No wind stirred the leaves of the trees; the forest was entirely still save, for the clattering of a young girl. She was hopelessly lost, and been so all day since entering the woods. Her small feet rustled the leaves as she walked on timidly through the trees. Her fine dress was now torn and tattered by clinging brambles and thorns.
It seemed to be getting dark, though she could not tell for certain, as the woods seemed to play tricks with the light. In any case, she was now tired and thoroughly hopeless of finding her way out before the sun had set. She sat down against the trunk of a great tree and began to sob.
“What am I to do?” she cried. “I am so lost, I don’t think I could ever get out.”
“I know the way,” croaked a mysterious voice from up above.
Startled, she looked up to see an enormous, gnarled old crow perched in the branches above her.
“Do you really?” she said.
“Of course I do,” the ancient bird replied.
“Please then, will you show me the way? I am so terribly lost, and I don’t know what to do.”
“Yes girl, I will show you. But I need a favor in return.”
“Oh, I would do anything!”
“Oh yes, of course.”
“What I want is a small thing, yes, very small.”
“What is it that you want?”
“Let me show you.”
He flew ahead of her, cawing, and she followed. She had followed him for some time until they at last reached a great mass of trees all growing together. The crow landed on one of the branches above the entrance to a tunnel in the roots. The girl walked up to the hole and asked:
“What has this place to do with my favor?”
“Everything. This is the clockwork man’s house, and I want his heart.”
“Yes, his heart. Now go on inside and fetch it for me, or I won’t show you the way out of these woods.”
“But, how do I even get at his heart?”
“Wind him and you shall see. Now go girl, and if you are not back after a while, I will know you have died.”
She crawled into the tunnel, the crow’s words still on her mind. She tumbled down and out of the tunnel and into a room. She looked about, and in the half-light filtering in from the tunnel she could make out the remains of a table and a rusty stove. Next to the stove was a patch of blackness that she guessed was a hallway. The floor that she stood upon was stone. She walked over to table and found a candle, and then over to the stove where she found matches. With one of these she lit the candle and looked about. There were broken windows all along the walls, and she realized that the tunnel she had come through was at one time a window, and that she was in a cottage that had been overgrown by trees.
She walked then towards the hallway she had noticed, and in the candlelight saw something that had before been hidden away by the shadows. In the doorway of the hall there was a skeleton lying on the floor, long dead and covered in dust. The girl squeaked in fright and looked away. A feeling of dread came over her then, and she stepped into the dark hallway. She walked for what felt like hours, passing many closed doors as she went until she had reached the end of the hall. Her candle’s feeble light glinted off of something large and metallic that stood against the wall.
It was shaped like a man, only it was covered in plates of iron. In the joints were exposed cogs and gears. He had no real face, only a bare plate with two small, black holes that vaguely resembled eyes. It was as the crow had said, a clockwork man.
The girl looked over him in fear and awe, seeking where his heart might be. He looked on coldly and blankly with his unseeing eyes. She walked behind him and saw a large key protruding from his back. She remembered what the crow had said and wound it. The gears and cogs came to life and she stepped back to watch. As they wound about the chest plate of the iron man opened up to reveal his inner workings. There, where his heart should have been was a gear made of gold.
“So this is what the crow is after then,” said the girl.
She reached for it and began to tug it loose from the other gears. As she did this though, she failed to notice the cold iron hand reaching to grab her other arm. It gripped her like a vice and she screamed in pain and fear. Her bones cracked in the clockwork man’s grip. She flinched and pulled back her other hand in pain, and as it flew back it pulled the golden gear from its housing. The clockwork man looked down at her with his hollow eye holes, and his gearing wound down to a halt.
His grip did not loosen however, and though she tried wrestling herself free, she was trapped there and could not escape.
“Help me!” she cried. “Please help me!”
She went on like this for a while, until at last the enormous old crow flew in to see what was going on.
“I see that you are not dead,” he croaked.
“Help me please, crow. I have his heart, but I cannot get free of him.”
The crow looked at her for a moment, then flew up and grabbed the gear from her hand and took off cackling. The girl looked into the blackness he had flown off into for a second, and then began to cry. She sobbed until her body shook and no more tears would come to her eyes. She was finished now, and she knew it. The girl looked up then into the face of the clockwork man, and he looked down at her with his black and empty eyes. She then lay her head against his cold chest and fell asleep.