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“You’ll bind me then. I’ll be a hostage for you.” Iorveth said, voice harsh as ever. Geralt frowned.

 

“Last time we did that you broke out of the binds before I was finished negotiating.” He said, shooting the elf an accusatory look. Iorveth shrugged.

 

“Maybe don’t take so long next time then, vatt’ghern.” He snarled back without any real heat behind the words. They were sitting rather comfortably in a cave to avoid the downpour outside. Iorveth had been able to hunt down a few rabbits for them to eat as they waited for the rain to let up. Their fire crackled and glowed, highlighting the roughness of each of their features with it’s light.

 

The two had been on their way to Loc Muinne when Geralt had to make a stop to buy supplies. And then realized he didn’t have enough orens to purchase what he needed. So he had to pick up a contract, delaying their progress, but Geralt had insisted with Iorveth that he didn’t feel that he would be prepared without the extra potion ingredients and supplies for blade oils.

 

The contract had been an odd one. There was a sorceress who had taken residence in a local upstanding individual’s home, apparently putting him in a trance to take over his house. Geralt’s job was to ask her to leave, and force her out if she didn’t go fast enough. He was tipped off almost immediately, by a worried individual whose concern surprised Geralt, that she had a deep hatred for non-humans and had been dragging a variety of them into the home. And not one had come out.

 

So, to get this all over with all the more speedy, Iorveth offered to play the part of a trade to get the sorceress out. In the end Geralt would probably have to try and kill her. She was hurting innocents for seemingly no reason, and especially with Geralt’s current alliance he wasn’t going to stand for that.

 

“You realize I’ll have to actually tie them, right. You won’t be able to escape like last time. If she’s a sorceress as they claim and not some woman in training, then she’ll be able to sense that if she tries.” Geralt huffs. If Iorveth comes out scathed, Geralt does not want to be the scapegoat of the Scoia’taels anger.

 

“Then just cut the binds if things turn awry, Gwynbleidd.” Iorveth scoffed.

 

“But what if-“ Geralt’s cut off by a harsh hiss from Iorveth.

 

“It will go fine. You pissing your breaches over it won’t get us anywhere.” Iorveth turned around, facing the rain, effectively ending the conversation. Geralt sighed.

 

-

 

Geralt stepped up to the double doors, a guiding hand on Iorveth’s arm. The elf’s arms were securely tied behind his back at the wrists.

 

“Are you going to just stand here or move, vatt’ghern.” The elf snarled. He was tense under Geralt’s hand, and the witcher could hear his slightly quicker-than-usual heartbeat. Geralt wasn’t sure what reason Iorveth had to be nervous, considering how aggressively he had pushed for this way of meeting the sorceress. Geralt wasn’t going to address it if he didn’t have to.

 

Geralt rapped on the door. And waited.

 

The doors flew open, Iorveth flinching in surprise. There was no one behind the doors so Geralt took this as a “welcome in” and pushed the elf inside. The doors slammed shut behind them with a breeze of magic. Geralt peered around. The house was lavish on the inside, covered in fine tapestries and rugs, beautifully crafted furniture and useless but monetarily valuable trinkets.

 

Geralt stood silently, listening for a sound to follow. He felt Iorveth squirm against his binds.

 

The witcher finally picked up on a sound, a hum maybe, and turned to follow it. He walked past the grand stairs and through a door or two before coming upon a kitchen. Geralt’s medallion was thrumming against his chest, but not near as much as it should have been were he meeting a sorceress.  

 

He spotted a woman bent over a table, pouring over some book laid before her, humming softly. Iorveth pushed back against Geralt, as if trying to move away. Geralt could hear his rabbit quick heartbeat. If this was an act, then Iorveth was putting on quite the performance in playing the part of a scared non-human about to be sacrificed.

 

And then Geralt’s eyes took in the walls of the kitchen. Lined with elf ears, hacked off messily and smeared with both new and long-dried blood. Torn and cut strands of hair, perhaps dwarven beards. A strand of leaves, torn off a dryad. There was a cage in the corner, looking bent and used, rusty and blood covered. Geralt could smell the copper now, smell the blatant anxiety streaming off of Iorveth. He couldn’t blame the elf.

 

The woman finally turned around, brown hair bouncing merrily around a rounded face. Her eyes gleamed at the two of them, a wild glint flaring up in her irises.

 

“A witcher! Visiting little ‘ol me!” The girl crooned, placing a delicate hand to her chest, “With a guest, I see.” She finished, eyeing Iorveth in a way that even made Geralt uncomfortable.

 

Geralt kept his composure, nodding his head at the woman. There was no way she was a full-blown sorceress, probably someone only just getting into the arts of chaos.

 

“The towns folk asked me if I would be able to persuade you into leaving, miss. I heard you had a liking of sorts for non-humans, so I offer you one in hopes of sweetening my ask.” Geralt said, shoving Iorveth forward. The man fell to his knees with a grunt, landing hard. The woman stared down at the elf. And a smile spread over her face.

 

She strode forward and Geralt kept himself braced in case he had to draw his sword. She gripped Iorveth’s face, tilting his chin up so she could look at him. She pulled off his handkerchief, Iorveth gasping, tugging at his binds at the action. The woman smiled wider at the elf’s distress.

 

“I certainly can’t turn down a specimen as good as the infamous Scoia’tael commander,” She tilted his face, grip hard, letting her see more of his scar, “Even if he is already a little damaged, I can still have my fun.”

 

The smell of Iorveth’s fear almost made Geralt nauseous, budding out so suddenly and strongly. He prayed it was some sort of very convincing act. There was nothing he could do at the moment even if it wasn’t.

 

“So are you willing to leave the area, miss?” Geralt asked, trying to stay as indifferent as he could to the manhandling Iorveth was enduring. The woman looked up at Geralt, not letting go of her iron grip on his companion’s jaw.

 

“With a gift as nice as this, I would follow any order you gave!” She said with a flourish, finally letting Iorveth go. The elf took a deep breath, shuddering. Geralt didn’t want to test the woman’s statement, he still had to be careful.

 

“I only ask that you leave the area, miss.” Geralt said. She smiled wide. With a flick of her wrist the cage door swung open lazily.

 

“Do you mind, dear witcher?” She batted her eyes at him. Geralt strode forward, roughly grabbing Iorveth by the arm to push him into the cage. Iorveth was oddly unresponsive to Geralt’s touches, but he could hear the elf’s heavy breathing. Panicked sounding, he supposed. He once again found himself hoping this was an act.

 

He shoved Iorveth into the cage, the elf hitting the metal floor with a twang, not shifting from where he was now kneeled, half crumpled. The woman gleefully shut the door, seeming to lock it with a few hushed words.

 

“I really can’t thank you enough for this, dear witcher. Oh wait, I can! If you’ll follow me.” She said, turning and stepping out of the room. Geralt glanced nervously at Iorveth, listening carefully to the hurried intake of breath. The quicker he cut down this woman or persuaded her to move without Iorveth the better. And he needed Iorveth out of harms way before he could do either of those.

 

He followed after the woman, a few paces behind. She wound up a set of steps with feather-light feet, and Geralt followed with heavy thumps of his own. She waited in front of a door impatiently, and once Geralt was up, swung the door open wide.

 

And Geralt’s heart dropped into his stomach. If the kitchen was bad, this was so, so much worse.

 

These were skins. This woman had skinned non-humans. There were organs in jars, all labeled tediously and with beautiful handwriting. Geralt was disgusted. And the woman beamed.

 

“I probably won’t be able to take all this with me since I’m moving,” She said with dramatic melancholy, “But at least I can share it’s beauty with someone before I go!” She preened.

 

“Although..,” She turned to look at one of her glass jars, filled to the brim with eyes of all different colors, “I am still missing a few pieces..,” Geralt tensed.

 

“You’re not quite human, are you?” She asked, looking over her shoulder at Geralt. He saw her fidget with something, medallion thrumming as she readied some spell. Her heartbeat was impossibly steady.

 

“Not quite, miss.” He said, voice low and warning, hoping he could discourage her from whatever plan she had to attack him. She hummed, not moving. Geralt felt hope course through him that maybe she rethought.

 

And then she shrieked, launching a dagger at him. The dagger split into three, a side effect of whatever spell she cast, and he drew his sword fast enough to knock all of them aside. She shot off a few weak spells with a similar affect to aard. Geralt cast his own aard at her, the woman falling back on her ass. Geralt was on top of her in a second, sword at her throat.

 

“Leave. And leave the elf. Or I’ll have to kill you. I tried to do this the kind way, and you’ve forced my hand.” He said, keeping his voice cold. He could hear her heartbeat, still steady. Geralt saw her fingers twitch, trying to cast again. He knocked the tip of his sword against her palm, cutting shallowly into the skin, the woman hissing.

 

“Leave or die.” He said, reiterating his offer. She scowled.

 

“I’m not stopping my work, my collection,” She said, voice starting low, and it quickly rose in both pitch and madness, “Those non-humans deserve to die! They’re rot amongst our crops, nothing but nuisances! I’ll kill each and every one I get my hands on, you fucking witchers included. That rat Iorveth deserves the worst of it, that fucking-“ A squelch, and Geralt had dug his blade through her throat. He didn’t care to hear the rest of that particular opinion.

 

Geralt sighed, wiping down his blade on the woman’s dress. He hadn’t wanted this to end in bloodshed, was quite tired of it frankly, but it seems it will be at every turn in his life. Now he needed to get to Iorveth and get his pay. And then supplies and finally, Loc Muinne.

 

He went down the stairs, finding his way back into the kitchen. The door to the cage had swung open, probably due to the fledgling sorceress’ death. And yet Iorveth sat where he had when Geralt had left, unmoved.

 

Geralt frowned, smelling the fear and confusion, hearing the panting and fast heartbeat. He leaned down.

 

“Iorveth?” No response, “Hey, Iorveth.” He tried again. He reached in, grabbing the elf by the shoulder to shake him only for the man to flinch away, a sharp intake of breath rattling his frame. He started mumbling, nonsensical elder speech, but it was obvious that it was panicked.

 

Fuck. Fuck. It hadn’t been an act, at all. Iorveth was fucking panicking. Of course a Scoia’tael wouldn’t want to be bound and handed over to a fucking human, even if it was all for show. Iorveth had probably been through some nasty experiences. Geralt shouldn’t have let him be the bait.

 

“Iorveth, hey, you’re safe,” Geralt tried awkwardly, hoping to mimic Dandelion’s soothing when Geralt panicked like this, “You’re in the sorceress’ house, but she’s gone, it’s just me.” Geralt tried. There was more muttering, but Geralt clearly heard “vatt’ghern” in there. Good sign, he supposed? Geralt finally drew a dagger, slicing the restraints. Iorveth’s hands flew to his front, seemingly clutching at himself.

 

Geralt made an affirmative noise, reaching out to touch Iorveth again. He wanted to get them out of here. Iorveth flinched, but let Geralt gently guide him to face the witcher. Iorveth’s eye was far away, mind not all there, but recognition lit up when he say Geralt.

 

“Gwynbleidd.” He said, breathless. He was shaking horribly, as if freezing. Geralt nodded.

 

“Yeah, it’s me. You need to calm down.” Geralt said. The elf was starting to look like he was going to pass out from his shallow breathing. He watched Iorveth flounder to set a pace, chest flailing in it’s attempt to steady. Geralt huffed, grabbing Iorveth’s hand to let it rest over his armor-covered chest. Dandelion had done this for him and it helped, grounded him.

 

“Breath with me, okay?” He asked, taking in a deep breath, holding Iorveth’s hand where it was. Iorveth shook, eye darting around. It took a few breaths for him to start trying to match Geralt, taking in trembling breaths. Geralt kept up his pace, staying steady and guiding each time Iorveth slipped back into hyperventilating.

 

Iorveth looked faint as he finally seemed to even out, eye weary and body relaxing significantly. His scar was on full display, strands of once carefully braided hair astray on his face, stuck to his skin with a sheen of cold sweat. Geralt watched him for a moment, making sure he won’t topple over as the witcher went to grab the discarded handkerchief off the ground.

 

He coaxed Iorveth out of the cage by the wrist, gently leading him out of the room entirely. He really was worried the elf would just keel over with how pale he’d gone, face ashen. He pulled him outside, the sun setting and casting soft oranges and yellows across the rolling hills.

 

Geralt tied the handkerchief around Iorveth’s head as best he could, being careful with the ear that went through the slit on the left side of the fabric. Iorveth looked stony—almost frustrated—now that he was calm, no longer struggling to breath.

 

“Will you need help walking to camp?” Geralt asked hesitantly. He didn’t want to insult the elf, knew how prideful he was, but did want to extend the offer. Iorveth nodded shallowly, not meeting Geralt’s eyes. The witcher guided Iorveth into wrapping an arm around his shoulders, Geralt holding the elf’s waist, supporting his weight.

 

They trudged back to their camp in the cave. There were a few moments where Iorveth’s heartbeat skyrocketed, and Geralt acknowledged it once before deciding to dutifully ignore it. When Geralt acknowledged it the first time, Iorveth snapped at him, words terse and obviously only stemming from his own discomfort. Best to let it go for now.

 

Geralt let Iorveth lay down on the extra bedroll the witcher had brought.

 

“I need to go get the orens, and then I’ll be back.” Geralt said, keeping an eye on Iorveth. He didn’t respond, just stared at the wall, shoulders hunched. That was as much of a sign as he was going to get.

 

He worried the whole way back to town, through the whole conversation with his contractor, the whole time haggling with the merchants, and the whole way back. Iorveth was going to internalize this and end up hurting himself. Not that Geralt was one to talk about healthy coping, but Dandelion had pounded his wellbeing into him enough that he wasn’t going to sit by idly and let his companion stew in distress.

 

So he got back to the cave in record time, surprised to see a fire lit and Iorveth sitting up, flute in hand. He was just holding the instrument, hands positioned but not breathing life into it. Geralt settled in front of the fire, warming himself from the cool air outside, as the sun had set and taken its warmth with it. He rifled through his own belongings, organizing newly bought materials.

 

“What happened in there?” Geralt asked, tone questioning but indifferent. Iorveth sighed deeply, shoving his flute back into his bag. Geralt could smell the aggravation.

 

“You seemed to handle it well enough to know what happened.” Iorveth hissed back, on the defense.

 

“Yes, but what caused it, Iorveth.” Geralt said, taking Iorveth’s aggression in stride. Geralt paused in his organizing, looking at the elf. He was staring at the cave wall, sitting so still Geralt would have thought he wasn’t breathing if he couldn’t hear the soft intake and exhale of breath.

 

“Not like it matters.” Iorveth huffed, almost petulant. Geralt frowned. He was understanding his bard’s frustrations now.

 

“It does. It matters so we can keep it from happening again. Or so we can work through whatever caused it.” Geralt said, trying to lean forward to get a look at Iorveth’s face. The elf tensed, Geralt watching him pick at his gloves angrily. Surely he would tear them, pulling like that…

 

“The binds. And my handkerchief.” He spat out finally, words sharp.

 

“Didn’t like being restrained? Or having your scar on display?” Geralt asked. Iorveth didn’t answer, but his heartbeat picked up again, as if reliving the memory.

 

“I understand,” Geralt said, a little quick, trying to alleviate Iorveth’s silently growing distress, “I don’t like getting stuck under things, not being able to move. I don’t like people touching my hair without asking,” He tried.

 

“Upsets me. I get shaky.” He continued, leaning forward just an inch more, catching sight of Iorveth’s eye. His brow was furrowed, looking upset and contemplative.

 

“Revealing your weaknesses to me, vatt’ghern. That’s a dangerous gamble.” He snarled, words lacking any bite. Geralt leaned back and shrugged.

 

“I trust you enough to not turn on me. You’re my companion right now.” He heard Iorveth’s heartbeat quicken again and worried he’d said something wrong. The elf turned around to face him before Geralt got a chance to backpedal on his words, caught by the elf’s gaze.

 

A moment of understanding passed between the two, Iorveth’s single eye and stern set mouth expressing everything without a word. They trusted one another, even if pride blinded them from that here and there. Iorveth needed Geralt to get to Saskia, and Geralt needed Iorveth to get to Triss. They wouldn’t be digging a dagger into each other’s back any time soon, if ever.

 

Iorveth stood, pulling his bow off the ground and pulling at the string.

 

“I’ll find us some dinner. We can move out again in the morning.” He said, stepping out of the cave. Geralt nodded, going back to tending to his belongings.

 

He poked at the fire while he waited, started brewing a potion or two. Iorveth came back soon enough, two fish skewered on an arrow. Geralt set up fire to cook them. Iorveth made use of some herbs he picked up, seasoning the fish.

 

They ate in comfortable silence, listening to the rain pick up once again outside. Iorveth played the flute until it was time to rest, the two laying down on their respective bedrolls. Geralt decided to actually get some shut eye rather than meditate this time. He was drifting off when Iorveth spoke up.

 

“I appreciate your help, Geralt.” He said, voice low and rough.

 

“You would have done the same for me.” Geralt said, trying to match the whisper. Iorveth scoffed.

 

“Would have tried. I don’t think I could be as soothing, Gwynbleidd.” He said, humor playing into his tone if not a bit of teasing.

 

“It would have been enough.” He said, growing tired. He let his eyes fall shut, listening to the steady patter of rain and Iorveth’s elf-slow heartbeat.

 

And tomorrow; Loc Muinne.