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I Am Sandaled With Wind and With Flame

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Aubry is not, technically, the highest ranking of the Witchers who came to Oxenfurt with Jaskier and Eskel and Milena - not even the highest ranking of the Wolves. But Lambert, who is close to the Wolf’s confidence, is currently about to start tearing the priestesses of Melitele apart with his bare hands, which, while cathartic, isn’t going to solve anything, and most of the rest of them are only slightly less imminently berserk.

So what Aubry is, is the most level-headed of the Witchers still in the amphitheatre.

“Cedric, Axel,” he snaps. “Sit on Lambert. Everyone else, block the exits - nobody leaves.”

It’s a mark of how very flustered everyone is that even Ivar doesn’t object to taking orders. The Witchers fan out, shoving through the crowd or vaulting over people as their various temperaments take them, and Aubry reaches under his tunic and pulls out the necklace Triss gave him before they left.

“Yen’s got tracking pendants on Jaskier and Milena,” she’d said, “but gods know an extra one mightn’t go amiss. Break it if there’s trouble.”

This definitely counts as trouble, Aubry thinks grimly, and snaps the crystal between his fingers.

It takes maybe half a minute for there to be a response, during which Lambert’s roars of inarticulate fury manage to panic most of the audience, and being trapped in the amphitheatre by fifteen angry Witchers blocking the exits doesn’t help at all. When a portal opens beside Aubry and the first person through is the White Wolf himself, steel sword in hand, followed by a dozen more Witchers all looking fierce and worried, Aubry is genuinely worried there is going to be a riot.

He’s not quite sure how to stop that from happening, actually, and a riot won’t help them find Jaskier -

It’s Priscilla, of all people, who keeps the whole thing from turning into even more of a disaster than it already is. She vaults up onto the stage and bellows, far louder than Aubry would have guessed such a small woman could, “SILENCE!

Silence, startlingly, falls.

“Hail, White Wolf,” she continues, only a little more quietly. “Hail to the Warlord of the North.” She goes to one knee and bows her head briefly to him. “Oxenfurt greets you, and begs your mercy.”

She makes a little gesture with one hand, and, slowly, the humans around Aubry begin to sink to their knees, watching Priscilla like they think she’s mad or possibly divinely inspired, like she’s their only hope of surviving the night.

Aubry maybe falls a little bit in love. Competent, fearless bards are remarkably attractive.

Geralt gives the whole tableau a long look, and slowly lowers his sword. “Hail,” he says to Priscilla, obviously completely unsure as to who she actually is, and then, to Aubry, “Where is my lark? Where is Eskel?” - and, glancing at Lambert, who is on his knees between Cedric and Axel, pinned down and weeping in rage, “Where is Milena?”

“Kidnapped,” Aubry says succinctly. “Via portals. Couple of priestesses snatched Milena. Didn’t see who grabbed Jaskier, but they stabbed Eskel before he got to them.”

Geralt’s nostrils flare, and he turns to look at the stage - at Eskel’s blood spattered across it. “Hm,” he growls. “Hemminks. Bring Yen.” Hemminks nods and vanishes back through the portal. “Who’s she?”

“Priscilla. Bard. Jaskier’s friend,” Aubry supplies. Geralt nods and leaps up onto the stage, offering Priscilla his free hand. She takes it with commendable poise and rises to her feet.

“What did you see?” he rumbles, and Priscilla takes a deep breath and begins to describe what happened in, Aubry is interested to note, remarkably brisk and accurate terms. Useful creatures, bards.

Yennefer emerges through the portal, which snaps closed behind her, takes a quick look around, and stalks over to where the first of their enemy’s portals appeared, the one that the priestesses used to carry off Milena. She paces in a circle, frowning at the ground. “I know this mage,” she says at last. “Fuck it, I know them - tip of my godsdamned tongue -”

Aubry leaves her to it, and goes over to Lambert. “On your feet, wolf,” he says as gently as he can. “You’re no use to her weeping.”

Lambert takes a great wracking breath and shudders, and then dashes a hand across his eyes and rises, shaking off Cedric and Axel. “Let me at those fucking priestesses,” he growls.

Aubry nods, and Cedric and Axel growl a little.

The priestesses of Melitele do not look pleased to be boxed in by four angry Witchers; Aubry doesn’t particularly care. He points to the one with the fanciest robes, and Lambert gets right up in her face, snarling. “Who were they?” he demands. “The bitches who took Milena. Who?”

The priestess flinches back - and well she might. Lambert’s angry enough to kill without really thinking about the consequences - a bad mental state for a Witcher, but Aubry can hardly blame him, not when Milena was stolen from under Lambert’s nose, Jaskier snatched away right in front of them. Not when Eskel’s blood is still drying on the boards of the stage.

“I don’t know,” she quavers. “They - they joined us just outside the amphitheatre. They said they were from the Garins temple, in town for a few days - they heard about the concert and wanted to listen -”

Garins, huh. That’s...north and a little west. Up near Roggeven.

“What did they look like?” Aubry asks, putting a hand on Lambert’s arm to remind him not to actually go feral. A bloodbath won’t provide answers.

“I never saw their faces,” the priestess whispers.

One of the other priestesses, her hood back to reveal an older woman, face lined and hair streaked with grey, says, “The one that spoke to us had a noble accent. And I heard the other say a few words - sounded like a Temerian girl to me.”

Lambert looks - and smells - rather like he’s about to bite something, at such useless information. Aubry crosses his arms and glowers at the rest of the priestesses. “Did any of you see them?” he demands.

Heads shake - except for one. The smallest of the priestesses, a girl who can’t be older than Milena, swallows hard and says, very faintly, “I - I caught a glimpse of the taller one?”

She smells like she’s about to faint with fear. Aubry tilts his head at Cedric and Axel, who pull Lambert back a little ways, and beckons the small priestess forward, uncrossing his arms and slouching a little in the way that makes him look less intimidating. She comes hesitantly closer. “What did she look like?” Aubry asks, keeping his voice quiet, unthreatening, gentle.

The small priestess shuffles her feet and glances at the head priestess and then down at the hems of her robes again. Aubry grits his teeth and cultivates patience. Yelling won’t help. Scaring this girl shitless won’t get them to Jaskier any faster. “She, ah,” says the small priestess. “She looked a lot like - like Lady Milena.”

Marta,” Lambert snarls. “Fucking - I’ll fucking gut her - I’ll burn the fucking de Roggeven estate to the ground -”

“Lambert,” Geralt growls, and Lambert’s jaw snaps shut as Geralt steps up beside him. “Aubry.” He nods approvingly to Aubry. “Take a dozen Witchers, get Yen to make you a portal to Roggeven.”

“And what will you be doing?” Lambert demands.

“Speaking with the Chancellor,” Geralt says, showing all his teeth in an expression that bears only the slimmest possible resemblance to a smile. “If he knew of this, Oxenfurt will need a new Chancellor tomorrow.”

Lambert snarls. “Good.”

“Cedric, Axel, with me,” Aubry says. “Grab us another eight Witchers and meet me by Yennefer.”

“If the fucking Duke de Roggeven had anything to do with this, I am going to break every bone in his body before he dies,” Lambert vows as Aubry tows him towards the pacing sorceress.

“Leave a few for me,” Aubry says, and Lambert gives him a slightly startled look, then takes a long sniff and blinks in surprise.

“You’re just as fucking pissed as I am,” he says, sounding genuinely taken aback. “How are you staying so calm?”

Aubry sighs. “I’m twice your age, cub,” he says gruffly. “I’ve learned to think before I do anything irrevocable.” He smiles grimly. “There are old Witchers, and there are bold Witchers, but there are no old, bold Witchers. I’ve kept my head attached this long by actually planning before I attack.”

Yennefer is still pacing, and scowling like a thundercloud. “Whoever this is, they’ve got a concealment spell up that’s too fucking strong for me to break alone, even with the necklaces to trace.” She snarls. “The good news is, they won’t be good for much else while they’re holding that spell. When we find them…” she trails off, fingers flexing as little sparks dance across her nails.

“Dibs,” Lambert growls.

“Only if you get there first,” Yennefer snaps.

“We need to go to Roggeven,” Aubry says.

Yennefer’s expression gets stormier. “Marta de fucking Roggeven,” she says. “And if she’s got a mage working for her, then her fucking father must be involved, too.”

Lambert cracks his knuckles. Yennefer gives him a slightly feral grin and gestures sharply, and a portal opens beside her. “Roggeven,” she says, and hands Aubry a xenovox. “Contact me as soon as you find anything.”

Aubry nods to her and leads his little company through. Twelve Witchers isn’t precisely an army - but it’s more than enough to teach the Duke de Roggeven a lesson about messing with the Wolf.

*

Lambert goes through the portal at a trot, and emerges after a stomach-turning moment of dizziness on the front steps of a great sprawling building like a mansion pretending to be a keep. The doors are closed for the night - it’s quite late, actually, as Buttercup didn’t start singing until after supper - and Lambert takes the stairs three at a time and bangs on the door with a fist. If they don’t open right fucking quickly, he’ll fucking well break them down.

The door swings open as the rest of the Witchers join him on the top step, and a supercilious fellow in livery sneers, “His Grace is not receiving visitors -”

Lambert picks the man up by the front of his tunic and snarls. “His Grace fucking well is receiving us.”

The man goes white with shock and terror, and the scent of fear that rolls off of him is thick enough to bathe in. Lambert snarls again. Good. Let this man fear him. Let every fucking human in this whole fucking house fear him. Geralt’s been too fucking gentle, these last few years. Let Redania remember why it isn’t wise to anger the Witchers of Kaer Morhen.

“H-how may I assist your lordships?” the man squeaks.

“The Duke de Roggeven,” Lambert says. “Now.”

“Yes, milord!” the man says, and Lambert lets go of his tunic with a shove and follows the cowering man into the vast house. The man leads the way at a trot, pushed by the presence of a dozen angry Witchers - not quite fleeing, but pretty damn close. Behind Lambert, most of the other Witchers spread out through the house, casting about for the scents of Buttercup and Milena and Eskel. Lambert can hear faint squeals of terror from the guards and servants they encounter.

It’s a good five minutes until they reach a fancy-looking door up on the third floor of this ridiculous house - just Lambert and Aubry and Cedric and Axel left of the original dozen - and the man in livery knocks on it loudly, hand shaking. It’s opened a few moments later by a short man in a really fucking stupid dressing gown. He’s got dark hair and dark eyes like Milena. “I will have you sacked for -” he starts, and breaks off with a choking sound as Lambert steps forward and shoves the liveried man out of the way.

“De Roggeven?” he snarls.

“I am the Duke de Roggeven,” the man in the dressing gown says, drawing himself up as tall as he can. “What is the meaning of this intrusion?”

Lambert considers all his options carefully, because Aubry maybe had a point. And then he thinks fuck it and does what he’s wanted to do since the day Milena admitted her family hadn’t even sent her a birthday greeting, and punches the Duke de Roggeven right in his smarmy fucking face.

He does pull the punch enough that he only breaks the duke’s nose instead of killing him outright, but only because they need the duke to be able to fucking talk.

The Duke de Roggeven falls over onto his ass and wails like a fucking baby - a comparison Lambert is perfectly capable of making, given how often he had to deal with the cub’s ungodly loud noises - and the liveried man squawks like an outraged chicken, and a woman comes rushing forward from somewhere behind the duke and goes down on her knees beside him, fluttering her hands uselessly. Milena clearly got all the sense in this family.

Where is Milena?” Lambert snarls.

“What?” says the Duke de Roggeven.

What?” says the woman who is probably his wife, though knowing what he does of nobles, Lambert would honestly not be fucking surprised if she was a mistress. She looks a little like Milena, though, around the cheekbones, and she’s just as small. “What - Milena? That ungrateful hussy? Isn’t she in Kaer Morhen with -” she looks up and flinches at the expression on Lambert’s face.

“If you ever call her that again, I’ll break your neck,” he says, surprised at how calmly the words come out.

Aubry puts a hand on Lambert’s shoulder, holding Lambert still, and says, “Where is Marta?”

“Marta? Out visiting friends,” the woman says, looking even more confused and afraid. “She told us she’d be gone for a week at least - a house party with the Viscount de Garins’ daughters -”

“Garins again,” Aubry says. “How many with her?”

“Why - why do you want to know?” the woman quavers.

Lambert leans forward over the still-weeping Duke de Roggeven and snarls right in her face, “Because she took Milena. And the Warlord’s Consort, too. How many?

“Ten!” the woman squeals. “Ten guards and a page - what do you mean she took Milena?”

Lambert can smell that she’s frightened and a little angry, but not actually hiding anything, and the duke just smells scared. Apparently Milena got her courage from her mother.

“How far between here and Garins?” Aubry asks.

“Two days’ ride,” the lady says. “South across the river and through the royal forest - she left four days ago -”

“Huh,” Aubry says.

“You broke my nose!” the Duke de Roggeven squawks.

“Your eldest daughter has kidnapped the Warlord’s Consort,” Cedric drawls. “I think a broken nose may well be the least of your problems right now.”

“Melitele preserve us,” the woman whimpers.

Lambert snorts. “Melitele won’t fucking help you if that bitch has harmed a hair on Jaskier’s head,” he says. “Fuck, you’d think she wants the Wolf to take the rest of Redania.” These idiots stink of fear but not guilt, and the occasional whistles from the Witchers searching the house indicate that no one has found hide nor hair nor scent of Buttercup or Milena or Eskel.

“Did Marta take a mage with her?” Aubry asks - sensible Aubry, keeping his temper and his wits about him in a way Lambert just fucking can’t right now.

“No,” the woman says. “We haven’t got a household mage - far too expensive to hire these days -”

Aubry hums. “Fine,” he says at last. “C’mon. Garins.”

Lambert nods. Milena and Buttercup aren’t here - there’s no one here but fucking cowardly idiot nobles. No point wasting any more time.

They’re almost to the doors when someone steps out of a hallway, and Lambert screeches to a halt, because for a moment he thinks - he thinks -

It’s not Milena, but it is a dainty woman with dark hair and dark eyes, a little taller than Milena is, a little older, but so like her and Marta that she must be the middle sister. Marika, Lambert remembers, from some of Milena’s stories about her family. She’s wearing a heavy dressing gown, and her feet are bare.

“You’re Milena’s Witcher,” she says. Lambert nods. He is. “Is she alright?”

“Your older sister fucking kidnapped her,” Lambert says. Marika’s eyes go huge.

“Marta what?” she blurts. “How?”

“Sorceress,” Aubry says.

“...Marta doesn’t know any sorceresses, I don’t think,” Marika says, frowning. “And she certainly doesn’t have the money to hire one. Father hasn’t given her that large a household budget.”

Well, that’s actually fucking useful, isn’t it, in that it probably means Marta is working with someone. Who, that’s a different question.

“Do you know where she might have taken Milena?” Cedric asks.

Marika frowns harder. “Not here or the townhouse in Tretogor,” she says at last. “The servants in Tretogor would send word to Father at once if Marta showed up unexpectedly. We’ve a hunting lodge in the forest south of the river, and a summer home outside of Novigrad. Neither is staffed right now; she could use either without Father’s finding out. But with a sorceress, she could be anywhere.”

Lambert nods. “Thank you,” he says, as politely as he can manage. That’s actually very useful information.

Marika looks up at them, something odd in her eyes. She doesn’t smell nearly as scared as her parents did - apprehensive at most. “Marta has ruined us, hasn’t she,” she says quietly.

“She took the Warlord’s Consort and his right hand, too,” Cedric says. Marika winces.

“She has ruined us,” she whispers. “Will you - will you keep Milena safe?”

Always,” Lambert rasps.

“Good,” Marika says, and chuckles a little sadly. “She always was the cleverest of us, whatever Marta thinks. Trust her to find a gentleman among Witchers.”

Lambert says, “I’m not a fucking gentleman.” Ugh, what an idea.

Marika smiles. “Give my love to my sister,” she says, and curtsies, and vanishes back down the corridor.

Well, maybe there’s one de Roggeven besides Milena who’s worth her salt.

*

Aubry whistles a summons to the rest of the Witchers as he leads the way out of the de Roggeven mansion, and flips the xenovox open once he’s outside in the clean night air. Nobles. Clearly Milena got all the sense and all the courage in her family - her sister Marika possibly excepted.

“We need to go to Garins,” he says into the little box.

After a moment Yennefer replies, “Give me five minutes. Geralt’s about to murder the Chancellor.”

Aubry raises an eyebrow and leans back against the stone railing beside the stairs, closing the xenovox. “What’d you learn?” he asks his fellows as they come pouring out of the mansion.

Junod scowls. “Marta left for Garins the day after they got news about the concert,” he says.

Kiyan nods. “And she’s been writing to someone at the temple of Melitele in Garins for months,” he adds. “Her maid said she burned all the letters, though.”

Aubry hums. Writing to someone for months, and heading out as soon as it became clear there would be an opportunity to get at Milena and Jaskier - that speaks of long planning. But her parents and sister knew nothing about it. Well and good; maybe the Wolf won’t end up having to slaughter every de Roggeven after all.

Aubry doesn’t think much of Marta’s chances of surviving this stunt, though. Maybe if both Jaskier and Milena are unharmed when the Witchers find them. Maybe.

Lambert is pacing, reeking of near-berserk anger. Aubry almost wishes someone would be stupid enough to attack them: if Lambert doesn’t get some sort of outlet soon, he’s likely to start hitting whatever’s closest, and that could end badly.

Aubry himself wouldn’t mind having something to hit, honestly. He’s gotten used to having a part of his attention constantly devoted to keeping track of Jaskier, except during the hours Jaskier is safely tucked away in the White Wolf’s rooms; to not know where Jaskier is, or if he is well, is a steadily growing ache, like a wound that can’t be staunched.

A portal opens abruptly, and Aubry waves the other Witchers through before hauling Lambert across its threshold. They’re back in Oxenfurt by the smell - in the antechamber outside the Chancellor’s office, in fact. From inside the office, Aubry can hear weeping. Geralt is pacing like a caged wolf. There’s a man Aubry doesn’t recognize cowering in a corner, watching Geralt with wide eyes and reeking of fear.

Yennefer, worryingly, is starting to look a bit frayed around the edges.

“Garins?” she asks.

Aubry nods, and sums up what they’ve learned so far in a few crisp sentences. Geralt grunts acknowledgement and gives him a nod.

“What’s with the Chancellor?” Lambert asks, jerking his head at the closed door and the sobbing sound behind it.

“Geralt broke his jaw and both his arms,” Yennefer says. “Apparently he didn’t actually take any of the security measures he promised in his invitation. It’s frankly a miracle that we’re looking for Marta de Roggeven and not, say, Emhyr var Emreis.” She grins, a feral nasty expression. “I believe Oxenfurt will have a new Chancellor tomorrow. Or Geralt and I will be coming back.”

The man in the corner nods like a puppet on a string. “We will meet to elect a new Chancellor as soon as the sun rises!” he squeaks.

Geralt stops pacing and reaches out to pull Lambert close, leaning their foreheads together. “We’ll find them,” he says, low and fierce.

Lambert takes a deep breath and shudders, like all his manic energy has drained out of him for a second, and closes his eyes. “We will,” he agrees. “And gut whoever took them.”

“Yes,” Geralt agrees.

Aubry says quietly to Yennefer, “Are you well?”

“I can’t fucking find them,” she snarls, just as quietly. “Whoever this mage is, they’re putting everything they’ve got into those concealments. And portals aren’t effortless, you know.”

“Can Triss help? Or Seraphina?” Aubry checks.

“Triss is rallying the rest of the Wolf’s mages,” Yennefer says. “Seraphina’s overseeing the search of Oxenfurt - though I don’t expect they’ll find anything. It would be downright stupid to have stayed in the city. Istredd should be here soon - he’s best at portals, besides me. He can bolster me. I can hold out until then.”

It’s been less than an hour since Jaskier and Milena and Eskel were taken, Aubry realizes. Less than an hour - and still far, far too long.

“Garins,” Yennefer says, and flicks the portal into existence with a little more force than she often uses. Aubry whistles his Witchers into line, and Lambert falls in beside him, and they go trotting through.

Garins is a fairly small town, and there are few lights showing; it’s nearly midnight. Everyone sensible is asleep. Aubry looks it over from the vantage of the hill where Yennefer’s portal placed them, taking note of the mansion that must be the viscount’s on one end of the town, the Temple of Melitele with its ever-burning lamps at the other. “Junod, take five men and go roust out the viscount,” he says after a moment. “See if Marta de Roggeven ever actually arrived, and if she was fool enough to come back here with her captives. Lambert, Cedric, Axel, Kolgrim, Letho, with me. Let’s go see what the Melitelans have been up to.”

Letho snorts as they head down the hill. “Gonna end up on the Wolf’s Council at this rate, Aubry.”

“Fuck no,” Aubry replies. Ugh, politics - he is not cut out for politics. He’ll go where the Wolf sends him and do what needs doing, and that’s quite enough for him.

The doors to the Temple of Melitele stand open, and there’s a white-robed acolyte spinning thread up by the altar, who starts to her feet and squeaks in alarm as six Witchers come tromping in.

“Welcome - ah - welcome to the temple of Melitele,” she stammers. “Have you come to honor the goddess in Her house?”

“We will speak with the one who leads this temple,” Aubry says.

“The - the prioress is abed, sir,” the acolyte says. “Will you accept our hospitality until she rises at dawn?”

“No,” Lambert growls. “Roust her out. We’re in a fucking hurry, girl.”

“Patience is - is the hallmark of true courtesy -” the acolyte says, backing up until she bumps into the altar, staring at Lambert in terror.

“We’re Witchers,” Lambert rumbles. “Never been accused of being fucking courteous. Get your prioress. Now.”

The acolyte squeaks in terror and goes racing off; Aubry tracks the sound of her sandaled feet in the almost-silent temple’s halls, echoing off the stone as she scrambles down a hallway and up a staircase. Faintly, he hears her babble, “Prioress, ma’am, there’s Witchers and they’re angry and -”

“Hush, child, I’m up,” another woman, much older than the acolyte. “Witchers, you say? I wonder what has brought them to us. I hardly think they’re here to take holy orders.” There’s wry humor in the voice, and the sounds of a cupboard being opened and closed. “There now, child, down we go. Never fear. If they were here to sack the town, we’d have heard screaming by now, would we not?”

Aubry can’t help a huff of amusement. Whoever this prioress is, she has guts.

She emerges from the same door the acolyte fled through, and comes forward without flinching. “Witchers. Be welcome in the temple of Melitele; the peace of the goddess be upon you. What brings you to our Lady’s door in such haste and distress?”

“We’re looking for Marta de Roggeven,” Aubry says.

“Marchioness Marta de Roggeven?” the prioress says, eyebrows rising. “She visited three days ago to make a generous donation. She is certainly not here any longer.”

She’s not lying, but she’s not telling him everything. Aubry growls softly. Lambert growls loudly. “What’d she get?” he demands. “For her generous donation.”

The prioress manages to look down her nose at Lambert, despite being a full foot shorter than he is. “She is a very devout young woman. She requested that an acolyte be sent into her household, to assist her in her prayers.”

Aubry and Lambert glance at each other. That explains the Melitelan robes...but there’s something else, something on the tip of Aubry’s tongue. “Which acolyte?” he asks at last. Not that the name will mean anything to them -

“Sister Agata,” the prioress says, and all six Witchers snarl.

“Agata of fucking Temeria?” Lambert demands, stalking forward to loom over the prioress. “You had her here?”

“...Sister Agata was assigned here some months ago, yes,” the prioress says, starting to smell genuinely scared for the first time. “She indicated her consent to joining the marchioness’s household -”

“Fucking Agata,” Lambert says, whirling and beginning to pace, hands clenching and unclenching like he’s imagining Agata’s throat under his fingers. “She’s probably the bitch who stabbed Eskel. I’ll tear her fucking heart out - fuck, that - that - that -” he appears to run out of words and devolves into incoherently furious growling.

“Your companion has some history with Sister Agata?” the prioress inquires.

Cedric barks a laugh. “History. Sure. You could say that. You know that mess a while back, when the princess of Temeria stabbed the Warlord’s Consort and almost got Vizima sacked?”

“Yes, of course,” the prioress says. “It was quite the scandal! Rumor had it that the princess was so disgraced, and the Warlord so enraged, that she took...holy...orders…” She trails off, eyes going wide.

“You didn’t know who she was?” Lambert demands incredulously.

“I did not,” the prioress says, and smells like she means it. “I knew she was of noble birth, of course; that was obvious. But I did not know her true heritage, nor what had brought her to Melitele’s service. What have she and the marchioness done, to bring Witchers to the temple in such haste and distress?”

“Kidnapped the Warlord’s Consort,” Aubry says bluntly. The acolyte gasps and claps a hand over her mouth, eyes wide. The prioress closes her eyes for a moment, and looks suddenly very old, as though every one of her years has come crashing down on her at once; her scent fills quite abruptly with a deep and bitter fear. Slowly, she goes to her knees before him, bowing her head.

“Whatever penalty this temple owes the Warlord of the North, for harboring and aiding his enemies unawares,” she says softly, “I beg you, lord, let it fall upon me alone; I lead here, and as I may take pride in my daughters’ glories, their shame too is my own.”

Aubry blinks at her in rising dismay. What the fuck?

The acolyte cries out, “Mother, no -” and is cut off by the prioress’s raised hand.

“Please, my lord,” she says to Aubry, voice and scent full of desperation. “My daughters knew nothing of this; they have never raised their hands against the Warlord. They are innocents, they would not - would not survive your men’s - attentions -”

“What the fuck,” Lambert says, recoiling like he’s just seen an adder. Cedric and Axel make twin horrified noises. Letho grunts like he’s been punched; Kolgrim hisses between his teeth.

“Our what?” Aubry says, too baffled and horrified to even deal with the fact that she’s calling him a lord. “What? No! We just want information. Witchers don’t -” he breaks off, mind reeling. Is that what they expect of the Warlord’s army, here in remaining Redania?

The prioress blinks up at him in obvious confusion. “Witchers...don’t?” she says.

“What sort of fucking monsters do you think we are, lady?” Lambert demands. “We just want to find Marta de fucking Roggeven - and that absolute bitch Agata, I swear to fucking gods I will gut her myself if Eskel doesn’t get there first -”

“Get up,” Aubry says, cutting Lambert’s rant off. “We aren’t going to hurt anyone here. We just need to know anything you can tell us about Marta and Agata. That’s all.”

Slowly, the prioress rises, looking at him with a very odd expression as the bitter fear-scent begins to fade a little. “Anything I can tell you, I will,” she says. “Dominika, child, go and rouse your sisters, and bid anyone who knows anything of Sister Agata or of the marchioness de Roggeven to come here with all due speed.”

The acolyte turns and hurries off. The prioress meets Aubry’s eyes, and the fear slowly drains away from her scent, leaving only a faint apprehension and a great deal of curiosity. “We have heard a great many rumors about Witchers,” she says at last. “It seems we must reconsider their veracity.”

“There’s a temple in Ard Carraigh,” Aubry says after a moment’s thought. “Could ask them for the facts.”

“So we could,” the prioress agrees. “Indeed, I think I shall.”

*

Lambert paces the length of the temple’s main room, over and over, while Aubry and Cedric and Axel ask the various terrified priestesses questions, and Letho and Kolgrim stay half a step behind him. He knows they’re there in case he snaps, his temper finally giving out, and goes for the nearest warm body, but his control is - somehow - better than that. Maybe it’s just that Milena would be really fucking disappointed in him if he hurt someone who didn’t deserve it.

This is taking too fucking long. Milena is who-the-fuck-knows-where, and Buttercup and Eskel with her, and one of their captors is Princess fucking Agata - Lambert knew he should’ve just killed her when he caught her, he knew it and he didn’t and now she has Milena and Buttercup and Eskel and he’s going to - going to fucking scream or punch something or -

“Breathe,” Letho advises him. “They’ve got Eskel. He’d die before he let anyone hurt the bard or your swan, you know that.”

“Yeah, well, he got himself fucking stabbed, so forgive me if I’m not feeling all fucking optimistic,” Lambert snarls back.

Letho grunts. “Alright, that’s fair,” he allows. “Stabbed or no, though, you know he’s as dangerous as any of us.”

That’s...true enough, Lambert has to agree. Eskel is a Witcher: a little thing like being stabbed won’t put him down. And he’d die for Jaskier, and wouldn’t let anyone hurt Milena, either.

Though there’s a sorceress involved. Lambert distrusts mages on principle - well, Lambert distrusts most people on principle - but mages can do freaky shit that doesn’t obey any of the usual laws of nature, and if there’s anyone who could actually be a real threat to a Witcher, it’s a mage. He’s trying to take comfort in Yennefer’s assurance that while holding the concealment spell, this sorceress won’t be able to do much of anything else, but…

He wants to punch something. He wants to stab something, and if Agata or Marta or the fucking sorceress was within smell distance of him right now, he’d kill them without hesitation or qualm. But instead the hall is filling with scared, empty-handed women who had nothing to do with this fucking mess, and Lambert can’t even find any satisfaction in snarling at them, because they all genuinely think he and his fellow Witchers might -

Might fall on them like fucking beasts.

Fuck, he’s gotten too used to Kaer Morhen’s servants, who grin at the Witchers and give them cheerful sass and whack their knuckles with spoons when they try to sneak bites of the food that isn’t ready to serve yet, too used to the people of the Warlord’s lands, who greet Witchers with snatches of Buttercup’s songs and eager welcome. Too used to Buttercup’s lust-and-joy scent, to Milena’s honey-and-roses. The reeking fear from every girl here burns his nose; the way they shrink from him makes him even angrier, so he scowls worse and paces faster and clenches his fists harder and he knows he’s making it worse, knows he’s not helping reassure them that Witchers are anything but animals in human form, but he can’t seem to stop.

He needs to hit something.

“Right,” Letho rumbles, and puts a hand on his shoulder, steering him out of the temple. Lambert thinks about resisting, and doesn’t bother. “You smell like you’re about to fucking explode, Wolf.” He jerks his chin at the temple. “Won’t fight you - no point getting bruised up before battle. Go. Run laps.”

Lambert growls, because even though it’s a good suggestion, right now everything makes him twitchier. But he also takes off, sprinting for the first lap around the temple, running full-out until his lungs hurt. Letho and Kolgrim don’t bother trying to keep pace with him, just wait at the front of the temple, spread out so they can keep an eye on him at least three-quarters of the time. Lambert could slip away while he’s at the back of the temple, get a couple seconds’ head start...if he knew where he was going. Which he doesn’t. Which is the whole point of this godsdamned trip.

He’s on his eighteenth lap - possibly, he lost count somewhere around twelve - and has at least managed to settle from the full-out sprint to something more like the ground-eating lope which Witchers can keep up for days if need be, when Junod and his team come trotting up. Lambert doesn’t slam Junod against a wall and demand to know what he’s learned, which he thinks is fucking remarkable self-control, considering.

He does come skidding to a stop and snap, “Well?”, but that’s understandable, right?

Junod grimaces. “Marta was here. Left this morning. Had a couple of guards with her, and an acolyte.” He gives Lambert a long look, sighs, and says, “And you lot have already figured out it was that bitch Agata, haven’t you.”

“Yes,” Lambert snarls. “Where did she say she was going?”

“Home,” Junod says, and shrugs. “She used the viscount as a waystation, nothing more. They know fuck all.”

Lambert nods, and doesn’t bother to respond before he starts running again. It’s run or hit something, and Junod doesn’t deserve a fist to the face. Nobody here does.

As soon as he finds someone who does, though, oh, it is fucking on.

*

Aubry finishes questioning the last acolyte who thinks she maybe remembers something about Agata, and sighs, rubbing his forehead. Nothing, nothing, and fucking nothing. Agata apparently kept her head down, didn’t talk to much of anyone, and certainly didn’t make friends. She spent hours in the private rooms set aside for silent prayer, and could have done fucking anything in that time, because of course nobody kept an eye on her, because nobody knew who she was, because the temple in Vizima is apparently run by idiots.

He’s going to have to tell Eskel to send someone down to Ard Carraigh to talk to the priestesses there about spreading word among their sisters a little more efficiently.

...When they get Eskel back.

Aubry’s not as prone to outbursts as Lambert is, but he really rather wants to punch something right now. Preferably Agata or Marta, or the sorceress who has made all of this possible.

He thanks the prioress for her cooperation as politely as he can manage - which isn’t very, not when it’s nearly four in the morning and his friend - his charge, the man he was tasked with guarding, his dear-as-a-brother Jaskier - is still missing. Not to mention sweet little Milena and Eskel, who is the mortar who holds the Warlord’s army together.

The prioress gives him an oddly thoughtful look and beckons to several of the acolytes, who approach hesitantly, holding out baskets in trembling hands. “You’ve had a long night, and it sounds rather as though it will be longer yet,” she says softly. “Will you take this food, and our blessings, my lord?”

Aubry hesitates. People in the Warlord’s lands often give Witchers food, but this temple is full of people who not three hours ago were entirely sure he and his little force were about to sack the town and do unspeakable things to every one of them. Can he trust anything they give him?

Cedric and Axel move forward, sniffing at each basket. “Smells fine,” Cedric says at last. “No poisons.”

The prioress’s eyes go wide, as though she didn’t expect that to be a consideration, and then she bows her head a little. “I suppose you have little reason to trust any here,” she says sadly.

“We don’t trust easy,” Aubry says, but he nods to Cedric and Axel, and they start collecting the baskets. “Thank you for the food. We’ll leave you be, now.”

“We will send word at once, should Sister Agata return,” the prioress says. “Or should we recall anything of use. Melitele’s blessings go with you in your quest.”

“Thank you,” Aubry says, very awkwardly, and leads the way out of the temple, fumbling in his pocket for the xenovox. How is he going to tell the Wolf about this? Dead end after dead end, and Jaskier is still missing.

It’s not Yennefer who answers, but a smooth male voice - Istredd, Aubry realizes after a moment’s blank incomprehension. The portal that opens for them isn’t quite as elegant as Yennefer’s always are, but it does its job, and Aubry finds himself not in Oxenfurt but back in the great hall of Kaer Morhen, surrounded by unhappy Witchers. Geralt is leaning against the Wolf table, hands gripping the edge of it so tightly the knuckles are white; no one else is sitting, either, but instead everyone is standing around in little clusters. Most of the Cats are playing knife games, blades flickering in the lantern-light; the Bears are in the middle of a rumbling chant so low-pitched it’s more felt than heard; the Cranes are bickering about crossbows, which is what they always do when they need to distract themselves. Yennefer and Triss are leaning over a map spread over the Wolf table, Triss dangling some sort of crystal pendant over it, Yennefer muttering curses under her breath as the pendant evidently fails utterly to do whatever it’s supposed to be doing.

“What news?” Geralt growls.

It’s Lambert who snarls back, “Agata,” and every Witcher in the hall goes silent and deathly still.

What?” Geralt says.

“Agata was transferred to the Garins temple,” Aubry says. “She left with Marta, two days ago. They vanished this morning.”

Geralt’s face is terrifyingly blank, as smooth and still and unreadable as granite. “If my lark dies,” he says, softly, “I will sack Vizima and Tretogor both.”

“White Wolf,” Aubry murmurs, and every Witcher within earshot does the same. It’s not the full bellowed recognition with which they greet Geralt’s orders, but it’s enough.

“Vesemir,” Geralt says. “Take as many as you need; go to Vizima and find out if Henselt of Temeria knows aught of this. Ivar, the same to Tretogor.”

Vesemir and Ivar nod, beckon half a dozen Witchers each, and head towards Yennefer and Istredd. Geralt closes his eyes for a moment. “Aubry. Your report.”

Aubry lays everything they’ve learned out in a few sentences; it doesn’t boil down to much at all, unfortunately, besides the news that Marta de Roggeven and Agata of Temeria are working together, and the de Roggevens know nothing of it. Jaskier and Eskel and Milena aren’t in Oxenfurt, or Roggeven, or Garins. That leaves a lot of area left to cover.

“Marika said the fucking de Roggevens have a house near Novigrad and another in the forest,” Lambert puts in. “Worth checking?”

“Worth checking,” Geralt agrees. “Aubry, to Novigrad; take half a dozen with you. Gweld, take a dozen, start looking for the Roggeven hunting lodge.” Aubry nods, summons Cedric and Axel and Letho and Kolgrim and Junod and Ivo with a gesture, and heads for the mages. It shouldn’t be too hard to find someone in Novigrad who can point them at the de Roggeven summer estate - the mayor will know, surely.

He probably won’t appreciate being rousted out of bed before dawn, but Aubry frankly doesn’t fucking care.

*

Henself of Temeria knows nothing. Vizimir of Redania knows nothing. The de Roggeven summer house in Novigrad is empty. Gweld and his hunters have only barely started to explore the damned forest. Lambert is going fucking mad.

Geralt doesn’t look - or smell - a lot better than Lambert is feeling, which on the one hand makes Lambert feel a little better and on the other hand makes everything worse. Yennefer hasn’t been able to break the shields yet, so the tracking charms Milena and Buttercup were wearing are fucking useless. “South of the river” between Roggeven and Garins is such a broad description that even if half the army had gone pouring through a portal into the Redanian forest, the chances of them finding the right hunting lodge in any sort of useful time period are fucking tiny, and that’s assuming it’s even the right place to look.

Agata is fucking batshit. She’s already stabbed Eskel, and under almost any other circumstances that alone would be enough to push Lambert into a half-feral rage, because of all his brothers, Eskel may well be his favorite. Something about his steady kindness, his solid sensible air of having everything under control, makes even the most baffling situation seem less horrid. So the fact that Lambert knows he’s hurt -

And then of course Agata has Buttercup, and she’s already stabbed Jaskier once and nearly killed him that time, and he’s not a Witcher, he can’t survive the sorts of injuries Eskel can and has and doubtless will again, and Buttercup is fucking priceless, golden-hearted silver-tongued bard who’s done more to make the Witchers of Kaer Morhen think of themselves as something better than monsters than anyone else in the fucking godsdamned world, Lambert’s dear friend - and he doesn’t have that many friends -

And Milena. Fuck, he has no idea what they drugged her with, no idea if she’s hurt - he would burn down the fucking world to keep her safe, and she was taken right in front of him and he can’t protect her and she’s - she could be hurt, she could be fucking dead and he wouldn’t know -

“Lambert,” Geralt says, and Lambert whirls from his pacing to find Geralt half a step away. The White Wolf loops a hand around the back of Lambert’s neck and draws him in, resting their foreheads together. Geralt smells of worry and anger, thick and unpleasant; the whole hall smells of the impotent rage of hundreds of Witchers. “We will find them,” Geralt says.

“What if -” Lambert croaks, and can’t finish the sentence. Can’t bear to have the words out in the air, in case speaking them makes them real.

Geralt doesn’t say anything reassuring, because both of them know, as only Witchers can, how swift and sure and terrible death can be. How easy it is for a human heart to cease to beat.

All he says, softly, is, “Breathe, little brother.”

Lambert matches his breathing to Geralt’s, deep inhales and long slow exhales, and it does help a little, at least - gets his heartrate down to something a little more normal for a Witcher, quiets his racing mind just a touch.

“What do we do?” he whispers at last, so low only Geralt will hear it.

Geralt closes his eyes, and Lambert can smell his bitter unhappiness, sour resignation heavy on his tongue. “We wait,” he says. “It’s down to Yen now.”

“Fuck,” Lambert says, quiet and fervent. Geralt hums agreement.

Lambert’s not sure how long they stand there, taking what comfort they can in each other’s presence, when from the little knot of mages up near the throne - Yennefer and Triss and Istredd and Seraphina all with their heads together doing who-the-fuck-knows-what - comes a brief triumphant shout followed by a loud Fuck!

Lambert and Geralt both whirl. Yennefer straightens from the huddle, looking drawn and weary and as angry as Lambert’s ever seen her.

“The good news,” she says crisply into the silence of several hundred Witchers holding their breaths, “is that we’ve managed to figure out that they’re all alive. The only one injured is Eskel, and Triss thinks he’s already starting to heal.”

Lambert’s knees go a little wobbly, and beside him, Geralt’s shoulders sag, tension draining from him like water from a broken pot. So it’s Lambert who rasps, “What’s the bad news?”

“We still can’t fucking locate them,” Yennefer says bitterly. “Whoever is holding this shield is very, very good, and we’re trying to search two countries.”

“Explain?” Geralt says, frowning. Lambert’s pretty damn curious too. How the hell do they know the kidnappees are alive if they can’t find them?

Triss grimaces, clearly trying to find the right words. “Imagine you’re in a pitch-dark cave system without any Cat potions,” she says at last. “You can hear something breathing, maybe even smell it, but you can’t tell which direction it’s coming from; there’s too many branching tunnels. You know it’s there, but finding it is going to be a matter of groping about in the dark until you run smack into the damned thing.”

Huh. That actually makes a certain amount of sense.

“Thank you,” Geralt says quietly. “Please keep trying. Tell us if anything changes.”

“We will,” Yennefer says grimly. “And when we find them, I am going to burn this mage to ash for daring this.”

She turns back to the huddle of mages as a handful of servants hurry over, holding pitchers of water and trays of bread and cheese and dried meats. Other servants are spreading out through the hall, urging the Witchers to eat and drink, and Lambert finds Jan himself standing beside him, holding out a tray with two mugs of strong ale and two plates of Julita’s best herbed bread smeared with goat cheese and honey.

“Eat, my lords,” Jan says gently. “You’ll do your loves no good if you faint from hunger.”

“Witchers don’t fucking faint,” Lambert grumbles, but he takes a plate and a mug nonetheless, because not eating won’t help anything. It is good.

“Meditation,” Geralt says once they’ve cleaned the plates and drained the mugs. “Training would go...badly.”

Lambert imagines trying to train while this agitated, and nods. He’d end up breaking something - either himself or someone else. Not that meditation is going to be fucking easy to do right now, but better than pacing and jittering for...fuck only knows how long.

“Meditation,” he agrees grimly, and finds a spot on the steps of the dais, out of the way but close enough to the mages that he can be ready to move in an instant, and forces himself to slow his breathing and sink into the quiet timelessness of meditation. He’s meditated with broken bones, with burns, with unhealed wounds still oozing blood, and it has never before been quite so hard to do as it is now.

But he closes his eyes and thinks of the rose-and-honey of Milena’s scent, imagines it so vividly that he almost thinks he can smell her as he sinks deep into well-trained calm.

*

Aubry doesn’t meditate. Lambert and Geralt are seated side by side on the dais steps, breathing in perfect unison; most of the other Witchers have been chased out onto the practice grounds by Vesemir and the School Heads, to work off their jitters. Aubry sincerely hopes the School Heads are smart enough to ban live steel for the day, because otherwise there’s going to be bloodshed - and not just the broken noses and mild contusions of an ordinary day. But with only Lambert and Geralt and the mages left in the great hall, someone needs to be on watch, and Aubry takes that role happily. It’s something to do: he keeps half his attention on the mages, so he can tell the servants when to bring more food and water or anything else they might need, and half his attention on Lambert and Geralt, in case one of them comes out of meditation unexpectedly and violently (which is known to happen, on occasion, when a Witcher is under severe stress).

He should probably either meditate or sleep at some point, but a Witcher can go a long time without either, and at least this way he feels like he’s doing something, even if it’s only keeping watch.

His brother is missing, because Aubry did not guard him well enough - was not close enough, was not watchful enough. The thought leaves a horrid, bitter taste in his mouth, but he cannot deny it: had he been nearer, been warier, been better, this disaster might not have occurred.

The least he can do now is make sure nothing else goes wrong.

The mages break their huddle again near noon, for more food and water, and Triss says, quietly, “They’re still alive, and unharmed save for Eskel.”

Aubry nods, relieved beyond measure. Triss gives him a weary, unhappy smile and turns back to whatever they’re doing - it appears to involve a map and a great deal of concentration, and that’s all Aubry can say about it.

It’s almost two hours past noon when Yennefer suddenly goes utterly still, not even breathing for a long moment, and then her hand snaps out and the nail of her forefinger tears a hole in the map. “There,” she says. “The shield’s down, I’ve got them. Geralt! Lambert! Move!

Aubry takes off for the training grounds at a sprint, bellowing a wordless call to arms, as Geralt and Lambert rouse from their meditation.

The Witchers of Kaer Morhen rally to Aubry’s shout in a gratifyingly short time; it takes maybe three minutes before he’s pounding back into the keep with the entire army at his back. Most take up stations around the hall, waiting to see if they’ll be needed; the ten who came to Garins with them form up behind Geralt and Lambert and Aubry, all of them with bared swords in their hands and low growls reverberating in their chests, and another dozen or so behind them.

Yennefer and Istredd have to work together to build the portal, but as it opens, Aubry can see Jaskier, unharmed, with a fireplace poker in his hand; Eskel, a rough bandage wrapped around his middle, standing over a weeping noblewoman; and Milena, apparently unarmed, watching the weeping woman with sorrow in her eyes.

Then Geralt is pounding through the portal, and Aubry follows him, every sense alight for danger.

There isn’t any. Jaskier and Milena and Eskel have quite effectively defeated their kidnappers, and Aubry is so proud of his little brother that he thinks he might actually burst.

He takes the unconscious sorceress and the weeping noblewoman back through the portal and turns them over to Vesemir to put somewhere safe, and stations himself next to Yennefer, waiting patiently for Jaskier to step through.

He could wait forever, now that he can actually see that Jaskier is well.

*

Lambert holds Milena close, bathing himself in her scent, in the sound of her heartbeat, in the glorious feeling of her safe and hale and here, in his arms where she belongs. She’s sobbing quietly against his throat, and he fully intends to kill whatever made her sad, but not just now.

“Take me home, please,” Milena whispers. Lambert has one terrible moment of wondering if she means Roggeven, if this has been enough to make her regret throwing her lot in with the Witchers, with him, and then she adds, “Take me back to Kaer Morhen.” The relief is nearly blinding. Lambert picks her up and carries her through the portal, across the great hall and up the stairs and down through half a dozen corridors to their rooms, and sits down in the big squashy chair in front of the fire with her cradled in his lap. She curls against him, tucking her head into the crook of his neck, and just clings.

Lambert doesn’t know what the fuck to do. Milena’s the one who knows how to deal with emotions, how to handle the strange feelings that often seem too strong to bear. But he’ll never fail her again, not if he can help it, so he strokes her hair and tries to murmur something soothing, as he’s seen Geralt do for the cub on the rare occasions she needs comforting. Lambert’s version of ‘soothing’ might be a little heavier on the promises of bloody vengeance than Geralt’s is, but fuck it, it’s what he’s got to work with. It seems to work; her sobbing fades, slowly, until she’s just sniffling a little. Lambert can smell blood, faintly, though not Milena’s - Eskel’s, and someone else’s, but not hers, thank fuck - and sorrow, and fear, but all of those are fading into familiar rose-and-honey.

“I have you,” he whispers. “I’ve got you, Milena, you’re safe.”

“Yes,” Milena says, and raises her face from the crook of his neck. Her cheeks are tear-stained and her eyes are red and she’s so lovely it makes Lambert’s fucking heart ache. “Yes, I am.”

So he kisses her, because what else is he supposed to do?

She melts into the kiss, making a soft sweet noise that he could listen to for the rest of time, and finally, finally he can truly believe that she’s here, she’s safe, she’s back in his arms at last.