He found the ﬁ rst body around noon.
The sight of victims of violent death seldom shocked the Witcher; much more often he looked at corpses with total indifference. This time he was not indifferent. The boy was around ﬁ fteen. He was lying on his back, legs sprawled, his face frozen in a grimace of terror. In spite of that Geralt knew the boy had died at once, had not suffered, and probably had not even known he was dying. The arrow had struck him in the eye and was driven deep into the skull, through the occipital bone. The arrow was ﬂ etched with striped, pheasant ﬂ ight feathers dyed yellow. The shaft stuck up above the tufts of grass.
Geralt looked around, and quickly and easily found what he was hunting for. A second, identical arrow, lodged in the trunk of a pine tree, around six paces behind the corpse. He knew what had happened. The boy had not understood the warning, and hearing the whistle and thud of the arrow had panicked and begun to run the wrong way. Towards the one who had ordered him to stop and withdraw at once. The hissing, venomous, feathered whistle and the short thud of the arrowhead cutting into the wood. Not a step further, man, said that whistle and that thud. Begone, man, get out of Brokilon at once. You have captured the whole world, man, you are everywhere. Everywhere you introduce what you call modernity, the era of change, what you call progress. But we want neither you nor your progress here. We do not desire the changes you bring. We do not desire anything you bring. A whistle and a thud. Get out of Brokilon!
Get out of Brokilon, thought Geralt. Man. No matter that you are ﬁ fteen and struggling through the forest, insane with fear, unable to ﬁ nd your way home. No matter that you are seventy and have to gather brushwood, because otherwise they will drive you from the cottage for being useless, they will stop giving you food. No matter that you are six and you were lured by a carpet of little blue ﬂ owers in a sunny clearing. Get out of Brokilon! A whistle and a thud.
Long ago, thought Geralt, before they shot to kill, they gave two warnings. Even three.
Long ago, he thought, continuing on his way. Long ago.
Well, that’s progress.
The forest did not seem to deserve the dreadful notoriety it enjoyed. It was terribly wild and arduous to march through, but it was the commonplace arduousness of a dense forest, where every gap, every patch of sunlight ﬁ ltered by the boughs and leafy branches of huge trees, was immediately exploited by dozens of young birches, alders and hornbeams, by brambles, junipers and ferns, their tangle of shoots covering the crumbly mire of rotten wood, dry branches and decayed trunks of the oldest trees, the ones that had lost the ﬁ ght, the ones that had lived out their lifespan. The thicket, however, did not generate the ominous, weighty silence which would have suited the place more. No, Brokilon was alive. Insects buzzed, lizards rustled the grass underfoot, iridescent beetles scuttled, thousands of spiders tugged webs glistening with drops of water, woodpeckers thumped tree trunks with sharp series of raps and jays screeched.
Brokilon was alive.
But the Witcher did not let himself be deceived. He knew where he was. He remembered the boy with the arrow in his eye. He had occasionally seen white bones with red ants crawling over them among the moss and pine needles.
He walked on, cautiously but swiftly. The trail was fresh. He hoped to reach and send back the men walking in front of him. He deluded himself that it was not too late.
But it was.
He would not have noticed the next corpse had it not been for the sunlight reﬂ ecting on the blade of the short sword it was gripping.
It was a grown man. His simple clothing, coloured a practical dun, indicated his lowly status. His garments – not counting the blood stains surrounding the two feathers sticking into his chest – were clean and new, so he could not have been a common servant.
Geralt looked around and saw a third body, dressed in a leather jacket and short, green cape. The ground around the dead man’s legs was churned up, the moss and pine needles were furrowed right down to the sand. There was no doubt; this man had taken a long time to die.
He heard a groan.
He quickly parted the juniper bushes and saw the deep tree throw they were concealing. A powerfully built man, with black, curly hair and beard contrasting with the dreadful, downright deathly pallor of his face, was lying in the hollow on the exposed roots of the pine. His pale, deerskin kaftan was red with blood.
The Witcher jumped into the hollow. The wounded man opened his eyes.
‘Geralt . . .’ he groaned. ‘O, ye Gods . . . I must be dreaming . . .’
‘Frexinet?’ the Witcher asked in astonishment. ‘You, here?’
‘Yes, me . . . Ooooow . . .’
‘Don’t move,’ Geralt said, kneeling beside him. ‘Where were you hit? I can’t see the arrow . . .’
‘It passed . . . right through. I broke off the arrowhead and pulled it out . . . Listen Geralt—’
‘Be quiet, Frexinet, or you’ll choke on your blood. You have a punctured lung. A pox on it, I have to get you out of here. What the bloody hell were you doing in Brokilon? It’s dryad territory, their sanctuary, no one gets out of here alive. I can’t believe you didn’t know that.’
‘Later . . .’ Frexinet groaned and spat blood. ‘I’ll tell you later . . .
Now get me out. Oh, a pox on it. Have a care . . . Oooooow . . .’
‘I can’t do it,’ Geralt said, straightening up and looking around.
‘You’re too heavy.’
‘Leave me,’ the wounded man grunted. ‘Leave me, too bad . . . But save her . . . by the Gods, save her . . .’
‘The princess . . . Oh . . . Find her, Geralt.’
‘Lie still, dammit! I’ll knock something up and haul you out.’
Frexinet coughed hard and spat again; a viscous, stretching thread of blood hung from his chin. The Witcher cursed, vaulted out of the hollow and looked around. He needed two young saplings. He moved quickly towards the edge of the clearing, where he had seen a clump of alders.
A whistle and thud. Geralt froze to the spot. The arrow, buried in a tree trunk at head height, had hawk feather ﬂ etchings. He looked at the angle of the ashen shaft and knew where it had been shot from. About four dozen paces away there was another hollow, a fallen tree, and a tangle of roots sticking up in the air, still tightly gripping a huge lump of sandy earth. There was a dark mass of blackthorn there amid the lighter stripes of birches. He could not see anyone. He knew he would not.
He raised both hands, very slowly.
‘Ceádmil! Vá an Eithné meáth e Duén Canell! Esseá Gwynbleidd!’ This time he heard the soft twang of the bowstring and saw the arrow, for it had been shot for him to see. Powerfully. He watched it soar upwards, saw it reach its apex and then fall in a curve. He did not move. The arrow plunged into the moss almost vertically, two paces from him. Almost immediately a second lodged next to the ﬁ rst, at exactly the same angle. He was afraid he might not see the next one.
‘Meáth Eithné!’ he called again. ‘Esseá Gwynbleidd!’
‘Gláeddyv vort!’ A voice like a breath of wind. A voice, not an arrow. He was alive. He slowly unfastened his belt buckle, drew his sword well away from himself and threw it down. A second dryad emerged noiselessly from behind a ﬁ r trunk wrapped around with juniper bushes, no more than ten paces from him. Although she was small and very slim, the trunk seemed thinner. He had no idea how he had not seen her as he approached. Perhaps her outﬁ t had disguised her; a patchwork which accentuated her shapely form, sewn weirdly from scraps of fabric in numerous shades of green and brown, strewn with leaves and pieces of bark. Her hair, tied with a black scarf around her forehead, was olive green and her face was crisscrossed with stripes painted using walnutshell dye.
Naturally, her bowstring was taut and she was aiming an arrow at him
. ‘Eithné . . .’ he began.
He obediently fell silent, standing motionless, holding his arms away from his trunk. The dryad did not lower her bow.
‘Dunca!’ she cried. ‘Braenn! Caemm vort!’
The one who had shot the arrows earlier darted out from the blackthorn and slipped over the upturned trunk, nimbly clearing the depression. Although there was a pile of dry branches in it Geralt did not hear even one snap beneath her feet. He heard a faint murmur close behind, something like the rustling of leaves in the wind. He knew there was a third.
It was that one, dashing out from behind him, who picked up his sword. Her hair was the colour of honey and was tied up with a band of bulrush ﬁ bres. A quiver full of arrows swung on her back.
The furthest one approached the tree throw swiftly. Her outﬁ t was identical to that of her companions. She wore a garland woven from clover and heather on her dull, brickred hair. She was holding a bow, not bent, but with an arrow nocked.
‘T’en thesse in meáth aep Eithné llev?’ she asked, coming over. Her voice was extremely melodious and her eyes huge and black. ‘Ess’ Gwynbleidd?’
‘Aé . . . aesseá . . .’ he began, but the words in the Brokilon dialect, which sounded like singing in the dryad’s mouth, stuck in his throat and made his lips itchy. ‘Do none of you know the Common Speech? I don’t speak your—’
‘An’ váill. Vort llinge,’ she cut him off.
‘I am Gwynbleidd. White Wolf. Lady Eithné knows me. I am travelling to her as an envoy. I have been in Brokilon before. In Duén Canell.’
‘Gwynbleidd.’ The redhead narrowed her eyes.‘Vatt’ghern?’
‘Yes,’ he conﬁrmed. ‘The Witcher.’
The olivehaired one snorted angrily, but lowered her bow. The redhaired one looked at him with eyes wide open, but her face – smeared with green stripes – was quite motionless, expressionless, like that of a statue. The immobility meant her face could not be categorised as pretty or ugly. Instead of such classiﬁ cation, a thought came to him about indifference and heartlessness, not to say cruelty. Geralt reproached himself for that judgement, catching himself mistakenly humanising the dryad. He ought to have known, after all, that she was older than the other two. In spite of appearances she was much, much older than them.
They stood in indecisive silence. Geralt heard Frexinet moaning, groaning and coughing. The redhaired one must also have heard, but her face did not even twitch. The Witcher rested his hands on his hips.
‘There’s a wounded man over there in the tree hole,’ he said calmly. ‘He will die if he doesn’t receive aid.’
‘Tháess aep!’ the olivehaired one snapped, bending her bow and aiming the arrowhead straight at his face.
‘Will you let him die like a dog?’ he said, not raising his voice.
‘Will you leave him to drown slowly in his own blood? In that case better to put him out of his misery.’
‘Be silent!’ the dryad barked, switching to the Common Speech. But she lowered her bow and released the tension on the bowstring. She looked at the other questioningly. The redhaired one nodded, indicating the tree hollow. The olivehaired one ran over, quickly and silently.
‘I want to see Lady Eithné,’ Geralt repeated. ‘I’m on a diplomatic mission . . .’
‘She,’ the redhaired one pointed to the honeyhaired one, ‘will lead you to Duén Canell. Go.’
‘Frex . . . And the wounded man?’
The dryad looked at him, squinting. She was still ﬁ ddling with the nocked arrow.
‘Do not worry,’ she said. ‘Go. She will lead you there.’
‘But . . .’
‘Va’en vort!’ She cut him off, her lips tightening.
He shrugged and turned towards the one with the hair the colour of honey. She seemed the youngest of the three, but he might have been mistaken. He noticed she had blue eyes.
‘Then let us go.’
‘Yes,’ the honeycoloured haired one said softly. After a short moment of hesitation she handed him his sword. ‘Let us go.’
‘What is your name?’ he asked.
She moved very swiftly through the dense forest, not looking back. Geralt had to exert himself to keep up with her. He knew the dryad was doing it deliberately, knew that she wanted the man following her to get stuck, groaning, in the undergrowth, or to fall to the ground exhausted, incapable of going on. She did not know, of course, that she was dealing with a witcher, not a man. She was too young to know what a witcher was.
The young woman – Geralt now knew she was not a pureblood dryad – suddenly stopped and turned around. He saw her chest heaving powerfully beneath her short, dappled jacket, saw that she was having difﬁ culty stopping herself from breathing through her mouth.
‘Shall we slow down?’ he suggested with a smile.
‘Yeá.’ She looked at him with hostility. ‘Aeén esseáth Sidh?’
‘No, I’m not an elf. What is your name?’
‘Braenn,’ she answered, marching on, but now at a slower pace, not trying to outdistance him. They walked alongside each other, close. He smelled the scent of her sweat, the ordinary sweat of a young woman. The sweat of dryads carried the scent of delicate willow leaves crushed in the hands.
‘And what were you called before?’
She glanced at him and suddenly grimaced; he thought she would become annoyed or order him to be silent. She did not.
‘I don’t remember,’ she said reluctantly. He did not think it was true.
She did not look older than sixteen and she could not have been in Brokilon for more than six or seven years. Had she come earlier, as a very young child or simply a baby, he would not now be able to see the human in her. Blue eyes and naturally fair hair did occur among dryads. Dryad children, conceived in ritual mating with elves or humans, inherited organic traits exclusively from their mothers, and were always girls. Extremely infrequently, as a rule, in a subsequent generation a child would nonetheless occasionally be born with the eyes or hair of its anonymous male progenitor. But Geralt was certain that Braenn did not have a single drop of dryad blood. And anyway, it was not especially important. Blood or not, she was now a dryad.
‘And what,’ she looked askance at him, ‘do they call you?’
‘Then we shall go . . . Gwynbleidd.’
They walked more slowly than before, but still briskly. Braenn, of course, knew Brokilon; had he been alone, Geralt would have been unable to maintain the pace or the right direction. Braenn stole through the barricade of dense forest using winding, concealed paths, clearing gorges, running nimbly across fallen trees as though they were bridges, conﬁ dently splashing through glistening stretches of swamp, green from duckweed, which the Witcher would not have dared to tread on. He would have lost hours, if not days, skirting around.
Braenn’s presence did not only protect him from the savagery of the forest; there were places where the dryad slowed down, walking extremely cautiously, feeling the path with her foot and holding him by the hand. He knew the reason. Brokilon’s traps were legendary; people talked about pits full of sharpened stakes, about boobytrapped bows, about falling trees, about the terrible urchin – a spiked ball on a rope, which, falling suddenly, swept the path clear. There were also places where Braenn would stop and whistle melodiously, and answering whistles would come from the undergrowth. There were other places where she would stop with her hand on the arrows in her quiver, signalling for him to be silent, and wait, tense, until whatever was rustling in the thicket moved away.
In spite of their fast pace, they had to stop for the night. Braenn chose an excellent spot; a hill onto which thermal updrafts carried gusts of warm air. They slept on dried bracken, very close to one another, in dryad custom. In the middle of the night Braenn hugged him close. And nothing more. He hugged her back. And nothing more. She was a dryad. The point was to keep warm.
They set off again at daybreak, while it was still almost dark.
Interested? SWORD OF DESTINY by ANDRZEJ SAPKOWSKI Published by Gollancz on 20 May 2015, Trade Paperback £16.99 / eBook £8.99