The year is 954. The King of Scotland, Maol Chalvim I, is 66 years old. He is very ill.
He has two sons. They are half-brothers. (Maol is the father of both, but they had two different mothers, both of whom died in childbirth.) The eldest son, Duff, is 42 years old. The youngest, Kenneth, is 22 years old. Despite the twenty year age difference, they are the best of friends.
Maol Chalvim also has a new, young wife. Very young. And very pregnant. She is 18 years old, and her name is Katharine.
On his deathbed, Maol begs his sons to support each other and to protect his third wife and their child. The brothers vow to do just that. Duff assumes he will be the new king. Kenneth assumes he will be Duff's strong right arm.
Indulf has other ideas. Indulf is a 50 year old nobleman and is, himself, a descendant of kings. He has a 32 year old son named Culen, and hopes to launch a dynasty of his own. While Duff and Kenneth wait by their ailing father's bedside, Indulf makes alliances. While Duff and Kenneth close their father's eyes for the last time, Indulf gathers his troops. While Duff and Kenneth take their father to be buried on the holy Island of Iona, Indulf has himself crowned King on the Lia Fail at Scone.
Needless to say, Duff and Kenneth aren't too pleased. They prepare for battle, but Indulf pulls his trump card. He has Katharine. And he will kill her if they raise a sword against him. Bound by their vow and their sense of honor, Duff and Kenneth retire to a family stronghold and wait.
At Edinburgh, Katharine gives birth to a boy. She names him Malcolm, (which is a more modern variant on the name Maol Chalvim). Indulf is now willing to return Katharine to her step-sons. But the babe will stay in his custody as insurance. For obvious reasons, Katharine chooses not to leave.
[Disclaimer: I should have mentioned this somewhere before or after Part One. The historical framework for this story is all true. Most of the details, on the other hand, I'm making up.]
The year is 962. King Indulf is 58 years old. Prince Culen is 40. Neither are happy men. Culen is childless. He is heir to the throne, but it's beginning to look like Indulf's dynasty will end with his only son. Assuming it even lasts that long.
No one likes Indulf very much. The main problem is that everyone knows that he has kept (the former Queen) Katharine and her young son Malcolm prisoner in Edinburgh Castle. This alone is enough to make people believe that he is a tyrant. After that, any little infraction on Scottish liberty is viewed as more evidence that Indulf is unfit to rule. Honestly, Indulf wouldn't mind dumping both prisoners, but, aye, there's the rub. Katharine and Malcolm are the only insurance Indulf has against Malcolm's older brothers Duff and Kenneth.
And as Indulf's popularity has waned, Duff's has waxed. Even noblemen who had once helped Indulf to the throne approach the fifty year old Duff and his thirty year old brother Kenneth and pledge their support if only Duff will act. But Duff stubbornly refuses to risk Katharine or Malcolm's lives. What kind of King would he make if he can't even keep a vow made to his own father on the man's deathbed?
Malcolm isn't exactly a happy child. He's eight years old, and he's never been outside the walls of Edinburgh castle. He has only one friend. A peasant boy named Robbie who's twice his age. Robbie's a short, stout lad with a face like a bulldog, but he's loyal and helps Malcolm with some petty acts of ceremonial sabotage that would only earn Malcolm a reprimand if he was caught, but would certainly cost Robbie his life.
Malcolm's mother Katharine is a strong woman but she knows the situation is intolerable. She conceives a plan, and through Robbie, sends a letter to Duff. Duff and Kenneth consider her proposal. They argue about it. But, ultimately, they agree. They summon Robbie, who knows nothing of Katharine's plan. They give him no details, only a date. They send him back to Katharine. Then Duff and Kenneth gather their forces.
Word of Duff's rebellion reaches Indulf, but he's slow to react. After all, he has his hostages, safe at hand.
But then on the pre-arranged date, Duff and Kenneth march on Edinburgh Castle. They demand Indulf's unconditional surrender. Indulf orders his guards to bring Katharine and Malcolm to him. Soon, Katharine is dragged before the king. But Malcolm cannot be found. Indulf orders Culen to personally search every inch of the castle. Duff and Kenneth and their armies settle down to wait.
Culen searches for hours. Katharine seems anxious. Still, Malcolm cannot be found. Indulf draws his sword and threatens to cut Katharine in two if she doesn't reveal Malcolm's whereabouts. She hesitates, but finally agrees. She leads them to the tallest tower in the castle. Malcolm isn't there. Indulf threatens to throw her off the ledge, but she points to the ground below. There in the moonlight, Malcolm can be seen riding away from the castle, his purple cape flapping in the breeze, toward the safety of Duff's camp.
Indulf is furious! But he still has Katharine. Duff still won't attack. But Katharine doesn't agree. Her tone becomes threatening. She commands Indulf to open the castle gates and let Duff's troops enter. He laughs at her. Why would he do that? "Because," she tells him as she climbs out of his reach onto a battlement, "If you don't open the gates, I will jump off this tower." Indulf starts to laugh again, but the impulse catches in his throat. It all becomes clear. If Katharine throws herself to her death, than his last hostage is gone. Worse, his last hostage is martyred. Duff and Kenneth will lay siege to Edinburgh and in time, they would ultimately triumph and then... And then things might go very badly for a tyrant.
He makes a quick decision. He and his son will be granted safe passage to Ireland immediately following his "voluntary" abdication of the throne to Duff. Culen protests, but Katharine agrees to his terms. She remains on the tower's battlement until the gates are open and Duff and Kenneth are at her side. "Hurry," she says, and rushes with her step-sons to the Castle's small cemetary.
Robbie is already there, still wearing Malcolm's purple cape. He is digging up a fresh grave. Some of Duff's men are helping him, but Duff and Kenneth push them aside and personally begin to dig. Katharine falls to her knees, pulling dirt aside with her hands until a waiting woman is brought to comfort her. The coffin is unearthed. Robbie has a crow, and snaps off the lid with the kind of bull-like strength he would one day be famous for. Malcolm lies still in the grave. Suddenly he gasps for air. He is alive. He had been buried alive with a slim wooden tube to provide air. But he had spent hours below ground. And the tube had been only barely sufficient. Much longer and he would have succumbed. But now the brave boy rocks back and forth in his mother's arms. He smiles at his good friend Robbie. And then he is introduced to his two older brothers for the very first time. He has worshipped them from afar his whole life. But it is they who are impressed. Duff, soon to be King Duff, lifts Malcolm to his feet. "Prince Malcolm," he says, "I am honored to be your brother."
Five years have passed since Duff was crowned High King of Scotland at Scone. The year is 967 and the kingdom is at peace. But for how long? Duff is 55 years old. He has many, many daughters, but no sons. Word comes from Ireland: Indulf is dead. But Culen is not. Culen seems to get along well with the Irish. It is -- well -- an uncomfortable situation.
An heir must be chosen. And in Scotland in 967, a daughter will not suffice. Duff turns to his thirty-five year old brother Kenneth. Kenneth is strong, faithful. Kenneth also has a five year old son, Maol Chalvim, so succession will be secured into the next generation. Little Prince Maol is told that someday he will be king. Little Prince Maol is quite pleased.
And what of the third brother? Prince Malcolm is thirteen years old. And life for him has improved immeasurably since that frightening day when he was buried alive in Edinburgh Castle. He's been to every corner of Scotland with his brothers. He's seen sorcerers and gargoyles and maybe even a glimpse of the Loch Ness Monster. Katharine, his mother, is honored throughout the land for her intelligence and bravery; in many ways, she is the de facto Queen of the realm. His two royal half-brothers welcome him at every council meeting and even take the time to personally coach him on his swordsmanship. Frankly, in the Dark Ages, it just doesn't get any better than this.
Which of course means, that it can't last.
Malcolm is riding along the western shores admiring the sunset. By his side, as usual, is his best friend Robbie. Corporal Robert is 21 years old, and has grown into a true bull of a man, complete with a new bushy mustache and a commission in the King's Guard. Malcolm is looking out to sea at the falling sun, but Robbie directs his attention to a cliff a few hundred yards distant. As the sun sinks into the water, the rocks on the cliff seem to move, to flex, to grow. A great collective roar echoes down the coastline. Malcolm's eyes go wide; Robbie laughs. It's a gargoyle rookery, he explains. They're waking from stone.
"Have you been there?" Malcolm asks.
"Aye," Robbie responds. "Even talked with the head of the monsters' clan. I liked him. He's a warrior. You should meet him."
"What's his name?"
"Hasn't got one. None of them do. They're not like the Gargoyles in Scone or Loch Ness. They're rougher. Harder."
"Good peasant stock like you."
"Then lead the way."
They ride on. The moon rises over the hills: a small crescent, a pitiful thing. Nevertheless, its light catches something out in the water. Many somethings. Ships. A fleet.
Both boys see them in the same moment. And in that moment, both boys truly become men. They don't have to talk. They turn their horses in unison and ride off at a full gallop. They'll exchange horses at camp and keep riding. The King must be told. Invasion.
At the court, there is celebration. Duff's wife has just given birth to her ninth child. But this one is different.
This one has a penis. This one will someday be a King. Little Prince Maol is confused by this. He's going to be the King, he knows. But everyone else couldn't be happier, including Duff's brother Kenneth. Kenneth immediately relinquishes his role as heir to the throne. And swears to serve the infant prince until his dying day. Duff is deeply moved and names the boy Kenneth, after his brother and best friend.
Then the shouting starts. Malcolm and Robert burst into the room. Within the hour, the King and his brothers are riding west at the head of an army. A small army. There has been no warning. There is little time to gather their forces.
Culen, now forty-five years old, leads the Irish troops. He has come, he says, to regain his rightful throne. His armies have swept inland with surprising speed, like a dagger plunged into Scotland's back.
At Gaine, they meet the King's Men.
The first battle is brief and bloody. One would think that God would be on the side of the Scots, but Culen's Irish get the better of it. Duff is wounded in the leg. Nothing serious, but he's carried from the field.
Kenneth fights like a true Thane. Malcolm gets his first taste of combat. He kills one man. Stands over that man. Wonders if the man's wife has red hair. Corporal Robert uses his shield to block the cudgel aimed at Malcolm's contemplative skull. Robert shoves Malcolm to the ground and kills the attacker. Malcolm stares at his friend. Then nods. Now he understands. Retreat is sounded. Malcolm picks himself up. He and Robbie fight there way back behind the Scotish lines.
That night, in council, Duff once again names his brother Kenneth as his heir. Kenneth protests: there is a new heir, a new Kenneth. Duff shakes his head. If anything happens to him, the kingdom will need a king,
not a wee babe. Kenneth protests: the kingdom will NOT need a new king.
"It might," Duff states. "We're fighting tomorrow."
"You can't walk, Duff!"
"We've ordered a litter. The men need to see their King."
Kenneth, exasperated: "Duff!"
"We've ordered a litter. The men need to see their King." The final word on the subject.
There's fog in the morning. Four huge Guardsmen carry the king on his litter. The battle is joined. Kenneth pushes forward in a berserker rage. Malcolm flanks him, keeping pace. He kills his second man. His third. His fourth. His.... He realizes consciously that it is time to lose count. Robert is never far from his friend. NEVER. It's going well. The Scots have rallied. They are going to win.
Suddenly, in the midst of the fighting, one of the King's Guardsmen, the one on the left at the rear, simply steps back and lets go of his burden. Caught off guard, the other three drop the King onto his back. Left-and-Rear draws a dagger, and before anyone can move, before anyone can think to move, he plunges it into Duff's heart.
Left-and-Rear. Nameless. Soon to be quite faceless. What was this man thinking? What was he promised? How did he think he'd survive? We'll never know. He's set upon immediately. Killed. Shredded, practically. But the damage is done. Word spreads like wildfire. The King is dead, betrayed by one of his own. The Scotish line breaks, folds in. Shatters, like a mirror bringing seven years bad luck. (Well, four at least.)
Kenneth, Malcolm, Robert and a handful -- a handful only damnit -- barely escape with their lives. Culen has won. Won the battle. Won the war. Won the kingdom. Allies defect faster than rats off the proverbial sinking ship. Kenneth flees with his extended family down into Northern England. They are not welcomed there, but they are tolerated. Enroute, Malcolm's mother Katharine takes a chill. The chill becomes a fever.
The fever, a delirium. And then... she's gone. Malcolm is an orphan.
Frankly, in the Dark Ages, it just doesn't get any worse than this.
"Duff is still with us, will always be with us," says Kenneth. Malcolm nods. The young former prince has been thinking a lot about birth and death, since the family came to England four years ago. Since his mother died. Malcolm misses her. Misses his eldest brother Duff too. And yet life goes on. Down in the courtyard, Malcolm's nephews play at battle with wooden swords and much gusto.
The year is 971. Lieutenant Robert has crossed enemy lines once again, bringing news from home. And the news isn't good. King Culen finally has an heir. Until now there had been hope. Culen was 49 and had had no sons. That had left Scotland unsettled. That had left open the possibility that Kenneth and the others would be called upon to secure the throne. But Culen's queen had just given birth to Prince Constantine.
The succession was now secure. The unrest would soon fade. Unless...
Kenneth has a decision to make.
He and Malcolm have climbed the battlements of Northumberland Keep. But neither has spoken since Kenneth raised the spectre of their late brother. Still, Malcolm knows what Kenneth is thinking. Duff was the king. Kenneth was always just the strong right arm. Now Kenneth is 39 years old. Is he prepared to start a war over a crown he never truly wanted?
Malcolm waits in silence for a long time, but Kenneth doesn't elaborate. Finally, Malcolm speaks: "I'm seventeen now, Kenneth. I'm not a child that needs protecting. If you will take up Duff's crown, I will take up your sword. And together we can secure our land for those boys down there."
Kenneth's head turns slowly. He looks at his brother, and then down at the wee warriors below. His own son Maol Chalvim is a nine year old tyrant lording his size over Duff's orphaned four year old boy. Not that little Kenneth's complaining, mind you. Both are clearly having a grand time playing at war here in England. But a real war in Scotland would be an entirely different matter.
"Look at them, Kenneth," Malcolm continued, "If we raise them to be good Thanes, then someday their honor will demand they recover what their fathers and uncles have lost. It doesn't end with you and me. So your choice is clear. Do we leave this struggle for Maol and Kenny and this new Constantine to fight? Or do you and I take the battle to Culen now?"
Kenneth turns back to his brother. "Duff will always be with us," he repeats, "Leading us to victory." And the brothers grasped each others arms -- firmly and with newfound resolve.
Preparations are begun. Allies are secured. But Kenneth had been through this sort of thing before. Three times before. He knows the Thanes are fickle. They like to pick a winner, even if that means changing horses mid- stream. Kenneth needs allies he can count on. Powerful allies.
And so it comes to pass that Robbie is once again slipping past the Scots border guard and riding north by northwest. This time, however, Malcolm's come along for the ride... and the mission.
Malcolm and Robbie approach Wyvern Hill alone. The sun is still out, and they know they could walk among the frozen sentinels unmolested. Be among the creatures already when they awaken. But that's no way to begin an alliance. They wait a good mile from the cliffside. The sun sinks. Even at this distance they can hear the cracking of stone and the roars. Malcolm shivers involuntarily. He's seen gargoyles before. But at a distance. And he's never had to ask one for a favor before. They leave their horses and climb up the steep grade, taking pains to keep their hands in plain view.
Suddenly, a sentry swoops down upon them. A huge winged demon with shock-white hair and two great devil horns rising from his brow. The creature speaks -- and Malcolm's terror fades: the voice is a low earth-shaking rumble, but the cadence betrays excitement and inexperience. This gargoyle is young, perhaps no older than Malcolm himself.
Robbie responds quickly. "We've come to see your leader. He and I have met before."
"I remember you." The monster's tone makes it clear that he remembers Robbie and only Robbie. Malcolm is still a stranger.
"He's my friend," Robbie states. "My greatest friend. I would lay down my life for him."
The gargoyle seems impressed. Frankly, so is Malcolm. Not that Robbie's statement was a revelation. But to hear it out loud like that. Malcolm suddenly feels awed by his companion's loyalty.
The gargoyle crouches and says, "Follow me." And then races off like a beast on all fours. After but a moment's hesitation, Robbie and Malcolm take off after him. Passing through a gauntlet of Gargoyles 'til they've climbed their way up... to the Rookery!
TO BE CONTINUED...