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KING RAVENThe Complete Trilogy: Hood, Scarlet, and Tuck
By STEPHEN R. LAWHEAD
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Stephen R. Lawhead
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBran!" 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 war-caps, 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.
Chapter TwoA kiss before I go," Bran murmured, taking a handful of thick dark hair and pressing a curled lock to his lips. "Just one."
"No!" replied Mérian, pushing him away. "Away with you."
"A kiss first," he insisted, inhaling the rosewater fragrance of her hair and skin.
"If my father finds you here, he will flay us both," she said, still resisting. "Go now—before someone sees you."
"A kiss only, I swear," Bran whispered, sliding close.
She regarded the young man beside her doubtfully. Certainly, there was not another in all the valleys like him. In looks, grace, and raw seductive appeal, he knew no equal. With his black hair, high handsome brow, and a ready smile that was, as always, a little lopsided and deceptively shy—the mere sight of Bran ap Brychan caused female hearts young and old to flutter when he passed.
Add to this a supple wit and a free-ranging, unfettered charm, and the Prince of Elfael was easily the most ardently discussed bachelor amongst the marriageable young women of the region. The fact that he also stood next in line to the kingship was not lost on any of them. More than one lovesick young lady sighed herself to sleep at night in the fervent hope of winning Bran ap Brychan's heart for her own—causing more than one determined father to vow to nail that wastrel's head to the nearest doorpost if he ever caught him within a Roman mile of his virgin daughter's bed.
Yet and yet, there was a flightiness to his winsome ways, a fickle inconstancy to even his most solemn affirmations, a lack of fidelity in his ardour. He possessed a waggish capriciousness that most often showed itself in a sly refusal to take seriously the genuine concerns of life. Bran flitted from one thing to the next as the whim took him, never remaining long enough to reap the all-too-inevitable consequences of his flings and frolics.
Excerpted from KING RAVEN by STEPHEN R. LAWHEAD Copyright © 2009 by Stephen R. Lawhead. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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