"You've endangered the girl!"
"She was going to kill me!" The girl in question shouts from behind him, her voice ringing high above the clamouring crowd. Funny how it's the only thing he can hear, even with his enhanced abilities. "He saved my life—" Her sentence ends abruptly, and Geralt inhales, kneels, braces himself for the next rain of stones and curses.
And then warmth presses up against his back.
"He saved my life!" It's her again, firm, and louder this time. Her small body is no match for their projectiles, voice no match for their insults, but her presence settles on him like a protective, sturdy cloak, woven by diligent hands. From the way she's wriggling around, he figures someone is trying to pull her away. "Stop! How could you do this to him—" She shrieks, and all of a sudden the warmth is gone, and he feels cold. (Witchers don't feel the cold.) "Let go of me—!" There's a scrabbling of gravel, yells of anger, a yelp of pain, a thump.
The villagers descend on him.
Geralt closes his eyes.
The woods are serene at this hour, sunset light filtering through the leaves, dappled patches of gold on the ground. A breeze teases through the branches, and occasionally the bushes rustle, parting to show a glimpse of a squirrel or some other small creature.
It's almost insulting.
A dull ache reasserts its presence when Geralt rolls his shoulder and he narrows his eyes at the feeling. As much as he doesn't want to admit it, the fight and the ensuing violence has evidently taken a toll on him. He's getting old or out of practice — either way, an injured witcher is a slow witcher. Slow witchers are dead witchers.
"Alright, girl, we're stopping here." His voice is no louder than a low murmur, and with a gentle pat on Roach's neck, he leads her into a small clearing. He ropes her reins loosely around a branch, and there's a convenient fallen tree nearby to act as a seat, so Geralt tosses his pack against the log and settles down, rummaging through his bag for any leftover salve for his back. Not much of anything left — he'll need to take more contracts to be able to afford the ingredients, or go find them himself.
On alert, he slowly reaches for one of his swords — steel? silver? — when a twig snaps and —
It’s the girl. The alderman's daughter, from yesterday. The one who’d led him to the wizard, who’d ended up being Stregobor instead of Master Irion. The girl who’d tried to defend him from the villagers.
Who was dragged away kicking and screaming.
Her voice is nonchalant, light, and there's no fear in her hazel eyes or in the way she carries herself, but part of her sleeve is torn, and one side of her face is curiously redder than the other. "Just the witcher I was looking for."
Geralt finds himself grunting in response. "I don't need company." What a sorry sight he must make, a lone witcher sitting in a clearing, letting a child almost sneak up on him.
Marilka — that’s her name, if he recalls correctly — shrugs. "Too bad. you’re stuck with me." She trudges over, plopping herself down right next to him as if she meant to be there the whole time. Looking closer, there's a scratch high on her right cheek. "Or well. It's sort of your fault, really. 'Marilka’s no daughter of mine'," she mimics in a lower-pitched voice. "'And she can go and find that bloody witcher for all I care.' So here I am. Found my bloody witcher."
He stares at her for a moment before looking away. The air tastes sour now, and he feels the ache in him tenfold. Not for the first time, he reminds himself that sometimes the real monsters aren't the ones lurking in a swamp.
"It‘s a good thing," Marilka continues, rattling on as if Geralt had made any indication that he was listening at all. "I get to see the Continent. Travel to places that aren’t just the boring old market.” She swings her feet, kicking up a bit of grass and dirt as the tip of her boot scrapes the ground. "Good-bye Blaviken — just the whole world before my eyes. As far as my feet will carry me."
'Go away,' Geralt wants to say, but the words rest on the tip of his tongue. He can't find the strength in him to speak them out loud. Just for today, he promises himself. Leave her at the next village.
Three villages, another kikimora, a pack of drowners and a ghoul later, Marilka is still there.
"I am sore," Marilka declares from her place on foot next to Geralt on his horse. Grumbling aside, she's swinging her arms cheerfully, a spring in her step. Since when had he slowed Roach's pace so much that she could keep up beside him? "I didn't know horse-riding could be so painful."
More accurately there had been no horse riding on Marilka’s part. The last ghoul had come upon them unexpectedly and he'd tossed her onto Roach before commanding her to hold on and for Roach to gallop away as fast as she could. He'd dealt with the monster swiftly enough afterwards. No one was badly hurt in the end, except Marilka won't stop telling him about how much her feet hurt, her back hurt, her shoulders hurt, her calves hurt—
"You should teach me how to ride." She looks up at him expectantly. "If you taught me how to ride, I wouldn't be complaining. And I wouldn't need new boots." She looks down at her foot, raises one and shows Geralt a well-worn sole. "See?"
"That's not a no."
"Got a contract for a witcher?"
It's Marilka's idea of pulling her own weight. Geralt looks for flyers, she speaks to the townsfolk. "You're big and scary and evil to them," she'd said, patting his shoulder with faked sympathy in her eyes. "It's easier for people to talk to me."
He can't deny it works. A young girl is less intimidating, even if she's accompanied by a witcher and has a vicious glint in her eye when people start to talk of monsters and beasts.
Currently they're inside an inn, and if the village is big enough for an inn, it's usually rich enough to pay better for Geralt's services. Marilka has her elbows on the counter, resting her chin in her palms, eyes stalking the innkeeper in a particularly predatory manner as he busies himself along the length of the bar.
"Fifty crowns if he can kill whatever's lurking in the forest." The innkeeper sneers. He barely comes up to Geralt's neck; Geralt could take him in a fight with his eyes closed. Any time he glances their way there’s barely a hint of courtesy, and if not for the fact that Marilka would witness it, Geralt would have punched the man. Except Marilka had seen him slaughter an entire gang of men, so he's not sure why he's so adamant about making sure she doesn't see any more violence than necessary. "His kind's not welcome here, but we'll be glad to be rid of whatever's there."
He gives them a couple more details, sparingly. “Sounds like a grave hag,” Marilka says after he's done before turning to look at Geralt, as if for some sort of approval. "You can take down a grave hag, can't you?" And she's right. She knows her monsters. Grave hags are nasty to deal with, but not impossible, especially not for an experienced witcher. Fifty crowns is a lower offer for the trouble, but then again — monsters, money, rarely both.
He returns two days later, the grave hag dealt with and its head in a sack. Luckily, Marilka had listened to him this time and opted to stay behind — a little suspicious, actually, but he's not about to look a gift horse in the mouth considering she'd kicked up such a fuss the last few times. She's waiting at the stables by the inn when he arrives, her eyes lighting up as she spots him.
"You skewered it, then? Killed it, tore it from limb from limb?" She gives a couple more equally gruesome guesses about how he'd gotten rid of it, hands gesturing animatedly as she mimes the battle, and it occurs to him faintly that he might stand to be a little concerned about the apparent glee in her eyes.
Not deigning to give her an answer, Geralt pushes through the door of the inn, slams the sack on the table. Marilka follows him at his heels. "Fifty crowns."
The innkeeper appears from a door by the bar after a while, no more friendly than the last time they'd seen him. He slams a pouch of coin back down next to the sack, the pouch clearly containing fewer than the fifty crowns he'd promised Geralt. "Thirty. Ten crowns for hosting your horse, and another ten for having to deal with your ugly mug."
Next to him, Marilka lunges at the innkeeper. "Ten crowns for the horse? You wouldn't even let me nap at one of your tables—"
Geralt's jaw tenses.
"I said the witcher and his kind weren't welcome," the innkeeper repeats, unfazed, jerking his head to indicate that Marilka fell under that category, too. "Take it or leave it. I won't say it again."
"You double crossing sneak—"
Geralt grits his teeth. "Marilka." He swipes the pouch off the table. "Go."
Safely back outside, Marilka lets out a string of filthy curses until Geralt silences her with a look. "It's unfair," she says at last, refusing to meet his eye. Her fingers toy with the amulet around her neck. "The way they treat you. You should have let the grave hag pick them off slowly. Painfully.”
"The world's unfair. Get used to it." He's no good with words of comfort, but the sooner Marilka knew the cruelty of the world the better. It's part of being a witcher — it's not the first time Geralt's dealt with ungrateful humans, and it certainly won't be the last.
But it stings. Just a little.
Marilka snorts. "Maybe I don't want to," she mutters, a little snidely, but she drops the conversation, and they head to collect Roach.
They make camp at a clearing. It's near enough to the village that they'll be safer than usual, but not so near that people could stumble upon them if they decided to come after Geralt after all. The next morning they take breakfast in mostly silence, Marilka's expression sullen as she nibbles away at a piece of squirrel bone. Food's not so easy to come by this time of year, and it was a particularly scrawny specimen.
Her stomach grumbles.
Geralt's gaze snaps to the girl before he hands her the remainder of his portion. "Eat."
"I'm not hungry," she says, but her eyes dart to the piece of meat in his hand, and she bites her lower lip.
Cursing in his head, he tosses the meat to her without warning and gets up to begin to pack. After so many years of being alone on the Path, it's hard to remember what it's like travelling with companions, harder still to recall how much humans needed to keep their strength going — especially children.
Finally Marilka stands, brushing down the front of her dress.
"I'm going to take a walk," she announces. "I won't be long. I'll hunt you down if you leave without me." With that cryptic statement she walks off into the direction of the village.
Geralt stares after her before he turns away. He has half a mind to do just that, but he's still got to finish packing up their makeshift campsite, and with just him and his two hands he's not certain he'll be fast enough to get any real distance between them. Maybe he could leave his things and go, but good travelling equipment costs money and he's not about to give it up just to get away from a child. Particularly considering she's somehow been blessed with an uncanny ability to find him (he's tried leaving her behind multiple times, unsuccessfully). She always manages to find him in the brush.
And as Marilka promised, she does return soon — with a beautiful buckskin gelding. He's swinging his bags over Roach's back when he hears them, soft murmuring and the sound of soft whickering. Geralt eyes them carefully.
"You stole a horse."
"I did not steal the horse," Marilka says to him, head held high, perched on top of said newly acquired horse. "I left a handful of crowns in the stables. I'd consider it a fair trade."
"How much is a regular horse?"
Lips press into a scowl.
"They wouldn't let me stay anywhere." Marilka crosses her arms. "So I ended up sleeping next to horse-shit, with Roach. They weren't very nice to you anyway. Did they expect me not to do anything? On second thought, I shouldn't have left any of my coin there at all—"
Geralt lets out a bark that sounds suspiciously amused.
"So you do laugh!" Her voice is accusatory, smug. "Geralt of Rivia, the mighty witcher, condoning theft. Now help me get off of this horse."
The horse is named Lambshanks. Of course she names him Lambshanks.
"You're not much kinder yourself," she points out, leaning out of her saddle to prod Geralt with a branch as their respective horses trot along. "Your horse is called Roach."
"What's that supposed to mean?" She says indignantly. "At least lamb shanks are delicious. Not that I'm going to eat my horse. I don't want to have to walk everywhere again."
When Marilka finally looks away, distracted by a bird flying by, Geralt takes a good, long look at Lambshanks. Of course she would have picked what's likely the most expensive horse in town.
He bites back a smile.
Melitele help him. Marilka is, if anything, persistent. Absolutely incorrigible. He truly has no idea why she's still here.
"If I'm to be travelling with you, I should at least be able to defend myself. Learn how to kill a gravier or two." She takes a stance, hands clasped together, and pretends to swing at an imaginary enemy with an imaginary stick.
Geralt turns the makeshift spit over the campfire. It's rabbit for lunch today, courtesy of Marilka finding it in an old hunter's trap. It crackles. "Stick to rats."
"If I can kill a rat with a fork, I can kill something bigger."
"With a fork?"
She lets out a noise of frustration, throwing her hands in the air. "No, with a real weapon!" She paces over to Geralt's side and starts to pull at one of his swords, lying close by in case he needed them. "Look, I can lift them—"
"Put it down."
There's a few tense moments of a staring match until at last Marilka looks away and drops the sword. She glares at him, opens her mouth to speak, but shuts it again before stomping off into the brush.
She returns later to have a piece of the rabbit, but there's an uncomfortable silence that lingers, and she refuses to look at him the whole time while they eat.
Geralt's starting to think he's a magnet for trouble. He is, plainly, the most intimidating looking man in the room — Marilka's off somewhere, exploring the town, no doubt, so he's sitting in a tavern, alone, with his best fuck-off glare plastered on his face as he nurses a tankard of cheap ale. Yet somehow he's managed to attract the attention of the bard, who is approaching him without a lick of hesitation after a fairly disastrous (though partly amusing) performance.
"White hair. Two very, very scary-looking swords." Said bard sidles up to him, interest obvious in his blue eyes. He punctuates each word carefully. "I know who you are."
Geralt resists the urge to roll his eyes. He's not exactly subtle when he travels, and his looks are recognisable enough. At that moment Marilka reappears behind them both, slips into the chair at the table between Geralt and the bard.
"The witcher," the bard continues, glancing over at Marilka. "Geralt of Rivia. With his little companion, no doubt. Who even are you — his elven servant?"
"I am not," Marilka begins hotly, "his servant! I'm his apprentice—"
"We had no agreement—"
"—and he's training me to become a witcher."
The bard raises an eyebrow. "Oh, this smells of a good story—"
"There is no story," Geralt interrupts, louder than the other two. "Except that of a child I can't be rid of."
Marilka has the decency to look offended. "As if you could have been rid of me so easily!"
The godforsaken bard laughs at their exchange. "Well you two are shaping to be quite interesting," he says, pulling out his lute. Geralt stands to leave. "Oi! Come on, you could at least tell me a tale or two about your adventures!"
Marilka perks up at his request. "I've got stories," she grins.
Geralt gives up any hopes he has of leaving the place without the bard in tow.
The bard is called Jaskier. And if Geralt thought Marilka was a fussy companion, Jaskier is decidedly worse. At least in the beginning he could shut Marilka up with a particularly intimidating glare. The exact same glare bounces right off Jaskier, slides like water off a duck's back. Marilka grows quiet occasionally, at times, where she was unwilling to admit her exhaustion. Jaskier keeps a running commentary of his thought process. It's infuriating.
They've just finished breakfast. He'd die before he'll admit it, but it's easier with Jaskier around. Money's not as tight between the two of them now, when Jaskier can make money performing in the taverns and bars and inns they stop at. It means they can afford to stock up on rations. Gone are the days where Geralt's has to sneak Marilka an extra portion of food when she isn't looking. That, he's grateful for.
At the moment though he's finding it difficult to be thankful for anything. They're taking it slow, catching up on some chores after their surprisingly stressful ordeal with the supposed Devil of Posada — incredibly inconvenient for Geralt, not so much for Jaskier, who's already beginning to compose his next song. Marilka is humming snatches of the melody as she packs her roll. The bard, meanwhile, hasn't even started to put his things away at all — quite the opposite, in fact, judging by the amount of things lying around him as he sticks his head into his bag. "Hang on, hang on, Geralt — I'm missing my dagger."
Geralt looks up from where he's sitting, dragging his sword particularly viciously across his whetstone. It screeches. Jaskier makes a face. "How am I supposed to defend myself without it?"
"You don't." Geralt responds, but he takes a moment to shoot a pointed look at the offender, whose humming trails to a halt. Jaskier follows his gaze, sighs, "You are just like a magpie—"
Geralt grumbles. "Marilka."
Marilka sticks out her tongue, but reaches into her coat and pulls out Jaskier's dagger. It's a beautiful thing, slender but well-crafted. It's mostly decorative, but it'll hold up in a fight, buying its user enough time to escape. "Here," she holds it out, a sulky expression on her face. "I only wanted to look at it."
Jaskier pockets his dagger with a harrumph, though it's clear he's not all that angry about it. "You know you could always ask," he says, but with the mischievous look in Marilka's eyes he's not so sure she particularly cares about that at all.
Despite her penchant for mischief, Marilka is chatty, and makes for significantly better conversation than Geralt does when he's in the mood to deliver three word responses. She tells Jaskier stories about Geralt's monster hunting, embellishing them with rather grisly details that, judging from Geralt's expression, are largely untrue. She also makes for a much better listener than Geralt, relishing in Jaskier's tales about his Oxenfurt days, pressing for more details and asking questions about his exploits across the Continent.
There's one thing Marilka doesn't talk about much, though, and it's how she's come to be travelling with Geralt. From what Jaskier's gathered, it sounds like she just decided one day to start following the witcher around — that particular impulse he himself can sympathise with — but no matter how hard he prods, Geralt refuses to give him any sort of coherent response as to why he let her stick around, and Marilka herself clams up at any discussion of her departure of her home — details she's uncharacteristically vague about.
"You're just like me."
Jaskier glances over at Marilka from across their small campfire. Geralt's gone to try his luck at hunting, and he's left the two of them to guard their things.
But at the moment he has no idea what Marilka's referring to. "I am a bard, and you are a — I'm still not quite sure what exactly you are, really —"
"You look at Geralt and you see a hero."
For several long moments, there's only the sound of crickets and the occasional pop as Marilka pokes the fire with a stick. Jaskier mulls over the meaning behind those words, deep in thought.
"He's a friend of humanity, so give him the rest," she sings, after the silence has gone on for a touch too long. "People call him a monster. But you're not afraid of him, are you?"
He pauses. "I'm not, no."
She meets his gaze, smiles. "He's a good man," she says. "Not many people see it. But you do. I like that."
Jaskier is starting to understand where she's getting at. "Well, I — thank you," he finally replies, quietly, swallowing down a sudden swell of emotion. It's strangely humbling, Marilka's approval. He appreciates it more than he thought he would.
"I want to be more!"
From the way Geralt sighs in exasperation, Jaskier figures this is an old argument. He's heard similar words exchanged after many a monster hunt, this time no different, but Geralt usually is in good enough shape to shut it down before it goes too far. "Marilka—"
"I could learn, if you'd just let me." She trembles, brown eyes glistening with unshed tears. Her fists are clenched, and despite her small stature she cuts a resolute, imposing figure. "You don't have to train me to be a witcher. But I want to learn how to fight."
"What, and leave Jaskier to defend me?"
Ignoring Jaskier's indignant squawk, Geralt shakes his head. "I've told you. It's no way for a child to live."
"You're all the same! You, Blaviken, everyone!" she hisses. "I don't know what I'd do if I had to live and die in some shitty backwater town. But now that I've left, nothing's changed! Marilka stay put, Marilka don't follow, Marilka stay out of sight! You're just like my father!"
With that final explosion she storms off in a huff, pulling her cloak tighter around her. It's getting cold these days and daylight is precious few, so Geralt had procured a new cloak for her at the last town, lined with thick fur. He'd passed Jaskier the cloak one morning and told him to give it to Marilka. "Give it to her yourself," Jaskier had said. "That was your coin you spent." But Geralt had refused, insisting on Jaskier being the one to gift it to her instead, and tired of dealing with his peculiarities, Jaskier had complied. Now he's starting to regret it.
Speaking of Geralt, Jaskier looks over to the witcher. On the surface his expression is unreadable, stern as always, but Geralt has gone all still, and Jaskier knows that Marilka's words had gotten to him, hit him in a place where it hurts. "Geralt," he begins.
"Maybe Marilka has a point."
The witcher's expression darkens, but he doesn't respond.
"She's been travelling with you longer than I have," Jaskier continues, cautiously, pitching his voice low. "You might not take a foolish bard's advice, but you may well listen to her sometimes. She respects your opinion a great deal."
In the dim light, Geralt's features almost soften as he contemplates Jaskier's words.
"I'll keep that in mind, bard."
Two horses between the three of them becomes a bit of an issue. Geralt still refuses to let Jaskier touch Roach, so Marilka offers to let Jaskier ride Lambshanks. Except "Geralt, this is just cruel. I'm not going to let Marilka walk while the two of us get to ride", so after a bit of a dispute, both Geralt and Jaskier end up on foot, with Marilka riding Lambshanks.
"This is stupid," Marilka points out. "We'd go much faster if we were all on horses and I just rode with one of you."
Jaskier inhales to rehash this conversation once more, and Geralt purposefully walks a few steps ahead, unwilling to engage again. "Geralt is a great, hulking man and if you sat behind him on his saddle you might fall off," he tells her.
"You'd fall off with Jaskier."
The bard lets out an outraged gasp. "I would not—" he begins, before being interrupted by Marilka's groan of impatience.
"You are grown men," she says irritably. "And I'd like to be able to reach someplace with a bath in the next few years!"
At that, Jaskier snickers. "Hear that, Geralt? In the next few years."
If he hadn't known better, he would have thought the witcher genuinely annoyed by her words, but just by looking at the back of his figure, Jaskier knows he's amused by their exchange. Before he can say anything, though, Geralt jerks to a stop and tilts his head. "Someone's ahead."
'Someone' turns out to be a small caravan of merchants selling heading to the next town, stopped by the side of the road for a short break. Their leaders are Baelnor and Aryn, a husband-and-wife duo who take various wares along the trading route, and Jaskier has the bright idea to ask if they can accompany them along the way. "We'll all rest easier knowing the White Wolf is with us," Baelnor says, shaking Geralt's hand. Upon learning that Jaskier is a bard, Aryn immediately demands a song, and Jaskier obliges, launching into a rendition of The Fishmonger's Daughter. It's as easy as that.
They continue together along the road until nightfall, with Marilka in the back of one of the merchant's carts, Geralt on Roach and Jaskier on Lambshanks. By the time they stop it's almost completely dark, and they eat in the dwindling twilight. When they finish, one of the merchants pulls out a fiddle, someone brings out a barrel of ale, the night dissolving into merriment. For once, Geralt can let his guard down, so he sits at a log by the large campfire with several of the other travellers, basking in its warmth while keeping a watchful eye over Marilka, currently participating in a poorly coordinated line dance that involves more laughing than dancing.
Jaskier spots him and wanders over. "Hello, Mister Brooding," he smiles, seating next to him. Geralt nods in reply, and Aryn, sitting near him as well, waves. "A crown for your thoughts? Five ducats? Twelve florens?"
Several moments of deliberation pass before Geralt pulls out a sheathed dagger from inside his coat. "For Marilka," he says at last. "Baelnor had a selection."
Jaskier stares back at him and blinks indignantly, a wave of fierce affection coming over him. "Ge-ralt," he chastises. "We've spoken about this before. Really, you are a completely ridiculous man." How is the witcher so utterly incapable of allowing himself to be known as someone who cares? It's not the first time that he's been unwilling to admit that he has emotions other than annoyance or exasperation. As he says so, though, Geralt keeps his cool amber gaze on him — and Jaskier sighs. Gives in.
"You are hopeless," he mutters, but he takes the dagger anyway. "Completely hopeless, I tell you." Ignoring the fact that Jaskier himself is also hopeless in the face of Geralt's eyes, he stands, takes a few steps, beckons to Marilka, who scampers over. "Marilka, Geralt has something for you."
If looks could kill, Jaskier is pretty sure he's dead thrice over. He can definitely feel Geralt's eyes boring into him, practically burning, but he barrels on. Someone around here has to show him how caring about people works, and if he can't completely say no to Geralt, he'll do the next best thing. "It's a present."
Marilka's mouth falls open in surprise, her eyes shining with delight as she realises what exactly Jaskier is holding. Almost hesitantly, reverently, she takes a few quick steps and reaches out to take the gift, cradling it in her hands as if she can scarcely believe it. Geralt watches her as her eyes flit across its length, studying each feature with awe and delight, drinking in the sight greedily before finally looking up to meet his eyes. Before he even realises, she darts towards him, flings her arms around him in a crushing hug.
"Thank you," she whispers into his ear, squeezing tighter. "Thank you."
At last she lets go, bounding closer to the fire for better light with Jaskier following closely behind. Several of the other merchants ask after her, and she shows it off proudly, its blade glinting in the firelight. For a few moments, Geralt is content to watch them move around the camp.
"Your daughter — spirited, isn't she?" Aryn speaks up from beside him.
"She's not my," Geralt begins, but hesitates. Doesn't finish his words. He's considered this before — he knows Marilka's parents are out there, but—
"Family is family, is it not?" she says warmly. "Whether that be by blood or not. They give you strength." She looks over at Marilka and Jaskier, endearment clear in her eyes. "Cherish them, Geralt of Rivia. These are bonds you will forge which are stronger than destiny."
Destiny indeed. He ponders about it for longer — him. Marilka. Jaskier. He's spent so much time alone, but now, in the warmth of a large campfire and in the company of people who don't run at the very sight of him, Geralt thinks, this might not be so unpleasant, after all.
Violence sings through Geralt's veins and it's not just the Blizzard.
He's furious, rage white-hot as he slashes his way through yet another bandit with a wrath he hasn't felt in a long while. You fool. Even with the potion, everything goes by almost too quickly, guided only by instinct and feeling. You let your guard down. Nothing except the frenzy of the fight, his blades whirling as he slices at anything unfortunate enough to come into his sight. There aren't many creatures he hasn't faced and fought before — living, undead, magical or otherwise — but nothing compares to this, to how overwhelmingly single-minded he feels. Not even when he'd fought an Archgriffin and spent the month afterwards staving off death from his injuries and infections.
Eventually, the screaming stops. He runs out of opponents. He's heaving with exertion, sweat mixing with blood mostly not his, plunges his sword into the ground as he falls to one knee, leaning heavily into it.
He takes a moment to collect himself, glances over.
He can feel the potion slowly wearing off, but he knows exactly what he looks like — like a monster, covered in gore still warm on his skin, face too-pale, eyes all-black. Terrifying. Unnatural. A beast.
The Butcher of Blaviken.
But Jaskier looks right back at him, unafraid. He's cradling Marilka as she lies against a tree, pressing a cloth against her shoulder. It's soaked through with red, so much that Jaskier's fingers are coated in it too, but his expression is steadfast. "She'll be fine."
Marilka lets out a short laugh.
"I'm more than fine," she gasps out, gaze fierce even through the pain. She holds up her bloodied dagger, clutched so tightly in her hand that her fingers are white. "You can't get rid of me. Not so easily."
It's late into the night, but the bar downstairs is still busy, dimly heard from their room upstairs.
Marilka is fast asleep, the bedside candle beside her casting a warm light onto her face. In her sleep, she looks peaceful. "She's strong, but let her have a few days of rest," the town's healer had said. "I'll return tomorrow morning to make sure there is no infection." She'd prescribed a few potions for her, but other than waiting, there's not much either of them can do.
Despite her assurances that Marilka would be just fine, neither Geralt nor Jaskier leave the room, sitting at the table by the fire.
Patience isn't Geralt's strong suit, and the tenseness is unbearable. "She really is something, isn't she?" Jaskier comments quietly, just to fill the uncomfortable silence. Shifts in his chair. "Marilka."
The fire crackles merrily in the fireplace, oblivious to their conversation.
"She's from Blaviken," Geralt replies, at last, staring into the fire. His eyes glow amber in its dancing light. "You’ve heard the stories. There was — someone. Who threatened to kill Marilka and the whole village if she didn't get her way. I stopped her and her men."
Jaskier places a hand on his shoulder in a gesture of comfort.
"The villagers wanted me gone after that."
Still no response from Jaskier, but there's no pity in his cornflower-blue eyes. Only unwavering understanding.
"She—" he halts. It's hard, remembering Renfri and what had happened in Blaviken, harder still to remember how the people had treated Marilka when she came to his defence. "Took my side. Suffered for it." His fist clenches subconsciously, and Jaskier's grip tightens. "Her parents threw her out. She sought me out after I left."
The bard listens, lets the story sink in, rests his other hand over Geralt's. "You have a kinder heart than any of them, then," he declares quietly, eyes gleaming with sincerity in the light of the fire. "You're a good man, Geralt of Rivia. Don't you forget that."
Dawn breaks, and so does Marilka's fever. Thankfully her wound isn't infected, but being confined to bed evidently doesn't suit her, because by mid-morning she's already chattering away even more than usual, complains some more about not being able to move, writes a few terrible (and fairly rude) rhymes of her own.
Geralt's expression the whole time is uncontrollably fond.
It's just past noon, now, after luncheon, and Marilka's has Jaskier's lute in her lap, a few notes twanging as she picks at the strings. Jaskier hums as he busies himself washing their clothes in a tub, and Geralt sits by Marilka's bed, cleaning his sword.
"I knew there was something wrong with what the wizard said," she starts suddenly, carelessly. Geralt tenses; Jaskier freezes mid-motion. "He said she'd influenced those men into doing her bidding, influenced you. But if you'd killed her, then her spell should have ended. And you couldn't have been under it. You didn't try to kill me."
Softly, she adds, "Thank you. You saved my life. And you let me live."
Seasons pass. Things change. They drift apart, come together again. Geralt kisses Jaskier. Meets Yennefer. Kisses Jaskier again. Marilka leaves with Triss for a while, takes to magic like a fish to water. She's always been more chaos than girl. Kingdoms fall, and at last, finally, they are all together, once again. Them against the world.
Marilka is taller now, stands with a confidence she's always meant to have. She still has Geralt's dagger, now accompanied by two trusty swords. In one hand, she takes Geralt's hand; in the other, Jaskier's. She looks to the witcher, unwavering brown eyes ever the same, grins.
"Go. Find my little sister."
There's a princess out there to bring home.