They were on a pilgrimage, all of them – the Knight, the Miller, the Wife of Bath, the beggar… well, not the beggar. He was not part of the group, or at least, not officially. He had unofficially attached himself to the party when they entered the inn, and now they were having a tough time shaking the little nuisance.
“Be gone,” the Miller had told him quite rudely, as had the Parson. The Wife of Bath was repulsed by the smelly, dirty wretch and pretended not to see him. The Knight, who was tall and near-sighted, really didn’t see him. But it just so happened that the rather elaborate hem of his sleeve caught the edge of a bun and toppled it just at the exact moment the beggar had stopped to beg at his feet. The beggar held out his hands and the bun fell neatly into them.
“I think we have one last tale, do we not,” the Host announced obliviously into the hall of weary travelers, “before I declare the winner of our contest and present him or her with a grand dinner of the finest fare my inn can provide? Whose turn is it?” The Host cast an inquisitorial gaze around the inn, but the excitement of the previous night of storytelling seemed to have faded now. In truth the Host was dreading this moment for although the pilgrims had paid for plenty of meals during their pilgrimage, he never liked to give away a free meal.
At last, the Wife of Bath spoke up in her loud and grating voice.
“I believe it was the Parson’s turn, but as you can see, he’s wasted.” The Parson attempted to stand in protest, but his knees buckled beneath the weight of his ale and he fell back down onto the bench with a clutter. “It is no matter,” the Wife continued. “I have buried five husbands, but told only four tales. I’m sure I can dig up another.”
The Knight held up his hand. “Peace, gentlewoman. Not another tale of ribald lust on this the eve of our holy day. Is there not another? A tale of noble deeds, perhaps, of heroic quests and virtuous aspect? A tale to prepare our hearts for the coming holy day and raise our spirits to the heavens?”
The Wife of Bath seemed to weigh the Knight’s words for a long moment, perhaps sifting the sordid details of her own tale to see if even the minutest grain of virtue existed, and then when quite certain that it did not, she sat down. The other pilgrims fell into similar meditations, scratching their heads and picking their noses as if searching for grains of virtue in such places, but none could be found. The Knight, having set the bar so high, feared that no tale would be found, but then the beggar spoke up.
“I know of such a tale,” he said, having now completely finished the meager scrap of bread that had fallen providentially into his outstretched hands. The Knight did not hear him at first and continued to cast a somber gaze around the room quite dumbly. The beggar spoke louder. “I know of such a story, although it is not entirely my own. I heard it from a powerful man long ago. A tale of great courage and fortitude. A tale of the birth of nations and the death of ignorance and despair. It is a tale for all humanity, and I would be willing to trade it for a humble meal.”
The Knight heard these words and he seemed to approve. “What is your name, friend?”
“Mare? You mean like a horse?” asked the Miller.
“Yes, but it’s spelled with an E.”
“So is the horse,” added the Parson.
The beggar looked up meekly at the Knight, who nodded to the Host, who held out his hand magnanimously.
“Please, Mere, tell us your tale.”
The beggar stepped forward like an alderman about to make a speech, and then he coughed. And then he spoke. “My tale begins in ancient England, before there was an England, I’m told. The Gospel of our Lord had not yet come to Canterbury, and druid wizards practiced their pagan arts on water, earth, wind, and fire.” The beggar was warming to his tale as he was to the nearby hearth. He drew back his black, weathered hood to reveal a face, bearded and gray, but not as old as first it had seemed. He reached for a mug of ale, and to his great joy, was not refused.
“There was a woman, then, of such great beauty that no man dared look upon her. She lived alone in the great wood, an outcast to all but the spirits of nature.” He took a long draught of his ale only to discover that it was water. The Knight, who suffered terribly from gout, did not drink ale. The beggar’s face soured momentarily and then a twinkle flashed in his one good eye. He splashed a little water on his hands and continued his story.
“But in her loneliness, she cried out to the spirit of the lake and it answered her with a great secret, a secret as old as the world – the charm of making. She placed her hands in the living water and raised them to her lips. And when she spoke, the spirit came forth.” The beggar mimed the Lady’s actions with his own wet hands, cupping them around his lips. He spoke a silent word and a large green bubble uttered forth into the air. There was a sudden gasp and then the Parson fell over backwards off his bench.
“Witchcraft!” he pronounced loudly after, with some degree of difficulty, he had righted himself.
“Witchcraft my arse,” the Wife of Bath responded. “It’s a trick.” A general ruckus followed during which the old Knight placed his wrinkled hand on the beggar’s arm.
“Come now, friend. I think it is time to reveal your trick before they begin gathering faggots for your funeral pyre.”
The beggar looked reluctant, but as the eyes of the other pilgrims fell once again upon him, he turned up his palm to reveal a green sliver still caked with wet bubbles.
“Soap!” laughed the Wife of Bath. “See. It is just a trick.”
“Too bad it’s not enough to wash his horrid stench away,” the Miller grumbled.
“Or yours, my stinky friend.” The Wife gave the Miller a mighty blow to his muscular shoulder. The Miller winced but did not respond. “Do not mind him, beggar. Play us another one.”
The beggar smiled sheepishly. “I know a better one yet. But first you must hear more of my story.”
The Wife of Bath motioned the pilgrims to sit, and when the Parson did not immediately comply, she used her ample weight to encourage him. He sat at last and the beggar continued.
“Now the Lady had the charm of making and could breathe water into anything her heart desired. Pearls, diamonds, gold. But these earthly treasures did not satisfy the longing of her lonely heart. In time, she went mad, and gazing into the still lake one morning, she saw her own reflection, but to her it was not a reflection but another human. Her lonely heart cried out and she rushed headlong into the lake and drowned.”
The inn grew still with only the sound of the crackling fire to fill it. And then at last the teary-eyed Wife of Bath broke the silence with a tearful snort. The Miller scratched his bony head.
“Is that it?”
“I think I’ve heard this story,” slurred the Parson. “Hey, where’s our trick?”
“All in good time, Reverend. The story’s not over.” The beggar held up his empty mug, and after a moment it was refilled, this time with strong ale. The beggar smiled. “But to continue I must jump forward a few hundred years, for it was then that a soul of great wisdom was born into this world, grew into a man, and came upon the exact spot where the Lady had fallen. Now this was a man of great learning who prized knowledge above all other virtues. He called to the Lady in the tongues of ancient lore, and to his surprise the Lady came forth. She was not dead after all, but simply trapped in that watery prison her loneliness had created for her. But now, hearing the voice of another human being speaking in her own ancient tongue, she awoke with great joy. So great was her gratitude that she willingly gave up the charm to the man. But, alas, the next morning the man was gone. This time the pain of her loneliness was ever more intense for having experienced a fleeting moment of happiness, so once again she cast herself into the lake.”
“Just like a man,” the Wife of Bath blubbered loudly. The Miller scratched his head again.
“The next day? You skipped the best part. What happened that night?”
The beggar looked up innocently. “I’m afraid I don’t know what happened that night. The original teller of this tale never said. Perhaps he didn’t think it was important.”
The Miller guffawed.
“But what I can tell you is what the man did with the charm he had stolen. You see, he had never intended to stay with the Lady, only to use her charm to create a weapon, Excalibur, the sword that could not be broken.” Turning to the Knight, he gestured to his sword. “May I?”
The Knight withdrew the sword from its leather sheath and presented it grandly to the beggar. It was not Excalibur, of course, but an ornate, foreign blade perhaps won from a Saracen in the distant crusades, now dulled with age and lack of use. The beggar examined the sword for a long moment and then inserted it deliberately into the stone floor right up to its hilt. Again, there were general gasps of astonishment, and the pilgrims rose from their seats. This trick was of a different sort. The floor was made of many roughly hewn stones, some large and some small, that fit well enough together that the cracks would not catch a boot heel, but the beggar did not stick the sword into a crack. In the largest of these stones the Knight’s foreign sword now protruded like the cross of Christ on Mount Golgotha.
For several minutes, the pilgrims gathered round it trying to divine the secret of this latest trick. They nudged and prodded, and the Miller, who was the strongest, even tried by brute force to draw the sword from the stone, but to no avail. At last the beggar drew it forth without the slightest show of strain. The pilgrims applauded, but this time the beggar did not reveal the secret of his illusion. Instead he handed the Saracen blade over to its owner, ordered a large portion of roasted mutton, and once served, returned again to the particulars of his tale.
“The sword that could not be broken became a symbol of great power and passed through many kings – Uther, Arthur, William, and Richard – but in the end the sorcerer grew tired of the world of men and sought a kindred spirit to whom he could pass on his knowledge. He found a gifted young maiden with flaming red hair named Morgan, who used the charm to summon the four winds. A great storm ravaged the world. Crops were destroyed. Famine and pestilence rode on twin steeds across the land. Realizing his mistake, the sorcerer tried to stop her, but she had grown too strong. She cast the wizard into a prison of stone for all eternity.”
The beggar finished off the last few morsels of his mutton and burped loudly. “More ale?” he asked with a genteel lisp.
“More ale?” the Miller jeered. “You traded a tale for a meal, and now your meal is finished but your tale is left undone.”
“Oh, but my meal is not yet finished either. More mutton too.”
The Parson rose in protest, but the Host had already signaled to the barmaid and the food was brought before the beggar.
“Now, your majesty, please continue,” the Host said softly. The beggar nodded.
“Trapped for all eternity in a prison of stone.” He took a bite of his fresh mutton. “Or at least that was what Morgan thought, but stone is not as solid as it appears. As the ages passed, cracks formed in the sorcerer’s stone prison, and water seeped into those cracks, froze, and eventually burst it open. The sorcerer stepped forward into the world once again, and standing before him was the Lady of the Lake. He remembered his ancient betrayal and fell down before her in tears.”
“Can you ever forgive me, my Lady?”
The Lady cast her sad eyes upon him. “You are forgiven, my love, but do you know your crime?”
“I chose knowledge and power over love.”
“Yes, and now your offspring is loose in the world, full of knowledge and power but without the love to direct them.”
“She is the fruit of your womb.”
“See, I told you,” interrupted the Miller. “You skipped over the best part. The sorcerer planted his–”
“Staff in the ground,” the beggar continued abruptly, “and stood to his feet. He was determined to make recompense for his actions. He traveled to the eye of the storm and called down the great witch. They dueled on top of the world for three days and nights, pitting water against earth against wind. On the last day, Morgan sent down a great lightning bolt that set the wizard aflame. He cried out and then turned to ashes. The witch had won. She descended from her cloud and stomped upon the ashes of her vanquished foe. And then she heard a whisper coming from the ash pile.”
“Morgan,” it said. “Did you ever master the final riddle?”
“What riddle? Who’s there?” She turned around swiftly but saw no one. Nothing remained of the sorcerer save his smoking ashes and scorched staff.
“You are truly the master of water, earth, and wind,” the ash pile whispered. “But what do you know of fire?”
“And with those whispered words, the ashes on Morgan’s feet burst once again into flames. Morgan screamed, but the fire quickly spread up her legs and into the rich fabrics of her gown. Soon she was completely encompassed in bright orange fire. Her screams shook the world, and then she was gone.”
The beggar licked the last drop of fat off of his last mutton bone and then cast it into the hearth. He smiled contentedly and his cheeks were round and youthful. He looked more like a well-fed child than a starving old beggar. Even his weathered black robes seemed to have gained new luster, perhaps even to sparkle. He stood up slowly.
“Kind lady, gentle sirs, I must bid you good night. The hour has passed, and as I cannot afford a room in this fair inn, I must seek warmth and comfort among the beasts of the field.”
“You mean the mares?” quipped the Miller.
“No, you can’t go,” the Wife of Bath exclaimed with much emotion. “What about the end of the story? What happened to the Lady of the Lake? Did she get back together with that two-timing sorcerer, or did she take up with some rich old earl that was soon to pass on and leave her the keys to the kingdom?”
“And what about your last trick?” demanded the Parson.
“Oh, that.” The beggar looked thoughtful for a moment, like a bashful maiden unwilling to part her veil. “Why else have you come to Canterbury but to see a miracle? I guess I have one more left in me, maybe two. Once Morgan was defeated, the wizard still had to set the world right. He called forth the spirits of the air and calmed the storm. Then he sent out a mist upon the land to heal it and make the crops grow.”
The beggar opened his mouth and mist came forth. At first the pilgrims were pleased with this last trick. They cheered and applauded, but then the mist grew heavy and thick like smoke. It filled the inn with a musty odor and brought tears to their eyes. This was no simple jester’s trick. This was real magic. The pilgrims grew fearful and angry.
“He’s a wizard. Burn him! Burn him!” the Parson called out, and this time his cry was echoed by several others.
“Beggar, call off this mist,” the Host pleaded, but the beggar did not comply. The room filled all the more with the dense cloud until the pilgrims could not even count the fingers of their own hands. They groped through the fog to find the beggar, but they could not. Finally the mist lifted and then they saw him. The beggar was standing in the newly rekindled fire, but like Moses’ bush and Daniel’s three friends, he did not burn. His robes shone like angel’s wings, and in his hand he held a gleaming sword.
“And so the story ended but did not end,” he called forth from the hearth and his voice echoed like thunder. “Water, earth, wind, and fire. And so the story continues until the end of time.” And in a puff of smoke, he was gone.
For a long moment, the pilgrims were silent, and then they looked to the Host as if this whole spectacle had been of his making.
“Well,” he began slowly, “I think we have a winner. What say you scribe? Was not the beggar’s tale the best of all?”
The scribe, who even in the mist, was still frantically scribbling with his quill in the corner, looked up. “Oh yes, quite assuredly. But just one question. What should I call him? Mare is such a beastly name. It lacks all poetic inspiration.”
“Call him Master earl of the inn.”
“A yes,” said Chaucer, dabbing his peacock feather in ink. “M. Earl inn. And how do you spell that?”
“With an E.” The Host announced with some authority. And in truth, he couldn’t be happier to award the prize to a wizard, for the beggar’s meal had been a cheap prize indeed, and it wasn’t likely he would return to claim another.
David Wright is a writer and English teacher living on Canada’s majestic West Coast. When he’s not working, he’s usually reading, running, playing hockey, or teaching Sunday school at his local church. He has a lovely wife, two sparkling daughters, and 50 published short stories. His work has appeared in 38 magazines including Nightblade, Liquid Imagination, and Neo-opsis. His latest novels are available at Smashwords and Amazon Kindle. You can visit David’s website at davidwright812.wordpress.com.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Beggar’s Tale”
At Fabula Argentea we look for the different, the unusual, the creative, and what better way to accomplish this than by adding to a classic like The Canterbury Tales? David Wright, in “The Beggar’s Tale,” does this brilliantly with a wonderful twist.
No doubt this tale takes some of us back to a time years ago when we read part of The Canterbury Tales in high school or college English class in the original Middle English? Perhaps we remember those opening lines of the Prologue?
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Perhaps it’s time to pull that almost forgotten copy of The Canterbury Tales of the home library shelf and finally read it?
Thank you, David, for this wonderfully imagined story inspired by a piece of classic literature.