Opening of The Swan in Summer

This is the opening of my forthcoming book, The Swan in Summer, Volume II of The Trystan Trilogy. The book opens with an overarching prologue, followed by a ‘proper’ prologue. For prologue haters, the overarching prologue is quite short, and the ‘proper’ prologue is chapter length and is integral to the story, although it’s set 17 years before the rest of the story. This follows the structure of the opening of The Wolf in Winter.

Trigger warning: one scene refers to rape.

 


The Trystan Trilogy

Dunpeldyr in Lothian, Spring 491 AD

ENDING AND BEGINNING


Tomorrow, a man I have loved and hated will burn his father, and everything will change. But not for me. I will remain the woman I have chosen to become, neither wife nor lover, mother nor sister. They call me The Healer here in Dunpeldyr and care little of where I came from or why. Yet once I was The Dark Swan of Dalriada, sister and daughter of kings. But here, beneath the stone-built walls of the fortress, I am just a woman watching a man pace through the night under the loom of an old moon, from torchlight to moonlight, carrying darkness within him.

He will be thinking of the past, of love and death, of a father and an uncle, a son and a brother, of what might have been and what could never be. And so I too will think of the past, of him, and the times before him, times that turned me into what and who I have become.

I will recall a summer of freedom, and a night long before that, a night that shaped me, and I will remember the day before, when a future full of promise lay before me. I will think back to the girl I was then and try to imagine the woman I might have become if that night hadn’t happened. I wonder whether, if the two of us should meet, girl and woman, we would have anything in common except for a name. She was called Brangianne, as I am, and it is her story I will recall. And so I will think back to a sparkling Beltein morning over twenty years ago . . .


The SWAN IN SUMMER

Prologue

Carnadail in Dalriada, Beltein 468 AD, twenty-three years earlier

THE NIGHT OF CHANGES


Beltein is the Night of Changes, the night that marks the turning of Spring into Summer. It’s a night of fire and feasting, of loving and laughing, a night when couples slip away into the deep green shadows and aren’t seen again until dew gathers, cold and clear, on the first morning of summer. They say a child conceived at Beltein will be touched by the gods for the whole of its life; a boy will grow to be a great warrior, a girl so lovely she’ll break all hearts.

But Brangianne’s child would be neither for he’d been too impatient to wait for Beltein. She and Aedh had only been wed since Imbolc, yet already a child had claimed its place in her womb and her heart, but she didn’t regret not waiting. Her child didn’t need to be a warrior or a beauty, just a whole and healthy heir for the Lord of Carnadail who, even now, was waving to her as they rowed him ashore from his ship.

I’ll tell him tonight, she thought, a little shiver of anticipation running through her as she watched the coracle ground on the beach. Aedh jumped into the shallows, splashed ashore and ran towards her, caught her in his arms and, laughing, swung her off her feet. He smelled of tarred ropes and bilge-water, salt and wind, and the deep waters of the Sound.

‘Any trouble on the journey?’ she asked lightly, once he’d set her down, determined not to let him know how much she worried when he travelled the dangerous shipping lanes between Ceann Tire and the old Dalriad lands that lay to the south in Ulaid.

‘Galloway raiders, you mean?’ He threw an arm around her waist, and they walked up the beach towards the steading and the Longhouse he’d built for her down on the machair. ‘Not a sign of one. They’ll all be in harbour for the Beltein truce and, anyway, word has it they’re raiding the Dal n’Araide coast this season, which is good for Carnadail, if not for the Dal n’Araide.’

‘Was Feargus at Dun Sobhairce?’

He shook his head. ‘Your brother had already left for Dunadd so he could be with Ethlin for Beltein. The gods will give them a Beltein child or he’ll demand to know why not!’

‘Don’t joke about it! They’ve been wed for over five years now and no sign of a child. A king needs an heir.’

‘As does the Lord of Carnadail.’ He smiled a slow, glinting smile that made her heart turn over. ‘So, what about it, wife? Shall we make a warrior tonight?’

She smiled back at him but held her secret close. Later, she thought, when we’re alone. Beltein was for lovers, so let them be lovers for a little longer, since after the Night of Changes change would come all too quickly.

‘We’ll make whatever the gods decide,’ she said. ‘Though with you a farmer and me no beauty, we’re unlikely to produce either a warrior or a heart-breaker.’

‘No beauty?’ he exclaimed in mock astonishment. ‘But don’t they call you the Dark Swan of Dalriada?’

‘Bards’ nonsense!’ In truth, however, she was secretly pleased by the description, for didn’t swans mate for life? ‘It just means my neck’s too long.’

‘It’s not too long for me.’ He bent to nuzzle the neck in question. ‘You’re my Dark Swan,’ he whispered, his grip tightening around her waist as he guided her willing steps through the gateway to the steading yard and towards their house. ‘My very own Dark Swan . . .’ he murmured, kicking the door open. It had been a long time, weeks . . .

A cough came from behind them, and Aedh let her go. Two of the men from the ship had followed them and were grinning from the entrance to the steading. One had a wooden chest on his shoulder, the other a large sack.

‘Curse it, can’t a man make love to his own wife without . . . ? Oh, never mind! Take that stuff to the forge. Wait, I’ll come too.’ He turned back to Brangianne. ‘Later, then . . . ?’

He smiled down at her, the deep warm smile of the man she’d loved for half her short life and intended to love for all the rest of it. Her heart swelled in her chest, beating hard against her breastbone, until she was sick with longing.

‘Later,’ she promised, and watched him walk off, whistling, into the bright Beltein morning.

*

‘Not here!’ Brangianne laughed and snatched back her hand when Aedh tried to pull her away from the bonfires. It was the middle of the night by then and flames were leaping from the hilltop above the settlement. Cattle were bellowing as they were driven between the fires and everyone was shouting and laughing, drinking and dancing. Already couples were disappearing into the shadows of woods and fields, which was all very well for the common people, but the daughter and sister of kings expected certain privacies. ‘Let’s go home.’ She caught Aedh’s hand as he’d caught hers and, blinded by firelight and deafened by the roar of the beasts and the drumming of their own hearts. they ran down the hill, across the stream and over the machair to the walled steading.

The place was dark, for the fires had been doused in readiness for the morning when they’d be re-lit from the need-fire. There was no moon that night, only a shudder of starlight on the water. A wind was coming off the sea, carrying the smells of salt and kelp and something she didn’t recognise. But it didn’t matter, because they’d reached their house by then, a fine house, her pride, and their undoing.

*

Brangianne woke to Aedh calling her name. She’d intended telling him something but couldn’t remember what it was, for the Night of Changes had come and gone, changing everything in its wake.

‘Brangianne?’ It was a breath of sound, barely heard above the distant crackle of fire and the harsh hesitant breathing of a man trying not to breathe.

‘I’m cold, Brangianne, I’m cold.’

A pulsing yellow flicker came from beyond the doorway.

‘Aedh?’ Her voice was hoarse and her throat hurt as if she’d been screaming. Why would she have been screaming?

‘Hold me . . .’

She was lying by the door, a crumpled heap of torn cloth and aching flesh that stank of something she refused to give a name to. Every part of her hurt. There were tears and blood and . . . and other fluids.

‘Brangianne . . . ?’

He was sitting opposite her, his back against the wall, the flickering light from the doorway burnishing his bruised face. It had taken three of them to hold him, for he’d fought while one of them had . . . had . . . They’d made Aedh watch. Then the leader of the Galloway raiders had come into the Longhouse, dragged the man off her and tossed her some gold in payment before cursing the rest of them out. They’d let Aedh go after that, so why didn’t he come to her now? Why didn’t he gather her up and let her weep against his shoulder and tell her everything would be all right? Why did he look so—?

‘Aedh?’ He slumped sidewards with a mew of agony. ‘Aedh?!’

There was blood. A lot of it. And the foul smell of ruptured guts. They’d slit his belly open. He’d tried to hold the wound closed, but now it gaped in its awful vileness. And nothing would be all right ever again.

‘I’m cold,’ he whispered as, outside, fires raged.

*

It took Aedh three days to die, and in those three days Brangianne came to understand that a woman might survive a rape but a man couldn’t survive a wound in the belly. She didn’t know how to deal with such an injury, and nor did the birth-woman or the old druid priest. They just shook their heads and left her to do the little she could. Aedh said he was cold, so she kept him warm, though he sweated with the pain. He was thirsty, so she tried to make him drink, but he could swallow nothing. The wound swelled and stank, and Aedh shuddered and moaned, lost to reason. Outside, the people of Carnadail repaired what could be repaired, speaking in low voices as they did so. They’d escaped lightly, for on the night of the raid they’d all been at the Beltein fires where she and Aedh should have been. If only she hadn’t insisted they return to the Longhouse! Now Aedh was dying for her wilfulness.

Brangianne didn’t sleep for the whole of those three days and nights, but remained beside him, holding a hand that was cold and clammy and finally – though she didn’t realise it at the time – quite dead. She wept no tears, though she longed for them. The sky wept for her instead, a dull, penetrating drizzle that held all the chill of winter. She too was cold by then, cold and calm and somehow distant. They burned Aedh in the old way, down by the shore at low tide, so the sea could take away his ashes, but nothing could take away what had happened. Nothing but revenge. One day, she swore to herself, she’d have the raider who’d raped her and killed Aedh in her power. She’d force him to his knees, cut through his belly with a blunt and jagged knife, then watch, unsleeping, for all the days it would take him to die.

Perhaps the gods listened to her, for the tide that took Aedh’s ashes out to sea washed a body onto the beach, that of the man who’d raped her and whose torso bore the same dreadful wound he’d inflicted on Aedh. But it wasn’t enough. Did the man who’d led those raiders to Carnadail during the Beltein truce think she could be placated with a scrap of gold and a single dead man? She’d go to Feargus, she decided, and demand he punish Galloway on her behalf. Later, however, she thought better of it. What good would a war do? Why make other women weep in ruined homesteads over dead and dying men? So Brangianne kept her silence and brooded on her hatred of Galloway and all who lived there, all the time turning over and over in her fingers the whore’s payment the leader of the raiders had flung her – an armlet on which was set, in enamel, the raven of Galloway. One day I’ll have my revenge on you too, she promised the raiders’ leader. But that was for the future, because it wasn’t long before there were other matters to concern her.

*

‘A boy,’ the birth-woman declared when the pain and screaming was done. ‘You have a boy . . .’

Brangianne had assumed she’d lost her child, for how could any life have survived that Night of Changes? So she hadn’t told Aedh and had let him die not knowing he’d fathered a son. But as the days passed, and weeks turned into months as the year waxed and waned once more, she came to understand that the gods had taken one life from her but hadn’t begrudged her another.

Until they robbed her of that too.

‘. . . a changeling child,’ the woman told her, for Brangianne’s son was smaller than he should have been, a sickly boy who refused to feed.

He died at sundown a few weeks later on the night of the Imbolc feast, a night of stars in a frozen careless sky. His little life ebbed on the last tide of winter and his soul slipped free to wander the otherworld with his father. At least he wouldn’t be alone. She sat all night with the cooling little body in her arms, and at dawn she walked out to the old ones’ dun on the very edge of the promontory. A single rowan tree grew against the remains of the wall, gnarled and leafless but still alive. She burned him there, then buried what was left in the half-frozen earth among the roots of the witch tree, swearing as she did so that never again would she watch a man die and not be able to help him, or suffer a child to weaken without the skills to bring him back into the world.

As for the gods, she was finished with them. They’d made a game of her life, had given her everything, then, for no reason, taken it away. They were cruel and capricious, and, as if to prove it, a few days later Feargus arrived. He too had been betrayed by the gods, and his face was drawn with grief, for his beloved wife Ethlin had finally given birth to the longed-for heir to Dalriada – and died of the birthing.

‘A Beltein child, born at Imbolc,’ he said bitterly. ‘What a son he would have made!’

‘You can marry again, Feargus, have other children.’

He shook his head. ‘I don’t need another child. Ethlin died, but our daughter lives. That’s why I’m here – to take you back to Dunadd to care for her. Who better than her aunt?’

Brangianne’s arms ached to hold a child, and though she thought no-one could fill the gap left by her son, it wasn’t long before this one did, a fierce, red-headed creature who was Royal Princess of Dalriada and tyrant of her father and aunt’s grieving hearts. A pretty thing even then, a child confident of her own beauty, a girl who’d grow up to break hearts. She who must be gazed upon. That was the meaning of the name they chose.

They called her Yseult.

© Barbara Lennox 2015

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