Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Anya and a not quite so little boy called Cai. They lived with their parents in a country in the north where the lakes and rivers were frozen for three months of the year, snow lay deep on the ground for four months, and nobody put away his winter coat and boots for a full five months.
Anya and Cai didn’t mind the cold. They had a snug little house on the banks of the canal, and thick fur-lined boots and coats, with fur bonnets and mittens. But although they didn’t mind the cold and always found some game to play outside, skating on the canal or building snowmen on the bank, the short, dark days grew wearisome, and they longed for the spring many weeks before the snow melted and the first buds began to appear.
One evening, in the depths of winter, when grey cloud lay heavy on the canal and the farmland around, when the snow fell slowly, softly and the fields were silent under their heavy white blanket, Cai said, “I am sick of watching the snow fall on the fields and the ice form on the ponds. I want to go on an adventure like the boys in the stories the master tells us at school.”
Anya knew what kind of stories Cai’s schoolmaster told the boys in his class. The land was preparing for war with the neighbouring kingdom, and not a day went past when they did not see a proud cavalry regiment trot by, a platoon of foot soldiers march past, or an eager band of farm boys being barked at by a recruiting sergeant. The boys all longed to be men, to wear the bright black and red uniforms with the shiny buttons, and to carry a pike or a musket or a sabre. The schoolmaster’s stories were full of valour and courage and daring exploits, and Cai repeated all of them over supper in the evenings.
It was the winter solstice and the fire burned bright in the hearth. It was the night when wishes were granted, and Cai placed one of his wooden soldiers in the fire as an offering and repeated his wish. Later, when the two children had been sent off to bed, Cai couldn’t sleep.
“Nothing’s happened,” he grumbled. “Where’s my adventure then?”
Anya shrugged, but she was not so sure as her brother that his wish hadn’t worked. She knew that these things take a little while, and she knew Cai’s impatience too. Sure enough, a little later, while Cai was tossing and turning in his sleep, she heard the sound of a sleigh drawn by horses with bells on their harness. The sleigh stopped in the street outside. Anya held her breath, hoping that Cai was finally in a deep sleep. But someone threw a pebble against the window and he woke with a start.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” Anya said. “Just the wind rattling the casement.”
A second pebble was flung at the window.
“That’s not the wind, stupid!” Cai said flinging back the covers of his bed. “That’s my adventure.”
In an instant he was at the window, rubbing a hole in the thin layer of frost that covered it. Anya watched in dismay as her brother’s mouth dropped open, and his face glowed with excitement.
“It’s here,” he whispered. “My adventure’s come for me.” And without even a look in his sister’s direction, he pulled on his clothes over his nightshirt and raced downstairs and out into the night.
Anya bit her lip, torn between wanting to call her parents to warn them, and her loyalty to her brother. She peered through the window and saw him climb aboard the waiting sleigh. She could see the driver with his long whip bundled up in a thick fur coat, and beside him, a heap of white furs. The furs moved to let Cai take his seat beside the driver, and Anya caught sight of a woman’s face among the furs, a face white as snow and with coal black hair. It seemed to her that the woman caught her eye and smiled. Anya’s blood ran cold. She had seen the Snow Queen, and the Snow Queen had taken her brother.
“Father, Mother, wake up! The Snow Queen has stolen Cai!” she called out, but it was too late. The sleigh driver had whipped up the horses and nothing was to be seen of the sleigh and its occupants in the settling snow.
For a whole week the snow fell so thick and so deep that no one could leave the house. There was no school, and no boats left their moorings on the canal. Anya’s little house was silent and morose. Cai had obviously been bewitched. It was common knowledge that the Snow Queen stole children for their warm hearts because she had no heart of her own. She stole their hearts and the children became blocks of ice. Although the hearts never warmed the Snow Queen, she never stopped hoping that one day, she would find a heart that did not freeze at her touch.
When the snow stopped, Anya made up her mind. She could not bear to see the sorrowing faces of her parents any longer, so she determined to find Cai and bring him back. In any case, she felt that she was in part responsible. She was a girl after all and girls always take the blame when their menfolk do stupid things. So, she put on her warm winter cloak and set off on the road that led away from the town on the canal and up to the mountains.
As soon as she set foot on the road out of town, she noticed the sleigh tracks and wondered how that could be, since the snow had been falling for a whole week since the Snow Queen’s sleigh had left. Someone, Cai’s guardian angel perhaps, had left her a sign, she thought, so that she could follow and find out where he had gone. Cai was not going to go the same way as the other stolen children, Anya told herself. He had a sister to come looking for him, and with the help of his guardian angel, she would surely find him and bring him home.
Warmed and encouraged by this thought, she walked with a brisk step despite the cold and the deep snow and the gloom that gathered beneath the trees when she reached the forest that cloaked the lower slopes of the mountain. When the sun had sunk and the light had faded, she could no longer pretend that she did not hear the sound of wild beasts prowling, the cold wind howling, and her stomach rumbling. Still, the path continued beneath the trees, so Anya pulled her cloak tighter round her shoulders, pulled the hood further over her face, and strode ahead. She had gone too far to go back, and who knew what terrible things the Snow Queen was doing to poor Cai.
Later, when it had grown quite dark, and Anya was stumbling with weariness, she left the path and crept into a hazel thicket. There she settled for the night, with her back to the rocky wall of the mountain and a stout stick in her hand to beat off any wild beasts that might venture too near.
If only I were a boy, she thought to herself, I wouldn’t be afraid of the things in the dark. But I must be brave for Cai’s sake.
With that noble thought, she fell asleep and didn’t wake when the dog fox padded past, nor when the badger sniffed at her boots, nor when the boar stepped over her, grumbling because she was lying right across his path. When she did wake, it was because the sun had risen and was peeking between the hazel branches. Anya was stiff and cold, but pleased to have come to no harm. The sleigh tracks were clear in the snow, and as she set off to follow them, she noticed a package in the middle of the path. To her surprise, she discovered the package contained fresh spice buns, made with dark sugar and honey, and full of dried fruits. Another gift from Cai’s guardian angel, she thought, and ate the buns with gusto.
When she had drunk from a stream that ran down from the mountain and rinsed the sugar from her fingers and her face, she set off again with high spirits. She walked all morning as the sun rose higher, and had just started hoping that Cai’s guardian angel had thought to leave her a lunch box, when the path turned sharply to the right, and she saw before her, its towers rising high as the mountain peak, a castle that glittered with the brilliance of ice.
Anya had no doubt that this was the terrible Snow Queen’s palace, and her heart thumped so wildly she had to take several deep breaths before it calmed. Her limbs trembled so much her feet would not obey her and it was only the thought of Cai imprisoned in the Snow Queen’s icy dungeons that forced her onwards. The wind blew colder and the sky covered with cloud. Before she reached the great castle doors, the snow was falling again. Anya could no longer feel her toes or her fingers, and even the sight of the two ice dragons, one at either side of the doors, was not enough to prevent her trying to get inside and out of the cold. Even if it was an ice palace, she reckoned it would be out of the wind and the snow.
The ice dragon on her left blinked its yellow eyes and smoke rose in two parallel plumes from its nostrils. The ice dragon on her right twitched the tip of its tail and opened its jaws. Blue flame flickered over its tongue and between its teeth, and Anya clutched her stick harder.
“I must see the Snow Queen,” she said, louder than was strictly polite, but she was extremely frightened.
“Why?” the left-hand dragon asked.
“Because she has taken my brother away and he has school in the morning.” Anya realised her reply sounded rather lame, and was not surprised to hear the dragon snigger.
“The Snow Queen steals no one away,” the right-hand dragon said. “She gives them their heart’s desire.”
“Or what’s best for them. Depends,” the left-hand dragon added.
“Would she give me my heart’s desire?” Anya asked, feeling this line of attack could work. The dragons looked at one another.
“If it’s to marry a prince and have lots of babies, I doubt it,” the right-hand dragon said.
“Or to be more beautiful than the day and make all your school friends die of envy,” said the left-hand dragon. “And that’s about all girls ever ask for,” it added.
“I want my brother back,” Anya said defiantly.
“Even if you have to fight me for him?” the left-hand dragon said.
“Both of us?” the right-hand dragon said, getting to its feet like a lazy cat.
Anya gulped, took her stick in both hands and started waving it slowly from side to side. “No flames, then,” she said, looking from one to the other.
There was a sound like a coal scuttle rattling that she realised must be dragon laughter, and the two dragons pushed open the great gates and stood aside.
“If your brother is as brave as you, the Snow Queen must have great things planned for him.”
“Of course, he is,” Anya said, rather shocked. “He’s a boy!”
“Leave the stick, then,” the right-hand dragon said, and the stick dissolved in a plume of icy smoke.
The gates opened onto a courtyard paved with slabs of ice, but at least the wind had stopped and no snow seemed to have fallen inside the battlements. The sleigh stood where it had been left after the horses had been taken to their stable. The pile of white furs was flung negligently on the seat, and in the back of the sleigh, Anya saw a pile of packages remarkably like the parcel Cai’s guardian angel had left for her. Frowning, she took a deep breath and marched across the courtyard and up the flight of stairs that led to a great archway. The archway opened onto to a corridor lined with fluted columns that glittered with all the colours of the rainbow when the sunlight touched them. The only sound was the patter of her feet, and the air had the cold, soulless smell of snow. At the end of the corridor was a set of double doors that stood slightly ajar, and when Anya pushed them open, she saw that she was standing on the threshold of the Snow Queen’s throne room.
The columns that lined the vast room twisted and curled like candy canes and seemed to dance and change places when Anya looked at them. The roof swept up to a dome so high she half expected to see clouds and birds soaring across it, and the light that fell from it was so bright that it made her eyes hurt. Though she would have dearly liked to close her eyes to shut out the sight, they were held by the dais in the centre of the room, by the throne of spiked stalagmites of blue ice, and by the figure with piercing blue eyes and enrobed in white furs who sat among them. The Snow Queen shifted her position slightly and beckoned to Anya to approach.
“So, you have come for your brother Cai.”
Anya nodded. “I’ve come to take him home.”
“And what makes you think he wants to go home?”
“Exactly. What makes you think I want to go home?”
Cai stepped out from behind a pillar and stood by the Queen. “I like it here. The Queen is going to give me my heart’s desire.”
“But Cai, Mother and Father are sick with worry. They know what happens to children the Snow Queen takes. They never see them again!” She glared defiantly at the Snow Queen whose lips curled in a faint smile.
“I think you will find that Cai is not especially moved by that argument, dear.”
“You’ve bewitched him!” Anya shouted, both at the Snow Queen and Cai. “You want to steal his heart and turn him into a block of ice.”
“Soldier,” Cai corrected. “A general, one day. She promised.”
“Run back to your games now, Cai,” the Snow Queen said. “An army is waiting on your orders, remember.”
Cai saluted and marched from the throne room. Anya called after him, but he paid no heed.
“You’ve bewitched him,” she murmured.
The Snow Queen stood and her white furs swept the icy pavement. A cold wind sent flurries of ice crystals dancing in her wake. “Come,” she said. “I have something to show you.”
Anya peered after Cai, but he was out of sight, disappeared among the glittering columns of the throne room and the rooms beyond. Anya sent up a prayer to Cai’s guardian angel.
Watch over him. Keep him safe.
She waited, half expecting to see the flutter of pearly wings, but all was still. Reluctantly she followed the Snow Queen who glided without a sound on the smooth, translucent flags that looked like blocks of ice. She led Anya to a smaller chamber, unadorned and completely empty.
The Snow Queen raised her hand and the wall of the chamber began to glow. Colours formed and shifted, flowing into one another, making shapes that grew into a picture. Anya stared. The shapes were soldiers, hundreds and hundreds of them, and as she watched, they surged first one way and then the other. Some advanced while the others retreated, and after each retreat, many lay still. She looked at the Snow Queen who had a strangely unhappy expression on her face.
“Would you like to hear?”
Anya wanted to say, no, but the queen raised her hand again and the voices of the hundreds and hundreds of soldiers hit her like a wave of the sea. Some voices roared with excitement, some chanted battle cries, while others screamed in pain or begged for help. Anya closed her eyes and put her hands over her ears.
“Stop it,” she shouted. “Make it stop!”
“That is what I am trying to do,” the Snow Queen said gently, and took Anya’s hands away from her eyes. “Look again. There.”
She pointed to a hill at the edge of the tableau where a small group of officers covered in gold braid and plumed helmets watched the course of the battle. One of them held a map, one handed written orders to a messenger, another peered through a spyglass at the battle, and another sat on his white charger and simply watched. Anya gasped. It was Cai. She turned to the Snow Queen, her eyes wide with puzzlement.
“What you see is not what is, but what might be. If Cai were to grow to be a man, this is what he would become. His soldiers would fight this battle, and though thousands of them would die, the battle would be won, and Cai would carry the war to another land, and then another, until half the world would be fighting.”
“But he is only a boy—”
“Come with me, and watch,” the Snow Queen said, and left the room where the two armies retreated and advanced up and down the bloody hills. Anya followed her to a great cloister, and where the garden should have been was a great paved space, and in the space two ranks of soldiers were drawn up facing one another. The Snow Queen stood in the shadows and Anya stood beside her. Then she saw Cai, ordering his soldiers and setting up his battle formation. Opposite him, another boy was doing the same. Cai and the other boy each held a sword high in the air, each with a broad grin on his face. With a wild shriek, the boy generals lowered their swords and the two ranks of armed men charged. Cai ran alongside, screaming orders but keeping well out of the fighting. The other boy did the same.
The swords were real, the blades were keen, and many of the men were lying groaning with wounds that bled real blood.
“Stop it!” Anya screamed, but nobody heard. Cai and the other boy shouted insults at one another while their soldiers hacked and stabbed, and when Cai’s soldiers killed the last of the other boy’s soldiers, Cai gave a great whoop of triumph. The Snow Queen put a hand on Anya’s shoulder and guided her away.
“Who were they?” Anya whispered when she could speak.
“I gave Cai his heart’s desire,” the Snow Queen said. “He made those soldiers out of his head. When they are all dead, he makes some more. The other boy, Anton, is the same. In fact, most of the boys I bring here ask for the same thing.”
“And if Cai were to come home…?” Anya asked, though she had already guessed the answer.
“He would become the cold-blooded general you saw, who thinks nothing of sacrificing thousands of men for his personal glory.” Anya hung her head. “I think it’s better that he stays here, don’t you?”
“And if he stays here, who will look after him?” Anya asked, again hoping to hear the flutter of wings. The Snow Queen looked puzzled.
“Why, I will, of course.”
Anya turned to look sorrowfully at Cai as he stuck his sword into the body of one of the ‘enemy’ soldiers with a wild laugh.
“What will I tell Father and Mother? If I tell them what I have seen, they won’t believe me.”
“Tell them the wicked Snow Queen has stolen his heart and turned him into a block of ice. That will be easier for them to understand.”
“Is this why you take the children, to stop them doing harm later?”
The Queen sighed. “It used to seem like a good idea. I would take a boy and prevent him starting a war or becoming a wicked tyrant. Sometimes I took girls, but not often, because girls are rarely in a position to do much harm. There are so many, though.” The Queen stared into the distance at something Anya couldn’t see. “However many wars or tragedies or cruelties I prevent, a dozen more spring up in their place.”
“The people say you are cruel and wicked,” Anya said. She narrowed her eyes. “And it is wicked to steal children from their parents.”
The Snow Queen sighed. “I know.”
“You can’t change human nature,” Anya said.
“I know,” the Queen said heavily. “Perhaps I should stop trying. Will you take Cai home?”
“It will make our parents happy. They’ll come for you, though.”
The Queen stared into the distance again, and Anya suspected she was seeing the torches of the villagers as they streamed up the mountain.
“I know they will. Cai will be furious with me and he will be at the head of the mob. That too is part of human nature, is it not?”
So the Snow Queen had Cai brought from his games and set in the sleigh next to his sister. He shouted and screamed, but Anya explained that he could only be a real soldier in the real world. If he stayed with the Snow Queen he would only play at being a soldier for ever and ever. Cai quietened down, but he shot the Snow Queen a black look.
“You turn me away because you prefer that idiot, Anton. You’ll regret it though.”
The Snow Queen sighed and waved her hand. The driver whipped up the horses, and in a little while, the sleigh set both children down outside their house by the canal.
The Snow Queen had seen the future correctly—Cai was truly furious at being forced to leave the magnificent ice palace, and he had learned enough of war and military tactics to rouse a mob. She made no attempt to hide the tracks of the sleigh and ordered the ice dragons to let the angry people enter the castle. She was waiting for them when they entered the throne room. Cai hung back, suddenly afraid, of the scenes that the walls held, the boys with no hearts, and the wishes of blood and war that had come true in that place. The Snow Queen got to her feet and Cai shrank back even further.
“So, Cai, this is how you repay my kindness in letting you return to your home?”
“You didn’t send the others home though, did you?” Cai retorted.
“I gave them their heart’s desire. I gave you yours too. Did you tell your parents what you wished for, Cai?”
“Aye, I did!” Cai stuck out his chest. “I wished to be a famous general!”
“And what’s wrong with that?” Cai’s father demanded.
“It’s a noble calling!” his mother said, indignantly.
“You could have played at soldiers here for ever and ever, Cai.”
“That’s no future for a lad!” Cai’s father shouted.
“My Cai doesn’t want to play with toys for the rest of his life,” his mother snorted.
“So be it,” the Snow Queen said with a sad smile. “And what will your first orders be, General?”
“Burn down the palace!” Cai shouted, and led the villagers with their fiery torches through the colonnaded rooms that began slowly to melt in the heat. The Snow Queen swept out of the throne room and the villagers parted to let her pass, but followed with angry mutterings. Outside, the sleigh was prepared and waiting. She stepped in next to the driver and wrapped herself in her white furs. The villagers shouted and held the bridles of the impatient horses. Anya stepped forward.
“You knew we would come for you.”
The Queen nodded. “Even though you have what you wished for.”
“We all have to pay for our crimes,” Anya replied.
“He hasn’t done anything yet,” Anya said defensively.
The Queen laughed silently as the driver whipped the horses and they leapt away.
And of course, he did.