He watched the fires of the funeral prier as they struggled to stay alive in the face of the harsh wind. He was cold, but he tried to ignore it. Against his will, tears threatened to spill down his cheeks as the acrid smell of burning flesh filled the air. He could not let himself cry. He had to remain strong. His brother would want that from him…
His whole life, it seemed, was a constant reminder of the fragility of existence. Three times during the course of his eight winters, he had stood at this very spot, watching a member of his family being consumed by fire. He figured he should be used to the sight by now, be used to the empty feeling at the pit of his stomach. But death, he had learnt, was one of the few things in life that was impossible to become accustomed to. For just as his family had started to accept that their numbers had once again been reduced, had started to accept the gaping whole left the absence of a person they loved, another one would be taken from them. The grief, the pain and the anger came with no less force than they had the first time, with the passing of Miken, the youngest brother. In a way, he was glad for them – they were a tangible reminder that he was still alive. Feeling anything confirmed his existence and so he let his threadbare cloak whip around him, let the frosty gale caress the patches of his exposed skin and let himself shiver in the cold.
Arden had been the third to die. He had been the second eldest and was closest to him in age. They had shared many mischievous adventures together when they were not busy trying to survive the harsh realities in their life. Kwaeden was a harsh land with long, cold winters and short, wet summers. Not many things grew here, apart from the hardy steppe grasses and a few stunned trees. Crop failure was a common occurrence, and during those times the families of the tiny, nameless village reverted to a sort of hunter-gatherer existence, roaming the land in search of food. He had heard tales of the lands of the south where the land sagged with the weight of the new harvest, the skies were blue instead of grey and people lived in marvellous cities. He and Arden had made plans to journey to this seemingly magical place, to confirm for themselves that it really existed. But now such plans had gone up in the very same smoke that now rose from the prier before him.
As he watched the billowing fumes arch into the sky, he could almost discern images of him and his brother in it. The murky silhouette of a tree seemed to form smoke and he allowed himself a small smile as he remembered the time he and Arden had snuck into the orchard of the noble lord who live nearby to steal apples. As they had munched on their spoils, he remembered thinking that he had never tasted anything so good in his life. The apples had been bright red, like blood, their sweet juice running down his chin and fingers like honey and the taste had filled his senses and his stomach with warmth. And he also remembered that was glad to be able to share such an experience with his elder brother.
But now he had to put such pleasant memories behind him. With the passing of Arden, he was now the second eldest. And with that came responsibilities. His eldest brother, Madden, had been forced to take the place vacated by their father last year. Even though he was only fourteen, he acted as if he was twice that age. When you lived a harsh existence, and your life could expire at any moment, you quickly learnt what was important and what was not. Madden had decided that his family was more important than his childhood, and as he had stood at this very spot the previous winter, he had seen his eldest brother morph into the person he was now. Outwardly, there had been no visible changes but now, when he looked into Madden's eyes, he saw a man instead of a boy.
The wood of the prier collapsed and he was brought back to reality. The sun had set long ago and he was the only one still standing at the Place of Ashes. It was a symbolic name, he knew. The ashes never stayed long; the relentless wind swept then across the planes, leaving behind charred earth that was quickly covered up be fresh snow. And when the snows melted and the summer rains set in, fresh shoots of grass emerged, obscuring any traces of death. For such was the cycle of life – when one died, he was swallowed up by the elements. The body disappeared, and only the memories lived on.
He remembered being told that all those who died returned to the bosom of Melitele, the Mother Goddess. He hoped that Arden was with Her now, in a golden field, under an azure sky, eating delicious apples.
The door of the hut slammed open to reveal a yeti. Jumping back in fright, he gripped the peeling knife in what he hoped was a threatening manner. He had heard tales by some trackers of the strange monsters that roamed the Kestrel Mountains. The one that had invaded their home was smaller than the towering beasts he had been told about and was acting in a strangely human manner as it stomped its feet on the packed-earth floor. The snow that clung to it fell in chunks to the ground, revealing that the 'it' was in fact a 'he'. The heavy fur-lined hood was thrown back to unveil Madden.
"You had me scared there for a minute," Marken said, coming to greet his brother and to take the carcass of a hare from him. "I though you were a yeti."
Madden scoffed. "You shouldn't believe everything Old Scar tells you. I bet half his tales aren't even true."
"But he showed me the yeti skull!"
"It was probably just the skull of a bear."
"Then why would he say it was from a yeti?"
"How should I know? His wits are addled? He likes to spin a good yarn? Either way, I don't care. I'm starving, so come help me skin this hare." Madden strode off into the kitchen where he greeted his mother and baby sister. Marken followed, feeling slightly dejected after his brother's scolding. Throwing the hare onto the table, he set about gutting and skinning it with all the fury of an eight-year old. For even though he had felt wise beyond his years at the funeral, at heart, he was still very much a child.
Within the space of an hour, the four of them were heaping large spoonfuls of hare stew into their mouths. This was the first proper meal they had eaten in three days. A mighty blizzard had set in, and venturing outside had been impossible. The weather had cleared briefly in the morning and Madden had decided to take the risk and venture into the forest in search of food. But by noon the storm had resumed. Marken and his mother had waited anxiously, and it was a relief to both of them when Madden had made it home. Marken didn't think that they would have been able to cope with another death so soon after Arden's passing.
And so with Madden's safe return and the results of successful hunt in their bellies, a light air of festivity had settled around the table. No word was spoken; there was no need. Little Marcia gurgled occasionally but otherwise the small family sat in silence, enjoying each other's company, glad for the small blessing of being together.
Even before he was fully awake, he sensed that something was not quite right. Opening his eyes, he dressed quickly, and grabbing his skinning knife, he crept silently through the house. Seeing nothing amiss inside, he opened the door and…
His mouth dropped open. The blizzard had broken up during the night and a fresh pile of virgin snow covered the land as far as they eye could see. It sparkled in the weak light of the sun like it had been enchanted. The great blue expanse of the sky was only marred by a few scatterings of clouds. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.
Whooping with excitement, he rushed outside, nearly drowning in the snow, but he did not care. Such a marvellous day could not be wasted huddling inside and he gave full reign to his inner child. He let his imagination roam wild as he crouched behind a snow-covered boulder. Pulling his knife from his boot, he became a fearsome hunter, tracking the elusive yeti. He had to move carefully – yetis had above-average hearing and smell, and could sense warm flesh from miles away. But if he managed to kill one, then he would prove to the world that yetis did exist and his brother would think twice about scolding him again. Slinking from snowdrift to snowdrift, he knew he was getting closer. His heart hammered in his chest and he was conscious of every sound. He could actually hear the snorting of the monster as he drew closer to it…
Snapping his head up, his eyes widened in fear as he realised the true source of the sound. His hunt forgotten, he dashed through the snow, cursing the fact that its deepness was slowing him down. He had almost reached the hut when he stumbled and fell. Scrambling up again, he saw that he was too late. The intruders had already made it to his home and were in the process of dismounting. The swords that hung at their sides and were strapped to their backs gleamed wickedly in the light. He would not let them hurt his family, even if it was the last thing he did.
He broke into a dash, ignoring the snow, aware only of the beating of his heart and the sturdy bone handle of the knife in his hand. He realised that he was screaming a wordless cry as he rushed the closest man. He was about to slash at him, but the man had heard him coming and stepping aside, grabbed the hand that held the knife and twisted it behind his back in one smooth motion. Marken yelped in pain and he felt his fingers involuntarily drop the knife. He kicked and squirmed, trying to loosen the man's hold, but to no avail.
"You're a spirited little kid, aren't you?" asked the man who was holding him, a smile twitching at his lips. Marken merely glared at him with all the hate and anger he could muster and in response, he spat at the man's feet. But to his surprise, instead of being slapped or killed, as he been expecting, the man laughed. Releasing him, he crouched down in front of him and Marken gasped. The man's eyes were golden!
"Tell me boy, how old are you?"
"Eight," he mumbled, too caught up in observing the stranger's weird eyes to remember that he was supposed to hate him.
"Did you hear that, lads?" said the man, turning to address his group. "This tiny scrap of a boy is only eight years old, and yet he has more courage than many men I have known. The qualities of a good witcher lie not only in the strength of his arm or the speed of his feet, but in the spirit of his heart. May this day remind you of that." Marken had no idea what the man was on about, but it sounded suitably impressive.
"Do you have a name, boy?" the man asked, turning back to him. His golden eyes were warm and kind and Marken found that all his anger had disappeared, replaced by childish curiosity He wanted to know more about the strange man in front of him, so he decided to be courteous.
"Marken," he replied. "What's yours?"
"Ah, so you can speak in complete sentences," came the chuckled reply. "I am Vesemir. Pleased to meet you, Marken," he added, offering a calloused hand, which Marken took timidly. He had never been treated like a man before and it made him feel proud and self-conscious at the same time.
"What is going on out here?" came the voice of his mother as she opened the door. She gasped as she took in the scene in front of her and the sound brought Madden running as well.
Vesemir stood up and bowed slightly. Marken saw his mother flush and Madden's eyes open wide. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Ma'am. I am Vesemir. You must be Marken's mother." She nodded mutely, not sure what to make of any of this. She had never seen these men before and they looked dangerous. "You have raised a strapping young lad here," the man who called himself Vesemir, continued. "I would like to have a word with you about him, if I may."
"Erm, yes of course… Please, come inside." She knew she should not be inviting strange men into the house, especially ones with golden eyes, and Madden's scowl confirmed this. But this Vesemir had been polite and there was something plain and honest about him. She doubted that they were bandits. They were too well-fed and by the quality of their weapons, she guessed they were either well-paid mercenaries or adventurers. What they wanted with her son, she had no idea.
As the door of the hut closed, Marken was felt standing outside with three horses and two men. He took to examining the horses first since the only ones he had ever seen were sturdy draught horses or the sure-footed ponies that the men of this region preferred. The animals in front of him did not belong to either category. Despite their heavy winter coats, they were sleek and muscular and obviously well-taken care of. He wondered what sort men these were to be able to afford such fine looking horses.
On one of the mounts sat a well-built man with white hair and golden eyes. He reminded Marken of a wolf, ready to pounce at the first scent of danger. Turning his gaze to the other man, he saw that his rough face was marked by a large, disfiguring scar. But his golden eyes sparkled animatedly as he spoke to the first one.
"Say Geralt, why do you think Vesemir is so interested in the lad over there?"
The man called Geralt turned his gaze on to Marken, as if he was only noticing him just now. He appraised him for a long minute and Marken felt himself squirming on the spot. But he sensed that showing any weakness or fear would not be appropriate, so he forced himself to return a level gaze. After what seemed like an age, the man released him from under the mesmerising hold of his lupine stare and nodded almost imperceptibly to himself. Marken exhaled in relief, and knew that he had passed some sort of test.
"He has potential," replied Geralt in a gravely voice.
"What? You think Vesemir wants…?"
The other man sat back in the saddle and he moved his lower jaw about in a contemplative manner. "Huh…" was all he said. After a moment he added, "Quite unlike Vesemir to…"
"I know," cut in Geralt, without waiting for his companion to finish. The men had obviously known each other for a long time if they were able to anticipate each other's lines of reasoning.
"I wonder what Raven will have to say about it," mused the scar-faced man. Geralt did not reply.
Marken had listened to the cryptic exchange in bewilderment. He had a vague idea of what they had been talking about, but if that meant what he thought it did then… At that moment the door of the hut opened and he was prevented from finishing his line of thought. Vesemir stepped out into the sunlight, followed by his mother, who was fighting hard to keep her face calm.
Marken rushed up to her and she wrapped him into her arms. He knew that this was not the time to ask the million questions that buzzed around in his head. He felt a strange sense of finality settle around them, and in that moment, everything became clear. This would be last time he would see his family.
"Now, my darling, listen to me," his mother whispered harshly into his ear. "These men are going to take you away to a better place where you will be educated and hopefully some day you will be able to make a name for yourself. You will have new clothes, a warm bed and plenty of food to help you grow into a strong boy." He felt a warm wetness dampen his neck and heard his mother stifle a sob.
"Is Madden coming with me too?" Even though he already knew the answer, he could not suppress the question, nor the slight quiver that had entered his voice.
"No, my darling. Madden is going to stay here and help me with little Marcia. Maybe one day when you are older, you can come back here and see her all grown up. If you will still remember us."
"I will always remember you, Mamma," he reassured her. He thought that his mother was being silly thinking that he could ever forget his family, but of course, he did not voice this.
"Now go," she said, disentangling herself from his arms and wiping the tears from her eyes. "It is rude to keep people waiting."
He stepped back and looked around for Madden, but could not see him. One of the horses snorted impatiently and he realised that he had been staring at the small hut, trying to imprint every detail into his memory. Turning slowing around, he trudged towards the waiting men, the same heavy feeling from the funeral growing in his heart with every step. Vesemir smiled down gently at him before lifting him into the saddle. Mounting himself, he was about to kick the animal forward when Madden burst from the hut, carrying something wrapped in a faded piece of cloth. Marken's heart flipped over when he realised what it was.
"Father would want you to have it," his elder brother murmured almost inaudibly as he thrust the object at him. His eyes were red with unshed emotion.
"No," Marken replied, tears coming to his own eyes. "You keep it."
"Take it." Madden's voice was dangerously calm.
"I said take it!" his brother almost screamed.
Marken snatched the bundle out of Madden's hands, shocked by the sudden outburst. Vesemir's horse moved forward and for many minutes Marken was forced to concentrate on keeping his balance without dropping the precious bundle or sliding off the horse himself. Glancing back, he saw that his home had disappeared into the uniform whiteness of the land, a frail spiral of smoke being the only indicator that it even existed.