July 10th, 1108
Courtyard of Edinburgh Castle
Raghnall and Malcolm in old age
The drums, admittedly, were an affectation; but at his age, Ragnvald found it hard to enjoy the subtle music of harp and flute, and in any case those instruments’ fragile sound would have disappeared in the open air atop Castle Rock. The kettledrums that drove his wild Irish gallowglasses into their screaming charges were unsubtle, true; battle drummers made no clever interlocking rhythms, no syncopated patterns. But they filled the courtyard with noise and fury; the wild beat-beat-beat made hearts pound. And, for those on Malcolm’s side who had been brought here to witness Ragnvald’s triumph, the reminder of what it was like to face gallowglasses in battle would do no harm. Ragnvald had his fighting tail, his fee-knights, his levies and train-bands; but so did Malcolm. It was the savage Irish mercenaries that had broken the back of the resistance. In the end, most of the nobles fighting for Malcolm had deserted him simply to get the barbarians out of Scotland and away from their personal estates.
The gates of Dunkeld Hall opened, and the old King – for a little while longer, he was still King – emerged between two burly soldiers of Ragnvald’s personal guards. As Ragnvald had intended, Malcolm – white-haired and clad only in a thin cotton tunic and trews – looked fragile and small between the two armoured soldiers in the prime of their life; Ragnvald had chosen his largest men for the task, and instructed them to pad their mail with cloth. Still, he walked steadily, making his guards look like honour guards rather than prison warders; Ragnvald nodded mental respect for the feat. It could not be easy to walk into the ear-splitting noise of the drums to a meeting that had a very good chance of being the last conversation you would ever have with anyone, seeing all around you your defeated allies and the fierce bearded faces of your victorious enemies, and still hold your head high and not flinch.
When Malcolm came to a distance of fifteen feet from Ragnvald, he held up his hand; at the signal, the drums stopped – slightly raggedly, the battle-drummers were not really trained for ceremony, but it would do. Ragnvald spoke into the sudden silence, and men leaned forward – chain mail rattled in the still air – to hear.
“Thrice now we’ve met, Malcolm called Canmore; and third time, they say, pays for all.”
Malcolm worked his jaw as though to spit, but thought better of it. Instead he tossed his head haughtily; defiance, perhaps, was all he had left, and so he clung to it all the harder. “Kill me and have done, traitor. I’ll not bandy words with you.”
There was much to be said for that; but not in public, where his allies would see, and remember Ragnvald killing a helpless old man in a cotton tunic. A damp dungeon would be Ragnvald’s method of choice for killing an inconvenient prisoner. But if he could, he’d begin his reign with an act of mercy. It would be good for his vassals – formerly Malcolm’s vassals – to see that he wasn’t merely a scheming, ruthless traitor. Of course, it would also be good for them to see that he would crush anyone who defied him; so killing remained an option. The question was, how much defiance did Malcolm have in him? A show of mercy was no good if it led to renewed civil war in a year’s time.
“I did not come here to shed royal blood,” he said, watching Malcolm closely to gauge his reaction. Was that a spark of hope?
Malcolm’s bushy eyebrows drew down in confusion. “Then what do you want, Raghnall? Do you propose to go home and live peacefully on your estate, after this?”
“No. The royal residence will remain here at Edinburgh. But kings dislike shedding the blood even of former kings.”
That was enough of a hint for Malcolm; after all he hadn’t got to be King of Scots, and ruled for forty years, without being able to tell a hawk from a handsaw. “You would have me abdicate, and retire to my Gowrie lands?”
“After paying a suitable ransom, of course.” Raghnall smiled sardonically. “Let us say, thirty marks silver.”
Malcolm flinched; but symbolism aside, it was an absurdly low sum for a nobleman’s ransom, easily within his means even after two years of destructive war. And life, after all, was worth much, even to a man who had been King for forty years. Malcolm had clearly expected to be killed, had nerved himself to die well, spitting defiance to the last. Now Ragnvald held out the prospect that he might survive. The trick was to not give him too much hope; survival was one thing, revolt against the new king, quite another.
“And your son Duncan will remain here at Edinburgh, as my honoured guest,” Ragnvald added, and Malcolm pressed his lips together, holding back some hot protest. But he nodded in acceptance; Duncan would be a hostage for his good behaviour, of course. “Yes,” he croaked, “I understand.”
“And you’ll bend the knee here before me, and renounce the throne.”
This was the sticking point. Malcolm was a proud man; and the same fire of ambition burned in him as in Ragnvald. Ragnvald had seen it in him at their first meeting, forty years before; he knew, none better, the fire that burned in Malcolm’s belly. It was the same fire that had led him to betray his salt and take arms against a man whose bread he had eaten. Such men did not kneel easily, even with the threat of death in front of them; nor did they find it easy to live as dukes, when they had ruled as Kings. Who should know better than Ragnvald? Even a son as hostage gave no certainty with such a man; after all Malcolm had other sons, and grandsons too. Ragnvald had not had to sacrifice any sons on his way to the throne… but he knew that he would have done so, if necessary. His hostage ploy would not long deter Malcolm if the man retained the same will to power that he’d had in Birnam wood; or even the deep-seated rage he’d displayed at Arthur’s Seat. But Malcolm was, after all, an old man. Ragnvald watched his reaction carefully. If necessary, he could still choke on a fishbone in his soup.
“Kneel?” Malcolm said, as though the idea had never occurred to him.
“Yes, Malcolm. Kneel, here, now. Bend your stiff knees, and live.”
Malcolm clenched his teeth, and momentary defiance blazed in his eyes. For a long three seconds it seemed that he would tell Ragnvald where to stick his demands. Then, slowly, he crumbled. His gaze flicked aside from Ragnvald’s, and his shoulders slumped fractionally. A moment before, a king had stood before Ragnvald; defeated, perhaps, but still a king. Now a tired old man confronted one who had just achieved his life’s ambition. Ragnvald let out a covert sigh of relief. It had been a gamble, bringing Malcolm out in public like this; there had always been the chance of him making some dramatic last defiance, and guaranteeing a civil war in two or three years’ time, to avenge the old king. But the gamble had paid off; he could see it in Malcolm’s eyes, in his posture. He had broken Malcolm’s will to resist; and so Malcolm could be permitted to live – and Ragnvald would not have on his conscience the blood of a man whose bread he had eaten. A second man, he corrected himself; he had not literally eaten Macbeth’s bread, but that did not matter. He had owed Macbeth loyalty; and while he hadn’t himself wielded the sword that haggled Macbeth’s stubborn head off his powerful neck – that had been Malcolm’s right-hand man, MacDuff – he might as well have plunged a dagger into his kidney. In a way, he supposed it didn’t matter what he did to Malcolm; he was already damned, and adding another deadly betrayal could not condemn him further. But if it did not matter to the White Christ, still, it mattered to Ragnvald; and so he had contrived this public ordeal, to try to break Malcolm’s defiance and allow him, at least, to live.
“I made you Earl of Fife,” Malcolm said, almost pleading. It could have been a prelude to refusing; but Ragnvald could see the struggle within him, the will to live against the reluctance to admit defeat and to make a show of submission. Malcolm needed a little more time, that was all; and Ragnvald had it to give.
“And I gave you Macbeth,” he replied coolly. “Value for value, and nothing owed.”
“I made you Duke of Lothian!”
“A form of words to spite the English, when they took Teviotdale. Not an acre of land did you add to the title; it was worth its weight in silver, and its worth in silver you received in return.”
Malcolm clenched his teeth in despair; but his protests had not been serious attempts to make Ragnvald change his mind, only the useless anger of a man betrayed. Slowly, so slowly that you could almost hear the internal struggle as the desire for life overcame pride, Malcolm knelt, and bent his head. “I -” he had to clear his throat twice before he could get the words out. “I renounce the crown of Scotland,” he said, not loudly, but clearly enough to carry across the hushed courtyard.
“Very well,” Ragnvald said. There was no need to drag out the humiliation; the point was made, and Malcolm would survive. “Rise then, Duke of Albany.” Malcolm got to his feet, slowly, looking dazed and surprised to be alive.
Ragnvald had been too concerned with Malcolm’s life to think much about his victory; but now triumph rose in him like heady wine. He threw his shoulders back, looking over the courtyard – his courtyard – filled with his loyal soldiers and with the peerage of Scotland. “Malcolm has renounced the throne,” he said ringingly; “and I, Ragnvald son of Thorvald, am King of Scots!”
The drums began again, but they were drowned out by the cheering, as his people released the tension of the drawn-out confrontation with Malcolm. “Ragnvald! Ragnvald!” someone shouted, and everyone took it up; then swords began beating against shields, and thought became impossible in the driving, hammering noise. Ragnvald stood in its center and gloried. King of Scots! He, a common soldier of Harald’s levy, a man who’d had to borrow a mail coat because he couldn’t afford his own – King of Scots! He’d had triumphs before, when Malcolm named him Earl, when his son Edward was born, when he first lay with a woman; this beat them all.
“Hail, Ragnvald! King of Scots!“