“Vesemir! Raise your sword higher boy, what do you think you’re doing?”
The clatter of swords echoed across the training ground, a cacophony of steel against steel, wood against wood, and the grunts of those that felt the kiss of either blade. Amongst this a young boy, truly no older than ten winters at most, faced his brother-in-training.
Vesemir could not recall where he came from, barely remembering the feeling of his mother’s arms holding him one final time. The comforts of a life before this were unknown to him. Behind him loomed the scaffolding, holding mages and Witchers alike, building what would soon become the only home Vesemir would ever know: Kaer Morhen.
Truly a feat of architecture and magic weaving hand in hand, the keep was well on its way to being completed. According to what some of the older boys said, it would likely be finished before winter came round. Good timing, as this winter was set to be one of the harshest that the mountains had to give.
Of course Vesemir had heard the rumblings of why it needed to be built-- the witchers had all split from one another, each seeking their own Path. It made sense to provide a home base, as well as a space to teach and create new witchers. Kaer Morhen would be the wolves’ den. He wondered if the other schools were able to find their homes too.
A particularly brutal smack on his arm brought Vesemir out of his musing, reminding him of what he was doing and where he was. Rennes grinned from across him, looking particularly smug about having landed a hit. Not much older than he, the two had become fast friends, and were a sore on every trainer’s heel.
“Point to Rennes, really Vesemir,” Barmin, the poor trainer currently saddled with the boys, yelled out. He marched over, signaling that the boys should stand down, letting their swords point to the earth. He crouched down, right in front of Vesemir, golden eyes piercing. His voice, never raising above normal speaking tone, carried its weight in stones. “Keep fighting like you are, and you’ll never make it.”
Vesemir fights to physically react, hearing those words that so many others had said. “You’ll never make it.” “You aren’t good enough.” “A boy that small isn’t worth it.” Countless others had said the same, and worse, since Vesemir’s arrival. No matter how he may try, it never showed in the way the trainers wanted.
Rennes, not so lucky in retaining his temper, immediately jumped to Vesemir’s defense.
“He’s trying his fucking best!” the small voice yelled, picking up some unsavory vocabulary from the older boys. “Maybe if you all actually gave a shit about us and looked, you’d see that!” Rennes’ face had gone red from anger, sword shaking in his hand.
But Barmin simply laughed. “Trying and doing are separate things, boy. And you dare raise your voice at me like that again,” his voice dropping to a snarl, “I’ll personally lash you for each word you say.”
Vesemir could only stare at the exchange, fighting back tears.
With a sign, Barmin waved the two off. “Enough. There’s only so much I can do in a day with you boys. Put the swords up and go do your readings. I don’t have the patience to deal with you,” and walked away to another group that was practicing. These were older boys, and the steel swords already seemed deadly in their untrained hands.
Practically fuming, Rennes grabbed Vesemir’s shirt sleeve, and dragged him towards the racks. “C’mon, let’s get out of this shit spot.” Vesemir followed along, still trying to understand what had just happened. Once inside the part of the keep that was finished, they went up to their dormitory. Rennes kept a tight hold on Vesemir the whole time, not letting go until they were behind closed doors.
“I don’t fucking get it,” Rennes swore, sitting on his bed and removing his boots. “You’re one of the smartest here, and those—those—those fuckers think they can say whatever they want!” He threw his boots down on the ground hard, making a satisfying thud . Vesemir sighed, taking off his own boots and pulling out the textbook they had been assigned.
“There’s nothing to get, Ren,” Vesmir said, flipping through the tome to find the required section. He looked over at the boy, and with a small smile said “But thank you.”
Rennes, still angry, hopped over to Vesemir’s bed, sitting beside him to read as well. He couldn’t read half the words on the page, and needed Vesemir. They just wouldn’t stay on the damn page, so Vesemir would often read aloud from the tome so both boys could learn. It was an age old ritual, one the two had perfected down to an art.
As Vesemir read, Rennes began to calm, leaning on the other boy as he closed his eyes to better see the words in his mind’s eye. Vesemir craved this contact more than anything, but the two knew this. They were all they had in this mountain, and their foundation was sturdier than anything the keep was being built on.
The moon shone in through the window, providing Vesemir just enough light to see what he was doing. In a part of the keep that still had scaffolding up, the boy held a wooden sword stolen from the training grounds. With the moon as his only company, Vesemir went through the motions taught before, referencing hastily draw poses on a piece of parchment.
Sword higher, boy, the voice said, sounding suspiciously like Barmin. Vesemir scowled, and raised his sword an incremental amount, feeling how much easier it was to wield. Breathing heavy, Vesemir went through the rounds, committing each move to memory. In his head, he was fighting monsters, yes, but not the kind that the elders spoke of.
You won’t survive. Thrust. You’re too weak. Parry. Why are you here? Side-step.
On and on, until sweat poured down Vesemir’s brow and dropped onto the solid stone beneath him. Pausing for a breath, he realized it was not just sweat. His tears silently sliding down, the moonlight glinting off them. He went to wipe his eyes, but the tears did not stop.
A pair of arms wrapped around Vesemir, pulling him close and petting his hair in a familiar fashion. Vesemir curled into the warm chest, allowing himself this moment of weakness.
Not like Rennes would speak of it to anyone. This was their moment, this was their time. The time when Vesemir needed to let go, when he needed to finally show that he does feel. That the words have caused him more harm than any of the times Rennes had smacked him with the practice swords.
Words didn’t need to be said, and the moonlight spread her arms over the young wolves, keeping her vigil as the night went on.
Dinner was always a simple affair, though the food could be better. Mushrooms and herbs thrown in a tasteless salad, and a side of whatever meat was on hand. This was all that Vesemir could remember eating. Of course, some of the older boys would sneak sweets when the trainers weren’t looking, but this was rare. It’s hard to sneak past someone with enhanced senses, and the older boys were still getting used to theirs.
Vesemir had heard the screams, and on one memorable occasion, seen the transformation that awaited him. He had been sneaking around one night, overhearing a conversation about some important event that was supposed to happen. He had seen the vials and tables being carted around, and decided he needed to see what was going on.
Light-footed and hiding, Vesemir watched as boys, little older than thirteen, were strapped to tables in a circle. The mages prowled the area, checking that all the vials were correct, that the boys were unable to escape, that everything was going according to plan. There stood Barmin, off to the side, face illuminated by the firelight and looking particularly sinister.
Once all had been set up, the mages went to their positions, and an eerie chanting began. Vesemir could not wrap his head around it. He knew that everyone went through the changes and thought it would be a simple ordeal. Maybe this was just a blessing beforehand?
Then the screaming began.
Wide-eyed in horror, Vesemir watched as the boys screamed out, drowning out whatever the mages were chanting. The scents of piss and vomit met his nose, and he struggled to keep his own dinner down. Bodies bubbled where they lay strapped, blood dripping from where struggling limbs met hard leather.
Through it all, Barmin just stared.
The screams died one by one, until only a handful of whimpers could be heard. One boy, Stani, a boy that Vesemir considered strong. Stani had snuck Vesemir sweets when he could, and would help him get books off from shelves. He was as close to an older brother as Vesemir could get.
Their eyes locked just as life drained from Stani’s eyes.
Those eyes would haunt Vesemir for the rest of his life.
Vesemir and Rennes had just turned thirteen, deciding early on to share a birthday. They shared clothes, sleep, and everything else with each other, so sharing a birthday simply made sense. The trainers knew this, and though these sorts of bonds were considered weak by the mages, after being on the receiving end of a few too many bites from Rennes, it was easier to just let them be.
While other birthdays usually were a cause for celebration for the boys, this one was weighed down by the knowledge that soon they too would be strapped to tables. After that fateful night, Vesemir had run to Rennes, seeking comfort in the other boy’s arms. Tears were not shed that night, shock keeping its tight hold, but Vesemir’s recount of all that he had seen had Rennes petting his dark hair, whispering words of comfort.
Gods willing, the boys would be able to do this once more after their trials.