Fairytale fic, for the cap_ironman Steve/Tony fairytales challenge @ 07:01 pm
Somebody's already claimed the Snow Queen on the cap_ironman fairytale drabble post, but since I got the plotbunny and wrote the outline a year ago and wrote the first two segments this morning before I realized that we were supposed to sign up for things, I'm posting it anyway. But here, instead of on the comm. I'll link if she says I can share the prompt.
Edit: Since not everyone's as familiar with the original text of the Snow Queen as I had blythely assumed, a belated heads up that some of this is paraphrased from Hans Christian Andersen's original, and several lines are direct quotations.
1. A mirror of steel
Once upon a time, there lived a very clever demon, who manufactured a vast and unique mirror made of polished steel. This mirror, when held up to something, displayed its internal working to the viewer. Machines became nothing but so many assembled parts; beautiful gardens of flowers a mere collection of stamens, petals, and pollen; great works of music, a bare progression of notes; and people, nothing so much as masses of organs and bone and assorted squishy bits.
The demon's fellow devils all hailed this invention as a great success, for by seeing everything reduced to bits and pieces, the viewer lost sight of the whole, and forgot to appreciate the beauty they might otherwise have perceived. For a work of art reduced to its components is nothing but an assembly of paints on canvas or ink on paper, without a soul.
The assembled demons were so pleased with the mirror's success that they decided to carry it as high into the air as possible, so as to survey the entire world reflected in it, thereby reducing everything to dry, empty logic, and depriving all of creation of its sense of wonder. However, the higher and higher they flew, the colder and colder it became, until they at last reached a height where the temperature was so cold that the steel of the mirror became brittle, and shattered into a thousand, thousand pieces.
These pieces flew about everywhere, scattering themselves all over the world. Some tiny slivers lodged themselves in people's eyes, upon which the person could only perceived cold, logical facts. Some lodged in people's brains, upon which the unfortunate victims all became post-modernists and deconstructionalists. And some simply fell to earth, to be found like any other piece of scrap metal.
It is about one of those pieces that our story shall concern itself.
2. A Soldier and a Smith
Our story begins in a great city, a city of cobblestones and half-timbered houses, of clocktowers and fountains, workshops and marketplaces, so crowded that the houses leaned out over the street towards one another. In this city, which could be any city, possibly even the one you, dear reader, may reside in, there lived a soldier who had just returned from many years at war.
The soldier had fought all over the world, in a great many battles and campaigns, and after losing his closest comrade to enemy fire, had finally retired and hung up his shield, using the money he had made during his years in the army to purchase himself a small shop, where he went into business as a painter.
The soldier's shop lay directly across the street from a gunsmith's forge, and day in and day out, he could hear the sound of the smith's hammer clanging against his anvil, the wheeze of the billows in the forge, and the constant chiming of the clocks his neighbor made, for the gunsmith produced clockwork and watches as well as arquebuses and pistols.
It initially crossed the soldier's mind to pay a visit across the street and complain of the noise, but he was a reasonable man, and told himself that the gunsmith must earn his living just as any man must, and that he could hardly carry out his trade without making a racket. After several weeks of the constant assault upon his ears, the soldier eventually grew so used to it that he no longer noticed it, and indeed, when patrons visiting his workshop asked if it wasn't rather inconvenient to paint in such a noisy location, he used to blink at them in confusion and wonder aloud what they could be speaking of.
So matters continued for several months, until one morning the hammerblows and grinding of metal ceased, and the soldier looked up, surprised by the silence, to find the gunsmith standing in his doorway.
He was a tall, lean man, nearly of a height with the soldier, but not so broad through the shoulders. His hair and neatly trimmed moustaches were dark, and his long, clever fingers were stained with soot and covered in small burns and nicks from his work. The soldier thought of his own hands, calloused from sword and pike and dotted with tiny dark flecks from powderburn, and now continually stained with paint, and smiled.
"I would like, " the smith said, "for you to paint me a sign." He went on to explain that the soldier's work was so beautiful that a sign painted by him would be sure to increase the smith's business, and improve the appearance of his workshop.
The soldier agreed to take the commission, and after three days worth of repeated visits by the smith to check on the progress of his sign, the two men became fast friends.
All that summer, the two would sit together in the long, balmy evenings, sometimes in the soldier's workshop, surrounded by paintpots and brushes and with half-painted signs and portraits making a rainbow of color around them, and sometimes inside the smithy, with the chiming of the many clocks ringing in their ears.
The soldier spoke of his campaigns, of the renown he had won and the comrades he had lost, and what it was like to watch the sun come up over a Flemmish battlefield, glinting off casques and pikeblades and tinting the orange poppies that grew everywhere the color of blood. "There is beauty everywhere," he told the smith. "Even in war."
The smith, in turn, spoke of his work, of the delicate task of crafting cogs and gears just so, of the secrets involved in making a bullet fly straight and true, or preventing a gun barrel from splitting. "I will leave the poppies and sunrises to you," he said, smiling. "A well-made musket, every part fitting perfectly into place, or a perfectly forged blade, the metal folded and hammered over and over and polished until it shines. There is your beauty in war." But it was clocks that held the greatest part of his regard, and the soldier loved to hear him speak of them -- of how different kinds of chimes were produced, of how the rotations of their gears mirrored the movements of the heaven -- and to watch him demonstrate the clockwork toys he made to sell to the children and fond parents of the town, when no order of pistols or muskets lay waiting to be filled.
Summer passed away, and autumn after it, in its turn, and it seemed to the soldier that he had never been so happy as he was here, in his little house with the low eaves and thick, warped glass windows, surrounded by his art and the sound of ticking and chiming clocks.
And then, just as autumn began drawing to a close, the smith invited the soldier over to his workshop to watch him work. "I have seen you paint," he said. "It is time you had a closer look at my own work."
He had a fragment of steel he had found sitting amid his pile of scrap metal, and was examining it thoughtfully. "It's odd," he observed, as the soldier entered, "but I can't recall seeing this piece of metal before. Still, it would be wrong to let good steel like this go to waste."
And so he picked the fragment of steel up with tongs and set it in the fire, and bid the soldier to heave away on the belows until it glowed red-hot.
Now, the smith was a very clever and skillful man, and you must not think that what I am about the relate to you was in any way due to carelessness or error on his part, or to any lack of experience on the part of the soldier. For the steel the smith was working was no ordinary steel, and possessed a malevolent power of its own.
The smith pulled it from the fire, now glowing a bright, baleful red, and laid it on his anvil. It was as he struck the first blow with his hammer that the disaster occurred. The steel, perhaps due to its own dull ill-will, perhaps owing to some hidden internal flaw, shivered into a dozen pieces, all of the flying about the workroom with great force. The soldier, throwing himself to the ground behind the anvil, escaped unscathed, but the smith closer to the scene of the accident, was less fortunate. A sliver of the metal struck him in the chest, knocking him to the ground.
He was ill for several weeks, during which the soldier tended him with great care and ran his shop as well as his own, selling clocks and wheel lock pistols and wind-up toys that performed the most cunning little jerky dances when wound, though it was beyond his ability to make more.
Afterwards, the smith seemed completely recovered, and assuaged the solicitous solder's concern by swearing that he had never felt better in his life, and that the wound from the metal was completely healed. But it was not; it was a sliver of steel from the demon's mirror, that had got into his heart, and though he did not know it, it was there still, slowly turning his heart as cold as a lump of iron. It did not hurt any longer, but there it was.
He lost interest in the soldier's stories, no longer wanted to look at his paintings. When the soldier showed them to him, he smirked, and pointed out that this line was crooked, that that angle wasn't true, that the perspective was wrong, or the paint improperly mixed, or the wood or canvass of inferior quality. He no longer made toys, or the clocks with the whimsical chimes and bowing clockwork figures that had been the soldier's favorites. Instead, he stayed shut up in his lab and produced simple, unadorned clocks of greater and greater complexity, and guns of such fine craftmanship that he soon had noblemen, hunters, and officers visiting his shop at all hours of the day and night, as his fame as a gunsmith without parallel spread.
Once, after winter had arrived and the snow began to fall, the soldier knocked on the smith's door himself, to ask him to come across the street for dinner.
The smith, who hardly ever eat these days, shook his head, saying coldly that he had work to do. As he spoke, a snowflake drifted down to land on the heavy leather glove he wore to protect his had when at the forge, and he held it up to the soldier with a thin, sharp smile. "Look how perfect it is," he said, bidding the soldier to peer at it through the glass he used for working on the smallest, finest gears. "Much better than your painted flowers. So exact and symmetrical -- there would not be a fault in it, if only it did not melt."
"The soldier agreed that it was beautiful, and went home, his workshop feeling empty and cold without someone to share his dinner with.
The next morning, the snow had fallen thick and white, covering the street so that people had to travel in sleds instead of carriages. About midday, when the sun was glinting dazzlingly off the countless tiny crystals of snow, a fine, large sled of shining metal pulled up in front of the smith's workshop.
The smith went out to meet it, eager for new custom, and stared up at the sled's driver in awe.
It was a woman, tall and of slender figure, with skin of a dazzling silver, like polished metal. She was clothed all in armor, her breastplate and gauntlets and chainmail likewise silver, and her eyes glowed red like iron heated in a fire.
The smith looked at her, and thought that he had never seen anyone so beautiful, or whose face was so clever and whose eyes so wise.
The lady smiled at him serenely, and asked him if it was true that he was a metal worker of great skill, and her voice as she spoke was like the ringing of metal on metal, or the chiming of a clock.
It seemed to the smith that that voice rang through the whole world, and his heart gave one sharp, painful throb. Then he fetched a piece of his finest work from his workbench, a pistol of surpassing delicacy and beauty -- the hilt inlaid with chased silver, the trigger perfectly balanced and the flint screwed in just so, the barrel cast without a seam and lined inside with the tiny, spiralling grooves that he had devised himself, that made a bullet fly perfectly true -- and show it to her.
She smiled in delight, and kissed him on the forehead, her lips burning his skin, and yet at the same time colder than frozen metal. It seemed to penetrate all through him, and his heart, already cold as a lump of iron, seemed to grow colder still, until it seemed as if he would die. But a moment more, and it seemed quite painless, even pleasant, and he forgot all about the soldier, and his anvil and workbench, and his customers, and climbed up into the sled beside her.
They drove away together, and the smith told her that he could do sums in his head, even fractions, and explained how to grind gears properly, and that metal expanded when it was heated, and all manner of other things, and the lady listened with a serene smile on her face. It then seemed to him that what he knew was not enough, and he looked around him at the darkening sky as the sled flew onwards -- really flying, drawn through the air under its own power, with no horse or other animal to pull it. On they flew over woods and lakes, over seas, and many lands; and beneath them a storm brewed and built, turning the clouds black, the snow crackled, and no living thing made a sound; but they were above the clouds now, and higher up appeared the moon, quite large and bright, so close that it's barren, rocky surface could be seen clearly; and it was on it that the smith gazed during the long long winter's night; while by day he slept at the feet of the Lady.
Story the Third: At the Library of the Young Woman Who Understood Witchcraft