By Kate Elliott
“One spark. Two sparks. Three. This is what it takes to ignite a revolution.”
A reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairytale, “The Tinder Box” tells the story of a witch at the heart of an incipient rebellion—and all of those to come.
After the soldier cut off my head it rolled away under a holly tree and thereafter sun wind snow rain petals dripped down upon the earth through the gaping eye sockets of my skull.
Teach a callow man to be a soldier and he will learn to use violence to solve his problems. It was for that reason I had appeared to him as an old hag and allowed him to fill his pockets with coin from my secret treasure. He was a vain and trifling fellow, and it is never so very difficult for men of that temperament to dispose of women who they see as ugly.
Losing my head was a small price to pay for my ultimate object, the overthrow of the king and the uncommonly clever queen. Their regime was thoroughly regimented. Those who rule with an iron grip and attention to detail know how to crush each least spark of rebellion, how to behead any small cry for freedom. No carefully crafted revolution, however righteous and passionate, stood a chance against their cunning secret police, prosperous merchants and landlords, and well-fed and well-paid military.
But what would a common soldier be to them? Merely a man without ambition except the gratification of material desires like rich food, expensive clothing, and a forbidden kiss from their daughter, the beautifully passive princess. My hope was that the king and queen would not take such a soldier seriously until it was too late, when he had finally understood the power of the humble tinder box he’d stolen off my corpse.
As for him, he thought cutting off my head would end my part in the matter. He couldn’t know he was only the first part of my plan.
My skull lay for years I could not tally as I waited for the right heart to pass by my slumbering roots.
There came a soldier marching down the road: One, two! One, two!
I spun myself as a springtime bloom into a gown with the languid purple of a crocus and a checked apron of white and blue. My hair fell as fine and pale as dandelion filaments. I stumbled to the road, pretending to fall.
A strong hand caught me. “There now, what’s a delicate flower like you doing out alone in the forest?”
I clung to him as to a stout tree in a wild storm, so he would believe me helpless. “What news of the army, soldier? My brother marched out. I wonder if he will ever return.”
“You should not be outside the walls where any criminal might chance upon you.” He set me at arm’s length with the frown of a man who finds a woman desirable and is ashamed of his thoughts. “Let me escort you to the city gates before I continue on my way.”
“You are not a city man?” I asked.
“Village born. Just passing through, though there’s not much waiting for me at home. When the war started the king paid our parents to sign up their extra sons. They’ll not welcome another mouth to feed when I return.”
“I can’t help but notice you have a very sharp sword but an empty knapsack.”
“True enough. For all our victories, we soldiers haven’t been paid. There are a lot of growling stomachs coming back to our villages and towns in the next weeks.”
I smiled. “Perhaps we can help each other. Before she died my grandmother told me about a tree.” I pointed to a massive old oak with its gnarled trunk. “It’s hollow to the roots and underneath there’s a hole. I can’t get into it by myself. But if I tie a rope around your middle, then I can lower you down and pull you up again.”
“What would I do in a hole under a tree?” he asked.
I gazed at him with my primrose eyes. “Do you love the king?”
“I love the king as much as he loves me.” He glanced at his boots, so worn they were held together with string, and shrugged to jostle the knapsack which was as light as if it was filled with air, for that is exactly what was inside it: air and hunger.
The old regime would never have let its soldiers lack food, the better to use them to keep their subjects cowed and compliant. But he had not been born in those times. Hunger made him ripe for persuasion.
“Under the tree beyond the hole lies a bright hall burning with lamps. The hall has three doors, and each door has a key in it. In the first room you’ll find a big chest in the middle of the floor. On that chest sits a dog whose eyes are as big as teacups. But don’t fear! Spread out my apron and set the dog on it, and he’ll be quiet. Open the chest and take out as many copper coins as you wish!”
“Just like that?”
“Be sure to use the apron exactly as I’ve told you.”
“What if I forget?”