This is a story told by heavy footsteps leading across a steep and barren land . . .
The wind blew off the sea in a cold temper the evening the Pilgrim Woman told this tale. It took the pleasure from being out in the spring sun and turned the gardeners’ fingers blue. The Pilgrim Woman passed round blankets and a hip-flask before she began:
A queen there was that wanted to marry the perfect man. She had no wish to share her tiny realm with an equal, so she commanded her Chief Artificer to make a wind-up consort for her.
‘He must obey all my commands and be solicitous to my every need – or it will be the worse for you,’ said the Cold Queen
‘Yes, Ma’am,’ the anxious craftsman said and set about his work.
After months of patience and travel to the furthest parts of the realm for parts by the Chief Artificer, the Cold Queen had what she wanted. She married the Mechanical Man with much pomp and circumstance. She was indeed delighted with him: he was handsome, obedient and attendant on her every whim.
Since she ran the tiny realm to her own liking, the marriage made little difference. ‘So lifelike,’ visitors said, ‘One could almost believe he was real.’
Out of custom, the Cold Queen took an orphan to be a Lady-in-Waiting. Being used to deference and utter devotion from the Mechanical Man, she expected it from the girl. Failure to recognise what the Cold Queen wanted resulted in scolding. Any mistake the child made was met with punishment.
The little Lady-in-Waiting bore it, for she had known nothing else, until one day a gardener’s boy noticed her sorrow. He cheered her up with his tales of life outside the Cold Queen’s palace. He spoke of sweet-stealing little sisters and rafts on ponds. In return, she told him a secret about the Mechanical Man. He had a heart made of dreams and hopes. The Chief Artificer had not been able to create the perfect spouse purely out of fine metals and enamel.
But her words were overheard by a courtier. He told his friend, who told another.
The circle of courtiers thought it would be a grand jest to give the Mechanical Man strong spirits. Bottles were easy enough to obtain – the Cold Queen herself drank from them every day. They told the Mechanical Man the Cold Queen herself had ordered him to attend their drinking party.
Once there, the Mechanical Man gulped the liquor down. Through the delicate tubes and wires it ran into his true heart. The heart grew bold and took over. It sent orders to his cogs and gears, made his well-oiled limbs move and closed off his ears.
The Mechanical Man strode up to the Cold Queen’s room. He found her sneering at the orphan girl for talking to a mere gardener’s boy. The Mechanical Man rebuked the Cold Queen for her hard-heartedness and picked her up. He strode off, deaf to her rages and took her into the high mountains where his heart had been fashioned.
‘Come back when you have learned to love,’ he said. The Cold Queen turned her back on him.
And so the Mechanical Man returned alone. His rule of the Smallest Realm was gentle and peaceable: he took advice from the gardener’s boy and cared for the little Lady-in-Waiting. No-one sought out the Cold Queen in the far peaks – and if she has not died, she’s there still.