THE SNOW QUEEN
A FAIRYTALE IN SE7EN STORIES
STORY THE F5FTH
The coach surged through the twilit forest, the coachman having already lit its golden lamps, which cast an eerie glow on the passing trees. The horses' hooves crunched the carpet of pine needles, and sent the wildlife sprinting for the shelter of the undergrowth. But not only wild animals lived in the depths of the forest. A band of robbers saw the jewelled carriage and the fine horses, and wanted them: they could not resist the shimmer of the coach in their eyes.
The attack was swift and terrible, and the bandits soon slaughtered the coachman and small guard that accompanied Gerda. Soon, she was the only one of her entourage left alive. The little girl was dragged, screaming, from the coach and thrown roughly to the ground. She looked up into the bearded, almost toothless face of a fat old crone.
"Well," said the crone with a mirthless cackle, "she seems a nice pretty plump one. Let's see how pretty she is when I bleed her dry!"
The cruel robbers howled with laughter, and the crone tapped a wicked, curved knife thrust into the belt of her apron. Gerda shrank back, terrified, and closed her eyes. She heard a rasping sound as the old hag drew the knife, quickly followed by a scream and a curse. Gerda opened her eyes to see a small, dark-haired girl clinging to the old woman's back; the crone couldn't shake her off, and was too busy licking her right hand where the wild child had bitten deeply into her flesh.
With blood still dripping from her teeth, the wild one leapt from the hag's back and crowned defensively over Gerda.
"You shan't kill her, you shan't!" she yelled. "I want her, Gran, I want to play with her. I want her pretty clothes and fine gloves and hat and scarf."
The hag glared at the dark girl. "Very well, you spoilt little brat," she growled. "Keep her then — but mind you don't let her out of your sight..."
"Quick, into the carriage," the little robber girl urged Gerda, "before she changes her mind."
The robber girl half carried Gerda into the coach, and sat her firmly down with a warm blanket over her knees.
"Why, you must be a princess, with all these fine clothes," the robber maiden said, looking in wonderment at the ornate furnishings inside the carriage.
"Oh no," squeaked a petrified Gerda, "I'm just a little girl like you." And she told her story, yet again, only this time quickly, and not that well, for she was so frightened she couldn't speak clearly.
"Why you poor thing," cried the robber girl when Gerda had finished her story, "I definitely won't let Gran kill you. If you must be killed, I'll do it myself." At this, she pulled a slim, sharp-looking dagger from her left boot and grinned ferociously at Gerda.
They drove through the woods to the robbers' castle — a dark, cold ruined keep with tiny windows and solid stone ramparts so the outlaws could defend themselves. Huge black crows, a long way from resembling the court ravens, flew in and out of the open windows, cawing and croaking and hooting, and massive brindled hounds leapt up at the coach in greeting. The old crone yelled at the dogs and they backed away, slinking off into the castle with tails down between their legs. Gerda, still numb with fright, was rushed through the doors and across the castle's great hall to a dark little corner at the rear.
"This is my corner," said the robber girl proudly. Now Gerda could see her clearly; she realised the girl was only her own age and height, but she was sturdy and rough and dark-skinned from her harsh outdoor life, and her hair was coal-black, not fair like Gerda's. Her dark eyes flashed menacingly, and there was a dangerous wildness in her nature.
"And here are my pets," she announced, waving her hands upwards. Gerda raised her eyes, and in every nook and cranny of the wall above their corner of this cavernous hall nestled a white pigeon. The pigeons cooed, and the robber girl stroked and petted them roughly. "Touch them," she said, "they won't bite."
Nervously, Gerda stroked one of the pigeons, a smaller and browner one than the others.
"Oh, you like him! He's one of the woodlanders — I keep him tied up, else he'd fly away as soon as I turned my back."
Gerda noticed the tether attached to the woodpigeon's leg, and stroked him more, seeing the sad look in his eyes.
"Here's my favourite," the robber maiden said, pulling on a rope tied to her pallet bed. "Another one who would like to run away!"
As the creature at the other end of the rope came into the light, Gerda saw it was a reindeer; a graceful reindeer stag with tall, sweeping antlers. The reindeer bowed to Gerda and looked mournful — whether for her or at his own situation, Gerda wasn't sure.
"I like to tickle my pets," said the robber girl with a wicked grin. She drew her blade, left-handed, and tickled the reindeer under the chin with the edge — he backed away and stamped his feet, but still the maiden tormented him.
"Oh, why do you fuss so," she snapped crossly. "You know I won't hurt you."
"Do you sleep with your knife?" the blonde girl asked, as the dark-haired one sheathed her steel.
"Always, of course, and always with a loaded pistol as well. Gods know, if there are any, what may happen during the night."
Her fun over, the robber maiden decided it was time for bed. Huddling under the furs on the pallet, she pulled Gerda to her and demanded to hear the story of her adventures over and over again. As Gerda told her of how she and Kai sat on the balcony under their rose bushes, the robber girl sighed and murmured.
"I have never had a friend. Maybe I shall keep you here forever with me."
At that, the robber maiden drifted off into a deep sleep, but Gerda stayed awake, stiff and cold with fear and worry. She could see into the hall where the bandits drank and sang and danced in the firelight. The crone turned cartwheels and somersaults — a frightening spectacle, and Gerda wondered how a woman her age could perform so deftly — and the other outlaws, except the sleeping maiden, roared their approval.
For the next few weeks, Gerda became the robber girl's constant companion. In the daytime, they would play together in the forest; and every night Gerda told a bit more of her story before they went off to sleep. Gerda soon realised that the maiden was not cruel, just bad-mannered and sometimes thoughtless. The robber girl was certainly tough as nails; she wrestled with outlaw boys much bigger and older, and she always won. The boys always complained that the robber maiden bit and scratched them, but she laughed and said that God, if there was at least one god up there, had given her strong teeth and nails, and made her left-handed, so she might as well use those skills.
Gerda was exhausted at the end of each day — she was not used at all to this rough play — and usually fell asleep by her new companion's side. One night, however, just as she was nodding off, with the robber girl snoring gently beside her, there was a scraping noise above her, and a piece off grit fell on her face. She brushed it away. but another and yet another one followed. Gerda sat up in bed and looked up at the wall. The male woodpigeon looked back at her, his mate sitting beside him.
Gerda's raven friends had loud, squawking voices, but these pigeons spoke softly, with much cooing and trilling.
"We have news," said the male.
"Yes, news for you," repeated his mate.
"We have seen your friend."
"Yes, yes, we saw him. Many months ago!"
"You saw Kai?" asked Gerda anxiously. She so wanted some good news about Kai, but she had learned not to raise her hopes too high after her experience with the prince.
"Yes, yes," the male pigeon said. "It was a sad day for us."
"Why?" Gerda couldn't help asking.
"It was the Snow Queen."
"Yes, the Snow Queen. She flew overhead, and she had a boy with her — a young boy with light brown hair and clean eyes, just like the boy you described."
"The Snow Queen!" Gerda gasped, alarmed. This was terrible news, to hear that Kai had been taken by the Snow Queen, in spite of all his grandmother's warnings. "Which way did they go? Were they travelling fast?"
"Why North, of course," cooed the female, "always North, with the Snow Queen. They were flying fast and low, in a white sleigh pulled by the Queen's flying mare."
"Low," her mate agreed, "too low. As she passed, she breathed on our treetop and the icy blast froze our nest. Only the two of us survived."
"Just us two. One moment ten, then two," cooed the female mournfully.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Gerda said, for she realised then that hers was not the only sad tale.
"At least we are two," continued the female woodpigeon. "You are alone, without your dear friend. You must go North and find him."
"But where shall I look?" pleaded Gerda. "Where does the Snow Queen live?"
"Lapland," stated the male. "Ask the reindeer, he will know the way."
There was no need to ask. The reindeer stag had been listening all this time. He leaned forwards to nudge Gerda with his shiny, wet nose.
"Yes, Lapland is where she will go first. She has her summer palace there," said the reindeer in a deep, rich voice that somehow reminded Gerda of warm milk and honey.
"But you must move quickly," he went on, "for in the winter the Snow Queen will fly to her palace in the very far North, almost as far as the North Pole. If she goes there, it will be hard to follow."
"Poor Kai, I must find him soon. Do you know the way to Lapland?" asked Gerda.
Before the reindeer could answer, the little robber girl dug Gerda in the back and said, in a grumpy, sleepy voice: "Quiet, or I'll tickle your ribs with my knife!"
In the morning, Gerda made herself be brave, and told the robber maiden all the woodpigeons' story. The dark-haired girl frowned and thought hard for a moment.
"Well," she decided, "it seems I am just one part of your adventures. I shall let you go; if you promise that one day you will return and tell me all that happens."
"Oh, I promise, I promise," cried Gerda, hugging the robber girl.
"Well, that's a first!" the startled girl exclaimed. "No one has ever hugged me before."
The reindeer snorted and stamped his hooves behind them, and the robber maiden turned to look at him.
"And I suppose you've been listening to every word and want to go along, too?" she asked. "Do you know how to get to Lapland?"
"I ought to," replied the reindeer. "I was born there. It is a land of hills and valleys, all covered with soft, clean snow. I used to run and play there when I was young." The reindeer's eyes misted and shone with tears as memories of his homeland came back to him.
The robber girl snorted. "If I let you go, there will be no time for play. You must take Gerda to Lapland as fast as you can."
"I will," said the reindeer with a nod of his head. "That is a small price for my freedom."
Gerda suddenly remembered another problem.
"Surely the others will never let me go," she said anxiously, "they still think I am a princess they can ransom for gold."
"You just leave that to me," smiled the robber maiden. "All the men have gone out hunting or thieving, so all I need to do is get the old sow drunk and you can escape easily."
The raven-haired girl leapt out of bed and ran over to where her grandmother was sitting by the fire.
"Morning, Gran!" she cried, tugging the old crone's beard and kicking her playfully on her enormous backside. The crone swung a fist, but the agile little girl ducked easily and pulled the hag's nose.
The two girls were restless all morning, and the robber maiden taunted her grandmother endlessly and engaged her in mock fights and horseplay to tire her out. By lunchtime, the old woman was quite exhausted, and, after a huge slice of pie, she took a great swig from the leather bottle she always carried at her side.
After what seemed like hours and a hundred swigs — but was really only a few minutes —the crone settled by the fire and closed her eyes. Moments later, she was snoring loudly enough to wake the dead.
"Quick," whispered the robber girl, "you must go now, she never sleeps for long!"
They ran over to where the reindeer was tethered. The robber maiden stroked his mane and ran her hands over his fuzzy antlers.
"I shall miss teasing you," she said, a little sadly, "you pull such funny faces when I show you my knife!" Then she added, very seriously: "And you must remember your promise: take Gerda straight to Lapland — no delays for playing or rolling in the snow."
"I will," said the reindeer with a bow of his antlers.
"And you," said the robber girl to Gerda, "must also remember to visit me again when you find your friend."
"I will, I promise," Gerda assured her. As she was about to clamber on the reindeer's back, the robber girl thrust something into her arms. It was her blanket.
"You'll need it far more than me,"the robber maiden gruffly said. "But I'm keeping your gloves and scarf, and your muff; they're so pretty."
Gerda smiled at the robber girl, who looked fierce and scowled.
"But you mustn't get frostbite, and this woolly blanket will help keep you warm." The robber maiden helped Gerda wrap the blanket around her. It smelled of old fish and smoke, but it was the warmest blanket Gerda had ever worn.
Gerda climbed on the reindeer's back, and the dark-haired girl tied a burlap sack to the reindeer's neck. "Two loaves of bread and a ham," she said. "I stole them this morning. No point getting all the way to Lapland and then starving to death."
Gerda felt a tear roll down her cheek and sniffed loudly.
"Get on with you," cried the robber girl, slapping the reindeer's backside, "you know how I hate all that whimpering."
The reindeer stag leapt for joy at his new-found freedom, and Gerda clung on to his antlers as he surged forwards. She managed to wave a pale left hand at the robber maiden, who stood watching as they sped off into the forest.
The reindeer ran so fast that it almost seemed to Gerda they were flying over the land. They passed through the forest into marshy moorlands. Soon, that too was left behind, and they began to cross wide, windswept plains. Huge birds of prey, snowy owls and great grey owls, circled overhead, and Gerda heard the howling of wolves in the distance, but the reindeer sprinted on, not slowing on as day turned into the winter-long Arctic night.
Before long, it was full night, and both loaves and the ham were eaten. Gerda heard a noise and looked up. She gasped as a fiery streak of light shot across the sky in front of them. Another followed, and another, and Gerda could hear the crack and fizz as the colourful lights took off. It was like nature's own fireworks display, and to Gerda it seemed the most magical thing.
The reindeer paused for a moment to watch with her.
"The Northern Lights," he proudly said. "Aren't they magnificent?"
"Oh yes," agreed Gerda. "And somehow I feel they are guiding me."
"Well, maybe they are," said the reindeer, "because, if we can see the lights, it means we are close to Lapland!"
As if spurred on by this thought of his homeland, the reindeer stag leapt in the air, and, with a great kick of his strong hind legs, he sped off once more across the wintry plains.