He awoke sore and badly rested, tears dried on his face.
Jaskier made it through the next day. He ate a little of the food Ciri offered him, only because when he tried to decline the first time her eyes got large and her bottom lip showed just the barest hint of a tremble. He couldn’t bear it. The dry horse bread that was usual for traveling rations crumbled in his mouth. He was so hungry, it was one of the best things he’d ever tasted.
Jaskier couldn’t bring himself to even unsling his lute from his shoulder during their trek. His fingers itched to play, of course. He continued his story for Ciri and in his mind he played music for the background, he just couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t sell his lute in this next town, but before they reached Kaer Morhen he would have to. It would give them money, and he wouldn’t be a burden. He swallowed down the lump in his throat and continued telling Ciri the story.
He noticed a bit before mid day that Geralt was watching him. That wasn’t out of sorts, of course. Yennefer and Ciri were watching him too, he was an excellent storyteller and the tale was enthralling. Geralt didn’t seem to be paying attention to the story though. He was staring-- glowering--brow low and furrowed, at Jaskier.
Jaskier felt hurt lance through him and he almost staggered, avoiding Geralt’s gaze. He knew Geralt didn’t want him along, didn’t want him at all, but he couldn’t even pretend? He couldn’t go back to their relationship before? Not the warm, almost companionable silences that had been nurtured between them, but the grunts and stone faced silence of the beginning of their acquaintance.
Jaskier breathed through the pain in his chest. Twenty years of silences, all kinds of them, stony and friendly and sleepy and painful and quietly nice. But they were back to the beginning, or worse, Geralt angry and Jaskier’s voice filling in places it didn’t belong.
That was Ciri, and Jaskier realized that he’d actually trailed off mid-sentence.
“Sorry little highness,” he smiled and gave a funny little bow. “I’m but a simple entertainer, a poet and a fool, sometimes my mind runs away from me.”
“Fool is right,” Yennefer snorted. It wasn’t totally unkind, but it still stung. It stung even more when Geralt, so taciturn all day, snorted with laughter at her comment. Jaskier felt his ears burn and his chest ache.
“Now, where was I?”
“The king’s son met the North Wind,” Ciri said, matching Jaskier’s steps. “And he has to beat him in a game of wit to gain knowledge of where the sorcerer’s daughter was taken, that’s what you said, but you didn’t tell us what game yet.”
At least someone treasured his words, Jaskier thought. Although they weren’t worth much, he threw one out after the other.
Like garbage, whispered the back of his mind.
“Ah yes,” he said instead. “the North Wind sat before the king’s son, and laid out a chess set made of ice and wind.”
“How can chess pieces be made of wind?”
Jaskier smiled, Ciri asked questions at all the right places. “The North Wind wanders, he goes everywhere, blowing cold breath across The Continent. When the North Wind is present and we breath our breath can be seen.” Jaskier smiled here and added an aside, “My little sister used to call it dragon smoke. But by the same magic that gives the North Wind a body to walk the world, he can take our frozen breath and turn it cold and solid as glass.”
Jaskier let himself tell the story on autopilot. His feet ached. He’d been darning the socks he was wearing for a year or more, but he wasn’t good at it and the lumps were rubbing his toes raw. Worse than that, the soles of his boots were almost worn through. Just one more thing he’d have to buy.
He felt ashamed of himself. His boots had been going thin for a while, and instead of saving his coin and getting them repaired or just buying new ones, he’d drowned himself in drink, feeling sorry. Oh, he hadn’t known he would be making a trip up a mountain, but he needed boots regardless. No wonder Geralt had always been upset with him, he always put pleasure over sense, couldn’t even spend coin sensibly.
Couldn’t darn socks, couldn’t budget his coin, couldn’t shut up. A fool.
He stumbled on a tree root and nearly swore. Couldn’t even walk right. One of the blisters building on his foot had burst, he was sure. It was easy to tell, the pain had gone from a rubbing ache to stinging and warm. Only years of practice and performance kept him from interrupting the story.
Something must have shown on his face though, or his scent changed or whatever because Geralt was staring at him intently. That face, always so unreadable.
Jaskier wasn’t going to give him anything else to scowl about. He kept walking, keeping the story rolling and his voice light. His bones ached. He had to stop for just a moment when a button, long past hanging loosely on his doublet, finally pulled free. He picked it up and the head rush nearly took him to the ground. He’d eaten little, slept poorly, and the only food he’d had in a long time before this was ale. He blinked the grey from his vision, trying not to let the panic show when it didn’t go away as quickly as he’d have liked.
It was okay. It was all going to be okay. They’d make it to the village by nightfall. They wouldn’t sleep there of course but he could get proper food. Maybe even slip away and catch a quick nap in a stable or hayloft or something. His whole body was buzzing with a sort of exhausted energy and his heart was pounding.
Jaskier reflected that he hadn’t been well before meeting up with Geralt and his little family. He’d been sick with drink and heartache and had not enough food then too.
Smile through the pain.
This wasn’t even bad as performances could go. Once he’d actually broken a finger just before a set at Oxenfurt. Simple clumsiness, he’d closed his index finger in a door, but he’d played his whole set, with a perfect score from his professor.
It grew darker, the sun just setting when they reached a field at the edge of the town. There was a large open field and, in warmer months, it was likely home to fairs and large market days. Probably in these rural areas people traveled for a week to bring their goods and livestock to this town. It didn’t matter now, mid autumn settling into late autumn. To Jaskier the town was nameless.
They set up camp in the field. It left them exposed to being seen, but plenty of people would camp in a field like this, so it wasn’t unusual. Still, Geralt seemed on edge. Jaskier wasn’t sure it was about the camp. Geralt kept looking over at him with his eyebrows pressed together. Whenever he did that it formed this little crease right between his brows that Jaskier wanted to kiss away.
Jaskier bit his lip, hard, to focus on anything other than that.
The three of them sat, too tired to talk much more. Jaskier had finished most of the story and decided to leave the rest for the next day they were traveling a lot, to give Ciri something else to think about. She was definitely Calanthe’s blood. They traveled all day and she never complained, but also told them when she needed to stop, advocating for herself in no uncertain terms. It was the princess herself who interrupted his thoughts.
“You said you had a sister, do you have lots of siblings?”
“Not really,” Jaskier said, settling down on the ground and feeling his bones pop. His blisters were definitely bleeding inside his boots too. “Two older brothers, Henrik and Teodor, and I had a younger sister, Lotte.”
“She was sickly, always too small for her age,” Jaskier said quietly. “I learned the lute for her, at first. She liked music and was often bedridden. A fever took her when she was about your age.” Jaskier looked down at his battered boots.
“I’m sorry,” Ciri whispered.
“It’s allright little highness, it’s been almost thirty years now. Time flies.”
“I didn’t know you had siblings,” Geralt said. It was growly, but Geralt always used that tone.
“You never really asked.”
Dinner was a quiet affair. Jaskier ate the last of the rations in his pack, waving away Ciri’s offerings and showing her his food as proof that he had some. It didn’t really settle the hunger that had been eating him from the inside out all day, but at this point he figured he could eat a mountain and still have room for dessert.
“Tomorrow,” Geralt said gruffly once dinner was cleared away. “We don’t all enter the town at once. Yen and Ciri go together. I go alone. Jaskier goes alone.”
Jaskier nodded, so did Ciri and Yennefer.
“If we see eachother, act as though we don’t know eachother,” Geralt said, then he turned his gaze on Jaskier. “Don’t attract too much attention.”
Jaskier bristled at getting his own private reprimand. “I’m a bard, Geralt,” he said. “How am I supposed to earn coin if I don’t play.”
Geralt grunted. “I didn’t say don’t play just no... don’t do the whole...” he gestured a vauge hand.
“The whole...me?” Jaskier said sarcastically. He was pulling at the lion’s tail he knew, but he was in pain and tired and hungry and Geralt had no right to be so cruel.
“The whole bright colors, loud and annoying thing. Country bard, not court bard, got it?”
Loud and annoying.
“Got it,” Jaskier said, looking back down at his boots. He didn’t say that none of his clothes could have passed for courtly anymore anyway.
They set about getting ready for bed. Ciri gave him a quick hug before she and Yennefer disappeared into their magical tent. Jaskier sat and pulled off his boots, not letting a single flicker of pain show on his face. He knew Geralt would be able to smell blood, but Geralt had gone to get water from the nearby river. He had to peel his socks off and yes, there was blood there, by now stuck into the threadbare fabric. He let himself wince then. He rinsed off the wounds but he was without bandages, so he just dried off the area and put his other pair of socks on. He only had the two pairs anyway, but at least the blisters would stay dry.
He rolled himself into his bedroll and thought of tomorrow. At least there were no tree roots here.
The next day dawned slowly, instead of bright pinks and oranges it was a kind of runny yellow that just leeched into the sky before fading into early morning blue. Jaskier watched in admiration as Yennefer changed Geralt’s hair to short and dark, and then gave herself brown eyes and a slightly different bone structure. To look at both of them was odd, because Jaskier could see the similarities. Yennefer’s nose was changed and her cheekbones were a little different, but it was still her, and Geralt just looked like a different, although quite handsome, version of himself. Ciri was simply given mousy brown hair and some extra freckles.
Just like that, the perfect and all powerful family looked like two normal people and one witcher who was still clearly a witcher but not the white wolf. Jaskier shouldered his lute. He’d cleaned up the scruff he’d been growing into a more respectable look and with his longer hair and tatty cloak he looked like any poor traveling musician. If he’d traded the lute for a shortbow he could have looked like a woodsman, totally nondescript.
He was entering from a different direction, so as not to arouse suspicion, and so was Geralt. Jaskier began walking around, so that he could enter from the east. Yen and Ciri would walk into town the closest direction, and Geralt was entering from the west. This early, it was unlikely they would have been seen all together.
Jaskier made his way to the eastern edge of the town and walked in, scanning the streets. If this were a farm people would be up and awake long before now, farmers wake well before dawn, but this was a town, and so few people wandered the streets. Shop keepers were just beginning to open up. Jaskier bought a couple pears, slightly overripe but cheaper because of it, off of a fruit seller and had breakfast. He tried to lock into his mind all the shops around so he could find his supplies easiest later.
His mind was resisting him though. In spite of the softer ground, Jaskier had still slept badly last night. His body ached and he wished he could find somewhere warm to lay for an hour or two. Instead he found the well.
As wells should be, this one was right in the center of town. He set down his lute case beside it, tuned his lovely lady, and began to play.
In his very first few months after leaving Oxenfurt he had learned this trick, and used it often. If you get into a town early, play at the well. People get their water first thing in the morning and there you are.
A few young women with yokes and buckets smiled at him and he nodded in return. The day brightened a little further as the sun crept above the buildings and more people came to gather in the town square. They weren’t there to hear Jaskier, not at first, most of them came for water, or to chat with neighbors, or discuss business. Many of them gathered around him though.
Coins clattered into the case. Mostly coppers, but in a little town like this that was quite normal.
“As sweet Polly Oliver lay musing in bed,
A sudden strange fancy came into her head.
"Nor father nor mother shall make me false prove,
I'll 'list as a soldier, and follow my love,” he sang.
“So early next morning she softly arose,
And dressed herself up in her dead brother's clothes.
She cut her hair close, and she stained her face brown,
And went for a soldier to fair Rinde Town.”
Sweet Polly Oliver was one of his favorites, a simple country song about a girl and her lover in wartime. This town was far enough north that with luck Nilfgaard wouldn’t attack, but the anxiety threatened.
Jaskier gave a good performance, perhaps not his best, but he was tired and cold and the flagstones beneath his feet were very hard. He danced about, playing sweet folk songs and jigs and reels, delighting in the people who swept up and danced along. Still, though, he felt his feet bleeding inside his boots. He played from just after dawn until perhaps an hour after noon before bowing away and taking his coin.
He’d done better than he’d expected, but there wasn’t nearly enough coin for all the things he’d need for Kaer Morhen, and extra food to help Geralt and Ciri. He’d buy what he needed now, and they’d stop again in Ard Carraigh before the keep. He’d sell his lute there, it was a large city, and he’d get a good price. The thought still made him ache, though.
It wasn’t just his emotions causing him pain, he realised. The aches he’d been experiencing were in his chest lately, and both physical and emotional. He just needed more rest.
Jaskier slipped through back alleys and bent streets. He’d seen a stable on his way into town. He stepped in quietly, startling a stable hand, no more than a boy, who’d been quietly talking to a horse.
“You’re the bard,” he said. “Saw you in the square jus’ this morning.”
“That’s right,” Jaskier said, bowing a little. “I’m afraid I’ll be moving on this evening and--”
“And you want to have a kip in the stables,” said the boy. “Yeah lots o’ musicians and peddlers do that. Rule is though, I got to get a coin off ‘em first as payment. I’m sorry, but I get a beating if’n I don’t.”
“No worries,” Jaskier said, he’d expected as much. He handed the boy two copper coins. “There’s pay, won’t have you getting beaten for my sake, the second coin is to wake me in two hours.”
The boy gave him a lopsided grin. “You got it sir, thanks.”
Jaskier snuggled up in the hay loft. He’d often done it, it was pretty common, if you couldn’t buy a stay at an inn or especially if you just needed a ‘kip’ as the boy had said, during the day. He’d slept in haystacks once in a while on the road too. They were sort of comfortable and surprisingly warm and, best of all, robbers didn’t get you if you kept yourself mostly under the hay.
The scent of hay and oats and horses lulled him to sleep.
He dreamed about haystacks. For some reason Roach was in the haystack with him. Geralt and Ciri too, even Yennefer. It was a crowded haystack indeed, and it grew smaller and smaller until Jaskier had to leave it and sleep on the ground so that the others weren’t squished.
He awoke to the stable boy nudging him.
“Pardon me mister,” he said. “But it’s been two hours.”
Jaskier thanked him and brushed off his clothes.
The shops were doing a good trade this afternoon and he’d be sure to be a face in the crowd. He bought a small cooking pot and plenty of ground oats and barley for porridge at one shop. They were light to carry and owner packaged them nicely, first in one cheap, cloth drawstring bag, and then in another such bag, but with the drawstring on a different side, so he was unlikely to lose food.
In another stall he bought plenty of nuts, walnuts were cheap here and would keep well. Good for traveling and they had protein. Some dried jerky, dried peas, and dried lentils finished his food shopping, and also most of his coing.
It was three days to Ard Carraigh, another week to trek up to the keep. The food would sustain him for that long, and they’d probably just pool their food to make sure everyone was fed. Still, he wasn’t being a burden, not too much.
He couldn’t afford new boots, gloves, or a cloak right now, but with the last of his coin he bought a new pair of thick, warm socks, a small roll of bandages, and a couple pieces of candied ginger in a little paper twist. He tucked them all away and left the town, disappearing back to the field and their little camp well before the sun set.
Jaskier’s heart sunk to see that he was the last to arrive. Everything was packed up, they couldn’t risk staying in the same place two nights in a row. Geralt grunted at him, but didn’t unleash any thoughts on Jaskier being a burden, so he counted himself lucky.
He hung his head a little at having delayed their parting and trekked after the perfect little family, his pack much heavier than it had been. Ciri slid her hand into his and they walked on in silence. The hand was nice though.
In an odd way, it hurt, too. He wasn’t part of the family, so he didn’t really deserve this, but it was painfully good to have just a taste of being wanted.
What would happen, he wondered, when the winter was over. He was a danger to Geralt and Ciri if Nilfgaard found him. He wasn’t wanted by Geralt at all. Jaskier was reminded once again that it would be so much easier for Geralt to kill him, or for Yennefer to wipe his memory. Maybe he could fake his death to get Nilfgaard of his trail.
“Jaskier?” Ciri asked. “How did you become a bard?”
Jaskier looked down at her, maudlin thoughts interuppted. “Oh, well, it’s not as though you have to register, you just become one. Walking into an inn and saying ‘let me play for you pretty please I need food’ is a good start.”
“No,” Ciri giggled. “I meant, you said you learned the lute for your sister, but you write your own music and stuff too.”
“Oh, well, anyone can write music if they have an instrument and a good enough memory,” Jaskier said. “Indeed, many of the greatest bards had little education at all, I, however, studied at Oxenfurt.”
“Did you like it?”
“Sometimes. It was school, and some parts were dull but I learned much.”
“I heard some of the maids giggling once about a young scholar who’d come to stay with us,” Ciri said, matter of factly. “He was always in the library and was kind of snooty with me when I asked questions, but the maids were saying he cetainly had a lot of ‘carnal knowledge’. Did you study that too?”
Jaskier was choking on thin air.
“I, um, no it was more of a hobby,” Jaskier said before his head could catch up with his mouth. “Little Highness, I suspect you weren’t supposed to hear that conversation, and no, I studied the seven liberal arts.”
“So it was about sex, I was never sure,” Ciri said.
Jaskier coughed awkwardly. “Yes, princess.”
“It’s okay, I know about that stuff, Grandmother explained it.”
Jaskier let out a breath, at least he wouldn’t have to be the one to explain anything to her.
“When you went to school were you scared to leave your family?” Ciri asked.
“No, pet, I was excited to go,” he wasn’t about to get into all his trauma with her, she had enough of her own, poor thing. “I couldn’t wait to learn about music and poetry.”
“Grandmother said all poets were silly romantics and dreamers, but I think that sounds nice. Do you have a moose?”
“I read it in a book, a moose, somebody you love and you write about it.”
“Oh, that’s one of the trickier words Ciri, it’s said ‘muse’, and yes, I had one or two.”
“Only one or two? In the book the poet had hundreds,” Ciri sounded almost dissapointed.
“I only ever needed one,” Jaskier said quietly. “One that mattered anyway.”
“And your Countess still left you,” Geralt said, rather coldly. He was doing his annoyed face and Jaskier could have kicked himself. He’d been talking too much. The reminder that the Countess de Stael had left him too hurt, but Jaskier wasn’t going to risk Geralt’s ire to say that she wasn’t the muse he was talking about. That was maybe something he should keep to himself.
“Do muses often leave?” Ciri asked, wide eyed. “If somebody was writing me poetry I wouldn’t want to.”
“No, usually the poet does the leaving,” Jaskier said. “After his muse asks him to go. There’s a shelf life on a bard, you know. We only have so many stories and songs before we’re used up and no one wants us around anymore. That’s when we move along.”
“I’ll hear your stories again and again,” Ciri said. “I won’t ask you to go.”
Jaskier’s heart curled up and whimpered inside his chest. He’d have to go sooner or later, he’d have to leave her. Geralt would get sick of him, too sick to bear even for Ciri’s sake. Or Jaskier would just have to leave of his own volition, lest he shovel shit into her life too.
If he could give her life one blessing...
“This’ll do for a campsite,” Geralt said. It was a tiny, clear area. Jaskier almost groaned. It was surrounded by oak trees, with dropped acorns that would dig into his bedroll and mottle his back with bruises come morning. He’d had a good rest in town, though, so another bad night of sleep wouldn’t be too bad, he told himself.
The others had eaten in town. Jaskier said he had too, so he wouldn’t waste rations. He had plenty, but strangely, he wasn’t so hungry lately. Anyway, always best to save.
He pulled off his boots and his freshly bloodied socks. Ew. Ciri retired to the magic tent early, exhausted from their long days of walking. Jaskier listened to Yennefer and Geralt talk.
“We’ll need lots of supplies in Ard Carraigh,” Geralt was saying.
“We don’t have any money,” Yennefer replied.
Jaskier had his back to them as he cleaned the wounds on his feet, but he could picture grave expressions.
“We’ll get some, I’ll do a quick contract there, something. We’ll need a cart and pony to get Ciri up The Killer, it’s too much for her, it’s too hard for some witchers even.”
“That’ll cost,” Yennefer said. “But you’re right. I wish I could portal us but--”
“Tracking, exactly. There’s always plenty of contracts in cities, it’ll be fine.”
Jaskier looked at the blisters on his foot, they’d opened more with his long performance that day. It was no matter, he wound the bandages around them and put on his new, thick socks. At least his feet would be warm.
Not too warm, though. He spotted a hole in the bottom of his boot that he hadn’t noticed before.
And they needed lots of money for Ard Carraigh. No matter. He knew how to get some.
He pretended his eyes filled with tears from the pain of blisters, not from heartache, as he pushed his feet back into his boots and opened the lute case. He pulled out his beautiful girl. He wouldn’t play her, it would annoy Geralt. He’d always hated Jaskier’s music, although he hated to hear Jaskier sing even more.
Pie with no filling.
Jaskier wished he could play her, though. It was going to break his heart to part with her, and he didn’t think he’d ever played another instrument as fine. If he could he’d play her every second until he had to sell her.
Probably for the best, though, if he was going to fake his death. She was distinctive.
He brushed a hand over the beautiful wood work on her front. There was a little bit of linseed oil left, and he poured it on the rag he kept in the case and began to work over his girl lovingly. His eyes teared up again, but he fought it back. He would have smashed his lute if it meant helping Ciri. And Geralt.
Jaskier longed for Geralt to forgive him, to take him back and let him stay by his side, but he’d meant what he’d said, bards have a shelf life, and Jaskier’s time was up.
He wished Geralt would at least speak with him, though. His heart was aching. In a completely different sense, so was his chest.
“Play us a tune, bard,” Yennefer said.
Jaskier turned around. Yen and Geralt were sitting beside eachother, close together. She looked so beautiful in her fine cloak that Jaskier wondered how he ever thought he could catch Geralt’s eye when beings like her existed.
“You know,” he said. “It’s late and I wouldn’t want to bother Ciri.”
“Tent’s soundproof,” Yennefer said, waving her hand.
“I mean, really,” Jaskier protested weakly. Disobeying Yennefer’s request/command was like bathing your brain in lava, but Geralt was looking angry again. Some would say there wasn’t much change from Geralt’s normal expression, but Jaskier knew his face better than he knew his own. Something had made Geralt angry or upset. The only possible answer was Jaskier. It was always Jaskier.
“Play us a song, bard,” Yennefer said. “You’ve been so quiet other than stories, I’d almost think you were a doppler, Melitele knows no one could have taught you to shut up.”
Jaskier swallowed the lump in his throat.
He began, slowly, to pick out a gently tune on his lute. It was a song about winter and home, and he knew the lyrics well. Yennefer had only asked him to play, so he would. His music was at least less offensive than his voice.
He reveled in the feel of his lute beneath his fingers, letting the feeling wash over him, committing it to memory.
When he was finished Yennefer said, “I suppose your voice was tired from your performance, I heard in the town how the bard had played such a long set.”
Jaskier smiled grimly back at her. “Just earning my keep.”
He went to bed, feeling the cold seep into his bones.