Scotland, mid-11th Century
Impatience rises in me like a bloody tide. ‘Should I seek Him out on the battlefield? Or must I go to His castle?’
Mad Helga only chuckles. With one thick fingernail she flicks a bone into its place.
‘You daft old bat,’ I say, ‘speak plainly!’
Mad Helga holds up a tiny bone. The lower part dangles, broken. ‘See what your impatience has wrought? Once broken, never fully mended.’
‘I shall break your bones, old woman, if you do not answer me.’
Mad helga’s eye continues to twinkle. With the dangling end of the bone she draws a faint pattern in the ashes on the hearth.
‘Heed well, Gilly. These curls here, this is our own wood, Birnam.’ Her voice is suddenly as sane as a tax collector’s. ‘For two days you will travel through it. Until midday on the first day, travel due north. Then turn west for a day and a half. Partway through the morning of the third day, you must leave the wood and take to the road that folk call Old Grapius Road. Follow that road through the hills and mountains. ‘Twill not be an easy journey through the mountains, girl, but the road will lead you through the best passes. Finally you will come to a long silver loch. Travel north past its northernmost shore till you come at last to the castle of Inverness, his northern castle, perched high on a ridge above the firth where he can guard against attack from the loch, river or sea.’
I study the map of ashes, tracing its outlines onto my heart and searing its curves into my memory. Finally I look up. ‘Helga, I do not remember much of castles and their ways.How shall I gain admittance to the castle?’
Mad Helga’s hands thrust out suddenly, spilling the bones into the ashes. Her fingers flash about till the map is erased and the bones soiled and buried in the ashes. ‘Tis your revenge, not mine, lass. I neither know nor care whether you be admitted to his castle or no.’ She begins to rock back and forth, singing, ‘Greymalkin shall not stalk your rest, nor Ulfling seize your – ‘
I close my fingers around her wrists. ‘Stay with me, Mad Helga, just a moment more. Tell me, I beg you, once I gain admittance to the castle, what must I take to bring to you?’
For a long time, Mad Helga is silent. She sits so still that I snake my thumb to the underside of her wrist and press to feel the throb of her pulse to make certain she is still alive.
Then she says, ‘Bring me three pieces of His heart.’
This novel, which is full of medieval magic and mysticism (witchcraft, foreseeing the future, the “Old Ones” speaking through one of the witches) and of medieval outsiders (witches, scavengers gleaning the dead on the battle-field, a backward boy whose mother has been hanged as a witch) is the story of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who, it turns out, were actually named Nettle, Mad Helga and Gillyflower.
Nettle is middle-aged, a herbalist, and blessed with the Sight; and not only that, but on occasion the “Old Ones” speak through her:
Suddenly, […] the room fills with a wave of smell, an odour both sweet and foul, like the stench of a body six days dead. I cover my nose with my hand but the smell is just as strong. I have to fight against gagging. What is happening? I don’t understand it. I look to Nettle and I see that her lips are moving. Then I hear a voice coming out of her mouth, but it is not her voice. It is a voice I have never heard before, a voice that is gnarled and twisted and dry like the root of an ancient oak.
‘You will find what you seek two leagues from Forres.’
Mad Helga is the crone of the trio, old, and “as bald as a new-laid egg”. She is also, as her name implies, quite mad (or is that only when the wind blows from the north-north-west?); frequently she speaks in verse (“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come”), but when she does so the words she speaks are words of power: they take effect – or at least, come true.
And finally, with them in their hut on the edge of the great forest lives Gillyflower, known as Gilly. She was taken in by them seven years earlier when she was – what? seven? – and her home was destroyed and her warrior father killed by Macbeth. At the time the story opens, she is fourteen and and “grown up” and though now she is dressed in rags and living in a hovel, she still remembers what her life was like when she was a child (“I had forgotten how free and glorious it feels to fly across the countryside when you’re perched atop a horse”), and she seeks to avenge her father and herself. This book is the tale of that revenge.
It is beautifully written, and often un-put-downable and when you have read it you will know all three of them as well as (better than, in most cases) you know your family and friends. In a good, a positive, sense, the play will never be the same again: it adds to the play.
Rebecca Reisert’s next novel lets us in on the hitherto well-kept secrets of another mysterious Shakespeare character: Ophelia. I’ll post a brief review of that one tomorrow.