There was a river that ran the south western corner of Cintra. It fed water to the crops of that area, and eventually flowed into the ocean. Geralt was along its banks, cleaning the blood from his witcher gear in the rushing water. His recent contract was largely successful, and he still needed to go collect his reward. After that, he would have to go check on Ciri.

About every other week or so, he was called upon to take her on an outing by this riverside, to get her out of the castle for a while, and possibly have a picnic depending on the weather. Rain or shine, they often came here together.

It was puzzling, though. It had been nearly a month since he last heard from Mousesack. It was times like this where he wished that the xenovox worked both ways. The device dangled from Roach's saddle, free of any obstructions that could muffle its sound. It had remained silent for quite some time now.

He took out a clean rag. He was drying his blades and getting ready to oil them again when a familiar voice rang in his ears. His chest tightened. A banshee could be shrieking and he would still hear Ciri's voice, clear as day. She wasn't too far away. What the hell was she doing out here without him?

Forgoing the oil, he slung his swords on his back, clicked his tongue for Roach to follow, and went upstream. Even if he hadn't heard her voice, he'd still somehow know that this was the direction to go in. Although, he wouldn't be able explain why.

She was talking with someone, a gruff voice responding back to her. It sounded like one of the kingdom's guards, a newer recruit if Geralt remembered correctly. So, she wasn't alone at least. This thought should've calmed him, knowing she was with someone a little familiar. However, the tightening in his chest remained.

He soon heard a third voice, one that he didn't recognize. He quickened his pace, because their conversation was a fast one, with a frantic edge to it.

His heart seized up altogether when a shrill cry rang out, followed by Ciri shouting for them to get off of her. His steel sword was in his hand less than a second later. His boots pounded across the ground as he ran around the next bend.

She was surrounded by two men, one of them being the guard. He had a tight grasp around Ciri's arm. Geralt hadn't bothered to make himself subtle. He wanted whatever that had dared to threaten her to know he was there. It was effective. The two men saw Geralt at the exact same time. Whatever they were talking about, whatever was going on, Geralt's presence alone made everything grind to a halt.

The man that Geralt didn't recognize paled, and he staggered backwards under the witcher's harsh gaze. He pocketed a sack of coins and hightailed it into the woods.

Regretfully, Geralt couldn't be everywhere at once, and was unable to immediately start hunting the man down. His focus had to be – was always – on Ciri. She was always his priority. And the guard had yet to back off.

The guard was still gripping her upper arm. Ciri's eyes were squeezed shut as she tried with all her might to pull herself away. She was clawing at his hand, and Geralt also saw tiny teeth marks in the guard's skin. Had he not been seething with fury, he would've been both amused and proud of her.

Geralt snarled at the guard, his eyes unblinking. "Unhand her."

Ciri's eyes flew open and she gasped upon hearing his voice. "G-Geralt," she stammered.

The guard's back and shoulders were hunched apprehensively. Although he didn't bring out a weapon, he still had the sheer audacity to look the witcher in the eye. "I…I don't-"

Geralt's sword was pointed directly at the guard's throat now. His voice was low and dark, with a quiet rage behind every syllable. "You have…three…seconds-"

The guard was somehow smart enough to not keep him waiting, and he let Ciri go. Once freed, she scrabbled away. She flung her arms around Geralt, and hid her face against his ribs. He could feel her silent tears through his shirt. Not taking his eyes off the guard, he wrapped an arm around Ciri's shoulders and maneuvered her behind him.

He inhaled sharply, a futile effort to calm himself. "You have another three seconds," he said through clenched teeth, glaring at the man. "to tell me what the fuck is going on."

Apparently, he wasn't smart enough to immediately tell the truth. "I don't know what you mean," the guard snapped. "And we could ask you the same question. You never showed up to accompany the princess!"

"No one ever even contacted me," he exclaimed, stepping closer. "Three seconds." Then, he scoffed. "Actually. Fuck this." For a second only, he took his other hand off of Ciri to sign Axii. "Start talking."

The guard shook his head rapidly, trying to fight off the effects for only a second, weak-minded as he was. "Was about to collect some coin," he confessed, his voice a monotonous drone.

"For what?"

"For the girl."

In response, Ciri wordlessly huddled closer, a shiver coursing through her. Geralt's hold tightened around her.

"What do you mean," he demanded.

"That other bloke sells humans. Royals especially. He was going to buy the princess off of me, and resell. I'd blame it on you somehow. On account of you not showing up."

Geralt's knuckles were white around the sword's hilt. "You keep saying that, but no one ever contacted me. And why the fuck did you think you could get away with this?!"

The guard shrugged listlessly. "Queen hates you. And she don't pay me enough."

With an enraged snarl, Geralt took another step, and watched in satisfaction as a bead of blood trickled down the guard's throat. However, that's as far as he would go.

He couldn't kill this man, much as he wanted to.

He was a member of Calanthe's guard, and after all these years Geralt still wasn't credible in her eyes. If he showed up, sword covered in blood, it wouldn't look good. It could prompt her to arrest him, thus separating him from Ciri. He'd no sooner break the bars and walls with his bare hands before he would allow that to happen.

He felt his concentration to maintain Axii slipping, and he had to think quickly.

"Go back to Queen Calanthe," Geralt ordered. "Confess to what you've done. Tell her to lock you up. And tell her Ciri is safe. With me."

"Right," the guard nodded dazedly and turned in the direction of the kingdom. "I'll…Yes. At once."

As soon as the bastard was out of sight and they were alone, he allowed his sword to clatter to the ground.

He dropped to his knees, and he crushed Ciri against his chest. Her hands gripped his shirt and she tucked her face into his neck. She sobbed against him, loudly. For many minutes, they stayed like that, Geralt reassuring himself that his child was safe, and Ciri relying on him to not let her go. Nothing in hell or on this continent would dare to pry him away from her.

Geralt periodically took stock of his surroundings, keeping himself alert for any danger, or for that trader to return if he felt idiotic enough. He never showed though, and Geralt made a mental note to track him down later. He needed a plan right now. Unfortunately, there was only one that was the most logical.

Every instinct in his entire being told him not to take them back to the castle, in the direction he'd sent the guard in. This instinct was very familiar to him. It was the one that told him to protect and prioritize Ciri, and nothing else.

However, logic also had to play a role. Ciri's family would know that she was with him and would be comforted by that. But Calanthe's patience was always thin, especially when it came to him. It wouldn't take long for the Queen to send out a search party. And that would only muddle things further.

Geralt's teeth clenched together. Damn it all, he cursed to himself. And he made a decision.

It couldn't be helped, but at least he would be in control of everything every step of the way. His hold around Ciri tightened.

Roach was nearby, practically standing over them. Her eyes and ears were swiveling this way and that, as equally alert as Geralt was. Every now and then, her breath ruffled his and Ciri's hair. By the fifth or so time that she did this, Ciri's sobs had quieted to sniffles and tired whimpers.

She slowly removed her face from Geralt's neck to look up at the mare. As Geralt had instructed many times, she showed the flat of her palm. Roach nibbled at it with her lips, earning a weak smile from the girl.

Geralt then saw the bruise forming on Ciri's skin. The discoloration almost covered her entire upper arm. He asked her if he could take a look at it, to which she nodded. As he tested the bruise, and felt along the limb for any signs of internal damage, Ciri's voice was soft.

"Why didn't you want to come with me today?"

Geralt froze. It hit him then. He hadn't shown up, hadn't been able to prevent her from getting injured, and he didn't sense that she was in danger until it was almost too late.

Today, he had failed her in almost every single way.

"And what did those men want," she asked. "What did I do?"

That's when he found his voice again. "You've done nothing wrong," he told her fiercely. "Those were bad men. They're the ones to blame." He then pointed to Roach's saddle. "Do you see that?"

She nodded. "The see-no…um…zee-no…?"

"The xenovox," he corrected patiently. "It never moves from Roach's saddle, not unless I'm at an inn or tavern. In which case, I bring it in with me. I will always be able to hear it. For weeks now I've heard nothing."

Her brows came together. "Is it broken, do you think?"

He frowned. "Perhaps. That'll be for Mousesack to confirm."

She snapped her gaze to him and her eyes went wide. "No, no, no," she shook her head rapidly. "You sent the guard to the castle. I don't want to go there!"

Being mindful of the bruise, he gently gripped her shoulders, just so she wouldn't suddenly flee out of fear. "Shh," he murmured. "We have to go back there eventually, and he'll be behind bars. It's your home, and your family will be worried sick." His eyes hardened. "And your grandmother and I are going to have a conversation."

Ciri shook her head again, this time slower. "I don't think she knew about him being bad."

"Neither do I. But we still need to go back."

She looked in the direction of her kingdom, and then back to him. "Will you leave once we're there?"

"No," he said firmly. "I won't leave until I know you're safe."

She sniffled, leaned forward, and hugged her arms around his neck. After a moment, she nodded against him. With a troubled sigh, Geralt stood up, taking Ciri with him. He carried her until he could place her on Roach's saddle. He got on behind her, and he nudged the mare in the direction of the kingdom.

At some point, Ciri broke the silence, her voice a fatigued whisper. "I knew he was bad. My stomach hurt the moment grandmother told me I would leave with him. Nobody woulda believed me though."

"Mousesack would've," Geralt said stiffly. "And so would your mother. Always keep your wits, but never ignore a gut feeling."

The closer they got to the castle, the more anger he felt, but he stamped it down best he could, trying not to lose his composure in front of Ciri. He nudged Roach into a trot the moment they were inside the kingdom. He ignored the people in the streets as they all but leapt out of their way. No one yelled curses at him or even glared. They all knew who he was to the kingdom, and some even dipped their heads out of respect.

When the castle came into view, he didn't pull back on Roach's reins, keeping a steady pace.

"I demand an audience with the Queen and her family," Geralt said swiftly, leaving no room for argument.

The guards hollered indignantly at them as they rode past. Geralt only stopped once they were practically inside. Roach had to dip her head in order to fit under an archway.

He swung himself out of the saddle and helped Ciri down. The moment her feet were on the floor, she clutched the sleeve of his shirt, and her eyes darted fearfully around the halls.

Roach snorted a question at Geralt, but he was confident she could find her way back to the stables. "Bite the stablehand until he feeds you carrots," he said as he untied the xenovox from her saddle. "And feel free to shit on this floor," he said with added bitterness.

He gently gripped Ciri's shoulder, shifting her closer. He steered them through the castle. "Don't leave my side," he instructed her. "Not until I know what's become of that man."

They navigated a few more hallways until the banquet hall came into view. Anytime he needed to speak to one of the royals, this always seemed to be the place to congregate. A gaudy, ale-stained living room, if you will.

They did not disappoint Geralt. Although Duny was absent from the kingdom today, Eist, Mousesack, Calanthe, and Pavetta were all awaiting the witcher.

Calanthe stormed towards him. "Where the fuck have you been?!"

The fury inside Geralt was only tethered by a thread right now, and he knew that Calanthe would be the one to cut it clean through. Not wanting to deal with her right now, he waltzed right on past her.

He dangled the xenovox inches away from Mousesack's face. "Tell me what's wrong with this."

"It's just a magic bauble," Mousesack said confusedly. "It should be working just fine."

"Clearly not if you've been struggling to contact me. Did you not think it strange when I didn't respond back?"

"W-We just assumed – If you were in the middle of a contract-"

"The xenovox I understand now," Calanthe interrupted loudly. "But an explanation is still in order."

Geralt raised a brow. "Did your piss-poor excuse for a guard not tell you everything? I thought he'd be especially chatty."

She sneered at him. "Oh, he was. Which begs the question. Why were my guard's memories tampered with, and why do you seem to be at the center of it?"

His eyes bored into hers. "Tampered with? Is that what you call it?"

"We all know what hypnosis looks like. In less than two months, he became one of my most trusted guards. Enough for me to trust him with Ciri, in your absence. And now all of a sudden he's saying that he wanted to sell her?" She scoffed. "Why don't I believe that? You've already proven yourself to this family, long ago. Why feel the need to do this?"

A muscle worked in Geralt's jaw. "Mousesack," he addressed, while not looking away from Calanthe. "You've studied signs. Tell me how Axii works."

"It's usually a mild hypnotic state," Mousesack explained.

"Can it tamper with memories?"

Mousesack was thoughtful, until realization hit him. "It mainly impedes intention, often redirecting someone to do something else. Like confess to something. On the off occasion that it compromises memory, it often doesn't stay that way for long."

Calanthe gritted her teeth. "So you mean to tell me…that my guard was actually confessing to what he did."

After a moment of further contemplation, Mousesack nodded. "Yes."

She closed her eyes, placing a hand on her forehead. "Dammit, I need a drink." And she turned towards her throne.

She walked past Pavetta, who was staring unblinking at Ciri's bruised arm. Tears silently tracked down her face at the sight. Any other time, she would've enveloped her child in a hug. She was even leaning forward, ready to do so. But her eyes occasionally flickered to Geralt's, and she stayed where she was. She knew not to get in his way when Ciri's life was on the line. This was an unspoken rule of his, one that she always understood even if he'd never voiced it.

In moments like these, Ciri was his child. Not hers.

Geralt looked down at Ciri, who was leaning heavily against his leg, eyes drooping. Without a second thought, he scooped her into his arms. Her head fell against his shoulder, and her breathing evened out into a steady rhythm. He winced. He could hear that her throat was raspy, from all the crying she'd done.

"I'll need Mila to look her over," Geralt explained to Pavetta. "But the bruise seems to be the only injury."

She instantly nodded. "Right away. I'll be back in a moment."

Freeing up one of his hands, he held up a stern finger to stop her. "I will not release her yet. Not until I know of that bastard's fate. What are your plans for him?"

Calanthe rubbed her fingertips over her eyelids. "We don't know yet."

Geralt inhaled slowly, another weak effort to calm himself. "What does that even mean? Is he roaming these fucking halls as we speak-"

"Don't insult me, witcher," Calanthe snapped. "I'm not an idiot. At the slightest chance that his confession was actually true, we locked him in a cell until we could figure out what to do with him."

Well, there was that, at least. "So why wait to execute him," Geralt asked scathingly. "He's committed treason."

"It's more complicated than that."

He didn't know whether to snarl or laugh bitterly. "It's always complicated with you pricks, isn't it? I'm no simpleton. Explain."

"Eist," Calanthe waved irately at the air.

Eist looked at Geralt evenly. "He is from a neighboring kingdom, come to shadow our other guards, and hopefully create a little peace between us."

"You know," Geralt suddenly mused. "If I hadn't been stripped of all my emotions, I'd be laughing hysterically right now. Queen Calanthe, Lioness of Cintra…actually wants peace with someone." He sneered at her. "How rich."

Calanthe's hand dropped to an armrest. "How long has it been? At least nine summers since my daughter hired you? And yet you still didn't bother to learn certain customs. If we kill this guard, it could mean a war. Or at the very least a very bloody battle."

"I don't care," he said. "War means nothing to me. And should one come about, I'll just take Ciri somewhere safe. You've proven to me, on many occasions, that you're incapable of providing her that."

Calanthe stood up again, the fire back in her eyes. "If you so much as take her outside these walls-"

"You don't get to make demands, Your Bloody Majesty!" Geralt's voice echoed through the cavernous room.

Ciri tensed in her sleep. Without taking his eyes off Calanthe, he clutched Ciri tighter, apologetically, and she settled once more.

Calanthe was baring her teeth. "Watch your tone, boy."

"No," he shook his head slowly. His voice was low, and he spoke very, very clearly. "Hear this. If that guard stays breathing…then I will claim Ciri as my child. Right here. Right now."

The air turned still, and the room fell silent. No one dared to speak or even move. In fact, they all looked away from Geralt. The only one who had the utter gall to maintain eye contact with him was Calanthe, but even she said nothing.

From Pavetta's side of the room, Geralt heard a silent sob that no human ears could ever pick up on. Geralt normally never ignored Pavetta, given that she was the mother. But this time, he did.

"That is not a threat, by the way," he continued. "It is a promise. A promise to care for her, and protect her. As I've always done. You have three days to decide that bastard's fate." He turned around to leave the room. "Tell Mila to come to my room. No other disturbances. Ciri needs rest."

The next three days past without event. Normally, when in the castle, Geralt didn't feel the need to keep such a close eye on Ciri. However, for the time being, she rarely left his sight. And everyone in the castle gave them respectful distance.

Mousesack approached him at some point, after having contacted a mage through a megascope. Apparently, the mage didn't know that Mousesack would be configuring the xenovox for long distance communication and frequent use. The device was only ever meant to be for as-needed. In turn, it required general maintenance, and it was a miracle that it continued to be functional for so many years. Mousesack got to work.

The next day, he was able to tell Geralt the guard's fate. The neighboring kingdom was told of his treachery, and they agreed to the hanging. That thought should've been of comfort to Geralt, and it truly was a relief. Yet strangely, he also felt a rock in his stomach. But Geralt was a man of his word.

He needed to step out for a bit, and he instructed Mousesack to keep an eye on the girl.

Down by the river, he did some tracking, trying to find that merchant who Ciri was nearly sold to. He lost the trail at the seaside. The merchant had probably been scared enough by the witcher that he boarded a ship. Eist would have to send word to the Skellige Isles with a description of the man.

Geralt stayed at the castle for several more days. Mousesack taught him how to repair and maintain the xenovox once he learned how. Ciri had been nearby, sitting cross-legged on the floor and listening intently. Mousesack rarely ever let Ciri use the xenovox, just to ensure there were no false alarms in contacting Geralt. But it was still a good idea to let her watch, in case she ever had to repair it as well.

Later that day, Geralt and Ciri walked into one of the castle's gardens. He picked up two sticks. Not waiting for any sort of approval - not like anyone could stop him - he used them to teach Ciri how to properly hold a sword, and how to block attacks. She was clumsy, but she followed his instructions to the best of her ability.

At the end of the week, Geralt contemplated staying even longer. Despite how restless and cooped up he was feeling, he didn't want to leave Ciri. Unfortunately, the universe had other plans.

A messenger from the north approached Geralt. Jaskier had once again gotten into trouble, after sleeping with someone he shouldn't have, and was currently in a cell somewhere in Temeria. There was talk of hanging him. Not because of any crime too heinous, but because his guards were getting agitated by his singing. Normally, when this sort of thing happened, Geralt could get him pardoned by Cintra. However, the kingdom did not have any jurisdiction here, and it was up to Geralt.

Anytime he would leave Cintra, he always felt assured of Ciri's safety. This time was no different, but it still took him an extra day to leave. He wanted to test the xenovox a few more times before leaving, and to be absolutely sure Ciri was alright with this.

She held her chin high, nodded, and hugged him goodbye.

"Teach me how to play gwent next time you visit," she asked.

"Only if you teach me how to play knucklebones," he requested. Then, he grew serious. "If you ever need to, steal the xenovox from Mousesack. And I'll come running."

"You won't be mad?"

He shook his head. "Since when do I get mad at you?"

She grinned mischievously. "Never."

He smirked back. "That's right. And I would tell you to stay out of trouble, but…"

"Never ever," she repeated proudly.

He gave her one last hug, told her goodbye, and disappeared through one of the main doors. He went down to the stables to collect Roach. After almost two weeks of staying inside these walls, he should've felt relieved to be leaving, to get back to nature, fulfilling contracts, and rescuing a certain bard.

Instead, for the first time in a long time, he wished he could stay in one place without consequence.

Not taking his eyes off the road, he patted the side of Roach's saddle, double-checking that the xenovox was where it should be, and set off.

The next few years would pass by in a rather frustrating and stressful blur.

War was brewing in different parts of the continent.

Many of Cintra's residents were growing apprehensive.

A shipwreck had killed Ciri's parents.

Calanthe now had custody of the child.

If that wasn't enough, the Queen had also demanded that Ciri be more sheltered. They couldn't risk her traveling as often anymore, and outings were slowly becoming a thing of the past for the girl. Calanthe also limited sword-skills and bestiary studies, or at least she tried. Geralt still provided these lessons behind the Queen's back, of course.

However, all of this meant that…Geralt's presence was rarely required now. The xenovox rarely summoned him. That didn't stop him from visiting often, simply because he could. It irritated Calanthe to no end, especially because she knew he still continued to teach Ciri how to defend herself.

She wanted her granddaughter to remain a child for as long as possible. To not know what it was like to spill blood on a battlefield. Just like Geralt, she was also overprotective of Ciri.

It was one of the very, very few things the witcher and the Queen had in common.

Geralt stared down at Calanthe's wide and lifeless eyes. Her bloodied body was bent and twisted after having jumped from that window.

Fire burned around him. The streets were painted crimson and littered with corpses.

His knuckles turned white as his grip tightened on his blood-stained sword. He had searched the castle from top to bottom. He had looked at the faces of every dead child he came across.

Ciri was not here.

His breathing shuddered harshly as he struggled to inhale and exhale.

Mousesack had summoned him by xenovox, and he still hadn't gotten here in time.

He'd been too late.

He could feel that Ciri wasn't anywhere near here. He knew this as if it were fact. But what the hell did that even mean?! Had she fled? Been taken as a prisoner of war? What would they even do with a child?!

No. He didn't want to think about that last part. People were vile, and their cruelty knew no end.

He mounted Roach and took off at a gallop. He needed to get out of these walls, to clear the smoke from his mind. His instincts were screaming at him to get out of there, and he obliged. After many minutes of riding, he eventually looked back.

Cintra had fallen, and was now only a defeated red glow against the dark horizon. For a few miles, he didn't slow. He didn't even bother to look at the ground for small footprints. There was no point. The ground was riddled with boot and hoof prints from the battle.

Eventually, the smoke had cleared, bringing a sudden clarity that startled him. "Wait," he told Roach, pulling back on the reins. He stopped them at the edge of the woodlands.

His eyes darted around, trying to see through the dark treeline. There was a familiar pull in his gut as he searched. Nothing appeared to him, though. That was fine. He had what he needed. Now, it was up to his instincts to guide him. He would find Ciri, he knew that much.

And he wouldn't fail her ever again.

Time became irrelevant to him as the sun rose and set multiple times. He camped, ate, and meditated when needed. Actual sleep was elusive, not like he could currently focus on that anyway. All of his energy was directed towards that gut feeling, and he allowed it to tug him in whatever direction it saw fit. The air had turned dry and cold, with a hint of snow on the wind.

By week two – or was it three – smoke returned to him. He almost felt infuriated, before he realized that this wasn't metaphorical smoke. It was literal. There was a camp nearby. All at once, his chest and stomach suddenly relaxed. Roach's reins fell from his grip. He took his feet out of the stirrups and jumped off her.

He wandered through the trees and followed the smoke. He could see the barest of light, from a tiny campfire just up ahead.

He stopped.

There was a small figure kneeling on the ground, draped in a blue ornate cloak. The person shivered and was nearly touching the flames in order to warm their hands.

His shoulders sagged, the relief being almost too much to bear. "Ciri," he exhaled.

She immediately stood up, spun around in the direction of his voice, and stared at him with wide green eyes. Then, she was running, and he met her halfway.

She collided into his embrace, buried her face into his chest, and cried silent tears. He clutched her back, as gently and as tightly as possible, tucking her head beneath his chin. His eyes burned, and he clenched them shut.

She was positively haggard. Covered in dirt and bruises, rips and holes in her cloak. She shook against the cold, and she also appeared malnourished. But she was alive. She had fled an entire siege against her kingdom, had continued to evade them, and had survived on her own for this long.

He'd said it before, and he'd say it again: She was tougher than she looked.

He would have to hunt for them, as soon as possible, and show her how to build up the fire a little more. But that could wait another moment. He refused to let her go for anything right now.

He refused to let his child go ever again.

* Thank you to all of you who have read and liked this story. This short story was a bit of a challenge to write, and me and my editor had fun writing it. If you choose to leave a comment, please give a shout-out to my editor. Constructive criticism is always welcomed. Once again, thank you.