Ciri is four when she first meets the bard Jaskier.
He is animate and colorful, an absolute delight at court. Mother greets him kindly so Ciri does too, if a bit shy on her toes. His big hands are gentle and soft when they rub her golden head, and at her curious stare, he plucks the strings of his lute to a children’s rhyme.
Mother says the bard is a friend to their family and that she may treat him like grandfather Eist. They are both just as tall and silly, full of romantic fancies. It is easy for her to find familiarity with him.
As the feast is dedicated to the young princess on her birthday, everyone bends to present her with gifts and kind wishes. Ciri squirms in her seat when the evening extends to night, but grandmother taught her that for special events like these, she must be patient. She can at least hold out for dinner.
Once the food is served, the bard Jaskier—and a number of other hired musicians—go to the performer’s circle to mark the culmination of the festivity. Everyone claps in tandem when he sings a bright ballad about a white wolf, a hedgehog prince and a lion princess. And she, small and still looking to her mother for her cues, claps along.
Grandmother is not happy by the song, which confuses little Ciri because the song must be about mother and father. The lion and the hedgehog. She does wonder who the white wolf in the story is. He seems important to have saved the princess and the prince. Surely it is someone Ciri knows.
But when she asks, mother is silent, watching grandmother’s tight frown. They don’t say much else other than the bard’s ballad is quite embellished, if excellently balanced in poetry.
When the night is over and the lords and ladies bid the Cintran royal family goodnight, Ciri slips behind her mother to greet the bard one last time.
As the hours of the night passed, she easily took to calling him ‘sir bard Jaskier’. He insists that ‘Jaskier’ is enough, to which Ciri says, “Only if you call me ‘princess’ and not ‘your highness’.”
He smiles and bows dramatically, departing with a hushed, “Goodnight. Until next time, princess.”
Ciri is not yet five when she loses her parents to the sea.
She cries for seven days and seven nights, spurred to wallow in never-ending sadness by the despair in her grandmother’s face. Mother was her world, and now she is gone. The clever games had in father’s tables will forever remain unfinished. Ciri knows no greater loss.
On the eighth day since the news, it is her fifth birthday. Instead of lively music and cheerful dance, there is a funeral with no bodies. The bard Jaskier comes, solemn and dressed in a dark silken ensemble. There are no songs from him, just heartwrenching condolences.
In the cover of dusk, Ciri runs out of the castle. She runs and runs until she reaches the city gates, and then she runs some more to the large wheat fields that surround the walls of Cintra. A scream is building in her throat. Pain and sorrow and helplessness combined. But she thinks it might scare the farmer’s sheep so she holds it back and instead cries on the edge of a stream.
The sky is so beautifully empty of clouds, allowing her a clear view of the great big moon. It glows, like a round platter of silver. So cold and distant. Stars wink at her, the many witnesses to her aimless chase. When she looks down, there is a white wolf across the water. Its yellow eyes stare right at her own green pair.
“Princess! Princess please, where have you gone?”
Someone calls her from afar. She recognizes the melodic voice, even fraught with fear. It is the good bard riding a horse around the field. Ciri is suddenly very glad for him and begs him to come with panic in her voice.
The wolf disappears when she looks again.
The bard Jaskier twists the horse’s reins and appears in a flash right by the stream, dismounting to kneel before her to make sure she is alright, only a little muddy around her heels.
“Your grandparents are terribly worried about you,” he breathes with a slight tremor. “I advised them not to send the entire kingdom in search of you, but only because I promised you would sooner come back by the call of a friend than an armed stranger.”
“I’m sorry.” Ciri is truly, genuinely sorry, for having scared her grandparents after the loss they were already experiencing. More than anything, she is so grateful that it was the bard that had come when he did, because he made the world sound like a less frightening place. Perhaps he could remind her that there are friendly wolves out in the wilderness, wolves who would never dare hurt her. Wolves like the white one in the bard Jaskier’s stories.
“It’s alright,” the bard says grasping her hands, “You didn’t mean to scare anyone, right?” Ciri shakes her head, a few tears slipping down her cheeks. The bard wipes them gently from her face. The smile he gives her is watery. “Please, let’s go back to the castle.”
Ciri nods earnestly. “May I ride with you? I’m tired.”
All she has to do is ask and the bard moves everything around his borrowed horse to help her up and tuck her safely on the front.
They ride fast at first till they reach the inner city where Mousesack, friend and family since the earliest of her memories, stands a sentinel waiting for their return. Then, safely tucked against stone walls and high towers, the bard Jaskier slows his horse to a leisure walk. Ciri watches the citizens that wander past with torchlights. Some look ready to sleep in their beds after a long day of work. Some passersby sleep right there on the street.
After her grandmother hugs the princess tight to her chest—and scolds her for such reckless behavior—, Ciri begs her to allow the bard as a guest in their home, for the remainder of his stay in Cintra.
Grandmother breathes out a heavy sigh, but she relents. The bard Jaskier is profusely thankful.
“I’ll sing your favorite ballad before you go to sleep. A present for your day, princess, though I know it’s very late.”
Her favorite ballad is the one about her parents, and that ache is too much to bear so she shakes her head a little weakly. “Thank you, but please no.”
The bard understands. He does not bring it up again on the walk to her room. Then, as they bid goodnight, she remembers the vision of the wolf on the farm, and asks him of the many ballads of the White Wolf. If he is willing, he may choose from any within his repertoire of songs to sing goodnight. He could even sing them all—all save the one she cannot bear. That could be his gift.
Swathed in golden quilts, Ciri falls asleep to dream of glowing eyes and the hum of a lute.
On her seventh birthday, the bard Jaskier is invited to sing once more at princess Cirilla’s celebratory banquet. He is both full of energy and scatterbrained to anyone’s attempt at conversation.
Ciri asks him many times throughout the night if he is alright, and he—well, he doesn’t say no, but there are so many words flying out of his mouth, she can hardly keep up to know for sure. Something about a purple-eyed witch and the wolf of his stories. A near-death experience the bard Jaskier would never want to put down into lyrical form, mostly because of embarrassment. He does confess he is working on a more personal piece. Something futile and full of emotion.
“I don’t quite think you should hear this one yet.”
“If you say so, sir Jaskier.”
She’s taken to calling the bard by ‘sir Jaskier’, affixing the phrase at the end of every sentence. Under formal tutelage, she has taken to heart the importance of titles and etiquette. The bard Jaskier is a viscount, which means he deserves a good ‘sir’ for respect, even as they are friends.
It drives the bard to complain and correct her every time, and after his fussing, Ciri promises to stop only to slip the ‘sir’ in again. He frowns at her suspiciously. Ciri honestly does not mean to. Her tutors are very good, and very strict.
Later at night, when the party ends and the servants sweep up the halls, Ciri brings the bard by her well-lit rooms as she has done many times before for more of his songs. She adores them, and they have helped her overcome the sad memory of her parents. Tears come sometimes, hearing the story of the hedgehog prince and the lion princess. But there’s a new feeling replacing that old pain now. She thinks it’s called nostalgia.
And still, if she were to cry, the bard Jaskier will hold her through her sobs. That is something she has not gotten back since her mother’s passing. Easy gentleness. Everyone is so strong, so purposeful with their duties to help them bear loss. Grandmother is driven to a hard edge. Grandfather drinks and fights. Mousesack overworks to protectiveness, but remains at arm’s length, out of propriety and respect.
Ciri is just a girl. She wants to be held and sung to sleep.
“Sir Jaskier, could you sing the tale of how the White Wolf saved the Cintran lion princess again?”
“Only if you don’t call me ‘sir’ for the rest of the night.”
He starts a bit rough-voiced, having sung for much of the night. Ciri thinks nothing of it. His voice is as beautiful and confident as it always is when strumming to a ballad to the wolf.
When he finishes his song, Ciri curls inside her many quilts. The tale is so fantastical. She can just imagine how the white wolf moves and fights to protect the hedgehog prince. “What is the White Wolf like?”
The bard smiles with a strange quirk, like he’s caught between a scoff and a grin. She’s never asked him personally, mostly because no one gives her a straight answer so there is no point to. But Jaskier knows the wolf. He knows a great many things about him, sings so many stories in his name. Ciri thinks she ought to know the wolf too, by the many hours and evenings spent hearing the bard tell of his deeds.
The bard’s face softens down as he speaks. “He is a good man. A witcher with a heart of gold. Many people would tell you that witchers do not possess a heart in the first place but don’t you believe that sham of a lie. They are quite the worrywarts, and the White Wolf especially is nosy. Can’t leave a damsel in distress alone.” That he says like it’s bad, which is confusing since Ciri would think that’s an admiral thing to do. “Don’t get me wrong, princess. It’s one of his better qualities. It’s also annoying when the person arguably should be left alone.”
“So he’s selfless?”
“Self-sacrificing more like. He will tell you he is in need of no one, then turn around and help those in need. A royal among fools. Ah, but never mind that, little princess,” Jaskier whispers as he stands and pets her messy hair back. “You will meet him, I think, and judge for yourself. When the time is right. Right now I think it’s better that he stick to his witchering.”
Many birthdays pass like that. The bard’s yearly gift turns from ballad story to an answer around the mystery of the wolf. On her eight, it is his appearance. On her ninth, his fancies and aversions. Her questions carry a year's worth of consideration.
On her twelve, she planned to ask why he’s never come back to Cintra, but the bard Jaskier breaks the ritual and does not attend on that date. She asks many of the kinder-faced nobles at the party if the bard is busy busking across the Continent, but all they offer her are vast rumors and apologies. Grandmother excuses herself in the morning to consult her emissaries involving something or another about Nilfgaard. The only familiar faces in the hall are Mousesack, and grandfather at the royal table bored out of his mind.
It is disquieting. She hopes Jaskier is alright, that nothing ill befell her friend. But in the year that passes, he never visits. Not once.
Then in the week after her thirteenth birthday, Cintra falls, and the loss she once knew as a child pales to meet the despair and the anguish of her new life. She forgets her friends, her family, the thought of them and their deaths causing her pain like no other.
Shivering alone in the dark of night, Ciri remembers the ballad of the hedgehog prince and the lion princess, and the wolf come to save them. She sings brokenly under her breath, every word memorized since the tender age of four. The wolf of the wheat fields comes to her mind, and she pictures it standing nobly in front of the Nilfgaardians that took her home. A warrior to protect the lions. Her destiny.
Perhaps the bard Jaskier had given her too many wondrous notions of the world, because the thought soothes her to a dreamless sleep.
Geralt of Rivia is a bit clumsy around her, which really, she should have figured. He’s the sullen wolf of many ballads and stories. A worrywart for damsels in need, accurate by the way that he constantly asks her if she’s cold or tired or hungry, all of which she is, but by now Ciri’s learned to manage some of it. With the witcher’s company, she is faring much better than she was alone. A little discomfort is hardly a bother anymore.
Not five minutes later Geralt is staring at her again with those big worry-filled eyes of his, silent yet deafening in its expressiveness. Ciri throws her hands to the air with an exasperated, “I’m not a damsel! Gods, Jaskier was right. I should owe him like fifty crowns for not believing him.”
Geralt twists around to face her, shock written on his face clear as day. “You’ve met Jaskier?”
At that, Ciri loses some of her fire. “I’ve met him many times. He only ever spoke good things about you.” The sadness that blooms in Geralt’s yellow eyes mirrors an ache in Ciri’s chest, and she cannot stand to see it for long. She adds, “Well, not always. Sometimes he called you names. Funny names.”
Geralt huffs, “He would.” A half-formed smile accompanies his words. That’s better. Ciri is tired of sadness and pain everywhere she looks. There is still a young, hopeful light in her that wants for things to be normal once more. And Jaskier, being part of those pleasant memories, lingers in her mind like a ghost.
“We should find him next,” Ciri says with an eager kick to her step. “I haven’t seen him in over a year. It’s not like him. I worry something happened.”
Like clockwork, Geralt’s mood falls to forced neutrality, clearly upset again.
“Yeah, something happened. Me.”
Geralt explains the events that lead to their last farewell and Ciri itches to tear at her hair. It’s starting to get ridiculous with how quick Geralt is to blame himself and wade in the heartache instead of doing something about it.
If Ciri confirms his worry that she is cold, Geralt turns reticent, quiet for the rest of the day until they find something to fix her affliction. Jaskier, always so devoted and willing to vouch for the witcher, is cast aside by Geralt’s own action and he wallows in self-imposed misery. Practically convinced that it is better this way, that the bard hate him or never see him should it protect him from further harm.
A royal among fools, Jaskier called him. She’s beginning to understand what he’d meant.
The witcher stares at her, at a loss for words. He doesn’t really grasp the simplicity of the concept.
Well enough, Ciri nods to herself. Her decision is made for him. “We’re going to find him. He’ll call you more funny names. After that, we’ll go to Kaer Morhen like you said. But first, we find him.”
Like that, she continues their walk on the path and thinks about where Jaskier might have gone first after Geralt’s disastrous dealings and then, with the Nilfgaardians crawling north, where he might have seeked refuge.
If Geralt is to be her destiny—this stubborn, doleful man blind to the obvious answers before him—then she’s got a lot of work to do.