Everwood Keep was nestled in the forests far north of the Capital in the lands where the sun never rose in the wintertime and the stars glowed boastfully at night. It was a small enough settlement that cartographers normally neglected to put it on their maps. Those that did were seen as sticklers.
The inhabitants of Everwood Keep made a living from trading away their smoked meats, fresh salmon, and rare furs in exchange for large sacks of flour, coffee beans, and vegetables, brought by merchants visiting in the summertime.
These men would venture deep into the forest by means of a trail that seemed to go out of its way to pass through rocky mountains with steep cliffs and overhangs. While the journey was manageable at best during the summertime, it became a death sentence by late autumn.
Around that time, winter would step in protectively like a shepherd dog, shielding the settlement from the rest of the world with howling snowstorms and a biting chill. During these winters, Everwood Keep would have seemed like an abandoned village overrun by the elements, were it not for the loud gurgling of cauldrons boiling elk stew and the sizzling of falling snow as it met hot chimney smoke.
There had only ever been one wintertime visitor to Everwood Keep, a strange figure who arrived several centuries ago, back when the forests around the village were frequented by pale men with long ears and old women with pointy, wide-brimmed hats. The mysterious visitor - who supposedly arrived to the village wearing a full suit of armor - claimed that one day, warmth would unexpectedly come to Everwood Keep in the middle of winter by means of an adventurer from the south arriving amidst hail and snow.
The legend was eventually proven both right and wrong when not one, but three adventurers, arrived in Everwood Keep in the span of one winter.
The first man to arrive came not by land but by sea, a tremendous feat given Everwood Keep’s nearby rocky shores, which were inhospitable enough to deter sailors from docking even in the summertime. Shocked to see a tall, thin stranger wandering their town with a large knapsack, the villagers rushed the man - who was evidently quite wealthy given his fine leather boots and well-trimmed beard - to the town hall to hear what he had to say.
“Good people of Everwood Keep,” the rich man began in the tired tone of one carrying a heavy burden. “In my youth, I made a fortune from mining gold in the Summer Islands and shipping it to jewelers in foreign lands.”
“But I have seen this wealth go to waste,” the rich man continued. “My children spend a month’s honest wages on a night of drinking and whoring. And my wife, meanwhile, well… it is best that I don’t even discuss that. My point is that surely, this wealth could be enjoyed by others less fortunate and more deserving.”
The rich man then opened his knapsack to reveal over a dozen gold bars, each large enough to buy several large plots of fertile farmland in the Riverlands. Solemnly, he took one of the gold bars and carefully placed it in the hands of a puzzled villager. “This is for you all to use for the betterment of Everwood Keep. The rest of the gold, I must give to the other hopelessly impoverished villages around this kingdom to reduce the appalling amounts of suffering that they also must face.”
Unsure of whether to be insulted or grateful, the villagers bowed hesitantly. The rich man then stood up with his chin raised high and began to walk out of the hall with the gait of one who was proud to do his duty.
But the villagers stopped the man and insisted that he spend some more time in the village, at least until the blizzard abated somewhat. In response, the rich man shook his head gravely. “The greatest good for the greatest number. That is all my life is dedicated to now. Anything else is a frivolous waste of time.”
And with that, he set out for his boat, never to be seen again by the villagers of Everwood Keep. They didn’t have the heart to tell the rich man that, in this part of the world, gold was about as useful as a sack of melting ice.
A few weeks later, a second man arrived by horse through the traditional overland route through the forest. With the second man’s distinguished hawk-like features and his curly red hair, it came to no surprise to the villagers that the middle aged man was a duke from the King’s court.
“I had to see it for myself,” the duke said, still shivering as he warmed his hands around the large fireplace in the town hall. “How the people in the north live and how neglected you all are by our kingdom. For years, we haven’t lifted a finger to maintain your roads, thus leaving you all to fend for yourself alone in the wintertime.”
“For that, I apologize on behalf of the King himself,” the duke said, shaking his head in guilt. “By spring of next year, I will allocate the necessary funds to build a sturdy stone road that will connect Everwood Keep to the rest of the world, even during wintertime.”
The room erupted in raucous applause and cheers. Some of the villagers lifted the duke up onto their shoulders while others brought out a barrel of whiskey that they had been saving for a special occasion.
There was much singing and dancing that night to honor the goodwill of the duke and his commitment to the people of Everwood Keep. By the end of the night, the duke’s back was sore from all the hearty slaps on the back that he had received from the drunken villagers.
But unfortunately for the people of Everwood Keep, the stone road never came to fruition.
Concerned about the duke’s growing legislative momentum, a court rival recommended that the plans for the stone road be subject to environmental review, a process that would take several years if not decades to complete. Winter, it seemed, would forever have its iceclad grip on Everwood Keep.
But news of the duke’s failure would not be known to those in Everwood Keep until the following summer. And so during that winter, the villagers saw the legend as having been fulfilled. Warmth, they believed, would finally be brought to the village through the steady stream of supplies that would soon arrive by means of the stone road.
So when the third man arrived in Everwood Keep, the villagers would have greeted him with much less attention and maybe even some indifference if it weren’t for the fact that the man arrived half-dead, slumped on his trusty horse, which had miraculously navigated its way into the village.
With the young man’s shallow heartbeat and his disturbingly blue toes, he would have been a dead man - or at the very least a permanently limping man - had he arrived anywhere except the village of Everwood Keep whose villagers were well-acquainted with winter’s ailments. For the rest of that night, the villagers soaked the young man’s hands and feet in warm buckets of water while they applied a wet washcloth to his face and ears.
Thanks to the wisdom of the villagers, the young man - who couldn’t have been more than twenty - was nursed back to full health within the fortnight. Naturally, the villagers adamantly refused to let the young man take the road back south until the birds returned to sing their morning songs, heralding the end of winter.
Before long, the young man became immersed into the winter routines of Everwood Keep. During the day, he went out into the woods with the village men to chop firewood and to check for squirrels and rabbits caught in traps. And in the evenings, the young man sat huddled in thick fur coats with the other villagers his age, playing dice games and listening to gossip exchanged amongst the others between eager sips of hot water.
By the time spring emerged from its slumber, it hardly occurred to the young man that it was time to leave the village, given his eagerness to learn about fishing and the process of filleting and smoking the fish thereafter.
And when spring eventually bloomed into summer, the young man found that it was a similarly poor time to leave Everwood Keep, given all the excitement from the many merchants and adventurers who came into the village during the summertime.
It was only when the leaves on the forest floor began to outnumber those aboveground that the young man looked around at the majestic mountains surrounding the village and breathed in the crisp air that smelled of briny ocean salt and pine needles, realizing that he would be the luckiest man in the world if he lived out the rest of his days in Everwood Keep.
And the young man was right.
He would eventually win the heart of the baker’s youngest daughter whose hazelnut green eyes were the color of the pine trees just outside the cabin the young man built with his own hands. And over time, he would eventually become the most skilled fisherman in the village, but not the wealthiest one, given his tendency to share his stores of smoked fish with the less fortunate.
Many years later, the villagers of Everwood Keep weren’t quite sure what to make of the legend of the wintertime visitor and its promise of warmth. After all, not much had changed since that unusual winter.
The merchant’s gold bar, once glistening, was now almost gray, given the thick layers of dust it had accumulated in the attic of the town hall. And the duke’s promise, meanwhile, had become an inside joke amongst the villagers. It was now common to attribute unexplained loud noises in the forest to the construction of the duke’s stone road.
But if one were to walk towards the north end of the village, just past the dirt path that winds downhill to the river bank, you’ll pass by the cabin of the young man and his family. More likely than not, you’ll hear sounds of playful laughter coming from his young children or you’ll smell the sweet scent of caramelized apples being baked in buttery pie crust.
If you’re lucky enough to be seen by the young man or his wife, they’ll call out to you through their kitchen window, insisting that you come inside for some freshly made pie and piping-hot coffee. Naturally, you’ll make a show of a polite refusal, despite knowing all too well that with the family’s insistence and the scent of wafting cinnamon in the air, your choice has already been made.
Only later, once you’re on your way back home with a full stomach and leftovers in hand, will you smile to yourself, realizing that perhaps Everwood Keep had gotten warmer after all.
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A beautiful, heartfelt, and relatable story on many fronts