Jaskier is happily woolgathering —the proprietress of the inn was lovely, and her son, lovelier still, and the song was on the tip of his tongue about the woes of the dashing bard forced to choose between them—when he hears the scuffling.
He hums a few more lines and strums along idly to the tune. Scuffles and rattles are par for the course, even in nice rooms like these, which would have surely bothered Geralt, who for all his world-weary witchering sometimes was as sensitive as a princess with her pea ( Some of us happen to have a keener sense of danger than a buttercup, Jaskier, sensitivity has nothing to do with it. Oh hush, Jaskier had said, unless our killer sneaks up on us on love’s light wings we’ll be able to tell when we’re in actual danger.)
He strums a few more notes, but it’s too late—the song has turned forlorn. Trying not to succumb to it he plucks a tune from memory, a jaunty one that’s better suited for the happy choice of who he is to bed, the proprietress or her son—but the moment’s gone, blown away to melancholy pieces by the storm conjured by Geralt’s memory. He sighs gustily and gives up, opening his eyes right as he hears the scuffling again, closer now, close enough to almost brush across his face—
--the world’s prettiest girl is crouched in front of him, dagger raised.
Jaskier falls back on his chair with a scream. He lunges sideways as he goes and the girl swings, misses—Jaskier had learned that trick from watching Geralt break up bar fights, and no you lovesick fool this is not the time —and grabs his lute by the neck and sings hastily:
Hair of ravens,
I slouch and wait,
The world stops and stares
He feels his limbs lock up instantly. Mercy of mercies, hers appear to do the same, if the widening of her eyes is anything to go by. It won’t hold because that rhyme was shit, but Jaskier has won a precious few seconds to think of a plan better than tell her she’s pretty and hope for the best.
Her mouth works into a snarl before she speaks, dagger still held aloft next to her ear.
“You are,” her mouth twists with effort, “the Witcher’s bard.”
The song’s effects are waning fast. “I have been called that on occasion, yes,” Jaskier says, just as his own arms go lax and the pretty girl’s dagger goes whizzing past his ear to land with a shlink embedded in the wall.
The girl pulls out a slender sword and Jaskier stumbles back, ducking ungracefully behind the bedframe for cover as she converges on him.
“You cannot kill me,” she says, plunging the sword into the pillow that Jaskier whips up in front of his face. There’s a raw desperation in the way she says it, almost as if she would have begged for her life if her pride had allowed it. There is a sadness about her that is striking, even amid her beauty and bloodlust. “You cannot , bard.”
“I’d say the opposite was likelier, myself,” Jaskier says. He rolls across the bed and under it, avoiding all but one of her deft flicks of the sword, which catches him in the shoulder. He yelps in pain.
The girl makes a noise of dissent. “I know how the old Magick works. He who gives life may take it away.”
She moves towards him, her muddied boots stepping over the sprawl of the case of his lute, his scattered papers. There’s an enamel jug of water that the proprietress near his chair that she sends it flying to him with one hard kick, and he has to twist out from under the bed to escape getting nailed by it.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jaskier despairs.
The girl stills and for a moment, he thinks he’s done it, that he’s made her realize she’s got the wrong man- but before the thought can fully crystallize she’s shaking her head, whipping her sword the length of the room so that it brushes Jaskier’s neck:
“You brought me back to life. The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, killed me and your magick brought me back to life. You must free me from your song.”
For all that he is terrified of her, she seems helpless. Lost. And Jaskier still has no fucking clue what she’s talking about.
Damsels in distress rarely threatened to put a blade through his throat but he thinks there’s a song in all this-- if he gets out of this alive he’d write the rest of it:
She’ll run me through and I’ll die alone
A shrike with her sharp and glorious thorn
Oh, Melitele fucking preserve him.
“You’re her,” he says, feeling faint. How couldn’t he recognize her? He’s rhapsodized about her in great detail more than once:
Snow-skinned and blood-lipped, I’ll be true to you, maiden
I shiver before Renfri, Princess of Creyden
“Oh, fuck,” Jaskier says, just as Renfri’s sword goes through his shoulder.
The Tale of Renfri was meant to be a silly little ditty about a princess whose enemies are very bad at killing her. Jaskier had written it intentionally so because the story that he had prised out of Geralt had been so very sad—and if he’d sung it as a spell, it had only been a spell to lessen the burden on his friend’s shoulders for a while.
“Thousands are singing it,” says Renfri. After Jaskier had sworn that killing her was the last thing on his mind, she’d looked at him shivering and bleeding on the floor and seemed to believe him, resheathing her sword and dagger. Now she sat on the chair Jaskier had been singing to himself in, eyes dark and serious. “The incantation being repeated over and over, believing that that’s how events truly did unfold. Does that affect Chaos somehow? Make the spell stronger?”
“I don’t know ,” Jaskier says. He sounds a little hysterical, even to his own ears.
Renfri takes pity on him and descends from her chair: she digs around the pouch at her hip and produces some godless witch’s brew that makes Jaskier see stars when she brushes it on his wound. Face unmoving, she then tears off a strip of his shirt and binds it tight around his shoulder. The glance she casts at his revealed skin is brisk and uninterested.
It takes Jaskier a moment to recover, but he can feel whatever medicine she’d used begin its work. She settles back in her chair as if nothing happened, ignoring his embarrassment. Geralt would have never let him live this down.
He clears his throat and says, “I’ve never cast anything potent enough to have brought someone back from the dead before. It’s a life-ruining combination of illegal and impossible.”
“Not impossible,” Renfri says somberly. Sitting straight in her chair, so grave and lovely, she looks and sounds so much like Geralt that Jaskier wants to cry. “Just forbidden. And you didn’t bring me back, outright. You just changed reality so I never died.”
In the climactic battle in the Tale of Renfri, the handsome witcher who duels her wounds her in the leg—fatally, they think, but she has been carrying a keepsake from her dwarf friends that saved her from harm, and she only seemed dead. The witcher orders her body not to be disturbed, and she is lowered into a coffin made of glass so that none may lay a finger on the fair Renfri.
And that is the end Jaskier gave her—not dead, but asleep. A way to ease his best friend’s greatest regret.
“But that’s not--” Jaskier flails helplessly. “Even if it was cast, over and over, my intention wasn’t to bring you back to life. Or whatever it is that you are now. Zombie? Ghoul? Were you actually dead at any point?”
“I was dead,” Renfri says, her eyes distant. “There was-- a place. Dark. It tugged at me till I was not myself anymore. There were--” she swallows, and Jaskier’s heart aches. “Yes,” she says, finally, in a hoarse voice. “I was dead.”
Jaskier lets his head thunk back against the wall. In all his travelling, he has not grown a stomach for suffering and his first instinct in the face of true pain is to cower away. It’s something not even Geralt has been able to fix in him, and he cannot help but wonder, if only he had remedied this one thing--
Not now, not now.
“I can help you,” Jaskier blurts. Renfri raises an eyebrow at him. “I was responsible-- it is my magick you are bound to. I will free you from that bond.”
At this, she smiles, almost amused. “You will?”
Jaskier can imagine how he looks-- shivering, still, from leftover fear, hands still holding his lute aloft to protect himself. It is how he has looked to Geralt in all their acquaintance and while in his mind he knows fear is healthy, it’s kept him alive all this while, he cannot help but wish--
He wishes to be free of shame. To be brave. Just once.
“I will find a way,” he says, and he forces himself to look straight into her lovely eyes, full of a murderer’s severity. “You will be free, fair Renfri.”
She smiles. “You are kind, but I do not think you are capable,” she says frankly.
It stings, but it is the truth. For all his determination he has no good answer for her, and on instinct he falls back on clever words:
“If nothing else, this ordeal has taught us that a little belief goes a long way.”
Renfri scoffs, and offers him a hand. He uses it to scramble to his feet, standing in front of her to realize with a start that she is only as tall as he is-- she carries herself like a giant.
“Do you even know what is needed to untie my life from your wretched song?”
Jaskier side-eyes her for the slight against his song, but she’s looking back at him dryly, and he cannot help but grin back.
“You’d have to be half-mad to know of Chaos that intimately,” he says. “Luckily for us I know someone who is exactly that.”
Convincing Renfri to stay in his room while he ducked out to the tavern is easier than expected: he pushes his lute into her hands as collateral and asks her to guard it while he’s gone, and she looks up at him with dark clever eyes and nods. She holds it like he holds it: like it’s an old friend she hasn’t seen in a long time, and it turns out she plays, and he has to scrape his jaw off the floor after she sings a few verses of The Tale of Renfri.
“You do no justice to my enemies,” she murmurs, when she notices him frozen in the middle of tying up his boots. “They died like pigs, and some of them did not deserve it.” She strums a chord, a bitter smile hooked on the edge of her mouth. “Though I suppose the exploits of a murderous princess does not make for a catchy ballad.”
She does not look at him. Half the time she seems to forget he’s there at all, and it is easy to misinterpret her aloof distance as coyness; to presume, to take a step forward, to tilt up her elfin chin so that those magnetic eyes are looking straight at him.
Jaskier stays on the bed, his hands clasped. He cannot say, not all men, because it is too small a salve for this particular tumor.
He thinks of Yennefer screaming, I am just a vessel.
Because she isn’t expecting anything of him, Renfri does not seem to mind that he takes too long to answer.
“There was another verse,” he says quietly. “A verse where Renfri wakes up, and goes into the woods. No one ever hears from her again.”
Her head jerks up, eyes wide.
He tries to smile at her, but it slides off, inadequate. “Geralt wouldn’t let me leave it in. Said it was too bloodless an ending for you.”
Her mouth tugs up again. "He's right. The bigger the bloodbath, the better." Her morbid fucking sense of humor reminds him of Geralt - now is not the time. "I'm surprised he offered criticism."
“Oh, he was always my biggest critic,” he says. Not meeting her eyes, he laces himself up and heads to the door. “By your leave, my lady.”
She inclines her head, ironic.
Outside, the air is muggy with the promise of rain. Yarpen Zigrin is standing by the entrance to the tavern, and when he spots Jaskier he spits violently on the ground.
“Good evening to you too,” says Jaskier. “Did they throw you out for ugliness or bad temper?”
Yarpen sneers up at him. “For fucking yer mother, bard. I thought you’d left town already. Weren’t ya going on about wanting to see the sea?”
“The sea’s not that special,” Jaskier says. His hands feel empty without his lute, so he tucks them in his pockets. “Is Sir Borch still around?”
“Aye, that he is,” Yarpen jerks his head towards the tavern. “Though I’d watch my hide if I were you. The proprietress’s found out about you bedding her boy.”
Jaskier winces. “Ah.”
“More trouble than you’re worth, aren’t you? It’s a wonder your witcher keeps you around at all.”
“Yeah, well,” Jaskier says. He takes his hands out of his pockets and crosses his arms. A beat too late, he says, “I’m a delight and a boon to have around.”
Something about his makes Yarpen frown in thought, so Jaskier hurriedly bids goodbye and strides into the tavern in search of the knight.
The tavern’s a roiling mess of spilled beer and loud conversations. Jaskier’s too strung out and busy scanning for Borch to enjoy the way the gazes of the few women in the room snap to him at his entrance. His search is interrupted often: no less than seven people stop him to ask where Geralt was. “I don’t know,” he complains, succumbing to the first trickles of frustration. “Have you checked that he’s not in your homes, fucking your wives?” People think it’s a joke, but a few drunken smiles evaporate, and he gets cuffed upside the head a few times.
It’s bad business for a bard to be this snippy. It’s a matter of time till he gets his teeth kicked in by an incensed patron who wouldn’t even have heard of Geralt of Rivia if it wasn’t for Jaskier’s ballads in the first place, and when that time comes he’ll deserve it, but he cannot find it in himself to be polite.
He finds Borch before he can enrage anyone enough for fatal injury.
Borch eyes him as Jaskier stumbles to an empty seat at his table. “Should I be keeping an eye out for a band of ghouls, boy?”
Jaskier squints at him through his good eye. “Hm? Oh, this,” he says, looking down at his torn collar and bloodied sleeves. “Bards are not kindly received in any part of the world, it seems. What’s the strongest ale they have?”
In reply, Borch begins to fill a glass with something pale and deadly-looking, and pushes it his way. “Drink up,” he says briskly. “We were planning on sharing a pitcher with your witcher, but no one’s seen hair nor hide of him.”
Jaskier’s more amused by the turn of phrase pitcher with your witcher than he is troubled by Geralt being called his anything. He takes a swig from his ale to discover that it burns like wildfire all the way down, and it kicks in startlingly fast. He looks back at Borch and there are two of him. “Good ale,” he slurs.
“The witcher, Jaskier,” Borch says with a roll of his eyes-- that’s four eyes, rolling. “Where is he?”
“Monsters to hunt, crazy witches to be in love with,” he says, waving his arm vaguely. “Speaking of which--”
“I don’t believe that Geralt of Rivia is a man graceless enough to forfeit a drink with a few brothers-in-arms,” Borch says.
Jaskier breathes in, deep. The bar stinks of old wounds and spilled beer and the thousands of people who came in and out, and he wonders how it would smell to Geralt with his fox’s nose, how much he would silently grimace, the look on his face-- now is not the time, stop that.
“I’m sure he doesn’t mean any slight,” he smiles, feeling worn thin. The ale suddenly weighs like a rock in his head. “Or he does. Who knows.”
Borch furrows his brow and shakes his head. “He said some cruel things to you, son,” he says. “You mustn’t take it to heart. A heartbroken man is a wounded beast who may lash out at anyone. And witchers are more beast than man to begin with.”
Knights sure know how to talk, Geralt had said upon meeting Borch, sounding grudgingly impressed, and Jaskier had laughed, Liked the bit about the firsts, did you? Borch was exactly the type of man that Geralt respected. Maybe, if Jaskier was a little more world-worn--
“He mourned you,” Jaskier said, tired of heeding the warning voice in his head. He sounds and feels exhausted, and talking about Geralt with someone who knows him -even someone who has just insulted him- is like setting down a burden for a while. “He sat on that mountain and gazed down at the precipice for hours. He would have jumped after you, if he’d thought that it would do you any good.”
Even Téa and Véa lower their gazes after that.
Borch knocks his tankard against Jaskier’s. “To witchers,” he says, and he sounds almost chastised. Regretful. “May Melitele watch over them.”
Jaskier nods. “To Geralt,” he says, and drinks.
It is far later in the night that Jaskier manages to corner Borch alone. By then revelries have risen to a fever-pitch: Jaskier has to untangle himself from the proprietress when he spots Borch drinking alone at a corner table.
“I must relieve myself, my love,” he says, thumbing the taut smoothness of her cheek. “I will be back before you know it, but know this: every waking second I spend away from you is agony.”
She pulls him down for a deep kiss, her fingers twisted in his hair. “See that you don’t prolong your pain,” she says against his lips, and he shivers. He’s been sleeping with growly-voiced men with big shoulders for so long that the soft plush heat of her mouth and the generous curve of her hips under his palms seem like nothing short of a miracle.
He breaks the kiss, unbelievably regretful. He’s still half-hard in his pants as he sifts through the rowdier tables and makes his way to Borch. The old man leers at him when he collapses on a chair, strings cut.
“Don’t let an old man stop you from getting your cock wet,” he says. “Unless you were looking for her son.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Jaskier says with a wince-- had the whole town heard of that? “I wanted to rest for a minute.”
Borch gives him a look that says he knows Jaskier’s game, played it a thousand years ago. Jaskier feels all of three years old.
“Suit yourself,” he grunts and returns to his ale, and whatever he has in his hands. Jaskier squints through the dark and his own black eye to see that it’s a wooden cube, the kind painted different colors and given to children. Borch twists it around, arranging and rearranging the colors.
“The egg,” Jaskier realizes. He grins brightly, shifting forward in his seat. “It’s going to hatch soon, isn’t it? You’ll be a father to a baby dragon! Will the baby be a dragonling or will it be able to shapeshift like you when they’re born?”
Borch looks wary. Jaskier keeps beaming at him and his withered face softens, a hint of bashful pride taking over. “It could go either way,” he admits, scratching his beard. “The reason golden dragons are rare is because we don’t hatch often from mixed parentage. Often than not, they hatch stillborn.”
“Ah, tosh,” Jaskier says. He doesn’t have his lute with him, but the song leaps to his lips anyway:
Run through snow, soar through the clouds, play in the rain,
get blown by the wind, get buried in flowers, make your grass flutes sing
with your four legs, with your two legs
Oh, grow free from care, dragonborn queen
“Or king,” Jaskier adds, as the cube gently glows. “But the way things have been going, it’ll be a dragon princess that wants to eat me.”
He looks up to an utterly silent table.
“You’re a bard of Oxenfurt,” Borch says. Téa and Véa have subtly tensed, their spears in their hands when they’d been lounging against tables mere seconds ago. “I’d heard word of one of their prodigal sons wandering the countryside, but--”
“It’s just a little blessing for the baby dragon,” Jaskier says, annoyed. He flicks a piece of bread into Borch’s tankard and watches in fascinated triumph as it dissolves. “I don’t have my lute, so it’s not even that strong.”
“You misunderstand me, bard,” Borch says in a measured tone. He nods at Téa and Véa and they bare their teeth at Jaskier before they stand down. “The rumors failed to prepare me to meet the wayward bard of Oxenfurt as the White Wolf’s travel companion.”
Jaskier blinks. “It’s not as if it comes up much,” he says. “Not much need for spells when I’m travelling with a witcher.”
“He doesn’t know, does he,” Borch says thoughtfully.
Jaskier gives him his most disarming grin. Téa and Véa look unmoved by his devilish sensuality.
Borch looks like he has a headache. “Both of you are just as bad as each other.” Despite his grumpy old man complaining, he picks up the glowing cube. “I don’t know how effective the benediction will be, but thank you for this. Is there anything I can do in return?”
“Nothing other than the joy of sharing another drink,” Jaskier says, and bites his tongue. He stares at Borch guiltily from under his fringe, wondering how to breach the topic until Borch sets down his tankard with a sigh. “Spit it out.”
“I need to know where to find Yennefer of Vengerberg.”
Borch sighs. He does this a lot: Jaskier suspects that they’re his version of those familiar guttural Fuck s of Geralt’s. He tries not to fidget as he waits.
“You know the only man who might actually have that information is your friend the witcher, am I right?”
Jaskier drinks some of his ale and doesn’t reply.
“The last I heard, the Brotherhood of Sorcerers were gathering to ally against Nilfgaard. The Brotherhood, for matters of pressing urgency, tend to gather in Aretuza.”
Borch taps his fingers on the table as Jaskier works it out: Yennefer was openly contemptuous of the Brotherhood, but Yennefer speaks with contempt of all the things she cannot help but love-- up to and including their mutual friend the witcher.
It sounds about right.
“Thank you,” Jaskier drops a handful of coins on the table for the ale. “I’ll be taking my leave, then.”
All three of them look up at him with varying degrees of surprise.
“The proprietress’s bed will be cold,” Téa speaks for the first time in the evening.
Jaskier had not forgotten. He’d been invested in that, Melitele curse him. He’d been planning this distraction for a while now, savoring the chase, the lingering aside glances that lead up to a satisfying conquest.
The pain in his shoulder twinges.
Oh, for fucks' sake.
“I preferred her son anyway,” he says with a bravado he doesn’t feel, and swaggers out of the tavern, back to an empty bed, his murderous princess, and memories of coarse white hair and cat’s eyes.