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Silver and Copper

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In the soft warmth of the newly welcomed spring of 1244, Geralt of Rivia rides his horse though a truly idyllic part of the Redanian countryside and sneezes.

It's a quiet area. He's pretty sure that the signposts were in the right spot, putting him in the lands of Lettenhove, probably, and it's a very standard kind of place for Redania. Rolling hills, quiet meadows, burbling streams, all of that- plus the one damn pollen that the mutagens never burned out his allergies to. Usually he wouldn't pass anywhere near a place this quiet, but he's meeting with Eskel in two months on de Damavire lands a couple fiefs over, so he's going to try and scare up a contract or two while he waits.

He sneezes again, growling in irritation. Roach huffs, as if amused, and he makes a face at her over her head. She ignores him, and they follow the road into a small, wooded area. Through the trees he can see what must be the house of the de Lettenhove’s, a solid castle of a rather larger size than he’d expect for a viscount. It’s squat and sturdy, made of a lighter colored stone and situated up on a ridge. Curiously, there are no flags flying from it.

The sneezing subsides some as he reaches the trees, confirming once again that it’s probably a grass that he’s allergic to. The forest is quiet and pleasant, the trees a mix of aspen and oaks, and the sunlight filters down pleasantly through them.

He’s having a thoroughly pleasant afternoon, for all that he’s tired and really could use some food that people haven’t spit in, and thus is more than a little startled when a shout comes through the trees.

"Sir!"

The girl that runs to meet him is young, maybe 14 at the most, with bouncing brown curls and the kind of face that has definitely already started to break hearts. She runs up to him without a bit of fear, basket of acorns in her hands, and skids to a halt next to Roach.

Geralt raises an eyebrow and pulls Roach to a halt. "What?"

"Are you a Witcher?" She asks, eyes wide. "You have two swords, and you look like one, I mean, so…"

He nods, a bit reluctant. "I am."

The girl, to his shock, beams at him. "Melitele be praised, we have been praying for a Witcher to come! Please, will you follow me? We need help."

Now that's new.

“You’re sure?” he asks cautiously.

“I’m sure,” she says seriously. “I’m Melita. Will you come?”

He looks down at her and the determined expression on her face. Well, why not? It's not like he's doing anything today. If it’s a trap he’ll just have to run for it.

“Okay,” he says, and Melita takes off with a trot down the road.

Lettenhove’s township is a clean, prosperous place, and just as idyllic in look as the rest of the countryside. There is no sickness to be seen, the city streets are well kept up, the shops all seem to be well off. The people are dressed in good clothes, and the crops seem healthy, but there’s a certain tension in everyone's face that melts into open relief when they see him being led to the tavern. Geralt tries not to feel unnerved by this. The girl runs inside to talk to the innkeeper as he ties Roach to a hitching post in case of the need for a fast escape. She runs back out and looks up at him.

“They’ve space for you,” Melita tells him with naked relief. “At supper, we’ll come find you to tell you everything.”

“You haven’t told me anything at all yet,” he says. “What’s the problem?”

She bites her lip and squares her shoulders. “Our lord has been cursed, and we want to save him.”

oOo

A truly impressive number of villagers crowd somber faced into the inn at supper time as the sun fades, and once Geralt’s eaten they all gather around him. Most of them are proper middle aged adults, but there’s a rather large number of young men and women looking grim. Melita and some of the teenagers have come as well, and a couple truly elderly villagers have joined.

“Melita says you think your lord is cursed,” Geralt says at last when everyone quiets down. “Tell me.”

There’s a moment of quiet before a hatchet faced man with the look of a huntsmaster leans forward, his mouth tight. “Our lord is Julian Alfred Pancratz, viscount of Lettenhove. He became viscount two years back, after a plague came through and killed the rest of the family. He barely survived it, but he was the only heir, so he became viscount formally then. He’s a good liege lord. Quiet. Not violent. Doesn’t raise taxes, keeps the roads clear of bandits, keeps everything in good repair, lets us hunt in his woods and doesn’t call for our daughters.”

Geralt nods, already very curious. A competent liege lord is a rare thing, no wonder his subjects are so desperate to keep him alive.

Another man, this one clearly a farmer, takes up the thread of the story. “For the first year we thought it was just the grief, you see. He took to wearing mourning black, as he should, all very respectable. But then he started dismissing people from the castle. Told them it was better for us to have extra hands in the fields, that he could manage alone. Manage that big old pile of stone, alone, and him just 20!”

A woman pipes up, with a bakers strong arms and floured apron. “He was a fourth son, and everyone in that family treated him like it. He was sent away for a while to Oxenfurt to learn, but he was called home not long into it. He was…” Her voice breaks for a second but she rallies. “When he was little, he was a lively lad. Always in the village, always singing and running around and telling wild stories he’d made up. Sweet. Kind. We called him Dandelion, since he went wherever the wind took him. Over time he...he got quiet. Worn down.”

“After the plague, he wouldn’t go outside in the sun anymore, not that he was getting out much before then,” a gardener at the castle says. His hair is a wild mass of curls. “His parents kept him inside, most days. We know he eats, rarely, but he dresses himself and cooks for himself most of the time. He keeps the Reach near pitch dark, especially in the center of the keep. If people have to see him, they have to go at night. He won’t let the curtains be open, it’s torches only so they can be doused if he needs. He does keep a night garden.”

Geralt blinks. “A what?”

The little Melita who found him nods seriously. “A night garden. The flowers only bloom at night.”

“I see.”

The local barber says quietly, “We don’t call him Dandelion anymore. Everyone calls him Lord Jaskier.”

Buttercup. Poisonous, dangerous, beautiful, golden. Deadly, unlike sweet to eat dandelions.

“So,” Geralt says, mulling it over. “Won’t go outside in the light, doesn’t eat much, changed personality from when he was younger. Any children go missing recently? Cattle been killed in the night, horses vanish?”

“No,” the alderman says. He looks relieved that Geralt’s taking them seriously. “But… he sleeps in the day, and sometimes when he sleeps he screams like someone’s murdering him. He won’t let anyone in or near the bedroom.”

That’s not good.

“I see,” Geralt says, mind racing. It sounds like a curse, but not one he’s ever heard of before. “I’ll have to look into it more, but I’ll do what I can. But you should know, in case you want me gone and to take a risk on someone else, my name is Geralt of Rivia.”

There’s a rustle through the crowd, a bit of tension stirred up by the name.

One of the kids pipes up, “The butcher of Blaviken?”

Geralt flinches in spite of himself. He can feel Renfri’s blood on his hands, wet and dripping, and has to rub his fingers against his leg to get his mind back in the present.

To his surprise, Melita stomps up as the murmuring grows and walks over to him, putting her hands on her hips. “Who cares!” She demands, wheeling on the townsfolk. “We prayed for a Witcher, and we got a Witcher! As long as he saves Lord Jaskier it doesn’t matter what he’s done!”

Geralt looks up at her, surprise turning to outright shock. Ever since Blaviken half the world has been ready to murder him on sight, and she’s definitely old enough to have heard the story.

The alderman sighs, and nods. Everyone quiets down, and the furrowed brows ease a little. “From the mouth of babes,” he mutters, and squares his shoulders. “Melita’s right. And don’t get a big head about it, girl, a broken clock is still right twice a day. Things are quiet here, and we have prayed for someone to come. Even if it is the Butcher of Blaviken.”

Geralt’s head is spinning. “I see,” he says, very rattled. “We do need to talk price.”

The huntsman grins at him, and says a number that has his eyes going very, very wide.

“We had a ring around to gather coin, in the hopes someone would come,” one of the elders says, sucking on some sort of lozenge. “And I promise you, Witcher, the struggle is going to make it a fair trade.”

“Alright,” Geralt says, and that’s that, the bargain struck. “Now, as for getting into the castle…”

Lord Jaskier’s nighttime courts were the one way that people could get an audience with him, though he only took a few on each Thursday. Geralt, thankfully, had arrived on a Wednesday.

The next day guards at the gates to Lettenhove Reach looked at Geralt, there among the smattering of a crowd making their way across the bridge, and quietly looked away. Their faces were haggard and desperate, and Geralt thinks on that as he slips soundlessly away with one of the cooks, a skittish young man named Johann. The castle is as dark as described. Torches line the walls, but they’re sparse and spread out wide down the halls, and eventually stop all together at the Great Hall. The space gapes black and yawning, and some of the people murmur prayers to Melitele before stepping into the inky dark.

Johann takes him around to a side door down an unlit corridor and helps him slip deeper into the castle. Once they’re well away from the main hall, Johann takes a deep breath.

“Alright,” he says, “where do you want to go first? We have a little time, usually he’ll talk to ten people.”

“Short court,” Geralt says quietly.

Johann nods, his face troubled. “He doesn’t have much energy, these days.”

Geralt considers. “Family’s wing,” he decides, and Johann makes a pained little noise before leading him down the dark corridor. They pick up a candelabra from a table, and the deeper they go into the keep the more Geralt feels oddly grateful for it. While he can see fine, something about the castle is ominous and cold.

The family’s wing is on the second floor. It’s dead silent when they open a door on well oiled hinges to the dark and dusty hallway. The air is stale, and some enterprising spiders have made webs up in the rafters. Geralt can see where rugs would have once been on the floors, but now they’re rolled up in a careless pile against one wall. Johann shudders, and inches closer as they start down the hall.

“His room first,” Geralt says, keeping his voice carefully soft. Johann nods, and leads him not to the master suite, but to the end of the hall. Geralt frowns, surprised, but obediently follows him as Johann carefully turns a key in a lock and pushes open the door.

The room is. Well.

The room is weird.

The smell of unwashed dishes hits first, but there’s no garbage to be seen and this is the kind of place wealthy enough to have a separate privy indoors, so there doesn’t seem to be a chamber pot to add to the stink of food and human. There’s a stack of unwashed dishes, a small but functional sort of field kitchen on a table against the wall, and endless stacks of books around the room. Papers clutter the floor- sheet music, when Geralt looks closer at them, walked on carelessly. The bed is a canopy, the posts of the bed wrapped in ropes that look well used with splatters of blood at some of the ends. A massive nest of blankets and pillows has been gathered in all sorts of colors to sit in the middle of it. And on the walls, held up with strings attached to niches in the stone, are endless black bird feathers. The faint tang of old coppery blood hangs in the air.

“Melitele preserve us,” Johann breathes, eyes very wide as he takes in the feathered walls. Geralt motions him to stay back and carefully walks forward to look at the feathers.

They’re strange. Not a crow’s feathers, or a ravens. The iridescence makes him think starling, but something about that isn’t right either. They’re small, large, medium sized, all about the same shape but all very odd.

He frowns, considering, and decides it’s too dangerous to try and take one. He’ll have to fix them in his memory, and study later.

They leave the room and check the others in the family wing. Three of them have been cleaned out, likely once his siblings' rooms. Their things are in storage in the cellars, Johann tells him, as Jaskier had little fondness for them and they had died first regardless. Functionally they’re practically guest rooms now.

But the master bedroom, oh. Now that is something Geralt does not like.

The master bedroom has never been cleaned of the former viscount and viscountess de Lettenhove’s effects, for one thing. There’s an empty glass still sitting on a bedside table, shoes carelessly tossed to one side on the floor, dresses and suits hanging in the wardrobe. The uncared for silk has started to shatter, rather early for silk to be breaking apart. The bed is even unmade, as if the occupants simply rolled out of bed and never came back.

Geralt comes back from surveying an equally abandoned sitting room to find Johann staring at the bed.

“What is it?” he murmurs.

“The bed,” Johann says, just as soft. “On the right side. Someone’s slept in it.”

Geralt frowns, looking at the bed. He inhales, and under the dust and old half-dead scents, he smells… something. The faint tang of copper, the same blood-scent as in Jaskier’s room. He pulls out one long knife from his belt and carefully walks to the right side of the bed, lifting the sheets with the tip of his knife.

There are bloodstains on the sheets. Thick, heavy blotches of blood, even, as if someone had fallen into bed to rest and not moved from the spot for much too long.

“Which side was the viscounts?” Geralt asks, letting the sheets back down. Johann points at the right side, looking sick. “Hmm.”

They’re definitely running short on time, though, so they leave the family wing and disappear back down the stairs as if they’d never been there, Johann leading him towards the gardens.

“Lord Jaskier spends a lot of time in them,” he says as they wind their way through the servants halls and then out into the main walkway. “There’s the main garden, and the night garden. The night garden is also full of poisons, the old viscount started planting it when he took over from his father. Jorgan Lorenz Pancratz de Lettenhove, that was our Jaskier’s father, may he rot.”

Geralt hums, interested. “No love lost, then.”

“Not a speck,” Johann says fervently, and pushes open another door down a small hall and then out to a square internal garden with a covered walkway running around it, columns supporting the overhang. The flowers are all closed in the dark, but Geralt can smell them, and as they step onto the path running through the place he feels a twinge in his heart.

“Roses, marigolds, tulips, chrysanthemums, daisies, sunflowers, dandelions, and buttercups,” he says after a couple of inhales. His heart twinges again as he smells a wash of melancholy on Johann.

Johann runs his fingers over a closed rosebud before looking up at him. “We thought it might help,” he says quietly. “He loves yellow. He won’t wear it, says it washes him out, but he loves yellow flowers. And he needs something of sunlight.”

“I see,” he says, because he does, and Johann leads him through yet another door, through some connecting corridors, and out a door with a blotch of red paint on its center. A warning, Geralt thinks.

They open a door to another square garden with a covered walkway, but this has been extensively weeded, the beds tended to and the plants carefully trimmed. It’s also more elaborate than the central walking garden, complete with an actual artificial waterfall that runs into a small pond, high enough up to stand under thanks to some sort of complicated plumbing, he’s sure.

“Lord Jorgan began having Lord Jaskier tend this garden when he was 8,” Johann says grimly, setting the candelabra on one of the level spots in the wide walkway arches. “He nearly died at least 3 separate times, that I know.”

8 years old is perilously young to be in a garden of this kind, Geralt thinks as he takes in the blooming flowers, and the rather alarming amount of highly poisonous ones mingled in. Most of them are white, to better show in the dark. Hydrangeas, white lilacs, clematis, and hibiscus are just some of the variety in bloom in the dark. He’s careful not to touch any of the blooms for fear of cross contamination that he might take out of the place. He’d been 12 before they were allowed anywhere near the more toxic ingredients of potion making, and even then under supervision until after they’d passed the trials and were proper Witchers.

The only cluster of flowers not blooming in the night garden is a small patch of buttercups, but they’re surrounded by a halo of evening primrose in delicate yellow, a tiny burst of sunlight against all the other flowers. He pauses to consider them, frowning. The placement of them is odd, compared against the rest of the garden. They’re tucked away in a corner, and when he looks closer at the wall he finds evidence that once a bush stood here.

The primroses and buttercups, therefore, are new.

But… why? A quick glance around shows that the other three corners of the garden hold lilac bushes.

“Odd,” he murmurs to himself, not foolish enough to disturb the soil or crouch closer to the plants.

“Is it useful?” Johann asks, quiet.

“Dunno yet,” Geralt says. He’s still staring at the flowers. “Hmm.”

Later, he’s sure that his preoccupation with the flowers is the only reason he doesn’t hear the door open.

“Johann,” a soft voice says, and Johann freezes stock still in horror. “Why are you in here?”

Slowly, Geralt and Johann turn.

From the shadows a man steps out, his feet soundless on the flagstones. He’s tall for a human, lanky, and dressed all in greys and blacks. His clothing is good but oddly threadbare, the embroidery standing out against the silk, and the collar is high on his deathly pale, sun deprived neck. He wears many rings on his fingers, and several necklaces tangle at his throat. Handsome, with nut brown hair with a bit of a curl to it, and a fine jaw and nose, but his eyes.

His eyes are horrible.

Geralt has seen dead men with livelier eyes. Lord Jaskier has the look of a dead man who doesn’t know it’s time to lay down yet, his blue eyes blank and flat. They seem to stare straight through him.

And his heart…

Lord Jaskier’s heartbeat might as well be a drum, it’s so perfectly regular. But it’s slow, to a dangerous level, right at the edge of human sleeping range.

“My apologies, Lord Jaskier,” Johann whispers, trembling a little. “This is a friend, wh-who’s visiting-- I thought our guest might be interested in the gardens, please forgive the insolence.”

Jaskier’s head turns to fix those flat eyes on Geralt, and then-

To Geralt’s interest, the eyes flash with sudden life. Lord Jaskier steps forward again, suddenly very human and flush with curiosity. Color rises in his cheeks, and the heartbeat that Geralt can hear quickens in his chest. His sunless skin warms a little.

“A Witcher,” he breathes, clearly fascinated, eyes flicking from his medallion to his hair to his swords to his face to his shoes, taking Geralt in. “Here, in Lettenhove? This is a surprise.”

Geralt blinks down at him, and scrambles for something to say. “Your garden is lovely,” he manages, and can feel Johann looking up at him, incredulous.

Lord Jaskier smiles at him. Geralt can’t breathe, the sheer glory of that smile dazzling against the backdrop of those bright eyes. It’s as if an entirely new person has popped into being right in front of him, completely separate from the dead-eyed thing he’d first seen.

“Will you stay long?” he asks, and there is something in his voice, something discordant in the light, tripping melody of it. Power, or something like it.

“Perhaps,” Geralt says simply. “Just passing through, for now.”

As quick as it came, the light snuffs out. The smile disappears as his heartbeat evens out to the same slow, low drumbeat. He’s still again, eyes flat. The liveliness has vanished as if it were never there. “You’re welcome to the gardens whenever you like,” Jaskier says quietly. “I must rest. Good night, Johann.”

“Good night, my lord,” Johann says, bowing deep, and Jaskier wanders away back into the darkness.

Geralt waits until he hears a door quietly close before saying, very quietly, “What the fuck.”

Johann looks up at him, anxious. “Do… do you think you can help?”

Geralt crosses his arms over his chest as his mind whirs, taking in ideas and discarding them just as fast. “I’m going to fucking try,” he says firmly. “Let’s go.”

They leave quickly, and the guards don’t even give them a passing glance as they go.

oOo

Geralt wakes up in the Dancing Dove with his head aching and a million and one questions tumbling around in his brain. He slowly rolls out of the admittedly pretty comfortable bed, dresses, and makes his way down to the main rooms. To his surprise, there’s a couple other people already there, and a breakfast spread laid out for him and a couple other guests. The innkeeper, a pale, sturdy woman with short cropped red hair and warm brown eyes, introduces herself properly as he carefully sits a few stools down from the others.

“Morning, Master Witcher,” she says, her voice warm and kind. “I’m Antonia, I own the Dove and keep it up. I’m told your people eat quite a lot, is that right?”

Geralt blinks. “Uh. Yes.”

“Well, help yourself,” she says, and pulls a massive pile of cooked eggs down to him. “Johann was in this morning, he said to tell you that Lord Jaskier actually asked for food to be sent up to him for his waking meal in the evening. It’s been, oh, six months since that happened.”

“Hmm,” Geralt says, and digs in. He doesn’t eat like a pig, but he does go through a solid chunk of the food, and digs in his coin purse to pass over a couple florins. Antonia shoves them back at him, shaking her head.

“Oh no, I think not. You want to pay me for extra food, you can help me with the dishes,” she says, and somehow, that’s what Geralt ends up doing. The kitchen is clean and tidy, and he feels a little out of place as he scrubs dishes in hot water to clean them and sets them aside for the lunch and evening meals. Antonia hums and sings as she works on baking long loaves of trencher bread, and doesn’t demand conversation.

When he’s finished with his work, Geralt hesitates, and turns around. “Need any firewood chopped?”

Antonia startles, looking back at him with surprise. “I- yes, actually. You don’t have to, you know.”

Geralt shrugs, and drops his gaze to the floor. “People here have been nice. Might as well help wherever I can.”

Antonia adjusts the loaves to sit before going to quickly wash her hands. “Well, if that’s how you feel about it, I have some extra logs that could go to Widow Olga, if you’d deliver them for me?”

And that’s how Geralt spends his morning. There’s something clean about it, chopping endless cords of firewood in the back yard of the inn as chickens peck at the ground around him, the sun high in the sky to beat down on him as he falls into the simple routine of splitting logs. Around lunch he follows Antonia’s instructions to find the Widow Olga, and winds up at a modest house in the middle of what can generously be called town.

The widow herself opens the door, and to his abiding shock, beams up at him. She’s the picture of grandmotherly affection, plump and tiny, a puff of hair white as his to pair with her warm brown skin. She’s also incredibly old for a human, likely closing in on her 90’s.

“Rilandrus, how good to see you!” She says, delighted, and then blinks at him. Her smile fades for just a moment, a flash of pain crossing her face before she shakes her head and her smile evens out. “Oh, my apologies Master Witcher, you just look so much like my Rilandrus. And you’ve brought me wood, I see.”

“Innkeeper Antonia sends it,” Geralt says, wondering how fast he can slip away.

Olga hums, pleased. “Ah, she’s a good girl. Come, come, put that down and sit a minute.”

He gets the logs arranged by her fireplace and has a teacup shoved into his hands for his troubles, and is forced into sitting down on a couch absolutely covered in the most impressive embroidery he’s ever seen. He’s marveling at the perfect colors of an accurate to life griffin when Olga says, “Tell me, dear, which school are you?”

He straightens, a little surprised. Olga sips her tea, and smiles at him.

“Wolf,” he says quietly.

Olga nods approvingly. “A very good school indeed, yes. I wondered if you might know my Rilandrus, but he’s of the Griffins, so I doubt the two of you have crossed paths. He does usually come only every five years or so.”

Geralt has some extremely vague memory of a Witcher by that name mentioned in one of Vesemir’s letters ages ago, but he doesn’t recall the full contents. Something about a wyvern hunt, maybe. “Don’t know him, sorry.”

Olga waves a hand, unconcerned. “Oh, don’t be concerned in the least.” Her smile takes on a wistful tinge. “I’d hoped a bit that it would be him who would come to help, but in all honesty, I am grateful Melitele saw fit to bless us with any Witcher at all. Our Jaskier was always very fond of Witcher stories in his youth. Whenever he was back from boarding school, he came to get tales from me and made up all sorts of wild inventions about dragon and griffin slaying, and songs to go with them.”

No wonder the town barely batted an eye at a Witcher, if they had one passing through so often and a liege lord that liked their stories.

And, actually…

“I saw him, last night,” Geralt says slowly, testing out the words. “He knew what I was in a heartbeat. Seemed like he woke up, seeing me.”

Olga’s eyebrows shoot up, but she nods. “He only met my Rilandrus a few times that I know, but he was always very excited about it. Like I said, he liked Witchers even when small. I suppose the idea has hung on.” She pauses, then sets down her teacup. “I was the head of wardrobe at the Reach. I did most of my lady’s embroidery, and the childrens. My lord wouldn’t wear any at all, for some reason. Young Dandelion, he would come and sit with me to hide when my lord and my lady were in a mood, and listen while I told him stories and would tell them back. I imagine seeing you was quite a thrill.”

Geralt hums, carefully sipping his tea. It’s really pretty good, though it might be improved with, say, whiskey. “Is he always like that?”

“Like what, dear?”

“His eyes, blank.”

Olga shivers, a tiny thing. “Ah. Yes. Ever since his family died.”

“Two years ago?” Geralt clarifies, and Olga nods.

“Yes, two years now. Lady Natalia went first- she was never well to start with, very delicate constitution, the third child, my lord’s older sister. Both Lord Lorenz and Lord Piotr, his older brothers, they went next. My lady Teodori followed them. Last was Lord Jorgan. It was all very fast, just 2 weeks. And Lord Jaskier, we thought he’d go too, but he made it through.” Olga shakes her head, frowning a little. “The plague came on so quickly, we had no time to prepare.”

Geralt hummed. “Two weeks is quick work for sickness,” he says, and Olga nods.

“Very quick indeed. We were not the only people hit of course, but we were lucky and for the most part our people were spared. It was odd though, the nobility catching it first. The de Damavire’s and de Romattins were sick as well, and lost 8 people between them.”

Geralt finally manages to make his excuses to Olga and gets back to the inn to write the information he has down in the afternoon, then takes his dinner at the inn and once again does dishes in the kitchen with Antonia before going out to lock up the chickens for her. The birds squawk and fuss at him, knowing a predator when they see one, but go inside without him having to chase them.

Geralt looks up at Lettenhove Reach once done, seeing the dark shape of it against the early evening sky. Dusk is falling, and Jaskier must be rising. For all the beautiful and idyllic landscape around him, something is rotting deep in the heart of it all, and he intends to cut it out.

A light catches in one of the windows-- a figure looking out, a speck so far away. Geralt’s eyes strain to see.

And just as fast, it winks out.

oOo

It takes another four days before Geralt manages to find his way back into Lettenhove Reach. It’s a long four days. He spends his time riding the countryside, looking for any clue in the fields that there’s anything so convenient as ruins, or old temples, but there’s nothing, so the castle officially becomes the center of his hunt. He accompanies the solitary remaining stablehand up during the day, when Lord Jaskier will theoretically be sleeping, and the guards once again let them in without question.

“There’s only the one horse left,” Karris says, leading him through the open area at the front of the keep to show him where the stables are. He’s a good kid, maybe 17, with his grandmother Olga’s same skin tone and an easy smile, his hair left to grow and pulled back into a cloudy puff of a horsetail. “My lady’s old palfrey, Madeline. Lord Jaskier’s horse passed a year ago, but he was nigh to 24 years, older than my lord is by a decent shot. Lord Jorgan wouldn’t permit him the money for a new steed but Lord Jaskier refused to have him put down, so he was mostly out to pasture. It’s just Madeline left, so I exercise her every few days to keep her trim and happy, turn her out with the herds when I can get my lord to sign off on it. He won’t come near the stables if he can avoid it, and finding him in the keep can be hard if he won’t show himself.”

Karris shows him to the stables. They’re mouldering, in bad shape and in need of repair, but Madeline is a bright eyed palomino of about 10 with good manners and a jaunty step kept in a comfortable box stall. Geralt looks around the stables, frowning when he smells blood. He sniffs, and the copper hits him again.

“Master Witcher?”

He holds up his hand, following his nose to one of the central tie posts in the stable, the kind where a horse might be held for a few minutes when mounting up that served double purpose to help brace the ceiling.

The smell is strongest here, and he crouches down, looking at the packed dirt. Moving a few strands of fallen hay reveals a group of small splotches too dark for just oil, and he stares at them for a long moment before straightening up.

Karris waits uncertainly, Madeline patient at his side as Geralt comes back to them. Geralt quickly inspects Madeline, running his hands over her neck, flanks, legs, and hocks. He checks her hooves, and pries out a couple small rocks that would be an irritant if left unchecked but not a problem, and steps back when he’s done to consider the horse.

Karris clears his throat. “Uh. Sir?”

“There’s blood there,” Geralt says quietly, and Karris goes stiff, his mouth compressing in a thin line. “New blood. Not from her, though.”

The blood is draining from Karris’s face, and he shudders, turning his face to shove it into Madeline’s neck. His arms go to wrap around her, and Geralt blinks at the sudden swell of desperate, unhappy fear-sweat stink rolling off of him. He looks back at the post, and sniffs the air again. The moldy air of the stables is giving him trouble, but…

“Karris,” he says quietly. “The blood is human, and you aren’t hurt. Who would be bleeding here?”

Karris shakes his head, refusing to look at him. “Can’t talk about it,” he mumbles, the fear smell getting worse. “Don’t make me.”

Hmm.

“Alright,” Geralt says, because with as fast as Karris’ heartbeat is going, he knows he won’t get anything more out of him. He’ll have to ask around when they get back to the town, maybe Antonia will talk to him over their evening ritual of dishwashing and bread making. “Get going with her, I’m going to take another look at the gardens.”

Karris nods and after a few more deep breaths, leads Madeline out. Geralt stays in the stables, and turns back around to look at the blood spots again. He frowns, considering them, and dips his fingers on the dirt to lift a bit closer to his nose.

Jaskier, maybe? The smell is familiar, so it could be, but the man had very little scent to start with (strange, now that he thought of it) and also, why would he be bleeding in the stables that he apparently hated?

Geralt straightens, and heads into the keep.

His eyes adjust quickly to the gloom, and this time he carries on down to the Great Hall instead of turning off where Johann had taken him last time.

The Hall is oppressively quiet and near completely dark. Black curtains cover the tall windows, there are no benches or tables for feasting, and on the slight raised dias sits a massive carved wooden chair. It’s ominous and frankly pretty damn ugly, the sort of thing that any lordling would give their right nut for, and Geralt has the feeling it was probably more to the late and unliked Lord Jorgan’s taste. He walks to the chair, and sniffs, trying to scent for any blood there.

A faint lingering copper is all that he gets, but it’s enough. It’s old, but not old enough for Lord Jorgan.

He steps back, crossing his arms over his chest and examining the chair. Blood in the stables, blood in his room, blood in his parents room, blood on the chair.

“What have you gotten yourself into, Dandelion?” he mutters to the empty room. Something- twinges in him. As if they’re words he should have said in a different time, a different place. He frowns.

Probably not good.

He wants to leave this place, this weird castle with its rotted core and it's uncomfortable silence and strange master. He wants the road, and Roach, and the peace of hunting and gutting and spitting prey, he wants to be away from here he wants to see Eskel he wants to see his brothers he wants Vesemir he wants to not be here he has to go he has to go he has to leave NOW-

Geralt stumbles back from the throne, pulling in a ragged breath and hissing as he lights his hand with Igni.

“What the fuck,” he hisses, staring at the throne.

It remains nothing more than a chair, but Geralt can still feel the artificial desperation that had swamped him resting on his shoulders. So. Not just a curse on the increasingly weird Lord Jaskier, but a curse on the whole castle, with something built in to make people who wanted to break it leave it alone.

Or-

He frowns. That can’t be right. The villagers want to break the curse. All of them are desperate for it, their minds fixed on the idea every time they walk into the Hall. If the curse was designed to make people not want to break it, then they wouldn’t want to either, and none of them had been driven off.

Just him, then.

“Hmm,” he says, and seriously considers blasting the throne just out of principle.

Instead, he leaves the hall, and heads for the day garden, ignoring the way irritation nibbles at the base of his spine and his mind whispers that he’s running away.

The day garden is overflowing with yellow flowers, and utterly mundane. All the same, Geralt methodically goes over it inch by inch for anything out of place. There’s nothing, and it’s late in the afternoon before he reaches the night garden (though he has determined that none of the yellow flowers are the cause of the damn sneezing, huzzah). The night garden is quiet, the artificial waterfall babbling along and no weeds to be seen under the ruthlessly tended beds. Geralt pulls on a new pair of gloves and goes to the corner where the buttercups have opened to match their evening primrose sisters, and carefully pushes his fingers into the earth. He doesn’t feel anything that they might be covering, no boxes that he can feel immediately, but something about this spot bothers him.

Then he stops, thinking, and carefully pulls his fingers out of the earth to sniff them.

There, faintly.

Yet more blood.

A lot of it, too, if it could seep into the soil enough for him to smell it.

He sits back on his haunches, frowning at the buttercups and primroses. So. Bedroom, parents bedroom, stables, throne, and the night garden, all bloody. Old blood, but blood none the less. Newest blood had been in Jaskier’s bedroom, oldest on the throne, hard to tell about the rest.

Johann had called Jaskier not by his title, but by his nickname, and Jaskier had responded to it. The villagers had called him Dandelion, and now they called him Jaskier, but no one called him Julian. Not once had a single person said the name except to clarify information, they didn’t call him by his given name, and that meant something. Names have power, names have weight, names-

Names are what you put on tombstones, in Redania, when it comes to those who worship Melitele.

“Oh, fuck,” Geralt breathes, looking at the buttercups with clearer eyes.

Something is buried here. Something with Jaskier’s name on it, and his blood in the soil.

This is not good.

He leaves the night garden, frowning, and trots back up the stairs to find Karris waiting for him at the stable yard, Madeline back in her box. Karris scrambles to his feet when he sees Geralt coming and goes to meet him, and together they walk back down the long slope to town.

“Did you find something?” Karris asks once they’re away from the guards.

“Maybe,” Geralt says. “Who does his laundry?”

Karris blinks, baffled. “Oh, uh… He does it himself, actually, has since he was about 16.”

Geralt stops dead. Karris skids to a halt next to him, looking up at him with wide eyes. Geralt stares ahead, brain scrambling as the pieces try to fit together. Sure, it makes sense for a boy of 16 to want to do his own laundry from sheer embarrassment, but to keep doing it? When he’s noble, and titled, and has fucking laundresses who report to him, who he pays? Why, then?

Because you can’t hide bloodstains from laundresses, but you can hide them from your court, he realizes.

“Son of a bitch,” he says blankly, and shakes his head. “Karris.”

Karris jumps, attentive. “Uh, yes, Master Witcher?”

“Do not let anyone bleed in the castle,” he says seriously. “Tell all the staff who work there. Animal blood should be fine, but nothing of theirs. Someone gets a cut, shove it in your shirt, wrap it immediately, do not let any blood get on the floors or even on the dirt. What ever this curse is, it’s wrapped up in blood ties, and I don’t want anyone else getting caught in it. Understand?”

Karris nods, eyes wide. “I understand.”

“Good. Go.”

Karris takes off at a run, and Geralt looks back at Lettenhove Reach. For just a moment, he thinks he sees a curtain twitch in a window, pale fingers pulling the curtain aside. But when the curtain doesn’t move again, he turns away, and heads back to the village.

He spends the rest of the time before dinner adding his new information to his journal, and once that’s done takes a scalding bath and dresses in his standard black on black. His shirt is getting sadly threadbare, but if he works this out he’s good on new clothes, armor, tack, and weapons for two years if he uses his money well, so he just fishes out his sewing kit to patch the small hole he finds before going down for food.

“Ran into something at the castle,” Geralt says as he hauls the last basin of dishes into the kitchen hours later, the other patrons long gone from the dining area. Antonia looks up from where she’s finishing the books for the night. “Wanna talk to you about it.”

“Oh, certainly,” she says, a little surprised, but they fall back into comfortable silence as Geralt gets the scraps cleared out to the place designated for them, and locks the chickens back in their hut. By the time he’s back inside the wash sink has been filled, so he blasts it with Igni for warmth and gets a smile for his trouble as they start cleaning.

“What did you want to ask about?” Antonia asks, passing him plates to stack in the water to soak.

Geralt hums. “I smelled blood in the stables, in the castle too,” he says at last. “Human. Mentioned it to Karris and he wouldn’t talk about it, but he wasn’t hurt and I don’t know who else would get hurt there but Jaskier. Seemed like there was some history.”

Antonia takes a deep breath, nodding sharply. “That’s certainly one way to put it.”

Geralt just looks at her, and waits.

“The old viscount was a bastard,” Antonia says after a pause. Her scent dips into a deep, bleak sadness, and Geralt nearly recoils at how pungent it is. “He was a cruel man. Hard on his sons, especially our Jaskier.”

“What do you mean?”

“He beat him. Badly. Usually with a horse whip, in the stable, for anyone to see,” she says, and braces her arms on the sink as she breathes. Geralt stares. She clears her throat and forces herself to continue, not looking at him. “Said that he needed to be broke to bridle, hence the horse whip instead of a belt. He’d… he’d tie my lord to one of the stable posts, leave him there when it was done to bleed until supper. Some of us would sneak over to clean his wounds. I used to be a goose girl for the castle, I saw him many times. Karris too, when he was little.”

“How old was he when this first happened?”

Antonia gives him a bleak look. “11. He was 11 the first time. Five full lashes that split the skin, but it didn’t break him. Who whips an 11 year old? He was a child, and a good child at that, sweet and so clever, and he was so kind, master Witcher! He was kind and good and that bastard ruined him. The boy wanted to be a bard, and that couldn’t be allowed. He hated our Dandelion singing, so eventually when he came back on break from Oxenfurt…”

The bottom drops out of Geralt’s stomach, and comes back filled with disgust and rage at the pointless cruelty.

“I can take a guess, with a man like that. I'd bet he beat him until he couldn’t leave again,” he finishes and Antonia nods, a single bitter tear rolling down her cheek.

“How can you ride with whip wounds? Or even walk? That was what broke him in the end. Oxenfurt was meant to be his escape, and it was taken from him in a moment.” She hesitates for a moment before swallowing hard. “Master Witcher, there were… there were other rumors, about the dead lord. About Jorgan, I mean. About his tastes in bed. And a fourth son, unwanted and unruly, slowly breaking down…”

If there is an afterlife, Geralt will hunt down Jorgan de Lettenhove and kill him again.

“I understand,” he says quietly. “I’ll be careful not to spook him.”

The naked relief in her eyes is too hard to bear. “Thank you, Master Witcher. Our Jaskier is a good man, in spite of everything. We just want him happy.”

When Geralt dreams that night, he dreams of stalking a faceless viscount through endless gardens of buttercups in an equally endless spring, a charming male voice rising in song behind him. He wakes in the darkness just as he reaches to stab the viscount with his silver sword, soaked in sweat.

Chapter Text

Extract from a letter sent from Witcher Vesemir of Kaer Morhen to Witcher Geralt of Rivia, in Witcher Geralt’s 8th year on the Path, regarding blood curses:

...Curses based in blood are some of the most effective, and difficult to break. There are a thousand and one ways to make them, and a thousand and one ways more to keep them from breaking. The binding placed in blood physically binds the curse to the living being attached to that blood, making the binding a form of anchor that feeds on the life force of the very person it is cursing. Blood curses make for parasitic curses, and can very rapidly turn deadly if wanted. Thankfully there aren’t many love potions that involve blood invocations or full blood rites, because if there were hedgewitches would be making coin hand over fist.

Do not presume that just because you’ve seen one blood curse you’ve seen them all. With all the dangers that blood magic possesses, its uses and dangers are more numerous than could ever be counted, and each case must be examined from a completely new perspective. Take your time and make certain you know how each piece of the puzzle fits together before trying to tear it apart, lest the backlash kill the curses target, the curser, and yourself. Dead Witchers don’t get paid.

Vesemir

PS tell Lambert to send me that damn peasant bread loaf recipe he has when you see him next, the one with all the nuts in it. I can’t remember what kinds he uses and it’s not coming out right.

oOo

“So,” Huntsman Terrin says over lunch, where he’s pinned Geralt. “Blood curse, you say?”

“Looks like it,” Geralt says, fussing with his potatoes. They’re damn good and he’s trying to decide if he wants to eat them now or after the frankly delicious chicken. News has travelled fast of his latest discovery.

“Ugly,” Terrin sighs, drinking some of his ale. “You had many of ‘em?”

“A few.” Geralt decides to give up on his potatoes for the moment. Terrin has the look of a man who wants something, and Geralt wants to eat his lunch in peace. “Spit it out.”

Terrin huffs out a laugh, eyes downcast. “Don’t miss a thing, do you?” He takes another drink before he says, very quietly, “What the fuck happened in Blaviken? You’re too damn sane for the stories to be true, Witcher. I’ve seen the kids with you, they know when something’s wrong with a man. And you might not be human, but you’re just as man shaped as me, and you’ve got a mind like a trap.”

Geralt’s lunch suddenly isn’t appetizing.

It’s been near to a decade since Blaviken. Longer, maybe. Time slipped from him, after, and he had struggled to gather his mind enough afterwards so much that getting to Kaer Morhen to winter had been difficult. He’s not certain about the years that followed, anymore. All that time, and his hands still feel wet whenever someone mentions the name, and his mind rushes him back, to the stink of the streets and the weight of the pin.

“You want the truth?” he asks.

“In general, yeah,” Terrin says, eyeing him.

“Group of bandits planned on slaughtering the village to draw out a sorcerer and kill him. I killed them first. No one knew they were bandits but me.” Geralt forces himself to take a bite of the potatoes. They taste like ash in his mouth. “No one will believe you if you tell them. But that’s the fucking truth of it.”

Terrin considers him for a long moment, then sighs. “Shit.”

Geralt grunts.

“Well, I asked,” Terrin mutters to himself, and takes another drink. “You won’t find anyone who’ll give you shit here, at least. Not with Olga’s man, he took care of us for a good long time.”

Past tense. Geralt looks up. Terrin sees his face and grins ruefully.

“Yeah,” he says quietly. “Rilandrus died, oh, 7 years back now. Olga doesn’t remember it. We got news from one of his brothers, name of Coen. Younger guy, you know him?”

Geralt nods. “Met him once or twice,” he says, just as quiet. He thinks of Olga’s beautiful embroidered griffins, the colors perfectly matched to those from real life, and the Griffin Witcher who must have brought the feathers for her to match them to.

“He was a good man,” Terrin says. “And he did come, every five years, or more if he could. He was silver like you, lot more scars and wrinkles though. Wore his hair long like yours. Everyone could see he loved her. He’d stay as long as he could, but he ranged wide as possible, ran all over the place. He couldn’t stay. When Coen rode in, we knew he’d passed. Olga’s pretty stable in the head, but she just couldn’t wrap her mind around Rilandrus being gone. She forgets other things, too.” He sighs heavily, standing up. “I’ve taken enough of your time, Master Witcher. Thanks for the honesty.”

Geralt forces himself to eat, knowing he needs the energy, but his heart isn’t in it.

After lunch he takes Roach out for a ride through the countryside, passing Karris loping along bareback on Madeline on their way back up to the castle. He goes down into the valley, sits and watches people at planting and some young women out carding wool as Roach grazes.

Everything is beautiful, and perfect, and awful.

He’s a monster playing at being human, nothing but a beast in the guise of a man. He is two blades and too much pain. He is-

“Fuck’s sake,” Geralt snaps at himself, dragging his hands down his face. “Who the fuck does moping help?”

The clouds drift by, an absent flutter of white high above, and Geralt rolls over to bury his face in the grass and breathe in, forcing himself to ground down to reality, to the here-and-now of the world. With his gloves off he can feel the dirt, the sticks, the soft growing things. The physical land of Lettenhove does not care that he has pressed himself to it, does not care about things like Witchers and curses. The land simply is, locked in its eternal cycle of death and rebirth. He breathes deeper, mouth opening to catch more scent and pull it deep inside, the wet thumping weight of life, life, life. And, of course, he sneezes.

It’s worth it.

A trickle of a thought runs by as he runs his fingers through the grass. He frowns, pausing. He doesn’t actually know the parameters of the curse, or what the curse is meant to do to its victim. Jaskier screams during the day, won’t go in the sun, and is sometimes bleeding. He’s mostly emotionless until something interests him enough, and his heart rate is unnaturally slow and steady. He acts like the stories of vampires but one look at him had been enough to prove he wasn’t. Geralt’s met enough bruxae to know the difference, thanks.

“So what?” he mutters to the air, and Roach lips at his hair to get his attention and pull her saddle off. He gets her free of tack and lets her frisk around like a new filly, mind still prodding at the issue of Jaskier.

Why would he go to the stables? Clearly he’d hated them long before his newfound hate for the sun, so why now? What’s the reason to be there?

Geralt sits back on the ground, watching Roach trot back and forth with her head tossing. Roach isn't all that fond of stables either, but she goes when he insists. Jaskier's no horse but...

Force. He would go if forced. If it was a necessity.

“Hmmm,” he says to the afternoon air, and frowns.

Geralt does not even remotely have the element of surprise when it comes to his quarry now. Jaskier has seen him, knows him to be a Witcher, so… would it be so bad if he tried to play to that? If he tried to draw him out that way, with the curiosity of a Witcher in his court as bait? Geralt is not particularly fond of being bait, but if it means that Jaskier might talk to him, he’s inclined to allow it.

Humming, he lets himself fall back to rest against the side of the little knoll, looking up at the crystal blue sky.

Now, better question- how the fuck was he actually going to lure Jaskier out to talk to him?

When he brings this up to Antonia over their evening dishes she blinks at him in surprise.

“I didn’t realize no one told you,” she says, “but you can go up to the castle whenever you like at night. The Reach is open. Sometimes he wanders the keep, so you might catch him, but he probably won’t talk to you. Usually he'll spot you before you spot him and just disappears deeper into the keep, or will only nod or say hello before leaving again. You’re only guaranteed to see Lord Jaskier on Thursdays, for court, but in the evenings people can come and go as they like. No one does, of course, that castle is creepy in the dark, but the guards won’t stop you. In the day, you’re expected to be with someone at least to the gates who has business inside, since that's when he sleeps.”

Geralt stares at her. “He just leaves it open?”

Antonia looks at him wryly. “Would you want to fight a man in a pitch dark castle who knows every inch of the layout and walks so quietly you’d never hear him coming, if you didn’t have cat-eyes?”

“Ah. Point taken.”

So he goes up to the castle at dark, and the guards indeed let him through without a word.

Lettenhove Reach is run by a skeleton crew. Geralt knows all of them by now. Karris is the stablehand. Johann works as the only secondary undercook for Mathilde, the burly cook who feeds what’s left of the guards and staff. Alfred and Olivia are the only two cleaning staff left who do the best they can with the massive place. Darren tends to what gardens there are except the night garden. Ridgelock is the eternally stressed butler. The six rotating guards are Dayvid, Uldred, Crispin, Claude (from Toussaint, originally), Ianto, and Yakob. 14 people to run such a huge estate, and an alderman that’s thankfully extremely good at his job to manage the surrounding countryside- it’s not a pretty sight.

Geralt walks into the keep itself and frowns, considering.

If I was a cursed and very fucking weird viscount, where would I spend my days?

To save himself the annoyance of getting lost before looking in the obvious spots, he checks the places he knows first. The stables are quiet, and he gives Madeline a good petting when she comes to shove her face into his chest and whicker at him. The Great Hall gets a cursory sweep to find it empty before Geralt slips out the doors to check the day garden. It’s empty too, not that he expected it to have Jaskier frolicking among the flowers. There’s no new blood in any of those places, so he decides it’s time to check the night garden.

Luck is with him.

Or not, depending on your point of view, because Lord Jaskier de Lettenhove himself is standing in the center of the garden, staring up at the moon when Geralt comes through the door.

He freezes for fear of spooking him, and Jaskier very slowly turns his head to fix those horrific dead eyes on him. Geralt closes the door, and Jaskier very slowly blinks. He’s dressed all in black tonight, in the same general cut as the threadbare grey suit had been, and his doublet is completely free of ornamentation this time. He’s missing the necklaces now, and only has a few silver rings on.

“Witcher,” he says, voice perfectly level, and Geralt feels the weight in that word. “Come here.”

His legs are moving before he knows what’s happening, and then he’s there in the garden with Jaskier, the moonlight spilling on them. Jaskier’s heartbeat flutters, and kicks up the smallest amount.

“We meet again,” Jaskier says quietly. “Welcome to my garden.”

He’s unnaturally still, but his eyes are starting to slowly grow more lively. The shock did it the first time, Geralt decides, woke him up fast. This time he knows of Geralt’s existence, and isn’t quite so surprised to see him. “It’s nice,” he says, because he’s not actually sure how to make small talk with cursed nobles. Usually he’s just chopping off heads when they go for his throat.

Jaskier looks back up at the moon. Geralt takes the time to look at him closer.

Jaskier is incredibly pale, his skin near translucent from lack of sun in places. The hollows of his cheeks are sunken, his hands dangerously thin, and what Geralt can see of his wrists is also bird-boned and small. His scent is muted, as if covered by something that’s keeping it from escaping, but Geralt can smell the copper of old blood on his skin. It bothers him. Jaskier seems like a person who should smell of flowers or woody scents, not copper and violence. His hair is roughly cut. The curls dance around his head back and forth, and Geralt wonders if he’s been cutting it himself.

“Moonlight is only reflected sunlight,” Jaskier says, his voice as steady as ever. Geralt glances up at the moon, and then back at Jaskier. Jaskier doesn’t look away from the moon, but inhales slowly. His heartbeat flutters the smallest amount.

“Do you like moonlight, then?” Geralt asks.

Jaskier slowly closes his eyes. The moonlight has bathed him in silver, made him into a statue. He glows with it. He’s lit almost as much as the white flowers surrounding him, paired with their poisonous siblings.

“I,” Jaskier says, so soft that Geralt knows anyone without Witcher hearing would never catch it, “have never hated anything more. Lies are useful, but cruel.”

Geralt considers this. The man gets stranger and stranger.

“Fond of moonlight myself,” he says, because why not. “It’s easier hunting at night with the moon out. Full dark nights aren’t much fun.”

Jaskier’s eyes flash in the dark, a reflection of moonlight in them. The blue of his eyes is washed out by it, and Geralt feels the smallest catch of his breath. What color would they be, then, if lit up in the brilliance of noon? “Do you hunt many things by moonlight?”

His heart is picking up again, and his scent spikes a little. Coppery, still, but there’s an underlying smell that’s all Jaskier, specific and crisp. Somehow Geralt knows that he’ll know that scent the rest of his life. If he were ever to catch it on so much as the breeze four counties from him he would know it in less than a heartbeat. Lord Jaskier of Lettenhove is burned into his senses.

“Plenty of things,” Geralt says, stepping slightly closer. “Shall I tell you about them?”

Jaskier’s inhale is ragged, nostrils flaring as his heartbeat picks up again. It’s as if he’s scenting the air, and he sways a little into Geralt’s space. “Dangerous,” he murmurs, and when he looks up at Geralt almost all of the haze is gone from his eyes. “You shouldn’t.”

“Why not?” Geralt murmurs, leaning down a little. They’re far closer than he should dare, but so far Jaskier is just unsettling more than dangerous. His medallion is only shivering a little on his chest in the tiniest hint of a warning. “Tell me. I bet you've never wanted to do anything good for you in your life.”

Jaskier’s head tilts slightly, a mockery of a lover asking for a kiss, lips opening slightly. Geralt would have to be a much better man than he is not to inhale hard at the sight of that long, elegant throat. His be-ringed hand comes up to very lightly touch Geralt’s chest, as if he were convinced that the five points of bare pressure is enough to hold Geralt fast. “You ask too much, Witcher.”

Geralt inhales again, just as ragged a breath as Jaskier’s was. Whatever’s happening here, curse or simple desire, he wants. “I heard that you like stories,” he murmurs, and Jaskier’s eyes blaze with desperate greed at the idea, the fingers sliding just a bit to put a bit more pressure on him. Idly, he notices a few small scars making their way around Jaskier’s mouth, tiny dents like old piercings had been removed. “Wouldn’t you like to tell me some?”

“Stop,” Jaskier rasps, his voice the clearest it’s ever been, and there’s power in the word.

Geralt closes his mouth, looking at him patiently as Jaskier closes his eyes and breathes slowly. His heart rate slows again, though not to the deepest level that it could be, and when he opens his eyes again his eyes are half-hazed and empty.

“Come,” he says, letting Geralt go, and walks away on completely soundless feet through the garden.

Geralt follows.

“The library is this way,” Jaskier says, and Geralt follows him into the pitch black darkness. Jaskier never puts a foot wrong, but Geralt knows that without his improved eyes there’s no damn way he would have ever made it through the dark like this. They follow a winding, circuitous path until they reach a large pair of double doors that Jaskier pushes open.

Geralt likes libraries.

He doesn’t have much cause to be in them except for when he’s hunting information about various monsters, but he does like them. Some of his favorite times as a child in Kaer Morhen had been sitting in the library and reading old Witcher journals, transported to cities and towns that no longer exist. He likes the smell of books, the vellum and parchment and paper weight of them.

The de Lettenhove library is an absolute disaster.

It looks as if someone has torn through the place. Once it was a pretty damn good library, with a main level and on the right, a short staircase up to a half-level. There are endless shelves. Windows hang high in the walls, but even those have been covered by long curtains to block any light. Books have been ripped from shelves, massive scattered tomes littering the floors. Tabletops are cluttered with books open to random pages, and Geralt glances at them as they go. Bestiaries, books on potionmaking, three different extremely raunchy romances, one book on the history of rice cultivation in the far south of Nilfgaard- no cohesion at all. Whatever someone had been looking for, they hadn’t found it.

Geralt looks back to find Jaskier has vanished.

He stops dead, trying to decide whether or not to draw his sword. There’s no sound of steps in the library, but as his ears strain he hears a soft shffff of a book being pulled from a shelf. Geralt’s relatively certain it came from the second level so he simply listens harder for returning footsteps.

There are none.

Jaskier appears like a wraith at the top of the stairs, his eyes flashing in the tiny amount of light trickling in from a window whose curtain has been tugged just a bit out of alignment with its other half. His skin seems to glow in the darkness, luminous as his night garden.

“A story for you instead, Witcher,” Jaskier says evenly.

The book is a small volume, bound in a leather dyed blue and inexpertly tooled. A closer glance reveals small designs that are meant to look like erect cocks in the corners of the design, subtle enough to get away with. It’s the sort of thing a young nobleman might make for a school project, and Geralt takes the book from him. The flat eyes stare back, unblinking, and Jaskier finally turns away to walk from the library without asking him to follow.

Somehow the darkness feels more complete when the door shuts behind him, leaving Geralt alone in the pitch black and silence.

oOo

The handwriting is the clean and practiced hand of someone who has spent a great deal of time writing, but the book is in cipher. Geralt hums as he looks it over back at the Dove, and then pulls out the battered copy book of all the ciphers he knows or has run into. The only one he doesn’t have written down is Witcher cipher, too dangerous to write down.

The cipher Jaskier is using is the Rogelian crumple, a very unusual choice for a young man to know. But with Jaskier studying at Oxenfurt, perhaps not so unusual as it might have been. It’s entirely possible that he’d stumbled into the cipher while in the library and decided to use it. Rogelian has been out of fashion for anyone but the Redanian secret service for decades, and somehow Geralt doesn’t see a then 18 year old Jaskier deciding it would be a grand idea to join up with a spy network.

Geralt pauses. Actually, that sounds exactly like something an excitable 18 year old kid who tooled dicks onto his notebook would do without thinking. He eyes the cipher with increased suspicion.

He takes the book down to his dinner table and begs some papers off of Antonia to work on transcribing as he eats. Once dinner is done he does the chores before heading back up to work on the book.

It’s slow going, Rogelian crumple a wildly annoying cipher, but eventually his mind catches up to the cipher and he picks up the thread faster. There aren’t many entries, just 20 all told, but Jaskier writes in overly elaborate language for the first half. By the time he’s finished, the words are short, clipped, and hard.

When Geralt puts his nose to a page and sniffs, the book is scented of copper.

With the pages all translated, he sits down to read the book properly. He skips through most of the first entry, since it’s just Jaskier enthusing about having actually made the book with his own hands in a class, as he’d thought, and starts reading properly when it looks like it’s getting more personal.

Our exquisite lady Melitele herself must be so determined to see me suffer here as a way to prepare me for greater things later on, of this I am assured! Valdo continues to be the biggest headache this side of the Yaruga, and the fact that he kicked me out of his bed this morning with absolutely no dignity has nothing to do with my rage on this occasion. That’s practically friendly, for him. No, THIS time he’s only gone and convince Professor Delania that HE should have the internship with her for the coming summer, not myself, which means that if I don’t acquire some means of staying in Oxenfurt I’ll be required to return home, and I have no desire to place myself at the tender mercies of my father.

Also, the bastard told me that gold doesn’t suit me, so clearly he needs to be checked for lenses.

Fucker.

Melitele, give me better taste in men.

Geralt snorts in spite of himself, amused. Entry two is much the same, and entry three is a long winded tirade about how terrible it is to be attracted to people with no sense of dignity, honor, or bedside manners, and how Jaskier intends to only bed women for the foreseeable future as they at least have a grip on their own mental well being.

This is refuted by entry four, which makes Geralt grin as he reads the opening lines.

Darling journal, repository of all my wonderful secrets, I have a confession to make.

I fucking hate Valdo Marx, and I especially hate that I have now spent the past two days of the weekend in his bed. I am an idiot.

“That sounds like a you problem,” Geralt tells this 18 year old disaster, skimming the rest of it. It’s just more complaining about Valdo and teachers that Geralt doesn’t know. Things start to change from casual discussion on entry 8, and his smile fades.

I’ve been asked for more than I was willing to give too many times now, and I think Valdo suspects that things at home weren’t always as boring as I’ve lead everyone to believe. We argued about how I would not deign to kiss him a few days past, and when he surprised me with a kiss this morning I’m afraid I broke down and started to weep as if he’d struck me.

He apologized, because while he’s an asshole and I hate him he’s not that kind of bastard, and he made excuses for me and let me hide in his rooms all day in bed, because trying to pretend I was fine in this state is beyond my capabilities. He thought I was just bad and embarrassed by it. As if I could be embarrassed by something so bland.

I know I was wronged.

I don’t want to think about it.

Valdo says wounds like this don’t heal unless you talk about them, give them a shape so you can kill them. But I’m no Witcher, to cut down the monsters hunting me with a silver sword. I’m nothing. I’m no one. And sooner or later they’ll drag me back and it won’t matter if I’m wounded, because if I am, I’ll bleed out quicker.

Geralt had let his eyes focus only on how the cipher fit together, not the words as a whole, coherent narrative. Now, reading Jaskier’s thoughts and pains in his own words, he finds he wishes he had read them closer, had let his mind catch on the details just so the sting of them would hurt less. He sets the pages down gently, rubbing his hand over his mouth, and just looks at them for a moment. His handwriting is impersonal. The scrawl of it is as casual as if he were writing his own journal or sending letters to his brothers or Vesemir. Somehow that makes it worse.

“Fuck,” he says to the quiet of his rooms, and goes down to the bar. He leaves enough coin for Antonia, and takes the strongest bottle of wine they have back up to his room.

It’s a decent year, a decent batch, and it takes the worst of the edge off of old and ugly memories that want to slither in and strangle him until he can pick up the pages to start reading again.

Entry nine is brittle in its cheer, but a normal description of the day. Ten and eleven are the same, but twelve changes again.

I am being forced to go home for the winter break. Not because there is nothing for me here. I have an internship I could take. But Natalia has written to me to tell me that father has refused to allow her to marry Rogir de Mattrin as she has grown increasingly weak. She fears he is poisoning her. If he is, I need to be there to counter it. I don’t know enough about poisons to fully reverse it, but perhaps I can help correct the worst of it. Natalia would not write unless it were dire. She knows of everything. She's awful, but she is my sister, and I won't let her be killed on my account.

Geralt drinks again, heavily.

He’s never had any fondness for rapists of any age or gender, and Jorgan de Lettenhove had attacked his own son. He shudders to think how young Jaskier might have been when it started. Jaskier has talked around it but he’s not blind, and he’s not an idiot.

He forces himself to turn the pages to entry 13. It’s short, and his frown deepens.

I’ve returned home in time, it seems. Natalia is very thin and growing thinner, but she kept all of her food down and instead it was me who grew sick this evening, as I expected. Father was waiting in the hall for me when I grew sick, and kept me from the garderobe, so I was forced to vomit on the floor. He was satisfied when I collapsed, and left me there to clean it up, which was a nice change of him gloating for hours. My siblings kept their doors locked, though I’m sure they could hear. Wise. I’m worried. After Piotr, they’re more cautious than ever. Piotr doesn’t talk much now. I must try to get some sleep, I need to be on top of things before they fall apart.

So, Geralt thinks as he drinks from the bottle. Natalia, just a little older than Jaskier, had been poisoned. Piotr, the next oldest, might have been abused in the same ways as Jaskier. No mention of the heir’s life yet.

He turns to 14 and finds it.

Lorenz fought with father last night and this morning came to the table with his face very blank again. I don’t know what father has done to him to make him like this every time they argue, but it doesn’t seem to take much to wipe him into a blank slate again. He just stares into the distance and you have to remind him to eat. I know that for all my searching I don’t know all of my father’s bolt holes and nastiness. It’s entirely possible that there is a hidden room meant just for tortures for Lorenz to suffer. He seems to like putting me in the stable, after all, and Natalia is never beat but often very sick. I must go and see what bushes in the night garden have been trimmed.

Entry 15 makes him sit up, frowning.

We were invited to a ball with the de Damavire’s and the de Romattin’s, and all of us have caught some sort of sickness. It came on suddenly, almost as fast as we came home, but we got news quickly from the others. The de Romattin’s newest child has already died, and mother is being very blase about all of it, but I know that this is too fast to be natural. God knows I can hardly say that to her face though. She refuses to accept what’s happened to father, what he is. Natalia is already bedbound. I am certain that it won’t be long for her. We are all feverish and cannot keep food down, and there are sores in my mouth and throat and deep pain in my stomach.

Father has been watching me. There must be some sort of plan afoot, possibly to end me. I wonder if he’s decided he’s bored of me at last?

“Son of a bitch,” Geralt says with feeling, hand tightening on the page. What kind of fucking monster uses a plague as a convenient way to torture his children?

Entry 16:

Father has ordered a massive pyre built in the center of the keep’s open space and ordered all but the most necessary servants away. He seems calm about all of this, but he’s always been a grim and morbid bastard. Lorenz and Piotr are confined to bed, and Natalia is soon to be breathing her last. I can feel it. So far mother seems mostly unscathed but it won’t be long now before she starts to show symptoms. Nothing that anyone does brings the fevers down. It keeps us weak and fragile.

I have never been weak or fragile a day in my life, and I have no plans to start now. If not for fear of spreading this, I would run.

Entry 17:

Natalia has passed. Piotr and Lorenz will join her in a few days, we are near certain. Mother has not cried, but the last time I saw her shed a tear was when she got a stain on her favorite pair of shoes, so this is not particularly surprising. She’s never cared for any of us, least of all me. It is what it is.

I have not cried either. I don’t know if I still know how.

Entry 18:

Piotr and Lorenz are dead. It is only me left. I am the heir now. I will never escape.

Father gloated over me for it even as they lay in their beds, speckled with blood from their mouths where they choked on their blood in the night. He told me that I would have to behave now, that Lettenhove would have my head on a pike if I continue if I have been.

I went to the night garden when I had the energy to stand and found lobelia, and ate and ate and ate until I could feel nothing but empty and free of pain. The vomiting is an annoying side effect though.

Entry 19:

Mother has died, just this morning. Father carried her out to the pyre himself and dropped her on it like nothing more than a sack of flour. My siblings are there as well, rotting in the sunlight. He won't allow them to be buried, and I think that was what made mother give up so fast. I have found a piece of silk for the wrapping, and collected all that I need.

All I need now is my nerve.

Geralt wants to be surprised. He really does. He wants this to have been the first time he's met such an absolute bastard, but it isn't, and Jorgan de Lettenhove is simply the latest in the long list of bastards he hopes might yet rot into the ground for all of time. He rubs a hand over his face and looks back at the first entry.

Once, Jaskier was such a light and quick tongued thing. Even after everything he’d kept an air of lightness in his writing. The bitter despair in the later entries makes him want to throw things, smash furniture, command armies to turn. He wants to revoke his vows not to interfere with human nonsense and take his steel to Jorgan Lorenz Pancratz de Lettenhove’s throat. It’s nothing he hasn’t seen before.

Somehow that makes it worse.

The 20th and final entry is short, utterly bleak.

Father has called me to the throne room. It is only us here. He has sent the servants away. I have made every preparation I can.

It will not be long now.

Geralt finishes the entire bottle on his own, and goes down for another. By the time he’s drunk enough to court sleep, all that rings in his head is I’ll bleed out quicker, I’ll bleed out quicker, I’ll bleed out quicker.

oOo

Geralt knows he should go back to Lettenhove Reach and continue searching for more information. He’s fully aware of it.

And yet.

“Ah, master Witcher,” Antonia says, sounding a little confused when she finds him methodically kneading dough in her kitchen the next morning. The dough ball is massive. “What’s brought this on?”

Geralt grunts, hands straining as he kneads harder. “Needed to do something. Bread needed baking.”

Antonia considers him, nodding slowly. “I see… Well, if you decide baking isn’t to your taste, some of the folk are clearing some trees at the edge of the woods later, I’m sure you’d also be welcomed with an axe and those strong arms.”

Geralt nods, and starts laying out loaves. Antonia carefully walks over to watch him work, mouth tightening a little.

“You know,” she says abruptly, “it was my husband who taught me to bake. Davyd, his name was. He wanted to take over his father's mill but his brother inherited, so instead we purchased the Dove from someone who looked to retire. We had a son, in time. Alan Julius, we named him. After our Dandelion, of course, who taught me that I even wanted children at all. We were happy for a while. In the evenings we would bake sweets together, all of us.”

Geralt can’t bring himself to look at her. He has the feeling he knows where this story goes.

“The plague took them. Davyd took goods to the castle and brought it back with him, and they died fast. We only lost six in the village, and my little family made up a third of that.” She sighs, and leans her head against his arm as he methodically works out the shape of bread. “But for all that, I still do love to bake. It makes me feel like I’m with them, just for a moment. I’ve gotten very good at breads.”

Geralt nods, quiet. She watches him work for a time, just leaning into him.

“My brother,” he says at last, the words feeling as if they’ve been wrenched from him. “He bakes. When he’s mad. He likes fire, so. I had to be with him, make sure he didn’t blow something up. Learned from him.”

“You have a brother?”

“Two.” He thumps a loaf into shape, and splits another into thirds to braid. “And one older one. A trainer. More like a father.”

Antonia hums. “Was that why you were passing through? To meet one of them?”

“We were supposed to meet in two months,” Geralt says, carefully turning over the strands. “Eskel. He’s… basically my age. Maybe a little older. We trained together.”

“Not the baking brother, then?”

Geralt can’t quite help smiling at the thought of Eskel, who disappears whenever someone so much as mentions the need for chopped up vegetables for the stew. “No. Lambert, he’s the baker. He fishes with bombs.”

Antonia nods in extreme understanding then. “That, I can definitely understand,” she says firmly, and reaches out to adjust one of the strands so it’s a bit smoother. “I hope this passes soon so you can reach your brother quickly. And if you’re still here, send him a message and have him come here. I’ll arrange for a room.”

Something about her brisk, no nonsense tone makes him smile. “Mothering me?”

“Someone has to,” Antonia says tartly.

“I am at least 30 years older than you,” he says, smiling a little, and she smiles back.

“That hardly matters,” she says, and her smile fades a little as she takes his hand. Her hands are tiny but strong, her eyes fierce. “You may have years on me, but I have a motherly nature, and I know it. You’ll forgive me for wanting to ease the pain where I can when I can see the boy you used to be under there. Surely even Witchers have mothers.”

Geralt looks to the floor. “We go when we’re young,” he says quietly. “We forget our old families, and all Witchers are men.”

Antonia nods. “I thought it might be something like that. It is very unfair.”

“Life often is,” he agrees, and she makes a soft, pained noise.

“Oh, come here,” she says, and folds him into a tight hug.

The shock of it nearly knocks the wind from him, and after a moment Geralt carefully hugs her back. Some deep, painful well in his chest has had its cover knocked off. He slowly lowers his head to rest it against hers as all the old grief pours up and over, making him shudder with the agony of that loss once more. Antonia doesn’t let him go, keeps him solid and steady while he shivers through it.

When he finally pulls away, she doesn’t step back and looks up at him, eyes determined.

“It will be alright,” she says.

He huffs. “You don’t know that.”

“No,” she says, squaring her shoulders and reaching up to brush his hair away from his eyes. “You’ll fix this. Even if it isn’t the solution we want it to be, even if it means that Lord Jaskier must pass to be freed, you’ll do it. Or your Eskel will come and you’ll do it together. Whether it was destiny, or Melitele, or sheer luck that brought you to us, I know you won’t let this go until it’s solved. Things will be alright. Now. Go and fetch me the eggs, so I can get you fed before you fall over.”

And because Geralt has no idea what to say to that, he fetches the eggs, and Antonia serves him his braided loaf with his breakfast.

He returns to the Reach at night again, and this time one of the guards stops him.

Ianto is his name, a dark haired man with gentle eyes and perpetual worry marks around his eyes and mouth. He’s been nothing but unfailingly polite to Geralt, which makes Geralt more than willing to stop and hear what he has to say.

“Master Witcher,” Ianto says quietly, glancing into the Reach. “You should know, he was screaming today. Bad. Worse I’ve heard it in a long while. It’s so quiet here we can always hear him when it happens, and this time he was- he was beggin’ the old lord not to hurt him.”

Geralt feels his mouth go tight. “You know,” he says grimly, “the more I learn about your old lord, the more glad I am he’s dead.”

Ianto nods. “I will not argue that in the slightest. We're all grateful it's Lord Jaskier and not Lord Jorgan we serve these days." He hesitates, then nods to the swords on Geralt’s back. “Should it come to that, please, Master Witcher… make it fast and painless for him.”

Geralt’s heart squeezes. “I promise,” he says quietly, “I will do everything I can to make sure it does not come to that.”

Ianto nods, blinking rapidly, and falls back into his place. Geralt huffs a sigh and strides into the Reach. The keep is dark and silent, and Geralt stands in the entryway to just breathe for a minute before he finally gives in and starts for the Great Hall to start his circuit.

The stench of blood hits him like a physical thing. He stumbles back, hand going to cover his nose as he chokes on the copper tang of it. Breathing shallow through his mouth, he lets his eyes adjust to the darkness before slowly making his way into the room. He checks the dark corners and finds nothing, and slowly makes his way to the dias.

There’s blood smeared on the back of the throne. It’s in no particular pattern, but it’s there. When he looks closer he can see older dark brown smudges on the back, the placement of other blood markers.

He straightens, considering.

So. The curse on Jaskier is at least partly tied to the physical object of the throne, and probably the metaphorical seat of power that Jaskier’s been forced into. Okay. He can work with that. He jogs back out of the hall and finds more blood droplets in the stables, also fresh.

Checking the bedrooms on a day where Jaskier isn’t guaranteed to be away from them is probably too dangerous, so he heads for the night garden a little faster than he would normally. The empty keep echoes with his footsteps, and his skin crawls as he picks up speed until he’s racing down the twists and turns. The red spotted door has a bit of blood smeared on the handle, and he wrenches it open.

He could smell the copper even before he opened the door, and a muscle jumps in his jaw as he steps into the night garden.

Jaskier is standing bare in the artificial waterfall, and Geralt approaches on silent feet. His back is to Geralt, giving him a good view of the mass of scars that criss-cross his back. Some of them are old, but most are much newer. Long stripes cover his back, and his wrists are scarred as well- rope burns, repeated over and over until they stuck. The back of his thighs have cane marks. There are blade scars along the insides of his arms, though Geralt genuinely can’t tell if they’re self inflicted or just yet more torture he’s been subjected to. His back is bleeding sluggishly from a new whip wound, the water sluicing away the worst of it.

“Jaskier,” he says before he can stop himself, and Jaskier slowly straightens up and turns to look at him.

His eyes aren’t dead anymore.

His eyes are completely and utterly black, and black tears are dripping down from them all down his face. When he opens his mouth, black oozes out of it to drop into the artificial pond. It reeks of rotted blood, the stench rolling off of him in waves that send Geralt stumbling back in alarm. He crumples, grabbing his throat and hacking and coughing, retching as the inky black mess pours from his mouth. The rot smell doubles. Geralt’s at his side in an instant, careful to avoid touching his wrecked back as he holds him steady. Jaskier is sobbing, the black tears coming faster as he struggles to cough up more of the black. At last, it seems as if the black is almost done, but then-

Jaskier wheezes, clutching at his throat and thrashing in the water as he gasps, trying for air that seems to be stopped by something clogging his throat. Geralt quickly shoots a thought to Melitele that if she did send him, she damn well better make sure that this works, and thumps him hard in the diaphragm to dislodge it.

There’s a horrible retching noise, and Geralt watches in sick fascination as Jaskier’s mouth opens wide and the carcass of a bird falls from his mouth.

“What,” he says blankly, looking at it.

It’s all wrong, a hodgepodge of birds stitched together. He can see raven or crow feet, lark wings, starling body, finch tail, and too many other parts and pieces shoved together to make one monstrous bird hybrid.

“Pluck it,” Jaskier wheezes. “Quickly.”

Geralt grabs it and yanks off his gloves to do so, cursing as his fingers slip on a mix of the black, stringy stuff Jaskier’s been hacking up and red blood. The bird must have torn his throat on the way out, or his mouth. He chances a glance at Jaskier as he does. Some of the black is receding from his eyes, but he’s still crying black tears and his whites haven’t fully come back yet. His crying is soft and he stays slumped in the cold water as he bleeds, head tipped back under the water. Geralt notices his neck for the first time.

There’s a scar where someone slit his throat.

His fingers don’t stutter, because he knows Vesemir would have yelled at him for 8 hours straight to show so much weakness in front of- of a client? Monster? Civilian? Victim? Whatever Jaskier is, it isn’t good to show weakness, and he’s been plenty weak before.

The scar isn’t long, just a short line across his throat, but something about it makes it the worst of the scars that he can see on Jaskier. It’s right where his vocal chords are, just under his jaw. It looks as if someone stabbed him there, honestly, a short and clean thrust. He files that away with everything else as the feathers fall wet to the ground around them. The bird isn’t too big, and he’s well versed in plucking birds.

He chances a glance back at Jaskier. He’s bony, which Geralt had expected, but the ribs he can count make him more than a bit worried. The dribbles of remaining black still coming from his mouth at every cough aren’t good either.

“Any other situation and I’d tell you to look your fill,” Jaskier rasps, and Geralt barks in a surprised laugh. It’s the most human Jaskier’s sounded yet, and he looks up to meet his now normal eyes, the black still draining via tears. Jaskier gives him a shaky smile that’s interrupted by more hacking coughs. He falls over in the water and shakes with the cold, and Geralt grabs him before his head can slip over, carefully helping him over to his side.

“I have a little time,” Jaskier rasps, his head lolling to pillow onto Geralt’s thigh with a limp thump. He looks as shattered as old silk, too-thin body barely held together, his black tears trailing down to wet Geralt’s pant leg. “Not much. Until my heartbeat slows and I warm up. There are rules.”

“How many can you tell me?” Geralt asks immediately.

Jaskier rubs his face against Geralt’s leg, shuddering for a moment before hauling himself up with shaky arms and hacking, spitting out globs of the black. “Few. I’m trussed up like an exceptionally tasty bird. I can’t tell you who did this to me. I can’t tell you how to break it. I can tell you that you are watched, so be careful in the Reach. You haven’t seen us.”

That raises the hair on Geralt’s neck, and he stares down at Jaskier in astonishment. “How?”

“There’s a shield,” Jaskier tells him, his eyes glowing in the darkness. “You must be careful. Eat nothing, drink nothing. Do not bleed.”

“Right,” Geralt says. “Can you tell me about the sun?”

Jaskier’s face is shot through with longing, and he reaches up with a shaking hand to gently touch Geralt’s face, eyes going soft. “I can never see it again,” he says quietly. His hands are shaking, cold. “Not if I want to stay myself. I’m dying, but I’ll be myself when I go.”

“Your heartbeat?” Geralt presses, filing that thought away to unpick later. The bird is now free of feathers, and he reaches up to cover Jaskier’s hand with his. Their blood slicked fingers tangle together.

“Warmth is the danger,” Jaskier explains, eyes fixed on Geralt’s. “Warmth and true light. Strong emotions. They kill faster. With my heartbeat up like this, it’s beca-” He gags on his words, gasping, and coughs out more black muck. He shakes his head, trembling, and Geralt wants to kill whoever’s done this to him.

“You’re so cold,” Geralt says quietly. “Can you get out of the pond?”

Jaskier shakes his head. “Not yet,” he rasps, and pulls away to suck some of the waterfall’s spray into his mouth to rinse it. The foul smell of rot is being washed away into wherever the pond drains to. He groans, falling back over to let his head pillow on Geralt’s knee. Geralt takes the opportunity to wash his hands clean of the muck, and watches him as he breathes.

Jaskier smiles up at him, wan but gentle.

Geralt hesitates for a moment before reaching down to gently stroke through his hair.

Jaskier shudders, melting into the cold water. “Oh, Melitele blesses me tonight,” he mumbles, eyes fluttering closed. “Don’t… don’t stop. Fuck, Witcher, you have such beautiful hands.”

“How long has it been since you’ve even touched anyone?” Geralt asks. The wet hair is bitter cold, but the relief on Jaskier’s face is enough for him to ignore it.

“Too long,” Jaskier murmurs. “Don’t tempt me, Witcher. I haven’t survived this long just to lose it when one man shows me a good time."

Geralt grins, a stab of affection hitting him. “This is a good time?”

“It’s been a long two years, White Wolf. It’s dangerous for me to be around you,” Jaskier says, but his voice is so full of longing.

“My name-”

Jaskier’s hand moves so fast that Geralt barely sees it, slapping over his mouth to silence him.

“No name,” he whispers, his heart rabbit fast. “Do not give your name. White Wolf will suit for now.”

“Bit dramatic,” Geralt says when Jaskier pulls his hand away. “Sounds like a fairy tale name.”

“And Jaskier is any better?” Jaskier counters, reaching up to tap his medallion. It jingles at the touch, the magic responding. “White hair, and a Wolf Witcher. White Wolf you shall be, my dear Master Witcher.”

“Hmm,” Geralt says, and lets his hand rest on Jaskier’s cheek. Jaskier’s eyes flutter closed again. “You need to get dressed before you get too cold. Did you bring new clothes?”

“Usually I walk back bare,” Jaskier mumbles. “You were a twist to my evening, but a very welcome one.” His hand creeps up to hold tighter to Geralt’s thigh, leeching heat. Geralt glances at his arm and frowns. There are lines of pink new skin, healing marks from wounds just deep enough to get blood.

“Don’t worry,” Jaskier says without opening his eyes. “I’m careful, and I’m not doing this out of any pleasure or punishment.”

“Hmm,” Geralt says again, uncomfortable, and gently smooths his thumb down Jaskier’s wound. “You cleaned them?”

Jaskier’s mouth curves into a bitter little smile. “I’d be dead by now if I wasn’t very, very good at cleaning wounds, White Wolf.” He sighs, and reluctantly sits up. “I don’t have much time now. I suppose I should cut this lovely little interlude short. Thank you for your kindness. Pass me a couple of the larger feathers?”

Geralt hands him some flight feathers, and Jaskier quickly washes them in the cold water before taking a slow breath and standing up on shaking legs. There are more caning scars on the top of his thighs, and Geralt forces himself to dispassionate recognition of the eyeful of Jaskier’s equipment he gets- and damn, no wonder he was popular in Oxenfurt.

Jaskier climbs from the pond and stands shivering in the cool Spring air for a moment. His heart rate is already starting to slow. “My clothes,” he says through chattering teeth. “There’s a blanket as well, on the walkway.”

Geralt finds them and helps him dry off, and Jaskier pulls on his clothes as his heart gets slower and slower still, his eyes starting to go hazy and dead again. He watches silently. The night garden stings his sensitive nose, all thick rot and delicate blossoms, the sting of poison waiting just behind his tongue. He can smell the oleander, the foxglove, the verbena and lobelias. Jaskier is another flower in this garden, copper bright and silver tongued, bathed in moonlight and ice water.

“Do you know lobelias?” Jaskier asks. His voice is growing still again, deceptively calm.

Geralt nods to the corner of the garden where they grow.

“Bring me some, White Wolf.”

He hesitates for a moment but goes to fetch a sprig, leaves and flower attached. Jaskier takes it from him with a ghost of a smile and smells it, eyes fluttering closed for a moment while he enjoys the scent.

Jaskier tucks the flower and feathers into his doublet, and the leaves into his mouth.

“For pain,” he says simply. He meets Geralt’s eyes, and Geralt can see the myriad layers of the curse locking him down again. “Good night, White Wolf. I hope you found your reading illuminating.”

His heartbeat reaches that slow, dangerous drumbeat level, and his eyes grow flat. He walks past Geralt without a backward glance, leaving Geralt alone with a dead bird and rotted blood.

Because there’s nothing else for it, Geralt makes his way through the keep and leaves. The guards nod him out, and wisely keep silent as Geralt begins the now painfully familiar walk back to the village. He’s tired. He needs to write everything down. He wants to drink himself into a fucking coma.

Geralt stops dead in the center of the road as realization hits him like a thunderclap.

The world stretches out before him, and he slowly turns back to look at the castle. This time he can see the moon-white face of Jaskier in the window, not moving fast enough to dip out of sight this time. How could he be so damn stupid, missing that in the heat of the moment?

You have not seen us.”

“This isn’t just a curse,” Geralt tells the summer air, bile churning in his stomach. “It’s a fucking possession.”

Chapter Text

Somehow Geralt knows that he won’t be seeing Jaskier for the next few days, even if Jaskier- or whatever is riding Jaskier’s body- sees him.

Karris comes up to Lettenhove Reach with him to get him past the guards the next day. Geralt raises his eyebrows when instead of going to Madeline, Karris follows him into the silent dark keep and keeps following him all the way down the hall. He turns to go up the stairs and Karris goes with him, tight to his heels.

“What are you doing,” he asks flatly when it looks like Karris really isn’t going to leave him be. He’s walking into the darkness but Karris has just followed, never mind his human eyesight. Karris looks up at him, setting his mouth in a mulish and determined line.

“Helping,” he says firmly. “I know the layout, I can help you find things. I was weak in the stables, I’ll be better here.”

Geralt huffs a sigh, rubbing his forehead. “Not wanting to talk about a man being beaten bloody in front of you isn’t weak,” he says bluntly. He reaches over and plucks a candelabra from a sconce in the walls, lighting the candles with a quick flick of Igni. “You aren’t ready to talk about shit, don’t force yourself. Nothing weak about that.”

Karris flinches a little and squares his shoulders. The candles dancing flames make his eyes glitter, the soft brown turning firm. “Don’t care. I’m going to help Lord Jaskier this time, however I can.”

Geralt sighs. Spare him from the wounded pride of 17 year old boys with a chip on their shoulder. “Fine. Keep close, and do as you’re told. If I tell you to run, or stay, you do it.”

“Deal.”

They poke through a few rooms, mostly meeting chambers or old workrooms that haven’t been touched in far too long. The silence is a little more bearable with Karris with him, and Karris isn’t skittish like Johann. He handles the dark well. Most of the rooms have Jaskier’s blood scent in them, faded deeply over time. Karris keeps quiet for the most part, but shudders when they push open the creaking door of what must have once been the weaving room. A loom sits quiet, black fabric half woven on the massive frame. Shelves are covered in powdery dust, hanks of wool and dye materials scattered around on shelves.

Geralt quirks an eyebrow at him, waiting for an answer.

“My lady’s weaving room,” Karris says quietly. “She was fond of it. She was very good too, could make all sorts of fabrics. My lord’s doublets were usually made from her silks, and she was a master with dye. Everyone was jealous from here to Novigrad over how she could make a plain cotton dress into a masterpiece. She wasn’t kind, but she wasn’t cruel.”

Geralt touches the black fabric, his fingers feeling well spun wool. “Survived her three eldest dying, even if she followed them quick,” he says quietly.

Karris nods, his eyes going flinty. “When the plague came, Lord Jorgan sent everyone but the family from the castle, but he made us build a pyre big enough for all of them in the middle of the courtyard. We heard nothing from the castle for days, and then finally someone got brave enough to go up and see what had happened.”

Geralt watches Karris walk around the room, gently touching different tools of the weavers trade. He leans against the wall, waiting for him to continue.

“Someone put the bodies on the pyre,” Karris says at last. “All but Lord Jorgan. But they were just… thrown on. Like dolls that a little one was bored with. Lady Natalia’s eyes weren’t even closed, so a crow pecked them out, and the bodies were bloated from the sun.”

“Lord Jorgan?” Geralt asks.

“We found him in the Great Hall, in the throne,” Karris says, scornful. “Died as he lived, thinking himself a king more than a viscount with land and one village to his name. We found Lord Jaskier in the kitchens, sleeping in front of the burned out hearth and scavenging what he could out of the cupboards as the food dwindled. We thought at first he was just still sick, when he wouldn’t go outside to see to the rites, but once they were all burned he still wouldn’t go. People… people were angry, at first. Thought he was disrespecting the family. And then they realized that something was really wrong when he started sending people away.”

Geralt hums, thoughtful. Karris sits at the loom bench, looking up at him. His eyes are big in the light of the candelabra they brought.

“Did you know the rumors about Lord Jorgan and Jaskier?” he asks, because it’s the sort of thing that gets around fast. Karris is 17, old enough that among commoners in Redania he’s a man grown. Geralt will earn no favors treating him like a child.

Karris nods, gnawing at his lip. “Yeah. I think they were true, too.” He claps his hands together and looks down at the dusty floor. “He…”

Geralt waits as Karris takes a few slow breaths, feeling a stab of pity for the kid.

“He liked it,” Karris finally spits out, blinking hard a few times to keep from crying. “He liked beating Lord Jaskier until he bled. His back- he’s in pieces. He’d make a whole ceremony out of it sometimes, and you could see how much he liked it. And he’d just smile, like this was just the best fucking thing in the world, seeing Jaskier tied up to that post and crying ‘cause the pain was so bad. Whipping kills people. I heard of a guy in de Mattrin lands who was flogged to death. And the scars are huge, Lord Jaskier’s got so many of them and it’s not fucking fair!”

He furiously scrubs at his eyes, taking a hiccupping breath to try and get himself under control.

“I wanted to kill him,” he continues fiercely, looking up at Geralt again. “I used to dream about cutting his stupid hands off so he couldn’t hold the whip. Lord Jaskier tried to run away, he tried, but then Lord Piotr started not eating and looking sick, and he came back fast. He’d always get between Jorgan and the others, he’d take all the punishment to spare them. And Jorgan whipped him like a dog.”

Once, when Geralt had been only about 14, still young and stupid and high on all that new Witcher strength coursing through him, he’d been forced to attend a flogging. They were rare. Kaer Morhen’s council had decreed it necessary, because they’d found a Witcher who had stolen a child, not been given one. The child had been returned to his family, and the Witcher had been flogged for putting them all in danger of a mob.

The Witcher’s name is long gone but Geralt remembers the stink of copper in the air and the whipcrack. He remembers seeing the skin split near to the bone, the shrieks.

The Witcher had been dosed with something to slow his healing to human speed. It had been ages before he was functional again, and when he was all that was left was a shell where he had been. He’d died the next year, and while no one said it, the implication of suicide was loud.

Jaskier had been 18 at the time of the journal, 11 when the whipping started. 7 long, brutal years, with human healing? Geralt doesn’t know that he could have handled it and stayed sane.

“Come on,” he says to Karris, and claps a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s keep looking through things. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll find something of Jorgan’s and can light it on fucking fire.”

Karris gives him a shaky smile. “I’d like that, a lot.”

They return to the pitch dark corridor and Karris taps his arm. Geralt looks back at him, and sees a flinty determination in Karris’ otherwise warm and gentle brown eyes.

“Jorgan had a workroom,” he says. “A labrit-labor- the place when you make things out of plants and stuff. Stillroom is how we call it, but he made lots of things there.”

“Laboratory,” Geralt tells him. Not exactly a word for a common Redanian to know, he’s impressed the kid had even something of an idea of what it would be called. “Was it in the Keep?”

Karris nods, heading the other way down the hall. “It’s hidden- there’s a lot of hidden rooms here from when it was made. I guess the first viscount was paranoid. Supposed to be passages in the walls that only the family knows about, but we all knew about the stillroom. It’s in the dungeons.”

Geralt represses a groan. Of fucking course it’s in the dungeons. And of fucking course there’s hidden passages. Why can’t anything on this job be easy?

They’ve just reached the main level when the screaming starts.

Karris about jumps out of his skin as Geralt grabs him to push him back against the wall, the pair of them dipping into an alcove. He trembles, shoving in close to Geralt’s side as his eyes go wide. Geralt wraps an arm around him tight as he closes his eyes to focus better.

The scream is barely human, a high and brutal keening noise that reverberates through the walls and seems to pierce right into Geralt’s ears with vicious intent. There’s power threaded through the sound to amplify it, but it doesn’t feel intentional. More like a side effect, maybe, because the only person who could possibly scream like that is Jaskier. Nothing else in this castle could possibly feel as much grief as that scream conveys.

He feels Karris huddle in closer to him, his heart beat rabbiting in his chest.

“Jaskier,” he mutters. He feels Karris nod. “When they said he screamed, I didn’t think they meant like this.”

“Usually it happens for an hour,” Karris says, voice barely loud enough for Geralt to hear. “It starts and stops.”

Geralt sure fucking hopes it’ll stop soon. Even his slow heart is starting to pick up speed, and his ears are aching with the sound. He covers one with his spare hand as the shriek grows more and more piercing, eyes screwing up as he grows tense. The scream is pain incarnate, a thousand dying bodies on a battlefield, a child watching parents die, a lover with their dead partner cradled close-

A child, wounded by his father.

A princess, dying in the streets.

With all the subtlety of breaking glass, the sound stops.

Karris groans, sagging against him. “Melitele be praised,” he whispers, and Geralt can feel him shaking. “Witcher?”

“What,” Geralt asks, his ears still ringing with pain.

“There’s magic in his voice, right?” Karris asks. “That’s why it makes you think of terrible things when he screams?”

“Probably,” Geralt says, and considers. The curse might be focused on Jaskiers throat, then, the scar he spotted on his vocal cords. Something to keep him from singing, maybe? Given what he’s learned about Jaskier’s less than loving father, that wouldn’t be out of the question. “You should go. Tell me how to find the stillroom.”

Karris doesn’t argue with him. “Find the dungeons, and go all the way to the back. There’s a door set into a wall that opens when you pull the torch sconce that looks like a griffin head.”

“Patriotic of him,” Geralt mutters.

Karris rolls his eyes in agreement. “I’ll wait with Madeline for you. You’ll be in trouble if I go and you stay.”

“Fine, I’ll find you as I leave. Now, go.”

Geralt hands him the candelabra, and watches Karris hurry off into the dark, taking the candelabra with him.

Geralt is so fucking tired of fighting this in the dark.

He doesn’t have time to throw a tantrum about it though, so he just jogs down and finds a staircase leading deeper into the belly of the keep, a slow wind that opens up into yawning dark. He groans, lighting his hand with Igni until he can find a torch to light and carry further down into the dungeons.

There are four different cells, all of them long since unused for their original purpose. Three of them have different trunks set inside, and a few paintings. Geralt peers at them. The first is a pretty young woman who looks a lot like Jaskier, so he’s relatively certain he’s found where the sibling’s effects have wound up. He checks the other two cells. There’s a painting of a perilously fragile looking blond with a vacant stare, and another of a slightly sturdier young man with black hair. They look like they were painted about the same time, and he’s pretty certain the blonde must have been Lorenz, the dark haired one Piotr. There’s something grim about the idea of their things locked up in the dungeons, but he pushes past it to the end of the hall, where as promised a griffin head sconce waits for him. He carefully feels around it until it moves a little, the metal crunching a bit with disuse.

The door swings inward on creaking hinges, and Geralt sneezes at the rush of dust before stepping inside.

The room is relatively small but there’s a vent window near the ceiling to let in some light. There’s a massive bookshelf against the wall stuffed with tomes, and an L shaped table that covers half of the back wall and all of the wall to his right. The tables are covered in stillroom equipment, the kind of thing that Geralt’s used to using in some of the nicer accommodations he’s been to, along with shriveled bodies of frogs and rats long since dissected and left to become nothing but dried skins and bones on flat plates. A chair sits in the corner along the wall the door opens from, with leather straps on the arms and back board.

“Not good,” he mutters to himself, and closes the door behind him.

The room is odd. He can’t quite place his finger on why, though, so he instead rifles through the books in search of any information about what kind of work Jorgan had been doing. He find several books of the nastiest kind of erotica that even Lambert wouldn’t touch, books on anatomy, an endless amount of potions brewing manuals, and one slim red volume on the life of flesh eating centipedes that makes Geralt want to scrub his hands after handling it. There are no notes on the desk, no secret compartments in the tables or chair, and the equipment has all been cleaned and neatly put where it should go.

Too neatly.

Geralt peers closer at it.

This equipment has been used, but far too long ago. The level of dust is deeper than the rest of the untouched parts of the castle. He runs his finger along a flask and sniffs, curious. There’s only the smallest scent of someone he doesn’t know, probably Jorgan, and it’s near completely gone.

“Okay,” he says to the empty room. “Weird.”

He steps back to the door and looks around the room again. Bookshelf, empty space along the wall, L-tables, fucked up chair.

Empty space.

He walks over to examine it, frowning. The laboratory is already a bit too clean and convenient, and this empty space looks like it’s been left wide on purpose. He leans in, looking closer at the golden stone, and spots a small notch in one of the stones. He carefully slides his gloved finger in and finds a latch, and when he presses it down there’s a groan of hydraulics as the carefully camouflaged section of wall swings open towards him. A staircase is exposed, leading up into pitch darkness.

Geralt stares into it. No light at all in there, nothing for his eyes to expand and catch. Just stairs and darkness and a layer of old dust.

“Fuck,” he groans, and pulls out his silver sword, just in case. “Fucking nobles.”

Face set in a grimace, he starts to ascend the stairs.

He’s seven steps up when the screaming begins again, and for all the removal of his fight or flight sense, he still nearly jumps out of his skin as the sound washes over him in piercing agony. Igni snuffs out of his hand as his slow heart kicks up, and Geralt curses as he tries to breathe through the reverberating screech. It feels like his ears are about to start bleeding, the wail violent as a bruxae’s screams.

Renfri, dead, Kaer Morhen’s pits of bodies, Gweld deaddeaddead, Eskel’s face when he got his scars, the mutagens burning through him with Eskel beside him screaming, Lambert’s shallow breathing with claw marks across his chest and his breath coming up bloody, blood on his hands and his face and streaming down his body and-

The screaming stops and Geralt allows himself to sag on the staircase, hands shaking.

Fuck. There’s a lot of power in Jaskier’s voice. It’s hard to tell if it’s the curse overlaying and unintentionally amplifying it or if he’s got true power leaking out. It’s possible he’s an ambient mage, accidentally drawing power from the world around him through his craft, but Geralt has his doubts.

When he’s caught his breath, he grimly picks his sword back up and lights his hand again to continue his climb.

The stairs are worn down in places, years of wear on the stone having left shallow divots of feet. There are hallways branching off here and there, doorways in the darkness and peepholes that Geralt peers through to see nothing but yet more darkness. Some of the hallways have footprints in the dust of a size that looks to be right for Jaskier’s feet, so Geralt ignores those and wanders into the less traveled corridors. The silence after the ear-shattering screams rings against his tender ears, and Geralt can hear his own ragged breathing as he slowly climbs into the dark.

Jaskier is likely confining himself to his bedroom, but that doesn’t mean that his rider might not wander the halls. Geralt doesn’t doubt that by now Jaskier knows every inch of the keep, including its stairs and passageways. With him shielded, there’s no way of knowing if Jaskier is actually waiting in the dark instead, in between the screams.

Geralt stops mid step, skin crawling.

Fuck.

Now he’s thinking about it, he can’t stop, and he can feel the iron grasp of that magic bound desperation smothering him. He forces himself to breathe, slow and deep, closing his eyes.

What will you do if you open them and find him waiting there? his mind whispers, and Geralt feels a strangled noise catch in his throat.

“Fuck,” he breathes, and wrenches his eyes open.

There’s no one there, of course, just yet more unending darkness and stairs.

He forces himself to start walking again, ears straining for the slightest sound, the faintest whisper of breath, copper in the air. There’s nothing.

Geralt continues to climb, ignoring his slightly too fast heart, and when he turns a corner to spot a door with the same griffins head sconce next to it, sighs. Well, he has to pick a door eventually.

The door opens on soundless hinges, and Geralt steps inside to survey it.

He’s definitely found Jorgan’s true laboratory, and the room has been trashed. Jaskier had clearly found it at some point, the smell of his blood old but there. Beakers are smashed, books and papers all over the floor, the dead remains of yet more rats and frogs. There’s an old torch hanging from a sconce, so he pulls the door shut and lights it. It goes up quick, burning merrily and casting enough light that he can stop holding Igni.

Geralt scoops up some of the first set of papers, bringing them over to the light. They’re diagrams of some kind, with scribbled notes about percentages and concentrations. He frowns thoughtfully, shuffling through them until he finds a half torn sheet of paper with a list of ingredients on it.

One of them is “distilled consumption.”

He stares at it for a long moment before looking at the smashed beakers and dead animals. He picks up more loose pages, looking closer at the information on it. Jorgan de Lettenhove’s writing is neat and firm, clean and easy to read, which is the only point in the man’s favor Geralt has yet to run into. A few pages of notes on how to he’s planning to unleash his creation tells Geralt everything he needs to know, and the paper crumples in his grip as he struggles to keep a lid on his rage.

“You made the plague,” he breathes, looking at the split carcasses, the rotted and desiccated remains of experiments. “What the fuck were you playing at, you sick son of a bitch?”

Geralt wants to dive into the plague notes and figure out how the fuck the bastard came to know how to make the damn thing, but he knows he needs to focus on anything that might explain the curse instead. Reluctantly he sets them down to the side and focuses on the mess littering the floor. He straightens the solitary wooden chair in the room, gathering most of the papers and notebooks to stack on the table for easier grabbing.

Here at last are the bastards notebooks, all of them neatly labeled even though they’re strewn all over the floor. Geralt opens the nearest, eyebrows shooting up as he flips through it. It’s a recipe book for poisons, likely one of many. Jorgan de Lettenhove was a very accomplished poisoner. Some of the poisons he has listed are among those considered nearly lost forever in Kaer Morhen’s library. Jorgan has accumulated a number of rare ingredients and has been pulling from his own poison garden to build increasingly complex formulas, and Geralt shakes his head in bitter disgust at just how effective he was.

He puts the volume back and picks up another volume with elaborate tooling on red leather. The rest are simple, but this one looks special, important. He hesitates, not sure what he’ll find, and forces himself to open it.

Kirstiana de Nedallan a crisp hand has written. 13. Cyanide. There’s a date of nearly 30 years previous next to it. A sketch follows, a rather clean and simple drawing of what must have been Kirstiana. He flips the page and finds another sketch, this one Reginald de Kamarant, 6, Ladies Bane. The book carries on in this style, the information slowly growing with each child’s portrait he surveys. Eventually some of them have full recipes for the poisons attached, notes about how he chose each one specifically for their effectiveness.

There are 38 pages of dead children.

Jorgan de Lettenhove’s crimes now include murder by poisoning and plague on top of rape and abuse, and Geralt sinks into the wooden chair as he stares at the last.

Almost all of the names are of children under 14. Most are nobility, but some are from the Lettenhove area, about one every ten years. One is Herrin’s daughter, who was barely 7 and died by way of being lured into a forest and held down until she drank a mixture of oleander and poppy. The youngest is the de Romattin toddler mentioned in Jaskier’s own journal, dispassionately listed as having died from the plague he created and not from poison, but still a death Jorgan is happy to claim for himself.

Geralt lets the book fall from his hands to the floor as Jaskier starts to scream again. He clamps his hands over his ears, but it barely muffles the sound as it ricochets down the empty halls. He endures it, endures the memories of pain it dredges up, and when it finally stops, he finds himself gasping and sweating. It seems it gets worse with repeated exposure. He needs to hurry.

He puts the chronicle of murders back on the table and notices four identically bound books in plain brown leather tumbled together. He opens the firsts and sees NATALIA written in large, neat script on the first page. A quick flip though it reveals that this is a chronicle of Jorgan’s experiments on his children. The other three belong to the other siblings.

Jaskier’s book is a little thicker than the others. He reluctantly opens it.

It’s fucking horrific.

Jorgan dispassionately writes at length about the tortures he puts Jaskier through on a daily basis, starting from age 14 in this book, and alludes to having to start recording in a second book since he’d filled the last one. He writes down every imagined slight, every annoyance, and the measures he takes to correct them. There are sketches of Jaskier’s back, his slowly growing collection of whip scars, and dispassionate notes about the caning scars from a youth spent at a very strict boarding school. Jorgan talks at length about how much he loathes Jaskier’s voice.

When Jaskier reaches 18 he runs off to Oxenfurt. He isn’t sent, he flees, and Geralt’s eyebrows raise as he takes that in. Jorgan notes his irritation but his pleasure at the silence, and adds that he spreads the information that Jaskier was sent instead. He also adds, with spine chilling glee, that this means his work will take harder as the abuse will carry more weight with Jaskier having been free of it for a time.

“I must do this work in preparation for greater works to come,” Geralt reads aloud, the words stuffy in this forgotten tomb of a room. “Sacrifices must be made if I am to continue, and the boy is an easy sacrifice to make- fucking hell.”

He puts the book down and runs a hand over his face, taking a ragged breath.

Geralt likes Jaskier. He likes the fire he can see under the curse, he likes his quick tongue and kindness. He likes that stubborn resilience that’s kept him alive so long. He likes the way Jaskier’s people have adored him since he was small.

But this?

Geralt can understand now why there’s not a single man, woman, or child in Lettenhove who wouldn’t take up arms for their viscount.

He takes a deep, steadying breath of stale air and picks the book back up. He flips to the end, but the book abruptly stops just when Jaskier is returning from Oxenfurt. Geralt hums, a bit confused, and checks the rest of the pages. The few remaining ones are blank. It’s out of character for how meticulously crafted the rest of Jorgan’s work has been.

Geralt looks around the room again, taking in the broken glass, the books, the bookshelf, the rickety wooden chair. What is he missing in the rubble? What’s out of place? What hasn’t been touched? What doesn’t belong?

Vesemir, a lifetime ago, teaching him to pick pockets over the winter with a dummy dressed in a battered old doublet strung with bells: There’s always a tell where something lies, something out of place in the lines of the clothes. You’re too impatient- knowing exactly where something is makes up half the battle.

A small wooden box is shoved in a corner, half hidden under glass and rubble. Geralt pulls it out, grateful for his gloves.

It’s simple. Plain. The sort of thing found in all sorts of kitchens and storerooms, and since this one has “lavender” written on it, it probably was. Geralt opens it.

There are papers inside, 5 sheets folded together. He pulls them out. Below them is a blood stained curved needle, the kind used for suturing wounds, a very short and thin knife that looks like it’s meant to be part of a set,, and catgut string on a spool. The catgut is still in good condition, hardy, and- upon a sniff- apparently bovine in origin. He leaves the needle alone, and opens the papers. His stomach drops.

The diagram sketched out is of a bird stitched together out of many other birds like the one that Jaskier coughed up. It’s detailed, listing various kinds of songbirds, and beside it is the notes on how it should be most effectively put together, with organs from all sorts of birds and an exterior to match. Beside it is a list of poisonous plants meant to weaken the resolve.

He flips the next page, and has to swallow down bile.

It’s a sketch, the details rough. Conceptual, he supposes. A diagram. Potential.

The general shape of Jaskier’s face stares blankly out at him, mouth stitched shut with a cutaway view to show the bird inside and a string of Elder to call magic down next to it. The Elder is mangled, likely self taught, but clear in its purpose. It’s meant to keep the vocal chords intact while keeping the recipient of the curse from being able to sing, the songbirds meant to absorb song within the body once swallowed. There’s also a requirement for the throat to be wounded over the vocal chords before being stitched shut to ensure- He squints at the writing- command or control by the person stitching up the wounds.

There’s a dispassionate note on the page that Jorgan will ensure Jaskier is unconscious for this, as it will make it easier to stitch his mouth closed and patch the throat wound. He adds that he wishes Jaskier could be awake, but has concerns he would swallow his tongue and kill himself.

Geralt looks at the bloodstains on the needle for a long time.

So. The marks around Jaskier’s mouth are scars from it being stitched shut with the bird inside it. Geralt’s seen similar things before, but only on poppets, never performed on a live person. It’s a wonder Jaskier didn’t choke and die on either his own vomit or the bird. Likely the magic shrunk the bird enough to be forcibly swallowed, and now…

Honestly, Geralt has no idea.

He picks back up the ingredient list, frowning at it. There’s no mention of taking Jaskier’s blood to bind the curse, nothing about sunlight, nothing about… well, much of anything regarding his symptoms. This curse doesn’t seem to fit with the information he has. It’s part of the puzzle, definitely, but it’s only given him more of the shape of what’s happening to Jaskier.

He huffs a sigh, rubbing his head as his brow furrows.

Use your words, Geralt, Eskel’s voice gently chides him. Come on, talk it out with me.

A lump forms in his throat. Fuck, he wants Eskel here. Eskel’s always been the better of the two of them with mysteries. He wants to hand Eskel the pieces of this mess and tell him to fix it like this is a broken vase or shirt that needs mending, and let Eskel be the adult for a while. Geralt sighs, tipping his head back to look at the ceiling.

“Okay,” he says to the empty room. “Jorgan de Lettenhove is a poisoner who kills children and abuses his own. He’s skilled enough to make a plague with specific kinds of side effects. He’s been killing kids for about 30 years, and his kids have been suffering near that long. He rapes his children and poisons them and destroys his heir’s mind so much that he can’t even remember to eat. His wife either ignores it or doesn’t care, and he likes power. He wants to keep himself in power for as long as he can.”

He takes a deep breath, and exhales slowly. Work through it, Geralt.

“So he makes a plague to… weaken them? Make them pliant? But it goes wrong and kills him before he can reverse it in himself,” Geralt tells the uncaring stone. “But then why even do the damn ritual at all if it’s just to keep Jaskier from singing-”

Geralt stops dead, blinking at the ceiling.

“Because it’s not to keep Jaskier from singing,” he says slowly, the shape of it starting to fill in his mind. “It’s to break him for good, because that’s all he fucking talks about. He beat him, he sickened him, and then he stole his songs so it would break his mind. He wanted to make Jaskier like Lorenz and have a blank slate to work on. An empty mind that wouldn’t fucking fight him.”

I’ve never been fragile and delicate a day in my life.

“Fuck,” he says with great feeling. “Fuck. Jorgan wanted a blank slate to make it easy to hop bodies and keep his position and keep killing.”

Body swapping has never been impossible, Geralt knows. There are lots of sorcerers and mages who claim to have the knowledge of the rites, it’s not impossible that Jorgan would have found them too. He named his eldest son with his own middle name, not even something that would be looked at strange. Lorenz must not have been a good enough match or too damaged, and Jaskier was better suited. So, what, he’d done the ritual and it had worked, or worked wrong? He’d sewn up Jaskier’s mouth, done the ritual to break him, but it hadn’t worked because Jaskier…

Because Jaskier what? How did Jaskier avoid a broken mind?

He’s distracted as the screaming starts up again, and this time he’s so much closer to the source he lets out a wheeze of pain as he crashes to his knees and clamps his hands to his ears in a vain attempt to muffle it.

Eskel with his face bandaged up, staring blankly out the window as he sits still and unmoving in bed, grieving a child that was never his, Geralt trying to rouse him and getting nothing. Lambert’s face the first night back at Kaer Morhen after the sacking, running his fingers along the walls. Vesemir in tears deep in his cups, all his friends and family dead except for those few who had been out, unable to stop it or save anyone, murdered children struggling to breathe as their bodies fail, choking on poison, Jaskier sobbing black tears, Jaskier bound to the post in the stables, Jaskier with his back split open, Jaskier coughing up birds-

The screaming stops again and this time Geralt dry heaves, shaking as his body trembles with the adrenaline rush of being forced to relieve so much pain. All that flees his mouth is spit to dampen the floor, and he wipes his mouth with the back of a trembling hand.

“Fuck. This,” he spits out, and when he catches his breath he climbs into the chair. Jaskier, his focus is on how Jaskier kept his mind intact. Geralt goes back and digs through the papers, looking around for anything he might have missed, any clause in the spell that might have backfired.

There’s nothing. He frowns at them, mulling the idea over in his head.

“Jaskier’s too strong,” he says slowly, even though he knows that can’t be the right answer, “so Jorgan does the ritual and sews his mouth shut, but how does he get to possession without putting his blood in?”

He pauses, and looks back at the bloody needle. A horrible thought occurs to him, and he stares down at it. Carefully, he picks it up. It takes him a long moment to bring it to his nose, and the faint smell that lingers there tells him.

“Oh, you fucking whoreson,” Geralt says, deadly soft. “You sewed your fucking seed into him.”

This is the nastiest curse Geralt has ever come across, and by far the vilest human. He tosses the needle back into its place in disgust, stomach churning with it. He has a strong stomach for the horror of the world but he’s out of patience for working through the curse today. The idea of this piece of shit coming over a needle to stitch his son’s mouth closed is just too fucking much. He’s learned more than he expected, and now he has to keep puzzling it out.

He wants to take the notebook and show everyone the dead children and the plague information, but he doesn’t dare until the curse is broken. Jaskier’s already warned him about taking things. The journal was freely given, but the others would be theft, and he has no idea how the curse would respond.

Sighing, he extinguishes the torch. He may need it again when he comes back, because he already knows he’ll have to. Fuck, he’s not looking forward to that. He hates secret passages, and the walls are cramped enough that he won’t be able to fight well in them.

Geralt unsheathes his silver sword again, a perhaps worthless hope against Jaskier, and opens the door again to start making his way back down to the decoy stillroom. He refuses to think about the idea of Jaskier in the dark, and refuses to heave a sigh of relief when he closes the laboratory door again, in the blessed relief of light again.

He collects Karris and they both leave the castle a bit faster than technically called for, and if they both spend time standing in the full sunlight of a field, neither is going to mention it.

Geralt does not return to the castle that night, but he returns the next day.

The problem is that Jaskier is genuinely very good at hiding from Geralt when he doesn’t want to be seen or spoken to. Geralt is too wary of what Jaskier or his rider might try if he were to force his way into Jaskier’s chambers, or even to the family wing, so he has to content himself with stalking the castle and gardens at night. Once, he sees the smallest flash of fabric turning a corner, but by the time he reaches the end of the hall Jaskier has vanished on him.

He still hasn’t decided on what to do with his knowledge about Jorgan creating the plague. He kneads bread and scrubs dishes with Antonia, drinks with the serious, hatchet-faced drunks to get more stories of Jorgan’s darkness, takes wood to Olga and the other widows, and lets the children use him like a climbing gym when they tire of watching him go through his stretches and sword drills. He even teaches them how to fall and protect their heads and necks, a small thing that might save one or two of them later in life.

And he chases a ghost in an empty keep, hunting for anything to give him any more clues on how to break Jaskier free of his holdings.

His eyes are growing haggard when he looks in the mirror. The dark circles under them are growing deeper with each day and night he spends on the hunt.

His nightmares are full of songbirds and winding staircases in the dark.

The alderman finds him sitting by the fire one evening before he intends to dive back into tearing the stillroom apart to look for more clues. He’s not a big man. He has a kindly face and hair greying at the temples and clothes that are well made but not rich, a man aware of his position but not drunk on power. He sits down heavily next to Geralt and gives him a small smile.

“He’s quite a puzzle, our Jaskier,” the alderman says quietly.

“Understatement,” Geralt grunts, rubbing his forehead. He’s had a low level headache that’s only grown for the past week.

The alderman snorts a laugh. “Yes, well… I am here to thank you for trying.”

Geralt looks up sharply. “I’ve not given up.”

The alderman blinks, and then smiles at him. “Indeed you haven’t,” he says, and gently pats Geralt’s arm. “I am here to thank you for giving us hope, even if the end is harsh. Hope is a fragile thing, and we have too few fragile and precious things here.”

Geralt huffs out a sigh and leans back in his chair, turning his eyes to the hearth. They sit in silence for a while before he finally asks, “It’s one thing for you to love a kid who runs around and tells stories, and one thing to love a liege lord who doesn’t treat you like dirt. But what do you love about him?”

The alderman looks at him, eyes softening. “To know our Jaskier is to love him,” he says simply. “I do not know if it is possible for anyone to truly hate him after more than a few words with him. You’re half in love yourself, are you not?”

Stunned speechless, Geralt blinks at him. The alderman smiles, standing up again, and claps him on the shoulder.

“Bring him home, Master Witcher,” he says gently. “And when the time comes, I hope you’ll come home too.”

He walks away, leaving Geralt’s head spinning.

Geralt makes his usual pilgrimage once the darkness of the night is complete, trudging up the path that’s become as familiar to him as his own swords. He passes the guards on watch with a nod and stands in the center of the open space, breathing deep.

Copper.

He doesn’t bother to look anywhere else. He just walks to the night garden’s door and pushes it open.

Among the flowers and poisons, Jaskier waits for him with blank eyes and silver rings on his fingers. The moonlight is spilling down his shoulders to wash him into marble. His blue eyes are blank in the dark, the pupils too small for how complete the darkness around them is, and his mouth is swollen from being bitten with worry.

You’re half in love with him already.

Fuck.

“You’re hard to track,” Geralt says quietly.

“I do my best,” Jaskier says in his flat, dull voice. “You have spent a lot of time in the keep lately.”

Geralt hums. “Are you hurt?”

“Most of the time, yes.” Jaskier turns to the pond, leaving his back exposed to Geralt without a whiff of fear to betray him. His hands are trembling, and Geralt can smell the copper tang of blood on him, see the too-straight way he holds his back to keep the fabric from touching his skin more than it should. Slowly, he lifts his hands to his doublet and starts the slow unbuttoning of it.

Geralt is only a man. He watches Jaskier undo each careful button, and reaches out to help him gently pull it off. The chemise underneath is grey cotton of good make, the back of it soaked bloody. There are stains on it from prior washings, older blood under the new. His forearms are bandaged.

Jaskier strips clinically, leaving his things in a heap outside of the pool before he steps into it. He wades to the edge of the waterfall and takes a deep breath before stepping under it.
There’s a new whip mark on his back. Just one, but it’s long and brutal, breaking through in the few rare patches of skin that aren’t already massacred with scar tissue. Geralt honestly has no idea how he can even bend with so many ropey scars.

Jaskier wails as the waterfall coats him in ice cold water, flinching away as it rushes down his back to clean out the wound. Geralt scrambles to his feet as he hears him start to sob, a pained keening that hooks into Geralt’s chest and yanks.

“Jaskier,” he begs, unsure what to do, and Jaskier turns all black eyes on him as he starts to weep. The rotted blood smell is back with a vengeance.

“It’s happening faster now,” Jaskier tells him between sobs, shaking helplessly in the cold water. He’s so perilously thin. “Weeks, not months. I can’t keep this up much longer.”

“I know,” Geralt says, reaching out to take his hands. “I know. I’m working on it, I swear, I’m going to get you out of this. I’m picking it apart as best I can.”

Jaskier just sobs, slowly crumpling to his knees and biting back screams as the black tears drip into the pool and he starts to heave once more.

This time Geralt’s almost prepared. Almost. The black bile of the rotted blood that Jaskier expels is worse now that he knows that it is truly blood. It’s harder to hold him steady as he weeps and heaves, his body deathly cold and his heart too fast in his chest. He’s fragile and fragmented, pieces barely held together by a thread, and between his whip wounds and the injuries on his forearms it’s hard to keep him upright and steady. The stench of rot around them is making Geralt’s normally hardy stomach less than thrilled, but he keeps Jaskier carefully stable until he begins to choke.

Another bird is coughed out, this one smaller than the last, and Geralt scrambles to pluck it as Jaskier collapses into the icy water. Is the bird smaller because the time he’s coughed one up is closer together? Or is it just random good fortune?

“Tell me a story, White Wolf,” Jaskier whispers, as Geralt plucks the bird and the black is washed away down the drain. “Something with a happy ending. I don’t have the energy to give you much tonight.”

“Don’t know many of those,” Geralt says as Jaskier’s head finds his knee. He’s still shaking badly, but he’s looking a little better.

“Anything,” Jaskier whispers, closing his eyes. Yet more black is still oozing from his mouth. Geralt finds he doesn’t really care. He wears black for a reason anyway. “Anything at all.”

Geralt quietly plucks at feathers, and finally starts to speak when Jaskier’s breathing grows a bit less ragged. “Once upon a time, a princess was born, and she was the most beautiful person in the land,” he says, his voice rough. “Her mother died, and her father married a new queen, beautiful as well. The king died mysteriously and the new queen grew jealous of the princess and dressed her in rags so that she’d look like a servant.”

“Rude of her,” Jaskier murmurs. Geralt feels the smallest twitch of a smile at his lips.

“The princess was clever,” he continues, because even he knows how stories go after sitting in so many inns and taverns his life, “and strong besides that, and her stepmother hated her for all of those things and just for being a threat to her throne. The queen got a mirror, a magicked one, and every day would ask who was the most beautiful in all the land. And each day the mirror said it was her, until one day, even the mirror couldn’t lie and confessed that Re- that the princess had surpassed her.”

Jaskier sighs, his too-skeletal hand coming up to hold Geralt’s boot as the water splashes over him. The hydrangeas at the sides of the pond wave in the wind, and Geralt’s mind struggles to reconcile their sweet scent with the rotted blood, the starving man in his lap, the abomination of a bird in his hands.

“The Queen,” Geralt says, his throat tightening a moment, “told her huntsman to take the girl to the forest and kill her, to bring back her heart and liver.”

“Are you sure this is a happy story, White Wolf?”

Geralt hums. “Hush. The huntsman took her to the woods.”

The huntsman took Renfri to the woods. He killed the princess without slaying her, he destroyed what might have been. He took her in the woods and he killed, and killed, and killed, and left her alive to die again.

“And he took pity on her, and let her free, and killed a doe instead,” Geralt says, through the lump in his throat. “And the princess ran away into the woods and found seven dwarves, who took her in and cared for her. And she lived happily, until her mother sent a poisoned apple to her. The princess took one bite and fell into a sleep like death until those who loved her regardless of her beauty kissed her. The dwarves used their skill and built her a coffin of glass, and left her to sleep in a forest clearing. And each gave her a kiss on the cheek, and since they loved her as family, the curse was broken.”

Jaskier’s eyes light up and he coos softly. Geralt forces a bit of a smile.

“So she was living happily, and a prince came one day,” Geralt continues, his fingers now definitely fumbling. “And he was smitten, and eventually they fell in love properly. So he took her and the seven dwarves far away, where he made her Queen when they deposed his shit family, and they all lived happily together until they were no more.”

Renfri had no such happy ending. Renfri died bloody in the street, ripped apart by her own pain, her throne stolen and her name forgotten, her blade bloodied and no quiet kisses to bring her back.

“The end,” Geralt says quietly.

The words are bitter on his tongue.

Jaskier hums soft, a little smile on his face before he slowly, carefully forces himself to rise from the cold water and gathers his blanket. He watches as Jaskier dresses, can hear his heartbeat slowing. Jaskier turns to him, and for just a moment his eyes flare with life. Geralt’s slow heart stutters as he focuses on him.

“I think,” Jaskier says, his voice as slow and careful as ever, “that if you are going to spend so much time here you will need the keys to the Reach, White Wolf.”

“Do I?” Geralt asks, keeping his voice low and calm.

“Yes,” Jaskier says, eyes boring into him. “Five keys, all together. Get them. Quickly, because we’re running out of time.”

Geralt nods. “I will.”

“Good. And, White Wolf,” Jaskier says as he pulls on his doublet, movements growing stilted. “Make me a promise.”

“I’ll promise nothing until I know what you ask,” Geralt points out, already knowing he’ll agree to anything.

Jaskier turns to him, eyes gleaming in the dark. His hair is wet, and the rotted smell of the sick blood is vanishing under the night garden’s blooms.

“Kiss me when it’s my turn to wake,” Jaskier says, and his eyes go flat.

Geralt leaves the keep in silence once Jaskier disappears into the bowels of the darkness. His walk back to town is slow, and he hesitates on the outskirts. Instead, he turns and walks into the woods to stands in the living silence, scenting the damp air and listening to the breathing world around him. Frogs chorus in the distance. Deer walk through the undergrowth. Nightbirds call, owls hooting and their prey chittering. He finds a quaking aspen and wraps his arms around the white bark, presses his face to the black scars on it, breathes and breathes and breathes until he cannot smell clematis and copper and rot. All that is left is the silver on his finger and the teeming night of a forest. When he has mastered himself, he leaves. He takes another bottle of the good wine, and drinks to excess.

Dreams of does in buttercups, and blood on the leaves, and that sweet voice singing, singing, singing, haunt him until he wakes once more to salt tracking down his cheeks.

Chapter Text

Extract from the correspondence between Witcher Lambert and Witcher Eskel of the Wolf School, during Witcher Lambert’s first year on the Path:

...I know you’re rolling your eyes by now but shut up and listen to me for two seconds. The only good thing about Witcher names is that it means that our names don’t actually have any power over us. We don’t have full identities, so fae and curses have a damn hard time trying to figure out how to get their claws in to do damage. Be careful, though, because if you identify with even a nickname too long it can become your true name.

Mind your step with names, and don’t get too attached to any one identity.

Eskel

PS also, fuck you for not warning me you left a mess of broken hearts in Regova, I still haven’t gotten the rotten fruit smell off of me since they started chucking old apples when they saw I was Wolf school. Stop fucking mayors daughters, you asshole, we’ll all live longer.

oOo

Geralt has been up for at least 4 hours chopping wood when Antonia finds him in the quiet morning light of dawn, three days after he’s last been able to catch Jaskier wandering in Lettenhove Reach. Almost a month has passed since his arrival, and he’s fully aware how much he’s failed in that amount of time.

“Master Witcher,” she says in the quiet pre-dawn light, yawning. “How long have you been up?”

“Dunno,” he grunts, and accidentally splits the splitting stump with his swing along with the log on it. He groans, setting the axe to the side, and rubs at his forehead. Antonia sighs, walking out to join him in the yard. He looks down at the split stump, unable to face her. It’s early, even earlier than they usually rise, and he knows that he has a long day before him but the thought of returning to his bed for dreams of dark corridors and copper make him balk.

“Geralt,” she says gently, the first time she’s actually used his name. “Come inside. You can take out that stress on the bread instead. I’ll send Karris or one of the boys to find another chopping log for me.”

Geralt slumps, but nods. “Fine.”

“Thank you, dear,” she says, and leads him inside.

He wonders why he likes her so much as he methodically kneads dough and splits it into loaves to rise, Antonia working to fry eggs and sausages for breakfast and slice up yet more bread. He watches her out of the corner of his eye. She putters around, skirts making soft swishes against the floor. Her red hair catches the light of early morning as she works, leaning out the door to call for the chickens and tossing out scraps for them.

She was right all those days ago, he realizes. There’s no lust there, just something familial and maternal. He’s found something between friend and parent, for all her youth, and it settles something in his heart even as the weight of his knowledge bears it down.

He needs to tell her.

He has to tell her.

“Antonia,” he says. She looks up at him, eyes bright. “I… There’s something you need to know.”

“Sounds serious,” she says, still smiling. It falters and falls when Geralt doesn’t smile back. “Ah. One of those kinds of serious things, then.”

She puts her work aside and focuses her attention on him. Her dark eyes are gentle and soft, and Geralt feels like the monster he is, a hulking beast of cruel news trapped in a kitchen where a child and his father once stood. Jorgan’s poison has found him as well, made his tongue the bearer of its darkness.

“Karris gave me information that led to me finding out that your old lord had a laboratory where he did experiments,” Geralt says. The words are bitter, and they feel as if they’re being dragged from deep inside him by chains. It aches. Antonia watches him, concerned but not understanding yet. “I found his research notes. He...he was responsible for the plague. He created it.”

Antonia stares at him. “No,” she says, her voice cracking. “That- he was a terrible man, but he- but-”

He can see the moment she accepts the truth. She’s smart, and she’s known Jorgan’s cruelty. Antonia sits hard on the floor, and after a moment’s hesitation, Geralt sits with her. She presses a shaking hand to her mouth, eyes filling with tears.

“You’re sure,” she whispers, voice cracking. “You’re certain? There can be no mistake?”

“I saw it myself,” he says, and tucks an arm around her. She turns and buries her face against his chest, but doesn’t make a sound as she cries, mouth clamped tight shut. Her trembling is almost painful to feel, the delicate bones of her wrists digging into his chest as she clings to him like the last scrap of wood from a broken ship adrift in the sea. His shirt is wet by the time she’s done. He’s been soaked by the fountain of her tears. She looks up at him an indeterminate amount of time later, tear tracks staining her cheeks but her mouth set in a hard line.

“Geralt,” she says, “we have to tell the others. They have to know.”

“When it’s done,” he says. Antonia scrubs at her face. “I can’t take the books out of the castle until the curse is broken without it being dangerous, and I want them to see it in his own words so there can’t be any question. There… he killed others. Some here.”

Antonia’s mouth wobbles. “Others… oh, no. Not Herrin’s little girl?” she whispers.

Geralt nods, unable to speak, and Antonia blinks back more tears before wrapping her arms back around him tight to hold him. He carefully returns the gesture, resting his cheek on the top of her head. She smells of grief and pain, human sweat and baking bread, and he closes his eyes.

She must have been such a good mother.

“Geralt,” she says softly, not letting him go. “The rumors about Jorgan and my lord?”

Geralt’s heart clenches in his chest. “Worse than you could ever imagine,” he says, keeping his voice as soft as hers.

Antonia heaves a ragged sob, pulling away to wipe her eyes. “I hate him,” she says viciously, pulling a handkerchief from her pockets. Her voice cracks with grief. “That absolute bastard of a man, I hate him. I wish I could dig him up just to chop off his head with my own cleaver.”

“I’m not going to stop you if you know where he was buried,” Geralt says, and she laughs a little. It’s a bitter sound.

“They burned him with the others, in case the plague could spread through the ground,” she says, sniffling, and then clears her throat and takes a deep breath. “I can’t change the past. Right now all I can do is help you, and light candles for Melitele to make their rest easy, and make sure people are fed and have a safe place to sleep. Life goes on, it has to, so we’d better get back up and finish the breakfast prep work for the day, hmm?”

Geralt’s throat tightens. Gentle kindness and acceptance in the face of misery is something he’s long since outgrown expecting.

“Of course,” he says quietly, and helps her to her feet.

By the time they bring out the food, Antonia’s eyes are no longer red from crying, but there’s a fragility to the set of her shoulders that lingers long after breakfast is finished and their things cleaned up.

He’s reluctant to leave her when Johann comes to claim him for the day, but Antonia waves him off with a wavering smile and a gentle pat to the cheek from a small hand. He goes, regretting it all the while, but forces himself to focus as they cross the walkway to the castle and are let in by the guards. Johann is kind enough not to ask.

They part ways in the open area in front of the keep. Geralt looks up at the broad tower, with its gentle sandy stone, and wishes desperately for Lambert or Eskel to help keep his mood up as he feels the sheer weight of this contract fall onto his shoulders once more. His greatest flaw was getting too involved, the trainers had all said, and it’s hard not to feel like he’s living up to that now. Lambert and Eskel both know how to keep some distance in situations like this.

Situations like this. Fuck, he’s never seen anything like this.

The keep is as dark as ever. The darkness is a physical weight as he walks deeper into the winding halls, the heavy curtains feeling like they’re moments from rising to strangle him and leave him dying in the dark, weighed down by brocade and old memories. Geralt wanders, aimless and already exhausted. He knows he should return to the dungeon and make the climb back to Jorgan’s lab, but the thought of the claustrophobic dark makes him want to do anything else.

His feet take him down through the darkness to the Great Hall. The gaping maw of it always twists his heart. His footsteps echo on the flagstones as he steps inside the empty space, bouncing off of the carved ceiling. It takes few steps to stand before the ugly throne. Something bitter twists in his chest, the carved faces of animals and mocking blooms of plants despicable and ugly. The stink of fresh blood smeared to the wood is familiar.

He thinks he may never be able to purge copper from his nose as long as he lives.

“For all the darkness I was made in, I was never made a monster,” Geralt tells the throne. It sits impassive before him, dark teak, hideously carved, symbolic and fetid with rot. “For all the shadow that I swam in, for all the things they tore from me, I was never a monster. I bled dry under a knife that cut until it set me free and made me out anew, and I was not a monster. I killed the beasts they set me on, the ones that took children and old men and mothers and everyone in between, I set my feet to the Path and made myself a place between man and monster. And then I had to make a choice. Maybe I won’t know if it was right or wrong, but after, they stole my name and made me just another beast lurking in the dark. They turned and made me monstrous.”

He steps up on the dias, fingers resting feather light on the wood. Everything is copper, everything is silver, everything is darkness and in the faintest breath of a moment, he hears the whisper of silk.

“Monsters get made out of anything different,” he tells the chair. “Griffons and harpies want to lay their eggs and hunt in peace. Kikimora serve their purpose. Wraiths were failed in life, so they stay behind for revenge in death. But they’re all an imposition on humans, so humans make them monsters. And men can be just as monstrous as anything I put my blades to- men are the worst kind of monsters, because they make a choice. Men make their own monstrousness a choice, build themselves into horrors, and then decide there’s no need for regrets when it’s done.”

His hand slips away from the carving. He can feel the imprints on the tips of his fingers still, the care of the craftsmanship for such an ugly thing.

“Monstrousness sits at the crux of horror and penance,” Geralt says to the dark. “It’s not in the nature of a monster to look to heal the wounds it caused.”

The bitterness wells up to fill his mouth, and Geralt shoves a hand through his hair, dragging it to pull at the roots and make himself hiss in the twinge of not quite pain. He stalks away from the chair and its bloodstains, dragging in slow breath after breath, and heads to the day garden. He needs to sit in the flowers for a while and calm down before carrying on.

The golden blooms are reassuring and the scent of thriving life shakes the stain of copper from his being. He sprawls in the garden bed, pressing his face to the clean earth without a care and digging his fingers into the soil to ground, just for a moment. Here in the sunlight he can’t feel the oppressive gloom that’s started to worm through his defenses inside the keep. Geralt rolls over onto his back, looking to the side to see a dandelion in bloom under one of the bushes. It’s not the massive, sturdy, sprawling ones that pop up wild in fields. It’s small but vibrant, growing in the shadow of bigger things. He reaches out to gently stroke the tiny petals.

“In Kaedwen people plant you by their doors for protection,” he tells the little plant. “Hardy and hard to kill, you and your siblings. They make you into crowns, use you in transformation spells, eat your leaves for salads. But you always come back. Guess there’s a dandelion under that buttercup poison of his still.”

Geralt closes his eyes. The sun beats down on him, warming his skin, and he lets himself rest for a time before he sits up and takes a deep breath.

“Alright, little dandelion,” he tells the flower. “Time to face the library.”

He doesn’t really need it, but Geralt lights a candelabra to take with him anyway as he makes his way to the library. The candles offer a small bit of the warm comfort of the sun, and Geralt’s not so stupid as to deny himself such an easy fix.

The library is still as chaotic as the last time he saw it. The curtain has been returned to its rightful place, leaving the books plunged into darkness. Geralt clears a space on one of the reading tables to put his light down and looks around the room, thoughtful. The candelabra casts just enough light for his eyes to expand and catch detail. There are few books left on the shelves, and those all look as if they’ve been feverishly pawed through before they were tossed aside.

Why wreck the library in the first place, though?

He paws through the piles and picks up a small, tattered book. He fips through it absently, but finds himself pausing when he realizes what it actually is. It’s a small book of fables, long since worn down by the uncertain grip of children. There are drawings in the margins, little dragons and knights done in the round too-careful pencil of a little hand. Geralt gently turns the pages, something clenching hard in his chest. More drawings greet him, and on the last page is a portrait of lumpy people, two tall figures and three smaller ones in decreasing size. The tallest of the three is holding another lump with a face drawn on it. Under the little family is a name.

Lorenz.

Geralt pulls out a chair and sits, looking at the little bundle in drawn-Lorenz’s arms. There’s a weight like a hot coal in his chest.

It’s not just about Jaskier. It’s about 38 dead children and a murdered family. It’s about minds destroyed, and about the love of an oldest son stolen from him along with his mind. It’s about the child that Jaskier never really was. It’s about the children that none of his siblings ever were, and minds broken to glass fragments.

“I’m sorry,” he tells the ghost of Lorenz two decades past. “You deserved better.”

He can’t make himself put the book down, and carries it with him as he walks through the stacks. Listless, he runs his fingers along the shelves. They gather grey dust, sending it into the air. None of them have been spared from the chaos. He pauses in the section that looks to be mostly medical works, and rubs his forehead as he forces himself to focus again. Obviously someone was searching for information, but what kind of information? He runs a finger over the dust on the cover of an anatomical guide and rubs it between thumb and index, mind spinning over possibilities.

The simplest answer is Jaskier searching for a way to break his curse, but that doesn’t seem quite right. Jaskier is university trained to keep libraries organized, even if he is flighty, and loves stories. Jaskier would want the library organized enough to keep finding things.

Geralt pauses.

The rider of Jaskier’s body, though… if Jorgan has times that he can control the body hosting him, he would want to find a way to break the curse enough to suppress Jaskier and take the body for himself permanently. Jaskier had said daylight, warmth, and strong emotions would make a difference, so perhaps during the day at times Jorgan might be taking control? Maybe while he sleeps? He sniffs and mostly smells dust and the faint paper-and-vellum-and-leather smell of a library, but under it is old blood.

Jaskier, or Jaskier’s body, has been in here more than just the time he brought Geralt the journal.

There’s something whispering on the edge of his thoughts, and Geralt hums as he continues wandering, letting his mind drift in tune with his steps. The library has a peaceful feeling to it, even if the place is a mess, and as he wanders through the stacks with no particular goal in mind he feels like he’s breathing a little easier. Lorenz’s fables make for a good distraction for his hands, and he absently turns it over and over. There’s a certain pleasant tactility to it, the tooled cover soothing his mind just enough to clear it as he stops dead.

Oh. Of course.

“Jaskier, you fucking idiot,” he says, breathless.

It’s so simple. How has he missed this? It’s Jaskier’s blood everywhere, Jaskier always bleeding, Jaskier hiding information and giving it out carefully, Jaskier making the rules because he made them in the first place.

Jaskier is responsible for his own blood curse.

Jaskier had brought him his own journal from where it was hidden in the stacks. It makes a certain amount of sense to think that story-loving Jaskier would have hidden information about the curse here, or even found it in one of the thousands of books scattered around. Jorgan likely was looking through all of them for even a scrap of information on the curse, and tore the place to shreds.

“Shit,” he says to the silence, and runs his fingers over Lorenz’s book again to try and soothe himself. “Shit, shit, shit.”

There’s a thread of what he thinks might be trying to convince him is panic worming its way into his head. He growls in frustration, slamming his hand against his thigh to shake himself out of it. The false panic dissipates along with the exhaustion, and he takes a deep, stabilizing breath. The curse is working harder on him now too, trying to protect its target.

“Shit,” he says again, with extreme feeling, and goes to find the candelabra and get out of the library.

He stops dead when he steps out of the stacks to see the candles completely burned down, the last in the center guttering at the end of its life. The other two have burned out entirely, wax covering the table and pooling out to nudge at the edges of the books.

There is no reason the candles should be that low. They were at full height when he picked the candelabra up, and he hasn’t been here that… long…

Geralt looks back at the stacks, and then at the floor. It’s completely clear of dust, endless pacing of his own familiar boots having cleared it from the floor. He stares at it, mouth going tight as he takes it in. The curse is working better than he thought, and he’s in more danger than he anticipated if it can get time away from him like this.

The last candle gutters and goes out, plunging the room into deeper darkness.

Geralt’s grip on Lorenz’s book tightens.

He’s gentle when he puts it back on a shelf, leaning it carefully up against some other books to keep it upright and safe. He lets his fingers linger on the cover, and closes his eyes. Just for a moment, he lets himself imagine a little blond boy with his tongue sticking out, pencil in hand as he draws his family, a baby brother beside him just learning to crawl.

“You all deserved better,” he says to the library, and leaves.

Geralt’s faint hope that the candles might have just burned fast is gone as soon as he opens the door to the night garden. It’s dark outside, and the new moon has returned to the sky to leave everything darker than it already was. He grimaces, and sits down to wait by the pool. There’s a lingering smell of blood in the corner with the buttercups, so he may have missed Jaskier, but he plans to wait anyway.

He doesn’t have to wait long.

The door opens quietly and Jaskier steps out on his soundless feet. He blinks at Geralt, but doesn’t seem surprised, and makes his measured way into the garden.

“Lord Jaskier,” Geralt says, standing.

“White Wolf,” Jaskier says, washed out eyes meeting his in the darkness. “Come now, meet me halfway.”

“Is there any other way to meet?” Geralt murmurs, and he catches the lightning quick smile on Jaskier’s face. He can hear the slow rise of Jaskier’s heart, and his own turns, slow and steady.

He does meet Jaskier halfway, and doesn’t recoil at the copper smell. He tries to focus on the other things about Jaskier, his heartbeat and his clothing, and he notices that one of Jaskier’s usual silver rings is gone. He reaches out and very gently takes Jaskier’s hand, deliberately ignoring the slightly widened eyes.

“You wear a lot of silver rings,” he says. “Missing one now, though.”

“My signet ring,” Jaskier says, voice level. “I can’t always wear it.”

Can’t, not don’t. Geralt hums, turning his hand over. His forearms are bandaged again, very neatly. “Are you well?”

“You already know the answer to that, White Wolf.” Jaskier doesn’t pull away, just tilts his head to bare his collar in the slightest invitation.

Geralt is only a man. He’s careful when undoing the buttons of the doublet, and Jaskier holds perfectly still as Geralt’s fingers accidentally graze his throat once or twice. His skin is dangerously soft, and Geralt fears that if he so much as touches him slightly too hard he’ll bruise as easily as a summer peach. He sets the doublet aside, and sees the bloodstains leaking out onto the chemise. There are buttons at the cuffs of this one, and he gently opens each one and helps Jaskier pull it free.

Another day, another whipping.

Geralt’s fingers twitch with the phantom need to stitch and soothe the wound. Jaskier catches it and gives him a slight smile before shucking the rest of his things off unceremoniously and stepping into the icy waterfall.

Geralt doesn’t flinch at the helpless, anguished noise Jaskier makes as he crashes to his knees and his eyes go black, but it’s a close thing. The whip wound is still bleeding like before, and Jaskier shudders under the pounding water, wrapping his arms around himself as the black tears start to pour and the heaving starts in earnest.

When the worst of it is done and the bird has been pulled from Jaskier’s gagging throat by Geralt’s careful hands to be plucked, Jaskier lays in the water and just breathes. The noise of it is painful. Geralt can hear the rasp, the heavy pull of air as he struggles with every move of his lungs, and he casts around for something to say.

“The birds,” he says quietly. “Do they come slower if you pluck them?”

Jaskier gives him a wan smile. “Very clever. I don’t know why, but yes, it seems like there’s a connection. They’re a little smaller, too.”

Interesting. There must be something to do with regeneration in the songbird spell, or perhaps it becomes a self fulfilling loop as the blood curse keeps Jaskier tethered and fights against the intruder in its target’s body.

“Anything you can tell me about those keys you mentioned?” Geralt asks as he pulls the last feathers from the bird’s body and tosses the corpse away. Everything stinks of rot anyway, he wants it away from his nose.

Jaskier hums. “No. You’ll have to go by what you’ve learned, I’m afraid.” He slowly drags himself up, arms shaking. The bandage has fallen off of his arm to reveal yet another neat line, and Geralt finds himself thinking about the scar cream that Eskel uses, the expensive kind that takes out the redness on his bad days and leaves the skin supple. He wants some for Jaskier.

Jaskier’s head finds his lap, and Geralt cleans his hands off so he can run his fingers through the soft hair again.

“Going to ask for more stories?” he murmurs.

Jaskier sighs, and coughs hard. A mix of red and rotted blood comes up against his hand and he dunks it in the water with a grimace. “I’ll spare you. It pained you the last time, I could see it.”

“The story about the princess I told you,” Geralt says. He doesn’t even know why, really, the words just fall from his lips. “There was no happy ending for the real princess. It was a lie.”

“Most stories are.” Jaskier wipes at his mouth, flicking away the black. “But the best stories have truth in them, even if it’s just a whisper. The kind of stories that keep you up at night are the kind where it could almost happen, it could almost be real. You could almost reach out and touch, in the same way you can touch ripples on a pond.”

Geralt watches the water in the pond splash as Jaskier readjusts his bony limbs. It laps at his too-pale skin, the delicate paper covering his bones. “Grim way to put it.”

“Survivors write the narrative that defines history,” Jaskier says, looking up at the stars overhead. “They decide how the story is going to end each time. How the reader gets there, what the story means, how they feel after it’s done, that’s up to the person telling it.”

“Rewriting the ending,” Geralt says, quiet. “A pretty lie.”

“Tell a lie long enough and it becomes the truth,” Jaskier says, hand finding his knee to squeeze. “Tell a lie well enough and it will become a legend. When I’m free, I’ll write the story of your princess in such a way that no one will hate her, and I’ll free her from her past.”

“And what about you?”

Jaskier looks at him, mouth quirking in a small smile. “Me?”

Geralt nods. “How are you going to rewrite your ending?”

Jaskier looks at him for a long moment before reaching up a hand for Geralt to take and hold. He does, and Jaskier says softly, “I will write a legacy bright enough to burn out the names of all who came before me.”

And somehow, Geralt knows he will.

Jaskier leaves him be after that, vanishing into the depths of the keep with his heart drum-steady and his eyes too flat. Geralt can’t bear another minute in the castle that evening so he returns to the Dancing Dove to regroup and focus on the rest of his work preparing for his hunt for the keys.

The keys are at the center of it all, the knot holding the curses together. Geralt looks over his notes in the cold darkness of the night and pulls another sheet of paper over to look at it more closely. The blooded places have to hold some sort of clues to the keys. He’s nearly certain that whatever is buried in the night garden is one of them, the throne another, but that still leaves him three more to pick apart, and he still doesn’t actually know what the curse is.

A snarl of frustration rips from his throat, and he shoves his chair away from the desk. The desk shakes, and Jaskier’s journal drops from the top of it onto the floor with a soft thump.

Geralt instantly regrets it, and hurries to pick the little thing up and check that it’s still in good condition. There’s not so much as a scratch to the leather, and he heaves a sigh of relief as he holds it. Almost absently, he flips it open to look at Jaskier’s writing, mind glossing over the actual words. The abrupt halt of entries leaves him quiet, and he runs his fingers gently over the first empty page.

The faintest sliver of a thought catches against his mind, and Geralt goes very still with the pads of his fingers still resting on the page.

He looks at the book, this half finished thing, and his breath catches in his throat. It had been clear since the first time he had stepped foot in Lettenhove Reach that nothing about this hunt was what it seemed. Nothing in the slightest. Jaskier writes in Rogelian Crumple. He talks in riddles designed to clarify. He offers clues where he can, leaves things in code; things hiding in plain sight, like buttercups on a grave.

With a hand that’s steadier than he feels, Geralt takes the candle from the table and brings it close enough to warm the blank page.

Ink begins to rise to the surface.

Geralt watches with no small amazement. It’s so simple, such an easy trick, and if Jaskier was used to hiding his thoughts from Jorgan it would have been an early skill to learn. All a person needed to make simple invisible ink was lemons and the little spell for ink reaction. If Jaskier had written this at Oxenfurt he could have easily acquired both in the city, and if in Lettenhove, could have found lemons in the kitchen or requested them.

His amazement turns to a groan as he realizes that the hidden phrase, too, is in Rogelian crumple. Resigned, Geralt stomps over to his code book and goes downstairs for yet more paper.

It turns out that the hidden information is, in fact, very short.

Geralt frowns at the page.

“The Tower and the Wyvern,” he reads out, and promptly goes back to checking over the book as thoroughly as possible for any more potential hidden messages. There are no holes or dots on the pages, no more messages in invisible ink of any kind that he can find. He growls in frustration and drops the journal back on the desk, somewhere between elated and irate.

“Jaskier,” he tells the journal, “you ever get cursed again and I might have to kill a man.”

The journal radiates an aura of extremely contrived innocence, and Geralt takes that as his cue to get some fucking sleep.

He falls into bed, closing his eyes against the weight of the day, and is asleep between one heartbeat and the next.

oOo

Geralt wakes up far later than he intends and misses breakfast, but he finds a tray outside his door with all his favorites on it and resolves to find more things to do to help Antonia as he gnaws his way through the spread and rereads his notes from the night before. “The Tower and the Wyvern” has the cadence of a story title, which might mean he needs to return to the Reach’s library, but given the state of the library he’s relatively certain that if the information on the curse is there it’s long since been buried in the chaos.

He hums as he swallows down some bacon, eyeing the paper. There’s Oxenfurt’s libraries as well, that’s a possibility, but Jaskier seems like the sort of person to keep his enemies close and his tools within grabbing distance. The information would be nearby. But there’s no community library here, and no mages with libraries for at least 50 miles. Where would Jaskier have hidden a story?

“Oh,” he says, blinking, and jumps up to get dressed. “Of course.”

Geralt’s knock brings Widow Olga to her door relatively quickly, and she blinks up at him with some surprise.

“Apologies for dropping in on you so early in the day, Mistress Olga,” he starts, but Olga just waves him off.

“No, no, not at all! Is this a social call, master Witcher?”

Geralt shakes his head, ducking through the door. “I came to ask if Rilandrus ever left any books or journals here. I’m looking for a story about a tower and a wyvern.”

Olga looks up at him with a very odd expression on her face. Geralt waits patiently, and she slowly closes the door, biting her lip. They stand in silence for a time before she says, very quietly, “It’s been a long time since I thought of that story. Come with me, dear.”

A bookshelf in the sitting room contains a small collection of Witcher journals and bestiaries. Olga flips through a few different ones before bringing him the oldest of the lot, and gently presses it into his hands.

“This is the journal with that story,” she says, her gentle old voice quavering a little. “It happened just before we met. I was a young girl then, all of, oh… 18 then, I think. I’d already met my Adrian, though we wouldn’t settle together for a few more years, and Rilandrus was happy to be just a facet of our lives. Adrian loved him nearly as dear as I did. He was a good husband. Rilandrus knew we could never have a real home together, always being called away as he was, but he would come every five winters and stay with us. We all cherished that time.”

The journal is heavier than it looks. Geralt can feel the weight of what it means to be handed something so precious.

“I can stay and read,” he says quietly. “So you don’t have to worry for it.”

There’s a flash of deep pain in Olga’s eyes, and she gently rests one wrinkled old hand on his.

“I forget most days,” she says simply, “but he’s gone, Geralt. And one day soon I will be too. I never thought I’d outlive both my loves and a few children, but it is what it is. He will not be more or less here for one journal.”

Geralt looks at the little book, the well worn leather. “All the same, I will be careful with it.”

Olga gently squeezes his hand. “I know you will, Geralt. Thank you.”

Geralt leaves Olga’s house feeling oddly bereft.

The sun is bright and spilling down through the trees, too nice a day to be inside, so Geralt meanders his way to the grassy edge of the growing fields where he took Roach weeks ago. The young women spinning and carding wool are there on the opposite edge, and wave to him as he settles. He nods back and opens the book to its first page. There’s no name, but there’s a set of dates that must cover the length of this journal, a span of about 5 years. The numbers are in Griffin cipher, but that’s no issue. Geralt’s long since been able to read the cipher with ease since Coen’s letters usually come written in it. He skims through the entries until he finds the word “wyvern” and settles in to read properly.

Late March, 1168, Toussaint- An account of the Wyvern and the woman in the tower

I am recovered enough to bring my hand to the page now, after two weeks. My arm struggled greatly to heal, and my healing potions were worn down long before I arrived here in Toussaint to attend to the issue of a wyvern believed to be stalking a tower with a young woman trapped inside. I exchanged rather tense pleasantries with the local nobility (Countess Adrina Lizette d’Beauleon, and sundry persons related), who engaged me on the contract, and I began my work posthaste.

The wyvern was indeed stalking the tower, for within it was kept a lovely young woman who had been trapped within thanks to a curse. The tower was situated on the outskirts of the Countess Adrina’s lands, previously a watchtower, but I gathered from the courtiers attached to the Countess that the young lady, one young Baroness’s daughter (Lady Sarra de Bourgh, formerly of the Redanian de Callamans prior to her move to Toussaint to seek her education) had been very fond of walking in the area, and walking in the watchtower’s ruins. The curse was placed upon her by a jealous classmate (Mistress Leliana Dearborn, late of Redania as well, who was turned over to the headmistress for punishment), and once I extracted the conditions I made my way to the tower. I engaged the wyvern, which had been trying its utmost to rip the place apart to get to the supposed easy prey inside. I used the usual oils but made substitutions to Aeldred’s recipe with some local honeysuckle that worked very well and also smelled quite nice, so I will update the potions book this winter. With the wyvern dispatched, the rest of the curse was broken easily enough from the information out of Mistress Leliana and the help of Lady Sarra. She was relieved to see me, and that I could walk freely into the tower. I helped her free, and was pleased to see no ill effects from the curse, only from hunger. I will grant that the curse was short lived, only a week. It was lucky that I was passing through Toussaint and heard of the issue. Lady Sarra arrived back at her school with somewhat shattered nerves and great hunger, but she was quite strong. I expect she will have a long and safer life for this experience.

As for the current affairs of Toussaint, I find myself having been invited to dine at the table of Countess Liana Toulousant d’Orea…

The account dissolves into a reflection on the current political situation in Toussaint on Rilandrus’ visit, and Geralt blinks. What?

He turns the page back, frowning, and rereads the entry. Broken arm, wyvern fight, returning girl home, politics. He hasn’t missed anything, and it definitely doesn’t look like there’s any codes attached to this particular entry other than the Griffin code. There’s nothing else to the entry that he can see. There isn’t even a breakdown of the broken curse. He holds the page up to the light just in case there’s anything he’s missed anywhere, but the page remains normal.

The rest of the afternoon passes quietly as he reads through the rest of the journal just in case there are other notes about the tower and the wyvern further on, but there’s nothing. Rilandrus was a dry but acceptable writer at least, and kept his hunt notes clean and clinical while still descriptive. Geralt learns that he ranged wider than even most other Griffin’s, from Kaedwen all the way down to the south of Nilfgaard in his pattern, and had a very interesting five years. Geralt finally closes the book in the growing dark of the evening with a grumble and makes his way back to the Dancing Dove to fetch his notes and Jaskier’s journal to go over everything he knows, again.

He stakes out a table in the corner and spreads his work out to begin the process of consolidating his notes and expanding on the facets of the blood curse that he thinks he might have an acceptable grasp on, a borrowed pencil from Antonia’s collection in his hand to scrawl out his thoughts on spare paper.

Geralt frowns as he reaches his notes about the tower and the wyvern. What was so interesting about this account that Jaskier had felt the need to write it in invisible ink? There’s nothing that odd about the story, aside from the maiden being locked in by the curse, but the curse is so vague and nonspecific that it could be anything. It’s certainly possible that the locking curse is the same one used on Jaskier, but-

“Oh, I haven’t thought about the Tower and the Wyvern in years!” Melita says, popping up by his elbow. He doesn’t jump, but it’s a near thing. She’s quiet, and has an apron on and her hair pulled back. Apparently she’s helping Antonia tonight, and she pushes a trencher of bread with a massive bowl of soup to him. “Antonia says you’re not eating enough so she sent me with this.”

“Thanks.” Geralt looks down to see that he’s scrawled the words on the page of notes closest to the edge of the table, right where Melita would have seen them. “You know the story?”

Melita shakes her head. “Not well enough to tell it, but I remember the song Jaskier used to sing about it. He liked to do that, take stories he heard and set them to music. The Tower and the Wyvern was pretty popular, actually, I remember him teaching it to me before he left for Oxenfurt 4 years back, because it was right before my parents passed and Herrin took me in. We had a skipping game set to it.”

Geralt’s mind catches on something, and he carefully sets the journal down. “Do you know if he ever spent much time with Rilandrus? The Griffin Witcher who came here, that was his name.”

“Oh, yes, a number of times.” Melita sits down next to him, looking at his papers. “Any time he could get out of the Reach he would be here instead. He would talk to him for hours getting all sorts of details from him about everything, Olga says. Rilandrus wasn’t here much and Lord Jaskier was kept at the castle, but he’d go whenever he could. I think Rilandrus liked getting to talk about all the little things that made up his hunts.”

Details like the specifications of a curse that Rilandrus hadn’t written down.

“Do you remember the song for the Tower and the Wyvern?” Geralt asks, barely daring to hope.

“Some of it,” Melita says, and looks up at the ceiling. “The chorus was the catchy part that we all learned, but I don’t remember the verses of the actual story of the Witcher fighting the wyvern. Let me think how it goes again…
One for the power
One for the land
One for the heart in the palm of your hand
One for obedience
One for the soul
Only together will all be made whole.
Bring down the sun, call up the moon
Hope that a Witcher will find me here soon
Break up the tower to crumble away
Sing me a love song as I wither in day
Slow down my heart so no one smells fear
Shield my poor body to keep me safe here
Love conquers all
This still I know
Bring us together
Make me again whole
.”

Geralt stares at her, heart in his throat.

“Fuck,” he says to the open air, and Melita blinks at him. He pushes paper and ink towards her. “Can you write?”

“Um, yes-”

“Write down what you sang for me.”

Of course, he thinks wildly as Melita carefully writes out the words. Of fucking course, Jaskier was a nosy and paranoid boy who would have known about his father’s plans and had a back up just in case it was him who was doomed to be overtaken. The song was just a song until spoken by someone with power and intent in Elder, and Jaskier would have known how to perform the ritual to activate it from Rilandrus. Curses could be made with so little effort. If Jaskier had figured out exactly what his father intended to do, he could have spoken the words and used the magic bound in his throat to warp and twist it, and amplify it by using his own blood to turn the curse into a full lockdown. He had hidden the curse’s secret in a song. Jorgan and Geralt had both thought it would be written down, but Jorgan had hated music and Geralt would never have thought to ask for a song.

Geralt’s going to kill him for how specific but open the curse is, though, that’s for certain.

Melita hands him the paper and he reads through it with feverish attention.

The 5 keys now have specific meanings attached. The throne must be power, but the other four are still undefined. The curse’s parameters make more sense too- he’s bound to nighttime, the sun becoming an enemy that could undo the curse enough for the possession to take. His heart was slowed to help his body stay inert and at rest to save energy, the “shield” line unintentionally erasing his presence and trying to force out his body’s rider. And, of course, because he’s a fucking idiot, Jaskier had accidentally built in a clause about the curse having to be broken by a Witcher. The last few lines about love will take some puzzling out but for now he’s finally found a break.

Melita leans over with wide eyes as he pulls his notes in and starts to compare the lyrics with the bird curse. “Did I do good?”

“You may have just saved him,” Geralt says honestly, and Melita’s eyes go wide.

“You mean…”

“The song is part of the curse,” he says, scribbling a note to get a shovel from somewhere to dig up the night garden. “Hidden in plain sight, where no one would find it and without any danger of someone finding it written down.”

“Oh,” Melita breathes, and reaches out to gently touch his hand. “Master Witcher?”

He looks back at her, and sees her huge eyes fixed fearlessly on him. “Hmm?”

“Is...is Lord Jaskier going to be okay?”

Tell a lie long enough and it becomes the truth.

“Yes,” Geralt says. “One way or another.”

Melita nods somberly, and to his surprise leans over to hug him tight before jumping up and hurrying away. He watches her go with a strange feeling burrowing its way into his chest. He’s going to miss Lettenhove and her people when he goes. It’s strange to think that he’s found almost a family here, as much as that’s possible.

Shaking his head, he returns his focus to the notes, and delves into his work.

oOo

One for the power, one for the land, one for the heart in the palm of my hand…

Geralt makes his way up to the castle, the first lines of The Tower and the Wyvern’s chorus ringing in his ears as he goes. It’s dark out, spring starting its slow descent into summer. The air is hot with growing things and heavy with humidity, too much for him to be willing to haul himself fully armored up to the castle. He’s down to his shirtsleeves and usual trousers and boots, swords slung on his back.

One for obedience, one for the soul...

Yakob’s on duty with Uldred. They let him past without comment.

The keep is dark and smells faintly of damp thanks to the rain that washed through in the morning hours. Geralt had slept through it, exhaustion bogging him down. He finds a candelabra and lights it, mouth set in a grim line as he considers the empty halls before him.

Only together will all be made whole.

It’s time to start key hunting.

The Great Hall is his first destination. There’s more blood smeared on the back of the chair, relatively new, and Geralt resists the urge to spit on it.

One for the power…

That’s one key down, clearly. Four to go, and he needs to make the most of his time since the space between each bird Jaskier coughs up grows shorter.

He leaves the chair be. For one thing, it’s bolted to the stones, and for another, the curse requires all the keys be in the same place before it can be broken, never mind the myriad other little things Geralt has to get just right. Gods, he fucking hates curses, and he hates this set of curses with a fervor he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to match again in his life. He huffs a sigh, considering his options as he looks back and forth down the halls. He has power’s key, but obedience, heart, soul, and land are all still in the wind.

The candles gutter weakly in the dark.

Obedience, he thinks. Obedience and blood. The stables are an option for that, but… Jorgan had wanted an obedient, mindless child. While there’s fresh blood in the stables, the box with the horrible curved needle is in the laboratory still, and, well. The trauma of that particular kind of bloodletting might be strong enough to carry on for years if the spell were tied to it.

Which means, of course, that he needs to go get it.

The candles gutter again, and Geralt doesn’t move.

The curse is working on him. He knows it is. Ever since the library he’s been… aware, in a way. He’s off his game, more emotional than normal. Some curses are like that, heavy handed on top but subtle as riptides underneath. Chaos likes to find ways to wreak havoc, magic unpredictable when there isn’t a mage on hand to manage it and keep it tethered to order. The curse is bound by some limitations, but not enough. Geralt’s emotions were taken from their normal highs and lows and smoothed out, so to speak, by the trials. But they’re still there. And the curse is working him over hard to bring things that he wouldn’t have blinked at before into new and ugly light.

Geralt takes a slow breath, and lets it out carefully.

Time to go.

The slow spiral down into the old dungeons leaves him with a bad taste in his mouth, and Geralt hesitates on the last step. The candelabra flickers, casting odd shadows on the stones, and he takes a slow breath of stale air before stepping off and into the passage with the cells. This time he stops in front of the one that holds Lorenz’s belongings. It’s a measly amount of things. The trunks are small. But there’s no lock on the door to deter him, so he pulls the door open and steps in to get a better look at the painting.

He’d only glanced at it the other day, but now that he’s looking closer he can see that it’s a self portrait. It’s a little more stylized than the others, with Lorenz painting on a canvas and looking out at the viewer. Closer inspection reveals that under his fine silks there are scars on his neck that look like burns, and dark spots under the glassy eyes. His ear has a mark where it looks like an earring might have been torn out, and among the set dressing of flowers in vases there are endless perfectly rendered lobelias.

Geralt looks at the lobelias for a long time. Poisonous in large enough doses, a painkiller in others, beautiful always.

He collects the other two paintings from the neighboring rooms and puts them together, looking at the set. Lorenz has the same stubborn mouth as Jaskier, similar lashes, the same nose. Natalia does look the most like Jaskier, with her soft brown curls and similar eyes and jaw, but she’s dressed in severe, plain clothes and seated for her portrait in a comfortable chair. There’s some needlework in her lap, nothing too ornate, and her eyes are tired. Her flowers are hellebore. Piotr has the same face shape as Jaskier, and dark waves in the same gentle pattern as Jaskier’s, but there’s a steeliness to him under the placid expression. He has a bouquet of foxgloves on his lap, and a full platter of untouched food before him.

He sighs, looking at the three. They look painfully young. Lorenz would have made a fortune as a portraitist.

“I’ll do what I can,” he tells their unblinking faces.

Geralt rises, heart settled, and grabs the candelabra.

The stillroom is in the same shape that he found it last, his mark all over the room. Geralt sets the candelabra down and blows the candles out, drawing his sword before he triggers the hidden door. It pulls back on groaning hinges, and he stares up into the musty dark. There’s the faintest breeze down the stairs, bringing with it the stale smell of unwalked places.

“Fuck it,” he mutters, and lights his hand.

The moment he takes the first step he feels the curse ramp up its work. His heart kicks up, and he grits his teeth as he starts to climb. One foot after the other, each landing in the divots of a thousand footsteps on the stone before, he climbs in the dark.

The silence is a physical thing, pressing in on him with each careful step. All he can hear in the darkness is the faint guttering of Igni in his hand, and the rasp of his own breathing as he struggles to keep his heart even. Even his steps seem muffled in this place, and the dark feels like velvet, pressing in with soft fingers and making itself impenetrable. Igni’s light only stretches so far around him, and he’s almost certain that part of it is the curse keeping some pressure on him, making the darkness an ever more physical part of this unending fight. But it’s one foot after another, careful placement in each divot, staying light on his feet and keeping his pupils blown wide to catch every possible hint of movement.

He should have brought Cat, he thinks in a vague sort of way. One more step. He should have brought his armor (why hadn’t he brought his armor, the reason seems so far away now-), and he should have brought a candle from the candelabra (but he needs both hands for...something…) More steps.

What is he doing? He’s not prepared, he’s only got his swords, and he is not alone in the dark-

He should be there by now.

Geralt stops dead.

Fuck.

Igni gutters in his hand, and he takes a deep, slow breath. The curse is definitely getting stronger. He flicks his fingers and sends Igni scattering up the stairs, watching with sickening interest as they warp and twist like a mirage in the desert before shivering. They solidify back into normal stairs and he lights his hands again, feeling more clearheaded.

Box. He’s getting the box. He’s getting the fucking box and getting out of this fucking castle.

With grim resolution Geralt continues up the stairs. This time he makes it to the turn for the laboratory with no issues, and lets himself in. The place is exactly as he left it. The box is waiting on the table, so he scoops it up. The room is as stuffy and uncomfortable as ever, and he scowls as he kicks some broken glass out of the way. He has what he came for, it’s time to leave.

His eyes light on the red journal, the one with the children’s faces and deaths in it.

This is Jorgan’s trophy collection. No physical trophies, just the images of these children, and if it’s destroyed there’ll be no proof that he committed the murders. It’s been too long. He snags the book from the pile and tucks it into his shirt so he won’t lose it, nods to himself, and leaves the room once more to head back down. A straightforward retrieval. What a concept.

Geralt returns to the velveteen dark, takes a breath to steady himself, and begins the slow descent to the dungeons once more. He’s genuinely uncertain how far up he is- he thinks this may be the fourth floor, the highest part of the keep, but it’s hard to say. The staircase winds in a circuitous path, narrow in places, and with the complete lack of any signposts that he can smell or see he’s functionally walking blind.

He thinks he might be on the second level when a voice thick with venom hisses, “Behave.”

Every hair on the back of Geralt’s neck rises to stiff attention.

The voice seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, dripping menace. It bounces off the walls, making it impossible to tell where it’s coming from. “You can do nothing without making it some sort of obstacle to overcome. Do you think yourself clever, bitch? You’ve never been anything but a means to an end.”

Jaskier.

It’s Jaskier’s voice, but the cadence is all wrong. This is Jaskier possessed, the beast in him using his voice.

And Geralt has no idea where he is.

“No,” Jaskier’s voice says, almost bored. There’s an edge of anger underneath, and it’s definitely Jaskier himself talking. “You’ve said all of this before, and it’s not more true now than it was then.”

Geralt can smell copper now. Jaskier’s close. The shielding on him keeps his footsteps and scent from Geralt, muffling him to the senses, but the copper stink mixed with the cold silver of his jewelry and faintest swishing of his clothes give him away. Barely.

Geralt looks down at the box in his hand, and Igni in the other. He has little time. There’s nowhere to hide the box, and if he cuts Igni he’ll have no light in the darkness at all against an opponent who knows every inch of these halls even in pitch dark and won’t put a single foot wrong. He’s going to have to hope that Jaskier’s body is behind him, and not down one of the side halls.

A brief, horrible thought whispers into his mind.

He could kill Jaskier here. A fall on the stairs is an easy thing to explain away. The townsfolk wouldn’t even blame him. He could snap his neck, make it painless, free him from this torment. It could be fast.

He could make it very, very fast.

Love conquers all, this still I know.

The words of the song kill that thought as soon as it raises its ugly head, and Geralt steels himself. No. Jaskier would not be saved through violence. He will be saved through love, pure and unconditional. He’s closing in on the final keys, and to stop now would be a weakness he would never forgive himself for.

Geralt begins his descent, walking as soft as he can. Igni only casts so much light, and he keeps it close to his chest just to be a bit safer.

“I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that you still think such foolish things,” the menacing voice says again, and this time it’s definitely closer. “But, my dear Julian, I will make you pay for them.”

Geralt rounds a curve and stops in his tracks.

“Well,” the thing in Jaskier’s body says, staying at the edge of the ring of light before him. He’s dressed in all black, the matte cotton of his shirt and trousers melting into the darkness. His feet are bare, his hands and neck dripping with silver. The smile on his face isn’t Jaskier’s at all. “Hello, witcher. It’s nice to finally see you again. He likes to keep me running away from you, when he knows you’re in the keep. He ties us to the bedpost, and I’ve yet to figure out the knots.”

“You have me at a disadvantage,” Geralt says evenly, tightening his grip on his dagger and letting Igni flare a little. Jaskier’s body flinches back, head turning away a little to avoid the light.

“Oh, but you’ve gone grubbing through all my little secrets, we’re practically bed mates,” Jorgan Lorenz Pancratz de Lettenhove says through his son’s mouth. “You’ve seen me laid bare, master witcher. Tell me, how does my work compare to other humans you’ve seen?”

Too late, Geralt sees the tiny squat blade hiding in Jaskier- no, in Jorgan’s hands. It’s the twin to the one in the box he carries, probably the same one Jaskier uses for his bloodletting. Jaskier’s body is fast for someone who hasn’t been eating well and been heaving rotted blood out of himself for two years, and Geralt very nearly misses deflecting the knife as Jorgan lunges for him hard and fast, knife outstretched. He stumbles back a step, narrowly keeping his balance as Igni gutters in his hand.

“It won’t be long now,” Jorgan says, darting close and then back out of the light fast, knife whistling as it barely avoids him. Geralt stumbles back up the stairs as Jorgan advances, dodging each stab. “Not long at all. Hold still, Witcher- I want to see how you bleed.”

It’s the light. The light hurts his eyes, like Geralt’s. Geralt takes a deep breath, steadies the box in his hands, and snuffs out Igni. There’s a delighted hiss in the dark and he slams his hand on the wall to light it once more, the flames rushing out to greedily fill the darkness with new and vibrant light. Jorgan screams, stumbling backwards and dropping the knife. Geralt kicks it away and grabs him, pinning him to his body as he spins them together so Geralt’s lower on the steps. He thrashes hard, trying to keep his face from the light, and it looks like something roils under his skin before it’s subdued and Jaskier starts to cry black tears.

“No, no, no,” Jaskier’s voice says- and oh, fuck, he’s never been more relieved to hear that cadence in his life. “No, no, no, no-”

“Fight it,” Geralt begs, voice ragged with desperation. “Come on, you son of a bitch, you’ve made it 21 years under this fucker’s thumb, you can manage five more minutes.” Igni gutters in his hand, nearly going out, and he struggles to keep it lit. Jaskier shies away from the light, eyes leaking tears from more exposure than he’s had in years.

“You have to go,” Jaskier says, voice ragged as his chest heaves. His heart is rabbit fast, and Geralt feels sick. “Let me go, he’s almost out of strength for the day, you have to run.”

“No,” he snarls, and Jaskier fights in his arms. Geralt can feel blood seeping through his doublet and onto his arms. “No, Jaskier, I am not fucking letting you go.”

“Please,” Jaskier begs, eyes flashing. “Go, before you’re just one more thing I have to regret about this place. Go before he can take you from me too. I won’t let him kill again.”

“If I abandon you now, I know I’ll regret it every day for the rest of my fucking life,” Geralt says, the words punched out of him by the weight of their truth. “I kill monsters, Jaskier, I leave this one alive and it’ll eat me too. There will be nowhere to go that I can outrun it, no place too forgotten to disappear. Fail you, and I will have failed everything. Fail you, and I won’t be able to keep going. I’m not leaving you.”

Jaskier heaves out a shuddering sob, and looks up to meet his eyes. The blue blazes against the black tears, and Geralt can see the steel underneath the corroding blood.

GO,” Jaskier shouts, and Geralt bites back a roar of frustration as the power in the command hooks into him and forces him into stumbling away. “I’ll do what I can! Trap me, fast!”

Igni snuffs out as Geralt throws down Yrden just in time, Jaskier slamming forward into the binds and screaming like a wild thing, the snarl on his face barely human. The command sticks and Geralt lights Igni to run down the narrow stairs, only to have it gutter and fail as he slips on the slick steps and falls. For one terrible swooping moment he thinks this is the end, that here is how he’ll end his life, a broken neck in a hidden staircase in the dark as he tumbles and slams against the stones. A gash opens on his back and he bites back a noise of pain, fingers scrambling for purchase on the divotted steps. He finally manages to catch himself and lights Igni, staggering to his feet and rushing down the stairs to the open room and blessed light of the stillroom. He hears a howl from the stairs and drags the door closed, shoving the bookshelf in front of it to block the exit.

Geralt sits down hard on the floor, chest heaving as he looks down at his prize.

“You better have been worth something,” he tells the box, and slowly gets back up on his feet to run for the exit.

He hides the box and death journal under rotting straw in an abandoned stall, Madeline watching him with placid eyes. He gets it covered, wincing as he feels the cut on his back twinge, and curses himself out for having been so careless as to go with only his swords and no armor into the keep. He’s gotten sloppy here, and he makes his way to the shambles of a tack room to look for any gear for first aid that might be kept there.

He finds a likely looking small chest in the wreckage of the room, and decides he’s not about to risk getting yet more grime in the wound. He takes the chest out and sets it down near the post, pulling it open to see if there are bandages inside. The box is the kind with two levels, a tray on the top for lifting out and storage below it. The top does thankfully have bandages, and some tinctures for cleaning wounds against infection. He picks up some clean rags to at least get the worst of the grime off of his hands, but his nose wrinkles as he smells copper.

Geralt looks around, confused. There’s the usual bloodstains on the floor, and fuck, how he hates that that’s normal. But it’s not enough blood to justify it.

He looks back at the box, and his heart sinks.

Slowly, he lifts up the tray to reveal what sits below the bandages.

Geralt’s handled a lot of terrible shit in his day. He regularly deals with the restless dead, the byproducts of battlefields left to rot, and the kind of monsters that make even something like him look cuddly and gentle. But the braided length of leather he pulls from the box makes him sicker than near anything ever has.

The blood is fresh.

Geralt sinks to his knees in front of the post Jaskier has been bound to far too many times, head thumping against the wood as shuddering, wracking noise rushes from his chest. It’s not the precursor to tears, it’s just anguish and exhaustion all on its own, too many layers of pain bound up in him as the hot copper stink of blood burns his nose. He slumps there, body shaking as he hauls in heaving lungfuls of air tainted by blood and mold, alone in a decaying stable. There’s no one to see him. No one to comfort him. He’s as near to despair as it’s possible to be.

Pointless. The box was pointless, and Jaskier is bloody backed, and Geralt is running out of time faster and faster.

The whip is his second key.

The whip is leaving Jaskier’s blood on his hands.

One for obedience...

“Fuck you,” he breathes, full of bitter rage. “Death was too damn good for you, Jorgan de fucking Lettenhove.”

It takes him much too long to slowly stagger to his feet again, but it’s only Madeline who sees him. She whickers and snorts as he goes to her and opens her stall. Geralt wraps his arms around her neck and presses his face into her mane. She doesn’t seem worried, just drapes her sturdy head over his shoulder like she does this all the time. Geralt drags in breath after breath of clean horse scent, free of copper and cruelty. The trembling starts to ease, and he lets go with one last steadying breath.

He cleans his hands on his pants before petting her and telling her that she’s a good horse indeed and promising her very many apples. She just tries to eat his hair, and that makes him hug her again.

When he finally staggers into the Dancing Dove, Antonia is cleaning up from the evening’s work. She drops a stack of wooden platters when she sees him, eyes fixing on the bloodstains and the bruise on his check, the tear in his shirt. She gathers her skirts and runs to him with worry in her eyes, and Geralt just holds open his arms in silent request.

She pulls him into the strongest hug of his life, and Geralt buries his face in her hair.

“We don’t have long left,” he tells her, and he knows he must sound as exhausted as he feels. “It’s not good.”

Antonia just holds him tighter, one hand coming up to gently cup the back of his head to soothe him.

After he’s bathed and taken a healing potion, Geralt sits on the bed and looks at his hands. They blur a little, and the cut on his back twinges. He knows what it means. He can feel it with a weight of certainty he’s never felt before. He bled in the castle, and he doesn’t dare hope that he managed to escape without dripping his own blood within the castle grounds.

Geralt is tied to the blood curse now, and it’s going to do it’s damnedest to destroy him before Jorgan even gets a chance.

Chapter Text

Extract from the letters of Witcher Rilandrus of Lettenhove, Griffin School, to Witcher Vesemir of Kaer Morhen, Wolf School, Summer of 1229.

...If by now you have forgiven me for not having written in the past few years, I hope you would indulge me with a moment of reflection, one teacher to another. Every five years I let my brothers have the run of the remains of Kaer Seren and make my way to a small fief in Redania, called Lettenhove, where you know I stay with a family dear to me and have made myself a home of sorts. This year I’ve come very early. I’ll spend til Spring with them, I’ve missed them terribly. Their children are growing, and the viscounts fourth son gambols among them this year. He runs wild with the village children, always begging for the details of my stories, and I’ve tried to teach him all that I can about anything he cares to hear. He has a wonderful ear for stories, and I must admit, it is wonderful to spend time among humans who care for me. The little one is so persistent. I will hold his memory close.

Ah, Vesemir, we are old now. My Olga looks my age, and her hands are starting to fail her some, but she still stitches so beautifully. She’s taken to putting little griffins in spots on my clothing, so I might run my fingers over the rise in the fabric and feel her there with me always. I will miss her deeply when she is gone. Adrian has already passed just this winter, and the loss of him cut me deeply. They tell us not to love, and I must tell those boys not to love, but. Well.

Love truly does conquer all, this still I know. Even old Witchers who are more scars than battle readiness can be conquered by children bringing them dandelions as payment for monster stories.

I miss you, old friend. Write soon, I’ll be here.

Rilandrus

PS: I nearly forgot. One of my apprentices, Coen, ran into one of your brothers. He is uncomfortable at Kaer Seren for many reasons- might I tell him he would be welcome to winter with you? I understand he’s already met your young Lambert and likes him for some reason, if that helps you in your decision making.

oOo

Thursday.

Jaskier is holding court.

Darkness.

He walks into the keep with Johann at his side.

Torches light the way.

He’s tired. He’s so tired. His limbs feel like they’re lead weighted.

“Master Witcher?”

The family wing.

He has to go back to the master bedroom.

Fuck, he’s so tired.

“Master Geralt!”

Geralt blinks. Johann is hovering over him in the dark side corridor leading toward the entry to the servants stairs, and Geralt himself is on the floor. The stone is cool against his skin, and he slowly sits up, blinking. Johann shifts anxiously and bends to him.

“What happened?” Geralt rasps.

“I don’t know,” Johann says, looking down the hall. His eyes are wide, worried. “You just slumped over and fell, I didn’t see anything hit you.”

Geralt rubs at his forehead. Exhaustion and a migraine are waging war to see which can claim him first. The curse had started tugging at his strength when he woke, and he had nearly cut himself with the bread knife in the kitchen. The energy seems to be slowly sapping from his lungs, and Geralt slowly pulls himself back up, taking a deep breath. The world spins, and for just a moment he thinks he feels hands coming to steady him. He blinks, and it’s just Johann in front of him.

“Let’s go,” he says, and Johann makes a worried little noise before they slip up the servant’s stairs together.

By the time they reach the hallway Geralt’s breathing hard and his hands are shaking from the strain of holding himself together. He has to grab at the wall to keep himself upright. Johann offers him a shoulder, and Geralt takes it, keeping one hand on the wall to try and brace himself. The hall is dark and cold, the dust and cobwebs quietly mocking.

Johann fumbles the key into the master bedroom lock and pushes the door open. Geralt follows him in, his steps slow and unsteady as he takes in the room. There's no visible difference from the first time he was here, the detritus of lost lives still scattered around, but somewhere in this mess is the key he needs. Hopefully.

"The other room," he tells Johann, voice rattling in his chest. "The sitting room. Look for anything with blood on it, but don't touch it if you find it."

Johann nods, and after a moment's hesitation goes into the sitting room. Geralt sways on his feet, looking around the bedroom. He should check the wardrobe, the bedside tables, all the little nooks and crannies. He knows he should.

Instead, Geralt sits down hard on the bed and buries his face in his hands.

He’s so close. He knows he’s close, he knows it in his bones, but the curse is wearing on him harder than it ever has before and he just desperately wants to leave it all behind and go kill something. Anything. He’ll even take nekkers. Drowners. Some shitty awful goblin beasts. He just wants this done. Give him an honest bruxae over curses any day.

Geralt of Rivia hasn’t cried in a long time. He thinks the last time was over Gweld, once he was tucked away in a corner of the woods for no one to see or hear but squirrels and the trees. It had been a quiet day, just more traveling from place to place, and the grief had finally slipped up behind him to stab him in the throat for his troubles. He’d been in no rush then. There had been a brook nearby, he thinks. Quaking aspens like there are here. Fuck, he might even have been in Redania then.

The first splash of hot tears is almost a surprise.

Almost.

He makes no sound as they drip down his face, leaving hot tracks in their wake like brands against his skin. He’s long since learned to keep silent through even the most gruesome of pains, and this one doesn’t even have the decency to have clawed his chest open to injure his heart in the process. The curse has done its work very well, he thinks as he draws in a slow, rattling breath. His throat is tight. The salt water drips from his face onto his knees, and Geralt folds in on himself, wrapping his arms around his torso in a broken parody of comfort. He permits himself one faint, barely there sob as the tears splash onto the dusty stone floor.

There is no comfort to be found here. Just a bed where a monster took his children and brutalized them, for surely there would be no other reason for this bed to be the recipient of the blood marking. Geralt doubts the bed itself will fit for any of the keys, but it remains a cruel reminder of Jaskier’s pain, his siblings pain.

Fuck, he wants to burn it to the ground so Jaskier never has to face this shit again.

He’s on his feet before he realizes he’s moving, hands gripping the ruined fabric to rip the covers away and reveal the human shaped blood stain on the right side of the bed. The blood has spread wide along the linens, and if he has to guess, it’s sunk deep into the mattress to make it stink so severely of the blood. Now his nose is attuned to the smell of Jaskier’s suffering, he can smell the depth of the rot.

He’s breathing hard, running hot somewhere between rage and despair. How fucking dare? How dare that gods rotted shitheel of a murderer ever lay a finger on his children, how dare he rot them from the inside out, how dare he treat them like nothing more than trash to be discarded? 38 dead children, another three of his own get, and his own fucking wife, all tossed on pyres or buried six feet under to rot, killed for nothing but the pleasure it got him.

Geralt furiously wipes away at his tears, huffing hard as he feels the despair try and fail to swamp him. No. NO. He will look at this disgusting, awful bed, and if he is so lucky as to put it to the torch when this nightmare has run its course he’ll be grateful.

His legs give out then, forcing him to sit back down, and he takes a deep breath before starting his examination.

Geralt carefully runs his hands over the stained fabric. It shouldn’t bother him, it really shouldn’t fucking bother him with as much awful shit as he’s touched in his life, but the thick stains make his stomach twist as he feels for any oddities. Halfway up, about where the human heart would sit, he feels a lump too hard to be the bed. There’s a small, finger wide rip in the fabric, so thin as to be barely noticeable.

With hands that tremble, he carefully pulls a ring from under the bloody rip.

It’s silver, he notices faintly, and a simple design. It’s very old. The band is wide, but the face is flat and has some sort of five petalled flower carved deep into it, probably the de Lettenhove arms- a cinquefoil flower. It’s also stained with blood and a little tarnished on the outside. The interior is smooth though, and he looks at it for a long moment. Jaskier’s silver rings make more sense, a way to subtly hide one of the keys in plain sight.

One for the land…

A signet ring to give him command over the land. And, Geralt thinks with a sense of bitter, ugly dread, Jaskier probably meant for it to be a sick joke about plowed fields with it buried in this disgusting, blood soaked bed. He closes his eyes again at the thought, breathing shallow through his mouth. The rage snuffs out, leaving only disgust and misery behind.

It doesn’t help.

Suddenly, all he wants is to be off of this awful bed. He levers himself up, and feels his stomach flip over as he sways. Phantom hands steady him, and he unconsciously bats them away.

“Johann,” he calls hoarsely, and Johann hurries in from the other room. “Found it. Need your shoulder.”

Johann gives it to him, and together they make their way out of the bedchambers and down the hall to the servant’s stair. Johann’s a good head shorter than Geralt, not that that’s hard, but he’s got strong shoulders from kitchen work. The gloom of the hall weighs on them both, the darkness echoing back their breathing. Geralt thinks he can hear the rustle of silk somewhere- perhaps Jaskier got done early with his court.

Or Geralt might be losing time again.

The thought sends an icy finger of dread down his spine, and he shudders.

“Geralt, where are we going?” Johann asks, looking up at him as he pulls open the servant’s door.

“Day garden,” Geralt says, because it’s as good a place as any. Johann nods, and then Geralt’s mind whites out a little.

He comes back to himself under the overhang covering the walkway that surrounds the day garden, standing on his own and watching Johann check the other doors to be certain they won’t be disturbed. Geralt catches his swaying form on one of the pillars, and looks up and around, trying to see if there’s any old hooks he can hang the ring from to hide it. He finds one about halfway up, hidden in a bit of a niche in the stone. Jaskier won’t come here, not if the pattern holds solid. He hangs the ring on the hook, hidden in just enough shadow that it’s mostly invisible unless looked for.

Three keys down, two to go. With the ring and the whip hidden, Jaskier won’t be able to renew the curse, so he’ll have to move fast.

Another wave of dizziness reaches him, and Geralt falls to his knees, knocking his head against the stone wall of the garden boundary. He hears Johann coming, the noise of alarm, but he looks up to see three vague, translucent shapes looking down at him.

He can smell lobelia, hellebore, and foxglove.

“I’m trying,” he rasps to the dead children. “I’m trying.”

One bends down. Hellebore- Natalia, then. He can vaguely make out a more feminine shape in the darkness. There’s the faintest pressure of something that might be a hand gently stroking over his hair, and Geralt closes his eyes. They aren’t true ghosts, just… echoes of Jaskier’s pain, bound up in the curse along with him. Once Geralt was added to the curse, the echoes must have realized he was something new and interesting, and started to follow him around.

“Master Witcher- Mother Melitele preserve me,” Johann gasps, and Geralt opens his eyes to see Johann drop to his knees, eyes welling with tears as he looks up at the echoes. “My Lady Natalia.”

The incorporeal hand leaves his hair, and Geralt watches as the shade of Natalia walks to Johann and stops in front of him, the shadow of her flickering back and forth. Johann reaches out a tentative hand, and Natalia’s shade mimics him, touching their hands together. Johann’s eyes spill over and he clamps a hand over his mouth to keep from weeping too loud as he crumples in on himself.

“I’m sorry,” he gasps out between ragged, hitching breaths. “Oh, Natalia, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I did everything I could, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t even there for you at the end, I’m so sorry, I burn candles for you still.”

Geralt pushes himself up against the wall, feeling a bit lightheaded. “You knew her,” he says, quiet.

“I did,” Johann chokes out, bowing his head to his hand. The shade passes through it, but he doesn’t seem to care. “I loved her. I did everything I could to sneak food to her that wasn’t spoiled with poison. I tried, Master Witcher, I tried so hard to keep her alive. She was so kind, so beautiful.”

The shade drifts aimlessly around Johann as he buries his face in his hands. She doesn’t seem upset, or even confused about where she is. She just drifts, unconcerned and calm. Her dead brothers drift to Geralt’s sides, nudging lightly against him to urge him up. Geralt grits his teeth and reaches up for a handhold on the ledge to lever himself up. Piotr appears in front of him, trying to urge him up, and Geralt gently pushes at the shade to give him space.

“I’m fine,” he tells them, and the brothers drift around him in a mockery of care, their forms flickering. “I’m fine.”

Johann uncurls slowly, looking up at Geralt with undisguised grief. “Is she...Is she trapped here?”

Geralt sighs. “No,” he says, keeping his voice gentle. “She’s not… this isn’t your Natalia, Johann. This is just a memory of her, not a true ghost. She’s a shade, just… an echo of how she was when Jaskier was with her. Just like these two.”

“Not a ghost?” Johann begs, wiping at his eyes. “Just… memories given form?”

“That’s right.”

Johann bites back a fresh sob, looking up at the shade of Natalia. “So… she’s not trapped. She got out? She’s free?”

Geralt’s chest hurts. He leans against the pillar with the ring hooked on it, letting it take the brunt of his weight. “She’s free. She may have passed on, and that death might sting, but she wasn’t trapped here to live through more tortures.”

Johann nods, a shuddering sigh of relief escaping him. He slowly gets to his feet, rubbing his eyes clear and sniffling a little. Natalia sways in front of him, staring blankly. He reaches out, gently touching the curl of hair draping over her shoulder. His fingers go straight through it. Natalia watches him, expressionless.

“I miss you, my lady,” Johann whispers. “I’ll always miss you. I’ll keep your memory alive.”

His hand falls, and he turns away. Geralt holds out his arm, and Johann helps lever him up. The shades cluster together, turning into a tangle of dark shadows. They’ve almost made it to the door before a half whispered voice breathes, “Geralt.”

Geralt stops dead, looking back at the shades. It’s Lorenz that spoke, he’s pretty sure, but the voice is sexless. Johann trembles against him, eyes saucer wide as fear-scent spikes in the air. The shades sway, breaking apart and clustering again before drifting back over to join them.

Geralt,” one of them says again, and Geralt’s stomach sinks.

“What do they want?” Johann whispers. “Why...why are they calling for you?”

Geralt watches the shade of Lorenz drift, Piotr following in his wake. The shades are leaving the ring alone, much more interested in Johann and Geralt, and he’s not certain that’s a good thing. “You used my name earlier,” he says, his lips numb. “In the hall. They heard you say it.”

“They were there in the hall?” Johann watches with wide, alarmed eyes. “Invisible?”

“Must have been.” Geralt’s heart stutters. “Fuck. We have to leave now, get me to the stables. I’ll have to ride Madeline out, I don’t think I can get to the village like this. Get me there and go find Karris to help me, I’m going to need you to get me some ingredients after.”

The shades peel off to go towards the Great Hall as Johann helps Geralt hobble to the stables. Geralt has him leave him propped up against the post in the center, and closes his eyes against the stink of blood as Madeline whickers at him. Time… passes. He doesn’t have any clear idea of how long it’s been before Karris is shaking him, big eyes wide in the dark.

“Johann says you need to ride Madeline?”

Geralt nods, limbs like lead. “Is.. is he still here,” he mumbles out as Karris heaves him up.

Johann’s face pops into view, eyes very wide in his pale, doughy face. “I’m here. What do you need?”

Geralt leans heavily into Karris, shuddering as his legs try to give out. The curse is sapping his strength even worse than he expected, and his stomach churns. “Johann, listen close. Lobelia. Hellebore. Foxglove. Dandelions. Thyme. Rosemary. Lavender. Heather. Salt. Black pepper. Put it all in a small bag, preferably cotton. I need both flowers and leaves from the plants. I have the rest of what I need in my bags. Repeat it.”

Johann nods. “Lobelias, hellebore, foxglove, dandelions, thyme, rosemary, lavender, heather, salt, black pepper, flowers and leaves both, put it all in a bag. Would a bag for tea leaves work?”

“Perfect,” Geralt says, groaning as Karris helps him heave awkwardly onto a very patient Madeline. The mare stands very still for him, only flicking her ears in annoyance when his clumsy fingers accidentally tug at her mane. “Sorry, girl. Have to bathe with it at noon tomorrow, get it ready tonight.”

“Bathe?” Karris demands, baffled. “What’s a bunch of flowers going to do?”

“Long story,” Geralt mumbles, and falls forward along Madeline’s sturdy neck. She doesn’t seem to mind. “Gotta tell everyone all together. Need everyone at the Dancing Dove at dawn tomorrow, spread the news. I mean everyone. It’s important.”

Karris nods, and Johann runs off to go and tell the castle staff as Geralt wraps his arms around Madeline’s neck and lets Karris lead them from the stables.

The world goes black.

oOo

“Geralt.”

He’s tired.

He’s so tired.

He rolls away from the voice, hand reaching out for… someone. Nobody in the bed with him. Why is he alone?

An ache opens in his chest.

“Geralt, you have to wake up.”

Firm voice. Female.

He opens his eyes slow and-

“Visenna?” he mumbles. There’s red hair and pale skin, a dress of dark green. He blinks, and the image clears to reveal Antonia instead, looking very worried. He sighs, relieved and disappointed all at once. “Antonia.”

“It’s almost dawn,” she says, reaching over to brush his hair away from his eyes. Her hands are so small compared to his. “You asked me to get you up last night.”

“I did?” he mumbles, and some vague memory comes swimming back up through the clouded haze. “Oh. Meeting.”

Antonia nods, biting her lip. Geralt likes the way her dress rustles as she shifts her stance. It’s cotton, probably, the sound of it smooth-scratchy and pleasing to his ears. “Yes, everyone’s here that can be. You don’t look well, will you be able to get up? Should I call for someone to come and help you?”

Geralt huffs, and slowly pushes himself up on shaking arms. His back twinges, the curse’s tie tugging at him insistently and making him dizzy. He groans, choking as his stomach tries to heave. Antonia catches him as his arms buckle, and Geralt pants as he feels his strength start to sap away. In a few more hours he can start the uncrossing, but he’s going to have to put up with the curse eating his strength until then. If left unchecked, he thinks he’d have another day at most before the curse crystalized in his blood and started truly stealing his life force. This has to end quickly.

“Help me up,” he says, and Antonia helps lever him out of bed. He’s slept in his clothes, apparently, and he doesn’t want to think about how terrible he must smell. “Let’s go.”

The entire village is packed into the Dancing Dove, and part quietly as Antonia helps him to a chair at the front of the room. Every eye in the place is fixed on him, expressions running the gamut between fear and concern. Most of the children have sat cross legged on the floor, but fearless little Melita stands up to come and sit right next to him with a pitcher and a cup in her hands. He gently ruffles her hair, taking the cup and draining it.

“You don’t look well,” Herrin the huntsman says, keen eyes taking him in.

Geralt nods. “I’ve become part of the curse.”

A noise of horror ripples through the room, people shifting and leaning in. There’s a few cries of alarm, and he holds up his arm to quiet everyone, though it takes a decent amount of his effort to do it.

“It wasn’t intentional, but the curse is strong,” Geralt says. “And there isn’t one curse on Jaskier, there’s two. The first was placed by Jorgan, your old lord, and Jaskier himself laid the second one to keep himself alive. He’s cunning, your Lord, and it’s that cunning that’s kept him alive. Problem is that he’s stuck inside the curse now, and the rules to breaking it are… complicated. It’s tied to different objects, like keys, and only when all the keys are together and the rest of the curse’s requirements fulfilled will it break.”

One of the older women pipes up, “But, Master Witcher… with you in the curse, does… does that change things?”

“Well,” he says simply, “I don’t break the curse, I’ll die, and Jaskier won’t be far behind me. Worse still… Jaskier has been possessed by the spirit of Lord Jorgan, and has been fighting for two years to keep you all safe from him. He’s running out of energy to keep him down, and we have to break that. No man deserves the tortures Lord Jorgan inflicted on him.”

A murmur runs through the crowd. Melita looks stricken, Antonia sickly, and Johann starts to tremble. Karris, standing at Olga’s side, reaches down for his grandmother’s hand as a tear silently trickles down Olga’s face.

“There will come a point when all of you must come to the keep, and I do mean all,” Geralt rasps. “Every man, woman, child, no matter how old or young. If you aren’t all there, I don’t know that the breaking will take. It’ll be soon. Today or tomorrow at most. Melita, can you sing the chorus?”

Melita nods, standing up. She sings the chorus to The Tower and the Wyvern, her voice clear and sweet, and when she’s done the room is quiet. Geralt can see heads turning, the rules of the curse latching onto each mind as they realize.

“The last lines,” Guardsman Yakob says slowly. “That’s… that’s us. We’re the love that conquers all, and all of us have to be together to help?”

“All of you, me, Jaskier, and the keys,” Geralt agrees. He slumps a little as the curse tugs, breathing shallowly as he feels his legs lose their strength. Melita hurries to pour him a new cup, and he drinks it carefully. The exhaustion is getting old fast. “And it has to be done soon. I have three of the keys so far, I should be able to find the fourth and fifth today. Johann has helped me put together something to help ease the curse off of me for a little while, and Karris will help me with it later when we go up to the Reach. Don’t stray far from the village today and tomorrow, stay as close as you can. We need everyone there for this to work.”

The Alderman, Haryse, nods and straightens up. “We’ll make certain of it. We’ll bring the herds in and keep them here for a day or two, and keep the children near.”

Geralt looks up at him. “Thank you,” he says, with full sincerity. He looks around the room, meeting the eyes of the people looking back. “Thank you, all of you. Without you to care for him, Jaskier would never have survived so long. You are as much the pillars of his rescue as I am, each and every one of you.”

Shoulders straighten, eyes brighten. He can see the words pass through them. They may not be versed in the arts of monster hunting, but not a one of them wouldn’t lay down their life for their young Lord, and Geralt can see that devotion as strong as daylight.

“Thank you,” he says again, and this time he means something different.

It has been a long time since he’s had any faith for humanity’s love, but the people of Lettenhove have balmed his wounds and left him once again whole.

It takes Antonia a good bit of shoving, but she manages to get him onto Roach for Karris to help him up to the castle. The day is damp, a fine drizzle coming down, and Geralt’s bones start to ache with it as soon as they cross the drawbridge into the security of the Reach’s walls. Madeline is thrilled to see another horse, and Roach seems fine with the dancing palomino, so they leave the two side by side in box stalls and Karris helps Geralt hobble his way to the night garden, Geralt’s pack on his free shoulder.

Johann has already been and gone, leaving the bag full of neatly snipped flowers and the salt and black pepper grinders in sight. Geralt flops to the ground next to it, breathing heavy, and gestures at the satchel Karris carries. It’s approaching noon, the sun just visible through the cloud cover, and he feels as if he’s been run over by a particularly nasty monster. “In there, a small bag with some roots.”

Karris fumbles the straps open and digs in the bag before pulling out the dried Devil’s Root. “These?” he asks, looking at the stringy plants.

“Those,” Geralt confirms. “Not poisonous or bad for humans. Take out two for me.”

Karris gingerly pulls two of the roots out and passes them over for Geralt to stick in the bag.

“Anything else?” he asks, nervous.

Geralt nods. “Little cone of spice, front right pocket. Human safe too, but clean your hands if you touch it. It has hot peppers in it. There’s a bottle in there too, need that with it.”

Karris fishes out the cone, and Geralt crumbles a bit of it off into the bag before passing it back to him. He grinds out the appropriate amount of salt and pepper into the bag, and pinches some dirt in his fingers to write the rune for activation. Karris watches with wide eyes.

“What is that?” he asks as Geralt finishes up. “Is it magic?”

Geralt nods, pausing in his work to catch his breath. “S’called an uncrossing in Nazair, I think you call it break-lock here. Won’t fully break a curse, but if I activate it and bathe with it, it’ll help loosen the curse on me. Salt for cleansing, pepper and spice for added power, dandelion for transformation, lavender to soothe, heather for protection- you can use sage instead, but sage is rarer here, thyme for time, rosemary for cloaking, devil’s root for the actual breaking. The lobelia, hellebore, and foxglove are to try and get a bit of luck on my side. Plant magic isn’t a Witcher thing, it’s Druidic. Learned from a friend. The bottle though, that’s all Witcher stuff. It’ll help the break-lock take.”

“Huh.” Karris looks at the ground. “My, um. My Grandpa Rus- that is, Rilandrus, he showed me a lot of herb medicine. You kinda remind me of him, all that kind of knowledge. And the hair, Oma Olga loved it long when it went silver so he always wore it long.”

Of all the things to say, Geralt thinks as his throat closes up. “I’m honored to compare,” he manages to get out. “Seemed like a good man.”

“He was.” Karris huffs a sigh, and holds out his hands. “You need to bathe, right? In the waterfall?”

Geralt takes his hands, and lets himself be helped up. It takes some doing to get him over to the waterfall, and Geralt does his absolute best to not feel embarrassed when Karris has to help him with his boots. The pants and shirt he manages himself, once he’s shooed the kid away, because while he’s not body shy there’s something uniquely embarrassing about being this weak in front of humans. Once he’s bare of all but his medallion, he hauls himself into the pool and shakily stands up under the waterfall. The water is brutally cold, and Geralt groans as it pounds on his sore body. He has to clutch the rocks to stay upright. He hates cold water on the best of days, and this is not one of those.

It would be so easy to lay down. So easy to just… sink to his knees. Lay down in the water. Let go of the rocks holding him up, rest his head in the pool. He likes soaking. Soaking is good. His hair feels so soft in the water, always loose and comfortable.

Maybe it would be warmer if he submerges in the pool. He could open his mouth, let the water flow in. Cold water is always best...

As he’s dropping to his knees his hand scrapes against the rocks, and the small jolt of pain wakes him up.

“Oh, fuck off,” Geralt hisses at the curse, shaking his head hard to clear it.

The spell bag and Black Blood are waiting for him by the side of the pool, and Geralt grabs both with a hand still shaking from the bitter cold water. It must be fed from a spring deep in the ground, which is good for Geralt’s purposes but also very uncomfortable. The bag is drenched instantly, and he says the words for the initiation of the actual spell. The bag fails to do anything so mundane as glow, but there is a faint stink of post-lightning strike air and lavender, so he knows it’s taken. He pops the top on the Black Blood and chokes it down, hissing as the toxins in his blood spike, and gives himself a moment to breathe through it. When he’s ready, Geralt opens the bag, pulling out a handful of the spelled mix, and starts at his hair. It’s slow going, the flower petals and salt getting everywhere. He takes his time with it. There’s no point rushing magic, as Eskel has long since drilled into his skull, even if he rarely uses the homemade kind.

With every slow inch of his skin he covers, more and more he feels his strength returning as the curse loosens its hold. His breathing eases, the low level false panic dissipating with each swipe of flowers and spices. When Geralt reaches his feet he almost feels like himself. The still sore mark on his back stings with the curse tie, but that’s something he can live with if he can finally function on his own again.

It’s not broken, not in the least, but the ritual has managed to unhook the worst of the curse’s claws in him. He feels clear headed and energized, even if he’s not up to full strength. His stomach churns from after effects of Black Blood, but he just growls and forces himself out of the water to dry off and dress again.

Karris politely averts his eyes until Geralt’s dressed again, and only squeaks a little when he catches sight of Geralt’s all black eyes. “Uh, you- you’re-”

“Potion side effect,” Geralt grunts, fishing out the White Honey. The Black Blood has done its job and he’s more than happy to get it out of his system. He opens the bottle and drains it, grimacing. “Ugh. That should clear it. I don’t have that much time before it comes back full force, maybe two days at most. Gonna have to break the curse in that span.”

Karris blanches. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Geralt sighs, rubbing his forehead. “I need a shovel. And once I have one, you need to go to Madeline. This is something I need to do alone.”

Karris nods, and runs to go find him one. Geralt makes his way to the ledge of the half wall that encloses the garden to sit, and breathes in the sickly scent of too many flowering plants. The garden has been tended with firm care; Geralt is willing to bet that Jaskier has used it as his focus to keep from going completely mad in his isolation. The beds are orderly, the gravel walkways clear of plants, and each bush and flower has been placed and trimmed with exacting precision. It's arguably the most beautiful poison garden he's ever seen.

Fitting place for a burial.

Karris reappears with a long handled shovel that apparently belongs in the day garden with the head gardener, and hands it over with wide eyes.

"What are you going to dig up?" He asks as Geralt takes it from him and stands.

Geralt hums, looking out over the flowers. "A soul or a heart. Dunno which yet."

Karris stares. "...a literal heart?"

Geralt shakes his head. "Probably not."

"Would really prefer a definitely not."

Geralt's startled by the bark of laughter that jolts out of him. He smiles, clapping Karris on the shoulder. "You and me both. Away with you, I've work that needs doing alone."

Karris nods, and takes a deep breath as he squares his shoulders. He's so young, barely on the cusp of manhood. Geralt feels a stab of homesickness looking at him. He has that same stubborn jut to his lip he's seen on Lambert a million times. Fuck, but he misses his brothers.

"Thank you," Karris tells him, quiet and sincere. "Good hunting, I suppose."

"Thank you," Geralt says, and Karris leaves.

He stands for a moment under the overhang before settling himself to calm determination and stepping out. The buttercup and primrose corner sits waiting for him, and the plants are unresisting in the soft earth as he gently digs them free of the grounds hold with his own hands, careful to leave the roots intact to replant them later. The plants have done nothing wrong. They deserve their place here, growing and thriving, and he sets them aside with care.

The hollow they leave in the blood stained earth leaves an ache in his chest.

He looks to the flowers, gently waving in the faint spring breeze and watered with blood. Set aside like the cover of a mausoleum, they seem to be anticipatory, waiting to see how he'll find their charge.

“Melitele,” he says to the empty air, because it pays to be polite to gods, “you’d better forgive me for digging up one of your believers’ graves, if you’re listening.”

The shovel bites into the earth like a beast hungry for blood, and Geralt starts to dig.

The lute case is painted black and buried three feet down, and when he pulls it from the ground the leather creaks in complaint. The earth has eaten at it in spots but it’s stayed solid, and Geralt carefully undoes the ties holding it closed. The rain patters out into nothing as his fingers struggle with the dirt clogged knots.

The lute inside is undamaged, wrapped in a black silk shroud.

It’s a student instrument, battered and dinged, well loved. When he gently lifts it from its coffin, it feels like Jaskier. He can picture every moment Jaskier spent bent over it, all the hours of chords and singing, his voice lifting to the sky. This lute is as much Jaskier as his own physical body, perhaps more so. There’s no taint of his father attached to it, and Geralt cradles the wood in his arms as though it were a child.

“Hello, Jaskier,” he whispers to Jaskier’s soul. “I’ve got you.”

One for the soul…

He doesn’t want to think of Jaskier, wracked with sickness and grief, wrapping up the only thing that might be left of him to bury early. Once possessed, Jaskier would have died, but his body would have stayed living for a new inhabitant. There would never have been a true funeral for Jaskier, only a sham of a life, his body ridden by the very beast that had so damaged it in the first place.

Geralt holds the lute tighter to his chest and presses his head to the fingerboard, breathing in the smell of bloodied earth and wood polish. It’s lingered even after all this time, and he closes his eyes against a stab of wounded anguish.

“It’ll be over soon,” he promises the lute, voice ragged. “Soon, I promise.”

There’s a small paper square in the bottom of the case, and he pulls it out when he’s a little less overwhelmed to find precious steel strings that must have cost Jaskier a small fortune as a university student. He knows the vague placement of each one, the thicknesses marching along the neck of the instrument. His fingers are clumsy, but it’s important, he knows it’s important, and he carefully strings the lute back up and gently plucks at them to make them sing.

It’s a soft, mellow noise. He’s listened to enough tavern bards to know what each string should sound like, though, and he carefully twists each nob until the instrument gently sings with the pass of his hand. The weight eases from him, just enough to make breathing easier, and he picks up the lute to cradle it again in the sunshine.

“We’re ready,” he whispers to the lute, and feels the weight of those words sink into him.

With the fourth key freed, he’s as prepared as he can be for their confrontation. All he can do now is wait, as the final key is one he won’t be able to collect until the moment of.

After all, the last key is Jaskier himself.

oOo

When Geralt wakes up the next morning and walks down the stairs to start making bread with Antonia, he finds her already awake and pulling a loaf out of the oven. It’s a thick, lumpy thing, but there’s a lovely sheen to the top of it and the scent is so familiar it reaches into his chest and leaves a hollow in his heart.

“You… how?” he asks, as Antonia carefully sets out Lambert’s favorite peasant bread on a spot to cool. “When?”

Antonia smiles apologetically. “The other night when they brought you back you were near delirious. You insisted on giving it to me and wouldn’t relent until I wrote it down. So… I did. I thought it might be nice to make it for you.”

Geralt looks at the loaf, this innocent thing, and gently picks it up to press his face close. His eyes close as he inhales the scent of home, the soft honey and sunflower seeds, the tang of yeast and wheat and the dense heft of it. He’s almost there if he keeps his eyes shut. He can almost hear the sounds of the great length and depth of the Kaer Morhen kitchen in late afternoon, all the cooks running around and barking orders, Lambert’s first winter back from the Path, pounding out his frustrations and laughing as the head of baking chewed him out over technique while Geralt sat and listened to him and stole bits of food, because Lambert didn’t give a shit about Geralt being double-Trialed and wouldn’t rake him over the coals for not being what they expected. He can almost feel Eskel’s arm around his shoulder, hear the crunch of him eating an apple, the barking roughness of his laughter as he ribs Lambert for something.

He opens his eyes to a quiet kitchen in Redania.

Gently, he places the bread on the counter and turns to pull Antonia into a hug, burying his face in her hair. She jolts, but wraps her arms around him to return it, strong and steady.

“Thank you,” he says, voice rough. “Thank you.”

He eats the bread with good butter and fresh honey, and when he walks back upstairs it’s to the taste of home still on his tongue.

The room is quiet when Geralt shuts the door, and clean. His bags are packed. He will fail or succeed in the next few days, and he needs to be prepared either way. His notes have been gathered and added to his journal, Jaskier’s journal and it’s translation set neatly on the desk.

Geralt takes his time putting his armor on. He checks each strap with careful fingers, checking dented bracers and scored leather, studs fallen out or damaged, and checks his gear. When he finally swings his swords onto his back and fishes out his medallion to rest on his chest, he feels the weight of it for the first time since it was placed around his neck. The spotted mirror in the corner of the room shows him the silver of his hair, the warped shape of his face and the gleam of his medallion and swords.

There’s no use putting it off. The sun is rising, and he runs his fingers over the leather cover of Jaskier’s journal for a moment before he steps outside. His gloves he leaves, the leather of them far too damaged to be of any use anymore. Antonia watches him go, Herrin at the bar nodding to him.

The sun is high in the sky by the time he starts the walk through the village of Lettenhove to the Reach. He watches as clouds scuttle across brilliant blue, the laughter of playing children ringing in his ears. Somewhere a woman is singing high and beautiful, a warbling melody that rises and falls with each turn of phrase. The wind makes the trees rustle, singing through the branches and bringing the scent of growing things, of lives being lived. Lettenhove Reach is golden before him, the stones brilliant in the late morning light.

Jaskier may die today.

Geralt has failed before. He failed in Blaviken, he’s failed on the Path, there have been times when there was simply no easy way out and people died. But Jaskier cannot be one more in a long line of failures. He can’t bear the thought of Jaskier’s blood on his hands, Jaskier’s body cooling on the floor of the castle where all his worst memories are. He cannot kill Jaskier in the place his father unmade him. He cannot kill Jaskier in the place his siblings bled and died for him, where his mother was thrown on a pyre, where he was ripped apart and left to rot in the ashes of his former life.

Gerald crosses the threshold of Lettenhove Reach, and steps into the dark.

The scent copper leads him to the Great Hall. He waits at the archway as his eyes adjust, and finds Jaskier standing in the center of the room, only a little copper in his scent. He’s dressed in all black, and Geralt can see the ancient marks of early blood stains on the simple shirt he’s dressed down to, just a shirt and pants and his boots, bandages on his wrists and no embroidery to be seen.

“Jaskier,” he says into the dark.

Jaskier looks up at him. His heartbeat is too fast for what it should be, the copper dulled against Geralt’s senses. It’s old, but the silver rings he wears are strong. Silver and copper, blood staining metal.

“I’m up early,” he says, his voice breaking. “I don’t… I don’t remember how I came to be here, Geralt.”

Geralt freezes, and Jaskier shudders, wrapping his arms around himself. He folds in, making himself small.

“You know, then,” Geralt says.

“Yes,” Jaskier says, voice cracking with misery. He straightens, and walks towards the entryway to the Great Hall. “They told it to us, because he forced them to. They didn’t want to. It won’t be long now.”

“I’m sorry,” Geralt says as he reaches him. They stand together, waiting on opposite edges of the doorway. “I should have warned Johann.”

“Blood and a name,” Jaskier says, looking away and taking a shaky breath. “Not good, White Wolf.”

“I know.”

“And you’ve taken the keys,” Jaskier says, looking back at him. “I can’t refresh them. Things are growing unstable, White Wolf. I’m not… I can’t keep calm. There’s not much time left. Too much emotion. I’ve gotten very good at a steady heartbeat, but it’s noon, and I’m full of emotion, and I can’t keep calm.”

“I know,” Geralt says. He hesitates for a moment before saying, very quietly, “Jaskier, I failed someone before. I can’t live with another loss like that. I can’t. The princess I lost had all of her choices stolen from her, and I can’t live watching it happen to someone I care about again.”

Geralt reaches out, gently cupping Jaskier’s cheek. His skin is so cold, so fragile, and Jaskier’s mouth wobbles. Jaskier reaches up to cover Geralt’s hand with his own, holding him there with the most delicate of touches.

One for the heart in the palm of your hands.

“Will you trust me, Jaskier?” Geralt asks. He can feel the faint rush of blood, see the cracks in Jaskier’s lips where they’ve split and bled. Those watered down blue eyes meet his in the dark. “Can you meet me halfway?”

Jaskier smiles, but it’s a shaken thing, a bare bones frame of what a smile might be. “Is there any other way to meet?”

Geralt steps forward, into his space. They’re almost of a height, barely any bending needed. Geralt looks him over, looking for any signs that this isn’t the right thing, that Jaskier truly isn’t ready. But all he sees is steel under the fear, quiet acceptance. Jaskier’s hand trembles on his, but he doesn’t pull away, doesn’t look away.

“It’s time to wake up, Jaskier,” Geralt says, and kisses him.

Jaskier melts into him as they kiss, and Geralt tastes copper on his tongue, the lingering splits dotting hints of old pains as he holds Jaskier close. He’s painfully fragile, but there’s still some strength as his free hand comes up to cup the back of Geralt’s neck with the sort of tenderness Geralt has never once expected from a partner. It’s a good kiss. There’s an ache to it, a soft kind of passion waiting to grow to something bigger, and Geralt deepens it as he feels Jaskier sigh against his mouth.

The hand drops suddenly, and Jaskier steps back as if burned.

Geralt opens his eyes, and his heart sinks.

“Ah,” Jorgan de Lettenhove says with his son’s mouth. “Thank you, witcher, for setting me loose.”

Geralt’s hands clench into fists. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what? Do you think I’m lying? I’m disinclined to lie about something so trivial,” Jorgan says, waving a careless hand. “I presume you’ll be staying to see just what I do next.”

Geralt hears footsteps in the hall and turns to see Ridgelock, the castle steward, step into view. He freezes when he sees the pair of them, looking back and forth between the two. Jorgan glances at the man and dismisses him casually.

“Ah, witcher… you won’t go anywhere,” Jorgan says, smiling. Geralt hates that smile on Jaskier’s face. Jaskier has never been cruel, doesn’t have this streak of casual brutality. “You’ll stay. You need to know how it plays out, after all. You have to see how this little story he made you the hero in ends.”

“Fuck you,” Geralt says, soft and sincere.

“Oh, he wants to,” Jorgan says, the smile growing bitterly evil. “My disgusting little whore of a son has no taste to speak of. Fitting for you, I suppose. And I really should thank you for wearing him down so effectively for me. Hatred he could make cold, fear and pain he could snuff out, but ordinary lust? Wanting, desire? He was never any good at those. He was quite the disgusting little slattern, even after all of my hard work.”

He takes one step in, cocking his head to the side in a parody of that first time Geralt spoke with Jaskier alone in the garden, eyes going innocently wide. “Should I tell you, mutant, about what he was like in bed?”

Geralt knows that he will have nightmares about this moment for the rest of his life.

“I’ll see you dead twice over,” he promises, low and murderous.

Jorgan laughs. “Oh, will you, Witcher?” He gives Geralt a mocking smile and turns his back on him, entirely unafraid.

The steward looks at Geralt, ash pale. Geralt gives the barest nod. “Now,” he murmurs, too soft for Jorgan to hear. “Fast.”

Ridgelock nods and vanishes into the keep, walking as fast as he dares without being obvious about it.

They have to be here anyway, he thinks as he watches Jorgan fuss with the throne before sitting on it. He just wasn’t expecting it to be a fight with Jorgan himself so clearly in charge, just thought it might be Jaskier helping him through it.

So be it. It’s his own damn fault anyway.

He kneels, taking a slow breath, and lets himself sink into meditation. He has perhaps half an hour before everyone is here, and Jorgan seems disinclined to do anything in the meantime. Meditation will help him recover a little more strength and organize his mind, if nothing else.

As it turns out, it’s almost exactly half an hour before he feels footsteps approaching and opens his eyes. Jorgan is still sitting on the throne, watching him and apparently simply enjoying being in command of Jaskier’s body. Geralt rises to his feet and turns, walking into the hallway and down until he reaches Ridgelock leading the entire village of Lettenhove.

“Is this everyone?” Geralt asks. Alderman Haryse, at the head of the pack, nods.

“Everyone, down to the smallest child and Widow Olga, Master Witcher.”

Geralt nods, and takes a slow breath. “All of you, no matter what you see, unless I tell you to go, stay in the Great Hall. If I do tell you to go, go fast. Antonia, Karris, and Melita, I need you here.”

The three are close to the front and come up to him. Geralt looks them over. “Karris, there’s a whip in Madeline’s stall. Antonia, there’s a lute in a case in the weaving room. Melita, there’s a ring on a hook in the day garden, first pillar from the main door. The whip needs to go to Antonia, the lute to Olga. I’ll tell you when to run and get them. At some point they need to be given to Jaskier. Do you understand?”

The trio nod, and Geralt nods back.

“Well,” he says, looking up at the group of villagers. “It’s time. Let’s go.”

Geralt turns, and leads them into the Great Hall.

Jorgan straightens as he sees the group come in, watching with greedy eyes as they spread out along the back walls, everyone doing their best to cram along the sides with the columns and keep away from the halfway point and Jorgan.

“I see you’ve brought my people to me,” Jorgan says, and Geralt sees some of the people jolt. “What, oh White Wolf, did you want them to understand the depth of your shame to more effectively stone you? Or are they perhaps a gift to get into my good graces? I’m certain by now you’ve told them that their true lord has returned at last to his faithful, precious flock.”

Jorgan’s smile on Jaskier’s mouth is a mockery of kindness.

Geralt says nothing.

“What do you want me to say?” Jorgan asks with Jaskier’s mouth, lounging on the throne. “Well, Witcher? You’ve failed. My triumph is complete. Be gone about your business, and I’ll address my people properly.”

Geralt thinks of the calluses worn off of Jaskier’s fingers, the lute buried under his own name, the blood in the soil. Tenderly buried, like one would a child, in a special case and wrapped in silk. Jaskier, the only one there to bury himself tenderly and witness the death, as there would be no body to lower into the ground upon his own passing.

“Jaskier,” he says, and he feels the weight of it as he steps forward. Jaskier’s heart shudders, the drumbeat of it off kilter. Jorgan shudders, face twitching with pain. “Jaskier.”

“Julian is gone,” Jorgan snaps. “Leave this place. You have failed.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt calls again, and this time, he pushes Aard out to slam Jorgan back against the throne. His face twists, and Jaskier’s eyes blaze.

“GERALT!” Jaskier shouts, face twisting in panic. “Go!”

“I won’t!” Geralt yells, and hears the chaos of the room start to well as people shuffle and stir, terrified. There’s screaming all around him. He slams Yrden onto the throne, trapping Jaskier and Jorgan within.

“Karris, Antonia, Melita,” he roars over the noise, and like a dream, they’re there. Karris is trembling, eyes wide, Antonia already sobbing but determined, and Melita just looks up at him with fierce loyalty. Geralt has never once thought that this would be how it would end, but now… now he knows it has to be like this. “Run.

They run.

Geralt slams more power into Yrden, fishing out Cat one-handed from his pocket and drinking fast. He feels his eyes blow wide, making the dingy light of the Great Hall much more bearable. The glass of the bottle crashes to the ground and shatters as he drops it, and at that moment Jorgan stands up in the ring of Yrden and shrieks.

The sound rattles the ceiling and the stones, dust shaking loose as the room groans, and Geralt’s tenuous grasp on Yrden fails. He curses, trying to call it back up, but Jorgan roars with a cruel laugher and spits out “Geralt, stay.”

His name binds him fast as the chaos of the room spills into outright danger, people pressing the children back as cries ring out. Jorgan steps off of the throne, pulling the short knife from what must have been a sheathe at his back, flipping it easily through his fingers before gripping it and rushing forward with a manic grin splitting his face into something completely unrecognizable as Jaskier’s.

And then the squall of a child distracts him, and Geralt’s blood turns to fire as he sees Jorgan’s eyes flick with feral hunger towards the sound.

Jaskier,” he shouts, and Jaskier’s dragged to the surface, pulling himself to a halt with a bitten off scream.

“Get the children back!” Jaskier yells, and his face shifts once more to Jorgan’s monstrous howl of fury.

“Eyes on me, you son of a bitch,” Geralt snarls, and flicks a burst of Igni at him to get Jorgan’s attention. Jorgan’s head snaps to him and he rushes forward, deadly fast. Geralt barely gets his arms up in time for the first slash of the knife to be caught on his bracers, forced backwards as Jorgan moves in a rush of whirling danger, the blade dancing in the light. The smell of copper is overwhelming, the thin cries of children weeping and people calling prayers in the darkness pressing in on his ears. His Cat augmented eyes make the knife blade near luminous in the dark, the flash of it catching and sparking every time it clashes on his bracers or armor studs.

Jorgan forces him back, the pair of them chasing back and forth in a figure 8 around the room. Geralt knows it’s been precious little time, but it feels like an eternity. He can’t get Jorgan still enough to cast Yrden afresh, and Aard on Jaskier’s fragile bones and skin could prove deadly. He spits Jaskier’s name to get a moment's reprieve, and as Jaskier shudders to a halt for a moment he feels the brutal twinge in his back as the curse drags on him, slowing him down even worse.

“Fuck,” he breathes, and meets Jaskier’s eyes for just a moment. They’re turning black, the scalera already turned and leaving Jaskier’s blue iris the only color in his face in the gloom.

“Wolf,” Jaskier gasps out, and then Jorgan is back, grinning and slashing forward.

Geralt jumps back just in time, and then Jorgan pauses, stepping back.

“Not that this isn’t very diverting,” Jorgan drawls, eyes fixed on him with unhinged glee, “but oh, I’ve made this much harder on myself than it needs to be. Natalia. Piotr. Lorenz. Teodori. Hold him.”

Phantom arms latch on tight around Geralt, and he looks around in shock to see the shades clutching him, their ghostly forms given weight from the power in Jaskier’s vocal chords. Four shades, he realizes, not three. Four. The last must be Jaskier’s mother, and as the shades start to weigh him down, he hears the rustle of silk. Geralt struggles against the shades, managing to pull them all towards the door.

And then they start to speak.

Please, Natalia begs, No more, no more, I don’t want to be sick-

No, father, I don’t want to be nothing, Lorenz whispers, and Geralt can almost feel the breath of it against his ear. I won’t be nothing, I have to live for them, I won’t go back to bed-

How many times are you going to bring me back to life? And that must be Piotr, bitter and cold, up against Geralt’s back. No matter how much I have, you always bring me back…

Teodori says nothing, just leans in hard and takes deep, rattling breaths at Geralt’s ear as she bears him down to his knees. They slam hard on the floor, and he groans as he takes the hit. Bent this way, Jorgan has free access to walk up to him.

“Thank you, pets,” Jorgan says, and reaches out with Jaskier’s hand to drag the silver sword free from its sheath. “Silver for monsters, isn’t it? And certainly the Butcher of Blaviken must count as a monster.”

Jorgan puts a booted foot on Geralt’s chest and kicks hard, slamming him down to the floor. He’s on him before Geralt can even breathe, a parody of intimacy as he straddles Geralt’s waist and raises the sword up. The shades gather on his arms, moaning their stories as they hold him down, their forms flickering in upset as the curse keeps them bound to Jorgan’s orders.

Geralt fumbles mentally for his tie to the curse, finds it, and holds on tight as he shouts, “Natalia, Lorenz, Piotr, Teodori, off!”

The shades dissipate as the sword swings down, and Geralt shoves Axii into Jorgan’s face. “Jaskier!”

Axii takes, and Jorgan vanishes. Jaskier yanks his left hand away, falling forward and crying out as his palm scrapes on the floor and starts to bleed. His right arm is still holding the sword, the point of it resting at the hinge of Geralt’s chest and shoulder.

“Geralt,” he breathes, choking on it. “It’s too late. It asks too much.”

“It doesn’t,” Geralt insists, heart hammering as he feels Axii struggling. The tenuous grip he has on the Sign is already failing, worn out too fast. “It’s not too much.”

Jaskier shakes his head, eyes fixed on Geralt’s. They’ve gone fully black.

“I do not love you for your blood,” Geralt says, feeling the power gathering on his tongue as Jaskier trembles, arm raised with the sword tight in his hand, holding back Jorgan with all he has left. He’s falling into the cadences of prophecy and magic, swept along whether he likes it or not. He can’t bring himself to care. “I do not love you for your lands. I do not love you for obedience.”

“Then how will you ever love me, my lord,” Jaskier rasps, and once more there’s magic in his voice, power to bind them and hold them fast. Geralt grasps his silver sword and cuts his hand on it, and grabs Jaskier’s bloody fingers to mix the two, to add his blood to Jaskier and give him just a bit more strength, some power to draw on. Jaskier gasps, black tears welling up to drip down his face.

“I will love you for who you will one day become,” Geralt swears. “Who you have been, and who you are now. You have never been without love, and you never will be again.”

He squeezes, hard, and groans as the silver punches through his armor to burrow into his shoulder. He breathes heavy as Jaskier curses, hand shaking on the blade as he tries to keep it from going any further.

“Look around you, Jaskier,” he whispers. “Look at how your people love you. You were never alone. They are your blood and your heart too, and they know the truth. They’ll stand with you til death, and sing for you when you are gone. Fight, Jaskier. You’ve always had the power.”

Jaskier’s black tears drop down to sizzle against his cheeks, and Geralt realizes how much the same they must look, their eyes both burned black by the toxins in their veins. Slowly Jaskier raises his head to look at his people, their fear and their hope. They aren’t running, they’re staying even as they shake and tremble and pray together.

“Jaskier,” Geralt breathes, “Jaskier. It never had to be romantic love. You brought us all together, and made them a whole in the fight to free you.”

Jaskier gasps, a bit of black blood darkening his mouth.

Geralt leans up, groaning as he impales himself further on the blade, and for the first time since before the Trials, sings. His voice is cracked, long since wrecked, but the tune remains. “Love conquers all, this still I know. Bring us together, make me again whole.

For a moment the world is perfectly still, every breath caught and held as Jaskier trembles and the sword in Geralt’s shoulder reverberates with the fight he’s waging against Jorgan. And then-

Jaskier screams, so loud that the stones themselves shake with the power of it. A golden beam of light rises from his gaping mouth as he does, tendril wisps of power shoving themselves out as the binding curse thrashes under his skin, the hooks of the curse boiling his blood. His skin stretches and bulges as the blood fights inside him. The sword falls to the floor with a crash, ripping from Geralt’s shoulder as Jaskier grabs his throat with both hands, the shriek gaining in volume and power as his head tips back to the ceiling. Black pours from his eyes, leaving streaks on his cheeks. Dust is falling from the ceiling, the very ground shaking.

“Please,” Geralt says, gentle. He reaches up to cup Jaskier’s cheek with one hand, tender. It’s the hand cut to mix their blood, and leaves streaks on his skin. “Jaskier, sing for me.”

The shriek fluxes, coalesces, and becomes a perfect, warbling note that pierces through all in hearing range. The villagers are trembling, and then-

Another voice, in harmony.

Geralt turns to see Melita harmonizing as she sings with him, eyes fixed on Jaskier, and the others start to join, their voices raising in a choir so smooth and rich with rising sound that Geralt can barely breathe for the power in it. The sound wells up and spills over to flood the room with power, a call and response as each voice lifts and buoys the soloist wailing before them. Geralt’s too slow heart is near human fast for the sheer weight of the power held in that impossible, beautiful chorus.

And then-

The birds begin to pour from Jaskier’s mouth, endless black feathers flying to the ceiling as he stays tipped back, nightingales and ravens and finches and every songbird under the sun until the last lark flees his throat and Jaskier falls to the side to start heaving rotted blood. The villagers scramble back, the air filling with screams and prayers as the rot begins to take shape and Geralt realizes exactly what’s happening.

“Fuck,” he breathes, but it’s too late.

Jaskier howls in agony, pitching forward as he begins to cough out endless streams of rotted blood. The black pool begins to spread around him, and Geralt scrambles back and to his feet as he sees a clawed hand start to form, splashing out of the darkness and scrambling against the stone. The sound is like iron on stone, screeching and rasping.

“Back!” he roars at the villagers, dragging his steel out of its sheath and wishing not for the first time that his ability to use Signs was anything like Eskel’s. He casts Quen around the edge of the crowd as Jaskier finally stops heaving, and steps back to watch the nightmare unfold.

With each moment more of the beast starts to take form, a misshapen pseudo skeleton of bubbling rotted blood and too many jagged edges and misbegot limbs with too many joints. It steams faintly, copper and rot tinged with despair as it shudders and thrashes in its pool, building itself up as it rises. The spine hunches, dripping and viscous, and at last the head pulls free with a sound like rending fabric.

The crawling, heaving beast of blood straightens, scent of copper in the air, and Jaskier grabs the silver sword from where it lies on the floor and stumbles to his feet as he faces down his nightmares. His face is a smear of black and red, but his eyes have cleared, and they seem to glow in the torchlight. The sword is too heavy for Jaskier with as weak as he’s grown, but he keeps it in his hands as the thing that was once Jorgan de Lettenhove steps towards him on one unnatural leg.

The gaping maw of the beast opens to release a gutteral snarl of fury and desperate want. The sound rattles against the stone, and Geralt readies his steel.

“No,” Jaskier says, his hands shaking, but his voice is clearer than Geralt has ever heard it. “No, you don’t get another chance! I speak it and make it so! Jorgan Lorenz Pancratz de Lettenhove, murderer, rapist, absolute fucking asshole, you are dead!

The word rings with the power of a thousand pealing church bells, and the beast shrieks at Jaskier and lunges forward.

Jaskier shouts, “KNEEL” and every knee in the room buckles. The beast shrieks in rage, flailing as it’s forced to his knees, scrambling at the tiles of the Great Hall to try and pull itself forward. Geralt struggles to his feet, and Jaskier tosses him the sword in a beautiful throw. Geralt catches it, but he’s unable to walk forward, still held by Jaskier’s voice. He finds his connection to the curse, and by extension Jaskier, and yanks. His feet are freed, and Geralt lunges forward to slam his steel sword through the back of the beast, hard enough that the steel drives partly into the floor.

“I write the ending,” Jaskier snarls, and the power in his words make it so. “I am the master of Lettenhove. I am the one bound, I make the law and the decree, I am commander of my own fate and you will never keep me from own agency! I choose! I decide! I alone!”

The beast’s screech of incandescent fury intensifies as Geralt drives the sword down harder through its chest, keeping it pinned as Jaskier sits upon the throne, his hands a bloody mess and his clothes Witcher black. He’s inhumanly beautiful, lit from inside with rage and power, command in every line of his body.

Jorgan’s bloody form writhes and shrieks, reaching and scrambling, but Geralt pulls out his second sword and holds it to his neck to keep it still, casting Yrden for a cage. Out of the corner of his eye he can see half-formed shadows hovering at the edges to watch the spectacle. The shades have come to take their freedom.

A shout alerts him, and he turns and sees that Karris there, eyes wild but determined. Karris nods at him.

“Bring them,” Geralt calls, his voice shredded from yelling and forcing himself to sing, and the people part. He turns just enough to look at the three women bringing in the keys. It’s a stretch, he knows, but the three are symbolic of more than just the people of Lettenhove’s love of their Lord. Maiden, Mother, and Crone- not crone, the other one, he amends hastily in his head with a frantic well of panic induced humor, it’s an old magic to have added to the curse breaking. He nods to Melita. He can feel the magic in the room. The curse will give them the right words.

Melita nods back, shaking, but she walks with firm steps up to the dias, where Jaskier meets her eyes with his own blue ones. She has the ring cupped in her palms, and she curtsies before walking up to slide the ring onto his finger.

“Your people, Lord Jaskier, not your lands,” she says, and bends to kiss the ring before stepping lightly away and off to the side.

Antonia approaches the dias, the whip held in her trembling hands as she skirts wide around the hissing, struggling blood beast of Jorgan. She bows as she passes it to Jaskier, but her face is set and determined.

“Your strength, Dandelion, not your obedience,” she says, and steps away.

And last is Olga, old and slow, who walks up and hands him his lute, looking up into his eyes.

“Your love, Julian, not your soul,” she says quietly. “Play well, our beloved child.”

“Thank you,” Jaskier says, with the softest of smiles, and takes up his lute with trembling hands. He pulls the signet ring from his finger and places the silver on his tongue, pulls the whip from his lap and lets it drop to his feet to step on it. He pushes the ring into his cheek, and arranges his fingers delicately on the lute.

“Sit a while, father. I sit on respect, not cruel power,” Jaskier says, looking at the creature on the floor writhing before him. “And I will sing you the song of your death.”

In the future, when Geralt thinks of this moment, all he can remember is the feeling. The words are impossible, a masterwork that will never be written as the magic bound up in Jaskier pours out. He knows what it is- It is Jaskier’s story, every ugly detail, the wound lanced and made visible and Jorgan’s crimes put on display before his people. The ending must find its truth before the rewriting can begin, and there are too many secrets in these halls for anyone to bear them any longer. It may have lasted ten years, or two seconds. It may have been major or minor key, may have been wailed or sung in perfect harmony. Geralt doesn’t know. All he knows is the power, the pain, the joy, the rage, the glory and the triumph as he closes his eyes and feels his heart explode.

Silver tongue for monsters. Steel strings for men.

Jaskier kills the legacy and nightmare of Jorgan de Lettenhove with both.

Jaskier sings, and sings, and sings, until the world is full of light and power, binding it together and releasing the magic that bound him to Lettenhove. It falls apart in a physical wave, the magic washing through Geralt and making him stagger a little with the power of it. The shades have vanished, dissipated by the breaking curse. He can feel tendrils lingering, but the worst of it has passed. The final notes linger in the air as Jaskier looses the last notes, and lets his bloody fingers drop. He’s played them raw.

The creature is still, Jorgan de Lettenhove looking up in silence from his cursed hold. Yrden glows around him, holding him fast.

“Master Witcher,” Jaskier says softly. His voice is ragged from the singing and the birds. It echoes in the hall, the reverberations of the song underneath. “I understand that you kill monsters.”

“I do, my lord, as all Witchers do,” Geralt says, just as soft. The room is completely silent, everyone too stunned by the reverberations of the music against their hearts. “Have you a contract for me that needs doing?”

“I do,” Jaskier says. “A monster of the worst kind that needs slaying. And what will you ask in payment?”

“I will take whatever my lord will give. Monsters such as these I am happy to end.”

Jaskier meets his eyes, and Geralt feels the weight of that gaze, every day and night of pain that’s lead to this moment, every conversation and confrontation. Secrets, hopes, dreams, tears shed, it’s all come to this.

“A kiss, freely given,” Jaskier says, “if you will meet me halfway.”

His eyes fixed on Jaskier’s, Geralt swings. His steel meets the barest resistance as it cleaves through the blood.

A simple death. Efficient. Nothing to sing about, no glory, no honor. Clean.

Jorgan’s horrible form falls, the magic that had been holding him together dissipating to splash the blood all over the floor in a horrible wave of rot. There’s a desperate, roaring wail from the crowd.

Jaskier stands, setting his lute gently onto the throne, and steps off of the dias.

His eyes widen ever so slightly, and Geralt barely makes it to his side as he falls as though his strings have been cut. His shoulder screams but Geralt ignores it as he finds a seat on the dias, leaning back against the throne with Jaskier sprawled across his lap. He can feel the rabbit beat of Jaskier’s heart, and Jaskier looks up at him slowly. The pale curve of his skin is harsh against the black of his shirt, and Geralt can see his pulse moving under the flesh.

“Geralt,” Jaskier says, mouth barely moving. He reaches out, and Geralt takes his bloody hand. “One more key.”

Geralt feels for the curse and feels the last tenuous threads of it still sunk into him. His heart stops.

“What did I miss?” He whispers, horror racing through him.

“Nothing,” Jaskier says, and takes a deep breath. It’s wet and ragged from his ruined throat, but his eyes are firm when he meets Geralt’s eyes. “You know how, Geralt.”

Geralt thinks about it, mind racing, and then looks up. Karris runs to them when he sees Geralt’s eyes find him.

“Gather everyone,” Geralt says, and take hold of Jaskier a little tighter. “We have to join hands.”

Karris nods, and bit by bit, everyone joins hands. Alderman Haryse takes Jaskier’s right, and Olga takes his bleeding left. The room is quiet in comparison to the chaos, and everyone is avoiding the puddle of rotted blood. Jaskier looks around at everyone, all of them still in the darkness, and smiles.

“Here you all are,” he whispers. “My heart, in the palm of my hands. Thank you.”

If the first breaking was a crashing wave, this is ripples on a pond. Jaskier closes his eyes, and Geralt feels his breath catch as a slow wash of golden light spills out of Jaskier’s chest and travels down his arms, spreading along through every man, woman, and child in the uncoordinated circle. The glow lights up the dark, revealing the scared and dazzled faces of the people around them, and slowly wells up like a bubble to pop, sending sparks of golden light drifting through the air. Geralt feels his tie to the curse disintegrate like ash, a weight on his heart easing. One of the babies reaches out, breaking the silence with a little coo as she grabs tiny hands at the specks of golden light.

Everyone is silent for a while, looking at the golden magic dancing, and slowly, with each hand let go, they fade.

Which is when Jaskier’s eyes roll up in the back of his head and he collapses back against Geralt’s arms.

“Open the curtains halfway,” Geralt calls, trying to keep the panic out of his voice, and the villagers of Lettenhove run to drag them back, everyone scrambling. Someone runs for water, another person calling for someone to find cushions and smelling salts.

The light burns Geralt’s too-wide eyes as the curtains open, and he rips off a portion of his shirt to bind it around Jaskier’s eyes and blindfold him. It will take a long time to undo the damage of living in the dark, but for now, he can feel the sunlight on his skin. Jaskier has suffered enough, but he’s not out of the woods yet. Geralt’s no fool, he knows that with the sheer amount of blood loss Jaskier has suffered his heart may yet fail and he’ll pass from exhaustion. Jaskier shifts a little in his arms, stirring.

“The curse is gone?” He mumbles, mouth falling open as he drags in breath after breath.

Geralt’s eyes widen a little.

“There might be some side effects, but it’s broken,” he says tightly, looking at the silver sheen to Jaskier’s tongue. The signet ring has disappeared from his mouth. He is now very literally silver tongued, and Geralt shudders to think what he’s going to do with the sheer amount of power a name like that will bestow on him.

“Oh,” Jaskier says faintly. “Alright then. That’s fine. He’s gone, isn’t he? I didn’t dream that?”

“Very gone,” Geralt promises, and bends to kiss his sweaty forehead. “Nothing left of the fucker. The curse is lifted, you’re not bound anymore.”

“Oh, that’s good.” Jaskier clutches at his arm, breathing shallow. “Help me up.”

Geralt does, carefully cradling him in his arms so Jaskier can see his people through the worn-thin fabric, every relieved face. Most of them are crying, some kneeling in prayer, all of them watching him with devoted joy.

“Thank you,” Jaskier says, and clear tears began to fall down his cheeks from under the mask. “Thank you for saving me. I love you all.”

There isn’t a dry eye in the place as Jaskier slumps back in Geralt’s arms, turning his head to rest against his unbloodied shoulder. The feather light weight of him makes Geralt’s heart twist, his too-thin limbs birdlike as he curls into Geralt’s hold.

“I think I need some sleep,” he says, and Geralt nods, kissing his forehead again.

“We’ll keep you safe,” Geralt promises, just loud enough for Jaskier to hear him. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

“Mmm. You’d better remember a better waking kiss this next time, Geralt,” Jaskier says, and smiles as his head falls back against Geralt’s chest and his eyes close in sleep behind the blindfold. His heart slows to true, resting sleep, and his hands go gently lax.

Geralt sighs, leaning back against the wood of the throne and looking out at the light spilling into the hall.

“You’re a hopeless romantic,” he murmurs, and smiles as he passes out.

oOo

Jaskier sleeps for three days and three nights, stirring only to be coaxed into eating gruel and using a chamber pot, and Geralt doesn’t leave his side for any of it. Lettenhove Reach is swarming with people, everyone frantically cleaning and pulling back the curtains. Two years of accumulated grime and dust are being scrubbed away, the library put back to rights and everyone not needed for the fields filling the halls and corridors if only so that should Jaskier pass after all, they won’t have been far from him. Lettenhove Reach is full of love and worry.

They make up a former storage room with a small window to be his recovery room, and bring in a comfortable but plain bed for him. Geralt keeps his lute within arms reach or on the bed, knowing that the amount of energy it holds will help resonate in Jaskier and help him recover.

When he wakes up on the morning of the fourth day, Jaskier slowly sighs, stretching out inch by inch, and Geralt bends to gently kiss his lips.

The smile he gets is blinding.

“You kept your word,” Jaskier murmurs, his voice raspy from sleep.

“I try to.”

Jaskier’s fingers find the blindfold, and Geralt catches his hand before he can undo it.

“Don’t,” he warns. “You haven’t seen full sun in two years, you’ll blind yourself permanently if that comes off too soon. We’ll start with torchlight. The weavers are going to make you a veil of sheer black so your eyes can adjust slowly, and the alderman has sent to Vizima for black glass lens to help. Your pupils aren’t used to dilating so much anymore.”

“Thoughtful of them,” Jaskier mumbles. His stomach growls, and Geralt’s mouth twitches as he tries to hold back a smile. “Fuck, I’m starved.”

“Literally, yes, you are. Stay still and I’ll go get food.”

“Anything but gruel,” Jaskier groans. “Salad, meat, anything but oats.”

Geralt smooths a hand over his head through the sweaty hair there. “No oats,” he agrees. “Someone will help you wash, I’ll go get food sorted.”

Jaskier hums happily, leaning into the touch, and it’s a lot harder than Geralt expected to step away and go to the kitchens. The cook loads him down with solid food that’ll be good on Jaskier’s stomach and a few chunks of beef to help with the recovery, and even hands him a very delicious turnover that Geralt wolfs down in two bites. Her eyes widen and she gives him another five.

Once Jaskier is actually eating again he starts regaining his strength. He’s still kitten weak, but Geralt stays with him and they start taking slow walks up and down the corridor until Jaskier doesn’t have energy and Geralt carries him back to the room. Geralt’s always reluctant to leave his side, and Jaskier doesn’t seem particularly upset about this.

“Must you go?” he asks, his voice soft. Jaskier reaches out to lightly touch his hand, still drained, five days after the curse is broken. They’re sitting together in the day garden, Jaskier’s new favorite place.

“Have to,” Geralt says, reluctant. “I’m meeting my brother in de Damavire lands in a few weeks, and it’ll take at least one to get there.”

Jaskier hums, the sound melodic. The scar on his throat has vanished, and he half sings most everything now that the magical damage has disappeared. He’s finally started to put on weight again now that he’s not literally puking his own rotted blood out. The color is starting to come back to his body. The gardeners slather him in sun cream every four hours but they all let him soak in the sun in the day garden as much as he likes, and let him rest as much as possible between feeding him and his walks with Geralt around the gardens or the halls.

His old clothes have all been burned. Olga and some of the other seamstresses in the village are making new suits of clothing for him, and embroidering charms into all of them. No one has said anything, but Geralt has seen the fabric, all of it such loud and vibrant colors his eyes almost hurt to look at it. No one ever wants to see Jaskier in black again, and he doesn’t blame them. For now he’s been mostly wearing a plain white robe, too weak to dress in anything more complicated.

“You’d think I’d have died after all, all this white they’ve been putting me in,” Jaskier grumbles, huffing a sigh. “Geralt, please. Stay. Until you can’t stay any longer, stay.”

Geralt hesitates, and Jaskier meets his eyes through the strip of Geralt’s old shirt that’s still acting as his blindfold.

He folds. “Alright.”

Jaskier smiles and hums, self satisfied. “Good.”

He hums a few bars of a piece, and abruptly drops off as he falls asleep. Geralt smiles to see it, and goes to fetch the large sun shade. He’ll still get plenty of light but won’t burn with it over him.

Antonia pins him down the next day after he leaves Jaskier to nap in the makeshift bedroom, and it takes all of about two seconds before Geralt has been very effectively frozen in place by firm brown eyes. Antonia has been acting as a secondary steward, keeping people in line and making certain the Reach is being cleaned properly, and no one has dared argue with her about anything.

“Just where do you think you’re going?” Antonia asks, with measured patience.

Geralt considers rushing past her, and decides not to risk it. “They made me a bedroom. Gonna sleep.”

“Yes, that’s what I thought. You turn right back around and go hold your man, Geralt. You both need some bonding time.”

Geralt’s relatively certain he lost the ability to blush when his heart slowed, but his ears certainly feel warm. “Antonia…”

“Two years,” Antonia says, looking him square in the eyes. “He shouldn’t be alone like that. No one should. And he’s a friendly thing, he needs some affection. He needs to be spoiled and loved on.”

“I’m a Witcher,” Geralt says, helpless.

“And you are the only person here who may have even the faintest understanding of what my lord has been through,” Antonia insists. “He trusts you. He cares for you. He’s a good sight more than halfway in love with you already, and you with him. More than that, he understands who and what you are, and will love you anyway. You only have a little time left, Geralt. Be happy to take it, and help him heal. Physical touch, warmth, gentleness, those all heal the soul much faster than the body, and if his soul is strengthened enough to fight again he will be more resilient. Yours needs healing as well.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Geralt groans, looking at the flagstones. They’re clean, because of course they are with all the staff frantically doing the place up again. The stone masons are still arguing about how they’re going to replace the floor in the Great Hall. “I have to leave eventually.”

“But you don’t have to leave now,” Antonia says, in tones that brook no argument. “Go. Hold him. Let him know what it is to be cared for properly, by someone who wants nothing from him but his company. Besides, you need to sleep properly, and I know you won’t unless you know he’s still safe. Don’t think I haven’t noticed you only nap when he does, and lightly at that.”

Geralt looks at her, helpless, and Antonia reaches up to gently pat his cheek before firmly shoving him back towards the door to Jaskier’s makeshift bedroom. She has surprisingly strong arms for such a small woman. Geralt obediently goes because she’s unfortunately right and he doesn’t actually make a habit of fighting people who know better than he does, no matter what Eskel might say.

Jaskier’s eyes open halfway to look at him when the door opens, and he smiles a little. He’s on his side in the bed, where he’s been for some time now. “Hello.”

Geralt nods to him. “Can...can I join you?”

Jaskier’s eyes light up. “Please.”

That’s enough invitation for him. Geralt pulls his boots off and climbs into the bed, staying on top of the blankets for propriety's sake- because while Jaskier may have plenty of feelings for him, he is still fragile and has an entire horde of villagers ready to take Geralt’s head off if he pushes for anything. Which is sweet, really. No one’s tried to give him a shovel talk, on account of him being a good head taller than most everyone and also a fucking Witcher, but he can see them eyeing him. He drapes an arm over Jaskier’s waist and exhales heavily before sniffing surreptitiously.

Jaskier chuckles a little. “Go ahead,” he murmurs, and tilts his head a little.

Geralt’s a weak man. He shoves his nose into the crook of Jaskier’s neck and just breathes, pulling in the smell of soap and clean skin, freshly laundered cotton and linen. No copper. No silver. No sourness of bad blood or sickness. Jaskier makes a happy little noise and settles against him, a melodic rumble tugged out of his throat. Geralt purrs instinctively in response, and relaxes.

“That’s new,” Jaskier says, sleepy and content. “The purring.”

“It happens,” Geralt says, not really minding. He noses at the soft skin of Jaskier’s throat for a moment before settling back to rest his head on the pillow. Jaskier doesn’t seem to mind. He reaches out with a hesitant hand, and gently runs his fingers through Jaskier’s hair. Jaskier shudders, going boneless, and leans back against him even harder.

“Once upon a time, a king lived with his queen in a beautiful castle far to the North,” Geralt begins softly, and the scent of heady, wonderful happiness rises from Jaskier’s unbroken skin.

His voice doesn’t break, but his heart kicks up a beat. When Jaskier sleeps once more, Geralt gathers him in his arms and holds him close, heart aching with something between baffled joy and the memory of pain.

They stay this way for the next two weeks. Geralt is at his side most of the time, and in his bed whenever it’s time to sleep. Jaskier has nightmares, but when he wakes up screaming it only wobbles the pain in Geralt’s chest a little. There’s definitely lingering power on his new, silver coated tongue, but it doesn’t seem to be tied to pain any longer. They spend hours in the gardens, Jaskier tending to the plants as best he can or sleeping sprawled on top of Geralt in the divan when he can’t. He pesters stories out of Geralt, and tells him some of Rilandrus’ stories to take back to Vesemir in the winter. He starts playing his lute once his fingers heal, planning to build up his calluses once more. It’s a quiet life, filled with good food that Jaskier has begun devouring with glee, good company in the people of Lettenhove, and good sunshine to fill his bones with warmth.

“I’ll be back in a year,” Geralt promises the day he leaves.

Jaskier nods, fiddling with his fingers, and sighs. Neither of them particularly want him to go, but Eskel is certainly almost to their meeting place and Geralt needs to reach him. He looks great in the new spectacles, the dark glasses much easier for him to manage as they’re fitted to his face. He can stand to take them off at dusk now, and he’s starting to get closer to a healthy shade from the sun. Wolves in white have been embroidered in a pattern around the open collar of his bright red and blue shirt. They have golden eyes- Olga’s work.

Geralt’s new shirt has a small patch of embroidered flowers hidden in the black, a small thing for him to run his fingers over and know he’s cared for. All of his new clothes have flower embroidery hidden somewhere on them. He’ll have to learn, so he can replicate it when his clothes wear out.

“I’ll miss you dreadfully,” Jaskier admits. “We’ve had so little time together.”

“Can’t say I won’t miss you, too,” Geralt admits. “And Lettenhove.”

“Lettenhove loves you,” Jaskier agrees, his voice soft. “And so do I.” He holds up a hand when Geralt starts. “Don’t say anything. You’ll be back in a year, and if we feel the same then, we’ll talk about what it might mean for us.”

Geralt feels a bit of a smile tug at his lips. “I don’t know if that’s meeting halfway,” he says, teasing just a little.

“Allow me my selfishness, my lord, as I allow yours,” Jaskier says tartly, but he’s smiling. It fades as he looks at the ground. “Will you write me?”

“As much as I can.” Geralt steps forward, cupping Jaskier’s face in his hands and bending a touch to kiss his forehead. He lets it linger, breathing in his scent. No copper. No silver. Just human skin, warm from the sun. “Look for me in a year, Jaskier Silvertongue. No goodbyes.”

Jaskier’s hands come up to gently hold his bracers, long fingers wrapping solid around them. His breath is deep and shuddering, and Geralt closes his eyes as they stand together. There’s the faintest scent of salt in the air, a few tears escaping to fall down Jaskier’s face and wet the ground.

Finally, Jaskier steps back, letting him go. Geralt lets his hands fall, and meets his eyes.

“Captivity is no life for something loved,” Jaskier says quietly. “I’ll see you in a year, Geralt.”

“A year, Jaskier,” Geralt agrees quietly.

He climbs onto Roach, and rides out of the gates without looking back. If he does he knows he’ll never leave. The guards are all at the gate to see him off, and call encouragement and wishes for safe travels as he passes over the drawbridge he’s walked over too many times. The long earth ramp that leads down to the village and the split off to the fields is gentle to Roach, and he makes his way to the road that leads down to the valley and the passage beyond. He said his goodbyes to the people there earlier, and baked one last set of loaves with Antonia early in the predawn light. He gave her the recipe for Lambert’s peasant loaf in exchange for her sweetbread.

Geralt turns Roach and follows the road that leads away from the village, passing on into the great swell of greenery beyond. The pollen is gone, the time for it passed, so it’s a peaceful ride as he reaches the clearings for the harvest. He rides through the fields of the valley, seeing the spinning girls at their work in the shade of the forest, safe and happy. They wave to him as he passes, calling greetings of, “White Wolf, safe travels!”

Geralt has a feeling the name is going to stick.

He passes through the valley to the other half of the forest, and the dappled leaves of the trees shade him as Roach makes slow, easy work along the trail. The aspens leaves shiver in the breeze, their musical chorus as beautiful as any voices. The Path doesn’t feel as heavy as he thought it might. He’s not leaving Jaskier for good, after all. Just a year, and then they’ll see where they stand as people. It’s a good thought.

When he reaches the border into the de Mattrin lands, Melita is waiting at the signpost. Geralt clicks Roach to a halt, and Melita comes over to him. Her feet are dusty and bare, as callused as Jaskier’s fingers will be one day, and she lifts up a small, sturdy basket full of acorns for him.

“Thank you,” he says, heart softening. After a moment’s hesitation he swings off of Roach, and Melita thumps hard against him to hug him tight, pressing her face against his chest. He hugs her back, cradling her head.

“Do you have to go?” she asks, pulling her head back enough to look up at him.

“I do,” he says, but he’s gentle about it. Melita sighs but nods, putting on a brave face. “There’s more monsters out in the world that need killing, and blades get dull sitting over mantles. I’m meant to be out on the Path, not staying home. But I promise you, I will come back. Maybe not every year, maybe not even every five like Rilandrus, but I will come back.”

Melita nods, and thumps her forehead against his chest again. “I’m gonna hold you to that,” she mumbles, a bit quiet. Geralt hums, gently stroking her hair, and when she takes a deep breath he gently lets her go.

“Goodbye for now, Witcher Geralt of Rivia,” she says, and sweeps a very pretty curtsy.

Geralt smiles, and bows back. “Goodbye, brave Melita of Lettenhove, who loved her Lord enough to face a Witcher and monsters with only her voice to keep her safe. Live well.”

When Melita looks up there are tears on her face, and Geralt gently wipes them away before climbing back on Roach and clicking his tongue to send her forward. They climb the rise of a hill, and look down into a new valley, sprawling and wide, a river like a glittering ribbon within it. It’s beautiful.

He turns back in the saddle.

Lettenhove Reach is a spot of golden stone in the distance. Melita stands at the crossroads, still looking up at him, the forest beyond her and the fields beyond that, the town where Antonia is certainly starting the afternoon cooking and Olga is at work teaching seamstresses their work nothing more than a dotted collection of houses. Karris is riding Madeline free as a bird down a road somewhere, Herrin setting traps, Ianto laughing with his fellow guards, Johann in the kitchens laboring over a new masterpiece. Alderman Haryse is likely in the fields toiling with the others, the spinners singing as they work. A thousand tiny intersections, little lives doing little tasks, all of them safe from the darkness for now.

And Jaskier.

If he closes his eyes, he can almost see him, bathed in sunlight in the golden glory of the day garden, hair a halo of waves and the flowers straining to reach him as if he’s the sun himself. He can almost smell the blossoms, taste the rich green of dandelion leaves on his tongue, see the blue of his eyes and hear the gentle singing of a lute and a voice sweet and warm as sunlight itself.

Jaskier, golden, free of copper, crowned in silver and song.

Geralt turns to the Path, and takes the first step onward.

OoOoO

It’s spring when he returns to Lettenhove, a year and 5 days after Jaskier was cleansed of his curse.

The flowers are fully in bloom, great yellow blossoms of tulips growing wild on the roadside, sunflowers and daffodils and a million other yellow things springing up here and there. When he reaches the leveled grounds for planting he finds the fields springing up with new green life, birds flying overhead. Everything is golden and glorious, the land flourishing. Lettenhove Reach in the distance has yellow pennants flying from her towers, and Geralt feels a rare stirring of genuine joy at the sight of it.

He also sneezes because of the damn pollen, and Roach whickers as if she laughs.

When he reaches Lettenhove township, the children spot him first. Tiny bodies come running out of doors, shrieking, “White wolf! White wolf!”

Geralt swings out of the saddle and is immediately drowning in children excited and happy to see him. He scoops the littlest ones up to keep them away from Roach’s hooves, letting the older children trot along at his side. One of them makes him bend to put a crown of dandelions lopsided in his hair, pulled from their own head.

Shopkeepers and homebodies spot him next, shutters flying open and calls of, “Master Witcher! Welcome back!” are a shock to hear. Antonia comes from the Dancing Dove at a run, skirts hiked up, and Geralt has to blink back a few sudden tears as she hugs him hard, mindless of the children hanging off of him.

“Oh, Geralt, it’s so good to see you well,” she says in a choked up voice. “Lord Jaskier will be so relieved to see you. He’s home on break now, he’s up at the castle tending the renovations with Johann and Haryse. We’ll expect you for dinner.”

“You will?” Geralt says helplessly. The children hug his legs.

“Please?” One of them, a little girl with big blue eyes and blond ringlets begs. “Please, White Wolf?”

Geralt has always been terribly weak and fond of children.

“Very well,” he says, and the kids all cheer, hugging him harder. The little one in his arms wraps his arms around Geralt’s neck and hugs tight.

It takes a while to get divested of the littles, and once he does he climbs back into the saddle and rides for the castle. As he goes, he notices that every single house in Lettenhove has buttercups of some kind planted in front of their house. Trailing down from window boxes, springing from the ground, planted in half-barrels, the town is a riot of yellow. Some people have even painted their shutters the buttercup color. Olga waves at him from her window, smiling brightly, and he bows back to her. She looks to be reading one of Rilandrus’ journals, the worn leather volume in her hand open and inviting.

When he reaches the stretch leading up to the castle, he can’t help himself. Geralt urges Roach into an easy lope, and she takes the long ramp road with ease, body surging underneath him. The guards call a greeting as he rides up, grinning at him when they see the dandelion crown clinging to his hair. He slows Roach to a trot, and the first guard steps forward with a wave.

“He’s out in the garden, Master Wolf,” Uldred says, and Geralt feels a stab of fondness for these humans. “He’s been waiting for you.”

“Anyone going to mind if I leave my horse in the stables?”

Yakob laughs. “Not a one, Karris will see to her.”

He leaves Roach with Karris in newly refurbished stables once he’s been hugged fiercely again, gives Madeline a good pat, and makes his way through the castle. All of the curtains have been thrown back, the black drapes gone and replaced with yellow and blue instead. Sunlight streams through the windows onto the stones, lighting everything with a soft glow as it bounces around the rooms. It’s a beautiful place in the daylight, Geralt thinks as he wanders the halls, taking in the new art, the banners with the de Lettenhove cinquefoil crest, the vases full of flowers scattered here and there. He pauses in the Great Hall, now blazing with light and beauty. The floor has been tiled with a beautiful pattern of cinquefoil flowers in yellow on a blue background, winding around a massive centerpiece flower where Jorgan met his end. On the dais the great old throne chair has been replaced with a simple short couch strewn with pillows, and a table beside it holds stacks of sheet music. A lute sits in an open case, as if just set down. This lute is new, and a very nice one at that.

He wanders down the hall towards the sound of hammering and sawing. He finds Melita sitting in a patch of sunlight in the open door leading out to the day garden, carefully reading with her tongue out. The book is a familiar battered copy of children’s tales. Even from the distance, Geralt can see Lorenz’s carefully drawn knight fighting off a dragon.

“Any good stories in there?”

Her head jerks up and Geralt smiles as her face lights up in delight. She scrambles to her feet and slams into him to hug him tight, curls askew and skirts flying.

“Master Geralt! You’re back! We missed you!”

“I missed you too,” he says, and he’s surprised to find that it’s true. He has missed them, all their oddities and quiet lives, their joys and sorrows. He gently pats her hair until she decides to let him go, beaming up at him.

“My lord is adopting me,” she tells him in delight. “Formally. I’m to be the heir when I’m old enough, but I get to stay living with Herrin! And he’s said when I’m to be 18 and of marrying age, I won’t have to marry anyone I don’t want to, and I’m learning how to read, and Herrin’s teaching me to make traps and Lord Jaskier’s teaching me to manage the poison garden since some of them are good for medicines and not just killing. And Karris is going to teach me to ride Madeline!”

Geralt ruffles her hair, fond. “Good. Riding’s a good skill to have.”

Melita grins at him. “Are you going to see Lord Jaskier?”

“Going to surprise him. He doesn’t know I’m here yet, I just said I’d be there about the year mark.” He fights a smile as Melita makes a wild noise of delight. “I’ll be at Antonia’s with him for dinner.”

“Yes!” Melita hugs him harder before letting go to gather her book. “I’ll go help her get the rolls made. We’ll make the braided bread and the Lambert bread for you!”

Geralt can never let Lambert know that there’s an entire village in Redania who’ve named a bread after him. He’d be insufferable.

Melita runs off with a merry wave, and Geralt quietly steps the door to the day garden.

Once again the yellow flowers are in full bloom. There’s a half built gazebo in the corner now, scraps of lumber strewn around where people have been working. A few chairs sit under the overhang, a table with a pitcher of water waiting for the workers. The flowerbeds are bursting with golden blooms, dandelion heads poking out from the brush and buttercups mingling with moss roses. There's a small group of people in the greenery, Jaskier among them with his back to Geralt as he looks over some plans on a rigged up sawhorse table.

Johann spots him first and grins, grabbing Ianto’s hand and sneaking away past him, Alderman Haryse following with sparkling eyes and an exaggerated wink. Geralt waves them off, all of them slipping past him with grins as they spot his crown of dandelions. When the door silently closes, Geralt steps down into the garden and sniffs.

There’s not so much as a trace of copper in the air.

“Johann, could you hand me the-” Jaskier turns and stops dead. Geralt hears his heartbeat stutter in his chest. “Oh.”

Geralt’s heart catches in his own chest. It’s the barest breath of a sound, that oh, and he feels it in his bones. Jaskier’s hair is near golden in the spill of sunlight creeping into the garden as noon light splashes the new tiles and over the gazebo’s bones. Jaskier’s dressed down in brown trousers rolled up to expose his bare calves and dirty feet, his loose white shirt shoved up to his elbows. He looks soft. Comfortable. There’s dirty under his nails, and lute calluses on his fingers.

“Hello, Jaskier,” he says quietly. “Been a while.”

“You’re late, White Wolf,” Jaskier says, walking up to him. There’s a smudge of dirt on his cheek, a leaf in his hair. He smells of sun warmed skin and clean sweat, dandelion sweetness lingering on his breath. He must have been eating them. Geralt half wants to lick the taste from his mouth. “A while indeed, such an understatement. You don’t write, you don’t send word- a man could think he’s been forgotten. Terrible, I tell you, that feeling.”

Geralt smiles slightly as Jaskier’s fingers find his and lace their hands together. They both know full well that Geralt has been writing as much as possible. “As if I could forget you. I love you.”

Jaskier clucks his tongue, his cheeks flushing brilliant red. He’s thrumming with good health. “Oh you bastard, you can’t just say that to me. So anticlimactic, you are. How was the road?”

“Clear and easy.” Geralt rubs his thumb over the ridges of Jaskier’s fine fingers, heart light. “Easy traveling this year. Easier knowing I was coming to you. I’ll stay through your break and accompany you back to Oxenfurt, drop you off.”

“Sap,” Jaskier says, stepping into his space and tipping his head up. His glasses are lighter than they were when Geralt left, and he knows that some days Jaskier can even bear to have them off at full noon now, for a short time. They’ve exchanged quite a few letters.

Geralt hums, mouth twitching in a smile.

“It won’t be too long now,” Jaskier says, abrupt and firm. His eyes are blue, blue, blue, and Geralt can feel the ties that bind them strengthening, the world righting itself with a sigh of relief. A broken bone, snapping into place to heal. “Two years more, and then I’ll be off to adventure. And if you think you can leave me behind for safety’s sake, you have another thing coming.”

“Jaskier…”

“You won’t ever be rid of me,” Jaskier says, and just for a moment Geralt can see him as he will be, in all his splendor and come into the power he’s been gifted. A golden, sparkling thing, full of light and joy no matter the mess he finds himself in, power in his very voice and bones. “I mean it. You pulled out the dark from in me and killed it, and that kind of debt needs paying. On my heart, Geralt of Rivia, I will take the Butcher of Blaviken and kill him dead with my words. And in time only our strong White Wolf will remain where he stood.”

Geralt’s throat tightens as he feels the power in those words bind them.

“Very well,” he says, a promise accepted. “I’ll hold you to it, Lord Jaskier Silvertongue.”

He reaches out, careful, and Jaskier steps in to rest his face against Geralt’s hand. Geralt lets him, and Jaskier reaches up to gently pull his lenses from his face and set them aside on the ledge.

“Come now,” Jaskier whispers, eyes flashing ocean deep as the sunlight hits them, just for a moment. “Please. Allow me to repay you, Geralt, with all my love freely given.”

And Geralt bends to meet him halfway.

FIN