by Andrzej Sapkowski
From “A Book of Polish Monsters,”
an anthology edited and translated by Michael Kandel
Later, people said that the stranger came from the north, through the Ropers’ Gate. He came on foot, leading a
heavily laden horse by the bridle. It was late in the day; the stalls of the ropers and saddlers were closed, and
the street was empty. Although it was hot, the man had a black coat thrown over his shoulders. He drew
He stopped in front of the Old Narakort, stood awhile, listened to the hum of voices within. The tavern, as
usual at that hour, was packed.
The stranger didn’t enter the Old Narakort. He pulled his horse onward, to the bottom of the street. There was
another tavern there, smaller, called the Fox. It was nearly empty. It did not have the best reputation.
The tavern keeper looked up from a barrel of pickles and took the measure of the customer. Not of these parts,
wearing a coat, the man stood at the bar stiffly, not moving, saying nothing.
“What do you want?”
“Beer,” said the stranger. He had an unpleasant voice.
The tavern keeper wiped his hands on his apron and filled an earthen mug. The mug was cracked.
The stranger wasn’t old, yet his hair was almost completely white. Under his coat he wore a worn leather jerkin
with ties at the neck and shoulders. When he removed his coat, everyone saw the sword belted behind his back.
There was nothing remarkable in that; in Klothstur almost everyone went armed; but no one carried his sword
behind him like a bow or quiver.
The stranger didn’t sit at a table among the few who were there; he stood at the bar watching the tavern
keeper. He took a pull from the mug.
“I need a room for the night.”
“Nothing here,” the tavern keeper grumbled, looking at the stranger’s boots, which were covered with dust
and full of mud. “Try the Old Narakort.”
“I prefer this place.”
“There’s nothing.” The tavern keeper had figured out the stranger’s accent. A Rivian.
“I’ll pay,” the stranger said softly, as if unsure.
That was when the ugliness started. A pockmarked lout, who from the stranger’s entrance hadn’t taken his
heavy eyes off the man, got up and approached the bar. His two comrades came and stood behind him.
“There’s no room here, Rivian dirt,” barked the pockmarked one, close, into the stranger’s face. “We don’t need
your kind here in Klothstur. This is an honest town!”
The stranger took his mug and stepped back. He looked at the tavern keeper, but the tavern keeper averted
his eyes. No chance that he would defend the Rivian. Who liked Rivians anyway?
“Rivians are thieves, all of them,” Pockmarked went on, exuding beer, garlic, and contempt. “You hear me,
piece of garbage?”
“He doesn’t hear you. He must have dung in his ears,” said one of the men behind, and the other guffawed.
“Pay and get out!” shouted the beak-nosed lout.
Only now did the stranger turn to look at him.
“I’ll finish my beer.”
“We’ll help you,” said the lout through his teeth. He slapped the mug from the Rivian’s hand and at the same
time grabbed the belt that went across the Rivian’s chest. One of the men behind raised a fist to deal a blow.
The stranger twisted in place, knocking Pockmarked off balance. The sword hissed from its scabbard and
gleamed briefly in the light of the torches. There was a struggle, a scream. One of the customers bolted for the
door. A chair overturned with a crash; crockery hit the floor, contents splashing. The tavern keeper, his lips
atremble, saw the hideously sliced face of Pockmarked, who, clutching the edge of the counter, sank and
disappeared from view, like a man drowning. The other two lay on the floor. One didn’t move; one writhed and
twitched in a quickly spreading pool of dark blood. In the air hung the thin, hysterical shriek of a woman, hurting
the ears. The tavern keeper shuddered, took a deep breath, began to retch.
The stranger moved back to the wall. In a crouch, poised, alert. He held his sword with both hands, drawing
its point through the air. No one moved. Fear, like cold mud, numbed faces, constrained limbs, closed throats.
Guards came rushing into the tavern with much clanking. Three of them. They must have been nearby. They
held strapped clubs at the ready, but seeing the bodies, they immediately drew their swords. The Rivian had his
shoulders pressed to the wall and with his left hand pulled a dagger from his boot.
“Drop it!” shouted one of the guards in a voice that shook. “Drop it, villain! You’re coming with us!”
The second guard kicked away a chair that kept him from getting to the other side of the Rivian.
“Bring help, Chax!” he shouted to the third, who had stayed closer to the door.
“No need,” said the stranger, lowering his sword. “I’ll go with you.”
“Go you will, dog, but at the end of a rope!” The guard quivered with fury. “Drop that sword, or I open your
The Rivian straightened. He tucked the blade under his left arm, took the dagger in hand, raised it to the
guards, and drew a quick but complex sign in the air. The many studs on the cuffs of his leather coat glittered.
The guards stepped back, shielding their faces. A customer jumped up; another scrambled for the door. The
woman screamed again, wildly.
“I’ll go with you,” the stranger repeated in a voice like metal. “You three walk in front. Lead me to the mayor.
I do not know the way.”
“Yes, lord,” stammered the guard, his head lowered. He made for the door, looking around uncertainly. The
other two backed out after him. The stranger followed, sheathing his sword and dagger. As he passed the tables,
the people covered their faces with the flaps of their jackets.
Ethmond, right high mayor of Klothstur, scratched his chin as he considered. He was not a superstitious man or
faint of heart, but he wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of being alone in the room with the white-haired one. Finally
“Leave,” he told the guards. “And you, sit. No, not there. A little farther off, if you don’t mind.”
The stranger sat. He had neither his sword nor his black coat now.
“I am, ahem,” said Ethmond, fiddling with the baton of office that lay on the table, “Ethmond, right high
mayor of Klothstur. What have you to say to me, Sir Bandit, before you are thrown into our dungeon? Three men
slain, an attempt at casting a spell—not a bad day’s work, that. For such things people are impaled here in
Klothstur. But I’m a reasonable man, I’ll hear you first. Speak.”
The Rivian unbuttoned a pocket of his jerkin and produced a scroll of bleached goatskin.
“At crossroads and in taverns, this is nailed up,” he said quietly. “Is it true, what is written?”
“Ah,” said Ethmond, seeing the script on the unrolled parchment. “So that’s what this is. I should have
guessed. Very well, then, the truth, the blessed truth. The signature reads Hrobost, king of Kra, Fonzor, and
Apiph. That is so. But decrees are one thing, the law is another. In Klothstur here I maintain the law, and the
order! I don’t permit people to be murdered! You understand?”
The Rivian nodded that he understood. Ethmond huffed in his indignation.
“You have the witcher token?”
The stranger again dug into his pocket. He pulled out a medallion on a silver chain. On the disk: the head
of a wolf with bared fangs.
“You have a name? It can be any name. I’m not curious—it just helps in a conversation.”
“I am called Geralt.”
“Geralt will do. From Rivia, I suppose, from your manner of speech.”
“Yes. You know what, Geralt? This”—Ethmond patted the decree with an open hand—”forget about this. It’s
too deep. Many have tried. It’s not the same thing, brother, as settling the hash of a couple of jerkwater thugs.”
“I know. This is what I do, Right High Mayor. It is written in the announcement: a reward of three thousand
“Three thousand.” Ethmond puffed his cheeks. “And the princess for your wife, people say, though our most
gracious Hrobost didn’t put that in writing.”
“I am not interested in the princess,” Geralt said. He sat calmly, his hands on his knees. “It is written: three
“What times we live in,” sighed the right high mayor. “Twenty years ago, who would have thought, even in
one’s cups, that there would be such a profession? Witchers! Traveling exterminators of basilisks and banshees!
Itinerant slayers of dragons and lamias! Geralt? In your job, is it allowed to partake of alcohol?”
Ethmond clapped his hands.
“Beer,” he called. “And you, Geralt, sit a little closer. Ah, what can I do.”
The beer was cold and capped with foam.
“The times are rotten to the core,” Ethmond continued with his monologue, taking a swallow from his mug.
“All sorts of filth have multiplied. In Apiph, in the hills, an infestation of werecats. In the forests of yore a wolf
might have howled: now it’s vampires, trolls, ghouls, you can’t spit without hitting a goblin or some other
abomination. Undines in the shires, hags making off with offspring, hundreds of cases of that now. Diseases no
one ever heard of. A person’s hair stands on end. And now this!” He pushed the parchment scroll across the table.
“Small wonder, Geralt, that there’s a call for your services.”
“This royal decree, Right High Mayor,” Geralt asked, lifting his head. “Do you know the details?”
Ethmond pushed back his chair, folded his hands over his stomach.
“The details, you say? Yes, I know them. It’s not at first hand, you understand, but the source is reliable.”
“I’d like to hear them.”
“You insist. Very well. Then listen.” Ethmond emptied his mug, lowered his voice. “Our most gracious Hrobost,
when he was still prince, in the reign of Demell the Decrepit, his father, showed us what he was capable of, and
it was plenty. We thought that his escapades would cease with time. But shortly after his coronation, after the
death of the old king, Hrobost outdid himself. Our mouths fell open. In a word: he got his sister, Adda, with
child. Adda was younger than he; they were much together, but no one suspected; well, maybe the queen... In
a word: we look, and lo, there’s Adda with this belly, and Hrobost is starting to talk marriage. To his own sister,
you understand, Geralt. A hellishly ticklish situation, because right then Cuthbond of Globbur got it into his head
to give his Dalka to Hrobost, sent a whole legation, and the king had to be sat on so he wouldn’t go and curse
the emissaries up and down. We managed that, and it was a good thing too, because an insulted Cuthbond would
have ground us fine. Then, with Adda’s help, because she had some influence over her brother, we were able to
talk the whelp into a quick wedding. So, Adda gave birth when her time came. And now listen, because here is
where it begins. What was born, few saw it, but one midwife leaped from a tower window to her death and
another lost her reason and to this day only mumbles. From which I conclude that the baby was not pleasant to
look at. It was a girl. She died immediately in any case; I imagine no one was in a hurry to tie the cord. Adda,
mercifully, did not survive the birthing. And then, brother, Hrobost did yet another really witless thing. The
changeling child ought to have been burned or, I don’t know, buried somewhere in the wild, not placed in
a sarcophagus in the castle catacombs.”
“It’s too late now to exorcise,” said Geralt. “They ought to have summoned one of the Wise Ones.”
“You mean those charlatans with stars and comets on their pointy caps? Oh, there were dozens of them called
in, but that was later, when people realized what lay in the sarcophagus. And what emerged from it at night. Not
that the emerging started right away. We had seven years of peace after the funeral. Then one night, there was
a full moon, commotion in the castle, a scream, running about! But you know about these things, and you’ve
read the decree. The baby grew in the tomb, grew plenty, grew teeth like you wouldn’t believe. In a word, a gomb.
You should have seen the bodies. As I did. Then you would have given our Klothstur a wide berth.”
Geralt said nothing.
“So,” Ethmond went on, “as I said, Hrobost brought in a whole troop of magicians. They jabbered one after
the other and nearly came to blows with their gnarled staffs, which they must use to drive away the dogs that
are sicced on them, which I bet happens daily. Pardon me, Geralt, if you have a different opinion of magicians;
in your line of work you no doubt do, but to me they’re all idiots and parasites. You witchers, on the other hand,
inspire respect among the people. You are, how should I say, a more substantial lot.”
“But to return to the story.” The right high mayor, peering into his mug, poured more beer for himself and
the Rivian. “Some of what the magicians proposed was not bad. One said we should burn the gomb together with
the sarcophagus and the castle, another advised that we sever her head with a spade, another advocated
impalement with stakes of aspen in various parts of the body—during the day, obviously, when the demonness
slumbered in her coffin, exhausted by her excesses of the night before. But unfortunately there was one clown
of a sorceror, a floppy cap on his bald head, the humpbacked hermit variety, who came up with the notion that
this was all magic, that therefore it could be undone, and that the gomb could be turned back into Hrobost’s
daughter, as pretty as a picture on the wall. One needed only sit in the crypt all night, wave a wand, and that
would be that. Whereupon—you can see what a cretin this was, Geralt—he goes and spends the night at the
castle. Not much was left of him, maybe only the cap and the staff. But Hrobost clung to the idea like a burr to
a dog’s rump. He forbade all attempts to kill the gomb and had frauds come to Klothstur from every corner of
the land to change it back into a princess. What a motley bunch that was! Bent-over crones, gimpy monks,
fleabitten bags of misery, you felt sorry for them. So, we let them work their charms, though most of their work
was over a dinner plate or bowl. Yes, some were seen for what they were by Hrobost or the council, and a few
were even drawn and quartered, but too few, too few. I would have hanged the lot. That the gomb meanwhile
dined on whoever showed up, humbug or not, ignoring every incantation, well, I don’t have to tell you. Hrobost
no longer lived in the castle. No one did.”
Ethmond paused to drink some beer. The witcher said nothing.
“This has been going on for six years, Geralt. The thing was born some fourteen years ago. We had a few other
troubles in that time, we fought with Glothur of Kloffok, but that was for a respectable reason, to move back a
border, not for daughters or social climbing. Hrobost got wedlock into his head, you see, and was examining
portraits sent from neighboring courts that in former days he would have chucked into the privy hole. Meanwhile
his old mania has returned, and now and then he sends out horsemen to find new magicians. And he promised
that reward, the three thousand, which drew a few hotspurs, errant knights, even one shepherd, a known imbecile,
may he rest in peace. And the gomb is fine. Except that sometimes she takes a bite out of someone. You can get
used to it. One good thing about the heroes who come to break the enchantment on her is that now the monster
can stay at home in the castle instead of having to eat out. And Hrobost’s new palaceis quite nice.”
“Six years,” said Geralt, “and no one could do anything?”
“Not a thing!” Ethmond shot the witcher a look. “Because there is not a thing, after all, that can be done.
Some problems a person has to live with—although Hrobost, our gracious and beloved ruler, continues to put up
those decrees at crossroads. At least there’s been a drop in volunteers. The latest one wanted the three thousand
up front. We put him in a sack and tossed him in the lake.”
“There’s no shortage of swindlers.”
“A surplus, I’d say,” agreed the right high mayor, his eyes on the witcher. “So if you go to the king, don’t ask
for the gold in advance. Assuming you go.”
“Well, that’s your affair. But remember my advice. As for the reward, there’s been talk lately about the other
part of it, the princess as one’s wife, I mean. I don’t know who came up with that, but if the gomb looks as bad
as some say, it’s a nasty nasty joke. Yet there have been fools who came on gallop to the court the moment they
learned there was a chance here to enter a royal family. Two shoemaker’s apprentices among them. Why are
shoemakers so stupid, Geralt?”
“I have no idea. And witchers, Right High Mayor? Did they try?”
“There were a few. Usually, when they heard that the gomb had to be unsorceled instead of killed, they
shrugged and left. That’s why witchers went up in my estimation. But yes, one came later, younger than you, I
don’t recall his name, but possibly he didn’t give a name. He actually did try.”
“Our long-fanged princess strewed his innards over a considerable area. Half a bow shot.”
Geralt nodded. “That was all of them?”
“There was one more.”
Ethmond was silent for a moment. The witcher didn’t hurry him.
“Yes,” the right high mayor finally said. “One more. At first, when Hrobost threatened him with the gallows
if he killed or so much as maimed the gomb, the witcher laughed and started packing. But then...”
Ethmond lowered his voice to a whisper almost and leaned across the table.
“But then he set about it. You see, Geralt, here in Klothstur there are a few reasonable people, even in high
places, who have grown sick of this business. Rumor has it that some of them quietly took the witcher aside and
asked him to forget about the magic, just kill the blasted thing, and tell the king the abracadabra didn’t work,
his daughter tripped on the stairs, met with an accident. The king, of course, would be angry, wouldn’t fork over
one rial of the reward. To which the witcher said, `For free, gentlemen, you can deal with the gomb yourselves.’
Well, there was no help for it, they bargained, a deal was struck... Except that nothing came of it.”
Geralt raised his eyebrows.
“Nothing, I said,” said Ethmond. “The witcher didn’t want to jump in with both feet the first night. He skirted,
he lurked, he reconnoitered. At last, they say, he saw the gomb—in action, no doubt, because that thing doesn’t
creep from her crypt to stretch her legs. After what he saw, he cleared out. Without saying farewell.”
Geralt made a grimace that may have been a smile.
“The reasonable people,” he began, “no doubt still have that money. Witchers don’t accept payment before
services are rendered.”
“I imagine the money is still there,” replied Ethmond.
“Rumor doesn’t say what it comes to?”
Ethmond bared his teeth in a grin. “In the opinion of some, eight hundred...”
Geralt shook his head.
“Others,” grunted the right high mayor, “say a thousand.”
“That’s not a lot, if you take into account that rumor exaggerates everything. The king, after all, promises
“And don’t forget the hand of the princess,” joked Ethmond. “Come, what are we talking about? We know
you’re not getting that three thousand.”
“How do we know?”
Ethmond smacked the table with the flat of his hand.
“Geralt, please, don’t lower my opinion of witchers! This has been going on for more than six years! The gomb
finishes off about fifty souls a year—less now that folks keep their distance from the castle. I believe in magic,
brother, I’ve seen things in my time, I know what mages, warlocks, and witchers can do, to some degree. But
this lifting of the curse is complete rot, thought up by a humpbacked, snot-nosed beggar who got soft in the
head from all the fasting he did in the desert. It’s rot, and no one believes it—except Hrobost. No, Geralt! Adda
gave birth to a gomb because she slept with her brother, and no magic in the world will help here. Gombs eat
people and need to be killed, it’s as simple as that. Listen, two years ago the churls of some hick shrop beyond
Fonzor, where a dragon was chewing up the sheep, went in a group and beat it to death with stanchions and
didn’t even see the point of boasting about it. While we here in Klothstur wait for a miracle and bolt our doors
at every full moon or tie our criminals to stakes by the castle so the monster can dine and return to her tomb.”
“Not a bad punishment,” remarked the witcher wryly. “Has crime dropped?”
“Not a bit.”
“How do I get to the palace, the new one?”
“I’ll take you there myself. What about the proposal of reasonable people?”
“Right High Mayor,” said Geralt. “What’s your hurry? The creature really could meet with an accident, quite
apart from my intentions. Then the reasonable people should give thought to saving me from the wrath of the
king and collecting that fifteen hundred rials rumor has spoken of.”
“It was to be a thousand.”
“No, Mr. Ethmond,” said the witcher firmly. “The one you gave the thousand to, he fled at the mere sight of
the gomb, he didn’t even bargain. That means the danger exceeds a thousand. We’ll see if it exceeds fifteen
hundred. Of course, in that case, I’m gone.”
Ethmond scratched his head.
“Geralt? Twelve hundred?”
“No, Right High Mayor. This is not child’s play. The king offers three thousand, and I must tell you that
sometimes breaking a spell is easier than making a kill. One of my predecessors would have slain the gomb if it
were that easy, right? Do you really think they all let themselves be eaten because they feared the king?”
“Very well, brother.” Ethmond gave a gloomy nod. “We have a deal. But say nothing, not a word, to the king
about the possibility of the monster’s meeting with an accident. My advice to you.”
Hrobost was trim and had a handsome face—too handsome. He wasn’t more than forty, the witcher judged. The
king sat in an armchair of carved black wood, his legs stretched toward the coals of a fireplace where two dogs
slumbered. Beside him, sitting on a chest, was an older man, powerfully built and with a beard. Behind the king
stood another man, richly dressed, pride in his face: a dignitary.
“A witcher from Rivia,” said the king after the short silence that followed Ethmond’s introduction.
“Yes, sire.” Geralt bent his head.
“What turned your hair white? A charm that backfired? I can see you’re not old. But fine, fine. A joke, you
needn’t answer. You have, dare I assume, some experience?”
“I’d like to hear it.”
Geralt bowed lower.
“Surely you know, sire, that our code forbids us to speak of what we do.”
“A convenient code, master witcher, most convenient. But you—without going into the particulars—have
dealt with trolls?”
Geralt raised his head and looked the king in the eye.
Hrobost returned the look.
“At your service, my lord.”
“You gave him a full account?”
“I did, my lord. He maintains that it is possible to remove the curse from the princess.”
“That I’ve known for some time. What method, master witcher, do you—ah, yes, I forget, your code. But one
small comment: there have been several witchers here already. Ethmond, you told him? Good. From which I know
that your specialty lies more with extermination than with the removal of spells. Extermination doesn’t enter the
picture here. If my daughter loses one hair of her head, your head goes on the block. That’s it. Osrugh, and you,
Sir Segelin, stay here and impart to our guest whatever information he requires. Witchers ask a lot of questions.
Feed him and put him up in the palace. He shouldn’t have to knock about in inns.”
The king rose, whistled to his dogs, and departed, disturbing the straw that lay on the floor of the room. At
the door he turned.
“You succeed, witcher, and the reward is yours. I may throw in a little extra if you succeed with style. Of
course the jabber of the common folk about marrying the princess contains not a word of truth. You don’t think
that I would give my daughter to any vagrant passing through?”
“No, sire, I do not.”
“Good. That shows you have sense.”
Hrobost left, closing the door behind him. Ethmond and the dignitary, who had been standing, immediately
sat down at the table and made themselves comfortable. The right high mayor tossed back what remained in the
king’s goblet, which was half full; he looked into the empty jug and swore. Osrugh, who now occupied the king’s
chair, watched the witcher from under his brows as he ran his hand along the carved armrests. The bearded
Segelin gestured to Geralt.
“Sit, master witcher, sit. They’ll be serving dinner soon. What would you like us to talk about? Our right high
mayor must have told you everything. I know him, and he tends to say too much rather than too little.”
“I have only a few questions.”
“Come, out with them.”
“The right high mayor said that after the appearance of the gomb, the king summoned many Wise Ones.”
“True. But don’t say `gomb,’ say `princess.’ That way you avoid making the mistake in the presence of the
king... and avoid the consequences of it.”
“Among the Wise Ones, was there someone known? Famed?”
“There were such then, and later. I don’t recall their names... Do you, Sir Osrugh?”
“No,” replied the nobleman. “But yes, there were those who enjoyed renown. Much was made of that.”
“Did they agree that the curse could be removed?” Geralt asked.
“Agree?” laughed Segelin. “They agreed on not one thing. But such a statement was made, among others. It
would be simple, not even requiring magical ability. All one need do, as I understand it, is spend the night, from
sundown to the third cockcrow, in the catacombs, beside the sarcophagus.”
“Nothing to it,” snorted Ethmond.
“I would like to hear a description of... the princess,” said Geralt.
Ethmond jumped from his seat.
“The princess resembles a gomb! he roared. “The most gombish of the breed I ever heard of! Her royal highness
the cursed changeling bastard is four cubits high, is shaped like a keg of beer, has a mouth that goes from ear
to ear and is full of dagger teeth, and her eyes are red and her pelt tawny. Her arms, with claws like
a lynx’s, hang to the ground. I don’t know why we haven’t begun sending miniature portraits of her to the courts
of friendly kingdoms! The princess, may the pox take her, is fourteen now: time to think of marrying her off to a
“Contain yourself, Right High Mayor,” said Osrugh with a scowl, glancing at the door. Segelin chuckled.
“The description, if somewhat metaphoric, is precise enough, and that is what our master witcher wants, yes?
Ethmond forgot to add that the princess moves with unbelievable speed and is much stronger than her size and
build suggest. That she is fourteen is a fact, though it may not be significant.”
“It is significant,” said the witcher. “Do the attacks on people occur only during the full moon?”
“Yes,” said Segelin. “If the attack is outside the old castle. Inside, no matter what the phase of the moon,
people die. But it’s only at the full moon, and not every, that she goes abroad.”
“Was there ever an attack in daylight?”
“No, never during the day.”
“Does she always eat her victims?”
Ethmond spat into the straw.
“Enough, Geralt, we dine soon. Phoo! She eats, she gnaws, she doesn’t finish—it varies, depending on her
mood. She might only chew off the head, or gut her victim, but occasionally she’ll lick her plate clean, in
a manner of speaking. Like her mother!”
“Watch it, Ethmond,” hissed Osrugh. “Say what you like about the gomb, but don’t insult Adda in my
presence—for you would not dare in the king’s!”
“Was there anyone she attacked... who lived?” asked the witcher, pretending not to notice this outburst.
Segelin and Osrugh exchanged a look.
“Yes,” said the bearded retainer. “At the beginning, six years ago, she went for the two soldiers standing watch
at the crypt. One managed to escape.”
“And later too,” Ethmond put in. “The miller she attacked outside the town. Remember that?”
The miller was brought in—on the second day, late in the evening—and ushered into the little room above the
guards’ hall, where the witcher had been quartered. The man was escorted by a soldier in a hooded coat.
Conversation with the miller yielded little. He was frightened, he made no sense, he stammered. His scars told
the witcher more: the creature had an impressively wide bite and truly sharp teeth, among them four very long
upper fangs—two on either side. The claws were sharper than a lynx’s though less curved. It was for that reason
only that the miller was able to pull free.
Finishing his examination, Geralt nodded and led the miller and soldier to the door. The soldier pushed the
peasant out, shut the door, and removed his hood. It was none other than Hrobost.
“Sit, don’t rise,” said the king. “My visit is unofficial. You were satisfied with the interview? I heard you were
at the old castle this morning.”
“When do you set to work?”
“It’s four days to the full moon. After the full moon.”
“You want to see her first?”
“It’s not necessary. But after feeding, the... the princess will be a little slower.”
“Gomb, master witcher, it’s a gomb. Let’s not play diplomat. A princess she has yet to be. That is what I came
to talk to you about. Tell me, off the record, plain and to the point: will that happen or not? And please, no
hiding behind a code.”
Geralt wiped his brow.
“The spell may be broken, Your Majesty. And if I’m not mistaken, the breaking of it is in fact done by spending
the night in the castle. The third crow of the cock, if it catches the gomb outside her sarcophagus, lifts the curse.
That is the traditional way of dealing with gombs.”
“It is not simple. One must survive the night, for one thing. And there may be deviations from the norm. Not
one night, for example, but three. Consecutively. There are also cases that are... well, beyond hope.”
“Yes.” Hrobost grunted. “I hear that constantly from certain parties here. Kill the monster, because this is
hopeless, incurable. I am sure they have already spoken with you, witcher, yes? To slay the maneater without
compunction, at the very beginning, and tell the king it couldn’t be avoided. The king won’t pay, but we will.
Very convenient. And cheap. Because the king will have the witcher beheaded or hanged, and the money remains
in their pockets.”
“The king will have the witcher beheaded regardless?” Geralt made a face.
Hrobost looked the Rivian in the eye.
“The king doesn’t know,” he said finally. “But the witcher should consider that a possibility.”
It was Geralt’s turn to be silent.
“I intend to do what lies within my power,” he said after a while. “But if things go badly, I will defend myself.
You, sire, should consider that a possibility.”
“You mistake me. That is not what I meant. Obviously you will kill her if the battle waxes hot, whether I like
it or not. For otherwise she will kill you, for sure. I do not say this publicly, but I would punish no man who
killed her in self-defense. But I will not permit that she be killed without an attempt made to save her. People
have already tried to burn down the old castle, have shot at her with arrows, have dug ditches, set snares. They
stopped only after I hanged a few. But that’s not the point. Listen to me, master witcher!”
“I am listening.”
“After the third cockcrow she will not be a gomb, if I understand you right. What will she be?”
“If all goes well, a fourteen-year-old girl.”
“With red eyes? With the teeth of a crocodile?”
“A regular fourteen-year-old girl. Except...”
“Don’t play games with me. And mentally? Requiring a bucket of blood every day for lunch? Loin of bumpkin?”
“No. Mentally... There is no way to tell... She may be at the level, say, of a child of three or four. She will
need much care for a long time.”
“That’s clear. Master witcher?”
“Might she return to that? Later?”
The witcher did not answer.
“Ha,” said the king. “She might. And what then?”
“If she dies after a long swoon, a swoon of several days, the body must be burned. And quickly.”
Hrobost hung his head.
“But I don’t believe that will happen,” Geralt added. “Let me tell you some things to do, sire, to lessen that
“Tell me now? Isn’t it a bit early in the game? Because if—”
“Now, Your Majesty,” said the Rivian. “Outcomes vary. It may happen that in the morning you will find, in the
crypt, the princess restored and my corpse.”
“Really? Despite my permission for you to defend yourself? A permission, I have the impression, however, that
you can manage without.”
“This is a serious business, Your Majesty. The risk is great. Therefore hear me: the princess must wear around
her neck, constantly, a sapphire, best a sapphire with an inclusion, on a silver chain. Constantly. Day and night.”
“What does an inclusion mean?”
“That the stone contains a bubble of air. In addition, in the room in which she sleeps, one must every now
and then burn in the fireplace boughs of juniper, yew, and hazel.”
Hrobost grew pensive.
“For this, master witcher, I thank you. I will see to all these things, assuming that... But now listen carefully.
If you determine that the case is hopeless, you will kill her. If you undo the spell, and the girl is... not normal,
if you have the least doubt that you have not succeeded, you will also kill her. Do not fear; you will be in no
danger from me. I will storm at you in the presence of people, I will drive you from the palace and from the town,
nothing more. There will be no reward, of course. You might negotiate something for yourself, you know from
Neither spoke for a while.
“Geralt,” Hrobost said, using the witcher’s name for the first time.
“How much truth is there to what people say, that the child was the way it was because Adda was my sister?”
“Not much. A spell must be cast; no spell casts itself. But your union with your sister, I suspect, was the
reason for the casting, so in that sense it was the cause.”
“That is as I thought. Some of the Wise Ones said this, though not all of them. Geralt? Where do such things
come from? Spells, magic, monsters.”
“I know not, Your Majesty. The Wise Ones concern themselves with the sources of such phenomena. For us
witchers it is enough to know that the concentrated will can bring them into play. And enough to know how to
“Most often. That is what we are paid for most often. Few ask that a curse be lifted. As a rule, people simply
want the danger to them removed. If the monster has taken lives, of course, there may be the added motive of
The king paced the floor, then stopped before the witcher’s sword, which was hanging on the wall.
“With that?” he asked, not looking at Geralt.
“No. That is for people.”
“I heard. You know what, Geralt? I will go with you to the crypt.”
“Out of the question.”
Hrobost turned, his eyes flashing.
“Do you realize, magician, that I have never seen her? Not after the birth and not... afterward. I was afraid.
It is possible that I will never see her now, yes? I have the right at least to see her as you murder her.”
“I repeat, Your Majesty, it is out of the question. It is certain death. For me as well as for you. If my attention
wavers, my will... No.”
Hrobost went to the door. For a moment Geralt thought he would leave without a word or parting gesture, but
the king stopped and faced him.
“You inspire confidence,” he said. “Though I have seen through some of your tricks. I was told what took
place in that tavern. I know you slew those churls only for effect: to impress people, me. Obviously you could
have overcome them without the sword. I fear I may never know whether you go to save my daughter or to slay
her. But I agree to this. I must. Do you know why?”
Geralt did not answer.
“Because,” said the king, “I believe that she is suffering. Is she?”
The witcher’s eyes were penetrating as he faced the king. He did not say yes, did not nod, did not make the
least movement, but Hrobost saw what the answer was.
For the last time, Geralt looked out the old castle window. Dusk was falling quickly. Across the lake glimmered
the blurry lights of Klothstur. Around the old castle was a waste, a no-man’s-land that the town in the course of
six years had put between itself and the place of peril, leaving nothing but a few ruins, rotting timbers, and the
gapped remnant of a stockade fence—apparently it didn’t pay to take the thing down and cart it. Farther on, at
the opposite end of the settlement, was where the king had moved his residence: the squat tower of his new
palace rose black against the darkening blue sky.
The witcher returned to the dusty table at which, in one of the empty, plundered rooms, he had been preparing
himself unhurriedly, quietly, carefully. He had time, he knew: the gomb would not leave her crypt before midnight.
On the table before him was a box, not large, brass-trimmed. He opened it. Inside sat dark vials, each in a
narrow compartment padded with dry grass. He took out three.
From the floor he lifted a long package thickly wrapped in sheepskin and secured with a strap. Untying this
package, he removed a sword with an ornamented hilt, its black gleaming scabbard covered with rows of runic
signs and symbols. He bared the blade, which gleamed with the pure light of a mirror. It was all silver.
Geralt whispered a formula, drank the contents of two of the vials, first one, then the other, after each swallow
placing his left hand on the pommel of his sword. Whereupon, wrapping himself tightly in his black cloak, he
sat. On the floor. There were no chairs in the room, in any of the rooms of the castle.
He sat motionless, his eyes closed. His breathing, at first even, suddenly grew fast, hoarse, ragged. Then it
stopped completely. The mixture that the witcher had used to assume full control of all the organs of his body
was composed mainly of hellebore, jimsonweed, hawthorn, spurge, and wolfwort. Some of the other ingredients
had no name in any human tongue. For a man unaccustomed to this potion from childhood, it would have been
a fatal drink.
The witcher immediately turned his head. His hearing, now sharpened beyond measure, easily caught from the
surrounding stillness the rustle of steps across the courtyard overgrown with nettles. It couldn’t be the gomb. It
was too early. Geralt flung the sword on his back, hid his pack in the fireplace beneath the broken chimney, and
as silent as a bat ran down the stairs.
In the courtyard, enough of the day was left for the approaching man to see the witcher’s face. The man—it
was Osrugh—recoiled with an involuntary grimace of fright and revulsion. The witcher smiled a crooked smile:
he knew how he looked. The baneberry, monkshood, and glowworm in the potion had turned his skin the color
of chalk, and the irises of his eyes were now all pupil. But that enabled Geralt to see into the deepest darkness,
which was what he wanted.
Osrugh regained his composure.
“You resemble a corpse already, sorceror,” he said. “No doubt from terror. Fear not. I bring you a pardon.”
The witcher said nothing.
“You did not hear what I just said, Rivian medicine man? You are saved. And rich—” Osrugh hefted in his
hand a sizable purse and tossed it at Geralt’s feet. “A thousand rials. Take it, mount your horse, and begone!”
The Rivian kept his silence.
“Don’t stare at me that way!” Osrugh raised his voice. “And don’t waste my time. I do not intend to stand
here till midnight. Don’t you comprehend? It is my wish that you leave the curse in place. No, don’t think you
have guessed the reason. I am not in this with Ethmond and Segelin: I don’t want you to kill her. Simply go. Let
everything remain as it was.”
The witcher didn’t move, not wanting the nobleman to realize how accelerated his motions and reflexes now
were. It was growing darker rapidly, and in time, for even the dusk was too bright for his dilated eyes.
“And why, my lord, must everything remain as it was?” he asked, making an effort to pronounce each syllable
“That,” said Osrugh, haughtily lifting his head, “is no concern of yours.”
“And if I know already?”
“I am curious to hear.”
“It will be easier to remove Hrobost from the throne if the gomb torments the people more and more. If the
king’s stubbornness utterly disgusts both nobles and commoners. Am I right? I rode here through Redania,
through Gribbage. There is much talk there of how some in Klothstur see King Vizimir as savior and true monarch.
But I am not concerned with politics, Sir Osrugh, with who succeeds whom to the throne, with palace coups. I
am here to do a job. Have you never heard of professional ethics, a personal code of honor?”
“Consider to whom you speak, vagabond!” cried Osrugh in a fury, gripping the hilt of his sword. “Enough of
this! It is not my wont to enter into discussions with such as you. Who talks of ethics, honor, a code? A ruffian
who no sooner arrives than he murders honest folk. Who bends his knee to Hrobost, then behind his back bargains
with Ethmond like a hired thug. And you dare to put on airs, flunky? Pretend to be a Wise One? A mage? A
thaumaturge? Off with you, odious witcher scum, before I take the flat of my blade to your ugly face!”
The witcher didn’t budge, stood calmly.
“Rather, off with you, Sir Osrugh,” he said. “For night falls.”
Osrugh stepped back a pace and drew his sword.
“You asked for it, weaver of charms. I will kill you. Your little tricks will not avail you, for I wear a turtlestone.”
Geralt smiled. The belief in the efficacy of turtlestones was as widespread as it was mistaken. But the witcher
had no intention of expending energy on a charm, nor more of endangering his silver blade by crossing it with
Osrugh’s weapon. He ducked under the swinging sword and with the base of his fist, with the silver studs of his
cuff, made contact with the nobleman’s skull.
Osrugh came to his senses, looked around, and found himself in total darkness. He was bound. Though Geralt
stood near, Osrugh couldn’t see him. But he knew where this was and screamed, long and in horror.
“Hush,” said the witcher. “You’ll draw her out before the time.”
“Accursed murderer! Where are you? Untie me immediately, knave! You’ll hang for this!”
Osrugh breathed heavily.
“You’re leaving me to be eaten by her! Tied up?” he asked, more quietly now, adding an obscenity at
practically a whisper.
“No,” said the witcher. “I will release you. But not now.”
“Bastard,” hissed Osrugh. “To divert the gomb’s attention from yourself?”
Osrugh fell silent, stopped heaving, lay still.
“It’s true that I wanted to topple Hrobost. There were others, but I alone wished his death—an agonizing,
maddening, decaying death. Do you know why?”
Geralt was silent.
“I loved Adda. The king’s sister. The king’s mistress. The king’s whore. I loved her... Witcher, are you there?”
“I know what you’re thinking. That’s not how it was. Believe me, I cast no curse. I know no magic. Only once,
in my anger, did I utter... Only once. Witcher, are you listening?”
“It was his mother, the old queen. It was certainly she. She couldn’t bear to see how he and Adda... It wasn’t
I. Only one time, you understand, I tried to persuade her, but Adda... I lost my head and said it... Witcher, was
it I? I?”
“It doesn’t matter now.”
“Witcher? Is it near midnight?”
“Release me sooner. Give me more time.”
Osrugh didn’t hear the scrape of the slab as it was pushed from the tomb, but the witcher did. He bent over
and with his dagger cut the nobleman’s bonds. Osrugh didn’t wait for words; he jumped up, clumsily limped on
his numb legs, then ran. His eyes had grown accustomed enough to the darkness that he could make out the way
that led from the main hall of the catacombs.
With a crash the slab covering the crypt hit the floor. Geralt, concealing himself behind the balustrade of the
stairs, saw the hideous shape of the gomb running nimbly, swiftly, and unerringly after the departing clop-clop
of Osrugh’s boots. The gomb made not the least sound.
A horrid, frenzied, ringing din tore the night, shook the old walls, and went on, rising, falling, reverberating.
The witcher could not tell the exact distance—his sharpened hearing deceived—but he knew that the gomb had
caught Osrugh quickly. Too quickly.
He went to the center of the hall and stood right at the entrance of the crypt. He shrugged off his coat. He
moved his shoulders to adjust the position of the sword. He pulled on his gloves. He had a moment or two yet.
He knew that the gomb, even if completely sated, would be in no hurry to leave Osrugh’s body. The heart and
liver were a valuable store of nourishment for her long sleep.
The witcher waited. There were about five hours to morning, he estimated. The crowing of a cock could only
mislead him. In any event there were most likely no cocks in the vicinity.
He listened. She walked slowly, shuffling across the parquet floor. Then he saw her.
The description was accurate. A disproportionately large head set on a short neck. Around the head, in a circle,
a tangled writhe of reddish hair. The eyes glowed in the dark like two carbuncles. The gomb stood still, eyes on
Geralt. Suddenly she opened her jaws—as if to show off her rows of white pointed teeth—then clamped them
shut, as one closes a chest. And she leaped from her place, with no preliminary movement, and made for the
witcher, her bloody claws outstretched.
Geralt jumped to one side, turned in a lightning pirouette; the gomb lunged at him, also spun, lashing the
air with her talons. She kept her balance, attacked again, instantly, in half turn, snapping her teeth an inch from
Geralt’s breast. The Rivian jumped to the other side, three times changing the direction of his spin, in a flapping
twirl that confused the monster. As he jumped back, he hit her, hard, without swinging, in the side of the head
with the silver barbs set along the top of his glove.
The gomb roared, filling the catacombs with thunder, and dropped to the ground and began to howl, a
guttural, evil, enraged baying.
The witcher smiled grimly. The first test, as he had hoped, succeeded: silver was poison to the gomb, as it
was to most creatures brought to life by magic. So there was a fair chance that this beast was like others, that
therefore the curse could be lifted from her. Also, his silver sword, as a last resort, could save his life.
The gomb didn’t hurry with her next attack. This time she approached slowly, baring her fangs, drooling
repulsively. Geralt retreated, went in a half circle, planting his feet with great care. He moved now slower, now
faster, putting the gomb off stride whenever she crouched to pounce. As he went, the witcher unloosed a long,
thin, strong chain weighted at the end. The chain was silver.
In the moment the gomb sprang, the chain whistled in the air and, snaking, in a blink was wrapped around
the monster’s shoulders, neck, and head. The gomb fell in midleap, emitting a scream that pierced the ears. She
thrashed on the parquet floor, roaring, either from fury or from the burning pain caused by the hated metal.
Geralt was satisfied: killing this gomb, should he need to, would present no problem.
But the witcher did not draw his sword. So far nothing in the creature’s behavior gave reason to think that
her condition was incurable. He withdrew to an appropriate distance and, not taking his eyes off the shape that
heaved on the floor, breathed deeply and concentrated.
The chain broke, its silver links sprayed in every direction like rain, ringing on the stone. Blind with rage, the
gomb hurled herself at Geralt. He waited calmly and with his raised right hand before him made the Sign of Aard.
The gomb was thrown back several paces as if hit with a hammer, but she kept on her feet, extended her
claws, opened her jaws. Her hair was blown back and fluttered as if she pressed against a furious wind. With
difficulty, rasping, step by step, she came at him slowly. But came.
Geralt frowned. He hadn’t expected that such a simple sign would completely paralyze the gomb, but it was
a surprise that the beast was overcoming its resistance so easily. He couldn’t maintain the sign long, it was too
draining, and the gomb now had no more than ten steps to take to reach him. He released the sign suddenly and
jumped aside. As he expected, the gomb, unprepared, flew forward, lost her balance, fell, slid across the floor,
bounced down steps and into the pit that was the entrance to the crypt. From below came a resounding bellow
of the damned.
To gain time, he ran up the stairs to the gallery. He hadn’t gone halfway before the gomb emerged from the
crypt, rushing like an enormous black spider. The witcher waited for her to mount the stairs after him, then
vaulted the balustrade and jumped down. The gomb turned on the stairs and came bounding toward him in an
incredible jump. She was not so fooled this time by his pirouette—twice her talons scored the Rivian’s leather
jerkin. But another powerful blow with the silver barbs of his glove repelled her, staggered her. Geralt, feeling a
great anger grow in him, rocked, bent backward, and with a strong sideways kick swept the beast off her feet.
The roar she gave was louder than any before. Plaster dribbled from the ceiling.
The gomb was up again, quivering with insane fury and thirsting for blood. Geralt waited. He had drawn his
sword; he made a circle in the air with it, went around the gomb, taking care that the sword did not move in the
rhythm of his steps. The gomb did not lunge; she approached slowly, following the bright trail of the blade with
Geralt came to a sudden stop, froze with the sword raised. The gomb, perplexed, stopped as well. The witcher
drew a slow half circle with the edge, took a step toward the gomb. Then another, then he leaped, twirling it
above his head.
In a crouch, the gomb zigzagged back. Again Geralt was near, the blade flashing in his hand. The eyes of the
witcher smoldered with menace; from his clenched teeth came a rumbling growl. The gomb again retreated,
pushed by the force of the concentrated hatred and violence that emanated from the advancing man, in a wave
that entered her brain, her core. Frightened to the point of pain by this emotion unknown to her, she uttered a
shuddery, strangled shriek, turned, and bolted madly into the dark maze of the castle’s corridors.
Geralt, shivering, stood in the center of the hall. Alone. It had taken a long time, he thought, for that dance
at the edge of the precipice, for that berserk, macabre ballet-duel to lead to the end desired: his attaining psychic
unity with the adversary, his reaching the level of focused will that filled the gomb. The vile, sick will from which
she arose and on whose power she fed. The witcher shivered at the memory of the moment when he took into
himself the charge of evil, to level it like a mirror back on the monster. He had never before encountered such
unalloyed bile, such a murderous frenzy, even among the basilisks, who were known for that.
All the better, he thought as he walked to the entrance of the crypt, a huge puddle of black on the floor. All
the better, for all the stronger was the blow that the gomb had received. It would give him a little more time to
do what he needed to do, before the beast shook off her shock. The witcher doubted that he would be able to
make another effort like that. The effect of the elixirs was weakening, and dawn was still far off. The gomb must
not return to the crypt before morning, or all his work was for nought.
He descended the steps. The crypt was not big; it held three stone sarcophagi. On the one nearest the
entrance the lid had been half pushed aside. Geralt took from his pocket the third vial, quickly drank its contents,
climbed into the tomb, and sank down. As he had thought, the tomb was for two—for a mother and daughter.
He closed the lid only when he heard, above, the howl of the monster. He lay down beside the mummified
remains of Adda, and on the slab above him he drew the Sign of Yrd. He laid the sword across his chest and on
it set a small hourglass filled with phosphorescent sand. He crossed his arms. He no longer heard the cries of the
gomb at loose in the castle. He no longer heard anything, for the marguerite and the celandine had begun their
When Geralt opened his eyes, the sand in the hourglass had all sifted to the bottom, which meant that his sleep
had lasted longer than needed. He strained his ears but heard nothing. His senses were normal again.
He took the sword, brushed a hand along the lid of the sarcophagus, muttering a formula, then easily—by
a few inches—moved the slab ajar.
He moved the lid farther, sat up, and holding his sword in readiness lifted his head from the tomb. It was
black in the crypt, but the witcher knew that it was morning outside. He started a flame, lit a miniature torch,
raised it, throwing eerie shadows on the walls of the crypt.
The crypt was empty.
He crawled out of the sarcophagus, sore, numb, cold. Then he saw her. She lay across the tomb, naked,
She was homely. Scrawny, with small pointy breasts, dirty. Her hair—a pale red—almost reached her waist.
Setting the torch on the slab, he knelt beside her, bent to her. Her lips were white; her cheekbone had a large
red scratch where he had struck her. Geralt removed his glove, put aside the sword, and unceremoniously lifted
her upper lip with a finger. Her teeth were normal. He reached for her hand, which was entangled in her hair.
Before he touched the hand, he saw her eyes were open. Too late.
She clawed at his neck, clawed deep; his blood spattered her face. She wailed, going for his eyes with her
other hand. He fell on her, seizing the wrists of both hands, pressing her to the floor. She snapped with her
teeth—now too short—at his face. He pounded his forehead into her face, pressed harder. She did not have her
former strength, she could only twist beneath him, wailing, spitting the blood—his blood—that had filled her
mouth. The bleeding was fast. There was no time. The witcher cursed and bit her hard in the neck, just below
the ear, sank his teeth deep and shook until the inhuman wail became a thin, desperate scream and then choking
sobs—the weeping of a fourteen-year-old girl who had been hurt.
He released her when she stopped moving; he got to his knees, tore a scrap of cloth from the pocket on his
sleeve, pressed it to his neck. He groped for the sword that lay nearby, pressed its point to the throat of the
senseless girl, leaned over to examine her hand. The nails were filthy, broken, bloody... but human. Completely
The witcher got up with difficulty. Through the entrance to the crypt one could now make out the moist gray
of morning. He walked toward the stairs, but wavered, sat heavily on the parquet floor. Through the soaked cloth
the blood flowed down his arm, dripped from his sleeve. He unbuttoned his jacket, tore his shirt, ripped, made
strips, tied them around his neck, knowing there was little time before he passed out...
He tied the strips in time. And passed out.
In Klothstur, beyond the lake, a rooster, shaking the chilly dew from his feathers, gave a raspy cry for the
He saw the whitewashed walls and beamed ceiling of the little room above the guards’ hall. He moved his head,
winced with the pain, groaned. His neck was all bandaged—thickly, professionally.
“Lie there, magician,” Ethmond said. “Don’t try to move.”
“Yes, of course. The most important thing, clearly, is your silver witcher sword. It’s here, don’t worry. The
sword, the little box. And the three thousand rials. Yes, yes, don’t try to speak. I’m an old fool, and you’re a wise
witcher. Hrobost has been repeating that for the past two days.”
“Two, of course. She opened your neck quite a bit, we could see everything inside. You lost much blood. Lucky
for you we rushed to the old castle right after the third crow. No one in Klothstur slept that night. They couldn’t.
The noise you made was awful. I’m not tiring you with my chatter?”
“The princess, well, she’s a princess. Skin and bones. And with not a whole lot upstairs. She cries all the time.
Wets the bed. But Hrobost says that’ll change. Change for the better, I’m thinking, right, Geralt?”
The witcher closed his eyes.
“Very well, I’m leaving now.” Ethmond got up. “You rest. Geralt? Before I go, could you tell me one thing?
Why did you want to bite her like that? Geralt?”
The witcher slept.