Viking 3: King’s Man, page 25
‘And was it then that your wife fell ill?’
Mac Bethad shook his head. ‘No. She is a king’s granddaughter, and she knows the price that must be paid for gaining or maintaining power. Her sickness began less than three years ago. But it is getting worse, slowly and inexorably, and that is what I hope you may be able to explain, for I fear it has something to do with your Elder Ways.’
He turned to face his wife. She had raised her head, and the look which passed between them made it clear that Gruoch loved her husband as much as he loved her.
‘I was too occupied with my duties as king to appreciate what was happening,’ explained Mac Bethad slowly. ‘After I gained the throne, she began to question why the Wyrds had appeared, and if they were no more than a heathen superstition, how it was that what they said had come true. The doubts preyed on her mind. Our Christian priests told us that it was the work of the devil. They persuaded her that she had unknowingly become an agent of the dark one. She began to think of herself as unclean. That is why she constantly washes her hands, as you must have noted.’
‘And did the priests suggest a cure?’ I asked, unable to resist adding, ‘They seem to think they have the answers to every human condition.’
Mac Bethad stood up and went across to where his wife sat. He bent and kissed her gently, then eased back her hood so he could reach down and remove an amulet hanging on a leather thong around her neck. As the hood fell back, I saw that Queen Gruoch must have once possessed a striking beauty. Her hair was unkempt and wild, but it was still thick and luxuriant and shot through with glints of reddish gold, though most of it was faded to a dull bronze. From her left temple a strange white streak extended back through her hair, giving her a strange and unsettling appearance.
Mac Bethad laid the amulet upon the table in front of me. It was a small tube of brass. I teased out the tightly rolled scrap of paper and smoothed it on the table so that I could read the words written there. They were penned in a combination of three scripts – runes, Greek and Roman lettering. ‘In nomine domini summi sit benedictum, thine hand vexeth, thine hand troubles thee, Veronica aid thee,’ I read.
‘The priest who prepared this note said that my wife should wear this close to her left breast,’ explained Mac Bethad, ‘and for it to be effective she must remain silent. But as you observe, it has had little effect. At least it is less harmful than the other cures that have been suggested. A different priest claimed that my wife’s affliction could be controlled if I used a whip made of porpoise skin to beat her every day and expel the demons that have possessed her.’ He grimaced with distaste.
I recalled the twitch that had passed across the queen’s cheek, and remembered how the young Basileus Michael in Miklagard had trembled uncontrollably in the moments before his spirit had strayed. In Miklagard, too, ignorant priests had diagnosed devilish intervention. Other physicians, however, had been more practical. Long ago, in Ireland, I had seen a drui use herbs and potions to treat convulsions among his patients.
‘There are no devils, nor dark elves in possession of your queen,’ I assured the king. ‘What is written on that paper is worse than foolishness. If you wish to ease your queen’s suffering, throw away the amulet, let her speak when she wishes, and if she is distressed, give her potions to drink of warm vinegar in which henbane or cowbane has been soaked, or a light infusion of the plant called deadly nightshade.’
Mac Bethad paled. ‘But those are plants known to be favoured by witches and warlocks – and the Wyrds,’ he said accusingly. ‘You are leading her towards that dark world, not away from it.’
I shrugged. ‘I am an Old Believer,’ I reminded him, ‘and I find no fault in using them if they are effective.’ As I spoke, I found myself wondering if Gruoch knew that she had seidr powers. And if she did know, whether she had suppressed or denied them because she was a Christian. If that was the case, the tension within her must have become insupportable.
‘Will the medicine cure my wife, as well as ease her suffering?’ he asked.
‘That I cannot say,’ I warned him. ‘I believe that her spirit is in turmoil. Divided between the White Christ and the Elder Way.’
‘The White Christ has been no help,’ said Mac Bethad. ‘Four years ago, when I was really worried about the queen’s condition, I took her to Rome on pilgrimage. Sought out all the holy men, prayed, gave alms in abundance, but with no result. Maybe I should now turn to the Elder Way. If it cured my wife, I would give up my Christian faith, knowing that no harm can ever come to me.’
His words sent an alarm signal. I knew there was something not quite right.
‘What do you mean by “that no harm will come to you”?’
‘The final prophecy of the Wyrds was that I could not be killed by mortal man, and that my throne was secure.’
‘And did they offer some sort of guarantee or proof?’
‘They stated that I would not lose a battle until the wood of Birnam came to this stronghold. But Birnam is half a day’s travel away. That is impossible.’
But I knew that it was possible. Even as Mac Bethad told me the prophecy, I understood that his kingship was doomed. Perhaps the country folk back in Vaster Gotland were right and I was some sort of sage, because I already knew that a prophecy of a moving wood had proved to be a sure sign of defeat to come. Travelling in Denmark some years earlier, I had come to a place known locally as the Spring of Carnage. Intrigued, I had enquired the reason for the name. I was told it was the spot where a king of Denmark lost his final battle to an enemy who advanced into their attack carrying the leaves and shrubs of trees to hide their numbers. The place where they had cut the fronds was still called the Deadly Marsh.
Composing my features to hide my consternation, I looked at the king of the Scots in the half darkness. There was no doubt in my mind that the prophecy of the Norns was an augury for Mac Bethad, not a surety. Odinn had allowed me a glimpse into Mac Bethad’s future, but had denied it to the king. There was nothing that I could do to alter Mac Bethad’s fate. It was his orlog, his destiny. I wondered what to say to him. I chose the coward’s course.
‘Be careful,’ I cautioned Mac Bethad, rising to my feet. ‘A single tree can destroy a king. Magnus of Norway who shared the throne with my liege lord Harald was killed by a single branch which swept him from the saddle. He too was a Christian.’
Then, burdened with a sense of foreboding, I said I was tired, asked Mac Bethad for permission to return to my chamber, and left the room.
Next morning I did not trouble to request for a second audience with the king, because I knew that any alliance I made between Mac Bethad and King Harald would prove futile. Instead I asked for permission to return to Norway for further consultations with my liege lord, and even as I was waiting on the coast for the ship that would carry me back to Nidaros, I heard that Siward and his Northumbrians had made a sudden strike across the border and overrun Mac Bethad’s stronghold on the hill. I did not doubt that the advancing troops had carried branches from the wood of Birnam. Mac Bethad himself escaped the battle, and was to survive for two more years before he was hunted down and killed in the glens of the Mounth. How he was killed when he had been assured that no man born of a woman could kill him, I never found out. Nor did I hear what happened to his Queen Gruoch and whether she converted to the Old Ways or remained torn between the two faiths, tormented by her doubts.
‘YOU COULD ALSO have warned Magbjothr that even the divine Baldr, whom the Gods thought was unassailable, was killed by a branch of mistletoe,’ Harald observed shrewdly when I reported the failure of my mission to him.
His remark was typical of his familiarity with the Old Gods. Baldr was the most handsome of all of them. When he was born his mother asked all potential sources of harm that they would never hurt him. She obtained the promise from all things that might harm him – fire, water, disease, all animals, including snakes. She even asked the trees to give her their pledge. But she made an exception of the mistletoe, which she considered to be
‘Odinn the Wise One told us that it is better that men do not know their fate,’ I answered, and quoted a verse from the Havamal, the Song of Odinn:
‘Medium wise should a man be
Never too wise
No man should know his fate in advance
His heart will be freer of care.’
Harald grunted his approval of the verse, then dismissed me. ‘Go back to your family in Vaster Gotland, Thorgils, and enjoy the rest of your days with them. You have more than discharged all your duties to me as a king’s man, and I release you from that obligation. I will only send for you again if I can turn to no other.’
HARALD NEVER NEEDED to summon me again. When I did come back to his court a full ten years later, it was of my own free will and burdened with a sense of impending doom. I was in the sixty-sixth year of my life, and I felt I had nothing left to live for.
The unthinkable had happened: I had lost Runa. She died of disease when our peaceful corner of Vaster Gotland fell victim to one of those petty but vicious squabbles which plagued the northern lands. I was away from home on a trip to the coast to buy a winter supply of dried fish when a band of marauders crossed our previously tranquil territory, and of course they burned and pillaged as they went. My brother-in-law fled with his own family and Runa and the twins into the recesses of the surrounding forest, so they all survived unscathed. But when they crept out of their shelter and returned to our houses, they found the carefully hoarded stocks of food had been looted. There was no time to plant a second crop so they sought to lay in emergency supplies. I returned home with my purchases to find my family anxiously scouring the forest for edible roots and late-season berries.
We might have come through the crisis if the winter that followed had not been so harsh. The snow came earlier than usual and fell more heavily. For weeks we were trapped in our cabins, unable to emerge or seek assistance, though our neighbours would have been of little help for they too were suffering equal distress. The fish I had brought back was soon eaten, and I cursed myself for not purchasing more. All my hoarded wealth was useless if we could not reach the outside world.
Gradually we sank into a numbed apathy caused by near starvation. Runa, as was her nature, put the well-being of our children ahead of her own needs. Secretly she fed them from her own share of our dwindling rations and concealed her own increasing weakness. When spring finally came and the snows began to melt and the days lengthened, it seemed that all of us would survive. But then, cruelly, the fever struck. Initially it was no more than a soreness in Runa’s throat, and she found difficulty in swallowing. But then my wife began to cough and spit blood, and to suffer pains in her chest and shortness of breath. In her already weakened condition, her body offered no resistance to the raging of the illness. I tried all the remedies I knew, but the speed of her decline defeated me. Then came the dreadful night – it was only three days after she showed the first symptoms – when I lay awake beside her and listened to her rapid breathing grow more and more desperate and shallow. By dawn she could no longer lift her head, nor hear me when I sought to comfort her, and her skin was dry and hot to the touch, yet she was shivering.
I went to fetch a bowl of fresh water in which to soak the cloth I laid on her brow, and returned to find she was no longer breathing. She lay as still and quiet as a leaf which, after trembling in the breeze, finally departs from the bough and drifts silently downwards to settle, lifeless, on the earth.
Folkmar and I buried her in a shallow grave scraped from the rocky soil. A half-dozen of our neighbours came to join us. They were little more than walking skeletons themselves, their clothes hanging loose on their bodies, and they stood in silence as I knelt down and laid a few mementoes of Runa’s life beside the corpse in its simple homespun gown. There were a pair of scissors, the little strongbox in which she had kept her jewellery, and her favourite embroidered ribbon which she had used to hold back her auburn hair. Looking up at the faces of the mourners and the heart-broken twins, I felt totally bereft, and the tears were streaming down my cheeks.
It was Folkmar who comforted me in his down-to-earth peasant way. ‘She never expected so much happiness as you and the children brought her in her final years,’ he said. ‘If she could speak, she would tell you that.’ Then, solemn-faced, he began to cover the corpse with earth and gravel.
It was another week before Folkmar gently stated what he and his wife had decided even as they stood at Runa’s graveside. ‘We’ll take care of the twins,’ he said. ‘We will treat them as our own until you can arrange something better for them.’
‘Better?’ I said dully, for I was still too grief-stricken to consider any course of action.
‘Yes, better. You should return to Harald’s court, where you have influence and command respect. There you can do more for the twins than anything which can be found here. When the time is ripe, maybe you can arrange for them to be taken into royal service, or perhaps fostered to a rich and powerful family.’
Folkmar’s trust in my competence touched me deeply, though I doubted that I could achieve half of what he expected. Yet he and his wife were so insistent that I could not bear to disappoint them, and when the weather improved sufficiently I took the twins for a long and melancholy walk in the forest until we came to a dank clearing, surrounded by dark pine trees. There, as the melting snow dripped from the branches, I told my children the details of my own life that they had never heard before. I described how I had been abandoned as an infant and brought up by kindly strangers, and made my own way in the world. As intelligent youngsters do, they already knew where my talk was leading, and looked at me calmly. Both of them had inherited Runa’s light brown eyes, and also her way of waiting patiently for me to reach the conclusion of my little speeches. As I groped to find the right words, I thought to myself how strange it must be for them to have for their parent a man who was old enough to be their grandfather. That wide gap in our ages was one reason why I felt I hardly knew them, and I found myself wondering what they really thought of me. Their mother had been the link between us, and once again the sorrow of her death nearly overwhelmed me.
‘Both of you – and I as well – must learn how best to live now that your mother is gone,’ I ended lamely, trying to keep my voice steady and not show my grief, ‘so tomorrow I’m going to travel to the king to ask for his help. I will send for you as soon as our future becomes clear.’
They were the last words I ever spoke to them.
I arrived in Harald’s new capital at Trondheim just in time to attend what was to prove the most important council meeting of Harald’s reign. A sea-stained merchant ship had put in to Trondheim with news from London. On the fifth day of January the king of England, Edward, had died without leaving a direct male heir. The English kingdom was in turmoil. The English council, the witan, had elected the most powerful of their number to the vacant throne, but he was not of royal blood and there was much dissent. There were other claimants to the kingship, chief among them the Duke of Normandy, as well as the brother of the newly appointed king, who felt himself overlooked.
‘I have as good a claim as any,’ Harald stated flatly as his council gathered in an emergency session to discuss the situation. Out of respect for my grey hairs and my long service to the king, I had been asked to attend the meeting. ‘My nephew Magnus was promised the kingdom of England by Knut’s son and heir. When Magnus died, his claim passed to me as his co-ruler.’ There was a silence. There were those among us who were thinking privately that Svein Estrithson in Denmark had an equal or even better claim because he was the
The silence deepened. All of us knew that the only way Harald could pursue his claim was by force of arms. He was talking about waging full-scale war.
‘Who holds the English throne now?’ someone enquired tactfully. The questioner knew that it would give Harald a chance to tell us what he had in mind.
‘Harold Godwinsson,’ said Harald. ‘He maintains that Edward named him as his heir while on his deathbed. But there is no proof.’
‘That would be the same Harold who defeated the combined Welsh and Irish army last year,’ observed one of Harald’s captains, a veteran who had family connections among the Norse in Dublin. ‘He’s a capable field commander. Any campaign against him will need careful planning if it is to be successful.’
‘There can be no delay,’ declared Harald. ‘With each month that passes, Harold Godwinsson makes himself more secure on the throne. I intend to attack this summer.’
‘Impossible,’ interrupted a voice, and I turned to see who was so bold as to contradict Harald so directly. The speaker was Harald’s own marshal, Ulf Ospaksson. I had known him since our campaigns in the service of the Basileus, and he was the most experienced and canny of the king’s military advisers. ‘Impossible,’ Ulf repeated. ‘We cannot assemble a sufficiently large invasion fleet in that short time. We need at least a year in which to recruit and train our troops.’
‘No one doubts your skill and experience,’ answered Harald, ‘but it can be done. I have the resources.’ He was adamant.
Ulf was equally stubborn. ‘Harold Godwinsson has resources too. He rules the wealthiest and largest kingdom in the west. He can raise an army and pay to keep it in the field. And he has his huscarls.’
‘We will smash the huscarls to pieces,’ boasted a young man, intervening. He was Skule Konfrostre, a close friend of Harald’s son, Olaf, and one of the council’s hotheads.
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