Macbeth's Niece, page 1
By Peg Herring
© Peg Herring, 2016
Macbeth’s Niece is a work of fiction. The names, characters, and incidents are entirely the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be copied, transmitted, or recorded by any means whatsoever, including printing, photocopying, file transfer, or any form of data storage, mechanical or electronic, without the express written consent of the publisher. In addition, no part of this publication may be lent, re-sold, hired, or otherwise circulated or distributed, in any form whatsoever, without the express written consent of the publisher.
For Kay—first to know, first to believe
Table of Contents
Rain fell, but that was not unusual in the Highlands, and the three creatures making their way over the hills paid no heed to the weather. What they did take note of was unclear, for they seemed to sense things that were not there, answering voices unheard and peering at sights unseen. They were an odd trio: women, to be sure, but less and more than the term implied. Their hair, once different colors and textures, had faded now to the same matted gray. Clothing hung in tatters, long unwashed and uncared-for. The three cunning, leering faces seemed at once knowing and unaware.
The tallest, who led the way, suddenly stopped and faced the other two, bony face alight with enthusiasm.
“Shall we tell?” she asked. “What say you both?”
“Tell!” said the second, and the third echoed, “Tell!”
“If it be ill?” The crone’s crooked finger pointed at them and her eyes narrowed.
“Tell!” the two repeated.
The smallest of the three, whose skin was gray with dirt and scaly from some vile disease, spoke. “They must make of it what they will. We are not to blame.”
“No, not to blame,” said the third, who lacked an eye, having only smooth skin over the spot where the right one should be. “They think themselves better, all of ’em. We shall tell and then see how it goes for them.”
With nods all around, the three again made their way across the hillside, sometimes taking a dancing step or two, sometimes speaking to the air, and, as they melted into the nearby woods, muttering words that pleased them but would make no sense to anyone else: “Double, double, toil and trouble...”
“The trouble with men,” said Lady Macbeth, biting off a thread with small, white teeth, “is they are too full of the milk of human kindness.” She smoothed the stitch just completed with a finger and looked at it critically before continuing, her otherwise perfect face puckered between the eyebrows as she judged her work. “Oh, a man is brave when his blood is up, and he can kill in battle well enough, but ask him to do a task requiring more than brute anger, and he will disappoint every time.”
She spoke to the group as a whole, but Tessa noticed that when her aunt looked up, the direct gaze of her gray eyes fell sharply on her. The others were related to the lady herself, but Tessa was blood kin to the most likely subject of the comment, Lord Macbeth. Frustration that the lady could not express to her husband was diverted to the niece who sat before her, who was unlikely to argue the point.
Five women sat in the warmest place in Inverness castle, the fireside, which in fact was not all that comfortable. The floor was cold, and Tessa’s feet felt as if they were slowly turning to stone. The smoke curled out of the fireplace and into the room. Scotland had no chimneys, so a small hole in the roof allowed the smoke to escape. Periodically, a puff of noxious gray belched into the room and curled round itself as it drifted slowly upward. If the inhabitants wanted heat, they had to put up with the odorous byproduct. Sitting near the fire was both pain and pleasure. Tessa’s fingers were stiff with chill, but her backside felt scorched by the blaze. She returned her gaze to her work, hiding rebellious eyes.
If she could move, do something she wanted to do, Tessa would not have felt the cold. However, she was being trained to behave as a lady should and therefore sat working on a tapestry under her aunt’s watchful eye. Like others of its kind, the tapestry chronicled an event of interest to family members: a hunt in which Macbeth and his friend Banquo had distinguished themselves in the quantity and variety of game provided for the castle’s use. Tessa was assigned a small piece of sky near the top while the others worked on the scene itself. The plain blue corner was simple enough that an amateur could hardly botch it, but the girl found the work tiresome and very slow, and her fingers hurt from a dozen pricks she had suffered so far.
Lady Macbeth shifted her stool away from the fire and rethreaded her needle. Her comely but haughty face twisted with the effort of seeing the needle’s loop in the gloom, and it took several tries to succeed. The other three women sewed diligently, showing no reaction to the harsh comment on men in general. It was always thus. The dour trio of attendants worked at whatever was at hand, hardly looking up and seldom speaking. In the two months she had been at Inverness, Tessa had heard no friendly word from any of them. In fact, it was a singularly silent household when only the women were there. This was because Gruoch, her aunt, inspired respect but not love, obedience but not warmth. Though she said all the right words and was never overtly cruel or even unkind, Lady Macbeth was a woman who bent others to her will with a lifted eyebrow or the tiniest shift of one shoulder. Whatever was offered or done was never enough, failure somehow implied.
Tessa considered her aunt’s statement, sensing it was aimed at the lord of the manor. Macbeth macFindlaech did not seem a timid man to Tessa. Before his twentieth birthday, he had taken up the sword in defense of his inheritance. A cousin had murdered Findlaech, the former laird, and briefly taken control of the small thanedom of Moray. Macbeth had gathered allies and regained his father’s territory, burning to death the cousin and fifty of his men in reprisal. Then he had married the widow of the rebel, the striking woman who now sat opposite Tessa in the hall of Inverness Castle. She seemed to have captured his heart with her gray eyes and her lush figure, though Tessa—and the others, from their demeanors—found her intimidating. No one dared contradict Gruoch around the fire as they sewed. Neither did anyone sing, gossip, or make merry comments. They simply worked on and on, like mindless drones.
Lady Macbeth watched Tessa now, gauging the effect of her statement, and the girl felt compelled to defend her uncle. It would not do to take issue with her aunt’s statement, so she took a different tack. “Perhaps a man may be both
The look she received warned she had spoken unwisely. “The king has no judgment of men!” Gruoch spoke bitterly. “He uses Macbeth and spreads fair words over his head, but when matters come to marching, he rewards his own.” The lady stabbed her embroidery needle into the fabric as if it were Duncan himself who stood before her and not a stretched tapestry on a frame.
Tessa wished she had merely nodded and stitched, as the others had. Gruoch obviously disapproved of King Duncan. How did a body learn to tread carefully in the maze that was Scotland’s governing class? For the hundredth time since leaving home, Tessa wondered what her mother would say of her tendency to blurt out what was on her mind without taking into account those above her. She wondered as well what an encounter with three witch women meant for a person, because she was sure she’d met witches on the way to Macbeth’s castle.
Kenna macFindlaech had sent her second daughter to Inverness two months ago out of what she termed desperation. Macbeth was the older brother of Tessa’s father, Kenneth, who had died a year ago, leaving behind six daughters and a nearly penniless wife. Tessa was not deemed a good marriage choice among the practical, rather dour local Scots. Lovely to look at she might be, but she tended to tomboyish ways. While other girls studied womanly arts of house-holding and discreet flirting, Tessa had roamed the Highlands, learning their contours and their secrets.
Worse, she would not hold her tongue in company and considered most boys in the area to be idiots. The sight of her auburn hair, fair skin, lithe body and green eyes could turn men to idiocy, to be sure. Young Alan of the clan Maura, visiting with his father, had taken a shine to the girl and tried to force a kiss when he found himself alone with her in her father’s byre. A bit over-sure of himself due to his status as the thane’s only son, he had taken umbrage when Tessa refused him.
They had closed the gate after the last cow was herded in, and Alan found himself close enough to Tessa that her tumble of curls actually brushed his cheek as she stood up from fastening the loop of rope over the gatepost. He could not resist touching those curls, and then his hand of its own volition continued to her cheek, smooth as could be. The young man bent his head toward hers, encircling her tiny waist and pulling her toward him suddenly. Before his lips reached hers, twin pains shot through his forearms as Tessa’s elbows came sharply down on them.
The boy involuntarily pulled back, and Tessa added a push to assure distance between them. “If I want your attentions, Alan macMaura, I’ll let you know. Otherwise, keep your hands to yourself!”
Less in pain now than in anger, the boy growled, “Lassie, think well on your future! I may be the best chance a poor Highland girl like you will get.”
“You’re no gift to the world or to me!” Tessa informed him. “I’ll kiss a man when I wish to, not when he chooses!” With that she turned away toward home, leaving behind one Scot less sure of his allure for women.
Others had tried to win Tessa’s favor as well, but when she jeered at their longing gazes and overblown praise of her eyes, lips, hair, and form, bachelors took hasty flight. She was beautiful, but who would spend a lifetime listening to a litany of his faults from those lovely lips when she had not a penny to her name?
There was also the matter of her size. Tessa was as dainty as a songbird, and Scottish mothers took one glance and concluded no strong sons would come from one so tiny, despite her robust health. Current wisdom recommended tall women with large hips for healthy babies. Between the mothers’ doubts and the sons’ failure to impress her, the girl was an unlikely candidate for such marital bliss as the Highlands offered to those of her station.
Tessa’s mother often berated the girl for her behavior, for her lack of interest in caring for the younger children, and for anything else she could think of. “You are a disappointment,” Kenna would tell her daughter. “Look at your sister Meg! She can weave a fine tartan, prepare an appetizing meal of venison or trout, she is as tall as ever your father was, and best of all, she can keep silent when silence is called for!” Tessa’s older sister was “the good girl,” according to their mother, cleaning and cooking and wiping small noses and bottoms without a word of complaint. Kenna discouraged Meg’s chances of marriage, hoping to keep her most dependable helper, but Tessa she despaired of marrying off. It was no good pointing out she caught the fish her sister fried so nicely, or that Meg couldn’t take credit for her height any more than Tessa could change hers. It was silence she needed to practice, and Tess had done so, at least in that instance.
When Evan macCady pulled her into the pines for a kiss at Samhain that fall, she remembered her mother’s advice and tolerated his embrace briefly, despite the fact that his leering grin gave her the shivers. However, when his hands began wandering places they should not, she reacted. “Mind who you put those big paws on, you great beast! I’ve bested better than you in a fight!” With that she thwacked him soundly on the nose and stomped back to the fireside. The look on her mother’s face at that moment presaged the tirade to come on how Tessa had ruined her last chance to get a husband. Never mind that Evan macCady was the lowest sort of oaf who would have made the girl’s life a misery, as he had his first wife’s.
“Mother, the man tried to have his way with me right then and there! Besides, he drinks more than even Laddie Ross, and he smells terrible! I could not marry such a one as that!”
“You’ll never marry at all with your airs, Miss Highboots! Evan has a fine herd of cattle and sheep that could have helped your poor mother put food in her children’s mouths. You think only of yourself!”
Kenna had changed over time in ways her children could not know. As a girl, she had been a beauty, trained to smile and say little. She had seemed meek and sweet until she married the handsome Kenneth. Once she had him well and truly snared, Kenna’s true self emerged: a spiteful, whining woman who saw the actions of those around her only in light of how they affected her. People who once commented on her beauty now saw eyes squinted peevishly as she corrected imagined faults, a nose that had grown sharp as she poked about for reasons to be angry, and a mouth that curled in scorn far more often than in humor at the actions of those around her.
When the first scent of spring came to the air, Kenna informed her daughter there were two possibilities for her future: her mother’s brother, now thane of Cawdor; or her father’s family, the macFindlaechs. Kenna sent the girl to Macbeth, making it clear Tessa’s task was to be agreeable so that her aunt would be willing to take on one or two of the younger girls as time passed.
“I do not know these people,” Kenna told Tessa, “but it is their duty to educate you. Macbeth may even provide a dowry, if you behave yourself—”Her tone dripped with threat. “There will be opportunities there to meet men who do not know your faults, unless you display them as carelessly as you have here.” Tessa felt a pang of guilt at her mother’s criticism. Had she been so difficult, then? Why was she not satisfied with the Alan macMauras or the Evan macCadys in life? Why did she imagine she was made for something—or someone—better?
The parting with her family had not been particularly sad. Only Meg showed any grief at Tessa’s departure, since they had always been close. The other children were too young to grasp they might never see their sister again, and Kenna had long ago lost any feeling for anyone on earth but herself, though she felt deeply there.
Having known no other kind of mother, Tessa accepted the contention she was a flawed female, not realizing the jealousy Kenna macFindlaech felt for her own beautiful daughter. Kenna saw all of her children as burdens, but Tessa could not be tamed, and that she took as a personal insult. Almost gleefully, she said as they parted, “I believe you are a hopeless case, but you have one last chance. Do exactly as your aunt and uncle bid you and guard your reckless tongue, or you’ll come to naught!” With those words, her mother sent Tessa off to foster with p
Because propriety demanded a young woman of good birth not travel alone, old Banaugh went along as escort when Tessa came down from the mountains for the first time. The man seemed ancient, lacking most of his hair, many of his teeth, and any visible spot of unfreckled skin, but he nevertheless kept a steady pace all day, every day, at whatever he was doing.
When it was announced Tessa would be leaving the Cairngorms, Banaugh cheerfully offered himself as escort to her uncle’s castle. “I’ll see th’ lassie safely there, y’ may be sure o’ it,” he promised. Even Kenna found little to criticize in Banaugh. He was loyal, respectful, and enterprising in all he did, so she merely warned him to return as soon as possible so as not to leave her shorthanded for too long.
Early on the designated morning, the old man showed up with a pack on his back containing necessities for the trip: food wrapped in cloths portioned for each day’s travel, a few basic tools such as a knife and a small axe, his strong-smelling cumin liniment for his aches and pains, and flint and tinder sealed well to keep them dry in all conditions. Banaugh was swathed in his tartan, a four-yard length of rough cloth that served as cape, tablecloth, blanket, and various other things. He wore trews, or trousers, of wool and a tunic over a loose linen undershirt. Tessa had dressed for travel in the best dress she owned, a loose, sleeveless garment that fell over a long-sleeved linen shift and tied behind at the waist. Over it she wore a gray cape that served as her blanket at night. After a last quick hug for Meg and a pat for each of the four younger girls, the two travelers were off.
Banaugh led the way down the mountainside toward Inverness, to the north of their home in the Cairngorms. These mountains rise higher than any others in Britain, and on their slopes Tessa had learned something of the great variety of the Scottish Highlands. Her father’s lands lay halfway up, in the pinewoods: slopes where huge Caledonian pine trees eventually gave way to acres of purple heather. Above were the shady corries, where odd little alpine plants grew, and still farther up, the plateau, where cushions of moss campion covered the rocky land with pink flowers in summer.
It was not until they had traveled downward for some time that Tessa realized how high her home in the mountains was. She looked back, trying to get some perspective on her former abode. The mountains were beautiful, but she wondered why her father had moved so far from his brother’s lands. Were the brothers so different? She would know soon.
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