THE SNOW QUEEN
A FAIRYTALE IN SE7EN STORIES
STORY THE SE7ENTH
And what of Kai?
Was he imprisoned in the Snow Queen's palace, dreaming of the moment when Gerda would come and release him? Not a bit of it, for he had a block of ice within his chest, where his heart should be, and a sliver of sorcerous glass in his left eye.
As the reindeer dropped Gerda by the holly bush, Kai was with the Snow Queen. She sat on her icy, hard throne in the palace, in the centre of a lake. This lake had no liquid water, but was a sheet of ice, divided into a thousand matching pieces. The lake was called Reason's Mirror, for it saw and reflected only the surface of everything, and not the heart.
"I must leave you for a while," said the Queen, in a whisper that could be heard across a crowded room, though her throne-hall was empty save for her and her captive. "The spitting mountains are surely in need of snow — lemons and grapevines are no fit company for a fiery volcano."
Kai looked at her vacantly, his mind could not reach beyond the palace walls.
"How is your puzzle?" asked the Snow Queen. "Have you finished it yet?"
Kai's eyes went immediately to a pattern on the floor of the palace hall. Pieces of ice lay in a seemingly random, abstract pattern; each piece had a letter. Kai now knew no other pastime than the only one there was within those walls of ice: trying to solve the puzzle. Arranging those ice shards, he created various abstract shapes and nonsensical words, which to him seemed the loveliest ones in the world, yet, his heart frozen, he could never attain the answer to the riddle. The Queen's eyes followed his own.
"Oh dear," she said. "And to think of what I promised you if you could form the pieces into one simple picture, and the letters into one simple word!"
And with that she swept imperiously out of the hall, onto her sleigh, and out of the palace. Kai could hardly be bothered to move; he turned his chair around and stared at the broken pieces. He stared and stared and thought and thought, but he couldn't make out a single picture or a single word. He was so still, so pale, and so cold that he looked like one of the ice statues that decorated the palace.
Kai was still sitting, looking at the pattern on the floor, when the outer doors of the ice palace blew open, and Gerda strode through. The north winds that guarded the doors howled and shrieked around her; but her mist friends followed her in, and the winds faded away. Gerda walked through the vast halls one by one, each an icier blue and more vast than the last. Finally, she came into the central hall, and saw Kai sitting in front of the throne.
"Kai," cried Gerda, and ran out across the frozen lake. The ice was slippery, and Gerda moved too fast. Her feet slid from under her and, as she reached out her arms to stop her fall, she saw her reflection in the ice mirror. She saw a young girl with golden hair. She saw the determination in her own eyes, and she knew she could beat the Snow Queen and take Kai back home.
She pulled herself to her feet and walked boldly across the lake of ice to where Kai sat. He turned to look at her, but there was no recognition in his empty blue eyes. Gerda seized Kai's shoulders and pulled him close to her.
"At last!" she sobbed. "After so long, at last I've found you, and you're alive!" Gerda wept tears of joy; hot salt teardrops rolled down her cheeks and splashed onto the floor, making the ice hiss and steam. As she held Kai's face close to her own and looked into his eyes, her tears still fell in crystal streams. His lips parted, and a single teardrop fell down his throat. Another tear fell in his left eye and washed away the sliver of the sorcerer's mirror.
The teardrop he had swallowed ran through his veins and the lump of ice that gripped his heart melted away in an instant.
Even as Gerda held him tight, tears welled up in Kai's eyes as he recognised the friend he had forgotten.
"Gerda?" he asked, scarcely able to believe she was there, holding him close.
"Yes, dear, dear Kai, it's me!" said Gerda, still crying as much with joy and relief as with sorrow. She kissed Kai's nose, and his fingertips, and, as she did so, the colour and warmth flooded back into his face.
Kai looked around him, as if seeing his surroundings for the first time.
"What am I doing here, Gerda?" he asked, shivering as he spoke. "It's so cold and vast and empty..."
"You are in the Snow Queen's palace, Kai," she replied. clasping him tight once more for reassurance, as he embraced Gerda equally tightly, for his friend not to leave him alone within those austere walls of ice. "But don't be afraid, for I've come to take you home."
"Home?" Kai's eyes misted over at the thought. He smiled for the first time in over a year, and Gerda smiled back. "Yes, home!" he agreed, more definitely. "And we shall have a party and games!"
"Oh, Kai, we will, we will!" cried Gerda, seizing Kai by both hands and pulling him to his feet. Laughing for pure joy, she danced him around and around on the ice. As they danced, the pieces of ice with letters in Kai's puzzle began to stir. At first they wiggled just a little, but, as Kai and Gerda danced faster and faster, the letters got caught up in the mood, and soon the pieces were skipping around the children in a crazy dance of their own. Gerda and Kai sank to the floor, exhausted, as the letters sank back down on the floor. And, as the pieces fell, they formed a shape and a word on the floor of ice: a radiant sun with the inscription ETERNITY.
Kai saw the word and the sun, and he knew what it meant.
"I am free, Gerda," he said, simply. "Even the Snow Queen cannot hold me any more."
Gerda grasped Kai's hand — he was quite warm now — and together they walked out of the Snow Queen's empty palace. The mist friends stood by the door, on guard, and, as Gerda led Kai out of the palace, they each bowed to the young girl, warmed the children's limbs, and dissolved into thin air.
As Gerda and Kai walked through the gardens, the winds stilled, and a pale sun was seen in the Northern sky. Gerda headed straight back to the holly, which still yielded berries, and there was a sight to gladden the children's hearts.
Standing there, tall and proud, with shining antlers was the reindeer. Behind him was a young reindeer doe, a pretty, shy creature only half the size of Gerda's stag friend.
"You came back!" cried Gerda in joy.
"How could I not?" the reindeer stag replied. "Someone must carry you home. I shall take Kai and the doe will carry you. She has milk to warm both of you before the journey."
The doe's milk was warm and sweet, and the children felt instantly refreshed. They climbed on the reindeers' backs, Kai on the stag and Gerda on the doe, and, with a flurry of snow, the proud beasts kicked off for the Finn woman's igloo.
The strange old woman was ready with soup from her giant cauldron and sound advice about the way home. She clutched Gerda fiercely to her breast. Then she looked at the reindeer.
"Strength of ten grown men!" she said, and snorted with laughter, but Gerda didn't understand why.
Soon, it was time to leave that sweltering house, and on they journeyed to the Lapp lady's cottage. The kindly old lady had made new mittens and scarves out of deerskin for both children, and she had provisions ready aboard her sleigh.
"I shall take you to the border," she announced. "Not that you wouldn't make it on your own!" she added, and laughed to see Gerda's horrified expression. The Lapp lady shook her head, still laughing. "So strong," she muttered amidst her chuckling.
The two reindeer bounded alongside the sleigh all the way to the Lapland border. When it was time to say goodbye, the stag nuzzled Gerda's cheeks and her hair.
"Now you are free, dear one," said Gerda.
"I shall miss you," replied her friend, quietly. "And I shall think of you when I am rolling in the snows of my homeland. And, when winter comes, I shall take heart from your strength."
With a last hug, they said farewell, and Gerda set off with Kai across the countryside. As they walked, it seemed that springtime arose to greet them. Pretty flowers decked the roadside, and shoots appeared on shrubs and bushes, gracing the rhododendrons and the hawthorns. The oaks, beeches, and chestnut-trees put forth their first green leaves and buds, and the songbirds began to warble for the warm weather. There was rain, but, to Gerda and Kai, it seemed fresh and clean.
As they drew near to the forest where the robbers lived, they saw a magnificent chestnut mare trotting towards them. Gerda recognised the horse — it had once pulled her golden carriage — and, as it got closer, she recognised the rider, too. Her head was covered with a bright scarlet scarf, but the curly raven hair flowing from beneath the scarf and the flashing eyes gave her away. There were two pistols on her belt, a dagger in her left hand, and she held the reins in the right. It was Gerda's friend, the little robber girl.
"I knew you'd make it!" called the robber maiden, as soon as she was within shouting distance.
"How did you know?"
With a shrug of her shoulders, the robber girl said: "I just knew. Gran and the others beat me black and blue, they sneered, and said you would die in the snow, but I knew you were strong."
The maiden jumped down from her horse and hugged Gerda tightly. She looked Kai up and down, and shook her head. "Well, you're a fine one," she said, "gallivanting off and putting dear Gerda to all that trouble."
Kai hung his head, embarrassed, but the robber girl pinched his cheek and laughed. "Mind you, you're handsome enough! I can see why you followed him to the ends of the earth!" she said to Gerda, with a wink of her eye. This time, it was Gerda's turn to look embarrassed.
"Are you leaving?" Gerda asked, seeing the saddlebags on the horse and the pistols strapped to the robber maiden's waist.
"Yes!" replied her friend, eagerly. "I've had enough of that life. Meeting you taught me that there are more important things than gold and jewels and finery. A robber's life is not for me. I'm heading up North to find a friend of my own. Are you on your way home?"
"Yes, but I was going to visit the princess and her prince first. Thet were so kind to me..."
"Well, you won't see them," announced the robber girl, "they're off on a tour of the world! The princess wanted to see all the fine places she read about in the newspapers."
"And the ravens?" asked Gerda.
The robber girl looked sad. "Your friend the woodland raven is dead. I'm afraid all that rich food didn't agree with him. His lady-love, now widowed and wearing black ribbons on her legs, pines for him and misses him all the time, poor thing."
Gerda hung her head.
"Don't be too down," the robber maiden said, "I hear that he died happy, because he did one great thing in his life, helping a certain little girl."
The robber girl shared some of her bread and ham with Kai and Gerda, and made them tell all their adventures over again. Then, it was back on her horse and onwards, northwards, to adventures of her own.
Kai and Gerda walked on, hand in hand. The countryside was a riot of colour, and the sunshine and the birdsong lifted their hearts. As they neared their home, the sound of the church bells mingled in with the robins and finches, and soon the breeze carried other sounds and smells of town life to them. The clocktower above the town hall spiralled into the clear blue sky ahead of them, and, before they knew it, they were standing outside Kai's grandmother's house. They crossed the threshold and climbed the stairs, trembling with excitement, and went into the little attic room — Kai had grown so tall that he had to stoop to get through the door.
Grandmother's living room was just as they remembered it, and Grandmother sat, smiling and nodding, in her armchair.
"So you found the strength to return," she said to Kai.
Kai put his left arm around Gerda's shoulders.
"My strength found me, Granny," he said, smiling at his friend.
Kai and Gerda stepped out onto their balcony. The rose bushes still twined across the gap between their houses. They were in spectacular bloom this year, and had formed an archway of beauty across the street. Gerda and Kai sat on the plank between the houses, looked into each other's eyes, and held each other's hands.
As they sat in the golden sunshine, the icy grandeur of the Snow Queen's palace and the deep, deep cold of her terrible kiss seemed a lifetime away.
They knew that they were no longer little children. But they knew that they must always keep a corner of their hearts open for the dreams of childhood. For the belief in the heart of a child is as the strength of ten.