A Tale of the Snow Queen

 There was once a young woman who was not especially kind, nor especially brave. In fact, there was nothing particularly special about her at all, save that she was human, and that kind was of a sort that was never entirely similar to one another. Perhaps it was because her life had nothing of challenge or consternation to develop her character. Or perhaps it was because only little was expected of her. Or even that she had never witnessed need. And perhaps it was all of that which had made her heart a bit small, a bit cold, a bit distant, and little inclined to care.  

    One winter’s day she wandered about the forest to be free of village prattle and intrusions on her thoughts, when she came upon a pack of mice, seven in all, who looked frozen with cold. They appeared dead, but for the faintest beating of their hearts. A spark of compassion lit within her, and it seemed a fate of gross cruelty that snow and ice should cause the animals such pain. A sudden desire to nurse them back to health welled up in her. Thus, she lifted their little bodies into her scarf and held them close to her breast. 

    It was then that the wind circled back and touched the tips of trees in a rustling sound that caused the woman to look up; she knew then that her act of mercy had cost her.  For the sun had sunk too low.  The trees had began to look like silhouettes against the sky.  Worse still, the wind was from the North.  And the North wind had a mind of its own when dusk fell. The young woman rushed carefully down the path, hugging the mice to her body, spurred by the whisper of the wind that played at her back. But it was too late.  

    The North wind came, fully gusting, and scooped her up as though she weighed no more than a leaf. The woman turned amidst the wind, her body like a feather — but her stomach sunk as though it were made of lead. She tossed and turned above the trees and mountains, holding desperately to the animals until suddenly she found herself set aright in the court of the Snow Queen.  

    A throne of ice so clear it might have been glass stood in the center. It was empty, for the Snow Queen stood before the young woman on the floor of the chamber, swathed in fur, a scepter of ice in her hand. And the look on her face was that of wrath. 

    ‘You have accused the snow and ice of cruelty,’ the Snow Queen said, a voice resolute and deep that echoed about the court. ‘Is this not so?' 

    The young woman trembled and fought for courage. But she could think of nothing to say in response.   Filled with dread, and a limp tongue, she took her bundle from her breast and laid the mice down before the queen. 

    ‘I have no power to bring the dead back to life,’ the Snow Queen said.

    The queen would have sent the young woman back with a flick of her wrist had the woman not found the daring to say, ‘But they are not yet dead, majesty.’  

    The Snow Queen turned slowly and cast her eyes down on the tiny bodies before the young woman. ‘This is so,’ she said, and a hardened stare turned on the woman. ‘Tell me, why do you care for the fate of such as these? They are no subjects of yours.’

    The young woman could not control her quaking knees, but she could not stand for these creatures to remain undefended. ‘They are not. But if they were, I would not let them suffer so.’
    ‘No?’ the Snow Queen said with a raised brow. ‘Perhaps I have seen that they deserve their fate.’
    ‘But they are merely mice, majesty. How can they deserve such a fate when they can do no wrong?’
    ‘And if they were men? Men who had done great wrong?’ the Snow Queen asked, her gaze boring into the young woman.
    The young woman had enough sense to know that this was a question to be considered. And when she had done so, she said., ‘Then I would say that they had suffered enough, whatever wrong they’d done.’
    The queen eyed the woman carefully, then said, ‘If the power to save them lay with you, would you do so?’
    ‘I would,’ the young woman said resolutely. It was a mark of the change in her that she would accept such a challenge. But to accept is as easy as speaking, less so to bear it out.
    ‘Even for mice?’ the queen asked, as though she offered the woman once last chance to reconsider.
    But the young woman nodded. Such creatures should not suffer, of this she was certain.
    ‘So be it,’ the Snow Queen said, raising her scepter, ‘Weave seven crowns from blackberry vines gathered with hands bare of any covering. Each crown must have a thousand stems, woven tightly to fit the head of a mouse. And when the last crown is placed atop the seventh creature, then their life will be assured. But you will not be able to speak until the last day, for if you do, the spell will be broken, and they will die.’
    A sudden gust of air seemed to flow about the room, and suddenly the woman found herself back in the wood, the darkness so close she could scarcely make out the shapes of the trees. She shivered, for her cloak had fallen when the North wind seized her. Her stomach rumbled, as she had not eaten since the noontime meal. But there was nothing that could be done in the dark. She curled up in the hollow of a tree and drifted into a cold sleep.
    Morning dawned, and the woman found herself much the same as when she had laid down to sleep, and her memory sharp. She gathered what bark and winter berries she could, but it was little enough. Hunger gnawing, but compassion in her bones, she set to work in silence.
    The thorns of the blackberries pricked her frozen fingers, and after a day’s work, the first crown had only ten vines. Silent tears poured from her eyes. One word, and her pain would end. And yet, one word, and seven creatures would die. Their death was unthinkable. And so she worked on. Days passed, and still the young woman toiled. Her fingers ached with each prick of thorns that never quite healed. Her body grew gaunt with near starvation, but each day she found just enough to survive until the next morning. She worked steadily and did not betray a sound, though silent weeping became her constant companion. 
    And so the seasons changed.
     It was on a summer’s day, when the ground was softer, and the blackberry bushes more full of vines for her to weave and fruit for her to eat, that an old woman found her at her task. Nothing could be done to make the worker cease, nor bring her to speak, but old woman led the young one to her home, a small cottage with space to sleep before the hearth. The young woman accepted the hospitality gratefully, and while she did not stop her steady work, her heart eased in the presence of another, and of such gifts as fire and warm food to fill her belly. And each day she grew closer to accomplishing her goal.
    Two summers passed by, and the young woman had not yet completed her task. Her clothes had turned to rags, and her fingers still bled every day. But she had a home, and someone with whom to share it. For these things, she was grateful. Until, one day, a hot wind blew, carrying with it tiny cinders. Sparks flew and caught on the thatch of the roof of the cottage. The wind teased it gently and turned it into a demolishing force. When the young woman returned from gathering vines, she discovered the cottage burned to the ground. There was no sign of her elderly friend, and nothing remained of the crowns she had been making.
    She sat and sobbed her bitterest tears yet, for her friend and for the work she had lost. All day and all night she cried in silence. But she kept her vow of silence even at this, her worst moment. When the next morning dawned, she was resolute, setting off to gather more vines. For seven lives were held at bay that had not changed. It did not matter that now her sorrows were almost more than she could bear.
    In her resolution and her sorrow, the young woman hardly noticed when the North wind swept her up again and took her to the Snow Queen’s court.
    ‘Well, your work has faded away like dirt before rain.  Will you give up your task?’
    The young woman swallowed ash and dust, and then shook her head. 
    The Snow Queen’s eyes bore into her. Then she nodded. ‘You are changed, child. I have seen it when I have lived with you these two years past,’ the Snow Queen’s voice had softened, and her eyes became the eyes of the old woman. ‘Your heart is made of a different substance now. You are stubborn and determined and kind and good. And that is enough to be living a full life with. You will have your seven mice.’
    All at once the young woman found herself draped in fine clothes, finer than she had ever seen before. Her fingers healed as though they had never been pricked by thorns. And before her stood seven men, all brothers, whose enchantment she had unknowingly broken.
    ‘We were trapped by a foul witch, and the Snow Queen could not free us, for it took a heart well changed to break the spell,’ said the youngest, whose eyes gleamed with light when he looked on his savior.
    The rest thanked the young woman and called her sister.  But the youngest did not do so, for he had fallen in love with her.
    And when asked by those to whom this story was told in later years, if there surely had not been an easier way, she answered quite simply that she would not have changed the tale, not one moment of the pain. For it is not everyone who is privileged to change her nature, and life would have proved a sorer trial if it had never happened at all.

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