Hood (King Raven Trilogy Series #1)by Stephen R. Lawhead
For centuries, the legend of Robin Hood and his band of thieves has captivated the imagination. Now the familiar tale takes on new life, fresh meaning, and an unexpected setting.
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The pig was young and wary, a yearling boar timidly testing the wind for strange scents as it ventured out into the honey-coloured light of a fast-fading day. Bran ap Brychan, Prince of Elfael, had spent the entire day stalking the greenwood for a suitable prize, and he meant to have this one.
Eight years old and the king's sole heir, he knew well enough that he would never be allowed to go out into the forest alone. So rather than seek permission, he had simply taken his bow and four arrows early that morning and stolen from the caer unnoticed. This hunt, like the young boar, was dedicated to his mother, the queen.
She loved the hunt and gloried in the wild beauty and visceral excitement of the chase. Even when she did not ride herself, she would ready a welcome for the hunters with a saddle cup and music, leading the women in song. "Don't be afraid," she told Bran when, as a toddling boy, he had been dazzled and a little frightened by the noise and revelry. "We belong to the land. Look, Bran!" She lifted a slender hand toward the hills and the forest rising like a living rampart beyond. "All that you see is the work of our Lord's hand. We rejoice in his provision."
Stricken with a wasting fever, Queen Rhian had been sick most of the summer, and in his childish imaginings, Bran had determined that if he could present her with a stag or a boar that he had brought down all by himself, she would laugh and sing as she always did, and she would feel better. She would be well again.
All it would take was a little more patience and . . .
Still as stone, he waited in the deepening shadow. The young boar stepped nearer, its small pointed ears erect and proud. It took another step and stopped to sample the tender shoots of a mallow plant. Bran, an arrow already nocked to the string, pressed the bow forward, feeling the tension in his shoulder and back just the way Iwan said he should. "Do not aim the arrow," the older youth had instructed him. "Just think it to the mark. Send it on your thought, and if your thought is true, so, too, will fly the arrow."
Pressing the bow to the limit of his strength, he took a steadying breath and released the string, feeling the sharp tingle on his fingertips. The arrow blazed across the distance, striking the young pig low in the chest behind the front legs. Startled, it flicked its tail rigid, and turned to bolt into the wood . . . but two steps later its legs tangled; it stumbled and went down. The stricken creature squealed once and tried to rise, then subsided, dead where it fell.
Bran loosed a wild whoop of triumph. The prize was his!
He ran to the pig and put his hand on the animal's sleek, slightly speckled haunch, feeling the warmth there. "I am sorry, my friend, and I thank you," he murmured as Iwan had taught him. "I need your life to live."
It was only when he tried to shoulder his kill that Bran realised his great mistake. The dead weight of the animal was more than he could lift by himself. With a sinking heart, he stood gazing at his glorious prize as tears came to his eyes. It was all for nothing if he could not carry the trophy home in triumph.
Sinking down on the ground beside the warm carcass, Bran put his head in his hands. He could not carry it, and he would not leave it. What was he going to do?
As he sat contemplating his predicament, the sounds of the forest grew loud in his ears: the chatter of a squirrel in a treetop, the busy click and hum of insects, the rustle of leaves, the hushed flutter of wings above him, and then . . .
Bran started at the voice. He glanced around hopefully.
"Here!" he called. "Here! I need help!"
"Go back!" The voice seemed to come from above. He raised his eyes to see a huge black bird watching him from a branch directly over his head.
It was only an old raven. "Shoo!"
"Go back!" said the bird. "Go back!"
"I won't," shouted Bran. He reached for a stick on the path, picked it up, drew back, and threw it at the bothersome bird. "Shut up!"
The stick struck the raven's perch, and the bird flew off with a cry that sounded to Bran like laughter. "Ha, ha, haw! Ha, ha, haw!"
"Stupid bird," he muttered. Turning again to the young pig beside him, he remembered what he had seen other hunters do with small game. Releasing the string on his bow, he gathered the creature's short legs and tied the hooves together with the cord. Then, passing the stave through the bound hooves and gripping the stout length of oak in either hand, he tried to lift it. The carcass was still too heavy for him, so he began to drag his prize through the forest, using the bow.
It was slow going, even on the well-worn path, with frequent stops to rub the sweat from his eyes and catch his breath. All the while, the day dwindled around him.
No matter. He would not give up. Clutching the bow stave in his hands, he struggled on, step by step, tugging the young boar along the trail, reaching the edge of the forest as the last gleam of twilight faded across the valley to the west.
The shout made him jump. It was not a raven this time, but a voice he knew. He turned and looked down the slope toward the valley to see Iwan coming toward him, long legs paring the distance with swift strides.
"Here!" Bran called, waving his aching arms overhead. "Here I am!"
"In the name of all the saints and angels," the young man said when he came near enough to speak, "what do you think you are doing out here?"
"Hunting," replied Bran. Indicating his kill with a hunter's pride, he said, "It strayed in front of my arrow, see?"
"I see," replied Iwan. Giving the pig a cursory glance, he turned and started away again. "We have to go. It's late, and everyone is looking for you."
Bran made no move to follow.
Looking back, Iwan said, "Leave it, Bran! They are searching for you. We must hurry."
"No," Bran said. "Not without the boar." He stooped once more to the carcass, seized the bow stave, and started tugging again.
Iwan returned, took him roughly by the arm, and pulled him away. "Leave the stupid thing!"
"It is for my mother!" the boy shouted, the tears starting hot and quick. As the tears began to fall, he bent his head and repeated more softly, "Please, it is for my mother."
"Weeping Judas!" Iwan relented with an exasperated sigh. "Come then. We will carry it together."
Iwan took one end of the bow stave, Bran took the other, and between them they lifted the carcass off the ground. The wood bent but did not break, and they started away again--Bran stumbling ever and again in a forlorn effort to keep pace with his long-legged friend.
Night was upon them, the caer but a brooding black eminence on its mound in the centre of the valley, when a party of mounted searchers appeared. "He was hunting," Iwan informed them. "A hunter does not leave his prize."
The riders accepted this, and the young boar was quickly secured behind the saddle of one of the horses; Bran and Iwan were taken up behind other riders, and the party rode for the caer. The moment they arrived, Bran slid from the horse and ran to his mother's chamber behind the hall. "Hurry," he called. "Bring the boar!"
Queen Rhian's chamber was lit with candles, and two women stood over her bed when Bran burst in. He ran to her bedside and knelt down. "Mam! See what I brought you!"
She opened her eyes, and recognition came to her. "There you are, my dearling. They said they could not find you."
"I went hunting," he announced. "For you."
"For me," she whispered. "A fine thing, that. What did you find?"
"Look!" he said proudly as Iwan strode into the room with the pig slung over his shoulders.
"Oh, Bran," she said, the ghost of a smile touching her dry lips. "Kiss me, my brave hunter."
He bent his face to hers and felt the heat of her dry lips on his. "Go now. I will sleep a little," she told him, "and I will dream of your triumph."
She closed her eyes then, and Bran was led from the room. But she had smiled, and that was worth all the world to him.
Queen Rhian did not waken in the morning. By the next evening she was dead, and Bran never saw his mother smile again. And although he continued to hone his skill with the bow, he lost all interest in the hunt.
Bran!" The shout rattled through the stone-flagged yard. "Bran! Get your sorry tail out here! We're leaving!"
Red-faced with exasperation, King Brychan ap Tewdwr climbed stiffly into the saddle, narrowed eyes scanning the ranks of mounted men awaiting his command. His feckless son was not amongst them. Turning to the warrior on the horse beside him, he demanded, "Iwan, where is that boy?"
"I have not seen him, lord," replied the king's champion. "Neither this morning nor at the table last night."
"Curse his impudence!" growled the king, snatching the reins from the hand of his groom. "The one time I need him beside me and he flits off to bed that slut of his. I will not suffer this insolence, and I will not wait."
"If it please you, lord, I will send one of the men to fetch him."
"No! It does not bloody please me!" roared Brychan. "He can stay behind, and the devil take him!"
Turning in the saddle, he called for the gate to be opened. The heavy timber doors of the fortress groaned and swung wide. Raising his hand, he gave the signal.
"Ride out!" Iwan cried, his voice loud in the early morning calm.
King Brychan, Lord of Elfael, departed with the thirty-five Cymry of his mounted warband at his back. The warriors, riding in twos and threes, descended the rounded slope of the hill and fanned out across the shallow, cup-shaped valley, fording the stream that cut across the meadow and following the cattle trail as it rose to meet the dark, bristling rampart of the forest known to the folk of the valley as Coed Cadw, the Guarding Wood.
At the edge of the forest, Brychan and his escort joined the road. Ancient, deep-rutted, overgrown, and sunken low between its high earthen banks, the bare dirt track bent its way south and east over the rough hills and through the broad expanse of dense primeval forest until descending into the broad Wye Vale, where it ran along the wide, green waters of the easy-flowing river. Farther on, the road passed through the two principal towns of the region: Hereford, an English market town, and Caer Gloiu, the ancient Roman settlement in the wide, marshy lowland estuary of Mor Hafren. In four days, this same road would bring them to Lundein, where the Lord of Elfael would face the most difficult trial of his long and arduous reign.
"There was a time," Brychan observed bitterly, "when the last warrior to reach the meeting place was put to death by his comrades as punishment for his lack of zeal. It was deemed the first fatality of the battle."
"Allow me to fetch the prince for you," Iwan offered. "He could catch up before the day is out."
"I will not hear it." Brychan dismissed the suggestion with a sharp chop of his hand. "We've wasted too much breath on that worthless whelp. I will deal with him when we return," he said, adding under his breath, "and he will wish to heaven he had never been born."
With an effort, the aging king pushed all thoughts of his profligate son aside and settled into a sullen silence that lasted well into the day. Upon reaching the Vale of Wye, the travellers descended the broad slope into the valley and proceeded along the river. The road was good here, and the water wide, slow flowing, and shallow. Around midday, they stopped on the moss-grown banks to water the horses and take some food for themselves before moving on.
Iwan had given the signal to remount, and they were just pulling the heads of the horses away from the water when a jingling clop was heard on the road. A moment later four riders appeared, coming into view around the base of a high-sided bluff.
One look at the long, pallid faces beneath their burnished warcaps, and the king's stomach tightened. "Ffreinc!" grumbled Brychan, putting his hand to his sword. They were Norman marchogi, and the British king and his subjects despised them utterly.
"To arms, men," called Iwan. "Be on your guard."
Upon seeing the British warband, the Norman riders halted in the road. They wore conical helmets and, despite the heat of the day, heavy mail shirts over padded leather jerkins that reached down below their knees. Their shins were covered with polished steel greaves, and leather gauntlets protected their hands, wrists, and forearms. Each carried a sword on his hip and a short spear tucked into a saddle pouch. A narrow shield shaped like an elongated raindrop, painted blue, was slung upon each of their backs.
"Mount up!" Iwan commanded, swinging into the saddle.
Brychan, at the head of his troops, called a greeting in his own tongue, twisting his lips into an unaccustomed smile of welcome. When his greeting was not returned, he tried English--the hated but necessary language used when dealing with the backward folk of the southlands. One of the riders seemed to understand. He made a curt reply in French and then turned and spurred his horse back the way he had come; his three companions remained in place, regarding the British warriors with wary contempt.
Seeing his grudging attempt at welcome rebuffed, Lord Brychan raised his reins and urged his mount forward. "Ride on, men," he ordered, "and keep your eyes on the filthy devils."
At the British approach, the three knights closed ranks, blocking the road. Unwilling to suffer an insult, however slight, Brychan commanded them to move aside. The Norman knights made no reply but remained planted firmly in the centre of the road.
Brychan was on the point of ordering his warband to draw their swords and ride over the arrogant fools when Iwan spoke up, saying, "My lord, our business in Lundein will put an end to this unseemly harassment. Let us endure this last slight with good grace and heap shame on the heads of these cowardly swine."
"You would surrender the road to them?"
"I would, my lord," replied the champion evenly. "We do not want the report of a fight to mar our petition in Lundein."
Brychan stared dark thunder at the Ffreinc soldiers.
"My lord?" said Iwan. "I think it is best."
"Oh, very well," huffed the king at last. Turning to the warriors behind him, he called, "To keep the peace, we will go around."
As the Britons prepared to yield the road, the first Norman rider returned, and with him another man on a pale grey mount with a high leather saddle. This one wore a blue cloak fastened at the throat with a large silver brooch. "You there!" he called in English. "What are you doing?"
Brychan halted and turned in the saddle. "Do you speak to me?"
"I do speak to you," the man insisted. "Who are you, and where are you going?"
"The man you address is Rhi Brychan, Lord and King of Elfael," replied Iwan, speaking up quickly. "We are about business of our own which takes us to Lundein. We seek no quarrel and would pass by in peace."
"Elfael?" wondered the man in the blue cloak. Unlike the others, he carried no weapons, and his gauntlets were white leather. "You are British."
"That we are," replied Iwan.
"What is your business in Lundein?"
"It is our affair alone," replied Brychan irritably. "We ask only to journey on without dispute."
"Stay where you are," replied the blue-cloaked man. "I will summon my lord and seek his disposition in the matter."
The man put spurs to his mount and disappeared around the bend in the road. The Britons waited, growing irritated and uneasy in the hot sun.
The blue-cloaked man reappeared some moments later, and with him was another, also wearing blue, but with a spotless white linen shirt and trousers of fine velvet. Younger than the others, he wore his fair hair long to his shoulders, like a woman's; with his sparse, pale beard curling along the soft line of his jaw, he appeared little more than a youngster preening in his father's clothes. Like the others with him, he carried a shield on his shoulder and a long sword on his hip. His horse was black, and it was larger than any plough horse Brychan had ever seen.
"You claim to be Rhi Brychan, Lord of Elfael?" the newcomer asked in a voice so thickly accented the Britons could barely make out what he said.
"I make no claim, sir," replied Brychan with terse courtesy, the English thick on his tongue. "It is a very fact."
"Why do you ride to Lundein with your warband?" inquired the pasty-faced youth. "Can it be that you intend to make war on King William?"
"On no account, sir," replied Iwan, answering to spare his lord the indignity of this rude interrogation. "We go to swear fealty to the king of the Ffreinc."
At this, the two blue-cloaked figures leaned near and put their heads together in consultation. "It is too late. William will not see you."
"Who are you to speak for the king?" demanded Iwan.
"I say again, this affair does not concern you," added Brychan.
"You are wrong. It has become my concern," replied the young man in blue. "I am Count Falkes de Braose, and I have been given the commot of Elfael." He thrust his hand into his shirt and brought out a square of parchment. "This I have received in grant from the hand of King William himself."
"Liar!" roared Brychan, drawing his sword. All thirty-five of his warband likewise unsheathed their blades.
"You have a choice," the Norman lord informed them imperiously. "Give over your weapons and swear fealty to me . . ."
"Or?" sneered Brychan, glaring contempt at the five Ffreinc warriors before him.
"Or die like the very dogs you are," replied the young man simply.
"Hie! Up!" shouted the British king, slapping the rump of his horse with the flat of his sword. The horse bolted forward. "Take them!"
Iwan lofted his sword and circled it twice around his head to signal the warriors, and the entire warband spurred their horses to attack. The Normans held their ground for two or three heartbeats and then turned as one and fled back along the road, disappearing around the bend at the base of the bluff.
King Brychan was first to reach the place. He rounded the bend at a gallop, flying headlong into an armed warhost of more than three hundred Norman marchogi, both footmen and knights, waiting with weapons at the ready.
Throwing the reins to the side, the king wheeled his mount and headed for the riverbank. "Ambush! Ambush!" he cried to those thundering up behind him. "It's a trap!"
The oncoming Cymry, seeing their king flee for the water with a score of marchogi behind him, raced to cut them off. They reached the enemy flank and careered into it at full gallop, spears couched.
Horses reared and plunged as they went over; riders fell and were trampled. The British charge punched a hole in the Norman flank and carried them deep into the ranks. Using spears and swords, they proceeded to cut a swathe through the dense thicket of enemy troops.
Iwan, leading the charge, sliced the air with his spear, thrusting again and again, carving a crimson pathway through horseflesh and manflesh alike. With deadly efficiency, he took the fight to the better-armed and better-protected marchogi and soon outdistanced his own comrades.
Twisting in the saddle, he saw that the attack had bogged down behind him. The Norman knights, having absorbed the initial shock of the charge, were now surrounding the smaller Cymry force. It was time to break off lest the warband become engulfed.
With a flick of the reins, Iwan started back over the bodies of those he had cut down. He had almost reached the main force of struggling Cymry when two massive Norman knights astride huge destriers closed the path before him. Swords raised, they swooped down on him.
Iwan thrust his spear at the one on the right, only to have the shaft splintered by the one on the left. Throwing the ragged end into the Norman's face, he drew his sword and, pulling back hard on the reins, turned his mount and slipped aside as the two closed within striking distance. One of the knights lunged at him, swinging wildly. Iwan felt the blade tip rake his upper back, then he was away.
King Brychan, meanwhile, reached the river and turned to face his attackers--four marchogi coming in hard behind levelled spears. Lashing out with his sword, Brychan struck at the first rider, catching him a rattling blow along the top of the shield. He then swung on the second, slashing at the man's exposed leg. The warrior gave out a yelp and threw his shield into Brychan's face. The king smashed it aside with the pommel of his sword. The shield swung away and down, revealing the point of a spear.
Brychan heaved himself back to avoid the thrust, but the spear caught him in the lower gut, just below his wide belt. The blade burned as it pierced his body. He loosed a savage roar and hacked wildly with his sword. The shaft of the spear sheared away, taking a few of the soldier's fingers with it.
Raising his blade again, the king turned to meet the next attacker . . . but too late. Even as his elbow swung up, an enemy blade thrust in. He felt a cold sting, and pain rippled up his arm. His hand lost its grip. The sword spun from his fingers as he swayed in the saddle, recoiling from the blow.
Iwan, fighting free of the clash, raced to his lord's aid. He saw the king's blade fall to the water as Brychan reeled and then slumped. The champion slashed the arm of one attacker and opened the side of another as he sped by. Then his way was blocked by a sudden swirl of Norman attackers. Hacking with wild and determined energy, he tried to force his way through by dint of strength alone, but the enemy riders closed ranks against him.
His sword became a gleaming flash around him as he struck out again and again. He dropped one knight, whose misjudged thrust went wide, and wounded another, who desperately reined his horse away and out of range of the champion's lethal blade.
As he turned to take the third attacker, Iwan glimpsed his king struggling to keep his saddle. He saw Brychan lurch forward and topple from his horse into the water.
The king struggled to his knees and beheld his champion fighting to reach him a short distance away. "Ride!" he shouted. "Flee! You must warn the people!"
Rhi Brychan made one last attempt to rise, got his feet under him and took an unsteady step, then collapsed. The last thing Iwan saw was the body of his king floating facedown in the turgid, bloodstained waters of the Wye.
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