02-22-2013, 09:37 PM
Mari's womb swelled larger over the passing months. The village women were delighted, not to mention relieved, that Mari was at last able to fulfil her womanly role in life. The rumors and innuendo about her husband the fisherman subsided; many congratulated him on his impending fatherhood. But there were a few malicious types who believed that Mari sought another man's assistance in becoming a mother. Those who still worshipped the old gods of Olympus claimed Zeus himself desired Mari and, being the lecherous King of the Gods he had always been, had come down to earth and had lain with her. Mari told no one about the pearl wine the magician had given her, not even her husband, and so the gossip mill continued to grind on.
Now, any other man would have become suspicious or even enraged if he discovered his wife was bearing a child that was not his own. The fisherman, however, seemed to take it in stride, either because of ignorance or indifference in these matters. Perhaps he truly believed that he had sired the child himself--he had lain with Mari a few times, or so he claimed. In any case, Mari got her wish and had stopped complaining to him about her barreness.
In due course, the happy day came when Mari was to give birth to her child. The miracle of birth is always cause for celebration, but in Mari's case, it was doubly so. Prayers to St. Anne, the mother of Mary, and Eileithyia, the ancient goddess of childbirth, were made for her safe delivery. The ikon of Hestis, the goddess of the hearth, was polished for the occasion, so that the new arrival may be formally accepted into the family by being circled around it, and candles were lit in front of the ikon of the Blessed Virgin. No one was taking any chances.
After hours of sweating, straining, and crying out in agony, the midwives presented Mari with the beautiful daughter the magician had foretold. The women gasped in awe and wonder over this perfect infant. "An angel from Heaven!" said some. "A daughter of Olympus!" said others. "Someone else's child!" snipped the suspicious few who noticed her golden hair and mother-of-pearl complexion, not at all like either her mother or her father, who was dark haired and sunburnt.
"Have you decided on a name?" one of the midwives asked Mari.
"I shall call her 'Magrete'," she replied. "For she is a precious pearl to me."
The women all agreed that it was a fine name, indeed, for in the village tongue, Magrete meant "pearl". And who, asked the women, would have the honor of sponsoring the child at her christeneing?
Mari hesitated at first, then replied, "You shall meet him at the church on the day of the christening."
Now the gossip mill ground at double the pace. Who would be baby Magrete's godfather? they wondered. The guessing game continued for a full month until the day of the christening finally came. The entire village gathered in the church for the ceremony, if only to resolve the mystery which had riddled them for weeks. Imagine their surprise when they saw a handsome young man with jet-black hair flowing to his hips, wearing such robes as scholars do and strange silver amulets around his neck, enter the church, pick up the infant in his arms and carry it to the font. Such regal bearing, they said among themselves, and such power he exuded from his eyes alone! Who was he? they wondered. A prince? A sorcerer? Their minds boggled.
The rite completed, the magician carried the infant out of the church and to her home, the entire village following in his wake. Mari couldn't attend the ceremony, for she had not yet been "churched", or purified, after childbearing. When he arrived at the fisherman's house, the magician tederly passed the child to Mari. "It is done," he said to her.
Mari clutched the child to her bosom. "Bless you, Magus," she said gratefully. "I could not have had this child without your help."
"It was my pleasure," said the magician.
The villagers who overheard this set their tongues wagging anew. He was a Magus, a magician, they said. Only through magic could such a perfect child be born of a woman who was barren. To have such a powerful man as a guardian was a boon to the child.
Rubbish! sneered the more skeptical among them. There was no magic involved--the truth was as plain as day! Unable to conceive a child from her pathetic excuse of a husband, she sought another man's help. That charlatan had lain with Mari himself, and from his own loins sired the child she had carried in her womb! Her husband had been a fool to turn a blind eye to his wife's infidelity! She should have been tried for adultery and stoned to death!
But no charges of any kind were bought against Mari. The fisherman claimed Magrete as his own and went about his business, stating only she should have borne a son instead. He was as indifferent to her as he was to his wife. When Magrete cried from her cradle, he roared at her to be silent. When she reached up to him with her tiny arms, he brushed her aside. When she began to toddle around, he told Mari to tether her to the table.
But Magrete did not grow up without a father's love altogether. Her enigmatic godfather, the magician, would appear in secret, leaving her little trinkets and, later, books for her to read, for she was a bright child and eager to learn. Her mother told her about the pearl wine she drank to make her, and for her to keep all of it a secret from her father, for he did not believe in magic. She also bade her to hide the books given to her, for her negligent father not only believed that education for girls was a waste of time, but he would also sell them for drinking money at the tavern. So she hid her godfather's gifts carefully, saying nothing about it to anyone.
It was thus that Magrete grew into womanhood, the most beautiful maiden in the village. Many young swains came courting her, but as she was but a poor fisherman's daughter with no dowry to her name, she could not marry any of them. Then, in her sixteenth year, tragedy struck. Her mother took ill and died that spring, then the fisherman had gone out in his boat one summer night and never came back. He had either drowned or been shipwrecked, but whatever the reason ruin stared Magrete in the face.
In desperation, Magrete made the ardurous journey to the cavern in the foothills to seek aid from the Magus, but all she found was an empty cave. Poor and abandoned, Magrete decided to find work with the great lord of the realm, either as a housemaid or a kitchen wench. She was not above hard work, having labored beside her mother in the marketplace, so off she went to the castle where the nobleman lived to try her luck.
The nobleman's wife, the lady of the manor, saw how beautiful Magrete was--and the danger she posed. If she became a housemaid, her lecherous husband would take her for his own pleasure; he was not above dallying with serving girls and kitchen wenches. No, she would best be used as her own daughter's personal maid, she thought. That way, she would be confined to the women's apartments, and, therefore, out of her husband's sight as much as possible. The lady Erida, the nobleman's daughter, was betrothed to the prince himself, and would take Magrete away from there with her. Yes, she thought. An excellent plan.
And so Magrete became the lady Erida's personal maid. She combed Erida's hair, laid out her clothes for her, prepared her for bed, and all the other duties required of a maid. The lady Erida, however, while very beautiful to look upon, was vain and haughty, repaying Magrete's services with harsh words and snide remarks. Hardly anything Magrete did pleased her: she was pulling her hair too hard with the comb, she had chosen the wrong girdle for a particular gown, and why didn't she mend her slippers? Poor Magrete was hard-pressed for answers, but, having inherited her mother's patient temperment, bore it all in silence. Yet at night she could not help but weep in the pallet given to her as a bed. She longed for her home village, with its sights and smells of the sea, where she had been loved.
The wedding of Erida and the prince was two weeks' hence, and preparations were made for the long journey. It had been an arranged marriage, for dynastic and political reasons, and neither Erida nor the prince had seen each other in the flesh. The entourage carried her generous dowry and trousseau of gold, silver, silks and jewels in giant chests. Erida herself rode to her future husband's palace in a gilded chariot pulled by two fine white horses. Magrete rode alongside her mistress on a small pony, holding her tongue for fear of rousing Erida's temper, already shortened by the strain of the journey to the palace.
Once they entered the city gates, thousands gathered to see the new princess. Erida basked in the glow of their adoration, smiling and waving at the crowds, reveling in their praises of her beauty. She would have been enraged to know that it was not she whom they praised, but Magrete instead, for she was far lovlier than her mistress, so they thought.
Erida set foot in her new home for the first time that afternoon, Magrete and the rest of her retinue in tow. In the great hall she met her husband for the first time, a handsome lad of twenty or so. She made the usual courtesies to the King, and played the virtuous maiden to the hilt for the prince, but inwardly she gloated, for she had achieved the highest status a woman of her time could achieve: to become the future queen of the realm.
The prince returned those courtesies as best he could, but his heart yearned for her maid, Magrete, standing far behind his future bride. If only the roles could have been reversed, he wished, for she was far more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. Her hair was Apollo's golden rays of the sun, her skin like a lustrous pearl, her eyes blue as the sea, and her walk as graceful as a flower in the breeze. How he longed for her to be his bride, instead of this haughty baggage, Erida. Oh, yes, he had heard of her vanity and ill-tempered ways from the gossiping of the court. She cared nothing for no one except herself. She was extravagant, they said, spending more on gowns and adornments for herself than was considered wise, or even sane. Such a woman would bankrupt his kingdom, he thought. But, the arrangement was made, the dowry accepted, and there was no choice for him but to go through with it. How he wished he was a common man, free to choose his bride for himself!
In sorrow, he turned to his tutor of many years, the one man whom he trusted above all others. To him he poured out his heart's burden, and his longing for the lady's maid whose name he did not know. The tutor listened in thoughtful silence.
"I understand your dilemma, Highness," said the tutor. "And I will help you resolve it, for if you do marry the lady Erida, your kingdom will fall to ruin. No, Highness, you deserve better."
"Shall you help me gain the hand of the maiden?" the prince asked. "Oh, would that I knew her name!"
"It is Magrete," said the tutor, "and she is my goddaughter."
The prince was astonished at this revelation. "Your goddaughter? Tell me about her, I beg you, Master."
And the Magus told his pupil about her mother, Mari, who sought his aid for her barreness, of the pearl wine he bade her drink, and of her promise to allow him to sponsor the child at baptism. It was with great sorrow that he had to leave her behind when he accepted the position of royal tutor to the prince, but now he would make amends to her. He arranged for the prince and Magrete to meet secretly in the garden at midnight.
Under the full moon in the garden, Magrete and the prince met under a huge olive tree. The more they talked, the deeper they fell in love. So happy they were together that it was near dawn when they parted. With heavy hearts, they parted, for it was the day of the wedding. Magrete sadly helped the bride prepare for the ceremony. The prince cursed his fate, standing at the altar like a man on the scaffold, reluctantly going through the cermony with a woman he did not love, nor ever would.
The wedding feast was lavish, with the finest foods and many entertainments, but it may have well been a funeral as far as the unhappy bridegroom was concerned. He hardly touched his meal, paid no heed to the dancers and buffoons brought in to amuse the guests, and dreaded the wedding night in the bridal chamber with Erida. He made no effort to consummate the marriage that night, and rose early to go hunting to escape her.
To a self-centered woman such as Erida, this made no difference to her. She was the crown princess, destined to become queen. Her husband was but a stepping-stone on her path to greatness. Granted, she knew she was required to provide an heir to the throne, but she would in time; she did not want to mar her beauty with childbearing. In the meantime, she relished her new role, treating those beneath her with disdain, if not outright contempt, showing her true colors at last.
Magrete, for her part, repressed her sorrow and continued in her duty as lady's maid. In what little time she could spare, she shared scraps from the royal table to beggars and waifs, remembering her own life of hardship and privation. She sat with the servants, mending linens and spinning silken thread for the royal household while exchanging stories and bits of gossip.
When the queen's own maid fell ill to a fever, Magrete took over her duties until she recovered. As two women will when they are together, they began to confide in each other.
"I curse the day I consented to my son's marriage to that lady Erida," she said one day as Magrete combed the queen's hair. "I don't know how you can put up with her every day."
"I fear it is my lot in life to suffer, Majesty," Magrete said. "My father ignored me, my lady is sharp with me, and my godfather abandoned me years ago. Though my heart yearns for His Highness, I know I can never be his wife, nor even his mistress."
"You are in love with the prince?" the queen asked.
"Oh, yes, Majesty," Magrete answered. "I must confess to you that he and I met secretly in the garden the night before the wedding, arranged by his tutor. But we only talked, Majesty, and nothing more. I would do nothing to cause strife in Your Majesty's household."
"My own marriage to His Majesty was not of my own choosing, either," confided the queen. "He was a total stranger to me on our wedding night. But, in time, I grew to love him, for he proved to be a good man in many respects--even if he did have a passion for hunting. And he grew to love me as well, for I strove to be a good wife as well as a good queen. Not like Erida, that self-centered, vain woman, strutting like a peacock around court! She knows not that a queen is the wife of a king, and her role is to be consort and mother to the heir of the throne, not be the king himself!"
Magrete finished styling the queen's hair. The queen turned to her. "Would that the Fates had decreed you to be a princess instead of Erida," she said to her.
Unbeknownst to either of them, Erida had overheard their conversation from another room, and she flew into a rage. It was bad enough that Magrete was in love with the prince, but that they met in the garden on the eve of her wedding, and the queen favored her over herself, the princess! It was too much! Magrete had to go! She could always find another lady's maid somewhere in the court. She would banish her, demote her to a scullery maid, throw her to the wild beasts that roamed the fields--anything to be rid of her once and for all! She was the crown princess after all; she could do anything she wanted.
And what she wanted was revenge against Magrete.