It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Thomas Nelson (February 17, 2009)
Stephen R. Lawhead is an internationally acclaimed author of mythic history and imaginative fiction. His works include Byzantium, Patrick, and the series The Pendragon Cycle, The Celtic Crusades, and The Song of Albion.
Stephen was born in 1950, in Nebraska in the USA. Most of his early life was spent in America where he earned a university degree in Fine Arts and attended theological college for two years. His first professional writing was done at Campus Life magazine in Chicago, where he was an editor and staff writer. During his five years at Campus Life he wrote hundreds of articles and several non-fiction books.
After a brief foray into the music business—as president of his own record company—he began full-time freelance writing in 1981. He moved to England in order to research Celtic legend and history. His first novel, In the Hall of the Dragon King, became the first in a series of three books (The Dragon King Trilogy) and was followed by the two-volume Empyrion saga, Dream Thief and then the Pendragon Cycle, now in five volumes: Taliesin, Merlin, Arthur, Pendragon, and Grail. This was followed by the award-winning Song of Albion series which consists of The Paradise War, The Silver Hand, and The Endless Knot.
He has written nine children’s books, many of them originally offered to his two sons, Drake and Ross. He is married to Alice Slaikeu Lawhead, also a writer, with whom he has collaborated on some books and articles. They make their home in Oxford, England.
Stephen’s non-fiction, fiction and children’s titles have been published in twenty-one foreign languages. All of his novels have remained continuously in print in the United States and Britain since they were first published. He has won numereous industry awards for his novels and children’s books, and in 2003 was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by the University of Nebraska.
Visit the author’s website.
List Price: $26.99
Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (February 17, 2009)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Saint Swithun’s Day
King William stood scratching the back of his hand and watched as another bag of gold was emptied into the ironclad chest: one hundred solid gold byzants that, added to fifty pounds in silver and another fifty in letters of promise to be paid upon collection of his tribute from Normandie, brought the total to five hundred marks. “More money than God,” muttered William under his breath. “What do they do with it all?”
“Sire?” asked one of the clerks of the justiciar’s office, glancing up from the wax tablet on which he kept a running tally.
“Nothing,” grumbled the king. Parting with money always made him itch, and this time there was no relief. In vain, he scratched the other hand. “Are we finished here?”
Having counted the money, the clerks began locking and sealing the strongbox. The king shook his head at the sight of all that gold and silver disappearing from sight. These blasted monks will bleed me dry, he thought. A kingdom was a voracious beast that devoured money and was never, ever satisfied. It took money for soldiers, money for horses and weapons, money for fortresses, money for supplies to feed the troops, and as now, even more money to wipe away the sins of war. The gold and silver in the chest was for the abbey at Wintan Cestre to pay the monks so that his father would not have to spend eternity in purgatory or, worse, frying in hell.
“All is in order, Majesty,” said the clerk. “Shall we proceed?”
William gave a curt nod.
Two knights of the king’s bodyguard stepped forward, took up the box, and carried it from the room and out into the yard where the monks of Saint Swithun’s were already gathered and waiting for the ceremony to begin. The king, a most reluctant participant, followed.
In the yard of the Red Palace—the name given to the king’s sprawling lodge outside the city walls—a silken canopy on silver poles had been erected. Beneath the canopy stood Bishop Walkelin with his hands pressed together in an attitude of patient prayer. Behind the bishop stood a monk bearing the gilded cross of their namesake saint, while all around them knelt monks and acolytes chanting psalms and hymns. The king and his attendants—his two favourite earls, a canon, and a bevy of assorted clerks, scribes, courtiers, and officials both sacred and secular—marched out to meet the bishop. The company paused while the king’s chair was brought and set up beneath the canopy where Bishop Walkelin knelt.
“In the Holy Name,” intoned the bishop when William Rufus had taken his place in the chair, “all blessing and honour be upon you and upon your house and upon your descendants and upon the people of your realm.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” said William irritably. “Get on with it.”
“God save you, Sire,” replied Walkelin. “On this Holy Day we have come to receive the Beneficium Ecclesiasticus Sanctus Swithinius as is our right under the Grant of Privilege created and bestowed by your father King William, for the establishment and maintenance of an office of penitence, perpetual prayer, and the pardon of sins.”
“So you say,” remarked the king.
Bishop Walkelin bowed again, and summoned two of his monks to receive the heavy strongbox from the king’s men in what had become an annual event of increasing ceremony in honour of Saint Swithun, on whose day the monks determined to suck the lifeblood from the crown, and William Rufus resented it. But what could he do? The payment was for the prayers of the monks for the remission of sins on the part of William Conqueror, prayers which brought about the much-needed cleansing of his besmirched soul. For each and every man that William had killed in battle, the king could expect to spend a specified amount of time in purgatory: eleven years for a lord or knight, seven years for a man-at-arms, five for a commoner, and one for a serf. By means of some obscure and complicated formula William had never understood, the monks determined a monetary amount which somehow accorded to the number of days a monk spent on his knees praying. As William had been a very great war leader, his purgatorial obligation amounted to well over a thousand years—and that was only counting the fatalities of the landed nobility. No one knew the number of commoners and serfs he had killed, either directly or indirectly, in his lifetime—but the number was thought to be quite high. Still, a wealthy king with dutiful heirs need not actually spend so much time in purgatory—so long as there were monks willing to ease the burden of his debt through prayer. All it took was money.
Thus, the Benefice of Saint Swithun, necessary though it might be, was a burden the Conqueror’s son had grown to loathe with a passion. That he himself would have need of this selfsame service was a fact that he could neither deny, nor escape. And while he told himself that paying monks to pray souls from hell was a luxury he could ill afford, deep in his heart of hearts he knew only too well that—owing to the debauched life he led—it was also a necessity he could ill afford to neglect much longer.
Even so, paying over good silver for the ongoing service of a passel of mumbling clerics rubbed Rufus raw—especially as that silver became each year more difficult to find. His taxes already crushed the poor and had caused at least two riots and a rebellion by his noblemen. Little wonder, then, that the forever needy king dreaded the annual approach of Saint Swithun’s day and the parting with so much of his precious treasury.
The ceremony rumbled on to its conclusion and, following an especially long-winded prayer, adjourned to a feast in honour of the worthy saint. The feast was the sole redeeming feature of the entire day. That it must be spent in the company of churchmen dampened William’s enthusiasm somewhat, but did not destroy it altogether. The Red King had surrounded himself with enough of his willing courtiers and sycophants to ensure a rousing good time no matter how many disapproving monks he fed at his table.
This year, the revel reached such a height of dissipation that Bishop Walkelin quailed and excused himself, claiming that he had pressing business that required his attention back at the cathedral. William, forcing himself to be gracious, wished the churchmen well and offered to send a company of soldiers to accompany the monks back to the abbey with their money lest they fall among thieves.
Walkelin agreed to the proposal and, as he bestowed his blessing, leaned close to the king and said, “We must talk one day soon about establishing a benefice of your own, Your Majesty.” He paused and then, like the flick of a knife, warned, “Death comes for us all, and none of us knows the day or time. I would be remiss if I did not offer to draw up a grant for you.”
“We will discuss that,” said William, “when the price is seen to fall rather than forever rise.”
“You will have heard it said,” replied Walkelin, “that where great sin abounds, great mercy must intercede. The continual observance and maintenance of that intercession is very expensive, my lord king,”
“So is the keeping of a bishop,” answered William tartly. “And bishops have been known to lose their bishoprics.” He paused, regarding the cleric over the rim of his cup. “Heaven forbid that should happen. I know I would be heartily sorry to see you go, Walkelin.”
“If my lord is displeased with his servant,” began the bishop, “he has only to—”
“Something to consider, eh?”
Bishop Walkelin tried to adopt a philosophical air. “I am reminded that your father always—”
“No need to speak of it any more just now,” said William smoothly. “Only think about what I have said.”
“You may be sure,” answered Walkelin. He bowed stiffly and took a slow step backwards. “Your servant, my lord.”
The clerics departed, leaving the king and his courtiers to their revel. But the feast was ruined for William. Try as he might, he could not work himself into a festive humour because the bishop’s rat of a thought had begun to gnaw at the back of his mind: his time was running out. To die without arranging for the necessary prayers would doom his soul to the lake of everlasting fire. However loudly he might rail against the expense—and condemn the greedy clerics who held his future for ransom—was he really prepared to test the alternative at the forfeit of his soul?
Come listen a while, you gentlefolk alle,
That stand this bower within,
A tale of noble Rhiban the Hud,
I purpose now to begin.
Young Rhiban was a princeling fayre,
And a gladsome heart had he.
Delight took he in games and tricks,
And guiling his fair ladye.
A bonny fine maide of noble degree,
Mérian calléd by name,
This beauty soote was praised of alle men
For she was a gallant dame.
Rhiban stole through the greenwoode one night
To kiss his dear Mérian late.
But she boxed his head till his nose turn’d red
And order’d him home full straight.
Though Rhiban indeed speeded home fayrlie rathe,
That night he did not see his bed.
For in flames of fire from the rooftops’ eaves,
He saw all his kinsmen lay dead.
Ay, the sheriff’s low men had visited there,
When the household was slumbering deepe.
And from room to room they had quietly crept
And murtheréd them all in their sleepe.
Rhiban cried out ‘wey-la-wey!’
But those fiends still lingered close by.
So into the greenwoode he quickly slipt,
For they had heard his cry.
Rhiban gave the hunters goode sport,
Full lange, a swift chase he led.
But a spearman threw his shot full well
And he fell as one that is dead.
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,” he 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.