The walk from the Tower of the Hand to the throne room passed far too quickly for Geralt's liking. The halls and courtyards all becoming indistinguishable from one another. Perhaps it was the foreboding sense of anticipation shrinking the distance. Or more, likely, it was the intense effort and concentration he'd silently exerted to suppress it, and many other unpleasant emotions in a mask of careful neutrality. So far, it was working well. He hoped it lasted until this... Execution was over.
As with his last visit to court, one of the Kingsguard, this time Ser Oswell, demanded Geralt to relinquish his swords. He wordlessly acquiesced, letting his eyes linger on the man's face. How was it possible for men such as these, almost valiant knights, to stomach serving this madman? After a glance, Geralt understood how. It was shockingly similar to what he and many other Witchers had done: going dead inside. Not simple emotional self-control, but finding someplace within yourself far, far away so the horrible things in the world couldn't quite get to you. A form of psychological suicide.
It seemed a wise thing to do until you realized it didn't. How it left you stunted, broken, and miserable. Clutching for numb comfort until some part of you, desperate to feel anything inevitably snapped. Geralt was just lucky enough for his snap to come from finding friends, and eventually a family. Not everyone was so fortunate. Though he somewhat resented them for doing nothing, Geralt respected these men enough to wish they found some true peace. Maybe if that disgusting gaunt lunatic did everyone a favor and dropped dead.
The throne room was much the same as last time when the doors parted. Courtiers numbering in the hundreds swarmed and crowded on each side of the hall. Their expressions either faintly numb or strugglingly sycophantically smiling. The dragon bones hummed with power, the energies almost abuzz with what was about to happen. At the center of the throne room, obscuring much of the Iron Throne was the stake. The base of it was littered with dozens, hundreds of smaller woodpiles, reaching Geralt's knee. The stake itself reached well over ten feet into the air, and bound around it near the top was Wenda the White Fawn.
Geralt had inquired in the reputation of the various Brotherhood members. Simon Toyne, the leader, was the disgruntled son of an old Stormlands house that fell from favor by choosing to support the Blackfyres. The Smiling Knight was an enigma whose real identity and name were lost to history. Some thought him like Toyne, a former noble who's family fell to ruin. Others claimed he was a Ninepenny Kings veteran who'd become disfigured and transformed during the conflict. The rest were smallfolk, peasants who'd turned to thievery and murder from desperation, tragedy or bloodlust and greed. Wenda numbered among them.
The stories spoke of a young woman with a long neck, smooth skin, and long, golden hair. As beautiful as she was dangerous. Her skills with a bow were feared, and good enough to fell several men even amid combat with relative ease. She was also fond of torture, carving, or burning marks into some of the Brotherhood's captives. What ferocity there may have been before was gone. The woman tied to the stake was beaten with several bruises across her lowered face, her golden locks sliced away so as not to cover it. Geralt heard her silent sobs, the terrified thumping of her heart.
"Master Geralt!" Aerys greeted with far, far too much enthusiasm for execution from atop the Iron Throne. "I am most pleased you've arrived on time! The demonstration is about to begin!"
"I would not miss it for anything, your majesty," Geralt lied, bowing to him.
"Indeed," The madman smiled, managing to entwine his fingers. "Some time has passed since the presence of wildfire has graced the Red Keep. Fortunately, my loyal subjects have found a most worthy criminal to feed it too."
Geralt heard Wenda's breath shiver behind him.
"I've no doubt it will be an event to long remember."
"You've no idea," Aerys' eyes narrowed with the widening of his smile. "Come, take your place, Witcher, while my Alchemists complete the final preparations."
Rossart smiled and bowed to Aerys, removing himself from the rest of the small council standing at the base of the throne. The Alchemist smiled and nodded to Geralt as he moved away from Lucerys Velaryon at the eastern side of the hall. The Witcher found Grand Maester Pycelle at the westernmost end and took a spot between him and Varys. The spymaster was a thousand worlds away, judging by the vacant look on his face. Pycelle was not quite so far gone, managing to smile at Geralt, which was returned, even if both of them must have looked quite forced. Already, the other courtiers whispered among themselves, eyeing Geralt with interest, desire, and envy. Until the Alchemists began their work.
From a side entrance leading to the throne room, several of them entered, aiding Rossart. They carried with them jars of a green liquid. Pycelle had explained this was wildfires dormant state, dimmed with sand and numerous other substances but always ready and capable of transforming into flame. Geralt was interested in the alchemical brew, thinking how useful a more controllable form of it could be for Witcher work. Not that he'd tell Rosart this, the lickspittle would talk Aerys' ear off about such a meeting and a thousand horrible things would come to pass.
The Alchemists poured the liquid into the base pyre of the stake, showing incredible care and practiced slowness while doing so. Geralt's already vibrating medallion shivered more quickly under his armor. The courtiers nearest to them backed away, their fear palpable despite their attempts to hide it. Wenda did no such thing.
"Piss on you..." Geralt heard her whisper, cold fury in her voice. None heard her, at first. "P-Piss on you!"
The force of the voice was surprising, along with the audacity behind it. Numerous court attendees gasped and balked at this breach in etiquette, as though a woman sentenced to die was still expected to give a damn about such a thing. At that moment, the broken creature seemingly resigned to her fate was gone, the White Fawn had retaken her place. The only one to find amusement from this was, as always, Aerys.
"Well, well!" He chortled, slapping his taloned hands against an armchair. "The beauty of the Brotherhood has some strength left yet! Good, good, it will make your screams all the more delightful."
"Not as delightful as yours..." She smiled, revealing rows of broken, bloody teeth. "Your time will come... Mad King. May the Mother curse you, may the Smith break your bones, and may the Stranger bugger you in every hole through all seven fucking hells!"
Everyone stopped whatever it was they did, as though they'd become petrified, their gazes moving between Wenda and Aerys. The former, knowing she had nothing else to lose, smiled on defiantly. The latter smiled not, gripping the armchairs of the Iron Throne.
"Rossart," Aerys' voice was as cold as a tomb. "Get on with it."
"... As you command, your Grace," Rossarts slithery voice answered after a moment. Banishing his fellow Alchemists with a wave of his hand, the pyromancer took hold of an offered torch and hefted it in his hand. The tension grew, Geralt's hands clenched into fists, dozens of other attendees grew stiff, as though the fire was coming for them as well. After what he'd heard about Summerhall, the Witcher couldn't entirely blame them. Eventually, the moment of dread came when Rossart flung the torch.
The effect was as instantaneous as it was horrifying to behold. The green liquid poured at the base of the stake reacted several times faster than ordinary flames. In seconds, the entire lower portion was engulfed with fierce, blinding, and unmistakably magical green fire. The blast of heat seemed to suck all the air from the room. Geralt's medallion vibrated so fast it began to irritate his skin. The stories, as was always the case, were incapable of capturing its frightening power.
The stench was overwhelming, making Geralt feel woozy though he resolved not to show it. This became much more difficult when the stake itself, and then Wenda, began to catch fire. The odor of burning, human flesh felt like knives twisting inside his head and twisting his stomach into unnatural contortions. Wenda, defiant still, did not scream at first. It wasn't until the rest of her teeth cracked from the clench that she could not hold back anymore. A cloud of thick, black smoke engulfed much of the sight. No doubt, many could not see the burning, and they were lucky. Geralt, the small council, not so.
Wenda's wails continued as the fire traveled along the length of her legs, burning the dress put on her and spreading the flame quickly up the rest of her body. Her skin turned grey than black in the span of moments, and she still didn't faint or die. On and on, it seemed to go on, torturously endlessly. Geralt's fists were clenched so tightly, it was all he could do to not break something. The rest of the attendees steeled themselves, went away, or stared in open horror, everyone but Aerys.
When the Mad King laughed, it was as though a cold rush of water was poured onto Geralt. He cackled at the top of his lungs, clapping his hands and moving restlessly atop the chair. As though he were an excited child watching some grand performance. Such was the volume of his laughter, it drowned out Wenda's screams. Geralt stood there, listening to the macabre symphony between the two of them... And decided to do something.
A part of him said to do nothing, she was a criminal who killed innocents, robbed them and used men, women, and children as hostages. All of this was true. Wenda deserved to face justice and to answer for her crimes to society. What she didn't deserve was to be a fly for a Mad King to laugh at as he picked her wings off. So, Geralt did the only thing he could without overtly bringing the ax on his own neck, even if it brought considerable risks all on his own: he chose to give her a cleaner death.
Drawing from the power of the wildfire and the dragon bones, Geralt, taking a quick glance about the room, relaxed his hand. Then, he tried to lock eyes with the struggling, burning woman at the skate, executing a series of almost imperceptible finger motions without moving the rest of his arm. When the flame burst again, ascending to new heights, the flash of it concealed the white, momentary flash in Geralt's eyes. There were many reasons it shouldn't have worked. Distance, pain, and yet it did. Wenda's screams suddenly grew faint and then died entirely. Her head slumped and tensed, burning body relaxed atop the stake.
"Wake damn you!" Aerys' joy evaporated into a wild rage. "Wake! Worthless brigand whore! You'll not deny me this joy! Guards! Guards! Run her through and wake her!"
The nearest guards stared at him, unsure of what to do. From the center of the small council row, Geralt saw Tywin stir for the first time, no doubt moving to forestall such idiocy. Not that he had to. Before anyone could do anything, the flames burst again, and the unconscious Wenda was utterly consumed in the fire. What was left of her skin, mouth, eyes, hair, it was all incinerated within moments. She made no sound whatsoever. In silence, the rest of the throne room observed as the stake holding her up snapped and fell to the floor, Wenda's body vanishing into the flames.
From Geralt's right side, Pycelle let out a shaky breath. "Thank the Gods she fainted..."
"Rossart!" Aerys barked, causing the pyromancer to reel back as though struck. "Put this fire out and away with you! Away with all of you! Court is no longer in session!"
The attendants began to shuffle out of the room with varying levels of urgency. The pyromancers surrounded stake area like vultures and began applying large quantities of sand over to quell it. Geralt moved back out through the main entrance, accompanied by Grand Maester Pycelle. Listening and looking closely, the Witcher tried to catch some hint he'd been spotted using magic. A whisper, a sign, anything. But there was much noise to discern, much he could not see...
"Master Geralt...?" Pycelle spoke as they reached the entrance. "W-Would you take offense if we did not have our scheduled meeting for the day...?"
"No, Grand Maester," Geralt let out a breath he'd been holding for what felt an eternity. "I feel like shit too."
The walk back to the Tower of the Hand was a trudging experience. Geralt felt as though he'd spent the past ten days and nights fighting without sleep, food, or rest. The only grain of solace he found came from having his swords back and thwarting Aerys' disgusting enjoyment, for all the good it did. The act also ran the risk of revealing his full capabilities, something to cause fear and no doubt spur many a plot if he'd been spotted. There were many hasty fools in court, but also many careful considering vipers as well, those who could wait with this information for days, perhaps even weeks, until the perfect moment.
There was no choice, Geralt would have to leave the Red Keep for Harrenhal as soon as possible. He would have to speak with several people before going to Aerys, to run through his various points and ensure the go-ahead was given. Letting the madman know of a magical curse carried its own risk, but the danger might also bring Ciri and Yennefer over to this world and even the scales considerably in Geralt's favor.
But that was a matter for another day, now, Geralt simply wished to get to his chambers and sleep.
"Geralt!" Ser Gerold's voice came from afar, and sure enough, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard crossed a small distance of the sparring courtyard to greet him. "Well met."
"Same to you," Geralt replied while clasping his hand, trying not to sound too irritated. Or to notice the piece of paper that had suddenly appeared in his palm. "I see the Frey boy is at it."
"Aye, Ser Oswell is teaching the lad to make use of his strength. Closest thrice-damned thing he's got going for him with a sword."
The Witcher nodded, hoping this conversation ended soon.
"True..." Gerold's good mood dimmed a look of understanding in his face. "I know you were at the... Execution. Care for a round in the ring? It can help... Ease the burden, as it were."
"Thank you for the offer, but no, I think I've had my fill of excitement for today."
"Very well," He stepped aside. "I'll not keep you then, rest well, my friend."
Rest would come later, the first order of business once he reached the chambers was a thorough inspection. Geralt keenly observed it in every way he knew how, looking out for new scents or prints, or anyone nosing about in the hidden rung ladder along the length of the Tower. No one came into his room, and nothing left behind was disturbed in any way. Once he was reasonably sure of this, Geralt sat down at the end of the bed and unfurled a scrap of power slipped into his hand by Gerold.
'Come to the godswoods heart on this days twilight, Father will not summon you tonight.'
Geralt stared at it, wondering why Prince Rhaegar wished to speak to him. The solemn young man seemed lost in his own thoughts most of the time. Showing some interest in the numerous tales the Witcher regaled them with daily. It was just as likely this was but an act, meant not to show too much before Aerys, lest he raise suspicion. Did he have some mad demand like his father, of something Geralt either couldn't or wouldn't provide under even pain of death? Was it a mere political meeting, a son working to usurp his own parent? It'd been done before, and the Mad King courted a coup with each passing day.
The Witcher told himself he would refuse such an involvement, at first. He'd already become entangled with numerous monarchs who lived or died, directly and indirectly, thanks to his actions and inactions. Geralt helped to kill Radovid for the threat posed to Yennefer, Ciri, and his numerous other friends. Aerys was no menace to them whatsoever, and yet, having a ruler who he could count on for what may lie in the future would be useful. Because, though he was loathed to admit it, there was no chance in hell Harrenhal was the only thing wrong with this only seemingly magically dormant planet.
Their horribly disturbed seasons, a massive Wall built to keep something on the other side out... He sighed, burning the scrap of paper with an insignificant Igni. It was too soon to make up his mind. Once he saw the measure of Rhaegar, perhaps then Geralt could choose how deep he'd throw himself down this particular well. But first, he was getting some rest. All else be damned.
The godswood was a place Geralt had meant to visit sooner, especially once he'd learned their history. Wooded areas built into every castle when the First Men reigned in ancient Westeros, they were and in the North still are, vast stretches of wilderness, places of worshiping the numerous old gods. Besides being grooves paramount to their entire belief system, however, they contained within them unique trees: weirwoods. Bone-white, with red leaves and sap, these trees had faces carved into them by the enigmatic children of the forest, the first species to inhabit Westeros. A means of communicating with their gods.
Numerous stories he'd familiarized himself with spoke of their magical properties, how it was impossible to lie before one, how the children of the forest and even men were once able to communicate through them. Geralt was no pious man, he cared nor thought much of the gods business, but the rest of it intrigued him. There was nothing quite like it back home. Most of the weirwoods were cut down when the Andals arrived. The largest concentration of them this far south could be found on the Isle of Faces, close to Harrenhal.
Even without one of these strange trees, the godswood of King's Landing still contained quite a bit of the power within it. Geralt's medallion began and continue to noticeably vibrate as he walked through it. The ever-present elm, alder, and black cottonwood felt distinctly different from the energies of the dragon bones. Those were of fire, the most uncontrollable form of power one could tap into, promising power and danger. This was of the earth, reliable, old, and more pleasant. It didn't hurt that the setting sun gave the godswood a damn soothing glow. Perhaps once the girls arrived, he and Yennefer could enjoy a walk or two in this place.
As he neared the center of the forest, Geralt set these thoughts aside, focusing instead on the only other man inside this place save for him. Prince Rhaegar waited at the chosen spot as promised, wearing a doublet in the colors of House Targaryen and unarmed. His only possessions that Geralt could see were a leather bag and rather large wine flask. When the Witcher emerged from the forest, checking again to make sure they were truly alone, the prince rose from the tree he'd pressed his back to, smiling for a change.
"Good evening, Prince Rhaegar."
"Master Witcher," He offered his hand. "Thank you for coming, I've wanted to speak with you privately for some time."
"Seems so," Geralt shook it. "Am I correct in taking you... Disinterested demeanor during our many dinners together an act for your father's sake?"
"To a point. Truth be told, I've always been a bit of a distant person, caught in my own world. But make no mistake, Geralt, I've listened very intently to all you've said. Come, let us sit, wine?"
"Don't mind if I do," The Dornish red was a welcome taste as Geralt found the nearest tree to Rhaegar's, sitting down against it. It'd been weeks since he'd been around nature, he'd forgotten how much he'd missed it. "I need it after what happened today."
"Aye..." Rhaegar took the flask back, taking a swing from it as well. "As does any man with his wits about him. Though, I cannot deny feeling some satisfaction from the ruination of his pleasure today."
If the prince meant anything by this, an implication of knowing why Aerys' favored pastime was ruined or suspecting the reason, Geralt could not see any hint of it anywhere in the young man's face, voice, or general demeanor.
"Truth be told, I did not summon you to discuss my father. The matter I wish to bring to your attention, it is of less... Mundane nature. Tell me, Geralt, what has Pycelle told you of Azor Hai? Or the prince that was promised?"
"It's an old prophecy. It tells of some great warrior who'll deliver the world from darkness. One born under a bleeding star? Apparently, it's a myth shared across Westeros and Essos, a rarity from what I know of your cultures."
"Do your lands have such a prophecy?"
Geralt studied Rhaegar carefully, noticing something change in his voice. "Why all this interest in what long-dead people said would happen thousands of years ago?"
The heir of House Targaryen did not speak but locked gaze with the Witcher as if some terrible thing would come to pass if he answered the question. Perhaps it would, as far as Geralt knew. Eventually, Rhaegar reached for the bag he'd brought and produced a scroll from within. It was aged, the coloration of the pages slightly yellowed.
"I discovered this within the depths of Maegor's Holdfast when I was but a boy of seven years old," He offered it to Geralt with the utmost care. "As I told you, my interests were elsewhere from what most expected of me. I was one to read, to devour all the knowledge I could. I never wished to so much as touch a sword... Until I found this."
The words were familiar if faded. Silently, Geralt read through its contents. It spoke of Azor Ahai, though in greater detail than anything Pycelle's tomes held. It spoke of a great shadow of winter returning to the world, of mankind brought low in a time of frost and death, of a savior born amidst salt, smoke, and a bleeding star to save them. A leader with the power of a three-headed dragon at his back, ushering in a new age for humanity. A song of ice and fire.
"Since that day," Rhaegar spoke with a weight upon his shoulders. "I've dreamed of the darkness. Countless times, I've witnessed the end of all that I know, love, and even hate. Of a world in frozen ruin, of endless night and winter. Always, I try to find the three-headed dragon, and failure is all I achieve. Failure and my own death."
Then his gaze returned to the Witchers. "Until last night, when a great, white wolf with blood-red eyes came to my rescue."
"To the rescue of the prince that was promised."
"I was born amidst salt and smoke, the salty tears of my parents, and the smokes of Summerhall burning next to us. Though," His resolve seemed to waver. "There was no bleeding star, for myself or even Rhaenys."
Geralt looked to him, then back to the scroll, and exhaled softly. Prophecy was a troublesome creation back home, here and quite likely everywhere else it seemed. Ithlinne's Prophecy came to pass for them, and Ciri rose to meet it, destroying the White Frost to ensure it never threatened any world again. On more than one occasion, he'd considered the similarities between this event and the Long Night, the story of Azor Ahai.
Were these Others creatures of ice, an entire species, unlike any back home? Or merely a fanciful interpretation of mutated humans who'd been changed by the White Frost's climate shift? Alvin, as Jacques de Aldersberg, showed him this was very possible. Were these children of the forest the same way, or merely elves who aided mankind before they declined and left this world? Was this Azor Ahai another seed of Lara Dorren, coming to this sphere and saving it?
Perhaps their portent was rendered null and void by the completion of Ithlinne's. They might have had nothing to do with one another. Geralt silently doubted this, adding one more thing to investigate in the coming days. Right now, however, he wished not to share his thoughts on all this. Not with Rhaegar who, try as he might, had desperation in his eyes. Desiring a validation of his musings and obsession as a thirsty man craves water.
"Rhaegar," Geralt eventually said, handing the scroll over to him. "I've never told you of the Law of Surprise, have I? It's an old, hallowed custom in my lands. Its importance is equal to that of your guest right, even if it happens less frequently. Obey it, or suffer grave consequences, from gods, destiny,... pick whichever you like. It dictates that a man saved by another is expected to offer his savior a boon. It can be the first thing that comes to greet you or what you find at home, yet you don't expect.
"I invoked this law, and in doing so, bound my adopted daughter to myself with something thicker even than blood. For she was a child of surprise. But I too was young, and foolish, I did not take her with me, despite many opportunities presenting themselves. Time and again, I rejected my destiny. Then, Nilfgaard invaded Cintra, Ciri's homeland, and for a year, I thought she was dead."
He paused, remembering that time. How lost he'd been, how afraid, how self-loathing, suicidal even. His despair, it was unlike any he'd felt by that point in his long life. The debacle between himself, Istredd, and Yennefer was nothing in comparison.
"Then, at risk of my own life, I saved another, a merchant's whose path I crossed. The man showed rare gratitude, nursing me back to health, carrying me to his home. The Law of Surprise was invoked again, that which you find at home, yet you don't expect. And what Yurga didn't expect was to discover another child at his house, a war refugee taken in by his wife. An ashen haired girl."
Hearing Ciri's voice, embracing her, it healed him, in body and mind. It was as if the whole world, for but a moment, made sense, was just, fair and perfect. He couldn't stop himself from smiling at the memory, gazing at the sun very nearly falling off in the distance. Rhaegar observed quietly, a look of surprise and vindication present on his face. Now was the time to get rid of it.
"You asked me earlier if we have a prophecy of doom in our own lands, we call it Ithlinne's. It speaks of a time of sword and ax, a time of contempt and madness, a time of end. Only a special someone could prevent it, a child of the Elder Blood. The Blood of Elves. Emhyr var Emries, Emperor of Nilfgaard, wished to be the progenitor of this savior."
Geralt scowled, feeling bile rise in his mouth. "In pursuit of this, he invaded his own daughter's homeland, putting thousands to the sword. Then he waged war against many other nations, destroying entire cities and spurring a hatred between humans and non-humans that burns fiercely to this very day. All because of his egotistical interpretation of the Ithlinne's Prophecy, how only he was worthy enough to be the progenitor of the world's savior since he couldn't do it himself. Emhyr was willing to stoop so low in pursuit of this, his ultimate plan was to father this child... By marrying and impregnating Ciri, his firstborn.
"And do you know what it all amounted to? Nothing. Emhyr was only ever a pest. A horrid parasite who ran tens of thousands of lives to the ground, his own child's, simply because he wanted to fulfill his egotistical fantasies. Now he rules the world, as far as he knows, and his own daughter has completely disowned him. The great White Flame will die out knowing he was a thoroughly shit father, and it bothers him. I saw it myself."
Through all this talk, Geralt's voice rose, not quite a yell but louder than what he usually spoke. His hands shook, and it took quite a few deep breaths for him to steady himself. In the distance, the sun had nearly set, only a trickle of light was left. To his left, the Witcher looked at Rhaegar and found something else in the young man's features.
Shock, disgust, and more than a hint of... Shame? Whatever the reason was, the wild flame in Rhaegar's eyes dimmed. His shoulders slumped, and he simply looked lost, defeated.
"Drink some wine, it'll help," Rhaegar did so, drinking down quite a bit more of it the second time around.
"This is... Not how I thought our conversation would go, Master Witcher..."
"Truth be told, neither did I," Geralt leaned against the tree, enjoying the smell of the forest about him. "But I do have one last piece of advice to give you. Something that helped me when I too didn't know what to make of fate and destiny."
The prince looked at him again, looking like a hopeful child and not a man grown. "Destiny, prophecy, fate... They may or may not play a role in our lives. Regardless, they aren't enough Rhaegar, you need something else, something more."