In the soft warmth of the newly welcomed spring of 1244, Geralt of Rivia rides his horse though a truly idyllic part of the Redanian countryside and sneezes.
It's a quiet area. He's pretty sure that the signposts were in the right spot, putting him in the lands of Lettenhove, probably, and it's a very standard kind of place for Redania. Rolling hills, quiet meadows, burbling streams, all of that- plus the one damn pollen that the mutagens never burned out his allergies to. Usually he wouldn't pass anywhere near a place this quiet, but he's meeting with Eskel in two months on de Damavire lands a couple fiefs over, so he's going to try and scare up a contract or two while he waits.
He sneezes again, growling in irritation. Roach huffs, as if amused, and he makes a face at her over her head. She ignores him, and they follow the road into a small, wooded area. Through the trees he can see what must be the house of the de Lettenhove’s, a solid castle of a rather larger size than he’d expect for a viscount. It’s squat and sturdy, made of a lighter colored stone and situated up on a ridge. Curiously, there are no flags flying from it.
The sneezing subsides some as he reaches the trees, confirming once again that it’s probably a grass that he’s allergic to. The forest is quiet and pleasant, the trees a mix of aspen and oaks, and the sunlight filters down pleasantly through them.
He’s having a thoroughly pleasant afternoon, for all that he’s tired and really could use some food that people haven’t spit in, and thus is more than a little startled when a shout comes through the trees.
The girl that runs to meet him is young, maybe 14 at the most, with bouncing brown curls and the kind of face that has definitely already started to break hearts. She runs up to him without a bit of fear, basket of acorns in her hands, and skids to a halt next to Roach.
Geralt raises an eyebrow and pulls Roach to a halt. “What?”
“Are you a Witcher?” She asks, eyes wide. “You have two swords, and you look like one, I mean, so…”
He nods, a bit reluctant. “I am.”
The girl, to his shock, beams at him. “Melitele be praised, we have been praying for a Witcher to come! Please, will you follow me? We need help.”
Now that's new.
“You’re sure?” he asks cautiously.
“I’m sure,” she says seriously. “I’m Melita. Will you come?”
He looks down at her and the determined expression on her face. Well, why not? It's not like he's doing anything today. If it’s a trap he’ll just have to run for it.
“Alright,” he says, and Melita takes off with a trot down the road.
Lettenhove’s township is a clean, prosperous place, and just as idyllic in look as the rest of the countryside. There is no sickness to be seen, the city streets are well kept up, the shops all seem to be well off. The people are dressed in good clothes, and the crops seem healthy, but there’s a certain tension in everyone's face that melts into open relief when they see him being led to the inn. Geralt tries not to feel unnerved by this. The girl runs inside to talk to the innkeeper as he ties Roach to a hitching post in case of the need for a fast escape. She runs back out and looks up at him.
“They’ve space for you,” Melita tells him with naked relief. “At supper, we’ll come find you to tell you everything.”
“You haven’t told me anything at all yet,” he says. “What’s the problem?”
She bites her lip and squares her shoulders. “Our lord has been cursed, and we want to save him.”
“Melita says you think your lord is cursed,” Geralt says at last when everyone quiets down. “Tell me.”
There’s a moment of quiet before a hatchet faced man with the look of a huntsmaster leans forward, his mouth tight. “Our lord is Julian Alfred Pancratz, viscount of Lettenhove. He became viscount two years back, after a plague came through and killed the rest of the family. He barely survived it, but he was the only heir, so he became viscount formally then. He’s a good liege lord. Quiet. Not violent. Doesn’t raise taxes, keeps the roads clear of bandits, keeps everything in good repair, lets us hunt in his woods and doesn’t call for our daughters.”
Geralt nods, already very curious. A competent liege lord is a rare thing, no wonder his subjects are so desperate to keep him alive.
Another man, this one clearly a farmer, takes up the thread of the story. “For the first year we thought it was just the grief, you see. He took to wearing mourning black, as he should, all very respectable. But then he started dismissing people from the castle. Told them it was better for us to have extra hands in the fields, that he could manage alone. Manage that big old pile of stone, alone, and him just 20!”
A woman pipes up, with a bakers strong arms and floured apron. “He was a fourth son, and everyone in that family treated him like it. He was sent away for a while to Oxenfurt to learn, but he was called home not long into it. He was…” Her voice breaks for a second but she rallies. “When he was little, he was a lively lad. Always in the village, always singing and running around and telling wild stories he’d made up. Sweet. Kind. We called him Dandelion, since he went wherever the wind took him. Over time he...he got quiet. Worn down.”
“After the plague, he wouldn’t go outside in the sun anymore, not that he was getting out much before then,” a gardener at the castle says. His hair is a wild mass of curls. “His parents kept him inside, most days. We know he eats, rarely, but he dresses himself and cooks for himself most of the time. He keeps the Reach near pitch dark, especially in the center of the keep. If people have to see him, they have to go at night. He won’t let the curtains be open, it’s torches only so they can be doused if he needs. He does keep a night garden.”
Geralt blinks. “A what?”
The little Melita who found him nods seriously. “A night garden. The flowers only bloom at night.”
The local barber says quietly, “We don’t call him Dandelion anymore. Everyone calls him Lord Jaskier.”
Buttercup. Poisonous, dangerous, beautiful, golden. Deadly, unlike sweet to eat dandelions.
“So,” Geralt says, mulling it over. “Won’t go outside in the light, doesn’t eat much, changed personality from when he was younger. Any children go missing recently? Cattle been killed in the night, horses vanish?”
“No,” the alderman says. He looks relieved that Geralt’s taking them seriously. “But… he sleeps in the day, and sometimes when he sleeps he screams like someone’s murdering him. He won’t let anyone in or near the bedroom.”
That’s not good.
“I see,” Geralt says, mind racing. It sounds like a curse, but not one he’s ever heard of before. “I’ll have to look into it more. I’ll do what I can. But you should know, in case you want me gone and to take a risk on someone else, my name is Geralt of Rivia.”
There’s a rustle through the crowd, a bit of tension stirred up by the name.
One of the kids pipes up, “The Butcher of Blaviken?”
Geralt flinches in spite of himself. He can feel Renfri’s blood on his hands, wet and dripping, and has to rub his fingers against his leg to get his mind back in the present.
To his surprise, Melita stomps up as the murmuring grows and walks over to him, putting her hands on her hips. “Who cares!” She demands, wheeling on the townsfolk. “We prayed for a Witcher, and we got a Witcher! As long as he saves Lord Jaskier it doesn’t matter what he’s done!”
Geralt looks up at her, surprise turning to outright shock. Ever since Blaviken half the world has been ready to murder him on sight, and she’s definitely old enough to have heard the story.
The alderman sighs, and nods. Everyone quiets down, and the furrowed brows ease a little. “From the mouth of babes,” he mutters, and squares his shoulders. “Melita’s right. And don’t get a big head about it, girl, a broken clock is still right twice a day. Things are quiet here, and we have prayed for someone to come. Even if it is the Butcher of Blaviken.”
Geralt’s head is spinning. “I see,” he says, very rattled. “We do need to talk price.”
The huntsman grins at him, and says a number that has his eyes going very, very wide.
“We had a ring around to gather coin, in the hopes someone would come,” one of the elders says, sucking on some sort of lozenge. “And I promise you, Witcher, the struggle is going to make it a fair trade.”
“Alright,” Geralt says, and that’s that, the bargain struck. “Now, as for getting into the castle…”
Lord Jaskier’s nighttime courts were the one way that people could get an audience with him, though he only took a few on each Thursday. Geralt, thankfully, had arrived on a Wednesday.
The next day guards at the gates to Lettenhove Reach looked at Geralt, there among the smattering of a crowd making their way across the bridge, and quietly looked away. Their faces were haggard and desperate, and Geralt thinks on that as he slips soundlessly away with one of the cooks, a skittish young man named Johann. The castle is as dark as described. Torches line the walls, but they’re sparse and spread out wide down the halls, and eventually stop all together at the Great Hall. The space gapes black and yawning, and some of the people murmur prayers to Melitele before stepping into the inky dark.
Johann takes him around to a side door down an unlit corridor and helps him slip deeper into the castle. Once they’re well away from the main hall, Johann takes a deep breath.
“Alright,” he says, “where do you want to go first? We have a little time, usually he’ll talk to ten people.”
“Short court,” Geralt says quietly.
Johann nods, his face troubled. “He doesn’t have much energy, these days.”
Geralt considers. “Family’s wing,” he decides, and Johann makes a pained little noise before leading him down the dark corridor. They pick up a candelabra from a table, and the deeper they go into the keep the more Geralt feels oddly grateful for it. While he can see fine, something about the castle is ominous and cold.
The family’s wing is on the second floor. It’s dead silent when they open a door on well oiled hinges to the dark and dusty hallway. The air is stale, and some enterprising spiders have made webs up in the rafters. Geralt can see where rugs would have once been on the floors, but now they’re rolled up in a careless pile against one wall. Johann shudders, and inches closer as they start down the hall.
“His room first,” Geralt says, keeping his voice carefully soft. Johann nods, and leads him not to the master suite, but to the end of the hall. Geralt frowns, surprised, but obediently follows him as Johann carefully turns a key in a lock and pushes open the door.
The room is. Well.
The room is strange.
The smell of unwashed dishes hits first, but there’s no garbage to be seen and this is the kind of place wealthy enough to have a separate privy indoors, so there doesn’t seem to be a chamber pot to add to the stink of food and human. There’s a stack of unwashed dishes, a small but functional sort of field kitchen on a table against the wall, and endless stacks of books around the room. Papers clutter the floor- sheet music, when Geralt looks closer at them, walked on carelessly. The bed is a canopy, the posts of the bed wrapped in ropes that look well used with splatters of blood at some of the ends. A massive nest of blankets and pillows has been gathered in all sorts of colors to sit in the middle of it. And on the walls, held up with strings attached to niches in the stone, are endless black bird feathers. The faint tang of old coppery blood hangs in the air.
“Melitele preserve us,” Johann breathes, eyes very wide as he takes in the feathered walls. Geralt motions him to stay back and carefully walks forward to look at the feathers.
They’re strange. Not a crow’s feathers, or a ravens. The iridescence makes him think starling, but something about that isn’t right either. They’re small, large, and medium sized, all about the same shape but all very odd.
He frowns, considering, and decides it’s too dangerous to try and take one. He’ll have to fix them in his memory, and study later.
They leave the room and check the others in the family wing. Three of them have been cleaned out, likely once his siblings' rooms. Their things are in storage in the cellars, Johann tells him, as Jaskier had little fondness for them and they had died first regardless. Functionally they’re guest rooms now, blank canvases with only the barest of furniture.
But the master bedroom, oh. Now that is something Geralt does not like.
The master bedroom has never been cleaned of the former viscount and viscountess de Lettenhove’s effects, for one thing. There’s an empty glass still sitting on a bedside table, shoes carelessly tossed to one side on the floor, dresses and suits hanging in the wardrobe. The uncared for silk has started to shatter, rather early for silk to be breaking apart. The bed is even unmade, as if the occupants simply rolled out of bed and never came back.
Geralt comes back from surveying an equally abandoned sitting room to find Johann staring at the bed.
“What is it?” he murmurs.
“The bed,” Johann says, just as soft. “On the right side. Someone’s slept in it.”
Geralt frowns, looking at the bed. He inhales, and under the dust and old half-dead scents, he smells… something. The faint tang of copper, the same blood-scent as in Jaskier’s room. He pulls out one long knife from his belt and carefully walks to the right side of the bed, lifting the sheets with the tip of his knife.
There are bloodstains on the sheets. Thick, heavy blotches of blood, even, as if someone had fallen into bed to rest and not moved from the spot for much too long.
“Which side was the viscounts?” Geralt asks, letting the sheets back down. Johann points at the right side, looking sick. “Hmm.”
They’re definitely running short on time, though, so they leave the family wing and disappear back down the stairs as if they’ve never been there. Johann leads him towards the gardens.
“Lord Jaskier spends a lot of time in them,” he says as they wind their way through the servants halls and then out into the main walkway. “There’s the main garden, and the night garden. The night garden is also full of poisons. The old viscount started planting it when he took over from his father. Jorgan Lorenz Pancratz de Lettenhove, that was our Jaskier’s father, may he rot.”
Geralt hums, interested. “No love lost, then.”
“Not a speck,” Johann says fervently, and pushes open another door down a small hall and then out to a square internal garden with a covered walkway running around it, columns supporting the overhang. The flowers are all closed in the dark, but Geralt can smell them, and as they step onto the path running through the place he feels a twinge in his heart.
“Roses, marigolds, tulips, chrysanthemums, daisies, sunflowers, dandelions, and buttercups,” he says after a couple of inhales. His heart twinges again as he smells a wash of melancholy on Johann.
Johann runs his fingers over a closed rosebud before looking up at him. “We thought it might help,” he says quietly. “He loves yellow. He won’t wear it, says it washes him out, but he loves yellow flowers. And he needs something of sunlight.”
“I see,” he says, because he does, and Johann leads him through yet another door, through some connecting corridors, and out a door with a blotch of red paint on its center. A warning, Geralt thinks.
They open this door to another square garden with a covered walkway, but this has been extensively weeded, the beds tended to and the plants carefully trimmed. It’s also more elaborate than the central walking garden, complete with an actual artificial waterfall that runs into a small pond, high enough up to stand under thanks to some sort of complicated plumbing, he’s sure.
“Lord Jorgan began having Lord Jaskier tend this garden when he was 8,” Johann says grimly, setting the candelabra on one of the level spots in the wide walkway arches. “He nearly died at least 3 separate times, that I know.”
8 years old is perilously young to be in a garden of this kind, Geralt thinks as he takes in the blooming flowers, and the rather alarming amount of highly poisonous ones mingled in. Most of them are white, to better show in the dark. Hydrangeas, white lilacs, clematis, and hibiscus are just some of the variety in bloom in the dark. He’s careful not to touch any of the blooms for fear of cross contamination that he might take out of the place. He’d been 12 before they were allowed anywhere near the more toxic ingredients of potion making, and even then under supervision until after they’d passed their Trials and were proper Witchers.
The only cluster of flowers not blooming in the night garden is a small patch of buttercups, but they’re surrounded by a halo of evening primrose in delicate yellow, a tiny burst of sunlight against all the other flowers. He pauses to consider them, frowning. The placement of them is odd, compared against the rest of the garden. They’re tucked away in a corner, and when he looks closer at the wall he finds evidence that once a bush stood here.
The primroses and buttercups, therefore, are new.
But… why? A quick glance around shows that the other three corners of the garden hold lilac bushes.
“Odd,” he murmurs to himself, not foolish enough to disturb the soil or crouch closer to the plants.
“Is it useful?” Johann asks, quiet.
“Dunno yet,” Geralt says. He’s still staring at the flowers. “Hmm.”
Later, he’s sure that his preoccupation with the flowers is the only reason he doesn’t hear the door open.
“Johann,” a soft voice says, and Johann freezes stock still in horror. “Why are you in here?”
Slowly, Geralt and Johann turn.
From the shadows a man steps out, his feet soundless on the flagstones. He’s tall for a human, lanky, and dressed all in grays and blacks. His clothing is good but oddly threadbare, the embroidery standing out against the silk, and the collar is high on his deathly pale, sun deprived neck. He wears many rings on his fingers, and several necklaces tangle at his throat. Handsome, with nut brown hair with a bit of a curl to it, and a fine jaw and nose, but his eyes.
His eyes are horrible.
Geralt has seen dead men with livelier eyes. Lord Jaskier has the look of a dead man who doesn’t know it’s time to lay down yet, his blue eyes blank and flat. They seem to stare straight through him.
And his heart…
Lord Jaskier’s heartbeat might as well be a drum, it’s so perfectly regular. But it’s slow, to a dangerous level, right at the edge of human sleeping range.
“My apologies, Lord Jaskier,” Johann whispers, trembling a little. “This is a friend, wh-who’s visiting-- I thought our guest might be interested in the gardens, please forgive the insolence.”
Jaskier’s head turns to fix those flat eyes on Geralt, and then-
To Geralt’s interest, the eyes flash with sudden life. Lord Jaskier steps forward again, suddenly very human and flush with curiosity. Color rises in his cheeks, and the heartbeat that Geralt can hear quickens in his chest. His sunless skin warms a little.
“A Witcher,” he breathes, clearly fascinated, eyes flicking from his medallion to his hair to his swords to his face to his shoes, taking Geralt in. “Here, in Lettenhove? This is a surprise.”
Geralt blinks down at him, and scrambles for something to say. “Your garden is lovely,” he manages, and can feel Johann looking up at him, incredulous.
Lord Jaskier smiles at him. Geralt can’t breathe, the sheer glory of that smile dazzling against the backdrop of those bright eyes. It’s as if an entirely new person has popped into being right in front of him, completely separate from the dead-eyed thing he’d first seen.
“Will you stay long?” he asks, and there is something in his voice, something discordant in the light, tripping melody of it. Power, or something like it.
“Perhaps,” Geralt says simply. “Just passing through, for now.”
As quick as it came, the light snuffs out. The smile disappears as his heartbeat evens out to the same slow, low drumbeat. He’s still again, eyes flat. The liveliness has vanished as if it were never there. “You’re welcome to the gardens whenever you like,” Jaskier says quietly. “I must rest. Good night, Johann.”
“Good night, my lord,” Johann says, bowing deep, and Jaskier wanders away back into the darkness.
Geralt waits until he hears a door close softly before saying, very quiet, “What the fuck.”
Johann looks up at him, anxious. “Do… do you think you can help?”
Geralt crosses his arms over his chest as his mind whirs, taking in ideas and discarding them just as fast. “I’m going to try,” he says firmly. “Let’s go.”
They leave quickly, and the guards don’t even give them a passing glance as they go.
“Morning, Master Witcher,” she says, her voice warm and kind. “I’m Antonia, I own the Dove and keep it up. I’m told your people eat quite a lot, is that right?”
Geralt blinks. “Uh. Yes.”
“Well, help yourself,” she says, and pulls a massive pile of cooked eggs down to him. “Johann was in this morning, he said to tell you that Lord Jaskier actually asked for food to be sent up to him for his waking meal in the evening. It’s been, oh, six months since that happened.”
“Hmm,” Geralt says, and digs in. He doesn’t eat like a pig, but he does go through a solid chunk of the food, and digs in his coin purse to pass over a couple florins. Antonia shoves them back at him, shaking her head.
“Oh no, I think not. You want to pay me for extra food, you can help me with the dishes,” she says, and somehow, that’s what Geralt ends up doing. The kitchen is clean and tidy, and he feels a little out of place as he scrubs dishes in hot water to clean them and sets them aside for the lunch and evening meals. Antonia hums and sings as she works on baking long loaves of trencher bread, and doesn’t demand conversation.
When he’s finished with his work, Geralt hesitates, and turns around. “Need any firewood chopped?”
Antonia startles, looking back at him with surprise. “I- yes, actually. You don’t have to, you know.”
Geralt shrugs, and drops his gaze to the floor. “People here have been nice. Might as well help wherever I can.”
Antonia adjusts the loaves to sit before going to quickly wash her hands. “Well, if that’s how you feel about it, I have some extra logs that could go to Widow Olga, if you’d deliver them for me?”
And that’s how Geralt spends his morning. There’s something clean about it, chopping endless cords of firewood in the back yard of the inn as chickens peck at the ground around him, the sun high in the sky to beat down on him as he falls into the simple routine of splitting logs. Around lunch he follows Antonia’s instructions to find the Widow Olga, and winds up at a modest house in the middle of what can generously be called town.
The widow herself opens the door, and to his abiding shock, beams up at him. She’s the picture of grandmotherly affection, plump and tiny, a puff of hair white as his to pair with her warm brown skin. She’s also incredibly old for a human, likely closing in on her 90’s.
“Rilandrus, how good to see you!” She says, delighted, and then blinks at him. Her smile fades for just a moment, a flash of pain crossing her face before she shakes her head and her smile evens out. “Oh, my apologies Master Witcher, you just look so much like my Rilandrus. And you’ve brought me wood, I see.”
“Innkeeper Antonia sends it,” Geralt says, wondering how fast he can slip away.
Olga hums, pleased. “Ah, she’s a good girl. Come, come, put that down and sit a minute.”
He gets the logs arranged by her fireplace and has a teacup shoved into his hands for his troubles, and is forced into sitting down on a couch absolutely covered in the most impressive embroidery he’s ever seen. He’s marveling at the perfect colors of an accurate to life griffin when Olga says, “Tell me, dear, which school are you?”
He straightens, a little surprised. Olga sips her tea, and smiles at him.
“Wolf,” he says quietly.
Olga nods approvingly. “A very good school indeed, yes. I wondered if you might know my Rilandrus, but he’s of the Griffins, so I doubt the two of you have crossed paths. He does usually come only every five years or so.”
Geralt has some extremely vague memory of a Witcher by that name mentioned in one of Vesemir’s letters ages ago, but he doesn’t recall the full contents. Something about a wyvern hunt, maybe. “Don’t know him, sorry.”
Olga waves a hand, unconcerned. “Oh, don’t be concerned in the least.” Her smile takes on a wistful tinge. “I’d hoped a bit that it would be him who would come to help, but in all honesty, I am grateful Melitele saw fit to bless us with any Witcher at all. Our Jaskier was always very fond of Witcher stories in his youth. Whenever he was back from boarding school, he came to get tales from me and made up all sorts of wild inventions about dragon and griffin slaying, and songs to go with them.”
No wonder the town barely batted an eye at a Witcher, if they had one passing through so often and a liege lord that liked their stories.
“I saw him, last night,” Geralt says slowly, testing out the words. “He knew what I was in a heartbeat. Seemed like he woke up, seeing me.”
Olga’s eyebrows shoot up, but she nods. “He only met my Rilandrus a few times that I know, but he was always very excited about it. Like I said, he liked Witchers even when small. I suppose the idea has hung on.” She pauses, then sets down her teacup. “I was the head of wardrobe at the Reach. I did most of my lady’s embroidery, and the children's. My lord wouldn’t wear any at all, for some reason. Young Dandelion, he would come and sit with me to hide when my lord and my lady were in a mood, and listen while I told him stories and would tell them back. I imagine seeing you was quite a thrill.”
Geralt hums, carefully sipping his tea. It’s really pretty good, though it might be improved with, say, whiskey. “Is he always like that?”
“Like what, dear?”
“His eyes, blank.”
Olga shivers, a tiny thing. “Ah. Yes. Ever since his family died.”
“Two years ago?” Geralt clarifies, and Olga nods.
“Yes, two years now. Lady Natalia went first- she was never well to start with, very delicate constitution, the third child, my lord’s older sister. Both Lord Lorenz and Lord Piotr, his older brothers, they went next. My Lady Teodori followed them. Last was Lord Jorgan. It was all very fast, just 2 weeks. And Lord Jaskier, we thought he’d go too, but he made it through.” Olga shakes her head, frowning a little. “The plague came on so quickly, we had no time to prepare.”
Geralt hummed. “Two weeks is quick work for sickness,” he says, and Olga nods.
“Very quick indeed. We were not the only people hit of course, but we were lucky and for the most part our people were spared. It was odd though, the nobility catching it first. The de Damavire’s and de Romattin’s were sick as well, and lost 8 people between them.”
Geralt finally manages to make his excuses to Olga and gets back to the inn to write the information he has down in the afternoon, then takes his dinner at the inn and once again does dishes in the kitchen with Antonia before going out to lock up the chickens for her. The birds squawk and fuss at him, knowing a predator when they see one, but go inside without him having to chase them.
Geralt looks up at Lettenhove Reach once done, seeing the dark shape of it against the early evening sky. Dusk is falling, and Jaskier must be rising. For all the beautiful and idyllic landscape around him, something is rotting deep in the heart of it all, and he intends to cut it out.
A light catches in one of the windows-- a figure looking out, a speck so far away. Geralt’s eyes strain to see.
And just as fast, it winks out.
“There’s only the one horse left,” Karris says, leading him through the open area at the front of the keep to show him where the stables are. He’s a good kid, maybe 17, with his grandmother Olga’s same skin tone and an easy smile, his hair left to grow and pulled back into a cloudy puff of a horsetail. “My lady’s old palfrey, Madeline. Lord Jaskier’s horse passed a year ago, but he was nigh to 24 years, older than my lord is by a decent shot. Lord Jorgan wouldn’t permit him the money for a new steed but Lord Jaskier refused to have him put down, so he was mostly out to pasture. It’s just Madeline left, so I exercise her every few days to keep her trim and happy, turn her out with the herds when I can get my lord to sign off on it. He won’t come near the stables if he can avoid it, and finding him in the keep can be hard if he won’t show himself.”
Karris shows him to the stables. They’re mouldering, in bad shape and in need of repair, but Madeline is a bright eyed palomino of about 10 with good manners and a jaunty step kept in a comfortable box stall. Geralt looks around the stables, frowning when he smells blood. He sniffs, and the copper hits him again.
He holds up his hand, following his nose to one of the central tie posts in the stable, the kind where a horse might be held for a few minutes when mounting up that served double purpose to help brace the ceiling.
The smell is strongest here, and he crouches down, looking at the packed dirt. Moving a few strands of fallen hay reveals a group of small splotches too dark for just oil, and he stares at them for a long moment before straightening up.
Karris waits uncertainly, Madeline patient at his side as Geralt comes back to them. Geralt quickly inspects Madeline, running his hands over her neck, flanks, legs, and hocks. He checks her hooves, and pries out a couple small rocks that would be an irritant if left unchecked but not a problem, and steps back when he’s done to consider the horse.
Karris clears his throat. “Uh. Sir?”
“There’s blood there,” Geralt says quietly, and Karris goes stiff, his mouth compressing in a thin line. “New blood. Not from her, though.”
Karris’s face goes slack and tight all at the same time and he shudders, turning his face to shove it into Madeline’s neck. His arms go to wrap around her, and Geralt blinks at the sudden swell of desperate, unhappy fear-sweat stink rolling off of him. He looks back at the post, and sniffs the air again. The moldy air of the stables is giving him trouble, but…
“Karris,” he says quietly. “The blood is human, and you aren’t hurt. Who would be bleeding here?”
Karris shakes his head, refusing to look at him. “Can’t talk about it,” he mumbles, the fear smell getting worse. “Don’t make me.”
“Alright,” Geralt says, because with as fast as Karris’ heartbeat is going, he knows he won’t get anything more out of him. He’ll have to ask around when they get back to the town, maybe Antonia will talk to him over their evening ritual of dish washing and bread making. “Get going with her, I’m going to take another look at the gardens.”
Karris nods and, after a few more deep breaths, leads Madeline out. Geralt stays in the stables, and turns back around to look at the blood spots again. He frowns, considering them, and dips his fingers on the dirt to lift the scent a bit closer to his nose.
Jaskier, maybe? The smell is familiar, so it could be, but the man had very little scent to start with (strange, now that he thought of it) and also, why would he be bleeding in stables that he apparently hated?
Geralt straightens, and heads into the keep.
His eyes adjust quickly to the gloom, and this time he carries on down to the Great Hall instead of turning off where Johann had taken him last time.
The Hall is oppressively quiet and near completely dark. Black curtains cover the tall windows, there are no benches or tables for feasting, and on the slight raised dais sits a massive carved wooden chair. It’s ominous and frankly pretty damn ugly, the sort of thing that any lordling would give their right nut for, and Geralt has the feeling it was probably more to the late and unliked Lord Jorgan’s taste. He walks to the chair, and sniffs, trying to scent for any blood there.
A faint lingering copper is all that he gets, but it’s enough. It’s old, but not old enough for Lord Jorgan.
He steps back, crossing his arms over his chest and examining the chair. Blood in the stables, blood in his room, blood in his parents room, blood on the chair.
“What have you gotten yourself into, Dandelion?” he mutters to the empty room. Something— twinges in him. As if they’re words he should have said in a different time, a different place. He frowns.
Probably not good.
He wants to leave this place, this weird castle with its rotted core and it's uncomfortable silence and strange master. He wants the road, and Roach, and the peace of hunting and gutting and spitting prey, he wants to be away from here he wants to see Eskel he wants to see his brothers he wants Vesemir he wants to not be here he has to go he has to go he has to leave NOW—
Geralt stumbles back from the throne, pulling in a ragged breath and hissing as he lights his hand with Igni.
“What the fuck,” he hisses, staring at the throne.
It remains nothing more than a chair, but Geralt can still feel the artificial desperation that had swamped him resting on his shoulders. So. Not just a curse on the increasingly unsettling Lord Jaskier, but a curse on the whole castle, with something built in to make people who wanted to break it leave it alone.
He frowns. That can’t be right. The villagers want to break the curse. All of them are desperate for it, their minds fixed on the idea every time they walk into the Hall. If the curse was designed to make people not want to break it, then they wouldn’t want to either, and none of them have been driven off.
Just him, then.
“Hmm,” he says, and seriously considers blasting the throne just out of principle.
Instead, he leaves the hall and heads for the day garden, ignoring the way irritation nibbles at the base of his spine and his mind whispers that he’s running away.
The day garden is overflowing with yellow flowers and utterly mundane. All the same, Geralt methodically goes over it inch by inch for anything out of place. There’s nothing, and it’s late in the afternoon before he reaches the night garden (though he has determined that none of the yellow flowers are the cause of the damn sneezing, huzzah). The night garden is quiet, the artificial waterfall babbling along and no weeds to be seen under the ruthlessly tended beds. Geralt pulls on a new pair of gloves and goes to the corner where the buttercups have opened to match their evening primrose sisters, and carefully pushes his fingers into the earth. He doesn’t feel anything that they might be covering, no boxes that he can feel immediately, but something about this spot bothers him.
Then he stops, thinking, and carefully pulls his fingers out of the earth to sniff them.
Yet more blood.
A lot of it, too, if it could seep into the soil enough for him to smell it.
He sits back on his haunches, frowning at the buttercups and primroses. So. Bedroom, parents bedroom, stables, throne, and the night garden, all bloody. Old blood, but blood none the less. Newest blood had been in Jaskier’s bedroom, oldest on the throne, hard to tell about the rest.
Johann had called Jaskier not by his title, but by his nickname, and Jaskier had responded to it. The villagers had called him Dandelion, and now they called him Jaskier, but no one called him Julian. Not once had a single person said the name except to clarify information, they didn’t call him by his given name, and that meant something. Names have power, names have weight, names—
Names are what you put on tombstones, in Redania, when it comes to those who worship Melitele.
“Oh, fuck,” Geralt breathes, looking at the buttercups with clearer eyes.
Something is buried here. Something with Jaskier’s name on it, and his blood in the soil.
This is not good.
He leaves the night garden, frowning, and trots back up the stairs to find Karris waiting for him at the stable yard, Madeline back in her box. Karris scrambles to his feet when he sees Geralt coming and goes to meet him, and together they walk back down the long slope to town.
“Did you find something?” Karris asks once they’re away from the guards.
“Maybe,” Geralt says. “Who does his laundry?”
Karris blinks, baffled. “Oh, uh… He does it himself, actually, has since he was about 16.”
Geralt stops dead. Karris skids to a halt next to him, looking up at him with wide eyes. Geralt stares ahead, brain scrambling as the pieces try to fit together. Sure, it makes sense for a boy of 16 to want to do his own laundry from sheer embarrassment, but to keep doing it? When he’s noble, and titled, and has fucking laundresses who report to him, who he pays? Why, then?
Because you can’t hide bloodstains from laundresses, but you can hide them from your court, he realizes.
“Son of a bitch,” he says blankly, and shakes his head. “Karris.”
Karris jumps, attentive. “Uh, yes, Master Witcher?”
“Do not let anyone bleed in the castle,” he says seriously. “Tell all the staff who work there. Animal blood should be fine, but nothing of theirs. Someone gets a cut, shove it in your shirt, wrap it immediately, do not let any blood get on the floors or even on the dirt. What ever this curse is, it’s wrapped up in blood ties, and I don’t want anyone else getting caught in it. Understand?”
Karris nods, eyes wide. “I understand.”
Karris takes off at a run, and Geralt looks back at Lettenhove Reach. For just a moment, he thinks he sees a curtain twitch in a window, pale fingers pulling the curtain aside. But when the curtain doesn’t move again, he turns away, and heads back to the village.
He spends the rest of the time before dinner adding his new information to his journal, and once that’s done takes a scalding bath and dresses in his standard black on black. His shirt is getting sadly threadbare, but if he works this out he’s good on new clothes, armor, tack, and weapons for two years if he uses his money well, so he just fishes out his sewing kit to patch the small hole he finds before going down for food.
“Ran into something at the castle,” Geralt says as he hauls the last basin of dishes into the kitchen hours later, the other patrons long gone from the dining area. Antonia looks up from where she’s finishing the books for the night. “Wanna talk to you about it.”
“Oh, certainly,” she says, a little surprised, but they fall back into comfortable silence as Geralt gets the scraps cleared out to the place designated for them, and locks the chickens back in their hut. By the time he’s back inside the wash sink has been filled, so he blasts it with Igni for warmth and gets a smile for his trouble as they start cleaning.
“What did you want to ask about?” Antonia asks, passing him plates to stack in the water to soak.
Geralt hums. “I smelled blood in the stables, in the castle too,” he says at last. “Human. Mentioned it to Karris and he wouldn’t talk about it, but he wasn’t hurt and I don’t know who else would get hurt there but Jaskier. Seemed like there was some history.”
Antonia takes a deep breath, nodding sharply. “That’s certainly one way to put it.”
Geralt just looks at her, and waits.
“The old viscount was a bastard,” Antonia says after a pause. Her scent dips into a deep, bleak sadness, and Geralt nearly recoils at how pungent it is. “He was a cruel man. Hard on his sons, especially our Jaskier.”
“What do you mean?”
“He beat him. Badly. Usually with a horse whip, in the stable, for anyone to see,” she says, and braces her arms on the sink as she breathes. Geralt stares. She clears her throat and forces herself to continue, not looking at him. “Said that he needed to be broke to bridle, hence the horse whip instead of a belt. He’d… he’d tie my lord to one of the stable posts, leave him there when it was done to bleed until supper. Some of us would sneak over to clean his wounds. I used to be a goose girl for the castle, I saw him many times. Karris too, when he was little.”
“How old was he when this first happened?”
Antonia gives him a bleak look. “11. He was 11 the first time. Five full lashes that split the skin, but it didn’t break him. Who whips an 11 year old? He was a child, and a good child at that, sweet and so clever, and he was so kind, Master Witcher! He was kind and good and that bastard ruined him. The boy wanted to be a bard, and that couldn’t be allowed. He hated our Dandelion singing, so eventually when he came back on break from Oxenfurt…”
The bottom drops out of Geralt’s stomach, and comes back filled with disgust and rage at the pointless cruelty.
“I can take a guess, with a man like that. I'd bet he beat him until he couldn’t leave again,” he finishes and Antonia nods, a single bitter tear rolling down her cheek.
“How can you ride with whip wounds? Or even walk? That was what broke him in the end. Oxenfurt was meant to be his escape, and it was taken from him in a moment.” She hesitates for a moment before swallowing hard. “Master Witcher, there were… there were other rumors, about the dead lord. About Jorgan, I mean. About his tastes in bed. And a fourth son, unwanted and unruly, slowly breaking down…”
If there is an afterlife, Geralt will hunt down Jorgan de Lettenhove and kill him again.
“I understand,” he says quietly. “I’ll be careful not to spook him.”
The naked relief in her eyes is too hard to bear. “Thank you, Master Witcher. Our Jaskier is a good man, in spite of everything. We just want him happy.”
When Geralt dreams that night, he dreams of stalking a faceless viscount through endless gardens of buttercups in an equally endless spring, a charming male voice rising in song behind him. He wakes in the darkness just as he reaches to stab the viscount with his silver sword, soaked in sweat.