The next morning, the king called court and peasants alike to gather at the castle, for he had an announcement. Many had assumed only a couple of nights previous that he would be announcing the betrothal of the princess to a prince, but everyone knew that was impossible and wondered what the king might have to say today.
“I have pondered long and hard over this,” he told his people. “Given recent circumstances, and perhaps my loneliness, I am now willing to once more take a wife.”
A cheer ran through the crowd. Ironhide had no time to decipher whether they were pleased that the king might be happy or pleased that the princess might be shoved out of line for the crown by a possible future prince, because a stranger emerged from the gathered people and hushed all applause and shouts.
Whispers flowed then, from peasants to servants, from soldiers to nobility, and the king knew what they spoke of before a word reached his ears. Only Ironhide stood puzzled, as the stranger looked like any old woman to her. The whispers grew close and she waited eagerly to hear them.
“I’ve been waiting many a day to hear those words from your lips, my king,” the stranger said. “I’ve been waiting for the day your heart would open once more. I am Iza, and I will wed you.”
The whispers finally reached the princess’s ears and she gaped at what she heard. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think the dead walked—she’s the spitting image of Ironhide’s mother!”
The king fell in love at first sight. It did not matter to him whether she was of common or noble blood, or that the two had only just met, or that the woman had a son of her own from a prior marriage. She bore the old queen’s face, as if the king’s love hadn’t aged a day.
“You can certainly see where the princess got her looks,” the rumoring voices said to Ironhide’s window that very day.
“A shame the princess couldn’t have inherited her mother’s graces.”
“That’s the truth. Seems this woman got all that. Perhaps she’s a distant relative.”
“And what does that make the princess?”
“An ogre’s child. It’s been said before and it’ll be said again.”
Iza swiftly took command of the castle. Her son Tup, a young man of Ironhide’s age, was to be waited on by half the servants. His mother went about drawing wedding plans. Ironhide was ordered back into irons, under the reasoning that the armor wore down her strength, which was true, but not true enough to weaken the princess.
Still, Ironhide tried to be obedient. She didn’t pull the armor off, she didn’t carry servants, and she didn’t lift horses. Somewhere in her heart, she hoped that good behavior would land her a husband eventually and dispel the evil words of the suitor she had tossed on the night of the ball. In time, Iza and the king suggested that after their wedding, Ironhide would wed Tup. He wasn’t a prince, but he wasn’t a bastard either, and with Iza wed to the king, all their fronts were covered to ensure the line would continue with a male heir to the throne. Tup seemed slow-witted and barely said a word to the princess, but at least she would be wed.
At least, that was her reasoning until the eve of the wedding, when she yet again overheard words flowing from private chambers. No one but Ironhide seemed to understand how easily voices echoed through the castle halls.
“I’m sick of all this waiting and pretending,” Tup barked.
“You must wait and pretend for a while longer,” Iza said.
“Sneaking doesn’t befit an ogre. We take the lands we want by force. When will I be king?”
“Once I have wed, and you have wed, and the iron princess has given you a child to secure our claim. Then you will rule, and both king and princess will be dead. So have patience and silence, my stupid son, or else someone will discover our true purpose.”
The discovering someone fled to her father’s chambers at that instance. Servants could not stop her, and neither could the guards. The princess even shoved her father’s advisor out of the way so she could fall at her father’s feet and tell him all she had heard.
“Nonsense,” the king said. “You’re angry with your mother for placing the iron armor upon you.”
“I do not have to wear it!” Ironhide shouted, tearing the armor from her body with her bare hands. Helmet, breastplate, gauntlets, greaves—the princess scattered her armor across her father’s chambers and stormed out of the room, the hall, and then the castle. She burst through a stable’s wall, carried a horse from its confinement, and set off on the horse’s back. “I’ll never return. No one can force me to be an ogre’s wife, or ogre’s mother, or to live in a land ruled by such shape-shifting monsters!”
She intended to ride off into the distance, to lands she’d never seen and never heard of, but instead she found herself among low hills. Atop one lay a cairn and a great gravestone. The name of Ironhide’s mother had been carved into its face long ago and the princess fell to her knees a second time that night. She thought she might cry or beg her mother’s forgiveness. Then she began to dig. Her strong hands toppled every stone from the cairn, pulled every clump of dirt from inside the grave, and then yanked an iron coffin from within the hill.
Ironhide took a breath, unsure of what she wanted to find inside, and then she yanked the coffin open—she found nothing. Not a hair, not a bone, not a body. The coffin’s innards appeared brand new, unused, as if no corpse had ever lingered inside long enough to decompose.
“You won’t find anyone there,” a man’s voice said, and its owner approached. He wore the dusty hat, clothes, and pack of a traveling trader. “That grave was plucked up a long time ago. The cairn and grave were disturbed almost the moment the king walked away after vowing to keep his daughter safe. The queen’s body was first taken by a witch for uses I hope I never learn, and then it was dropped when a battle broke out where the witch was traveling. A collector of such things found the queen, preserved her as it does with some of the most beautiful people it finds, and then it traded the body to an ogress.”
“How do you know all this?” Ironhide asked.
“Because I negotiated the trade,” the trader said. “You can’t expect monsters to be civil to each other. They’ll raise a fight over the dirt you walk on. I’ve only come along to see what the ogress might have done with it, but it seems she only wanted the queen to mimic her shape in disguise.”
“Could you tell the king all this?”
“I would be quite the fool to stick my neck out over such a thing. Did you not hear me? They’re monsters. I’m lucky to have met them once and lived.” The trader wished the princess a fine evening and wandered off deeper into the hills.
Minutes ago, Ironhide might have followed him, but she couldn’t leave now. The king would be dead in a day or so, even if she didn’t marry Tup. He had vowed to protect her once. The princess touched the scattered stones near the hill and made a promise that she would try to repay him. Then she returned to her horse and made her way back to the castle quietly. Iza’s plan was not infallible. After all, the ogress was not the only one who could look like the dead queen.
Night came and went, as nights do, for all good things must come to an end, sometimes with a wedding and sometimes with a vile ogre or two. In the morning, the ogress, soon to be wed, soon to be queen, contemplated how she would like to kill the king—poison, stabbing, baking, eating, beheading, squashing (if she took an elephant’s form), chopping, skinning, and so on.
There would be time to decide later, of course. Iza had to wed him first. She was dressed and groomed by maidens and Tup kept watch over her. He then took her arm and led her down to the wedding hall, where he would walk her up the wedding aisle to the king’s side—only when they arrived, a bride already stood by the king, and the royal groom’s face was soaked in tears. “I cannot tell anymore whether you are a lovely new woman or my old love,” he said.
“I confess,” said the bride, who was the spitting image of Iza and the old queen, and who wore the old queen’s wedding dress. “I am the queen, come back from the dead. I believed our love to be eternal.”
“It is,” the king said. “But I have been lonely and the kingdom needs an heir.”
“You don’t have to be lonely,” Iza said, marching up the aisle by herself. “You have me!”
The king wiped his tears and many witnesses began to weep at that moment. “I cannot wed you while my wife is alive.”
“That is not the old queen!” Tup shouted. He ran from the wedding hall, leaving all speechless, and then burst back inside and heaved a woman’s body. She hit the floor and rolled along the aisle, stopping when she hit Iza’s feet. She too was the spitting image of the other women, enough that the king began spitting curses, horrified by the sight of his dead love. As the trader in the hills told Ironhide, the queen had been perfectly preserved as if she had only died this day.
“So, here we have the queen’s corpse,” Iza said.
“How did your son fetch her?” the king asked.
Iza growled, partly in anger at her son, partly to silence the king, for he had no need to know she’d kept the corpse to better her disguise’s accuracy each day. “Never mind that! Who is this imposter?”
“I confess,” said the other bride, who wore her hair exactly as the old queen had in a portrait. “I am an ogress who has changed my glamour to that of the late queen.”
Gasps and cries rang through the crowd. Iza seethed. “You are no kin to ogres.”
“How would you know?” the bride asked sweetly.
Iza flustered. “Ogres are magnificently strong.”
The bride walked to one of the benches full of witnesses, tore it from the ground, and spun it over her head so fast that the witnesses’ screams were lost in the wind. “I am strong as any ogre. Any other ogre, that is.”
“Change your shape then!” Tup shouted. “Become something less offensive to the king’s eyes!”
“Our powers of shape-shifting are grossly exaggerated. I’m only able to take one form for a while, and then I must rest for many days. In truth, a horse had more magic and brains than any of our kind.”
“Not so!” Tup changed his glamour in the blink of an eye from that of a man to that of a horse. “How’s this for magic and brains? Our kind are as powerful as ever and smart as—” Tup couldn’t finish his boast, for the bride ran to the horse, lifted him over her head, and chucked him out of the wedding hall, where his back snapped against a tree trunk.
“You murdered my son!” Iza shrieked.
“Your son was an ogre,” the bride said, marching up to Iza’s face. “I wonder what that makes you.”
Iza’s wedding dress exploded as her form changed from that of the old queen to that of a hideous ogre the height of three men. The crowd screamed and the king turned pale as a ghost. “I am an ogress!” Iza bellowed, smashing the pulpit and stamping the benches. Her hot breath roared over the other bride’s face. “What are you?”
“I confess,” said the bride, who wore the blood of her mother better than anyone, for she was born with it, and who wore the iron armor of her mother’s legacy beneath her mother’s wedding dress. She took the one off to reveal the other. “I am the princess.”
Iza shrieked with rage and a ferocious battle began between princess and ogress. Never before had a princess held her ground so bravely or tossed an ogre so deftly. Only Ironhide could throw punches with the zeal of a giant-slayer and no other princess could stomp an ogre’s face under iron greaves with the same grace some princesses gave to dancing.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
The wedding hall was nearly torn asunder as day came and went, as evil things must, and by dusk Ironhide held Iza’s enormous head above hers in victory. Perhaps people came to appreciate the princess a little more after that day. Perhaps the rumors of any ogre heritage ended when the ogress’s head was mounted over the city gates on a pike. Perhaps no one wanted to enrage the princess with the might of a monster.
Ironhide didn’t care. She embraced her father, and each offered sympathies and apologies to the other. When all was forgiven, Ironhide lifted her mother’s body, showing far more care than Tup was ever capable of giving, and she and the king walked to the hills, where an empty grave waited.
The princess gently laid her mother in her coffin, then the coffin in the ground, and then earth and stones upon the spot. Father and daughter stood for hours with their hands upon the remade cairn, in grief, in memory, in regret, and finally in promises.
“Once, I vowed to protect our daughter,” the king said. “But, my love, she is grown now and stronger than either of us have ever been, in body and in heart. She will make a fine queen, armor or none.”
Ironhide smiled. “I swear, I’ll do all I can to keep father safe, even from himself.”
The princess and the king embraced again, said their goodbyes to the woman below them, and returned to the castle. The king declared Ironhide as his heir to crown and throne, husband or none. He went about seeking a new wife just the same, now for someone who looked nothing like his old love.
The princess, on the other hand, did nothing to find a prince. Instead, Ironhide spent her time learning to rule the kingdom, for husband or none, the power and responsibility of the crown would fall upon her like a helm of iron. She believed love would come to her, perhaps as a prince, perhaps as a man of irons himself, and she wouldn’t need to hide her strength to win his heart. A man like that was out there. She could wait.