The Book of Strange Tales
Tale 67: A Monstrous Fable
A story told of witchers and their confrontations with beasts
To a witcher, it's always such a small and simple thing.
When word came from the north that the dark was coming at strange hours, draped upon the ridged back of a great beast, savage and unstoppable, it was but a peculiar fable. None spared a thought for the man cursed to become this abomination; no heed was paid to the wife and children he left behind. Neither was it considered that the man might have been cursed by a sinister mind, which even now roamed free.
No. There was only the beast, and the night.
The witcher strode into the village as he always did: his pace ambling, but his eyes rooting in the shadows, picking out each and every peasant peeking from behind a shutter or through thatch. These were not his prey, but a long-lived witcher is not one who readily dismisses danger. He was conscious of the swords across his back, of the knife at his hip, conscious of the concoctions that pulsed through his veins. He was ready.
The signboard spoke of the beast, and said that it moved through the forest not far from this place. The notice spoke of reward, to be offered upon the beast's defeat. The witcher did not stay the night: he moved on, and the people of the village spoke of a new fable, of that monster in a man's form which some called a "witcher".
Beneath the boughs of the forest, night began to fall, obscuring the noonday sun. The witcher moved softly through the fallen leaves, pupils dilated wide, his reflexes honed. The beast was heralded by the pounding of rhythmic thunder. Footsteps. It emerged, colossal, back rustling the canopy; a hunched and gruesome thing, teeth the size of logs, skin mottled grey. Its eyes were night, and the stars were in them.
The witcher drew his sword. It was a silver blade, fit for the killing of monsters. Its bite would push aside the spell woven into the flesh of the beast. The beast snarled, but did not lunge. Instead the stars in its eyes grew brighter, and before the witcher could turn aside his gaze, he saw the image in those eyes.
He saw the sorceress, beautiful and terrible, eyes cold as winter, skin white as jade. He saw the man who would be the beast: fit and strong, bearded and weathered. The witcher saw that this man had a wife, beautiful as was the sorceress, but in a way very different. There was coveting, not the man of the sorceress as the witcher had expected, but rather the sorceress coveted the wife. In this the man was an intrusion. He confronted, and threatened, for the sake of his children and the family he had built.
The wife, muttering apology, fuelled the spell of the sorceress with her love, and the man became the beast.
The witcher tore his eyes away, the story done, but there was still the matter of the beast. He held the silver blade to guard.
'You are still a monster,' he said. 'Your deeds mean nothing.'
The beast's eyes showed only a reflection now: a witcher, silver blade angled to guard, eyes dilated, veins twitching. In the beast's eyes, the witcher was still talking, his mouth spelling out his words: your deeds mean nothing.
The witcher lunged, and the battle between them was joined. It was a flurry of pain and struggle, of wounds taken and wounds received, but there is little cause to recount each individual swing. Know that the witcher triumphed, and taking certain herbs carefully prepared, he broke the spell on the beast.
Left in its place was the man the witcher had seen in the eyes of the beast, naked upon the forest floor, wounded grievously and with no hope for survival.
'Are you satisfied, witcher?' the man said, eyes closed, his voice distant. 'Are you pleased that the monster is dead? Be satisfied. The monster has died here, and the evil is found only whence the beast came.'
The witcher made no answer, and simply waited for the man to expire, his blood, returned from black to red, seeping into the earth. When the man was gone, the witcher cast about the forest floor, finally espying the claw broken from the beast in the battle. He took it, and returned to the village.
His reward had been left in a coffer beneath the sign, and the witcher had seen it placed there as he had descended the hill on approach to the village. As soon as the peasants had been sure of his victory, they had placed the coinage and hidden within their homes.
The witcher knew. He knew that in their eyes they had only replaced one monster with another; replaced it with one more vagrant and so better placed to leave them alone. Yet it was still a monster, full of strange magic and possessed of a body that was not that of a man's.
The witcher paused at the casket, idly hefting the sack of orens in his hand. He knew the matter was done, in all the ways a witcher should believe. The sorceress was evil, but not a monster, and thus the story was at an end with the monster dead. Yet he thought on monsters, and on evils, and so he decided where he would go next.
The eyes of the frightened followed him as he left, wending his way down the dirt path towards the north, where eventually he would find a sorceress who had made a monster of a man. And though the witcher that was a monster fought for orens and was sated, the witcher that was a man had other scores still to settle.
For to a witcher, it is often no small and simple thing after all.