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It's a Wonderful Life (on the Path)

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A Restless Night

Deep in the heart of the forest, the night was black as pitch. 

There, in that wild place, a quiet peace abounded.  

Indeed, what little could be heard were the sounds of the animals; those nocturnal enough to be active despite the darkness. 

Leaves rustled with the movement of small critters scrambling through the undergrowth. 

Sticks cracked, as larger ruminants such as the wandering herds of deer which made their homes in the forest, picked their way along the game trails that led between their various preferred pasturages. 

Off in the distance, an owl let out a hoot; no doubt passing along a message to its kin further out.

All was calm.

All, that was, except for the Witcher who lay in the clearing, desperately attempting to some sleep.

The White Wolf, Geralt of Rivia, rolled over in his bedroll, letting out a low huff. Despite the warm spring weather and calm night around his camp; once again he had found it impossible to rest.

That had been the case since the Path had led to the forest outside the little village of Blaviken some weeks previous. Instead, Geralt had found his mind troubled with that most burdensome of griefs; the one commonly known as regret.

For the travesty that had earned him the hated moniker of “the Butcher of Blaviken” was, perhaps, the one thing which he most regretted in all his long life.

Renfri the Shrike had deserved better than the fate which she had received; a lifetime of misery culminating in an ignoble death, a mercy killing at his unfortunate hands. But that was her fate, all the same.

And now, it seemed that his fate was to be tormented. To bear the consequences of regretted choice.

Geralt let out another huff. 

Then, giving up on any possibility of sleep that night, he sat upright. Casting aside the blanket which had covered him during his attempt at a nap, he instead shifted backward until he found a relatively comfortable position, leaning against a tree.

His tawny eyes gleamed heavily in the darkness as he settled in. 

If he was going to be awake, he might as well put himself into a position to keep watch. Perhaps, he hoped without expectation of success, the activities of the creatures around him would be enough to distract him from his thoughts. 

If not, then at least he would be somewhat entertained. 

Pulling the coarse wool back over his legs, Geralt allowed himself to still. 

At first, an absolute silence reigned, but then, ever so slowly, the creatures of the forest resumed their nighttime routines. It seemed that they were unaware, or at least uncaring of the predator that sat within their midst. 

The Witcher who silently watched and rested… and longed so desperately for peace.

 

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A Bard’s Rage

“You cocksucking son of a syphilitic dog. May your bollocks fall off and may you drown in a pile of your own waste!”

As he was dragged down the steps of the Countess de Stael’s manor by a pair of overly-muscled men-at-arms, the esteemed Viscount Julian de Lettenhove – a man better known as the Bard Jaskier – screamed curses backward.

The target of his ire was the man who lurked in the shadowed doorway behind him, watching Jaskier’s removal from the manor with a proud smirk.

“Don’t waste your breath, Dandelion,” he said. “You’re just making a scene.”

As he spoke, the lurker, a loathsome toad named Valdo Marx, strode forward.  Stepping between the guardsmen who still gripped the screaming bard, he casually dropped the load that he carried down before the brunette’s booted feet.

Despite the fact that it was secured at the top of the bundle, and thus cushioned, the elven lute that was Jaskier’s most prized possession moaned at the impact. 

Jaskier gasped.

Then, he lurched forward, elbowing the men who still held him loosely in their grasp. Sweeping up his most precious instrument in his arms, he ran a careful hand over its surface.

“Monster,” he snarled. “You don’t deserve the title of bard, you sycophantic twit. Treating such a beautiful treasure as if it were nothing more precious than a bag of rocks.”

Marx scoffed.

“That Eldar piece of junk is no treasure. It’s a waste of space, just like its owner. Elves and Witchers, pah, you’re a traitor to your race, Dandelion.”

“Stop calling me that,” Jaskier snarled.

“What, Dandelion?” Marx replied. “But it fits you so well. You are just a bit of fluff; a weed that has no purpose and ought to blow away with the wind. Just like your precious ‘White Wolf’.”

Jaskier lunged forward, intent on attacking his target.

But, in his anger, he had forgotten the armsmen that had dragged him out and were now bracketing his hated rival.

As he moved so did they, stepping between the pair of feuding bards and thus preventing a physical confrontation.

“The Countess has told you to leave, bard,” one said, his hand on the pommel of his sword. “You’d best be on your way now.”

Recognizing that, in this case, a strategic withdrawal was all that he had left, Jaskier let out a frustrated breath. Then, reaching down, he collected his unexpectedly heavy pack from where it had been dropped so unceremoniously. 

For a moment, he was surprised that the other bard had neglected to comment about its weight. But then he remembered. Marx had never spent time on the road, not on his own anyway. No, that sycophant always traveled in luxury, cared for by the nobility which he made a practice of wooing. 

Unlike Jaskier. 

So, after shooting one final glare at the still smirking Valdo Marx, he slung the pack over his shoulder. Then he added to it, the strap that supported his beloved lute.

With feigned nonchalance, he began to walk away from the manor. As he did so, he reached back with one hand to bring the bridge of his lute up into a playing position. Then, with the other hand, he strummed a simple chord.

From the strangled yelp behind him, Jaskier knew that Marx recognized the start of the tune.

“It was the opening day of the festival…” he sang out, taking full advantage of the powerful projection capabilities that he had trained his lungs to provide. “…and the people had gathered around.”

“Shut. Up. Pankratz!”

Marx shrieked, but Jaskier ignored him. 

If he was going to surrender the playing field to that slimy weasel, he refused to do so without sending out one final volley.

The ballad which he had just begun to sing had originally been penned back at Oxenfurt when Valdo Marx had been nothing more than one of Jaskier’s academic rivals. 

It had been inspired by an event that had occurred during that year’s annual Harvest Festival. During the feast that closed out the festival, an arrogant Marx had gotten stumbling drunk on the year’s celebrated autumnal ale. Once he had done so, the pompous git had then proceeded to make a complete idiot of himself in front of everyone in attendance at the feast. That included the faculty, students, and even a bevy of visiting nobles there to enjoy the festivities.

Jaskier and his friends had, of course, found the whole affair absolutely hilarious. Seeing the man who was usually so controlled and uptight stumbling about, making slurred but inappropriate comments, and propositioning every woman who he encountered, regardless of their age, appearance, or status, had made their collective night. 

And being that they were bardic students, the group proceeded to take full advantage of Marx’s misstep. Working together, they turned the farcical actions of their hated colleague into a catchy ballad, which grew to become a popular drinking ditty amongst the entire city of Oxenfurt. From there, it spread far and wide. Now, it could often be heard in the inns and tap houses of Redania and beyond, its popularity helped along by Jaskier and the other traveling Bards as they made their way throughout the land.

The song had remained one of Jaskier’s favorites to this day, and not just because it mocked his rival. It was a catchy tune, fun to sing, and the perfect weapon to infuriate the bastard.

And so it was that with a grin on his face and a song on his lips, the Bard Jaskier strutted away from the Countess de Stael’s manor. 

From somewhere behind him he could hear Marx yelling, but the sound of the lute and Jaskier’s own voice drowned the man out.

At that moment, it made his loss to Marx just a bit more palatable.

Regardless of the circumstances of his departure, Julian Alfred Pankratz had once again managed to claim the last word.

 

It wasn’t until he made it far enough down the road that he was certain to be out of both view and ear-shot that he let the confidence in his voice and stride fade away.

“Damn that Valdo Marx,” he said, as he finally allowed himself to weep, “damn him to oblivion and beyond.”

Having endured a particularly exhausting stretch of time out on the road, Jaskier had been looking forward to a break. The Countess was fond of his music, along with certain of the bard’s other attributes, and was happy to have him dancing attendance around her. As such, Jaskier had just settled in for a long stay with his favorite patroness when HE had shown up.  

Valdo Marx’s arrival as a companion of the widowed Countess’ latest suitor had come as an unpleasant surprise. At first, he hadn’t been too worried. Jaskier could put up with a little bit of competition. It wasn’t like Marx could hold a candle to him, especially not musically.

But, of course, Marx knew that fact. So, instead of trying to compete with the other Bard, he turned to more underhanded schemes to eliminate his competition.

His strategy was to prey on the other bard’s weakness. 

Marx took advantage of Jaskier’s well-advertised fondness for Witchers and especially the White Wolf of Kaer Morhen, the infamous Butcher of Blaviken, Geralt of Rivia.

 “…and that flaming arsehole knew exactly what to say, too,” Jaskier cursed, remembering the other man’s jibe, “implying that respecting Witchers for their sacrifice was the same thing as being an Elven Sympathizer. Not exactly something that any of the local nobility can risk now is it, not even the Countess. She had no choice but to ‘kick me out’, for her own protection. Even for a carefree bard like myself; openly empathizing with the Eldar is a risky proposition.”

“Damn him,” he said, again, for emphasis, before seating himself on a fallen log that stood beside the road.

As he did so, Jaskier felt the weight of his pack shift as its base settled against the rough wooden surface. It reminded him of something curious. Just what had the Countess’ people managed to provide him?

“Now, let’s see what’s in here,” he murmured as he set his lute off to one side before swinging the heavy pack around to rest upon his lap.

Given the abruptness of his departure, Jaskier had not been able to collect his own belongings like he normally would before heading out on the road. 

It was the reason for his current outfit, all light colors and delicate fabrics. The colors and detail work looked quite fine when held against his pale complexion, brunette locks, and, if Jaskier did say so himself, his rather stunning blue eyes, but they were already beginning to look bedraggled in the dust and wind of the road.

“Trousers, chemise, doublet… another chemise, bedroll, half-filled notebook, thank goodness for that, a decent amount of travel rations, and… oh sweet Melitele’s tits!”

Tucked into the base of the pack lurked an astonishingly heavy pouch filled with coins. It was a startling amount for even a wealthy noble to offer a bard, let alone one who had been forced to depart early. 

“Countess! I knew that you didn’t want me to go!” Jaskier cried with glee.

The unexpected bounty made Jaskier feel a bit better about his unceremonious departure. 

Of course, it did nothing to ease his fury at Valdo Marx and the political reality that made his ploy so successful.

“Sometimes I almost wish that I could fight like a Witcher, if only so that I could defend Geralt and all the rest of them!” 

 

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Rumors

The dark and smoky atmosphere of the local tavern suited Geralt’s mood as he sat staring into a heavy tankard full of ale.

After yet another sleepless night, followed by a morning on the road, he had reached the town of Rinde around midday. 

Desperate as he was for something to distract him from his thoughts, he had immediately gone searching for news of something, anything, to Hunt.

But Fate, it seemed, was not on his side.

The town’s notice board was empty, the local Alderman had nothing to offer, and the market square, though filled with people, also failed to yield results.

Not only were there no rumors of a lurking monster, but there were no fights to be found. 

None of the local villagers were bold enough to attack the wandering warrior. Instead, all that Geralt received in response to his queries were glares and side-long looks. While they were the customary responses to a Witcher in these lands, a reality that Geralt normally appreciated, at that moment he wished for something more. A street brawl with some would-be bravo sounded wonderful. But no such luck. 

So, with his hopes for a distraction dashed once more, Geralt had stepped into the tavern at the market’s edge already in a foul mood.

At least, he thought as he claimed a seat in the corner, the lack of threats means that I can fill my belly with something hot.

 

Geralt was just finishing his meal, a bowl of hearty soup, served with a small loaf of fresh bread, when his exhausted brooding was finally interrupted by a welcome distraction.

“It’s true,” a man exclaimed from his seat at a nearby table, “I heard the story straight from the source.”

“Nonsense,” his companion scoffed. “There’s no way that a djinn’s bottle could have been abandoned in the Pontar; not this far from the coast. There’s nothing that has happened recently that would indicate that sort of artifact, and besides, if it were true the Witch would have found it ages ago.”

“But… the tinker…” the other man protested.

“A tinker, you say? Well, that explains it. You know what their kind is like, always trying to stir up trouble. Almost as bad as one of the Elves, they are.”

“I suppose…” The original speaker acquiesced.

“Now then, what is the real news, how are things in the Capitol?”

As the two men beside him continued their conversation, Geralt’s mind began to whirl.

Could it be?

A djinn?

When he was still a trainee Witcher, Vesemir had warned Geralt and the others in his cohort of the dangers that came when one tried to negotiate with a djinn. How they were often found imprisoned within the depths of an enchanted bottle. How they offered wishes in exchange for their freedom from their prisons. And, how they would take even the most innocent of wish and turn it against the wisher. 

But despite his warnings, the old instructor did not deny the incredible strengths of a djinn’s power. Their powers were one of the few things that, Vesemir warned, could affect a Witcher in the same way as they did anyone else. And, in all honesty, by this point, Geralt was growing desperate. 

He wouldn’t survive for much longer, not without a generous helping of sleep.

Taking a final, large swallow, he finished off the bitter ale that he had been nursing. 

Then, he pushed back from the table with a grunt. 

He ignored the barkeep’s frown and the startled glances of the other customers as they caught a glimpse of his weapons, studded armor, and the reflective shine of his topaz eyes. Instead, he simply strode out of the darkened space and back out into the sunlight. The transition into brightness burned his eyes, doubly sensitive as they were between his Witcher’s sensitivity and lack of sleep. 

Nevertheless, Geralt hid his discomfort with the ease that came from decades of experience. Instead, he made his way efficiently through the town. After purchasing a simple rope net from a local merchant and reclaiming his horse from a shaking stableboy, he swung himself onto her back and headed for the rough-hewn gate that marked the main road into and out of Rinde. 

Since it was the middle of the day, the way was quiet as Geralt headed down the road, heading towards the spot where the road curved to follow the river Pontar. As he approached the riverbank, he could feel the wolf medallion around his neck begin to warm.

That feeling indicated that something with power lingered nearby. It fed Geralt’s hope that the rumors were true. If he could manage to free a djinn, then perhaps his misery would finally ease. If not, at least it would be a change. 

 

Geralt followed the pull of the medallion a league down the road, to where a small tributary jutted away from the main flow of the Pontar River. Once there, he climbed off the back of his horse, an experienced chestnut mare that the Witcher called Roach. Locating a promising site nearby, he used a fallen log to tie off the mare’s lead reins, leaving her with plenty of slack to graze in the heavy grass. 

From there Geralt set aside his weapons and armor, piling them beside the saddlebags that he had unloaded from the horse’s back. 

After fetching his recently purchased net from the pile, Geralt rolled up his sleeves, set aside his boots, and made his way into the reeds that lined the water’s edge. 

Tossing the net into the water, he began to fish.

 

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Wish Granted

Despite the unfortunate circumstances which had led to his early departure from the Countess de Stael's manor, Jaskier found himself in an unexpectedly good mood. It was a fine spring afternoon. The sun was shining. A light breeze blew. A cloudburst had recently dropped just enough water to keep down the dust of the road. 

So, instead of trudging along in misery, the Bard Jaskier found himself strolling happily through the quiet Redanian countryside. As he walked, he took the opportunity to practice with his lute, cheerfully drafting his latest masterpiece.

He was just getting to the part where the arrogant buffoon gets his comeuppance when he was distracted by the faint sounds of repeated splashing. There was someone nearby, someone who was doing something in the water.

His curiosity peaked; the bard simply could not help himself. Without a thought of the potential for risk, he cheerfully stepped off the road, following the sounds.

Before long, he spotted a familiar sight, one which made him smile in delight.

A chestnut mare, contentedly grazing on fresh grass that grew in the open meadow.

Roach. 

And Jaskier knew what that meant. His White Wolf loved that animal. So, if Roach was grazing here, then her master must be lurking somewhere nearby. 

When he spotted Geralt's armor and weapons, stacked against the log to which the mare was secured, Jaskier was even more thrilled. If Geralt had set aside those things, then he wasn't amid a Hunt. Instead, he was simply on the road, taking a break between jobs. 

Geralt could be out collecting herbs for his potions, hunting food for his table, fetching firewood, or perhaps... and here Jaskier's grin practically split his face at the thought, perhaps he was even bathing in the stream!

After taking off his own pack and dropping it down beside Geralt's saddlebags, Jaskier lifted the strap of his instrument up and off his neck. Then, he carefully tucked his precious lute into the safest possible location; shielded on all sides from an accidental collision that might damage it. 

Once that important job was done, Jaskier prepared himself for his upcoming encounter with Geralt. Acting with thoughtful deliberation, he unlaced his doublet, leaving the ivory lace of his chemise and the pale column of his throat exposed to the environment.

Of course, he knew after two decades following Geralt that there was a slim chance that the Witcher would understand his intent, but still, he thought, a Bard could dream.

 

Sadly for Jaskier’s libido, when the pale locks of the Witcher came into view, they did not top a bathing man. 

Instead, it appeared that the Witcher was... fishing?

Huh. That is unexpected. What would drive the man to such an unusual act? Jaskier wondered. But then he dismissed the thought. No matter, he decided. 

Stepping into a beam of sunlight, Jaskier struck up a provocative pose.

 "Fancy running into you here, Geralt," he said cheerfully as he puffed out his chest and cocked his hips off to the side.

But the other man's only response was a grunt.

Instead of speaking, the Witcher cast out the net that he held once more. 

It hit the water with a splash, further wetting the already drenched black tunic that hung unlaced from the man's muscular frame.

Almost involuntarily, Jaskier licked his lips at the scrumptious sight.

Then he tried again.

 "What in Melitele's name are you hoping to catch in this little stream?"

 "Djinn."

 "I'm sorry, I must have misheard, but did you just say that you were fishing for a djinn! Why in all of the gods’ names would you...?"

After all, even a humble Bard like Jaskier was aware of the hazards that came with an encounter with a djinn. Surely an experienced Witcher like Geralt would know better?

But then Jaskier took a closer look at his friend. 

Though he lacked the advantage of a Witcher's keen senses, even his merely human eyes could read the exhaustion that played across the other man's face, the deep-set bags under his eyes. And for someone with a Witcher's stamina to look that way, well, it took some doing. 

Jaskier had only seen Geralt with his energy drained to that level once before.

On that particularly memorable occasion, Geralt had just taken on an entire pack of alghouls, a lesser vampire, and a wraith; and then been forced to travel for some hours before managing to reach the inn where Jaskier had been staying, playing the entertainer. 

When the Witcher had arrived at the inn, the exhausted man had stumbled inside and flat out begged the innkeeper for a bath and a room. Fortunately, that woman was not one of those who refused to serve a ‘monster’. Instead, she agreed to allow him to stay and was even generous enough to offer one of her girls to help. 

It was at that point that Jaskier, who had caught sight of Geralt’s arrival from where he had been resting between sets, managed to intervene. After reassuring the innkeeper that Geralt was a friend, he volunteered to take her girl’s place in caring for the wounded man. 

It took a bit of work to clean up and bandage all Geralt’s injuries, but the task was one that Jaskier was happy to take on. Geralt had spent the entire time that Jaskier tended to him barely awake, and once he had been bandaged up, he had collapsed into a deep slumber. The poor Witcher was so tired that he slept for nearly two days straight, barely waking long enough to eat when Jaskier provided him with food. 

For Geralt to look that exhausted and still be on his feet, then the Bard knew that his Witcher must be truly desperate.

Well, Jaskier thought, that would not do.

It appeared that it was up to him to keep his friend from making an exhaustion-borne mistake.

But then, before Jaskier could turn intent into action, the situation in which he had unexpectedly found himself suddenly changed. The net, which had previously been dragging easily along the stream bed, snagged.

As Geralt braced himself to pull the snag loose, Jaskier moved.

Rushing forward, he reached the other’s side just in time to watch a dirty bottle go flying up out of the water. It flew up in a graceful arc, making its way towards the bank. Meanwhile, the two men below it jostled for a catch.

Both men managed to get a hand placed in just the right spot, and as the bottle hit his palm, he made a silent wish. 

I wish, Jaskier thought, that Geralt’s burden be lifted from him and that I could make a difference in the fight against those who condemn the Witchers as nothing more than useful but vicious beasts.

Of course, what the Bard failed to realize was that at the same time as he had wished, so too did the Witcher at his side. 

I wish, Geralt thought, that this burden of duty and regret be lifted; and that I be permitted to help others without suffering such pain and grief in the fulfillment of my responsibilities.

And, despite their lack of vocalization, both men’s wishes were heard by the djinn, just as its bottle popped open from the impact.

Well, it thought as it pushed its way out of its prison in a burst of air, this will be interesting. 

And, with a murmur of thunder that somehow held the words ‘wish granted’ shuddering deep within their souls, both Jaskier and Geralt collapsed.