Eleasis, 1281 DR
The day dawned cold and bright over the north. The sun climbed into a perfectly blue sky, its light glittering across the frozen plains and turning the waters of Lac Dinneshere to liquid flame. It was as pleasant a morning as anyone in Icewind Dale could hope for so late in the year.
Jhonen of Easthaven stood on the lake's shore and gazed out across the calm, crystal waters, pondering the coming winter even as he enjoyed the sun's feeble warmth. He had risen early, roused from his sleep by more troubling dreams. Those dreams played themselves out in his mind again and again, but became no clearer in their meaning:
A woman of soul-staggering beauty, her voice raised in mournful song... a jewelled sword forged of black steel... and a winged beast descending from a storm...
As he thought of the woman, Jhonen's heart ached with both longing and fear. Her face was vivid in his memory: skin as pale as snow and hair the colour of the sea with eyes to match. She was otherworldly. Her song was equally enchanting. Jhonen could not understand the words, but its tone spoke of great loss and unending sadness. He shivered beneath his cloak and turned to leave.
As he did so, his eyes caught a glimpse of something metallic buried in the muddy shore. Curious, Jhonen knelt and cleared away some of the muck and frost to get a better look. A sword's hilt revealed itself. An image of the sword from his dreams swept through his thoughts, filling him with dread. Closer inspection calmed him somewhat, as this weapon was nowhere near as magnificent. Its grip and pommel were unadorned and partially warped, its four-foot blade sheathed in rust. To judge from its apparent age, Jhonen guessed that it was an heirloom from the early days of Ten Towns, probably having belonged to one of the frontiersmen who helped settle the region by battle and bloodshed. He drew the sword from the mud and rinsed it off in the shallows. He gave it a few half-hearted swings. It was heavy and clumsy in his unskilled hands. Jhonen was tempted to cast the sword back into Lac Dinneshere and allow it to remain lost for another hundred years. Instead, he tucked it under his arm to take home, not really sure what he intended to do with it.
As he made his way back to Easthaven, a sudden gust of wind blew off the lake and for a moment he was certain he could hear singing.
12th Eleint, 1281 DR
Accalia had done everything she could to save him. All she could do now was wait for him to die. She had never felt so helpless.
His wounds ran deeper than flesh and bone. A venom of such virulence it defied even magical healing was eating him away from within. Poison was a tool of the weak and the cowardly and none of the priests could do anything to alleviate the young man's suffering. It was a cruel end, without honour. This man would never know the peace of Warrior's Rest, realm of Tempus.
"Shadows!" The man had been babbling since they found him lying on the temple's outer steps during the night. His words were a dry rattle. "The cold draws near... the tree fades... soon..."
Accalia dabbed at the poor man's head with a damp cloth and tried to calm him with prayer. It would not be long now.
Outside the infirmary, two voices were raised in heated discussion.
"What you're proposing is a fool's errand, Hrothgar! Soon it will be winter and Easthaven can ill afford the loss of her militia." The last word was said with disdain.
True, Accalia thought. Come winter, the barbarian tribes were as likely to raid the village as they were to trade with it. The volunteer soldiers saved many lives each year.
The second man, Hrothgar, was less agitated when he spoke, but his voice was deeper and more commanding. "And Kuldahar can ill afford our disregard. Listen Everard, I cannot speak for the townsfolk, but I for one cannot stand by while are neighbours are in danger."
Also true. All the settlers of the north constantly relied on each other for survival. If neighbours abandoned neighbours, all was lost.
"Potential danger," Brother Everard stressed. "We know nothing of this man. Only that he carries the seal of the Archdruid."
"And that he's about to die, despite your efforts."
There was a short break in their argument.
When they resumed, Accalia tried to ignore them, focusing on her patient. His breathing came in short, shallow gasps.
"Please," he said. He turned to look at Accalia and she saw that the mad sheen had gone from his eyes. His speech was measured and calm. "I tried to fight. To be brave. But there were too many and I ran." He reached for her hand. Tears rolled down his pale cheeks. "I've never been in a fight before. I was so afraid. I tried to fight, but gods forgive me there were too many." His grip tightened, becoming like a vice. "There is a shadow in the mountains and it gathers evil to it. Such evil! Soon it will be ready to make war on its enemy." He was hysterical now. "A great war! A blood feud! None of us will survive! We will be swept away by tides of darkness! All hail Yx..."
The man convulsed violently, blood frothing from his mouth. His last words were a gargled mess.
Then he was still.
Accalia had seen death many times before. She had seen the aftermath of battles in which hundreds died. She had seen strong men die from their injuries, slow and painfully. But they had been warriors, men who had chosen to meet their destiny with sword and shield. This youth had probably been a farmer or an apprentice of some sort, not a soldier. Tempus taught that war was a force of nature, an undeniable fact of life. However, he cautioned against reckless warmongering, preying upon those who could not properly defend themselves. In so many ways, those responsible for this man's death had committed blasphemy in the eyes of Tempus.
Sympathy for the man was quickly replaced by hatred for his killers.
When Everard and Hrothgar entered the room, they found Accalia was still grasping the deceased's hand, a prayer of vengeance on her lips.
Eventually, she stood and fixed Hrothgar in her steely blue gaze.
"When do we leave?"
Daurun hated everything about Icewind Dale.
The people. The weather. The ale.
Especially the ale.
The dwarf sat alone in the crowded tavern, a half-empty flagon of Grisella's best before him. He glowered at the other patrons, brows furrowed and mouth twitching. He listened to pieces of their murmured conversations.
"... Worst weather in decades..."
"... Monsters spotted in the pass..."
"... A messenger from Kuldahar..."
"... Hrothgar's looking for volunteers..."
Daurun scoffed. Gossip. The same every year. Except maybe that last one. The dwarf decided not to ask, however. It was someone else's problem.
His was a familiar face in Easthaven, but the locals took care to avoid him if they could. Daurun had come north eleven years prior with a small fortune. He had followed rumours of the dale's untapped resources and it had been his hope to mine the slopes of Kelvin's Kairn for ore. His wealth dwindled as he scoured the mountain. He found nothing. Trapped in the north, Daurun was forced to settle in Easthaven and now made a humble living as a metalworker, making and repairing simple tools. For someone who had made their fortune as a master smith, Daurun found his fate torturous. He had once longed go home, but his grand failure had long since eroded all purpose from his life.
He took a reluctant sip from his flagon, grimacing as he always did. He wiped foam from his beard and heaved a sigh of resignation.
"Local ale's not that bad."
Daurun was not used to being approached and his surprise must have shown.
"Didn't mean to startle you, friend." The accent was thick.
The dwarf looked up to see a stranger towering above him. The man was not of Ten Towns, that much was obvious. His dark features reminded Daurun of men from the far south, and his silken clothes were ill-suited for the cold north. A medallion hung at his throat engraved with a gauntleted hand, palm forward. It was the symbol of Torm, a god almost unheard of in Icewind Dale.
"Nay startled so much as bothered, friend," Daurun said, his scowl reasserting itself.
The stranger seemed unperturbed. He even smiled. Something about that smile put Daurun at ease. The dwarf decided he didn't like this man at all.
"I am Artain Serlance, knight and paladin of the Most Noble Order of the Radiant Heart."
Artain pressed on, " Just call me Art. Might I ask your name?"
Daurun sighed again before growling a reply. "Round here I be known as Dour. And right now I'm lord of the Most Sincere Order of Can't Be Arsed."
At this, Artain's smile faltered. The big man pulled up a chair and sat down opposite Daurun. "I had hoped a true son of Clan Stoneheart would be a bit more polite in his dealings."
Sudden anger mingled with shock, leaving Daurun in a stunned silence. "How?" was all he managed.
"Your ring. I've seen its markings before. In Mithral Hall."
Memories of his home flooded Daurun's thoughts as he ran his fingers over the ring's etched runes. Beautiful, sparkling Mithral Hall, its tunnels filled with the clamour of metal and the heat from a thousand forges. Renewed regret for having ever left on his failed venture stabbed through him. He took further measure of Artain. Humans were rarely permitted to enter Mithral Hall. Only important ambassadors and recognised heroes were welcome, but even they were restricted to the upper caverns. To have glimpsed the sigils and learned the name of Stoneheart, Altain must have visited the deep delves, a great honour bestowed upon only the worthiest of allies. Earning such trust from a dwarf was no easy task.
A hundred questions fought for attention in Daurun's mind, but all he asked was, "What dae ye want?"
The paladin's eyes glowed, even in the tavern's dim light. "I have need of your skills."
"Ye need a bucket fixed?"
"Not quite," Artain said. "My weapons, it seems, were not made to withstand the cold. My journey north has left my equipment a little the worse-for-wear. I can compensate you well for your time."
Daurun was almost tempted, but, "Quality metal be hard tae come by in these parts. I doubt I have the resources to help ye."
"I can supply my own material."
"Aye? And what material would that be?"
"A little something from Mithral Hall."
No. It couldn't be.
Artain stood. "You can find me at the Snowdrift Inn." He left.
Daurun downed the last of his ale, grimaced, and ordered another.
Stepping into the Snowdrift Inn was like stepping into a lover's embrace: it warmed the heart as well as the body. A fire roared in the hearth, bathing the common room in soothing shades of orange and yellow. The smell of roasted meat and spiced vegetables wafted from the kitchen. There was a storm gathering as night fell, and Artain breathed easy knowing that he would ride it out in comfort.
Quimby, the red-faced and always jovial innkeeper, poked his head out from the kitchen to see who had arrived. "Ho there!" he cried, grinning. "If'n it ain't another of my favourite guests! Dinner'll be out soon, don't you worry. Lamb and 'taters, best in Easthaven, don't you worry! Sit, sit. Make yourself at home."
Artain returned the smile and nodded. Quimby ducked back into the kitchen, surprisingly quick for his ample size.
Crossing the room towards the hearth, Artain almost missed the figure reclining in one of the worn leather armchairs. It was the Snowdrift's only other patron and the paladin shuddered as he passed, but otherwise ignored the elf whose melancholy was a tangible force. The elf stared blankly into the fire, his face solemn and pale, long fingers pressed tightly against his temples. Completely unmoving.
Artain pulled off his boots and set them against the hearthstone to dry. The melting snow formed a little puddle on the floor, sparkling in the firelight. It made Artain think of the myriad pools and fountains of the temple district in Athkatla, where he had grown up in the service of Torm and eventually earned his knighthood. Those days were far gone. He had left Amn ten years ago to spread the word of the Radiant Heart, bringing hope to the hopeless and defending the helpless. He had never looked back, never thought twice about his choices. Mostly.
It was not his faith in the gods that sometimes faltered, but rather his faith in men. Justice was an elusive force across Faerun, often forgotten and rarely just. Men seemed all too willing to deny its existence. In wretched Westgate, they mocked his god even as unjust laws mocked their very humanity. Artain had left the crowded cities of the Inner Sea, the ruined kingdoms of the Western Heartlands, bustling Waterdeep and fledgling Silverymoon, left it all to find virgin territory, both physical and spiritual. And so it was that a knight of Torm came to Icewind Dale, and despaired, for Tempus and old superstitions had already claimed the dalesfolk.
One rumour, however, now kept Artain in Easthaven a little longer than he had planned. The villagers spoke often of Kuldahar since news of Hrothgar's expedition started circulating about town. They spoke of a great tree, and the Archdruid, and... a temple of Ilmater, fiercest ally of Torm and Tyr; together they formed the Triad. Artain intended to visit the temple and pay his respects, perhaps even establish a shrine to the Loyal Fury if he was granted permission. To this end he had volunteered for the expedition, and commissioned the services of a dwarf to mend his broken sword.
"This is the Year of the Cold Soul." The voice was a flat monotone, devoid of emotion.
Artain turned to regard the dark-haired elf, half-lost in shadow. The paladin said nothing, a knot of unease formed in his stomach.
"The weather is wrong," the elf continued without expression. "A silence has fallen over the Spine of the World. Nature holds her breath. This is the Year of the Cold Soul. Ill omens all." Grey eyes flickered up and made contact with Artain's own. Then, to the paladin's surprise, the elf laughed. "Corellon forgive me, I'm beginning to sound like my cousin! Not every storm is an angry god's wrath, not every monster serves a master. A storm is often just and storm and a monster is often just easy experience for adventurers. Forgive me my grim demeanour. I am Erevain Blacksheaf." He stood and offered his hand in greeting.
"I am Artain Serlance, knight and palad-"
"I know what you are," Erevain said tersely, glancing at Artain's amulet.
The paladin shrugged. "It's a pleasure to meet you, friend. Just call me Art."
Erevain's narrow face was stern once more, his eyes suddenly resolute. "You intend to join Hrothgar's expedition." It was not a question.
Artain answered anyway. "I do, yes."
The elf looked lost in his own thoughts and said nothing for a long moment. Then, "It is a doomed venture."
Grey eyes caught the firelight and flashed gold. "Because some storms truly are an angry god's wrath."
Artain reached out with his sixth sense, reading the elf's heart. Erevain was not evil, but had a great understanding and knowledge of evil. It had left its mark.
"This is the Year of the Cold Soul, and it will take brave souls to conquer it." Erevain was growing cold and distant again. "I wish you all the best, paladin. We will not meet again." He left without another word, leaving Artain alone to ponder.
The next morning, Erevain was gone.
Later in the day, Artain was visited by a grouchy dwarf with a bad hangover.