“My gift is obedience: Julian will always be obedient.
Now stop crying, child."
The witch did not intend to lay a curse upon the boy, at least that’s what she told the Redanian nobility.
When he cried inconsolably through his first hour of life, his tears were her inspiration – or perhaps her irritation – and she pressed a finger to the tip of his red nose. Once spoken, her words wrapped around the babe and bound him to follow any order: No matter how innocuous or insane. His mouth snapped shut without permission and his legs halted swiftly when he wanted to follow.
“He’s so well behaved!” strangers cooed.
“You’ve raised him so well!” relatives praised.
“We were blessed, to be sure,” his parents lied behind polite smiles.
As time passed and the boy grew, Julian became obstinate in the face of his forced obedience – rebelling in tiny ways to assert his independence. Biting his tongue, shoving cotton in his ears, wrapping his arms around doorframes, it didn’t matter. He did all he could to the point of making himself sick as he slowly added time between being told what to do and following through.
By the time he was twelve, though dizziness and nausea promptly followed, he was able to wait a painful six seconds before succumbing to his body’s magical imperative. He danced with the ladies at court and practiced calligraphy until ink stained his skin at his parent’s wishes. The lute he played defiantly in the late hours of night was tossed into a different trunk around the estate by his own miserable hands.
At sixteen Julian sat through dinner after dinner with potential wives until he could no longer tell them apart. They all were beautiful in their own right, but the second one of them got too close to figuring out his ailment they were whisked away with no memory of the meal. His mother tried her best to keep his condition a secret, but after she passed from illness Julian’s care fell to his father who only saw him as a pawn in the grand game of aristocracy.
If it hadn’t been for their cook Mandy, Julian might have thrown himself off the parapets long before being told to by his wicked cousin.
He didn’t have time to enjoy the walloping Mandy bestowed upon Hattie and her sister Olive because he’d been struck by the realization of how dangerous his curse was. He could be ordered to drink poison or slice his wrists with a blade. In the back of his mind Julian feared he could be ordered to kill someone he cared for and the glint in Hattie’s eyes only fueled his fear.
That night he left a note on his bed and recovered his lute before vanishing into the night. Mandy sent word to her sister at Oxenfurt where Julian became Jaskier; the son of peasant farmers on the border who wanted more from life. He threw himself into his studies and worked on his craft until he felt confident enough to venture into the wild.
In spite of the spell, Jaskier had grown up strong of mind: His curse made him obedient, but his heart made him kind.
He fell in love with every step which put distance between him and the place he once called home. Waking up in the beds of various paramours left him giddy and inspired; fingers dancing over lute strings without fear of stopping without consent. The occasional tomato and disagreeable patron reminded Jaskier of the claustrophobic nightmare he lived with every day – ready to spring like a forgotten trap until his secret was out in the open.
“Play something else!”
“Come here and say that to my face!”
Jaskier learned from traveling performers how to duck and flee and also when to stand his ground. This latest acting troupe had an elf seamstress who took one look at him and knew he was bespelled. She tsked in pity and kept a close eye on him like Mandy used to when he was little. Quick with a rebuff and mean with her throwing knives, her brethren knew to ask instead of demand whenever Jaskier traveled with them.
“Have you thought about tracking the witch down?” Gail asked one day after his twenty-first birthday. They were not far from Gulet, but their destination was just south of Posada and Jaskier had plans to stay there for a few nights.
“And if I did then what? Ask her nicely to rescind her gift?”
“If that’s a gift then I’m the long lost daughter of the House Creyden.”
Jaskier snickers, careful to avoid sticking himself with the needle in his right hand as he helps with the mending. The bright colors swarm before his eyes and before he knows it Jaskier is wiping away the tears before they can fall. Gail shushes his grief and when he’s gathered himself she gives him two things: A cup of tea and advice.
“What you need is a Witcher. You’ve got plenty of coin saved up to hire one. Master trackers, they are and once the witch is found your muscle for hire can put the sword to her if she refuses to remove the curse.”
It’s the best idea Jaskier’s heard yet.
When he spots the white hair across the tavern eight days later, Jaskier sends a quick thanks to the gods of fate before he strolls over. Jaskier plays out the conversation a dozen times in his head with each sliver of space between them, but they’re lost in the moment. It’s not until they’re walking down the dirt road that he realizes he didn’t actually ask Geralt for help.
“I’ll be your barker!”
He resolves to get around to it later once Geralt has saved them from Filavandrel and Co. His head is pounding and it’s a testament to how out of it he is that he doesn’t even realize Geralt has told him to shut up and he has. Perhaps the Witcher thinks he’s afraid, but then again Jaskier isn’t surprised when Geralt confronts him once they’re free.
Jaskier just stares until Geralt is forced to elaborate.
“I can feel the magic around you,” Geralt snarls, pulling his medallion free from his leathers as if would clarify Jaskier’s confusion.
“Ah, yes about that… it slipped my mind?” Jaskier eventually titters, nerves rushing like fire through his bruised body.
Rolling his eyes Geralt turns to leave Jaskier with his panic in the wild brush. His new lute swings against his back and Jaskier is brought back to his initial bargain with Geralt before the attack. He strums mindlessly, refusing to be cowed by the glare Geralt levels his way as he falls in step next to Roach. Words pour from his mouth and despite their historical inaccuracy, they flow beautify.
“The last thing I need is a cursed bard.”
Jaskier laughs, because no shit Geralt: The last thing he wants to be is cursed and the look he levels Geralt seems to get his ire across. They continue in silence until curiosity gets the best of Geralt and he asks, “So, what exactly is the nature of your curse?”
“I’ll make you a deal my fair Witcher,” Jaskier reasons and when Geralt looks at him expectantly he continues, “If my ballads have failed to improve your reputation within three months I will tell you and we will part ways. However, if you are shown even a modicum of respect at taverns where my songs are in high demand then you will have to guess as our travels together continue.”
“Why do I feel like I’m not getting anything out of this bard?”
Jaskier grins roguishly over his shoulder and winks in the face of Geralt’s scowl, “You couldn’t be more wrong dear Witcher. As always it is I who is at a disadvantage and others who stand to benefit from my company.”
* -- * -- * -- * -- * -- * -- * -- *
One month, eighteen days, and four hours later Jaskier is proven right.
“Another round for the Witcher and his bard!”
Roars and applause fill the tavern and Geralt is guided to a table heavy with food and ale. He watches Jaskier spin and dance on the makeshift stage, voice hoarse but bright as he’s joined in the chorus of “Toss a Coin”. The stew warms Geralt’s insides, but the tavern’s obvious cheer rankles something deep within. He hadn’t believed Jaskier’s words that day, but he figured the bard was harmless enough to keep around. The feel of magic around him made Geralt’s medallion buzz from sunup to sunset although there were moments where the sensation grew insistent.
He’d yet to figure out what exactly ailed Jaskier, but it didn’t appear to be life threatening so he let it be. If Geralt kept an ear to the ground for sightings of vindictive witches, he kept that between himself and Roach. He was certain no one was truly fine with being cursed – even a bard as charismatic and carefree as Jaskier.
“Play it again!” someone yells from the bowels of the crowd and Geralt’s nose picks up on the scent of misery from Jaskier. The smile on his face looks genuine enough, but Geralt can almost feel his exhaustion as if it were his own.
“Let him rest, Jaskier come eat.”
There’s a murmur of agreement when the relief on Jaskier’s face lights up the room and any naysayers are swayed by a raspy, yet grateful, thank you for the reprieve. Friendly pats find their way to Jaskier’s weary shoulders until Geralt catches sight of a drunken lout getting overly familiar. Before he can rescue the bard, Jaskier has a dagger pressed into the man’s gut and his threat is lost in the crowd, but not to Geralt.
“I’m in no mood tonight good sir however if you continue to push me I’ll be sure to shove your severed fingers somewhere unpleasant.”
Jaskier is careful not to jostle Geralt when he settles in, content to rip into the warm roll he’d been eyeing since he began singing. He notices Geralt eyeing him so he shoots him a silent question with his eyebrow.
“So, you improve the reputation of Witchers and threaten to dismember drunken patrons? I had no idea you were so well rounded.”
Jaskier preens as if Geralt had paid him the highest compliment ever spoken. He waits until he’s finished quenching his thirst before replying and the wistful tone to his voice catches Geralt’s attention.
“I trust you to find the good in me, but the bad I must be sure you don't overlook.”
“I’d hardly call defending yourself bad, Jaskier.”
Humming, Jaskier concedes to Geralt’s logic and scarfs down a second bowl of stew without hesitation. He doesn’t tell Geralt that nobility – or rather respectable nobility – doesn’t use knives to threaten their enemies: At least not in public. The more Jaskier travels with Geralt the more he thinks of home and the restrictions placed on his past.
“Pace yourself bard, wouldn’t you rather feast on something else tonight?”
Geralt’s snort is hidden by the cheers of the table behind them as a third game of Gwent comes to an end. He doesn’t watch as Jaskier is lured away by a buxom barmaid and when he wakes in the morning he considers slipping away without Jaskier. This idea is quickly blown to the wind when he sees Jaskier slip Roach a sugar cube – lute slung along his back and travel bag backed with a clean bedroll.
The next few years pass much the same; occasionally they part for Jaskier to winter in Oxenfurt and Geralt at Kaer Morhen. They face drowners and wyverns together and the first witch Jaskier meets almost kills him, but he wasn’t expecting anything different to be honest. She is bold and terrifying – the personification of a storm bound by flesh and bone. The look in her eyes answers his unasked question and terror has him running from her room before she can tell him to stop.
Jaskier is not bitter when he sees the witch intimately tangled with Geralt no matter what the healer infers whist checking him over. It’s the first time in years that he tries to disobey an order when Geralt tells him to ‘come on’. Jaskier’s tongue is heavy with unspoken sorrow as spots dance in the edges of his vision, but his feet follow like they always do. Geralt chalks his reticence to lingering pain and sets a slow pace to the next town.
Jaskier leaves for Oxenfurt early that year and Geralt lets him.
Come spring the bard’s odd behavior is forgotten in favor of disastrous banquets and cranky werewolves. Jaskier has improved his wait time to twelve seconds, which comes in handy whenever Geralt’s mood is foul enough for him to tell Jaskier to either, “fuck off” or Jaskier’s personal favorite, “go fuck yourself”.
Destiny is fond of its twisted trials and every so often they run into Yennefer, leaving Jaskier with a bad taste in his mouth every time. Eventually he reaches his breaking point and confronts her while Geralt is at the apothecary.
“Alright, go ahead and do it. Give me a command – come on! Satisfy your sick need to control everyone and everything!”
Yennefer tilts her head, studying Jaskier intensely, without reservation, and he’s wrong-footed when all she does is shake her head sadly. She reminds him of Mandy and Gail and it makes his stomach twist uncomfortably.
“Can you fix me?”
That broken voice can’t be his, except that it is and Jaskier walks away before she can reply because two weeks ago he nearly walked into a river to drown when Geralt said something carelessly. Thankfully he quickly changed his mind and told Jaskier to break up their campsite instead.
“Are all bards this dramatic?” he’d asked and it took everything Jaskier had not to break down and cry.
Instead of wallowing, Jaskier sings and twirls like a maiden laden with silk skirts in Cintra’s courts much to the delight of a young cub. Pavetta sent for him after her daughter was born and Jaskier rarely, if ever, turned down the opportunity to entertain. Princess Cirilla was a love, beautiful and kind even in the face of overwhelming grief. He composed an epic ode to her parents for her ninth birthday which left the court dewy eyed and grateful for his prose.
“You’re remarkably literal for a bard,” Queen Calanthe says after witnessing Jaskier pinch his tongue between two fingers during an altercation with an irate baron. She had found his performance to be delightful, but obviously it wasn’t a shared sentiment by all in her court.
“My tongue itched.”
Calanthe’s laughter catches Jaskier off guard and perhaps it’s the mirth in her eyes that causes him to blurt out the truth.
“I was cursed with obedience as a babe.”
Eist peers over Calanthe’s shoulder and without hesitation, commands Jaskier to upend his goblet of wine onto the floor. Cheeks flushed, Jaskier follows suit and wonders how royally he’s fucked himself when he takes in the wide eyes of his audience. Before Calanthe can give him an order Ciri moves to his side and tells them to stop.
“How would you like it if you were forced to do something you didn’t want? If you had no control over your body?”
Jaskier does not cry, but it’s a near thing when Eist looks properly scolded and Calanthe considers her granddaughter’s words. No one else seems to understand what’s transpired and so his secret is safe – or as safe as it can be in the hands of a terrifying Queen.
“Indeed I would imagine such a curse could be used for foul purposes,” Calanthe admits and Jaskier does not need to tell her of his close calls with death because she can imagine it clearly.
“You honor us with your honesty master bard,” Eist commends though there is an unspoken warning writ across his face. Jaskier nods, and when Ciri asks him politely if he’ll play some more he cannot imagine anything he’d love more. The rest of the night passes without incident and he is invited back the following year for their holiday celebration.
Three years later Jaskier can hear Eist’s warning, clear as a rooster at dawn at the top of a dragon’s mountain.
He talks of the coast and wanting and it’s on the tip of his tongue, but the peace exuded by Geralt is too precious to break with curses. He sleeps on the cold ground, envious of the creature comforts Yennefer has to offer in her tent. He does not need advance hearing to know the way their bodies entwine and if he’d known what was to follow he would’ve left with heart intact in the dead of night.
“If life could give me one blessing, it would be to take you off my hands.”
It is not an order.
Jaskier leaves anyway.
* -- * -- * -- * -- * -- * -- * -- *
Nilfgaard finds him, breaks him, and weaponizes him in that order.
The vial is filled with a potent paralytic that could freeze a striga in its tracks. It won’t kill Yennefer, but it will prevent her from fighting back long enough for Nilfgaardian forces to clamp her in irons.
The dagger is coated in a fast-acting poison that could fell giants with a single drop. It will kill Geralt slowly and painfully until Nilfgaardian steel parts his throat.
Jaskier is told to lead the princess into the woods after her guardians are disarmed where she will be taken into Nilfgaardian custody. His insides curl and rot against the curse; limbs locked in agony as he spits in the face of his captors and says he won’t do it – he won’t help them.
He pockets the dagger and stows the vial in a secret pocket sown in his new doublet. Tears run hot trails down his cheek until that release is taken from him.
“Do not warn them.”
It hurts: It hurts so much Jaskier feels as if he’s dying. Internally he rages, bashing bloodied fists against the cage his body has always been. On the outside he appears calm and friendly to the folk in town – the intricate web work of commands flawless and inescapable. A baker points him towards the inn where it’s said a Witcher stayed a few nights pass.
Jaskier would fall to his knees in relief if he could, but when he’s told Geralt left two days ago he is driven by tired feet along the northern path. Eyes watch him from the thick woods and Jaskier feels like he’s walking up the steps to the noose with every painful second that passes. He prays and barters with any deity around that Geralt stays far beyond his reach. He’s pushed through the night and it doesn’t bother him much as Jaskier fears what nightmares wait him on the shores of sleep. The next town finds him sore from hunger and when he settles in for local gossip he is roped into performing.
It is hell.
Cheerful lyrics fall from chapped lips and there’s a wild edge to his laugh as the dichotomy grows with every raunchy song requested. It’s been eight months since Jaskier has seen Geralt but when their eyes lock across the tavern he wishes it had been longer. With smile stretched thin and stomach churning with bitter acid he's approached by Geralt, but Ciri beats him. The joy at seeing her old friend shines on her thin face and Jaskier wants to scream until his throat is bloody.
“Hello little cub, I’m so relieved to see you unharmed.”
“She told me you played at court over the years.” Geralt’s tone isn’t accusatory, but it still makes Jaskier flush in spite of the war raging fiercely within.
“Pavetta requested my presence after she was born and I just couldn’t stay away.”
Jaskier’s hands do not shake when he gently bops her nose, and Ciri laughs at the affectionate gesture.
“We’re heading north to Kaer Morhen,” she confesses, “you should come too!”
Yennefer’s presence interrupts Geralt’s reply and Jaskier is surprised when she greets him without an ounce of familiar animosity. He wonders if she can sense that he is dangerous, if she can see the Nilfgaardian claws deep in his flesh, but he is dismayed by her words.
“You two have things to discuss. Fiona, come help me settle our room,” Yennefer says, hands gentle on Ciri’s shoulders. The ambiance of the tavern is suffocating and for a second Jaskier’s tongue loosens and he can almost form the warning, but Geralt ruins things as usual.
“Can we talk?”
The frenzied edge to Jaskier’s laugh is not a product of the murderous undercurrent, but of his own fragile heart that’d been bound to Geralt for years. He brushes past Geralt, hand slipping into the pocket where the dagger lives without realizing it, and heads out the tavern door. Night has fallen quietly over the small town and by the time Geralt has caught up, Jaskier has sequestered himself in the stall where Roach happily lips at his clothing.
Geralt’s hand burns like a brand when it turns him around and Jaskier is lost in his golden eyes; wide with apology and something he dare not name.
“Jaskier stop! Hear me out.”
Jaskier grows roots – an earthquake couldn’t have moved him, though he wished it would. Jaskier longed for a great storm to swoop upon them and strike him dead so his body would not betray his dearest love. Geralt moves in closer and the scent of leather and sweat reminds Jaskier of home; he wants to run but he is tethered.
“I am sorry for what I said upon the mountain. I’ve replayed that moment every day since we parted and cursed my temper, not for the first time mind you.”
Jaskier doesn’t want to hear Geralt’s apology, not like this – not with death secure in his hand. Geralt steps closer until they’re practically nose to nose. Any other time this would’ve been a dream come true for Jaskier, but Geralt is vulnerable in more ways than one.
“Yennefer hasn’t given me a moment’s peace since we reunited. I know what we have is fabricated by magic – a wish, not true devotion. I promised to look for you, if only to apologize though she thinks there’s more to it. I didn’t want her to know of my love if my affections were not returned”
“Returned?” Jaskier croaks around a dozen other words that fight to be heard and oh how his heart shatters when he realizes what Geralt is saying.
There is no force, man-made or magical, that could bar Jaskier’s tears and they fall from his eyes like diamonds beneath the moon’s glow. Tender hands wipe the trails from Jaskier’s cheeks and it’s easy to cave to Geralt’s request.
“Tell me, how you feel.”
“I love you.”
Jaskier is pulled into Geralt’s arms, shaking and crying as if the world is ending and it is. Slowly, his hand slides out of his pocket and he can picture how white his knuckles are around the dagger’s hilt. Weapon raised, Jaskier counts the seconds as it shakes in his hand until the inevitable occurs. Geralt presses a kiss against Jaskier’s throat and it’s the sweetest torture he’s ever endured.
A harsh gust of wind blows past and brings with it a million voices trapped Jaskier’s head – all of them scrambling to be heard and obeyed. Jaskier is pulled in a million different directions, reliving every moment someone’s careless – or purposely crafted – words forced his body to do a curse’s bidding. He is dizzy and desperate for silence until he hears his mother.
“What’s inside you is stronger than any spell.”
Blessed silence and then a revolution.
Something breaks at the very core of Jaskier and he is shouting freedom in the face of fear, “You will no longer be obedient!”
With that Jaskier casts the dagger to the ground and collapses in a hysterical heap of overwhelming relief.
Geralt looks down at the dagger; face an impassible mask though his eyes are shiny with betrayal until Yennefer finds them moments later. Her arrival is followed by four soldiers slinking out of the shadowed woods across the road. Jaskier continues to laugh when faced with his captors until Yennefer helps him to his feet.
“What is going on?” Geralt growls and his voice dispels Jaskier’s frivolity like the shattering of glass. He bends down to pick up the dagger and faces the Nilfgaardian soldiers who’ve been following him for days.
“You were given an order bard – kill the witcher!”
Yennefer and Geralt watch Jaskier closely, but the bard just chuckles when the urge to comply doesn’t strike him.
“Are you deaf? Kill him!”
“Oh shut up you whoreson pissant," Jaskier shouts, intoxicated by his success. "You have no power over me! In fact I’ll say it again and again until your sluggish brain finally catches up. I will not kill the witcher.”
Jaskier turns to Geralt and throws his arms about his neck. "I won’t kill you."
He then presses a quick kiss against Geralt’s cool cheek, “You are safe from me.”
Poleaxed, Geralt stares until Jaskier throws the poisoned dagger at the soldier to his left Yennefer kills the rest without much fuss. Soon the only sound left his Jaskier’s shaky exhales and the occasional owl. He is lightheaded and Yennefer lends him her strength when Jaskier stumbles on shaky legs.
“You’re free: The curse is over.”
Yennefer reaches out to cup Jaskier’s face gently as if he were something precious. There’s something hidden deep in her voice that speaks to understanding and secondhand joy of a shared escape. They are words she once spoke into a mirror, words that she longed to whisper as a child.
“You rescued yourself when you rescued Geralt.”
The Witcher in question touches his medallion and sighs in relief when it does not hum beneath his hesitant fingers. Those fingers are soon pulled away and Jaskier presses a tender kiss against them in reverence. While he realizes it’s safe to return home he has no desire to reclaim a title he resented in youth. He wants to see Mandy again and pay respects to his mother and one day he will, with Geralt at his side.
“I had always been able to break the curse myself. I just had to have reason enough, love enough to do it, to find the will and the strength.”
Ciri’s cry of delight alerts them to her presence and she shoves her way in between Geralt and Jaskier throwing questions every which way. While Jaskier explains to Geralt and Yennefer that Calanthe was made aware of his curse, Ciri regales them of tales from court. There are bodies at their feet that they’ll have to bury at some point, but the mood is too joyous for such a task.
“Grandmother always suspected that you’d break it on your own, you know.”
Grief tugs briefly at Jaskier’s heart but it does not linger when Geralt briefly brushes his nose against the side of his temple; a small act of comfort that fills Jaskier with warmth. Eventually Yennefer suggests tidying up which doesn’t take much time seeing as she opens a portal and Geralt tosses the bodies through the magical gateway.
She shrugs, “I’m too tired to dig – killing people is exhausting work.”
Once more, Ciri is guided by the witch back into the tavern and upstairs to their room where a warm bath awaits. Jaskier takes his time and Geralt seems reluctant to follow them, not yet aware that Yennefer secured a second room for them. Before heading back in, Geralt tugs on his hand, stopping Jaskier in his tracks.
Jaskier leans in, pausing in confusion when Geralt reluctantly leans back.
“That wasn’t an order.”
Jaskier beams, “I know.”