The Sons of Raghnall: Crisis of Conscience

Having won a kingdom, how do you ensure that it stays in the dynasty? A bad grandson, and you might find yourself with sea-kings to sea-kings in three generations. As a side note, this is based on events in the game, when my heir Maldoven for some begobbled AI reason did in fact switch back and forth between voting for himself, and for the Dunkeld candidate, roughly twice a year for five years.

July 18th, 1121
Raghnall Hall (formerly Dunkeld Hall), within Edinburgh Castle
Morning

Maldoven and Euna

Maldoven Raghnall and his wife Euna in 1121. Notice that Maldoven is a coward, and that Euna has three times his brains and guts.

Maldoven took a deep breath. Today, by God and all the saints, he would really do it. His heart hammered, but he gritted his teeth and made himself step forward. His grandfather nodded pleasantly, smiling.

“Good morning, Maldoven.”

“Grandfather,” he burst out. “I must speak to you.”

“Certainly! Speak then.”

“Privately, please.” The inevitable gaggle of courtiers that hung around Ragnvald would not make matters any easier. Ragnvald’s eyebrows rose, but he nodded agreeably, always ready to favour his grandson and heir. “Very well, we will speak in my chambers. Wait here,” he added to his retinue.

“What is it, Maldoven?” he asked when they were in his room. Maldoven took a deep breath. Now, at last, he had to defy the old man, or he never would. It was a deeply frightening prospect; true, Ragnvald had never been anything but kind to his grandson and heir, but Maldoven had seen how he treated those who got in his way. That was, in the end, what had brought him to this pass.

“Grandfather – I have decided. I will, I must, cast the vote of Lothian for Duncan.” There, it was out! Maldoven cringed internally in expectation of a burst of rage, of the famous white eyebrows drawing down in the scowl that even now, in Ragnvald’s age, intimidated warriors and priests alike. Instead, Ragnvald’s brows creased in puzzlement.

“Duncan?” For a long moment the old man seemed not to understand what Maldoven had said. Then his eyes flew wide in startlement. “Duncan Dunkeld? Old Malcolm’s son?”

“Yes, grandfather,” Maldoven whispered. Surely now the rage would come.

“But if you do that,” Ragnvald said, in the tone of someone pointing out an obvious problem, “then Atholl and Argyll will do so as well; and then the throne will pass back to house Dunkeld.”

“Yes, Grandfather. I know that.” In spite of his fear Maldoven felt a spike of exasperation; surely the old man could not really believe he hadn’t thought of that? He knew he wasn’t the sharpest sword in the Raghnall armoury, but come now!

“But then why on Earth would you do such a thing?” The old man sounded more confused than angry; but there was an undertone of hurt as well. Maldoven clenched his teeth against sympathy; he loved his grandfather, but… the facts remained. He looked aside, not quite daring to look Ragnvald in the face as he explained.

“Because we’re in the wrong. Because Malcolm was the rightful king of Scotland. Because – you did wrong, grandfather. I’m sorry. But it was wrong.” With the words out, he dared look at Ragnvald again. The old man’s face had set in lines of granite under the bushy beard, and his eyes were hard now.

“Do you think I don’t know that?”

Maldoven blinked; apparently he wasn’t the only one who could be exasperated by the obtuseness of a relative.

“Of course it was wrong! Of course he was the rightful King! Well, apart from Macbeth’s claim being pretty good when you really look at it, but he was long dead.” Ragnvald’s lips drew back, exposing the yellowed teeth. “And do you think it was right to betray Macbeth? You’ll give up the kingship, will you? And what of the duchy, and the earldom? You were born the son of an earl and grandson of a Duke. You’ve never owned nothing but the armour on your back and a good sword. You’ve never killed your way to the top; no, you’ve had others to do that for you! And now you have scruples? Do you think noble titles are given by the White Christ descending from Heaven? They’re won by blood and treachery, and nothing else. Ours the same as every other Scots duchy and earldom!”

Ragnvald’s eyes blazed, and Maldoven recoiled from his scorn – and from the very good point, which had not occurred to Maldoven, that even his own title might be tainted. He felt himself go pale as the implications sank in. Did he, in fact, have to renounce all his titles to be shut of Ragnvald’s sins? He was not sure if he was really principled enough for that. He groped for an answer, something to push back the sheer force of will emanating from his grandfather – unfair, that such an old man should still be a powerhouse of certainty and willpower, when Maldoven was sure of nothing! But he could think of nothing, except that he needed to speak to his confessor again; perhaps the bishop could clear up his confusion. Ragnvald was still glaring at him, waiting for an answer. At last some piece of advice – from his grandfather, ironically enough – he’d gotten once floated up in his mind: When you’re beaten, retreat fast and save what you can. You’ll want every man for the next time.

“I – you may be right, grandfather,” he stammered out. “I didn’t think of that.” It grated on him to admit it, but it might mollify Ragnvald and had the advantage of being true; he was not sure he could dissemble in the face of that piercing glare. “I’ll, um, be going now.” He managed to back out of the room without saying anything more about how he would vote, which relieved him deeply. Another minute under that famous glare and he would have promised to vote for himself again, or indeed for Lucifer himself if Ragnvald had demanded it, just to get out where he could breathe freely.

————————————-

July 18th, 1121
Raghnall Hall, Edinburgh Castle
Evening

“You wanted to see me, sir?” Euna curtsied deeply, while her mind whirled. What did the king want? To be secretly summoned to the chambers of powerful men – and while he often had guests in here, she couldn’t help noticing that it also held his bed – was not her idea of a good time; but Ragnvald was an old man as well as powerful, well past his three-score and ten. On the other hand power sometimes kept men virile… but there was no use speculating. If Ragnvald was going to try to seduce her, she had her knife if it came to it; and it might not. A liaison with the king might be useful, after all.

“Your husband, Maldoven,” Ragnvald said. “Describe him for me.”

Euna blinked. If that was a prelude to seduction, it was the strangest one she’d ever heard. Could the old man be getting a bit senile? But there was no harm in playing along.

“His eyes are grey, and set close together,” she began, not mentioning the slightly pole-axed look of bovine stupidity which was a frequent feature of her husband’s eyes; but Ragnvald interrupted. “Not his face, woman! I know what he looks like! Describe his mind!”

“His mind?” Euna strove to keep the surprise out of her voice, but it was hard to do. His mind wasn’t, in her opinion, Maldoven’s most prominent feature; it was going to be hard to describe something she’d often struggled to detect. Still, the king gestured impatiently, so she’d better try to come up with something. Did he want his grandson flattered? No, she decided; he was looking for her honest opinion, for whatever reason. Well then. Still, there could be no harm in a bit of diplomacy.

“He is not a quick thinker,” she understated cosmically, intending to continue with a platitude like “but his thoughts sometimes run deep,” which was true in the sense that they were so deep as to be completely hidden from her; but the King again interrupted her. “Yes, I’ve noticed that,” he said dryly. “But perhaps I phrased my question badly. What I want to know is, is he stubborn? Having chosen a course, does he stick to it through thick and thin?”

Maldoven, who sometimes changed his mind three times in a day on whether he wanted lamb or beef for dinner? “Ah – well, sire,” she said cautiously. “He’s not very stubborn, no. He’s usually amenable to a good argument.” Or a bad one, or any argument at all.

Ragnvald sighed. “All right,” he said. “I’ll stop dancing around it. His vote. Will he cast it for himself?”

God help her, was Maldoven on about that again? Euna rolled her eyes unthinkingly. “Christ have mercy,” she groaned. “Has that cursed bishop gotten to him again?” Then she remembered who she was talking to, and flinched. But Ragnvald didn’t look angry, or not at her, anyway.

“Again?” he said. “You knew about this, then?”

Now it was clear to Euna what was going on; politics, not sex. And – might Ragnvald be an ally? he presumably wanted someone of his own blood to succeed him; and while Euna didn’t give a damn whether Maldoven inherited the throne of Scotland or a one-acre farm in the Hebrides, their son Gilmichael was something else entirely.

“He’s been talking about the vote, on and off, for a year now,” she said, deciding to be candid. “Every time he talks to that bishop, de Strathardle, in fact. Then when he talks to me, he changes his mind.”

“Ah,” Ragnvald said, a little sadly. “So even if I convince him, I can’t rely on it sticking.” He seemed to be talking mostly to himself now, but Euna responded anyway.

“I’m – afraid not, sire. He – well. He’s my husband, and your grandson. But the fact remains that he is as steady and stubborn as a weathervane.”

“I’d hoped you would tell me otherwise,” Ragnvald sighed. “But I can’t say I really expected it.” He was quiet for a pensive moment, then changed the subject abruptly. “This de Strathardle, now. Appointed by Malcolm, was he?”

“Ah – that was before my time, sire.” Before Euna had been born, in fact; or Maldoven for that matter. “He’s been bishop of Fortngall since long before I came here. But, yes, I suppose he was. Bishoprics are in the King’s gift, no? And Malcolm was king before you, and you didn’t appoint him; so…”

“Yes. And Malcolm had, if nothing else, a gift for inspiring loyalty.” Ragnvald smiled grimly. “Except in the highest ranks of the nobility, of course. Treacherous as snakes, we are. That’s how you become a high noble in the first place.”

Euna blinked, deciding she wasn’t going to touch that one with a stick, any more than she would have poked a rattlesnake. A remarkably apt analogy, in fact, she thought with mordant humour. “Um. So you think de Strathardle is influencing Maldoven to favour the Dunkelds out of old loyalty? It’s – yes, it’s not impossible.”

“Perhaps I should have killed the old bastard after all,” Ragnvald muttered.

“Why didn’t you?” Euna asked, genuinely curious. The king was a hard man, shaped by a long life full of wars; he had led his own troops in the field against Malcolm, and he’d been past sixty at the time. The mercy he’d shown after his victory had always seemed uncharacteristic to her.

Ragnvald rubbed his forehead. “Yes, well. I didn’t want his blood on my hands. There’s enough there already. He was an old man, his will broken; and right enough, he never revolted, and then he died. But he was a always a subtle one; if anyone can reach out from beyond the grave to trouble us, it’s him. A mistake, perhaps; a moment’s weakness… but it’s done.” He looked up, his eyes meeting Euna’s. “We have, I think, a common interest here. If Maldoven does not inherit, then neither does Gilmichael.”

“Indeed,” Euna said, pleased to have it spelled out plainly; and it was ‘us’ now, she noticed.

“Maldoven can’t be relied on to see his own best interest,” Ragnvald went on. His face was setting into hard lines. For a moment the warrior chief who had led men to battle in England, Scotland and Ireland stood out from beneath the aged king, and Euna felt a stirring in her belly that Maldoven had never awakened. She understood why warriors had followed this man.

“Worse,” he went on, “even if we browbeat him into submission – and that doesn’t seem hard to do – we can’t rely on him staying sensible. I can keep him under my thumb while he’s here in my castle. But” – he smiled grimly – “he won’t be using his vote until he is, very thoroughly, outside my ability to influence.”

Euna licked her lips. “I might be able to keep him focused,” she said.

“I don’t doubt that,” the king nodded respectfully, “so long as you’re in the same room with him. But the voting conclave will be closed to everyone except the electors. Six Earls of Scotland, all forceful men of character; and Maldoven. No, my lady; I fear we dare not rely on even your persuasion. Indeed, the problem is precisely that Maldoven is so easy to persuade.”

Euna nodded, and decided to say straight out what the king was only hinting at. “That is true. But – consider that Argyll and Atholl are willing enough to vote for Maldoven, who is a grown man and whom they think they can influence. Gilmichael is only a year old. The English are in Teviotdale, the French in Ireland; I doubt they’ll be glad to vote in a child king.”

“I’m not dead quite yet,” Ragnvald said dryly, and Euna flushed; “but you’re right. Even if I live another decade, Gilmichael would only be eleven. But the thing about the good Dukes is, they can be bribed and will stay bought; they may be hard to convince, unlike Maldoven, but once you’ve got them persuaded they will damn well stick to it.”

“I suppose,” Euna said doubtfully. “But if there’s no obvious Raghnall candidate, won’t they try to form their own factions? One for Atholl, one for Argyll…”

“No doubt,” Ragnvald agreed. “But elections are risky, as we well know. So if we offer one of them what looks like a better chance at the same power, he’ll jump at it.”

“You’re thinking of a regency?” Euna frowned. “Chancy, at best.” She thought of Gilmichael strangled in his bed by an agent of Atholl or Argyll – herself sent back to Ireland, or packed off to a nunnery to pray thrice daily – no, no. “I’d almost rather rely on Maldoven’s vote.”

“None of them are to be trusted with an actual regency,” Ragnvald agreed. “But the prospect of marrying the regent; there’s something else again.”

“Ohhh,” Euna breathed, understanding. “Now I see.” If she was named regent for Gilmichael, she would rule Scotland for at least a decade, depending on when Ragnvald died. Even after Gilmichael came to his maturity, he would surely listen to his mother. If, of course, the king’s ploy worked.

“They’re not stupid, these Dukes,” Euna said. “It’s not a question of shaking my tits at them and watching the blood rush from their heads.”

“No,” Ragnvald agreed. “Shaking a regency, on the other hand – that’ll make them gasp to marry you.”

“If I’m available,” Euna said, and met the king’s eyes challengingly. They’d been dancing around it; but politics in Scotland was not a game for little girls, or squeamish men. If they were going to get rid of her husband, of Ragnvald’s grandson, then she wanted it said out loud, not left to implications and tacit understandings. After all, the king had just proposed that they play at tacit understandings with the Dukes, and with her own marriage oath as part of the bait; she would not have him think he could play thus on Euna.

“If you’re available,” Ragnvald said steadily, then looked down. “I wish Edward had lived,” he said sadly. His son, Maldoven’s father, had died of lungfever when Euna was a child. “He would not have made this necessary.” He paused for a long moment. “Well. Dead is dead. I think I’ll arrange a tournament. Accidents happen in tournaments. Perhaps I’ll give Maldoven a gift; say, a good coat of mail.”

Euna nodded, but it was still hints and shadows, nothing said straight out. “You mean to kill Maldoven,” she said, gently. The king flinched, pain in his eyes.

“White Christ help me, yes, I do.” He clenched his jaw. “Or perhaps I should rather call on the old gods, for this. Loki help me, then. I love the boy, but – I’ll not let him spoil what I’ve built here. I should not have let Malcolm live. Now I’ll pay the price of that mistake, with Maldoven’s life.”

It was said, and there was no point in dwelling on it. Euna resolved that she would try her own plan to kill Maldoven, rather than rely on the king’s; she felt no pain at the thought, and who knew but that the king might flinch at the last moment? Or his plan might fail from other causes; tournaments were chancy things. But the king had no need to know about that.

“I am sorry for your loss,” she said instead, and went on before the king could brood about it. “We should have a means of communicating in secret; it would be best if nobody suspects that we are allies in the matter of the succession.”

“You’re right,” Ragnvald said, rousing himself from his thoughts. Once again the warrior chief stood out in the strong bones under the face of the king. Ragnvald had sacrificed men before; had seen comrades swept away by storm, slain in desperate fighting to seize a well-guarded tower, sent them to shore up a shattered flank until the enemy’s center gave way. He would not let his sadness at the weakness of a well-meaning grandchild prevent him from doing what must be done to preserve his dynasty.

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