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to grow in adversity

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The story is this:

There is a mage in hiding from a monster. The worst kind - the human kind. It was born under a black sun and born wrong inside. The girls born with this curse were destined to fill river valleys with blood in service to a demon goddess. It was merciful to kill them, but Renfri, the monster, lived. She killed animals, gouged out a maid’s eye with a comb, and murdered a man with a brooch before running. She robbed and murdered men on the roads, hunting for the man she blamed above all else: the mage who was innocent of all but delivering a child and failing to kill a monster quickly enough.

Or perhaps it’s this:

There is a girl with fury pressed into her bones and rage in her heart who wants to kill a mage. The mage who sent a man into the woods to kill her, and took something that wasn’t her life. She is the girl who stole rather than starved and killed rather than be killed. A survivor. Her name is Renfri, and she isn’t sure if she’s a monster or not.

Or maybe it’s this:

Once upon a time the sun became dark and nighttime occurred during the day. This is because the sun left the sky to witness the birth of a princess, and bestowed upon her a blessing of a kind. Or perhaps it was not a blessing at all. But regardless, she breathed in for the first time with sun rays on her tongue and she burned.

Six years later, the moon bled red in the sky and the kingdom held its breath. The moon loves the sun, you see, and so it followed in the sun’s footsteps to bless a child. A prince. He breathed in for the first time with moonbeams on his tongue and he glowed.

 

---

 

Regardless, a little girl once entered a room stinking of blood and other unsavory things and stared at her step-mother, who had fear in her eyes, and crept closer. “What is that?” She asked the Queen, voice flat and dead.

It was the midwife who answered, bowing her head to the little princess, “The Queen is delivered of a son. Your brother, my princess.”

“What’s his name?” Renfri asked, creeping even closer with something almost like curiosity as she stared at the weird purple-looking creature encased tightly in the Queen’s arms.

The midwife looked to the Queen, and the Queen’s lips pinched together tightly as though she was unwilling to answer. This was not such a surprise, as she was rarely willing to even look at Renfri, let alone answer her questions. But Renfri kept staring with cold dead eyes until the child shifted and opened its mouth and gurgled.

The Queen looked down at the infant and said, in a carefully measured voice:

“Julian. His name is Julian.”

 

---

 

Renfri and Julian grew together, despite Queen Aridea’s best attempts to keep them apart. There was something that just drew the two to one another - a touch from Renfri could quiet even the worst of Julian’s cries. She was the person he graced his first smile upon, his first laugh, his first word.

(She burned so brightly that people could scarcely look at her, but he shone in her light like no other.)

He called her ‘Ef-fee’ with a child’s bumbling pronunciation, bypassing the letters he could not pronounce entirely as he beamed up at her.

King Fredefalk was thrilled to see his children getting along. The Queen... not nearly as much. The Queen bore other children, but none who stuck together like Renfri and Julian.

Where Renfri was the cursed child, cold and distant and monstrous, Julian was the wondrous child, with a smile and laugh and a song for everyone he met. He was beautiful, with bright blue eyes and rosy cheeks. He loved to dance and sing, and he begged to learn to play an instrument as soon as he understood that the wonderful sounds were coming from the wooden objects in people’s hands.

Perhaps Renfri should have grown to hate her brother, who had everything she wished she had. Who her father doted on and her step-mother loved, the way she could never love a child of someone else’s blood. Should have hated that Julian was a boy, that he bypassed her for the throne just by existing.

But she didn’t.

 

---

 

There were gaps in Renfri’s memories, she knew this. Every time she visited Stregobor, she lost time.

After each visit, Julian would find her. He would smile at her with chubby cheeks and press his hands against her face and sing her songs in between babbling about his day.

(He didn’t care that sometimes when he found her, her fingers were slick with blood that she didn’t remember spilling. He just put his hands on his little hips and gave her the stink eye if she tried to go to dinner before washing them.)

 

---

 

“For you!” Julian cried, shoving a fistful of weeds in Renfri’s direction, his smile wide and carefree.

Renfri carefully took them in hands that were only shaking a little bit now, smearing red onto green stems and yellow petals.

Julian clambered into the bed beside her and crawled halfway onto her lap. “I got you flowers, ‘cause you’re so pretty like them!”

“These aren’t flowers, they’re weeds.” Renfri told him, rolling her eyes but allowing the contact with ease. Somedays it seemed like Julian was the only person in the entire castle who wasn’t afraid of her.

“They look like flowers.” He said, crinkling his nose.

“They’re dandelions,” Renfri informed her brother with a tiny smile, “They grow everywhere, even places they perhaps shouldn’t. That’s why they’re a weed.”

Julian looked doubtful.

Renfri laughed, leaning forward to place a kiss on Julian’s forehead, “Perhaps they’re a little like you,” She teased gently, “Growing in even the scariest of place with no fear.” Like a monster’s heart, she doesn’t say.

“Like a superpower!” Julian gasped, wide-eyed even as he scrubbed a sleeve over where she’d placed a kiss.

“Like a superpower.” Renfri agreed, separating one dandelion from the little clutch and reaching out to tuck it behind a little ear. “For the stubborn hero, Jaskier.

 

---

 

Renfri is fifteen when she goes into the woods alone, and doesn’t come back out.

If you asked Stregobor, he would tell you that she mercilessly killed a man with a brooch.

If you asked Renfri, she would tell you of the man who raped her and robbed her and let her go.

But you shouldn’t ask either of them, instead you should ask the nine-year-old who loved his sister so much he followed her around like a little duckling whenever he could.

You should ask the child who followed his sister into the woods, hoping to surprise her and make her smile.

(He didn’t understand when he stumbled upon the man on top of his sister, he froze half-hidden behind a tree unsure of what was happening. But perhaps what he saw doesn’t matter, because what really matters is what Renfri saw.

She looked up at the worst moment of her life and she saw her little brother, who looked afraid, and she couldn’t stand for that. So she took the brooch that was the last gift her mother gave her, thought of a prayer, and lunged.

The man died either way, so perhaps it doesn’t matter after all.)

 

---

 

She told her brother to go back, and he refused. Despite her best wishes, Jaskier had not grown up to be a stupid boy, though perhaps it would have been better if he had. He was nine, and he saw the way his mother looked at Renfri. Saw the way Stregobor looked at her 

He knew what blood looked like, knew what it looked like coating his sister’s hands, and he wasn’t afraid of her.

And maybe she should have insisted he return, maybe she should have left him behind for guards to find and protect. He was their crown prince after all - and she was just another princess. But she looked at his bright blue eyes and the stubborn set of his chin and made a choice.

“We need to run.” She whispered to him, offering him her hand.

And he took it.

 

---

 

Life for them was not easy, but it was perhaps not as hard as it could have been. Jaskier was adorable, and it was easy to boost him onto a table and let him sing sweet and high and clear as he clapped his hands in time and danced with a reckless sort of joy.

They got bread and coin for his little performances, from kindly men and women who had children of their own and looked upon the scruffy duo with pity.

When Jaskier’s assistance was not enough, Renfri stole to put food in their bellies. Sometimes she did other things.

Sometimes when she was at market, cloak hood pulled over her curls, she heard the rumors. The runaway princess is a monster, they whispered, gouged out maid’s eyes, killed puppies for fun.

She killed the little prince and ran away before they could catch her, they said.

Jaskier tugs on her cloak and begs her to let him run ahead to look longingly at the instruments and she ruffles his hair and tells him he’s ridiculous.

She wonders, though. She wonders how many of the rumors are lies, if one is.

(She doesn’t remember the maid, or the eye, or the puppies. She remembers blood on her hands though, and isn’t that the same thing?)

 

---

 

She kills a man who pulls her into an alley, and it’s so easy. She watches him bleed out and remembers his face from the tavern earlier, when Jaskier had watched him strum songs with delight even though her little brother could surely do it better.

She doesn’t feel anything when she picks up the lute from the ground and brushes it off. Doesn’t feel anything for the man with the bad breath who called her a pretty little thing right before she put a knife in his throat.

She does feel something though, when she offers the lute to her little brother who, contrary to her expectations, immediately starts to cry.

She panics for a minute until she realizes that they are happy tears, and that her little brother is just a ridiculous little being. He folds his arms around her, squeezing as tightly as he’s able.

“I’m gonna be the best bard in the world.” He declares tearfully, and her heart seizes just a little.

He’s supposed to be a king, not a bard. She can’t help but feel like she’s robbed him of something, him following her like this.

But she looks at him plucking at the stings with his little tongue stuck out in concentration, coaxing music from the thing with more ease than he should be capable of, and she thinks he might have gained something as well.

 

---

 

She notices something, after that. When Jaskier pulls his lute into his arm and strums it and sings all the thoughts that tumble around in his head in verse form. They always seem to be… luckier? After Jaskier sings?

She watches angry people flip their mood on a coin when Jaskier plays a chord and his voice raises in merriment, watches greedy people find enough kindness in their hearts to offer copper coins to a beaming little bard-to-be even though she saw them spit at children playing on the streets earlier.

“I’ll set them right about you,” Jaskier tells her, little chin set in stubbornness the same way it was when he declared he was following her. “I’ll write a ballad, telling the truth! Then everyone will know that you aren’t - that you aren’t a - ”

Her brother can’t even say the word ‘monster’ in relation to her, and she loves him all the more for it.

“Don’t do that.” She tells him instead, “We need to keep a low profile. Plus, everyone thinks you’re dead, so we probably shouldn’t inform them of the opposite.”

“It’s not fair.” He says, and there are tears in his eyes.

“Life’s not fair.” She tells him, smoothing a hand over his forehead and cupping his cheek. She remembers a faded memory, from when she was tiny and her mother still lived when she traced patterns over Renfri’s forehead and teased her about what thoughts could possibly be inside that little head.

“I’ll write it anyway.” He declares, but before she can say another word he tacks on a quick, “But just for us. I won’t sing it unless it’s just us, okay Effee?”

“Okay,” She says, because Jaskier is looking at her with pleading blue eyes and she can’t refuse him, “Okay.”

 

---

 

The next town they arrive at, they hear whispers of a boy gone missing.

He was magic, the townsfolk mutter. Split a tree right down the middle when he’d wanted an apple and could not reach. Some mages came and took him away, for training.

Renfri doesn’t know if she’s ever felt fear until she hears that.

“Jaskier,” She whispers when they’re back safe in the woods (and isn’t it funny, that she feels safest in the woods after the terrible beginning of their tale), “Jaskier listen to me.”

He looks at her with wide eyes.

“If anyone comes and wants to take you away, you come and get me, okay? You come and get me, and I’ll take care of it.”

“Why would they want to take me away?” Jaskier asks, fingers twitching anxiously as though playing an invisible lute.

Renfri thinks of moods turned on a coin, of generosity when there should be none. She thinks of cold nights when Jaskier’s songs made her feel as warm as if there was a fire before them, and of a conversation of superpowers and stubborn weeds.

“Promise me you’ll come and get me.” She says instead of explaining, and watches the gears turn behind too intelligent eyes.

But he’s still so trusting. “Okay,” He says, “I promise.”

 

---

 

In another town, there’s a wedding. Jaskier is thrilled as he flits through the commotion eagerly taking in the sights and sounds. He’s had a recent growth spurt and his pants are too short, but he doesn’t seem to notice as he gets on a table and pulls his lute from his back and hollers, “A blessing for the happy couple!”

No one seems to notice the oddity of a strange boy taking over the entertainment, they simply clap along and roar with enthusiasm as Jaskier plays an upbeat love song about a boy and a girl who want to get married but have to sneak around because her mother doesn’t approve.

It seems like it’s only Renfri who notices the shimmer in the air where Jaskier’s fingers dance across the lute.

But perhaps not, because later Renfri buries her knife in a man’s throat as he speaks of a place called Ban Ard. He tried to do something, but whatever it was hadn’t worked. She's almost offended that such a bad mage was the one sent to recruit her brother.

On their way out of town, Renfri steals a sword. If she’s going to have to protect her brother properly, she’s going to have to need something a little deadlier than her cheap knives.

 

---

 

Jaskier gets noticed another time after singing a blessing for a baby born in a storm that keeps everyone locked at the Inn. Fool boy didn’t even think about the town mage who was also present.

Renfri feels no shame in patting the man down and stealing his bag of coins, heavy for such a terrible mage. Again his spell against her seemed to have failed, and even though she knows she has a pretty face she rolls her eyes when she thinks about how close he let her get.

“You need to be more careful.” She tells her brother severely, and there’s something dark and cold inside of her that whispers what if Stregobor is the next mage who comes for him?

“I’m sorry.” Jaskier says, sniffling miserably. He looks like a drowned rat, stomping through the rain after her. Serves him right.

But he looks at her with big watery blue eyes and she instantly forgives him.

The next town over, Renfri finds a gruff looking retired soldier and shoves coin in his hands. “Teach me how to fight.” She demands, spine straight and proud like a true princess.

The man looks at Renfri, with her pretty face. She’s a young woman now, not a girl, and sometimes the worst monsters are the human ones. He looks at Jaskier who has grown another two inches seemingly overnight and looks like an overgrown colt with slender limbs and a lute on his back as he clutches at the back of Renfri’s dress.

“Yeah.” The man sighs deeply, as though this might as well happen to him. “Yeah, okay.”

 

---

 

Jaskier scowls in confusion, staring down at his hands as though they’ve betrayed him.

“What?” Renfri asks, amused despite herself as she busies her hands skinning and gutting the rabbit she’s caught them for dinner.

“I think my magic is broken.”

Jaskier’s frown deepens and Renfri sits straight up, because what?

“What do you mean your magic is broken?” She demands, abandoning the rabbit to stride to her brother’s side, hands on her hips.

“I keep trying to, you know,” Jaskier waves a hand to encompass the general ‘magic bullshit’ that he means, “But it’s not working. Or it’s like, bouncing off?”

“Trying to what?” Renfri grits out, because her brother is an idiot.

“Are you cursed?” He asks instead, squinting at her suspiciously.

She looks at him. He looks at her. She looks at him harder.

“Jaskier,” She says finally, when it looks like he’s not going to get her big massive hint, “Jaskier, I have literally been cursed my entire life. The curse of the black sun? Ringing any bells here?”

“Wait that’s real?”

Renfri can only sigh, deep and weary.

“I thought that was bullshit mother made up to make people think you’re evil or something?” Jaskier still sounds confused. “Why would that make you immune to magic, anyhow?”

“I’ll steal a magic book for you or something.” Renfri promises, turning to go back to skinning her rabbit. “Maybe you can find out.”

(The sun, it should be said, burns. Any child blessed by it burns as well, and if that same blessing burns out poisons and toxins and yes, even magic - well then. Mages were never very patient when it came to things they could not control.)

 

---

 

“The book says I’m a monster.” Renfri points out.

“Or a mutant!” Jaskier shoots back indignantly, glaring at the book as though it’s kicked a puppy or something.

“That’s really not that much better.”

Jaskier thinks on that for a minute before making his rebuttal. “Witchers are mutants, right? And they kill monsters! That makes them the good guys.”

Renfri wishes she had Jaskier’s endless optimism and enthusiasm sometimes. Other times, like right now, it’s just exhausting. So she gives him a look that makes the band of bandits they’ve fallen in with wince back, but apparently her brother is completely immune to it. All the shame.

“To be fair, the book also doesn’t say anything about magic an’ music.” Jaskier says, shrugging, “So maybe it’s just a shit book.”

“Language, shithead.” Renfri mock-scolds, “You’re a prince.”

“Prince of what?” Comes the sulky mutter as he slams the books closed and crosses his arms. A few years ago it would have been more effective - he’s getting a little old for pouting.

Renfri wraps her arms around his skinny little shoulder and hauls him up and into a hug, pressing a kiss against his head as he struggles against being smothered.

“The Prince of Renfri.” She tells him, fondly.

 

---

 

If she is a monster, it seems she is in good company with the rest of the human race. Her sword gets plenty of use against men who think a pretty face is an invitation and men who think their muscles mean they have a right to what is hers.

Somehow she ends up with a band of people she’s saved. Not on purpose, but sometimes she sees the evil men do and sees red, and then there’s red upon her blade, and she feels a little bit more like a monster for not even feeling sorry for it.

When she looks at her reflection, she can’t help but notice that she hasn’t changed for a few years. Yes, her hair has grown, but - she doesn’t look any older. She would put that down to good genes but -

Jaskier hit eighteen and sort of stopped growing as well. It worries her. She knows mages live long, unchanging lives. But she’s not sure about the actual process.

(Especially for Jaskier - the book says he shouldn’t be able to do magic that young unless it’s of a family line. Somehow, Renfri doubts her stepmother is hiding her magical prowess and her father is about as magical as a tree stump. She worries.)

She’s growing a reputation. The Shrike, they call her with fear on their tongues, and Renfri kind of likes it.

Her brother is a songbird who will sing to all who listen.

She is a shrike.

(They match, as they always have.)

 

---

 

She sees Stregobor in a town one day. And even worse, he sees her.

“Jaskier,” She says urgently, holding her brothers shoulders with knuckles made white with fear, “You have to stay away from me for a while, okay? You have to go somewhere else. Just for a little while.”

“What?” Jaskier’s brow furrows, “No! I’m not leaving you!”

But she’s already fended off four different assassins who knew her as Renfri, not the Shrike. She knows who sent them. Will keep sending them.

She doesn’t know what will happen if Stregobor finds Jaskier, finds her little brother who brims with his impossible magic and smiles so unguardedly. It frightens her, that she does not know.

If Renfri is a monster, then she will use that to protect her brother. She will get justice in the same breath. She might not know what she is, but she knows who she is. She is Renfri. She is Jaskier’s older sister. She is a woman who is cornered, and sees a threat to her family.

Stregobor must die.

“It’s just for a little while, dandelion.” She soothes, pulling him close and carding a hand through his hair. “Just until I sort out this mess, and until then you can do what you do best - go spread joy to people through song. I will come and find you when it’s all over.”

“You promise?” Jaskier asks her, with his big blue eyes.

“I promise,” She says gently, pressing her lips to his forehead. She tries not to feel like it’s a lie.

“I’m gonna give you the best protection spells.” Jaskier tells her, pulling back from her embrace with a determined glint in his eyes.

“Magic doesn’t work on me.” She informs him, not for the first time and (she prays) not for the last.

“I’m going to make it work.” He tells her, shoulder back and spine straight and suddenly looking every inch the prince he should have been.

“I believe you.”

 

---

 

Geralt of Rivia meets a woman in a tavern clothed in red with a brooch on her chest and a wicked sense of humor. She asks him if he’s in Blaviken for a monster. She tells him he desperately needs money for new clothes. She is not afraid of him.

He meets her again in the woods, and he tells her that she has a choice: to be a monster and take her revenge, or to leave and finally live.

She doesn’t tell him the whole story, but she doesn’t tell anyone the whole story. He’s not special. Even her merry band believe that Jaskier is a stray that she picked up and grew fond of, for she has many strays and it is not such a strange thing.

He doesn’t know it, but the Witcher gives her a choice: become a monster and protect her brother, or to be a human and keep him in danger. In the end, it isn’t really a choice at all.

She goes to him, in the woods, the night before the planned slaughter. For whatever reason, she can’t get her brothers words out of her head, from that day way back when they’d looked in a stolen book of magic that named her a monster.

“Are you like me?” She wants to ask. The rumors all said that Witchers didn’t have emotions, and Renfri is pretty sure she doesn’t either. Except, of course, when it comes to Jaskier. But Jaskier is a brand of magic all his own, a weed that grows in the darkest of places - even a monster’s heart.

She’s a monster. Or perhaps she’s a mutant. She looks at the man with white hair and a choice to make and she hopes he can live with what he chooses.

She kisses Geralt’s sleeping forehead with a tenderness she usually reserves for only Jaskier. And, perhaps, for kindred spirits. And then she heads to the marketplace to force a confrontation, for better or for worse.

(If she dies, Stregobor won’t go looking for her and he won’t find Jaskier. If Stregobor dies, there will be no one to discover her little brother to begin with. Either way is a win, as far as Renfri is concerned.)

She doesn’t see Geralt come to the town square. She doesn’t see him slaughter the men who followed her with the whole town as witnesses. She comes in at the end of it, clutching the mage’s little pet with a knife at her throat and a lump in her own.

He tries to use magic on her, and she almost laughs. “Magic doesn’t work on me,” She tells him, the words familiar and heavy in her mouth. She’s parroted them often enough, after all. But Geralt isn’t her brother, soft and painfully kind. He’s like her, and so she says, “But silver does.”

It’s a challenge, to see if he’ll treat her as a monster with the admission.

Geralt doesn’t back down, and Renfri feels her hope extinguish. She has her sword and her skills and her little brother’s attempts at protection spells that slide off of her like water and that will have to be enough. Someone will die here today, and she hopes that it is Stregobor but if it must be her then she isn’t afraid.

“They created me just as they created you,” She breathes into his face when he pins her against a wall, “We’re not so different.”

She hopes desperately that it’s true, because she can hear her brother’s voice telling her that Witchers are mutants and Witchers fight monsters so of course they’re good. If this Witcher is a good man - then maybe there is hope for her.

She thinks he might be a good man, because he holds a sword to her throat and stands there. He wants her to stand down. He doesn’t want to have to kill her.

But he doesn’t understand what’s at stake, and Jaskier is almost grown up. He doesn’t need her like he did once upon a time. He loves her, but he doesn’t need her, and he deserves to live his own life free from all the bullshit she’s managed to heap onto him by association.

She has her knife in her hand still and she lunges, and the Witcher moves, and suddenly she’s staring him the eye. If she leaned forward, their noses would touch. And, oh, her own knife is plunged in her throat.

He doesn’t let her fall to the ground, undignified. He catches her. She only has a moment, looking at him, and she opens her mouth to say - something.

Instead what comes out is: “The girl in the woods will be with you always. She is your destiny.”

She doesn’t know where it came from, but it feels right when it falls from her lips.

She takes one last look at the Witcher, and hopes Jaskier won’t do something stupid.

And then she is gone.