Chapter 336: Eskel the Welcomer
Dawn had not yet broken, but the witchers were already well on their way.
Meandering, twisting paths populated the Blue Mountains. Some led to the mountain depths, while some led through the mountain range. Most were only dead ends, and even more of those paths were home to dangerous beasts.
Auckes led the way. Thanks to their extensive experience in traversing mountain ranges and the clues on the map, the witchers went around the incorrect and most dangerous pathways, passing through the valleys, woods, and ravines with their backs always against the walls.
Two uneventful days went by. The witchers hunted five beasts, had a few feasts, and earned some animal hides in the meantime.
Then came the third day. Golden sunlight broke through layers of clouds, shining on the Blue Mountains' snowy caps. The witchers found themselves in a barren, meandering, and vast valley. Rocks were laid out haphazardly from one end of the valley to the cliffs on the other side. A wide stream flowed through the center of this valley, and the witchers were standing in the upstream area.
Standing across the river was a dilapidated, moss-covered wooden shack in a place filled with rocks and tall grasses.
Auckes had grown a stubble throughout this little journey. He looked at the X-shaped mark on the map, wiped the sweat off his face, and grinned. "We're here, people."
Auckes knocked on the door gently, and the witchers waited for a while, but no one came to take the door.
"I think we might be early." Roy massaged his temples. He didn't look too pleased. "It's the twenty-third today. We're two days into Yule. They might only come in the second month when Yule is nearing its end."
"It's just a month away. The mountains are full of resources to fill our bellies until then." Letho hunkered down before the door and scooped up a handful of soil. "But you had better look around before you speak. The door might be locked, and there's no sound of human activity inside, but this place was clearly inhabited not too long ago."
Letho pulled the grass away, revealing some incredibly light footprints. "Judging from the strength of his steps, this is a witcher alright. Probably went out for a hunt."
The Vipers looked up and pricked their ears. As if answering Letho's call, the sounds of footsteps flickered from the plains over the hills behind the house. A silhouette leaped through the forest's trees elegantly. He didn't even have to stretch his arms to keep his balance. Not even a monkey could move as fast as he did.
The silhouette blinked through the trees and didn't even touch any branches on his way. Suddenly, he leapt down a tree and rolled on the ground to stop his momentum just to run all the way over to the Vipers.
And then what greeted them was a muscular man at about six feet four. He was wearing a red with black stripes shirt, and his broad shoulders pulled the fabric taut. His pauldrons were embedded with some metallic studs, and two sword hilts protruded from his back. The man was wearing standard grey witcher pants and a pair of leather boots.
His hair was brown and parted in the center, and the man wasn't handsome by any means. His features were rough, his nose was tilted to the right, his eyes were feline and amber, and his cheeks looked flabby and swollen. His mustache wasn't cleanly shaved, and some stubble remained.
But the most eye-catching feature was his scar that extended from underneath his right eye to his chin. If this man were to step into any city, anyone would think he was a deranged serial killer.
Age: Eighty-two years old
Status: Wolf School witcher
Witcher Signs Level 10, Alchemy Level 8, Meditation Level 8, Wolven Swordplay Level 10, Witcher Senses Level 8
Roy observed the witcher before them. He thought Lambert would be the one to welcome them, seeing as he was the more unorthodox one, but Eskel was a surprise.
Eskel was the most mysterious Wolf out of the four remaining Wolves. His lore was scarce even in the game and books. If Roy had to say one thing about him, it'd be his personality. Eskel was like a hardworking mule and a down-to-earth man, though he did have some outstanding battles in his life as well.
Back in Roy's world, Triss said, "If there is one man who emanates more powerfully than Geralt, then that would be Eskel."
As if by fate, Triss married the man whom she thought emanated most powerfully—Eskel. Of course, things were still uncertain in this timeline, since Triss hadn't even met Geralt yet.
"You must be the Vipers." Eskel stood five yards away from the witchers and looked at their pendants. Surprisingly, he knew all of them. "Letho, Auckes, Serrit, and Roy. Good morning. I'm Eskel of the Wolf School. Came from Kaer Morhen."
He raised the bloody deer in his hand. "It must have been a long trek for you. Come in and fill your bellies. You must be hungry. We'll talk over breakfast." Eskel had a deep, reassuring voice.
The house was stark and dilapidated. Grass grew from the cracks between wooden panels, and cobwebs hung around the corners of the house. Aside from a haystack, there were only a cauldron, grill, and some yellowing wooden bowls around the house.
The witchers sat on the hide rug around the cauldron, sipping down venison stew that had turnips, carrots, and potatoes added into it.
Eskel tossed more charcoal into the fire. He looked surprisingly gentle, and his scar looked a little less intimidating. "When Geralt came back three months ago, he told us he befriended a few friends in Cintra and wished to invite them over. It had been decades since he brought anyone to Kaer Morhen. Not a friend, not an apprentice, and not even a woman."
"I thought he had a lot of friends. Why didn't he invite anyone to the fortress before?" Roy asked.
"I mean, yes, he hunted dragons with dwarves, saved Foltest's daughter, and even slept with more than a few sorceresses." Eskel shook his head and commented, "But he's not the best communicator. Keeps a distance from everyone like he's worried they might get separated if he approaches anyone."
That's right! Roy nodded his head. From what he read about Geralt, he was a bad communicator who just wouldn't say what he really felt.
"It's surprising that he invited four guests at once." Eskel looked at the stew in his bowl and shook his head. "I thought some fools got to him again and tried to mount an attack on Kaer Morhen."
Again? Roy knew why Eskel said that. Kaer Morhen was once invaded at a large scale many years ago, and they went into a decline since then.
"So how did you guys decide?" Auckes smiled.
"Vesemir checked him from head to toe. Inside, outside, wherever you can think of. When it was clear he wasn't under a spell, it was time to vote." Eskel shrugged. "It had been a while since Kaer Morhen had guests. The place is rundown. Everything of value's been taken away, so we don't mind some guests from time to time."
"I chose not to vote, but Lambert objected to it for some reason. Geralt and Vesemir were fine with it, so… I'm on welcoming duty." Eskel slurped some of his remaining stew. "I thought you'd only arrive in the first month. This is early. Midwinter just passed, and I hadn't hunted anything big yet. I was going to make a feast."
Roy was a little disappointed that Geralt didn't tell his companions about the brotherhood.
"We settled our business in Novigrad and had nothing to do, so here we are." Roy fell into a pause. "I thought Vesemir would have objected to this."
Roy's companions shook their heads as well. They thought Vesemir would be the most conservative of them all, given his age.
"Geralt convinced him. Told him all he knew about you, and Vesemir's interest was piqued." Eskel scanned the Vipers again.
"So what did he tell Vesemir?" Auckes asked curiously.
"Letho's a bald, reassuring man. Serrit's a calm sage, Auckes is an… unorthodox witcher who might get along with Lambert."
Auckes' jaw dropped. Alright, that's it. I'm seeing this Lambert the first chance I get.
"And you, Roy. You're the youngest Viper, filled with courage and imagination. You're bold and daring, like a fearless young cub who just ventured into this world without knowing any danger it holds."
There was melancholy in Eskel's eyes. He probably was reminded of someone. "And you, um… You would blurt out something outrageous from time to time. That's what Geralt said, not me. You love coming up with spectacular but insane ideas. Anyone would think you’re a madman when they first hear your idea."
Roy put his bowl down. He looked upset, and he lost his appetite. Letho tensed up and looked away to contain his smile, while Serrit's lips twitched.
Auckes laughed out loud. "That's an apt description! If he wasn't a part of us, I would have thought he was a madman too, but I know him too well."
Eskel said, "But then Geralt said when he stopped and thought about it, he thought you had a point. So, what did you tell him anyway?"
Roy wanted to say something, but Letho quickly answered, "He's the one who brought this visit up. You know how people his age are. Imaginative and boisterous. We had just met in Cintra, and he was already telling Geralt how interested he was in Kaer Morhen. Said he wanted to befriend you guys. It was rude, if you ask me. Too soon to ask for a visit, especially when they were just meeting for the first time."
"I see." Eskel nodded. Proposing a visit to another witcher's base on their first meeting. Anyone would think these people have some plans in mind, but Geralt's always had good intuition. He agreed to the visit, so he must trust these people. "You're not here just to get some new friends, are you?" Eskel asked.
"Right on the head." Auckes thumped his chest. "Things are a changing now, mate. Witchers aren't as powerful as they were before. Everyone and their mother are insulting us how they like." He stopped elaborating. He would leave the brotherhood talk to a later date. "So it's always a good idea to make some new friends. At least we can help each other out when we need it."
Eskel's gaze turned downcast. This was his first time hearing such a straightforward suggestion. Most witchers only cared about themselves and would never befriend anyone from another school. These people are a bit too straightforward about their goals, but that's not a bad thing. "Welcome to the Wolf School, friends."
The witchers raised their bowls and finished the stew.
"I assume you've rested enough? If we set off now, we can reach Kaer Morhen before dark."
Eskel led the Vipers through the valley's vast depression, across the woods between stones, and down the stream through the valley's nadir. They passed through the different landscapes like it was nothing.
They eventually reached a high point of the valley and came face to face with a thick, long trunk held up by some boulders. The bark was dark and covered in moss and ferns, while the branches had no leaves hanging on them. Anyone with bad balance would fall and get badly injured if they walked this path, but anyone who wished to reach Kaer Morhen had to take this road.
"This is the Killer." Eskel noticed Roy's look of curiosity, and he explained, "It encircles Kaer Morhen and is beset with obstacles to stop any intruders from coming close. And it changes every year. The Vipers have something like this around their fortress, no? It's good training for new apprentices."
"Um, I think the dummies provide enough training."
The witchers easily passed through the Killer which were made up of lone log bridges lodged between boulders or steep mountain paths clinging to the cliffs. Through the morning, afternoon, and evening they traversed across another valley up to a semicircle hill.
Eventually, they were starting to see the legendary fortress. It was lying in ruins beside the steep walls, and the stair-shaped walls were torn in half. The gates and outer castle were rubble, but the main castle was still standing tall. It was enough to house hundreds of people.
"Look at that beauty!" Auckes whistled audibly. "On par with Gorthur Gvaed."
The other Vipers looked solemn. Kaer Morhen was bigger but more dilapidated than they thought, but that only made things more shocking.
They spent about a minute staring at it before stepping onto the only bridge hanging over the moat. Eskel led them through the path in the yard to a steel gate, and standing behind that rickety gate was a dark corridor.
There was a silhouette standing within the corridor. "Welcome to Kaer Morhen, Vipers," a deep voice said.
And the Vipers were surprised to hear that voice.
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