“There are wolves in the mountains,” Julian’s stepmother, Elisa, tells him one night when she’s tucking him into bed. She likes to tell stories on the nights where his father lets her.
“Wolves are scary.” He thinks of the stories he’s heard of wolves eating little girls who walk through the woods alone to visit their grandmothers and huffing and puffing to blow houses down.
She brushes his hair out of his eyes. “Not these wolves. They keep Lettenhove safe. They keep the whole Continent safe.”
That winter, Elisa dies giving birth to Julian’s little sister, Izabela, and no one will talk to Julian about the wolves anymore.
The first time Julian meets one of the wolves who live on the mountain, he’s trying to sit very still at the dinner table. He gets rapped across the knuckles whenever he squirms too much or talks too loudly. Izabela is allowed to wriggle and babble, but she’s two, still a baby. Julian’s new stepmother, Marta, is as still and quiet as Julian is trying to be, one hand resting on her swollen belly.
“What do you want, witcher?” Julian’s father asks in a harsh voice. Julian tries not to flinch, because that voice isn’t directed at him, for once. “You’re interrupting our dinner.”
“You called about a wraith problem.” The wolf doesn't look like the wolf in Julian's book of fairy tales; he looks like a man, the largest man Julian’s ever seen, enormous and gray-haired with a scarred face and yellow eyes. There are two swords strapped to his back. Julian can’t stop staring.
“Out by the old temple. Surely you don’t need me to tell you what needs to be done.”
The wolf’s jaw clenches. Julian is very good at telling when people are angry, even when they're trying not to show it. He starts nervously fiddling with the gold ring on his finger, then stops. His father doesn’t like it when he takes the ring off and Julian doesn’t want to get hit with the belt again.
“Of course, my lord,” the wolf says.
“Then get to it.” Julian’s father waves an imperious hand.
The wolf leaves without another word.
It’s not the first time Julian has snuck out. The nice thing about no one wanting him around is that they don’t notice when he’s gone, especially if he waits until after he’s supposed to be asleep. He knows where the old temple is; it isn’t fair from their estate and Elisa took him there once on a walk. He misses Elisa. She had pretty blond hair and she smelled nice and she wouldn’t let his father hit him with the belt. For a second, Julian is so sad that he thinks he might cry, but then he remembers that he’s on his way to see the wolf fight a monster.
Something is screaming in the temple. The sound makes Julian shiver, but he keeps moving. He’s almost to the temple when one of the stone walls crumbles and the wolf comes flying out, landing in the debris with a groan. The thing that emerges from the temple is horrible. It looks like a woman, but with its skin gone. Julian can see its ribs under its thin white dress and its teeth are bared into a grimace.
Julian screams and both the wolf and the wraith look up. The wraith flies towards him and Julian can’t move. He can’t run. He can’t yell for help. He’s too scared. He squeezes his eyes shut and waits.
And then the shrieking abruptly stops. When Julian opens his eyes, the wraith is gone and the wolf is walking towards him.
“Alright, pup?” The wolf’s voice is low and gravelly.
Julian blinks. “Where did it go?”
“I incinerated the body,” the wolf says. “It’s gone. Are you hurt?”
Julian shakes his head. His eyes are starting to fill with tears, much to his embarrassment.
“I’m not scared. I’m six!”
“Of course not.” The wolf crouches down in front of him. “What are you doing out here?”
“I just wanted to see,” Julian says with a sniffle.
“You’re Lord Julian’s son, aren’t you? What’s your name?”
“Julian,” Julian whispers.
“Of course. All Julians in your family. I’m Vesemir. Let’s get you home.”
Julian takes a step, but his legs are all wobbly and he nearly falls. Vesemir scoops him up into his arms. Julian’s father has always told him that he’s too big to be held, but Vesemir doesn’t seem to have any trouble holding him. He smells like smoke and leather. Julian likes the smell. He decides that he likes Vesemir too.
“Are you a wolf?” he asks Vesemir. “I thought you’d be hairier.”
Vesemir chuckles, which Julian likes. When people laugh when Julian talks, they’re not normally so nice about it. “I’m a witcher from the School of the Wolf. We’re no more or less hairy than any other man.”
“What’s a witcher?”
“We fight monsters like that wraith.”
“Can I be a witcher?”
“No, pup. This isn’t the life for noble lads.”
Julian frowns. “But what if I don’t want to be a noble?”
“You’ll always have a warm bed and a full belly. That’s not something you should give up lightly.”
“I want to be a witcher or a bard. There was a bard at my father’s wedding last year and he wore a funny hat and had a nice voice. He got kicked out, though, because they caught him and my stepmother—”
Vesemir coughs. “You’ll make a fine Earl de Lettenhove one day.”
Julian frowns because he’s not sure exactly what he’ll do as the Earl de Lettenhove and he’s not sure if he wants to find out. From what he can tell, his father just yells at his steward a lot and makes Marta cry. “Maybe.”
He must fall asleep at some point, lulled by Vesemir’s warmth and his slow, steady strides. When he wakes up, he’s in his own bed.
The next day, when his father is done dolling out his punishment for sneaking out and Julian has new bruises on his back, the earl says, “You’re lucky, Julian. Witchers normally eat disobedient little boys.”
That doesn’t make any sense to Julian, because surely if Vesemir wanted to eat him, he would have taken Julian up the mountain when he asked.
His father’s lips twist into a nasty smile. “There’s a reason that most of the boys who go up the mountain don’t come down again.”
Julian likes to wander, even when it earns him punishment. He gets bored easily, especially since his latest tutor left and his new little sister, Sonja, was born. Marta is already pregnant again and she’s so sick that Julian never sees her anymore. No one ever seems to notice Julian, unless he’s being bad, so he spends a lot of time sneaking into Lettenhove to see all his friends. He plays knucklebones with the village children. He convinces the baker to give him sweets. He watches the blacksmith at work, fascinated.
He also likes to wander around his family’s estate, especially the stables. As soon as he's taught how to ride horses, no one can keep him away from them. When he’s not sneaking the horses apples and carrots from the kitchens, he’s playing with the barn cats and following the stable master, Ben, around and asking him questions.
Vesemir is an occasional visitor to the stables, looking to purchase horses for the witcher school, and Jaskier is always thrilled when he shows up. Ben is always less thrilled. He’s never mean to Vesemir’s face, but as soon as the old witcher turns his back, Ben always spits and makes a sign to ward off the evil eye.
“Never let that freak get you alone, Julian,” he tells Julian once as soon as Vesemir leaves with two geldings. “They perform sick experiments on the boys up the mountain. Mark my words, nothing good happens up at that keep. The whole place should burn.”
Julian decides that he really doesn’t like Ben. That doesn’t stop him from spending his days in the stables though.
One summer morning, Julian is playing in the back garden when he spots a familiar piebald gelding trotting towards the stables. It’s Vesemir! Julian jumps to his feet to call out, but stops. Vesemir isn’t alone on the horse; there’s a boy in front of him. The boy is about Julian’s age, but smaller than Julian, and he’s holding a bucket of water in his lap. He has light brown hair, brown eyes, and a miserable expression on his face. Julian can’t figure out why the other boy looks so sad. He’s with Vesemir. He should be happy.
Julian has questions. So naturally, he decides to go get some answers.
The man’s eyes are yellow, with slitted pupils that remind Geralt of the old gray cat he and Ma used to have. The eyes are kind, even when the man is telling Geralt that Ma isn’t coming back for him. Geralt tries not to cry, because he’s seven, not a baby anymore, but he can’t stop the fat teardrops from running down his face. Ma sent him to get water, so he got her water. Did he not get her enough? Was he too slow? He hasn’t let go of the bucketful of water, even though his arm is sore and his hand hurts from clutching it.
The man doesn’t say anything as they ride through a town. It’s loud and dirty and Geralt doesn’t like it at all. People glare at them as they pass and Geralt feels himself shrinking back into Vesemir.
“It’s alright, pup,” Vesemir says softly in his ear. “Nothing to be afraid of.”
Geralt feels afraid of everything right now. Even when they ride out of the town, he’s still shaking. They ride until they get to a big house. Geralt looks up at it with wide-eyed wonder, but the horse trots right by the house, past green fields filled with more horses. Geralt cheers up slightly at the sight of a baby horse with its mother, then remembers his own mother leaving him. Tears start threatening again and he sniffs them back.
“Here, pup.” Vesemir pulls his horse to a stop in front of a stable and helps Geralt down. “I need to see a man about a horse. Wait here. Don’t go wandering off.”
“Yes, sir.” Geralt’s voice wavers. He can feel snot running from his nose, so he wipes it away. Vesemir goes inside and he hears the rumble of another man’s voice, sounding annoyed. Geralt presses his back against the wall and waits, squeezing his eyes shut to keep back the tears.
“Why are you crying?” a voice asks.
Geralt opens his eyes and finds himself face-to-face with a pudgy dark haired boy with big blue eyes. The boy is standing very close to Geralt.
“Are you crying because you spilled your water? Because there’s a well nearby.”
Geralt looks down and sees that the bucket tipped sideways in his grasp and is only half-full now. He can feel the tears threatening again.
“Or are you crying because you’re scared of Vesemir?” the boy asks. “Because you shouldn’t be. He’s nice. He came to my house last year because there was a wraith killing people in the woods. My father says he’s a mutant freak, but I don’t think that’s true. I’m Julian, by the way. What’s your name?”
“That’s a good name. I don’t really like the name Julian. It’s my father’s name. And my grandfather’s name. And probably my great-grandfather’s name, but I never met him. That’s too many Julians.”
Geralt just blinks at him.
“You shouldn’t be scared of Vesemir,” Julian says. “Witchers don’t actually eat little boys. Vesemir didn’t eat me when I followed him into the woods to watch him kill the wraith. He even carried me home.”
“Julian.” It’s Vesemir’s voice. Geralt flinches in surprise, spilling more water. “Did you wander away again?”
Julian beams up at Vesemir. “I saw you coming! You need to tell Geralt that witchers don’t eat little boys. I think he’s scared. I don’t want Geralt to be scared. He’s my new best friend.”
Geralt doesn’t know what he did to earn the title of Julian’s best friend. Whatever he did, he kind of wishes he could undo it.
“Witchers don’t eat children,” Vesemir says. “Geralt is going to come to Kaer Morhen to become a witcher, like me.”
Geralt looks up at Vesemir. He’s enormous, with armor and two swords strapped to his back. Geralt doesn’t think he’ll ever be that big or that strong.
“Will you kill wraiths too?” Julian asks Geralt.
Geralt shakes his head. “I don’t want to kill anything.”
“That’s silly.” Julian wrinkles his nose. “Wraiths are scary and they kill people. I want to be a witcher, but my father says I can’t because I’m a viscount.”
“What’s a viscount?” Geralt asks.
“I don’t know. It means I have to learn how to sit properly and what fork to use and pay attention in all my lessons, even though they’re boring.”
Geralt doesn’t know what to say to that, but before he can decide, a large, warm hand rests on his shoulder. “It’s time for me to take Geralt up the mountain, Julian,” Vesemir says. “And it’s time for you to run on home.”
Julian sticks his lower lip out in a pout. “But home is boring!”
“Okay.” Julian draws the word out into a whine, but then he smiles at Geralt. “Nice meeting you, Geralt. Maybe next time I see you, you’ll be a witcher!”
And then he turns and runs back towards the big house, leaving Geralt staring after him in befuddlement.
“Come on, pup.” Vesemir squeezes his shoulder again. “Let’s get you back to the keep.”
Most of the time, Julian isn’t sure what he does to make his father so angry. Sometimes it’s the way he sits. Humming to himself during dinner. Being caught playing with kittens in the stables. But usually, all Julian has to do to make his father angry is exist as the part-elf bastard his father never wanted. And since the Earl is on his third wife, Hanna, and only has two daughters, a half dozen stillborn children, and two wives dead in childbirth to show for it, Julian is the only heir, which makes his father hate him even more.
He knows he’s not supposed to take off the gold ring that he wears on his right hand, but it’s grown too tight. The night is a warm, sticky one and the ring is uncomfortable. Julian only plans on taking it off for a minute as he sits in the back garden, away from the prying eyes of his family and the servants.
But of course, his father chooses that minute to come outside.
It’s not the worst beating Julian has ever gotten, but it leaves him with a bruised back and a split lip. As usual, it’s his father’s words that leave the worst marks. Useless. Lazy. Stupid. Soft. Good for nothing. Mongrel. Half-breed. Nothing that Julian hasn’t heard before, but every lobbed insult is like a blow.
“Should have sent you up the mountain to die as soon as you were born,” is the last thing his father snarls at him before he leaves Julian kneeling among the flowerbeds.
Julian has never done what his father wants a single day in his life. But as he tastes the blood from his split lip, he decides that if his father wants him to go up the mountain, that’s exactly what he’ll do.
The Trial of the Grasses ended two days ago and Geralt can still hear the screams. For a week, the screaming and sobbing echoed through Kaer Morhen ceaselessly. He kept thinking that the boys’ vocal cords had to tire out eventually, but they never did. Thirteen boys went into that room and only five came out, and that was a good year, according to the masters.
But Markus, who was always kind to Geralt, who stopped the bigger boys from picking on him and comforted him when he was punished for daydreaming when he was supposed to be learning how to hold a sword, was one of the eight who didn’t make it. Geralt couldn’t look at the body when it was loaded onto the pyre and set aflame.
“Markus was too gentle for this life,” Geralt overheard Vesemir tell Varin, and he went cold all over. Because Varin has told Geralt the same thing over and over again. Geralt is too gentle. Too soft. Too weak.
In eight years, he’ll undergo the Trial of the Grasses, and he’ll die just like Markus. Geralt doesn’t want to die. He wants to go home to his Ma, even if she doesn’t want him anymore.
The boys are warned that the mountain is dangerous at night, but it can’t be any more dangerous than staying at Kaer Morhen and letting them kill him. He slips out of the bunks in the dead of night. He almost wakes Eskel up to say goodbye, but then Eskel will want to come with him, and that won’t be fair to Eskel, who is the best student in their cohort. Geralt won’t ask Eskel to give up the future he was born for.
So Geralt descends the mountain alone in the dead of night, taking nothing but a dagger and the clothes on his back. He tries not to think of the things the witchers say lurk on the mountain. He knows that one of the older boys, Henrick, tried to escape before the Trials and was brought home in pieces, torn apart by a forktail. He didn’t get a pyre; his body was thrown into an unmarked grave. Geralt is small, the smallest in his cohort. If a forktail gets him, there probably won’t be enough of him for even an unmarked grave.
He hears a rustling in the bushes and he freezes. His grip on his dagger tightens. There’s another rustle, then the sound of heavy breathing.
“Who’s there?” Geralt demands, trying to make his voice sound deep and commanding, like Vesemir’s. Instead, it sounds like he has a head cold. He’ll have to work on that.
The rustling abruptly stops.
Geralt reaches into the bush, finds a fistful of silk, and yanks.
“Ow!” The voice is young and human. The boy is about Geralt’s age, but he still has puppy fat clinging to his cheeks. The moon is full tonight, allowing just enough light for Geralt to make out dark hair and wide blue eyes. The boy is wearing fine silks and carrying a knapsack over one shoulder.
“What are you doing here?” Geralt demands. Even though the other boy is bigger and taller than Geralt, Geralt has no doubt he could take him in a fight. Everything about this boy is soft.
To his surprise, a wide smile spreads over the boy’s face. “Geralt!”
When the boy throws his arms around Geralt, Geralt quickly has to withdraw his dagger to avoid impaling him.
“I asked Vesemir about you the last time I saw him and he said you were doing fine and nobody ate you and you eventually stopped crying. But he doesn’t come around as much anymore, not since my father wouldn’t pay him for killing a rusalka. I haven’t seen him in ages.”
Something about the combination of the earnest smile on the other boy’s face and the rapid-fire speech stirs something in Geralt’s memory. “Julian?”
Julian nods so eagerly that his entire body bounces with it.
“What are you doing here?” The people of Lettenhove never come up the mountain. Most of them like to pretend that Kaer Morhen and its inhabitants don’t exist, even though Vesemir and some of the older boys go down to the village once a month for supplies.
Julian puffs out his chest. “I’m here to become a witcher!”
Geralt stares at him. “No you’re not.”
“Why not?” Julian looks hurt.
“I just found you hiding in the bushes.”
“Because I heard something coming! I didn’t know it was you.”
“Witchers don’t hide when they hear something coming.” Fury surges through Geralt at this soft, stupid boy with his stupid clothes and his stupid smile. “You wouldn’t survive training.”
“Yes, I would!”
“Bullshit,” Geralt snarls and Julian steps back. “Do you know what they do to turn you into a witcher? They give you a potion that makes your insides melt. Almost everyone dies. If you seriously want this, then you’re an idiot.”
Julian’s eyes go wide. “It’ll still be better than home.”
For the first time, Geralt notices the line of dark red on the other boy’s lower lip. It’s an injury he’s familiar with; his lip has been split during sparring many times. He feels sick at the sight.
“It may be bad, but it won’t kill you,” Geralt mutters. “But the Trials will. Go away.”
“Is that why you’re running away?” Julian asks.
Geralt is glad it’s dark so Jaskier won’t see his cheeks color. He doesn’t answer.
Julian crosses his arms over his chest. “Why did you come here if you didn’t want to be a witcher?”
Geralt glares at the other boy. “I didn’t have a choice. None of us did.”
Julian opens his mouth to reply, but is cut off by a snarl from the bushes that raises every hair on Geralt’s body. Slowly, he turns. A hulking figure is moving towards them, its features obscured by the darkness. All Geralt can see is that it’s big and it walks on four legs.
“Is that a wolf?” Julian’s voice shakes.
“Not a wolf.” Geralt watches in horror as the creature rises to stand on two legs. “A werewolf.”
“What do we do?”
They die, Geralt thinks, though he doesn’t say it aloud. All he has is his dagger, which isn’t even silver, and he doubts Julian thought to bring a weapon. They’re not going to survive this fight. The werewolf is going to tear them to shreds.
“We should run.” Julian grabs his hand.
Geralt doesn’t have a better plan, so he turns to flee, dragging Julian behind him. They crash through woods. Geralt can’t tell if the werewolf is following them; all he can hear is his heart thundering in his ears and the whistle of Julian’s breathing. Suddenly, Julian screams and his hand jerks out of Geralt’s. Geralt whirls around to see the werewolf has Julian by the ankle and is dragging the struggling boy backwards.
Geralt reacts without thinking and hurls the knife at the werewolf. The blade embeds itself in the monster’s shoulder. The werewolf roars with rage, releasing Julian’s ankle, and lunges at Geralt. Geralt finds himself pinned to the ground under the werewolf’s bulk, with a clawed hand wrapped around his throat. Its breath smells like rancid meat. Maybe this is a kinder death than the Trials, but it’s hard to be reassured by that when he’s trapped and mindless with fear.
“Let him go!” Something strikes the werewolf in the back of the head and it releases Geralt. Julian stands behind it, holding a tree branch that’s longer than he is tall. When the werewolf turns on him, he flinches, but he doesn’t try to flee. He holds the ridiculously large branch like a club, but he has to know as well as Geralt does that he doesn’t stand a chance.
The werewolf takes a step towards Julian and Geralt lunges, leaping onto the monster’s back. He grasps the hilt of the knife that’s still sticking out of the werewolf’s shoulder, but before he can tug it free, the werewolf seizes him by the arm and throws him. Geralt lands on top of Julian and they both go sprawling to the ground. Geralt hears the werewolf howl behind him and throws himself over Julian’s chest and head, trying to block the other boy as much as he can with his skinny frame. Over the werewolf’s howls and his own thundering heartbeat, he doesn’t hear the hoofbeats approaching.
And then the werewolf’s howl ends in a choked off whimper and there’s a wet thunk. Shaking, Geralt looks up to find Vesemir dismounting from his horse to stand over the werewolf’s corpse, a blood-slicked silver sword in his hand. Behind him, Varin sits astride his own horse.
“Are either of you hurt?” Vesemir asks.
Geralt shakes his head, just as Julian cries, “Geralt, your neck is bleeding!”
Geralt reaches up and touches his neck. His fingers come back slick with blood. “Oh.”
“Oh?” Julian sits up, nearly throwing Geralt off of him. “Are you dying? Are you going to turn into a werewolf? Can werewolves be witchers?”
“He’s not going to turn into a werewolf, pup,” Vesemir says gently. “Bites and scratches don’t transmit the werewolf curse. It’s a myth. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Would serve him right, though,” Varin snarls. He reeks of vodka. “Cowardly little shit. What did you think you were doing, running down the mountain in the middle of the night?”
“Varin, I’ll talk about this with Geralt when we get back to the keep,” Vesemir says calmly.
“I say we let him keep going down the mountain. He wants to run away, he can run away. See how long he lasts in the real world.”
Geralt feels perilously close to crying. He hasn’t cried since his first night at Kaer Morhen. He quickly learned that such displays of weakness aren’t tolerated. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, clambering to his feet.
“Sorry? Your brothers’ funeral pyres are still warm and you shame their memory like this?” Varin jumps down from his horse and lurches towards Geralt, hand raised.
“Stop!” Julian stands up and pulls Geralt back, like he honestly thinks he can protect Geralt from a full-grown witcher’s wrath. “He saved my life.”
“And who the hell are you?” Varin demands.
Julian puffs out his chest. “Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove.” Somehow, he manages to make his squeaky little voice sound authoritative.
“Viscount or not, you listen to me, you little shit—”
Vesemir steps between his fellow swordmaster and the two boys.“I’m sure the Earl de Lettenhove will handle his own son’s discipline.” Just like that, Julian deflates. Something flickers in the old witcher’s expression and he says, “Varin, take Geralt back up the mountain. I’ll be escorting young Julian home.”
Geralt cringes. He doesn’t want to be left alone with Varin. Julian seems to be thinking the same thing, because he reaches out and takes Geralt’s hand. Geralt looks down at the hand holding his in mild bewilderment. Julian’s hands are very soft. He’s wearing a ring and the metal is warm against Geralt’s palm.
“I don’t answer to you, Vesemir,” Varin snaps.
“You also don’t want to make an enemy of me.”
Vesemir and Varin stare each other down. “I’ll be talking to Rennes about this,” Varin grumbles finally.
“Feel free.” Vesemir turns to Geralt. “You’re to go straight to bed as soon as you get back to Kaer Morhen. You and I will talk in the morning.”
“Yes, sir,” Geralt says meekly.
Vesemir reaches out and clasps Geralt on the shoulder. “I’m glad you’re alright, but there will be consequences for this. You could have gotten yourself and Julian killed. Julian, what on earth are you doing here anyway?”
“Oh, I ran away from home to become a witcher,” Julian says brightly. “Though I don’t know if I want to be a witcher anymore. I don’t really like werewolves, and witchering probably involves a lot of werewolves.”
Varin snorts and casts a disdainful glance in Geralt’s direction. “He wouldn’t be the worst student in the keep.”
Vesemir sighs. “Come on, Julian.”
Geralt’s eyes meet Julian’s. “Thank you,” he says quietly. He’s not sure what exactly he’s thanking Julian for. Distracting the werewolf with the branch? Protecting him from Varin? Being kind to him, when Geralt himself hasn’t been very kind?
Julian squeezes his hand and smiles. “What are friends for?”
“Why do you want to be a witcher, Julian?” Vesemir asks as he ties his horse to the front gate of the Pankratz estate.
Julian shrugs, embarrassed. After coming face to face with the werewolf, it all seems like a silly dream. And with every step they get closer to his house, the more he dreads what he’ll have to face inside. “My father told me he should have sent me up the mountain to die when I was born.”
“Is that why you wanted to come up the mountain? To die?”
“No!” Julian shakes his head. “ I don’t want to die, I just want to make a difference. I want to see the world outside Lettenhove.”
“Pup.” Vesemir crouches down so they’re at eye-level. “There are easier ways to see the world than becoming a witcher. Have you ever heard of the Trial of the Grasses?”
Julian shakes his head.
“It’s the procedure that gives us our mutations. Every four years, a group of trainees undergo it and only three in ten survive. The most recent Trials finished two days ago and we lost eight boys.”
Julian swallows. “Why?”
“Because that’s what must be done to turn us into witchers,” Vesemir says. “To face some of the things we face, we need to be near-invincible and that doesn’t come easy. This life is a lonely, violent one. Every year, we lose more of our brothers to monsters or human treachery. We’re despised by most of the humans we protect. Witchers are necessary to keep the Continent safe. That being said, I sincerely hope to live to see a day where we’re not needed anymore and we can stop putting young men through the Trials.”
Julian thinks of Geralt, with his sad dark eyes and his serious face. "I hope so too."
Vesemir smiles grimly. “You will make a difference someday, pup. But don’t try to sneak up the mountain in the middle of the night anymore. There are worse things than werewolves out there.”
“Okay.” Julian nods.
As they approach the front door of his house, Julian can feel his shoulders creeping up towards his ears. The guard on duty is watching them with an exasperated expression.
“What did he do now?” the guard asks Vesemir, ignoring Julian entirely.
Vesemir looks down at Julian, his eyes focusing on the cut on Julian’s lip. He turns to the guard and makes a complicated sign in the air. “You’re going to bring Julian to his room. Make sure you’re not seen. You’ll tell no one about this. Understood?”
The guard’s face goes slack and he mumbles, “Understood.”
Julian gapes at Vesemir. “What was that?”
“Axii. Best go with him before it wears off. I never quite mastered using it on humans. Much easier on horses.”
“Thank you,” Julian whispers.
Vesemir squeezes his shoulders. “Your father isn’t happy with his life, Julian. Don’t let him make you unhappy with yours too.”
No one will talk to Geralt the day after his attempted escape. The other students and the masters act like he doesn’t exist, except for the occasional whisper of “coward” and “deserter.” Even the healer who stitches up the cut on his neck left by the werewolf doesn’t say a word to him, wearing a disgusted expression on her face the entire time she works. Eskel is the only one who will talk to him, even if he’s just as angry at Geralt as everyone else.
“You could have died,” he tells Geralt during their morning sparring session. “They never found the forktail that killed Henrick. You’re lucky all you ran into was a werewolf.”
Geralt doesn’t say anything. He can feel Varin’s eyes boring into the back of his head.
Eskel lowers his voice. “Why didn’t you take me with you?”
Geralt looks up at the bigger boy with wide eyes. Eskel is a year older than Geralt and can beat most of the trainees in a fight, even the boys in the older cohort. “Do you want to leave?”
“No,” Eskel says. “But I wouldn’t have let you go down the mountain by yourself. You shouldn’t have been alone.”
Before Geralt can process that Eskel would have given up being a witcher to protect him, Clovis comes up behind him and snarls in his ear, “Coward.”
“Leave off, Clovis,” Eskel growls.
Clovis is a year younger than Geralt, but almost as big as Eskel. His freckled face is twisted into a sneer. “They should have let that werewolf eat you. Everyone knows you’re useless anyway. Is that why you ran? Because you know you won’t survive the Trials?”
Eskel turns on Clovis with a thunderous expression and Geralt resigns himself to having to back Eskel up in this fight, when Vesemir calls, “Enough, boys.”
None of them even noticed the old witcher approaching. Clovis and Eskel step away from each other hurriedly.
Vesemir stands at the edge of the training yard, arms crossed over his chest. “Geralt, a word.”
Geralt’s face heats with embarrassment as every boy in the yard turns to watch him follow Vesemir. Most of the gazes are hostile, but a few are pitying, which is worse. Neither Geralt nor Vesemir say a word as they make their way up to the top of the highest tower in the keep. If it were Varin, Geralt would think he was being brought here to be shoved off the roof. As it is, he keeps his distance from the edge as Vesemir surveys the scenery.
“You’ve done wrong, Geralt, but I think you already know that,” Vesemir says.
Geralt stares at the floor. It’s windy. That’s why his eyes are stinging. “Yes, sir.”
“Varin, Rennes, and I have decided that six months of stable duty are in order.”
It’s better than Geralt was expecting, to be honest. He was braced for privy duty.
“You aren’t the first boy to run, Geralt and you won’t be the last. But every single boy who has run and actually survived the trip down the mountain has come back. Do you know why?”
Geralt shakes his head.
“Because this is their home. And it’s yours too. I know it can be hard to remember that after the Trials, but these boys are your brothers.”
Geralt swallows. “I just don’t want to die.”
“Oh, pup,” Vesemir says gently. “No one does.”
Over the following months, Geralt trains harder than ever. He’s still the smallest and skinniest of their cohort, but he learns to use that to his advantage. He even beats Eskel in a couple of matches, earning both Vesemir and Varin’s praises. He may not survive the Trials. He may not even survive training. But while he’s at Kaer Morhen, he’s going to prove that he has the right to be there.
Nearly a year after his ill-fated escape attempt, Vesemir asks Geralt to accompany him down the mountain on a supply run. It’s a chore normally reserved for older students, but Geralt doesn’t mind all that much. He enjoys spending time with Vesemir and he’s all too happy to get away from the keep for a day.
Geralt remembers being terrified of Lettenhove the first time he was here, seven years old and refusing to let go of the bucket of water Ma had used as a ruse to get rid of him. It seemed like a massive city at the time. And maybe it is closer to a city than the muddy little hamlet where he lived with his Ma, but it’s still an ordinary town, filled with ordinary folk that watch him and Vesemir with undisguised suspicion as they make their way through the town square.
Geralt has heard the witchers talk about how much humans fear and despise them, but he wasn't expecting it from a town that should be used to the inhabitants of Kaer Morhen. He keeps his horse close to Vesemir’s, ducking his head to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes.
“Is it always like this?” Geralt asks quietly.
Vesemir keeps his face straight ahead. “Not always. There are plenty of people in this town who appreciate what we’ve done to keep them safe. The ones who don’t are just… louder about it.”
“Geralt! Master Vesemir!” A voice calls.
“Luckily, we have some loud supporters as well,” Vesemir says with a smile.
Julian comes bounding towards them. He’s wearing blue silks the same color as his eyes, with puffy sleeves bigger than his head. “Did you turn into a werewolf?” he asks Geralt. “Because you belong to the Wolf School, right? It would kind of make sense for you to be a werewolf too. You would be double the wolf. Ben says witchers can turn into wolves anyway. Is that true? Probably not, because he also says you steal virgins from their beds and drink their blood, and I think he may be getting you mixed up with vampires.”
“No one here is a werewolf or a vampire,” Vesemir says.
“Oh, good. Pretty horse.” Jaskier reaches for the mare Geralt is riding and nearly gets his fingers taken off for his trouble.
Geralt tightens his hold on her reins. “She bites.”
“That’s okay!” Julian says brightly. “I would probably bite too if I had someone riding on my back all day. Do you like horses, Geralt?”
“Yes?” Geralt does like horses. After cleaning out the stables for six months as punishment, he continued with the chore voluntarily. He’s come to know and love every single one of the horses at Kaer Morhen.
Julian looks up at Vesemir with enormous blue eyes. “Vesemir, can I bring Geralt to meet my family’s horses? Please?”
Geralt expects Vesemir to say no. After all, this isn’t a day off. He’s here to help Vesemir. But Julian’s puppy dog eyes must work, because Vesemir says, “Go on, pup. Leave your horse with me. I’ll come and get you when it’s time to go back home.”
Before Geralt even knows what’s happening, Julian is dragging him away.
Julian is starting to realize that he doesn’t have as many friends as he thought. The village children only let him play knucklebones with them because their parents tell them they have to. The baker has only been giving him pastries for years because she’s afraid of what will happen if she doesn’t. The blacksmith, whose shops he’s spent so many hours in, finds him annoying. The older he gets, the more he realizes that Ben the stablemaster is a mean old drunk. Julian’s jaunts into town and around his family's estate are getting less and less enjoyable with each eye roll and curled lip he sees aimed at him. He’s a pest. A bother.
Useless. Lazy. Good for nothing. Half-breed.
So Julian is determined to make Geralt his friend, and what better way to make a friend than introducing him to a bunch of horses?
“That’s Marta,” he tells Geralt as they walk through the stables. “She’s named after my father’s second wife. I don’t think he meant that in a nice way. And that’s Peaches. That’s Brown Horse, which is a dumb name for a horse, especially since he's not even brown, he's chestnut, but he’s Izabela’s horse, so she got to name him.”
“You have a lot of horses.” Geralt’s voice is soft and reverent.
“My family breeds them. It’s how we make our money. Nobles aren’t supposed to have to do anything to make money, but Lettenhove isn’t a very big town.”
“Which one is yours?” Geralt asks.
Julian bounds over to the nearest stable. “This one. His name is Buttercup. Everyone tried to tell me that I couldn’t name a boy horse after a flower, but he’s a horse. He doesn’t care what his name is. Anyway, I like buttercups. They’re pretty. You can’t eat them though. I tried once, because I thought they’d taste like butter, and they made me sick. They didn’t even taste like butter.”
Buttercup, a small dun gelding, snorts into Julian’s hair in agreement.
“He’s beautiful,” Geralt says quietly.
“You can pet him! He’s friendly.”
Geralt reaches out a hand and strokes Buttercup’s nose. The horse lips at his fingers and to Julian’s surprise, Geralt giggles. Julian realizes that he’s never seen the other boy smile or laugh before. It’s a nice sound.
“He likes you,” Julian says. “Want to give him a sugar cube?”
Geralt nods and Julian hands him one of the sugar cubes he always keeps in his pocket. He notices a long, thin scar on Geralt’s palm and asks, “What’s that from?”
Geralt looks surprised, like he forgot he had the scar. “Training accident. Sword slipped in my hand.”
Geralt has a scar on his chin too, probably from the werewolf attack. Julian remembers what Vesemir told him the year before about the lonely life of the witcher. Geralt seems nice; Julian doesn’t want him to be lonely.
“You can come visit Buttercup any time you want,” Julian tells Geralt. The “And me too” remains unspoken.
Geralt’s lips curl into a shy smile. “I’d like that.”
And just like that, Julian has his first real friend.
Geralt starts accompanying Vesemir almost every time he goes down the mountain to get supplies from Lettenhove and every time, Julian is waiting for them. While Geralt is supposed to be helping Vesemir, Vesemir always sends him off to spend the afternoon with Julian. And it’s nice. Some days, they go to the stables to see Buttercup and the other horses. Some days, they go to sit by the Gwenllech River, on a large, flat rock on the riverbed where Julian says he likes to go to think. Julian is like no one else that Geralt knows: loud, exuberant, and endlessly enthusiastic about everything. The other boy talks a lot, so much that Geralt hardly gets a word in edgewise.
He thinks that Julian might not have many other people to talk to. Slowly, he realizes that Julian is lonely, possibly even more lonely than Geralt is. At least Geralt has Vesemir, Eskel, and the other witcher trainees. Julian has no one, and he seems to latch onto anyone who shows him the smallest kindness. Julian trying to run up the mountain to become a witcher makes sense in light of this revelation. Vesemir has always been kind to Julian and Julian seems to adore the old witcher.
“I leave for Oxenfurt next month,” Julian tells them one miserably hot summer day, while they’re sitting in their spot by the river. Over the last few months, Geralt has stopped thinking of it as “Julian’s spot” and started thinking of it as “their spot.”
“Where’s that?” Geralt asks.
“Redania. It’s a school where I’ll learn to be a proper noble.” Julian rolls his eyes. “Like I want to be a noble. I’d rather be a traveling bard.”
“You have to get good first.” Geralt nods to the lute in Julian’s lap.
His friend flicks a pebble at him. “I’m just learning, you ass!”
“Could you learn quieter? It’s hurting my head.”
“Big strong witcher, can’t handle a little headache?”
“I’m not a witcher yet.” Or big and strong, though Geralt doesn’t say that. He’s still the smallest person in his cohort. He’s even smaller than Julian. “How long will you be gone?”
“Until next summer,” Julian says.
Geralt doesn’t reply. He didn’t realize that this was the last time he was going to see Julian for nearly a year. And maybe it will be better for Julian to be away at school, with other noble boys. He knows the Earl de Lettenhove isn’t kind to his son. Last month, Julian had a black eye when he greeted Geralt and Vesemir at the base of the mountain. Geralt hasn’t met the Earl de Lettenhove yet. When he does, he hopes he’ll be a real witcher so he can show the man how much black eyes and split lips hurt.
Thinking things like that is dangerous, Vesemir would say, but Geralt doesn’t care. Witchers hunt monsters, not humans, but what kind of human punches his son in the face and sends him away to a school in another kingdom?
“Geralt?” Julian asks.
Geralt realizes he hasn’t been paying attention to a word Julian’s said. “Hm?”
“I’m sorry. I should have told you earlier. I just didn’t want to ruin today. And I… I wasn’t sure if you would miss me or not.”
Geralt looks at Julian. The other boy is smiling, like always, but there’s a forced quality to it. He’s looking a little to the right of Geralt’s face, not straight at Geralt, like he’s afraid what he’ll see there.
“Of course I’ll miss you,” Geralt says softly. “We’re friends. Right?”
“Yeah, we are.” Julian’s voice is a bit choked. He’s suddenly looking intently at his lute. “You’re my best friend in the world.”
Geralt swallows. "You're mine too."
Julian loves Oxenfurt. He loves his classes and his professors. He loves the town. For the first time in his life, he has all the friends he could possibly want. And Oxenfurt seems to love him too. People like him, and not just for his money, because everyone who goes to Oxenfurt has money. People laugh at his jokes and listen to his attempts at music.
He writes letters to Geralt at least once a month. He never gets a reply, but he doesn’t need one.
There are a lot of Julians at Oxenfurt and most of them start using nicknames. Julian’s fondness for buttercups is well known, and so his classmates start calling him Jaskier. It’s the first time he’s ever had a nickname that was nice.
Julian Alfred Pankratz is a scared, lonely halfling whose father beats him and whose mother didn’t want him. Jaskier is a happy, sociable student with a good group of friends, decent grades, and a natural talent for music.
It’s not hard to figure out which one he’d rather be.
Geralt is nervous when Julian comes back from Oxenfurt. All year, he’s been getting letters from Julian, recounting classes, outings with his friends, and hijinks. Geralt always wants to write back, but he’s never sure what to say. His days are a cycle of training, eating, and sleeping. There’s nothing there that Julian would want to hear about. So he reads and rereads Julian’s letters and keeps them tucked under his mattress. Clovis makes fun of him for it when he finds out, and Geralt gives him a black eye.
Geralt can’t shake the fear that Julian won’t want to be friends with him anymore when he gets home.
But as soon as he sees Julian, it’s like no time has passed at all. Julian runs up to him with his normal smile and throws his arms around Geralt. Geralt returns the hug, surprised but pleased. They go to visit Buttercup, and then retreat to their spot by the river, just like they did last summer. Geralt has been struggling with his Quen shields and Julian seems to delight in helping him practice by throwing pebbles at Geralt so he can deflect them.
“You know, my friends at Oxenfurt call me Jaskier,” Julian tells Geralt when the sun is lowering in the sky and Geralt knows Vesemir will be coming to get him soon.
“Like a buttercup?” Geralt asks. “You want to be named after your horse?”
“He’s a noble steed. Anyone would be lucky to have such an honor.”
Geralt snorts, then thinks about buttercups. Pretty, poisonous, pop up all over the place, whether they're wanted or not. “It suits you.”
“Thanks,” Julian says with a grin. “I think so too.”
“Do you want me to call you Jaskier?”
“I like it better than Julian. I don’t like being named after my father.” Julian’s voice drops at the last words, like he’s afraid the Earl de Lettenhove will slip out of the trees.
“Then your name is Jaskier,” Geralt says simply and the smile Jaskier gives him leaves a warm little glow in his chest.
Jaskier has grown taller and thinner in the last year and the gold ring on his finger is loose, always slipping down over his knuckle. He knows he needs to get it resized, but he hesitates to bring it up to his father. He doesn’t want to do anything to draw his father’s attention. Hanna just gave birth to twin girls, Agata and Anastazia, and the earl is in a fouler mood than ever. Julian has taken to feigning headaches so he doesn’t have to eat dinner with his family, with Izabela sneaking food up to his room at night. Anything, even making eye contact with his father for a beat too long, can set the earl off when he’s in this kind of mood.
It’s towards the end of summer, not long before Jaskier will leave for his second year at Oxenfurt, when Jaskier and Geralt are wading through a shallow part of the river. Jaskier is teasing Geralt about his hair, which he’s grown longer and is now wearing in the exact same style as Vesemir, when he looks down just in time to see the gold ring slip off his finger and into the water.
“Fuck!” Jaskier yelps and drops to his knees, fingers scrambling frantically. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. My father is going to kill me.”
“Jask, it’s fine,” Geralt says. “I got it.”
Jaskier freezes. Slowly, he looks up at Geralt.
No one has seen Jaskier without his glamour since he was a child. Jaskier knows what Geralt is seeing— eyes that are a brighter blue than any human’s, luminous skin that glows in the sunlight, facial features that are a bit sharper than normal. And the long, pointed ears that peek out from under Jaskier’s head of brown curls.
Jaskier is suddenly terrified in a way he’s never been terrified before. Because Geralt could ruin his life with one word. Geralt may be his friend, but that doesn’t stop Jaskier’s heart from racing and his hands from shaking as he holds them out for the ring.
Geralt deposits the ring into Jaskier’s palm. “Nice ears.”
Jaskier smiles weakly. “Thanks. They’re the latest fashion in Oxenfurt.”
It’s a dumb joke, but it makes both boys dissolve into giggles and the tension immediately breaks. Jaskier slips the ring back on his finger and feels the glamour take hold.
“No one knows except for my dad,” he tells Geralt. “Not even my sisters or Hanna. If anyone found out…”
Geralt’s brows knit together. “I’m training to become a witcher, Jask. I don’t care that you’re part-elf. And I’m not going to tell anyone.”
Julian isn’t sure what he did to deserve a friend like Geralt. But he’s so, so glad that he did it.
“Are you trying to memorize that letter?” Eskel asks Geralt.
“Hm.” Geralt is rereading Jaskier’s latest letter for the third time. It’s probably the last letter he’ll get before the first snowfall hits and making the trek down the mountain becomes impossible. Jaskier writes all about the song he's composing for the school bardic competition that spring. He wants to be the youngest student to ever win it. His excitement seems to pour off the page.
“You guys are close, aren’t you?”
Geralt shrugs. “He’s my friend. Like you.”
Eskel and Jaskier are both his best friends, in their own ways. Geralt knows that he would kill or die for either of them, without a moment’s hesitation. Every time he remembers Jaskier’s abject terror when his glamour slipped, he’s tempted to go down the mountain and kill the Earl de Lettenhove himself. But the way he cares about Jaskier is different from the way he cares about Eskel. He just doesn’t know how to explain how.
“You would like him,” he tells Eskel. “He likes to read, like you.”
Eskel smiles. “Maybe I’ll meet him one of these days.”
Geralt nods. “You will.”
Geralt had almost forgotten how terrible the sounds of the boys undergoing the Trial of the Grasses were, but now he remembers in vivid detail why he ended up fleeing Kaer Morhen four years ago. It’s the third day of the Trials and the screams are endless. Training has been all but abandoned. No one can focus on anything; they can only sit and listen to their brothers suffer and die in the laboratories below the keep.
Geralt lies awake and listens to the screams. He knows that no one else in the dormitory is sleeping. Several boys are crying. He’s pretty sure Clovis is one of them. If Geralt weren’t so heartsick and horrified, he might find it in himself to be an asshole about that.
“Geralt?” It’s Eskel’s voice from the next bunk over.
“Yeah?” Geralt whispers.
Geralt scoots over without a word and Eskel slips into the bed next to him. The bed is hardly big enough for Geralt; it’s way too small for both of them, but Geralt doesn’t care. They haven’t done this since right after they both got to Kaer Morhen, since Geralt was seven and Eskel was eight and they were both terrified and alone in the world. Geralt is fourteen and maybe he should feel embarrassed about cuddling with his friend like some kind of baby, but not this week.
“We’re next,” Eskel says in a low voice.
Geralt has been trying not to think about it. Four more years, and his cohort will be undergoing the Trials. It’s so far away, and yet too close.
“Do you ever wish you got away that time you ran?”
They never talk about Geralt’s escape attempt these days. Geralt has spent the last four years trying to make up for his temporary cowardice. “No. I wouldn’t have made it down the mountain alive.”
Eskel lets out a long, slow breath. “If I don’t survive the Trials, remember me. Name your horse or your dog after me or something.”
“I’ll name the ugliest ghoul I meet after you.”
“Oh, fuck you.”
Geralt smiles, even though he knows Eskel can’t see it. “You’re going to make it, Eskel.”
Geralt swallows. “I will, if you do the same.”
“I’ll always remember you, Geralt,” Eskel says softly.
There’s nothing else to say after that.
Geralt looks exhausted when Jaskier sees him, with dark shadows under his eyes and a grim set to his mouth. They don’t say a word as they walk down to the river. Geralt doesn’t even comment on the fact that Jaskier is wearing a heavy coat on a hot summer’s day, which is normally the kind of thing he would tease Jaskier about. As soon as they sit down, Jaskier pulls out the bottle of vodka he’s been hiding under his coat.
“Thought you might need this,” he tells Geralt. It’s a small consolation, but it’s the best he can offer.
“Thanks.” Geralt takes a swig, then chokes.
Jaskier snorts. “It’s vodka, not ale. You’re supposed to take small sips.”
“Fine, show me how it’s done.” Geralt shoves the bottle back at him.
They pass the bottle back and forth for a bit in silence, before Jaskier asks, “How many?”
“Two survived out of eleven. It was a bad year.” Geralt shrugs like it doesn’t matter. Like these aren’t his friends and brothers he’s talking about.
“Gods, I’m sorry.”
“We all know the odds.”
Jaskier doesn’t want to ask the question, but he knows he needs the answer. “When are your Trials?”
“They happen every four years. My cohort’s next.”
Jaskier closes his eyes. “Do you have to go through them?”
“If I want to be a witcher.”
“Do you want to be a witcher?”
Geralt doesn’t answer. “Didn’t you want to be a witcher a few years ago?”
“Because the hunting monsters part is awesome. But this…” Jaskier trails off. “If you weren’t training to become a witcher, what would you do?”
Geralt looks puzzled by the question. “I’ve never thought about it.”
Jaskier passes him the vodka. “Come on. You have to have some secret dream. Horse trainer? Pirate? King of Kaedwen?”
“Not worth thinking about, since it won’t happen.” Geralt shakes his head. “What about you? What would you do if you weren’t a viscount? Be a bard?”
“Of course. And you, my very best friend in the world, would be my muse.”
Geralt scoffs. “I’d be a shit muse.”
“Don’t sell yourself short.” Jaskier frowns. “There has to be a better way to make witchers, right? One that doesn’t kill so many kids.”
“They’ve tried,” Geralt says flatly. “There’s no gentle way to break down every cell in your body and rebuild it.”
“You don’t need to be rebuilt, Geralt.” Jaskier looks away so his friend doesn’t realize that Jaskier is already grieving for him.
All of Jaskier’s letters that year mention someone named Valdo. Valdo said this, Valdo sang this duet with Jaskier, Valdo helped him with this funny prank. Valdo, Valdo, fucking Valdo. Geralt doesn’t know who he is, but he hates him. He can’t explain the twist of jealousy in his gut every time he reads the name. It’s not that Jaskier has another friend; he never wants Jaskier to be as lonely as he used to be again. But Jaskier seems to worship Valdo, and that doesn’t sit right with Geralt.
Vesemir gives him some paper and ink so he can write back to Jaskier. Geralt writes a few lines, then rips the paper up. The only thing more clumsy and inelegant than his handwriting are the stilted sentences he writes. He keeps picturing Valdo— who, in his imagination, looks a lot like Clovis— leaning over Jaskier’s shoulder and laughing at Geralt’s terrible spelling.
He bets that Valdo has immaculate fucking handwriting.
It’s the early days of summer when Geralt goes with Vesemir, Eskel, and Gweld to clear out a nest of drowners that have made their home in an old beaver dam on the Gwenllech River, only a half a mile from his and Jaskier’s spot. At least four villagers have died, a group of young people out for an evening swim that turned deadly. These aren’t the first monsters Geralt has killed and the hunt itself is easy. But when they find the bloated, half-eaten bodies of the victims, his heart turns over. One of the bodies is facedown and all Geralt can see is that the victim was male and had curly brown hair.
Gods, no, no, no.
Geralt can’t move. It’s Gweld that picks the corpse up and Geralt sees that the dead boy is older than Jaskier, with a thinner face and hazel eyes. It’s only then that Geralt remembers that Jaskier isn’t even expected home from Oxenfurt until later that week.
“Alright, pup?” Vesemir asks mildly.
Geralt can’t bring himself to speak, so he just nods.
“Why is it so hot?” Jaskier drags his forearm across his forehead to wipe away the sweat.
“Because it’s summer,” Geralt says mildly.
“Why, thank you, O Wise Scholar. I hadn’t noticed.”
Geralt snorts. “You’re cranky when you’re sweaty.”
“I’m not sweaty. I’m glistening.”
“I can smell your glistening from here.”
Jaskier makes a rude hand gesture and begins to peel off his breeches.
“What are you doing?” Geralt demands, voice cracking. Jaskier loves it when that happens, but Geralt is so self-conscious about his changing voice that Jaskier doesn’t have the heart to mock him for it.
“Going for a swim.”
“Don’t go in the water. We cleared out a nest of drowners just last week.”
“Seriously? That’s awesome! How many were there? Is it true that they’re the undead corpses of people who drowned?”
“About eight and no, they’re necrophages. People just think that because they’re drawn to dead bodies. And they killed four people.”
“Oh.” Jaskier’s excitement dies. “That’s not so awesome.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
Jaskier slides off the rock into the water. It’s deliciously cool against his skin and he ducks underwater before resurfacing. He looks up to see Geralt staring at the sky with an exasperated expression on his face. “What? You said you cleared them out!”
Geralt is looking anywhere but at him. “We could have missed one.”
“Don’t worry, Geralt,” Jaskier says teasingly. “If a drowner gets me, you can have Buttercup.”
Jaskier slurps up a mouthful of water and spits it at his friend in a perfect arc. Geralt deflects it with a Quen shield.
“Not fair,” Jaskier whines. "You weren't even looking at me."
Geralt rolls his eyes. “You know how many things have probably decayed in that river?”
“The circle of life, my friend.”
“Tell that to the dead bodies we pulled out of the drowners’ nest.”
Jaskier winces. “My, you’re in a good mood today.”
“Seen too many corpses lately to be in a good mood.”
Jaskier wants to demand why Geralt even bothered coming down the mountain then. He’s not even here on a supply run with Vesemir; he’s finally old enough to leave the keep on his one free day a month. Jaskier is flattered that Geralt chose to spend his free day with him, when he could be meditating or whatever it is witchers do for fun. That being said, he thinks some quiet meditation would have done Geralt some good.
But he doesn’t want to start a fight, so he lets himself float on his back and be pulled along by the gentle current of the river. With the water cooling him down, he’s able to appreciate the beauty of the day: the blue sky, the fluffy white clouds, the birds chirping in the trees. It’s the kind of day that saccharine poems get written about.
Jaskier looks up and finds Geralt watching him. Not for the first time, he’s struck by how lovely his friend is. The sun brings out the golden streaks in his hair and his face and arms are tanned by days spent training outdoors. Geralt is a beautiful boy who’s turning into a beautiful man and Jaskier tries to ignore the stirrings he can feel in his gut, the ones he sometimes get when he sees Geralt’s shoulders flex when he lifts something heavy or listens to him murmur sweet nothings to Buttercup and the other horses. He has to repeat the same mantra to himself: he’s your friend, he’s your friend, don’t scare him away, don’t fuck this up.
“Ducat for your thoughts?” Jaskier asks lightly, because Geralt’s expression is inscrutable and he’s a little afraid of what his own expression might hold.
“I want my ducat back.”
Jaskier rolls his eyes and begins to swim in lazy circles.
“Jask, get out of the water.”
Jaskier looks up and sees that Geralt is standing up on the rock. “I told you, it’s fine.”
“Get out of the water, now!”
“What?” Jaskier asks stupidly, just as the skeletal green face of a drowner emerges from the river.
Geralt pulls Jaskier out of the river right before the drowner’s claws can close around the other boy’s throat. He shoves Jaskier to safety with one hand while driving his knife into the monster’s eye with the other. Black blood splatters on the riverbed as the drowner falls. Geralt stands there for a long moment, breathing heavily and watching the water for any signs of more danger. His heart is thundering in his chest and he has to work to control his breathing.
He keeps thinking about that dead boy with the brown hair in the drowners’ nest. Jaskier comes here all the time without Geralt. That easily could have been Jaskier, dragged underwater by grasping hands, opening his mouth to scream and sucking in lungfuls of water instead.
When he’s certain that nothing else is going to crawl out of the river, he turns on Jaskier. The other boy is still lying in the mud where Geralt threw him. He has mud and drowner blood splattered on his cheek and he’s looking up at Geralt with an awed expression. He isn’t even a little bit scared and Geralt wants to shake him.
Jaskier laughs breathily. “That was incredible! Shit, Geralt, you moved so fast—”
“Are you stupid?” Geralt snarls. “I told you to get out of the damn water!”
The smile doesn’t leave Jaskier’s face, but something in his eyes dims. “You didn’t tell me there was a drowner coming.”
“Why else would I tell you to get out of the water?” Geralt is so angry that he can feel himself shaking. He’s not sure why he’s so mad. It can’t have anything to do with how before the drowner attacked, when Jaskier stripped down to his smallclothes and jumped into the river, Geralt felt a pleasant heat settle low in his belly. No, it’s because Geralt can still smell the rot of the drowners’ nest.
“I thought you were just being grumpy.” Jaskier clambers to his feet.
“You could have died!” For the first time, Geralt realizes that he's nearly as tall as Jaskier. Last summer, he barely came up to Jaskier's shoulders. Now, his eyes are level with Jaskier's mouth, which is wet from river water.
Jaskier's tongue darts out over his lower lip nervously. “But I didn’t, because you were here.”
“I won’t always be here.” In three years, Geralt will probably be dead and there won’t be anyone to pull Jaskier out of rivers when there’s a drowner coming. “You don’t have any survival instincts at all!”
“That’s not fair!”
“First a werewolf, then a drowner—”
“The werewolf almost killed both of us, not just me.”
“Who’s going to stop you from dying when I’m not here?”
“It’s not your job to stop me from dying!”
“You’re right, it’s not.” There are droplets of water glistening on Jaskier’s shoulders and collarbone and Geralt can’t look at him anymore. He stalks away, ignoring the plaintive way Jaskier calls his name.
It takes him a week to realize that he overreacted and that he probably needs to apologize to Jaskier. Next time he goes down the mountain, he’ll steal a bottle of vodka from Varin’s stash as a peace offering. He’ll make things right. He still doesn’t know why he got so angry, or why he keeps dreaming that he wasn’t there and that Jaskier got pulled under the water by the drowners and died alone and scared.
The day before he’s supposed to accompany Vesemir into town, he’s running the Killer with Eskel and Gweld when he missteps, gets hit in the chest by one of the swinging pendulums, and goes flying. His leg hits a tree and he hears the snap before he even feels the excruciating pain. His leg is broken in two places and while the healer does what she can, she firmly tells Geralt that he’s not to put any weight on it for at least two months. There’s to be no training, no horseback riding, and definitely no going down the mountain.
By the time his leg is healed and he’s finally allowed to go down the mountain, the leaves are turning red and orange and Jaskier is already gone to Oxenfurt for the year.
This year, he doesn’t get any letters from Jaskier.
The first time Jaskier saw Valdo Marx, there was an instant where he thought the other boy was Geralt. Valdo and Geralt are about the same height and build and both have light brown hair, but Valdo’s eyes are hazel, not brown, and his features are more delicate than Geralt’s. He talks more than Geralt, almost as much as Jaskier, and he has a quick sense of humor that can occasionally verge on the cruel. But Jaskier likes him. They’re in music class together for the second year in a row. Valdo's lovely tenor contrasts nicely with Jaskier's deeper, richer voice and when they sing duets together for class, they bring tears to their professor’s eyes.
Valdo kisses Jaskier for the first time only a week into the school year. They’ve snuck into one of the upperclassmen dorms for a party. Valdo tastes like vodka and garlic, but Jaskier doesn’t mind. It’s Jaskier’s first kiss. His second kiss is a couple of months later, again with Valdo, during a festival for Saovine. His third, fourth, and fifth kisses are with Valdo too.
It’s the fifth kiss that gets Jaskier in trouble, because he’s stupid enough to kiss Valdo in their empty music classroom, right as their professor walks in.
“Deviant behavior,” the administration of Oxenfurt calls it, and it’s a expulsion-worthy offense. Valdo sells Jaskier out in a heartbeat. He didn’t know Jaskier was going to kiss him, he tells everyone who will listen tearfully. Jaskier just jumped him when they were in the middle of an innocent discussion of musical theory. It was disgusting. The professors and administration eat it up, because Valdo is the golden child and Jaskier is the rascal who talks too much in class and breaks into his professors’ lodgings to put their beds on the roof. Never mind that Valdo was normally egging Jaskier on from the sidelines.
Jaskier wouldn’t blame Valdo for saving his own skin, if it weren’t for the look of barely suppressed glee the other boy shoots Jaskier as he leaves the dean’s chamber. Valdo has always been competitive, but he seemed genuinely happy for Jaskier when he won the school bardic competition two years in a row. It couldn’t have been a set up. Valdo couldn’t have gotten Jaskier expelled on purpose, could he?
His father’s steward comes to collect him. Jaskier arrives home in Lettenhove just as the first snow starts to fall.
The winter is a long one. All winters are long in the mountains, but this one comes early, making the trail down the mountain impassable so only about half of the normal witchers are able to return to Kaer Morhen for the winter. At least, everyone hopes it’s just the deep snow keeping them away. The keep normally gets loud in the winter, with twice the normal amount of people there, but it’s quiet this winter.
Lambert is the newest trainee, brought in as a child surprise by one of the witchers right before the first snow blocked the roads. He’s eleven, older than most new trainees, and a cranky little asshole. He spits and swears at anyone who gets too close to him and deliberately does poorly during his training sessions, like he thinks if he fails, they’ll send him home. Geralt feels bad for the kid, especially since Varin has decided that it’s his mission this winter to break Lambert.
So when Geralt hears the crying on his way back from the privy one night, he almost walks in the other direction. It’s late and he should be in his bunk. He rounds the corner and sees Lambert curled up in a corner, face buried in his knees, his little shoulders shaking. Lambert is small and skinny, shrunken from years of malnourishment. He hasn’t noticed Geralt and Geralt could leave without anyone being the wiser, but he’s suddenly reminded of cowering outside of a stable with a bucket of water in his hands and trying not to cry. And then Jaskier— brazen, happy, ridiculous Jaskier— running up to him to demand to know why he was crying.
Geralt sits down next to Lambert. The younger boy doesn’t look up or even acknowledge Geralt’s presence, other than shifting his weight a bit so he’s pressed against Geralt’s side. Neither of them say a thing. Jaskier would know exactly what to say. Even Eskel would. But Geralt just sits quietly until Lambert’s sobs have turned into quiet sniffles.
“I don’t want to die,” Lambert says quietly.
Geralt remembers saying those same words to Vesemir five years ago. He could assure Lambert that he’ll be one of the ones to survive the Trials and it will all be fine, but he won’t lie to the kid like that. “None of us do.”
Lambert is still an annoying little shit after that, but he’s Geralt’s annoying little shit. When he gets mouthy with Clovis one night at dinner and Clovis punches him in the face, Geralt beats the absolute shit out of Clovis. He’s stuck on privy duty for a month, but it’s worth it.
When the snow melts, Geralt and Vesemir travel down the mountain for a much-needed supply run. Food is getting scarce and everyone in the keep is restless. Geralt knows that Jaskier won’t be home from Oxenfurt for months, but that doesn’t stop his feet from carrying him towards their spot by the river. When he finds Jaskier sitting cross-legged on the rock, strumming sadly on his lute, he thinks he’s hallucinating for a moment. Jaskier looks terrible. His doublet is discarded in the dirt next to him without regard for wrinkles or stains. He’s pale with dark circles under his eyes. He’s obviously drunk; Geralt can smell the vodka from here. Worst of all, under the thin white silk of his chemise, he’s covered in fading bruises. His chest, his shoulders, his back, his neck are mostly purple and yellow.
Geralt must make some sound, because Jaskier startles and looks up. When he sees Geralt, he doesn’t look pleased. If anything, the unhappy lines of his face become even more pronounced. “Hello, Geralt.”
“You’re supposed to be at Oxenfurt,” Geralt says.
“So I’ve heard.” Jaskier’s shoulders sag and he suddenly looks much older than sixteen. “I got expelled.”
“It doesn’t matter. None of it fucking matters.” Jaskier’s eyes are red-rimmed, which makes them seem even bluer.
Geralt has gone over his apology for their fight over and over again in his head, but in his imagination, he was always talking to a happy, smiling Jaskier. Not this weirdly diminished version of his friend. “What happened to you?”
“What do you think, Geralt? Daddy dearest isn’t exactly thrilled that I got sent home from Oxenfurt in disgrace. This is nothing. You should have seen me when I first got sent home.”
“I’ll fucking kill him.” Geralt doesn’t recognize the voice that comes out of his mouth. It’s low and cold.
“Please don’t,” Jaskier says flatly. “I’m not ready to be an earl yet.”
Geralt settles down next to Jaskier on the rock, moving slowly, like Jaskier is a horse that will startle. He lies back so he can look up at the cloudy sky with Jaskier. “Do you have anywhere else you could go?”
He’s never asked about Jaskier’s mother. He knows that she wasn’t any of the three Countesses de Lettenhove and he assumes she was at least part-elf, but that’s all he knows about her.
“No,” Jaskier says miserably. “I don’t even know my mother’s name. All I know is that she and my father fell in love when he was on his post-Oxenfurt tour of the Continent that nobles love so much. He brought her back here to marry her, but she left right before the wedding. My guess is she realized what an asshole he is. She only came back six months later to drop me off at the front gates. She didn’t want me.”
The pain in Jaskier’s voice causes a lump to rise in Geralt’s throat. “Her mistake.”
“No, I think she made the right call.” Jaskier scrubs a hand over his face. “I got caught kissing another boy. That’s why they kicked me out. For deviant behavior.”
The silence hangs between them, heavy and awkward, for a long moment. Jaskier is looking anywhere but at Geralt.
Geralt’s mouth has gone dry. “Valdo?”
“Oh, so you did read my letters. Good to know.” Jaskier laughs without humor. “Yes, Valdo fucking Marx. I’m pretty sure he set me up so he would have a chance at winning the school bardic competition this year. Next time I see him, I’ll… well, I don’t know what I’ll do, but it will be something really terrible.”
“Like kiss him again?” The words come out before Geralt can think about them and he freezes, thinking he may have crossed a line.
But instead of being furious or starting to cry, Jaskier throws back his head and laughs. Jaskier’s laugh is always a wild thing: bright and unrestrained. If there’s the slightest bitter edge to it right now, it doesn’t take away from its musical quality. Geralt smiles, because he always smiles when Jaskier laughs like that. Jaskier rolls over to press his face against Geralt’s shoulder and laughs helplessly until he can only wheeze.
“He wasn’t even a good kisser,” Jaskier says when he can speak again. “That’s the worst part. I ruined my future for someone whose breath smelled like an alghoul.”
“Your future’s not ruined, Jask.”
“I’m never going to be a proper bard now. You need a degree from Oxenfurt to get a position at any respectable court. Not ever going to be a proper viscount either. I never got around to learning those skills.” Jaskier heaves a sigh. “Hanna is pregnant again. If this one is a boy, I’m getting disowned. I always knew that if he ever had another son, I wouldn’t be the heir anymore. I was okay with that. I’d make a shitty earl. But now, he’ll really kick me out with nothing. I’ll be alone.”
“You’re never going to be alone,” Geralt tells him. “I won’t let you be alone.”
Jaskier makes a little gasping noise in reply. Geralt pretends not to notice the tears that begin to soak through his shirt.
Geralt is nervous the first time Eskel and Lambert come down the mountain with him and Vesemir. Jaskier is Geralt’s best friend and Eskel and Lambert are Geralt’s brothers, but this is the first time they’ll meet. There’s nothing to be nervous about, not really. He knows that Eskel and Jaskier will like each other. Everyone likes Eskel and Jaskier doesn’t seem to have trouble making friends. As for Lambert, the kid is an acquired taste, but Geralt has a feeling that Jaskier will appreciate his sharp tongue and quick wit.
But Geralt needs Eskel to like Jaskier because he promised Jaskier that he would never be alone. And if anyone is going to survive the Trials, it will be Eskel. Eskel is one of the most promising students Kaer Morhen has seen in years; all the instructors say he was born to be a witcher. If Geralt doesn’t survive the Trials and Eskel does, Geralt wants Eskel to be there for Jaskier.
It turns out that there’s nothing for Geralt to worry about because as soon as Jaskier is finished greeting Geralt with his customary rib-crushing hug, he turns to Eskel with his beaming smile. “You must be Eskel. I bet you have so many embarrassing stories about Geralt. Please tell me all of them.”
Eskel laughs and he and Jaskier are instantly friends.
Lambert takes a little more convincing, surprising no one. “You’re a viscount,” he says almost accusingly when the four of them have retreated to Geralt and Jaskier’s spot by the river.
“I am.” Jaskier is lounging luxuriously with his feet dangling into the water. Geralt is trying to keep an eye on the water to make sure there’s not another drowner incident, but he keeps getting distracted by the sight of Jaskier’s calves. Only because they’re surprisingly hairy.
Lambert eyes him dubiously. “What’s a fucking viscount?”
“You know, Geralt asked me that same question in a far less colorful way when we first met,” Jaskier says with a grin. “It means my father is an earl, and someday I’ll be one too.”
Now Lambert turns to Geralt. “Why are you friends with a viscount?”
“For his money,” Geralt deadpans.
Jaskier reaches over and swats him on the arm. “I saved him from a werewolf and I could never get rid of him after that.”
Geralt cocks an eyebrow. “You saved me?”
“Don’t you remember, dear heart? I was downright heroic with that branch. After I was finished crying and pissing myself, of course.”
Geralt’s heart stutters. Jaskier has called him many things over the years, but “dear heart” is new. Geralt doesn’t hate it. “I think it was more heroic when you stopped Varin from hitting me.”
“Oh, is that that old witcher’s name?” Jaskier wrinkles his nose. “I’ve never liked him. Now that my father and Vesemir no longer get along, he’s always the one who comes calling when there’s a monster problem.”
“He’s a prick,” Lambert says hotly and Eskel makes a noise of agreement.
“That he is.” Jaskier nods.
Lambert is looking at Jaskier with something akin to respect. “You stopped him from hitting Geralt?”
“I was on a heroic streak. Couldn’t risk ruining it.”
Apparently, that’s all it takes for Lambert to decide Jaskier is worth knowing, because he takes it upon himself to teach Jaskier how to hold a knife, demanding, “Fuck, Geralt, you’ve known him for how long and he still doesn’t know shit about defending himself?”
“One of them is going to lose a finger,” Eskel says quietly, watching Jaskier and Lambert with unabashed amusement.
“I heard that, dickwad!” Lambert calls.
Eskel lowers his voice. “He’s not what I was expecting.”
“Lambert? Yeah, he’s a disappointment to us all.”
“Oh, fuck you!” Lambert mimes throwing his knife at Geralt.
“You know who I mean,” Eskel says softly.
Geralt watches Jaskier smile down at Lambert, clearly delighted by this small, foul-mouthed boy who has decided his life is worth preserving. “What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know, someone stuffy and noble. You’re different with him too. You talk more. I haven’t heard you say ‘hm’ once since we got here.”
Eskel snorts. “I like him.”
Jaskier looks up and grins at them. Geralt can feel his heartbeat pick up in his chest. “He’s not bad.”
The easy smile on Eskel’s face vanishes instantly and he stands up, reaching for his own knife. “Jaskier, Lambert, get over here.”
Geralt looks around and spots what Eskel saw and he missed— six men striding through the trees towards them. He recognizes most of them; they’re some of the people who always glare and spit at him and Vesemir when they walk into town. He realizes with a sinking feeling that almost all of them are armed with clubs and knives. With the river at their back, Geralt and his friends have nowhere to go.
Jaskier pushes Lambert behind him. Lambert gives an outraged squawk at the indignity, but Jaskier holds him in place with one hand, Lambert’s dagger clutched in his other. “Is there a problem, gentlemen?” he asks in a voice Geralt has never heard from him before.
The man who Geralt recognizes as the local blacksmith grins at his friends. “Told you this is where the witcher whelps spend their time.”
“There are no witchers here,” Jaskier says in that same commanding voice. “Whatever ridiculous bigotry you hold towards the inhabitants of Kaer Morhen, you won’t find your revenge today. Turn around, and this will be forgotten.”
One of the other men, the son of the town alderman, laughs. “Little shit already thinks he’s the earl.”
Jaskier stands up straighter. “No, but I will be one day. You’d do well to remember that.”
“Not from what I heard,” the alderman’s son said. “I heard your father is desperate for a new heir. I heard he’s going to disown you as soon as he gets a son who isn’t a cocksucking bastard.”
Jaskier doesn’t flinch, but Geralt sees the muscles in his neck tighten. Geralt starts to step forward, but Eskel stops him with a hand on his chest. Geralt meets his brother’s gaze and Eskel shakes his head minutely. Geralt knows what Eskel is thinking; of the four of them, Jaskier is the only one these men will face actual consequences for killing. Eskel, Geralt, and Lambert are nobodies, but only an idiot would murder a viscount, even a bastard viscount.
“Do you want to bet your lives on hearsay?” Jaskier asks coolly. “What do you think the penalty for attacking me would be? You’ll hang.”
“You think anyone will miss you, boy?” the blacksmith demands.
“Not a damn soul,” Jaskier says. “But that won’t save you from the gallows.”
There’s a long, tense silence. For a moment, Geralt thinks that will be the end of things and that these men will retreat to the safety of their village. But then stupid, brave little Lambert has to go and run his mouth. “You heard him, assholes. It’s time for you to fuck off.”
The blacksmith’s face goes purple. “What did you say to us, you little shit?” He steps towards Jaskier and Lambert, brandishing the club in his hand. Geralt hears Jaskier’s sharp, scared intake of breath and he thinks of all the times an angry man has been bearing down on Jaskier and Geralt wasn’t in a position to help him. Geralt’s here now.
Geralt rips out of Eskel’s grasp and crosses the space between him and the blacksmith in three strides. The man is twice his size, but he’s not a trained fighter. Geralt is. The man tries to swing his club and Geralt grabs his wrist and twists. The blacksmith drops the club and aims a punch at Geralt’s face. Geralt blocks it and drives his fist into the man’s throat, knocking the wind out of him, and then his nose. Cartilage crunches under his hand. As his opponent reels backwards, he’s aware of the other five men closing in and Eskel rushing forward to defend him.
“Enough!” Vesemir’s voice cracks through the air like a whip and everyone freezes.
Vesemir stands at the treeline and his face is thunderous in a way Geralt has never seen before. “You attack your lord’s son and innocent students? You come armed with clubs and blades after children?”
“Nothing going on up at that school is innocent,” the alderman’s son says, but his voice is too shaky to hold any conviction.
“I once pulled your grandfather out of a kikimore’s jaws, Viktor. You wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for Kaer Morhen. All of you, leave, or death by kikimore will sound merciful.”
“We’re not scared of you, witcher,” a man Geralt doesn’t recognize growls.
Vesemir’s lip curls. “Then would you like to fight me?” He steps out of the shadows of the trees. The swords strapped to his back glitter in the sunlight.
The men don’t need any more convincing than that. They flee. As soon as the sounds of their footsteps crashing through the woods vanish, Vesemir strides towards Geralt and takes Geralt’s face in his hands.
“Are you alright?” he demands.
Geralt nods. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”
“You did well, pup.” Vesemir looks past Geralt. “Eskel? Lambert? Jaskier?”
“We’re all fine.” Jaskier takes a shaky step forward and leans against Geralt. Geralt can feel Jaskier’s heart hammering against his back. “Fuck, I thought they were going to kill us.”
“Didn’t act like it.” Eskel claps Jaskier on the back. “That was a good lordling act you put on. I almost believed you could have those men hanged.”
Jaskier grins weakly. “Well, what’s three and a half years’ of Oxenfurt education worth, if not for teaching young nobles how to act like entitled pricks?”
Geralt shakes his head and lets Jaskier lean against him until the other boy’s legs stop shaking. Jaskier is his friend and needs reassuring. It’s the least he can do.
Vesemir doesn’t let Geralt, Eskel, or Lambert go down the mountain with him for the rest of the year, instead taking his fellow instructors or one of the older trainees who have already gone through the Trials. Not as a punishment, he assures them, but because the men who cornered them will be angry, embarrassed, and looking to lash out. Best to give everyone time to cool off. Geralt is worried about Jaskier, who has no one to protect him but his worthless father, but Vesemir assures him that Jaskier is keeping his head down.
Geralt keeps remembering his promise that Jaskier wouldn’t be alone. He’s also very aware that there will only be one more full summer after this before the Trials. He’s losing months that he could be spending with Jaskier.
In the early fall, Vesemir returns from Lettenhove with news that the Countess de Lettenhove has given birth to the earl’s fifth daughter, named Lena, and Geralt breathes a sigh of relief. At least he doesn’t have to worry about Jaskier being cast out in the cold while Geralt is stuck on the mountain.
When the winter comes, it’s almost a relief. Because snow means that spring is only a matter of months away and he’ll be able to see Jaskier again.