King Raven: Book 3
By STEPHEN R. LAWHEAD
Copyright © 2009 Stephen R. Lawhead
All right reserved.
Tuck shook the dust of Caer Wintan off his feet and prepared for the long walk back to the forest. It was a fine, warm day, and all too soon the friar was sweltering in his heavy robe. He paused now and then to wipe the sweat from his face, falling farther and farther behind his travelling companions. "These legs of mine are sturdy stumps," he sighed to himself, "but fast they en't."
He had just stopped to catch his breath a little when, on sudden impulse, he spun around quickly and caught a glimpse of movement on the road behind—a blur in the shimmering distance, and then gone. So quick he might have imagined it. Only it was not the first time since leaving the Royal Lodge that Tuck had entertained the queer feeling that someone or something was following them. He had it again now, and decided to alert the others and let them make of it what they would.
Squinting into the distance, he saw Bran far ahead of the Grellon, striding steadily, shoulders hunched against the sun and the gross injustice so lately suffered at the hands of the king in whom he had trusted. The main body of travellers, unable to keep up with their lord, was becoming an ever-lengthening line as heat and distance mounted. They trudged along in small clumps of two or three, heads down, talking in low, sombre voices. How like sheep, thought Tuck, following their impetuous and headstrong shepherd.
A more melancholy man might himself have succumbed to the oppressive gloom hanging low over the Cymry, dragging at their feet, pressing their spirits low. Though summer still blazed in meadow, field, and flower, it seemed to Tuck that they all walked in winter's drear and dismal shadows. Rhi Bran and his Grellon had marched into Caer Wintan full of hope—they had come singing, had they not?—eager to stand before King William to receive the judgement and reward that had been promised in Rouen all those months ago. Now, here they were, slinking back to the greenwood in doleful silence, mourning the bright hope that had been crushed and lost.
No, not lost. They would never let it out of their grasp, not for an instant. It had been stolen—snatched away by the same hand that had offered it in the first place: the grasping, deceitful hand of a most perfidious king.
Tuck felt no less wounded than the next man, but when he considered how Bran and the others had risked their lives to bring Red William word of the conspiracy against him, it fair made his priestly blood boil. The king had promised justice. The Grellon had every right to expect that Elfael's lawful king would be restored. Instead, William had merely banished Baron de Braose and his milksop nephew Count Falkes, sending them back to France to live in luxury on the baron's extensive estates. Elfael, that small bone of contention, had instead become property of the crown and placed under the protection of Abbot Hugo and Sheriff de Glanville. Well, that was putting wolves in charge of the fold, was it not?
Where was the justice? A throne for a throne, Bran had declared that day in Rouen. William's had been saved—at considerable cost and risk to the Cymry—but where was Bran's throne?
S'truth, thought Tuck, wait upon a Norman to do the right thing and you'll be waiting until your hair grows white and your teeth fall out.
"How long, O Lord? How long must your servants suffer?" he muttered. "And, Lord, does it have to be so blasted hot?"
He paused to wipe the sweat from his face. Running a hand over his round Saxon head, he felt the sun's fiery heat on the bare spot of his tonsure; sweat ran in rivulets down the sides of his neck and dripped from his jowls. Drawing a deep breath, he tightened his belt, hitched up the skirts of his robe, and started off again with quickened steps. Soon his shoes were slapping up the dust around his ankles, and he began to overtake the rearmost members of the group: thirty souls in all, women and children included, for Bran had determined that his entire forest clan—save for those left behind to guard the settlement and a few others for whom the long journey on foot would have been far too arduous—should be seen by the king to share in the glad day.
The friar picked up his pace and soon drew even with Siarles: slim as a willow wand, but hard and knotty as an old hickory root. The forester walked with his eyes downcast, chin outthrust, his mouth a tight, grim line. Every line of him bristled with fury like a riled porcupine. Tuck knew to leave well enough alone and hurried on without speaking.
Next, he passed Will Scatlocke—or Scarlet, as he preferred. The craggy forester limped along slightly as he carried his newly acquired daughter, Nia. Against every expectation, Will had endured a spear wound, the abbot's prison, and the threat of the sheriff 's rope ... and survived. His pretty dark-eyed wife, Noín, walked resolutely beside him. The pair had made a good match, and it tore at his heart that the newly married couple should have to endure a dark hovel in the forest when the entire realm begged for just such a family to settle and sink solid roots deep into the land—another small outrage to be added to the ever-growing mountain of injustices weighing on Elfael.
A few more steps brought him up even with Odo, the Norman monk who had befriended Will Scarlet in prison. At Scarlet's bidding, the young scribe had abandoned Abbot Hugo to join them. Odo walked with his head down, his whole body drooping—whether with heat or the awful realization of what he had done, Tuck could not tell.
A few steps more and he came up even with Iwan—the great, hulking warrior would crawl on hands and knees through fire for his lord. It was from Iwan that the friar had received his current christening when the effort of wrapping his untrained tongue around the simple Saxon name Aethelfrith proved beyond him. "Fat little bag of vittles that he is, I will call him Tuck," the champion had said. "Friar Tuck to you, boyo," the priest had responded, and the name had stuck. God bless you, Little John, thought Tuck, and keep your arm strong, and your heart stronger.
Next to Iwan strode Mérian, just as fierce in her devotion to Bran as the champion beside her. Oh, but shrewd with it; she was smarter than the others and more cunning—which always came as something of a shock to anyone who did not know better, because one rarely expected it from a lady so fair of face and form. But the impression of innocence beguiled. In the time Tuck had come to know her, she had shown herself to be every inch as canny and capable as any monarch who ever claimed an English crown.
Mérian held lightly to the bridle strap of the horse that carried their wise hudolion, who was, so far as Tuck could tell, surely the last Banfáith of Britain: Angharad, ancient and ageless. There was no telling how old she was, yet despite her age, whatever it might be, she sat her saddle smartly and with the ease of a practiced rider. Her quick dark eyes were trained on the road ahead, but Tuck could tell that her sight was turned inward, her mind wrapped in a veil of deepest thought. Her wrinkled face might have been carved of dark Welsh slate for all it revealed of her contemplations.
Mérian glanced around as the priest passed, and called out, but the friar had Bran in his eye, and he hurried on until he was within hailing distance. "My lord, wait!" he shouted. "I must speak to you!" Bran gave no sign that he had heard. He strode on, eyes fixed on the road and distance ahead.
"For the love of Jesu, Bran. Wait for me!"
Bran took two more steps and then halted abruptly. He straightened and turned, his face a smouldering scowl, dark eyes darker still under lowered brows. His shock of black hair seemed to rise in feathered spikes.
"Thank the Good Lord," gasped the friar, scrambling up the dry, rutted track. "I thought I'd never catch you. We ... there is something ..." He gulped down air, wiped his face, and shook the sweat from his hand into the dust of the road.
"Well?" demanded Bran impatiently.
"I think we must get off this road," Tuck said, dabbing at his face with the sleeve of his robe. "Truly, as I think on it now, I like not the look that Abbot Hugo gave me when we left the king's yard. I fear he may try something nasty."
Bran lifted his chin. The jagged scar on his cheek, livid now, twisted his lip into a sneer. "Within sight of the king's house?" he scoffed, his voice tight. "He wouldn't dare."
"Would he not?"
"Dare what?" said Iwan, striding up. Siarles came toiling along in the big man's wake.
"Our friar here," replied Bran, "thinks we should abandon the road. He thinks Abbot Hugo is bent on making trouble."
Iwan glanced back the way they had come. "Oh, aye," agreed Iwan, "that would be his way." To Tuck, he said, "Have you seen anything?"
"What's this then?" inquired Siarles as he joined the group. "Why have you stopped?"
"Tuck thinks the abbot is on our tail," Iwan explained.
"I maybe saw something back there, and not for the first time," Tuck explained. "I don't say it for a certainty, but I think someone is following us."
"It makes sense." Siarles looked to the frowning Bran. "What do you reckon?"
"I reckon I am surrounded by a covey of quail frightened of their own shadows," Bran replied. "We move on."
He turned to go, but Iwan spoke up. "My lord, look around you. There is little enough cover hereabouts. If we were to be taken by surprise, the slaughter would be over before we could put shaft to string."
Mérian joined them then, having heard a little of what had passed. "The little ones are growing weary," she pointed out. "They cannot continue on this way much longer without rest and water. We will have to stop soon in any event. Why not do as Tuck suggests and leave the road now—just to be safe?"
"So be it," Bran said, relenting at last. He glanced around and then pointed to a grove of oak and beech rising atop the next hill up the road. "We will make for that wood. Iwan—you and Siarles pass the word along, then take up the rear guard." He turned to Tuck and said, "You and Mérian stay here and keep everyone moving. Tell them they can rest as soon as they reach the grove, but not before."
He turned on his heel and started off again. Iwan stood looking after his lord and friend. "It's the vile king's treachery," he observed. "That's put the black dog on his back, no mistake."
Siarles, as always, took a different tone. "That's as may be, but there's no need to bite off our heads. We en't the ones who cheated him out of his throne." He paused and spat. "Stupid bloody king."
"And stupid bloody cardinal, all high and mighty," continued Iwan. "Priest of the church, my arse. Give me a good sharp blade and I'd soon have him saying prayers he never said before." He cast a hasty glance at Tuck. "Sorry, Friar."
"I'd do the same," Tuck said. "Now, off you go. If I am right, we must get these people to safety, and that fast."
The two ran back down the line, urging everyone to make haste for the wood on the next hill. "Follow Bran!" they shouted. "Pick up your feet. We are in danger here. Hurry!"
"There is safety in the wood," Mérian assured them as they passed, and Tuck did likewise. "Follow Bran. He'll lead you to shelter."
It took a little time for the urgency of their cries to sink in, but soon the forest-dwellers were moving at a quicker pace up to the wood at the top of the next rise. The first to arrive found Bran waiting at the edge of the grove beneath a large oak tree, his strung bow across his shoulder.
"Keep moving," he told them. "You'll find a hollow just beyond that fallen tree." He pointed through the wood. "Hide yourselves and wait for the others there."
The first travellers had reached the shelter of the trees, and Tuck was urging another group to speed and showing them where to go when he heard someone shouting up from the valley. He could not make out the words, but as he gazed around the sound came again and he saw Iwan furiously gesturing towards the far hilltop. He looked where the big man was pointing and saw two mounted knights poised on the crest of the hill.
The soldiers were watching the fleeing procession and, for the moment, seemed content to observe. Then one of the knights wheeled his mount and disappeared back down the far side of the hill.
Bran had seen it too, and began shouting. "Run!" he cried, racing down the road. "To the grove!" he told Mérian and Tuck. "The Ffreinc are going to attack!"
He flew to meet Iwan and Siarles at the bottom of the hill.
"I'd best go see if I can help," Tuck said, and leaving Mérian to hurry the people along, he fell into step behind Bran.
"Just the two of them?" Bran asked as he came running to meet Siarles and Iwan.
"So far," replied the champion. "No doubt the one's gone to alert the rest. Siarles and I will take a stand here," he said, bending the long ashwood bow to string it. "That will give you and Tuck time to get the rest of the folk safely hidden in the woods."
Bran shook his head. "It may come to that one day, but not today." His tone allowed no dissent. "We have a little time yet. Get everyone into the wood—carry them if you have to. We'll dig ourselves into the grove and make Gysburne and his hounds come in after us."
"I make it six bows against thirty knights," Siarles pointed out. "Good odds, that."
Bran gave a quick jerk of his chin. "Good as any," he agreed. "Fetch along the stragglers and follow me."
Iwan and Siarles darted away and were soon rushing the last of the lagging Grellon up the hill to the grove. "What do you want me to do?" Tuck shouted.
"Pray," answered Bran, pulling an arrow from the sheaf at his belt and fitting it to the string. "Pray God our aim is true and each arrow finds its mark."
Bran moved off, calling for the straggling Grellon to find shelter in the wood. Tuck watched him go. Pray? he thought. Aye, to be sure—the Good Lord will hear from me. But I will do more, will I not? Then he scuttled up the hill and into the wood in search of a good stout stick to break some heads.
Swift and furtive as wild things, the women and children disappeared into the deep-shadowed grove. Bran called all the men together at the edge of the wood. "We have six bows," he said. "Iwan, Siarles, Tomas, Rhoddi ..." He paused, eyeing the men gathered around him, assessing their abilities. His gaze lit on one of the eager young men who had joined the Grellon following the loss of his family's home to the Ffreinc. "You, Owain, will join me. I want a guard with each bowman to watch his back and retrieve any arrows that fall within easy reach. So now, archers and guards come with me. The rest of you go with Tuck and help protect the others."
"We want to fight too," said one of the men, speaking up.
"If any of the Ffreinc get in behind us," Bran told him, "you'll have your hands full right enough. Tuck will tell you what to do."
As Bran turned to lead his small group of archers to their places at the edge of the grove, a hand reached out and halted him. "Lend me a bow. I can draw."
Bran turned and shook his head. "I know, Will—when you're healed and practiced."
"Even crippled as I am I'd wager I can still draw better than anyone here—saving only yourself, my lord."
"No doubt," Bran allowed, placing a hand on the man's shoulder. "But let be today, Will." Bran's eyes slid past Will to Noín and Nia, and the young, round-shouldered, whey-faced Ffreinc monk hovering a few steps away. "Look after your family and your friend here—and take care of Angharad. See that none of them come to harm. That will be help enough."
Bran hurried away to join the archers, and Will turned to the worried young monk behind him. "Come along, Odo," he said. "Follow Noín and help her see to the old woman and her horse, and look sharp, unless you want Abbot Hugo to get his hands on you again."
They hurried to join the others in the hollow, and Tuck gathered the rest. "This way!" he called, and led his crew of seven unarmed warriors to a small glade midway between the archers and the hollow where the rest of the Grellon had found their hiding places. "We will stand here," he told them. Then, raising his stubby oak branch lengthwise, he held it high, saying, "Get one of these to hand quick as you can, and hurry back. We'll make ourselves scarce behind the trees there, and there"—he pointed out the nearby boles of massive oaks—"and over there. If any Ffreinc get past Bran and the others we'll do for 'em."
Excerpted from Tuck 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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