The lights gradually brighten outward from a fireplace with a fire burning in it (stage right), as though expanding from the flames, to reveal Belladonna's sitting room. Belladonna is here, dressed in a plain but noble gown. She is weaving upon a hand loom in a chair set near the fire, facing the audience. On a stool to her left sits her Handmaiden, clad in servant's garb, who is spinning a basket of wool into yarn for her mistress.

Elidir:

From offstage

Mother! Mother!

Belladonna:

Children are a blessing.

Handmaiden:

Yes, my lady.

Belladonna:

We must strive to remember this.

Handmaiden:

Yes, my lady.

Elidir:

From offstage

Mother!

Belladonna:

Here, my son. I am waiting for your father by the fire.

Enter Elidir (stage left), a finely-dressed boy in his teenage years surrounded with a sense of energy and purpose. He crosses to Belladonna, who puts her weaving aside and opens her arms to embrace him, laughing.

Belladonna:

Why do you sing out as if harried, little sparrow? Is the war come now to our castle by the sea? Are we besieged by all the wolves and foxes of the great, dark wood at last?

Elidir:

No, mother—only a soldier, say the guards.

Belladonna:

Ah. So it is the war, come here now to find us all alone, without your father. Such a bloody business takes up a life of its own as others are spent into it, like fine grapes into wine, and cannot be satisfied with my lord alone.

Enter the Guard (stage left), a grizzled veteran of middle years who wears his armor as if it ill befits him, but carries himself upright and with strength. He has a spear in his left hand, with which he bangs upon the stage to announce himself and his guest.

Guard:

My lady, a soldier has come from the war to see you.

Belladonna:

What does he want with me, but tidings from my husband? Send him to me, then, and let us hear his news.

Guard:

Yes, my lady.

Exit the Guard (stage left), and enter the Messenger, who carries no standard now, but bears Daibhidh's shield upon his arm, covered with a cloth.

Belladonna:

You have come from the war?

Messenger:

Yes, my lady.

Belladonna:

And how fares the struggle, king's man?

Messenger:

He pauses

It fares well, my lady, as such things may go well, for war is never good, and so, cannot be better, or at least not better than bad, and that is never good.

Belladonna:

You speak the truth, if strangely! Could you speak more plainly now, since I feel as though the years have passed in number whilst I followed the thread of your meaning with my tired wits through your labyrinthine telling of it? I think that now we are nearly old friends!

Messenger:

I shall endeavor, my lady.

Belladonna:

Come! Sit here by the fire and take Winter's chill from your bones. You have traveled far, and no good can come of such a journey on the heels of autumn's ending.

Messenger:

No, my lady.

Belladonna:

No?

Messenger:

War is a cold business, and it is my business now.

Belladonna:

Then speak your business, that you may clear the ice from 'round it and, perhaps, find warmth in deeds well done.

Messenger:

Send out your child, then, my lady, and we will speak of ice and war.

Belladonna:

If I sent away the children, you would go, too, for you could only see a summer on my son, sir. Indeed, how did you find your way to war, for my lord took vows in decades past that he would never rob a cradle to fill a suit of armor.

Messenger:

I have never served with my Lord of Carradale, my lady, but under Cormag of Glenbarr across the wood, and it is from him I have come.

Belladonna:

How queer! Then I shall humor you, and if it is good news I shall laugh indeed that my son's ears are spared, and if it is not, then I shall thank you. Go, Elidir, and make of yourself a useful boy at some task to which your father would put you, were he here.

Elidir:

Yes, mother.

Belladonna:

And go you after him, my dear, to see that he shirks at nothing which you might find yourself at on another day.

Handmaiden:

Yes, my lady.

Exit Elidir and the Handmaiden (stage left). Belladonna rises and moves to stand with her back to the fire, casting her face into shadow.

Belladonna:

Now, herald of Glenbarr, let us hear it, let us have it all. I have sent away all ears that might grow faint from tales of bloody business, and wait with eager ears myself to hear what news you bear from my lord's friend across the way.

Messenger:

It is not good.

Belladonna:

Teasingly

We are losing? Ah, but that is no care to us here! An army of armies could not breach that moat which encircles all our land, and casts its foamy fingers up across the deeps that wait, their jaws agape, to end the life of all who trespass. Fear you for me, alone in my tower, as for some storybook princess? If so, then fear you not, for my prince will come back to me soon.

Messenger:

It is worse than that.

Belladonna:

Suspiciously

My lord has called for more? More men from the fields, from the harvest? More boys from their beds, from their place near mothers whose husbands have gone? More plowshares gone to swords and worse, to be trampled down into the frost that threatens to consume a dying summer?

Messenger:

Worse still.

Belladonna:

She grows desperate, as though she is afraid she has guessed the truth already, and hopes reality might turn aside if it is provided with enough excuses

So, then… The war will last through Winter, and no man shall see the turning of the year in view of his own hearth, and more will perish. Will my lord then be returned to me, ere I wither from his absence? Oh, for their lives, the lives a thousand thousands, who shall fall in the dead of Winter, with none to hear their screams above the thunder of their widows' weeping! Shall all the seas of all the world be made red and never come clean again?

The Messenger solemnly hands Daibhidh's shield to Belladonna, who takes it as though she is afraid it might bite her. With trembling hands, she pulls the cover from the shield, and stares at its crest, paralyzed, as if into the face of Hell.

Belladonna:

In a dead-sounding voice

This is my lord husband's crest. It is upon his shield.

Messenger:

Yes, my lady.

Belladonna:

He carries it always with him, at his side, to gird him from the slings and arrows of his foes.

Messenger:

Yes, my lady.

Belladonna:

How is it that it is not with him now?

Messenger:

My Lord Cormag has said that you should have it.

Belladonna:

Menacingly

And who is Cormag, that my husband's shield is his to give to whom he will?

Messenger:

It is your husband's shield no longer, his crest no longer. They are yours.

Belladonna:

But surely—

Messenger:

Surely not.

Belladonna:

You must—

Messenger:

I mustn't.

Belladonna:

He can't be—

Messenger:

He is. Cut down by the enemy, says my lord, and fought and died with honor, a king's man and an officer. My lord was with him, in the snow, and bade me bring you this.

Belladonna:

Incredulously

He bade you bring me sorrow? He bade you bring me death? He bade you cast a spear into my soul?

Messenger:

No one would believe a crow.

Belladonna drops the shield as if burnt by it, drawing away from the Messenger as though he has become a specter of death. The lights dim, by degrees, until the room is just dark enough that shadows lurk unpleasantly, like goblins, in the corners.

Belladonna:

Say it is not so, sir!

Messenger:

I cannot say it is not so, when it is so, and so, so it is.

Belladonna:

Say it is not so!

Messenger:

I cannot say it is not so, when I am wed unto the truth by this token—

He indicates Daibhidh's shield

—this oath of mine to justice.

Belladonna:

Interrupting

I beg you again, sir, to say it is not so, for if, in truth, a truth it be, then the soul of my mortal hand may rise up in rebellion 'gainst the frail and fragile arm from which it hangs, and drive the dagger of my despair deep into my dying heart, and wrench free the tortured spirit within that wicked organ, that instrument of deception, that vile vessel within which lies truth benighted, to fly free into fire and lonesome darkness, forever exiled from this hateful realm of light and color, where the living walk about cast in invisible chains and, with false and brittle visage, pass off as gaiety the viscid thunder that rumbles in the corners of their base and vicious souls!

She kneels and interlaces her fingers as if to pray

So let me crawl to you on these knees of mine, these excellent devices, gifts from God for such loathsome work as this, and supplicate myself, so that you should not again breathe upon me the icy message of my sweetest sorrow; and let me, prostrate and in need of a stranger's kindness, of that strangest kindness, beg of you to say it is not so!

Messenger:

If it is not so, then spring and glory will soon again walk the halls of this esteeméd bastion, and warm its gray and harrowed stones as though with all the light of all the dawns and noons of all an age. But Winter, vengeful shrew and hater of life and joy, is coming here, and the darkest eve that witch can conjure shall soon, I fear, descend. Gird well the fragile blossoms of what gladness now remains, and bank you not the fires that are built to shield you now from cold, for Winter is coming here, my lady, clad in white and with a black cloak close behind her, reaping sorrow in her wake.

The lights begin to dim, and three heavy, echoing knocks are heard.

Belladonna:

What black and callous spirit knocks without upon the hour of my weeping?

The lights dim further, rapidly fading towards total blackout, until Belladonna and the Messenger are illuminated together by only a single downlight. The knocking is heard again.

Messenger:

Winter is here.

Blackout. Winter's haunting, echoing laugh is heard rolling softly from the darkness as the curtain descends. End of Scene III.

End of Act I.