Eskel woke in a place that was not Kaer Morhen.
Well, of course not. Jaskier had insisted on the Wolves taking this… vacation, while Jaskier’s friends among the rock trolls rebuilt the worst bits of the keep. So instead of a cold, musty, familiar bedroom, Eskel woke in the loft of a small, cozy, seaside cottage.
Lambert was plastered against Eskel’s left side, snoring; Geralt’s head was pillowed on Eskel’s stomach. Jaskier was lying on top of Geralt, drooling on the White Wolf’s chest. Vesemir, who had an entire eiderdown mattress to himself to the side of the pile of pups, was snoozing peacefully. Eskel took a moment to bask in the warmth and closeness of his family. This was a good way to wake up.
As the sun rose, an annoyed goat shouted for breakfast. Geralt muttered and rolled off of Eskel, landing on top of Jaskier, who simply started snoring gently. Lambert yipped in his sleep like a wolf pup and kicked his legs a little. Eskel grinned.
After some shuffling, snuffling, and searching, Eskel freed himself from his brothers and watched in amusement as all three squirmed into the warm spot where he’d been sprawled. Then he shook his head and climbed down the ladder to the cottage proper.
He uncovered the coals from last night, and gently coaxed a small fire from them; just enough to heat a bucket of water. When he stepped out of the cottage to fetch the water from the well, he breathed in deeply and closed his eyes for a moment, a soft smile curving his lips. He had always loved the brisk scent of the sea. The touch of morning mist was cool enough to wake him up.
Lil Bleater was waiting for attention, and yelled at Eskel until he fed her and gave her kisses. Then he fetched his water and went back inside.
Vesemir was awake, but the other pups were not. Eskel could hear it in their breathing. He poured the bucket of water into a pot, hung it over the tiny fire, and then went for a second bucket to fill the pitcher for drinking, the kettle for tea, and the large pot for food. He puttered about the tiny kitchen, making porridge, smiling as he heard Geralt mumble, “But I like black.”
A small shovel of coals from the fireplace started the heating process for the stove. Eskel considered carefully, then made a face and crouched in front of the stove to cast a very small igni. The glow of the fire was satisfying and gentle; a little box filled with chaos and heat, contained and useful.
The water hung over the fireplace was tepid. Eskel removed it from the hook, stripped off his clothes, and wiped himself down. The others would probably go into the town to the bathhouse, but Eskel preferred the solitude of washing in his own home.
Home. His heart ached. He wished this place were home.
Well, it was for the next two months. No use in getting mopey. Eskel looked out the tiny leaded window that faced the sea, and felt himself smile again. The horses were gamboling in their paddock, the three Witcher horses racing while Jaskier’s spirited gelding Peggy danced around with the shaggy pony Vesemir kept for pulling the cart. Lil Bleater yelled some more; Eskel shook his head fondly, dried off, dressed again, and went to check on the porridge.
Vesemir was the first down. He nodded to Eskel, poured himself some tea, and ambled to the fireplace at the opposite end of the cottage, easing down into the single comfortable chair with a pleased sigh.
Eskel added a little bit of lavender to the porridge. He’d developed a taste for it since they’d traveled with Jaskier, who treated them to fancy desserts as often as possible. Also it smelled lovely and was guaranteed to wake his brothers.
Sure enough, as the pungent, robust scent of lavender filled the air, Lambert snorted loudly, sneezed, groaned in annoyance, and presumably clambered over Geralt and Jaskier, since Jaskier yelped and Geralt snarled “Fuck off.” Lambert didn’t even bother answering, simply peered over the edge of the loft and asked sleepily, “Whu’z breakfuss?”
“Porridge,” Eskel replied, grinning. The lines from the pillows and Eskel’s sleeve were firmly imprinted on Lambert’s cheek and forehead. “With honey.”
Lambert’s face lit up, and Geralt and Jaskier popped their heads out too, both sniffing the air hopefully. Eskel’s grin widened. “Still have some butter, too,” he added.
The three men in the loft all tried to get down the ladder at the same time, and ended up tumbling to the floor with loud thumps and yelps. Geralt scrambled upright first, pulled Jaskier up, and dragged him to the dining table. Lambert followed more slowly. Vesemir chuckled.
Geralt fetched the bread, Jaskier the butter; Lambert found their mismatched bowls and put them on the table. Vesemir stood, twisted from side to side to crack his back, and moseyed on over. Eskel plunked the kettle and tiny jar of sugar on the table, smirking as Lambert groaned and stood again to fetch mugs.
Everything was quiet as they drank their tea and buttered their bread. Eskel brought the pot of porridge to the table, and everyone ladled out what they wanted, while Geralt handed over two pieces of bread with more butter than the others had. Eskel took the bread with a quiet thank you and stuck one piece in his porridge edgewise for safe keeping while he ate the other.
The butter was from cows. The bread was baked yesterday afternoon. The oats were harvested only a few weeks ago. The tea leaves and lavender were fresh. And the honey was somehow creamier than that of Vesemir’s precious bees at the keep. The Witchers ate slowly, savoring every drop and crumb; in two months’ time they would be on the road again, and wouldn’t have access to such luxury. Jaskier ate slowly too, but that was because he was still half-asleep and kept drifting off with his head on Geralt’s shoulder.
“What’re we doing today, ‘Skel?” Lambert yawned, rubbing his eyes.
“I thought it was Geralt’s turn,” Eskel replied, startled.
“Geralt has a hangover,” said Geralt, feeding Jaskier scraps of his bread, while Jaskier looked smug. “You always know what to do.”
Eskel looked to Vesemir. The eldest Witcher merely smiled and poured himself more tea. So Eskel sighed and resigned himself to shepherding his little brothers around the town again. There were few things for visitors to do here, in this quiet place; but the Witchers appreciated that. A little bookshop with interesting books on local flora and fauna; a teashop that Vesemir had taken a liking to; a bakery haunted by three old biddies who welcomed Lambert to their grouchy coven with glee when they realized he was the baker in the family; a stable where warhorses were trained.
Eskel sipped his tea, then said, “The bathhouse is open today, and you three smell like vomit and alcohol. If we go early enough, the water should be nice and hot.”
“What then?” Jaskier asked, shifting his chin on Geralt’s shoulder. “I refuse to go watch Geralt sigh over horses that are dumber than Lady Roach.”
“I know,” Eskel said, and smirked as Geralt did that thing with his face that might’ve been a pout if he were a child. “Isn’t there a tailor somewhere here? You can teach Geralt what good fabric is.”
“Oh, I’m sure he already knows…” Jaskier purred, lifting one hand and twirling a lock of Geralt’s hair around his finger. Lambert threw a chunk of bread at him.
“Have you told Mrs. Kiereb about the honey bread you made last year?” Eskel asked Lambert. “Maybe she’ll give you more honeycomb if you give her the recipe.”
Lambert grinned. “I haven’t, but now I’m gonna,” he declared.
“Perhaps I’ll go heckle those boys playing with sticks,” Vesemir hummed into his mug. His pups rolled their eyes together. The “boys with sticks” were the town militia, who practiced diligently, but still weren’t very good. Vesemir had already been told his advice wasn’t wanted or needed; such a thing had never stopped him before and didn’t stop him now.
“We can have lunch on the hill,” Eskel suggested, warming to his role as day-planner. “The weather will be nice today.”
Jaskier straightened suddenly and clapped. “Oh, I have a great idea! Lambert, I dare you to race Peanut against the local boys!” he caroled, bouncing in his seat; Geralt held him down with an arm across his shoulders.
“My horse is not named “Peanut”, you prick,” Lambert snapped.
“Well she has to have a name.”
“No she--” Lambert cut himself off, pinched the bridge of his nose, took a deep breath, and said, “I don’t want you naming my horse.”
“Oh. Fine.” Jaskier crossed his arms over his chest and pouted, but Eskel could smell his triumph easily. Jaskier loved bothering Lambert into changing his words. And Eskel had to admit, it was nice, to hear Lambert voice his feelings. It was kinda gross how mushy Geralt got when he looked at Jaskier after such moments, though.
“If we’re going to the bathhouse, I think we should head out soon,” Vesemir said. “The miners will be up in an hour.”
His pups nodded. “Have fun,” Eskel told the rest, ladling more oatmeal into his bowl. “Try not to drown, Lambert.”
“You need a bath too,” Geralt objected, as Lambert spluttered indignantly. “You can’t just keep wiping down with water and think you’re clean.”
Eskel frowned. “I’ve been doing it for years now,” he protested. “I’ll have a bath when I find some soap that doesn’t smell like dirt. Besides, you’re not my mother.”
“No, but I am the one who raised you,” Vesemir cut in. “And I agree with Geralt. You need a proper soak.”
Eskel blinked, and looked between Jaskier and Lambert for backup. Jaskier nodded sadly and pinched his nose. Lambert snickered.
With a heavy groan, Eskel said, “ Fine .”
When breakfast was finished, Vesemir “supervised” while the boys cleaned up--meaning he drank the last of the tea and ordered them about. Jaskier and Lambert complained for appearance’s sake. Geralt kept drifting away, trying to pretend he was done with his own work. Eskel cleaned the pot thoroughly, dumped beans in it, poured in water, threw some herbs in too, and then set it over the fire to cook slowly.
Then all five humanoids grabbed clean clothes and headed out to find the bathhouse.
Eskel felt extremely noticeable as they walked through the sleepy streets. Geralt was as tall as him, Vesemir was bulkier, and Lambert was bickering with Jaskier a little too loudly; but Eskel was deformed, built like an ogre, and reticent. He was the scariest of them all, he knew that in his bones.
So it shocked him when the boy at the front of the bathhouse looked at their group with no fear, then met Eskel’s eyes and flushed bright pink. His smell became… flustered, but not scared. And when Vesemir ordered Eskel to pay, and Eskel did so, the boy’s fingertips lingered on Eskel’s for too long to be an accident, and he blushed even more red.
Baffled, the eldest Witcher-brother followed the others to the common bath.
“So?” Jaskier murmured to Eskel wickedly as they all shucked their clothing, and Lambert and Geralt started quarreling over whether or not Geralt should dye his body-hair.
“So, what?” Eskel whispered back, folding his clothes neatly out of habit.
“ So ,” Jaskier repeated, rolling his eyes, “How does it feel to know that you’ve got an admirer?”
Eskel gaped at him, dumbfounded. The others noticed, and immediately zeroed in on him with impish grins.
“Admirer?” Eskel repeated, his voice squeaking. “I don’t--he--you’re seeing things.” And before anyone could say anything else, he strode to the bath, hopped in, and dunked his entire body, rubbing at his hair to get out as much dirt as possible.
He scrubbed himself thoroughly and in silence, because his brothers kept making sly comments about him being shy a little more loudly than they had any right to. Vesemir even joined in, telling Eskel mildly that he was no longer allowed to wash himself out of a bucket. Eskel just ignored them, and then climbed out of the bath and stalked over to the rinse-pool. The cool water felt wonderful on his skin, and he sighed in relief before beginning the process of rinsing himself off. The others preferred to soak in the hot water before hastily dipping in and out of the cool; Eskel preferred the other way around. It just… felt better. Less like Kaer Morhen, more like a treat.
And according to Jaskier, it was better for the skin. So Eskel did this routine and felt pleased whenever he noticed that his hands and face were less chapped than Lambert and Vesemir’s.
(Geralt, of course, got to be pampered with lotions and oils by Jaskier, and thus hadn’t had chapped or dry skin in forty years.)
After he was completely cleaned, Eskel returned to the benches where they had left their things, and snatched up a towel, drying himself off and grumbling to himself about how he preferred buckets. Then he dressed, and as he settled his jacket, decided to head to the bakery and pick up a sweet while he waited for the midmorning market.
He was headed for the door when Vesemir called in a stern voice, “Eskel, where are you going?”
“Bakery,” he replied. “Market’s in an hour, might as well stay close until it opens.”
“Oh, pick me up a cake or something, won’t you, dear?” Jaskier drawled, twining his arms around Geralt’s neck.
“No,” Eskel replied, frowning. “I’ll grab some preserves at the market for Lambert to bake with.”
“Apple! Get apple this time, not pear!” Lambert practically yelled, throwing his hands up. “I can’t make apple tarts without fucking apples!”
“Fine, fine, I’ll get you some apple preserves, asshole. Vesemir? Geralt?”
Vesemir shook his head. Geralt turned his head on Jaskier’s shoulder and simply hummed.
So Eskel left the public bathing room. He had forgotten about the young attendant, who blushed yet again and asked, “Did you enjoy your bath, Mr. Witcher, sir?”
Eskel nodded. “I always enjoy baths here,” he said, and tried to smile. The boy’s eyes widened; Eskel quickly dropped the smile, and his gaze, and said gruffly, “I’m sorry.” Then he left.
It was only when he made it to the village square that he realized the boy’s sharp spike of adrenaline had been lust, not fear.
Feeling quite humiliated, and knowing that he could never go back, he trudged to the baker’s and knocked before stepping inside.
The raw-knuckled grandmother behind the counter, pounding some dough into submission, paused and flashed him a smile that only held six teeth. “Well, well, if it isn’t the big man himself!” she said. “Give me a minute, Witcher, I have to put this batch in the oven.”
“Of course, Grandmother,” Eskel said, which made her cackle.
Her name was Marissa, but he disliked calling her by her first name, especially since her son, who pretended to run the shop, hated Witchers. So Eskel called her Grandmother, a title that held respect in this part of the world.
Her strong, cunning hands kneaded the dough into a smoothness that made Lambert weep when he saw it, and then split it into two. She formed them quickly, put them on her paddle, and slid them into the enormous oven, which was already roaring. Eskel always thought she would’ve made an excellent Witcher, with the way she danced around her kitchen with ease and grace. Her eyes were still clear, her limbs still strong; she had told him she was of fisherman blood, that her mother had been a selkie. She did have many selkie traits, like her black hair and liquid eyes, her rich brown skin that sometimes shone like sleek fur, and the fact that she always smelled like the wild ocean.
But Vesemir had told Eskel sharply not to carry such tales, despite Jaskier’s assurance that, in many places along the coast, selkie-children who stayed ashore were treated very well. So Eskel pretended he didn’t believe her, but badly, to make her laugh.
“What will you have today, goatherd?” Grandmother asked, her eyes sparkling with mischief.
“I’d like an apple turnover, please,” he replied. “And I wish you’d leave off with the goatherd jokes, Grandmother. I only have Lil’ Bleater.”
“Who you care for as if she were your own flesh and blood,” she retorted, grinning. “You love your goat, and don’t think the whole town doesn’t know that you still check in on Coral’s kids every few days.” She fetched an apple turnover, and then one of those braided breads made with goat’s cheese that were Eskel’s absolute favorite. “I’ll not take a penny for the bread,” the tiny old woman told the large, hulking Witcher sternly. “You still need plumping up.”
Eskel, who, like his fellow Wolves, sometimes had horrible trips to the privy due to the fact that none of them were used to so much fresh dairy, nodded and said nothing. Better his guts bind up for two days than not have Grandmother’s cheesy bread.
They chatted briefly, then Grandmother’s three youngest granddaughters tumbled down the stairs and interrupted them with gleeful cries of “Eskel! Eskel! Good morning!”
Eskel found it much easier to smile for them; their few drops of selkie blood had deformed their skeletons and forged their characters, into playful, aggressive little seal pups. They did not touch him, nor he, them. But they got up close, and he crouched down, and answered their barrage of questions about Witchers. That morning was about what kind of flour Lambert used most. Eskel told them (mostly barley, since it was cheap), and then added in a stage whisper, “Don’t tell him, but your grandmother’s barley bread is a thousand times better.”
The three seal-girls giggled infectiously, and Eskel found himself smiling wider and more happily.
When the market began to gather, Eskel said goodbye to the selkie-family, and ate his turnover as he walked slowly to the edge of the market. He knew the placement of each and every booth now, and the characters of the farmers, craftspeople, hunters, and herbalists who ran them. Old Silowen sold exquisite leathers from many animals, but refused to sell them to any of the Witchers; in contrast, Filup the carpenter was always eager to sell to Geralt and Lambert. Fortuna happily sold Jaskier whatever oils, perfumes, and flowers he wanted; Coral despised nobles and only allowed Eskel near her booth where she sold cheeses and soaps, her herd of goats (increased by three since last month) milling around her calmly.
Eskel decided to visit Roshki’s booth for the preserves first. Roshki was from the far North, where spring was a liar and summer lasted three and a half weeks, and thus knew everything about quickly and efficiently packing fruit into jars.
Roshki didn’t particularly like Witchers, but he liked their coin, and the way Lambert had bragged at the village faire about how Roshki’s cherries were the reason he won the baking competition. So the human nodded curtly to Eskel and asked, “What do you need today? I have no more cherries.”
Eskel shook his head. “Not here for cherries, Roshki. Do you have any apple preserves left?”
Roshki raised one eyebrow and snorted. “Does the wolf howl at the moon?” he countered, and held up two jars, one bigger than the other. “This one is baking apples,” he raised the big jar, “And this one is made with princess’s feast apples.” He raised the smaller jar. “Baking apples will cost you ten silver pieces; princess’s feasts will be twenty.”
Eskel’s shoulders loosened, and he felt a calmness bloom in him as he settled in for a good session of haggling. Roshki grinned, recognizing his look.
Before long, Eskel scented his brothers and Vesemir arriving at the market. He was too deep in bargaining to care, though, pointing out that the jar in which Roshki had packed the baking preserves had much thicker walls and bottom than the last few preserves he had bought from Roshki, decreasing the amount of actual product inside.
They were just at the point where Roshki was losing the fight when Eskel scented Lambert’s boredom coming up behind him. Roshki looked over Eskel’s shoulder, and paled.
“Apples?” Lambert asked, right in Eskel’s ear. The older Witcher didn’t even twitch.
“Yes, dickhead, I’m getting apples,” he replied irritably. “Go bother Geralt and Jaskier.”
“But they’re being gross ,” Lambert whined, leaning on Eskel heavily. He barely noticed the weight. “I’m bored .”
Eskel sighed and dug some money out of his purse, holding it out to Lambert. “Here. Find something you like. Don’t tell Vesemir.”
Lambert snatched the money with a gleeful grin and scarpered. Eskel shook his head, and returned his attention to Roshki.
He got his asked-for price, and promised to bring back the emptied and cleaned jars from previous shopping trips. Roshki smelled grateful as Eskel walked away. It was to be expected. Of course no human liked being near him for too long.
One of the townspeople, a woman who had fled upon her first glance of him, smiled as they passed one another, and said, “Good morning, Eskel.”
He felt a flush of surprise and happiness, and replied, “Good morning, Mrs. Hryc.”
As he was purchasing honey, he heard the unmistakable sounds of Lambert being chaotic. Fuck. Hopefully he wouldn’t get in too much trouble. The old man running the stall looked amused as he asked, “Is that lad always so mischievous?”
“You have no idea,” Eskel replied gloomily, and was startled when the beekeeper laughed. Still… it felt nice, knowing he had made someone other than another Witcher or Jaskier laugh.
When he had finished his shopping, he rounded up his brothers and herded them back to the cottage, feeling very like an aggrieved mother caring for her three toddlers. Lambert had bought a large basket, and refused to explain why; Jaskier had braided some dainty blue and purple flowers into Geralt’s hair and made a crown for himself with baby’s breath. Eskel carried his honey and preserves carefully, even though he hadn’t been clumsy with pain, cold, and hunger their entire visit.
Lambert stashed his basket inside, then ran out of the cottage with a whoop to get his horse for a gallop. Who knew he would enjoy having absolutely nothing to do besides exercise and bake? Jaskier tossed his jacket over the back of his kitchen chair and followed, calling his own horse’s name. Geralt helped Eskel make sandwiches.
“Do you like it here?” Geralt asked as he cut slices of smoked ham.
Eskel hesitated, then nodded, chopping a couple onions. “It’s quiet,” he said. “But the village is close by. Alone, but not lonely. I like it.”
“Jaskier keeps talking about when I “retire”, he wants to buy a vineyard in Toussaint,” Geralt offered. He frowned, and finished with the ham rather sharply. “I don’t know why he thinks I care,” he grumbled.
“Because he loves you and wants to be near you,” Eskel said mildly. He grinned as Geralt flushed bright pink and gnawed on the right corner of his bottom lip, a habit he’d been trying to break for nearly a century. “You can’t get away from it, Geralt.”
Geralt took a breath to say something, then let it out again, slowly. His cheeks were still rosy as he started buttering the bread. “I know,” he said softly.
Eskel elbowed his little brother gently. Geralt elbowed back, a little harder, but Eskel said nothing about that. He was just glad the White Wolf was starting to believe that he deserved to be loved.
Lambert and Jaskier tumbled through the door just as the elder Witchers finished packing the picnic. “Papa is on his way!” Jaskier announced cheerfully, cheeks flushed and eyes dancing. “Come on, Geralt, Roachie-Girl needs exercise!”
Geralt wavered until Eskel raised an eyebrow at him, then rolled his eyes dramatically and followed Jaskier out of the cottage again. Lambert hugged Eskel, which he hadn’t done in several weeks; he smelled happy, excited, and--peaceful? No, not peaceful: content.
“If I ever retire, I’m gonna be a baker who races horses,” he declared, letting go of Eskel and grabbing the picnic basket instead. “It’s fucking beautiful outside, come on!”
Eskel chuckled, and followed.
It was beautiful. Eskel let Lil Bleater out of her pen, and she danced around him, bleating merrily, before charging Jaskier and nearly breaking the bard’s leg. Scorpion also danced excitedly, seeing his rider approach with the proper gear, but he stood still very nicely until Eskel swung up into the saddle.
Vesemir arrived, with a very large stack of books in his arms; “You boys go find a spot to set up,” he told them. “I’ll be along in a moment.”
Jaskier was the only one who didn’t share an exasperated look with the others. Of course not, the idiot was an academic as well as a poet and musician. He always defended Vesemir when the head of the Wolves got caught up in books.
Lambert kicked his horse into a gallop, letting loose a Skellige warcry as he went. Roach launched after him without any signal from Geralt, who put his head down and rode hard.
Scorpion was content to walk, and so was Eskel. Jaskier rode with him, politely keeping him company.
“Do you like it here?” Jaskier asked Eskel. There was no hint of teasing in his expression, only curiosity. Eskel was reminded that the bard wasn’t just Chaos incarnate, but also something of a philosopher.
“Yes,” he answered, more easily than before. It was one thing to admit it to his brother, who knew this peace was treacherous; it was another to tell someone who genuinely wanted all of them to be happy. “I like it. I’m going to miss it.”
Jaskier hummed and nodded, a tiny smile curving his mouth. “Is this the kind of place you’d like to live in, if you had the choice?” he asked.
Eskel thought about it. He didn’t like thinking about it, usually; but right then, with warm sun and fresh ocean breeze and Lil Bleater trotting beside Scorpion, with the memory of making people smile fresh on his mind, with the knowledge that, at the end of the day, he would get to lie down in a pile with his brothers on a soft mattress in a safe place… he smiled, and looked Jaskier in the eye as he said, “Yes.”
The bard smiled back warmly. “I’m glad you like it here,” he said. “If you want, next winter, I can rent the cottage for you again.”
“That’s not necessary, Jaskier.”
Those blue, blue eyes sparkled with Power, and Jaskier replied, “It doesn’t need to be necessary. You deserve good things.”
Eskel decided not to argue. He did, however, guide Scorpion a little closer to Peggy so he could wrap one arm around Jaskier’s shoulders in a hug.
They found Lambert and Geralt at the usual spot, under a tree on a hill that faced the ocean. They had already set up the picnic, and Lambert was lecturing Geralt on why his latest loaf of bread wasn’t as good as the last one. Geralt listened intently, and sometimes asked questions. He was the best at listening.
Eskel and Jaskier joined them, and they all listened to Lambert, who was obviously in his element. Sometimes Eskel wondered if his baby brother was like Geralt, latching on to a subject as a child and never letting go of it, because there was so much to learn. It would explain why he was so passionate about alchemy and alcohol.
When Lambert decided to pause for a drink, Jaskier thanked him for the lesson and said he should be a guest lecturer at Oxenfurt. Lambert flushed crimson and scowled, but there was a wistfulness in his eyes.
“Not for me,” he grumbled, then turned to Geralt. “Tell us about selkies.”
Geralt grinned, lighting up like the sun, and began his own lecture. Unbeknownst to any of the others, he’d been talking to Grandmother regularly about her life and her parents, and now he gave them every impersonal detail possible, and told them what conflicted with or supported his hypotheses about selkie family units. Eskel knew he should be filing this away for if he ever needed to fight or run off a selkie… but he didn’t actually care. Geralt loved living creatures, sentient or not, and he was always learning more; and that was more than enough reason to listen to him.
Geralt could never be a teacher or lecturer. But Eskel knew that Jaskier had been gently coaxing him into writing down everything he’d learned, so that he could share his knowledge more widely.
Lil Bleater ate Geralt’s share of biscuits. Eskel scolded her as Jaskier gave Geralt his own biscuits. The little creature wasn’t in the least bit repentant.
Vesemir arrived with time to spare, and when he had claimed his spot in the circle of Witchers (and bard), he launched straight into telling his pups about what he had been reading. He wasn’t a flood of knowledge like his boys, and so all four felt comfortable asking questions and giving opinions. It felt… good. Eskel’s chest felt warm and full as he conversed with his family.
Peace. They all felt at peace.
Jaskier taught them all a bawdy sailor’s song he’d learned at the pub. Then Lambert egged Eskel into leading the Wolf-Song. It was a Witcher song, one of their only beauties. Eskel sang it to himself often. Even with flat, rough Witcher voices, it was a beautiful sound.
It wasn’t really “music” as humans knew it; it was more like a chant, call-and-response. But it was all about the wonderful things that Witchers witnessed, but humans did not. The flowers that bloomed in the deepest, most dangerous swamps, whose perfumes were as revitalizing as a week of good sleep; the softness of a mother fiend cleaning her newborn, a gentle moment in their lives of brutality; the breath-taking sight of courting dragons, dancing in the air like the most graceful of sylphs; the joyful laughter of elves when a baby entered the world; the howls of the wolves, the murmur of the wind, the sweep of a bat’s wings in caves with no speck of light.
At the end of the song, the four Wolves howled. Jaskier’s horse shied a little at the sound, but the Witcher horses simply added their own soft rumbles to the sound. When the ringing howls faded, they could hear dogs howling in the village; not angry or frightened, just calling back to the wolves who had announced their presence.
Lambert led the next melody, which was in Elder Speech. Eskel closed his eyes and got lost in the harmony of it. His chest ached, an empty cavity where his Witcher family’s voices used to ring. He remembered the nights when their numbers exceeded a hundred, and they sang so loudly that the mountains echoed.
There were only four of them, now. But better four than none. The ache faded, and Eskel just enjoyed the moment.
Lambert suddenly scrambled to his feet and lunged for his horse’s tack. After a moment, he straightened, grinning triumphantly, and returned to the others. He held out a small, cloth-wrapped package to Eskel, and said smugly, “You’ll like this.”
Eskel frowned slightly, but unwrapped the package. Within it was a small, wooden, octagonal box, stained reddish-brown. There was a small key at the back.
Eskel’s eyes widened. He turned the key very carefully, and then opened the box.
A small statuette of a pack of howling wolves at the bottom of the box began to rotate, as the soft sounds of a music box played. The music was Wolf-Song.
It was so unfair, that Witchers couldn’t cry.
He closed the box, hesitated, then hugged it to his chest and looked up to grin and said softly, “Thank you.”
Lambert grinned back proudly. Geralt and Vesemir looked impressed; Jaskier gave a small, content smile.
One more song, a drinking song that Jaskier sang along with eagerly, and then they finished eating, while Vesemir told them the “histories” of the songs. His histories were always fantastical and wild and complete nonsense, but extremely entertaining. All of the younger men were laughing by the end of the first history.
Lil Bleater lay down beside Eskel and laid her head on his thigh. He gave her pats and fed her bits of vegetables.
When the last scrap had been cleared away, they all stood and stretched and prepared to leave--and then Geralt pounced on Lambert and tackled him to the ground. Eskel’s own puppy-like adrenaline kicked in, and he launched himself at his brothers. The three of them wrestled and roughhoused for about half an hour, then surged to their feet, shoving each other and laughing. It felt good. Eskel felt much lighter and happier.
Just as they were all about to mount up and ride back to the cottage, the wind changed, and the scent of determination and worry hit them. The Witchers froze, and all four scanned the gently-sloping landscape for the source of the smell.
It was one of the farmers, Siegfried; he was the most stoic person in the area. His worry was, well, worrying.
His face was set in a scowl, though, when he got close enough for them to see. “Oy, big man!” he yelled, waving one arm. “Goatherd! I need to talk to yeh!”
Bewildered, Eskel walked down the hill to meet him, Lil Bleater trotting at his heels. “Good day to you,” he said cautiously.
Siegfried shook his head impatiently. “None’a that, now. It’s always a bad day when an animal’s hurt. Do you know how to help a kid what’s broke its leg?”
Eskel nodded. “Did something happen to Snapdragon?” he asked, frowning slightly. He may not know the names of all the farmers, but he knew their animals.
“Dem creature fell off the roof of the barn. I don’t wanna let ‘im go. And your girl is a good nanny, everybody know’t.”
Before he could truly think about it, Eskel said, “Alright. Let’s not waste any more time, then.”
Siegfried sagged with relief for a moment, before nodding briskly. “I’ll bring ye up the back so the missus don’t shout.”
And so Eskel and Siegfried headed for his farm. It wasn’t too far for a Witcher, nor a man who worked the earth. Lil Bleater yelled angrily, so Eskel scooped her up and slung her around his shoulders.
Siegfried had four goats, a mama, two milking-goats, and Snapdragon, the latest kid. When the man, Witcher, and mountain goat enter their pen, the milking-goats beh’d and trotted over. Mama and Snapdragon were inside the barn.
Snapdragon was a sad sight. His left eye was swollen, his back leg was snapped, and he had a significant dent in his ribcage. Eskel knew that any reasonable goatherd would suggest a quick end--but he wasn’t a goatherd, and he wasn’t reasonable.
“Geralt should be by with my kit,” he said, dropping into a crouch beside kid and mama. Lil Bleater soothed Snapdragon as best she could, while Mama hovered and bleated. “In the meantime, do you have any greensbane and sunsnap? I can make something to numb his leg and ribs.”
“Ay, I got those,” Siegfried said, and trotted to a stall where his animal medicines resided. Eskel rest his fingertips ever so lightly against Snapdragon’s shoulder, letting the baby get used to his scent. He would have to cast axii when he dealt with the ribs.
As Eskel ground up the greensbane and sunsnap, he smelled Geralt on the wind. He didn’t react except to tell Siegfried, “Geralt’s got my kit. He’ll be here in a minute.”
And he was. Geralt walked into the pen, set Eskel’s medicine box beside him, and then retreated to a corner so Mama and Snapdragon wouldn’t fidget too much.
The numbing-paste was applied gently to the broken leg and the ribcage, the soft, thick scent calming Snapdragon. With the relief of lessened pain, the kid relaxed completely.
Eskel set and bound his leg, first; it was quick and easy, and Snapdragon would feel much better with some of his pain cared for. Then Eskel took a deep breath, and pulled out his surgery kit.
“What’s that?” Siegfried demanded sharply.
“His bones are broken on the inside,” Eskel replied calmly, tracing the sign of axii and laying the spell on the injured goat. “I need to check if they’ve pierced his lungs. I’ve done this before, so I’ll be quick. Geralt, can you hold Lil Bleater?”
“Yes,” Geralt said, and moved closer to drag Lil Bleater away. She wouldn’t get in Eskel’s way, but Geralt hated seeing Eskel cut open animals that were still alive.
It was a fast operation; Eskel probed around the dent gently, found a good place to make his incision, and then did so. Snapdragon, still under his spell, didn’t even twitch; Siegfried however made a muffled noise and jerked like he wanted to knock Eskel away. The Witcher ignored him.
Two ribs were broken. One was a green-stick break, and was easy to nudge in place and glue back together. The other was a clean snap, and the sharp end of the free-floating section had lodged in the meat surrounding the goat’s diaphragm. Eskel maneuvered it back into position, glued it, dabbed the edges of the cut with the numbing paste, sewed it up, and rubbed the area gently with alcohol before putting a thick coat of ointment on it.
“He’s going to need three days of complete rest,” Eskel told Siegfried as he wiped his hands on a cloth. “The glue I used is one part hide, one part vegetable, one part bone; it has an extra ingredient to keep it firm for about a month, too. The cut should heal in a week. His leg will heal up alright, too; he’ll be up and running at full speed in three weeks.” Instead of lifting the axii, Eskel used it to make Snapdragon fall asleep. It would wear off after an hour or so. He finally looked up at Siegfried.
The farmer was gaping at him, wide-eyed. He didn’t smell or act scared. How odd.
Then he grinned, so widely his eyes crinkled, and slapped Eskel on the back. “Thank ye, goatherd,” he said warmly. “I’ll keep ‘im restin’. Leave me the recipe for that painkiller, yeah? So’s I won’t have t’bother you too often.”
“I don’t mind coming out for the goats,” Eskel replied, surprised. “But here’s how I make the paste…”
He explained, answered Siegfried’s questions, refused payment other than a small wheel of cheese, and then left with Geralt and Lil Bleater.
“I forgot to tell him I’m not a goatherd,” Eskel blurted.
“Goatherd is a good job description, though. Isn’t it?” Geralt asked.
Eskel thought about it. And then he smiled. “Yeah. It is.”
The afternoon was characterized by everyone piling in the loft for a nap. Well… everyone but Eskel. He felt… wound up. Twitchy. He cleaned the cottage ruthlessly, scrubbing spotless surfaces, dusting shelves that were already so clean you could eat off of them, sweeping the floor until his back hurt. Then he grabbed the basket of dirty laundry and left the cottage. He needed fresh air. He needed movement.
There was a shed out back with a small, clumsy wash-kettle settled into it. Eskel left the laundry in the shed and hauled water to the kettle, then lit a small igni under it. When the water was almost bath-temperature, he crushed up a small chunk of the powdery soap and dumped it in. Then the laundry went in, and he grabbed the stir-stick.
A somewhat repetitive chore, but one that required attention. Eskel settled into it, and hummed softly as he stirred the water, which quickly became grimy. He dipped out half of the dirty water, then refilled it with clean and kept going.
“Um--Mr. Eskel, sir?” asked a timid voice in the doorway.
Eskel froze, then turned carefully. There were three children standing outside; a boy of about sixteen, and two girls around ten. His eyebrows twitched together; he didn’t recognize any of them. They smelled of milk, hay, and warm animal, though. “Hello,” he said. “Can I help you?”
The children fidgeted, then the boy said, “Mum told us to ask if you could come down t’our farm and go over some rams she’s thinkin’ of hiring.”
Surprised, confused, but very curious, Eskel nodded. “Is it urgent?” he asked. “I’d rather not just leave the washing.”
“We can do it,” one of the girls blurted, blushing when he looked at her. “Me an’ Dev, we can do the laundry. T’pay.”
The older boy and second girl nodded. “We do laundry at home,” the boy added. “Maisy c’n take you to mum.”
Eskel couldn’t help a small smile. He flattened it immediately when all three children flinched. “Alright,” he said. “Dry wood is there, pump is to the left of Lil Bleater’s pen, and don’t worry about being too rough. If something gets damaged, it’s an excuse to get something new. Which way to your mum?”
Maisy led him to the path, while her siblings set to work. Eskel matched her pace and did not bother her with needless speech.
However, once they were out of hearing distance of the cottage, Maisy spun on her heel to walk backwards and demanded, “How’d you get your face scars?”
Eskel’s shoulders tensed, but he answered levelly. “I avoided my responsibilities for too long. I’ve learned my lesson, though.”
“What responsibilities?” she asked, gazing at him intently.
He rubbed the back of his neck, unsure of what to say. “I don’t like talking about it,” he answered finally.
Maisy huffed. “Fine. Will you feel better if I tell you about my scar?”
Eskel wasn’t sure, but it seemed like she was trying to be nice, and he deeply appreciated that. “You don’t have to,” he said, “But I wouldn’t mind.”
Maisy grinned and halted, then hiked up her skirt and pulled her stocking down to show him a gnarled, puffy scar on her calf that Eskel recognized immediately as a bite from a siren. “I got too close to the rocks,” Maisy told him, “And a siren got me. It almost tore my leg off, but Marissa’s mum saved me. I’m not allowed to show it off. Mum said.” Maisy pouted in annoyance.
Eskel crouched, and rolled up his sleeve to show her the jagged wound where a manticore had scarred him. “Manticore, an old one,” he told her. “Vesemir, he raised me and my brothers, he told me I was stupid for letting it get too close. So I hide it. But I like it, because that was my first hunt where the townspeople thanked me and pressured the Thain into paying me the full reward.”
“Whoa,” Maisy breathed, poking the scar as she stared in fascination. “Where’d you get these other ones?”
Eskel smiled, and this time she didn’t flinch. “I’ll tell you when I’ve talked to your mum.”
The rest of the walk was filled with chatter. Maisy wanted to know all about monster hunting, and which monsters were most common in their area, and how to repel a siren’s attack. Eskel answered her questions as best he could, but sometimes he was forced to admit that he didn’t know, but he could ask his brothers and Vesemir.
They had just reached the gate to the dairy when Maisy asked, “Is Vesemir your papa?”
Eskel shrugged, smiling a little. “Sort of. He raised us, along with the other pups. The last time any of us called him Dad, he sat in the garden for four hours and refused to talk to any of us. We think he was overwhelmed.”
Maisy laughed, and at that moment, a man wielding a battleax stormed out of the house, livid.
“Get away from my girl, you bastard!” he hollered, waving the ax clumsily.
Eskel froze and raised his hands to show they were empty. “I’m not here to hurt anyone,” he called back. “I’m here because--”
“Kiri! Drop that damn thing afore you hurt someone!” roared a voice so loud that Eskel’s ears rang. A muscular woman in shirt, trousers, and apron walked across the front yard, her wrathful gaze fixed on the man with the ax. “I asked him to come here!” she growled. Three or four large goats with wickedly-curved horns sauntered up to Eskel to say hello and chew his shirt. “Get back inside, we don’t need yer wailin’.”
Kiri slunk back inside like a humiliated puppy. Maisy ran over to the woman and hugged her. “Mummy! Dev and Renny stayed to finish the laundry, so I brung him.”
Her mum nodded and patted her head in approval, then looked to Eskel. “Afternoon, Witcher Eskel. I was hopin’ you could help me with my herd.”
“To look over some rams?” Eskel asked, lowering his hands. “That’s what your son said.”
“Yea,” she confirmed, scratching her eyebrow with her thumb. “I need a second opinion.”
The three ewes the dairy farmer wanted to breed were in the pink of health. One had birthed two kids, both of whom were heavy producers; one had never been bred, and was a little skittish around the rams, but was content to stand beside Eskel and eat from his hands; the third ewe was a reliable old lady who hadn’t caught for three heats.
The rams to choose from had been brought by a goatherd from the next village over. One ram was aggressive to the point where the goatherd had to hold it back when Eskel was in sight; one had a twisted spine that wasn’t immediately visible; one was more interested in mounting Eskel than the ewes; and the fourth looked sickly and weak. When Eskel pressed, the goatherd admitted that the fourth ram had been ill with wet lungs its entire first year of life.
“That one is not acceptable for breeding,” Eskel told him firmly. “If it fell ill as a kid, who’s to say whatever it sires won’t do the same?”
The ram with the twisted spine shied from Eskel; its movements were stiff, and its smell held the bitter tint of pain along with sour fear. The goatherd assured him that the ram was healthy as could be.
“What about its parents? What about siblings? Can they move easily and without pain?”
The goatherd mumbled a confession; Eskel heard him clearly. “If you have a line of goats with bad bones, maybe it’s time to retire that line,” Eskel said, frowning slightly.
The aggressive ram broke from the goatherd and charged Eskel. If it were a heavier, strong creature than a goat, it might have bruised him. He grabbed one of its horns and held it still while it struggled and bleated.
“How many ewes has this one injured?” he asked the goatherd.
The human flinched, but did not speak.
“I’ll not have such a creature ‘round my ladies,” the dairy farmer snapped. “If any of ‘em got hurt, I’d take you to the mayor, see if I wouldn’t.”
The very horny ram who kept trying to impregnate Eskel’s leg beh’d angrily. Eskel sighed. “Why did you teach this one to mount people?” he asked heavily.
“I didn’t!” the goatherd objected. “My sons had care’a this one.”
Eskel pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment and decided to not poke that sleeping dragon. Had he and Geralt ever been that ridiculous?
He knew exactly how Vesemir would answer him.
“Well, besides being slightly annoying, I think this lad will do alright for you,” he told the dairy farmer. “You might want to look further afield if you want two more sires, though.”
“What does a Witcher know about goats, anyway?” the goatherd muttered sullenly.
“He knows more’n you, Shevv,” the dairy farmer retorted, scowling. “Unless you knew these ‘uns were bad.”
The goatherd’s face went through many, many expressions, before settling on sullen. “Yeh want this one for stud or no?” he demanded, pointing at the horny goat.
The dairy farmer snorted. “I’d rather let them breed with my dogs,” she said flatly.
Eskel watched the two argue in fascination. It was quite odd, honestly. He knew barely anything about goat breeding, but once you’ve spent decades carefully inspecting animals for signs of curses, parasites, and other nasty things, you pick up a few bits of knowledge. And yet, these two experienced livestock farmers accepted his observations as if he were one of them.
Well… he was right, though.
Finally, the goatherd left, dragging his rams to the little cart pulled by a bigger goat of a calmer breed. The dairy farmer watched sharply until he had left her property, then snorted and turned back to Eskel. “Thanks f’r yeh help,” she told him. “Shevv’s a cretin, but he’ll think twice about trying to sell me his worst lot.”
“You’re welcome,” Eskel replied. “I--I do have a question.”
There was no gentle way to ask, so he blurted, “Why me? I’m just a Witcher.”
She stared at him, startled. Then she answered, “B’cos everyone knows you’re the one who cares for the animals. You treat that lady of yours like she’s your own flesh and blood, that horse of yours en’t never feared you in its life, and any time someone’s troubled by their charges, yer right there to help. And Marissa says you’re good people. She’s never wrong about good people.”
Eskel could feel his cheeks reddening. He looked away, rubbing his scars nervously.
“And yea, those scars are frightenin’ at first,” the dairy farmer continued, “But Maisy don’t laugh like that for anyone. There’s summin’ about you that’s… kind.” She faltered. Eskel tried to make himself look as small as possible.
“Um. Thank you,” he mumbled. “I--I have to get home. Gotta make supper. Um. Have a good evening.” He hurried away before she could say anything else.
Maisy grabbed his arm before he made it to the road. “I wanna come with you!” she commanded imperiously.
“You should ask your mum,” Eskel told her.
“No!” She then proceeded to climb up Eskel by hanging on to his arm and bracing her feet on his leg, as if she was climbing a steep cliff. “You have to tell me about your other scars. You promised!”
Eskel had done no such thing, but he felt a little reckless. A little warm and fuzzy.
He believed the dairy farmer.
“Alright,” he said, and helped her settle on his shoulders, since he was too broad for a comfortable piggyback ride. “If you ask nicely, the others might tell you about their fights, too.”
“Yay!” Maisy cheered, drumming her heels on Eskel’s chest. It hurt, but barely. He decided not to say anything.
The light was dimming. There were others on the road, now, going home after the day-market. Eskel was surprised, embarrassed, and a little frightened by the number of people who smiled at him, or waved, or greeted him. Maisy greeted back loudly and cheerfully, so Eskel just nodded.
They reached the cottage, and found, to Eskel’s amusement, that the Witchers and the other two children were all sitting in the grass, out of the wind, while Jaskier recited a poem that he seemed to be feeling in his soul. Thankfully, it was near the end, so when Maisy shouted “We’re baaack!”, Jaskier didn’t get offended.
Somehow, for some reason, Eskel found himself agreeing that the children could stay for dinner. He saw Lambert frown, and shot him a withering glare. HIs little brother made a face, but said nothing.
In the end, the children, Eskel, and Vesemir sat at the table to eat; Jaskier sat on the counter, Geralt leaned next to him against the sink, and Lambert ate in front of the fire. He probably needed quiet soon.
So, when the dishes were put away and the leftovers covered for midnight snacks, Eskel led the children outside, helped them get comfortable in Vesemir’s cart, and drove them home. The air was soft, heavy with damp, and tipping towards chilly. The children huddled under the four woolen blankets Vesemir had insisted on, and in only a few minutes, they were asleep. Eskel smiled, patted the pony’s back gently, and began to hum the Wolf Song.
When he reached their home, they were so dead-asleep that even when their mum and elder sisters came out to carry them to their beds, they only grumbled a little.
“I didn’t want to send them home on empty stomachs,” Eskel admitted timidly, “So I let them share our supper. I hope you don’t mind.”
The sisters, who were both in their late teens, giggled a little, flushing pink. Eskel heard the one whisper to the other, “Why are all the nice men so old?”
Their mother grinned at Eskel and patted his arm. “Thank yeh, Eskel. T’was kind of you. I ought to give you some form of payment--”
Eskel shook his head. “It’s been a while since we’ve had children around,” he said. “It was nice to… to take care of them.” He realized what he’d just said, and ducked his head. “Good night,” he mumbled, and led the pony away.
Dusk was getting heavy. Eskel took care of the horses and pony, refilled Lil Bleater’s water, and went inside.
He could hear a soft noise; the music box, playing slowly. His already-slow heart calmed further; his muscles relaxed completely. He climbed up the ladder, and saw that, while Geralt, Jaskier, and Vesemir were sound asleep, Lambert was lying on his side, staring at the music box.
“Hey,” Eskel murmured. “Do you want to go wait for the moon with me?”
Lambert smiled. “Yeah,” he whispered, and immediately started wriggling past Jaskier’s legs. Eskel returned to the ground and waited.
Only a few moments later, they were walking to the seashore. Lambert hummed some clumsy tune; Eskel wrapped his arm around his little brother’s neck and hummed too.
The sky was a spectacular display of color, and the ocean was quiet against the sand. The two brothers settled in a little nest of rocks still warm from the sun, gazing out at the living painting spread before them.
Far away, a whale breeched, and its call echoed through the earth as well as the water. Birds lessened their cries, settling in to sleep.
Night-blue surrounded them as Eskel asked, “You alright?”
“Yeah. It was… loud.” Lambert scowled at the sand. “I don’t know why. Nothing is loud out here.”
“Well, it was a busy day,” Eskel pointed out. “Was it fun?”
A tiny smile tipped up the corner of Lambert’s mouth. “Yes,” he said, sounding pleasantly surprised. “When I retire, I want to live in a place like this. Not by the sea, though. Too wet for me. I like grain country.”
“I suspected as much,” Eskel mused, and grinned as Lambert elbowed him sharply.
“You like it here, though,” Lambert said. “You like the sea.”
Eskel thought for a moment. “It’s not so much the sea,” he replied. “More… the people. They’re kind to us, many of them.”
“Most of them. Especially that kid at the baths.”
It was Eskel’s turn to drive a sharp elbow into his brother’s ribs. “Shut up. I mean, these people--this town--it feels… comfortable. If I could just stop being a Witcher, I’d settle here.”
Lambert nodded. “Did you have a good day today?” he asked curiously.
Eskel grinned at the moon peeking over the horizon. “Yes,” he said. “I had a very good day.”