Steve/Tony Snow Queen, part VII (the last part) @ 10:29 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
Story the Fifth: The Little Robber Boy
Story the Sixth: The Far North, and Who the Soldier Met There
7) Of the Metal Woman's Palace and What Happened Afterward
The walls of the metal woman's fortress were formed of polished steel, and the windows of cut glass of surpassing fineness. There were more than a hundred rooms in it, all of them laid out with perfect geometric precision, and all of them utterly empty of anything alive. They were all lit by the red glow of forge-fires, yet the flames and white-hot, glowing metal gave off no smoke or heat, such that the whole place was every bit as cold as the outside.
There were no amusements here, not even the precise, repetitive dancing of the little clockwork figures the smith had once made. There were no games of cards, or evenings spent in reading, and all that was provided by way of art or decoration was perfectly symmetrical and mathematical, and all of it cast in or engraved on metal.
Empty, vast, and cold were the halls of the metal woman, for never having been human herself, she had no understanding of human emotions, least of all joy or cheer. The flickering dance of the northern lights that could be seen through the windows was the only thing that seemed to have any life or spirit at all.
The floor of the fortress's empty, endless hall was a great sheet of polished steel, its surface covered in engraved lines and curves, and scrawled all over with algebraical and alchemical symbols, and in the center of this floor sat the metal woman, when she was at home. She called the floor "The Mirror of Reason," and said that it was the best, and indeed the only one in the world.
The smith was quite pale with cold, so that he looked almost lifeless, but he did not feel it, for the metal woman's kiss had burned away the icy shiverings, and his heart was already a lump of metal.
He was engaged in completing a long string of engraved numerals around the metal woman's throne, the figures spiraling outward in a series of great circles. The smith's engravings were perfectly executed, each etched numeral a thing of beauty and superb craftsmanship, but he could not see that, for his dead, metal heart could no longer feel joy or pride in anything he did. The sequence of numerals he was engraving into the floor were the mathematical constant used to calculate the circumference and area of a circle, for the metal woman had promised him that when he had calculated this figure down to its final decimal place, he should be his own master, and she should give him the whole world and a new set of tools. But he could not accomplish it.
"Now I must hasten away to other countries," said the metal woman. "I will go and look into the deep crevices of the earth, where the metal lies in veins, and into the workshops of men who labor in the fire, trying to turn base metals into gold and divine the true natures of things, and I will whisper the truth in their ears, just softly enough that they cannot hear it. It will be good for them, for it will make them work all the harder." And away she flew, leaving the smith quite alone in the great hall which was so many miles in length; so he knelt and stared at his calculations on the floor, and was thinking so deeply, and sat so still, that anyone might have supposed that he was a statue cast in iron.
Just at this moment it happened that the soldier reached the great doors of the castle. They were polished steel, like the floor, and so cold that it burned to the touch like metal heated until it glowed. Indeed, so cold were the doors that the skin of his bare hands stuck to them, and after he had opened them, he had to rip his hands free.
The soldier walked through the great doors, leaving them open behind him, for he could not bring himself to touch them again. The floor of the hallway beyond them was cold as well, and the blood on his feet froze to it, sticking a little with every step.
The soldier walked down the long hallway and through the castle. Every room he passed was empty, and in the whole fortress, nothing moved except his reflection in the polished floors.
At last, he reached the large, empty hall, and caught sight of the smith.
His heart seemed to stop beating for a moment when he saw him, kneeling on the floor so very still, and for a terrible moment, the soldier thought that he had come all this easy, walked so very far and given up so much, only to find his friend dead, the terrible cold having frozen him solid where he sat.
Then the smith moved, every so slightly, and began engraving yet another numeral on the floor, adding it to the sequence, and the soldier began to run, so quickly that his bloody footprints did not begin to freeze until he was already two steps ahead of them.
He flung himself to his knees before the smith and threw his arms around him, holding on to him tightly with all the strength that was in him. "I have found you," he exclaimed, closing his eyes tightly so that he could not cry. "I have found you at last!"
But the smith sat quite still, stiff and cold, as if he did not even know that the soldier was there.
Then the soldier did weep, for this was a pain he had not expected. The smith, for whom he had walked halfway across the world, for whom he had given up his boots and helmet and musket, for whose sake he had left behind all the other friends he had made along the way… the smith did not know him anymore. He knew nothing but the metal woman's numbers.
The soldier called his name, and shook him, and even slapped him, leaving a bloody handprint across his face, but the smith did not even turn to look at him.
"He is entirely mine, now," a voice said from behind him. The sweet chime of a dozen clocks, the clash and screech of metal colliding with and grinding against metal, the roar of a thousand forge fires - the voice was all of these at once, and a dozen other sounds besides.
The soldier climbed to his feet, his whole body aching from the cold, and his hands and feet so frozen that they had gone quite numb, and no longer even hurt anymore, and he turned to behold for the first time the thing who had stolen the smith from him, and from himself.
It was a woman, quite naked, and made entirely out of gleaming silver metal, with eyes that glowed the orange and white and cherry red of iron heated in a forge. She was as tall as the soldier, and her feet seemed to blend into the polished metal of the floor, until the soldier could not tell where she stopped and the fortress began.
"No," the soldier said. "He is not yours. He is mine, and I have come to claim him." And as he said it, he realized that it was true, and that the reverse was true also: that he belonged to the smith.
"And what," said the metal woman, "makes you think I will give him to you?" and as she spoke, though the soldier did not see her form change, she suddenly became different, and instead of a beautiful woman like a statue cast in silver, the soldier found himself staring up at a man dressed in silver armor, his face covered by a silver mask, and his form cloaked by a long cape the greenish color of verdigrised copper.
"You will give him to me," said the soldier, "because I have walked half the length of the world for him, down roads and across ice and stones until my boots have worn away and my feet are bleeding. Because I have followed him through fields and forests, through the palaces of princes, and into and out of the tombs of the dead. Because I have given away my musket and my helmet that were all that I had left of my past, all for him, and have left behind a woman who could have loved me, and friends who asked me to stay with them."
The man in the metal masked laughed, a hollow, echoing laugh, and his face and form changed again, becoming a monstrous man clothed all in black, with the face of a skull. "What do I care for your sacrifices, or your pain? I have claimed him for my own, and if you do not cease your whining and go, I will have my captain of the guard throw you out."
He pointed with an arm that was once more the shining silver limb of the metal woman, and the soldier turned his head to behold a second metal being entering the hall. Unlike the woman, this one wore clothes of bright green and yellow, and someone had painted his metal skin red.
"He can try," the soldier said. "He will not succeed."
The metal woman laughed again, and became an elderly man in a long robe, with a ring forged of steel on each of his fingers. He waved a hand, and the lights in the hall struck sparks from the rings, until they flashed so brightly that the soldier was driven to his knees by the force of it, blinking his eyes and throwing up a hand to shield his face. "Foolish man," that chiming, roaring, shrieking voice said. "He does not even remember you anymore. The place in his heart where you once dwelt is cold and dead."
The soldier tried to rise again, but his bloody hands and feet slipped on the slick, polished floor, and he fell once more. As he did, his hand brushed across the delicate engraved lines of the smith's numbers, leaving a smear of blood across them that slowly began to freeze.
"Only because you have made him that way," the soldier said, and he glared up at the metal woman angrily. Another man might have been frightened by now, but the soldier was strong and brave and had survived many battles and trials; the only thing in the hall that made him afraid at all was the smith, and how still and silent he sat.
"Yes," the metal woman said, and she laughed a laugh that was like the ringing of great, bronze bells. "I have turned his heart to metal, and now that he is mine, I will keep him forever." She turned to the smith, a cold smile on her silver lips, and asked him, in a cooing voice, "Do you want to leave me, my darling boy?"
The smith shook his head slowly, the first movement he had made. "I cannot," he said. His voice was hoarse and harsh, as if he had not spoken in a long, long time. "I have not completed the work you commissioned me for. I must finish engraving the constant for calculating the area of a circle." He bowed his head once more, tracing his long fingers across the rows of inscribed numerals. When his fingertips reached the frozen smears of the smith's blood, he hesitated, frowning a little.
The soldier tried to struggle back to his feet, but he was so exhausted that he found he could not do it. He was able to reach his knees, but could go no farther. Once again, he called out the smith's name, and again, he got no response.
The smith was not listening. Instead, he reached up to touch the bloody handprint on his face, as if he were wondering what it might be.
The soldier called his name again, very close to weeping with his sorrow and frustration, and this time the smith turned to look at him, one hand still held to his face.
His eyes widened, and he spoke the soldier's name in a voice filled with sorrow.
The soldier stared at him, frozen, his eyes filling with hot tears that he blinked back, for he would not let himself do anything so weak as crying in front of the metal woman. He reached one hand out toward the smith, and then the metal woman was between them, her slim, perfect form warping and twisting into a great, clanking suit of armor, all hard edges and spikes and invulnerable steel.
"It matters not who he is," she told the smith, in a voice like the discordant clash of arms on a battlefield. "You have not completed the task I set you, and until you have done so, you are mine."
Through the metal woman's armored legs, the soldier could see the smith glaring up at her angrily. "It cannot be completed," he protested. "It is impossible. I have been working on it for I know not how long, and have almost filled the floor of your throne room with it, and still, I have not come to the end. I do not think that there even is one. The number cannot be calculated."
The metal woman laughed her musical laugh once more. "Then I am afraid you must stay here forever. For you swore to work without ceasing until you had finished engraving the constant."
"That's not fair!" the words burst forth from the soldier's lips before he could stop them, his heart stung by the injustice of it all. "You can't make him complete a task that can't be completed. That's cheating!"
The smith froze, his eyes, the same bluish grey as the polished steel that surrounded them, staring directly into the soldier's. "Cheating," he whispered. "She cheated." He looked slowly back up at the metal woman, betrayal naked on his face. "You cheated me," he said slowly. "Well, I can cheat, too."
And he snatched his engraving tool back up again, and, before the metal woman could intervene, made three ragged cuts across the floor, two vertical lines with a horizontal line above them, like a little table with one curved leg. "There!" he spat out, glaring at the metal woman defiantly. "I engraved the entire sum. My commission is complete."
The metal woman let out a scream of rage so loud that the walls and floor themselves vibrated with it, as if the entire palace were a great bell that had been struck by a hammer.
She drew her one armored gauntlet back, intending to deal a single, great blow that would crush the smith's skull like an egg, and the soldier, who had by this time been able to unsling the ancient shield from his back, threw the heavy wooden disk as her as hard as he could.
The shield struck the metal woman in the middle of the back, where two of the pieces of armor were jointed together, and with a great clattering sound, the suit of armor sprang apart and collapsed to the floor, like an empty, broken shell.
There had been nothing inside of it, for the metal woman, created by alchemy from a heap of metal ores, had no soul. An empty shell, in truth, was all she had been.
The pieces of armor spun and clattered on the floor, the sounds they made echoing off the polished metal walls, and then, after a moment, all was silence.
Then the smith scrambled to his feet and ran forward, leaping over the remains of the metal woman and falling to his knees beside the soldier. He enfolded the soldier in his arms and buried his face in the soldier's shoulder, his tears wetting the soldier's neck. "Where have you been all this time?" he cried, "And where have I been?" He lifted his face from the soldier's neck and looked around the hall, empty but for themselves and the metal woman's brightly colored guard, who was standing as perfectly still as a statue, watching them. "How cold it is," he said wonderingly, "and how large and empty it all looks."
The soldier laughed, and wept for joy, and kissed the smith's drawn, bearded face, and his long, clever fingers, so pale and cold. He kissed his eyes, which were red and haggard-looking from staring so long, unsleeping, at his work, and he buried his face in the smith's dark hair and felt as perfectly content as he ever had back home in his workshop, before the smith had gone away and his long, lonely journey had begun.
Then the smith's eyes fell upon the soldier's bare, bloody hands and feet, and he gave a cry of dismay. "You are wounded," he cried. "You have hurt yourself for me. You should not have, for I do not deserve it. I went away and left you, and forgot all about you, and let the metal woman's promises turn my heart to cold iron."
The soldier shook his head, and said, fiercely, "You can never leave me, for there is nowhere you can go that I will not follow. I have found you now, and I will never be parted from you again."
And the smith wept all the harder, knowing himself forgiven, and kissed the soldier's torn, bloody feet, and his poor, bleeding hands, and bandaged them with strips of fabric torn from his own coat.
As they knelt there, clinging to one another, the metal woman's clockwork guard approached them, and cleared his throat nervously, making a sound like the grinding of a clock's gear just before it strikes the hour. "My mistress is destroyed, I think," he said. "Thank you, whomever you are, for you have freed me from a servitude most dire and miserable."
The soldier accepted his gratitude, and then, looking at the stitching along the edge of his red cloak and recognizing it, asked him if he had ever known a woman who lived in a house with a red door, and who folk called a witch.
"Indeed yes, to my shame," said the clockwork man. "I was married to her for a season, but then it came to me that she deserved better than a man such as I, who am only gears and metal after all, and could not give her children as a man of flesh and blood could. So I left to free her from her vows to me, and eventually found myself back here, forced to serve at the metal woman's bidding."
"You are a great fool," the soldier told him, "and your wife misses you very much. If you will come south again with us, I am sure she will welcome you home."
Then he and the smith took each other by the hand, and went forth from the great fortress of steel, with the clockwork man following them. They spoke of their workshops, of the soldier's paints and the smith's long-abandoned forge, and of the sunsets they had watched together as they ate dinner on the roof of the soldier's shop, and as they walked the winds were at rest and the sun burst forth from behind the clouds. When they arrived at the tree with the red berries, there stood the Finnish man waiting for them, with his two goats hitched to his sled.
The goats carried the smith and the soldier and the clockwork man all the way back to the Finnish man's house, where they were warmed and fed, and then the Finnish man bid them farewell, and gave them the loan of his sled and his goats to carry them as far as the doctor's house.
The doctor seemed unsurprised to see that the soldier had found his friend, and merely invited the three of them inside with a smile, bandaging the soldier's wounded hands and feet and giving him new boots, made of reindeer fur, to wear for the long journey south again.
Then the doctor smiled once more, and told them that the Finnish man, who was a close friend of his, had promised him the use of his marvelous goats whenever he wanted them, and offered to take them in the sled as far as the northern border of the forest.
They gratefully accepted, and the doctor, who drove the sled and handled the great, fierce-looking goats with as much skill as his massive friend, took them south, until they reached the edge of the plains and the point where the forest began.
There was still snow on the ground, enough for the sled to glide along easily, but the forest itself was full of new, green leaves, and the twittering of birds, and out of it came a fine, graceful horse, which the soldier recognized as the mount he had been given by the prince and princess. A young man was riding upon it, with bright red boots on his feet and red gloves on his hands, and a musket slung across his back. It was the little robber boy, who had tired of staying with the robber band, and gone forth to seek his fortune as a soldier.
He knew the soldier directly, and the soldier remembered him; it was a joyful meeting.
"You are a fine fellow to go gadding about in this way," said he to the smith. "I should like to know whether you deserve that any one should go to the end of the world to find you."
But the soldier ruffled his hair and asked after the prince and princess.
“They are gone to foreign countries,” said the robber-boy. "On a great voyage of exploration, and they have taken the princess's brother, her captain of the guard, with them, and also one of the prince's oldest friends.
“And the hawk?” asked the soldier.
“Oh, the hawk,” he replied; “his sweetheart the mockingbird has died, and he is now a widower, and wears a bit of black ribbon round his leg. He mourns very pitifully, but it is all stuff. But now tell me how you managed to get your clockmaker back.”
Then the soldier and the smith told him all about it.
“Well, then, I suppose it's all right at last,” said the robber-boy.
Then he took both their hands, and promised that if ever he should pass through the town where they lived, he would call and pay them a visit. And then he rode away into the wide world. As they watched him go, a falcon spiraled down from the sky and landed on the robber-boy's saddle, and the soldier recognized his old friend, whom he had met on the road and shared his apple seeds with, and he rejoiced to know that neither the falcon nor the boy would have to travel the world alone, as he had.
The forest seemed to take a much shorter time to traverse this time than it had on the soldier's outward journey, and it seemed to him that the spaces under the trees were less dark, and not so gloomy, now that he had the smith at his side.
When they left the woods, and reached the green fields and the river on the other side of them. That was when the clockwork man left them, to return to the witch's cottage where his wife was waiting for him, and to seek her forgiveness. The soldier thought it best not to go with him, for it seemed to him that their reunion ought to be a private thing, though he asked the clockwork man to remember him to the witch, and to give her his thanks for the apple that had sustained him for so long on his journey, and also to carry message from him to the spider, the wasp, and the ant.
Then the soldier and the smith went hand-in-hand toward home, and as they advanced, spring appeared more lovely with its green verdure and its beautiful flowers. Very soon they recognized the town where they lived, the pointed roofs of the half-timbered houses and the tall steeples of the churches, in which the bells were ringing loud, joyous peals. It was spring in truth, and this was the first time the church bells had been sounded in forty days; therefore they were making the best of the occasion, for even church bells grown sad and lonely when they have no occasion to speak.
They walked through the cobbled streets to the street where their workshops stood, long empty and cobwebbed with neglect, but with everything still there waiting for them, for before he had left, the soldier had bought both buildings outright with the money that remained to him from his soldiering days, so that they would not be lent to new tenants in their absence.
The many clocks in the smith's workshop had wound down, but it took only a few minutes to set them all to rights again, until they were once more surrounded by the "tick, tick" of the clock pendulums and the faint whirring of gears. The paint on both their shop signs had faded and peeled, but the soldier painted them both new ones, brighter than ever, and by the end of the week, both men had as good a business as they had ever had.
And each evening, after the soldier had laid down his paint brushes and the smith had put aside his hammer and tongs, or his gears and cogs, they dined together on the roof of the soldier's house, where there was a little balcony, and watched the sunset together, and there they talked of many things, both of the pain and the hardships they had endured, and of the future they hoped to have now that they had survived them. And after they had talked, they simply sat there, in one another's company, and each thought that he had never before been so happy as this, and all around them was warm, beautiful summer.
All good stories, of course, must have a happy ending, and this one is no exception, but the important part, dear reader, is not that the soldier and the smith (and the witch, and the robber-boy, and the falcon, and the prince, and princess, and the hawk, and the ant, and the wasp, and the spider, and the doctor, and the Finnish man, and the clockwork man) lived happily ever after.
The important part, reader, is that, together or separately, they lived.