A Name like Ethelswitha Ermintrude, by Henye Meyer
Many years ago, when there were still dragons and knights who slew them (if they were lucky and the dragon didn’t slay them first), there lived Roland, a young knight who was absolutely dragon-mad.
From the time he was very small he had dreamt of slaying dragons. He had books about dragons (he had learned his letters only so that he could read the books), pull-along dragons, a flock of little dragons for his bath, and dragons carved on his bedposts and the handles of his cutlery. Dragons were embroidered on all his clothes (except his underwear, where they would have felt scratchy) and on his blankets.
Unfortunately, suits of armor were very expensive, and while his father’s holding was good farmland, there wasn’t a great deal of it. The estate budget did not run to dragon proof armor. As a teenager, Roland became so discouraged at finding his life’s goal unachievable that his parents were afraid he would fall into a decline.
Fortunately—or so his parents thought at the time—an elderly great-aunt heard about his predicament. Her name was Ethelswitha Ermintrude. It was a horrible name and in the ordinary way she lived up to it, but she also had a dragon fixation and was delighted to find someone in the family who shared it. More to the point, she was well able to afford a suit of armor and everything that went with it.
So when Roland was sixteen and seemed to have stopped growing, Ethelswitha Ermintrude bought him a full suit of top-quality armor, two fine steeds, a very good sword and a beautiful, shiny shield.
Roland was thrilled, and his mother made sure he told his aunt so.
He immediately set out to slay dragons.
What he discovered was that so many dragons had already been slain that there weren’t many left, and there was a long list of hopeful dragon-slayers ahead of him. He had to wait his turn.
Now, the remaining dragons were all the toughest and fiercest ones, so the list ahead of him shortened considerably over the years. By the time he was in his early twenties, Roland had hopes of getting his chance at a dragon before he reached retirement age.
At that point, however, his parents insisted he marry.
“You’re an only child, after all,” his father pointed out.
“I’m not having this estate going to that repellent Osbald!” his mother declared, referring to a second cousin with bad manners and bad breath.
So Roland had to put his dragon-killing plans aside for a little, until his parents found the perfect bride for him. She was quite nice-looking despite her name, which was Matilda (very popular among royals at that time), and she seemed happy with someone who would inherit only a rather small estate. She was independent enough to cope on her own while her husband went off to slay dragons. She spent most of her time doing embroidery. Her needlework was breathtaking. She had made a whole tapestry for her parents’ castle and immediately started one for her new home. They got married quite soon, and not long afterwards, Matilda had a little girl.
Roland’s great aunt Ethelswitha Ermintrude was not pleased that he had wasted his time getting married instead of slaying dragons, so to mollify her, he told her they would name the baby after her. In her testy way, Ethelswitha Ermintrude was decidedly pleased with this offer and promised to leave what remained of her fortune to him when she died.
When he informed Matilda what he intended to name his daughter, she stared at him, appalled.
“You can’t wish a name like Ethelswitha Ermintrude on a poor, helpless baby!” she protested.
“Why not? My aunt has lived with it for eighty-two years,” he said.
“With her temper, she’s had her revenge on it,” snapped Matilda. “I don’t want my daughter to grow up like her!”
“She won’t, I’m sure she won’t,” said Roland, soothingly but still determined.
And the poor baby was named Ethelswitha Ermintrude in the end.
“I shall call her Trudy,” said her mother, wiping several tears from her cheeks.
Great-Aunt E.E. died not long afterwards and did, indeed, leave everything to Roland. There wasn’t very much, though. She had outlived her finances and had spent a great deal on spare horses for Roland, and what he inherited was just enough to feed his horses for two months. It was a great disappointment—especially to Matilda. She let him know how she felt.
Roland said he had to leave for the next dragon.
“What! How can you?” Matilda cried. “You have a little baby to take care of! Not to mention me!”
“I’ll lose my place on the list if I don’t show up,” said Roland, and rode off.
However, much to the joy of his parents and his wife, there were still thirty-four applicants ahead of him, and as usual, the dragon was slain before his turn came.
Happily, dragons had become so scarce by now that it was some time before another one appeared.
When Roland went to fight the next dragon a few years later, although he was finally near the head of the list and got close enough to it for his horse to have been killed (and eaten), someone else slew the dragon. Roland came home cheerful, however, because he was now Number Two. He bought a new horse for the next attempt.
Trudy grew into a contented little girl, though she was neither beautiful nor graceful. She also displayed no talent whatever for fine needlework or even for fancy cooking. As a matter of fact, she had no gifts at all aside from a practical turn of mind, a sunny nature and the ability to endear herself to everyone. All the servants adored her because she said “please” and “thank you” and was always considerate. But Matilda found her disappointing.
In due course, Roland’s parents died—a terrible fever swept through the country one year—and he inherited the estate. He devoted very little attention to his holding, though, and depended on his bailiff to run it. Matilda was taken up with her tapestries and other needlework projects, as well as managing the household. She kept herself busy enough not to miss her husband.
He really wasn’t there most of the time. Roland was still spending a good deal of effort and money preparing for his next assault on a dragon. When he wasn’t practicing lunging with his sword or lance, on foot or on horseback, he spent his time reading about dragons—their habits, their weak points, how to attack them. He subscribed to every dragon magazine he heard of: Dragons Today, The New Dragon, Dragon Times, All About Dragons, The Historical Dragon, Dragon Hunting, and one called simply Dragon! He rode out to investigate the slightest hint of a dragon’s appearance. His family saw very little of him.
At last, when Trudy was seventeen, Roland’s big chance came. Reliable reports were circulating that a dragon had been sighted.
“It’s a real monster!” he said eagerly as he prepared to set out, “and nobody has my experience!”
It was true that nobody had his experience waiting in line, but until someone had actually fought a dragon, he couldn’t actually claim experience in fighting them, and most people didn’t survive to train anybody else.
Matilda and Trudy waved him off with some foreboding.
They were right. The next they heard of Roland was a cart which delivered a large wooden box to the castle.
“What’s this supposed to be?” asked Matilda.
“Your husband, Madam, I’m afraid,” said the carter, pulling his forelock nervously. Matilda was looking quite severe. “The—the armor is sort of…melted. He was inside it.” He tossed out a large smoke-blackened object. “That’s his shield.”
“I see,” said Matilda. “Well, you’d better leave everything in the shed till the priest can bury him.”
Trudy shed a few tears because it seemed the right thing to do. Matilda merely looked grim. The funeral took place two days later.
In the afternoon after the funeral, a caller was announced, a large man with bulging muscles.
“Sorry to bother you,” said the man, “but there’s an outstanding bill here for armor.” He held it out apologetically. “We’ve let it slide for several years—we thought the reward for killing a dragon would pay it—but—as it is— “
Matilda took the bill. “I’ll see to it later this week. The funeral’s only just been,” she said reproachfully.
The man acknowledged this. “I wanted to be first, you see,” he said, and left.
This sounded ominous, and it was.
The armorer was followed by the blacksmith, the coal merchant, the grocer, the roofer, and a host of others. Matilda called in the bailiff.
“What’s going on, here?” she demanded. “Why haven’t all these bills been paid?”
The bailiff shrugged. “Everything went on the dragons.”
“There’s nothing coming in?”
“Not till next Michaelmas.”
Although Matilda cut back on everything she could think of, cancelled all the magazine subscriptions, and persuaded the largest accounts to wait another two months till September, it was clear that this was only a partial solution.
“We’re going to have to sell the estate,” she told Trudy crisply (by this time, Osbald, still repellent and unsurprisingly unmarried, had died). She was matter-of-fact about the whole thing. Her family, though noble, had not had much money and she had grown up knowing about tight budgets. It was hard to miss Roland as she wished she could have, he had shown her so little regard.
Trudy took the news calmly. She didn’t miss her father, particularly, since he hadn’t paid her much attention; and leaving the castle, while admittedly unpleasant, opened the door to adventure. She dreamed of getting away from her mother, but not being a princess, had been unable to envision an escape. Adventures, to her knowledge, generally happened only to princesses.
Having overheard the servants’ talk, and having the intelligence to put two and two together, she had seen the writing on the wall and had been taking lessons in housekeeping tasks from a farmer’s wife. She could already milk cows creditably and was well into learning to make butter and cheese, and manage chickens.
“And you’ll have to develop some skills,” her mother added.
“Which skills did you have in mind?” Trudy asked, dreading the answer.
“I suppose you’d better learn to cook, since you regard a needle as an instrument of torture,” snapped Matilda.
“All right,” said Trudy, and added cooking to the list of skills the farmer’s wife was teaching her. Basic cooking was what she needed, though it wasn’t what her mother meant. The cook in the castle was accustomed to finer fare—as was Matilda. Trudy contemplated serving her mother a peasant’s pease porridge with some degree of Schadenfreude.
Matilda put the estate on the market and started packing. Although there was a Dower House and some small cottages she could perfectly well have moved into, she was one of those people who make life more difficult than it needs to be by going to an extreme. She decided to rent a hovel on some other estate and earn money with her needle. Aside from tapestries, she had covered every chair and footstool with beautiful embroidery, and sewed all her own clothes, and Trudy’s too, so if people wanted to, they could visit the castle to look at samples of her work.
Trudy thought all this self-denial totally unnecessary, but she kept her opinions to herself. Matilda wouldn’t listen to anything she said, anyway. But she did think it unfair that she had to suffer for her mother’s principles.
A respectable third son of a baron bought the property, very pleased to have an estate of his own. He had a wife and four children and a good heart and offered Matilda any cottage on the estate she wanted, rent-free.
“Thank you, I have made other plans,” said Matilda with chilly dignity.
“Well, if your plans don’t work out, do feel free to come back here,” said the baron’s son. “Your bailiff has kept most of the cottages in quite good repair, though I can see the property can do with having some money spent on it. There’s always a place for you.”
“Very kind of you,” said Matilda stiffly, and left.
On a neighboring estate, Matilda had rented a decrepit cottage with a large cowshed and a chicken-run. Everything was in poor condition, but it was liveable reasonably clean and comfortable. She had allowed Trudy to take two cows, three piglets, and some chickens from the estate before it was sold. They moved at the end of September.
Matilda immediately posted signs advertising sewing. Fortunately, those who could read were also those who could afford to pay for a seamstress, and business began to trickle in. Fortunately, too, none of the potential customers ever saw Trudy’s clothes, which Matilda had made sure were plain and coarse. Trudy herself had changed to solid peasants’ boots.
Trudy displayed a real talent for farm work. Not only did she manage the animals well, she also—being a big-boned girl—dug a vegetable garden beside the cottage and planted winter cabbage and root vegetables she hoped might survive the cold weather. The cows and chickens loved her as much as the servants had, and did their best for her. She actually had more milk and butter than they could use, and earned a little money by selling the excess. The piglets fattened satisfactorily.
Matilda was perilously close to approving of her, but managed to avoid it by using Trudy as a spare seamstress for heavy sewing, then complaining about her work. Since Trudy mucked out the byre, collected the eggs and cooked supper. she felt somewhat resentful.
The days when she cut peat were the worst. She was exhausted from carrying the cut peats back to the cottage, she could hardly keep her eyes open, and, inevitably, Matilda had coarse sewing waiting for her.
What with the extra milk from the cows and eggs from the hens, as well as Matilda’s needlework, they had enough to live on as long as they were careful. Matilda insisted on shopping in the nearest village, where people pitied her. She revelled in it. She liked to suffer as publicly as possible.
When Matilda bought produce, it was so far gone that Trudy fed most of it to the pigs. Trudy paid a little more for vegetables and fruit which were a little past their prime though still edible, but Matilda gave her a hard time for overspending.
Adversity had not improved Matilda’s temper. Between her disapproval of Trudy’s shopping and needlework and her generalized complaints, Trudy’s life was not particularly enjoyable.
Life went on in this rather discouraging pattern for a couple of dreary years.
Trudy dreamt of getting married but was too realistic to ignore the barriers to finding a husband. No money, no beauty, no accomplishments. She knew she wasn’t the sort of girl that boys flirted with—and she never met any young men, anyway. Still, dreams are free, and she dreamed.
One day when she was delivering some of Matilda’s finished work to a wealthy villager, she heard that a minstrel was going round the local castles, including the one which had been her family’s. Since the new lord there was considerate and open-handed, he announced that, as well as the private performance in the castle, he was going to pay the minstrel to sing in the village. The village was agog with excitement.
“They say his playing and singing is heavenly!” sighed one village maiden.
“I heard he is divinely handsome!” breathed another.
“But haven’t you heard about the spell?” asked a third. Everybody rounded on her.
“What spell?” they wanted to know.
“Well,” began the girl, smoothing her skirts importantly, “the story goes that there’s a curse on him. What we see isn’t what he’s really like. Only the kiss of the right maiden can release him from the curse, but who knows what he really is? He may just be a toad! And if it’s the wrong maiden, she’ll turn into a toad, herself!”
“Oooo!” squealed all the young women, and shuddered.
The story boosted attendance at his performance, but nobody had any intention of kissing him, no matter how handsome he was. Trudy listened to the gossip and wondered if being a toad was preferable to the miserable life she was leading. She couldn’t decide. However, since attendance was free, she was determined to go to the minstrel’s performance. Sure that Matilda would discover some reason to prevent this, Trudy avoided mentioning the evening’s entertainment, and fortunately Matilda, having stayed home all day to sew, was unaware of the event and of Trudy’s plans.
Trudy simply told her she was tired and intended to go to sleep early. Trudy’s bedroom was upstairs, but because the ground sloped, her window was nearly at ground level. Although Trudy was ungraceful and unathletic, even she could climb out a window that low. She crept out and walked off fairly blithely to the village.
Rumor hadn’t lied. The minstrel was incredibly good-looking. His voice was rich and resonant. He sang ballads, tales of epic heroes, love songs… It had certainly been worth climbing through the window, Trudy thought.
Reluctant to go home, she stayed where she was, remembering the performance, while the audience dispersed. After a while, she noticed someone standing over her.
It was the minstrel.
Trudy jumped up.
“Look, I’m really sorry to bother you, but would you mind telling me what your house is made of?” he asked.
Trudy stared at him stupidly. “Uh… wattle and daub, I guess,” she said.
“Do you have room for a guest? Or do you have a barn or something?”
Trudy’s jaw dropped. “We just have a two-up-two-down,” she said eventually, “but there’s a barn…that’s wattle and daub, too…the hayloft is nice. The cows keep it warm. Are you asking for yourself?” she added, hardly daring to believe that someone so handsome was talking to her.
“Yes. Would you mind— “
“Not a bit!” Trudy exclaimed. “What about supper? Have you eaten?”
“Yes, I’m all right there. For some reason the witch didn’t include a sub-clause about meals.”
The minstrel shifted his lute and knapsack. “In the curse,” he said.
“Why don’t you come with me, now?” said Trudy. “We can talk on the way. Are you allowed to tell me about the curse?” she added as they started off.
“It seems so. At least I’m not a toad, yet, and I have talked about it a bit. The curse is full of conditions and sub-clauses. If I tell people what I was—what I am, really—I turn into a toad. There’s a lot of toad in it.”
“Like the wrong girl kissing you,” said Trudy.
“Yes. One of the conditions is that I can’t spend the night in anything built of stone or brick. But I can eat anywhere, thank goodness, so at least I can get decent meals in the castles. If I break one of the curse’s conditions, I turn into a toad. For good.”
“I can’t spend two nights in the same place. It’s really a pain, that one. Same penalty. Toad.”
“If you ask me, that witch wasn’t a nice person,” said Trudy hotly. “No matter how much people annoy you, you shouldn’t go around turning them into toads. Especially girls you don’t even know.”
“I guess she was concentrating on me.”
“Still,” said Trudy.
The minstrel gave her a crooked smile. “Thanks. It’s nice to get some sympathy.”
“Well, it must be a pretty foul life, always having to move on, never sleeping somewhere decent, not being able to be yourself,” said Trudy.
“It is.” He shifted his knapsack and the lute case.
“Give me one of your bags,” Trudy offered. “I’m strong enough to carry anything.” She gave a humorless laugh. “I’m no good at anything else, heaven knows.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, things girls do, like needlework and fancy baking. I’m fine with animals and plants.”
“That ought to be good enough for anybody,” said the minstrel. “What’s the problem?”
Trudy explained about her father and Matilda and the sale of the castle. “I suppose in a way it’s a little like you and your curse.”
“It is, that,” he said. “Only you don’t have a way out. Mine only lasts for seven years.”
“How many years is it, now?”
“Five. And two months and nine days.”
“It’s still a long time to wait. Your parents must miss you terribly—if you were human. You can’t tell me, can you?”
They walked on in companionable silence until they reached her hovel. “It’s not much to look at,” she said. “The barn is actually in better shape.” She led him to the barn and pointed out the ladder to the hayloft. “I’ll get some blankets.”
When Trudy came back with the bedding, she also had some hot soup for the minstrel. “In case you’re hungry or thirsty after the performance,” she said.
“Thanks. I am.” He took the bowl. “What’s your name? Mine’s Jack.”
“Trudy,” said Trudy. “Actually Ethelswitha Ermintrude, but I never use it.”
“I’m not surprised. Sounds like you were cursed a long time before I was.”
The minstrel grinned. “Do that again!”
“Oh.” Trudy smiled. “I don’t do it a lot.”
“I can imagine.”
Jack finished the bowl and leaned back against a heap of hay.
“I’ll just climb up and make the bed for you,” said Trudy.
“No, don’t. I can do it myself just as well. Stay here and keep me company for a while. I don’t usually get to talk to anybody much, especially girls. They’re afraid they’ll catch toadness just from being around me.”
They sat and chatted for quite a long time.
Finally, Trudy said, “It’s pretty late and I have to cut peat tomorrow. I’d better get some sleep.”
“I’ll give you a hand with the peat. Wake me when you get up.”
The next morning, after they had breakfasted, Trudy and Jack set off to the peat-hag. It was wonderful how quickly the job was done with two of them at it, but every time Trudy walked home with a load she was reminded that Jack couldn’t stay a second night, and how dismal she would feel when he had gone. Matilda had been particularly ratty that morning, having cross-questioned Trudy when she found the bedding chest half-empty.
“ “People of our breeding don’t consort with itinerant mountebanks!”
“We only talked!” Trudy protested. When the peat had been stacked behind the house, Jack packed his knapsack and picked up the lute. “I heard your mother having a go at you this morning,” he said. “I wish I could take you away with me.”
“So do I,” sighed Trudy. She looked at the ground. “You know…I thought a lot last night, after I went to bed. I kept wondering if being a toad was worse than what I’m putting up with, now.”
“What did you decide?” Jack stood very still.
“Um…can you still talk when you’re turned back?”
He hesitated. “Yes,” he said cautiously, checking himself for incipient toadness.
“Then if you’d like to take a chance on a kiss from me, I’ll do it,” said Trudy decisively.
“Would you, really? Are you sure you’ve thought it through?”
“Yes, I am.”
And then she kissed him.
In the distance she seemed to hear a faint “ting”. She looked down at herself. No toad. Still the ugly dress Matilda had sewn for her and the heavy boots.
She looked at Jack. He was no longer divinely handsome (though still quite good-looking) and his fine velvet clothes had turned into a farm-boy’s tunic and trousers. But he was smiling from ear to ear.
“I guess you’re the right girl,” was all he said. “Will you come home with me?”
“What, me?” Trudy was flabbergasted. “The curse didn’t say you had to marry me!”
“No, but I want to,” said Jack, laughing. “We talked for hours last night. I didn’t want to stop. Come on, you don’t want to stay here, do you?”
“No,” said Trudy positively.
“Well, do you like me enough to marry me?”
“Yes!” She was positive about that, too. “Can I have ten minutes to pack?”
“Even fifteen, if you like.”
Trudy giggled and went into the cottage and told her mother she was leaving.
“What? You can’t do that!” Matilda shrieked.
There really wasn’t anything Trudy wanted to take. She rejoined Jack and they set off, hardly hearing Matilda.
After a mile or so, Trudy thought to ask, “What were you, then?”
“Just a boy. My father has a good-sized farm. I’m the eldest. Of course, it’s been five years, and he’s probably given up on me and my brother thinks he’s going to inherit.”
“That won’t make them welcome you, will it?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He hefted a money-pouch. “I have enough to buy my own farm. Minstrels can make a good living.” Trudy laughed. “Do you still know how to play that lute?”
“I never thought of that.” He stopped, took the instrument out of its case, and experimentally held his fingers around the neck. “Nope. All gone.”
“Oh, well, maybe you’ll learn again. I used to play the harp, but I was no good at it. I expect I’ll be too busy milking cows and keeping house to bother with things like that, anyway.”
It was only four days’ travelling to Jack’s father’s farm. Jack’s appearance caused a certain amount of consternation, which Trudy’s introduction only added to.
“We thought you were dead!” his mother cried, weeping on Jack’s neck.
“I’d better rewrite my will,” his father said, after giving him a welcoming hug. “I had the lawyer in to make the farm over to Bob.”
“It’s all right, leave it to Bob,” said Jack. “I’ll buy my own. Anything for sale nearby? How’s the witch?”
“As grouchy as ever,” said Bob. “But nobody goes near her, now. It’s made her life massively difficult. She can’t get anybody to deliver the bread or meat, and all her letters land miles from her door.”
“Serves her right,” said Jack smugly.
“It does, but I’ll offer to do her shopping,” said Trudy. “One thing I can do is get along with people. Except my mother, of course.”
“Are you crazy? You could end up a toad!” cried Jack’s mother.
“We’ll see,” Trudy smiled. She looked rather nice when she smiled, Jack thought.
Trudy visited the old witch to introduce herself.
“My heavens, I’m not that good a witch!” the witch exclaimed when Trudy mentioned the sub-clauses in the curse. “I just wanted to cure his rudeness. No toads at all. And if you’re going into the village, I’d appreciate a loaf of brown bread.”
Trudy and Jack were married as soon as Jack’s family could organize a lavish feast. They did invite Matilda to the wedding, but to everybody’s relief she didn’t come.
In the end Jack found a nearby farm for sale, one that was really too big for just two people to run, so some of his younger brothers and sisters worked for him for munificent wages. Trudy made fine butter and cheese (which is an art not easily learned), and all her cows and hens were healthy. The farm was so well run that Jack was the envy of the countryside. He had an additional asset, though.
The witch felt rather apologetic over the curse. She thought she might have overdone it. She advised Jack to buy a goose the next time he went to market. Naturally, after his experience with her, he wasn’t going to disobey a hint like that. He bought the goose and, sure enough, very occasionally it laid golden eggs. You don’t need many golden eggs for a very comfortable income.
They heard that Matilda had remarried and was comfortably off, but when Trudy sent her congratulations, Matilda never replied. They felt a little sorry for her new husband.
Trudy and Jack had a houseful of children and made sure to invite the witch to every birthday. She gave perfectly ordinary blessings that nobody would object to.
Two of the children did learn to play Jack’s lute, and one even played the harp. All of them were better-looking than their parents, intelligent and successful, and had naturally wavy hair and sweet natures.
Best of all, Trudy was delighted to discover that not a single one of them displayed the slightest interest in dragons.