Salt and Iron
By Gem Isherwood
There’s a gash across her cheekbone, glass in her arm and her lower lip is twice the size it should be, but Dagna Müller is hardly a stranger to pain.
She slumps on the steps outside the tavern, feeling her nose to check if it’s broken again. Without sensation in her fingertips it’s hard to tell. She can’t bring herself to care much either way.
Her muscles ache from the weight as well as the fight: a dull hurt that courses along her shoulders and down her arms, turning to a chafing burn where the skin of her wrists meets the solid metal of her hands.
That pain never fades. At least the injuries provide some variety.
The tavern stands on the seafront, where barques and schooners are berthed like horses stabled for the night. The tide is low and the air reeks worse than an undine’s armpit; between that and the cheap gin in her belly it takes all of Dagna’s willpower not to retch.
Six months ago, she wouldn’t have lost a fight. If she hadn’t drunk herself halfway into oblivion she could have knocked all three of them out inside of a minute. Or at least noticed the bastards were cheating before they’d taken every last coin in her purse.
“Here,” a voice says from above her. “You’re a damn poor advertisement for my business.”
She looks up to see the landlord – an old mariner, face wrinkled from the sun and sea air – offering her an almost-clean rag. She takes it and dabs at her bloody face.
“I’ll pay for the damage,” she says, busted lip muffling the words.
“Oh yeah? With what?” He leans against the doorframe and folds his arms. “Them’s good hands for throwing a punch. Strong arms for throwing weight behind it too.”
“Four years on the merchant ships’ll do that.”
The glass splinters in her left bicep are leaking spots of blood like freckles. She’ll have to dig them out with a penknife later. It’s times like these she misses fingernails.
“Yeah,” the landlord grins, “I’ve heard of you, Ironhands Müller. I heard you’ve pissed off every captain from here to Seligheim with your brawling and now there’s none’ll sail with you. I heard you broke a navigator’s face in eight places, and I didn’t even know there were eight separate bits of a face that could break.”
“There are if you count teeth.”
The landlord’s eyes crinkle when he laughs. He has an anchor and two nautical stars tattooed on his own wiry arm, crudely executed and faded with age. Many sailors bear similar designs, but Dagna does not share their love for the sea. The salt irritates the skin at her wrists and flays her temper red-raw.
She remembers when she found tattooed sailors coarse and frightening. She remembers when she would rather cower than fight. She tastes her own blood at her lip and thinks of the stubborn flecks of rust that won’t come off her hands no matter how hard she scrubs.
Salt and iron. This is what she’s made of now.
“Cards is no way to make money, girl,” the landlord says, coming to sit beside her on the steps. “You know every reprobate around here has aces stashed up their sleeves. Right next to the daggers in most cases.”
Dagna scowls, and the movement sends a burst of pain along her cheek. What is she supposed to do? Sit with a begging bowl like the poor old wretch outside the Three Mermaids, who embellishes his story of falling from the crow’s nest to soften hearts and loosen purse strings?
She has begged too many times. Never again.
The landlord looks at her with the exasperated affection a father might bestow on a mischievous child. She can’t stand the sight of it.
“If it’s gold you need…” he says. “You ever heard of Silberwald? Small town, about two days’ ride west of here?”
“Sounds like a shithole.”
It’s a lie, of sorts. She knows the place, or at least the name. She grew up only a few miles away on the other side of the forest, but her father would never take her to the market or the midsummer fair. She once asked for his leave to go alone and he confiscated her shoes for a month.
“Place went and got itself cursed by Themselves about three months back,” the landlord explains. “Bad business.”
“You’re really selling it to me, old man.”
“Big reward for anyone who can break the curse, I hear. And it won’t end with you locked up for affray.”
Dagna glances up at that. All those brawls, all those punches thrown, and she hasn’t once considered the law. She supposes she hasn’t cared enough, not for a long time. At least in gaol you know where your next meal is coming from.
“What makes you think I could break a fairy curse?” she asks.
He nods at her hands and smiles. “You can pay me for the damage once it’s done.”
Dagna Müller is fifteen when the lord comes to her cottage. He arrives on a pale grey mare, dressed in a suit of spidersilk, his fingers and earlobes dripping with stones fashioned from dewdrops and moonlight. He is the most magnificent thing she has ever seen, but Themselves have not sent an emissary to bless her house with good fortune.
Her father, worse for drink, stumbled too far from the path three nights back and pissed on a fairy mound.
“I will take your daughter’s hand,” the lord says in a voice like mist and starlight, “as recompense for this most grave of insults.”
Dagna does not miss the way his lip curls in eagerness. Perhaps it is no insult at all, merely a convenient excuse. The lord does not want her for a bride, she knows, but a toy; one he will play with roughly until she breaks. He might let her go, eventually. Perhaps her father or her brother will find her years from now, a wizened, witless husk wasting away for want of enchanted fruit and her tormentor’s touch.
So, this is what she’s worth, then. What her life will be measured against. The steam off a drunkard’s piss.
She tries to stay calm, to think. It is useless looking to her father for protection. She remembers last winter, when he locked her out in two feet of snow because she’d forgotten to mend a tear in his shirt. He’d made her say sorry one hundred times before he let her in. “I don’t think you meant that,” he’d called to her after every attempt. “Try again.”
She’d done it too; begged and begged, clawing at the door with frostbitten fingers. Each whimpered plea was like spitting out a blade.
No, Dagna Müller will not beg again.
Instead she raises her chin, meets the lord’s silver eyes and says: “At least let me say goodbye to Karl.”
She finds her little brother chopping wood behind the cottage, his arms barely strong enough to lift the axe. She kneels and lays her hands on the chopping block, palms down.
“Cut them off.”
He flinches, afraid of the wild and terrible look on his sister’s face. It is the first time anyone has looked at her like that. She already knows it will not be the last. But she cannot waste time weeping or trembling; neither will do any good.
“If you love me,” she says, “cut them off.”
Karl does his best to make the cuts neat, although his own hands shake around the handle of the axe. There is blood on Dagna’s gown, on the block and the grass, and he carries her to the woodwife’s house leaving a trail of it on the ground.
The woodwife swiftly sees to Dagna’s wounds and instructs her husband, the blacksmith, to fashion a pair of iron hands in his forge. When they have cooled, she seals them onto Dagna’s wrists and grants them animation, though the simple magic of a woodwife is for delivering children and soothing coughs in winter, and the joins are poorly done. The metal chafes – will always chafe – when Dagna dares to move.
“This is better,” the woodwife says, the closest to an apology Dagna will ever get. “It is better than Themselves.”
Dagna Müller returns home as if from the battlefield, dressed in her own drying blood. Her father’s mouth gapes in shock, then in anger, but Dagna keeps her eyes fixed on the lord as she stretches out one of her new, iron hands.
The woodwife’s magic keeps the pain at bay for now but the metal is heavy, a straining pull along her arm and across her shoulders. A fly buzzes around her wrist, attracted by the blood. She feels less like prey than carrion.
“Here then,” she tells the lord. “If you want it, take it.”
The lord laughs, clapping like a child. “Oh, well done, Dagna Müller. Oh, how delightfully clever!”
Yet there is a tremor beneath his words, behind those silver eyes. Even if Dagna’s hands were made of wood or moulded clay he would not take her now – Themselves would not want a flawed mortal, even as a toy – but there is just as much fear in him as revulsion. That, at least, is a victory.
Dagna’s iron hands are deadly. Her touch will bring only pain.
Her father, furious at her defiance and fearful of the lord’s retribution, will beat Karl in her absence. Dagna knows it and sorrows for it, but she knows she does not belong here now.
The fly leaves her wrist and lands on the tip of her iron thumb. She brings the index finger close and it barely takes any effort to crush the creature to powder and grease.
She walks all the way to Silberwald, napping in hedgerows and hollow trees. The landlord gives her a little food and a small bottle of ointment for her cuts and she rations both carefully. By the time she is in sight of the forest her injuries no longer grieve her.
Ironhands Müller is fit for the next fight.
Silberwald lies on the forest’s edge, frosted firs curling around the cottages like a protective arm. Her father’s cottage lies just on the other side of that forest, but Dagna refuses to think of it. The drink has probably finished him off by now, that or his own folly. For Karl’s sake, she hopes so.
She makes her way into the main square, where they hold the markets and the fairs she’d once begged her father to see, but there is no market today.
All of the townspeople wear blindfolds; strips of fabric roughly torn from aprons and the hems of skirts. They move slowly, fearfully, calling to one another for reassurance. It looks almost like a game, but Dagna suspects there are no willing players.
At the edge of the square a boy walks holding a long, thin branch in front of him, moving it in a sweeping motion and pausing whenever it hits an obstacle. The knee of his breeches is torn, the skin beneath badly grazed.
To Dagna’s left, a small girl skips with a ragged rope, her feet landing hard on the ground. The impact shakes her blindfold free and she blinks in the light, the rope falling still in her hands.
Then she catches sight of her mother, standing a few feet away, and she screams.
Instantly her mother darts forward, arms outstretched, following the sound. She grabs her daughter’s shoulders and forces her to the ground, pinning her down as she reties the blindfold, and all the while the child howls as though she has foreseen her own death.
Dagna retreats from the square and heads straight for the master’s house. She does not wish to frighten these people further, and she forgot long ago how to be anything else but frightening.
The door is answered by a girl her own age, though she is not dressed in servant’s clothes. Her hair is red as embers, her skin pale as the inside of a seashell. When she turns her head, her eyes look like two opals; cloudy, beautiful and sightless.
“I wish to speak to your master,” Dagna says.
“I am master here. You may call me Lady Karin.”
She sweeps into the house without another word, certain that Dagna will follow.
Dagna knows the girl is no lady. She speaks with the accent of a peasant. The dress, fine-spun wool in midnight blue, was not made to fit her form.
But if Karin expects Dagna to take her for a lady, then perhaps she will accept Dagna as a hero.
“I am Dagna Müller,” she announces, “called Ironhands, and I have come to break the curse upon this town.”
Karin approaches her, holding out her own pale hands. Bracing for the flinch, the gasp of horror, Dagna takes them.
But Karin only lifts an eyebrow as she feels the solid iron, as her fingers move up to the place where metal meets flesh. “Witchcraft?”
Dagna nods, before remembering. “Yes.”
“Not very good witchcraft, I think.” She brushes her fingertips over the heated, swollen skin. “Does it hurt?”
Dagna feels Karin’s fingers twitch. There is something in the word the girl seems to recognise; a bitter note, perhaps, or its weary honesty. Dagna does and does not want to ask why.
“Tell me about the curse,” she says instead.
Karin moves away, skimming a hand along the tabletop to guide herself across the room. “Three months ago, when the king and his retinue were passing by the forest, Themselves stole the young prince away underground. Only the people of Silberwald know the safe paths through these woods, so Themselves made sure we would never be able to show any would-be rescuers the way.”
“They blinded the villagers?”
Karin laughs with cold glee. “Oh, they aren’t blind. But they don’t see the world right any more. Rotten food appears fresh and good. Slippery banks are straight paths. Their own children, their own spouses, are hideous monsters coming to devour them. If they lift those blindfolds they see only a world full of tricks and horrors.
“Themselves spared me,” she adds blithely. “They think I do not know the way.”
That, Dagna thinks, and they despise irregularity. They would not have wished to get close enough to a girl like Karin to curse her.
“I could help,” she says. “I could rescue the prince. If you would show me–”
“The royal brat stays where he is.”
“Shall I tell you what I did with the last hero who came to me, bragging he could save us all? I summoned the farrier, one of our strongest men. I told him this brave hero could cure his affliction, if only he would lift his blindfold. He did, saw a terrible monster and slew the hero where he stood. The poor fool was so confused afterwards. I thanked him for coming to my aid and he only mumbled that I was welcome and left.”
Dagna stares. “Why would you do that?”
“Before, I had to beg in the streets,” Karin snaps. “Make myself humble and pitiful for the sake of a coin or cast-off rags. Then Themselves came, and suddenly I was the one the town came crying to. ‘Dear Karin, how can we find food?’ ‘Sweet Karin, how can we stay safe?’ When the old master drowned in a river he took for a stone bridge, I demanded they let me take his house. They didn’t like it, but they had no choice. They depend on my charity now.” Her face sets in such stern resolve she might as well be made of stone. “And I would keep it this way.”
It is so easy, Dagna thinks, to flay a girl. Barbed words can do it, or fists, or the bite of winter frost. It is even easier to turn away and make a girl do it to herself. Karin has been hardened, the way the salt air once hardened Dagna. What makes Dagna burn red-hot with anger has turned Karin’s heart cold.
“Go home, Dagna Müller,” Karin says, softer now. “These people are not worth your courage.”
Dagna has been known only as Ironhands for so long it is strange to hear her true name spoken aloud. She wonders what she would do, what she might give, for Karin to say it again.
“I don’t have a home,” she says. “That’s why I need the gold. Help me find the prince and I’ll split the reward with you. You could make the king send bodyguards to protect you. Or demand the prince marry you instead.”
“I have made myself master here. Why should I ask for a master of my own?”
Dagna thinks of the boy in the square, the sweep of his tree branch before every step.
“Because they’ll learn. Like you did. They won’t stumble about helpless forever. And you are alone. If your own townsfolk don’t depose you, others will learn how vulnerable you are. They’ll put you back in your place, Lady Karin. Do nothing, and you’ll beg again.”
“I will not.”
“I have made that same promise to myself. I know how this feels. I know.”
Karin is silent for a long time.
“You may stay here tonight,” she says eventually. “As my guest. Eat something. Bathe, if you like. I will consider what you have said.”
Hungry and filthy from the road, Dagna does as she is bid. She is sure to face the door while she bathes, but she does not fear attack. She carries her weapons with her. She can never be rid of them.
Later, Karin fetches food and lights candles for the benefit of her guest. Dagna notices her eyes are rimmed with red, as though she has cried so much the rawness has never healed. She half-expects the food to be poisoned until Karin takes the first bite; a show of trust, a gesture of solidarity.
Girls of salt and iron can understand each other, at least a little.
“Why did you tell me the truth?” Dagna asks, when the food is finished and the candles have burned low. “Why didn’t you send for the farrier to slay me too?”
Karin pauses before answering. “Because when I said I was master here, you did not laugh at me.”
Dagna looks at Karin in the fading light. She could kill her now, for the townspeople’s sake, and risk the forest alone. It would only take a little squeeze; the long neck, or the skull. But as she takes in Karin’s hair, her skin with its seashell lustre, her eyes the colour of the northern seas when a storm tosses the waves, she knows she could not bear to hurt something so beautiful.
The woodwife’s charm lasts less than a week after Dagna leaves her father’s cottage. Once it fades the pain at her wrists stays as fresh as the day the cuts were made. She tells herself that this is better, even when it hurts so much she cannot sleep. It is better than Themselves.
Three weeks later, as she is travelling towards the coast to find work, she meets a boy.
She finds him lounging by a river, his fishing rod abandoned on the bank. He bids her stay awhile, and they talk.
The boy is pretty and charming, and he makes Dagna forget the pain at her wrists, those rough joins that still smell of rust, or blood, or both. She wears gloves now to conceal her hands, soft cotton things she stole from a washing line, and for a while she can pretend she is an ordinary girl.
When he kisses her she kisses back, startling him with her fierceness and her need. She feels him smile against her lips and presses him down into the grass. Her gloved hands roam across his collarbones, his tanned arms, over his chest and down–
Something snaps. The boy screams.
“I’m sorry!” she says, scrambling off him, horrorstruck. “Please, I’m so sorry.”
He glares at her, clutching his ribs, and she falls silent. She knows sorry is never good enough, not if you say it a hundred times.
“What’s wrong with you?” the boy snarls. “What are you?”
I don’t think you meant that. Try again.
The pain at her wrists is sharp once more; pain that burns so hot it feels like rage.
She beats his pretty face until he lies still and quiet, then throws the bloodied gloves into the river.
From that day on she leaves her hands exposed, like a warning.
She wakes to find Karin nudging her with the tip of a wooden cane. It is almost dawn, and the girl’s red hair is covered by a hooded cloak.
“Themselves bring the prince aboveground every morning,” she says. “If mortals are starved of fresh air they wither before they stop being fun.”
“You’ll show me the way?” Dagna asks. “You’ll let me try?”
“Do not give me cause to regret it.”
The forest is full of sounds and shadows, eyes and claws, but Karin knows the path as Dagna knows the Seligheim coastline. She uses her cane like the boy in the square used his branch, but faster, with more skill. Every wrong turn, every fall and bruise and sprain and scare has been a lesson, a scrap of knowledge hard-won.
She leads Dagna to a clearing where the young prince stands, glassy-eyed and exhausted. He is guarded by a figure on a pale grey mare; a man dressed in spidersilk, with shining silver eyes.
When they fall on Dagna, the lord does not look surprised.
It is as if he set this trap just for her, waiting for the tale to spread as far as the coast: a cursed town, the promise of gold, and a task designed for a girl with iron strength.
All this time, she thinks. All these years she has been a debt outstanding, and he cannot bear it.
“I asked for your hand once, Dagna Müller,” the lord says. “Now let me make you an offer.”
He takes a bundle of cloth from his saddlebag and unwraps it. Inside are two small, fine-boned human hands. They might have been taken from some other poor girl. They might even have belonged to Dagna herself, stolen from the bloodstained chopping block and preserved with unnatural magic.
“Think of it. No more pain. No more ugliness. Forget the king’s paltry reward and accept this most generous of gifts.”
Dagna looks again at the prince. She knows she can hold him here until the lord gives in. But she also knows, stripling of a thing that he is, that holding him will break him. Ribs will splinter, collarbones will crack like twigs, and the king will grant no reward for a shattered corpse. She thinks of the boy by the river; those fearful eyes, that sickening snap.
Karin steps forward, gripping her cane like the handle of a sword. “You promised. Dagna Müller. You promised me.”
“The irregular one is jealous,” the lord hisses. “She wants you to suffer as she does. See, see what I offer you.”
Dagna reaches out until her iron fingertips brush those pretty hands, but Themselves do not forget a slight. If she wants them, he’ll make her cower and simper and debase herself to get them. If he had found her that day by the riverbank she might even have let him.
But the salt air has left her skin tanned and hardened since then, and four years of toil have made her arms thick with muscle. Those hands would be a poor fit now.
“Only ask me prettily, Dagna Müller,” says the lord. “Ask me ever so sweetly, and I shall make you whole again.”
Karin snarls like a wild thing, like this forest belongs to her and he is trespassing. “She’s no less whole than when she had them, you twisted bastard.”
The words cut through Dagna’s thoughts like the blade of an axe, like something that takes away and gives all at once.
She steps forward. The prince trembles with hope and fear, bracing himself for the pain.
“Do not be afraid,” she whispers.
Then, with one swift, sharp movement, she drags the lord from his horse and she holds.
“Karin,” she says. “Take the prince. Go now, fast as you can.”
“Trust me. Go.”
“Let me guide you,” the prince says, clutching at Karin’s arm.
Karin shrugs him off and sprints from the clearing, dead leaves and fir needles scattering in the wake of her cane. The prince has no choice but to follow, and Dagna does not blame him for not looking back.
The horse is gone too, bolted or vanished into the air. Dagna and the lord are locked together, skin to metal, skin to skin.
He squirms first in revulsion, then in agony. He turns to a serpent, a writhing ferret, a snapping wolf in her grip, but wherever her fingers touch the iron burns. He screams curses, then offers her gifts beyond her dreams if she will only let go. She will have riches, or magic, or life eternal. She will have his devotion, his undying love.
Dagna’s own body strains to pull away, every nerve signalling her to flee. She feels the tear of muscle, as though she might rip herself free from her hands, but still she clings.
She does not look at the hands, splayed on the forest floor like fleshy white spiders. Not even the beetles will go near them.
She feels the lord’s strength waning, senses his desperation. His screams turn to choked sobs, then faint whimpers.
Then, whether to provoke compassion or fear, she does not know, he transforms into her father. A perfect replica, right down to the stink of beer and old sweat, every feature exactly as she remembers it. The lord can only hold the glamour for a moment or two, weak as he is, but it is enough.
Her hands tremble. For a moment, her grip slackens.
“Please,” the lord says in her father’s voice. “Please, Dagna, it hurts.”
“Say sorry then.” She squeezes tighter than ever, feeling both the glamour and his flesh burn away until she is gripping brittle, blackening bone. “Say you’re sorry for all you’ve done.”
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry. Be kind to me, Dagna Müller. Be merciful. Please.”
Dagna looks down at the withered, charred thing lying limp in her hands. He is small as a child now, small as a doll.
“I’m sorry!” he cries again, shrieking, shrinking. “I’m sorry!”
“I don’t think you meant that,” she answers, and there is midwinter frost in her voice. “Try again.”
She clamps a hand over his mouth and does not lift it until there is nothing of him but powder and grease.
In the end it is not Dagna but Karin who is hailed as the saviour of Silberwald. It is Karin, after all, who leads the prince out of the forest, bathed in a halo of morning sunlight. It is Karin who urges the townsfolk to remove their blindfolds and see the world made right again.
And once the king has given Dagna her gold, and Dagna has sent a portion of it back to the tavern on the seafront, she is more than happy to let Karin take the rest of his reward.
There are some in the town who resent all that Karin has now. A title. The deeds to the house, with coins to fill the coffers the drowned master left empty. Fine clothes that fit her form, made with rich dyes and silver thread.
But they know better than to protest. They know that Silberwald is no longer a place where blind women survive on scraps.
“Will you stay?” Karin asks as she and Dagna sit under the shade of the firs, sharing a bottle of wine from her newly-stocked cellar. Children run freely across the grass nearby, arguing over which of them will play their fearless lady and which the fairy lord she bested in their games of pretend.
“The king has given you bodyguards,” Dagna says.
“I don’t want you for a bodyguard. You could have a home here.”
Dagna sets down her cup and turns away. How can she explain when Karin says such things, her lips stained red with wine? That the girl she is now was forged in violence, that violence is all she knows. That the pain in her wrists will not leave her, not for as long as she lives. That she is hot as a forge and Karin is cold as the northern seas, and girls of salt and iron are too far gone to ever be gentle again.
Then Karin takes Dagna’s hands and presses a kiss to each palm. Her kisses contain so much tenderness Dagna almost imagines she can feel them. Karin’s hands trail upwards, skimming carefully over the place where metal meets flesh, until they are cupping Dagna’s face like it is something fragile and precious.
Her touch is a rescue. Her kiss is the most generous of gifts.
“Please,” Dagna says, “do that again.”
“Please,” Karin answers, “stay a while longer.”
It is the last time either of them ever has to beg.
About the Author
Gem Isherwood is an award-winning writer of speculative fiction. Her work is often inspired by fairy tales, folklore and the Gothic. She lives on a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea populated by fairies, ghosts, and cats with no tails.
About the Narrator
Eve Upton is huddled in the darkness of the cupboard. She appears to be scratching words into the floor. Upon closer inspection, they say: nolite the bastardes carborundorum.