When he'd first started out on the Path, Geralt hadn't relied on Roach as much. Well, when he'd truly first started out, he hadn't had a horse, of course. A witcher's horse was his own to feed, and trainees who weren't taking contracts couldn't afford one. But once he'd gotten Roach, he'd still walked a good bit of the time. A witcher and all his gear was a heavy burden, after all. Best to save his girl for when he needed her most.
Not any more, though. Four years after Blaviken, when he'd been desperate for a job that would pay enough to shoe Roach, he'd taken on a contract without looking into it too much, ignoring the hard eyes of the alderman in favor of the promise of a deeply discounted and sorely needed service. His own comfort didn't matter. His mare hadn't signed on for the kind of life Geralt had been giving her, though.
What the villagers had reported sounded like one chort. It wasn't. It was two, and Geralt had been sleeping rough and eating worse for weeks. He killed them, but not before they tossed him around like a child's rag doll, slamming into trees, the ground, and each other. It took the last of his potions to finish them both off, and after, he laid insensible for many hours, burning with a toxicity fever and with several joints too swollen and dislocated to drag himself to safety.
In the end, it was only the village huntsman coming to check and see if the chorts were dead that saved him. The man clearly expected to find Geralt dead too, but seeing him breathing and the proof of his success lying beside him, the huntsman felt obligated to drag him back to town. In the end, the blacksmith shod Roach while several strong men snapped Geralt's joints back where they belonged - both knees, a shoulder, and an elbow - and pressed just enough herbs on him that he was fit to ride. The alderman declared that a more than fair payment, and Geralt was well aware that he wasn't in any fit state to argue if he didn't want to repeat the Blaviken disaster. Instead he mounted his horse and left town.
It was only a week to Nenneke's temple in Ellander, but even with Geralt's superior healing, that was enough time for the damage to be done. Probably the time he'd spent laying by the chort bodies was enough time for that, not helped by the uncaring attention of the villagers, Nenneke told him. The shoulder would always pain him, as would the elbow, but they were less delicate than the knees. His knees, she told him bluntly, could give out if he walked too much. She gave him exercises so he could bear the weight of his swords and extend the life of his knees, and creams to rub on them and herbs to chew, but the true prescription was clear: ride unless he couldn't.
He had already been touchy about Roach's treatment, but knowing that he couldn't get around without her for long made it worse. Geralt snapped at anyone whose hands came near her; threatened stable boys; checked her muscles, feet, and coat obsessively. He hadn't picked her out for such long, hard riding, valuing more her intelligence and agility. She was doing more work than she should, and he was well aware of it. He had to retire her early, and buy a courser instead, able to take the weight of a big man and his gear for days on end. It had emptied out his pockets to practically nothing, and he'd been even more on edge about his new Roach than usual when he'd arrived in Posada.
Perhaps that was why he'd never told Jaskier - that initial edginess about his horse. The man was already too observant. No reason to let him in on the reason Geralt relished so much in hot baths and never dismounted until he had to. Jaskier teased him about the way he cared for her already. Geralt might have trusted the bard, mostly, as much as he could trust a human, but this one vulnerability he didn't want to open to prying words or fictionalized song. This one thing he couldn't stand to be teased about. It could have easily been an injury that spelled the end of his career, and if he couldn't swing a sword, he couldn't eat, couldn't live. What good was he without that? So he'd never opened his mouth. Not like that was particularly difficult.
Geralt gritted his teeth. Now it was looking like he'd have to.
When he'd agreed to this fucking dragon quest, he hadn't been thinking about much but a night in Yennefer's tent, in her bed - metaphorically and otherwise. Even if she was occupied with this knight, there was no reason Geralt couldn't talk to her, swap ingredients and get some more of that hellebore and nightshade salve that made sleeping on the rocky ground tolerable. The pain had made him disinclined to consider anything else, but that was a mistake. The first sign of things going to shit was the fact that he had to leave Roach behind and hike up three days of slope under his own power. The second was everything fucking else.
His temper had never been long, but pain frayed it to the snapping, made him vicious and mean. He knew it, but he couldn't control it. It was only when he was staring at the mountainside, fuming at all his conversations today and ready to commit murder if it meant that he didn't have to spend three days walking down, that he realized that he'd been cruel, had wanted to deal out some of the pain he'd felt. And it wasn't his own insight that told him, either. One of Borch's - Villentretenmerth's - warrior women flipped him the tin that he'd gotten from Yennefer after all, and his stomach dropped.
Geralt… had to apologize. And a true apology, a sincere one, meant that he had to explain what he was thinking, why he'd lashed out. And that meant he'd have to track down Yennefer and explain the djinn, of course, but more immediately, he'd have to tell Jaskier about the pain. He didn't like the thought. But he liked the idea of permanently losing the other man because of his own weakness even less.
He put the ointment on, first. He wouldn't make it down the mountain without it - or he would, but he'd be so fuzzy-headed with the pain he couldn't track Jaskier, who after all this time had acquired some rudimentary woodcraft. Geralt waited for the sharp, hot lances to retreat into dull throbs and got up, wincing at how clouded his mind had been. Then he started off.
The bard hadn't gotten far, only about half a day's walk down the path, for which Geralt was thankful. His apology wouldn't go any better than their last conversation if his temper was still short because of an all-day trek on his knees. He stopped when Jaskier's muttering - and the occasional sniffle, which hurt Geralt almost more than the complaints of his body - were just audible, and applied the cream again, chewing some meadowsweet and ginger for good measure. The pain retreated, still pulsing but ignorable the way it rarely was, and Geralt stood, bracing himself.
Jaskier was utterly ignoring both his campfire and his surroundings in favor of his lute, muttering to himself over a melody that was somehow upbeat and wistful. Occasionally he'd turn to his notebook and scribble anything particularly good, and Geralt automatically softened his steps to listen without thinking much of it. Jaskier talked a lot, but his music revealed more of his mind than anything else. Geralt could take his cues from that, perhaps.
Jaskier had apparently gotten a verse he liked cobbled together, because he put his papers down and started strumming, testing out the words he'd been muttering. Geralt stopped walking entirely, because all together, they made his heart ache, because he knew he was the cause of that sad, wistful tone. He closed his eyes for a moment, outside the reach of Jaskier's night vision, and listened.
"Goodbye's just too good a word, friend," Jaskier sang, voice a little rough, "so I'll just say fare thee well. I'm not saying you treated me unkind - you could have done better, but I don't mind. You just kind of wasted my precious time - but don't think twice, it's alright."
The words were just as wistful yet… forgiving as the strumming of the lute, and Geralt swallowed and opened his eyes. He couldn't ask for a better opportunity. He made sure to make noise as he crossed into Jaskier's circle of firelight.
Jaskier's fingers stilled on the strings. His face went flat, wiped clean of its usual animated expressions, as he caught sight of Geralt. "What now?" he asked, sounding tired, mostly. "Have something else you'd like to blame me for?"
"No," Geralt said, wincing. "I'm… sorry." He hadn't prepared for this, for Jaskier not even to be angry with him, and he didn't know what to do without the bard's usual reactions.
"Oh?" Jaskier said, still with that awful still face. "You're sorry. Good. You're sorry you finally said what you'd been thinking or you're sorry you lashed out at your dear friend because you had a shit day?"
Geralt winced. "The… second one," he muttered. "Jaskier. Can I sit down?" The pain was going to creep back up on him in a few minutes if he didn't.
Jaskier shrugged. "I can't stop you," he said, and looked down at his lute and notebook again.
That was the best Geralt was going to get, so he found a thick piece of deadfall in the trees and dragged it close to the fire. If he sat on the ground, getting up without help would be… unlikely. And Jaskier certainly wasn't in the mood to help him.
Jaskier was composing again, more lines that made Geralt certain it was about him, pointed lines about a long road and never doing much talking. Well. That made it clear what had to be done, not that Geralt didn't know already. He waited for a natural break in Jaskier's singing and then reached over to put a hand on his knee, just in front of the musician's strumming hand.
"I want… to explain something to you," Geralt said, when Jaskier looked at him. "About what happened. Will you let me?"
Jaskier scrutinized him for a long moment and then sighed, a full body affair so dramatic Geralt felt the muscles in his jaw unclench all at once. "I suppose," the bard said. "But don't think this gets you out of the hurtful song I was writing about you." He bent to set his lute down.
"It wasn't hurtful," Geralt said, swallowing. "Well. Not that much, anyway." Not more than he deserved.
Jaskier's eyes went round with shock. "We -" he said, poking the hand Geralt still had on him, "- are revisiting that later. For now I think you owe me an explanation."
Geralt withdrew the hand, clenching his fists and releasing them. "When we first met," he started, "I told you not to touch Roach. I don't let you ride her. She's always with me. But I let strangers groom her. Did you ever wonder why?"
Jaskier set his lute aside, sufficiently confused that the song had fled him, it seemed. "Of course I wondered why. But you're even more cagey about Roach than you are about everything else, so I never asked. Didn't fancy getting hit again at first, and then I thought - I don't know, you'd lived through a few horses and you were weird about it. What does this have to do with earlier?" He suddenly looked worried, scooting forward towards Geralt. "Oh, gods. Is the old girl all right? Is she getting old? Dying? Is that what all this was about?"
Geralt shook his head. "No, she's older, but she has a few years left. It's not that."
Jaskier sighed and sat back. "Oh, good. She's rather nippy but I'd be sorry to say goodbye to her." He fidgeted his fingers together, a habitual nervous gesture he'd done for all the many years they'd known each other. "So, what, then? I was too touchy with your things? Too rude to Yennefer? The way I disregarded what you said about Roach eventually?"
"No," Geralt said, forcing the words out, staring at his own feet. He'd never had to have this conversation before. Yenn could read minds, and for things like this, it was damn convenient. "A few years before I met you, I had a bad hunt. Almost died because the villagers didn't want to look for me or fix me up. Turns out there's some things even witcher healing can't fix, or Nenneke either, if help comes too late." He looked over at Jaskier, who was uncharacteristically silent, then back at the ground. "You've treated my wounds," he said. "Massaged my muscles. Did you ever notice anything strange?"
"Well, what's strange for a normal man may be perfectly natural to you, how would I know when you never say anything," Jaskier said irritably. Then he heaved a breath and his face smoothed out. "But if I had to guess, your knees - everything around them is tense and you can't stand to have them manipulated at all. Possibly your shoulder. It doesn't have the range of motion I'd expect, although that may be the muscle mass."
Geralt shook his head. "No, you're right. They're damaged, both of them. A chort dislocated them and it was almost sixteen hours until they were put back in. The knees, especially, will always be weak. It's why I ride everywhere - I have to save them for fighting. If I don't have Roach, I don't have my mobility."
It was silent for a long moment, but Geralt didn't look up. He'd just handed a significant weakness to someone he'd clearly wounded, and though the many years of their acquaintance - their friendship - was enough to let him say this much to Jaskier, he couldn't help the instinctive brace in him against a blow that might be coming.
"So without Roach," Jaskier said slowly, "something that uses the knees a lot, like, oh, climbing a mountain, perhaps - would be… painful. Quite painful." His tone was entirely bland, perhaps a bit inquisitive, the calm before the storm.
"Yes," Geralt agreed. "It's part of why I wanted in Yenn's tent so bad. She has things - creams, herbs - that are hard to get otherwise, that help more. I didn't know I'd be leaving Roach."
Jaskier snorted, bitter. "Of course she knew before me," he said. "I've known you ten years longer, but her you trust with this first."
"She can read minds, Jaskier. I didn't tell her," Geralt said. He left out Yenn's own struggles with pain, with a body that limited her and didn't obey her no matter how much she tried, the way she'd leaned on one of his concoctions to get through more than one hard day. He'd betrayed Yennefer's trust enough. He would not reveal this, too, though it was the reason she could read the signs of his body enough to know to delve into his mind.
"Well, that's a little better," Jaskier allowed. "So you've been in what I don't doubt is hideous pain if you're willing to even admit to it for days. That would put a damper on anyone's mood." His voice was a little lighter, and Geralt breathed in, hoping.
"I didn't have any treatments. The pain… it fogs my mind, clouds my judgment. With the fight with Yenn… I didn't have a right to say those things to you, Jaskier. But I owed you an apology, and an explanation. Without the pain, I don't think I would have been so cruel."
Geralt dared to look over at Jaskier. He was fidgeting his fingers again, staring at the fire. After a few seconds he inhaled deeply." "Well! I certainly appreciate that you didn't say you wouldn't yell at all. At least you know yourself. I certainly don't want a repeat of that particular incident again, though." After a moment, in which Geralt was sure even his slow heart should have beat and didn't, he looked over and smiled, tremulous but true. "So I will be learning to compound at least one of your treatments and carrying it on my person at all times. Clearly you can't be trusted."
Geralt breathed out, and felt the wash of relief overtake his whole body. "Most of them have compounds toxic to humans," he said, letting one corner of his mouth quirk up.
"Details, details," Jaskier said, waving a hand. "Sola dosis facit venenum, and all that." He rolled his eyes as Geralt stared at him incredulously. "Oh, don't give me that look. My university education is for more than writing ballads. You think I can't compound an accurate dose?"
"I think you can't keep your fingers off your face," Geralt said, smirking.
"I'll wear gloves," Jaskier said. "The point is, I shall not be leaving you to suffer, Geralt. Just as you didn't leave me." He touched his throat, pointedly.
"I'll teach you one," Geralt said, sighing. "The safest one. But only once we're off this fucking mountain."
"I can agree to that," Jaskier said, smiling at him. "But I will be finishing my song. It's too lovely not to, and your apology can't fix that."
Geralt rolled his eyes. "I've never been able to stop you before," he said. Truth be told, he didn't mind what he'd heard.
Jaskier laughed. "True!" he said. "Very true. Let's get some sleep, my dear witcher. The next two days will be very long."
They would be, Geralt mused, as he found a good place to set his blankets. But not as long as if he were alone.