“Hush. It’s all right.”
Geralt tried to open his mouth to answer, but found he didn’t have enough energy to make his body obey him. Every part of him, from his scalp to his toenails, resonated with pain. He hadn’t realized how accustomed he’d become to not being in agony, as the weeks had passed since the Trial of the Grasses. This was probably a helpful reminder. He hadn’t mastered ignoring pain, and he needed to work on it.
“No, I’ll do it.”
A cold cloth descended over Geralt’s eyes. His skin had felt hot--he registered the sensation only in response to its opposite. There was a weight on his hand, and that felt warm, too, but in a comfortable kind of way.
“Go back to sleep, Geralt.”
That suggestion sounded sensible. He slept.
When Geralt next woke, it was with a hand pressed to his stomach and his guts heaving. An urgent, strangled sound burst out of him, and he tried to sit up without much success.
“Here, bucket.” Someone grabbed his shoulder to roll him onto his side. They rested their hand on the back of Geralt’s neck as he vomited up foul-tasting liquid that burned in his throat. After he’d finished heaving, he spat weakly into the bucket then lay limply, heaving for breath.
Someone rolled him onto his back again and pushed the sweat-dampened strains of hair out of his eyes.
“Here’s some mint. Can you chew it?”
The leaves were pressed between Geralt’s lips. If he concentrated, he could move his jaw. The flavor of the mint chased away some of the unbearable taste of rot and decay that lingered on his tongue.
“You need to drink. Try to swallow it this time.”
Geralt turned his head away and made a feeble noise of protest. He wasn’t refusing. He’d take the next elixir they gave him, face any trial they set him. He only needed a few moments, perhaps an hour to be capable of enduring the next. He pressed his lips shut as the rim of a bottle reached his lips.
“Geralt.” Whoever it was sounded upset. “It’s only water. Drink it.”
He opened his mouth and let his head be guided up so he wouldn’t choke. They carefully laid him back on the mattress, and a hand pressed against his forehead. “Still too hot. I’ll find some ice. Even if I have to break into the stores myself. Sleep.”
When Geralt woke again, he had enough energy to open his eyes. The ceiling above his bed in the dormitory greeted him. He laboriously turned his head to the left to see if the other boys were here, but there was only a row of empty beds. Because all the others were dead, he remembered. Except one.
“Are you really awake this time?”
Geralt mustered the strength to turn his head the other way. Eskel sat cross-legged on the bed that used to be Telek’s, which he’d pushed up next to Geralt’s bed.
“Yes,” Geralt rasped. His throat felt like grinding two stones together.
“More water. Here.” Eskel put the bottle to his lips, and Geralt raised his head to swallow more easily.
“Thank you.” His voice was still rusty, but it wasn’t such agony to speak now.
“Thought this might have been the one that got you.” Eskel’s voice was curiously flat.
“I’m fine.” Geralt collapsed back against the mattress, and found the exertion of sitting up had left him slightly dizzy.
“No,” Eskel said sharply. “They kept you for a week this time. Moved you back here only after they were fairly certain you weren’t going to die on us. That was three days ago.”
“Oh.” That didn’t seem right. Geralt felt certain it had only been a few hours before when he’d stripped to climb onto the table in the subterranean room where the trials were administered. They’d fasted the restraints to keep him in place, then given him something to drink. He didn’t remember anything beyond that, but surely he would recall some part of ten days, if that many had passed.
“Yes, oh.” Eskel crossed his hands over his chest and leaned back against the headboard of the bed.
Geralt eyed him, trying to parse the stony expression on his face. Light slanted in through the room’s single high window. Surely it was early afternoon. “You... excused from lessons?”
“Didn’t ask.” Eskel didn’t sound at all repentant.
“What’s…” With concerted effort, Geralt managed to raise his hand to touch his face. They hadn’t told him what result this trial was intended to achieve. They never did. Often, if the result wasn’t visible, Geralt never found out.
Eskel reached towards him and brushed his hand over the top of Geralt’s head, then down the hair that fell to his shoulders. When Geralt looked down, he could see the hair between Eskel’s fingers was pure white as any oldster.
“I’ll miss the curls,” Eskel said.
Geralt tried to move his hand to feel, but his body was just so heavy. Eskel caught Geralt’s hand and guided it to feel the smooth, silky hair that wasn’t like his own at all.
“Loss of pigmentation was a predicted side effect of one of the decoctions,” Eskel said. “I gather they were pleased to have been proven right.”
“We’ll see what else I gained when I get back to training.” Geralt felt weak now, but if the white hair was a side effect, that meant the trial would have some positive invisible effect as well, most likely.
“No.” Eskel’s voice was sharp. “You’re not going back to training until at least the end of the week.”
“Says me.” His jaw had the stubborn set that portended a readiness to fight Geralt over something. Eskel didn’t demand his own way often, but when he did, he was immovable.
“Eskel.” Geralt managed to turn on his side so he could look him in the eye. “We heal much faster now.” Eskel was probably thinking of the terrible days right after the Trial of the Grasses, when every noise was an agony, every movement torture. This wasn’t the same at all.
“Not fast enough.” Eskel opened his mouth, closed it again, then said in a rush, “They can’t keep doing these experiments on you.”
“The extra trials make me better, stronger,” Geralt said. When Eskel scowled, Geralt frowned at him. “Are you jealous?”
The flash of hurt in Eskel’s eyes immediately made Geralt regret the question, but Eskel forged on. “They treat you like a shiny new toy to play with. And they’re going to keep trying things until something eventually does kill you.”
Geralt tried to sit up further, to show how far he was from having been killed, but the lack of success somewhat undercut his intention. Still, being weak now didn’t mean being weak always. “Everything they do is to make me a better witcher, so I won’t die in a fight with a monster,” he pointed out.
“You won’t die in a fight with a monster if they kill you first.”
“They’re just trials, like any others. Why do you--”
“Because I’ve been sitting here listening to you gasp for air, and to your heart going twice as fast as it should, and watching you heave your guts out and puke blood and other things that smell like death. There was nothing I could do other than sit here and watch, and it’s not the first time. I’m sick of it.”
“No one asked you to stay with me,” Geralt snapped.
“But they should have.” Eskel gulped in a ragged breath and looked away. “You’re not some farm animal to slaughter and dissect. You’re a survivor, and you’re going to be an incredible witcher. You should be precious to them, the way you’re…”
Geralt stretched out a hand to put on Eskel’s thigh, which was as far as he could move. “They want me to reach my potential.” Geralt wanted that too, had wanted it since he’d come to Kaer Morhen. Being a witcher would mean being needed, being good for something. And these extra trials might mean he could be more than just good--he could be the very best there was.
“Even if it kills you?” Eskel asked dully.
“Well.” Geralt thought about it for a moment. “Then they’ll know what not to do with the next boy. It’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? To be of use to the greater good?”
“You have already given them plenty.” Eskel wrapped his hand around Geralt’s where it rested on his leg. “Say no next time.”
“So you don’t die.”
“What does it matter if--”
“I don’t want to do this alone.” Eskel’s voice was so quiet Geralt wouldn’t have been able to hear it before. But now he did.
Geralt tried to picture what it would be like to lose Eskel. To have no one beside him at meals, no one to share blankets with, no one who understood his unspoken glances and jokes worn thin with use over the years. No one to go through the next trial with, and the next, and no dear familiar face to look for out on the Path when they were older. He didn’t want to be alone, either.
Geralt squeezed Eskel’s hand and looked down. “They don’t exactly ask for my permission.”
“Aren’t you stronger than the rest of us now? They can’t make you,” Eskel said. He didn’t sound like he was joking.
“Maybe this was the last one,” Geralt offered.
“Maybe.” Eskel wrapped his other hand around Geralt’s as well, and said nothing more.
“I don’t suppose you brought any food up here?” Geralt asked at last. “I’m starving.”
“Of course I did. Come on, sit up.” Eskel untangled their fingers so he could prod at Geralt’s shoulder. “I’m not going to feed you like a baby bird anymore.”
“Anymore?” Geralt asked warily.
“Out for three days, I told you.” Eskel’s mouth turned up into a wide smile. “You owe me an enormous favor.”
Geralt smirked back at him. “I’ll think of a way to make it up to you.”