Salt and Glass

[“Salt and Glass” by Jennifer Lawrence marks our inaugural Special Feature. It is our hope that these Special Features — specifically commissioned by EHS — will help to draw attention to the work of Pagan authors, many of whom are self-published or who release their work through small presses. If you like “Salt and Glass,” please consider purchasing one of Lawrence’s novels or poetry collections through Lulu.] 

Salt and Glass Part One: “Train Ride on a Long Winter Night”

The evening air was sharp as a new skinning knife as Ada stepped off the platform and into the main car of the last train of the night between Oslo and Trondheim. The Dovre line ran back and forth between the two cities several times a day, but she would only be riding as far as Otta before disembarking to continue further by other means.

She moved through the car with neat, sparse grace, a bag clutched in each gloved hand, her ticket clenched between the fingers of her right hand, as well.

She nodded politely as she moved past the berth where two well-dressed young women sat, having tea and chatting. The one in the Grecian-style dress with the pallid blonde hair nodded back, a bit of a smile on her face. The redhead in the tartan skirt and shawl and Jacobite blouse frowned, her expression a good deal more severe. Ada moved in the same general circles as the other two women, though the blonde was quite a bit higher up in the sort of social rankings their type judged themselves by –closer to the level of Ada’s mentor than Ada herself.

Ada heard the redhead mutter under her breath as she passed, and understood the Scottish word instantly. Troublemaker? Really? More like troubleshooter, I should think. Anyway, she has room to talk, after that business with the roses.

She took a berth four seats down. The bag containing her clothes went into the cubby under the seat, but she set her work bag down on the seat, between her and the train’s outer wall. She never liked to be far from it; there had been too many times that something or other inside it had suddenly come in handy, to say the least.

Ada sat, running her hands over the lap of the heavy skirt of pumpkin-colored wool she wore. The jacket matched, and the crisp, pressed linen blouse underneath was a brilliant canary yellow. The wool was soft but warm; she had dressed carefully for both the country and the season.

It was rare that she was asked to join her mentor at Yule; the last time had been almost a dozen years ago, and the time before that, longer still. When the ticket had arrived in the post, she had felt an unalloyed and childlike spasm of glee that she had done well enough this year in both studies and tasks to be called — well, not home. Her home, or at least, the place where she had been born and last called home, was both further south and east. His home, then. He had only come to the place she called home the once, the first time they had met when he had taken her into his service, and never again. She got the feeling that the lands that had birthed her were too hellishly hot for him — not unexpected, given what he was.

Other passengers trickled on in dribs and drabs as the train waited to take off. She could hear the colliers filling the coal car for the long trip through the mountains; her destination lay slightly southwest of Otta, where she would disembark. From there it would be a longer and colder trip, part of it in a sledge drawn by reindeer over deep banks of snow where there were no roads, deep into the mountains of the national park there.

A plump woman accompanied by her plumper banker husband herded a gaggle of children — ranging in age from three to thirteen — through the train car door like half a dozen geese. The children chattered and nattered and giggled among themselves as they were shooed along, peering at the others in their car, until the youngest spotted her and promptly started to shriek. The terrified wails startled parents and siblings alike, and the mother scooped him up with an abashed look as the boy began to cry. His father made a show of apologizing profusely to his fellow passengers, while the mother checked his feet and hands and chubby little limbs for stepped-on pins, scratches, or anything else that might have elicited such an extreme response. The boy had stuck the fingers of one hand in his mouth and was blubbering something over and over again about ‘the snow lady’ making him cry.

The Scottish gentlewoman seated with her highborn Greek companion looked smug.

Ada merely chuckled. She was pale, it was true, maybe even pale enough to be mistaken for snow — unlike her family and ancestral peoples, which was not a consequence of coming into her mentor’s service but rather a sign of breaking away from her family, home, and attendant issues — but she was hardly made of snow. Almost the exact opposite, really, and if her flesh felt a bit cool at the moment, she could chalk it up to the fact that she had been waiting out on the station platform for the train to arrive for over an hour. The nights were long at this latitude in December, and it had been dark out for some time.

The cold did not bother her much, however; it was a welcome antidote to the scorching summers of her desert homeland. Not all of her was pale; her hair was still long and thick and lush and black, unchanged enough from her younger years that her mother would have recognized it, if she were still alive. Or her children. She wore her hair currently coiled into a tight knot at the top of her head, covered with a hat that was secured with a hatpin decorated with gold and amber — her mentor’s stones.

She glanced out the window as the last few passengers boarded — workmen, travelers going home for the holiday, several other families, an elderly man with a beard that fell nearly to his knees and a knobbly walking stick carved with the head of a pike at the top. She averted her face in the hope of preventing any other potential incidents. It didn’t happen often; there were only a few types of folk who could see her as she truly was these days, and they were the usual sorts, the same kind that could see gods, or the Fair Folk. Poets, drunks, the mad, psychics, witches … and young children. Innocents. Hardly ever were the kids over the age of five; once they began their schooling, their minds calcified quickly, and the skepticism they learned clouded their vision.

It was not that she was malformed, or hideously ugly; neither was she beautiful in any particular way. She was an average-looking woman with dark oildrop eyes to match her hair — typical of the peoples in the lands where she had been born — and skin that had once been swarthy that was now pale as milk, or the moon, or the fat and puffy clouds that sailed the sky in summer like great ships. Her build was sturdy, honed by a life of hard work and having children, and she was barely five feet tall, her growth stunted by a childhood where both water and ample food were in short supply and, when available, mostly went to men.

A prickling glided along her skin as the porters loaded the last of the baggage into the rear cars — crates of corn, luggage, furniture, sacks of mail, and a tall, wide, thin wooden crate with ‘FRAGILE’ stenciled across both broad sides.

“Careful, Edith,” a soft voice came from near her elbow. “What is in that crate should not be looked at too long. It might look back.”

Ada glanced over her shoulder at the woman in the Grecian dress, who had risen from her seat and left her companion to hover near the window.

“I have not gone by that name in a long time,” Ada said automatically, “no more than you still go by Kore.” Her gaze flicked to the Scotswoman, still sitting in her berth with a disgruntled look on her face. “What of Janet? Did she come in her wood-blind husband’s stead at Nicnevin’s command? It’s unusual to see so many of us in one place at the same time without good cause.”

“The cause is good enough,” the other woman said quietly, “and there are more of us here than you think.”

Suddenly, despite the month and time of night, Ada felt a warm breeze against her face, carrying the scents of narcissus and heliotrope and hyacinth.

Ada looked more carefully at the last few passengers who had boarded the train car and taken seats. Under the shapeless workman’s cap, that fellow’s hair was fox-tail red, his clothes were an unexceptional, drab shade of grey-green, and the long case he carried at his side might have stored a hunting rifle.

Or a longbow.

Further down the carriage, swathed in blankets and curled into a tiny ball that nonetheless felt much bigger than it looked, sat an elderly old granny, smelling of boiled socks and roast chicken feet. Her teeth had apparently gone bad; when she smiled, eyes glinting, at one of the chubby half-dozen children who had come into the carriage right after Ada, bicuspids and canines alike glittered dark as old iron.

Further down still, on the opposite side, she spotted the barrel-chested, iron-legged form of the charioteer for Lugh’s son, a braid of alternating black and grey horse hair wrapped around his wrist like a good luck bracelet. Seated across from him was the old Geat — not the most powerful among them, but dangerous enough. 

“So many,” she murmured.

“Most of us are here to watch, and report back,” the girl who smelled of Spring said to her. “Came on our own, a few of us –” her gaze flicked back to the tiny, elderly woman whose dark teeth seemed longer than they had a moment ago; that one did not come or go at anyone’s orders, and even the highest of the high would think long and hard before offending her, “– or were sent by those who hold our loyalties.” She had turned away from the window. “When a new one of us joins the assemblage, or some item of power rises out of the depths of lost history, it is a moment to pause and reckon.”

“What’s in the crate?” Ada asked absently. The workmen had carried it into the rear car of the train, to stash with the rest of the freight.

“The Horned One’s son thinks it a painting,” the woman said, her voice dwindling as she faded back to her seat. The engine was rumbling as the train geared up to leave the station. “But I smell no paint, not even old paint. I smell glass, malicious and silvered and cold.”

A mirror, Ada thought. The workmen had carried the crate as if it was not only fragile but heavy — heavier than old canvas stretched over a thin frame of wood should be.

There were plenty of stories of magic mirrors. Almost all of them bode ill for this trip. The most beneficent of them had still been only neutral at best, a tool for gathering information and salving the ego of an aging queen, answering questions posed in rhyme. In the hands of that queen, it had been a thing of malign power; in the hands of her sweet-faced stepdaughter, a smarter woman, it became a mass of broken shards in a trash heap. This was likely not that glass … but there were plenty of others.

Ada turned in her seat to her workbag, undoing the clasps and throwing it open. The train lurched as it began to move, and dozens of tiny bottles inside clinked together musically. The bag had once been the sample case of patent medicines, with little leather loops and small wooden niches and slots to hold bottles and phials and ointment tins in place. 

It had taken her decades — no, longer — to gather together all the substances in the bottles in her case. Cures and preventatives for every possible illness, ailment … or situation. Poisons and sedatives to drug or kill the most dire of monsters. 

The little bottles were lined up neatly, pristine labels in her tiny handwriting: powdered iron and silver, wolfsbane, mugwort, dried whole mandrake roots, eagle and falcon and raven feathers, shed snake skins, dried rowan and hawthorn berries, coffin nails, a piece of deer antler from the stables at that quaint factory at the North Pole, sandalwood and frankincense and myrrh (as well as a piece of gold from that same triple gift), a piece of silver from a somewhat darker payment thirty-three years later, and so much more. A complete accounting of all the bag somehow hid in its depths might take days. A hundred or more bottles and tins of substances used in magic to ward things off, or banish them, or summon them … or kill them.

But what was wanted for shattering a mirror was not a poison or a drug, but a hammer.

Such a tool was forbidden to her, of course, by the one who commanded her loyalties.

Ada bit her lip, tasted salt, loosed her teeth from her own flesh and licked it clean, then reached into the bottom of the bag. Swathed in soft, creased old chamois was a lump of stone half again as big as her fist, carved lines and curves able to be felt even through the thin suede. She had dug it out of the layers of detritus and muck on the floor of an old cave in the wilds of Germany, and unwrapped, the primitive figure clearly bore the shape of a woman — rotund, fertile, faceless, but oddly compelling nonetheless. Touching it with her gloved hands was enough to make her palms and fingers tingle.

She never touched it when her hands were bare.

But, of course, her hands were never bare.

The stone would work well enough, thrown or smashed against the surface, to shatter any ordinary glass, though Ada supposed this was no ordinary glass. Not the way merely watching it be carried past had caused the preternatural raising of every hair on her arms.

Then again, this was no ordinary stone.

Still, she had seen and heard of magic mirrors whose reflective surfaces could turn to mist to let a missile pass through without damage, or open like a door so a panicking villain might pass to escape, or go liquid to swallow up whoever touched it. Some even showed distorted reflections that mocked and capered and moved on their own. A simple lump of limestone would not do much damage there, even the enchanted visage of an old, nameless goddess who had last been worshipped when humans still wore fur fresh off the beasts they killed, yet damp with blood.

However, it was better than no tool and no weapon. She could feel a half-dozen sets of eyes on her as she tucked the lump of rock into one of the deep pockets of her skirt, and closed up the bag.

She looked up into an iron grin that was far, far too close for comfort, and somehow managed not to flinch or gasp. The old grandmother usually associated with the wandering hut, the mortar-and-pestle air travel, and light contained in a skull had crept up on her without the tiniest of sounds — and no warning from the other travelers, either.

“And what have you gotten there, sweet child?” the crone asked, her voice a rusty cackle.

Ada chose her words very carefully. The iron grandmother was quite possibly the most powerful thing drawing breath in the train car, possibly as powerful as the rest of them put together, and certainly more powerful than she was; the ageless Russian woman had centuries of experience under her belt, whereas Ada had become special only because another had seen fit to save her from her own stupidity after she had looked at something she had been told not to.

“A stone, taken from the womb of the earth, that was once dear to others,” Ada said in her most subdued and dulcet tone of voice.

“Such a pretty thing. It reminds me of my mother,” the crone cackled. “You’ll make a present of it to me, won’t you?”

Ada did not blink. She did not suck in a breath or swallow hard or piss herself, though her body considered all of those responses.

“I’m sorry, grandmother, but I can’t,” she said with perfect politeness. Dimly, she wondered if whatever threat the mirror represented was greater than the one she was talking to. “It doesn’t belong to me. Nothing I have does, including my own self. All that I bear with me is the property of the one that owns me.”

The crone’s expression darkened. “And you think that the Man with the Tattered Smile is more powerful than me? Me?”

“It is not a matter of power, grandmother,” Ada said, her words honey-sweet. “If I stole what belonged to Him, how could anyone then trust in my honor? How could you be sure I would not steal from you, some day?”

“You might try,” the old woman said coldly. “You would not succeed.” She hmphed. “Very well. Keep your old rock, for all the good it may do you. Rocks freeze, too.”

Ada dipped her hand into the pocket of her coat and brought out her own dinner, a mutton sandwich on soft bread and a square of sweet honeycomb, all wrapped in wax paper. “In apology for my lack of a gift, grandmother, perhaps you might like a morsel to eat? Soft wheaten bread, the tenderest of young lamb, and honeycomb?” she offered.

The woman’s nostrils flared at the scent of the food, her long nose quivering. “Did you prepare this, child?” she asked.

“I did, grandmother.”

The woman turned her back on Ada. “Too much salt.”

Ada’s lips thinned in a tight line, but she kept any retort she might have made to herself. Insulting the crone for her rudeness would only have given the old woman an excuse to tear her limb from limb and take the stone, and Ada valued her renewed life — even after so very long — to lose it to a moment’s temper.

She guessed it would be a bad idea to share bread and salt with the old woman, anyway. She couldn’t trust the Slav not to break the bond of trust it offered.

The train whistle blew and she looked up sharply. The landscape outside her window was no longer still; the train was moving, if not smoothly, and snowflakes whirled down thickly in a giddy tarantella. She grimaced. It was bad traveling during a blizzard, which her old bones told her this had the potential to turn into, swiftly. If the tracks iced over —

Troubled, she tucked her food back into her pocket, but only to dispose of later. She wouldn’t eat it now that the crone had laid eyes on it and rejected it; a single bite might spill venomous serpents or stinging hornets into her throat. One did not take back a gift offered to the mighty ones, even if they didn’t take it.

Hornets and snakes would do less damage to her than it would most passengers on the train, but that still didn’t mean it would be pleasant.

After her heartbeat had returned to its normal rate — slightly slower than chilled molasses — she sat in her seat and stewed. She wondered, now, whether her mentor had known that the mirror was going to be on this train. It wouldn’t be the first time he had arranged for her to be in the way of an impending issue so she could deal with it for him. That implied either inside knowledge — harder to come by, here in the frozen North — or foresight, which was not his forte. He left things like prophecy and foreknowledge to his blood-brother.

It would be easier to plot an appropriate response to whatever threat the mirror posed — assuming it was a mirror — if she knew which Dread Glass it was. Aside from the one that she knew for certain had been destroyed, there were at least three others named in the various lores, legends, myths, and fables of the world — plus who knew how many others that had never made it into the tales.

Mirror-like objects could be just as dangerous when face-to-face; like mirrors themselves, they took easily to enchantment. But most of those she knew about could be ruled out due to extenuating circumstances. The pool of still water into which Narcissus had gazed for so long that he withered away and became a flower, for example, couldn’t exactly be transported intact to other locations. Likewise, the shield Perseus had used to reflect Medusa’s own image back to her and turn her to stone was in Athena’s possession, Ada had heard; while not as dangerous as the Gorgon’s severed head itself, the grapevine whispered that every so often, it would release a blurred, warped, partial reflection of the monster’s face, her hideousness trapped in the polished bronze forever. No one who saw even an imperfect glimpse of that visage went on to a happy ending. But there was no chance, none, that anyone could have stolen the shield from Athena without Ada having heard of it. It would have had such a huge impact that it would have been the only news on everyone’s tongues for years.

She steepled her fingers together. Of the three mirrors she knew of, the cursed mirror that had belonged to the Fairy Lady of Shalott was currently in the hands of the half-incubus wizard who had guided Arthur, in a cavern far below a distant mountain in Wales. The haunted mirror that held the ghost of a murderous wench named Mary had been banished to the wilds of the former British colonies. The third, the mirror in an old French castle that had once been the abode of Prince Bete, was cousin to the one owned by the Evil Queen, save even weaker. It could answer no questions, only show distant locations and the people there. It was true that mirror had since disappeared, but another detail besides made it unlikely to be the one that had been loaded onto the train; that one was a hand mirror, silver-handled, small enough to fit in a lady’s handbag, and weighing no more than a couple pounds.

None of the three really struck her as the Jonah that had been loaded into the freight area of the train. For one thing, none of the three mirrors were as dangerous as some of the ones historically that had since been destroyed. The one a merchant’s daughter had once watched her father and sisters through was largely harmless, though if a viewer saw something through it that upset them, it could cause trouble. The cursed glass of Shalott was a danger only to faery women of a particular bloodline, and so far as she had learned, that bloodline had ended with the death of the ballad’s eponymous victim.

Mary’s glass was far more dangerous; the ghost trapped inside it could and had killed before. But to emerge from the mirror and do harm, someone — usually young, and usually a woman, though the ghost was less prone to be particular if it had been awhile since it last killed — had to call her name three times. That had been the entire reason for sending the glass to America, where no one knew the legend and the name, though Ada supposed eventually the story would get around there, too.

The other thing was that most magical artifacts were at least loosely tied to the cultural neighborhood of their creation. The last time someone had tried to steal the Glass of Shalott from the cave where it resided, guarded over by the Machiavellian spirit of Arthur’s old counselor — people were stupid enough to try it, from time to time, though not often — they found the mirror wrapped in the supple limbs of a young willow tree that had sprouted from the cavern floor. The tree was still clad in the thief’s clothes. The mirror itself had put down roots that irrevocably tied it to the pan-Celtic lands since the time of its creation. Trying to remove it from there had ensured that the would-be thief had put down roots, too.

And trees needed sunlight, which was generally in short supply in caves. The tree had died just a couple short weeks later.

Really, she thought, she could afford to be relieved. Even glad. If some of the old mirrors from the stories hadn’t been destroyed, the possibilities would be a lot wors —

She froze in her seat, not even realizing that, for a moment, she had forgotten to keep breathing.

Shattering didn’t end the threat for every mirror.

Indeed, one story right from this corner of the world — insider information! her mind shrieked — stated outright in the opening paragraphs of the story that a ‘sprite’ — often read as the Devil — had created a mirror that retained its power in every shard and speck after its shattering. It had showed everything it reflected as distorted and warped, so that anything good or beautiful became ugly or vile. After the sprite that had made it, and his students, tried to drag it to Heaven to mock God and the angels in its surface, it had been dropped from that great height, and broke into a million pieces, great and small. But even the ones no larger than a grain of sand retained the same power as the entire unbroken glass. 

And the smallest pieces were blown about by the wind. Some settled in peoples’ eyes, and after that they could see only hideousness, wondrous things spoiled and disgusting because of the glass. On at least one occasion, a tiny shard had been blown into a person’s heart … and that was infinitely worse. The chill of the mirror was like ice, and he became numb to decent feeling, becoming selfish, cruel, and violent — in short, a psychopath.

“Damn Hans Christian Andersen to the abyss,” she muttered. ‘Fairy tale’ was such a loaded term. The oldest of such tales were thought to be hundreds, maybe thousands of years old; Andersen’s were of more recent vintage, and it was commonly thought that he had written them himself instead of recording them from oral tellings, as had the Brothers Grimm and Straparola and Andrew Lang and Charles Perrault. 

And yet ….

Some of the people and beings in those tales were real. Ada had met several of them herself.

The Snow Queen, thankfully, was not one of those, and yet, the mirror had really existed. Ada had seen a fragment of it once, small as a grain of — well, salt — glittering on black velvet under lock and key.

She had felt seized by an instant spasm of greed, wholly unlike her, and had groped blindly for a way to unlock the display case — and then the electric bond of the oath she had sworn to her mentor had kicked in, banishing the shard’s hold over her, and she had been calm and composed and controlled once more.

The Snow Queen’s mirror had been shattered, though, and the crate she had seen carried into the rear of the train —

… well, presumably, it was whole. But she didn’t know for sure, did she? All she had seen was a wooden crate marked ‘FRAGILE’, carried as if it was heavy.

“I have to go back there and see,” she murmured to herself.

She contemplated the task. The train porters would likely be back there, and disinclined to let her open a logged piece of freight, no matter how important her reason. 

But she needed to see.

Mind made up, she rose from her seat, turning toward the end of the train to make her way down the aisle —

— and that was when the world turned upside down as the train derailed.

End Part One. Please return for our Summer 2019 issue to enjoy Part Two.