My memory is more fallible than a bard's ought to be. Even so, I doubt that I will ever forget my first Winter Solstice.
When I had first laid eyes on the great feast hall, I thought nothing could ever be more grand. Surely, even the halls of the Queens and Kings that I hoped to one day serve were as a candle flame to the bonfire of grandeur and glory before me. Beautifully carved long tables were laid out across the hall, adorned by cloths of the finest linen and attended by chairs just as fine. Tapestries hung from the walls, each stitch without flaw, depicting scenes of hunts and feasts and festivals. Great candelabras descended from the ceiling, wrought of bronze and silver without an ingot of base iron to be found. Wide windows in the stone walls were thrown open to reveal the lush green countryside.
I thought nothing could be more grand, but I was wrong. For this day, the great feast hall was decorated for a holiday.
The wide windows were closed against the chill rain, showing off stained glass murals of dazzling geometry. The candelabras had doubled in number, the candles not just the pale yellow of tallow but cleverly dyed into all sorts of colors. Tablecloths I had not seen before draped the long tables, the deep blue of the winter sky stitched with threads of silver and gold that winked like stars in the candlelight. The fire in the hearth at the head of the hall burned not orange, but a rainbow of shifting hues, by what sort of magic or alchemy I did not know.
The vast array of colors in the tapestries, the windows, the tablecloths, the candles, should have been a chaotic riot of clashing themes, but it blended together into an artful whole that communicated a single message: outside it is cold and grim, but here, we are warm and safe and surrounded by luxury. And that was even before the food was laid out.
The smell of fresh bread permeated the hall as loaf after perfect loaf was set upon the tables. Next came platters loaded with meats, surrounded by fresh vegetables that shouldn't have grown in this season but did, in the gardens just outside. Ewers of stew were added to the mix, pots of honey, jars of spices, and plates of fruits from my own country, the ones surrounding it, lands I hadn't heard of at the time, and lands of which I still do not know.
The food was matched, it goes without saying, by the drinks. Wines sweet and dry, aged whiskey, beer and ale by the barrel, meads and melomels, cordials, and ciders, all in goblets of the finest design. One could nearly get drunk just on the sights and scents without ever tasting a drop.
Most days when I ate at those long wooden tables, the chairs were not even a third full. But not today. Guests of all kinds, from all sorts of Houses, came to the hall for the Winter Solstice. They wore their finest revelry clothing and brought their most splendid gifts, and so added to the grandeur of the event with their presence. They moved through the hall, eating and drinking, and for once not pretending to be anything less than what they truly were. The danger I was surrounded by would have frightened me, but my love was at my side, and I knew I would come to no harm. If it is cliche to say that her beauty burned brighter than the candles, brighter than the hearth fire, that her laughter was like silver bells and her smile like the flashing of a sword, that even with all the wonders and marvels around me, she was the most wondrous thing in the hall, well then, even I may sometimes stoop to cliches; I was young and in love and she was so very beautiful.
This feast would have been judged a failure by all in attendance had it been held without entertainment. Performers traveled from all around to grace the hall with their music on this day. Singers, harpers, and dancers without equal, each took their turn as the center of attention. Of all those within the hall this day, there was only one storyteller. Me.
I took my turn on the dais. I bowed to the Lady of the Hall. I bowed to the audience. And I told a story.
When I tell a story in truth, not casually relating an anecdote, but opening my magic to the millennia of bardic tradition to which I am heir and letting the power flow through me, everything drops away. There is nothing but the story and the energy that flows between me and my audience, that connects us in a way that few other things do. When I finish a telling, it is like opening my eyes from a long slumber and discovering the world around me anew.
I opened my eyes and saw the most priceless sight a bard can see: an audience so enraptured by the tale that it took them a moment to shake off their enthrallment and applaud. And in the center of that audience, my love, beaming with joy that she had brought me here, where my art could take its place amidst the exquisite food and drink and tapestries and find a worthy home.
Many Winter Solstices have come and gone since then, and many more other days, ordinary or extraordinary in their own ways. Even on the darkest of them, the memory of that first Winter Solstice remains, a pure joy that nothing which came after it could tarnish.
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