Masons haul the stones across the frozen ground, fit them one on another until the wall rises high, mortared with lime and the ever-present frost. Across the north it stands like the iron resolve of the Vasae'ans. Behind it smiths pump their forges to blazing, folding steel on steel. Warriors form their ranks and wield their swords. The captains of the Red Company march across the north in the wall's shadow. All this because Yadeyu, the shining captain of the north, has called for preparation. A dire enemy waits in the north, mustering the demons to his will and arming traitors. The archdemons, imprisoned by Etaem and his brethren at the world's beginning, have woken, and serve this new master. The winters grow ever longer, ever darker, and the shadows lengthen. War is coming.
Walls have fallen. Frost-bitten stones lie like the broken bodies of the dead in the snows. The poisonous ashes of a dead archdemon blackens the ground.
In the high hall of the Red Company, the captains whisper. Winters, springs, summers, autumns, and winters again they have fought against the demon-armies of Natiaevai'u the traitor, whom they now call Donshinu; they are grim, beaten-down, and lacking hope. But tonight they whisper not in doubt but in wonder. For Yadeyu, who lies stricken beside the hearth, felled one of the great archdemons the First Children imprisoned in the ice so many years ago at the dawn of the world.
Yadeyu's spirit wanders afar, for his body is weak. Again and again he dreams the battle-the towering icy back of the archdemon rending beneath Etaem's Blade; the power of the First Children burning through him; the ruined corpse of the demon falling, charred by arcane fire. He is lost, for the blinding power that runs in his blood, inherited from his mother Saemurah, is too much for his mortal body. He cannot summon such power without a cost, and now he lies like the dead in the shadows of the hall.
The captains murmur in wonder at their leader's power, standing back. Only two sit close beside him; two brothers, ancestors of mighty Nevron-one, Tolis Nevron, a warrior who has fought beside Yadeyu many times, the other a Firekindler of great power. This latter, Daelian, tends to the unmoving Yadeyu, while the former clasps his captain's hand in sorrow.
Far Yadeyu's spirit wanders. Long grow the night-hours in the hall. The captains lie down to sleep. Tolis Nevron sleeps beside his son, Toem. Daelian sleeps last of all, tending his friend and commander until there is nothing more to be done. He too closes his eyes at last, and the hall is peaceful. None inside know the murderous purpose that crouches without.
Far, hours ago, when the archdemon fell, Donshinu the Betrayer looked on from across the fields of battle, mouth twisting in cold fury at the death of one of his deadliest servants. He saw that his war against his power brother Yadeyu could not be won by strength alone: guile would be needed also.
So the Betrayer called forward Aelus the traitor-captain of the Red Company and bade him fulfill a task. There was a secret way past the watchful eyes of the defenders that Donshinu and Aelus knew of. It was narrow, so only a few could pass together. The Betrayer commanded Aelus to take his cold-hearted sons in through the secret way, and kill those that slept in the Hall. Aelus accepted the task gladly, for his heart had been warped by the Betrayer's subtle spellcraft and clever words, and he hated the Children of Vasae'ah passionately.
Now deep in the night as all sleep but the watchmen, Aelus leads his sons through the secret way, pale cold blades drawn and icy hearts steeled. None see them, and they crouch outside of the hall, waiting for all to sleep. None see them but the wandering spirit of Yadeyu who follows close behind as if in a nightmare. They lead him back unknowingly to the hall, and he enters, escaping the darkness and weariness that had pulled at him. To his body he returns, and struggles to wake.
The murderers crouch beside the walls of the Hall, waiting. Waiting as the stars turn, waiting for the black hour before dawn when the night is coldest and dark deeds the most effortless. At last they creep into the hall, readying their blades. But now Yadeyu opens his eyes, and calls out a warning. His warriors wake to find enemies in their midst. They fight for their lives, and blood spatters the stones.
Aelus' youngest son, seeing his father slain, races to the head of the hearth where Yadeyu strives to rise. The murderer cuts down Tolis Nevron, who stands weaponless in his way, and grapples with Yadeyu. Yadeyu's friend falls dead across his son. Summoning desperate angry strength, Yadeyu, defender of the North, thrusts his opponent back, hurling him into the hearthfire. The son of the traitor Aelus screams in agony and flees, out through the Hall's doors and down the secret way.
The other murderers, Aelus' cold hearted sons, are dead. Yadeyu pays no heed to the fleeing assassin, the youngest son. He kneels beside his friend, lying dead in his blankets beside the hearth. Tears sting his eyes, anger burns his heart. A terrible sound fills the Hall, for Tolis Nevron's son Toem crouches beside his fallen father, wailing his grief to the rafters. Yadeyu takes the boy into his arms, and swears a silent oath to the friend who died protecting him: he will protect this boy, take him in, and raise him as his own. The dead are carried away.
The youngest son of Aelus reaches the camp of the Betrayer near dawn. He has torn his throat from screaming; now only tears give witness of his torment. He crawls across the snow to the Betrayer's feet, begging silently for death. But the Betrayer only examines him, then bends over him and works a terrible magic. The boy's body he warps, fuses ice into his very bones, frost into his skin. His mind he twists. The son of Aelus is gone. What is left is a hollow creature, wracked with pain, mad with hatred. This beast, called the Burned One, howls into the grey sky. The Betrayer smiles.
Far in the frozen north stands the fortress of the ancient demons, hoary towers rising high above echoing vaults cut deep into the earth. The walls, hewn from eternal ice, are silent, for even the ancient archdemons whom the First Children bound in sleep long ago are gone, awakened by Donshinu the Betrayer. But deep in the lowest frosty dungeon one sound remains: the weeping of Umae, clairvoyant daughter of Saemurah, imprisoned there alone by the Betrayer.
Now at the great arching threshold of the stronghold Donshinu stands. He has been driven back from the Hall of the Red Company after a bitter fight: so close he was to victory, hammering mercilessly at Yadeyu's beleaguered forces, when Daelian the Firekindler worked an arcane transformation on himself and brought help from the Red Company captains who guarded the rushing western seas. And Yadeyu the shining captain of the North, shattered the river ice, freeing the waters the Betrayer bound in winter. So now the Betrayer has come to ask the dark-eyed seeress of the Second Children for her wisdom, hoping her foresight can grant him victory. But first he must break her will.
Down he descends, deep into the ice, through the echoing passages. Down to the dark cold of Umae's cell, where the sound of weeping whispers against the frosted walls. He stands just within the narrow doorway, sees the outline of her shadow. Mustering all the sorcery he can into his voice, he says, "Why do you weep, Lady Umae?"
She turns and speaks. "Why should I not? The count of my grief is great. I weep for a grandfather murdered before my eyes. I weep for the loss of my brother from whom I am sundered. I weep for the pain he has suffered, and for the pain he has yet to suffer. And I weep for my people whose bloodshed I have seen from afar."
"Weep you in any part for me?" the Betrayer asks.
Umae whispers her answer. "Yes. I weep in some part for you, for what you have destroyed within yourself."
The Betrayer steps closer. "You must know my nature, my lady, the darkness in my soul. I still do not know my true name. I do not know who I am, how I came to be a lost child in the winter forests. Will you tell me?"
"I cannot," she murmurs, turning away as he steps even closer. "But I can see your pain as clearly as my own."
"So you do pity me, my lady?" He is beside her now, reaching out to touch her tear-washed cheek. "You see my tortured soul as no one else could. You know the sorry of my heart." Tears stream from his burned face, and he lays his head in her lap.
Compassion wells up in Umae's heart in spite of herself, and a single tear, shed for him, falls onto his scarred lips. He has her then. She has let him into her heart, and he works his subtle magic on her, binding her to his will.
"You must answer me now any question I ask," he says triumphantly.
Her lips move against her will. "Ask."
"How may I know my beginnings and remember my true name?" he asks.
She is compelled to answer. "You must meditate, remembering back to the beginning of the universe. Then you will discover your true name."
His lips curl into a smile. "And how may I defeat your shining brother, the only man who can stand against me?"
Again she must answer. "Hold back. Do not face him until the day you can speak your true name. On that day my brother will journey to the Shadow Lands."
And the Betrayer rises, victory in his heart. Resolve burns in his veins. He will make war on the North once more.
Soft falls the snow from the night sky. White, like the lost plumage of a thousand doves, drifting down onto the shoulders of Yadeyu. White, caressing the drawn blades of his warriors.
Yadeyu steps forward, boots muffled. The ranks of the enemy stand like massed shadows. The night is silent. The shining defender of Vasae'ah' Children stops between the two armies, waiting, eyes searching. At last he sees: a taller shadow approaches through the dancing snow.
Yadeyu remains. Donshinu the Betrayer halts before him, clad in cold armor hewn from the eternal northern ice itself. After learning his true nature his power grew, and now he has frozen the very sea. He has marched an army of traitors and demons south across the new sea ice, bypassing the wall that guards the north. There, on the shore of the frozen sea Yadeyu met them, leaving his adopted son Toem Nevron to hold the Hall of the Red Company.
Now Yadeyu the shining warrior and Donshinu the Betrayer stand facing each other on the ice, the white snow falling without a whisper about them.
Yadeyu speaks first. "Brother, our forces outnumber yours by a count of many. Surrender to me and order your army to disband. No blood need be spilled this night."
"Brother," the Betrayer sneers. "Stand you not in the Hall of the Red Company? Do you trust no longer in your walls?"
Yadeyu frowns. "I came here to take you or destroy you, and thus end your bitter war."
The Betrayer raises an armored hand, pointing through the snow at his army. "Think this my full force? Fool. You underestimate me. The greater part of my followers now march on the Hall of the Red Company." He smiles coldly, dark eyes seeing immediately Yadeyu's fear. "Whom have you left to guard your stronghold, brother? Your guard will soon be fighting for his life against my deadliest servant. Hope that he is a strong warrior."
Yadeyu grips the hilt of the Sword of Etaem. "What have you done?" But the Betrayer only laughs. Wings of dark shadow unfold from his shoulders, and with a rush he vanishes into the clouds. His army clashes their weapons and races over the ice, but Yadeyu heeds them not. He thinks only of his adopted son fighting to hold the Stronghold of the North. He calls desperately on his own power, releasing a shout that strikes at the distant sky. Then he runs to the east, fleeter than a winter storm-wind.
Near grey dawn he arrives at the Hall of the Red Company to find ruin. Walls have crumbled, stone sundered from stone. All but a few defenders lie dead, and the remaining few hold the hill upon which the hearth-hall stands. Toem Nevron fights them with his fellow captains, bravely standing firm against the thronging enemy.
But even as fleet Yadeyu looks on, the enemy parts and stands back. Between their ranks the Burned One walks, alight with cold fire, clad in frost-bound iron. The blood of many Vasae'ans marks his body. The dark power of the Betrayer glitters in his ruined eyes, a gaze so terrible that none can stand against it. The defenders cower in horror, or flee, driven mad. One by one the Burned One cuts them down.
Yadeyu races to the height of the hill, felling the ranks of demons that block his path, crying out for his son who stands still against the Betrayer's deadliest servant. But he is too late. As he gains the hill, the icy blade cuts the air, and Nevron's final heir falls. Blood stains crimson the snow. Yadeyu, the shining captain of the Red Company, cries aloud in grief and rage. The fury of his voice scatters the demons and traitors, who flee, mad in terror. The Burned One hesitates. The Sword of Etaem flashes as Yadeyu draws it. His power blazes, fire climbing to the sky. He is lost in fury. He faces the Burned One, and the clash of their weapons shakes the very storm.
The storm has passed. Evening casts long shadows on the snow. Within the ruined circles of the walls, only one is left alive. Daelian the Wise stands before the destroyed gate, his company behind him. "Evil and the dead alone abide here," he murmurs. Indeed forever after the shattered walls of this place whisper with the twisted spirits of the dead, tormented and kept from peace. The Burned One's blood, warped by the Betrayer, blighted all it touched. So the restless spirits cry with thin voices among the stones, until the end of days.
Daelian motions his warriors to remain where they stand, and continues into the ruins alone. Long he searches until night descends, until he climbs the hill to the broken foundations of the hearth-hall. There he finds the still form of Yadeyu, lying in the snow, armor rent with many wounds. The Firekindler kneels down beside his fallen captain, and places a hand before Yadeyu's mouth. He feels a stir of breath, faint and fluttering. He lifts the brave captain of the North onto his shoulders and bears him away.
The warriors murmur amongst themselves when they see Yadeyu bleeding in Daelian's arms, but Daelian silences them with grim words. "Send a runner, our fastest, to the heartlands, to the houses of the Children of Dosuth. Tell them the North has fallen."
Soft sighs the wind through the branches of Vasae'ah's tree. Soft the wind caresses the face of the still pool beside which Saemurah sits. Deep she looks into the waters, seeing shadows of before and after.
Yadeyu, bright-eyed guardian of Vasae'ah's Children, climbs the hill this evening. He bears a troubled heart, and the pain of the wounds the Burned One gave him. Yet the grasses brushing his bare feet and the gentle touch of the wind, the whispering shade of Vasae'ah's tree beneath which he played as a child-all these soothe him. He halts at the edge of the water, where Vasae'ah's roots drink. There Saemurah, his dark-haired mother, sits, waiting.
"My son," she says softly. "You have returned to me."
"I have mother," Yadeyu replies, weary.
"And what do you seek?" she asks. Her cool hand raises to take his.
He sits at the edge of the pool beside her. "I seek one who knows my sorrow." With that he lays his head in her lap, and weeps. His tears stir the water's face. She strokes his hair and sings as she did when she was a child.
"What have you seen?" he murmurs at last.
Saemurah's dark eyes are far away, looking across time. "I have seen the blood of our people flow free. I have seen darkness and endless winter. I have seen war."
"And what of me?" Yadeyu speaks almost too quietly to hear. Saemurah hesitates. "A choice will fall to you soon my son. You have suffered much for our people. Your days have been dark. I see your desire for rest, for an everlasting sleep. You will be offered this, but your desire will cost our people dearly. If you turn away from the peace you desire, our people will be saved, but you will be lost in darkness forever. This is your fate."
No more words pass between then. Yadeyu stands presently and walks away, fading into the falling night. Saemurah remains. Now nothing stirs the waters' face but her own tears.