Opening of The Serpent in Spring

This is the opening of my forthcoming book, The Serpent in Spring, Volume III of The Trystan Trilogy. Like the two previous books, it opens with an overarching prologue, followed by a ‘proper’ prologue. For prologue haters, the overarching prologue is quite short, and the ‘proper’ prologue is a longer scene, set partly in the past, partly in the present. WARNING – contains spoilers!!! (Note – this is a draft version of the text.)


The Trystan Trilogy

Dunpeldyr in Lothian, Spring 491 AD


Tomorrow, the man who changed my life will burn his father, and Lothian will have another king. He will be a man worth serving, a man worth following, as I, in another time, another kingdom, followed the same man, for good or ill.

I wonder if I should follow him still, or if he would welcome me – the man who broke his heart, who almost destroyed everything he cared about. But not Lothian. I never tried to take that from him, and perhaps that was my biggest mistake, one I may live to regret.

So maybe that’s why I’m here, lurking in the shadows of Dunpeldyr, fort of the stockades, on the night before a burning. Here in the dark I’m unacknowledged, as invisible and unwelcome as a snake. They called me that when I was Fili of Dalriada. But that was years ago and I have a new name now, and new allegiances that surprise me still.

Names are strange things: the names we’re given, the names we take, the names we win, the names we try to live down. I’m familiar with all of these, and can slip off any name as a snake casts its skin. I can become anyone – even the hero of my own story.

And so this tale is not only that of the man who paces the rampart high above me, but of myself, the dark twin who tried and failed to destroy him. It’s the tale of Ferdiad the Serpent, of his fall, and of his rise, of his becoming something he’d long dreamed of but never truly believed in. It’s a tale that, like all tales, could begin anywhere. But the journey of that becoming starts, perhaps, in a Dun on the edge of the sea, in Dalriada, a few weeks after Lughnasadh, over four years ago.



Dun Treoin in Dalriada, Samhain 461, and summer 487 AD


They came for them at Samhain. All over the west and north they came for the eight year old boys on the night they called The Night of Endings. But for the boys themselves it was really a beginning – the start of their lives as the men they were supposed to become.

Ferdiad had always known what he wanted to be, for didn’t he bear the name of the greatest warrior of Eriu, but for one? His path lay as clear before him as the path of a rising moon spilling across open water.

Those who, like him, were strong and tall, would also become warriors. Others with a different sort of strength would be smiths. Those with pure clear voices would be poets, the argumentative ones judges, the dreamers priests. In truth, Ferdiad could have been any of these things and, as they travelled north in the care of the quiet-eyed kindly men who would be their teachers, he moved easily from group to group, welcomed for his keen wits, his silver looks, his golden voice, his gift of tongues, knowing that these other boys would become comrades, friends, rivals perhaps, and that he would outshine them all.

And so, on the Night of Endings when they took him away, he was one of the few who didn’t weep as he stepped out into his moonlit future. Not then, nor on any other night down the long years. Never. His mother wept of course, as all mothers did, and his father’s eyes were moist with pride, as were the eyes of all fathers. But Ferdiad didn’t look back as the Dal n’Araidhe ship sailed out of Dun Lethglaise and headed for the Isle of the Eagles and the training schools, its grey sails straining in the wind. Other ships joined them as they travelled north; from Old Dalriada, the Dal Fiatach lands, the holdings of the Ui Niall, lands of enemies and allies. And when they dropped anchor in the bay beneath the mountains there lay the strange black ships of the Caledonians which had brought the eight-years olds from the lands of the Creonn and Carnonacs and from further east beyond the great forest where the Taexels and Venicons dwell – boys from Atholl and Circind and Mar. No-one came from the islands of the Attecots, of course. The little dark people of the outer islands were ever slaves. And only one boy ever came from the Britons’ lands. Only one.

But in the end Ferdiad didn’t become a warrior, despite passing all the warrior tests. His voice was too pure, its gold deepening to honey, his memory prodigious, and his gift for languages too valuable to be wasted on a mere warrior, and so he chose instead to become a poet. When he was nine, he made his first harp, from holly wood strung with horse-hair. It fitted into the curve of his left shoulder like a fifth limb and, before long, he was drawing forth the old tales and songs and the new ones he began to make, sad songs for a people given to easy tears. But he never wept. Never.

This was a long time ago now but he remembers it as if it was yesterday – the huts huddled at the roots of the black mountains, the waterfall plunging in its mist-filled gorge, the pool where the boys dived into bright blue water beneath an archway of rock, the sound of drums from the warrior school as they stamped out the rhythm of lunge and thrust, and the chanting from dormitories hazed with woodsmoke as boys recited the laws. He remembers all the other boys, his friends and rivals – wiry little Conn of the Dal Fiatach, big Tarain of the Creonn nation, red-haired Sinnan of the Ui Niall, and he remembers his teachers too – Uaran the Brithem, Deort the armourer, Galan the Fili. He remembers everything, as if it was yesterday. Everything. From the moment he was chosen on that Night of Endings, the journey to Dun Lethglaise, the grey sails of the ship to—

‘The Dal n’Araidhe never shipped out of Dun Lethglaise, and nor, in those days, were their sails grey.’

To Ferdiad, enmeshed in his past, the voice seems to come from the future. But he’s wrong. The voice is from the present and it rushes over him like a wave tumbling onto a grey and stony shore. The fingers of his right hand brush against fur and wool and he smells tincture of poppy and hot wine, sweat and peat smoke, cattle dung and freshly cut rushes. He can smell seaweed too and hear the thump and hiss of waves, the patter of rain and dull moan of the wind. He tastes the wine on his lips, something bitter beneath his tongue and bile at the back of his throat. He knows that if he opens his eyes there will be firelight and he’ll see the old Abbott looking down at him with those dark eyes that see a great deal too much, and he’s afraid he’ll see kindness there, or pity, so he keeps his eyes shut and tries to slide back into the past.

‘Grey, white … It doesn’t matter.’ His voice, once so golden, is an abomination in his own ears. ‘And if it wasn’t Dun Lethglaise, it must have been somewhere else. It was a long time ago.’

‘But you remember everything, don’t you Ferdiad? So tell me – your mother, the one who wept when you went away – what colour was her hair?’

In his memory, his mother is turning away, back into the firelight, as the ship slips into the night.

‘Dark,’ he guesses. ‘She had dark hair.’

‘And your father?’

But he too, the man who stood so proudly as his talented son stepped into a golden future, is also turning away and Ferdiad can’t see what he looks like.

‘Fair,’ he says. ‘He would have been fair because I’m fair. Why should it matter?’

The Abbott’s hand comes down on his right hand and grips it hard. He can’t feel anything with his left hand.

‘It matters because none of it’s true,’ the Abbot says with his kind – too kind – voice. ‘You’re not of the Dal n’Araidhe, are you? Not from Eriu at all. And Ferdiad isn’t your name. You took that name from a story. My dear, dear boy, it’s all just a story.’

Ferdiad opens his eyes then, sees the old man looking down at him with tears in his eyes and Ferdiad squeezes his own shut once more and tries to dive back into the past where everything he remembers – as if it was yesterday – is right and true and straightforward, where a boy lived the life he was meant to live, and never had reason to weep. Not once. Not ever. But the present hooks him like a fish and won’t let him go.

‘Who am I then, old man? If everything I’ve told you is a story, what’s the truth?’

‘I don’t know, my dear. Only you know. So tell me, if you can – what happened to you on the Island?’

But he can’t – or won’t. A memory such as his should have been a gift, but instead it’s a curse. He remembers everything. Everything! The boy who never wept weeps now as a man, coiling himself up like a wounded animal as he keens for his past as a woman keens over a corpse. The old man puts his hand on his shoulder and Ferdiad tries to push it away with his left hand but he can’t. Instead the pain shafts up the bones of his arm and he – who’s never forgotten anything – remembers the one thing he’s been trying to forget, the reason he’s here with the old man, the reason for the wine and poppy and the bitterness and bile in his mouth.

He remembers that he no longer has a left hand.

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© Barbara Lennox 2013

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