It is of legends that I write in this story rather than facts
for after almost a thousand years of history, what can we call truth out of the tiny scraps that survived? When men claimed descent from a bear, and people believed that
dragons roamed the earth, who is to say what is fact and what is fancy? Hence, with this thought in mind, I give you the origin of the royal Stewarts, as it was handed down to Shakespeare.
It all began with the witches' prophecy.
Macbeth's friend Banquo was with him when the three witches appeared on the heath: strange, weird creatures with seductive words.
"All hail, Macbeth!" the first had said, "Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!"—calling him by his true title.
"All hail, Macbeth!" quoth the second, "Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!"—giving him a title belonging to another.
"All hail, Macbeth," cried the third, "that shalt be King hereafter!"—giving voice to his secret desire.
Macbeth did not know it yet, but the second witch had spoken the truth; already King Duncan had declared the Thane of Cawdor traitor, and awarded the title to Macbeth for his courage in battle.
Then the witches spoke their prophecy to Banquo. They said:
"Lesser than Macbeth, and greater."
"Not so happy, yet much happier."
"Thou shalt 'get kings, though thou be none." The witches vanished, leaving the pair with gladsome prospects.
All might have gone well, but Macbeth's ambitions were too strong to wait for chance to bring them about. King Duncan's life stood in his way; before long, King Duncan was murdered. The true heirs, Malcolm and Donald Bain, fled the country, thus leaving the throne empty for Macbeth to mount.
Only Banquo had reason to suspect that Macbeth was the murderer.
As of yet, however, good Banquo showed no signs of betraying his friend's secret. But as time went on, the King brooded—hating him—begrudging Banquo's every breath.
It really wasn't treachery Macbeth suspected; rather, his anger had sprung from the futility of his own position. Although he was king, he had thrown away his peace of mind, jeopardized his very soul, so that Banquo's heirs would sit on the throne he had bought so dearly.
Having gone so far, there was only one thing to do. Banquo had to be dealt with...and his son, Fleance. To that end, Macbeth ordered a great feast to be prepared, and commanded their presence as guests of honor...
CHAPTER 1 : Ambush
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 shadow. 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 coin, 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.
Fleance took the road away from the castle grounds. He followed unused paths through the forest, traveling all night. At first, he rode just to get away. Then, feeling safer the farther away he rode, he knew he needed a plan. If they were truly set on by assassins, home would not be safe. No where was safe. What would Banquo do?
Banquo. Left dead in the forest like a wild animal.
Fleance brushed away a tear with the back of his hand. Now was not the time to cry. Nor could he bring himself to go back. To what end? His father had used his last breath to tell him to fly. His father had sacrificed himself to save the son.
But why did it happen?
By afternoon, Fleance was relieved to find himself at his destination: a small, thatched roof cottage well back from the road along the shore of Loch Lochy. A thin line of smoke rose invitingly from the chimney. Fleance unsaddled and brushed his horse, hoping to draw the inhabitant from the house, alone.
The noise did that very thing. The door burst open and a tall, balding man came out, wiping the back of his neck with a brown rag. He strode across the yard, breaking into a run as he recognized his visitor. They clasped hands; Fleance clung to the man's hand as relief flowed through him. They hadn’t seen each other in years, but boyhood friendships lasted a lifetime.
“Ronald,” Fleance gasped as his friend squeezed him too hard, like he had always done when they were boys.
Ronald pulled away, grinning. But his smile of welcome changed to a frown. Fleance’s tunic was torn, his hair was twisted with twigs and leaves, his eyes looked haunted.
"For God's sake, man, what has happened? Come inside," he said, pulling Fleance's arm. The other stopped him, shaking his head; he looked worriedly at the house.
Ronald's eyes followed his. "We are alone. She's fixing dinner. Don't worry. There is enough for three."
Fleance wanted nothing more than a warm meal. But he couldn't share his misfortune with anyone else but Ronald...not just yet. Ronald put an arm around his shoulders, leading him to the lake.
In a torrent, Fleance poured out the story he barely believed himself, but for the terror of the thing. Ronald listened carefully.
"Stay with us a few days," he said when the other had finished. "I'll ride out and find what's behind all this. I swear, the villains will pay."
Comforted in his friend's good hands, Fleance permitted himself to be fed, undressed, and put to bed. He slept until the next afternoon. When he awoke, Fleance sat in his bed, rubbing his eyes. For a moment, he didn't realize where he was; then the horrible memories of the day before rushed back. He almost wished he had stayed asleep forever.
Getting heavily to his feet, Fleance pushed aside the curtain divider, running his fingers through his hair and smiling self-consciously at Ronald's wife. She smiled back, pouring some milk.
"Did he make it back yet?"
She shook her head, offering him a cup. Sighing, Fleance accepted it.
"Perhaps his news will not be all bad."
He busied himself chopping wood, feeding the animals. Near dark, the brisk sound of hooves announced the long-awaited arrival.
Fleance came outside, uneasily watching the other dismount, and accompanied him in silence to the barn. Ronald took a long time brushing the horse, avoiding his eyes. It was easy to tell there was something wrong, but Fleance held his tongue, waiting for Ronald to come up with the right words.
Finally, the other straightened, putting a hand on the horse's back.
"I know you are innocent," he blurted.
"Innocent!" Fleance gasped. "Innocent of what?"
Ronald hesitated. "The word has spread that you killed your own father. The accusation is absurd; I know that."
Fleance turned away, stunned.
"It comes from the stabler," Ronald continued after a moment. "He mentioned something about your taking only one horse away, shortly after you and your father left both of your mounts with him. You didn't say anything, yet you were in a terrible hurry."
Fleance began pacing, his face filled with alarm.
His friend went on, apologetically. "I know, Fleance. What were you supposed to do, tell him you were running from your father's murderers? He could have been one of them." He coughed, embarrassed. "There is something else you should know. Macbeth, at the feast that very night, acted strangely. He kept talking to an empty chair, of murder and rising from the dead. One of the things he said was 'Never shake thy gory locks at me.' Men thought he was mad. Later, they said he was suffering from guilt." He looked sidelong at Fleance. “So you see...perhaps with time...”
Fleance sighed, a heavy rattling sound.
"I think," Ronald hurried, "most honest men suspect the King's hand in this. Fleance, I think that Macbeth had your father murdered, and intended to murder you, too. Though God knows why."
He stepped away from the horse, putting a hand on Fleance's arm.
"And yet, you must flee the country. You are no longer safe here."
Fleance shook his head vehemently, though no words could come forth. Anxiously, Ronald's grasp tightened, communicating his tension better than words could have done.
"Listen to me," he said through clenched teeth. "If you stay, you are a dead man. How long can you hide?"
Fleance knew Ronald was really saying that he was afraid to give him shelter. If Ronald was discovered hiding a fugitive, his own life would be forfeit.
Tears falling from his eyes, Fleance nodded. "I will go."
"I will accompany you to the port, and pay your fare." Ronald sounded ashamed, but relieved.
But that meant nothing to Fleance. He was alone...more alone than ever in his life. And he was leaving his father unavenged.