Presents a reimagining of the tale of Robin Hood in which the son of a king, Bran ap Brychan, flees the kingdom of Elfael after his father is killed and leads a band of thieves as they try to battle the Normans and take back the kingdom.
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Stephen R. Lawhead is an internationally acclaimed author of mythic history and imaginative fiction. His novels include Hood, Book One in the King Raven Trilogy, Patrick, The Song of Albion trilogy, the
Dragon King trilogy and The Pendragon Cycle series. Lawhead makes his home in Oxford, England, with his wife.
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 r...
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