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Silver and Copper

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Extract from the correspondence between Witcher Lambert and Witcher Eskel of the Wolf School, during Witcher Lambert’s first year on the Path:

...I know you’re rolling your eyes by now but shut up and listen to me for two seconds. The only good thing about Witcher names is that it means that our names don’t actually have any power over us. We don’t have full identities, so fae and curses have a damn hard time trying to figure out how to get their claws in to do damage. Be careful, though, because if you identify with even a nickname too long it can become your true name.

Mind your step with names, and don’t get too attached to any one identity.

Eskel

PS also, fuck you for not warning me you left a mess of broken hearts in Regova, I still haven’t gotten the rotten fruit smell off of me since they started chucking old apples when they saw I was Wolf school. Stop fucking mayors daughters, you asshole, we’ll all live longer.

oOo

Geralt has been up for at least 4 hours chopping wood when Antonia finds him in the quiet morning light of dawn, three days after he’s last been able to catch Jaskier wandering in Lettenhove Reach. Almost a month has passed since his arrival, and he’s fully aware how much he’s failed in that amount of time.

“Master Witcher,” she says in the quiet pre-dawn light, yawning. “How long have you been up?”

“Dunno,” he grunts, and accidentally splits the splitting stump with his swing along with the log on it. He groans, setting the axe to the side, and rubs at his forehead. Antonia sighs, walking out to join him in the yard. He looks down at the split stump, unable to face her. It’s early, even earlier than they usually rise, and he knows that he has a long day before him but the thought of returning to his bed for dreams of dark corridors and copper make him balk.

“Geralt,” she says gently, the first time she’s actually used his name. “Come inside. You can take out that stress on the bread instead. I’ll send Karris or one of the boys to find another chopping log for me.”

Geralt slumps, but nods. “Fine.”

“Thank you, dear,” she says, and leads him inside.

He wonders why he likes her so much as he methodically kneads dough and splits it into loaves to rise, Antonia working to fry eggs and sausages for breakfast and slice up yet more bread. He watches her out of the corner of his eye. She putters around, skirts making soft swishes against the floor. Her red hair catches the light of early morning as she works, leaning out the door to call for the chickens and tossing out scraps for them.

She was right all those days ago, he realizes. There’s no lust there, just something familial and maternal. He’s found something between friend and parent, for all her youth, and it settles something in his heart even as the weight of his knowledge bears it down.

He needs to tell her.

He has to tell her.

“Antonia,” he says. She looks up at him, eyes bright. “I… There’s something you need to know.”

“Sounds serious,” she says, still smiling. It falters and falls when Geralt doesn’t smile back. “Ah. One of those kinds of serious things, then.”

She puts her work aside and focuses her attention on him. Her dark eyes are gentle and soft, and Geralt feels like the monster he is, a hulking beast of cruel news trapped in a kitchen where a child and his father once stood. Jorgan’s poison has found him as well, made his tongue the bearer of its darkness.

“Karris gave me information that led to me finding out that your old lord had a laboratory where he did experiments,” Geralt says. The words are bitter, and they feel as if they’re being dragged from deep inside him by chains. It aches. Antonia watches him, concerned but not understanding yet. “I found his research notes. He...he was responsible for the plague. He created it.”

Antonia stares at him. “No,” she says, her voice cracking. “That- he was a terrible man, but he- but-”

He can see the moment she accepts the truth. She’s smart, and she’s known Jorgan’s cruelty. Antonia sits hard on the floor, and after a moment’s hesitation, Geralt sits with her. She presses a shaking hand to her mouth, eyes filling with tears.

“You’re sure,” she whispers, voice cracking. “You’re certain? There can be no mistake?”

“I saw it myself,” he says, and tucks an arm around her. She turns and buries her face against his chest, but doesn’t make a sound as she cries, mouth clamped tight shut. Her trembling is almost painful to feel, the delicate bones of her wrists digging into his chest as she clings to him like the last scrap of wood from a broken ship adrift in the sea. His shirt is wet by the time she’s done. He’s been soaked by the fountain of her tears. She looks up at him an indeterminate amount of time later, tear tracks staining her cheeks but her mouth set in a hard line.

“Geralt,” she says, “we have to tell the others. They have to know.”

“When it’s done,” he says. Antonia scrubs at her face. “I can’t take the books out of the castle until the curse is broken without it being dangerous, and I want them to see it in his own words so there can’t be any question. There… he killed others. Some here.”

Antonia’s mouth wobbles. “Others… oh, no. Not Herrin’s little girl?” she whispers.

Geralt nods, unable to speak, and Antonia blinks back more tears before wrapping her arms back around him tight to hold him. He carefully returns the gesture, resting his cheek on the top of her head. She smells of grief and pain, human sweat and baking bread, and he closes his eyes.

She must have been such a good mother.

“Geralt,” she says softly, not letting him go. “The rumors about Jorgan and my lord?”

Geralt’s heart clenches in his chest. “Worse than you could ever imagine,” he says, keeping his voice as soft as hers.

Antonia heaves a ragged sob, pulling away to wipe her eyes. “I hate him,” she says viciously, pulling a handkerchief from her pockets. Her voice cracks with grief. “That absolute bastard of a man, I hate him. I wish I could dig him up just to chop off his head with my own cleaver.”

“I’m not going to stop you if you know where he was buried,” Geralt says, and she laughs a little. It’s a bitter sound.

“They burned him with the others, in case the plague could spread through the ground,” she says, sniffling, and then clears her throat and takes a deep breath. “I can’t change the past. Right now all I can do is help you, and light candles for Melitele to make their rest easy, and make sure people are fed and have a safe place to sleep. Life goes on, it has to, so we’d better get back up and finish the breakfast prep work for the day, hmm?”

Geralt’s throat tightens. Gentle kindness and acceptance in the face of misery is something he’s long since outgrown expecting.

“Of course,” he says quietly, and helps her to her feet.

By the time they bring out the food, Antonia’s eyes are no longer red from crying, but there’s a fragility to the set of her shoulders that lingers long after breakfast is finished and their things cleaned up.

He’s reluctant to leave her when Johann comes to claim him for the day, but Antonia waves him off with a wavering smile and a gentle pat to the cheek from a small hand. He goes, regretting it all the while, but forces himself to focus as they cross the walkway to the castle and are let in by the guards. Johann is kind enough not to ask.

They part ways in the open area in front of the keep. Geralt looks up at the broad tower, with its gentle sandy stone, and wishes desperately for Lambert or Eskel to help keep his mood up as he feels the sheer weight of this contract fall onto his shoulders once more. His greatest flaw is getting too involved, the trainers had all said, and it’s hard not to feel like he’s living up to that now. Lambert and Eskel both know how to keep some distance in situations like this.

Situations like this. Fuck, he’s never seen anything like this.

The keep is as dark as ever. The darkness is a physical weight as he walks deeper into the winding halls, the heavy curtains feeling like they’re moments from rising to strangle him and leave him dying in the dark, weighed down by brocade and old memories. Geralt wanders, aimless and already exhausted. He knows he should return to the dungeon and make the climb back to Jorgan’s lab, but the thought of the claustrophobic dark makes him want to do anything else.

His feet take him down through the darkness to the Great Hall. The gaping maw of it always twists his heart. His footsteps echo on the flagstones as he steps inside the empty space, bouncing off of the carved ceiling. It takes few steps to stand before the ugly throne. Something bitter twists in his chest, the carved faces of animals and mocking blooms of plants despicable and ugly. The stink of fresh blood smeared to the wood is familiar.

He thinks he may never be able to purge copper from his nose as long as he lives.

“For all the darkness I was made in, I was never made a monster,” Geralt tells the throne. It sits impassive before him, dark teak, hideously carved, symbolic and fetid with rot. “For all the shadow that I swam in, for all the things they tore from me, I was never a monster. I bled dry under a knife that cut until it set me free and made me out anew, and I was not a monster. I killed the beasts they set me on, the ones that took children and old men and mothers and everyone in between, I set my feet to the Path and made myself a place between man and monster. And then I had to make a choice. Maybe I won’t know if it was right or wrong, but after, they stole my name and made me just another beast lurking in the dark. They turned and made me monstrous.”

He steps up on the dais, fingers resting feather light on the wood. Everything is copper, everything is silver, everything is darkness and in the faintest breath of a moment, he hears the whisper of silk.

“Monsters get made out of anything different,” he tells the chair. “Griffons and harpies want to lay their eggs and hunt in peace. Kikimora serve their purpose. Wraiths were failed in life, so they stay behind for revenge in death. But they’re all an imposition on humans, so humans make them monsters. And men can be just as monstrous as anything I put my blades to— men are the worst kind of monsters, because they make a choice. Men make their own monstrousness a choice, build themselves into horrors, and then decide there’s no need for regrets when it’s done.”

His hand slips away from the carving. He can feel the imprints on the tips of his fingers still, the care of the craftsmanship for such an ugly thing.

“Monstrousness sits at the crux of horror and penance,” Geralt says to the dark. “It’s not in the nature of a monster to look to heal the wounds it caused.”

The bitterness wells up to fill his mouth, and Geralt shoves a hand through his hair, dragging it to pull at the roots and make himself hiss in the twinge of not quite pain. He stalks away from the chair and its bloodstains, dragging in slow breath after breath, and heads to the day garden. He needs to sit in the flowers for a while and calm down before carrying on.

The golden blooms are reassuring and the scent of thriving life shakes the stain of copper from his being. He sprawls in the garden bed, pressing his face to the clean earth without a care and digging his fingers into the soil to ground, just for a moment. Here in the sunlight he can’t feel the oppressive gloom that’s started to worm through his defenses inside the keep. Geralt rolls over onto his back, looking to the side to see a dandelion in bloom under one of the bushes. It’s not the massive, sturdy, sprawling ones that pop up wild in fields. It’s small but vibrant, growing in the shadow of bigger things. He reaches out to gently stroke the tiny petals.

“In Kaedwen people plant you by their doors for protection,” he tells the little plant. “Hardy and hard to kill, you and your siblings. They make you into crowns, use you in transformation spells, eat your leaves for salads. But you always come back. Guess there’s a dandelion under that buttercup poison of his still.”

Geralt closes his eyes. The sun beats down on him, warming his skin, and he lets himself rest for a time before he sits up and takes a deep breath.

“Alright, little dandelion,” he tells the flower. “Time to face the library.”

He doesn’t really need it, but Geralt lights a candelabra to take with him anyway as he makes his way to the library. The candles offer a small bit of the warm comfort of the sun, and Geralt’s not so stupid as to deny himself such an easy fix.

The library is still as chaotic as the last time he saw it. The curtain has been returned to its rightful place, leaving the books plunged into darkness. Geralt clears a space on one of the reading tables to put his light down and looks around the room, thoughtful. The candelabra casts just enough light for his eyes to expand and catch detail. There are few books left on the shelves, and those all look as if they’ve been feverishly pawed through before they were tossed aside.

Why wreck the library in the first place, though?

He paws through the piles and picks up a small, tattered book. He flips through it absently, but finds himself pausing when he realizes what it actually is. It’s a small book of fables, long since worn down by the uncertain grip of children. There are drawings in the margins, little dragons and knights done in the round too-careful pencil of a little hand. Geralt gently turns the pages, something clenching hard in his chest. More drawings greet him, and on the last page is a portrait of lumpy people, two tall figures and three smaller ones in decreasing size. The tallest of the three is holding another lump with a face drawn on it. Under the little family is a name.

Lorenz.

Geralt pulls out a chair and sits, looking at the little bundle in drawn-Lorenz’s arms. There’s a weight like a hot coal in his chest.

It’s not just about Jaskier. It’s about 38 dead children and a murdered family. It’s about minds destroyed, and about the love of an oldest son stolen from him along with his mind. It’s about the child that Jaskier never really was. It’s about the children that none of his siblings ever were, and minds broken to glass fragments.

“I’m sorry,” he tells the ghost of Lorenz two decades past. “You deserved better.”

He can’t make himself put the book down, and carries it with him as he walks through the stacks. Listless, he runs his fingers along the shelves. They gather gray dust, sending it into the air. None of them have been spared from the chaos. He pauses in the section that looks to be mostly medical works, and rubs his forehead as he forces himself to focus again. Obviously someone was searching for information, but what kind of information? He runs a finger over the dust on the cover of an anatomical guide and rubs it between thumb and index, mind spinning over possibilities.

The simplest answer is Jaskier searching for a way to break his curse, but that doesn’t seem quite right. Jaskier is university trained to keep libraries organized, even if he is flighty, and he loves stories. Jaskier would want the library organized enough to keep finding things.

Geralt pauses.

The rider of Jaskier’s body, though… if Jorgan has times that he can control the body hosting him, he would want to find a way to break the curse enough to suppress Jaskier and take the body for himself permanently. Jaskier had said daylight, warmth, and strong emotions would make a difference, so perhaps during the day at times Jorgan might be taking control? Maybe while he sleeps? He sniffs and mostly smells dust and the faint paper-and-vellum-and-leather smell of a library, but under it is old blood.

Jaskier, or Jaskier’s body, has been in here more than just the time he brought Geralt the journal.

There’s something whispering on the edge of his thoughts, and Geralt hums as he continues wandering, letting his mind drift in tune with his steps. The library has a peaceful feeling to it, even if the place is a mess, and as he wanders through the stacks with no particular goal in mind he feels like he’s breathing a little easier. Lorenz’s fables make for a good distraction for his hands, and he absently turns it over and over. There’s a certain pleasant tactility to it, the tooled cover soothing his mind just enough to clear it as he stops dead.

Oh. Of course.

“Jaskier, you fucking idiot,” he says, breathless.

It’s so simple. How has he missed this? It’s Jaskier’s blood everywhere, Jaskier always bleeding, Jaskier hiding information and giving it out carefully, Jaskier making the rules because he made them in the first place.

Jaskier is responsible for his own blood curse.

Jaskier had brought him his own journal from where it was hidden in the stacks. It makes a certain amount of sense to think that story-loving Jaskier would have hidden information about the curse here, or even found it in one of the thousands of books scattered around. Jorgan likely was looking through all of them for even a scrap of information on the curse, and tore the place to shreds.

“Shit,” he says to the silence, and runs his fingers over Lorenz’s book again to try and soothe himself. “Shit, shit, shit.

There’s a thread of what he thinks might be trying to convince him is panic worming its way into his head. He growls in frustration, slamming his hand against his thigh to shake himself out of it. The false panic dissipates along with the exhaustion, and he takes a deep, stabilizing breath. The curse is working harder on him now too, trying to protect its target.

“Shit,” he says again, with extreme feeling, and goes to find the candelabra and get out of the library.

He stops dead when he steps out of the stacks to see the candles completely burned down, the last in the center guttering at the end of its life. The other two have burned out entirely, wax covering the table and pooling out to nudge at the edges of the books.

There is no reason the candles should be that low. They were at full height when he picked the candelabra up, and he hasn’t been here that… long…

Geralt looks back at the stacks, and then at the floor. It’s completely clear of dust, endless pacing of his own familiar boots having cleared it from the floor. He stares at it, mouth going tight as he takes it in. The curse is working better than he thought, and he’s in more danger than he anticipated if it can get time away from him like this.

The last candle gutters and goes out, plunging the room into deeper darkness.

Geralt’s grip on Lorenz’s book tightens.

He’s gentle when he puts it back on a shelf, leaning it carefully up against some other books to keep it upright and safe. He lets his fingers linger on the cover, and closes his eyes. Just for a moment, he lets himself imagine a little blond boy with his tongue sticking out, pencil in hand as he draws his family, a baby brother beside him just learning to crawl.

“You all deserved better,” he says to the library, and leaves.

Geralt’s faint hope that the candles might have just burned fast is gone as soon as he opens the door to the night garden. It’s dark outside, and the new moon has returned to the sky to leave everything darker than it already was. He grimaces, and sits down to wait by the pool. There’s a lingering smell of blood in the corner with the buttercups, so he may have missed Jaskier, but he plans to wait anyway.

He doesn’t have to wait long.

The door opens quietly and Jaskier steps out on his soundless feet. He blinks at Geralt, but doesn’t seem surprised, and makes his measured way into the garden.

“Lord Jaskier,” Geralt says, standing.

“White Wolf,” Jaskier says, washed out eyes meeting his in the darkness. “Come now, meet me halfway.”

“Is there any other way to meet?” Geralt murmurs, and he catches the lightning quick smile on Jaskier’s face. He can hear the slow rise of Jaskier’s heart, and his own turns, slow and steady.

He does meet Jaskier halfway, and doesn’t recoil at the copper smell. He tries to focus on the other things about Jaskier, his heartbeat and his clothing, and he notices that one of Jaskier’s usual silver rings is gone. He reaches out and very gently takes Jaskier’s hand, deliberately ignoring the slightly widened eyes.

“You wear a lot of silver rings,” he says. “Missing one now, though.”

“My signet ring,” Jaskier says, voice level. “I can’t always wear it.”

Can’t, not don’t. Geralt hums, turning his hand over. His forearms are bandaged again, very neatly. “Are you well?”

“You already know the answer to that, White Wolf.” Jaskier doesn’t pull away, just tilts his head to bare his collar in the slightest invitation.

Geralt is only a man. He’s careful when undoing the buttons of the doublet, and Jaskier holds perfectly still as Geralt’s fingers accidentally graze his throat once or twice. His skin is dangerously soft, and Geralt fears that if he so much as touches him slightly too hard he’ll bruise as easily as a summer peach. He sets the doublet aside, and sees the bloodstains leaking out onto the chemise. There are buttons at the cuffs of this one, and he gently opens each one and helps Jaskier pull it free.

Another day, another whipping.

Geralt’s fingers twitch with the phantom need to stitch and soothe the wound. Jaskier catches it and gives him a slight smile before shucking the rest of his things off unceremoniously and stepping into the icy waterfall.

Geralt doesn’t flinch at the helpless, anguished noise Jaskier makes as he crashes to his knees and his eyes go black, but it’s a close thing. The whip wound is still bleeding like before, and Jaskier shudders under the pounding water, wrapping his arms around himself as the black tears start to pour and the heaving starts in earnest.

When the worst of it is done and the bird has been pulled from Jaskier’s gagging throat by Geralt’s careful hands to be plucked, Jaskier lays in the water and just breathes. The noise of it is painful. Geralt can hear the rasp, the heavy pull of air as he struggles with every move of his lungs, and he casts around for something to say.

“The birds,” he says quietly. “Do they come slower if you pluck them?”

Jaskier gives him a wan smile. “Very clever. I don’t know why, but yes, it seems like there’s a connection. They’re a little smaller, too.”

Interesting. There must be something to do with regeneration in the songbird spell, or perhaps it becomes a self-fulfilling loop as the blood curse keeps Jaskier tethered and fights against the intruder in its target’s body.

“Anything you can tell me about those keys you mentioned?” Geralt asks as he pulls the last feathers from the bird’s body and tosses the corpse away. Everything stinks of rot anyway, he wants it away from his nose.

Jaskier hums. “No. You’ll have to go by what you’ve learned, I’m afraid.” He slowly drags himself up, arms shaking. The bandage has fallen off of his arm to reveal yet another neat line, and Geralt finds himself thinking about the scar cream that Eskel uses, the expensive kind that takes out the redness on his bad days and leaves the skin supple. He wants some for Jaskier.

Jaskier’s head finds his lap, and Geralt cleans his hands off so he can run his fingers through the soft hair again.

“Going to ask for more stories?” he murmurs.

Jaskier sighs, and coughs hard. A mix of red and rotted blood comes up against his hand and he dunks it in the water with a grimace. “I’ll spare you. It pained you the last time, I could see it.”

“The story about the princess I told you,” Geralt says. He doesn’t even know why, really, the words just fall from his lips. “There was no happy ending for the real princess. It was a lie.”

“Most stories are.” Jaskier wipes at his mouth, flicking away the black. “But the best stories have truth in them, even if it’s just a whisper. The kind of stories that keep you up at night are the kind where it could almost happen, it could almost be real. You could almost reach out and touch, in the same way you can touch ripples on a pond.”

Geralt watches the water in the pond splash as Jaskier readjusts his bony limbs. It laps at his too-pale skin, the delicate paper covering his bones. “Grim way to put it.”

“Survivors write the narrative that defines history,” Jaskier says, looking up at the stars overhead. “They decide how the story is going to end each time. How the reader gets there, what the story means, how they feel after it’s done, that’s up to the person telling it.”

“Rewriting the ending,” Geralt says, quiet. “A pretty lie.”

“Tell a lie long enough and it becomes the truth,” Jaskier says, hand finding his knee to squeeze. “Tell a lie well enough and it will become a legend. When I’m free, I’ll write the story of your princess in such a way that no one will hate her, and I’ll free her from her past.”

“And what about you?”

Jaskier looks at him, mouth quirking in a small smile. “Me?”

Geralt nods. “How are you going to rewrite your ending?”

Jaskier looks at him for a long moment before reaching up a hand for Geralt to take and hold. He cradles Jaskier’s hand in his, and Jaskier says softly, “I will write a legacy bright enough to burn out the names of all who came before me.”

And somehow, Geralt knows he will.

Jaskier leaves him be after that, vanishing into the depths of the keep with his heart drum-steady and his eyes too flat. Geralt can’t bear another minute in the castle that evening so he returns to the Dancing Dove to regroup and focus on the rest of his work preparing for his hunt for the keys.

The keys are at the center of it all, the knot holding the curses together. Geralt looks over his notes in the cold darkness of the night and pulls another sheet of paper over to look at it more closely. The blooded places have to hold some sort of clues to the keys. He’s nearly certain that whatever is buried in the night garden is one of them, the throne another, but that still leaves him three more to pick apart, and he still doesn’t actually know what the curse is.

A snarl of frustration rips from his throat, and he shoves his chair away from the desk. The desk shakes, and Jaskier’s journal drops from the top of it onto the floor with a soft thump.

Geralt instantly regrets it, and hurries to pick the little thing up and check that it’s still in good condition. There’s not so much as a scratch to the leather, and he heaves a sigh of relief as he holds it. Almost absently, he flips it open to look at Jaskier’s writing, mind glossing over the actual words. The abrupt halt of entries leaves him quiet, and he runs his fingers gently over the first empty page.

The faintest sliver of a thought catches against his mind, and Geralt goes very still with the pads of his fingers still resting on the page.

He looks at the book, this half finished thing, and his breath catches in his throat. It had been clear since the first time he had stepped foot in Lettenhove Reach that nothing about this hunt was what it seemed. Nothing in the slightest. Jaskier writes in Rogelian Crumple. He talks in riddles designed to clarify. He offers clues where he can, leaves things in code; things hiding in plain sight, like buttercups on a grave.

And he asked Geralt if he found the book illuminating.

With a hand that’s steadier than he feels, Geralt takes the candle from the table and brings it close enough to warm the blank page.

Ink begins to rise to the surface.

Geralt watches with no small amazement. It’s so simple, such an easy trick, and if Jaskier was used to hiding his thoughts from Jorgan it would have been an early skill to learn. All a person needed to make simple invisible ink was lemons and the little spell for ink reaction. If Jaskier had written this at Oxenfurt he could have easily acquired both in the city, and if in Lettenhove, could have found lemons in the kitchen or requested them.

His amazement turns to a groan as he realizes that the hidden phrase, too, is in Rogelian crumple. Resigned, Geralt stomps over to his code book and goes downstairs for yet more paper.

It turns out that the hidden information is, in fact, very short.

Geralt frowns at the page.

“The Tower and the Wyvern,” he reads out, and promptly goes back to checking over the book as thoroughly as possible for any more potential hidden messages. There are no holes or dots on the pages, no more messages in invisible ink of any kind that he can find. He growls in frustration and drops the journal back on the desk, somewhere between elated and irate.

“Jaskier,” he tells the journal, “you ever get cursed again and I might have to kill a man.”

The journal radiates an aura of extremely contrived innocence, and Geralt takes that as his cue to get some fucking sleep.

He falls into bed, closing his eyes against the weight of the day, and is asleep between one heartbeat and the next.

oOo

Geralt wakes up far later than he intends and misses breakfast, but he finds a tray outside his door with all his favorites on it and resolves to find more things to do to help Antonia as he gnaws his way through the spread and rereads his notes from the night before. “The Tower and the Wyvern” has the cadence of a story title, which might mean he needs to return to the Reach’s library, but given the state of the library he’s relatively certain that if the information on the curse is there it’s long since been buried in the chaos.

He hums as he swallows down some bacon, eyeing the paper. There’s Oxenfurt’s libraries as well, that’s a possibility, but Jaskier seems like the sort of person to keep his enemies close and his tools within grabbing distance. The information would be nearby. But there’s no community library here, and no mages with libraries for at least 50 miles. Where would Jaskier have hidden a story?

“Oh,” he says, blinking, and jumps up to get dressed. “Of course.”

Geralt’s knock brings Widow Olga to her door relatively quickly, and she blinks up at him with some surprise.

“Apologies for dropping in on you so early in the day, Mistress Olga,” he starts, but Olga just waves him off.

“No, no, not at all! Is this a social call, Master Witcher?”

Geralt shakes his head, ducking through the door. “I came to ask if Rilandrus ever left any books or journals here. I’m looking for a story about a tower and a wyvern.”

Olga looks up at him with a very odd expression on her face. Geralt waits patiently, and she slowly closes the door, biting her lip. They stand in silence for a time before she says, very quietly, “It’s been a long time since I thought of that story. Come with me, dear.”

A bookshelf in the sitting room contains a small collection of Witcher journals and bestiaries. Olga flips through a few different ones before bringing him the oldest of the lot, and gently presses it into his hands.

“This is the journal with that story,” she says, her gentle old voice quavering a little. “It happened just before we met. I was a young girl then, all of, oh… 18 then, I think. I’d already met my Adrian, though we wouldn’t settle together for a few more years, and Rilandrus was happy to be just a facet of our lives. Adrian loved him nearly as dear as I did. He was a good husband. Rilandrus knew we could never have a real home together, always being called away as he was, but he would come every five winters and stay with us. We all cherished that time.”

The journal is heavier than it looks. Geralt can feel the weight of what it means to be handed something so precious.

“I can stay and read,” he says quietly. “So you don’t have to worry for it.”

There’s a flash of deep pain in Olga’s eyes, and she gently rests one wrinkled old hand on his.

“I forget most days,” she says simply, “but he’s gone, Geralt. And one day soon I will be too. I never thought I’d outlive both my loves and a few children, but it is what it is. He will not be more or less here for one journal.”

Geralt looks at the little book, the well worn leather. “All the same, I will be careful with it.”

Olga gently squeezes his hand. “I know you will, Geralt. Thank you.”

Geralt leaves Olga’s house feeling oddly bereft.

The sun is bright and spilling down through the trees, too nice a day to be inside, so Geralt meanders his way to the grassy edge of the growing fields where he took Roach weeks ago. The young women spinning and carding wool are there on the opposite edge, and wave to him as he settles. He nods back and opens the book to its first page. There’s no name, but there’s a set of dates that must cover the length of this journal, a span of about 5 years. The numbers are in Griffin cipher, but that’s no issue. Geralt’s long since been able to read the cipher with ease since Coën’s letters usually come written in it. He skims through the entries until he finds the word “wyvern” and settles in to read properly.

Late March, 1168, Toussaint- An account of the Wyvern and the woman in the tower

I am recovered enough to bring my hand to the page now, after two weeks. My arm struggled greatly to heal, and my healing potions were worn down long before I arrived here in Toussaint to attend to the issue of a wyvern believed to be stalking a tower with a young woman trapped inside. I exchanged rather tense pleasantries with the local nobility (Countess Adrina Lizette d’Beauleon, and sundry persons related), who engaged me on the contract, and I began my work posthaste.

The wyvern was indeed stalking the tower, for within it was kept a lovely young woman who had been trapped within thanks to a curse. The tower was situated on the outskirts of the Countess Adrina’s lands, previously a watchtower, but I gathered from the courtiers attached to the Countess that the young lady, one young Baroness’s daughter (Lady Sarra de Bourgh, formerly of the Redanian de Callamans care prior to her move to Toussaint to seek her education) had been very fond of walking in the area, and walking in the watchtower’s ruins. The curse was placed upon her by a jealous classmate (Mistress Leliana Dearborn, late of Redania as well, who was turned over to the headmistress for punishment), and once I extracted the conditions I made my way to the tower. I engaged the wyvern, which had been trying its utmost to rip the place apart to get to the supposed easy prey inside. I used the usual oils but made substitutions to Aeldred’s recipe with some local honeysuckle that worked very well and also smelled quite nice, so I will update the potions book this winter. With the wyvern dispatched, the rest of the curse was broken easily enough from the information out of Mistress Leliana and the help of Lady Sarra. She was relieved to see me, and that I could walk freely into the tower. I helped her free, and was pleased to see no ill effects from the curse, only from hunger. I will grant that the curse was short lived, only a week. It was lucky that I was passing through Toussaint and heard of the issue. Lady Sarra arrived back at her school with somewhat shattered nerves and great hunger, but she was quite strong. I expect she will have a long and safer life for this experience.

As for the current affairs of Toussaint, I find myself having been invited to dine at the table of Countess Liana Toulousant d’Orea…

The account dissolves into a reflection on the current political situation in Toussaint on Rilandrus’ visit, and Geralt blinks. What?

He turns the page back, frowning, and rereads the entry. Broken arm, wyvern fight, returning girl home, politics. He hasn’t missed anything, and it definitely doesn’t look like there’s any codes attached to this particular entry other than the Griffin code. There’s nothing else to the entry that he can see. There isn’t even a breakdown of the broken curse. He holds the page up to the light just in case there’s anything he’s missed anywhere, but the page remains normal.

The rest of the afternoon passes quietly as he reads through the rest of the journal just in case there are other notes about the tower and the wyvern further on, but there’s nothing. Rilandrus was a dry but acceptable writer at least, and kept his hunt notes clean and clinical while still descriptive. Geralt learns that he ranged wider than even most other Griffin’s, from Kaedwen all the way down to the south of Nilfgaard in his pattern, and had a very interesting five years. Geralt finally closes the book in the growing dark of the evening with a grumble and makes his way back to the Dancing Dove to fetch his notes and Jaskier’s journal to go over everything he knows, again.

He stakes out a table in the corner and spreads his work out to begin the process of consolidating his notes and expanding on the facets of the blood curse that he thinks he might have an acceptable grasp on, a borrowed pencil from Antonia’s collection in his hand to scrawl out his thoughts on spare paper.

Geralt frowns as he reaches his notes about the tower and the wyvern. What was so interesting about this account that Jaskier had felt the need to write it in invisible ink? There’s nothing that odd about the story, aside from the maiden being locked in by the curse, but the curse is so vague and nonspecific that it could be anything. It’s certainly possible that the locking curse is the same one used on Jaskier, but—

“Oh, I haven’t thought about the Tower and the Wyvern in years!” Melita says, popping up by his elbow. He doesn’t jump, but it’s a near thing. She’s quiet, and has an apron on and her hair pulled back. Apparently she’s helping Antonia tonight, and she pushes a trencher of bread with a massive bowl of soup to him. “Antonia says you’re not eating enough so she sent me with this.”

“Thanks.” Geralt looks down to see that he’s scrawled the words on the page of notes closest to the edge of the table, right where Melita would have seen them. “You know the story?”

Melita shakes her head. “Not well enough to tell it, but I remember the song Jaskier used to sing about it. He liked to do that, take stories he heard and set them to music. The Tower and the Wyvern was pretty popular, actually, I remember him teaching it to me before he left for Oxenfurt 4 years back, because it was right before my parents passed and Herrin took me in. We had a skipping game set to it.”

Geralt’s mind catches on something, and he carefully sets the journal down. “Do you know if he ever spent much time with Rilandrus? The Griffin Witcher who came here, that was his name.”

“Oh, yes, a number of times.” Melita sits down next to him, looking at his papers. “Any time he could get out of the Reach he would be here instead. He would talk to him for hours getting all sorts of details from him about everything, Olga says. Rilandrus wasn’t here much and Lord Jaskier was kept at the castle, but he’d go whenever he could. I think Rilandrus liked getting to talk about all the little things that made up his hunts.”

Details like the specifications of a curse that Rilandrus hadn’t written down.

“Do you remember the song for the Tower and the Wyvern?” Geralt asks, barely daring to hope.

“Some of it,” Melita says, and looks up at the ceiling. “The chorus was the catchy part that we all learned, but I don’t remember the verses of the actual story of the Witcher fighting the wyvern. Let me think how it goes again…
One for the power
One for the land
One for the heart in the palm of your hand
One for obedience
One for the soul
Only together will all be made whole.
Bring down the sun, call up the moon
Hope that a Witcher will find me here soon
Break up the tower to crumble away
Sing me a love song as I wither in day
Slow down my heart so no one smells fear
Shield my poor body to keep me safe here
Love conquers all, this still I know
Bring us together, make me again whole.”

Geralt stares at her, heart in his throat.

“Fuck,” he says to the open air, and Melita blinks at him. He pushes paper and pencil towards her. “Can you write?”

“Um, yes-”

“Write down what you sang for me.”

Of course, he thinks wildly as Melita carefully writes out the words. Of fucking course, Jaskier was a nosy and paranoid boy who would have known about his father’s plans and had a back up just in case it was him who was doomed to be overtaken. The song was just a song until spoken by someone with power and intent in Elder, and Jaskier would have known how to perform the ritual to activate it from Rilandrus. Curses could be made with so little effort. If Jaskier had figured out exactly what his father intended to do, he could have spoken the words and used the magic bound in his throat to warp and twist it, and amplify it by using his own blood to turn the curse into a full lockdown. He had hidden the curse’s secret in a song. Jorgan and Geralt had both thought it would be written down, but Jorgan had hated music and Geralt would never have thought to ask for a song.

Geralt’s going to kill him for how specific but open the curse is, though, that’s for certain.

Melita hands him the paper and he reads through it with feverish attention.

The 5 keys now have specific meanings attached. The throne must be power, but the other four are still undefined. The curse’s parameters make more sense too— he’s bound to nighttime, the sun becoming an enemy that could undo the curse enough for the possession to take. His heart was slowed to help his body stay inert and at rest to save energy, the “shield” line unintentionally erasing his presence and trying to force out his body’s rider. And, of course, because he’s a fucking idiot, Jaskier had accidentally built in a clause about the curse having to be broken by a Witcher. The last few lines about love will take some puzzling out but for now he’s finally found a break.

Melita leans over with wide eyes as he pulls his notes in and starts to compare the lyrics with the bird curse. “Did I do good?”

“You may have just saved him,” Geralt says honestly, and Melita’s eyes go wide.

“You mean…”

“The song is part of the curse,” he says, scribbling a note to get a shovel from somewhere to dig up the night garden. “Hidden in plain sight, where no one would find it and without any danger of someone finding it written down.”

“Oh,” Melita breathes, and reaches out to gently touch his hand. “Master Witcher?”

He looks back at her, and sees her huge eyes fixed fearlessly on him. “Hmm?”

“Is...is Lord Jaskier going to be okay?”

Tell a lie long enough and it becomes the truth.

“Yes,” Geralt says. “One way or another.”

Melita nods somberly, and to his surprise leans over to hug him tight before jumping up and hurrying away. He watches her go with a strange feeling burrowing its way into his chest. He’s going to miss Lettenhove and her people when he goes. It’s strange to think that he’s found almost a family here, as much as that’s possible.

Shaking his head, he returns his focus to the notes, and delves into his work.

oOo

One for the power, one for the land, one for the heart in the palm of your hand…

Geralt makes his way up to the castle, the first lines of The Tower and the Wyvern’s chorus ringing in his ears as he goes. It’s dark out, spring starting its slow descent into summer. The air is hot with growing things and heavy with humidity, too much for him to be willing to haul himself fully armored up to the castle. He’s down to his shirtsleeves and usual trousers and boots, swords slung on his back.

One for obedience, one for the soul…

Yakob’s on duty with Uldred. They let him past without comment.

The keep is dark and smells faintly of damp thanks to the rain that washed through in the morning hours. Geralt had slept through it, exhaustion bogging him down. He finds a candelabra and lights it, mouth set in a grim line as he considers the empty halls before him.

Only together will all be made whole.

It’s time to start key hunting.

The Great Hall is his first destination. There’s more blood smeared on the back of the chair, relatively new, and Geralt resists the urge to spit on it.

One for the power…

That’s one key down, clearly. Four to go, and he needs to make the most of his time since the space between each bird Jaskier coughs up grows shorter.

He leaves the chair be. For one thing, it’s bolted to the stones, and for another, the curse requires all the keys be in the same place before it can be broken, never mind the myriad other little things Geralt has to get just right. Gods, he fucking hates curses, and he hates this set of curses with a fervor he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to match again in his life. He huffs a sigh, considering his options as he looks back and forth down the halls. He has power’s key, but obedience, heart, soul, and land are all still in the wind.

The candles gutter weakly in the dark.

Obedience, he thinks. Obedience and blood. The stables are an option for that, but… Jorgan had wanted an obedient, mindless child. While there’s fresh blood in the stables, the box with the horrible curved needle is in the laboratory still, and, well. The trauma of that particular kind of bloodletting might be strong enough to carry on for years if the spell were tied to it.

Which means, of course, that he needs to go get it.

The candles gutter again, and Geralt doesn’t move.

The curse is working on him. He knows it is. Ever since the library he’s been… aware, in a way. He’s off his game, more emotional than normal. Some curses are like that, heavy handed on top but subtle as riptides underneath. Chaos likes to find ways to wreak havoc, magic unpredictable when there isn’t a mage on hand to manage it and keep it tethered to order. The curse is bound by some limitations, but not enough. Geralt’s emotions were taken from their normal highs and lows and smoothed out, so to speak, by the Trials. But they’re still there. And the curse is working him over hard to bring things that he wouldn’t have blinked at before into new and ugly light.

Geralt takes a slow breath, and lets it out carefully.

Time to go.

The slow spiral down into the old dungeons leaves him with a bad taste in his mouth, and Geralt hesitates on the last step. The candelabra flickers, casting odd shadows on the stones, and he takes a slow breath of stale air before stepping off and into the passage with the cells. This time he stops in front of the one that holds Lorenz’s belongings. It’s a measly amount of things. The trunks are small. But there’s no lock on the door to deter him, so he pulls the door open and steps in to get a better look at the painting.

He’d only glanced at it the other day, but now that he’s looking closer he can see that it’s a self portrait. It’s a little more stylized than the others, with Lorenz painting on a canvas and looking out at the viewer. Closer inspection reveals that under his fine silks there are scars on his neck that look like burns, and dark spots under the glassy eyes. His ear has a mark where it looks like an earring might have been torn out, and among the set dressing of flowers in vases there are endless perfectly rendered lobelias.

Geralt looks at the lobelias for a long time. Poisonous in large enough doses, a painkiller in others, beautiful always.

He collects the other two paintings from the neighboring rooms and puts them together, looking at the set. They look painfully young. Lorenz has the same stubborn mouth as Jaskier, similar lashes, the same nose. Natalia does look the most like Jaskier, with her soft brown curls and similar eyes and jaw, but she’s dressed in severe, plain clothes and seated for her portrait in a comfortable chair. There’s some needlework in her lap, nothing too ornate, and her eyes are tired. Her flowers are hellebore. Piotr has the same face shape as Jaskier, and dark waves in the same gentle pattern as Jaskier’s, but there’s a steeliness to him under the placid expression. He has a bouquet of foxgloves on his lap, and a full platter of untouched food before him.

He sighs, looking at the three. Lorenz would have made a fortune as a portraitist.

“I’ll do what I can,” he tells their unblinking faces.

Geralt rises, heart settled, and grabs the candelabra.

The stillroom is in the same shape that he found it last, his mark all over the room. Geralt sets the candelabra down and blows the candles out, drawing his sword before he triggers the hidden door. It pulls back on groaning hinges, and he stares up into the musty dark. There’s the faintest breeze down the stairs, bringing with it the stale smell of unwalked places.

“Fuck it,” he mutters, and lights his hand.

The moment he takes the first step he feels the curse ramp up its work. His heart kicks up, and he grits his teeth as he starts to climb. One foot after the other, each landing in the divots of a thousand footsteps on the stone before, he climbs in the dark.

The silence is a physical thing, pressing in on him with each careful step. All he can hear in the darkness is the faint guttering of Igni in his hand, and the rasp of his own breathing as he struggles to keep his heart even. Even his steps seem muffled in this place, and the dark feels like velvet, pressing in with soft fingers and making itself impenetrable. Igni’s light only stretches so far around him, and he’s almost certain that part of it is the curse keeping some pressure on him, making the darkness an ever more physical part of this unending fight. But it’s one foot after another, careful placement in each divot, staying light on his feet and keeping his pupils blown wide to catch every possible hint of movement.

He should have brought Cat, he thinks in a vague sort of way. One more step. He should have brought his armor (why hadn’t he brought his armor, the reason seems so far away now—), and he should have brought a candle from the candelabra (but he needs both hands for...something…) More steps.

What is he doing? He’s not prepared, he’s only got his swords, and he is not alone in the dark

He should be there by now.

Geralt stops dead.

Fuck.

Igni gutters in his hand, and he takes a deep, slow breath. The curse is definitely getting stronger. He flicks his fingers and sends Igni scattering up the stairs, watching with sickening interest as they warp and twist like a mirage in the desert before shivering. They solidify back into normal stairs and he lights his hands again, feeling more clearheaded.

Box. He’s getting the box. He’s getting the fucking box and getting out of this fucking castle.

With grim resolution Geralt continues up the stairs. This time he makes it to the turn for the laboratory with no issues, and lets himself in. The place is exactly as he left it. The box is waiting on the table, so he scoops it up. The room is as stuffy and uncomfortable as ever, and he scowls as he kicks some broken glass out of the way. He has what he came for, it’s time to leave.

His eyes light on the red journal, the one with the children’s faces and deaths in it.

This is Jorgan’s trophy collection. No physical trophies, just the images of these children, and if it’s destroyed there’ll be no proof that he committed the murders. It’s been too long. He snags the book from the pile and tucks it into his shirt so he won’t lose it, nods to himself, and leaves the room once more to head back down. A straightforward retrieval. What a concept.

Geralt returns to the velveteen dark, takes a breath to steady himself, and begins the slow descent to the dungeons once more. He’s genuinely uncertain how far up he is- he thinks this may be the fourth floor, the highest part of the keep, but it’s hard to say. The staircase winds in a circuitous path, narrow in places, and with the complete lack of any signposts that he can smell or see he’s functionally walking blind.

He thinks he might be on the second level when a voice thick with venom hisses, “Behave.”

Every hair on the back of Geralt’s neck rises to stiff attention.

The voice seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, dripping menace. It bounces off the walls, making it impossible to tell where it’s coming from. “You can do nothing without making it some sort of obstacle to overcome. Do you think yourself clever, bitch? You’ve never been anything but a means to an end.”

Jaskier.

It’s Jaskier’s voice, but the cadence is all wrong. This is Jaskier possessed, the beast in him using his voice.

And Geralt has no idea where he is.

“No,” Jaskier’s voice says, almost bored. There’s an edge of anger underneath, and it’s definitely Jaskier himself talking. “You’ve said all of this before, and it’s not more true now than it was then.”

Geralt can smell copper now. Jaskier’s close. The shielding on him keeps his footsteps and scent from Geralt, muffling him to the senses, but the copper stink mixed with the cold silver of his jewelry and faintest swishing of his clothes give him away. Barely.

Geralt looks down at the box in his hand, and Igni in the other. He has little time. There’s nowhere to hide the box, and if he cuts Igni he’ll have no light in the darkness at all against an opponent who knows every inch of these halls even in pitch dark and won’t put a single foot wrong. He’s going to have to hope that Jaskier’s body is behind him, and not down one of the side halls.

A brief, horrible thought whispers into his mind.

He could kill Jaskier here. A fall on the stairs is an easy thing to explain away. The townsfolk wouldn’t even blame him. He could snap his neck, make it painless, free him from this torment. It could be fast.

He could make it very, very fast.

Love conquers all, this still I know.

The words of the song kill that thought as soon as it raises its ugly head, and Geralt steels himself. No. Jaskier would not be saved through violence. He will be saved through love, pure and unconditional. He’s closing in on the final keys, and to stop now would be a weakness he would never forgive himself for.

Geralt begins his descent, walking as soft as he can. Igni only casts so much light, and he keeps it close to his chest just to be a bit safer.

“I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that you still think such foolish things,” the menacing voice says again, and this time it’s definitely closer. “But, my dear Julian, I will make you pay for them.”

Geralt rounds a curve and stops in his tracks.

“Well,” the thing in Jaskier’s body says, staying at the edge of the ring of light before him. He’s dressed in all black, the matte cotton of his shirt and trousers melting into the darkness. His feet are bare, his hands and neck dripping with silver. The smile on his face isn’t Jaskier’s at all. “Hello, witcher. It’s nice to finally see you again. He likes to keep me running away from you, when he knows you’re in the keep. He ties us to the bedpost, and I’ve yet to figure out the knots.”

“You have me at a disadvantage,” Geralt says evenly, tightening his grip on his dagger and letting Igni flare a little. Jaskier’s body flinches back, head turning away a little to avoid the light.

“Oh, but you’ve gone grubbing through all my little secrets, we’re practically bed mates,” Jorgan Lorenz Pancratz de Lettenhove says through his son’s mouth. “You’ve seen me laid bare, master witcher. Tell me, how does my work compare to other humans you’ve seen?”

Too late, Geralt sees the tiny squat blade hiding in Jaskier— no, in Jorgan’s hands. It’s the twin to the one in the box he carries, probably the same one Jaskier uses for his bloodletting. Jaskier’s body is fast for someone who hasn’t been eating well and been heaving rotted blood out of himself for two years, and Geralt very nearly misses deflecting the knife as Jorgan lunges for him hard and fast, knife outstretched. He stumbles back a step, narrowly keeping his balance as Igni gutters in his hand.

“It won’t be long now,” Jorgan says, darting close and then back out of the light fast, knife whistling as it barely avoids him. Geralt stumbles back up the stairs as Jorgan advances, dodging each stab. “Not long at all. Hold still, Witcher— I want to see how you bleed.”

It’s the light. The light hurts his eyes, like Geralt’s. Geralt takes a deep breath, steadies the box in his hands, and snuffs out Igni. There’s a delighted hiss in the dark and he slams his hand on the wall to light it once more, the flames rushing out to greedily fill the darkness with new and vibrant light. Jorgan screams, stumbling backwards and dropping the knife. Geralt kicks it away and grabs him, pinning him to his body as he spins them together so Geralt’s lower on the steps. He thrashes hard, trying to keep his face from the light, and it looks like something roils under his skin before it’s subdued and Jaskier starts to cry black tears.

“No, no, no,” Jaskier’s voice says- and oh, fuck, he’s never been more relieved to hear that cadence in his life. “No, no, no, no—”

“Fight it,” Geralt begs, voice ragged with desperation. “Come on, you son of a bitch, you’ve made it 21 years under this fucker’s thumb, you can manage five more minutes.” Igni gutters in his hand, nearly going out, and he struggles to keep it lit. Jaskier shies away from the light, eyes leaking tears from more exposure than he’s had in years.

“You have to go,” Jaskier says, voice ragged as his chest heaves. His heart is rabbit fast, and Geralt feels sick. “Let me go, he’s almost out of strength for the day, you have to run.”

“No,” he snarls, and Jaskier fights in his arms. Geralt can feel blood seeping through his doublet and onto his arms. “No, Jaskier, I am not fucking letting you go.”

“Please,” Jaskier begs, eyes flashing. “Go, before you’re just one more thing I have to regret about this place. Go before he can take you from me too. I won’t let him kill again.”

“If I abandon you now, I know I’ll regret it every day for the rest of my life,” Geralt says, the words punched out of him by the weight of their truth. “I kill monsters, Jaskier, I leave this one alive and it’ll eat me too. There will be nowhere to go that I can outrun it, no place too forgotten to disappear. Fail you, and I will have failed everything. Fail you, and I won’t be able to keep going. I’m not leaving you.”

Jaskier heaves out a shuddering sob, and looks up to meet his eyes. The blue blazes against the black tears, and Geralt can see the steel underneath the corroding blood.

GO,” Jaskier shouts, and Geralt bites back a roar of frustration as the power in the command hooks into him and forces him into stumbling away. “I’ll do what I can! Trap me, fast!”

Igni snuffs out as Geralt throws down Yrden just in time, Jaskier slamming forward into the binds and screaming like a wild thing, the snarl on his face barely human. The command sticks and Geralt lights Igni to run down the narrow stairs, only to have it gutter and fail as he slips on the slick steps and falls. For one terrible swooping moment he thinks this is the end, that here is how he’ll end his life, a broken neck in a hidden staircase in the dark as he tumbles and slams against the stones. A gash opens on his back and he bites back a noise of pain, fingers scrambling for purchase on the divotted steps. He finally manages to catch himself and lights Igni, staggering to his feet and rushing down the stairs to the open room and blessed light of the stillroom. He hears a howl from the stairs and drags the door closed, shoving the bookshelf in front of it to block the exit.

Geralt sits down hard on the floor, chest heaving as he looks down at his prize.

“You better have been worth something,” he tells the box, and slowly gets back up on his feet to run for the exit.

He hides the box and death journal under rotting straw in an abandoned stall, Madeline watching him with placid eyes. He gets it covered, wincing as he feels the cut on his back twinge, and curses himself out for having been so careless as to go with only his swords and no armor into the keep. He’s gotten sloppy here, and he makes his way to the shambles of a tack room to look for any first aid gear that might be kept there.

He finds a likely looking small chest in the wreckage of the room, and decides he’s not about to risk getting yet more grime in the wound. He takes the chest out and sets it down near the post, pulling it open to see if there are any bandages inside. The box is the kind with two levels, a tray on the top for lifting out and storage below it. The top does thankfully have bandages, and some tinctures for cleaning wounds against infection. He picks up some clean rags to at least get the worst of the grime off of his hands, but his nose wrinkles as he smells copper.

Geralt looks around, confused. There’s the usual bloodstains on the floor, and fuck, how he hates that that’s normal. But it’s not enough blood to justify it.

He looks back at the box, and his heart sinks.

Slowly, he lifts up the tray to reveal what sits below the bandages.

Geralt’s handled a lot of terrible shit in his day. He regularly deals with the restless dead, the byproducts of battlefields left to rot, and the kind of monsters that make even something like him look cuddly and gentle. But the braided length of leather he pulls from the box makes him sicker than near anything else ever has.

The blood is fresh.

Geralt sinks to his knees in front of the post Jaskier has been bound to far too many times, head thumping against the wood as shuddering, wracking noise rushes from his chest. It’s not the precursor to tears, it’s just anguish and exhaustion all on its own, too many layers of pain bound up in him as the hot copper stink of blood burns his nose. He slumps there, body shaking as he hauls in heaving lungfuls of air tainted by blood and mold, alone in a decaying stable. There’s no one to see him. No one to comfort him. He’s as near to despair as it’s possible to be.

Pointless. The box was pointless, and Jaskier is bloody backed, and Geralt is running out of time faster and faster.

The whip is his second key.

The whip is leaving Jaskier’s blood on his hands.

One for obedience…

“Fuck you,” he breathes, full of bitter rage. “Death was too damn good for you, Jorgan de fucking Lettenhove.”

It takes him much too long to slowly stagger to his feet again, but it’s only Madeline who sees him. She whickers and snorts as he goes to her and opens her stall. Geralt wraps his arms around her neck and presses his face into her mane. She doesn’t seem worried, just drapes her sturdy head over his shoulder like she does this all the time. Perhaps she does. Geralt drags in breath after breath of clean horse scent, free of copper and cruelty. The trembling starts to ease, and he lets go with one last steadying breath.

He cleans his hands on his pants before petting her and telling her that she’s a good horse indeed and promising her very many apples. She just tries to eat his hair, and that makes him hug her again.

When he finally staggers into the Dancing Dove, Antonia is cleaning up from the evening’s work. She drops a stack of wooden platters when she sees him, eyes fixing on the bloodstains and the bruise on his cheek, the tear in his shirt. She gathers her skirts and runs to him with worry in her eyes, and Geralt just holds open his arms in silent request.

She pulls him into the strongest hug of his life, and Geralt buries his face in her hair.

“We don’t have long left,” he tells her, and he knows he must sound as exhausted as he feels. “It’s not good.”

Antonia just holds him tighter, one hand coming up to gently cup the back of his head to soothe him.

After he’s bathed and taken a healing potion, Geralt sits on the bed and looks at his hands. They blur a little, and the cut on his back twinges. He knows what it means. He can feel it with a weight of certainty he’s never felt before. He bled in the castle, and he doesn’t dare hope that he managed to escape without dripping his own blood within the castle grounds.

Geralt is tied to the blood curse now, and it’s going to do it’s damnedest to destroy him before Jorgan even gets a chance.