Wait, I forgot about the mugs! Let me just grab them from the saddle.
Okay, back to the fire. Now, where do I start? There was so much of it, uncle Vesemir. It’s just hard to recall the first thing—oh! I got it! It’s not from our training or theory lessons though ...
Do you remember the fairy tale about the tabby cat and the red fox? The one where hunters wanted to tear their fur off? Make them into muffs? Of course you remember. How many times have you told it as a bedtime story to the kids of Kaer Morhen? Dozens? Hundreds? Even to Geralt, right? I just can’t seem to imagine him as a child. Was he ever, really?
Okay, I know. He had to be.
Anyway, it was Geralt, who told me this fairy tale when I was just little. Ugh, I didn't like it when others would call me "little" back then, and now here I am doing it myself. Well, that’s the truth: I was little. And lost. And all alone. I had fled from King Ervyll’s men and his nasty son, Kistrin, whom I really, really didn’t want to marry. I mean, his breath alone—eugh! Anyway … that’s how I ended up lost in Brokilon forest. And that’s where I’d have died, if it wasn’t for Geralt. If he hadn’t shown up out of nowhere and killed this overgrown centipede … Oh, I know, I know! Not a centipede, but a yghern, also known as the scolopendromorph. However, you must admit, even in the engravings it looks just like an overgrown centipede.
So Geralt rescued me from the yghern, and later, when I was lying on the forest floor with the stars blinking at us through the crowns of trees, unable to fall asleep, he told me your bedtime story. About the cat and fox hunted down by humans. In a way, despite not having met yet, it was the first lesson you gave me. It’s pretty good, by the way. While escaping, it's usually better to act like a cat rather than try to be clever like a fox. Just quickly, react without a second thought, without trying some thousand two hundred and eighty-six plots to outsmart the hunter. Do one: hop up the tree. Run away. Don’t look back.
Otherwise you end up as a piece of decorative fur. Like this red muff.
Who shall we toast to? Geralt? Cheers!
Whew, that’s strong. Waters of Brokilon strong, heh.
You see, uncle Vesemir ... Already then, which feels like an eternity ago, I realized that I was meant for him. When he was telling the story of the cat and fox, I felt it clearly—this power binding us together even more than the strongest of blood ties. But he turned out to be too stubborn to believe it back then. Dumber than a child lost in the wilderness, you understand? Of course you do. I’ve heard you tell him how stupid he was yourself.
But back to your first lesson. The fairy tale.
You also used it as a bedtime story for me once. I woke up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep through those nightmares of mine. All alone in the dark ... Suddenly, I heard your voice, so warm and caring. The fear vanished at once, disappearing without a trace. You were telling the story differently from Geralt though—in more detail, yet not at all boring. That's why I never said anything. Sorry to admit, but in the end, this particular teaching turned against the teacher himself.
Yes, you heard me right. Against you.
I was a bit—or even a very—unruly child, but we both know you liked it. Although in this case I probably drove you crazy. Just a little.
It was when the monster from Brokilon had already become a vague memory, the ugly prince Kistrin completely forgotten, and when Cintra ... Cintra utterly ceased to be. The Witchers' Keep became my home. And you, the big bad Wolves themselves, were my family. Yes, indeed, you know that very well. I guess I’m stalling, sorry.
Erm, so ... do you remember that time I slipped away? No, not the first. Nor second.
I’d already grown very fond of the place by this time. Sure, it wasn’t much—a bed, a trunk, and that huge, filthy rat I killed and kept as a trophy—but I’d never felt more at home. It was far from the comforts of my chambers in Cintra, sure, but given a choice ... I’d have chosen Kaer Morhen every time.
So, why run away then, you ask?
I will tell you in a moment. But first, let's pour some more of that brew.
I won’t lie to you, uncle Vesemir. Fear overtook me upon seeing Kaer Morhen for the first time. I was scared as hell.
When Geralt found me after Cintra's fall—this time to finally take me with him—I thought I would never feel fear again. That the worst was over ... But, instead of a home, I was in this dark, ruined castle, full of rats and nightmarish echoes. I saw menacing black figures. I saw evil, incredibly shiny eyes staring at me. Glowing in the dark. Suddenly, I heard your voice for the first time, warm and caring, and just like that, the fear had been vanquished. Black silhouettes became friends. Protectors. Glossy eyes expressed curiosity.
In fact, you all cared. Very much so.
But some things ... Only you were able to take care of. For instance, the leather jerkin you made for me. It was a little bit crooked ... Well, okay. Very crooked. Truth be told, it looked like the nightmare of any self-respecting tailor. But I still liked it, just as I liked the sword you forged me. Nobody in the keep—absolutely nobody!—forgot about my training. Not once. But only you remembered that a child, even one with my talents, needs proper clothing and a sword befitting her size. You really tried your best, and I appreciated it.
Maybe even too much?
If I hadn’t wanted to repay you so eagerly, maybe I’d have stayed on the Trail. Not run into the woods instead of sticking to my training. I just thought I'd be able to get back to the stronghold before anyone noticed my disappearance. You see, I'd heard a couple of times how much you wouldn’t mind eating some venison. Sometimes you even mumbled under your breath: if only one of you younger witchers could kindly go hunting, we could have a feast. But nooo… It’s just beans and beans, over and over again.
Well, I was young. And a witcher. Kind of. So I thought it would be a splendid idea to fulfill your wish. There was only one small concern ... that you may not quite acknowledge the accuracy of my reasoning, or worse—you’d have me polishing swords for the whole day, after hearing it. Because you cared, of course. About me and the swords. That's why I decided it would be better to surprise you. With a delicious boar.
And I knew exactly where to find one …
No, not at all.
I didn't go for this boar completely unprepared. I made snares ... All right. I admit. It was no Talgar Winter or even a Wolf Pit. Just a simple trap.
But it worked!
Well, okay. It almost worked. It sprung. Snap! Crash! However, the boar could somehow still move. Then … the huge beast charged.
Charged straight at me.
Still, I didn't run away, uncle Vesemir. I bravely raised my sword, which you fitted so well to my hand. And then I boldly repeated everything that you all taught me during my training. Lunge, attack, retreat! Half-pirouette, blow, rebound! I balanced with one arm, cutting with the other, jumping over a slippery forest floor with roots reaching out from under the leaves.
The boar didn’t give a damn about my pirouettes. Someone could even say that he reacted with admirable resistance. I stabbed his hairy rear at least once, but he didn't even grunt. Then, suddenly, he lifted his head, kicked up dirt, and pivoted, charging straight at me again.
I stood my ground, ready to fight. You’d have been proud to see it.
Attack, bounce! Riposte! Half-pirouette! Riposte, full pirouette! Half-pirouette! Jump and cut!
But the damned swine didn’t even blink. He looked me straight in the eye. Tenacious. What was I to do? My blows seemed ineffective. Pointless even. Like stabbing a sack of millet or a wooden log.
But no! One must remain calm—breathe—keep going. You taught me that. Stay focused, wait until the last possible moment to evade. Steady … Steady … Pirouette!
Unfortunately, that particular pirouette didn’t work very well. And by this I mean: not at all. He hit me sideways—thwack!—and I flew a good twenty feet into the air. I thumped my back against one of the trees and the sword flew from my hand. For a moment, Brokilon flashed before my eyes, together with the stars. The water rustled in my head.
And one thought: Escape! Run away like the cat from your story. Hop up the tree. Don’t look back.
The boar was in no hurry. At first, he sniffed the sword lying in the dirt. Then he slowly raised his big bulky head towards me—a small girl huddled in a tangle of branches. My ribs burned cruelly, every breath spreading through my body with dull pulsating pain.
He stood sentinel, this tenacious boar. Staring. Waiting calmly under the tree.
I don't know how much time passed before he got bored. But it was enough for you to notice my absence.
As I waited for our would-be dinner to go away, I recalled the words of a nursery rhyme. You recited it in my mind:
“How doth the little wild boar
Improve his shining tusks,
And rut them 'gainst the forest floor,
And on the trees' rough husks!
How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little lasses in,
With gently smiling jaws!”
Louis of Charolleis’ poem is another of many things I know thanks to you, uncle. Unfortunately, it turned out to be of little use in this situation.
Huddled in the large oak tree, I couldn't keep your voice and rhymes out of my head. I had a hard time gathering my thoughts—to come up with some plan. The sight of my muddied sword, trampled on by the boar’s hooves, didn’t help my concentration. It frustrated me. What you would say, seeing the blade in such a state... I couldn’t bear the thought! So, when I was sure the beast was gone for good, all that was left on my mind was the desire to get my weapon back.
I slowly slipped off the tree and took a few careful steps. My ribs still stung with each breath, and my heart thrashed like a bell.
Suddenly, I heard your voice.
No, not in my head, but for real. Getting closer. You screamed my name, but instead of joy it filled me with panic. I quickly plunged my hand into the undergrowth and grabbed the sword. Its blade shimmering beneath the filth. Then more shouting—my name ringing out all around. Shadows moved among the trees. From the darkness came louder and louder: Ciri! Cirilla!
Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon. Princess of Cintra...
Suddenly, the nightmares came back, even though I was awake. There was a wall of fire before me. I saw a frightening black knight with a winged helmet. I heard the screams of Cintrians being slaughtered.
There was no “hop” this time.
Just like that, on an impulse, I appeared in the crown of some random pine tree. And then I fell. But just before I hit the ground, it happened again. Another pine tree. This time, I grabbed onto a branch before I plummeted like a stone. Miraculously, I somehow kept hold of my sword. Then I watched in amazement as you traced my footsteps all the way to the large oak tree. How you scratched your head when my trail just... disappeared.
Back then, I didn't know what happened, but I think it was probably the first time I teleported.
How come you didn’t hear about this before? Well, Geralt helped me. Although you were all looking, it was he who finally found me. As always. Destiny, huh?
I know, I know, it's getting old. Just destiny and destiny, over and over again.
And beans, ha!
In any case, I was so confused as I watched you from atop the tree I should never have been in. The world seemed unreal. Time passed at a strange, altered pace. I don't think I prophesied on this occasion, or you surely would have heard me.
But I had a vision...
A cat ran away with a skulk of foxes. She jumped, hop-hop, from tree to tree. The foxes raced down below. And hunters swarmed from behind. Blacks, reds, hounds, and even one really scary lion.
Needless to say, the foxes were turned into bloody muffs, while the cat ran and ran and ran away. It seemed she would never stop...
My eyes snapped open.
Geralt was leaning over me with a stern face, but the faintest of smiles betrayed his facade. He was angry with me, sure, but I was safe and that was most important to him.
Of course, I started talking pretty quickly. About leaving the Trail, about this grand plan of mine, about the trap that didn’t quite work, and the stubborn boar that refused to yield. I just didn't mention the strange jumps, or talk about the vision. I was afraid—wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened. I thought, instead of dwelling on such things, why not convince him of my original plan? After all, working together as a team, well... that boar wouldn’t stand a chance!
Geralt disagreed. He said I had probably come across the Old Wild—the caring spirit of the forest. So… no boar. But we didn’t leave empty-handed.
While returning to Kaer Morhen, we managed to hunt a hare along the way. It was small, skinny, and stringy, but the soup came out surprisingly tasty. You remember? No, of course not... You didn't even notice the hare when we came back. You didn't care about fatigue or hunger. You were more interested in me—the fear that echoed in my voice and the bruising on my ribs. You immediately took care of my wounds and started brewing some healing potions.
You never touched the hare soup. Not even a taste. Instead, you made me eat it all to regain my strength.
Fairy tales and nursery rhymes. All these fat volumes read together. Fencing lessons… Anything else? Hmm, maybe for a change something you didn't teach me?
A lot of things. Right. But this is quite a crucial one.
Contrary to appearances, neither you nor Geralt showed me how to kill. How to defend myself, yes. To survive, sure. To not give up… But not how to take someone's life in cold blood.
Because to fight is not the same as to kill. You know that well enough.
So you taught me how to swing a sword and to pirouette. How to dodge and block. Well, even how to attack! How to cut through a leather bag. A straw mannequin. An overgrown rodent. But not how to kill another human...
That I had to learn myself. Much later.
By the time of my first, I had long left Kaer Morhen. I had attained some basic education at the Temple of Melitele, where I received magical training under the supervision of Yennefer. But, once again, just as I started to warm to my new surroundings, I was whisked away to someplace else. This time, I found myself on the island of Thanedd.
During the coup.
I won’t recount the whole incident for you, uncle. You already know the events well enough.
But it was terrible. One moment I was asleep in bed, the next I was kneeling among dead bodies. Suddenly, Thanedd became a second Cintra. People screamed, fought desperately, and died brutally before my eyes. Whether by sword or sorcery, death is ugly. So I ran from it. Especially as those I loved had disappeared. Left me to be hunted—again. And in the chaos, in this mad dash for my life, I found myself in Tor Lara. At the portal. It attracted me, summoned me, even whispered... And there was no other escape, only this shining oval. So, I closed my eyes and stepped into it. Then there was a blinding brightness and a furious whirlpool; a breathless blast that crushed my ribs and sucked the air from my lungs.
I ended up completely alone. In the middle of nowhere. The warped portal had spat me out in some random desert, where I was certain I would die. But I didn’t. I found my way out—you know I somehow always do. Unfortunately, I ran straight into the hands of mercenary bandits…
It seemed no matter how far I ran, trouble would always find me. Capture looked to be my fate once more. And as we both know by now, it’s pretty hard to outrun destiny. But it was not to be. Thanks to the help of a skulk of foxes, I managed to escape.
I had always wondered when the foxes of my visions would show up, who they’d be, what they’d be like… As it happens, they turned out to be a rather violent hanza.
Yes, uncle. I want to tell you about a past that I'm not proud of at all. About deeds I have never fully forgiven myself for. About the time when I became a common bandit.
So, how did I join the hanza? Well, while the mercenaries who had captured me were feasting with another gang, the Rats attacked the inn. They did so because that other gang had imprisoned one of their companions—had him tied up next to me.
Anyway, considering the circumstances, the Rats seemed like the best of two bad options, so I helped them—to help myself.
Another fight broke out, as if the one on Thanedd wasn't enough already. Along with the Rats, I ended up running away again.
That's when... I...
I was racing through the village away from that damned inn, trying to escape the chaos.
Trying to avoid being captured at all costs.
Suddenly, one of the settlers emerged from a pigsty. He attacked me with a spear.
What happened next haunted my dreams for a long time. I remember everything. Every move. The instinctual half-turn that saved me from the spearhead, the settler that didn’t have time to block my riposte—my cut was simply too fast.
For a moment, I saw his mouth open, ready to scream. I saw an elongated bald forehead, pale above the line where a hat must have protected it from the sun. Now that paleness was spattered red. He howled and wheezed, fell and convulsed among the straw and dung. Blood spurted from him like a stuck pig, and my stomach rolled up into my throat.
I tried to justify what happened. Explained to myself that it was the fault of my training. Pure muscle memory. That I didn't want to take anyone's life. It was only self-defence.
And that was the truth... at least that first time.
Later, when I had officially joined the Rats, that changed. I changed. I started killing for reasons not worth killing for. Certainly not worth dying over.
But this didn’t happen right away.
You could say I stalled for a long time. Pretended to be a killer in front of the others. During subsequent skirmishes and attacks, I used ferocious-looking blows during combat. Made them look deadly. But in reality, they were only meant to incapacitate. To overwhelm the opponent before death was necessary. Like that time with the bailiff transport...
We caught them near a fallen bridge. The Rats had killed the entire convoy, except for one soldier. The one that started to run away, but upon seeing me… turned his horse and rushed to attack… missing the mark. Even though he blocked, expecting a counter, I got him. A cut straight to the mouth. Not fatal, but nasty, just like the one that would eventually disfigure my face...
I wonder if he lived to tell someone his story?
I really hope so.
As you can see, uncle, people were eagerly jumping onto my sword. Maybe because I was the youngest Rat. Or I just looked the least threatening. Whatever the reason, death was a constant presence. Following my every step. Ahead of me. Surrounding me. Always in my hand.
I often thought about Kaer Morhen, especially at night. The home I wanted to return to with all my heart. But I was scared. I had lost so much on Thanedd, uncle. Or so I believed back then. I felt powerless.
I didn’t want to forfeit what little I had left. End up all alone.
But I could hope… I suspected you might still be there. I dreamed of returning to the stronghold—seeing your warm smile upon my arrival. I charted maps and trails in my mind, wishing to make it so. But you know how it is. In times of war, loneliness on the road means a swift and brutal death.
And I didn’t want to die. So I clung to my colourful gang. Hid within their ranks like a real rat. Just… went through the motions to get by.
Until the night we attacked the village of New Forge.
We snuck in with a single purpose: set fire to the mayor’s house. Burn it to the ground. You see, he was the fool who gave our companion to the mercenaries—the ones from the tavern. And we needed people to know that punishment for such an offence was inevitable. The penalty…? Death, of course.
But you must understand, uncle, it wasn’t all villainy. The Rats’ reputation was just as good as bad. For we—the children of contempt—shared most of our spoils. We distributed cattle, grain, and cloths from the Nilfgaardians to the villages. Helped people. We paid handfuls of gold and silver to tailors and craftsmen for what we cherished above all else—weapons, clothing, and ornaments. And in return for our generosity, they fed us. Hosted us. Hid us. And even when smitten to a bloodied pulp, they didn’t reveal our hideouts. They were loyal.
Eventually, the prefects placed a hefty reward on our heads.
Those with more greed than sense started to go fishing for Nilfgaardian gold. Just like the mayor of New Forge, who was blinded by his lust for coin, sealing his fate and condemning his own village to ruin in the process.
But what happened that night… amid the flames and chaos… snapped me back to reality. Made me realise what was truly important. Convinced me that I had to leave the Rats as soon as possible.
If I could.
When we handed out gold, we were loud and flamboyant. Made a real show of it. But when we attacked, we did so like rats, or rather… like foxes. Quietly, treacherous, cunning.
That night, the first sound to break the silence was the crackle of flames. Then it all got so loud. Screams of people fleeing the fire, shouting and wailing. Our mounts, accustomed to such noises, barely reacted to the commotion. The first survivors ran out of a smoking hut. Servants, by the look of their garb. We unsheathed our blades. Whoever the fire couldn’t fry, we were to finish off with our own hands.
Suddenly, a ruckus broke out at the back of the house. Riders spilled from a hidden stable. Among them was the mayor, wearing nothing but his pants. His fat, naked belly bouncing as he rode. Since the servants didn’t really matter to us, we chased down our main target, along with his kin. There were many of them—the mayor apparently lived with his entire family, even his fifth cousin on the distaff side, no doubt. Each Rat had more than enough targets.
I had two.
One on a big strong gelding, the other on a slender filly. The larger rider sat firmly in the saddle, the smaller one could barely hold on to the mount. I galloped after them, swallowing acrid air. They were within arm’s reach when the wind blew their hoods down. They glanced at me, their flowing hair red in the glow of the fire. Smoke wafted from the flames, and I choked. Coughed wildly until tears welled up in my eyes. I wiped them away to get a better look. I wasn’t sure if I’d just imagined it—or if it was a trick of the light—because… the bigger one, uncle… he looked just like you. And the smaller one was around my age. A kid, really.
I blocked their path, swinging my sword.
The older one took up the fight. And although he looked like you, he definitely didn’t have your fencing skills. I bested him quickly, with little effort. I threw him from the saddle, pushed him to the ground, then instinctively asked: who are you? As if it mattered. The man began spewing out words chaotically, writhing like an eagle owl caught in a net. The kid clumsily slipped off his horse and clung to his chaperone, even though the old man told him to run away. But the little snot didn’t want to leave his guardian.
Then it hit me.
Mentor and student. Like you and me.
The boy had to be the mayor’s child—had the same chubby face. But his look… his expression… reminded me of… me. Stubbornness, fear, pain. It was all painted across his young face. It mirrored my own from a time not so long ago. Because that night I had a different face. The face of a hunter. Just like those who had chased me long ago.
Now I was the pursuer. I hurt, I stole, I killed...
The sword fell from my numb fingers. My lips barely moved as I spoke the words: Go away… Run. Fuck off already!
The elder asked no questions, didn’t attempt to make sense of my sudden change of heart. He quickly grabbed the kid’s hand and stuffed him into the saddle. Immediately after that, he jumped on his mount and urged both horses to a trot.
Motionless, I watched as they galloped away.
Behind me came the tortured howls of the boy’s family.
So, I decided to leave.
The next night, I collected what few belongings I had and slipped out of camp. I might die a lonely death on the road, but I had to take that chance. I wanted to return to Kaer Morhen. To find you, if not Geralt or Yennefer...
The leader of the gang stood in my way: Giselher.
He said he knew what I did. That I let the kid go free. And he didn’t even blame me for that, but the kid’s mentor... he should have died. No adult should be spared. Otherwise, rumours will spread that the Rats can be crossed and afterwards, they will just smack your bottom and send you on your merry way. No, the punishment must be more severe. All traitors must pay with their blood. That was the code—and the reason Giselher stood before me, sword raised.
But I wasn’t a traitor. Not yet, at least.
The threat flashed in his eyes: return to camp or betray us. Live or die—what’s it to be? Because if I didn’t retreat, a Rat would die that night. That was just the way of it. And if there was even the slightest chance it would be me, I might have raised my sword. Took up the fight. But he would lose for sure, uncle—I was far more skilled. And I couldn’t use my magic because back then I thought I’d lost it for good. I couldn’t simply jump behind his back and disappear into the night without a trace.
No, I had to make a choice: kill a Rat… or stay as one.
You see, uncle... Giselher had always treated me well. He never tried to hurt or take advantage of me. He shared his spoils. Supported us. Took care of our ragtag band of outcasts. The rest of the world could burn to cinders for all he cared, but not us… not his Rats.
I didn’t raise my sword. I feigned a laugh—an artificial peace-maker. Told him to stop being so dramatic. Can’t a girl go for a midnight stroll? Was that not allowed?
Giselher smiled crookedly. Then invited himself along on my improvised walk.
He never mentioned the kid and his mentor after that, though I assured him I’d kill the old man the first chance I got. Fortunately, I never got that chance, even though I spent many more moons in the Rats’ company.
Weeks passed. Months. More banditry and bloodshed. Until the day came when I finally left them...
That was the day the Rats all died, uncle—the whole hanza. Even when I chose not to kill, death followed me every step of the way.
They were slaughtered by the lion from my vision: Leo Bonhart. A bounty hunter. A hired killer who took pleasure in doling out pain, who had his eye on me above all others. He was the scariest man I had ever met in my life. He turned my band, my little foxes, into... into trophies.
I need a short break, uncle. How about another drink, eh?
Last one, I promise.
I killed him, uncle... Bonhart, I mean.
Finally, after so much time had passed. After enduring pain, loss, humiliation. After running so far. To other worlds, even. Other times. And it seemed like I would never stop. Death behind me, in front of me, always in my hand. But you can’t outrun destiny, not for long.
Fighting that son of a bitch... it was quite something, uncle. If you saw how I dealt with him, you would be so proud of me.
But that is a story for another time.
The fire is dying. My cup is empty, yours... quite full. And I would like to tell you about the final lesson you gave me.
Someday you have to stop running away. Even if your loved ones shout the opposite.
My grandmother, Geralt, Yen... you. You all told me to run away. So I ran away. I ran from Cintra and Brokilon, from Thanedd and Tir ná Lia. I ran from hunters and assassins, elves and humans, blacks and reds. I didn’t want to endanger my loved ones, so I escaped to other worlds. I thought you’d all finally be safe if I left you alone. But you still searched for me. Relentlessly. Because that’s how love works. Because when you love someone, you tell them to flee. You gladly face the danger alone, knowing that they are safe.
But it was my fight as well, uncle. Not just yours.
In my darkest moments, it was the memory of your care that helped me keep my humanity. But there is so much darkness in this world. You could never have kept me from it—it never works out that way. Evil will always catch up with you. Death will eventually overtake you, surround you. Until you face it. Together with your loved ones... and for your loved ones.
It took me a long time to comprehend. And so much blood had to flow before I did. Your blood too, uncle. I had to lose you to understand.
Because that’s when I finally decided to stop running. A year ago.
When you died.
When I was still a child—a little witcher in a ruined castle full of rats and scary echoes—you said you would not live forever. That you would soon rest in a shallow grave. But no one really believed you. Took it to heart.
You were eternal to us. Indestructible.
Taught us all so much.
That’s why I’m here, on the anniversary of your death, paying you tribute by these fading embers, in the shadow of the ruins of your beloved Keep.
Because even though you are not here in body, you will always be here in spirit, living on through the wisdom you shared and the love you gave.
Eternal, after all...
Farewell, Vesemir, last master of Kaer Morhen.
Goodbye, old friend...
I will never stop missing you.