‘You sound jealous.’ Geralt smiled slightly without turning back.

Geralt slid the doors closed on the continuing monologue and saw a man loitering there suddenly find new direction of more interest.

Dekstra didn’t waste time.

The Madam’s parlours were looking good about now. He didn't know if this diplomat had any backbone of his own or if he was in on the guardsmen’s game? Either way he had to return the sword to Kathryne and help her get out of Novigrad. Kathryne. His thoughts had been on her too often of late. A couple of nights in the arms of a woman or two would help distract him and be more pleasurable than waking unsatisfied…

Chapter Text

Harrot greeted Geralt with genuine pleasure.

‘Geralt. How can I help you this afternoon?’

‘Repairs if you have the time?’

‘Always. Come in.’

‘My silver needs repair.’ He said unbuckling the strap and handing the sword in sheath for the elv's keen eye. The sword was carefully withdrawn and viewed by the master.

‘Mmm it does need rework but not as bad as you think. What about your steel?’

Handing it over Geralt asked. ‘How's it look?’

‘It's a relic Geralt. Can you not treat it with a little more care?’

‘Knew you'd understand.’

‘I understand a lot more than you think.’

‘Oh?’

‘Yes. What would you think if a woman handed you two swords to repair. One silver, the other steel?’

‘That there is another witcher in town.’

‘Indeed Geralt. But if the swords were only the length of my arm?’ He displayed the lean muscular length alongside Geralt's own blade was a full hand length longer again. ‘At first I thought Ciri was in town but her sword is shorter, if I remember correctly and she only carries one. I was given two.’

Harrot stepped closer as if sharing a secret of detail of his blade whispered. ‘If I didn’t know any better I’d think it is for a dwarven witcher but even that wouldn’t work. The blades would be too long you see.’

Geralt grit his teeth together and tightened his lips in an effort not to laugh out loud at the thought.

‘I've never heard of dwarven witchers Harrot. I'll have to ask Zoltan…’

‘Even so, the weight of the sword it is wrong too.’ Harrot continued oblivious to Geralt’s mirth.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well the lightness of the blade is for a lighter framed person.’

‘Do you have the swords here?’

‘I do.’ Stepping to another table, he uncovered the blades and passed the silver to him almost reverently.

Geralt took the familiar sword and weighed it in his hands. ‘You’re right, it is lighter. Good workmanship too.’

‘Indeed, someone knows a lot about the owner of this sword.’

Geralt was enjoying this too much. ‘Maybe a woman?’

‘A woman? Of course. That fits…’ His eyes opened wide at the thought of a female witcher. His voice revealing his feelings. ‘Geralt, it couldn't be.’

‘Maybe it was the woman who delivered them to you. Did you see her eyes?’

‘No I didn’t but she looked far too frail to be a witcher Geralt. A poor dreg off the streets given a chore to do for a coin or two.’ He said dismissing the thought.

Harrot’s comment worried Geralt. He hoped it wasn’t Kathryne he described. ‘An elf maybe?’

‘Blade should be as long as yours.’

‘Why don't you ask her when she returns?’ Geralt placed Kathryne’s silver back on the table.

‘I will Geralt.’ Handling the swords with the care he smiled. ‘Leave these with me. Oh, she did ask if there was a witcher in town. Should I mention you?’

‘Sure. She may have a monster to kill. Better still, tell her I’ll be at the Rosemary tomorrow, the witcher is welcome to join me for an ale. I'll be back tomorrow Harrot.’

Harrot waved him off intent on his work. Geralt was quietly humoured by the situation. So, she made it inside without Dekstra’s help… even more capable than she seemed. He should have a word with the armour smiths about town while he was here.

 

 

Wearing borrowed clothing and carefully choosing when to move about in public, Kathryne’s appearance was that of a cloaked paid servant seen anywhere on the streets of Novigrad. It felt good to be out of armour for a change but it also left Kathryne feeling very vulnerable. She travelled when it was easy to blend into the crowds and the weather required cloaks and hoods but still she was sure she was being followed. Eyeing off the young lads grouped near the armourer had given her an idea.

Dropping Geralt's name the Journeyman Armour Smith agreed to repair her ‘brother’s’ armour for her by the following day when she offered gems instead of coin.

Getting that prickly sensation of being watched again she moved through the crowds back the way she had come. Riama was working as a laundry maid near the brothel. Maybe she could help with a new disguise.

Be what they don’t expect to see.

Chapter Text

Pushing the wash cloth carefully over her bruised and grubby skin, the aches and pain that went with her movements were stubbornly ignored. With a little bit of water she had been able to carry up those stairs, Kathryne attempted to soak off the travel grime and dust.

She had slept for nearly a full day after she was given her room. Waking up feeling refreshed and hungry she had made her way down to the kitchen, realising very quickly that she needed a bath before she would get any conversation.

Women’s voices came from outside the door and the sound of buckets being put down on the floor.

Kathryne had hung the cloth on the handle as notice that the bathing room was in use and when there was a knock she called out.

‘Come back later.’

‘I have more water for you.’ Came the muffled feminine response.

The door cracked open a little.

‘I’m Becca. Mistress Thara said you’d like a bath so I’ve brought you hot water.’

‘Thank you.’ Hiding her relief from being shunted so soon from even this pitiful extravagance Kathryne eagerly levered herself into a sitting position. A soft gasp made her look up at the young woman in front of her. A horrified expression greeted her. Kathryne actually looked down at herself and immediately understood.

The wound beneath her collar bone had nearly healed after a day of sleep but it left a large ugly reddish purple scar. There were other scars and bruises all over her in varying shades from deep blue to sickly yellow. Her body looked a little emaciated, her ribs showed beneath her breasts and muscle was defined like a trained fighter. Yet, that’s exactly what she was.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry for staring miss. Please let me help you. Mistress told me I should.’ She stepped forward with the water buckets and swallowed. ‘What happened?’ She whispered. Then her young eyes met hers and she seemed to stare for a moment.

‘Let’s get some water in here first shall we?’ Kathryne said feeling uncomfortable. The last time she had been naked amidst women in any sort of situation, bathing house or dressing chamber, Kathryne had been either on her own or robed discretely. She only had her drying cloth here. Becca emptied the water into the bath and added soothing oils then picking up the wash cloth started gently washing her back and neck. The warm water a soothing caress, heating her skin down to bone.

‘Pardon me, but how did you get that wound? It looks nasty.’

‘A griffon thought I’d make a nice meal.’ Expecting fear or horror Kathryne was aware of the young woman looking at her quite differently.

‘Bet he wasn’t expecting a witcher when he grabbed at you?’

‘No I guess he wasn’t.’

‘What was that one from?’ Becca nodded to another rather dramatic scar on her side.

And so it went on until most of her scars had been explained as briefly as possible.

‘You know you’d brush up fine in a nice outfit none of your scars would really show. A little ruffled sleeved tunic beneath a tight short corset. We could add extra skirt to make your hips a little rounder. Men like that. If we do it right with style-like, you could easily get into the Kingfisher Inn and that other one...The Chameleon. Though they call it the Rosemary now. I’d like to go there myself one night.’ The look Becca gave was hopeful.

‘Thank you Becca.’ So soothed by the hot water and Becca’s wash cloth, Kathryne wasn’t paying much attention. Her thoughts wandering back to happier times in court. When she had been invited to attend balls and parties with the King’s daughters and nieces. She was chaperone and protector but she had felt exquisitely feminine and precious. It was a memory that she had cherished close to her heart knowing it was a rare experience and a defining one.

‘I can help you.’ Becca said. ‘It would make you feel better to get a little attention from a handsome man.’ She grinned innocently.

‘Not too handsome…’

‘Oh, I know. You’d need another witcher! There’s two in town I hear. A man came in with a rough looking bunch from another country. They have been nosing around. Or maybe someone like that White Wolf. Oh he’s a charmer when he wants to be. Comes off all grumpy and all but he’s real gentle. And a body to die for, if you don’t mind all those scars. But you have scars too so…’

‘White Wolf?’ Kathryne half listened to Becca feeling the colour drain from her face then rush back in flushing her cheeks. ‘What does he look like?’

‘You know, witcher, eyes like yours but darker. More gold like. Has white hair but experience counts for everything they say...’ Becca giggled and picked up a brush starting on the tangles in Kathryne’s hair. ‘We’d all get the chance when he arrives normally but Viola has been picked for servicing him special.’ She sighed resigned. ‘Oh but I would have loved to have had a chance...’Becca swooned holding the wet wash cloth tenderly between her hands and looking dreamily away.

‘How long has he been here?’ Kathryne said feeling like her world was shifting and reassembling so quickly she felt dizzy.

‘...but Madam said Viola was expected so Viola had to go. She doesn’t even like him anymore. Said she’s getting bored but really she wants a young buck from uptown. Some Lord’s son who has made promises...’

‘Becca! How long has the Geralt been here?’

‘Oh, do you know him?’

Kathryne swallowed calming herself. ‘Only in passing, we both fought a monster together recently.’ That seemed to satisfy Becca who looked down at Kathryne with a more perceptive eye.

‘Yes, it would only be work, you’re not really his type.’

Gritting her teeth and keeping her hands firmly in her lap so she wouldn’t slap her, Kathryne put the insult down to naivety. ‘So how long Becca?’

‘Oh a few days. I don’t expect him to be any longer cos Viola is getting antsy about having to let someone else take her young man. Frightened he’ll fall for a different kind of service.’ She giggled again.

Her innocent manner gave Kathryne pause. ‘You’ve been with a man before haven’t you Becca?’

‘Oh yes.’ She smiled but without confidence. 'Stand up now and I’ll rinse you off.’ Kathryne did so and was wrapping herself in a drying cloth when there was a knock at the door and it opened a little.

‘Heard you chatting, can I come in and have a bath?’

‘Sure, we’re done now.’

Kathryne tried to cover herself up even further as she seated herself on the padded lounger but the woman that entered waved her hand at her.

‘Don’t you worry, heard you were here. Seen more scars on that Witcher’s body in my time so you got nothing to fear.’ The woman looked at Becca. ‘Don’t you go giving me that dark look. The man’s been on this earth long enough to have gone through a few of us. Even the Mistress Serenity herself.’

‘Truly?’

‘Ah-huh. How else does she know his form so well? He’s a good sort, always does good us ladies so he’s never turned away.’ She looked in the bath, smelt it. ‘I was expecting worse from a witcher.’ She grinned then grabbed an empty bucket and filled it from the bath, once done she did the same with the others. ‘Come on, help me to toss these out.’ When Kathryne got up to help, throwing a tunic over her head and pulling on some soft trousers, the woman added, ‘ I’m Martha but I go by Mialica. The sparkle of fun in her eyes kept things light.

‘Nice to meet you Martha.’

When they returned to the room, Becca helped Martha fill her bath and Kathryne stoked the fire, pouring the clean water into the large metal jugs warming on the hearth.  

From the bath Martha spoke in dulcet tones of a woman satisfied as she sank into the water. ‘When are you due to go down Becca?

‘After Jasintha finishes.’

‘Jasintha has already come up my love, you better hurry.’

‘Oh Melitele, give me wings.’ She dropped her brush and ran from the room.

‘I remember being so enthusiastic once.’

‘Is it so awful for you?’

‘Nah, the Madam looks after us just fine. We get free room and board when we’re sick but not when we’re working and as long as the illness is fixable like.’ Seeing Kathryne’s face she laughed. ‘That’s good around here love. So we don’t knock it. Plus the work ain’t exactly hard. Once you get to my age you have regulars and it’s kinda like having friends over for a visit.’

‘But you don’t look old enough to talk that way.’

Martha laughed. ‘I’m nearing retirement age so the streets are next if I can’t keep my regulars from strayin to better service.’ The wash cloth drew more water up over her body. ‘When I can only count them on one hand I need to look elsewhere for income so, I have to get imaginative.’ A twinkle in her eye, she looked to Kathryne. ‘Tell me about what you do, love and maybe I’ll become a Witcher fantasy?’

Kathryne made a depreciative sound.

‘You don’t think some man or other wouldn’t like to play the Lord hiring a sexy female Witcher, to solve his …ah… huge monster problems?’

‘Really?’ Kathryne was not only sceptical but a little put off by the idea.

‘This is a brothel love, it’s only ever about fantasy.’

Kathryne wondered what fantasies Geralt was indulging in but Martha interrupted her thoughts.

‘But women, ah we have different fantasies. Some women have fantasies about a strong farmer types and them being milk maids.’

‘What are your fantasies?’ Martha scooped up some more water.

‘Oh the usual female piffle,’ she laughed. ‘A nice big man who earned enough to get by on comfortably so when kids come along you don’t have to send them away to relatives or sell them off…’

… to a Witcher School...

It was left unsaid but Kathryne knew it was not an uncommon thing for poor people to do in her country. But she had turned out all right. Her world was different to other women. She would never have the husband or children that life expected of her. Instead she was what kept their lives safer, fighting the monsters.

‘Well shit! Listen to me and my wagon of baggage.’ Laughing at herself Martha made Kathryne relax and smile. 

Adjusting herself in her bath she looked Kathryne in the eye. ‘Tell me, can you have children? We know the White Wolf can’t. Didn’t even bother to hide it.’

Kathryne paused before answering. Curious about anything to do with the mysterious Witcher. ‘No.’

‘What about moon times. You get those?’

‘No, but I do get pains sometimes. It’s not comfortable but it doesn’t happen often.’

‘Melitele have patience with my jealousy, I wish I didn’t any more. It don’t do my service any good taking that time off each moon time.’ The look of stubborn acceptance told Kathryne everything.

‘Tell me, what’s it like here? I haven’t ever talked to someone like yourself...’ Kathryne struggled with what she wanted to say. Way too much was going through her mind.

Martha laughed. ‘Oh if you get a good one, they can be attentive and as caring as any new husband. Then again there are those who come here to let off steam and if you don’t know how to handle them, well. You will pay a price.’

Kathryne plaited her hair and tied it with a soft blue ribbon repositioning herself to face Martha who casually washed herself as she spoke. ‘How do you handle someone like that?’

‘Well it depends on what you’re facing. Sometimes you have to stand your ground, sometimes submission is best. But most doors don’t hold on either ends of a wedge but somewhere in between.’

‘Do you enjoy it?’

A sensual knowing smile came over Martha’s face. ‘Most times. Depends who’s with me. I think you’d be the type to like a little action in bed.’ She turned to the side a little, scrutinising Kathryne. ‘But you are very vulnerable too so you need to be a little selective. Don’t see you trusting easily so that would stop you before you started.’ She went back to washing herself. ‘Me, I like a regular or two who like to be less lord and more farmer like. If you prefer a soldier type then a game or two can keep them on their toes, and they last a lot longer.’ Raised eyebrows and a knowing look.

Kathryne felt her head spinning a little from Martha’s comments. Wondering if trust was the reason she hadn’t engaged in casual affairs as often as she wanted but the conversation changed again.

‘A game?’

‘Sure, guard and thief, farmer and milking girl, witcher and …sorceress?’

Kathryne hadn’t thought of such things before. Her mind was awash with images and not without Geralt in their midst.

‘You have anyone in your life love?’

Kathryne frowned a grin lifting her lips. ‘You already know the answer to that.’

Martha laughed and rinsed herself off. ‘You should play a little game or two. Helps keep men on their toes. Especially the more intelligent ones. If you want to catch them you have to be unexpected. Men like surprises and will do almost anything if they think they’re gonna get sex in the end. Then you will be the mystery they cannot understand and must have.’ A soft chuckle, more sloshing sounds. Martha stood and rinsed herself off.

‘Do you like playing games?’

‘When I think it’s best I do. And I’m thinking for both of us.’ A robe was wrapped around her curvy form and she stepped from the bath. ‘The real trick is keeping them... Having them want to stay with you.’

‘How do you do that?’

Martha smiled with a knowing. ‘He needs to know he is needed by you. Needs to know he is important to you and that he can look after you. But he will only fall for a strong woman...’ He voice dropped away and she broke eye contact.

‘Martha, who are you talking about?’

‘Can you help me tip out the water?’ Martha changed the subject.

‘Sure.’ They took the empty buckets and filled them from the dirty bath water.

Walking back after the third trip and another of the ladies was entering the bathing room when there was a scream from downstairs.

‘You shouldn’t get involved.’ Martha said seeing Kathryne tense, experience and wisdom in her dark brown eyes.

Kathryne heard shouting then another scream. ‘I can’t not…’ running to her room to pull on her boots and grab her daggers, her feet were carrying her to the stairs as she tried to tuck in her tunic. Through the shocked crowds then to an outer room on the veranda, when another scream came up to meet her.

Madam Serenity and Thara were having a heated discussion outside the door.

‘We have to do something!’

‘What and risk two girls instead of one?’ The look of worry, fear and dread filling eyes that knew death.

Something smashed against the wall in the room and Kathryne looked to the Madam. Thara looked as if she was ready to dp something herself.

‘Do you have someone to protect the girls?’ Kathryne asked.

‘No they were worse than the clients.’

‘Right then.’ Kathryne walked past the women towards the door. A hand stopped her and Kathryne looked at the aged face of Madam Serenity and saw the sacrifice she was willing to make.

‘You mustn’t kill him.’

Muffled screams, angry shouting and Kathryne pushed through the door. The hand on her arm gone.

‘Right.’

Chapter Text

The large semi-naked man was trying to throttle Becca. Right now she was pinned by the throat against the wall struggling to breath and a knife in the man’s fist had left gashes on her limbs. It’s blade dripping with her blood. Her legs slick with red the man sneered with a sick revenge as death came forward to claim her.

Kathryne moved into position, pulling her knives from their sheaths with slow deliberate care then spoke to the man ignoring the young woman who had nurtured and helped her. Knowing the only way to save Becca was to remain cold of feelings and completely focused. ‘Let her go now.’

‘She laughed at me.’ He snarled.

‘She’s young, that’s what you wanted wasn’t it?’ The Madam said desperately from the door.

‘Last chance, let her go.’ Kathryne moved around to his right hand still braced around Becca’s throat. Ignoring her wild eyes filled with fear and pain she counted the heart beats before she would move.

‘The whore deserves to die.’ He slammed her against the wall in a short sharp move that had Becca dangling like a doll. Turning to Kathryne he snarled. ‘You wanna be next.’

Kathryne moved with a swiftness that was as much years of meticulous training as it was cold fury. She punched the man in the nose then pivoted around him to kick the back of his knee.

He staggered, releasing Becca, didn’t go down but she had his attention now. His right fist came at her in a wide swing, she flowed away immediately countering it with another snapped out punch to his already broken nose. He tried unsuccessfully to dodge it, so the second hit made him angrier. His left fist swung around to an angry chorus of cursing. Soft blocking it she took the opening as he leaned back raising his right again Kathryne went for his Adams apple with her fingers gripped around the hilt of her dagger, her hips adding power to her arm and shoulder. While he gulped for air and staggered again she was pivoting away to pick up a chair on the move she swung it up hard to the side of his head. The chair broke sending him onto hands and knees then down. Kicking him in the soft part of his side where organs were closest to the skin, hearing him groan in pain she wasn’t finished. Landing knees first on his collapsed body she grabbed his hair and slammed his head down with her weight behind it onto the floor.

Her fury at what he did so intense it overwhelmed her thoughts and she found herself thrown back in time to one of the many tests she survived by sheer will knowing she would die if she failed.  

Voices filled the room. Shouts and wails. A man came into view.

‘Nice work although a little messy.’

Her hand released the unconscious mans hair. His forehead connecting with the floor with a thud. ‘Geralt.’

The witcher leant casually against the door jamb, naked except for the dark leather griffon trousers and boots, she couldn’t help herself as she took in everything about him. One breath, two breathes, three... ‘Oh, ah, how-how’s Becca?’ She stammered, straightening herself and hoping the heat she felt wasn’t showing on her face.

‘She’ll need healing but she’ll be fine with rest.’ The Madam said, her eyes fell on the man on the floor. ‘Bastard, he was warned off after slicing the last girl. He won’t be allowed in next time. I’ll make sure of it.’

Kathryne suddenly realised things weren’t as bad as they could have been. Beating up a customer. Nearly killing him. She could have been hung for murder. Sensing Geralt slowly drawing his body up to full height, then step towards her, she focused her attention on the Madam, Serenity.

‘Can you stop him?’

‘If you are here I will. Free food and board until this is over or he gets the message. ’It sounded like an order but she was cutting a deal. One that Kathryne would need to think on.

Trying desperately to stop further distraction as her mind wondering what a naked witcher was thinking about this, she attempted to ignore him. Bending down she checked the pockets of the unconscious man. A coin purse and a pouch of tobacco. She threw the coin purse to Serenity and then the tobacco. Both disappeared into her shirt pockets.

Half expecting Geralt to ignore her and tell her to clean up her own mess, Kathryne felt her heart thumping nervously in her chest.

...playing games... Witcher and sorceress...? Well, she was no sorceress...

‘Let’s move this lout into the street.’ Geralt said crouching down beside her. His face offered nothing more than camaraderie. No snarky comments, no anger... His lips lifted in a lopsided grin that made her light headed .

Kathryne looked at the witcher as if seeing him for the first time as he waited for her response with quiet interest.

‘Yes. Shall we?’ She tried to smile with her usual confidence but somehow it all felt a little too shaky right now.

As if a regular occurrence, they bent down as one and grabbed an arm each and proceeded to drag the heavy weight out the door and down the stairs the bare feet and legs falling heavily down each step along with his arse.

‘I hope he gets splinters.’ She muttered with a little relief she was away from everyone’s scrutiny and was surprised by the soft chuckle from the man beside her.

‘I have no doubt he will.’ A wicked smile lifted his lips in the dark corridor. ‘Shall we make sure of it?’

Kathryne couldn’t help but smile, all awkwardness gone. ‘Yeh, lets.’

Chapter Text

Tugging the man into the back alley and over the cobbles didn't wake him. Groaning at the effort Kat's eyes glanced at the witcher beside her. Muscles bare to the cold evening air his griffon trousers and boots the only things he wore as he strained to pull the large man across the narrow alleyway. The cold didn't exactly leave her unaffected either. Her tunic twisted and tucked into her pants slid roughly against peaked flesh. Colour flushed her face but she couldn't do anything about it now and prayed he wouldn't notice in the darkness.

‘We should try and get him as far away as possible.’

‘Hmm.’ Geralt said dropping him with a careless abruptness that would give the man another bruise to wonder about. ‘Let's take him over there.’

‘The bridge?’

His eyes gleamed a little in the darkness and she smiled back at him unable to stop herself.

‘Great idea.’

Together they dragged the man down the narrow road with very little interest from onlookers, too drunk or rushing to be somewhere else and out of the dark shadows. Like every overcrowded town, homes were cramped together, the tall buildings separated by narrow alleyways that the decent citizens of Novigrad avoided after dark. Even here in the middle class areas, opportunistic troublemakers profited.

Hauling the dead weight up and over the bridge they leaned him over the railing.

Kat felt the perspiration from the exertion cooling quickly on her skin.

‘So when did you get into town?’ He asked not looking at her, eyes watching the open darkness beneath them.

‘A couple of days ago.’

‘Repairs?’

‘Needed to get something back that was mine.’

Geralt just looked at her.

‘You know damn well what I’m talking about.’ She hedged. ‘Where is it?’ She said into the darkness. Watching him turn to face her, he leant on the body over the rail with that familiar easy manner making her irritated. ‘Where Geralt? It isn’t yours…’

‘You’re right, but it isn’t yours either Kat.’ His tone sensible.

‘You have no challenge on this score and you know it. I have a…’

‘…duty to your king. I know. Humour me. Why are you the only one responsible for doing this duty while everyone else from your country is trying to kill you?’

Silence.

‘Kat, it isn’t a hard question.’

More silence.

‘It’s none of your business.’ Shifting to face the darkness beyond the bridge, her awareness never left Geralt. ‘You shouldn’t get involved.’ She wouldn’t have his blood on her hands too. The urge to tell him everything was strong. For the love of the Gods, why did he get under her skin so much? It was beginning to annoy her now.

‘Maybe I can help?’

Keeping her eyes away she firmed up her persona of cool irritation and turned back to him. ‘Sure, you know what you could do for me?’ She said false brightness. ‘Give it back.’

He shook his head. ‘Kat...’

‘And stop calling me that.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t like it.’

‘Liar.’

Kathryne wanted to slap away the smug expression. What burned her was he was right. When he said her name it touched her. No one else had that effect… ‘Well that makes two of us then doesn’t it?’ She grumped.

‘Two of us?’

Incredulity lifted her eye brows, her hands emphasising what she clearly thought was obvious. ‘Since the moment you replaced the King’s symbol of the treaty between two countries, an ancient relic of unparalleled beauty and power with that rusty piece of Redanian junk.’

Geralt smiled down at her. ‘I didn’t steal it, I borrowed it.’

‘Huh! I’ve heard that before.’

‘And as much as I’d like to return it, I don’t exactly have it on me at the moment.’ His arms opened to offer proof that only distracted her back to the man and away from her goal.

‘So where is it?’ She demanded dragging her eyes upward.

‘Somewhere safe.’

The body shifted and groaned. Geralt looked down at the man coldly then snapped out a punch that left him unconscious again. A vivid reminder of the sort of man she was dealing with. A predator at the top of the food chain.

Kathryne casually moved her eyes from the body to the male standing before her. Bare chested, muscles flexing, toned from decades of living a witchers life. The cold made his scars stand out leaving her with a growing need to touch, her fingers curling in response. This was a problem she never dreamed she’d have.

She watched him, watch her with that slight smile. Those intriguing eyes that saw way too much… and nearly lost her train of thought. As if sensing her struggle, his hand lifted slowly. Long muscular fingers slid over her cooling skin cupping her jaw his thumb caressing her. She closed her eyes with the tender pleasure. Wanting to surrender... It was the sudden need to let go, to fall into the small intimate pleasure that snapped her back to the present.

A soft gasp escaped her lips, her eyes opening in an effort to pull out of such a potentially dangerous situation. Felt her body tip backwards, her hands came out, a barrier between them.

Too late.

Geralt’s mouth descended over hers in a boldly possessive move, strong hands cupping her face, she felt the full impact of his kiss shatter her resolve. His chest came up hard up against hers, hips firmly pinning her with a promise of more, a thigh between hers adding to the delicious sensation. Fingers sliding over heated skin. Her body responding so vehemently it left little doubt what she wanted.

Gods but it felt so good.

Too soon his possessive grip loosened and his kiss eased slightly. Her eyes fluttered open to meet his just as he released her enough to breath. For a moment there was a question in his eyes, as if seeking permission, then his eyes flicked away to something over her shoulder, head tilted slightly, listening.

Her witcher senses had picked up a disturbance. Knew there was someone in the shadows but nothing worried her. Between Geralt's superior awareness and her own witcher senses an ambush was highly unlikely.

‘Is it at the Rosemary?’ Kathryne barely recognised her own voice. Sensual and husky.

Without looking at her he and said. ‘You’ll have to wait and see.’ Then golden eyes returned to hers. She swallowed. There was something distinctly feral behind those eyes that she’d never seen in any house cat.

‘More?’

Unable to trust her voice Kathryne nodded and his lips returned to indulge in hers hungrily. Far from chaste it wasn’t forced upon her either but he liked control. She’d have to change that ...

Too soon he left her mouth leaving a trail of sensation down her bare throat. Heat bloomed again through her body, her breathing no longer practiced and controlled but shallow and getting faster.

A feminine moan and her hands found their way from taught biceps over muscular shoulders to his neck and around his lean waist to his back. Her fingers stroked his skin following the ridges and divots of scars and muscle with a sensual intent of her own. Wanting more, Kathryne was about to take things into her own hands when he abruptly pulled away. Feeling a little bereft she frowned and immediately prepared her defences but his eyes held such masculine want as they travelled downward slowly to her lips then her tunic rising and falling with each breath. Yup, she didn't have to look down to know what he enjoyed. When his eyes were around her hips, his hands reached out and grabbed her, shifting her bodily to the side. Kat opened her mouth, a smart comment ready to throw his way, when he growled a little irritably.

‘Barge coming.’

‘Oh.’ Kathryne had nearly forgotten all about the reason they were there.

They both worked together to lift and slide the man over the rail. As the barge disappeared beneath them they lowered the man until they could release him to flop onto the piled deck. A soft thud then a man's yell from the barge as they ducked back out of sight.

As if they were children throwing berries down at the passing merchants they both smiled at each other, laughter in their eyes. Kathryne enjoyed Geralt’s smile, a moment of rare lightness in a world of shadows that she was determined to remember. Then it shifted back to sensual hunger. Geralt's hand found hers and he tugged her back over the bridge towards the Pasiflora.

‘Come on.’ He smiled. ‘Rain’s coming.’

The promise of more had her feet moving but they got as far as line of sight from the brothel when Geralt shoved her roughly away into the shadows of a building. Kathryne felt air move past her face, catch and rip her tunic at the shoulder. The attack kicked her into action, finding her balance and pulling her daggers she took in the situation in a swift glance of the darkened street. Geralt was blocking whoever was attacking them using his fists and body. Going on the offensive he was pushing the hooded bastards away from her. Two others now approached from the side their intentions clear. Their sights were set on her. One had rope the other a large bag. Kathryne didn't like the look of either but they didn't appear armed, yet.

Grunts and the sounds of fists on flesh seemed to fill the air. Geralt was holding his own when one of the attackers came at her from the side. As if seeing it happen Geralt shifted his weight and using deflection rather than blocking had his attacker swinging his club wildly at the other. A shout went up and suddenly all three were at Geralt.

‘Get the woman.’ Someone cried out. Another grunt and other fleshy sounds. One went down then she heard Geralt's voice.

‘Run Kat. I have this.’

In the moment it took to hear what he said the decision was already made. Daggers in hand she struck the man trying to grab Geralt from behind, fighting off the attacker who was soon clutching his wounds and running.

Noises of fighting filled the air.

Now at Geralt’s side, they fought on. Kathryne disabled a man and added damage to another. A woman’s scream and alarmed shouts were all ignored when a fifth attacker came at her from behind. She flicked the blade to change grip and dropped, pivoting to block and stab upward getting him under the arm. Not a clean hit but he was no longer interested in fighting, staggering away into shadow. Rising from her kneeling position to push and stab her way forward, she didn’t notice the arrival of the city guard. Watching Geralt she worked with him, adding to his attack or countering it to unbalance their opponents.

‘City Guard. Throw down your arms.’

Suddenly their attackers were scrambling to get away. Two guardsmen already had one attacker and were stripping his weapons. Three others took chase. A burly guard approached them in a rush. Geralt stepped forward to meet the man so Kathryne could discretely sheath her daggers.

‘What’s going on here? Bring the torch.’ The man yelled to a young soldier who jogged over to hold it high in the darkness. He looked Geralt over noting the lack of weapons. A couple of bloody marks and a knife cut across his arm. ‘You there. Step forward so I can see you.’

Kathryne stepped into the light, chin high she met his widening stare. ‘Melitele’s tits. I heard about you but never...’ As if catching himself, he coughed and turned back to Geralt. ‘I don’t have time for this. We’ve had complaints about troublemakers in town and I’d be more than happy to throw the likes of you…’ his eyes glanced in Kathryne’s direction. ‘…both into our cells if you cause any trouble. We clear?’

‘Yes Sir.’ Kathryne said calmly.

He glared at Geralt, spat on the cobbles and quickly joined his men.

Geralt turned to face her, speaking quietly. ‘Did you recognise them?’

‘No. Who were they?’

‘I’d say local mercenaries. Hired help.’

‘That’s what I thought you’d say.’ She frowned. ‘They were after me.’ His small nod confirmed her fears. So the Court Guard were not the only dogs sent after her. Before she could voice her thoughts, Geralt carefully took her hand. His interest made her look down. Her knuckles were cut and raw. When he lifted his gaze to hers she just shrugged. To her surprise he smiled.

‘Come on let’s go.’ He said.

 

By the time they got back to the Pasiflora, they were both drenched. The chill easing as they made their way to an open fire. Kathryne was oblivious to the attention they were getting, only noticing one of the whores approaching Geralt with a drying cloth in hand. Painted lips lifted seductively into a coquettish smile.

‘Let me help you Sire.’

Geralt frowned and quickly took possession of the cloth before the man was close enough to use it. ‘I can do it myself thanks.’

‘Please yourself.’ The whore said then eyed Kathryne up and down. ‘I suppose you want one too?’

‘No thanks I’m good.’ She smiled, facing the fireplace. Drying out her tunic as best she could she watched Geralt wipe himself off quickly, his face becoming darker when he saw Kathryne watching him, still smiling.

‘You found that amusing?’

‘Yeh, I did actually.’  She added with dramatic flare, ‘the unruffleable White Wolf…!’

Throwing her the cloth his eyes dropped to her wet tunic then lifted again to her eyes. ‘Here, you need this more than I do.’ Unamused he walked towards the stairs.

‘Surely that wasn’t the first time?’ She asked with feigned innocence wiping herself briskly. Still grinning she jogged to catch up. Geralt muttered a curse under his breath.

Broad shoulders and lean hips moved before her with predator grace, more attractive features on the growing list...

Her thoughts so preoccupied she failed to notice when he stopped. Wet fabric over her breasts and hips collided with his once dry back as she stepped heavily onto his boot heels. To regain her balance, her hands found the warm muscular firmness of his hips, the skin beneath her fingertips a dangerous temptation. Dragging herself away, she took a careful step back and looked up but he didn’t turn. His hand gripped the stair rail, his body taught, waiting. Kathryne’s fingers curled into her palms while she waited for him to respond and when he didn’t, decided another taunt may not be best.

‘Thanks for your help Geralt, with that man and… well, thanks.’

‘We're Witchers we help each other.’ He said with familiar gruffness but his voice was off. 

‘I’d umm, better go…’Slowly she turned towards the stairs.

‘Kathryne?’

‘Yes Geralt?’ Hopeful anticipation halted her mid step.

‘Come find me at the Rosemary. We need to talk.’ With that he returned to his room and the lucky Viola.

Kathryne waited until his footsteps faded before moving up the stairs, disappointment clouding her thoughts.

Chapter Text

‘Come on Roach,’ Geralt moved the horse along the narrow muddy roads towards the elven Master weaponsmith. He had been delayed after collecting his armour when Dekstra had sent a message requesting to speak to him. After the usual short, pointed conversation, it seemed everyone was looking for the sword and even he was under scrutiny.

Not that he hadn’t noticed.

Since the previous night, he had been followed at least twice and the feeling of being watched was almost constant now. It was likely Kat was under the same scrutiny. It would be better to have a plan rather than hand the sword over at the inn. Either one of them would become an easy target as soon as they walked out the door.

Geralt didn't want to tell himself it was the ever present need to see her again. No, it was about being smart and staying alive. The feeling of being watched was making his shoulders itch and the absence of swords on his back made it even more uncomfortable.

A second request to meet Lord Dothol had also been delivered to him too but that piece of parchment remained unopened.

Damn the consequences. He needed to get to Harrot.

 

 

‘Hurry up. Someone might hear us.’

‘Then shut it and keep watch.’

More grumbling as another man pulled draws and tipped the contents out onto the floor. The draws stuck a little so the piece of furniture rocked forward dislodging items on top. Swearing Borif tried to stop them sliding off with limited success knowing he'd be shredded if it caused someone to investigate their little party.  Luckily the witcher working on the chest initiated a protection spell that had him tossed backwards against the wall with enough impact and noise to rattle the picture hanging there, dust falling from the ceiling. A soft curse and the mutant pulled himself together enough to get up. Ignoring the black look from Pavon and the curse about mages and their advice, the cat-eyed man simply got back to work.

Borif never liked witchers so didn't bother to hide the enjoyment the scene gave him. Witchers made him uncomfortable. Then again, all magic did. The gang leader, Pavon had some sort of magical device that allowed him to talk to someone no one could see. Had it in his pocket when he wasn’t giving someone stick at the other end.

Peering inside a cupboard, he wasn't even sure what they were looking for. An icon or something elfish. Someone wanted it bad enough to pitch mercs against each other in a race that had something to do with winter solstice. He’d been hired when two men from this gang were injured in a scuffle near the brothel. It seemed bandits could find mercenary work as easy as buying an ale around here but staying out of trouble wasn’t so easy. Soldiers and the city guardsmen used every opportunity to lock away the riffraff.

Leaving the cupboard, he moved to the shelves.

This'll be easy.

 

 

The rain eased and a bitter breeze across the rooftops pulled at her dark wool cloak. A ‘thank you’ gift from the Madam and her girls for looking out for Becca, it was already proving its worth, allowing her to move around the city more discretely.

At street level, people were starting to come out of their shelters and make their way again after the squall. The rhythm of the city returning to normal. Careful over the slippery tiled roof, Kathryne remained low, her senses tuned to a room in the adjoining building, the Rosemary Inn.

She could hear people moving around in the upper floor. Men talking and making noises. It surprised her no one else had heard but the music was playing downstairs and the drunks were already staggering out into the alleys. A night of entertainment well on its way.

Preparing to manoeuvre from one rooftop to the other, there was a loud explosive noise that halted her. Curious, Kathryne reached the veranda when another loud thump followed by swearing punctured the normal sounds of the inn.  Sounded magical in the popping, crackling sounds just after, then there were shouts and people running. A scuffle, thumping noises and men shouting.  More noises. Kathryne tried to see through the shutters.

Was Geralt in there?

A roaring sound, scraping sounds and orders to move something. More fighting then cursing. Not one voice sounded like Geralt so she decided to wait then take a look. It sounded very much like someone thought to find the sword in there. Geralt said it was somewhere safe.

What if they found it?

 

 

Harrot was having a busy day. He had two more orders and had just completed a large commission for fifty five swords and other weapons to be brought up to standard for a new garrison up the Pontar. He had a young apprentice who was helping him now and it felt good to train a youngster in elven smithing.

Checking each sword he eyed his apprentice’s efforts and smiled. The young lad was coming along nicely. Placing the blade in the box with the others he covered it with a cloth, returning to the piece that remained on his table. It looked old and disused, the elven embossed craftsmanship hidden beneath a special blend of tree resin so it would fill the gaps in the metal relief on crossbar and blade. Discolouring the beautiful metal so it took on a more base metal sheen, the once magnificent sword just needed one final touch. His calloused hands lifted the ancient relic with loving care, the metal tingling against his skin, humming him a song of a time and place long gone to his people. With a soft sigh, he picked up the slim metal sheath he'd crafted and gently pulled it over the blade, hiding the elegant runic embossed metal and secured it. Leather chord was tied and twisted over the existing handle making it bulkier in the hand but it would offer protection for what lie beneath. Geralt said the sword was silver but even he knew it was much more. This sword sang to him. He nearly said no to Geralt's request to obscure it but knew anyone else would damage the ancient relic and that wasn't what he was doing... No, he was protecting it. Harrot revered the piece of ancient elven history in his hands and for a moment felt the old forests and tall arches of luxurious stone buildings surround him. For just a moment he felt honoured and grateful as if a beautiful elven queen came to thank him in person…

‘Hello? Harrot? You there?’

‘Just a moment.’ Reluctantly covering the sword with the oily cloth and sliding it to the side near the tools and other pieces he left the room to attend his customer.

‘Ah Harrot. Have you finished it?’

‘I have.’ Returning to the room he collected a piece he had repaired and polished earlier. ‘Here you are, good as new.’

The tall man in elegant merchant attire pulled the sword from the sheath eyeing the blade as it gleamed in the dim evening light. Then his attention went to the sheath looking intensely for the repair and finding no evidence.

‘I understand your prices Harrot though I ask again if you can be more generous?’

‘If you are unable to appreciate a Master craftsman then there is a Journeyman weaponsmith not far from here. But you will perceive every blow and every scrap to your beloved sword that I would never impose upon such an heirloom.’

The merchant grunted appreciatively.  ‘You don't know that bard Dandelion by any chance?’

‘Sir?’

‘It’s nothing. Here, take your coin. Your words ring true to my eyes and my heart.’

With that he was walking back through the crowded square and Harrot turned to see a cloaked figure he hadn’t noticed until that moment, making him pause. His keen eye saw the feline leather boots beneath a quality cloak. Then she looked up at him for the first time and he was confronted by light gold witcher eyes that held a lifetime of hard experience in proud features. The nearest comparison he could think of was Geralt’s daughter Ciri who, from memory, was a little shorter than this witcher. One thing was for sure, in that moment, she could not be mistaken for a lad.

‘You're here for your swords?’

‘I am.’

Retrieving the swords he watched her carefully check each one.

He would enjoy revealing his answer to the mysterious witcher swords to Geralt, when next he saw him.

 

 

Pulling Roach up at the feeding trough opposite the Rosemary, Geralt walked into the crowd to be quickly accosted by a dishevelled Dandelion in a right state. Almost raving about being ransacked and filthy vagabonds who were driven off by a couple of soldiers and Zoltan. Talking about the Rosemary as if she was a woman who’d lost her virginal state in the rudest possible way. Then he mentioned a portal and his chest disappearing. Suddenly Geralt stopped.

‘Dandelion what are you talking about?’

‘I told you we’ve been got at!’

‘Geralt! You're here.’

‘Zoltan.’ Geralt responded with some relief. ‘What is going on? Dandelion is making little sense.’

‘Your room’s been gone over. They've taken your chest.’

‘Who were they?’

Geralt listened as they described the men and his eyes narrowed with anger.

They were walking up the flight of stairs to assess the damage when he heard his name called with frantic urgency and looked to Dandelion again for a moment before seeing Harrot running into the inn pushing past other patrons. He had Geralt’s swords in his calloused hands and his eyes made dread settle in his throat.

Meeting the elf halfway he could tell he was shocked by the events.

‘Geralt! It's gone!’ He whispered.

‘What happened?’

 

 

It was later than expected when she reached the Rosemary to meet Geralt. After finding his room ransacked, she had decided to stick to the original plan and finish preparations to leave before meeting him to get the sword. Her efforts were not unprofitable. A good price for Raymon's grey horse and the items she had collected. Her efforts had taken her all over the city.

Now, her horse was rested and loaded. Her armour and weapons now strapped to her back. She felt whole again. Felt like a witcher and things seemed clearer now. There was only one last thing to do. Walking with confidence, she entered the merry inn and moved between the patrons looking for a table to sit quietly and wait.

Whispers and furtive glances followed her. This felt normal to Kathryne. It was not animosity but curiosity. A group of musicians started up as she approached the small bench towards the back. Just about to pay for an ale, she was interrupted by a tall flamboyantly dressed man with a goatee. Attractive she thought but not in a sexy way like…

‘May I be the first to welcome you to the Rosemary Inn?’

She eyed him for a moment then the bench where the woman was serving ale.

‘My name is Dandelion and I own this esteemed establishment.’

Feeling his need to be recognised, Kat nodded and looked him in the eye. ‘Pleased to have met you master Dandelion.’ Waiting for a shocked expression that never came, addressing him formally seemed to do the trick. He smiled impossibly wider although there was something not quite right.

‘Let me order you some food and ale you look as if you are about to travel?’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Oh, I have a friend who, like you, wears two swords.’ His fingers came up to his chin as his eyes dipped over her appearance. ‘I think he even wore that same armour for a while too.’ Turning to the bench he missed Kathryne going for her dagger at the near insult.

‘So where is this friend of yours, master Dandelion?’ The tone in her voice should have been warning enough. It seemed to make no difference to him.

His smile never wavered his arm expanded and directed her to a table then signalled for food. Obviously delighted with himself, for what reason she couldn't guess, they found a table and sat down. He seemed a little odd.

‘Please forgive me. I have heard many things but until this very moment distrusted my own ears. How did you become a witcher? Was it the Law of Surprise? Like it was for Ciri?’

Dandelion continued to fire questions at her when she was struck by the coincidence of his mentioning Ciri.

‘How do you know Ciri?’ Kathryne interrupted.

‘Ciri? I’ve known Ciri for a long time. Met her when she was young and still training under Yennifer of Vengerburg.’ Dandelion paused to gulp more ale then turned back to her brightly. ‘Yen was in all practical senses her mother and in much the same way, Geralt her father... Tracked all over the world to find her. Saved her from the Wild Hunt… Hey, you look pale. You need some food.’ Dandelion stood up to wave at someone Kathryne didn’t notice, her thoughts running a race to understand the full consequences of what she had been told, because consequences it would have. Her plan had changed more times than she could count since she left Haddonwood. It was going to change again now.

‘Was it true that you killed ten huge louts who beat the Inn Keeper at the Seven Cats?’

‘No.’ She frowned hands gripping her mug trying to focus. The man looked surprised then recovered only to correct himself.

‘My pardon, was it only two?’

Kathryne was starting to believe her first understanding of Dandelion. ‘No.’

‘Well I see that all Witchers have the same way of expressing their adventures.’

A smile nearly caught her by surprise as she remembered what Geralt was like. Not exactly open and expressive. It seemed to focus her racing thoughts. ‘If you mean we lack the story-telling enthusiasm of Bards then you are correct.’ Dandelion thought this amusing. ‘So where is your friend?’

‘What friend? Oh, Geralt. Geralt of Rivia, none other than the White Wolf or the Butcher of Blaviken. Although he prefers Geralt.’ Then added proudly. ‘A man of wisdom and morals...’

‘Master Dandelion?’

‘Oh, he’s gone.’ He waved his hand flippantly.

‘Gone?’ Kathryne’s blood ran cold. ‘Would you tell me where?’

‘Somewhere up the Pontar, Flotsam way I think. Had to leave in a hurry. Only overheard bits and pieces.’

‘Did he say how, Master Dandelion? It is important.’

‘He never said... Oh yes, he mentioned some boat taking military armour and weapons upriver. Left earlier today. It’s all been very exciting. His room was ransacked by thieves. Zoltan was trying to explain then Harrot came in with some bad news. Geralt left so quickly I didn’t even get the chance to say farewell... Where are you going? You haven’t finished your ale.’

Shaking his head at the sudden disappearance of the mysterious witcher, Dandelion emptied his mug when he saw Zoltan.

‘Zoltan, guess who I have just spoken with?’

‘Ah Dandelion just spit it out.’ He said irritably. ‘I still have to fix things for Geralt.’

‘A witcher! I spoke to the infamous female witcher.’ He seemed quite proud.

‘Where is she?’ Zoltan said looking around the crowd.

‘Oh, she left after I told her Geralt had gone.’ Zoltan grabbed Dandelion’s doublet, anger and frustration in equal parts on his face. ‘Hey, hey!’ He objected to such rough handling. Especially by friends.

‘What did you tell her?’

‘I asked her some questions and told her about Geralt then she left. Nothing bad, I assure you. I told her he was wise and...’

‘Dandelion!’

‘I simply told her he had gone off on another adventure. He does that you know! In point of order I should be the one getting all riled up. He never even said goodbye!’ Dandelion felt his doublet released then Zoltan slapped his forehead. ‘What is it? Zoltan, tell me.’

‘Geralt gave me strict instructions to keep her here. Told me to let her know he was going to get something very important for her. He promised he would. That she should lay low until he gets back. That it was too dangerous.’

‘Oh dear. What should we do? She won’t know where he’s gone and if things are that dangerous then she will need help.’

‘No, you should stay here. Who will manage the Rosemary while you’re away?’ Zoltan hedged in desperation.

‘You can!’

‘How are you going to track a female witcher and Geralt as well? I have contacts up the Pontar.’

‘Good point.’ His eyes lifted and searched the room. His hand waved someone over. ‘We’ll both go!’ He smiled down at Zoltan’s stubborn dwarven features and knew he’d get round his old friend. ‘I’ll go pack.’

Chapter Text

Reaching Oxenfurt she made her way down to dockside only to find a couple of smaller vessels barely able to take herself let alone a horse.

‘Hello there. Can you tell me when the last boat came through from Novigrad?’

‘How many do you think come through ere? It's a main road is the Pontar when tide's high.’

‘Do you know the vessel Beatrica?’

‘Oh yeh came through on morning tide. Jacobs the captain. Normally stops ere first to pick up stock but he was loaded up enough it seems.’

‘Do you know where she makes port?’

‘Hmm might do.’ His eyes met hers so she pulled a few coin and handed it to him. He nodded. ‘Rinde then Flotsam.’ He seemed to be about to say more.

‘The most direct way to Rinde?’

‘You'd need to go east.’ More coin exchanged hands.

‘You might be wary of the men who follow as you do miss.’

‘What sort of men?’

‘Some boarded a barge. Folk weren't happy cos family were on board. Didn't look the family types if you get my meaning.’

‘Thank you.’

 

 

Geralt woke up face down in straw. It took a moment to realise he was tied up, armour and weapons gone and he was in the cargo hold of a boat. Stabbing pain and a foggy brain as he rolled to a seated position didn’t stop the memory of sharing a little too much drink with a couple of rough types. They were informative, keeping him there for a reason. Must have put something in his ale. Next thing he knew he was here.

Shit. Taking in the gently swaying underbelly of the boat with its wood cages and restrained animals. He felt chains running behind his feet and realised they were shackled. Like the animals.

Noises above him indicated a gambling session in full swing. Dice probably. Someone came down the stairs. A young lad. Saw him then dashed back upstairs.

Moments later there was a burly man who came down, stared at him and nodded for the lad to go about his chores while Burly stood watch over Geralt. Untidy and large were the first two things he noted. The weapons at his side looked like tools of trade rather than armaments.

‘Hey you. Why am I tied up?’

Silence.

‘Come on. Give me a hint at least? Who's your boss? Let me talk to them.’

More stony silence.

Well this was great. ‘Am I still on the Beatrica? Come on at least tell me if I'm somewhere close to my boots. A man has a few drinks throws a few punches and this is what he gets.’ The young lad eyed him warily. Geralt focused on him hoping to crack Burly. ‘You remember that lad. If you're going to drink keep your fists around your ale…’

‘That's enough gabbing. You're on the Beatrica. You'll get your stuff back when they check your sword…’

‘My sword?’

‘Be thankful your alive.’

So they think his sword is the icon? Probably get rid of him as soon as they realised their mistake or was it a ruse to get Kathryn? His head hurt as he thought through the options… decided to try for a few answers.

‘How long have I been here?’

‘A night and a day.’

‘Why do they want a witchers sword?’

No answer.

‘Had it crafted myself. Even know what the runes are. Did you know…’

‘They want to test the silver.’

‘Why are they testing it?’

‘See if it belongs to someone else.’

‘Like who?’

Silence.

‘You thirsty?’ He saw Geralt nod and sent the boy over with water. He was offered the ladle in a bucket he'd been using to feed and water the animals.

‘Thank you.’ He said to the lad.

‘Now shut it or you'll lose more than your swords and armour.’

So, they thought he had the sword. Although it wasn’t such an optimal situation for himself, it was a good way to distract the rabble following Kathryne and the sword. It also meant there must be an alchemist or a mage handy. Probably where he was being taken. If he was lucky his chest will be there too.

Well until he reached the destination he may as well reserve his energy and rest. No matter which way this turned out, someone was going to pay for this inconvenience.

 

 

Well this is pleasant enough. Dandelion thought of the last two days aboard the Felicity. Zoltan was still downstairs with the others trying his hand at Gwent. Dandelion had passed the evening strumming his way through several ballads including a few requests from a couple of ladies travelling on board.

Barely able to stand, his head swam with the wine the captain and so many others had shared. So many fine people aboard this vessel.

He slumped down onto the bunk and tried to remove his boot. The cabin he and Zoltan had to share could almost be called roomy in a large cupboard sort of way. It contained two bunks and two buckets with a crate and a wash table.

Being a bard seemed to bring out the best in people, he thought absently.

He tried his boot again.

Even the worst looking people ended up with smiles on their faces… Very friendly, even chatty, for men that looked like they'd kill you as soon as look at you. And all that intriguing business about seeking the Icon of elven beauty… There was probably a story in it somewhere.

The boot finally came off and Dandelion collapsed back onto the bunk. Soft snores filling the room.

 

 

Rinde was unfriendly as towns went. Open hostility and derogatory comments came at her from everyone. She had the impression witchers weren't so liked here. Well as long as they didn't touch her or her belongings then she couldn’t care less. She had a job to do and as soon as it was done, she’d be gone.

Making her way down to the river bank and the two large jetties there. She saw one large boat slipping away while another was anchored in the river. Dismounting she wandered over to a man with official looking stance and uniform.

‘Can you tell me if either of these boats are the Beatrica?’

‘I could.’ He said looking down at her. She held his gaze then he cleared his throat looked around then poignantly back at her.

‘How much?’ She murmured ‘…and how often have you been asked this question?’

She proffered what he requested, not without some reluctance. It was a lot of coin.

‘Two others have asked and the Beatrica is the boat anchored in the river. She’ll replace the Honour, just leaving.’

‘When?’

‘On the tides turn. Tonight she’ll exchange some cargo then be gone by dawn.’

‘Any other boats travelling the Pontar to Flotsam?’

‘A few. But I only have records of those who'll be docking.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Most welcome.’

Kathryne moved her horse around to the back of a nearby building and let her graze. Catching the eye of a passer by she asked.

‘Can you tell me where I can …’

‘Go plough yourself.’ He spat and moved on.

‘Right then.’ She muttered without worry. Mounting up she explored the town outskirts nearest the docks. Finding a small market to resupply and a relatively comfortable spot to watch and wait on a rooftop. The view was magnificent as the sun went down sending fire through the clouds in shades of gold to burning red. The jetties below were in full view. Voices from people below drifted up to her, she pulled some food from her satchel and settled down to wait.

It was just after dark when the Beatrica docked and dropped a gang plank to the jetty and movement could be seen. Passengers left this way and small cargo. Soon after, a larger gangway went down towards the stern and animals started being moved off. Men moved cargo and goods on and off the boat. Then two armed guards took up position when someone was brought onto the deck. Shoved forward but never released, his hands tied and only wearing short pants, his white hair, pale skin on a scarred body could not be missed.

Geralt! The damn fool got himself captured. Well they can't have the sword yet or he'd be dead. She still had to find out where it was and he wasn’t exactly going to be easy to get to now. She bit her bottom lip in thought. He had proven himself to be a proficient at foiling her plans and wasting her time. Well it ends tonight.

Watching them walk him off the boat they shoved him onto a wagon. He sat back as they tied his feet again. Two others joined him then the wagon was moving. As it pulled away his face lifted towards her and moved in a slow back and forth motion. He was telling her no.

Instinctively she ducked back. How did he do that? Always seemed to know where she was. Distracted, her hand scraped across the pitch of the tiled roof and the apple she was eating became dislodged from her hand. As it rolled away avoiding even her quick reflexes, she watched in dismay as it made its way down the tiles, bouncing and tumbling. It rolled unevenly down an eve, over a veranda roof then into the wagon landing at Geralt's feet as they moved off. For a moment everyone stared at the apple. One of the guards looked around then tossed it out with a curse.

Surprise and a little embarrassment flushed Kathryn’s cheeks.

Making her way across the roof tops, Kathryne carefully remained out of sight, yet she was beginning to have the unsettling feeling that Geralt would always know where she was. Following the slow moving wagon to a warehouse nearer the city’s east wall, wasn’t difficult. They disappeared inside, the door closing with a decisive clunk as the bolt was rammed home.

Now she had to find a way in.

Chapter Text

‘Speak up mutant.’ The sound of something hard against flesh. A grunt after each hit.

‘Hit him harder. If he's a witcher he can take more.’ Pavon muttered from his place against the wall.

‘Light that fire. Let's see how well he copes with hot irons. Maybe add a few extra marks to remember us by.’ One of the men chuckled.

A loud noise was heard upstairs that made the walls shudder.

Annoyed, Pavon muttered. ‘Go see if he needs any help.’ A call from one of the men had their attention.

‘Sounds like he has opened it. Let’s go.’

One of the men leant in close to the witcher hanging by his arms. ‘Now don't you go anywhere.’

Guffaws were heard by two men as they left the cellar after Pavon.

Silence filled the large room.

Geralt looked up but his senses were focused elsewhere.

‘They won’t hear you now Kat, you can come out.’ He said quietly.

Kathryn approached, facing him she murmured just as softly.

‘So how much did you tell them witcher?’

He took his time to answer raising his eyes to meet hers.

‘Untie me Kat and let’s get out of here. We still have time.’ He leaned his body forward and disliked her step backwards. His eyes narrowed. ‘What's wrong?’ 

‘You said you’d meet me and you didn't.’

‘You went to the Rosemary? Didn't Zoltan explain?’

‘Oh your friend was very sociable. Wanted to know everything about me. Another chance to get information out of me, witcher? Damn it I trusted you.’ Her fists hit his chest then lifted like it was scalding when she realised he must be in pain. Fist prints and other bruises marred his lean body. Her eyes went from caring to hard. ‘Tell me where it is and I’ll untie you.’

‘They'll be back any time. You have to leave.’

‘Oh, so caring...’ Sarcasm sounded husky when she spoke softly. It was a little disturbing. ‘Stop being patronising and tell me where it is.’

‘I’m not being patronising and your about as mean as a kitten.’

‘Shut up and tell me witcher.’

‘The name’s Geralt.’ He said, his eyes showing his irritation. ‘You should remember. You practically cried out my name on the bridge.’ He watched the heat bloom around her neck and cheeks.

‘That’s funny coming from a man that was so tight on me, I nearly couldn’t breathe.’

‘Hmm,’ he smiled that smile his deep voice a growl to her senses. ‘Must try that again.’

‘Be serious for once. Where is it?’ Kathryne tried to ignore her body’s response to the memory and Geralt’s growling sigh.

‘You don’t think I’m serious?’

‘No, I don’t, witcher.’ Her response was spoken with such emotion she found her voice had risen and she was pacing in front of him. Geralt’s attention was focused completely on her. Halting herself, she clenched her fists and added softly, ‘Not any more.’

Silence filled the room.

‘All right. You know there are mercenary groups following us?’

‘Hmm. I noticed your room was a little messy when I visited. Have a party?’ Her voice became serious again. ‘Just tell me where it is.’

His eyes narrowed. ‘It’s on its way to Flotsam. Hidden amongst other pieces of Redanian junk.’ His eyes lit up at using her own words.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Oi! You there. What the fuck are you doing?’

Kathryne pulled her sword.

‘Kat!’ Geralt hissed but she was already moving, attacking the man. He went down but not before another two filled the space.

Ignoring Geralt’s orders to cut him loose she had injured one more and was facing off the second when Geralt yelled a warning and was punched for his efforts.

Realising her mistake, she was quickly cornered by three armoured men with swords and Pavon who sauntered up behind them remaining out of range of her blade.

‘Well, well. What are we going to do with you? Now that we don’t need you anymore… Seems such a waste killing two witchers. Oh don’t look so sure of yourself Kathryne Du Fonten. The Sword will do its job without your hand on the hilt.’ He smiled eyeing her up and down. ‘Tie her up, let’s have some fun before we kill her.’ Encouraged by the order, the men leered at her and one by one started forward. As Pavon’s foot hit the bottom step he threw another barb her way. ‘The King will reward us handsomely when he finds out we killed the traitor who stole the Treaty’s Icon.’ Pavon laughed as he disappeared up the stairs.

Her eyes grew wide, disbelief filled her face and Geralt’s voice cut through her sudden doubts.

‘You know the truth Kat.’

As if it broke a spell, anger replaced surprise and she spun on her toes slicing a wide arc in the air around her with her steel, changed hands and pulled out her silver, landing on steady feet. The men’s progress faltered and before they gathered themselves they saw the smile grow on her lips.

‘Just try it.’ She threw the blade to Geralt aiming at the ropes near his hands. Heard silver hit wood and a curse. She smiled then began slicing her way through the men before her. Felt the cutting edge of blades hit her armour and hoped their lack of accuracy continued. Her breathing was increasing, as she manoeuvred in the cramped space. Defending herself until Geralt was able to add his weight to the fight and she could go on the attack. If the mage came down now, she’d be captured too.

Keep moving Kathryne, just keep moving. She told herself.

Using everything in her repertoire, Kathryne managed to keep one at bay and injure the others but when she heard Pavon’s shout from upstairs she knew time was running out.

A grunt and a body disappeared from her peripheral vision. Her concentration working hard to manage two attackers, the third gone was a relief but she didn’t have any time to think on it. Parry and slice, dodge and block, pivot and cut. The moves seemed repetitious as she went through the footwork and motions of years of practice. The angles changed, the pairing of movements changed but the fundamentals remained.

Then they were dead.

Standing there staring, Geralt stepped up beside her. Offered her the blade back.

‘You might need it yet.’ She said quietly.

‘You leave yourself open on your left hip when you slice after a pivot.’ Geralt said as a matter of fact.

‘Did I hit you? With the blade?’

‘Nearly.’ Geralt noted her expression, grabbing her hand he pulled her into motion again. ‘Come on Kat.’

‘Yes, let’s go.’ She pulled her hand free of his.

As they mounted the stairs and threw themselves at the two men above she said over the melee. ‘This time I’m not letting you out of my sight.’ She didn’t think how the threat could otherwise be interpreted until Geralt spoke when the men lay dead. He held a sword in his hand now and he buckled on the scabbard across his bare chest.

‘Good, I look forward to it.’

Turning from her position near the door to catch his half smile he bent down to pull off the Griffon boots a man was wearing and pull them onto his own feet. He already wore the griffon pants that fit snugly over his muscular thighs and lean hips. As soon as he had the boots on he saw her frowning face. ‘Come on, it won’t be that bad.’ That smile came back for a moment then he joined her. ‘Promise.’ His eyes and no doubt his witcher senses, checking the front rooms.

‘The mage was in there.’ Kathryne pointed to a closed door but when she moved to enter he pulled her back.

‘It’ll be a trap, let me go first.’

‘Wait, there was a window… Give me a few moments and I’ll distract them. If it is a trap, you will have a better chance.’ She frowned at his surprise but his nod was enough to appease her ego that seemed a little sensitive around him. Going out the back door, she saw a pick axe, picked it up swung at the shutters of the mage’s room. By the third hit they were shattering and she was gaining unwanted attention. Noises inside were enough to tell her that Geralt was in so she ran back into the room to find the mage fighting Geralt valiantly. Pulling a dagger, she waited for the mage to attack Geralt who weakened his magical field with each lethal strike. Even half-dressed the witcher was inspiring to watch. Each move fluid, balanced, powerful. The moment came and Kathryne threw the dagger, hit the mage and he staggered but before Geralt could kill him, he moved his staff and clapped his hands into the air and was gone.

Geralt spun around and yelled a warning just as Pavon struck her with a club from behind. Kathryne managed to dodge the killing force of the hit but still suffered from the blow collapsing against the wall. Geralt was onto him in a heart beat but the slippery man ran from the building and disappeared into the narrow dark streets of Rinde.

Chapter Text

Blinking a couple of times, Kathryne tried to focus. Gods but her head hurt. Reaching to the back of her head she touched gently. A hissing intake of air and her fingers came away bloody.

Looking around the room there was a chest and scattered items. Well whoever they were they were gone now. Geralt was chasing them down.

Her eyes fell on the chest. Her thoughts running around her head. What if he lied about the Beatrica? What if it was in his chest all along?

Leaning on her hands she tried to get up and her head spun. Giving herself a few slow deep breaths to recover she tried again. Nope. Still spinning she had to get up…

‘Hey take it easy.’ Came Geralt's deep familiar voice.

‘I'm all right.’ She said gripping the wall. Swallowing against the rising nausea.

‘Sit down before you fall down.’

‘Stop ordering me around.’ She mumbled as her butt hit the floor.

Grabbing her face, features serious Geralt checked for symptoms of shock or concussion.

‘What are you going to do? Throw another apple at me?’ He muttered under his breath, he couldn't help the smile.

‘Stop with the fondling.’ She pulled at his hands before the urge to kiss him took over. Her head still spun, making her feel a little drunk.

‘Let me help you up.’ Geralt reached down for her.

Again, Kathryne tried to slap his hand away but he caught it, slung it over his shoulder and lifted.

‘It was that Endrega sucker Pavon. Wasn't it?’ Geralt looked at her with surprised amusement then answered.

‘If you mean the talker in the gang, then yes. It was.’

Her eyes slid over Geralt's semi naked body beside her and she paused.

‘Why is it you're only half dressed when I see you?’ The temptation to touch was worse now she knew what his skin felt like. Hard. Warm. The smell of clean masculine male… She swayed on her feet a little, her nose wrinkling. ‘Doesn’t smell like that now...’ Then again he'd turned angry and cold on her after. No reason why. Just turned away and left. Well she wasn't going to fall for sexy anymore. But the purple bruises on his chest were partly her fault. Mostly his...

‘What doesn’t smell like?’

‘I have a lotion for bruising if you need it.’ Her fingers brushing lightly over his skin.

Geralt starred at her for a moment, a frown between his brows. Shaking his head he shifted her weight.

‘Just lean here for a moment.’ Propping her up he walked the room found his chest and carefully looked it over. Surprised the spells had held. He'd have to let Yennifer know and thank her.

Glancing back to Kat who was standing braced against the wall, head forward. He liked strong women. Although Yen had a nasty streak that he understood but didn't like being the brunt of. That year he spent with Triss had killed any chance of a peaceful future they had but it was the Djinn breaking the spell that finally drove her away. Still he remembered many good times…

Strong women. Hmm.

Kat moved off the wall, determination in her lurch for the door. ‘I need to go outside.’

‘Sit down if you need to …Kat. Wait.’ Cursing he followed her out. She was staggering like a regular at the inns when he caught her and helped her out the back door. Leaning against the wall she muttered something then bracing herself against the planked surface, bent over and threw up, oblivious to the rain now falling over them.

Geralt stood beside her and held her hair off her face while she emptied her stomach. A sentinel of calm acceptance he waited until she was done, her shivering body even more unsteady. Wiping her hand across her mouth she looked pale and vulnerable.

‘I hate that you stayed.’

‘I know.’ Geralt leant forward gently pulling her to her feet. ‘Come on.’ When she looked like she was going to fall he lifted her and carried her inside.

Groaning playfully he muttered. ‘How many apples did you eat?’

‘Wraith kissing… Endrega sucking…’ She groaned softly and curled into the warmth of his body. Her hands sliding around him, chilled fingers on scarred skin.

 

Geralt closed his eyes a moment, trying to ignore her touch. Felt his body tighten all over with the effort. His stride took them deeper into the building to a side room where he'd seen a chair and table. The room was dusty but dry. Putting her down carefully he said. ‘Straddle the chair then you'll have support. Stay here and don't go to sleep.’

‘Hmm.’ She agreed as she slid into the chair and rested her arms on its back.

‘It will be dawn soon.’

‘We'll miss the Beatrica.’

‘What?’

‘Boat leaves at dawn.’ Kathryne murmured softly.

‘Stay here.’ He pulled the table away from her reach to stop her slouching over it then pushing it to the side, used Aard and smashed the table into pieces. Throwing them and anything else into the fireplace he used Igni to start it. Turning to her he asked her. ‘Where's your horse?’ He listened to her directions as he dragged her and the chair closer to the fireplace. ‘I won't be long.’ Pulling her dagger from her hilt and putting it in her right hand he lifted her chin to meet his gaze so he could make sure she understood. ‘I'll be back as soon as I get the horse. We have to get on board the Beatrica.’ Her lips opened a fraction her eyes met his and he knew he was in trouble. ‘Stay, here.’ He released her with reluctance then stalked from the room.

 

 

Fucking mage got a scare from some illusion and still failed to open the damn chest. Now he needed more men to go back but where could he find them? The inns he had seen were full of good hearty folk. Not the hardened men he was used to. And where the fuck did that witcher go? He was supposed to be trailing the bitch. They didn't get any warning and she managed to sneak in to free the bloody White Wolf. Before he knew it all his men were dead and that witcher was after the mage. Dothol would not be pleased if his pet was killed. Neither would he. How was he supposed to get the information now? The sword they were testing proved to be a normal silver sword. The alchemist he used had also ran off at the first sign of trouble blubbering the sword was just a sword.

If his efforts to kill Kathryne du Fonten didn’t work then it was a complete failure but he had no way of confirming it. He'd have to wait and see. If she was dead he could at least claim part of the contract was completed. Now he needed time to…

Pavon saw the Witcher on horseback passing the inn and he shrank down over his ale.

This was getting too dangerous.

His fingers fondled the purse of coin. He could catch the next boat up river. Or travel by road to Flotsam… waving down another servant he got another drink.

 

 

Geralt got back with Kathryne’s horse as dawn broke to find her asleep on the floor in front of the fire. Concerned she was unconscious he ran to her side and shook her.

‘Kat. Wake up.’

‘Mmm?  What?’ She rose a little slowly. ‘Agh, I need a drink…’

‘You sound better.’

‘I’m a witcher. Just needed a rest.’ Getting up carefully she held her hand out. ‘No dizziness. Great.’ Brushing off some dirt she looked to Geralt.

‘You sure?’ Geralt eyed her for any sign of malaise.

‘We’d better hurry if we want to make the Beatrica.’

‘Come on then.’ Geralt said unconvinced.

 

A short time later they stood at the jetty watching the Beatrica move upriver getting further away as the muddy Pontar waters swirled in her wake. Turning to Geralt Kathryne was so angry she was speechless.

‘We’ll have to find another way.’ Geralt said, his eyes travelling to the dock yards.

‘Yes, you will.’

‘What do you mean?’

Kathryne stalked back to her horse and mounted up.

‘They’ll have my horse in the yard if she isn’t still on the boat.’ He followed her. ‘Kat, listen to me.’

‘I always have Geralt. I’ve given you the benefit of the doubt and look where it’s got me?’

‘You’re alive.’ Geralt growled and crossed his arms.

‘Yeh thanks for putting my life at risk to save your arse.’

‘If you’re doing a tit-for-tat this could be a long argument.’

‘You’re right.’ Kathryne kicked her horse and tried to stifle the emotions burning her as she headed out of town.

Climbing up onto a rooftop would be where she would go if she was at home. Or sitting at the old kitchen hearth of the Huntsman’s cottage in the mountains. The unfortunate truth was that she was miles away from anything familiar and her purpose was fraying at the edges. Disappointment was a bitter taste she wished she could be rid of once and for all but it was just another thing to get past. She was tired and hungry and her head was aching.

She just needed… she just wanted…but they were dreams.

Reality was what it was.

Everything else was pushed aside by the reasons for continuing on. Loyalty, honour and just doing the right thing. Determination and stubbornness bullied everything else away, her allies once again. She knew it would be difficult. Knew there were enemies.

Looking around her she realised that she was in an open pasture on the river bank. The rain had given way to a little sunshine brightening the wintery riverside. She sat there, her horse grazing, letting her thoughts become present again, her eyes on the river. When the sun finally retreated and rain threatened again she sighed. Gathering the reins, she turned back the way she came and her heart lifted.

Waiting by the roadside was Geralt.

Time to go.

Chapter Text

 

Sweet earthy smells mixed with a familiar sweet blossom. Elegant elven architecture all around her. Then a huge chamber with a lake and distant sounds of moving water. Underground, twinkling stars all around her, yet all this wonder and beauty didn’t stop a growing sense of anxiety. The ominous knowing grew into a dread filled fear making her skin clammy and her chest tighten.

‘Kat. Time to get up.’ A mug was placed beside her bed roll.

She shuddered not sure it was a dream or a memory. Pulling on her boots she saw Geralt glowering at her by campfire light. They were both still angry with each other but they had made an agreement, a pact.

They would focus on getting to Flotsam as soon as possible. Incredibly, they both worked hard to do this. Cooperating with each other to complete the essential daily tasks as quickly as possible so they could be on their way. It gave Kathryne a focus taking her mind off the things she was angry about. Covering the distances that they were, each day, their routine was pleasantly comfortable now. Not something she would have expected. She felt no need to watch out for him trying to sneak into her bedroll at night or corner her when she went out first thing in the morning.

Sipping the tea, she rolled up the bedding then walked to her horse concentrating on the flavours. There were three herbs, she knew two. It was a game Geralt was using to test and frustrate her. If it wasn’t so nice to wake up to each morning, she’d have told him to shove it by now.

Her horse readied and the tea finished she walked back to the camps ashes. Tipped the tea remains out and slipped it into the satchel she now wore. She said nothing. Unwilling to test her diplomatic skills this early in the morning. It was still dark. Mist surrounded their small camp, the sounds of night not yet gone.

‘Ready?’ He said gruffly.

Nodding she accepted his dark mood as she did her own. It was personal. She hoped their agreement would hold until Flotsam. The rate they were going, their personalities seemed destined to explode like a mad alchemist experimenting in his laboratory.  

Each day another test.

 

 

Dawn had just broken across the misty barren landscape when their horses balked and faltered. Snorting mist into the cold morning air. Kathryne heeded the animal’s wariness and slowed. Roach too hopped on her hooves like a villager doing a jig.

‘Easy Roach.’ Geralt soothed the horse, a gloved hand rubbing the horses neck in familiar strokes.

‘There’s a guardian here.’ Kathryne said, her sensitivities on alert, eyes drifting over the mists that curled in the morning air.

He went still and Kathryne remained quiet so he could sweep the area. She felt it just before she saw it, wheeling her horse away when suddenly the earth before them came alive.

‘Move!’ Geralt yelled.

They galloped away a short distance.

‘Wasn't expecting one of those here. No forest anywhere.’ Kathryne called.

‘Used to be.’ Geralt said his eyes searching for the creature.

‘Hmm. I wonder who is affected by the creature the most?’ Kathryn muttered. ‘There may be coin in it.’

‘The horses can do without the extra weight.’

Geralt dismounted and stalked back the way they'd come. Kathryne remained behind. Let him take out his mood on the ancient. She hoped he would do it quickly. It saddened her that it’s home had been destroyed.

‘You coming or watching?’ Came the biting question.

Memories of fighting an elemental in a dusty, rocky ravine while he stood above her watching, came to mind. ‘Watching.’ She said pulling an apple from her satchel and sitting back in the saddle. Her leg crossing in front of her. ‘I'll keep the horses nearby.’

The morning shadows were lit by Geralt throwing a stream of Igni at the creature with his left hand as he circled it. Silver at the ready. His focus concentrated. The creature howled and writhed. It's long antlers and branching fingers recovering as soon as the fire stopped but it was clearly damaged and in pain. Turning on its attacker it threw a swathe of piercing roots and branching spears that shot out of the ground in a deadly path along the earth. Somersaulting out of the way Geralt was back on his feet, a long stride getting him close enough to attack with strong strikes that had the creature howling painfully. A moment later Geralt dodged out of reach and the ancient monster disappeared leaving him pivoting slowly around, no doubt every sense on high alert.

A grumbling underground lasted a few heartbeats then it appeared behind him but Geralt was already moving into position and attacking again.

Grateful yet disappointed when the creature fell so quickly, Kathryne marvelled at Geralt’s expertise. The way he moved was a little inspiring. She couldn’t find fault but questions burned about the choice of moves. Wondered at his abilities and wished they were on better terms so they could discuss things like technique and share knowledge of the creatures they came across. She just liked watching him work. Well… enjoyed watching Geralt.

He butchered the creature for what he needed and carried it back to the horses.

She liked how his broad shoulders rolled easily with his strong sure stride and remembered too well what he looked like shirtless. Shame he was so grumpy all the time…

‘Feel better?’ Kathryne asked throwing an apple core away.

He gave her a dark look and she shrugged. Looking around them she noted a path off to their left. Smoke coming from a small cottage in the same direction. Pulling her horse up from grazing, she moved off knowing Geralt would follow.

Neither of them rambled or meandered. Both of them moved when they needed to move and usually with good reason. This understanding made for easy travelling.

Damn but that list was getting long.

 

 

‘Did you know there are twenty four different types of fish we can eat from the Pontar?’

The dwarf sitting at the table opposite him was tucking into his fish stew with some relish so the sarcasm was lost on him.

‘All of them bottom dwelling creatures not far in looks from the very monsters our good friend Geralt hunts…’

Still no reaction.

Thick fingers picked up another piece of bread. The short digits squeezed it before drowning it in the concoction within the large flat bowl. Scooping it up to be devoured by a mouth with a musical slurp, surrounded by a dark reddish brown beard, the drips trickling downward yet somehow never reaching the table.

A look of disturbed revelation came over Dandelion. This was a dear friend of his and until that very moment he knew he would never comprehend their differences. With the thought came the acceptance that the dwarf before him had his complete and utter loyalty.

Pushing away his plate he listened to the chorus of noises of a dwarf thoroughly enjoying his meal. He smiled, until a disturbing image of Zoltan in a room with two dwarven women making the same noises… His sensitive stomach turned again.

‘You going to eat that?’ Zoltan looked at the discarded bowl as if starving.

‘Take it.’ Pushing the dish closer it didn't go far before the dwarf dragged it into range.

Here comes the bread…

Reaching for his ale, Dandelion was about to attempt to get Zoltan's attention again when two ladies approached their table.

‘Excuse me kind sir but are you the bard they call Dandelion?’

‘Why yes I am.’ Dandelion sat up straighter.

Tittering followed and coy looks that charmed Dandelion into the usual beguiled focus not unlike that of an adored puppy.

‘And who might you be?’

‘We are the daughters of the Mayor of Flotsam. My name is Herica and my sister is Dawna.’

‘It is a pleasure to meet you both. You honour me with your visit?’

‘We would like to invite you and your friend,’ The look she gave Zoltan was slightly less insulting than a grimace, ‘to our father’s home for dinner tonight.’

‘Will there be foods from the Pontar valley being served tonight?’

‘Oh, father loves fine cuisine, a suckling pig and sweet thistle duck is more than likely.’

‘Wonderful, I will be there.’ He said with a little too much enthusiasm.

‘More giggles and coy looks and the dark blond called Dawna squeaked, ‘Would you honour us with a ballad or two Master Dandelion?’

‘Just try and stop me, Ladies.’ They curtsied and left the inn amidst more giggles and furtive looks.

Zoltan lifted his face from his meal long enough to wipe his mouth and look Dandelion in the eye.

‘You’re not going to cause any trouble here are yeh my friend?’

‘I am insulted by such assumptions. Trouble is not a friend whose company I seek. However, the thought of getting away from this innkeeper’s limited menu and spending an evening amidst fine company sounds delightful.’

‘We’re supposed to be here to help Geralt.’

‘What can we do until the Beatrica arrives?’

‘Hrmph. There is that. Didn’t know the Felicity was the faster route.’ Another grunt and Zoltan’s concentration moved back to the bowl in front of him. ‘Maybe keep your ears and eyes open for information about the Beatrica and its cargo or bandit trouble?’

‘Fine, I will.’ Taking another mouthful of ale, his thoughts moved dreamily to suckling pig and sweet duck.

 

 

They drew closer to the village and Kathryne started to have her doubts.

‘This feels wrong.’ She turned to Geralt who was beside her now.

‘Hmm. Smell that?’

She took a long careful smell of the air. ‘Smoke…’ her eyes met his.

‘Carrion.’

Kathryne smelt the air again her brow frowning. They were not directly downwind and the breeze was light. The air and land damp from winter rains. She couldn’t smell carrion but it felt like death. Roach moved on ahead as Geralt took the lead.

We'll find out soon enough she thought.

Movement to her left. More ahead. The smells became stronger. Crouching scrabbling creatures.

Ghouls.

Where there were Ghouls there were probably Aghouls. Ghastly creatures and vicious in numbers. She could see at least five ghouls moving around. Pushing her witcher senses outwards she thought she could feel two or three more. Echoes of their grunts and growls filled her senses but she couldn’t decipher how many.

Geralt lifted his hand and she fell silent again. His head cocked to the side a little.

‘I can hear someone.’ Kicking Roach into a gallop he drew his silver.

‘Go.’ Encouraging her own horse into a gallop to keep up, senses alert, Kathryne followed.

‘Take out the ghouls.’

‘Which side?’ They were all over and she didn't even know where the survivor was.

‘South side.’

The village looked deserted and burned out. Bandit damage. Angling her horse to follow, Geralt leapt down a bare few feet from the first creature and she rode past bending low slicing a second. Hearing the noises of dying ghouls would soon draw others so she dismounted and sent her horse after Roach. Turning back to face off the ugliest monsters she ever knew.

‘They stink something dreadful.’ She said cutting down another.

‘This way.’ Geralt sliced and moved continually through the ruined village shifting towards a cottage. ‘Watch your back and never stay still.’

She frowned wanting to tell him she knew that already.

Dawn light slowly burnt off the mist that clung to the ground. As it dispersed it revealed the broken remains of village life and their residents or what was left of them, around their feet. Cutting, dodging, slicing and sliding away from one attack and avoiding another they worked through the ghouls. The monster’s bodies falling among their victims.

‘Kat.’

‘I got it.’ Pivoting into a lung she stabbed upward with practiced efficiency at the creature leaping at her. But the creature was twice her weight and had enough momentum to pull her off her feet onto her back where she completed a backwards roll into a crouch. Lunging back to the creatures struggling body and using her boot to pull her sword from its gut, she cut its throat then was about to return to Geralt who was coming out of a cottage when something hit her from the side. Talons squeezed her armour around her thigh and she heard Geralt yell at her. Too late. She pulled a dagger, her silver gone. She was being dragged away by her thigh armour. The talon just breaking the skin beneath. The stench nauseating, she stabbed at the creature’s side and drawing up her knees began to kick it off its stride, slowing it down. Her boots digging into the ground trying to get purchase while her dagger sliced upward under the talons that had embedded themselves in her armour. The situation so close to another where a griffon wanted her for dinner. This was much worse.

Kathryne’s mind flashed back to a training exercise where witchers who had passed their trials were sent into a valley known for ghouls. She was partnered up with two lads a head shorter but they had passed their trials weeks prior. They moved together through the dark misty wood and found a ghoul. After killing it the boys were full of bravado. That was when the Aghoul came out of the shadows…

An airborne whine and the thudding slice of metal through flesh and bone. The creature staggered and screamed. Turned on her, its jaws elongating, sharp bloody teeth like blades, she looked into the eyes of death.

Kathryne’s breathing suddenly calmed, her eyes never blinking, irises widening. Crying out in anger and exertion she used her good leg and shoved her boot into its face knowing it would bite down then pulling herself up stabbed the creature with both daggers through the neck. Using her body strength and gravity she pushed herself away and rolled. Her thigh no longer connected to the dying creatures talons, she tried not to panic, scrambling away like the creatures she killed. Fear that her manoeuvre failed still gripped her body struggling for freedom.

The pounding of a man’s boots on dirt and mud. ‘Stop Kat. Just stop.’

When she finally realised she was free Kathryn stopped and started to breathe again. Embarrassment flooding her cheeks, she got to her feet in a smooth move aware that there was a wound beneath the armour. Glancing at the witcher who now removed his own sword from the creature Kathryne realised her sword had been dropped.

‘I need to get my sword.’

‘Here.’ Geralt handed her the blade from his off hand. His voice hard.

‘Thanks.’

Wiping off his blade he faced her, the anger visible in the tension of his body.

‘Don’t ever do that again.’

‘I beg your pardon.’

‘You know what I mean… Upwards stab to an Aghoul at least twice your mass and volume.’

‘I was defending myself, and it worked.’ He leaned in on her with golden eyes that showed mostly black.

‘You put yourself into a dangerous position. There were two. The other right behind the first.’

‘I didn’t know that.’

They were toe-toe, barely a handspan between them. Kathryne just reaching his collarbone, her eyes sparking fire and cold anger. His fists clenching in leather gloves to stop them going where they shouldn’t.

‘If you’d dodged or pivoted away from the hit instead of taking it you would have seen the other one yourself.’

‘Well, I’m so sorry I don’t meet your highness’s expectations. I’ve hardly had the centuries of experience you’ve obviously had.’ A growling grunting sound from behind them stole their attention. Their argument put on hold as they disposed of two more ghouls with cold calculated professionalism.

‘Can’t even have an argument without the stinking carrion eaters interrupting.’

‘Shh.’ Knowing better than to be a smart arse when a survivor was in danger, Kathryne held her tongue.

Checking the area for any more surprises she was on Geralt's heels when they reached another building and Kathryne could hear what Geralt had heard. Soft whimpering. A child. Geralt seemed to hesitate, focusing on the child’s voice when Kathryne grabbed his arm. Ignoring the angry glare she kept her tone even and as neutral as possible.

‘What are you waiting for?’

‘Let’s think about this.’

‘What’s there to think about?’

‘Don’t you think it’s strange that a child still lives in a village that has been infested by ghouls for at least ten days?’

‘If there was food in the cottage she could have survived…’ She sheathed her silver.

‘You don’t think it could be anything else...?’

‘So what? If it is, we fight it, if it isn't then we save the child. I won’t walk away without finding out.’ She glared at him and he surprised her with the faintest of smiles then turned and forced the door open.

A girl sat crouched in the darkened cottage. Kathryne went in first and crouched down beside her.

‘Hey now, you’re safe. Where are your parents?’

‘I’m not safe, I’m never safe.’ More little sobs. ‘Never safe…’ Then the sobs changed to deeper chuckles and suddenly Kathryne’s back hit the wall of the cottage, dust filled her lungs and she couldn’t see. There was a pulling sensation in her body and she tried to speak but no sound came out.

Now she was worried.

Reaching behind her, she grabbed for her silver but felt nothing. This wraith or whatever the Gods created was doing something very strange. The pulling at her chest continued then she thought about the little bit of Igni she knew and tried to focus. A scream filled her head and she could almost hear Geralt. She did it again and suddenly her sight came back. One more time and she could feel her sword and pulled it from its sheath only for it to drop heavily to the floor beside her from weakened fingers.

‘Geralt?’ It came out weak and breathy.

‘Use your Igni again, Kat.’ Geralt said fighting off creatures Kathryne could hardly even see.

Concentrating was becoming harder as the thing seemed to be drawing her energy straight out of her heart leaving her drained and so very tired.

Well that was not a good thing either.

One more burst of Igni and Geralt joined her efforts, the wraithes disappearing on fading screams.

The cottage fell silent.

Suddenly feeling her lungs fill with air Kathryne gratefully started breathing again.

‘You all right?’

‘What was that thing?’

‘A Noonwraithe.’ He offered her his hand and she wanted to take it but decided against it. Her limbs still felt a little weak so she rolled onto her hands and knees then pushed herself up.

Soft glows on the floor caught her eye. The fading Yrden markers the only other hint how he managed to take the things down.

Kathryne felt suddenly deflated. Twice now she had made mistakes that had nearly cost her life. If Geralt hadn’t been here…

They walked outside together careful to keep an eye out for ghouls. Looking around the village, Geralt started walking deeper into the ghoul’s territory. ‘Let’s find the nests.’

He didn’t remind her what he warned her about. He didn’t rub her nose in her mistake this time. It was all business now. That was worse.

Damn him.

He knew she knew what mistakes she’d made. That was enough.

‘You go, I’ll get the horses.’

He turned to look at her but she couldn’t meet his gaze. ‘Thank you, Witcher.’

Walking away her senses were on high alert. It would not do to fall victim to another attack because she was feeling emotional.

She was angry at herself now as well as him.

The trouble was it shouldn’t have mattered what he thought. Somehow over time their relationship had changed. She was letting him get too close. His opinion meant too much. She was riding after a boat that may or may not have the Treaty’s Icon on it, disguised as some old Redanian junk. The only other person whose opinion she had cared this much about was a man of royal blood that was slowly dying and needed her to fulfil a promise. A prophesy. A myth.

Boy this was messed up.

Turning back to watch the lone witcher walking through the deserted village she made a decision. A smile creasing her cheeks. Flotsam was only a couple of days ride away he’d said. Maybe it was time to go her own way again. He would follow of course but she would have the head start. If she used the same approach as she did in Novigrad… Hmm.

Time to take the advantage back

Chapter Text

‘Excuse me, have we met?’

Immediately recognising the man, Kathryn tried to disappear into the crowded room of the inn. Unfortunately, Dandelion was a Bard who had an uncanny talent for capturing an audience.

‘Of course! You are the infamous Woman Witcher of Novigrad.’ His statement had a ring about it that caught people’s attention. Even a couple of the Ladies wandered over for an entertaining story. The crowd seemed to part, leaving her exposed in the uncomfortable situation. ‘Tidied up six thugs at the Seven Cats Inn and helped the Innkeepers sister safely into Novigrad.’

‘It was only four…’ She muttered disliking the exaggeration.

‘Then there was the young woman she saved from being stabbed to death by a brute of a man at the Passiflora…’

Realising nothing she said made any impact on this man she scowled. The excitement in the room was rising.

‘And then you went after the White Wolf, the even more infamous Geralt of Rivia…’More murmuring and chatter from the locals.

‘He killed off the monsters from the forest so we could gather.’ An elderly man piped up.

‘Killed the kayran so merchants could return to the water.’ Another added.

‘Got the ogre back to mending the bridges he did.’ This comment brought a wave of agreement from the crowd.

Crossing her arms Kathryne debated whether or not punching the bard in the nose would put a stop to this charade or make it worse. Probably make it worse.

‘If she saves women from thugs, she’ll be welcome ere.’ One of the Ladies spoke.

‘She’s a woman tho’. How much damage could she have done?’

‘Probably just scared em off like.’

‘Master Danelion said he was there! Saw it all happen.’

‘Shush and let him tell it.’

The audience was already enthralled by all the possibilities of such new stories. Becoming quite animated with interest. They obviously knew about Geralt.

Dandelion, having made his announcements and received the response he expected looked around her. He seemed a little confused.

‘Where is Geralt?’ He whispered.

‘I killed him.’ She whispered back dead seriously. Watched the Bard’s mouth drop open. Stunned into silence, Kathryne took the opportunity to disappear into the gathered crowd.

‘Tell us about it Bard.’ Someone asked moving into the gap she had created.

‘What happened to Geralt?’ Another interrupted the Bard’s thoughts.

‘Yeh, go on!’

Others encouraged Dandelion who managed to cast a worried glance her way before attending to his beloved audience.

 

Zoltan saw the cloaked figure walk into the room from his place in the far corner and looked to Dandelion to see if he had noticed. True to his profession, he missed nothing in his world. Geralt was still notably absent and the Bard was unfortunately setting himself up for a fall. In his experience, if someone comes into an inn cloaked, the last thing they want is attention.

Should be interesting.

Without any concern for his friends Zoltan spat into his hands rubbing them together firmly, planted his elbow on the table, hand in the air ready. Making a derogatory comment to encourage his opponent to challenge him, they went to it.

 

Slipping into the darkened corridors of the brothel, Kathryne ignored the bawdy offers and asked the nearest working girl where to find the madam and was shown to a private suite of rooms. It didn't feel all that uncomfortable and when she mentioned Madam Serenity to the woman she was assessed carefully, even her eyes.

‘I heard about you. One of the girls came down to tell me the Bard was singing like a bird about the Passiflora in Novigrad.’ They sat down and she poured two vodka. ‘So you’re her?’ She lifted the small fine pot in the air then toasted her before tossing it back with a quick flick of her bouffant of greying auburn hair.

‘I can’t help what the Bard says. It was only four men at the Seven Cats Inn and a man half out of his mind at the Passiflora.’

‘Good enough for me. We girls have to stick together. So why are you here?’

‘I have news from Marquise Serenity.’

Kathryne was happy to share her news from Novigrad. Madam Lithlene invited some of her girls to sit and listen so they could ask questions. One of the girls had a sister in the laundry and another was friends with Becca. It was like a family event.

‘Been a long time since I was in Novigrad. Big city like that couldn’t hold a young eager thing like me…’ Looking at Kathryne she smiled. ‘Thank you for sharing your news. We’ll keep an eye out for that lout you described. Nice trick sending him off on a barge but like you say, he may end up our ways.’ The Madam threw back another shot and wiped a tear from her eyes. Bejewelled fingers laid over her arm. ‘Have you got yourself a room yet luv?’

‘I was going to see what was available in the non-human district. The Stone and Bow I think it’s called?’

‘You’ll have a room here. The girl’s will help you settle in. The way you’re limping, I think the healer will even do a visit. In fact, I’ll make sure of it.’

They had one more vodka for the road and then the Madam showed her a room. Kat argued it was too nice but the Madam Lithlene refused to budge. Apparently, it was for their more aristocratic clientele but they seemed occupied with gambling on cards, arm wrestling or the fights downs stairs, usually leaving them with little funds for such a fine room.

Well it sure beat sleeping on the ground, in the dirt and rain.

 

 

‘How much fucking further?’

‘We don’t stop ‘til we catch up to ‘em.’

‘The ‘orses need to rest…’

‘Keep up or you lose your share.’

Dust rose from the wheezing horses as they galloped along the dirt road east. Five of them carried men of varying fortunes all hoping to improve them. Weapons rattled against the leather of ill-fitting armour and random pieces of attire. All were worn and mismatched. Only one looked in any way a professional and he carried two swords on a lean horse used to travelling light like a witcher and he was standing up ahead waiting.

The group pulled up, one horse staggering with weariness. The witcher looked coldly at the man lugging extra gear and weapons on a young horse that wouldn’t make the days end.

‘Well?’

‘They split up.’

‘Why the fuck…?’ The black eyed man spat on the ground and glared back at the witcher who irritated him in a way no other managed to. He disappeared then reappeared without explanation giving him a gut feeling he was being double crossed. Ah fuck it, he just wanted the mutant dead. Just like that witcher bitch. ‘And?’ he barked coldly.

‘They started out together. Something happened then the wolf went back into the village. Looks like he has cleaned up some ghouls. Then went his way.’

‘What about the woman?’

‘She has headed east by way of the old forest.’

The man sucked air through his teeth in thought. ‘Forget the wolf. He’s likely gone to get the fee for the monsters. She’s probably lost interest in him and taken off.’ He sneered, liking the thought of losing the Wolf but knew he was likely to turn up later. ‘Head east.’ His eyes went to the horses heads all nearly on the ground. ‘Lighten your loads now or stay behind with your dead nags!’ Pavon didn’t want to have to find more men. It was digging into his profits.

 

 

Gods but this was good. Her belly was full her body clean and her armour was airing near the fire. She was laying across a large bed wearing warm soft undergarments she was given by the madam, all be it a little too frilly and exposing for her liking but she’d buy practical clothes tomorrow. The poultice from the healer was doing the job and she was surrounded by books. One of the girls had happily suggested the book merchant and she had given her enough coin to purchase a couple on monsters and she came back with five. The noonwraiths that had nearly killed her, were in one of the books. Fascinated she learned what Geralt had done to save her. Finishing the chapter she put it aside for a book on magical spells and the Art of Signs hoping to learn more about the use of Yrden.

Chomping on an apple thinking on how she could improve her skills her eyes scanned the pages. Her fire spell was not a true magic sign according to this author of the Magic and Lore of Sorcerers and Witchers. The mage who wrote it sounded like a pompous arse if ever there was one but few books had anything instructive to offer on the practical creation of Signs. She wanted to know how to create Quen like Geralt did, and Axii was a complete mystery. Why Aard was the only thing she could do she didn't know but she had time to practice.

Her eyes went longingly back to the bath… maybe she should have another soak?

A short burst of knocking low on her door had her looking up and expanding her senses. Two people stood outside. A dwarf and a tall human.

‘Erm…’Came a gruff voice.

Whispering, ‘Go on, tell her who we are and that we’re good friends of Geralt.’

‘How’s that going to help?’ More gruff whispering. ‘She won’t be impressed to find out you’ve led her up the Pontar...’

‘Me? I merely tried to introduce myself and find out a little about her. After all, Geralt was quite taken …’

‘Sent her running after Geralt with weapons, is what you did. Now you tell me she killed him!’

Shuffling of feet. ‘Keep your voice down. If she’s a witcher then she can hear more than we can.’

‘If what you heard was true and she killed him, I want to know what happened.’

‘No one is as gifted a witcher as Geralt. You know they kept doing the trials on him until…’

‘Shh, I think I hear something.’

Kathryne threw open the door. A look on her face somewhat close to a governess catching her students in a cupboard with sweets.

Both the dwarf and the Bard smiled suddenly lifting wine and ale in both their hands in a jerky motion as if it would solve everything. It seemed to work. Trying not to smile she shrugged.

‘Why not? I promise not to kill you if I get an explanation.’ Opening the door, they both came inside eyeing her feminine bedroom dress and the dagger she flipped in her hand carelessly yet with practiced precision. ‘And you, stop telling stories about me.’ She said pointing the blade at Dandelion.

‘What did I tell you?’ Dandelion whispered.

‘Ah, we should introduce ourselves. I am Zoltan Chivay and this is Dandelion.’ He placed the ale on the table and faced her trying not to focus on the blade. ‘A pleasure to meet you.’

Tossing the dagger onto the bed she nodded. ‘Zoltan.’

‘We met…’

‘Yes, we did. So, why are you here?’ She said taking a seat, ignoring their eyes shifting from her face to her attire that revealed well-formed legs and slippered feet. She made a very different picture to the one from the inn but they didn’t need to look far to find proof of who she was. Pale gold cat eyes and scars. The shawl was pulled closer around her shoulders, it’s soft length and tassels reaching her seat maintaining a degree of modesty.

‘You really are a witcher.’ Dandelion spoke with a vague kind of respect before shaking himself into seeking mugs and goblets for drinking. ‘I knew it from the moment I saw you…’

‘You’ll have to excuse him, he gets easily side tracked. Hurry up with those mugs Dandelion.’

Dandelion returned, placed three containers on the table and filled two with wine. Zoltan pulled the cork on an ale bottle and poured the third to filling.

‘That is neither a fault nor something to be avoided but a spectre of my creativity to be witnessed and observed.’ The Bard smiled pleased with himself.

It was going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

Geralt arrived late. Angry that Kat had just taken off. He knew it was partly his fault. Ciri hated his lectures about her mistakes but he couldn’t help himself. Seeing Kat dragged off by the Aghoul had sent a spike of fear through him. Then after the Noonwraithes… He needed to vent his anger and frustration so cleaned out the nests.

It hadn’t worked very well.

Coming back to find her gone just made him feel angry all over again. It had taken him a while to find Roach who had travelled to greener pastures well clear of the roaming ghouls. Circling back, it hadn’t improved his mood when he saw a loan rider waiting.

He was delayed but he made good time. The need to seek out Kat so strong he’d ridden Roach as fast as the mare was willing to take him. Leaving her in the care of a boy in the large stable beside the inn, he vaguely remembered there used to be an incense seller there one time but his thoughts returned to one thing. One woman.

Things were going to get dangerous again very soon. They had to get the sword and move.

Entering the inn the revelry was still in full swing. He saw Dandelion seated beside a roundish brunette with blushing cheeks while Zoltan was nearer the innkeep at a table looking at a pile of coin.

‘Busy night?’ He said to the dwarf his head nodding at Dandelion.

‘Geralt. Glad you made it.’ Zoltan replied focusing on a pile of coin, he started counting. ‘You took your time getting here.’ His brown eyes glanced up through bushy wrinkled brows, then starting to count his money again.

‘How did you get here?’

‘Boat.’ Came Zoltan’s succinct explanation. Then with sombre intent, ‘I owe ye an apology. Your witcher lady left the Rosemary before I could explain to the Lass.’

‘I know.’ His eyes drifted to the Bard who was being distracted by a brunette wanting his attentions. Dandelion was ordering more wine even though it appeared both of them had been drinking for some time.

‘You're not angry Geralt?’

‘No Zoltan. We ended up travelling together. For a while.’

‘That’s good.’ Zoltan went back to counting.

Geralt bought an ale as Dandelion joined them. ‘Thought you'd be with the witcher when she arrived? Although she said something rather disturbing Geralt, I don’t mind telling you.’

‘What did she say?’

Having a skinful of wine armoured Dandelion against his friend’s black mood but it didn’t mean he hadn’t noticed it. He glanced at Zoltan warily.

‘Oh, nothing of consequence. Heh, heh!’ Zoltan said then fiddled aimlessly with a few coins.

‘So, you’ve seen her?’

‘Oh, ay, we have.’

‘Lovely, really. Lovely. Unusual for a witcher…’ Dandelion had the same look on his face when admiring women generally so it didn’t ease Geralt’s mood. He was beginning to wonder what had gone on in his absence.

‘Where is she?’ Geralt said calmly, not trusting himself to look either of his friends in the eye. He took a long thirst-quenching swig of the ale wishing he had ordered two.

‘Taken a room upstairs. The madams been very generous.’

‘She said she killed you.’ Dandelion said returning to their conversation, glanced at Zoltan.

‘Killed me?’ More likely she’d kill him with frustration.

‘Don’ listen to him. She arrived this morn.’ A loud but short burp interrupted Zoltan. ‘Was injured and needs to rest.’

‘A surprising woman. Most intriguing. Enjoys reading and bathing.’ Dandelion said, his eyes travelling to the ceiling and his fingers played with his beard as he swayed gently without a breeze.

‘Bathing?’ It sounded more growl than question. Geralt didn’t like the idea of another man thinking about her in a bath let alone being present while she had one. It awoke a very dark side to Geralt he didn’t know he had. This should have woken him up but he too needed rest.

‘I guess you'll be making a visit?’

‘Yes. I will.’

‘Now Geralt, I’m not one to interfere, I'm sure you have your reasons but you know it's not good when you speak to women when you’re all… hot and bothered. Join us for an ale first.’ Zoltan encouraged.

Being dropped into an icy lake from height through a damn portal came to mind. He doubted Kathryne would take kindly to him barging into her room. Maybe the dwarf had a point.

‘Any rooms available?’

‘Not ‘ere. But our room across the ways has enough space on the floor if you need to bed down and a communal bathing room down the hall.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Flotsam has changed since I was here last.’ Sinking another ale thirstily Geralt wiped his beard.

‘The new Comandante seems fair.’

‘The hanging scaffold is gone.’ Geralt watched the dwarf try to count his pile of coin for the fourth time.

‘Good thing too.’

‘Paving in the square!’ Dandelion piped up then joined his busty brunette. ‘Wine merchants!’

Geralt watched with quiet interest Zoltan give up basic mathematics for practical coordination as his concentration shifted to sliding the coins into a pouch and tucking it away. This too took some time.

‘We’ll talk later.’ Geralt nodded and stalked from the room.

‘Right.’

 

 

Geralt closed the door behind him and spoke into the darkness.

‘Kat?’

Allowing his eyes to adjust he took in the dying fire. A privacy screen and a bath.  A collection of small pieces of furniture. A small table had cheeses and meats and a variety of dishes all partially eaten. Lots of wine bottles. Mostly empty. Goblets and an ale mug. Feline armour spread out in different states of being oiled confirmed he was in the right room. To his left a large bed.

It took him a moment to work out what was on the bed even with his enhanced senses.

Books. Books in various states of being read. A shallow wooden bowl of apples. One partly eaten. In the middle of the various books was a very feminine body covered by a rug pulled haphazardly up amidst it all. Her foot and legs bare to her thigh. Her shoulder too was bare. A soft garment with frills and lace covered the rest of her even her face. The attire was unusual, feminine.

Yet here she was.

Hair dark against the linen and open book she used as a pillow. Hands flung outwards she was face down and her hip rose in an enticing curve beneath the folds of the blanket. Below that the glow from the fire illuminated scars on soft pale skin. There were so many but two stood out. One looked magic related. A burn maybe. The other were claws. Then he saw the others. They were older and he recognised them because he had them too. Dangerous times. Times of war and desperation.

Anger born of a maturing protectiveness took a few moments to control. He found himself sitting on the bed. Fists clenching until the leather of his gloves protested. Dragging his eyes from her skin he looked down. On the floor was another bottle of wine that looked familiar and a goblet on its side. Picking them up he poured himself a drink. Emptied it then poured another determined to savour it. Calming the need to shake her awake and tell her off for getting herself into that sort of trouble. Luckily, rational thought stepped in. He knew they were experiences from the past. Her past, not his. He had no right to get all protective and angry.

Damn it!

She groaned and moved. Her legs tucking up closer to her body. Feeling the cold. A hand reaching deeper under the blanket.

The urge to wake her and kiss her was strong but he would refrain. If they were already lovers he wouldn’t hesitate but she’d been distant with him since Novigrad. Not surprising. He’d run off without telling her to get the sword that he’d lost.

His eyes roamed hungrily over her lean feminine figure. Sighing heavily he cleared most of the books and the bowl of apples were placed on the floor next to her. He pulled up the blanket then he walked to the door… and locked it.

They had travelled together long enough that sleeping in the same room shouldn’t be a problem. In the same bed? Well that will be an interesting discussion.

He stoked the fire then used the warmed water to top up the bath. Expecting Kat to wake up at any time he was surprised she was still out cold when he returned to settle in the bed, choosing the side closest to the fire. Still hoping she'd wake, there was a number of choice things he'd like to get off his chest. He also wanted to kiss her. Hard. And do a lot more to her. Turning onto his side facing away he closed his eyes and tried not to think about the witcher in the bed beside him. All he heard were soft snores. Compared to Zoltan’s chorus and Dandelion’s efforts…?

Geralt smiled and succumbed to sleep.

Chapter Text

Where was her sword?

Get out... she had to get out before…

Something moved to her left. Too close.

Lurching away but her legs were sluggish and stuck. Her head hit something hard then she felt a blade against her palm. A sting. Striking out at the thing in the darkness…

It growled and she slashed out again. Tried to dodge it, roll out of reach but her legs seemed unable to cooperate. Kicking out desperately Kat went on the attack she hit out…it cursed...

Good.

 

‘Damn it Kat. Wake up.’ Geralt jumped out of reach of the wild eyed witcher with a dagger. If she got free of the bed linen he had a real situation on his hands. Trying to wake her was the problem then he noticed his medallion trembling but as she lunged forward with the blade Geralt called her name again getting no response.

‘Kat! Can you hear me?’

Picking up a scattered pillow he threw it at her but she sliced it open as if it too was an imaginary enemy, its stuffing coming free like some grisly metaphor from a battlefield. Luckily, her body was caught, the blankets twisted around her legs. Immobilised, he escaped being sliced open like butchered meat in his sleep. Looking around he spotted the water jug on the night stand. Grabbing it, he threw water in her face.

She gasped, her eyes blinking. Water soaked into her tunic sticking to her like a second skin. Drips marked the floor the rug getting the worst of it.

‘Kat. Wake up.’

She went still looking around her but not seeing. He didn’t like it.

‘G-Geralt? Is that you?’

She swung away to her right as if expecting another enemy.

‘Yes, it’s me. I’m here.’

‘I can’t, barely…’ More blinking then she seemed to focus on the darkened room, her eyes settling with open relief on Geralt.

The tension leeched from her body and her fight ready stance disintegrated before his eyes leaving her leaning on her palms, head hanging between her shaking shoulders. Geralt approached the bed very cautiously. His medallion wasn’t vibrating any more, he could have had imagined it but he hadn’t.

‘If sleeping with you is going to be this exciting we may have to think seriously about keeping weapons out of your reach.’ His lips kicked up at the side hoping for her usual bite but it never came. She seemed back in the present but he wasn't convinced she was back to normal. Giving her a moment, he asked, ‘You want to talk about it?’

He saw her shake her head in the darkness, his senses still on alert.

Untangling her feet and legs with jerky movements and a little desperation, she freed herself and threw back the guilty blanket moving her legs over the edge of the bed. Taking long, deep breaths and looking around the dark room, she walked to the table. Without noticing she placed the dagger on the wooden surface and lit a candle to drive away the last of the dream. Leaning for a moment, fingers touching the table surface as if checking if it was real or not, Kat was unaware that the light cast her body beneath her loose damp clothing into silhouette. She searched the mess on the table looking for a relatively clean mug or goblet.

‘You okay?’

Turning around as if surprised to see him, she nodded. ‘Yes.’ Pouring an ale she ignored the trembling in her fingers, tasting it and pulled a face. ‘I miss your tea.’ Taking another sip she asked quietly. ‘What are you doing here?’ Her eyes skimming him. ‘Half naked again I see,’ her fingers touched wet fabric, ‘and why am I wet?’ Picking up a cloth and patted down the wetness.

‘I needed sleep and thought you wouldn’t mind.’ Geralt tried not to watch her dry herself, glancing up at her again to see her pull on a flimsy feminine robe.

Looking around she met his gaze. ‘Didn't know I was offering room and board.’ Though given the state of her room it seemed entirely possible. Memories of the dwarf and the Bard paying a visit came back to her. ‘At least the your friends had the courtesy to knock first.’

‘I would have asked but you were asleep…’

Why was it that Geralt acting all noble and keeping his distance, got her back up? Ah yes, it reminded her of being left hot and bothered at the Passiflora. Well, he wanted to remain professional, friends by association. She was a witcher, she could do that.

‘Not for long though.’ Geralt added quietly remembering the sharp kick to his kidneys.

Taking a seat by the table, she drank a little more trying to gain her balance and get her spine back. Being terrified like that wasn’t good for a witcher’s image. ‘Tell me, what happened?’ It was just a dream but no matter how often she told herself that it still felt like …more. Geralt found the edge of the bed. The light of the dying fire and her candle cast his body in sharp relief showing her his strength and experience without any need to ask.

‘One minute I’m asleep, next I am being kicked out of bed by you with a blade in your hand intent on gutting me. It took a pitcher of water to wake you.’

‘Oh.’ A shudder escaping her control rolling down her spine. Turning, to cover the show of weakness she lifted the mug of ale and took another taste. ‘Well that explains the water.’

‘I know you’ve been having dreams before Kat. Most nights of late.’ Kathryne glanced his way, surprise and a little worry in her features before looking away. ‘They never realised themselves like this one did… When was the first time you had one?’

‘I can’t remember. Soon after I was caught by Raymon I guess.’

‘Getting worse?’

She nodded.

‘Tell me about them. Maybe I can help?’

‘They're just dreams Geralt. I've been… travelling for so long…’ she shrugged.

‘Maybe it's more than that.’

‘What do you mean?’ She turned towards him in her chair. Her legs pale and shapely revealed in the shadows. Ankles crossed.

‘Your dreams seemed to be getting worse the closer we came to Flotsam. Now we’re here…’

‘How is that relevant?’

‘The sword is getting closer too. My guess is the sword and your dreams are somehow connected.’

Making an unladylike huffing sound, she looked at him, disbelief clearly on her features.

‘Look at your hand.’ He watched her open her hands to find the right one blood stained.

‘I don’t remember… Must have happened when I found the dagger.’ The cut had closed already thanks to her witcher mutagens. What was scary was she had no idea it happened. The knowledge that she had no conscious control in that state…

Moving closer he pulled up a chair. ‘Kat listen to me. There is more to this sword than a political weapon. Your… dreams may even hold a clue.’

The last thing she wanted was to relive them. Shaking her head she stood and began pacing. His closeness was making it harder to think.

‘Even if what you say is true there is little I can do. I need the Treaty’s Icon, Geralt. I have to return it to the Source.’

He understood her need, that driving force. He just wanted to make sure it wasn’t driving her. ‘All right, we get it and then what happens?’

Straightening and lifting her chin she said in a tone of absolute truth. ‘I continue my journey.’

‘Nightmares and all? It took water in your face before you could even see me. What will happen on your own?’

She returned to pacing, refusing to look at him. ‘What’s it to you? And don’t give me that witcher brotherhood shit. No witchers ever helped each other that much.’

‘You’re wrong Kat. I have and many others have. Witcher or no. Just because you walk your own path doesn’t mean you live your life alone.’ His voice was gravel his eyes drilling into hers willing her to see the blatant untruth in what she believed.

 

Her arms wrapped around herself wishing he was right. Kat had never witnessed any other witchers from her lands work together amicably. They were indeed alone. It was what they were always taught. The expected way. Every witcher as untrustworthy as the next person. She hadn’t bonded with anyone at the Witcher School. Those she was close to died or went away.

But that was the past, did it apply now? Was that belief still sound?

Geralt had fought alongside her. They had worked together to get closer to the sword, both having saved each other in different circumstances. If she ignored any motives and counted Geralt’s determination to assist her, he was living proof that it could happen. Assuming his motives were genuine.

So why was she so suspicious?

Probably from all the times when she had given others the benefit of the doubt and been burned for it. Like punishment for trying to be different. It was easier to travel alone. A self-fulfilling prophesy in the end.

As the thoughts sank in, she felt something fundamental in her shift and change.

Kat found herself walking back towards Geralt and pivoted easily away conscious his eyes followed her.

Here she was talking calmly with a witcher in her room who had not taken advantage of her. He was an honourable example of masculine behaviour who she wanted to yell at for sitting there half naked, while she stood here in a wet tunic and whores bloomers without taking the opportunity to use some of that experience to… A delicious shudder had her clutching her arms tightly around herself.

She was going mad.

 

Pouring himself ale, Geralt watched her skin flush and wondered what she was thinking. ‘Do you know if the Beatrica has come in yet?’ Her long robe dragged a little on the ground behind her. The soft frilly thing was mostly dark lace and almost see-through revealing as much as it hid. He tried not to think about Dandelion’s eyes on her as she appeared to him now. Soft feminine curves shaped by years of training and horseback riding. No soft padding thickening her figure. The only softness covered toned muscle like a sleek cat.

A bolt of lust made Geralt shift uncomfortably, acknowledging to himself that if any other man thought of her as he was right now, he’d probably kill them.

‘Not for another day, I’m told.’ Her glance at him brought her to a halt. Pale cat eyes studying him. ‘What is it?’

‘That gives us a little time.’ I want you. Naked. Now. He wanted to say. ‘I’ll have a chat to the Comandante. See if I can be present to check the swords. It’s been added to the order so shouldn’t be too hard to persuade them to give it up. You could come along…’Kat didn’t respond.

‘Once we have it then where do we take it?’ He saw her lips tighten and her arms cross in front of her again and turn away. Whenever she did that it drew his attention to her breasts. Shifted her shoulders back and the waist of her gown tightened revealing the curve from shoulder to waist to hips to bottom and thigh. Her hips swayed beneath the draping fabric. He wondered if she realised the clothing she wore was designed to capture men’s attention not hide her body like her armour did. Well almost. All her armour did was focus his attention on her skills and her mind.

More dangerous thoughts.

Now, here she was being all sensible and keeping him at a distance. It made him want to tease her… taunt a response out of her. Childish really but it beat making tea from herbs. He decided to cheat a little, widening his senses so he could read her more clearly. If he took a Cat potion he’d almost be able to see her vascular system like a vampire seeking a vein. He didn’t think that was necessary.

‘All right. Don't tell me. I think I can guess…’ He watched her carefully. ‘It’s elven by creation so the Source is probably some elven ancient place…You mentioned the mountains…’

She slowed. Her back to him.

‘Hmm. There are ancient ruins all through the Pontar valley. There is the Elven Baths where the Rose of Remembrance grows and a statue of Eldan and Cymoril.’ He watched her pacing speed up a little.

‘I hear the baths are beautiful.’ She said hoping to distract him.

‘They are and they are protected by the elves.’ Geralt remembered taking Triss in those baths but his imagination couldn’t seem to let go of the idea of taking Kat down there. ‘I could show them to you. If you’re interested?’

‘I’d like that.’

Their eyes met. She bit her lip and turned away to stoke the fire. Maybe she wasn’t so untouched by need as he thought.

‘For such a powerful Source the baths wouldn’t be enough… Hmm, the most ancient and sacred place would be the ruined city of Loc Muinne in the mountains. We could follow the Pontar all the way there.’

Suddenly dry mouthed, Kat drank more ale but it didn’t calm her pulse.

‘So the next question is when you need to get there.’

She cast a quick glance his way. Her pacing sped up a fraction and her heart beat had increased.

‘Winter solstice is coming up. The elves have celebrations for it.’ His eyes noticed all her tells. He liked that he could read her. It also worried him that she was not saying anything.

‘Kat?’

‘I'm tired. I think I'll go to bed.’

He watched her drape the long lacy robe over the chair keeping her back to him, slipping herself back into bed.

‘If I'm right Kat, then it won't take anyone else much effort to work it out. The only challenge would be where in the ruined city it will be. It wouldn’t hurt you to have extra help.’ He watched her pull a blanket over herself. The frill around her throat flopped softly around her face.

She sighed heavily. ‘I’ll have help. When I get there.’

A spike of jealousy turned his gut. ‘Who?’

‘Geralt. If you could do one thing for me. It’s get the sword back. That's it. After that your life will be your own.’

She was cutting him free and he wanted to know why. She needed help. Those following her were relentless. The dreams or visions or whatever the hell they were, had her unconscious of the world around her leaving her vulnerable. If Loc Muinne was the final resting place, then she still had a way to go, monsters all the way.

Geralt’s expression turned grim.

And who the hell was helping her?

This was not ending now.

‘Kat, I made a promise.’

‘I'm serious Geralt.’

 

She turned back onto her side and ignored the tight fists in her chest. The feeling of suffocation and the building tears. Letting him go was the best thing to do. It will break that tendril of hope connecting her heart to her head and then she will find her way on her own again. Get the Icon and head east was all she should be thinking about but her gut turned and emotions choked her.

Gods she was such a fool.

She had one last time with him and it had turned to shit. She shouldn’t have expected anything else. She was the one to walk away… No, he had first. At the Passiflora, he made it quite clear what sort of relationship he wanted from her. Friends. Fellow witchers. It had been one sided all along. The moment of self pity was quickly shifted by the remembered humiliation and anger of being led on by Geralt on the bridge then discarded. Yes, he had taken advantage.

‘So, I should expect to get another kick in the back sometime tonight?’ Geralt said into the darkness, moving to the other side of the bed.

‘Not if you’re on the floor, you won’t.’

Her ornery response made him smile. ‘Do you have any more weapons?’ As he spoke he leant over and felt around under her pillow and sure enough pulled another dagger out as her hand made a grab for it, she lifted her head and glared at him.

‘Give it back.’

‘No. I don’t want to be stabbed in my sleep.’ He said calmly holding it out of reach. Looking at the workmanship in the candlelight. A balanced weapon but not personal. A standard she used and discarded when absolutely necessary. When she lay down again and got comfortable he waited a moment then said placing the dagger on the floor.

‘Anyway, you owe me an apology.’ Childish, yes, but damn it he needed to know why.

A sigh. ‘What for? Kicking you out of my bed? Don't hold your breath.’

‘For the insults at that village.’

‘Again. Don't hold your breath.’

‘Then you ran away leaving me to deal with nests of Aghouls…’

Kathryne rolled onto her back and turned her head towards him. ‘You telling me you couldn’t handle a few Aghouls? You made it quite plain to me you knew how.’ She threw back.

‘No, I’m saying you couldn’t handle them so ran away leaving me to...’

Suddenly he felt movement and then her feet where pushing at him, shoving him closer to the edge of the bed.

‘Hey.’

‘Get out… of my bed…’

He tried to grab her foot beneath the blanket.

‘Get out. Go pay for a bed companion.’

‘You saying I can't stay here?’

A book flew at him and he knocked it away. Muttering ‘I thought I got rid of them.’

‘Yes. I am.’

‘I saved your arse twice yesterday, I should at least be allowed to sleep in a bed.’

‘I didn’t need your help…’

The blankets had fallen off and the heel of her foot, soft and pink came at his ribs in a kick that would have bruised. Instead of blocking the hit he grabbed and pulled her foot over his chest and held it there. She began to struggle to get it back, her other foot going for him without holding back but Geralt soon took advantage grabbing the other and pull it up too, successfully immobilising her.

‘Stop being so childish Geralt.’

‘Not until I get my apology.’ He was pulling her in, holding her more firmly.

‘You deserved everything you got. You, you, endrega sucking… wraith kissing…’ Her eyes were all fire and calculation.

‘Who, me?’ His innocent look didn’t wash with her and she began to twist and kick with earnest. He really liked her like this and she was a handful. Leaning on her hands now, fingers gripping the linen, she struggled to get her legs free. Grabbing a pillow she tried to pound him with it but he laughed and grabbed it. They were doing a tug-o-war until his strength overwhelmed her and the pillow was discarded.

Her clothing offered delightful glimpses of feminine skin, sweet and clean from her bath. Twisting and now on her hands and knees it gave him another opportunity to pull her in over his chest. With a burst of strength and a grin on his face he dragged her over him.

‘Geralt, let go.’

‘Or what? You can’t win.’ He challenged liking the idea of wrestling with her so much his voice dropped to a rumble.

‘Gods, I hate you so much right now.’

 

 

‘Do you think she likes us now?’ Dandelion slurred sitting on his bed trying to pull off his boot.

‘Aw… course she does.’ A loud long burp from the barrel-chested dwarf filled the small room. ‘Scuse me.’

‘At least she believes us now.’ More tugging.

‘Don't think it's any of our business.’

‘What business?’ The boot came off. Eyes on the bottle of wine and his goblet, Dandelion stood up and swayed.

‘What they’re doing.’ The dwarf mumbled.

‘Mmm? Probably working out how to get that …Icon …thing.’ His hand finally reached the goblet and as if the accomplishment had taken such physical toll his body seemed to angle back towards the bunk and Dandelion found himself seated again and sipping the wine. Miraculously landing without a drop of wine leaving the goblet. ‘Sensible and practical those witchers are…’ Swallowing he looked over at his friend. ‘You don’t suppose they are…?

‘No-o-o-o. He wouldn't. Kathryne is...’

‘Independent.’

‘Stubborn.’

‘Enjoys bathing...’

‘Polite, once you get past the door…’

‘Likes her books, …just like Geralt.’

‘Likes her weapons...’

‘Enjoys bathing…’

‘Strong willed.’

‘I do like the challenge of a strong willed women.’ Dandelion seemed to think there was an opportunity.

‘Hmm. Geralt likes his women strong…’ The dwarfs head hit the pillow and his mutters became snores.

As if suddenly realising something, ‘Geralt won’t try anything will he? Zoltan. Wake-up.’ More tugging at his boot. ‘Never wooed a woman witcher before...’ Putting his goblet on the floor and chuckling at his own hilarity, Dandelion tried the other boot. Failed. Cursed eloquently then fell asleep.

Chapter Text

‘What can you tell us sister?’ The megascope shifted, straining over the distance.

‘There is definitely a magical power source but it is growing weaker.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘It's supposed to grow stronger.’

‘Do you know where it is?’

‘It appears to be somewhere beneath the royal bedchamber. I have yet to get access that part of the building.’

‘What is the problem?’

‘An alchemist by the name of Cabble is the only one with keys to certain areas of the castle.’

‘Can he be bought?’

‘I’ve tried, money, gold, coin, sex, both sorts and nothing seems to move him.’

‘Have you offered so much he knows you are suspicious?’ Another feminine voice offered with familiar ornery tones.

‘I have not been the person to offer every option sister, but Cabble seems uninterested.’

‘A spell of abeyance should do the trick.’ Said another.

‘I've tried but he has strong protection. I will find a way. There must be something else.’ The woman turned from pensive and thoughtful to scheming. ‘There is also a mix of loyal and not so loyal staff, working together somehow.’

‘What do you mean sister?’

‘My understanding so far, is that there were a number of alchemists and healers bought in to assist the king’s healing after a fall from his horse. They were supposed to enhance his demise. However, somehow he is recovering.’

‘I gather that is a dubious circumstance?’

‘It is. A curious situation, as it has thrown several loyalties into question but no one is stating any facts about their stance. It seems they are the children who found the sweets bowl and are sharing it secretly amongst themselves.’

‘How strange?’

‘Oh, leave off the childhood analogies, please.’ Said another.

‘Forgive me. There seems to be a sense of quiet celebration. Though they are discrete, the king is definitely recovering.’

‘The dangers?’

‘Include a portion of staff, though small, want to fulfil their original plans to set another on the throne.’

‘Who did they have in mind?’

 ‘A man I believe who does not portray himself as accurately as he believes.’

‘Magical abilities?’

‘Yes. A few. Uses mages to enhance them and strengthen his spells but they are definitely not all human magic.’

Others began to speak.

‘Gnomish?’

‘Elven?’

‘Humanoids can have other links. Look at witchers.’

‘What about those forest people. Shy and…’

‘Dryads dear.’

‘They are basically druids with no clothing to speak of... no different.’

‘Sisters, I believe that no matter who he is, power at the cost of peace is what he wants. He has been using Cabble to create a poisonous concoction that only came to an end when you interfered.’ She said looking directly at the sorceress dressed as a maid servant who bowed with the acknowledgement. ‘Another politically motivated element. Hmm, if the king uses up the energy before it is replenished then he will die. So, a delay is as bad as not achieving an end result. You know what to do sister?’

‘I do. Oh, one last thing. Apparently, Geralt of Rivia has become involved.’

‘Why?’ Someone demanded.

‘A woman of course.’

‘Well then we have to be on our game. He has the tenacity and luck to throw all our plans.’ A glance to another of the women behind the megascope and the session came to an end.

Chapter Text

Breathy and now straddling him, anger sizzled down at the man holding her, his muscles working to keep her in place. ‘You do realise I can disable you whenever I want to. It won’t be pleasant but right now I’m not feeling very pleasant.’ Kathryne threatened sensibly.

‘I'm not a djinn you can demand wishes from Kat. I deserve an apology.’ He persisted.

‘Or what?’ She said sitting upright over on his wash board flat stomach, arms crossed.

The frilly top was obviously made for someone much bustier as it kept sliding off her shoulders, the ties at the front had come undone nearly revealing breasts that lifted with each breath. The scar from her run-in with the griffon showed clearly under her left collar bone. A pair of long knee length bloomers in bright coloured satin with black bows had slid up her thighs as they too were made for a more robust figure. He noted the little spasm of her muscle tightening and realised her body was healing from a wound. The Aghoul. He’d almost forgotten.

‘Do you think I'm threatening you?’ Using more persuasive tones he watched her carefully. Witcher senses tuned in to everything about her while his thumbs stroked and caressed her. Whether she recognised it or not he was making progress. A hint, a sensuous feminine scent specific to her.

‘Well, aren't you?’

‘Does it feel like it?’ He watched her take a few breathes, her eye lids narrowed. His hands continuing to do slow slides over her skin. He saw the slow intake of breath – a controlling method that failed. The rising of her pulse rate. A flush of heat beneath soft skin and that scent... Mmm.

Then the shutters closed and her features became serious again.

‘Enough… Geralt, I’m not in the mood to be teased again.’ She dived off the edge of the bed reaching for the dagger he placed on the floor thinking a punch to his nose might get him to back off.

‘Oh, no you don’t.’ He growled and grabbed her around the waist, attempted in vain to hold her back they both tumbled to the floor. Geralt managed to shove the dagger away from her reach just in time. She was scrambling over him all arms and sharp elbows, her foot clipping his groin making him suck in a breath but he didn’t want her anywhere near her weapons. Geralt felt the table leg as he shifted his hips to avoid getting kneed. ‘Like that is it?’ He growled.

‘When I get that dagger I’m going to…’

‘You’re all talk witcher.’ He grinned playfully.

‘Don’t be… so sure. Ow.’ Kathryne blocked his hands from pinning her and used every tactic she knew. A grunt and a curse making her grin.

‘Hey, no playing dirty.’ Geralt called her on it. This was the most fun he had in ages.

‘Serves you right…’ She said breathlessly but couldn’t help the smile from the excitement and challenge. Tensile strength and experience enhanced by agility and speed - all Kat could expect was to avoid being pinned and getting a break away but he was moving with her and shifting as quickly as she was, learning her moves and countering them. Her time was running out.

Soft grunts, gasps and the occasional scrabbling sounds filled the shadows of the floor.

A little miraculously, Kathryne found herself on top again, hands holding his down beside him on the rug. Their noses a little more than a hand span apart, both breathing a little harder.

‘When did I tease you?’ He sounded indignant but the roguish smile of victory creeping onto his features should have warned her.

‘You got all hot and bothered on the bridge at Novigrad then dropped me like a hot potato at the Passiflora. Wouldn’t even look at me.’ She straightened and crossed her arms. ‘So this.’ She pointed to her and him. ‘Doesn’t go any further. I’m not going to risk being left all hot and bothered when I have weapons at hand. Someone could get hurt.’ She shifted to get off him but his hands stopped her. She met his look with one of her own. ‘You made it clear then you didn't want me. This is no different. What was it, a change of heart?’ When he released her from his restraining hold, her heart sank firing up her anger, the move confirming rather than assuaging any doubts. She stood and walked to the table.

‘Not very imaginative Kat.’ He watched her pour a drink for herself.

‘Well I don't want to…’

‘You don't want to?’ He interrupted.

‘Let me finish.’ She turned to find him standing before her. He wasn’t the only thing standing up.

‘You had me worried for a moment.’

‘Shouldn't I be the one who is worried?’ She said growing frustrated with him and desperately trying to keep her eyes above his pants.

‘I didn't want to hurt you…’ he stepped into her personal space.

‘Too bad. You did.’ She punched him in the chest. It may as well have been a tree trunk for all the good it did, that is if trees could scowl. She could see his mood change. Could see the tension grow. That darkness return and she couldn't stop herself.

‘In the end it’s just more lies witcher.’

The hurt and frustration, confusion and insult to her confidence all balled up into one sharp shot doomed to resolve nothing and create the largest chasm between them.

Well, so be it.

‘Explain to me why one minute we're crawling into each other’s mouths or laughing and joking together. Suddenly, you go cold as snow. Not even looking at me. Telling me to go to my room like a recalcitrant child.’ Her voice sounded choked. ‘So do me a favour, just tell me the truth Witcher. Why did you kiss me? A chance to see if you could heat up a living female witcher?’  Emotions burned behind her words but she held her voice firm and quiet. ‘Find out if the rumours are true? Don’t worry, I’ve heard them all before.’

Geralt’s eyes turned predatory, Kathryne knew she had poked the beast awake. Well that suited her just fine because her beast was all sorts of angry.

Showing no fear she met his gaze and prepared to move at speed. Knew how many steps it would take to reach her sword, the dagger on the table right beside her or the one now on the rug near the fireplace.

‘You want the truth? So do I Kat.’ It came out deep and threatening.

‘Truth for truth?’ Kathryne made the pact. Held out her hand to shake his but it was ignored. Looming over her he moved forward forcing her to step back.

‘I kissed you because I wanted to taste you.’

The simplicity of his answer threw her off stride.

‘Taste me?’ She swallowed.

‘Smell you too.’ Another step forward. His eyes drifted downwards his nostrils flared as his breathed deeply and met her eyes.

‘Smell me?’ Kat felt her breath hitch and heat like hard liquor in her blood. Geralt’s eyes never lost that deadly hunter calm.

‘But I never wanted to betray you.’

‘What do you mean betray me? With Viola? You were a paying client at a brothel. What did you think I'd do? Fly into a jealous rage?’

‘You have not been treated with the respect you deserve by some men.’

‘Oh.’ She said, mollified. ‘You thought about that?’

‘I didn't want to take what I wanted from you and not give you a choice.’

Her eyes narrowed, ‘But you did anyway, Witcher.’

His eyes hardened.

Poking him in the chest to make her point she leant on her anger again. ‘You walked away when I wanted…’ She swallowed the emotions and the growing need to rub herself against the chest she was poking. Instead she turned to the table only to realise he had manoeuvred her beyond its reach. Suddenly the truth was dangerous for other reasons. Her own pride making her resolve wobbly. Trouble was, she had challenged the beast and now couldn’t find the way out of the arena.

‘Truth for truth Kat.’ He whispered. Hot breath against her cheek. ‘What did you want?’

There was a moment where everything seemed to stop. Kat could feel the heat of his chest, her body tightening, heat flushing her bloodstream readying her for him yet her mind struggled to give in, relinquish this fight for…?

‘You smell good Kat.’

Her body shuddered with need. Kathryne couldn’t trust herself to speak. All she wanted to do was… Oh Gods, she was going to be like those women at the Passiflora all eager and needy for the White Wolf.

Turning to her anger for balance she took a slow shuddering breath and felt herself cool. Clenching her fist she met his golden eyes and threw her punch aiming for his nose. His swift reflexes meant she got his jaw. He managed to dodge the worst of it but the anger she threw his way was as bad as the darkness that now stared her in the eye.

‘Damn it Kat. What was that for?’ His hand rubbed his jaw.

‘What do you think?’

‘You have a mean right.’

‘Yeh, well, be grateful I didn’t have a hilt in my fist.’ She said testily, her eyes drifting to the dagger now out of easy reach then back to the man thrown off his game. ‘You… humiliated me.’ She said standing before him, fists clenched ready to take on anything he threw at her. Clinging to a truth that was a thorn in her side and her last bastion and shield against the raw masculine strength of the man before her.

‘Kat.’ His emotions shifting as he realised his error and how lucky he was. After all, if she’d been a sorceress, anything could have happened. He much preferred the punch and remaining in the same room with all his wits in order. Looking down at her, he felt admiration for her strength. The fire in her eyes did something altogether more pleasant. ‘I want you too much.’ Geralt admitted quietly in a soft rumble reminiscent of thunderstorms in the mountains.

She remained silent wondering what he meant, if she heard him correctly.

‘I saw the men eyeing you like meat when we arrived back at the Passiflora. Thought that man was walking to you with the drying cloth.’

‘So? I didn’t even notice.’

‘I did.’ His voice dropped to a growl making her eyes widen a little in surprise. ‘The thought of those men with you… and what Raymon and his men did… suddenly I doubted I wouldn’t do the same.’

‘What do you mean, do the same?’

‘Just take you.’ His hand slid across her shoulder to her throat, cupping her nape in a possessive caress that was a not so subtle attempt to get the message across. Their eyes met. Dark gold and light.

Kathryne realised that this man had held back for her sake. A misunderstanding from the start but he knew nothing about her. She was no fragile noblewoman from some court. Had taken care of herself for a long time, killed people and monsters to stay alive and remain healthy.

Truth for truth.

‘You are right. What Raymon …they did, was …cruel. Geralt, they died at my hand because of what they did. Every man, except one, has died for taking what was never offered.’ There was no point talking about the detail. It was done. She raised her hand to his chest, placing it over his heart. Felt the strong heart beat beneath warm muscle. Her eyes lifted to his. ‘But I have taken my pleasure when I can too. I make sure I remember it. Treasure it.’ It seemed to take Geralt a moment to understand what she was saying.

‘You have a lover?’

‘Sure. At home, I had a few.’ Seeing his gaze become intense her eyes dropped to her fingers splayed out on his chest for a moment. ‘It’s been more difficult while I have been travelling…to find someone I could…ah…’

‘A few.’ His voice was back to a growl.

‘Oh, don't look at me like that. I'm no blushing noblewoman and I don't suffer the malaise women are struck down by so...’ She shrugged. A smile lifted her lips, she looked at Geralt. ‘Being a witcher gives me a certain stamina that means, one lover often, well usually, isn’t enough…’ Finally looking up at Geralt, concern had her moving. ‘You look like you need a drink.’ Walking to the table she poured another wine and gave it to him. ‘Here.’ Realising she had thrown him again and feeling like her underbelly was now exposed, she pulled on the robe. Turning to him she admonished softly. ‘What did you think Geralt?’  She saw him suddenly check his facial expression and she tried not to laugh. ‘Oh you didn't think I was a…’

‘No. I didn't think about it. I was being respectful.’ Stepping backwards Geralt sat on the bed.

‘Well, thank you.’ She pinched her lips together to hide the smile and walked to the fireplace to tend it. Standing she turned to watch Geralt drinking down the last of the wine when he gave her a peculiar look. Then it changed, a roguish smile lifting his lips.

Damn, he was sexy when he turned it on. His eyes glowed softly in the shadows and she shuddered, unsure she could say no to him now. It would all seem a little too prideful to take seriously.

‘So what does a woman witcher want?’ His voice was even lower, speaking to her through her bones like rolling thunder of an imminent storm.

‘What do you think?’ She smiled then gasped when Geralt moved with lethal speed she found herself being kissed, no, possessed. Not soon enough, his hands went beneath the loose blouse, a delicious skin against skin contact. Catching her breath, the next thing she knew he was raising her arms to remove her blouse and robe. His fingers smoothed downwards to her waist band, sliding around lightly against her skin then released the ribbon there letting it fall gracefully to her ankles.

Geralt looked at her for the first time.

Watching his assessment, Kat had no doubt she was scarred and too lean. Knew she was not the preferred mate in the bedroom but when his eyes returned to hers filled with dark want, she couldn’t help herself. Stepping into his body, she cupped her hands around his face and kissed him hard with everything she felt behind it. Taking him as her own. Possessing him a little then he seemed to understand.

‘About time.’ He growled against her lips pulling her up against his hard body. Kissing her, making her burn from the inside her hands moved over muscular shoulders up through his hair. ‘There’s Aghoul blood here.’ She teased breathlessly, fingers clenching in his hair and leaning heavily against the wall now at her back for support her legs would no longer offer.

His own pants were gone a moment later as he palmed her breast with firm ownership his thumb and forefinger playing with her peaked flesh until her hips pushed harder against his. His hands caressed, stroked moving south. His lips followed. Gasping when Geralt’s lips kissed the sensitive skin above her hips.

‘Hmm.’ He said distracted.

‘You need… a bath…’ Kat added breathlessly.

‘Later.’ Geralt answered, his mouth preoccupied. He tasted her like a starving man. Discarding the control he used to manage himself with more fragile human and elven lovers. Knowing the bruises from his taking her would fade quickly because she was a witcher.

Once would never be enough for either of them, soon left trembling and breathless, Kat turned away from his grasp towards the bed, his arm caught around her waist and pulled her back to him his hips pinning her against the wall. One hand on the wall next to her head the other on her hip. ‘You smell good.’

‘Hmm,’ Kat murmured on a throaty groan her hands sliding over his skin, her lips tasting him. When his lips found hers, all thoughts shifted again. Geralt used his mouth and fingers to seduce her with an expertise that left her wanting so much more. Those wonderful hands that explored her, inspired her to do the same. Long fingers pushing past barriers of intimacy that had her gasping. Before long he had her body rising to burst for him at his leisure. Watched him watch her writhe under his careful ministrations then fall, lost in the erotic pleasure when he took his fill of her, claiming her like the wolf symbolised on his medallion.

Sometime in the dark hours of the morning, Kathryne found herself being lifted back onto the bed to be stroked and cajoled to readiness again. It seemed that now that he had explored other places in the room, the bed was new territory.

Satiated by normal human standards long ago, this was testing her. Geralt was forceful yet tender in a way Kat couldn’t explain nor had the wish to do so. All she knew was he was thorough and he was definitely still in control but having taken every opportunity to attend to Geralt, she still found the memory of stroking him to madness made her cheeks flush with lusty thoughts. Inevitably she had slapped his hands away when they threatened to distract her, she had explored him, watching his body surge for her, taking the lead and he let her. The memories were ones she never wanted to forget.

Now she felt herself positioned ready for the taking but when he surged into her in one thrust, as before, it seemed to take them both a moment or two to start breathing again. Then with passion drugged gazes, the dance began in earnest. Lost in their sensual rhythm, she urged him to go faster, he growled that sexy deep sound making her shudder, long for more. She cursed him and he laughed, murmured something in that deep wonderfully erotic voice about apples, by this time, her body screamed for release and Kat was ready to kill him until he finally picked up the pace riding her with powerful strokes making her body sing for him.

Feeling herself lift on a wave so large she thought she was going to break, Kat held her breath.

‘Come with me Kat. Let go.’

Chapter Text

Geralt woke and flung his hand over the empty space beside him and came awake instantly. Well almost instantly.

‘Kat?’ When he couldn’t hear anything his senses went on alert. Eyes scanning the dark room he noticed her armour was missing. What was she up to?

Remembering the night past, Geralt smiled. In a rare pause between indulging or more accurately, taking each other, they had quietly restored themselves with food and Toussaint wine. Talked about ways to get the sword back. Some of their ideas had been so radical they laughed about them. Others were good possibilities but they had not agreed to a plan. He had mentioned he’d infiltrated the garrison himself years ago. Had a suspicion she’d want to do the same but the new building and soldiers were no mercenaries hiding fisstech profits. No, these were serious soldiers, trained and well armed.

Concern for his witcher got him moving.

Damn it!

Pulling himself out of bed he looked for his armour.

Why hadn't he heard her leave? His head swam a little. Hmph. He was sure he hadn't drunk that much. No, he hadn't. Kat had also seemed more tired than usual. A little more difficult to persuade… he chuckled at the memory. The little cat clearly had other plans.

Determined, Geralt dressed and went on the hunt.

 

 

Shifting lower in the deep shadows, her back against the rock face. Kat tucked in her legs, holding, ready to move. The soldier coming towards her was weary and not paying much attention.

Remaining unnoticed in the garrison yards for some time now, too long, Kat slowly worked to get closer to the three-storey building. It was difficult to move quickly when so many where on duty. Her line of sight checking constantly she and her shadow were out of sight. Watching for deviations in their routines or unusual behaviour that could make them aware of where she was. Even a sneeze could have them looking at their surroundings a different way, wake them up, even for a few moments.

A good thing most of them were young and inexperienced. The two more senior men were stationed separately. One she avoided relatively easily but he was watchful and could still set off the alarm. Her eyes went to her escape route, doing a mental double check. The other way out would be more difficult and more dangerous but it was there if she needed it.

The sound of the soldier taking a piss behind her, the smell of urine and ale, kept her where she was. He wouldn't be sticking around for long. Right on queue he re-tied his pants and moved off. His shadow casting long and black from a nearby torch. Taking advantage, Kat slid around and behind into the shadow and moved with him her eyes already on the next position of cover. Her senses alert she moved in time with the youth. Barely breathing until she could stop behind the pile of wood to assess her next position. Remaining calm didn’t stop the sense of fear of being caught nor the exhilaration of staying out of sight, surrounded by soldiers that would quickly kill her if she tried to run.

‘Oi you over there.’

The soldiers shadow halted.  ‘Yes sir.’

‘Rotation change. Get over to the gate.’

‘Sir.’

He moved again more energetically.

Releasing her breath slowly. A few steps and Kat was up against the building and sliding around the corner, slinking behind the white myrtle bushes. Making herself as small as possible she waited and listened. Watched and learned the next bit of the routine. Her witcher senses working hard.

 

 

Geralt tried to get into the garrison but no one was allowed in. The shipment wasn’t due until later that day so Kat must be having a look around. Wandering back to the outer walls, he began looking for her way in. Eyes searching the rooftops and high places. Witcher senses active as he scoured the area he thought she would use. It wasn’t long before he found familiar boot falls in the mud that had him following her tracks up over a wagon, onto a stone wall then up to a rooftop with a clear view of the garrison yard.

Staying low and out of sight, he couldn’t locate her.

A long look at the number of soldiers and torches lighting every path bothered him. If she was in there, she was hiding. A thought stung him. What if she had already been captured?

Geralt remained where he was, waiting impatiently when a movement had him tracking a familiar shadow. Slowly but surely it made its way back towards him. She was patient and only moved when she needed to. Her body subtly falling into the shadow sliding unnoticed behind cover. Timing perfect so the guards were looking away, she mounted some wooden boxes and was lifting herself over the railing. Using strength and agility that gave him no hint that she had spent most of her night and morning naked, enjoying very energetic sex with a not so inexperienced witcher.

Hmm. He’d have to work on that.

 

 

Dawn was just starting to break when she made it back to the room. Sliding in through the door and closing it quietly behind her she moved to the fireplace to remove her armour when her shins hit something hard with a noisy thump. Cursing silently, she used her witcher senses and couldn’t seem to make out what she was seeing. The place was in a mess. More than the mess she and Geralt had made or the dwarf and Bard had. Everything was either emptied onto the floor or upturned. Fear nipped at her. Geralt! She went to light a candle when a deep voice spoke near the fireplace.

‘It seems they found us.’ Fire burst suddenly in the hearth as Geralt used ignii to light a log, turning to her in the darkness.

Meeting his gaze, she realised two things. One, he was already armoured up, weapons on his back. As there were no bodies, he must not have been here when it happened. Relief slowed her thumping heart. The other thing… he was grumpy.

‘I can explain.’

‘What? Why we were ransacked or why you chose to give me a sleeping draught so you could slip out to case the garrison without me?’

‘You wouldn’t have given me a chance without the brew Geralt.’ Her eyes drifted down his body with unaccustomed sensual familiarity, her eyes at odds with her sensible tone. ‘I had to do something.’

‘Well that was a good answer.’ Geralt couldn’t help the smirk at her attempt to stroke his ego. The look of feminine appreciation did a far better job. ‘The other?

‘I don’t know how they found out where we were.’ Her eyes looked around the room. Luckily everything she had of value she wore so even the coin was safe. The saddle bags and other items didn’t fare so well.

‘It wouldn’t have been hard to ask around.’ He came towards her lifting chairs and righting items in his path.

‘They were looking for the sword, weren’t they?’

‘Apparently so but I think it’s more a warning. We have to move Kat, soon.’

‘The Beatrica is due later today.’

‘Did you find out anything useful in the garrison?’

‘If the day shift is any better than the night, we have a problem. The Beatrica is still expected after luncheon. Funny thing, there was no mention of the weapons but they are expecting something.’

‘We’ll get the sword Kat. If not by stealth then by practical means. I have an idea.’

He grinned that lopsided roguish grin she had a terrifying soft spot for. ‘What?’ Curiosity lifting her eyes to his and hoping he could not see the sudden rush of heat.

‘It involves Toussaint wine and an early visit to the garrison.’ He was already edging towards the door. ‘You need to trust me. Can you do that?’

She frowned but couldn’t help her smile, following him. ‘I suppose I can.’ Teasing him was fun she had discovered. A flood of memories heating her skin further.

‘Good.’ Kissing her hard and quickly his hands lingered on her leather covered hips. ‘The Mayor of this fine town and the Commandante have a love for exotic wines and my friends have bought along a box of the Rosemary’s finest. If they haven’t consumed it all I may have a bargain I can make. Arrange to be present to check the sword delivery for a misplaced heirloom.’

‘Will your friends be conscious at this time of morning?’

‘Hmm, you’re probably right.’ His brow furrowed thoughtfully. ‘The Mayor won’t appreciate an early start either, wine or no wine.’

‘Why don’t I just steal my way on board the Beatrica when it docks and find it myself?’

‘It will be heavily guarded and the sword may be in any of five boxes. You will play into their hands if you are caught and be thrown into a garrison cell for your trouble.’

‘Well I suppose you’ll have to pay me back for rescuing you from Pavon’s mercenaries back in Rhinde.’ She said moving closer, a smile on her lips.

‘I’m serious Kat. We talked about this. There are others ways that have better chances of success.’

‘All right. You made your point. I’ll think of something else, just in case.’ Her thoughts were already thinking about something but it had little to do with a sword unless it was the proverbial one and belonged Geralt’s.

‘We can’t do anything for the moment.’

‘Oh, I’m sure we have more than a moment and I have just thought of something we could do…’ Her fingers were siding over his chest leather then to the buckles holding his weapons, already imagining her hands on his skin.

‘Hmm. What are you suggesting?’

‘Well, logically it is unlikely bandits will return anytime soon…’ Her fingers had undone the buckles and when his hand came over hers, she stood on her toes to softly bite his bottom lip, her eyes making it clear what she had in mind.

‘You make me want to…’

‘Do it.’ She was already going for her own buckles. Her fingers fumbling.

Geralt braced a chair against the door and returned to help her. That grin on his face.

 

Their swords were the only things they took care to place near to hand as they stripped. Kat had barely removed her boots when she felt his hands on her hips pushing her to the bed. His hands sliding over her as she loosened the last buckles and shimmied out of her armoured pants. His hands sliding over her bared skin and thighs, his mouth biting her hip and buttock, his fingers slid lower, cupping her. Holding his hand in place and applying intimate caresses, testing her readiness. The other hand smoothed its way over her cooling skin to own her breasts and pull her against his chest.

Nuzzling, nipping her throat, he described what he was going to do while one finger slid into her in a slow tender stroke. She pushed back against him and moaned softly. Kat encouraged him but when he didn’t do what he so eloquently described she tried to turn around.

Kicking her feet further apart and tightening his hold to keep her in place, he slid his hand down the inside of her thigh then around under her belly then lower with slow lingering strokes.

‘Damn it Geralt, don’t make me hurt you.’ Kat gasped, frustrated.

Geralt chuckled and kept his word, eventually.

Chapter Text

Kat waited in the inn for word on Geralt's success but sitting on her hands while he retrieved the sword was difficult. The urge to go and find out what was happening strong. The impulse to have a go at her own ‘cock-eyed plan’, Geralt had called it as he fed her pieces of apple, naked in her bed not so long ago, still had its merits in her view. Her legs were jiggled under the table. She grimaced. The deep need to move and get it herself, overthrown by the new understanding they had.

She trusted him.

This delicate realisation had her waiting while he collected the most precious of items for her. Yes, she trusted him. But it wasn't an easy trust because she was not used to it. Kat found it easier to rationalise it was more an agreement that they would try his way first. There was time before the Beatrica docked so they would take advantage… like they did this morning. A smile spread over her features. A silly smile that only naïve young women get but she couldn’t help it. He was her lover and didn’t look to want to change that any time soon… trust.

Gods, she felt torn in so many different directions where Geralt was concerned. She admitted she liked him…a lot. Any more and uncertainty gripped her. Yet they travelled well together. Fought well together with an instinctive knowledge that had them behaving as one. Even in the bedroom they knew what each other wanted. Oh so good! Kat shifted a little on the hard seat.

Closing her eyes and clasping her head in her hands, elbows on the table she tried to breath. In and out, in and out. She had to trust him.

Zoltan arrived back with ale. He eyed her warily but sat down and with true dwarven stoicism kept her company.

‘Damn it I hate this waiting Zoltan.’

‘I know.’ Zoltan sighed. Seeing clearly her discomfort, he took a pull from his mug. ‘Waiting generally is the hardest part. I know it's difficult but Geralt was right to take Dandelion and not yourself. Dandelion has a, ah… How can I put this? A relationship with the Mayor, especially his wife and daughters so if anyone can dull Geralt's sharper edges, persuade the Mayor, it's him.’ He drank some more, face half covered by the enormous mug held in his short broad fist.

‘Don't you worry lass.  It'll be over and Geralt will be walking into the inn with your precious heirloom and then you'll be off together to see it through.’

Nodding, Kat remembered asking Geralt to accompany her. It had been easy to do. Especially after he mentioned what had gone on the last time he was here. Scoia’tael in the woods, Fisstech mercenaries and monsters, even a dragon, all the way to Loc Muinne. She didn’t doubt him. Many years had passed since her last visit to the region but Kat never forgot needing help when she travelled to the famous ruined city. It was the second time she and Ciri had crossed paths. Ciri had been on the run and Kat had helped her. It hadn't been easy. Luckily elves in the area also provided a well needed distraction.

The adventure had rounded out with Ciri accompanying her on her errand to seek the icon for the treaty. A map given to Kat by the king, was all she had. Ciri hadn't complained, had offered to help her on the treasure hunt rather than disappear the way she did the last time. So, they shared out the saddlebag weight and she took the spare horse but Ciri always looked over her shoulder from time to time.

Their time together had been too short just like her first visit to the Witcher School but Kat trusted her too. Ciri spoke of her upbringing and training, her family by choice that included a warrior father and a sorceress who she never called her mother but her voice and tone did. Those she had lost, people that had mattered to her. The adventures and things she had seen on her travels seemed unbelievable. They had shared much about themselves and had so much in common. Ciri knew of the use of signs, knew how Aard was applied. They spoke of magic and monsters. Shared information easily. Maybe that was why Kat felt so comfortable with her. Trusted her too.

Between them they managed to deal with every monster on the way. She had been good company, working together on any puzzle or problem, excited when they solved it and progressed a little further.

Fiddling with the hair of her horse’s mane, Kat wished she was meeting her sooner. Wished she could talk to her about things…

 

Zoltan was now standing and looking at her expectantly. Assuming he was asking if she needed another ale Kat nodded without thinking but when the dwarf wandered to the back of the room and started to chat to a few people around a table she realised he was going to test his mettle with some arm wrestling.

Turning back to her untouched ale she wandered how much time had passed when a cloaked stranger sat down in front of her. She noticed the Cat medallion first swinging from the chain. Witcher eyes, gaunt, older face and an old scar on his throat she didn’t remember seeing before but she recognised him.

‘Norsom?  What brings you here?’

 

 

Geralt and Dandelion stood with wine goblets in their hands toasting to nothing in particular. It was a demonstration of power that efficiently indicated who was in charge. It wasn't the Mayor or his wife and daughters as they too were entranced by the tall blond haired sophisticatedly dressed Lord Dothol. Geralt grit his teeth against the magic and found he could resist it but now was not the time to show his hand. He had to wait for the appropriate moment. They had taken his weapons upon entry and put them out of sight somewhere. Dothol wasn’t alone either. He had protectors, Pavon and his latest batch of mercenaries were spread around the house.

Geralt was wondering when this was going to get interesting.

‘Bard, play us a tune. You there bring me your best food.’ His orders to Dandelion or the Mayor's wife went unchallenged. Moving to a tall backed chair at the head of the long table he made himself comfortable. Everyone except the Mayor’s wife and Dandelion moved. When he drank some wine his eyes caught those of another entering the room but remaining near the door. The witcher.

‘Is it done?’

‘Yes.’

‘The result?’

‘She's going to board the Beatrica.’

‘Good. Are we prepared?’

‘We will be as soon as it docks.’

Geralt knew who they were talking about, a fist clenched with the need to warn her but he kept his features neutral and relaxed his posture. What had the witcher said to make her think boarding the boat was sensible? …sadness cast a shadow over his thoughts. In all truth, it wouldn't have taken much. Her trust was fragile. Their time together was special in so many ways yet not long enough. They had no time without danger threatening or duty making demands. It had tested their relationship. Only one night and morning to share each other with any intimacy… it wasn’t nearly enough. Not for him.

Geralt felt anger rise. He would not lose her. Not yet and not to the lies of another witcher. He had agreed to help her and help her he would. The smallest and deadliest of smiles lifted his lips. The witcher was now an enemy to kill. Pavon was a boil that needed lancing. And if he could not get Kat’s trust back he would be sure to do more than lance the bastard. But he was in deeper trouble. Dandelion was now caught in the mix and what was Zoltan doing when this all happened? Was he caught in it too?

He had to think this through carefully if he was to gain any advantage and save those he cared about.

His anger speared to a focus now as he reviewed his situation.

The witcher kept his distance from Pavon. So, they weren’t buddies in this together. Tolerated each other perhaps. Or maybe had different jobs to do. Or different bosses? There were five of Pavon’s men spread inside and outside now.

‘So Geralt, you never returned when I summoned you in Novigrad.’ Dothol picked some roast bird from a platter delicately.

Geralt felt the magic lessen, probably so he could answer, as Dandelion continued to strum away next to him. ‘What did you want?’ Let’s see if the blunt approached revealed any information.

‘Tsk, tsk witcher, I thought you knew your role to play?’ He sighed tolerantly. ‘You were expected to bring me the traitor Kathryne Du Fonten.’

‘It was never something I agreed to. I’m a witcher not a common mercenary.’ Geralt looked to Pavon and got the hatred back, letting it feed his anger.

‘No, you aren’t but you didn’t know what my last offer was either. I believe you would have changed your mind.’ His eyes drifting to someone behind Geralt, probably Norsom, then he smiled, lifting a fork of food to his mouth tasted it thoughtfully. Then with a flick of his fingers, Pavon stepped up behind Dandelion obliviously strumming away, and held a knife against his throat.

Pavon gleefully watched Geralt as his hands moved a fraction. Blood began to drip down Dandelion’s skin into the fashionable ruff of his collar. Geralt went to move and felt the magic tighten.

‘Holding people to ransom now are we? A little desperate isn’t it?’ Geralt said through gritted teeth.

‘Everyone has a price. We’ve just found yours.’

Anger simmering, Geralt calmed it like a beast, watched Dothol consuming the Mayor’s food. He was adding himself to Geralt’s list of people wanting to die.

‘So, I ask you Geralt of Rivia, the Butcher of Blaviken.’ Dothol said loudly and more clearly. ‘You will seek out Kathryne Du Fonten and kill her. Agreed?’

Feeling that something was happening he didn’t understand but certain he was not willing to agree to, his lips thinned, eyes meeting Dothol’s but his senses were on Pavon. More blood down Dandelion’s throat.

‘Let Dandelion go.’ His voice was a hoarse whisper.

‘I’ll take that as a yes.’ Dothol nodded to someone else out of Geralt’s line of sight then his eyes drifted back to Norsom. A moment later he smiled. Clearly his plan was working even better than he expected.

The magic tightened and Geralt struggled to remain of his own mind and still draw breath.

Damn mages.

Then there was nothing.

 

 

Kat saw the extra men waiting at the docks. The armoured guards. More were waiting ready near the market. Geralt was right. It was a cock-eyed plan. Emotions filled her, creating a turmoil, anger steering her thoughts. It was unexpected seeing Norsom yet serendipitous. Norsom had brought to light Geralt’s double cross and then she heard through the shutter at the Mayor’s house… Gods, how could she have been fooled so easily? It all seemed so… wrong. All so wrong. Geralt never seemed the sort to…

Well it was done. She had a purpose and no loyalties to anyone but her King. The words of the Huntsman’s wife rang in her head.

‘People come and go all the time. Most of them harmless, others not so but they give us strength by teaching us…’

Fisting her hands, Kat pushed away the sudden wash of doubt, instead used the hurt to focus on what she had to do, …get the sword back.

Staying out of sight she reviewed her plans. So what advantage did she have? She could feel the sword, so knowing which box wouldn’t be a problem. Accessing the box itself might be. So should she do it on board or wait until it was offloaded? The old crone healer from Parybon came to mind. Do what they don’t expect, be who they won’t see.’

A group of laughing children ran past. Two boys and a girl whispering together, no doubt plotting their next childish prank. Kat saw them on her first day here. Had been the brunt of some teasing. They were tolerated because they were children and they weren’t known for steeling. As a result, they were mostly overlooked by the merchants in the market square, shooed away like annoying flies. On the wharf they went unnoticed all together.

‘Hmm.’ A smile lifted Kats lips.

 

 

‘She’s here all right. I can feel it.’ Pavon leered enthusiastically from the dockyard watch house. ‘We’ll have her soon enough.’ He took a position where he could watch her being nabbed. The Beatrica had finally come in. People were disembarking, quickly filling the jetty with crowds meeting others and carrying luggage. The cargo would be off loaded soon enough, his men would board when the passengers were gone. Norsom was standing unobtrusively below him watching the crowd. Using his mutant skills to find her, useful at last. The armed guard had been warned too so the chances of a woman witcher getting on board without being seen were slim to none. Pavon smiled, he liked those odds.

A loud boom, then another, inside the boat. Shouts and panicked screams. Smoke began to billow out making people scatter in all directions. The armed guards dithered around until most were ordered to help clear the boat of passengers or put out the fire. The crew rushed around the boat, some to the neighbouring jetty to start a line to pass along buckets of water. Children clung to women’s skirts and were ushered away while others crowded in to watch the boat go up in flames. Even his own men were being roped into holding buckets or stood around watching as if it was entertainment. Fools, why did he waste the money on them?

Finally, things started to calm down. The smoke was easing. Pavon scratched his chin. Odd. No flames. When all was back under control, it seemed the boat had been scorched but no serious damage was done. The cargo was once again being unloaded onto the wagon to be taken to the garrison. Dothol would be there waiting with the Comandante nicely persuaded. The sword will be taken directly there, then Pavon would deliver the mutant whore.

Things were almost back to normal. When he saw the senior guard being called onto the boat. ‘If the weapons are missing…’ Cursing, Pavon swore. He imagined taking great pleasure breaking Geralt of Rivia and then the bitch witcher if anything was amiss. As his boots hit the stairs and he pushed through the remaining crowds he met the armed guard coming off the boat.

‘Well?’

‘Well what? All is in order.’ The guard signalled his men who started unloading the weapons. ‘A box must have been caught in the blast. The weapons were spread over the floor. We have them all.’ He turned to go only raising an eyebrow at Pavon cursing as he left the jetty. Ordering two of his men to remain watch on the weapons back to the garrison, the others were to scour the boat and the wharf for the witcher.

 

 

‘Well, this is downright rude.’ Dandelion grumped.

‘Be thankful you’re alive.’ Geralt said stalking the bars of the garrison holding cell in his underclothes.

‘We didn’t do anything wrong.’ He lamented indignantly. ‘Surely the Comandante understands that?’

‘Did you understand there was a knife at your throat while you played entertainer?’ He watched his friend touch the bandage against his throat and swallow.

‘A close call wasn’t it?’ His eyes sought reassurance and Geralt just nodded.

‘Lord Dothol no doubt has the Comandante under his spell now. No matter the outcome, I doubt it’ll be a good one.’ Geralt was struggling to remember what happened after he passed out. He didn’t like it. He was being pressed to agree to killing Kat when…

Two loud explosions in the distance one after another had Geralt halt his pacing.

Bombs? Kat… Hmm, that might work…

Well, then she will either be caught or not. Dothol will get the sword or not.  A smile lifted his features, knowing Kat as he did, she had the sword. All his raw protectiveness aside, Geralt knew her talent for disappearing. Knew how she worked. Noticed how well she could change what she wore and become a different person. Had successfully done it before. A professional witcher in her Feline armour, some basic clothes and she could blend in anywhere. Geralt remembered when he searched for Raymon after the village celebration, he went to the inn at Hathern. Heard talk of an odd woman crossing on the barge and disappearing into the night. When he spotted her in the garrison, he was impressed with her stealth. If she wanted to disappear, she would. It made him wonder at his luck meeting Kat the first time. The only thing to slow her down was that elemental in the ravine. She didn’t even know a basic Quen then. Well she did now. Their short time together had been enjoyable and productive. A bit of practice and she would have her own protection.

Geralt’s hands gripped the cold metal of the bars. His lean, scarred body standing strong and tall.

He always knew she would be a hard one to track and for her sake, he hoped she would be.

 

 

Kat finally allowed her heaving horse to slow to an easy canter. The cracking pace had taken her well beyond the town of Flotsam. She’d allow her horse to catch it’s breath then keep going.

Time was running out and now she had the sword on her back there was no reason to slow. Satisfaction filled her but she couldn’t afford to be complacent. They’d follow her as soon as they realised how she escaped.

 

Kat had left by the southern gate into the swampy woods, hiding her tracks in the waterlogged wetlands and climbing through trees to get to her horse. A boy closing adulthood stood from his position at the base of an ancient tree, holding the reins. When he saw her, he smiled.

‘As promised, all safe.’

‘Anyone follow you or ask questions?’

‘Nope.’ He said proudly. ‘Everyone got a chance to lead the horse through the town, waving hello or showin off their paid work.’ His smile never wavered.

‘You follow the river here and do what I said to cover the tracks out?’

‘Yup. Neat tricks.’

‘Thank you for your help. Here’s your payment. And if I’m not followed there will be another under a rock over the Lobinden bridge east for you and your friends. Don’t go off spending straight away or you’ll be asked lots of nasty questions by very unpleasant folk.’ She saw his eyes brighten but he nodded acceptance at her warning.

‘Thank you witcher miss.’

Mounting up she disappeared into the woods and headed east. Picking her way carefully through the swampy forest until she found a bit of river bank under some ruins. There she dressed into her armour and stowed the boys wharf clothing and kept going. She never got to see the Elven Bathes Geralt had promised to show her. Absently rubbing her chest over her heart, she walked and swam her horse through the smooth flowing water. The river was cold and deep but the banks were wide and sloping. Joining the Eastern road into Flotsam at the bridge, she chose a rock when the road was quiet, poked the pouch of coin beneath it made a small sword mark in the earth.

Then she was gone.

 

 

Pavon had a greasy nervousness about him Geralt noted when the weapon wagon arrived in the garrison yard. With judicious monotony the boxes were checked one by one. Dothol stood waiting as if he had already won. Another man, a mage stood nearby but a little behind Dothol.

So he was the spell caster. The same mage at Rhinde.

The second box came out and was opened.

‘All checked.’ Came the quarter master’s call.

The third box was slid into position then opened.

‘All checked.’ Came the quarter master’s call again.

By the time the last box was placed before them, it’s lid damaged, Dothol actually leant forward as it was lifted off and the weapons within were removed and counted like the others.

‘All checked and accounted for Sir.’ The soldier stepped over to the table where documents were filled and a signature completed.

‘What the fuck? It must be there!’ Pavon burst out. His eyes black and loathing stared towards the two men under soldier guard.

Laughter pierced the quiet of the yard. Geralt couldn’t help himself. He knew Kat could do it.

The mage stamped his staff into the ground aggressively then turning, was the first to leave. Dothol turned to Pavon.

‘Find it and kill her!’ His glance went for a moment to Geralt ‘I will warn you once, stay out of the way witcher.’ Then he followed the mage from the yard.

With the mage gone, the Comandante came to his somewhat confused senses.

The witcher stopped Dothol on his way out. They spoke quietly together then Dothol left hurriedly. The Comandante who looked on with some confusion at those exiting the yard and then his captives, scratched his head and ordered them to be put back into the cell.

And so the party ended.

Dandelion looked at Geralt not knowing what to think. Geralt remained silent. Then they were lead back to their cell.

‘Well that was very anticlimactic.’ Dandelion yawned making himself comfortable in the fresh straw in one corner. He looked to his friend. ‘What now?’

‘Let’s hope the Comandante isn’t persuaded to hang us.’

‘That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?’ Touching the bandage, Dandelion decided Geralt’s word was not to be trifled with.

 

Geralt stalked for a while then sat for a while. Meditated for a while then stalked some more. Dandelion snored inelegantly in his pile of straw. It was getting dark and there was no sign of Kat being captured or any of the culprits. Things were quiet.

Voices near the gate.

‘Let me see them. I just need a few words to clarify the situation so I know the whole story before presenting myself to the Comandante. He is a fair and decent fellow. Always let me do this before.’

Geralt heard the familiar baritone, hope lifting his spirits.

‘What do you mean you’ve never seen me before… Oh it may have been my cousin, third removed… you’re right, it doesn’t always mean the young’uns are born short…’

‘Dandelion, wake up!’ Geralt kicked the snoring bard awake.

Soon after, the sound of keys in a metal lock.

‘Much appreciated and if ever you or your wife are in need of a visit to Novigrad, the Rosemary has a large room with all the necessities...’

‘All the necessities! It’s the epitome of luxury in the Kings Rooms. What is he doing? Zoltan will send the Comandante running with that sort of talk…’ Dandelion urged Geralt who frowned and tried to quieten the insulted bard.

‘Shh, Dandelion. He must have a plan.’

‘A plan to have our future customers running to the Hummingbird.’ Dandelion added indignantly.

Zoltan walked through the door in the next moment the Comandante stood tall beside him.

‘Apparently there has been some sort of misunderstanding.’ As a soldier sorted through the keys on the metal ring for the right one, the Comandante stepped forward. ‘You are the witcher. Geralt?’

‘I am. Sir.’

‘And I am Dandelion…’ Dandelion’s self introduction was waved off without even glancing in his direction throwing the bard off his usual track.

‘Tell me what you know of the going’s on.’

‘Happy to but I would prefer something to drink…’

‘Of course. Please join me in my quarters and we will settle this situation.’ He stepped back to allow the soldier to open the door. Another soldier pointed to a chest where Geralt re-armoured himself.

‘Your weapons will be waiting at the garrison gate.’ The man added.

Following Zoltan back to the main quarters, they were ushered into a room with a large table where food and drink was laid out for them. The Comandante stood, hands behind his back looking concerned.

‘Please be seated. I need an explanation for the occurrence here this afternoon. My Officer here will inform you of what he told me and if there is anything else you can add, I would like to get to the bottom of it.’

They listened quietly while the officer gave his report.

‘I’m curious, why were we released?’ Geralt asked pragmatically.

‘Geralt!’ Dandelion warned as if fearing it would throw them back into the cell.

‘I don’t recall any reference to you Geralt -- A man well known in these parts, doing anything that would cause such issue that would create this order written and signed by me.’ A parchment slid across the table. ‘A forgery perhaps?’

‘What is it?’

‘An order for our execution for traitorous dealings.’ Geralt looked at the parchment carefully then up at the Comandante.

‘Correct. However, the named authority is omitted and the deeds have not been well described.’

‘So you doubted its authenticity.’

‘I don’t remember much of this afternoon. I am afraid that some sort of sorcery was at work.’

‘Didn’t you see the mage?’ Dandelion said ale and chicken leg in hand.

‘Mage? What mage?’

‘I am afraid my friend here was right. And you are not the only man here to be ignorant of their actions under the mage’s influence.’

‘I see.’

‘Zoltan what can you add to this?’

‘I was doing like you asked.’ Zoltan gave Geralt a meaningful glance. ‘I didn’t see that other witcher arrive only that he left and by then she had gone too. I did follow him.’

‘I remember he came back to the mayor’s home later than the others.’ Geralt murmured in thought.

‘I remember that too but not much else afterwards.’ Dandelion took another gulp of ale.

‘Yeh, it was the time Lord Dothol decided to reaffirm the tasks he set me…’

‘What tasks?’

‘I was to hunt a witcher down and kill them.’

‘I thought witchers were monster hunters.’

‘They are. Geralt is no different.’

‘So why did they want the witcher dead?’

‘I’m afraid we are getting into another country’s politics and I am not sure I understand it all. The witcher they seek is a… friend of mine.’ He didn’t look at either Dandelion or Zoltan when he said it.

‘I see. How will this affect Flotsam?’

‘I doubt there will be an effect. You were used as I was to reach an end result that never eventuated.’

‘They were looking for something in our weapon delivery? It must have been very important.’

‘To them, maybe, but not Flotsam. I’m afraid I am unable to assist you much more than that.’

‘What did they seek?’

‘A treaty between two countries east of the valley. Both beyond the Blue Mountains, one Elven and the other human.’ As far as I know they have had peace for hundreds of years.’

‘Ah. Political meddling. Do you know where these fiends are likely to be heading? I ask because if it is in the Pontar Valley I need to inform the authorities of such interference. I tell you, it is a most disconcerting feeling coming out of sleep standing in your armour watching your soldiers in their duties and knowing you are about to hang men for no good reason.’

‘I know they head east but more than that I could not confirm.’

The Comandante sighed, his lips thinning. ‘And what of the explosions on the boat in the harbour? No? Ah well, I appreciate your honesty in this matter. I don’t think this will be needed.’ His hand grasped the order and he lit a corner using the candle on the table. Watched the parchment burn nearly to his fingers then dropped it to the floor where it burnt out barely leaving a scorch mark on the floor boards. ‘You are free to go, but I insist you stay and eat. It is the least I can do. I pride myself on fair and equitable justice. To be confronted by wrongly imprisoning Geralt of Rivia and the Lord Dandelion himself, well… I must attend to my duties.’

‘Thank you Comandante.’ Geralt nodded.

‘Well this is a much better outcome.’ Dandelion said with a mouth full of roasted chicken. ‘But I am going to enlighten the Comandante to the luxuries of the Rosemary Inn at my next opportunity to the fullest.’

‘I’ll feel better when I have my weapons and I track Kat down.’ Turning to Zoltan who had an ale in his hand. ‘You don’t remember anything else about the witcher and Kat’s conversation?’

‘No, I don’t but I do remember hearing you swear to kill someone at the Mayor’s house. You sounded strange to be honest. Like you were being strangled.’

‘I probably was.’ Came his dark words.

Chapter Text

The creature swung it's hardened carapace tail her way. Her Quen exploded around her as the tail, a lumpy ball of pain, sent her diving into a roll. If you didn't receive acid in your face you could be knocked off your feet by the shear weight and size of the charging insectoid. Armour as thick as her arm, the Endrega Warrior was the most aggressive of it’s species. Monstrous but not that difficult to kill, if you knew how.

A large moving shape caught her eye, her senses firing a warning. A quick glance. The Endrega Queen. Kat didn’t want to get her attention, not yet.

Rolling out of the way of the warrior’s tail attack again, Kat sliced twice more and then moved across the slope to put some distance between herself and the enormous Queen that moved more slowly within a set territory. Reassessing she knew she could take it on but she needed more sword oil. The warrior followed her. Preparing her stance, she threw Quen around herself. It buzzed and tingled and didn't last very long but it quickly regenerated so she was getting the hang of applying it when she needed it. It had already saved her from bruising damage.

Going on the attack, it lunged forward, shifted on its back pair of legs the tail whipping around at Kat who dodged it and then struck back with a strong slice, pivot and then another. It squealed noisily then slumped to the ground. It's vile greenish blood pooling around it. Apparently, it had mutagens she could use but that would wait. She'd need things to sell soon enough. The money she found on Raymon's mount was nearly all gone. Looking towards the looming mountains she saw the colour of the morning sun on the inhospitable slopes. They were truly beautiful and it was home.

Turning back to the job at hand, she was nearly there. Her eyes glanced over at the Queen Endrega. Watched where it was going to hide… there. Now she could prepare properly. A smile lifted her lips, the Queen would make a nice surprise...

 

 

Finally free to search for Kat, Geralt was returning after another failed effort to find her trail out of Flotsam when he heard the men’s voices behind the noisy festivities in the market square. A back alley, darkened by shadows had three men crowding a youth.

‘We know you’re their leader so tell us what you know.’

The cracking sound of a slap had the boys eyes watering from the stinging pain.

‘Little fucker isn’t talking, punch him again.’

‘Talk you little whoreson.’ More sounds of flesh hitting flesh and the boy coughed and wheezed.

‘Give im ere. I’ll make im talk. I’ll make im scream!’

As Geralt’s boots left the paved market square and the festivities behind his eyes focused in the darkness. The alley split off into two.

A cry of pain, greeted him then another.

‘Tell us or you’re dead meat floating down the river.’ Chuckles all round.

Soft whimpering.

‘We know you helped the she-witcher. She’s wanted did you know? You could hang for helping her…’

‘He’s not sayin nothin.’

‘He’ll crack when I break a few bones.’

Geralt stepped into the alley, his boots sinking into the mud and refuse. Anger rising so quickly, his hands clenching into fists making the leather crackled.

‘Care to pick on someone your own size?’

‘What the?’

‘Stay out of this…’

‘Kill im,’

‘We’re not allowed.’

‘Fuck that.’ The man brutalising the boy shoved the lad away, pulled a nasty spike covered club and swung it at Geralt who dodged it easily then punched him in the jaw with enough force that had him spin away onto the muddy ground.

Another attacked him. The blade slicing wide and Geralt knocked it away, pulling his own knife as he spun around to block the other man’s strike and stab him under the arm. The other had lost his balance and fallen, Geralt turned on him, kicked him as he struggled in the mud.

‘Get up.’ He growled watching the man scramble to his feet. Facing him with two blades now, covered in mud and stink. Not wanting to engage at close quarters with that, he drew a sword and waited. The man was breathing heavily and Geralt allowed him to catch his breath and realise he had to go through Geralt to escape. The boy cowered deeper into the shadows. His injuries stopping him from going any further. Anger rose like a living beast as Geralt watched the man before him. One-punch was groaning and trying to get up but it wouldn’t be long before he was on his feet.

‘I’m sick of waiting.’ Two strides and Geralt engaged the man, killing him with predatory economy. Then turned to the child beater and stabbed him in the back. Not caring he didn’t defend himself. The man liked beating children, that was enough.

Checking the pockets of the dead men he palmed the coin and kept an odd looking item to look at later. Returning to the boy now trying to stand against the wall. A hand holding his ribs, his face bruised. A split lip and an eye nearly closed.

‘If you helped her, the woman witcher, I’m grateful.’ He crouched down in front of him. ‘I respect your need to keep your word. I made a promise to help her too.’ He gave the boy the coin. ‘If there is anything else you can tell me...’

The boy watched him carefully. Breathing with difficulty. Shook his head then limped as far as the alley entrance then slumped to the ground.

‘Shit.’ Geralt rushed to him. Gently picking him up and took him to the healer.

 

 

‘What do you make of it Zoltan?’

The dwarf rolled the odd shaped totem between his fingers. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it Geralt.’

‘Let me have a look.’ Dandelion leant away from the redhead who clung to his freshly laundered doublet. ‘Hmm, it looks very much like a device I saw once. Yes. You say something like… Hey!’

‘The last time you said something like that, a Djinn appeared, you lost your voice and nearly died.’

‘If I remember correctly, it didn’t end so badly.’ He smiled smugly, then saw the cool expression change his friend’s features. ‘I think it is a Octolaura device. I have read about them. Used for communication usually to a mage somewhere, or a tracking device for the mage to follow. Rather useful, don’t you think?’

‘Very. Do you know how to initiate it?’ Geralt held up his hand to halt the eager Bard from speaking. ‘Just explain how and what to do. We don’t want the mage appearing or activating it now.’

‘Oh right. Umm, let’s see.’

Geralt waited patiently for there was one thing he knew about Dandelion his memory was excellent. Whether or not the information he remembered was accurate or not, was another thing. As the Bard repeated what he knew, Geralt thought how he could use it.

‘If all else fails, you could always ask the sorceress selling her wares in the market square. She has drawn rather interesting clients.’

‘Hmm, I might do that.’ Geralt pocketed the item. He decided he should at least buy a pouch for it so it remained isolated from the world. It was worn on a string around the man’s neck, maybe it had been active while they were beating up the lad? A nasty thought but he’d need to follow this up. Finishing the ale, he excused himself and left the inn for the market square.

 

‘Hello there. What can I get you?’ The young woman behind the cloth covered bench of items looked at him with surprise then became a little flustered, fussing with her clothing.

His first impression was that she was nothing special to look at, short and robust of figure, dark locks on the pale skin of plain features covered by the short, hooded cloak that opened at the neck to a busty low-cut dress of the rather eccentric tastes of a sorceress that looked about to fall down. Geralt dropped his eyes to the books on the table, retrieving the totem from his pocket.

‘I need some information.’ When she said nothing more, he showed her the totem. She frowned at first then went to grab it but he pulled back. ‘Tell me what you know about it?’ He saw her eyes then, they were calculating and purple. Similar to Yennefer’s but darker. He shrugged it off as a fashion statement knowing all sorceresses were able to alter their appearance.

She watched him carefully then straightened. ‘I believe it is an Octolaura. Part of a device to communicate and track others in a party by one or more mages. There will be a central larger port with the mage and as many of these as is needed. The strength of the mage will depend on how many he can use.’

‘Hmm, how does it work?’

‘Oh, it’s really simple actually.’ She held out her hand as if expecting him to give it to her, ‘There will be a basic spell that lives with the device and is activated. I can check for you if you like?’

‘Can you tell me how strong the mage is from this?’

‘I might,’ she said coyly, her eyes fluttering. ‘What can you give me in return?’

Geralt was starting to think this woman was more than strange but he kept it amicable. No point pissing off a sorceress. ‘How much is it worth?’

‘For the White Wolf? Let me see…’

 

 

‘It’s good of you to return today to see him. He’s the fourth boy we’ve had beaten up and left for dead.’ The healer spoke quietly as she replaced a poultice on the boy’s bruised chest.

‘I doubt you will have any more.’

Deep brown eyes lifted to his. ‘Good. I loathe men who beat children. Monsters.’

Geralt watched her, heard the tone of experience in her voice. Yes, humans could be much worse than monsters. He felt guilty returning so soon but time was running out and he still hadn’t found Kat’s trail. He’d spent the rest of last night and most of the morning searching the other entrances to the city and was beginning to doubt his sanity. Unfortunately, the boy may be his only hope and he remained asleep.

‘He has a broken rib but it will mend. His mother will miss the boy’s income but they are not too hard up with the festival on. They won’t starve.’

‘The boy had coin on him, make sure it gets to his family.’

‘I will, don’t you worry about that. It’s safe away. You have paid my fee, I want no more.’

A knock at the door had the woman opening it to a fisherman being held upright. A bloody gash to his leg. He was ushered inside to a chair.

Geralt politely took his leave and walked back towards the Inn. The healer was a fair way out but folk were still superstitious of herbalists. Crossing the path into the woods and Lobinden proper some children ran past smiling and waving sticks with colourful string tied to them. One girl, older, taller than the rest stopped. A smile on her face she never turned towards him only watched the children ahead of her. Then she spoke.

‘Thanks for helping Tomas and stopping them buggers…’

‘You’re welcome.’

‘We thought you were the witcher who worked with the black-eyed one. But you’re the reason she was sad when she left weren’t you?’ Her smiling gaze shifted to his.

Children were often more perceptive and honest. Geralt nodded wondering why Kat would be sad. Something Norsom had said perhaps. They had agreed that if he found the sword he would return it to her and if she got the sword she was to leave immediately. Geralt was to hide her tracks and delay anyone following. He found the thought amusing given the circumstances.

‘We never told em nothin, even after they killed Bolly.’ Her face lost a little of its smile then brightened again. ‘We helped her get her horse to the southern wood, then away.’ Her head lifted towards the East Lobinden Bridge behind Geralt. Geralt nodded his confirmation. The smile never left her young face then she was running off after the other children.

Nearly two days had passed since the Beatrica had docked. Now he understood why it was taking so long to find her trail. Kat had help. She wouldn’t have needed to leave through a gate if someone else was taking the horse for her. Aware he was being watched, Geralt had checked every gateway and the surrounding areas. He knew Kat well enough to know her trail out would never be a direct route but he’d been looking for the wrong signs.

The good thing was that Pavon and his men's bullying tactics weren’t working and the men kept returning from outings. Unsuccessful scouting parties probably. There was no sign of the Lord Dothol or the mage but he had no doubt they would turn up again, if they weren’t already watching. Geralt thought of the device in its pouch with his belongings.

Heading out the south entrance he walked the outer wall and used his exceptional witcher senses to search. When Geralt finally found what he was looking for he set his plan into action.

It was time to go but he wanted to be followed, not offer up Kat’s trail to them. A dark smile lifted his lips in a sneer that would have had Vesemir second guessing him. He hoped it would be the witcher, Norsom or Pavon but he doubted it.

 

 

Geralt had kept up a solid pace, stopping only to check for Kat’s trail or check his followers were still with him. When he made camp, it was only so they would stop too. Like now, he could hear them breathing, whispering. It was time to meet them.

‘He’s making camp.’

‘We should too.’

‘Fuck I need rest.’

‘Japo, you return back and tell em where we are.’

‘Me? Aw, right. Then at least I’ll get a Vodka or two.’ His chuckles were soft in the night air.

‘Keep your voice down.’

‘Come on, let’s make camp.’

 

A short time later Geralt walked into the clearing. A campfire burned weakly and the two unwary mercenaries were on their feet a moment too late. Geralt sliced off the arm of one then with a vertical spin of his sword that removed unwanted bloody remains from his blade, stuck it into the ground, stalking the other with deadly intent. The fear changed to a sneer as the man seeing the witcher unarmed presumed he would be easy to kill, swung his blade at Geralt who dodged and hit him with Aard, watching him fall backwards. The blade flung from the man’s grubby hand. Two long strides and he stabbed the man in the chest. The soft leather armour no match for the sharp dagger with a witcher's weight and strength behind it. Wiping his dagger on the dead man’s clothes, Geralt sheathed it as he stood, collected his sword then checking the men were dead, took what he wanted, freed the horses and returned to his camp.

 

 

Clouds crowded out the evening light and darkness was practically upon her. Torches were lit along the road into a small village once called Dunbar. Walking her horse along the narrow path between the dark cottages, Kat’s sense of wariness had the hair on her neck standing on end. Those outside stopped what they were doing and watched her enter their domain. Yes, this was their place and she was very much the interloper. Maybe she should just keep going?

A woman stood blank faced staring at her so she stopped. Dismounting, she approached her.

‘Do you know of a herbalist or merchant near here?’

‘Giana sells herbs.’ The woman said, her dull eyes not quite focusing on Kat’s face. The woman pointed up the road.

‘Thank you.’ Kat said and kept walking. The sense of danger enough to open her senses just as a man came at her with a shovel. Spinning away from the strike, her horse reared and she pulled her blade. Both making them slow their crowding. ‘I don’t want any trouble but you’ll have it if you don’t keep your distance.’

‘Witcher.’ Someone whispered behind her.

The two men vying to attack her moments ago seemed to take heed of the voice and back off. Their stance still tense.

‘Witcher. Here.’ The voice said again.

She sensed it then, her medallion vibrating. Magic not monsters. Geralt had shown her how he could switch the enhancements of the spell on his medallion from one to the other. She had changed hers and forgotten all about it. It didn’t surprise her when Geralt had stood behind her nuzzling her neck and undressing her again. Her reward, apparently…

Senses watching every angle, she decided that continuing on would be the best option. Taking her horse’s reins again she moved on. Passing the last cottage, the door opened and an elderly woman stepped out. It seemed to cause a bit of a stir and the villagers all crowded the path behind Kat’s horse but they kept their distance.

Rain began to fall in big drops, quickly saturating her heavy wool cloak. The open door before her showed a warm hearth and nothing untoward. Vegetables being cut up on the table. Mending on a chair in the corner. Herbs hung around the ceiling. A child asleep on a narrow bed. Lit candles showed every corner in the cottage.

‘Who are you?’ Kat asked sensibly shaking off the need to step across the doorway.

‘My name is Giana. Come. Warm yourself by the fire.’

Kat’s eyes took in the crowd of villagers behind her horse. All standing in the rain, all motionless. It was all wrong. A scent of something bad drifted past. Carrion, death…

‘Please. Come in.’ The words seemed to have more shape and more weight. Kat found herself leaning forward but her feet refused to follow. A part of her refusing to heel to the command.

That’s what it was. A command.

Now she understood what made her wary, the woman reminded her of her old trainer. It was a tone of voice he used and it immediately made her rebellious.

‘You are a healer?’

‘Yes. Come in witcher.’

‘What are you?’

A chuckle. ‘I am more.’

‘What do you want?’

‘Please. Come. In.’ The woman’s features seemed to change for a moment from a middle aged woman to someone far younger and more beautiful. Black hair, violet eyes… Eyes you could easily fall into…

Kat felt the strong pull this time and the urge to sleep pulling at her bones. Gods she was so tired of it all… she could just sleep for days… a hot bath every day and slumber in a big bed…  You have a duty, a purpose. I respect that… Geralt’s voice. A soft caress over naked skin… she shuddered.

The reins in her hands pulled tight and it yanked her thoughts back. Her horse had jerked its head up and was being crowded again. Someone was trying to get to the Icon.

‘No!’ She spun around and pulled her sword and in a high vertical arc down onto the man pulling at her saddlebag. He screamed and clutched his arm. Kat dragged her horse forward, now a crowd of angry villagers following her. ‘Stay back.’

‘Get her!’ A cackle of glee. ‘Feed!’

The villagers all tried to crowd her horse. The horse began to panic kicked out and reared up.

Kat spun her sword successfully warning them off for a moment then mounting smoothly kicked her horse onward. Her bag of clothes the only casualty. Witcher senses on the road ahead. Dark dense forest surrounded them and an unfamiliar track into the high country. The Pontar running down the valley her only guide.

A quick glance over her shoulder, the villagers were not following. The horse stumbled and rocks careened off the path down the steep slope dropping away down the mountain.

‘Easy there.’ Slowing her mare, Kat edged her on more carefully.

Water ran down the slopes above, over the rough track at their feet and down into the steep valley beneath them. The darkness a welcomed cover, her need to find somewhere safe to wait out the storm brewing over the mountains was quickly becoming just as important. They moved along until they were stopped by a rush of water over the path. A stream had become a cascade down the mountain side and was now gushing water across the broken path ahead. It had undermined it leaving nowhere to go…

Medallion thrumming her hand came up to touch it. So, there was magic here too. Glancing back the way they had come she thought she saw movement but the rain was heavy now and the wind was picking up. Focusing on the cascade Kat used her mutated senses and saw something else…

The path was clear. Strange.

Thinking to what she had learnt about the application of Yrden to disrupt magical entities and portals. Her practical attempts weren’t all that powerful. Blinkering her horse, just in case, Kat stepped up to the cascade and completed a Yrden sign over the rushing falls. The glowing points lit brightly then faded to the glowing colour of Ginatia petals. Once again, the hum of magical forces.

Knowing it wouldn’t last long Kat watched carefully through the pouring rain. The stream seemed to freeze then continued to run but in a ghostly appearance. The sign faded shortly after. To check what she had seen, Kat threw the sign again. Watched the stream freeze for a moment then change appearance. Beneath it the path was normal. Narrow, rocky and very solid.

Without Yrden she felt the strong push downwards. Her feet stepping into the cascade of water felt freezing cold and struggled to remain steady. Well it revealed the stream was a powerful illusion.

‘Okay, Yrden it is.’ One more time the sign was practiced and Kat quickly pulled her horse through it. Once safely on the other side, Kat removed the neck scarf covering the animal’s eyes and put it back around her throat when she saw people in the shadows beyond the cascade.

The villagers had come hoping the cascade had stopped her. Kat watched them for a moment. They just didn’t seem to be… alive. A shudder rolling down her back as she continued on.

She had to find shelter.

 

 

‘Palo and Manny are dead now too.’

‘Yeh, where’s that leave the four of us?’

‘He doesn’t fucking sleep. How are we supposed to keep up with that?’

‘I told you when you are scouting, you stay on him. Only one comes back and you don’t sleep unless he sleeps.’

‘But we’re just men. Send the mutant.’ The man pointed to the quiet witcher standing near the horses.

Pavon wanted to kill the whoreson for arguing but he had a point. It would be easier for the mutant to keep up with him but he never stuck around and refused to follow orders. And they were right about Geralt killing them off too. Each time they moved to meet the scouts at camp, they found two more dead bodies. It had reduced his men by half.

‘You have your orders…’ Pavon shouted over the rabble.

‘We’ve had enough of this.’

‘Yeh. Fuck it.’

Pavon watched the witcher straighten and focus as if hearing something. Cursed and shouted for the others to quieten but they paid little notice. Pavon was about to curse the witcher as well when one of the others spoke up.

‘What was that?’

‘What?’

‘Over there.’

‘Wolves.’ Came Norsom’s shout just as three vicious wolves came leaping out of the undergrowth, teeth all bared and growling at them. Then more from a different direction as if they’d been waiting in ambush. The men were all yelling in panic and Pavon was climbing the nearest tree. Horses neighed and two broke free. He barely reached the first limb when a wolf grabbed his leg and nearly pulled him off. Yelling with pain Pavon tried to shake the animal off him but there was no one interested in saving him. Pulling a dagger, he struck out at the wolf slicing its face until it finally released him with a yelp but never left its place at the base of his tree. The shouting continued and he lifted his feet up, climbing to the next branch. It was then that he heard it. Hoof beats. As they came nearer, he squinted through the tree branches.

It was that bloody witcher. He was running circles around their camp dragging a large pack of wolves along for the ride. He only had two following him and he was sure the others had tried to cut him off straight through their camp. A wolf howled and even those two stopped chasing the witcher to join the fray in their camp.

Swearing at the wolves still stalking around the base of his tree, cursing the witcher, he watched as the men were attacked and one nearly mauled to death. It was some time before the wolves were either killed or seen off. Norsom wandered over to Pavon wiping his blade.

‘They were driven here.’

‘I know that. The whoreson left us to fight them off.’

‘I’ll follow him.’

Pavon stared him in the eye and leaned up into his lean features. ‘You do that and I want you back here in time so we can move out again. We clear?’

Norsom nodded, his eyes as cold as Pavon’s were black.

Chapter Text

Recently burnt out cottages, a sign that said Dunbar and the stench of carrion.

Geralt looked over the scene in front of him and tried to make sense of it. Kat had come this way but the trail seemed to end here. There was some sort of commotion. Well there would be if people’s homes were being burnt down.

As he walked the village his medallion began to vibrate gently, he felt the presence of apparitions. Noonwraithes probably. Stuck here. He kept an eye out for them but they seemed content to remain on the village outskirts. His booted feet stopped at a cottage with the roof and door still remaining in-tact. His medallion thrummed but it felt like residual magic. Maybe someone had defended themselves. The carved motif next to the door showed it was a healer’s cottage. Pushing the door he stepped over the threshold and felt his medallion vibrate more violently as a wraith appeared. Pulling his silver, Geralt immediately threw Yrden to trap it. A few quick slices and it dispersed with a mournful cry.

‘Now, let's see what she is protecting.’

Looking around the dusty cottage, he sees the home of a woman, well respected in her village. The body of a child lay on a small bed. More than likely the reason for her presence.

Sticks, once leafy herbs in bundles hanging from the roof beams, broken chairs and table. Bowls broken and whole scattered around the floor with other items.

‘Here’s something recent…’ On the floor was evidence of a pentagram and magical items used. Candle wax marks indicating a round object here… bones or a doll like item there. Hmm. Maybe yesterday… around the time of the fire. Fire is used to cleanse maybe it was used to finish what was created? A curse or a spell? Why burn so much of the village? The corpses were already a long time dead…

Geralt noticed something familiar amongst clothing and items scattered like a bag had been emptied. His gloved hand picked up a tunic with an embroidered neckline. Novigrad and the bridge. Kat's tunic. Other items are scattered here. The pants look like boy clothes. A leather belt and sandals. Using his honed senses, the familiar residual odour of exploded witcher bombs scented the air. She must have been dressed in some of these to get the sword. Smart. He frowned, it was hard enough dealing with her traps. If she threw bombs into the mix he was in trouble. Good thing bombs are bulky and require items that can easily be broken or explode if stored incorrectly.  It meant they were made as needed and large numbers of them were rarely kept on hand while travelling.

Geralt found himself bringing the embroidered tunic to his nose and breathing deeply.

Damn it, he missed her.

Taking it with him for reasons he didn’t want to think about, Geralt took one last look around the room that gave him little else but the scuff marks in the dust and ash, indicating a woman was recently there. A closer look and he knew it wasn’t Kat. The shoes were soft soled.

Hmm. A sorceress is meddling or was she passing through and defended herself against a disapproving village? He stepped out into the now raining, mud filled yard scattered with burnt bodies and charred building remains. She was not passing through. Dunbar was on the way to nowhere.

Stepping back into the cottage he saw it then. Objects and things, books and bottles, even small furniture sucked towards one point. A portal. The effect amplified inside such a small cottage.

So the sorceress was not a novice. What was she doing here and why? Geralt didn’t like the idea of it having anything to do with Kat but he couldn’t ignore the possibility.

Senses alert he walked the area and followed the muddy road. Heard Pavon’s latest scouts on the outskirts of the village. Ignoring them he went on with business. Where the track split off, one had a lot of action recently. Many feet even a horse… Kat's horse. So where had the people gone? The rain had washed much away but there must have been at least eight people from the muddy imprints now filled with water.

Shouts sounded in the forest beyond the village. The moving glow of wraiths through trees. Geralt counted six in sight. Ignoring the screams for help he kept moving.

He was getting closer and he’d made a promise.

‘Come on Kat, let me catch up and we can finish this together.’

 

 

‘You are being followed.’

‘I know.’

‘What are you going to do about it?’

‘Keep going.’

‘You should not let soft emotions stop you from doing what you need to do.’

‘Trying the same old tricks Norsom?’

‘They worked then as they do now.’

‘But they were, are, just guesses.’

‘Not if I'm right.’

‘You’re firing arrows blindly until you hit a target. It’s just annoying now.’

‘It doesn't change the situation or what you must do’.

‘I'm not a child to be bullied any more Norsom.’ Kat met his gaze.

‘You will always be a child if you don't learn to kill when it’s necessary and without guilt.’ Her golden eyes were unique amongst the survivors at the witcher school. Their paleness eerie yet beautiful.  Now he saw experience in those pale cold eyes. She had survived and turned into a killer. So perfect.

‘I kill monsters not men.’ She said hearing Geralt’s voice as she spoke. ‘But you are right. If he catches up to me when I need to meditate he will have an opportunity to kill me.’ Just like you would. The thought took her by surprise.

‘Diversions like the one you have waiting to set are clever but they won't stop him.’

‘They'll stop the others. They have before.’

‘The Witcher clears the path for Pavon and his men. It is why they work together.’

Kathryne turned to him.  I can’t believe you. Shook the doubt away and tried to remain logical. ‘Why don't you kill him? Why push me to do it?’

‘He does not seek to kill me. He follows you.’

‘Are you certain Norsom?’

‘You doubt me? When here you choose your lover over your King?’ He mocked, scorn in his tone. When he saw her look away he said with more authority. ‘You have no right to question my motives.’ He saw her expression turn icy. Good.

Kat remembered what she had heard Norsom say to her in Flotsam and at the time, it made everything he said sound true. But now she was having doubts. She hadn’t heard everything. Didn’t have time to sit and wait for Geralt to return while the opportunity to get her sword back disappeared. Now out of the blue, she had Norsom saying he was there for her, watching her back. Yet Geralt and Pavon still followed with unerring accuracy. Was Norsom right and Geralt was showing Pavon the way?

‘The King wishes your goal to be successful Kathryne, I seek to fulfil my obligation to that end and live to get my payment.’

‘So you’re saying you don’t think you can kill the Witcher so you need me to do it. I’m flattered.’ She said with droll sarcasm. Her irritation showing.

Norsom gave her a dark look so she smiled then asked the other question now turning her curiosity on its head. ‘The King was on his death bed last I heard and that was nearly a full turn of the seasons ago. How do I know the King is not already dead? I should just walk away from all of this. After all, if he is dead, returning the icon to the Source would be pointless. How will I know I will receive my payment?’ Kat tested him.

‘Why would I be here if he was already dead?’ His eyes went down to the meadow. ‘The King respects what you are doing and like mine, your reward has been agreed to in writing so it will be honoured, no matter who is on the throne.’

Kat remained quiet. Trying to make sense of what she knew and what she had been told. Her gut feeling was telling her something was very wrong. ‘But how do you know…?’

‘Shh, he comes.’ Norsom said quietly.

Below them they saw Geralt walk into the winter meadow. He was leading Roach who comfortably snacked on the scattered herbs and grasses as they went.

‘Let me help you with the trap. It will be quicker.’

Lying face down against the sloping rockface above the meadow, she felt, rather than saw Norsom slip away. Grateful for small mercies, Kat could rest easy that her risen heart rate and the heat in her skin would not be witnessed by Norsom. Even at this distance, Geralt did things to her she couldn’t stop, nor did she want to. He had given her so many wonderful memories, no matter the betrayal. Good memories were remembered. Her needs for the man below were too strong. Just talk to him, her gut said. Leave a marker for him, like you did for Norsom. Lead him to a quiet place and talk…

Gods, this was a madness. Norsom was right. Geralt made her weak.

Dropping her head onto her arms in front of her she tried to gather herself. Remain calm. Unable to do so, she slipped away from the rock face and walked the steep slope down to her horse. Norsom would not leave her alone until she agreed to kill him.

 

 

Pavon paced back and forth, his remaining three men eyed him warily. A sad bunch if ever he saw them. One was injured and moaned constantly from being mauled by wolves. The other two were disgruntled and constantly bitching. If that bloody mutant didn’t return soon, he’d go on anyway. Couldn’t be that hard to follow three sets of tracks? Fucking, mutant. As soon as they caught up to the bitch he’d kill the fucker. Maybe even sooner.

His mutterings went on in the warming sun of what promised to be sunny day at least for a while. The mountains were unpredictable. Sun one moment, blizzard the next. Anything was possible.

Turning towards the man waiting by the camp fire he shouted. ‘Break camp and ready to leave.’ The men stood and kicked the campfire then taking their meagre items, went to the horses. The camp still had the remains of the hare’s they had caught and eaten. Mostly charred meat and fur. Pavon’s top lip lifted with disgust. His stomach grumbling in agreement. He was hungry and wished for the luxuries of city life again. Well cooked meals, warm inns and whores to fuck.

Noises beyond the camp had him turning around nervously. The horses too were nervous. Pavon tried to see into the thick trees and bushes. Whatever it was it was he didn’t like it.

 

 

Geralt followed a set of tracks up the hillside on horseback until they stopped. Looking around he realises she has laid a false trail and fooled him again. Dismounting, Geralt sighed.

‘Damn, she’s good at this.’

Assessing the area, he rose to the challenge of finding how she did it this time, as if it was a game they were playing together. He thought he had worked it out. Knew what signs to look for. He must have missed them. It was likely there would be a trap nearby. A hare jumped past him so he automatically used Aard to knock it out, then a blade to make the kill. At least he’ll have a meal. Standing he noticed a foot print. As he stepped back to take a better look a trip wire snagged on his boot, a snapping sound the only warning Geralt received as a long barb sprang viciously outwards in a narrow upward arc.

‘Shit.’ Dropping the hare, Geralt pivoted sideways using his body and arms to block it unable to move quickly enough to avoid it. The barb is sharp, fire hardened and as long as his lower arm. It has hit his armour and slid up to catch him under the shoulder leathers in a strike that nearly lifts him off the ground. Struggling to catch his breath. Geralt groaned and gritting his teeth, tried to ease the tension. Stepping backwards to loosen it off, he checks the ground and sure enough, another trap is ready to spring. Carefully he draws his sword and looks for the cord and follows it up. It is a hanging trap like the one she used on Darlov. He cuts the cord and it whips uselessly away. Now he eases the barb from his armour and the flesh beneath with care. Once released, he breathes normally. Touches his warm red blood and smells a familiar odour. A poisonous bitter herb. A smell he remembers well from Mugwood Forest. It was the same poison that killed Raymon who had been shot once with a crossbow bolt in the late afternoon and died before the sun had set. It took him a moment to realise Kat was really trying to kill him and that every moment now was precious.

 

Geralt had very little time. Looking around, he knows he isn’t safe here. Pavon and his men are not far behind, he needs to take a Swallow potion and then a Superior White Honey potion, if he has one, and hope it and his own resistance to such things kept him alive. He had no illusions about the power of this poison and his own mortality. Already wearing Superior Swallow potions he takes one straight away. It will buy him some time.

Retracing his steps to his horse, he reached into his saddle bag and pulled out a small wooden box. Opening it, there are no White Honey potions left. His fingers brush over the bottles hoping one will appear but there are none. He’ll have to make one but he needs to be somewhere safe. Mounting Roach he uses the streams and cascades to hide his tracks and move across the mountainside. Focusing on keeping his heart rate as slow as possible.

He can go no further. Numbness in his feet is creeping up his body. His gut spasms painfully. He nearly falls off his horse.

Thoughts of silver gold eyes glittering with challenge then soft and sensuous…

‘Why?’

 

 

‘Are you absolutely sure?’

‘Positive. Someone is going to meet the female witcher before she reaches the Source of Power.’

‘Why would she need help? She has travelled this far on her own. Hmm.’

‘Well this is interesting information but I am not sure how it would be useful to us?’

‘It does mean that another sorceress has access to this mystical Source of Power.’

‘You know they are a sorceress?’

‘How else will they get there? What sorceress endures rough travel conditions with no civilisation in sight, for days on end?’

‘She has a point.’

‘Hmm, thank you Terza. It may be of some use. I will mention it at our next gathering.’ Knowing the young woman wanted something in return she put it to her directly. ‘Is there something I can do for you Terza?’

‘It is my pleasure to serve the Lodge.’

‘That is most generous of you.’ She refrained from calling the young sorceress Sister for she neither qualified nor deserved such title. She was a parvenu eager to do what was necessary for herself alone and the Lodge would use such talents if she had them but only when it was to their advantage. ‘Then our business is concluded.’

‘There is a matter I would like to discuss but it is of minor concern...’

Ah here it is… ‘And what is that?’

‘I wish to meet the famed White Wolf someday so I was wondering if it could be arranged? Would Yennifer allow such a meeting?’

Ah so that’s what she is after. ‘How would I know such things?’ The girl was positively infatuated. Doubting whether or not to tell her what she knew, she decided to err on the side of caution. ‘Geralt was seen in Flotsam in the Pontar Valley recently. Later reported heading East. To that end, I suggest the market square at Vergen.’

‘Oh, thank you. It will be an opportunity I will not fail to pass up. I must prepare...’

The megascope image faded before the sorceress.

‘Silly besotted girl.’

‘Hmm but spiteful. I hope she doesn't cause trouble.’

‘Indeed.’

‘What concerns me is how she even knows about the Source of Power? And where did she get the idea it was near Loc Muinne?’

‘Wasn’t she working with our contact in the Blue Mountains somewhere… oh what was her name? Ferilandes?’

‘Yes, I think you are right. I will look into this myself. The silly girl could become a bigger problem that I thought.’

‘Did you notice her looks?’

‘Her looks?’

‘Did she not remind you of someone?’

‘Of course. What is the girl playing at? It’s laughable. Should we warn her?’

‘Let’s wait. It may prove useful, for the Lodge.’

‘Hmm, I also got the distinct impression she was expecting more about Geralt’s whereabouts.’

‘Really, why would the Lodge care about Geralt of Rivia? We’d be far more interested in Cirilla’s location.’

‘Indeed, you are right sister.’

 

 

‘He isn’t here.’

‘Well where the fuck is he?’ Pavon said to his men in general.

‘We dunno where he is.’

‘Looks like he was caught in one of her traps.’ Norsom stated calmly from the trees.

‘Show me.’ Pavon look at the barb. Nasty, sharp and long with three fingers of blood on it’s point. Pavon watched Norsom look it over. The impression was controlled neutrality with a hint of satisfaction. So Norsom was expecting these results or was it because he had killed the famous White Wolf?

‘Was it poisoned?’

Norsom nodded then stepped carefully away from the device, his features not quite as neutral as they should be.

Norsom’s witcher eyes looked to Pavon as if expecting some sort of accolade or worse, respect.

‘Well isn’t that fucking great. The bitch killed our tracker.’ Pavon said, hoping for a rise and stepped up to Norsom, watched the frown of anger and waited with anticipation for Norsom to argue how he had killed the White Wolf. When Norsom held his tongue, Pavon felt the bitter disappointment of being denied the opportunity to kill the mutant there and then. Instead he shoved a small leather pouch at him.

‘What’s this?’

‘A tracking device so when you fuck off, I’ll know where you are.’ Pulling a blade from his hip quick as a flash, he sneered at the unarmed witcher. ‘You’re working for me now so fuck this up and you’re dead like the Wolf.’ Pavon waited for Norsom to put the pouch around his neck as it was expected to be worn then stormed back to his horse. ‘We need to confirm the Wolf is dead before we go any further.’

He had one man left after that creature came through and a fucking mutant to catch the bitch who had consistently outwitted the White Wolf. Hard to believe he was caught out by a bit of poison.

Ah well, one less witcher in the world was no loss.

 

 

Kat navigated the woodland with care. On occasion reminding her horse how to come when called. Sweet berries often the best reward or a sour apple if she could find them. The Elven territory was around that next mountain ridge. The Pontar was a narrow rushing version of what it once was. Her armour was feeling loose on her again. She needed to spend the time catching some winter Hare and digging some winter vegetables. A decent meal, not grazing on raw herbs and eating dried meats. They were too lean in this cold.

Calling her horse with a sharp whistle not unlike a common bird it walked towards her and she rewarded it with a winterberry. ‘Good girl.’ Her hands rubbed the warm neck beneath the mane, eyes scanned the area in this quiet leafless woodland. No signs of life anywhere. The sound of wind through the bare branches and the distant rush of water… that was it.

Norsom hadn’t been back for some time and she hadn’t spotted anyone else. Had she lost them or had something happened? Norsom seemed content to leave her last time. She was beginning to remember why she avoided him at the school. It seemed whenever he was around, she suddenly felt fourteen all over again being punched and bullied the way boys always did. Norsom was always there afterwards to console her because he was the only one with any tracking skills and she left markers for him. Yet inevitably she was teased and tormented the next day.

His mates probably followed him like the White Wolf did now, then ran back to tell the others.

Damn it.

Anger solidified into action and pushed her forward. Her imagination showing the White Wolf and Pavon with his men, all laughing together around a campfire gloating over how close they were and soon they’d have her.

Mounting up, she shook the thought from her head and took off in search for the next opportunity to snare, trap or generally kill her pursuers. She was a Witcher with a duty to save her King. She didn’t need any help until much later and no one and nothing was going to stand in her way now.

 

 

Memories of Vesemir and his monotonous teaching tone. Droning on and on. Sneaking out of class if Vesemir even looked like he was dosing off. Getting caught. Re-writing the alchemical elements of White Myrtle, Dogwood, Balisse fruit and a hundred other herbs from Velen to Kovir. The use of quality alcohol for mixing potions…how long to mix them, the temperature… on and on. Now Geralt’s mind scrambled through those memories to solve a problem. One that would inevitably take his life if he didn’t find a solution.

Pulling dwarven spirit from the saddle bag Geralt concentrated on getting the other ingredients found in small vials, bundles and pouches: Vitriol, Hellebore petals, White gull, Honeysuckle, White myrtle petals and Balisse fruit.

The pain slicing up his legs was still bearable. The need to be violently ill sending bile up his throat with every breath until he had to empty his stomach. Spitting he cleared the vile taste from his mouth. It wasn’t bloody yet. That was good. He refused to remember the agonising symptoms Raymon suffered until he had begged Geralt to put him out of his misery. There was no one here to do Geralt that mercy.

Collecting what he needed together he made a fire and hoped it wouldn’t rain. He’d have to use Igni again and that took energy and concentration he no longer had to spare.

Spreading the items out he was missing Whyte Myrtle and Balisse fruit. Looking around him he realised he was in serious trouble. In the mountains, he might find White Myrtle but Balisse fruit, this time of year? He had to look. There was no time to think about it. Maybe if he found old fruit, it will have enough of what was needed…

Geralt staggered through the woodland, trying to keep his heartbeat down and conserve energy. Taking his last Enhanced Swallow potion he moved from tree to tree. A White Myrtle bush had some old flowers low on its branches. With that success he pushed on, looking for the fruit deeper in the mountain forests. His legs were soon numb and walking was no longer possible.

Collapsing against a large ancient tree in it’s winter sleep Geralt fought to keep breathing as his body fought the poison. He had already survived three times longer than Raymon had, yet Geralt didn’t think about that. From his place at the tree’s base, looking up into the leafless branches into dark brooding skies, his thoughts drifted to memories of snow fights with Ciri, drinking and laughing with his friends and the most beautiful witcher eyes he had ever seen in silver gold. Kat’s hands cupping his face…warm, so warm, so gentle and so strong. He felt sad he would not get the chance to say goodbye. Have one last drink, one last hug or one last kiss…

Geralt breathed in trying to get more air in his lungs, the pain making his teeth clench, the veins on his body stood out dark against his skin. Then he closed his eyes and let go, slowly breathed out, in one long pain filled release. His heart pumped slower and slower. The mutagens fighting the longest and hardest battle within his worn and beaten body since he was a boy becoming a witcher. Still his body fought on. Unwilling to give up. Unwilling to let go.

Snow began to fall around him. Cold began to seep into his body from the ground where Geralt of Rivia finally rested.

 

 

‘I forbid you to go.’

‘You can’t forbid me.’ She smiled up at the woman she had known as the closest thing to a mother and kissed her. Turning away to the elderly yet staunchly upright woman beside her. ‘Nenneke, thank you.’

‘I hope you won’t need it. Take care child.’

Taking the small pouch and tucking it into the satchel over her shoulder, Ciri waved then simply stepped away and was gone. Her body becoming nothing in the most extraordinary display of power of her once mythical bloodline.

‘Damn. If the Lodge has anything to do with this…’

‘Let it go Yennifer, you have taught her everything you know and more. The girl is beyond you now. Protect her from here,’ Nenneke fisted her hand on her breast. ‘From home.’

As if understanding something suddenly, Yennifer spoke in a rush, throwing open a portal of her own. ‘Thank you, I will. Thank you.’ Then she too was gone.

The fiery portal continued to suck objects towards it with expected thumps and crashes. Nenneke was left to catch candelabras and stop bowls from crashing to the stone floor. Scurrying around the room muttering indignant things about moody, irresponsible sorceresses. If it wasn’t for the young apprentice joining her, she would have lost at least three of her treasured Bartholomew’s Volumes on Alchemical Uses of Potted Herbs.

 

 

Cool fingers pressed against Geralt’s neck. Norsom looked down at the famed White Wolf realising coldly how mortal a Legend could be. As he waited for a heartbeat, he assessed the calm contented look on the features of the man as if relaxing against a tree for a moment. Or asleep and dreaming. His scar stood out against death-pale features. A slight curve in his lips as if remembering good times.

Maybe death wasn’t a bad place to go after all?

Assured the White Wolf was no more, Norsom looked down at the totem he wore around his neck and pulled another from his pocket, smaller and stronger and uttered a command. A crackling sound of magic and a voice that sounded hollow and far away.

‘What do you report?’

‘The White Wolf is dead.’

There was a pause. ‘Say that again? Something is interfering.’

‘The White Wolf is dead.’

‘Let me see.’ A growling pop and the alchemist’s features seemed to come alive before him. ‘Turn it around fool. I can’t see.’

Norsom obeyed and then heard the man making thoughtful sounds.

‘There is static here. Hmm, Poison?’

‘Hodonwood.’

‘That would do it. How did you administer it?’

A popping sound then the apparition disappeared.

‘Bloodstream. Stab wound.’

The voice returned. ‘Good. Let me know when you are at the Source with the Icon.’ The crackling dispersed into the air around his hand. Pocketing the Octolaura, he straightened and walked back to his horse to report his find to Pavon.

 

Soft snorts, a rush of warm air against the unmoving witcher blowing tendrils of pale hair from Geralt’s face. Snow was falling. Tiny flakes glittered in Roach’s muzzle whiskers as she sniffed and blew warm misty air against her master’s cold cheek.

The medallion on his chest vibrated softly yet constantly.

Roach sniffed it again. Another snort and she moved closer beneath the tree. Her body offering a little shelter to her unmoving master, her head dipping against the building snowfall and the bitter cold of nightfall.

There the horse waited.

Chapter Text

Hurrying along the corridors of the Castle, he opened the hidden door using a magical key and slipped inside. Waiting a breath or two to make sure he was not followed, by accident or not, Eapan Doffle made his way impatiently to the third corridor on the right. Swung around the stone corner and hurried down the steep stairs to the lower servant’s quarter.

Reaching the door to the working floor, he listened quietly for some time knowing it was one of the busiest areas in the Castle, then straightening his clothing and keeping his manner calm he silently stepped into the corridor and moved towards the junction between the kitchen and the main pantries. A maid came rushing towards him arms piled high with linen.

‘Where may I find Maid Ferilinda?’

‘With the cook sir’, she said not stopping.

Yes, since Cabble’s interference, the castle was not as economical with its service but until the King was back on his throne there was little anyone could do. Walking into the busy kitchen he spotted her and waited patiently to catch her eye. With one glance, he nodded and moved into the corridor. When she finally joined him, they wandered without undue haste to a more private location.

‘How may I be of service to you Master Doffle? Has one of my charges become ill?’ She sounded concerned but it was a way of leading those who overheard off on a harmless assumption.

In hushed tones and eyes checking the smaller corridor he presented what he knew in tones of barely a whisper. ‘I have witnessed the alchemist plotting to receive the Icon of the Treaty. And he was able to project himself through a device which he used to speak to another.’

‘So, he is more than just an alchemist, he has skills in magic.’

‘Yes, he was discussing the death of a witcher with Norsom and expects to hear from him again when he has the Icon at the Source.’

‘The Source? Where did you say they were?’

‘Somewhere near the mountains from the look through the portal but I cannot be sure. They follow the witcher, Kathryn, from all accounts but it seems unlikely she will survive the journey. Norsom and another party are hunting her.’

‘So who died?’ She asked careful to keep her voice softer than a whisper.

‘Someone called White Wolf?’ He whispered quietly, ‘He must have been a grave threat for Cabble wanted to be sure. He created a small portal and stuck his head through it to confirm the witcher was indeed dead.’

‘So what else is he capable of?’

‘I do not know. This eventuality is quite unexpected.’

‘What was the device you said he was using?’

‘I know it was used to alert him and he was able to respond and speak to Norsom somewhere in the western mountains. I have never seen such a device before. He has it in his room and it appears to be connected to others.’

‘That was dangerous of you but very useful. You must be more careful.’ Her hands gripped each other rather than touch him and show too much familiarity.

‘I am at your assistance, for the King.’

A known Cabble sympathiser walked towards them.

‘I thank you for your assistance.’ He said a little less quietly, nodded and they parted company. He slowed so the man walked beside him. ‘Maid Ferilinda has the most beautiful hands, I keep making excuses to come and interrupt her, I hope one day she will allow me to grasp their warmth within my own.’ He almost gushed like a bard and the man rolled his eyes and turned down a different corridor at the first opportunity.

 

 

The tall standing stone roared softly and constantly into the winter silence.

A large hole cut through the top a beacon for its magical energy and the sign of Quen engraved in its granite face eons ago. Like others scattered over the world, its power was so great, sorceresses, mages, druids and witchers took sips of it to augment their powers by specific methods that offered a quick draw from the unlimited source of magical power.

High in the mountains beside an ancient tree, the power surrounding this stone was strong enough that snow never remained on the ground and most animals avoided the hissing crackling of its magical energy.

On the other side of the ancient tree lay a dying witcher, his mind lost to an internal battle that his mutated body fought relentlessly, slowly and inevitably extinguishing his body’s functions until it was in a state of near death. The bitter cold slowed the process further and changing the elements in the fight. When finally, his body surrendered the ever present Place of Power, benign until that moment, offered up the catalyst allowing his mutagens to merge with the essence of a powerful poison.

 

 

‘Ferila.’ A nod of acknowledgement from the image in the megascope. ‘What news from the mountains, Sister?’

‘I have several pieces of news that are of interest to you. The alchemist, Cabble has shown himself to have magical skills. He has been witnessed throwing a small portal through which he could examine a dead body.’

‘So, he is a mage.’

‘Maybe Dothol isn’t the leader of this plot after all. Maybe he is a mere puppet?’

‘He seems foolish enough to believe he will inherit the throne. Maybe there is some other aspect at work we may have overlooked?’

‘That’s quite possible. I am restricted in my ability to move within the castle. Having the younger charges to oversee I find myself kept to one wing of the castle more or less until the mistress or her lord requires my attentions. Loyal assistance is hard to come by especially since I had to let young Terza go.’

‘And the King?’

‘He is still in recovery. It seems his health went into decline recently but that has been rectified.’

‘Was it another plot?’

‘No, he caught a cold. A trifle really but his weakened state made it far more serious.’

‘So what was your other news? Was it to do with Terza?’ Another question fired from a different quarter of the Gathering of Sorceresses.

‘The White Wolf is dead.’ There were soft gasps and murmurs through the megascope but it was impossible to ascertain from who.

‘We’ve heard that before.’ Came the slightly annoyed tone from the sorceress who tried hard to ignore the other’s reactions to the news.

‘He was poisoned by Hodonwood. A very unpleasant death by all accounts.’

‘W-was he on his own?’ A softer voice spoke.

‘The witcher, Norsom, followed him and confirmed it. He seemed a threat worthy of the alchemist extending himself as he did.’

‘Do we know where he may have been at this time?’

‘Other information indicates somewhere at the uppermost Pontar River, heading towards Loc Muinne. A mountainous area. He was following the witcher Kathryn, seeking the Source of Power.’

‘The Source of Power was thought to be in the Castle. Was it not?’ A sorceress spoke seeking confirmation of Terza’s assumptions.

‘Originally yes. However, it appears the power in the castle will be affected when the Icon reaches the Source somehow. It may be a conduit for the power to disseminate. I am getting mixed information so will have to… Someone comes, excuse me.’ And with that her image faded and she was gone from the gathering.

Another woman spoke softly. ‘Please excuse me. I should inform Geralt’s family.’

‘Of course.’

After another apparition left the circle there was a quiet moment.

‘I wasn’t aware the White Wolf had any family.’

‘Chosen, not born.’ Offered someone else.

‘Hasn’t he died before?’ Another enquired.

‘Yes, he has. Shall we continue?’ Irritation showed in the sorceress’s tone and posture.

 

 

Pain lanced his limbs and every muscle from his face to his toes, tensed ready to break… Gritting his teeth he couldn’t help groaning with the agony. Felt his stomach react violently but he couldn’t move. Cold earth next to his head comforted him. Falling unconscious again his body slowly began to recover.

 

 

Unwilling to be on Pavon’s leash, Norsom had left the totem behind some ways back. Even if Pavon found it, his tracks were mixed up enough that it would take him a while to get here. He cared little if he caught up or not.

Norsom tracked her to the junction and walked a bigger circle to locate the direction Kathryne had taken without any luck. She was always the better hunter.

Jealousy, old and familiar like an ache made his lips curve down.

Where was she? His eyes lifted to the cliff faces above. If she was nearby he’d wait. Give her time to come down to meet him or leave a marker for him as she had done before. He had to get her to trust him and only him. They hadn’t agreed to meet but he was looking forward to telling her the White Wolf was no more. Her lover was dead. See the look on her face when she told him he used Hodonwood poison to kill him. The agony would have been excruciating. Couldn’t think of a better way to dispose of him. Now, Kathryne would then need his help. He would make a show of killing Pavon and she would then place her trust in him. As it should be so that when they entered the Source of Power, she would become his.

He smiled. Norsom had been careful to take care of Kathryne’s lovers in Askarin in such a way that it seemed they just disappeared. At the castle, he had managed to make his warning clear until he was called away. The thought of her with another man tearing at something brittle and painful inside him.

She was his now, so he would wait.

 

 

Shouting children were in the room, his head felt like it was about to burst open like a Rotfiend. Trying to breath through the pain, the noise became crows in the tree above. His whole body ached and throbbed with every heartbeat. The need to throw up more important than the overwhelming need to sleep. The ground was uncomfortable he realised. His shoulder the centre of more pain. Maybe that was what woke him?

Geralt’s thoughts continued to circle around until he dragged himself up from his collapsed position and faced his situation.

Meditation. That usually solved most problems, hangovers included. As he moved his body like delicate glass into a kneeling position, he realised a couple of things beyond the pain he was in. He had thrown up on himself and he was thirsty, really thirsty. Ignoring the pain and the fact his whole body trembled, Geralt tried to meditate to speed his recovery.

Shutting his eyes and trying to quieten his mind the medallion on his chest was vibrating. A constant thrum. There was a Place of Power nearby.

Damn it, not a good place to meditate, he thought absently but he couldn’t bring himself to move. The cold seemed to be softening the roaring agony in his limbs and the tension eased a little.

Meditate first. Think later.

 

 

Kat smiled as she finished the snare trap and snow began to fall. Beautiful, for so many reasons yet a quick glance to the ominous sky above had her moving with determination. 

Quickly backtracking, covering her trail, she was gone and moving on.

 

 

‘That’s it, I’m gonna kill him.’ Pavon snatched the totem from its place hanging from a branch and stormed back to his mount, waving the other man to mount up. ‘Damn the whoreson.’

They’d followed the bastard’s tracks to here. He wasn’t as good as he thought he was. He could recognise the mutant’s footprints he’d seen them often enough and if he was able to track the White Wolf then he could follow the mutant.

Bolstered by his belief, he sneered and rode on. A little of the poison on his crossbow bolts and Norsom will be no more.

 

 

The stream was icing over, slowly succumbing to the winter that already held the high mountains in its grasp. Splashing more cold water on his face, Geralt looked over the armour he had removed to wash before putting it back on. Dark clouds loomed low and heavy. Snow was coming.

The aching was still there but the urge to continue on was so strong Geralt tempered it with common sense. He couldn’t remember everything.

Taking another sip of the cold water, he let it roll around his mouth to warm it before swallowing. His body hadn’t recovered fully and he wasn’t going to challenge the miraculous efforts it had made to keep him alive by reducing his body temperature further than it already was. Geared up, he stood and the ground didn’t heave. Time for truth.

‘Well, let’s take a look around.’

Having taken little care when he first woke up to check how he ended up here, Geralt now took the opportunity to study tracks and activity around him. Roach had stood nearby for sometime, but beneath her hoof prints Geralt noted another man’s tracks. Someone came across him here while he was unconscious. Looking at the way the man’s boot prints followed his own to the tree meant Geralt had been followed and was certain he had been left for dead. The fact that he still had the swords on his back meant it wasn’t a common huntsman or mercenary.

A memory of another witcher. A name he couldn’t remember, an enemy. Geralt was absolutely sure that if the person had any doubts he was dead, they would have made sure he was before leaving.

Damn it why couldn’t he remember?

He whistled for Roach and ignoring the bone chilling cold followed his own tracks back the way he came.

The horse took time to return having wandered some distance in search of food. Geralt whistled again as he crossed over another stream to a rocky place where he found a variety of herbs and other ingredients and a small fire long dead. Collecting what he could save, his memory offered up events too slowly.

Mounting Roach, Geralt kept going. More memories vague and dislocated came back.

‘Hmm, the ground here is trampled. Several men on horses.’ Aware he was not at full strength, Geralt kept his witcher senses alert to anything unusual. Walking further up the hill it seemed to draw him up the slight incline to a tree line and a couple of sprung traps with his own boot prints beneath. Kat’s traps. One trap had a nasty barb on it and his own blood dark on the sharp evil tip. As his eyes looked over the efficient device, he didn’t remember Kat ever using this method before…

Geralt’s memories suddenly came flooding back… a hare in hand, a soft twang just as he noticed a foot print that should not have been there then the trap hit him so hard he was lifted off his feet... pain… cutting the second trap away and later, agony…

Gripping the barb he ripped it off as anger and a wave of other emotions flooded through him.

Kat was working with Norsom. They were working together to try and kill him. Geralt always understood Norsom could turn on him at any time but Kat’s betrayal hit hardest.

Breathing heavily and buzzing as if he’d thrown Quen around himself, Geralt became the cold predator once again. With lethal focus, he cut the barb off the vicious trap, wrapped it, stowed it in his saddlebags then followed the tracks away.

The need to catch up to Norsom, Pavon and any surviving mercenaries was now irresistible. His thoughts already planning the way ahead. Once that was done he would find Kat.

A dark smile lifted his lips when he realised the advantage of being dead.

 

 

Norsom was left at the junction nearly half a day behind when Kat finished laying another false trail through the new snow. If he or Pavon found this trail they would be led by the natural animal tracks down to a steep rocky decent. The slope dangerous even for humans and was a dead end overlooking the valley that fell away below them. Now she finished a trap. Something to slow them down. Standing up she assessed them with a critical eye. She had set them in a couple of places to give her piece of mind. From now on, she would have little time to set traps if she was to get to the Source. The moon would be in Solstice in only a few days. Backtracking again and covering her trail away, Kat headed south through the growing snowstorm.

As darkness fell, Kat counted her luck that she found a cave in a cliffside. Dry, warm and out of the wind, it’s narrow entrance only just allowing her horse through, it was curved and opened up the deeper in she went. No scent of carrion or sign of monsters. Not easy to find and well hidden. Heartened by her find, there may even be enough time to cook a decent meal before she moved on. If the snow fell heavily enough it would give her even more time.

Skinning a winter hare she thought about the forest she was about to enter. What sort of traps she could set and the shift from ground level to tree level stimulated her thoughts to the future. The deeper forests nearer the ruins was where she would meet Ciri. It had been a long time since she had been there. Forests could change dramatically but if the elves were doing their job it would only be slight changes and seasonal. Not being as elegantly agile as elves were, Kat had always coveted their ability to be so… arboreal.

Her horse snorted, ears moved forward peering out at something that had its attention beyond the cave. Kat immediately moved to the shadows and carefully looked out.

‘What is it Chessy?’

When nothing moved, she glanced at the horse again. Yup something still had her attention… out there somewhere. Sitting quietly and looking through the steady snow fall, a soft snowy shadow moved through the trees lower down. Then another.

Wolves.

Kat watched them move silently through the trees in front of them. As much as she needed to be wary of them, she also knew if they were close by, they were a natural deterrent to anyone following. Patting the mare, she took a seat by the fire again glancing up at the mare every now and again until she relaxed.

Keeping her sword at the ready and staying nearer the entrance, Kat finished preparing her meal and remained watchful. Chessy was almost asleep now. Her head low and one hind hoof turned under.

In the quiet peacefulness of the cave, memories came to her. Good memories that she welcomed on such a cold night. Hugging her knees while her meal cooked, she looked to the Icon, wrapped carefully near her swords. If anything happened, her swords and the Icon were first things to be taken. If she had time, her saddlebags and everything else. There wasn’t much.  Reaching over and taking the wrapped parcel Kat untied it and looked at the sword. 

The sword was elegant and had beautiful flowing lines of the Elven style. There was still much of the dark resin on it. Kat didn’t know what to use to remove it and felt there was no need to at this point. How it looked was of little concern. The resin did offer an insight to its elegant design. The hilt and cross bars were made of a different metal to the blade.

Soft spitting sounds of the fat on the hare cooking over the coals made her mouth water and her stomach grumble. She used a stick to prod and check the vegetables she had thrown on the coals. Pushing them to the side to stay warm she checked the hare and then went back to her study of the icon. Hmm. She wasn’t a weaponsmith but the difference in metals was unusual. The elegantly woven leather binding on the hilt easily distracted the observer from the metal differences. Running her fingers over the hilt gave her the familiar hum. Sighing, she also knew the nightmares would take on a special sort of horror after she touched the sword, so she carefully wrapped it up again. Meditation had saved her allowing her to revitalise enough to keep going and it was dreamless.

Tomorrow she would enter the ancient elven forests beyond the famous city of Loc Muinne.

 

 

The snow fell heavily and Pavon hadn’t found the wretched witcher. Had found a small camp near a junction a mile or so back but had lost his tracks easily in the snow. Deciding to use the totem, he said the words that would waken his own totem to the witchers and then waited.

Ha!

Pushing his horse on in the bitter cold and deepening snow, they moved on. Pavon had given him one totem and hidden another in his saddlebag. Knowing the man was likely to take off.

Sometime later, shivering and stiff from the cold, Pavon found him. Norsom had made camp beneath a rock face and a tree that had recently been blown over. He had neatly cut away or broken off branches and created a protective area below the trunk. A fire crackled and the warmth and comforts of sitting somewhere out of the wind without snow on his back was enough for him to dismount and walk to the fire without comment. Snatching the rest of the roasted hare from the fire Pavon tore mouthfuls of the meat off chewing noisily. He noticed Norsom give the last of his own meal to the remaining man who took it gratefully. Their horses huddled together to keep warm as Pavon sat on a broken branch pulling the cloak around his shoulders and glared at Norsom who seemed unmoved. Spearing another carcass of hare, Norsom placed it over the coals to roast.

If emotions were weather, hatred would be a blizzard burying Norsom right about now.

 

 

Deep in the growing darkness a cloaked figure rode the same path as two men on horseback. Snow and darkness offering the perfect camouflage he saw their camp and his mood became darker. Witcher eyes using all his senses and intelligence to calculate the best way to terminate these three men. Pulling out his cross bow and loading it he walked a short distance into the outer shadows of the campfire and shot Pavon’s last mercenary as he drank from his water bottle. A clean shot through his heart.

‘Fuck!’ Pavon said scrambling to his feet and diving for his weapons.

Norsom had his steel out and was on his feet.

‘You’re dead!’ The surprise shifting quickly to a witchers determination.

‘Surprise.’ Anger rolled over his body making his Quen shield quiver. He stalked the small circle facing Norsom and well aware that Pavon had disappeared into the shadows and falling snow beyond the campfire.

‘You are an old man white wolf. Why would you challenge me?’

‘If you have to ask you have lost already.’

He grinned. ‘She has another path witcher. Her destiny is already written.’

‘By who? You?’

‘By destiny herself the Mountain Goddess Uthura.’ Norsom smiled.

They circled each other.

‘Let me put it another way. Others are against you in your wish witcher. Kathryn included. Why go against her wish.’

‘You are from her Witcher School?’

‘I am. So, I know her better than most.’

‘And so, it follows, you won't understand why I follow her. Where is she?’

'Gone on ahead.'

'I can see why with your friend Pavon wanting her dead...'

'We have an arrangement.'

'Sure you do.'

‘I see that trying to persuade you will not gain me anything more. Your mind is set.’

His leather boots traced a circle maximising his distance from Geralt. 

Geralt held his sword in a relaxed angle, allowing his witcher senses to expand around him and smiled with deadly intent.

Norsom came at him with a flamboyant strike meant to distract and test him. Geralt parried Norsom’s efforts easily.

Adjusting his hilt a fraction he turned in time to deflect a bolt meant to cripple him and then pivoted to parry Norsom’s next strike, confirming he had two enemies to cut down.

When Norsom had completed a full circle he came at Geralt again. Interesting. But Geralt pivoted and sliced cutting the man above his gauntlet in time to hear the crossbow bolt released. Twisting away into a roll he got up to see a surprised witcher. Geralt wasn’t sure what Norsom was surprised by the most. The blood dripping from his severed arm or the crossbow bolt in his chest.

‘I thought I had time.’

‘Had that feeling myself.’ Geralt’s eyes scanned the place where he could hear running foot falls.

‘He will kill you.’ Norsom collapsed and Geralt grabbed him and pulled him out of line of sight from Pavon.

‘Are you sure he was after me?’

The witcher nodded sagely. ‘You are probably right.’ He wheezed. ‘Beware the device he carries… will bring the enemy.’

Geralt nodded his eyes and senses following the already dead crossbow man.

‘It was you that poisoned the trap wasn’t it?’

Norsom nodded.

‘You should have died.’ His eyes lifted to Geralt. ‘You had the most peaceful expression on your face when I saw you.’

‘Good memories. I have many.’

‘Is Kathryne amongst them?’

Geralt said nothing. Watching the man before him bleed out onto the dirt beside him while his lungs slowly began to fill with blood.

Acceptance. ‘I have manipulated her.’

‘Hmm. Tell me what you know about what she is about to do.’

‘If she succeeds in reaching the Source then the outcome will be as it should be.’

‘Which is what?’

‘Witchers are to be used, White Wolf. We are of no value except where there are monsters.’

‘So what monster do you hunt Norsom?’

‘Very clever. A monster that requires two witchers to kill it.’

‘Why do you need two?’

‘Because it has two heads.’

‘Two? Kat is being used too?’

‘We both know Kathryne would never do anything she did not want to do. She's stubborn that way.’ Norsom’s breath was shallow.

‘Kat knows about this?’

‘She knows how this will end.’

Dread darkened his heart. ‘Will she live?’

He paused to take a couple more breaths. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Why not? To kill a monster witchers learn all its weaknesses and use them against it. We go in knowing what the risks are. How is this any different?’

‘We can only see parts of our monster you see. We do not know how much we cannot see.’

‘Sounds like you might need more than two witchers.’

‘Is that an offer to join our monster hunt?’ Norsom’s voice was growing weaker his voice soft pants.

‘Maybe. So why kill me?’

A simple smile lifted his lips. ‘You were her lover. She cares about you too much.’ He coughed, blood on his lips.

Geralt watched the witcher turn away and throw up. His mutagens clearly not coping as well as his, bloody vomit mixed with dark blood soaked into the earth.

He spat weakly. ‘I love her…’

‘Is Pavon part of the monster?’

Norsom nodded, his eyes closing. Leaving Norsom to follow Pavon with cold determination.

 

 

‘Why have you summoned me here?’

‘I need help…’

The mage looked over the dying witcher. ‘You are no longer of any use.’

‘…poisoned… by Pavon.’

‘It does not change anything.’

‘I can still help…’Blood dribbled down his chin.

‘Very well.’ The man dragged Norsom through the portal and it closed moments later.

 

 

Geralt let his senses lead the way through the darkness knowing his Quen was probably the only thing that will keep another poison bolt from hitting him. He had no intention of going through it all again so he kept it refreshed with minimal effort.

The footprints staggered slightly to the left behind some trees so he cut across and around. His senses offered a better view forward than normal sight in snowy conditions. The camp fire a soft glow thirty paces back now, Geralt kept to the dark forms of the trees, half expecting Pavon to make a run for it back to the camp for his horse. Instead he came across him kneeling in the snow and whispering to a totem he clutched in his hand. The soft glow and a familiar voice halting Geralt for a moment.

‘You said you’d fucking help me.’

‘You said you wouldn’t kill Norsom, yet he is dead.’ Lord Dothol’s voice was easy to recognise.

‘It was him or me! Hurry!’

‘And where is the Icon of the Treaty? Is the woman witcher dead?’

‘Please, I can explain. I have information…’

‘You have failed with no more than three days left to reach the Source and create the junction to ...’

‘Get me to safety then send me back later… I can fix this.’

A sigh of resignation. ‘Give me a moment to arrange for a portal.’

Geralt stepped from the trees coming up on Pavon’s left side just as a portal opened and he saw Geralt’s raised sword swing down in an arc across his neck. Sliced cleanly from the man’s shoulders, Pavon’s head flew through the portal disappearing from sight and his body crumpled to the snow. There was distant, panicked shouting then the portal closed with a roaring explosion sending Geralt sliding backwards but he held his stance.

Flicking his steel in a couple of quick moves, he wiped it with a handful of snow and sheathed it. Collecting what he could from Pavon’s body. A small device that looked similar to the one he got back in Flotsam hung on a chain and still clutched by one hand. That and a pouch full of coin was the only things of interest.

Snow was falling in earnest now so he returned to camp to find Norsom gone. What looked like a second person had arrived from nowhere in soft leather shoes and taken him away. Probably the mage. He wondered if he would survive but one thing for sure, if Dothol wasn’t lying, Norsom was dead too.

He whistled for Roach, looked through the other saddlebags and checked supplies. Dawn was a few hours away yet and it was snowing heavily. Stoking the fire, he decided to meditate then he would return to the hunt and the Witcher, Kathryne Du Fonten.

Chapter Text

Kat was close.

Witcher senses reaching outwards, the stone talisman confirmed what he already knew, could feel like an instinct his eyes on the trail before him, watching. Leather covered fingers ran over the small finely carved piece.

Norsom warned him about Pavon’s totems saying they brought the enemy. That wasn’t to say the one he now carried wouldn’t do the same. Either way, he was willing to risk it to find her.

Pavon and his man had used small wooden totems that looked like the one he had taken from that scum in Flotsam. The young sorceress in the market had explained what they were for and how they could be used. After Pavon’s execution, Geralt had tossed the wooden pieces into the fire unwilling to take the risk of someone following him or mages interfering when there was so little time left to catch up with Kat. In his search of Norsom's saddlebag he found one that looked different to the others. Depicting an elegant elven form rather than the chunkier rougher chess-piece styled carvings of the others. It lacked the chord but was clearly made for one and its stone form was enclosed in a soft leather pouch but it was by shear accident that he witnessed the totem’s magical link.

 

Geralt had reached the trail’s end, having avoided the traps she had set, that left him on a cliff’s edge overlooking a narrow canyon. Visibility was low as snow fell in a steady, almost windless curtain across the open space before him. The roar of the rushing Pontar could be heard leagues below. About to turn back and retrace his steps the totem began to vibrate. Gripping it in his fist, he drew a sword thinking it was going to spit out a mage when a movement on the opposite side of the canyon caught his eye.

Through the soft visage of falling snow, a lone traveller leading their horse along the canyon edge came into view. Familiarity held him in place, for three heartbeats Geralt watched her slow steady progress noting the sense of fragility in her posture and the stubborn determination of every step through the snow. Then she disappeared again into the laden trees. Fading from view all too soon, her presence appeared more apparition than real.

Geralt found himself watching the gap in the trees, holding his breath, waiting, hoping to see her again but reality returned when the vibration in his clenched fist subsided.

Looking down at the stone piece in his palm he realised just how lucky he'd been. It was the first sighting of her since Flotsam and he'd nearly called out but something about her appearance stopped him.

 

Since that sighting, Geralt had focused his attentions on his quarry with an unrelenting force of will that had paid off. The totem buzzed constantly now. The urge to keep moving gripped him again.

Slipping the totem safely away Geralt followed the fresh tracks in the snow, she was nearby.

Nothing could happen to Kat.

 

 

Amidst the chaos of mage assistants and servants packing and preparing to leave, Lord Dothol strode into the normally locked chamber of the alchemist who was placing something into a metal safe box with infinite care.

‘Cabble, are you ready yet?’ He spoke loudly enough to make the man jump a little. A small thing that pleased him.

‘My Lord, these things do take time…’ Irritated, the man finally turned to face the taller man with an assuredness that dissipated as soon as he met his gaze.

Dothol grabbed the slithery alchemist by the tunic in a sudden movement that seemed to catch them both by surprise. Then as suddenly, released him, his stature returning to austere. His loss of control, only an aberration but to make his point, he pulled his blade in a practiced move from its exotic scabbard, thoughtfully examined it, eyes sliding to the alchemist before sliding it back into place beneath his cloak. Glaring at the shorter man before him.

‘Then make haste Cabble. We must reach Loc Muinne before todays end.’ The almost sleepy look of the tall elegant male did not deceive Cabble who cleared his throat and bowed low enough to appease.

‘Y-yes my Lord.’ He stammered with a practiced deception.

 

 

Remaining absolutely still in her hiding place Kat waited. There was enough distance between herself and whoever followed that if she had to slip away she could but a sense of dread was creeping up on her. Whoever it was, it certainly wasn’t Norsom. For days now, there had been no sign of anyone. Maybe that last snow storm and the dead-end trails were enough to lose them but it wasn’t. The need to look over her shoulder, the feeling that someone was following her had been justified early that morning.

Crossing unwittingly into the territory of a pack of wolves and unwilling to kill them, it was second nature to cut a new path around the obstacle. Given her growing need to keep moving, she never questioned her decision.

Her path pushed her in an arc rather than a straight line allowing a distant glimpse of a man in the deepening shadows of the forest taking down a buck. Remaining hidden, she watched him from a safe distance. The kill was savage but efficient. The carcass seemed to smoke in the frigid air as he salvaged what he wanted. The flesh would freeze quickly but not before attracting the hungry wolves. Keeping them busy so they wouldn’t be interested in him passing through their territory.

Moving on, Kat couldn’t help feel approval for her clever new shadow. Curiosity getting the better of her she mulled over the possibilities. Mercenaries would have just blundered through the wolves’ territory and be forced to kill them, even risking injury that in such harsh conditions could’ve meant death. Norsom would have avoided them if he could but he wasn’t above slaughtering them either. Witchers usually had a reason, food source or self-defence but Norsom wasn’t the strategic type. When it came to moving through a landscape efficiently, he wasn’t a deep thinker. So that left one possibility. One witcher.

Movement pulled her thoughts back to the present. Adamant she would remain calm, no matter who it was, her pulse rate defied her efforts as the tall masculine figure cleared the deeper shadows between the trees. The way he moved was distinct, yet while he remained cloaked, she still clung to the hope it wasn’t Geralt who followed her. Hoped he had been detained somewhere or decided not to follow through on his promise to help her. Somehow it was better to think him as the common bastard who made false promises to bed her. Something a punch in the nose would’ve evened the score and allowed their relationship to continue as before but this was far more serious.

The fear that the honourable man she had grown to trust so deeply would betray her, hunt her like a common Nekker, a monster, ate away at her, leaving her thoughts in turmoil. Conflicting memories causing her to second guess her own judgement about someone she had trusted so intimately. Someone who never questioned her cause was worth fighting for. Made her feel safe enough to take him as her lover shattering any hope she had of maintaining emotional distance from him. After that she was an open book. He even encouraged her to play games with him even before he bedded her. He made her… feel safe. Gave her a taste of something special she wanted… no, needed.

With the famous White Wolf standing before her, Kat struggled to understand the circumstances she now found herself. Chest tightening, her gloved palm pushing at the leather over her heart. How could he change so spectacularly? How could she have missed his insincerity?

‘…Geralt of Rivia, the Butcher of Blaviken, you will seek out Kathryne Du Fonten and kill her…’

Shaking her head and biting her lip to stop herself from making any sound, Kat’s internal struggle went unnoticed by the male before her. The whole situation undermining her confidence, dragged old memories from the past like wraiths ...

Girls can’t be witchers only whores for demons… Should have died… Mutant, not even human…’ Old hurts slid over innumerable wounds of the girl. Old pain embalmed during her childhood in the brutal witcher school of Askarlione and brought to life with burning ferocity by her perceived betrayal. And yet Kat knew she was no animal or creature born of the Great Collision of Sphere’s. Knew she was lucky to have survived. The grown woman could make sense of it all from experience and perspective the girl never had. Knew now they were old history. Like old lovers she had to leave them behind.

Pale gold eyes watched the male before her getting ever closer. Taking a slow deep breath, memories came to life from the warm darkness of a room in Flotsam. Flickering candlelight, the scent of musk, hardened muscles and that deep sensual voice. Dark gold eyes watching her play, that smile that lit his eyes, calloused fingers caressing soft skin… Waves of pleasure that had her moaning, panting, needing more, the sense of heat and masculine strength surrounding her, against her lips, inside her, so possessive.

Kat shivered. How could it be a lie?

Watching the hunter before her, Kat grit her teeth against the deepening cold. Even knowing he was here to kill her and take the icon… another shudder had her breathing deeply, mind and body in conflict.

Enough! Kat admonished herself. He was the enemy because he sought the icon and he made her weak. Norsom was right.

Drawing on years of experience, Kat focused on searching for weaknesses in the White Wolf. Watching him move with caution beside the path she left, a slight uneven shift in his shoulders as he walked. Focussing on that aberration in his usual fluid stride made it easier to concentrate. An injury perhaps? Recognised that stubborn witcher determination and remembered what he was like to travel with. Efficient, driven and focused, yet even then he was a good travelling companion. He had pushed her to her limit but she had kept going, stretching herself beyond simply running from a few lazy soldiers. Yet he never knew how much his abilities had astonished her. Watching him that day take down the ancient while she sat on her horse and waited, Kat was inspired by his use of sign magic and his careful strategy with sword at the ready. Reading the creature so well he was always out of the way when it went on the offensive. Every move he made was thought through, practised and seemed easy. The same way he knew what he wanted in the bedroom…

Gods have mercy!

Moving forward for a few more paces he stopped. Crouched down. Looked at something carefully then looked up along the path ahead of him. His head tilted in that way she had seen before, as if catching a sound. A gloved hand pushed the hood from his head and he stood in that way he had... that sense of power and strength in reserve just waiting for a reason to morph into lethal action. His gaze sweeping around him. For a heart stopping moment, looking her way then returning to the trail. His beard had grown covering a hard jawline she knew well, her fingers clenched in her gloves. Strands of silver white hair coming lose from its leather tie. The scar down his face seemed darker making him seem more ferocious. Steady regular breaths taken through his nose vented mist into the cold air in a rhythm broken by one long steady intake of air, a slight lift of his chin and eyes closing for a moment. With a predatory focus hanging around him like a cloak he moved, stepping away from the trail and walking straight towards her.

For the first time, Kathryne felt a touch of fear, the realisation that her life was forfeit if she crossed swords with the White Wolf. Quietly and very swiftly, she slipped away.

 

 

The sound of the items smashing and clattering to the stone floor were all at once satisfying and frustrating to Terza. She had lost count of the number of times she had tried the spell and it hadn’t worked. The portal wouldn’t open.

Cursing in a way that would have had her tutor Ferila severely reprimanding her, Terza kicked the bowl not quite broken enough, against the wall and had the satisfaction of it shattering with a loud crash. Turning towards the pile of goods she was going to take with her she fisted her pink skinned hands until the tender flesh hurt and tears clouded her vision. But she wasn’t crying, she was angry. What had happened to stop her getting through? It had taken her most persuasive tone and utmost patience to get the totem from the lusciously handsome Geralt of Rivia. She remembered the spell and easily placed it over the existing one while she pretended to look for something, a book, behind her table. She had thought how clever she was. Or had she made a mistake of overlaying spells?

No, she was sure she hadn’t. It was a common thing to do where totems were concerned.

Her plans would have to change.

Another crash.

She was so looking forward to appearing before him in a way that would no doubt surprise him, flatter him and ultimately win him over. If it didn’t, well she had other things she could use to gain his favour…

Fingers bent dramatically at her forehead, bosom thrusting forward in a bodice that threatened to spill its contents, toes pointed behind in a fine silk shoe of blue, green and gold, Terza struck a pose mid step of feminine frailty. Pretended to faint with a soft sigh…

Well it worked for the others why not him?

‘Oh Geralt, throwing a portal over such a long distance could drain a woman so...’ She practiced.

Catching a glimpse of herself she turned and faced the tall mirrors to assess her form with a critical eye. The blemishes on her pale skin would fade when she renewed the spell. Then she would be perfect again. Sighing with the pleasure, she ran her hands down her breasts to her hips and assessed the plunging neckline of the gown casting her in such feminine contrast for her entrance into such a mountainous environment. A perfect colour. Bejewelled fingers perched on her hips.

Yes, she could just imagine him. The White Wolf on her arm at banquets and balls.  In such finery that would make him handsome and everyone would be jealous. Tall, strong and most of all, famous. Those scars would easily be hidden with a bit of magic. Even his hair could be changed to another colour but then who would recognise him? A smile hit her oiled glossy lips. Yennifer would. So would Triss. Yes, she could use this to take her first steps into the Lodge. He would make a wonderful lover too… Her fingers stroked her breasts, her palms cupping and stroking, her thoughts erotic.

Sighing heavily, another plan was already forming. Terza looked to the packages and chests she was going to take. Merchant girl at Loc Muinne seemed the best option. Well, she would catch him another way.

There must be merchants and people travelling into the elven mountains. Maybe she could be their sorceress and join a caravan in search of local elven treasures. ‘Hmm, yes. That would work.’

 

 

Stumbling in the deep snow, head low, the horse was as reluctant to keep going as she was. It was late, darkness was upon them and Kat needed somewhere safe to stop but not here.

‘Come on Chessy, not far now.’ Kat encouraged softly and urged her on but the mare refused to budge. The sense of urgency gripped Kathryne but with a horse as stubborn as any witcher, she deciding to walk a little. Dismounting, Kathryne pulled firmly at the reins, receiving a snort of disagreement. ‘Well you can stay here and freeze to death by avalanche or,’ Her eyes glanced upwards then she added with softer more coercive tones, ‘we could move into the deep, warm forests of the Elves and spend the night in a dry, warm ruin.’ Rubbing the warm neck Kat stepped away and the mare moved reluctantly with her.

The snow had fallen consistently making it deep and difficult to travel through. Although wind howled higher up, here the trees grew close together and soft breezes sifted the snow downwards in swirling flurries. Checking her direction was unnecessary as the narrow valley offered only one way forward to the elven forest and her destination. Beyond the mountains to the west was the famous ancient city of Loc Muinne. If there had been time she'd have resupplied but with the White Wolf so close behind... A sound interrupted her thoughts making her pause. Continuing to move, Kat widened her senses outwards. Caught a movement behind and to her right. Her horse’s ears flicked in that direction but didn't seem to be bothered.

Hunter quiet she moved on. Witcher senses flaring. The soft shushing of their legs through the snow and the wind through the trees interrupted by the occasional thump of a load of snow falling from them were all dull, softened around them.

‘The valley’s end can’t be far away.’ She hoped quietly. The sooner she was out of here the better. Her eyes took in the snow covered mountains reaching skyward around them, knowing the shear rock faces high above her on both sides, loaded with snow, could give way and bury them in minutes.

The hairs on the back of her neck were beginning to stand up.

A movement. Snow dust flew up and Chessy spooked. With a whiney of fear the mare launching herself away from danger.

Releasing the horse, Kat threw a Quen sign and drew her silver, senses alive. Eyes taking in the darkened forest. Unconsciously noting where her horse had gone, she pushed her witcher senses outwards and waited. Felt something near her shoulder. The sizzle of her magical barrier had her slicing her blade around and stepping to the side.

A hissing squeal the only indication something dangerous was near.

Vampire? Bruga? They usually showed themselves.

Heart rate under strict control her eyes still not seeing her attacker but deep grooves in the snow had her watchful. Separating her concentration to two places was dangerous. Spinning her silver around her head she lunged and sliced hitting air but kept her sword moving with energy saving economy as she carved her way, knee deep, through the snow.

Using her sword as an extension of her body while her senses worked to find her enemy, Kat found her balance. Moving with adept grace, felt her sword glance over something then heard a hissing sound to her left pivoting and dodging sideways. Dark spots now polluted the cold white surface. A sound not dissimilar to a crossbow bolt hitting flesh distracted her for a fraction of a moment. The thing squealed and attacked wildly. The blow knocking out her barrier and pushing her backwards against a tree with enough force to punch the breath from her lungs. The back of her head colliding not too softly with the tree bark.  Kat recovered quickly. Another crossbow bolt from her left hissed through the air and she lurched and rolled her body around the tree trunk.

Too close.

On her feet, tripping over hidden obstacles beneath the deep snow and covered with white, her eyes and senses completely focused on the enemy or enemies as she put the tree trunk between herself and whoever or whatever followed. It took a moment longer to throw another Quen, sword grasped in hand she looked for escape routes. Eyes glanced upward. The thought to climb out of danger disappeared, the branches too high to reach. Moving to keep her enemy in sight another scream filled the air but it was moving away. The dark spots setting a trail in the snow back the way she had come so she followed for a few paces, ready for another attack but none came. Doubting what she had heard but having no interest staying to find out if the crossbow fire was for the creature or her, Kathryne went in search for her horse.

Thankfully Chessy was as eager to leave the valley as she was and it wasn’t long before the dark opening from one valley to the next offered sanctuary from danger and the bleak cold. Crossing through, Kat heard another squeal. Not that far away. The creature was attacking something or someone.

Whoever followed her was now facing the same monster. The White Wolf. A frown of worry creased her flushed skin, she thought she'd covered more ground than that and left him behind. The thought of that creature fighting the witcher filled her with conflicting emotions but purpose drove her on.

Time was running out.

 

 

‘Could you tell me if there is merchant travelling to the Elven lands east of here?’ Dothol looked down at the woman wearing patched men’s trousers and over tunic and fur vest tied with coloured cord cross-wise across her ample chest.

‘The mountain passes have closed for the winter, I doubt there’s anyone travelling over…’ Her calloused hands coiled a leather brace as she spoke in a raspy voice. ‘You could try Morcom. He sometimes does trade this side of the mountain passes.’ The merchant horseman pointed with the horse coiled leather clenched in her thick palm towards the square and to the right. ‘Was talking about going as far as the villages. Will be his last run ‘til spring thaw.’

‘Thank you.’ Lord Dothol smiled almost sincerely at the large grubby woman whose eyes travelled his length and had assessed him as she spoke. It was the best information he had so far. Sighing heavily, he lifted his chin and draped his cloak corner over his other shoulder and moved carefully around the horse dung littering this area of Loc Muinne’s market, ignoring the soft chuckle of the horse master and heading for the merchant called Morcom.

Passing a pastry maker, he ordered Cabble to buy one and waited until he bartered the price down satisfactorily. The man didn’t have the decency to wear clothes without holes in them. What was this place coming to? Ancient and renowned for its magic and history and filled with poor, flee-bitten tradesmen and women of little worth. Well, once he had the power, places such as these would once again be filled with elven royalty. Elven true bloods. He could invite the elders here as his guests. Even that sorceress Francesca Findabair, the so-called queen of Dol Blathanna…

Unwilling to wait for Cabble and the pastries, he headed towards the merchant’s stall. There were a couple of wagons being loaded by two young men. Not too grubby looking by all accounts and nearly loaded. The oxen already harnessed.

 

Morcom watched the arrival of the two wealthy men and the way they approached. There was a tall elegantly dressed man, aristocracy by his carriage. Tall and mage-like but no staff and another shorter man who cowered and glanced around them suspiciously. Both were robed so clergy of sorts… Were they looking for an escape or seeking something? Irrespective of who they were, like himself, they were looking to travel into the mountains.

Turning back to his wagons he hid the smile and refrained from rubbing his hands together at the possible profits he could gain from two men seemingly driven mid-winter into the mountains and wondered what tempted them there.

 

 

Sitting precariously on a branch too high to be safe she held her breath and got as close as her armour would allow behind the large trunk and waited. Her crossbow was cocked and ready to fire two bolts one after the other. Worn leather boots dug into the saturated bark and moss, moisture dripped through the leaves onto the hooded cloak over her armour as she crouched waiting. Mists swirled around the trunks of the trees below, shifting on an unseen breeze, adding an eerie anticipation to her controlled calm. Birds finished their morning chorus and began to disperse to find food as the shadows of the forest lightened slowly with the approaching dawn.

Light gold eyes went back to the trail far below. Soft sounds in the distance. Horse hooves on damp earth and forest litter. The occasional twig breaking or a squelch of mud.

Being hunted by the White Wolf was not what she had expected nor wanted but it seemed this witcher was no different to Raymon and his men. Norsom had warned her he was a liar and would take the coin and hunt her down like an animal. She remembered hearing the witcher’s betrayal herself at Flotsam. The gut turning surprise still sharp with the memory. His voice unmistakable.

So this was her last chance to lose him. One last trick in her book. If this didn’t work then she’d have to slow him down. Leather covered fingers felt the familiar crossbow’s curved weight and metal plate triggers.

The witcher proved to be a far superior hunter to Raymon and his men, outwitting her false trails and traps she had been setting since Flotsam to rid herself of her followers. Not only surviving but here, now.

 Kathryne had pushed herself to think of new ways to avoid him and leave him behind. Speeding her travels until her and her horse were exhausted wouldn’t have given her any advantage. The snow was thick and the weather dangerous. Then there was the fact, she had travelled with him at speed before. All it proved was that she had enough stamina to keep up with him. It had left her without any reserves, her body too lean.

This was her only option. Her eyes critically scanned her place of ambush for the last time and she felt her confidence return.

This place, where the mountains put down a shoulder of shear stone, meant the way forward was split in two. If she could get him to take the eastern route and she take the western, there would be no way for him to shortcut his way back to her. A habit he managed to successfully pull off several times already. That ability to catch up so quickly left her with barely enough time for short meditations. Certainly not enough time to make camp, cook a decent meal and sleep. Time was everything now and it was running out. Desperation had pushed her hand. She had no choice. If he didn’t take the bait she would slow him down another way. The crossbow would do that job nicely if she got a clear shot.

The problem with this situation was she didn’t want to provoke a fight with him. He did not deserve to die but injuring him? Sure, she could do that. He deserved it for what he did but it would still be better to see him off. The trouble was, he wasn’t Raymon or one of his mercenaries. No, he was intelligent so she couldn’t even be sure he’d take the bait. That left her whole plan revolving around her ability to remain invisible and using a small opportunity for a line of sight to wound him.

If his witcher senses were as keen as she suspected, she would need everything to go right for this to work. The odds were not good but she refused to think about facing him one on one. That was why she was hiding on a branch in freezing conditions, too many body lengths above the ground because to engage this witcher would be to invite death.

Yet it wasn’t death by a witcher’s blade that had her struggling to calm her breathing and slow her heart beat. It wasn't his superior swordsmanship and fighting skills. Nor was it his intelligence and superior witcher senses that were almost magical compared to her own. No, these weren't the reason for her heart beat refusing to calm, the nauseousness or sweaty palms. It was the man who was dangerous to her.

Defined by his actions both towards her and others, even the rumours were ground in truth. She had even witnessed sides to him that even now, she couldn’t help but admire. A male of worth with a body honed from decades of monster killing. A body she remembered vividly in all its scarred glory by fire light at Flotsam. He made her think things...

Swallowing, she pushed those treacherous memories away. Just the thought made her body heat. The Witcher was death and seduction in one lethal package. Yet instincts urged her to talk to him. Let him explain…

Shaking her head. It was completely irrational. He was a liar. Geralt, no, the White Wolf, was being paid to kill her.

Eyes on the approaching rider, Kathryne could pinpoint the double hilts on his back now and the dark leather strapping.

Slowly repositioning her feet, she readied herself to move across and up as soon as he passed so she would remain hidden and gain a line of sight. A move she had watched the elves execute with more practiced agility. Kathryne had taken care to lay the trap carefully using her horse to slow down at a position where the witcher would stop and hopefully dismount to look at the small stuffed bag she left as bait. A position that placed him in her sights. The trail headed east after that with tracks that would normally send a pursuer off at speed but if the witcher stopped she would use the opportunity to shoot him with a crossbow bolt. The key was to get him thinking she had already moved on so his thoughts would be elsewhere rather than in the trees around him. A distraction. Quietly and a little treacherously, she hoped he would treat the bag as if it was the discarded rubbish it was and keep moving. Save her having to shoot him... Hmm, not a good way to end any relationship really...

The witcher was slowing.

From her position, she watched him move closer but he remain on horseback. She waited, keeping her breath soft and shallow. Would he take the bait?

The way he came towards her at an angle and not along the set trail should have made her wary. The way he paused before changing his direction or pace, another warning and she ignored both. Mixed emotions dragged at her weary mind like the relentless cold on her body. The way he kept coming no matter what she did and knowing the witcher below her was more capable of killing her than anyone else she had ever encountered, had her focusing over the streamlined crossbow now drawn up, braced ready.

The witcher paused. Pulling up Roach and scouring the area, no doubt his witcher senses alert. Kathryne nearly gave in to the need to end this deadly game of cat and mouse but it wouldn’t be a clean shot nor accurate. Branches moved across her sightline so she waited.

Roach was urged forward again, moving closer to the bag on the ground. He dismounted and stood just there for a moment, then he reached for something…

Slowly exhaling, holding the trigger ready to release the bolt that would end this hunt once and for all, Kathryne felt dampness on her cheek. Her eyesight blurred and she dropped her trembling hand, releasing the trigger without firing it.

She couldn’t look at him. Weak, she was so weak.

Heart racing, she leant against the trunk of the tree and tried to keep her breathing smooth and silent letting the shudder flow through her. Remaining still until he remounted and passed beneath her, his broad back slowly moving off.

Legs trembling, relief flooded her for reasons she didn’t want to think on but she could not remain where she was. He was moving further east. That was something at least.

Time to move…

Letting the crossbow drop to her side she began the careful shift around the huge tree trunk. Confidence shaken and still trembling she was sliding around the back of the tree when her boots slipped on the moss covered branch. Hugging the tree trunk she got her foothold, her cheek scraped the winter bark and her heart raced fearful of being heard.

Silence.

Still hugging the rough bark, Kathryne held her breath knowing the witcher moving slowly away would hear a sniffle at 100 paces. Swallowing, Kathryne carefully began to move again unaware her crossbow was caught.

She had to move. It won't be long until the witcher saw through her trick and doubled back. If she could just stay out of his reach until Ciri turned up…

A soft creak she hardly noticed and the crossbow jerked hitting her in the hip sending the bolt skimming harmlessly through branches and brush, hitting the dirt well left of where the witcher had gone.

Sucking in a breath, eyes wide with surprise and horror, Kathryne struggled for a moment to rebalance herself, her neck craning around the broad trunk for the White Wolf but he was no longer where he should have been.

Melitele have mercy… So much for ambush and surprise... Escaping was all she had left now.

One bolt left. Two daggers and her swords. All of them she hoped to the Gods she would never have to use.

Kathryne searched the area below her looking for a sign of where the Witcher had gone while she quickly assessed her escape.

‘Why the change of heart Kat?’

The familiar deep and somewhat pissed off voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere.

‘Was the bolt poisoned as well?’

Poison? She hadn’t used poison since Raymon’s death

Looking for the source of the voice she could only see the open weave of branches. Her heart was racing and she struggled to maintain her breathing. A crossbow bolt hit the underside of the branch to her right shifting her thoughts to more urgent things like surviving. Kathryne checked the angle of the arrow placing the witcher away and to the east.

Shit. Now she was in serious trouble. Unwilling to take on the White Wolf until all other options were gone, Kathryne refused to think on it. The urge to run away was strong but where could she go? The time to talk to him was now but he was hardly in the right frame of mind so she stayed close to the trunk and held her ground and her tongue.

Silence. A wolf howled off in the distance. Poignant she thought, given the circumstances.

‘Was the poison Norsom’s idea or yours?’

What poison? He sounded closer… was trying to distract her. Move Kathryne, move! She knew she would die if she faced him one on one. Traitorous memories of wrestling together across her bed and then the floor… Stop it. It was all a lie. He is death, she reminded herself. Determined to live and fight pushing her on, her eyes glanced to the other branch where she was going to move. That plan was not a good one. Too open for too long but there was cover in the adjoining tree.

‘I’m thinking it was more Norsom. I expected the crossbow bolt… though maybe a little more on target.’ He teased, getting closer. ‘Losing your touch Kat?’

Okay, maybe not such a bad idea… if she moved now before he could see her and aim his crossbow… her eyes looked to the heavy twisted branch before her and she pushed off the tree trunk behind her and made a dash for it. If she went this way, she needed a way back to her horse but cover was more important right now.  Not daring to look below, she reached over grabbing a branch to steady herself, made the short leap to the adjoining tree and cursed silently as the tree shed the extra moisture from its leaves in a shower of heavy drops.

‘Come on Kat. Talk to me.’

He was close but still out of sight, somewhere behind the tree she had been in moments before. Moving carefully up and around the trunk so she was still hidden, checking her position, she made a run for the cover of another evergreen. Running precariously along the sweeping branch to the jump point. A jump she would never have normally risked. Her boots slipping on the narrow branch, her hands reaching out to grab the next. One gloved hand got contact, the other slipped. Losing momentum and her footing she swung precariously. Hanging for one heartbeat then another, feeling the rain softened bark and moss beneath her fingers relent. Gasping, her body falling, Kathryne watched the branches rising beneath her focusing on the one close enough to halt the fall. The backs of her legs hit the branch sending bark and moss dropping to the forest floor. Knees bending like a hook, allowing her body to swing down beneath it, her eyes trained on the next grab point. Ignorant of the soft noises of impact, Kathryne reached and twisted her body to its limits to remain in the tree branches and not dead, or worse, broken on the forest floor. Hanging awkwardly, she swung her legs upwards to hook her boot over the branch when a cracking sound sent crows flying and her heart racing. With an enormous effort she stretched out letting go of the branch now falling away, pushing every ounce of her strength towards another.

 

Geralt caught sight of Kathryne moving along the branch and felt his heart thud in his chest when she manoeuvred to the next tree. Damn she was high up. Too high. Clumsy by comparison to the elves but effective, he watched fascinated as she managed to clear the branch to the next tree, lose her hold and drop like an acrobatic performer to the branch below. The momentum carrying her body around the limb so she could grab another and slip away through the adjoining tree. A good plan until the branch broke. He found himself moving without thinking. She was still too high…

Geralt didn’t have time to consider why as he threw himself forwards, it was impossible not to.

‘Kat!’ He whispered as he launched himself towards her falling form.

 

Head still rattling, Kathryne struggled to breath, a sharp pain lancing her ribs, staring at Geralt as they rose from their entangled positions on the ground, slowly shaking off leaves and dirt to look at each other.

Was that concern in his gaze? Nope that was his grumpy face. So very familiar. Distracted by the welcome appearance of those handsome features she forgot to move.

As if stunned, they starred at each other. That wicked gleam hit his eyes and before his sexy smile had a chance to undermine her goals when Kathryne was pushing him away and reaching for her blade but Geralt wouldn’t have it, quickly shifting his weight and pinning her arm. The struggle coming to a sudden halt when her left hand pulled a dagger and sliced upwards in a lethal move that had him jerking away.

‘Shit, Kat are you mad?’ he quickly disarmed her locking her in place beneath him. Her laboured breathing making him frown.

‘No, I'm furious.’ She finally said on a painful breath. Her head was beginning to spin with lack of air.

‘Then we need to talk.’ Feeling her struggle, he leant down careful not to put pressure on her ribs and got her attention. His face close to hers, his tone deadly calm. ‘Why did you decide to poison me like that scum Raymon?’ His eyes stared into hers his features grim. Pale golden eyes filled with anger held his own but there was something else. That something made Geralt take notice. ‘What happened Kat?’ His voice became more coercive.

Emotions rising, threatening to undermine her anger, she began to fight in earnest again but her broken rib was playing havoc with her ability to breath the pain sharp enough to make spots appear in front of her eyes leaving her breathless.

‘You shot at me!’ Kat accused still trying to twist her wrists free of his hold.

‘Getting shot at can be very irritating, I agree.’ Geralt answered quietly.

‘That missed you by a league.’ She hissed.

‘What about all those other times?’ He teased, beginning to enjoy this.

‘What other times?’

‘Mugwood forest. I distinctly remember having to defend myself from more than one of your crossbow bolts.’

‘They were meant for Raymon.’ Sparks were firing now in her eyes.

‘Sure they were, that’s why I could deflect them with my sword.’ Brow rising, a smile crept onto his eyes. ‘Now talk.’

‘I don't have to tell you anything.’ She gasped angrily.

‘Don't do this Kat.’ He warned.

‘Or what? You'll kill me?’ Her snarky response got more than she bargained for.

Geralt went deadly still.

Chapter Text

‘Kill you? Why?’ His voice seemed to drop impossibly lower.

‘Why would anyone try and kill me?’ She threw back at him, struggling again, kicking her knee into his back and trying to lift her hip in an effort to unbalance his position over her. It was like trying to move a stone cottage. Her only success was turning that dangerously sexy focus into grumpy and snarly.

‘I said I'd help you…’

‘So much for honesty.’

‘What do you mean? Stop struggling and talk.’

Breathing shallowly, she glared at him.’ I told you. I heard you agree to kill me. Well, that was after you brought me before his lordship for Gods knew what end…’

‘So you overheard something.’

‘It only takes one change of heart.’

‘If I'd had a change of heart you'd be dead long ago.’

‘You wouldn’t have caught me if that branch hadn’t broken.’

‘Care to make a wager on that?’

‘I don’t take chances with liars.’

‘I have never lied to you.’

‘Sure, and unicorns live in the mountains.’

‘They do exist, just not in this world…’ Geralt muttered as one of Ciri’s many head spinning stories came to mind.

‘What?’

Geralt sighed as if suddenly tired. ‘It was the mage.’

‘Mage?’

‘The one from Rhinde. He had the Mayor’s household under a spell so when Dandelion and I arrived, we got caught in it too.’

‘Are you telling me you said those things under compulsion?’

‘Yes.’

Kathryne made a rather unfeminine sound. ‘I can almost see those unicorns.’ Her snarky comment succeeded in getting a rise from Geralt who pressed himself over her. A serious look that had his eyes digging into her own.

‘When Dothol offered me the same contract as he did in Novigrad, I refused. That was when he gave another order.’ Quiet fury rumbled through him. ‘Pavon held his blade against Dandelion’s throat. Norsom watched while they bled him until I agreed to their terms.’

Kathryne could feel Geralt’s fury and knew he was telling the truth but if Norsom was there... It all sounded so wrong in so many ways. Norsom didn’t work that way… did he? Her solid faith in her fellow witcher shuddered.

‘I never agreed to hunt you when Dothol asked me in Novigrad, I certainly wasn’t going to agree in Flotsam but I wasn’t about to stand by and watch them slice open my friends throat over a few words I had no intention of acting on.’ He straightened, watching her.

Kathryne opened her mouth to speak but Geralt continued.

‘Pavon died for what he did.’

Never having had a friend sacrifice so much for her, Kathryne felt envy for Dandelion. ‘Is Dandelion okay?’ She liked the bard and his nature of adding a flourish to everything in life. He was kind of sweet to her too.

‘We survived.’ He said.

Clenching her fist at his cold half answer she thought of Norsom. Feeling her friendship with her fellow witcher under fire she stated with utter belief. ‘Well Dandelion may have your loyalty but it doesn’t mean I have it.’

‘I promised to help you.’

‘Norsom said he was ordered to keep me safe. Yet you say these things… How am I supposed to know what to think? Who am I to believe?’

‘So, you throw away all I have done into doubt. You were there Kat.’

‘I have been used before.’ She shrugged, a self-conscious act rather than a cocky one.

‘Is that it?’ Geralt said with cold resignation. His position strong while he waited for her answer.

‘Norsom had no reason to lie to me.’

‘And I did?’

‘I haven’t known you for as long as Norsom…’ She felt unsure of her argument. Felt something shift between them, like the ice of a frozen river cracking, giving way. Suddenly unsure her loyalties weren’t misplaced again and angry that she may have made another mistake, Kathryne began to struggle in earnest. ‘Get off me.’

Releasing her, he rose with fluid grace while she struggled to roll to her feet, unable to stop a painful intake of breath.

‘You're injured.’ Geralt stepped forward.

‘It's nothing.’ Kathryne straightened, feeling the tightness and trying to breathe.

‘You have a potion? Herbs?’ Reaching out to her, Geralt closed the gap between them. ‘Let me have a look, you could have broken something…’

Slapping his gloved hand away, Kathryne suddenly felt overwhelmed by him. ‘I have my own herbs.’ Stepping away, not trusting herself to stand too close right now.

He makes you weak.

‘What I need to know is if you are telling the truth or not?’ Keeping a set distance between them she knew that if he decided to breach it with any force she’d have no chance. Her hand slid closer to the dagger sheath but realised the dagger was on the ground somewhere. A quick glance around showed the crossbow not so far away but the dagger remained missing.

Geralt remained quiet. The sounds of the forest and soft cold rain.

‘What you said about Norsom? He wasn’t like that.’ She said, lifting her chin.

‘Did you tell him to use poison?’

‘Poison? I haven't used poison since Raymon…’

‘Didn't think you had.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Norsom poisoned one of your more successful traps, that is, if it was one of yours.’

She remembered her conversations with Norsom. Always pushing her to kill Geralt… Kept trying to manipulate her to do things he wanted. Back at the witcher school, she used to always get into trouble for such things. Her lips lifted a little at the remembered antics of childhood realising it helped her to see the past more clearly. A realisation of truth. Yet she saw it for what it was this time, she challenged Norsom. Then he offered to help her with the traps…

‘Did you know he was in love with you?’

She shook her head. ‘No. I haven't seen him for years and then he just turned up…’

‘In Flotsam. I know.’

‘Of course you do.’

‘Zoltan was supposed to stay with you while Dandelion and I went to the Mayor.’

‘I wasn’t very good company.’

‘So he said but he wasn’t expecting laughter and heavy drinking either. Waiting is usually harder.’

‘That’s what he said too.’ She frowned, crossed her arms over her ribs then let them fall by her side when it was too uncomfortable. ‘But the dwarf still went running to you…’

‘My friend came to find us. He saved us from being hung as traitors.’

‘That was lucky.’

‘That’s what friends do.’

She shrugged in that careless manner she had. Her eyes scanning the ground in a way that had Geralt wondering what she was planning.

‘So, you spoke to Norsom.’

Geralt watched her body tense. ‘I did.’

‘Did you kill him?’ Her tone accusatory.

‘No, Pavon did with a poisoned bolt. I think he was aiming for me. Got Norsom instead.’

‘So, you left him behind to die a slow death?’

‘He nearly kill me. I would have killed him for that reason alone but a mage helped him escape.’

‘He’s safe then.’ Her statement held relief but a frown of worry creased her grubby brow.

‘He was working for Dothol and Pavon.’ Geralt added with irritation at her inability to see such an obvious act of disloyalty. ‘They both wanted you dead and would have succeeded if I hadn’t…’

‘If you hadn’t what? Saved me?’ She turned to him incredulous. ‘I’m a witcher too White Wolf. I may not have the years under my belt,’ Her eyes drifted over him from head to toe and back. ‘But I’ll get there…’ Seeing his lips thin and his features cool gave her both a sense of satisfaction and worry when he stepped closer.

‘Norsom rode in with Pavon and his gang of cut throats back in Novigrad. He would have been selected because you thought he was safe.’

The logic and certainty in his words were as clear as a mountain lake. Thoughts sifting through her memories, Kat tried to corroborate what she knew with what he was saying.

‘He’s a witcher from the school. He wouldn't do me harm… I trust him.’ She met his stare and saw his features go cold.

‘How can you trust a witcher who is working for the man who wants you dead?’

‘I told you.’

‘Yeh, you told me my word is as valuable as, well… You’ve made yourself clear.’ Then he asked in a quiet voice that offered nothing more than resigned finality. ‘Do you want my help or don't you?’

‘What are you saying?’ Cold shivered down her spine.

‘Answer the question Kathryne and free me of an obligation I wish now I never had.’ His voice had dropped to a soft tone that spoke of a deep regret and more.

The disappointment stung but the use of her proper name to put distance between them, a chasm she never wanted, hurt more than she wanted to admit. ‘Geralt? I…’

‘Just say it and I will go.’

Silently he stood there, the sentinel ready to leave. Tall, strong, proud, stubborn.

Kathryne struggled to understand what was happening. She was expecting to fight him and sort out their differences, yet here he stood offering her the freedom that she needed and the very thought of it was unbearable. Sure, it may not have felt that way when she was running from him but there was a part of her that knew he was not out to hurt her. Now that part of her screamed a warning. Kathryne suddenly felt worried. He wouldn’t leave, would he?

His posture was controlled, his features cold. Her thoughts raced. She had to fix this…

‘I hadn't seen Norsom since I was new to Court. He said the King just wanted me to succeed. Said he’d help me… that he knew things…’ Realising she had admitted to trading Geralt’s favour and trust for Norsom’s manipulations, her lips tightened and she clenched her teeth together until pain shot through her mud covered jaw.

‘Let me guess. He could tell you where Pavon and his men were, how many and how far away? Said I was hunting you… and you believed him.’

Geralt’s eyes shifted from cold to pity but her heart hardened, pride coming to her rescue. Kathryne just needed him to understand. He was supposed to be a fair man…

‘There was no reason why I should distrust him.’

‘It would not have been hard to persuade you when you had no allegiances to start with.

Feeling the scorn in his words, she clenched her fists. He stood before her, waiting for her to release him from his promise. Eyes cold and somehow changed. That in itself helped her to make a decision that was no longer difficult.

‘I free you of any obligation Geralt of Rivia.’ Kathryne said in a firm voice that sent an ache through her heart and her head pounded.

‘Goodbye Kathryne Du Fonten. Good fortune follow you.’ His eyes met hers, dropped to her lips for a heart stopping moment then he turned on his heels and stalked away.

 

Don't go! Her heart cried feeling pain in her chest like no other. Trembling from the physical exertion of doing battle with the White Wolf she realised now that if he had wanted to kill her he would have done so with such efficiency she would not have seen him coming. He had followed her and faced her and she had wrestled with him until the truth had come out. Well most of it… She should have realised he never wanted to hurt her even after she had insulted him. Told him she didn’t trust him while realising he was the only solid, predictable element in her life right now. In return she had hurt herself.

Gods but she was a fool.

She had been manipulated by Norsom and she had fallen for his plan. Now she had thrown her trust in Geralt away. Worse, it was in preference to Norsom. Someone working with Dothol. Everything Geralt said made sense yet it was still one witcher’s word against the other.

Something bitter and angry fought to rise up through the murky dullness of her heart’s pain and failure. Kathryne was no victim and she wasn’t one now. Nor was Geralt completely faultless. Sure, he may have been coerced into saying what he did at Flotsam but it didn’t mean it hadn’t hurt her, shattered her belief in him. What else could she have done? Hearing his voice speak such things was like a dagger turning in her gut. And what did he mean by saying that about Norsom? He was no follower of Melitele but he had been a friend… of sorts.

Pain shifted, changing into a driving force of righteous anger. How dare Geralt get angry with her…

Her thoughts had her pacing after him, boots picking up speed. The discarded crossbow was scooped up and in her hand before she knew what she planned, she fired it.

The thud of the bolt hitting the tree halted the witcher mid step. If that wasn't enough the woman stalking him, anger resonating through the forest, did.

‘We’re not finished. You accuse me of not having any loyalties when you yourself spoke those words back in Flotsam. Not me. So what in Melitele’s name was I supposed to think?…’ 

She stormed towards him angry, frustrated and yes, a little guilty that her sense of trust was skewed but she couldn't allow him to walk away. Not now. Not this man. Not because his ego had been bruised. No, he needed to know what he said in Flotsam when he agreed to kill her with such gory detail, was enough for her to lose faith in Melitele herself. If they meant anything to each other then he should recognise fault too instead of letting her carry the blame and walk away.

That tall armoured body froze. Tension in his shoulders. Weighing the decision to let it go and keep walking or not. Recognising the real threat he could be but not caring, Kat threw her growing hurt into the burning fire of her anger.

Tossing her weapon down onto the damp forest floor she threw at him bitterly, ‘I thought you were a man of morals. Someone I could trust... until the Mayor’s house in Flotsam. Turns out you never consider your own actions when you break your word.’ It came out fierce to start with then her voice died away on a gasp, emotions rising with her anger and choking in her throat. Norsom’s words burning in her mind.

Weakness. He makes you weak. Shaking her head to push away the toxic words she never saw him coming.

Using a swiftness and lethal power that had her back slammed up against the same tree trunk where the bolt still vibrated, his cat eyes glaring down at her with predatory intent. His hands pinning her upper arms. She met his angry cold stare with one of her own still striving to breathe.

‘When did I ever break my word to you?’ When she said nothing he pushed. ‘When Kathryne?’

For the life of her she suddenly couldn't think. His mouth was a grim line but his eyes were no longer cold. In all the time they'd known each other only that one time did she feel he had betrayed her. Then coloured by everything Norsom had said, once had been enough. It was the reason she was now pinned to a tree by the White Wolf.

Body tense her jaw clenching in anger. ‘When you were making your deal with Dothol at Flotsam.’ His face remained cold as he waited for her to explain. ‘If you were me, what in Melitele’s name would you have thought? Would you have just gone about doing things as planned or would you have cut and run?’

Was that worry she saw? Well it was not enough. ‘If it was a compulsion you may not remember but you practically said you'd bag me for Dothol’s men to torture…put my head on a silver platter…’

Unable to recall exactly what he'd said he pressed again. ‘I told you, I never would have acted on it.’

‘That’s not what it sounded like from outside the window.’

As if remembering something, Geralt’s features shifted. ‘Let's say you're right then why would I go to the trouble to protect you. Kill Pavon and his men? All of them wanted you and the icon.’

‘Not willing to share the profits?’ She said knowing it was hurtful but it was the logical argument. Slowly straightening to his full height, eyes narrow, Geralt backed off his hold. She felt her armour clear the tree.

‘If you don’t believe me Kat then why are we having this conversation? Who is it you trust or don’t you know? You say you trust Norsom? A witcher from your home lands. A place you yourself said, taught you that being a witcher meant you stood alone. No one helped each other, no one stood by each other unless there was coin in it.’

The use of her shortened name left her wanting to throw her arms around the stubborn man with relief. ‘I know what I said.’ She dismissed grumpily not wanting to debate school morals but to make him understand. ‘Norsom was …different.’

‘Was he?’ Geralt pulled out a small carved totem the size of a small gaming piece. It trembled in his gloved hand. She felt the hum of magic in her own medallion. ‘You recognise this?’

Her eyes fell on the totem and she was thrown back years to the witcher school in Askarloine. She'd found one like this in her satchel. Thought it pretty. The design elven is in its flowing curves. Assumed someone had planted one of the Master's chess pieces on her to play a nasty trick and so she hid it somewhere no one else knew about… 

Geralt's voice interrupted her thoughts. ‘It is magically tuned to another so whenever they are near each other, it vibrates. Similar to our medallions.’

‘So what?’ She tried to dismiss it but couldn’t shake the feeling of awakening. Intelligent, predatory eyes watched her carefully.

‘This was in Norsom's saddlebag. Pavon had a few too. I saw him use one to call a mage. Pavon’s men had them as well but they were different to this one. I nearly burnt it like the others, but…’ a pause that had her eyes lifting to meet his. ‘…it found you.’

‘Found me? What do you mean?’ Wariness at his words and the feeling she didn’t want to know what he was about to say, written clearly on her features.

‘It’s magically bound to something you carry.’ He watched her struggle with the knowledge. It clearly meant more than he realised. ‘So your friend Norsom was looking out for you?’ Openly questioning her belief.

She took the totem he held out to her. Her fingers taking the warm stone piece. Mind reeling from what he had unwittingly exposed from her past. The ramifications of what he said. A hundred puzzles fell into place… Always beating Norsom in the hunting games until one day, he found her hideaway, the same place she had hid a piece just like this one. Another time she found someone going through her things so she started to wear it under her armour on a leather chord. After that, Norsom always seemed to find her. His tracking skills had never been good but he always found her. The only one who could… she just presumed... Had he used that little trick at the school? Dread filled her as she remembered her mage trainer and Norsom on good terms. It wasn't just the boys who had given her a hard time when she sought solace from their cruelty. Word always got back to her trainer too.

Bad memories. All. Bile rose in her throat making her swallow.

Her hand drifted to where the totem remained in a pouch on her hip. One last feeble sense of denial hanging on by a thread needed absolution, her anger a sharp blade spoken in cool tones. ‘It could have been you.’

‘I don't need such trinkets to find who I'm searching for nor do I have access to the mage. The same mage that nearly killed us at Rinde.’ Geralt watched the struggle she was having. Her features tight, a frown marring her forehead. Eyes narrow. ‘It did make it a little easier to find you after heavy snow fall.’ His voice losing some of its freezing edge.

Her head with it’s roughly cut, short hair, nodded slightly. ‘You mentioned he was wounded with poison?’

‘Yeh, Hodonwood. The same poison on the trap that caught me...’

‘What trap?’ Dread took a front row seat in her gut.

‘I took one of your side tracks to a glade high on a hill overlooking joining streams. I saw his footprint so I was distracted…’

Kat listened quietly, knowing she'd never wanted to kill him but the need to preserve her memory of Norsom, as someone she could trust even posthumously, was like clinging to ice disintegrating in a spring river. A river gaining strength and was as indelible as the man standing before her.

His eyes altered a fraction. Understanding shifting over them. His voice growing deeper.

‘You didn’t know, did you Kat?’

That deep sound had her body responding with unnerving predictability. Thankful for her armour and the cold, her cheeks were already pink but she didn't answer. Instead throwing another insult as a shield to protect herself from the feelings he brought forth from her.

‘You say you were poisoned but that can’t be …’

Geralt was unbuckling his swords and stabbing them into the snow, continuing to unbuckle his armour, all the while, watching her face.

‘…true. If he used Hodonwood you would have…’

His leather covered fingers carefully lifted the chest armour over his shoulders, eyes leaving hers to glance at the torn padded jerkin at his shoulder. Kathryne saw the heavily blood stained damage to his padded sleeve and the raw red flesh beneath it still trying to heal and scar. Powdered herb stained the flesh, congealed blood and puss filled, it had the appearance of a much smaller wound would have.

‘died…’ Her voice was a whisper.

The only survivors she had ever seen or heard of were rare and had much smaller wounds. Anything this big should have killed him. ‘Sweet Melitele.’ Her fingers gently peeled the cut fabric away, bloody and still dangerously smelling of the lethal herb. She swallowed, her throat dry. Conflict filling her thoughts. Nauseous, Kat's world shifted again. Gods, it should have killed him… her eyes were drawn to his, as realisation hit her with force like a kick in the gut.

Memories of her short meetings with Norsom, his insistence that she do things his way that just irritated her. That last time he had wanted to help her with the traps, she had lingered to watch Geralt… Anger filled her now as her fingers dug through her satchel. Norsom had done this and she had let him.

‘I have something that will help.’ Put it right. Geralt could die… but he hadn't. Her thoughts ran in circles as she dealt with these new revelations and the importance of what had occurred. As it sank in, she found her hands gripping a small pouch, halted by one of his own. Looking at the gloved hand holding hers she looked up at the man standing close enough the cold air misted the breath that touched her cheek.

‘I never betrayed you Kat.’ Silence surrounded them.

Her fingers gently touched his lips. ‘I believe you.’ But her feelings stung. Stung from their previous argument and her sense of pride and worth clashed with everything she now knew. She needed time to think. Put her world back into some sort of understandable order. She felt… overwhelmed, like a pottery jar with so many cracks, one knock would have it breaking apart.

‘Kat?’

That sound triggered all sorts of good things but her mind was elsewhere.

‘I didn't know...’ she murmured. ‘I had no idea that he…’ Her eyes focused inward until he said her name again, deeper and filled with want.

‘Kat.’ Gloved fingers, cool and damp, gently cradled her cheek, another slid around her nape, tangling her short hair and tilting her head as his mouth took hers with a demanding possessiveness. Feeding the growing burn of a need both of them had held under tight control since Flotsam.

A soft groan and he released her reluctantly. Letting her breath. Giving her the chance to say no but as she watched those keen intelligent eyes take in everything about her, she didn't need to think. Then their lips couldn't seem to stop the crushing need for one another.

When finally they took a moment to breathe, Kat smiled a little. Her hands slid around his worn padded jacket, her gloved palm coming to rest on his chest beside his pendant. The familiar smell of his armour oil making her sigh but there was little time to indulge in each other and they both knew it.

‘Could have taken more than the armour off…’ She teased as she tried to step to his side but he wouldn’t have it.

‘Poisoning wasn't enough, you want me to freeze as well…’ He responded playfully.

Lifting her chin so he could nuzzle her neck she cursed the circumstances and lifted her eyes skyward. They were beneath a growing snowstorm. It didn't seem to be bothering Geralt who's lips travelled back along her jawline to nip at her bottom lip. His hands had moved. One behind her nape the other running down her body to pull her hips closer.

‘We need some shelter and you need a decent meal.’ He growled between soft bites and lingering kisses.

‘You sayin’ I can’t take care of myself?’ The argument wasn’t nearly strong enough her soft groan and uneven breathing all she could hear in the forest.

‘I wouldn’t dare. You didn’t get the chance to create any reserves back at Flotsam and you've been on the run for how long now?’

‘You nearly died of Hodonwood poison.’ She countered turning her face to his with a meaningful look he accepted with all seriousness. The thought of losing him made her nauseous. His reply a grunt and a hand sliding around her waist and down to her bottom.

‘I pushed you too hard…’

She shrugged that way she did making his stern features shift into a smile.

‘Come on. You can explain to me why you cut your hair.’ Geralt finally pulled away enough for her to breathe again, hand on her lower back he whistled for Roach. Kat whistled to Chessy and within a few moments interspersed with more knee weakening caresses, the horses appeared. His look of surprise worth every winterberry thorn.

Snow was falling in the valley around them now.

‘There should be ruins down that way…’

‘Then let’s go.’