It’s the season of Fallow, in the era of iron. In a northern misty bog surrounded by woodlands and wheat fields, a settlement lies far beyond the reach of the Romans invading hundreds of miles to the southeast. Here, life is simple—or so it seems to the tightly knit community. Sow. Reap. Honor Mother Earth, who will provide at harvest time. A girl named Devout comes of age, sweetly flirting with the young man she’s tilled alongside all her life, and envisions a future of love and abundance. Seventeen years later, though, the settlement is a changed place. Famine has brought struggle, and outsiders, with their foreign ways and military might, have arrived at the doorstep. For Devout’s young daughter, life is more troubled than her mother ever anticipated. But this girl has an extraordinary gift. As worlds collide and peril threatens, it will be up to her to save her family and community.
Set in a time long forgotten, Daughter of Black Lake brings the ancient world to life and introduces us to an unforgettable family facing an unimaginable trial.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)|
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A cloud of dust appears beyond the fields, at first so faint that I squint and peer across the freshly furrowed earth. I straighten from squatting. My mother and I have spent the morning with the rest of the Hands in the field closest to the clearing—seed wheat falling from our fingers, disappearing beneath the black earth. The cloud swells and at its center a dark speck emerges—a horse galloping at tremendous speed. I feel my knees weaken as I wait for seven more horses, for glinting armor and swords. Soon the mount grows recognizable—not a Roman but a druid with a gleaming white robe fanned out behind him like spread wings. But something is amiss.
Druids—our high priests—come to Black Lake to bless the feasts at festivals and to carry out our most sacred rites—the sacrifices undertaken to appease the gods. They rule the settlements as our lawmakers, our judges, emissaries who tell us the gods’ will. It was the druids who stirred up the early resistance to our Roman invaders, and my father says the Romans have not forgotten the power the druids hold, their ability to provoke, even coerce rebellion against Roman rule. As a consequence, whenever one of our druid leaders comes, he rides under the cloak of night. Not this druid though. He rides by daylight, and I have never known a druid to be so careless as that.
When I was a child, a druid’s raised arms stirred feelings of consolation and hope in me. But as I grew, I began to notice how the adults spoke of the druids in hushed whispers, and afterward touched their lips, the earth. I had gone to my mother. “Are you afraid of druids?” I had said.
I remember the answer she gave. I even remember her lacing her fingers together in her lap as she still does when deciding what to say. She said that in her youth, the wheat rotted in the fields one harvest. I nodded because I already knew about the rain and the ruined wheat and the bog dwellers who starved. It was an old story, one I had heard many times, a story passed down with solemn faces and then fingers to lips, to the earth.
My mother took my hand then—I remember that—and said, “That harvest, Hobble, a druid commanded a sacrifice.”
Sacrifices were how we regained Mother Earth’s favor. During a plague of moths, we offered a dozen laying hens. Another time—a drought—we sacrificed a pair of partridges. It was ordinary for us to make an offering, even a ewe, to secure a good harvest.
This is the point where my recollection grows blurred. Sometimes I remember her voice turning raspy, like the edges of the words caught her throat, as she said, “He commanded that a blind boy be slain.”
Sometimes I remember saying, “A runt?” and then my mother cupping my hand with both of hers as she whispered, “Yes.”
Other times, though, I am uncertain any such revelation took place.
I have imagined a blind boy heaved onto the stone altar, the hands that must have held him still as his throat was slit, as he was drained of his blood. Having imagined it time and again, it has hardened into something like memory. Might the same be true of that moment when my mother spoke of a runt slayed? Most often I lean toward believing that my recollection of that conversation is corrupted. Never has she repeated the story, and never has any bog dweller, when recalling the bleak aftermath of the rotted wheat, suggested that anything other than the customary laying hens or ewe was offered to the gods. And if a blind boy lived at Black Lake in my mother’s youth, how strange that no mention of him enters the bog dwellers’ talk. How inconceivable.
The druid racing toward us rides by the light of day and does not hide his flowing robe. I look toward the clearing for my father and see he has already stepped outside his forge. All around him, bog dwellers hush. Looms stop weaving cloth and quern stones cease milling grain. Fingers still from mending, from stringing bows with gut. As I scan those distant bog dwellers—now filing toward the center of the clearing—I spot Feeble in a sling on his father’s back.
Feeble was born four years after I was, a fifth child for Tanner, who heads the clan that tans the hides at Black Lake. The newborn’s brow stretched twice the normal size and a soft, membranous lump protruded from his lower back. Such a brow was a sign of pressure beneath, an aching head. My mother was called to the Tanner roundhouse, and for the newborn she left willow tea to be sucked from a scrap of cloth.
I think of her returning home from that call, her head hanging low, and explaining to my father that there was nothing to be done for an improperly formed spine. Had my father’s heart fluttered, a flicker of lightness, as he digested her words? Had he counted his good fortune that I had been replaced as the most imperfect at Black Lake?
Feeble did not take his first steps until he was four, but he was not like the usual toddlers—teetering two steps one day and six the next. He never progressed much beyond a dozen, before he collapsed to the ground. Nowadays he spends most of his time cradled on his father’s back, or slouched against a wall, moaning and holding the aching head that no amount of willow tea can soothe.
Why has the druid come? The eldest of the Carpenters—that Black Lake clan respected for their sturdy wheels—had recently taken his last breath, collapsing even before he loosened the harness he used to haul logs. But we knew how to proceed without a druid’s guiding hand, and days had passed since we took the body to Bone Meadow—that place where flesh decays, where maggots and carrion pick bones clean. Could the druid only mean to lay offered loaves in the fields once they are fully planted? But then why the rush when only half the fields are sown? And why ride by day?
My mother positions herself between me and the druid very nearly upon us, but I peek around her thin frame, straining to see any evidence of eight mounted Roman warriors in quick pursuit.
His horse still at a gallop, the druid skirts the field where we stand. As he passes, I take in his ridged brow and deeply grooved cheeks—a face made lean by unrelenting effort, I think, by accomplishment.
“He isn’t old,” says Sliver, my steadfast friend, born when the moon shone a thin slice in the sky.
“Druids are supposed to be old.”
“Usually, my sweet. Hush.” Sliver’s mother touches her lips, the earth.
“His beard is short,” says Sliver’s younger sister Pocks, whose skin is pitted around her mouth.
“It isn’t white,” adds Mole, his eyes beadier than usual as he squints to see.
The color has not yet drained from the druid’s hair or beard. Both are trimmed and still reddish-brown. He rides erect on his horse, rather than with a humped back. The whispered consensus among the Hands is that this particular druid has never before come to Black Lake, that his face promises severity and that his youth suggests recklessness, impatience.
“Don’t like the looks of him,” Old Man says.
Sliver tugs her mother’s arm in the direction of the clearing. “Let’s go. Let’s see what he wants.”
The Hand children begin to plead:
“The horse. I want to see the horse.”
“He might bless us.”
“He might leave.”
“It isn’t fair, missing out.”
The Hand mothers shush their children, pull them close, and for a moment, I breathe in the comfort of shared fear.
“Why has he come?” Sliver asks.
“He’s come to lay the loaves,” her mother says, her weak smile as unconvincing as an early thaw.
“Your Romans,” my mother murmurs just loud enough for me to hear and lifts her fingers to her lips.
The druid’s horse halts a step shy of my father and those bog dwellers gathered in the clearing. As the druid dismounts, all of us—in the fields and the clearing—touch our lips, then the earth. We remain crouched on one knee. Eventually Hunter, who is First Man at Black Lake, rises to address the druid. As our settlement’s leader, he has no choice. My father briefly held that role, before the distinction passed from the Smith clan to the Hunter clan. Though that loss pains him as keenly as an open wound, today I do not feel a scrap of remorse.
Hunter and the druid speak—Hunter, with his head bowed. I try but can hear nothing other than the shrill cries of a caged partridge fretting outside the Hunters’ roundhouse door.
The druid beckons those of us kneeling in the fields, his arm cutting through the air, a gesture he must repeat a second time when, for a moment, our knees remain rooted to furrowed earth.
Old Man steps first toward the clearing, then Sliver and Pocks. Sliver teeters on the edge of skipping farther ahead, then glances over her shoulder, seeking permission, but her mother clasps her daughter’s shoulder, tethering her to the group. My mother and I hesitate, putting off that moment when my lame leg will reveal be as a runt. I seek courage in the idea that the druid has already seen the misshapen boy bundled on Tanner’s back but find it in a nobler thought: Soon I will show the druid how I can run.
When my mother and I reach my father, we drop to our knees on either side of him. He rests a hand against my shoulder blade, wraps his free arm around my mother, who does not shy away but rather leans into the heft of him.
“I’m called Fox,” the druid says.
I try to keep the quickness of foxes from my mind, their known cunning. My eyes lift to his reddish-brown beard. It is bushy. Yes, like a fox’s tail.
He moves among us, his fingertips grazing our shoulders, the backs of our necks. He approaches the three of us. I hold my breath as he shifts to his squatting, as he lifts my chin with two fingers so that we are face to face. “A runt,” he says.
My eyes flicker to Feeble, a lowly effort to redirect the druid’s attention to Black Lake’s true runt. But Fox’s two fingers press against the fleshy underside of my chin, and I cannot manage even to turn my head. Then my mother touches the druid’s sleeve, lifts her face. She is fine-featured, lithe, pale, ethereal in her beauty. Just now, though, she looks as frail as a sigh. “A seer,” she says, timid as dew.
She bows her head again. The cords in her neck appear, withdraw, a slow laborious pulse.
Fox huffs. “And what is it the runt sees?”
“Romans,” my father says, his voice low yet laced with authority.
My parents gamble, then, to shift me from runt to seer, from unworthy to worthy in the druid’s mind.
Fox’s eyes light with interest, and he leans close enough that I feel the wet of his breath.
I blink, make a slow wisp of a nod.
The horse paws the earth, and Fox’s fingers drop from my chin. He pats the beast’s hindquarters, strokes the hollow running the length of its neck. He turns back to the gathered crowd. “Rise,” he commands.
I watch as bog dwellers straighten, brush the dust from their knees. My father hoists me onto my feet. He holds me steady as Hunter steps forward and touches Fox’s sleeve. “Come,” Hunter says.
“Come eat, rest with us.” As First Man he is obliged to provide the druid respite from a hard ride.
“You,” Fox says to Hunter. “See that the horse is watered and fed.”
He turns to me. “What am I to call you?”
“Hobble,” I say, a tremor exhaled. A maiden who walks with a limp.
He juts his chin toward my father. “Your maiden?”
“I’ll reside with your clan, then. Your prophetess.”
My mother quiets the hand reaching for her lips, returns it to her side. My father nods slowly, evenly. As Hunter takes up the horse’s reins, I notice the hard set of his face—irritation that Fox has chosen my father’s household over his, over that of Black Lake’s First Man.
“Come, Devout, Hobble,” my father beckons, and the crowd parts clearing passage for my small family.
Reading Group Guide
1. Daughter of Black Lake is about a society that finds itself on the brink of change—caught between time-honored traditions and the forces of modernization. Which characters are trying to protect the old ways and which are interested in the Romans? What accounts for these differences in opinion? Is there a correct opinion, in your view?
2. The novel begins with an epigraph from Plutarch: “Hatred is blind as well as love.” How do you think this quote applies to Daughter of Black Lake?
3. The narrative shifts back and forth between the perspectives of the strong-willed Hobble and her mother Devout, the healer at Black Lake. How has the settlement changed in the seventeen years between Devout’s youth and Hobble’s coming of age? What does Devout reveal to Hobble about the time before, and what does she withhold? How are traditions, stories, and knowledge passed down from Devout to Hobble?
4. Discuss the love triangle between Devout, Young Smith, and Arc. Young Smith is a hardworking, kind ironworker from a powerful clan, while Arc is a humble orphan, with nothing to offer but his own devotion. What factors complicate Devout’s choice between them? What do you think about the choices she makes? What choice would you have made in her position?
5. At one point, Devout flings open her arms and exclaims, “Imagine a world without magic.” What is the role of magic in the world of Black Lake?
6. Discuss the daily and seasonal rituals that continually remind the bog dwellers of their dependence on the earth’s benevolence. In modern times, most would agree we’ve diminished our connection to the natural world. In doing so, what have we lost?
7. Even in the close-knit community of Black Lake, there are profound differences in social class and power. What accounts for these differences? How are they represented? How do Young Smith’s fortunes change over the course of the novel and why?
8. What do Feeble and the blind boy show us about how weakness is perceived in Black Lake? How does Hobble surmount her own perceived weakness? What does the sacrifice of the blind boy illustrate about the importance of the individual versus the collective in this society?
9. Devout hides the true parentage of Hobble from Smith. What are the implications of her deception? Should she have told Smith the truth earlier? How might it have altered her life with Smith?
10. One of the most wrenching scenes in the book takes place when the druid Fox commands his final sacrifice. What do you think about the choice the community makes to protect Hobble? What does this choice say about their changing attitudes?
11. What compels Devout to return home at the end of the novel? How do you think she will be received by Hobble, Smith, and the community at Black Lake
12. How did Daughter of Black Lake change or inform your perceptions of the Iron Age? In what ways is fiction uniquely suited to helping readers learn about history? What did you get from Daughter of Black Lake that you might not have gotten from a nonfiction book of history?
13. Do you think Daughter of Black Lake is a hopeful book? What does the novel have to say about the profound shifting of the world, and do you see any relevance in its themes to our contemporary society?