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In The Embers

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“Mister witcher, sir!”

At first Lambert thinks it the beginning of the usual insults thrown his way. He doesn't pause for it, mounts his horse in one swift move, his hand clenched to a fist around the reins. No matter how much time passes, the omnipresent hatred for his mere existence gets marginally easier to bear–

A boy jumps in his way, practically in front of his horse's hooves, and only a call of “Aiden, halt!” prevents him from eating dirt.

“Hey, watch where you're–”

“Sir”, the other persists, determined now that he has the witcher's attention, and Lambert squints at his gangly limbs and the patchy fuzz on his chin. Not quite a boy, then, and courageous at that.

Still. He almost gave Aiden a heart attack and Lambert is in no mood to look for a new horse or to entertain some peasant kid, for that matter. “What do you want? If it's monster trouble, post a damn note, I'm busy.”

The boy doesn't move an inch, despite Lambert's best glare. His hands are shaking, though, as he roots through his bag for something. Finally, a crinkled envelope is held out to him.

“'s a letter, sir, from Novigrad. Sent by a bard named–“

“Give me that.”

Lambert snatches it away before the kid can react. Brow furrowed, he confirms it's from Dandelion; there's a suspicious lack of decor to it, however. “And you're sure you got the right witcher?”

“Absolutely certain, sir”, says the boy. “Was told to look for black hair and scars and a sour face a-and, um...”

Definitely less courageous now, with his features pale as the moon, and Lambert finds some mercy in him after all. He waves him closer, gives him some coin for a warm meal and some mead, if he strikes a good deal. He'll manage. Seems like the clever sort.

Dandelion, however... Regardless of what this is about, the witcher will have his revenge. Sour face, hah. He hasn't even seen Lambert angry.

Coins in hand, the boy practically leaps away with a hasty bow in Lambert's general direction. Clearly unused to his kind, if his first instinct is to treat him like a knight.

Lambert chews on that for a moment before making quick work of the envelope. Worry makes itself known in the back of his mind. If Dandelion went through the trouble of tracking him down, then–

The paper is clumsily folded, and stinks of fear. No, stress. Concern. Not good – Lambert's heart pounds faster. He skips the greeting, skims the hastily written words and–

Ciri is dead.

Lambert reads it, and then reads it again, eyes going wide as their meaning sinks in. His thoughts, frozen in a brief instant of shock, fly in all directions at once.

A tug of reins makes Aiden turn sharply, the press of Lambert's heels at his side urgent; and Lambert doesn't notice the wind whipping through his hair or how the world goes blurry around the edges.

Geralt, he thinks, and pushes on ever faster.

*

It feels like years until the forest around him turns familiar, deeply so, and the witcher turns to the rapidly approaching mountain range for orientation.

Nevertheless the last leg of his journey goes by in a flash; the shadows grow longer under the setting sun, and soon Kaer Morhen towers over him, its high walls taking the last light with it. On any other day, Lambert would've stopped and stared, would've given himself a minute or two to take in the sight of the crumbling keep once more.

He doesn't, however. The tense coil wrapped around his heart won't allow it, the storm swirling in his mind rendering any focus other than finding Geralt impossible, and finally Lambert understands.

There's no doubt his eyes carry the same hunted look he had, that time they met in Novigrad. No wonder Geralt had pushed himself and his beloved Roach to her limits in his search – uncertainty is it's own kind of torture, and even the strongest might break under the weight of what if.

Lambert actively stops himself from reaching for the letter again. He knows it by memory now, not that it contained much to begin with:

Ciri, gone. Geralt, missing without a trace.

His fame and relative sociability belies his skill to remain in the shadows if he so wishes – and once a witcher of Geralt's caliber decides to disappear, there's not much to be done. Contacting Lambert had been Dandelion's last resort, but even he couldn't pick up a single solid lead on the White Wolf.

Yet Lambert refuses to let him go like he did Aiden, hell, even Vesemir; turning his back after everything was said and done felt natural then, it's what the Path demanded of him. Never attached, never sticking around... But something about Geralt makes him want to try, that same fire he showed for Ciri burning within him, too.

They're family, not by blood but by choice, and he'll be damned if he fails him like he failed the others.

Thus Lambert doesn't hesitate, and he doesn't cower under Kaer Morhen's heavy gates. Something – his senses, or maybe a rare bout of optimism – tells him this old keep isn't abandoned just yet.

Maybe fate is on his side, this time.

*

The first lit lantern inside the ramparts proves his hunch right, and it's not hard to guess who ignited it when he brings Aiden to the stables and finds two other horses in their respective boxes.

Lambert recognizes Scorpion easily enough – there's only few mounts black as night, and hours of listening to Eskel's equivalent of swooning made sure he won't forget it – and Roach is curious as ever, gently bumping her nose against Lambert's shoulder.

“'fraid I got nothing”, he murmurs and rubs the white spot between her eyes, glancing her over. Small cuts and scrapes interrupt the white markings on her legs. Nothing too grave, though.

“Had a rough journey, hm? Good girl. Things're gonna be okay, you'll see.”

Even the hardened heart of a witcher can't resist the concentrated effort of all three horses to plead with their eyes; Lambert sighs, hunts down some hay that's safe to feed amongst all the moldy bales left behind after the battle.

It's the least they deserve for their hard work.

Leaving them and their contented munching behind, the few stone steps to the keep's entrance are quickly climbed. Suddenly, the wolf medallion around Lambert's neck stirs: a gentle hum at first, barely noticeable through the thick layers of his armor, yet the closer he gets, the stronger it vibrates.

Magic? Lambert's hand goes to his silver sword by instinct, his enhanced senses picking up some movement–

“Drawing your sword on me? Not the warm welcome I expected.”

Amber eyes flash in the dark, the faint moonlight catching on pale skin and the clawed scars marring it. “Stop creeping in the shadows like a damn ekimmara and I might reconsider”, Lambert huffs, nonetheless sheathing his sword.

“I see you beat me here, Eskel.”

They shake hands, Eskel's crooked smile a little smug. Lambert lets him have it. Just being around the older witcher soothes some of the restlessness inside him – there's little in the world that can break Eskel's calm nature, and out of anyone, he's the one who's known Geralt the longest.

All too soon, the warm feeling of seeing a friendly face runs cold; Lambert nods to the closed door, “Is he...?”, and watches the other closely as his expression notably dims.

“Mh. Can't say I recommend going in there, though.”

Eskel exhales slowly, sitting down on a piece of broken masonry. The way he carries himself is... defeated, almost, similar to the last time they parted after Vesemir's pyre had burned down to embers.

The sudden weight on his chest denies Lambert a proper breath. “That bad, huh? Shit.” He shakes his head, rubs his neck. For a moment, the rasp of his beard against the worn leather of his gloves is the only sound. Then:

“I just hoped–“

“Yeah. Me too.”

More silence. His medallion is still trembling, so too is Eskel's – and after weeks of travel and hundreds of miles crossed, waiting even for a second longer is the last thing Lambert feels like doing. Frustration seethes within him, making him pace with his eyes fixed on the keep.

Finally, he can't take it anymore. Hissing “Fuck this” under his breath, Lambert is half-way past Eskel when a strong grip wraps around his wrist.

“Lambert.”

“What?!”, he snaps back, tense under the other's unexpected touch. “We can't sit around and leave him–“

“You're right.” Eskel's eyes seek his, gaze steady and yet soft with concern as he lets him go. “Just... Be careful. Geralt– I've never seen him like this.”

The anger leaves Lambert in an instant; he nods, hesitating before he briefly rests his hand on Eskel's shoulder and squeezes. Then he's past him, only the cracked wood of the door stands between him and Geralt.

Lambert steels himself and opens it.

Darkness surrounds him the moment he steps inside. The dull light from outside barely spills past the threshold, but it's the near-oppressive presence of magic hitting his senses like a physical punch that staggers him: even the very air tastes of it, and Lambert's unease grows.

“Geralt?”

His voice carries far within the keep's stone walls, but no answer arises. Great. Eskel's warning fresh in his mind, Lambert ventures into the darkened room like he would a monster's lair – with his senses on high alert and ready to cast the Quen sign if need be.

Despite the years and decades since his training, Kaer Morhen's halls remain fundamentally the same; any witcher raised here could walk them blindly, and finding a candelabra that works is merely a matter of trial and error. A few candles ignite on Lambert's command, their timid flames reaching towards the center–

He catches a flash of white before his medallion lurches and something comes flying towards him. Lambert's fingers move without conscious thought; the golden glow of Quen lasts but a split second before it's shattered again and the crash of splintering wood sounds behind him.

Lambert doesn't take his eyes off his target though, even if his lips pull into a joyless smirk. “Did you just throw a table at me?”, he calls out, letting some indignation slip into his voice. “That what you did to Eskel, too? Poor guy's not faring well out in the doghouse, Geralt.”

The icy glare from across the room makes him reconsider not drawing his sword. “Leave”, Geralt growls. It's pretty clear it's not a suggestion.

Lambert hums, eyeing the surrounding destruction, then the witcher who caused it in barely-there glances. His chest is bare and practically dripping with sweat, hair wild, muscles taut, trembling with exertion. Geralt's been at it a while, it seems.

Not good at all.

“Nah. Just got here an' it's cold as balls outside. If you want to toss around some more furniture, I suggest the chair to your right. Still in one piece, that's a plus.”

Step by small step, he forces his stride to be casual as he approaches – Geralt's eyes never leave him, pupils narrowed to thin, angry slits, and Lambert doesn't miss the positioning of his arm, ready to strike again.

“Look. I get it, company's probably the last thing you want right now but–“

Maybe it's his calming tone of voice, or the placating show of hands; Geralt grinds his teeth hard enough Lambert can hear it, the chair goes flying, Lambert's countering Aard push only doing so much in blocking the blow.

Sheer wind pressure knocks him back, flattens him against a pillar, and for a moment Lambert sees stars as all the air in his lungs is pressed out in one strangled breath. Blinking away the dark spots, he can only pant in a desperate attempt to get oxygen back into his body.

Somewhere behind his unresponsive lungs, the witcher's pulse starts to race. Shit shit shit. If Geralt's serious about this – and by the way he's stalking closer, he is – there's no way Lambert's living through this. Just the thought of fighting his friend, his brother, with all he has makes his stomach churn.

Lambert holds out his hand. “Geralt–“

“That's enough!”

Like thunderclap, the words seems to freeze time itself for the blink of an eye. Lambert barely recognizes Eskel underneath the absolute wrath in his voice, and before Geralt can as much as turn around, a blast of Aard blows him clean off his feet and into some debris behind him.

The sight of Eskel's back in front of him makes that remnant of fear, that small part of him that is still scared of loud voices and fisted hands deep inside ease, and Lambert can breathe again. “Eskel, stop”, he rasps. “I'm alright, he didn't–“

“He intended to, that's reason enough.”

Somewhere ahead, the rustling of moving rubble goes ignored by Eskel who helps the younger witcher to his feet. “Smacked that pillar pretty hard”, he mutters, anger replaced by worry; Lambert pushes him away.

“'m fine, head's fine, ribs're fine, get out of my face.”

Even now, that petulant tone draws a fond look from Eskel, however brief. “Alright, you're snapping at me, we're good. Geralt?”

He doesn't raise his voice, there's no need to: the third and last Wolf is standing a few paces away, expression unreadable yet Lambert doesn't miss the short glance his way. “Could've pulled that punch a little”, says Geralt at last, without the usual dryness or humor.

Eskel shrugs. “Payback's a bitch and you deserved it. Wolf school witchers kicked out of Kaer Morhen by one of their own – Vesemir would have our heads, no matter the reason.”

There's more than a little venom in Geralt's hissed “Vesemir's dead”, and it's in that moment that Lambert steps between them, pushing them apart.

“Okay, that's the line. Let's all just shut up, get our shit, pool whatever booze we have and drink till we forget this ever happened. Deal? Good. Eskel, with me.”

He doesn't check for Eskel's or Geralt's reaction; instead, Lambert walks out in measured strides, eyes closing in relief when another, heavier gait soon follows.

They don't talk while they gather their many packs, weapons and saddle bags, even though there's a lot to be said about... whatever the blazes that was: first and foremost, how it's possible that Lambert is the rational one in all this – but he watches Eskel forcefully grab his gear to head inside, expression cold and eyes distant, and thinks that Kaer Morhen might've stayed the same but they haven't, and maybe, time has changed them more than they want to admit.

If only Vesemir wasn't–

Lambert sighs quietly to himself.

Yeah, if only.