Steve/Tony Snow Queen, part V @ 06:41 pm
As with the previous installments, 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
Story the Third: Of the Library At the Young Woman's Who Understood Witchcraft
Story the Fourth: The Prince and the Princess
5) The Little Robber Boy
The soldier rode on through a thick forest, where the chime of the silver bells on his horse's bridle echoed off the vast pine trees. Here, for the first time in quite a long while, the ground was not covered in snow, for the trees' branches grew so thickly overhead that not a single snowflake touched the ground.
The chiming of the bells echoed for a very long ways, until it reached the ears of a band of robbers, who could not bear to let a traveler mounted on such a fine steed pass unmolested.
“His saddlecloth is pure silk!” they cried, rushing the soldier's horse all at once. "Surely he has gold!"
The soldier fired his musket, killing one of the robbers stone dead in half a moment, but the rest of the gang were upon him so quickly that he did not have a chance to reload, and so he was reduced to hitting about him with his musket as though it were a club.
This worked for perhaps a minute, maybe two, but then the sheer weight of their numbers overwhelmed him, and they bore him to the ground.
"He is worn and battered, for all his fine boots," mocked the head robber, an ill-looking man with an unshaven jaw and a patch over one eye. "Perhaps he stole the horse himself." And he held an old cavalry saber to the soldier's throat, saying, with a sardonic grin, "Justice is served, then."
Then he shouted an oath, for one of his fellows, a young boy with a fierce and wild grin, had stabbed a small knife into his arm. The old robber cursed him, and called him an insubordinate lout, and one of the other robbers set to bandaging his arm with a strip of cloth torn from his ragged shirt, and the gang forgot all about killing the soldier.
"You mustn't kill him yet," said the little robber boy. "I have never met a real soldier before, and I want to keep him. He shall give me his musket, and his nice leather boots, and sleep with me in my bed."
"The sarge was a soldier," one of the other robbers pointed out -- he had a great red mustache, like a walrus, and a fancy hat that the soldier supposed had been stolen from a previous unfortunate traveler.
"That one-eyed old man?" the robber boy scoffed. "He's a thief and a villain, and so are all the rest of you, and myself as well."
That seemed to settle the matter, and the soldier found himself bundled back onto his horse, with his hands tied before him and the little robber boy sitting in front of him to hold the reins.
The rode deeper and deeper into the forest, and the trees around them grew larger and larger, until they were riding through great, age-warped firs as big as the columns of a cathedral. The ground was covered by a thick carpet of their needles, which muffled the horse's footsteps, and there were no smaller plants of any sort to be seen, not, as you might think, because it was winter, but because nothing else can grow where a fir or pine tree's needles have fallen.
The little boy was smaller then the soldier, with dark hair and a mournful look, for all that he smiled so fiercely. When they had been riding for a while, he turned his head so that he was looking back at the soldier over his shoulder, and said, “They shall not kill you as long as you don’t make us angry with you. I suppose you are a great general?”
“No,” said the soldier; and then he told him all his history, and how fond he was of his missing friend.
The robber-boy looked earnestly at him, nodded his head slightly, and said, “They shall not kill you, even if I do get angry with you; for I will do it myself.” And then he handed the soldier a ragged bit of fur to use as a muff and stuck his own hands in the soldier's red gloves, which were so soft and warm.
The band of robbers finally stopped in a large clearing, where a great mound of earth rose up from the forest floor, with a door built of three stone slabs, one placed sideways on top of the other two, led into the darkness beyond.
The robbers stopped to light themselves torches, and then the soldier was escorted inside. In the flickering, smoky light, he could see that the inside of the mound was quite hollow, forming a long oval, in the center of which were the rotted remains of an ancient longship.
The mound was a tomb, he realized. The final dwelling place for the bones of some long-dead king or lord. Indeed, the deceased man himself was still there, lying in the bottom of the longboat with his arms folded across his chest and a sword clutched in one skeletal hand. The robbers had not touched it -- evidently even they feared to steal from the dead.
The first thing the robbers did was light a fire in a corner of the tomb, away from the longship. There was no chimney, of course, it being underground, so the smoke went up to the ceiling, and found a way out for itself. Soon, hares and rabbits were roasting on spits over the fire, and the smell of the meat cooking reminded the soldier of how hungry he was.
“You shall sleep with me to-night,” said the robber-boy, after they had eaten. And he led the soldier to a dark corner behind the rotting longship, where a pile of furs made a soft bed on the floor.
The hull of the ship loomed over them, casting them in shadow, and it was a far cozier sleeping place than you might suppose.
"And now you will tell me another story," said the robber boy, sitting cross-legged on the furs and grinning up at the soldier cheerfully. "The rest of those villains tell the same ones over and over, and I am tired of hearing them. Not about your journey, for you have already told me that one. I want to hear about the wars you have been in, and the battles you have fought."
And so the soldier told him about the battle of Breitenfeld, and the sacking of Magdeberg, and the siege of Breisach, and what it was like to watch the sun rise over Flanders. And as he spoke, the rest of the robbers, who had finished their own dinners, began to come by ones and twos to sit in the shadow of the longship and listen to him.
When the soldier had exhausted every story of warfare and battle that he knew, the robbers began offering tales of their own. The man with the red moustaches told of men armed with pikes and halbards and a religion even harder than their iron breastplates, who had swept across his home country, burning and killing whatever they could find, and how he had left his land and gone south with the geese to fight another kingdom's battles in Spain. Another robber, a sun-burnt, black haired fellow who claimed to be descended from a long line of condotti, told of laying siege to the French in Turin, and being besieged by them in turn, and of fighting for and then against the Pope's armies in Parma. A third man, a morisco from Spain by way of Marseille, who's dark face was nearly indistinguishable from the others, so grimy and weather-beaten were they all, had fought with France's armies against his own nation in the low countries and the piedmont for many years -- he claimed to have personally given the condotti a musket wound in the thigh at the Siege of Turin -- but had never laid eyes on Valencia and Castile, the lands his parents had been born in and then driven out from.
The one-eyed leader of the gang did not tell his own story, but after the fire had burned low, and the robber boy and several of the other men had fallen asleep, he asked the soldier if he would not like to join them, and try his hand at being a thief himself.
"Look at us," he said, nodding at the robbers where they slept wrapped in their furs. "The dregs of half the armies in Europe. We've been at war, man and boy, for our entire lives, and all it got us was sore feet and empty bellies. Now we fight for ourselves alone, and claim for our own the spoils of our combat. You have the look of a man well-accustomed to pike and halbard, and that musket we took from you was well worn with use. I do not know how you got ahold of that fine horse and pretty silk saddle cloth we took from you, but stay with us and I can promise you more."
The soldier, looking about the smoke-filled tomb, thought that the one-eyed man's promises of riches and ease to be gained by a life of highway robbery did not quite agree with the dismal condition of his living quarters; besides which, he had always been an honest man, and had made his living through his own efforts and not by stealing the property of others. Even during the looting and destruction that followed the end of a siege and the breaching of a city's walls, the soldier had never taken so much as a loaf of bread or a copper penny from its rightful owner.
But those were only a small part of the feelings that impelled him to decline. "I am searching for someone," he told the one-eyed robber. "A friend who has gone away. I have walked so far in my searching that I have nearly walked the soles off my old pair of boots, and I will not stop until I have found my friend and we are together again."
"Ah," said the robber wisely, as he pulled a pipe from within his coat. "A woman. I might have known. I almost gave the soldiering life up myself, once, for a woman. Would have, indeed, had she not died. And I would have lived to regret it, mark me if I wouldn't. If she's gone off and left you, my advice is to forget all about her." And he lit his pipe, stuck the end of it in his mouth, and began to puff out foul-smelling clouds of pipe smoke.
Blushing slightly, the soldier explained to the robber that he was mistaken, and that the friend he sought was a man, a gunsmith and clockmaker of great renown, who had been lured away into the wide world by a women formed all of silver metal.
"I have heard of her," the robber said, chewing on the stem of his pipe. "She lives in the far north, in Lapland, where there is always snow and ice, and no trees grow. They say her lands are empty of all living things, and that her castle at the edge of the North Sea is built entirely of iron and steel, so cold that its walls and gates will freeze the skin off any man who touched them."
"How do you know this?" the soldier asked, greatly surprised. "For nearly everyone I have spoken to on my journey has either never heard of her, or can tell me no more than that she dwells in the north."
"It is my business to know a great many things," the robber said, with a shrug. "I'm afraid it will do you little good, though." And then he informed the soldier that if he did not see fit to join their merry band, they had no choice but to hold him for ransom. "For the boy likes you, and would like as not cry for days on end if we were to cut your throat." And he tied the soldier's hands behind him with a length of sinew, and went to bed himself, wrapped in a pile of furs with only his face showing. He took his eyepatch off as part of his evening toilet, and the empty socket of his left eye made a black hollow in his face in the dim, red light of the coals, shadows seeming to gather within it.
The soldier lay awake, watching the shadows grow thicker about him as the coals of the fire died, and tried to think what he should do. The Prince and Princess would certainly pay his ransom, but they had already been so very generous towards him that he was loathe to cost them any further expense. Ought he to lie, and pretend to join the robber band, and then slip away at the earliest opportunity? Perhaps that might have worked, had he thought of it earlier, but he had already given the leader of the band his refusal.
After some time had passed, the little robber boy opened his eyes and sat up, withdrawing from his bedclothes a knife of the most wicked sharpness, which he proceeded to use to cut the soldier's bonds.
“Do you always have that knife with you while you are asleep?” asked the soldier, looking at the weapon with some astonishment.
“I always sleep with the knife by me,” said the robber-boy. “No one knows what may happen. But now tell me again all about your friend, and why you went out into the world.”
Then the soldier repeated his story over again, while all around them the rest of the robber band slept. And when he got to the end, he repeated all that the one-eyed robber had told him concerning the metal woman's fortress.
The little robber-boy looked grave, and nodded solemnly, and said, “That may be, but it is all talk. Do you even know where Lapland is?”
"No," the soldier admitted," but I am sure that if I keep walking north, I shall certainly find it eventually."
"You are a great fool,' the robber-boy said. "Now listen, for I am about to do something for you. I have cut your bonds, and if you like, I shall set you free, so that you may run away to Lapland and find your friend. But first I must have something in exchange, so that I may not show myself to have made a bad bargain when the other wake tomorrow and find you gone."
"Anything!" the soldier cried, for now that he had heard the one-eyed robber's descriptions of the metal woman's fortress, he found himself sorely tormented by visions of how much the smith must be suffering in that icy, terrible place.
"You have already given me your red leather gloves," the robber-boy said. "If I let you go, you must also give me your helmet and your musket and your red leather boots, for I think they would look better on me than they do on you."
The soldier would have hesitated, for surrendering the musket would leave him defenseless, and the journey to Lapland would be difficult enough in his fine, new leather boots, and would be hard indeed if he had again to wear the old, cracked ones, but he thought of the smith, and found himself agreeing in half a moment.
So he took off his fine, new red leather boots, and handed them over to the robber-boy, along with his old helmet and the musket he had carried for so many years. Giving them up was like handing away a piece of himself, as if he were leaving behind the soldier he had been, leaving his very identity here in this tomb, with the robbers and the smoke and the shadows and the bones of the dead king. But nevertheless, he did it, and afterwards, the robber-boy took the soldier's old, battered, worn-out boots from the bottom of his pile of provisions the robber band had captured from him, and held them out to him.
“Here are your old boots for you,” he said, “for it will be very cold. And here also is your pack that we took from you. I have put a loaf of bread and some meat inside it, so that you need not starve."
The soldier found himself near to weeping in gratitude, and he asked the robber-boy if he would not leave this place and come with him on his journey. "For this life that you are living now is no life for a child."
The robber-boy grinned fiercely, and shook his head. "I have been cutting men's throats all my life," he said. "I am merciless as the winter, and I have never been a child. But maybe, with this musket and this helmet, I can go south to the Low Countries where the great kingdoms of the world are forever fighting their wars, and try my luck at being an honest soldier." Then he frowned, and studied the soldier carefully. "But I see I have left you without a weapon. Here, climb inside the boat with me, and the old king will provide you with one."
And with that, he scrambled up the side of the ancient longboat, as nimble as a monkey, and grasped the long, sharp sword that the dead king still held tight in his skeletal hands. "It is very old, to be sure," he said, "but it hasn't rusted, and I think it is still sharp."
But the sword turned out to be stuck fast in the dead man's grasp, for no matter how hard the boy tugged, the skeletal fingers would not release their grip. "What a pity," said the robber-boy, "but you need not leave empty handed, anyway." And he lifted a round wooden shield from where it lay on the deck, and gave it to the soldier.
It was very old, and quite covered in dust, but the ancient oak it had been carved from was still quite hard and solid, and the hide covering stretched across its front was very tough. It had a metal boss in the center, with a design closely resembling a star carved into it, and was extremely heavy.
The soldier accepted the gift with thanks, though he could not help a superstitious shiver at the shield's origin, and followed the little robber-boy through the darkness of the tomb and out into the star-lit night.
He stretched out his hand, quite bare now that he had given his gloves away, and the robber-boy took it. "Farewell," he said, "and I wish you good luck."
And then the soldier strapped the shield across his back, and turned and walked away through the great, dark forest, his footsteps taking him north, towards the edge of the world.
Wolves howled in the forest's depth, and ravens croaked harshly in the branches overhead, but the soldier kept walking, until the bread and meat were entirely gone, and at length he reached the end of the trees and found before him a vast, snow-covered plain, full of bare rocks and ice and here and there a low, scrubby tree, warped into strange shapes by the wind.
Overhead, the sky burned with red and green fire, and the soldier, who had never seen such a thing before, stared at it in wonder, forgetting the way his shoulders ached from the weight of the shield, and the way his feet burned with cold inside his ragged boots, the soles of which had been almost entirely worn away.
It was the Northern Lights, and he had reached the far north at last.