After the stealthy assembly broke from the foot of Dunadd, MacBeth and his cousin Gille Frog secured passage with Thorfinn the Black to Moray, whose rugged coast looked north over breakers and mist at the Jarldom of Orkney. Just beyond sight of the Isle of Iona, Jarl Brusi implored his brother Thorfinn stop to pay homage to the shield-maiden, a much older cousin of their father’s, after which she surprised them with her insistence upon accompanying them as far as Orkney, wanting to attend a counsel of kings in Norway, and they of course obliged.
The south wind was steady, the sea calm, and the small fleet sailed within the safety of the Argyll coast without any outward sign of haste. The dozen ships, oars pulled in and sails full, enjoyed the easiness of blue skies and quiet water as they crept toward the Hebrides and their home on the Orkney’s. Some of the rudder men boldly guided their sleek craft within earshot of the Black’s boat, where his illustrious passenger was telling stories of days long past.
That passenger was the old shield-maiden Thora Kliufersdatter, the Skullsplitters Daughter, bundled in furs of wolf and fox, her beaver hat adorned with feathers of sea eagle and her long silver braids wrapped in blue beads and ravens feather. She was a god among men to all in the party, and of considerable interest to MacBeth who went nose to nose with an ill-tempered oarsman to secure a berth on her ship. And why not, so insistent was he to absorb the counsel and knowledge of nearly five score years of both amity and strife.
“You are a curious one, cousin of my cousin,” she said to MacBeth who sat at her feet, his eyes locked onto her weathered face as if to capture every word for himself alone.
“Tell me,” she went on, “are you not the son of one of daughters of Malcolm, now King of Alba? He has three, has he not? One fair and golden haired, one with locks as black as the raven much like – “
“My mother Olith,” said Thorfinn with a boastful smile.
“Yes, your mother, and her hair as black as mine once was. You are named the Black due to your hair, not your gloomy disposition, I gather?”
“The Mighty Black,” Thorfinn roared with a wide grin and booming voice loud enough for the convoy’s rear guard, all pulling small craft laden with goods and spoil, to respond to the call. The Mighty Black! The Mighty Black!
“And the third sister with fiery red hair must be your mother Donada,” the shield-maiden said directly to MacBeth, noting his ruddy complexion and ginger crown, even though kept at a short cut lest the unruly curls bring back childish taunts that questioned his manhood. He nodded and almost hid his torment, but she could see.
“And our cousins Duncan and Maldred belong to the fair-haired sister, Bethóc,” said Thorfinn.
“And fair-haired are they, both with long blonde locks like ladies,” said Brusi from the boat gliding alongside as all of his crew laughed. MacBeth did not join in the laughter.
“Tell me, dear old mother,” MacBeth said quietly to the shield-maiden, “did you know Ragnhild? Eriksdatter?”
Thora looked directly into MacBeth’s eyes and said, “She was an evil plotter, that one. She killed my brother and many others. A bloodlust for power, do you know what I mean, young MacBeth?” Other boats came closer and they all quieted as the old shield-maiden began to speak again.
“I’ll tell you a story once told to me by Thorfinn Skullsplitter, who is called my father, and raised me as his daughter, but was my grandfather. My mother was his daughter, and she also mother of Einar HardJaw who was murdered in the plotting by the evil one. My father was Groh, the Bowsman on the Skullsplitter’s boat, a brave warrior who fought many battles at the great leader’s side and went bravely to Valhalla before I was born. Brave leaders have brave and loyal followers, or they have nothing.
“There was a leader in days long passed who had been victorious in all of his battles and was enjoying good harvests on fertile land near the sea. He had two sons and they had their own lands side by side, and the harvests were good, and enough for all.
“One day the father came upon the two sons quarrelling at the edge of their fields. ‘What is this about?’ asked the father. ‘Encroachment! He takes a foot of my land with every pass,’ said one. ‘Untrue! He is the one, and he even takes your land in the same fashion, good father,’ said the other.
“Just then the old man turned over a large flat stone and there were two serpents entwined in a violent fight, fangs buried deep into flesh. He took the writhing disturbance in both of his hands and he held them up to his sons. ‘Take them and pull them apart,’ and each son took hold of a snake.
“Try as they may, the sons could not separate the vicious beasts from their death knot. The father then tapped the serpents with his staff and they separated, one to another. The sons looked at the serpent in their hands and saw that the fangs were still locked fast and deep into flesh – their own flesh – and each of the two snake promptly died from its own bite wounds.”
Only the cry of nearby gulls could be heard as the hardened Vikings pondered this tale. “So it is,” said the shield-maiden in a voice that carried the weight of years over the water to all boats, “so it is with all clans that they may become the murderers of their own posterity.”
She again looked at Thorfinn and MacBeth in her own boat and said in a lower voice, “Beware this tale, cousin and kin, for of the three daughters one line will be kings, one line chosen by the Valkyries, but one will wither under a slow corrosion of its own blood lust, biting itself to death.”
The wind rose suddenly and the boats separated with a great amount of shouting and pushing off from side shields as waves became choppy. Thorfinn ordered oars out and the fleet steadied itself once again as they navigated around the westerly spit of land Argyll had to offer. From a boat near the back of the group, Gille Frog wondered why the lead boat was pulling into shore, but soon word had spread ship to ship. The Old Shield-maiden, the Skullsplitter’s Daughter, had told her final story and was dead.
On shore the hardened warriors took this sudden turn of events as an omen and some thought it a sure sign of displeasure from the gods. Thorfinn ordered one of the small cargo skiffs in tow be emptied and pulled ashore where it was scrubbed clean of barnacle and brine. A trough was hollowed into the soil on a low hill and the boat was placed bow to the west, and she was laid within.
Since she had come armed only with her seaxeblade, Brusi offered his best longsword to accompany her to the afterlife. Various other items befitting her status as matron and leader of her community were placed into the burial boat with her, and it was Thorfinn the Mighty Black’s own shield which was placed over her body.
Finally, fifty men sang as they formed a chain of passing stones and covered the Skullsplitter’s Daughter in a proud burial mound, waiting for her own call from the Valkyries.
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