The Maid of Bath’s Tale
If my father had had his way, I would have probably stayed in that small keep near Bath for a few years, to let the scandal die down. My Alison probably would have been sent to a convent as soon as she was old enough to go. And I would have been married off to whatever knight could be convinced to take me, trading virginity for proven fertility.
But my father did not have his way. When my daughter was two months old and strong enough for the relatively short journey, I ordered the men-at-arms to prepare for a journey to Camelot. The chief guard objected, but I insisted, claiming that the letter I had just received from my father ordered my return. It didn’t, but the man couldn’t read, and my father’s chaplain (who was the only one, other than me, who could read) would be gone for a fortnight. The men-at-arms had no choice but to obey, and two weeks before Sir Agravaine was due to return, my baby and I rode into Camelot.
It was not the first time that an unwed mother and her illegitimate child had come to Camelot to receive some sort of justice from the father. Elaine, daughter of Pelles of Carbonek, had come with her son Galahad some five years earlier to try to win Sir Lancelot back. In a way, I flatter myself that my reception at court was better than hers. My father was furious to find that I had disobeyed his orders, but his railing was fortuitously interrupted by the Queen, who had heard of my arrival and had come to coo over Alison. Since the Queen had been Elaine’s primary antagonist at court, I considered myself most fortunate. Other than the Queen and my father, however, no one seemed to much notice me or my babe.
This is not to say that they had forgotten Sir Agravaine’s quest; the court waited in eagerness for his return. They seemed, however, to have entirely forgotten the part I had played in it. I might as well have been invisible and not part of the story at all for all the attention that was paid to me.
Sir Agravaine had not returned to court before I arrived, and though he was watched for daily, he stubbornly refused to put in an appearance until the day before the deadline. He rode in mere minutes before the drawbridge was due to go up with no companions other than his horse and an old woman. He would report the results of his quest at noon the next day.
My father and I were necessarily to be in attendance, but my father scowled when I emerged from my chamber, wearing the same old gown I had worn the day I was ravished, and carrying Alison in my arms. “You’d bring the baby?” he asked. “What if she cries?” Even at three months old, Alison’s cries were prodigious.
Then I’ll hand her to her father and tell him that his child is crying out for justice from him, and if he wants to keep his eardrums, he’d better grant it, I thought, but all I said was, “She’s fed and changed. She’ll be fine.”
Once again the court was assembled in the Great Hall; once again Sir Agravaine stood before the King in the place of a defendant. This time, though, my father was relegated to the audience with me. And the Queen sat too on the dias, her smaller throne placed a little before the King’s, to symbolize that she was chief justice in this case.
Sir Agravaine seemed nervous – well, no wonder, he was still on trial for his life. The Queen, however, was calm and serene. “So you have returned to us, Sir Agravaine! Tell me, have you succeeded in your quest?”
“That will be for you to judge – aunt,” he added, a little wickedly.
The Queen’s nose wrinkled; well, what woman of one-and-twenty wants to be called “aunt” by a man her own age. “Judge I will. What answer have you to give?”
“My liege lady, generally,” said he, “women desire to have the sovereignty as well upon their husband as their love, and to have mastery their man above. This thing you most desire, though me you kill. Do as you please, I am here at your will.” And then he bowed.
Sovereignty? I thought. Sovereignty? That’s it? Out of all—
Sovereignty. The right to have complete control over ourselves, our destinies, our bodies. The right to not be sold off in marriage to a stranger, or, being married, to retain our own identity. The right to live our lives as we please, not as our father or brother or husband would have us live it.
The right to walk alone through the corn and have no fear that the knight riding in the distance would gallop toward us, jump on us, and take our maidenhead by force. Sovereignty.
I wanted sovereignty.
The Queen was staring at him, her cornflower eyes wide. “Sweet Virgin,” she whispered, but the court was so silent everyone could hear her. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”
The King watched her narrowly. “So you release Sir Agravaine from his quest, my dear?” he asked.
“What?” she asked, turning to stare at her husband. “Oh … oh, yes. Yes. I do. You are free to go, Sir Agravaine.”
“Unless, of course, any other man – or woman, I suppose – requires anything more of you,” the King swiftly added, shooting a significant glance in my father’s direction.
My father slowly began to stand. I realized what he was going to do, and began to stand myself—
We were both beaten by a hideous old woman at the other end of the hall. “Mercy,” cried she, “my sovereign lady queen! Before the court’s dismissed, give me my right. ‘Twas I who taught the answer to this knight; for which he did plight troth to me, out there, that the first thing I should of him require he would do that, if it lay in his might. Before the court, now, pray I you, sir knight,” said she, “that you will take me for your wife; for well you know that I have saved your life. If this be false, say nay, upon your fay!”
The court exploded into talking. Loudest of all were Sir Agravaine’s protests, begging the King to kill him rather than wed him to such an ugly old woman. The King seemed to be trying very hard not to laugh as he ordered Sir Agravaine to honor his promise, and a merry light danced in the Queen’s eyes.
No one spoke of me or my baby. No one thought of us. No one so much as looked in our direction. And when I shouted, “What about ME?” no one heard.
The wedding was held the next day. My father, furious at seeing his last chance of salvaging my honor and his gone, refused to attend the feast. I considered going myself, and bringing Alison with me to demand justice from Sir Agravaine there, but decided against it. Much as Sir Agravaine might deserve it, his wife had done me a service by taking him off the market. The least I could do was to refrain from humiliating her on her wedding-day.
The morning after the wedding, however, was fair game. This wife, after all, was so ancient that she would probably be dead in a year or two, and my father would begin angling for Sir Agravaine to marry me anew. Furthermore, at dawn my father was still sleeping off the remnants of the wine he had used to take the edges off his anger, and thus was entirely unable to protest me taking the baby and marching down to Sir Agravaine’s nuptial chamber.
Alison was not happy at being removed from her warm cradle, and rather than shush and soothe her, once we got to Sir Agravaine’s door, I let her wail. If that didn’t get his attention, nothing would.
And apparently nothing ever would get that man’s attention, for when the door opened, it was not by him. It was not by his foul wife either, or even by a servant. Instead, my jaw dropped as an ethereally beautiful lady, with long silver-blonde hair and bright green eyes, came to the door and looked at me quizzically.
Before I could even think to speak – or more accurately, let loose a tirade about Sir Agravaine having the gall to call a whore to come to him on his wedding-night – she said, “You must be Alisande.
“And this,” she continued, her tone growing even more dulcet – Alison’s crying stopped instantly upon hearing it – “must be little Alison.” Her hands, delicate and long-fingered, reached for the baby. I took a step back.
“Who are you?” I demanded, clutching Alison close to my breast.
The lady’s lovely eyes went wide. “Lady Laurel. Sir Agravaine’s wife.” She reached up and pushed some hair behind her ear.
The tip of her ear was pointed. And more than that – as I looked into her wide green eyes, I realized that the pupil was a long slit, like a cat’s.
Faerie. I took another step back.
“What’s wrong, child?” she asked. She cocked her head a little to one side, like a puzzled bird.
“You … you …”
“Am one of the Fay – the moon-women? Yes,” she said. “And you are the woman who landed Sir Agravaine in all this trouble.”
“I did not!” I shouted. “He—he—”
“Forgive me. I phrased that ill. He landed himself in trouble – but you cannot deny, my dear, that you are the woman he ravished.”
“And you have come here to demand money for the child’s care from him, have you not?”
“No,” I said, and the lady blinked. “My father has wealth enough to raise a baby. Even if he didn’t, the King and Sir Gawain are generous enough not to let their great-niece starve. I want justice for myself and the child from him.”
“Justice?” the lady asked. “How do you plan to get that?”
“He can start by looking the child in her face and acknowledging her for his!” I shouted. “And he can start by apologizing for what he did for me! And then he can—he can—”
The lady raised one eyebrow.
“Well, he can get rid of you for one, and take back the old hag!” I shouted. “You think that’s—that’s justice for what he did to me? He quests for a year, wins mercy from the Queen, and gets to marry a beautiful woman and live with her happily ever after? What about Alison? What about us? What about me?”
The lady said nothing. I screamed again, “Well? What about me?”
She pursed her beautiful rosebud lips together. “If it is justice you desire,” she mused, “you shan’t get it in this world.”
“And I shan’t get it in the next world either,” I snapped. “I know how it goes. Sir Agravaine will go to his priest, and get some sort of petty penance, and be clean and whole in the sight of God, while I’m damned forever for daring to have been ravished.”
“Er—I wasn’t referring to that next world, though you can believe what you like about it. Instead, I was thinking …” Her eyes fell on my babe again. “Do you know how many fay-children there are now in the moonlit realm of Underhill?”
“Huh?”“There are none,” the lady continued. “And few mortal children. Children are so well-fed and happy under good King Arthur, there are few we can in justice take …”
“You want to take my baby?” I shrieked.
“Oh, no!” the lady cried. “No, no, child, we wouldn’t separate the two of you—that is what your father plans to do, is it not?” she asked.
I swallowed and nodded.
“As I thought. No, child, what I offer instead is a new home—for both you. We of the Fay love children – and in truth, both you and the babe are children by our way of reckoning. You’ve both been sadly mistreated by this world … well, what say you? Will you come?”
I hesitated and looked at the baby. “What about my father?”
“He’s been negotiating to have a graybeard marry you ever since the child was born. The man is desperate for an heir and says that doesn’t care that you’re not a virgin, but he is not being strictly truthful.”
“But—but I thought he wanted—Sir Agravaine—”
“He was hedging his bets, child. He wants you wed and the dishonor removed from his house.”
That did it. I straightened my back, shifted Alison to my other arm, and stared the lady in her slit-pupilled eye. “Which way to Faerie, my lady?”
And so I went to Faerie. It was a lovely place – bathed in perpetual twilight, the faeries danced and sang all day and night, and none of them cared a whit that I was not a virgin, and my baby was a bastard. To them, all children were equally precious – and to them, as Lady Laurel had promised, we were both children. My Alison grew into a headstrong, gap-toothed little girl who could win sweets and comfits from all the male elves with only a pleading expression in her big brown eyes.
I never wanted to leave our safe faerie haven, but by the time Alison was ten, she had grown tired of the comfort, of the ease. She was bored, or so she told me, she wanted a challenge. She wanted to live. I refused to entertain the thought of leaving, but by the time she was twelve, she had convinced the faerie elders that she was old enough to be returned to the mortal world. I was eventually brought around (the elders would not let her leave without my consent), and would have gone with her, but the elders told me that was impossible. Time flows differently in Faerie; eight hundred years had passed in the mortal world. If I stepped outside Faerie, I would turn instantly to dust. But Alison, since she had come over so young, was safe, and she could go.
So my baby left me. We had some ways of watching the doings of the mortal world, and I checked whenever I could (which was often). Owing to the differences in the flow of time, it seems every time I checked on her, she had a new husband. The first three were doddering graybeards who she ruled with barely any effort. The fourth one broke my heart – he hit and broke my Alison’s heart, though never her spirit. The fifth was some twenty years younger than her and made from much the same mold as the fourth, though Alison eventually mastered him as well. He died and left her a widow for the fifth time.
I’ll never forget the last time I saw my Alison. She was dressed as a pilgrim, with bright red stockings and a hat the size of a shield on her head. She had fallen in with a group of other pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, and apparently they were telling stories to pass the time. Apparently it was her turn to tell. She straightened the rug by her saddle and began, “Now in the olden days of King Arthur …”
Oh, Alison, I thought with a smile. That’s my girl.