[“Salt and Glass Part One: Train Ride on a Long Winter Night” by Jennifer Lawrence marked our inaugural Special Feature in the Winter Solstice 2018 issue of EHS. 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” — the conclusion of which is below — please consider purchasing one of Lawrence’s novels or poetry collections through Lulu.]
There were screams from all around her as the section of the world she currently inhabited spun with brutal, bone-smashing force. She had felt the impact to one side of the train; something had rammed into the middle three or four cars. An avalanche seemed most likely — the train had reached the point in the journey where it began to cut through the snow-clad mountains — and yet … Ada didn’t think so.
She had spotted, in the briefest moment before the train tipped, a flicker of movement through one of the windows. Not the mindless cascade of snow down the face of a mountain, but something deliberate and purposeful.
All these thoughts went through her head in the fraction of a second that it took for her booted feet to leave the floor and her body to twist in mid-air as up became down and gravity betrayed them all.
Then her flailing arm hit a stanchion and she felt it break. A broken arm was rather more of a problem for Ada than it was for most, but it was not, at all, a permanent problem — at least, she thought as she felt the detached broken forearm slide out of her sleeve and go flying, if she could find it to re-attach it before one of the mortals saw. She was not allowed to show any of them any sign of what she was, or the damage would become permanent.
But none of the others in the train car she occupied were currently paying attention to anything but themselves, as the train car finished rolling and came to a stop on its side, canted at the bottom of the gorge, at least ninety meters lower than where it had derailed. The train cars had come uncoupled from each other, and she lay still for a moment, where she had landed, listening to the sounds of crumpled metal crinkling, of the hissing of broken steam lines, and the screaming and weeping of the car’s human inhabitants.
Then she unfurled herself from the ball she had curled into, and cautiously got to her feet. The bottom half of her left blouse sleeve hung limp, and there was a faint dusting of white powder on the opening of the sleeve. She cast her awareness outward, narrowly focused on the missing limb, and felt a tug on her consciousness from behind her, lodged in the cushions of an empty seat two berths back from her own.
She made her way gingerly to that row of berths and bent down to look. Her own forearm and hand, removed at the elbow, waved cheerfully back at her.
“Get over here,” Ada muttered, and the hand dug its fingers into the floor, hauling itself across the dirty boards toward her until she could peel back her loose sleeve and stick the dry, cracked stump up against the jagged end where the arm had broken just below the elbow.
She watched, able to see even in the darkness — the oil lanterns had all snuffed when the train derailed, and she considered them all extremely lucky that the train car was not on fire — as both ends softened, granulated, and then flowed together like sand in an hourglass, pale and hard but rather more durable than mortal flesh, under normal circumstances. Blades and bullets held no fear for her, nor fire, but she avoided hard impacts like those of the train crash — or sledgehammers — and the splash of water, whenever possible.
When the fusing of both pieces was finished, she discreetly rolled her sleeve back down and fastened the buttons on the cuff at the wrist. Then she turned and surveyed the wreckage of the train car.
As she had guessed, all of the ‘Others’ who were capable of leaving the train car —through means either supernatural or paranatural, since no one was likely to escape through natural means — had fled.
Only one figure of those she had noticed remained, picking himself up off the ground with a snarl. The Geatish warrior the epic named Beowulf looked down at the broken bone sticking out of his side and pushed it back in through the bloody, punctured flesh of his ribcage with a grunt.
“I see all the fine lords and ladies hightailed it out of here,” he snarled, looking around.
“Can you say you wouldn’t have, if you had that option?” she asked mildly.
He gave her a feral grin and reached down to the long, long shapeless leather sack laying across his seat. “Something smashed into the train. Something nasty. And I don’t run away like a whipped dog from nasty things.” He drew the battered old sword from the bag. “I kill them.”
She smiled, amused. It was common knowledge that the story with the dragon that the mortals knew of had been changed from the original; instead of being killed by the dragon, he had killed it, cut out its heart, and eaten it, gaining immortality and an end to aging through that unique repast. “Yes, yes, the legends do circulate still,” she said mildly. She picked up her workbag from where it had landed and gave him a little nod. “Shall we, then?”
He eyed her warily for a moment; the Geats had followed a certain set of gods –including her mentor — before Christianity had come to their lands, and regardless of the current religious state of the country where he had once been born, this man still did. By the look of things, he knew very well who she served, and had both a certain innate caution toward him and an amiable fondness for her master. “Guess we should,” he said with a nod, and spat on the ground. “Hope there’s more to you than that dress, or you won’t last long.”
She smiled primly. “Accounts vary,” she chuckled softly, and let him lead the way toward the rear of the train car.
The chain of cars had twisted every which way in the fall, buckling and crushing the connectors between the cars; worse than that, the car they were in had landed on the corner of the roof, at a steep angle, and the weight of the car itself coming down on the support for the ceiling had bent the supporting struts out of shape. They were never meant to hold so many pounds, and the deformed metal had crumpled the frame of the door leading out onto the little platform at the front and back of each car, where passengers could stand for a moment as the train took off and wave goodbye at those they were leaving behind. The crumbled door-frame was better than any lock; those could be bypassed by a hairpin, but this held the door wedged shut so tightly that there was no way Ada could get it open short of breaking the window and climbing through it. She might manage that — she was small enough — but her Scandinavian companion would certainly not get his brawny frame through that small aperture.
Before she could say anything, however, he waved her back, opening the mouth of the leather sack and withdrawing an ancient sword, so long it looked made for one of her mentor’s people, nicks and gouges in its length but the blade still quite sharp. He smirked at her look of surprise. “Thought it was melted from being seared with seething monster blood?” he asked, and she nodded. “S’what I wanted everyone to think. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life fighting off stupid kids trying to kill me so they could steal it,” he laughed.
He waved her back further, brandishing the blade, and wedged it into the spot where the roof bent down at the bottom of its frame, down near their feet with the car having gone topsy-turvy as it fell, and she heard a shriek of metal as he pried it back, opening a tiny gap by the floor. He shoved another inch of the blade through, using it like a pry-bar, and levered the weaker metal of the door open yet another inch.
Incrementally, though the going was slow, he got the door pried open far enough that first Ada, then he, could wedge themselves through it and cross from the platform on their side to the one of the next train car. That car had landed on its side, not the roof, and so they were able to get through it without any real effort, though they ended up climbing through sideways. This was the sleeping car, and she could hear moans and crying and panicked voices from most of the compartments. Ada winced, but she wasn’t there for them. She couldn’t be. Afterward, once the mirror was destroyed or secured, she could come back through and try to deal with injuries, but until then it was dangerous to dally.
They reached the back door, leading outside and to the second-to-last car in the chain, the baggage car; the caboose would be last in the chain. The mirror, and whoever was after it, would be there, if they hadn’t already gotten to it and vanished. She exchanged a glance with Beowulf and nodded, and he yanked the door open.
They were both bowled over in a second by a horde of screaming, scrambling, panicking creatures, little blue sprites with twisted faces and horns and sharp claws, doing everything they could to get out of the baggage room regardless of the obstacles that stood in the way. Ada recognized them at once as the sprites in Andersen’s tale that had originally crafted the mirror and tried to take it to heaven to show everything there as ugly. Apparently they had returned for it.
Her companion cursed and reached for his sword and instantly found the problem with wielding a weapon meant to cut the heads off dragons: it was too big to swing in a space that was so narrow.
There was a horrible sound past that, even as they streamed past them, over them. Their claws dug in hard in an attempt to go faster, searching for traction; they shredded her dress but not, of course, her flesh. The Geat wasn’t so lucky; he was immortal and unaging, but not impervious to harm, and she heard the strangled curses from him as they slashed him open, smelled the sharp, copper tang of blood.
The last few flew past them in a rush, except for the ones that couldn’t move, and they could hear that sound better now: a grisly, crunching chewing sound.
They staggered to their feet and forward, through that last door, and what they saw stopped them in our tracks.
Apparently not all the Others had fled the train when it derailed, for one stood there now, bent over, so tall her back scraped the roof. One of the sprites that had knocked them over in their mad flight had not been fast enough; half of him stuck out of her mouth, legs kicking frantically as blood streamed down the Iron Hag’s chin. She bore another one in each hand, one of them alive and one of them — missing his head –most definitely not.
She shoved the rest of the corpse-in-waiting into her mouth and bit down hard. The movement of little feet from inside her voracious maw and gullet abruptly ceased, and those iron-dark eyes glittered as she swallowed. “I’ll be with you as soon as I’ve finished the appetizers,” Baba Yaga grunted patiently, even as she took a single step toward them. The baggage car shifted dangerously under the movement of her weight, and the light spilling into the car from the stars and moon above outside, through the windows, flashed off the surface of the contents inside a shredded, flat, broad wooden crate just behind her. The label ‘FRAGILE’ was just barely visible in shreds under where the wooden crate had been sundered.
The mirror was old, of that there was no doubt, and huge; the enormous gilt frame was dulled and dusty in places, and it was possible to see the crazed pattern of cracks where the Snow Queen’s glass had been painstakingly put back together over time. There was one tiny dark fleck, exactly in the middle, where the smallest of splinters was missing; the shard from the eye or heart of the boy in Andersen’s tale, no doubt. The glass itself was very thick, and looked like it might well take a fall from a very great height — even the height of Heaven itself — to sunder it.
Then again, given that it had already been broken once, and no thing, once broken, is ever again as strong and durable as it was before it broke, a good hard blow from a sword or a stone might well do the trick.
Ada had no idea if her companion could survive a mauling from the Iron Hag. He was immortal, but his life would not be all that pleasant if she ripped off his arms and legs and head and he continued to live, and breathe … and suffer. Or ate him; could he survive digestion?
She was certain she could not. She was not immortal, and there were certain things she would definitely not survive. Bite-by-bite immersion in her digestive acids was almost certainly one of them. Even if she survived it (doubtful!), she knew very well she would not enjoy it.
The Hag stood looking at us as she swallowed the last morsel, and then picked the shreds out from between her teeth with a splinter of bone. There was a look of undisguised glee on her face.
And then she charged.
She was very fast.
Fortunately, so were they. The Geat had the strength of his gods, their fleetness of foot and quickness of reaction. She had only the latter two, and no more strength than any average mortal, but her mind–her mind was the fastest part of her.
The real problem was that there was very little room to move in there. The roof was still undamaged; it would have been easier if it had been ripped wide open. Beowulf leapt aside as the Hag raked at him with her claws, long arms unfolding to cover half the width of the train car. Ada dove low between the Hag’s spread legs to duck and roll to the other side of her and slammed the football-sized stone she carried into the small of her back. Ada heard the loud crunch of bone breaking and she shrieked, whirling to glare at her with venomous malice.
“You bitch,” she hissed. “When I’m done with you, you’ll beg me to only eat your eyes and then slit your throat as a mercy.”
That didn’t sound pleasant at all. She didn’t feel much in the way of pain these days –she was not made of any ordinary flesh after daring the wrath of the god she’d followed before her mentor — but that didn’t mean she would look forward to the end of her existence. Also, the stone seemed to have hurt her, but it was an extremely unwieldy weapon, at best, and getting close enough to hit her with it was a dire prospect indeed. The taboo she labored under, not showing what she was to others, applied only to mortals. Both the Geat and the Hag either had heard rumors of what she had become over the centuries or they simply didn’t care, and she didn’t deceive herself that she could take out either of them on her own.
Fortunately, she was not on her own … and might be able to be even less so, possibly. Her mentor had given her a trinket over a century ago, to summon those members of his family of birth should she find herself in a dire emergency. The question is, could they come fast enough? These were their lands, it was true, but frost giants were not known for their speed.
And would her mentor think her weak if she called on them? Would they? They were just as inclined to eat people as the Hag was, if with less pomp and circumstance. Then again, presumably the talisman her mentor had given her would disincline them to such an act for fear of upsetting him, since he was kin. And even if they tried a little nibble … they might find what they bit off a little more salty than they preferred.
So had it been, since she had turned to see angels destroying the city where she had been born, with fire and hail and blood.
Her mind moved fast, but her body couldn’t keep up with it. Ada was dodging and darting the Hag’s slashing claws and gnashing fangs, but even though she did not generally get tired, the car’s limitations trapped her in certain spots. She dove out of a corner to wiggle past her, but Baba Yaga snatched at her skirt, caught it in her grasp, and screamed triumph. The Geat hacked at her with his knife — the sword was too long to swing in here, although given his fighting style with it, she doubted he’d realized he could still use it to thrust — but the dagger’s blade wasn’t enchanted and couldn’t even pierce her skin.
“I don’t fear the curse the desert god put on you,” the Hag growled. “You were weak. You looked back and his power froze you where you were. He could not have touched me in such a way. I think I’ll snap off all your limbs, and head, and break your body in two, and run it through my mill and grind you to tiny bits like sand, and keep what’s left of you for the next five hundred years to season my food.”
The Hag dragged Ada toward her gaping maw, and there was no time left to dither. She could lose part of herself, or she could lose all.
Baba Yaga had wanted the stone she carried. Why?
Not for power; she had power enough of her own and then some.
Not to keep it from others; the Hag had not known Ada had it until she saw it.
No. The stone had been found in that cave in Germany … not far from the border of the land where the Hag walked or, more commonly, rode in her chicken-footed hut or that great mortar and pestle. The figure it bore was female, young and round and fertile and powerful. The Hag was only the first and the last of those.
Ancient rivals? Or even foes? Ada didn’t know for certain, but one thing she was sure of is that the Hag had wanted the stone because somehow, it was a danger to her.
And that meant Ada had a chance, after all.
A thought came to Ada, the last one she might ever have, and she swung her head around to the Geat. “Dagger!” she shouted, and he threw it to her, cursing.
She caught it — she had enough dexterity for that, at least — and Ada rammed it vertically into the Hag’s mouth. The Geat had been unable to stab the old iron grandmother with it; it would not pierce her flesh. So Ada had no fear of the sharpened tip slicing down through the soft part of the bottom of the Hag’s jaw.
This had the effect of propping her mouth and that whiskery chin wide open.
The Hag’s lips writhed in a sneer. The words that came out of her wide-open mouth could not be understood, but Ada guessed well enough what she was snarling. This can’t hurt me.
No, it couldn’t.
But maybe something else Ada held could.
Ada rammed her hand carrying the stone into her mouth, down her throat, as far as her arm could reach. The Hag was very tall and Ada was very short, and her arm was shorter still, but nonetheless, she managed to get it down past her tonsils, past where trachea and esophagus diverged, and down past her epiglottis to lodge it in her throat, past glottis and larynx to the narrowest part of the airway.
Her fingers were long, but not so long as her arm, and her eyes went wide as Ada let go of the stone and yanked her arm back. The dagger Ada had propped there kept the Hag from closing her mouth and biting off her arm, and the Hag dropped Ada in a hurry, trying to shove her hand into her own maw. The dagger blocked her path; it lodged between the Hag’s middle and ring finger, and since it could not cut between them, she yanked at it, taking valuable seconds before she could tear it out. Then she pushed her hand into her mouth, trying to get it down her throat and curl those iron talons around the stone that blocked air from her lungs.
Powerful or not, the Hag still had to breathe.
“Your sword,”Ada croaked to the Geat. He looked confused but handed it over to her and she reversed it, holding it by the quillons as she darted past the Hag and rammed the pommel of the blade into the cracked glass.
It shattered with a scream that was all too human, glittering bits of warlocked glass tumbling to the ground and fizzing to dust on the wooden floor. Ada backed off again, stopping to grab up just three razored shards of glass for her workbag.
It was hours before the Hag stopped thrashing, the strength bleeding out of her little by little as the night slowly crawled toward dawn. Near the end, the Hag clawed at her throat with her own iron claws to rip it open and remove the obstruction, and what Ada saw made her shudder. The stone had seared the Hag’s flesh as soon as it had come into contact with it, building a massive cocoon of red, swollen scar tissue around the tight tube into which Ada had wedged it. The moment the Hag’s fingers had touched the small patch of the stone’s surface they could reach, they had burst into flame.
Ada busied herself, after the Hag had gone still, in taking empty vials with little corks at their mouths and using them to store the Hag’s blood she scooped up with an iron spoon. Who knew when it might be useful some day?
Beowulf retrieved his sword, but left the dagger where it lay. He eyed Ada with no small amount of reticence. “You have a name?” he asked, spitting off to the side. “I only ever hear them call you His Tool.”
She laughed at that; how could she not? She knew her mentor no doubt had greater tools than she, but apparently she was the only one ever spoken of? It was a rich compliment. “In long-gone days, some called me Edith,” she told him. The name was Old English, a variant on her true name, though not its meaning. One never gave their true name to any being of power. This would do.
“‘Blessed in war’,” he murmured, puzzling it out with his knowledge of that old tongue. “Good name. He chose well.” He pressed his lips together in a thin smile. “How’d you know the dagger would hold long enough she wouldn’t bite your arm off?”
“Better an arm than all of me,” she said calmly.
“Point,” he grunted. He watched as she took two vials of powder and a little flask of liquid and mixed them over the mirror’s shards and the Hag’s body. They set to blazing furiously, with a vile stench and a heat fiercer than the inside of any dragon’s throat.
“Come on,” she murmured. “And don’t breathe the fumes. You can’t die but you won’t like the way it makes you feel.” She hoisted up her workbag and started back toward the front of the train to see if there were any mortals in need of aid. The human authorities would come looking for the train before too long. She needed to be long gone by then, and suspected the Geat felt the same.
The air seeping in through the cracks and holes in the train cars’ walls was bitterly cold … but also fresh, and clean, and refreshingly welcome after the battle. She let herself smile.
Her mentor would be pleased.