"You there! Half-Elf! Are you going to fetch me that water from the well or are you going to stand around with your head in the clouds all day?!" her harsh tone snapped the boy out of his thoughts, and he turned quickly on his heel and bowed his head.
"Yes, mistress, sorry mistress..." he dared a glance up between his dark bangs and then darted out into the hot sun. The smell of human waste and sweat permeated the air of the town, and he could feel the glares of the people around him digging into his back. This was no place for a young boy to grow up, he thought. No place at all.
The boy climbed the hill, sweat dripping down his back and soaking his raggedy clothing by the time he reached the well. He moved to lower the bucket when someone came up from behind, throwing him down onto his back and knocked the wind out of him. He blinked up, confused and hurt, at the human standing above him, scowling.
"Just what do you think you're doing, half-breed?! Stealing what little water we have?" the older boy scowled down at him, his friends sneering behind him.
"N-No! I was just getting water for Mistress-"
"Liar!" the human boy kicked him hard in the chest, hard enough that something cracked and pain lanced through him.
"Please! Leave me alone!"
He didn't listen, and soon his friends joined in, kicking and beating the young half-elf as he sobbed and curled in on himself, trying to protect himself from their blows.
"Leave me be! Let me go! Please, I beg of you!" But they didn't listen, and the people below were deaf to his cries for help.
Just when he thought it would be the end, just when he thought it was over, something burned at his fingertips. Something beat against his chest, begging to get get out, to be released...
And he released it.
"I hope you find Ban Ard comfortable... Julian, was it?"
Julian glanced up from the cotton sheets, his voice nothing more than a whisper. "Yes, sir."
Stregerbor smiled at him and set a gentle hand on his shoulder. "You will be safe here, Julian. Half-Elf or no, you are no longer just some poor servant. You are a Sorcerer. And besides, aside from the slightest taper of your ears and a slimmer build, I doubt anyone will take you for having any elven blood anyways."
Julian gave him a small, tense smile and followed Stregerbor out of the room.
For the next couple of months, Julian explored the academy and surrounding city as he went through trials and stared into the eyes of his companions, trying to pull secrets from their minds and balance magic. Balance Chaos. When he wasn't memorizing the signs or staring into a fireplace trying to see the future, he could often be found with his head in some new book, some tale of grand adventure and romance. There were more books in this place than Julian had ever seen, and he had made it his personal goal to read every single one of them. He felt very fortunate in those moments that his father had taught him to read before his death, claiming that his mother would want him to be knowledgable. And so Julian had hoarded knowledge like gold in that town he'd been stuck in, clinging to the idea that it would bring him closer to his mother, who was killed by humans when he was very young.
He began to befriend some of the other boys at the academy, and as his training dragged on he began to open up, come out of his shell. The quiet village servant began to fade into someone else, a boy who loved learning about the world around him, loved stories like he loved breathing. A boy with talent in the arts of divination and controlling the powers of the sky. The first of the students to successfully bottle lightning and prove his mastery over Chaos.
Initiation came and Julian was assigned to assist in the court of Creyden.
"Have you ever thought about changing your name, Julian?" Renfri asked as she trailed after the sorcerer. "To something more... daring? More magical?"
The mage snorted, turning and smiling at her. She was only 13, but she possessed an aptitude that Julian was certain would carry her well on the throne. "Change my name? Why would I want to do that? I quite like being Julian."
Renfri shrugged, smirking. "Because that's something heroes do? In all the old stories?"
"Evidently I spent far too many years of your childhood telling you those stories, princess. I am no hero, merely an advisor to your parents."
Renfri paused for a moment and looked at him, her expression suddenly serious. "What about the assassin? Sent to kill my father? Does getting rid of him not make you a hero? Or protecting me from... from the prophecy?" Julain went quiet, looking at her for a long moment, till she spoke again. "Even if you don't think you're a hero, you will always be my hero."
Julian smiled, his throat tightening and eyes shining. "It means the world to me to hear you say that, sister dearest."
One step... another. One step... another. One foot falls and the other falls. An endless repeat of cycles, guided by God only knows what. An endless mantra repeated as well, burrowing into his brain. A list of names, of those who had influenced his life thus far... Stegerbor... Renfir... Geralt... Stregerbor... Renfir... Geralt... Stregerbor... Renfir... Geralt...
The thought of the Witcher causes his breath to catch in his throat and Jaskier's feet to stumble. When they happened to meet up on the road, Jaskier posing as a bard at the edge of the world, he had only tagged with the Witcher for hopes of slitting his throat in the middle of the night in revenge. Killing him the same way he had killed Princess Renfir. But then he'd made an off-hand comment about Geralt being the butcher of Blaviken and the guilt that had flitted across the Witcher's face... and he began to wonder just how badly Stergerbor had twisted this tale. Like he'd twisted the prophecy of the Black Sun. He had never managed to get the full story from Geralt before they parted for what seemed like the last time. Jaskier got the brunt of the blame for Geralt's problems and quietly thought he was probably right.
He ought to summon a portal, Jaskier thought to himself. Drop himself on the outskirts of some wealthy city and go back to being a bard, singing tales of the White Wolf of Rivia and pretending that he was human and not an instrument of chaos. Just as the thought crossed his mind, a portal opened on the road in front of him. Jaskier froze, staring at it and waiting for its creator to step out in front of him. But no one did. The portal merely sat there, waiting to be used as though destiny herself had left it there.
And after a moment of hesitation, Jaskier stepped through.
As soon as he did, it vanished and the man took a minute to look around. He had ended up in the foyer of one of the most gorgeous manors he'd ever seen. A glance at a nearby window told him that it was situated on a cliff overlooking the sea, and the smell of salt drifted past him. It was well kept, and a few servants bustled about, unbothered by his sudden appearance. After a long moment of gawking at his surroundings, a sudden sharp clear of the throat pulled his attention to the top of the staircase. He spun on his heel, to see, of all people...
Yennefer of Vengerburg.
"It's been quite a while, Julian..." she said, her voice carrying softly down the stairs.
"Not long enough," Jaskier muttered in response, brows knitting. So she had known who he was back during the Djinn incident... But what hadn't she said anything? "I forgot to mention, last time we met, that you've changed quite a bit. Sated your hunger for power, have we?"
Yennefer frowned at him as she approached, the blue silk of her dress whispering with her movement. "I learned a long time ago that power is mostly worthless unless you can actually do something with it." She appraised him, the dust on his legs and worn soles of his shoes. "Besides, you and I are far too old to be holding grudges. You are, what now... 79?"
Jaskier's scowl deepened. "Eighty-three."
Yennefer laughed quietly. "And yet you don't look a day over 25."
Despite himself, Jaskier smiled a bit. "You don't look so bad yourself. If I didn't know better I'd say you were in your early 20's. A little older, if you'd like."
Yennefer flashed him a rare, genuine smile. "Going to write a song about it, Julian?"
"Maybe later. I'm a little song-ed out right now." he returned, his smile widening. "I suppose you're right; we are too old to be holding grudges. I'm sorry you didn't get the djinn."
"I'm sorry it attacked you, and for the way I treated you afterward."
"Forgiven; provided that you don't try to chop my dick off again."
"I make no promises."
The next few weeks in Yennefer's manor were peaceful. It was nice to truly be able to practice magic again, and he found that he spent much of his time in the greenhouse, mixing elixirs and relearning the art of alchemy. Jaskier had always found mixing ingredients and measuring to be rather soothing, and between his time in the greenhouse, wandering by the sea, and talking with Yennefer, he found time passing quickly. However, regardless of how occupied he was, he missed traveling. Missed the feel of the road under his feet, the stars above his head, the danger that permeated the Northern Realms, he missed...
He missed Geralt.
The Witcher was the one subject that he and Yen had avoided talking about like the plague. Sex? Totally fine. The law of surprise? Completely normal topic. But Geralt of Rivia? No way. Not bringing him up.
Which is why when things inevitably went to shit, they were that much worse.
Jaskier stood on a cliff, overlooking the tumultuous waters as the storm raged around him. Rain lashed at him and the waves broke upon the rocks, soaking him further as lightning split the sky open and thunder rolled across the sky. It had been far too many years since he'd felt the power of chaos truly grace his skin, his bones. He'd spent too long using his powers for divination and healing, rarely for offensive purposes.
And so he stood, waiting for the lightning to strike closer, waiting... waiting.
He watched as the world seemed to slow down, and lightning forked from the sky towards him, but just before it struck his body, Jaskier raised one hand and harnessed it, pulling the electricity into his body and shooting it out over the water, pure power coursing through his veins and laughed. A wild, uncontained laugh, as chaos and emotion ripped through him before he reigned it back in once more. It felt good to harness that level of power again, felt like the first drink of water after weeks without.
He was so caught up in waiting for the next good strike, that Jaskier didn't notice the creature coming up behind him till it struck.
"We cannot just let this fucking thing roam around the grounds, we need to track it down and kill it."
"I agree with you, Yennefer, but look what it did to Jul- Jaskier. And contrary to popular belief, he's no weak man. One of us has to stay to look over him, and it'll take at least two of us to take the wyvern down."
"I can do it, you can stay here with him, Triss, just let me-"
"No. You will get yourself killed and then where will we be?"
Jaskier cracked open his eyes, pain lancing through his entire body. His mind felt sluggish and slow, and he couldn't so much as shift without the pain increasing tenfold. Triss noticed him waking and quickly stepped over, gently resting a hand on his forehead and frowning down at him.
"He's burning up. The only reason he's survived this long is because of what little healing I can do and his abilities as a mage. He will not live for long unless I can concoct a proper anti-venom."
Jaskier took in a shuddering breath and looked past Triss, over at Yennefer, who's lips were thin with displeasure and face taut with worry. "And the only way to do that is to kill the Wyvern and harvest the venom."
"And the best option to do that... is to call a Witcher."
Yennefer and Jaskier both stared at Triss in silent horror. No... No, no, no. They were not calling a Witcher. The chances of him showing up were far too high and neither Jaskier had not spoken to him since the end of the Dragon hunt. And while Jaskier couldn't speak for Yen and would certainly never try, he imagined neither of them had any interest in seeing him any time soon.
Even if it had been nearly two years.
Triss walked out of the room without a word, and Jaskier could feel himself slipping back into the darkness.
"A royal wyvern, by my guess. The thing was massive from what little I saw of it. Yennefer got closer, and the friend I told you about... well, let's just say he got a front-row seat."
"Hm. This friend of yours; a mage as well?" Geralt asked, frowning at Triss.
The sorceress nodded. "Yes. But despite that, I fear he won't live for much longer if we can't get an antivenom."
"Where did it strike him?"
"On the cliffs, overlooking the sea. He was practicing some offensive magic when it came up behind him."
"Then that's where I'm headed. It'll be 3,000 Ducats, I take payment when I'm done-"
"I know. You'll have your coin, Geralt, just... please hurry." Triss said.
Without another word, Geralt walked out into the rain. Though the storm had cleared out a while ago, a light drizzle of water still fell from the dark heavens. Geralt headed around the manor and quickly found the cliff that the mage must have been practicing at. His certainty came from the large prints of what he was fairly certain was indeed a wyvern and the lightning scorched ground close to the edge of the rocks. The iron tang of blood filled his nose as well, though a good deal of it had been washed away by the rain and the waves. Taking a deep breath, he picked up the path of the wyvern and followed it down the rocky coast.
It didn't take long before he found the creature, which turned and screeched at him. Between its size and coloration, Geralt divined that Triss was right; it was a royal wyvern. And a female, at that. This would be a hell of a-
The wyvern lunged at Geralt before he could finish the thought. Moving quickly, he darted out of the way and the wyvern skidded through the wet sand, howling at him. Geralt caught a whiff of its blood as it came to a stop and realized that before he'd been incapacitated, the mage had injured its wing. He could have shouted for joy; by doing so, the wyvern was grounded and much easier to fight. A few careful strikes and dodges were all Geralt needed before the wyvern fell with one last shriek. He was careful when extracting the venom from the barbed tail for Triss's antivenom when he spotted something; the hilt of a dagger, buried in the bone between the creature's back and wing. So that was what had incapacitated it so badly...
He tore it out, merely intending to return it to its owner when he saw the familiar crest on the hilt:
A flash of old pain balled in Geralt's chest, and he carefully wiped the dagger clean, heart pounding. He hadn't seen the crest since- since-
Without a word, he shoved the dagger into his pack and picked his way back up to the manor.
Triss finally opened the door, looking exhausted. Geralt didn't say anything, merely raised an eyebrow at her.
"He's alive and awake... and won't shut up. He keeps complaining about losing his dagger; says it was a gift from a dear friend. He also wants to pay you himself; says it's the least he can do for you saving his life," Triss told him, a slight smile on her face despite the harsh sounding words. "You should probably take a bath and get some food and rest though; he'll meet you by the cliffs this evening."
Geralt grunted and rose from his chair, following Triss into the manor.
He took a bath, then a nap, and then spent some time familiarizing himself with the manor. At about midday, he found himself face to face with the manor's owner; Yennefer. She appraised him silently, neither of them speaking for a long moment.
"Thank you," she finally said.
"For killing the wyvern and saving Julian in the process. He- he is one of the few friends I have left, despite our bickering. I'm not fond of the idea of losing him." Yennefer turned to leave, but hesitated. "And for... for the djinn. For saving me. For... all of it. What we had may be long over, but I'm still grateful."
Geralt watched as she walked down the hall and out of sight. Although part of him wanted to follow her, wanted to talk with her, he felt that it wasn't worth risking her temper. But one thing had stuck with him, the name of her friend, Julian. For whatever reason, he couldn't shake the feeling that he had heard it before, but he couldn't remember where.
The day passed, and before long the sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon. Geralt grabbed the dagger from his room and headed for the cliffs to retrieve his payment so he could get the hell out of here and hopefully never return. But as he approached, a familiar sound drifting on the salty wind made him pause. It wasn't the shriek of a monster, or the cry of a human, or the clashing of steel...
Someone was singing.
A mournful, soft song from the sounds of it, accompanied by a lute, and as Geralt got closer he could make out the words:
"And you've been crying out for forever,
but forever's come and gone.
You keep begging for forgiveness,
but you don't think you've done wrong.
You've been crying out for forever,
forever's come and gone...
Bleeding hands, my shaking head..."
Geralt paused, watched the bard as his hands strummed the lute, shaking a little as an after effect of the poison. So this was where Geralt had heard the name; it was Jaskier's given name. He said nothing for a long moment, until the bard suddenly stopped playing, eyes tracing the horizon where the sea met the sky.
"I've been avoiding you, you know," Jaskier said quietly, and Geralt shifted as he considered drawing closer, but Jaskier continued. "After everything you said. It hurt, you know? But then it became less about the pain and more about the truth."
"What do you mean?"
"The fact that I've lied to you over and over, maybe? About- about who I am, what I am. You've been nothing but honest with me, and I've been anything but." Jaskier sighed, and stood, turning to face Geralt, his face taut with emotion. "So go ahead; ask me anything and I will answer honestly."
Geralt hesitated but started with the matter that had been bothering him since he killed the wyvern. He pulled the dagger from his bag, not missing the way Jaskier tensed up and a hand flew open, but simply held it out to him, the blade facing Geralt's chest and not Jaskier. With wary eyes, Jaskier stepped forward and took the dagger, sighing quietly in relief. "Oh thank heavens. I thought this was lost forever..."
"How'd you get it?"
Jaskier said nothing, taking a moment to slide the dagger into its sheath before he looked up at Geralt and spoke. "It was a gift from King Fredefalk of Creyden, for saving his life from an assassin. Along with another gift I have yet to claim."
Before he could stop himself, Geralt asked, "did you know the princess?"
Jaskier took a deep shuddering breath and forced himself to look the witcher in the eyes. "Yes. I knew her from the time she was a babe to when she disappeared from Creyden, hidden from my scryings. I searched all over the Northern Realms for her, and was only able to find her after she was dead."
"I-I'm..." the words died in his throat, as he studied the fire of rage that seemed to have lit within Jaskier. "I'm sorry. For Renfri's death."
"I know. I knew from the moment you knocked the wind from me back in Posada." Jaskier gave him a wry grin, then turned back to the ocean. "I was the court mage in Creyden for nearly 60 years, from when I was merely 20, till I was just shy of 80. That was when Renfri vanished, and I left to search for her, only to find that Stregerbor had gotten to her before I could. He told me that a Witcher had killed her and her men. At the time, I was so overcome by anger that I had one goal; find and kill the Witcher. I posed as a bard and traveled until I ran into the very man I was looking for in Posada. I made some excuse to follow you; I knew very well the creatures in my song were false and was hoping that would lure you in. It did, and I intended to either kill you myself or incapacitate you and let the devil kill you. But you proved to be a much different man than I expected and..." Jaskier turned back towards him, "and I couldn't do it."
Geralt was quiet as he looked at the smaller man. "I'm glad you didn't."
Jaskier managed a wet laugh. "Me too. No more lies, I promise."
"I believe you." Geralt said, and the pair turned back towards the manor. Geralt glanced down at Jaskier, "I'm sorry for what I said to you, back after the dragon hunt. On the mountain."
"... I forgive you."
They were silent for a moment as the sun set in the distance, before Geralt coughed and said, a little awkwardly, "could you finish that song?"
Jaskier smiled and strummed a few chords on his lute as they slowly began to make their way back to the manor, the sweet sound of his voice drifting into the wind, lost to the waves for anyone but Geralt of Rivia...
"As your love starts to surround you...
All of their words are trying to drown you.
And you break, it's too late for you to fall apart.
And the blame that you claim is all your own fault.
But you've been crying out for forever,
but forever's come and gone.
You keep begging for forgiveness,
but you don't think you've done wrong.
You've been crying out for forever,
but forever's come and gone...
My bleeding hands and my shaking head..."