THE SNOW QUEEN
A FAIRYTALE IN SE7EN STORIES
STORY THE F1RST
AND HIS MIRROR
There once was a sorcerer and he had a mirror. This was no ordinary mirror, and the sorcerer was not the kindly sort, with tricks and fireworks for children. No, this sorcerer was full of wickedness and mischief, and he had warped this mirror so everything it reflected appeared blighted and ugly. Sincere smiles of joy would writhe on the glass into sinister Cheshire cat grins. The face of a pretty lady would appear blemished and wrinkled— even the tiniest spot or crease would seem to spread across the entire face. A stately and beautiful fruit-tree would appear withered and gnarled, branches bowed and fruit rotten and weeping.
The sorcerer took his mirror on a Grand Tour, and soon every corner of the continent was affected by its malice. The people who looked in the mirror despaired and wept tears of sorrow, for all their hopes and prides and joys and dreams turned to ashes, and nothing appeared fine or pure any longer. Gentlemen looked at the ancient ruins of empires past in southern lands, and saw only crumbling stones. Ladies looked in the windows of the finest fashion-shops, dressmakers, and hatteries on the Left Bank of the Seine, and saw only tawdry dresses made out of cheap fabric. Children opened presents, and cried and stomped because they wanted what other children owned, because it was more expensive. The sorcerer laughed at his own cleverness.
Before too long, our sorcerer became bored of tormenting petty humans and looked heavenwards for his entertainment. Thinking even to turn the thoughts of the angels or the gods to despair, he directed his impish helpers to carry the mirror up to the sky and show it to the celestial beings. The sorcerer roared with laughter when he thought of the confusion he would cause in Paradise, or Olympus, or the Valhalla. Ever higher the imps flew, but, as they climbed, so the winds grew stronger and colder, and the mirror grew harder and harder to hold. At last, a fierce gust of gale seized the looking-glass, and it flapped away, cloth wrappings billowing like sails. But gravity will have its day, and soon the mirror crashed into a frozen mountainside, smashing into hundreds, nay, thousands of tiny pieces.
The sorcerer's imps feared a beating, if not a harsher and crueller punishment, for their master could be harsh indeed. Crestfallen, they returned to his castle and reported the disaster. They expected the sorcerer to fly into a rage, but he simply smiled and turned awat when he heard the news, for he was a clever man, and foresaw what would happen next.
The shards and other fragments of the mirror were blown by winds and carried by waters until they could be found in every corner of the continent. Some were made into spectacle lenses and small, decorative windowpanes. Others were used to make pretty jewellery for young ladies. This made the sorcerer smile, for he knew that every tiny fragment retained all the sinister powers of the original mirror; those windows showed only a soulless and bleak world; those spectacles brought their wearers nought but despair and sorrow, and the jewellery brought jealousy and vanity and discord into the lives of many a young couple's romance.
Worse still, a speck of the looking-glass would fly into someone's eye. They would never find the stinging object — but things would never look the same again. The unluckiest of all breathed in or swallowed little pieces by accident or in their food. The glass would worm its way into their hearts, and soon those hearts were cold and without feelings.
A dark mood spread across the continent. Pickpockets became highwaymen; jealous lovers turned to murder those they adored; petty squabbles over land turned to open wars.
The sorcerer saw all of this and smiled.
STORY THE SECON2
Two children, Kai and Gerda, lived opposite each other in a provincial town. They were such good friends that many people thought they were brother and sister — but no sibling pair ever played as happily as Gerda and Kai, with never a fight or a cross word.
Although both their families were rather middling, Kai and Gerda didn't care, for they were happy with each other's company and didn't need any expensive toys. Through the springtime, summer, and autumn, for three quarters of the year, they would spend hours on the balconies outside the attic windows of their houses. Their respective fathers had built each of them a little window-box, and two planks were high across the street so they could walk or crawl from one house to the other. Kai and Gerda loved these window-boxes; they grew pretty flowers in them to attract butterflies and other pollinating creatures. Their pride and joy were two rose bushes, one in each box. Gerda's roses were scarlet, and Kai's were the colour of ivory. Each year in May, both of these bushes would burst into flower and wind their way out across the street, twining themselves around each other, as if they too loved each other as much as Kai and Gerda.
In the winter, the children had to find other games to play in their spare time, for it grew cold and icy in their country, and the flowers in the window-boxes faded, and Gerda and Kai watched their rose-blooms wither away. The planks between the windowsills were put away until springtime, and the children had to run down three flights of stairs, and back up three flights more on the other side, in order to see each other. They would skate on the ice and play in the soft snow, not fearing the cold, for Kai's grandmother was always ready with a cup of hot chocolate and a warm rug to make them snug and cozy again. It felt so good to sit by the window, cocooned in soft wool, and press warmed-up coins against the frosty glass panes and stare out at the winter scenes through the little magic spyholes they had created.
Grandmother would tell the children stories of the mysteries of winter; how a particularly strong swirl of snow meant the Snow Queen was in flight. She told them how the terrible Queen would ride at the heart of the storm, exulting in the fierce cold.
"I'm not afraid of her!" boasted young Kai. "I'll catch that giant flake and put her on the fire — she won't be so scary then!"
Gerda grinned at Kai adoringly, but Granny smiled and stroked his auburn hair. "Many brave boys have said that, but still she flies — better to keep the windows shut and be careful she doesn't catch you!"
Kai looked nervous at this, but Gerda squeezed his left hand for comfort, and he soon forgot his fears.
One night, after Gerda had gone home to bed, Kai stayed by the window, staring out at the falling snow. The flakes looked clean and bright against the gaslamps in the street. They fell even thicker, as if they wanted to cover the whole world so everything could start again. As Kai stared, transfixed, one large flake drifted across the street towards him, pushing the smaller flakes aside as if it had a purpose all of its own. The giant flake settled on the balcony outside the window, next to the barren rose bush. and Kai could see every sharp detail of its cold beauty. Even as he looked, the snowflake grew taller, and the lines slowly took a human shape. The crystals became a shimmering white gown crusted with glittering frosty jewels. Kai raised his gaze and gasped as he saw two cold, ice-blue eyes staring back at him. He felt himself shiver as those eyes burned into his, as if searching into his very soul. The white gown fluttered, and a pale arm emerged, so pale he could almost see through it. The ice-woman beckoned Kai to come to her with a single long index finger.
For a moment, Kai forgot where he was and moved to open the window. Just as quickly, he remembered all his grandmother's warnings and slammed the shutters closed, rattling the panes and the pictures on the wall. He was surprised to find himself out of breath and a bit shaky. "The Snow Queen," he said to himself. "That must have been the Snow Queen!"
Soon after, the thaws came, and brought with them March rains and strong, blustery winds. As Kai and Gerda walked together home from school one day, Kai turned to Gerda to ask her a question. Before he could speak, he winced and rubbed at his left eye. Gerda looked concerned.
"Are you all right, Kai?" she asked. "Shall I look into your eye for you?"
"Well, I can't feel anything, so you'd better," replied Kai in a grumpy voice. As he spoke, he winced again, and coughed and gulped as if he had swallowed a bug. But it wasn't an insect at all.
Gerda looked into Kai's left eye, but she saw nothing — for no one sees a shard of the sorcerer's mirror. She could see Kai squinting with discomfort, and her own eyes watered in sympathy.
"Oh, stop that, Gerda," snorted Kai. "You look so ugly when you cry. Dry up your eyes and don't be such a baby."
Gerda was hurt at Kai's words, but she thought it was because he was in pain. However, it wasn't pain that caused Kai to speak so harshly; it was the shard of looking-glass he had just swallowed or breathed in, working its way down into his heart.
Over the next few months, Kai said many more hurtful things, and upset Gerda every day. One day, when she asked him to look at a storybook, he sneered and said books were for babies. When she invited him to smell the roses on their bushes, he tore off the blooms and crushed them underfoot.
"What use are roses?" he coldly asked. "They don't feed anybody or make anything!"
"But they are beautiful, Kai," said Gerda, puzzled that he no longer understood.
"I don't care about beauty!" snarled Kai. "I know the nine times table by heart, I can do fractions in my head, and I know how a wheel turns; what use are flowers and books to me?"
Even his granny wasn't spared Kai's malice. When she sat in her chair and told stories to the younger children at the orphanage, Kai would stand behind her, mimicking her expressions and her gestures. Kai was very good at spotting little flaws in other people, and he could do funny impressions of all his teachers and classmates at school. Everyone thought they were hilarious, especially Kai himself. Gerda was the only one who thought they were cruel.
Winter came around once more, and the snows set in. Kai rarely played with Gerda, but instead took his sled into the town square and raced against the older boys. With the school bullies, they played games of rough and tumble in the snow, which often ended in a bloody nose, a black eye, or someone crying. It was never Kai.
Just after the turn of the new year, around Twelfth Night, Kai was racing in the square as usual, when a shining, brand new sleigh came proudly up the main street towards them. Kai stopped and stared as the grand sleigh glided past. The strong, white horse trotted proudly in front, head up, tossing its snowy white mane. The sleigh itself was edged and gilded in silver, and painted in intricate patterns of white and icy blue. The driver was heavily wrapped in white furs, wearing both an overcoat and a shapka hat of what seemed to be Arctic fox skin, but Kai saw a glimpse of frosty platinum blond hair, and pale white wrists below the gloves holding the reins. Kai looked down ruefully at his own crude wooden sled. When he looked up again, the white horse had stopped, and the driver was staring at him over the back of the sleigh. The driver's head lifted from among the furs, and Kai found himself staring into the icy abyss of the Snow Queen's eyes.
The Snow Queen beckoned to Kai, and this time he was powerless to resist. As he approached, she spoke to him for the first time. Her voice was barely more than a whisper, but it rang in Kai's head as loud and clear as a church bell.
"Come with me," she breathed. "Tie your sled to the back of mine. We'll go for a fast ride — it will be exciting!"
To Kai, the invitation was as good as an order. As soon as his sled was tethered to the Snow Queen's sleigh, the white horse set off at a steady trot. As the horse picked up speed, Kai clung on to the side of his sled, afraid lest he be thrown against the pavement or a wall as the horse turned at a street corner. They passed through the main gate of the town; the horse was cantering, and its great strides soon left the comforting sights and smells of the town far behind. Now they were in the open country, covered in a thick white blanket. Kai was frightened. He began to struggle with the fastenings of the sled, but his hands were too cold and numb to undo the knot. He tried to scream for help, but the word froze in his throat, and what stole through his parted lips was the nine times table.
The sleigh seemed to be gliding on a cushion of air. They crashed through the forest, and the branches of the snow-covered treetops whistled and whipped at them like icy limbs. They rode along a frozen river-bed, and the horse and sleigh cast a pale and ghostly reflection in the water. They flew northwards over a range of hills; the sleigh went so fast that Kai's stomach lurched as they crested each hill and plunged down the other side.
At last, the sleigh slowed. Kai was petrified with cold and fear — he would've cried, but the tears froze before they could roll down his cheeks. The Snow Queen turned in her seat and smiled at him.
"You poor thing. You must be freeezing... Come and sit by me, then you won't feel a thing."
Kai was unable to protest. He stumbled forwards and climbed into the carriage alongside the Snow Queen. She wrapped her enormous white fur cloak around his shoulders and drew him closer to her. Her body held no warmth, and Kai shivered as the horse strode forwards once more, and the wind whipped up again.
The Snow Queen turned his face towards her. Her lips curved upwards in a smile, but her glacial eyes burned into his own. The Snow Queen kissed Kai on the forehead. His teeth stopped chattering and he no longer shivered. The blood froze in his veins, and his heart hardened even more, as he forgot his home, granny, Gerda, and the short life he had led. For an instant he thought that he was going to die, yet he awakened as quickly as he had fallen unconscious. A frosty pallor came over his features, but the biting wind no longer stung his cheeks, now so pale that the veins could be seen through. He forgot his fears, and smiled back at the Snow Queen.
Now she seemed more beautiful and intelligent than ever, with nothing sinister about her. Never had he seen more perfect a sight. Kai told her that he could do fractions by head, and draw diagrams as well, and that he knew the surface and the number of inhabitants of every state in the continent, and she burst into a tinkling laugh.
"Then, you certainly are a boy for me, my little cold-blooded prince."
In the end, after hours of flying through the cold winter air, they entered the far Northern region where there is darkness all winter long, and a weary Kai fell asleep at the feet of the Snow Queen.
STORY THE THI3D
She set out the very next morning, at the crack of dawn, wearing her most treasured possession — her new red shoes, which she had received for her birthday. Kai had never seen those shoes, and Gerda wanted to show them off as soon as she found him. She had an idea that, if she went to the river that ran through the town, the water might carry some news of Kai to her.
Gerda sat by the river, and watched as the stream carried by the tales and news of the thousands of souls that it passed every day. But there was no news of Kai.
"I know," thought Gerda, "if I throw my shoes into the river, and wish very hard, maybe they will lead me to Kai." Gerda could not throw very far, and the water simply carried her shoes back to the bank where she sat.
There was a small rowing boat tied to a stump nearby. Gerda clambered aboard and walked gingerly to the front of the boat, thinking that from here she could throw the shoes further out into the river. But as she cast her shoes into the water, the boat slipped its mooring and began to drift out towards the centre of the river.
Gerda looked around for help, but there was no one down by the river, on either bank, apart from her. The fishing boat had pointed itself downstream, and was beginning to pick up speed. Gerda's red shoes bobbed along in its wake, but were soon left trailing behind as the boat was propelled forwards by the strong currents of the rapids.
Gerda gripped the side of the boat and cried for help. glancing in desperation at the banks of the rivers. But only the shorebirds heard her. The sedge-warblers and curlews flew the length of the riverbank, keeping pace with Gerda's boat and calling, encouraging her. "Here we are," they cried, "we will fly with you. We won't let you come to any harm!"
Gerda was comforted by their song. Her grip on the boat relaxed, and she looked around. Grassy meadows with sweet-smelling wildflowers were home for cows and sheep. Willows dipped their slender branches in the stream and drank, with their tangled roots clung fiercely to the water's edge.
Gerda's spirits rose. She began to believe that maybe the river was carrying her to Kai.
Hours passed, and gradually the river became more winding, and the currents slowed. Gerda marvelled at a cherry orchard on the left bank; the blossom was so dense and so pure white it took her breath away. The boat seemed to be drifting towards the orchard, and, as she got closer, Gerda spied a little cottage amidst the cloud-like blossoms. The cottage had a thatched roof and odd little windows. A small white wicket gate at the entrance to the garden was guarded by two soldiers, one on either side,
Gerda called out to the soldiers, but they were made of wood, and thus, could not answer. As the boat finally nudged against the riverbank, an old woman emerged from the cottage. She wore a large-brimmed straw hat, gaily painted with hundreds of different flowers, and she walked with the aid of a stick or cane. As the old woman drew closer, Gerda realised that she was even much older than Kai's grandmother. Her face was wrinkled like an old apple, but she was smiling and her eyes looked kindly.
"You poor thing!" the old lady said. "You look cold and half-starved. Where have you come from?"
Gerda told her the whole story; the old lady sighed and looked sympathetic, but when Gerda asked if she had seen Kai, she only shook her head.
"You must eat, my dear, before you continue your journey. Come into my house and have some cherries," she offered with a smile.
Gerda thought this sounded like a wonderful idea, and she followed the old lady through the beautiful flower garden into the curious thatched cottage. The panes in the stained-glass windows were made up of tiny squares of blue and red, and the sunlight shining through the coloured glass made everything seem a little odd.
Gerda sat down at the wooden table, and the old lady brought out a bowl full to overflowing with ripe ruby-red cherries.
"Eat as many as you like," she urged, and, as Gerda tucked in, she started to comb the little girl's long fair hair.
Gerda was unaware of it, but the old lady know how to work magic. Not wicked magic like the sorcerer with the mirror, but simple small enchantments. As she combed Gerda's hair, the wise woman, who had been very lonely since her husband died and her children left her, thought how nice it would be to have some company for a while. The longer she combed, and the more Gerda ate, the less the little girl thought about her journey and her lost friend.
After the meal, the wise old woman let the tired little girl have a sleep on the sofa, tucked up with a warm patchwork blanket and a plump pillow smelling of violets and lavender. While Gerda slept, the old lady went out into her flower garden. She clicked her fingers, and all the rose bushes sank back into the ground, for Gerda had told her about the roses in the window-boxes, and the sorceress feared they would remind the girl of her lost friend Kai.
The next few days passed peacefully for Gerda. She played in the old lady's beautiful flower garden; she was amazed at how many different types and colours of flowers there were. Each and every morning, the sun shone on the shrubs and flower beds, and the blooms opened, welcoming the light and warmth of the star of stars. Gerda helped the old lady water and prune the garden, even fixing the thatched room for the rain not to get in, and, in return, the sorceress taught her the names of all the plants she didn't know, and how to recognize each flower's distinctive perfume and healing properties.
For all the variety and colour in the garden, at the back of her mind Gerda knew there was something missing. The garden felt incomplete. It was the old lady's straw hat that solved the mystery for her. One day, it was left lying on the table, and Gerda was looking at the lovely flower drawings round the rim. The most beautiful of them all was a scarlet rose — a painted rose that the old lady's spell had missed.
Gerda rushed out into the garden. Surely there must be roses here; maybe she had simply missed them; maybe they were in some quiet corner that she rarely visited. She found no roses. For some reason, this made her feel very sad, and, as she sat by the flower beds, a teardrop rolled down her left cheek and fell on the soil. By chance, it fell on one of the very spots where a rose bush once had stood. As Gerda's tear touched the soil. the rose bush sprang from the ground, fully in bloom, released from its enchantment.
Gerda, too, was free of the enchantment that had imprisoned her. Seeing the rose bush yield clusters of ivory flowers, she remembered Kai, and how she had set out on a journey to find him.
"Do you think my friend is still alive?" she asked the ivory roses.
"You must keep looking," the rose bush answered her, "for we have spent many days underground, and Kai was not amongst the dead and buried."
Gerda wandered around the garden one last time, and asked all the flowers if they had seen her friend Kai. The moonflowers, the snowdrops, and the perfumed hyacinths all told tragic tales; they made Gerda feel lonely and afraid, The buttercup cheered her up with a pretty song full of sunshine and kisses, but couldn't help her find Kai. The narcissus was no help either, it was too busy gazing at its own reflection in the pond to answer. Each and every flower told a different story, but the stories were their own, and told Gerda nothing of their friend.
She knew that she had to leave the old lady's garden straight away, so she picked up her skirts and ran as fast as she could. The garden gate was locked, but Gerda pulled as fiercely as she could and the rusty hinges gave way. As she went through the gate, Gerda realised that the garden's eternal springtime was just an illusion. In the outside world, spring and summer were over, and she shivered in the autumn winds.
"I have wasted so much time," she sighed. "I must not stop again!"
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.
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.
STORY THE S6XTH
THE LAPP LADY
AND THE FINN WOMAN
All Gerda remembered of the rest of her ride into Lapland was the cold. The biting wind wrung tears from her eyes, but it was so cold that the tears froze halfway down her cheeks. By the time the reindeer pulled to a halt, Gerda could no longer feel her nose, her fingers, or her toes.
The reindeer stag stopped because there, in the lee of a small rise on the snowy plain, was a hut. A tiny deerskin hut, with a huge roof reaching almost to the ground; a roof which made the hut look as if it might topple over any minute. It took Gerda a moment to spot the door, it was so low to the ground, half buried in the snow. The door opened and a female hand waved her in. Gerda had to crawl on all fours, on her hands and knees, to get inside; it was an even greater struggle for the reindeer!
A skinny old woman grinned at them from beneath her furs.
"What brings you here at such a furious speed?" asked she.
Gerda's teeth were chattering so hard she couldn't possibly answer, so the reindeer spoke for her. He told the Lapp lady how he had been imprisoned by the bandits, and how Gerda had helped him escape. Then he told the Lapp lady as much of Gerda's story as he could remember.
"Mmm," the Lapp lady thought for a moment. "First of all we'll get you warm and fed!" she declared. And, without further ado, she stripped off Gerda's clothes and sat the frozen little firl by the fire in just her undergarments. Gradually, the heat soothed Gerda back to life, and the Lapp lady gave her a supper of soup and old bread.
Once Gerda was well fed and warm and thawed out, the Lapp lady gave her some news and advice.
"I'm afraid, my dear," she grimly said, "that you still have far to travel. The Snow Queen has left her Summer Palace in Lapland; she has gone to the Finmark, where the Northern Lights come from. There are some who say the lights are the fireworks at the Snow Queen's Winter Palace."
"But that's over a hundred miles away!" exclaimed the reindeer, dismayed at the news.
"Yes," said the Lapp lady seriously, "and you must continue the journey with Gerda — alone she cannot hope to reach the Finmark."
The reindeer stag bowed his head in agreement, but he looked sad that he would have to wait a little longer for his play in the snowfields of Lapland.
The Lapp lady took a piece of dried salted cod from a shelf.
"I shall write you a note in runes on this piece of cod. Take it to the wise Finn woman who lives at the edge of the Finmark. She is better able to give you advice on how to reach the palace."
"How will we find the Finn woman?" Gerda asked.
"The edge of the Finmark is a flat wasteland; you will see her chimney many miles before you see her house," the Lapp lady reassured her. "Follow the smoke. She will give you all the aid she can."
The Lapp lady waved them off the next morning, and, tired yet determined, Gerda and the reindeer set off on the last leg of the journey. The Lapp lady's advice was sound. As they grew closer and closer to the Finmark, they saw dark tendrils of smoke curling into the clean winter air. Soon, they could glimpse the top of a tall chimney, and, before too long, a strange round white house came to view.
When they got close, they saw that the house was an igloo, made of blocks of ice, and had no door. Gerda stood on the reindeer's back and knocked on the chimney. There was a small gust of wind, and Gerda toppled from the reindeer's back. When she sat up, instead of finding herself dumped in the snow, she realised she was already inside the Finn woman's igloo.
There was a great, crackling fire under a huge cooking cauldron in the centre of the one-roomed ice house, and Gerda was already sweltering under her warm clothes. The Finn woman, a stout lady with very little raven hair, was wearing next to nothing. She helped Gerda struggle out of her furs, and sat her by the fire while she read the Lapp lady's cod letter. The Finn woman read the letter thrice, and then muttered: "Waste not, waste not." With that, she threw the cod into the cooking pot.
"So you want the help of a feeble old crone, do you?" she asked, with a glint in her eye.
"Ah, but we know you are no feeble old crone," the reindeer replied. "With your magic, you can bind the winds, tie them in a knot, and release them at your will. It is said that sailors bring you old books and scrolls in exchange for knowledge of the winds."
The Finn woman smiled at this. "And how will the winds help this little girl?"
"They won't," admitted the reindeer stag. "But surely someone with your powers could give her the strength of ten grown men to fight the Snow Queen!"
The Finn woman just snorted at this, turned around, pulled a scroll written in runes from a shelf, and began to read it. The reindeer coughed, but she ignored him. Gerda sniffed, but she ignored that, too. Only when the Finn woman had finished reading did she look up; she saw the hope in Gerda's eyes, and the steadfast courage of the reindeer, and made up her mind.
"Come here," she softly addressed the stag. The proud beast bowed his head and walked over to the wise woman, who scratched behind his antlers as she whispered to him.
"One last journey, brave heart. You must travel North again — not far — to the edge of the Snow Queen's gardens. There, you will see a large holly bush with bright red berries, and there you must leave Gerda, for she must perform her final task alone."
"And will she find her friend?" asked the reindeer.
"Yes, Kai is with the Snow Queen. But he is wholly in her power. He thinks he is happy and content. His heart is frozen, and he cannot see the truth because he has a sliver of the sorcerer's mirror in one of his eyes."
The reindeer stag gasped at this news — everyone knew and feared the power of the sorcerer's mirror.
"But... can you give her some strength, or some weapon to help her release Kai?" pleaded the deer.
"She is a weapon!" stated the Finn woman firmly. "Don't you see how powerful she is already? In only her dress and her bare feet she has come a thousand miles through bitter experience, with only her innocence and belief to guide her. If she cannot free Kai, then nobody will..."
The reindeer still looked doubtful.
"Tell me," the wise woman continued, "why did you run all this way over frozen wastelands?"
"To help Gerda," replied the deer firmly.
"But why?" persisted the Finn woman, "you hardly know her!"
"Because..." the reindeer stag was about to argue, but then he looked into the Finn woman's wise old almond-shaped eyes and bowed his head again.
"I think I understand," he finally said.
The wise woman smiled at him again and patted his head. Briskly she got on her feet, all business again.
"Come now!" she called, clapping her hands. "Time to be off!" Without another word, she lifted Gerda from the frozen floor and put her on the reindeer's back. She clicked her fingers, and once again they were outside. It was still dark — they were so far up North that there was no daytime in the winter. With a smack to the deer's flank, she sent him shooting northwards, Gerda clinging to his back as he sped on through the snow.
It was not long before they came to the red-berried holly bush, and the reindeer stag slid Gerda gently off his back.
"I must leave you here," he told her, and his eyes filled with tears at the thought of the defenceless little girl alone in the wintry wild.
Gerda, too, was crying. The reindeer leant down and wiped away her tears with his gentle nose, and planted a kiss on her forehead with his soft, warm lips. Then he turned, and started back southwards, for he could not bear to say goodbye.
The cold was piercing, and Gerda was numb to the bone. She looked ahead of her for the first time. In front of her was the Snow Queen's icy palace! Shining blue against the white of the snowy plain, it pierced the skyline with stalagmite towers, spires, and turrets of ice. The reflection from the Northern Lights, still flashing overhead, glinted and flashed on the ice-paned Gothic windows.
Gerda stumbled forwards through the snow-drifts, for she knew she was close to the end of her journey. The night sky was clear, but still there seemed to be snowflakes falling, a whole host of them. Gerda remembered looking at snowflakes through a magnifying glass with Kai, and wondering at the ice crystals' different shapes and sizes. These flakes were bigger than any she had seen at home; and they were growing. As each flake landed, it would expand and form itself into some strange shape. Gerda saw a direwolf-shaped flake, and some like fat polar bears or white wombats. There were birds of prey, and monster hedgehogs, and winged serpents too, and they were all tumbling towards Gerda. Tumbling and lurching, they converged on Gerda as she staggered, one foot at a time, across the snowy plain. They were the Snow Queen's guards!
Gerda's heart hammered in her chest, as if it were to breach her breastbone. Her mouth was dry with fear. She was exhausted and hungry and lost. She wanted so much to lie in the snow and go to sleep, even if it were never to awaken. It was no use; the Snow Queen had won.
As she sank to her knees and prayed one last prayer, she heard a familiar voice in her head: "I'll catch that giant flake and put her on the fire — she won't be so scary then!"
It was Kai! Kai would never give in so easily. Gerda lifted her head and shouted defiantly at the host of monster snowflakes whirling around her.
As she roared, Gerda's breath misted in the cold air. The mist hung for a moment in front of her, and drifted away. As it moved towards the snowflake guards, the mist formed itself into a shape; it was a reindeer, just like her friend. The mist reindeer tossed its antlers at a monster guard, and the snowflake fell apart in a puff of white dust. Gerda cheered, raising her hands to the sky in victory, and another misty shape came forth from her lips. Soon, she was surrounded by phantoms made with her own warm breath. The robber girl was there with her dagger in her left hand and her pistol in the right, so too was the princess and their prince with their hunting bows. The woodland raven and his lover pecked at the monsters with their sharp beaks; the Lapp lady smacked at the snowflakes with a dried salted cod, and the misty Finn woman just clicked her fingers and the guards melted, liquified and absorbed by the snowy ground. All of them moved amongst the snow guards, melting and breaking them, shattering them and making them retreat, creating a path for Gerda to plough onwards through the snowstorm. One of the mist shapes formed itself into Kai's grandmother's likeness, and rubbed at Gerda's hands and feet to keep them warm.
Stirred and heartened, Gerda marched on to the Snow Queen's palace.
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.