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. […] From what my advisors say, Malcolm Canmore—ceann mór 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.
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 Cineadh mhic Dubh […] My lineage combines the ancient royal branches of Scotland […] 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.
“A princess of Scotland has no use of those skills.”
“Scathach was also a princess,” I pointed out. “Scathach of the old legends, who had a school for fighting on the Isle of Skye and taught the heroes of the Fianna their skills—”
“I know the tale,” he said curtly. “Those were older days. It is not your place to fight, but ours to defend you, if need be.” […]
“I am your direct heir now,” I reminded Bodhe. “I must be prepared, since you say I could be a queen one day, and my husband a king. So men will always argue over me, and more deaths will occur on my account.” […]
“You have a warrior spirit,” he admitted, “for a gently raised daughter.”
“Scathach of Skye,” I reminded. “No one would have stolen her away.”
Our priest baptized the child to protect her soul, and the midwives bathed her in warm milk and lifted her in their hands as they spoke charms against all manner of ills: fire, drowning, illness and injury, fairies, bewitchings, elf bolts, all conceivable harms. Bodhe named his new daughter Brigid to further protect her. Yet within days, Ailsa and tiny Brigid were buried together on a hill overlooking the sea, and I, who heard equally the catechism and the Celtic tales, wondered if their souls would travel to heaven or Tír na n’Óg, the paradise beyond Ireland in the misty realm, which our bard spoke about. […]
“Ailsa of Argyll is dead,” [Father Anselm] said bluntly, stopping, “and her soul needs our prayers, not trinkets, so that she may be forgiven by the grace of God. Perhaps she need only spend a little time in purgatory before her soul is purified of sin.”
“My mother will go straight to heaven on the strength of her character,” I said. “Though she might prefer Tír na n’Óg, where she would not be judged.”
Them men formed a circle around me, friends and enemies both. Ahead, on the earth of the practice yard, two swords lay crossed and ready, shining blades reflecting the glow of the sunrise. Nearby, horses stood, gleaming and grand, ready to be ridden, while overhead, two eagles winged toward the mountains, and a raven settled on a gatepost. Moon and stars were still visible in the sky, and the sunrise flowed over the hilltops like a spill of blood, the sun in its midst like a golden wafer. […] I knew some of the elements—ravens were death and warning, eagles pride and pairing, horses freedom; the swords might be conflict or war, and the circle of warriors around me could have been a sign of protection, or the men in my future. […] My mother had been gifted with the Sight that brings spontaneous visions, so common among the Gaels that we call it Da Shealladh, the gift of two sighs. A great-grandmother on Bodhe’s side had been a taibhsear, a seer, from whom others sought advice.
Until that moment, I had not known that I, too, had a hint of that talent.
“The truth is in what Moray offers,” [Bodhe] said. “Every mormaer of that region has an ancient right tot be called Rí a Moreb, king of Moray. His wife can be called ban-rí, queen. Just now, Gilcomgan and King Malcolm support one another. But if the Rí a Moreb ever summoned men to revolt, the strength of that army would be such that the mormaer of Moray could himself be king over all Scotland.”
“And marriage to me could ensure that for Gilcomgan. Or for our son,” I added. […] He looked hard at me. “Even carrying the blood of Celtic kings, you cannot rule alone. You need a strong and ambitious husband.
“Our blood needs one,” I corrected bitterly.
“Often the meaning of the omens we see it not clear until later. If we knew too much about the future, we might be afraid to step from our houses. Do not fret—the signs you saw speak of Scotland’s future even more than your own.”
“Scotland?” I blinked. “Because of the warriors and symbols of warfare?”
“Perhaps they will be Rue’s husbands in future,” Bethoc said. “Well, not all of them,” she amended when I gaped at her.
Mairi took my hands in hers and closed her eyes. “Two husbands,” she said. “Three, if you so choose. Like most women you will have a share of happiness and measures of sorrow. Unlike most, you will have… power.” She let go of my fingers. “You can draw strength from within yourself, like water from a well. Your mother gave you the sign of the good Brigid on your shoulder,” she went on, touching my upper sleeve, which covered the symbol. “Call upon that protection whenever you need it.”
In the afternoon I looked up toward the ridge of a hill and saw a stand of tall pikes thrusting up like slender trees. The point of each carried a decapitated head, black and gruesome, pitch-soaked to preserve them a long while, until they decayed to skulls […] Aella gasped, near to retching, and hid her eyes with her hand. Bethoc looked away. But I stared, horrified and transfixed, even when Ruari and Conn drew their horses alongside to urge us onward. I remembered that my guard and my only brother had been beheaded but […] never piked.
I would not shrink form the grim display Someday I might have to show toughness for such things, even if I quailed within. As wife to Scotland’s most powerful mormaer, it was in my interest to understand the ways of men and warfare. My own life might turn on that knowledge one day.
At one point, King Malcolm himself carried his great-grandson and held him out to King Cnut. The prince, at two years old a sturdy handful, set up a lusty caterwauling, so that both men looked annoyed. Still, the message was clear: young Malcolm mac Duncan of Scotland had made a symbolic homage to the ruler of England.
And it was clear to those watching that in making his great-grandson pledge to England, old Malcolm was declaring that his line, grandson to son, would be kings hereafter. […]
The child’s mother, Lady Sybilla, stepped forward to take her boy from her father-by-law. I was among the retinue of women who walked with her, and she turned to give the squalling child to me. He struggled to get down, and I set him on his feet, taking his hand. He pulled me along rather like a ram dragging its shepherd. Others were amused, but I felt a strange sense, like a weight on my shoulders, on my soul.
And then, with a shudder, I knew it for an omen of the future—myself, and all of us gathered that day were linked to this moment as if by the tug of a heavy chain.
Together they had conspired to kill Gilcomgan and wrest Moray from him. Macbeth had overtaken my future, and my child’s, out of his own ambition and desire for revenge. My fingers let go the clutched yarn, red strands unraveling like blood to pool on the floor. I turned to leave, to suppress my anger, as Bodhe might have done. But I was not my father.
Swords sparked bright against the wall, where a few of them leaned, unused. One of them was my own. I snatched it up and turned back to face the men. “Upon this sword, which Bodhe gave to me,” I said, “I swear to protect my child from all your cold scheming. Listen to me,” I said through my teeth when Macbeth stepped forward. “No more of Bodhe’s blood shall suffer for your ambitions!”
They stood still, king, husband, and housecarls. An oath made on a blade was a fierce thing and never taken lightly. I wanted them to understand that I was not helpless, no pawn to stand by while their plans destroyed by father’s proud line. Wild Celtic blood ran strong in me, a legacy of warriors, warrior queens, and sword oaths. It was not the wisest thing I have done; it was something foolish, something brave.
Peace and acceptance were not pretty threads in my wool basket that winter. I realized that I was alone in my resentment and anger. Others readily accepted Macbeth as the new mormaer, soon calling him Moray when they addressed him. […]
One day Maeve pulled me aside. “Find some peace for yourself,” she said. “This grief and torment will poison your babe.”
That night I sought out Elgin’s little wooden chapel, intending to pray for serenity and forgiveness. When I pushed open the door, I saw that Macbeth was already there, on his knees before the alter. He wore only a simple long shirt and trews, and for a moment I did not know him. His head was bowed, glinting dark gold in the light of candles. I saw him cover his face, and then he prostrated himself on the worn planks of the floor like a suffering pilgrim.
Faith is a private thing to my thinking, and here I witnessed an intimate side of the man. He appeared contrite, even tormented. I guessed at his sin, the murder of his first cousin Gilcomgan. By the teaching of the Church, it could blacken his soul and affect him for all eternity come judgment Day, if not expunged.
Backing away, I closed the door. I felt a stir of sympathy for a man who felt such clear anguish within himself. When I wanted to hate him most, I could not. By inches and breaths, my resentments faded, much as I strived to stoke them.
“I hear,” Macbeth said, “that wives of other mormaers, even kings, stay at home where they are safe, and keep mute about steel-games unless asked for their opinion.”
“I am none of that cloth.” […]
Walking through dry sand to meet my friends, having witnessed by husband do cold murder, I yet felt a stirring admiration for him as a capable warlord. That day, as at other times, he had demonstrated uncompromising will, as well as physical ability and courage. He revealed a strong sense of what was right and what was not, and what was possible between those points—and he took steps to achieve it.
Whether or not he knew it, I considered myself his capable equal, not a subservient wife. Raised by a warlord in a nest of warriors, I would not be regarded as significant in my small household circle, only to be dismissed beyond its boundaries.
“Men,” Catriona said, “understand life and death differently than women. Ours is to give birth, life, and comfort. We cannot bring ourselves to take life, knowing its struggle and value.”
Somehow this saintly show of opinion irritated me. “If I had to kill to save a life, mine or my son’s,” I said, “I would do it.”
“Rue is trained at arms,” Bethoc said proudly.
“Lady Gruadh has a stiffer backbone than I do,” Catriona said. “It is my work to bring life into this world. My heart is far too tender to destroy it.”
“That is not my intent,” I defended. “The lady of a powerful region must have a martial spirit as well as a virtuous one. I would not hesitate to put on armor and take up a sword, if such was needed for the good of all.”
Yet I had to master my temper, as he had done, and stay. Obligation to my kin group demanded that I remain with Moray’s new mormaer, who had no equal among other warlords. Fate had set me in this situation, after all.
I frowned, for he left something unsaid. “What purpose do you see in this union?”
One hand on the door, he turned back. “Together we can tap the power of your legacy and mine,” he said quietly, “and take Scotland under our rule.”
There. He said outright what I, and others, suspected. I straightened my shoulders. This, then, was what Bodhe wanted, and what generations of my kin deserved in their honor. “A thing like that turns on loyalty,” I said, “or falters for lack of it.”
He nodded. “It does.”
“Well enough,” I said, watching him. An agreement of sorts.
“There must be some kind of justice and recompense for these deaths!”
“Justice will be brought,” Macbeth said low.
“When?” I asked, splaying my hands, slim fingered and beringed, on the table. Such feminine hands for such hard masculine thoughts. The urge sprang in me like a dark wolf within. I did not like it, but fed it nonetheless. It is the way of things, Bodhe would have said. “When will you avenge my kinsmen? Tomorrow? A year from now?” […]
“If one of Bodhe’s bloodline held the throne someday,” my husband then said, “it would be far more lasting revenge than bloodshed now.”
“The old legends are filled with such women—the great Irish queen, Macha, and Princess Scathach of Skye, who trained warriors in her fighting school, and also her sister Aoife, who bested Cu Chulainn and bore his son […] Celtic women have fought beside their men since before the names of kings were remembered. And even though Rome forbids Gaelic women to fight, it is rightful enough according to our customs.”
“They forbid with good reason,” Maeve said, bouncing Lulach on her lap. “Women have enough to do and should not have to go out and fight men’s battles, too.” […]
“The eyes of the Church cannot easily see beyond the mountains of the Gaels,” I said, “where warlike behavior in a woman is not sinful heresy, and is sometimes even necessary.” And I remembered my early vows—as a girl taking up a sword to defend herself, as a woman swearing on a sword to defend her own. Another facet of my obligation to my long legacy came clear: if others were so set on eliminating my line, and I and Lulach the last of it, then I would be steadfast as any warrior.
“Your weapons practice and your desire for vengeance,” Maeve told me one day, “are hardening you, dulling the bed of your womb. How can you expect to conceive a child when you feed yourself on spite and anger? Those are poisons for the body.”
She made me think, I admit, and she made me wonder. But I did not stop, not then. […]
“Your wish for vengeance is sinful,” [Father Osgar] told me one day after confession, when we walked a little. “But it is understandable. Let prayer and faith heal you.”
“I cannot give it up,” I said. “I am not yet done with this.”
“Give it up or keep it close,” he answered, “but know that until you find some peace in your heart, I will pray on your behalf. Grief is sometimes like a sharp-toothed demon that gets hold of our hearts. But its grip weakens with time, and one day you will be free of it.”
“If we were to gain rod and crown,” I said low, so that none should hear but he, “we could satisfy our heritage and avenge our two fathers, all at once.”
“Just so.” He cast me a look that was sharp and clear.
I felt a chill. “You led me deliberately to share your plan, from the first.”
“In part,” he admitted, “for I knew the worth in your blood, and saw the worth of your nature. But I could never have planed as well as fate has done. It has twinned our motives now. Your father and mine are gone, and they deserve this. Our branches, Gabhran and Lorne, deserve this.”
“And the ancient Celtic blood of the whole of Scotland—it, too, needs this.”
“It does.” He smiled, and we rode on in silence.
“Your husband Macbeth will be remembered among the greatest of his ilk, the kings of Scotland,” she said. “One of your sons will be a warrior. Not the others.”
“Others,” I repeated, pleased. “Monks, then, or abbots? Bards, perhaps.”
“They will not be,” she murmured slowly, eyes very dark, “warriors.”
A shiver slipped down my spine. […]
“Carry this warning to your husband. I have told him the same, but tell him again from me. Beware the son of the warrior whose spilled blood will make him a king.”
I stared. Her cloak, when she turned, was a swirl of utter blackness, so that I stepped back for fear the portal to the other side, open that night, might overtake me.
I did not repeat her message to Macbeth.
Although I had a place on his war council, lately he had not included me, claiming I needed rest. I did not. I needed something more to do, for my household was smoothly run, and my son was finding his way in the world more and more without his mother. With no other little ones to fill my arms, as I should have had by then, I lacked enough to do. […] I watched carefully as I could over Macbeth’s Moray in his absence, and the responsibly was no chore. Later I realized that in small and large ways, I had begun to prepare myself for what might come. Queenship in its many aspects was not a teachable thing, yet instinctively I tutored myself with charitable works and sword training. Inch by ell, I became the small queen of Moray in more than name alone.
I brought my dilemma to Macbeth, too. “What if God is punishing me for grievances and ambitions, for sometimes wanting you to be king, no mater the cost?”
“Be patient,” he said, as he often did. “What will we give our children without the kingdom that is our lineage, and theirs? All will come to us in time, including sons.”
Maeve, who wanted me to produce another babe so that she could knee-nurse again before she was too old, said she knew what was wrong. “It is willfulness and old grief, poisoning your womb. You want to be a warrior, and you want to be a mother. A woman keeps to home and family, and tends to matters inside the home. A man keeps to war games an tends to matters outside.”
A queen tends to both, I wanted to say, but did not. She would not understand.
“My ambition was always for Scotland as much as myself. We must be careful to preserve the heart of what is called Gaelic, the honor, the power in it, when the outer world—the Church, our enemies, the trade, all the rest—stands to change us. Duncan is hastening the end of the Gaels, if he even knows it.”
“You can honor that heritage and vindicate your kin and mine,” I reminded him.
“I made a sword vow years ago to protect my own, and I will keep it. I have a home and a son to protect, and I have a husband to support as best I can. All my life I have lived a female among Celtic warriors. My sword arm is trained, my bow and arrow are swift, and I have already bloodied the blade. Know this—my determination is in place. I will go with you.”
Macbeth took my horse’s bridle. “Each one who rides with me contributes to the whole. Your skill I will not argue, but your fortitude is little tested. You would require guards to protect you, and that detracts from the whole.”
“Have you not made it your purpose to uphold the old ways, the ancient ways, of the Gaels and the Celts?” The horse shifted under me, and I pulled the reins. Macbeth still held the bridle. “Celtic women have always fought beside their men.”
Watching the prow of the boat surge through lapping waves, I knew that I had protected Malcolm from retaliation. By honoring my promise to his mother and following my own heart as a mother, I had prevented his murder as a boy. And he had returned, just as the mormaers had warned. I had brought this tragedy about.
But if that chance came again, I could not order the deaths of children. A devil’s bargain, that, to choose sin or grief. Closing my eyes, I rested my face in my hands and struggled, overcame a weeping urge. What I had done had been most rightful, though it came with a hard price. It was the way of things.
Here is what the annals will say of Macbeth’s kingship: very little.
Seventeen years of plenty and peace for Scotland, give or take some strife. We suffered few battles and fewer enemies compared to other reigns. Scotland was brimful: fat cattle on the hillsides, fish in the streams, sheep thick with wool, the bellies of trading ships heavy with goods. Grain crops were golden and larders and byres filled; treasures accumulated, and all prospered, from shepherd to mormaer. Contentment is a thing not often recorded in the annals.
For much of Macbeth’s reign, the strength of his reputation and presence and the loyal nature of his alliances protected Scotland as never before. We had respite from decades of wars and conflict. Given more time, he would have attained what he sought of Scotland: more fair-minded laws, and the blending of honored Celtic traditions with the ways of the Church and even the Saxons.