The Maid of Bath’s Tale

Sir Agravaine, for all that he was young in those days – no older than the Queen, in fact – was the brother of Sir Gawain, who controlled much of the north now that his father King Lot of Orkney was dead. As the second son of a king, Sir Agravaine also had plenty of lands to his name. The Orkney brothers (there were four of them grown up, and a younger boy that no one talked about very much) thus represented a faction of the court that could become overly powerful. This potential power, not the fact that Sir Agravaine was the King’s sister’s son, was the only reason why the King would hesitate. Fond though the King was of Sir Gawain and Sir Agravaine’s younger brothers Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth, and respectful though he was of Sir Agravaine, there was no love lost between the King and his sister, Queen Morgause, and some scandal in the past that no one liked to discuss.

But the King, to his credit, did not hesitate – or at least, not appreciably so. I have no idea how much, if any, sleep he lost that night after he had taken my informal accusation and my father’s formal one. I learned the next morning, however, that Sir Kay had knocked at Sir Agravaine’s door as soon as dawn cracked, informing him that he had been accused of rape by Alisande, daughter of Sir Hugh of Bath, and that he would be tried. Sir Agravaine had a fortnight to prepare his defense.

I say “I learned,” and what I mean by that is that I heard all this through the gossip of the servants. My father kept me isolated from the court for those two weeks. Part of it, I am sure, was out of fear for my safety – Sir Agravaine had a streak of violence in him that no man trusted, and Sir Gawain had once killed a lady – but the reason he gave me, as we broke our fasts in private the morning after the rape, was, “There’s no need to parade your shame before the vipers, pet.”

So I was confined to my rooms, and for the first few days, I was glad of it. I had no desire to, as my father had put it, parade my shame before the vipers. The Queen had been sympathetic to me, but there was no reason why any of the other ladies (or indeed gentlemen) would necessarily be. I was neither maid nor wife nor widow, after all. After a week, though, I began to grow impatient with my forced confinement. Still, I held my peace. My father wanted me kept out of the way, and he doubtless (or so I thought) had my best interests at heart.

But if my father had fears for my safety, or even that I would be humiliated by the court, they were misplaced. Sir Agravaine did not react to my accusation with violence, but bewilderment. He had (or so he told everyone) never even heard of Alisande, daughter of Sir Hugh, so why would he rape her? He may have even been telling the truth; we had not exactly gotten around to introducing ourselves. He was not foolish enough to suggest that I was making the whole thing up, but he did make it clear to his bosom companions that the whole thing had to be some sort of mix-up. The girl must have mistaken him for someone else, he said, and no doubt the King his uncle would clear everything up. He certainly knew better than to ravish ladies of the court at random, etc., etc.

Sir Agravaine had need to be circumspect, for opinion in the court had turned against him. The court well remembered the hue and cry that had gone up when I had not returned from my walk. My father had wasted no time in telling his bosom companions exactly how he had found me, and his companions most obligingly spread the tale to the whole court. Though Sir Kay, as the King’s seneschal, had to maintain some appearance of neutrality and refused to discuss the case in public, Sir Dagonet backed up my father in every particular. That I was ravished, therefore, was not admitted to doubt. The only question was, who had ravished me?

The day of the trial dawned, and I woke up queasier than I had ever felt in my life. I put it down to nervousness, dressed myself in my father’s colors (as were his orders), and accompanied him to the Great Hall for the trial.

I was not permitted to speak. My father, as the offended party, lodged the complaint, and his word would carry more weight than mine anyway. As the accuser, he spoke first. “My lord,” he opened, bowing to the king, “a fortnight ago today, my young daughter Alisande – she’s but fourteen, I’ll have you know – was walking through the corn, alone as on the day she was born …”

I stopped listening. Instead I looked at Sir Agravaine. His expression was the same as it had been when he rode up beside me on his horse that day – cocksure and serene. To be sure, he went a little pale when my father described the day and the place, but throughout the whole he kept his smile on his face. My fists clenched, and I hid them in my gown.

When my father finished his recital, the King turned to Sir Agravaine. “Has the defendant any reply to make?”

“Indeed I do, my lord uncle. Sir Hugh’s account puzzles me exceedingly. You see, I was riding through the fields that same day, and I saw no noble maiden at all.”

“Liar!” I hissed, and was quickly shushed by the men sitting by me.

The King blinked. “You were there and saw no one?”

“Well … not no one, Your Grace. There was a pretty peasant girl walking by the river … for a silver, she was willing to … well …” Sir Agravaine’s skin was fair, matching his reddish-blonde hair, and easily showed a flush.

“A silver?” I said, a little louder, and earned myself another shushing and a dirty look.

“Perhaps, my lord,” Sir Agravaine continued, “if I had been less—distracted—I might have heard the Maid Alisande crying out for help …”

That did it.

“How dare you?” I shrieked, leaping to my feet.

I don’t know exactly what I planned to do. I do know that I started to run toward Sir Agravaine, only to be grabbed and restrained by the men sitting near me. But even as I was hustled back into my seat, I began to see that my outburst had been somewhat effective. Sir Agravaine had turned to face me, and he was deathly pale.

“Sir Agravaine?” the King asked. “You were saying?”

Sir Agravaine continued to stare at me. “She was dressed like a peasant,” he whispered.

“I was not!” I shouted, while, “Be quiet, girl!” one of the men admonished.

“She was dressed like a peasant! Her clothes—they were old—no jewels, her hair not dressed—”

“Are you admitting, Sir Agravaine,” the King asked, “that you in fact ravished this young maiden?”

“She was dressed like a peasant!”

“That,” the King said, “is immaterial. You still ravished this young lady – did you not?”

“My lord uncle—”

“Did you, or did you not?”

Sir Agravaine swallowed. “It appears that I did,” he whispered.

“I am sorry to hear that, though rejoice that your soul now has a hope of salvation, with that dreadful sin confessed. However, the law cares nothing for your salvation, and indeed demands your death. As such—”

“Death, my lord?”

A gasp ran through the court, and everyone shuffled in their seats to see the Queen, entering the Hall from the side with her ladies. My eyes flickered to the King, and I saw the corner of his lip twitch upward.

Then his face was schooled into seriousness. “That is what the law demands, my Queen. Surely you would not disagree that the ravisher of a maid of the court – one of your own maids – deserves death?”

“Oh, no, my lord, God forbid! Death is what he deserves. But … well, I question the utility of the sentence.”

“The utility?” The puzzlement and vague frustration in the King’s voice was so well-done, it almost seemed real. “Guinevere, pray stop talking in circles. What do you mean?”

“If Sir Agravaine is killed, how can he learn the right and proper way to act?”

“He shan’t,” the King agreed, “but that, my dear, is hardly the point. The rest of the court, aye, the kingdom, will learn—”

“To kill the maids they ravish, so that they cannot come back to accuse their ravisher?” the Queen asked, raising one delicately plucked eyebrow.

“I had not thought of that,” the King said, with nary a pause. “Indeed, it would be an ill lesson. What do you suggest to avert it, my dear?”

The Queen smiled. “That you hand the prisoner over to me.”

“Done,” the King said immediately. “Sir Agravaine, you are now in the custody of the Queen, to be treated as she decrees.”

The court barely had time to start buzzing before the Queen’s clear voice cut across it. “I will not keep you in suspense as to your sentence, Sir Agravaine,” she said. “Rest assured that I hope you will be able to keep your neck from iron dire – but you must prove your fitness for living first. You must go on a quest.”

A quest! A relieved buzz rippled through the court. Knights were always being sent off on one sort of quest or another; that one should be imposed as a punishment was nothing new. This – or so everyone around me seemed think – was far preferable to executing one of King’s nephews for a crime he may very well not have committed, had he known what he was doing.

“You will have a year and a day to complete this quest,” she said. “If you are successful at the end, you will have your life, along with my blessing. If not …” She shrugged.

Sir Agravaine swallowed, staring at her with something like hatred in his eyes. “And what, my lady,” he whispered, “am I to complete on this quest?”

“Oh, ‘tis quite a simple request. You should have no trouble with it.” The Queen smirked. “You must find for me, Sir Agravaine, what thing it is that women most desire.”

I was the only one to think that justice had not been served that day. Even my father – who at the time would have preferred to see Sir Agravaine summarily hung, drawn and quartered – eventually came around to the Queen’s way of thinking. “Depend upon it, executing one of the Orkney brothers out of hand would have been a political disaster,” he said, with a bit of a sigh. “Can’t ask the King to put justice in one case above the well-being of the entire kingdom. This way, no one can say that the King – or the Queen really – didn’t give the man every chance in the world. If he can’t complete the quest, well, justice will be done, and if he can …” He patted my hand. “Justice can still be done – he can still make things right by you, my dear.”

I felt the blood leave my face. A marriage—that was what my father meant. A marriage between me and my rapist, to salvage my honor, supposedly.

I could have screamed at him, I could have railed, I could have run away and joined a traveling band of gypsies rather than spend the entirety of my life with that man. But very soon I discovered that I had bigger problems: the queasiness I had felt on the morning of the trial was not from nervousness.

Those were days of marvelous fertility. One scarcely ever saw a cat but that she was in heat, pregnant, or carrying one of her kittens by the scruff of the neck. Village dames more often than not waddled about their duties with enormous bellies sticking out before them, or else sat in the shade, nursing their newest little one. Veal was actually one of the cheapest meats, for farmers had to do something with all the calves their cows were dropping left and right. The priests said that God was smiling on the country, hence its fruitfulness and its good King Arthur. The common folk said that King Arthur’s justice and goodness pleased the faeries, who would come out to dance on moonlit nights and bless the fields and farms.

And so it came to pass that I was raped in early August, and in May I was brought to bed of a healthy baby girl, whom I named Alison.