Lady Macbeth: A Novel


Scotland, Moray Province
Anno Domini 1058

Snowflakes dazzle against the evening sky and fall gentle around this stark tower. The false King of Scots expects us to trudge our ponies through that cold deep, so that I may tuck myself away in some Lowland monastery. Malcolm Canmore, he who murdered my husband and now calls himself king, would prefer I went even farther south into England, where they have priories just for women. There his allies would lock me away, as the Scots will not.

But my son is the true crowned King of Scots, and I am under the protection of his name, and the strength of my own. Had I agreed to marry Malcolm Canmore despite all, I would be honored now. Weeks ago, at the turn of the new year, he sent a messenger with a length of green silk, gold-embroidered, and pots of spices and perfumes, with a request for my hand in marriage.

If power of that sort was what I craved, the gifts and request would have intrigued me. But I am a Celt and value honor more, and prefer Scottish wool to Oriental silk. Coarse by comparison, our weavings have the honest strength and handsomeness of this land.

I wrote an answer with the very hand Malcolm wanted, though my Gaelic script is worse than my Latin. Only a few words were needed for a refusal. I sent the note and most of the gifts back, and kept the silk. My handmaid, Finella, likes it.

As for convents, I will send another message to the usurper Malcolm: the dowager Queen Gruadh, lately wife to King Macbeth whom you have slain, chooses to remain in her fortress.
A dare of sorts, and we shall see what he will do.

The winds howl—it is no wonder February is called the wolf-month—and we sit, my companions and I, before the fire basket absorbing warmth and brightness. Dermot, my household bard, plays a melody on his harp. Shivering, I draw my cloak about my shoulders. Though I have lived scarce forty years and still burn with life, the chill riding the air this night is keen.

Servants draw curtains over shuttered windows that leak the cold, and then stoke the fire with peat and sweet applewood, branches saved from autumn. My little sons are gone to their peace—fair candles blown out too soon—and my husband is dead too. The endless evenings do need filling of late.
In shadows and firelight, two others sit with me listening to the harper’s music, while surly Finella moves in and out of the room like a wraith. Bethoc, seated nearest me, is my cousin and the healing woman in my household; the monk Drostan sits apart from us, his shoulders hunched as he reads the pages of a small book. Both of them ran with me as youngsters. Given my temperament, perhaps only Celtic loyalty has kept them with me since.

Bethoc is a true friend, though at times she judges me harshly, and I her. The monk is one of the Céli Dé, or Culdees, those who allow priests to marry and Sabbath to be celebrated on Saturdays, among other rebellions that delight me. In much else, Rome has nagged the Scottish Church to its knees.
Drostan, who has long known me, has a fine hand with a pen, and hopes to write a chronicle about me. This would be an encomium, a book of praise, for his queen. I told him it was a silly notion.
Sparks fly and small flames leap. Truthfully, I am considering it.

I am granddaughter to a king and daughter to a prince, a wife twice over, a queen as well.  I have fought with sword and bow, and struggled fierce to bear my babes into this world. I have loved deeply and hated deeply, too. I know embroidery and hawks and kingship, and more magic than I should admit. And I refuse to end my days in a convent.

Now that is enough chronicle to suit me. Better to record the life of Mac bethad mac Finlach instead, the king who died near Lammas but six months past.

From what my advisors say, Malcolm Canmore—ceann mor in Gaelic, or big head, two words that suit him—will order his clerics to record Macbeth’s life. Within those pages, they will seek to ruin his deeds and his name. My husband cannot fight for his reputation now. But I am here, and I know what is true.
An old woman who crossed the threshold of life years ago once peered into still water for a vision, and said that one day the world would immortalize me without understanding me. That will come after my lifetime. I do not care to be remembered, whether it is clear or sullied. Besides, if my life is not done, why memorialize it. I might yet choose a new husband; I could have children again, for my womb still ripens. I refuse to cross the threshold of age.

Perhaps I will take up my sword again, summon an army and ride with my son to seek revenge, or weave a spell and undermine the usurper in some secret way. A few know my temperament and my wicked ways, my kindnesses, too: some do.

My memories are mine to keep. I fold my arms, satin and wool rustling, silver bracelets chiming. Bethoc looks up, Drostan too. They exchange glances. When I need it, I can call bitterness around me like mail armor, every thought a knot of steel, shielding the tenderness I have learned to hide as daughter, mother, wife, and queen among warriors.

Snowflakes drift through a window, and a serving girl draws the shutters tight by reaching with a long stick. We will go nowhere for days. But the music sweetens the silence, and we have stocks of imported wine and spices, plenty of smoked meats and fish, and barrels of grain in the storerooms of this stout fortress. We have two Roman priests willing to save our backward Celtic souls with proper prayers, and among our warriors are a few Norman knights who came north to stand with Macbeth, and remained as sword and shield.

We few in this room are a cluster of Celts gathered against a storm. The old Scotland fades into the new. I feel the threat blowing toward us like a great wind.

Some truths there are which must be said, and I wonder if I have that much courage in me.

Chapter One

Anno Domini 1025

Scarce nine the first time I was stolen away, I remember a wild and unthinking fright as I was snatched from my pony's back and dragged into the arms of one of the men who rode toward my father's escort party. We were heading north to watch our kinsman, King Malcolm, second of the name, hold an autumnal court on the moot hill at Scone. Proud of my shaggy garron and painted saddle, I insisted on riding alone in the length between my father, older brother Farquhar, and several of their retainers. Then horsemen emerged from a fringe of trees and came straight for us. As men shouted and horses reared, a warrior reached out and plucked me up like a poppet.

The memories of that day are vivid but disjointed. His furs smelled rancid and smoky; his whiskered chin was broad from my view beneath, trapped before him in the saddle; his fingers on the reins were grimy and powerful. I can recall the russet brown of his cloak, but I do not recall his name. I know it was never spoken in my hearing for years afterward.

Kicking, shrieking, twisting like an eel in the arms of that stranger, I managed to tear his dagger from his belt, slicing my thumb like a sausage. With no idea how to handle the thing, I meant to defend myself. A fierce urge insisted upon it.

He snatched the dagger back, but next I tore the large round brooch from his cloak, shredding the wool, and whipped it upward to jab it into his cheek. That slowed him. Swearing, he released me for an instant, and I lurched from the saddle, falling and breaking my arm in my thud to cold earth. Rolling by accident more than intent, I narrowly missed the forelegs of a horse as my kinsmen thundered past me.

Shouting then, and steel and iron clashed, and within minutes of yanking me from my pretty saddle, the man was dead, and two of his guard with him. My father and the others took them down with swift and ugly certainty.

Huddled beside the road on the frosted earth, I watched, arm aching, heart slamming, while men fought and died. Until then, I had never seen a skirmish, nor so much blood. I had heard steel ring against steel in the practice yard of our fortress in Fife, but I had never seen blade sink into flesh, nor heard the soft, surprised gasp as the soul abandons the body without warning. Since then, I have heard it too often.

I own that cloak pin still, good bronze and smooth jet, and I will never wear it. In the little casket with my jewels, its dusky gleam reminds me to stay strong and wary.

My brother, Farquhar, died of the wounds he took in my defense. I saw the angled sprawl of his body, though my father's men shielded me from the full sight. I remember, too, the taste of my salt tears, and my father's roar of grief echoing in the chill air.

Farquhar left a small son, Malcolm, and a pale wife with a grieving spirit, who soon returned to her Lowland family, leaving Malcolm to foster with Bodhe. My father found solace in the boy's presence, and he swore to discover who had plotted the attack that had nearly taken his daughter and had killed his son.

Through subtle inquiries, Bodhe learned that the men were sent by Crinan, the lay abbot of Dunkeld as well as mormaer--the Celtic equivalent to Saxon earl or Norse jarl--of Atholl. He was married to the king's eldest daughter. My father already loathed him as an arrogant fool, and now outright hated him. At the king's next judgment court, Bodhe accused Crinan of Atholl of plotting to abduct me to marry Crinan's son Duncan, a young warrior, and of cruelly killing Farquhar mac Bodhe. Denying all, Crinan claimed that Bodhe attacked his men without provocation, thereby inviting Farquhar's death himself.

The guilty party would have to pay cro, a customary penalty in recompense, a certain amount of livestock or other goods according to rank. While they awaited the king's decision, tensions were such that Bodhe and Crinan nearly came to blows, but for the king's housecarls who stood between them.

Justice stumbled on barren ground that day, for my father paid, as a prince, many cows each for Crinan's deceased men, some to their families and some to the king. Crinan basked in smug victory, keeping the fat coffers of his church at Dunkeld, and the continued favor of his royal father-in-law. The king, old Malcolm, showed no loyalty toward Bodhe and Farquhar, his own blood kin. My father never forgot it. Added to past offenses, the whole was fuel for fire.

Early on I learned why we despised Malcolm's faction of our kinsmen. Our kin group had endured the deaths of others, including Bodhe's father, King Kenneth, the third of the name. He had been murdered by then-young Malcolm, called the Destroyer, who took his cousin's throne.

My blood had even more merit once Bodhe had no other heir. Because I am descended in a direct line from Celtic kings, the purest royal blood courses through me and blushes my skin. I could prick a finger and it would be gold to some.

I am Gruadh inghean Bodhe mac Cinead mhic Dubh--daughter of Bodhe son of Kenneth son of Duff. My grandfathers going back were kings of Scots, and I was born a princess of the house of Clan Gabhran that boasts Kenneth mac Alpin, the first king of Scots and Picts together. The line reaches back to the Picts who were native to this land, and the Scotti who came over from Ireland to settle as the Dalriadans in Argyll. We are proud of our heritage, and know the old names by heart: son of, son of.

My lineage combines the ancient royal branches of Scotland through my father, and through my mother, the proud line of the high kings of Ireland back to Niall of the Nine Hostages and beyond. Our old tree has many branches, some warring and some not, and divides along two main trunks, Clan Gabhran and Clan Loarne, descended from a single king, ages past.

Because a man could claim the throne of Scotland by marrying me, I was not safe. Nor were my kinsmen, come to that: if they were killed, one after another, our line would be eliminated at its heart, making room for others' ambitions. Such is the way of things when one's heritage is ancient, pure, and royal.

Little good did the blood of ancients do me. I was like a lark spiraling upward, unaware of the hawks above judging time and distance to the prize.

The second time I was snatched off, I was walking the hills with my cousin Bethoc and Aella, my Saxon maidservant. I was a fortnight past thirteen, having been born in the last of July after the Feast of the Seven Sleepers. We were plucking wildflowers for Bethoc's mother, Mairi, a healer. She had sent us to search out club moss, yarrow, and heather--including the rare white sort if we found it--and we were dropping blossoms into the large basket that Aella lugged along. Finding club moss, we were careful to pick it with our right hands tucked through our left sleeves, so as not to taint the plant's healing power.

The summer sun was warm that day, and I was glad to be dressed simply in a tunic gown of lightweight blue-gray wool, a gauzy shift beneath, and plain leather shoes. Earlier my nurse, Maeve, had braided my hair out of the way into one fat braid, looping and securing it with a thong. Bethoc remarked that my hair's sheen, like bronze, looked like a fire beacon in sunlight, so that Maeve, who had kept close watch over me since my mother's death two years before, could see me from the walls of Abernethy, and be content in my whereabouts.

"Once I marry I will cover my head with a veil," I replied. "And Maeve will not be able to spot me when I go searching for heather and lavender."

"Those flowers, my mother says, will keep spies away," Bethoc said. "Maeve, too." We all laughed. My cousin Bethoc, daughter to my father's cousin and Fife born, knew our Celtic customs well. Aella was of Saxon birth, stolen away as a small girl and enslaved by the Irish, then rescued by Bodhe, who bought her in a Dublin market. She did not know Scottish traditions so well and was wary of them. But she knew the Saxon tongue and taught that to us, as we taught her the Gaelic.

Below the hills where we walked, men were busy far out in the golden spread of fields, taking in the hay; that morning, women had sained their cattle, putting a spell of protection around them with juniper smoke and tying fresh juniper to their tails. The Gaels have a sian, as is properly said, for every situation and every creature. No one had sained us that day as we went into the hills to search for blossoms among turf and rock.

Talking and laughing, not looking about as we should, we ran ahead and left my guard, Dugal, well behind. Bethoc, whose angelic fair-haired looks hid a talent for mischief, began a game of guessing how long it might take lazy, good-natured Dugal to catch up to us, following the torch of my hair in the sunlight.

Then men appeared over the rim of the hill. My constant guard was not with them. His head, however, was.

Bethoc screamed, Aella dropped the basket, and I stood transfixed in horror. Two more men surged out from behind a cluster of boulders and then we ran, but my friends were thrown roughly aside. One assailant grabbed me up while I dragged and struggled. Another took my feet, and we went over the hill with me slung between them like a whipping hammock.

Other men met us, all of them strangers to me. Someone bound me with ropes and swathed me in a blanket--a filthy thing, nipping with fleas--and put me on a horse to ride in front of a silent warrior. Over hours and near a day, I was moved from the horse to a cart that rumbled over rough terrain, and finally to a boat, gliding on lapping water. When the blanket was removed, night had descended, the air fresh and sea-damp. The men dipped oars over a distance through mist, and no one spoke to me. Among them I heard more Norse than Gaelic, and heard them speak of boats, oars, and the sea. Then I knew them for Vikings: no Gael would name such things directly while on the water. I hoped the Norsemen would invite bad luck to themselves so that I could escape, but we reached shore safely.

Recalcitrant by nature, I refused to walk, but going limp earned me nothing. Thrown over a shoulder, I was carried. In all that time, I was not mistreated, but for being dragged about and frightened. They gave me a hard oatcake to eat and swallows of ale from a hide flask.

"I am a princess," I told them. "And Bodhe mac Kenneth mac Duff will come after you and kill you." Someone laughed.

We entered a long hall, larger even than my father's hall at Abernethy, though not near so fine. This compound was more like a farm than a fortress. The house had a sunken floor that ran the center length of the smoky, firelit room. Raised platforms along the walls to either side held benches where people sat eating and talking. Beds were fitted against the walls behind curtains, and in the shadows I saw men and women embracing in ways they might better have done in private. Other than guarded and curious glances, I was ignored by those present as my captors took me toward a far corner.

Someone tied my hands and feet with ropes and left me on a narrow bed behind a red curtain. Firelight spilled through the fabric, reddening all, including my temper. My bed niche was at the end of the room nearest the attached animal byre, and I heard the lowing of cows and the bleating of goats. Smelled them too, the odor leaking through cracks between the wall planking. My father's hillfort was a clean place, with a hall perched high on a center mound and separate buildings for animals, a byre for the cows, a stable for the horses, a smaller building for our hawks and falcons. We did not dwell with the beasts.

After a while, an elderly woman pushed aside the curtain to hold a wooden cup to my lips, grumbling something in Norse. I drank thirstily of some foamy dark ale, and then she went away.

Hands and feet tied, I lay on my back and kicked at the curtain and the wall, shouting and making noise deliberately. No one rushed to my aid. I whispered a charm for angelic protection: "Mhiceil nam buadh, bi fein mi ro chul"--Michael the victorious, be at my back. Finally I slept, curled and weepy, stirring only when the old woman returned.

She glared and grumbled as before, but brought food in clean wooden dishes. Freeing my hands and feet, she snarled a warning that was clear in any language, and left me a bucket in which to piss before yanking the red curtain shut.

The drink tasted of apples and spice, the porridge was soggy with onions, and I did not like the fish, wrapped in greasy parchment, but I ate a little. I glanced about in the reddish darkness of my enclosure wondering if I dared run while my limbs were free.

But the house was filled with Vikings, and I was not a fool. When the footsteps returned, I expected to see the old woman.

This time a man entered the sleeping space, long haired and bearded, broad and frightening in leather and furs. I backed into a corner as he sat on the straw-filled mattress and reached toward me. He smelled strongly of ale and wood smoke, and he smiled and touched my cheek gently. I stared at his braided brown hair, as fine and glossy as a girl's, his ruddy beard braided into tips. Then he traced his fingers down over my chest. Horrified, I bucked like a colt. He grabbed my arm, and at the same time, fumbled under his tunic.

Though I tried to yank my arm back, he threw himself on me. His hands shoved at my garments, dragging them upward, terrifying me. The texture of sound beyond the curtain--voices, laughter, music--was loud. I shrieked but no one came to my aid, and my cries were muffled by the big man's shoulder smothering my face as I struggled against his hands.

Excerpted from Lady Macbeth by Susan Fraser King Copyright © 2008 by Susan Fraser King. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.