The Wronged Countess - A Barrayaran folktale

by Pat Mathews

This was originally posted to the lois-bujold mailing list in April 2002.

When the Count brought home the strange back-country lady Rhiannon to be his bride, all the women of the castle muttered and whispered, and the least they said was that she was a witch. This they said because most of them had wanted to marry the Count themselves, and now were forced to wait on the lady who had stolen his heart from them. Most bitter of all was his lady cousin, who had loved him from the cradle.

Then the Countess Rhiannon bore her Count a son, and as she slept after childbirth, the ladies saw their chance. One of them found a puppy from the kennels and killed the puppy, smearing its blood around to look as if the Countess had killed her child. They dared not kill the child, a Count's heir, but smuggled him out in a basket and left him in the barn of a good farmer many leagues away. And before the Countess awoke, they ran screaming to the Count to come and see what his crazy wife had done!

To kill a Count's heir was punishable by death, unless the child had been a mutant, but poor Rhiannon could not lie. "He was as sound and whole as any child living when I put him to my breast," she exclaimed. "I have no idea what happened!"

The poor Count thought and thought. He could not put his beloved wife to death for her crime, for clearly she had no memory of it, and therefore must be mad. At last he said "Let her live, but let her do penance for what she did in her madness." His old mother thought long and hard on what that penance should be, and it came to her in a dream last night. "Let her be reminded of what she has done by carrying in, on her own back, every child, youth, or maiden, who comes to our door, until she recovers her wits."

So the Countess lived by the castle door, and as her penance, every time a child, a youth or a maiden, came to call, she would carry the child in on her back in remembrance of what she had lost. And the Count's cousin became mistress of the castle, second only to his mother; but she was old and would one day die. And on that day, there were ways to hasten the death of the poor madwoman at the gate!

Now, the farmer whose barn the child was found in had no child, which was a great grief to his wife. When he went out to milk his cows and found the baby lying there, wrapped in a fine embroidered cloth, he ran in to show her. "Some poor noble maiden has left her child here to be fostered in secret," his wife decided. "Let us rear him as our own, but keep the cloth he was wrapped in, if she should ever come to claim him." And so it was done.

The day came when the farmer's son Yuri was old enough to take service with his Count. His mother and father kissed him, gave him provisions, and sent him forth, saying "Take this cloth with you, which your true mother wrapped you in, in case she should know you and claim you."

He came to court, and saw there by the door a lady once beautiful, now careworn and weatherbeaten, dressed in what had once been a fine gown of the fashion of fifteen years before. On it was the same embroidery that had been on Yuri's baby blanket. He would have called out "Mother!" to her, but prudence bade him stop. She offered to carry him into the court, as she must do always, but he stopped her. "My Lady," he said, "it is not for you to carry me, but for me to carry you, for you are twice my age and half my size and a lady to boot."

"Ah, but I must," she cried out, and fell to weeping. "It is my penance for the killing of my child in the madness after birth."

"Was the child wrapped in a cloth like this?" Yuri asked cautiously, bringing forth the cloth.

The Countess stared at the cloth and fell to weeping. "I made this with my own hands and wrapped my infant son in it before I fell asleep. How did you come by it, lad?"

"My father found me in a barn, wrapped in that very cloth," he said. "Come, Mother, your innocence is proven. But how did anyone come to think you could have done such a thing? Come, we must go in to court now!"

As they walked through the gate, the guard stopped them both. "Lad, you may not know, but the Lady knows why she must carry you through the gate."

"But she must not," the boy said, presenting the cloth. "I beg you, run and tell your Count that his Heir may be alive and well, and it may be I am that Heir."

Then he stood before the entire court and told his tale. The Count's mother looked at the boy and at the woman, at the cloth and at the woman's gown. She said "There never was any proof of what had happened, only the word of your cousin and all her ladies."

Then she summoned the cousin and the ladies. The one who could not bear to think of the child's death saw the cloth and broke out weeping and told the whole tale. So the cousin and her ladies were all put to death, but for the one who had spared the child. She was sent to be the serving maid of the farmer who had reared the Count's Heir to manhood. The Countess took her place by her Lord's side, and they all lived happily ever after ---

But there was many a visitor to the Count's Hall who could never look the Countess in the eye, remembering how they had treated her.

© 2002 by Pat Mathews (

Current version by Michael Bernardi,

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Last updated: May 6th 2002