It started after Deidre’s attack. Vesemir had only wanted to take Eskel’s pain away; it was never meant to evolve past that. The witch Glevissig did her best to heal what she could, or so she said. Vesemir always believed she’d left Eskel with some damage as a reminder of what happened when one crossed, or otherwise inconvenienced, a sorceress.
In that first month after the injury, Vesemir’s heart ached every time he saw Eskel go to smile and then flinch, his face falling into a painful spasm. That beaming grin was a rarity these days anyway, but now it looked like they would never see it again. The entire right side of his face seemed paralysed, the nerves irreparably damaged, his teeth cracked and jagged. He ate his meals away from everyone else, embarrassed by the way his mouth struggled around solids, and the sheer amount of time it took him to get through a single plateful.
As the bags formed under Eskel’s eyes and his movements became more sluggish during drills, Vesemir realised that the pain was keeping Eskel awake at night, too. Between the occasional nightmare that managed to worm its way through carefully curated repression, and the continuous, dull ache in the side of his head, Vesemir was surprised that Eskel ever managed to sleep at all. However, despite his decades of experience, he felt powerless.
Many years ago he would have turned to Barmin or one of the archivists. They would have poured through the records in search of some higher learning that would help; they would experiment and put the mages to work. In a matter of days, they would have found Eskel something to help. But now both books and men were nought but ash, and Vesemir was just a damned fencing instructor. What did he know about medicine?
It took the appearance of fisstech in his home to spur him into action. Eskel returned that winter with sallow skin, wasted muscles, and a few too many new scars on his body. When Vesemir happened to stumble across a trace few lines of that familiar powder, he almost lost his temper. But the spaced look in Eskel’s eyes, pain-free and mellow, killed the vitriol in his words before it could manifest. As a youthful scoundrel and philanderer, Vesemir partook, for no other reason than to torment the master witchers supervising his studies (and the priestesses at the temple). Eskel used it out of desperation.
Yet the very thing that saved him from the pain would end his life. A witcher reliant on fisstech to function wouldn’t last. Vesemir was surprised he’d managed to stumble home at all. There had to be another solution. Something he could do or provide. Had he not learned masonry to repair the very walls around them? Had he not, through trial and error, learned how to keep chickens alive and to cook in a kitchen? Were the very chairs and tables they ate on not assembled by his hands after brief tuition in carpentry? Over the years, Vesemir had absorbed skills out of necessity. There was no one else. Not anymore. He was Eskel’s instructor and his warden. He may be a grown man, but Vesemir still saw the loud, slightly obnoxious pup that had fallen haphazardly through his training. His pup.
When the snows thawed enough, he headed down the trail under the pretence of collecting supplies. There was one woman he knew of close by who would have to knowledge to help him. To teach him. If he returned with a donkey and a few essentials, then the others wouldn’t look twice. The snows had all but scrubbed the landscape clean, and it took him a short while to pick up the tracks of the scoia’tael band he was looking for. He found them tucked beneath a rocky outcrop, their camp a mishmash of tents, horses, and groundsheets. They could pack it all up at a moment’s notice and disappear into the forest.
He was met with suspicion upon arrival, a high number of delicate fingers twitching towards the hunting knives at their hips and the bows resting on the ground nearby, but a high, melodic voice greeted him from the open flap of a tent and the tension evaporated. Malena was young by Aen Seidhe standards, but she was still old enough to remember a time when Vesemir’s hair was the colour of a hare’s fur in summer, his face far less wrinkled. She placed a kiss upon his weathered cheek now and welcomed him in to share a pipe.
She already knew much of what he told her but listened politely. When he had finished speaking, she tucked a loose tendril of auburn hair behind her delicately pointed ear and stood. Vesemir watched her cross to the far side of her tent and crouch by a burlap sack. When she opened it, several old, dusty volumes spilt out onto the floor. Vesemir realised sadly that these were probably all that remained of a vast and impressive collection. Malena had lost everything many years ago. She was an expert on alleviating pain in all its forms.
“Here,” she said, placing the opened book in Vesemir’s lap. “You will need to experiment. But using the herbs from your potions, it may be possible to grow something strong enough to ease Eskel’s pain. I would recommend something he could smoke.”
“It would need to survive in the mountains. I don’t know where to start,” Vesemir confessed, his voice taut.
She hummed thoughtfully. “Ribleaf, Cortinarius and celandine. All grow in Morhen valley, all hardy. I would start with those.”
“They’re all so different.” Vesemir stared down at the book in his lap, brow knitted together. “What if none of it takes? What if they’re just incompatible?” He looked up abruptly as she laughed. It wasn’t cruel, but affectionate. She leaned down to stroke her nails across his bristled cheek and placed the softest kiss on chapped lips.
“I do believe they said that about us back in the day.”
Vesemir left the tent walking awkwardly and more than a little flushed.
Malena had been right about the experimentation. It took him months of study to work out how the damned herbs functioned, to understand the biology. As a young man, he would’ve absorbed the information like a sponge and had the solution by the end of the week, but now his mind was slowing, and his wits were clearly thin on the ground. More than once, he found himself wondering whether Lambert’s scientific brain would have better luck, but he always, perhaps selfishly, dismissed the thought. This was his task to complete.
It took a further few months of growing and cross-pollinating before the first green leaves of his new hybrid plant poked out of the manure-enriched soil to the east of the castle. The failed attempts before it but a distant memory the moment his eyes fell on those first tentative shoots. Vesemir nurtured his little seedling, returned to it almost hourly, afraid that some errant herbivore would trot along and snatch it up.
Before long, his seedling became a plant, with dark green, three-pronged leaves and tiny yellow flowers peeking from the stems. Not long after that, it had little seedlings of its own and Vesemir expanded his growing operation. Once he was certain his crop was strong enough, he harvested a little of the original plant, returning to the castle to dice and dry the leaves.
That evening he sat by the fire in the kitchen and packed his pipe full. A small voice in the back of his mind urged caution, but he had always been one to dive into things headfirst. That was one thing that hadn’t faded with age. He woke up eight hours later, face down on the table, with a ravenous appetite and a dull headache.
For the next experiment, he reduced the dose and mixed some of the leaves with his usual tobacco. The response proved a little less dramatic. He lounged back in his favourite armchair and stared at the low ceiling of the kitchen. It was late afternoon, and the sun was low enough to spill through the windows, and his addled brain split the light into a rainbow of colour. His entire body felt soft, his eyes a little heavy, and once or twice, he chuckled as his mind conjured odd images. Lambert with goats horns, Geralt with the body of a salmon leaping through the falls to the west of the keep, and Eskel as a young pup with huge, graceless paws.
He hadn’t needed to injure himself to test the pain relief. His entire carcass was held together by sheer force of will; aches and twinges were part of his every day. But even they faded into obscurity, and he was left feeling relaxed and pain-free. He’d done it. It was perfect.
Vesemir used his new mutant plant over the next few weeks to check for side effects. Other than clearing out the larder a little more swiftly than usual, he didn’t mark any chance his person. If anything, he slept far better after a brief smoke in the evenings than he ever had before.
Lambert arrived home first that winter. He took one inquisitive look at Vesemir, measuring how well and rested he looked, nostrils flaring at an unfamiliar scent, and headed straight down to the kitchens. His keen nose picked up that same smell amongst the herbs and, like a snuffling piglet in search of truffles, unearthed the source with a huff of amusement. “This is new.”
“It’s for Eskel,” Vesemir replied, “for his face.”
“Oh?” An eyebrow raised, Lambert lifted the dried plant leaves close to his face. “It’s part celandine; I can tell that much. Have you tested it?”
“Fuck,” Lambert sighed, exasperated, “c’mon then, light up the smoker and hand it over, grandpa.” He extended an open palm expectantly.
“What? I told you, it’s for Eskel, not for you to get your fuckin’ rocks off.”
“The first rule of science,” Lambert crooned, striding over to take Vesemir’s pipe from his back pocket, “you run multiple tests, identify anomalous results, flukes, iron out the kinks.” He tapped out the remnants of Vesemir’s last smoke and packed the end full. “Although thinkin’ about your kinks is making me feel sick, so let’s stop that line of thought right there.”
“Ass,” Vesemir growled. He couldn’t argue with the rationale though and watched as Lambert invited himself to the armchair by the fire. “Don’t huff in too much. Take it slow.”
“Might surprise you to know that this isn’t the first time I’ve smoked a suspect plant from an old man’s pipe,” Lambert grumbled, pipe sat in the corner of his mouth between his teeth. He slid a mischievous sideways glance at Vesemir to watch him mull over which part of Lambert’s previous statement he wanted to berate the most. When Vesemir failed to rise to the bait, Lambert continued. “Besides, this is for Eskel; we have to get it right, don’t we?”
“We do,” Vesemir’s eyes softened. Lambert, their problem child, had a soft spot the size of the Great Sea for Eskel. “I’ll put some food on.”
Vesemir toiled about the kitchen as Lambert puffed away by the fire. The boots and jacket came off eventually, and Lambert left both discarded haphazardly on the floor. He tilted his head back and blew perfect white rings of smoke towards the ceiling, and Vesemir watched as his entire body slumped down into the chair. “This,” Lambert slurred after about half an hour, “is good shit.”
“High praise,” Vesemir left the requested crumble baking and brought over some bread, cold meat, and a flagon of ale. Lambert was too busy staring at him with wide, owlish eyes to notice the offering.
“Has anyone ever told you,” he leaned forward, brandishing the pipe like a professor with a baton, “that you…” His attention wandered off to the left.
“That I’m what?”
“What?” Those big eyes snapped back.
“That I’m what?”
“Hurr, what… waaaahhh-at,” Lambert chuckled, and fell back in the chair, more smoke billowing from flared nostrils. “Such a funny fuckin’ word.”
Vesemir tried to subdue the smile that threatened to spill across his face. Lambert didn’t like it when Vesemir smiled at him because he always thought it was patronising. “You hungry?”
“Aren’t we all?” Lambert asked, airily. “Just hungry. All the time. For food, for knowledge…” he trailed off, apparently losing his thread of thought, and then came back abruptly, “...for tits.” Another low, chipmunk-esque chuckle. “Do you know who has good tits?”
Vesemir knew a trap when he heard and saw one and kept his mouth firmly closed.
Lambert leaned forward, suddenly looking very serious. “Eskel,” he propped the pipe in his teeth, lifted both hands, and proceeded to sculpt these hypothetical tits in the air, “like… they’re like this…”
“Oh, Melitele wept,” Vesemir dumped the food and the ale on the narrow table by the fire. He returned to rustling through herb boxes while Lambert continued to oscillate between wildly philosophical and downright crude. The crumble finished cooking, but Lambert was too far gone to coordinate his hand with a spoon, and didn’t protest as Vesemir removed the pipe. “That’s enough.”
“I’m never… enough,” Lambert blurted, before hiccuping. He’d knocked back his ale too quickly. When Vesemir looked up from the plate and cutlery he was gathering from the floor, Lambert’s eyes were glistening. Oh no. He was not equipped to deal with an emotional Lambert. “Like… fifth best.”
“Geralt,” Lambert’s hand started above his head, dipping a little lower with each consecutive name, “Eskel, Roach, Scorpion, Lil’ Bleater,” he sniffed, palm near the floor, “me.”
“That was sixth.”
“You see! I can’t even fuckin’ count.”
“Oh, son,” Vesemir frowned, abandoning the plates, “now, come on, there’s no need for unpleasantness.” He reached out to draw Lambert to his chest as he had done to so many young boys in the past; a little embrace, with a light pat on the back. Nothing improper or overly involved.
Unfortunately for Vesemir, he’d fallen right into the trap, or rather, Lambert decided it was a trap because he couldn't possibly acknowledge what he had actually meant. Lambert wrapped around his shoulders, leaned forward, and licked a long, wet stripe up the side of Vesemir’s face. Vesemir blanched and growled, rubbing at his cheek with his shirt sleeve, as Lambert sprang from the chair. “Least I’m not fuckin’ seventh,” he crowed, two middle fingers proffered in Vesemir’s direction, “fuck you very much, I’m off for a piss.”
Vesemir found him asleep just outside the privy door twenty minutes later. He’d managed to get his trousers up, at least. Vesemir carried him up to his room, dressed him in his nightshirt, and tucked him up in bed. They didn’t make eye contact the following morning, but Lambert did happen to give his blessing to Vesemir’s product. It worked a treat.
Eskel arrived next.
Or what was left of him.
He was gaunter than the year before, and Lambert helped him in with his bags. Once Scorpion was settled, happily munching his way through a bucket of oats, Eskel finally allowed himself to be steered into the kitchen. He slumped into the armchair and Lambert knelt to yank his boots off while Vesemir pushed a bowl of meat and potatoes into his hands. “Rough year?” he asked, weathered face warped with concern.
“The worst,” Eskel picked up the spoon and then hesitated. His stomach was rumbling loudly, but he wouldn’t take a single bite until the others turned their back. Lambert grumbled as he stood, taking Eskel’s boots with him to the other end of the kitchen. They left him to work his way through the meal, fighting the overwhelming urge to assist. Lambert kept glancing over his shoulder, catching glimpses of the pain etched on Eskel’s face, and he was the first to reach for the pipe.
“Don’t force it,” Vesemir murmured.
“Force what?” Eskel asked, his spoon clattering into the empty bowl. He wiped at his lips and chin carefully with the cloth Vesemir had left politely on the arm of the chair, cleaning away the worst of his struggle.
“The old man made you something to take the edge off.” Lambert swaggered over, doing his best to appear his usual nonchalant self, and tapped the side of his own face with the stem of the pipe. “It works real well. We’ve both tested it.” He reached for one of Eskel’s big hands and cradled it in his palm for a moment before closing his fingers around the pipe. “It’s better than the fisstech.”
Eskel tensed, throat bobbing as he swallowed, eyes wide. His gaze snapped to Vesemir first, who did his level best to make eye contact, and then up to Lambert, who stared down at him. “I tried to be discreet.”
“Yeah, well,” Lambert dragged one of the rickety, wooden chairs over from the centre table and sat on it backwards, his chin resting on folded forearms. “No shame in trying to make it hurt less, big guy. But at least with that,” he nodded to the pipe again, “you won’t have to hide away in your room, or deal with nausea after, or have a massive drop, or - .”
“Alright, I get it,” Eskel growled. “What’s in it?”
“Just a herb I’m growing outside,” Vesemir wiped his hands down the apron tied at his waist. “I promise you, son. It’s nothing dangerous.”
Lambert huffed. “He’s been buying his powder off Whoreson’s dealers; I think his delicate constitution can take it.”
Vesemir closed his eyes with a sigh, partly out of cowardice. Eskel looked wounded and Vesemir had never been good at enduring such an expression on Eskel's face. Not when they’d dragged Geralt away for extra experiments, not when Vesemir scolded him for poor behaviour, and not now when the brutal honesty of Lambert’s comment bit into his pride. Lambert’s harshness was born out of the very same feeling of helplessness that had driven Vesemir to his little project in the first place. He hadn’t been the only one to watch Eskel suffer and yearn for a solution. Perhaps he had been cruel, rather than simply selfish, for not involving Lambert sooner.
“You’re right,” Eskel croaked, finally. He lit the pipe contents with a flick of igni and leaned back in the chair for the first few puffs. Even without Lambert’s pressure, Eskel probably would have given it a go. Chronic pain made a man open to any solution. “Celandine?”
“Partly,” Vesemir conceded. “Has yellow flowers like it.”
Eskel hummed, gaze drifting to the fire as smoke billowed intermittently out of his nose. A brooding dragon sequestered in an armchair. Vesemir dragged Lambert away with a light tap on the elbow, and they once again busied themselves with menial chores at the far end of the kitchen. Eskel needed space. As they stacked up the clean plates and flagons, Vesemir finally gave in to the nagging desire to observe the outcome of his efforts. Months of work, of hope, boiled down to this moment.
He wasn’t disappointed. Eskel’s eyes were closed, his brow smooth. Only now did Vesemir realise that his eldest son had worn a permanent scowl the past two winters. Not of anger, but of pain. The crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes had softened out, his shoulders slumped, with his head tilted into the wing of the armchair. Vesemir didn’t stop Lambert as he left his post at the drying rack and wandered back to the fire. He knelt at Eskel’s bare feet. “Hey, big guy, still with us?”
“Mmm,” Eskel rumbled, regarding Lambert with amused interest.
“What?” Lambert’s lips quirked in a little smirk.
“I like your mouth.”
“You like my mouth.”
“Mmhm,” Eskel puffed more smoke through his nose. “Lips.”
“Is this your way of asking me for a smooch?” Lambert tried to keep his voice level. It would be the first bit of intimacy they’d shared in years. Eskel hadn’t allowed anyone to touch him since his face had been cut up. The reasons behind it were too complicated and tightly wound to examine with any brevity.
“Is-s-s-s it workin’?”
“Not the worst pick up line I’ve ever had,” Lambert touched Eskel’s hand again, fingers following the grooves of the bones that protruded out the back. Fisstech was expensive, and so was food. And eating hurt. It was heartbreaking to see Eskel reduced to this, but at least now he wasn’t grimacing.
“I’m charming usually,” Eskel said airily. “Dames can’t get enough of,” he gestured at his general chest area, avoiding his face even in his current state, “all this.”
“Yeah, a nice bloke like you, gets loadsa’ tail, I bet.”
“In a mask,” Eskel closed his eyes and yawned into his knuckles, “you know, so they can’t see the mess.”
“Their loss,” Lambert said, swallowing the lump in his throat. Vesemir lingered at the edge of his vision, but Lambert ignored him. “Feel good? Not gonna’ throw up on me.”
“Don’t think so,” Eskel pulled the pipe from his mouth and smiled. Vesemir saw it and his heart damn near burst from his chest. It was such a small gesture, faint and tentative, but it didn’t fold into a grimace. “If you’re not interested, I can always… go back to that pretty scoia'tael camping a couple of miles down the trail, but,” Eskel leaned close to Lambert and continued in a stage whisper, “I think she’s hot for Vesemir.”
“That is so fuckin’ gross,” Lambert whispered back, and then their lips were meeting. It was chaste, tentative, perhaps a little bit sloppy because Eskel hadn’t practised with the new shape of his mouth yet, but it knocked the breath from Lambert’s chest all the same. He could feel the rough groove in Eskel’s upper lip, with the uneven scars that he’d never touched before and taste the residue of the smoke on his tongue as it slipped briefly into his mouth. Then Eskel drew away, their foreheads resting together. Two pairs of amber eyes met; one set glistening with barely contained tears, while the other swam in hazy bliss. When Eskel slumped back in the chair, parting with a final bump of noses, the smile was still there, and Lambert stood on shaky legs. When he returned to Vesemir, his stare was intense. “We need to refine it,” he said, “so he can take it during the day, too.”
“Can’t be high on the Path,” Vesemir replied, his attention still on Eskel, “but we can try.”
“And what? Letting him spend every spare coin on Fisstech is better? You don’t think he isn’t already debating whether he can tackle minor contracts after a little bit of a snort?”
When Lambert got it in his head to do something, there was no point arguing. It was best to leave him to succeed or fail under his own steam. Only once he’d exhausted every angle, tested every approach, would he admit defeat. The lad was high in a different way. It was the first kiss he’d shared with the man he loved in three winters. Vesemir couldn’t take everything he felt away with cold truth. Not now.
“Course not,” Vesemir rubbed a hand over his eyes. “You can take a look at my notes tomorrow.”
“I’ve seen your notes. A semi-literate troll could make better records,” Lambert huffed. “Give me the seeds. The plants. Whatever research you got your hands on. I’ll take it from here.”
It was a control thing, Vesemir could see that clear as day. The boy had learned everything he knew about alchemy from notes scribbled by a similar hand. Rather than challenge it, Vesemir nodded and poured them some drinks.
Later, Lambert helped Eskel up to bed, accepting more kisses and nuzzles with the fervent greed of a man starved of all affection. Vesemir let them sleep in the following morning, but he drew the line at carrying breakfast upstairs like a particularly grizzly serving maid. They stumbled down around lunchtime. Lambert looked ruffled, but, more importantly, Eskel looked less hollow. Lambert grabbed his food, heading straight for the stillroom, and Vesemir sorted through the larder while Eskel ate.
That winter was better. Geralt arrived several days later, and he was immediately corralled into sampling the new product too. Vesemir stumbled over all three of them in the Grand Hall, high as kites, staring at the ceiling in absent wonder as if it were dotted with stars. Not the exact outcome he’d hoped for, but one he definitely should have expected.
Vesemir had no idea whether Lambert would be successful. He’d reached the very limits of his capabilities by designing the damn plant in the first place. Innovation was the business of young men. When Eskel headed out onto the Path in the spring, he was plumper, well-rested and some of the ghosts behind his eyes had vanished. The majority of unpleasantness that came with such a heavy reliance on narcotics had been weathered buried under a pile of furs in Lambert’s arms. A dash of white honey, a witcher’s metabolism, and toxicity experience dealt with the rest.
A few months later, Vesemir’s attention was requested by a pointedly cleared throat behind him. He turned to be greeted by a rather shifty looking Aen Seidhe. “Can I help you?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Word in camp is that you have a skill with,” the elf’s gaze flickered to and fro nervously, “botany.”
“A skill with botany,” Vesemir repeated, dryly.
“Yes. With… specific… botany.”
“Son,” Vesemir planted his hands on his hips, “speak plainly. I’m too old for subterfuge.”
The elf’s shoulders slumped, and he motioned Vesemir closer, voice dropping low. “Lambert told us you grow a special type of plant. The high’s amazing. We’re willing to pay.”
Vesemir rolled his eyes. Lambert. Of course, he did. The lad had a nose for nefarious business. Then Vesemir considered the lightness of the purse in his pocket, the scarcity of contracts this far north, and how thinly the funds the boys had left behind spread. “I don’t accept squirrel tails,” he said, finally.
“Course not,” the elf smiled crookedly, “cold hard cash. The currency of your choice.”
Vesemir collected the wrapped parcels from the counter, left the right coin, and headed outside to discuss his new friend’s business proposition. He never envisioned becoming a drug dealer in his old age, but very little surprised him these days.