The Maid of Bath’s Tale
It was long past nightfall when they finally found me. I could hear my father’s voice at least a mile off, calling my name. The other knights called too, their deep baritones cutting across the soft sound of the crickets and the hoot of owls.
I stayed where I was, my skirts puddled about me and slowly collecting dew, not having moved an inch since he left me. The coin, too, that he had so casually flipped to me lay in the folds of fabric. It was too late and too dark to see the coin, but I had already memorized every contour of it. King Arthur’s face, I imagined, grinned up at me from the copper surface.
Copper. Apparently my maidenhead wasn’t even worth a silver.
“ALISANDE!” came the call again. Then, “SANDY! For God’s sake, if you can hear us, answer!”
I swallowed. Did my voice still work? Certainly my screams hadn’t worked with him …
But my father sounded almost frantic. I owed it to him to try.
I opened my mouth, an experimental croak coming out. That wouldn’t do. Even if Papa could hear me, he’d probably mistake me for a frog. I closed my eyes and tried again.
The scream that came out shocked even me. And it went on. And on. And on.
A stinging blow against my cheek, and the screaming stopped. I hiccupped and opened my eyes. My father knelt in front of me, his hands on my shoulders. Two other knights and three horses stood behind him in a rough semicircle. I hadn’t even heard them come up.
“Sandy,” my father whispered, his voice cracking a little. “Sandy, what happened?”
“My lord,” Sir Dagonet said, clearing his throat awkwardly. I stared up at him, my eyes begging him not to say whatever it was that was that had come into his infernally clever skull.
But for once, the king’s jester didn’t have a joke. He lifted the lantern a little higher so that its light fell on me more clearly. “My lord,” Sir Dagonet said to my father, “look.”
My father looked. He saw – now that I had stopped screaming – the mussed skirts, the torn underthings. The wheat trampled all around me. The bruise by my mouth, where he had punched me to shut me up.
Lastly, my father saw the blood.
My father’s eyes contracted and his hands on my shoulders turned to a pair of finely tuned vises. “Who did this?” he croaked. “Sandy! Tell me who did this!”
I didn’t tell him. Not then. Not because I was afraid – I wasn’t, then, I hadn’t even thought to be afraid – or because I suffered from some confused impulse to protect my ravisher. I didn’t tell my father who had done this to me because as soon as he started to scream, I started to sob. Much like the scream, the tears and gasping came totally unbidden, and once it started, I had no control over it.
Much as it had when I was only a toddling little girl, my tears stopped his anger. He held me close and whispered to me that I was still his pet, his baby girl, and not to worry, because he would soon find the man who did this to me and would kill him personally. Then my father wrapped me in a saddle blanket, lifted me up like I was still a child and put me on his horse. As soon as I was settled in the saddle, my father mounted behind me, we all rode back to Camelot. Well, all of us except Sir Dagonet, who went riding off to alert the other members of the search party that I had been found safe.
When we returned to the castle, my father hustled me to our apartments and Sir Kay, the other knight who had been with us, disappeared into parts unknown. A bath was drawn and I was scrubbed within an inch of my life. When the women were through, however, I refused to get out of the tub. Somehow, the embrace of the water made me feel safe and protected, and gave me a hope of feeling clean again, someday. After a quick whispered consultation, the serving-women decided to let me be.
So I huddled in the bathtub, staring at my knees, and tried to come to terms with what had happened to me.
Eventually I came enough to myself to take note of what was going on around me. First of all, the bathwater was swiftly growing tepid and cloudy. Secondly, my skin looked like an old woman’s. Thirdly, there were voices coming from the anteroom. Sir Kay must have gone to the King, for I could hear his familiar rumble. Or rather, I could hear my father shouting and demanding justice, while the King promised to do everything he could whenever my father would let him get a word in edgewise.
“But,” the King said at one point – probably while my father was catching his breath – “Hugh, if she doesn’t say who did this to her, I shan’t be able to do much of anything.”
I could hear this so clearly because the door to the anteroom had opened just a crack, and the Queen slipped inside.
My breath caught in my throat. She was probably here to tell me that, as a woman neither maid nor wife nor widow, I was no longer welcome to be one of her ladies—
The Queen smiled. “Hello, Sandy,” she said gently as she closed the door. She was one of the few older ladies at court (though the Queen was scarcely that old, only twenty) who understood my preference for the nickname and called me by it. “Would you like to get out of the tub?”
If I was to be fired from my duties as a Queen’s maiden, this was certainly an odd way to go about it. I stared at the tepid water and slowly nodded.
“Good, good. Do you need help? Here, give me your hand.”
I obeyed, and the Queen – with no regard to what might happen to her fine gown if it got wet – helped, or rather hauled, me out of the tub. She found sheets to wrap me in and a hairbrush. Then she plunked me down in front of the fire and started to comb through my hair, all the while chatting of little nothings, the small happenings of the day, all that had been going on in Camelot since I went out for my fateful walk. She had almost succeeded in calming me down when a bellow came from the anteroom – my father, venting his feelings by detailing what exactly he would like to do to the knight who had ravished me. According to my rather limited understanding of human anatomy (much expanded, I will admit, by the events of that day), it didn’t even sound possible.
“Well,” the Queen murmured, her brushing stilled, “if he manages that, I shall be forced to demand a viewing of it. ‘Twill cause a nine-days’ wonder, I’m sure.”
The Queen smiled. “There’s our Sandy,” she said, ruffling my hair. Then she frowned. “Sandy …”
I shrank away.
“I …” She paused. “The King and I want to see justice done for what happened to you. You understand that, do you not?”
Justice? I wasn’t being dismissed?
Remembering the Queen’s question, I nodded.
“Good, good,” she said, brushing out another lock of hair. “But … we shall be very limited in what we can do, if we do not know who did this.”
I looked away.
“Did you know the man?” the Queen asked, her fingers threading through my hair as she started to plait it.
I swallowed. “I …” I fixed my eyes into the flames and managed to croak, “Yes and no?”
“Yes and no?”
“I—I didn’t—don’t—know him, but I know … I know who he is.”
“I see. I see. Sandy?”
“Can you tell me who he is?”
Again, I hesitated. I had done a good deal of thinking in the bathtub, and one of the thoughts that had come to me was that the King’s justice, famed and fair though it might be, might not stretch so far as to apply in my case.
“You’re not going to like it,” I squeaked.
“Like it? Why would I like it?”
“No—I mean—this might make you very upset—and the King too …”
I closed my eyes. “It was a knight,” I forced myself to say. “A Knight of the Round Table.”
“Of the Round Table?” the Queen gasped, letting my hair fall.
“It gets worse,” I forced myself to say. I turned to face the Queen. My fingers buried themselves into the sheets and my eyes wanted to look anywhere but at her face, which was where I forced them to go.
But the Queen was troubled too, cracking her knuckles in that old nervous habit she had—crack, crack, crack. “How worse?” she asked.
“It—he was one of the King’s nephews.” I took a deep breath, and before she could ask, I spit the name out. “Sir Agravaine.”
The Queen’s eyes, blue as cornflowers, went wide. “Oh, sweet Virgin,” she whispered. “You’re right. This isn’t good at all.”