* Please read: This is mainly based in the show (with some elements from Witcher 3: Wild Hunt). It will have some canon divergence, but not an AU. I wanted to put my own spin on Geralt and Ciri meeting for the first time. Constructive criticism is welcome. If you choose to leave a review, please give a shout-out to my editor.
* Genres, tags, and warnings: angst, fluff, hurt/comfort, abandonment issues, drama, hunting/graphic depictions of hunting, swearing, mentions of gore, fluff, protective Geralt, no romance, father-daughter relationship
Edited by: PrintingPisces
When Geralt awoke, the magic still clung to the air, like early morning fog. One parts comforting, equal parts impossible to ignore, and even being unbearable to some.
Call it destiny, call it magic, call it whatever the hell it could be, he couldn't ignore it. And he'd be an absolute fool if he did so, even though the fog seemed to dissipate as they ambled on through the woods. All he knew was that this was the way they needed to go and nothing more.
Geralt was once again lying in the back of the cart. Though his wounded leg was now beginning to heal, he still had some ways to go before a full recovery. He was also still unsure of what happened, if it really was Visenna that helped him. He had woken up far too disoriented for his liking to know for sure, despite the now-lack of toxins that had previously been coursing through his veins. As the cart jostled Geralt, his wound was making him acutely aware of every root and rock beneath the wheels.
The man driving the cart, Yurga, was taking them to his home so that they could both rest. If asked, Geralt would humbly admit that he needed it, as well as the aforementioned ale. Also, he knew that they needed to continue in this direction. There was something guiding them that way, almost tugging them along at a consistent pace. Even the old horses that pulled the cart seemed sprier in step. Whatever lay at the end of the long trail they were on, one thing seemed obvious.
It wouldn't be Cirilla.
How could it be? He had tried tracking her, long after the siege on her kingdom was over and done. He'd trekked through bloodied streets, rode to the outer walls, maneuvered around a cavernous split in the ground that he'd never seen before, until it was much later that he'd stumbled upon what looked to be a destroyed refugee camp in the middle of the woods.
And then ghouls attacked. And now Yurga was getting them somewhere safe.
During all this traversing, up until now the only things Geralt had seen were dead bodies. Stabbed and shredded corpses piled atop pools of blood, no matter where he looked. At least he never saw Cirilla's, but that was hardly a comforting thought. He had nothing else to go on, no trace of her left to track. Wherever she was now, the world was callously keeping her from him, denying him any peace of mind.
When he was in that jail cell in Cintra, and he had heard the beginnings of the battle, there was a constricting in his chest. A painful twisting like a dull blade. It was unfamiliar, something that he couldn't recall ever feeling before.
As they continued on their way, Geralt gradually felt his jaw clench as he thought deeply about all of this. Even now it refused to lessen, still unbearably sharp. Geralt was logical enough to understand what this was.
It was due to the awful blatancy that he never came to her sooner.
Too little too late. He had failed to protect her. What good was a bloody witcher if he was unable to fucking protect anyone, especially an innocent child caught dead in the middle of something far bigger than her!
Gnashing his teeth together painfully, Geralt slammed the side of his fist down against the flat of the cart. All that did was earn a concerned grunt from Roach, who sped up her pace in an effort to get closer to Geralt. Exhaling sharply, he shook his head at her in a weak effort to calm her. Or calm himself.
He glanced in the direction of Sodden, with the fog and sounds of warfare getting more and more quiet. Until all was deathly silent to his ears. He let his head fall back against the cart with a dull thud.
People linked by destiny will always find each other.
Destiny got him imprisoned. Destiny gave him an injured leg. Destiny ripped his child away from him before he could even come close to protecting her! Destiny…
"…can go fuck itself." Geralt snarled under his breath.
"What's that, butcher," Yurga hollered over his shoulder, sounding a tad offended.
He huffed. "No, not you." He craned his neck to the side, trying to see the front of the cart, as if he would finally realize what he was supposed to be looking for. "How much further?"
Yurga flicked the reins. "We'll get there while it's still dark, so not long at all." He glanced back at Geralt with a slight grin. "And I think that ale is sounding better by the minute, eh?"
Geralt didn't know what was at Yurga's home, or at Sodden, or if he was supposed to even go to either place. All he knew was that the cart was pulling him there, and that destiny had been smirking fiendishly at him all these years.
Ciri jolted awake, and she involuntarily forced herself to breathe through it. She clutched the warm blankets, crushing the material against her chest as if it would quell the lack of oxygen.
It had been so long since any good dreams came to her, and she now expected the horrors to follow her even in sleep. The problem was, this time she couldn't quite remember what she just dreamt about, and if it was good or bad. She knew there was fog that she was trying to reach through, but no panic, and nothing else.
Her eyes darted around the room, but not with her usual anxiety, no. Confusedly, she realized she was searching for something, but came up with nothing.
Zola, the woman who owned this home, had lit a torch outside the front door. From the window, Ciri could just make out the flame flickering wildly with the howling wind.
She let her head fall back against the pillows, which felt almost too soft now. It was fascinating really. Prior to Cintra burning, if someone had told Ciri that she would eventually be sleeping fearfully in the dirt, she would've laughed, and possibly even called her guards over depending on how uneasy she felt. She now had a bed to sleep in again, for the first time in so long, and she couldn't remember the last time she felt this claustrophobic.
The walls around her were stiff and looming in the night's shadows. The creaking of the foundation was much too sharp for ears. The straw mattress beneath her didn't feel solid. And for the longest time, she couldn't take her drooping eyes off the light of the torch outside. She also longed to feel that refreshing breeze against her skin. She couldn't decide whether she felt safe inside these walls, or stifled. She wasn't sure why the outside world suddenly felt more freeing than fleeing.
She picked at some loose straw, fidgeting in order to stay awake. She was waiting until things made more sense, because nothing currently did, be it dreams or her current shelter. She also had some things to think about.
She couldn't stay here forever with these people, despite their willingness to open their home to a stranger. That was another thing that didn't make sense. Ciri knew that Zola had been horrified upon seeing the bodies in the field, and she knew that their deaths were her fault…somehow. She honestly couldn't remember much. And then there was the horse, which she had no right to take - !
Ciri inhaled sharply.
She remembered screaming and struggling for her life. She could still hear that poor horse shrieking. Fleetingly, she also remembered when the ground had split between her and the feathered knight, as Cintra burned against the horizon. It was definitely her fault, but she didn't know how she had caused all of this destruction.
Therefore, she couldn't fathom why Zola wanted her to stay at all. The woman said she had longed for a daughter, and her gentle voice told Ciri that it would be her choice to stay. When she took Ciri's hands in what was supposed to be a soothing gesture, the only thing the former princess felt was dread. Dread for the inevitable.
Ciri turned on her side, and she curled into a ball, as if to protect herself from something unseen. Though, she still kept an eye on the glow of the torchlight. That was important to her for some reason. She exhaled, and she didn't care that some straw was now prickling her cheek.
The moment Zola had clutched her hands, Ciri instantly decided that she couldn't stay. She had long ago put the concept of safety and shelter out of her mind. These thoughts weren't worth the bother anymore. Constantly, no matter where she turned, she was always at the center of something. Of fire, of bodies, of blood, of the unexpected. It followed her, and consumed everything around her.
She could handle it, though. She was now used to going from place to place, surviving as she saw fit, with no destination in mind. And she just couldn't do that here.
There was a time where she had some semblance of direction, if one could even call it that. In the form of a person called Geralt of Rivia, and that he was supposedly her destiny.
Ciri scoffed quietly.
She didn't even know who he was, only that he was supposed to be important to her. She used to be adamant about finding him, at her grandmother's behest. Ciri had no clue how to even find this person. And this thought should've occurred to her the very second the Queen had uttered those words, but the excuse she gave herself was that she had been consumed by panic and fear.
Destiny had inner workings that many struggled to understand. It couldn't be defined or controlled by time, but likewise, one couldn't just wait around for it. It had to be met half-way. Destiny could only do so much, and Ciri had nothing else left to give it at this point. Surely they would've crossed paths by now.
She could no longer use panic and fear as excuses. Both of those things were part of her day-to-day life now, and she had to accept that. Just like how she had to accept that Geralt of Rivia probably wasn't her destiny after all, and that she was well and truly alone. Just like how she couldn't stay here, in this warm, welcoming, cozy, stifling hut. She didn't necessarily feel doomed, but rather she felt resigned to it.
She still wasn't even sure what she was doing here, or why she was here. Zola had found her in that field, hugged her without even a second thought. And Ciri hugged her back, because it was the only thing she could think of to do. There was no one else around to attempt to understand her, or keep herself together. Though Zola had tried to convey that during their hug, Ciri only clung to her because…What other lifeline was there in that moment?
What was she still doing here? Other than to selfishly take hospitality from a house of strangers.
She curled tighter in on herself, until she thought her own spine might snap. If she felt well-rested tomorrow, she would pick the best moment to sneak away. It would break Zola's heart, but it was for the best. Ideally, she would've left already, but she was exhausted, especially after whatever the hell had happened in that field.
There was nothing for her here, nothing that she hadn't already killed, ruined, or taken. Same as anywhere else she went.
Her drooping eyes closed completely, and she scoffed again. "Destiny," her voice was barely above a whisper. "Bollocks to that."
She drifted into a slumber that could only be described as a limbo, with something keeping her just at the edge of sleep and not letting her go. That was alright, she supposed. Better to be alert these days anyway.
Outside, by the front door, the torch was no longer flickering. Instead, its flame was held high, proudly, almost smugly against what remained of the evening breeze.
The sound of horse hooves and squeaky wheels approached the cabin.
It was well after midnight when Geralt and Yurga arrived at his home. The tiny cabin was tucked carefully in the woods, in the center of a meadow. At the edge of the property, there was a small shelter for the horses and chickens. It was a cozy and secluded spot, Geralt noted, of which had been spared from any part of the war. The final thing his eyes settled on was the torchlight by the front door, burning brightly in stark contrast to the night.
When the cart came to a stop, Geralt slid off it until his feet were firmly planted on the ground. The grass felt stiff with frost. Winter was due to arrive in this area any day now. He grunted against the pain in his leg, but that's all there was to it now. Whatever had truly happened during his delirium, the toxins were now gone completely and he could continue to heal.
Beside him, tied at the end of the cart, Roach was tossing her head exuberantly. Geralt huffed fondly at her. She was doing so for a few different reasons. One was because she'd had enough of being tethered. And two…
Geralt reached for her, and completely untied the makeshift halter around her face. Her tack was lying in the cart, but she didn't need it right now. As soon as she was freed, she stepped closer to him. Her nose touched his shoulder, and she took a few deep breaths. Geralt almost managed a weary smile as her breath wafted against his face.
"I'm fine," he muttered, giving her neck a scratch. He turned his head towards Yurga, who was busy stacking some of his supplies together to carry them more easily. "May she graze," Geralt asked him.
Yurga glanced at Roach. "She may," he nodded. Then, he muttered neutrally to himself, "Still wondering why you named her after a damned insect."
Geralt exhaled and shook his head. He no longer corrected people on the actual meaning of his horse's name, because it just got too tedious after a while.
Yurga jutted his chin towards a hitching post under an eave, which was just long enough to provide a roof over a horse's head. "It's not a fancy stable," he said. "But it'll have to do. Hitch her to it whenever you want. Our actual stable is full." He hefted the bags into his arms.
Geralt simply nodded in thanks.
"Oh, for the love of the gods," a relieved voice rang out. Sprinting away from the front door was a tall blonde woman, who a wide smile on her face. When she got to Yurga, she took some of the supplies from him. "You are going to break your back one of these days."
Yurga chuckled, with an equally elated smile on his face. "Ye of little faith. Are you alright? How's our boy?"
"We're all fine," the woman assured, setting things back on the cart. "Whatever was happening over at Sodden, it was far away from us."
"Good," Yurga exhaled. "Thank you for the torchlight, love. But we shouldn't be wasting it, 'case we need to venture through the night."
"Well, that's something we'd like to avoid." Her eyes kept flickering towards Geralt. Normally, he would've expected trepidation and caution, and of course disdain. Instead, the woman only exuded confusion and curiosity. "Who's this then?"
"A witcher," Yurga exclaimed. "First time meeting one. Saved me, he did. Got bit badly, but seems to be on the mend?" He looked at Geralt questioningly.
He nodded. "Yes, I…got lucky."
Yurga nodded as well. "He still needs rest, though. So do I, after we get these supplies settled."
Geralt pushed away from the cart with a grunt. Trying not to limp or favor the other leg too much, he started removing bags from the wagon, and was ready to follow Yurga.
A firm hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Now, none of that," the woman admonished. "You're injured. I'll show you where you can rest. I'm Zola, by the way."
"It's the least I can do," he said curtly, but politely. "Your husband is part of the reason I still have a leg to stand on."
She shook her head. "It's quite alright." Then, her brows furrowed.
Yurga noticed this instantly. "What's wrong, love?"
"Well," Zola started. "There's only the hay loft available, unfortunately." She glanced worriedly at his leg.
Geralt donned a tight smile. "I'm lame, but I can still climb a ladder. Witchers are used to harsher conditions anyway."
Her shoulders sagged a little. "I suppose it'll have to do. If you're sure."
Yurga rested his elbows on the cart. "What about our guest room? What's wrong with that?"
"Well, that's the other thing," she said with a gentle smile. "A young girl is staying in that room now. I kept running into her these last two days." She shook her head and shrugged slightly. "Little spitfire, but she clearly needed help."
Yurga chuckled. "I'd say you got a bleeding heart, but who am I to talk," he said while gesturing towards Geralt. "Where's her parents?"
Zola went on to explain that she was clearly an orphan and had no one. Geralt didn't think too much of it. Whoever this girl was, her situation was not uncommon these days, especially this close to Sodden and the rest of the war. It would be surprising if there were no orphans or separated families at all. Funnily enough though, when Yurga asked where exactly she came from, Zola was unable to answer.
Yurga hummed thoughtfully. "Well, we'll see where the days take us then, one at a time. Now, butcher here needs some ale. I owe him more'n that, but that's all he said he wanted."
Zola nodded. "That can definitely be arranged, for both of you. Come with me inside and you can have that ale, and a meal."
Yurga was stubborn though, wanting to finish unloading and untacking, despite how long it would take doing it all himself. After a lot of insistence from him, Zola finally relented, and Geralt followed her inside the cabin.
Yurga hollered for her to blow out the torchlight. She did, but not without a effort. The flame's embers had a hard time cooling, but they eventually did so. Geralt would've suggested extinguishing it with Igni, but decided not to. Even small tricks like that tended to make people fearful of him, and he didn't want to sully their kindness with it.
"Have yourself a seat," Zola pointed to the small dining table once they were inside. She lit a few candles in order to see, and set to work putting firewood in a stove. "The stew won't take long to heat up. My son often sneaks extra meals at night, so it's already warm." In the meantime, she removed a mug from a hook and set it down in front of Geralt after filling it with ale.
Geralt dipped his head in thanks and took a swig. It burned wonderfully in his throat, a refreshing contrast to the horrible fever he'd had only hours ago. When Zola turned her back to him to pour the stew, he took another look at his leg, peeling the rag away. There was evidence of a poultice, caked on the wound like a barrier. He grimaced at it, almost petulantly, not liking how it looked reminiscent of pus. It was the rag that looked nastier, and would need to be replaced soon. He put the rag back into place when Zola stepped towards him.
She set the bowl in front of him, and notes of venison and rabbit wafted into his nose. "Hope the ale is to your liking," she said as she took a drink from her own mug. "We age it ourselves."
He only nodded another thanks, and took another drink. He had to wait for the stew to cool before digging into.
"So, a witcher," she queried. "I've never met one before."
Geralt hummed. "Then you've been lucky up until now."
She snorted. "Hardly. My husband's alive because of you."
He didn't say anything to that. He was no conversationalist, obviously, just ask anyone. However, it was more due to the fact of how exhausted he was. The back of a rickety cart didn't exactly make for a nice bed. A hayloft sounded like royal treatment to him at this point.
When Geralt noticed the slightly amused expression on the woman's face, she shook her head. "Forgive me, it's just…" Zola shrugged. "The girl is about as talkative as you are. Which is fine, but it's funny that you have that in common, keeping things close to the vest."
"Smart girl," he commented. "Especially in these times."
Zola sighed, something troubled coming over her. "I suppose."
Before Geralt could consider asking her what was wrong, there was a creak from somewhere in the house. Zola hadn't heard it, but he did, and he turned his head towards a door. Zola followed his gaze, silently wondering what was going on. The door opened on creaky hinges.
Out of the guest bedroom stepped a child with ashen hair and bright green eyes.
It could've been Pavetta, had Geralt not known any better.
He was on his feet quicker than his reflexes had ever done before. His eyes widened in sheer astonishment as he turned to face her. He had definitely believed she was still alive after the battle, but nothing more than that. He never thought they would actually find each other. But here they were, both having somehow been guided to the same cabin in the middle of the same woods. He exhaled silently. Relief made his shoulders sag, with the knowledge that these kind people had given her someplace safe to stay.
It was hard to tell if she was okay, as she was wrapped tightly in a thick blanket to stave off the cold. But she was alive, and standing, and safe, and he wouldn't fail her.
Not ever again.
The girl halted in the door's threshold, clutching the doorknob with tense knuckles upon seeing that Zola wasn't alone. The constricting in his chest came back when he noticed the distrust in her narrowed his eyes. He glanced away for a short second, certainly not blaming her.
"Hey," Zola greeted her gently. "Everything alright, girl?"
Cirilla's eyes were darting between the two adults. Geralt was surprised to find that she held the same wariness for the woman, though not as harsh. Involuntarily, he sidestepped, subtly putting himself between them and keeping the woman in his peripheral.
Cirilla nodded in response to Zola's question. "Was…just hoping to find some water."
"Of course," Zola nodded, instantly looking for a pitcher and glass. Her quick movements weren't that of a commoner serving a royal, Geralt noted. But it was that of an attentive mother, as if looking after a sick child. Strange though, because Geralt couldn't detect any hint of illness.
"Who is this," Cirilla asked.
"He's a witcher," Zola explained. "He saved my husband's life. He's…Forgive me, I don't know your name yet."
He nodded to at least acknowledge her, but he kept his eyes on Cirilla, terrified that destiny would continue to be cruel and take her from him if he looked away.
"I'm Geralt, of-"
"Of Rivia," Cirilla finished for him. Her voice was a sharp whisper, and her narrowed eyes were now widened, not believing what she was seeing. She took a breath, and her hand released the doorknob until it hung slack at her side.
She had yet to leave the threshold. So, Geralt cautiously stepped forward. When she didn't balk away, he ignored the shooting pain in his leg to kneel down, so that he could be at eye level with her. He didn't care what Zola was doing in the background, and he didn't care what might've happened at Sodden.
All of his attention was on the girl in front of him, who somehow managed to survive this long with impossible odds.
All he cared about was this child. His child.
He looked her in the eyes. "It's nice to finally meet you, Cirilla."
She only nodded in response. Geralt was startled to see a few different things flicker in her eyes. Though she seemed relieved to meet him at last, he still saw caution, and now confusion for some reason, like she couldn't make sense of something. There was also exhaustion there, and beneath her eyes were sunken cheekbones.
His brows furrowed. "How are you," he asked. "Are you alright?"
She nodded again. When she spoke, there was a stubborn edge to her voice that both worried Geralt, and impressed him. "I'll be fine."
He almost startled when Zola entered his field of vision to give Cirilla the water, which she took and drank with little hesitation. The woman went back to sit at the table, watching them closely.
Geralt never considered himself to be a gentle person. So he surprised himself when his next question came out almost like a murmur. "Are you hurt?"
She stopped drinking, and wiped the back of her hand against her mouth. "No."
"When was the last time you've eaten something?"
Her lack of response this time was the only answer he needed. He stood up as smoothly as possible in order to not limp, and turned towards the table and the bowl of stew. "You can have my share. Haven't touched it yet."
Zola was shaking her head. "There's plenty to go around. Both of you, sit." She stood up to go back to the stew pot, and was very surprised to see the girl not only moving away from the threshold but also to come sit at the table, right next to Geralt. She even managed a few bites of food. Only then did the witcher start digging into his own meal. Curiouser and curiouser.
"So," Zola started. "You two know each other? Are you her father? You look alike, but I thought witchers couldn't bear children."
"You're right," Geralt said. "It's a bit more complicated than that." He glanced at Cirilla, who was listening intently to him. He took another drink from his mug. "Law of Surprise."
Realization dawned on Zola and Cirilla's faces, with the former struggling to hide her disappointment, but Geralt noticed.
"That…" Cirilla said. "makes sense." At Geralt's silence, she continued. "Someone told me that a witcher saved my father's life, but they never talked more of it, like they were leaving something out." She fidgeted with the spoon in her hand. "I never knew."
Geralt nodded once. "We can talk more about it later," he said, taking note of how her shoulders were slumping tiredly. She looked sorely in need of rest, almost as much as he did. Also, these were private matters, and he only wanted to talk about it when they weren't in the presence of strangers.
Cirilla stopped fidgeting, and dropped the spoon back in the bowl. For a moment, Geralt thought he'd said the wrong thing, but she looked at him again with a yawn. "I think I'm gonna go back to sleep." She paused. "Are you…staying long?"
These next words were said instantly, and so naturally. "I'm not going anywhere."
The strong reassurance was there, with every syllable, and he knew she picked up on it. However, her brows knitted almost imperceptibly together. She said nothing else as she went back to the guest room, leaving her bowl of stew that had barely been touched, and also leaving the door open this time.
Exhausted was an understatement, because it was only a few seconds later that Geralt heard her breathing deeply and evenly. This was yet another moment where he went back to eating his stew. His child was finally nearby, and he could rest a little easier.
Zola opened her mouth to say something, but hesitated and glanced in Cirilla's direction.
"She's asleep," Geralt said around a bite of food.
Not bothering to question exactly how he knew that, she took his word. "The Law of Surprise," she muttered. She traced a finger around the rim of her empty mug, not yet making eye contact with him. "And I was hoping…" She finally looked at him, and dropped whatever she was originally going to say. "How long have you been looking for her?"
"So much time has passed. Feels like weeks," he answered. "I didn't know if I would ever find her."
She hummed. "Destiny is funny like that."
He scoffed a little. "Yes, a real trickster." Before Zola could ask him to expand more off of that he said, "Thank you. For taking her in. She needs it, clearly."
She smiled. "I didn't even think twice about it."
He glanced briefly in Cirilla's direction. "How is she, really?"
Her smile slipped. "It's hard to say. Like I said, she's barely said a word since coming here. But…" She set her mug aside. "It's not good, I don't think. Today was the first day I've seen her eat, or talk for very long at all. She isn't quick to trust, and she tenses when I reach out to her." She paused. "She looks at me as if I'm expecting something of her."
Geralt tilted his head. "Ulterior motive, you mean."
"Something like that," she said. "And she says she's not hurt, but I have noticed scrapes and bruises here and there. It's nothing awful, but she won't let me tend to them. It's probably from traveling alone for so long." At Geralt's confusion, she specified, "She's only been here a few days."
"Ah," he grunted. "I thought as much, but wasn't sure."
She poured some more ale for herself. "She hasn't asked for anything, until now. The water, I mean."
With an odd sinking feeling in his stomach, Geralt understood then that Cirilla was keeping these people at arm's length. He didn't quite know what to do with that realization, but it set him on edge. It was enough to make him turn in his chair to glance at her again, assuring himself that she was still sound asleep in her bed.
"I didn't even know her name," Zola continued, bringing Geralt out of his anxious thoughts. "Not until now." She smiled again, albeit weakly. "But you did. May I ask, what are your plans exactly? She has a home here, always. But she's your child, and I won't interfere, but…I need to know that she'll be safe."
He pushed his empty bowl and mug aside, and made solid eye contact with her. "I carry two swords with me for a reason," he said. "And with the war so close, I don't feel comfortable with her staying here for very long." He paused. "You've been kind. Kinder than most people I've met in all my years, and I will find a way to repay that debt while we're here. But we cannot stay."
Zola was thoughtful for a moment. "You saved my husband, and I found Cirilla. No debts to speak of." She paused. "And perhaps…it's for the best." She was frowning now. "I think…she might be running from something."
He tensed. "How do you mean? Did you see something? Or someone?"
She shook her head. "No, but she's always on her guard, more fearful than she lets on. And the first time I tried to convince her to come with me, she ran as soon as she saw the chance."
Geralt contemplated her words. "I agree," he said. "Something isn't right, about any of this."
'Any of this' pertained to Cirilla's entire situation. It all seemed to start with the Slaughter of Cintra, and she was its last known survivor. Coincidences didn't work like that.
Ciri found Zola in the stable the next morning, tending to the horse that had pulled Yurga's cart. There was also a new horse in there, a chestnut mare, who calmly and aloofly stayed on her side of the stable.
As Zola ran a brush through one of the horse's manes, she noticed Ciri. "Come on in," she invited. "I could actually use an extra set of hands. If you could fetch that grain over there. These horses are so very tired from all that traveling." She stroked the paler horse's face. "But they're hard workers."
Ciri fed it the grain, and she swallowed harshly as the horse sniffed her hair. She looked at Zola "I'm…I'm so sorry about…"
Zola stopped what she was doing. "I know you are, and I'll miss Clop. But I know you didn't mean for it to happen."
Ciri almost scoffed bitterly, knowing that they weren't quite on the same page, but not having the energy to correct her. Instead, she got more grain for the other horses. "Have you seen Geralt at all?"
"I checked in on him earlier," Zola said. "He's still asleep. Have you ever met him before now?"
She shook her head. "No, but I think my grandmother had. Did I hear we might be leaving soon?"
"That's his plan, yes. He wants to steer you away from the war, and I can't fault him for that." She looked carefully at the girl. "Are you alright with that?"
After a moment, Ciri nodded. "Yes. I was going to leave anyway. And my grandmother told me to find him." She frowned. "She trusted very few people in this world, so this means something to me. I know what'll happen eventually, but…I think I have to see this through." With a harsh sigh, she carried another bag of grain over to the mare. "Whatever the hell this is."
"And what do you think might happen," Zola asked.
Ciri simply shrugged. "No matter where I go, or what I do, or who I meet, it all ends the same. It all ends in loss." She paused as the mare looked at her, not paying any mind to the grain.
Zola had stopped her work completely, giving her undivided attention to frightening words that were spoken so very calmly. A shiver shook her spine.
"I don't think I'll travel with him for very long," Ciri continued. "And I won't blame him for it. And I can take care of myself." Observantly, using the same method and tools Zola had just used, she got to work brushing the other horse, leaving the mare alone.
From a hayloft in a different part of the house, Geralt was resting, but his eyes were open. He had gotten plenty of sleep last night, or what qualified as such for a witcher, and was taking in the atmosphere of the farm since daybreak.
Geralt made it a policy to eavesdrop on conversations only when it was advantageous for a monster contract, or getting himself out of a tight spot. However, his fatigue made him slip up a little, and he accidentally heard Cirilla and Zola's conversation. He wanted to know what had happened to the girl to make her talk in such a chilling way. Had her doubts come from a single source? A threat that still loomed over her?
Was it even any of his business?
Slowly, he sat up. He had many questions for her, because he didn't know anything about her really, other than her lineage. During their travels, he would ask her then. Although, he now doubted just how talkative she would be.
Despite what many might think of Geralt, he understood patience and the need for peace better than anyone. He would not force anything from Cirilla. He would only do what he was meant to do; keep her safe.
He climbed down from the hayloft with only some effort, and carefully walked around the cabin towards the stable. He ran into Zola, who's brows were furrowed deeply in concern. Before she could speak, Geralt said, "I heard. Wasn't my intention, but I heard."
She nodded at that. Her words were firm, a fierceness in her eyes that only a mother could have. "She's your child now. Do you understand that?"
"I understand," he told her. "I understood it not long after I invoked the Law, and I understood it the very moment I thought she was in danger. In every fiber of my being." He respectfully looked away from Zola, putting his attention on the stable ahead. "I will take care of her. You have my word."
He only walked away when Zola did.
Upon entering the stable, the first thing he noticed was…Roach eating some grain. He stared curiously at his horse, who was happily munching away. Geralt often chose camping over inns, which meant Roach was more than accustomed to mainly grazing. She enjoyed grain just fine, but only if it was given to her by Geralt.
"Morning," Cirilla said to him.
He looked at her. "Morning, Cirilla. Did you feed Roach?"
She nodded. "Was about to start brushing her, too." She went over to a bucket full of brushes.
"Thank you," he said, holding his hand out to take them from her. "But I can do it. She's my horse."
She sat down on a stool against the wall. She was close enough that Roach could sniff at her. "I prefer Ciri, by the way. How's your leg?"
He glanced down at the cleaner rag he'd applied after he'd gone to bed. "Painful," he answered honestly. "But no one ever said ghoul bites were fun."
She leaned forward with interest. "So that's what did it, then. I don't know much about witchers or monsters. Grandmother for some reason didn't want anything to do with 'em."
Geralt snorted, not the least bit surprised. "Did she now?"
She nodded, her voice growing quiet. "Seems like a lot of things she never told me." Her gaze suddenly snapped to Roach, a swift effort to change the subject. "Why name her Roach?"
It had been a long time since he granted anyone an explanation, and he found himself speaking easily. "A couple different reasons, some harder to describe." He gave her a small half-smile. "One of those reasons is being named after a fish."
She struggled to hold back a grimace. "Because that obviously makes more sense."
He snorted, the half-smile remaining. "You'd be surprised."
Ciri stood up, reached her hand into the bucket, and offered to do Roach's other side. When Geralt saw how relaxed the mare's ears were, he nodded. They worked in silence, a pleasant one, but it was soon interrupted by Zola's son. Geralt couldn't remember if he'd heard the boy's name before, but after this moment he couldn't have cared.
"Finally getting your hands dirty," the boy asked Ciri as he tossed some extra bags of feed onto a pallet. "Ain't you afraid of breaking a nail?" Not really seeking an answer, he was already on his way out, but not before having to step around Geralt. He wasn't intentionally blocking the boy, but his imposing figure saw to that. And the boy stopped for a split second when he was met with a piercing glare.
The boy gulped, looked away from Geralt, and sped around him.
When he was gone, Ciri rolled her eyes and frowned.
"Ciri," Geralt said, making her look at him. He looked her in the eye, as if about to impart some great wisdom. "Boys are stupid."
She huffed, a sound almost akin to a chuckle. For the first time in a long time, she felt herself smile a little.
By late afternoon, thanks to the extra help provided by Ciri and Geralt, all chores had been finished. With the day still young, Geralt asked how the game was in these parts, and offered to do some hunting. Yurga and Zola pointed him in the general direction of where they last saw some rabbits. He loathed to leave Ciri, even for an hour or two, but he felt like he still owed this family.
"Can I come with you," Ciri asked.
Geralt raised a brow. After a moment of deliberation, he grabbed his hunting knife, slung both swords on his back as an extra precaution, and nodded at her. He silently reasoned with himself that it would do to teach her some hunting, considering the long road they had ahead of them. But mostly he wasn't too keen on letting her out of his sight just yet.
They didn't talk much for the first hour. They took their time meandering through the woods, their footsteps quiet. Normally, children were loud and clumsy. Ciri's steps were the exact opposite, careful and almost completely silent. Geralt didn't know whether to be impressed or further concerned. Had she learned how to be this quiet in order to hunt for herself, or sneak away from a threat?
His mind kept coming up with questions like that, all of which he wanted answers to. But he swore to himself they would wait until they were on the road. Not only for her sake, but also because he didn't quite know how to ask these questions. Straightforward ways of speaking didn't often sit well with most people, much less a child who might or might not be traumatized.
They arrived a clearing of dead logs. Logs didn't make decent homes for rabbits, but they were good hiding places. Geralt went to each one, toeing the bark to give it a jostle, before moving onto the next. A flash of fur shot out. He raised his hunting knife, aimed, and threw it. A sharp squeak went silent as blood splattered through the air.
Geralt picked up the knife and carcass. He draped the rabbit over a log, and went back to hunting for more.
Ciri flexed her jaw. "I can skin it, if you want," she said, making him stop walking. "If you have an extra knife on you."
He did have one, a small whittling knife he mainly used to create wood shavings for kindling, but it would work. "Have you done this before?"
She nodded. "With rats."
He blinked. "You've hunted rats?"
She gave him an indignant glare. "Yes. I can hunt."
He huffed, yet again impressed. Rats were quick little bastards, sometimes quicker than rabbits. He took out the whittling knife and handed it to her. He gave her some distance to let her work, and to resume hunting. He killed three rabbits in total.
He handed her the last rabbit. The first two weren't exactly skinned professionally, but they were still edible. "Pull the fur downward with rabbits," he suggested. "Like your turning it inside out."
She grimaced. "Ew." Instead of being too repulsed though, she did as instructed. After a couple yanks to get it right, the fur gave way easily.
Geralt took the fur and carcasses from her, shoving it all in a burlap sack. He watched her use some fallen leaves to clean the blood from the knife, and then used more leaves to clean her hands. She exhaled into her palms, having forgotten her gloves.
Back at the cabin, Ciri was always acutely aware of everything happening on the farm. She turned her head in the direction of every little sound the family made, and of every movement she saw. Out here in the woods wasn't much different or better. Her eyes still darted around and she kept an ear out for things, but she wasn't as tense.
Geralt exhaled and sat down beside her on the log.
People were unpredictable. At least in the woods there was an order to things. A sense of tranquility. Everything made more sense out here. These facts were something that young witchers learned quickly when setting out on the Path for the first time. It seemed that Ciri had learned it as well.
He let the burlap slide off his shoulders. Without looking at her, staring off into the treeline, he said, "Witchers have great hearing, even when we don't want to." He could feel Ciri's confused eyes on him. "We'll set off tomorrow morning. I have an idea of where to go, but we'll see where the path takes us." He paused. "You're not alone anymore, Ciri."
Ciri shifting beside him caused him to look at her. She was staring at the same treeline, but much less calm. Her eyes were narrowed, her shoulders tensed up and almost touching her ears.
Geralt shook his head at her and repeated, "You are not-"
"Stop," she cut him off through gritted teeth. Her eyes were now clenched shut. "You don't…" she whispered. "…You don't know me. You don't know what I've done."
He said nothing, not knowing how to help her through her inner turmoil, and also not wanting to insult her by pitying her.
"I've stolen. I've taken things that weren't mine. I've hurt people, and put them in harm's way. I watched my home burn and I ran." She inhaled sharply, a few tears escaping out the corners of her eyes. "That's all I know how to do. Don't you understand? Doesn't anybody?"
Some words came to him then. "What I understand is that you had to survive, with no prior knowledge or guidance on how to do so. I wish I could've saved you from it all, from feeling this burden. And I can't take it away either." He scoffed lightly. "And I'm not going to tell you if it gets better. I don't have foresight."
As he spoke, Ciri eventually opened her eyes to stare at the ground, tears running freely now. And she had crossed her arms tightly around herself.
"But I'm telling you that I do understand," he continued. "And that I hear you." He knew what it was like to be misunderstood, to make mistakes and bad decisions, to be scorned and judged by every little drop of spilled blood. He would never wish for anyone to feel that way, even his worst enemies. It wasn't a life anyone should live. During his early years as a witcher, just starting out on the Path, he would've given anything for someone to have blatantly told him what he just told her.
Ciri's eyes slammed shut again, and her stomach heaved with her breathing.
Only a second later, she flung her arms around him, burying her face in his chest to hide her tears and the silent sobs that shook her shoulders. He held her without hesitation, tucking her head beneath his chin, and letting her cling as tightly as she needed to.
If he wasn't a witcher, he wouldn't have heard her speak. "They've all gone…Please don't go."
He shook his head, and another sob racked through her. "I'm not going anywhere, Ciri."
The witcher and his child remained there for a while, letting the woods conceal them. When it was time to take the rabbits back to the cabin, it was dusk.
The torch by the front door burned bright against the growing darkness.