Viking 3: King’s Man, page 24
To my surprise I found that my neighbours regarded me as some sort of sage, a man deeply learned in the ancient wisdom, and they would come to me for instruction. I responded readily because I was beginning to understand that the future for the Old Ways might not lie with great princes like Harald, but among the ordinary country folk. I reminded myself that ‘pagan’, the word the Christian priests used disparagingly to describe non-believers, meant no more than someone who was of the countryside, so I taught the villagers what I had learned in my own youth: about the Gods, how to observe the Elder Way, how to live in harmony with the unseen world. In return my neighbours made me a sort of priest, and one year I came back to find that they had constructed a small hof for me. It was no more than a little circular hut set in a grove of trees, a short walk from the house where Runa and I lived. Here I could sacrifice and pray to Odinn undisturbed. And once again Odinn heard me, for in the eighth year of Harald’s kingship, Runa delighted me by informing that she was with child, and in due course she gave birth to a boy and a girl, both healthy and strong. We named them Freyvid and Freygerd in honour of the Gods who were also twins.
BEFORE THE TWINS had learned to walk, Harald sent me on a mission which was a foretaste of his grand ambition – nothing less than to become a second Knut by achieving mastery over all the Norse lands. He summoned me, alone, to his council room, and stated bluntly, ‘Thorgils, you speak the language of the Scots.’
‘No, my lord,’ I answered. ‘As a youth I learned the language of the Irish when I was a slave among them.’
‘But the Irish language is close enough to the Scots tongue for you to conduct secret negotiations without the need for interpreters?’
‘Probably, my lord, though I have never put it to the test.’
‘Then you are to travel to Scotland on my behalf, to visit the King of the Scots, and sound out whether he would be willing to make an alliance with me.’
‘An alliance for what purpose?’ I dared to enquire.
Harald watched me closely for my response as he said, ‘To conquer England. He has no love for his southern neighbours.’
I said nothing, but waited for Harald to go on.
‘The king’s name is Magbjothr, and he has held the throne of Scotland for fourteen years. By all accounts he’s skilled in warfare. He would make a powerful ally. There’s only one problem: he mistrusts the Norse. His father fought our Norse cousins in the Orkneys, when Sigurd the Stout was earl there.’
Harald’s mention of Sigurd the Stout brought a twinge of pain to my left hand. It was an involuntary response to the familiar stiffness of an old wound.
‘I fought at Earl Sigurd’s side in the great battle of Clontarf in Ireland, where he died trying to overthrow the Irish High King,’ I said, choosing my words carefully. I refrained from adding that I was the last man to hold aloft Sigurd’s famous raven banner, and had received a smashing blow to my hand when the banner’s pole was wrenched from my grasp.
‘It’s England’s High King I plan to overthrow this time, with Magbjothr’s support,’ Harald declared. ‘Your task is to persuade him to make common cause with us. There’s a vessel ready to take you to Scotland. It’s only a two-day sail.’
I arrived in Scotland expecting to find Magbjothr at his stronghold on the southern shore of what the Scots call the Firth of Moray, but when I got there, his steward told me that the king was on a royal progress around his domains, and not expected back for several weeks. He added, ‘The queen has gone with him. May the Lord preserve her.’ I must have looked blank because the steward went on, ‘She’s been getting worse these past few months, and no one seems able to help. And such a fine lady, too. I’m not sure she’s fit to travel.’
Finding that my spoken Irish was readily understood, I made discreet enquiries and learned that the queen, whose name was Gruoch, was suffering from some sort of mysterious illness. ‘Elf shot,’ was how one informant put it, and another said flatly, ‘Demons have entered her head.’ Everyone I spoke to made it clear that Gruoch was highly esteemed. Apparently she was a direct descendant of Scots kings, and by marrying Magbjothr had greatly strengthened his claim to the throne. Magbjothr was also of royal blood, but had held the lesser rank of Mormaer of Moray, a title equivalent to Earl, before he came to the throne by deposing the previous king in circumstances that my informants were reluctant to describe. Some said he had defeated the king in open battle, others claimed that he killed him in a man-to-man duel, while a third account hinted that Magbjothr had treacherously assassinated his king while he was his guest. Listening to their conflicting stories, one thing became clear: Magbjothr was a man to be reckoned with. Not only had he won the throne of Scotland through violence, but he had also acquired his wife by force of arms. Gruoch had been married to the previous Mormaer of Moray, who was burned to death along with his retinue of fifty men in a dispute with Magbjothr. What made the outcome all the more remarkable was that Magbjothr had married the widow, and then agreed that her son by her previous husband was to be his heir. The King and Queen of the Scots, I thought to myself, must be a very unusual pair.
My route southward to find Magbjothr took me across a wild landscape of moor and rocky highland. Called the Mounth, the region was often swathed in mist and cut through with narrow valleys choked with dense brush and woodland. It was perfect country for an ambush, and I understood why so much of what I had heard about the quarrels of the Scots involved surprise attacks and sudden raids. When I finally caught up with the king, I thought he was wise to have installed himself and his entourage in an easily defended fortress. Sited on a hilltop with a clear view on all sides, the building was protected by a triple ring of earth banks topped with wooden palisades which, even as I plodded up the slope, were being reinforced by his soldiers.
I was greeted with suspicion. A sentry stopped me at the outer gate and searched me for hidden weapons before demanding to know my business. I told him that I had come on an embassy from Harald of Norway and sought an audience with the king. The soldier looked doubtful. No strangers were allowed into the inner citadel, he said. These were his standing orders now that the Northumbrians were threatening to invade across the border. I might be a spy for them. I pointed out that the Northumbrians’ traditional allies were the Danes, and that King Harald and his Norwegians had been fighting the Danes ever since Harald came to the throne. ‘That’s as may be,’ retorted the sentry, as he escorted me to see his captain, ‘but as far as I’m concerned, all you Norsemen are alike. Bandits, best kept out of places where you don’t belong.’
His captain cross-examined me before leaving me to wait in an antechamber, and it was only after a delay of several hours that I was finally ushered into the presence of a tall, soldierly looking man, perhaps a decade younger than myself, with a ruddy wind-scoured complexion and long yellow hair. It was the King of the Scots, known to the Norsemen as Magbjothr, but to his own people as Mac Bethad mac Findlaech.
‘Where did you learn to speak our language?’ he asked, tapping the table in front of him with the naked blade of a dagger. I guessed that the weapon was not just there for show. The king mistrusted strangers.
‘In Ireland, your majesty. In a monastery.’
The king frowned. ‘You don’t look like a Christian.’
‘I’m not. I entered the monastery under duress. Initially as a slave. But I never accepted the faith.’
‘A pity,’ said Mac Bethad. ‘I myself am a Christian. How come you were a slave?’
‘I was taken prisoner in battle.’
‘And where was that?’
‘At a place called Clontarf, your majesty.’
The rhythmic tapping of the dagger suddenly slowed.
‘At Clontarf? That was a long time ago. You don’t look old enough to have been there.’
‘I was only a lad, not more than fifteen years old.’
‘Then you would have known the Mormaer of Mar. He fought and died in that battle.’
‘No, your maje
Mac Bethad looked at me, trying to judge whether I was telling the truth. Pensively, he continued to tap the knife blade on the pitted surface of the wooden table.
‘I’m surprised,’ he said, ‘that Harald of Norway should send me as his spokesman someone who served Fat Sigurd. The Earl of Orkney was a mortal enemy to my father all his life. They fought at least three battles, and thanks to that magic banner of his, Sigurd always came out best. Then the Orkney men stole our lands.’
My first meeting with Mac Bethad had got off to a very poor start, I thought to myself. I would never make a successful diplomat.
‘The banner was useless to Sigurd at Clontarf,’ I observed, trying to sound conciliatory. ‘He died with it tied around his waist.’
‘And how do you know that?’ This time the question was aggressive.
‘He took the banner from me when the fight was going against us, and no one else would carry it. He wrapped it around him, saying that the beggar must carry his own purse. Then he walked into the thick of the fight. To certain death. I did not see the moment when he fell.’
Yet again Mac Bethad was looking at me with disbelief.
‘Are you telling me that you were Sigurd’s standard-bearer, and yet you survived?’
‘Yes, your majesty.’
‘And you did not know the prophecy that whoever flew the raven banner in battle would be victorious, but the man who actually held the raven banner would die in the moment of victory?’
‘I had heard that prophecy, your majesty. But at Clontarf it turned out to be wrong. My fate was different. The Norns decreed that I should survive and that the earl would be defeated.’
When I mentioned the Norns, Mac Bethad grew very still. The tip of the dagger slowed its rhythm and stopped. There was a silence. ‘You believe in the Norns?’ he asked softly.
‘I do, your majesty. I am an Old Believer. The Norns decide our fate when we are born.’
‘And at other times? Do they decide our fate in later years?’
‘That I do not know. But whatever the Norns decree for us will eventually come about. We can delay the outcome of their decision, but we cannot escape it.’
Mac Bethad laid the weapon gently on the table. ‘I was about to send you away without hearing the message you bring from Harald of Norway. But maybe your arrival here was also decided by Fate. This evening I would like you to meet with my wife and me in private. Maybe you can help us. You have probably heard that my wife is ill.’
‘I am not a physician, your majesty,’ I warned.
‘It is not a physician that she needs,’ said the king. ‘Perhaps it is someone who can explain what seems to be against all reason. I am a devout Christian. Yet I have seen the Norns.’
This time it was I who fell silent.
THE ROYAL CHAMBERLAIN found a place for me to sleep, a small alcove scarcely more than a cupboard, close to the king’s apartments, and left me to eat my midday meal with the garrison of the fortress. Listening to their conversation, I gathered that they were all members of Mac Bethad’s personal retinue and that they had a high opinion of their leader’s generalship. The only time I heard any doubt expressed was in reference to the queen. One veteran complained that Mac Bethad was so distracted by the queen’s illness that he was paying insufficient attention to preparing his defence against the expected invasion. The Earl of Northumbria, Siward, had given sanctuary to two sons of the previous Scottish king, the man Mac Bethad had killed, and was using their claim to the throne to justify his attack.
When the chamberlain fetched me that evening and brought me to the king’s private apartments, I was shown into a small room furnished only with a table and several plain wooden chairs. The light came from a single candle on the table, positioned well away from the woman in a long dark cloak seated at the far end of the room. She sat in the shadows, her hands in her lap, and she was twisting her fingers together nervously. The only other person in the room was Mac Bethad, and he was looking troubled.
‘You must excuse the darkness,’ he began, after the chamberlain had withdrawn and closed the door behind him. ‘The queen finds too much light to be painful.’
I glanced towards the woman. Her cloak had a hood which she had drawn up over her head, almost concealing her face. Just at that moment the candle flared briefly, and I caught a glimpse of a taut, strained face, dark-rimmed eyes peering out, a pale skin and high cheek bones. Even in that brief instant the cheek nearest to me gave a small, distinct twitch. Simultaneously I felt a tingling shock as though I had accidentally knocked the point of my elbow against a rock, the sort of impact that leaves the arm numb. But the shock was not to my arm, it was to my mind. I knew that I was in the presence of someone with otherworldly powers.
It was a familiar sensation. I had experienced it whenever I encountered men and women skilled in seidr, the art of magic. Usually I reacted strongly, because there were times when I too was gifted with what the Norse call ofreskir, second sight. But this occasion was different. The power emanating from the woman in the cloak was unmistakably that of a volva, a woman with seidr ability, but it was disturbed and irregular. It came at me in waves in the same way that a distant horizon shimmers on a summer’s evening with lightning. Not the harsh and shattering flash when Thor hurls his hammer Mjollnir, but the insistent and irregular flicker that country folk who live far inland say is the silver reflection of great shoals of fish in the ocean rising to the surface and reflecting off the belly of the clouds.
Again I noticed the woman’s hands. She was twisting and rubbing them together as if she was washing them in water, not the empty air.
‘People here know them as the three Wyrds,’ Mac Bethad suddenly blurted out. There was anguish in his voice. ‘As a Christian I thought it was just a heathen belief, a superstition. Until I met the three of them, dressed in their rags. It was in Moray, when I was still the Mormaer there, not yet king.’
The king was speaking of the Norns, launching directly upon the subject without any introduction. Obviously the topic had been preying on his mind.
‘They appeared as three hags, clustered by the roadside. I would have ridden on if they had not called out for my attention. Perhaps if I had not stopped to listen, my wife would have been spared.’
‘You saw the Norns in Moray?’ I asked, filling the awkward gap. ‘They were seen nearby, in Caithness, at the time of Clontarf. Weaving a shroud and using the entrails of men as the threads. They were celebrating the battle’s slaughter. When you saw them, what did they say?’
‘Their words were garbled and indistinct. They were short of teeth and mumbled. But one of them was prophesying. Said I would become the king of the Scots, and warned me of treachery among my nobles. At the time I thought it was all nonsense. Trite stuff that any fool would dream up.’
‘If they were indeed the Norns, that would be Verdhandi who spoke to you. She is that-which-is-becoming. Her two sisters, Urhr and Skuld, concern themselves with what is and what should be.’
‘As a Christian I know nothing of their names or attributes. Indeed I would have paid no heed to their words, if Gruoch had not encouraged me.’
I looked again towards the hooded woman. Now she was rocking back and forth in her seat, her hands still twisting together ceaselessly. She must have heard everything we had said, but she had not uttered a word since I had entered the room.
‘Gruoch is as good a Christian as I am,’ Mac Bethad went on, speaking more gently. ‘A better one, in fact. She is charitable and kind. No one could ask for a better consort.’
I realised, a little belatedly, that Mac Bethad truly loved his queen. It was an unexpected revelation, and it explained his present concern for her, even as his next words revealed how his love for his wife had ensnared them both.
‘When I told Gruoch what the Wyrds had said, she too dismissed their prophecies as heathen babbling. But she did point out that I had a better right to the
‘And did it turn out as the Norns predicted?’
‘I challenged King Duncan and defeated him in open battle. I was not alone in wanting him gone. More than half the other Mormaers and thegns supported me.’
‘I have heard it said that the king was murdered while he was your guest.’
Mac Bethad grimaced. ‘That’s a well-rehearsed tale, a black rumour spread by those who would like to see one of Duncan’s sons on the throne. They would be puppets of the Northumbrians, of course. Duncan was not murdered. He died because he was a poor tactician and a careless commander. He led his men into Moray to attack me, and his scouts were incompetent. They failed to detect the ambush we had set. After the battle I had the scouts executed for failing in their duty. If anyone was responsible for Duncan’s death it was them.’
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