A “superb” (The Guardian) novel about two sisters fighting for survival in Dark Ages Britain that weaves “a dazzling blend of history and fantasy” (BuzzFeed)
“Rich in history and folklore . . . Stott is astute on the use of stories to control others and maintain power. . . . Female defiance blazes through as her women reclaim this brutal period from the men.”—The Telegraph
The year is 500 AD. Sisters Isla and Blue live in the shadows of the Ghost City, the abandoned ruins of the once-glorious mile-wide Roman settlement Londinium on the bank of the River Thames. But the small island they call home is also a place of exile for Isla, Blue, and their father, a legendary blacksmith accused of using dark magic to make his firetongue swords—formidable blades that cannot be broken—and cast out from the community. When he dies suddenly, the sisters find themselves facing enslavement by the local warlord and his cruel, power-hungry son. Their only option is to escape to the Ghost City, where they discover an underworld of rebel women living secretly amid the ruins. But if Isla and Blue are to survive the men who hunt them, and protect their new community, they will need to use all their skill and ingenuity—as well as the magic of their foremothers—to fight back.
With an intimate yet cinematic scope, Dark Earth re-creates an ancient world steeped in myth and folklore, and introduces us to unforgettable women who come to vibrant life on the page. A heart-in-mouth adventure full of moments of tenderness, this is a beautiful, profound novel about oppression and power that puts a female perspective on a historical period dominated by men’s stories.
Release date: July 19, 2022
Publisher: Random House
Print pages: 336
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Listen to a sample
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.
“Mother told me,” Blue says again, her eyes closed, drawing shapes in the air with her long fingers. “She did. She said. She knew.”
Blue makes Isla wild sometimes with the things she says.
“You’re making it up,” Isla tells her. “Mother didn’t say any such thing. Anyway, how would she know? The Sun Kings left a hundred winters ago. The Ghost City is empty. There’s nothing living in there now except kites and crows. It’s all just mud and broken stone.”
“And ghosts,” Blue says, “and the Strix.”
Isla gives up. Blue’s face is flushed. She’s been sitting in the sun too long. Father says Blue is touched. Isla sometimes wonders if there is something wrong with her sister that often she seems to know what Isla is going to say before she says it, or she sees things others can’t see. Fanciful, Mother used to say. Your sister’s just fanciful, Isla. You mustn’t mind her.
“You’ve listened to too many of Old Sive’s stories,” Isla says. She can’t help herself. She is cross and hot and tired and the old darkness is gathering down inside her. It’s making her want to run again.
Wrak, the crow that Blue has raised from a chick, calls out to her sister from the thatch of the forge, then lands on her shoulder in a flurry of black feathers. Wrak. Wrak. Though she would never say it to her sister, Isla wishes Wrak would fly off to join his kin, the crows roosting in the Ghost City. He is dirty, full of fleas and ticks. Always looking for scraps. Stealing food. Up to no good. The way he looks at Isla sometimes, his head cocked to one side, his eyes shiny black like charcoal, that tuft of white feathers under his beak. It makes her skin crawl. But Wrak doesn’t go. He stays.
“Hush, we’re your kin now,” Blue says to him when she sees him gazing up at the birds flying overhead. “Hush, hush. Ya. We’re your kin.” She cradles his dirty oily feathers in her long fingers as if he is a child.
Blue has secrets. At low tide on the night of each new moon, she takes the path down through the wood to the promontory on the south side of the island, where she keeps her fish traps. She tells Father she’s checking the traps, but Isla knows she’s gone to speak to the mud woman. When the tide falls down there, the woman’s bones make a five-pointed star in the
mud, her ankles and wrists fastened to four stakes with rusted iron cuffs, her bones white, the remains of her ribs the upturned hull of a boat. Curlews wade between her thighs.
Isla went only once. She won’t go again. She doesn’t want to look at that open jaw a second time, the black holes of the woman’s eye sockets.
Blue says that when the moon is full, the mud woman whispers.
“She’s dead,” Isla says. “Bones can’t whisper. They drowned that poor woman hundreds of years ago. Stop making things up.”
“Sometimes on the new moon,” Blue says, “she roars and swears to kill the men who pegged her. She pulls at her straps.”
“Enough. Enough of all that. Stop it. Just say nothing.”
“But sometimes,” Blue says, “she just calls for her mother.”
When Isla had once asked Father about the bones, he’d said the elders of the mud woman’s tribe must have staked her out to teach the rest of her people to hold their tongues and do what they were told. He said they’d made a scapegoat of her. They’d done that back in the Old Country too, he said.
“Poor creature,” he’d said.
“What’s a scapegoat?” Isla had asked.
“You put all the bad luck in the village into one goat and then you drive it away,” he said. “Or you kill it.”
“Are we scapegoats?” Blue said.
“Not yet,” Father had answered. “Not if I can help it.”
The lights on the river have started to bleed in the dusk. Isla can’t see one thing from another out there. When she sits down next to her sister again, Blue drapes her necklace of flowers between the pair of brooches that Isla wears in the crook of each of her shoulders. When she’s got the flowers where she wants them, Blue puts her fingers on Isla’s eyelids and closes her own. She seems to be praying. She kisses each of her sister’s eyelids in turn, and then each of her brooches. Isla can’t tell if she is playing some new game or just being Blue.
at once the crows scatter up and over the Ghost City, pouring up like the ashes from a great fire into the night sky, across the first evening stars, across the sliver of the new moon, roiling this way and that, making a great scattery and flinty noise with their beaks, and then roiling together all over again.
Isla starts to run. Across the yard, round the goat pen, and then she is pushing hard against the door of the forge. Inside, the room is dark. The fire has shrunk back to embers. Shadows from the guttering candle dance on the walls. And there is Father’s body on the floor, all crumpled, his hammer still clenched in his hand, his face twisted on one side, his mouth open like he’s trying to say something. And when she looks up, Blue is standing there in the doorway, quiet as anything.
Father is dead. They have waited, watched for a breath. No breath came. They have straightened him out and hauled his body into the woodshed, covered it in the old wolfskin rug and closed the door.
By now it is dark, deep dark, only the thinnest of red lines over the scratchy black forest to the west where the sun has gone, and the stars are making their bright studwork. The first owls are out hunting, the wolves calling to each other in the woods on the other side of the creek. It is just like any other night. Except it isn’t. It will never be like any other night, Isla thinks. It will never be like any ordinary night ever again. The Great Smith is dead. The Great Smith is dead. Father is dead.
She drags wood to make a fire right there in the yard, between the hut and the forge and the woodshed, and makes them up a bed of willow branches and reeds next to it.
“We’re going to sleep outside?” Blue asks, her eyes wide. “Can we?”
“It’s too hot for inside,” Isla says. “Who’s going to stop us? He isn’t. He can’t.”
They pray to Freja, god of crossing places and kin. They ask her to watch over Father, to keep the bad spirits out of the woodshed.
“Where are we going to put him?” Blue whispers as they lie on their bellies under the rugs, watching the flames.
“Why are you whispering? He can’t hear us.”
“Maybe he can. You don’t know. He could be listening right now.”
“Stop that talk. He’ll go next to Nonor of course,” Isla says. “Under the great oak at the top of the burial ground, right next to her.”
When they had lived in the Seax camp at the bend of the creek, their cousins had buried their grandmother up on the hill, alongside their other Seax kin in the burial ground. The men had built a shrine over her, made of hazel and ash wood, woven with willow. Isla and Blue and the women had hung it with wild roses.
“They’ll have to dig a very big hole,” Blue says. And then they are quiet. Isla thinks about how big that hole is going to have to be and how long it will take for the worms to come. Soon enough Blue is asleep, but Isla is lying awake staring at the stars, worrying. She is going around inside the same riddle and not finding a way out.
Where are they going to put him?
Father lies in the woodshed in the heat under the wolfskin rug. When the sun is up, Isla will burn pans of dried sage in there and gather nettles and push them through the gaps at the bottom of the walls to keep out the bad spirits and the flies, just as Nonor had shown her back at the camp. She must make sure not to leave any gaps. But the sage and the nettles won’t hold the flies out for more than a day or two. No spells or herbs will do that. Father’s body will not last long in the heat. It is going to turn like bad meat. It will go maggoty.
They must get him over to the camp burial ground and get their cousins to bury him, up next to Nonor. They’ll have to do it quickly, before the maggots get to him.
But they have no boat.
And even if they had a boat, and they could get his body onto it, and if they didn’t run aground on the mudflats or get swept away in the fast currents out there, then their cousins probably wouldn’t let them land on their shingle beach anyway, not after all this time and after what happened. They might even throw rocks at them like they did the day the lepers had tried to beach their boat.
And then what will they do?
Isla counts the winters that have passed since the night of the Great Fire. It has been five winters since the night raiders attacked the camp, torched the huts and dragged off Mother and the other women. Five winters since the camp elders banished the Great Smith and his daughters to the mud island in the Great River.
Days after the night raid, with all the cross-beams and fallen thatch still smoldering, the camp elders ruled that the Great Smith was to blame for bringing the bad spirits that brought the night raiders who torched the camp. They said he had the evil eye. How else could he make those firetongues, raise those ghostly patterns from the blades, they said, unless he
could conjure the fire to do his bidding? Isla, her ear pressed to the crack in the wall of the Mead Hall, her heart breaking for Mother, heard her cousins saying that they should have turned Father out long before.
“The Great Smith might be Seax kin,” she heard Old Sive, the Charcoal Burner, say, “but he has the devil’s work in him. There are some things you don’t risk—not even for kin.”
When she heard this, Isla clenched her fists so hard that she buried her fingernails into the palms of her hands and left red marks there.
But it wasn’t just Father who had turned their kin against them. Mother belonged to the Ikeni people and Isla had been born with one green eye and one brown eye. When things started to go wrong in the camp—the barley blighted, people dying from the Great Sickness, the long hard frost—the Old Ones started to whisper stories about her family and, winter in and winter out, their whisperings got louder.
Ikeni, the boys chanted, when they thought Father couldn’t hear. Ikeni. IK-EY-NEE, IK-EY-NEE. Your mother is Ikeni. Isla tried hurling stones at them. But it only made them louder. Better to stand still, she had whispered to Blue when the boys cornered them behind the Mead Hall. Better to look down and wait for it to stop. But Blue wouldn’t be told. She stood there, staring the boys down with that look of hers, her teeth clenched, her hands fisted, growling like a wolf, until they stopped their taunts and sloped away.
Mother. Tall and brown and willowy Mother. Mother with the dimple in her chin. Mother with the brimming eyes. Her ancestors, she said, had come from a village somewhere far to the north of the Ghost City, on an estuary looking out to sea. The Ikeni ruled this land once, she said. After the Sun Kings came, an Ikeni queen had marched on the Sun King cities, razed them to the ground. When the Sun Kings had finished burying their dead, they made sure that the Ikeni people could never rise on them again.
The Ikeni were scattered now. Their hearths broken. Their roofs burned.
Isla can remember the feel of Mother’s hair against her fingers, even if she can’t quite remember what her smile looked like. If she closes her eyes for long enough, she can see Mother’s sad, proud face, see the way her eyes gleamed when she watched the sun set or showed them the hoarfrost. When she found Mother’s dark hairs on a comb dropped on the floor of the scorched barn two days after the Fire, Isla wound them around an old bobbin. She keeps that bobbin in her box of special things now, alongside the monkey god amulet she found in the midden, and the crystal hanging ball that Nonor left her. The box is hidden above the cross-beam in the hut, lodged into a notch in the wood.
“You are the mother now,” Nonor whispered to Isla after the night raid, nodding toward Blue, who was curled up asleep in the roots of a tree, her hair knotted and scattered with fallen leaves. “You are the mother now.”
Isla is. She will be. She promised. She is the mother now.
Of course, it isn’t the camp elders who decide what is what and who gets to live where and who is banished. Not anymore. Lord Osric, the Seax Lord of the South Lands, decides everything now. Their forge island and all the camps along the river’s edge are part of Lord Osric’s kingdom. He rules as far as Isla can see from the mound on a summer’s day and a long way beyond. Osric’s father had ruled before him. His grandfather ruled a great kingdom back in the Old Country. People say Osric is half god, half man, that he can trace his kinline back through Hengist and Horsa, the first Seax warrior brothers, right back to the great god Thunor himself. Osric, they say, sees and knows everything.
So after the Fire when the elders of Isla’s camp asked Lord Osric for his judgment on Father, it was Lord Osric who ruled that the Great Smith and his daughters were to go and live on the mud island in the river. It was Lord Osric’s soldiers who brought them here and built their hut and the forge, who cut down the trees to make a clearing so that she and Blue could have goats and chickens and a kitchen garden. It was his men who dug the well and ordered their cousins to send out meat and grain and charcoal from the camp for them every full moon. Lord Osric also sent them gifts: chickens, bolts of fine wool, cakes, goblets, braces of hares from his huntsmen. He promised the Great Smith and his daughters protection in return for the Great Smith’s firetongued swords. He kept them safe.
Blue had lived through twelve winters when they first came to the island and Isla fifteen. Now, if Isla is counting right, Blue has seventeen winters and she has twenty.
But now that the Great Smith is dead, Isla thinks, struggling to remember what she knows about the Kin Law, feeling hope rising at last, surely Lord Osric must grant his daughters Kin Protection? When a woman has no husband or father to protect her, she must claim protection from the lord himself. She and Blue will go to Osric’s palace and petition him in the proper way. When he grants them Kin Protection, they will wear his colors, pin on the brooches carrying the three-pointed star and the boar’s head of Osric’s shield. Then, wherever they go inside Osric’s kingdom, people will have to give them food and shelter. They will be safe. If they go back to the camp at the creek bend their cousins will have to take them back, even if they don’t want to, give them a hut and a little land to farm. They’ll be able to walk to the little grave on the hill where they buried Nonor and lay flowers. No more being stuck out on the island, keeping Father’s secrets, doing his bidding. They will go home. Blue will get married. Have children. There’ll be food and dancing on winter nights. Laughing in the Mead Hall. And people to help them mend the roof. ...
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