Chapter One: The Pay Promised
By lemon (yolkipalki)
Geralt stood as patiently as he could, trying his best not to snarl at the stench of fear that rolled off of the maid. He was filthy and exhausted and fairly certain he would receive no coin for his troubles. Not that that was new. The contract had seemed like easy money. Geralt should’ve known it was too good to be true.
“My d-deepest apologies, sir witcher.” The young woman choked on the words, clutching a bottle in her hands as though it were a lifeline. “My lady regretfully was called away upon ur-urgent business and...and sh-she is indisposed at the moment. She...she hopes this token of her gratitude will warm you this night in her absence until she can truly repay you. She thanks you for your service in her name, s-sir witcher.” She threw her head down as she fell into an unrefined bow and shoved the bottle she had been holding into Jaskier’s hands.
The maid refused to look at Geralt, her whole frame shaking like a dry leaf in the wind. With her eyes trained on her worn, linen shoes she took the smallest step forward before deciding Jaskier was probably less likely, or able, to snap her in half.
“The pay I was promised will be thanks enough.” Geralt spoke plainly.
If the countess wanted to hide away in her keep and pretend she wasn’t there then he would take his kill elsewhere and move on, as he always had. Without the pay though he simply couldn’t afford a hot meal or a room at the inn. Being snubbed on a contract was nothing new to Geralt, it was simply a witcher’s lot in life. He wasn’t about to make his evening worse by wallowing on it. Jaskier spun around, fixing his companion with a stern look. Taking a step forward, he held his hand out slowly, his face soft, eyes bright.
“Forgive him, dear. He’s not the most prolific conversationalist at the best of times, but I’m afraid we are rather weary from our long travels, and of course, from the valiant battle waged against the beasts of darkness that have plagued this land.”
Beasts of darkness, huh? Geralt rolled his eyes. Drowners, they were drowners. He could’ve just said drowners. Geralt grumbled in barely contained exasperation, he knew where this was headed, it was headed where it always went with Jaskier - straight into the bard’s ridiculous, silky pants.
But Jaskier prattled on, soothing the young woman’s fears until her tears ceased to flow and her hands perched atop his palms like birds.
“Is there anywhere for us to stay for the night? I’m afraid my witcher has wounds that I must tend to. And if I may speak so plainly, the coin afforded from this contract would’ve paid for our stay at the tavern.” He looked up at her with a sheepish smile. “We are but humble travelers, and one learns rather quickly out there that the world is most often cruel and heartless to those who risk their lives to protect it.”
Jaskier’s words seemed to have the opposite effect he intended. The acrid stench of fear quickly soured and curdled with fresh, peculiar sorrow. She pulled her hands away from the bard, looking up at him with glistening eyes, lashes dripping with fat tears. Before he could pry further the maid curtsied, promising Geralt an audience with the countess in the morning, and scurried away.
So Geralt, with the severed heads in one hand, and a bottle of wine in the other, made his way for the gates of the estate, the bard scrambling after him.
“Thank you so much for that, by the way,” Jaskier whined as he took a bite of stale bread, pulling off his doublet and laying it over the top of his pack. “You’re used to suffering alone, in fact, I think you revel in self-imposed misery. We have no one to blame but you and your rather disarming lack of personality.”
Geralt grumbled in response. He had found it was best not to encourage Jaskier. If he responded to the incessant nagging it would only be that much longer before he had any semblance of peace.
The posted contract had been for an infestation of drowners. Luckily proof of the kill didn’t require that the brains remained intact, those were valuable to a witcher. Geralt set about extracting the organs from the decapitated heads, lost in his task as the bard prattled on. It wasn’t until a dislodged piece of wet bone went flying and hit the bard in the face that Geralt heard him squawking like a dying bird.
"Really? Really, Geralt? Must you do this ," Jaskier gestured wildly at the witcher, "where we eat?"
Geralt snorted, continuing his gruesome work with less than his usual finesse and an excess of ruthlessness. Before long the two men lapsed into a comfortable quiet, Geralt cleaned and tended his armor as Jaskier hummed to himself, scratching away in his notebook.
“So, what do you think about this countess, hmm?” Jaskier mused as he snatched the bottle of wine from Geralt’s things and turned it over in his hands. “Think she’s trying to avoid paying her dues to the valiant witcher who saved her lands from the beasts of the dark abyss?”
“Nobles are all the same. They talk too much but never say a damned thing.” Geralt shrugged, scratching his nose with his forearm as he set aside his knife.
“I resent that comment. But, you’re not wrong. The countess is just like any other noble, caught up in her petty games. She’s probably bedding some twopenny duke in some scandalous court affair that will dissolve duchies and counties, collapsing minor political dynasties when it finally comes to light, and thinks herself rather byzantine for it.”
“Because, you know, despite what these blundering imbeciles think, they don’t know anything about the world. I should know, I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by them. Perhaps they can see farther from the top of their marble towers, perhaps they’ve even traveled from seaside to seaside in their gilded carriages. But that doesn't mean anything.” He grunted as he pulled the cork from the wine bottle, sniffing it. “They don’t know the harrowing cold of snow-soaked wool in the winter, or the hollow feeling that fills you up three days after your last bite of proper food. They cannot fathom the way people truly live, nor do they particularly care to. Oh, what am I saying? There I go, just rambling on. My point is, Geralt, these things have a way of making themselves known. The wealthy and the powerful always think themselves clever and beyond reproach of any kind, when they’re nothing more than lucky...idiots.” Jaskier took a sip from the bottle. "Oh, well. Hmm.” Jaskier coughed, pursing his lips for a moment before taking another drink of the wine. “That is very sweet. Quite possibly too sweet for my taste. Here, you try it."
"Only you would complain of wine that is too sweet. You’re impossible." Geralt laughed.
“Please Geralt, do continue to tell me how impossible I am. You know I rather enjoy hearing how unbearable you find my presence, darling.” The bard scowled and took a heavy swig. “In fact, that is my true life’s work, my dear witcher. Forget the singing of songs, the strumming of strings, the spinning of stories, the...the - I have found my calling in this abysmal swamp, my purpose. And it...it is to cause you more misery than you thought possible...ever to - Rather impressive considering your penchant for woe, is it not?” His voice was beginning to soften and slur.
“Aren’t you already doing that?” The witcher quirked an eyebrow, awaiting the melodramatic response but none came. For long moments the silence stretched on. He hadn’t meant to, and yet he found himself calling the bard’s name, tentative and cautious. Once, then twice...
But Jaskier didn’t respond. He was standing now, swaying unsteadily as the neck of the bottle slowly slipped from his grasp. From across the fire, Geralt could see splotches of red and purple beginning to pool beneath the skin of his face and throat like bruises.
Sheer instinct, abetted by witcher reflexes, carried Geralt across the fire quick enough to catch the bard as he crumpled.
"Damned human lightweights," Geralt muttered under his breath. Then a frown tugged at his lips. He'd traded human constitution for witcher resilience well before he'd been of an age to do much hard-drinking, so he didn't have much sense of what a human should or shouldn't be able to drink. But...he'd seen Jaskier drink far more than this without so much as a single slur or stumble before. The sweetness of the wine shouldn't affect his tolerance that much, should it?
"Jaskier?" He said, watching uneasily as the man's head lolled almost comically with each shift as Geralt laid him down. It had begun as a vague uneasiness and had grown into a deafening echo howling in his mind. This was wrong. Something was very wrong.
He narrowed his eyes and leaned closer, taking a careful breath to see what he could discern from changes in Jaskier's scent. The scent of blood bloomed as it began to trickle from the bard’s nose and down the side of his mouth, dribbling down his throat.
The strange sweetness of the wine, the near-instantaneous descent into mumbling and weakness, the dark blotchy flush beneath his skin, that scent. Geralt lifted the bottle from the dirt and brought it to his nose, cursing under his breath.
Jaskier wasn't drunk, he was fucking poisoned, poisoned by something potent and concentrated enough to incapacitate a mutant. Something frigid and wicked slithered up Geralt’s spine as he stared down at the human seizing in his arms.
Such a fragile thing, a human who'd unwittingly drunk poison intended to kill a witcher.
What were the odds he could save him? The souring realization curled around the back of his mind, it was unlikely at best.
He had to try anyway.