That Which Remains

I. CROW’S PERCH

It was bad business, Velen. You didn’t have to be learned to know that much. But there Ciri’s trail began, and so to Velen did Geralt of Rivia go.

His welcome to Crow’s Perch had come in the form of a point-blank crossbow bolt. It struck his arm and had it gone an inch to the left may well have shattered the bone. As welcomes went, it was not the worst he’d ever had. He knocked out the man who’d fired on him with a blow to the temple, only to find the baron’s gate closed to him anyway. His reputation had preceded him.

Scarcely a week had passed. A new grave occupied space in Crow’s Perch, and the ashes of a pyre lay forgotten outside its walls. And a part of Geralt had not much wanted to return ever again after the events at Crookback Bog, but—well—he had a cockatrice head to turn in anyway.

Dea first, then. No one paid attention to Geralt picking his way through the yard, to the small grave marked only with wood and shale. A hearth spirit seldom had anything to offer to someone who was not of the house, and he suspected he had already used his favor with the once-botchling up, but he gave her the due respects anyway. A single blue violet, pulled from his alchemy supplies: that would do. There would be no one else to do it now, he thought distantly, and wondered if he would be the last.

It was pissing down rain by the time he found the baron’s remains, and “remains” itself was a generous word. Phillip Strenger was a pile of sodden ash and singed bone. Only his feet remained, too far from the rest of the fatty tissue to properly burn. A pyre, by Geralt’s measure, seemed unnecessary. Perhaps his men had feared he would rise as a wraith; perhaps they simply hadn’t wanted any part of his body to stay on the property. Perhaps it was spite. Either way, Geralt supposed, it didn’t matter now.

The Bloody Baron got no violet, no token of peace. Much had the witcher seen in his time; common wisdom stated he should have had it easier in understanding, processing, the whole of the Strengers’ tale, winding and gray as it was. As the rain pushed ash and slivers of unburned red thread to disappear down into the mud, Geralt found he had nothing to say to the man.

A croaking sound disturbed his contemplation. Looking east, he found a black bird perched below the eaves of a shrine he had not noticed before.


II. OXENFURT

Cities were an uncomfortable thing. Geralt had once heard them likened to monsters themselves, bigger and more unpredictable than any dragon. He was inclined to agree with that analysis. Better to be six hours deep following a trail in the wilderness than half an hour mired in the tepid waters of society, in his mind.

At present he was poking around Oxenfurt, which at least was not the titan that Novigrad was. It was still full of peddlers and prostitutes, though, each barking at him as he tried to make his way to the “impromptu morgue,” as the Redanian officer had called it. Another day and another contract, but the instructions to get there had been rather shit, and he found himself lost. That was another thing he didn’t care for, about cities: too easy to get turned around.

Not lost for too long, at least. Hard to manage that as a witcher. But it was a certain house at the end of a certain street that reoriented him, and he gave it only a frown before passing it by to reach the waterway again.

What had become of Tamara, he wondered. Orphaned, though perhaps better now for it. And a witch hunter now—like as not they could cross paths again one day, if he lingered in Velen much longer. Or perhaps she’d put down the sword, do something else with her life. She’d been good with a blade, though. Hopefully that skill would not lead to the end of her.

I never laid a finger on Tamara, the baron had bellowed, as if the act of not beating a little girl was commendable. Always the child that suffers, Geralt thought to himself. Ciri’s face flashed through his mind, and he nearly tripped on a flowerpot.


III. DOWNWARREN

It was hardly a great loss, in the scheme of things. Three, four tattered buildings, each sagging worst than the last. A handful of hovels squatting on the edge of the bog.

No great loss at all.

Geralt found himself chewing his lip as he cut down the bloated corpse of a man he’d found hanging from a ceiling beam. The one-eared ealdorman had vanished, which seemed for the best. That left no one to tend to the bodies but necrophages and witchers, and Geralt had bombed all the nearby ghoul nests already. Leaving the corpses to become food or vengeful spirits did not sit with him.

Madness, said the ealdorman. Geralt turned this over in his mind as he dragged the body to the others, making a point of not stepping on the unshod hoofprints in the mud. In another hut he had found a woman lying dead with blood on her face, coating her mouth and jaw and teeth. That same woman, nursing an infant, had given him a weary smile as he last passed through. Geralt had looked, but he did not find the babe. Whether that was better or worse he could not decide.

When each body in the village had been gathered together, Geralt struck the pile with igni and stood back. It had rained the night before, soaking through clothes and hair: the witcher would have to ignite the mass pyre twice more before the flame would fully take.

One small village, full of men and women he did not know, for a handful of orphans that had harried him into playing hide and seek.

It was not for one man to determine the worth of a life, that much Geralt would believe. It was not for him to say whether the deaths of Downwarren had been a worthy price to pay in exchange for the lives of the children. But he could say this much, he thought, watching a tattered black bird peck at something in the water that had gathered in one of the hoofprints: freeing the druid’s spirit was a choice that should not have been left to a stranger.


IV. ANCIENT OAK

Only once had Geralt seen a tree equal to the oak that stood south and east of Downwarren. It had been a yew tree, said to be inhabited by a duchess of the dryads, far to the west. A yew seemed a funny choice for a dryad, in his professional opinion. Ash trees, poplars, apple, all those fit the profile for a dryad’s tree, but a yew? They were too toxic to be of much appeal, as he was aware. But no one had been paying him for his opinion, so he kept it to himself.

The yew in question had been known as the Lady in Green, and it had stood in a valley. A circle had been cleared around it and lined with river rocks. Clumps of flowers covered the ground, and a small altar heavy with offerings squatted beside the huge trunk. Something had been stealing the offerings and leaving garbage behind: eggshells, stale crusts, dog shit. They had not needed a witcher, for it was only some village boys making the swaps. But Geralt had stayed with the tree a while. Inhabited or not, it made for a fine place to spend the evening.

The Lady had not been the subject of bloody rituals, of sacrifices to the old gods. As Roach trotted southbound later that day, the path took them past the hillock, and—perhaps it was a trick of the mind—but Geralt would swear he still could hear the heavy heartbeat of the trapped spirit.

Foolish, of course. He had investigated the caverns beneath the tree already. Nothing but endrega, filling the void the druid had left, and a dried bloodstain amid hoofprints. Whatever the spirit had been, it had not returned to its prison. Why would it?

The ghostly heartbeat lingered long in his ears after Roach had carried him past the hill. Only the rumble of a distant thunderstorm rid him of it.


V. CROOKBACK BOG

The swamp was quiet. This, perhaps, was the worst part. Not even the gurgling of drowners broke the silence.

It was easy enough to find the village. The “trail of treats” remained, brightly-colored and maggot-infested, and there was only one path into the bog anyway. Three buildings, then, sitting cold and empty. Geralt had searched them all already, unsure of what he was looking for. Whatever it was, he did not find it. It was a curious thing: smoke still trailed from each chimney, but he could not divine from where it actually came. The hearths were all unlit.

A bevy of ravens, picking through the rotting fence posts for insects, broke apart after he stepped from the crones’ old lair. They exploded into the air with scolding croaks. Geralt stopped to watch them vanish into the setting sun, the last fire left that he could find. He had extinguished every candle in the house behind him. He stared after them until even his eyes could not bear the brightness.

When he opened them again, she was there. At first she was two cinders blazing in the closing dark, livid red, unnatural trails following the movement of each as his eyes adjusted. Then she was made solid, tar-black: a void in the blue of the evening. She was sharper than he remembered. Bones like spikes pressed against her skin. She stamped a hoof, and laughed.

“Enjoying yourself?”

Immensely, whispered the mare, the spirit, the thing he had unleashed. I am free. I am again the true lady of this land.

“Look a lot like a horse to me,” Geralt said, folding his arms over his chest. The horse tossed her head as she pranced to one side of him. “You kept your word. I met them in a school in Novigrad. Awful curious to know how you got all of them there so fast.”

No liar am I. My intentions, pure. Long and happily shall the children live, safe from evil clutches.

“In that city? Hmn. Guess we’ll see. And you? What have you been up to since then?”

The mare laughed again, dry leaves rattling against dead wood, an unnatural voice scraping through a throat never meant to make the sound. Geralt did not want the answer to his question, he realized suddenly. When the creature did not speak straightaway he took his chance and strode forward, to where Roach was dancing nervously in place near to the signpost. Roach had sense. There is much work to be done, the spirit said, following him. She was a ghost at his side, hooves making only the barest tap on the wet wood and mud. Next to her he felt loud and clumsy, though his boots scarcely stirred the grasses. Centuries to be caught up with. Things to see, to hear.

Roach whinnied sharply on their approach, stamping a hoof in the muck. Her ears were pinned flat to her skull. “Villages to kill?” Geralt said, reaching a hand out to Roach to stroke her nose. She jerked away sharply. “Not much left of Downwarren these days.”

Servants of evil, the mare hissed, and her blazing eyes narrowed in the dark. Minions and lackeys! Paying tribute in flesh and soul to the wicked!

“So you cleansed them.”

I did what had to be done.

“You massacred a village that had done nothing but try to protect itself,” Geralt said, and Roach started to rear as he snatched her reins. “They were trying to survive. Is that why you had to blot them out? What threat is a gaggle of peasants to a forest spirit?”

O Wolf, be not angry, the mare crooned. She tilted her head to watch him as he pulled himself up onto his horse. How little you know. The village was a tumor, a parasite to itself, feeding only the crones. Did never you wonder why it lay so close to this bog, to the path of sweetmeats and temptations to little mouths? Did not the ealdorman tell you how healthy every child was born, and indeed, how there were too many to feed? Could it be, O Wolf, that you have not realized they were but livestock?

Geralt said nothing.

Gone now, said the mare. All gone but the ealdorman, and he sleeps in fear each night. He is right to. But now the crones starve, and no more shall the children be lost. No ears, no food! Only their ravens left.

Roach shied sideways as the mare sidled up to her, nosing Geralt’s leg. It took a considerable amount of control not to kick the black beast. “Fine,” he said gruffly, unsure of himself yet again. “Nothing to be done about it now. What other tumors do you plan on excising? Tell me so I can beat you there.”

But the mare laughed again, a third chilling half-howl, and bared her teeth to bite Roach on the flank. His mount screamed and launched herself forward, hurtling over the elevated walk and splashing into the mud and murk. Looking behind himself he saw only this, as laughter rang through his ears: the eerie thing he had unleashed, rearing up to scrape the sky with sharp hooves, and her bloody eyes the last part of her to fade away.