It wasn't any of his business, and - more importantly - he was already really fucking busy. Following the sound would take him off the path (and off the Path) and delay his return to the village that had promised him thirty crowns for a nesting cockatrice despite the fact that they plainly didn't have two copper bits to rub together. Which, fuck, was enough of a problem on its own, but it wasn't like he could just leave the bird-brained shithead wandering around so close to the main road. Besides - if he smiled all nice-like, with his teeth kept carefully behind his lips, they might be willing to give him a room and food for the night; which, this far out from the city, was probably more useful than cold hard coin anyway.
Wouldn't do much in the way of paying to repair his armour when he did finally reach the city, of course, but that was a problem for later. Right now, the constant twist of hunger high in his gut was a much more pressing concern.
All of which came together to tell him that it was a godsdamn stupid fucking idea to wander off into the woods in search of a cry that was only maybe human. He was a witcher, for the love of all things good and flammable. Not a - a - shit, a knight in shining monster-hide or whatever it was that Geralt liked to play at being. His brother may have been a noble fucking bleeding heart, but Lambert knew better than that. It wasn't how the world worked, and more to the point, it wasn't how the world saw witchers.
And yet - and yet - he found himself stepping off the road, the only sound to prove he was there the constant stream of furious muttering beneath his breath. Not even the leaves whispered of his passing, just like he'd been taught.
'Course, Rennes had also taught them not to flap their mouths while they were hunting, but he was a crusty old fuck that had spent more time barricaded behind the walls of the school than Lambert had spent alive, so what would he know about it? He probably didn't even remember what it was like to breathe air that wasn't thinned by the altitude, never mind air that was thick with the stench of prey.
Lambert grumbled a little more, but nevertheless tilted his head back to taste the wind, and caught the metal of blood on the back of his tongue. His face scrunched up, tugging uncomfortably at the new-healed scar by his eye - human blood, and fresh. Really fresh - hadn't even had time to reach the cloying stage of unpleasantness.
Despite himself, Lambert moved a little faster.
He heard her before he saw her, but not by much. It was hard to smell anything of her over the blood, and he hung back for a few seconds as he approached, so he couldn't see her all that well without risking her seeing him too, but he could hear her. A human would say that she cried silently, but humans said a lot of absolute bullshit, and Lambert could hear the telltale hitching of her breath and the wild beat of her heart.
More than that, though, he could hear the wet sucking of skin and muscle as she drove the little blade in her hand deep into a man's chest, over and over.
Lambert squinted a bit, and moved a step closer, and although there was absolutely no fucking way she could have heard him, her head snapped up and she froze.
And - shit, he didn't know what to fucking say to her. He wasn't soft around the edges and sickeningly sweet like Eskel, and he didn't have centuries of experience like their teachers. He wasn't… well, Geralt was probably the only person he could think of that would fare worse than him in a situation like this, but that was mostly because Geralt tended to scare people off just by existing too close to them, and Lambert couldn't exactly blame him for that.
There was blood on her face, but Lambert figured that likely wasn't a good opener.
"Far be it for me to tell you how to live your life, but if you aim up a bit, you can probably get his carotid," he said, which maybe wasn't any better, but did at least make her glance away from him, back at the weakly twitching heap of flesh beneath her. "Assuming you're aiming to kill him, I mean. That is what you're trying for, right? Else, shit, you've got a situation here."
The kid gritted her teeth, and it was obvious even from where he stood that her hands were shaking - her grip slipped on the knife. It was lucky that the man beneath her wasn't going to be getting up any time soon. Lambert would have had his ears boxed before being sent out to scrub the stables in the freezing snow if he'd made a mistake like that at her age.
Then again, at her age he'd been halfway through the Trials, and had spent the past eight-odd years training not to let his grip on a weapon slip, no matter the circumstances, so the two situations probably weren't comparable in the first place.
"He was going to kill me," the girl said, still staring down at the man. Lambert's lip curled.
"Did I ask?"
"He deserves to die," she said, and it sounded like she was trying to convince herself as much as she was Lambert, which was a sad fucking thought all round, really.
"Kid, please, tell me what it is I'm doing that makes you think I give a shit what you do to him, so I can stop doing it."
The bloody fucker on the ground moaned weakly and twitched. Lambert hardly spared him a glance, but it was enough to remind the girl of her task.
"Aim for the squishy bits," Lambert helpfully reminded her as she swung the knife again. It wasn't much of a weapon - much better suited to the fine dinner table she'd probably stolen it from - but it did the job well enough. He heard it when the man's heart finally gave out, although it took a few more slices before the girl was satisfied she'd killed him enough.
From the fear in her scent, strong enough now to catch over the gore and new-death smell, it didn’t come as much of a surprise when she turned the knife in his direction. She held it now in both hands to try to keep it steady, and despite himself Lambert was actually a little impressed. It took guts to stare a witcher down with a blade shorter than his dick.
Stupid as all shit, but still. Guts.
“Don’t come any closer,” she said, and her voice was level, her lips peeled back in a snarl that would have made any Wolf proud. Lambert shrugged and held up his hands as best he could when one still clutched the cockatrice head. Her eyes flicked briefly to it, and the blood drained from her face. Which, cock it. Of course she’d be more scared of the witcher than she was of the man that had apparently been trying to kill her. Naturally. For half a second, Lambert fought to keep his thoughts showing on his face, before deciding fuck it, and scowling at her. What the fuck ever. None of this shit was his business - should’ve known better than to bother.
“Who hired you?” She could hardly drag her eyes from the two swords on his back, and the next breath she drew in shook. Lambert frowned a little, and looked down at the cockatrice head. He was still tacky with its blood up to his elbows.
“Krosno,” he said. “Don’t know the alderman’s name. Don’t care.”
She mouthed Krosno to herself, brows drawn tight over wary eyes. Confusion passed across her face, there and gone before her expression hardened again.
“What did they pay you?” She asked. He snorted.
“Not enough, but that’s life, right? Thirty crowns for a fucking cockatrice, shoulda turned around and walked right off.”
“For a,” she swallowed, looked down, looked back up and met his eyes dead on. Lambert did her the courtesy of widening his pupils until they looked almost round and human. Her heart trilled beneath her ribs like a trapped bird, but her fear now was muddied by something else, something a little less sharp. “For a cockatrice? You’re not here for me?”
Lambert frowned, and pointedly waved the head in her direction.
“Ain’t everything about you, kid,” he said. “Heard you screaming, that’s all. Thought there might have been something else that needed killing, but you beat me to it I guess.”
Slowly - so slowly that at first he thought her arms must’ve just been getting tired - she lowered the knife. She stood, and Lambert had to bite back a grin when he realised she didn’t even stand as high as his shoulder. Shit, it wasn’t like he thought height had much to do with how well someone could stab a guy - how could he, after meeting that cocky little Cat a few months back? - but something about the sight of her still struck him. Her shirt was too big, her skirts too small, and her shoes looked like they were being held together with string and prayers.
“You’re a witcher,” she said, and he grimaced.
“You hunt monsters.”
“I’m also a damn fine dancer, but no one ever seems to mention that.”
“I’ve got a monster for you to hunt.” There was no inflection to the words, but Lambert could feel the simmering anger beneath them. It hit him like a wave - like aard - but all he could do was rub his aching head. Fuck’s sake, he didn’t have time for another damn charity case, and she clearly didn’t have a single coin to her name.
“Yeah? Got anything to pay with?”
She blinked, and shuddered once. Her lips pressed together, and the spike of fear was unexpected enough that he almost gagged on it. One hand twisted in her skirt as she took a gasping breath.
“I can - I’ll pay you.”
It wasn’t until she glanced up at him from beneath her lashes that he realised what she was implying - what she thought it was he wanted. Before he could rein it back, a snarl slipped free from his lips; she twitched, but didn’t try to run, didn’t try to aim the knife at him again. Which she fucking should have if that was what she thought of him.
Was this how she’d been surviving until now? Was this why the man cooling behind her had wanted her dead? By all the gods, every time he thought his estimation of humanity had fallen as far as it possibly could, they somehow found a way to make things worse.
“Not like that you won’t,” he said, voice still rough and far too harsh.
He didn’t have time for this, and it wasn’t any of his fucking business, and why hadn’t he left yet?
“What kind of monster?” He asked anyway, because fuck his entire Melitele-damned life. Knight in shining monster-hide it was, apparently. Geralt would be so pissing proud of him, which was probably the worst thing about today. And Eskel would murder him dead if he left her, or worse; he’d look so damn disappointed that Lambert would have to murder him dead, and then his goat would look all sad, and Lambert would have to murder her dead too, and it was going to be a lot less effort and murder all round if he just killed this monster for her. His effort and murder was money, after all.
Economics in action, or something.
She bared her teeth.
“A sorcerer. He wants me dead; says I’m cursed. A mutant,” she said, and Lambert raised an eyebrow. She smelled human enough to him, and he was something of an expert when it came to mutants.
“Yeah? Don’t want to kill him yourself, then? Looks like you’ve had enough practice, now.”
The girl scowled.
“I want him dead,” she said, which was admirably pragmatic of her. Realistic, too - he doubted there was much she could do to hurt a sorcerer with that little stick of hers.
Lambert was a witcher - he killed monsters, and he took coin, and he didn’t stick his nose into human business, because that was a quick and easy way to get it broken. Or cut off. Or full of the stench of bullshit. He didn’t get wrapped up in a lost girl’s sob story, didn’t take pity on humans that couldn’t afford to pay him, didn’t do favours, didn’t -
“Well, we’re not gonna find him out here. C’mon. Town’s this way - still need to get my thirty crowns -” or meal and room, but a witcher could hope “- and figure out where I’m gonna go next. You have that long to tell me about this sorcerer you want killed. No promises, but… I’ll hear you out.” He wasn’t a Cat, after all, or Melitele forbid, a Viper. He still had some honour to cling to.
With a wary look, she tucked the knife into her belt and rummaged quickly through the man’s bags, producing little more than a waterskin, a few parcels of food, and another, significantly sharper knife that joined the first at her waist. Lambert rolled his eyes, and pointedly turned his back on her to walk away.
“Got a name, kid?” He asked over his shoulder, swinging the cockatrice head jauntily as he walked.
She hesitated, and even before she spoke, Lambert knew she was going to lie.
“Shrike,” she said, and well, she could’ve picked something worse, he supposed. It almost suited her, from the uneven tufts of brown hair hacked short to the darting way she moved behind him.
“Alright then, Shrike,” he said, and waved a bloody hand. “Tell me about this monster of yours.”