At a time, it was common for women to die in childbirth, or at least not uncommon, even for the wives of great lords and kings, and this happened to one queen one day. Doctors and soothsayers alike had warned the king of her weakness before the marriage, but love will not be stopped by health or fortune.
Out came the king’s firstborn, a little raven-haired girl who was the apple of his eye at first sight. Then the king found she was the queen’s only-born, for the life left his wife before she set her eyes on the babe. The kingdom mourned for three weeks and the princess’s mother was buried on a little hill beyond the grounds of the palace, for she loved the hills.
The young king set his hand on her cairn once the last stone of the pile was set. “I have no interest in wedding another, so this princess will be my only child as well. I swear to you, I’ll do all I can to keep her safe, as our flesh and blood.”
When he returned to the palace, he ordered the blacksmith to craft a suit of armor.
“Are you heading into battle so soon after the funeral, Your Grace?” the blacksmith asked.
“The armor isn’t for me,” the king said, and pointed at the baby girl in his arms. “It’s for my daughter.”
Iron armor clasped the infant’s arms, chest, legs, and head. Though the suit was unlocked often enough for feeding and cleaning, most of the time the princess remained fully outfitted. New suits were built as she grew, each tougher than the last, and the king’s daughter came to be called Ironhide. In her metal body, no harm could come to her, as the king had vowed.
The older she became, the less Ironhide wanted her namesake. “It’s bothersome and pinches and it’s always hot in the summer. Father, free me from this armor.”
Once or twice, the king nearly relented, but whenever he lifted the young lady’s helmet, he saw her mother’s pretty face and feared her mother’s frailty. “You are my little girl,” he said. “You must stay in there to be strong, so nothing can hurt you.”
Ironhide had strength in abundance. Even a small amount of iron is a great weight for an infant and a suit practically paralyzed the princess, but only at first. She could hardly move a muscle one day, and only through great strain could she turn her head. Each day, she moved those muscles a little more, and in time she grew strong enough to crawl in the armor, and then to walk. Soon she could run as if wearing only silk, and each new set of armor hindered her only briefly.
The iron’s weight was no match for her, and neither was the weight of furniture, swords, horses, or people. When she wanted something and she didn’t hear an answer she liked, she would toss all of the castle’s furniture into a great pile. When she wanted to go somewhere and the servants or guards tried to stop her, she simply threw them onto her shoulders and took them along.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
Though the iron made her strong, the king was wrong about its absolute protection. True that the armor could stave off cuts and bruises, but other things could still hurt the princess—words, particularly.
“There goes the king’s freakish daughter,” she overheard from a window one day, where voices sometimes drifted from the town. “I hear they keep her hidden because she has the face of a warthog.”
“I hear it’s because she’s really an ogre’s child, with her ugly ogress face kept under all that iron,” said another voice.
“That wouldn’t make a lick of sense when ogres can change their looks, even their women,” said a third voice. “If she’s an ogre, they keep her in there because she’s got an ogre’s strength, and the armor is all that keeps her from tearing the castle apart. That’s what I hear, anyway.”
The princess didn’t stop to wonder where the peasants first heard their rumors. Hearing them herself was awful enough. She knew she was no ogress. Still, the worst of what she overheard came not from court or the town surrounding the castle, but from her father’s chambers.
“You must let her out of that silly suit,” said the king’s advisor. “What kind of husband will she attract with a metal face?”
“She needs the armor to stay safe and strong,” the king said. It was the same reasoning Ironhide had heard from him all her life.
“She is too strong,” the advisor said. “If she becomes any stronger, no man will court her, for no husband wants a wife stronger than he is.”
“Why all this talk of men and marriage? She’s barely a wisp of a girl.”
“She is eighteen, Your Grace. Few princesses are unwed past this age. And marriage matters because you have no male heir. Unless you intend to finally show interest in wedding again, you’d best call suitors and free your daughter from that armor. You must know that no suit of iron would’ve saved the queen from dying in childbirth.”
Ironhide listened as the king at last relented. Certainly she’d heard good things just now—she would marry and leave the iron behind her for good. But now she knew that likely no one would want to marry her. She might not have been an ogress, but she might as well have been with her incredible strength.
Once the iron came off, Ironhide stopped lifting horses over her head. She stopped tossing furniture into piles. She stopped carrying servants and forcing her way. Another rumor spread, that the armor was enchanted and had given the princess her strength in the first place, that without it she was simply a normal, wonderful young lady—and everyone believed it all the way to the night of the ball, when they were proven wrong.
Music played, a feast was set, and a grand chamber of the castle was cleared for dancing, as if Ironhide had tossed the furniture into a pile somewhere far away. Suitors visited from neighboring kingdoms of the west and far off kingdoms of the east. They visited from lands of burning sand and lands of eternal snow. They were the princely sons of czars, sultans, and kings, and they all applauded when the princess appeared. She wore a gown that hid her muscly arms, but revealed her shoulders, and her hair was kept back to better reveal her lovely face, which was nothing like that of an ogress or warthog.
“They like me,” she said. “They think I’m pretty.”
“Of course they do,” the king said at her arm. “How could they not?” He announced his daughter then and commanded everyone to have a merry time. One by one, the princes introduced themselves. Some were alone, others among brothers. Some merely bowed to Ironhide, while some kissed her hand.
All was going well, until one prince took her hand not to kiss, but to shake. “To show you that I see us as equals,” he said, in a way that might have been seen as presumptuous by some princesses, but Ironhide was too flustered to care, or to be careful. She shook the prince’s hand with too much enthusiasm and felt his bones surrender beneath her grip. He squeaked a cry of pain and his servants ushered him away before he could embarrass himself with bawling.
The princess felt embarrassed enough for both of them and instructed all other princes to only kiss her hand. She need not have bothered—any who hadn’t yet greeted her didn’t dare touch her.
After a time, a dance began and the princess was asked to be many a man’s partner. Ironhide kept herself alert of every movement. She would not move too far or too close, she would not move too fast or too slow, and she would not enjoy herself. Every step and turn was coldly calculated, until there came another prince, bold like the one who had shaken her hand. He led her in an ever-quickening waltz and spoke flatteries and vows under his breath. Ironhide began to have fun, and forgot her concern, her feet, and her strength. One foot slammed down on the poor prince’s shoe and his sudden, high-pitched shriek silenced the musicians.
The princess silenced herself in response and slunk nervously away as others danced with fair ladies of court and the daughters of dukes. She was content to watch them from a wall nearly the hall’s exit.
Despite her self-imposed exile, one more prince approached her. “One would think they could try being gentler with you,” this prince said. He dressed as elegantly as the others, but there was a gruffness to his voice and a nervousness in his eyes.
“You’re mocking me,” Ironhide said.
“No, I see men who can’t handle a woman. You won’t find such trouble from me. I would happily be your husband.”
The princess believed this, in part. She saw this prince as a man who would happily be the king and lock her away somewhere, perhaps in a strong enough fortress that even she couldn’t escape. “I’ll see how the ball ends,” Ironhide said.
“You think any of these others will have you when they see your freakish nature?” the prince growled. He pulled Ironhide close to kiss her. “Make me your husband or you’ll be alone forever, I swear.”
When his lips came close, Ironhide shoved him. She had only meant to knock him away, but instead she sent him flying along the wall. His back struck sconce after sconce, spilling flaming oil and sticks onto curtains, tablecloths, and frilly dresses as he soared to the ballroom’s opposite end. Panic swept through the hall faster than the prince could fly and fire ate up the wall only a moment later.
Ironhide didn’t think to put out the flames, only to save the people. She tossed them on her shoulders, five at a time, and rushed them from the ballroom by the dozen. Smoke filled the air quickly, but Ironhide hurried into the hall again and again, carrying the king’s guests to safety, even the rude prince who had tried to kiss her.
While the princess went about rescuing people, the king went about ordering servants to douse the hall’s fires with buckets of water. At dawn, the ballroom was left in ashes. No one had died, but all the visiting princes kept their distance from Ironhide, and all of them had begun their journeys home by the evening. Ironhide desperately wanted to apologize to her father, but he refused even to see her, instead locking himself in his chambers with his advisor. The princess could have pushed her way through the guards, but that would not earn her father’s forgiveness.
She sat at her window that night and looked out upon the town. No rumors wafted up to her then, but she was certain they were scurrying between the homes and ears of the peasants, shared as commonly as fleas. “If only someone would visit me tonight and offer to take this great strength from me,” the princess said. “Then perhaps I would be a normal princess. I would wed a prince and make my father happy, as princesses normally do.”