Excerpt from Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Dark Earth

A Novel

by Rebecca Stott

Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott X
Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott
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  • Published:
    Jul 2022, 336 pages

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Katharine Blatchfold
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Print Excerpt

1

An island in the Thames, c. a.d. 500

Isla and Blue are sitting on the mound watching the river creep up on the wrecks and over the black stubs of the old jetties out on the mudflats, waiting for Father to finish his work in the forge. Along the far riverbank, the Ghost City, the great line of its long-abandoned river wall, its crumbling gates and towers, is making its upside-down face in the river again.

"Something's coming, sister," Blue says. "Look."

Isla looks. The wind has picked up. It scatters the birds wading on the mudflats. It catches at the creepers that grow along the Ghost City wall. It lifts and rustles them like feathers.

"Could be rain," Isla says. "The wind's turned."

It's late spring. There has been no rain for weeks. No clouds, just the baking, glaring forge fire of the sun. At first, after the long winter, the sisters had welcomed the sun coming in so hot. Dull roots had stirred. Flowers came early: first the primroses and bluebells in the wood, then the tiny spears of the cuckoo pint and the blackthorn blossom in the hedgerows. The bean seedlings had pushed up through the soil in their garden, fingers unfurling into sails.

Now the reeds whisper like old bones. The sisters swim in the river when they can steal away from the field or from Father's forge. Around them the sun beats down on the mudflats. Meat turns. Flies gather.

Every evening the sisters climb the mound to watch for the sails of Seax boats coming upriver from the sea, the sails of the great wandering tribes, from the Old Country and the Drowned Lands of their ancestors, all heading west to find new land to farm. Some months there are no boats at all. Other months there are four or five, sailing alone or in clusters. Blue gauges a notch into the doorpost for each new sail she sees.

"The river is a firetongued sword tonight," Blue says. She is making a necklace from the cowslips and the violets she's picked, lost in that half-dreaming mood that takes her sometimes.

Isla looks. Blue is right. Between their island and the walls of the Ghost City on the far riverbank, the river runs between the mudflats in puckered silvers and golds, blues and reds, just like the swords that Father makes.

"What did the Sun Kings know?" Isla says, gazing over the river to the ruins beyond. "What happened to make them all go and leave their city like that? Was it the Great Sickness, do you think? Or worse?"

"What's worse than the Great Sickness?" Blue says, holding the necklace up to the setting sun, humming a tune Mother used to sing in the Old Times.

Blue sometimes talks in riddles. She asks questions Isla can't answer. Sometimes Isla tries. Usually, she doesn't.

"Did they mean to come back?" Isla says. "Did something happen to them to stop them from coming back?"

Isla has been thinking about these questions for always and forever. The whole Ghost City is a riddle to her.

"Perhaps the marsh spirits chased them away," Blue says, pulling down the skin beneath her eyes and baring her teeth, "or perhaps the Strix turned them all into crows."

But Isla knows her sister doesn't know any more about where or why the Sun Kings went than she does.

"We don't know," she says. "No one knows. We'll never know."

And then, with a sigh, Blue puts down her flowers and says, her eyes wide:

"Mother said there were gardens inside and pools of hot water and temples as big as ten mead halls and fountains full of coins and men who fought with bears and giants and—"

"Stop your nonsense," Isla says, but she isn't really listening. She is thinking that Father is late finishing his work, and that the food will spoil. She is wondering whether he has finally finished twisting the iron rods as she asked him to, so that she can start working on the blade tomorrow. Most nights he is out through the forge door long before they can see the first stars. He'll be putting his tools away, she tells herself. He's just taking his time.

Excerpted from Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott. Copyright © 2022 by Rebecca Stott. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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