Geralt hears from a traveler that there may be work for a Witcher in a small village to the north, a few day's ride from where they are now; the man hadn't been too terribly drunk, and seemed somber enough, and Geralt had spent the last of his coin on the room he had rented from this place, so he set out.
When he arrived, the village was immersed in an odd kind of atmosphere; fear, pulsing somewhere deep, but overlaid with the usual aromas of people preparing for their annual spring festivities. Flowers and food spread out in a riotous banquet of smells, but many of the adults appeared grim faced and worried.
The moment he was spotted, a cry went out, and an older man, burly from a life of hard work, hurried over to him. A woman rushed to his side, visibly harried but not winded, and asked Geralt, "Will you help us, Witcher?"
"If you have coin, you have my service." Geralt dismounted, and humans always seemed so surprised at the size of him, as if they were certain he would be smaller when he got off Roach, but there were no new scents of fear, and he hoped that this would end with him tired, but well fed, and most importantly: well paid.
They did feed him while they explained why the place felt so unsettled, and children peered at him behind their mother's skirts, the bolder few creeping close enough to dart forward and jab a pointy finger into his ribs, a test of realness.
Something had been scattering bones along the edges of the forest that bordered their home. Something had been coming in the night, scaring the piss out of what few drunks they had, scratching at windows and knocking at doors. A few animals had gone missing, but were either recovered the next day, or had their bones added to the pile they were too wary of to get near.
It had been going on since more or less the beginning of the new season, spring awakening plants and animals and whatever beastie was half haunting them. A single man had been found dead, neck broken, but it was agreed that it could just have easily been that the fool had done it to himself, with a nasty habit of drinking too much and climbing trees.
Geralt goes into the woods. He finds all the things one usually finds in the woods, animals tracks, bird's nests. Leaves. But nothing out of sort. There is a scent, however, old, crinkling across his senses like his boots over the forest floor. He knows he's being watched. Whatever it was had left offerings to the villagers, bones and plants. It wasn't malicious when it explored the place at night, nothing broken, barely left a scratch.
Something old. Something that blended so seamlessly into the place it lived that he couldn't properly track it. Intelligence enough to know it needed to barter for what it wanted. A new smell, drifting on the wind.
A wolf, not thirty feet from him, watching him with placid grey eyes. It had a bouquet in its massive jaws, and it tossed it to him.
It was one of the bundles made for any newly married girls to carry around. She would give all of the flowers away until she had one left, and that she would give to her new husband.
Geralt kept his heart steady, even as crows gathered in the branches of the trees around him. There was a Leshen, here, and it wanted a bride.
He told them, as gently as he could, what the beast was and what it wanted, and the knowledge set a few of the women to howling, in rage or grief or pain. He knew that the elders would feel obliged to pick a girl, or at least ask for volunteers. No matter what, a life would end. Leshens were powerful, dangerous, magical creatures. It could make life miserable for these people if it felt so inclined. If they denied it.
He sat away from the argument, drinking an ale pressed into his hands by a possible bride candidate, gazing at the children running around in little packs, unaware that grief lurked in the future. He thought of his own life, of walking the Path until it killed him. Thought of the blushes maidens skirting around their flustered almost grooms.
"I'll go," he said. "I'll do it."
The sudden absence of sound was jarring. Everyone stared at him, and Geralt, for once, didn't need to pretend to be calm in the face of so much attention. "It just wants company. Probably doesn't care what they look like, or anything else a human would care about. Just- Give me the rest of the day to send a few letters, to prepare."
A girl who didn’t even come up to his chin put her hands on his chest when he went to walk off. "Send your letters, dear Witcher," she said, in a voice choked with gratitude. A potential volunteer, he thought. "But we'll make our own preparations. You can't get married in those awful clothes."
He wrote to Vesemir, to his brothers. One of them would come for Roach, for his swords and potions. For his body, if necessary. He wrote to Jaskier, who would come for the story if nothing else. He wrote to Yennefer, who wouldn't come at all, but would curse his name. And at last, a letter to Ciri, who he loved more than anyone, who he regretted leaving behind the most.
He'd just finished sealing them up as a brisk knock rang on the door. Geralt blinked when the door opened, several men hauling a tub and steaming buckets of water, girls stepping around them, high skirts twirling. The woman he'd met first led the whole lot, and she prodded him up as she shooed the giggling young women back out. "We've brought you everything you need for a bath, and clothes to wear that aren't so foul. When you're done washing and dressing come downstairs. We'll be doing your hair proper, dear Witcher. And make sure you use the scented oil, it's made special for brides, here."
Geralt had never understood why everyone hated his clothes so much, but he sank into the bath with a groan, and made sure he was as clean as he had ever been, hair washed, oil used as sparingly as he dared. He smelled like fresh green things when he stepped into the tavern proper, white shirt loose, vest undone, feet bare.
An army of women of all ages descended upon him, setting his borrowed outfit to rights, combing and braiding his hair, dabbing verdant green ink onto his nails. They put sweet smelling things on his face, as well, twisting a crown of flowers into his white hair, and when presented with a small mirror he couldn't have been anything other than shocked.
He would never look like a normal man, but these women had made certain he looked like a spring festival bride. He locked eyes with the girl he was sure he was taking the place of, and she smiled through a mist of tears. "The festival is half for you, now, dear Witcher. Join us. Dance with us, drink and have a meal before you-"
"Geralt," he interrupted her before she could go on, wary of any tears. "Geralt of Rivia. I'll join you, but not for long. The sooner this is over the better."
" Dear Geralt." She took his hand, gently led him to a party in full swing. "Thank you."
Geralt crept slowly around, wishing he’d managed to sneak away sooner. It had felt so good, to be passed around the dance floor, more flowers finding their way into his hair, around his neck, he’d even been kissed, once or twice, by the bravest of the lot. He never would have imagined something like this, and it was a better way to be sent off than any other he could think of.
The sun hadn’t set quite yet, light filtering in weakly through the branches, the occasional crow casting a shadow overhead. He must have been getting close. Three wolves had begun to keep pace with him, nearly as soundless as he.
The leaves and grass on the forest floor felt cool under his feet, and soon he was dirty up to his ankles. He was aware of what he might be walking into, weaponless, armorless, but there was no fear; he kept the best of his memories in the front of his mind, let himself feel his love in the place where he was sure to die.
He stumbled upon a meadow, and the light was much brighter here, golden beams fat, dust motes twinkling, white flowers looking like they were floating atop the deeply green grass. It would have been romantic, if not for the Leshen resting right in the middle.
It creaked when it moved, sounding like a tree moving in the wind, and the skull it wore gleamed dully in the light. It was such an old thing, he could feel it, the age and the power, and as it reached for him he closed his eyes.
A hand almost the size of his torso gently picked him up, and brought him closer, and he was sat down in it’s lap like a child. Curious talons combed through his hair, avoiding tearing a single bloom from his crown, and he opened his eyes, curious himself.
More animals had gathered around in the few moments he’d shut out the light, each with a ring of flowers or leaves around their heads or necks. He looked up to the Leshen, up into hollow eyes, noticed the ruff of living leaves around its neck, let the thing put it’s face next to his and feel the emotions it pushed to him.
It was old, he’d been right about that, and it was lonely, and it had watched the people of the village celebrate the passing seasons, watched them wed each other and live together and it wanted a companion of its own, who would stay with it, and care for it, let themselves be cared for by it.
Geralt wasn’t a proper bride, but he was lonely, and old, and something swelled deep in his gut; his hand was raised before he could even think, fingers sliding over ancient bone, and he whispered, "I'll stay with you."