Excerpts for Bloodline

Middle Anglia, eastern Britain, late summer, AD 631

HE SUN rose above the flatlands, spreading a bloody glow across the mere. Shafts of brilliance swept into the hall through a side door left ajar the previous night. A streak of pale light swung across the floorboards to touch the head of a sleeping boy with hair like a lick of fire in the dark. His name was Essa, he was nine summers old, and when he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the red dawn waiting. Red sky in the morning, Essa thought. If Da wants to ride out today, we'll get wet. And ride out they would, he was sure. Essa sometimes wished they might stay in a place long enough for him to make friends, but they never did.

He stretched out an arm, working it free of the blue blanket drawn too close around his neck and chin. The blanket had been given to them in exchange for a song only a few days before. "And not a moment too soon." Cai had held up their old rug so that Essa could see sunlight streaming through the holes. Cai had quick black eyes, like the pieces of obsidian he'd once sold to the High King in Northumbria. He was dark and light-boned like a bird. Nobody could tell what he was thinking, not even his son, who knew him better than anyone.

Essa sat up, shrugging the blanket away from his shoulders. Next to him a fat man lay on his back, snoring gently. On his other side a small child was curled up next to her mother. The entire hall was filled with sleeping people. Cai preferred to sleep outside with their horse, Melyor, when the weather was warm enough, choosing the mare's company over the closeness of strangers. This village was a rich place with two grassy, hollow mounds behind the weaving hall, where big clay jars of barley and wheat were stored in the earthy coolness. They had a stable full of horses too, although Essa had noticed last night that two were old wrecks and one was lame. Maybe Cai was in the stable.

He squinted in the half-light at a small bundle lying at his feet, unwound himself from the blanket, and snatched the tooled leather bag to his chest. Cai must have been very drunk last night. They had so few things that everything was guarded like a dragon's hoard, especially this. Without it they'd starve, because Cai was British and proud. He was of the Iceni, whose great queen Boudicca had almost driven the Romans back into the sea, long ago. Cai used to say that more generations had come and gone since the high days of the Iceni than Essa could count on the fingers and thumbs of both his hands, and if anyone knew, Cai did, for he was a song man and a keeper of the past. But this was an Anglish village, and Essa knew Cai would never beg a meal from these people, who knew nothing of Christ the Redeemer and sang of their grandfathers crossing the eastern water in long ships with sea serpents snarling at the prows.

The night before last, Essa and Cai had been given a linen package containing dried yellow saffron and a lump of amber that had delighted Essa because it looked like the head of a dog: a rich haul. He loosened the drawstring and dug his fingers inside the bag, reassured by the smoothness of the amber in his hand. The linen packet of saffron heads was there too, rustling against his fingertips. He buckled his belt around his waist, pushed the bag inside his tunic, and ran to the door, leaping over sleeping bodies. He'd managed to get a place near the fire, and there were a lot of people between the hearth and the nearest door.

The yard was quiet and peaceful in the dawn light. Opposite the hall, a row of scythes lay against the barn wall under the low, thatched roof. He ran for the stables, where the air was quiet and thick with the warm, sweet smell of horses. When he got to the stall where he'd left Melyor the night before, Cai was not there, and neither was the horse. It was always Essa's job to bed her down whenever they arrived at a new place, whether it was a clearing in a wood or the golden-banded hall of a king. For the first time since waking, he was afraid. Had he not bolted the stable door behind him? He should have left her tethered. Without Melyor, they would be beggars. Men of song did not travel on foot. He would have to catch Melyor and bring her in quick before anyone noticed she had got out. Cai was already angry with him, and it would do no good to remind Cai of his own mistake in leaving the tooled leather bag lying around for anyone to take.

The argument had started in a hall across the border, in the kingdom of Mercia, when Cai sent a messenger to summon Essa away from a game of Fox and Geese.

"Tell him I'll come soon." Essa watched his opponent move a goose piece across the board. He was a tall, wiry boy with stooping shoulders, and he was about to get beaten. Two more moves and Essa would be the owner of a knife with a bone handle.

"He says come now."

"Tell him to be patient," Essa said, earning a burst of laughter from his opponent and the small gathering of onlookers. He watched the board, pretending to think over his next move, although he knew exactly what he was going to do: in two moves, the game would be his. He was the fox and he had captured nearly all the geese. How would it be to slink like a real fox through the night, he wondered. Cupping the small wooden figure in his hand, he could almost feel the thrill of running slick and silent in the darkness, and the thirst for hot blood.

Cai could wait. Anyway, these Mercians would probably give him another drink. He had played well the night before. The women cried when he sang of the dying bear king who was taken away in a boat by nine maidens, leaving his warriors asleep in a green cave.