What is the Blood Price?

Paul Bernardi

The novelist's latest is a departure from the Norman invasion, but what's the story behind it?
Knut the Great
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What’s Blood Price about?

In short, it’s your classic murder mystery story. The sort of tale that is as old as the hills. The difference with this one is that it’s set in the pre-conquest England of King Knut – sometime around the 1020s. The story centres on a young boy – Ulf – the eldest son of Bjarke, Earl of East Anglia and the second most powerful man in the land after Knut. As Bjarke’s heir, Ulf is in line to inherit his father’s lands and titles when the time comes.

So, when Ulf dies suddenly from a terrible illness, there are those in the village of Hoctune who suspect foul play on the part of Ulf’s stepmother, Thorgunnr. With Ulf out of the way, her own son, Erik, now stands to succeed his father. But who would dare challenge the earl’s wife? And can they prove Thorgunnr’s guilt before her henchmen manage to silence them?

Step forward Freya and her husband, Sihtric. Now in their late forties, the couple were never blessed with children of their own. And, with Bjarke often away on royal business, Sihtric has been something of an uncle to Ulf, spending long hours training him in the use of sword and shield. For Sihtric is a former warrior, a veteran of many battles and one of Bjarke’s closest companions. Along with Freya, they have come to love Ulf as much as if he were their own child. They will not allow his death to go unavenged.

Where did you get the inspiration for this novel?

Dog walking. I do most of best thinking and happen upon some of my best ideas when walking the dog. And she seems quite happy to indulge me too.

On this occasion, I was listening to the British History Podcast (well recommended) and specifically an episode dealing with political machinations during the early reign of Knut. Right in the middle of the episode, the host narrated a tale he’d found in the pages of the Chronicle of Ramsey Abbey concerning a woman who’d been accused of murdering her stepson so that her own son could inherit her husband’s wealth.

Well, I was hooked. I remember thinking that at the core of this tale was the makings of a great novel. To Pepper’s consternation, her walk was cut short so I could rush home to start making notes. I still feel a little guilty about that. Still, I made it up to her by including her in the story as Sihtric’s dog. Though the only similarities she has with Acwel (whose name translates as Killer) are that she is fond of stretching out in front of a fire and has never once caught a squirrel.

Was the title always going to be Blood Price?

In a word, no. Titles have never been my strong suit. After much deliberation, I had settled on Bjarke’s Beard (do you see what I mean?). I’d chosen this because, during the stepmother’s trial – as described in the Chronicle – her husband swore on his beard that she was innocent. And that was a big deal in those days, let me tell you. Never shy of glorifying God, the monks went on to say that, as he made the oath, he grabbed a great handful of his beard and gave it a tug to emphasise his point. Yes; you’ve guessed it… his beard fell out. Classic stuff.

Luckily the good people at Sharpe Books took me under their wing and came up with this far better title. I think it works really well; not least because it was a tradition in Anglo-Saxon times for a miscreant to have to pay a blood price (a wergild – or, literally, man price) to the family of anyone they had killed or otherwise seriously injured. It was an ingenious way of preventing murderous feuds developing between families, which could potentially wipe out generations of menfolk whom kings and lords would much rather have fighting in their shieldwalls.

Freya and Sihtric’s must therefore exact the blood price for Ulf – or die trying.

Paul Bernardi is the author of the Huscarl Chronicles. Blood Price is his latest.