The three days to Ard Carraigh were torture for Jaskier, and yet they were almost numb. He’d finished his story for Ciri and was talking less. Part of his brain delighted in it. Talking less would make Geralt like him, he was being good, not being too much. He knew, though, he was just too tired to talk.
It seemed that a weight had taken up residence in his chest. Many weights had, the feeling of being a burden, the constant ache of rejection, but this was a new feeling, cold and heavy and hot all at the same time. He was slower too. Jaskier tried, he tried so hard, but he needed a new cloak and better boots and even with them he got the sense that his body just...couldn’t go any faster.
Since only Geralt had a horse, he’d taken to walking alongside Roach, rather than riding her. Ciri was happy to skip ahead and come back and walk all around so that she probably walked twice the distance Jaskier did. Sometimes she took Jaskier by the hand as if trying to pull him along, and he’d smile at her and trot a few paces to the front of the group, but he just couldn’t manage more.
He wondered if it was because he wasn’t eating much. Jaskier knew he needed food, but he just wasn’t hungry, and wasting food on someone who wasn’t hungry for it wouldn’t get him into Geralt’s good graces.
They day before they reached Ard Carraigh the first snow had fallen. It was tiny and wet and gone by the time the sun was fully above the horizon, but it crunched underfoot and set a chill into Jaskier’s bones. He’d eaten a little more heavily than he had lately at breakfast that day, and he wondered if that was why his body felt so heavy. He was unable to stop himself from falling to the back of their little group, even with Ciri’s coaxing.
Once, when she tugged at his hand he chuckled and jokingly said, “Little lady, please spare an old man such exertion,” with a funny little bow, then exaggeratedly put his hand on his back, as if he were too geriatric to straighten fully. When Ciri giggled at that he mimed hobbling along with a cane, and moving his lips as though he were toothless and gumming at something. She laughed, bright and clear, and even Yennefer smiled. Geralt’s eyebrows lowered, though. It wasn’t an angry face, but it wasn’t a happy one and Jaskier couldn’t parse it out.
As the day wore on Jaskier felt the cold. His traveling cloak had seen too many winters and wouldn’t bear another one. It was patched and dirty and worn so very thin. The wind bit at Jaskier, feeding off of him, feeling like it was freezing the very air inside his lungs. No matter how he tucked his cloak around him, no matter that his doublet was buttoned all the way to his chin, Jaskier felt frozen.
He slowed down, feeling panic rising in his throat. He was too slow, he was going too slow. His mind hurtled backwards in time. Those times that he’d woken up to an empty camp, with Geralt packed up and leaving while he slept. Waking up in inn rooms that had held two people when he fell asleep, only to find himself alone, all of Geralt’s posessions gone.
He was going to get left behind again.
His legs were lead, though. There was very little that hurt more than Geralt leaving him behind, but maybe it would be for the best. He felt like he’d just fall forward onto the frosty ground and stay there. The little family could go on and he could just stay, dissolving into the leaf mold.
Ciri would worry though. She’d come back and take his hand and he knew if he stopped he couldn’t get up again and she’d worry. She might even cry. Making Ciri cry, those big green eyes filling up because of him, that would be worse, even than being left behind. Hurting Ciri would be worse than anything.
Jaskier found a few more steps.
It was like turning a crank handle that never did anything, or riding a horse all day, but every time he thought of Ciri, lip trembling, he could continue.
When it was almost evening he slowed further. He was maybe twenty paces behind Yennefer and Geralt. Yen, despite looking much better, was still not healed, and walked slower than her standard, brisk pace. Geralt, of course, walked at her side. Jaskier considered that twenty paces was good enough. The wind was behind them and it almost seemed to push him forward, digging icy fingers through his cloak.
Part of him fretted for his lute in the cold weather, even inside the case, but what did it matter. He would sell her in less than a day.
He wasn’t going to cry about it. Tears prickled at his eyes but he wouldn’t let them fall. Not one. Because there was Ciri, up ahead, so bright in her Cintran blue cloak. She’d found a stick and was stabbing at imaginary villains. Jaskier would do anything for her. He would make it to Ard Carraigh, he would make it up the mountain and to the keep. He would even sell his lute.
His body had other ideas.
Jaskier stumbled on a root, hidden under fallen leaves. He fell, one knee down, the opposite hand catching him against the ground. It was like Atlas, carrying the world, as if a weight was pressing him down. He couldn’t stand back up.
Ciri trotted over and took his other hand. His fingers were stiff and going blue, but he wrapped his hand around her mitten, which was slightly too big for her hand. He stood, Ciri tugging him slightly.
He smiled wanly at her and she grinned back.
It happened again, though, only a few more paces along. Bumps and ditches that would normally mean nothing overrode his weakening limbs and shaky balence. He stumbled and fell, catching himself again and feeling the cold ground ache his knee where it hit.
His head spun.
Ciri was tugging at his hand but his ears were ringing. Something big and warm wrapped around him. It was slightly rough fabric, and it smelled like horse. Geralt’s cloak was sturdy enough to block the wind and the hood over Jaskier’s head warmed his ears.
Jaskier’s eyes were open but he wasn’t seeing anything. He could feel, though. There were arms around him, warm, big arms, cradling him as easily as if he were a sack of flour. He recognized the feeling, too, from more than a decade ago, when blood had welled from his throat and Geralt had held him. Jaskier felt the lift as Geralt mounted Roach, settling his head into the crook of Geralt’s neck.
“We’ll stay in an inn in Ard Carriagh,” Geralt was saying. Jaskier didn’t care. He was too tired to care even that he was being a burden, because his eyes slid shut and Geralt was holding him as though he were something precious.
As if Jaskier were something to be cared for.
-- -- -- -- -- --
Jaskier woke up in an inn room. Alone.
His heart raced, tears welling in his eyes. He’d been a burden. He couldn’t keep up and they’d left him in some inn and moved on. The blankets were suffocating and he kicked them away, getting tangled in them. He could hardly see for the tears in his eyes. They’d left him. He hadn’t been good enough, not fast enough or strong enough and they’d gone. Even Ciri.
Geralt was standing in the doorway.
“Uh, Geralt, hi, wasn’t expecting you here.” It was the truth.
“...I heard your heartbeat.”
Of course, his heart had been beating out of his chest, it was only now calming down.
“Oh, well,” Jaskier said, trying to play it off. “Woke up in this room and I didn’t recognize where I was.”
“Hmmm,” Geralt said. “You passed out.”
Jaskier hung his head and fought tears again, feeling hot shame seep down his neck. He’d failed. He’d really failed. All that work to not be a burden and it was all down the drain.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking down at his hands. I’ll do better, he thought. I can do better please don’t leave me behind. Please don’t take me off your hands.
He didn’t say it. It was battered and broken and worth very, very little, but he still had some pride.
“You’ve been eating little,” Geralt said. There was an undertone there, a soft undercurrent of something else. Jaskier didn’t know what it meant but he wanted to sink into it and wrap it around himself.
“I just haven’t been hungry,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I would faint, I just truly wasn’t hungry.”
Geralt shrugged awkwardly. “We would have stopped here anyway, Ciri needs it.”
“Is she alright? You’re not disguised, is that safe?”
Geralt shook his head. “I am disguised, you can just see through it.” Geralt shook his head again, a little more dramatically, and just for a second it was as if the magic needed time to catch up, and his hair and eyes were dark, a full beard covering his face.
“Woah,” Jaskier said.
“It tired Yen out,” Geralt grunted. “So don’t annoy her.”
Right. With the almost easy companionship and tentative worry Jaskier had almost forgotten. He was just an annoyance.
Jaskier stood, fighting his spinning head. “Right,” he said, glancing out the window at the water light. “Morning, and I have things to do, so...” He picked up his lute in her case and...
And they were in Ard Carriagh. Where Jaskier needed to sell her.
“I might just tune up this lovely lady,” he said, sinking back onto the bed and cradling the case.
“Yen is consulting on an apothecary’s question,” Geralt said. He was standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, like at any moment he would either sit down or leave.
“Good for her,” Jaskier said, not looking up from the lute case as he flicked open it’s latches, savoring the familiar click.
“Ciri is with her.”
“That’s good, she’s safe then.” Jaskier dragged his fingers over a scratch on the wood, it was thin and long, but had no effect on her sound.
“So you have to stay with me.”
“Why?” Jaskier let his index finger curl over the lovely inlay work on her front. In his opinion, it was unmatched, but what did he know of wood working?
“To be safe,” Geralt said, still in his odd posture.
“I can take care of myself.” Jaskier, looking down at his lute, felt, rather than saw the skeptical eyebrow raise. “I’ll just eat something and be right as rain, promise.”
“I’m going with you.”
Jaskier strummed one sweet chord and closed the case. No need to torture himself further. He stood and adjusted his clothes. He’d slept in them, but there was nothing nicer for him to wear. Then, he proceeded down to the taproom on the first floor of the inn. Geralt followed like a shadow. A very tall, broody shadow.
They ate in silence.
The taproom was well packed, but early enough that no one was rowdy. Between the spaces of their unhappy silence, Jaskier could hear the inkeeper complaining about the maid going off to get married and leaving him shorthanded.
It was a while since Jaskier had been to Ard Carriagh, but he had a good memory, and walked quickly through the winding streets to the luthier. His breakfast wasn’t sitting well, it was too much and too little all at once and he felt sick, but he said nothing. Any bard was an actor and Jaskier was the best. He was fine. The luthier’s shop was between a ladies clothing store and a jewelry store, tucked in and not as well kept as the shops on either side.
There was a bell above the door and it jangled as Jaskier stepped in, Geralt just behind.
“Lute strings,” Geralt said, looking around. “Can you afford that.”
“No,” Jaskier said simply. “I’m selling my lute.”
The words burned like acid. The pit of his stomach rolled like he’d swallowed one of Geralt’s disgusting potions, but he knew his face was totally impassive.
Geralt’s however, twisted. It looked like panic, anger, and pain all at once. It looked like Jaskier felt. He almost looked to check that Geralt hadn’t dropped something heavy on his foot to make that face.
“Ooh, you wish to sell,” said the shopkeeper, next to a display of gitara picks. “The case looks very good but let’s see...”
He reached forward. His hands were pale and sweaty, fingers grabbing and outstretched and Jaskier wanted to step back, yearned to clutch his lute case to his chest rather than relinquish his beautiful girl to this man.
He set the case on top of a glass display case instead. The clasps clicked under his unwilling fingers. The lid creaked.
“Oh, what a lute,” the shopkeeper said. He stroked the strings and Jaskier noticed his dirty fingernails. “rather mediocre condition, though...”
Jaskier wanted to audibly scoff. His lute was in mint condition, apart from the single scratch, and he knew it.
Geralt snapped the lid of the case shut, nearly catching the shop owner’s fingers. “He won’t sell it.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t buy it,” the owner protested. “Beautiful lute. Elven made?”
Jaskier nodded grudgingly. It wasn’t fair, but he didn’t like this man.
The shopkeeper hummed. “I thought so, I would probably have the frontal piece,” he opened the case again and traced the wood with the inlay. “Removed. For use on a different lute.”
Chop her up?
Geralt shut the lid again, more carefully this time, but somehow the slower closing felt angrier, rather than calmer.
“He’s not selling. We’re leaving.”
He lifted Jaskier nearly off the ground, taking the case in one arm and gripping the bard by the back of his collar with the other hand. Jaskier spluttered as he was frog marched out of the shop.
“I was going to sell it!” He protested, back out in the watery sunlight. He clutched at his lute case, though, as Geralt pressed it back into his arms.
Geralt’s jaw was tense and his lips were thin.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“You aren’t selling your lute.”
Jaskier felt guilty and relieved all at once. Here was Geralt saying he didn’t have to sell his lute. He was free of that burden, but they also needed to purchase a cart and supplies. He himself needed a cloak, boots, and gloves. Probably a hat and scarf as well. The pair ambled, unhappily silent yet again, to the center of town. Jaskier glanced at the notice board.
“Ghoul problem,” he noted.
“You need a contract, they have a harpy issue too, looks like. Two contracts, Geralt.”
“You have to stay with me--”
“And you won’t take me into danger, blah blah,” Jaskier rolled his eyes. He knew he was being a pest, but two contracts would likely solve their money problem. Hopefully. Not for sure.
“You should go back to the inn,” Geralt said. “I would do the contracts, they’re quick, then get you.”
An idea glimmered in Jaskier’s mind. He yawned. “Yeah,” he said. “That sounds good, I’m pretty tired still.” It wasn’t a lie because Geralt could basically smell those. Going back to the inn did sound good, and Jaskier was definitely still tired.
Geralt huffed, and they walked back to the inn. It was too late for breakfast and early for lunch, so the little taproom was basically deserted. Geralt hummed again, pressed one hand onto Jaskier’s shoulder as if trying to stick him to the floor, then left.
Jaskier walked up to the inkeeper.
“Hi there,” he tried. He was too tired to really flirt, but the inkeeper put down his barcloth at least.
“I couldn’t help but overhear that you’re a little short handed at the moment...” he let the sentence linger.
The inkeeper scoffed. He was a big, red faced man with red hair to match, and when he scoffed his whole torso moved with it. “You want to do a little work for some coin, then,” he said. He didn’t sound opposed to the idea, though, so Jaskier beamed at him.
“Absolutely sir, I’m a very helpful--”
“I’ll not have you around food,” the man cut in. “That man brought you in half dead and you still look pale. Bad business getting customers sick.”
Oh. Jaskier deflated.
“Got a water barrel needs filling though, so’s long as you don’t cough in the water. Privies need cleaning too.”
They haggled a little over the pay, but Jaskier was a world class haggler. Finally the man slapped his hands on the bar top. “Fine,” he said. “And a meal for you thrown in if you get the privies really clean. One for the little lass too.”
“She eats a lot,” Jaskier warned. He felt it was only fair, considering he would be paid decently for his work. To his surprise the man grinned.
“My youngest does too, eats like a lion and she’s only nine. I’ll have as many helpings as your daughter wants, no problem.”
Jaskier thanked him profusely and the inkeeper waved his hand. “Just consider playing something tonight at supper, brings in customers. And get that privy really clean, mind.”
Jaskier, figuring he wouldn’t find a better deal that day, hightailed it out of there to look at the water barrell.
It was a big barrel. It would need between thirty and fourty buckets of water to fill it, and it was empty right down to the bottom. The well was at the center of town, like wells tended to be, and the inn wasn’t close, but there was a pump in the inn’s yard.. Jaskier sighed, rolled his aching shoulders, rocked slightly on his aching feet, and began to pump.
One bucket at a time, Jaskier filled the water barrell in just under two hours, feeling blisters form on his hands from all the pumping. Then he filled two more buckets and went to the privies.
He sloshed one bucket each into the men’s and women’s privies and went back to the inn to ask for some soap and a scrub brush. Then the real work began. Scrubbing the wooden walls and floors of the fetid outhouses was backbreaking, and of course he had to pause every time a patron wanted to use them, but the grime came off the wood eventually and Jaskier was willing to work hard sometimes. He wasn’t being a burden.
An unintended benefit of the work was that Jaskier’s mind was temporarily taken off of how miserable he felt. HIs chest still rattled a little, and he was tired beyond belief, but maybe all he’d needed was a full meal after all.
It was late afternoon when he fetched the inkeeper to inspect the privies, and the man nodded in approval at them. Then he gave Jaskier one last task.
“Fill that tin tub by the door with water and put it over the fire there,” he said, pointing to one of the two large fires the inn’s kitchen had. “Then haul it upstairs and bathe because you smell like a privy yourself.”
Jaskier grinned tiredly and took the offered coin before doing just that, wincing as his aching muscles protested. When the water was warm but not boiling he took the small tub upstairs to his room and washed what he could. It wasn’t a big enough tub to properly bathe in, but with soap and a rag he managed to at least get clean.
He tipped the tub out and replaced it in it’s spot then curled up in the inn bed in a change of clothes, dozing. He’d been there perhaps a quarter of an hour before Geralt tapped on the door.
Geralt looked at him. “You’re clean,” he said.
Jaskier shrugged. “Struck a deal with the innkeeper. Contracts done?” Geralt held up a bag of coin in answer.
It was odd, he thought. It was like normal, almost. Walking along at Geralt’s side. Several times he had to bite his tongue to keep from commenting on this or that. It was so hard to remember that they weren’t friends, or at least travelling companions. Whatever they had been before the whole...dragon hunt thing. His brain argued that they were still traveling companions now, and it was true, but only in the literal sense. Geralt didn’t want him around.
It got easier to remember because Yennefer rejoined them, Ciri trotting at her heels.
“Julian,” Yennefer said, using his real, more innocuous name. “Cleaned up I see, and dressed in finery,” it was a jab, although not very sharp. His clothes were worn and badly patched. “Going to go cuckold some poor husband?” It was said lightly and Jaskier smiled.
“How do you know I haven’t already,” he said. Yennefer laughed, but Geralt growled.
“Are you and your conquests going to get us thrown out of town?”
Jaskier startled, skittering a few steps away in shock at the low, angry tone. “I was only kidding,” he protested, but he cursed his stupid mouth, always running ahead of his brain. Just like that, it seemed, the brief truce had broken, and he was back to being a shit shoveler once more.
Ciri slipped her mitten into Jaskier’s hand. “Yennefer says I need a hat,” she said.
“I need one too,” Jaskier confided. “Why don’t you and I go get hats and scarves while those two grab other supplies.”
“You aren’t going off on your own,” Geralt growled and Jaskier wanted to flinch, but then Ciri would notice.
“I’d be only a street away,” Jaskier said. “I’ll look after her.”
“Can’t even look after yourself,” Geralt snapped. Jaskier did flinch that time, just a little bit. It was true, though. He was kind of worthless, especially if there was a fight.
“We’ll all go,” Yennefer said, glaring pointedly at Geralt. Jaskier wondered what that was about.
They all went. Jaskier paid for his new cloak, hat, and gloves, and ignored Geralt asking where he got the money.
“Did you steal it?” Gerals said, quietly, so Ciri wouldn’t hear. Jaskier sniffed.
“I’m not a thief.”
Geralt dropped it, but his expression was stormy.
They bought a small cart, light enough for Roach to pull by herself, and some more supplies. Yennefer even bought Jaskier new boots.
“Just giving advice on apothecarial matters is worth a hefty fee,” she explained. “I have plenty of coin.” Pleasantly surprised, Jaskier thanked her. When he tried the boots on in the shop he made a show of how much he liked them, going over the top until he heard Ciri giggle. Mission accomplished, because he made Yen smile too.
Geralt didn’t smile.
Back at the inn Jaskier ate a big dinner, even as his stomach rolled, and delighted in seeing Ciri do the same. They were all well fed, but seeing Ciri’s delight in getting a second helping was worth any amount of blisters, or privies.
He played after dinner, although he barely felt up to doing so, and of course was careful to avoid all mentions of the white wolf. He winked at a few patrons and even the inkeeper just out of habit. Then he ended his set early.
“Any reviews?” he asked his table, cheekily. “Three words or less?”
“Tolerable,” Yen said, smiling widely. She looked younger when she did that.
“Great,” Ciri chimed in.
“Should’ve sold it,” Geralt grunted. Jaskier felt ice slip down his spine.
“Should’ve sold the lute,” Geralt growled, lowly.
Jaskier’s fingers wrapped around the strap his lute hung from, feeling hurt well up like spring water.
“No,” Yen snapped. “You two go outside and sort that out, I’m not dealing with it. Ciri and I will finish our dinner while you idiots figure this out between yourselves.”
Jaskier obeyed, feeling the heat of shame and hurt in his face and longing for some fresh air. Geralt lumbered out behind him.
The night was cold and felt icy against Jaskier’s burning face but he turned to Geralt fuming.
“What the hell,” he said. “You tell me not to sell the lute, then you make me sit at the inn all day like a child, then you tell me I should have sold it after all? Do you hate me that much or do you just like seeing me do things wrong?”
“Better you sell the lute than whore yourself,” Geralt growled.
That was so far from what Jaskier was expecting that he actually stepped back. “What?”
“Struck a deal with the innkeeper? All that coin? And you move like your knees are bruised,” Geralt said, jaw moving tightly.
“I didn’t have sex with the inkeeper!” Jaskier said, half amused. “I didn’t have sex with anyone. I thought we needed the money, so I cleaned the privies, that’s why my knees are stiff. My hands are sore too!”
Geralt took one hand and turned it over to see the red, irritated skin.
“No,” Jaskier interrupted. “I don’t care what you have to say.” Even though he did, he cared so much. “First of all, don’t pretend that there is anything wrong with prostitution, we both know you visit those ladies from time to time. Second, even if I was having sex with someone, for money or not, it isn’t any of your business, and third, nothing about your assumptions gives you any right to be so...so rude!”
Jaskier was ashamed to feel tears leaking from his eyes but right now he was angry, so angry and hurt, so he just kept going.
“I am sorry,” he said, softly. “That life couldn’t give you the blessing you wanted, but the least you could do is not make this worse for both of us.”
Jaskier turned on his heel and went back to his room, where he curled up and cried himself to sleep.
He was awoken later by a tap on the door. It was Yennefer and Ciri standing in the hallway.
“She wants to be with you,” Yennefer said.
Ciri sat on the bed and looked up at Jaskier with wide eyes. Jaskier sat next to eachother.
“Dandelion,” Ciri said, using her special name for Jaskier. “Do you hate Geralt?”
Jaskier sighed and hugged her close. “Not at all,” he said, truthfully. “But it’s like I said, bards aren’t welcome forever, it’s just how it is, and I’ve overstayed my welcome a little bit.”
“No you haven’t,” Ciri said into his shoulder. “I think you’re welcome. I want you around.”
“Thank you, little highness.”
“Geralt doesn’t hate you, I’m sure of it, he was really worried about you when you fainted.”
“He worries about everyone, that’s just the way he is,” Jaskier said. Geralt had a big heart, even if those feelings came out gruffly, he was a real hero. He just couldn’t stand Jaskier so long as Jaskier was concious.
“When my grandmother was worried,” Ciri began. “She could seem sort of mean, she’d yell or snap and it was scary unless you knew that she was just scared. Maybe Geralt was scared for you.”
Jaskier wished it was so. Could almost believe it was true. Ciri didn’t know about the dragon hunt though. She didn’t know he was a shit shoveler. Didn’t know about Geralt’s unfulfilled blessing.
Jaskier curled on his side, letting Ciri bury her head into his shoulder until she fell asleep. Eventually, face solemn but eyes dry, Jaskier slept too.