For Jaskier, there were a lot of down sides to working the night shift at the song-healer's tent, including the last call buffoons who had to be rolled in, puke still fresh on their breath. And then there were the drunken brawlers who needed Jaskier's song-healing for their torn knuckles and black eyes while they puffed their ale-soaked curses at him for keep them from having another go at their adversary.
But on a lucky night, the upside to the night shift would come lurching in, usually bleeding his way right up to Jaskier's cubby. Jaskier's semi-regular caller, the big, hulking beast hunter with a black cloak pulled up over his unusual-colored eyes made an appearance with troubling regularity. This was the fellow who usually had a chunk or two missing from his hide and a distressing way of waving off any need for Jaskier's best pain-easing tunes. No, he wanted only Jaskier's fastest healing songs and a quick hand-stitching before heading out again with no more explanation than "It's dangerous out there in the woods."
"Come on, you great lummox," Jaskier said, directing the hunter's stumble toward the nearest cot. Jaskier waved off Trilla, who shared the night shift with him, and pulled the curtain around the bed, knowing his ox preferred privacy.
"You know, you never did tell me your name," Jaskier said as he eased off the man's cloak. "'Twould make it easier for my record-keeping."
The man grunted something.
"That quite literally sounded like 'Growl.' Is your name Growl?" It would be amusing if the beast hunter's name was Growl.
The man huffed a laugh. "Geralt. My name's Geralt."
"Geralt. Well, it's an improvement over Growl, anyway. Let's see what we've got, here."
"Be careful of the venom."
He helped Geralt remove his armor and shirt so Jaskier could get at his wound, an ugly, jagged thing beneath his right shoulder blade. The edges were seamed in a poisonous yellow color, decidedly not the color of pus.
"Is that what this yellow stuff is? Which beast was it this time?"
"Don't let it touch your skin," Geralt warned. "It's the venom of a basilisk. I ran out of the potion to combat it. Just...clean it and I should be able to fight it off. Eventually."
"Eventually," Jaskier said doubtfully. "You will eventually be able to fight off a deadly venom. As one does."
Geralt chuckled, a deep rumble that resonated against Jaskier's palm. What a singer he'd make if his voice didn't sound like gravel. "Maybe you know a good cleansing tune."
"I do at that." Jaskier put on a pair of magicked clean gloves and set himself to washing the wound. Geralt's back was like iron beneath his hands, but he let out not a peep. Jaskier's mind drifted back to their first encounter, when the hooded man first entered his tent and growled for a song-healer, making Trilla squeak, "No weapons allowed in the healer's tent!"
Jaskier rushed forward to mediate the situation, and Trilla made herself scarce. Jaskier felt nothing but intrigue for the man's white hair and golden eyes, and allowed him to keep his swords as long as he set them under the treatment cot. Since then, Geralt had only ever asked for Jaskier and never suffered anyone else to touch him. Jaskier would feel quite proud if it didn't mean the man walking in and bleeding on him every few weeks. Honestly.
"And what were you doing messing with a basilisk?"
"You know it's my job." Geralt's husky voice sounded tired.
"Hmmph. Not much of a job, if you ask me."
"Hey, now. I'm the one who has to mop up your blood on a regular basis. I think I have a right to an opinion."
"You do, somewhat." Geralt turned his head and flashed a grin. His teeth seemed extraordinarily sharp. Another piece of information to add to his file. "But I only come to you for the wounds I can't reach. I mop up the rest myself."
Jaskier swallowed. "But that means...oh, Geralt."
"I do prefer your healing to my own." Geralt shrugged awkwardly, and Jaskier hastened to go back to work. He dusted in some powdered herbs to prevent infection, then pressed the bottom of the wound together and began to sing the healing song. This was one of his own, and had harmonic undertones of cleanliness and health. Unlike with most patients, the healing process was immediately visible. There was a reason why Geralt was his favorite. Jaskier's voice strengthened as he reached the most difficult point, bringing the top layers of skin together smoothly, and he held his voice as evenly as he wished the wound to heal, no scarring, no puckering. The gash sealed, and Jaskier held the final note, fading into a sigh.
"There you go," Jaskier said, giving his shoulder a pat. "You're as good as new."
Geralt barked his rusty laugh. "The wound, at least. Well done, Singer; thank you," he said, his tone admiring, and Jaskier flushed a little at the praise. Geralt stood and put on his gear and cloak. "How much?"
"The usual. Minus pain-ease." Jaskier shook his head.
"Don't need it."
"There's 'need' and then there's 'why not?'"
Geralt fished in his purse and handed him his fee, his lips twitching a little as he said. "Singer, if you knew how I became what I am, you wouldn't bother asking."
With that clue let slip, Geralt picked up his swords and strode out.
It was a long moon before Jaskier saw Geralt again. Many a night passed of drunken brawls and Jaskier and the other healers singing closed split noggins and cracked knuckles, birthing midnight babes, and once, comforting a widow after her husband's heart failed in the early morn.
In the nonce, Jaskier worked on his studies and mulled over the puzzle of Geralt, trying to imagine what would turn a man into a golden-eyed, taciturn hulk. A spell of some kind? Some unsanctioned sorcerers were known to experiment on humans, although if discovered, they were punished swiftly by the Brotherhood. It was enough to make Jaskier wonder and worry a little. Was Geralt still bound by the spell that made him? Was he a waiflike prince beneath the disguise?
A few days later, Jaskier thought he'd get a chance at an answer when the dark, bellicose figure limped in just after the start of shift leaving a trail of blood behind him.
"Geralt! Sit down before you bleed out."
"Echinops spines in...back of my thigh." Geralt collapsed face first on the cot beside him. "They're digging in real deep."
"Gods, man, are those knife wounds?"
"Yeah. Tried to...cut 'em out."
"By yourself?" Jaskier rushed to slice open his pants, ignoring Geralt's curses in favor of expediency. The spines were squirming deeper by the moment, and had already compromised the big artery in his thigh. "Did you take one of your healing potions, at least?"
Geralt grunted a weak affirmative. He appeared to be fading fast.
"Trilla! Get over here. I need you to sop away the blood."
Trilla opened the curtain and pulled back abruptly. "I don't know, Master Jaskier; ain't that the Witcher?"
"That's the Witcher what comes in every so often and you help him, but I won't have anything to do with him."
Jaskier stared at the apprentice in disbelief. "He's a patient! You'll treat him like any other."
"No, sir. I don't think so."
"Leave it, Jaskier," Geralt said wearily. "I can sop my own blood." He grabbed the cloth from Jaskier's hand and pressed it to the back of his thigh by contorting himself.
"Ridiculous," Jaskier said, but Trilla was already gone. "Fine. Just...let me get prepped with some surgery tools and I'll tell you when to lift the rag."
"Uh-huh." Geralt sounded half-gone to unconsciousness. Jaskier worked fast, singing a song under his breath to clean the tools and spell a pan of water, then bringing the tray over beside Geralt's cot.
"Ready. Remove the rag," Jaskier said, and when Geralt moved his hand, Jaskier was waiting with a small forceps tool to spread the wound so he could reach in and try to grab the quills. This was only his second time dealing with echinops spine fragments, and he'd forgotten how lifelike they were as they squirmed away deeper into the wound. He managed to grab one right away, however, and tossed it into the spelled water pan, where it fell quiescent.
"One down, two to go," he said, and Geralt grunted. Jaskier grabbed the rag from his limp hand and soaked up some more blood so he could see clearer, and twisted the clamp open a little further.
Geralt made a pained noise, the first Jaskier ever heard him make, and he instinctively sang a quick trilling run of pain-soothing magic. It took some of Jaskier's strength, but Geralt immediately relaxed. More importantly, the edge of the second quill appeared when Geralt's thigh muscle went loose, and Jaskier plucked it out before it could disappear once again. He dropped it into the water pan with a sigh of relief.
"One more left." The final quill proved to be evil. It had already dug its way below the surface and there was movement upward toward Geralt's groin. It was only by dint of chanting a combined sleep spell with an anti-parasitic that Jaskier dimly remembered from some bit of arcana—they didn't get many parasites in the woods, for Melitele's sake—that he managed to trap the quill and extract it with a final cut.
Geralt shivered when it left him, as if he'd been under another kind of spell, and sure enough, the blood stopped flowing so freely from his thigh. Jaskier cleaned the wounds before they sealed up; he'd seen miraculous healing as a result of Geralt's potions and he didn't want to leave any foreign matter behind.
With a last calming chant for good clean healing, Jaskier applied some honey-soaked bandages and then bound up the wounds and removed the tray of quills to be disposed of with other dangerous waste.
"You should be good," he said, and Geralt grunted, propping himself up on one elbow.
"Many thanks, Singer. You are immensely skilled. Except, it seems, my lower half is asleep." There was humor in his tone.
"Oh. Oh, dear." Jaskier returned and poked his thigh. "You don't feel that?"
"Not even a little bit." Geralt didn't sound particularly distressed. "I assume the feeling will return? And soon?" The implied threat was good humored. Jaskier wasn't sure how Geralt intended to make good on it, but he didn't doubt the man was more of a danger without his legs than Jaskier was with two hale ones.
"Of course. My sleep spells are only temporary." And usually only localized, although, when Jaskier was distressed, his magic had a tendency to go a little strong. "I apologize, Geralt."
Geralt brushed his concern aside. "It's no matter. If you tell me what I owe you, we can settle accounts, and you can move on to other patients."
Jaskier shook his head. "Well, as you can see, it's quiet. There are no other patients at present. And after expending so much energy, I need rest, too. Would you like some water? Or a bracing tea, perhaps?"
"I wouldn't say no to tea." Geralt rested his chin on his fist. "Although how I would drink it..."
"We'll cross that bridge when the tea is steeped." Jaskier filled the pot and started to set himself to sing it hot. He was a bit exhausted and paused to gather his energies. But a moment later there was a flash, and the pot grew steaming hot. Jaskier looked up in surprise.
"Did you just...?"
Geralt shrugged. "I have a touch of magic. Nothing so useful as what you can do. You have a great deal of power."
Jaskier fought a blush. "Well, I'd say hot tea is very useful at the moment." He dropped the tea in the pot and set the cups next to it. "Let's get you sitting properly."
It was a struggle. Geralt was heavier than he looked, which Jaskier had reason to discover on more than one occasion, but never with the lower half of the patient's body a completely dead weight. Finally, with much hugging and a fair amount of tugging, he had Geralt seated against a tall pillow, the two of them sweaty and red and avoiding eye contact.
Jaskier could understand his own embarrassment, but Geralt had nothing to be worried about. He was a fine make of man. Jaskier turned away and poured the tea, wishing he had a bucket of ice to stick his head in.
"Do you prefer honey?"
"No." Geralt's seemed even gruffer than before, and Jaskier smiled as he turned back and offered him the cup.
"No, you're sweet enough as you are, I suppose."
Geralt blinked and frowned. "Very amusing."
"I wasn't...never mind." Jaskier knew better than to flirt with a patient. He sipped his tea and honey, easing his sore throat. "Tell me, what did Trilla mean when she said you were a 'Witcher'? Is that your profession?"
Frown deepening, Geralt looked away. "It's both what I do and what I am. I'm not human."
So much for Jaskier's enchanted knight. "Well, obviously not a simple human. You're much more; I've seen that."
Geralt's head turned so quickly it looked painful. He stared at Jaskier for a long moment. "Hmm," he intoned, and his lips quirked briefly. He sipped his tea, his expression looking lighter.
A soft knock interrupted them.
"Sir," it was Trilla. "Sir, can you please..."
Jaskier shoved the curtain aside. "What is it?"
"I need the speculum, sir. Miss Harrell's come in again with her condition."
"Well, come and get it then. You don't need my permission."
"I'd prefer if you got it for me, sir."
Jaskier stared at her. She frowned and looked away.
"You know, you won't make it very far in this profession with such prejudice, Trilla."
Trilla ducked her head and whispered, "He ain't human."
Jaskier's blood boiled. He spun and reached past the curtain to locate the speculum and dropped it in her hand. Before she could turn away, he hissed. "And who are you to decide what is and what isn't?"
She trotted off looking red as a beet, and Jaskier felt guilty for traumatizing his apprentice. But the profession was a hard one, and she wouldn't last very long at all trying to pick and choose among her patients.
Jaskier took a deep breath and pushed back the curtain. Geralt appeared to be asleep; he'd relaxed onto the pillow with his head thrown back. His jawline was an absolute wonder to behold.
Jaskier swallowed and picked up Geralt's empty teacup and set it on the tray. At the noise, Geralt's eyes cracked opened.
"Sorry. Just tidying up," Jaskier said.
"I was expecting villagers with pitchforks," Geralt said, his tone amused.
"Ah. Sorry about that. I thought perhaps you missed it."
"There isn't much I miss. I wouldn't be alive, otherwise." Geralt stretched a little. "Thanks for your words to her." He shrugged a little. "Even if you don't know what a Witcher is, I appreciate your good will." He gave Jaskier a quick smile.
"That's why you ask for me, isn't it? Because I don't know what a Witcher is," Jaskier said. "And here I thought it was my powerful good looks."
"How do you know it isn't?" Geralt's smile was less brief this time, and a little more sly.
"Ah, I wish it were so. I think you just like me for my ignorance."
"And yet here you still haven't run screaming." Geralt's tone was deadpan, but something in his eyes had Jaskier pinned.
"No, I haven't, at that."
"But no; I first came here because my friend Triss told me you were the best in your cohort."
Jaskier burst into a grin, his face going warm at the compliment. "Oh, Triss! How is she? She was my favorite teacher." He was babbling.
"She's doing well. She has a new position as king's advisor."
"Splendid for her." Jaskier finished the dregs of his tea and poured another cup for them each, handing Geralt's over. "How do your legs feel?"
Geralt shifted and grunted. "Like logs of wood."
"I'm so sorry, Geralt. I really overshot the mark. But I had to quell that last spine. It was trying to worm it's way—"
"I know. I felt it moving." Geralt grimaced. "You saved my life, Jaskier. There's no need to apologize."
Jaskier nodded, his face still warm. "All right. Then I won't." He picked up his bag of dried chamomile and set to separating the bud tops and putting them in a jar. "So...in the last eight months, you've come to me with a basilisk bite, had your kneecap near torn off by a garkain, oh, and there was the thing with the kikimora—"
"I wasn't expect two. Warriors don't usually share a territory."
"I can imagine why not. Hunting these creatures for sport, are we?"
"It's my job." Geralt stared at him over the rim of his mug, eyes disconcertingly keen.
"Your job." Jaskier shook his head. "It's a living, I suppose. A dangerous one, though."
Geralt glared at this and tried to sit up, then gritted his teeth in a silent snarl.
"What? Did I miss an injury?"
"Just my ribs. Nothing to be done."
"You might have mentioned before I started manhandling you!" Jaskier said, distressed at the thought of causing his patient unnecessary pain.
Geralt looked down. "Witchers don't feel pain like humans."
"What? What utter hogwash!" Jaskier stared in disbelief. Geralt still wouldn't meet his eyes. "Geralt, I've treated you and I've treated humans. And I've bloody well caused pain to all my patients, so I well know you feel pain just the same. No matter how much you mask it—which, by the way, is complete shit to do to a healer. I can't very well heal you if I don't know there's a problem." Jaskier finished his rant when he ran out of breath.
Geralt had the oddest expression on his face. "I'll try to let you know, next time."
"Next time, he says. Thank you very much." Jaskier sighed. "Tell me, did you always want to be a monster hunter? Or did you perhaps ever consider a profession where you weren't risking getting torn limb from limb?"
"I'm a Witcher," Geralt growled. "It's what I am. It's what I do."
"You said that before, but I didn't realize you meant...are you saying there are more of you, and you all hunt monsters?"
"Yes! Where did you grow up that you haven't heard of Witchers?" Geralt shifted awkwardly, and Jaskier put down his bag of chamomile to adjust his pillow. Geralt grunted in thanks.
"I had a heart illness growing up." Jaskier sat back down and focused hard on yanking buds. The smell of chamomile was familiar and also somewhat nauseating. "My parents didn't think I would survive it and kept me isolated at home. I wasn't allowed to meet other children. My whole world was music and my parents' library and books. I don't recall reading about any Witchers."
"No, we aren't immortalized in song or tales," Geralt said, sounding amused. "You seem hale and hearty enough to me now." His glance was admiring, and Jaskier felt himself blush.
"Yes, because when I was eighteen and old enough to demand it, a song-healer was brought in to try a risky healing of my heart. I would either survive it healed, or I would die. You see the result." Jaskier tapped his chest. He loved his strong body and didn't at all mourn the days when he felt lucky to get out of bed in the morning.
"I thought so, too," Jaskier said. "Which was why, as soon as I was healthy enough, I left home to apprentice at the Song-Healer's College at Oxenfurt."
Geralt grunted in approval. Jaskier supposed telling a patient his life story was even worse than flirting, but there was something about Geralt's golden attentiveness that was very compelling.
"You did well following in your healer's footsteps," Geralt said.
Jaskier was briefly overwhelmed with pride. "But enough about me," he sidestepped. "You were telling me why you became a Witcher."
The golden eyes shuttered closed for a moment, and then narrowed to a gleam. "There wasn't much choice involved, Singer."
Jaskier winced. "How did it happen?"
Geralt's mouth formed a grim line. "I was abandoned by my mother in the hands of the mages who changed me into this. A score of boys went through the training and changes. Only three survived in my year. Then we were given our medallions—" Geralt touched the pendant on his chest. Jaskier had never seen him without it. "—and we were sent out onto the Path to fight monsters. It is what we do."
"Ah." Jaskier was afraid if he said more, it would be needlessly unkind. Geralt, no doubt, was aware of the cruelty of his own situation. "I've noticed that medallion before. It seems to vibrate when I sing."
Geralt lips lifted in the ghost of a smile. "It warns me of magic. I'm lucky I'm able to accept your healing. Most magic doesn't work on me. My body resists it."
"There's a mental component to letting me heal you?" It might explain a lot about their early interactions.
"Yes. I suppose." Geralt's brow twisted. "If I let myself...succumb."
Jaskier suppressed a shiver at the imagery. "Well, thank goodness for that," he said briskly, and started tearing chamomile afresh, perhaps a bit violently. He heard a low rumble that he identified as Geralt's laugh and shivered again. Damn the man. Didn't he know he was recuperating from a very serious wound?
"How are your legs?" Jaskier asked.
"They tingle as if waking from sleep."
"A good sign."
"Let me help you with that," Geralt said. "I need something to pass the time."
Jaskier pulled a bundle of chamomile from the bag and passed it over. This wasn't the first time Geralt had helped him with his healing herbs. He'd proved to be quite apt at herbology. They passed the time in their task, fingers occasionally brushing as they sought to drop buds in the jar at the same time. It was a familiar thing, working in silence with Geralt as he waited to gain enough strength to leave. Jaskier realized he would miss it.
"Oh, Geralt. I'm sorry to say I'll be starting my journey round next week. For the next season or so, I'll be traveling to remote villages that are not near any healer's tents."
"Ah." A world of disappointment was in that single syllable. "I will miss you, Singer."
Jaskier basked in the warmth for a moment. "I'm sure one of the other healers will take good care of you."
"Geralt, you will visit another Singer if you get injured?"
Jaskier sighed. "I'm not the only healer in the world."
"But you are the only one who hasn't run screaming when they see me," Geralt said, a smile parting his lips to show his gleaming canines. "I'll be fine, Jaskier. I'm more concerned about you. Who are you traveling with? Have you ever been on the road before? It is dangerous out there."
"You mean there are monsters?" Jaskier said lightly. To be fair, he was a bit apprehensive. Monsters weren't his favorite thing, from what he'd seen of their effects, at least.
"Monsters are the least of your worries," Geralt said. "There are road bandits, and those who just like to do harmful mischief. And then there's the mages looking for blood fodder."
"You're scaring me, Geralt. That's not sporting. This is my first round."
"Good. I want to scare you. I want you to be careful. Who are you traveling with?"
"With? Just my horse, I suppose."
Geralt glared. "You will not. Show me your plans."
"Hey, now. I'm perfectly capable of navigating the big, wide world on my lonesome, Geralt."
"Are you." Geralt dropped the last of his chamomile into the jar and brushed off his hands. "How did you travel here from Oxenfurt?"
"In a carriage," Jaskier conceded. "But I had a lot of gear—"
"And how did you travel from your home to Oxenfurt?"
"All right. Point taken, you big oaf."
"Hmm." Geralt shrugged uncomfortably. "Uh, what if I were to join you on the first leg of your journey? Show you how it's done?"
"That's...a very generous offer. And not a terrible idea." Jaskier licked his lips. "I can't afford to pay—"
"No coin need cross hands. I have my Path, and apparently you have yours. Let's compare our maps and see if any of our territories overlap."
"Huh. Not bad. That might work." Jaskier went to his bag and pulled out the map the Commissioner of Healers had given him. His route was marked clearly, and the various towns where he would stop on his way and administer his services. He brought it back and pulled his chair in close to Geralt's cot.
Geralt leaned close, his shoulder warm and solid against Jaskier. Jaskier swallowed hard as he pointed out his route.
"Well, that's easy," Geralt said. "My Path often takes me through Brokilon to Sodden as well. But I wouldn't recommend you going it alone."
"There are small villages outside of Brugge I must tend do."
"Then let me join you. I will see if they have any beasts besetting them along with the usual aches and ills." Geralt gave him a hopeful look, then frowned in concern. "Jaskier, you really shouldn't—"
"Yes. Let's do it." Jaskier smiled. "I'd be grateful for your company, actually."
"Well, good. To new beginnings, then," Geralt said. He took Jaskier's hand in his broad one, a real smile lighting his stern face.
"To new beginnings." Jaskier met him for smiles, letting his own linger a little too long.
And if Jaskier's secret agenda included keeping Geralt from bleeding to death on this Path of his, well, that was no one's business but his own.
January 31, 2021
San Francisco, CA