The bell rings the even hour.
Over fields coated in an endless cloak of snow, the peasants trudge through a never-ending rain of snow towards the walls, the walls of Winterís Haven.
The sun throws one final futile glow over the land as it drowns beneath the oceanís farthest horizon. Up the stairs of the tallest tower, a thick chill coat clasped about her, she goes, my Lady of Winterís Haven.
On the battlements she stands, her hair waving in the breeze like curls of fire, her wan face resolute as she watches the sun drown, casting her misty eyes wide and far over unrelenting empty seas. Seeking, searching, yearning, for one spittle of sail that would mark the return of her lord, the Lord of Winterís Haven.
Many years, many seasons, now, that he has gone, gone west to find the fabled lands of summer.
Slow, ever so slow, I follow her, a pale hope stillborn in my breast as I go to join my lady, my Lady of Winterís Haven.
By her side I stand, speechless, listless, watching night clamp snow-bowed land and mute ocean both tight within its unyielding hand. Long after light fails us, long after we know that the moon, too, hides and also, perhaps, weeps tonight, my lady remains resolute, grey eyes fixed unflinching on the horizon.
I strum my lyre, hum a tune soulless and merry.
I listen to the wolfchoir whose hungry moans chase themselves dizzy on the snowed-down plains, I hear them sniff about the gates, the gates of Winterís Haven.
I can hear the owlís plaintive swoop, rabbits shivering in mid-burrow and a lonely hart snorting at death as it scampers shy of crimson jaws and shoots free over the hills and down through the pungent pines away, away from Winterís Haven.
Wordless we wait, wordless we turn and go, as we have done and will do for many years, many seasons, now and still to be, the bard and Lady of Winterís Haven.
We walk down past rumours of godsí wrath, of Ragnarok come, beyond tales of the last days we go, deeper down, down to the bleak warmth of the hearth, the heart of Winterís Haven.
We sit and play our parts.
I sing of golden days and warmth and summer. I make them laugh with nonsense ditties. I make them sniffle with bittersweet ballads. I make them forget the world beyond this hall. I plant blossoms of hope in tomorrows I know will never be.
As I play for them I lose myself within the pluck of my strings, pulling them along, casting a veil over their eyes, shutting out night and snow so only the warmth of the hearth may breathe in their worlds, my world, the desperate hope of tomorrow. All through the night I play, all through the night they listen, listen to me, the bard of Winterís Haven.
She sits apart, aloof, lost in her own maze.
She smiles and our hearts lift, she listens to the children chatter, she squeezes my shoulder for comfort and strength and when I am about to falter she says play, play my bard as if there is no tomorrow, and so I play the night away.
They listen to my music and sit rapt at my feet but it is for her that my fingers bleed on the strings. We are the frost and she is our sun, we are the parched earth and she is our dew.
She, alone, wills them, me, us, to wake every day, to toil and sweat and bleed beneath the never-ending snow and cold and heartache of a winter that knows no end.
And every day when the peasants come trudging home they look up to the walls and see their lady stand undaunted, enduring winter windís whiplash and frostís chill bite, her grey eyes fixed unflinching on the drowning sun and silent waves.
Many years, many seasons, now, our lord is gone, gone west to find the fabled lands of summer. Our world is still winter and all we ever have and ever will know of summer is curls of fire waving in the breeze, a wan face that glows when she smiles, and trudging home through the rain of snow and looking up and there!, there on the wall of the highest tower she stands, resolute, undaunted, our Lady of Winterís Haven.