Actions

Work Header

Once & Future

Chapter Text

As a bard, Jaskier believes it’s important to fall a little bit in love with everyone he meets. Human, non-human, animate, inanimate; within every countenance, be it beautiful or monstrous, porcelain or pockmarked, there is something worthy of song. Which is why, by the time he and Renfri are leaving Ard Carraigh by the west road, he is genuinely—really genuinely, no matter how loud Renfri laughs or how much sod she throws at his head when he proclaims as much—in love with the statue of the Unknown King.

“You know,” Renfri teases, when she’s gotten a hold of herself and wiped her muddy hand on her trousers, “the townsfolk say that if you kiss the King at the exact right time of day, on the exact right day of the year, he’ll wake up.”

“Is that so?” Jaskier stops, hands fixed gallantly on his hips, to examine the statue more comprehensively. “Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be a hardship to try. He is quite fetching.”

Renfri sighs. “Get it over with, then. We haven’t got all day.” She props herself against a convenient tree, arms crossed, and settles in to wait.

Jaskier pops down off the cart path, fjording through the untamed grasses to the base of the King’s pedestal. Most people, he knows, would not see fit to lock lips with a statue unless they were either drunk or twelve years old and being cajoled by a gang of unruly friends, but Jaskier is a bard and thus has romance in his heart, so if there’s a chance that he could plant one on a statue and have it turn into an ancient, cursed king, he can’t just walk on by. He takes hold of the hilt of the King’s sword—literally, unfortunately, since the statue is clothed—and heaves himself up onto the pedestal. The King is life-sized, sitting on a modest throne with a four-foot broadsword braced between his legs, head bowed between his shoulders, which makes the prospect of kissing him a bit of a puzzle.

Renfri snorts, watching him try to maneuver himself up into the V of the King’s arms, and calls out, “What are you trying to do, suck his cock?”

“Shut up,” Jaskier gripes, wriggling under the King’s thigh. He’s not quite lithe enough for any of this to be comfortable, or dignified. Not that it’s particularly dignified as a proposition, but, well—“It’s not as if they made him easy to kiss. You’d think if they wanted him woken they’d have made his mouth more accessible.”

“It’s just stories, Jask, stories aren’t meant to be functional.”

“I beg very much to differ,” Jaskier returns, then breaks off into a happy little a-ha noise, because he’s managed to get himself wedged between the King’s stone thighs.

Space is tight. He’s wedged with his head at an unpleasant angle, one leg stuck out over the edge of the pedestal, sitting on his other foot. His face is right up against the King’s, rough stone pressed to his forehead, and for a moment in the shadow of the statue Jaskier forgets where he is. He forgets that he’s in the forest west of Ard Carraigh, that the skies are grey and low like a portent of snow, that it’s cold in a way that bodes ill for the prompt start of spring, that Renfri is rolling her eyes at him not ten meters away—all that exists is him and this man, this stone king who he has fallen in love with bit by bit over the years, meandering past in the sweltery, flowering heat of summer, trudging past in the driving rain, mud spattered up to his waist and his trousers a lost cause, tagging after bands of mercenaries and plodding on alone and walking side-by-side with one of the last solo acts on the Continent, these last few years. Feeling a bit silly even as he does it, Jaskier brushes his hand over the King’s face, thumb carressing the cold, sandpaper line of his cheek. The dour countenance, like a man on the brink of some great loss, brooding beneath a great weight; the long hair tied back in a simple half-braid, each strand lovingly and vividly rendered; the plain diadem nestled on tortured brow; the sloped, weathered line of his great shoulders. Jaskier knows whoever rendered him must have loved him as dearly as Jaskier does—more dearly even—so he ignores Renfri shouting bored innuendos, telling him to Get it over with already!, and takes the time to do this properly, for whoever this statue was inspired by and whoever loved him.

He tilts his head, neck crunching at the strange angle, and kisses the King’s stone frown.

What he’s expecting is to taste some mildewy rock and then have to shimmy gracelessly back into the grass, Renfri laughing at him all the way.

What he’s not expecting is to feel stone turn to flesh beneath his lips.

The statue—who is now not so much a statue as a man—gasps into Jaskier’s mouth.

“Melitele’s TITS!” he hears Renfri exclaim distantly, but most of his attention is on the King, because the broadsword has gone clattering from the pedestal into the tall grass and the King’s arms are around him, strong and entreating, drawing him up onto his knees. Jaskier goes with a muffled sound that might be surprise or might be encouragement, plastering himself to the King’s front, head tilted back to let him lick into his mouth, and quite hysterically realizes that he’s currently receiving the best goddamn kiss of his life from a man who was a hunk of rock not a moment ago.

A clump of wet sod hits him in the side of the face. He swats absently in Renfri’s direction, a fuck off motion, his other hand sunk in the King’s brilliant hair—brilliant silver hair, a bit damp and wavy at the ends—content to let himself be devoured for as long as he can get away with it, potentially forever.

Before he can get to ‘forever’ Renfri declares, “Oh, for FUCK’S sake!” and hauls him away by the back of his doublet.

He lands flat on his backside in the dead grass. Renfri plants herself between him and the pedestal, breathing hard, one hand on the pommel of her sword.

The Unknown King blinks his odd golden eyes. His hands hang in the air where Jaskier just was, like he’s not sure what to do with them now that he hasn’t got anyone to hold.

For a moment, it’s silent. Or at least the closest to silent it ever gets in the forest. Wind rustles bare branches. Undergrowth crunches beneath the passage of some tiny animal. Frost hangs in the air around Renfri’s face.

The King is bleeding, Jaskier realizes, from a cut on his face. And one on his arm. His eyes look half-wild, terrified, confused, like a man abruptly woken from a nightmare.

“What,” he starts to say, then stops to swallow, wet his dry throat. “What year is it?”

***

As it soon becomes clear that the King can neither stand nor muster himself enough to pick up the broadsword, Renfri deems it safe to ignore his questions and drag Jaskier aside to scold him and blame him savagely for things outside of his control. “You told me to!” he tries to claim, in between scathing accusations of idiocy, and, “How was I supposed to know that this was the exact right time of day on the exact right day of the year?” but Renfri has been in a sour mood since the inn turned them out without breakfast this morning and she’s not about to turn charitable on him now, god forbid.

“We are not taking him with us,” she hisses.

“Well we can’t bloody well leave him by the side of the road!” Jaskier protests, at a volume that makes her stomp on his foot. “Ow, fuck you, we’re the ones who woke him up, it’d be rude to just—leave him flopping about in the grass.”

Renfri eyes said flopping distastefully. “Someone else will come along,” she says.

“Yes,” Jaskier allows, “certainly, someone else will come along. But how do we know they’ll be as lovely and compassionate as we are? They could be robbers—”

“What are they going to rob him of? He was a statue three minutes ago.”

“—or slavers, or bloody cannibals or something.”

“There are no cannibals in Ard Carraigh, Jaskier. Fuck’s sake, listen to yourself.” She grabs his shoulders as if to shake him— but doesn’t shake him, just digs her nails in sharply, eyes wide. “The statue man will be fine. You’re not responsible for him, and more importantly, I’m not responsible for him, and I’m not dragging him all the way to Rinde.”

“Perhaps not all the way to Rinde, no, but—”

Jaskier.”

Jaskier casts a despondent, pitying look at the Unknown King, who is at this moment swearing profusely as he attempts to lever himself to standing with the empty pedestal. It seems that on top of waking up exceptionally confused, he has woken up without command of his body, which Jaskier supposes is to be expected, given that he has spent either the last five hundred or one thousand years—depending on which bard you ask—encased in stone in the middle of a northern forest. He’s as helpless as a newborn kitten.

And he’s not going to be able to keep up with them, even if he does manage to walk. “We’re going to need a horse,” Jaskier tells Renfri.

She glares daggers. “I’m not buying a horse.”

“’Course not,” Jaskier agrees. “I’ve heard you can rent horses, these days.”

Renfri’s not amused. “Let me be very clear. I am not spending any coin to keep your sexy statue man alive.”

Jaskier doesn’t argue about the King being his sexy statue man, because having woken him he does feel a certain level of ownership—and responsibility, no matter what Renfri says. Anyways, if she’s moved on to who’s going to pay for the horse, that means she’s accepted it as a foregone conclusion that there’s going to be a horse, and that means they’re going to take the King with him.

“I’ll pay for the horse,” he says, pulling out his coinpurse. “You wait with my sexy statue man, and I’ll go—”

I’ll go.” Renfri yanks the purse out of his hands. “You wait with the golem.”

“Not a golem!” Jaskier pipes, offended.

Renfri stomps back down the path towards Ard Carraigh without looking back.

“Right then,” Jaskier says, turning back to the King. “What shall we do to pass the time?”

It’s one thing to jest, but Jaskier’s not about to take advantage of someone who’s not in possession of all their faculties, so unfortunately he doesn’t get to climb into the King’s lap and spend the next hour sucking on his tongue. Instead he helps the man prop himself up against the pedestal and sits next to him in the grass, so he can loll sideways against his shoulder. He’s heavy, even heavier than he looks—and he looks pretty heavy—but Jaskier’s years on the road have accustomed him to both daunting physical tasks and uncomfortable sitting positions, so he makes do. In the absence of conversation—the King hasn’t said a word since his initial question—Jaskier pulls his lute out of its case and starts to strum, humming to himself, looking aimlessly for a melody to go with his latest scrap of lyric. It’s a quick, jaunty ditty about Renfri’s last arena fight, which wasn’t so much an arena fight as a glorified brawl with a pack of barghests. He’s going to have to dress it up a little to make it work as a story—turn the mud on Renfri’s face into smears of warpaint, the crowd of drunk pissants into a troupe of desperately endangered schoolgirls—but that is, after all, what he does best. He’s trying in vain to rhyme something with ‘barghest’—largest, largesse, best, protest? No, definitely not protest—muttering to himself and plucking the same note on his lute, when the King mutters, “Barghests?”

“Ah!” Jaskier’s thumb twangs off the strings. “He speaks! Well, he speaks again, I suppose.”

“Hm,” says the King. His eyes are a bit clearer now, brow pinched as he surveils the empty path in front of them. “Never did tell me what year it was.”

“1637,” Jaskier reports. “What year is it for you? I mean, what year did you…become afflicted?”

The pinch between the King’s brows becomes more pronounced, as if to criticize Jaskier’s word choice. “1088,” he says.

Jaskier whistles. “That’s rather a long time to be a statue, isn’t it? I mean, I can’t say I’m privy to the numbers, but I’d assume the average is, well—less.”

“Hm,” the King agrees.

“Man of few words, are you?” Jaskier intuits.

The King sighs through his nose.

“What do I call you, man of few words?” Jaskier goes back to strumming, giving the King some space. He seems like the sort of person who needs space to talk.

“Geralt,” the man says at last.

“Geralt,” Jaskier says, as careful with the name as he was with the awakening kiss. “Well, Geralt, it’s very nice to meet you. I am the humble bard Jaskier, at your service.”

He sketches a mock-bow, and when he straightens, Geralt is watching him. If Jaskier’s not mistaken, that’s amusement sparkling behind his eyes.

Before he can have the pleasure of hearing what his name sounds like in Geralt’s mouth, the sound of approaching hooves draws both their eyes. Renfri comes crashing back through the forest on a modest chestnut mare, auburn curls upset in a cloud around her face, looking murderous.

She doesn’t say anything when she reaches them, just dismounts the horse with the easy grace of a person getting up from a chair and stands holding the reins until Jaskier gets the idea and rolls to his feet. “Up we go, Your Majesty.” He clasps Geralt’s forearm and hauls him up as well, then helps him hobble over to the horse, stopping to pick up his broadsword on the way. “You haven’t got a scabbard for this, have you?” Jaskier asks, struggling just to lift the damn thing and despairing utterly at the prospect of carrying it, but Renfri sighs theatrically and takes it from him before Geralt can give the obvious answer, which is of course No. He’s dressed in trousers and a simple black shirt—now that Jaskier thinks about it, he probably should have gotten Renfri to pick up an extra cloak as well, but they’ll just have to rustle something up at the next town.

“Renfri,” Jaskier says, as they set out on their moseying way down the path, “this is Geralt. Geralt, Renfri.”

“Don’t care,” Renfri says, marching doggedly ahead.

“Hm,” Geralt comments.

“Marvelous.” Jaskier slings his lute case around his back, adjusting the strap. “I can tell this is going to be an amicable journey. Much exchange of ideas. A meeting of the minds, as it were.”

“Jaskier?” Renfri calls back.

Jaskier perks up, though he knows what’s coming. “Yes, dear?”

Shut up.”

***

Jaskier’s noble schooling, comprehensive as it was in the areas of etiquette and inanery, did not cover what to do in the event that he found himself playing host to a recently-unenchanted six-hundred-year-old king. He attempts small talk for the first dozen miles or so, but Geralt is even less cooperative than Renfri in that department—which is really saying something, since Jaskier’s bonny traveling companion once went eleven days without speaking to him, breaking her silence only to scream FUCK! when they were ambushed. Geralt has considerably fewer questions than Jaskier might expect out of a man in his position—which is to say, he has no questions at all, or at least none that he voices aloud.

Geralt’s too absorbed with scanning the landscape around them to pay much attention to what Jaskier’s saying—or at least that’s how it seems to Jaskier, as he regales him with tales of Renfri’s heroic exploits, bawdy court gossip and the doomed travails of the Tretogor Four, the band Jaskier toured with back in his wayward teenage years. Renfri, stomping along in front of them, interjects occasionally to offer her thoughts on What blasted idiots those mercs were—or to tell Jaskier that he’s being innacurate in his representation of Just how fucking bad a kikimore’s breath smells. Geralt, surprisingly, snorts quietly at that, like he knows what she’s talking about. Maybe he does. Jaskier’s heard monsters used to run rampant through the countryside, way back when—maybe Geralt’s met his fair share of kikimores.

“So, what were you the king of, then?” Renfri asks brusquely, the first night.

Geralt is sitting on a log, poking at the fire while Jaskier wrestles his and Renfri’s bedrolls out of their pack. Renfri raises her eyebrows expectantly while she tears into some slimy cooked squirrel. Jaskier expects Geralt to just not answer, like he’s been doing all day, but instead he grumbles, “Few things.”

“A few things,” Renfri echoes. “Like what? A pond? A pebble? A sack of spuds?”

Geralt, unbothered by the jab, says nothing.

Jaskier’s always thought there’s something romantic about sleeping under the stars, the vast unlit sprawl of the landscape dark and slumbering around him, with nothing more than a bedroll and his lute case shoved under his head. He’s self-aware enough to know he’s only making the best of a less-than-ideal situation—if he had a tent he’s sure he would love it dearly, but they’re an extravagance he can scarcely afford and isn’t interested in carrying, since his and Renfri’s packs are heavy enough as they are.

No matter. He doesn’t mind sleeping in the open—not with a vicious, bloodthirsty harpy snoozing next to him. And he minds it even less tonight, once he manages to bully Geralt into sharing his bedroll.

“You’ll freeze if you don’t,” he points out reasonably. “It may be almost spring, but we’re still fairly far north, the frost hasn’t yet thawed—body heat goes a long way.”

Renfri’s lying rolled up in her cloak with her back to him, shoulders shaking, clearly laughing at him. Geralt just stares at him across the smoldering embers. Those inscrutable golden eyes.

“I won’t grope you again,” Jaskier promises. “Guaranteed, zero molestation.” He pats the thin strip of empty bedroll. “Come on, Your Highness. Nice and cozy.”

Geralt sighs through his nose and heaves himself up off the log.

It’s not the most comfortable night of sleep Jaskier’s ever had, that’s for certain. Geralt’s not exactly a cuddler; he sleeps flat on his back with his arms crossed over his chest, frowning, which basically just makes for two grown men lying side-by-side on a bedroll meant for one. Jaskier’s not sure what he expected, but it certainly wasn’t Geralt’s elbow poking him in the back clear until dawn. He wakes up with his mouth planted in Geralt’s implacable shoulder. Geralt’s still lying stiff as a board, his body rigid, but his face is turned toward Jaskier.

“Really, genuinely,” Renfri says, standing over them and looking disappointed, “I want to vomit.”

“Be a dear and do it over in those bushes, will you,” Jaskier mutters, flinging his hand.

Renfri doesn’t budge. “You are a terror. You are a constant horror. I don’t know why I put up with you.”

Jaskier sighs and shoves himself up to sitting, waking Geralt—with an alarmed jolt—in the process. “Because I write beautiful songs about you, darling.”

“Debatable.”

Jaskier elects not to be offended. “And, because you love me.”

Renfri’s glare softens, just a bit. “Do not,” she lies, and kicks him. “Get up, we’ve got ground to cover.”

The further south they get, the more people they start to see on the road—merchants impatient at the late thaw hauling wares to the markets of the north, rich families bundled in plush carriages returning from winter homes, itinerant farmers trudging hundreds of miles in search of work. Geralt trades his diadem for a scabbard and a fur-lined cloak; it’s burnished bronze, doesn’t fetch much, but on the other hand he doesn’t seem all that upset to part with it.

Jaskier’s continuing attempts to pump him for information bear little fruit. His Majesty the King of a Few Things is able to walk now, the horse—who Jaskier has affectionately dubbed Biscuit, for her love of Biscuits—piled with their packs instead, so Jaskier lengthens his stride to keep up and quizzes Geralt on the 11th century. He mostly gets grunts and silence, but he occasionally gets a one- or two-word reply, like when they pass through a small river town north of the Sherrawedd and Geralt stops at the top of the hill, staring down at it.

“What’s different?” Jaskier asks.

Geralt shakes himself. “More colors,” he says, and leads Biscuit after Renfri.

More colors, Jaskier thinks, somehow astonished, standing there on the hillside for a long minute after Geralt leaves. He turns the thought around and around inside his head like a marble, imagining what this village must have looked like six hundred years ago, thatched roofs like yaks huddled at the edge of the water, mud brick houses, the entire place no more than a brown smudge on the shimmering oxbow curve of the great river. Geralt would’ve arrived with a royal entourage, he thinks, but not in a carriage—he might not know much about the man but he knows that he’s not the sort to ride in a carriage, king or no. On horseback, then, flanked by mean-faced men with broadswords slung across their backs, knives strapped to their thighs, heads bowed as they slumped into town unannounced—because Jaskier can hardly see Geralt as the type of king to send a herald in front of him, either.

His distinctive appearance would’ve announced him eventually, though, supposing silver hair was not in style in 1088. And it seems he’s worried about the same thing, more than half a millennium later, since by the time Jaskier catches up to him and Renfri he’s got his hood pulled up, face in shadow.

Renfri’s searching the community bulletin with a dark look on her face; when Jaskier pops up next to her she gives him an aggrieved look. “No open contracts.”

“I thought we had enough coin to get to Rinde?”

“That was before we bought your sexy statue man a damned horse,” Renfri says. She turns her back to the board, surveying the town, the sparsely-populated square. “There’s bound to be a fight around here somewhere. I’ll just go find it, shall I?”

Find it she does, in the form of a garkain chained to a post.

Geralt arrives sans horse while she’s negotiating a fee with the local booker, looming over Jaskier’s shoulder to ask, “What’s going on?”

“Renfri’s going to dance for our dinner.”

Geralt doesn’t reply, and while that in itself isn’t unusual the quality of his silence is, so Jaskier looks back at him. There’s a crease between his eyebrows, worried and confused, as he watches the booker shake Renfri’s hand and wave for a fighting space to be cleared. Criers—boys of ten or eleven, screaming at the top of their lungs—go running to the four corners of the town, announcing the spectacle.

“I don’t understand,” Geralt admits.

“Which bit?” Jaskier asks.

Geralt just shakes his head, bewildered.

“Right.” Jaskier turns back to watch the square fill up with people, each of them shelling out a copper to get past the booker’s men. “So, the booker charges to get in, and then Renfri takes thirty percent—”

“She’s going to fight a garkain for sport?” Geralt interrupts. He sounds incredulous.

“Yes,” Jaskier says. “I mean, it’s a bit of an oversimplification—I prefer to think of it almost as an art, but essentially—yes.”

“Hm,” Geralt says. It’s not a happy hm.

The booker directs his men to put up ready-made fences around the center of the square. Renfri remains inside with the garkain, sharpening her sword and watching it with piercing, attentive eyes. It’s a sickly thing, half-dead already, clearly been chained up for a while, but it’s still got paralytic claws and the sort of slavering, white eyes that regularly feature in grown men’s nightmares. Renfri might be reckless, bull-headed and mostly mad at the best of times, but she’s not stupid—she’ll go about this in the quickest, most practical way possible.

“Gather round, gather round!” The booker raises his voice, calling the audience to attention. “I’m pleased to announce we have a minor celebrity in our midst! A solo act from Creyden, who you may know as Shrike!”

There are a few cheers—not many recognize Renfri’s stage name, this far north, but a few do. “Now now, simmer down,” the booker says, theatrically, like there’s been more applause than there actually has. “It’s not often we get good entertainment in this town, so let’s not waste time. Without further ado, I give you—SHRIKE, VERSUS THE GARKAIN!”

Safely outside the fence, he yanks on a chain, freeing the beast.

The crowd ripples subtly away from the fences as the lesser vampire sways forward, almost drunken, dropping down to all fours. Renfri circles it, crouched low, waiting for it to strike. Jaskier knows she prefers never to attack first—at least, not unless the monster draws it out long enough that the audience gets agitated.

At last, the garkain lunges.

The crowd exclaims in surprise, then turns to egging Renfri on—chanting Shrike, Shrike, Shrike as she sidesteps the creature’s claws, one crazed woman shrieking KILL IT! as Renfri drops to one knee and slices one of the thing’s legs. Ichor splashes on the frozen mud, painting the side of Renfri’s face, but she doesn’t flinch.

She steps back to her feet, turns around the garkain’s back, and drives her sword through the crown of its head. It crumples to the ground at her feet, ichor and guts and shit spilling out of it, absolutely disgusting.

The audience goes wild.

When Jaskier sneaks a look at Geralt, he looks like he’s swallowed something bitter, mouth twisted, eyes hard.

“People used to be afraid of monsters,” he says, later that night. They’ve made camp a dozen or so miles down the road from town—Jaskier tried to lobby for an inn and a real bed, but Renfri hadn’t wanted to spare the coin and Geralt doesn’t seem to have any qualms about sleeping side-by-side with Jaskier on a too-small bedroll, crammed bicep to bicep, like they are now.

Jaskier’s confidence in the muscularity of his biceps has been badly shaken by the arrangement, but he supposes even he can’t help admitting, in the privacy of his own head, that it’s sort of nice. The warmth of another body, the soft windlike sound of Geralt’s breath, the occasional late-night question, murmured like a confession in the dark.

They haven’t discussed how long Geralt will stay with them. If he has somewhere else to be he hasn’t said, and Jaskier can’t imagine where he’d have to go—everyone he knew being long dead, his kingdom no doubt long since dissolved. It’s sad in a way that threatens to swallow Jaskier whole if he looks at it directly, so he doesn’t, not the least because he doesn’t want to think about Geralt leaving, either.

“As I understand it,” he replies, low enough not to wake Renfri, “the population of monsters used to be nearly equal to men. Nowadays it’s more like…a hundred to one, in favor of humanity. Most of the monsters where driven back into the forests and the mountains, when Nilfgaard took over.”

“Nilfgaard,” Geralt echoes.

“Indeed.” Jaskier burrows around a bit, looking for a comfortable bit of ground. He doesn’t find it, but he ends up pressed closer to Geralt, which is a fair enough trade. “The Emperor offered a bounty for every monster head—normally he wouldn’t have gotten many takers, but it was a famine year, his armies had razed half the Continent—people were desperate. Bands of mercenaries started heading out looking for drowners, wraiths, the odd wyvern…”

“Where were the witchers?” Geralt asks. There’s something odd about his voice, but Jaskier can’t put his finger on it.

“Witchers?” Jaskier casts back through his mental library, to university classes on Ancient History, Pre-Imperial Folklore. “I suppose there weren’t any, by that point. They’d all died out. Disappeared.”

Geralt is silent beside him. He doesn’t speak again for the rest of the night.

***

Every year in the week before Imbaelk, the mercenary bands of the Continent—along with their bards and various hangers-on—gather in a field outside Rinde for what’s known as the War Fair. It’s seven days of drinking, fucking, and fighting, all of which concludes with a bardic festival to rival Oxenfurt’s and a tilting tournament whose champion has their visage chiseled into the Fair Rock (a large rock at the center of the fairground) by a particularly untalented sculptor called Mags.

The War Fair is a place to shake off the winter, to get ready for the year ahead. Every year Jaskier’s gone there’s been at least one death, normally from drunken jumping-off-of-things. Most of the whorehouses in Redania send contingents, vintners from all over Toussaint truck in cartloads of wine, and Jaskier tends to waste most of the week trying to out-drink Valdo Marx and take to bed at least one rebellious princess, of which there are usually several in attendance.

Last year Renfri started a brawl in one of the kitchen tents that turned into a full-scale riot and sent most of the field up in flames, but the princess whose virginity Jaskier had been in the process of stealing was so impressed by the way Renfri caught her when she jumped out of a high argosy window—leaving Jaskier to land in a piss puddle—that she turned around and hired her as her personal bodyguard. Unfortunately it was an arrangement that ended with Renfri getting the princess’ virginity instead of Jaskier, but it kept them both in meat and potatoes for a few months so he wasn’t in any position to argue.

This year, as a consequence of last year, most of the fairground is bare dirt and charred scrub grasses. The tents are all pitched at the far side of the field, where there are still a few hundred square meters of healthy earth, and the ground around the Fair Rock is all knee-deep mud, trampled by hundreds of horses, thousands of boot heels. They’re going to have to find a new location for the tilting tournament if they don’t want any horses to break their legs—Jaskier certainly doesn’t want Renfri getting any ideas about Biscuit.

Which is why he’s the one with Biscuit’s reins as they make their way into the camp. Renfri’s gone ahead to meet up with the lads from Mage Rage and bully them into letting them share their tent, but Geralt tromps beside Jaskier, hood up, amber eyes shining from the shadows.

“So, rules of the War Fair,” Jaskier begins, as they dodge a fight that’s already broken out in one of the brothel pavilions. “One. There are a lot of drunk people here, which means there are a lot of cutpurses, so keep an eye on your valuables, your semi-valuables, et cetera. Two, do not—I repeat, do not visit a brothel that Zoltan and the Blood Hogs have already been to, those fuckers are crawling with every sort of venereal disease there is.”

“Zoltan and the Blood Hogs?” Geralt echoes, skeptical.

“Don’t look at me, love, I didn’t name them. Anyway, back to the rules. Where was I? Ah yes, rule three—”

Geralt grabs him by the back of the doublet and lifts him out of the way just as the fight spills out of the brothel pavilion and into the aisle.

“Watch,” he says.

Jaskier staggers, a bit flustered at the manhandling. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Rule three,” Geralt says.

Jaskier hums inquisitively. “Rule three?”

Geralt’s eyes are amused. He doesn’t say anything else.

“Right!” Jaskier exclaims, when his mind bursts free of the lusty fog. “Right, of course. Rule three. The most important rule of all—what happens at the War Fair, stays at the War Fair.”

“Hm,” Geralt says. “Are there any sorcerers?”

Before Jaskier can answer, there’s a loud Whoop!, and Urien of Cidaris goes shooting overhead on a funnel of air magic. They watch him arc back down towards the sea of tents, cackling gleefully, and crash behind a three-storey argosy.

When the cats have stopped yowling, Geralt says, “I need a tracking spell.”

“You’re going to have to earn your own coin, first,” Jaskier tells him, turning toward Mage Rage’s encampment. “Renfri’s not going to pay for that, and I’m all in on Biscuit.”

Geralt gets that same look he got watching Renfri fight—bitter, distasteful.

“Fine,” he says.

The boys in Mage Rage—five this year, though previously there have been as few as two and as many as nine—have adopted hairstyles that wouldn’t look out of place on exotic Vicovarian birds, and they break out in raucous screeches of brotherhood (Oi, it’s the fucklehead!) when Jaskier pokes his head in the tent.

Geralt amongst Blaviken’s best-known band is a bit like a lion amongst a flock of enthusiastic geese. Jaskier, for his part, delivers the ancient king safely to the corner of the tent where the band has stashed their personal mead barrels, sits him down, and instructs him that he may want to start drinking. Geralt gives him an imploring look as he’s pulled back into the fray, but it’s been a while since he’s seen the lads, and soon enough he finds himself following his own advice, guzzling his first flagon of the day before the sun’s even reached its apex. Renfri reappears with the frontman Anselm while he’s leading the others in a joyous if somewhat janky rendition of Hey, Hey, A Toss In The Hay, bearing armfuls of food—roast chickens on spits, fresh-baked bread and fragrant wheels of cheese, which Jaskier suspects very strongly have not been honestly got.

Far be it from him to complain, though, not when his every need has been so thoughtfully provided for. As they eat he does his best to entertain with tales of his and Renfri’s winter exploits, but Renfri keeps undercutting him by insisting that they spent most of their time snowed under at a rather cozy little inn up in Ard Carraigh, Renfri taking the odd arena fight while Jaskier mostly sang for their money. “Ah, but what glorious odd arena fights they were, though!” Jaskier tries, scrambling to salvage the tale, to which Renfri gripes, “All fights are awful fucking slogfests”—a comment which actually gets a faint smile out of Geralt, of all bloody things. So Jaskier gives up trying to entertain and lets Mage Rage take over, because apparently what they got up to over the winter was slaying a godsdamned dragon.

“No you did not,” Renfri accuses, slamming her flagon down on the table.

“Aye, lass, we did.” Himsbach—the piggish one with the war hammer and all his hair shaved except for thin a stripe on top of his head—looks right pleased with himself. “Carried its head down the mountain, delivered it to the vassal king of Kovir, still spittin’ fire. Made fifty crowns that contract, didn’ we.”

“Bit cheap for a dragon, don’t you think?” Jaskier chimes in.

Anselm shoves him. “Shut it, fucklehead. Fifty crowns’s more than you’ve seen in your sorry life.”

Jaskier exchanges a speaking look with Renfri across the table—she’s the only one in this life who knows that in his first life, fifty crowns was more like a week’s allowance than a life savings.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got proof,” Renfri says, turning away from him. “Spent all the coin by now, I’d imagine, and forgot to take a scale off the damned thing—”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” says Tybalt, clearly relishing the reveal. “Gaze upon it and despair…”

“If you pull out your cock,” Renfri warns.

“I would never,” Tybalt says, which is a bald-faced lie, but he does produce a shard of dragon scale from within his jerkin, so that’s something. It gets passed around the table, from Renfri who looks grudgingly impressed to Jaskier who taps it with his thumbnail and makes note of its iridescence, to Geralt—who sniffs it, bites it, and declares, “This scale is about nine hundred years old.”

Himsbach’s jolly smile falters. “Right old geezer, wunnit, mate?”

“No,” Geralt says. “This scale is from a juvenile, actually.”

“You lying fucks!” Renfri explodes, delighted. “You didn’t kill a bloody dragon!”

“Oi, pipe down about it, though,” Anselm hisses urgently. “We’ve got a bet going with the Tretogor Four, you keep quiet and I’ll cut you in.” He glances at Geralt. “Cut you in, too, if you back our story.”

“Hm,” is all Geralt says.

For a man who’s spent the last six hundred years as a glorified lawn ornament, Geralt adjusts remarkably well to the War Fair. Jaskier tells him as much, meaning it as a compliment, but Geralt gets that pinched look on his face and tells him that killing monsters is the one thing he’s always understood. Which seems a bit odd for a king if you ask Jaskier, but no one did.

Geralt disappears while Jaskier’s up on a makeshift stage having a lute battle with Priscilla, a lovely woman who nonetheless has no idea what she’s talking about when it comes to claiming she can play Blue Mountain Rag faster than he can. His fingers fly over the lute strings, so fast they feel like they’re burning, and his heart feels like it’s spiraling up into the black pool of the night sky with the embers from the enormous bonfire, and someone in the crowd shouts, Bang Away My Lulu! and gets a whole chant going, people on the top floors of argosies banging their mugs against the rail and leaning out to join in, so Jaskier and Priscilla segue neatly out of their friendly little competition and begin the requested ribald: “There was a girl named Lulu…” By the time he bounds down off the stage six songs later, riding giddy on the waves of applause, Mage Rage and Renfri are still where he left them but Geralt is nowhere to be found.

He grabs Renfri. “Where’d he go?”

“Hell if I know.” Her lips are wine-stained, cheeks flushed. “He’s not a dog, Jask, he can go where he likes.”

“Dear gods,” Jaskier says.

It’s uncharitable of him, he knows, to assume that just because most of today’s regents couldn’t defend themselves from a frog, let alone a band of drunken and malicious mercenaries, it’s somehow dangerous for Geralt to be wandering the fairground unaccompanied. Probably it isn’t. Probably he’s very good with that broadsword he’s lugging around—literally, unfortunately, though Jaskier’s willing to bet metaphorically as well. Probably the dark, growly thing isn’t just a front, and Geralt really could kill a man with one punch, but Jaskier has come to think of it as his responsibility to guide his slumbering king through the myriad dangers of 17th century life, and now he feels a bit like an Oxenfurt tour guide who’s lost track of his charge.

He checks the nearest kitchen tent, then the second-nearest, and the third. He checks the Passiflora’s pavilion, and the Rosebud’s, and Mama Lantieri’s and Eager Thighs—very nearly gets trapped in Eager Thighs by some rather eager young ladies—then concludes that Geralt must not be tending to his more bodily needs.

On the off-chance Geralt’s decided to take Jaskier’s advice and make himself some coin, Jaskier heads for the arena.

One would think, with all the monster-killing these mercs get up to the rest of the year, they’d look forward to having a week off to relax. Not so. Jaskier supposes it’s a bit like him and his music—it’s their passion, their life’s blood—but also it’s a bit that they’re too greedy to pass up the money-making opportunity. They’re within an hour’s ride of Rinde, which means that the townspeople—who don’t have an arena of their own—are more than willing to make the trek and shell out a few coppers for the privilege of watching the Continent’s best bands face off against the Continent’s nastiest fiends. The place is packed to bursting when Jaskier arrives, opening night, raked seating crammed with at least twice as many people as is probably safe. There’s a troupe of roving carpenters who truck the arena in and out every year for a cut of the gross earnings, which is a good deal for them but doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in terms of their craftsmanship, which is why Jaskier always buys tickets for the standing room around the arena floor. More dangerous, maybe, and more messy for sure, but at least he’s not going to have two thousand people collapse on his head.

The mosh pit isn’t so good for finding people, though, so Jaskier jostles his way back to wall below the first row of seats and then climbs it, looking out over the canopy of heads.

He has to resist the urge to shout A-ha! when he spots Geralt over in the staging pen, talking to the booker. Obviously from this distance he can’t make out any words, but he can see the bar of Geralt’s shoulders and the expression on his face in profile, and he knows this particular booker well enough to know he’s probably trying to short-change Geralt and Geralt’s probably not having it.

Or at least, that’s what Jaskier thinks, until they break away, shaking hands, and without further ado Geralt hops the fence into the ring. Jaskier’s heart gives a little jolt, like a bird caught in a cat’s claws.

“Geralt!” he shouts.

With the noise, it should be impossible for Geralt to hear him. But he does. He turns to Jaskier—waving ridiculously with one hand and clinging to the wall with the other—then turns away, saying nothing.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!” The booker’s voice booms through the arena. He must have had it magically enhanced or something, because it shakes the stands like a clap of thunder. “I am excited to announce that the first act of the year is a debut performance! A new act! Fresh blood!”

The crowd goes wild. Nothing gets Redanians going like the promise of bloodshed—they love to watch a band get eaten alive almost as much as much as they like to see them vanquish their foes.

“This man,” the booker continues, when the noise dies down, “reckless or valiant, foolish or courageous, has agreed to fight not one, not two, but six kikimore warriors at the same time! A fight we shall surely tell our grandchildren about, whether the tale is one of legendary stupidity or legendary bravery…”

A hush has fallen over the arena.

Jaskier’s heart is in his throat. Six kikimores? What the hell is Geralt thinking?

The booker steps up on the fence, getting ready to evacuate. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, quieter, with a secretive note. The crowd leans in, hanging on his every word. “I give you…

“THE WHITE WOLF!”

For a split second, Jaskier wonders where in the hell Geralt gets off, coming up with a stage name without his bardic input.

Then the pen gates open, six kikimores come screeching into the arena, and all he thinks is Fuck.