Merlin's Blade - By Robert Treskillard

PROLOGUE

THE DRAGON STAR

BOSVENNA MOOR

IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 407

The pine trees mocked his youth, their thin, green fingers fretting in the wind. If he didn’t move fast, they would betray him — he just knew it — and the deer would get away … again. Arvel wiped his brow, stole across an expanse of dead pine needles, and crouched behind a bush strangled by bindweed and its poisonous red berries.

Holding his breath, he nocked an arrow.

The three deer chewed and sniffed.

Arvel’s throat tingled and his body tensed. He parted the leaves at the side of the bush with his arrow as shadows danced on its pewter tip.

The deer twitched their ears and turned their heads in unison.

Arvel drew back the bowstring — and winced as the wood creaked.

Instantly, hoofs jerked and legs tensed.

He sped the arrow toward its mark, and it pierced the buck deeply. Even as the does vanished into the forest, the antlered one fell.

Arvel whooped, and the sound echoed across the rock-strewn hills and faded into the deep forest. He stretched his shoulders to ease the tension as he inspected his prize. The meat would feed his family for many days. At only fourteen winters, he had downed his first deer.

A spring gurgled only a stone’s throw away, and he longed to drink the pure water. But did he dare leave his kill? In answer, the wind sighed and clattered a branch behind him. He pulled out his knife as he turned to study the bushes. Thieves hid nearby, he was certain, ready to creep out and steal his meat.

With wary eyes he cleaned and skinned the buck, daring to imagine the celebration his family would hold that night. His little sister would prance and play, and his mother would stir the stew pot and praise his skill with the bow. He grinned at the thought. Ah, and they would have smoked meat all through the winter if his hunting went like this, enough to share and hopefully boast about. After all, wouldn’t he be the best hunter on the moor — just like his father?

His grin faded. His father had been taken as a slave by raiding warriors. Arvel drove the knife deep into the buck’s haunch and waited for his vision to clear. When he finished cutting up the meat, he placed it inside the folded deer hide. Then, just as his father had taught him, he knifed holes along the edge of the pelt. Through these holes he threaded twigs to seal the meat well enough for the hike back to his borrowed boat and the long row home.

The sun reddened as Arvel axed down two saplings and roped the hide-bound bundle to them for a makeshift sled. The job done, he hefted the poles and made his way through the trees with some difficulty. Finally out on the open moor, he spied his boat — a large coracle — in the distance, tied up along the shoreline of the marsh.

He crossed the moor, struggling due to the weight of the sled, and finally reached the marsh’s edge. Panting, he loaded his meat into the boat’s hull, then took his seat. The wood groaned under the pull of the oars, and the boat rocked as he glided away from the shore. Arvel’s stomach soured. He trusted his own booted feet more than a jumble such as this. Glancing back at his precious venison, he wondered why he had borrowed this boat.

From the branch of an alder that stood among the sedge grasses, a red-legged raven swooped down and snatched up a frog. The bird flew to the prow, looked at him with menacing eyes, and then ripped the frog to pieces, gulping down its wriggling legs.

“Get away, you!” Arvel swung an oar at the bird, and it flapped away.

Twilight descended as he rowed. The stars appeared, but they refused to reflect off the turgid water. The moon raised its leprous head through the trees, casting anxious shadows on the reeds that rattled against the boat.

Lifting, dropping, and pulling the oars, Arvel felt as if someone was watching him. Closing his eyes, he listened but heard nothing except the clicking jaws of insects … the croaks of frogs … the calls of a few birds … and the greasy splash of the water. The impulse to turn around pressed upon him. Did someone lurk in another boat or on an island?

Ah, foolishness — not at this time of night. But the desire to look grew

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