"Ten Drummers Drumming"
"Nine Pipers Piping"
"Eight Maids A-Milking"
"Seven Swans A-Swimming"
"Six Geese A-Laying"
"Five Gold Rings"
"Four Colly Birds"
"Three French Hens"
"Two Turtle Doves"
"A Partridge in a Pear Tree"
In her e-book collection, My True Love Sent To Me, Elizabeth Hopkinson dips into Arthurian legend to tell twelve tales of Medieval romance. Anyone who glances at the table of contents can see the author’s template, basing each story on the cumulative Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas." I’m sure this was a lot of fun for the author as, with each new story, she set her imagination to work on what tale she could spin using each gift from the song as a trigger. These are all very short stories, some under 2000 words, told in fairytale style. I read this over Valentine’s Day week, and finding myself in an amorous mood, I can recommend these stories to those of a similar sentiment. I’ll forgo deconstructing each tale and just give a brief rundown. These light tales, like a rose or a box of chocolates, are meant to be enjoyed, not pedantically analyzed.
In "Twelve Lords A-Leaping," noble knight Girflet rides a mysterious ship to a strange land with a seemingly uninhabited palace. Yet once inside, he comes to a twelve-sided chamber with a dozen lords imprisoned within a mirror on each wall. His task is to free them by finding a way to introduce sunlight into the room.
Breon of the Haut Mount is a lackluster knight in search of adventures when he stumbles upon "Eleven Ladies Dancing" in the forest. Each wears a silver mask to hide her face, and after dancing all night long, he is given a silver ring that will transport him back to their spot at any time he chooses. On his third trip back, he removes the leading lady’s mask to find a surprise beneath it.
The "Ten Drummers Drumming" only fit tangentially into this story, but that’s fine. For Hopkinson to follow the convention so rigidly would have made the tales too formulaic. Here, two brothers, Taulas and Tor, leave King Arthur’s court to save a maiden, Yvonette, from the clutches of Bilis, Lord of the Dwarves. Taulas is the one in love with her, but it’s wounded Tor who goes on to save her. But later, when Taulas finds that his brother has left him for dead and has chosen Yvonette as his wife, the two brothers duel. I was rather pleased with the unconventional ending of this one. It showed that chivalry, while not dead, can also bring out the worst in men.
"Nine Pipers Piping" is another decidedly Arthurian tale and a good one. Kerrin is a swordsmith who proposes to Fauve, the sister and fellow performer of her nine brothers, a troupe of pipers. Unfortunately, Fauve doesn’t want to leave her brothers, so the youngest brother ties a sash around her waist so they’ll never be parted during dreams. After the wedding, Kerrin becomes increasingly frustrated. Every night, his new bride falls into a trance when passion should prevail. Enter Sir Lancelot to solve the swordsmith’s problem. One of the better tales in this collection.
Highborn lovers meet after finding themselves leading humbler lives in "Eight Maids A-Milking." Alys, given up at birth by her unmarried noble mother, is the milkmaid that Oridial falls in love with while posing as a simple laborer so he can keep an eye on his father’s estate, stolen from him by his duplicitous brother. There’s quite a lot of story here for so few words.
In "Seven Swans A-Swimming," The wife of Minstrel Tyrnon, Branwen, is turned into a swan and disappears. Tyrnon roams the lands searching for her, and when he finds her, she’s a black swam among six white ones. A bittersweet tale.
"Six Geese A-Laying" tells how the lives of a knight and his lady are affected by six golden geese eggs. The lady drops the eggs, they break, and she takes ill and enters a trance. Thinking her dead, he takes her to the moors and places her body on an open bier. When the lady wakes, she becomes queen of the moors. I found this one to be weak.
The "Five Gold Rings" of the title are given to young maiden Lunete by her father on his deathbed. He was once a knight, until he fell out of the king’s favor, and he now lives in the woods with his daughter. He tells her that someday she’ll meet a knight, and if all five rings fit his finger, then he’ll truly be a man of virtue. Finding herself alone—her mother died long ago—Lunete stays in the woods and hunts to survive. Enter the knight-errant on horseback.
"Four Colly Birds" are what Knight Teliesin finds after a lovers’ spat with his noble lady, Gwenlliant. Holkinson’s style suits all these tales well, but I found this one especially engaging. Her descriptions placed me in the thorny woods, leading to the castle that turned out to be an ancient ruin. In the courtyard, four colly birds startle Teliesin with their hard eyes. Inside is a chamber where each wall has the climate of one of the four seasons. Sitting at a table between summer and winter are an aged knight and a white-haired lady playing an endless game of chess. But the rooks on the chessboard are missing. A colly bird is a blackbird, colly being a 16th-century English word for "to blacken as if with soot." And the four birds outside the ruined castle were rooks. This one is a visual treat and the best in the collection.
"Three French Hens" moves to the Continent where Brittany Launvelle, a maid-in-waiting to the Queen, falls in love with a knight named Quintaeus. Alas, he doesn’t return her affections, so she sews three of her hairs into the design of three French hens on his surcoat. Unfortunately, nothing happens, and the knight leaves the country. Although Launvelle longs for him, eventually she moves on and marries another noble knight, becoming pregnant with his child. Quintaeus returns, and now he’s enamored with Launvelle; the magic was obviously of the slower variety. Noblewoman that she is, she can’t leave her husband, so she steals Quintaeus’s surcoat so she can remove her three hairs and the love spell. But now, she can’t tell her hairs from the threads in the garment. What’s a lady-in-waiting to do? Another of the better tales.
Oriana is in love with Orien in "Two Turtle Doves" but can’t marry him. She’s been promised to an older man, a wretched earl with mist around his estate. Given a phial of a magical potion, she is transformed into a dove and goes to meet Orien, who has become one as well. I found "Two Turtle Doves" rather pedestrian, despite its fantastic nature.
The last amorous tale is, of course, "A Partridge in a Pear Tree." Tibaut the knight is out hunting when he shoots a partridge from a tree and instead of a bird, a maiden falls from it. Her name is Fenice, and though he doesn’t kill her with his arrow, the arrowhead embedded in her chest makes it impossible for her to transform back into avian form. They live together and become enamored with one another, but all is not rosy in paradise.
Publisher: Virtual Tales
E-book: 81 pages