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The Midnight Lantern

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Eskel had woken up long before you. He had always been an early riser, and that wouldn't change simply because he had you to warm his bed at night. But it was good. Welcome, even. You were sprawled out across the small bed as he packed away his various belongings into his saddlebags. It didn't take very long for you to awaken, even though he was taking great pains to remain quiet so as to not disturb you. You rolled over onto your side and fixed him with a soft gaze as he prepared for the long journey ahead. The idea that now, after all these years, you would be able to go with him filled your chest with a feeling you couldn't explain.

"Good morning," you said, voice still heavy from sleep. Eskel looked over his shoulder at you from where he was organizing his potions. The corner of his mouth you could see curled in a smile.

"Good morning," he replied, turning back away to focus on his task. "It's come to my attention that you don't have a lot of possessions with you. Did you want to stop by The Midnight Lantern to grab your things there before we leave?" At his question, you exhaled a low sigh and turned over to face the ceiling. This was probably inevitable. "What is it?"

"I don't think going back is a good idea," you murmured. "They can't force me to stay any longer, not while I'm with you. But I don't want to hear the insults. I was supposed to come back two nights ago, and I didn't. The Madame will undoubtedly be furious with me. Add the fact that I'm leaving, and it just becomes a horrid situation I want no part of." Your voice trailed off the more you spoke, until it was but a whisper. Eskel tilted his head to the side and stood, crossing the room in order to stand next to where you lay. He reached out a hand and ran it through your hair gently.

"Of course. I just want to make sure you're ready. It won't be easy if you leave with nothing more than the clothes upon your back."

"I know. And I loathe the idea as well." You leaned into his touch and closed your eyes.

"I could go with you," he offered. "They wouldn't dare try anything with a witcher by your side." You smiled at his words and looked up at him. His expression was of gentle encouragement, and you knew all he wanted to do was help you. Keep you safe, make sure you were prepared.

"I don't think they would try anything, it's just..." The more you thought about it, however, the more sense it made to at least attempt to claim some of your belongings left at the brothel. You had a small coin purse with wages set aside from what the Madame paid you for each client, along with a few extra sets of clothes that weren't completely unsuitable for a life on the road. "You're right."

"You don't have to agree with me if you don't want to do it," he said, crouching down to be at eye-level with you. You smiled ruefully and leaned forwards to press a soft kiss on his lips.

"I know."

Going back to the brothel to reclaim your things was probably one of the hardest things you ever had to do. If you were being completely honest with yourself, the very idea terrified you. But Eskel was right, and you couldn't just leave the burden all on him. You had to pull your own weight as well if you were to go with him. Although he would likely never admit to that. Eskel would probably be happy to try and provide for you, but you didn't want to add any more undue stress onto him wherever possible.

You pleaded with him to remain outside while you went in and got everything, and he agreed without complaint. There was a side door that was only open to workers of the brothel; it led to the kitchens. That would be where you entered and left. The front door was much too conspicuous, and you wanted to get this over and done with as soon as possible. Minimal contact with anyone who could alert the Madame of what you were doing. You nodded one last time to Eskel as you pushed the door open, watching him smile encouragingly and turn away to wait for you.

It was then you realized that this would probably be a lot harder than you anticipated.

Zond was preparing breakfast with his apprentices, who all looked up to focus their gazes on you. You froze, one hand still on the handle to the door. But then his face broke out into a large smile as he greeted you:

"I was wondering where you ran off to! It's been too long, you missed a lot of valuable information on how best to season my special flatbread," he said, not pausing in his preparations. A quick snap of his fingers had the young apprentices continuing in their work. They had more to worry about than a whore coming in through the side door. Zond beckoned you closer to him and you followed, shoulders stiff with nerves. "I'd be a bit careful, Madame Detlira is very tetchy today. Probably because you up and vanished those two days ago. I'd avoid the foyer if I were you, at least for now."

"Thank you, Zond," you said with an anxious smile. "I really must get going, though. Busy day."

"Don't even get me started, dear."

With a final nod to the head chef, you left the kitchens and tore off down the hallway towards your sleeping quarters. Luckily they weren't far, as many of the whores lodged on the first floor of the establishment. It was near the back; clients usually congregated at the front while waiting to encounter a girl for the night. The brisk journey through the hall felt like it lasted forever, though. But you made it to the room you shared with Ilde without any trouble. She wasn't there, probably out in the foyer or even the common dining area with the others. Good. One less person to worry about while you packed everything away.

Your bed was made primly, not slept in for the past two nights. Sometimes that happened during the time that you worked here. But now as you looked at it, you felt proud of the reason why it had been empty. You moved on quickly, dropping to your knees and reaching under it in order to pull out a small rucksack. The bedside table held your meager wages that you had saved over the years in a small coin purse. You opened the drawer and cleaned it out, grabbing things like your money and the comb that your mother gave you before she died. A few other small keepsakes that you realized you couldn't abandon now.

The low chest at the foot of your bed held your clothes. You scooted over to it quickly and threw it open, rummaging through everything. A lot of what you had may be suitable for a life in a brothel, but most of them would be useless for where you were going. So it wasn't hard to dig through everything and grab a scant few extra articles of clothing that you could stand to bring. A few simple skirts and tunics, coupled with some pairs of trousers as well. You thanked Melitele for the fact that you bought those on a whim two years ago. For they would come to be the most handy in your new life. You pulled off your dress and changed into a muted green tunic and brown trousers, pulling on the pair of boots that you had shoved down to the very bottom of the chest. They weren't worn often due to your lifestyle, but you felt like they were about to get a lot more use now.

After picking through everything and deciding what you could afford to take with you, you stood and prepared to leave. But as you walked over to the door, you paused. A quick glance back at the room. The chest. You sighed and went back over to it, grabbing a silken nightgown as well as your favorite pair of stockings. Eskel would appreciate something nice every now and then; maybe you could surprise him one night. You tied the rucksack shut and hefted it over your back. There wasn't much in it, but the simple act of coming here and taking a select few keepsakes with you soothed your soul immensely.

You cracked the door open slowly, peeking out into the hallway to check if anyone was coming. It was clear. You thanked your luck countless times as you stole away through the hall. It didn't take long to make it back to the kitchen. With one last look behind you, you shoved your way through the door and ignored the quick glances of Zond's apprentices. The head chef himself was turned away over the fire, and you scurried across the room quickly in order to escape. You were so close now; freedom was within your grasp.

"Ah. I should have known." You stopped in your tracks, spine ramrod straight. You hunched your shoulders and spun slowly on your heel to face him. Zond had his arms crossed, expression unreadable. "Oh, come now. Don't look at me like that, dear." He tilted his head to the side with a small laugh. "What am I going to do? Stop you? Why would I?" Zond crossed the room over to where you stood and placed his hands on your shoulders. His smile only grew until it lit up his whole face. "I'm glad you've found what you've been missing for so long. And I can only hope that he takes care of you." Your face flushed red. How did he know about Eskel? Zond only laughed harder at your alarmed expression, cocking his brow and clapping you on the back. "I won't say a word." He held a finger to his lips and winked at you.

"I... Thank you," was all you could say. "I don't want to make this any more complicated than it needs to be, and I feel like the Madame would make things harder."

"Oh, she would indeed. The other girls will miss you, as well as I." Zond moved away for a moment and rummaged through one of the cupboards. "Here, dear. Some of my flatbread for you. I know how much you love it, and the others won't even notice it's gone." He handed you the carefully wrapped breads and patted your hand. "Take care of yourself, won't you?" He asked, squeezing your hand.

"I will."

"And don't forget what I taught you! Cooking is an invaluable skill," Zond glared back at the apprentices who stopped their duties in order to watch your exchange. "Did I tell you to stop? I don't recall I did!" They all lowered their heads in tandem and continued their work on breakfast. Zond leaned in close to your ear and whispered, "and I doubt your witcher can cook much for himself, living off on the road as he does." He laughed good-naturedly and you let out a small giggle. "Now then. I shouldn't hold you any longer. The sooner you leave, the sooner you start your new life."

"Thank you," you said, pulling him in for one last hug. "For everything. I mean it."

"Get out of here before I start crying." His voice was strained as he returned the hug. When you pulled away his eyes were shining. Zond cared about all of the whores who worked in the brothel, watching them come and go over the many years he worked there. The only person who had been there longer than him was the Madame herself. "Go on." He gave you a playful shove towards the door. Your teeth flashed in a smile as you opened it and stepped outside The Midnight Lantern. The sun was bright in the sky and you took a deep breath of the fresh air. Eskel was propped against the side of the building, waiting for you. At the sound of the door opening his head shot up and turned to look at you.

You let out a silent laugh and ran over to him, opening your arms. He bent his knees and spread his arms wide with the biggest grin on his face that you had ever seen. You allowed yourself to be swept up into a hug that lifted your feet from the ground. He spun once, twice, three times before setting you down. You cupped his cheek and traced your fingers over his scars, pressing a quick kiss to the side of his jaw. Eskel gripped at your hand with his own and brushed his thumb over your knuckles, smiling. His eyes shot up to look behind you, and you whirled around in his grasp to see what he was looking at.

Zond stood in the kitchen doorway, grinning at the two of you. He lifted up an arm and waved silently. You waved back with your free hand and even felt Eskel greet him with the arm that was currently wrapped around your waist. Zond nodded one last time at you and shut the door behind him, closing off a chapter of your life. A long breath that you didn't know you were holding escaped you, one of relief.

"Alright?" Eskel asked. You turned to face him and leaned up, planting a kiss upon his lips. He returned it with a smile.

"More than alright. Let's go." You pulled away and clutched Eskel's hand in yours as he nodded his head and began leading you back to the inn. Thunder, his horse, was already saddled and loaded up. He was waiting in the stables for the two of you. As you crossed the town, you couldn't help but notice eyes on you. Your grip on him tightened as you looked resolutely forwards, ignoring the stares of the townsfolk. They no longer had any sway on your life. Eskel rubbed his thumb over the back of your hand comfortingly. When you made it to the stables and Eskel unlatched Thunder's door, the horse snorted and shook his mane out in excitement. It seemed he was excited to be back on the Path as well. Eskel patted the nose of his gelding and led him out by his reins.

"Let me take that, I can tie it here." Eskel held a hand out for your rucksack and you slung it off your shoulder in order to give it to him. He secured it to a free spot on Thunder's saddle.

"Are you sure he can hold it? He won't get tired out?" You asked, petting the horse's flank.

"Thunder is durable, he can take it. At least until we get you a horse of your own," Eskel replied, double checking the ties to everything and patting down the saddle. He moved around to the other side of his horse where you were. There was something small in his hand. You tilted your head to the side, trying to see exactly what it was. But before you could, Eskel pulled you in for another kiss. You laughed into it, tugging playfully at his hair. When he finally pulled away, his hand came up to tuck something gently behind your ear. The smell of lavender filled your nose. "I thought you'd like it." Tears threatened to fill your eyes as you felt at the tiny sprig of lavender.

"I love it, thank you." Eskel smiled again, softening the lines of his scars.

"Ready to go, then?"

"More than I could ever be," you replied, clutching at his hands with yours. Eskel let his hands drift down your waist as he moved to stand behind you. With a quick movement he had you aloft, helping you place a foot into one of the stirrups in order to lift yourself up onto Thunder's back. Once you were situated, he ran a hand down your leg to curl around your ankle. You wiggled your foot with a jovial laugh. Eskel hauled himself into the saddle with an inhuman grace that you could never hope to match. But you didn't mind, instead clutching at his broad shoulders from behind as he shifted in the saddle to get comfortable.

A gentle whistle had Thunder moving at a walk, and Eskel steered him onto the main road. There was another quick pass through the town square. You looked down at all of the people you ever knew, watching them go by as you began your journey away from the town. They stared at you in confusion, but you only wrapped your arms around Eskel's waist tighter and linked your fingers together. It didn't take long for you to head out of the square and slowly away from the limits of Ban Gleán. You buried your face into the planes of his back, breathing in the scent of his leather jerkin. "Eskel?" You asked, voice slightly muffled by his clothes.

"Yes?"

"I love you."

"And I love you."

A smile crossed your lips, hidden and secret. As Thunder quickened his pace into a trot, you felt a weight that you didn't even know existed lift off of your shoulders. Freedom. At last.

What city was it Eskel said? Novigrad?

The coast was calling your name.