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For the Hoard

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Geralt couldn't remember when he'd last felt hungry.

He knew, as a practical matter, that he was hungry almost all the time: the energy to do what a witcher did had to come from somewhere. He could keep himself going a long time on potions and meditation and whatever water was available--no matter how silty, no matter what was growing in it--but sooner or later he had to eat.

He just couldn't feel it. He remembered more or less what it had felt like: a hollow twisting feeling in his gut, just under his ribs on the left side especially. It had been his constant companion once, for years and years.

Boys in training were fed well, or at least plentifully, at Kaer Morhen, but from what he could recall he'd been perpetually hungry in his growing years. After the trials, especially, when his body was doing entirely new things, it seemed as if he could never get enough to satisfy that empty feeling. And his first years on the Path, new to his trade and still filling out his adult musculature, he'd felt that edge of hunger all the time, thinking of every contract in terms of what food it would buy him.

But it was one of the things that faded away as he settled into himself as a witcher, coming fully into his powers and hardening himself against every kind of pain and privation. Somewhere along the way, the sensation of hunger had gotten away from him, like a spare bunch of herbs falling unnoticed from his overstuffed pack.

Which, in fact, had happened at least twice today, because he'd been chasing down a chain of contracts, downing potion after potion to keep going with barely time to clean his blades and catch his breath in between. With the habits of a lifetime on the Path, he'd collected every useful thing he could get his hands on along the way, cramming it into his pack anywhere it would fit and some places it apparently wouldn't. Now he needed to stop and rest as much to rearrange his supplies as to spend a few hours in meditation.

Part of the process of tidying up his pack was eating: anything that took up too much space or was already starting to turn would be eaten to clear space and fill his belly at the same time. Efficient, and a useful reminder about eating when he might otherwise forget until he noticed some actual weakness in his body.

He tore--cracked--mostly-stale bread into pieces to fold around the nearly-rancid meat, eating in order from least fresh to most, so that it tasted progressively better as he went along. His body took over at the first taste of food, which helped get the worst of it down; his healing would take care of what would have sickened anyone else and dulled the feeling of having his mouth cut up by hard crusts.

Shoveling in food with one hand, he emptied his pack with the other, sorting things into categories around him. There was food, divided into what had to be eaten within the next few days before it spoiled, and what he could keep indefinitely. Makings for potions, which he would need to brew once he was done eating, to replace all he'd used in the last few days. And other stray odds and ends he'd collected here and there--flints, for the gods' sakes.

He'd mastered Igni nearly a century ago and still couldn't resist picking up a well-shaped flint whenever he ran across one.

He made a little pile of them, so that he could leave them for the next person who wanted to take refuge by this firepit, and continued his sorting.

Along with the feeling of hunger, he'd lost the feeling of satiety, of enough. He didn't feel nausea or pain much, either, so when his attention was divided like this, he only knew to stop eating when the feeling of pressure in his overfull belly became noticeable. He drank a bit of water to clean his mouth and help the last of the dry bread down, and then looked over what food remained.

He had some fruit, still, and two of the pears were going bruised and soft in the way that meant they'd start making a mess in his pack if he didn't eat them soon. He set them by his knee, and started wrapping up the rest of the fresh food to be repacked.

It felt good, to know that he'd eaten less than half of what he had. It felt like safety, like a warm golden Quen around him, to pack up those little bundles of food.

He had enough. He wouldn't starve. Never mind that he had gold in his pouch (and strategically located in various hidden pockets of his pack and boots and armor, even if any bandit who tried to steal from a witcher was asking to be put down like a mad dog). Never mind that he could readily hunt up more food if he needed it, or another contract to earn himself more orens and more food, long before he would begin to suffer from the lack.

He had food in his pack, and that meant he had a shield against this one threat. He wouldn't starve.

He tossed the woody stem of the first pear into the fire and started on the second, checking through the pockets and compartments of his pack to see if there was anything else that needed sorting and ordering, and started tucking things away.

He was just swallowing the last of the second pear when he found the little bundles, each in its twist of waxed paper, where they had fallen to the bottom of an outside pocket. Two looked whole, but the third had been obviously crushed, the paper even slightly torn.

Geralt lifted the smashed packet out and carefully unwrapped it, though he already knew what he would see.

He remembered crouching by another fire, another witcher's pack open while its contents were sorted and examined. Not his own pack, on that night. He had been young, only through the first of the Trials, and so of course he had been hungry; that night he had slipped out of his dormitory room and crept toward the kitchens, and stopped when he came across one of the witchers, come in from the Path to rest at Kaer Morhen and sorting through his pack.

Geralt had made himself small and stayed very quiet, and had believed, child that he was, that the witcher hadn't noticed him. In truth the witcher, freshly in from the Path and still too much on edge to go rest instead of fiddling with his pack, had likely heard Geralt from the moment he'd put a foot out of his bed--and had assessed him as utterly nonthreatening in the same moment.

He had watched the way the witcher sorted things, the way he arranged them into categories, even the folds of cloth he used to wrap bundles of herbs. And then the witcher had reached in one last time and drawn something from the bottom of his pack--a twist of slightly grubby waxed paper, clearly crushed and a little torn.

Geralt had never seen one before that night; such a frivolity, even such a common, cheap frivolity as that, had no place in a young witcher's upbringing. It was only years later, out on the Path himself, that he'd come across a whole one and discovered what it was meant to look like. The name had made more sense after that.

"Sugardoll," the witcher had said in a low voice, looking down at his hand and flexing his fingers to shift the broken pieces of the little confection. It had once been a barely-shaped piece of hardened sugar, with a few dots of colored candy to make eyes and a suggestion of buttoned clothes.

At the time, all Geralt knew was that he could smell the sweetness of those crumbled pieces, and it made his mouth water so suddenly and intensely that he could feel the pain of it in his jaw.

"Last thing in my pack," the witcher went on, and Geralt had realized then that he was actually being spoken to. The big scarred man had glanced in his direction then, sparing him something like a smile. "I try to never eat the last thing in my pack, no matter how low I get on supplies. If there's one thing left, you know you've got something to eat when you really need it."

Geralt had nodded, wide-eyed, taking it in like sacred wisdom.

The witcher had huffed, not quite a laugh, and held out the fold of paper. "Here. Looks like you need it more than I do, boy. I won't get scolded for stocking up in the pantries before I head out again."

Geralt had bolted it down right then, nearly choking himself on the disintegrating candy-dust, and the sharp pure sweetness of it had been something almost as magical as anything else he'd experienced up to that point.

Now, sitting by himself at his lonely fire, Geralt reassured himself that he had two more, after all, and this one was broken. He sat by the fire and licked up the broken bits of sugar. He'd find another soon enough, and hide it away until he really needed it.