Winter was the bejewelling of Temsevar, its crystalline magnificence turning even the most sordid and mean peasant’s wooden hovel into a glittering palace of diamond. The snows softened the harshness, smoothing all into a glorious billowed largesse of white. From every branch and twig, every roof and casement, every eave and doorway, came the glitter of silver icicles, their growth arrested every night and scarcely allowed under the scant warmth of the red sun each narrow day.
Every ugliness was made mild by the glory of a shimmering white crown, every roughness made smooth and the uneven made plain. The winter was levelling, but it levelled in a way that paid vast tribute to the might of the elements. Rich and poor alike were equal before the onslaught, for both could share in the splendour which outshone the most regal opulence of the greatest noble. To watch the sun rise, blood red over the virgin white and silver landscape, washing it with a mystical ruby glow, was to be awed and left with wonder. To trace the pearlescent shimmer of the twin moons over the snow, where the whiteness caught and reflected back to the darkened sky the moist brilliance, until even the night might seem to dazzle, was to feel one had walked, waking, in a dreamscape or broken through to some celestial realm of deity.
But the beauty, if free, was also lethal. The cold wore down the resistance of the weak and made them prey to illness or starvation and the frozen ground would not open to bury the dead, who were burned in high pyres on the ice, in batches like cakes.
Here the rich and the poor parted company, for the wealthy had portals against death in the cold. They had piles of wood to burn, stores of bottled, dried and salted food, they had flour to bake with and flesh to cook. Not for them the privations of starvation in the snow-stricken land. A house could be counted wealthy by the fire that burned in its hearth, driving back the demons of cold and darkness. Even the meanest hovel that could light a fire all day was accounted rich when the chilling shroud of snow and ice descended.
It was in the winter that those who were free-born and poverty stricken would envy the enslaved. For, worth money and offering labour, even the most meanly treated slave could expect to be kept warm and fed through the White Moons, where their free-born cousins could hope no more than that this winter might be light and their meagre stores of food and fuel might not be gone before the thaw. What value was freedom when the cost was one’s life or the lives of one’s children?
So winter was the glory of Temsevar and its greatest influence. Without it, perhaps the slave economy might have evolved and changed, but with it – and the utter dependence it brought of the weak upon the strong – the frozen arms of ice which embraced Temsevar for two-thirds of the year, also embraced the culture and values of its people, freezing them into patterns as cold and merciless as the brutal winter itself.
The ice cracked the marrow from the bone of the planet, riving rock and stripping life from the land, animal and vegetable. The rivers froze solid and the seas slowed as if sleeping and then surrendered to the embrace of ice. Only the hardiest in nature could survive and most of the larger animals only lived by entering the deep sleep of hibernation through the worst of the cold moons. You would not see tizarts playing in the snow or find therloons leaving ice-tracks under the twin moons.
Most people dreaded the onset of winter as much as they dreaded the onset of old age. For the annual revisiting of the Great White was a similar experience – the pace of life became slow and painful, cold and bleak. In the great Halls, poets would pass the wine, mulled with the herbs and berries of the autumn and sing with lysigal of the great deeds that had been done that summer and would be contemplated the next. But elsewhere, it was as though the planet slept and its people dreamed beneath the alluring counterpane of snow, fringed with its tassels of ice and embroidered with frost.