Netflix’s Henry Cavill-led fantasy hit The Witcher debuted its first season in December, quickly becoming one of the streaming giant’s most popular series. Featuring eight episodes dense with characters, timelines, monsters and magic, the series merely introduces viewers to the rich history of the Continent. Unsurprisingly, many fans were left with more questions than answers.
In this new series of posts, Redanian Intelligence will tackle these questions one by one, reading between the lines of the show’s script and filling the gaps with knowledge gleaned from the books. This entry will focus on the faction which served as the main antagonist of The Witcher‘s first season: the Nilfgaardian Empire.
At a first glance, this world-conquering, self-sacrificing, remarkably determined army of religious zealots appears to be your ordinary fantasy villain: the legion of evil, wearing all-black armor, killing and conquering wherever they go. But what is the true story behind Nilfgaard? Why did they march northward to Cintra? What drives commander Cahir and sorceress Fringilla Vigo to do such terrible things? And, most importantly, what does this have to do with Ciri?
Nilfgaard’s is tale of rebellion and prophecy, and it begins with an Elven seer called Ithlinne Aegli aep Aevenien, who predicted the end of the world.
Ithlinne was an elven healer and prophetess, a renowned historical figure in The Witcher‘s world. Her most famous prophecy warns of the arrival of an unstoppable natural disaster which she calls “The White Frost” (essentially an Ice Age). As well, this prophecy binds the fate of the Continent with the lineage of the Elder Blood. The text of the prophecy opens the series’ first full-length novel, Blood of Elves.
Verily I say unto you, the era of the sword and axe is nigh, the era of the wolf’s blizzard. The Time of the White Chill and the White Light is nigh, the Time of Madness and the Time of Contempt: Tedd Deireádh, the Time of End. The world will die amidst frost and be reborn with the new sun. It will be reborn of Elder Blood, of Hen Ichaer, of the seed that has been sown. A seed which will not sprout but burst into flame.
Ess’tuath esse! Thus it shall be! Watch for the signs! What signs these shall be, I say unto you: first the earth will flow with the blood of Aen Seidhe, the Blood of Elves…
If this prophecy sounds familiar to you, it’s because we’ve heard bits and pieces of it already in the show (several times). The seventh episode, “Before A Fall”, concludes with a scene in which Princess Ciri summons her powers and slays a group of men determined to capture her (to deliver her to Nilfgaard). And then, as the force of the Elder Blood pulses through her, Ciri repeats the prophecy herself.
The era of the sword and axe is nigh
Though the prophecy is addressed with an air of mystery throughout author Andrzej Sapkowski‘s saga, and many of the questions it poses do not get answered in the novels, one element of the prophecy is quite clear: the significance of Elder Blood. The lineage of the elven princess and sorceress Lara Dorren is gifted with this hereditary genetic anomaly, the source of great magical abilities. Though this lineage began with an the Elven princess and her human lover Cregennan of Lod, it settled in the Kingdom of Cintra.
“I thought your grandmother’s gift skipped you,” Queen Calanthe tells her daughter towards the end of the show’s fourth episode. “As it did me.” The Cintran feast hall is in ruins. The young Princess Pavetta had just displayed unprecedented magical abilities which could have collapsed the entire castle, had Geralt of Rivia and Mousesack not intervened. Drawing her powers in defense of her lover Duny, a cursed knight bound to her by the Law of Surprise, the princess silences even the greatest skeptics. Destiny exists, and the Elder Blood flows through her veins. But the young Princess Pavetta and her lover would later die during their voyage through the stormy seas, and the powers of the Elder Blood appeared, for a while, to extinguish.
That could not have been farther from the truth. Pavetta’s daughter, the girl promised to Geralt of Rivia by the same Law of Surprise, proves even more powerful than her mother. According to Ithlinne’s prophecy, Cirilla Fionna Ellen Riannon, the last of the Cintran line and sold bearer of the Elder Blood, is destined to save the world – or destroy it.
But what does this have to do with Nilfgaard? To answer that question, we’ll have to take a trip back in time, when Nilfgaard was no more than laughing stock in the eyes of the Northerners and their mages.
The Fall of King Fergus
“King Fergus is proving to be an effective and excitable young king,” says sorceress Vanielle of Brugge during a Council meeting in episode three. This happens in 1210, many years before any scene outside of Yennefer’s timeline, in the days that King Fergus var Emreis ruled Nilfgaard.
“Horny, you mean,” Stregobor replies. “Spending the kingdom’s money on women as his people starve to death.”
“Fringilla will be in Nilfgaard by week’s end,” Tissaia says. “She will bring sanity and bread to the people.”
It’s safe to say that King Fergus was not liked. The show makes a point of describing him as a womanizer who spent the lion’s share of his time with prostitutes rather than seeking to resolve the famine which plagued his country. In the books, King Fergus is described as a controversial figure as well. Having issued a decree of gender equality in the Nilfgaardian army (which was not well received) and made alliances with the kingdoms of the North. Fergus was so controversial that he faced multiple rebellions, the first of which (led by philosopher Vysgota of Corvo) he was able to thwart. And though Fergus exiled and disposed of those who rose against him, he refused to change his ways.
“In Nilfgaard,” says the Temerian miner Tsoka, earlier in episode three (though many years after the mage’s Council meeting). “The king diddled wh*res while his subjects starved. Then someone came. The Usurper. And he rallied the people. And he took back what was theirs!”
In the year 1237, Fergus faced another rebellion – and lost. This uprising was lead by another historical figure of legendary status, only know as the Usurper. An aristocrat whose name is not mentioned in the novels (more on that later), the Usurper was sharp and charismatic, able to raise a strong coalition and mount an effective military coup.
After winning the rebellion, the Usurper captured King Fergus and proceeded to torture him, hoping that the Nilfgaardian regent would provide his coup legal legitimacy. But King Fergus would not break, prompting the Usurper and his mage Braathens to shift their focus to Fergus’s heir, the young Emhyr var Emreis.
Though the child was only thirteen years old, Braathens tortured him as well, hoping that seeing his son suffer would break Fergus and convince him to give the Usurper his legitimacy. Once more, King Fergus refused to break. Undergoing magical torture, Emhyr suffered from a severe magical deformity. But Fergus did not break. Eventually, they gave up and killed the king. The child, now deformed by magic, proved no threat to the Usurper and was released into the wild, exiled.
Reign of the Usurper
Immediately after winning the throne, the Usurper granted a nation-wide amnesty which excluded only political prisoners. In doing so, he offered the people of Nilfgaard a new beginning and a wealth of opportunities. The Usurper ruled over Nilfgaard for twenty years, in which he resumed his predecessor’s conquest of neighboring kingdoms such as Ebbing, Metinna and Nazair.
Nilfgaard remains the sh*trag of the south, and that’s saying something
The Usurper’s rule was militaristic and free of religious influences. Even so, it is clear in the show that cracks were showing. In episode four’s Cintran banquet, Queen Calanthe names Nilfgaard “the sh*trag of the south”, shaming Lord Peregrine in front of her entire court. “Tell me,” Calanthe says. “Is it true you drink piss water and feast on your own? Nilfgaardian kings don’t remain kings for long. Who will take the Usurper’s crown, you? How long will you last? A year? A month? A day?”
Lord Peregrine of Nilfgaard storms off, and Calanthe smiles, unbeknownst to the fact that the Nilfgaardian Empire would be the end of her. Years pass and, indeed, as Calanthe predicted, the Usurper is dethroned.
The White Flame
For twenty years, the Usurper’s rule was not challenged until the true heir returned. Emhyr var Emreis, son of Fergus and heir to the throne, had been biding his time in hiding, eager to avenge his father and take back what was his by right. Having been raised in secret by King Fergus loyalist Ardal aep Dahy and finally healed of his magical deformity, Emhyr was ready to retake his lands.
In the show, it is implied that sorceress Fringilla Vigo played an important role in his return to the throne as well. After Yennefer manipulated her way back to the court of Aedirn, Fringilla was sent to King Fergus’ court. Her role during the Usurper’s reign is unknown, but she later sided with Emhyr. “The White Flame made me who I am,” she tells Mousesack in episode five. “Gave me a higher purpose.”
At some point, Emhyr developed delusions of grandeur, believing that Ithlinne’s prophecy referred to him, and that it was his child-to-be of the Elder Blood lineage who is destined to save the world. Emhyr believed that it was his duty and destiny to retake Nilfgaard and later conquer and unite the world against the threat of the White Frost.
Taking the Continent by storm, Emhyr raised an army of supporters (including the young Vicovarian knight Cahir Mawr Dyffryn aep Ceallach and met the Usurper’s army on the battlefield. Quickly, Emhyr styled himself with a lofty title often mentioned in the show in its abbreviated form: The White Flame Dancing on the Graves of His Enemies (or simply The White Flame).
Emhyr achieved victory in the year 1257, twenty years after his exile. Once the throne was his, the Emperor executed the Usurper and sentenced the mage Braathens to death by burning. Then, Emhyr proceeded to wipe out any mention of the Usurper from the Imperial archives, the history books, and the libraries, making sure that his enemy’s name would no longer be mentioned or remembered by anyone.
The Empire was restored to its rightful heir and King Fergus’ death was avenged, but Emhyr was far from satisfied. The newly crowned Emperor was certain that he was the “chosen one” described by the prophetess Ithlinne and that his child was destined to save the world. But to save the world, he had to marry a woman who carries the genetic Elder Blood and then father her child. To achieve this, Emhyr had to conquer the world.
War and Prophecy
The show’s seventh episode begins just before Nilfgaard invades the Northern Realms and sacks the city of Cintra. Before the invasion begins, Yennefer takes a trip across the Continent to reunite with her one-time lover and friend, Istredd, who thrives as an archaeologist in the Nilfgaardian vassal kingdom of Nazair. By then, Emhyr var Emreis had been Emperor for a few years.
Through Yennefer’s eyes, we get a glimpse behind the Nilfgaardian curtains and, surprisingly, it doesn’t seem quite as malicious as we would expect. Traveling to the monolith digsite, Yennefer witnesses a people united in support of their Empire, all of whom contribute what they can for the greater good of Nilfgaard and (allegedly) the Continent. Some join the Nilfgaardian army, a rag-tag yet purposeful force outnumbering any other on the Continent, while others provide the Empire with menial labor. The militaristic, dictatorial nature of the Empire is still quite clear, but there is a sense that the people are providing their services willingly.
“The runes described a magnalith in Nazair,” Istredd explains when Yennefer finds him. “But no one could find it till I got here.”
“Until Nilfgaard tore through all the lands,” Yennefer retorts.
“They allow my research,” Istredd says. “It’s all I care about.”
Nilfgaard’s interest in the magnalith must stem from their belief in Ilthinne’s Prophecy, and from Emperor Emhyr’s dedication to fulfilling it. These monoliths, which can be seen in the backdrop of the Continent’s landscapes in several episodes of the show, existed for thousands of years.
“Every glyph has a clue,” Istredd continues. “A clue to something across the Continent from a time before the Conjunction [of the Spheres]. Most are history, but some might be more. The prophecy, the future… I want to explore all of it.”
Yennefer is quite bored with Istredd’s archaeological inspirations and takes a sip from the Nilfgaardian drink (which was most certainly not apple juice), which makes her recoil in disgust. “These people were starving before Nilfgaard,” Istredd explains. “See, most kings only care about their c*cks and their coffers, but they look after their people. Everyone here gets something.”
“The same thing,” Yennefer says. “Which tastes as if someone pissed in my cup. Sounds to me like you bought in.” This quote marks the second time Nilfgaard is associated with piss-water, after Calanthe’s exchange with Lord Peregrine. More importantly, however, it tells of the Nilfgaardian philosophy: everyone is equal, and everyone must serve the nation. They are provided food and water (even if it doesn’t taste well) but they are also expected to return the favor, when the time comes.
Once Nilfgaard begins their invasion and their search for Ciri, we see this philosophy in practice many times. In particular, with Nilfgaard’s treatment of their mages. Every soldier is disposable for them, as long as they serve their purpose. Every sacrifice is valued, but also expected. Many Nilfgaardian mages willingly give their life during the Battle of Sodden Hill, dying and turning to dust, just as their soldiers do on the battlefield. The ends justify the means, and the prophecy dictates them. Emperor Emhyr var Emreis, the White Flame, believes his child with Ciri is destined to save the world. As they see it, no sacrifice is too great to achieve their purpose.
Not long after, the Chapter of Wizards convenes in Aretuza to discuss Nilfgaard’s march to Cintra. As the Northern mages bicker, Fringilla Vigo steps into the chamber. “Our fight is with Cintra, and only Cintra. In Nilfgaard, we know what it’s like to have corrupt leaders. But under our new leader, Emperor Emhyr, we’ve changed. We’ve strengthened trade. We’ve funded research. We have torn down walls, whilst Queen Calanthe has done nothing but put them up.”
“You force mages into servitude,” Triss says.
“When in training, yes. Like soldiers. We believe in shared sacrifice.”
“You also believe in forbidden magic! Demonology, necromancy, fire magic.”
“Forbidden magic,” Fringilla argues. “Is one of the ghost stories taught to us here. There is no such thing as dark or light magic. Nothing in this world is as simple as that. You think that we’re destroying the Continent. We know that if we take Cintra, we have a chance of saving it.”
We cannot mistake the stars reflecting in a pond for those of the night sky
Other than Fringilla, the Vicovarian commander Cahir plays an important role on the Nilfgaardian side. In season one, this violent and menacing soldier seems to veer off the redemptive path Sapkowski’s novels pave for him, but that may still change in future seasons. Commanding the Nilfgaardian armies alongside Fringilla and other generals, Cahir is shown as a capable officer. The scene linked above, from the sixth episode, reveals Cahir’s connection to the Emperor.
“You rose up against the Usurper,” Fringilla says. “Helped free our people from their chains. I witnessed the White Flame call on you, mold you, anoit you. It burns in you, Cahir. She is the key, but you… You are the commissioner.”
Cahir has been given a mission from the White Flame: capture the princess and bring her to Nilfgaard. Without Ciri, Emhyr could never hope to fulfill the prophecy, and the Continent would (allegedly) fall to the White Frost. But why is Emhyr so convinced that Ithlinne’s prophecy refers to him? One of the biggest reveals of the saga, the answer to that question is only revealed in the series’ climax, in one of the final chapters of Lady of the Lake. If you haven’t read the books and don’t want to be spoiled, read no further.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FROM THE BOOKS BELOW!
At the very end of the saga, the truth behind Emhyr’s connection to the prophecy and Ciri is revealed. As a young boy, he was cursed and deformed by the mage Braathens after his father Fergus was dethroned. The mage who cursed him made a jest of it and transformed him to look like a hedgehog. In the Nilfgaardian language, that is the meaning of the name “Emhyr”.
It is no coincidence that the knight who first calls himself the Urcheon of Earlenwald, later named Duny, has a similar affliction. Emhyr and Duny are one and the same. Suffering from Braathens’ curse for many years, Emhyr followed an astrologist’s advice and traveled northward “beyond the Marnadal Steps” to find a cure for his ailment. Instead, he found the wounded king Roegner of Cintra, Queen Calanthe’s husband.
After saving his life, the King of Cintra offered to repay Emhyr for his kindness, and Emhyr invoked the Law of Surprise. “That which you already have, but do not know.” Emhyr would later find out that Roegner, upon his return to Cintra, learned that Calanthe was with child. Princess Pavetta, the Child Surprise, was bound by destiny to Emhyr. Looking as he did, the exiled prince did not intend to lay claim to his prize. Sixteen years, later destiny intervened.
“When I heard that King Roegner had returned to find a child on the way,” Emhyr says in the show’s fourth episode. “I abandoned all thought of claiming the Law of Surprise. I knew no woman would ever accept me like this. And so I waited. I waited until the twelveth bell, when the curse breaks. I never intended to meet her, just to watch from afar.”
“Until Destiny intervened,” Pavetta explains. “And our hearts collided.”
“And, at dawn, I awoke with her in my arms and me… like this.”
As the show establishes in its final episode, people bound by destiny will always find each other. The same was true with Pavetta and Emhyr. Destiny brought them together, and love. During the banquet at Cintra, also attended by Geralt of Rivia and the bard Jaskier, Emhyr invokes the Law of Surprise. Before the twelfth bell strikes, Calanthe approves of their marriage, and Emhyr’s curse is lifted. Destiny led him to that moment, and Geralt of Rivia was its agent – saving his life just as Emhyr himself did Roegner’s many years earlier.
Though Geralt, like Emhyr, does not expect a reward, Emhyr insists and Geralt invokes the Law of Surprise. Then, it is revealed that Pavetta is with child, and the cycle of destiny repeats itself. Emhyr and Pavetta’s child, Princess Cirilla, did not know her father was the heir to the Nilfgaardian Empire (nor did anyone in the Cintran court). For many years, the man who called himself Duny was content with his new life. Until he met a certain mage, who convinced him to retake that which he had lost.
Vilegfortz of Roggeveen, the primary villain of Sapkowski’s saga convinced Emhyr that Pavetta’s lineage and his daughter Ciri were the key to saving the world. Though Vilgefortz intended to harness the powers of the Elder Blood for himself, he instilled a thought into Emhyr that Ithlinne’s prophecy referred to him. It was that prophecy which led him to the Marnadal Steps, where he met and saved Roegner, and it was that prophecy that bound him to Pavetta. Vilgefortz argued that Emhyr had no choice but to heed destiny and become what the prophecy required of him.
After faking their deaths in a storm at the Sedna Abyss, Vilgefortz informed Emhyr that Pavetta (who had not survived) was not the Child of the Elder Blood that Ithlinne’s prophecy had mentioned, and neither was their daughter Ciri. According to Vilgefortz, it was Ciri’s child who was destined to save the world: Ciri’s child with Emhyr, her father.
Though Emhyr was likely reviled by the very thought of bearing a child with his daughter, Vilgefortz convinced him that there was no other way to save the Continent. Mourning the death of Pavetta, Emhyr accepted his role as suggested by Vilgefortz. In order to achieve all that the prophecy required, and before marrying and impregnating his daughter, Emhyr would have to unite the world. To achieve this, he would first need to retake his home, and become the Emperor of Nilfgaard. And so, with the old loyalists at his side, Duny raised an army and defeated the Usurper.
The next time we meet Emhyr in the saga is after the sacking of Cintra, and after Nilfgaard’s retreat from Sodden Hill. Emhyr summons the sullied knight Cahir from the dungeons, and offers to give him a second chance to complete his mission. A second chance to capture Ciri. Will this scene appear in the show’s second season? Will Emhyr’s history be revealed at the very end, as in the novels, or much earlier and in dramatic fashion? We’ll have to wait at least until 2021 to find out.