Queen Hereafter: A Novel of Margaret of Scotland
The story of Margaret, the Hungarian-born Saxon princess who married Malcolm Canmore, King of Scots, bringing reform and foreign ways to Scotland—Queen Hereafter is also a tale of Margaret’s friendship and rivalry with Eva, a Scottish harper, and Eva’s kinswoman, the former Queen Gruadh, known as Lady Macbeth.
Anno Domini 1078
Caught between two willful queens, I am, and should have taken more care to tread lightly—like crossing a stream over slippery stones when the current is strong and cold. Now that I have stumbled deep, who can say whether my two queens will forgive me or condemn me for what I did at each one’s bidding. No servant, I am free to do as I please. Margaret and Gruadh disagree.
|I am called Eva the Bard, daughter of a short-lived king. I have been a devoted student of Dermot, once chief bard in Macbeth’s court. Dermot trained me in the ways of a seanachaidh: a thousand songs, a thousand tales, a thousand heroes keenly remembered through ancient ways of diligence, and more. Though I do not know my fate, I know my calling—to tell the old tales and coax melodies from the harp strings to soothe or excite the spirit. Some now accuse me of scheming, but my aim has ever been my craft, and honor. So say I.
The king and queen would order some monk with ink-stained fingers to record my betrayal on parchment that would crumble over time; the lady in the north would order the account destroyed much sooner. Yet I would compose a song-poem to tell it whole, then take up my harp and sing it to some, who would teach it to others, so it would never be lost.
One queen might call it treason, the other tradition. But I might call it vengeance.
Anno Domini 1057
My lady mother was so sure the English king planned to be rid of us the moment we set foot on his Saxon shores that she refused to sail there from Denmark. But we had been journeying for months after leaving Hungary, the lot of us: Papa, Mama, my sister and small brother, along with a few kin, servants, even our dogs; not to mention the packed chests we transported as well. We were exhausted and sore in need of a home. Papa said we belonged in England, after all. I heard my parents arguing it at night.
My father, born a prince of England, had been exiled to the kingdom of Hungary as a small boy. Lately King Edward, his royal and childless uncle, had summoned Papa—another Edward—home to England to restore his birthright and name him heir to the throne. Mama groused that while our uncle-king had beckoned, he would not pay our traveling costs, and she feared he might lay claim to the priceless treasures we hauled about in crates and chests. Lady Agatha was Russian and Hungarian by birth and blood, and little liked the English. Her warrior husband she excused; he had left England at a young age.
My father was Saxon royalty of the old Wessex line, and so were his children, harking back to wise King Alfred, to unready Aethelred and stubborn Edmund Ironside, my grandfather. Our brighter future lay in England. Lady Agatha would be queen there, according to both Edwards. Dignified if stubborn, she acquiesced.
The year I turned ten, we left Hungary, where my two siblings and I had been born. Traveling with a Magyar escort over high mountains into Russia, we stayed weeks in Kiev with my mother’s kin, then sailed northward to winter among the Danes, my father’s cousins. That place was dull and smoky indoors, but splendid outside. I saw how much we resembled the Danes and the Rūs, too, for we were long limbed and golden fair, with taut cheekbones and sky-colored eyes. Only my sister Cristina took after the dark and stocky Magyars, the tough bloodline of our mother’s maternal kin.
We crossed the wide, pitching North seas, while my mother murmured of impending doom and prayed over her black-beaded rosary. Despite her dire warnings, the Danish vessel skimmed the waves like a winged dragon and brought us swiftly to English shores.
|In London town, where I was relieved to have my feet on terra firma once more, we were welcomed by lords who spoke the Saxon language that my father knew and we did not. The absent king had arranged to meet us, but first we stayed at a house owned by Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had rheumy blue eyes and spoke German with us. We were dined, entertained and assessed by a parade of bishops, priests and notable lords and ladies; servants, too, I suppose. Assured he would be king, my father gently teased his wife that her fears were unfounded.
A week after our arrival, he fell dead at my feet.
Several of us were walking along a corridor after supper with some of England’s earls and thanes when my father collapsed to the floor. We could not rouse him. To this day, years on, I still recall my disbelief and shock; my father’s gray face; my mother’s paleness.
Poison was the rumor, denied and dismissed. The king’s physician said Edward the Exile had a weak heart, though my father had been a lion of a warrior with spare habits and good health. Tainted food was suggested by others, though no one else had fallen sick that night.
Taint or poison, I alone knew the truth: I had killed him.
At my insistence, he had eaten sweetmeats from a golden tray set on the table before him. At first he had refused, intent on his discussion with a Saxon bishop. But with girlish silliness, I pushed the tray toward him, saying he must obey Princess Margaret. Distracted, smiling, he downed the treats in a fistful or two. Within the half hour, he was dead. Likely there was strong poison in those honeyed almonds and hazelnuts—and my father would not have eaten them that night, but for my urging.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, but I never confessed my deed to a priest, adding to the heinous sin. Fear kept me silent. I wore bruises into my knees praying self-imposed penances, while my lady mother approved my piety, mistaking what moved me so. I could not tell her and hurt her more.
At court, some whispered of ambitious men who might benefit from the death of that good man: Harold Godwinson was one, brother of the queen and son of an ambitious Saxon earl; William of Normandy was another. King Edward, rumor said, had bargained his crown to both men secretly and then gave the heir’s right to my father. Whoever had ordered Edward the Exile killed, my own hand had aided, and so I shared the sin.
That gnawed at me, crept into my dreams, perched on my shoulder like a demon.
Overnight we transformed from exalted royal family to the foreign wards of a king who took little interest in us, yet would not permit us to return to Hungary. My siblings and I were educated as befitted our status in that formal, refined court—but we were hostages as well as king’s wards. My small brother, Edgar, was named the king’s heir, although other claimants for the English throne were avid and interested. The year I turned twenty, our royal uncle died, leaving Edgar, Harold and William each believing in his own right to be king.
Harold was chosen by the witanagemot and duly crowned. England needed a warrior-king, not a stripling boy, that year.
Within months, the mail-clad warriors of Normandy slid their boats, silent and lethal, onto our English shore. Harold died on Hastings field and William took us for his wards—and as soon as the chance arose, my kin and I fled.
Susan Fraser King is a bestselling, award-winning author and a former art history lecturer. She holds a B.A. in art and an M.A. and most of a Ph.D. in art history, with postgraduate work in medieval studies. Lady Macbeth: A Novel (Crown Publishing, February 2008) is her first hardcover mainstream novel. Susan visits Scotland as often as possible for research and relaxation, and lives in Maryland with her family.