By the knees of the snowbound northern mountains, amid the dense forest of knotty pine, a hill rises, Amon by name. Under the star-bright winter sky, at the crown of the hill, stand rows of tents. There sleep the warriors of the Third Children, in the company of Nevron the Strong, eldest son of the hunter Taelon. They have seen battle before the setting of the sun at a nameless ford close at hand; there they had won victory, and now rest, eat together, and tell tales of their deeds.
But for their great captain himself, the son of Taelon, he lies fevered in his tent, the great pavilion decked and carpeted with furs and pine branches. His wound, washed again and again and bound in winter moss, festers. He turns and tosses in his bedding, and the moonlight falls on him.
And in his sleep he thinks he sees a man standing above him; a man with kind eyes, clad in strange clothes. The hand of Taelon's son does not stray to his spear, for he is not afraid. The man speaks to him, saying, "Hunter's son, I come with counsel. Hear me. A great demon-chieftain marshals a host of his kin to the north, intending to take you unawares on the eve of midwinter. He is your enemy of old, Asla by name, who has scarred you in days past. If you wish to survive the winter, call together your two brothers. Let the sons of Taelon stand together here upon this height. Then they shall know no defeat." Nevron sleeps on, in feverish trance. He does not know that he who spoke such wise words was Yadashi himself, great storyteller and master of magics, who had sent his spirit winging north to appear before Taelon's Son.
With Shidar's rising, Nevron awakes, his fever gone. He stands before the entrance to his tent, the morning flushing his pale face. He thinks on the dream, wondering. Down he walks among the tents where his men wake. They greet him proudly, but seeing him in a strange humor stand aside. After one in particular he seeks: Belor the Swift, the fastest of runners, able to chase down even the fleet white deer. He finds Belor breaking his fast among the other men, and clasps his arm seriously. He bids him run across the lands and find his brothers, the proud Harthon and the wise Alsson. Swiftly Belor speeds away, and Nevron climbs the hill again. The men watch, wondering: what moves in the mind of Nevron the Strong, eldest son of Taelon?
In the deep winter, but three days before midwinter's eve, the two younger sons of Taelon arrive at Amon. Nevron bids them pitch their tents down the hill from his, and come to his tent to drink together. Gladly they do, for they have not drunk all together in many winters.
In a circle they sit on the fur-decked ground within Nevron's tent, sipping the rough warming spirits. Into the night they drink, merry and joyful. As is the custom in first meetings and leave-takings, no serious matters are spoken of. Fast asleep the three brothers fall, and sleep side by side till the morning.
With the cold light of dawn, the break their fasts together. There Nevron tells the two others of his dream, of the man who warned him of Asla's wrath on Midwinter. Wise Alsson listens, but Harthon the proud scoffs. "Why, brother, do you scoff?" Alsson asks. "Do you not trust the word of our brother?"
Harthon shakes his head, eyes flashing. "The fleet Belor had me believe this business was of great importance, but now I see we have been called here in great haste over a fancy. If this is the measure of our brother's business, I will not stay here. I am promised to Arna, the first daughter of crafty Delos, and left her to answer our brother's call. I must return to her father and offer him the stag-heart price Delos asks so his daughter may be mine." Nevron rises in anger, saying, "I thought you my brother, and a man of honor. Now I see I was mistaken. In need I have called you, and you have come. Now knowing my need, you would turn your back on me. If ever I called you brother, may the winter take me."
"I owe no duty to a madman who sees counsel in shadows," Harthon cries. "And if you question my honor, brother or not, I will bare my knife as is a man's right when he is insulted without cause." Nevron begins to speak, a promise of bloodshed on his lips. But Alsson speaks first, saying, "Nevron, your tale is a strange one; do not blame our brother for his doubt. I too wonder if this vision of yours was not some evil from the wound you suffered plaguing your mind. But brother Harthon, if you call Nevron your brother, stay here as I intend to. According to this vision, the attack will come on midwinter, not two days hence. Let those two days pass, and the matter will be decided one way or the other. If the two of you agree with my reason, sit down again and drink with me as brothers." Nevron and Harthon sit, and the three drink. But Proud Harthon is slow to forget his insult. That night, as the three brothers feast with their men, Harthon, hot with drink, demands that he set his tent level with Nevron's at the crown of the hill. Nevron insists it is his right to possess the crown of the hill, as the one who called the meeting of the three brothers. The two fight in the snow. See them: in the moon-shadows on their faces, ill-fate stirs; their teeth bare. Nevron throws his staggering brother down at last. And Harthon vows he has no brother, and that he will depart with the morning. He disappears into the night. His men fade away. Alsson looks on with troubled mind, and his men and the men of Nevron are quiet. They expect a battle at dawn, but already strife has stolen away a third of their number. The remaining warriors whisper with unease, and Nevron retires to his tent.
With the morning, Harthon fulfills his vow. He leads his men away, across the river, his thoughts on the beautiful daughter of Delos, and his brothers watch him go. The midwinter dawn is dark with misfortune. In the marching pine forests the second son of Taelon the Hunter meets his end. For indeed the fell fighters of the war-chief Asla race through the shadows of the trees. To a man they slaughter Harthon's warriors, and Asla himself takes Harthon's head to bear with him. The daughter of Delos waits only for a ghost. Like the first flood of the year the demon horde rushes from the trees, expecting to find a meager, deserted force. But they meet there instead at the foot of Amon Nevron himself, spear held high, a cry of battle and vengeance on his lips. Beside him stands his lithe fierce brother, and behind them the ranks of their warriors. Battle is joined. Blood, black and red, stains the snow. The day waxes on, and wanes. The hardy men of the north at last put the demons to route, flying in terror through the trees. Nevron himself cuts down Asla, great demon-chief, and take his head, in terrible recompense for a brother dead. Two of Asla's three twisted sons Alsson fells, and the third flees, marshalling his tattered allies in retreat.
The warriors of the sons of Taelon rejoice their victory, and bury their dead. They feast into the night, making merry. Nevron and Alsson mourn their brother, giving his spirit meats and spearheads as is the custom. All sleep, sound in their victory.
And again, as Nevron lies asleep in his fur-decked tent, he dreams of the strange man who stands above him, saying, "Rejoice in your victory, Son of Taelon. The demons will not soon trouble you again. I have new counsel for you. Bring your people, your warriors, women, and children, to the south. Find a wide cold lake in the white woods. There your destiny awaits."
With the breaking of the morning, Nevron arises. But in his heart the fire of vengeance for his brother burns still, and the still-living son of Asla weighs heavy on his mind. As they break their fast together he tells Wise Alsson of the dream, and that he intends to bring his warriors west, not south, to hunt the son of Asla into the shadow realm. Alsson sees the darkness in his brother's heart, and the misfortune hanging on his spirit, and he knows Nevron, the eldest son of Taelon, leads only into misery. He tells his brother he will not follow, and Nevron turns away from him, saying not one word more. His heart is closed.
Alsson bids his warriors, his women and children stay at Amon, and he watches his brother disappear into the dark forests. Far to the west the eldest son of Taelon will meet the rangers of the Company of the North, and in folly give them battle. There the Second Children and the Third Children will shed each other's blood for a bitter year. But Wise Alsson knows none of this fate. He only knows the shadow on his heart, that biting morning, as the last of Nevron's warriors fade from sight.
The stars shine in the mirror of the lake. Alsson, third son of Taelon the hunter, notes them not. More weathered is his body, more gaunt his face, since the battle of Amon the winter past. He looks for the ghostly form of the white wolf, drifting before him in the grey forests. He looks in vein. The wolf is nowhere to be seen, his stalwart guide for a score of nights now absent.
But before him spreads the glassy lake, bright beneath the stars. And brighter than any star a light shines on the farthest shore, warm and welcoming. The people who stumble tiredly behind him point across the waters, whispering their wonder to each other.
In the dream so many months before, Alsson saw the strange man stand in his fur-decked tent, just as his brother had described. The same message had this man delivered to Alsson as to mighty Nevron, first son of Taelon, in a voice kind and as gentle as the first wind of summer: forsake Amon, and lead your people south until you reach the woods of grey; there you will find a cold lake spreading between the mountains' arms, and at its shore a house brightly lit.
So now, with weariness in his bones, the third son of Taelon, wise Alsson, trudges along the lakeshore, and the people follow. Where he leads they do not know. Yet they place their faith in him, the tall warrior who led them well against the demons on the hillside on midwinter's morn. Long they have trekked with him, through winter's cold embrace. Long they have trodden in his lonely footsteps, following, ever following. The company of ghosts drifts beside the water. Deep into the night they walk. Parents carry their sleeping children. No walking-song is raised, no word uttered. Any other night the people would have made camp hours ago, but Alsson presses forward. A desire has gripped him to find the source of the light that glimmers on the far shore of the lake, a desire that pushes away his tiredness. He steps out with long strides, and the people struggle to follow close.
The light glimmers on the hill before him. Wise Alsson halts at the hill's base. A house stands atop the hill, a wide low house. Through its door the light shines, flickering like a captured star. The people stare up at the house in amaze. Motioning for the others to wait, Alsson climbs the hill. He steps to the door, where the warm light floods forth, and looks in like a wondering child.
Within sits a man, white-robed. He sits beside a blazing hearth, from which the light glows. Alsson feels his heart leap: it is the man from his dreams, the man who advised his brother and led wise Alsson south to the white woods. The man at the hearth looks over his shoulder, and his eyes are kinder than they were even in the dreams on the cold winter nights. He speaks. "Welcome Alsson, son of Taelon. I have awaited your coming. Please come in. Eat, drink, warm yourself by the hearth." Wise Alsson begins to step across the threshold, but remembers his people huddled below in the cold. "I will not accept hospitality until my people have eaten, quenched their thirst, and warmed themselves."
The man smiles. "My house is open to any in search of warmth, nourishment, and counsel. Bid them come in, and do not be afraid."
Alsson nods his thanks, and once again descends the hill. Among his people he walks and caries the message. They are afraid of the strange dwelling and the strange light within, but looking upon the light in his eyes that was not there before, seeing the rejuvenated strength in his presence, they do as he says. All climb the hill, and one by one enter the doorway. All gather around the heat of the hearth as if in a dream, dark eyes gazing at the tall stranger who welcomes each with a soft word and a smile. He places a bowl of hot grain-meal in each pair of hands, and shares out jars of clean water.
Last of all Alsson steps across the threshold, closing the door to shut out the winter night. The host beckons the son of Taelon to a place at the hearthside, close beside his own. There he offers him water and meal. Alsson accepts gratefully at last, seeing all of his people well cared for.
As his guests eat, the host speaks. "My name is Yadashi. This is my house, and you are all warmly welcome in it. Here you may sleep safely; here the cold will not trouble you, and you need fear no enemy. I know you have traveled far."
Alsson turns to Yadashi, a question on his lips. "Why do you welcome us so openly into your house, simple wanderers in the forests?"
Yadashi smiles kindly. "I was once a wanderer in the cold with my people. On this very night many years ago, a kind man gave us a fire to sit beside and food to warm our limbs just as I have. My people choose to repay our debt to him by freely offering hospitality to any who need it. Tonight is known as the Night of Remembrance, when all share hearths together and nobody eats alone. Traditionally we tell the story of that act of hospitality every year on this night, and so I will tell it now to you."
All listen. Yadashi weaves the tale well, and his words so enchant the listeners they see the very shadows came alive. The events seem to unfold in the dancing firelight as he speaks, long into the night. As his tale comes to an end, the weary travelers feel drowsiness weighing on them, and so all sleep one by one. At last as Yadashi falls silent, only he and Alsson remain awake.
For a while only the settling of the fire and the deep breathing of the sleepers disturbs the silence. Then Alsson speaks softly. "You guided me here from far to the north, and aided my brother and me in battle with counsel from afar. Why?" In the light of the embers, Yadashi's eyes are each a night sky. "I have many answers, son of Taelon, and many things to say to you. They will wait until the morning. You have wandered long and far on weary paths. Sleep."
So the third son of Taelon lays himself down beside the fire to sleep. Yadashi, the great teller of tales, sits watch as the winter wind howls in the eaves.
A traveler in grey steps down the road in the midwinter. The snow turns beneath his feet, the winter storm rages about him, yet he seems uncaring of the bitter winds. Long has been his journey, all the way from the white woods to the east. Lonely has his journey been too, but he is used to solitude.
Above him rise the warm lights of the Hall of the Red Company, the last warm house in the north. To the strong gates the traveler walks, and pounds with fist upon the drumming timbers. This night Theruin Nevron keeps the gate, strong grandson of Nevron, the great captain of men. Out he looks from above, calls, "You that pound upon the door I keep, who are you? So deep in the winter it is, I would think you a ghost-traveler but that ghosts cannot knock."
Back calls the traveler, "I am but a traveler in the deep winter seeking a warm hearth to sleep beside this night. I have heard of the hospitality of Lord Doshi'yah, who welcomes every traveler to his own hearth."
Theruin Nevron replies, "My Lord is indeed a warm host. Forgive me my lack of welcome, traveler, but I was charged with keeping the gate and the days have been dark of late.
"Then consider your charge fulfilled in greeting me as you have," the stranger says, "and bring me within for the night is cold."
With that Theruin Nevron opens the gate and admits the traveler. As the man in grey steps beneath the arch, Theruin Nevron notes the light that seems to glow from beneath the woolen cloak; but he says not a word and leads the stranger beneath the steep-eaved roofs, up to the hearth-hall.
And there the boy leaves him, saying, "Thinking kindly on me, friend, for I meant no disrespect by not admitting you at once." To which the stranger replies, "Lord Doshi'yah could not ask for a better keeper of the gate, my young friend. Go with the love of the Mother Goddess."
With a nod, Theruin Nevron walks back through the snow-dusted streets between the narrow houses wondering who this strange guest might be. For his part, the traveler enters the hearth-hall, and steps to the hearth. All about the hearth the great captains of the Red Company sleep, for it is late in the night. Lord Doshi'yah alone sits at his place at the head of the hearth, and the stranger stands before him.
"Sit at the hearth with me friend," Doshi'yah says, seeing the stranger standing like a shadow beside the bright embers. "I cannot sleep this night, and a traveler's words may stave off the night-loneliness."
The traveler sits in the guest place at the hearth and removes his winter hood. "Perhaps a brothers words will suit you better, Doshi'yah." For the traveler is indeed Yadashi, the Kindler of Hearths and the Teller of Tales. Doshi'yah welcomes him warmly and gives him something hot to drink, and hearty food to drive away the cold. When he has eaten, then Doshi'yah asks him, "Tell me brother, what are you doing in the North?" Yadashi sits back, his eyes deep like the winter night without. "I go to leave this world behind. I seek the oneness with the Mother Goddess, and the matters of this world distract me from by seeking. I go to where none live, to the frozen land across the Great Sea."
"And will you return brother?" great Doshi'yah asks. "Will you never again be a guest in my hall?"
Yadashi, the Teller of Tales, shakes his head. "I think not, brother, which is why I have come to your hearth tonight. I bring warning."
Doshi'yah, Protector of the People, leans in. "What have you seen, brother?"
Shadows seem to gather in Yadashi's face, his countenance darkening. "A time of trouble approaches. I cannot see what evils will beset the children of Vasae'ah, but death, desolation, and ruin crouch in the coming years like stooped crows of the forest."
Doshi'yah feels the shadow of ill fortune behind his brother's words as the very chill of winter. "Why give this prophecy to me?" he says. "Why not warn the Children of Dosuth?"
"Because this evil that approaches concerns you, brother, though how I do not know," Yadashi replies. "I see only shadows far away. But these words of counsel I have: heed the words of the grey maiden, and beware a two-faced man."
The Teller of Tales sits back, and the shadows retreat. "I have no more words. I must rest the night." So Yadashi lies down to sleep beside the blazing hearth, to rise with the dawn and leave the Hall of the Red Company, never to return. But Doshi'yah, Defender of the Vasae'ans, sits awake deep into the dark winter night, thinking of the time to come.