“Geralt. It’s a horse.”
The inn is dingy and cramped, though there’s a good few feet of empty space around their table, people crowding into anywhere that doesn’t put them within reaching distance of a witcher. The food is dull, the ale is watered down, and none of it is worth the coin that Jaskier had handed over to a tavern keeper who seemed far too immune to his charms.
Not that he has many left. They’ve been here for two nights now, and the regulars really aren’t the type to be enthused by the songs he has in his repertoire. The cold is playing havoc with his lute strings as well. If another one pops, he’ll have to wait until they hit a larger town to be able to buy replacements.
“It’s a horse,” Jaskier repeats, leaning across the table towards Geralt. “A very fine horse, to be sure, but we can leave her here, swap her for another and keep going east. You deal with the apparent pack of monster wolves threatening the livestock up on the hills or whatever it is that has the farmers so rattled, we get some money and result! We come back, pick up Roach, and be on our merry way.”
Geralt stares at him in that way Geralt does. It’s been months of travelling together, and Jaskier has yet to learn what most of his expressions really mean. He knows there’s a lot more behind them than Geralt willingly lets on, that much is obvious, but the bright yellow eyes and the white hair and that quite frankly stunning chiselled jawline somewhat distract him from picking out the nuances.
“We’re staying until Roach is sound,” Geralt just says. He takes another gulp of ale, and even Geralt can’t hide the wince at the taste. “She should be better tomorrow.”
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know horses could bruise their hooves,” Jaskier says. “How do they walk around all over the place then?”
This time, Geralt’s stare is obvious. It’s the one he uses when he thinks Jaskier is being an idiot.
“You walk around all over the place on your feet without bruising them. Why are horses so different?”
“That’s assuming my poor feet aren’t horribly bruised from running around after you all day,” Jaskier mutters. “You know, I don’t think I’ll ever recover from trying to run away from those drowners in the swamp. My ankle still aches when it rains. Which in this part of the world, is way too often.”
Geralt hums. “You get used to it.” He downs the rest of his ale and sets the tankard down with a solid thunk. “You can leave. Go on south to bigger towns. If you want to.”
“Ah, but then who would provide me with such scintillating conversation?”
Jaskier watches Geralt leave, the crowd parting around him with a few sneers and muttered words trailing in his wake. Jaskier doesn’t miss them, which means that Geralt certainly doesn’t. But the witcher just keeps moving through the damp tavern until his broad figure disappears out into the rain.
In the months he’s known him, Jaskier has never seen Geralt react to the sneers, the snide remarks, the way people sometimes spit at him as he rides past or sketch hasty warding symbols in the air, as if that sort of thing is anything more than old hedge witch superstition. Geralt never looks like he’s angry whenever it happens, no more than the usual scowl. He just looks…resigned.
It plucks at something in Jaskier every time he sees it, a string he hadn’t known was there. He’s never tried to put those moments into song. They don’t fit.
He sighs, drains his ale with a grimace, and reaches for his lute. Time to sing for supper. And hopefully kill two birds with one stone.
The first strum of the lute makes the drab tavern feel just a little lighter. Jaskier puts on a wide smile and strolls into the middle of the room.
“When a humble bard graced a ride along…”
Geralt hasn’t come up to their room.
It’s not like he’s worried or anything. Geralt is obviously more than capable of looking after himself, and it’s not like Jaskier really adds anything to all of his survival skills beyond maybe preventing Geralt somehow dying of boredom. Geralt has been travelling around for years on his own, before Jaskier found him in that tavern and annoyed him into letting him tag along on his adventures. He knows what he’s doing, even in small towns where the distaste for him is palpable in the air as they pass.
Maybe he is a little concerned. If only because Jaskier doesn’t know this part of the world very well yet, and if he tried to set out on his own he worries he might become hopelessly lost, and then meet an unremarkable and tragic end as a snack for a wolf or two. That’s it.
Jaskier abandons his notebook on the single bed that their crappy little room has with a sigh. He didn’t have any inspiration anyway, not in this drab little corner of the world. He needs action. Drama. Heartbreak and betrayals and maybe a couple of murders, as long as they’re not too gruesome or involve bodily fluids other than blood. A drowning or two would be nice. Drownings are poetic.
Geralt isn’t downstairs, only the drunkards who are asleep on various tables as the barmaid sweeps around them. Jaskier gives her a grin and a wink. “You haven’t seen my companion around recently?” he asks, leaning on a table and trying not to wince at the stickiness under his hand. “You know, tall, white hair, yellow eyes, permanently grumpy expression like someone just pissed in his boots?”
“That witcher?” the barmaid asks. She stacks up plates and balances nearly six empty mugs on top of them, taking them over to the bar. It’s quite impressive. “That freak is out in the stables, I think.” She shakes her head. “I don’t know why you follow him around, to be honest. Someone like you shouldn’t have to be around the likes of him.”
There’s a brief temptation to take that and run, turn up the grin and distract the barmaid for a little while, but it’s dampened and suppressed by the uneasy shiver that runs through him at the way her lips sneer around her words.
He really wants to get out of this damn town.
“I am indebted,” he says instead, conjuring up a grin. “And soon we will be on our merry way to deal with those atrocities up in the hills stalking your poor farmers. Until later, my dear.”
It’s raining outside, as usual for this place, and Jaskier takes care to avoid the worst of the puddles on his way across the courtyard to the stables. The main door is pulled shut but not barred, and Jaskier slips inside. It’s warm, the smell of horse shit and piss under that of hay making his nose wrinkle a little. He can’t hear anyone moving, beyond the occasional horse.
Roach was stabled down towards the end, and Jaskier makes his way past various scruffy nags towards her. He can just make out her head, her nose snuffling through the hay in the manger. She flicks an ear in his direction, and then turns back to eating.
“Okay, easy now. Let’s try this again.”
Jaskier starts. That’s Geralt’s voice for sure, but he doesn’t think he’s ever heard it this quiet. This…gentle.
Roach snorts, and then there’s a sudden clatter and a cut-off curse from Geralt. Jaskier peeks over the stable wall. A bucket is rolling across the stable floor, water spilling across the stones. Half of it seems to have gone across Geralt where he’s crouched down next to Roach’s front leg.
Geralt sighs. “That wasn’t very helpful. I know you don’t like standing in cold water, but you are going to have to if we’re to get your hoof better. Good thing I brought a few buckets from the well.” He reaches out and drags another one in the corner over, the water sloshing against the sides. “Easy,” he says as Roach snorts at it, eyeing it uneasily. “It’s just a bucket. It won’t eat you.”
Roach stubbornly refuses to pick her front hoof up when Geralt tugs gently on her leg. “Fine, be like that,” Geralt says. Jaskier can see the faint curl at the corner of his lips in a smile as he leans into Roach’s shoulder, forcing her to shift her weight onto her other leg. “There we go,” Geralt murmurs. He holds up her hoof with one hand and drags the full bucket underneath it with the other. “Don’t knock this one over.”
Roach snorts uneasily as Geralt carefully lowers her hoof into the cold water. “Really there should be ice in this,” he says to her, stroking in long lines down her neck as Roach shifts uneasily. “But I don’t think anywhere in this town has an ice well, and I think we would have had a real battle on our hands if I had made you stand in a bucket of ice.” Roach tries to move, and Geralt steadies her. “Stay still.”
Roach subsides. She noses at his hands, and then at his pockets when he just shows her his empty palms.
“I know,” Geralt mutters to her. “I know your hoof hurts, and the hay here is going mouldy, and you’re fed up of being inside this stable.” He sighs, his fingers tangling in Roach’s mane. “We will leave soon. Maybe head south and get out of this rain, give your tack time to dry out properly.” He pats her on the neck. “I would like to not be in wet clothes all the time. I’m sure Jaskier would appreciate not having to guard his notebook from the damp so fiercely.”
Jaskier suddenly feels like he’s intruding on some private moment not meant for him. He had no idea Geralt had noticed how frantic he had been getting about the ink running on the page or the parchment crinkling and curling in the perpetual damp. He’s been fretting over it, if he’s honest, worried that he’ll lose some inspired notes to the rain constantly dripping down the back of his neck and getting into every one of his bags out on the road.
Roach lips at Geralt’s hand when he stops patting her, smearing half-chewed hay across his skin. “Thanks,” Geralt huffs. He wipes it back on her shoulder, leaving strands of hay stuck to her coat. “At least you’re standing still.”
Geralt falls quiet, standing next to Roach in her stable, one hand just resting on her shoulder. Roach turns her head to check his pockets again, and then goes back to eating hay.
Jaskier is thankful for his significant experience in tiptoeing out of rooms without being spotted by furious jilted lovers as he slowly backs out of the stables.
Of course, it should be obvious to anyone who has travelled with Geralt for more than a few days that he’s fond of Roach. But he hadn’t quite put two and two together, it seems. And Jaskier, as far as he knows, is the only person who has volunteered to travel with Geralt for any length of time. Certainly the only one who has ever managed to annoy the witcher into letting him tag along.
He isn’t sure whether that says more about Geralt’s character or his own that he’s still here. It definitely says something about him that he saw a witcher sat in the corner of a tavern and decided that yes, this would be interesting. Less reckless and impulsive people would have left the whole thing well enough alone.
Jaskier forces a few more lines of his latest project out onto a new page in his notebook before Geralt eventually comes back to the room, smelling of hay and horse. “Move over,” he grunts at Jaskier.
Jaskier arches a brow, staring up at Geralt from where he’s reclined on the bed. “To where, exactly? I’m already up against the wall. This place isn’t exactly spacious.”
Geralt manages to glare at him even as he’s in the middle of pulling off his leathers and piling them in the corner. “What else do you want me to do?” Jaskier asks. “We did not have enough money to pay for a second room at what are quite frankly extortionate prices, especially with paying for Roach’s stable as well. I did the best I could.”
He hesitates. He can’t get the image of Geralt standing next to Roach, talking to her in a soft voice he doesn’t think he’s ever heard, out of his head. “I can sleep on the floor,” he offers reluctantly.
Geralt snorts. “You’ll complain about it all of tomorrow if you do,” he says. “We’ll make do.” He sits down on the edge of the bed, beginning to unlace his boots. Jaskier notes with mild interest that the leather is beginning to crack close to the toe, even with the care that Geralt takes for all of his clothing. There’s only so much that can be done when half of your time is spent wading through swamps and mud and kikkimore guts, and poking more holes in the leather to try and stitch the cracks together never really helps with the aim of keeping water out.
He’s thinking too much about when they’re next going to go through a town large enough to have a cobbler to notice Geralt sliding into the cramped bed next to him. At the first brush of his arm against Jaskier’s, Jaskier can’t help but jump. His head smacks into the wall behind him.
“Ow. That hurt like a bitch.”
He opens his eyes to see Geralt staring at him over his shoulder. There’s something odd in his expression, something that makes a shiver skitter through Jaskier. If he didn’t know any better, he would say that there was something almost like…confusion, beneath a layer of resignation and an even thicker act of indifference. “I’m fine, thank you for asking,” Jaskier says, pouting for effect.
Jaskier sighs, and shifts over even further to make more room. “Oh, what scintillating conversation. What concern for my poor head. I feel so cared for, Geralt.”
“Come now, don’t say that! I’m sure we can work this all out between us.” Jaskier stares up at the ceiling and tries not to think of the solid warmth of Geralt right beside him. “And Roach, of course. The essential third member of our partnership. How would we ever manage to do this without her? Oh, I’ll write a song for her. An epic ballad. Maybe that will make her like me a bit more. Do horses like singing? She hasn’t gotten really mad at me so far, but then it’s just so hard to compose properly whilst trying to keep up with her or run away from whatever monster is chasing us. I don’t-”
“Shut up and go to sleep.”