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In the Deep Dark Hills

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Jaskier has developed a sense for which towns and villages are going to treat them fairly and which ones won’t. To begin with, he thought the difference was down to things like poverty or superstition, but places with barely two coins to rub together can be friendly, and the most prosperous dwellings can be foul. In fact the wealthier places are often the worst; they may need to hire a witcher but they don’t have to like it, and they treat Geralt with a contempt that makes him want to spit. They always try to pay less, too, even when they can well afford it. He supposes that’s how they stay rich.

Zubin is famed for its silver; its mine workings are some miles out of town, blasted into the rock of the mountains. The wealth the mines bring in is visible everywhere: handsome buildings, well-paved roads. Signs of the mines themselves are harder to come by – the people are clean, their clothes finely made. Clearly the workers who keep the coin coming aren’t welcome to actually live in the town built on their labour.

Geralt is following news of a venomous aracha, possibly a nest of several of them. Zubin’s council had flyers posted through the north. Urgent, the flyers said. Witcher needed. They’re clearly desperate, and desperate folk pay well, except that – this is one of those towns, Jaskier can feel it. It’s in the haughty, disdainful look of the passers-by, the sniff of the innkeeper who charged them a frankly exorbitant price for a room, the general air that Zubin is a nice place, and nice places don’t like being reminded of un-nice things. Like arachas, or witchers. They’ll let Geralt do the job, but they’ll kick him out straight after with half of the promised coin, most likely.

Jaskier sighs as they climb the tavern stairs to the bedroom to dump their things before seeking out the alderman. “I hate towns like this,” he says.

“Hmmm,” says Geralt. He has a sense for the shit places, too. He’s been at this a lot longer than Jaskier, after all.

“Ask for half the money upfront,” Jaskier says, as he bounces slightly on the bed. The mattress is solid and spiky. Typical.

“Hmmm.”

“Can we please head south after this? The mountain air is playing havoc with my throat, and I don’t want to croak my way through spring.”

“Hmmm.”

“Also I think you should kiss me.”

Geralt stops neatly sorting through his potions and weapons in preparation for the hunt. He looks over at Jaskier lounging on the bed and snorts.

“Just checking you were listening, my dear,” Jaskier says. Geralt raises an eyebrow and the corners of his mouth crinkle, just a little, but Jaskier’s good at reading his signs too and these ones mean I always listen, which isn’t true, but he likes the sentiment. Geralt walks over to the bed, kisses Jaskier briefly on the forehead, and then returns to his preparations.

“You know that wasn’t what I meant,” Jaskier complains. This thing between them is new, developing in the months since Cintra, when Geralt came to him after the banquet and kissed him, desperate and furious. Jaskier doubts it means much beyond a logical progression to their intimacy: if they stitch each other up, wash each other, lie close in their bedrolls for warmth, then why not also lend a helping hand or a kinder touch when there’s no one else around? He still finds companions in inns; Geralt still goes to brothels when he has the coin. It’s not anything serious.

He sighs and closes his eyes. If he can’t get Geralt to indulge him, he can at least have a nap.

 

Zubin’s alderman is a portly, self-satisfied man named Balthazar. He wears a silver chain of office, several silver rings, and a beard that clings to his chin like it’s about to fall off. The general effect is not wholly convincing – he looks a little like a child playing dress-up as a politician – but Jaskier does his best to keep his thoughts from his face.

Judging by Geralt’s perfectly blank expression as he digs his elbow into Jaskier’s side, he’s not entirely successful.

The haggling starts, and Jaskier wanders to the window and looks out. He knows how this is going to go – Geralt is demanding three quarters of the contract’s value before he takes the job, and will settle on somewhere around half – so he doesn’t need to pay attention. The alderman’s office has a view over the town square. There’s a poor sod in the pillory in the middle of it, being pelted with fruit by enthusiastic children, and a line of four men being brought out from what must be the town jail. They’re chained together, their steps clanking. Jaskier frowns. Zubin seemed so peaceful. He wonders what they’ve done.

The back and forth behind him ceases, honour presumably satisfied on both sides, and Geralt pockets a bag of coin.

“You have someone ready to show me the way?” he asks.

“Of course,” the alderman says. “Will your, uh, apprentice be accompanying you?”

Jaskier looks down at what he’s wearing – a midnight blue doublet embroidered with turquoise flowers – and finds himself momentarily lost for words.

“The bard is staying here,” Geralt announces, clearly trying not to laugh. Jaskier huffs, but they’ve already had this argument, and he has, reluctantly, accepted the logic that keeping away from creatures that could kill him if he got within breathing distance is a good idea.

“The bard is famous throughout the northern lands,” Jaskier mutters quietly enough that only Geralt can hear him. “Fucking backwater dump.”

“I’m sure your citizens will appreciate the entertainment he can offer in my absence,” Geralt tells the alderman, the little shit. It took Jaskier years to realise that almost every flat pronouncement Geralt made was secretly taking the piss. He’s sneaky. Most people never notice.

“Of course,” the alderman says, sounding dubious. “We’re always happy to hear the latest tunes.”

Jaskier’s opinion of both him and Zubin takes another dive. Tunes. As if he’s any old minstrel peddling other people’s music around the Continent rather than Jaskier the bard, three-time winner of Oxenfurt’s laurels, feted in every court from Cintra to Beauclair—

Geralt takes his arm and pulls him from the office before he can express any of this.

“Savages,” Jaskier complains and Geralt hums in amusement.

They walk back to the inn so Geralt can collect Roach and meet the forester who’s been sent to show him where the arachas’ nest is. Jaskier stands by the door to wave him off.

“Behave yourself,” Geralt tells him.

“As I always, always do,” Jaskier says sunnily. Geralt frowns, clearly decides not to remind him about all the times he’s returned from a hunt only to have to rescue him from some crisis or other, and lifts a hand in farewell.

“Should be a day or so,” he says. “Back soon.”

“You’d better,” Jaskier says, a warning and plea in one. He hates being left behind, can feel himself wanting to whine and stamp his feet, but he reins it in. Geralt will kill the monsters, he’ll come back, and they can get the hell out of here. In the meantime, Jaskier can work on earning a little extra, make this detour worthwhile.

He watches till Geralt is lost to sight, sighs, and goes in to see if the innkeeper will be as sceptical as the alderman about his musical talents.

 

In the end, the night isn’t as bad as he feared. The audience is conservative, true: they aren’t at all interested in any of his own compositions and he gives up trying after the first attempt, but they tap their feet along to the classics, and hand over more coin than he expected. Enough for a decent meal and a couple of glasses of Toussaint wine, and some left over so that he can cover his share of the room.

The following day, to distract himself from thinking of Geralt off out in the mountains somewhere, he sleeps in late and wakes groggy and slow. He washes and then wanders out to find the market, which unsurprisingly is heavily focused on silver. Wholesalers swarm around the traders’ hall, buying raw ingots for transport elsewhere, but there are a few stalls here and there selling trinkets. They’re surprisingly cheap, and he haggles for a ring to go on his little finger, twisted so the metal forms waves.

He buys a pie and props himself against the alderman’s building to watch the crowd. There are stories everywhere, if you care to look, and he observes the poor sod in the stocks – a different man today – and two young lovers sneaking kisses like they’re the only real things in the world, and a group of small children playing some wild chasing game around the stalls, getting swatted at by the merchants. Jaskier’s just about figured out the rules when someone clears his throat beside him, and he turns to see Balthazar the alderman, sweatier and even more unconvincing under the late winter sun than he was inside his office.

“If you were thinking of putting a cap out, we have a law against begging,” the alderman says by way of greeting.

Of course they do. Jaskier sighs. “I’m no beggar, sir,” he says, drawing on all the arrogance that Geralt hates. “I’ve performed at courts in front of kings and queens, drawn crowds from Novigrad and all points north. The days of playing for pennies are long behind me.”

The alderman smirks, in a way that makes it clear he doesn’t believe a word of it. “Your witcher not back yet?”

Jaskier rolls his shoulders inside his doublet. “It’s not even been a full day,” he points out.

“We’ll take it poorly if he absconds with our coin,” the alderman says, a certain oily threat in his words.

Jaskier grits his teeth. “The White Wolf doesn’t leave a job undone,” he says, with the kind of chilly politeness that used to send grown men fleeing from his mother’s table. He doesn’t leave me behind, either, he thinks, but saying that would surely not go down well with such a paragon of respectability.

“White Wolf,” the alderman says, mockingly. “That’s not the name I heard.”

“My lord,” Jaskier says, sketching a bow, “on the matter of Geralt’s good name I fear we would never agree, so let’s say no more about it; he’ll prove himself amply when he returns with the aracha’s head in his fist.”

“True, true,” Balthazar says, and gives Jaskier a condescending smile. “Till we meet again, bard.”

The alderman goes back inside the hall, seemingly having left it only to taunt him. Perhaps the man’s bored; Jaskier can’t imagine Zubin takes much managing, as dull and well-behaved as it appears. He pushes off from the wall, heading back towards the inn. He’ll spend the afternoon working on some minor repairs, or practising scales, something mindless to stop him fretting.

That evening, he ends up sharing his table with a travelling merchant in town to stock up on ingots for transport. Jaskier learns rather more than he cares to about the wholesale silver business, but one never knows when information will come in handy.

“The alderman’s a fine fellow, isn’t he?” the merchant says, mouth half full of stew. “Zubin has the cheapest prices in Kovir, no one knows how they do it, but their trade’s more than doubled in the past five years. The guild’s spitting mad, their members across the country are losing coin, but the market makes its own mind up, after all.”

“Mmmm,” Jaskier says non-committedly. The market values hacks like Valdo Marx, so he’s never thought it worthy of much respect. “D’you ever meet the miners? You could ask them how it’s done.”

“Oh, they stay in their camps,” the merchant says, dismissively. “They’re not the sort you’d want to see in town.”

“Seems a bit hard that they do all the work and don’t get to enjoy it,” Jaskier says mildly, but the merchant just frowns at him, not even aware of the jibe.

He endures the merchant’s recitation of the hard bargains he struck and the profits he’ll make while he finishes his second tankard of ale, then makes his excuses. He spends some time loitering around the stables, in the vague hope that just by waiting he’ll make Geralt appear, but there’s no sign of him and soon enough the cold drives him indoors.

The bed feels emptier than it did last night. Jaskier’s not worried, though. A day or so, Geralt said, and he had no idea how far he’d have to travel, and it’s only just over a day.

He dreams of walking eternally through a forest, an empty space by his side, and almost cries when he wakes, first in sadness, then in relief. The moon has risen, and he goes to the window to stare up at it for a while. Wherever Geralt is, asleep or still hunting, the same moon is looking down on him, and while that’s not much of a comfort it is at least poetic enough for a song.

There’s the sound of steps echoing in the empty street, and he peers down to see a familiar shape, but it’s not Geralt. It looks a little like the forester they sent with him, but it can’t be; he surely wouldn’t return on his own.

He returns to bed, and to an uneasy sleep.

 

It’s still dark when he’s woken by hands pulling him from the bed and sending him sprawling on the floor. He’s tired enough that at first he thinks he’s still dreaming; he’s had nightmares like this before. He doesn’t fight. And then the hands are pulling him up – two men either side of him, one behind, fingers gripping his hair, a sharp slice of steel at his throat – and he sees Balthazar the alderman’s face in front of him, half in moonlight, half in shadow.

“What?” he asks, stupidly, and winces to hear himself speak. Such eloquence, bard, entirely deserving of your renown, he thinks, and then swallows, because he’s only slowly reaching coherent thought, but this is very, very wrong. There are at least four of them. They’re in his room. They’ve got a blade held to his neck. He’s been in worse situations, but not recently, and never without Geralt nearby.

“Your witcher’s cut and run,” Balthazar says, coldly. “We don’t like men who take us for fools.”

“It’s barely a day,” Jaskier protests. “He might not even have reached the nest yet. He will come back. He’s left half his possessions here! Truly, good sir, I appreciate your concern but it’s misplaced.”

The alderman casts a scornful glance over their packs, clearly deciding they contain nothing of value. “He’s taken our coin,” he insists. “There’s a debt to pay.”

“And, what, you’ve decided scaring me half to death will help get you what you think you’re owed?” Jaskier demands. “I promise you, this is all quite unnecessary. If you’d just take your leave, we’ll say no more about it.”

“We’ll take what we’re owed out of your hide, bard,” the alderman hisses. A grin slicks itself across his face. He’s enjoying this, Jaskier realises. He’s been waiting for it, the anticipation visible in every shift of his body.

They planned this. But why?

“You’re making a mistake,” Jaskier says, in the calming voice he reserves for madmen and kings, who are often one and the same. “Geralt will come back, and when he does, he’ll not be best pleased if I’m hurt. Have you ever seen an angry witcher? Because I have, and I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“He’s not coming,” Balthazar says, “and if he did, we’d just tell him you’d left. Run off in the night, with your bill still to pay.”

As if Geralt would believe that. Well, maybe the bill part, but not the running off, not without a word… “You seem,” Jaskier says, “entirely obsessed with the idea of people stealing from you. A guilty conscience, perhaps?”

To his vast surprise, the man flushes, a slow dark anger rising in his face. A nerve has been struck, though the gods alone know why. “Do you ever cease prattling?”

“Rarely,” Jaskier says proudly, “and never when someone is threatening me for no reason. You’re making a mistake. Trust me – I’ll be watching Geralt rip out your intestines before all this is over. I’ve seen it before. It’s not pretty.” He draws himself up, shows his teeth. If this is going to go badly, he intends to be as difficult as possible about it.

The alderman glares at him. “Enough of this,” he says, commanding; there’s a heavy dull thud at the back of Jaskier’s head, and a brief burst of pain, and then blackness.

 

The wood under his cheek is rough, and also… moving. His whole body sways, rocking back and forth, side to side. Nausea rushes through him, and he groans before he can help himself.

Is he on a ship? He doesn’t remember a ship. He was in a town – and Geralt – and then—

Oh. He remembers. He stays still, tries to get a read on his situation. He’s on his side. His hands are tied in front of him, rope tight around his wrists. His ankles, too. He’s still fucking half naked, wearing the shirt and smallclothes he was sleeping in. There’s a gag in his mouth, more rope, rough against his tongue. His throat is dry. His head is pulsing a steady ache where they hit him.

There’s a breeze against his skin. He’s outside. Outside, and moving? A cart, then – and as he thinks it, knows he’s right, connects the rocking, swaying movement with the pace of a horse, wheels over uneven ground. The air smells sharp and unpleasant, like a mage’s workshop. Sulphur and smoke, heavy and sour.

Something cold nudges at his chin and he blinks open his eyes to see the tip of a leather boot pressing against his face. He rolls to get away from it, looks up and finds the alderman leering down at him.

“Sleep well?” he says. Jaskier raises an eyebrow, arranges his features into an expression of patient contempt. He’s really looking forward to watching Geralt kill this man when he comes back, which he will.

He can hear voices, now, indistinct but coming closer. The sound of machinery, a steady thump. Carts and movement. The rich, foul smells are hanging heavier too.

The horse slows and stops, and Balthazar steps over him and off the back of the cart. He lies there, aiming to savour what might well be a final moment of peace, before there are hands on his ankles and someone drags him from the cart, leaving him propped up against the back of it.

He looks around. They’re on a plateau surrounded by mountains. Straight ahead they rise almost sheer, pockmarked with caves and broken cliff faces. To one side, where the land is flat and half covered with trees, he can see squat towers in the distance, smoke rising from them, a long row of rough shacks behind a high fence. Closer to, giant wheels are turning, men swarming around holes in the earth, dragging baskets piled high with rock out of the ground and loading them on to wagons for others to take away. The silver mines. He remembers the men being led in chains from the town jaill, and his head may be hurting, his mind still fuddled, but he’s not stupid.

It’s a lot easier to cut prices if you don’t pay your workers, after all.

But slave labour’s banned in Kovir. So this place must be kept hidden, secret. So if they’re showing him, they aren’t planning on letting him leave. Well, shit.

Anytime you want to come find me, Geralt, he thinks. And also, next time I’ll take my chances with the arachas.

Balthazar stands there, watching him, until another man comes jogging up to join them. He’s large, heavy set, face held in a sneer, wearing a leather jerkin and breeches. He has a whip coiled in one hand.

“Fresh meat?” he asks. He gives Jaskier the once over. “Looks like he’ll barely last the day.”

Jaskier decides they’re not going to get on.

“He’s the witcher’s bard,” Balthazar says. “He’s followed the Butcher halfway across the Continent by all accounts, he must have some stamina.”

“And the witcher?” the man with the whip asks. Balthazar tenses, shakes his head. Jaskier’s not sure what that means, but sets it aside to mull over later. He suspects he has more immediate problems.

The man who pulled the cart bends to cut through the rope at his ankles, then pushes at him, forcing him forward over the stony ground. Gravel and rocks slice at his bare feet; he stumbles a couple of times but manages not to fall. Balthazar and the man with the whip – some kind of overseer, Jaskier assumes – follow behind, talking too softly for him to hear. As he looks left and right, he can see more guards stationed around the plateau, some with swords, most with crossbows. No chance of an easy escape, then.

They reach the entrance to one of the caves. Looking inside, Jaskier can see long tables, cupboards and boxes. Some kind of store. This operation is well organised, well run. He feels his heart sink a little. He knew his charm wasn’t going to get him out of this, but he’s starting to worry that his ingenuity might not either. And there are a lot of guards. Not too many for Geralt, he thinks, loyally. But, still, a lot.

The man who’s been prodding him forward goes into the store and returns with heavy canvas pants and worn boots. He looks at Jaskier, must read his planned resistance, because he says: “you’ll be glad of them later.”

The weather’s still chill in the mountains. He lets the man help him put the clothes on, flushing with the humiliation of it, telling himself he’s only being sensible. No point in harming himself out of pure stubbornness.

Afterwards they push him over towards the mouth of one of the pits. There’s a large treadwheel raised high in the air, steps leading up to a platform where he can see two men marching slowly. Below the wheel, ropes bring up bucket after bucket, spilling out into a channel that leads to a shallow pond. The water is overflowing, streaming away down the mountainside.

The man with the whip puts his hand on Jaskier’s back, forces him up the steps to the high platform. Neither of the men treading the wheel look round, or pause. They’re walking side by side, though a tall screen separates them. There’s a wooden bar nailed across the screen, just above head height for both of the workers, a metal ring screwed into the underside.

“Simeon,” the overseer says, “it’s your lucky day. Got some new meat to take over.”

The man closest to them both steps backwards and turns. The other worker keeps going, groaning now he’s only the only one treading the wheel. The man Simeon is shorter than Jaskier, brawny and bearded, his greying hair shaved close to his head. He nods at the overseer, at Jaskier. “Well met, lad,” he says, in a hoarse, cracked voice. “Though I’m sure we’d both prefer different circumstances.”

Jaskier sketches a sardonic bow, attempts a smile, his tongue still tied.

‘And take that gag out,” Simeon tells the overseer. “He won’t last if he can’t breathe.”

The overseer tightens his fingers around the whip. “Watch that lip,” he threatens, but there’s something weak in it, and as soon as he’s done speaking he’s pulling the rope down at the back of Jaskier’s head, allowing him to spit the rest of it out. His mouth’s as dry as a desert, and he works his tongue around it till he gets up enough saliva to speak.

“I’m really going to enjoy watching you die,” he tells the overseer, affecting the cheery, offhand tone that he knows from experience most irritates men with an inflated sense of their own power.

The man called Simeon sighs and shakes his head in warning. The overseer merely grins. “Bold one we got here,” he calls down to Balthazar.

“Not so bold after a week on starvation rations,” Balthazar calls back up.

“Eh,” Jaskier says. “I’m not planning to be here that long.”

The overseer drags him to the wheel and ties the rope around his wrists to the metal ring above his head. Then he shoves him forward which, to be honest, Jaskier’s really getting tired of.

“Walk,” he says. “If you don’t keep up the pace you’ll be whipped.”

“Not the most motivational speech I’ve ever heard, but it has a certain brutish force,” Jaskier mutters, and starts walking.

He’s not giving in, he’s just... preserving his energy. Till Geralt gets here.

 

At first, it’s not even too bad. The wheel turns slowly; he and the man beside him keep up a steady pace. It’s no worse than walking up a steep incline, and he’s done that enough in his life. He hums under his breath and makes mental calculations. It’s about noon: nearly two days since Geralt left. Surely he’ll be back soon. Surely.

… Of course, the alderman will have people watching for him. But Geralt’s smart. He won’t get caught in a trap. And then he’ll find out where Jaskier is, and then he’ll come and kill the guards, and then they will fuck off out of Zubin and never, ever come back, and Jaskier will get to hold this over Geralt’s head for months. Or weeks, at least. It’s got to be worth a few blow jobs, anyway.

After a while, his arms start to ache, and he stops humming. It’s so monotonous, is the thing. All he can see is the wheel in front of him, brown and plain, and it’s turning but it looks like it’s staying still and he’s the one moving, and that makes him dizzy and he has to shake his head and once he shakes it once he has to keep on doing it which only makes the dizziness worse.

His thighs start burning. The boots they gave him don’t fit right, and he has to arch his feet every time he lifts them, and they’re burning too, with the strain and growing blisters. Sweat drips into his eyes and he finds himself blinking with the rhythm of the creaks of the wheel, like he’s part of it, just part of the machine, not quite alive.

Thought goes away. Sound goes away, aside from a whine in his ears which he eventually realises is coming from the rope far below. He’s half hanging from the hook, and the effort to keep moving takes everything he’s capable of.

There are forty treads on the wheel. He knows that because one of them is warped and for a time he counts them, one to thirty-nine and then the slightly off-beat tread and then back to the start again. But at some point the count slips from him and just becomes a drumming, round and round.

This might be what going mad feels like.

He’s nothing, he’s nothing, he’s nothing, he’s…

A blow shakes him from his stupor. He’s collapsed as far as the rope will let him, bent forward over the wheel, which is still turning, striking into the meat of his thigh, his shin, hard enough to bruise. The man next to him is saying get up, get up, low but clear. Jaskier doesn’t know how long he’s been saying it. His legs tremble. He can’t move. He knows that, clear and irrefutable; he’s done, he has nothing left in him.

He doesn’t hear the whip, only registers the sharp pain of it as it lands, diagonal across his back, first one way then the next, and he screams as much as he’s able which isn’t much at all.

The overseer grabs him by the neck of his shirt and forces him upright till his feet are more or less under him. “Not so bold,” he jeers, and slaps Jaskier’s cheeks, one after the other, light taps, almost mocking.

Jaskier gasps and cries and hauls on the rope digging into his wrists and keeps moving. He can feel the blood on his back, for a while, and then he loses any awareness of his body at all and just becomes the wood of the wheel in front of him, the sound of the ropes turning, the creak of the treads.

When they cut him down he’s shaking so hard the platform below him vibrates.

The man beside him gets him down the stairs somehow. Later, he has no idea how; everything from the platform to the ground is blank. Later, he’s not sure that he was entirely human by the end of those long hours on the wheel.

Simeon is waiting with a waterskin at the bottom of the stairs and Jaskier drinks and spits and drinks again, uncaring that it’s metallic and gritty with silt.

“It gets better,” Simeon tells him, but Jaskier can’t quite hear him over the pounding in his head, and he has no words left anyway.

At some point, someone unties the rope around his wrists and Simeon and some other man take his arms over their shoulders and half carry, half drag him up the slope to one of the caves. There’s a guard there holding a crossbow, and he waits till they’re inside the cave before pulling closed an iron gate set into the rock, locking them in. It’s grown dark. There’s a fire burning in an iron pit near the entrance, a row of pallets to one side, a barrel of water with a dipper and six bowls lined up next to it, filled with a gluey porridge.

Jaskier doesn’t see any of this to begin with. The men carrying him let him down onto the ground and then Simeon starts pummelling at his legs, massaging the numbness away. It hurts worse than anything he can remember.

“How long?” he asks, gasping with the pain of it.

“About four hours,” Simeon says. “Full shift is six.”

Fuck.”

“It’s probably the worst job,” someone calls out. “That or firesetting.”

Simeon frowns, like he’s considering it, then shakes his head. “The wheel’s the worst,” he says decisively. “What’s your name, lad?”

“Jaskier,” says Jaskier.

“I’m Simeon, and the other reprobates in our crew are Marek, Piotr, Josef and Albrecht. Good lads for the most part.” He nods at each man in turn, while Jaskier pulls himself up against the cave wall, starting to feel a little more sense come back to him.

“Screw you, Simeon,” one of them says. Piotr, Jaskier thinks.

“I’m a bard,” he tells Simeon. He knows the man isn’t in charge, knows he’s a fellow… prisoner, he supposes. But he has to tell someone. “I shouldn’t be here.”

“None of us should,” Simeon agrees. “Piotr was a farmer. Marek and Josef were picked up for vagrancy as they were travelling through Zubin. Albrecht, I forget. He doesn’t talk much.”

He has a steady intelligence in his eyes that Jaskier likes. “And you?” he asks.

“Ah, well, I actually was a miner,” Simeon says. “Over in Poviss. They advertised, see, for experienced men. Good pay. Better pay than any other place I worked. Should have realised that was a sign something wasn’t right, but I had no family, nothing to keep me there, so I came to enquire. And once that fucker Balthazar realised I had no one to miss me, he had his guards knock me out and brought me up here. Two, three years ago now.”

Jaskier knows he’s staring at him with complete and utter horror, but he can’t help it. Simeon shrugs. “So I know what I’m doing,” he says. “Stick with me, lad, I’ll show you the ropes. Hungry?” He goes to fetch one of the bowls of porridge, hands it over. Jaskier realises he’s ravenous, eats it with his fingers, uncaring.

“Let’s look at your back,” Simeon says when he’s done, and Jaskier shifts obediently, lets Simeon lift his tattered shirt.

“Not too bad,” he says. “They’ve scabbed over, look clean. I’d wash ’em, but the water’s dirtier than the cuts most likely.”

One of the other men, Marek, Jaskier thinks, wanders over to look. “Paulus was going easy on you,” he sniffs. Jaskier wriggles his shirt down, and realises with a certain hysteria that this has the form of a ritual. The comparing of wounds. He picks at the fragments of rope embedded in his wrists in the low firelight, till he’s as sure as he can be that there are none remaining.

It’s full dark outside now. Two full days since Geralt went on the hunt. He must be back by now, he must be. Jaskier’s just got to endure this a little longer and then he’ll get to watch Geralt cut a righteous swathe through all these arseholes.

“I have a friend I travel with,” he tells Simeon, though mostly he’s reassuring himself. “A witcher. Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf. He’ll miss me, and he’ll come. He’s a good man. Noble. He won’t let this continue, not if he can help it.”

Someone coughs, dismissively.

Simeon nods. His eyes are kind, and Jaskier can tell that he doesn’t believe it. That every man who comes here has a story like it, and no rescue ever appears. Three years. He must have heard a lot of similar stories. “Get some rest, lad,” is all he says. “It starts again in the morning.”

Jaskier doesn’t think he’ll sleep, but he’s exhausted, every part of him aching, and in the end he barely makes it to a pallet before the darkness claims him.

 

He dreams that he’s walking through a forest, Geralt somewhere up ahead, but every time he tries to catch up with him Geralt walks faster, and when he finds him at last, he reaches out to touch Geralt’s face and the witcher turns away.

 

When he wakes, his whole body is a screaming, agonised bruise. He tries to move, and manages only to groan as his legs extend. They’re black and blue from where the wheel struck him. He’s not felt this way in years, not since those first weeks of trying to keep up with Geralt.

“Stretch it out,” Simeon calls. “Massage your legs if you can. Get the blood flowing.”

He does his best, and eventually gets enough feeling back to sit, then stand, then stumble over to a stinking corner of the cave to relieve himself. Marek nods at the bucket of water. “Drink your fill,” he says; “we’ll wash, after.”

Jaskier does as he’s bid, and not much later a guard comes to unlock the gate and they shuffle out into a cold dawn. If he looks away from the mine, it’s beautiful – the mountains shining deep greys and golds as the sun strikes them, mist hanging off the edge of the plateau, making the pines on the slopes eerie, unreal.

The men sit on the ground outside their cave, the guard still standing over them with a crossbow. When Jaskier looks around he can see other groups emerging. “What happens next?” he asks Simeon.

“Six men to a crew, twelve men to a shaft,” Simeon tells him. “One man from each crew on the wheel, the rest below. You’re lucky you’re on the daylight shifts to begin with; the fire and water gangs will have been working in the dark all night.”

“Lucky,” Jaskier scoffs. He keeps an eye on the men emerging on to the plateau. There are five groups, thirty men. Maybe another thirty on the night shifts, who are starting to emerge from the pits. And only fifteen or so guards, admittedly with weapons, but…

“I know what you’re thinking,” the man called Josef says. He’s lying back on his elbows, eyes closed. He’s leaner than Simeon, he doesn’t look well. “Six of us, one of them, why not try it?”

“Well…” Jaskier says.

“No weapons,” Josef says, sitting up and listing things off on his fingers. “No way of knowing if anyone else will join in. Reinforcements nearby at the other camps. Plus what they’ll do to you if you try it.”

He shouldn’t ask, he shouldn’t, but— “What do they do?”

“To extract ore,” Simeon says quietly, “you set a fire burning against the seam to heat up the rock, then throw water on to cool it and crack it.”

“And they aren’t much bothered about what they burn,” Marek finishes, and four of the men shudder. The fifth, Albrecht, stares off into the distance. Jaskier’s not heard him speak; he doesn’t seem entirely present.

“In any case,” Simeon says, “they move men between crews, between mines. It’s smart. Keep us apart, keep us weak.” He sounds almost admiring, in a strange way. He’s clearly a man who likes things done well. He grins at Jaskier without humour, and then starts a wet coughing that hangs in the air, hacking and hacking until at last he spits up a mouthful of blood.

Marek sighs, clasps Simeon on the shoulder. Simeon tells Jaskier, quietly, “I’m dying, see, lad. Lungrot. It gets us all in the end, prisoner and freeman alike.”

“If the rockfalls don’t kill you the rot will,” Piotr mutters.

Jaskier closes his eyes. Geralt’s coming, he tells himself. Geralt’s coming. Leaving aside whatever it is they are to each other now, warmth on the road, a relieving of tension, a convenient fuck – even if it weren’t for that Geralt would still come. Because he’s not a monster.

“One of these days,” Simeon says dreamily, “when I feel myself start to falter, I’m going to walk up to the edge of the cliff and jump, and none of these fuckers will have the pleasure of killing me.”

The other men shift and Jaskier starts to sing, softly, almost without thinking about it. It’s an old, old song; Cintran originally, maybe, but the origins are long since lost. It’s the story of two lovers whose romance is forbidden, and in the end they escape to the forest and pray to a god, and the god transforms them into trees, intertwined forevermore. It’s melancholy and haunting and he’s singing low enough that the notes don’t linger but it makes Jaskier feel better, somehow, like there’s some part of his soul that will keep living. Even here.

No one says anything, but Simeon lets out a long, slow sigh, and Jaskier takes that as true praise.

Another guard walks over to them and hands out bread and waterskins to all of them except Jaskier. “Half rations,” he explains, grinning. Jaskier pulls his knees up and lays his head down on them, covers his ears so he doesn’t have to listen to the sound of the other men eating. He feels hollow, the little spark of light from the song snuffed out as if it never was. He is viciously angry at the other men with their food, their food they aren’t sharing, but then again if they did he knows what would happen. Whips, chains, fire. There is no good way to be, here. That’s the whole point.

Geralt, he thinks, almost like a prayer, now. Geralt, please.

When breakfast is done they’re marched down the slope to the one of the shafts, where the overseer is waiting for them. “Put the bard on the wheel,” he says, and Jaskier flinches, because he can’t, he can’t, he won’t make it. He knows that for a cold certainty.

Simeon clears his throat. “I’m not having one of my men drown because the fop can’t hack it,” he says. “But then I’m not the one who’ll have to explain the shaft getting flooded and suspending production for days.”

The overseer steps up to him, shoves the handle of his whip under Simeon’s chin. “There are no guild rules here,” he hisses. “These aren’t your men.” Simeon raises his hands, lowers them, a picture of unconcern, and the overseer glares. “You,” he says, pointing at Marek. “It’s your turn, ain’t it?”

Marek nods and climbs the stairs to the platform, and Jaskier sags with relief. The overseer spits, then wanders off. The rest of them enter the mine.

There are two shafts: one straight down beneath the wheel to bring water up and one winding downwards for the workers. At the entrance, pickaxes and hammers are collected in barrels and most men stop to collect one of each. Simeon nods Jaskier towards a low cart, and he pushes it along in front of him as he walks. The tunnel roof starts high enough to stand up in, but gets lower as they descend until he’s bent almost double, his back singing in pain.

The minehead has been hollowed out into a large cave, several seams glinting in the torchlight. Simeon says, “I’ll show you how to extract some other time, lad. Today, keep the rubble clear. Ore in one basket, rock in the other, keep them separate as much as you can. When they’re full you take the cart up to the surface and get empty containers. Clear?”

Jaskier nods. He rests on his haunches a few paces behind Marek and Simeon who start to tap at the cracked rock. There’s an art to it, he can see that, but the detail is lost on him, and anyway soon enough he’s kept busy sorting what they knock out of the seam. The air is close, smoky with the torches and full of dust, the ground wet and warm. The others tie cloths round their faces and Jaskier follows suit; it makes it harder to breathe but it stops the grit of the rock sticking in his throat.

The first time he has to push the cart back up is a nightmare; there’s no light in the tunnel, so he has to go blind, on his hands and knees much of the way, feeling his skin crack and bleed. After he gets out of here, he’s not going to be able to play for a while, that’s for sure.

His eyes stream when he gets back up to the surface, already unaccustomed to daylight. Two men he doesn’t recognise take the baskets away. Two guards watch them, armed with crossbows and whips, presumably to make sure no one tries anything with the tools.

After Jaskier’s made the trip to the surface and back twice they take a break, drinking deeply from the waterskins. Simeon takes out a hunk of bread from breakfast and hands it over. A man with bread in his pants, Jaskier thinks, smiling at the memory, and eats it before he even fully registers the gift. “Thank you,” he says, a little shamed.

“I was in the guild before,” Simeon says. “The rules still apply. You look out for each other, because if you don’t you’ll be dead.” He grimaces, because that’s a trap too, Jaskier realises. If you don’t work, or fight back, it’s not just you that gets punished. There are no guards down here, no chains or ties, but they’re bound all the same. Even if you protested, you’d only get killed and replaced. What alternative is there but to keep working?

“Simeon thinks if we could just get the word out, his precious guild will come rescue us,” Piotr says.

“I do, and not just because I’m a gullible old man.” Simeon swats at Piotr’s head. “Half of the mines or more hereabouts are prison camps, I reckon. They must have some real ones for the guild to see, and metallurgy’s a true craft, so the furnaces for refining the ore must be legit too, but even accounting for that, there’s a lot of dues unpaid. Not to mention taxes. I don’t s’pose the king would take it kindly either.”

Jaskier thinks of the way Balthazar reacted when he spoke of theft. He feels the slightest glimmer of hope warm him. Once Geralt comes, once they get out, maybe they can bring this whole abomination down.

“How did you come here anyway?” Josef asks him. “Can’t see why Zubin would appeal.” He spits on the floor as if the name of the town itself tastes foul.

“Geralt. The witcher I talked about, the White Wolf. He was following a contract. Venomous arachas,” Jaskier adds, and when he glances up Simeon is gazing at him, eyes deeply sympathetic.

“Aye,” he says. “Sounds like a familiar tactic.”

“What? No,” Jaskier protests when the meaning sinks in. “Why would they do that?”

“Venomous arachas don’t nest in the mountains.” It’s Albrecht. His voice is light, refined, croaky from lack of use. They all look at him, but having imparted this one piece of knowledge he goes utterly blank again, staring at the floor.

“Let me see,” Josef says, and starts listing things on his fingers again; Jaskier’s starting to hate that habit. “A mutated human, with magic powers that include fire and shockwaves, who lives forever, heals fast, and can’t get sick? Sounds like the perfect miner to me. He’d last decades before he wore out.”

Jaskier puts his head in his hands, because that makes a horrible kind of sense. He thinks of Geralt out there, unaware of the danger he’s in, and feels his heart clench in his chest. Geralt’s his best friend, closer to him than a brother. If he had to choose between Geralt free and himself in chains, he knows which one he’d pick. But it’ll be fine. Geralt isn’t stupid. He won’t get caught in a trap, won’t take any risks, even for Jaskier’s sake. He’s coming. He has to be coming.

He makes three more hellish trips with the cart before their shift is through. By the end he’s coughing more than breathing, dizzy with the smoke-heavy air. His hands and knees are torn to shreds and the whip marks on his back have opened again, soaking his shirt with blood as well as sweat. It’s still not as bad as the wheel.

They’ve explained the shift system to him: six hours on, six hours off. Today is eight till two in the afternoon; tonight they’ll set the fires burning from eight till two in the morning, and then take a break before changing to work two till eight morning and afternoon the next day. “They didn’t use to allow the day in between,” Simeon says, grim-faced, “but we died faster than they could replace us.”

When they finish, reaching the surface feels like a blessing, the air pure and clean. Jaskier breathes it in while the guard counts the other men’s tools, making sure everything’s returned.

“What’s that arsehole doing here?” Simeon asks, coming to stand beside him, and Jaskier follows his line of sight to where Balthazar is walking across the plateau. He’s pulling a horse along behind him; the horse is dragging its feet, shaking its head with displeasure.

It looks like Roach.

Jaskier starts running, as much as he’s able. Behind him he hears shouts, but he pays them no mind. He has to know, because if the fucker has Roach, then… then…

He gets within two metres before a guard catches up with him and clubs him across his shoulders. He cries out and falls, and receives another blow on his back, to his legs, to his ribs, before Balthazar says, “Stop.”

The guard drags him up by his hair and he wavers on his knees, barely able to breathe. He doesn’t look at the alderman. His eyes are streaming with the light, with the pain, but he can see the horse clear enough. It’s Roach. The fucker has Roach.

The fucker drops a bundle in front of him. Black leather armour. Two swords. A wolf medallion, splashed with blood.

No. The world dips, swirls, and only the hand in his hair keeps him upright.

Balthazar squats in front of Jaskier. “Thought I’d come to break the news myself, bard,” he says. He’s angry, his teeth clenched. “My condolences.” He gestures at the fragments of Geralt’s life. “He avoided capture, but he couldn’t outsmart the mountain. We found him at the bottom of a cliff.”

Jaskier stretches his fingers out and grasps the medallion, hugging it close to his chest. He has nothing, can think nothing. His mind is one long scream.

“So now what good are you?” Balthazar asks him, and Jaskier gazes at him blankly. “Not bait. Not leverage. Just another worker who’ll die before the year is out.” He sounds disappointed, as if he’s made a poor bet.

The overseer’s come puffing up. “He ran, sir,” he says, sounding gleeful. “How long in the box?”

“Two days seems about right,” Balthazar says, harsh and bitter.

There’s a long silence. Jaskier strokes the edge of the medallion with one ragged fingertip.

“It’s like to kill him,” the overseer says eventually.

Balthazar gets up slowly, panting with the effort. “Who cares?” he says. He leans over Jaskier, pulls the chain of the medallion almost gently over Jaskier’s head. “There’s no one here to mourn him.”

They tie Jaskier’s hands behind his back and haul him back. He can see Simeon, hands on hips. He looks like he’s poised to do something – what’s he got to lose, he’s dying, Jaskier can see him thinking it – but he stays still, and Jaskier’s grateful. Why add another death to the tally?

It doesn’t matter what happens to him now. Anything would be better than a year in the pit. He hopes it was quick for Geralt. A fall, and then nothing.

They drag him away from the shaft he’s been working to the other, sheerer edge of the plateau, where three wooden panels are set into the dirt, each locked to a metal loop in the ground. The overseer unlocks one and lifts the lid, revealing a long, thin box, more or less like a coffin, and they push Jaskier down into it and lay the lid back down.

He lies on his side and listens to the sounds of footsteps walking away.

Two days without water, without food. The overseer’s right; it’ll likely kill him. But who cares.

He curls up as much as he’s able, till he can feel the medallion press into his stomach, and closes his eyes.

 

He could trace time passing by the light, but he doesn’t care to look. The box is warm, but he’s cold, trembling with it. He’s either sweating or bleeding, he feels damp all over except for his mouth which is dry as dust. He tries to distance himself from the bruises, his aching muscles, tries to lose himself in memory.

That first time, after Cintra. Geralt reached for him, furious and distraught, and Jaskier let him kiss him, let him suck him off, as if it meant nothing, as if it was just another lay. And ever since, from time to time, one or other of them would reach out. For Geralt, he knows, it was just convenience, and he could never admit to himself that to him it meant more. For him it was a decade of wanting finally come to fruition, but he knew if he ever acknowledged that, Geralt would flee. He had seen, first hand, how Geralt fled things that might have a claim on him.

And so he turned away from the truth, tamped down the warmth he felt when watching Geralt smile, the joy that washed over him as they held each other, counted himself lucky for what he could get, never allowed himself to want more.

Until he saw Geralt’s medallion on the rock-strewn earth that would serve as his grave and all his defences collapsed at once.

Now, he wishes he’d been less good at self-protection, that he’d let himself feel. If Geralt had fled, so be it, at least he would never have come here. And Jaskier could have spoken the words that are weighing him down now.

“Geralt,” he whispers, eyes closed, trying to picture the shape of his face, the exact shade of his eyes. “I loved you from the start, I think, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry I never let myself know it.” He smiles to himself. “I should have paid more attention to my own work, it seems.” Ten years of love songs that will never be heard again, that he’ll never get to sing with a true understanding of what they mean. All the music gone silent and still.

He shouldn’t cry. He can’t spare the moisture. But he’s crying all the same.

Time shifts and pulses around him. He loses it, comes back, drifts again. At some point it starts raining and he twists to catch the moisture as it drips from the wood: apparently his body wants to live. He listens to himself whimper and moan with a detached kind of pity. Poor little creature, curled up in the dark. Someone should do something for him.

It gets darker, till he can’t tell the difference between his eyes closed and his eyes open, can barely tell anymore whether he’s sleeping or waking. He thinks he’s dreaming, sometimes, but his dreams are all blackness and maybe that means really he’s awake. He’s hot and then he’s cold and he’s singing but he’s not making any sound. And he can’t remember the words anyway.

It’s still better than the wheel, he thinks, during one brief moment when he knows exactly where he is and what’s happening. And he chokes out a bitter laugh and returns to his burning, shaking dreams.

The last dream is most vivid.

He hears shouts and steps running in the distance. Above him there’s a terrible crash and the sky is lifted away and someone reaches in and pulls him out of the world and into hell.

Hell is fire and smoke and people screaming; shapes outlined by flame grappling in the darkness. Someone is pushing him on to his stomach, and then lifting him up. His hands are free. He clutches Geralt’s medallion so tight it cuts into his palm, and his other arm is pulled up around a warm body and he finds himself stumbling forwards.

“Shit,” he hears, “you’re on fire, lad,” and he nods because yes, that feels right.

Two forms rush towards him, too shadowed to see clearly but the man next to him – he thinks it’s a man, he’s not sure – greets them with what sounds like relief. “Marek, Piotr,” the man says, “find horses, get to the next town, tell the guildsman what’s gone on here. Go, now!”

There’s a gap, and Jaskier is on his knees, swaying, while a three-headed beast merges and separates in front of him, and the man says, “Good lads. Go well, you hear me?” And then he’s upright again and moving, tripping over what looks like bodies on the ground and he has to cover his ears because the screams, the screams are terrible.

Although they might be his, because the man dragging him over the bodies is saying, “hush, lad, don’t cry,” and when he tries to speak he finds his throat is already full of noise.

The world turns and he turns and he falls upside down and now he’s looking down at the ground, rocking. He can smell sweat and blood and leather and horse, and something about that is strangely comforting.

There’s a vision coming at him. A ghost. White hair and two swords. He smiles to see it and lets his eyes slide closed. It’s all right. Geralt’s come, and they’re both dead now, and that’s all right.

 

He’s swimming in the dark, like he’s at the bottom of a pit, but the voices still reach him.

“—report it,” one of them says. “It’s still my business, not yours.”

The other voice is a low rumble and he can’t make out the words.

“You can’t stop me, lad,” the first voice says. “I’m a grown man, and I’ve been waiting for this a long time. Got more than a few bones to pick down in Zubin.”

The rumble sounds amused.

Next thing he knows, there’s a hand on his face and he opens his eyes. The man looking at him has a beard, a shaved head. His face is covered in dirt and blood but his eyes are warm. “It was well met in the end, Jaskier the bard,” he says. He’s kneeling down, a dark-spattered pickaxe on the ground in front of him. “You were missed, and for that I owe you thanks.” He coughs, a long, rattling sound, and hacks up something wet and foul.

Jaskier pulls words up from some deep place inside him, and speaks without knowing what he means: “Gut them for me.”

The man smiles. “That’s a promise, lad,” he says. “Go well, and farewell.”

“Farewell,” Jaskier whispers back, and then he’s burning again and the world drops away faster than he can follow.

 

It’s light the next time he opens his eyes, sun streaming through the trees above him, oddly painful. He’s weighed down by two blankets, which doesn’t make any sense because it’s so hot. He needs to cool down. He manages to shift them off, which is surprisingly hard, and staggers to his feet.

His pack and lute are laid by the fire, and Roach is tethered to one of the trees, and Geralt is nowhere to be seen.

Jaskier lifts a hand up and rubs his forehead. That’s right. Geralt’s missing. He went on a hunt and he hasn’t come back and Jaskier needs to find him.

He walks forward in a likely direction, feeling something pulling at his skin under his clothes. When he investigates, he finds bandages wrapped tightly round his chest. “Weird,” he says out loud, and the word fractures on his lips and falls without making a sound. It’s so hot. He should find water. Geralt first, and then water.

He nods to himself and the trees dance in front of him. He stares at them for a while. They’re moving. He should keep an eye on them.

At some point he realises he’s fallen to his knees and when he tries to get up again he can’t. So he lies down further, on his side, and watches the ground spin in slow, lazy circles.

Someone puts a hand on his shoulder and he flinches, tries to bat it away, but his arms won’t cooperate. The reason they won’t cooperate, he works out after a while, is because he’s been pulled up against a solid surface and held there.

“Jaskier,” he hears. He thinks he hears. “What are you doing?”

“Need to find Geralt,” he tries to explain, but he’s not sure it’s coming out right; his ears are ringing. “He got lost. Need to find him.”

There are more words coming from behind him, he can feel the breath of them on his cheek and the rise and fall of a chest against his back, but he doesn’t know what they’re saying. Maybe it’s him talking. It could be.

Everything’s so bright, like the sun came down to earth. It hurts to look at. Somewhere within that brilliance comes water, held to his lips, and he drinks greedily, and in between one swallow and the next it all slides away from him again.

 

He wakes up thrashing, heels kicking on the ground, head held steady on something soft. His body bucks and shakes and rattles, he can’t stop himself, he can’t stop, it hurts so much…

“Jaskier!” someone says, sharply, “listen to me. Listen to me. Breathe, in and out, in and out. I’ve got you. It’s all right.”

He breathes. Gasping, desperate gulps at first and then slowly calming. His muscles unclench. He feels as if he’s being poured out, spilling out till there’s nothing left of him.

There’s something sharp clenched tight in his fist, cutting in, and he lifts it up. Geralt’s medallion.

He remembers.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “Geralt, I’m so sorry.” He can’t make any sense of the images in his head, flames and darkness and pain, but he knows, now. What’s real, what’s not.

“Ssssh,” he hears. “Nothing to be sorry for.”

He knows that voice. He knows it isn’t real.

“But you’re dead,” he says, throat clenched around the stark truth of it. “I loved you and I never knew and you died before I could tell you.” It’s the kind of tragedy half the songs in the world rely on, but those songs aren’t to be trusted, they’re lies. When it happens for real, there’s no music. There’s just an unceasing howl.

“Jaskier,” Geralt says, but he can’t hear him for weeping.

A thumb brushes away his tears, fingers stroke through his hair, there’s a kiss on his forehead, and it’s lovely. A lovely dream. He closes his eyes to dream it better.

 

He hears birdsong, cheery and lilting. He smells sweat, and smoke, and leafmould. He tastes blood. He feels a hand grasping his hand. He blinks and sees golden eyes looking down at him.

It’s real. Geralt’s face, his body, firm and solid and real, and joy rises in him like a wave, overwhelming, pulsing through him with every beat of his mended heart.

He’s lying sprawled on the ground, his head in Geralt’s lap; the witcher’s leaning forward over him, frowning a little, one hand resting on his forehead. “Fever broke at last,” he says. “How do you feel?”

Ecstatic. Exhausted. Embarrassed. He settles on “thirsty,” and lets Geralt prop him up against Roach’s saddle while he goes to fetch a waterskin. He drinks deep while his wild thoughts settle. Geralt is sitting crosslegged, within arm’s reach, watching him.

“I fear I may owe you an apology,” Jaskier says eventually. “It seems I got myself into some trouble—”

“Jaskier—”

“Not my fault, of course, nor yours, I’m not going to blame anyone but those fuckers down in Zubin, but all the same, I doubt I’ve been at my best these last few… however long it’s been. Anyway, all’s well that ends, you know, and once I heal up a bit we can get out of here and never speak of any of this again.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt says patiently. “What exactly do you not wish to speak of?”

“I’m afraid,” Jaskier says, licking his lips, “that I might have said something unfortunate while feverish.”

“Hmmm.” Geralt is wearing an expression that ninety-nine out of a hundred people would call blank if they were being kind, and dumb if they weren’t. Jaskier is the hundredth person and he can tell Geralt is mostly content, and a little amused. “You were far from coherent, but you did say you loved me.”

“In my defence,” Jaskier says, “I’d had a really shit few days and I thought you were dead. You can’t blame a bard for being sentimental.”

Geralt closes his eyes, exasperated. “Let me tell you about my last few days,” he says.

“Um. All right?” Jaskier reaches for his pack and his notebook on instinct, and stops when he sees Geralt glaring at him.

“I figured out much later than I should have that there were no arachas, and had to evade about forty armed men hunting me through terrain they knew well. They stole Roach. At one point I fell off a cliff in the middle of a fight and fortunately landed on the man I was fighting. I dressed him in my armour, which was disgusting even by my standards, and then got back to town to find out you were missing and had to beat up the jailer until he told me what Balthazar was up to and where you’d gone. I walked twenty miles up a mountain, killed about another forty men, freed a hundred more, and at the end of it someone had to pull you out of a coffin because you couldn’t wait patiently for me to come get you for five damn minutes. You were out of your mind with fever and for a while I thought the last thing you were ever going to say to me was that you loved me.”

Jaskier blinks. “That is also clearly unutterably shit, but I’m not really seeing your point here, Geralt.”

“My point,” Geralt snarls, “is that you don’t get to do dramatic deathbed confessions and then pretend they didn’t happen. You love me. I love you. I thought we both knew that.”

“…Did you?” Jaskier says weakly. “I mean, do you? I mean… No, I didn’t know that! How could I know that? You never said!”

Geralt rolls his eyes. “I’ve let you follow me around the continent for a decade, Jaskier. We sleep together. I would have thought it was obvious. Also all your songs are about it.”

“Right,” Jaskier says. “So apparently, of the two of us, you are the one who is more in touch with his emotions. This is genuinely quite embarrassing.” He smiles a little shakily. “Truly, I thought it was casual on your part. And so it had to be the same for me too.”

“I don’t care if you fuck other people,” Geralt says, “but that doesn’t make it casual.”

“Well. All right. That’s good to know,” Jaskier says, and Geralt kisses him, the opposite of casual.

He has to break for air eventually, and he rests his head on Geralt’s shoulder, feeling yet more tears soak into Geralt’s shirt.

“I’m really, really glad you’re not dead,” he says at last, and Geralt hums, and holds him close, skating gentle fingers over Jaskier’s back till he can almost forget the wounds there.

 

They leave the camp two days later, once Jaskier’s bruises have moved from deep purple to greenish yellow, his legs no longer shake when he walks, and they’ve both eaten and drunk enough to feel vaguely human again. Geralt makes him ride Roach, but it’s not as if he’s going to object to that.

He’s still wearing Geralt’s medallion. He knows Geralt will want it back eventually, but he hasn’t asked yet. He can probably see how Jaskier clings to it, both sleeping and waking.

When they break for lunch on the first day they start heading south, Jaskier sees smoke rising in the distance. From the mines, maybe, or Zubin.

“Geralt,” he says, “was Simeon there after you rescued me or did I dream that?”

“For a while,” Geralt says. “He went back to Zubin. There were some scores he wanted to settle.”

Jaskier sighs, picturing Simeon heading towards the town, pickaxe in his hand. “He couldn’t have killed all of them, Balthazar and the rest, but he would have thought it was worth trying. He was going to die anyway.”

“I know,” Geralt says. “He told me, though I could smell it on him. But if he died at least it was on his own terms.”

“Mmmm,” Jaskier agrees. “Or if not he’s probably running the place by now. I liked him. He was a good man, and it wasn’t easy to be that, there.” He thinks of Simeon, handing over a precious bite of bread, how he looked out for the rest of them. Guild rules, he would have said, but what he meant was just… being human. Insisting on kindness against all the odds.

Geralt says, “A day after we got you out, I saw a column of soldiers heading for the town. One way or another it’s over now.”

The clearing they’re resting in is covered in pine needles; there are birds singing; a stream trickles in the distance. It’s beautiful. Jaskier is wearing the ring he bought in Zubin, cast from silver that was probably mined by a man being worked to death. He doesn’t want to keep it but it doesn’t feel right to throw it away. He says, “even if they go back to normal, to paying men to work the mines, the workers still won’t be allowed in their towns. They’ll still die under rockfalls, from lungrot, in darkness. And everyone knows and no one cares and it’s shit, Geralt, it’s fucking terrible.”

Geralt’s face is calm and understanding. “You can make them care,” he says.

“How?” Jaskier demands bitterly.

“How did you make them think a witcher might be a hero?” Geralt asks. He nods at Jaskier’s lute. “There’s as much power in your weapon as there is in mine. More, maybe.”

“Oooh,” Jaskier says, “tell me more about your weapon.”

Geralt huffs a laugh and shakes his head. “I mean it. Make them see Simeon. The other men you met. No one will like it much, but when has that ever stopped you doing something?”

“True,” Jaskier says, and taps his fingers on his legs. “It won’t make me popular, but I’m already disowned and sleeping with a witcher. How much worse can it get?”

“That’s the spirit,” Geralt tells him. He lies down on the pine needles, hands behind his head, like he’s about to take a nap. Jaskier looks at him fondly. It hasn’t worn off yet, the joy he felt when his fever broke and he found Geralt still living. He’s not sure it ever will.

“I love you,” he says, because he can.

Geralt opens one eye and his lips twitch upward. “I knew that before you did,” he says.

“You’re never going to let me forget that, are you.”

“Hmmm. Seems unlikely.”

“It’s a price I’m willing to pay,” Jaskier says, waving a hand in the air with a grand flourish, and settles down to compose.