Roach gave him a frankly judgemental side eye. She snorted, tossed her mane, then turned away to stare out at the empty sun-dappled road.
Geralt grimaced. Sitting primly before him was Princess Cirilla. Perched upon a waist high stone wall, she twisted to peer at him over her thin shoulder. Geralt dropped her half-done braid in defeat.
“I’m making a mess of it,” he admitted. “Best to leave it be.”
Ciri reached up to touch her long, once golden, hair. It was clean from a dip in the river, but still roughened and washed out in color from its previous splendor. Life on the road, on the run, was not equal to keeping up with the good care it had received in all the princess’ previous years.
Silently, Geralt watched the girl swing around to face him, her delicate fingers combing out the tangles. She did not appear overly upset with her general disarray.
Truthfully, Geralt did not know what to expect from the child. This girl had been raised in a palace of plenty. She would have wanted for nothing.
Now...there was only the danger and lean times of the road. Her perilous identity, hunted for across this war-torn continent.
Now there was only he, Geralt, guardian of his Child of Surprise.
“It’s alright,” Ciri said. She stared up at him, a bit searchingly.
Geralt did not know what to do with a child. Even child as incredible as Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon.
“I don’t want to cut my hair,” she said, abruptly.
“If I cut it,” she carried on, as Geralt moved to prepare their things for travel. “I could look like a boy. It would be easier for me to hide.”
Geralt paused, then nodded to Roach. “Ready?” he asked, in lieu of answering.
Ciri hopped down from the stone border wall. “The other witchers might let us in without a fuss if they believed me to be a boy.”
Geralt lifted and settled her on his horse. Roach, normally choosy about her rider, did not show one flicker of disdain.
“Let me worry about any fuss.”
Ciri followed Geralt’s progress with narrow eyes as he gathered up Roach’s reigns and gently began to lead them down the road to Kaer Morhen.
“Geralt--” she cut herself off. Silence fell between them for some time as the road wound on underfoot. Afternoon sunlight glowed all the brighter until it was difficult to see where their path met the horizon. More importantly, until it was difficult to see any oncoming travelers.
Roach was giving him more of that side eye. He clicked warningly under his breath at his horse. Geralt possessed no more patience for her commentary. She nickered like a laugh, breath blowing out gustily, perhaps sensing tension.
Ciri’s head turned this way and that, sharp eyes scanning their surroundings. He had observed this and more in the last few days since they had found one another at the merchant Yurga’s cottage. Namely, he saw in Ciri a wary distrust of the world, eyes that remembered pain, and cheeks hollowed with hunger.
Geralt felt something unpleasant turn his normally ironclad stomach and settle sickeningly cold in his chest.
“Ask your real question,” he offered.
Ciri snapped a startled glance his way. She pressed her lips together, eyes bright with her unshared thoughts. “It’s stupid that only boys can become witchers, you know. I’ve always thought so. I want to keep my hair long and my name the same. I can do just as well as any boy.”
Geralt’s lips twitched. “I don’t doubt it.” There was certainly something of her grandmother in her, the Lioness of Cintra.
Ciri kept her bright eyed gaze on him steadily. Fierce, but fiercely unsure at the same time. Wrong footed. Desperate for something.
He rolled his shoulders out as he swept a secure glance at the path once more. “What do you want, Ciri?”
Emotion welled in her eyes though they remained dry. She dropped her gaze to the saddle.
Geralt had been around a long time now. He had navigated trickier conversations than this under worse constraints. How he was making such a mess of this, he could not say.
Ciri drew his attention back as she sucked in a breath. “Will you leave me, if they turn us away at Kaer Morhen?”
“No!” They came to a halt. Geralt catching the reigns and holding Roach and Ciri still. “No, I will not leave you, Ciri. Not for anything. I promise you that.”
The emotion twisted harder in her young face. “You could die.”
He met her gaze squarely. “Not easily. Death has not come for me in all these years, through so much danger. I won’t go willingly or without a fight.”
Earnest now, Ciri gasped, “Lots of people have said that sort of thing to me. Kind travelers who took me in...my grandmother--” she gulped. “Strong people. Fighters. Grandmother told me to find you. I think...you can keep me safe until I can keep me safe. If we make it that far.”
Geralt felt as though he’d been kicked in the chest somehow. He said roughly, “We will. I’ll make sure of it.”
Ciri hesitated, a last bit of nerves. “What if I frighten you?”
Geralt shook his head. “You won’t.”
Ciri pressed, “What if I’m frightening?”
“Then you’re in good company.”
Her shoulders began to droop in relief. Face still serious. “What if someone offers you money for me?”
“I’ll pelt them with their own coin.” He tilted his head. “You don’t know me yet. I should have been there for you much sooner than this. But I swear to you, I will protect you and teach you and stay with you for as long as you need me.” He paused, long enough to marvel at her smile.
“What if I want you to stay with me forever?” She smiled with happiness, like a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
Geralt unclenched his hand from a fist, tension draining from him as well. “Hmm. Forever is a long time.”
She quickly denied, “Not to me, it isn’t.”
He hummed. “That’s because you are young. Give it a few years. Then see how you feel.”
Her smile widened.
Geralt shook his head. “And see what you think after the training in Kaer Morhen. You may curse my name and seek my absence soon enough.”
Ciri looked pleased as she declared: “Never. I want to learn. I’m done with running.”
Truthfully, so was Geralt.
It was easier between them, after that. They set off once more for the ruins of Kaer Morhen