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unring the bell

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Jaskier did not go to the coast.

In defiance of Destiny, it had been his plan to go to the coast. He bought himself a horse and aimed for the sea, thinking it was as simple as that, but like most life-changing choices it was not simple at all.

He found himself crab-walking, slowly sidestepping his way down in a southerly direction instead of an easterly one. He dragged his heels on his way to Cintra, once he realized that that was his unconscious destination. His progress was slow, both because he was reluctant to get himself further involved in Geralt’s affairs, and because he was afraid to stray too far from Caingorn Mountain.

It was irrational, but he had been hoping that if he lingered, Geralt might chase after him.

Then two things happened almost simultaneously. First, Jaskier learned of Cintra’s fall and the royal family dead, the young princess missing. He felt pain and guilt that he hadn’t made it in time to see her, and now probably never would. The second thing that happened is that he found himself waylaid by an ambush of Nilfgaardian soldiers and there was no Geralt leaping out, steel sword drawn, to save him. Being just a humble bard, he had little choice but to go quietly.

He finds himself now traveling to an unknown destination, his hands bound before him and the reins of his horse’s bridle held by a soldier beside him. He thinks often of digging in his heels, spurring his horse forward and galloping away, but Hayseed is not Roach, and they’ve only just met, so Jaskier can’t imagine actually escaping three trained soldiers that way. It’s only a vague daydream that nags at him the longer they travel. He looks to one side and the other, seeing only the tempting freedom of open countryside. Ahead of him is the unknown.

They haven’t said what they want of him, but he’s not stupid and he can take a guess. ‘The witcher’s bard’, they’d called him when they caught him that morning nursing a hangover in the common room of an inn, in a town whose name he can’t even remember. He had finally made it relatively far from Caingorn Mountain into Redania, certainly not far enough for the memory to fade into a blunt ache instead of a jagged spike in his chest, but possibly far enough that Geralt wouldn’t even hear of his capture, wherever he had gone after…

After.

Jaskier now regrets his crawling pace and his indecision. Perhaps they would never have found him, had he been cozied up in some little inn by the sea.

That first day he tries to fill the silence as they travel with inane commentary, talking until his throat hurts, despite not receiving any response from any of the soldiers. He tries not to think of Geralt’s irritated grunts. At least Geralt would acknowledge him.

Eventually the commander of the trio of soldiers rides up beside him and smacks him across the face, hard enough that his jaw blooms with pain and he loses his breath for a moment, tasting a slight tang of blood. Jaskier knows it could have been a much harder hit.

“Shut the fuck up, bard, or I’ll gag you.”

The commander rides back up to the front of the group and the soldiers snicker meanly. Jaskier lifts his bound hands to touch his bruised jaw. He’s taken harder hits in tavern brawls, but this is different. This scares him. He keeps his mouth shut.

They make camp in a large clearing by a stream. The horses gather at the water’s edge, and Jaskier is yanked roughly off of Hayseed’s back. He lands badly on his hip, the impact jarring his whole body. He can feel the jolt in his clenched teeth. A soldier leads Hayseed to the water.

Jaskier is tossed down with his back to a tree and bound there, the rope cutting into his middle and his back pressed to the rough bark. It rips his silk doublet and Jaskier winces, though he knows it doesn’t matter. He knows he’s been lucky so far that he hasn’t received more than some rough treatment. He wonders what will happen when they reach their destination.

They do not feed him. They offer him some water, which he drinks quickly, soothing his parched throat. Jaskier flexes his jaw and feels the bruising there. Nothing damaged, no loose teeth. He’s lucky and he knows it. He bites back his meager bravery and waits.

Eventually the commander comes to tower over him. He’s a large man, with broad shoulders and meaty hands and a permanent sneer on his face. One of the soldiers had addressed him as Rugin.

“We were instructed to bring you alive,” Rugin rumbles, his voice naturally rough. He makes Geralt’s voice sound smooth as silk in comparison. “Orders never said we couldn’t knock you around a little.”

Jaskier tries not to shrink back, but his eyes widen. “I haven’t done anything,” he protests before he can think better of it.

Rugin smiles. “Who said we need a reason?”

Jaskier closes his eyes and doesn’t see the boot when it lands in his stomach, or the next kick to his ribs. Rugin laughs and wanders away again, leaving Jaskier to catch his breath. He can’t double over because he’s tied too tightly to the tree, but he draws his legs up in belated protection. The soldiers by the fire are staring at him with interest.

Sleep is a long time coming as he watches the soldiers bed down. Jaskier waits for one of them to approach him but they don’t, and eventually Jaskier falls asleep with his chin tucked to his chest.

~*~

He wakes in the morning with the worst neck ache he’s ever had, and his whole body is stiff and painful. His first thought is of Geralt, and he winces. He can’t rely on Geralt anymore. Geralt is a vain hope, and Jaskier wants to remain practical as long as possible.

He watches the soldiers pack up their camp, and eventually one of them comes over and unties him from the tree. The soldier allows him to relieve himself, and he awkwardly maneuvers his clothing with bound hands. He manages it, but now he notices how much his wrists burn from the rope, and how numb his fingers are.

“I don’t suppose you’d loosen these ropes,” Jaskier says hopefully, forgetting to hold his tongue. “At this rate my hands will fall off before we get where we’re going.”

Rugin approaches with an arched eyebrow. “You won’t need your hands where we’re going.”

Jaskier feels the blood drain from his face, though he maintains his bravado. “I have to lodge a formal complaint. A bard always needs his hands. I could play for you,” he offers desperately, forgetting for a moment that the soldiers had taken him with nothing but the clothes on his back. All his things were abandoned at the inn, including his priceless lute. “Or maybe I could sing. Your men must be longing for some entertainment.”

“Bard, you’re already the entertainment.” Rugin bares his crooked teeth in a warning grin, and Jaskier curses his runaway mouth. Nevertheless, Rugin loosens the rope and knots it again, and Jaskier’s hands tingle painfully as the blood rushes back through them.

“Thank you,” Jaskier whispers, hating himself for feeling gratitude.

Rugin responds by shoving Jaskier toward Hayseed, who is waiting placidly nearby. A soldier helps him onto the horse and Jaskier settles himself into the saddle. He tangles his fingers into Hayseed’s mane, gripping tightly to something that is his. Something they haven’t taken away from him yet.

At lunch the soldiers take turns with their fists, never hard enough to break, just hard enough to knock the breath from Jaskier’s lungs. He curls up on the ground and tries to recite poetry in his head, but the rhythm of the beating throws him off.

~*~

They reach their destination just before sunset. The camp is set up in a large clearing in the forest around a central campfire, already blazing. There is a freshly killed deer carcass nearby and meat roasting over the fire. Jaskier counts nine soldiers in total, plus a woman in an elegant silver doublet and a split skirt for riding. She’s too perfect to be anything other than a mage.

Jaskier is dragged within the circle of the camp and shoved to the ground, crashing awkwardly on his knees. When he looks up there is a man crouching down before him, staring with a piercing, cool gaze. Jaskier blinks.

“You are the witcher’s bard, are you not?”

“Not anymore,” Jaskier replies honestly. He senses that he won’t receive a punch from this man for talking, so he talks about nothing at all just to hear his own voice again. “So if it’s Geralt you’re after, I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong person. An unfortunate confusion, but I’m happy to be on my way and save you the trouble of asking me anything I wouldn’t have answers to anyway.”

The man tilts his head to the side, examining Jaskier. “You’re mouthy.”

Jaskier nods. “I’ve been accused of that before. It’s a gift and a curse.”

The man stands up. He is very tall and slender, and clad in black armor that doesn’t appear to have any affiliation with an army, but his accent, like all the other soldiers, is Nilfgaardian. Jaskier feels very small there on his knees.

“I’m glad you like to talk. You’ll be doing a lot of talking for me, bard.”

“I’m better at singing, honestly,” Jaskier says, lifting his chin.

The man almost smiles, and the calm of his expression unsettles Jaskier more than Rugin’s threats. “I’m sure you’ll be doing a lot of that too.”

Jaskier doesn’t think he means music.

“Fringilla,” the man calls, and the mage joins them.

“Cahir. Who is this?”

The man, Cahir, gestures at Jaskier. “The witcher’s bard. They finally found him.”

She nods, her dark eyes sweeping over Jaskier. “Excellent. We can start tomorrow.”

“Start what?” Jaskier asks, looking between them. He really doesn’t want to know, but he can’t seem to keep his mouth shut. Rugin looms behind him, but so far hasn’t made any move to cuff him for his insolence. “I’d like to be dressed for the occasion, and I’m afraid this outfit hasn’t held up well.”

“Oh, he’s funny,” the mage says, though she doesn’t crack a smile.

“I thought you’d like to begin right away, Fringilla,” Cahir says, frowning.

She purses her full lips. “If you wish.”

“Where would you like him?”

“Tie him to one of the trees.”

Fringilla approaches him while Rugin lashes him to a small tree, and Jaskier can’t take his eyes off her. Unlike Rugin’s brutish manner and Cahir’s unsettling composure, the mage Fringilla is like a frozen stream--things lurk beneath the ice, slowly shifting, barely glimpsed.

“You’re going to tell me all you know,” Fringilla says, her voice low and implacable.

“Where to begin,” Jaskier replies, and his voice barely shakes. “I studied the seven liberal arts at Oxenfurt, so I know quite a bit. We should probably break it all down by subject first, or--”

Jaskier’s head snaps back into the tree when Fringilla touches her finger to his forehead. Instantly there is a searing pain ripping through his consciousness, and he can feel her rooting around in there with spidery fingers. He knows when someone is trying to read his mind, he’s been around enough magic-users to recognize that much.

“Where is the witcher?” Fringilla asks slowly, succinctly.

He closes himself off, does his best to recite his own poetry and not think of Geralt of Rivia. He must succeed, because Fringilla breaks off after a few minutes with a frustrated sound. Jaskier reels with pain and squeezes his eyes shut against the fading sunlight.

“Surprising,” she murmurs, sounding both irritated and intrigued.

“What is?” Cahir asks, much closer than before.

Fringilla steps back from Jaskier. “He’s resistant. He must have had training.”

Jaskier can’t help the snort of inappropriate laughter that bubbles out of him. There is a certain kind of irony there, in that the person who had coached him against mind manipulation is the same person they want to find. After meeting Yennefer a few times, Jaskier had become paranoid that she could be reading his mind. Despite Geralt’s disgruntled assurances that Yennefer wouldn’t do that, he had consented to helping Jaskier strengthen his defenses. Geralt used weak waves of Axii while Jaskier did his best to fight it. He isn’t an expert at it, but he is grateful now for any little bit of an advantage.

“Where is the witcher?” Cahir asks, using his greater height to intimidate Jaskier.

“Which one? There are more than a few left, actually. You’ll have to be more specific.”

Cahir’s jaw clenches, and Fringilla says, “The White Wolf. Where is Geralt of Rivia now?”

She doesn’t give him time to answer before she’s touching his forehead again and Jaskier is swimming through fire, trying to find the surface. He thinks of a stream, of cool water, and the pain becomes a little more bearable. He shies away from the instinctive thought of Geralt.

She breaks off with a growl. “This will be...complicated. I need to prepare. Leave him here and I’ll get started in the morning.”

Cahir nods. Rugin adjusts the ropes around his chest so that Jaskier can sit down, and then removes his boots. So he can’t run, Jaskier realizes. Rugin smirks at him and Jaskier tries not to flinch.

Cahir and Fringilla walk some distance away, speaking too quietly for Jaskier to hear, and a soldier stands guard nearby. It’s pointless to guard him; there’s no way he can escape.

Jaskier knows he is not without his moments of courage. He followed a witcher into danger for twenty years, after all, and that required bravery no matter what Geralt may think. He’s faced down wyverns and wraiths at Geralt’s side, but he’s never been good at dealing with the human monster. He’s too soft, too easily surprised at human depravity, even at his age.

This is not a monster he knows how to fight.

He tries not to think of Geralt, but now that Fringilla is gone the memory of him swims behind his eyes. He doesn’t know where Geralt is, so no matter how many times they ask the question Jaskier will have no answer to give. He takes some comfort in that, at least, though he wonders what the consequences will be for not answering correctly.

Eventually after the sun goes down and dinner has been eaten Cahir returns. He stands in front of him and stares for a while, and Jaskier feels absolutely exposed by that gaze. He resists the urge to squirm.

“This will go a lot better for you if you just tell us what we want to know.”

“Even if I knew, I wouldn’t--”

“Yes, yes, you wouldn’t tell me. But you will,” Cahir says calmly. “How long it takes to get the information out of you is up to you. But we will get it.”

Jaskier swallows hard. “I suppose I should at least try to tell you that I don’t know where the White Wolf is, even if you won’t believe me. My mother didn’t raise a liar.”

Cahir’s lips twitch. “I never met a bard who wasn’t a liar, so I’ll take that with a grain of salt.”

“Rude.”

“Why should I believe you?” Cahir asks plainly.

Jaskier shifts uncomfortably but the ropes hold him tight. “I have no reason to lie. I’ll be weak to torture, most likely, but my answer will stay the same.”

Cahir gives him a sideways glance. “Fringilla said you were resistant. Why resist if you have nothing to hide?”

“Wouldn’t you resist, if someone was trying to probe your mind?” Jaskier scoffs.

“That’s a fair point. However, I think you still have a lot you can tell us. And you’re right, you look like a little torture will go a long way.”

Jaskier falls silent. He tucks his fingers up into loose fists.

“Get some sleep. Tomorrow will be here before you know it.” Cahir turns to leave.

“Why do you want to know where he is?” Jaskier blurts out.

There is silence for a moment, then Cahir speaks, his voice cold. “If you won’t tell me, then I won’t tell you.”

He walks away, nodding at the soldier on guard. The fire is too far away to warm him, and the light doesn’t reach where he sits. In the cold dark he begins to tremble.

~*~

Morning dawns before Jaskier is ready. He wakes with every bone aching, and his first thought is of torture. His second thought is of Geralt. He thinks of mornings in camp, Geralt tending the fire for breakfast, gently shaking him awake with a hand on his shoulder and a grunted greeting. For a moment he loses himself in the memory, drawing warmth from it.

Regardless of how it ended, Jaskier knows that some memories will remain untainted.

Fringilla and Cahir come for him some time later, and a soldier unties him from the tree in silence. When he realizes what they’re going to do he can’t help but struggle, for all the good it does. They tie his wrists to two closely spaced trees, his arms stretched out wide.

He tries not to react when Fringilla comes to touch his forehead again. “The White Wolf,” she says again.

“You are very persistent,” Jaskier spits out through the pain. “I still don’t know.”

“Why?”

He grits his teeth and resists. He imagines a clear stream flowing in the summer heat, and shows it to her. Dragonflies dart over the surface of the shallows. It is innocuous, and he feels her frustration.

Fringilla sighs and Cahir turns to the soldiers around the fire. “Rugin,” he calls, and Jaskier’s eyes widen.

Rugin saunters over, his expression pleased. He is flipping a short knife in his fingers. “I could let someone else do it, but I feel a connection between us, bard, and anyway. I like doing this.”

Jaskier sneers, gathering his bravado. “My answer won’t change.”

“Perhaps our questions will,” Cahir says calmly.

Rugin efficiently opens Jaskier’s doublet and slices through his shirt. It hangs open, exposing his chest and belly, and Jaskier shivers in the cold. Without preamble Rugin places his blade on one side of Jaskier’s chest below his collarbone and draws it downward several inches. The pain doesn’t hit right away, and Jaskier watches as blood wells up and starts to trickle downward. It’s not a shallow cut.

Fringilla switches places with Rugin and touches his forehead. “Why don’t you know where he is? We know you travel with him, like a pathetic shadow.”

The slice in his flesh stings sharply. He imagines the stream again, but he’s distracted by pain and the scene wavers.

“Rugin,” Fringilla says, an order.

Rugin trades places with her again. He makes another cut beside the first, and this time the bite of it is immediate. Tears come unbidden to Jaskier’s eyes.

“One cut for each time you don’t answer,” Cahir says, leaning one hip against the table.

Jaskier shudders. Fringilla touches him again, and tears slip down his cheeks. The stream is a dry bed of stones.

A third cut, then a fourth, then a fifth. Jaskier cries and blood soaks the waistband of his trousers. The stream is gone, leaving a void.

“The witcher cast him aside,” Fringilla says with grim satisfaction, and Jaskier moans.

“How long ago?” Cahir straightens up, tapping one finger repeatedly against the table perhaps unconsciously.

“Several weeks,” Fringilla says. “Maybe closer to two months.”

Cahir growls and paces back and forth. “Find out where he might go, if he has her.”

Jaskier looks up, confused and shaky with pain. Every breath he takes makes the wounds on his chest burn.

With a small sigh Fringilla tries again, and Jaskier can see she’s growing tired. He hasn’t even had time to process the question before she’s in his head, digging with rough tendrils. He cries out, shaking her hand off of his forehead.

She breaks off with a gasp. “I need some time,” she says, stepping away.

“No matter,” Cahir says firmly. “I can ask as well as you can. Go now.”

Fringilla walks away, her shoulders slumped ever so slightly. Cahir stands before him, his piercing eyes just as frightening as Fringilla’s. Rugin stands beside him, waiting.

“Where might he go? What hideaway, what trail, what stronghold?”

Jaskier presses his lips together and closes his eyes. He loses track of the cuts as Rugin adds another each time Cahir asks his questions. Jaskier can tell that they span the width of his chest. He’s having a hard time remaining upright, sagging between the trees.

Cahir asks again, and again Jaskier resists, though he’s starting to shake. He’ll never tell, though now that Fringilla is gone he lets loose the floodgates of memory, of the keep of Kaer Morhen that Geralt has told him about, though he’s never been there. Surely if Geralt was on the run he’d return there for safety. Jaskier just doesn’t know why he’d be running from Nilfgaard, and he doesn’t know who the ‘her’ is that Cahir mentioned. Yennefer, maybe?

With considerable effort Jaskier stands still, holding back with all his might. He knows he’ll be disfigured now, that he’ll bear forever the lines of his resistance written on his chest, but it’s a small price to pay for Geralt’s safety.

Finally Cahir stalks away from Jaskier, jerking his head at Rugin, who follows. They leave to go stand by the campfire and Jaskier heaves a sigh of relief. After a few minutes Rugin returns.

“I’m to let you know how displeased he is,” Rugin rumbles. “And I’m to punish you how I see fit.”

Jaskier shrinks away from him, woozy and scared.

Rugin shrugs. “Don’t worry, I’ll start slow. You’ll be with us awhile, we can save some for later.”

A blow impacts on his cheekbone before he can even register that Rugin’s fist is moving. Another strikes the other side, then one on his brow bone, another on his jaw. His whole face is awash with agony, and before another blow can land he slumps in his ropes, his vision mercifully darkening, and then he feels nothing more.

~*~