Arthur is now eighteen, and Merlin, tired of hiding and running from his enemies, wants nothing more than to spend his days with his family and train Arthur for his rightful place as king. But when Arthur goes missing, a desperate Merlin must abandon all other quests to find him before a shadowy pursuer catches Arthur first.
Having everything to fight for, and almost nothing to fight with, Merlin and Arthur must rally Britain’s warriors against three overwhelming enemies: Saxenow hordes in the south, Picti raiders in the north, and a chilling new enemy that has arisen in the west.
At the same time, Mórgana brings Merlin’s deepest fear to life and sets a horde of werewolves loose to destroy Britain. But when the secret purpose of this nightmare is finally revealed, will Merlin and Arthur find a way to survive—without unleashing an even greater evil?
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The Merlin Spiral
By Robert Treskillard
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Robert Treskillard
All rights reserved.
En route to the village of Dinas Crag Rheged, in northern Britain Spring, in the year of our Lord 493
The wind whipped past Merlin's ears as his horse galloped down the barely lit forest path. Too late, he realized he should have heeded the wild cawing of the crows around him: his horse reared up before a dozen wolves, who looked up from their fallen prey. A massive buck, slain and gutted, lay in their midst, and all around the greedy, black-feathered sentinels looked on in anticipation.
His mission had gone from urgent to life or death.
Merlin wheeled his horse to the left and kicked her onward, off the path and between two trees. The mask that Merlin wore to cover his scars shifted upward on his face momentarily, obscuring his vision. He righted it just before a branch lashed him across the face, nearly cutting his lip through the black cloth.
The wolves howled behind him, but Merlin didn't look back—couldn't look back. Terror sought to master him, but he pushed it down. He had to direct his horse farther before he could cut back to the path. But the woods were too thick to ride fast, and he'd be caught. Fear, like a cloak of thistles, clung to his legs and back. A wolf could rip his flesh away at any moment.
The beasts snarled from behind as a massive branch loomed toward him from the front. Merlin hung low to the right, but it still banged him hard in the shoulder. The saddle began to slip. He grabbed the horse's sweat-dampened mane and pulled himself back up. The horse snorted as it jumped through the brush—and then screamed.
Merlin whipped his gaze around.
A wolf had torn into her left hindquarter. Blood poured from the wound, slick and red in the morning light.
The wolf lunged again, and Merlin kicked its black snout, yelling while he pulled the horse to the right. She quickened her pace, jumped a bush, and Merlin found himself on the path again.
Three wolves leapt just behind.
Faster now, Merlin kicked the horse's side. Having hardly seen a wolf in the sixteen years since leaving Bosventor, he'd become careless, and now he'd interrupted an entire pack at their meal. Panic sank into his stomach like rotten meat, churning his innards. He had to get away; he had to!
But the wolves were faster, and his horse began to wheeze from the effort. Merlin had been anxious to get back to Dinas Crag with the news he carried and had ridden the horse hard for hours. Its strength was almost gone.
Another wolf snapped at the horse's right side, ripping her leg open. The horse kicked, screaming in terror, and then staggered forward again.
Merlin panicked. He wouldn't get away. His horse was going to die. He was going to die. He could kill one wolf, maybe two, but never a whole pack. An image of his body, mangled and gutted like the buck, flashed before his eyes.
A wolf latched onto his boot, its teeth slicing into his foot like small daggers. He tried to draw his sword, but the horse reared up, forcing the wolf to drop off. The hackles of the wolf's neck twitched, and its yellow eyes lusted for Merlin's blood as it prepared to leap.
A wolf on his left gashed the horse's belly.
Merlin turned to face the beast, but a large branch blocked his view. He reached, clamped his hands onto the smooth bark, pulled free from his horse, and wrapped his legs around the branch. He didn't want to abandon his horse, whom he'd raised from a filly, but he also knew the only chance she had of getting away was without his weight.
The horse shot forward into the brush, with all three wolves slashing it with their bloody jaws. Unfortunately, the end came quickly, with the wolves pulling it down about fifty paces away.
Merlin climbed up and listened painfully to her last screams.
When the poor creature's silence came, and only the wolves' gory feast could be heard, he took in some deep breaths and tried to discern his position on the path. He'd been traveling south from Luguvalium, the capital of Rheged, and was on his way back home to Dinas Crag. There awaited his wife, Natalenya, and their two children: Tingada, their little daughter, and Taliesin, their growing boy. And their adopted Arthur, now eighteen winters old.
Surely Merlin had passed the long lake already ... or had he?
Ahead of him he could hear a stream burbling in the dark, so the path must have swung closer to it again. But was this the stream—the Derwent—as he had thought? If so, then he was close to home with the crossroad just beyond.
A faint splash. Maybe a fish. Then another. Full splashing, now. Then clopping. A rider, coming his way, heading toward the wolves.
Merlin had to warn him. "Who's there?" he called. "Take care! Wolves just killed my horse, and more are just beyond."
The rider cantered forward, slowing just below Merlin. A man with a broad face and a gray beard looked up at him.
"And what am I to do about such a dilemma? I must get through."
"They'll scatter if you give them enough time—"
"No. I've an urgent and vital message that must get through."
Howling sounded far down the path, and soon the three who had just killed the horse answered. "Maybe it would be best to turn back for now. Is there a village nearby?"
"Dinas Crag. I'll take you there."
"Not on my horse. You'll walk, you will."
A wolf howled. The man wheeled his horse around.
Merlin swung down and dropped onto its back, just behind the man.
"Go!" Merlin drove his heels into the horse's flanks, sending it flying down the path and splashing through the stream thinned by the long spring drought.
When they were a good distance away and no pursuit could be heard, the man pulled his horse to a stop. He turned and growled. "Get off."
"I saved your life."
The man shoved Merlin off the back of the horse.
But Merlin landed on his feet, dashed to the left, lifted the man's boot, and threw him from the horse.
The man scrambled to his feet, spitting dry grass, and glared at Merlin from the other side of the saddle. His face was red. "Take off your mask!"
"Who are you?"
The man stared at Merlin, as if expecting more. "What is your parentage, dishonorable knucklebone, and your purpose in these woods?"
Merlin grabbed the reins of the horse, lest the man get away. "What's your name, your parentage, and your mission?"
The man wrinkled up his nose and scowled back.
A distant howl split the air, and Merlin jerked.
Both men leapt onto the horse, and Merlin clutched the back of the ornate saddle as they raced away.
"Which way?" the man asked.
There was only one place that promised safety, though it was clear this stranger would not consent to being blindfolded to reach it. "Can I trust you?"
"On my honor."
"Before God, you fool. What, do I look like a druid?"
The wolves howled once more, cementing the decision. Merlin pointed. "Go straight when you come to the crossroads and follow the path along the stream."
"Hardly wide enough for a one-legged deer."
They raced along the path until they encountered the northern shore of a large lake, from which the overflow of the stream ran. The path curved to follow its western shore for half a league, where the lake ended and the stream, which now fed the lake, began again.
Mountains rose on each side, and their tops could be seen through the trees. The sky brightened with the rising sun, and the thick woods changed from oak to pine as the path climbed slowly. The mountains squeezed closer and closer, their sides ever steeper.
When the valley finally tightened to the jaws of a narrow gorge, the stream drew closer to the path, which strangely ended before a twelve-foot-tall, vertical pile of rocks, with dry grasses covering the center of the pile. The stream itself poured from a spring on the left side.
The man pulled his horse to a stop. "What's this? If you intend to rob—"
Merlin cupped his hands. "Porter! Open the door, Ambrosius has come."
Nothing stirred except a rustle of brush behind them. The horse trembled.
Merlin called again. "Porter! Open—"
A jaw clamped on his arm. The front gate spun away and something hard hit his shoulder. Merlin's legs slammed downward. Neighing. Cursing. Where was his sword? Growling in his ear. Pungent, bloody fur against his face. Ragged claws on his chest. It was going for his throat.CHAPTER 2
A Rumor of War
With one hand shoving the wolf away, Merlin unsheathed his dirk. He tried to get the blade between his neck and its snapping teeth, but only jabbed it in the shoulder.
The wolf pulled back as Merlin struggled up. It lunged again, and he stabbed it in the chest. The beast dripped saliva and blood from its jaws onto Merlin's nose before rolling to the side, yelping.
Merlin rose, drew his sword, and chopped at its neck.
When the beast was dead, Merlin wiped his face on his sleeve and looked to see how his fellow traveler had fared. The horseman stood over his own slain wolf, his hat pushed back and sweat on his brow.
What had gotten into the wolves? There was something strange going on ...
With a banging of wooden bars, two massive doors opened in what had appeared to be a wall of rocks and brush blocking the entrance to the valley. Merlin smirked as he saw the amazement on the face of the horseman. The doors were made of timber, with rocks piled near the sides and dead brush nailed on.
Three warriors rushed out, swords drawn. Two archers appeared at the top of the wall.
"A little late you are," the horseman yelled, "and I shall be sure to take up this ineptness with your chieftain."
The porter on duty, old Brice, shuffled out and helped Merlin up, dusting him off. "We was all sleepin', an' did'na expect nobody so early, certainly not one as esteemed so you, Ambrosius. Please forgive us not helpin' kill them wolves."
The horseman cinched his saddle to retighten it. "Who is the chieftain here, anyway?"
"Lord Ector," Brice answered, bowing to the man. "And who may you be?"
"You'll not ask, you won't. My ancestry is my own and my business is with Lord Ector."
Merlin nodded to give Brice his approval, and the porter led them through the gate. Just inside, to the right of the steepening path, stood a large crennig for the guards, and on the left the stream rushed down the gorge in a glorious waterfall. All ahead was shaded in darkness, the sun having not yet risen high enough over the mountains. Part way up the path they came to a stair climbing to a stone-walled fortress on a steep hill, high above the gorge.
The horseman pointed up to the fortress. "That way? Mighty difficult for an honored guest to bring his horse up and stable it, I'd say."
Merlin just laughed and kept walking through the gorge, ignoring the stairs. "You've guessed correctly where the fortress of Dinas Crag is located, but we only go there in times of danger. This is where we live ..." He stepped forward and pointed. "Welcome to the Nancedefed of Dinas Crag."
The man followed, leading his horse, and when he passed over a stony ridge he opened his mouth and did not shut it until he had feasted his eyes on everything.
The golden light of morning was just rising over the eastern foothills, illuminating a secret valley high in the mountains: flat, broad, and divided in two by the stream. More than a thousand horses, many of them foals, grazed within the enclosed valley in rock-walled pastures dotted with stables, crennigs, and tilled gardens ready for spring planting. The scene would have been idyllic except for the lingering drought, which had made the new grass begin to brown and had reduced the stream to half its regular flow.
"Valley of sheep?" the horseman said with a hint of confusion. "I see a few sheep ... but you're raising horses like I've never seen."
"The name is intentionally misleading. If the Picti knew what we were doing, then ..."
The horseman nodded, still looking on the beautiful valley with amazement.
Merlin sighed. Home and safety. Every fiber of him wanted to see Natalenya immediately, but duty called him to his uncle Ector first.
Because in addition to transporting this mysterious guest, Merlin recalled the true reason he needed to appear before the chieftain: spies had discovered a mass of Picti north of Hadrian's wall. An invasion was imminent. Every horse that could be spared would be needed for the battle.
* * *
Passing the guards at the door with a nod, Merlin entered Ector's empty feasting hall and left the horseman who had helped him to wait outside.
Stepping to the middle of the room, he threw his black cloak on a bench and sat before the hearth, where a fire of pine logs sent sweet, pitch-scented smoke upward. In the corner on a fleece lay Ector's long-eared hound, Goffrew, with her two sleeping puppies. When he went over, she sniffed inquisitively at the wolf blood on his hands while he scratched her behind the ears.
A servant came and, finding him hungry, gave him a bowl of cold, roasted-onion broth, a barley cake, and a wet rag to refresh himself with.
He gratefully peeled off his mask—what a sweaty nuisance of a thing! But a necessary one. Sixteen years had passed since Vortigern, the current High King, had slain Arthur's father, but his hatred had not lessened. If Vortigern knew Arthur was alive, he would do anything to kill the heir to the throne—along with Merlin and all those who harbored him. After wiping the blood away, he took a clean part of the rag and rubbed his face, feeling once more the familiar scars that covered his cheeks, nose, forehead, and eyelids. With no distractions to keep them at bay, the old memories of the wolf attack when he was nine forced themselves upon him—
His little sister surrounded by wolves. He'd run to protect her, but the wolves had attacked him, and not her. They'd scratched his eyes, mostly blinding him. And he'd endured that blindness for eight years, until he'd thrust Uther's blade into the Druid Stone in an attempt to destroy it. God had healed his vision then, miraculously.
He shuddered, pushing the memory of the Stone's enchantment away as best he could. His father had died that day, and Merlin had been swept into a treacherous world to protect and raise Arthur. After many trials, including slavery to the Picti and rescuing Arthur from a pagan sacrifice, he and Natalenya had married and fled to Dinas Crag. This was the village where his father had grown up, and where Merlin's uncle, Ector, was now chieftain.
Sudden noise from the back rooms pulled Merlin to the present, and Ector himself stepped into the hall. He strode across the room with his thick arms spread wide in greeting, barefoot and wearing his usual dusty, matted fox-fur cloak over a long brown tunic and green breeches.
"Welcome, Merlin!" Ector roared, giving him such a hug that Merlin felt like he'd been squeezed between two massive oxen.
"Shah, don't say that. I'm Ambrosius to you," Merlin reminded him.
"Vortigern's rats have no ears here. Your secret's safe, nephew."
"Not if the man standing outside heard you. I met him in the wood, and he wants to speak with you."
"Who?" Ector said, cutting off a cold chunk of meat from the remains of a boar that had been roasted the night before.
"He won't tell."
Popping some of the boar into his mouth, Ector mumbled, "Send the warty toad away."
"He says it's urgent, but first I have a message from Urien for you."
"Ah, yes, your talk with Urien. What does he want now? Send the wart in—I'd rather hear him than words from that bully."
"Bully or no, I rode all night to tell you he wants warriors and horses immediately. The Picti have gathered east of Luguvalium, and Urien means to destroy them."
"Hah!" Ector said, spitting out a bone onto Merlin's boot. "He'll just tickle their ribs and make them run away."
"It's a large force, uncle, ready to invade. And Urien—"
"He can find his own bullied horses. Honestly, I'd rather help King Cradelmass in Powys."
"That cruel, careless scoundrel?"
"Indeed. At least he's an excellent hunter, and he dined me well last I visited."
"And he makes his own citizens slaves."
"But I won't be Urien's slave. No, no."
"My lord, you've sworn Urien your allegiance. He asks for men and horses, of which we have plenty. It would seem—"
"Let Urien's beard rot in his mead, I say."
Merlin gulped. "The king won't invite you to the next boar roast if you don't—"
"He said that, did he? Well, pig's feet. Let him throw the beast's knucklebones at my effigy, I say."
"And, you'll be excluded from the spring fox hunt."
Excerpted from Merlin's Nightmare by Robert Treskillard. Copyright © 2014 Robert Treskillard. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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