His aching lungs would no longer be denied. Gripping his prize tightly, Aidan released the rock and kicked back toward the sun. Sound and scent and taste inundated him as he held the blade high.
His father's strong arm clasped his, lifting Aidan from the river with effortless ease. "What have you, boy?"
Aidan panted. His breathlessness owed more to excitement than lack of air. "A knife, Da." He smoothed his fingers over its surface, tracing every knob and etching. "A golden knife!"
Shadows flitted over Mahon O'Dere's face. The expression was darker than mere curiosity, but before Aidan could put a name to the shade it was gone. His father stretched out his arm. Reluctantly, Aidan placed the blade in Mahon's calloused hand.
Mahon examined it, grunting. His mouth smiled, but his eyes remained cautious. As his father wielded the blade with practiced grace, Aidan was awed by the steel's formidable size, its graceful arc. This was a knife forged for killing.
"Jewels, Da? And gold?" The dagger was a strange thing, a great thing, and if it was genuine, then it would add to his family's wealth, would increase their standing, could be traded for coin and tools and cattle.
"I know this blade," his father said. Mahon's words seemed burdened by an unusual weight and chill.
Disappointment was a sharper edge than the blade's own. "Then you know who owns it?" Never had Aidan seen such a knife, not in the crannog, nor in the villages upriver to the east. But his father had traveled far, knew many things, and certainly if any man would recognize such an oddity, it was Mahon O'Dere. But still his father did not speak.
Etched along the blade's curved edge were squiggles and curlicues, and things resembling the runes he had seen druids scratch in the dirt at Festival. "What are the markings?" Aidan said. "Can I keep it?"
Mahon thrust the knife under his leather belt and swatted playfully at his son, forcing the boy to duck. "Unhitch the nets like I told you," he said, "and we'll see."
Aidan grinned and jumped back overboard, swimming down to the bottom, finding the anchor rocks they had heaved over the side some five hours earlier. He pulled the slipknot then swam back as the net began to rise. Dozens of silvery fish were caught in its web, fish that would quiet grumbling bellies, or be traded for eggs, or straw for thatched roofs.
The Lady's currents cooled his eyes as he watched the net rise toward the light, drawn up by his father's strong arms. Aidan gazed up at the coracle, and deep within him, in a place that lived beyond ordinary thought and emotion, he had another vision of the knife.
It was held in a hand that was not his father's. It gleamed by reflected firelight. And its edge was stained with crimson.
It was early evening by the time they returned to the crannog, their island home. A stranger would find it hard to locate, hidden as it was by reeds and carefully draped moss. The O'Dere crannog was set at the edge of the lake, connected to the mainland by a gated bridge of wood and earth. There the land was cultivated in corn and carrots, with rectangular pens for cattle and sheep. The crannog itself held a dozen houses with woven wooden walls and thatched roofs. Great-grandfather Angus O'Dere and his brothers had built this hidden place. They carried rocks from the forest out to the lake, building the crannog up from the lake bed with rock and gravel and clay. Here they raised their families. Here, for generations, they had lived and loved and died.
The other boats were drifting in as well. Although the shadows were lengthening, he could see that the faces were happy: the day's fishing had been good. The sun was setting in the dense emerald forest west of the crannog, tinting the sky copper.
Copyright 2002 by Steven Barnes
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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