Voices drifted in on the fog well before the camp’s firelight broke through.  The cousins from Morpeth hastened their pace down the centuries-old path from atop Dunadd, eager to hear and to be heard in arguments yea and nay, for loyalty or vengeance.  The throaty rumble of a dozen rested horses became clearer as the booming words of young Duncan, steady and deep, rose from the yet unseen meeting, “We must trust old alliances, just as I trust my brother Maldred and we the same to our father the Thane of the Isles.”

“And the Abbot of Dunkeld,” added Maldred.

Lay Abbot,” corrected their father Crínán, who poured himself another hot cider as his attention split between the debate of men and the stir of horses.

“Aye, Crínán of the House of Atholl is expected to trust his father-in-law even if he were not a king,” said a voice Thomas had known since boyhood, that of Thane Mildred.

“And to be trusted by the same Second Malcolm for the sake of the fair Bethóc they share in love,” said another graveled voice unfamiliar to both Baldwine and Thomas.

Another voice came with an angry snap, “But Malcolm talks of tributes to…”

“What is trust but dice when tossed?”  Thomas recognized the tremulous, nearly girlish voice of MacBeth cut above the mist, silencing the others as it continued like a creaking door, “Much can be gained or lost on the roll gone wrong, e’en between ta brotherly bond…”

“Ahh, the Rede’s return from their climb,” said Crínán as torches held by the Thomas and Baldwine joined those around the gathering.

“…Or cousinly kin,” added MacBeth with a tilt of his narrow face and bent nose toward the two as they emerged from the night fog.

The fact of the matter was that in this group of twelve young men, this counsel of plots, each were cousins in some way, sharing a grandfather with one or another.  And as such, and according to the ancient rites of tanistry, each of them thought the Crown of Alba was his own birthright and would kill for it when the opportune moment presented itself.  Except, of course, for the Northumbrians who were subjects of the English crown in most matters high and mighty.  Although not of a Scottish Kingdom, the three from Morpeth and the Redeswood were given by family ties, trade, and distance from the Earls of York to consort with the Scots more often than not.

Thomas looked around to see who had arrived in his absence.  There was the young Lord Dub of Fife, who was called MacDuff, and Jarl Brusi and his brother Thorfinn the Black of the Orkneys.  MacDuff was cousin to MacBeth, while the Orkney jarls were cousins of Duncan and Maldred through their mother Bethóc.  Their shallow draft boats and fifty fighting men were docked nearby, nursing wounds from a skirmish farther south.  Thomas knew them, but not well enough to trust any allegiance in a fight on the Northumbrian frontier.

In his usual brash manner, Baldwine challenged the oracle’s warning and sat on a low stone near MacBeth, placing his sheathed sword on the ground between them.  His knees high and the broad blades of his seaxes strapped outside each bootleg like armor, he pulled one from its sheath and leaned over to retrieve a fish flank from the cooking stones, sliding the knife like a spatula under the crispy tender.

“The Jarls brought us a bucket of fish,” said Duncan to Baldwine.

“Thorfinn’s catch.  In the harbor as we arrived,” added Jarl Brusi of his younger brother.

“Good.  Very good,” said Baldwine as he picked out bones from the whitefish with his long knife.

“A delicate operation,” observed MacBeth of Baldwine’s blade with a tight smile.

To the left of Baldwine sat his cousin Mildred mac Akman of Redeswood, like Thomas and Baldwine a Thane to Earl Ealdred of Bamburgh, who was also enjoying the fish brought in by the Orkneys’.  Thomas was still standing, one foot on a tree limb dragged in for the fire, eager to gain ground on the discussion underway.  “What is to be gained by tribute to this pirate son of Cnut, other than a purchase of peace?  Is it not an unkind extortion, worthy of armed resistance?” he put to the group.  There was a pause as they all looked at him, but it was Mildred who first asked what all were thinking.

“This from you, Thane Thomas?  The one who will seek common footing on which all can stand in a tempest?  You would raise the sword?” asked Maldred, his eyes wide behind the fair bushy beard and brow that oft concealed his face.

“Or he would raise the blade with his brother’s arm,” came a witty truth from Duncan as he nodded a friendly smile toward Baldwine.  The talk continued around the fragility of the English Crown, the arrogance of Cnut, the good and bad of King Máel Coluim and his murderous House of Alpin, and to whom the Earls of Northumbria and Bernicia should align themselves.

Again Duncan, “And from which cord could profit be pulled. If we keep a tie of trade or token tribute with Malcolm’s friend the Dane, and his southern Earls, we may then be in a position to pull back, to be the puppet masters.”

After a pause by all for thought, the gravelly voice, which Thomas learned was that of Gille Coemgáin, the one called Frog, spoke and said, “We stand in the boat and pull the sail’s cord to direct it north or south, yet the sail pulls boat and all with the whim of the winds.”  MacBeth looked at him and shook his head in puzzlement.

Crínán, oldest of the group by far at six beyond fifty, offered his words to the young intrepids, saying, “There were days, lads, when the laws were set down here where we sit by the Kings of DalRiada and our towns flourished, harvests were bountiful, and our coastlines safe from invaders.  The threat of aliens living among us, taking from our own lands and coffers, was as distant as Charlemagne’s Elephant.”

“What is ele-bant?” asked Thorfinn, to which he received no reply.

“Aye, and what glorious days were those of my ancient Kentish cousins Hengst and Horsa, when Saxons tamed the wild tribes,” said Mildred as he shook his head at the ground.  The other men shook their heads as well, wondering at his rosy picture of early Saxons.  Mildred went on, “It has since been a slow corrosion of the values we hold dear, now put to expedience by that impertinent Dane.”

“Are we speak of ta son of Cnut and his hand-wife?  No’ ta Norman but, emm…” Thorfinn paused for an answer which came quickly from Thomas.

“Ælfgifu of Northampton,” said Thomas, “a niece of Wulfric Spot, inherited wealth.”

“Right, and her brotters were made blind wit hot iron by Forkbeard for steal taxes,” said Thorfinn the Black.

“She has spent most of Spots gold and is just as quick to fill her purse with the fruits of others.  I have heard that the poor farmers in Norway now bear her cruelty.  Cnut has shelved her for the Norman Emma, sent her to the cold north,” said Thomas.

“So will this son who stays in York, this Hare-foot, continue his piracy into Bernicia and beyond?  To Galloway?  Allerdale?  To Atholl,” asked Crínán’s younger son Maldred of Allerdale, then, “We should just kill him now.”

MacDuff said, “Harold may be fleet of foot, but the prints he leaves in the sand are small and washed by the tides of our resolve, brothers.  Be not hasty.”

“Indeed,” said Thomas, “Harold Harefoot is young and impetuous, ten and four or five, e’en closer to boyhood than my hotspur cousin who sits here.”  They all looked at Baldwine and laughed, then Thomas went on.

“Yea, he is just seeing the light of day from under his mother’s skirt and now sows his own oats.  But remember, he is no friend of his false-mother Emma the Norman.  And it is the Normans we should all fear.  The world grows smaller as kings grow larger and I fear the age of the Caesars is returning,” lamented Thomas of Morpeth.

“Ahh-ggh!  Nonsense!  Your own kin, Prince…what’s it…” came the quick retort from Duncan as he waved his hand around, looking for the name.

“Reda.  Prince Reda,” answered Thomas.  “But he never really expelled the Romans, did he?  The Romans remained in their villas and became us.  And the Saxons became us.  And the Danelaw has become us.  I am saying the Normans, then another and another and anon will add to Empire.  We must adapt and work with those who can help against a more brutal foe.  In the end it is adapt or perish.”

“Or die as slaves.  I will not.  I will die in battle,” said Jarl Brusi, a prophetic statement indeed as he perished just one month later, leaving his brother Thorfinn the Black as the sole Earl of the Orkneys.

Gille Frog, who normally kept a close eye on MacBeth for approval like a month old pup, looked straight down at his boots as he spoke slowly, “I th-think, Thane Thomas of Bernicia and Mormaer Duncan of Strathclyde are both correct.  I think, I think….”

“For God’s sake, spit it out, man!” came a yell from his older cousin of Moray.  “Your foolish thoughts are wasted as always.  I think. You do,” said the bully MacBeth.

MacBeth and Gille Frog were cousins who, when only 13 and 15 years old respectively slew the uncle and father of each, one for the other, which elevated Gille’s older brother to the office of Mormaer of Moray, one step shy from Alba, the King of Kings.  Gille Frog now held that office, bullied by MacBeth to stab his way into the position.

“Such intricate work,” said MacBeth to Baldwine, poking a finger at the younger man’s knee where the stag grip of his second long bladed seaxe stood secure in its sheath.  “Such a dainty old thing is surely better the protected than the protector, do you not agree, Frog?” he added, his words meant for all to hear.  Gille Frog nodded as some of the group laughed like one would a bad joke.

“And I say t’you, Captain, these weapons have done a greater damage in two hands long dead than will your woody poker thrust ‘fore ta’en by rust and dust,” replied Baldwine with a glance and a wink at his cousin Thomas.  The laughter was robust and MacBeth gave a strained smile, or rather a sneer around the fire, surveying the reaction for a future action more severe.

“Sshhh,” came the command from Thomas and the laughter ceased.  A fawn, drawn by the light and lost from its herd, stood bewildered at the edge of the fog.  The party rose, eyes fixed toward this sudden dinner guest, and a scramble to catch the helpless creature exploded.  It hopped and darted in terror to and fro as the battle hardened warriors grasped at it and laughed like young boys at play with stick and ball, until the shock of the scene smothered all laughter.

MacBeth had ensnared its neck by one arm and held it tightly against his person as he stabbed it once under the jaw.  His gaunt face was then splashed red with blood as he reached a hand into the wound, ripping out the animal’s throat and silencing its desperate pleas.  The men stood motionless at the gory display, MacBeth’s fire lit black eyes and frenzied bloody smile surveying their reactions once again.  The old monk Flandabra’s warning of the red faced one returned to Thomas as Baldwine gave his cousin a quiet look.

MacBeth then tossed the limp animal at Baldwine’s feet and said, “Now use that pretty knife for your mild butchery.”  MacBeth did not wipe the blood that dripped from his face until it had dried, and none of the others would forget.


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