In the land of the North there lived a boy who dwelt with his mother in a house made of snow. He was a brave young man, and bold and bonny, and he spent his time in books, and strolling through the forest. Though he was often alone, he was content.
But one day, while he was out in the forest, his mother was slain by a huntsman, and when the boy returned to find her lifeless body, her blood running red into the snow, he fell to his knees and wept into her breast. "Oh, mother!" he cried. "What shall I do, for now I am alone!"
He lay there for some time, his tears turning to ice upon his cheeks, until his heart froze over and he no longer felt the pain of being alone. Numbly, he rose, and in silence buried his mother beneath the snow. When he was done, he was surprised to find a white wolf standing quite tamely beside him. The wolf spoke:
"Heed me," the wolf said: "You must seek to the East, you must seek to the West, then seek to the South upon your quest."
"Why must I go?" the boy protested. "And what shall I find there?"
"The key to unlock your heart again," said the wolf.
"I do not know if I wish to do so," the boy replied, his hands touching his frozen tears.
"You must," said the wolf, growling a little. "Go now."
"But how shall I find it?"
"You will see what you must see. Go seek the one who bears the key." And the wolf spoke no more.
So the boy made a carriage of leather and of wood, pulled by six white dogs, and with the wolf running by his side, set out to the lands of the East.
It was a long trek, and by the time he had traveled the distance, the boy had become a young man. He came upon a giant, dressed as a knight, and clad all in red. "Hallo up there," he called.
"What do you want?" grumbled the giant. "Don't you see I'm busy?" Then he squinted. "Don't I know you?"
The young man looked up at the giant, and indeed, he looked familiar. "I come from the land of the North," he said.
"Ah, thought so," said the giant. "I believe you may be my son."
"That seems highly unlikely," said the young man, "for I am but small compared to you."
"Well there you are, then," said the giant.
"I do not mean to interrupt you, but I seek the key to unlock my heart. Do you know where I might find it?"
"Alas," said the giant, "I cannot give you such a key. But you are welcome to the only key I have." He reached down and handed the young man a key carved of brightest ruby. "Now excuse me, for I have much work to do."
"Thank you kindly, anyway," the young man said, and watched the giant stride away. He took the red key, and pressed it to his breast, but his heart remained frozen.
But the key turned into a bright red cloak, and covered him all over. Then the wolf spoke to him again: "You must wear this cloak of red, to keep in mind he who is dead."
Though he did not understand, the young man did as he was told. And the cloak did keep him warm, at least on the outside.
Clad thus as a knight, he turned his carriage to the West, the wolf running by his side. When he came to the West, a great storm was raging, with gusts of snow and sleet, and the young knight feared he might freeze to death, for though his heart was already frozen solid, the rest of him was flesh and blood. Suddenly he heard a woman's cry above the storm.
"Help me!" she cried, "Please save me!"
The knight followed the voice into the storm, where he came upon a beautiful maiden with black eyes and black hair, who was clad in rags and looked near death. He gathered her into his arms, and carried her to the shelter of the rocks, where he drew her inside his tunic to warm her, and put her frozen fingers in his mouth, and lay with her in the snow.
The storm raged for a day and a night and a day, and when it ended, the maiden opened her dark eyes and smiled at him. "You have saved my life," she said, and her voice was like the loveliest music. She stroked his face, and the flesh of her hand was like the softest satin. The knight was struck by her beauty and could not answer. "I see you are sad," the maiden crooned. "Let me reward you. I have a key that will unlock your heart."
The knight was filled with joy, and watched as she drew a sparkling key from her breast, a key as bright as diamonds, and placed it in the frozen lock. At last, he thought, at last my heart will be free!
But beside him, the wolf howled, "You do not see what you must see. Beware! Choose not her offered key!"
The knight would not listen, but embraced the woman, and kissed her, and lay with her as men and women do, and fell asleep in her arms.
But, alas! The maiden was in truth a sorceress, and her key was made of ice, and instead of freeing the knight's heart, it only stabbed him like a knife, and froze his heart up more solidly than before. And when he awoke, he was alone, and felt an icicle within him, and he despaired and wished to die.
The white wolf appeared and spoke to him again: "You must arise, and quickly, too. Seek to the South, I beg of you."
He did not wish to obey, but he did so. He tied the dogs to the carriage of leather and wood, and turned towards the South.
They journeyed over mountains, and over hills, and over flat lands. He rode upon the carriage until there was no snow, and then he released the dogs and walked. Always, the wolf was by his side. He walked for many days, and many nights, through five provinces and over five rivers, and sailed five inland seas, until at last he came to the lands of the South.
There he found a great city, and the noise and people terrified him. He wandered the streets, and many women threw open their shutters, offering the keys to their houses, but the wolf stayed by his side, and whispered harshly: "You do not see what you should see. None of these maidens holds your key." And so he turned from them and walked away.
At long last, needing shelter, he came to a great house. There, a beautiful lady in red took him in, and gave him food and shelter. Finally, the knight thought, this is where I shall find the key!
But though he was dressed as a knight, the lady set him to do menial tasks, and was imperious and treated him as a servant.
Still, she looked upon him, at his hair dark as a raven's wing, his eyes blue as the northern ocean, his skin white as new-fallen snow, and she began to want him as a lover. One night she came to him and said, "Though you are lowly born, and I am a great lady, still I desire you."
Perhaps, the knight thought, perhaps I have found what I seek. "I desire you, too," he said, and kissed her.
Through the open window he heard the song of the wolf: "You do not see what you must see. Another bears the perfect key."
The wolf must be wrong, the knight thought. But when he asked the lady for a key, she gave him one of iron, as strong as her will. "This is all you need," she told him. But though it unlocked every room in the lady's house, it would not unlock the knight's heart. He shook his head sadly, and sighed, "Alas, you are not the one." And so the lady parted from him, saying coldly, "You may remain in my house as my servant, but remember: this never happened."
They did not speak of it again.
He worked his menial tasks, carrying coal and sweeping the floor, and tending to the hearth. In time he made friends in the town, and, if he was not happy, at least he had a tunic and a roof to keep him warm on the outside. But inside his heart was frozen, and secretly he despaired.
And so it went on, day after day, month after month, year after year, until he almost forgot about his quest. But he grew colder, and shrank within himself, and pulled his tunic more closely about him to stave off the chill. And he knew the time was close, that he would die if he did not find the key to unlock his frozen heart.
And then one day, as he walked into town, so tired and sad he was barely able to lift his head, the knight heard a noise, and turned to find a runaway carriage bearing down on him. He could not move out of the way, but at the last moment someone pushed him hard and he fell safely into a ditch. When he had gathered his wits, he looked back and saw a young man lying in the road, who had been struck pushing him out of danger's path. He gathered the man up and carried him to the stables, where he lay him on a bed of straw.
Soon enough, the man recovered his senses, and the knight was relieved to see he was not badly hurt. "You saved my life," said the knight, "and I do not know who you are."
"I am the stable boy, of course," the other said, as if it were obvious.
"But I know the stable boy, and he is a friend of mine," protested the knight. "And you are not he."
"I'm afraid he's gone. You just have me."
The knight sat down in the straw with his head in his hands.
"What's wrong?" The new stable boy stared at him from bright blue eyes. He was dusty and scruffy, with straw standing up in his hair like spikes. He looked quite comical, indeed. The knight could not help but smile. "You laughing at me?"
"No, not really," said the knight. "In fact I am sad, for my friend is gone."
"Oh," said the stable boy. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm not much of a replacement."
"No, no," replied the knight, "I'm certain you are quite good, indeed. It's just that I have lost my friend, I have a menial job, and I shall never find what I seek."
"What is it you, uh, seek?"
The knight was tired, and sad, and did not really wish to tell his tale, but the stable boy had a kind face and nice eyes, and his absurd hair did make the knight smile. And so he told him of his quest.
And when he was done, the stable boy was silent, and then slowly he put his arm around the knight, and pulled him close. "That is one sad tale, my friend. You must be tired."
"Indeed I am," replied the knight. "But I cannot rest until I find the proper key."
The stable boy wrinkled his brow and scratched his chin, and thought a while. And then he reached into his clothes and withdrew a huge bunch of keys from his breast, and went through them, one by one, naming and discarding them, until but one was left. It was old and rusty, bent and dented, and bore the scars of other locks. But he held it out and said softly, "This probably won't fit. And it probably isn't what you're looking for. But it's yours if you want it."
And at that moment, the sun coming through the barn window fell upon the key, turning it to gold. And the knight gasped at the sight, and looked again at the stable boy, whose hair had also turned to gold in the bright ray of sunshine.
And from outside the barn the voice of the wolf sang, "It's time to see what you must see. Behold the one who bears the key!"
The knight took the stable boy's hand, and drew it towards his chest. And when the key touched his heart, the ice began to melt, and grew warm, until the knight felt the golden ray inside his heart. At last, he thought, at last my heart is free. And the ice turned to tears that ran freely down his cheeks, and he clasped the stable boy to him and felt his heart beat with life again.
And outside, throughout the world, all the wolves of the North, South, East and West raised their voices together, and sang a song of love.