57. Winter Play
Just as summer solstice, its counterpart in winter was a feast celebrated all over Adalmearc. No work was carried out that could be delayed, and as soon as the sun set on the shortest day of the year, merriment began. Despite the cold, long, and dark night, or perhaps because of it, winter solstice was a feast without bonds on the revelries of any kind in Plenmont. Drink flowed as freely as it could, games of all sorts took place, and many children would be born nine months hence.
The mood was likewise inside the palace on solstice night, although the entertainment took other forms. Food from every corner of Adalmearc and beyond was served, allowing the members of court to gorge themselves. The meat of bears stuffed with exotic fruit and sweetened by honey, vegetables both common and unusual, wine and ale and mead in cups and as ingredients for dishes; there seemed to be no end to this display of gluttony.
When the meal was finally done, a choir of geolrobes entered. For a moment, this made the gathering more sombre, though it lasted a short while due to the amount of drink consumed already. A deep hum began to sound from the priests, using their voices as instruments, and only as it grew louder did the revellers grow quiet.
“Hear now all with heart to understand,” came the song, “the tale of boldest man to breathe.”
Other voices joined in. “Hear what by his hand alone was wrought.”
“Great deed begets but honour great,” the full choir sang, “and makes name immortal.”
Soon, the audience listened rapt to the Song of Sigvard.
Many eyes turned towards King Adelard as the song began; along with his mother, he was the only descendant of Sigvard in the realm. The performance was in homage to him and a recent tradition at the court of Plenmont; Sigrid had brought it with her from Middanhal, introducing it the year that her son had been born.
“Sigvard, bold and brave was born in days,” the song flowed, “when oft the crows would feed in full.”
“A magnificent performance,” Isabel whispered by the king’s side. “Truly befitting the honour worthy of Sigvard’s blood.”
“I can only agree,” Adelard replied graciously.
“I merely regret the surroundings,” Isabel added, almost as an afterthought.
“You do not think my palace worthy?” the king questioned with sudden displeasure.
“War, the first and greatest of its kind –”
“I meant no such things,” she quickly said. “I was merely thinking of past winters spent in Middanhal, hearing this very song performed before the high king. For a moment, I imagined Your Majesty seated upon the Dragon Throne. Forgive my ill choice of words.”
“All is forgiven,” Adelard declared magnanimously, frowning his brow in thought.
“I suppose that Hardling boy is given such honour tonight,” Isabel continued, looking ahead at the choir while speaking. “A pity, since he seems hardly worthy the title of king, let alone to take Sigvard’s place.”
“A pity,” Adelard mumbled.
“– with harvest to wither.”
While Sigvard climbed Wyrmpeak in the song, there was hectic movements going on outside the dining hall. The Harps of Egnil were preparing their act, dressed in colourful costumes and masks, while their helpers were hauling in great tapestries and assembling wooden constructions. The servants were crowding nearby to catch any glimpse they could, which caused some obstruction and a good deal of curses to be uttered.
As the Great War ended, the last notes of the song hung in the air momentarily. There was no applause, for the Song of Sigvard was not that kind of spectacle; instead, the geolrobes marched out in silence. It lasted briefly before the leader of the actors burst into the hall, occupying the empty space vacated by the priests.
“Gracious king, good noblemen, gentle ladies,” Alain spoke with numerous gestures, “we are on the eve of the longest night.” Behind him, the workmen set up the tapestries as screens, unfolding them to reveal the setting of a tranquil forest painted upon them. “As all learned people are aware, tonight is when spirits roam the lands, eerie sights can be seen, and the veil between the waking world and the dream is thin.”
He had the attention of all, except the seneschal whispering in the queen mother’s ear. “She is planting the idea in the king’s head.”
Sigrid nodded. “Very well. We will have to separate them soon, but let her do our work for tonight.”
“It is on this night that our lands are visited by fae beings,” Alain continued. “Elven spectres and sprites, and all manners of creatures that dwell in the air. Whereas they roam only field and forest on other occasions, tonight they are emboldened to enter the homes of decent folk in search of mischief.”
Behind him, the forest had been set up and the stage was ready. Several of the actors were moving about in front of the painted trees, dressed in odd clothes with bright colours, laughing silently and making toasts without words.
“Tonight, it is our pleasure to show your noble eyes this mischief played upon mortal Men,” Alain spoke again, “and more than that, we invite you to partake!” This sent waves of whispers through the audience, wondering what was meant. “Our tale begins as the sun has set and the longest night begun, in the deep forests of Florentia, where the Elven king holds court.” A gilded throne appeared between the trees, pushed forward by some clever contraption. “Yet where is his faery majesty?” Alain asked; the throne was empty. The actor turned towards the high table, approaching it until he bowed deeply before the king of Korndale. “There is but one with the august presence to play this role. I beseech his majesty to take his rightful place.”
With a flattered expression, Adelard rose from his seat and walked onto the area turned into a stage. Immediately, he was surrounded by a few dainty women, dressed as dryads, who covered him in flowing robes and put a mask upon him.
The play could now take its beginning. Alain set the stage as the narrator, extolling the virtues and splendour of the Elven king, who was brought to life by Adelard. With each gesture made by the king to accompany the speech from Alain, the court responded with appropriate mirth. Even the Hæthian exiles, unused to such spectacle, soon found themselves engrossed. Sigrid alone, the queen mother, was not caught up by the story unfolding; pensively, she studied her son instead.
The play continued with this novelty of involving the audience. Never before had a performance in Korndale made use of spectators to fill its roles, and the king was only the first. An Elven queen, a paragon of grace and beauty, was needed as well, and Isabel was chosen for this; like the king, she was swiftly dressed in robes that easily fitted onto her existing attire and placed upon a throne amidst great cheer and laughter. As for Isabel, none present seemed more agreeable or swift to smile.
Other members of the court were given various roles as the story progressed and demanded it. More sprites to fill the Elven court, mostly, and other such flattering positions. The actors retained the parts of the villains, who were savage warriors, mortal Men confounded by the Elven mysteries surrounding them. When confronted with wonder, these brutes reacted with fear; they saw threats where none existed and rattled their swords a great deal to the amusement of the audience.
“What a spectacle!” Theodora exclaimed. Her companions agreed, most of them as enraptured as her; even Leander had let go of his wine cup. They had rarely seen such before, as plays and actors were scarce in Hæthiod. The heathmen did not put on performances themselves, and travelling troupes rarely ventured east beyond Korndale or Adalrik. “We must invite this merry band to perform for us in Tothmor,” the queen declared.
The mood grew sober for a moment at the reminder of their lost homeland. “Quite right, my dear,” Beatrice spoke. “We have not had such amusement since before you were born, I dare say.”
“With good reason,” Irene spoke with a slight sneer. She was one of the few not in the throes of laughter.
“Is anyone surprised that she would be the one to object,” Leander asked without seeking an answer.
“These actors are rivermen and clearly in the service of such,” Irene continued, throwing a sharp glance at Leander. “Notice the names of the Elven court are names from Ealond,” she pointed out. “Whereas the brutish savage has a Dalish name. Does his ragged costume not suggest a certain plumage? Like the feathers of a bird?”
“An eagle,” Theodora realised. “The prince of Aquila.”
“This piper may be paid by the king of Korndale, but the tune was written by the duke of Belvoir,” Irene finished.
“Be that as it may,” Hubert interjected with his eyes locked on the performance, “I have never been so entertained before in my life.” To this, Leander raised his cup in salute.
On the stage, the play was reaching its end. “By the grace of the gods, whose light shine in the visage of our noble sovereign,” Alain declared while gesturing towards Adelard, who still wearing his guise as the Elven king was basking in the flattery, “we arrive at the conclusion of our tale. Let it serve as a lesson to all, whose minds are clouded by the fog known as fear. Only the illuminating rays of a wise monarch may pierce the mist surrounding lesser minds to dispel cowardice masquerading as bravado. Indeed, thus may we all remove our masks,” he ended, removing his own object of disguise. The other actors, both those professional and those improvised, did likewise, while the remaining audience cheered and applauded loudly.
The stage was quickly disassembled while those involved returned to their seats; the king gallantly offered his arm to Isabel, his companion both at the table and during the play. They were quickly engaged in mirthful conversation, as were most of those present in the hall. The king’s mother was an exception; she had watched her son’s involvement with and reaction to the play with a contemplative gaze.
“That was quite a funny play,” one of the servants remarked to another, “even if they never played the harp once.”
Once the stage had been dismantled, the vacant space was left empty for the final piece of the evening’s festivities. Musicians with lutes and flutes, but no harps, took position, as did the courtiers on the open floor. It was time for the chain dance to begin. Once the dancers were in place, the musicians started playing their instruments, and one of them began the song.
“A boy who came from where the river flowed through vale,”
“Now sing till sea shall cover hill,” the dancers sang in unison.
“With cheeks so red and legs so strong, his body hale,” came the next line.
“Now sing till sea shall cover hill!”
“The maiden fair he came to court with flowers full,” the troubadour continued, “while bearing many gifts and cloth of finest wool.”
“While land is dry, the song shall sound, if but a sigh to tallest mound,” the revellers exclaimed.
Most of the court was walking the steps of the dance; only the eldest with the excuse of old legs remained sitting. Although Irene stood up, it was not to join in; instead, she walked up the high table to reach the king’s mother. “May I be seated?” she asked.
Sigrid glanced in her direction and gave a brief nod. “You may,” she granted, and the other woman sat down next to her.
“How pleasant to experience winter solstice at your court,” Irene began to speak while a servant fetched her cup of wine. “I did not expect to hear the Song of Sigvard. In Middanhal, certainly, but not in Plenmont.”
“The dragonborn are found elsewhere than Middanhal,” Sigrid remarked curtly.
“Indeed, there is yourself,” Irene assented.
“And my son,” the queen mother replied with an edge to her words, her eyes on Adelard.
“Is he counted as such? From what I recall, the drakonians only care if the lineage passes from father to son. The Adalthing does not recognise Sigvard’s blood born of the mother,” the Hæthian dowager queen carefully spoke.
“Blood is blood,” Sigrid spoke sharply. She turned to look at her companion again, and this time, her gaze lingered. “You are not known for idle talk or the desire to exchange pleasantries. I care as little for dancing with words as I do out there,” she added while throwing her head towards the dance floor, “so speak.”
“It will be years until the Hardling boy is crowned king of Adalrik,” Irene began her explanation. “If you want to strengthen your son’s claim, you need two things.”
“Legitimacy to make the lords of Adalrik bow willingly, and military might to make them bow by force if necessary,” Irene argued.
“You happen to have both in your pocket, I am sure,” Sigrid spoke with disdain.
“I know how to procure both,” Irene claimed.
“Your price for this?”
“None. Our goals will align. I require nothing from you,” she smiled.
“Continue,” Sigrid commanded.
“Your son is unmarried. There is one woman with blood as noble as his. A union with her and children born of that union will make the Adalthing far more amenable towards King Adelard.”
“You speak of the Hardling girl,” Sigrid said dismissively. “I already considered as such, but tying my son to House Hardling will only cause complications.”
“Not Hardling,” Irene corrected her with satisfaction. “There is a young woman in House Arnling as well, rumoured to be quite the beauty, even.”
“Arnling,” Sigrid muttered. “I forgot about them. They were always so insignificant when I lived at my father’s court.”
“Not anymore. You must have heard the tales, surely, of the young knight who led the armies of the Order to defeat the traitors of Isarn?”
“I would hardly call Richard of Alwood young,” Sigrid scoffed. “You must be speaking of the other, his lieutenant –” Abruptly, she stopped speaking for a moment. “Adalbrand. Of course, it was in his name all along.”
“Trained under the old wolf, Athelstan, I am told,” Irene told her, “before beating him on the battlefield. They say that as a commander, young Adalbrand is unmatched by any in the Seven Realms.”
“An alliance with Arnling would net us the girl and her claim added to Adelard along with a commander to lead his armies,” Sigrid described. “I see your point. However, I fail to see your interest in this.”
“Young Adalbrand is not free to do as he pleases. He is on assignment from the Order that might tie him down for years, or worse, lead to defeat. He would surely be grateful towards any that brought him aid and allowed him to complete his mission,” Irene argued. “His reputation is enhanced by victory, which he would owe to your son.”
“What assignment is this?” Sigrid asked, frowning.
“He leads the Order army on its campaign to liberate Hæthiod,” Irene smiled.
“I see,” was Sigrid’s only reply.
“Thank you for indulging my idle talk,” Irene replied, returning to her own seat. She snapped her fingers a few times until her cup of wine was returned to her, allowing her to take a deep draught.
At length, the music ended, the dance was done, and winter solstice had been celebrated. It was late with sunrise not many hours away as the courtiers stumbled towards their chambers. A few servants lingered to remove the food and drink, saving it from spoil and helping themselves to some of it. The longest night of the year was done; now the days would grow longer, and the Seven Realms had brighter times ahead