Annie Whitehead’s brilliant new historical fiction novel The Sins of the Father releases today, and I am delighted to feature an excerpt. Annie’s writing is immersive, full of fascinating detail and completely unputdownable. Enjoy an excerpt and check out Annie’s release on Amazon US:
Ethelred, a small boy when his father fought his last major battle, has less investment in the feud between the Mercians and the Northumbrians than his elder siblings. Unsure of his place in the world, he sees his warrior brother wearing their father’s mantle and feels cold in that large shadow. Craving peace after the bloodshed he has witnessed during his brother’s recent battle campaign, he sojourns in Wales with his love, Arianwen, and finally plucks up the courage to ask her to accompany him home to Mercia:
Ethelred, Heaferth and Immin spent the evening with the other Mercian men, sitting round a brazier outside, cloaks up to keep off the light rain. Tempers were raised, and it would not have taken much for the Welsh to turn on their guests, so it was better for them to remain in the open. Ethelred was acutely aware that he had kept his men from their families too long while he recovered from his injuries, and the incident in the hall confirmed his decision that it was time to go home.
He was up not long after dawn, noting how long the sun was taking these days to get up into the morning sky. The weather remained calm, holding the woodsmoke hanging in the stillness and, even if it turned, they would make good progress this day and be well on the way before they got caught in any changes.
He loitered near Arianwen’s bower, not wishing to knock in case she was still abed, but as the daylight lifted the dark completely and shortened his shadow, there was still no noise suggesting movement within. He strolled over to the hall, but aside from a few of the Teulu nursing sore heads and picking at chunks of bread, it was empty.
There was no sign of her in the weaving sheds, nor, as far as he could see, was she on the outer edge of the woodland, and those who were watching over the pigs fattening on the acorns had not seen her. She liked to go into the woods and gather mushrooms and hazelnuts, and the morning was crisp and fresh, the ground hard underfoot. She would be tempted, if nothing else, by the chance to kick through the fallen bounty under the trees.
The season had turned sharply during the last week and the woodland floor was covered with red, gold, and brown leaves which emitted a loamy smell as he trod through them, disturbing the residue of moisture trapped there. He blew on his hands and rubbed them, then set off deeper into the woods to find her. If she had not already gathered her belongings together, she would be in a rush to be ready to leave with him and the men.
He got as far as their secret place without catching her up. Lifting up the branch that served as its doorway, he could see at a glance that she was not there, and had not been since they’d last lain there together. Straightening, he let the branch swing down, sidestepped back down to the path and looked around. Where was she?
Ethelred retraced his steps, going more slowly and looking first to one side of the path and then the other, but he heard only the occasional squeak of a shrew and the rustle of other small animals running away from the vibration of his footsteps. Emerging from the treeline, he looked up to see Dyfrig walking towards him.
The two men had hardly exchanged words in the whole time that Ethelred had been Llywarch’s guest. Ethelred wasn’t about to change that now, not on the day he was leaving anyway, but the Welshman clearly had other ideas. He opened his mouth but Ethelred decided to cut him off. “Keep any words you might have. I am on my way to seek out Llywarch, thank him and to take my leave. You will be glad to know that we are leaving this morning.”
He made to walk on, but Dyfrig put a hand on his arm. “A shame you cannot say farewell to Arianwen.”
Ethelred shook off his grip, and made a point of brushing his sleeve as if dirt had been left there. “I have no need to do so. She is coming with me.”
“You think so?”
“Lady Heledd is much stronger now.”
Dyfrig lifted his hand, inspecting that jewelled ring. “Indeed. There is to be a wedding.”
“I am glad. Bleddyn will be a fine husband for her, and I hope that in time they will be blessed with healthy bairns. Arianwen and I will come back for the wedding if we are able.”
Dyfrig lowered his hand, resting it on his belt buckle. “You know, surely, that we four grew up together? What on God’s good green earth makes you think that I speak of Heledd and Bleddyn?”
Ethelred opened his mouth to dismiss the insinuation, then closed it again. She had not answered his question, had not actually said that she wanted to go back to Mercia with him. And what of all those moments when he’d felt there was something she wasn’t telling him, about Dyfrig and his place in her life? Had Ethelred’s heart been like a harp for her, to pull on its strings only when she needed entertainment?
He stood for a moment to steady his breathing and then nodded at Dyfrig. “I wish you well. And now I must find Lord Llywarch and thank him. Let us always hope that we and the Welsh remain friends and never have to meet on the battlefield.” It was a miserable and impotent threat, but it was the best he could manage. He was in too much of a hurry to get back, say his farewells, and be on the road and some miles away before his heart shattered.