Chapter One: A Princess is born
There was once a kingdom, which lay more or less on the edge of civilisation. In the early spring of a particular year, a little girl was born there. Her name, given after careful thought, was Alison Mathilda Catherina Flora Beatrice Catherina Rosamunda Catherina Anne, after her mother, her grandmothers, and her six aunts. All children then were given at least four names, but Alison was allowed nine, because she was a princess; and she was a princess because her father and mother were the King and Queen.
Along with the festivities marking Princess Alison’s birth, there was to be the christening, with a banquet to follow in the evening, and the giving of gifts. Only invited guests would share this feast, though all might attend the christening itself, which would take place in the cathedral of the capital. But only those expressly invited would attend the banquet. These would include all the princess’s aunts and uncles and cousins, the King’s and Queen’s aunts and uncles, the Queen’s mother and father, all the nobles, the three bishops of the realm, a good many of the learned and very wealthy, a few listed under the heading of ‘other’, and the Wise Women. The day after she was born, the king sent heralds throughout the kingdom to announce to all that there was a new princess, and to command a general celebration with feasting and song a week hence. The chief celebration would naturally be at the royal palace, but other places would be appointed, where those who lived at a distance from the capital might make merry and share the royal couple’s joy.
The Wise Women, people said, lived in different parts of the kingdom, and there were eight of them. In times past, the teachers of the Church and other learned men had been troubled about them, but had long ago decided that they were not in fact witches. There had been good reason for suspecting they were. For one thing, they lived far longer than other people. No-one knew how long, as none of them had yet died, and there was no reliable tradition that any others had ever existed. But the oldest woman in the city, who was over a hundred years old, could remember her great-great-grandmother telling her that her great-great-grandmother had seen the Wise Women as a little girl; and even in those far-off days, the memories of the very old could not reach back to a time before these same Wise Women had lived in the kingdom, in houses kept secret from all.
Besides their long lives, they had other gifts. They could see into the future, they could heal where doctors despaired, and they had knowledge beyond that of the learned. When a Wise Woman made a prediction, it always came to pass. They were much sought after when a baby was to be christened, for they could bestow gifts of beauty and good fortune, and their blessings never failed of their promise.
At the time when Alison was born, many clever people had ceased believing in the Wise Women at all. They assumed that someone arranged to have suitable women dressed up for the part. There was the duchess [Grimhilda], an aunt by marriage of the Princess, who took it for granted that these visitations were arranged by the parents of the child. This was an unusual belief for one of her rank, since nearly all the nobility and royalty, like most of the less educated commoners, accepted the Wise Women’s existence without question. But the duchess was the daughter of a professor of Natural Philosophy, and had only become noble when she married the Queen’s eldest brother.
As none of her husband’s family had been aware of her delusion until too late, her disbelief had had unfortunate consequences. When her eldest son was born, she put the arrangements for the christening party in the hands of her chief steward. He had come with her from her father’s household as a sort of wedding present, and was as ignorant as she in the matter. When she told him to hire women from another town to play the part of the Wise Women, he saw to it personally, but put the task of organizing the rest of the invitations into the hands of one of his staff. This young man had grown up in the duke’s household, and conscientiously sent out invitations to all who were entitled to them—including the Wise Women.
When the real Wise Women arrived at the festivities to find that they had been double-booked, they made their displeasure icily clear and departed, leaving the infant duke-to-be unblessed. One of them attempted, unsuccessfully, to bestow a hasty benediction before she was hurried out by the others.
‘Don’t worry,’ said an old woman among the guests, when the distraught mother returned from her fruitless attempt to reason with the women. ‘I got a bit o’ sight meself, and I promise the boy’ll do well. No man alive will be able to match him with a sword, and he’ll be the hero of the land.’
‘What? O, er… thank you,’ said the duchess.
‘Why didn’t you tell me I didn’t need to arrange Wise Women for the christening?’ she complained to her husband afterwards.
He was astonished at the question, and told her, foolishly, that she need not arrange Wise Women for the next christening, not arrange for men to paint the sky blue, nor send them up into the hills with buckets of water to make sure the rivers kept flowing. This clever analogy effectively silenced his wife—it was three days before she would speak to him again.
‘Who was that old woman at the christening?’ she said then.
‘The one who blessed the baby after the Wise Women left.’
‘I don’t know who she is, but I’ve seen her before. I think she comes from one of the villages.’
‘But, if you don’t know her, and I don’t know her, then who invited her?
Two days after Princess Alison was born, the King went to speak with the Queen about the christening. He had drawn up a list of eligible guests, dictated to him by his mother. He entered the room with the list in his hand, but was immediately distracted from his purpose by the sight of the cradle. He went across and bent over it, and burbled at the little sleeping bundle. When he had burbled for two full minutes, and the little bundle slept obstinately on, he gave it up as a bad job, and turned his attention to his wife.
Queen Mathilda was sitting up in the great bed with the pillows at her back. She looked tired, but smiled as he came and sat on the bed beside her.
‘Is that the guest list for the christening?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Could you look over it and see there’s no-one left out? It should be all right, it’s Mother’s list.’
He handed her the rough piece of parchment he had scratched the list on. She took it and looked at it. It started like this:
all rels nobs bps wws…
She looked up. ‘My dear,’ she said, ‘do you think you could possibly decode it for me? Rels and nobs I think I can manage, but what are bips and double-you double-yous?’
He took the list. ‘All relatives, nobles, bishops, Wise Women,…’ he began.
‘Wait!’ She held up a hand. ‘All relatives, all nobles, all bishops—and all Wise Women?’
‘Yes.’ He spoke lightly and firmly, but he knew she would not let it go, and his heart sank.
‘All the Wise Women?’ she repeated.
‘Yes,’ he said, affecting surprise that she should find any problem with this.
‘You mean all the seven, don’t you.’ She made it sound like a statement, brooking no argument.
Simpler just to nod and say yes; it will save time, and it will probably come to the same thing in the end.
‘I mean all eight,’ he said.
‘O, you can’t mean to invite that frightful old woman!’
‘I don’t dare leave her out.’
She missed the point. ‘Look what she did to your cousin Ralph! Spirited him away for a year, a whole year! And put a spell on him. Isabella thinks he’s still bewitched.’
‘Exactly! It’s wise not to upset her.’
‘What did Isabella and Rorik do to upset her? They invited her to his christening, and what did she wish on him? All sorts of horrible poverty and dishonour and suffering. And he got it! O, I couldn’t be happy if she were there!’
Her eyes swam with tears. The King drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. With cold steel against an enemy, or cold logic against arguing counsellors, he was an object immovable. His wife’s tears were the irresistible force that battered down resistance and swept all before it. They made him as putty in her hands. That Ralph had been a prize prat before his bewitchment, and more or less human since, would carry no weight with her. He had lost all such battles before, and after the first few months of their marriage he had learned to give in quickly. He was, above all, a reasonable man.
He started to tap the palm of his left hand with the back of his right, but there was no winning against the desperate pleading in the beautiful, tear-filled eyes. Silently he cursed his weakness.
It was his mother’s fault, really. When the King and his sister Flora had been born, the Wise Women had come to bless them, and one of them had bestowed on him the gift of reasoning, so that he would win every argument.
‘O, his poor wife!’ his mother had exclaimed—she had trouble enough with her own husband.
The last of the Wise Women had taken this humorous response at face value, and graciously amended the blessing, promising that the future Queen should have her way sometimes.
‘And while I’m at it,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘perhaps I had better grant the same to little Flora. A brother who’s always right must be just as obnoxious as a husband, I’m sure. That will be part of my gift to her.’
The Wise Woman who had been first to bless the baby prince had smiled, and said, ‘Well, sister, perhaps you should be the first to bless the princess.’
The old woman had hesitated. ‘H’mm,’ she said. ‘Sisters, I need your counsel. I would like to grant little Flora always to have the best in an argument, except sometimes against her brother and her husband, but I foresee a difficulty.’
‘And what is that?’ another had asked.
‘Well, it seems to me that it would be easy for them to enlist each other’s help when either of them is losing an argument at home, and that might make my little exceptions useless…’
The final form of the wish had been rather involved, but the upshot was essentially that the prince and his twin sister should each win every argument, except against each other (where the honours would be divided roughly equally) and against their respective spouses (ditto), and that neither should gain any advantage from enlisting the other’s help in their domestic disagreements.
The invitations to Princess Alison’s christening were duly sent out, and the eighth Wise Woman was not included. She would have been difficult to invite in any case. Although the houses of the other seven were not widely known, each took her title from the nearest town, so that the one who lived near Oakdale was called the Wise Woman of Oakdale, and so on. In each of these towns was some worthy to whom the Wise Woman had entrusted the task of holding messages for her, and it was to these people that the messengers delivered the invitations to the christening feast.
These were the women whom the Queen had called the seven. It was a name often used to distinguish them from the eighth Wise Woman. She was different. No-one knew where in the kingdom she lived, or even if she lived in the kingdom at all. They called her the Eighth Wise Woman, or simply the Eighth one, and that must suffice. But she had a home, and though no invitation reached her, she already knew about the new Princess and her christening. And she knew that she alone of the Wise Women had not been invited.
‘And it isn’t just that they can’t find me,’ she told the big black cat who lay dozing in the sun on the doorstep of the great cottage. ‘They really are very anxious to keep me away from the little dear. Now, why do you suppose that is?’
The cat opened his eyes lazily and looked at her. Then he closed them again, stretched and purred. The old woman stepped over him, and set off down the path to gather vegetables for her midday meal. These she put in a small pot with some fresh fish, and placed it on the fire to boil. She drew up a stool, and sat stirring. The cat stirred himself at last, got to his feet, stretched luxuriously, strolled over and sat on the mat in front of his mistress with great dignity, purring loudly. She lifted a piece of still raw fish out of the pot and dropped it to him.
‘It’s a terrible thing to hold grudges,’ she said. ‘I won’t let it sour me. I shall go to the feast, and add my blessing to the little princess.’