When it started to snow the sky was a dull nacreous bowl overhead. The late afternoon light was like dirty dishwater. I was dressed for the freeze but had hoped my bus would arrive before the blizzard set in. No such good fortune, a heavy fall started, adding the discomfort of freezing wet flakes in my face to my tired feet and the weight of my laptop case slung over my shoulder.
The cars, headlights already blazing, slowed to funeral procession pace. I shifted my weight from one booted foot to the other and slid the sleeve of my parka up to look at my watch. The bus was already late. My cats, Godel, Escher and Bach would be screaming to be fed by now. I looked behind me at the row of small empty shops, driven out of business by the poor economy. There was nowhere to call a taxi from. My cell phone had been dead for a week after I took a tumble on some of the ice that was concealed by the drifts of snow, a black mirror surface where the snow had partly melted during the day and refrozen overnight to a treacherous slickness. I cursed myself for not having it repaired yet.
I was just pulling the fleece-lined hood of my parka further down over my face when an elderly man came toward the bus stop. He was thin and bent over and leaning on a cane, wearing an old fashioned frock coat and a great fluffy fur hat pulled over his ears. I don't really enjoy talking to strangers but odd circumstances are generally improved at least a little by a measure of civility.
"Lovely day for it." I said with a slightly rueful smile as he reached the part of the pavement with a ditch cut through the two-foot high snow embankment to the road. The air seemed to snap and pop with the cold. Half an hour longer out here and we risked frostbite. Surely the bus would arrive long before that.The old man smiled back. Under his fur hat he had high slavic cheekbones and faded pale blue eyes, almost the colour of the sky before it snowed. His smile was thin lipped but genuine.
"Ah, all this snow feels quite like home." he said in a faintly Eastern European accent. "But you must be cold my dear. I do hope you are not too cold?" He said it in such a grandfatherly way that I could hardly take offense at being called his dear. "Oh, no. I'm quite warm enough. At least I have a good thick coat and gloves." I smiled as cheerfully as I could. The day was only getting darker, the traffic was barely moving at all as the thin scrape of wipers battled the falling snow. I put my gloved hands in my pockets to keep them warmer and peered down the road to see if I could make out the shape of the bus in the distance. The snow blurred everything in front of me.
"No sign yet." I said to the old man. He shook his head and leaned on his cane. "Ah well, these old bones are used to waiting. They can surely wait a little longer. But you my dear, you're shivering. Are you sure you're warm enough?"I nodded, huddling down in my coat to present as little of my body to the heavy snow as possible. "Y-yes, quite warm." I reassured him, teeth chattering.
The wind grew stronger, swirling the snow around us. I was beginning to get worried. We couldn't stay out in the cold much longer and there were no shops or houses for miles. I'm young enough, and healthy- I have good circulation, but the old man's face was nearly as white as the snow and his lips were a worrying purple-blue.
"Perhaps we should break into one of the shops for shelter." I suggested. "I can put a rock through a window." His pale blue eyes flickered with amusement.
"Oh no, dear. I'm quite enjoying the snow. But you? Are you still warm enough, my dear?"
If he was going to be too stubborn to seek shelter then I would be stubborn too. I wasn't going to leave a frail old man in the snow."Yes, I feel just fine." I lied politely with a smile. I could feel my toes going numb. I stood there plotting how to persuade the old man to come into one of the empty shops with me before it was too late, when out of the crawl of the traffic a car pulled up to the bus stop.
It was a white Mercedes, a 200D, probably a 1967 model. One of those rather finny American influenced jobs. I suppose it sounds rather Ian Fleming to know the model and the year but I love vintage cars. Sadly my salary doesn't even run to an old beater. Not in this town. As cold as it was I couldn't help staring in open admiration at such a beautifully maintained car. The old man touched my elbow. "You like her?" He smiled. "She's mine. Let me give you a ride. You will freeze before the bus arrives otherwise."
He was probably right. And besides, I reasoned, anyone with the taste to own a car like that couldn't be too dangerous. The choice between staying in the freezing weather or risking a lift from a stranger was easily made. The uniformed driver of the Mercedes opened the rear doors for us and helped me in. The brown leather seats were still in perfect condition, shiny and smooth. Quite a treat compared to the worn seats of the bus I was accustomed to. I told the driver where I lived and the old man said: "We will take no time at all to get there! Very good!" I buckled up and settled in to enjoy the warmth inside the car.
We swung back into the slow moving stream of traffic edging into a gap in front of a truck. There was music playing in the car, tinkly celeste, something like the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, only somehow slightly warped.
The quality of light changed. The air was clear and the glare of the sun on snow hurt my eyes. We were no longer in the car, in the traffic, stationary. We were whipping across a great bare white plain on a sleigh. I thought of Edmund in Narnia with the Ice Queen and her Turkish delight, and giggled slightly hysterically.
The old man put his hand on mine. It felt cold and dry. "Are you all right?" he asked. I closed my eyes and opened them again. No, I was in a mercedes crawling through a snowstorm under orange street lights.
"Yes thank you, I'm fine." I smiled.
"You remind me of my dear wife." he said, clasping my hand.
We were in the car, yes. But my eyes said we were somewhere else, at the same time. Or rather, not at the same time, but in some vastly older time. It was like I could see the car and the street, and the sleigh and the plain superimposed on each other. The sleigh was racing along the snow, kicking up drifts of fine white powder. Somewhere behind us I could hear wolves snarling and howling. I had the distinct feeling they were chasing us. At the same time, the Mercedes was rolling along at about ten miles an hour, tires slipping on the tractionless surface.
The old man looked younger and less shrunken with age in the sleigh. He was still gripping my hand and his bright blue eyes seemed to burn with an icy flame. He was strikingly handsome with those high cheek bones and arrogant full lips.
"Yes, you remind me of her." His voice boomed over the crack of the whip driving the sleigh dogs on. I couldn't help staring at him as he spoke. He had a commanding presence.
"They left her there. They sent her out into the snow-" his arm swept around, gesturing widely at the broad steppes. Snow lay around us on all sides. In the distance, a figure in fantastical armour rode past on a white horse. The wolves still pursued us, and turning behind I could see the shadow of a great forest.
"They sent her into the snow to freeze. They told her he was coming, a prince was coming to wed her." His voice cracked with anger. I blinked and the little old man in the car was talking to me. "It was so long ago. I can see you don't understand." Snow slapped at my face as the dogs ran onward into the wind.
"They didn't want her, the poor little thing." He looked furious, his brow creasing. "She was so kind and courteous. She didn't say a word of complaint though the roses fled from her cheeks and her hands turned numb."
A car horn sounded. I shook my head trying to clear it. Evidently the cold had affected me more than I thought if I was hallucinating fairy tales. I recognised the old man's story from a thick book that my aunt gave me as a christening present. I remembered reading it under the blankets with a flashlight barely illuminating the pages, the scary plates of illustrations, Old Man Frost's crackling fingers, as he loomed large and predatory over the poor freezing girl left out in the snow.
The wolves were getting closer, and so was the figure on the horse. I could see it was a woman in close fitting plate mail, tall, with a thick braid of fair hair down her back. She wasn't in the book. Nor were the wolves. Mind you, the story didn't say what happened after Old Man Frost took the frozen girl for his bride.
The driver whipped the dogs on faster. The old man was stroking my face, saying "So like her, just like her." over and over. Perhaps taking a ride with a stranger was a bad idea after all. The woman rode alongside the sleigh. "JUMP!" she yelled out. Old Man Frost held onto my hands. The driver turned around. "I'd probably jump, if I were you." he said in a heavy Russian accent. "He's a little senile now." The woman on the horse held out her plate mail covered hand and I grabbed for it. She swung me onto the white charger.
I tried to concentrate on the car, on being in the car, but it didn't work, I couldn't calm down enough to focus on it while I was thundering along on the back of a horse, the woman's armour clad arm gripping my waist, wolves only yards behind us. Absurdly enough all I could think of was keeping my laptop case from sliding off my shoulder. The knight spurred her horse on. It was difficult not to notice that she had a very large sword strapped to her waist. I'm not entirely given to associating with the kind of people who carry weaponry. One doesn't run into too many in the world of mathematics, unless you count a sharpened protractor.
"Er. Excuse me, but how do you suppose I get back to, well, where I was headed?" The knight snorted. "I just saved you from Old Man Frost. And wolves. Do you think you could manage a 'thank you, you're my hero,' before you start demanding the difficult bits?" Her voice was low and rich, and she had a gentle burr to the way she pronounced her words. "Oh, I'm sorry, thank you." I stammered. It was all a bit much.
"Right. Well, it's very simple. We're going to circle back around to where the Old Man started coming through with you, and pop you back into where-ever he dragged you off from. I hate winter. One damn damsel after another." The knight chuckled as she said this. The wolves were following the sleigh. We backtracked through the snow, passing them by on their chase.
"What do you mean you hate winter?" I asked. "Oh." she said. "It's always the same. He just happens to see a woman in the cold somewhere and he's off with the old routine. "Are you warm, my pretty, are you warm?" The knight gave a fair imitation of the old man's accent. "And of course, you lot can't stay here, you just don't thrive on our conditions. So I get to intercept him and rescue the damsels." She nodded decidedly. "Oh well. Something to tell your grandchildren. 'How I went to Fae, and made my fortune writing novels afterward', if you're like most of the other folk who come our way. This is your stop!" She pulled her horse to an abrupt halt and gave me a shove.
I blinked in the sudden darkness and landed with a crunch in the snowbank by the bus stop. The bus was pulled in alongside me, and the driver was yelling out the door. "You gettin' in then, lady, or you gonna lie there all night?" One of the passengers came down the steps to give me a hand up. "Can't you see she fell?" she hollered back at the driver. "Are you all right hon?" she asked solicitously as she helped me onto the bus.
"Uhuh..." I mumbled. Dazed, cold, but deliciously aware of the sheer mundaneness of falling in the snow and being yelled at by a city bus driver. "Thank you. Yes, thank you. I'm fine now." At least until I got home to those poor cats who were no doubt convinced they were starving, by now.