The War of the Great Winter


The Fall of the King-Killer

The Vasae'an defenders sleep. The stones, rimed with frost, crack. Enemies crouch without, waiting for the walls to fall.

A storm rages about the Vasae'an capital city where the Hall of the First Hearth stands. The clouds gather like bastions of the sky, snow falling thick and heavy. The icy winds blast the cracked and leaning walls. And winging on the savage gale a dark voice cries.

It is the voice of Donshinu the Betrayer. His power has rallied the frowning clouds, lent stone-breaking cold to the winds, and imbued the snow with subtle sorcery so that all within have long since fallen into a deep and nightmarish sleep. Even the great Yadeyu, Wielder of the Sword of Etaem, lies wrapped in enchanted slumber. The Vasae'ans are defenseless.

The Betrayer's armies stand ready, demons and bitter traitors; as soon as the walls come down, overwhelmed with ice, they will spill the blood of every Vasae'an within. They are led by The Betrayer's deadliest servant, the one-eyed demon who hunted Dosuth in winters past and whom Donshinu met in the forests of the north. His followers call him the King-Killer, and fear him. Upon the twisted back of an Archdemon spawn he sits, listening. So on the voice of the Betrayer cries, on the storm howls, and with a thunderous crack of stone the walls fall, crashing down in ruin. The enemy rushes forward.

But now another voice cries on the wind: "Awake! Awake, children of Vasae'ah! Awake, warriors of Yadeyu! Darkness draws near!" Daelian, descendent of mighty Nevron, stands at the door of the Hall of the First Hearth, on the hill high above the city. His magic-laden voice breaks the storm, turns back the winds, and scatters the snows. The dark clouds split and sunlight blazes through. The massing ranks of the enemy halt in dismay.

And the sleepers awake. Up leaps Yadeyu the shining defender of the Vasae'ans, sword flashing with bright daylight. Up stand the ranks of the Vasae'an warriors, answering Daelian's rallying call with a savage battle-cry. And into battle they plunge through the rubble of their walls, blades flaming red in the morning. Their enemies fall before them, routed and broken.

Through the fray Yadeyu leaps like a wolf of the north, laughing aloud in joy. Straight towards the King-Killer he runs, and as the demon raises his black blade Yadeyu cleaves him and his twisted mount in half.

The Betrayer's tattered forces fall back, and the Vasae'an warriors shout in victory. But even in joy, Yadeyu's face turns grim. The outer walls have fallen. The defenses have been shaken. The Betrayer's victory draws near.

The Three Riddles of Enad Odani

The captains eat together in the Hall of the First Hearth. The hearth burns hot, and the warm shadows dance against the walls and in the dusty rafters. The cold remains without. The food is hearty, and every heart is light. They are merry, for the Vasae'ans have driven back the enemy for many days. They tell stories of the battlefield or sing songs, dancing together among the tables.

Yadeyu sits at the head of the hearth, more silent than most. Many days has he tarried in the hall, recovering from an injury, and the pain of it still haunts him. His eyes wander among the laughing faces, but they always return to one face in particular.

This is the face of Enad Odani, the bright-eyed shield-maiden of the Vasae'ans. She has won renown for her strength in battle, and she laughs with the other captains. He feels joy to see her laugh, and he forgets his pain. Yet his still remains more silent than his wont, watching her across the dancing flames of the hearth. Her lips are beautiful to him in smiling, and the lily curve of her neck draws his eyes. Her eyes always return to the face of Yadeyu as well. She has looked at him often, seen his heart in his face. It gives her joy to see him smile in the firelight. She admires his strong hands and shoulders, and the strong lines of his face. As the night wears on, she looks more often. Each thinks of the way the light catches the other's eyes. At last she stands, and wending among the revelers she steps to the head of the hearth. There she stands close beside Yadeyu and says merrily, as though in jest, "We have seen your valor and strength in battle, Lord Yadeyu, but are you as clever a man as you are great a warrior?"

He smiles at her. "Riddle me then, Enad, and we will see."

She rejoices as she speaks her riddle. "What gift given dies if not immediately returned?"

The shining captain of the Red Company ponders a minute, for he has not yet realized what she wishes of him. "Loyalty," he says at last. Enad, without a word, turns and retires from the hall with a sigh-for she had wanted him to say "love". He watches her go, and into the long night he thinks of her until sleep weights his eyes. She thinks of him too, smiling into the darkness. The captains gather again the next night beneath the shadowed rafters, eating and drinking around the hearth. Seeking the same answer, Enad seeks out Yadeyu at his place at the head of the hearth, and riddles him again: "In what house is one a host and a guest at the same time?"

"The house of love," he answers, and this time she retires with a smile, and as she walks out through the hall's moving shadows, he looks after her, his thoughts flying at her heels.

The next night she riddles him for a third time, saying, "What question has a thousand ways of asking, yet but one answer?" By now he has seen what she wishes of him, so he smiles and says, "I will give no answer to this riddle, but instead the answer to the thousand questions: I love you."

This night, they both retire with smiles.

The Dissembling of Donshinu

The summer-solstice sun smiles on the marching ranks of the Vasae'ans. Their armor glitters, their spears rise like a forest tipped in light. Their standards snap high and bright in the wind. Today beneath the sunlight they are fearless and valiant. The massing ranks of the enemy do not daunt them. Brilliant-eyed Yadeyu leads them, the Sword of Etaem held high, and his brave captains march beside him. Enad Odani, the bold shield-maiden, raises her voice, singing the chant to the Sun, Shidar, and all of the Vasae'an warriors join their voices with her. Thus they march singing into battle.

The vanguards meet. Through the day the battle rages. The Vasae'ans push the hordes of demons and dark-hearted traitors back beyond the ruins of the outer walls, and as evening descends they camp among the fallen, mossy stones. They light fires and sit around the flames together, eating and drinking and celebrating their day of victory.

Yet one fire burns apart. Two men sit beside it, silent, two captains of the Third Children, one Torys Orm, and the other Eld Engal. They are grim, for each had lost a brave son in the fighting. As the night deepens and the stars shine in the sky, they mourn beside their fire, and the sounds of reveling from the camps of the warriors fall like a mockery on their ears. Their warriors camp around them, mourning with their captains, for the loved the dead sons as brothers.

Now, as the Wandering Star turns in the sky, a man comes walking through the dark, armored like the Vasae'ans, a sword at his side. But this is no Vasae'an: this is Donshinu the Betrayer, disguised, walking among his enemies, bitter with their victory. He seeks some advantage to work still an evil against the Vasae'ans even in the face of his defeat. He sees the fire standing apart, and walks into the firelight, noting the sorrowful faces of the two captains.

With elegant courtesy he says, "Poor company though I am my lords, may I sit at your fire? I find my spirit is in no mood to rejoice, and this looks not like a fire of celebration."

As is the sacred custom, Orm-whose fire it was-motions him to sit as a guest. "Indeed it is not a fire of celebration, friend, for much has been lost this day. What may we call you?"

"Orit Serdal," the Betrayer says, and he sits as he was bid. Then he says, "Indeed today is a day for sorrow. Today I lost a son. He fell in the fighting, bravely many would say, though I find no consolation in such courage now that it has led my boy to a cold grave."

Eld Angal nods. "I today have lost a son, and my comrade here as well. This is why we pitch our tents apart, and share a fire of our own. The celebration of our fellow warriors is bitter to us in our sorrow."

"Allow me to drink in mourning with you, my lords," the Betrayer says, "that in our grief we might find company together." So they drink together into the night, until at last the Betrayer says, "I wonder now that night has fallen what they have died for. For it seems to me they died for one man's cruelty."

"Indeed," Orm said. "That man that now camps beyond the fallow fields and sends his twisted hordes against us."

The Betrayer shakes his head. "Indeed not, for he was once a son. A son cast out, a son betrayed. This cruelty belongs in half-part to shining Yadeyu, for he betrayed his brother, and in half part to the great Lord Doshi'yah, for he cast his son out. This war is a war of justice against the one of these cruel two that still lives. Today he cast out our sons to die on a wicked sword, uncaring, for his unjust war. Should we desire to curse a man, let us curse the man who camps just there so near at hand, not the one on the other side of the fields."

The two captains nod, and the listening men murmur in agreement. They are all under the Betrayer's spell now-he has turned their hearts. So they curse Yadeyu, loudly. With grief and drink Orm and Engal are moved to anger, and with the Betrayer in the form of Serdal they swear an oath that on the morrow they and their warriors will turn against Yadeyu and the other captains, and their soldiers swear with them. The Betrayer smiles then in the darkness, and stands bidding them good night. Then he vanishes into the darkness. Long after he is gone, the two captains fall into a fevered sleep, tormented by dreams of their beloved sons.

With dawn, battle begins anew. In the midst of the fighting, the captains and their soldiers turn suddenly against the Vasae'ans. Brother fights brother, and Vasae'an blood flows freely on the field. Deeply the Vasae'ans suffer this day.

The Dreams of Alvad

Umae the raven-haired daughter of Yashinu, lies in an enchanted sleep. The Betrayer Donshinu has bound her spirit to him so that it follows him unseen wherever he walks, while her body lies unmoving in his battle-tent. So she walks in misery, ghostlike at his side, during the hours of day when he commands his legions.

But in the nighttime hours she wanders free, sundered still from her slumbering body. Sometimes she steps with wind-light feet across the day's battlefields, seeing with sorrow the frozen bodies of the dead. Sometimes she walks the streets of the besieged city, hearing the loud weeping of children, the soft weeping of women, and the silent weeping of men. Sometimes she climbs the high hill that stands just within the encircling walls, and enters the Hall of the First Hearth where her brother sleeps, unheeding of her presence. There she watches over him. And there one bright-starred night Alvad the brave warrior sees her, bent and sorrowful beside her brother. Sleeping still, his dream-eyes glimpse her sad face through the curtain of her raven locks. Her cold beauty cuts his heart. He reaches out to her, whispering too softly to hear, and she turns. He cannot touch her, for she slips from his grasp like a night-breeze. But desperately she murmurs, help me. Help me.He starts awake, and sees her no more. But he remembers her face, the dark eyes filled with unknowable sadness, the voice calling to him from across a great distance.

And Umae, looking down at him kneeling in his blankets, feels something stirring in the depths of her heart like the first touch of summer. She reaches out to touch his shoulder, but he does not turn, for she is only spirit. So she leaves the hall, wandering far as dawn begins to grey the sky. And in the midst of her sorrow, joy awakens deep inside her-only a spark, but a spark still, warm and bright.

Every day she walks by the Betrayer's side as his will chains her to do; but every night as darkness falls and the Wandering Star flames into life, she returns to the hall to watch over Alvad the brave warrior, and sometimes he sees her in his dreams. Every morning, when he wakes, he vows again to find her. And both carry the secret spark of joy in their hearts, waiting. Waiting for the day the Betrayer's power is broken, and Umae of the raven hair is free again.

The Destruction of the Archdemons

Dark is the day, cold the wind. Against the black clouds the archdemons rear, armored in iron-hard ice. They were strong and proud once, but now they are only mad beasts. The Betrayer Donshinu has tortured them into mindless engines of destruction. But still, nothing can stand against their blind fury. Huge frost-encrusted shadows, they loom over the Vasae'ans.

The Betrayer has driven them against the final wall. He forces have broken against it like sea-waves on the land's indomitable face. High it stands, woven with enchantments of warding, strong as a stony jutting bone of the earth's foundation itself. But now the Betrayer unleashes the two archdemons, the last remaining kin of the beast Yadeyu slew in the North. Their screams split the air. Against the wall they rush like a winter gale, and the ranks of the Betrayer's warriors scatter in terror or are trampled into the snow. The wall shakes with every savage blow. Stones crack. The Vasae'ans' hearts tremble, and they ready themselves to be overrun. Some throw down their weapons in despair.

Now Yadeyu the shining captain of the Red Company throws wide the gates, leaping out, glittering sword drawn. His captains, great warriors all, follow behind, voices raised in battle-cries-Enad Odani the Shield-Maiden, Alvad the brave, mighty Daelian with fire in his hands.

Now a great battle rages. Swords flash, fire glows. The poisonous blood of the archdemons gouts, staining the snow. Their cries rend the earth, their thrashing throes shatter stone and tear the frosty ground. First one falls, then the other. A great cry of victory rises into the darkening clouds from every Vasae'an throat, and the servants of the Betrayer, scattered, wail in despair.

And across the field the Betrayer falls to his knees, screaming into the sky, for he feels the deaths of the archdemons in his very flesh. His power wanes. The clouds break a little, and a warm wind, faint and short-lived, blows in off the sea. The victorious captains return. Hope, as faint and short-lived as the wind, burns in every heart.

The Wrath of Donshinu

Tall stands Donshinu the Betrayer on the snowy battlefield. He faces the final wall of the Vasae'ans, its frowning stone face defying him still. Demons and traitors flock around him. His is terrible to look upon: clad in black armor, helmet frost-rimed, sword glittering like ice in the morning. He smiles with cold eyes, for this is his day of victory. Years ago in the far north, Umae the dark lady with the voice of prophecy told him "Take to the field on the day you remember your ancient name. On that day my brother, the only man who may stand against your power, will walk into the Shadow Lands." The night just past, the Betrayer dreamed again of creation, hearing his first name spoken in a godly voice that seemed to echo in the very earth itself. He speaks in now as he stands on the field, and joy rises in his heart.

An iron-armored hand he raises, and the skies darken further as he draws in his magic. As the wind rises he cries aloud, voice thrumming with power. Demon and Vasae'an alike cower in terror, and Yadeyu, standing at the doorway of the Hall of the First Hearth, looks down from the high hill, heart shadowed in dread. Thrice the Betrayer cries his spell of destruction. Then with a crack of stone, the last wall of the Vasae'ans shatters, falling in broken ruin. The demons scatter, but Donshinu heeds them not. He strides forward toward the hill where the Hall of the First Hearth stands.

The Vasae'ans fall back to defend the high hall. Daelian stands there, and Alvad the brave who's heart Umae holds. Enad Odani stands also, and beside her Yadeyu, the shining guardian of the Vasae'ans. All around them crowd the ranks of the Vasae'ans, armor shining in the fading light.

Donshinu gains the hill. The grasses freeze and die about his feet. Darkness falls. To the Vasae'ans he speaks, sorcery of despair and madness whispering in his cold voice. "I see the bravery in yoru hearts," he says. "I see courage burning in all of you like hearthfire, and loyalty like summer. Hope shines still from your eyes like the sunlight. But I am darkness, and terrible winter follows me. Your towers will fall, your fires will fail. All your prized courage will come to nothing, and your hope will die."

The Vasae'an warriors tremble, dread choking them. They fall shivering to the ground, spirits crushed, or run screaming in terror before the Betrayer's awful voice. As Donshinu walks between the breaking ranks, he laughs madly, crying, "I am Esaemad, father of demons, lord of darkness! I am the accursed, burned by godly fire! Do any dare face my wrath?"

And with a battle-cry, Enad the shield-maiden leaps forward, drawn blade burning in the last of the light, rushing to meet the enemy of her people. With one downward sweep of his icy sword upon her splintering shield the Betrayer drives Enad to her knees. His next blow splits in two her sword. His third cuts her down, her bright blood staining the snow.

"Will you not face me brother?" he calls. "Never have I known you to be a coward. Must I slay your captains one by one until you stand alone?"

Yadeyu, his eyes hot with fury, daws the sword of Etaem. He screams his rage to the black sky. The Betrayer smiles and strides forward once more, as Yadeyu leaps to meet him, bright fire blazing from his blade.

So the two brothers fight, sword on sword, fire against ice. The dread-bowed Vasae'ans flee as the clash of weapons rings against the embattled sky. Blood stains the snow, for both are cut in many places, but the Betrayer laughs his chill laugh on and on despite his wounds, for he can see: Yadeyu flags, falling back, his wounds deeper, even his great power outmatched. So Donshinu presses the attack, swinging his great cold sword with the ease of surety.

Yadeyu slashes in rage, but he knows with growing despair that rage is not enough. His limbs grow heavy, the Sword of Etaem falters in his hand. Now he stumbles, and the Betrayer drives his sword deep into Yadeyu's chest. Yadeyu, the shining defender of the Vasae'ans, falls to his knees. As his blood runs forth, the hungry snow drinks it. The Sword of Etaem slips from his trembling fingers, and he falls onto his side. Darkness rushes in on him, deathly cold seeps into his slowing heart. As his sight flickers out, he hears the voice of Donshinu above him.

"You have failed brother. Your world will descend into darkness, your people will be no more. Know this and despair." With that, Yadeyu's spirit flies into the void, and he hears no more.

Donshinu rises and turns away from the fallen defender of the Vasae'ans. He steps once again towards the Hall of the First Hearth, drawing fatal ice into his armored hand to snuff out forever the First Hearth set by Etaem himself. But at the foot of the steps Lady Saemurah waits for him.

"If you wish to snuff our sacred fire into darkness," she says softly, "you must first pass me."

His lip curls in scorn. "Dare you stand against me, seeress?" Her voice is iron. "I am Saemurah of the First Children, mother to the Sun and the Wandering Star. I will defy you into the ending of the world, accursed one. Until all my strength and blood are spent I will defy you."

He tries to advance but her will halts him. They stand facing each other, the lord of darkness and the grey-eyed lady. He struggles with his titanic strength, and Saemurah feels her power weakening. But a voice whispers at her shoulder. Umae's spirit stands there, and she joins her will with her mother's. Together, they hold Donshinu back.

Freed from the horror of the Betrayer, Daelian the Firekindler kneels beside his fallen captain, feeling for breath with a hand at Yadeyu's bloodstained lips. He feels none.

So he raises his hands to the churning skies. His voice is soft, but it travels beyond the edge of the world itself. "Master Yadashi. You once told my forefather Alsson that if he needed your aid, he should call for it and you would hear. I call with his same blood, in desperate need so hear me now: take my life-I give it freely. Let Yadeyu rise again in our darkest hour."

A wind rises, stirring the darkness, and Daelian feels a light touch on his shoulder. Before him for a moment he sees the shade of a man, his smiling eyes as warm as summer. Joy lifts the Firekindler's heart as he feels his life leaving him. He falls beside his captain in the bloodstained snow. Only death remains on the High Hill.

The Shadow Lands

A wind blows across Yadeyu's face. It whispers the grass all around him, stirs the face of the winding water beside him to dancing. He stands on a bridge over the dark water. The sky holds stars, and a shadowed land stretches out before him. The pain of the Betrayer's sword is still a very near memory, and the fury still burns through him, but he knows: these are the Shadow Lands. He is dead.

A soft footfall makes him turn. At the end of the bridge, beneath the pale light of a lantern, a white-clad woman steps swiftly. He knows her. She is Enad, his love, whom the Betrayer cut down before his eyes. Joy flames in his heart, and he races to follow, but she speeds ahead of him down the lantern-lighted path. So they continue, follower and followed, until a dim hill rises above them, the path climbing up to its crown, where a bright light flickers among a ring of standing stones.

Up the hill Enad's shade goes before him, and he pursues her. But suddenly a man stands before him on the path, blocking his way.

The man's eyes are kind, his face young. "Son of Yashinu," he says. "Wait a while."

Yadeyu tries to push past him, but the man grips his arm with a strength he cannot fight. "I must follow her," he says, pain rising in him. "Let me go."

There is boundless compassion in the man's voice. "We must speak, nephew. Stay."

Yadeyu stops fighting and looks at the man. Indeed the man's face is like his grandfather's, like his own. "Are you Yadashi, the Teller of Tales?" he asks in wonder.

The man inclines his head. "I am. Time is short. Listen to my words." Yadeyu looks after Enad the shield-maiden, his heart weeping. But he remains.

"A choice lies before you," Yadashi says. "Your enemy the Betrayer will spill the blood of your people, lay waste to your home, and cover the world in darkness. Only you have the power to stand against him. I come bearing a precious gift: another life, given freely. Use it, return to the living world and fight for the Children of Vasae'ah as you always have."

Yadeyu once again looks to the path, but Enad is gone from his sight. "And if I stay?"

"You will know peace at last after so many years of fighting. You may follow the path and meet the Lords of the First Children, for they await the worthy among the standing stones. But your people will fall, and the bright world Vasae'ah created will pass into darkness."

Yadeyu's spirit bows beneath a weight of sorrow and pain. He is torn in two, for he cannot bear the suffering of his people, and yet his heart yearns to follow Enad, to rest at last, to never again see battle. Ever he looks to the crown of the hill, remembering the night when Enad riddled him in the firelight, and he gave an answer that made her smile like the son. Then he thinks of the brave warriors that follow him, and of the sunlight shining down on the city by the sea. But most of all, he thinks of his mother's prophecy. It echoes in his memory, and he knows that if he chooses to live again, he will never return here to this place of rest.

At last he stands straight. "I must fight this last battle," he says, his spirit aching.

The eyes, full of compassion, gaze into his. "Very well. I will lend you my power, and stand like a shadow at your shoulder until you no longer need me. With this power you must bind Esaemad, the one you call the Betrayer, for he cannot now be destroyed." "I understand," Yadeyu says.

No more words pass between them. Yadashi takes his arm and leads him back through the sighing grasses, over the bridges palely lit with glimmering lanterns. Yadeyu, the defender of the Vasae'ans does not look back-but he remembers Enad's face in the firelight, and the light in her eyes. Even as darkness engulfs him and his spirit flies across boundless space, he remembers.

He wakes with his face in the snow, the pain of his wound burning in his chest. The Sword of Etaem glimmers in the dimness beside him. He struggles to his feet, lifting the blade in trembling hands, crying, "Esaemad! Face me! The Vasae'ans will not fall today!"

The Betrayer turns. His cold heart sinks, and he feels the weight of doom on his shoulders. His enemy, cut down a moment before, stands alive again. And he sees at his former brother's shoulder a shadow, waiting. Fear blazes in him, but he lifts his great icy sword.

Fire leaps from Yadeyu's hand, flaying the Betrayer's flesh and burning his spirit. The cold sword shatters, and he falls to his knees, screaming-for this is the very fire that scorched him at the beginning of the world.

Yadeyu speaks, but his voice is like many voices, ringing with terrible finality. "Thus I bind you, accursed being, for all the long years after." The Betrayer feels a cold deep in his flesh. But even as his legs begin to turn to solid stone, he laughs, speaking with all the guile and sorcery remaining to him.

"Brother, you may have defeated me today. But do you think the Vasae'ans will be at peace? Do you think you can trust the Third Children, who have betrayed you so many times? They will drag your world into darkness, and I will watch with joy. Thus my revenge is complete." With that, his burned face too froze into unmoving stone, and he was bound utterly and completely. But his final words sow a seed of darkness, as he had intended, that settles in Yadeyu's heart and feeds on his sorrow.

The clouds above break, and the bright sunlight shines through. Day blazes suddenly across the fields and broken walls, and the dark army of traitors and demons scatters in dismay, knowing the power of their master has been destroyed. They fly to the winds, some north, some east, some south. The Vasae'ans stare in wonder at the sky, reveling in the light. And whispers pass from mouth to mouth: the war is over. Soon the people are rejoicing in the streets.

But Yadeyu feels no joy. He kneels first beside the body of Enad, and kisses her cold lips. Then he looks in sorrow on Daelian, his friend, who gave his life so that Yadeyu could rise again. The great warrior weeps then, falling to the ground, and finally falls into a dark sleep.