Chapter 1: Part the First: Mirror and Splinters
Once upon a time, there was a wicked little sprite who loved to spread mischief and mayhem wherever he went. The sprite was called Ice, and he wore a smart velvet suit of deepest burgundy and long white boots as clean as the sparkling snow, and around his neck he always tied a white bow, so as to look very respectable and fool kind humans into falling for his wicked tricks. In order to further this impression of being a good and honourable sort, Ice was very quiet and spoke only when he needed to, and did not smile too much, but instead acted very sensibly so as to startle gentlefolk when the time came for his wayward plans to be set in motion.
Apart from frightening humans and appearing trustworthy and reputable when he was, in fact, quite the opposite, Ice was also tremendously good at making instruments of the dark arts; and his very favourite creation was his Magic Mirror, which possessed a most curious power that I shall tell you of now.
The Magic Mirror, as any normal mirror does, reflected back whomsoever gazed into it; however, unlike normal mirrors, which reflect not only pimples and sticky-out teeth, and frizzy hair that could do with a good wash, and smudges of dirt across crooked noses, but also smiles and bright, happy eyes, and pink cheeks and dimples, this particular mirror only reflected back the ugly and, in fact, made those perfectly human pimples and that perfectly ordinary frizzy hair so atrociously unpleasant to gaze upon that one would scream and cry and faint at even the quickest glance across that shiny glass.
One day, after taking his mirror hither and thither across cold seas and barren deserts, over hot, wet rainforests and dry, flat grasslands, into the tiniest hamlets and through the noisiest cities, Ice was suddenly taken with a wicked idea. A terribly, terribly wicked idea; so wicked it would have made demons themselves blush. For it was all well and good scaring men and women and babies, and little children and not-so-little children, and dogs and cats and butterflies; But, thought Ice, hardly able to contain his excitement, But, wouldn't it be far more entertaining to carry my mirror up into the heavens and shame the gods themselves, and all their attendants? Why yes, indeed it would.
And so, the very next morning, Ice burst his bony white wings from the back of his velveteen jacket and sprung from the grass up, up, up, into the clear blue sky. He carried his mirror higher and higher, miles and miles up into the air and, as he grew close to the soft, bright clouds upon which he knew the gods reclined, the wicked device began to whine and tremble in his grasp, as though it too thrilled at the mockery it was about to make of those ancient, powerful beings.
Higher they flew, higher, higher still – and the mirror whistled and whined and shook, and Ice actually struggled to hold onto the thing – until, suddenly, it slipped from between his fingers and fell back down to the ground at such speed the little sprite had no chance whatsoever to catch the thing. He could only squint and watch in dismay as it hit a small, grey rock far below him and smashed into thousands upon thousands of pieces, many no larger than a grain of sand washed in upon the shore.
Out of nowhere, a great wind struck up and began to roar, and – quickly – Ice flew back down to earth; but he was too late. His mirror was gone – blown far and wide across the land, lodging minute, evil specks of clear glass into the eyes of poor unfortunates for miles and miles around, freezing their hearts and souls until they saw no beauty; only cold darkness, and shadows, and ugliness.
Chapter 2: Part the Second: Two Young Boys
In a small town, some distance away from where Ice dropped his mirror, there lived two boys in houses that were side-by-side to one another, with square matching windows which they could climb through and into each other's homes during the summer, when there was no ice freezing up the frames, and each house had a small matching garden filled with brightly-coloured flowers, and these two boys were the best of friends.
The taller, louder boy, with hair bright like the sun, and sky-blue eyes, and flashing spectacles was called Alfred; and the shorter one, with big eyebrows, and green eyes, and messy hair, and no spectacles was named Arthur. Alfred lived with his grandparents, and Arthur lived with his three older brothers, and between their two houses there was always a lot of laughter and chatter; and the two young boys liked it very much indeed.
One cold winter, the winter before Ice's wicked attempt to reach the heavens and laugh at the gods, Alfred and Arthur sat together next to the large window at the front of Alfred's house. His grandmother, who everyone in their little town called Grandmano, even if they were not related by blood, sat in the big, squashy armchair beside the fire, clicking a pair of knitting needles together and scowling in the direction of the flurry of snowflakes outside.
"Bastard snowflakes," Grandmano said irritably. "Like horrid white bees. Antonio," and this was the name of Alfred's grandfather, "Where the fuck are my fucking slippers? My feet are fucking cold."
Antonio hurried in, holding Grandmano's favourite fluffy slippers out. "Ay, Lovi," he said, anxiously. "You shouldn't talk like that in front of the niños!" And he smiled, and waved cheerfully at Alfred and Arthur, who were snuggled up against each other across the room.
"Don't you speak to me in that tone of voice," said Grandmano; then, laying the knitting down, called across the room in the direction of the children: "Alfred! Alfred, come try on this sweater Nonna made for you."
"Sure!" said Alfred cheerfully, sliding away from Arthur and hurrying across the room. "Nonna, do the white bees have a queen like regular bees do?"
"The white bees, Nonna! The snowflakes! Do they have a queen?"
"Mio dio. Are you as stupid as you look, Alfred? Of course they don't! They're fucking snowflakes. They have a general. Antonio, what are they teaching in schools these days? Bah."
"I have no idea, mi amor."
"Where is he, then?" asked Alfred, for he was a most curious child, "The General. Is he one of the snowflakes outside?" He struggled with the sweater Grandmano was wrestling over his head.
Grandmano's eyes rolled back. "Of course not, idiota! You think he would bother coming to this shitty little town? He flies in the air and freezes the cities and forests he passes over with a flick of his wrist. Antonio, fetch me my shawl, I'm fucking cold."
"Yes, yes, mi amor." Antonio hurried to find it, for he loved Grandmano very much.
"If he did come," said Alfred, "I'd be a hero! I'd grab him, and put him on the stove and melt him before he could freeze you, or Abuelito, or Arthur."
"Don't be daft, Alfred," said Arthur from the other side of the room, wrinkling his nose and hunching his little knees up to his chest.
Alfred tugged at his new sweater and returned to the window, where he sat down beside his friend and laid an arm around his shoulders. Arthur's cheeks turned pink, and he looked down at his feet. Alfred gazed up into the sky, through the swirling, weaving snowflakes, until he felt dizzy; and then, just as his eyelids began to drop, he caught sight of something very strange.
One of the dancing white flakes of snow, at least three times as large as the others, was hovering a little way above the snow-carpeted garden; not falling, not rising, just sitting there in mid-air, quite still. It glittered and gleamed brighter than all the others, and it seemed to grow, and stretch, and glow – more and more and more, growing bigger and bigger – until, at last, it resembled a strong, stern-looking man.
He wore a long coat that sparkled with sharp points of ice, and a scarf made up of thousands upon thousands of bright, tiny snowflakes, each one perfect and different. His eyes were pale, almost transparent, like icicles, and his skin and lips and hair were all as white as fresh new snow.
Alfred gasped and pressed closer to the cold window, peering out at the man, bewitched. At his side, Arthur had fallen asleep, his head nodding against Alfred's shoulder.
The man outside the window raised one hand, then held it out towards Alfred, beckoning him forwards.
Alfred's blue eyes widened, and he gasped and ducked down, waking Arthur up.
"Ow! Alfred, stop being silly –"
Alfred raised his head cautiously, tuning out Arthur's irritated chastisements. But the general was gone.
The year drew on and the snow melted away, and once again Alfred and Arthur could climb through their windows and play in their gardens. The roses in Arthur's garden were bright red and blooming, and they reminded him of a song he had heard – though where, he could not remember.
"The rose is red, the violet's blue," he recited.
"Hey, Arthur," said Alfred, "are you singing?"
Arthur blushed as red as the roses. "No!" he said, and turned even redder when Alfred took his hand and swung it back and forth between them.
"You know," he said, "these roses remind me of you, Arthur."
"That's funny," said Arthur, and he tried very hard not to smile, "the roses remind me of you."
It was the loveliest, warmest of days, and both children looked up at the sky together, smiling as the sun's rays, and the hot summer breeze played over their faces.
"Ouch!" said Alfred, quite suddenly.
Arthur turned to him, worriedly. "What is it?" he asked, anxiously. "Alfred, what's wrong?"
"N-nothing," said Alfred; but he was lying. The tiniest shard of Ice's Magic Mirror had blown into his eye, and was lodged there, firmly, and would not be removed, though he rubbed and rubbed at it. "It's fine," he said, and blinked, turning to look at Arthur. "Urgh!" he said, cruelly, "What are those things on your face? You look like you have great furry caterpillars creeping above your eyes, how ugly!" And he pushed poor Arthur away, then turned back towards his house, pausing to kick the roses, hard.
"Alfred!" cried Arthur, and he was frightened. "What are you doing, you fool?"
But Alfred just laughed and reached down, and scooped up some dirt from the flowerbeds and threw it at Arthur, then ran, scrambling in through his own window.
From then on, Alfred was no longer the kind, happy boy he had been before. Now, he was mean-spirited and rude, and he pulled up the rest of the roses in Arthur's little garden, and then Antonio's beloved tomato plants in his own, and he stuck his tongue out in Grandmano's face, and hid around corners and tripped people up, and then pointed and laughed loudly, and mocked them. But worst of all, he refused to be friends with Arthur, and he teased and bullied him so much that poor Arthur would often run home in tears.
This went on for one whole year, and by the following winter, his behaviour had not improved. The only thing he found beautiful any more were the soft stars of snow that, as the air grew cold and sharp once again, began to float down from the heavens and scattered across the roofs of the houses, and across the gardens, and on the dark fabric of Alfred's coat.
After one whole week of non-stop snow, when it was very deep and bright and thick on the ground, Alfred took his sledge and went into the town square. There, the children would tie their sledges to the back of passing carriages and whizz along at top speed, and have a most wonderful time. Arthur watched from his house; he only liked sledging when he went with Alfred, and Alfred didn't talk to him anymore, except when he wanted to laugh at him, and insult him. He wrapped his arms around himself and watched, until Alfred's small, dark figure disappeared into the distance.
Chapter 3: Part the Third: The Sunflower Garden
Now, even though Alfred had, ever since the summer, been so rude and cruel to his friend, Arthur still missed him very much indeed. And so he sat on the doorstep of his house, wearing a thick sweater, and a woolly hat and mittens, day after day after day, and waited for Alfred to return home. But Alfred did not come back. Nobody knew where he had gone. The boys and girls who had glimpsed him on that day when he'd gone sledging in the town square and vanished into the snow said that the last they had seen of him was when he'd tied his sledge to the back of a big white carriage – the finest any of them had ever seen – but the grown-ups said that was stuff and nonsense, and Arthur overheard his brothers saying that Alfred must have fallen into the deep, cold river that ran past the town, and he was so very sad he thought his heart might split in two.
His brothers, and Antonio, and Grandmano, and some of the other grown-ups went out looking for Alfred every day. But every day they came back with sad eyes and cold hands and downturned smiles, and Arthur began to wonder if it really was true – if his best friend really had been taken by the wild river.
Arthur was too young to go out looking for his friend, but each day he took out the little embroidery set Alfred had given him for his birthday one year and sewed a little more into it, until at last it was a small, beautiful picture of a bunch of bright red roses, with both their names embroidered along the bottom. And, one day, when nobody was looking, Arthur took his finished embroidery and ran out of his house, and all the way to the edge of town, where the river ran.
"River!" he called, holding out the gift, "Have you taken Alfred? You may have this if you give him back!" And he flung the embroidery into the water.
But the waves turned and seemed to shift from side to side, as though they were saying "no, no, Alfred is not here!" and suddenly the picture of the roses with Alfred and Arthur stitched along the bottom was on the shore at Arthur's feet.
"I mustn't have thrown it in far enough," Arthur said to himself, hardly daring to believe that Alfred could be alive and so he waded into the river, curling his hands into tight fists, for he was terribly afraid of water. But he was brave enough to do this for Alfred, and so, screwing up all his courage, he took a few more steps forwards, still holding his embroidery, and –
The current was dreadfully strong, and Arthur could do nothing but cry out in fright as he was swept off his feet and dragged along with the water. It flowed very fast, and every so often he would sink beneath the surface before popping back up like a cork, gasping and spluttering and coughing, before at long last catching sight of a large rock in the middle of the river, and so he fixed his eyes upon it and reached out desperately with his hands. As the water dragged him past, he kicked out terrifically hard with his legs, and just managed to grab onto the rock, and so he heaved himself up on top of it.
It was horribly cold, made worse by the fact that he was soaking wet, and so Arthur pushed his stitched picture into the pocket of his trousers, and hugged his chest tightly, and was terribly miserable for a very long time.
At last the sun began to set, and Arthur became certain he was about to freeze to death.
"Bloody hell," he muttered, and gazed up into the sky, wondering sadly if one of the stars above him, which were only just starting to become visible, was Alfred. This thought only made him feel worse, and so he looked away across the river – which he knew he had no chance of swimming across – and, in the distance, he could just see a tall man with light brown hair and a long, pink scarf walking across through the grass.
Arthur's little heart leapt with joy, and he held his hand up into the hair, waving it back and forth as quickly as he could, crying out, "Help! Help! Please, help me!"
The man stopped and turned to peer out towards him.
Arthur waved his hand faster still. "Help!" he cried, "Come on, help me!"
The man held a hand above his eyes and squinted at him before, finally, taking a few slow steps towards the river.
"Get a bloody move on!" Arthur cried, for he was most anxious to be away from the water, and somewhere warm.
At last, the man reached the edge of the river and smiled and waved back.
"Help me!" Arthur called again.
The man's smile grew even wider, and from behind his back he produced a long, silver pipe that Arthur saw would just be able to reach across the raging torrent of water. "If you promise to be my friend," he said, "I'll help you to safety."
"Yes, yes!" said Arthur, impatiently, "Yes, I'll be your friend! Please, just –"
And the man held his pipe out across the river, and Arthur grabbed the end of it and, as though the boy had weighed no more than a robin's feather, the man with the pink scarf lifted him onto the bank.
"Poor, poor child," said the man, and he took off his scarf and wrapped it securely around Arthur's neck. "Heehee, you're really small, aren't you? Why is that?"
Arthur simply scowled – he was often picked on for being small. Usually, Alfred would stand up for him when this happened; but ever since that day in the garden, when he had kicked the roses over, it had been Alfred doing the teasing.
"Come on, then!" said the man, cheerfully. "My name is Ivan. We shall go back to my house, da? And we shall live there together forever and ever!" And he took Arthur's hand and led him away from the river, and across the fields, until they reached a pretty, colourful cottage with a big, fenced garden filled with tall sunflowers. "Aren't they nice?" Ivan said. "Come along, little one. Oh! You are all wet! I will find you some dry clothes, because I am such a wonderful friend!"
"Thank you," Arthur murmured.
Ivan opened the door. "After you!" he said, cheerfully, and Arthur stepped inside.
Unbeknown to him, the picture he had stitched for Alfred slipped from his pocket and landed on the doorstep with a wet slap. Ivan noticed, and bent over to pick it up.
"Oh, dear," he said to himself, "Arthur has another friend?" And he began to worry, because he did not want Arthur to leave. And so he folded the embroidered square up and slipped it into his own pocket, and followed the boy inside, closing the door behind him.
The next day, after Arthur had slept, and his clothes had dried, and he had eaten breakfast, Ivan took him by the hand and led him out into the garden.
"You must see my lovely sunflowers!" he said.
"No!" said Arthur, because by now he was desperate to see his beloved friend again. "I need to go now, Ivan. I've lost my best friend, Alfred, and –"
"I have not seen any Alfreds passing this way," Ivan said, "and in any case, it does not matter. We are friends now, da? Come, see my sunflowers!"
"Just quickly," said Ivan, sadly, "please. And then you may do as you wish, Little One."
"Oh, alright," said Arthur quickly, as he thought it wouldn't take too much time to look at the flowers.
And so they walked down the path together and into the biggest patch of sunflowers, and Arthur closed his eyes and leant forward to sniff one – and by the time he pulled back, he had quite forgotten about his desire to leave, and to find Alfred – and even about Alfred himself!
"My," he said, stepping back, "they are very lovely."
"Yes," said Ivan, happily, "and you may come outside and play here whenever you want!"
And Arthur was very happy; because he did not know about Alfred any more, and he did not know why he was with Ivan, but he liked the flowers a great deal. And so Arthur lived with Ivan – whether it was for a matter of days, weeks, months, or years, he could not have said; but he was very happy, because every day he could sit outside in the garden and admire the sunflowers, and recite poetry that he couldn't quite recall learning. Ivan was also happy for he was no longer alone.
One day, sometime later – but how much later, I cannot say, for even Arthur himself could not tell – when Ivan was hanging freshly laundered clothes out on the washing line, and Arthur was sitting with his back to the garden's white fence, something fell from a pocket of one of the items of clothing and landed in the dirt beside the sunflowers. Arthur glanced up, but Ivan did not notice; he simply smiled at Arthur, and headed back into the house. Quickly, Arthur crawled over to the thing on the ground and unfolded it.
It was his embroidery; the embroidery with the roses that he had stitched so carefully, and the words Alfred and Arthur beneath them.
"Oh!" Arthur gasped, horrified. "Alfred!"
And he suddenly remembered everything – how Alfred had disappeared into the snow, and how he had fallen into the river, and how all the grown-ups at home had thought Alfred was dead...
"Alfred!" Arthur cried, again, and he was furious with himself when he felt warm, salty tears begin to leak down his cheeks. "He must be dead," he sobbed, "it's not fair! Alfred!"
"Pardon us," said a voice, and Arthur started, and looked around. But there was nobody there. Nobody, except him and the sunflowers –
"Pardon us," said another voice, and Arthur looked up and saw the sunflowers bent over, their big, yellow petals curled towards him, "but your friend Alfred is not dead."
Arthur's tears stopped at once.
"No," said a different flower, and another one added, "we live in the earth, and we never get up and leave, and we have not seen Alfred down here."
Arthur could hardly believe what he was hearing. "A-are you sure?"
"Perfectly sure," said the sunflower closest to him, "Your friend is not dead."
"Thank you!" Arthur said, and he didn't think he had smiled so much in a long time. "Thank you so, so much!"
"It is nothing," said one of the flowers, "now – you must run, go, and find your friend," and another, further back, called, "Good luck!"
"Thank you!" Arthur cried again. "Thank you!"
And before his bravery could falter, he stood up, stuffing his embroidery into his pocket, and ran for the gate, and through the fields, and on.
Chapter 4: Part the Fourth: The Prince and the Prince
Arthur ran for as long as he could; over fields, and down little lanes, through woods, and across shallow streams. He ran and he ran, and when he could run no more he walked, and when he could not walk he stopped, and sat down upon a tree stump to catch his breath. It was late afternoon, and he was very tired. His back was sore, and his legs were sore, and he was getting blisters on his poor feet, for his shoes were now old and tattered, and far too tight.
"Bugger it all," Arthur said, softly, and winced as he rubbed his heel.
Suddenly, there was a soft snuffling noise behind him, and Arthur turned around to see a great white bear, with big black eyes and a wet nose, standing still and staring at him, just a few feet away.
"Bloody hell!" he cried, for he had never seen a bear in real life before; only in picture books.
"Good day," said the bear, "How are you?"
"I – I –" Arthur stuttered, terrified.
"Do not fear," the bear said, gently, "I will not harm you. My name is Kumajirou. I just wondered where you were going so late in the day, and so alone?"
"I – I am A-Arthur – and I'm searching for my best friend," Arthur said, gripping the tree trunk anxiously. "He went missing quite some time ago; and I love him very much, and only wish to find him safe and sound." And as he spoke, his own words surprised him; he had never said that he loved Alfred before.
"That is a very great shame," said Kumajirou. "Please describe your friend to me. I know all the places around here, and I have seen a great many things – perhaps I have come across your friend?"
At these words, Arthur was no longer afraid, for he simply wanted to find Alfred, and would seize any chance he got to discover what had happened to him.
"Well," said he, "his name is Alfred, he is a little taller than me, and he has bright blond hair, and a stupid-looking cowlick right here," and he pointed to the place on his own head. "He wears spectacles, and his eyes are the same colour as the summer sky, and he is always smiling." He felt very sad, suddenly, describing Alfred; and also very hopeless.
"Do not be sad, dear Arthur," Kumajirou said. "I think – I think I may have seen your Alfred."
"My Al– you've seen Alfred?" Arthur gasped, and his heart leapt for joy.
"Indeed, indeed," Kumajirou replied. "But – I fear he is not your Alfred anymore. For he is married to a prince now."
"He...a prince?" And though Arthur was delighted to hear that his best friend was safe, he could not help the strange little twist in the pit of his stomach at hearing of his marriage.
"Indeed," said Kumajirou. "The handsomest, wisest prince in all the kingdoms! I have been in the city, recently, and I saw the prince on his throne, and I heard him sigh, Oh, for a lover! And so all his maids and attendants came out and made a proclamation that the prince desired a companion, and all the prettiest girls, and the loveliest boys came to the palace to speak to him, but he said that though they were all very beautiful, none of them were his True Love; and so he sent them away."
"But what about Alfred?"
"Patience, patience," said Kumajirou. "We shall come to him. Well now, after about seven days and seven nights had passed, a young man came up to the palace gates, and asked to speak to the prince. And though he was dressed very shabbily, and had only a single bag upon his back, the guards let him in, because he was so very handsome."
"That must be Alfred!" Arthur said, and his heart hurt terribly. "Except it was a sledge on his back, not a bag."
"Ah, you may be true," Kumajirou said, and paused to think. "My memory is not perfect, I am afraid."
"What happened then?" asked Arthur, anxiously.
"Then," said the bear, "the boy was shown into the hall where the prince sat. And he bowed very low, and said, very humbly, that he was all alone, and very poor, and he had nowhere to live; so he begged the prince for work, because he had no money left, and he feared he would starve."
"Oh! My poor, idiotic Alfred," Arthur whispered.
"The prince was intrigued by your young man," Kumajirou continued. "And he promised him he needn't worry; he would be provided for, and he requested that he stayed for dinner. And so he did, and they talked late into the night, and all the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that – for many, many days – and at last it was announced that they would marry; and they did, the day after the announcement was made, and you may be sorry to hear this, but I have never seen a couple more in love."
"I must see him, though," said Arthur, and he thought he might cry, so he opened his eyes, wide, and bit down on his lip, "even if it is just to give him my best wishes, and then punch him in the face. Can you show me the way to the palace?"
"I can," said Kumajirou. "Climb onto my back and we shall go now."
And so Arthur did. He leaned forwards and clung tightly to the white bear's fur, and gripped hard with his legs, and let himself be carried away, the cool air stinging his eyes and cheeks as Kumajirou raced up and down slopes, and over grass, and down a wide, sandy road. The evening wore on until at last, a great, blue city appeared in the distance, twinkling with candlelight. The palace stood at its centre, huge and beautiful, with high spires, and round domes, and surrounded by high hedges, into which was set a tall, golden gate, which was locked – but the bear took him around to the back, and together they slipped through a gap in the hedgerow.
"Now reach up for that window," said Kumajirou, "and pull yourself inside. It is late, so the princes will be abed, I imagine. Go up the stairs to the highest room you can find – that is where I have heard they sleep."
"Thank you," said Arthur, "Thank you so much, Kumajirou!" And he hoisted himself up onto the window ledge – struggling a little, for it was very hard work – and slipped inside.
The palace was very grand. The ceilings were high, and there were marble pillars, and shiny tiled floors, and the staircases were wide, and they sparkled beneath the huge chandeliers which hung from the ceiling. Arthur hurried up the first flight of stairs, as he had been instructed, and hid behind a tapestry when he heard someone coming. When their footsteps faded, he darted out again, and ran up the next staircase – and then up the next one – until there were no more stairs to climb, and when he looked out of a nearby window, he saw he was very high up indeed.
I must be getting close, he thought.
Then he heard a soft noise, like quiet voices, around the corner, so he scuttled over there and peeked out, but there was nobody to be seen; just a big white door, with lovely flowers carved into the wood.
"This," he thought, "must be the princes' bedroom, for there are no more stairs, and I'm bloody exhausted. I shall just have a quick look."
And he twisted the doorknob and, to his delight, the door was not locked, so he pushed it open a crack and looked inside.
There was a soft lamp burning there upon a small, white table, and the curtains were thick and royal blue, embroidered with thin gold thread, and the ceiling was painted to resemble the night sky. And the bed –
Arthur's mouth dropped open.
For there, upon the bed, lay a tall, handsome, blond-haired man, his thighs spread and his hands moving slowly, lovingly over the skin of another blond male, this one with a small beard, and long fingers, and a very sly smile upon his face. He lay between the other's legs, slowly rotating his hips, and he kissed him and kissed him and kissed him upon his neck.
"My beauty," murmured the man with the beard, and the other tossed his head to the side, and moaned in utter pleasure –
And then his eyes opened, and two things became very clear.
Firstly, he was not Alfred. And secondly, he had been –
"Oh!" gasped the man who was not Alfred, but looked strikingly similar. "Fr-Francis, stop!"
The second man, Francis, raised his head. "Matthew, my love, whatever is wrong?" But then he caught sight of where the other's gaze lay, and so he looked towards the door, narrowing his eyes at the sight of Arthur. "You!" he called imperiously, "come here, now, before I call my soldiers!"
Arthur's heart sank. Clearly, this was the prince – or rather, these were the princes. How was he going to get out of this one? And yet he had come so far...
He set his jaw, threw his shoulders back, and pushed the door open a little wider before marching into the room.
The prince named Matthew scrabbled for a blanket to cover himself with, blushing to the roots of his hair. Prince Francis did not.
"How dare you disturb my beloved and I?" he said, and wrapped a possessive arm around his husband. "Who are you, and what are you doing in our palace? Tell me now."
"Not," said Arthur, furiously – for he did not appreciate the rude tone the man was taking, prince or no prince – "until you put some bloody clothes on."
Prince Francis smirked. "I shall not," he said.
"Francis," said Prince Matthew, so quietly Arthur could barely hear him, "please make yourself decent. This is awkward enough without you remaining naked." And then he smiled kindly at Arthur, almost in the way Alfred used to smile at him, and said, "I do apologise. I don't think you mean us any harm, for you carry no weapon with you. So please, explain how you came to be here."
And Arthur sighed and tried not to look at Prince Francis – who was still grumbling about having to dress, and trying to touch his husband, constantly, until Prince Matthew told him sharply to stop fooling around and at least wrap a sheet around his waist – and Arthur told them the whole sad story, and about the big white bear, Kumajirou, and that all he really wanted was to see Alfred one more time, even if he did not wish to return home.
"That is a very sad tale," Prince Matthew sighed when he had finished. "You poor thing! I am terribly sorry, Arthur, but I do not know of anyone by the name of Alfred, and nobody who looks like you described."
"You must be very foolish to come so very far," said Prince Francis. "Or you must love him very much indeed."
"I – he is my best friend," said Arthur, and he felt a little warm. "And it's none of your business, anyhow. You cannot help me, so I shall take my leave. I am sorry to have troubled you, Prince Matthew." And he bowed.
"Wait!" said Prince Matthew, as Prince Francis' hand descended into his lap once again. "We may be able to offer you a little assistance. Please, stay the night; we have plenty of spare bedrooms, and you look so very tired."
Arthur was tired – terribly so – and so he agreed to spend one night at the palace before continuing his search for Alfred the following day.
"Then it is settled," said the kind Prince Matthew. "And when you are ready to depart, we shall give you warm clothes, and food, and a carriage, shan't we, my love?"
"Oh...if that is what you want, my darling," said the other prince, looking a little put out, and Prince Matthew said, "It is!" and kissed his husband quickly upon the cheek in thanks.
Arthur thanked them both (even Prince Francis, though rather grudgingly), and the bell was rung for a maid to escort Arthur to a room across the hallway. And there he undressed, and slipped beneath the soft satin sheets with a tired sigh, and drifted to sleep to the distant sounds of Prince Matthew and Prince Francis trading kisses and endearments. And he dreamt of Alfred.
Chapter 5: Part the Fifth: Robbers
True to their words, the following day the two princes gifted Arthur with new clothes – gloves, and breeches, and stockings to keep his legs warm, and a fur coat, and a thick scarf, and brand new shoes which squeaked against the ground – and they gave him provisions, too; food and drink, and a small carriage, pulled by two white horses, and they sent a man to drive the carriage, too, and Arthur was most grateful, even to Francis, though he would not admit that.
Then Prince Matthew embraced him and wished him good luck, and told him to follow the roads; and Prince Francis told him to follow his heart, and then Arthur stepped into the carriage, and pulled the door shut, and closed his fine new coat around him, and off they sped.
He caught a glimpse of Kumajirou as they passed through the gates to the palace, lurking around a corner, and waved – and then the bear was out of sight, and so he sat back against his seat with a sigh.
They journeyed all day and into the night, and as they passed into a forest, and the sun finally vanished beyond the horizon, Arthur very suddenly felt tired indeed.
"Sir!" he called out to the driver. "We should stop soon."
"I am afraid you must wait, Master Arthur," the driver called back. "For this part of these woods is most treacherous when the sun goes down. We shall stop as soon as we are away from here."
Arthur was about to ask the man what he meant by "treacherous," when all of a sudden, the carriage screeched to a halt. Outside, loud voices were shouting and the horses were whinnying, and he heard the driver call out in fear. Quickly, Arthur reached for the door – but before he could make his escape, somebody else threw it open, and he was grabbed, and dragged outside.
"Unhand me!" Arthur fumed. "What is the meaning of this? Let go at once!"
"Keep still," said a surprisingly calm, smooth voice at his ear, "and don't make a sound, or I'll slit your lovely white throat as many times as it takes to turn our shoes red."
Arthur's heart pounded, and he struggled to remain motionless.
"Now," said that soft voice again, "You look rather well off to me...hmmm...how about you let me know where your money is hidden inside this handsome carriage of yours, and perhaps I'll think about letting you live..."
"D-don't have – any money," Arthur wheezed, as his assailant's arms tightened around his body. "L-let go...you're bloody well going to regret this –"
"Norge!" said another voice – the louder one that Arthur had heard earlier, he thought. "Norge! There's nothing in here!"
The one called Norge growled softly, close to Arthur's ear. "Keep looking, idiot."
"Don't – have –anything," Arthur managed to gasp; it was getting rather difficult to breathe.
"Did he say he doesn't have anything?"
"Den..." came Norge's voice, low and rumbling and threatening.
"Oh, wow, hey..." A man with wild, spiky hair appeared somewhere in front of Arthur, swirling in the stars that were beginning to form before his eyes. "Norge, sugar, you know how that temper of yours gets me going, but you're going to end up strangling this man!"
Norge made an angry sound. "You killed the driver not two minutes ago!"
Arthur's head was horribly light.
Den was looking very serious. "Yes," he said, "but I'm allowed to do that, remember? We already discussed this. If we end up getting caught, I can take all the blame...I don't want my babycakes to get in trouble, do I?"
"One of these days, Den," Norge said, and at last released his grip on Arthur somewhat. "One of these days, I'll stick my knife so far up your –"
"There's my honey bun!" Den said, happily. "Good boy! Now, as for you –" he turned towards Arthur, who glared at him furiously, "– if you won't tell us where your money is, we're taking your carriage, and we'll take you back to our castle, and we'll send out a ransom note! And your father or your wife or your husband or whoever will send us all their money, and then we'll be rich! Haha!"
"Are you deaf as well as stupid?" Arthur said. "I have no –"
"Wrong answer!" Den cried, cheerfully. And he pushed Arthur back into the carriage, and climbed in after him – and a moment later, there was a bump as the other robber climbed up front, and took the reins – and then they were off, speeding further and further into the deep, dark forest.
They travelled a short distance, between pine trees and up and down steep banks, and over big branches, until, finally, they stopped. Arthur looked cautiously outside, and his eyes fell upon a great, crumbling, grey castle hewn into the rock of the cliffs he now saw they were surrounded by.
Norge appeared at the door. He was smaller than Den; with a pale, serious face, and pale, serious hair that was clipped back behind his ear.
"Out," he said shortly, and both Arthur and Den followed him across the leafy forest floor to a plateau of rock, and then down, down some old half-broken steps, onto a balcony overgrown with ivy leaves, and into the castle itself.
It was cold, and shadowy, and full of cobwebs; but there was a fire burning in the fireplace of one of the larger rooms, and blankets spread out upon the floor.
"You will sleep here tonight, where we can keep an eye on you," said Norge, turning and glaring at Arthur. "And then tomorrow Den will send out his ridiculous ransom note, or whatever the hell it is, and you'd better not annoy me, or else..." He glared, and flopped down in front of the fire, staring into the flames.
"Aw, sweetie pie," Den cooed, and immediately nestled down beside the smaller man. "Hey kid, sit. If I'm going to send out this ransom note –"
"You won't have any replies," Arthur said, and suddenly he was very sad – because he didn't know how long it had been since Alfred had disappeared, and since he had left home, and how long it had been since he was in Ivan's house, and he realised, all at once, that he didn't even know how old he was. He wondered if his brothers had searched for him the way they had searched for Alfred.
Den and Norge were regarding him with curiosity, and so Arthur sat down, tiredly, and recounted his tale, yet again, about how Alfred had disappeared, and how he had fallen into the river at home, and Ivan had saved him, and he told them of the sunflowers, and how he did not know for how long he had stayed there in that little house with the garden; and he described escaping, running away; and how he had come upon Kumajirou, who had taken him to Prince Francis and Prince Matthew; and how they had been the ones to give him the carriage, and the fine, new clothes, and the food...and how all he wanted, all he wanted now was to find poor Alfred, and, in the name of all the gods, he would find him; he hadn't come this bloody far to lose the most important person in his life –
He stopped. Perhaps he had said too much.
Then Den sighed dramatically, and said how wonderful love was, how strong, and he swore upon the very blood pumping through his veins that should his beloved Norge ever vanish like that, he would move heaven and earth to bring him home safely.
Norge cast the taller man a disparaging look, then, turning back to Arthur, said: "Do you have any idea what may have happened to your friend?"
"None," said Arthur, and he was very tired, quite suddenly. "All I know is that he vanished into the snow one day, and never came back. The stupid fool –"
"The snowflakes?" said Norge darkly, and added, "And what does your Alfred look like? Come, tell me now."
"He is tall," said Arthur, "taller than me – and he has hair the colour of gold, and bright blue eyes, and he wears a pair of spectacles. And he had a small sledge with him when he went missing."
"Why," Norge replied, "I believe I did see your Alfred, a long time ago. Yes, several winters back it was. He was still a child."
"You – you saw him?" Arthur could barely believe it. After the disappointment of Matthew looking so very similar to Alfred, he didn't think his heart could take another breaking.
"Indeed," said Norge. "He was carried away by General Winter, who lords over all the snowflakes, to his ice palace some miles north from here, where snow lies on the ground all year long."
"General Winter?" Arthur exclaimed, and he remembered Grandmano's story, and how very silly he'd thought it all was at the time; and how Alfred had sworn to place the general on the stove if he dared set foot near his family, or near Arthur. "Oh – Alfred! The bloody useless pillock! I must go there, I must rescue him!"
"It is late," said Norge, "you should wait until morning."
"I have waited too long," cried Arthur, and stood. "I have waited for years! I will not remain here a moment longer! Take the carriage, and the horses, and the food, and the furs if you must. I have no need for them! Don't you dare try to stop me!" And he started towards the balcony by which they had entered the castle.
"Wait!" called Den, and his feet echoed against the stone flags as he ran towards Arthur. "Wait! You'll never find your way to the palace alone."
And suddenly Den whistled, shrilly, sharply, and for a long moment, nothing happened. Then the bushes beyond the steps which led back to the cliffs and the woods rustled, and a small, white dog appeared with a happy yap, and Arthur saw a long, blue leash trailing from the creature's collar.
"Hold onto her leash," Den instructed, "and she will take you where you need to go."
"I don't see how –"
"Trust my awesomeness!" Den said, and beamed widely.
Arthur narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but he hopped onto the steps, and hurried up towards the dog, and took up her leash. And at once, before he even had time to think, the little animal spun around, and set off, jerking him along with her, and though he moved his legs as if to run, it seemed to him that his feet did not touch the ground once.
And so they sped on, through the thick, dark night, northwards into the cold.
Chapter 6: Part the Sixth: The Swedish Husband and his Finnish Wife
Arthur did not know how much time passed as the black sky bled into the trees and the fields and the rocks, and as the sky gradually turned purple, and the ground became white, and the air sharper and colder. He felt as though he was in a dream; and presently his eyelids grew heavy, and fell down slowly, and all he felt as he drifted off was a fast, cool wind against his face, and the tug of the remarkable little dog against his hand. The world rushed by, and the dog ran on, and Arthur's feet continued to move, but needlessly, for indeed there was some strange magic rushing the two of them onwards.
When at last the dog slowed and stopped, Arthur's eyes opened, though he still felt terribly tired and terribly sore from hanging on to the blue leash for such a length of time.
They were, he saw, standing outside a little house built out of white bricks. The window frames were made of blue wood, and the door was wooden too, and yellow. The dog yapped and looked up at Arthur, as if to say, go! And so together they approached the door, and Arthur raised his hand and knocked.
The door was opened, almost at once, by the tallest, most terrifying man Arthur had ever seen. For a moment, mad fear gripped him, and he was certain it was General Winter – then he looked again, and saw that the man was as human as he was.
"Yes," he said.
Arthur opened his mouth. "I – I –"
The little white dog at his feet barked, and the man looked down and spotted her, and picked her up. "What's th't?"
She barked again.
The man regarded him over the rim of his square spectacles. "Y'd better come in." And he stood back, and held the door open.
Arthur hesitated briefly, but the dog yipped at him, wagging her stubby tail against the stranger's arm. And he really was tired...he'd come so far...
Inside, the house was warm and cosy. The tall man gestured vaguely in the direction of a squashy grey sofa which was positioned just before an open log fire, and Arthur, forgetting his nerves, collapsed into it gratefully, for he was sore, and cold, and exhausted from his long journey.
"Name's B'rwald," the man grunted from somewhere behind him, and Arthur thanked him nervously, and introduced himself. "Hm," was the reply.
The dog barked.
"Hana says yer going t' General Winter's palace."
"Er – yes. I am."
"Long way," said Berwald shortly.
Arthur was most confused and was just wondering what he should say, when the door opened and another, shorter man, with round cheeks and big eyes and, thankfully, a bright smile ducked inside.
"Hello, Berwald!" he called, and kicked his boots off.
Arthur did not miss the way Berwald's stern eyes softened and lit up at the sight of the other. "'Lo, Tino," he said, and then, to Arthur: "That's m' wife."
"I'm not –" And then Tino noticed Hana – for that was the little white dog's name. "Ah! She's –" and here, he saw poor Arthur, who sat upon the sofa, almost asleep. "Oh! Good evening!"
"Hello," said Arthur, and he tried to heave himself up to shake the new man's han, but he was quite worn out by the cold and by his exhausting travels, and so he simply sank back down, feeling terribly rude.
"Don't get up," Tino said, waving a hand, when he saw Arthur's struggle, for he was most kind. "You are obviously exhausted! Just sit, and relax, and we shall make you something to eat, for you look half-dead! Oh – I don't mean to be rude," he added, hurriedly, his cheeks turning slightly pink. Arthur assured him that it was quite alright, and that he wasn't at all offended, and so Tino and Berwald went into the kitchen and together, they cooked a delicious stew and gave it to their guest, who was so full and so warm, and so very tired after he finished eating, that he fell fast asleep there and then before the fire.
Tino then turned to his husband, and asked him who Arthur was and how he had come to be out there in the cold, where snow lay all around, and there was nothing else, save for slippery frozen ponds, and ice-cold salty seas.
"Really? Hana, did Norge and Den send you?"
The dog yapped, and waggled her tail.
"Is that so? Who is he? Where is he from?"
And the little animal, who had strange powers which I cannot explain, but had heard Arthur's conversation with Den and Norge earlier, yipped and barked, and Tino and Berwald, who understood her as though she spoke in their own tongue, heard of Arthur's long and perilous journey, which had begun when he was a mere child, and had lasted for many years. And Hana told them of Alfred, too – and of General Winter, whom Norge had seen with a boy who looked just like Alfred.
When Hana spoke of Alfred, Tino became very sad, and he nodded and said that it was indeed true that Alfred was with General Winter, in his palace – for he had heard it on the wind, whispered between the snowflakes – and he had heard, too, that he was most content there.
"They say he has ice in his eyes, and lodged in his heart," Tino said. "It makes him cold and cruel, and I am afraid Arthur will never convince his friend to return home with him if the ice is not removed."
"M'st love Alfred," said Berwald, suddenly, "t' come all this way."
"Yes," said Tino, softly, "he must love him very much indeed."
The dog barked again.
"I wish we could," Tino replied, sadly. "But there is nothing we can do. General Winter is too powerful. The only thing that will save Alfred is the love in Arthur's heart. That is the only thing that will melt the splinters of ice imprisoning him."
Hana yapped once more.
"Y'must take him there," said Berwald. "Take him there t'morrow."
And he and Tino looked at one another; and they were sad, for they wished, more than anything, that they could help Arthur; that they could save Alfred for him. But only Arthur could do that; only Arthur's love for his friend was strong enough to survive entry into the palace, and to break the spell keeping him there. All they could do was equip him, and point him in the right direction, and hope, and pray...and so that night they curled up in bed together, and thought of Arthur, and Alfred, and wished for nothing more than that the two be reunited and remain happy, and together, forever.
Chapter 7: Part the Seventh: At the Palace of General Winter; and What Happened Next
The following day, Berwald, Tino, and Hana led Arthur across the blankets of snow surrounding their little home, up towards a great icy waste where there was no plants, no rivers, no sign of life at all – just a great, thick wall of snowflakes, whirling and driving into them. And here they stopped.
"We can go no further than here," Tino said, when Arthur turned back to look at him questioningly.
"Got t' go the rest 'f the way alone," Berwald added, pointing into the snow storm which lay before them.
"B-but I –"
"Hana'll help ya."
The small white dog yipped and trotted forwards to stand beside Arthur's ankles.
The snowflakes seemed to descend even more quickly upon them, and as Arthur looked away from Hana and back towards the other men, he saw that they had grown very faint, as though they were melting away in the wind.
"Good luck, Arthur!" Tino cried, waving a hand. "Know you can..." and here his voice faded for a moment. "...you love hi–" and his voice faded once more, and Arthur blinked, and then they were gone.
The fierce swirl of snow was wrapped around him already; and he turned, fighting against the vicious winds to push in the direction Berwald had pointed out. But it seemed that for every step he took forwards, the snowflakes shoved him two steps back, and he could almost feel arms closing around him, and hard hands pushing against his chest.
"G-get off!" he shouted. "Need – need to get – Alfred – Alfred!"
The snowflakes whirled faster and faster and faster, and suddenly they were no longer strong arms and hands, but a great, fierce wolf, sparkling and bristling. Arthur gasped, hesitating, and then Hana growled, and launched her tiny body towards the creature. Arthur cried out in shock, but neither the snow-wolf nor the dog, who were snarling and snapping and biting and scratching, seemed to notice, and so he turned away, and ran, and ran, and he did not look back.
He ran, and he ran, and he ran, as fast as his legs could carry him. He ran until his breath stopped in his chest and in his throat; he ran until his feet and his sides cramped; and he ran until his vision blurred and his bright, white surroundings turned black. And when he thought he could run no more, and that he would surely die there, in the cold, alone, without ever seeing his beloved Alfred again – he stopped.
He was in a large room, it seemed: a great chamber sculpted from ice, with high ceilings, and walls on every side, and narrow passageways leading far away into the distance. The ice shone pink and blue and pale yellow, and the light was dim, and at the opposite end of the room, there was a high-backed chair, a throne, that looked to be carved from crystals but, Arthur was certain, was in fact just another part of the palace made from cold, hard ice.
Arthur looked at the throne, and at the couple of steps leading up to it. And then he looked again, and his heart tightened, and pounded, and his stomach leapt and exploded with butterflies. For there, on the frozen ground at the bottom of the steps, down on his knees and examining something Arthur could not see, and did not care about, was Alfred F. Jones.
His entire attention was focused solely upon a number of flat, sharp pieces of ice – for long ago, when General Winter had brought him to his palace, he had told him that he could not leave until he could shape the ice into something that would last forever. General Winter had left then, leaving Alfred imprisoned, struggling with the pieces of ice which melted between his fingertips, or shattered, and he would be forced to scratch new icicles from the ceiling or the walls with his fingernails, which hurt a great deal; and still, he could not make something eternal. And so he remained in the ice chamber for years upon years, struggling alone, numb.
His skin was blue with cold, and so were his lips, and his eyes were hard and icy – but he did not care, for the splinters of that wicked Magic Mirror were still firmly lodged inside his eye and his heart.
Arthur still thought he was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
"Alfred!" he shouted, and he flew across the slippery ground, arms outstretched, and flung himself upon him. "Alfred, Alfred, Alfred..."
But Alfred just looked dully back at him, glassy-eyed and emotionless. He was taller now, older, so handsome, and Arthur supposed that they both were grown-ups now, or nearly, at least. And he felt so very sad that Alfred did not care for him, and that he was so very cold and dead inside that his lip began to tremble, and though he had not cried in a long, long time, it was so very difficult not to now...
For he had Alfred in his arms at long last – but Alfred did not care, and it was so, so terribly, terribly cruel...
Tears began to stream down his face, and he pressed his cheek against Alfred's temple. He was so cold, so very cold, and he kissed his hair, and because he simply did not know what else he could do, he began to sing, softly, "The rose is red, the violet's blue, the honey's sweet, and so are you..."
And here, a most curious thing happened. One of Arthur's warm, salty tears slid down over his cheek, and onto Alfred's brow, then slipped into his eye, the one with the shard of glass in it. Alfred blinked slowly, and the tear leaked back out, and the glass with it. He blinked again, and then again, and he saw Arthur close beside him, his arms about his neck and his eyes wet and half-closed. And he cried out in shock, and then in joy:
"Arthur! Oh, Arthur, it's you! It's really you! Arthur!" And he threw his arms around his friend's waist, and pulled him close, and together they laughed and sobbed, and Arthur kissed him on the left cheek, then the right, on the tip of his nose, on his forehead, his chin, he kissed every finger, and the palms of his hands, and then, finally, he kissed him on the mouth – just quickly – and at last the blue tinge faded from his skin, and his body and his heart were warm again; for at Arthur's kisses, the sliver of glass that was lodged there had vanished entirely.
Alfred leapt to his feet, dragging Arthur up with him, and picked him up and whirled him around and around and around, laughing even louder and more joyfully when Arthur squealed, "Put me down! Put me down you great buffoon!"
When at last he did, letting Arthur slip down to the ground gently, their hands met and their fingers entwined, and they did not let go, but kissed one another softly, sweetly, before turning back in the direction Arthur had come from, and running, running together away from the palace of ice, across the snowy wasteland towards the sun.
The shards of ice Alfred had spent so long struggling to shape into something permanent lay still upon the floor of the now empty chamber, formed into a heart shape. And no matter how fiercely General Winter fought to eradicate them when he returned to find his captive gone, they did not melt, or shift; and even to this day, they still lie there, peaceful and undisturbed; and they will do so for all of eternity.
Outside, the snowstorm had ended and the great snow wolf was nowhere to be seen, but Hana stood waiting for them, her little tail wagging away happily, her mouth covered with melting snowflakes. They followed her away from the ice, back towards where Arthur had left Berwald and Tino, who were overjoyed to see them safe, and embraced them both – Berwald a little more awkwardly than his wife – and they returned together to their house, where they ate and slept for a night and a day, and then another night.
When their strength was recovered, Berwald leant Alfred some of his warm clothes, and Tino gave Arthur some of his, and Hana led the two of them away from the cold land of snow, southwards, back towards the woods and the forests, where they came upon two other men, whom Arthur knew.
It was Den and Norge, riding the white horses they had taken from Arthur, the horses gifted to him by Matthew and Francis.
"Well, hello there!" Den shouted, and kicked his mount forwards, pulling it to a halt beside Arthur and Alfred.
"Uh," said Alfred, "hello." He leant down towards Arthur, whispering in his ear and making him blush: "D'you know this man? He's a bit odd, isn't he?"
"Heehee, Norge, look at this!" he gestured down towards the pair's hands, which were still joined and had been since their flight from General Winter's palace. "Aw!"
"How perfectly sickening," Norge replied, rolling his eyes.
"I see you didn't return the horses," said Arthur, sniffing. "So I can assume you kept the carriage, too. How disgraceful."
"The two princes who gave them to you are gone abroad," said Norge, his nose in the air. "So really, there was no way for us to do that."
"You live a long way from here, don't you?" Den enquired suddenly. "Hey, angel, why don't we take them home in the carriage?"
"I've got a better idea," Norge said, irritably. "Why don't I cut your head off and tie these two to a tree, and leave you all for the wolves?"
Den looked at him blankly. Alfred just threw his head back and laughed. Norge looked rather shocked.
"Ha!" Alfred exclaimed. "You're alright! Norge, is it?"
In the end, Norge did agree to take Arthur and Alfred home, but he sat up at the front with Den and refused to sit in the carriage with them and talk, which was most agreeable for all concerned. Alfred rested his head on Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur gazed out at the world slipping by; at the trees and flowers and bushes, and the deer and rabbits who went hop-hop-hopping over large rocks and fallen branches. At one point, Alfred's arm, larger and heavier and stronger than Arthur remembered it, slid into his lap, and their fingers curled together. And they sat like that, silent and happy, warm and comfortable, for the remainder of the journey.
When at last they arrived in the little town where Arthur and Alfred had been children – the town they had not seen for so very long – Den and Norge slowed and stopped the horses and they said their goodbyes.
"Bye," said Norge, shortly, and nothing else.
Den beamed and slapped them both on their backs, and said to Alfred, "This is a very fine fellow, you hear me? He came further for you than you can ever imagine."
"I know," said Alfred, and he smiled at Arthur. "And I'd run from one end of the world to the other for him."
"Good!" said Den, climbing back onto the front of the carriage with Norge. "Send us an invitation to the wedding!"
Arthur spluttered and Alfred laughed, and took his beloved's hand as the two men drove off out of town and over the horizon.
"Let's go home," Alfred said, when they were out of sight.
Arthur smiled. "Gladly."
They walked back along the road, past all the little houses they remembered so well; back towards their own. The sky was a brilliant blue, like Alfred's eyes, and the sun was yellow and high and hot, and all the plants were flourishing. It was summertime, they realised, and it felt so strange, and yet so wonderful.
The roses were blooming, as always, in Arthur's little garden, and suddenly Arthur remembered and took from his pocket the old, fading embroidery he'd carried with him for so very long, but very nearly forgotten about, and gave it to Alfred.
"This is for me?" Alfred said.
And Alfred smiled. "You stitched it yourself."
There was a sudden great commotion, as doors up and down the street were flung wide open, and Grandmano and Antonio appeared in the doorway of Alfred's house, and Arthur's brothers appeared at the doorway of his own, and all of a sudden they were there, embracing them, and Grandmano was slapping Alfred on his arm, and calling him a bastard, and Antonio was laughing and singing, and Arthur's brothers were yelling, all at once. And then Grandmano wanted to pinch their cheeks, and Antonio was sent back home to make supper...
And at some point, late in the evening, when the sun was half-spilt across the sky and the birds were settling down to roost, and insects buzzed sleepily, and Grandmano had fallen asleep in the old armchair after telling the pair of them, yet again, that they'd grown so much... Alfred wrapped an arm around Arthur's shoulder and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. "Sing me a song, Arthur."
And Arthur, turning his face so the other would not see his red cheeks, began to sing:
"The rose is red, the violet's blue,
The honey's sweet, and so are you.
Thou are my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou'd be you."