Compared to other places they'd been locked in--some of them before they'd been Chained, even--this one wasn't bad. It was dark, and underground, but dusty-dry and not particularly cold. There were two cots, and blankets for both of them, but no one had attempted to force them to separate even that far.
Eskel thought that this might actually have been an attempt to comply with some of the commonly repeated instructions for dealing with witchers: keep them in a secure location, away from bright lights, noise, and crowds. They were known to be highly strung--like racehorses with over-sensitive eyes who might run mad and kill you if not kept carefully in line.
It wasn't exactly true, nor exactly false. The last time Geralt had been taken away from Eskel he'd returned with the sobriquet Butcher of Blaviken; he'd cut down a dozen men--and a girl--in the marketplace of that town. Eskel had asked him why, but Geralt had just shaken his head and leaned against Eskel, spelling out lesser evil on the skin of Eskel's thigh.
Since then, Eskel tried even harder than he always had to make sure Geralt was never on his own in a situation like... whatever that situation had been. Witchers weren't supposed to be assigned anywhere alone, not to lords nor missions; it was one of the things that Eskel sometimes appreciated about being Chained. The years he'd had on the Path, before everything changed, had been lonely ones. But he and Geralt had been reunited within days after the awful endless vibration of their medallions had begun; they had been together when it finally, mercifully, stopped, and for the most part they'd been together every day of the decades since.
They were pressed close, now, as they often were when they were left somewhere quiet and at least momentarily private. They'd chosen the corner of the room, the farthest point from the door on the same wall, naturally the last place someone entering the room would look. They weren't hiding, but they would get a look at their new lord, even if only for a second, before he saw them. They would have a chance to be on their feet, in some less betraying pose.
For now, Eskel was pressed into the corner, cool stone against his back and shoulders, and Geralt was pressed into him, back to chest, shielding him--giving him somewhere to hide his face--but held firmly in his arms. Geralt had one hand resting lightly on Eskel's thigh, and the other raised to run through Eskel's hair in repetitive, lulling motions that could almost distract Eskel from what they were waiting for.
Geralt's head was tilted back against Eskel's shoulder, and Eskel's was tipped forward; the sides of their throats touched, the hard rings of their collars stacked one on the other and pressed between their flesh.
They both knew at once, from the way both collars chattered together, that both of their medallions had activated at the same time. Eskel clung tighter to Geralt, and Geralt's arms came around his, his hands clasping over Eskel's wrists.
It wasn't that it was so bad--not at first, as long as you didn't happen to be trying to do anything that required concentration or the use of magic. But any shiver of their medallions was a visceral reminder of the way the vibration had worn on and on for days, after they had first discovered that their medallions, though they had been strung on long chains back then, couldn't be removed. They had been hunted and claimed and Chained when they were helpless from having their brains rattled, their strength shaken from them, their Signs beyond reach. Even if being Chained wasn't so bad now, it had begun in horror, and an echo of that horror returned every time.
The vibrations ended quickly, today--Geralt's medallion stilled first, and Eskel's only half a second later.
So it was done; they had been handed over to their new lord, whoever that might be. The rings tied to their medallions were on a new hand--the same hand, surely, for both of them to have been handed over at once and claimed so nearly at the same instant.
It had happened repeatedly, over the last few weeks.
For several years, their lord had been Baron Dietrich, a vassal of the King of Caingorn, whose lands ran up into the mountains and the Kaedweni border. They had been the only witchers of the baron's household, and in that half-wild land there had been plenty of work for them. When they weren't hunting monsters they were hunting wolves and bears, or tracking villagers' lost children and livestock.
They'd had a corner of the baron's great hall to sleep in during the winter snows, and the rest of the time they'd been turned out like guard dogs, to be out on the grounds at night. It hadn't been bad; there had been a dozen nooks to choose from where Eskel and Geralt could curl up together--and they'd made friends with the actual guard dogs, some of whom would join them on rainy or chilly nights. They had new clothes every year at Midinváerne, and new boots with them every second year. They were allowed the things they needed to make and mend what they had, betweentimes.
Everyone in the barony had been aware of the work they did, so people's wariness had been tinged more with respect than scorn--Eskel and Geralt had faced casual cruelty only rarely, and nothing severe at that. No worse than the dogs endured, if no better.
And then, just like a matched pair of hounds might be, the witchers had been sold or gifted or traded away--no one had explained it to them, of course. One day they had felt their medallions vibrate, and the baron's assigned overseer came to them with their rings on his fingers and escorted them to the nearest lowland city, where they'd been transferred to a royal officer's keeping, and then a royal steward's. They'd begun to think they were meant to stay in the capital, which would have been a pleasant change--there were several witchers there together, and they had a little shed where they were housed, and were even allowed to accumulate possessions other than weapons, tools, and potions. Eskel and Geralt had slept under a roof, sharing a cozy pallet of straw and the company of their brothers, for a handful of nights.
Then there was a mage; their rings, bearing the arms of Caingorn, signifying the king as their ultimate overlord, had been melted down. They had been forced to endure the vibration of their medallions along with travel through a series of portals, changing hands in Redania and then again when they arrived in Kerack. There, at last, their new rings, now reflecting that they were in the possession of the King of Kerack, had been bonded to their medallions and the vibration had finally ended. They had, evidently, been the only witchers at the royal court of Kerack, which didn't seem to know what to do with them: they'd been placed together in an actual box stall in a stable with several of the royal steeds.
But it had been a very nice box stall, with clean straw, and the quiet, warm company of the horses, and no one had tried to separate them. They'd been fed normal rations instead of bran mash and hay, so there had been nothing to complain of there.
Finally, yesterday, the Count de Lettenhove had come into the stable to peer critically at them. He'd taken in Geralt's uncanny pallor and Eskel's scars without evident surprise, so he must have known already just who and what he was coming to see. He had nodded in satisfaction and told the royal steward that they would do, and their rings had been transferred to him.
And now they'd been transferred again, and it seemed likely they were about to find out what the Count had thought they would do for.
Sure enough, a moment later they heard quick footsteps approaching. They stood, stepping apart but remaining in the corner, eyes half-lidded in anticipation of the bright light a human would bring with them into this dark space.
But when the door opened, at first it was just a crack--just enough to let in a light that was so reasonable in a witcher's sight that it had to be almost uselessly dim for a human. When the door did slowly swing open, it revealed a young man with shiny brown hair and wide blue eyes, holding a shaded lantern down at his side. "Hello? Are you here? Of course you're here, it's a locked room--only I don't know how else to say hello, because no one's told me your names..."
The youth raised the lantern a bit, and slid back the shade, so that the lantern was putting out enough light to make the room reasonably visible to a human. He jumped a little, catching sight of Eskel and Geralt standing in the corner, as if they'd somehow genuinely surprised him--but it seemed he'd also been told what they would look like, because his eager gaze didn't stick too badly on Eskel's scars or Geralt's hair.
"There you are! My, you're very... tall, both of you, aren't you? I'm Jaskier. I mean," Jaskier made an elaborate, flourishing bow, which made Eskel feel wildly off-balance--their lord, bowing to them? But Jaskier didn't notice a thing and went on chattering, "Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove, newly minted Master of the Liberal Arts from Oxenfurt. But really I'd rather you called me Jaskier."
Eskel nodded, and he saw Geralt nod in his peripheral vision.
Jaskier beamed at them, entirely undaunted. "And you are?"
"Eskel," Eskel said, and gestured to his side, "and Geralt, of the Wolf School."
They hardly ever spoke of their Schools anymore--it scarcely mattered what animal was portrayed on their medallions, though you still got mostly Wolf witchers in the north, Griffins and Cats below the Pontar, and Vipers further south than that, with Bears turning up mostly near the coast, when they turned up at all. It wasn't as if they were allowed to choose who they were assigned with, or to gather with their brothers and trade methods and formulae.
Still, Jaskier's elaborate introduction seemed to call for as thorough an introduction as Eskel could make in turn.
Jaskier nodded. "Eskel, Geralt. Of the Wolf School! That one was based in Kaedwen, wasn't it? And now you've come all the way down to the coast. And soon you'll be seeing more places than that, because I am going to tour the Continent! And that's why Father said I needed you two--for bodyguards, because somehow he thinks that if I go traveling as a bard, I'll get into trouble."
Eskel, watching this bright-eyed boy chatter confidingly at two witchers, wholeheartedly agreed with the Count de Lettenhove, which was a pretty strange feeling. A nobleman's assessment of risk rarely matched a witcher's.
"Anyway, speaking of traveling," Jaskier said, after leaving a brief pause in which Eskel belatedly realized he had probably been meant to say something, "we need to get you two outfitted for the road! Come on, there's so much to do!"
Jaskier turned away, and when his back was to them, Eskel felt he could dart a glance toward Geralt, who was looking back at him with wide eyes and raised eyebrows that mirrored Eskel's own expression--give or take the fact that Eskel's right eyebrow didn't quite work like that anymore.
They were agreed, anyway. This was going to be an assignment--and a lord--unlike any they'd had before. Could be a good thing, could be bad, but they were in it together.
Geralt bumped his shoulder against Eskel's as he stepped past him, following Jaskier, and Eskel ducked his head to hide his smile as he followed Geralt.
They stopped first not very far outside the room they'd been locked in, at the alcove where they had left their swords and other gear, since they weren't allowed to have such things in locked quarters.
"Obviously you'll want all of this," Jaskier said, gesturing to it with a flourish and standing back, clearly intending to just stand there waiting and watching. Eskel didn't risk another look at Geralt, but he could feel the look they didn't dare exchange under the viscount's eye in the air between them. To all appearances, they just got on with it, slinging on swords and belts and collecting their packs full of potions and supplies and tools.
When they both turned to face Jaskier, fully outfitted, he beamed at them and actually clapped his hands, as if they'd just done something impressive. His dazzling smile flickered, just for a second, as he looked them up and down, but he spoke briskly and without hesitation. "The tailor will be here shortly, so we'll get that all settled soon. And I'll see about the cobbler, and the--yes. Anyway! Have you eaten? You must be hungry."
Eskel blinked at him for a breath, but that seemed to be the end of that run of words. "We... could eat, milord."
Jaskier flapped his hands. "Just Jaskier, none of that! I mean to shed my name and title completely when we're out on the road, so you should get in the habit of calling me by my name now."
When he stopped, looking expectant, Eskel said, feeling only a little silly, and well aware that this was not the most stupid thing any lord of his had ever demanded, "We would be happy to eat, Jaskier."
Although how anyone was meant to think Jaskier was anything other than a nobleman when he had two witchers trailing after him, bound to the rings on his fingers, Eskel did not know. It wouldn't be any skin off his nose if this pampered child had his fantasy of passing for a commoner crushed.
Eskel wasn't looking forward to seeing it happen, though.
For now, however, Jaskier still looked entirely pleased with himself. "Excellent!" he said, and then shifted his focus to Geralt, still looking expectant.
Geralt gave a firm nod, and raised his hands, spelling out Jaskier in signs. His meaning should have been fairly obvious, but to make it perfectly clear that Geralt was cooperating as best he could, Eskel interpreted. "He says, yes, Jaskier."
It was Jaskier's turn to blink with a slightly fixed expression, but then he nodded back, pressing a hand to his heart. "Thank you, Geralt. Eskel. Come, this way, we can't have you wasting away before we've even left the manor!"
Jaskier led them all the way to a big, busy kitchen full of cooks and maids and errand boys. Jaskier hesitated a moment, just inside, surveying the room with his hands on his hips, then turned back, looking anxiously at Eskel and Geralt. "Is this... will you be all right here for a while? Cook will feed you."
It took a few seconds for Eskel to realize that Jaskier was concerned that they would be disturbed by the commotion. He felt a weird urge to smile, but suppressed it entirely as he said, "We'll be fine. Jaskier. We're not that highly strung."
Jaskier's worried look relaxed into happiness. "Wonderful!" He turned on his heel and made for a silver-haired woman who sat at the head of a big worktable, chopping vegetables and occasionally pausing to shout some instruction or admonition, gesturing with the large, sharp knife. "Cook! These are the witchers, Eskel and Geralt. I don't know when they ate last, but I'm sure you can take care of them."
The woman looked them over briskly--they had trailed after Jaskier, keeping deftly out of everyone's way as they did--and gave a sharp nod. "We certainly shan't leave them hungry, Lord Julian. But I know when you last ate, so you can get out of my kitchen now."
Jaskier beamed, and darted a hand out to grab a bit of chopped potato, popping it into his mouth like a stolen treat as he danced back out of range of a clearly nonthreatening wave of the knife. "I'll be back for you! Soon! But not too soon, no need to rush."
Eskel nodded mutely as Jaskier trotted out of the kitchen, then returned his attention to Cook, in whose custody they had clearly been placed, however temporarily and unofficially.
"Well, sit," she said, gesturing with the knife to the bench at her left hand, and no sooner had they taken the indicated places than bread and butter and honey, plus two jars of some steaming tisane, appeared before them. These were shortly followed by bowls of the sort of unidentifiable soup that had probably been simmering continuously on the stove for years. It smelled rich, a little tangy with its age but entirely wholesome, and Eskel dug in eagerly while Geralt did the same at his side.
No one spoke to them, or remarked much on them, or even seemed to notice them other than to keep them supplied with food. The bustle of the kitchen continued, including what seemed to a usual level of low-voiced chat and gossip, while Geralt and Eskel went through three bowls of the stew and demolished two loaves of bread. After that the bowls were taken away entirely, replaced with plates bearing baked apples dripping with honey and redolent with spices.
Eskel didn't even start on his own for a moment, too busy taking in Geralt's startlement at the treat, and the way surprise gave way to pleasure, not just on his face but in the whole set of his body beside Eskel's. Then Geralt looked to him, and though his mouth was flat, Eskel could see the smile in his eyes, could feel it in the press of Geralt's knee to his. Eskel couldn't do anything but return the smile in kind.
Even after all these years, Geralt had the knack of enjoying things, of finding those slivers of their life that pleasure and delight could be wrung from. Eskel's own joy most often came from seeing Geralt's; the light in Geralt's eyes and the way happiness shivered through his body was better, to Eskel, than any beautiful weather or breathtaking view or rare indulgence.
Then Geralt gave Eskel a more pointed nudge, and Eskel let out a breath and nodded, digging into his baked apple as Geralt did the same. Geralt knew his habits, and never would let Eskel forego an actual treat in favor of watching Geralt enjoy it. We have to take what we can get, Geralt had told him once. And being happy for me won't keep meat on your bones.
Eskel remembered the words, but he couldn't quite remember the sound of them in Geralt's voice--he had a sense of the rhythm, the weight, but--
He pushed that aside. He had a baked apple, and Geralt, and a place to sit in a warm kitchen. He couldn't ask for anything more than that.
Jaskier returned for them when a little more than an hour had passed, and they'd been sitting still for a while, drowsily digesting and leaning together at their shoulders. Eskel straightened at the familiar sound of their lord's footsteps approaching; by the time he appeared in the doorway, Eskel and Geralt were on their feet, watching for him.
He grinned as if he were surprised and pleased all over again at the sight of them. "Cook? Did they clean their plates?"
She snorted. "They'd've cleaned every plate in the kitchen if we kept setting them down--but they won't starve before supper, Lord Julian."
"Good, very good," Jaskier said. "Come on then, the tailor's eager to find out how very many yards of cloth it's going to take to outfit the two of you."
They followed Jaskier to an entirely different part of the manor house, ending in a big airy room with several windows letting in the sun on intricately carved furniture and expensive decorations. A tailor and two youths who were probably apprentices were waiting, with stacks of cloth and papers arrayed around them on tables.
"Szymon, these are the witchers--Geralt, and Eskel. Geralt, Szymon is going to take your measurements first, I just need to have a word with Eskel."
Eskel hadn't decided whether to resist being parted from Geralt before it became obvious that Jaskier only wanted him to go to the farthest corner of the room. The tailor was circling Geralt thoughtfully, already muttering observations. One of the apprentices was scribbling down notes, so apparently the muttering meant something, to a tailor.
"Eskel," Jaskier said, quietly, in a way that made it clear that he believed they were out of Geralt's earshot. Geralt kept his gaze fixed. Eskel focused attentively on Jaskier's face. "I don't wish to be unkind in any way, but Father didn't know and there was nothing in your papers--can you tell me why Geralt doesn't speak? Is there anything I should do differently regarding him, or..."
Once again Eskel was left staring at his new lord for several beats while he made sense of what he'd said. He couldn't resist glancing in Geralt's direction, but Geralt's fixed gaze was now entirely rigid.
Eskel shook his head a little as it sunk in that Jaskier was trying to... to make whatever allowances Geralt might need for a disability. "There's nothing wrong with him. He was forbidden to speak."
Jaskier looked entirely baffled. Eskel wouldn't have told most lords as much, but every indication was that Jaskier genuinely was trying to be kind, and Eskel didn't want to set Geralt up to get into trouble again. He knew Geralt would agree. "He used to be... sarcastic, sometimes. This way he's never punished for that. It's all right, we manage. As long as we stay together, I can do the talking for both of us, and he can tell me what he needs to tell with his hands."
Jaskier's frown only deepened as Eskel struggled to explain, and Eskel searched for more words to try to make him understand, though he didn't know what part of this was so inexplicable. It was hardly the worst standing order he'd ever heard of a witcher being given.
Jaskier finally met Eskel's eyes to ask, still frowning, "Forbidden by whom? Not my father--and not the king, surely. From what Father said he barely met you."
"No," Eskel agreed. "It was years ago. Thirteen years--we were still in Kaedwen. But he can do his work fine as he is, so no one ever changed the order. Standing orders stay in force unless countermanded, even when we're no longer under the same authority."
Jaskier looked horrified, so Eskel didn't bother explaining about the permanent standing orders that ensured their obedience and harmlessness to innocents. But Jaskier wasn't recoiling from Eskel, and his quick look toward Geralt seemed stricken. "Thirteen..."
A sharp gesture caught Eskel's attention. Geralt signed emphatically, Twelve.
Jaskier noticed the flicker of Eskel's attention and looked toward Geralt again, then, questioningly, back to Eskel.
Eskel didn't wait to be ordered to tell. "Geralt can hear us. He says it was twelve years ago, but it was summer, and we're halfway through spring now, Geralt, so it's closer to thirteen."
Jaskier glanced back and forth between them, and Eskel wondered if he should have found some way to avoid embarrassing their lord by making it so obvious that his attempt at discretion had been useless.
He did seem to want to understand them, though, and his displeasure, as he made a beckoning gesture in Geralt's direction, didn't seem to be directed at them. "Give us a moment, Szymon. Geralt, come here. Thirteen years."
The last was said under his breath, in a strangely hollow tone.
It occurred to Eskel that, given how much Jaskier talked, such a prohibition must seem particularly cruel to him.
"Geralt," Jaskier said, a bit sharply, as Geralt came to stand beside Eskel. "I give you leave to speak whenever you please. By all means be sarcastic when the moment calls for it."
Geralt's eyes went wide, and he clapped a hand to his mouth, turning half away from Jaskier and Eskel both; Eskel could feel the sudden bowstring tension of him, and kept himself very still with an effort.
Jaskier flinched, but still didn't seem to be angry with either of them. "But of course you need not!" He added hastily. "I'm sure it will take some getting used to. I'll--I'll just give you a moment. Szymon!"
Jaskier turned sharply away, gesturing wildly; the tailor seemed to understand, and herded his apprentices toward the door. Jaskier went through on his heels, and looked back at them, just once, before he shut the door firmly behind him.
Eskel heard the soft thud of Jaskier slumping against the other side of the door, as if he were guarding their privacy, and that thought couldn't even get purchase on his brain, because he and Geralt were alone, and...
Geralt whispered something into his fingers that might have been his name, then coughed sharply, clearing his throat.
Eskel put a hand on his shoulder, and Geralt swung around toward him, into him, his arms going tight around Eskel, his face pressing to Eskel's shoulder. Eskel pressed his scarred cheek to Geralt's temple and held on tight.
They were both shaking, Eskel thought, though their medallions and collars were perfectly still. They rattled against each other all the same, shaken out of their thoughts by their lord's impulsively given orders.
"Eskel," Geralt finally breathed, and the sound of his voice shook Eskel to his bones with something beyond joy, something that stole his breath and the strength of his limbs.
"Eskel. Eskel." Geralt got a little louder each time he repeated it.
"Geralt," Eskel returned, his voice shaking even on those two syllables.
"Eskel," Geralt said again, and then he let out a wry little laugh. "I think we might like this one."
Eskel laughed too, and sagged against the wall, because neither he nor Geralt were much use right now for keeping each other upright. Not in the face of this battering, overwhelming feeling. It took Eskel another moment to recognize it as hope.
If Jaskier cast them off tomorrow--if they were requisitioned next week to fight in an arena in Novigrad or Toussaint--still, Eskel had heard Geralt's voice again. On a day he'd thought would be no different from any other in the last fifty years, Geralt had been granted this measure of freedom, and he and Eskel had been left alone together to enjoy it, in this beautiful sunlit room, while their lord waited outside for them.
For the first time since they'd been Chained, Eskel had no idea what might happen next.
He was looking forward to finding out, with Geralt at his side. Following Jaskier around the continent was clearly going to be more than an assignment--they stood on the brink of an adventure, the kind of thing they'd imagined as boys. Anything was possible now.