This Is Not Your Time

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A Story of Lulach and Fleance

Inverness, 1043

The boy struggled against the river, white arms flailing in the dark waters, striking out, desperate to get a hold of something to stop him being swallowed. The spring rains held off at first, then thundered down with vengeance: feeding the waterways, bloating them with torn earth and splintered tree.

And the boy had always been curious, leaning too far, losing his balance.

Dunfermline, 1054

He heard the laughter first, throaty and cruel; and as he climbed the edge of the gully back to the main road he saw four English soldiers amusing themselves, taunting a grey bearded man and his herd of goats. Each soldier had a long spear and jabbed the man like children teasing a boar. He could see blood on the spearheads and the herder fell to his knees, hands shielding his face.

Lulach pulled himself up to the road, clearing the edge of the gully and startling the goats. The soldiers turned to look at him as he wiped his muddied hands on his tartan, but he was more interested to see if Fleance was there. It was past mid-day and she would have been on the road since before dawn. The soldiers stepped into defensive stances, but Lulach had already drawn his sword.

“This is not your land,” he said, and the note of weariness in his own voice surprised him.

“This is allour land, savage,” the lead soldier said. “Just cleaning out the rats.”

Lulach shrugged and stepped to the side as the soldier thrust his spear. The other soldiers remained with the herder but Lulach could tell they were ready to join the fray. There was no sign of Fleance.

The soldier jabbed the spear again and Lulach caught the smell of the Englishman, sweat, vomit and rot. They were unwashed and undisciplined; no match for the warriors of the north. Only their sheer numbers threatened his lands, their constant push over hill and village like a filthy tide stretching a little further with each moon.

Lulach struck the spear, deflecting it as it reached for his head.

His step-father was the Red King, and in his reign had brought peace to his people, free from Viking marauders and the covetous English; but Lulach knew peace had its limits. The king had enemies, more and more each day. The serpent of treachery had raised its many heads: south in England with Siward and Macduff, and closer to home with the king himself. Lulach struck again, moving the Englishman away from his support. Peace in the north was coming to an end, but he didn’t care about the throne or his step-father’s unwinding rule. All he thought about was the brown-haired girl, the one who should have been there, but wasn’t.

Lulach cleared the thoughts of Fleance from his mind, biting back the suspicion he felt towards his step-father, even as he pushed against the invader.

She would come.

He moved his feet, back and then to the left, drawing the soldier to follow his path, blocking the spear at each turn. There were three other spearmen and he didn’t want to let them get a clear shot. He swung his sword low and clipped the soldier’s spear, biting into the wood. A second blow broke the shaft in two and Lulach threw himself at the man, collecting him in the chest with his shoulder, tumbling them both back into the low gully where Lulach had come from, splashing into the cold stream.

As they landed, he pressed the man’s head under the water, crushing his forearm against the man’s throat. The others would be coming, he knew, but the gully gave him enough cover to bring the advantage back to him.

These were his woods, this was his land.

Inverness, 1043

The darkness consumed him, but the boy wouldn’t surrender. His eyes were closed, his mouth screwed up against the dark water, his lungs burning with the last of his fight. But he wouldn’t let go.

In the darkness he smelled smoke.

It teased memories from his mind, of a great hall consumed by fire. His father and dozens of his bravest, most loyal kin had been locked inside by the conqueror, Macbeth. In the morning, the sky had been clear. He remembered that. And his mother had become Macbeth’s bride, and he the conqueror’s son.

Death tasted of smoke.

Dunfermline, 1054

A spear pierced the water to his right, lodging itself in the dead man’s shoulder, shaking Lulach from the delirium. He spun around and saw two other soldiers fumbling down the embankment. He wrenched his sword up out of the stream and got to his feet, shaking the water from his body, along with the memories.

He launched at the closest soldier, crashing his blade against the man’s legs, crumbling him to the ground. Lulach had to leap over the tumbling body, and landed awkwardly. He steadied himself against a branch and then spun to strike down at the fallen enemy. But the sword had broken, its jagged steel useless. The dislodged tip was poking from the soldier’s mailed leg, and Lulach slammed what remained of his blade into the soldier’s bare head, pulling back hard to reclaim his broken sword.

Looking up to the road, Lulach saw the third soldier collapse with an axe lodged in his back. As the body fell forward, Lulach could make out the distinctive handle of the weapon and he smiled widely and scurried up the slope.

She had come.

At the top of the gully he saw her. Fleance stood amongst the goats, her legs apart, but with her head down, attending to her remaining axe, wiping the gore on one of the herd. Her light brown hair blew across her face as she looked up, but she pushed it aside and looked directly at him.

“What are you doing this far south?” she asked, while strapping her axe to her belt. She had two hares hanging from the leather strap, clearly prepared for her journey into exile. “I thought you’d be enjoying the warm fires of your new wife.”

Lulach glanced down at the last of the fallen soldiers; always careful to make sure the dead remained dead. His step-father had taught him that. The herder was dead too, his body a bloody mess at the side of the road. Lulach stepped away from the gully, his shirt and tartan soaked and muddied. 

“I was waiting for you,” he said, dropping his ruined sword to the road.

She came towards him, head held high as always. Her father had shaped her into a warrior, forged through a combination of his complete love for her, and the aching loss he felt for her dead mother.

“Like the Red King was waiting for my father?” she asked. “He sent dogs to tear us apart; filthy dogs, in the night.”

She looked at his face and then deliberately down to his boots and back again. Her expression was clearly unimpressed. Lulach flinched at the close inspection.

“I’m sorry about your father,” he said, and it was true. Lulach knew what it was like, to have lost a father. He knew Macbeth had ordered the murder, had actually wanted Fleance dead too, but Lulach couldn’t speak of the treachery. He couldn’t let the words come between them, even though he could tell she knew the truth.

“I have to go,” Fleance said, but she didn’t move. She was seventeen. He didn’t want to think about her chances on the road south, down to where Macduff and the wronged princes had fled, to where Edward the English king plotted the take-over of the Kingdom of Alba and Siward paced like a chained hound. She was still so young.

When they were children, they had skirmished while their fathers talked of battles gone by. The men drank and roared, leaving Lulach and Fleance to leap at each other in the brush, the firelight throwing them into dancing silhouettes, larger than they could ever be in the real world.

“Wait,” he said, even though she hadn’t moved.

“The days and the nights keep coming, Lul; they’ll be marching right over all of us. I can’t wait anymore.”

She held his hand, her fingers warm against the coldness of his own. The tenderness shifted smoothly into a firm hold and she patted him on the shoulder before releasing the grip. She tightened the belt and checked her boots, letting her hair fall down to hide her face again.

“I want you to stay,” Lulach said.

She looked up and her eyes narrowed, but he couldn’t be sure whether it was from irritation or regret. She looked down the road again quickly, keeping him at a distance.

“Sometimes we have to turn away from what we wanted as children. We have to walk a different road,” she said.

She was already gone, he thought. The spark inside her was gone. He wondered whether she’d seen her father’s body, whether the butchers had dispatched him before her eyes, or if she only imagined his fate. Lulach knew imagination was worse: a cruel and endless tormentor.

He wanted the girl back, he wanted the songs and the fumbling declarations. He wanted to stop time, to wedge himself between the bloody acts of his step-father and the future he could see unwinding ahead, where Fleance vanished south and he was left alone in the north.

“Why do you have to speak like an old man, all the time?” he asked, taking her hand again, pulling it away from her belt and her axe. She flinched from him but he held firm. “Flea?”

“I’ve been orphaned by your clan,” she said. “The Red King would have me put into the earth. Do you think I have any use for childhood?”

“I can protect you,” he said as he looked at her eyes swelling with tears, but he knew it wasn’t true. And so did Fleance. She scoffed and he dropped his hand. She raised the hood of her cloak, attempting to fall back into the disguise of a traveller.

“Where will you go?” he asked, feeling every second he had with her was growing more distant, more wasted. He felt as ruined as the jagged blade at his feet.

She shrugged.

“To Wales. My father’s kinsmen are there. People say I look like him sometimes, when the sun smiles a certain way.”

“But you’re a girl,” he said, suddenly. “It’s dangerous.”

I’m dangerous,” she said, flashing her bright eyes in his direction. There was a light in them, a fatal light, but no more tears. “Give me an Englishman who thinks he can stop me, and I’ll show you a dead Englishman.”

Her eyes dropped to the two soldiers on the road, and then returned to Lulach, defiant. The rain had let up for a moment but the wind was still fierce. It whipped down the road from the north.

 “And what about me?” he asked.

She laughed then, and it was like they were children once more, chasing each other around the hangman’s tree or through the stables at Glamis. Laughter seemed to fill every memory he had of her, and impossible, golden light fell around her in his mind.

“You really are the Fool,” she said. “You’re at the crossroads, same as me. That way is Dunsinane, the Red King building his walls even though everything is falling down. And Finnghuala is there too, warming your bed with her round belly.”

“Don’t talk of her, please,” he said. “It’s you I want.”

Finnghuala was a stone, pulling him down into a life he didn’t want, but couldn’t escape. She stared at him with ignorance. There was no love, no passion, no running around with the beat of your heart in your throat. But his mother had arranged the union and no one opposed the will of Gruoch, not even the Red King.

“Fool,” she said again, but her face had softened, smiling briefly. “The sisters have cast their stones, Lul, and you and I both know what will happen if Edward gets his fingers into our lands. I’m not staying for that, not staying to fight for a king I know is a thief and cur.”

She looked down to the road and he couldn’t help but follow her gaze.

“And this way,” she said, brighter. “This is a different life. No easier than staying, of course. The chance of untimely death plagues all roads. But this way is my way. I’ll make the choices, Lul, and I’ll take the good with the bad.”

“I can’t follow,” he said.

She smiled sadly.

“You’re wrong.”

“I can’t,” he said.

“It’s just one foot in front of the other.”

Lulach took a breath and wiped the water from his brow, flicking it to the side, watching its descent like a falling star. He knew there were different lives for different people. Fleance was the last of her blood here in the north, nothing to keep her from drifting; but Lulach was drowning in family and duty: the blood of his dead father, the expectations of his step-father, the illness of his mother, the patience of his wife. Perhaps even the responsibility of a child, a son.

“I can’t,” he said again. “I can’t follow.”

“That’s all you ever do, though. Follow. That’s all you ever say. I can’t.”

She spat to the side of the road and hitched her belt one last time.

“You do what the king says,” she said. “You always do. And you’re always reaching out for what you want but you never take hold.”

He grabbed her hand then, wrenching it away from her belt. He kissed it roughly, kissed the warm, wetness of her skin clutched between his two hands. She pulled roughly away and stumbled off the road into the scrub. Her face was white, her eyes wide and brown, her hair blowing wild again.

“You can’t do that,” she said. “You have no right. “

“I do have the right,” he called to her. “I am the next in line. The next in line! That has to mean something.”

The wind swept the fresh rain into his face. He wiped it roughly, swearing under his breath, kicking at the goats nearest to him. It had to mean something. They moved out of his reach.

“It means nothing,” she said.

They stared at each other.

“Maybe one day you’ll get the throne,” she continued, softly. “Maybe one day there might even be crowds to see it happen, but Scone is cursed. You know the weird sisters are rarely wrong. England is washing northward and no king can hold back the tide. That’s madness.”

“That’s honour, that’s our way,” he said. “We must stay here and fight the invaders, like we always have. Running away isn’t going to save any of us,” he said and instantly regretted it. His words died on the wind.

Fleance had already turned her back again, for the final time. She stepped on to the road and as her boots scuffed the rock, her hands quickly brought up her hood to keep the wind at bay.

He stood there alone in the rain, in the middle of the road connecting past and future. Around him, the goats wandered aimlessly, picking at the wild grass and stepping over the fallen Englishmen.

Inverness, 1043

The boy struggled against the river, even as he lay on the bank in the mud. Strong arms held him down and he heard a deep voice calling to him: “Lulach, son of Gillacomgain, this is not your time.”

The hands pressed down on to his shoulders, warm skin against the ice of his own. His eyes opened. The moon above was the same as before, half-formed but bright enough to cast the world in a soft light. The man holding him on the bank of the river was a friend of his step-father, a bearded giant with a flash of white teeth, ready for laughter.

“This is not your time,” Banquo said again.

The boy turned his head, surprised to see the ground so close to him, so solid and still. A girl sat next to him, face streaked with river mud, her serious eyes watching him.  She had the same brown hair as the man, but it was braided behind her head. He realised she was holding one of his hands.

He pressed his fingers around hers, and she smiled at him and then at her father. Then she leaned forward and kissed his forehead.

“This is not your time,” she said.

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