The Sons of Raghnall: Once Met, and Twice

Here is the actual story of Macbeth’s and Raghnall’s meeting, not filtered through my attempt at Shakespeare. As far as I knew when I wrote the previous installment, my dynasty would be ruling England in 1600, so my alter-Shakespeare was naturally extremely careful not to say anything about postern gates or other events that might be unflattering to the regime. The truth is, the Raghnalls have their origin in a lucky pirate.

October 23rd, 1066 (*)
Birnam Wood, Scotland
Near midnight

Raghnall and Malcolm

Raghnall and Malcolm in their youth.

“I can give you Macbeth.”

The fire burned low, but enough remained to make out the speaker’s features. They were not remarkable, in this army. Blond hair, a bushy beard with glints of red in it, a blunt nose twice broken – half of Malcolm’s men could be described thus; half of Macbeth’s too, if it came to that. Two centuries of raiding and trading had spread the Norse blood over all of Scotland, and both sides had called in the sea-kings and the pirates to swell their numbers. The intensity that burned in the blue eyes, though – that was unusual.

“Can you?” Malcolm allowed a slight note of skepticism to creep into his voice. In two weeks’ siege he’d heard that promise roughly three times daily; every man in his army, it sometimes seemed, had a bright idea. Yet Macbeth’s banner still flew. “And how will you do that?”

The stranger leaned forward. “I’m part of the guard on the western tower of Dunsinane – me and my men. There’s a postern gate. Slip two dozen men in, three dozen, and we can seize the main gate for you.”

That was more interesting. Treachery, after all, was how most castles fell, when they fell. Winter was coming; Macbeth did not have to hold on for long. Two weeks, three at most, and the weather would force Malcolm to retreat, or lose half his army to disease and desertion. And if the war went into another year, who knew what might happen? Malcolm had got the better of the old man this year, forcing him back and back, until now at last he had him cornered in Dunsinane; but he was a slippery old bastard, and he still had many supporters in the east. Let him get out, let him raise another army, and next year it might be Malcolm desperately praying he could hold a fortress until the winter storms. Yes, and worrying about traitors on his postern gates.

“It might work,” he said judiciously. “Now, if you were a Scot, I might assume that you would aid me simply because I am, when all’s said and done, the rightful King. But it seems to me that there’s more than a hint of Norway on your tongue; and Raghnall is no name for a Scot.” He was conscious that he wasn’t pronouncing the name right, there had been a vee somewhere in there when the man had introduced himself; but the Gaelic laid its burr on his tongue whatever language he spoke. And anyway, he was the King, and the man was a landless venturer; he could change his name to suit Malcolm.

Raghnall, or whatever his name was, smiled like a wolf. “As you say, sire King. Macbeth offered me bread and salt, and gave me a place at his table; not the best place, mind you, but a place. That’s well enough for piping times of peace; but now there’s war to the knife, and kings grow desperate. He should have given me more. What’s your offer?”

Malcolm kept his opinion of men who would take another’s salt and then sell their postern gates to himself; he needed Dunsinane. Instead he matched the Norseman’s smile. What, after all, did landless venturers want? Gold, women, perhaps glory – but above all, to not be landless venturers anymore.

“What would you say to a farm?”

“I would say what my father always said; that I’ll not be a thief for a loaf of bread. He died at Stamford, mind; but he died honest. And poor.”

“So it goes,” Malcolm commented neutrally. “Well then. Not for bread; what of silver? A thousand marks, that’s a sum any man might turn thief for.”

“It is,” Raghnall nodded. “Thief, but not traitor. I didn’t eat of Macbeth’s bread, but I sat at his table. Try again, sire King.”

Malcolm’s respect for the man grew a notch; so did his contempt. He hadn’t eaten the bread? And did he think that excused him? But he could, clearly, out-haggle a Scot.

“If it prosper, none dare call it treason,” Malcolm quoted; “so it seems I should make you prosperous, then. Give me Dunsinane, and I’ll make you an earl.”

“Aye, that’s something more like.” Raghnall’s eyes burned in the firelight. “But earl” – he pronounced it ‘jarl’, in the Norse fashion – “of what? Not a farm, sire King, nor silver. An earldom. That’s my price; but a title without land is an empty word.”

“So it is,” Malcolm said, painfully aware that he had been crowned King of Scots a year before, and that he controlled just as much land as his army happened to be standing on. “Fife, then. Macbeth has supporters there; I wish you much joy of them, and them of you.”

Raghnall smiled again, or at any rate his teeth glinted in the firelight. “Aye, sire King, that will do nicely. At that price you can buy a Norseman’s honour.”

“And I’ll throw thirty marks of silver into the bargain,” Malcolm added, knowing it was dangerous to taunt a man he needed badly, but unable to help himself. Raghnall pressed his lips together, but replied evenly, “Judas betrayed a man with no army and no castle walls. No doubt he got all the market would bear. Keep your silver, sire King; I’d not have the word on me of being so greedy as to get between a Scot and his money.”

“An earldom, then,” Malcolm agreed, then turned to more immediate matters. “When shall I send my troops for the postern gate?”

Raghnall turned to break a branch off the nearest tree. “Macbeth does not completely trust me; we’ll have to kill some of his men. When we hold the tower, I’ll fly this” – he brandished the branch – “from its top. Come quick when you see it.”

“As you say,” Malcolm agreed, glad that it wasn’t him who’d be fighting in the tower; that was going to be a desperate and bloody business. “A Birnam branch atop Dunsinane tower, that’s the signal. And that branch will be your arms, too, for as long as your sons hold Fife.”

Raghnall shrugged acquiescence. “As you say; it’s not like to matter. Easy come, easy go. Last year I was a soldier in King Harald’s levy; this year I’m an earl in Scotland; next year, who knows? My sons will be sea-kings again, like as not. Much use they’ll have for heraldry then. A branch will serve me well enough, for a signal and for a coat of arms. As for my sons, let them make their own luck. As I have.”

(*) Conceivably you know something about the early history of the kingdom of Scotland that would make this scene impossible. Just keep in mind that dating early-medieval events is notoriously difficult; errors of a mere decade or so are by no means impossible. Anyway, this is not our timeline.


June 5th, 1086
Arthur’s Seat, outside Edinburgh

Arthur's Seat

Arthur’s Seat

Malcolm and Raghnall in middle age

Raghnall and Malcolm in middle age

The hill, all of eight hundred feet high, was not impressive to one born in a Norwegian valley; but the way it stood out from the plain and dominated even Castle Rock, which in turn lowered over the city, made it a natural place for the rebel lords to stage their ceremony. At this distance, the castle looked like a child’s toy; the huddle of narrow streets and low buildings it protected, like a scatter of blocks. Ragnvald had seen the walls from below; they were built atop cliffs plunging hundreds of feet straight down, utterly impregnable to assault… and equally impossible to resupply in defiance of an army twice the size of the garrison. The distant perspective was the truer, he decided; the imposing walls of Edinburgh Castle had availed Malcolm little, when his granaries were near empty and his vassals chose to impose their will on him.

The King’s party made their way slowly across the plain and up the hill; in accordance with the negotiated protocol, they were armed, but not armoured, and Malcolm’s banner was wreathed in green branches in token of peacefulness. Ragnvald smiled coldly, remembering another army that had approached a parley without armour, and how the day had ended for them. But Harald had expected to be given tribute, not to make concessions. There would be no ambush here, no army force-marched hundreds of miles in two weeks. Not that Harold had had any joy of his exploit, in the end.

Raghnall shook himself out of thoughts of the past; Malcolm had reached the top of the hill. His herald announced him, in a good carrying voice: “Malcolm, King of Scots, third of that name, called Canmore, comes to treat with his vassals and leal subjects.” That was the face-saving compromise; everyone would pretend that Malcolm was granting the Charter out of the goodness of his heart and from loyal entreaty, not because he had been surprised by a large army with his war stocks low.

The herald went on, listing the agreed terms. Matad of Albany was made Master of the Hunt “in recognition of his good and faithful service,” and Malcolm must have ground his teeth near to dust over that one; Matad was the leader of this near-rebellion. Margaret of Moray had her inheritance recognised and reconfirmed, yet again; she had had that clause inserted into nearly every legal document Malcolm’s rule had produced. Ragnvald supposed she had reason to be worried; there were many in Scotland who disliked the rule of a woman. By now it was almost a joke; “and Margaret shall be Duchess of Moray” meant that whoever had spoken just before had said something obvious and plain to all. Then again, perhaps that meant her strategy was working.

Now they came to the meat of the matter; Ragnvald tensed. It was still possible that Malcolm would try something tricky with the terms, and that might mean fighting. It certainly looked hopeless, Malcolm’s ten and unarmoured against the gathered might of the lords of Scotland, armed cap-a-pie; but the king was tricky and subtle. He might have made some agreement with a faction within the rebels; they were by no means united. Or he might have somehow subtly altered the text so that it would seem to give the lords what they wanted, but had some subtle loophole, and gamble that it wouldn’t come to blows over an apparently-minor alteration. Ragnvald listened carefully.

“Third clause. When, which God grant be far in the future, the King is taken into Heaven, the succession shall be determined by the vote of the Dukes of Scotland, these being Moray, Atholl, Lothian, Galloway, Argyll, Mar, and the Isles.”

Ragnvald relaxed slightly; that was the agreed form of words.

“Fourth clause. Eligible for the Kingship shall be the aforementioned dukes Elector, and also the male children of the body of the King, or female if there is no male issue.”

Ragnvald took a deep breath; Malcolm had not pulled anything out of his sleeve. The rebellion had succeeded, almost without blood being shed. There was a general sighing and air of relaxation over the rebel lords, and the herald droned on through the minor terms almost unheeded: The inheritances of three-acre farms, the socs and sacs, the taxes and tallages, the pardons for murders, the weird promise not to delay justice that some minor baron had insisted on after his lawsuit had dragged out for three months.

Finally it was done, and Malcolm made his mark on the Charter with lips tightly pressed together, clearly suppressing rage. Two priests witnessed it, and the great lords made their marks below Malcolm’s. Ragnvald had been included in the list of signatories after much thought and negotiation. He was the only mere earl in the list, but his fief, centered on wealthy Fife, was one of the richest in the realm. Malcolm hadn’t known that, perhaps, when he gave it away so easily; he’d been raised in England, after all, to protect him from Macbeth’s assassins. Or perhaps he’d just been desperate.

As he came forward to make his mark, Malcolm’s gaze snapped around to meet him. Ragnvald was in armour, surrounded by soldiers loyal to him and armed to the teeth, and Malcolm had less than a dozen men, and they unarmoured. Nonetheless, Ragnvald felt himself flinching, his step hesitating slightly, in the face of the boundless rage in the dark brown eyes.

“Raghnall,” Malcolm said; it was the first time he’d spoken since he reached the top of Arthur’s Seat. His voice was low, rusty with rage. “Growing ever more skilled at treason, I see. Nothing so risky as opening a postern gate this time.”

Ragnvald shrugged, affecting a calm he did not feel. Malcolm was, after all, King of Scots; ruler of a poor kingdom in an isolated backwater, perhaps, but still a King of Christendie, a man with many avenues for vengeance, if he decided to use them. “We seem to be prospering,” he replied lightly. “And besides, your loyal vassals are required to give you good and honest advice.” That was his story and he was sticking to it. Words had power, the words of a King, all the more so. Everyone knew, of course, that the lords had imposed this decree on Malcolm; but if it were openly called treason and rebellion, words publicly spoken by the King with all the weight of the throne behind it, that was something else again. Malcolm must be inwardly shaking with anger, to have risked even a low-voiced accusation here, surrounded by armed men.

“What’s in it for you, Raghnall?” Malcolm’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not a duke; you don’t get a vote.”

Ragnvald sighed. “Can’t a man be sincere in the belief that kings should be chosen by those they rule, not by the accident of birth? That’s how we do things in Norway, you know.” And besides, he carefully didn’t say, titles came and went but power, in the end, came from the land. A jarl who ruled firmly over wide estates and had a loyal fighting-tail could afford to play a long game on mere laws that were written on parchment. Parchment could be scraped and rewritten.

Malcolm snorted. “Yes, and you can choose any King you like provided he’s an Yngling. No. You’re no idealist. What did they pay you?”

That was opportunity. Apparently Malcolm had not really grasped the extent of Ragnvald’s ambitions, or how long a term he could plan for. Let him think it mere opportunism; let him think that Ragnvald could be bought, and he would not take steps to guard his future. A vassal that could be bribed for money was a vassal that was safe enough for the king, who could outbid his lords.

“Three thousand marks silver,” he lied.

“Cheap work, for a man that can outhaggle a Scot,” Malcolm sneered.

“There wasn’t any treason involved, after all. Just advice.”

“Ah, yes. Certainly you would not have rebelled for a mere three thousand marks. After all you’ve eaten my bread. I made sure of that.” Apparently satisfied that he’d gotten the last word, Malcolm turned on his heel and stalked towards his horse, leaving Ragnvald to make his mark and have it witnessed. Ragnvald was content with that. He had gotten the substance of their meeting; let Malcolm carry away whatever comfort he could take from getting in an insult. Perhaps it would soothe his rage.

In any case, words were cheap.


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One response to “The Sons of Raghnall: Once Met, and Twice

  1. Pingback: The Sons of Raghnall: Two Revolutions, Part I: The Last Ditch | Ynglinga Saga

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