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If There Could Be Returning

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The cat-eyed warriors who live in the Blue Mountains treat their horses well. Every colt and filly born to the semi-wild Kaer Morhen herd knows it, and looks forward to the Day of Partnering, when one or more of the cat-eyed men come down to the valley and present themselves to the herd. Tradition among the horses holds that three signs will tell a young horse when a witcher is bound to them by destiny: first, they shall not startle at their witcher’s first approach, though all their fellows be set to run. Second, they shall know him by his carriage and his scent, for a destined witcher looks and smells like coming home. Lastly, they shall know the bond is true when the cat-eyed man looks back at them and, seeing that he has been chosen, accepts the choice and beckons.

Next comes the Time of Learning, when the horse accompanies their witcher to the great keep high in the mountains, and is taught the things that one must know before setting out on the Path. Yarrow, the old chestnut mare who lives at the keep year-round, takes the time to greet every young horse brought up from the valley and share a few grains of wisdom:

You will see, hear, and smell many things which frighten you. Do not bolt. Trust the one you have chosen to know when the time is right to run.

The magic they call Axii slows your wits and dulls your senses. They will use it if you are hurt, or if they sense you are about to panic.

If they take their leave of you, and leave another human with you, remember that it is your responsibility to take care of the human in their stead and do your best to take them with you if the time comes for you to flee. If, however, another human comes upon you and tries to lead you off while your witcher has taken his leave of you, do not go with them. They are horse-thieves, and though they may try to entice you with oats and apples and bits of sugar, you must stand your ground. For if you go with them, you cannot know where you will end up — and believe me, young one, a life spent lashed to a cart and beaten in exhaustion is a high price to pay for a single taste of sweetness.

At last, just before the young horse leaves with their witcher on his Path, Yarrow gives her final lesson:

It is the lot of the cat-eyed men to protect the ones who walk on two legs. Though they will try to keep you safe, the things they do to protect the others will mean that, one day, the Black Horse will come to you. When she comes, do not be afraid. She is the Drinker of Wind, mother of us all, and when the time of breathing stops, she comes to guide us home.

You will see the horizon laid out before you, and the sun setting though it be midnight or high noon. Before your hooves will stretch great waters, an ocean without end, but you will find that when you step upon the water, it will be as solid as the earth. And you will see the Black Horse approaching you across the waters. 

When she comes to you, young one, you shall have a choice to make. Once she guides you across the waters, there is no turning back; but if you wish to linger, if you feel you have not discharged your responsibility to care for the one you chose, you may tell the Black Horse that you wish to stay.

Do not make this choice lightly, young one, for once it is made, you will be bound to it for as long as the one for whom you stayed yet lives, and their lives can be very long. You will be as a spirit in the wind, in the water, in the earth, guiding and protecting him; and when you can protect him no more, it will be for you and the others who chose as you did to meet him and guide him across the waters, home.

Every horse makes their choice alone, without pressure or judgment; the choice must be freely made, or it is no choice at all. Indeed, for centuries, no living horse has any inkling of the choices others have made, until one day, when the prickly colt named Lambert almost drowns while fighting a selkiemore.

Almost drowns.

Because although by all accounts he should drown, he doesn’t. Unconscious but with his enemy slain, the waters closing in around him carry him gently to shore, where his horse, a roan gelding named Hey-There, finds him and stands guard until he wakes.

Lambert thinks it’s a rare stroke of luck. His horse, who saw the way the sea changed its very current to carry his witcher to safety, knows better.

*

Roach XXIII, a queen among horses, sees the same signs when she goes out with the one named Geralt on his Path. She is a sturdy and sensible bay mare, as unpretentious as her charge, though she wonders occasionally about his sense of self-preservation. He’s entirely too kind by nature for his lot in life, she thinks — she can live quite well on grass, but he certainly can’t, and yet he tends to make charity a habit.

Oh, well. She’ll just have to look after him.

When the bright songbird called Jaskier appears and… establishes himself, she’s a bit skeptical — he talks all the time, and when he isn’t talking he’s singing. Though he travels with them in the wilderness, even his clothes are as loud as Roach’s witcher is quiet — has he never heard of camouflage? Clearly, the colt wouldn’t know a sense of self-preservation if it bit him in the behind, but he’ll have to wise up eventually. Roach and Geralt both assume that once he does, he’ll leave.

Jaskier doesn’t leave.

It takes Geralt all of about a month to fall hopelessly in love with him. Roach has more than a few doubts about the wisdom of it. Geralt already lacks what she deems a satisfactory degree of self-preservation; Jaskier, who has none whatsoever, strikes her as a bad influence. Moreover, Jaskier is not a cat-eyed human, and humans without cat-eyes possess but a fraction of a witcher’s natural lifespan. In Roach’s opinion, the witcher named Eskel would make her charge a far better life-mate than a pretty bird whose life will be as brief as a song — if only Geralt would get around to noticing the scarred witcher’s devotion.

It’s a good thing that Roach possesses an abundance of patience, because Geralt really can be stupid sometimes.

Months pass before Geralt manages to do something about his intractable case of romance. In that time, Roach finds herself slowly warming up to the pretty songbird who continues, day after day, not to leave.

It has nothing to do with the offerings he brings her, fistfuls of clover and carrots and the occasional lump of sugar, though she accepts them all with grace befitting a queen. Jaskier pours his love and adoration out for the gentle cat-eyed man whom so many others call a monster, fills Geralt’s cup till it runs over with sweetness. Roach sees the way her charge — who wants, above all else, to be loved — brightens, unfolding toward Jaskier like a flower turns its face to the sun. She sees the lines leaving her witcher’s face, sees the way he holds himself a little straighter, and despite herself, she softens.

The day she notices that the flowers Jaskier braids into her mane and tail — which, yes, he is allowed to do now — never wilt, the last piece of her approval falls into place. The songbird may not have cat-eyes, but somewhere among his ancestors was someone who wasn’t human — fairy or wood elf, she’s guessing, but it doesn’t really matter. People with sufficient magic in their veins to render cut flowers near-immortal have more than enough of it to live as long as any witcher, so Roach need not worry about her charge being left alone to grieve.

She whickers her blessing to Jaskier, who looks at her as if he understands.

Naturally, after that comes the Time of Waiting for Geralt to Figure Out That His Songbird Loves Him Back. It takes an exceedingly long time, in Roach’s estimation. She wouldn’t have thought someone with as much frenetic energy as Jaskier would have the patience for that kind of wait when he first started traveling with them and simply… never left, but as the months go on, he proves himself.

It’s not all Geralt’s fault, of course, because the songbird also seems to miss the obvious signs that his love is not unrequited. How two-legged people can spend that much time making cow-eyes at each other and still not realize their feelings are mutual, Roach hasn’t the faintest idea.

Perhaps humans enjoy pining? The songbird certainly sings about it often enough. Or perhaps pining is part of how humans conduct their mating dances. It seems excessively long for a mating dance, but human foals take a very long time to grow up. It’s possible that making cow-eyes for months is how humans demonstrate that they will continue providing for their foals as they mature.

…Geralt and Jaskier very clearly won’t be producing any foals, though.

Roach is rather at a loss.

Though, she’ll grant, pining isn’t the silliest human mating practice she’s heard of. Jaskier’s sung of some that are downright absurd: ‘Tell him to make me a cambric shirt, without no seam nor needlework’? Really? Roach fully intends to withdraw her approval if Jaskier tries asking her witcher to do that, though so far he’s shown no sign of intending to do so.

*

It’s a shitty, grey, rainy day, the last in the second straight week of rain, when the pining finally comes to an end. The three of them have sought refuge from the damp in a cave which Geralt has used many times before, but tonight, the mood is strange and fey. Tension hangs thick in the air. Jaskier, their ever-bright songbird, has been quiet and sullen ever since they left Tretogor yesterday in the mid-afternoon. His strange mood has, in turn, set Geralt to worrying; even Roach is on edge and restless. She doesn’t know what happened, but she hopes for all their sakes that her two charges sort things out soon.

A few minutes later, Geralt breaks the silence. “What’s. Wrong?”

Jaskier looks up, surprised, brows drawing together briefly. “…Nothing?” he tries.

Geralt frowns.

“Oh, hells,” the songbird sighs, looking away. “I’ll be fine, Geralt. I will. It’s just — look, I ran into my gods damned father yesterday. I wasn’t expecting to see him. He’s normally in Lettenhove, this time of the year. He said… some things. If I don’t stop wasting my time on unending frivolities, traipsing around the continent with some monster — and don’t you dare agree with him, Geralt, I know what monsters look like, and you’re not one of them — he’s going to strike me from the family books. The usual.”

He seems like he’s going to say more, but Geralt speaks up first. “We could… go back. You shouldn’t be. Disowned. Because of me.”

“Geralt,” Jaskier says, looking back, his tone just a touch sharper than usual, “First, I’m not being disowned because of you. I’m being disowned because of me. I have never been the son my father wanted — that’s nothing new. Second, I would choose to break bread with you and your brothers over eating roast peacock with nobles any day. I have made that choice every day, since the moment we met. This isn’t an open question, so — don’t — don’t take away the best thing that’s ever happened to me out of some misplaced sense of guilt.” Then, after a moment, he adds, a little softer, “Please.”

The witcher is silent for a long moment. “What… can I do. To make it… better?”

“Just don’t send me away.” The songbird’s blue eyes dart down to his hands, then back up at Geralt’s. “Not for this, at least.”

This response comes easily. “I wouldn’t take your choice from you,” Geralt says, quiet and serious. Then, very slowly, with the sort of jerky awkwardness of a newborn foal taking its first steps in life, he extends an arm.

Jaskier stares for half a breath, disbelieving. Then he scoots over and leans in, carefully, as if the witcher is a skittish colt that might startle and run at any moment.

Geralt doesn’t startle, or run. He pulls the songbird in close, tucking Jaskier against his side and letting him rest his head against the witcher’s shoulder.

They share a bedroll that night — just to sleep, fully clothed. Geralt curls protectively around his songbird, wraps an arm around his waist, and doesn’t wake Jaskier when he turns over in his sleep and wraps his arms and legs around Geralt like a particularly affectionate octopus.

Roach, standing at rest near the mouth of the cave, is pleased for them.

She’s also glad that she had the opportunity to see this through during her Time of Breathing. Because two weeks after that, she dies.

*

Two days after Geralt and Jaskier begin to cuddle up together in a single bedroll to sleep, the three of them have to ride out of town in a hurry. Geralt, for once in his life, can’t keep his mouth shut after accepting a contract to rid the local baron of a noonwraith haunting his garden, though he is discreet enough not to say anything publicly. He points out to no one but the baron himself that the lord had created the noonwraith by demanding the right of prima nocta from one of the village girls, then murdered her when she tried to resist.

It was a stupid impulse, he tells Roach. Why did he do it? He should have just let it go. Hopefully, since he’s told no one but Roach and the baron where the noonwraith came from, the lord won’t see fit to retaliate.

They’re on the road when the baron’s men find them, twelve days later.

Scorpion is there, with his witcher, Eskel. They ran into him on the road three days back, and since the contract Roach’s company was heading to take is a large one, Geralt and Eskel agreed to split both the risk and the money. Jaskier introduces himself to the scarred witcher with a smile and a sort of thoughtful look, and ends up riding pillion with him so the group can cover more ground. As much as Roach has come to enjoy the songbird’s company, he really needs his own horse, she thinks. Particularly if he’s going to be spending years like this with—

She doesn’t get the chance to finish the thought.

The baron’s men, who will be no match for two witchers in close combat, are smart. Instead of riding straight into the fray, they loose a volley of arrows from a distance. Roach never sees the arrow that pierces her heart, but she feels her rider tense, hears Jaskier cry out, sees the songbird hunch down instinctively at Eskel’s shoulder. Sees the scarred witcher’s sword flash from its sheath as he parries a projectile, cutting the arrow in half in midair with no more than a soft krik of sound.

Yarrow taught Roach well. You will see, hear, and smell many things which frighten you. Do not bolt. Trust the one you have chosen to know when the time is right to run. She tenses, snorts, but doesn’t bolt.

The arrow, when it strikes, hits her with what feels like a mighty blow to her chest.

Roach staggers. She has precisely enough control of her limbs to keep staggering long enough for Geralt to leap free of her back before she collapses. It was high noon a moment ago, and she was — is? — in a valley lined with trees, but now she sees a red horizon stretching out before her, an infinite expanse of water beneath, the sun setting against the vast ocean in the distance. And in that distance, silhouetted against the setting sun, she sees the Black Horse approaching, moving like wind upon the waters.

But — if she looks in just the right way, the way Yarrow taught her to look when she’s looking for a ghost that doesn’t want to be seen, she can also see something else.

It’s as if she’s looking through a dark, distorted glass, but she can see it. Roach sees herself, lying in a pool of her own blood on the ground with an arrow buried deep in her chest. She sees Geralt, her witcher, steel drawn. Sees Eskel, still parrying arrows as he pulls the songbird toward cover.

And she sees the last arrow, the one that Jaskier will never see.

The one that neither Eskel nor Geralt will be able to parry.

The one which will, in an instant, bury itself in Jaskier’s throat. It will open his windpipe and sever his arteries, still his endless chatter and song forever. It will leave Geralt alone. And — Roach doesn’t really know if there are lutes and song in the home that comes after life, it’s not the sort of thing horses would think about, but something in her reacts violently against the thought of Jaskier coming here. He doesn’t belong here. He has so much life left to live.

Roach has made her decision before the Black Horse even reaches her, on those dark hooves that fly like the wind.

*

Julian Alfred Pankratz, former Viscount de Lettenhove, called Jaskier, almost dies in a skirmish with armed men sent by a baron to avenge the humiliation he suffered when a person whom he called a monster called him a monster to his face.

Almost dies.

The arrow cuts a superficial notch into his neck — a scrape, really, little worse than cuts he’s given himself while shaving. He feels the sting, and Eskel swears when he smells the blood, but that’s all it is. It won’t even leave a scar. After the fight is over, Geralt, golden eyes wide and worried, tells Jaskier that if the arrow had struck just a few tiny inches to the left, it would have killed him. Eskel agrees that his survival is nothing short of a miracle — if not for the crosswind that picked up a bare instant before the arrow struck…

At the end of the day, Jaskier considers himself very lucky, and leaves it at that.

Roach XXIII, who was a queen among horses, receives a proper witcher’s funeral pyre at the side of the road. The reasons for it are practical — corpses, left unattended, draw ghouls — though Jaskier, ever sentimental, leaves a few forget-me-nots braided into her mane.

He steps back, and as he does, a gentle breeze picks up, passing soft as a breath and almost fondly through his hair.

A few short feet away, Scorpion lifts his head. The stallion nickers a greeting, but when the others turn to look, all they see is him, staring off into the wind.