The Winter and Summer Kings

Long ago, when men had only just begun to gather in cities, there were two kingdoms in the up in the lofty mountains unlike anything the world had seen.  One lay in a shadowed valley where many sweet things grew, and the other was perched on a high cliff.  These were the kingdoms of Winter and Summer.  They were ruled by two brothers who had bickered all their lives, using the armies of the Two Kingdoms to settle their quarrels.

One year, after a very long summer of fighting, the Two Kingdoms hunkered down to weather the snows of winter.  This year, the snows piled higher than they ever had, and many people in the Winter Kingdom died.  Even in the Summer Kingdom, where hot springs protected its people from the worst winter’s storms, many people took ill and died, though they had food in plenty.  No scouts left from either of the castles of the Two Kingdoms, for no one could travel the roads without great peril.

And so it happened that one night in the middle of winter the Summer King laid himself down to sleep.  He kicked and sweat through most of the night, and in the quiet hour before dawn he jerked upright in his bed.  “Who goes there?” he bellowed, frightful eyes darting to and fro.  “Who disturbs the sleep of the King?”

For a long time, there was no response but the sound of the wind as it rushed by outside.  But then, without warning, the great wooden shutter of his window burst inward, filling the room with wind and cold.  The Summer King clutched his heavy blankets close, but nothing came of the wind and noise.

Some days later, the Summer King went walking through his gardens.  The sun was high in the sky as he came to one of his favorite hot pools, where he saw a beautiful woman.  She wore robes all of white, and she sat gazing into the pool while she brushed her long, golden hair.

When the Summer King approached, she turned her head and met his gaze.  “I know you,” she laughed, eyes sparkling.

“I am the Summer King,” he replied, tossing his thick cape, “I am known far and wide.  Who are you, woman, and what are you doing in my gardens?”

The woman laughed at him as the sunlight danced with her hair.  “I have seen you all abed, shaking beneath your sheets.  You are not so big and brave as you wish.”

At those words, the Summer King became enraged, and pulled his sword from its scabbard.  “Quiet, wench!” he shouted, “Or I’ll have your tongue out!”

But the woman laughed all the harder, and so the king raised his sword to strike at her.  But as soon as he took one step, he was thrown back with great force as the beams of the sun blossomed into a great light.

The woman stood, and her bearing was regal and terrible to behold.  “Take care with your deeds, child of Man.” the woman said, her voice aglow with the power of command.  “You chide defenseless women for their harmless mirth, and think to raise blades against them.  All the while, your brother the Winter King lies at the door of death in his northern fortress.  Mend your ways, foolish man, or I and my sisters will take you away into great light and heat, and you will surely die.”

It was then that the Summer King saw the wonder before him, as though he had never seen before.  This was a White Woman, come to herald great woe.

The Summer King rose to one knee, bowing his head and making a sign to ward off evil intentions.  “Forgive me, my lady.”

“If your brother the Winter King should die by your deeds or your negligence, know that all his folk and all yours too shall melt like the snows melt with the dawning of spring.  You have been warned.”  The White Woman turned, and all the light in the garden dimmed as she left.  Alone with his thoughts, the Summer King hied himself to his castle, there to meet with his council and to make ready his plans.

When he reached the great hall, his champion saw that he was distraught, and said “My liege!  Show me the foe, and I will take their heads and lay them at your feet!” Thinking that the Winter King and his armies had come raiding through the storms.

His master of trade reached for his tallies, lamenting.  “Have they damaged the roadways in their descent?”

His judge, recalling his precedents, shook his bearded head.  “The Winter Peace is broken.  The people of Winter must pay!”

And the fool, who wanders from Kingdom to Kingdom at a whim to bring news and secrets, was silent because he had heard nothing of this treachery.

“Fools!” the Summer King said, his great voice booming off the walls.  “My brother lies in his bed, sick unto death from starvation.  I cannot sit by and allow him to die, though long have I cursed his every breath.”

And so the Summer King and his court gathered up many of their provisions, and piled them high on great sleds.  They hitched mighty oxen to the sleds, and set out with great haste for the Winter Kingdom.

The winds and snows vanished before them as they rode, their sleds going faster and faster with every league.  As they drove, the Summer King felt a great joy seize his heart, and as he began to laugh the sun began to shine brighter.

Soon the sleds flew over the earth like birds, and the Summer King’s laughter could be heard far and wide.  They came to the gates of the Winter Castle and smote upon the door three times.  “We bring gifts!” The Summer King cried, mirth in every word.  “We bring salvation!”

The people of the Winter Kingdom were amazed when they opened the door, for the Summer King shone like the sun, and his mead glittered like gold as it splashed upon the floor.  The Summer King went to his brother, who drank from the Summer King’s own horn, and as he did the Summer King bellowed laughter and spoke.  “It is an ill omen that kin should come to blows.  Drink, brother!  Remember the summer you have lost, and let us know peace.”

And so the Winter and Summer Kings feasted in the Winter King’s own hall in the midst of winter.  The snows returned, but they were easier to bear with the Summer King’s provisions.

And after many months, when summer reached its height, the Winter King gave charge of his kingdom to his castellan.  “I owe my brother a great debt, and you must guard this land until I return.”

And the Winter King piled his own wagons high with the work of his finest craftsmen, and with the written histories of his wisest elders, and set out for the Summer Kingdom.  There he met with his brother the Summer King, saying “The land yields great riches when kin are at peace.  Take these gifts, my brother.  Store them against the coming winter, and let us know peace.”

And since those days, the Kingdoms of Winter and Summer have lived in peace in their mountain lands.  The fates decide which kingdom shall reign with the coming of each new season, and each comes to bow before the sovereignty of the other.  Their lands know great peace, and woe betide any who should seek to disturb them.

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