Rainardo and the Pretty Bride

Back in the days when Berta was spinning flax, there was a farmer with a beautiful daughter named Bella Maria. Bella Maria was as clever and bold as she was incredibly beautiful. The farmer was very proud of his daughter, and hoped to find her a good husband.

One day a red-headed traveler with plenty of money arrived at the farm riding a coal black horse. He said his name was Rainardo and that he was a merchant by trade. He saw Bella Maria and said to the farmer, "She would make a pretty bride."

The farmer could find nothing immediately amiss with this rich suitor. Hence, he gave Rainardo permission to court his daughter. Straight away, Rainardo approached Bella Maria, giving her a token and calling her "my pretty bride."

Rainardo visited at least once a week, usually on a Friday. On these visits, he always presented her with a gift--some of which were very fine women's jewelry.

Though he seemed very charming, Bella Maria found that she did not exactly trust this Rainardo. Maybe it was his foreign speech. Perhaps, it was the way Rainardo sometimes looked at her when her father wasn't watching. Maybe it was that he never talked about himself, but only the places he had traveled--France, Belgium, Greece, and farther up north.

Occasionally, Bella Maria felt an irrational sense of dread when he smiled.

One Friday when Rainardo arrived, Bella Maria met him and took his horse, as she often did, to brush down and water the animal. When they were alone, she spoke to him, "Rainardo, you call me your pretty bride and say we're engaged, but I know absolutely nothing about where you live."

He smiled, "I live far away from any town, over the mountains, deep in the forest."

"You do?" she asked, removing the horse's saddle.

"Yes, my pretty young bride. Perhaps you should come and visit me sometime for a secret lover's tryst. We are, as you say, engaged."

"Perhaps, sometime," she answered rather quickly.

Rainardo smiled even more broadly. "Yes, indeed. I would like that, ma petite poulet. I have some friends I would like you to meet. I would like that very much indeed. I will think about the time of your coming."

He turned and walked into the house to see her father.

Bella Maria thought to herself, "It might just be sooner than you think." Then, as she cleaned his horse's hooves, she took time to mark one of the shoes--so it would leave a distinctive track.

As was his custom, Rainardo stayed overnight and left on Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday morning, Bella Maria woke up early, before her father. She slipped out to see if she could spy Rainardo's track. She searched diligently and found it on an almost invisible path on the soft forest floor. She followed it carefully.

Bella Maria walked almost all day, marking the trail behind her with strips from an old white rag in her pocket. She crossed over the mountain.

Finally, in a wooded clearing stood a large house. It was no palace, but it looked solid enough. She was tired and felt almost silly for having secretly followed her bridegroom here.

"However," she thought, "I am here now; it is best to see what there is to see. A bride should know much about a potential bridegroom."

The air was still as death.

As Bella Maria approached the front door, she nervously thought, "If he catches me, I can always tell Rainardo that I wanted to surprise him."

She opened the unlocked door. The room was very dim and not a soul was in sight.

A voice cried out:

"Turn back, turn back, my pretty bride,
A den of murderers is where you've arrived."
Startled, Bella Maria realized it was only a jackdaw in a cage.

As she stepped inside, closing the door behind her, the bird cried out again:

"Turn back, turn back, my pretty bride,
A den of murderers is where you've arrived."
Bella Maria thought to herself, "Who goes softly, goes safely and goes far." Careful not to disturb anything, she explored the house. It had a large room which had three beds. She could not find a kitchen, but finally spotted a spiral staircase to the cellar. She could hear the sound of a hearth fire burning downstairs.

Slowly, she descended the staircase. At the bottom of the stairs, she opened a heavy door.

To her horror, the cellar floor was strewn with human bones and there were two big vats--one filled with blood. A large butcher block was in the center of the room. Many cooking implements hung on the walls. There were three large wine barrels against one wall. A huge pot of water was simmering over the hearth.

Bella Maria quickly retreated up the staircase to leave. However, she heard the sound of hoof beats outside. Looking out a window, she saw three men on horseback. Rainardo led them on his own coal black horse. It looked as though one of them had a girl tied across his saddle.

"I must hide!" Bella Maria thought. She dashed back down the stairs and hid behind the wine barrels.

She heard the front door open upstairs. The jackdaw screeched:

"Turn back, turn back, my pretty bride,
A den of murderers is where you've arrived."
She heard the men laughing as they trompted down the spiral stairs. Peeking from behind the wine barrels, she saw as they led in a young woman, dressed in fine clothes and jewelry, her hands tied with rope behind her back.

Rainardo seized the wimpering maiden by her hair and slit her throat, catching her blood in the empty vat.

He took off her brooch and necklace, then shoved the dead girl to one of his brigands. The man began to chop up the body on the wooden butcher block. The other man began tossing the pieces into the pot of water.

Rainardo laughed, poured himself a cup of wine and began counting out a bag of loot. The other two also poured themselves some wine, then talked with each other in a foreign tongue while they went about their business.

One robber noticed a small gold ring on the maiden's little finger, which their leader had overlooked. He swung his knife, chopping off the finger to remove the ring. The chopped off finger flipped through the air and landed on the floor behind the barrels where Bella Maria was hidden.

Bella Maria clapped her hand over her own mouth. "I must stay silent," she thought.

The drunken robber started looking around for the finger with the ring, but Rainardo called him back, "Brunel! Find it later. We will eat now!"

They each scooped out cooked meat from the pot over the hearth and began to eat.

Bella Maria waited in terror behind the wine barrels. The robbers ate and drank and laughed.

Finally, the three collapsed on the floor in a drunken stupor.

When Bella Maria heard them snoring, she crept out from behind the wine barrels. She snatched the maiden's finger with the ring on it and slipped it into her apron pocket. She tiptoed up the steps. Fortunately, the jackdaw was asleep in its cage.

In the moonlight, Bella Maria followed the little strips of white cloth marking the trail. She walked all night and reached her father's farm just after dawn.

The farmer was happy and relieved to see his daughter again, safe and well, after being missing for an entire day and night. He hugged her tightly. Bella Maria was too tired to speak of her ordeal on the other side of the mountains. She went to bed, exhausted.

On Friday, Rainardo arrived to visit in the afternoon, as he usually did. This time, at his daughter's request, the farmer had invited many guests to have supper with them. Rainardo had brought two friends of his own along with him.

Bella Maria remained in the kitchen, cooking for the many guests.

When everyone sat down to eat, Bella Maria finally joined them at the table, but she was very quiet.

After dinner, the guests began to amuse one another with stories. Bella Maria announced she would share a dream she had recently.

Bella Maria began, "I walked alone in the forest and I crossed over a mountain. There was a house in a clearing on the other side. It was a strange dream. No one was home, but a bird cried out:

'Turn back, turn back, my pretty bride,
A den of murderers is where you've arrived.'
"I realized that you, Rainardo, always called me 'my pretty bride.' It was a strange dream.

"Then, I went down into the cellar. The floor was covered with bones. I said, this was a strange dream!

"I was frightened and wanted to leave. It was a strange dream.

"As I was leaving, I saw three men bringing a captive maiden into the house. I hid in the cellar while these men killed the maiden, stole her jewelry and cooked her in a pot like a chicken. As I said, this was a very strange dream. I remember that once you, Rainardo, called me your petite poulet, which is French for chicken. How strange!

"But before the three men ate her, one of them chopped off the maiden's little finger, which had a ring on it. It was most strange, for the finger with the ring flew through the air and was lost in the shadows. The three men never found it.

"Even stranger still, those three men were the SAME three men sitting here."

Bella Maria pointed to Rainardo and his two companions. Rainardo had grown pale during Bella Maria's story. His two companions had looked around uncomfortably.

Then she said, "But the strangest thing of all is, it was not dream, BECAUSE HERE IS THE FINGER WITH THE RING STILL UPON IT!" Bella Maria pulled the finger from her apron pocket and held it up for all to see.

When she pulled out the severed finger, Rainardo and the others jumped to their feet and tried to flee. The farmer's guests seized the three robbers. Immediately, they slew Rainardo and his two cohorts for their evil deeds.

The villain is done, and my tale is spun, but the days of Berta spinning her flax are no more.

--copyright 2009 Myth Woodling

Myth's Notes

Reynard, also known as Renart or Reynardine, is a trickster figure in European folklore. The Italian version of this name is Rainardo. In the earliest versions of the tales, he is an anthropomorphic red fox. This character appeared in a cycle of tales in French, Dutch, English, German, and Italian with apparently slighly different adventures and characteristics.

The figure of Reynard is thought to have originated in Alsace-Lorraine folklore from where it spread to France and other places.

I searched for a retelling of the Italian Rainardo, but did not locate one, not even in a plot summary.

I did find a version of the English folktale, Mr. Fox and Lady Mary, which reminded me of Grimms #40, The Robber Bridegroom.

This connection reminded me of the traditional English ballad, The Mountain High, featuring the vulpine Reynardine. Reynardine was a dubious character--probably a highwayman--who tricked beautiful young women into coming away to his lair. Commentors on this English ballad often speculate that Reynardine was actually an immortal, supernatural creature, such as a werefox.

Go down in yonder forest, my castle there you'll find,
Well wrote in ancient history, my name is Reynardine.
--The Mountains High
What fate awaited Reynardine's victims was usually left ambiguous.

Folks may notice that there is no magic in this tale. Rainardo and his men are robbers and canibals, not ogres or werefoxes.

Personally, I felt that fit with the trend of the stories of Reynard/Renart/Reynardine/Mr. Fox. This character seemed to be evolving from an anthropomorphic fox into a villainous human. I have no idea what the Italian Rainardo character or story may have been like. Nevertheless, I thought it might be fun to spin my own tale about a girl who is bold and clever as well as beautiful--whose curiosity served her well.

Incidentally, you may wonder who the "Berta" is in the opening sentence, "back in the days when Berta was spinning..."

The Italian phrase, nel tempo ove Berta filava... meaning "when Berta spun..." or "when Berta was spinning..." was a standard opening of an Italian folktale. In other words, the phrase is not unlike "in the good old days..." or "a long, long time ago..." or "once upon a time..." I thought it was a charming way to begin a tale and thus have incorporated it into my story here.

According to Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimm's Fairy Tales (1987), "Berta" related to a legendary French queen, Berthe, also known as Bertha Goosefoot, who was renouned at the art of spinning flax, wool, etc. Indeed, there was a similar French phrase, au temps que la reine Berthe filait... which is used much in the same manner in storytelling as the Italian phrase.

There is a direct connection between spinning yarn and telling stories. One of the social situations in which folktales were told for entertainment was in the workroom in which women spun wool, flax, etc. into yarn. Spinning tales was one distraction that helped while away the tedious hours involved in spinning. Indeed, in English, the phrase, "to spin a yarn," often referred to telling a story.

Still, who was this "Berta" or "Queen Berthe"?

Apparently, the Italian Berta and the French Queen Berthe were related to the Germanic figure of Berchta or Perchta, who was also connected to Frau Holle or Holda. These folkloric figures were associated with the feminine task of spinning--and apparently with spinning fate. They were also associated with the wild hunt, night ride, or night assembly of faeries and witches.

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