Read the first chapter of The Sun Palace, a new novel about ancient Ireland
By Brighid O'Sullivan
West Coast of Eire/ AD 520
She never heard the splash.
The world went black but then she surfaced, though not for long before and angry black wave smashed her down once again, slapping her as if she were a stubborn child. Gripping her between its teeth, the sea engulfed her, regurgitating her between cusps, swallowing her as if she were nothing. She could not tell which way was up and reached desperately for something to hold onto. She rolled and tumbled about, becoming tangled in something slimy; arms flailing in the direction she hoped was the sky. She tried to cry out but the sea flooded her throat, a salty bitterness that choked her with each breath. She couldn't see anything before her and under water grew deaf as well, disturbing her even more than the water's icy grip which numbed her, almost solemnly.
The sea continued to churn.
She remembered it all. He'd sent her away with his most trusted friend to have the baby with the monks. She'd given birth, drank something and then woke up in the boat, her arms and legs tied together.
She wanted to kick, and did, but not without much effort. Thick cords secured her legs, the only thing keeping her thin gown from floating up to her head. She could paddle with her hands, though, for he had left a little slack when she had complained rather loudly. Her hands and arms were tied with a horse hair rope, secured above the elbows; it had left scars on both arms.
She flipped onto her back and tried to stay afloat. Once over the shock of bitter cold, she struggled to think, to get her mind clear. Surely the boat would see her, swing around and come back when he realized she'd fallen overboard. She stared up at the sun and swiveled her head side to side, trying to spot the fast disappearing craft.
I can't see it!
Her breath jammed in her throat when she finally caught a glimpse of the boat. She could only see slips of black hull as it crested each wave. "Come back!" She changed her position and tried to tread water but her limbs were becoming weak.
If I can simply float perhaps ... Certainly, he won't let me drown. He loves me too.
She had given birth only two days before, a girl, strong and healthy by the sound of her cry, but the monks had taken her away ... quick as an intake of breath and then what? Her heart quickened in her chest at the thought of leaving the infant behind. She had not seen the child in the boat before the fall and was grateful for that fact. She must be safe, in the care of the gentle monks. But who will feed her? They were men after all. How—she pushed the thought from her mind. Nothing she could do about the baby now and weren't there others things needing her energy? Survival!
The only thing she could do was float along the sea. She could see gulls overhead, and grey scattered clouds; the sun hot as a new-forged blade upon her face.
He'll come back for me, she thought. He never meant for me to drown. Then another wave smashed on her head, crushing her below a tall angry white-cap. She swallowed a mouthful; it shot up her nose, sharp as a red-hot poker. She sputtered and coughed, kicking furiously as she did so. Finally, she flipped onto her back again. Where was the boat? Which way was shore? I'm here. I'm here! The words stuck in her throat and she wasn't clear to whether she'd spoken them at all.
Delirium set in and a queer tightness tingled in her breasts. It was time to feed the infant.
She continued to thrash about, reaching the surface now and again.
Is the boat behind me? I can hold on 'til he sees me. I can! The ropes around her legs slackened giving her new-found energy and hope.
She kicked and the ropes unwound from her feet and floated to the surface. Lifting her bound hands, she pushed them from her face. The ropes flopped across the waves, mingling with long silvery weeds like old friends.
With one last snip of energy, her head above the grave, she searched the horizon.
The boat was gone!
Hill of Uisneach AD 536
The water had been ice cold but Brigit was dry as bone.
She sat up on her box-bed, knees hugged to her chest, and rocked, thinking about what she had witnessed, an odd experience that had felt so very real. She was shivering, cold, and the acrid scent of peat smoke pierced her eyes like needles. Someone had died—someone close to her but who?
A wolf howled in the night and a sliver of moonlight shone from the cap hole in the conical shaped roof of the roundhouse. Specter-like shadows slithered across her palms, pale and wrinkled, as if she bathed too long in a sauna.
This was the fifth night she had the same dream though this one more intense, more vivid in crisp detail, eerily realistic. She could sense the woman's blood behind the orbs of her own eyes, slicking the back of her throat, an acidic taste on her tongue. Her long hair had been the color of oak scorched by the sun and she wore a strange garment made from unfamiliar cloth. Nearly transparent, it gave an illusion of quivering wings, the legs white stalks beneath a pale olive green gown. The woman lay dead, face up, a dark sea swirling around her, arms crossed one on top of the other bound with stiff gilded ropes. They cut into her wrists, making a pattern etched in her flesh, though it didn't pain her any longer.
No, not now it didn't.
It wasn't death that frightened Brigit. Death was only a journey to the Otherworld. Both the monks and the Druid taught her that and she believed them. It was more the feeling the dream invoked in her that was frightening, as though she was terribly late for something important or she had forgotten to feed Finsearch, her favorite hound. For several days!
She sat up on her box-bed, which was laid carefully with rushes over otter and deer skins and reached for a wool coverlet then froze, letting it drop from her hands as she stared down at arms in shock. Angry red welts, puffed and shining as if closed-over wounds, covered her from wrist to elbow. She stared at her sleeping foster-sister across the room and then shoved her arms back down, safely concealing them below the coverlet.
The hound lay curled up by the fire, his grey matted fur rising and falling with each clouded breath. He smelled of mold and wet; small prickly briars poked from his matted grey fur. One ear twitched and he gave a little whining sound but didn't open his eyes.
From a small table, Brigit picked up a bronze flagon with a wolf shaped handle and a tiny duck on the spout. Placing one hand at the enameled base for support, the other on the handle, she poured honey-wine into a drinking cup, put it to her lips but then paused, the cup quivering in her hand. The Druid would not approve, not until she was a full-fledged druid was she allowed the pleasure of drink. The monks she had been raised with, though, drank wine on a regular basis. One thing forbidden. The other as accepted as the sun, the moon, the stars. She did not care who knew, only that she was thirsty. She shrugged and then swallowed the wine. The sour taste made her face pucker. Holding the flagon up close, she inspected the inside of the vessel but saw no breaks in the waxy lining that would explain the bad taste. She placed the flagon on the table, then turned at the sound of rushes shifting under someone's weight.
Geileis, her foster-sister stared at her from across the room, half-risen like a weed from her box-bed. Her fur coverlet had slipped partway down, revealing green swirling lines on the mounds of her breasts and her red hair sprouted in tangles. She yawned and sat up more upright, pulling the coverlet under her chin. "You had that dream again didn't you?"
"How did you—?"
"I can see it on your face, Brig."
"Cannot the Druid give you something to sleep?"
"Not the sleeping that's the problem. It's when I awake that the visions come."
"And the drowning woman?"
"Same as before only this time it was worse ... for both of us."
"Both of you?"
"Hard to explain. It felt like ... Like I was her ... or she was me—and we kept thinking about someone, or something we left behind, but I don't know what, and we were being urged to ... I think ... I think it has something to do with my father."
"Your father? Was he in the vision too?"
"You know how when you're dreaming, it seems like you're watching the scene, even if you're the one things are happening to?"
"Well, this wasn't like that at all. I not only felt her panic and fear, but bits and pieces of her thoughts jumped into my head. I was actually thinking her very thoughts!"
"Like memories?" Geileis asked.
"Either that, or what led to her drowning and something else ... I don't know how I know this, but I thought about my father."
"What exactly did you think about him?"
"I don't know! It's more a gut feeling I have. I'm not clear on any of this. I just know the one thing. He's the only one that can tell me. They're connected somehow."
Geileis grabbed a long woolen tunic off the back of a chair and pulled it over her head.
"Forget the dream," she said flatly. "And if you need a tonic to sleep, we'll see the Druid about it." She struggled to pull her hair out of the garment but the long red curls were tangled in her fingers. She pulled them free with a strangled curse and several long strands dangled from her fingers. She shook them off, growling, and then gave Brigit a narrow-eyed stare. "And don't be thinking about leaving to find your father. The king is days from here and if he wanted to see you, he would have come here himself? He does know where you are."
Brigit rubbed at her arms, which pained her, still safely hidden beneath the covers. "I don't care whether he wants to see me or not. I want to meet him and besides he can tell me about my mother as well as his connection to the lady in my vision."
Geileis' face softened. "It doesn't make any difference to us who you are, Brig. You're still you."
She tried to smile but found it difficult. "I know that, Gel but I need to know, but no one will tell me about my mother. It's like she's a forbidden subject around here."
"Not forbidden; we simply don't know anything. I'm sorry."
"Hmmmph, at least you know who you are," Brighid said under her breath.
"How am I to know who I am, if I don't know anything about my past or where I came from."
Geileis sighed heavily. "Not that again. Brigit you're the Druid's apprentice. What else is there to know? You belong with us and besides do you have any idea how far your father's kingdom is? It's days from here!" She shook her head. "Nay, you can't leave. You belong here and what if the Druid passed onto the Otherworld while you were away? Then what would we do?"
"You can find another Druid."
Geileis frowned. "You know there aren't any, Brigit." There was a slight panic in her voice. She was right, and the tribe would not survive without someone to take Amorgin's place, for even Amorgin's ordained students had moved south to study with the monks, many of them becoming Christians in the process.
Without a Druid, the sun may never return, the crops not grow, nor the beasts thrive. They were the wise-men and priests. The only intermediary between the gods and the people now, were the sickly Amorgin and Brigit ... who still had much to learn, her training not complete until she'd trained for eighteen years. So far, she had had only four before her teacher became sick.
"You're all we have, Brig."
Brigit bit her lip. Though she knew what Geileis said was true and the urge to meet her father had always been in her heart, how could she leave now? Uisneach was unusually tense after a year of poor harvests followed by the mysterious darkening of the sky that even Amorgin could not explain. Cloudy days were expected but this was something more.
The people called it the 'veiling of the sun.'
Geileis wrapped a gold belt around her waist then buckled it tight. Once dressed, she dropped down onto Brigit's box-bed behind her. "Turn around," she instructed. She picked a comb up off the table and pulled Brigit's dark hair back, away from her face. "The festival will be here soon," she told her, changing the subject. She began combing Brigit's long curly hair with small severe strokes. "And the marriage-mart too," she added. The comb refused to budge and she pulled down. Hard.
"Oww! What are you trying to do to me? Pull out my thoughts?"
Geileis laughed. "It's like combing brambles," she said, separating the thick hair into three fat sections.
From the floor, Finsearch raised an inquisitive eye, flipped his long tail up and down several times and then curled back into himself. He closed his eyes once again, settling into a deep sleep.
"I don't care about the marriage mart," Brigit said. "A husband is not what I require. I am a king's daughter, and some day—"
Geileis stopped mid-braid. She swiveled her body around so that she was staring into her foster-sister's face. "I suppose next you'll be telling me your father is coming for you. Well, he isn't and you have responsibilities here." She took a deep breath. "Besides how can you possibly want to leave? If you marry outside of Uisneach, we'd never see each other again. It's time you married, Brig, and someone from our own tribe is as good as husband you can get I should think."
"I suppose you're right," Brigit said grudgingly.
Geileis tucked a tendril behind Brigit's ear. "I know you're confused and these visions are not helping, but we need you, and you belong here, with us, in Uisneach. Someday, the sun will entangle from the winter because of your songs. The harmony of the earth will prosper because of you and the trees will whisper your name on the wind."
"But not now?"
Geileis smiled. "When the time is right, so says the Druid."
"The Druid," Brigit said sadly. "He can barely see the harvest let alone pray for it. I've had to do it for him too many times and I'm not worthy. Not yet."
"Come to the fair with me," Geileis said. "I want you to see the matchmaker." She placed the comb back in a pouch and threw it on the table. "Do it for me, hmm?" She picked up the flagon and lifted the cover.
Brigit leaned over her foster-sister's shoulder before she could take a sip. "Tis tainted you know," she said.
Geileis gave her an accusing look. "We'll talk about that later. The matchmaker comes at the end of the fair. He'll hear everyone's contracts after the games are finalized. I think your chances of finding a suitable husband are good."
"I don't need a matchmaker," Brigit said firmly.
"Brig, you're too busy with your lessons to go courting." She poured more wine into the flagon. "And I hear this matchmaker can find a mate for anyone. Remember Old Lady Allanah? The one who'd buried six husbands? Had teats down to her knees and crazy as an old hen. If the matchmaker can help someone like that, she can find a husband for anyone."
"That so?" Brigit said. "With two hundred beasts what man wouldn't marry her? Besides, they say the man was really after the old crone's daughter."
Geileis flipped up her hands in dismissal. "So ... the contract was sound—and she had protection for the rest of her days." She swatted a rope of dried fish near her head, which swung from the rafters, wafting the fishy scent through the small room.
"Geileis," Brigit said slowly, calculating her next words. "I don't know if I want to marry ... at all. All my life people have told me what to do. The monks taught me to fast and purge and have piety to get closer to their God, but then they brought me here, and the Druid taught me something else ... that I am one with trees, wind and water. And all the time I have these visions of another thing entirely and I don't know what to make of what I see. I'm not sure what direction I should seek Gel, and what if I make the wrong choice?"
Finsearch appeared at Geileis' side, dark head rubbing against her leg, tail thumping on the rush covered floor. She patted the dog's head. "I don't understand you. You have the love of the gods in your hands! Any man would be glad to take you as his wife, yet you talk about marriage like it's a disease. How can you sit here and say you don't know what you want?" Her voice rose, sharp edged with irritation.
"Maybe I want something ...different, Gel."
"Different! What else is there? There is only marriage and children and filling the need the gods have declared for you. What else can you possibly want?"
How could she explain to Geileis what she could not explain to herself? She changed tactics. "I don't see you making plans for the marriage mart."
Geileis smiled; her plump cheeks rosy with health. "You know Arguis is the only man for me." She picked up the flagon of wine and sniffed at it dreamily.
"Not a thing wrong with this wine," she said, taking a long gulp. "It is sweet and predictable." She wiped her mouth with the back of her arm leaving a stain of buttery yellow on her pale linen under-tunic. "As it should be."