Dawn came and the girl and his horse were gone. Duncan clicked and whistled, but his marbled gray came not, nor was it corralled with the others. Thomas and Baldwine each found their black stallions and saddled up for the ride to the hillfort at Bamburgh.
“Perhaps I should now be worried,” said Thomas, trying to lighten the dark mood that had overcome his friend Duncan. “First Baldwine loses his knife, then you a horse. It would stand that I am next to be in the deficit.”
A smiling boy came from the trees where he had been attending to his morning business and said, “She is gone with your gray.”
“Give this boy a diploma and call him teacher,” said Baldwine with no disguise of his sarcasm.
“I know now that she hates me, yet I love her still,” sighed Duncan, after which Thomas stifled a laugh and Baldwine shook his head.
“Oh, but be not sad, Excellency, for she left you her own horse. A beautiful creature,” said the boy as he produced the pure white stallion from the center of the corral, the herd stepping aside in as if awestruck. This lightened Duncan’s mood, but not by much. He still felt an emptiness inside – for losing the girl, not the horse.
“When we reach Bamburgh you will look like Caesar entering the Gates of Rome on that,” said Baldwine in fun. They galloped north along the beach, their horses splashing in the trailing waves, two black and a white stallion with brave young riders bearing good news and sharpened blades.
On that very morning MacBeth and Gille Frog were together on the boat of Thorfinn the Black, approaching the shore of Caithness where the two would continue by horse to Moray. The Black was a forceful man, greedy for fame and fortune. It is well documented that Thorfinn was unusually tall and strong, an ugly man with a full head of black hair and bushy eyebrows, sharp features and a big nose, who came from a long line of ugliness. His grandfather was Thorfinn Skullsplitter, a large ugly man, and his father before him was Turf-Einar, singular in his ugliness with bushy black brows over a nose that pointed away from his one good eye, an eye with no color at all but black. This pedigree was a point of pride for Thorfinn the Mighty Black.
“So you see, good cousin, I have on good account, gossip of sister siblings, that our uncle, that one who calls himself a pious priest of Dunkeld, that Crínán, was behind the intrigue against your father Sigurd the Stout One,” said MacBeth to Thorfinn loud enough to be heard by Brusi in the next boat. MacBeth paused for effect then went on, “I do not say that he was behind the death of our good friend Havard of Caithness, and his wife Nereid, your own kin.”
Thorfinn replied, “Strong accusations, cousin…”
“Who can tell the character of truth in these troubled times,” said MacBeth.
“…but we should keep the flow of tribute away from his vein, as you say, and deliver the coin and plate collected directly to our grandfather Malcolm,” finished the Black.
“It is best that the conduit to Alba be through me, I agree,” said MacBeth as the noose of his scheming tightened. Having secured the Black’s tacit agreement to his plot, MacBeth changed the subject toward Gille.
“Tell me, cousin Frog, how is it that a lovely woman such a Gruoch can suffer your company long enough to bear a son?” asked MacBeth with a wink at Thorfinn. “Your young son should be raised by a man lest he be named tadpole,” said MacBeth to loud laughter.
In his deep and croaking voice Gille answered, “She is a fine woman and loves me, as I do her.”
“A fine woman who deserves more,” said MacBeth aloud, then turning aside he said quietly and directly to you, the reader, And she will have much more, and the boy a man when I am finished.
“Tell me, Brusi,” MacBeth yelled to the boat starboard, “Are you next in the line of tanistry as King of Alba? When our grandfather dies, I mean.” Brusi frowned at this crude baiting on the subject of succession, a vulgar topic MacBeth would usually broach in conversations with cousins.
“Malcolm will live long, and no one knows what the gods have planned,” said Brusi as his brother Thorfinn looked over silently.
But I have plans, dear confidant, again said to you, good reader, as MacBeth looked aside, and not the first time strife bore succession ‘tween rigdomna. Well-practiced am I at this bloody business of royal blood.
Entering the gates at Bamburgh the three riders were met not with the cheers of adoring Romans but with curious smiles directed toward Duncan and his borrowed steed. They gathered stock and gear and were escorted to a row of lodges near the south rampart as the horses were led to the stables, but only Thomas noticed the marbled gray casually eating oats from a pail near the furthermost quarters.
“You have arrived on a good day,” said the stable master.
“Indeed. How so?” asked Thomas, remembering his last visit just six weeks before when the Ealdred’s daughter celebrated her seventeenth birthday. “Is the Earl’s daughter still here, or has she retired to the summer manor?” he asked in his best attempt to seem uninterested. “Lady Ælfflæd was her name, was it not?” knowing full well it was since reliving their brief conversation over and over again in his head three fortnight.
“Yea, she is still here, as are many new guests since your last visit, my lord,” answered the stable master as he fussed and cooed at the brilliant white stallion in tow, adding, “Earl Sigeweard of York arrived with his sister – yes, sshh, she is here,” to the horse. “And Lord Maldred’s wife has been here since…”
“Since we were here in March,” noted Baldwine.
“Too long, if you ask me, but no one does,” added the horseman, then, “Just two days back, or was it on Wodens-day, the entirety of York arrived with the Earl. So many dignitaries and signers, I had to send down for more oats.”
“Expect more, good friend, as we encountered a traveling band last night who say they have good welcome here today,” said Thomas.
“Yea. That I have heard duly. But they will feed their own, we shall see about that,” said the stable master with conviction, and he showed the Rede’s to their lodge. Duncan was given his own cabin, befitting his status as a Prince of Alba.
Later in the day, after discarding their road weary breeches and swapping riding tunics for betters, the three made their way through the trading huts, craft stalls and industry inside the walls to the Great Hall where a banquet was being prepared. Many of the nobles who lived atop the hill were assembled already, well familiar with the timing required to secure good seating and plenty of pre-meal mead.
Thomas immediately saw the girl of his daydreams over the previous weeks, the Lady Ælfflæd, talking in a group of other young lasses, and she saw him. They smiled and bowed at one another, but Thomas observed modesty as usual and kept a distance. Longful looks from across the room and the occasional hello were what Thomas was best at when it came to the ladies.
“Well there are the two trees,” said Baldwine to his friend Duncan who shot back a puzzled look. “There, over there,” Baldwine pointed past the busy waiters and minglers. “The two trees, and she stands between them,” he said with a wink. Duncan’s heart stopped for a full three seconds. There stood the giant Norsemen, still shirtless, standing each side of Cilla as she laughed and chatted with Lady Maldred.
“Hear ye! Hear ye! Ealdred, the Earl of Bernicia enters,” cried the herald in his best Olde Wessex style. The Earl was particularly keen on dispelling talk that northerners were backward. The crowd quieted and turned as Earl Ealdred and his wife Aelgifen, and his mother Lady Ecgfrida entered and sat at the head table while his sister Agythe, the Lady Maldred, joined them at the end with Ælfflæd, the Earl’s daughter. Ealdred offered a customary hand of invitation toward his guest Sigeweard, a very tall man, to sit at his right side, and then the other guests entirely which unleashed a strategic scramble for seats. The side tables yielded spots to Thomas on the left flank of the Earls and Duncan on the right flank, each nearer the target of his affections. Baldwine sat farther down with the rowdies.
Choosing wine over mead, Cilla looked over at Duncan and smiled. Seeing this, Duncan quickly pushed the mead server away with dramatic flair and insisted on wine as well. A local nobleman sitting next to Duncan said, “Is it so? I hear you have begun to see losses to hooligans in the southern parts of Strathclyde and the Strathearn, good Prince.”
“Not so, but Galloway and some of the Redeswood are having trouble with a band of thieves, some say nobles, from the south,” said Duncan, his eyes still fixed upon the brown eyes and raven hair just four seats away. The trees stood behind her still.
“Did you lose something, good sir?” asked Cilla with an upturned corner of feigned innocence.
“Pardon me,” said the nobleman, “May I introduce to you, m’lady, the grandson of King Malcolm the Second of Scotland, Duncan, Lord of Strathclyde.”
He stood to bow and she waved back before extending her hand as the two trees, still behind her, came forward a step. The nobleman continued, “And may I introduce to you, m’lord, the Lady Sybilla Soothen Bjornsdatter, sister of Earl Sigeweard of York.”
“I have lost my horse, dear Lady,” said Duncan with his own feigned innocence and grin.
“What a shame. Did you walk up the hill?” she added.
“I had the great fortune of finding a white stallion, m’lady,” added Duncan, still standing before her. She looked to her left at the nobleman’s daughter who smiled and quickly moved over to Duncan’s empty seat at the side table, leaving the spot next to her vacant.
“Please,” she said to Duncan with a smile as she offered him the seat at her side, which he never left.
“Are these two trees always shading you from the sun?” asked Duncan with a jot of his thumb over his shoulder.
“They are the twins Glædstan and Dunstan, my brother’s guard,” she answered.
“Your brother’s guard? Why are Brightly and Darkly not with him rather than you day and night?” asked Duncan.
Lady Cilla laughed at his pun, touched his hand, and explained, “He is more protective of me. He worries of the enemies of Cnut who would hurt him by injury to me.”
Sigeweard paid little attention to his younger sister due to the twins. The Earls both listened intently to Thomas’ thoughts on diplomacy over arms.
“The Mormaers and Jarls in the north have no interest in skirmish, but Malcolm feels Scone has been disrespected by Cnut in the past. And his son Harefoot is becoming a problem,” said Thomas across the corners of his own table and that of the dux. Below the table his foot was being investigated by that of the Lady Ælfflæd, the daughter of the Earl.
I know this young hotspur Harald,” said Sigeweard, “I can reign him in.”
“Before he wreaks any havoc on Bernicia, I am sure,” said Ealdred with a nod to his southern neighbor. “Taxes collected for Cnut must continue to gather in the purses of the Earls of England alone, and not a knavish heir.”
“And in conference at Dunadd I secured a pact with the Jarl’s of Orkney, and the Mormaers of consequence, a pact of contributions through Malcolm to be collected here at Bamburgh, for protection,” said Thomas as he smiled awkwardly at Ælfflæd.
“For England,” said Sigeweard, “Protection is a matter of Cnut’s choosing.”
“I hear the House of Wessex in Exile, and the Normans, are to be feared,” said Ealdred.
“Pisshh,” said Sigeweard, “They cry like babies and pose no threat.”
“Crínán will be courier of the purses of tribute,” said Thomas to the Earls.
“You mean the father of young love struck Duncan?” asked Ealdred with a nod beyond his table guests. Sigeweard turned his head and frowned at them, although the two paid no attention to Sigeweard, Ealdred, Thomas or any other in the room for that matter.
“The Mormaer of Atholl, his castle is at Scone, but he always travels humbly as Abbot of Dunkeld,” added Thomas Rede.
“Do you live in Morpeth?” asked the seventeen year old Ælfflæd of Thomas, who frowned and shook his head discreetly at her. Her mother and grandmother both scolded her at that.
“What security will he have as a beggar monk on an ass, holding all of that coin?” asked Sigeweard with no small amount of skepticism.
“The Mighty Black will escort him by fleet from Scone by sea to the foot of this very hillfort,” replied Thomas.
“He is that ugly one,” said Earl Sigeweard, his attention back to the matters of state, “Jarl Thorfinn.”
“He still carries the Axe of the Skullsplitter, I hear,” added Earl Ealdred, then, “Good. Perhaps it is time we solidify this alliance.” The Earls turned to one another in private conference as Thomas took a long drink from his mead and considered his diplomatic progress. Ælfflæd had ceased her nuisance, perhaps because of her scolding, Thomas thought.
The acting troupe arrived shortly after the trio of horseman and had prepared an entertainment for the Earl and his dinner guests. Baldwine Rede smiled and his wine waved as they arranged themselves within the cove of tables, while servants frenzied themselves with refilling cups and clearing the plates.
“Noble Lord and Earl. Your Excellency’s,” began the gray haired actor with hands folded and feet together, “We are but a humble band of traveling troubadours, wire-walkers, and juggling fools – some more knave than fool…and the rest too foolish to be navish – Ah-HA-ha-ha-ha!” The audience all joined in the laughter at this opening easement.
As he gave a short description of the comedy, Lady Cilla leaned over to Duncan’s ear and whispered, “I know the secret of the damsel. Dare I share?”
“Pray, adoration! I am your cabinet, your secrets locked safe within,” said Duncan in such honey-soaked tones Lady Cilla let a giggle escape.
“She is in love with him,” she said with the smallest of voices, her eyes exploring his for any hint of empathy.
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