It’s not like he’s doing anyone any good here. May as well be useful once before he dies.
The words are still ringing in Jaskier’s head, a full month after they were first spoken - a full month after his father said them, every syllable like a separate barb, like a flight of arrows aimed perfectly for his heart. He’d thought - he’d been pretty sure he was going to end up as the chosen sacrifice, as an unmarried fourth child with no particular prospects and a reasonably pretty face, but he’d thought his father might at least protest - might put up some sort of token objection - not…
Not suggest it himself.
He’d hoped his siblings might object, too, not turn away or shrug or even smile. Hoped his mother might speak. Hoped someone might point out how cruel it is to send anyone into the White Wolf’s jaws as a sacrifice. No one had.
There’s suspecting your family has never loved you, and there’s knowing it, and the knowing is like a coal in Jaskier’s heart, burning with a slow and sullen heat, and Jaskier rather expects it won’t stop until his heart is burnt to ash.
His guards draw the horse to a halt outside the gates of a great hulking fortress. It’s...really ridiculously imposing, all dark stone and jagged crenellations and heavy iron-barred gates. A suitable den for the warlord everyone calls the White Wolf. Jaskier sits quietly as one of the guards walks up to the gates and knocks, the set of his shoulders suggesting that he would rather be anywhere else. All the guards are twitchy, unhappy, tense - Jaskier can’t really blame them. Walking into the White Wolf’s jaws like this has got to be nerve-wracking.
Being sent into the White Wolf’s jaws is something so far past nerve-wracking that Jaskier has come out the other side of panic into an odd glassy sort of calm, where everything seems a little too far away and even his own body doesn’t quite seem to be his. He’s been very docile, this past month of travel, not even putting up a fuss about the ropes around his wrists - silk, but strong enough for all that - or the constant presence of the guards even when he sleeps or uses the latrine. He hasn’t even been able to come up with anything resembling music, which - he can’t remember the last time he went a full month without composing something. He hasn’t been silent so long since he learned to speak, hasn’t kept from singing for more than a day or two since he first realized that his voice could produce music.
The only words in his head, this last month, have been his father’s venom, and that’s hardly a song Jaskier cares to sing. And when he does manage to distract himself from that, the only thing his frightened mind can find to fix on is the White Wolf himself - or what little Jaskier knows of him.
It’s been more than fifteen years since the White Wolf suddenly appeared, leading an army of inhumanly strong warriors, and overthrew the king of Kaedwen. Jaskier was a child when it happened, and all he knew was that all of a sudden, all of the adults were scared, and people whispered to each other strange things about wolves and monsters. As he grew older and the White Wolf’s conquests became more remarkable, Jaskier started actually hearing the rumors:
The White Wolf is more - or less - than a man, somehow crossbred with the giant wolves of the mountains, ferocious and vicious and unpredictable.
The White Wolf has a ravenous appetite, for food and sex alike, and not all the beautiful young people who are taken to his bed walk away again.
The White Wolf has a temper like a mountain storm, swift and unexpected and so violent that even rocks and trees are broken in its wake.
The White Wolf is a warrior without peer, stronger and faster and more deadly even than his inhuman warriors; he can break spears with his bare hands and cleave men in twain with a single swing of his sword.
The White Wolf, in short, has swiftly become the boogeyman that every child in the north fears, and every adult in the north, even if, like Jaskier, they are wise enough to discount at least half of the rumors, is also afraid of. And Jaskier doesn’t know which half of the rumors to discount. Regardless of which half he picks, being sent into the White Wolf’s jaws sounds like a good way to die, hopefully quickly but definitely painfully, and Jaskier isn’t looking forward to that at all.
But here he is.
A little door in the great iron-barred gate creaks open, and a man steps out. No, not a man - a Witcher, one of the White Wolf’s troops, the cat-eyed men who make up his unstoppable army, the ones who move faster and strike harder and sense more keenly than any mortal man could do. Jaskier can’t see the slitted eyes from here, but the paired swords on the man’s back - and the silver medallion hanging about his throat - are visible enough, and no one else goes armed like that. He is brown-haired, and his face bears a terrible scar, and he moves like a predator.
The guard backs up several feet and bows clumsily. “Sir,” he says, “we have brought - we have brought a gift, from the lords of Redania, with their compliments to the White Wolf.”
The Witcher looks the guard up and down, crosses his arms in front of his chest, and turns to regard Jaskier thoughtfully. After a moment he paces closer, and makes a slow circuit around Jaskier’s horse. The guards all stand very, very still, and Jaskier can hear them breathing hard. The horse doesn’t seem to care.
Jaskier, his hands bound in front of him, that strange glassy feeling still encasing him, doesn’t move. The Witcher will accept him or not; if accepted, he will be brought before the White Wolf, and if refused…
Jaskier’s not actually sure what’s going to happen if he’s refused. He can’t exactly go home.
The Witcher stops in front of Jaskier, and Jaskier looks down to meet his eyes. They are, indeed, slitted like a cat’s, and an unusual shade of amber. The medallion about his throat bears the head of a snarling wolf. If Jaskier recalls correctly, the Wolf Witchers are the ones nearest the White Wolf’s throne - the ones he trusts most. There are also Bear, and Cat, and Griffin, and Viper, and probably some Jaskier can’t recall just now, behind the glass of his past-panic calm.
“Huh,” says the Witcher thoughtfully. “And who’re you, then?”
Jaskier swallows. “Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove,” he says, because if it’s the last time he’s ever going to be able to claim it, he’ll say his own name. His father’s probably already stricken him from the family books, but Jaskier doesn’t know that yet.
“That’s a fair mouthful,” the Witcher says, though he doesn’t sound particularly annoyed. Still, best to be accommodating, right? Best to be as flexible as possible, in case - in case that will help. It probably won’t. Jaskier’s good at being annoying. But he can at least start on the right foot.
“Most people call me Jaskier,” he offers, and the Witcher’s eyebrows go up a little.
“Huh,” he says, and shrugs, and takes the horse’s reins from the unresisting hands of the guard. The guards back away hastily. The Witcher turns towards the gate and whistles a complicated little phrase, and one side of the gate creaks open, just far enough to admit the Witcher and the horse.
“Do - does the White Wolf accept the tribute?” the lead guard quavers as the Witcher leads Jaskier’s horse past him.
The Witcher pauses, looks the guard up and down again - like he’s assessing how hard it would be to kill him, and deciding it’s not even worth the trouble, Jaskier thinks with a vague impression that he ought to be terrified, and will be, just as soon as this glassy calm runs out - and shrugs. “Tell King Vizimir he’d do better to ask what the White Wolf wants,” the Witcher says coolly. “But I suppose we’ll take the lad.”
Jaskier doesn’t laugh, but behind the glass he’s almost amused. He’s not even wanted as tribute. Gods, has he ever felt more useless?
“Thank you, sir, thank you,” the guard babbles, and the Witcher snorts and leads Jaskier’s horse through the gate.
It closes behind them with an almost gentle thump, and Jaskier is inside the walls of the White Wolf’s fortress, and he has never felt quite so alone.
“Alright then,” says the Witcher, “let’s get you down.” He reaches up and picks Jaskier up, hands almost spanning Jaskier’s waist, and lifts him easily down from the saddle. Jaskier stumbles a little before he finds his footing, and stares at the Witcher in surprise.
A voice behind him, drawling and amused, says, “What’s this, then, Eskel?”
“Tribute from Redania, apparently,” says the Witcher. Eskel. Jaskier’s heard that name before. The White Wolf’s right hand, his most trusted captain.
Another Witcher comes sauntering around into Jaskier’s line of sight - a Wolf Witcher, by the medallion. His hair is darker than Eskel’s, and his eyes a deeper shade of amber, and there’s a sort of smirk to his expression that Jaskier doesn’t quite like. “What, they’re sending people now?”
“Looks like,” Eskel says, and draws a knife. Jaskier doesn’t flinch. What’s the point? He’s inside Kaer Morhen, inside the White Wolf’s keep, and if this Witcher wants him bleeding - wants him dead - then Jaskier will be dead, and that’s all there is to it.
He is surprised when what Eskel does is to cut the silk rope holding Jaskier’s wrists. It falls to the cobbled courtyard, and Jaskier rubs his wrists thoughtlessly, soothing the slight red marks. Eskel puts the knife away. “C’mon, Jaskier. Let’s go let the Wolf have a look at you, hm? Lambert, pretend you’re useful and find a spot in the stables for the horse.”
“Fuck you,” says the other Witcher - Lambert - but without much heat to it.
Jaskier falls in behind Eskel without objection as Lambert leads the horse away. It was a perfectly nice horse, but Jaskier’s never had much rapport with animals. All of his baggage is on it...but it doesn’t seem worth pointing this out, not when he might not be alive to care about baggage by the time the sun sets.
Kaer Morhen, inside its imposing walls, is...just as imposing, actually. It’s still all dark stone, unadorned and uncompromising; the only decoration Jaskier sees is on the great hall doors, where a pair of carved wolves snarl at each other across the wooden surface. Inside the hall, there’s a set of long tables, none of them occupied - well, it’s midafternoon, neither dinner nor suppertime - and a dais with a bulky stone chair atop it, just as dark and plain as the walls, save for a plate-sized silver wolf’s-head medallion set into the back, just above where a seated man’s head might rest. There’s no one in it just now.
Eskel leads the way through the hall to a rather less imposing door behind the throne, and opens it without knocking. The room revealed is set up as an office, rather to Jaskier’s surprise; he’s never thought of the White Wolf, Warlord of the North, as having so plebian a thing as an office. But here it is, lined with bookshelves, with a large table bearing an unrolled map of the continent set in the center of the floor and another table off to the side heaped with rolled-up maps and little lead troop-markers and quills and inkpots and all the other detritus of a working office.
There are two men and a woman in the room, and Jaskier looks at them in reverse order of scariness, because he’s rather worried that when he actually meets the White Wolf’s eyes, this glassy calm is going to crack and he is going to go to his knees in fear.
Least terrifying - at least at first glance - is the woman: raven-haired and violet-eyed and gloriously beautiful, with something in her stance that makes Jaskier suspect she’s a sorceress. She’s leaning over the table and gesturing at somewhere in Temeria, talking quietly to the less terrifying man.
Not to say the less-terrifying man isn’t terrifying: he looks to be in his late middle-age, hair grey with years but shoulders still broad and arms still corded with muscle, and his eyes are cat-slitted, and he wears a wolf medallion and twin swords. He could break Jaskier with one hand, probably. But he’s not -
Well, he’s not the truly scary man, the one leaning back against the smaller table with his arms crossed over his chest, watching his companions silently. The man with stark white hair and golden slitted eyes, armed and armored as a Witcher, who can only be the White Wolf himself. He’s very, very handsome, and very, very scary, and Jaskier clasps his hands together tightly to try to stop them from shaking. It doesn’t work.
The White Wolf looks up as Eskel leads Jaskier in, and raises an eyebrow at Eskel. The sorceress and the old Witcher go silent, both looking up to regard Jaskier curiously.
“Redania decided to send you tribute, o great White Wolf,” Eskel says, sounding amused instead of respectful.
The White Wolf straightens and stalks towards Jaskier, silent as the grave, expression utterly unreadable. Jaskier swallows hard and holds his ground with the very last shreds of glassy calm - breaking and running won’t help, after all. There’s nowhere for him to go. Very slowly, the White Wolf circles him. All the hair on the back of Jaskier’s neck stands up as the White Wolf paces behind him: predator, scream his instincts, and it’s all Jaskier can do not to scream back, I know!
“Tribute,” rumbles the White Wolf as he finishes his circuit. Jaskier can’t tell if he’s pleased or angry.
“One Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove, called Jaskier,” Eskel says, nodding.
One snow-white eyebrow twitches upward, just a hair. “Jaskier,” the White Wolf says flatly.
Jaskier can feel himself flushing a little. It’s not exactly the name of a great hero, or anything - it’s a silly name, a harmless name, and he picked it for himself and he likes it, and if there was ever a person ill-suited to be tossed to the White Wolf and live to tell about it, it’s a would-be bard who named himself Buttercup.
“It suits him,” says the violet-eyed sorceress mildly. “Geralt, if you don’t stop glowering, he’s going to faint.”
Geralt? Jaskier wonders, as the White Wolf finally turns that golden gaze away from him to pin the sorceress, who doesn’t flinch. It’s like the sun has looked away from him, the weight and heat of those golden eyes almost palpable. Gods, no wonder people talk about the White Wolf’s gaze as though it’s a weapon in and of itself. Bad enough when he’s just looking at Jaskier - if he’d been angry, Jaskier probably would have fainted.
“I don’t glower,” the White Wolf says, which is so far outside what Jaskier was expecting that his jaw actually drops.
“Geralt, darling, you hardly do anything but glower,” the sorceress says, grinning. “Your face is just like that, I’m afraid.”
Whatever Jaskier expected of the White Wolf’s inner circle, it wasn’t people who teased the most dangerous warlord on the continent. The sorceress - he thinks he heard something about this, about the prize pupil of Aretuza who threw her lot in with the White Wolf and brought half a dozen of her compatriots with her. Yennefer, that was the name. Apparently she’s done well for herself at the White Wolf’s side.
“Sometimes he snarls,” Eskel says, lounging back against a bookshelf with a bright smile. “Though I grant you that’s not much better.”
“Sometimes he’s asleep,” says the old Witcher, and the White Wolf sighs and lets his head sag forward and rubs his forehead with his fingers in - in fond exasperation. Jaskier is very, very confused.
“What the fuck am I supposed to do with a viscount?” the White Wolf says, giving Jaskier a golden-eyed glance. Jaskier swallows hard. He knows what the lords of Redania expect the White Wolf to do with him. He was sent to appease the Wolf’s hunger - any of his hungers. Frankly, the nobility of Redania would probably be very relieved if they got word that the White Wolf had bent Jaskier over one of those long dining tables and fucked him bloody between plotting battle campaigns, because it would mean that Jaskier was performing the function he was sent to fill.
“I don’t know,” Eskel says. “What are you good for?”
Jaskier flinches. He doesn’t mean to, but that glassy calm is wearing off under the new onslaught of fear and confusion, and he is about three inches from just collapsing in a weeping mess. Everyone notices the flinch, though, and three sets of cat-slitted eyes and one set of violet ones go wide.
“Let me rephrase that,” says the sorceress after a moment. “What are you good at, little flower?”
“I studied for four years at Oxenfurt, and graduated with honors,” Jaskier says. “I can play a lute, a viol, a harp, or a flute, and I can sing...anything you care to name. I compose, music and lyrics both.” He pauses, takes a long slow breath, and adds bitterly, “And I’m told I’m quite a good lay.”
“Huh,” says the White Wolf. Eskel and the old Witcher, whose name Jaskier hasn’t caught, both look nonplussed. The sorceress, though, looks delighted.
“A bard!” she says. “You’ve been needing a court bard, Geralt.”
“I have?” the White Wolf asks. Jaskier is still adjusting to the idea that the White Wolf has a name, and that it’s something as prosaic and commonplace as Geralt.
“If you’re going to be conquering significant swathes of the continent, you need at least one bard to make songs about it,” Yennefer says briskly. “And here’s one delivered right to your door! Very convenient.”
“Huh,” says the White Wolf again, and looks Jaskier up and down thoughtfully, eyes lingering on the lute calluses on Jaskier’s fingers. “Alright. What do you need, then, bard?”
Jaskier thinks he might collapse from sheer bafflement. And relief. Maybe mostly relief. “A lute?” he says. “And - ink and quills and parchment - somewhere to work - I need to know what sort of songs you want me to write -”
“Eskel, get him set up, would you?” the White Wolf asks, and turns back to the enormous map. Eskel shrugs and grins and ushers Jaskier out again, one hand on Jaskier’s shoulder to keep him upright. Jaskier is frankly grateful for it. His knees feel distinctly wobbly. His everything feels distinctly wobbly.
He’s looked the White Wolf in the eyes, and has not been devoured.
“Let’s find you rooms,” Eskel says, and leads Jaskier up into the keep’s corridors. They pass other Witchers and ordinary men and women, warriors and servants and people whose purpose Jaskier can’t place, all of whom nod respectfully to Eskel and most of whom give Jaskier curious looks. Jaskier would normally try to be charming - to smile and wink and maybe even flirt a little - but he’s not exactly at the top of his game just now.
Eskel leads him up several flights of stairs, into one of the keep’s many towers, and down a short corridor to a perfectly ordinary door. There is, to Jaskier’s blank surprise, a suite on the other side of the door: sitting room and bedroom, both well-appointed and utterly barren of personality. There’s a bookshelf and a desk in the sitting room, and a comfortable-looking chair.
“Normally a guest room,” Eskel says. “Yours now. Privy’s at the end of the hall; baths are down in the basement, we’ve got hot springs.”
Jaskier nods dazedly. He was expecting -
Well, he was expecting dungeons, or being chained at the foot of the White Wolf’s bed, or being tossed out of the gates again as not what the White Wolf wanted.
“You bring any baggage with you?” Eskel asks. Jaskier nods again.
“It was on the horse,” he says, and Eskel nods.
“I’ll have someone bring it up,” he says. “Might take me a bit to find you a lute, but ink and parchment’s easy; someone’ll bring you those by this evening.” He pauses, head cocked like he’s just heard something, and then his lips quirk into a smile even as his voice slides down into a low and menacing growl. “I hear a heartbeat.”
Jaskier’s breath catches. What - what on earth -
Slowly, Eskel stalks towards the unlit fireplace, and then, suddenly, lunges, reaching up the chimney and yanking. To Jaskier’s abiding shock, someone falls out of the chimney, landing on all fours in the fireplace. They are small, and very sooty, and Eskel swoops them up and whirls them around, burying his face against their throat and growling with a menace utterly belied by the care in his grasp. The small person giggles in clear delight, crying, “Uncle Eskel,” in a high child’s voice.
When Eskel puts the small person down, they turn to face Jaskier, and Jaskier can finally get a good look: a girl, maybe nine or ten years of age, with white-blond hair and brilliant green eyes. She grins at him fearlessly. “Uncle Eskel, who’s this?”
“This is Jaskier, from Redania,” Eskel says, ruffling her soot-streaked hair. “He’s our new bard.” He tilts his head, regarding Jasier thoughtfully for a moment. “You said you went to Oxenfurt.”
Jaskier nods. “I studied the seven liberal arts and graduated summa cum laude.”
“Huh,” Eskel says. “Well, I’ll have to ask your father, but it looks like you might have a new tutor, cub.” To Jaskier he adds, “This is Ciri. She’s the White Wolf’s daughter.”
Jaskier’s eyes go wide. He had no idea the White Wolf had a child - certainly there’s never been any rumor about it, nor about the White Wolf taking a consort, for that matter - but the hair is certainly similar, and she holds herself a little like the White Wolf does, calm and confident even so young, poised like - well, like a young wolf, swift and agile and fearless.
“It would be my honor to be the young princess’s tutor,” he says. Princess is a guess - he’s not sure what one calls the daughter of a warlord.
Ciri giggles. “I’m not a princess - I’m a menace.”
“So you are,” Eskel says, sounding fond and long-suffering. “Come on, let’s dunk you in a hot spring before supper. Did you have to find the sootiest chimney you could?”
“I wanted to be ready to hug Uncle Lambert,” Ciri says as Eskel ushers her out. Eskel snorts and shakes his head.
“Come on down to the main hall for supper in about three hours,” he calls over his shoulder to Jaskier, and shuts the door behind him. Faintly, Jaskier can hear him say, “Let’s see if we can find Lambert on the way down to the hot springs, cub.”
Jaskier is alone, in a suite of rooms that is frankly nicer than his own rooms in Lettenhove, in the White Wolf’s keep.
He retreats very slowly into the bedroom, shuts the door, and collapses onto the bed. It’s very comfortable; the mattress is well-stuffed and the blankets are soft wool, a neutral brown that isn’t exciting but is restful for the eyes.
This is...not how he expected the day to go. It’s a hell of a lot better, he’s not complaining, but he feels a fair bit like he’s been knocked over the head with something heavy, because nothing about today has been what he expected, except maybe the raw terror. And even that…
The White Wolf is terrifying, with the golden eyes and the paired swords and the aura of just-barely-leashed danger. But he didn’t even lay a hand on Jaskier, didn’t seem to intend to do so. Jaskier’s gotten pretty good at telling when people are interested in him, and as far as he could tell, the White Wolf didn’t even register him as a possible sexual partner, any more than he would have done a - a mule, or a table. Which is slightly unflattering, but a lot more reassuring. And no one else has been even impolite, except maybe Lambert - who is apparently about to be hugged by a very sooty child, which suggests he’s more bark than bite.
So this is...not as terrible as Jaskier expected.
For some stupid reason, it’s the lack of horrid danger that finally cracks that glassy calm and lets all the built-up panic and grief and anger come roaring back out, and Jaskier rolls over and buries his face in the plain brown blankets and weeps, tears burning his cheeks and terrible wracking sobs leaving his throat feeling scraped raw by the time he finally gets himself back under control.
He lies there feeling drained, like all his emotions have been washed away by the tears and all that’s left is a sort of waiting blankness. After a little while, quite accidentally, he falls asleep.