The voyage from Skellige to Redania is staggeringly difficult. The ship sways more fervidly as they sail into open seas, and Jeya spends half of each day bent over the ship's taffrail - or otherwise asleep to avoid the nausea. Meanwhile, Ralen wanders about the ship composedly, more or less keeping close to her, and scans the horizon for land in the final days of their trip.
A faint mass eventually comes into sight on a cloudy morning. Having arrived at the Gulf of Praxeda, the bulk of the trip is over, and they will soon dock in the margraviate of Talgar.
"We're here," he announces to his companion, who is bent over the taffrail beside him on the port side of the ship.
She continues to rest her forehead against her crossed arms on the railing. She grunts loudly and abruptly, and the Witcher chuckles as he pats her back understandingly. She finally unfurls her arms and clamps them onto the railing loudly, lifting herself up to look over the starboard side. Even the deep, exasperated sigh that follows doesn't bring the color back to her pale cheeks.
"I fucking hate boats," she mutters ferociously.
"More than my friend Geralt hates portals, I'd wager," he smiles knowingly.
Jeya groans, and pushes away from the taffrail. She shuffles across the deck, rubbing her temples with her fingers. On the other side of the mainmast is the trap door leading to the living quarters, and she descends down the stairs with one heavy step at a time.
When the ship finally docks, Jeya stands at the front of the crowd, and hardly waits for the sailors to secure the plank before she heaves herself over the edge. Ralen disembarks next, and the wood creaks under his weight. Jeya watches with a glum expression, impatiently waiting to look away from the ship and not think about sailing again for a long time.
Ralen assures her that the longest and hardest part of the trip is over, and that the rest will go quickly with the horse that he intends to purchase at the stables. They find the biggest and strongest mare at the eastern side of the village, toward the direction they will ride. Jeya offers some of the coin she'd earned to purchase it, explaining to Ralen that the ongoing pay of a 'human Witcher' is considerably high, due to the low collection rate. After some negotiation with the stableman, they purchase the horse at a fair price and take off on the wide bank of the river. They stay with it for some time, and by nightfall, a tall mountain range appears to their right.
Ralen brings the horse to a stop.
"It's going to get cold in the mountains," he says. "We should make camp for now - we'll be there a little after midday tomorrow."
Jeya nods, and a fresh breeze lifts the hair off her shoulders as she eyes the grey clouds snaking through the peaks.
The Witcher climbs off the horse and looks about the shore, which is wide and covered with pebbles - perfect for making a small fire pit. Some trees have toppled over on the side of the river, and the dry bits at their base will provide wood for the fire.
"How much farther is it?" Jeya asks, lowering herself down from the horse. She takes its reigns and leads it to the water.
"It's just on the other side of those mountains," he responds, gathering pieces of wood in his arms. "In the morning, we will continue through the forest."
Jeya peers at the large, textured walls standing guard against them. There is no visible crevice among them that would offer passage through the mountains.
"I don't see a pass, how will we get through?"
"There is a way," the Witcher responds as he walks back over, and drops the firewood onto the pebbles behind her. "But that is a secret, which you will find out tomorrow."
"Oh, a Witcher secret?"
"Quite an honor," Jeya gives him a meaningful look.
"It is," he kneels down to arrange the firewood. "But if you should ever tell anyone, you can be sure that I will track you down personally and hold you accountable for it."
She gives a surprised laugh as Ralen brushes the dirt off his hands.
He pauses, and his cat eyes flicker about her, "Something funny?"
"Oh no," she says earnestly. "Don't worry, no one will hear about it from me."
The Witcher nods and continues working on the fire. The timing for this is good, as a cold mountain wind is due to arrive shortly after the sun makes its departure from the sky. As nighttime settles, the sound of rustling trees and trickling water is soothing, but even the warmth of the fire makes it hard for Jeya to sleep amidst the chill. She fades in and out continuously as the hours pass by, and sits up every now and again to feed the flames as they grow low. Each time she opens her eyes and peers across the camp, she finds the Witcher sleeping soundly in a different position.
When dawn finally arrives, Jeya sits up beside the fire. The wind dies down, and the running water is the only sound still cutting through the silence. She shifts lazily into a more comfortable position and looks at Ralen for a moment, who is sleeping with resolute tranquility. It is heartening to see his demeanor so relaxed, and Jeya occasionally looks around them to ensure that no one is approaching that would disturb it.
A sliver of sunlight finally passes over the horizon, and the hour is fair to fill their water skins and prepare for the remainder of the journey. Jeya's is in her possession, while Ralen's rests atop the mare's saddle with the rest of his belongings. The horse is tied to a large boulder a short distance away, and she steps past him carefully on her way to it.
A faint cracking of branches in the forest briefly captures her glance, but she continues on. As she reaches the mare and begins untying the skin, a slightly louder crack interrupts her again. She stops and stares into the trees, and again, it grows louder. Once more, and it is now more menacing.
Before she can reach for her swords, the mare suddenly whinnies and begins to kick its feet. A multitude of branches explodes somewhere behind the treetops, and the sound jolts the Witcher into consciousness. The horse kicks onto its back feet, knocking Jeya to the ground as she attempts to grab the reigns. Her left elbow collides against a large rock, and she cries out in pain. The Witcher turns sharply at the sound of her voice, while a large, winged creature bursts through the trees and takes back his attention. Jeya curses at the pain and rises back onto her feet, grabbing at the horse's reigns once more.
The creature lands on the riverbank with a great thud, and its blood red eyes immediately snap in Ralen's direction. It screeches, and begins to stalk toward him with incredible speed. The Witcher bolts toward his silver sword, still hanging off the horse, while Jeya struggles to control the reigns with one arm.
The muscles in the creature's shoulders and legs contract as it expands its orange, webbed wings and takes off into the air. The muscles ripple and lengthen as it shoots down in Ralen's direction, at twice its stalking speed.
Jeya releases the reigns briefly to draw the silver sword from its sheath, and tosses it to the Witcher before immediately taking hold of them again. He catches it by the hilt and turns, just in time to strike the beast across the face, and knock it to the ground a few feet away. The Witcher's strength is equally astonishing to behold.
The creature turns back onto its legs instantly and screeches again, revealing thin, sharp teeth lining its jaw. It jerks its head in Jeya's direction - toward the smell of the blood trickling down her arm. The Witcher steps toward the creature demonstrably.
"What the hell is that?!" Jeya exclaims.
"A forktail," Ralen scowls, and bolts in its direction.
The creature lowers its head offensively, revealing its thick, horned spine in a show of aggression. It then rises up onto its two legs, and extends its wings to blow gusts of wind at him. The Witcher immediately draws a thin, sharp dagger from his belt and throws it briskly at the forktail.
The dagger pierces the creature's chest, and draws it back down to the ground. Pebbles and dirt kick up into the air as Ralen slides to a stop at its side. His speed is astonishing, especially considering his stature, and Jeya watches as he leaps effortlessly onto its back, and plunges the silver sword deep into its ribcage. A pained cry escapes from the forktail, and its limbs tremble as its body drops to the ground.
"Not work for a human…" she mumbles.
The Witcher pulls the bloody sword from its body and jumps back onto the bank. He rushes toward Jeya and the horse, and takes the reigns from her hand. She immediately drops to the ground and cradles her injured arm, covering her elbow with her hand. She does this to protect it from being touched, as the slightest bit of pressure is agonizing. The pain draws tears to her eyes, despite her best effort to contain them.
The Witcher gestures the Axii sign into the air to calm the horse, and then turns back to Jeya.
"Don't," she gasps as he kneels in front of her and reaches for her arm. "Don't touch my elbow, I think it's broken… "
"It's bleeding," Ralen takes the hand that is covering the wound and moves it slightly, holding her right shoulder as he looks intently at it. "We need to bandage that."
She nods, "Do it for me, it'll be faster."
"Yes," he agrees, "I'll try to be careful, and then we should go."
Jeya glances at the horse reluctantly, and nods. The Witcher takes a bit of cloth from a pouch hanging off the saddle and begins wrapping it around the wound. She gasps sharply at the sudden pressure, and Ralen winces at the sound. He then helps her stand and lifts her onto the saddle, heaving himself onto it behind her. Keeping as steady as possible, he takes off toward the thick tree line on the other side of the river. Jeya, struggling to hold her arm firmly, sinks at the prospect of riding through the woods.
The mare passes straight through the tree line, and pain radiates from her arm with every small trot that the horse has to make over the roots. She shuts her eyes tightly to contain the tears, but after some time, the horse's movements become more gentle and steady. Jeya opens them to see that they are now following along a small, defined path between two lines of trees.
"Is this the secret?" she asks.
"Yes," he responds. "The Witcher's Path. It's narrow now, but it will grow wider and smoother when we reach the valley."
Jeya looks down at her arm and lets out a small breath of relief.
Ralen remains focused on the path for the remainder of the journey, while she concentrates on keeping still. Every moment seems to pass slowly because of the pain, and a wave of relief sweeps over her when the castle comes into sight among the trees.
Midday has long passed by the time they reach the main gate, and Ralen slows the mare as they come upon the wooden bridge before it. They turn the righthand corner of the gateway, and stride down a stone hallway filled with barrels on either side.
Beyond the second archway is an open courtyard with boxes, barrels, and sacks scattered from one end to the other. The open area is strewn with red and yellow flowers among patches of grass, and the path leading through the courtyard inclines on the other side. A makeshift railing of broken stone and bricks encloses the ramp on its left side, while a tall wall does the same on the right. Two visible figures are leaning against it under the shadow of the wall, and turn their ashen heads together at the sound of hooves.
"Ralen," the older one stands, addressing him concernedly. Ralen smiles as he lowers himself down from the horse.
"Geralt, Vesemir," he nods in their direction.
The Witchers watch as their comrade takes the woman by the waist and lowers her gently to the ground. Jeya takes in the fresh, clean air, and her gaze rises to the height of the castle. Patches of red ivy have grown against some of the grey walls, and there are wooden structures connecting many of the crumbling walkways. The rest is built directly against the mountainside, which rises above the castle to join the surrounding peaks among the clouds. Ralen steps toward Geralt and Vesemir, keeping one arm around her.
"Good to see you both," he gestures toward her with his other hand. "This is my friend Jeya."
"Hi," she smiles, still cradling her arm. "Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you too," says Geralt, the younger of the two, with a deep voice. He steps closer and peers at the woman's arm, tilting his head. "What happened? You try to fight him?"
"No," she laughs, cocking her head in her companion's direction. "I'd have the broken bones, but he'd be the one bleeding."
"There was a forktail just outside the valley," Ralen says, ignoring the joke.
"A forktail?" Vesemir asks. "It wasn't the tail that struck her, was it?"
"No, no poison, it's only broken. Some swallow will do."
Geralt and Vesemir look at the woman simultaneously.
"For… her?" Geralt asks cautiously.
"Yes," Ralen responds, leading Jeya up the ramp and toward the main hall. "Come on, you guys are going to want to hear this."
As Jeya and the others pass through the wooden door, her eyes are immediately drawn to the remarkable height of the main hall. The ceiling and walls are cracked and faded in some areas, and there are giant wooden beams and platforms supporting the arches - revealing the castle's considerable age.
It must have been beautiful when it was first built. The walls must have been bright and full, and the red tile floors must have gleamed under the light passing through the stained windows. She notes that the hall extends quite far into the mountain, and must be an easy place to get lost in. Especially considering the ocean of cluttered barrels, boxes and sacks, along with bookshelves that seem to have been randomly placed.
The three Witchers stride knowingly through the maze, talking casually amongst themselves about the time that has passed since they'd last seen each other. Their footsteps echo as they approach an open area in the righthand corner, on the far end of the hall. There, more barrels and sword mounts are nestled underneath a low window.
Cups, plates, and pieces of food are strewn about a table that stands in the center. To its left is fireplace so vast, that it could easily fit all four of them standing upright - with their arms extended. Jeya approaches the end of the table, and notices that the fireplace is missing the back wall, making the kitchen area visible on the other side of the fire. Her eyes pass over it as she admires the design.
"Wow," she breathes out.
For a moment, it distracts her from the throbbing pain still radiating from her arm. She sits on the wooden bench and looks about her wide-eyed, as Ralen glances at her briefly in the middle of a sentence.
Her gaze falls upon the three men before her - all of them tall and menacing. Clearly, these are shared characteristics among Witchers. Geralt glances at the woman sporadically throughout the conversation, while Vesemir begins to prepare some swallow over the fire. Jeya sits quietly and listens as Ralen tells them of their journey, and perks up when she sees Vesemir fetching a cup for the potion. She is sweating slightly from a combination of the pain and heat, and follows him with eager eyes until he finally approaches her.
"You're sure about this?" Geralt asks Ralen, who nods.
Vesemir opens the bottle and pours a tiny bit into the cup, and kneels before her. The old Witcher's expression is that of the same confusion that Ralen had shown when they met, and he holds the cup out to the woman reluctantly. Jeya smiles kindly at him and reaches instead for the bottle in his hand, which he releases easily. She takes it, immediately bringing it to her lips, and drinks all its contents.
Vesemir and Geralt's eyes widen, and an amused grin grows on Ralen's face as he looks between them.
"Gods," Vesemir mutters. "Child, these potions are highly toxic!"
Jeya inhales deeply, "Oh I could do with another one of these. I'll be fine, don't worry."
The Witchers' bewilderment deepens as they turn to Ralen, seeing only his increasing amusement at their faces.
"Any ideas?" Geralt asks him.
"None," Ralen shakes his head and shrugs, while Vesemir stands and steps back between them.
"Perhaps she is a striga," Vesemir suggests. "Or a therianthrope."
"Neither," Ralen shakes his head again. "There was a full moon a few nights ago, nothing happened. And I've been in her company long enough to know if she has a tendency to transform. As far as I can tell, she's completely human."
"Where were you born?" Geralt addresses her.
"I'm not sure," she responds.
"How can that be?" he asks.
"I don't know my parents. I mean, I don't know who they are."
The three Witchers observe her silently, and Jeya shifts uncomfortably in her seat. A wooden door suddenly bursts open on the other end of the hall, and a loud voice echoes against the tall ceiling.
"That'll be Lambert," Geralt mumbles.
"And Eskel," Ralen says, recognizing the second, more composed voice telling the first to "shut the hell up, asshat."
The two Witchers stride out from behind a bookshelf and look to their right, immediately noticing the gathered company. Both smiling broadly at the sight of the fifth Witcher, to which Ralen responds with a great, big smile of his own.
"Raaaleeen!" Lambert strides over and pats him heavily on the back. "Long time, buddy!"
"Yeah, been meaning to come and visit," Ralen returns the comradely motion. "How've you two been?"
"Oh, you know!" Lambert smirks, "Saving all the damsels in distress, like I always do."
Jeya raises a brow and ganders at the fire..
"I'll bet," Ralen laughs. "What about you, Eskel?" He looks over at Eskel as Lambert takes notice of the human woman sitting at the table.
"Oh you know," Eskel says noncommittally. "Saving Lambert like I always do."
Ralen and Geralt both chuckle at the remark.
"Woaah," Lambert's cheerful expression has turned solemn, and he peers at the bottle in Jeya's hand with his cat eyes. "What's going on here?"
"Quite a mystery on our hands, boys," Vesemir responds, and Eskel steps closer to look over the woman, as the others had done.
Vesemir and Geralt both share in the retelling of the story, and Jeya continues to sits quietly and observe them just as intently. She wonders whether Geralt and Vesemir are related, considering their ashen hair, or if Vesemir's case is simply that of old age. She looks about them, also noting that all but Vesemir and Ralen have scars on their faces. With it, she recalls the statement Ralen had made in the leshen's forest - a Witcher never dies in his bed.
"Huh…" Lambert mumbles when the tale is done. "Yeah, that's a head scratcher."
"Maybe we could ask Yen," Geralt suggests with a shrug. "Last I heard, she was in Visima. I can be there and back in a few days."
Jeya perks up slightly, but recoils upon seeing a flash of repugnance in Vesemir's expression.
"Not a bad idea," Ralen nods.
"Alright," Geralt glances at Jeya again. "I'll go get ready, and head out as soon as I can. Be back in a few days."
She watches as he pats Ralen on the shoulder and leaves the company, turning the corner around the fireplace. Meanwhile, Eskel, the kinder looking Witcher, sits beside her on the bench.
"So if I understand correctly, you never knew your parents or your family, and have no idea what happened to anyone that may have been able to tell you?"
Jeya glimpses at Ralen, and nods.
"I mean," she says, "Not for lack of trying. That's why I went to Novigrad, but there wasn't any spell that the sorceress knew of that could help me access my early memories. We tried a lot of different ones, and it's all just… blank."
"Sounds like some kind of memory blockage spell," Eskel looks at Ralen. "A powerful one, at that."
Ralen lifts a brow, "A sorceress of the Lodge would've been able to detect it, don't you think?"
"We'll see what Yennefer has to say about it," Vesemir responds.
"Yeah, hopefully she'll have something constructive to tell us," Eskel looks back at Jeya. "Sounds like you've had crumby luck so far, trying to figure it out."
"Well, I gave up after a while. Went on living my life," she gestures at Ralen. "'Til I met him, of course."
"So are you still bound to the leshen?" Lambert asks.
"Not sure, to be honest. We'll see if it's ever reborn, and find out then I suppose."
"Are you gonna to go back to Skellige?"
Ralen looks back at her as she shrugs, "I'm not sure. I do like the mountains, but there's more work on the mainland."
Lambert scoffs, "You're gonna end up in a pool of your own blood, doing what we do."
"I've heard," she responds, glancing at Ralen. "A Witcher never dies in his bed."
"But you're not a Witcher."
"That's true," she looks back at Lambert, "But I wouldn't have started this work if I wasn't prepared to face the consequences."
"Wasn't there anyone that tried to stop you from going out and doing this shit?"
"So what, were you suicidal or something?" he asks, casually dropping his shoulders.
"Lambert, really?" Eskel says sternly.
"It's a fair question."
Jeya's eyes narrow.
"No," she says in a low voice. "I wasn't suicidal... I was engaged."
In the corner of her eye, Jeya sees her friend blink in surprise, and suddenly feels self-conscious and regretful of mentioning it.
Lambert raises a brow, "And…?"
There is silence as she considers her next words carefully.
"And," she says, "Well, it was the first time I'd ever seen anyone die."
"Uhh," Lambert pauses awkwardly, and then sighs. "Okay, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-"
"Don't be," she interrupts noncommittally. "I was young, and he wasn't a very nice person. Not the kind of man to take no for an answer, if you understand me."
Tension ripples in Ralen's jaw.
"Not that that matters," she continues, "I still wouldn't wish that kind of violent death on anyone."
"Do you know what… did it?" Eskel asks.
"I didn't at the time," she turns to him with a kindly expression, appreciating the gentle tone. "I know now that it was a Royal Griffin."
She looks at Ralen. His expression is blank, and his eyes are unyielding. She finds herself unable to hold the gaze, and looks away.
"What about you all?" Jeya gestures to them. Lambert and Ralen are still standing before her, but Vesemir has taken a seat in a chair beside the fire. "Do Witchers... have families, away from the work?"
"Witchers can't have families," Vesemir says.
"Because of the job?" she pauses. "Or do you mean… they can't have them?"
"We can't," Eskel responds.
"Oh, I didn't know that."
"Most people don't," Lambert says as he lowers himself down to sit at the hearth.
Ralen looks out the window behind her and remains silent. The sun is deep into the second half of the day, and the conversation moves on to the nature of the Witcher's Path, and the unpredictability of the work. Some time passes as they sift through topics, and Jeya begins to yawn early in the evening. Toward the end, she and Ralen are hardly participating in the conversation, and she is happy when Ralen finally stands to excuses them both, offering to show her to her room.
"See you all tomorrow," Jeya smiles warmly at them before accompanying Ralen.
Eskel and Vesemir both smile in turn, while Lambert salutes them casually. Ralen leads her around the same corner of the fireplace where Geralt had gone, and toward the very end of the hall. The white walls don't tower as high up, and they approach a wooden door to their left. Ralen opens the door, and just before it's shut, he hears Eskel's voice once more with his Witcher senses,
"No wonder you can't get laid."
Jeya trails after Ralen along the red, winding staircase. Even the tower is falling apart, judging by the pile of broken bricks she'd seen at the bottom.
"How's your arm?" he asks.
"It's already much better," she sighs. "This one will probably take another day or so to heal, though. With more of the swallow, of course."
"Well, there's no shortage of anything here. Whatever you need, just ask."
"I will," she nods. "The others seem like good company. Though Lambert's a little… prickly."
"That's exactly how Geralt describes him," Ralen chuckles. "I tend to have more colorful words in mind when people ask."
"And what about the sorceress that Geralt went to get?"
"Yeah. What do you think of her?"
"What do I think of her?" he looks back at her.
"Well," he sighs. "She can be ill-mannered sometimes, but she commands respect."
"I see. Will she able to help me?" Jeya asks as they come to a door, halfway up the tower.
"If anyone can help," he says, opening the door for her and leaning on the frame. "It's Yen."
Jeya strides into the room without answering. The floors are made of the same red tiles as the main hall, and extend out to a balcony on the right side of the room. A white canopy bed stands in the middle of it, and the curtains hanging over the balcony match the fabrics flowing over the bed. There is a small desk and mirror to the right of the door, along with a bookshelf.
"Is this the guest bedroom?" she turns to Ralen, in time to see him look away from from the canopy bed.
"It's very nice - very welcoming."
"I'm glad you like it," he grins. "Also, now that we have a minute, I've been thinking about something…"
"Well, we're here now... And we've got a couple of days before Geralt comes back. Why don't we go out into the valley tomorrow, and..." he pauses, and Jeya watches as he carefully constructs his thoughts. "Maybe go over some of the formalities of Witcher training?"
Jeya laughs nervously, "I don't know how fruitful your efforts are going to be if I can't practice them."
"That's fine," he shakes his head. "You don't need to do anything. We didn't start out by jumping into the ring together, we spent years listening to Vesemir's fine lectures first."
"Oh, I'm not sure we have that kind of time!"
"No, but when your arm's healed, maybe we can test your natural scorn on Lambert," he grins.
"Oh, poor Lambert!" she laughs. "Why not you!?"
Ralen shrugs, "I'm not quite sure how I feel about you yet."
Her cheerfulness dies down a little, "What - are you afraid of me?"
The Witcher smiles, glancing down at the ground before returning to her with a soft expression, "Not exactly."
Jeya stares at him for a confusedly for a moment, with a subtle grin on her face. There is a brief silence between them until Ralen sighs gently, and gives a subtle nod.
"Alright," he says. "Good night, Jeya."
"Alright Ralen, good night to you too," she responds in a kindly tone, as he reaches for the doorknob and turns away. "See you in the morning." [to be continued]