It's a listening time of year. Most of the world is asleep, and the sounds the earth makes while She sleeps are different. For a while, in the cold heart of the winter, She sleeps alone; if you listen carefully, you can hear her restless turning, a discontented sigh as She reaches for her consort, the murmur of loss when She finds Him missing. And, finally, the sound the reunited lovers make when They find one another once more in the long dark, and spoon together to wait for the return of the light.

Read or listen to Jennifer Stevenson's wonderful story 'Solstice' for a musician's eye view of this scenario. I am told this is our first ever original fiction -- although, truth to tell, I am not at all sure it is fiction, and not a first hand account. Go read it right now, and see if it doesnt strike the chord of truth in your heart.

Back now? Grand, wasn't it? The reader's Jennifer herself!

You know, it's hard enough to tell fact from fiction around here anyway, and this time of year it's especially confusing. With so much asleep, the more subtle sounds of the world come through more clearly: the voices we seldom hear in the roar and rise of Spring, or the long ripening hum of the Summer. Some of these voices come in with our Winter guests, of course, the guests who only come in at all to get out of the cold. The rest of the year we only meet them in the gardens, or maybe indulging in a pint in the courtyard of the Pub. They've got no use for roofs until the snow flies.

One of the odder ones is The Old Man. Which old man? Jack Merry, my whispering informant when I wanted to know who the big old gent in the corner of the bar was, just calls him that: The Old Man, with audible capitals. And then Jack grinned, but he grins at a lot of our more outré guests. Jack likes having reality and myth dance haul and toe around here, I think.

Anyway, The Old Man. He turned up just after Samhain, and for the longest time he was one of our courtyard regulars. I used to meet him round the bonfires when we were hauling the pruned scrap in from the gardens: tall and broad, with a slouch hat hiding his eyes in a battered, gallant way. The birds liked him, I remember that. We used to see him with a bird on each shoulder sometimes, ducking the smoke from his pipe. While his hair is quite white, his face is still smooth -- or as much as one can see of it, between a truly magnificent beard and that hat.

Jack insists he wears an eye patch, but I've never actually seen both his eyes at once -- which is just as well, as Jack also insists the eye patch changes sides! I asked Jack if it was ever in the center of the Old Man's forehead, meaning it as a joke, and Jack actually looked thoughtful. 'Who knows?' he said then. 'Can you trade your third eye for wisdom?'

'What, you think he's Odin?' scoffed I.

And our Jacky just shook his head. 'Old Man Winter, Old Man Trouble, Odin All-Father -- who knows?'

'Maybe he's Santa Claus!'

'Can't be,' put in Reynard then from over the bar. 'There's a whole Guild of them, and they meet in the back room here every Wednesday through the winter.'

I never know when those two are kidding. I don't think they do, either. But the Old Man, whatever he is, is a well-enough spoken fellow. He's got a voice like a river in the dark, deep and dark and somehow sweet. A good voice to listen to, in the winter darkness, especially in a warm bar with a drink in your hands. And calm just radiates off him, like cold off a stone in the frost: but not chilling.

He may not be Santa Claus, but I wouldn't mind sitting in his lap and asking for a story. He looks like he needs a fresh drink just now. Maybe I'll give it a try.