The first time Eskel heard the song, he assumed he was being made fun of.
He’d had a terrible time of it, with a Nightwraith that had been preying on travelers and had possibly cleared out a peasant hut as well. She’d fought like anything, and he’d been left with the normal insubstantial remains for a trophy. The damn things weren’t corporeal most of the time; he only had a few scraps of withered bone. But he’d stayed out the next night, to make sure there wasn’t another one, and could definitively say the one he’d destroyed had in fact been the problem creature.
And the local alderman, who hadn’t put a high bounty on the thing in the first place, now wanted to accuse Eskel of lying, because the trophy was so insubstantial.
“This is all they leave behind,” Eskel said impatiently. It ought to be obvious to anyone that he’d just been in a terrible fight, the shape he was in. He also had the dust, hair, and assorted other alchemical components he’d retrieved from the pile of debris it had become after the killing blow, but he didn’t think they’d mean much to the alderman, and the man might just try to take them if he thought they were something he could sell.
(He could, but only to another Witcher or a mage, if that mage was up to no good, so really, it wasn’t anything the alderman wanted, but he wasn’t the reasonable type.)
“That’s just scraps of bone,” the alderman said.
“You tell that to the families of your dead,” Eskel said. “That it was just some scraps of bone killed their loved ones. That you’re going back on a deal with a Witcher and no more will come the next time you have this problem.”
The alderman’s son, a pimply and gangly teenager who had been observing from the doorway, said, “C’mon Da, toss a coin to your Witcher!”
The alderman glanced over at him, rolled his eyes, and looked back at Eskel. “This child,” he said.
“Da,” the boy said. “I’ll tell Ma! Pay the man!” And he sang a weird little scrap of song. “Toss a coin to your Witcher!”
The alderman glared at him, and sighed, but then said, with poor grace, “Ach, aye, toss a coin to your Witcher. Give me a moment, I’ll get your coin.”
He turned and went inside, and the teenager had to step outside to give him the room to enter. He looked up at Eskel, who frowned.
“What did you say to him?” Eskel asked.
“Toss a coin to your Witcher!” the boy said brightly. At Eskel’s lack of reaction, he tilted his head slightly, like a bird. “Do you not know the song?”
“What song,” Eskel said.
Improbably enough, the boy began to sing again. “Toss a coin to your Witcher, oh valley of plenty, oh valley of plenty, oh!”
“I don’t know that song,” Eskel said.
“Everyone’s been singing it,” the boy said.
“Not me,” Eskel said. “Where did it come from?”
The alderman came back out. “What?”
“The song, Da,” the boy said. “He doesn’t know it!”
“But it’s his song,” the alderman said, surprised. He held out a bag to Eskel. “You said four hundred, there’s four hundred and fifty, my wife insisted. Her cousin was one of the ones that thing killed.”
Eskel took the heavy, slightly jingly bag, and stowed it in his jacket. “Thanks,” he said. “I don’t know this song.”
“Isn’t it about you?” the alderman said.
Eskel contemplated that for a moment. “I’ll grant there aren’t that many Witchers left,” he said, “but there are a fair handful operating around here. I’ve never heard of this song before so it’s not likely to have been about me.”
“I don’t remember all the verses,” the boy said, “but it calls him the White Wolf, and look, you have a wolf medallion.”
Eskel glanced down at his wolf medallion. “Then it means it’s about one of the Witchers from my school,” he said. “We all wear the sign of the wolf.” He sighed, thinking about it for a moment. “Yes, one of my brothers has white hair. It’s probably about him.”
“That bard was singing it,” the alderman said. “What was his name? Daisy? Dandelion? Buttercup?” He waved a hand. “Some foppish Oxenfurt sort.”
“He’d a lovely voice,” the boy said dreamily. The alderman gave him a tight-lipped sidelong glance. Eskel decided he was done with this conversation.
“Well, your Nightwraith problem is sorted, so I’m going,” he said, “but I’ll be sure to tell the others you dealt fairly with me.”
As he walked back to where he’d stabled his horse, he heard the boy singing the damn song, which he could already tell was the kind that got stuck in your head.
At the next town, someone started whistling the song as soon as they saw him. He squinted at them, but did not deviate from his course. He hadn’t made it far down the street before a man paused, standing in front of him, and sang him a line of the chorus.
“It’s customary to hire Witchers for jobs before tossing them coins,” Eskel said, “which was what I was coming to ask about, but if you feel like doing any tossing, I’m a fan of coins.”
The man laughed gaily, and in fact did toss him a coin, which Eskel caught with some bemusement, before continuing down the street to the local inn, where the patrons delightedly regaled him with a rousing rendition of the chorus of the song again, before the barkeep said thoughtfully, “The farmer at the west end of the village was complaining of somewhat, might be a job for you there.”
The bar patrons bought him an ale, among themselves, so he stayed to drink it. Once the others had settled down, he asked the barkeep, “What is that song?”
The barkeep laughed. “Don’t you know it?”
“No,” Eskel said. “But they were singing it in the last town too.”
“There was a bard,” the barkeep said, “came through the other night-- probably came from that way, I reckon-- he sang a lot of good songs, all the latest stuff-- he was Redanian I think, very posh-- but that one’s so catchy.”
“What,” Eskel said, at a loss for words. “Why? What’s the rest of the song about?”
“Oh,” the barkeep said. “Some of his songs, he said, were about adventures he’d been on, and that one I think he got to ride along with the Witcher it’s about, on some adventure. To the edge of the world, he said, and there was an army of Elves, and some sort of devil, and they had a great fight and in the end, I suppose, they came back to collect the bounty on whatever it was. As far as I understood it. Mind, the chorus is the catchy part.”
“Seems that way,” Eskel said. It didn’t sound like something Geralt would involve himself in, but who else would be described as a white wolf? “He didn’t mention the Witcher’s name?”
The barkeep gave him an up-and-down. “Well, I suppose it wouldn’t have been you, if you haven’t heard it before.”
Eskel tapped his wolf medallion. “Last town, they said it referred to him as the White Wolf.”
“Aye, now that I recall, it does,” the barkeep said. “Friend of yours?”
“Surely,” Eskel said. “We don’t get together often, Witchers, and there’s good reasons for that, but I do like to hear good tidings of my brothers.”
“So you do know him?” the barkeep said.
“Not by that name,” Eskel said, “but I can’t think but it’d be him. I tell you, I’d be glad of seeing him, it’s been a couple of years.”
“You’re the only Witcher we’ve seen in these parts lately, but if you catch up to the bard, you can ask him.”
The farmer at the west edge of town did indeed have a job for Eskel, and when he came back to claim the bounty, the farmer’s wife was singing the song in the kitchen.
Another two towns with strangely warm receptions, and slightly less grudging payouts than normal, and Eskel was starting to be a little creeped-out. He wasn’t upset exactly, but moderately unnerved, and the bad part was that the song kept getting stuck in his head. He took a contract for a-- something, that was dragging travelers off the road into the swamp, and he prepared for a bloedzuiger but discovered that whatever it was, it had stunned its victims and crammed them into a burrow. That wasn’t bloedzuiger behavior at all.
The first two victims he found were dead merchants, their goods intact in bags but their bodies inert, bloodless-- drained of life force, not blood. The third was a young woman, dark-haired, simply dressed, pale and unconscious but alive. He carried her out and set her on the hillside, then went back in. Another dead man, this one dead long enough not to be recognizable.
The last victim he found was alive, and conscious but disoriented. A young man, clutching a rucksack and some kind of instrument case, wearing a jewel-colored jacket and trousers with rich embroidery. He blinked up at Eskel in confusion, and said, in a posh Redanian accent, “You look different,” but that was the only coherent speech Eskel could get out of him. He had to pick the man up and carry him out. He put him on the hillside next to the woman.
“Watch her,” he said, “and stay here,” because there was no point telling him to flee; clearly, the kid couldn’t walk, and wouldn’t know which direction to go if he could. Eskel left a waterskin with him, telling him to drink it if he could, and give the woman some if he could revive her at all.
Eskel never could figure out what the creature was. It came out of the back of the cave at him, insubstantial like one of the shade-based creatures, and he cast an Yrden sign to make it corporeal, and then had to try literally everything he had in his arsenal to try to make a dent in it.
Finally he killed it, and dragged it out into the light to look at it better.
He’d forgotten about the young man, who clapped in glee when he saw him. “Oh!” he said. “There have been the most horrible noises coming from that cave. I was really hoping you’d be the one who walked out because it turns out, I can’t stand up at all.”
“You’ve been drained of most of your life force,” Eskel said shortly, walking around the creature.
“That would explain some things,” the man said.
He was trying to revive the woman, Eskel noted-- had her hands between his and was rubbing them gently, and clearly had tried to prop her up and give her water. But he’d be so weak himself, it wasn’t a surprise he hadn’t succeeded.
Eskel cut the thing’s head off, and stowed it in a bag. He forgot about the young man again, as he did an impromptu field dissection of the thing, and took a few notes, because he needed to find out if it was unknown to science or just somehow improbably something he’d managed not to run into in his sixty-odd years of Witchering. Not that that never happened, but normally he could at least put a thing into a rough category, and this was-- just weird.
“So, er,” a voice said, and he glanced up in some surprise before he remembered about the kid. “If you don’t mind my curiosity, what is that thing?”
“Don’t rightly know,” Eskel said. “That’s why I’m making notes. It’s either a mutation, or a crossbreed, or something a mage made that got loose, or something I somehow hadn’t seen before by some other means. I can tell you roughly what it eats-- energy-- and how it dies-- silver-- but I haven’t a clue what it’s called.”
“Hm,” the young man said. Then, after a long pause, “Did they not tell you what the thing was when they put the bounty on it?”
Eskel looked up at him. “Most times they don’t,” he said. “Something’s dragging travelers off the road in broad daylight, they said. Don’t know what it is, they said. Never find the bodies, they said. So I figured I knew what this was, and prepared for that thing, and this thing is absolutely not that. Which is why I had as much trouble as I did.”
“Oh, what thing did you prepare for?” the young man asked, groping for his rucksack.
Eskel frowned at him a moment, until he realized the kid was digging out a notebook. He was going to write this down? “Thought it’d be a bloedzuiger,” he said. “Sucks out human intestines along with their blood. Dissolves you with stomach acid. Not real smart though.” He shook his head. “This was… not that.”
“Blood…” the young man said. “Zwiger? Hm, that’s a hard rhyme.” He was visibly still woozy, but trying to take notes anyway.
“Close enough,” Eskel said, still frowning. “Listen, are you trying to write a monster manual? Only we already have several, you don’t need to do that.”
The young man looked up from his notes. “Oh, no, not a manual,” he said, with a laugh. “Songs! I’m trying to write songs about adventures. And if I don’t have a name for the thing that actually nabbed me--”
“You,” Eskel said, with sudden realization. He’d been catching up to that bard; the last town had said he’d been through “yesterday”. Posh, Redanian, foppish, string calluses on fingers. This was the guy, beyond all doubt.
The young man blinked, not without alarm. “Me,” he said.
“Do you know,” Eskel said, making himself speak more quietly. Also he was looming over the kid, so he sat down on his haunches to look at him more on his eye level. “I’ve been on this road three weeks, and for the last two, people have suddenly been tossing coins at me wherever I go.”
The young man looked perplexed for the barest instant, then guilty, then delighted. “Have you now,” he said.
“It’s been unnerving,” Eskel said. “I”ve been a Witcher on the path for some sixty years at least, and nobody’s ever thrown a coin at me without me working damned hard to earn it, and usually not even then. Much more likely to get rocks or rotten veg.”
“Then it’s working!” the young man said joyfully.
“The only real downside, besides how unnerving and strange it is, is that I’ve got the damn song stuck in my head,” Eskel concluded.
“I wrote it to be catchy,” the bard said, with a wink. How he could be so self-possessed ten feet from a pile of monster guts and too weak to sit up quite straight, Eskel couldn’t imagine, but he had a feeling there wasn’t much that could stop this mouth from running.
“Now, nobody could tell me the details of what was in the verses,” Eskel went on in a moment, “except that they mentioned a white wolf, which. I don’t know a white wolf but I do have a compatriot with white hair. Tell me, is that stuck-up asshole Geralt of Rivia calling himself the White Wolf now?”
The bard laughed in sheer delight. “No,” he said, “not that I-- well, he might be now .”
“So it is Geralt,” Eskel said, and sat back a little in relief. Not dead, then.
“It is,” the bard said. “But I gave him the name, because it scanned better.” Then, with an air of revelation, “You must know him. You have the same, er, amulet thingy.”
Eskel nodded. “Known him seventy-five years or so, maybe. We came up at the same time.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “He hasn’t been back in a few years. Sometimes we all winter over back home and he hasn’t been back. Thought maybe he got killed, but if you saw him lately, might not be?”
The bard’s expression cleared a bit, settling into sympathy, and he bit his lip in thought. “Last summer,” he said. “He was in good health, I think, though it’s hard to tell.”
Eskel nodded again, and stood up. “We should get back to town, see if a healer can help that girl.”
The bard glanced over again to the young woman, who still hadn’t roused in the slightest. “Oh,” he said, “yes.”
“Just let me clean up this mess.” Eskel pulled the two dead merchants out of the thing’s burrow and lined them up, then set their bags off to one side. He wasn’t a thief but he was absolutely going to check them to see if there was anything really useful or valuable in there before turning them over to the town alderman, who he was confident would do the same before contacting the merchants’ families. That was just how life worked.
“Ah,” the bard said, looking up from his little notebook to gesture at the pile of monster components Eskel had laid out on the grass. He looked a bit more alert; the sunshine and water were likely helping. “One question?”
“What,” Eskel said, and he could instantly picture how annoyed Geralt must have been at this kid the whole time they’d traveled together.
“I only see the, ah, parts of one creature here,” the bard said. “But I was sure there were two of them.”
“Two,” Eskel said, with some alarm. “Well, could you describe it more?”
The kid gestured a little helplessly. “Ah,” he said. “Not really. Well, one of them was big and shadowy, the other kind of-- flitted around-- but I know it wasn’t just a bat or fox or something, it went upright on two legs and it looked at me.”
“Hells, that’s not much of a description,” Eskel said.
“I know,” the bard said, gnawing fretfully at a knuckle. “Er-- all right, I woke up when it was-- feeding, maybe?-- the shadowy one was holding me from the front and the littler one, maybe human-sized, maybe less? Was behind me and--” He paused, shuddering. “It had hands, it, sort of, slid them up my back, I think they were hands? I don’t know.”
“Human-sized, limbs,” Eskel said. He had an awful suspicion. “You know what. Might be I know what you mean.”
“Really?” The bard grimaced.
“Really,” Eskel said. He retrieved his filthy silver sword and the daggers he’d set aside to clean, and went back into the cave.
Sure enough, the unrecognizable corpse had moved, and jumped out at him, and he had to fight it and it could cast signs of its own which was a horrifying discovery, but it wasn’t very physically strong so once he figured out the right combination of signs to hold it and let him hit it, he got it down in relatively short order.
It had done rather a bit of damage to him, however, so he had to stay down on his knees next to its corpse for a bit, holding the sword and watching uneasily for movement. Finally he had the strength to get up and drag the thing out.
He found that the bard had managed to get his feet and was standing in the entrance to the burrow like a fucking idiot. “What are you doing?” he said.
The bard was horribly pale, and wobbling badly on his feet. “I thought it hurt you,” he said.
“It did,” Eskel said. “No sense you coming in and letting it kill you after I went to all the trouble of hauling you out of here.” He shouldered past, and flung the dead thing out next to its… puppet or companion or other half or whatever. “You got no sense, bard. If you can walk you’re better off going the other way.”
“Well,” he said, “it would be silly if you’d killed it and then couldn’t get yourself out, for me to leave you lying there and not help.”
“It’d be sillier if I hadn’t killed it and you came in here and gave it something to eat so it’d have the strength to finish me off,” Eskel countered. He used the silver sword and his boot to finish severing the head, and packed it up with the other thing’s head, and then fished out a couple of healing potions and decided which he needed more. One for healing, and one to clear out some of the toxins, ought to do it. He downed them, washed them down from his spare waterskin, and turned to find the bard unsteadily making his way back to the unconscious woman.
“She’s not improving,” the bard said, flopping down next to her like an unstrung marionette.
“Shame,” Eskel said. He sighed. “Horse can carry both of you back to town, if you hold her on there.”
“I can walk,” the bard said.
“No,” Eskel said, “you can’t. Sit and rest a minute, I gotta finish with this thing.” He pulled his book out and wrote down notes about the two-part creature. Likely the second one had been controlling the first, maybe the first was even a construction? A golem-style construction of some kind? And the powerful one hadn’t involved itself in the first fight, probably had planned to lie low until he left and then create a new secondary attack body somehow. This was unusual and it reeked of mage-work gone wrong. Could well have been too powerful for one Witcher, if Eskel hadn’t been lucky and caught it off-guard with his particularly strong Sign abilities. It bore looking into in more detail. Geralt might have some good insights, actually.
“You don’t know where Geralt is now, do you?” Eskel asked, glancing up. The bard was holding the woman, trying again to get her to drink water-- he’d soaked a handkerchief, which was clever, and had it in her mouth to drip just a little liquid in.
“No,’ the bard said. “Why?”
“He’s a nerd, that’s why,” Eskel said. “I’m no slouch but he memorized all the super-rare creatures we never really studied just for fun, so he might know what this thing was. I’m stumped.”
“Really,” the bard said, lightening a little.
Eskel nodded. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Kid was such a twerp. I used to beat him up,” which wasn’t true, but if it made its way back to Geralt would be hilarious later, “but he’s stronger’n me now so I can’t anymore.” That was true. The only reason he could hold his own against Geralt now was that he knew the man so well and knew all his moves, and was stronger on signs.
Which, actually, was the reason he’d been able to defeat this creature; it might have killed Geralt. He’d need to warn him.
The bard was staring at him like he’d just given him an incalculable gift. Eskel let himself laugh, at that. “Was he a dick to you?”
“Was he ever ,” the bard said.
“Spoke only in grunts,” Eskel said, “brooded a lot, stood around glowering at stuff?”
“Constantly,” the kid said.
“I’m not saying I have no flair for the dramatic,” Eskel said, “but that guy-- he’s like.” He held his hand up at shoulder height, then extended it up over his head.
The bard laughed in delight. “Oh, exactly,” he said. “I mean, I’m fond of him, he’s a thoroughly decent person, but--”
“He is, that,” Eskel said thoughtfully. Geralt probably wouldn’t loot the merchants’ bags.
But, Eskel wasn’t Geralt, so he did.
“Not all Witchers are like you,” the bard said, one evening, exhausted and drunk next to a campfire.
Geralt had drunk possibly too much wine as well, but it was hard to resist it. It was sort of his fault they’d gotten chased out of town before the bard could even try to play at the inn; Roach had wandered off and had apparently eaten an entire nest of new-hatched chicks right out from under a broody hen, and there had been a lot of screaming and general unwarranted chaos. That wasn’t such odd behavior for a horse, really, but the fact that she was a Witcher’s horse meant everyone figured she was cursed.
Roach, unrepentant, had found a nest of baby rabbits after they’d set up camp here. She probably needed the nutrition; it was hard to come by good horse feed this early in spring, while it was pretty easy to come by tender baby animals. She’d washed them down with all the scant grazing the meadow had to offer, and was now asleep, unbothered by any of the uproar.
But at least Jaskier had managed to steal a flagon of wine somewhere, and Geralt had caught several larger rabbits, and he’d cooked most of them so that Jaskier could eat them too. (The bard was so squeamish about raw meat. It did taste better cooked, but Geralt had so little opinion on the concept of enjoying things that he rarely bothered. Kid had been upset about the baby rabbits too, and Geralt had teased him about hunting for mice-- they were all cute furry vermin, what did it matter? It wasn’t senseless killing if you were eating them to stay alive and keep your coat glossy.)
But this, now. This was an odd conversational gambit, especially after they’d had a rather pleasant evening, apart from the inexplicable upset over baby animals, Geralt thought. He sat up. “If you ever meet another Witcher,” he said sharply, “you be very careful.”
“I did,” Jaskier said. “He was funny.”
“Funny,” Geralt said, racking his brains for who that could have been. At this point it was years since he’d seen anyone besides the tattered remnants of his own Wolf school, but there were likely a couple of Gryphons around still. But he didn’t know who was using the Cat sigil nowadays, and that could be-- they could be anything, really. “Listen, if you see a Witcher with a cat medallion you just run away, Jaskier. Don’t even speak to them.”
“A cat,” Jaskier said, puzzled.
“They used to be-- real,” Geralt said, “but there’s--” He shook his head. “It’s bad business now.”
“Really,” Jaskier said. “Oh. I didn’t really know there were different kinds of Witchers?”
“There are,” Geralt said. “Some of them really dangerous.” Well… “All of us are dangerous, though.”
“You’re only dangerous from a particular perspective,” Jaskier said.
Geralt gave him a long look. “I’m only not dangerous to you because you’re a simpleton,” he said. “And I wouldn’t harm a simple fool.”
“You’re an ass, not a monster,” Jaskier said.
“I can be both,” Geralt said.
“Fine,” Jaskier said. “You’re both. Where’s my lute? I’m writing a song about that.”
“Do not,” Geralt said, then, “No, I mean it, you’ll give away our position to whatever’s out there,” and then “Jaskier, no, I don’t feel like fighting monsters when I’ve been drinking, absolutely do not play your lute right now,” and finally Geralt had to take the lute case, climb a tree, and hang it from a branch while Jaskier stood on the ground and complained.
“Stop making so much noise,” Geralt said, as he dropped back down, “or all of this will be in vain.”
That ended well; he had to wrestle the bard to the ground and cover his mouth. It wasn’t his winning the wrestling match that shut the bard up, though; the kid was mushed face-down in the dirt with Geralt’s arm locked around his neck and his weight planted square between the kid’s shoulder blades, and the kid just went completely unresisting. Geralt would’ve worried that he’d hurt him except that he could smell how blindingly turned-on the poor kid was, which was-- well, not entirely unexpected.
“Blessed silence,” Geralt growled, right in his ear because he was feeling a little cruel.
The kid actually whimpered. It was an act of massive discipline not to bite the back of his neck and take him, viciously, right there, but Geralt was in-control enough of his reactions, even after rather more than half a flagon of wine, to instead let go, unhurriedly, and lean off, but keep his hand between the kid’s shoulder blades. “Now behave,” he said, pressing down gently but firmly one more time, and then letting go.
The bard sat up unsteadily. “You’re an absolute bastard,” he said, voice quite strangled.
“Who doesn’t want to fight monsters drunk in the dark,” Geralt interjected. He wasn’t drunk, but he wasn’t sober either. “Do you want to fight monsters drunk in the dark?” Oh yeah, the kid was uncomfortably concealing an erection. Fuck, that would be-- no, that would be a terrible idea. You are a monster, he thought to himself; he’d known that would happen, and he’d enjoyed it, and he hadn’t really thought beyond that, but at least he’d kept his control.
The kid was barely an adult even by human standards. Geralt could snap him in half just by being distracted for a moment. No.
Jaskier brushed himself off and made much of adjusting his clothing so he could sit down on the log by the fire again. It was only then that Geralt noticed that at no point, even when completely helpless, had the kid ever smelled like fear.
He shook his head, dismissing it: the boy had no common sense at all.
“The other Witcher said you were a little twerp and he used to beat you up,” Jaskier said thoughtfully, leaning forward with his arms crossed.
Geralt frowned, thoughtful. “Gweld’s dead,” he said. “You can’t have met him.” It almost didn’t hurt to think of him, on a fragrant spring night with a warm fire and a belly full of wine. Not that Gweld had really beaten him up either, but there had been a lot of tussling that hadn’t exactly gone Geralt’s way, before the Changes.
“He didn’t say his name,” Jaskier said. “About your size, shortish dark hair, scars on his face.”
“Wolf medallion?” Geralt asked, just to be sure. He’d have to be, to have known Geralt back when he was still a stripling.
“Oh, yes,” Jaskier said. “I didn’t know there were other ones, I thought the wolf just meant--”
“No, this is just mostly Wolf territory, insofar as such a thing has any meaning,” Geralt said. He sighed. “There aren’t that many of us left.” He considered it a moment. “And of those of us left, almost all of us could be described as having facial scars.”
“Like, a lot, though,” Jaskier said, and made a gesture like claws swiping across one of his cheeks.
“Eskel, then,” Geralt said. He snorted. “He’s a liar, he was every bit as skinny as I was and never pinned me once. I’ll take it out of him, next time I see him.”
“He said you could beat him up now,” Jaskier said. “Except that your Signs are weak. I don’t know what that means? He said if I saw you I should tell you to keep practicing. But that you could surely beat him up.”
“I certainly can,” Geralt said. Oh hells, now his wine-filled belly had made him homesick. “He was well?” he asked, managing to sound gruff instead of wistful, he hoped.
“Mm, mostly,” Jaskier said. “Had a nasty tangle with some dark horror that had snatched me and three other people off the road. He said he didn’t know what it was, and was taking notes on it, and he said you’d probably know because you were the kind of little twerp that memorized the extra stuff in the books.”
“True,” Geralt said mildly. Dark horror snatching people off roads. He was surprised Jaskier hadn’t led with this story when they’d run into each other this time, though perhaps the frantic running from the townspeople had cut it short. “Well, what was the thing?”
“A big shadowy thing,” Jaskier said, “but then there was a second creature, maybe human-sized, that I never got a good look at. He killed the big one, and hauled it out of the burrow--”
“Burrow,” Geralt said.
“Oh, yes, it had dug a burrow, or taken over an old one maybe-- very gross and damp and horrible and full of the smell of death,” Jaskier said. “Anyway, the Witcher hauled the first thing out, and was taking it apart, and I said, did you see the second one, and he gave me a very grim look and said describe it, so I tried but it was behind me and all I thought was that it had hands. And he got a thoughtful look on his face and said I have an idea, and then went back into the burrow thing and was gone a while and there was a lot of horrible noise, and I dragged myself down there and looked and he was just hauling it out dead and it looked like a human corpse, but like, a rotted one.”
“Hmmmm,” Geralt said.
“He took a lot of notes,” Jaskier said. “Looked like he even made sketches.”
“Yes,” Geralt said, “that’s standard. Well, I’d have to see his notes, I think.”
“He said he’d assumed it would be a bloodswinger,” Jaskier said.
“A… what,” Geralt said.
“Blood. Something. Swinger? Swicker?” Jaskier tried.
“Bloedzuieger,” Geralt said, satisfied. “No, it wasn’t one of those, you’d’ve died instantly.”
“That’s what he said,” Jaskier said.
“Well,” Geralt said, “he wasn’t wrong. No, I’m not sure what it was that nabbed you. I’d have to see his notes.”
“He was actually nice to me,” Jaskier pointed out. “Let me ride on his horse.”
“I haven’t killed you,” Geralt pointed out. “That makes me nice.” He thought about explaining that if he’d found Jaskier injured and terrified in some dark horror’s burrow he’d’ve been a lot nicer as well but figured it wasn’t worth getting into.
Also, if it really was Eskel, it was probably true; Eskel was chattier and a little more personable than Geralt.
“Said you were the overdramatic sort,” Jaskier went on.
“Hm,” Geralt said. Eskel was absolutely getting his ass beat, if Geralt went back to the keep this winter. That usually happened anyway, though, and in the end it was usually Geralt who got the worst of it from Eskel casting signs on him. Somehow his Quen was never as strong as Eskel’s Aard and he wound up through a wall or something, every damn time.
It wasn’t a question of practicing; Eskel just had more magical ability than Geralt did, and all the reflexes in the world wouldn’t do more than even it out a bit.
“Also, he thanked me for the Toss A Coin song,” Jaskier went on, sounding almost outraged. “Said he liked it. Said it had made people nicer to him. Said it was lovely to be recognized.”
Geralt, with a sinking feeling, realized that he maybe could beat Eskel up but he was going to be mercilessly teased the entire winter. He growled.
Undeterred, Jaskier singsonged, “You’re welcome!”
“Good night, Jaskier,” Geralt said, mock-disgusted, and got up and went to bed.
In the morning he had to climb the tree to get the lute down again, because he wasn’t a complete asshole.