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Food of Love

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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,
Midnight fair,
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--

Not now. 

“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.

Chapter Text

The proprietress turns out to have a husband, of the angry, vengeful variety.

He hadn't seen that coming.

 

After they're chased out of town, Jaskier and Renfri head south. Two hours on horseback later Jaskier’s ears are still burning, which means that Renfri’s probably still glaring at him.

“Your country’s nearing,” he says, in an attempt to distract her. “Want to stop by, say hello to the old faces? It won’t delay us by more than a day.”

Renfri catches up with him, just to give him the full benefit of her unimpressed stare. “If I wanted what few precious memories I have of my home sullied by a bard who’ll stick his cock in all my friends,” she says, tartly, “I would have asked.”

“I couldn’t have known!” It comes out pathetically close to a whine. “The boy told me his father had left town, and I assumed he meant that in the poetic sense, not as in, he left town to sell some horses and will be back at dawn. Stop looking at me like that! We were going to set out anyway.

“After coming up with a plan!” Renfri gestures so hard it’s a princess-y miracle that she isn’t unseated from her horse. “We didn’t gather any supplies, nor weapons, nor backup of any kind! If your sorceress—” Jaskier twitches and Renfri rolls her eyes, “Okay, not your sorceress—is as powerful as you say we should be taking an army or a king’s ransom worth of riches to force her hand. Jaskier, do you even have a plan?”

“We don’t have the coin to procure either of those things even if we stayed,” Jaskier says, trying to sound reasonable rather than childishly irked that she actually has a point. “And knowing Yennefer, none of those things will move her one whit. We’re better off gifting her a lock of your hair or a three-eared rabbit or whatever ridiculous thing has taken her fancy this week.”

“Or the freshly-murdered corpse of a promiscuous bard?”

Jaskier snorts, side-eyeing Renfri to find her lips curled. He may never be able to tell if she’s joking or not when she says she’s going to kill him, but that’s neither here nor there. Mostly he likes looking at her when she’s like this: the fairest of the land, her eyes glinting with humor and purpose.

“You’re on the right track,” he says.

Renfri nods. Twice-dead, she burns as bright as a fever dream, and once she’s free she’ll burn her way through the whole Brotherhood. There’s an ancient rage that Chaos cannot hold a candle to in the way she says, “Know one sorcerer, know them all. Bloodthirsty tyrants.” Then, as if it never was, the unholy light blinks out of her eyes and she’s just a pretty girl on a horse, smirking at him like she sees through him perfectly. “But I’m wagering that the injustices done to me by that whoreson Stregobor pale in comparison to what Yennefer’s done to you.”

Jaskier makes a noise of protest. “Any sensible man will be wary of a powerful witch just on a matter of principle.”

“And you’re the paragon of good sense,” Renfri says.

There’s no animosity in it, but Jaskier can feel her frustration with his non-answers. He has nothing to tell her: he doesn’t think he can explain Yennefer of Vengerberg, her delusions of grandeur and her endless actual grandeur, the way her destructive power sets his teeth on edge.

How she looks at Geralt, and how Geralt looks back at her.

He frowns at the direction his thoughts have taken. “She is hubris personified,” he says, “but with the power to back it up.”

“You raised someone from the dead,” Renfri points out. “Unintentionally. I don’t think there’s much in the world that you should fear, in terms of power.”

“That just means that even I have no true control over the power of my spells,” Jaskier says. “You can stand in front of a sorceress like Yennefer of Vengerberg and reasonably expect to be hit by a cannon if you cross her. Bard magic is rarely predictable. That’s why we mainly stick to blessing things.”

He’s unconsciously slipping into his lecturing voice. He doesn’t notice till Renfri twitches all over, like a cat.

“That sounds like propaganda meant to keep you in check,” she says. Her eyes are as hard as flint. “Same as why you bards never travel outside of Oxenfurt, when the world needs you so badly.”

Jaskier bites his lip. “I have never met anyone I have wanted to harm with my magic,” he says, almost quiet enough not to be heard over the horses.

Renfri’s eyes widen, then settle back to their usual hardness. “Then you must know nothing of true hardship, bard.”

“That verse about your sweet nature was way off the mark, wasn’t it,” Jaskier mutters. Renfri rolls her eyes and spurs on her horse –away from Creyden—and ignores him for the rest of the day.

 

They stop at a border village on the outskirts of Temeria and, after seeing their horses safely lodged and fed, stride off irritably in opposite directions.

Renfri’s making a beeline for the tavern, so Jaskier lingers outside, looking at the marketplace packing up, closing in on itself for the day. The town is far enough inland that the air carries only the smells of livestock and trampled vegetables, but every now and again a salt-tanged breeze will dance by like a reminder of the sea.

He hasn’t eaten the whole day, but that concern is somehow not pressing as it usually is. He wanders the length of the village, slipping pieces of oversweet orange bought from an enterprising young swindler into his mouth, glad to be on his own two feet again. Travelling with Geralt and his surprisingly indulgent tendency to walk Roach at Jaskier’s pace has robbed him of the constitution needed for riding for long stretches of time, and he’s sore, tired in a way that’s slowly sinking into his bones.

He’s unhappy with the world, trying to get the sticky citrus taste off his tongue, and it's in this stupid distracted state that he gets jumped.

It takes just one blow from behind to make him stumble two, then three steps forward, losing his balance, and then a girl in a filthy shawl puts him in a bony chokehold as Jaskier blinks up at the purpling sky. Someone tries to snatch his lute out of his hands and he instinctively holds on, which lets them hit him, again, in the back of his head.

His vision swims, darkens, and someone puts a burlap sack over his head. Amidst the adrenaline-heavy fear he hopes they didn’t break his lute; it had been a gift.

Jaskier passes out.

 

He regains conscious with a hand shaking his shoulder. “Arise, bard,” a voice says, and he sees, foggily, an ironic twist of a mouth. “This is no time to be dreaming.”

Dizzy still, he murmurs, “Geralt…?” his hands reaching, and the voice recedes.

“That’s an insult if I ever heard one,” they say, and Jaskier blinks and struggles and finally adjusts his focus on Renfri standing in the middle of a darkened clearing in the middle of the woods, sword in hand, head cocked and listening to something. Her sword is dyed red with blood. Most of the leaves on the ground are dyed the same shade, and Jaskier can’t recognize the men with their guts spilling out like that, but the shawl around one of the fresh corpses is familiar.

He flips around and throws up what little was in his stomach.

“Charming,” says Renfri. She has a frenetic energy about her, her eyes darting around the clearing with a feverishness that Jaskier contrasts in his head to the unnatural stillness that overtakes Geralt in the middle of battle. She bends down to help him up—that’s twice in as many days—and her eyes are soft, but her hands are rough. “Come up, Jaskier,” she says, and there’s a weight around her, like she’s making a dent in the fabric of the world. “There’s more of them coming.”

“Wha’s going on?” he slurs.

“It’s a ritual,” says a voice he’s never heard before. Jaskier tenses, half-leaning into Renfri, and sees over her shoulder a cloaked figure that looks like a child’s fearful drawing of a witch.

Renfri notices his unease. “Don’t worry, the biggest abomination in this clearing is me,” she says easily, pushing him aside so he reels and finds his balance. “She’s a fortune-teller from town. Now stay here, bard. You still owe me my life.”

Before he can say anything to that—what to say, except gape like a fish?—she flies across the clearing, all grace and airy speed, towards where he can pick out the noises of steel, crackling fire, raised voices: all the makings of a good old-fashioned mob.

“Wha’s going on,” he says more insistently, addressing the cloaked figure for the lack of any alternatives.

The caricature-witch pulls down her hood and streams of fire-red hair tumbles out. Jaskier feels his jaw drop open.

Yennefer is the most beautiful sorceress he’s seen by a long shot, but even she looks like a grubby handful of coins compared with the pristine treasures of this woman’s beauty. He could write ballads—entire odes and not be done describing the magnitude of it.

“It is a forest god,” she says, cool and clear. “The townsfolk believe that they owe their livelihoods to it. You were meant as a sacrifice.”

Jaskier thinks that destiny—or whatever horseshit was governing the up-and-down ridiculousness of his life—needs a punch in the ugly face, because really? He’d been travelling years before he met Geralt, and never even heard a whisper of the occult, and now his whole life is overrun with it.

The witch takes it in stride as Jaskier gestures at the treetops and mutters angrily to himself. “Your friend cares very much about your wellbeing,” she offers.

“She has a vested interest in my continued existence,” Jaskier says. He gives up shaking his fist at destiny and smiles at her, as engagingly as he can. “I suppose I have you to thank for alerting Renfri to my plight?”

She inclines her head. “A meal uncontested would taste like ash on my tongue.”

“Haha, that’s what I always say,” Jaskier says absently, before the words register. “Wait, what?”

Biggest abomination in this clearing, he thinks, as the beautiful witch opens her mouth—revealing broken teeth like splinters, each the size of a dagger. Her—its—eyes flicker and change shape, sinking into gelatinous green pits. Renfri, you beautiful fool.

It makes a sound—a deafening ROAR that shakes through the woods as it converges on Jaskier, who very quickly realizes that this is how he dies. Fuck destiny, he thinks. Right up the ass.

The thing makes its noise again, and Jaskier sends a silent apology to Renfri, who will undoubtedly have to figure out how to break her spell herself—

--when the creature stops in its tracks, blood leaking from where the tip of a blade protrudes from its neck—

--emits another teeth-rattling cry, and leaps back, into the treetops—

--just as Geralt of Rivia, witcher, witch-fucker, and bastard extraordinaire crashes in through the trees.

“Where did it go,” Geralt snarls, as Jaskier blink-blink-blinks at him. “It’s injured, so it’s probably hiding in another form. Where did it go?”

Wordlessly, Jaskier points up at the trees. Geralt follows the line of his finger to look at a rich bounty of nothing, and then looks back down with a sigh. “Fuck.”

“There’s a ballad in this,” Jaskier says, finally finding his voice. “Not really sure what rhymes with I was so scared I almost shit my pants, but I’m sure it’s there somewhere.”

The glance Geralt throws him is equal parts exasperation and bemusement. “Sounds like a real crowd-pleaser.”

Jaskier wobbles all over, like an indignant cat. “The public loves my songs and you know it! Just because they have better aesthetic sense—”

“Bad hearing,” Geralt interjects mildly,

Absolutely sophisticated tastes in music,” Jaskier says with force, “you have no right to cast judgement on those more fortunate than you. Where did you come from.”

“I was on my way to Cintra,” Geralt says, roughly, and stays still for a moment when, with sudden, almost unbearable understanding, Jaskier lays a hand on his shoulder. “I got…sidetracked.”

He hands, of all things, Jaskier’s lute to him.

Jaskier takes it with white noise filling his mind, very carefully not looking at Geralt.

“What,” Jaskier begins, but his voice sounds strange. Fragile. He clears his throat and tries again: “What kind of creature was that, oh witcher?”

Geralt turns to check on his weapons, and Jaskier is endlessly grateful he’s not under those cat’s eyes anymore. “A Leshen,” he says. “It would have been hunted down years ago, but these people have started worshipping the damn thing. Out-of-towners kept disappearing so the Council of Merchants enlisted my help.”

“It was a beautiful sorceress when it met me,” Jaskier says. “Is that normal?”

Geralt frowns. He’s looking down at one of the corpses Renfri left behind-- he tips it over with his foot and hm’s to himself before he replies. “They can shapeshift. But they normally prefer old men, in my experience.”

“They’re not the only ones,” Jaskier mumbles under his breath, inanely, and jogs to catch up with Geralt. “What are we looking for? Suspicious-looking old men?”

“Tree branches.” Geralt’s eyes are a pure witcher-black—Jaskier shivers when they land on him. “Anything that looks like it may not belong.”

“Essentially bullying the monster out of hiding,” Jaskier says, earning a semi-amused hm from Geralt before he begins hacking away at the foliage.

He starts from the Northernmost corner of the clearing and works steadily counter-clockwise. It speaks breadths for his experience as a witcher because Jaskier has not counted more than a handful of minutes passing before roots shoot up from the ground all around Geralt, and a quick-clawed beast gauges four parallel stripes on Geralt’s shoulder as it leaps down from the trees.

In its natural form, the creature looks like a wildcat the size of a bear, huge gaping jaw full of those deadly-looking splintered teeth. It looks horrifyingly old. Geralt’s sword is still in its neck as it faces off against the witcher, dripping heavy drops of blood on the forest floor.

Without warning, the Leshen lunges. Geralt sees it coming and twists out of the way, using the Leshen’s momentum to drive an elbow through its gut, unsheathing his other sword in one quick, clean motion and using it to impale the creature before it can recover.

It’s simple. It’s clean. It’s over in less than ten seconds, and Geralt is breathing smoothly at the end of it, perfectly unruffled.

A shiver runs down Jaskier’s spine.

Nothing and no one moves for the length of a bated breath. Then, Geralt breaks the silence with a growl of, “The fuck?”

Jaskier gingerly moves towards him, eyes on the Leshen that’s still heaving for breath with Geralt’s sword through its heart. When he’s near enough it turns out that Geralt’s looking down at the vicious gauges on his arm: the Leshen had torn clean through his armor, a wound that it would take any man at least a week to heal.

It’s healing before their eyes. Flesh knits itself together in the space between one breath and the next. Jaskier watches, mouth open, as the closed wound settles, slightly pinker than the skin around it, but for all intents and purposes gone.

“You are protected,” says a voice: the Leshen has shifted back into the beautiful red-haired woman. Beside him, Geralt goes very, very still.

Heaving for breath, even in this form, the witch turns her bottomless green eyes on Geralt. “You have been powerfully blessed, son of Visenna,” and this makes Geralt flinch hard. “The likes of me could never kill you.”

Geralt pulls his sword out with a snarl and raises it above the limp body. “What would you know—”

“And you, bard,” the witch says, shuddering. Her eyes suddenly fix on Jaskier’s, and they are as clear as day, before they roll clean back in her skull and she makes a low, guttural sound like an ancient madness that springs from the earth itself, grating on him. “The day is fast approaching where your love will not be enough to keep your loved ones alive,” she says, incoherent, frothing at the mouth, even as she keeps making that nightmare of a noise. “The day will come when you must choose between love and chaos. On that day you must surrender your heart and speak your truth and choose.”

Her mouth has barely closed around the final syllables when Geralt’s sword comes down, this time for good.

 

The trudge back to town is long and wearisome. Hardly the stuff of ballads, but the shape of Geralt’s downturned shoulders mean something to him anyway:

Glorious, the Butcher of Blaviken,
on an open road treads he,
strong and content and needing for nothing,
Rid of his old burdens, healthy and free

He makes up a few more verses as he goes. They’re not his best; all too often he thinks back on the witch’s green eyes and shudders, the cheerful tune of his ballad getting fucked sideways. He holds on to Geralt’s sure tread in front of him till he feels the ground under his feet again, the dizziness receding as he holds on to the small details of his best friend.

Nearing the town the forest path broadens, letting them walk side by side. Geralt bumps his shoulder against Jaskier’s the first time he falls silent.

“Catchy,” he says, with a half-smile. “I’m not going to get that out of my head for a while.”

“Yeah?” Jaskier says, badly taken aback by that smile. "I- I'm glad, then."

He falls silent after that, like a flame has been snuffed out. It was easier when his life was in immediate danger, and it felt like any number of times that they were in deep potentially-fatal shit before. He can't-- he knows better than to chatter about inane things now. It feels wrong to try Geralt's patience after he's just saved his life, after he's made it clear that-

A heartbroken man is a wounded beast, Borch had said, as if there was anything for Jaskier to forgive, as if he didn't know that when Yennefer left, Geralt's quiet, hidden hopes of love and peace collapsed. As if Jaskier hadn't looked deep into Geralt's heart and seen Yennefer's name etched on his ribcage.

It's uncomfortable, to walk shoulder-to-shoulder in complete silence with a man who used to be privy to his every innermost thought and complaint, but every time Jaskier opens his mouth he remembers that inane chatter is the last thing Geralt needs, and abruptly snaps it shut.

It's almost a physical relief when the treeline begins to thin and the town appears in the distance.

It’s peaceful yet; whatever hell that Renfri’s stirred up has since died down, and no angry mobs seem forthcoming.

Jaskier is inordinately pleased to see Roach, drinking from the same trough that they left their horses by. He’s expecting Geralt to immediately mount and ride away to gather whatever coin that’s been promised him, so it’s a surprise when he says, “I could use a drink.”

Jaskier nods, too flustered by this implicit invitation for proper words. “Sure,” he says, blinking stupidly. "I, um. Me too."

Geralt huffs a noise that might be derision. 

There are still no signs of an angry mob inside the tavern, though the crowd does part resentfully when Geralt enters. Too busy looking around for Renfri, Jaskier steps on his heels more than once, and earns no more than an irritable growl.

This is Geralt unlike himself. This is Geralt turned around. Whatever that monster had said—whatever it had meant—it had affected him just as deeply as it’d affected Jaskier.

He doesn’t prod into what it all means. After the barmaid has delivered their beers he falls into a rambling account of the adventure, embellishing and embellishing until the nearest tables are visibly listening in, and Geralt’s face is more amused than aloof, occasionally butting in with “That’s not what happened and you know it,” that just spurs Jaskier to exaggerate further, just to see that half-smile again. As the night wears on their limbs grow looser, more like the nights where they shared a tent and huddled against the cold and the rest of the world, like this invisible, aching distance between them never existed.

After their fourth or fifth drink Geralt laughs outright at one of Jaskier’s claims, and he can’t help but stare, grinning and feeling as if he’d discovered hidden treasure. For all that he plays the big bad witcher he glows when he’s like this, does Geralt, when he’s had a good hunt and his knees knock against Jaskier’s under the table.

Naturally, it’s when he has all his love writ large and embarrassingly naked on his face that the barmaid slams his next drink on the table too early, and when he looks up it’s to the raised eyebrows of Renfri.

His blood runs cold. They didn’t discuss this. None of them did, and both Geralt and Renfri are a tad to alike—stab-happy, that is, and disinclined to discuss anything—for this to end in anything but tears.

His fears are proven valid when he catches the glint of steel under Renfri’s sleeves. 

Geralt's cat eyes glow sharply in the half-dark. "Jaskier?" 

He forces a smile that sits thinly on his teeth. "Excuse me for a moment," he says, sliding out of his seat, leaving Geralt to the mercies of the local women who have just realized who he is. 

“Jaskier—” he hears, and he throws a forced grin over his shoulder as he follows Renfri into the shadows, cornering her in an alcove where no one can overhear.

“Have you gone insane?” he asks, sounding only a little hysterical. “That’s Geralt. You know him.”

She shakes her head unhappily. “He’s a witcher, Jaskier. I’m a monster. He didn’t hesitate to put me down when I was a human, how do you think he’ll react when he finds out I’ve been brought back with magic?”

“He’s mellowed out, I swear--”

“If he sees me, he’ll kill me,” she says, slowly, painfully, and her voice is just short of an outright plea. Her grip is five points of white-hot pain on his forearm. She’s begging for him to understand. “Your song was right—he didn’t want to do it. But he did it anyway. So for now, either bury your broken heart and ride out with me, or let me get in the first swing.”

Jaskier flinches.

“I’m sorry,” she says immediately, and she sounds so miserable, so shaky and close to unraveling, and she’s apologizing to him. “I don’t—it’s just that sometimes, the things you love can be cruel. Especially the Butcher of Blaviken.”

Years of history. Geralt was already the Butcher of Blaviken when Jaskier met him; it doesn’t occur to him till now that Renfri probably hadn’t heard the moniker in her lifetime. She was who he butchered.

He strokes back her hair and touches her cheek, welcomes her storm. Against all odds, he understands her: there is a familiar half-mad self-loathing in her eyes. She calms when he taps his finger against her cheek, but the little tremors of restrained violence are there.

“Go get the horses,” he murmurs.

Her eyes widen.

He gives her a sickly approximation of his usual smile. He feels like he’s aged a hundred years. “I’ll go say my goodbyes.”

He drags his leaden feet to the table. He lingers before he comes in view of the table, watching Geralt silently, trying to grit his teeth against the longing that feels like a hand on his heart, twisting, and he thinks, wildly, of casting himself into stone, so that he never has to move on from this moment where Geralt is within his grasp. 

Renfri places a hand on his shoulder as she passes and he blinks, comes back to himself. She doesn't say anything, but her eyes are dark and sad and he thinks that she may know this pain from before. 

Geralt is visibly distracted when Jaskier returns to the table. “Where were you,” he growls, a touch too aggressive: some gathered gentlefolk startle, and edge away.

“I’m heading South,” Jaskier says, his words coming out in jerky syllables. He tries a smile on for size and drops it, when the sight makes Geralt flinch and look away. “I’ve got some business down in Sodden, we’re riding out tonight.”

“Hm,” says Geralt, eyes shuttered tight.

“Take care not to have any ballad-worthy grand adventures without me.”

“I won’t.”

It’s unbearable to stand still, this infinite, exhausting yearning. What Geralt said to him on that mountaintop had not changed what Jaskier felt for him even a little. He spent all this time not even thinking Geralt’s name, but look at all the good that’s done: the message has not made it way through his thick skull, and he is as prepared to follow Geralt to the ends of the continent as always. 

Renfri must have the horses by now.  Jaskier picks up the case of his lute, and gives Geralt one last, awkward smile. “See you around, witcher.”

“Jaskier, wait,” Geralt calls before he’s halfway to the exit. He stands up in an aborted movement, then says, “I owe you an—”

Jaskier smiles, as sunny as he can muster. “Sorry, can’t hear you!” he yells over the crazed spike of his own pulse. “Tell me next time we meet, okay?”

Geralt glares at him, frustrated. “Jaskier—”

Jaskier raises his hand. “Next time,” he says again, and it weighs on his tongue like a promise or a spell: next time.

 

Night breaks soon and they have to stop riding. Renfri pats his back like he's an injured dumb animal and leads him to an inn, buys an eclectic assortment of food (is that lard? he thinks, too punch-drunk to really do anything about it) with coin of unknown origin. He doesn't feel quite human and he's grateful for the way Renfri brushes it off, pushes pieces of bread into his mouth and waits patiently for him to chew.

"I don't think I can love like you do," she says, when he blinks at her, "but I know everything there is to know about getting the raw end of a deal. So if you wanted to talk, I would listen."

Jaskier wants not to be amused, because he's sad, damn it, and she's being uncharacteristically soft, but there's something so awkwardly endearing about how much she visibly hates the idea of feelings. She looks like she'd rather explode than talk about romance, but she's sitting here and gritting her teeth. For him. 

"I'd rather watch you drink those poor ignorant villagefolk under the table," he says honestly. 

Her eyes widen, and the first hints of a grin shine over her before she tilts her elfin chin and digs her heels in. "No. Feelings."

"I could sing about the delicate bond shared between bard and princess, if you want," he says. "The adventures of the rascal bard who stole the heart of-"

Renfri jams another piece of bread in his mouth, glaring at him as he chews through it. What am I going to do with you, her gaze says, and it's the same thing he's thinking as he looks back at her, a closed parenthesis: what am I going to do with you, what are we going to do with each other. 

They tear their gazes away from each other to examine an interruption:

"Well well well," says one of the poor ignorant villagefolk, swaggering up to their corner table, apropos of absolutely nothing. "What do we have here."

Renfri looks up at him, then back at Jaskier, looking deeply unimpressed. Jaskier gathers that she's heard this brand of cocksure asking-for-death arrogance more than a few times, and even her beleaguered exasperation is somehow funny because she's so princess-y in the most unexpected of ways. 

Jaskier settles back in his seat, regaining his bearings. "Fifty ducat," he says comfortably, "that this young lady holds her alcohol better than you."

This poor, poor fool leers. "Anything to sweeten the deal?"

"I'll throw in a song," Jaskier says, before Renfri can slit his throat. "A song about destiny and glory and how you're a hero of a man who's not to be crossed."

The man eyes between them and seems to like his odds. "You're on."

Renfri sighs, as if she's hugely inconvenienced by Jaskier supplementing her alcoholism. "I'll kill them if they try anything," she says matter-of-factly. "Try not to fall in love with anyone while I'm gone," and she kisses his cheek, mouth cool and as fleeting as a moth's wing, and he holds perfectly still out of shock till she's gone, strutting off to the bar to ruin a few men's lives. 

Chapter Text

They fall into a routine.

Every morning Renfri wakes him up too early: “Arise, bard,” she says with her crooked grin. “This is no time to be dreaming.”

The beds are always too lumpy to want to lie around in. The lodging they find err on the side of seediness, and more than once Jaskier has had to hold Renfri back from murdering ruffians who try to sneak into their rooms at night. Springing for doubles is expensive, but Jaskier suspects Renfri will slit his throat if he even suggests sharing beds, so they settle for lodgings with stains on the linens that will make Jaskier cry if he examines them too closely. “Wake up,” she repeats, more sternly this time. “If we set out early enough we can afford to take the long way around Cintra. You take so awfully long to get ready, Jaskier. If I was on my own I’d be burning my way through Nilfgaard by now.”

Jaskier rolls over. “And how many hours did you sleep, princess? Three?”

A crooked grin, startlingly sweet. “Nope. Two.”

“For gods’ sake,” Jaskier says, reaching out to pull on one of her jagged chunks of hair. She cuts it with her sword, like a heathen, and it’s lovely despite everything, soft and curling gently under his fingers. “Is it the dreams again?”

She flicks his forehead and shakes free of his hold, drifting to where his lute leans against his bed. “I’ve been having them as long as I’ve existed, Jaskier, dead or alive, and I’d miss them if they were gone.” She wheels on him sharply then, as if realizing something. “Why? Did you try to bless me again? I told you to stop trying to trap me with your magic.”

“No,” Jaskier says forcefully. “You just get more murder-y when you’ve had no sleep, you can’t blame me for having a lookout.”

He notes, privately, that he’ll have to try a different blessing tonight; so far none of the sleep easy spells have been taking, for whatever difficult Melitele-cursed reason, and Jaskier feels like he’s just bleeding magic and ill-strung rhymes at this point.

His blessings are terrible and disjointed because he’s as sleep-starved as she is; her nightmares leak, do Renfri’s, and he doesn’t know if it’s because of the died-twice thing or a Renfri thing but they plague him like they’ve crept in through the back of his head while he and Renfri were sleeping.

She looks down on him like she doesn’t believe him one whit. “Well, don’t.”

“I won’t, princess, but for a price: just one kiss, and--”

“Oh fuck off.” She smacks him with the hilt of her sword and rolls her eyes, like he’s the ridiculous one. “Now, up,” she says, pulling on the sheets. “How have you survived like this? I can’t believe Geralt of Rivia would—”

She cuts herself off and looks at him panickily.

“You can say his name, Renfri, I’m not going to wither away and die,” he says. He does creak out of bed after that, feeling rusted all over. He hadn’t slept any better than Renfri did, thanks to the shapeless dread that sits on his chest every night before he falls asleep.

He sleeps practically nude, and Renfri regards his body with no more interest than a remark of, “You’re weirdly pale, aren’t you,” that Jaskier thinks is pretty hypocritical, considering that skin of snow is a thing she’s famous for. “We can make it to Aedirn today if we’re lucky. Where did you say your witcher was heading?”

“Cintra,” Jaskier says, popping his head into his chemise. “We can avoid bumping into him if we detour through Lyria, he tends to cut across Mahakam instead.”

Renfri is watching him, dark eyes intent. “We could…stray there, you know. I could lie low while you go over whatever quarrel that you have. We’d only be delaying a day.”

Jaskier turns to her in surprise, and she shrugs, rubbing the back of her neck. “It would do you good to see him, I think.”

“Not a lot,” he says, when he thinks he can manage to sound even. He even manages to force in a little cheer, because Renfri is a champion worrier. “I always seem to be getting attacked by otherworldly creatures when I’m around him.”

“Only because he’s saving you from them,” Renfri says, with something like gloom. She’s fought off a pack of ghouls from him before; she’s deadlier than Geralt described her. “You could live a life less offensive to the wandering spirits but no, you must sing and write sonnets—” she seems to realize the futility of what she’s saying and cuts herself off with a glower. “For someone whose magic is useless in combat,” she says, “you get into combat situations all too often.”

Jaskier tosses her an apple that he finds in his pockets as a peace offering.

As she’s slicing it -still violently sulking- Jaskier finishes dressing himself. “Now,” he says, chewing the slice that she pushes into his mouth. “Don’t we have a hard, uncomfortable day of riding ahead of us?”

“About fucking time,” she says, and throws up her middle fingers when she sees the face he makes.

 

They’re riding to Sodden, not Aretuza: after a little asking around Jaskier had, by some lucky accident, run into a sorcerer who went by the name of Istredd, and with a little unsuccessful seduction (Jaskier) and swords against throats (Renfri) they had determined that Yennefer was at the warfront against Nilfgaard.

 “Surprising in itself,” Jaskier muses as they mount their horses. “Yennefer always struck me as the type to pour oil on troubled waters, not try to put out the fire itself.”

He thinks Renfri’s still ignoring him, so it’s a surprise when she says, “Shows what you know about women, bard.”

Jaskier makes a face at her. “That would sound smart, if we weren’t talking about Yennefer. If there were ever a woman not to carry even a kernel of good intentions in her, it’d be her.”

“Maybe you’re biased,” she says, but she says it with gruff, uncertain softness.

He takes a deep breath. He doesn’t really have anything to say to that. “Yeah,” he says. Suddenly he loathes himself very much indeed. “Yeah, maybe.”

Renfri knocks her fist into his shoulder, without a word. Shoulders bowed, they ride on. 



In Aedirn, the signs of war grow clearer than they’d been before. “Nilfgaard is marching North,” the villagers they pass say. “Soon we’ll all be engulfed by the White Flame.”

Renfri’s mouth grows thin, the more they hear. “Surely not all,” she mutters. “The continent is bigger than Nilfgaard dreams of.”

It’s true that it gets harder to imagine the ancient redwoods of the Dragon Mountains the further south they go, like something misremembered, snatches of a dream. It seems very removed from the bare essentials of the farms of the south. And yet:

“They’re marching on Cintra," says a man at the tavern, and Jaskier grips Renfri's arm as a wave of panicked nausea rolls over him. "They'll have tamed the Lion by daybreak."

"Cintra is protected by the bard Mousesack," Renfri says sharply, even as she leans into Jaskier's space to steady him. "Their walls have not been breached in years."

Another man pops in with, "I heard Nilfgaard was using forbidden magic. Not much a bard can do against a sea of flame."

"Renfri," Jaskier says, before she can say something coarse and unflattering about bards. "Geralt is in Cintra."

"You don't know that," Renfri says patiently. "He may be done with his business there already. Besides, there's not much that can kill that witcher. I should know."

"He'd be fine if he was alone!" It's habit for him not to want to talk about Geralt's child surprise, since it's the closest thing to a weakness that he has, so he blurts, "That meddling idiot probably rode there to save someone from some hell-creature, there's no way he would abandon it halfway for something as trivial as impending war."

Renfri looks at him steadily. "What do you want to do, Jaskier," she says. 

And Jaskier recognizes it for what it is; what she's offering. And he knows: he, who trapped her life in a song, has no right to ask this of her. It'll skew the balance of their relationship for eternity. 

He thinks that this must be what it's like to feel destiny tugging at his feet. 

Geralt will be alright. He has to believe it. 

"What I want, Princess," he says, "is to find ourselves a witch."



South and South they go. Renfri’s mouth thins down to a severe line the more wreckage they see; by the time they reach Lyria, two days later, she’s sitting ramrod straight on her horse and her eyes hold the kind of fury that brings down empires. I shiver before Renfri, Princess of Creyden, Jaskier thinks.

They’re just days away from Sodden Hill, where rumors say the mages are gathering. Jaskier is half-afraid that Renfri will fly into a rage at the first sign of a soldier they see; the other half of him sees how much she aches and wants to let her. Let her flare bright and furious and burn everything clean.

“There needs to be no place in this world for the power-hungry men,” she snarls, her knuckles white around the reins. “We have suffered their violent delights for long enough.”

They compromise by keeping away from the towns and making camp near the shores of the Yaruga. A farmer lets them take firewood for free after Renfri tends to his poorly horse, and while she’s cooing at the beast—Renfri is unfailingly angelic to all animals—Jaskier thanks the farmer and takes an armful.

“You’d best be going back to where you came from,” the old man says, before he sends them off. “The war’s coming.”

“What about you?”

“My wife and my son want to stay, and so will I,” the old man shakes his head slowly. “If this land was good enough to be born in, it’s good enough to die on.”

Renfri nods approvingly. She likes morbid one-liners. Jaskier shoots her a look and says, “Still, wouldn’t it be a good idea to at least be on your guard? For your missus’ sake, if not your own.”

“If Cintra wasn’t enough to stop it, what makes you think I am?”

It’s Renfri’s turn to look at Jaskier. “Cintra fell?”

The old man nods grimly. “Like a sack of bricks. It’s been less than a day but the word is they’re already marching Sodden-wards. There’s already a line of bodies at the North end of the woods, I’ll have to go clear that up soon. Son,” he says, furrowing his brow at Jaskier. “Say, are you alright?”

Jaskier covers his mouth with his hand. He has no idea what face he’s making, but his heart has dropped to his stomach and he feels as if he may throw up.

“He’s fine,” Renfri says quickly, folding her arm through his. Jaskier loves this girl. “Probably tired, we’ve been travelling all day. Thank you for the firewood.”

She half-herds, half-drags him back to the clearing where they left their horses and belongings. As they go, Jaskier murmurs a spell:

Close your eyes, the sun is going down,
Come morning light, we’ll all be safe and sound

Renfri tries for a smile. “Gloomier than your usual.”

“I thought you didn’t like the cheery ones.”

“Only the ones that go on and on about your witcher,” she says. “All that champion prevailed and friend to humanity lines are too much for anyone who isn’t in love with him.”

Jaskier’s breath stutters. “Renfri, he was in Cintra,” he says, low and hurt, and Renfri’s eyes go wide for a split second before she’s dropping all the firewood and rushing to his side. She frames his face with her hands and makes a soft, distressed sound at what she sees.

“He’ll be okay,” she says. He can barely hear her beyond the rasp of his own rough, staccato breaths. He’d feel it if Geralt died, wouldn’t he? Even his useless magic should be good for that much. “Do not let the fear get to you, do you hear me, bard? Your witcher will be fine.”

She draws him close, icy fingers against the back of his neck and her soft voice in his ear till his breath begins to even. Her hair improbably smells of chamomile and freshwater, her cheek smooth against his.

“For all your magic, for all your endless love, you have so little faith,” Renfri says, almost chiding, and even in his fog he hears the undertones of prophecy in her voice. She speaks the next words as if she is daring the world to defy her: “Geralt of Rivia will be fine. Bastard owes me one death anyway.”

 

Jaskier’s dreaming; he knows he’s dreaming. A salt wind on the back of his neck and his feet are bare, dipped in sand, a golden-red sunset in the corner of his eye, and he’s singing about something. Love, probably. It feels like love. It’s clear and bright and nothing like the dreams he’s been sharing with Renfri; this dream where they go to the coast is all his own.

On the beach across from him, someone is making a fire. Without looking up from his lute he knows it’s Geralt, because it’s his dream, and from the multitude of Geralt-noises he’s making: the soft swears and mumbles of someone who’s used to being on his own.

Gentle, unhurried, he sings, and in the same sweet molasses pace Geralt finishes his task, and sits down besides Jaskier.

He’s gorgeous and unkempt, hair tumbling messy and salt-soaked into his face, the small quirk of his mouth. When Jaskier abruptly stops singing Geralt turns to look back at him with one eyebrow cocked, his cat’s eyes catching the firelight.

“Don’t let me stop you,” he says, settling back with his palms sifting through the sand. Jaskier loses a few minutes just staring at his hands. “You’re doing a good job of keeping the monsters away as it is.”

“Har har,” Jaskier replies, utterly unconvincing because of his big moony grin. “I sing your praises all across the continent, and this is the thanks I get?”

“No one asked you to,” Geralt says comfortably.

The sight of him makes Jaskier shiver with want, even as he snipes back, “Destiny decreed it. The people did.”

“Well then destiny,” and Jaskier could stare at Geralt for an eternity like this, firelit, his eyes sparkling, “can kiss my—”

“--Jaskier.”

Jaskier blinks.

The smell of the sea and idle magic is gone; the place he’s standing is hemmed in by redwood trees and they loom over him like silent titans. The silence rings in his ears.

Jaskier,” someone says again, harsh and urgent, and Jaskier recognizes the voice—it’s Renfri.

He looks around and she’s nowhere to be seen. Sick with fear and worry, it’s hard to tell that this is a dream anymore; he’s about to call her name when Geralt collapses against him.

He’s as pale as a corpse. “Geralt what the fuck,” Jaskier tries to hold his face, try to figure out what’s wrong with him, but Geralt is as rigid and immovable as a pile of bricks. “Geralt. Fuck. You better be alright, you bastard, if you dare die I will kill you, I have raised people from the dead and I won’t hesitate to lay you to rest, Geralt, come on, Geralt.”

Geralt’s eyes—golden fire a moment ago, sparkling with an artless kind of mischief have gone witcher-black. He opens his mouth, and what spills out is not his voice: “You must choose between love and chaos, bard. The time is coming soon.”

“Who fucking cares,” Jaskier says, and he’s aware that he’s sobbing even as he struggles to prop him up, lay him down, anything other than stand around listening to this. “Geralt, I swear to the gods, if you’re not okay—”

Geralt blinks. His eyes are clear and bright; cat’s eyes, Jaskier had thought, the very first time they saw them.

He smiles his usual crooked little barely-there grin, and it’s almost as if he’s smiling apologetically at Jaskier. “Not a happy ending after all,” he says, and pitches forward.

Jaskier startles awake with a scream.

“Easy, Jaskier,” says Renfri’s low voice. “Just a dream.”

He looks up at her, eyes not focusing. He can barely see past the pain that rockets down his spine, wildfire eating through his flesh. He tips sharply to the side and his head goes hollow and light, his eyes expanding in their sockets till they nearly pop, and the whole world goes white for a few seconds.

It isn’t until Renfri’s grip on his arm grows vice-tight him that he manages to grit his teeth, and turn his head. “We have company,” she says, evenly.

“Arise, bard,” says Yennefer of Vengerberg, smiling like she’d just stumbled upon a delightful secret. “This is no time to be dreaming.”

Jaskier rolls over, and blacks out.

 

Hubris personified, is the first thing Jaskier thinks when he wakes up, and Yennefer runs her eyes along Renfri, with mild, passing curiosity before visibly dismissing her as a threat. He gives Renfri a look that says what did I tell you and she smiles thinly back. He can feel her worry in her cool hands on the back of his neck, his hair, and it feels terribly far away.

“Looking a little green there, Jaskier,” Yennefer says.

Jaskier makes a face. “I had no idea my feelings about you were so transparent.”

She’s right, though, damn her eyes: Jaskier feels like he took on a charging bull head-on. Renfri’s holding most of his weight, and his skin’s clammy and his heart’s hammering and if he stands up now he’s entirely sure his knees will fold like wet paper. He grits his teeth. Something vague about showing weakness in front of predators echoes in his mind.

“What are you doing here,” Yennefer says. “Other than aging. Actually,” she squints, “where are your crows-feet?”

“They didn’t want to see you and went away,” Jaskier says, not knowing. “And as a matter of fact, we’re wandering the lands looking for a solution to our predicament.”

“Well, you wandered too far. Nilfgaard will reach Sodden Hill soon.” She flicks her eyes to Renfri. “I suppose your predicament is that she’s in the family way? I have a few concoctions that could fix that for you.”

Renfri, instead of taking offense, turns to look meaningfully at Jaskier. He feels his ears turn red and the burning makes the clamminess worse, his heart speeding faster than the rest of his body. What’s wrong with him? “It’s a little more complicated than that, Yennefer, I could fix that kind of thing myself.”

Yennefer’s lovely violet eyes blink twice before they harden. “Oh, that’s not a secret anymore, is it? We can talk about how you’re the bastard of Oxenfurt?”

“It wasn’t a secret,” Jaskier says.

“You never talk about it,” Yennefer points out. “Geralt doesn’t even seem to be aware of how much protection magic he’s walking around leaking.”

“You can’t call me the bastard,” Jaskier says, unwilling to broach the subject of Geralt. He shifts his weight gingerly from foot to foot and nearly passes out from the resulting stab of pain. Strangely enough, it seems to be originating from his left leg—he wouldn’t put it past Yennefer to curse him, but this pain is specific, physical, like needle-teeth biting down and shooting black poison into his veins. He has to bite his cheek to focus. “There are other bards that left Oxenfurt. Mousesack, for one.”

“Mousesack is at court,” Yennefer shoots back, mocking. “He’s not wandering the continent blessing random places and witchers.”

“Oh, as if you have room to talk,” Jaskier says irritably. “You just, what, subjugate entire towns to fulfil your whims and—”

“The problem,” Renfri cuts in soft and dangerous, and both of them fall silent, eyes wide, “is that I was brought back to life through his song, and now I’m bound to it.”

Yennefer is frozen in the middle of throwing a handful of what looks like magical sand at Jaskier. “Bound how,” she says. “That is, if I’m willing to extend my disbelief enough to think that bards can bring the dead back to life, which I’m not. But humor me. How are you bound?”

Jaskier had not thought to ask this, and shame prickles at him in hindsight.

Renfri shows her leg, where the wound that killed her can be seen in outline through her clothes. “The song says I died from an injury to my leg,” she says. “But I remember: a sword ran through my lungs and killed me. I was never injured in my leg.”

“So?”

“The song says that I wander the continent, seeking the souls of sorcerers and infidels,” Renfri says, rolling her eyes at Jaskier. “That’s not the life I want, I think.”

“Tied by magic to Jaskier,” Yennefer says, pitying, and Jaskier bristles.

“I can think of worse men to be bound by magic to,” Renfri says evenly.

Jaskier can feel it, the minute Yennefer’s terrifying focus hits fever pitch and shifts to her. Her violet eyes narrow. She’s holding unnaturally still.

“For the record, I didn’t even tell her about the whole clusterfuck with the genie and Geralt’s wish,” Jaskier says, humming with pride. His girl’s as smart as a whip-crack. “She figured it out on her own.”

“Dying by his hand lets you know a man,” she murmurs, as demure as the princess she never got to be, and Jaskier realizes: she’s fucking with her. Renfri is looking into the eyes of the greatest mage the world had ever seen, a sorceress of hellfire and pure chaos, and insinuating that she slept with her man.

He loves this girl.

Yennefer looks like she might launch herself at them and physically maul them, not even bother with magic, just attack them with fists and nails—Jaskier, as well, for bringing Renfri to her—when she stills, and swears so harshly Jaskier’s ears burn all over again.

“I kneel before Renfri, Princess of Creyden,” Yennefer says, and twitches angrily at the delighted look Jaskier gives her. “Oh, no wonder the seers have been losing their minds. They fucking love the children of the eclipse.”

Jaskier and Renfri exchange careful looks.

“Let me get this straight,” Yennefer says, and she seems truly angry now, apoplectic, and Renfri’s hand goes warily to the hilt of her blade. “You sing a song about one of the children of the eclipse disguised as a blessing for Geralt, and it comes true? Even with the bard’s law of chaos—”

“Bards can’t control chaos, they can only influence it,” Jaskier says, feeling called upon to deliver exposition.

“That’s—that’s too much power,” Yennefer says. “How the hell are you a bard, not a sorcerer?”

“I like songs,” Jaskier says.

“You have reversed the laws of the universe,” Yennefer says, as if she’s talking to a dense child. “Sources like that get recruited, or purged. How have you gotten by with neither?”

Jaskier shrugs. “Like I said,” he says, feeling hopelessly inadequate, “I like songs.”

Yennefer leaps to her feet like she can’t stand to be in his presence anymore. He looks at Renfri, baffled, and finds her wearing an expression that’s twin to Yennefer’s: like she’s barely stopping herself from grinding her teeth to dust.

The two women recognize each other’s mirrored frustrations. “He says,” Renfri says, with the air of someone who’s been waiting for someone to understand her plight, “he’s never wanted to harm anyone with his magic.”

“Then what a charmed life you’ve lived, Jaskier,” Yennefer says, suddenly sounding tired. “I can’t help you break the bond. At least not right now, with the war so close. I’d refer you to someone else who could help, but,” she shrugs, oddly lopsided, “I’m afraid they’re all in a situation similar to mine.”

This is something that they’d anticipated. “Where have you made camp?” Renfri asks calmly. She jostles Jaskier a little, taking more of his weight, and Jaskier smiles his gratitude at her even as he hisses at the throb of pain down his spine. “I imagine it’s hidden from outsiders.”

Yennefer nods her head westward, seemingly at nothing. “There’s an illusion over it,” she says. “Nilfgaardian scouts can be persistent. The illusion spell didn’t take over this patch of land no matter what we did, so I came down to investigate.” The way she says it is a little accusatory. Neither Renfri or Jaskier move a hair.

“Then we’ll come with you,” Jaskier says, decisively. “We won’t get another chance to consult as many powerful sorcerers.”

Renfri looks wary, and Yennefer catches on before Jaskier can: “No need to fret,” she says, and Jaskier’s never seen Yennefer look this tender before. As if she’s seen through Renfri and is wholeheartedly impressed. “Stregobor was too much of a pants-wetting coward to join us.”

Renfri looks back at her. There is something dangerous about the sharp glints in her eyes.

Yennefer, to Jaskier’s astonishment, looks away first. Is…is she blushing? Oh, sweet Melitele curse his soul, she is. Jaskier wants no part of this. Whatever this is.

“There was a prophecy about you two, you know,” Yennefer says, higher-pitched than Jaskier’s ever heard her.

“Lotta those going around,” Renfri mutters as an aside to Jaskier, and they share a weary smirk. Jaskier begins to make a biting comment that would make them both weep at his brilliance, but a pained grunt comes out instead.

Yennefer actually stops in her tracks, frowning at Jaskier. "Why do you still look like a dying walrus?"

Jaskier says, through clenched teeth, "I don't know.”

“Well, don’t expect any of the mages to attend to whatever disgusting illness you’ve contracted,” she says, and Jaskier briefly fantasizes about her tripping over those voluminous skirts of hers and falling into a pile of horse dung. “We’re all busy here.”

He feels the sting of magic before Yennefer taps their foreheads to share the illusion spell. Then she shoots Jaskier a deeply suspicious look and murmurs something in Elder tongue too low for him to hear, and the idyllic mountainside they’re facing changes before Jaskier’s even finished rolling his eyes.

The run-down castle of Sodden is teeming with an entire army marching across the mountain. It’s a maddened rush of villagers jostling against soldiers and what looks like an entire orphanage-full of little runts running around, balancing bottles of precious minerals in both their hands. Jaskier tries to peer at them and Yennefer steps smoothly on his foot.

Like flares that rip right through the atmosphere, Jaskier can sense them: sorcerers, almost twenty of them. Some of them are just as spine-crawlingly strong as Yennefer. A handful- and this makes Jaskier almost physically sick- are even stronger. It hits him then that these mages really plan to go through with this war. Risk their lives on the frontline.

Renfri is steady and immovable against him, as Yennefer turns to them and says, her smile a twist of pure irony: “Welcome to the end times.”

Chapter Text

The rolling mists of Sodden are thick with magic. Renfri keeps shooting him unhappy little glances as Jaskier retches and stumbles behind Yennefer’s swishing skirts, and all he wants is to throw her a cocky grin, maybe smooth the worry lines away from her mouth—but he can’t, he’s weaving like a drunk, and in so much pain he can barely force two words between his gritted teeth.

The base of operations that the mages have chosen is the ramparts of the castle proper. It’s good for...flinging things, Jaskier guesses, though what the mages have thought to fling is anyone’s guess. Rocks, perhaps? The skulls of their enemies? He catches Renfri running her eyes dubiously over the edges and, momentarily forgetting the agony in his leg, he grins.

“I’m not playing nursemaid for you,” Yennefer announces firmly. “Whatever questions you have, you need to find the answers to yourself. There are more than enough sorcerers here for you to wrangle an answer or two. If you can convince them not to kill you instead.”

It’s no more hospitality than Jaskier expects of her, but Renfri raises an eyebrow and she flushes, and—no, Jaskier’s not seeing this, nope, no, no.

“At least something for the pain,” Renfri says. “The man of the hour is in no condition to be seeking answers.”

And Yennefer- Yennefer, who wouldn’t budge in front of a mountain—sighs. “Very well,” she acquiesces, and ignoring Jaskier’s slack jaw she gestures up the hill. “Come on up. Not you,” she barks when Jaskier tries to stumble upright. “Our quarters are warded against enemy magic, and I’d rather not find out how potent it is just yet. Stay here, and try not to cause any trouble.”

Jaskier indignantly looks to Renfri to defend his honor, but it’s clear that her thoughts are far away, calculating their chances of survival apart faced with everything that Jaskier’s told her about this witch. “He’ll be unguarded out here,” she says. “I assume the reason that none of the soldiers are meeting our eyes has something to do with you, but once you’re gone—”

“Oh, he’s never as helpless as he looks,” Yennefer snaps. “I’m sure that he can muster up enough magic to defend himself.”

For a few moments Renfri keeps staring at her levelly, and Yennefer’s eyes go brittle and hard. Neither willing to concede.

“It’s fine,” Jaskier rasps, pitching into Renfri’s side. “It’s fine. You go. She’s right.”

Renfri shakes her head sharply. A vein in her jaw jumps.

Jaskier gives her a little push. “Go.”

Renfri frowns at him more before she relents. She’s got the wicked-sharp bite of a blade, does his girl, but she worries with the best of them. Jaskier tries to make a face—convey how much of a hen she’s being— but she’s not having it, and her features go harder than ever. But she does lower him onto the stone fence, and she slips her dagger into his hand before she follows Yennefer, and Jaskier watches her go till she disappears into the deeper layer of magic of the mountain.

He drifts then, untethered. He thinks he sees Geralt, or maybe it’s the sky, ashen beneath his eyelids. Geralt is lying on a cart, or a horse, or a carriage. Then he’s on the coast, smiling his half-smile, saying If I had a coin for every time that song got on my nerves—

“Arise, bard,” says a voice, sharp as a whipcrack through the fog of his visions. “This is no time to be dreaming.”

Jaskier falls through layers of dreams with a flinch.

He’s always mentally likened Yennefer’s power to wildfire—igniting with a crackle of dry old bones and feasting on every man and creature idiotic enough to be in its path. Raw, closer to pure Chaos than any magic he’s ever seen.

He sees that wildfire tempered in the sorceress that leans towards him. Tempered, and channeled, and glowing a blinding blue light. It streams unhurriedly through the herbs in her hand, to the tips of her fingers, held against Jaskier’s forehead.

He flinches away on instinct before he realizes that his teeth aren’t gritted to the point of wear anymore. The pain in his leg is gone. He can still feel the poison coursing through the pathways of his blood, which means the wound isn’t healed more than it is forgotten; but the relief of it is blinding.  

The witch looks exasperated as he leans away from her hand. “I suppose gratitude is too much to ask for, from any of Yennefer’s guests,” she says with a roll of her eyes, and Jaskier stops being terrified of her for a moment, long enough to be offended by the assumption that he and Yennefer were friends.

“I am indebted,” he says warily. “In all the lands I could not find a kinder soul than—”

“Oh, spare me. I have no time for a bard’s superfluous platitudes.”

He thinks her irritation is kind of unfair, since she’s the one who asked for gratitude. He wisely doesn’t point this out.

She seems to catch on anyway. With a roll of her eyes she tells him, “A simple thank you, Tissaia, would suffice.”

Jaskier blinks. Sorcerers were infamously cagey bastards; they didn’t hand out their names for nothing. Everything had a cost with them.

He pats his pockets furtively.

 “Fair Tissaia,” he says, and this seems like a good start, because she smiles tolerantly at him. All sorcerers were raging narcissists as well; Jaskier knows he’d be, if he looked like that. “Fair Tissaia, you cannot deny that I owe you a great debt. You’ve freed me from a most grievous affliction. Perhaps I may tempt you with a song?”

Against all odds her eyes light up, which is just simply wondrous to behold. Jaskier immediately goes a little tongue-tied. More so because between Renfri, and Geralt, and fucking Yennefer, the world has sent little by way of appreciation for his songs, and this witch—powerful enough to bring down entire cities in a blink—looks excited to hear them.

She feigns with the best of them, though. “Oh, that won’t be necessary,” she says. “I simply wanted to ascertain where all this healing magic was going. Whoever’s on the other side of that spell’s a leech on your magic, by the way,” she adds, offhand. “No one requires that much healing. Unless they’re returning from the dead.”

“Haha, that’d be crazy,” Jaskier scratches under his collar uncomfortably. “Now, about that song—”

He ends up improvising:

Don't let the song stop even in a night where the dawn never comes
Don't let the wandering dream get tangled up
Don't look back at the footprints that missed each other
Don't let you go, even if you step out from the path


“A general blessing,” he says, feeling almost…bashful, as she claps, though he’s sung before plenty of appreciative audiences before. None as strong as her.

“Bard magic is so fascinating,” she says dreamily, and spins something invisible around her fingers with a winsome smile. “We just speak a word in Elder tongue and it does our jobs for us. It’s a blunt tool, no subtlety or intricacy. Putting so much thought to an incantation,” she sighs happily. “It’s a pet hobby of mine, to think of ways to combine the two. To bring chaos and love together.”

Jaskier perks up. “They’re not so different after all.”

Tissaia smiles at him, as if he’s a student that’s delighted her with an answer. “That’s right. Of course, you’re the strongest bard I’ve seen since that Chancellor of yours, so you’d make a hell of a sorcerer as well. But I suppose your heart is in music.”

“It is the food of love,” Jaskier agrees, and matches her smile. “Now, if I could tempt you, this one’s called Butcher of Blaviken.”

 

When Renfri returns, that’s how she finds them: village lads singing along in a raucous semi-circle around him and Tissaia leaning forward, bright-eyed. As she comes to stand beside him, he unthinkingly segues into the Tale of Renfri, lingering on the parts that prove beyond doubt that the girl standing beside him is the same one he’s singing about.

Tissaia’s delight doesn’t diminish, though the turn of her mouth does turn thoughtful. Were she and whoreson Stregobor friends? That’d be amazingly unlucky and therefore par for the course for Jaskier.

Jaskier finds that the verses about Geralt and Renfri’s fight leave a bad taste in his mouth and he rushes over them, landing on the ones about her waking up and leaving her glass cage.

When he’s done, Renfri leans in and places her fingertips over Jaskier’s inner wrist. Checking his heartbeat, aligning herself to it the way she does when she needs to calm down.

Jaskier is half-amused, half-fretful. “Things go badly with Yennefer, then?”

Renfri casts her eye to Tissaia, one quick glance before she raises her eyebrow at Jaskier. He shrugs.

“Don’t pretend you didn’t see it coming,” she says, finally. “And it looks like you’ve been doing alright for yourself, with or without her help.”

Jaskier shakes his head. “She likes my songs.”

Predictably, this has Renfri rolling her eyes. “That’s all it takes, huh.”

“She understands my magic, Renfri,” he says, and something in his voice must ring as earnest, because she narrows her eyes. “She might actually be able to help us. She knows enough about love.”

Renfri looks unhappy, and Jaskier wishes he could explain it to her better. He supposes that he owes it to her to try, if he’s asking her to trust a sorceress.

“Sorcerers and bards draw from the same Source,” he tells her, gesturing with both hands. “The terminology is different and the incantations are different, but we’re tapping into the same energy. There’s no real difference between what the sorcerers call Chaos and what the bards call Love. It’s the way we channel it that makes the distinction between the two.”

“I was reborn from love,” Renfri says. “Your love. But for who?”

He can’t help it: Jaskier’s ears burn. He ducks his head, humiliated.

When Renfri speaks next, it’s the softest he’s heard her. “Oh, Jaskier.”

She ruffles his hair and he leans into her touch. “I could have sworn it was an infatuation,” she says. “Everyone knows how quickly bards fall in love. I should have known better.”

“It’s not exactly hard to miss,” Tissaia says, sounding almost apologetic. Renfri glares at her anyway. “Nine out of the ten songs he sang were about the same man. This Geralt of Rivia, he’s the same one they sing about tossing coins to, yes?”

Jaskier winces. “Not my best work.”

“It’s catchier than it is subtle,” Tissaia agrees, fixing the collar of her dress. “Whatever the incantation was for, it’s probably potent.”

“Just a general blessing,” he says vaguely. “Sung very much in those days of rumored infatuation.”

Renfri sighs. “I told you, I’m sorry it took me so long to catch on.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised,” Tissaia says when they turn back to her. “A powerful bard sings a song to assuage the guilt of the man he loves over killing a princess, and the song becomes an incantation and brings the princess back to life. The prophecies have been droning on and on about a child of the black sun returning for revenge, but we all assumed it was made up to strike some fear into that whoreson Stregobor.”

She says whoreson Stregobor in the same unintentionally noble-born, princess-y way that Renfri does, as if she does not know a greater insult. It makes Jaskier let out a wholly inappropriate bark of laughter, which in turn earns him two lovely glares. He raises his hands, easy. “I gather the whoreson Stregobor is not better-liked by mages than he is by cursed princesses and bards?”

Tissaia’s eyes harden. “Take his absence here as your answer, Jaskier.”

All the humor fades from Jaskier, and he almost flinches. Reigned in and hidden, it’s easy to forget the blistering fire of Tissaia’s power as she laughs and claps her hands along to a song, and now that the joy has fallen away he remembers: Tissaia was the name of the rectoress of Aretuza.

She stands and brushes down her skirts, as fastidious as a cat, and Jaskier belatedly realizes who her gestures remind him of. It should have been obvious; the way she arranged her skirts the first time she sat down should have been a dead giveaway, but he’s always been slow on the uptake on things like this.

She turns to him and Jaskier nearly slams his palm against his forehead; she even smiles like Yennefer.

So this was why Yennefer was at the warfront.

He’s turning this over like a stone in his hands, when a boy materializes directly behind her. She must have had him hidden in illusion until their conversation was over—Jaskier hadn’t even noticed her casting anything. He tenses, and beside him Renfri glances at him before she flicks her eyes back.

“I don’t know enough about bard magic of your level to suggest a simple solution,” Tissaia says, looking up from the scroll the boy had delivered to her. “But I will tell you this: the spell to cleave someone free from the effects of magic is Diverbero.”

“Thank you,” Jaskier calls after her as she picks up her skirts and turns to leave. She gives him one last smile before heading into the castle, the errand boy running to keep up with her gliding strides.

Renfri and Jaskier watch her go. “I look away for one moment,” she says under her breath, “and here you are, charming Tissaia de Vries.”

“Speak for yourself,” Jaskier whispers back. “I didn’t even know Yennefer’s eyes could twinkle.”

“Shut up, Jaskier,” Renfri says automatically, and cracks a crooked grin when Jaskier begins to laugh.

 

Yennefer is not subtle at all about being rabidly curious about what Jaskier and Tissaia were discussing, but she’s on some kind of unspoken war against Renfri that leaves her curling her lip and looking coldly away whenever she’s caught staring. Jaskier raises his eyebrows at Renfri, who seems similarly irritable and pretends that she’s not bothered by it. Whatever this is, Jaskier wants no part of it.

Amidst all this Jaskier prods at the phantom injury on his leg and tries to trace the origin of it. Tissaia had taken away the pain, but not the awareness of it; with his eyes half-closed he can make out teeth marks, like two sets of vicious needles had clamped down on his leg, which is impossible and unheard of and totally par for the course if it had something to do with Jaskier’s magic and Geralt. Was Geralt even alive?

With Renfri so close he can’t really dream of anything but shadowy black fog, but he gets glimpses: blue sky, the rattle of a cart. A boy with a tin hat over his head, though that makes no sense whatsoever.

Time slips through his fingers as he fades in and out. It’s typical that Geralt wanders his dreams as he pleases when he’s not needed, when Jaskier’s desperately trying not to think about him; but now, when he’s seeking Geralt out, he’s stubbornly silent. Jaskier doesn’t let himself panic and tries to see his magic as a bridge, as Tissaia saw it, to follow it to Geralt, but all he manages is to come back to that vision of a boy with his tin-hat and his persistent questions. He’s a sweet child—a little on the obnoxious side, and Jaskier feels it in his bones when the little brat’s mother sighs under his next volley of questions—but so patently not who he’s looking for that Jaskier nearly sobs in frustration.

Jaskier ends up hesitating, the next time he sees him, hedging his bets, trying to figure out where to look next. He’s standing in the threshold of the cottage with the brat and his mother when the child’s circles around the room have him ramming straight into Jaskier.

“FUCK,” Jaskier shouts, reeling away.

The boy looks up at him, unperturbed. Between his headgear and his hard fucking head, he looks as if he hardly felt it, the little shit, while Jaskier jumps in place holding his leg. Was this what happened to Geralt? Did he get a fatal wound from a child?

“You’re not supposed to say that word,” the boy says, very seriously.

Jaskier glares down at him. “You’re not supposed to attack random strangers either, but here we both are. It’s a funny world that way.”

“You’re in our house, that means you’re a burglar.”

Jaskier is never having children. He glances at this particular terror’s mother, who’s moving around the sunlit kitchen without noticing Jaskier. Makes sense that this brat was annoying enough to subvert the laws of scrying. “I wouldn’t if I could help it, but the person I’m looking for seems to have disappeared off the face of the continent and I keep ending up here instead. It wasn’t exactly a choice, and I’m certainly not a burglar.”

The child ponders this. He has his wooden sword perilously close to Jaskier, and as he’s thinking he waves it from side to side. If he stabs Jaskier with it he will kick this child, Melitele hear him.

“Okay,” the child says, finally. “If you were burgling us, you’d be very bad at it anyway. We’re going to the market soon, you should have burgled us then.”

Jaskier blinks down at him, weighing the merits of kicking this child anyway, trying to place why the accent sounds so slightly familiar—when a hand grabs him by the throat, and slams him against the counter.

“Geralt,” he says, breathless for reasons that had little to do with the grip on his neck. Geralt glowers down at him, cat’s eyes glowing like embers. “Oh thank fuck, Geralt.”

“What are you,” Geralt growls, in the voice that means imminent death. Jaskier’s brain scrambles to catch up, to move past the sheer relief of seeing him alive and—as far as Jaskier can see—whole. “Answer me. What have you done with him?”

“With who?” Jaskier says, squirming. The grip tightens and he goes deathly still. “Geralt, has all the witchering made you lose your mind.”

Geralt’s grip doesn’t loosen. “The man whose face you’re wearing,” he says, and slams Jaskier back again as he continues to stare up at him in pure confusion. “What have you done with him?”

He has long fingers—suited for a pianoforte, Jaskier’d once mused, to Geralt’s displeasure when he was in an ornery mood—elegant and rather quite lovely. They press in on Jaskier’s windpipe with a cold, measured precision.

“Geralt,” he says, just a huff of air. “It’s me. You know it’s me.”

Geralt shakes his head tersely. “Try again. The truth, this time.”

“Geralt, come on,” Jaskier says again. “You know. I don’t know where we are but you’ve always known the width and the breadth of what I was.

The grip goes fractionally slack. The look in Geralt’s eyes is like a storm given life.

“You never told me,” he says, and Jaskier shuts his eyes and physically flinches.

They’re doing this now, then. Jaskier looks down at his feet—at the child—and finds that he’s conveniently disappeared. The cottage is empty.

“You always knew,” Jaskier repeats. He wonders if it would be too much if he pressed into Geralt’s grip, which is now slack enough to be a gentle touch. Just to feel his palm on his skin, feel him alive and whole. He’s always taken care to hold back, but surely this didn’t count, this was barely real—

Geralt takes his hand away before Jaskier can gather the courage. He’s not meeting Jaskier’s eyes, and it makes Jaskier half-wild with desperation.

“Geralt, you know me,” he says, seizing Geralt’s square jaw in his hands, a trespass he never would have dared under normal circumstances. Geralt’s gaze jerks up, a growl catching in his throat. “We’ve never lied to each other. You’ve known what I was since day one.”

Geralt’s lips are parted. Jaskier thinks many fragmented, worthless things and forces himself to push it all out of his mind.

But then Geralt’s eyes are hard again. “Magic or no, you should have let me die. If you know me as well as you say you do, you know how much I hate being indebted to someone. Least of all a friend.”

“It’s not a debt when it’s between friends. You’ve saved my life countless times, we should be able to write it off by now,” Jaskier tries, to no avail; Geralt’s jaw is set.

Of all the men in the world, it had to be this one.

“Fine,” Jaskier says, vaguely desperate. “Fine. What do you want me to do, hm? Claim the Law of Surprise? Not like that hasn’t fucked us over multiple times in the past, but we love tradition, don’t we?”

Geralt makes a cut-off noise.  “Jaskier,” and Jaskier feels that all the way to his bones, the rumble of Geralt’s voice over his name like the restless coil of magic inside him. “You can’t let me go on like this.”

“I can’t,” Jaskier says faintly, hardly aware of his own words. He’s thinking of Renfri looming above him with a dagger, saying unbind me from your magic, bard. He thinks of how the two people he loves the most are terrified by cages, and are trapped by him.

“Sure, Geralt,” he says softly. “Sure.”

He puts his palm against his cheek, marveling at his own daring. As for Geralt –Geralt who fucks only women, Geralt who loves Yennefer enough to value her above everything else—Geralt looks for all the world as if he’s waiting to be kissed.

Ah, to live in a fantasy, Jaskier says half-wildly, before he says: “Geralt, in recompense for saving your life, I claim the Law of Surprise.”

Geralt’s eyes go wide. Something is on his lips, half-heard, but Jaskier’s already being yanked out of his dream. For once he’s happy to go. Geralt refusing his protection feels a crueler rejection than one stated outright, because his magic is so much of an extension of his feelings, his pathetic and aimless love. He falls through layers of vision and dream, his only distant regret that he didn’t get to see that precocious brat again: he’d have liked to say goodbye.

“Arise, bard,” Yennefer says. “This is no time to be—"

Jaskier is incredibly weary. He pulls himself to his feet and sways like he’s been unmoored, watching the distant flames of war draw nearer. “Yeah yeah, I know. It’s never the time to be dreaming.”

 

While Jaskier thought it was bards that were the chattiest vocation, the mages seem to give them a run for their money. He’s greeted by a sorceress who introduces herself as Triss Merigold and pushes a bottle of shiny minerals into his hands, with a throwaway observation of, “Oh, you must be the bard,” that Jaskier is too tired to make sense of.

It’s another witch—Sabrina, who looks young enough to be a teenager—who clarifies, “The prophecy mentioned a bard.”

“Oh?” Jaskier taps the bottle twice and a spurt of magic, like pollen, wafts through the top. He hands it back to her to be resealed. “And what did it say?”

“Just that you were coming to us, looking for answers,” she says. “It went along the lines of a bard and a prophet walk into a bar. In more archaic and unnecessarily cryptic language, of course.”

“Hey,” he protests, mostly at the unnecessary comment. He liked a bit of a riddle. Then, with a shock he realizes: “wait, prophet?”

“Renfri of the Eclipse,” Sabrina says, so hushed Jaskier has to duck his head to hear her. He then has to struggle to suppress a snort. How was it that Renfri evoked this kind of reverence in people she just met? “She was already a prophet before you drew her from behind the veil. I suppose her powers must be unsurpassed by now.”

Renfri has never told him anything of the like, never given any kind of sign that she had this otherworldly power. Jaskier supposes that he was the idiot here, thinking her just a girl with a sword.

It doesn’t help. Why hadn’t she told him? What had she seen that was bad enough that she couldn’t share it with him?

He looks below the valley, where a sorcerer with a curved knife and a very obvious infatuation with Tissaia keeps challenging Renfri to duels. Renfri is flying fast and wild, her sword a blur even after so many rounds Jaskier lost interest and wandered off; the mage has no chance against her. None of them do.

“So,” says Sabrina. “Are we ready to chuck these far and wide?”

Jaskier tears his gaze from the crimson blur of Renfri’s hair. “Hm?”

“The idea is that we throw these, and I cast Ambustum on it to power up the explosion.” She shakes one of her bottles in his face. “So do you want to be in charge of throwing or casting?”

“I don’t really— My companion Renfri, she’s in charge of--” Jaskier holds up his lute like a shield. “Bard,” he explains, almost apologetically.

Sabrina nods, her small teenaged face serious. “Tissaia mentioned you might as well be a sorcerer, with all your power,” she says. Jaskier really should have seen this coming, but he can’t help throwing a betrayed glance at Tissaia’s tower anyway. “It wouldn’t hurt to lend a hand, would it? We need all the help we can get to stop Nilfgaard’s march North.”

Jaskier shrugs helplessly. “We’re just here looking for answers. I mean, Renfri’s never met a fight she could walk away from, but I’m solidly useless in any capacity beyond blessing a few things.”

“You could try,” she presses. “I’ve heard that the Source that you bards call Love isn’t all that different from Chaos. Just consider it,” she says, because Jaskier’s already shaking his head before she’s done. “There’s a high chance that many of us may die when Nilfgaard reaches the Hill. Do you want that blood on your hands?”

Jaskier goes very still. She keeps looking, jaw set, though her face has gone white with fear. “No,” he says. “No, I won’t consider it. I’ll bless this entire mountain if your rectoress demands it, and all your armies. But she can’t make me wield my magic to harm anyone.”

She nods with false bravado, though she’s still pale. “I suppose that’s good enough.”

“It’ll have to be,” Jaskier says, voice low.

She breaks his gaze, shifting away from him in discomfort.

Jaskier goes back to helping them with the supplies. Eventually, her hands stop shaking and she joins them too.

 

Night falls, and the air is thick with ignored dread. The sorcerers aren’t so different from bards after all, for all their stodgy appearances: they counter doom with laughter and conversation, people gathering around fires to sing and talk. Jaskier spends most of the night making faces at Yennefer from afar, thwarting her attempts to charm men into doing her mundane bidding, and watching Renfri as she drinks an entire garrison under the table.

“Rather sad, really,” Renfri remarks, as Jaskier sweeps all the coin from the wagers into a little burlap sack. “I suppose I’ll have to find some sailors to meet my match.”

“Or a fish,” Jaskier points out. He passes the money to Renfri, who ties it to her belt to jingle softly as they walk away from the castle and the muted festivities, towards the forest where it’s dark and cool and quiet, and the lights of Nilfgaard can hardly be seen.

“The sorcerers here like to talk big, like all sorcerers,” Renfri says, slumping down ungracefully at the foot of a tree, “but I reckon you’re a lot stronger than all of them. Probably.”

“Except Tissaia,” Jaskier says, and she nods with a grimace.

“Except Tissaia,” she agrees. “God, that woman.”

Jaskier snorts. He watches the figures at the castle, something like a deep, unnamed sadness sprouting inside him. It doesn’t take a prophet to tell that everything’s was about to change.

Renfri nudges him with her arm. “You’re quiet.”

Jaskier thinks about holding his tongue, letting her tell him at her own pace. But he can’t shake off the feeling that he’s running out of time to make amends.

“Why are you here, Renfri,” he says honestly.

She turns her searching gaze to him and he waits, watching the realization dawn on her. She looks down and away, bringing her bottle to her lips with a soft curse.

“Renfri,” he tries again. “You knew how to free yourself. Why didn’t you tell me? We could have tried it the first time we met.”

“Didn’t know, the first time we met,” she says gruffly. She scuffs her boot on the ground as she refuses to meet his eye. “I didn’t even figure it out when you told me about the verse you scrapped. It was when we were almost at Temeria, and you healed Geralt by doing no more than singing about him being fine.”

“I don’t—” Jaskier says, upset. “That was—”

“There are worse men to be bound to,” Renfri says, staring into the distance. “I figured, as long as it was you, I could stand being known a little longer.”

“But why?”

She turns to look at him, eyes catching the firelight. “I saw you,” she says, low and uneven like a prayer. “Every time I tried to sleep, I saw you. Dark. Alone, with flames of a primal wrath chasing after you. I figured that if my visions ever served a purpose, it’d be this.”

“You’re here…to protect me.”

“I’m here because I knew that even if you’d set me free of your spell, you’d have been drawn to this battle anyway,” Renfri says with a small sigh. “It’s as if Geralt’s heart is a magnet and yours is made of lead. The two of you always seem to find each other. And it always seems to turn out badly for you.”

“He knows I’m magic,” Jaskier confesses. He follows her example and stares straight at the horizon, at the approaching flames of Nilfgaard as he speaks. It’s easier than meeting her fire-colored eyes. “He…met me in a dream, or a vision. He was dying, I think, and my protection magic brought him back. He said he couldn’t accept it,” his voice cracks. “I honestly think he’d rather die than— fuck.” He attempts a smile, leans in when Renfri huddles closer. “The whole unrequited part of the whole thing’s just occurring to me. And it’s not like it’s unexpected! Geralt never lets anyone win him for keeps, not even Yennefer, who could play roulette with the devil and win. It’s just that—” he stops for breath, “it’s just that this proves I never even stood a chance, and I feel like a fucking idiot.”

“I wouldn’t be alive if you weren’t in love with Geralt,” Renfri says, matter-of-factly, “so you can’t expect me to be unbiased. But yes, I agree. Being in love is awful. It always puts you in the losing end of a bargain.”

It’s so unexpected—so practical and at odds with the melodramatic mood he’s in—that he gapes for a beat.

Renfri shrugs. There’s a smile on the corner of her mouth when Jaskier falls into incredulous laughter that turns real, warm, because she’s right: he wouldn’t have Renfri, if not for this whole fiasco.

It’s almost impossible to imagine.

“I even declared the Law of Surprise on him,” Jaskier says, wondering. “As an…apology, I guess? Melitele’s tits, that’s fucked up. What if I get a curse or something? I don’t really picture Geralt receiving anything else.”

“Then you die,” Renfri says pragmatically. “The bard Jaskier dies like he lived: a wandering idiot who sang of the wrong thing.”

He chortles again, but the wine is quickly returning him to melancholy. He doesn’t want to think about Geralt, or dying, or any of it. He has Renfri, but at the cost of her freedom: he doesn’t want her to grow to resent him like Geralt does.

“Alright,” he says, climbing to his feet and brushing off his trousers. “Let’s get you free of my damn spell.”

She watches him with wide, curious eyes as he unpacks his lute.

Remember her, when she’s reborn,
Ah, but she’s flying like a bird to the sun
Shackles forgotten, burdens undone
The tale of fair Renfri comes to an end

There’s no glowing, no blinding light. Jaskier’s can’t feel if it worked or not, but Renfri’s hand has gone up to her neck, her eyes wide with shock.

“Oh,” she says, quiet.

She pulls her hands back to show off a thin, jagged scar across the side of her neck. His vision briefly doubles, super-imposes an image of Geralt running his sword to the side of her throat.

“Oh,” he echoes softly.

They stare at each other in bewildered wonder. “Well?” Jaskier prompts, finally. “Do you feel any different?”

“Being human’s different than I thought,” Renfri says, examining her hands. “I don’t feel like I need to orbit you at all times, which is a relief.”

“Oh.” Jaskier had enjoyed the physical intimacy. There was something about having a loved one you would rather throw up than have sex with huddled next to you constantly.

As if reading his thoughts, Renfri rolls her eyes. “I meant it’ll be a relief not to have to share your vivid dreams about Geralt, not that we won’t be companions anymore.”

“Oh,” Jaskier says again, brightening. “Then what will you do? I have fire to look forward to in the near future, but you can still leave, you know.”

Renfri smiles. “It’s like you don’t know me at all.”

This makes Jaskier grin, and they knock their tankards together; partners in crime. They drink in silence for a while, watching the flames dance, the exuberance of the soldiers and sorcerers alike. The fear is almost drowned by the hope.

Jaskier is tilting into Renfri’s shoulder, half-asleep, when someone clears their throat from behind.

“Hello, Yennefer,” Renfri says cordially, and Jaskier’s eyes snap open.

Yennefer steps into view. Lit by firelight the magic in her is undeniable; it rests on her head like a crown. He stares at her, open-mouthed and stupid for a few seconds before he looks back at Renfri. They’re both waiting each other out. This might take years.

“Nice ring,” he blurts; the first thing that comes to mind, and he’s sure he’s never seen the band of gold with a chunk of green on it before. “Is that to curse men with?”

Yennefer sneers. “Just one man,” she says. She holds it up, looking at it with a weary resignation. “It’s a gift for Geralt. There’s a pair and they’re meant to bring us together, no matter where we are.” She sighs. “It would have been romantic, if we weren’t literally bound by magic already.”

“Yen—” Renfri says with a frown, and looks at Jaskier.

Jaskier wobbles on to his feet. “A little too much wine,” he says, too loud. He doesn’t meet Renfri’s eyes. “I’ll just…walk it off. Ladies, as you were.”

Even Yennefer –Yennefer—looks regretful as he stumbles away. Before he’s out of sight, he sees them bend their heads together, lovely and dark, deep in conversation. All wrapped up in each other, and perfectly unaware of the world as their eyes sparkled with unspoken delight.

Jaskier turns around, and leaves.

 

The sorcerers attempt to explain strategy to him but it falls on deaf ears, and when Nilfgaard begins to attack Jaskier finds himself weaving his magic with Triss Merigold’s, adding a layer of protection through some slightly inspired wartime rhymes.

He runs out soon enough, and Yennefer yells at him from the tower to go check on Tissaia. He runs with his head held low, ducking behind trees and sections of wall, and he’s so preoccupied with dodging the oncoming hordes that he ends up getting, predictably, lost.

Jaskier swears. Earlier he could have used his connection to Renfri to orient himself, but he can’t sense her anymore and he’s blessed too many people in the lead-up to the battle to be able to tell them apart by the spells alone.

He pauses to try and get his bearings and realizes that he’s been surrounded.

“He’s one of the mages!” one of the Nilfgaardians shout. “Watch out for his spells! Take care not to touch him!”

Jaskier frowns. “Why would I touch you?”

No reply, except for a cry, and three soldiers running in at once. The fastest approaches him from the right, spear waving; he’s almost at Jaskier, the tip almost at his throat, when a sword whizzes past his ear and buries itself in the soldier’s shoulder.

He’s shocked breathless, but somehow still unsurprised when he wheels sharply around to find Geralt in the middle of a massacre, bloodied swords in both hands.

“What the fuck are you doing,” he snarls, pulling his sword out of one of the soldiers’ necks and throwing him away like a ragdoll. “This is a war, or have you started looking for ways to kill yourself?”

Coming from Geralt, this is practically a monologue. “You wouldn’t believe me, but a princess came knocking on my door. Who am I to turn my back on destiny? So here I am.”

This answer only seems to infuriate Geralt more. “Spare me, Jaskier. Why are you really here?”

Something in Jaskier goes terrible and cold. He’s sad; but he’s also thinking of Renfri, saying love always puts you in the worst end of a bargain. He’s thinking of Tissaia telling him that love wasn’t all there was to the world. “What do you want me to say, Geralt,” he says, eyes narrowed. “That I came here to follow you? Is that it? I scryed your position to, what, stalk you, like some scorned lover?”

Geralt stabs the next man who lunges at him so hard he tears him in two. Geralt is brutal, yes, but efficient as he fights; this is closer to pure savagery. Jaskier finds that whatever he was planning to say is robbed from him as he watches. He barely manages to sidestep one charging soldier, but once he does the poor soul charges right into Geralt who makes quick, bloody work of him.

The soldier killed, Geralt turns to Jaskier with his eyes freezing cold.

“Your magic, and your words, Jaskier,” Geralt says, low and dangerous. “There are tales of a wandering bard, powerful enough to rattle the foundations of an Empire. There’s a lot about you that I can’t trust.”

“So kill me, then,” Jaskier says, tired deep to his very bones. He steps right in front of Geralt, knowing if he stops to think about Renfri he wouldn’t go through with it, but—he can’t stand another second of Geralt looking at him like that. “You’ve made it very clear what you think of me, Geralt. So kill me and think of it as an evil that has passed.”

Geralt shakes his head angrily. Over Jaskier’s shoulder, he throws a sword aimed at yet another ambush of Nilfgaardian men. Distantly Jaskier notes that there are more of them that there should be.

Which means that they’re losing.

Jaskier’s shoulders slump with the unseen weight that suddenly drops on them, and he takes a step back. A soldier charges at him and he throws a handful of Sabrina’s magical dust, and the soldier collapses midway.

“Yennefer presumably needs you,” Jaskier says, jerking his chin towards the castle. “That way.”

Geralt makes no move to rush off, like Jaskier had originally assumed. Instead he swings his sword violently, beheading three men in one stroke.

“Our time apart hasn’t granted me mind powers, Geralt,” Jaskier snaps, worn thin by the sheer suspense of it all. Would he kill him or not? “If you want me to fuck off you have to tell me, or has the capacity for speech also abandoned—”

His words are cut short when Geralt makes another angry noise, rams his blade into the last of the ambush, strides forward and yanks him up by the collar.

“I had a dream about this once,” Jaskier is remarking, some small part of him thinking, Renfri will kill me when she finds out I died like this, when Geralt leans down, and—

--kisses him.

 

The sensation of warm lips above his doesn’t really make sense at first, the movement of them hypnotic, and some small part of Jaskier half-thinks this is an odd method of murder before Geralt parts his lips gently, and kisses him harder than Jaskier’s ever been kissed before.

The breath gets knocked out of his lungs and Jaskier clings back desperately. Here, in the arms of the man who may well be the love of his life, he tries not to think about the death and destruction and Yennefer and just focus on this: this seeming desertion of Geralt’s better senses, this probably one-time hallucination or whatever—

Geralt breaks the kiss and Jaskier whines up at him. “Shut up,” he says, and he says it with a sigh as if he’s the beleaguered one. Him! When Jaskier’s the one who’ll have to live out the rest of his days comparing every sexual encounter to this one glorious kiss. “I can hear you overthinking.”

He lets go, briefly, of Jaskier, to throw a knife at—someone. Jaskier can’t really focus on much of anything that isn’t his big, dumb, gorgeous face. “Geralt, you can’t deny that a little confusion is warrant—hmph,” he’s smothered again, by another kiss, and he lets himself surge up towards Geralt in response, leaning up and in and kissing back just as hungrily, his fingers tangled in Geralt’s hair.

An arrow comes whizzing past his ear towards Geralt and falls to the ground with a soft thump. Geralt eyes it, even as he mouths at Jaskier’s jaw. “That keeps happening. That you?”

Jaskier tries to align his thoughts, even as he rubs his fingers over the texture of Geralt’s armor, thumbing at the clasps. “Maybe? I think it takes more than, ah, more than an arrow to harm you past my protection, but –Geralt, that tickles—I mean, I can never tell?”

“Hm,” says Geralt, occupied with sucking what feels like a massive bruise under his jaw.

They’re broken apart by a man crashing through the foliage, vaguely familiar in the set of his eyes and his mouth, though Jaskier’d be hard-pressed to recognize his own hand in front of his face just then.

“Ah, Witcher,” he says, sounding pleased. Something about the cadence of his voice reminds Jaskier of Tissaia, of the men that peacocked before her in that final night. Last night? It felt like a lifetime ago, Jaskier thinks, with a secret, electric thrill. “Good, I’m in desperate need of someone to guard my back. And you’re the bard?” he turns to Jaskier, looking significantly less happy. “Yennefer is in need of your assistance.”

Geralt hesitates. Jaskier stares at him in disbelief when he doesn’t bound off immediately. Geralt loves saving people to little or no personal gain, what was going on?

“Or,” he says gruffly, and the same giddy, disbelieving thrill runs up Jaskier’s spine before he’s even finished speaking. “Or we could go to the coast.”

Jaskier closes his eyes. Something lost and lonely inside him finally curls up its weary body, and settles.

He could write a song about this.

 

Jaskier enters and ducks through shadows toward the back of the castle while Geralt follows Vilgefortz to fight a creature that made Geralt press his lips thinly together when he heard it described. The wind is picking up as the sun goes down, blowing a cloud of smoke down the slope of the mountain.  Jaskier’s apprehension grows into horror as he progresses and the evidence of Nilfgaard breaching—of striking down the sorcerers he promised to aid, while he was safe under the protection of Geralt—grow harder and harder to ignore. The ramparts of the castle are simple in design but every nook and cranny seems to hold the fallen figure or a familiar face crying out for help. There’s no sorcerers to be seen.

No Renfri, either.

It’s almost no surprise to find the castle burning. That’s when the real panic sets in.

He finds Sabrina and she clings to him, wild-eyed, as she drags two unmoving boys behind her. “They’re controlling our minds,” she shrieks. “Your magic—it protected me from it, but the children—they got the children.”

“Take them somewhere safe,” Jaskier says, thoroughly aware of how useless he is. “I’m going to find Yennefer.”

“Save her,” Sabrina says, and Jaskier nods dumbly.

His eyes are burning. He keeps having to rub them to remove the grit of smoke from them, and tears stream freely down his face as he stumbles in the vague direction Sabrina pointed.

When he finds Yennefer she’s surrounded in flame.

“The fuck,” Jaskier mumbles, only half-aware.

It’s flowing out of her, though that makes no sense. He thinks it may be the same flames that were on the castle, but it looks like an extension of herself, like she’s tearing off a piece of her soul to destroy her enemies.

He doesn’t think he’s ever known a person as well as he knows Yennefer then.

But whatever she’s doing, she’s subverting the laws of Chaos—drawing power without a sacrifice, and Jaskier sees the rip in space that’s forming behind her, a black hole, and he sees her eyes widen with realization, and—

He thinks, out of nowhere, of Renfri.

Before her face has fully formed in his mind, he flings out a hand and grips Yennefer, and spits, almost unconsciously: “Diverbero!”

The black hole spits Yennefer out and warps. Shifting targets. Staring out of an eye that is not an eye directly at him as he remembers that he made the same fundamental mistake that he’s always made: Chaos required sacrifice.

And he drowns.

 

For a second he is in the still nothingness of the absolute dark. There isn’t enough air to get in his lungs and his breath is staccato, harsh in his own ears.

The first time Jaskier was down here, he woke up screaming after his first unintentional spell. The scream hadn’t traveled, instead fallen flat as if he was standing in a close room with walls he could not see. He’d woken up with the Chancellor of Oxenfurt looking down at him and offering him a scholarship.

He doesn’t try screaming this time, but terror makes him almost unable to speak.

He will stay here forever, this time. Trapped in a lightless box, except for the beckoning that invites him deeper, down to sleep in the silence of the heart of the planet. Alone, except for the ancient, primal thing that had no name, that wanted to kill him. Alone, except for—

Something glows green.

He almost can’t recognize his own hand when he raises it to his face. There’s a rock on it, glinting with gold and pulsing steadily like a living thing, a heart. Powerful magic.

Yennefer must have slipped it into his hand.

He can barely force the words out of his mouth: “I claim the gift of the Law of Surprise.”

“There you fucking are,” Geralt breathes in his ear, and Destiny itself reaches into the void and yanks.

It feels like days before his body hits the ground so hard it bounces. He lies there and gasps in a breath of burnt air, memories blurring in his mind.

Jaskier, his mind supplies. That’s who he is.

His eyes open and he catalogues faces, like a dragon counting pennies. Yennefer. She brought him back.

Renfri. She loved him most.

And Geralt.

Geralt.

He’s holding deathly still. His pale hair, his white face—he looks like a corpse.

“You look like you just died,” Jaskier says. His voice is a wreck of torn vocal chords—but he’ll live.

Geralt collapses like his strings have been cut.

Jaskier turns his eyes to Yennefer. “Nilfgaard?”

She blinks. “Hm? Yes, defeated. The fire was the last straw, apparently. And Triss, you know. She held them at bay on her own. Your magic protected her right up till you were gone.”

Even her eyes are suspiciously over-bright. Did they seriously think…?

Yes, Jaskier realizes, as he finally works up the courage to meet Renfri’s eyes. They thought he was gone. For good.

She doesn’t look inclined to murder him herself. The urge is there—he can see it in her eyes, and he’s almost relieved to see it in an odd way since it means his murderous princess’s still in there—but it’s overcome by something else.  Something brittle and almost endlessly fragile.

“I told you,” she says, delicately, “that I joined you for a reason.”

Jaskier’s lips slip into a smile. “You are the greatest prophet the world has seen.”

Her head snaps up suddenly, as if she remembered something. “You find the girl in the woods yet, Witcher?”

Geralt’s eyes come up. He shakes his head.

Renfri tuts. “Well, you will, soon.”

Jaskier barely suppresses the urge to groan and demand what girl? He finally got Geralt to look his way for a while, and now there’s more competition? He throws a glare at Yennefer, who already looks bored of huddling by his prone body. She glares icily back, unaware of the cause of his ire but always willing to fight.

As if sensing his thoughts, Geralt groans. “Let’s get you properly looked at, bard,” he says, and before Jaskier can point out he can’t walk, Geralt easily tips him into his arms, and lifts him like he’s made of feathers.

Jaskier squeaks.

“I owe you an apology,” Geralt says as they stride through the woods, as if this is a normal thing to be doing. Perhaps for him it is, Jaskier thinks with another spike of petty jealousy. Perhaps he princess carries all sorts of people. “Many apologies. But most importantly, I didn’t word things right when we met in my dream.”

My dream,” Jaskier corrects. In the background he can almost hear Renfri and Yennefer simultaneously roll their eyes.

“My dream,” Geralt says gravely, as if Jaskier had agreed. His lips curl into a small smirk that vanishes as he goes on: “I could have said it better. What I said about your magic. When I said I didn’t want to owe anything to you, I just meant that I wanted us to be equals. I’ve failed you more than once. I didn’t want to be any more—unworthy.”

Jaskier processes this.

His lingering suspicion that he fell down and hit his head on a rock roughly at the same time the battle began is strengthened tenfold.

“I beg your pardon?” he clears his smoke-and-ash-clogged throat, and ends up coughing. “Geralt, I know you to be smarter than that. I’ve seen you. That’s so—that’s so incredibly dense, what do you mean we aren’t equals? What did you think we were, merchants striking a deal?”

Geralt locks his jaw. “Does that mean I’m forgiven.”

Jaskier rolls his eyes so hard they hurt. “Come here, you absolute nitwit,” he says, and kisses him clumsy and undignified when Geralt leans in. It’s gratifying when Geralt dives in with none of his usual grace either; it feels too intense to contain, both their experience robbed and reduced to awed, awkward kisses. They’re so good they make Jaskier’s toes curl nonetheless.

He hadn’t dared believed it that first time they kissed, but he believes it now—when Geralt kisses him like he can’t breathe for the yearning either, his whole field of vision taken up by Geralt’s flushed cheeks, the glow of his eyes, like a shard of amber, like the dull roar of the sunset in the first few days of his childhood after he found his magic.

Geralt’s cat’s eyes gleam as he pulls back, deliberately pretending not to notice Jaskier’s protesting whine. His lips are rubbed red and his cheeks are flushed, and just looking at him is enough to make Jaskier shiver.

He belatedly glances at Yennefer for her reaction, and finds that she’s not even paying attention—she’s deep in smiling conversation with Renfri. She reaches out and swats her playfully, and Renfri, instead of striking her dead where she stands, ducks her head and grins to herself.

Jaskier looks back at Geralt, determinedly. It’s not happening if I can’t see it.

As they trudge through the forest, Jaskier thinks about the ballads he could make of this. Would it be about the heroics of the sorcerers who fought on Sodden Hill? Or the terror of flames? Or perhaps it would be about how Destiny is sometimes a greater force than all the magic in the world combined.

Either way, it would be a song about love.

The treeline begins to thin, and the ruins of the castle beckon in the distance. Yennefer takes the lead to take down the crisscrossed illusions and protections that Jaskier and Triss had indiscriminately cast. Renfri catches Jaskier’s eye, drags them up to Geralt, and raises an eyebrow; Jaskier grins at her.

Geralt stares steadfastly ahead.

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” he says, “but what the fuck is Renfri doing here?”

All three of them freeze.

Just as Yennefer begins to laugh, Jaskier says, sheepishly,

“It’s a long story.”