Strong stood the son of Doshi'yah, great protector of the Vasae'ans, beside his father's hearth. Strong stood Yashinu, Wielder of the Sword of Etaem, beside the depths of Lady Saemurah's pool, as the two courted and fell in love and strong stood Yashinu on the battlefields of the north where he fell.
In the dark days, in a crush of foes, fighting at his father's side, Yashinu won renown. To the south he was sent, to call for men and counsel. To the pool of Saemurah Lady of Sorrow, he climbed, beneath the spreading branches of Vasae'ah's tree. There, lady and warrior saw themselves in each other's eyes. They lay as lovers beneath the sighing branches. But she, the sorrowful Lady of clear sight, mother of the Sun and the Wandering Star, foresaw his doom and wept to tell him: returning to the North, to his father's hearth, he would die.
To the North he returned indeed, heart hardened, to the aid of the Red Company. There he fell, his blood staining crimson the snows. Yashinu, the strong son of Doshi'yah, passed into the Shadow Land. Lady Saemurah saw his passing from afar, and wept. Yet she smiled, for within she carried his son and daughter.
Snow falls, feathers the shoulders of the men who trudge through the winter-white forests; soft snow, the long sleeping breath that follows storm. Long they have traveled, far have they come. Only the resolve of their captain keeps them on the march-the vengeful sorrow, the burning fury of the Lord of the Red Company-Doshi'yah, defender of the Vasae'ans, now grey of hair and long of years. The killer of his son he seeks, a winter-long quest. A demon of tall stature, one-eyed and scarred from battle; yet not one enemy have the forests yielded. In his grief, the Lord of the Red Company routed the demons, ending the battle that claimed his proud son, driving them far to the north.
Now he seeks for the one-eyed demon, his age and sorrow streaking the winter frosts into his hair. He has not rested in many days, so when movement draws his eyes, he thinks it a fancy of his weariness-a small boy, dark of hair, huddled in the path, his breath misting the air. Doshi'yah stops, kneels beside the boy, and places a hand before the frozen mouth. It is no illusion-breath, fluttering and pale, brushes the Lord's hand like the zephyr of a summer night.
Long kneels the Lord in the snow. Desire to hunt his enemy flares in his heart; but the pinched face of the child, near death, beckons him. The gently falling snow whitens his hair still further as he remains stock still, for all the world like the shadowed watching trees of the forest. Finally he bends, and gathers the child into his arms; for he sees in that face, thin with cold, a memory of the boy who once called him father. The men of the Red Company make camp, sleep one by one but for the watchment. Doshi'yah keeps his own watch beside the fire, where the boy (whom the men are already calling Natiaevai'u, or winter's child) sleeps. The Lord of the Red Company thinks not of the coming years, or the one eyed demon who eludes him. He thinks only of the breath that rises from the boy's lips into the night like a promise of summer.
Bright burns the hearth in the Hall of the Red Company, and the shouts and laughter of the men rise to the rafters with the smoke. Merry indeed is this gathering, because the adopted sons of Doshi'yah have returned victorious from battle-Yadeyu, son of the great warrior Yashinu, wielder of the Sword of Etaem; and Natiaevai'u, the great sorcerer and ranger of the forests. Both sit side by side like blood-brothers in the place of honor at Lord Doshi'yah's side. See them: Yadeyu, powerful, strong-featured, bright of eye; Natiaevai'u, tall, proud, clever in his words. Many years have they fought together in the shadowed forests of the North, raised together as brothers by Doshi'yah, Lord of the Red Company. Under their power, the demons have been driven back. Strong is their love for each other, and for their father, the great Doshi'yah. So the brothers feast now, crowned in their glory.
This night a traveler, Emyer by name, and his five sons have come to the hall of the Red Company. He is a bitter man with flinty eyes, a hunter by trade. Doshi'yah, well-known for upholding the laws and customs of hospitality, sits the hunter and his sons at the hearth in the guest's place and gives them food and drink. The storm rages on beyond the walls of the hearth-hall. The captains and the guests feast on, telling tales of the battlefields, between the raisings of drinking horns. So the night grows old.
Now the hunter, Emyer, speaks up, drunk from the hearty drink, saying, "Why do your tall sons defend the north, Lord Doshi'yah? We have heard tonight the great tales of the battles they have fought in the dark forests. But you, Lord Doshi'yah, sit in your aging hall. Has your legendary strength failed, or have you become a craven in your old age?"
A hush falls over the hall, but for the storm-winds that sing in the eaves outside. All stand still in shock, for the drunk hunter has broken the sacred laws of hospitality by insulting his host. Only Natiaevai'u, drunk also, reacts to the affront. He leaps to his feet, sharp sword flashing, slicing the hunter's head from his shoulders. Down falls the lifeless body, and down falls aged Doshi'yah upon his knees before the hearth, for he knows: Natiaevai'u, his beloved son, must suffer the greatest penalty, for he has committed the greatest crime of all-the murder of a guest. Tears fall into the ashes of the hearth, missing into bitter smoke, and Natiaevai'u kneels beside his father, asking what ails him. Doshi'yah opens his mouth to pronounce the fatal judgment, but his heart breaks and his throat stops. So he simple kneels in the hearth ashes.
Bright-eyed Yadeyu lifts his grandfather up and caries him to his bed-chamber, leaving Natiaevai'u to watch Emyer's sons bearing their father's headless body away. There, in the darkness of the bed-chamber, Doshi'yah pulls Yadeyu close and whisper to him a more merciful judgment.
Out steps Yadeyu, into the hearth-hall, and stands above his beloved brother, kneeling in the hearth ashes. Natiaevai'u's heart grows heavier with every beat, for he begins to understand what he has done. Yadeyu looks down, then looks away. Tears in his eyes, he says, "You have committed a grave crime, brother, but our father loves you too much to take your life in recompense. Our father has pronounced banishment on you from this hall and from the lands of the Vasae'ans. You must go now."
Natiaevai'u raises his hands to his beloved brother, and whispers father, but only silence greets his plea. Sorrowfully he hoists his sharp sword over his shoulder, wraps the remnants of the meal in a sack-cloth, and throws his dark winter cloak about himself. His heart hardens as he stands at the door of the hall, looking at Yadeyu's back. A moment more, and he steps out into the storm, walks beneath the long shingled eaves, and out beyond the walls. As the dark forests enclose him and the trees lean in from every side, a curse on his father rises to his lips. His heart is changed forever, and his love now tastes of ashes.
Natiaevai'u, the great spell-weaver, son of Doshi'ya's heart, stands among the trees. Long years has it been since he set foot in the hall of the Red Company. Many winters have passed since last he drank beside his father's hearth. Now he stands still, listening to the forest. Now he steps forth as a noble stag steps from the mantle of the forest, to drink from the stony stream. He bends his knee, takes the water into his hands, and drinks.
Now his hand leaps to his sword and draws the shining steel, for enemies are all around him in every shadow. As he stands ready, a demon steps from the forest edge on the other side of the stream. Natiaevai'u the cunning knows he cannot run, for he is surrounded. So he begins to gather his power to transform into a winged raven, speaking to play for time. "It takes a great hunter to lay a trap for prey such as me."
The demon speaks. "I hunted Dosuth the Vasae'an king many years ago. I killed Yashinu in battle and eluded his great father. A great hunter I may be, but I will not kill you, whom I mistook for a Vasae'an, a ranger of the Red Company."
"I am indeed a Vasae'an, and a ranger of the Red Company," Natiaevai'u says. "You have not mistaken."
The demon shakes his head. "You are no ranger. Has not your father banished you from his house and his service? Do you not hate him, the very commander of the Red Company? And you are no Vasae'an. Have you never wondered how you came to be a child in the midwinter forests, for from any hearth?"
Natiaevai'u lowers his sword. The demon's words trouble him. "What do you know of who I am, demon?"
"I know you well," the demon replies. "Your nature is like mine. I know the darkness that writhes in your heart, for it is in mine as well."
"I am nothing like you," Natiaevai'u says. Yet doubt overcomes him suddenly. The winter chill seeps into his heart. A darkness indeed stirs there, deep in his being. His mouth twists. Fury leaps suddenly up in him and he cries aloud, swinging his sword at the demon that stands before him.
The demon steps aside, avoiding the blow. "You see? You wish to destroy, and you take pleasure in destruction. How many of my demon-brethren have you felled, laughing to see their blood flow?" "Many," Natiaevai'u murmurs. He remembers the savage joy he felt so many times in killing.
The demon speaks softly. "There is a powerful hatred in you. Who is it for?"
"My father," Natiaevai'u whispers. His hand tightens around the hilt of his sword.
"Feel it pounding in your heart," the demon says. "reach out to it as it reaches out to you. Then you will understand who you are." "Silence!" Natiaevai'u shouts, sword flashing. The demon avoids his wild strikes again, but Natiaevai'u feels a terrible strength rising in him, a tide of darkness. Dark joy grips him.
"Your father cast you out," the demon hisses. "If you wish to know who you are, give in to what is in your heart. Kill him. You desire to kill him. Feel the pain he caused you."
Natiaevai'u looks into his heart, and a great burning pain wells up in him. His hatred hardens like ice. He sees with savage joy Doshi'yah lying dead at his feet. His mouth twists into a smile. Shadows engulf him, and his cloak rustles with black feathers. Off into the sky he wings in the form of a raven, flying far over the night-bound forests. But the strange joy consumes his heart, for he has embraced his hatred. He knows: he will have his revenge upon his father, and upon the Vasae'ans.
Doshi'yah, Lord of the Red Company, stands against the grey sky. Beneath his feet the white snow, joined by an endless floating vanguard of brethren from the clouds. Beneath the snow, the winter-bound black of the earth. Beneath the earth, a buried son: Yashinu the Tall, father of Yadeyu. The Lord's thoughts walk not with his captains beneath the long shingled eaves of the Red Company's stronghold. Nor do they accompany his wife Shiyana as she tends the hearth and cuts his meat for the evening meal.
No: his thoughts are divided. One part lies beneath the iron ground with the cold body of his blood son. Another marches alongside Yadeyu, grandson of his blood but son of his heart. The third wings on the early winter wind over the shadowed forests of the north, seeking his third son, son of his heart, who wanders banished and alone in the winter wastes.
Grey is Doshi'yah's hair, grey his beard, grey the eyes that look out unseeing on the snow. Old and grey the bones that once struck down the enemies of the Vasae'ans with the Sword of Etaem. Grey his aged breath in the winter air. The Lord of the Red Company is tired, and he feels frost's chill in his heart.
Footsteps stir the snow behind him and he turns. Before him stands Umae, his raven-haired granddaughter, the daughter of Saemurah. Lord Doshi'yah is confused in his reverie. In her face he sees his dead son's face, and pain stabs at his heart. "Are you some shade come to torment me?" he whispers.
Umae shakes her raven head. "No grandfather."
A tear falls from Doshi'yah's cheek and freezes in the snow. "I am sorry, Umae. My mind was wandering."
Her face is troubled. "I know you come here not to be disturbed, but all day there has been a shadow on my heart, and I know none else to speak of it to."
"Speak then," he murmurs. "What troubles you?"
Her deep eyes stir in the grey light. "Last night I dreamt I stood before the door of the Hall of the First Hearth, looking out towards the sea. As I watched, a great darkness rose up to overwhelm the land. The ground beneath my feet shook, and the sun faltered and grew dim. I began to awaken, and in the moment between waking and sleeping I knew that your death was drawing near."
Doshi'yah looks out over the grey forests. "I have felt my death approaching for many winters. I welcome it: I have defended my people well, and knowing that I will soon join my son in the Shadow Land gives me peace."
Umae speaks softly, uncertainly. "There is more, Grandfather. I feel that your death will herald a dark time for the Vasae'ans, a time of bloodshed and betrayal. Only this I know for certain: as long as one of your blood holds the Hall of the Red Company, the North will not fall. But Grandfather, I fear for our people. I fear for my brother."
A chill seeps into Doshi'yah's heart, and he remembers the winter night when his brother Yadashi, the Teller of Tales, came to his hearthside with warnings of a dark time approaching. But he steps to Umae's side and places a hand on her shoulder, saying, "Perhaps these are but ill dreams, granddaughter. Do not let them shadow your spirit. Go inside and help with the evening meal." Umae glances long into his eyes, and he wonders what she sees. Then she turns, making her way to the door of the hearth-hall. Doshi'yah turns back to the grave of his son. His heart is heavy inside him, heavy and cold.
He kneels down stiffly, placing a hand on the snow. "I will join you soon my son," he says to the spirit of Yashinu. "Soon we will see each other again." After a long silence, he too makes his way inside. As evening falls, the snow falls gently, covering his footprints.
Beneath the shingled eaves of the Red Company's stronghold, beneath the flurry of winter's wrath, Natiaevai'u walks. None mark his passing but the three who stand in the shadows by the walls-Aelus, Second-Child captain of the Red Company; Torin Raesa and Morlan Dael, both heirs of the attendant mortal families to Lord Doshi'yah. These three draw back as Natiaevai'u approaches, repelled by the face half-burned. Natiaevai'u still bears the pain of his punishment-the price of his banishment's end-but he bears it gladly for it furthers his revenge.
He speaks through the softly falling snow: "Friends, tonight is the night of our daring. There can be no doubt in your hearts." He has them firm in his sway, yet Aelus speaks: "Must we kill our Lord, your father, and his captains instead of simple forsaking this place?"
Natiaevai'u turns his ruined face to the Red Company captain. "Why do you think I returned and suffered my face to be thrust into the hearth-fire? I have my grievances, and you have yours. We must seek vengeance and war. You, my lord Aelus: were you not dishonored when the old man gave the command of the Red Company to my shining brother before you, even after all your years of service? And you, Raesa and Dael: you have more cause than most. Are your families not unjustly bound to my father's service? Do you not wish to free yourselves?"
His guileful words echo in their hearts, re-awakening their outrage-for it seems to the three listeners that they indeed had suffered grave injustices. Each grip their sword hilts, murmuring angrily, and Natiaevai'u smiles to himself.
He speaks again, and the others listen. "Raesa, Dael, go and take the gate. We must leave in haste when the deed is done. Aelus, bring your men with me to the Hall. We must kill all who sleep there swiftly before they awaken-all the captains."
Off steal Raesa and Dael to fulfill their task. But Natiaevai'u, with his dark heart showing in his face, looks up to where the shadowed Hearth-Hall stands against the sky. Joy fills him, for his greatest enemy, his father, lies within waiting to die. And Aelus with his heart darkened as well signals his loyal soldiers, rangers and warriors who have followed him through many winters. Like shadows they slip beneath the shingled eaves that weep snow, up to the doors of the hearth-hall. There they crowd waiting, watching Natiaevai'u, who stands at the doors, hesitating. He thinks of Umae, the raven-haired daughter of Yashinu. He desires her, and knows she is within sleeping beside her brother and her grandfather. But he hardens his heart: her presence will not halt his revenge.
He reaches out to the dark powers in his soul, the powers that have grown and whispered to him since he let murder into his heart. With a murmur, he weaves a heavy enchantment over all within, so that the sleepers cannot be roused. Then, silent, his grim followers drift in through the door like shadows. Quickly they dark from sleeper to sleeper among the slumbering captains, blades flashing, but Natiaevai'u ignores the death around him. He walks, resolute, to the head of the hearth.
There he stands over the man he once called father, pale blade drawn. Deep he thrusts the knife into Doshi'yah's body, and the Lord of the Red Company dies, blood flowing freely. Triumph blazes in Natiaevai'u's chest, and he turns to kill his brother as well.
But Umae lying close by feels the twist of prophecy fulfilled, and awakens. Up she starts, and seeing her grandfather's bloodstained body, cries aloud in anguish. To a man the conspirators turn, and the cry stops Natiaevai'u in his tracks. Umae sees the dripping blade in his hand, poised to steal away her brother's life.
So she leaps close to the hearth, crying, "Natiaevai'u, I know how you desire me. Spare my brother, and I will go with you when you leave this place. Kill him, and I will throw myself into this blazing hearth to be consumed by the flames. I have seen the vengeful war you will wage against the Vasae'ans. My foresight will be valuable to you."
Natiaevai'u wavers. The thought of Umae, the beautiful daughter of Yashinu, burned by fire has he had been cuts him deeply. At last he turns away from the sleeping form of Yadeyu, sheathing his blade. Silent, he takes Umae by the arm, and leaves the hall. His murderous followers shadow him down the narrow streets beneath the shingled eaves. Beneath the gates they step silently. As the traitors disappear into the winter night, Natiaevai'u does not look back at the sleeping hill-city of the Red Company, and the hearth-hall filled with death.