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Keeping Crows

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Jaskier never ate all of his meals. A crust of bread, a strip of meat, a slice of apple, a handful of wild-harvested nuts—all of these got squirreled away in Jaskier’s colorful pants. Set aside for future hunger, Geralt thought at first, and Jaskier did do some surreptitious snacking while they were on the road. But when they stopped to water Roach at a stream and heard a crow cawing at them from a nearby tree, the truth came out as quickly as Jaskier’s hoard did.

“Here you are, my feathered friend,” Jaskier said. “Toss some food to your corvid, o’ valley of plenty!” He tossed his scraps at the base of the crow’s tree.

Geralt frowned at him. Perfectly good food, and a crow was getting it?

“I’m making friends,” Jaskier explained. “I know this is a difficult concept for you, but I share things with creatures that I like.” He spread his arms wide as if offering the crow a distant embrace.

If it was some kind of weird religious thing, it was for a god Geralt had never heard of. Probably it was just a weird Jaskier thing. Crows, of all creatures! Corpse eaters. Grain stealers. No one liked crows. But Jaskier was voluntarily traveling with a Witcher; maybe he just had poor taste.

(Or maybe, as Jaskier had recently claimed, he had chosen to travel with Roach and Geralt just happened to be there, which meant Jaskier had excellent taste. The odds were against it.)

“They’re very clever,” Jaskier said, his eyes on the crow click-clicking its beak around an acorn until the shell came off. “And funny, if you watch them.”

As he spoke, another crow fluttered to the ground and nipped at the first one’s tail so it turned around, leaving the invading bird time to snatch up a strip of meat. It bounced a few feet away with its catch and nibbled on it, eyeing the first bird all the while.

“Hmm,” Geralt said.

Did crows feel petty satisfaction in the same way that Lambert did when he snatched the last cheese and onion pasty right out from under Eskel’s nose? Maybe not. But Jaskier was right: they might be grave-birds, but they were a little bit funny.

Fresh off killing a nest of nekkers, he guided Roach a respectable distance away from the bodies but stopped at the first suitable clearing he found. The rustle of the leaves cracked through his ears from every side, and each beat of his heart pounded through his head, too loud, why couldn’t his bloodstream shut the fuck up and be still? The metallic stench of nekker blood reeked in his nose, inescapable because the source was himself. He shucked his bloody armor and moved to the opposite side of the clearing to take off Roach’s tack.

Maybe realizing he wouldn’t be moving on, a flock of crows started yelling from the trees, strident and piercing. Fuck. But going back to the inn to endure the sounds and smells of a gaggle of humans would be worse. Once he had her kit off, he leaned his face into Roach’s neck. The smell of Roach wasn’t nekker, and that was good. He tried to focus on the familiar sounds of her breath, the rise-fall of her chest under his hand as she inhaled and exhaled. She knew to be still for him when he was like this.

Jaskier arrived after a few moments, having observed the kill from a tree on the far side of the fight. He moved into their routine, humming quietly as he unpacked their bedrolls and scouted for fallen wood to lay their fire. He didn’t say anything about heading off the forest’s gathering dusk and moving towards civilization. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all. Small mercies.

The crows, on the other hand, clearly felt that they should leave. Even though their initial outburst of displeasure faded away, one of them still cawed periodically, as if to say, ‘We haven’t forgotten you! You aren’t welcome!’ Every discordant squawk scraped its way across the inside of his skull.

Geralt gritted his teeth and stepped away from Roach. Dinner. Right. He tracked a pheasant to Axii, made quick work of snapping its neck, and sat down cross-legged by Jaskier’s surprisingly well-built pile of firewood. Mechanically, he cleaned the bird. Food would help. The scent of cooking would, too.

“Here,” Jaskier said, coming up beside him. “Trade you.” He held up a fistful of wild garlic leaves, pungent allium prickling Geralt’s nose pleasantly, and gestured at the dripping entrails in Geralt’s hand.

Geralt tilted his head, looking up at him. Jaskier, volunteering to get his hands dirty?

Jaskier rolled his eyes and made the exchange without consulting Geralt any further, his fingers sliding across Geralt’s palm to cradle the still-warm offal. “Disgusting,” he commented, but he dropped the garlic leaves in Geralt’s now-empty hand, and instead of burying the entrails like Geralt did to avoid attracting scavengers, he walked a ways away with his new burden. “Toss some food to your corvids, o’ valley of plenty,” he sang, much quieter than usual, and shimmied up a tree with surprising agility. He distributed the organs along the branches and slid down the trunk at speed, leaping upright from a comical tumbling roll once he reached the ground.

Geralt snorted. “Expert dismount,” he said.

Jaskier grinned and bowed. “Thank you, thank you; I am honored to accept your award for ‘best leap from one’s lover’s window,’” he said.

Of course. Sneaky ascent and hasty descent? Jaskier hadn’t learned his climbing skills from picking apples, but from pursuing other, lovelier rewards.

The crows found their own rewards quickly enough. Incredibly, they also shut up. Beaks too full to complain? The same trick never worked with Jaskier, who somehow managed to talk and empty his plate all at once.

Their dinner lay skewered across Geralt’s knees. He had carved and prepared the pheasant while watching Jaskier’s antics, but he hadn’t lit the fire yet.

“I’ll cook,” Jaskier said, plucking the skewers from his lap. “You turn around and meditate or something. Just let me know when dinner’s done; I’m sure you’ll smell it before I see it.”

“Hmm.” Geralt hesitated. He had cooked through potion after-effects plenty of times before, squinting into the flickering light of the fire and enduring the way his eyes throbbed. “You don’t have to.”

“I don’t have to do anything,” Jaskier said. “Nor do you, for that matter. Now, go on,” he made a spinning motion with his fingers. “Your pretty face is far too distracting; I can’t focus at all.”

“Figured that was a congenital defect,” Geralt muttered. Unless he was in a fit of composition, Jaskier’s mind flitted about like a puppy through a meadow, determined to sniff at everything.

“Well, your handsome visage is around all the time, don’t you know, so you’ve never seen me un-distracted, have you?” Amusement bubbled in Jaskier’s voice. Amusement, but not mockery—they’d been together long enough for Jaskier to know the best way to lay a fire and for Geralt to know that Jaskier genuinely saw beauty everywhere, even in scarred old Witchers.

Good humor tugged at the corners of Geralt’s eyes. “Guess I could take pity,” he said, and he turned his back on the fire-to-be, put his hands on his knees, and closed his eyes. He would hear any threat before seeing it, anyway.

In the night, a couple of wild dogs snarled, probably fighting over the remains of a nekker. The wind whistled high through the trees. But the rustle of the grass under Jaskier’s feet wasn’t so bad, nor the loam-smell from the ground. Above them, an owl soared from its branch on almost-silent wings. Around them, frogs and night insects chirped their familiar soft chorus. Behind him, the fire crackled to life, a flare of warmth at his back. Jaskier sang under his breath, “Pheasant is pleasant on a pyre of fire, roasting and toasting, our meal we acquire,” and the sound of his usual nonsense somehow soothed as much as the other night noises.

The crows, so unhappy before, stayed as quiet as Geralt did.

Jaskier kept feeding their entrails to the crows near their camps, and if he and Jaskier came through the same place again, the crows mostly didn’t caw at them. The pattern held even months later, and even if they set up at a different camp and interacted with what was clearly a different flock from last time. So long as they traveled in the same general vicinity, the neighboring crows seemed to recognize them.

Crows must gossip, Geralt realized, which seemed...unusual. Maybe Jaskier was right about their intelligence. Did the crows have names for them in bird-speak? Was he white-hair-two-swords-silver-neck, while Jaskier was lute-singing-with-many-colors?

Sometimes one of the birds fluttered down from the trees to bounce around Jaskier’s boots, its head cocked inquisitively, and Jaskier serenaded it with a tune about the beauty of its glossy feathers and the strength of its beak.

You’re an ebony beauty, a guard-bird on duty, so quick and so keen, your bite’s a cricket’s bad dream! Oh, damn, keen and dream, I can do better than that, terribly sorry. And perhaps you might like grasshoppers better, but they just don’t scan, darling,” he added after the crow plunged its head into the grass and returned with a wiggling prize in its beak.

If the crow were especially charming, Jaskier offered it a shiny bit of ribbon or a scrap of cloth from the latest tunic that a monster had ‘cruelly victimized.’ And if Jaskier were especially lucky, the crow took it in its beak and flew off with it, and Jaskier walked with an extra bounce in his step for the rest of the day. Ridiculous bard.

Even more ridiculously, in the places Jaskier traveled through most often, the crows started to give him things back.

Outside of Oxenfurt, a crow deposited a shiny brass button at Jaskier’s feet. In Dorian, a floren by his bedroll. In Ellander, a crow dropped a silver charm shaped like a penis right onto his head, a relic from the recent fertility festival that made Jaskier grin for days afterward when he recalled it.

“Even my feathered friends think I need to be getting laid more,” he chortled.

“Your feathered friend was saying you’re a dick,” Geralt replied.

Jaskier kept the gifts in a velvet-lined wooden jewelry box, each trinket in its own little compartment, and the feathers of his pens were often black, foraged from where they’d naturally fallen.

Geralt tried not to give Jaskier anything that he could put in a box.

A jar of honey for Jaskier to sweeten breakfast, share with Roach, and lick from his long fingers when he thought Geralt wasn’t looking. A pair of soft woollen socks when winter was coming on, sure to be worn through by the end of the season. A night of sleep at an inn that they left behind the next morning, Jaskier’s eyes brighter after a few hours of human company.

Nothing permanent. Nothing important. Nothing to tie them together.

Jaskier seemed to follow the same rules: a second dinner bowl charmed from the kitchen and shoved across the table at him; a hot bath after a hunt; Roach brushed until she gleamed; the cramps massaged out of his sword hand after he’d spent hours killing ghouls, Jaskier’s frowning face half-caught by the firelight, his strong lutenist’s fingers rubbing and smoothing until the pain was gone and easy warmth took its place.

There were crows who had a more lasting piece of Jaskier than he did, their nests lined with his silk.

Foglets dealt with. Roach safe. Bard found. Sun still up, plenty of time to get out of Brokilon, get back on the Path, get a good few hours of travel in before they made camp. Or there would be, except—

“Just ride ahead,” Jaskier said, and his lips pressed together stubbornly. “I know the way back to the road.” He pointed in the exact wrong direction.

Geralt couldn’t tell if he was bullshitting or not; Jaskier had chased his foglet illusion into the treeline with a singular focus. In case Jaskier wasn’t fucking with him, Geralt said, “No, you don’t,” and resigned himself to the latest idiocy, because of course. Of course they survived all the bullshit in Cintra, and of course they made it through an attack by foglets without a scratch, and of course they were going to get held up anyway because a nest with its nestling had been knocked out of its tree by an Aard and Jaskier had a bleeding heart.

Damn Jaskier’s wayward organs. When would he learn to keep his cock in his pants and his heart locked in his chest?

“Oh dear, oh dear, I’m sure Mama and Papa Crow will come back,” Jaskier cooed at the nestling, as if parents didn’t abandon their young all the time. The stunned little bird, cupped in Jaskier’s hand, stared up at him. Its dark, downy body trembled. No flight feathers yet. A baby.

He and Roach herded Jaskier and his new charge to a spot that smelled of loam and sharp fir trees instead of the mouldy-amphibious damp of foglet corpses. “Cold rations,” Geralt said. If he left to hunt, something even more ridiculous might happen, like Jaskier trying to adopt a godling or getting kidnapped by irate wood nymphs.

Cold rations are the fashion to keep our heads un-bashed-in,” Jaskier chanted with a shrug and a nod. He threw down his bedroll and sat with the nestling tucked between his crossed legs. His body heat would warm the bird’s new haven. That was good; it might not keel over immediately in front of Jaskier’s naive little face.

Geralt took aim and thumped that naive face with their bag of salted pork, ignoring Jaskier’s sputtering complaints. Then he gave Roach a good grooming and counted himself lucky that she was a sturdy companion.

Spots of afternoon light flickered through the verdant canopy, dappling Jaskier in shifting spots of sun and shadow. He plied the bird with little bits of dried meat that he softened in his mouth and spat back out onto his fingers. “There we go, open that beak nice and wide, very good—oh, gods, birds’ necks really are hideous stretchy things until they get their feathers, aren’t they?—that’s it, eat up.” The bird ate, and napped, and after the nap it started hissing and hopping after each bite it took, much more lively than it had been when they’d found it.

Geralt sharpened his swords and cleaned the foglet gore off his armor. At least the baby bird was quieter than its adult brethren. Smaller lungs.

When the sun went down the thing finally, blessedly, shut up, its fuzzy body safe in a handkerchief-nest pressed against Jaskier’s breastbone. Jaskier had curled up on his side to rest. He seemed to have discovered the ancient truth that infants of all kinds were exhausting. Children of all kinds were exhausting.

Moreover, there was still no guarantee that the bird would live through the night, or that if it did, it would survive the next day. And the day after that. And the days after that...

“Baby birds die a lot,” Geralt said into the quiet dark between them. They’d forgone a fire.

“I know,” Jaskier said, surprising him.

Jaskier’s hand fluttered towards the handkerchief-swaddled bird, fluttered away again before he could disturb it. He hadn’t touched Geralt, either, not since the kind of child-ruining monster Geralt had sworn never to become had dug a burrow under his skin, ready to make itself at home if it ever got the opportunity. Not since they had fled in the night, one of Jaskier’s hands gripping his shoulder, and Geralt had growled, “Don’t touch me!”

Jaskier had listened. He hadn’t sulked either, not about that. And he was listening and not-sulking now, too, with the baby bird, because it was important.

“I’ll leave him in the morning,” Jaskier was saying. “Don’t worry. But there’s no reason to let the thing die of shock before his parents can come back for him. We can at least give them a chance. And no reason not to give him some decent memories even if his life turns out to be short.” The fist perched on his thigh clenched, but he smiled at Geralt through the dark, like there was nothing wrong with loving something that might die tomorrow.

Abruptly, Geralt’s mind formed an image of what it would have looked like if, impossibly, Jaskier had found him when his mother had left him by the road. Jaskier would have dandled his smaller self on his knee, would have fed him trail rations until his belly went round, would have played games with him to make him smile. Maybe Jaskier would still have given him up to Kaer Morhen, just so a Witcher didn’t kill him. (A Witcher would have, if Jaskier had tried to steal him.) But at least Geralt would have known before he went into that place and came out—different—known how it felt to be precious to someone who valued his life instead of his possibilities.

(Precious like his Child Surprise would be, living safely with her family instead of with him.)

“You’re an idiot,” Geralt said, glad that the dark hid his face.

“I’m a master of the seven liberal arts!” Jaskier protested with a squawk not unlike that of his nestling.

“An educated idiot, then,” Geralt replied, and found one corner of his mouth lifting in a wry smile despite his thoughts. Such was the effect of Jaskier. “You don’t have to leave it,” he said a long moment later, even though it was stupid.

“We don’t have to do anything,” Jaskier reminded him, as he often did. “We make choices. And I choose to leave the wee babe for its parents, even though it might be dangerous, because our life would be more dangerous still. And that’s all right.”

In the morning, Jaskier left the bird in its old nest, and the nest in its old tree.

Geralt hesitated, looking up at the nest. He couldn’t say that things would be fine. But he squeezed Jaskier’s shoulder, felt Jaskier’s hand find his forearm and squeeze back. The two of them would be all right, at least.

They hoped for the best and walked on.

As the years passed, Geralt kept traveling up and down the Continent, his horse underneath him and his bard trailing behind. Even when they parted, Jaskier’s songs smoothed his way, and there were fewer and fewer places where someone spat in his ale before they brought it to him, and more and more local leaders willing to hire him for a fair price.

Despite these changes, a friendly corvid ‘hello’ continued to be more likely than a human one. It was...pleasant...making camp and spotting a greedy little opportunist hopping in his direction with no concern for monsters or mutants, only for its hungry belly and inquisitive brain.

Was this what Jaskier felt like, every new place filled with possibilities for unthreatening companionship?

(...He wasn’t going to do anything with those entrails anyway. Better that someone get a use out of them.)

(And if he was more assiduous about grooming Roach’s shedding winter coat when there was a crow family around who might like to line their nest with horse hair, well, the crows weren’t going to mention it.)

After the incident with the djinn, Jaskier’s singing voice took longer to come back to him than his speech did. But when he sang-croaked at the crows in their camp outside of Rinde, the crows called back in their own raspy voices, and Jaskier smiled. “You know, technically, they’re songbirds.”

“I’m not hearing a difference from the usual,” Geralt teased, and it was a tease, really, now that he’d had some sleep.

Jaskier clutched a dramatic hand to his heart. “Just for that,” he said, “I shall serenade you with the ballad of the Witcher who needed a nap. Still in the drafting process, but I had ample time to compose while you were otherwise occupied.”

Geralt braced himself for excoriation, for a thorough reminder of his flawed decision-making and Jaskier almost dying.

What Jaskier sang for him was even worse: he had made the song cute.

“No,” he said, horrified, after Jaskier hoarsely concluded that ‘a glass of warm milk/will calm a Witcher’s ilk.’

“No?” Jaskier asked, his face shining with false innocence. “You mean to say you appreciate my other singing much more?”

Jaskier didn’t bluff about music; he would actually sing it, and knowing his luck there would be someone from School of the Cat sitting in the corner, ready to claw his face off for the warm milk comment. Not to mention the possibility of the other wolves hearing about this; they would tease him for decades.

“Only the milk pie is empty,” Geralt said.

“The others are…?” Jaskier prompted.

“Filled. With filling,” Geralt said.

“That’s what I thought,” Jaskier said, smirking at him. Vengeful little fucker.

Jaskier’s face shone in the light of the dying sun, alive and mischievous, alive and petty, alive and happy. Alive, alive, alive.

The next time the crows cawed, it sounded like laughter.

After he had bound himself to Yennefer to save her life, he had half-thought it would be like the crows: mutual aid and entertainment. Instead they orbited each other as though on distant ends of the same tether, coming together and clashing apart with equal fervor when they met.

Much more commonly than he saw her, he went to brothels, which was satisfying until his post-coital prostitute remembered that it was a Witcher who had just made them come, a mutant who had made their toes curl. He was good at distracting them, but the sour tinge of stress always returned to their scent.

Occasionally there were late nights like tonight: easy hunt, room in an inn with a barmaid who wanted a bit of weird in her bed, whispered to her friend that she’d tell her tomorrow if the rumors were true. A fuck with her got the tension out, though she was disappointed that he only had one cock down there. “Come back if you do grow a second,” she told him as he left. Easier to leave after one round than to chance another and make them do the how-do-I-kick-out-a-Witcher dance, he’d learned.

He returned to find Jaskier in their bed, his warm body sprawled greedily across the whole mattress. Geralt lifted the bulk of him and deposited him a few inches to the side.

“Hmm, that didn’t take long,” Jaskier muttered with a sleepy laugh, his eyes fluttering open.

Geralt slid in behind him. “Told you not to sing that song about my two swords.”

“That song just got you laid, my friend,” Jaskier said, huffing with obnoxious offense. He didn’t get it, that Geralt needed sex but it made him feel like a drowner dragging people in his wake, like something his bed partners escaped from afterward.

Jaskier wanted to fuck him—Geralt could smell it sometimes—but Jaskier wanted to fuck most people, so Geralt didn’t think much of it. He didn’t want Jaskier to flee him, so they didn’t fuck.

Anyway, Jaskier touched him even without sex as an excuse. Even half-asleep like this, he reached back to pat Geralt’s knee for no reason. As if their touches were a pleasure. As if Geralt were a person worth touching.

Skin-hunger happened less often with Jaskier around. Saved on brothel money.

A puerile problem: The City of Metinna’s nobility had slighted Lord Forgeham’s son, who had retaliated by vandalizing Metinna’s castle with the help of his friends and a few wagonloads of shit. This had led Lord Metinna’s forces to occupy the best bridge across the River Sylte, disrupting Forgeham’s trade to the north, ostensibly so as to prevent further be-shittings but really because some people with money were bored, and the common folk were bored, and a fight with those fuckers across the river would really liven things up.

This had led to an extremely stupid battle in which more of Lord Metinna’s hired soldiers and armed peasants died than Lord Forgeham’s hired soldiers and armed peasants, largely because Forgeham’s local men were willing to hack at the cavalry in a way that the horse-breeding folk of Metinna refused to.

Many of the professional soldiers were foreign, which meant no family around who cared to fetch their remains, and those corpses had been left to linger ‘as a warning,’ which was even stupider than the battle had been. The dead had, of course, attracted ghouls, and now Geralt got to be one of Forgeham’s hired men too, contracted to clear them out. Decent pay, at least. He wouldn’t turn down the work. But he would take his horse and his bard away from these idiots the very next morning, in case the foolishness was catching.

“We could head to Ebbing next,” Jaskier said beside him, and he patted Geralt’s booted foot where it rested in Roach’s stirrup. “Claremont has a surprisingly good arts scene and a notably diplomatic aristocracy.”

Jaskier had come along for reasons known only to himself. No thrill to be had in crossing Metinna’s endless grassy plains, nor in the ghoul hunt. Unless they reached horrific numbers or exceptional power, ghouls meant a slaughter instead of a battle. Pest control.

“Better to cross the Pliszka into Geso,” Geralt said, leaning over to tweak Jaskier’s cowlick as revenge for the boot-pat.

“Not the hair, you—! Oh, wait, you mean Geso that borders the desert?” Jaskier asked, perking up, as Geralt had known he would. “It’s said the wind plays across the sand dunes like an instrument.”

“It’s also said people die of dehydration and heat sickness,” Geralt said. “And if not from those, then from the desert bandits. But in the villages before the dunes, there will be new songs for you to learn and plenty of work for me to do.”

They smelled the rot before they reached the battlefield, and Jaskier held a mint-scented handkerchief to his nose. “I’ll stay with Roach while you do your thing,” he offered when they found a good shade tree with a view of the carnage. Probably some people with money had rested under this tree and complained about the heat of the summer sun in between cheering or groaning as people bled out before their eyes.

Geralt nodded and dismounted.

Monsters gnawed at the corpses of people and horses littering the trampled grass, but so too did crows: crows pecking at eyeballs, crows tearing at sun-shriveled lips, crows nipping at internal organs that had been exposed by mortal wounds.

“Your friends are having a feast day,” Geralt said. He tried not to look at the horses, good mounts turned into crow-meat. If Jaskier had had any illusions about his so-called ‘corvid companions,’ surely this sight would break him of them.

But Jaskier only nodded, not looking away from the scene. “Bad day for the dead, good day for the carrion-eaters,” he said. “It would make a good topic for a bard—war benefitting no one but the scavengers. I could lay on some apropos imagery about where the meals of our weapons-makers and profit-takers come from.” His lips curled, mirthless. “Shame patriotism is always going to sell better.”

“Humans like to puff themselves up,” Geralt said. He oiled his silver blade.

“Humans have a bit more choice in what they consume than crows do,” Jaskier countered. “We could develop a taste for something other than martyrs to a rivalry born of ennui.”

Geralt shrugged. “Only know how to deal with the literal kind of necrophages,” he said, and the first ghoul lost its head shortly afterward.

He didn’t try to avoid the crows, but they had the sense to scatter out of range of his sword and his Igni. Crows had rules. They mated for life; they gifted trinkets to their friends and mobbed their enemies; they didn’t cannibalize their own dead; they tried to stay alive. Like him, they were taking advantage of a shitty situation.

The only rule for a ghoul was hunger. Either you were dead, and it would eat you, or you were alive, and it would try to kill you and eat you.

“Nicely done!” Jaskier called when the last ghoul dropped. “Nine out of ten from the Viper judge.” Then he put Roach’s blinders on and murmured softly to her while Geralt bombed the ghouls’ nest. Roach would kick a ghoul before she bolted from it, but she hated bombs.

Forgeham had tried to be cheap, of course, and let the bodies keep rotting. Upon hearing this, Jaskier had pulled out his crispest Oxenfurt accent and asked him to sign a document saying that Geralt couldn’t be held liable for a second ghoul attack in the event that the bodies continued to decompose in the open. Forgeham had folded like a man with the wind knocked out of him and coughed up the oils and coin for cremation as well as extermination.

Geralt harvested his trophies and alchemical ingredients, and then he set the field and the bodies aflame until they crumbled to ash.

Most of the bodies, anyway. He left one ghoul to the side: a warning for anyone who cared to see it; a compensation for the birds’ other lost meals.

“An awful offal offering,” Jaskier said as they walked away, dodging the flick that Geralt half-heartedly aimed at his ear for the wordplay. “But at least I didn’t have to climb a tree with a ghoul on my back.”

When they returned to Forgeham, Geralt collected his pay and was back at their lodgings in time to hear Jaskier performing a biting song with a catchy chorus that included the words “Born in Forgeham town!” shouted with apparent fervor. His audience was too drunk to notice the political criticism, which Jaskier had undoubtedly planned on, and patriotic coin filled his purse.

Back in their room, Jaskier flopped onto the bed and heaved a great sigh. “What a dismal day,” he said, staring up at the ceiling. “I know it wasn’t really bad—routine drivel, completely unsurprising mediocrity of leadership and sense—but that’s part of what I hate about it. I wrote that song with easy rhymes so I could substitute any town and a few of its traits in there, so sure am I that this kind of balderdash will happen again.” He tugged at his hair and hid his face behind his arms.

Geralt sat on the edge of the bed and patted him on his brocade-covered shoulder. “Crows prefer live food to carrion,” he said. “They love insects. But they’re opportunists at heart, and a bird has to eat.”

“I know,” Jaskier said, wrapping his hand around Geralt’s wrist and squeezing. “We don’t have to do anything, but if we’re to live then a crow has to fly, a bard has to sing, a Witcher has to hunt, and we’ve all got to eat. And sometimes there’s only corpse soup for supper, never mind our discerning palates.”

Geralt poked him in the ribs with his free hand. “You were able to have your corpse and eat it too with that passive-aggressive little song you wrote,” he pointed out.

Jaskier grinned. “Maybe. But so were you, leaving that ghoul behind like they left that shite in Metinna,” he said. His hand left Geralt’s arm, curled around an imaginary glass, and made a toasting gesture: “To fucking with the establishment.”

“To surviving stupidity,” Geralt said. He waited a reasonable few moments before adding, “Now stop moping and move over, you’re hogging the mattress.”

“You haven’t even taken your armor off—”

“Sometimes a witcher has to lie down,” Geralt retorted, and he tipped over onto Jaskier’s chest and lay across him.

Jaskier’s breath came shallower, his lungs trapped beneath Geralt’s bulk, but after a moment his body went limp, all the tension draining out of him. “Yes, okay,” he said, his hands open at his sides and his mouth gently curving.

Geralt shifted to cover Jaskier all the way, his face against Jaskier’s soft neck, his greaves knocking against Jaskier’s shins. The armor had dried ghoul blood on it, but the heft of it made him heavier, and something about the feeling of weight and pressure always closed its jaws softly around Jaskier’s hindbrain and scruffed him like a kitten, his restless energy becalmed.

Geralt breathed in the scent of him, the fading tang of stress and the warm bloom of contentedness. It wasn’t a terrible day if it ended like this.

(But they were still leaving this pit of insensibility first thing in the morning.)

The northern land near Vespaden carried its wealth in its flocks of sheep and in its chalky green hills, flecked with clover and buttercups; coin came in a trickle instead of a rush, but Geralt always left with a good winter coat and a hefty wheel of smoked cheese. It was the kind of place Jaskier would enjoy if Geralt ever brought him up north. Most of the shepherds also played an instrument—a pipe or a harp—and they were polite but wary of strangers, and Jaskier loved to convince reticent people to be his new best friends.

This year, the people here mostly wanted him to clear the monsters out of their old guard posts, disused stone towers that they had previously been happy to avoid in order to keep their wallets a little fuller. With Nilfgaard on the move in the south, they sharpened axes and fletched new arrows while wearing anxious frowns on their faces, and they spoke of setting guards, though there was hardly anything north of Vespaden to conquer.

If Nilfgaard made it this far, what could a country of shepherds do to resist? But there was flint in these hills as well as chalk, and if farmers knew how to do anything, it was how to prepare for what the next seasons might bring.

Geralt vanquished specters, mostly, and culled the odd pack of wargs, until at the base of the last of these derelict towers, he came across a crow ripped to shreds, harpy feathers still clenched in one of its torn off feet. The rest of its flock, perched in the arrowslits around the building, sounded their scolding alarums. Warning him off? Or just warning him?

Hard to tell. Vespaden’s crows ate his offal, but they tended to be as aloof as their people. And as stubborn, he thought, watching as the crows cawed from the safety of their narrow apertures. Few animals ventured into harpy territory; none stayed. But these crows refused to move.

“I’ll avenge him,” he told the crows. They probably didn’t understand him, but someone had cast a powerful blessing on the towers, and enough time around magic could change a creature; one never knew.

In any case, actions would speak louder than words, and he was here to kill monsters.

Above them, the harpies, beasts with eagle-like bodies and almost-human faces, screeched and wheeled through the air. At least a dozen by the sound of it. The ammonia stench of their guano burned in his nose. Usually they hunted like owls, with silent diving and individual attacks on their prey, but these knew enough to make a Witcher come to them so they could swarm him.

A murder of crows watched from the rafters as he entered the tower, oiled his silver blade, and ascended the stairs. He came out of the hatch to the roof Aard-first, knocking the harpies gathered to gut him off balance. Then Igni, a jet of flame across the ones he’d dropped, catching their wings alight. Hard to fly without feathers. Hard to dodge a blade when your balance was fucked. Hard to see when the blood of your brethren splashed in your eyes.

The harpies died burnt and bleeding, all fourteen of the damned things. Once their screeching stopped, the crows joined him on the roof, watching as he smashed the harpies’ eggs and reduced their disgusting nest to ashes. A crow’s worst fear, he thought, visited on their enemies. Jaskier would have appreciated it.

This last tower lay a long distance from the Lord’s castle, so he fetched Roach from the clover-patch he’d left her in. They spent the night in the tower and slept with the ruffle-rustling of crow feathers all around them. The crows had nests in the rafters; explained why they hadn’t left after the harpies had moved in.

When Geralt woke in the morning, he found a silver ring perched on Roach’s saddle, bright against her dark leathers.

“Thank you,” he said. He dropped the ring into a saddlebag. Every year, he and Lambert and Eskel got together and compared—what was their strangest contract? With payment from a crow, he had a feeling he would win this winter.

(Jaskier, on the other hand, could never know about this; he would be insufferable.)

Eskel fed the crackling dining hall fire with a cinnamon stick and a thick log of apple wood before settling down on the bearskin rug in front of the hearth. Last year’s winner got to choose the scent for the night, and Eskel loved apple pie.

Geralt sat opposite him on the rug, breathing in the sweet-smelling heat. Might be cold outside, but it was warm in here, and there weren’t any better Witchers to spend the winter with. He set his loser’s tribute next to him, a fine cask of Erveluce, and filled the three tankards he had fetched from the kitchens. (Vesemir had given up on stocking breakable cups.) They might bicker all winter, but tonight was for celebrating, even if they didn’t say it outright. Another year on the Path; another year they’d all made it back.

A few moments later, Lambert arrived and sat diagonal to them, completing their triangle, and with him he brought a platter of tart cheese, crisp apple slices, smoked bacon, and still-warm honey bread. (When they were lucky, Lambert took his temper out on a ball of dough instead of a person.)

“Fuck yes,” Eskel said as soon as Lambert sat down, and although they had all enjoyed the venison at dinner, half of Lambert’s tray disappeared into their bellies in short order while Lambert ducked his head to try to hide his pleased smile.

After shoving a last bite of Lambert’s bread down his gullet, Eskel tried again. “Ahum! I call this meeting of the Wolf Surprise to order,” he said. “Time to find out: which one of us has the best surprise this time?”

Eskel pulled a silver disc from the back of his medallion and set it down on the rug between them: the blank face of it had been engraved with a teddy bear design, a reminder of the time a child had paid him in candy to fetch her soft toy from a wraith-infested field. Whoever won would sand it blank and add their own engraving, carry it with them on the Path until they all met up again. Easy to add and remove it from their medallions when a little Igni could melt the glue.

Lambert sipped his wine, his eyes flicking from the silver prize to Geralt, and for once he kept his caustic mouth quiet. No one who thought they had a winner wanted to go first.

Geralt often experienced surprising things on the Path, but not always on the job. The djinn, for example, had been disqualified due to being not-Witcher business. Cintra hadn’t counted either; invoking the actual Law of Surprise to get your surprise story was cheating, which had been their first rule when they’d made the game up in the year after Eskel’s Child Surprise had slashed his face. So Geralt met Lambert’s challenging gaze with his own; now that he had a real contender, he wasn’t going to let Lambert win easily.

“Right,” Eskel said, snorting as he looked between them. “I’ll go then. This is the story of the bruxa contract that wouldn’t end.”

They nibbled at Lambert’s snacks while Eskel wove the tale of killing a bruxa in Kerack, only for two more people to disappear before he left. Then the same thing happened again—another bruxa lured and killed, another two people disappeared. The bruxa even seemed to be the same one that Eskel had killed before. By that time, he and the villagers sorely wanted some answers, so Eskel surveilled the village that night and tracked the bruxa and her newest captives to her lair.

“She had ensnared a mage,” Eskel said, downing his wine. “Wanting sisters, she bade him make them for her. He had a spell that could change a human into an exact copy of her, but it required a sacrifice, of course. Blood and bone. They were both pissed off that I’d undone so much of their work, and even angrier when I undid them too.” He softened the frown of memory on his brow and straightened his shoulders. “Hard recovery,” he admitted. “And the village didn’t have the coin for the shitshow it turned out to be, but they put me up at the inn for as long as I needed to heal. Scorpion too.”

Lambert harrumphed. “Hospitality. That’s the real surprise right there. Still,” he gave an impressed whistle, “a mage and a bruxa? Not bad.” Fucking dangerous, he didn’t say. But he shoved the food tray closer to Eskel. They’d left the last apple slice for him.

Geralt nodded. “Good fight.” Glad you’re still here, he didn’t say. But he patted Eskel’s knee.

Still not as surprising as the story we have to tell because mages and bruxae get up to no good all the time, they didn’t say, but Eskel read it in their faces and laughed at them. “Rock, paper, knife for the next one,” he said, and he halved his apple slice, gave the other half to Lambert.

They all drained and refilled their tankards, and then Lambert’s paper beat Geralt’s rock, so Geralt told his story next.

“This is the story of the time I made a contract with a crow,” he said, gratified by Eskel’s startled twitch and Lambert’s frown. He channeled Jaskier and did his best to convey the good parts about the avenged crow and its stubborn flock, even showing off the ring at the end, polished so it shone in the flickering firelight.

“A true surprise!” Eskel said at the end. “Might be the first time an animal’s given us silver. We’d have to ask Vesemir to make sure.”

Lambert rolled his eyes. “Right, like Vese-drear wants to hear about us having fun instead of being miserable. And the real surprise is Geralt saying more than ten words.”

Glad you didn’t let the harpies get you, neither of them said, but Lambert rocked on his hips so his shoulder bumped against Geralt’s, and Eskel shoved the food tray back in his direction, one slice of cheese still left for him. Geralt tore it in half and shared it with Lambert.

They drank and refilled their tankards again, and then he and Eskel looked at Lambert, expectant.

“As it happens,” Lambert said, smiling slyly, “I met some crows too. This is the story of how those little fuckers stole my medallion and a lark brought it back.” He bared his neck, making it obvious that his medallion hung from a silk ribbon instead of a chain.

Eskel laughed, more incredulity than mirth flitting across his scarred face. “What, did you just leave it hanging on a tree branch for them to take?”

Lambert scowled. “Yeah, Eskie, I thought I’d make this one conifer real pretty, just do some exterior decorating while I was hunting a leshen.”

A leshen—he and Eskel sat straighter, their eyes searching Lambert for signs of injury even though they’d all given each other a once-over earlier. A leshen’s magic could spread through an entire forest. They fought fiercely, with cunning and cruelty, and they ensorcelled packs of wolves and flocks of crows to do their bidding. Every fight a Witcher encountered was a potentially deadly one, but a fight with a leshen more so than most.

“It was a big one, too,” Lambert bragged, his chest puffing out. “Tree-limbs thicker than a troll’s chest, and the antlers on its skull were as long as Vesemir is old.”

“Let me guess,” Eskel said, quirking his eyebrows. “It gored you with the antlers.”

“Little bit,” Lambert admitted, holding his thumb and forefinger a short distance apart. “Had some back and forth with it first, you know, bombs and shit, but its flock flew in my face and it got a hit in. Antler snapped my medallion chain right off my neck.” He pulled his shirt up, showing a pale scar that crossed diagonally from his belly to his right shoulder.

Fuck. The scar had long since healed, but the blood would have gushed. That gods-be-damned lightweight Cat armor he’d taken to wearing—

“I charbroiled it with extreme prejudice after that,” Lambert said, “but it managed to slam me against a bastard-thick tree trunk before it died, knocked me out. You’ll never guess what I woke up to.” He aimed his cocky grin right at Geralt.

Geralt shoved down the image of Lambert’s desperate gout of flame, his crash into a tree, the leshen burning and Lambert blacking out without being sure if he’d wake up. “Crows?” he asked. They might have appreciated being free of the leshen, and they would have been curious.

“There were some around,” Lambert said, his grin widening. “But what was better was the chatty little bard who’d taken my chest piece off and put a field dressing on the bits where I was bleeding.”

This couldn’t possibly be happening to him. “No,” Geralt said, putting his hand over his eyes. His two worlds were meant to stay separate.

Eskel barked a laugh.

“Yes!” Lambert crowed. “Do you know what he told me?”

“He told you that you were an idiot for fighting a leshen in light armor,” Geralt growled.

“He did mention that,” Lambert said. “But! But, but, but—he also said that I was a beautiful specimen of Witchery. Ha. Your bard likes me, o’ famous White Wolf!”

“He meant that you were fucking heavy,” Geralt told him, which was conveniently the truth even though it also satisfied his need to squash any of Lambert’s bard-snatching thoughts.

“Yeah, he said that too,” Lambert said, apparently unbothered. “He sweet talk you all the time?”

“How did he even find you?” Geralt asked, ignoring the question.

“That’s the best part,” Lambert said. He flicked his medallion. “You and he had been through the area before, he said, so the crows knew him. One of them knew him well enough to give him my medallion after stealing it while I was out.” He and Eskel shared a glance and peered at Geralt.

Geralt grunted and suddenly found his drink very interesting. Trust Lambert to uncover all of the ridiculous attachments that he wasn’t supposed to have.

“Anyway,” Lambert said, shrugging, “he figured if you didn’t have your medallion some bad shit had gone down, so he did the stupid thing and went towards the magic medallion vibrations instead of away from them. He found me instead of you, fetched my kit from where I’d stashed it, stayed with me while the potions did their thing, and offered to compose a song about my ‘fierce clash with a forest god.’”

“Spirit,” Geralt said automatically. “I’ve told him they’re not gods, just some people are stupid enough to worship them—”

Lambert threw his head back and cackled. “He—he said you’d say that!” he gasped out in between his laughs. “And to tell you that nothing good rhymes with ‘spirit’!”

Eskel’s shoulders shook with silent amusement.

It wasn’t that funny, but they were all a little drunk, and it was hard to keep from smiling when his brothers were laughing. Damn Jaskier for knowing him so well. And damn him for running towards a leshen that might not have been dead, and for finding Lambert of all people.

“A Bard Surprise is a good one,” Eskel said when he’d recovered, his eyes still crinkled with mirth. “But I have to say—seems like an ordinary contract to me. The surprising parts happened afterward.”

That was true, actually. Geralt glanced at Lambert, making sure he didn’t think this was favoritism between the two older Witchers.

Lambert raised his eyebrows. “Oh, I know my contract was tame enough,” he said. “But a crow paid Jaskier in silver to help a Witcher; seems like his contract was pretty unusual. I think Jaskier should get it this year.”

Geralt opened his mouth. Closed it. Tried again. “He didn’t keep the silver,” he said, ignoring the ridiculous fact that said silver was Lambert’s medallion.

Lambert shrugged. “Not in the rules that you have to keep your payment. Only that you have to take it.” He met both of their eyes; they had all had the experience of accepting a poor man’s coin only to sneak it back to him.

“Fair. I’ll add it to the bylaws,” Eskel said wryly. Geralt still wasn’t sure if Eskel really had the rules written down or just kept them in his head.

“He’s not even one of us,” Geralt said, though the words left his tongue reluctantly.

Lambert leaned forward. “Also not in the rules,” he said, his eyes intent. “You only have to be someone who walks the Path and takes contracts.”

And Jaskier walked the Path with Geralt and took contracts all the time, albeit for music instead of monsters.

Eskel made an impressed noise low in his throat. “Playing dirty, Lam. I’ll allow it.” He looked at Geralt.

If Geralt objected, it wouldn’t go further. And if it were just a stupid, silly game, then he might be petty enough, possessive enough, to strive for the win.

But when Geralt searched Lambert’s face, Lambert met his eyes and spoke in Vesemir’s gruff cadence, a mantra they’d heard a thousand times, “No kids. No spouses. No, not for us,” before asking in his own plaintive voice, “Do you think we can’t have friends either?”

Of course they couldn’t. Monsters didn’t have friends. But even as he thought it, he couldn’t look away from Lambert’s fingers tapping at his thigh. Always moving, was Lambert, like Jaskier. Always pushing, like Jaskier. And Lambert had been happier the past couple years, traveling with the Cat he never talked about, the Cat they only knew about from Lambert’s new armor and flexibility. And like Jaskier, Lambert was a little shit, but he wasn’t a monster, and he deserved—he deserved to have whatever he needed in order to be satisfied on the Path. And unlike Jaskier, he was so often snarling and unhappy about his fate that Geralt couldn’t imagine denying him this. Did he have to?

No, he thought abruptly. He didn’t. He didn’t have to do anything.

Geralt lurched sideways and embraced his brother. “You can,” he said, his throat tight, his arms squeezing around Lambert’s hunched shoulders. “We can. Of course we can.”

“Of course we can,” Eskel echoed, and the wonder in his voice crushed Geralt’s lungs in his chest. Eskel tried so hard to be the perfect Witcher. No crows greeted Eskel on the Path, no bards. If it had been him in Dol Blathanna, he would have Axii’d Jaskier away.

If misery were a monster, Geralt would slay it. He swallowed and pulled back so he could look at them both. “If you want a friend, have them. Keep them. We’ll figure it out. And if you want a—a companion, I’ll witness the handfasting. And if you want a child—I don’t know. Logistics would be hard. Not impossible.”

They stared at him, pulled up sharp by the heresy.

“You’re fucking with me,” Eskel said, his eyes bright.

Geralt shook his head. “It’s only the three of us,” he said. “And Vesemir. Can’t we decide what being a Witcher of the Wolf School means?”

Lambert glared at him, his lip curled. “Show me. Prove that we can.”

Geralt exhaled. They had a whole winter, and he wasn’t a mage, he couldn’t snap his fingers and bring Jaskier here. But he could— “Here,” he said, lifting his medallion off his head. “Swap.”

Lambert frowned.

“It’s my bard’s ribbon,” Geralt said, gesturing at Lambert’s medallion. “Isn’t it? So I’ll wear it, and Vesemir can deal with it, just like he can deal with—other things.” Vesemir would hate the idea of their medallion hanging from something so fragile, which was undoubtedly why Lambert had kept the ribbon in the first place. He probably even had a spare chain hidden in his pack for when he returned to the Path.

Lambert bit his lip. “Guess I can find some other way to mess with him,” he said, and they traded.

“Right then, meeting concluded!” Eskel said, pulling the mantle of the host role back over his dazed face. He passed the silver prize to Geralt. “You can give it to him in the spring and take it back before winter,” he said. “Or you could bring him with you and have him hand deliver it.” His wolfish smirk was definitely a dare.

Geralt made a point of rolling his eyes, exaggeratedly long-suffering. “There’ll be no living with him if I tell him that a songbird managed to win a wolf competition,” he complained, and the others went to bed sniggering.

The ribbon around his neck smelled like Lambert, like hard-worn leather and the walnut oil he used on his hair. Lambert probably would have been fine after the leshen. Probably would have woken up and managed to crawl to his bag, cursing and bleeding all the while. But he might not have. It had taken Jaskier and a fucking crow to tip the scale to certainty.

On a purely utilitarian level, hard to object to having better odds.

Vesemir did lecture him about the ribbon, but he also made a point of celebrating the solstice that year, gave a little speech about finding lights to brighten the dark points of their lives. He reminisced about a time when the keep had been full of Witchers: numbers enough to meet periodically on the Path, to support each other on difficult hunts.

“Enough Witchers to drag more kids off to a life they didn’t ask for,” Lambert snarked.

“Enough to make sure the ones who survived the Trials would live for longer on the Path,” Vesemir countered. “Back then, a Witcher could only trust another Witcher.”

Back then.

Geralt wondered, not for the first time, how much of their little ceremony Vesemir might contrive to overhear.

The week before he left, Geralt found that a parchment had been slipped onto his desk while he was out, the contents written in Eskel’s most formal hand:

The Rules of Wolf Surprise

1. Invoking the Law of Surprise is cheating
2. The surprise must be acquired as part of a contract
     a. Djinn wishes don’t count, Geralt
3. Payment must be taken for a contract
     a.  Payment need not be in coin
     b.  Payment may be returned according to the judgment of the Wolf Surprise participant
4. The surprise must be acquired by someone who walks the Path
     a.  This person may or may not be a Witcher of the Wolf School
5. Wolf Surprise participants are permitted to
     a.  have friends, companions, and partners who are not Witchers of the Wolf School
     b.  have children—ethics and logistics permitting
     c.  decide for themselves* what being a Wolf Witcher means
          i.  *decide in committee, Lambert; don’t get ideas

Eskel had signed it with a doodle of a wolf with a scar across its snout. He had also drawn a lamb next to it, but someone with a different pen had crossed the lamb out and replaced it with a second, larger wolf that had two slashes across its face like Lambert did.

Geralt rolled his eyes, but that didn’t stop him from drawing an even bigger wolf with a scar over its eye on the parchment before he tucked the rules away in a desk drawer. It felt...good. Seeing it written out in black and white. Knowing the rules represented Eskel and Lambert’s voice, not just his own.

Eskel had always had a knack for knowing what people needed.

He found Jaskier in a Maribor tavern, singing his face off, and he endured the taste and smell of cheap ale at a back table while Jaskier finished his set. Red trousers, red doublet; he danced a courtship dance for his audience and looked more cardinal than the crow Geralt had carved into the silver prize for him. But once his songs were sung, it was Geralt who Jaskier quickly invited to his room.

“Did he win?” was the first thing Jaskier asked once the door was closed. “We worked so hard on how he would tell it! Did he use the comparisons we talked about? Did he have good imagery?”

“It wasn’t that kind of competition,” Geralt said. “You unrepentant sneak.” He arched an eyebrow. (The idea of the story competition was, of course, how Lambert had persuaded Jaskier to keep their meeting secret.)

“But did he win?” Jaskier asked, ignoring the accusation of treachery. He sat down on the bed, his hands clasped in entreaty. “I’ve been in suspense all winter!”

“No win,” Geralt told him.

Jaskier flopped back on the mattress. “Oh, poor Lambert. It was such a good story! I should have sought him out again before winter. ...Wait.” He sat back up, peering at Geralt. “Does that mean you won? Did you, Witcher of few words, win a story contest?”

“Hmm,” Geralt said dryly.

“That was a negative ‘hmm,’ my closed-mouthed companion, don’t think I can’t tell. So...Eskel again?”

“No,” Geralt said, and having got his revenge for the secret-keeping, he withdrew the silver disc, threaded now on a silver chain that he’d picked up in the market earlier in the day, and dropped it over Jaskier’s head so it settled around his neck. “Your new friend nominated you for the honor.” He explained a little of the decision and his lips rose at the sight of Jaskier’s bewildered face.

“I’m—but I’m not even a Witcher,” Jaskier stammered. His hands fluttered above the necklace like they’d once fluttered above a baby bird.

“We decided that was fine,” Geralt said. Jaskier was still staring at him, so he added, “The prize has to go back to Kaer Morhen this winter, but the chain you can keep.”

“I can keep?” Jaskier repeated, as if the words were foreign. “But—you understand, right, that it won’t disappear into nothing like a pair of holey socks or a honey cake?” He bunched the red silk of his trousers in his fists, not touching, as if he didn’t know whether Geralt would let him. As if he wanted but couldn’t have. Waiting, like he had waited in Brokilon. Had waited for years, maybe.

Geralt gently pried Jaskier’s hands open and clasped them in his. “New rule,” he said. “We can keep things now.”

“Things like necklaces?” Jaskier asked.

“Things like bards,” Geralt said, and hugged him close.

When they walked into the stone-walled outer bailey of Kaer Morhen that winter, Geralt wore his medallion on a chain that matched Jaskier’s, and Roach had new tack, and there were books in the saddlebags because Jaskier had figured out that Geralt liked learning new things. Jaskier wore a new winter outfit from Vespaden, warm wool in a bright blue that favored him.

“Not well-acquainted with the local crows,” Geralt said, finishing up a lecture about the castle’s surroundings. “We hunt in rotations and they’re not always around when it’s my turn.” Kind of embarrassing; he knew the crows around Novigrad better than the ones on his own grounds.

Jaskier spun to face him. “Of course we must befriend them,” he said, his arms spread wide and welcoming before dropping back to his sides. “But you should know, I didn’t give a damn about crows until I met you.”

Geralt stopped in his tracks on the way to the stables, his stomach drawn tight, Roach’s breath hot against the back of his neck. “Were you making fun of me?” he asked. It was the only thing he could think of.

“Nothing like that,” Jaskier said, and he put his hand on Geralt’s shoulder and looked him in the eyes. “I just wanted very much for you to believe that clever, funny creatures who people say nasty things about deserve to have nice things, and that those nice things don’t have to come with strings attached. And between you and I and Roach and the crows and your wolves, we managed it.”

Geralt considered this. “You seduced an entire species for me.”

“Maybe,” Jaskier admitted, glancing up at Geralt from beneath his lashes.

“You know we have to keep them, right?” Geralt said, starting to smile. “Crows talk to their kids. Crows who are too young to have seen us still recognize us. We’re already in the third, fourth generation of them. More, maybe.”

“Then it’s a good thing that I plan to keep you and the crows for as many generations as you’ll have me,” Jaskier said. “If you’re all right with being kept?” He fidgeted.

Jaskier having him as much as he had Jaskier, he meant. Two-way commitment. Could have felt like a trap, like Fate’s rope wrapped around him. Instead it felt secure, like the certainty that most places he went, a nosy black bird would hop over to him, hoping for a handout, willing to shout a warning if it saw something dangerous. Not because of destiny, but because he’d made a choice.

“Been your Witcher for as long as you’ve been my bard,” he finally said. “Not planning on a change.” And then he let his lips curve up to show a flash of teeth. “Besides, stupid to let you go now that you’ve almost figured out how to sing.”

Next to him, Jaskier squawked his indignant crow squawk and informed him about his plans for vengeance, and behind him Roach snorted and shoved her head at his back to get him moving towards the stables again. But they would care for him no matter if he teased or walked slowly to the stables, just as he cared for them. That was what keeping someone meant, he thought: that the caring, like the gifts, didn’t come with strings.