This dream is familiar to him.
In the dream, he’s eight. He’s just been brought to court. In the dream, like it happened in real life, Jaskier isn’t thinking of his parents right then. The point of the court is to dazzle, overwhelm the senses, keep you occupied. It was. He’s wearing an itchy doublet, carefully embroidered with tiny yellow flowers—dandelions. The plate in front of him is piled with more food than he was accustomed to eating in a day, a week, back in Lettenhove. His fingers tremble as he picks up the fork, still expecting the bounty of food to be taken away.
“Not yet,” says Aleksander, the man sitting next to him at the banquet table. He’s a surly, impatient man, and Jaskier’s new guardian. He will not be so for long, though neither of them know it. Jaskier, eight, has been told to look at Aleksander as a father.
Not like a father, like the father he already has somewhere in the world. But as. Jaskier’s too young to understand the difference. He doesn’t understand yet how the court works.
“Not until he’s had the first bite,” Aleksander says, still in undertone. The people at his banquet table, and the ones around him, are looking up to the front of the room. All the colors and perfumes and laughter make Jaskier think of birds, brightly plumaged. He tries to look, too, but he can’t see over all the heads. All he sees is the ornate, carved back of the throne.
There is a voice up there, saying something. Jaskier can’t hear it until the volume of the chatter drops away suddenly, to a still, hushed silence. Like birds do when they sense a predator in their midst.
“—There is one among our party who will not be enjoying the feast tonight.” That is what the voice says. Next to him, he hears Aleksander draw a sudden breath.
In the dream, his heartbeat echoes in his ears. He feels the urge to get up, to shout, to run and hide. He does none of those things. Before he can, the person sitting on the other side of him—not Aleksander—reaches over and pinches the skin on the back of his hand, hard.
“If you want to live, little fool,” she whispers, “look straight ahead and don’t move a muscle.”
So he doesn’t. He stares at his plate of food as a heavy pair of footsteps comes closer, and closer, stopping behind him. He hears Aleksander say some half-word, ple he says, and then there’s a wet sound, and Aleksander’s voice gurgles away.
In the dream, like in real life, Jaskier hardly flinches as a spurt of blood jets across the table—spattering against his cheek, across his plate of food. He stares ahead, numb, unblinking, waiting, like everyone else, for it to be over.
In the dream, unlike in real life, he feels next the cold touch of steel at the back of his own neck, a sharp sting of pain, and his blood offers its redness up to the blade. He wakes.
The dream is not, Jaskier thinks, good foreshadowing for his plans tonight. The dream, after all, is about a man who King Emhyr decided had betrayed him, and subsequently had him killed. Killed in front of the court, no less, as a reminder of how quickly their fates could change according to the King’s whims.
Jaskier stands in front of the mirror in his room, idly straightening the sleeves of his doublet. There are purple shadows under his eyes, and his skin looks too pale.
Tonight, after his performance, Jaskier plans to do just the same. Betray his king.
He finally turns away from the mirror, picking up his lute from its stand.
It’s the third week they’ve been at the keep here, nestled in the northern foothills bordering Kaedwen. The King normally prefers keeping his court further South—in Nilfgaard, when he’s not at war, and it the kingdoms he’s come to occupy, when he’s not. It’s warmer in those places, too, but the use of the keep these past three weeks has been strategic. It’s their stronghold closest to Kaer Morhen, to its Warlord, who has been a steadily encroaching threat these past few years.
Jaskier does not know as much about it as he could. He is, after all, one of the less eminent of the nobles there—his drafty room here, and threadbare bed, can attest to that—and any interest can always be misconstrued as something else, like a threat. Like something to be killed for. He knows people who have died for far less.
What Jaskier does know is that Emhyr may have met his match, if in nothing but brutality. The Warlord from Kaer Morhen was known to be a leader of witchers—deadly, barbaric. They say that the kingdoms he takes over have their crops watered in blood. Their children thrown from rooftops. That he takes conquests back to his mountains where they’re used with force and discarded with just as little care. The Warlord’s taken a few minor holdings to the west of his mountain stronghold—places that King Emhyr didn’t technically call his own (yet), although the wormlike, groveling rulers of such places considered themselves allies of the King.
But what else could you be, when the only other alternative was to be an enemy?
For now, the King wants them here—his court, a good portion of his army, for a showy threat, to warn the Warlord of his own might. Outside the keep are the mountains and a slight, greenish tinge in the air that—he overheard when tuning his lute the other day—the King’s mages believe is a kind of boundary marking the limits of the Warlord’s lands. What would happen if they would pass that boundary they don’t know for sure, only that any trespass would be taken as a sign of war, and the Warlord and his witchers could come charging down the mountain with slaughter on their minds as retribution.
Despite the location, court life has gone on as usual. Tonight, as every night, Jaskier is expected to perform during dinner. The flower of the court, they call him, a jewel of Emhyr’s crown. He dutifully sings the songs that extol Emhyr’s martial brilliance, his ferocity, his natural aptitude as a leader.
And, in other ways, court life has been usual. The lure of the court is that it can be so genial, for days or weeks at a time. They eat splendidly, dance the nights away. They engage in their dalliances, link arms in the garden for strolls, rut against each other in their chambers in the nights. But they can never forget what their real role is. Just four nights past, two nobles were brought up before the throne and their heads caved in. Spies, is what Cahir said—the voice for Emhyr’s whims, his de facto executioner. Traitors. And all the nobles and servants there knew the two nobles must have planned to escape, or a secret marriage to each other that the king did not want for them, or a million other sins, and leaked their plans to the wrong person. And Jaskier had had to step jauntily over the blood dried on the floor as he sang, as if he noticed it not at all.
He didn’t know the two nobles well. They were mostly unpleasant to talk to, and seemed exceedingly loyal to the King. But naturally appearances could be deceiving. Everyone at the court was, of course, exceedingly loyal to the King.
Four nights after an execution was risky. But the timing felt right, too. The King would think his court fully in his control, fully reminded of his wrath. Truly, the thinking would go, no one would be stupid enough to test his wrath so soon.
Jaskier exits his room, walks down the hallway to the banquet hall. He always arrives a little early, eating a light meal that will tide him over while he sings and others eat. The throne is empty, of course, as are most of the other seats at the table. A servant brings him rye bread, cheese and meat, a pitcher of ale. He nods his head and digs in. Tries not to think about a spurt of blood spattering across the food in front of him, the glint of a blade in the corner of his eye.
The truth is, Jaskier’s dream is also one of his earliest memories. Surely, before the age of eight, he’d had a life in Lettenhove, but he hardly remembers it. He thinks maybe life in the court displaced those earlier days, drove them away. All he knows is that he’d had parents, but they hadn’t been very present in his life, then. They’d known as soon as he was born that he’d have to be sent to court, and it was better not to feel much love or familial affection for a child that could easily be used as a pawn against you. For all he knows, his parents are dead now, anyways, because the King didn’t like them, or liked someone else better.
Technically, he’s allowed a short visit to Lettenhove every year, as it is his birthright. Jaskier has never returned. He doesn’t want to see what’s become of his parents, or, truthfully, what the people of Lettenhove must think of him. He knows they must be in the same dire straits as most people who live in the overtaxed lands the King has taken over—impoverished, hungry, cold. They would hate his fancy clothes and his courtly manner of speaking. He would deserve that. Although he did, in certain ways, envy them. The opulence of his life was less impressive when he knew that, at any moment, it all could be stained with someone’s blood.
Jaskier wishes his parents had taught him the necessary lessons early in life. If they’d known his fate at court, they surely could have prepared him better. Jaskier has learned these lessons by now—painfully, but yes, he’s learned them. But there is still something wrong with him. He can flatter the other nobles, he can bow to the floor when he sees the King, he can trade barbs and keep secrets as his only currency—but he can’t numb his sense of dread anymore. He can hardly sleep. His heart is always racing. He jumps at the lightest touch to his shoulder, thinking the worst. Sometimes a grip of fear comes down around him so tightly that he can’t move, can’t think, until the roaring in his head passes. To others, it can only look like a symptom of guilt. But he can’t—he can’t outwit the people around him, doesn’t even want to try, and he doesn’t want to be a pawn to their games anymore, either. He just wants to be free.
Even thinking that thought is traitorous. He downs the rest of his ale, hoping to get through the next few hours. He carefully rubs his fingers, particularly his thumbs, which were broken long ago, and healed since, but still are a bit stiff. He practices a few chords on the lute, nodding as a swell of sound bubbles in the corridor. Nobles begin to filter in—always timely, because they know better than to be late. He stands close by the throne, shining in his golden doublet, and his eyes move over the crowd and over to the slightly recessed door by the throne. The curtain covering it moves slightly.
Jaskier drops to his knee, and the room follows suit.
“My liege, the king,” Jaskier says, his performer’s voice singing out over the banquet hall, and the court echoes it back to him.
A large, pale hand extends itself into view. Jaskier closes his eyes and, as he does every night, he kisses King Emhyr’s hand in fealty.
And, like every night, the flower of the court guarantees himself another day alive in the sun.
Jaskier performs for about an hour. He has a newer song tonight, one he debuted when they first moved to the keep. In it, he compares the King’s might to the Warlord’s, finding the second one to be not nearly as ruthless, cunning, or cruel. In the song, the Warlord finds that he has poked a sleeping giant. His stronghold in the mountain is burnt to the ground. The witchers ground underfoot like dirt. The song ends with the Warlord’s head on a spike.
As the song ends, the King leans forward. The room quiets accordingly.
“Not a spike,” the King says in his soft voice, his eyes boring into Jaskier’s, who suddenly feels his knees turn to water. He knows, he immediately thinks, although how could he know? Jaskier’s been so careful, he hasn’t told a soul, he hardly even knows for sure himself, having changed his mind a dozen times—
“The so-called Warlord’s head should not be on a spike,” the King says. “No. His skull should be made into a cup. And I will drink out of it.”
The court laughs nervously, not knowing how serious their King is. When he smiles, they laugh more.
“Y-yes, your majesty,” Jaskier says, and smiles along. The King’s eyes pass on from him. He is safe, for now.
He transitions into songs suitable for dancing, and the King watches, his face inscrutable, as the court whirls across the stone-paved floor. Finally, with a flourish, Jaskier finishes his final song, and the nobles turn to face him and applaud politely, as they do every night. He sweeps another bow.
He has just slung his lute over his shoulder when a light hand intercepts him. The Countess de Stael, a light smile around her lips.
“A stroll around the gardens, Flower?”
He feels that familiar, acidic burn in his stomach looking at her. But he’s well-trained enough, his smile appropriately flirtatious, but regretful.
“I’m not up to it tonight, my dear Countess. Can I count on you tomorrow?”
“A wasting sickness? You certainly haven’t looked yourself recently.” A well-meant comment. Or a warning. Jaskier doesn’t let his expression break.
“I’ll be better in no time, I’m sure,” he says. They bow to each other, and he leaves the noise of the banquet hall behind. Once in his rooms, he unslings his lute, places it on its stand.
Then—to his wardrobe. In the sleeves of his doublets, he’s carefully rolled a cloak, a small bag of food, a flagon of water, a pouch of money. He left the thread of one his doublets, hardly visible, across the top of the wardrobe doors, knowing it would have been displaced if anyone had looked within and seen his stash. It is still where he left it.
Breathing out a heavy sigh, he looks once toward the closed door, and then again toward the wardrobe.
He is not brave, he knows. He is a coward, a traitor. A little fool. If he were actually brave, he would poison the cup the King drinks from, plan his overthrow in secret corners of the keep, damn the consequences. But no. He is a coward, and he can’t live like this anymore—until they kill him, or his own body does so to itself. So he puts on the cloak, pockets the pouch of money. Knots the bag of food and water in one hand. And stops, looking sadly at his lute. He knows it would only slow him down until he gets to the river—to safe passage, he hopes, and a lonely place on a coast somewhere where he can live unfound. But he will miss what has often felt like his only friend.
He finally forces his eyes away. Creeps to the window.
At this time of night, most of the court will still be under the King’s eye, or out in the gardens. And he’s noticed, from returning here each night, that there is less of a guard presence kept on this corner of the keep, so close to the gardens. The King’s soldiers are encamped further east, out of sight around the ramparts of the keep. As long as he can sneak creep past the gardens undetected, as long as he can wait for the nightly guard to pass on his round, as long—
Jaskier can’t think about it more. He quietly eases open his window, and then throws a leg over. He waits a moment, waits already for that first shout of alarm—but there’s nothing. His heart in his ears, he throws his other leg out, and then he falls to the ground.
He was only on the second floor. He’s able to roll to his feet, hardly feeling the impact. Another quick, assessing look around. No one. He slinks quickly along the wall of the keep to the high hedge of the garden, which meets it. If he can stay right up against the hedge, no one looking out from his wing of the keep should be able to see him—a dark, cloaked figure, a shadow against the hedge, not when the garden is so well-lit by torches within.
Jaskier can taste blood in his mouth. He thinks he must have bitten his tongue when he leaped out the window and not realized it. He closes his mouth, realizing that he’s breathing hard. He can’t be caught now—he’s already transgressed.
Oh, Melitele. Emhyr is going to make a cup out of your skull.
He can feel his heart beating a bruising rhythm against his chest. He tries to focus, not think. If he thinks too much, he’ll freeze.
On the other side of the hedge, he can hear merry laughter, the sound of heels on the garden’s flagstones, voices discussing summer in a certain noble’s family hunting lodge in Sodden. It is odd, hearing court life proceeding as normal only a few feet from Jaskier. He reaches the end of the hedge, pauses, like a rabbit waiting to see if a hawk will dive from the sky. He looks in both directions. It’s here, in this bare strip of land between the high hedges of the garden and the trees beyond, that he would be most likely to be seen. But he’s watched out his window, and the night guard patrols thrice an hour. And if the guard isn’t here now, well—he’d better cross this patch of land before he’s through again.
Jaskier looks again, then makes his dash. He waits to hear the whistle of an arrow, the clinking of chainmailed feet behind him—but. Nothing. He reaches the trees.
His breath is coming fast, hysterical, now. Beyond these trees, he doesn’t know. He can’t see from his window. It’s possible there are guards here, too. He’ll have to move fast and careful, and swing a wide arc around the keep to the West, and then he’ll get to the river downstream somewhere and barter for passage.
And hope, and pray, that the King would be too distracted by the close proximity of the Warlord and his witchers to be looking for the flower of the court for long.
The woods here are mostly naked trunks, the trees bare of leaves. He slips from tree to tree, working his way West, pausing every few minutes to listen for nearby noise. Nothing, so far. And no claxon bell rising from the keep yet, warning of his absence. He’s covered a good distance already. He thinks he might smell the river through the trees, now. He thinks he might be able to do this—
He turns, and runs into someone’s chest. A hand reaches out to steady him.
A soldier stands there, an iron grip on his arm. An iron look in his eyes.
“A night stroll?” The soldier asks stonily.
Jaskier knows, they both know, why he is out here. No one, save the King’s army, is allowed outside the keep.
Before he makes a cup out of your skull, he’s going to break you, slowly, into so many small pieces.
Jaskier cringes away from the voice in his head.
“A night dalliance,” he says. Tries to say. His voice croaks. “She and I were looking for some more… privacy.”
A look of understanding comes into the soldier’s eyes. Not at Jaskier’s words, but his voice. “The flower of the court?” he says wonderingly.
“Please, don’t,” Jaskier breathes.
“They’ll promote me to at least captain for this,” the soldier says.
They eye each other for a moment, and then Jaskier drops the bag of food—the other arm, the arm the soldier didn’t grab—and punches him in the face. It is a bad punch. He has never punched anyone before.
The soldier stumbles a step sideways and brings Jaskier to the ground with him. Jaskier tries to wriggle away, but the soldier still has an iron grip on him, and suddenly there is a knife at his throat. Jaskier feels the tip of the blade sink in, just slightly, and freezes.
“Stop,” the soldier pants. Jaskier stops.
Suddenly the soldier laughs, panting, above him. Laughing at Jaskier, or his luck, or both.
“You’re a dead man,” the soldier says.
Several things happen at once. The knife twitches against his throat, and although Jaskier dosen’t feel pain, he does feel—wet. His fingers come up, trying to wrench the blade away, and touch the blood sliding down his neck instead. He thinks to himself, dazedly, because it’s all he desperately wants at that moment, away away away away away—
The man is suddenly gone. The knife, too. Jaskier doesn’t understand for a long moment—and. When he sees, he still doesn’t understand. Some force has thrown the soldier backwards, thrown him with such terrific force that he is lolled at an inhuman angle at the base of a tree several yards away. His head sits sideways on his neck, his eyes still open in shock. He is very obviously dead.
Jaskier sits up, turns over, and throws up a weak stream of bile.
Not only has he managed to get caught while escaping, he somehow managed to kill the soldier who caught him, too. If the King wasn’t planning on tracking down his Flower before, he certainly would be now.
Jaskier scrambles to his feet. His mind feels addled, jumping too fast for him to keep up. He stumbles away, trying to leave the body behind as quickly as possible. He only takes a few more stumbling steps before he falls out of the trees and onto the bank of the river.
They’ll know, is all he can think. If they find the soldier this close to the river, they’ll know his plan easily enough. They’ll find out who gave him safe passage. They’ll track him to the ports downstream. His freedom could only be short-lived.
Should he go South, to the warmer climates there, despite still being in the King’s territory?
Should be go to Lettenhove and hope to still find someone loyal to its noble?
No, he thinks.
The King is smart. He’ll have to go where no one would expect him—not the King, or his bloodhound mages, or anyone else who has his ear.
He’ll go North.
He realizes, after some interminable time, that he’s lost his bag of food, his flagon of water, in his fight with the soldier. He begins to feel hungry, but there’s nothing in the inhospitable surroundings that looks like food.
It gets colder, a light snow falling. Jaskier can only hope he’s far enough from the soldier by then that no one is looking where his feet leave so obvious a trail. If they are, well. What else can Jaskier do?
He isn’t dressed for this kind of weather. He’d anticipated the coast, and before that, using his coin to buy warm rooms at out-of-the-way inns. His toes, in his boots, are freezing. So are his ears, and his fingers. Well. His whole body. He stop to tear a strip from the bottom of his cloak, and winds it around one hand. His thumbs, especially, twinge in the bitter chill. He tears another strip, winds it around his other hand.
Behind him, he imagines, he can hear voices, all speaking over one another, bearing closer and closer. The King, the court, the army, coming to be entertained by Jaskier yet again, until the snow is red around him.
He walks, because if he stops, he thinks the fear will keep him from going on again. Because if he sleeps, he’ll remember the unnatural tilt of the soldier’s head on his shoulder.
He realizes, at some point, that it’s become light again. And later, he looks around and realizes it’s become dark again. He’s stumbling, the snow shifting underfoot, too tired to lift his feet any higher. A full day outside of the King’s keep. Is this what freedom was supposed to feel like? Bitter, and cold, and feeling just as hunted as before.
He’s not sure when he collapses. When he looks around, the snow has blown up around him. Just ahead, there’s a strange, greenish hue that shimmers above the ground. It’s so close he could nearly touch it. He wonders if it would burn his skin, or would part around his fingers harmlessly.
The Warlord’s lands, he realizes. He’s somewhere close to Kaer Morhen now.
He feels too exhausted to do anything about it. He enters some strange black void for a while, but he doesn’t sleep. He knows because his eyes are open when the black void goes away. He feels weak, nearly too weak to lift his head. He looks ahead at that strange greenish boundary again, and realizes with a delayed jolt that he’s not alone. There’s a man there—tall, broad, with a sword strapped over his shoulder. There’s a deep, grisly gash that goes one side of his face. He’s standing on the other side of the greenish border, staring at him expressionlessly.
Witcher, the voice in Jaskier’s head tells him, in a strange, submerged way. If Jaskier weren’t half-delirious, he’d probably appreciate the novelty, at least, of seeing the stuff of court legend firsthand. Put you out of your misery.
But he doesn’t. At some point, the witcher is gone when Jaskier is able to lift his head again.
He realizes, now, that he’s dying. At least a day, if not days, now, lying in the snow. He can’t feel his hands, his feet. Everything seems very wispy and far away.
Jaskier tries to remember the plan again. To elude capture by Emhyr, and a painful demise. That he could somehow pass through the Warlord’s lands and back out without detection—being detected, he knew, could be grounds for being killed. Or for war. Or for both.
That, someday in the future, he could laugh without the catch of fear in his throat. That every touch wouldn’t seem like it was preceded by a blade. That he could sing what he wanted to sing. That he could trust. That he could love.
Well. He has been a little fool, after all, to believe he could ever get that.
But, he thinks, it is something to die like this, and not like the King would want him to die. That is something, isn’t it?
A long, interminable time lying there. The wind whistles in his ears. It’s so quiet that he can hear the snow piling up near his ears.
He feels the strangest sensation, then. Like he’s being watched, sighted out by a predator nearby. Perhaps a bear, he thinks, or a wolf, will be his end. He raises his head slightly, to see. And stills.
There’s a man crouched on the other side of the green boundary now. Nothing about him moves, nothing except his white hair, which is lifting gently in the wind. He looks—like Jaskier’s end. The yellow eyes are like the eyes of the wolf come to devour him. And even as exhausted as he is, he feels his heart begin to do what it did not for the other witcher: to sprint in his chest, panic. A fear response that is as natural to him as any prey animal, sensing death.
Some expression moves across the witchers’s face, although his features remain still. Finally, he stands. He takes a step forward, and the green border separates and reforms around him. His boots crunch into the snow in front of Jaskier as he stares down at him.
Jaskier closes his eyes tight, waiting for it. The blade that ends it all.
Instead, a strong hand grips the back of his doublet. He falls back into that black, black void, but not until the white-haired witcher hauls him bodily through the snow, through the green boundary, and to the other side—to witcher lands. To the Warlord. To what, he cannot know.