THE SNOW QUEEN
A FAIRYTALE IN SE7EN STORIES
STORY THE FOU4TH
AND THE PRINCESS
Gerda trudged along the bleak autumn landscape, becoming more wet and miserable with each passing mile. She needed to rest, and thus, she sat down on a boulder in the shade of a large oak. As she sat there, wondering if she ever would see Kai again, a large wild raven landed a few paces away from her and began pecking at the frozen ground.
Gerda stared at the raven, and it cocked its head to one side and stared back with one beady eye.
"Caawr! Caawr! You look sad." The raven spoke in a rough, croaky voice, but it didn't sound unfriendly.
"I'm cold and so tired," replied Gerda wearily, "and I can't find my friend Kai."
"Tell me about your friend," rasped Hugin, the raven.
Once again, Gerda told her whole sorry tale. The raven cawed and croaked in sympathy at certain points: during Kai's change of heart and his disappearance, and when she fled the garden of eternal springtime.
"I don't suppose you have seen Kai, have you?" asked Gerda, trying not to sound too desperate.
"Could be I have!"
"You have?" Gerda jumped up to her feet in excitement as the raven spoke.
"Now don't be too hasty," advised her new friend. "Let me tell you what I know. I don't suppose you speak crow, do you?"
"I'll just have to do my best — your human language is so difficult with a beak for a mouth! Let's eat something before I begin — you look starved." With that, Hugin hopped a few paces and plucked a chunk of white bread from behind the oak trunk.
"I stole this earlier today," the raven said, closing and opening his right eye in the semblance of a wink. "But I can always get more — you need it more than I."
"Oh, thank you," Gerda replied, moved by this simple act of thoughtfulness. "You are so kind, and I haven't eaten for ages..."
"Don't cry, Miss," said the raven in as gentle a croak as he could manage. "Let me tell you a story I know — maybe we can find your friend."
Trying her best to smile, Gerda nodded for the raven to continue.
"The ruler of this land is a princess. She is the cleverest, wittiest, prettiest princess in the north. The princess loves to read; she reads book after book and learns so many interesting things — although most of them she forgets the moment she puts the book down. She reads her books, and then chats excitedly about the things she has read with her ladies-in-waiting. She even reads the newspapers and talks about that. But the ladies just giggle and agree with her — they are only interested in dresses and perfume, and have heads full of air.
Six months ago, the princess decided she had had enough of this. What she needed, she decided, was a husband. She needed someone of equal wit and knowledge to talk to her intelligently and keep her company through the long, cold winters.
But how could she find the ideal companion? When she was little, the princess only had the other wealthy children to play with, and most of them were a bit dim, to be quite honest.
No, she wanted a true prince: dashing, brave, intelligent, able to lead the armies to victory in case of war and to patronize the arts during peacetime. Long story short; a prince such as she, knowing all the eligible bachelors of every royal house in the continent, had never seen.
Yet she did not despair at all to find what she desired, determined as she was not to stop at the conditions and to choose, no matter in which rank, a spouse worthy of her.
Then the princess had a great idea. She would put an advertisement in the newspaper. She knew from reading them that newspapers had all sorts of adverts, and she was sure she remembered seeing ones from people who were looking for a boyfriend or a husband."
The raven paused a moment and fixed Gerda with his staring eye. She smiled nervously.
"You don't think I'm making this up, do you?" he asked.
"No!" protested Gerda, "why should I?"
"Well... lots of people think we ravens are like our relatives, crows or magpies, for example, and that all corvids steal and lie all the time. But we are an honorable and decent species. In fact, I descend from Odin's world-watchers."
"I never thought otherwise," Gerda reassured him, "I'm sure your story is from someone's very trustworthy."
"It is," confirmed Hugin proudly. "You see, I heard it from my own sweetheart!"
"Your sweetheart?" asked Gerda. "Is she a female raven too?"
"Oh yes," he replied, "we birds of a feather always flock and stick together. My Munin is a royal pet, a tame raven, not the wild woodland sort like myself, but she has the most beautiful tail feathers in the kingdom, with that sapphire gleam..." Hugin coughed and looked down, a bit embarrassed.
Gerda smiled. "And how did your sweetheart hear the news?"
"Well," the wild raven continued, "being a royal pet, she spends much of her time at the windows of the palace, hunting for scraps. And she picks up some tasty morsels and some even tastier gossip."
Gerda laughed; already the raven was making her feel happier. "Please go on with the story," she urged her feathered friend.
"Yes, yes, the story..."
"Within a day or two of the princess's idea, an enormous advertisement appeared in the newspapers, taking up a whole page. It had a border designed by the court artist, decked with flower garlands and flaming hearts, and the princess's initials at the bottom. In her own flourishing calligraphy, she announced:
"The princess of this land does hereby invite any young man of good character to attend her at court and attempt to win her hand in marriage. Whoever impresses the princess most with their wit, knowledge, and discourse will henceforward carry the title of Prince Consort."
For, as I have said before, looks and wealth were of no interest to the princess.
The interviews lasted days — you've never seen such a queue as formed outside the palace gates. All the fine young men of the land turned up, full of brave talk and dressed in their finery, but none of them could win the princess. All the boys could strut like cockerels outside the gates, but as soon as they entered the palace and saw the gold-liveried footmen and the imposing guards in their silver and blue uniforms, they clammed up. Tongue-tied they were, every one of them, barely managing to grunt a reply to the princess's questions. Like the foolish ladies-in-waiting, they just nodded dumbly or repeated the princess's own words."
The raven paused for a nibble of breadcrumbs and a drink from a nearby brook as Gerda protested with his long-winded ways:
"But what has all of this got to do with Kai?"
"I'm coming to that, don't worry," Hugin assured her, "but we must set the scene first. A storyteller must never leap straight to the main action, or the tale would be over in a moment!"
"It was the tenth week of the contest. The princess, by now, was getting terribly bored of all these tongue-tied young men. She wondered whether the wedding she dreamed of would ever happen. The space outside the palace gates was still packed with carriages full of hopeful suitors with their retinues. Then one candidate arrived with no need for fancy carriages and footmen in livery. In he strolled, wearing a plain coat, and carrying nothing but a small cloth bundle on his back. His eyes were bright — like yours, Gerda — and his hair was brown and thick and curling around his neck."
"It was Kai!" shouted Gerda, unable to control herself, "it must have been — the bundle would be his sled!"
"Well," cautioned the raven, "let's not be too excited until we know for sure. What I do know is that..."
"This young man wasn't put off at all by the guards and footmen and ornate iron gates. He nodded to the guards, and cheekily told them he wouldn't want their job, standing around in hot uniforms all day! He strolled straight into the palace, through the halls blazing with lights, and up the stairs. The servants were struck down at his nonchalance, and all you could hear was the squeaking of his boots."
"Why it must be Kai," Gerda interrupted, "his granny bought him new Wellingtons for Christmas, just before he left. I remember them squeaking in the kitchen."
"Hrrmpph," coughed the raven, not liking to be interrupted again.
"Well, they certainly squeaked."
"I heard that first-hand from my sweetheart. To continue..." he fixed Gerda with a beady eye, daring her to interrupt again, but she nodded for him to carry on.
"The princess was sitting in the Great Hall in a chair made especially for the occasion; shaped like an oyster and inlaid with pearls. All her courtiers and ladies-in-waiting, and all their footmen and maids, were lining the walls of the hall. The young man walked through the crowd with not a care, smiling and nodding pleasantly at all who caught his eye. At last he stood before the princess; she looked radiant, her long golden hair washed and combed, her lashes fluttering above her sparkling eyes."
"If I weren't a raven, I might have..." Hugin broke off at a cough from Gerda.
"Yes, well, she looked splendid at any rate. There followed an hour of the most brilliant and witty conversation. Every remark of the princess's drew a reply from the young man, usually embellished with a compliment. He was brilliant — "
" — reminded me a little of myself when I wooed my Munin in our native tongue."
"Oh, I'm so sure it must be Kai," sighed Gerda, ignoring the raven's boasting. "He was always so clever."
"Did the young man do fractions in his head, or draw diagrams?"
"Not that I remember," replied the raven hesitantly, not really sure of what Gerda was talking about.
"And did he win the princess?" Gerda asked.
"He did, indeed, and they were married soon after, and live in the palace together, and like each other very much."
"Oh, please, please take me there," pleaded Gerda desperately. "I must see Kai, and I'm sure she wants to see me."
The raven hesitated.
"That's easier said than done. Look at you — no shoes, grubby dress. I really don't think you would be allowed in the palace."
"But if he knew it was me, Kai would never turn me away," protested Gerda.
"Yes. but how would he know you were there?" Hugin asked.
Gerda could see he was right, and she started to cry again.
"I'll tell you what, Miss," the wild raven said at last, for he hated to see the little girl, whom he had come to like very much, upset again. "I'll have a word with my sweetheart. She often talks of ways even into the very secret parts of the palace that no one else knows about. Maybe she can help. Wait here and I'll be back before dark."
Gerda wiped away her tears and smiled at the raven.
"Thank you," she whispered.
True to his word, the raven returned just before sundown. Thoughtfully, he had brought some more bread from the palace kitchens.
"My sweetheart sends you her warmest regards; she was touched by your tale, and she thinks she can help. She can easily steal the key to a little door in a walled garden. The key also opens the door to a secret back staircase which will lead you directly into the princess's apartments, which she now shares with her prince."
Gerda and Hugin covered the short distance to the palace in no time, so keen was Gerda to see Kai again. Instead of approaching the gate, they followed the wall around the back, and waited by a small door half-hidden in ivy until the palace settled for the evening. Gerda watched the last of the autumn leaves drifting to the ground as they fell from the almost bare branches.
She was nervous now. Was it very wrong to steal a key and creep into the royal palace like a thief? If it was only to find someone dear, did that mean it was not a crime?
What if Kai wasn't pleased to see her? Surely when he heard of all the trouble she had taken to follow him and find him, they would hug each other and be friends again.
Gerda shivered, partly from the cold and partly from fear and expectation.
The lights in the palace dimmed one by one. When only the night-lights remained, Gerda and the raven knocked gently on the door. It opened, and a smaller female raven stood inside, hopping excitedly from one leg to another.
"I have been so looking forward to seeing you!" she squawked. "You have managed to quite charm this ruffian!" The look she gave the woodland raven gave the lie to her calling him a ruffian. "Your story was most moving, and we will do all we can to help."
"Thank you, you are too kind," replied Gerda. "And your fiancé was right — you are a very beautiful raven!" she added. If she could blush through black feathers, the palace raven would have done so.
Gerda took the small lamp the royal pet had carried for her, and followed the two sweethearts into the palace. They wound down corridor after corridor until Gerda was sure that they were lost. They passed storerooms and broom cupboards, and a vast kitchen with delicious smells and a fat, snoring cook. At last, they stopped by a small green door.
"Here we are," whispered the tame raven. "No more noise, we are in the living quarters now."
As Gerda turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door, she felt a rush of air, and shadows leapt in the lamplight. Gerda gasped; the shadows were people running and horses rearing; courting couples and fierce huntsmen.
"Don't be afraid," Munin said, sensing Gerda's fear. "These are just the shadows of the dreams of the sleeping courtiers. They cannot harm you while you are still awake."
Gerda shivered and mounted the staircase. Another door at the top opened onto a grand corridor with a rich, red carpet and fine velvet hangings on the walls.
She followed the ravens down the corridor and through a beautiful drawing-room full of expensive furniture and lined with portraits of beautiful ladies and stern old gentlemen. Each room they passed seemed grander than the last, and Gerda was overwhelmed by the size and grandeur of the palace. She was relieved when they came, at last, into a blue bedroom at the end of the most gaily decorated corridor of all.
It was as if Gerda was standing under a giant fruit-tree; the roof of the bedchamber was painted with interweaving branches, and the fruits on those branches were tiny crystal lights — although of course they were not lit so late at night. In the centre of the room was a sturdy pillar reaching to the ceiling to form the trunk of the tree, and two exquisite canopied beds hung from the trunk. Each bed had a sleeper covered by an eiderdown in the semblance of gilded leaves. Gerda approached the white bed — in it lay a beautiful blonde-haired girl, delicate and small-boned like a porcelain doll. The other bed was ruby-red; heart beating, Gerda turned back the cover — a mass of light brown or auburn hair rested on the pillow. Gerda gasped, her eyes filled with tears, and the sleeper awoke.
It was not Kai. The prince was a handsome young man, like her friend, but only his hair was like Kai's. The princess, too, awoke, and sleepily asked what was happening.
For the third time since she left home, Gerda told of her adventures, interrupted only every now and then by the odd croak of agreement from the ravens. Gerda spoke through tears, after her fierce disappointment at discovering that the prince was not Kai. For all her misery, Gerda praised the kindliness of the ravens, for she remembered that they shouldn't really be here, and didn't want them to be punished for helping her.
The princess, who was wise and kind, and the prince, who was brave and well-mannered, were full of sympathy for Gerda, and they promised to help her in the morning.
"But first," insisted the princess, "you must sleep in a warm bed."
"Take mine," offered the prince, for he was a young man of noble heart, if not noble birth.
"And I shall have someone bring you some hot chocolate to help you sleep," said the princess soothingly.
"And what of you two?" asked the prince looking sternly at the ravens. "Breaking into the palace in the dead of night — we could have you executed!"
"Oh no!" protested Gerda. "It was all my fault..."
The prince interrupted her with a chuckle, and the smile returned to his eyes. "I am only teasing, Gerda. Your friends will not be punished; in fact, they will have a fine reward for their kindness."
"You are right, my love," added the princess, "such care for others must not go unrewarded." She looked at the ravens, and smiled. The woodland raven puffed out his chest and tried to smooth his rather scruffy feathers. The tame fiancée looked down demurely. but spread her glorious blue-black tail.
"How would you like to be the official palace ravens?" she asked them. "Food always at the windows, for you and for any young you may bear. And a warm nest under the eaves of the royal bedchamber itself."
The tame raven looked imploringly at her woodland mate, and he nodded. He would sacrifice his freedom and adventures for his lovers; ravens have always been wise, and these two knew a good offer when they heard it!
Gerda slept that night in clean linen, on the softest pillows. The gentle prince sat by her bedside, reading, and the beautiful princess slumbered in the white bed alongside. Gerda had her own dreams. She dreamed she was walking through a palace of ice, and a sleigh pulled by angels or spirits came rushing towards her. The snow melted at an instant and springtime flowers blossomed at the touch of its runners. As it came closer, she saw that the sleigh carried a passenger. It was Kai — the good spirits were bringing him home! When Gerda awoke, she looked around eagerly, but it was only a dream. There was no Kai, just the kind face of the prince, and two sleepy ravens.
Gerda spent a week at the palace, recovering her strength. The princess asked her to live there as a special friend, but Gerda said she must set off into the wide world again and continue her search for Kai. The prince said that her decision was a brave one and worthy of respect, and they would send her on her journey with the best help they could give her.
When she set off, Gerda had new boots and gloves, a velvet scarf, and a shapka and a muff of the softest fur. She had a golden carriage, pulled by four chestnut horses, with a coachman to drive and a footman standing on the back. Four horsemen rode on either side as outriders to protect her, and they were all dressed in splendid suits and gilt-edged caps.
The prince and the princess helped her in themselves, wishing her all good luck they could.
The woodland raven came along with her for the first hour, on condition that he could face forwards, as travelling backwards made him sickly. His fiancée could not join them; she had been a bit greedy with the kitchen scraps of that morning's breakfast and had a headache. Instead she perched on the gates of the palace and flapped her wings at them as they rode away.
"Farewell," called the princess and her prince, drying up their tears, and Gerda cried at leaving her new friends.
The coach was packed with cakes and candied fruit and lemonade; so Gerda and the raven had a last little party before he too had to return to the palace. This was a hard moment for Gerda, for Hugin had been a true friend when she was most in need. She cried as she watched his black wings carry him away back to the palace. Drying her eyes, she settled back in the gleaming carriage, on whose panels two royal coats of arms shone like two stars, as it rode hard for the North.