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Harbingers of Blood, Part 1 (Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare, PG-13) - Shaksper Random [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
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Harbingers of Blood, Part 1 (Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare, PG-13) [Sep. 2nd, 2010|01:34 pm]
HA HA HA! Marlowe's my bitch!

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[gehayi]
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Title: Harbingers of Blood
Author: gehayi
Fandom: Shakespeare--specifically, Macbeth
Characters: Gruoch (Lady Macbeth), Macbeth, Duncan, the Three Witches, Éua (the nameless Gentlewoman from the play), a Priest (OC), assorted Ghosts
Word Count: 12,046
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: I most emphatically am not William Shakespeare. This should not come as a shock to anyone.
Prompt: And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see -- or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read. -- Alice Walker (born February 9, 1944) , Pulitzer-prize-winning African-American novelist, short-story writer and poet. First black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. First black woman to win the National Book Award. (Both awards were in 1983 for The Color Purple.)
Summary: Written for femgenficathon. Queens have power. They need not hide who and what they are for safety's sake. But more than that--queens have names. And Lady Macbeth would do much to be known and remembered under her own name.
Warnings (if any): Violence and murder.
Author's Notes: (if any) This is a re-imagining of Shakespeare's play--a blend of historical fact, the play and AU. Where there is a conflict between the play and history--as with Duncan, who was young when he took the throne and who died in battle, or with the Norse king Sweno being Prince Malcolm's grandfather (as in real life), rather than the uncle Shakespeare describes--the play takes precedence.

Some of the speeches are paraphrases of Shakespeare interspersed with quotations. And the witches' conversation in Lady Macbeth's nightmare is, word for word, Shakespeare's dialogue for Lady Macbeth in the sleepwalking scene. The quotations are taken from The Tragedy of Macbeth on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Shakespeare site.

The title comes from Act 5, Scene VI of Macbeth. Macduff speaks of trumpets, often used to announce the start of a battle or tourney, as "those clamorous harbingers of blood and death." This made me think that there might have been other omens of what was in the wind...before the witches appeared.

Many thanks to lareinenoire for betaing.

***

For years, to everyone around her, she is simply "Lady Macbeth." Even her husband, who has the right to call her by her true name, addresses her in private as well as in public as "my lady" or "madam."

And perhaps that is for the best. "Lady Macbeth" is a useful camouflage, keeping her alive and out of the minds of those who might think her potential offspring a threat to them and their power. She certainly has no quarrel with camouflage or disguise. Of necessity, she has learned to be good at both.

Yet, when she is alone in her chambers--truly alone, her servants having been sent from her presence for a moment--she takes a deep breath and speaks in a low whisper her true name: "Gruoch ingen Boite meic Cináeda." Gruoch, the daughter of Boite, who was the son of Kenneth.

Kenneth, third of that name, King of Scotland.

Perhaps that is where it begins. Not with the weird sisters and their bizarre prophecy. Not trying to drive her husband to achieve a level of power that he covets no less than she does, though he is less willing to admit it. Perhaps it starts because she knows herself to be more than a thane's wife, ennobled by marriage; she is the granddaughter of the King of Scotland, her blood as royal as that of those who now reign over her and her husband alike.

Maybe that is the origin of her fierce and--the men around her say disapprovingly--unwomanly ambition: the insistent awareness gnawing at her that, were she a man, she would be a contender for the throne. As it is...well, it is the eleventh century, and in the Christian world, women who rule in their own right are all but unthinkable. She must needs drive her husband to kingship so that she can attain her rightful place; it is the only way she can have the crown she craves.

And she does crave it. Queens have power. They need not hide who and what they are for safety's sake; they need not pretend to be cooing doves, but can fly as free as any hawk. She covets that.

But more than that--a queen is not merely "Lulach's mother," "Giric's sister," "Boite's daughter" or "Macbeth's wife." A queen has a name.

Her Majesty, Gruoch, Queen of Scotland.

She would do much to be known and remembered under her own name.

***

Gruoch wonders if, in other lands, dynasties form with ordered elegance. She only knows they do not in Scotland. The line of Scottish rulers looks more like a family quarrel.

Like Macbeth, the present king, Duncan, is the grandson of the man who slew her grandfather in battle: Malcolm II, called "The Destroyer." She could accept that; men die in war, against both family and strangers, and in the heat of the moment, she doubts whether the fact that Malcolm II and Kenneth III were first cousins, grandchildren of a common grandfather, was much of a consideration. But Malcolm II also had her brother Giric murdered twenty-seven years after that battle for the horrific crime of being a strong, hearty man in the prime of life who might well prove to be a rival to the throne if he was not slain.

No one offered a word of protest. Not even her. All in Scotland knew better than to draw the attention of the Destroyer.

It did no good to keep silent, for not long after Giric's execution, her first husband--Gille Coemgáin, the King of Moray, a small kingdom around Inverness--was burned to death in his hall, along with fifty of his strongest and most skillful warriors.

A tragedy, the widows of the warriors said, furtively glancing about them as if to be sure that their loyal words would be heard. The will of God, said the warriors' elderly fathers and grass-green sons in all-too-pious tones.

Gruoch had had to bite her tongue hard enough to draw blood to stop herself from saying that she'd always believed the King of Heaven and the King of Scotland to be two separate people. She was, after all, a woman alone now, without most of the protectors and defenders that Gille had counted on to guard her and their four-year-old son, Lulach.

Some weeks after the slaughter, Macbeth appeared in Moray with an army ready to besiege Castle Glamis if she did not surrender and a royal command ringing in his ears to wed her if she did.

Of course she agreed. To refuse would have been to invite the Destroyer's wrath to fall upon her people...to say nothing of the fact that there is not a noblewoman alive who does not fear being raped, beaten and dragged before a priest --what men euphemistically call "being forcibly wed." But still she bargained, agreeing on condition that her son's life be spared, and that he not be torn away from her, pledged to a monastery and taught to love naught but God. A vain hope, and she knew it as she asked, but she did ask it.

Impossibly, Macbeth assented. And since then, he has even adopted his stepson.

It is this last that gnaws at her mind like a chunnering worm. Macbeth has been a general since he was young; she knows full well that he came to Glamis in obedience to his king, that he would have besieged Glamis as eagerly as he besieged their marriage bed.

Yet he never hesitated to grant her child life and freedom. A child who could challenge any child she and Macbeth might have, and claim Castle Glamis and the kingdom of Moray. And since Malcolm III had been so eager to see Gille and his men die, it does not seem likely to her that he should want Lulach alive to inherit...especially after the usurper-king took such pains to kill the true king of Moray in order to eliminate an ambitious lord and to provide his grandson with a kingdom and a fertile wife.

Macbeth never shows the slightest fear that his grandfather the king will be angry at his decision.

And the only reason she can think of is that Macbeth has already proved his loyalty in a way that makes a child's life unimportant by comparison.

She does not shy away from wondering if her second husband murdered her first. Such things happen, and will continue to happen, whether she wills it or no. But she keeps silent about her suspicions. She knows that even if she were to have solid proof that Macbeth slew Gille and his men, the only person to whom she could appeal would be the king of Alba.

The man who commanded his grandson to burn fifty-one men alive.

***

The usurper Malcolm has no sons, only daughters. For a while she dares to hope that Macbeth will inherit the crown.

But no. Malcolm's Tànaiste--his chosen successor--is a different grandson--Duncan. Duncan An t-Ilgarach. Duncan the Sick. An heir so much older than Macbeth that he looks like Macbeth's father--or grandfather.

Of course, Macbeth will inherit when he die; that is how it is done. Inheritance of the throne goes back and forth between family lines, a king's heirs being elected from his nephews or cousins rather than his sons. Macbeth is bound to be the heir next time.

And then she gazes at Duncan's strong young sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, and wonders if they will be willing to concede the throne even for a moment to their older cousin.

She sees how nobles and commons alike treat the young princes, and sees a look in many faces that she remembers from before the usurper's time--a look of pride and conviction that says, "They would be good kings."

She does not see that look when nobles or common folk glance at Macbeth. He is only the general, the strong right arm of the king on the battlefield. A brave man, but lacking sons. And for a king to lack children is an ill omen indeed.

Macbeth's friends have whispered for some time that he should declare that he has discovered that they are too closely akin to be legally wed, which is why their marriage has been barren. It would be simple for Macbeth to cage her in a convent and leave her there to drone her prayers among agéd virgins while he weds some young and fertile daughter of a thane.

Her son--now grown in body if not in mind--would never understand why his mother had gone away and was not coming back. His wife and children would not be able to explain it to him, though they tried for a thousand years.

And how long she would remain sane in a holy prison--unable to fly even as free as a hooded hawk trained to a falconer's glove--she dares not speculate.

Given a new wife and strong children, she does not think Macbeth would even remember she was convent-caged. If he thought about her at all, he would probably recall her as his first wife, who had died. The knowledge that he would not miss her hurts most of all.

Macbeth has refused to put her away, despite his friends' advice.

This should be reassuring.

It isn't.

A lord can always change his mind.

***

When Macbeth goes off to fight the rebellious thane of Cawdor, Gruoch feels as if she is living in a twice-told story. Was it so long ago that Macbeth was sent to quell the rebellion of the thane of Glamis?

She is not surprised when Duncan tinsels Macbeth with Cawdor's title, either; it is through battle and kings' favor that men gain power. And she does not pause to wonder if the rebellious Macdonald had had chick or child; there is no point in such thoughts. If he did, they are beggars now, and any help for them would only invite the king to believe that the one helping was a rebel as well. Mercy is a perilous luxury for those who must treat with kings.

However, she is appalled when Macbeth writes to her that Duncan has named his eldest son Malcolm Prince of Cumberland--a title given only to kings' heirs. She sees what this means as well as Macbeth; Duncan means to establish a dynasty, the throne passing from eldest son to eldest son throughout eternity. He has granted her husband a great title while telling him that the ultimate prize will never be his. Or hers.

She curses Duncan as a foolish and doting father, eager to upset an entire system of governance so that his son may have the best and the brightest toy.

The witches and their prophecy, therefore, are a blazing hearthfire in bleak midwinter.

Hail, king that shalt be.

Macbeth and Gruoch, king and queen that shall be hereafter. Oh yes, she likes that full well.

The problem--and she sees it quite clearly--is that Macbeth is likely to just sit back and wait for the crown to fall into his lap, as if it were a ripe berry dropping from a blackthorn bush. He does not know how it feels to long for something the world proclaims can never be yours, or how much struggling to keep what little you have hurts.

Macbeth has never needed to fight for what he craves; his kingly cousins have kept him well-supplied with titles and wealth and castles, and have favored him above all their generals. The crown was prophesied, after all, so it will come to him in good time. Anything else would be less than honorable.

She knows he would say this, and it's enough to make her want to shake him. Where was the honor in burning fifty-one men to death, after all? Did a king's command graft honor and grace onto the deed, transforming it from brutal massacre to battlefield glory?

She cannot say that aloud. One does not slander husbands even when they are foolish, or kings even when they are dead. But the words reverberate in her mind.

And she can do so little, save encourage her husband. Which is unsatisfying. Where is the joy in telling others to do what you long to be doing yourself? How long will she have to urge him on before there is any opportunity of seizing the throne?

And then an attendant tells her that Duncan himself is coming to stay at Glamis this very night.

It feels less like a temptation than a gift.

***

When Macbeth arrives, he behaves as she expects: pleased about the witches' prophecy and longing for the throne...but irresolute and not at all driven. This may be because the attendant was right, and Duncan is arriving this very night. She suspects that Macbeth had wanted time to mull over his plans and convince himself that he was doing the only honorable thing he could do. Now he must face the fact that he is plotting to assassinate a king, the Lord's Anointed--a crime on a level with sorcery in the Church's eyes, and equally deserving of damnation.

Why this matters so much to him, she does not know. He already killed the King of Moray, albeit on the orders of another king. Is slaying the King of Scotland truly any different?

Striving to be patient, she tells him to be the embodiment of courtesy to his cousin the king this night--to be charming yet deceitful, as invisible to the eye as a deadly snake concealed beneath the blossoms in a crowded flowerbed. He can do that, surely.

And as for her, she will dispatch Duncan. She owes him blood, after all.

When she sees his baffled expression, she can tell that Macbeth will never dream that she might want vengeance. But she can also tell from his terse words--"We will speak further"--that he only needs time to see her offer as the loyal gift of a loving wife. Once he believes that, he will feel himself in charge once more, and will command her to do what she would willingly choose.

After all, women always get the unpleasant jobs.

***

It starts to go wrong almost from the beginning.

Macbeth is absent when his royal guest arrives, compelling her to act in her husband's place and to attempt to divert Duncan's attention from the fact that Macbeth, the new-made Thane of Cawdor whom the king saw race home as if pursuing a swift stag with relentless hounds, is not here by her side. An unpardonable insult to a guest, and doubly so to a king.

Of course, Duncan will not survive the night to be wroth with them. But that is not the point. The point is that this is odd behavior, and peculiar actions may well be remembered after the king is dead. Both courtiers and commons have taken smiles as signs of guilt ere this, and honeyed words for poison.

If innocent but careless words and actions can be seized upon as evidence of betrayal, how suspect are the deeds of the guilty? Macbeth is endangering them both with his foolishness. This is the sort of detail that engraves itself on the minds of servants and jealous peers alike.

She manages to flatter Duncan, telling him that twice their service is naught compared to the honors he has granted them. Which, she reflects, is true. Twice nothing is still nothing. But, although Duncan asks Heaven to bless Macbeth and herself, she cannot bring herself to do the same for him. She will not send Duncan into eternity with God's blessing. In fact, if she could find a way to ensure that the king would die unshriven with a mortal sin on his soul, she'd do it.

Fortunately, she finds Macbeth waiting in the dining hall and sighs with relief. Perhaps he was giving some final orders to the servants regarding the comfort of Duncan and his men. Perhaps it will be all right.

And then Macbeth leaves the dining chamber before his guest. Before the king.

This is an offense that cannot be ignored, and one of Duncan's entourage (upon whom be a hundred thousand curses!) dares to point it out to her, wondering in what sounds like an innocent tone what ill news Macbeth has received. Has the bloody flux broken out among the servants or the musicians? Is the castle about to be besieged, with no time to get the king to safety? Surely, the cause must be great to make the thane forget himself so far.

She makes her excuses, trying to give the impression that the situation may be grave in Macbeth's overly conscientious eyes while being any threat at all in fact, and, as soon as she has an opportunity, hastens off to find her useless husband.

Whom, she discovers, is only a few rooms away, brooding on the murder to come. Or rather, not on the murder itself, which would be practical, but on its morality. This makes no sense to her. Yes, murder is a crime in the eyes of man and a sin before God. And the sky is blue. Does either change what is to come?

She loses her temper with him then. "You are like the cat i' the adage," she snaps and his eyes flicker with anger, for he knows what she means--the proverbial cat staring into a stream of fish, longing to catch one for dinner and yet unwilling to get her feet wet.

He tells her that he dares to do all that is suitable to a man and that anyone who dares to do more than what is suitable is no man at all. With difficulty, she refrains from pointing out that she herself is not a man, and that the witches to whom he paid such heed are certainly not male and--given the way they melted into air--may not even be human.

Instead, she tells him what he already knows--he had thought of both crown and killing before the king chose to visit. Time and place have arranged themselves perfectly; how then can Macbeth forswear a chance that may never come again?

Trying to convince him that he has no reason to fear any weakness on her part--for the Church paints women as cowardly and irresolute in a crisis--she tells him the truth: that if she had sworn to kill her foe as he swore to slay his, she would have killed her own child as it sucked at her breast.

I would not hesitate, she is saying. I would kill and not let sentiment stop me. But I would do it quickly, and not prolong the suffering.

"What if we should fail?" he asks, and for a moment she could shake him. He is a general; what general ever rode into battle believing himself and his troops to be doomed and the war not worth fighting, and yet won?

Choking back her frustration at his unreasoning caution, she sketches out her plan. Duncan is not strong; the day's ride will have wearied him, and he will soon fall asleep. And while he sleeps, she will provide the two attending him in his bedchamber with wine and wassail until they are asleep as well...or so drunk as to make no difference. Killing Duncan will be easy when his attendants are sodden with drink--and all know how violent men can become in their cups, so the attendants will be believable murderers. This seems the best way to her. They would die anyway for failing to keep the king safe; being blamed for murder will not make their fates one whit worse.

Macbeth tells her, somewhat bitterly, that she should only give birth to men-children....implying that her simple son Lulach is anything but a man. Before she can react to this slur, however, he asks a foolish question: if the attendants' daggers are used to kill Duncan, and if the two men are covered in blood, won't others believe the attendants are guilty?

For a moment, she takes it as a poor jest. Then she remembers that he would not know a jest if it bit him on the ankle.

For the first time, she realizes just how far apart they are in their ways of thinking.

And he is still gazing at her, waiting for an answer.

"Of course they will be thought guilty," she says when she finds her voice. "Who would dare say otherwise?"

***

She makes doubly sure that the attendants will not wake by going to the castle's apothecary and mixing a sleeping potion of henbane, black poppy and bryony root into possets for them--a delicacy made from hot milk, wine and spices. Between their own eagerness for drink and the strength of the sleep draught, they are soon insensible. She can but hope that her husband will act quickly; it will be rather hard to blame the attendants for murder if it is clear that they died long before the king.

She thought that when the time came, she would kill Duncan and avenge her father, her first husband and her first husband's sworn men. However, she realized before she stabbed the king that to commit this murder would doom her while leaving Macbeth's hands clean. All he would have to do is blame her and her alone for Duncan's death. A woman's vengeance, breaking the bounds of courtesy and honor...possibly at the bidding of the king's sons. No one would be surprised by a princeling who lusted for power and warred against his kin; that's half the history of Scotland.

And once she was blamed...well, it's unlikely that she would be killed; most men do not like executing women. But a living death in a dungeon would be more than possible, as would being convent-caged. And while she was imprisoned and --whether in dungeon or abbey--reciting lickspittle prayers, Macbeth would be free to rule...and to take another woman as queen.

And as she realized this, she saw for the first time that Duncan resembled her aged father.

Just a coincidence, of course. Old men look alike.

Still, she could not—and still cannot--shake the feeling that this was an omen. A warning from her father, perhaps, about the peril that will be befall her if she trusts Macbeth too much.

She compromises by leaving the daggers for Macbeth to use. If he craves a crown as she does, he can shoulder his share of the guilt to purchase it.

***

As it happens, he's willing enough to kill. But once he does, he comes to her afrighted by the sleep-talk of Prince Donalbain and his attendant, who are both slumbering in the room beside the king.

"One of them said, 'God bless us' and the other cried 'Amen,'" he whispers to her. "But when I tried to say 'Amen' as well, I could not. Does this not seem ill?"

It seems irrelevant. Indeed, she can't think of a worse time to attract Heaven's attention than when on the cusp of committing murder, so she's just as glad that he didn't say that fateful word. But still, she tries to calm him down and to force him to focus on matters somewhat more critical than prayers...such as smearing blood on Duncan's drugged attendants and placing the hilts of the murder weapons in loosely formed fists. And after that, he can wash the blood from his own hands.

She doesn't expect his reaction. "I am afraid to think of what I've done. To look at it again--" he shakes his head violently. "I dare not."

Muttering, "Infirm of purpose!"--how did this man ever become a successful general when he quakes and quivers at every hint of death?--she takes the daggers from him. "And if the king does bleed," she says, scornful of the old superstition that claims the victims of murder bleed in the presence of their killers, "I'll dabble the daggers with king's blood and gild the grooms' hands and faces with it. It will not be wasted."

She does what she must do. And the king's corpse does not bleed.

***

They barely have time to hasten back to their rooms, clean up and don their night attire when two more thanes, Lennox and Macduff, nearly beat down the door of the castle, claiming they must see the king at once. Of course, she cannot go forth to speak to them at once, but she does eavesdrop, and what she hears sounds like a tall tale told on a feast day.

"The night has been a terrible one," says Lennox to her husband as Macduff seeks out the king. "The night has been filled with wails and lamentations, and the death-cries of unknown beasts and birds--and other things--have ripped the air. Sorrowful prophecies howled themselves, and some even said that the ground moved this night."

Gruoch shakes her head. "What a bard you would have made, Lennox," she says softly, thinking of the only sounds she heard this night--the hoot of a hunting owl and the cry of crickets. "And what a liar you truly are."

She has little time to brood on this, though, for Macduff, his face grey and horror-stricken, flees from the king's bedchamber, loudly shouting the news of Duncan's death. His shock and revulsion make him ideal; they could not have asked for a better collaborator.

And all goes smoothly, or mostly so. There is one moment when she exclaims against the crime being committed here--a natural enough protest, for thanes and their ladies have been judged guilty ere now for owning the castle or chase where murder took place--and Banquo, croaking pieties, says that murder would be too cruel anywhere. While in principle she agrees with him--always making an exception for usurpers, of course--she is still angry, for she is worried for the safety of her family. Proof of guilt she can destroy, evidence of innocence she can falsify...but she can do nothing to banish suspicions brewing in people's brains. Nor can she correct Banquo without making herself look worse.

But still, all seems to be going well. Macbeth and Lennox have got round to telling Malcolm and Donalbain that their father is dead, murdered by his attendants, who were covered in blood and gripping bloodstained weapons, and all are horrified.

"O, yet do I repent me of my fury, that I did kill them," Macbeth sighs.

Gruoch stares at him, the blood congealing in her veins at his words. He could not have said that. He could not have killed those two. If they had desired the attendants' deaths, they could have slain them easily with poison or pillows. They did not. They went to considerable trouble to leave the two alive, bloodstained, sodden with wine and unaware of their royal master's death--two living arguments for the innocence of the thane of Glamis and his wife.

And now, in a trice, the attendants are dead--not for any good reason, but simply because Macbeth wants to look like a passionate defender of the king. And oh, he is so proud of himself, not realizing what this will look like to nobles and commons alike--that they will say that the grooms were hired to kill the king, and that the man who hired them slew them to stop their tongues.

The roar and clamor of grief will not deflect gossip now. The best thing that she can do is distract some of the other lordlings from Macbeth's words.

"Help me hence, ho," she cries out in a desperate and quavering tone, and falls limply but most ungracefully to the floor in a sham faint.

It's only afterward that she realizes that, while Macduff's and Banquo's men had helped her to her chamber and had remained to be sure she was all right, her husband never spoke a word of concern, or so much as glanced in her direction.

It was as if she were not even alive.

***

The king's sons flee--no surprise there, for they must have time to amass and train their armies before they return to battle Macbeth, and they could hardly do so beneath his steady gaze. Gruoch finds that she does not care; they are gone for now, and their flight has convinced many that they were behind Duncan's death. All well and good.

And the day that Macbeth is crowned is the proudest of her life. They are king and queen now, and by the rood, the power and the glory are worth a death...or three.

She reckons without Macbeth's new hatred of Banquo. It disturbs him mightily to know that he will never have a child, that none of his blood will inherit his crown and that Banquo's get will.

She wonders at this rage. It is not as if their childlessness were news; it is not as if a son of his could inherit the throne without changing the way that Scotland is governed. And he has no brothers or sisters who could sire or bear nephews to rule after him. All these things he knew before Duncan's death; why, the witches even told him that Banquo's children would rule after him.

So Macbeth's reaction makes no sense to her. What matter if another man's sons rule after them? They are the ones ruling now. Can they not savor it?

She tries to talk him into calmness. They do not need to lash out madly at possible enemies. He must leave this be.

She might as well be talking to brick and mortar, for all the good it does. He is seeing terrors she cannot even imagine, and will not be persuaded that his fears are phantoms and no more.

She hears no rumors of death and no whispering against Banquo and his son Fleance. Perhaps Macbeth's fears have died off.

Then comes the evening of their first great banquet. He is cheerful, even jovial--until a messenger with a blood-stained face enters. No one thinks aught of that--the country is besieged within by rebels and without by Norway's King Sweno, and some of a king's messengers are bound to be injured and bloody. But after the man leaves, Macbeth, lamenting that Banquo is not present, turns to his empty seat and begins berating someone unseen in the guiltiest of terms.

"Thou canst not say I did it!" he shouts at the seat. "Never shake thy gory locks at me!"

She sees fear dawning in the eyes of his lords--Is the king mad? Those gory locks...they could not be Duncan's, could they? Will he even let us leave the hall alive?-- and prays that the witches will send her the ability to lie well. A blasphemous prayer, this, but she cannot think that Heaven has much to do with lying.

"My lord is often thus," she says with a martyred air. "He has been since his youth. Please--take no notice; if you do, he will be upset and the fit will last much longer. Eat, and pay him no mind." As the lords begin to dine, she speaks to Macbeth in a low voice that she hopes will not carry. "Are you a man?"

"Aye, " he says grimly. "And a bold one, to gaze at that which would appall the Devil."

"Nonsense!" she whispers. "This is but a fear-spawned illusion. You have no cause for terror; it is only a wooden stool."

And a moment or two later, whatever Macbeth is staring at fades from his sight...but, alas, only for a moment. Then it reappears, and all of her calming pleasantries are as nothing beside Macbeth's howls about specters with marrowless bones and glaring eyes, and his mad challenge to the nonexistent specter to duel him in a desert. Hastily, she dismisses the lords before Macbeth can say more that, were he not king, would see them both hanged.

Once they are gone, he is calmer, but not better, for he swears he will see the witches the next day. She tells him that what he truly needs is sleep, not magic, but he ignores this, save to tell her that he only fears because he is new to evil.

Yes. Doing more evil will certainly make things better.

***

He returns from his meeting with the witches with a tense and worried air, as if he heard much that was not to his liking, and then closets himself, not with his lords, but with strangers who look more perilous than honest.

It is, she thinks, the beginning of the end.

There is much she does not learn; her servants and the courtiers are eager to keep ill news from a woman's ears. But she cannot help but hear the death bell tolling daily. When she asks one priest in the castle chapel who the dead may be, his answer is swift and bitter: "That I cannot say, your majesty, for by the time I replied, the answer would have changed."

She stares a moment, and the priest glowers at her before starting to turn away. Hurriedly, she places her hand on his arm. "Stay but a moment. What is slaying so many? War? Pestilence? Famine?"

His expression says that she should know the answer, but nevertheless he answers courteously. "The cruelest horseman, and the most inexorable. As it was in the days of Pharaoh, so it is now; there is scarce one house the Angel of Death has not visited. But this time, he swings his scythe through ripe wheat and green alike, and no holy word or symbol stops his arrival."

"The green?" Oh, the priest could not mean what she thinks he does.

But he does. And he tells her of the deaths of Lady Macduff and her children. The oldest child, a bright boy of six or seven, was stabbed to death before his mother's eyes.

"'Tis said--though I know not by whom--that she lost her mind then, and fled her killers shrieking of murder," the priest says grimly, and she wonders, too, who first put that story about, for who would know if she fled shrieking save the killers and the dead woman?

"All are dead?" she says weakly. "Even the babes?"

"They were adjudged spawn of treachery, and not worth saving."

It is not as if this is unheard of. She feared for Lulach's life when Gille was slain. Yet--Macbeth spared Lulach and herself then. Why is he making war on women and children now?

And morality aside, it is pointless. Lady Macduff was no Viking spearmaiden, bent on slaughtering Macbeth. And her children were young enough to serve as fosterling-hostages, to be cozened away from their father's loyalties if she and her husband could manage it. The girls--one barely old enough to toddle, the other not yet out of swaddling clothes--could have been cradle-wed to sons of Macbeth's supporters and reared with their boy-bridegrooms. Macduff's son could have been a page in the royal household, nurturing a faithful supporter and yet leaving a delicate dagger at the lad's throat. Knowing that his son was a royal hostage might have restrained the father somewhat. Macduff's long been in England, along with half of the Scottish nobility and Duncan's son Malcolm--who, just to make things difficult, is a fierce fighter and blood-kin to the ambitious King of Norway,

Macduff is already a rebel--a sinner in the eyes of the Church for disloyalty to God's anointed king, and likely to be excommunicated, if he hasn't been already. Why, then, should Macbeth give him or the prince he's supporting a just reason to wage war? It makes no sense!

But then, little of what Macbeth does these days makes sense to her.

The priest is gazing at her expectantly. "Perhaps you could persuade the king toward mercy? It would mean much to many if you would try."

"I cannot." And that is the unpleasant truth. She cannot persuade Macbeth of anything of late; no one can. He is surrounded by phantoms no one else can see, and is lashing out at his fears rather than at any actual threat. But she cannot convince him of that; she's been trying since this whole thing began.

The priest's expression changes to one of angry betrayal, and she knows that there is no way to make him believe that she too loathes what her husband is doing.

But all he says is, "Of course, your majesty."

Strange how much those four words sound like an accusation.

***

Part 2 is here.
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