Geralt got so angsty in his previous talk with Iola, that the universe spontaneously summoned Dandelion to visit him. Nenneke is not terribly pleased.
'It's Dandelion this time, your friend. That idler, parasite and good-for-nothing, that priest of art, the bright-shining star of the ballad and love doggerel. As usual he's radiant with fame, puffed up like a pig's bladder and stinking of beer. Do you want to see him?'
'Of course. He's my friend, after all.'
Nenneke, peeved, shrugged her shoulders. 'I can't understand that friendship. He's your absolute opposite.'
'Obviously. There, he's coming,' she indicated with her head. 'Your great poet.'
'He really is a talented poet, Nenneke. Surely you're not going to claim you've never heard his ballads.'
'I've heard them.' The priestess winced. 'Yes, indeed. Well, I'm not an expert, so maybe the ability to jump from touching lyricism to obscenities in an instant is the very definition of talent. Never mind. Forgive me, but I won't keep you company. I'm not in the mood for either his poetry or his vulgar jokes.'
A peal of laughter and the strumming of a lute resounded in the corridor and there, on the threshold of the library, stood Dandelion in a lilac jerkin with lace cuffs, his hat askew. The troubadour bowed exaggeratedly at the sight of Nenneke, the heron feather pinned to his hat sweeping the floor.
'My deepest respects, venerable mother,' he whined clownishly. 'Praise be the Great Melitele and her priestesses, the springs of virtue and wisdom-'
'Stop playing the fool,' snorted Nenneke. 'And don't call me mother. The very idea that you could be my son fills me with horror.'
She turned on her heel and left, her trailing robe rustling. Dandelion, aping her, sketched a parody bow.
Dandelion (Buttercup in the original Polish, but obviously that is far too girly a name for this paragon of manliness) might look like this:
I'm not much impressed, but pretty much every other fan-artist simply reproduces the in-game portrait (spoiler alert - Dandelion is a character we'll get to meet eventually).
Geralt angsts a bit at Dandelion, but unwilling to confide the true cause of his depression, settles on the old "waah, nobody has work for us Witchers, we're a dying breed, what is even the point of it all?" "Something ends" - a line so great it was reworked into an ongoing theme and a short story title.
I ride on, and I'm getting hungrier and hungrier. I ask around for work. Certainly it's there, but what work? To catch a rusalka for one man, a nymph for another, a dryad for a third . . . They've gone completely mad - the villages are teeming with girls but they want humanoids. Another asks me to kill a mecopteran and bring him a bone from its hand because, crushed and poured into a soup, it cures impotence-'
'That's rubbish,' interrupted Dandilion. 'I've tried it. It doesn't strengthen anything and it makes the soup taste of old socks. But if people believe it and are inclined to pay-'
'I'm not going to kill mecopterans. Nor any other harmless creatures.'
In any case, Dandelion is there to tell Geralt to stop moping. Yes, the civilized world has less and less need for witchers - they were created centuries ago, in the dark times when monsters were literally as frequent as they are in the games, and a step outside the walls without an armed escort invited certain death. But the witchers have cut a path of destruction through local monster population, often at the cost of their own lives, and now the major kindgoms rarely need a witcher's services. But there are always the far frontiers, which are nit nearly as civilized or safe. Dandelion and Geralt could travel there - or better yet, reminisce about the last time they've done so, when they went to the Edge of the World.
* This is the first story where the geography of the action is actually relevant, so here's a map of the Northern Kingdoms.
I couldn't find a decent sized image that covers the whole thing, so I stole the map in the Witcher 1 artbook (which has a lot of neat stuff I should use). Pretty sure the forums won't allow you to watch them side by side, so if anyone has a better map, feel free to contribute. In any case, Dol Blathanna, the valley of flowers, is on the south-east corner of the map, the border of civilization circumscribed not just by the mountains, but by the elves, who do not encourage human explorers.
* This is the first time the text confirms everything the thread speculated about / assumed based on osmosis from the game re: witchers and civilization. Fewer monsters, and more things regular soldiers / mages can deal with.
* Dandelion is a deconstruction of the comical sidekick archetype, insofar as the characters in-universe are aware that he's a useless fuck who exists to make "comical" remarks and get everyone into trouble. Figuring out why Geralt tolerates him is one of the keys to figuring out Geralt's personality and self-image in general.
* Sapkowski actually makes some abortive attempts to transform Dandelion from poet to troubadour, which is ostensibly an official title of sorts with certain privileges, but that doesn't actually go anywhere. So I'll freely refer to him as poet / bard / troubadour / twerp, as the mood strikes me.
* I've been forced to actually discuss the framing story, instead of going with the low effort joke of "Dandelion and Geralt could travel there - or better yet, reminisce about the last time they've done so, when they went to the Edge of the World" (end quote for Voice of Reason) "So they do" (Open quote for "The Edge of the World" recap). An attempt at said joke is preserved for posterity regardless.
The story proper opens with Geralt and Dandelion negotiating with some stoooooopid peasants.
(Really, Dandelion shouldn't be classically handsome, or even archetypically "roguishly handsome", but he shouldn't be quite this unfortunate looking either. A second-rate comic desperately wishing he was a comedy lead - that's Dandelion)
The next few minutes passed in a recital of the monsters which plagued the local peasants with their malevolent doings, or their simple existence. Geralt and Dandelion learnt of misguids and mamunes, which prevent an honest peasant from finding his way home in a drunken stupour, of the flying drake which, d'you see, flies around and, just-a-so, drinks milk from cows, of the head on spider's legs which runses abouts in the forest, of hobolds which wear red hats and about a dangerous pike which, d'you hear, tears linen from gossips' hands as they wash it - and just you wait and it'll be at the gossips them-own-selves. They weren't spared hearing that old Nan the Hag flies on a broom at night and performs abortions in the day, that the miller tampers with the flour by mixing it with powdered acorns and that a certain Duda impudently called the royal steward "a thief and scoundrel".
Geralt listened to all this calmly, nodding with feigned interest, and asked a few questions about the roads and layout of the land, after which he rose and nodded to Dandilion.
'Well, take care, my good people,' he said. 'I'll be back soon, then we'll see what can be done.'
They rode away in silence alongside the cottages and fences, accompanied by yapping dogs and screaming children.
'Geralt,' said Dandilion, standing in the stirrups to pick a fine apple from a branch which stretched over the orchard fence, 'all the way you've been complaining about it being harder and harder to find work. Yet from what I just heard, it looks as if you could work here without break until winter. You'd make a penny or two, and I'd have some beautiful subjects for my ballads. So explain why we're riding on.'
'I wouldn't make a penny, Dandelion.'
'Because there wasn't a word of truth in what they said.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'None of the creatures they mentioned exist.'
But why would people who live in a world where monsters are actually quite real invent new monsters to be frightened of?
People,' Geralt turned his head, like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves. When they get blind-drunk, cheat, steal, beat their wives, starve an old woman, when they butcher a trapped fox with their axes or riddle the last existing unicorn with arrows, they like to think that the Bane entering cottages at daybreak is more monstrous than they are. They feel better then. They find it easier to live.
Thanks for that insight, Pan Sapkowski. Really makes you think.
Even if they don't have any business here, the land is fertile and quite beautiful. Just the sort of pastoral diversion needed to find poetic inspiration and a cure for witcher-mopes.
Nettly, a settler from Lower Posada, catches up to the duo and asks them to visit and have a chat about a real work offer. Since they're headed to LP anyways, they agree. Along the way, we get some more botanical observations. Thankfully, neither I nor Pan Sapkowski are actually pastoral poets, so the description doesn't drag on.
The point is made - this is a fertile frontier, and now that the humans have pushed the elves out, they will thrive there. They even still call it Dol Blathanna, the Vale of Flowers, rather than than an elven grave.
Once they get there, elder Dhun asks them to hunt down a deovel.
The deovel is a sapient trickster, sometimes helpful, sometimes mischievous. Recently, he's been up to a lot of mischief, stealing and spoiling crops, and should therefore be chased off - without any permanent harm coming to it, though. Geralt goes out into the fields to confront it, trailed by (the now arbitrarily skeptical) Dandelion. The devil makes its lair in a hemp field, which nullifies Geralt's spells.
In the middle of the field there's a clearing and an altar-stone of sorts, piled with offerings and leftovers. Grain in particular, which is an odd things for a goat-devil to eat. The devil confronts the two,
bleatinguk-uking threats and demands that they leave. Dandelion can't stop himself from being Dandeliontaunting the devil.
'Stop it, damn you,' hissed Geralt. 'Keep your stupid jokes to yourself-'
'Jokes!' roared the goathorn loudly and leapt up. 'Jokes? New jokers have come, have they? They've brought iron balls, have they? I'll give you iron balls, you scoundrels, you. Uk! Uk! Uk! You want to joke, do you? Here are some jokes for you! Here are your balls!'
The creature sprang up and gave a sudden swipe with his hand. Dandelion howled and sat down hard on the path, clasping his forehead. The creature bleated and aimed again. Something whizzed past Geralt's ear.
'Here are your balls!' Brrreee!'
An iron ball, an inch in diameter, thwacked the witcher in the shoulder and the next hit Dandelion in the knee. The poet cursed foully and scrambled away, Geralt running after him as balls whizzed above his head.
'Uk! Uk! ' screamed the goathorn, leaping up and down. 'I'll give you balls! You lousy jokers!'
'Well, well, Geralt.' Dandelion held a horseshoe he'd cooled in a bucket to his forehead. 'That's not what I expected. A horned freak with a goatee like a billy-goat, a shaggy moron, and he chased you away like some whelp. And I took this blow. Look at that bump!'
'That's the sixth time you've shown it to me. And it's no more interesting now than it was the first time.'
'Thank you for the sympathy. And I thought I'd be safe with you!'
'I didn't ask you to traipse after me into the hemp, but I did ask you to keep that foul tongue of yours on a leash. You didn't listen, so now you can suffer. In silence, please, because they're just coming.'
Nettly and Dhun walked into the dayroom. Behind them hobbled a grey-haired old woman, twisted as a pretzel, led by a fair-haired and painfully thin teenage girl.
'Honourable Dhun, honourable Nettly,' the witcher began without introduction. 'I asked you, before I left, whether you had already tried to do something with that devil of yours on your own. You told me that you 'hadn't done nothing'. I've grounds to think otherwise. I await your explanation.'
The village has a "great booke", written in Elder Runes. The wise women of the village memorize the contents without being able to read it, and pass on advice on how to deal with various monsters to their apprentices. Dandelion has to make sure the hag can recite some "random" pages (this is the one comic bit of this story that really works for me, so I'll quote it in full:
The etching showed a dishevelled monstrosity with enormous eyes and utterly ludicrous teeth, riding a horse. In its right hand, the monstrous being wielded a substantial sword, in its left, a bag of money.
'A witchman,' mumbled the woman. 'Called by some a witcher. To summon him is most dangerous, albeit one must; for when against the monster and the vermin there be no aid, the witchman can contrive. But careful one must be-'
'Enough,' muttered Geralt. 'Enough, Grandma. Thank you.'
'No, no,' protested Dandilion with a malicious smile. 'How does it go on? What a greatly interesting book-e! Go on, Granny, go on.'
'Eeee . . . But careful one must be to touch not the witchman, for thus the mange can one acquire. And lasses do from him hide away, for lustful the witchman is above all measure-'
'Absolutely spot on,' laughed the poet, and Lille, so it seemed to Geralt, smiled almost imperceptibly.
'-though the witchman greatly covetous and greedy for gold be,' mumbled the old woman, half-closing her eyes, 'giveth ye not such a one more than: for a drowner, one silver penny or three halves; for a werecat, silver pennies two; for a plumard, silver pennies-'
'Those were the days,' muttered the witcher. 'Thank you, Grandma. And now show us where it speaks of the devil and what the book says about devils. This time 'tis grateful I'd be to heareth more, for to learn the ways and meanes ye did use to deal with him most curious am I.'
'Careful, Geralt,' chuckled Dandilion. 'You're starting to fall into their jargon. It's an infectious mannerism.'
The woman, controlling her shaking hands with difficulty, turned several pages. The witcher and the poet leaned over the table. The etching did, in effect, show the ball-thrower: horned, hairy, betailed and smiling maliciously.
'The deovel,' recited the woman. 'Also called "willower" or "sylvan". For livestock and domestic fowl, a tiresome and great pest is he. Be it your will to chase him from your hamlet, takest thou-'
'Well, well,' murmured Dandilion.
'-takest thou of nuts, one fistful,' continued the woman, running her finger along the parchment. 'Next, takest thou of iron balls a second fistful. Of honey an utricle, of birch tar a second. Of grey soap a firkin; of soft cheese another. There where the deovel dwelleth, goest thou when 'tis night. Commenceth then to eat the nuts. Anon, the deovel who hath great greed, will hasten and ask if they are tasty indeed. Givest to him then the balls of iron-'
'Damn you,' murmured Dandilion. 'Pox take-'
'Quiet,' said Geralt. 'Well, Grandma. Go on.'
'. . . having broken his teeth he will be attentive as thou eatest the honey. Of said honey will he himself desire. Givest him of birch tar, then yourself eateth soft cheese. Soon, hearest thou, will the deovel grumbleth and tumbleth, but makest of it as naught. Yet if the deovel desireth soft cheese, givest him soap. For soap the deovel withstandeth not-'
'You got to the soap?' interrupted Geralt with a stony expression turning towards Dhun and Nettly.
'In no way,' groaned Nettly. 'We barely got to the balls. But he gave us the what for once he bit into one'
'And who told you to give him so many?' Dandilion was enraged. 'It stands written in the book, one fistful to take. Yet ye gaveth of balls a sackful! Ye furnished him with ammunition for two years, more the fools ye!'
'Careful,' smiled the witcher. 'You're starting to fall into their jargon. It's infectious.
In any case, the devil has been stealing more and more and demanding levies in grain. The old witch - or rather, Lille - has forbidden the villagers from organizing a mob or otherwise killing the devil. Despite never speaking, Lille is a Wise One - a village witch. The Wise Ones are often persecuted, so they'd rather not share this information with outsiders.
'Know ye, sir,' said Nettly, 'it be nae only a matter of the deovel. Lille does nae let us harm anything. Any creature.'
'Of course,' Dandilion butted in, 'country prophetesses grow from the same tree as druids. And a druid will go so far as to wish the gadfly sucking his blood to enjoy its meal.'
'Ye hits it on the head,' Nettly faintly smiled. 'Ye hits the nail right on the head. 'Twas the same with us and the wild boars that dug up our vegetable beds. Look out the window: beds as pretty as a picture. We have found a way, Lille doesnae even know. What the eyes do nay see, the heart will nae miss. Understand?'
'I understand,' muttered Geralt. 'And how. But we can't move forward. Lille or no Lille, your devil is a sylvan. An exceptionally rare but intelligent creature. I won't kill him, my code doesn't allow it.'
'If he be intelligent,' said Dhun, 'go speak reason to him.'
The devil is a bit too smug and belligerent to listen to reason at the moment, but Geralt has ways of dealing with failure to communicate.
Reusing the devil's own metal balls against him, Geralt manages to get close enough for a fisticuffs / wrestling match. Goat boy got the mule kicks, but he's not really much of a fighter, and soon tries to run. Geralt chases towards a mounted figure, assuming it to be Dandelion, only to get piled on and knocked the fuck out.
When he comes to, it turns out they were captured by elves. As ever, they are there to defend the helpless creatures of the forest from Man's deprivations.
Well, not really. They're there to get the food and seeds Thorque (the devil) has been stealing for them. Having been forced to flee to the mountains, they are starving. Their leader has apparently forbidden them from killing anyone before he gets there, but now that Dandelion is awake and whining, Toruviel has the perfect excuse to saunter over and give the two a good kicking.
Toruviel turned to him with an angry grimace on her cracked lips. 'Musician!' she growled. 'A human, yet a musician! A luten-ist!'
Without a word, she pulled the instrument from the tall elf's hand, forcefully smashed the lute against the pine and threw the remains, tangled in the strings, on Dandilion's chest.
'Play on a cow's horn, you savage, not a lute.'
The poet turned as white as death, his lips quivered. Geralt, feeling cold fury rising up somewhere within him, drew Toruviel's eyes with his own.
'What are you staring at?' hissed the elf, leaning over. 'Filthy ape-man! Do you want me to gouge out those insect eyes of yours?'
Her necklace hung down just above him. The witcher tensed, lunged, and caught the necklace in his teeth, tugging powerfully, curling his legs in and turning on his side.
Toruviel lost her balance and fell on top of him.
Geralt wriggled in the ropes like a fish, crushed the elf beneath him, tossed his head back with such force that the vertebrae in his neck cracked and, with all his might, butted her in the face with his forehead. Toruviel howled and struggled.
They roughly pulled him off her and, tugging at his clothes and hair, lifted him. One of them struck him; he felt rings cut the skin over his cheekbone and the forest danced and swam in front of his eyes. He saw Toruviel lurch to her knees, blood pouring from her nose and mouth. The elf wrenched the dagger from its sheath but gave a sob, hunched over, grasped her face and dropped her head between her knees.
The tall elf in the jacket adorned with colourful feathers took the dagger from her hand and approached the witcher. He smiled as he raised the blade. Geralt saw him through a red haze; blood from his forehead, which he'd cut against Toruviel's teeth, poured into his eye-sockets.
'No!' bleated Torque, running up to the elf and hanging on to his arm. 'Don't kill him! No!'
'Voe'rle, Vanadain,' a sonorous voice suddenly commanded. 'Quess aen? Caelm, evellienn! Galarr!'
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a comprehensive translation of all the elven Elder Speech in the books. It's a rough blend of Gaelic, German, Italian and English. The elven leader arrives just in time to... transform a needlessly brutal execution into an orderly and civilized one. They really can't afford to leave any witnesses.
We finally get a really decent back and forth, with the fate of Geralt, Dandelion and (to an extent) the elven race at stake. Good combination of exposition, abstract arguments, and personal revelations.
The gist of it is fairly simple - the land used to gift the elven folk freely, with no need to tear it apart with plows and blades. Now, the world has changed - you can feel it in the water, the air, the sun. Even if they could learn how to reap and sow, the mountains are barren. But the free elves are unwilling to trade or beg or rob from the humans, to be cooped up in ghettos and butchered in pogroms. Geralt might swallow his pride and be willing to live as a despised half-human servant, but they won't. Coexistence is impossible. But isolation is impossible as well - Geralt predicts that once malnutrition and decease starts killing them, the elves will come down from the mountains one way or the other, to meet their end on a human blade. And being so nobly long-lived, they will have a long time to wait for that very inevitable end.
If so, Geralt won't be alive to see it. The bowmen line up. Torque, who wasn't terribly enthusiastic about beating unarmed prisoners, much less anything more lethal, is not very happy.
The sylvan shook his ears, bleated even louder, stared and bent his elbow in an abusive gesture popular among dwarves.
'You're not going to murder anybody here! Get on your horses and out into the mountains, beyond the passes! Otherwise you'll have to kill me too!'
'Be reasonable,' said the white-haired elf slowly. 'If we let them live, people are going to learn what you're doing. They'll catch you and torture you. You know what they're like, after all.'
'I do,' bleated the sylvan still sheltering Geralt and Dandilion. 'It turns out I know them better than you! And, verily, I don't know who to side with. I regret allying myself with you, Filavandrel!'
'You asked for this,' said the elf coldly, giving a signal to the archers. 'You asked for this, Torque. L'sparellean! Evellienn!'
The elves drew arrows from their quivers. 'Walk away, Torque,' said Geralt, gritting his teeth. 'It's senseless. Stand aside.' The sylvan, without budging from the spot, showed him the dwarves' gesture.
'I can hear . . . music . . .' Dandilion suddenly sobbed.
'It happens,' said the witcher, looking at the arrowheads. 'Don't worry. There's no shame in losing your mind to fear.'
Filavandrel's face changed, screwed up in a strange grimace. The white-haired Seidhe suddenly turned round and gave a shout to the archers. They lowered their weapons.
Lille entered the glade.
No longer a scrawny mute apprentice witch, she's now Dana Meabdh, the Harvest Queen. The elves drop to their knees, and though she still won't say a word, they know her wishes. They want her to follow them into the mountains, but she sends them away, back over the passes. Toruviel and Filavandrel wait long enough to replace Dandelion's lute with one of elven craft, and to extract a promise from Geralt - if they ever do come down from their mountains to seek their deaths, Geralt will be there to meet them.
Torque, Dandelion and Geralt spend an evening by the roadside to say their farewells and to look up Dana in the Great Booke Geralt asked as his reward.
'"Whence Lyfia treads the earth blossometh and bringeth forth, and abundantly doth each creature breed, such is her might. All nations to her offer sacrifice of harvest in vain hope their field not another's will by Lyfia visited be. Because it is also said that there cometh a day at end when Lyfia will come to settle among that tribe which above all others will rise, but these be mere womenfolk tales. Because, forsooth, the wise do say that Lyfia loveth but one land and that which groweth on it and liveth alike, with no difference, be it the smallest of common apple trees or the most wretched of insects, and all nations are no more to her than that thinnest of trees because, forsooth, they too will be gone and new, different tribes will follow. But Lyfia eternal is, was and ever shall be until the end of time.'"
The Valley of Flowers will be blessed as long as the inhabitants are willing to abide by the terms, and be peaceful.
Torque will find another place to cause mischief in - more calculated mischief, balanced with a helping hand. Dandelion will write a poem about the edge of the world - a pastoral that omits the role of the elves. No need to hasten what is already inevitable.
* Interesting facts about the Russian translations - Dandelion "makes monkey faces" at Nenneke instead of aping her, and Nan the hag steals fruit instead of performing abortions in the Russian translation. Rather seems like someone translated a few figures of speech overtly literally.
* I'm not too fond of this story. The comedy bits just... aren't terribly funny. Maybe because I actually actively looking for reasons to take offense - my general suspicion of "these people speak funny, unlike us who speak all proper" combined with my knowledge of Sapkowski's class issues makes the stupid dung-eating peasants scenes less funny and more cringeworthy (though I suspect they were pretty cringe-y to begin with).
* The transition to the serious / tragic elf portion of the story is actually well done, and avoids a mood whiplash. The story can't really be blamed for Bioware everyone and their grandmother ripping off the "elves in ghettos" shtick over the past three decades. It's a good take on "the time of elves has passed, now the age of man begins" in a way that's less about destiny or magic, and more about biology. I imagine it was quite the shock to anyone reading back in the 90's.
* The Deus Ex Machina is... deistic. I guess it's a better fit for the pastoral tone of the story than the small mound of corpses that show up at the end of "Question of Price" (on that note, THIS is the first witcher story that ends with no casualties. If you don't count Dandelion's poor lute). Wonder how Geralt still plays up his atheism after witnessing a living goddess?
* One way the story doesn't really fit into the witcher "canon" is Wise ones being persecuted even though we have an established cult of Melitele (the priestesses of which fill the same role of village healers / witches / wise women).
* I genuinely hate the whole "superstition in a world where magic and monsters are demonstrably real" trope. It's nearly impossible to get right, no matter which way you approach it - "oh, I arbitrarily believe this particular monster monster can't be realwhoopsitis" and "yeah, we feel the need to make up a lot of bullshit monsters despite real ones existing" are both equally terrible.
I mean, yeah, there are people who will believe in any "Science discovers a cure! [buy the product that sponsors this fluff piece]" headline, and also people who believe any "Western medicine is evil, eat these crystals" scam. But parodying either requires a sure hand, a subtle quill, and more talent than (the decently talented) Sapkowski possesses. (Mind, "people have no idea what mages can actually do, and gossip gets everything wrong" is actually a fairly decent and not-too-blunt metaphor for how the masses understand science. Shame it's relatively underused)
* Advanced literacy.
* Throwing his balls at peoples faces with unerring accuracy. (I guess Poland is on the "eggs" side of the eggs/balls divide, so that doesn't even work)