Night’s Black Agents
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse
, Act III, Scene ii.
“It is plainly murder, my lord,” the elderly steward announced unnecessarily.
What else could a stab wound in the back mean but murder? It would hardly be self-inflicted. The fact that Malcolm, the son of Bodhe, prince of the House of Moray, lay stretched on the floor of his bedchamber with the blood still seeping across his white linen nightshirt did not need a fertile imagination to conjure an explanation of what had befallen the young man.
The corpse lay facedown on the wooden floorboards, clad in nothing else but the shirt, which meant that he had just left his bed to greet his killer. A bloodstained knife had fallen nearby, apparently dropped by the assassin in his haste to be gone.
MacBeth, son of Findlay, the M˜r-mhaor or petty king of Moray, which was one of the seven great provincial kingdoms of Alba, answering to no man except the High King, whose capital was south in Sgˆin, stared down with a grim face. Indeed, this was his castle, and the dead man was his wife’s brother. He stood with a cloak wrapped around his shoulders to protect him from the night chill. It had been but only a few minutes ago when he had been roused from his sleep by his anxious steward and requested to come quickly to the bedchamber of Malcolm.
It certainly needed no servant or seer or prophet to tell MacBeth that someone had entered this chamber and brutally struck down the young prince and then discarded the weapon.
“Is the castle gate still secured?” he demanded, his voice raised as if in irritation and glancing into the corridor, where a warrior of his personal bodyguard stood impassively.
“Aye, noble lord,” replied his steward, an elderly man named Garban. “As custom decrees, the gate was secured at nightfall and will not be opened before dawn. Your warriors still stand sentinel at the gate and walk the ramparts.”
“So the culprit may yet be within these walls?”
“Unless he has wings to fly or be a mole that can burrow under the walls,” agreed the old servant.
MacBeth nodded in grim satisfaction. “Let it continue to be so, for we many yet snare this evildoer. Now where is Prince Malcolm’s servant? Why is he not here?”
“He was injured, noble lord. He now is being attended to, for in truth, he received a blow to the head, which caused it to bleed. He it was who discovered the body of his master.”
“Then send for him straightaway, Garban. And send for my brehon to oversee these matters, according to the law. There is little time to delay in our pursuit of this assassin.”
While a king or even a chief could be a judge and arbitrator in the law courts, it was, by law, known that a professional and qualified lawyer, a brehon, had to sit with the king to ensure the letter of the law was obeyed and a fair judgment delivered.
The old steward was turning toward the door when there was a cry at the portal, and MacBeth turned to see his newly wed wife, the Lady Gruoch, standing there, a hand to her mouth. Garban, the steward, jerked his head to her in nervous obeisance before he hurried forward to carry out MacBeth’s instructions.
MacBeth turned to his wife. He had thought her still sleeping when he had left the bedchamber to follow Garban. “Madam, I am afraid your brother is dead,” he greeted her quietly, not knowing what else to say but the blunt truth.
Lady Gruoch had seen much violence in her five and twenty years. It had been only one year ago that her first husband, Gillecomgˆin, the previous petty king of Moray, had been slaughtered in his castle near Inverness with fifty of his warriors. The castle, with its occupants, had been razed to the ground with fire. No one was caught, but whisper had it that the man who ordered the deed was none other than the man whose bed she now shared and who had been acclaimed with the mantle of M˜r-mhaor to replace her dead husband. Yet the Lady Gruoch had long been persuaded to discount such a notion, and she had come to love the young red-haired monarch who offered her and her baby, the young Prince Lulach, his protection.
Gruoch had not been in the castle of Gillecomgˆin at the time of the attack but away visiting with her newly born son. The people of Moray, bereft of their ruler, turned to MacBeth, whose father Findlay had been king before Gillecomgˆin. For kingship, like chieftainship, descended by the rule of the ancient laws of the brehons and not by the inheritance of the firstborn male. A king, or chief, had to be of the blood, but they were elected to their office by their derbhfine, four male generations from a common great-grandfather. The law of succession had always been thus so that the most worthy and able should succeed.
No one questioned that MacBeth was worthy or that he was able. Indeed, he was also of the blood royal, for he was grandson of the High King, Malcolm, the second of his name to sit on the throne at Sgˆin. Thus the red-haired young noble had been duly installed as the petty king of the province.
Within the year, MacBeth had convinced the Lady Gruoch that he had not been responsible for her husband’s death and had won her love. Scarcely a month had passed since their marriage, at which he had even adopted her son, the baby Lulach, as his own. Yet the evil whispers still remained, and some said that he was ambitious and was only reinforcing his claims to the High Kingship because Gruoch, too, had been the grandchild of a High King, Kenneth III, who had died some thirty years ago. Only in these lands, which comprised the former ancient kingdoms of the Cruithne, was a succession through the female allowed by Brehon Law, but the Pictish custom, as it was called, had not been claimed since Drust Mac Ferat ruled over two hundred years before. So the gossip did not hold water.
More logical tongues pointed out that the Lady Gruoch’s brother, Malcolm Mac Bodhe, as grandson to Kenneth III, had a more popular claim to the throne as next High King. Even if he had not, it was well known that Malcolm II, who had sired only daughters, did not favor his grandson MacBeth, or, indeed, any member of the Moray House. The old king favored his grandson, Duncan Mac Crinan, the son of the Abbot of Dunkeld, and son of his eldest daughter.
The old king and his grandson, Duncan, were of the House of Atholl, and they maintained they had a superior right to the High Kingship at Sgˆin than the House of Moray, even though his second daughter, the Lady Doada, had married Findlay of Moray and was MacBeth’s mother. The death of Gillecomgˆin in the previous year was attributed by many of the House of Moray as being a deed carried out at the whispered order of Malcolm II to ensure that Duncan was placed on the throne. Gillecomgˆin alive had been a threat to Atholl’s claims. Gillecomgˆin had been slaughtered. But Malcolm Mac Bodhe, grandson of Kenneth III, had become the next challenger to the continued Atholl dominance at Sgˆin. Some were already acclaiming him as successor to Malcolm II.
But now Malcolm Mac Bodhe, too, was dead; lying on the floor of his bedchamber in MacBeth’s castle. Murdered.
The young king appeared troubled as he stood regarding his tearful wife, who stood, leaning against the doorjamb, her breast heaving, a hand across her trembling mouth.
“There will be many who will blame me for this death, my lady,” MacBeth addressed the grief-stricken young woman quietly. He held out a hand to comfort her.
She took it and gave a single heartrending sob, trying, at the same time, to gain control over her feelings. The years of threatening danger had taught her to suppress her emotions until she could indulge in them without distraction.
“How so, my lord?” she asked, succeeding in the effort.
“They will say that I have killed, or had killed, your brother, in order to secure my place nearer the throne at Sgˆin.”
The woman’s eyes widened, and she shook her head vehemently. “I will swear that you never left my side since we parted from my brother after the meal last night.”
“Can you so swear?”
“Aye, I can, for I have not closed my eyes these last hours. You know well that I am still beset by nightmares and have visions of our being burnt while we slept, as happened to my . . . as happened to Gillecomgˆin, your cousin. I heard Garban come into our chamber and ask you to follow him here---that is why I came after you to see what was amiss.”
“They will say that your witness for me is what might be expected of a wife or that you had good cause to see your brother dead so that your husband could claim the throne that you might sit by his side as queen at Sgˆin. Indeed, some might even say that, while I slept, you did the deed yourself for ambition’s sake.”
The Lady Gruoch paled as she stared at him. “What fiendlike creature will people have me be?” she whispered in shock. “To kill my own brother? Even to think such a thought is to pronounce speculations hateful to the ears of any justice.”
“It may be said just the same,” pointed out MacBeth impassively. “Many things are said and done in the court of my grandfather at Sgˆin. I do not doubt that the vaulting ambition of my cousin Duncan, the son of my mother’s own sister, will do more than make hateful speculations to secure the throne. His father, the unnatural abbot of Dunkeld, even tries to poison the entire Church against anyone who stands as rival to the resolution of his son to secure the throne.”
“I fear that it is so,” sighed Gruoch. “I have long labored, as you know, in the belief that the destruction of Gillecomgˆin was brought about by your grandfather, who encouraged the rumors which laid the deed at your door.”
MacBeth lowered his head. It was true that rumors still circulated accusing him of Gillecomgˆin’s death. “There will be more whispers yet,” he agreed heavily, “unless we speedily resolve this unnatural death of your brother.”
A tall elderly man stood at the door. It was clear that he had just come from a deep sleep. His hair was a little disheveled, and his clothes had not been put on with care.
“Garban has informed me of these tragic events, noble lord,” the man muttered, his eyes moving swiftly from MacBeth to Gruoch and to the body on the floor. They glinted coldly in the candlelight and seemed to miss nothing.
“I am glad that you have come, Cothromanach. It needs your skilled touch here, for I was saying to the Lady Gruoch, there are many who will wish to taint me with this killing. Your word is needed that this matter has been properly conducted and resolved so that none may level any accusation against me.”
Cothromanach, the brehon, set his face stonily. “The truth is the truth. I am here to serve that truth, my lord.”
MacBeth nodded. “Indeed, let us proceed with logic. Garban has told you that we have a witness to this deed in the prince Malcolm’s servant?”
Cothromanach nodded. “I am told that he has been sent for.”
“He has. The Lady Gruoch and I were in our bedchamber until Garban summoned me. The Lady Gruoch says that she is prepared to state that I did not rouse from our bed all night. I have told her that her testimony might be dismissed on grounds of her relationship to me.”
The brehon pursed his lips wryly. “Madam, is there any other witness that will say that you and your husband did not stir until Garban summoned your husband here?”
Gruoch thought a moment and then nodded in affirmation. “Little more than an hour ago, I asked my maid Margreg to bring me mulled wine to help me sleep. She entered our chamber with the wine while my husband slept on obliviously.”
MacBeth raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I did not hear her.”
“You were tired, my lord, after yesterday’s hunt and last night’s feasting.”
“This is true. So Margreg brought wine and saw me sound asleep beside you? This, you say, was but an hour ago?”
“It was so.”
MacBeth turned to the brehon. “And I was roused to come here but a quarter of the hour past, and if the deed were committed not long before, it would mean that we have the best witness yet in the maid.”
“What makes you think the deed was done but an hour ago?” queried the brehon.
“Easy to tell. We have a witness to the deed.” He turned to his wife to explain. “I have sent for your brother’s servant, who, it appears, was attacked by the assassin. He has already indicated the time to my steward, Garban.”
The Lady Gruoch stared at him in surprise. “This servant was attacked by the assassin? Then we have no need fear our innocence of the deed.”
MacBeth sighed: “Perhaps,” he said softly. “Truth does not still malicious tongues.”
“You sound defensive, lord,” observed the brehon. “As if you already stand accused and found guilty.”
“It is why I want you to examine this matter closely, Cothromanach. I fear it may be so unless I demonstrate that I had no hand in this. Now, here comes Garban and Malcolm’s servant. Do return to our chamber, my lady, and dress yourself, for it is near dawn and this may be a long day.” He paused and turned to Cothromanach. “That is, unless you wish the lady to stay?”
The elderly brehon shook his head. “I have no objections to the Lady Gruoch withdrawing.”
As Gruoch left the chamber with a single glance back to where her brother’s body lay, old Garban came forward. Behind him followed a younger man, tall and well built. There was a gash over his eye that still seeped blood. His face was pale, and he walked with an unsteady gait. He stood hesitating before MacBeth, looking from him to the brehon.
Old Garban gave him a gentle nudge forward.
“Tell my noble lord your name, boy.”
The young man took a pace forward. “I am called Segan, noble lord,” he muttered, his eyes downcast.
“How long have you been in the service of the prince Malcolm?”
“I have served him ever since I can remember, and my father before me was a steward in the house of his father, the prince Bodhe.”
“Then this will not take long, Segan. Tell us the circumstances in which you received this blow to your head and how you discovered the prince?”
“Little to tell, indeed, noble lord. Prince Malcolm had retired after the feasting last evening and went straightaway to his bed. He told me that he would not want me until the morning. So I, too, went to my bed---”
“Which is where?” Cothromanach, the brehon, suddenly interrupted.
“In that small chamber opposite,” the young man indicated through the open door.
Garban, the stewad, intervened with a clearing of his throat. “I placed the servant there so that he might be near his master in case of need,” he explained to the brehon.
“What then?” MacBeth did not wait for the brehon to acknowledge the explanation.
“I fell asleep. I do not know what time I was awakened nor what had awakened me. Perhaps it was the sound of something falling to the ground. I roused myself and listened. All was quiet. I went to my door and opened it. I thought that I heard a sound from Prince Malcolm’s room.
“Wondering if anything was amiss, I went to his door and called softly. There was no answer. I was just about to turn back into my chamber when I heard a distinct sound from this room. I called Prince Malcolm’s name and asked if he needed anything.
“There was no response, and so I tried the chamber door. It was secured.”
“Secured?” interposed Cothromanach quickly.
“It was Prince Malcolm’s custom to secure the door to his bedchamber from the inside.” The young servant hesitated and dropped his gaze. “These are troubled and dangerous times, lord. There are many who would not weep over Prince Malcolm’s death.”
“Go on,” the brehon instructed.
“I called again. Then I heard the bolt being withdrawn. I tried the handle and this time the chamber door swung open. I took a step inside and saw the prince even as you see him now, lying on the floor there. The blood on his shirt and the knife at his side.”
MacBeth glanced toward the brehon and saw his puzzled gaze. He preempted the question. “You saw Malcolm lying there and saw all this clearly? How so?”
“How so?” repeated the young man in a puzzled tone, not understanding what he meant.
“Was the room not in darkness?”
“Ah.” Segan shook his head. “No, there was a candle alight by the bedside, even as it is now.”
MacBeth turned to examine the candle and saw that scarcely a half-inch of tallow was left flickering in its holder. Satisfied, MacBeth turned back in time to see the young man wince and stagger a little.
“Are you hurt?” intervened the brehon anxiously.
“I am a little dizzy still. Yet I rebuke my own stupidity,” lamented the young man. “I cannot believe that I could be such a dimwit. Seeing the body, I took two steps toward it, and then something hit me from behind. Now I realize, whoever had drawn the bolt still stood behind the door, and who would it be but the assassin? I came in, like a lamb to the slaughter, and thus he could strike me down from behind.”
Old Garban nodded in support. “It could happen to anyone, seeing their lord dead. It was a natural error. No blame to the young man.”
MacBeth nodded absently, but Cothromanach was examining the young man with his sharp eyes. “Yes. It was an action not governed by thought. So you say that you were struck from behind? What then?”
The young man frowned at the elderly man. “Then?”
“Yes, what happened then?” pressed Cothromanach.
“I must have fallen unconscious to the floor, for the next thing I knew, I came to with blood on my head and a throbbing which was more agonizing than anything I can remember. I was lying just there.” He pointed downward. “Then I remembered the prince and raised myself. It was obvious that he was dead. I turned, the door was closed and no one else in the room. I left the chamber and went in search of Garban. I roused him and he came here. He then sent me to his wife to clean my wound while he went to tell you of this news.”
Garban now intervened once more in support. “This is true. The young man roused me, and I put on my clothes and hurried here while my wife tended to his wound, which was bleeding more profusely than it is now. Having ascertained what Segan had said was true, I felt I should come to rouse Lord MacBeth. The rest is as he knows.”
MacBeth turned to Cothromanach. “Indeed. I immediately followed Garban here. My wife followed moments later. That was when I sent Garban to you and asked him to bring Segan back here.”
The brehon stood, head bowed in thought for a moment. “How long, Garban, do you estimate the time between you being roused by Segan and you rousing the lord MacBeth?”
The old man held his head to one side and thought. “Scarce five to ten minutes, Cothromanach.”
“And you, Segan, is there any way you can estimate the time you lay unconscious?”
“Not long, I think. It may have been a matter of minutes.”
“What makes you say so?”
“The candle. I said it was burning when I entered. It had not burnt down too much when I regained consciousness. And, even now, you can see it still flickering there.”
MacBeth went toward the table to examine the candle, noting the spilled grease on the table and the floor. He bent down and picked up a stub of tallow and frowned in annoyance at Garban. “These chambers should be better cleaned,” he snapped, throwing the tallow at his steward, who caught it and began to apologize.
Cothromanach hid his impatience. “It is not the time to discuss the dilatory habits of the servants, noble lord.”
MacBeth looked guilty and turned back to Segan. “So the chamber was well lit? Did you get any impression of your assailant?”
Segan looked puzzled. “Impression. I did not see him at all.”
“Yet you are certain that it was a male?”
Segan was now entirely bewildered.
“If you did not see who struck the blow,” explained MacBeth patiently, “how can you tell it was a man?”
In spite of himself, Segan raised a laugh. “I cannot imagine a woman delivering the blow that would have laid me low, noble lord.”
“Perhaps not,” agreed MacBeth. He turned to the brehon and saw the man still examining Segan’s features thoughtfully. MacBeth turned back to Segan and suddenly realized what puzzled the brehon. “But there is a question that intrigues me. You say that you were struck from behind?”
“Yes, noble lord. Had it been from the front, I would have seen my assailant,” he added patiently.
“Quite so. Then how is it that your wound is on your forehead and not on the back of the head?”
Segan’s eyes widened, and he raised his hand automatically to his forehead as if to touch the gash that was there. “I was struck from behind, noble lord,” he insisted. “I feel the hurt there even now. So that I know as a fact. Perhaps, as I fell, I also struck my forehead.”
“There is no other explanation,” agreed the brehon quietly. “There is too much of Malcolm’s blood on the floor to see where you might have fallen. Well, there is little more we can discover from this young man, I think.”
“I have no further questions, Segan. I suggest Garban take you back to his wife to have your wound examined further. It looks a bad gash, and a bruise surrounds it.”
“I would rather lie down a few moments, lord,” said Segan, but Garban took his arm with a firm grasp and smiled.
“Plenty of time after my wife has made a poultice for that cut and bruise.”
Alone in the room, MacBeth turned to the brehon. “What do you think?”
Cothromanach shrugged. “Little to think about, noble lord. There are few facts at our disposal to make any clear deductions.”
“The facts seem that the killer gained entrance to this chamber and stabbed Prince Malcolm. The body falling to the floor must have alerted his servant, Segan, who came to the door. The killer had secured the door but, hearing Segan call out, realized that if he remained locked without, he would raise the alarm and the assassin would not be able to escape. So he slid the bolt and waited behind the door.”
Cothromanach smiled. “I cannot fault your logic, noble lord.”
MacBeth continued, warming to the theme. “Standing behind the door, the assassin waited as the young man opened the door. The killer relied on the fact that the young man would react at the sight of Malcolm lying in his bloodstained shirt on the floor; he knew that the servant would take an involuntary step forward into the room. That was when the blow was struck. Then the killer left the room.”
“Again, the logic is without a fault.”
MacBeth smiled thinly. “If nothing else, I answer to logic,” he replied complacently.
“Very well, my lord. Let us turn logic to the following matters. Firstly, let us regard the body of the prince.”
MacBeth looked down, his face wrinkled in distaste. “What can we learn from it except that the killer stabbed the prince in the back?”
“That he did so presents us with an important question that needs a resolution.”
“We have heard that the prince was in fear of his life for the reasons well known to you, noble lord. He slept at night with his door bolted from the interior. How, then, when his assassin came to his chamber did he gain entrance?”
MacBeth raised his eyebrows and turned to examine the door. The bolt was in place, and there was no sign of any undue violence being used against the lock. He did not have to go to the small window in the chamber, for he knew that it was a long drop into a rocky ravine through which a river meandered. There was no way anyone would climb in through that window. He would take an oath on it.
“If---” He paused and framed his words slowly. “---if the door was bolted, then Malcolm himself must have let his killer into the chamber.”
Cothromanach made a gesture of approval. “In order to do that, the prince Malcolm must have known his assassin. He must have known him well enough to have trusted him, to have let him into his bedchamber while not yet dressed and---”
MacBeth interrupted, for now he saw what the elderly brehon was getting at. “He must have trusted him to be able to have turned his back on him, for the two stab wounds are in the back. The killer, as Malcolm turned away from him, stabbed him twice.”
“Then dropped the knife and was turning to go---”
“When he was interrupted by Segan?”
“Perhaps,” the brehon said. “Yet what would be the motive for such a deed?”
“Surely the motive is obvious? Malcolm was a popular candidate for the High Kingship. The likely motive was to eliminate him.”
“So we are saying that whoever did this deed was a servant of Duncan who aspires to the throne?”
MacBeth nodded and then grimaced. “You are forgetting my claim, for with the prince Malcolm gone, I am now the head of the House of Moray and challenger to the kingship at Sgˆin.”
Cothromanach smiled briefly. “I have not forgotten. Nor have I forgotten that you are not the only one who stands to gain.”
MacBeth frowned. “Who?”
“The Lady Gruoch would benefit by your elevation to the kingship.”
For a moment MacBeth stood in anger, but then he shrugged as if in acceptance. “You mean more than she would have done had her brother gained the throne?”
“Of course. Much more. However, this is hardly a woman’s work.”
“With that, I agree.” MacBeth was emphatic.
The door opened, and Garban the steward reentered. “Segan is having his wound redressed. Can I render more assistance?”
“Find the maid Margreg and bring her here,” instructed MacBeth.
The brehon held up a hand to stay him. “You knew the prince Malcolm well, didn’t you?”
Garban blinked in surprise and shrugged. “That is common knowledge. I was employed in the house of Bodhe before I took service with my lord MacBeth. I taught young Malcolm to ride his first horse. His death grieves me sorely.”
“Indeed,” sighed the brehon, and dismissed him with a wave.
When Garban had gone, MacBeth turned to Cothromanach. “Let us hear from the maid’s own lips that we were in our beds at the time the deed was done,” he told the brehon. “Then you may be able to quench any malicious rumors which may be spread about us.”
“You are sensitive on this matter,” observed the brehon.
“I know my grandfather, the High King, and my cousin, Duncan Mac Crinan,” MacBeth said grimly.
“So be it,” Cothromanach sighed.
Margreg was young and youthful, scarcely seventeen. She was dark haired, fair skinned, and attractive, and what is more, she knew it. There was a boldness about her that might have been interpreted by some as a speculative lasciviousness.
She entered the chamber, dropped a half-curtsy to MacBeth, and was about to acknowledge the venerable brehon when her eyes caught sight of the body on the floor. Her features wrinkled distastefully, but she did not avert her gaze.
“The brehon wishes to ask you a few questions,” MacBeth said, stepping to one side and motioning the brehon to proceed.
“You are maidservant to the Lady Gruoch?”
“You know so,” retorted the girl with confidence. “You are as familiar with this castle as I am.”
Cothromanach suppressed a sigh of irritation. “This is an official inquiry, girl. Just answer my questions and leave your impudence for those who appreciate it.”
The girl pouted in annoyance. “Yes. I am maid to the Lady Gruoch.”
“How long have you held that position?”
“Full one year since she came to this castle with her baby in search of sanctuary.”
“Did you attend your mistress at bedtime.”
“I did. Her dressing room is next door to the bedchamber, and that is where the baby, Lulach, sleeps, and that is where I sleep, as well. I helped her undress and prepare for bed. That was just after the feasting.”
“So you sleep in the next chamber. Were you disturbed in the night?”
“Yes. I awoke and heard the baby coughing. He is a good little soul but inclined to a night cough. So I arose and tended the child. I had quietened him and was about to go back to bed when I heard a door open and footsteps in the corridor. Curiosity made me go to the door, and I looked out.”
MacBeth had turned with a frown. “What time was this?”
The girl shrugged. “I have no means of knowing, my lord. It was dark and cold, and the embers in the fire I had built in the chamber were gray.” She turned to Cothromanach. “I try to keep a fire going through the night for the good of the baby. Warm air eases his poor little chest.”
“You said that you went to the door and looked out,” MacBeth observed heavily. “What did you see?”
“The Lady Gruoch, walking down the corridor. She was carrying something in her hand.”
“How could you see that it was her? Did you or she have a candle?” asked the brehon quickly.
The girl shook her head. “No. There are torches kept alight in the corridor there.”
“So the Lady Gruoch left the bedchamber during the night?” pressed MacBeth unnecessarily.
“What time did she return?” demanded the brehon.
“I do not know. Having seen that it was my lady, I simply returned to my bed, for it was chill, as I have said, and I was asleep in no time.”
“Were you disturbed again?”
“Yes. I thought me barely asleep when I awoke and found my lady bending over me. She said she could not sleep and asked me to prepare her a goblet of mulled wine. I did so.”
“And you had no idea when that was either, I suppose?” sighed MacBeth.
“Oh yes. It was not long before Garban came and knocked at your chamber door. I prepared the wine and went in, finding the lady Grouch sitting up in bed. You were there also, my noble lord, fast asleep by her side. I don’t think that you had been disturbed at all during the night, for you were deep in sleep and . . . and snoring with a sound fit to wake the dead.” She grinned provocatively at him.
“How long was it before Garban came to our chamber?” he snapped.
“I went back to bed but could not sleep. Perhaps he came within the hour. I cannot be sure, only that it was not very long.”
The brehon looked troubled. “The Lady Gruoch told you that she could confirm you were by her side all night. Yet now we find that she left the bed, and who is to provide her with an alibi? We must send for her again.”
Lady Gruoch stood before them shortly afterward. She looked guilty but not alarmed. “Yes. I left the chamber. I have already told you that I do not sleep well. That was the reason why I asked the maid Margreg to fetch me mulled wine.”
“But you were seen going down the corridor,” pointed out the brehon. “Where did you go, lady?”
The Lady Gruoch raised her chin defiantly. “If you must know, I came to see my brother.”
MacBeth looked unhappy. He glanced at Cothromanach, who was gazing thoughtfully at her. “This is a sensitive matter, lady. You know of what you might be accused? You know why I need to clarify the matter?”
“I know it well enough, my lord. But I came here for a purpose that I would keep between myself and his soul. All you need to know is that my brother was well and alive when I came here. Furthermore, when I left him, he was still alive and well.”
“That is not all I need to know, madam!” MacBeth almost shouted.
“Softly, noble lord,” intervened the brehon. Then he turned to Lady Gruoch. “But in truth, the noble lord is right, madam. We need to know the reason that you came here like a thief in the night. What intercourse could you have with your brother that needed such secrecy as to be conducted in the blackness of the night, that needed to be kept secret from your own husband?”
The Lady Gruoch was flushed and unhappy. She gazed at MacBeth for several moments and turned back to the brehon. “Very well. You will already have the evidence, so I will confess to you.”
MacBeth groaned helplessly. “Evidence? What are you saying, lady?”
“It is common knowledge that my brother, Malcolm, was going to claim the High Kingship when my husband’s grandfather dies or abdicates the throne at Sgˆin. It is well known that MacBeth’s cousin, Duncan, is favored to succeed. Yet he is not the choice of the people, even in Atholl. My brother planned to raise the clans of Moray against Sgˆin. For that he needed money. I was given many jewels by my husband as wedding gifts when I married him. Much that I owned perished in Gillecomgˆin’s castle. So I decided that my brother could make better use of the gifts from MacBeth.”
“You say that you brought these jewels to your brother in the middle of the night?” asked MacBeth doubtfully.
“It was just after midnight, an appointment that I had arranged with my brother last evening so that no one would know of the gift.”
“Was his door secured?”
“Yes. It was bolted, but he opened when he heard my voice call to him.”
“You say that you left him alive?”
“I did so. He secured the door after me.”
“And you went straightaway back to your bedchamber?”
“I did. And that was, as I say, just after midnight.”
“The trouble is that you have no witness that he was alive when you left here,” the brehon sighed.
“I did not think I needed a witness. I understood from Margreg that the servant Segan disturbed the killer and was knocked unconscious by him some hours after I left my brother. That shows that I am innocent of the deed.”
As she had speaking, the elderly brehon had been examining the room very carefully.
“What is it?” demanded MacBeth curiously. “What do you seek?”
Cothromanach looked at him and smiled thinly. “Why, a bag of jewels, what else?”
Lady Gruoch stared at him in disbelief. “You found no jewels? But that was the evidence that I thought you had and would trace them to my ownership. Why . . .”
MacBeth, ignoring her, was also searching the room carefully. Finally he stood before her.
“There are no jewels here, madam,” he observed heavily.
“I do not understand it. He would not have given them to anyone else for safekeeping unless . . .” Her eyes widened as she stared at her husband.
MacBeth turned to the brehon. “Do we not have another motive before us, Cothromanach? The assassin was not solely a murderer but a thief.”
“It would appear so. Yet, let me remind you, noble lord, that the killer, thief or no, was still known to the prince. Why else would the killer be let into the chamber, why else would the prince have turned his back on the hand that then struck him down?”
MacBeth bowed his head in thought. Then he smiled grimly. “I have an idea. Garban!”
The servant came forward.
“Are the gates still secured and my sentinels in place?”
“Not even a mouse could have left this castle without them being aware of it, noble lord.”
“Good. Then we shall search for Lady Gruoch’s jewels. I doubt whether our assassin has had time to dispose of them.”
“Very well, noble lord. Where shall I start?”
MacBeth looked through the opened door into the corridor. “We will start with Segan’s chamber it being nearest. Proceed, Garban. You, madam, will return to your chamber until I send for you.”
MacBeth and Cothromanach followed the elderly steward into the servant’s bedchamber. As Garban entered, he seemed to stumble and reached out a hand to steady himself on the wall. He cut short an exclamation and brought his hand away. His fingertips were stained with blood.
MacBeth asked Garban to bring a candle, which he did. There was a small patch of blood on the wall, at shoulder level.
Garban began to make a diligent search, and it was not long before, examining beneath the bed, he emerged with a cry of triumph. He held out a small leather sack. They watched with fascination as he opened it and poured its contents on the bed. The muddle of jewels glittered and sparkled in the candlelight.
“Are they the jewels that you gave to the Lady Gruoch?” demanded the brehon.
“They are, indeed,” replied MacBeth with satisfaction. “Garban, fetch the servant Segan back here, but do not mention this discovery to him.”
“I understand, noble lord,” Garban said with a grim smile.
Cothromanach the brehon looked thoughtfully at MacBeth. “Did you expect to find the jewels here?”
“As soon as I heard my wife’s explanation---yes. I began to understand how and why this foul deed was done.”
“Explain your deduction, my lord.”
“Not hard. This is what I believe happened: Maybe the prince Malcolm told his servant that he would be receiving the jewels from his sister. Maybe Segan saw the Lady Gruoch come to his master’s chamber and observe her enter with the sack. It was not politics that motivated Segan but greed. He waited until the castle was quiet and then he went to rouse his master by tapping at the door. Malcolm let him into the chamber, half-asleep. Seeing only Segan, a servant he trusted, he turned his back on him. That was when Segan struck. Two swift but fatal stabs in the back. He found the sack of jewels and took them back to his own bedchamber and hid them where we have now discovered them.”
“How then did Segan receive his own injuries?”
“Easy to tell. He had his story ready, that the murderer had stood behind the door and had given him a blow on the head which rendered him unconscious so that he could not recognize who it was. But this was the difficult part. Have you ever tried to give yourself a blow on the back of the head? Nevertheless, he needed some visual sign to show that he had been attacked. In fact, I might not have spotted the flaw in his story had not you realized it.”
“That the injury was in the front?”
“Exactly. He went to the wall and banged his head against it causing the abrasion. Then he pretended that he had just come round and went to rouse Garban with the news of his attack.”
MacBeth suddenly smiled and pointed to a small bloodstain on the wall. It was shoulder high, where a man might have banged his head to make the abrasion. “I presume we do not have to explain that mark away?”
The brehon sighed. “It is a stupid man who leaves such a trail of clues.”
Just then Segan entered the chamber with Garban close behind him.
He stared from MacBeth to the brehon with a slight flicker of puzzlement in his eyes. Then his glance fell on the bed and the pile of jewelry.
“My lord, this . . . ,” he began, taking a step forward.
Then he froze, his eyes round in surprise. He half twisted and attempted to reach for something at his side. Garban withdrew the six-inch blade from the young man.
He watched dispassionately as the servant fell to the floor. There was no need to examine the body. Segan was dead long before he hit the floor.
“He was reaching for his knife,” Garban explained. “He meant to harm you, noble lord.”
“A pity,” muttered Cothromanach. “Better to have him live awhile and receive his punishment as a warning to all thieves and murderers.”
“Indeed,” MacBeth acknowledged grimly. “Have the body removed, Garban, and have those jewels gathered up and returned to the Lady Gruoch. I will walk a way with you, Cothromanach.”
The brehon glanced at him. “You are still anxious, noble lord?”
“There are still willing tongues to spread rumors. Many will be quick to lay the blame for this at my door.”
“Have no fear. I shall write my account to my fellow brehons throughout the land. They shall know what has transpired here.”
MacBeth smiled in thanks and, hauling his cloak more tightly around his shoulders, turned and made his way back to his bedchamber. Dawn now filled the castle with a gray, cold light.
After the morning meal, while the light was still gray and cold, MacBeth found old Garban on the ramparts of the castle.
He was standing in a quiet corner away from the scrutiny of the guards, leaning with his back to the ramparts. “A close call, noble lord,” observed the old man as he turned and peered over the ramparts, looking down into the rocky ravine below. “I had to kill him.”
“Indeed you did,” agreed MacBeth, pleasantly enough. “Yet the plan was nearly ruined by not clearing away the extra candle stub.”
“It is easy to make a mistake. But all ended well. After Lady Gruoch left her brother, I knocked on the door, and the prince opened it, knowing it was I. The problem was that his falling body was heard by Segan, who came and knocked on the door. Had I not opened, he would have roused the entire castle. So I let him in and gave him a blow on the back of the head. While he lay unconscious, I struck him on the temple, for I knew that this might arouse suspicion. Then I hid the jewels in his bedchamber, in case we needed evidence, and also spread his wall with his blood to make it look as though he had faked his wound by dashing his forehead there. Then, to confuse him over the time the deed was committed, I exchanged the burning candle with a new one, which would put his timing out by an hour or two.”
“That was the mistake you made, in dropping the stub of the first candle on the floor and not taking it with you,” observed MacBeth. “It could have made the brehon suspicious.”
“None of us are perfect, noble lord,” sniffed the old servant.
“And now you stand one step closer to the throne at Sgˆin, noble lord. Prince Malcolm is no longer your rival, and the Lady Gruoch is there to support you.”
“You have much to thank me for, noble lord.” Garban smiled. “I trust I will be properly rewarded.”
“That I have and that you shall,” agreed MacBeth, and turning swiftly, he gave the old man a violent push, sending him flying over the rampart. There was scarcely time for Garban to scream as he plummeted downward into the rocky chasm below.
MacBeth turned and, seeing that he was unobserved, allowed a smile of satisfaction to spread over his features.
Copyright © 2005 by Peter Tremayne