Derek finds the Witcher a mile out of town in a glade with his head in a burrow.
He wants to rush forward at first, grab the guy by his straps and pull him the hell out of there, because Derek knows what is in that burrow, and it sure as hell isn’t dangerous – but he notices the Witcher’s swords are still safely sheathed on his back, and as Derek lurks at the tree line, the guy gets to his feet again. He gestures animatedly to the woods, in the direction of town, and Derek shifts a little behind a tree when the Godling comes crawling out of the burrow after him, chewing contemplatively on a mouthful of daisies.
It barely reaches the Witcher’s knees. It has flowers in its hair. Derek eyes the Witcher, bristling with knives, and feels his claws prickle through his fingertips.
Then the Godling grabs the edge of the Witcher’s coat, and tugs. The Witcher acquiesces, bending down, and the Godling threads some chewed up daisies into his short mop of hair.
The Witcher laughs.
Witcher’s don’t laugh, says Laura’s voice in Derek’s head.
Derek heads back to town.
He finds the notice in town, out on the edge near the brewery. It’s clearly been put up by some slighted farmer, complaining of a creature robbing his wares and slaughtering his livestock. The robbing was probably true, but the livestock… Derek hadn’t smelt any blood in the area when he went looking, just spilt wine and honeysuckle, so that part was probably an embellishment to garner attention.
And attention it garnered. The bottom of the notice is ripped away, probably the parchment the Witcher had been clutching in the glade when Derek found him. Derek had trailed the Witcher’s scent through the woods, a mixture of sour chemicals, underlined by cold sweat and new leather. The Witcher had taken the name and directions from the notice, but a nearby townswoman stops by Derek when she notices him. When she looks at the noticeboard.
“Some new family up the hill,” she says, “took over the old Darner’s farmstead. They obviously didn’t know about… don’t be too hard on them, Master Hale? They didn’t know.”
Derek grunts. He tears the rest of the notice off the board, crumples it in his fist. The woman lingers. She’s older, and careworn, and smells gently of soap and butter. Derek thinks he places her fast in the east quarter of town, that one family with the rambunctious set of boys. He thinks it’s her voice he hears sometimes in the evening, with the other washerwomen, whiling the work away with songs.
“A Witcher found it,” says Derek instead, looking up the lane to town as sunset settles over the buildings. The woman gasps, a small inhale, and shifts the washing in her arms.
“Is it…?” She can’t bear to finish the sentence, shifting restlessly on her feet, avoiding his eyes.
“He let it go.”
Derek hears his mother calling, in the distance. A solemn howl, crooning from Hale Manor, at the top of the town hill. He makes to leave, but the washerwoman stops him with a gentle touch to his elbow, her face creased with care.
“We’ll see them off,” she says firmly. “Leave it with us, Master Hale. We won’t have any more notices.”
Derek heads up the hill. The dirt path from the brewery gives way to cobblestones, arching gently up the slope into the town proper, where people are mingling in the streets and on the steps, heading to the tavern after a long day of harvesting and hauling. Some of the children are erecting coloured bunting between the upper storeys, flinging twine and flags to each other to uproarious cheers from below. The Harvest festival is approaching, Derek knows. He can feel it in the warmth of the evening sun, the awning relief on the towns people’s faces. As he makes his way home some of them greet him respectfully, and their smiles are open and honest. Untouched and unblemished.
Laura’s carcass rots in the family mausoleum, enshrouded by Wolfsbane and untouched by time, just a half-severed wolf with an open snarling maw and a Witcher’s blade in her throat.
By the time he reaches the gates of Hale Manor, Derek’s blood is up, a ringing bell in his ears. His mother meets him on the steps, clutching a robe around herself as the sun sets and chill touches the air.
“Derek,” she says, admonishing.
“He didn’t kill it,” Derek snarls, pushing past her and her slack, surprised face.
Months pass. The Harvest festival runs without any problems. Derek’s siblings dance with the other children in the main square while his parents cheer from their seats of honour. There are two barrels of wine – one for the people, one for the Hale family. There is even a short memorial to Laura. Derek takes the chance to refill his goblet. When the moon comes up, his father’s eyes reflect like silver bowls in a river. Derek sleeps that night with his belly full and his mind empty. He listens to his siblings rolling over in their beds, their restless whimpers, their gentle snores. He misses Laura.
The family from the Darner homestead aren’t there. The place is empty, now. Home only to the mice in the rafters.
He’s in the market with Cora when he smells fresh leather, blood and sweat, and the slightest touch of chemicals. His mind goes screamingly blank, and before he knows what he’s doing he’s charging down the main street with Cora on his heels, yelling his name.
“Derek!” She yells, and then turns tail, and he knows she’s gone for their parents. People are jumping out of his path, rolling wagons and stalls frantically.
“Master Hale!” Someone says, voice touched with fear, and it’s enough to bring him back to clarity, bring him back to the world where the air is fresh and clean, and there are children about, and he has a family to keep safe.
And there is a Witcher standing by the noticeboard near the brewer’s lane, scratching his head.
That’s a kid, Derek thinks at first, before he registers the broad shoulders, the definition of muscles on the lanky frame. The Witcher’s hair is cropped short, but there’s the hint of stubble on his chin, and his armour is battle-worn. Derek can smell fresh blood, and sees bandages on the Witcher’s palms, a fresh graze on his face.
Then the Witcher turns to face him, and Derek sees yellow eyes, and a plucked notice in his hand.
He’s storming forward before he can stop himself, snatching it from the guy’s hand, and it’s a lucky thing that his snarl is lacking teeth.
“Get out,” he hears himself saying, distantly, like a dream, “we don’t need your kind here.”
The Witcher’s eyes, which had twinged in alertness at Derek’s approach, go flat and cold.
“Then it’s a good thing,” the kid says, “that this notice isn’t for your town.”
Derek falters, glancing down. He sees the word griffin, and devil’s pit, and glances up again to see the Witcher already turning away, heading down the path towards the woods - - away from town. There’s a horse tethered to a tree, grazing in the weeds. It, too, stinks of sweat. Its haunches shiver in the breeze. The Witcher should have stabled it. Derek hears whispers and turns to see some men collected near the tavern, muttering together.
The Witcher couldn’t stable it, says Laura, from her lopsided muzzle, wolfsbane spilling from her teeth.
Derek looks back. The horse is already disappearing into the trees, it’s long tail swishing absently through the grass, its rider gone into the dark.
“Hey, jackass,” says Cora, loping into his room, “you know the point of keeping a low profile is to not actually piss off the first Witcher you meet, right?”
“Don’t you have better things to do,” says Derek, not looking up from his letters. “Like making a boy cry, somewhere?”
Cora gives him a pointed silence. Derek makes a face.
“Mother is angry with you,” she says finally. Something in Derek’s chest twinges.
“She’s always angry with me.”
“Jackass and stupid, and here you are, the family heir,” Cora makes herself comfortable on his bed, her muddy feet skidding on the expensive silks. “Truly, our family will drown in boons. No, idiot, she’s angry with you now. She was sad for you, before. Then you went and ruined it by picking a fight with a Witcher who wasn’t even looking for us.”
“Nothing good will come of having a Witcher in town,” he protests. “They’re bound to notice sooner or later that we run things… differently, here. We need to scare them off while we’re ahead.”
“You’re right,” she says, “because when I think of Witchers, the first word that springs to my mind is timid.”
Derek stares down at his letters, hard. His knuckles are white around his quill.
“We haven’t seen a Witcher in ten years,” he says eventually, quietly, “not since one split Laura in half on her way home from the city. We found her in a creek, Cora. Animals had got to her first. There was barely enough for us to bury.”
“I know that.”
“Do you?” Derek snarls, turning on her. “Because we’ve seen a Witcher now in our territory twice in as many months and I’m apparently the only one who thinks that might be an issue!”
She’s silent for a moment. Her eyes shine yellow in the dim light of his bedroom, the candles on Derek’s desk dripping wanly into the pans. They’re not the yellow eyes of the Witcher, he thinks. Cora’s are warm and golden, the colour of home and hearth, the colour of Family.
The Witcher’s eyes had been the yellow of freshly struck gold, or of the medicine he sees the apothecary sell sometimes, in their small glass bottles, sickly and sweet. He had the pupils of a cat. His necklace had a cat, too, Derek realises, a snarling little beast. But the rest of him… Derek wondered if there was a School of Deer, with the kids pointed little noise and freckles. That would probably suit him better.
“I know what you said to him,” Cora says, after a moment. Her tone is quiet. Admonishing. “Mother heard it too.”
Shame hits Derek hard in the gut, like a knife.
“We don’t owe his kind anything,” is what he says instead.
He hears a growl, deeper into the manner. It’s his father, in his study. The shame in Derek’s gut turns cold.
“Then what,” she says through her teeth, “shall we all band together? Go roaming through the countryside? Hunt each and every one of the Witchers down until they’re all dead? All extinct?”
“Cora,” he says.
“You’re pathetic,” she spits, and then freezes, before yelling, “no I won’t say sorry! Mother!” and then she’s up and off, storming out of his bedroom, letting the door slam behind her, yelling further into the house.
Derek fumes, turning to stare back out the window. The twins are in the courtyard, play wrestling. Their little snarls bounce off the stone wall separating the Manor from the town proper, but any passing stranger would think two dogs were fighting instead. A Witcher might even think more.
“I’m not saying sorry either,” he says, petty, pretending he can’t hear his father’s disappointed sigh.
Their world isn’t ideal. Derek knows this, his family knows this. This pocket of safety that they have was built through sweat and tears and blood, through sacrifices and turmoil, through treaties and secrets. The Hales protect the town, and the town protects the Hales. Washerwomen and children don’t have to worry about lingering at the river’s edge when playing or doing their duties, because Drowners don’t last long if they ever chance to drift by. There was a Bruxa nesting in the grainmill briefly, before Derek and his uncle Peter took care of that too. Anything that could or would go bump in the night – the Hale’s bump back. Few creatures of the realm could survive against a pack of fully-grown wolves. Short of a dragon or foreign invasion, the Hales could protect their town against any malevolence that decided to come their way. And the town did what they could to protect the Hales, too.
“You didn’t hear it from me,” says Erica at the tavern, when Derek joins his younger brothers there to listen to some music and play a few rounds of cards, “but the kids rounded up some old vegetables meant for the pigs and threw them at that Witcher when he passed by the smithy the other day. You should have seen the state of him!”
Derek pauses. He looks hard into his drink, and then up at Erika. Her eyes are sparkling, mouth open and laughing. She’s proud, Derek thinks. He looks around. A nearby group of men playing Gwent notice him and greet him warmly, faces pink and shiny with ale and firelight.
“Don’t worry,” she says quickly, noting his consternation, “they didn’t hit the horse.”
“Good,” says Derek.
He looks back into his drink.
“That’s good.” He says, the shame in his gut chewing at his insides, like a wolf.
The next time he finds the Witcher, he doesn’t even mean to. He’s out in the woods, keeping an eye on his sisters as they look for crickets in the long reeds. One minute he’s scanning the tree line idly, and the next all he can register is the smell of bursting rot, blood, and tearing sinew. He’s running, hard, loping on all fours, weaving violently through the trees until he comes upon the scene. The Witcher is alive, at least, although he is using his sword to keep him upright, where it is embedded deep into the throat of the Mourntart he was battling. Her guts are spilling out into the fresh green grass, the smell of decomposition churning Derek’s insides.
The Witcher is breathing hard, but not sweating. His side is blooming red. A puncture. Derek tastes meat on his tongue and closes his jaws hard against the swell of his fangs. The Witcher coughs wetly, rubs a hand over his face.
When he looks at Derek his eyes are black, his face white with purpling veins. It’s him who snarls first, instead of Derek. Answering snarls echo behind him. Derek’s sisters emerge from the trees, half-turned, defensive. They circle him like they were taught to circle a wounded hunt, heads half-cocked towards Derek, waiting on his move.
Ten minutes ago they were capturing crickets, bouncing harmlessly between the reeds, their laughter bell-like in the twilight.
“I don’t suppose I have time for a breather,” the kid bites. His teeth are tiny. Smaller than a pup’s. Derek could rip him apart in seconds.
Then the Witcher pulls his sword free from the Mourntart with a sickening gasp, and the silver glows hot and white before them.
The veins in his face throb black and purple in equal turns. In the kid’s free hand, a light begins to glow.
Then his knees go out from under him, his weight pulling him down hard, and he goes gasping, wheezing, unconscious into the damp and gruesome grass.