The rolling mists of Sodden are thick with magic. Renfri keeps shooting him unhappy little glances as Jaskier retches and stumbles behind Yennefer’s swishing skirts, and all he wants is to throw her a cocky grin, maybe smooth the worry lines away from her mouth—but he can’t, he’s weaving like a drunk, and in so much pain he can barely force two words between his gritted teeth.
The base of operations that the mages have chosen is the ramparts of the castle proper. It’s good for...flinging things, Jaskier guesses, though what the mages have thought to fling is anyone’s guess. Rocks, perhaps? The skulls of their enemies? He catches Renfri running her eyes dubiously over the edges and, momentarily forgetting the agony in his leg, he grins.
“I’m not playing nursemaid for you,” Yennefer announces firmly. “Whatever questions you have, you need to find the answers to yourself. There are more than enough sorcerers here for you to wrangle an answer or two. If you can convince them not to kill you instead.”
It’s no more hospitality than Jaskier expects of her, but Renfri raises an eyebrow and she flushes, and—no, Jaskier’s not seeing this, nope, no, no.
“At least something for the pain,” Renfri says. “The man of the hour is in no condition to be seeking answers.”
And Yennefer- Yennefer, who wouldn’t budge in front of a mountain—sighs. “Very well,” she acquiesces, and ignoring Jaskier’s slack jaw she gestures up the hill. “Come on up. Not you,” she barks when Jaskier tries to stumble upright. “Our quarters are warded against enemy magic, and I’d rather not find out how potent it is just yet. Stay here, and try not to cause any trouble.”
Jaskier indignantly looks to Renfri to defend his honor, but it’s clear that her thoughts are far away, calculating their chances of survival apart faced with everything that Jaskier’s told her about this witch. “He’ll be unguarded out here,” she says. “I assume the reason that none of the soldiers are meeting our eyes has something to do with you, but once you’re gone—”
“Oh, he’s never as helpless as he looks,” Yennefer snaps. “I’m sure that he can muster up enough magic to defend himself.”
For a few moments Renfri keeps staring at her levelly, and Yennefer’s eyes go brittle and hard. Neither willing to concede.
“It’s fine,” Jaskier rasps, pitching into Renfri’s side. “It’s fine. You go. She’s right.”
Renfri shakes her head sharply. A vein in her jaw jumps.
Jaskier gives her a little push. “Go.”
Renfri frowns at him more before she relents. She’s got the wicked-sharp bite of a blade, does his girl, but she worries with the best of them. Jaskier tries to make a face—convey how much of a hen she’s being— but she’s not having it, and her features go harder than ever. But she does lower him onto the stone fence, and she slips her dagger into his hand before she follows Yennefer, and Jaskier watches her go till she disappears into the deeper layer of magic of the mountain.
He drifts then, untethered. He thinks he sees Geralt, or maybe it’s the sky, ashen beneath his eyelids. Geralt is lying on a cart, or a horse, or a carriage. Then he’s on the coast, smiling his half-smile, saying If I had a coin for every time that song got on my nerves—
“Arise, bard,” says a voice, sharp as a whipcrack through the fog of his visions. “This is no time to be dreaming.”
Jaskier falls through layers of dreams with a flinch.
He’s always mentally likened Yennefer’s power to wildfire—igniting with a crackle of dry old bones and feasting on every man and creature idiotic enough to be in its path. Raw, closer to pure Chaos than any magic he’s ever seen.
He sees that wildfire tempered in the sorceress that leans towards him. Tempered, and channeled, and glowing a blinding blue light. It streams unhurriedly through the herbs in her hand, to the tips of her fingers, held against Jaskier’s forehead.
He flinches away on instinct before he realizes that his teeth aren’t gritted to the point of wear anymore. The pain in his leg is gone. He can still feel the poison coursing through the pathways of his blood, which means the wound isn’t healed more than it is forgotten; but the relief of it is blinding.
The witch looks exasperated as he leans away from her hand. “I suppose gratitude is too much to ask for, from any of Yennefer’s guests,” she says with a roll of her eyes, and Jaskier stops being terrified of her for a moment, long enough to be offended by the assumption that he and Yennefer were friends.
“I am indebted,” he says warily. “In all the lands I could not find a kinder soul than—”
“Oh, spare me. I have no time for a bard’s superfluous platitudes.”
He thinks her irritation is kind of unfair, since she’s the one who asked for gratitude. He wisely doesn’t point this out.
She seems to catch on anyway. With a roll of her eyes she tells him, “A simple thank you, Tissaia, would suffice.”
Jaskier blinks. Sorcerers were infamously cagey bastards; they didn’t hand out their names for nothing. Everything had a cost with them.
He pats his pockets furtively.
“Fair Tissaia,” he says, and this seems like a good start, because she smiles tolerantly at him. All sorcerers were raging narcissists as well; Jaskier knows he’d be, if he looked like that. “Fair Tissaia, you cannot deny that I owe you a great debt. You’ve freed me from a most grievous affliction. Perhaps I may tempt you with a song?”
Against all odds her eyes light up, which is just simply wondrous to behold. Jaskier immediately goes a little tongue-tied. More so because between Renfri, and Geralt, and fucking Yennefer, the world has sent little by way of appreciation for his songs, and this witch—powerful enough to bring down entire cities in a blink—looks excited to hear them.
She feigns with the best of them, though. “Oh, that won’t be necessary,” she says. “I simply wanted to ascertain where all this healing magic was going. Whoever’s on the other side of that spell’s a leech on your magic, by the way,” she adds, offhand. “No one requires that much healing. Unless they’re returning from the dead.”
“Haha, that’d be crazy,” Jaskier scratches under his collar uncomfortably. “Now, about that song—”
He ends up improvising:
Don't let the song stop even in a night where the dawn never comes
Don't let the wandering dream get tangled up
Don't look back at the footprints that missed each other
Don't let you go, even if you step out from the path
“A general blessing,” he says, feeling almost…bashful, as she claps, though he’s sung before plenty of appreciative audiences before. None as strong as her.
“Bard magic is so fascinating,” she says dreamily, and spins something invisible around her fingers with a winsome smile. “We just speak a word in Elder tongue and it does our jobs for us. It’s a blunt tool, no subtlety or intricacy. Putting so much thought to an incantation,” she sighs happily. “It’s a pet hobby of mine, to think of ways to combine the two. To bring chaos and love together.”
Jaskier perks up. “They’re not so different after all.”
Tissaia smiles at him, as if he’s a student that’s delighted her with an answer. “That’s right. Of course, you’re the strongest bard I’ve seen since that Chancellor of yours, so you’d make a hell of a sorcerer as well. But I suppose your heart is in music.”
“It is the food of love,” Jaskier agrees, and matches her smile. “Now, if I could tempt you, this one’s called Butcher of Blaviken.”
When Renfri returns, that’s how she finds them: village lads singing along in a raucous semi-circle around him and Tissaia leaning forward, bright-eyed. As she comes to stand beside him, he unthinkingly segues into the Tale of Renfri, lingering on the parts that prove beyond doubt that the girl standing beside him is the same one he’s singing about.
Tissaia’s delight doesn’t diminish, though the turn of her mouth does turn thoughtful. Were she and whoreson Stregobor friends? That’d be amazingly unlucky and therefore par for the course for Jaskier.
Jaskier finds that the verses about Geralt and Renfri’s fight leave a bad taste in his mouth and he rushes over them, landing on the ones about her waking up and leaving her glass cage.
When he’s done, Renfri leans in and places her fingertips over Jaskier’s inner wrist. Checking his heartbeat, aligning herself to it the way she does when she needs to calm down.
Jaskier is half-amused, half-fretful. “Things go badly with Yennefer, then?”
Renfri casts her eye to Tissaia, one quick glance before she raises her eyebrow at Jaskier. He shrugs.
“Don’t pretend you didn’t see it coming,” she says, finally. “And it looks like you’ve been doing alright for yourself, with or without her help.”
Jaskier shakes his head. “She likes my songs.”
Predictably, this has Renfri rolling her eyes. “That’s all it takes, huh.”
“She understands my magic, Renfri,” he says, and something in his voice must ring as earnest, because she narrows her eyes. “She might actually be able to help us. She knows enough about love.”
Renfri looks unhappy, and Jaskier wishes he could explain it to her better. He supposes that he owes it to her to try, if he’s asking her to trust a sorceress.
“Sorcerers and bards draw from the same Source,” he tells her, gesturing with both hands. “The terminology is different and the incantations are different, but we’re tapping into the same energy. There’s no real difference between what the sorcerers call Chaos and what the bards call Love. It’s the way we channel it that makes the distinction between the two.”
“I was reborn from love,” Renfri says. “Your love. But for who?”
He can’t help it: Jaskier’s ears burn. He ducks his head, humiliated.
When Renfri speaks next, it’s the softest he’s heard her. “Oh, Jaskier.”
She ruffles his hair and he leans into her touch. “I could have sworn it was an infatuation,” she says. “Everyone knows how quickly bards fall in love. I should have known better.”
“It’s not exactly hard to miss,” Tissaia says, sounding almost apologetic. Renfri glares at her anyway. “Nine out of the ten songs he sang were about the same man. This Geralt of Rivia, he’s the same one they sing about tossing coins to, yes?”
Jaskier winces. “Not my best work.”
“It’s catchier than it is subtle,” Tissaia agrees, fixing the collar of her dress. “Whatever the incantation was for, it’s probably potent.”
“Just a general blessing,” he says vaguely. “Sung very much in those days of rumored infatuation.”
Renfri sighs. “I told you, I’m sorry it took me so long to catch on.”
“Somehow I’m not surprised,” Tissaia says when they turn back to her. “A powerful bard sings a song to assuage the guilt of the man he loves over killing a princess, and the song becomes an incantation and brings the princess back to life. The prophecies have been droning on and on about a child of the black sun returning for revenge, but we all assumed it was made up to strike some fear into that whoreson Stregobor.”
She says whoreson Stregobor in the same unintentionally noble-born, princess-y way that Renfri does, as if she does not know a greater insult. It makes Jaskier let out a wholly inappropriate bark of laughter, which in turn earns him two lovely glares. He raises his hands, easy. “I gather the whoreson Stregobor is not better-liked by mages than he is by cursed princesses and bards?”
Tissaia’s eyes harden. “Take his absence here as your answer, Jaskier.”
All the humor fades from Jaskier, and he almost flinches. Reigned in and hidden, it’s easy to forget the blistering fire of Tissaia’s power as she laughs and claps her hands along to a song, and now that the joy has fallen away he remembers: Tissaia was the name of the rectoress of Aretuza.
She stands and brushes down her skirts, as fastidious as a cat, and Jaskier belatedly realizes who her gestures remind him of. It should have been obvious; the way she arranged her skirts the first time she sat down should have been a dead giveaway, but he’s always been slow on the uptake on things like this.
She turns to him and Jaskier nearly slams his palm against his forehead; she even smiles like Yennefer.
So this was why Yennefer was at the warfront.
He’s turning this over like a stone in his hands, when a boy materializes directly behind her. She must have had him hidden in illusion until their conversation was over—Jaskier hadn’t even noticed her casting anything. He tenses, and beside him Renfri glances at him before she flicks her eyes back.
“I don’t know enough about bard magic of your level to suggest a simple solution,” Tissaia says, looking up from the scroll the boy had delivered to her. “But I will tell you this: the spell to cleave someone free from the effects of magic is Diverbero.”
“Thank you,” Jaskier calls after her as she picks up her skirts and turns to leave. She gives him one last smile before heading into the castle, the errand boy running to keep up with her gliding strides.
Renfri and Jaskier watch her go. “I look away for one moment,” she says under her breath, “and here you are, charming Tissaia de Vries.”
“Speak for yourself,” Jaskier whispers back. “I didn’t even know Yennefer’s eyes could twinkle.”
“Shut up, Jaskier,” Renfri says automatically, and cracks a crooked grin when Jaskier begins to laugh.
Yennefer is not subtle at all about being rabidly curious about what Jaskier and Tissaia were discussing, but she’s on some kind of unspoken war against Renfri that leaves her curling her lip and looking coldly away whenever she’s caught staring. Jaskier raises his eyebrows at Renfri, who seems similarly irritable and pretends that she’s not bothered by it. Whatever this is, Jaskier wants no part of it.
Amidst all this Jaskier prods at the phantom injury on his leg and tries to trace the origin of it. Tissaia had taken away the pain, but not the awareness of it; with his eyes half-closed he can make out teeth marks, like two sets of vicious needles had clamped down on his leg, which is impossible and unheard of and totally par for the course if it had something to do with Jaskier’s magic and Geralt. Was Geralt even alive?
With Renfri so close he can’t really dream of anything but shadowy black fog, but he gets glimpses: blue sky, the rattle of a cart. A boy with a tin hat over his head, though that makes no sense whatsoever.
Time slips through his fingers as he fades in and out. It’s typical that Geralt wanders his dreams as he pleases when he’s not needed, when Jaskier’s desperately trying not to think about him; but now, when he’s seeking Geralt out, he’s stubbornly silent. Jaskier doesn’t let himself panic and tries to see his magic as a bridge, as Tissaia saw it, to follow it to Geralt, but all he manages is to come back to that vision of a boy with his tin-hat and his persistent questions. He’s a sweet child—a little on the obnoxious side, and Jaskier feels it in his bones when the little brat’s mother sighs under his next volley of questions—but so patently not who he’s looking for that Jaskier nearly sobs in frustration.
Jaskier ends up hesitating, the next time he sees him, hedging his bets, trying to figure out where to look next. He’s standing in the threshold of the cottage with the brat and his mother when the child’s circles around the room have him ramming straight into Jaskier.
“FUCK,” Jaskier shouts, reeling away.
The boy looks up at him, unperturbed. Between his headgear and his hard fucking head, he looks as if he hardly felt it, the little shit, while Jaskier jumps in place holding his leg. Was this what happened to Geralt? Did he get a fatal wound from a child?
“You’re not supposed to say that word,” the boy says, very seriously.
Jaskier glares down at him. “You’re not supposed to attack random strangers either, but here we both are. It’s a funny world that way.”
“You’re in our house, that means you’re a burglar.”
Jaskier is never having children. He glances at this particular terror’s mother, who’s moving around the sunlit kitchen without noticing Jaskier. Makes sense that this brat was annoying enough to subvert the laws of scrying. “I wouldn’t if I could help it, but the person I’m looking for seems to have disappeared off the face of the continent and I keep ending up here instead. It wasn’t exactly a choice, and I’m certainly not a burglar.”
The child ponders this. He has his wooden sword perilously close to Jaskier, and as he’s thinking he waves it from side to side. If he stabs Jaskier with it he will kick this child, Melitele hear him.
“Okay,” the child says, finally. “If you were burgling us, you’d be very bad at it anyway. We’re going to the market soon, you should have burgled us then.”
Jaskier blinks down at him, weighing the merits of kicking this child anyway, trying to place why the accent sounds so slightly familiar—when a hand grabs him by the throat, and slams him against the counter.
“Geralt,” he says, breathless for reasons that had little to do with the grip on his neck. Geralt glowers down at him, cat’s eyes glowing like embers. “Oh thank fuck, Geralt.”
“What are you,” Geralt growls, in the voice that means imminent death. Jaskier’s brain scrambles to catch up, to move past the sheer relief of seeing him alive and—as far as Jaskier can see—whole. “Answer me. What have you done with him?”
“With who?” Jaskier says, squirming. The grip tightens and he goes deathly still. “Geralt, has all the witchering made you lose your mind.”
Geralt’s grip doesn’t loosen. “The man whose face you’re wearing,” he says, and slams Jaskier back again as he continues to stare up at him in pure confusion. “What have you done with him?”
He has long fingers—suited for a pianoforte, Jaskier’d once mused, to Geralt’s displeasure when he was in an ornery mood—elegant and rather quite lovely. They press in on Jaskier’s windpipe with a cold, measured precision.
“Geralt,” he says, just a huff of air. “It’s me. You know it’s me.”
Geralt shakes his head tersely. “Try again. The truth, this time.”
“Geralt, come on,” Jaskier says again. “You know. I don’t know where we are but you’ve always known the width and the breadth of what I was.”
The grip goes fractionally slack. The look in Geralt’s eyes is like a storm given life.
“You never told me,” he says, and Jaskier shuts his eyes and physically flinches.
They’re doing this now, then. Jaskier looks down at his feet—at the child—and finds that he’s conveniently disappeared. The cottage is empty.
“You always knew,” Jaskier repeats. He wonders if it would be too much if he pressed into Geralt’s grip, which is now slack enough to be a gentle touch. Just to feel his palm on his skin, feel him alive and whole. He’s always taken care to hold back, but surely this didn’t count, this was barely real—
Geralt takes his hand away before Jaskier can gather the courage. He’s not meeting Jaskier’s eyes, and it makes Jaskier half-wild with desperation.
“Geralt, you know me,” he says, seizing Geralt’s square jaw in his hands, a trespass he never would have dared under normal circumstances. Geralt’s gaze jerks up, a growl catching in his throat. “We’ve never lied to each other. You’ve known what I was since day one.”
Geralt’s lips are parted. Jaskier thinks many fragmented, worthless things and forces himself to push it all out of his mind.
But then Geralt’s eyes are hard again. “Magic or no, you should have let me die. If you know me as well as you say you do, you know how much I hate being indebted to someone. Least of all a friend.”
“It’s not a debt when it’s between friends. You’ve saved my life countless times, we should be able to write it off by now,” Jaskier tries, to no avail; Geralt’s jaw is set.
Of all the men in the world, it had to be this one.
“Fine,” Jaskier says, vaguely desperate. “Fine. What do you want me to do, hm? Claim the Law of Surprise? Not like that hasn’t fucked us over multiple times in the past, but we love tradition, don’t we?”
Geralt makes a cut-off noise. “Jaskier,” and Jaskier feels that all the way to his bones, the rumble of Geralt’s voice over his name like the restless coil of magic inside him. “You can’t let me go on like this.”
“I can’t,” Jaskier says faintly, hardly aware of his own words. He’s thinking of Renfri looming above him with a dagger, saying unbind me from your magic, bard. He thinks of how the two people he loves the most are terrified by cages, and are trapped by him.
“Sure, Geralt,” he says softly. “Sure.”
He puts his palm against his cheek, marveling at his own daring. As for Geralt –Geralt who fucks only women, Geralt who loves Yennefer enough to value her above everything else—Geralt looks for all the world as if he’s waiting to be kissed.
Ah, to live in a fantasy, Jaskier says half-wildly, before he says: “Geralt, in recompense for saving your life, I claim the Law of Surprise.”
Geralt’s eyes go wide. Something is on his lips, half-heard, but Jaskier’s already being yanked out of his dream. For once he’s happy to go. Geralt refusing his protection feels a crueler rejection than one stated outright, because his magic is so much of an extension of his feelings, his pathetic and aimless love. He falls through layers of vision and dream, his only distant regret that he didn’t get to see that precocious brat again: he’d have liked to say goodbye.
“Arise, bard,” Yennefer says. “This is no time to be—"
Jaskier is incredibly weary. He pulls himself to his feet and sways like he’s been unmoored, watching the distant flames of war draw nearer. “Yeah yeah, I know. It’s never the time to be dreaming.”
While Jaskier thought it was bards that were the chattiest vocation, the mages seem to give them a run for their money. He’s greeted by a sorceress who introduces herself as Triss Merigold and pushes a bottle of shiny minerals into his hands, with a throwaway observation of, “Oh, you must be the bard,” that Jaskier is too tired to make sense of.
It’s another witch—Sabrina, who looks young enough to be a teenager—who clarifies, “The prophecy mentioned a bard.”
“Oh?” Jaskier taps the bottle twice and a spurt of magic, like pollen, wafts through the top. He hands it back to her to be resealed. “And what did it say?”
“Just that you were coming to us, looking for answers,” she says. “It went along the lines of a bard and a prophet walk into a bar. In more archaic and unnecessarily cryptic language, of course.”
“Hey,” he protests, mostly at the unnecessary comment. He liked a bit of a riddle. Then, with a shock he realizes: “wait, prophet?”
“Renfri of the Eclipse,” Sabrina says, so hushed Jaskier has to duck his head to hear her. He then has to struggle to suppress a snort. How was it that Renfri evoked this kind of reverence in people she just met? “She was already a prophet before you drew her from behind the veil. I suppose her powers must be unsurpassed by now.”
Renfri has never told him anything of the like, never given any kind of sign that she had this otherworldly power. Jaskier supposes that he was the idiot here, thinking her just a girl with a sword.
It doesn’t help. Why hadn’t she told him? What had she seen that was bad enough that she couldn’t share it with him?
He looks below the valley, where a sorcerer with a curved knife and a very obvious infatuation with Tissaia keeps challenging Renfri to duels. Renfri is flying fast and wild, her sword a blur even after so many rounds Jaskier lost interest and wandered off; the mage has no chance against her. None of them do.
“So,” says Sabrina. “Are we ready to chuck these far and wide?”
Jaskier tears his gaze from the crimson blur of Renfri’s hair. “Hm?”
“The idea is that we throw these, and I cast Ambustum on it to power up the explosion.” She shakes one of her bottles in his face. “So do you want to be in charge of throwing or casting?”
“I don’t really— My companion Renfri, she’s in charge of--” Jaskier holds up his lute like a shield. “Bard,” he explains, almost apologetically.
Sabrina nods, her small teenaged face serious. “Tissaia mentioned you might as well be a sorcerer, with all your power,” she says. Jaskier really should have seen this coming, but he can’t help throwing a betrayed glance at Tissaia’s tower anyway. “It wouldn’t hurt to lend a hand, would it? We need all the help we can get to stop Nilfgaard’s march North.”
Jaskier shrugs helplessly. “We’re just here looking for answers. I mean, Renfri’s never met a fight she could walk away from, but I’m solidly useless in any capacity beyond blessing a few things.”
“You could try,” she presses. “I’ve heard that the Source that you bards call Love isn’t all that different from Chaos. Just consider it,” she says, because Jaskier’s already shaking his head before she’s done. “There’s a high chance that many of us may die when Nilfgaard reaches the Hill. Do you want that blood on your hands?”
Jaskier goes very still. She keeps looking, jaw set, though her face has gone white with fear. “No,” he says. “No, I won’t consider it. I’ll bless this entire mountain if your rectoress demands it, and all your armies. But she can’t make me wield my magic to harm anyone.”
She nods with false bravado, though she’s still pale. “I suppose that’s good enough.”
“It’ll have to be,” Jaskier says, voice low.
She breaks his gaze, shifting away from him in discomfort.
Jaskier goes back to helping them with the supplies. Eventually, her hands stop shaking and she joins them too.
Night falls, and the air is thick with ignored dread. The sorcerers aren’t so different from bards after all, for all their stodgy appearances: they counter doom with laughter and conversation, people gathering around fires to sing and talk. Jaskier spends most of the night making faces at Yennefer from afar, thwarting her attempts to charm men into doing her mundane bidding, and watching Renfri as she drinks an entire garrison under the table.
“Rather sad, really,” Renfri remarks, as Jaskier sweeps all the coin from the wagers into a little burlap sack. “I suppose I’ll have to find some sailors to meet my match.”
“Or a fish,” Jaskier points out. He passes the money to Renfri, who ties it to her belt to jingle softly as they walk away from the castle and the muted festivities, towards the forest where it’s dark and cool and quiet, and the lights of Nilfgaard can hardly be seen.
“The sorcerers here like to talk big, like all sorcerers,” Renfri says, slumping down ungracefully at the foot of a tree, “but I reckon you’re a lot stronger than all of them. Probably.”
“Except Tissaia,” Jaskier says, and she nods with a grimace.
“Except Tissaia,” she agrees. “God, that woman.”
Jaskier snorts. He watches the figures at the castle, something like a deep, unnamed sadness sprouting inside him. It doesn’t take a prophet to tell that everything’s was about to change.
Renfri nudges him with her arm. “You’re quiet.”
Jaskier thinks about holding his tongue, letting her tell him at her own pace. But he can’t shake off the feeling that he’s running out of time to make amends.
“Why are you here, Renfri,” he says honestly.
She turns her searching gaze to him and he waits, watching the realization dawn on her. She looks down and away, bringing her bottle to her lips with a soft curse.
“Renfri,” he tries again. “You knew how to free yourself. Why didn’t you tell me? We could have tried it the first time we met.”
“Didn’t know, the first time we met,” she says gruffly. She scuffs her boot on the ground as she refuses to meet his eye. “I didn’t even figure it out when you told me about the verse you scrapped. It was when we were almost at Temeria, and you healed Geralt by doing no more than singing about him being fine.”
“I don’t—” Jaskier says, upset. “That was—”
“There are worse men to be bound to,” Renfri says, staring into the distance. “I figured, as long as it was you, I could stand being known a little longer.”
She turns to look at him, eyes catching the firelight. “I saw you,” she says, low and uneven like a prayer. “Every time I tried to sleep, I saw you. Dark. Alone, with flames of a primal wrath chasing after you. I figured that if my visions ever served a purpose, it’d be this.”
“You’re here…to protect me.”
“I’m here because I knew that even if you’d set me free of your spell, you’d have been drawn to this battle anyway,” Renfri says with a small sigh. “It’s as if Geralt’s heart is a magnet and yours is made of lead. The two of you always seem to find each other. And it always seems to turn out badly for you.”
“He knows I’m magic,” Jaskier confesses. He follows her example and stares straight at the horizon, at the approaching flames of Nilfgaard as he speaks. It’s easier than meeting her fire-colored eyes. “He…met me in a dream, or a vision. He was dying, I think, and my protection magic brought him back. He said he couldn’t accept it,” his voice cracks. “I honestly think he’d rather die than— fuck.” He attempts a smile, leans in when Renfri huddles closer. “The whole unrequited part of the whole thing’s just occurring to me. And it’s not like it’s unexpected! Geralt never lets anyone win him for keeps, not even Yennefer, who could play roulette with the devil and win. It’s just that—” he stops for breath, “it’s just that this proves I never even stood a chance, and I feel like a fucking idiot.”
“I wouldn’t be alive if you weren’t in love with Geralt,” Renfri says, matter-of-factly, “so you can’t expect me to be unbiased. But yes, I agree. Being in love is awful. It always puts you in the losing end of a bargain.”
It’s so unexpected—so practical and at odds with the melodramatic mood he’s in—that he gapes for a beat.
Renfri shrugs. There’s a smile on the corner of her mouth when Jaskier falls into incredulous laughter that turns real, warm, because she’s right: he wouldn’t have Renfri, if not for this whole fiasco.
It’s almost impossible to imagine.
“I even declared the Law of Surprise on him,” Jaskier says, wondering. “As an…apology, I guess? Melitele’s tits, that’s fucked up. What if I get a curse or something? I don’t really picture Geralt receiving anything else.”
“Then you die,” Renfri says pragmatically. “The bard Jaskier dies like he lived: a wandering idiot who sang of the wrong thing.”
He chortles again, but the wine is quickly returning him to melancholy. He doesn’t want to think about Geralt, or dying, or any of it. He has Renfri, but at the cost of her freedom: he doesn’t want her to grow to resent him like Geralt does.
“Alright,” he says, climbing to his feet and brushing off his trousers. “Let’s get you free of my damn spell.”
She watches him with wide, curious eyes as he unpacks his lute.
Remember her, when she’s reborn,
Ah, but she’s flying like a bird to the sun
Shackles forgotten, burdens undone
The tale of fair Renfri comes to an end
There’s no glowing, no blinding light. Jaskier’s can’t feel if it worked or not, but Renfri’s hand has gone up to her neck, her eyes wide with shock.
“Oh,” she says, quiet.
She pulls her hands back to show off a thin, jagged scar across the side of her neck. His vision briefly doubles, super-imposes an image of Geralt running his sword to the side of her throat.
“Oh,” he echoes softly.
They stare at each other in bewildered wonder. “Well?” Jaskier prompts, finally. “Do you feel any different?”
“Being human’s different than I thought,” Renfri says, examining her hands. “I don’t feel like I need to orbit you at all times, which is a relief.”
“Oh.” Jaskier had enjoyed the physical intimacy. There was something about having a loved one you would rather throw up than have sex with huddled next to you constantly.
As if reading his thoughts, Renfri rolls her eyes. “I meant it’ll be a relief not to have to share your vivid dreams about Geralt, not that we won’t be companions anymore.”
“Oh,” Jaskier says again, brightening. “Then what will you do? I have fire to look forward to in the near future, but you can still leave, you know.”
Renfri smiles. “It’s like you don’t know me at all.”
This makes Jaskier grin, and they knock their tankards together; partners in crime. They drink in silence for a while, watching the flames dance, the exuberance of the soldiers and sorcerers alike. The fear is almost drowned by the hope.
Jaskier is tilting into Renfri’s shoulder, half-asleep, when someone clears their throat from behind.
“Hello, Yennefer,” Renfri says cordially, and Jaskier’s eyes snap open.
Yennefer steps into view. Lit by firelight the magic in her is undeniable; it rests on her head like a crown. He stares at her, open-mouthed and stupid for a few seconds before he looks back at Renfri. They’re both waiting each other out. This might take years.
“Nice ring,” he blurts; the first thing that comes to mind, and he’s sure he’s never seen the band of gold with a chunk of green on it before. “Is that to curse men with?”
Yennefer sneers. “Just one man,” she says. She holds it up, looking at it with a weary resignation. “It’s a gift for Geralt. There’s a pair and they’re meant to bring us together, no matter where we are.” She sighs. “It would have been romantic, if we weren’t literally bound by magic already.”
“Yen—” Renfri says with a frown, and looks at Jaskier.
Jaskier wobbles on to his feet. “A little too much wine,” he says, too loud. He doesn’t meet Renfri’s eyes. “I’ll just…walk it off. Ladies, as you were.”
Even Yennefer –Yennefer—looks regretful as he stumbles away. Before he’s out of sight, he sees them bend their heads together, lovely and dark, deep in conversation. All wrapped up in each other, and perfectly unaware of the world as their eyes sparkled with unspoken delight.
Jaskier turns around, and leaves.
The sorcerers attempt to explain strategy to him but it falls on deaf ears, and when Nilfgaard begins to attack Jaskier finds himself weaving his magic with Triss Merigold’s, adding a layer of protection through some slightly inspired wartime rhymes.
He runs out soon enough, and Yennefer yells at him from the tower to go check on Tissaia. He runs with his head held low, ducking behind trees and sections of wall, and he’s so preoccupied with dodging the oncoming hordes that he ends up getting, predictably, lost.
Jaskier swears. Earlier he could have used his connection to Renfri to orient himself, but he can’t sense her anymore and he’s blessed too many people in the lead-up to the battle to be able to tell them apart by the spells alone.
He pauses to try and get his bearings and realizes that he’s been surrounded.
“He’s one of the mages!” one of the Nilfgaardians shout. “Watch out for his spells! Take care not to touch him!”
Jaskier frowns. “Why would I touch you?”
No reply, except for a cry, and three soldiers running in at once. The fastest approaches him from the right, spear waving; he’s almost at Jaskier, the tip almost at his throat, when a sword whizzes past his ear and buries itself in the soldier’s shoulder.
He’s shocked breathless, but somehow still unsurprised when he wheels sharply around to find Geralt in the middle of a massacre, bloodied swords in both hands.
“What the fuck are you doing,” he snarls, pulling his sword out of one of the soldiers’ necks and throwing him away like a ragdoll. “This is a war, or have you started looking for ways to kill yourself?”
Coming from Geralt, this is practically a monologue. “You wouldn’t believe me, but a princess came knocking on my door. Who am I to turn my back on destiny? So here I am.”
This answer only seems to infuriate Geralt more. “Spare me, Jaskier. Why are you really here?”
Something in Jaskier goes terrible and cold. He’s sad; but he’s also thinking of Renfri, saying love always puts you in the worst end of a bargain. He’s thinking of Tissaia telling him that love wasn’t all there was to the world. “What do you want me to say, Geralt,” he says, eyes narrowed. “That I came here to follow you? Is that it? I scryed your position to, what, stalk you, like some scorned lover?”
Geralt stabs the next man who lunges at him so hard he tears him in two. Geralt is brutal, yes, but efficient as he fights; this is closer to pure savagery. Jaskier finds that whatever he was planning to say is robbed from him as he watches. He barely manages to sidestep one charging soldier, but once he does the poor soul charges right into Geralt who makes quick, bloody work of him.
The soldier killed, Geralt turns to Jaskier with his eyes freezing cold.
“Your magic, and your words, Jaskier,” Geralt says, low and dangerous. “There are tales of a wandering bard, powerful enough to rattle the foundations of an Empire. There’s a lot about you that I can’t trust.”
“So kill me, then,” Jaskier says, tired deep to his very bones. He steps right in front of Geralt, knowing if he stops to think about Renfri he wouldn’t go through with it, but—he can’t stand another second of Geralt looking at him like that. “You’ve made it very clear what you think of me, Geralt. So kill me and think of it as an evil that has passed.”
Geralt shakes his head angrily. Over Jaskier’s shoulder, he throws a sword aimed at yet another ambush of Nilfgaardian men. Distantly Jaskier notes that there are more of them that there should be.
Which means that they’re losing.
Jaskier’s shoulders slump with the unseen weight that suddenly drops on them, and he takes a step back. A soldier charges at him and he throws a handful of Sabrina’s magical dust, and the soldier collapses midway.
“Yennefer presumably needs you,” Jaskier says, jerking his chin towards the castle. “That way.”
Geralt makes no move to rush off, like Jaskier had originally assumed. Instead he swings his sword violently, beheading three men in one stroke.
“Our time apart hasn’t granted me mind powers, Geralt,” Jaskier snaps, worn thin by the sheer suspense of it all. Would he kill him or not? “If you want me to fuck off you have to tell me, or has the capacity for speech also abandoned—”
His words are cut short when Geralt makes another angry noise, rams his blade into the last of the ambush, strides forward and yanks him up by the collar.
“I had a dream about this once,” Jaskier is remarking, some small part of him thinking, Renfri will kill me when she finds out I died like this, when Geralt leans down, and—
The sensation of warm lips above his doesn’t really make sense at first, the movement of them hypnotic, and some small part of Jaskier half-thinks this is an odd method of murder before Geralt parts his lips gently, and kisses him harder than Jaskier’s ever been kissed before.
The breath gets knocked out of his lungs and Jaskier clings back desperately. Here, in the arms of the man who may well be the love of his life, he tries not to think about the death and destruction and Yennefer and just focus on this: this seeming desertion of Geralt’s better senses, this probably one-time hallucination or whatever—
Geralt breaks the kiss and Jaskier whines up at him. “Shut up,” he says, and he says it with a sigh as if he’s the beleaguered one. Him! When Jaskier’s the one who’ll have to live out the rest of his days comparing every sexual encounter to this one glorious kiss. “I can hear you overthinking.”
He lets go, briefly, of Jaskier, to throw a knife at—someone. Jaskier can’t really focus on much of anything that isn’t his big, dumb, gorgeous face. “Geralt, you can’t deny that a little confusion is warrant—hmph,” he’s smothered again, by another kiss, and he lets himself surge up towards Geralt in response, leaning up and in and kissing back just as hungrily, his fingers tangled in Geralt’s hair.
An arrow comes whizzing past his ear towards Geralt and falls to the ground with a soft thump. Geralt eyes it, even as he mouths at Jaskier’s jaw. “That keeps happening. That you?”
Jaskier tries to align his thoughts, even as he rubs his fingers over the texture of Geralt’s armor, thumbing at the clasps. “Maybe? I think it takes more than, ah, more than an arrow to harm you past my protection, but –Geralt, that tickles—I mean, I can never tell?”
“Hm,” says Geralt, occupied with sucking what feels like a massive bruise under his jaw.
They’re broken apart by a man crashing through the foliage, vaguely familiar in the set of his eyes and his mouth, though Jaskier’d be hard-pressed to recognize his own hand in front of his face just then.
“Ah, Witcher,” he says, sounding pleased. Something about the cadence of his voice reminds Jaskier of Tissaia, of the men that peacocked before her in that final night. Last night? It felt like a lifetime ago, Jaskier thinks, with a secret, electric thrill. “Good, I’m in desperate need of someone to guard my back. And you’re the bard?” he turns to Jaskier, looking significantly less happy. “Yennefer is in need of your assistance.”
Geralt hesitates. Jaskier stares at him in disbelief when he doesn’t bound off immediately. Geralt loves saving people to little or no personal gain, what was going on?
“Or,” he says gruffly, and the same giddy, disbelieving thrill runs up Jaskier’s spine before he’s even finished speaking. “Or we could go to the coast.”
Jaskier closes his eyes. Something lost and lonely inside him finally curls up its weary body, and settles.
He could write a song about this.
Jaskier enters and ducks through shadows toward the back of the castle while Geralt follows Vilgefortz to fight a creature that made Geralt press his lips thinly together when he heard it described. The wind is picking up as the sun goes down, blowing a cloud of smoke down the slope of the mountain. Jaskier’s apprehension grows into horror as he progresses and the evidence of Nilfgaard breaching—of striking down the sorcerers he promised to aid, while he was safe under the protection of Geralt—grow harder and harder to ignore. The ramparts of the castle are simple in design but every nook and cranny seems to hold the fallen figure or a familiar face crying out for help. There’s no sorcerers to be seen.
No Renfri, either.
It’s almost no surprise to find the castle burning. That’s when the real panic sets in.
He finds Sabrina and she clings to him, wild-eyed, as she drags two unmoving boys behind her. “They’re controlling our minds,” she shrieks. “Your magic—it protected me from it, but the children—they got the children.”
“Take them somewhere safe,” Jaskier says, thoroughly aware of how useless he is. “I’m going to find Yennefer.”
“Save her,” Sabrina says, and Jaskier nods dumbly.
His eyes are burning. He keeps having to rub them to remove the grit of smoke from them, and tears stream freely down his face as he stumbles in the vague direction Sabrina pointed.
When he finds Yennefer she’s surrounded in flame.
“The fuck,” Jaskier mumbles, only half-aware.
It’s flowing out of her, though that makes no sense. He thinks it may be the same flames that were on the castle, but it looks like an extension of herself, like she’s tearing off a piece of her soul to destroy her enemies.
He doesn’t think he’s ever known a person as well as he knows Yennefer then.
But whatever she’s doing, she’s subverting the laws of Chaos—drawing power without a sacrifice, and Jaskier sees the rip in space that’s forming behind her, a black hole, and he sees her eyes widen with realization, and—
He thinks, out of nowhere, of Renfri.
Before her face has fully formed in his mind, he flings out a hand and grips Yennefer, and spits, almost unconsciously: “Diverbero!”
The black hole spits Yennefer out and warps. Shifting targets. Staring out of an eye that is not an eye directly at him as he remembers that he made the same fundamental mistake that he’s always made: Chaos required sacrifice.
And he drowns.
For a second he is in the still nothingness of the absolute dark. There isn’t enough air to get in his lungs and his breath is staccato, harsh in his own ears.
The first time Jaskier was down here, he woke up screaming after his first unintentional spell. The scream hadn’t traveled, instead fallen flat as if he was standing in a close room with walls he could not see. He’d woken up with the Chancellor of Oxenfurt looking down at him and offering him a scholarship.
He doesn’t try screaming this time, but terror makes him almost unable to speak.
He will stay here forever, this time. Trapped in a lightless box, except for the beckoning that invites him deeper, down to sleep in the silence of the heart of the planet. Alone, except for the ancient, primal thing that had no name, that wanted to kill him. Alone, except for—
Something glows green.
He almost can’t recognize his own hand when he raises it to his face. There’s a rock on it, glinting with gold and pulsing steadily like a living thing, a heart. Powerful magic.
Yennefer must have slipped it into his hand.
He can barely force the words out of his mouth: “I claim the gift of the Law of Surprise.”
“There you fucking are,” Geralt breathes in his ear, and Destiny itself reaches into the void and yanks.
It feels like days before his body hits the ground so hard it bounces. He lies there and gasps in a breath of burnt air, memories blurring in his mind.
Jaskier, his mind supplies. That’s who he is.
His eyes open and he catalogues faces, like a dragon counting pennies. Yennefer. She brought him back.
Renfri. She loved him most.
He’s holding deathly still. His pale hair, his white face—he looks like a corpse.
“You look like you just died,” Jaskier says. His voice is a wreck of torn vocal chords—but he’ll live.
Geralt collapses like his strings have been cut.
Jaskier turns his eyes to Yennefer. “Nilfgaard?”
She blinks. “Hm? Yes, defeated. The fire was the last straw, apparently. And Triss, you know. She held them at bay on her own. Your magic protected her right up till you were gone.”
Even her eyes are suspiciously over-bright. Did they seriously think…?
Yes, Jaskier realizes, as he finally works up the courage to meet Renfri’s eyes. They thought he was gone. For good.
She doesn’t look inclined to murder him herself. The urge is there—he can see it in her eyes, and he’s almost relieved to see it in an odd way since it means his murderous princess’s still in there—but it’s overcome by something else. Something brittle and almost endlessly fragile.
“I told you,” she says, delicately, “that I joined you for a reason.”
Jaskier’s lips slip into a smile. “You are the greatest prophet the world has seen.”
Her head snaps up suddenly, as if she remembered something. “You find the girl in the woods yet, Witcher?”
Geralt’s eyes come up. He shakes his head.
Renfri tuts. “Well, you will, soon.”
Jaskier barely suppresses the urge to groan and demand what girl? He finally got Geralt to look his way for a while, and now there’s more competition? He throws a glare at Yennefer, who already looks bored of huddling by his prone body. She glares icily back, unaware of the cause of his ire but always willing to fight.
As if sensing his thoughts, Geralt groans. “Let’s get you properly looked at, bard,” he says, and before Jaskier can point out he can’t walk, Geralt easily tips him into his arms, and lifts him like he’s made of feathers.
“I owe you an apology,” Geralt says as they stride through the woods, as if this is a normal thing to be doing. Perhaps for him it is, Jaskier thinks with another spike of petty jealousy. Perhaps he princess carries all sorts of people. “Many apologies. But most importantly, I didn’t word things right when we met in my dream.”
“My dream,” Jaskier corrects. In the background he can almost hear Renfri and Yennefer simultaneously roll their eyes.
“My dream,” Geralt says gravely, as if Jaskier had agreed. His lips curl into a small smirk that vanishes as he goes on: “I could have said it better. What I said about your magic. When I said I didn’t want to owe anything to you, I just meant that I wanted us to be equals. I’ve failed you more than once. I didn’t want to be any more—unworthy.”
Jaskier processes this.
His lingering suspicion that he fell down and hit his head on a rock roughly at the same time the battle began is strengthened tenfold.
“I beg your pardon?” he clears his smoke-and-ash-clogged throat, and ends up coughing. “Geralt, I know you to be smarter than that. I’ve seen you. That’s so—that’s so incredibly dense, what do you mean we aren’t equals? What did you think we were, merchants striking a deal?”
Geralt locks his jaw. “Does that mean I’m forgiven.”
Jaskier rolls his eyes so hard they hurt. “Come here, you absolute nitwit,” he says, and kisses him clumsy and undignified when Geralt leans in. It’s gratifying when Geralt dives in with none of his usual grace either; it feels too intense to contain, both their experience robbed and reduced to awed, awkward kisses. They’re so good they make Jaskier’s toes curl nonetheless.
He hadn’t dared believed it that first time they kissed, but he believes it now—when Geralt kisses him like he can’t breathe for the yearning either, his whole field of vision taken up by Geralt’s flushed cheeks, the glow of his eyes, like a shard of amber, like the dull roar of the sunset in the first few days of his childhood after he found his magic.
Geralt’s cat’s eyes gleam as he pulls back, deliberately pretending not to notice Jaskier’s protesting whine. His lips are rubbed red and his cheeks are flushed, and just looking at him is enough to make Jaskier shiver.
He belatedly glances at Yennefer for her reaction, and finds that she’s not even paying attention—she’s deep in smiling conversation with Renfri. She reaches out and swats her playfully, and Renfri, instead of striking her dead where she stands, ducks her head and grins to herself.
Jaskier looks back at Geralt, determinedly. It’s not happening if I can’t see it.
As they trudge through the forest, Jaskier thinks about the ballads he could make of this. Would it be about the heroics of the sorcerers who fought on Sodden Hill? Or the terror of flames? Or perhaps it would be about how Destiny is sometimes a greater force than all the magic in the world combined.
Either way, it would be a song about love.
The treeline begins to thin, and the ruins of the castle beckon in the distance. Yennefer takes the lead to take down the crisscrossed illusions and protections that Jaskier and Triss had indiscriminately cast. Renfri catches Jaskier’s eye, drags them up to Geralt, and raises an eyebrow; Jaskier grins at her.
Geralt stares steadfastly ahead.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” he says, “but what the fuck is Renfri doing here?”
All three of them freeze.
Just as Yennefer begins to laugh, Jaskier says, sheepishly,
“It’s a long story.”