1. bribing the hangman
As the sounds of squabbling reach him, with Jaskier’s indignant voice floating on top of the din, Geralt sighs and picks up his pace, heading back towards town.
He’d been hired to slay what turned out to be several young cockatrices flocking together. It was unusual to find even two sharing a roost; the beasts were infamously and viciously territorial.
Yet, it wasn’t nearly as difficult a battle as he would have expected. Perhaps it was because they were still immature and inexperienced, but Geralt was barely scratched. He’d only been nicked at the end, a shallow scrape on his cheek from the last one as he’d finished it off with his sword. The beast had kicked out weakly with its spurs, hissing defiantly, not even managing a cockatrice’s signature piercing shriek.
The outskirts of the town were surrounded by shallow and sheltered fields, a perfect wellspring for certain rare plants. Geralt had taken the opportunity to harvest, replenishing his alchemical supplies and savoring a moment of peace, gathering flowers and his thoughts as he came back to himself after the hunt.
Jaskier had elected to stay behind, which, from the noises of commotion, had somehow panned out poorly for him.
Geralt considers exchanging the silent peace outside the town walls for the shouting within to be a poor trade-off, especially when he sees the size of the crowd that awaits him.
The place is prosperous enough to have their own sheriff, a man who is currently holding Jaskier firmly by the shoulder and the neck of his doublet. The lawman doesn’t look ready to release the loudly protesting bard any time soon, but at least Jaskier isn't tied or in chains. Yet.
Geralt shoulders his way through the curious crowd that parts expectantly before him, looking forward to a show. Normally Jaskier would have been thrilled at this attentive of an audience, but he looks up with relief at seeing the witcher.
“Thank the gods, Geralt. I thought you might be out playing with your plants for hours. Tell this idi-...respectable servant of the law to let me go?”
“Witcher, your bard has been found to be a thief.” the sheriff states flatly, planting his feet, and not loosing his hold on Jaskier at all.
“What did he take?” Geralt asks, barely finishing the sentence before Jaskier lets out an indignant howl.
“Nothing! I took nothing.”
The sheriff hesitates, glancing at Geralt’s swords before answering. “It’s confidential. Something important to the town that shouldn’t be discussed in the open.”
Geralt could allow that, and follow the sheriff back to discuss the matter in private, but he doesn’t want Jaskier brought back and put in a cell. It’d be far more inconvenient to retrieve him from a locked cage than to get him freed now.
This is a well-off town, the cockatrice flock had been the first bit of trouble they’d experienced for ages. No wonder a crowd was gathering about something as small as a bard being dragged off.
In such a peaceful place, a lawman probably didn’t get much work in the way of enforcement. Was he feeling threatened that he might lose his position? Or perhaps, easily tempted by extra coin?
“Fine,” Geralt answers. “It’s confidential. Just tell me the worth of what he took.”
“I took nothing, he has no proof, he’s just dragging me away, bards always get blamed for any little thing...” Jaskier’s litany trails off as the sheriff remains silent. After the pause went on a bit too long, the bard triumphantly finishes “See? He can’t even come up with anything.”
“I’ll offer my services in exchange, then, for something of value to the town.” Geralt says. “I’ll take no payment for slaying your quartet of beasts.” Normally Geralt wouldn’t consider going without pay for even a single cockatrice, but it really had been far too easy a fight. “If that’s acceptable to the town?”
The sheriff’s face falls as the crowd around them, already somewhat sympathetic to Jaskier’s pointed pleas of innocence, murmurs in approval. It would clearly go poorly with the lawman if he were to deny this offer and continue to drag Jaskier away.
So, the sheriff nods, and reluctantly opens his hands, releasing the bard. Jaskier makes a show of brushing himself off as he strides over to Geralt.
“Tch. I’ll go with you the next time you go out picking flowers.”
Geralt waits to see that Jaskier is heading back to their shared room at the inn before quietly following the sheriff. He hears Jaskier chatting with the dispersing crowd behind him about the generosity and nobility of witchers, and shakes his head, smiling.
His smile fades when he slips into the small office and jail after the sheriff. There's a faint scent of metal and rooster dander about the man.
The sheriff is easily intimidated, for the second time today, it seems. Someone left a bribe with an anonymous note promising more gold if he’d arrest Jaskier, and pain to his loved ones if he did not. Even if the place normally sees little trouble, a lawman ought to have more of a spine.
Geralt takes the note with him, after making the sheriff sign it so he can’t deny anything later.
He leaves the insultingly small bribe behind. Jaskier is worth so much more.
He muses, as he returns to the inn, that he once asked Jaskier how many lords at a banquet wished to kill the bard.
Whatever that number is, it seems the number of his would-be killers has risen by at least one.
Geralt returns to their room to find Jaskier pacing back and forth, rubbing his neck slightly.
“Surely that’s not the first time you’ve faced an angry crowd?” he asks the bard, closing the door behind him.
“Like that, it damn well is. That piece of work told me he would have had me hanged! I didn’t even do anything.”
“As opposed to all the times when it’s well deserved? I suppose it's true that you've told me you’re normally looking out through the crack of a closed cupboard at a pair of slippered feet, not in the middle of a booted mob.”
Jaskier spun to face Geralt and held up a finger for each point he made. “One, that happened once, two, I regret telling you these things if you’re going to constantly bring them up, and, three, unless whatever they’re claiming was stolen is the heart of the most lovely person in this village, I haven’t stolen anything. I also haven’t sung yet, so it’s unlikely I’ve stolen hearts.”
Despite his bantering, Geralt can see Jaskier is still somewhat shaken. The bard touches his neck again, absently, and shudders.
Geralt crosses to him and puts his palm on his chest, running his fingers across Jaskier’s collarbone and throat, banishing any phantom rope with the warmth of his touch. After a moment, the bard sighs and relaxes, resting his head on Geralt’s chest.
“I wouldn’t have let them hang you,” Geralt tells him.
“I wouldn’t have let them hang me either. I hawked up quite a crowd, did you see? I could have gotten their sympathy. They all like you a lot, by the way. Everybody downstairs is quite impressed with your generosity. Those cockatrices were a real nuisance. Apparently they were targeting children. What’s their valuable thingamajig, by the way?”
“The whatsit that the sheriff was blaming me for stealing.”
“It’s nothing." Geralt says. "Somebody was trying to get you locked up.”
Perversely, Jaskier relaxes even further. “Oh, is that all? Different lyrics, same tune, I’ve been there before. Still, that usually means it’s around time to leave.”
“Can we stay for a bit longer?” Geralt asks.
“What, like this? Well, aren’t you a romantic sap.” Jaskier rubs his cheek on Geralt’s armored chest.
“No, Jaskier, I don’t mean with you leaning on me, I mean, can we stay for a bit longer in this town.”
“If you think it’s safe enough.” Jaskier murmurs, careless.
“Hm. I won’t leave you alone, while we’re still here.”
“That’s fine, then.” Jaskier pulls away with a sigh, adjusting the collar of his doublet back up, and sending a flood of ice down Geralt’s spine as he continues with “Is that really what you wanted to see me for? The innkeeper said that you were asking to meet me somewhere, but I thought it’d be easier just to wait for you to get back.”
Geralt had not arranged for Jaskier to meet him anywhere, he thought it’d been clear that they’d see each other at the inn.
“Where did she say, Jaskier?”
“I don’t know, I’d already decided to wait for you here.” At Geralt’s frustrated look, Jaskier throws up his arms, and finishes “Well, excuse me, I was a little frazzled on account of nearly getting hanged.”
As Geralt heads downstairs, he can hear Jaskier’s cry behind him of “Right, good, you just said you wouldn’t leave me alone!”
Geralt speaks with the innkeeper, who assures him with a smile that she passed on the message he sent by word of mouth through a stable boy, asking Jaskier to meet him on the outskirts of town by the west gate.
It’s a believable story - it’s around where he’d been, even, before returning to see Jaskier getting dragged away by the sheriff. It's lucky that Jaskier didn't head out on his own.
He returns to their room, collects Jaskier, and they head together to the specified meeting place to see who, or what, awaits them.
He entertains for a moment the thought of sending Jaskier in advance as bait, but decides it’s not worth the risk to try and counter someone who seems to be moving a step ahead of them as it is. They'd apparently had this plan already in place in case the sheriff didn’t succeed.
So, they approach loudly, instead. The guards at the west gate look up curiously, but smile when Jaskier calls to them that they’re making sure there isn’t any lingering trace of monsters.
Bizarrely, there is. The air is still incredibly heavy with the metallic pheromones of nesting cockatrice. There’s no visible sign of beasts, though, no sudden shadow above them, no claw marks on the walls or the bark on the copse of pines outside the town.
As the two of them wait outside the gate, whatever was planned to happen: does not. No one emerges from the trees, and there hadn’t been anybody waiting in the alleys on the way to the meeting spot either.
Geralt isn’t sure if no move is made because the ambusher gave up when Jaskier took too long to appear, or if whoever it is doesn’t feel secure in attacking while he’s accompanying the bard.
If it’s because he took too long, Jaskier is lucky, but he often is.
If it’s because they don't fancy their odds in fight against the witcher, Geralt will show whoever the would-be assassin how right they are to feel that way when he catches up to them.
“So, why is it that if I get an invitation to someplace nice, you don’t want to go,” Jaskier drawls, as they wander back into inn. “But apparently somebody who wants to kill me can leave a message and we trot right up.”
“Forgive me for wanting to know what person is trying to lay traps.” Geralt answers. “And, also, we have been to plenty of halls filled with lords who do want to kill you.”
Jaskier whistles cheerfully. “They shouldn’t have had such charming and willing wives. Mind you, it’s been charming and willing lords sometimes, as well. Ladies, lords, neither, whoever. Wait, that’s not why you don’t want to go with me, is it?”
Geralt doesn’t mind Jaskier’s past, and though he’s not entirely sure what’s between them, Jaskier always returns to his side sooner or later.
“No. You put in me stupid outfits.” Geralt says curtly, as they walk upstairs.
“Tch. Some people that spend all their time in sensible leather armor have no sense of style. And when I say sensible, I mean th-”
“ Stop.” Geralt suddenly says, grabbing Jaskier by the collar and dragging him away from their door.
Jaskier’s indignant expression fades to concern when he sees Geralt’s face. “What’s wrong?”
The smell of cockatrice by their door is absolutely cloying. Geralt reaches out to the wooden and leather latch that seals their room, examining it with a gloved hand.
Small bits of jagged and slightly bloody eggshell have been carefully placed in the latch, exactly where they would cut deeply into someone’s palm when he opened the door.
The witcher carefully collects the shards and shows them to Jaskier.
“It’s cockatrice eggshell. Wouldn’t have killed you, but you’d be vulnerable. It’s a powerful paralytic, if it gets in the blood.” He’d been so sure that there wasn’t a nest. The beasts had all been juveniles, and he had only seen enough tracks and markings to account for the four he’d slain.
Whoever had placed eggshell in the door must be nearby, hoping that they’d be able to come collect or kill Jaskier once he collapsed.
Geralt closes his eyes to listen, but hears only the sounds of the inn, and can’t smell anything at the moment but the scent of cockatrice that so heavily drapes over the whole damn town.
He realizes, as he takes stock of the area, that he hadn’t sensed fear from the bard as he grabbed Jaskier or pushed him away from the door. Jaskier's never been afraid of him or his touch, despite being suddenly grabbed.
Jaskier’s growing nervous now, though, as he looks at the eggshell fragments in Geralt’s glove.
“So, um.” Geralt waits to hear him ask when they’re leaving this town, or at least why he hasn’t yet caught the person tracking them. “How do we get back into the room? I’ll need my lute if we’re staying for supper.”
Geralt shakes his head and begins carefully cleaning the latch.
The two of them sit at a corner table in the inn’s common room, waiting for their stew and bread to be brought.
All dangers of the day considered, it’s a quiet enough evening. Jaskier smiles when Geralt ventures that opinion.
“Are you suggesting I play?”
Geralt shrugs, but the thought's the deed, and Jaskier is already strolling the room, cheerfully proclaiming himself, with a nod of mock humility that acknowledges Geralt as well.
Jaskier perches himself on the inn’s counter, only shooting the innkeeper an approval-seeking grin after he’s already seated and playing. She laughs and nods in permission even as an annoyed barmaid has to navigate around him to deliver their dinner. The bard launches himself into a complicated song, the notes rippling down and chasing each other like the flowing of a brook as Jaskier croons softly in Ofiri.
Geralt scans the room, noting the patrons smiling at the bard’s skill, those who are nodding along with the rhythm of the song or drumming on tabletops absently, despite themselves.
After a moment, the witcher finds the person he’s looking for: a thin man with spiky hair and boot spurs despite not being in riding gear. He's mostly unremarkable, save for the strange red leather pouch he’s wearing around his neck.
The man with the pouch is intently watching Jaskier with no sign that he’s listening to a performance. His gaze is measuring only whether or not the poison in Jaskier’s ale has yet taken effect.
It’d been easy to spot that the ale was off, especially when it was accompanied by an undoctored tankard. It was easier still to distract Jaskier and subtly swap the drinks.
Geralt’s unsure whether the man’s an overconfident amateur of an assassin to only poison one of a pair of drinks, or a deliberate professional that’s only targeting the kill.
He swirls the ale in examination, and a scent of decaying herbs and desiccated spiderweb rises to meet him. This is a low-grade and cheap poison. The man with the pouch is an amateur.
It does at least answer one question. He’d been wondering all day whether or not somebody was trying to incapacitate and kidnap the bard, or kill him.
This mix of herbs is fatal.
He pointedly sips the poisoned ale while watching the would-be assassin stare at Jaskier. The poison won’t harm him, there are few easily accessible drugs that would fell a witcher. As the man with the pouch stares, his lips curl, watching with barely concealed disgust as the bard finishes the piece.
Jaskier returns to their table with a grin, jangling a handful of coins in time to the song he'd been playing.
“I’ll pay for dinner,” he says, face flushed with the pleasure of a successful performance. “The dinner I saw you messing about with, don’t think I didn’t see.”
“Your drink was tampered with. I was seeing if your food was, as well.”
“Smells good enough to risk a bit of poison.” Jaskier remarks as he spoons up a mouthful, but then pauses and waits for Geralt to finish. “It’s not, though, right?”
“No.” Geralt nudges over a plate of honey-roasted carrots that had arrived with the meal. “These are fine, also. You were complaining about not having enough sweets.”
Jaskier pops a bite into his mouth with pleasure.
“Bards need them,” he says, stickily. “Sweetmeats for sweet words, honeyed foods for a honeyed tongue, don’t you know?”
Jaskier smiles at him, promising honeyed kisses as well, later.
Geralt absently takes another swig of the poisoned ale before realizing what he’s doing, and then shrugs and commits to rinsing his mouth out well with a general antidote before touching Jaskier.
There’s something unpleasant he’ll have to do first, anyway.
He marks the would-be assassin who had been watching his bard. The man with the leather pouch shakes his head in frustration, and heads upstairs, where the rooms are. After a quick word to Jaskier, Geralt slides out of his seat and follows.
5. daggers in the dark
It’s been a long while since Geralt needed to track a mere man. Tailing this particular fellow is pathetically easy. The would-be assassin has no sense of hiding his movements or disguising his steps. Besides, he is vile with the stench of cockatrice, oozing from the bag he wears around his neck like slime from a pecked slug.
It’s clear he’s gone into Geralt and Jaskier’s room, and, as Geralt’s been following closely, he knows the man is still inside.
Their belongings aren’t there anymore. After purifying the latch, Geralt had requested a second room, and moved their packs.
He’d told Jaskier to remain downstairs, in safe public eye, until he returned, and so help him if the bard doesn't listen.
Geralt concentrates on the creak of floorboards as the man in the room shifts back and forth on the other side of the door, waiting to attack whoever enters.
The witcher blows out the candle in the sconce across from the room, and steps into the shadows he’s created, listening, waiting.
The bustle below dies down to a hum as people leave the common room. The breathing on the other side of the door seems all the louder for it.
The sounds in the room turn to frustrated pacing as the man within grows impatient.
Eventually, the door creaks open.
Geralt strikes before the man with the pouch realizes he’d been waiting outside, ambushing the ambusher. He rushes the man, pushing him back into the room, and slamming the door behind them.
As the man staggers, Geralt strikes him hard on the arm with his fist, and hears the clatter of the dagger he’d been holding hit the floor. He doesn’t wait for the man to recover before slamming him in the face with his fist, once, twice, and then pinning him face first against the wall and trapping the man's wrists.
Geralt gives the man with the pouch a looking over, measuring the mixture of fear and resolve in the assassin’s glare. Despite his sneer, the man’s clearly not prepared to die.
That’s good- it means he’s prepared to talk, instead.
“Who are you?” Geralt asks, keeping the man pinned tight, bringing a hand to his throat. He squeezes when the assassin doesn’t immediately answer.
“I’m Moneun, of Temeria.” the man gasps out, when Geralt lets up.
“You’re far from home.”
“I wasn’t encouraged to stay.” says Moneun, eyeing the dagger on the floor. It’s too far away for him to reach easily, should he be able to break free. Geralt presses him harder against the wall in warning.
“Are you stupid enough to think that you could take on a witcher?”
Moneun’s lip curls.
“It’s your bard I’m trying to kill. I didn’t expect you to keep coming back to his room.”
“Why are you trying to kill him?” Geralt asks, forcing himself not to break the man’s wrists.
“You took something from me, didn’t you? It’s only fair.”
Geralt breathes in and nearly chokes from the scent of rooster dander and rust rising from Moneun.
“How were you controlling the cockatrices?” Geralt asks.
“I bred them.” the would-be assassin answers, and Geralt sees that despite being pinned, despite the constant flitting gaze around the room as Moneun searches for a way to break free, he is glad to finally be able to admit to this. He must have been planning to declare himself soon.
“You bred them? Why?”
“Why not?” Moneun cocks his head to the side, oddly cockatrice-like himself in the gesture, staring at Geralt as if wanting to tear him apart. “I can’t do magic. I’m not a creature like you.” He flexes uselessly against Geralt’s grip. “I’m not strong. Why shouldn’t I have a team of tame monsters?”
“You can’t tame a cockatrice, you fool. You’ve the deaths on your hands of the villagers your beasts killed when they broke out.”
“Who says they broke out?” Moneun’s giggle is as grating as shards of broken glass scraping against each other, and Geralt sees the man’s somewhat fractured sanity leak out through his grin.
“Are there any left?” the witcher asks.
Geralt presses down again hard on his wrist, and Moneun cries out.
“You wouldn’t do this to me if I had one of my pets here,” he rasps, when Geralt relents.
“Are there any left?” Geralt asks again.
“No, none that hatched.” Moneun answers, finally. “You killed them.” There’s sadness in his voice, but it’s only from the bitter frustration of having lost a possession. “It’s, mm, something of a setback, I admit. But it’ll be all right for now. There’s a few things I need to work out anyway...but it’s really not fair, you know? I wanted to take something of yours too.”
And with that, he surprises Geralt by suddenly ramming an elbow into his gut, despite the wrenching pain it must cause his wrist to execute the jab, and kicking back hard. He catches Geralt underneath the knee with one of his boot spurs, and then throws himself to the floor to grab the dagger.
Moneun is cunning, and quick, and absolutely no match for a witcher. Geralt makes the sign for Axii just as Moneun frees the pouch at his neck and prepares to throw it.
He watches as Moneun’s eyes turn glassy and his face relaxes, despite Geralt's sword now pressed to his throat. The pouch drops from Moneun's loose grasp and falls to the ground, spilling powdered cockatrice eggshell as it lands.
“Are there really no more cockatrices left?” Geralt asks gently, not to upset the charm.
“I have a few eggs,” Moneun says, thoughtfully, mellowed from his rage by the charm of Axii. “And I’ve still got my pinioned female, of course. She lays them. I used to try and get some from roosters, but, that turned out just to be a story? And so I ended up killing all of them. They’re so noisy.”
Moneun's eyes shine with the same disgust he had when he was watching Jaskier.
“The hatchlings are noisy too, but they’ll learn to keep quiet. I can’t stand noisy things.”
Moneun looks at Geralt, eyes somewhat unfocused in his charmed state, and leans in confidingly. “How do you put up with that bard? I never thought you’d go right back to him after that mess in the square, or keep trying to get in his room.”
And, with that, Geralt sees why the note and the ambush failed so easily. Despite seeing the two of them together and deducing that the loss of Jaskier would hurt Geralt, Moneun still somehow doesn’t understand that Geralt would return to Jaskier’s side, or even that they’d be sharing a room.
Geralt’s not sure if it’s because Moneun thinks that nobody would be able to tolerate Jaskier, or that it’s so unexpected for a witcher to have a fond and close companion, a friend and lover at his side.
If this had been ten years ago, Moneun would have been right. Geralt hadn’t expected to have these precious things, either.
“If I let you up, let you walk out of this room,” Geralt says, slowly tensing his grip on the sword at the other man’s neck. “What will you do?”
Moneun smiles up at him guilelessly, like Geralt’s a good friend.
“I’m going to get rid of that bard,” he says pleasantly. “And, then, I think, I’m going to make some more cockatrices.”
Geralt kills him.
He feels the bitterness welling up in him as blood wells out on the floor. He’s ready to be called a butcher again.
But he is, after all, used to killing monsters.
Geralt considers his options as he returns to the inn’s common room. He doesn’t know what Moneun’s standing in the town is, doesn’t know whether or not there will be immediate repercussions for killing him. Finding and slaying his remaining captive cockatrice should be proof enough of the man’s guilt, and the cowardly sheriff will be grateful to Geralt for sparing him having to protect Moneun from an angry crowd.
As he returns to the warmth of the main room, now emptied out with the lateness of the hour, he sees the innkeeper talking rather seriously with another woman and Jaskier.
As Jaskier catches sight of him, he smiles and waves Geralt over.
“I’ve been talking with our lovely host, Linden, and her wife, Klara.” the bard gestures to the other woman who nods at him. Geralt nods back, unsure where this is going.
“Klara, she cooked our dinner, by the way, wasn’t it delicious? She’s been telling me all sorts of things.” Jaskier leans in, all mock seriousness. “I don’t know if you noticed, Geralt, but there’s apparently somebody following you?”
As the bard describes the dead man upstairs, Geralt would laugh, but he can still smell rooster dander, and scales, and blood.
“She also says he was around the stables.” Jaskier finishes, to Geralt's surprise. He'd thought the affair was finished.
Geralt’s witcher senses are a powerful tool in his arsenal, but it means he relies mainly on himself. He doesn’t know if he would have talked to the innkeeper and her wife, and he definitely wouldn’t have been able to strike up the easy camaraderie Jaskier already has with the two, laughing with each other with the easy confidence of long acquaintances even though they’ve just met.
Geralt heads to the stables, and Linden, the innkeeper follows. He smells the choking presence of cockatrice, and Roach is acting uneasy, but Geralt doesn’t know that he would have questioned either of those things, given how the evening has gone.
Geralt cautiously runs a hand over Roach’s tack, and discovers several small pieces of nail worked subtly into her saddle gear.
He would have been riding for quite a bit before any of the sharp edges worked through and pierced skin. Roach would have bucked and thrown him with no warning. Depending on where he was, what he was fighting: he would have died.
He holds out the pieces of the nail to Linden, and tells her that one of her upstairs rooms has a body. She takes the news so surprisingly well that he has to wonder if people often get murdered in her inn.
Geralt takes a quiet moment to assure himself that Roach is all right, pressing his forehead against hers and running a hand down her neck until she quiets, before he heads out into the night for one last awful task.
It’s a new room, but, again, Jaskier is waiting for him when Geralt returns to the inn. The bard's not pacing angrily, as he was earlier. He meets Geralt at the door and lets the witcher take him into his arms.
The bard slowly runs a hand over Geralt’s shoulders and chest, but it’s not an invitation, as it so often is. Jaskier is checking for injury, reassuring himself that Geralt’s safe and whole.
He slowly coaxes the tale out of Geralt like drawing poison from a wound, and, for once, doesn't press him for heroic details.
Geralt had been to kill a cockatrice kept chained in a cellar, and the act felt less like monster slaying and more like a gift of mercy.
“Don’t make a story of it, Jaskier.” he says, at the end. “This is tragedy enough without it becoming a ballad.”
“I wasn’t even considering it,” says Jaskier, honestly. “Let him be completely forgotten.”
That’s about as terrible a curse as Geralt’s ever heard from the bard, and it makes him chuckle, despite everything.
“I don’t know that I would have caught the nail in Roach’s gear,” Geralt says.
“Well, you’re very lucky that you have me to look after you.” Jaskier says flippantly, into his chest. “Kiss me?”
Geralt, having been sure to thoroughly rinse his mouth of any poison, obliges.