Steve/Tony Snow Queen, part II @ 11:20 pm
As with the previous installment, some content has been paraphrased & quoted from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen."
Story the First: The Steel Mirror
Story the Second: The Soldier and the Smith
3) Of the Library At the Young Woman's Who Understood Witchcraft
But how fared the soldier in the smith's absence? What had become of the gunsmith, no one knew, nor could anyone make even a guess as to his whereabouts. All the towns people could tell the soldier was that they had last seen him riding through the streets in a large, metal sled, driven by a lady of strange and wondrous beauty.
No one knew where the sled had gone, or who the lady might be, and though the soldier was too hardened and battle-worn a campaigner to weep, the days seemed very long and empty to him without the sound of hammerblows echoing off the front of his shop. He told himself that the smith must be dead, that he had drowned in the river that flowed through the town.
The winter passed like an age, cold and lonely and without hope, until at last spring came, with sunshine and warmth that didn't touch the cold inside him.
"My friend is dead and gone," said the soldier.
"We don't believe it," said the paintings in his shop.
"My friend is dead and gone," he said to the clocks in the smith's abandoned workshop, which still tolled the hours day in and day out, because the soldier wound them faithfully once a week.
“We don’t believe it,” they chimed.
"My friend is dead and gone," he said to the helmet, pike, and musket that were all that remained of his soldiering days, stacked neatly in a corner of his attic.
"We don't believe it," they insisted, their voices fierce and warlike, and at last the soldier began to doubt it himself. “I will put on my red boots,” he said one morning, “the ones that my friend has never seen, and then I will go down to the river, and ask for him.”
Then he put on his red boots, donned his old helmet, slung his musket over his shoulder, and walked quite alone through the streets toward the river. “Is it true that you have taken my friend away from me?” he said to the river. “I will give you my red boots if you will give him back to me.”
It seemed to him that the waves nodded in a strange manner. The he took off his red boots, which he had worn through a dozen campaigns and more battles than he cared to remember, and threw them into the river.
He threw them out very far, as hard as he could, yet the waves simply carried them back to the shore by his feet, as if the river were refusing his offering.
The soldier could be very stubborn once he had set upon a course of action, and thought that maybe he hadn't thrown the boots out quite far enough. So he borrowed a boat that sat tied up by the pier, and took it out into the river, meaning to tie the shoes to his helmet and throw them overboard.
But the current was stronger than he had expected, and before he knew what was happening he was caught in it, and the little boat sailed away down the river at great speed.
The boat floated on the stream, and the soldier sat in his stocking feet with the boots resting on the seat beside him and watched the buildings of the town go by. "Perhaps," he thought, trying to make the best of it, "the river will take me to my friend."
More quickly than he could have thought possible, the boat had left the town behind, and the soldier was floating past fields and woods and green, mossy banks. Some of the scenery was so beautiful that he wished for charcoal or ink to draw it, but of course he had none of those things with him, and so he could only sit there and watch. A day passed, and then two more, and still the boat floated onwards.
At length he came to a large apple orchard, its trees great clouds of pink and white blossoms, in which stood a small house with a thatched roof and a red door. It was the first dwelling place the soldier had seen since the boat had left the town, and after almost three days drifting on the river he was faint with hunger and thirst. He called out, hoping to draw the attention of the person who lived in the house, and a young woman opened the red door and came out.
She wore a large hat with a veil hanging from it to shade her from the sun, and her dress was all shades of red, from the bright cherry-red of her door to the deep red of blood to the flaming hue of poppies at sunrise.
“You poor man,” said the young woman, “how did you manage to come all this distance into the wide world on such a rapid rolling stream?”
And she fetched a rope from inside the house and threw it out to him.
The soldier caught hold of it, and together, he and the woman in red hauled the boat to shore. The soldier was glad to be on dry ground, though his legs weren't quite steady after so many days without water or food, and he thanked the woman with all his heart.
"I'm an afraid I cannot reward you for your help," he told her. "Unless you want my boots or my musket."
The woman smiled; she had a still, thoughtful face, like one who had known much sorrow, but the smile transformed her, and made her look quite as pretty as you could wish. "What use would I have for those?" she said. And then, "Come and tell me who you are,” she said, “and how came you here.”
Then the soldier told her everything, while the woman shook her head and said, "Hmm," and when he had finished, the soldier asked if she had seen the smith, and the woman told him with regret that he had not passed by that way. "But," she added, as if trying to cheer him, "maybe he will come."
And she told the soldier not to be sorrowful, but to come inside and refresh himself with food and drink.
Then she took him by the hand and led him into the house, and closed the red door behind them.
The glass in the windows was red, yellow, and green, and the colored light danced along the walls and floor and made the soldier think of the paints he had left behind in his workshop, and he wondered, all of a sudden, what would become of his shop, and of the smith's forge and workroom as well, with both of them gone away.
The woman in red served him food and drink, and he ate with great pleasure -- the water she poured for him tasted sweeter than the finest wine, so thirsty was he, and the bread and meat was, he thought, the very best he had ever tasted.
When he had satisfied his hunger and thirst, the woman sat him down before the fire and began to brush his shining gold hair with a pearl-handled brush. He closed his eyes and felt the soothing motions of the brush, and thought that it had been a very long time since someone had been kind to him.
“My husband has gone away and left me, and I have long been wishing for a fine, strong man like you,” said the woman, “and now you must stay with me, and see how happily we shall live together.” And while she went on brushing the soldier's hair, he thought less and less about his dearest friend, for the woman in red could work spells and enchantments, although she was not a wicked witch; she had had great power, once, but now she used witchcraft only a little for her own amusement, and now, because she was lonely and wanted to keep the soldier.
The soldier fell asleep at the table, his head resting on his folded arms, and when he woke he had no memory of the smith, or of his search for him. Perhaps he might have recalled it had he been able to hear the ticking or chiming of a clock, but the woman in red kept no clocks anywhere in her house, nor anything mechanical at all.
Summer came, and the apple blossoms became small, green fruits, and the days were long and drowsy. The soldier helped hoe in the woman's garden, and fixed her thatched roof where it was beginning to sag, and painted her shutters with red poppies, to match her door. And at night, she brushed his hair before the fire, and he combed out her long, dark curls, and if the inky color of her hair seemed familiar to him somehow, he told himself that it must be because he had spent so many days in her cottage that it was beginning to feel like home.
The cottage had only a few rooms, but one of them was a library, stuffed with more books than the soldier had ever seen in one place before. One of the things he had shared with the smith was a love of reading, and so each afternoon, after he had finished all the chores around the house that the woman didn't do herself, and practiced with his musket, he would go into the library and select a book to read.
The library was dusty, because although the woman loved to cook and garden, she wasn't quite so fond of dusting, and one day, when the soldier was reaching for a book, he found a spiderweb strung between two of the leather-bound volumes.
"Please," the spider cried, in a small voice, "do not move my books. It would tear my web apart, and I have only just gotten it built this past winter, after my old web in the clock was destroyed. I do not want to have to move house again."
"In the clock?" the soldier asked, and the words seemed to strike a chord within him.
"I hate moving house," the spider was saying, "because your things get all knocked about and mixed up, and it takes ages to get everything straight again, and there's always something you've forgotten and left behind, and then you feel terribly silly. Yes, the clock. I used to have a very nice web strung inside the casing, where I could watch the cogs go round and round. I lost it when the woman took the clock down and threw it away. Everyone is mean to me. It is because I am so small, I suppose. People don't notice me.
And the soldier, thinking of clocks, remembered everything all at once, and was amazed that he had ever forgotten it. He groaned, and scolded himself aloud, apalled at how near he had come to abandoning his friend, and the spider, curious, inquired of him what was the matter.
And so he told the spider his story; how the smith had been driven away in a great metal sled, by a woman the townpeople said had had skin like polished silver, and how the soldier was wandering the wide world in search of him.
"That is very interesting," the little spider said, "but I am afraid I cannot help you. I have read every book in this library, and I cannot recall ever reading about a woman made of metal. Unless the witch has taken away those books, too."
A wasp buzzing about the ceiling had also heard the soldier's words, and she flew down to land upon his shoulder. "I, too, have never heard of a woman made of metal," she said, "but my husband the ant is very wise, and has made a study of the natural sciences. Perhaps he knows something of her."
The solider then said that he would very much like to talk to the ant, and the wasp flew away with an air of purpose. Several moments later, she and a small, black ant both crawled out from behind a book by Paracelcus. "Here is the man I told you about," she said. "He is searching for a woman with skin like polished silver, who took his friend away."
"Do you know of such a woman?" the soldier asked the ant. "Or where she might be found?"
The ant's antennae drooped. "I do indeed know of her, much to my shame. I was not always as you see me now. Many years ago, when I was a very young man, I was a great scholar and an alchemist. It was I who created her, through dark alchemical rites I should have knwn better than to perform. But I sought after knowledge to the exclusion of all else, and thought only of the renown such a creation would bring me.
"But being created by unworthy means, and for unworthy motives, my creation soon proved herself a monster. She left me to travel the world on her own, and I, realizing too late what I had done, came to the witch who lives in this house and had her turn me into an ant as penance."
The soldier listened with fascination to this story, and was greatly astonished. "And after all these years, you have never asked the sorceress to change you back? Surely your penance must be complete by now."
"No," said the ant, "for I am happy as an ant. I love the wasp, and I would rather be an ant and stay by her side than be a man without her." He rubbed his antennae together for a mement, and then went on, "And I have learned all the languages of the insects, and taught the wasp and the spider both to speak in human speech, so I have all the society I could wish for."
"I am learning alchemy and medicine, as well," the spider piped up. "And I had mostly figured out how the clock worked before it was taken away, only the gears were so much larger than me that it was hard to be certain."
The wasp was silent at first, hovering in the air beside the soldier and beating her translucent wings. After a long moment, she said, "You never told me any of this, husband, and we have been married since this spring. I had thought you under the witch's curse."
The ant dipped his head, looking for all the world like a man who has ashamed of himself. "I did not want you to think badly of me," he confessed.
"I am sure no one thinks badly of you," the soldier broke in. "Now tell me, what else do you know about the metal woman? Do you know where she lives?" It was rude of him to be so impatient, of course, but you must remember, reader, that he was very anxious about his friend, and his anxiety had only grown upon hearing the ant's story.
"I do not, but the witch does. She traded most of her power to her in exchange for a husband. I advised her against it, but she was lonely, for no man would marry a woman with such unnatural abilities, or even come to visit her house. But she was cheated most cruelly, for the husband the metal woman gave her was only a clockwork man, and after a year and a day the mechanism in his heart ran down and he ceased to love her, and went away into the wide world, whereupon she has been alone ever since."
"I think I remember him," the spider said. "I hadn't learned to understand what humans said yet, so I mostly ignored them, but I remember that he was very colorful, and he made whirring noises when he walked. Was that why the lady in red took down the clock and destroyed my house?"
"I don't know," the wasp told him kindly. "For I lived in the garden, then."
The soldier thanked the three profusely for their help, and left the library to ask the woman in red, or the witch, as he thought of her now that he knew of her power, where the metal woman might be found.
The witch was in the orchard, picking apples. When she heard the sound of the soldier's footsteps, she turned, an apple as red as her dress cupped in her hands, and as soon as she saw him, with his helmet on his head and his musket over his shoulder, ready to set out into the wide world again, she knew that her enchantment had been broken.
"You remember," she said quietly, her voice sorrowful.
"Yes," the soldier said.
"I am sorry for keeping you from your friend," she said, "but my husband had been gone for months when your boat came floating past my doorstep, and I was lonely."
The soldier felt sorry for her, and the memory of her kindnesses made him like her in spite of the trick she had played on him. But now that the witch's enchantment had been broken, his heart and mind were entirely filled with the thought of his missing friend, and there was room for no other. So when she said that she supposed he was now going to go away and leave her, he nodded solemnly.
"The insects in your library said that you might know where the woman with skin like metal is to be found," he said.
"Yes," she said. "I did not want to tell you before, because I knew that it would make you leave, but she is an old acquaintance of mine. I was a great enchantress once, not a simple crafter of spells and charms as you see me now. I traded her nearly all my power for a favor that I wanted of her, and now her magic greatly surpasses mine, but I am not a witch for nothing. When you told me of your quest, I looked for her in my mirror, and found her many miles to the north, in the frozen wastes where no living thing walks. Perhaps your friend is there with her, and perhaps he is not. I do not know."
The soldier thanks her, and bid her farewell. But as he turned to go, the witch stayed him, and pressed the apple she held into his hand.
"Take this," she said. "You may be hungry along the way."
The soldier took the apple and tucked it into his pocket. It was perfectly ripe, exactly the kind of apple that is so wonderful to bite into on a cool, autumn day, and he realized as he looked around the orchard that summer had come and gone, and it was autumn now. The trees that had been pink and white clouds of blossom when the river had brought him here were heavy with fruit, and the air was cold.
"Thanks you," he told the witch. "It is a long way from here to the frozen wastes, and it might be that I will pass your husband on the way. If I do, I will tell him that you are waiting for him to return to you."
And then he left the witch's orchard, through the old wooden gate in the garden wall. He left the door open behind him, and looked back three times as he walked away. Each time, he saw the witch still picking her apples, her face turned away from him.
The leaves on the oak and willow trees were brown and yellow, and the path beneath his feet was covered with them. They made a dry, crackling sound at his every step. "Summer is gone," they whispered to him as he walked. "Winter is coming."
"I should never have stayed so long," the soldier reproached himself. He tried to consoled himself with the thought that he would not know how to find the metal woman were it not for the witch's directions, but everything around him was dreary and cold, and the dying leaves dripped with autumn fog and rains. He thought about how far he had left to go, and how close it was to winter, and the whole world appeared dark and weary to him.