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    Real Strategy Requires Cunning
Chapter One - By the Pricking of My Thumbs...
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    An Earldom of Buchan 1066 AAR



    Part One - October 1102


    Chapter One – By the Pricking of my Thumbs...



    Something...this way comes

    Well, this is it. The unthinkable has happened, and my distress knows no bounds. I cannot sleep, I cannot eat, I can barely even breathe. My thoughts, usually so ordered, are beset by the darkest imaginings, for, as of now, everything I have worked so hard for hangs by the slightest sliver of a thread. My fate is no longer my own, and what happens in the next few days and weeks will surely determine the entire future course of my life.

    Hmm. Now that I’ve got your attention, allow me to introduce myself: I am Margaret, Countess of Buchan and Queen of Scotland—or at least, forgive my scoffing, what’s left of Scotland. For you see, over several decades, more than I can remember, we have suffered repeated humiliations at the hands of our enemies, constant invasions, constant defeat, constant meddling from outsiders who seek only to eat away at the kingdom bit by bit—first Cumberland was lost to the Normans, then Dunbar to Earl Morcar, and lastly, only within the last couple of years, Clydesdale was taken that bitch Isobel of Carrick, at the cost of many brave men of Buchan. Soon, unless something drastic is done, there will be nothing of it left.


    Scotland diminished

    Witnessing this throughout my life has taken its toll, fuelled my ambition to use whatever means necessary to take control of the destiny of Scotland, which, having ascended from mere countess to Queen in a few short years, I was well on my way to fulfilling. All I needed was for my belly to swell, to bring forth a child who would end the curse of the Dunkelds forever and rule Scotland under the name Buchanan, but now, with the news I have just received...no, I cannot bear to even think about what the future might hold, for I have been excommunicated, cast out, condemned for standing by the man I love rather than the God. It truly is an injustice of the highest order. Indeed, I wonder if it is I who is truly cursed, whether something dark and pagan hangs over me like a dagger in the night.

    It is true, I will admit to only you, that in my short time on this earth I have been no paragon of virtue—I have done many a thing that would make harlots blush, things that I could never share even with my dear, sweet Macbeth, who I can assure you is no stranger to murky deeds himself—and if the Pope knew about any of those, well, I would have little cause for complaint. But regardless of whatever indiscretions I may or may not have committed, everything I have done has been for my kinsmen, and I regret nothing. I have many enemies, both inside Scotland and out, but the Pope has never been one...until now.


    Number one on the enemies list. For now.


    A Macbeth in charge of Scotland again. What could possibly go wrong?

    Sitting here in my bedchamber in Ellon Castle, I find myself thinking about my life, wondering how things ended up as they are. I suppose it all began with my father, Kenneth Buchanan, who, in 1067, upon reaching maturity, took over duties as the Earl of Buchan from his regent, whose identity I cannot at this time recall.


    Dad. Dead

    My father was by all accounts a basic man, a talented soldier and not much else. He was not a talented husband, given how things ended up with his wife, and, despite his best wishes, he was definitely not a talented merchant or diplomat, a fact that would come back to haunt him in his final moments, as the assassin’s blade pierced his heart. He died a mere month after my birth, in the year 1080. My mother, a lady of minor noble stock called Margaret Gillespie, was his mistress, and my father’s final action was to recognise me, his newborn bastard daughter, as his sole legitimate heir.


    Mum. Also dead

    Throughout my life I have heard stories about my father, many of them from my mother, before she abandoned me to swan off to Italy to be with her new husband, and Marshall Donald, my father’s old sparring partner, but most of what I know I learnt straight from the source—yes, one night, when I was but a small girl, I was woken by the wind rustling though the curtains, and upon opening my eyes who should I see standing there but the shade of my father, pale and gaunt, beard tatty and ragged, with the dagger that slew him still plunged into his ribcage. Many people regard me as a liar, not entirely without justification, but I swear what follows is true.

    “My dear Maggie,” he intoned, “It is I, your father, returned from beyond the veil!”

    “Margaret,” I said.

    He squinted. “What?”

    “No one calls me Maggie.” I sat up and yawned. “Everyone calls me Margaret, or Lady Buchan, or Your Ladyship, but never Maggie. I insist upon it, and as I’m the countess, they have no choice but to obey.”

    “Oh.” He seemed to falter, somewhat caught off his stride. “Isn’t it possible you could make an exception for your poor old deceased father?”

    “No. Sorry.”

    “I see. Well, anyway, I have come to tell you the shocking truth of my demise, for my murderer was none other than...” He paused dramatically. There may have been a flash of lightning. “Siemomysl of Pomerania!”

    It was only now, feeling the cold of the wind and truly focussing on the shade that stood before me, that I realised I was not, in fact, dreaming. A shiver ran down my spine, but I didn’t let it show, steadfastly maintaining my nonchalant demeanour. “Siemo-huh?”

    “Siemomysl of Pomerania!” he repeated, this more of a whine. “A filthy, degenerate heathen from far across the sea! It is he who is responsible for my undoing, and I know this for a fact! Listen well, my dear Magg...er, I mean, my dear Margaret, and I shall tell you all that you need to know...”
     
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    Chapter Two, Part One - The Pomeranian Connection
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    An Earldom of Buchan 1066 AAR



    Chapter Two, Part One – The Pomeranian Connection



    As told by Kenneth Buchanan, deceased

    Well my dear Margaret, it is in fair Buchan we lay our scene. Ah, Buchan, a land of hills and rivers, of craggy cliffs lashed by the ferocious waves of the North Sea, once the Kingdom of Ce, ancient heartland of our race, up in the northeast corner of Alba, or, as it was coming to be known then, Scotland. Yes, I know you know all this already because you live here, but it is important that I set the scene. Don’t ask why, it just is. In those days, I spent the summers residing in my palace near Aberdeen, the finest palace you ever did see, made of the sturdiest timbers and the stiffest mud, and yes, which you have seen, because you also spend your summers there, but I implore you to understand that this is a me-talking time. A you-talking time can come later, my dear. Yes, I promise.

    Now, at Aberdeen, there are many merchants and sailors who come from far and wide: some from the north, from Orkney, Shetland and the Isles, some from Ireland and Wales, others from the east coast of Scotland and Earl Morcar’s lands. But there were also traders from more distant realms, from across the sea, coming from the wealthy cities of the Holy Roman Empire, from exotic locales such as Flanders, Holland and Hamburg, something I encouraged within my demesne wholeheartedly. Word obviously spread about my desire to foster business opportunities within Buchan, as one day a group of traders, a company of... how do you say, Hamburgians? Hamburgites? Hamburgishers? Forgive me, I don’t know the proper term for people from Hamburg. Well anyway, one day in some year in the early 1070s, which one I cannot say for sure, my memory isn’t what it used to be, these Hamburgians came to my palace and sought an audience with the Earl, who, as you know, was me. Don’t look at me like that. I was a fair and open Earl, so I was willing to listen to what they had to say.

    What their leader, a stout, stocky man named Johannes, proposed was...unorthodox, to say the least. He sought to launch an expedition to the heathen-ruled land of Pomerania, a place which at that time, I confess, I had never even heard of. While there, he wished to establish links with the local rulers, to plant the seeds of commerce so that one day, as he explained to me with a starry look in his eyes, a vast trade network would operate on the Baltic coast which would supplant the existing one currently operated by the Norsemen, who already had a strong presence in the region. All he wanted was for me to help finance the journey. I was hesitant, of course, worried about what the church might think of it all, but then he started to sweeten the deal, offering me a very generous cut of the profits and even the opportunity to go with them to oversee the operation, to make sure I wasn’t getting myself involved in anything untoward. Still demurring, it was only when Johannes’ personal chef presented to the court a local delicacy of his, a simple yet delicious meal of cheese, meat and bread, that I was sold. Upon informing the Bishop of St Machar of my intentions, (I forget which Bishop it was at that precise point), I conveniently left out the part about the religion of our prospective trading partners. Luckily, he didn’t think to ask.

    And so, with only a small trunk of my belongings and Murdoch, my loyal manservant, I set off into the unknown.


    Pomerania, more than just dogs

    Well anyway, to cut a long story short, the expedition was a disaster, partly, I suspect, due to Der Frosch. Der Frosch (not his real name, of course. I never did find that out, but it matters little), a frankly bizarre-looking man, claimed to have extensive knowledge of the Baltic region and to speak twenty languages. He was to act as interpreter between us and the Pomeranians and was to serve as our way of securing the trust of the local Pomeranian chiefs. Bizarre-looking how, you ask? Well, he had a huge chin that looked almost like a pouch, hence his name, which translates into our tongue as The Frog. Also his eyes...what exactly about his eyes I cannot say, but you know how when you’re talking to someone, they will occasionally move their head or break eye contact when in thought? Der Frosch did neither. He would keep his head perfectly still, and his eyes constantly trained upon you. Did he blink? I’m not sure, but he gave me the shivers, that’s for sure. Anyhow, Johannes seemed to place absolute confidence in this man, so I was willing to do the same, albeit with some reservations.

    The actual journey went off without a hitch. The seas were calm, the weather was fine and the sailing was good, and, having rounded Denmark without incident, I was feeling altogether optimistic about our little venture. As landfall approached, I caught sight of Johannes in hushed, urgent discussions with Der Frosch, disconcerted to note that, occasionally, they (or rather Johannes; Der Frosch wasn’t, apparently, capable) glanced up at me with a look of...uncertainty, I suppose. Anxiousness, perhaps. Whatever, it was a look that left me deeply unsettled, so I went over to inquire as to what it was they were talking about.

    “Ah, your lordship,” Johannes said in Latin, a language we both knew enough of in which to converse, bowing slightly and wringing his hands in a servile manner. “Ah, yes, it turns out there was something of an oversight in our preparations, and well, there’s that trunk of yours full of such fine cloths, and, er...well, Der Frosch informs me that the Pomeranians will have, er, certain expectations. Er...”

    It turned out that, according to Der Frosch, the Pomeranian chief, the infamous Siemomysl, would require a gift of sufficient quality in order to consider opening trade negotiations, and that, apparently, Der Frosch had ‘forgotten’ to mention this to Johannes until this precise moment. As for the gift in question...

    “But those are my clothes!” I said.”The clothes I intend to wear! What about all the goods in the hold? Can’t you give him some of them as a gift instead?”

    “Sadly no, as we’ll need all of them for the actual trading. There just isn’t anything to spare.”

    “Fine, but really, you cannot expect me to give away all my clothes! What am I supposed to wear?”

    Johannes raised his hands. “Worry not, your lordship, we have no shortages of clothes.”

    “You expect me to dress up like a common merchant? You cannot be serious?” I was a tolerant man but still a noble and was unwilling to bear such indignities. I thought a moment. “Well, I suppose I can just keep on the clothes I am wearing now.”

    “Well actually, Der Frosch believes that to satisfy Siemomysl, we will need all your clothes, especially the ones you are wearing now, as they are the finest of the lot...”

    No, Margaret, stop laughing, I didn’t go in the nude. But I did have to, as Johannes suggested, don the outfit of a Hamburgian merchant upon landing on the strange shores of Pomerania, which caused a whole heap of confusion when meeting Siemomysl, as he somehow believed that Johannes was the Earl and that I was some subordinate. Even after I had Der Frosch clear up the confusion, Siemomysl still refused to believe that I was a nobleman and continued to treat me with a most outrageous level of disdain. Yes, my dear, I also suspect that Der Frosch did quite the opposite of clearing up the confusion. The gift of my clothes, at least, seemed to go down well, and we received permission to travel to their main settlement, Siemomysl’s stronghold at Szczecin, where we would receive lodgings. So off we went.
     
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    Chapter Two, Part Two - Offence is the Best Form of Defence
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    An Earldom of Buchan 1066 AAR



    Chapter Two, Part Two – Offence is the Best Form of Defence




    As told by Kenneth Buchanan, still deceased

    Siemomysl’s stronghold stood on a piece of elevated ground not far from the west bank of the Oder river and consisted of a circle of raised earth topped with wooden palisade walls, surrounded by a dense scattering of thatched roofed huts that made up the settlement of Szczecin. We were led along a raised walkway and through a gateway, to the interior of the stronghold. Here there were several more buildings, all wooden, arranged in a circle against the steep defensive banks, with a stocky, two-storey keep in the centre. Once there, we were conducted by Siemomysl’s right-hand man, a pale, wiry individual whose name I never caught but who seemed to have a pre-existing relationship with Der Frosch, to what I suppose you would term the guest quarters, these being a small number of apparently otherwise unused shacks on the opposite side from the stronghold’s entrance.

    Upon our approach, I noted, with apprehension, that while there were eight of us in the party, there were only three such buildings available, and I began to worry that, given the earlier confusion, I might have to, god forbid, share quarters with my manservant Murdoch, some Hamburgians, or even Der Frosch. Fortunately, it appeared that the subject of my status had at some point been successfully communicated to the Pomeranians, and I was to have the largest of the dwellings to myself, while Murdoch—you never met Murdoch, did you, Margaret? Well, he was a simple lad, quiet, did what he was told, and that was about the extent of our relationship. Anyway, Murdoch was to sleep outside my door like a loyal hound. As for the accommodation, it was sparse, it smelled strange, it was noisy, and the straw bedding was itchy and uncomfortable, but it was dark and I was exhausted, so I fell asleep almost straight away.


    A typical Slavic stronghold

    What followed was a day of tedium. Johannes offered to let me sit in on the trade negotiations, which sounded like a good idea at the time. Margaret, my dear, it wasn’t. The main problem was that the negotiations were being conducted in two separate languages, neither of which I spoke, so I was constantly having to ask for updates and clarification, and eventually it got to the point where I lost track completely of what was going on and began to daydream that I was out hunting somewhere in the wilds of Buchan, with a sturdy steed beneath me, my dogs baying for blood, and an elusive, majestic deer with hooves that seemed to sparkle when they caught the light just waiting to be claimed as a prize. It was only upon noticing that Siemomysl was glaring at me that I snapped to attention and excused myself, retiring to my shack for the next few hours until it was time to dine.

    For the evening feast, Johannes had once again arranged his chef to prepare some of the Hamburgian delicacy, in honour of our host. Meals were held in the largest of the buildings at a long table, with Siemomysl at the head, of course, with his wife Ksenia at the foot, and everyone else somewhere in between. At this point, I have to take a moment to say a few words about Ksenia, for the truth is she was humongous. Not fat, you understand, but just...huge. She towered over her husband and had arms as thick as tree-trunks, and the sight of the two of them was almost comical. Upon first seeing her, it was all I could do to stifle a laugh, which I knew would be a very bad idea indeed, given the grumpy disposition of her husband. As we sat waiting at the table, I couldn’t help but sneaking glances at her, which I soon found being returned with more interest than I knew what to do with, so from that point I concentrated everything on averting my eyes and staying focused on the other end of the table. Even so, I could feel Ksenia’s eyes on me, and my skin prickled under her gaze.

    Finally, the food arrived. Each of us was presented with the Hamburgian delicacy, accompanied by a selection of boiled root vegetables. It was the custom that no one should start eating before the head of the table, so all eyes shifted to Siemomysl. He spent a good few moments staring at his plate, examining the unfamiliar foodstuff with an evident degree of uncertainty, before, very carefully, removing the top layer of bread and taking a bite. Following his lead, his two sons did the same. Then someone laughed. I don’t know who it was, but Siemomysl’s eyes were immediately trained on me, as if I were the culprit, and began muttering something that I’m sure is not very pleasant in the Pomeranian tongue. Then Ksenia started to laugh, big grunting chuckles, which didn’t help. At this point, his right-hand man, the wiry one, went up to his liege and whispered something in his ear. Whatever he said seemed to smooth things over, and Siemomysl proceeded to pick the entire delicacy up in the proper manner and take a big bite. He chewed, for what felt like hours, before smiling and nodding with approval. After a collective sigh of relief, the feasting began.

    I returned to my quarters with a full belly and drooping eyelids, and was ready to drop when I heard shuffling from near the door.

    “Murdoch? Is that you?”

    There was no answer, so I went to investigate. Upon opening the door, I found my face filled with an enormous bosom, which, after craning my neck up, I discovered belonged to none other than Ksenia.

    “Oh, it’s you, is there something I can, er, help you, er, with...er...?”

    As I spoke, she pressed forward, making her amorous intentions quite clear. Now I admit, there was something quite compelling about her, despite the fact she was at least twenty years older and several feet taller than me, but, I am proud to say I did the honourable thing and pushed her away...well, I attempted to push her away, for quite a while, until, with pushes turning to shoves, she got the hint. She drew back, glared at me, let out what I imagine were expletives, and left in a huff. After checking outside, where I found Murdoch sound asleep, I went to bed.

    I wasn’t to get much sleep. In the wee hours of the morning I was woken by knocking at my door, but rather than Ksenia coming back for another go, as I feared, it was Johannes, in a state of nervous agitation.

    “Your lordship,” he whispered, “we have to get out of here at once.”

    “What? Why?”

    “It’s Siemomysl. He’s completely lost it, and if we don’t go right now I’m worried he might do something...unpleasant to you.”

    “To me? I don’t understand.”

    “As far as I can tell, it’s something about you and his wife...”

    At this, I sighed deeply and shook my head. “No, no, he’s got it all wrong. Nothing happened. She came to me and I turned her down.”

    “That, it seems, is precisely the problem. You have caused great offence to Ksenia and thus have greatly offended Siemomysl.”

    I blinked. “Wait, he’s angry because I didn’t sleep with his wife?”

    Johannes merely shrugged. “Pagans.”

    And so, we beat a hasty, undignified retreat from the stronghold and to the boats, and after arriving back in Scotland I gave the whole venture little further thought until one night, several years later, I woke to see the wiry man hovering over me, blade gleaming in the moonlight. In perfect Gaelic, he said,

    “Siemomysl doesn’t forgive or forget. A curse on you and all your descendants.”

    The knife entered my heart, and I died.

    ***​

    “And now that you know the terrible truth,” the shade of my father said, “I ask you to swear a solemn oath to avenge my death, so that one day I may be able to rest in peace.”

    The night’s sky outside, pitch black when he had first manifested, was now filled with the glow of sunrise, and his ghost was fading with the light, now barely visible. There was a moment of silence as he stared at me, waiting for a reply.

    “Well?”

    I rubbed my sleep-deprived eyes. “My mother always said you were both gregarious and cruel, something I never understood. Until now.”

    “Margaret, don’t be flippant.”

    “Father, you could talk the hind leg off a mule.”

    “Please. Will you do as I ask?”

    “If you'd spent all this time talking about the interesting bits, like that Der Frosch character, then it wouldn't have been so bad. Tell me more about Der Frosch." He continued to stare at me, unamused. "Very well,” I said, with an exaggerated sigh, “I’ll avenge your death if I get the chance, but I make no promises.”

    My father regarded me glumly “I suppose that will have to do.”

    At this point, he vanished, leaving me alone in my room. Needless to say, I never took any steps to avenge him, and only now, with my world collapsing, do I wonder if I have made a terrible, terrible mistake.


    Siemomysl, dead of natural causes
     
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    Chapter Three - Arsenda Nowhere
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    An Earldom of Buchan 1066 AAR


    Chapter Three – Arsenda Nowhere



    What’s the frequency of Kenneths?

    It occurs to me that I have not yet had the chance to tell you of my brother. Well, when I say brother, I am referring to the simpleton squatting in my court who styles himself Kenneth de Buchan, the bastard son of my father’s wife, Arsenda. It was before I was born, of course, but those who still remain from those days tell me it was a massive scandal, with Arsenda’s infidelity only being revealed after little Kenneth’s birth in the most public and humiliating way. It happened, so the story goes, during a big naming ceremony thrown at my father’s expense, where the babe was to be officially presented to the court as the future Kenneth II, heir to the earldom. Accounts differ, but the one thing everyone remembers is the Earl’s spymaster sidling up to him during the event and the look of dismay upon the Earl’s face as he read the missive. The identity of bastard Kenneth’s real father remains a mystery, with the only person who could shed light on it now living in some place called Empuries, south of the Frankish kingdom. It’s a shame Arsenda is so far away, as I should like to have had the chance to meet her one day and thank her—if it wasn’t for her cheating heart, then I would never have become the countess. Unluckily for the Kenneths and luckily for me, she was stupid enough to get caught.

    Not as stupid, though, as my dear departed father. What do you imagine his reaction was to receiving the news that his newborn ‘son and heir’ was no such thing? Do you think he took the news in his stride, with a calm, measured response? No, I can tell you exactly what he did—he attempted to have Arsenda thrown in prison. Perhaps not an unjustified reaction, if it wasn’t for the fact that the operation was completely bungled. She easily evaded capture and fled to her family estate in Empuries, never to return.


    There goes the bride

    My father now found himself in something of a quandary, left with one screaming brat who no one would recognise as legitimate and minus one wife. He had a couple of options available, both of which, as you might expect, failed spectacularly. The first, a divorce, was never a real possibility to begin with, as the Pope would never grant such a request for such frivolous reasons, and he was rebuffed accordingly. The second, reconciliation, was attempted, but my father never received any replies to the many pleading letters he sent to Empuries begging Arsenda to return. A possible third option may now be occurring to you, one involving daggers or poison or garrottes, but my father lacked the stomach for such measures. At this point, I think he resigned himself to dying heirless or else waiting for Arsenda to die so that he could, at some point, remarry. He began to look for female companionship from various ladies of the court, my mother being one of the lucky few.

    Today, bastard Kenneth sits on my council and serves as my spymaster. He is utterly hopeless in the role, and I would replace him if there was anyone, literally anyone, available to take his place. As it is, I give him meaningless tasks and perform the role of spymistress myself. He is also a commander of my armies, something he is far better suited for. In fact, he’s quite similar to my father in that regard, and sometimes I wonder if there’s a chance he could be his son after all...not that I would ever raise that possibility with anyone, of course. Regardless, it would matter little, even if he was—he is a lazy pig, more interested in petty personal gain than the acquisition of land and titles. If he were any kind of threat to me, then I can assure you he would no longer draw breath. He got married at some point to a woman from Italy, something my mother must have arranged during her time as regent. Not only that, but he somehow managed to procreate. His daughter’s name, of all the possible choices?


    ...​

    I assume he named her after my mother.
     
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    Chapter Four - Strange Intelligence
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    An Earldom of Buchan 1066 AAR


    Chapter Four - Strange Intelligence



    Yes, another reused image

    Upon my ascension to the earldom, it was determined, naturally, that at a month old I was too young to govern by myself, and so control was handed over to the designated regent, who in this case was my mother. My memory of her grows dim, but it’s fair to say that under her guidance, the realm was in safe enough hands—she was by all accounts a financial genius, and quite competent in other areas of statecraft too, albeit a sweet, kind woman, entirely lacking in guile. The first few years of my life, as befitting one nicknamed ‘the dove’, passed peacefully, largely without incident, at least as far as Buchan was concerned. The situation in the wider realm was far from peaceful, something about which I shall go into more detail at a later time, but these wars never touched Buchan, and life went on as it always did.

    I am uncertain of the exact circumstances surrounding my mother’s departure and how Chancellor Robert came to be regent, but these are the facts: when I was eight years old, my mother left me to marry a man in Italy, and I never saw her again. I have vague memories of her saying how dearly she wished to find a husband. It was her sole ambition in life. However, I can’t help but wonder why she couldn’t find a husband that lived somewhere closer to home, say, in Scotland. Looking back, I am certain that what happened was in effectively a coup by Chancellor Robert. I have always resented my mother for leaving, but I do not know for sure how much choice she had in the matter. You might think my ire should be reserved entirely for Chancellor Robert, but I cannot bring myself to hate him. Without his influence, I would be mere countess of some backwater rather than Queen of Scotland.

    In those days, my time was divided between two worlds. It was largely spent with my guardian Iona, a distant cousin on my mother’s side, who endeavoured to teach me everything there was to know about being a noble lady. Fortunately, she shared my mother’s lack of guile, and I was soon able to wrap her around my little finger with the right lie and the careful application of manipulation, and before long she posed little challenge. She was not my mother, and I made sure she knew it.

    The times I preferred were those I spent with Chancellor Robert. A tall, dark-haired man in his forties, he was often away on state business, but one time, when I was perhaps eleven or twelve, he returned with a hnafetafl board he had picked up somewhere in the Isles, and he insisted that I learn how to play.


    Hnafetafl, easier to say than it is to play

    It was a gloomy afternoon in Buchan, and in the keep of Ellon Castle, I sat staring and despairing at the inevitability of my defeat, all the more galling as I was playing as defender, which was supposed to be the easier position. And as expected, Robert moved his piece and finished me off.

    “A fine game. You are definitely getting better at it.”

    “I lost,” I said, sulkily, “as always.”

    “There will come a time when it is I who will always lose and you who will always win. Someday my thoughts will lose their focus and my mind will grow feeble, whereas yours will only grow stronger.”

    “I look forward to such a day.”

    He narrowed his eyes at me. “I do not. But while such change is inevitable, it is up to use to determine whether we take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to us. The trouble with your strategy right now is that you are entirely reactive, only ever thinking of the next move. I win because I am thinking of a dozen possible moves at once.”

    “I do not think my mind is capable of such a thing.”

    “Nonsense. The key,” he said, “is to adapt to any situation based on your opponent. I know how you play, so I know how to beat you.”

    “So you’re saying I should be less predictable?”

    “Quite, which brings me to the subject of your betrothal.”

    I blinked. “My what?”

    “I have been considering the matter for some time, and I believe I have found the perfect match.”

    “A perfect...?” I glared at him. “Oh, I see. Less predictable. Most amusing.”

    “Yes, that did well to illustrate the point, but I do not jest. For the individual in question is none other than Prince Macbeth, and I believe he would be quite amenable.”

    “Prince Macbeth!” My initial flurry of excitement gave way to consternation. “No, wait, I do not understand. You would have my children bear the name Dunkeld? You have not spoken well of their line in the past. You have said they are cursed.”

    “Prince Macbeth is...different. He isolates himself from his family and is openly vocal in his opposition to his niece’s rule. I believe that with some persuasion, it would be possible to arrange a union so that the offspring would not bear the name Dunkeld but would rather carry on your line and belong to the house Buchanan. They would, of course, still inherit any and all of their father's claims to the throne of Scotland.”

    “You really think Prince Macbeth would agree to that?” Chancellor Robert did not reply and regarded me passively, and then I realised. “You have already made all the necessary arrangements, haven’t you?”

    He smiled. “The betrothal ceremony will take place in the Great Hall, as soon as Macbeth arrives. Now,” he said, setting up the hnafetafl board, “are you up for another game?”
     
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    Chapter Five - Foul and Fair
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    An Earldom of Buchan 1066 AAR


    Chapter Five - Foul and Fair


    It was well within my power to reject the match, which perhaps would have been a justified response to Chancellor Robert’s impudence, but even at such a tender age I could recognise the worthiness of Prince Macbeth as a potential husband. He possessed a solid claim to the throne, and, even given the change in succession laws after the overthrow of King Duncan, he even had a chance of being elected as the next king—he wasn’t too popular among his immediate family, but it was that very appearance of estrangement that served to raise the esteem in which he was held by the other powerful lords of the realm, such as Earl Gospatric of Lothian and my own liege, Duchess Gruoch of Moray. It was then, on those nights lying awake while awaiting the arrival of Macbeth and his retinue, that the seeds of my ambition were sown. I could actually control the destiny of Scotland, I thought as I wrapped the blanket tighter around myself to keep off the draught...someday, at least. My chest tightened as visions of majesty flowed through my head, all puppets dancing to my tune. No, not could control. Will. I will control it. I slept poorly those nights, drifting off too close to dawn.

    Macbeth arrived on a cloudy evening, and his ‘party’ turned out to consist of only himself and a couple of servants, with the Prince on horseback and the others walking. Chancellor Robert, Marshall Donald and I hurriedly assembled in the courtyard of Ellon Castle to greet them, having received no prior indication of when he would arrive, and standing there in the cold I caught the first glimpse of my future husband. I will be honest and say I did not find him to be handsome, but he carried himself with a certain dignity and a certain...perhaps the best word is serenity. His servants helped him dismount, and after casting his eyes over those assembled, he approached and came before me.

    “Countess Margaret, I presume?”

    I curtsied. “Yes, your highness, that’s me.”

    “It’s very nice to meet you. Chancellor Robert has told me a lot about you.” Before I could respond and ask exactly what he had been told and whether it was slanderous, he turned to Chancellor Robert. “Ah, Chancellor. I take it everything is ready for the ceremony to be held tomorrow?”

    “Of course, your highness. It will take place in the Great Hall at noon, unless you desire something different? Perhaps the chapel would be a more appropriate venue?”

    “Oh, no, uh, the Great Hall will be fine, I’m sure.”

    Chancellor Robert bowed slightly. “Very good, your highness. I’m sure you must be tired from travelling, so allow me to show you to your quarters, if I may?”

    “Yes, thank you.” Before departing, he looked at me and smiled thinly. “I will see you again tomorrow then.”

    I nodded but didn’t anything, and I watched, shivering, as the Prince and Chancellor Robert disappeared into the keep.

    “Come on then, my lady, let’s get out of this cold,” Marshall Donald said, drawing up alongside me. I jumped, having forgotten he was there.

    “Oh, yes, let’s.”

    ***​

    The betrothal ceremony was a straightforward affair, little more than two parties signing a contract and a chaste kiss, followed by a banquet in Macbeth’s honour, a spread of whatever food was available in the kitchens hurriedly thrown together. The real purpose, though, was to allow me and my future husband a chance to get to know one another a bit better, and, as such, we were seated next to one another.

    “So Countess,” Macbeth said as I gnawed on a chicken leg, “I am curious to know how you feel about this union. I know it must be quite intimidating, the idea of committing yourself eternally to someone you have never met, because I have felt intimidated by the prospect of it myself.”

    I chewed a bit longer than I needed in order to give myself a few extra seconds to think of a suitable reply. “I think it is a good match, better perhaps for me than it is for you.”

    “Why do you say that?”

    “Isn’t it obvious? You are a Prince, while I am a mere countess.”

    “Ah, true, but you have land, whereas I am landless.”

    “For now, but is it not true that one day you could be king?”

    Macbeth frowned. “It is true, but it is not something I desire.”

    I stared in disbelief. “Not something you desire? Are you an absolute fool?” I perhaps said this a little too loud, as Chancellor Robert shot me a horrified glare from across the table. I blinked hard and cursed my tongue for running away from me. “Forgive me for misspeaking so, your highness. I don’t know what came over me.”

    Fortunately, Macbeth was more amused than offended. “It is quite all right. But truly, there is little chance of me becoming king anytime soon. My niece is only a few years older than me, and will likely live many decades yet.”

    “Yes, well,” I said, quietening my voice, “but what if some...unfortunate accident should befall Queen Galienda and take her before her time? Unexpected tragedies happen all too often. Say such a thing occurred; would you then refuse the crown?”

    “I...” Macbeth shook his head, “...would rather not talk about this. First those women out on that blasted heath, now you...”

    “Women? What women?”

    “Oh, some mad old crones approached our party and said I would be king. I told them to go away and they did, but I keep thinking back to them, wondering why they would say that.”

    “That I cannot answer.” I took a sip of watered-down wine and regarded my future husband closely. “But they sound like wise women to me.”

    “No, they were nothing but foolish old hags. The truth,” said Macbeth, “is that I shall not be king hereafter.”

    Oh, we’ll see about that, I thought, tapping my fingers together. We’ll see about that.
     
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    Chapter Six - Queen Hereafter
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    An Earldom of Buchan 1066 AAR



    Chapter Six - Queen Hereafter


    My marriage to Macbeth took place in the year 1096. It was a relatively simple affair, with the ceremony taking place in the chapel of Ellon Castle, followed by a sumptuous (well, sumptuous by Buchan standards) banquet. To be honest, it all went by in a bit of a blur, and suddenly I found myself a married woman. Macbeth, being landless, came to live with me in Ellon, and the first thing I did was to appoint him to my council as spymaster. While not the most obvious candidate, given his lack of ambition and being, in general, a soft sap, he has a good understanding of intrigue and can plot with the best of them. For his first assignment, I sent him to spy of Duchess Gruouch of Moray, my liege.

    Now is perhaps a good time to talk about Buchan’s place within the Kingdom of Scotland. I was, and still am, not a direct vassal of the king or queen of Scotland, but rather pay homage to the Duke, Duchess, Mormaer or Mormaeress of Moray, a powerful lord or lady who rules from Inverness and has dominion over most of the northern parts of Scotland. This didn’t present much of an issue in my earlier years, as the then Duke of Moray, Malsnechtan spent the entirety of my childhood in hiding, paranoid about plots on his life, and thus I never even met the man. People called him the ‘Ill-Ruler’, and I got very annoyed when people laughed when I asked what illness he suffered from. Very, very annoyed.


    Turns out it was consumption

    That changed when Malsnechtan died and he was succeeded in 1091 by his sister Gruoch, who probably should have been a bit more paranoid. That said, I didn’t really see much of her either, as she shunned social engagements and apparently lived a very austere lifestyle, subsisting on just bread and water, to be the point where she resembled a walking skeleton. Anyway, Macbeth spent a while skulking around Inverness, ingratiating himself incognito with various courtiers, retainers and others of lower rank in the employ of the Duchess, until it came to his attention that Gruouch wished to expand her domain—by taking away mine! Upon learning this, I made it clear to Macbeth in no uncertain terms what was to be done—the Duchess must die.

    My husband, to his credit, did not let me down. All his ingratiating had led to him befriending a man who worked regularly as one of the Duchess’s most trusted guards, and in exchange for a few gold coins...well, let’s just say that one night the Duchess went to sleep feeling altogether too secure in her person. It was clear she had been murdered, given the blood and screaming and so on, but the guard didn’t talk, and it was never traced back to me. Altogether, a very pleasing bit of business.


    Duchess. Dead

    Well that was one problem out of the way, but the larger issue, that of Scotland itself, still remained unresolved. Queen Galiena, fat, lazy, cowardly Galiena, remained on the throne, and Macbeth still resisted my attempts at persuading him that she ought to be replaced. As it turned out, however, outside forces would intervene. In 1098, the queen was excommunicated. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, given that her two predecessors had also been excommunicated, and again it was at the behest of Earl Morcar ‘the Hunter’, the Saxon lord of Mercia who had the Pope’s ear and desired lands in southern Scotland. And again, Morcar and his Irish allies invaded Scotland, seeking to depose the queen and keep us weak. And again, the invaders won.


    Not queen hereafter

    Queen Galiena was forced to abdicate and was stripped of all her titles. And the person they chose as the next king of Scotland?


    Yes, it was Macbeth, proving that you can’t fight fate, or in the case the prophesies of three mad old women. Upon his ascension, I lost a spymaster but gained a crown, which I would say was an altogether fair trade.
     
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    Chapter Seven - Seduction Within Tent
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    Lady Macbeth II
    An Earldom of Buchan 1066 AAR



    Chapter Seven - Seduction Within Tent


    If I’m to be honest (yes, such a thing is possible), becoming queen didn’t change that much with regards to my day-to-day existence. After all, I was still countess of Buchan and had to administer to the needs of my demesne. And then there was the rather thorny issue of the inheritance laws of Scotland. Since sometime in the 1070s or thereabouts, the Kings of Scotland had been elected by the great and powerful lords of the realm, rather than passing to the oldest son as it had in the past. What this means, I would come to realise with a sense of deepening despair, is that there was no guarantee that my son, should my union with Macbeth produce a son, would even be in consideration as a successor. The fact of the matter was that, in practical terms, I was exactly where I had been before with regards to placing a Buchanan on the throne. My hypothetical son would inherit a claim and very likely nothing else.

    And as the years passed, that son continued, and to this day continues, to remain hypothetical. One difficulty with regards to bedroom matters lies with how much time Macbeth and I spend apart—being a king is a lot of work, as Macbeth often complains to me, and, for the record, so is being a countess, but you don’t hear me moaning about it. And even when we do get the chance to lie together, my husband is...not overly enthusiastic. I am uncertain what the precise nature of the problem is, whether he cares little for producing children as they will not bear his name or simply lacks the necessary drives, but Macbeth has repeatedly demonstrated a distinct dearth of interest in the procreative act. It did not bode well when, on our wedding night, he actually fell asleep in the middle of it, which would have been funny if it wasn’t so painful to be sixteen and have a fully-grown sleeping man suddenly land on you, and possibly excusable as it had been a long, tiring day, but when it happened again, a few weeks later, well, let’s just say that was when I appointed him spymaster and sent him to Inverness.

    Hmm, perhaps I have divulged some things here that I shouldn’t have, but don’t get me wrong—Macbeth is, I believe, a good man, albeit one who has committed a few murders here and there, but that’s beside the point. The trouble is that Scotland needs more than a good man; it needs a strong king, one who can defend the realm against outside threats. Shortly after Macbeth became king in 1099, Countess Isobel of Carrick invaded Clydesdale, bringing along her ally, Earl Gilbride of Argyll. Another new king, another foreign invasion, but this time, I said to myself with a face of thunder and a heart of steel, things will be different. In defence of Scotland and in support of my husband, I pledged my own personal levies to the cause. Having scraped together four hundred or so men, I, after ignoring much protesting from Marshall Donald about how it was improper for a woman to go off to war, donned my armour (well, actually it was my father’s armour from before he reached maturity, but never mind that) and we marched for Clydesdale to link up with the king’s army.

    (Also around this time, a messenger from the Pope arrived at Ellon Castle, mentioning something about a ‘crusade’ to liberate Egypt from the heathen. Now, I’m pretty certain I told the messenger that I’d consider sending my forces, not really having any intention to consider it at all, and thought that would be an end to it. It turns out the Papal messenger went away with an entirely different idea, fully believing that Buchan’s soldiers would be up and rearing to go, but more about that later.)*

    With the extra troops from Buchan, the numbers were more or less matched at a couple of thousand soldiers per side. So, with no one wanting to risk a decisive battle, the king and I laid siege to Turnberry Castle in Carrick, while the enemy invested the castle at Dumbarton. It turns out that besieging a castle is not only extremely boring but also extremely manly, a siege camp having little in the way of entertainment for a noble lady, and soon I began to develop ideas about how to possibly quicken the process. I knew that Earl Gilbride was quite an old man with perhaps a weak heart, and it had not escaped my attention that, as I had grown into womanhood, the attitudes of the men around the court in Ellon towards me had shifted—where once they had treated me with the strained deference of an adult required to pay homage to a child, they now would try to make me laugh, pay me incessant compliments; in short, they would flirt. At first I found it disconcerting, adopting a cold, aloof demeanour towards them, but I soon found that if I gave them something, any little thing to cling on to, they would be wrapped around my finger in no time. So, one night, I snuck out of the camp with only a small retinue of guards and made for Dumbarton.

    After a couple of days, I arrived at the camp and, disguised as a lowly harlot, I attracted no attention other than the obvious sort. That evening, upon locating Earl Gilbride’s tent, I evaded the guards, snuck inside and made myself comfortable, having already ascertained that the Earl was currently feasting and would most likely retire to bed shortly. That he did, and when he entered he belched and then stopped dead in his tracks upon seeing me in his bed, wearing not much of anything. He frowned and shook his head.

    “What is this?”

    I tossed my head back and said, in my most seductive tones, “I thought you might like some...company.”

    “Is that right?” He appeared to think. “Well, it has been a long day, and I could certainly use some relaxation.” He approached the bed with a lusty gaze. “Yes, some relaxation is definitely what I need...and what kind of relaxation would you be able to offer me...Lady Margaret? A night of passion and then a draught of poison, is that the plan?”

    My heart leapt. “What?”

    He laughed a cruel laugh.” Did you really think I would not recognise you? You’re the queen, lass. I was at your wedding, for crying out loud.”

    “Oh.” I’d forgotten about that. “Well, er, maybe we can come to, er...”

    He grabbed my arm, yanked me out of the bed and pushed me towards the exit. “Come on, out you go.”

    “Wait, no, at least let me get my...”

    And so my first attempt at seduction, suffice it to say, was not a success, but while it probably wouldn’t have achieved anything anyway, the thrill of it had given me a taste for such sordid dealings, and, even as I was thrust out into the camp with barely enough clothes to conceal my modesty, I knew that I would have to try it again.

    In other matters, Macbeth lost the war, and Clydesdale was taken by Countess Isobel. While the men of Buchan were involved in this titanic struggle, husband and wife fighting side by side in proof of their mutual love and devotion, I received word that a messenger had arrived from the Pope asking, to everyone's collective confusion, why none of my soldiers were in Egypt. Seeing as the war with Carrick was over, I decided I had better go along with this crusade thing, even though I swear I never agreed to it in the first place, and readied the ships. I was too late. Before they could embark, another Papal messenger arrived, bringing a stark message:

    Countess Margaret, you have been excommunicated.


    Gregory VII: rake, imbecile, poet.
    _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

    *I was certain I selected the 'I will consider it' option. I definitely intended to, but I guess I misclicked
     
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    Interlude I
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    Interlude I
    Footsteps ring out on the flagstones of Ellon Castle, interrupted only by the occasional roll of thunder. A figure holding a brief candle shuffles along the darkened corridor. It is Countess Margaret, unable to sleep. Whereas once she could fall into a sound slumber without trouble, in recent years, such restful sleep has been a rare luxury. The night is cold. Her children sleep soundly, despite the inclement weather. Martha, her youngest, has reached the age where her wailing no longer echoes throughout the castle. Such wailing has been a constant feature of life here over the last several years, and so Margaret assumed that, with her youngest now nearing her fourth year, peace would return to Ellon. Yet still she cannot sleep. It is the strangest thing—now she finds that the empty space in her bed, the absence of Macbeth on these nights when he is away holding court at Dunkeld Castle, seems to take on a form of its own, a monstrous, cold, lonely entity that seeks to smother her whenever she dares to relax even a smidgen ...

    Margaret walks, guided only by flickering candlelight, and, as she weighs up whether to seek out the warm embrace of Duff, she comes to a door, typically heavy and wooden, from behind which light is visible through the cracks. She stops to examine this door. It is the strangest thing, for she cannot for the life of her remember what lies behind it or, indeed, ever having seen it before—no wait, that’s not completely true. It is familiar, but the details remain stubbornly buried in the depths of her memories. Curiosity gets the better of her. She twists the latch and opens the door.

    It leads to a small room, containing various old parchments, bits of broken furniture and a tremendous quantity of dust, and also ... She bends down to pick up the orb. It is shiny, polished glass, glowing an unnatural glow, and as she gazes into it she cannot escape the feeling that all this has happened before, distant, foggy memories now surfacing of being compelled to ... confess? No, not confess exactly, but rather to ... narrate? Yes, that's it, to narrate her life story to an unseen audience, an audience she senses lies in some reality far removed from her own. And as the orb draws her ever inward, there can be no doubt ... it is happening again ...
     
    Chapter Eight - Sins by the Father
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    Part Two - February 1110


    Chapter Eight: Sins by the Father

    So as you may (or may not at this point) remember, after a ridiculous misunderstanding with the Pope concerning crusades, I had found myself excommunicated, cast out from the church, and condemned to bear a terrible blight on my immortal soul. My husband, bless him, laid it bare for me: the only way out of this was to reach out to the Holy Father himself and beg for clemency, either by sending a letter or by taking a trip to Rome and doing it in person.


    Now our dear Pope Gregory is an interesting character, by all accounts. He is renowned for being a highly sociable poet, and for using said poetry on any female in the vicinity in order to sate his raging loins, the only problem being that he is a raging imbecile, so his poetry is absolutely terrible. Well, having thought it over, I came up with a scheme to take a pilgrimage to Rome and, while there, seek an audience with Gregory and, say, let his poetry be successful for a change. Perhaps that might change his mind?


    But then my steward, Alan ‘the Festive’, ever the tight-arse with the purse-strings, told me that it would be cheaper just to send a letter, so that’s what I did. What Alan didn’t tell me is that Pope would demand a massive bribe (sorry, indulgence) for my repentance, plunging the earldom into vast amounts of debt. Oh well, it’s only money, and not even mine at that, so not to worry.


    While all my schemes regarding Papal seduction ultimately came to nothing, it did make me realise something: that there was something very exciting about the idea of corrupting a man of the cloth. While the option of Pope Gregory, there were alternatives closer to home, ones that would quite likely involve less poetry and less drool (though that remained to be seen). Bishop Malise of St Machar’s Cathedral I found to be quite the handsome devil, with those piercing eyes and that drooping moustache, and I had a feeling he wasn’t quite the upstanding clergyman he appeared to be. I decided to put it to the test at my next confessional. Every Sunday the Bishop would come to Ellon Castle and take confession in the castle’s private chapel. Well, that particular Sunday I sidled into the booth with only one thing on my mind.


    “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned,” I said. “It’s been one week since my last confession.”

    “Proceed, Countess,” Bishop Malise said, in that sexy gravelly voice of his.

    “Well you see, it’s just that I’ve been having these lustful thoughts. I can’t seem to stop getting all hot and bothered. My dress fells so tight around my bosom, and everything feels so tingly, like I’m about to explode!”

    Bishop Malise cleared his throat. “I see.”

    “And to tell you the truth, Bishop, I’m having these dirty, monstrous thoughts right now…about you.”

    “Oh, is that, er, so?”

    Putting on a sad, pouty voice, “And now I’m sure that you are also having naughty, sinful thoughts about me, and I just don’t see how this can be resolved. What do you think, Bishop?”

    “Well, er, do…hail Marys and, er…” then, in a rapid whisper, “come back here in an hour.”


    Got him, right there in the chapel, no less. We had our fun, and a couple of months later, well, this happened.


    Oops.
     
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