An Author’s Inspiration
By Mercedes Rochelle
Before I even realized Historical Fiction was a genre, I was fascinated with MACBETH and the witches’ prophecy. If you recall, after they told Macbeth he would be king hereafter, Banquo wanted to know what they had to say about his future. They answered:
"Lesser than Macbeth, and greater."
"Not so happy, yet much happier."
"Thou shalt 'get kings, thou be none."
Just what kings were they talking about? And what happened to Fleance after he escaped from Banquo's murderers? I can only suppose Banquo’s legacy was common knowledge to the Elizabethans, for Shakespeare dropped the Fleance subplot, leaving later generations to puzzle over its meaning.
Shakespeare's story of Macbeth, taken from Raphael Holinshed (who took it verbatim from Hector Boece 1465–1536), was a legend, not real history. Macbeth did NOT kill King Duncan in his bed; King Duncan was killed in battle. In fact, Macbeth was considered by historians to be a good king who reigned fourteen years. But really, who would want to give up such a juicy tale?
I knew none of this at the time—when I started this novel a good 35 years or so ago (some first novels take a long time to mature). In the early '80s—when the internet wasn't even a twinkle in Al Gore's eyes—I only had access to books in my local libraries, and in St. Louis that was a severe handicap. Once I moved to New York and discovered the NY Public Library, my research venue improved considerably. I was surprised to discover that Banquo was thought to be the ancestor of the Stewarts, and James I had only mounted the throne of England a couple of years before this play was written. Shakespeare was giving a nod to James I’s ancestry—and his work on demonology—while showing his audience that killing the king was a really bad idea. It wasn't until much later—only recently, as a matter of fact—did I discover that MACBETH was written in response to the gunpowder plot of 1605. As it turns out, Shakespeare's family had some disconcerting connections to the conspirators, and it is thought that the great bard wrote Macbeth to clear himself of any guilt-by-association; the play was first performed nine months after the gunpowder plot was foiled.
|Portrait of James VI and 1, c. 1606, by John de Critz (Source, Wikipedia).|
As it turns out, connecting Banquo to King James Stewart was the whole purpose of the witches. So when the weird sisters told Banquo “Thou shalt ‘get kings”, they were talking over 500 years into the future! The witches, such an integral part of the play, were already embedded in Shakespearean society; much of that can be attributed to King James (also James VI of Scotland) who was pretty much responsible for the witch burning craze that infested Scotland in 1597. To this day I still don't understand why this would be a good plot device for Shakespeare. In fact, it is popularly thought that James was so displeased he banned the play for five years, though I can't find any credible documentation to support this speculation. However, it has also been suggested that the weird sisters (or wyrd sisters) were a manifestation of the Norns—the Norse goddesses who controlled our destiny, much like the Greek Fates. What did Shakespeare have in mind? Considering that paganism was alive and well in the 11th century, it's not really all that far-fetched. And indeed, this is the interpretation I chose for my novel. It was the Norns who set up a chain of events that placed the Stewarts on the throne. It made so much sense to me!
I discovered a history called Cambria Triumphans, written by Percy Enderbie in 1661; it referred to the old legend, and from this came the plot of my novel. He told us about Fleance and "during his residence in the Welsh court, he became enamoured of Nesta, the daughter of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn; and violating the laws of hospitality and honour, by an illicit connection with her, she was delivered of a son who was named Walter." Aha! I struck gold. Little did I realize (until I was deep into my research) how many historical figures were actually related to Walter; on his mother’s side he was grandson of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, Prince of Wales and Ealdgyth, daughter of Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia (and future queen of England); on his father’s side he was grandson of Banquo. He was a distant relation to Alain le Rouge, Count of Brittany and future Earl of Richmond. And, to fulfill his destiny, Walter was created the first Steward of Scotland, a hereditary post. Walter’s quest to unravel his legacy took him through many historical events like the Battle of Dunsinane, the Battle of Hastings, and Malcolm III's court, and gives us a rare look at eleventh century Scotland as well as King Malcolm's relationship with William the Conqueror.
I hadn't planned to write a historical novel, but by the time I figured it all out, my course was already charted. While researching this book I became fascinated with Earl Godwine and his family, which inspired me to write my “Last Great Saxon Earls” trilogy. All three books overlap this one, and Walter even makes a cameo appearance in “The Sons of Godwine”. This year I was able to regain my rights and publish a revised edition of “Heir To A Prophecy”. It was great fun to revisit my old friend.
Heir To A Prophecy
Fleance barely slowed his step as Banquo stopped again, removing a rock from his shoe. He and his father were already late to the king's banquet, and a half mile still stretched between them and the castle gate. It had seemed like a fine idea a couple of hours ago, taking a walk to get away from that hostile environment. There had been too many uncomfortable pauses in conversation, too many unfinished phrases, too many sideways glances. But now, dusk was quickly deepening into night, and it was getting difficult to see into the forest. There was probably a spy in every tree, for all he could tell.The young man’s curly hair blew about his face as he looked up at the treetops. High cheekbones accentuated dark brown eyes as he raised his brows to see better through the shadows. His fine square chin gave him a profile he was proud of, and he went beardless, disregarding the current fashion. But his mouth, usually so prone to laughter, was pursed tonight in frustration.
"Blast this uphill climb," he grumbled as Banquo adjusted his cloak clasp. He glanced at his father wryly; this reticence was most unusual for him. His father grunted a response, but finally shifted his belt, shaking off his lethargy. Picking up their pace, father and son strode deep into the forest.
It was a quiet night, punctuated by the crunch of stones underfoot. Not a cricket was heard, nor birds, only the sigh of leaves rustling far overhead.
"It shall be rain tonight," Banquo said.
From behind came the cry: "Let it come down!"
In an instant, three dark forms were among them. Banquo was their main target, and two of them fell upon him, slashing the startled man in the face. The worthy lord was blinded by his own blood even as he shouted, "Villains, Murderers! Fly, Fleance, Fly!"
Though past his physical prime, the old warrior still was more than a match for both opponents. With a practiced motion, Banquo swept his sword from the scabbard, aiming an overhead cut at his nearest attacker's head. If the blow had hit, he would have cleaved the man's skull. But the blood was flowing so fast into his eyes that his aim was flawed. The blade only glanced off the other's shoulder, eliciting a howl of pain.
Enraged, the murderer dived at Banquo, catching him in the throat with a dagger. Letting go the knife, the man stepped back, clutching his arm; he was astounded that Banquo was still on his feet. For a moment, it seemed that their victim would respond with a last lunge. Then he staggered, gurgling, and collapsed into the arms of his murderers.
Fleance was already in motion before his father had shouted. Shoving his torch into the third assassin's face, he set the man's mask aflame. Screaming, clawing his face, the murderer went down, his feet kicked out from under him.
Fleance allowed himself a brief sneer. Then, wasting no more time, he moved toward the others when he saw the killers slashing Banquo's face. The boy hesitated, reluctant to abandon his father. But the assassins were too good at their work. Even from this distance he could tell that Banquo was already finished; his body gave no more sign of life.
It was also clear that their companion’s screaming made no impression on them; the assassins must have assumed that the victim was himself. Cursing, Fleance took advantage of the confusion. He stamped out his torch, kicked his assailant once more as the man was struggling up, and ran for his life.
Murder gave the forest a sinister cast. The trees seemed to bend their limbs before him, seeking to block his way. Fleance's breath came in short gasps, heightening the pain in his side as he ran frantically the way he had come.
His first thought was to go to Macbeth and raise a search party to ride down these outlaws. Then, a deeper, more telling conviction assailed him, though he knew not whence it came: perhaps the murderers were not there by chance. Perhaps they were paid assassins, in which case he could trust no one.
He considered, leaning against a tree and catching his breath. He wasn’t going anywhere without a horse, and both horses were still stabled at the castle. Going any closer to that accursed place was the last thing he wanted to do; however, he reminded himself that no one besides the assassins would know that there had been any trouble.
It was a risk. Perhaps they would lie in wait for him near the stables and finish the job. But he had a feeling that they would be too busy tending their wounds. Despite himself, Fleance smiled grimly.
He looked slowly around the tree and up the path. Everything was quiet. He took one step then another, resisting the urge to break into a run. This was no time to panic. He needed to keep his senses about him. He looked one more time in all directions, then began striding quickly toward the castle, hand on his dagger.
No one stopped him at the castle gate and Fleance went directly to the stabler’s door. He knocked quickly then stepped back, looking around. There was no indication he was being followed yet.
The stabler took his time answering, his face breaking into a scowl when he recognized Fleance; he hadn’t expected anyone to leave for some hours yet. But when the youth held out a penny, his mouth curled into a greedy sneer and he quickly came out, making the coin disappear as he passed.
Fleance watched him go into the stable, resisting the urge to shout at the other to hurry up. The man seemed to take an inordinately long time, then he came out—alone.
"What about t’other?"
"I only need one now. Is he ready?"
The man shrugged. "Whatever you want." He opened the stable door and Fleance sighed with relief to see that his horse was saddled. Without another word he mounted, offering no explanation for his hasty conduct and rode off, leaving the man scratching his head.
Pick up your copy of
Heir To A Prophecy
Born in St. Louis MO with a degree from University of Missouri, Mercedes Rochelle learned about living history as a re-enactor and has been enamored with historical fiction ever since. A move to New York to do research and two careers ensued, but writing fiction remains her primary vocation. She lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.