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Fantasy Reading: The Calling Chapters 1-3

 

 

 

 

The Calling: Merry’s Apprentice

By John R. McCormick

Copyright© 2011 by John R. McCormick

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.

All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author.

 

 

PROLOGUE

The Time has Come!

____________________________________

I had been nodding off in the backseat with my face pressed up against the glass window when I felt the change in speed, as my father slowed our Chevrolet Trailblazer. Waking up I saw that my dad was reacting to a mist, which had formed around our car unexpectedly. It was clear, yet white, and it was really thick. So, thick as to hinder visibility making driving at night even more difficult.

With a slight jerk on the breaks, he changed the speed of our car. My mom, dad, and I were on the road back to our home in Stonington from Portland where we had ended the summer before school started with a treat of a dinner and movie. From the backseat, which was hidden in shadow, I noticed my mother’s face. Her expression was scrunched up with more than just concern; she was frightened. I could see her frightened expression, which made me feel uneasy. My father’s forearm muscles bulged, as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel. It was then that I knew something was truly wrong and that the mist was more than just some white fog coming off the water of Penobscot Bay.

“Ma,” I said hearing my own voice croak, as I spoke, “what’s happening with the car?”

“Don’t worry, Sean. Your father will take care of everything, so you just stay calm,” she said in a voice that barely held onto calm, which was unusual for her. She was always calm and positive, as my father was always patient and strong.

“But, Ma…”

“Sean, be strong and calm right now. You can do both. It’s in you,” she said then she turned her head to look into my eyes.

I saw in my mother’s eyes that she was scared, not for herself, but for me. There was something about this mist that scared her for my life. It was a look I’d seen every time I hurt myself in some accident. From the time I fell out of a tree in the backyard and landed on my back to the time I broke my collarbone playing tackle football without equipment with boys that were much older than me; all her fears were for me.

I turned my head away from my mother and looked out the window. No longer could I see the trees of Deer Isle, Maine, only a thick ominous mist that now completely surrounded our SUV. This strange mist seemed to come from nowhere, yet it was everywhere all around us. Suddenly, something bumped the right side of our SUV with enough force to leave a massive dent in the side. My mother turned her head again and looked at me: “Sean, scoot over and sit behind your father’s seat and buckle up tight.”

“Ma,” I replied in a weak voice that barely hid the tears of fear that were starting to burn my eyes.

“Sean, be strong. It’s in you to be strong and we need you to be that now,” she told me again.

I didn’t say another word, but instead I scooted over behind my father’s driver’s seat and buckled up tightly. The SUV was bumped hard again. This time the back wheels screeched violently, as my father tried to keep the car straight on the dark roadway. There was more mist in front of us. The SUV swerved hard to avoid it almost careening out of control, but my father was able to straighten out the car.

“Ma,” I whispered to myself because I was afraid.

“I love you, Sean,” she responded in a soft voice, but she didn’t turn her head around this time to look at me.

My father took his right hand off the wheel and reached into his right pant pocket. Taking out his cell phone, without looking he pressed a speed dial button and put the phone to his ear: “They are here in Maine. They are attacking. The time has finally come. Now you must protect my son!”

That was all he said. He hung up the cell phone then he dropped it onto the car floor not caring what happened to it and he put his right hand back on the wheel holding on tightly.

“Sean,” my father’s clear, strong, calm voice spoke up. “No matter what happens you will be all right tonight. You have to know that, son. You will be all right. Do you understand me, Sean?”

“Yes, dad, I understand you,” I answered hesitantly, as I really didn’t grasp what my dad was saying.

“Son, you have an important destiny. Remember that and know that I believe in your destiny and in you,” he stated with pride then suddenly our heavy SUV was bumped harder than before and thrown off of Old Country Road towards the thick woods by the side of the road.

I closed my eyes, as my stomach churned and knotted with fear. Destiny, yeah, I thought, I have a destiny to become part of a tree. Looking out the window I saw that the mist had somehow formed a giant hand grabbing onto our SUV. This ‘mist-hand’ picked up our vehicle off of the ground, and tossed it into the air straight at a thicket of trees. The Trailblazer tumbled helplessly through the air. One moment I was sitting upright in my seat, and the next I was being held in place by my seat buckle, as the roof became the floor and then back again. The tumbling finally stopped with the loud screaming sound of metal crunching and buckling from impact. The SUV hit a Spruce tree, which it then ricocheted off of to continue on until it cracked up into a Fraser Fir tree.

Much to my surprise my seat belt buckle broke apart, the metal buckle bursting open, as if someone had ripped it open, and the thick fabric, which held me in place being ripped apart. It was almost like someone had taken the seat belt apart then the door beside me unexpectedly opened and I was forcibly propelled at least ten feet from the still moving car. Landing awkwardly in some thick bushes and with enough force to take all the air out of me, I rolled in the opposite direction of our Trailblazer stopping only by the wide and thick trunk of a Fir tree. Lying on the rough ground, I didn’t know if I was hurt or not, only that my parents were still in the SUV under attack.

Lifting my head off the ground, I looked at the Trailblazer. I saw the mangled and crushed SUV in the distance wrapped around a thick tree trunk, where it had finally made a complete stop. Placing my hands on the ground I tried to lift myself up with all my strength, but I only managed to get my torso partially lifted off the ground before I fell back onto it. My body was aching and sore and I knew I probably had broken bones. Not wanting to be stopped, though, I tried once again to get up to get to my mother and father, but I stopped as I noticed that the mist was traveling through the woods towards the SUV. It was as if the mist was alive.

The mist moved quickly with an almost predetermined purpose and intelligence. It sped around and through trees until it was close to the Trailblazer then its movements ceased. It hovered for a moment like it was reviewing the scene of the crash. Suddenly, it enveloped the SUV then it backed way. I watched this all with a mix of great disbelief and complete and utter fear. I tried to convince myself that the mist was not a living thing; it was a weather phenomenon like I had learned about in school and nothing more than that. It had no real intelligence; at least, it shouldn’t have any. This could not be happening.

Without warning, the mist turned and started to move again, this time towards me. My vision began to blur, as darkness started to overtake me. I was blacking out from whatever injuries I had, while this mist was now coming straight at me. Although I didn’t want to do it, I laid my head down on the ground and waited for this strange mist to come and take me. So much for having a destiny, I thought to myself.

Just as the darkness of unconsciousness was about to overtake me, a tall figure in a long hooded robe appeared out of nowhere between me, and the mist. The hooded robe was pitch black, darker than even the night, and seemed to allow whoever wore it to meld into the night without being seen. This figure raised his right hand and the mist that had attacked my mother and father stopped moving. I wasn’t sure how this happened or what really was happening, but it appeared as if the mist was afraid of this hooded figure. I tried to get up again, but finally I fell into the darkness of unconsciousness, which had been waiting for me.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

MONTH ONE:

A New Home, A New Beginning

_______________________________________

The cemetery in Stonington, Maine was much like any other cemetery with tombstones, some crypts, and statuaries decorated with symbols from several religions, including Christian, Jewish, and even Wicca. The grass was cut clean and neat and had morning dew on it and the trees were slowly changing color, as the leaves were readying to take on the shades of autumn. In many ways it was a nice park with some tombstones, except you had to wear the clothes of mourning instead of play clothes.

I stood solemnly in a new black suit with a crisp, new white shirt, which my aunt ironed for me, and wearing a black tie. I stood staring at the twin empty graves, where my parents’ caskets hung over waiting to be lowered and interred. We were waiting to begin the ceremony.

I was there with my mother’s sister, my only aunt, and her family, which included her husband and four children. Since the night of the accident they had taken care of me with my aunt making all the important arrangements. As my closest living family they tried to provide me solace, though I wasn’t ready yet for solace. I wanted to be sad and to mourn. Standing between the two graves dressed in his priestly vestments with chasuble, alb, and red stole and holding a bible was our local parish priest. Also gathered for the funeral were almost two dozen other people, friends of both my parents, who came to show their respect for the deceased. The only person who wasn’t there yet was my father’s brother, my uncle Kieran McCoul, who according to my parents’ recently read will was now my legal guardian.

It seemed odd to me that I was being placed to live with a man who I had never met. My father talked seldom about his home and family in the mountains of Tennessee, only to say that they were remarkable people who lived a life like none other. I always assumed my father stayed away from them because he had nothing in common with them, except a last name and some DNA. Yet, my uncle was made my guardian and not my aunt. I didn’t understand why and no one had a good enough explanation for me.

“Requiem aeternam dona ei, domine,” the priest intoned in Latin, as he raised his hand in a blessing. “Et lux perpetua ei. Requiesscat in pace. Amen.”

As the priest began to finish up, I noticed a tall man with longish copper colored hair, much like my own hair, as well as my father’s, walking towards the gravesite. His beard was the same color as his hair and he was wearing a rumpled black suit, as if he had been wearing it while driving for an extra long distance. As he was walking closer towards me I knew this was my uncle, a man I had never met before, yet a man who I was now going to live with. Even though I knew this was my parents’ wish, it seemed cruelly unfair to me. I was born and raised in Maine and I wanted to stay here.

“Anima ejus, et animae omnium fidelium, per misericordiam Dei requiescant in pace. Amen,” the priest finished.

The priest then handed his book of prayers to the altar boy standing beside him and walked over to me. My eyes burned with tears. Instead of offering me words of condolences that I had heard all too often lately and resounded hollowly in my head and heart, Father Morse merely gave me a strong hug then he gently patted my shoulder. I preferred this to any more words I didn’t want to hear. The priest slowly walked away with the altar boy dutifully following him. With that everyone else began to stream away from the gravesite, seeming as if they were at an outdoor concert, which had now ended and they could all go home. I could hear the mumbled conversations and muffled comments as they filtered away. My aunt gave me a kiss on my cheek.

“I see your uncle finally made it here,” she said with more than a little bitterness in her voice. “Well, he could have come on time, but, I guess, better late than never. Small blessings, I guess.”

Although she had four children, the oldest being my age, and her husband was struggling with the lobster fishing business, she was disappointed when someone else was made legal guardian to me. She was sure she was going to be made my guardian. I was disappointed she wasn’t. My aunt Molly couldn’t replace my mother, but she reminded me of her. Molly Carpenter and Moira McCoul looked just like sisters. Both had honey colored hair, crystal blue eyes, and smiles that made you feel loved and secure. The only difference in the appearance between the two was that Molly looked like a portrait of my mother Moira, as done by a painter with merely adequate talent. Moira, my mother, had cleaner, softer, and more pleasing features than her sister.

“We are going to the car now. I need to get back to the house to make sure the guests have plenty to eat, plates to put the food on, and something to drink, so I’ll give you and Kieran time with each other,” she kissed my cheek again. “Show him the way to the house, honey. You’re really a wonderful boy, Sean.”

“Okay, I will,” I replied feeling uncomfortable with her comment.

I didn’t feel like a wonderful boy, though I did feel like a sadly lucky one. I hadn’t mentioned the man in the hooded robe to anyone, especially the police, because I didn’t think they would believe me, but I knew somehow that man was the reason that I was still alive. That man stopped the strange mist, which the police insisted was nothing more than some thick marine layer and that’s all. I was sure of that.

Molly Carpenter shuffled off with her family to prepare for the after funeral gathering at her house. Nearby two burly men with passive expressions masking their faces waited to lower the caskets with an electronic wench into the empty graves then covered them with dirt. They would wait until I had left before doing their work, unless I or someone else gave them permission to get started then and there. Looking up at them, I nodded my head: “You can start now, if you want. You don’t have to wait.”

Their passive faces disappeared replaced by serious ones with a hint of thanks in their eyes. One of them walked over to the casket with my mother in it and pressed the button to begin the process to lower her down into her grave. With an inexorable purpose the casket began slowly to lower. Tears started to burn my eyes once again. I wiped them away with the back of my right hand.

My uncle silently came up beside me. I stood five feet three inches tall, but I felt small for my age because of my father’s, and now my uncle’s, great size. Kieran McCoul was taller than my father by at least two inches at six foot five inches, but he lacked my father’s solid, muscular frame and presence. When my father Liam McCoul entered a room, the air pressure changed almost as if he was a force of nature. He had a presence about him. Kieran made the sign of the cross, as the casket touched the bottom of the grave.

“You’re my uncle, huh?” I said to him.

“I am, Arthur,” he said with a terseness that seemed natural to him.

“I don’t like being called by the name Arthur. I prefer to go by Sean,” I corrected him.

“Really, I see. Arthur’s a good name, but it’s up to you what you want to be called,” my uncle replied then he looked sadly at me. “Well, you look like your father.”

“Uh huh, so people say sometimes, except he was a really big man,” was my reply to my uncle’s observation.

“He was smallish, too, until he had a growth spurt around fourteen. How old are you?”

“Thirteen.”

“I expect you’ll do the same as him,” he remarked with warmth, as he remembered his brother as a boy.

“I thought my cousin Fintin…”

“Fintain,” he corrected me.

“Yeah, sure, Fintain. I thought he was coming with you,” I noted, not really knowing what else to say to this stranger I was somehow related to.

“Your cousin Fintain sends his best to you, but I decided to let him stay in school, though I think their teacher intends to delay things a bit for you. I didn’t bring him because I thought we needed some time to get to know each other now that you’ll be living with me. I know this is difficult for you, but it’s for the best,” he said with an accent that had more than a hint of Southern to it. “Where’s you mother’s kin gone?”

“Back to their house. She told me to show you the way there for food and such.”

“I thought you and I could stay at your parent’s house for a few days then…,” he let the rest of his sentence drift.

Then what? I thought. Then we drive back to your place and I live with you and I leave my home, my friends, my parents, and my whole life.

“I guess we can get going now if you want to,” I suggested.

“I gather it’s time for us to leave. There is no reason to stay here and watch them do their job,” my uncle replied then he walked over to his brother’s grave, squatted down, and grabbed a handful of dirt from the grave with his right hand then he put the dirt in his pants pocket.

I shook my head slightly confused by the action. Why take the dirt? I wanted to ask him, but a combination of stubbornness and unfamiliarity with the man stopped me. My uncle stood up and looked at me.

“Where is your car?” I asked.

“My pickup is over there parked,” he answered, as he pointed to a black, 1992 extended cab Ford pickup.

I sighed, as I realized that a giant chasm of differences separated my uncle and I. In silence we walked to the pickup.

nnnn

We stayed three days in the house, barely speaking to each other, as we packed up the house and thirteen years worth of my own and my parents’ things. Kieran needed to ready the house for sale since he had no intention of moving to Maine. It was sad duty deciding which things to throw away, which to give away, and which to bring with me. For me the silence was new. On the whole my personality was usually talkative, as I’d chatter away with friends and my parents about whatever was on my mind from sports to whatever video games I was currently obsessed with. Long stretches of silence were a natural thing for my uncle, though, so he was unaware that my moody silence wasn’t normal, but a new development.

Even my father, Liam, was a talker. He was a man who enjoyed conversation and good company, but that didn’t mean that as his son I had to take after him. My uncle easily accepted my silences without wondering if something was wrong. I overheard a conversation between Molly and Kieran where he told my aunt that he lived near someplace called Watauga Lake near Elizabethton on Roan Mountain, which was part of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, or something like that. I also heard him mention the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountain Range, as well as Northeast Tennessee and North Carolina. It all sounded so completely foreign to me, so strange, so far away, that my brain didn’t want to accept that my life was about to change irrevocably and drastically without permission. Maine was my home. It had always been my home. From the beauty of Stonington, which was an old seaport on Penobscot Bay, to Portland, which offered a taste of a real city along with the chance to see the Red Sox double AA team, the Portland Seadogs, and the occasional trips down to Boston for a real Red Sox game; I loved where I lived. I didn’t want to live anywhere else, but where I lived.

Once the house was straightened out, we filled up the bed of the pickup with my belongings that I wanted to take with me. My PlayStation 3, video games, 28 inch flat screen TV and laptop were essentials, as well as clothes and books, but I also wanted to bring my collection of Sideshow Collectibles 12 inch Superhero figures, which included Hellboy, Spiderman, Venom, Ironman in his Mack II suit, Ironman in his Mack III suit, and The Punisher. These were all special gifts that my father bought me for my birthdays. My father told me that imaginary superheroes were symbols, but there were those who were real heroes who had to remain in the shadows, as they protected people. I liked to believe that my father wasn’t just telling me a story. Maybe the man in the robe was a superhero, come out of the shadows?

Once the truck bed was full, my uncle tied a black canvas to the tailgate then stretched it over the things and tied the other end down near the cab. My life was packed up into the back of a pickup truck. It made me feel as if a part of my life was over.

“Good thing I got a long truck bed for all your stuff,” he said when he was done.

After we said our tearful goodbyes, I sat beside him as our trip to Tennessee began. I had charged up my white Darth Vader PSP and brought several games with me into the cab of the truck. My backpack was with me, as I kept a supply of games a couple fantasy novels in it. While my uncle drove, I mindlessly played Patapon. It was going to be a twenty-one hour drive from his current home to his future one according to my uncle, and he told me that we were going to only stop for fuel, bathroom breaks, and food. I didn’t argue with him. Sitting in a pickup or sitting in a motel room with him, it all seemed the same to me.

Once the long drive began Kieran put a tape, not a DVD but a cassette tape, into his built-in cassette player and started playing some music. I recognized the instruments, such as mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, and bass, but Bluegrass music, as he called it, was far from a music style I had ever listened to. A thin, tangy male voice began to sing.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Del McCourt,” Kieran answered with a hint of surprise in his tone that I didn’t know whom Del McCourt was.

“Never heard of him.”

“You don’t listen to Bluegrass?”

“No, I don’t really listen to country music,” I monosyllabically answered amazed that I even had to listen to this music.

“Your father didn’t listen to it at all?” he asked me.

“Maybe when he was alone, maybe, but when he was with Ma and me, he let us choose the music we listened to,” I told him.

“This is music based somewhat on your roots, Sean,” my uncle began to explain. “Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and even some English folk music mixed up with jazz and blues and became Bluegrass. You see there were quite a few Scots-Irish immigrants and Welsh in the Appalachia in the old days. The Scots-Irish came early and the Welsh followed later when the mining of the mountains began.”

“I didn’t know that,” was all that I had say to this subject, which didn’t interest me.

“There are more than just those with Celtic blood, of course. You have those with German descent, Swiss, Native American, African, and a real interesting mix of African, European, and Native American called Melungeons, too. Some of them look almost as if they’re Turkish. They are a fascinating people, real spiritual, too. People don’t realize just how diverse and interesting our part of the world is, which all things considered, is a good thing I guess. I think you’ll like where we are going, if you give it a chance. We have our secrets, as you’ll find out. Ancient secrets not meant to be shared with those who are not part of our clan. But you are one of us, aren’t you?”

I had the feeling this was the most my uncle had spoken in a very long time. I didn’t really understand what he was talking about, nor did I really care to understand. Ancient secrets? Yeah, I bet they had ancient secrets. One of the secrets must be how to make moonshine, or catch a catfish, I thought. I decided to say nothing and allow my silence to be interpreted by my uncle anyway he wanted to interpret it.

“Not as many Native Americans around now, though there is one tribe, well not really a tribe as they are recognized as their own tribe that is very interesting: the Yuchi. Many of the remaining Yuchi are considered citizens of the Shawnee and the Sauk and Fox. But don’t be fooled, they are their own people and an important spiritual people, too. They are a people with some interesting myths, like why the cedar tree is red. It was because they killed an evil wizard, who was attacking the tribe, by cutting off his head, yet his head didn’t die. The Unknown, who is a mysterious being who came down to earth to help them defeat this wizard, told them to tie the head to a cedar tree. They did so and the head finally died and the blood from the head turned the cedar red. The Unknown. Funny if you think about it, of course, you wouldn’t know why the Unknown is funny, would you?” Kieran told me, as he took my silence as interest in the topic.

Molly’s husband was a quiet man, so I had some experience with quiet men who started to talk a lot. All you had to do was get Jim talking about baseball or lobster fishing and he’d go off on long tangents, as my mother called them. Like many men who were quiet by nature, when Kieran got started talking about something, his sentences became mazes of thoughts and information, which you had to follow. I let him wander and sat pretending to listen.

The truck passed through the foliage of New England, which was filled with leaves of different sizes changing colors from green to flaming orange, mottled brown, and bright yellow. Massachusetts soon became Rhode Island, which soon became Connecticut, and the last bits of New England were soon gone. We were traveling in almost a straight line from Maine to Tennessee. After Connecticut came New York State then we would be hitting Pennsylvania followed by Virginia and eventually our destination of Tennessee.

“So, other than Sean, what do you like to be called?” Kieran asked me as we reached the New York Border.

“Just Sean. That’s all.”

“Your father didn’t give you a nickname? He sure loved to give nicknames as a kid.”

“Yeah, he gave me one” I reluctantly answered.

“What was it?” my uncle asked with great interest.

“I don’t know.”

“Of course, you know what it is. He gave it to you. Please, tell me. My brother called me Kay instead of Kieran. Everybody who still knows me well calls me Kay to this day because of him. I expect you’ll call me Kay once you get used to me well enough.”

“Bear. He called me Bear,” I softly told him.

“Of course, he did,” he said with a self-satisfied smile. “Your father was a traditionalist deep down, even though he pretended not to be.”

“What do you mean by of course he did?” I asked him.

“Arthur, well, it means bear in Welsh.”

“I didn’t know that,” I replied.

“You haven’t learned much Celtic history, have you?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Don’t you worry there will be a chance for you to learn later,” Kieran said with a smile then went back into his silent world.

With nothing to do but listen to music I didn’t really like, play my PSP, or look at the darkening horizon and scenery slowly being taken over falling shadows, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. Between the motion of the truck and the creeping feeling of disconnection I felt, sleep seemed like a good idea to me.

 

nnnn

Tennessee, at least the part of the state we were driving through, was dominated by the color green and, of course, mountains. Maine was green, but it also had the ocean, and the Smoky Mountains and the rest of them almost shamed the mountains we had seen in Maine. Here in Tennessee so far all I saw was nature, long, long stretches of uninterrupted nature, with the occasional dots of civilization in the forms of homes or small towns. My uncle told me that we weren’t far from a place called Elizabethton, Tennessee, which meant that it wasn’t too long before we arrived home. Home, I thought when he said the word, what an odd word to apply to any place around here. Home was more than a place to live it was a place where you belonged. I wasn’t sure I’d ever belong here.

“I need to stop in Elizabethton for a moment then we’ll continue on to home,” Kieran said.

“Okay,” I mumbled my reply.

When we entered Elizabethton, Tennessee with its short, quaint buildings and houses, I was sure now I had come to foreign territory. The people looked like regular people, but they didn’t dress, walk, talk, or seem like the people I was used to in Stonington. In Maine the clothes were mainly from L.L. Bean, but here the clothes were John Deere and Bass Pro. The truck turned onto Elk Avenue and we drove for a few blocks until Kieran parked outside of a place called Bede’s General Store.

“Be right back with a surprise that’ll make your mouth water,” he said then he got out and hustled into the store.

I stared at the people of Elizabethton. Several of the women smiled at me, as if they knew me, while a few of the boys my own age glowered at me as if I didn’t belong there. My thoughts drifted to thinking of Portland, and the Seadogs. I wonder if there was either a Double AA or even just an A baseball team around here. The Red Sox and Patriots were obsessions to my dad and I. We watched as many baseball games as we could together and never missed a Pats game on TV. Just thinking about such things made me miss my father and my mother, who always made us sandwiches for the games.

Carrying a large, brown, paper bag, Kieran returned to the truck. He got in and placed the bag in between himself and me.  I was slightly curious what was in the bag.

“Bede is a wise old man, who is still a great hunter. There are some freshly cut venison steaks in there for us to eat tonight and I mean they are good eatin’,” Kieran told me. “So, what do you think of Elizabethton?”

“Kind of surprising that people wear baseball caps, more than cowboy hats around here. I thought they’d be more cowboy hats being worn by people in these parts,” I said to make conversation.

Kieran laughed: “This is Northeast Tennessee not Texas, Sean. Anyway, people love their NASCAR and hunting here, so they wear the hats with their logos. We are almost home.”

“Yeah, ok,” was my blank response.

Kieran started the truck up and drove. He turned onto W. Lynn Avenue then he drove down and turned onto Broad Street, which he took straight out of Elizabethton. Even though I wasn’t looking forward to arriving at my so-called new home, I felt a bubble of nervousness in my stomach. This was the place where I was going to be stuck living at until further notice.

As promised the drive to my uncle’s home was a short distance. In a fairly deserted part of Watauga Lake, and a less than thirty-minute drive to Elizabethton, Tennessee, he pulled down a dirt road to his house. Situated about forty feet back from the lake, the house was the most unique one I had ever seen in my life. Starting out as a commonplace two story A frame, the house had been contorted, expanded, and redesigned until it was now a sand colored, Byzantine in complexity, four floors, with probably at least seven bedrooms. There was a large barn beside it on the right side and another small barn on the left side of the home. Both the house and the larger barn had solar panels on their roofs collecting energy. On the front porch there stood a sandy haired almost six foot tall, broad shouldered boy with a pug nose and a lopsided grin wearing jeans, jeans shirt, and work boots. Standing along side him there was a petite, no taller than five foot with short and spiky, flaming red haired girl. She had a face that was both elfin and beautiful at the same time and she wore faded overalls, a white T-shirt, and hiking boots.

“I see Fintain and Branwyn are here to welcome you. They’ll be your schoolmates in the barn,” Kieran stated.

“Barn? School?”

“Yeah, you’ll be home-schooled in the barn with Branwyn, Fintain, and a few other very special kids. Don’t worry about it. Your teacher will be the smartest man you’ll ever meet in your life. There is nothing he doesn’t know. Your education is very important.”

“Sure, right. The smartest man in a barn,” I said sarcastically, as I opened the door and got out of the truck.

“Fintain McCoul, have you been behaving yourself while I was gone on family business?” Kieran called out to my cousin, as he got out of the truck.

While uncle and cousin greeted each other, I stared at the girl. I noticed that her eyes were green and her lips, which appeared red even without makeup, had a devilish smile playing on them.

“Been acting the best I can,” Fintain answered.

“You can do better than that, son,” Kieran said as his son came down off the porch and he gave his father a hug.

“Lucan is in the house cleaning up and fussin’ about as always,” Fintain told my uncle.

“He’s worst than a woman when it comes to fussing with things,” Kieran said then he handed Fintain the bag of steaks.

“He said he wanted have Arthur’s room perfect for him when he got here. He wanted him to feel welcomed and all.”

“He prefers Sean to Arthur,” Kieran corrected Fintain then he motioned towards me.

“Sean, this is my son Fintain,” he stated then he waved at the girl, “and that is Branwyn Fey.”

“Hey, Sean,” she greeted him. It was odd but I could have sworn there was a hint of music in her voice.

“Sean, not Arthur, huh?” grumbled Fintain. “I like Arthur better than Sean. It’s a great name.”

“Then change your name to Arthur when you get older, if you like the name so much,” I snapped at him.

I didn’t mean to sound so sarcastic, but a feeling of defensiveness had overcome the second I saw my new home. Without meaning to it reminded me of everything I had lost.

Fintain’s face blanched at the comment, which I guess hurt his feelings, while an amused grin appeared on Kieran’s face: “Now you sound a little bit more like my brother. He had a tongue that could cut you to the quick when he was in the mood. I swear there was some whip to his tongue.”

Just then Lucan, an older man with a long salt and pepper hair, a weathered and wrinkled face and a body that looked as if it had seen a many a hard day’s work, came down from the porch and he walked over to me and offered his right hand. I saw that the man was only a few inches taller than me. Without even exchanging words, I knew that I’d like Lucan. It was just a feeling. He felt comfortable to me.

“A warrior always offers his sword hand to a fellow warrior to show that he is unarmed,” Lucan said to me.

Feeling awkward by the greeting I shook his hand. It was a hard, strong grip that made my fingers numb for a moment. Lucan smiled at me: “The name is Lucan Xavier Athol and I am at your service. Anything you need or want, you just ask me. Just keep it within reason.”

“Um, thanks.”

“Sean has some adjusting to do to our way of life here, Lucan,” Kieran warned him in a friendly tone.

“No, problem, Kay. Merry called. He said that he’d delay restarting school for a few more days in order to give Sean time to adjust to his new surroundings.”

“Sounds good to me, right, kids?” Kieran said to Branwyn and Fintain, who didn’t look too happy at the news.

“I guess we need him to adjust to things. He’ll just slow us down for now, anyhow,” Branwyn said sarcastically, as I guess she did’t like how I had treated Fintain.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked defensively.

“I mean that you aren’t on our level yet, Boston. You are behind us in a great many things,” she goaded me.

“I’m not from Boston. I’m from Maine and the name is Sean. And what level are you on – advanced banjo, red neck?” I asked knowing that my education was better than average.

“You have no idea what level we are on, but you will know soon. Anyway, I’d be a hillbilly not a red neck. Get your insults right,” she chided me then she walked over to Fintain.  “Come on, Fin, let’s help Sean here move his stuff into the house.”

“Sure, Bran.”

Kieran walked over to me and looked me straight in the eyes: “Your father called you Bear. I think you are going to have to live up to that particular nickname, so when you growl at someone you better be willing to bare your teeth along with the growl because they shoot bears around here and stuff them. Or maybe you can learn not to growl so easily, unless you are ready to bare your teeth. Maybe you should get to know the people around here before you growl at them. You can take my advice or leave it. It’s up to you. I am a believer in learning by one’s mistakes.”

“You know that I’ve never gone hunting in my life, so I know nothing about bears,” I told my uncle.

“How about fishin’? Have you ever gone fishin’?”

“Yeah, I’ve gone fishing. I kind of like fishing, especially when I went with my dad.”

“Well, that’s a start, isn’t it? Consider hunting to be fishing except on land and with a weapon that goes bang instead of a fishin’ pole,” he laughed then he walked over to help bring my stuff into the house.

For no reason in particular I fumed for a moment. I didn’t want to get into an argument with this Branwyn and her attitude towards me, but I couldn’t help it. Anyway, there was something about her, something that made me feel slightly uncomfortable. It was not a bad uncomfortable, just uncomfortable, and I didn’t like that.

 

nnnn

The house was a maze of rooms. Some were empty, except for a few boxes, and most were filled with eclectic furniture from handmade wooden furniture to tub chairs that looked like they had been made from barrels. My new room was on the first floor in the back near the kitchen. My uncle gave me this room I presume because he thought there was less chance for me to get lost trying to find it, plus it had a private bathroom. He wanted me to have enough space to adjust to my new life here without feeling cramped. The bedroom was large by my usual standard, a good 19×19 in size, which was more the size of my parents’ old bedroom.

The day after I arrived, Kieran put a shelf in my bedroom for my collectibles then he and Fintain carried several bookcases into the room for my books, then he and Fintain brought in a desk and a chair, so that I could use my laptop in my room. Add a short table for my television and Playstation console, and the room was livable. It was so livable I spent most of my time in the room only coming out for meals and stretching my legs. Keiran would not let me take a walk around the lake alone and always had to have either Lucan or Kieran with me when I wanted to explore the area. They made me feel as if they didn’t trust me, as if I’d get lost walking three feet away from the house.

By Thursday night, the night before my home-schooling started, I found I couldn’t sleep, so wearing just a pair of sweat pants and a light robe I opened the bedroom door then patted the walls blindly in the kitchen looking for the light switch. I found the switch and turned on the lights. Although I couldn’t sleep, I did find that I had an appetite to eat something. Strolling over to the refrigerator, I opened it and started searching for a post midnight snack.

“Anything good in there to eat?” asked a strong male voice.

I turned to see it was Lucan: “Can’t sleep and I got kind of hungry.”

“Don’t blame you. I get peckish late at night, too,” he said and he walked over to the refrigerator.

Reaching past me, he grabbed with his left hand a plate that was covered by tin foil and then with his right hand he grabbed the glass container of milk. He left me at the refrigerator door then he walked over to the kitchen table and sat down. With flair he removed the tin foil exposing ten cold, pieces of homemade fried chicken. I saw the chicken and joined him at the table.

“I remember your father at your age. He was small, too, but he developed a hearty appetite and within six months had shot up seven inches. After that he only grew a few more inches. Big men run in your family, Sean,” Lucan told me.

I picked up a chicken leg and took a bite: “You knew my father well?”

“Yeah, sure. He was a real scrapper. When he put his mind to it, well, no one beat him in a fight, fair or unfair, or anything else. He was always at his most determined when he thought people doubted him. It got so you knew not to doubt him.”

“Really,” I said finishing off my chicken leg then grabbing a breast.

“Really,” Lucan answered me then he got up and went over to the counter and got us each a glass.

He returned to the table and poured us each a large glass of cold milk. “I thought he was going to be the one.”

“The one? What one?”

“Oh, you’ll find out about that stuff when the time is right. Don’t worry about it for now. So tomorrow you start school with Merry and your new schoolmates.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.

“Merry will love teachin’ you.”

“Why?”

“Why? Well, um, because I can tell that you have great potential and Merry loves to find unique ways to bring out people’s potential.”

“Great potential,” I repeated then I drank some of the ice-cold milk. “My father told me in the SUV right before he died that I had a destiny. I didn’t believe him. I thought those were just words he was saying to me to make me feel less useless, less wrong for not dying with them. A destiny? I don’t even know what it means to have a destiny.”

“Why is that?”

“Because to have a destiny you must be special somehow, talented at something, and I couldn’t even save my parents when I wanted to and they needed me to,” I admitted.

For the first time since my parents’ death I was finally telling someone how I felt about what had happened and it was this new stranger in my life. Yet, I felt very comfortable with this stranger.

“Tell me all about it. I’m here to listen,” Lucan gently said to me.

“I don’t know…it sounds crazy, but we were attacked by this strange mist. The police said it was my imagination, or survivor’s guilt or something like that, but I swear this mist attacked us. I don’t know how, but it did. It surrounded our SUV and pushed it around, banged it up then it sort of picked up the SUV and tossed it at the trees. For some reason, my seat buckle came off and the door opened and I went flying out of the Trailblazer before it crashed into the trees. I wasn’t even badly hurt. I thought I was, but a good night’s sleep and I was not even hurting that much. I didn’t even have that many bruises the next day. It was really weird, like out of a movie or a comic book.”

“You’re at that age,” Lucan said to me.

“What age?”

“Age when some young boys’ bodies begin to mature in all things, you know puberty and such, except you being you, it is a bit more than that. Your body can take a beatin’ better than most I should think.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked Lucan with great interest.

“Hard to explain, at least, it’s hard for me to explain.  I’m not really a man of words, more of a man of action in my time. Merry will explain it to you when he thinks it is the right time for you to fully understand. He’ll eventually explain everything to you. Merry is that kind of man.”

“I should have died with my parents that night, Lucan. I would have died because the mist was coming for me, but then something really strange happened,” I stopped speaking, as I thought of the man in the robe.

“What happened, Sean? Go on tell me. I know you don’t know me real well, but you can trust me and I can see you got something stuck inside of you that needs to come out. What you tell me will stay with me. I’m a natural born listener, who can keep a secret better than the average man.”

“Well, it sounds even stranger than the mist, but there was more that that. You see, this man in a black robe appeared out of nowhere. I didn’t really see him clearly, just his robe and his right hand. I never told this to anyone, especially after they told me that the mist was my imagination, but this man suddenly appeared out of nowhere and frightened the mist off just by raising his hand against it. I passed out after that because I was pretty banged up,” I explained.

“Sounds ‘bout right,” Lucan said then he took a sip of his own milk. “Your father was right about you, Sean. You do have a destiny. Remember that and don’t doubt it because there is no use to doubt such things. Just be determined like your father used to be.”

“But I couldn’t save my parents,” I said, as I felt the tears once again start to burn my eyes. “Destiny? My destiny should be to protect the people I love. What good is it to have a destiny if you can’t save someone you love.”

“Yeah, that is a pain in the butt, isn’t it? But destinies come to you when they are ready not when you want. It isn’t fair but it is what it is, Bear,” Lucan said.

Suddenly, I smiled at the sound of that nickname: “You called me Bear. Did Kieran tell you that my father used to call me Bear?”

“Nay, Kay didn’t mention that to me.”

“Then why did you call me, Bear?”

“You remind me of a young cub about to become a big rip roarin’ bear. Do you mind if I call you Bear?”

“Naw, I don’t mind that at all.”

“Good, I’m glad. How about you drink up your milk and try to get some sleep. I know Merry and he will want to work your brain tomorrow.”

“Okay,” I replied then I drained my glass of milk. Suddenly, I felt tired and was ready to go to bed.

“Don’t worry too much about those things. Be it school or whatever, you’ll get the answers you’re looking for in time. Just be patient and trust the right people,” Lucan advised me.

“Thanks for listening,” I said.

“My pleasure, Bear. I’m here if you need to talk again,” Lucan replied.

“Yeah, sure,” I said, as I went back into my room.

 

nnnn

The morning came too soon and too brightly, as the sun shined through my window because I forgot to put down the shade. I hustled out of bed, got dressed in a pair of faded jeans, a hoodie that had its arms cut short and was ripped a little around the collar then I slipped on my trainers. Taking my left hand and combing through my hair in an attempt to brush it, I opened the bedroom door to see that a mug of hot coffee, several homemade warm plain doughnuts, and a large glass of orange juice was awaiting me. I wolfed down the two doughnuts first then I drained the glass of orange juice down my throat, and finally I drank some of the coffee, which was too strong for my taste. My mother drank an Italian roast coffee, which she bought from a local coffee shop. This coffee tasted as if a single mug could keep you up for days. With a shiver I hustled out through the kitchens backdoor and ran to the big red barn.

Built into the large, locked doors of the barn was another smaller door, which had a doorknob. I turned the doorknob and opened the door and entered my new schoolroom. Much to my surprise, I saw a state of the art schoolroom with central heating and air conditioning and much more. The stalls were removed with the walls painted a light blue, and the rafter also had desks set up for private study. Aside from my fellow students, there were several tables with laptops on them, a large flat screen television, which was hooked up to an Internet, as well as books, CDs, and other teaching tools. In all honesty, I expected farm tools, a chalkboard, and crayons. This was a surprise, the first of many. I ran to one of the tables, which had two people sitting at it, and I sat down a few seats from them.

At the front of this room stood a tall man, an inch or so shorter than Kieran, with a neatly trimmed white goatee and short, well groomed white hair that had a single black streak of hair on the right side above the ear, and gold rimmed glasses sitting on a long Romanesque nose and with dark, almost black, eyes staring out at me. He was dressed in loose, wrinkled chinos, with loafers, a slightly wrinkled white Oxford shirt, and a corduroy jacket with suede elbow patches. Though he had a sense of age about him, I was uncertain just how old he really was because he also had an aura of youthfulness about him, also.

“Good morrow, Arthur Sean McCoul. You are welcome to my class,” the man said in a clipped English accent, “I am Merry Wyllit, your teacher.”

“Um, Hi,” I replied.

“No, I am not. I can’t abide any stimulants, as they dull the senses and the mental acuity. Did you mean to say hello to me?”

“Yes, I meant hello,” I said hesitantly.

“You will find that I respond to proper English not the mishmash that is spoken far too often here with its slang, colloquialisms, and short cut grammar. All of it hurts my ears,” he told me. “Now as this is your first day, I shall have your classmates introduce themselves to you. At the end of this, you will introduce yourself to them. It is only the polite thing to do and I expect politeness. How does that sound?”

“It sounds like an idea,” I said.

“No, it was a statement of intention. Putting up the concept for discussion that if we closed our eyes tightly that we would cease to be here, as living is nothing more than a dream is an idea. A discussion, by the way, influenced by Edgar Allen Poe.”

“Well, it sounds like a good one to me,” I mumbled, causing several of my new classmates to titter.

“You have a sense of humor. That will serve you well in the days to come, as I see how much you do and do not know and how much work you have ahead of yourself,” Merry told me. “Now, Fintain, please begin, as you are on home ground.”

Fintain stood up: “Fintain McCoul. I’m fourteen and considered a strong warrior…”

“Fintain,” interrupted Merry Wyllit, “please keep the details of your schooling and such simple. Pretend you are visiting a local school and introducing yourself. All right.”

“Sure.  Well, I like competing in the Highland games and my best subject is…”

“You don’t really have a best subject, Fintain, though I have tried to entice you to expand your interests beyond sports and games,” Merry interrupted him, “but you try, which I respect greatly.”

He sat down. Next one to stand was Branwyn: “Branwyn Eve Fey. I’m thirteen. I’m gifted at certain things which I won’t discuss now,” she started to say then she offered a sly smile to Merry and continued, “I like to dance. It’s a Fey…Um, family thing. Dancing is fun. But I also like to wrestle and foot race. My best subject is literature, especially folk stories where, as Merry can tell, great truths actually exist.”

“Thank you for the lesson, Branwyn,” Merry chided her.

Branwyn sat down. Sitting beside her was a dark haired young man with a handsome face and dark blue eyes. He stood up, but kept his face turned down and staring at the table, as if he was shy: “My name is Lance François Lake. I’m thirteen and enjoy most everything I learn. I especially like nature, spending time camping and such. I feel comfortable out in nature.”

Lance sat down. The next to stand up was a good looking boy with long golden hair: “Hi, Sean. I’m Wayne Fergus Morgan. I think home-schooling along with every thing here is the bestest thing in the world…”

“Wayne. Bestest may be, like funnest, an acceptable term for this age of technological literacy and intellectual illiteracy, but it is not acceptable here with me,” warmed Merry.

“Sorry. I’m thirteen, too, and I like a lot of things. It’s hard to pick just one. Like I just got a PSP and I like playing games and…yeah, um, my best subject is geography,” he finished.

“Really, Mister Morgan, geography,” Merry intoned with great suspicion.

“Okay, maybe not geography. I like maps,” he said then sat down.

Seated beside Wayne was a boy who looked similar to him, but whose hair was more dirty-blond than golden. He stood up: “I’m Garth Boru Morgan. I’m thirteen and Wayne’s identical twin. We kind of do everything together, even though we don’t really like the same things. Um, I like reading and my best subject is history.”

Garth sat down. At the table where I sat a young girl, who looked to be quiet by nature, stood up. I stared at her, as she had long brown hair with warm brown eyes and gave off an aura that made me feel protective of her. She spoke in a soft voice: “My name is Etain Gwendolyn Roy. I’m fourteen. My best subject is poetry and, well…”

“You’re good at every subject, Etain,” Fintain called out and she blushed with modesty.

“I like doing many things. I don’t really have a favorite pastime, except maybe to go horseback riding. I like that,” she said then she sat down.

The boy, who sat beside Etain, looked athletic and sinewy with long mousy brown hair and a square jaw. His mature appearance belied his actual age. He stood up: “I’m Benedict Vernon Wise. I’m fourteen and I also like the Highland games, a real lot, too. My best subject is…the Highland games, though Merry thinks I’m better at other things.”

“Mr. Wise, you know you are gifted at certain things. Very gifted. I do not allow people to waste their gifts, as they are not given out lightly,” Merry stated.

Everyone laughed. Benedict sat glumly down. I was the next one to introduce myself to the class. Although I felt silly doing this, I stood up and then I scanned each and every face. My father told me to always make sure you made eye contact with those you were talking to. I stopped with meeting Merry’s eyes. Much to Sean’s surprise, Merry had a twinkle in them and he smiled at me. I spoke up: “I am Arthur…”

When I said the name Arthur several of them seemed to almost to jump out of their chairs with the sound of my first name. I ignored this then I saw that Etain, Benedict, Garth, and Wayne now looked at me differently, as if I had announced that I had two heads.

“…Sean McCoul. I am thirteen. I like reading and gaming and baseball and football. I cheer for the Red Sox and New England Patriots. Um, my best subject is English and,” I paused. “That’s all.”

I sat down. Merry moved to the front of the class and cleared his throat.

“We are missing one student. Cedric Strong. I’m not sure what his middle name is, but I like to think that it is laggard. He has a cold. I guess I can tell you something about him.  Cedric is fourteen. It appears his favorite pastime is not doing his homework and his best subject is lollygagging. There, the class is introduced,” Merry enlightened. “Until further notice once our formal classes are done for the day, Garth, Wayne, Lance, and Fintain should meet with Lucan, who will put you through your paces. Etain, Benedict, Branwyn shall meet up with Morgana, and she will have activities for you. I shall be giving Sean my own special attention for the next month or so. We have no time to waste in this school. Now, today our first lesson will be Literature. We shall begin reading Canterbury Tales in its original Old English.”

I sighed. Canterbury Tales in Old English, I couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t going to be a class. It was going to be a form of punishment. Here I was in a barn, a hi-tech barn, being taught by a snotty Englishman. So this was my new school. I missed Maine. This school was not what I had in mind. I missed my parents.

“So if there aren’t any further questions, I will read the opening to you in its proper tongue then we will analyze it and learn it,” Merry said.

“Merry, I have a question,” said Branwyn.

“Oh, joy, I had a feeling that you would, Branwyn, as you seem to be in a gadfly mood,” Merry responded, “What is it?”

“Well, since we have certain activities that our new classmate can’t participate in…”

“Can’t participate in yet,” Merry corrected her.

“Can’t participate in yet, is our training going to suffer because of him?”

I glared over at her and she glared back at me. For a long moment we continued to stare into each other’s eyes until anger and arrogance melted away and we replaced it with staring at each other and seeing something more than an adversary. For a moment I thought I saw her blush, as my own cheeks felt a little hot.

“You know that your training will continue. I am not the only one around here who can oversee your growth,” Merry said, “but I am glad that you care so much about your training that you took this time to point out to our new student that he is lagging behind you. I would like to remind you that our new student has a potential that may exceed your own.”

“Yes, Merry,” she answered him softly, as she had been censured and put in her place. But there was more, too. She was embarrassed by her own behavior. Branwyn glanced at me out of the corner of her eye.

I don’t know what she saw, but I knew what I felt: annoyed and sour. I had been through a great deal recently and the last thing I wanted was to have to prove myself to these strangers.

I stared at the top of the table in front of me. This Merry thinks I have some kind of potential, just like my father thought, I mused. Yet, my father always taught me to look at myself and be honest: Don’t think yourself greater or worse than whom you really are. Well, when I looked in the mirror recently I saw a boy who couldn’t help his parents and greatly missed them. Where was the potential there? Honesty told me to doubt what this Merry saw in me.

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

MONTH TWO

Things aren’t What they Seem

_________________________________________

September fell away like a leaf from a tree and October took its proper place in nature’s scheme. Though the colors changed to autumnal ones, very little else changed for my new school routine and me. At one o’clock everyday my fellow students, who I had to admit were farther ahead of me in schoolwork than I thought they would be, disappeared to have lunch then they joined up with either Lucan or this Morgana, who I hadn’t met yet. After I ate some kind of sandwich with homemade meat and hard cheese or some real hearty stew, I returned to the barn and then I’d get caught up in my studies with Merry, who seemed to be greatly disappointed with my education up until now.

“Did your teachers at your old school actually have college degrees or did they get some sort of certificate by sending in cereal box tops?” he asked me, as I peeked at the clock on the wall to see that it was almost three-thirty in the afternoon. School was almost over.

“They had advanced degrees,” I answered.

“In what? Mediocrity! How to educate a child inadequately? How far we haven’t come in this world! The Greeks and Romans understood the need for a full education, which taxed the mind. Of course when I speak of Greek education I speak of Athens and not Sparta. They taught boys to be warriors not scholars. I think a few of your classmates would have done well in the Sparta schooling system, especially your cousin,” he babbled on. “I mean I don’t know how you can understand history without understanding the wars that were fought and the reasons for them. Or the great battles how humanity sometimes rises to the occasion. What would this country be without General Grant’s determination or his willingness to be lenient when General Lee surrendered? Yes, movements and philosophical ideas are important indeed, but they usually came about because of some war being fought. They are not hatch in a void. It perplexes me.”

“Yes, sir,” I said while trying to stifle a yawn that I no longer could contain.

“I know. It is a beautiful 70 degrees out today, the trees are readying for winter, a much milder one than you are used to in Maine, but winter nonetheless. There are the smells of fall in the air, the people are still enjoying the lake before it gets cold and you are stuck in a large barn with a grumpy old man. Do you want me to tell you something that you didn’t know?”

“You are always telling me something that I didn’t already know,” I retorted.

“Ohh, I gather I stated that one badly,” Merry chortled. “How do you say in the current vernacular: my bad? Is that correct?”

“Yes, though it just sounds wrong coming from you,” I replied with a smile cracking my face.

“I agree. You really are having an effect on me. No, what I meant to say is that do you want to know something about yourself that you didn’t know?” asked Merry with a more than usual serious tone.

I thought about the question for a moment. More than likely, Merry was merely going to tell me one of my faults and present it as something I was unaware of. Merry had a way of pointing out my own faults or my deficiencies to me.

“Okay, I’ll buy in. What don’t I know about myself that you can tell me?”

“I was always bound to be your teacher. It was agreed to even before you were born by both your mother and father. They knew someday you would need my tutelage and mentoring,” he stated.

He got me I was surprised by his statement. My parents never told me anything about coming to Tennessee for school. I wasn’t sure that Merry was telling me the truth.

“You think I’m fibbing about this, don’t you?” Merry said.

“I think you are full of it. My parents never talked about Tennessee to me. They never mentioned it.”

“Well, I’m not misguiding you. Though there are times that I can be full of it, so to speak, but this is not one of those times. Of course, you being my student, I was going to wait until you were fourteen years old and had mostly come into your own, so to speak, and you’d be made better prepared for certain things about yourself. However, circumstances brought about unexpected changes in our plan and you are here now, before we are ready for you and before you are ready for us.”

“Merry,” I said using my teacher’s first name, which was a habit I picked up when he taught one on one, “what do you mean by come into my own?”

Lucan once mentioned something like that to me, that I was coming into my own and that had some special meaning. I wanted to know what exactly it meant.

“Ahh, well, the problem with sharing information, especially sharing information with a person who is so unaware of himself, is it always brings about more questions. In this case these are questions I can’t answer yet. Sorry, Bear,” he said with a smile, using my nickname, “you just aren’t ready yet to learn everything you need to know, so I won’t tell you yet, even if it means that you have a bog on.”

“A bog on,” I repeated the unfamiliar phrase.

“Even if it puts you in a bad mood to use a more familiar nomenclature,” Merry explained.

“When will you be able tell me?”

“Soon, very soon.”

“Define soon for me,” I demanded.

“Very good. You are starting to understand that words have very specific meanings, yet their meanings can be bent a bit depending up circumstances and the user of those words. You know that soon with me is always relative, as I look at soon from a long-term perspective. Very good.”

“You haven’t answered my question,” I pointed out to him.

“True,” he said with a smile. “I will tell you soon.”

“Merry, that isn’t fair.”

“Bear, it is all that I can offer you now. You just aren’t ready yet to know more.”

“Just like I’m not allowed to go anywhere, or into the woods, walk around the lake, anywhere without an adult chaperone. I mean you are all treating me as if I’m fragile or…an imbecile of some kind or something. It’s frustrating. I feel like a prisoner here.”

“You are neither fragile nor are you an imbecile of any kind, Bear. We are merely protective of you not because you are weak, but because there are some real dangers in the woods waiting for you. Actually, there are dangers all around you that you don’t even notice,” Merry told me.

“Everyone else, though, gets to run wild after school. I mean I actually saw Lance, Cedric and Fintain playing with wooden swords the other day near the lake. They seemed to be practicing some kind of martial arts moves or something. It looked real intense and sort of dangerous. And fun! I bet you wouldn’t let me do that,” I said petulantly.

“They are ready for such things and you are not ready right now for them,” Merry said in a tone that let me know that argument was over. “For now we should finish up our lesson in trigonometry.”

“Oh, joy,” I mumbled.

“It is a joy. Though everything can’t be explained by mathematics, there is so much that can be that it is a joy to know it and be proficient in it. From balancing a checkbook to driving a car to judging a target based on wind speed and distance, math is necessary and fun. So pay attention and I will teach it to you.”

“Yes, sir,” I dourly replied. “It’s just that I feel like you’re preparing me for college not for high school.”

“No. Once I’m through with you, you won’t need college,” answered Merry absentmindedly.

“I wont’ need to go to college?”

“No, no, you won’t. You might be too busy with other things anyway to indulge anyhow.”

“Other things which math will help me with because math is good for everything,” I manipulated Merry.

“Now, now. Math cannot explain away emotions or deep feelings. You cannot equate sadness, add or subtract joy, nor calculate love. Math has its limitations, as does science has its limitations. Emotions and moods are the purview of the heart and soul not of numbers, the scientific method, and or dissection. The problem with too many human beings is that they tend to not understand that simple fact these days. Our heart and our soul make us human, not science or math, which merely makes us very clever. Even the ever-scientific emotion of curiosity starts in the heart, sometimes in the soul. A cat doesn’t know math, nor does it understand science, yet a cat can be curious. Remember that Bear. Remember the importance of the heart and soul.”

“Yes, Merry. I will try to remember,” I answered in a better mood, as I had gotten him to undervalue math a little.

Merry stared at me for a long moment. Like a snake crawling across the grass a smile crossed his lips: “All right, you win, Bear. School is out for the day. No more math or science or thought for today. Go play video games or whatever it is you do to relax and blow off steam. Trig will wait for tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Merry.”

“You’re welcome, Bear.”

 

nnnn

It was Friday at dusk and Kieran had invited Morgana and Branwyn Fey to dinner. This was my first chance to meet Branwyn’s mother, Morgana, a woman I heard so much about from Kieran more so than from Branwyn. Lucan and Kieran sat on the wood benches on the front porch, while Fintain and I sat on the front steps waiting for them.

It was a cool evening, one that made the lake and the mountains seem like a paradise, which seemed hard to believe considering how I felt about the place. Between Fintain and I there had developed a sort of frosty silence. Even though I had tried to act a little more civil lately to Fintain, as well as the rest of my class, the first impression I made with Fintain lingered. To most people Fintain was gregarious, reminding me a bit of my own father and not like Kieran, but with me he now remained distant and silent. It was just another bridge that I’d have to repair in time. I knew it, too, but I wasn’t ready yet.

A white 2002 Land Rover pulled down the dirt road stopping in front of the house. The lake was in the background acting as a picturesque backdrop for the passengers of the car. In the passenger seat I saw the shine of Branwyn’s red hair and her expressive elfin face. Sitting in the driver seat was a striking looking woman. Where Branwyn’s hair was short and spiky, her mother’s was long and full and a rich auburn. She had jade color eyes and her mouth was friendly with a ready and easy smile on it. Separately, as well as when combined, daughter and mother outshone nature, I decided, as I looked from the lake to those riding in the Land Rover.

When they got out, I was shocked to see that Branwyn wasn’t in her usual overalls and T-shirt, but she was wearing a plum colored casual dress that came down to her knees. Her mother wore a black casual dress that also came to her knees. They both wore sandals and, even though, I wouldn’t say it to Branwyn, they both looked too beautiful to be visiting for a simple meal. I sighed, as I remembered the state of my relationship with Branwyn, who always came to Fintain’s protection and defense, was as frosty as my relationship with Fintain. Lucan had told me that Fintain and Branwyn had been close friends since they were both in diapers and playing in the same playpen. Again, I sighed, as Morgana approached the house.

“Hi, Kay, you’re looking relaxed,” Morgana called out.

“Mo, I am relaxed,” he called back.

“You look lovely as always, Morgana,” Lucan chimed in.

“Thanks, Lucan. Always the charmer, aren’t you?”

“Only with those I’m charmed by,” he replied to her.

“Hey, Bran,” mumbled Fintain to Branwyn to which Branwyn waved to him.

Branwyn and her mother walked straight to me and stood in front of me, as if they were presenting themselves. With a sort of reluctance Branwyn motioned towards me and said: “This is him.”

“Branwyn, you can do better than that. Introduce me properly. I’ve raised you to have good manners,” her mother scolded her.

“All right, ma,” Branwyn said then she took a deep breath. “This is Arthur Sean McCoul, my schoolmate, and the son of Arthur Liam McCoul and nephew to Kieran Brian Boru McCoul and cousin to Fintain McCoul. Was that good enough, ma?”

“That’s better, not much better, but better,” Morgan said to her daughter then she turned to me and said: “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I heard you prefer Sean to Arthur.”

“Yeah, I do,” I answered shyly.

“I prefer Mo to Morgana. You can always tell that our parents pick our names for us without our input,” she said then she winked at me.

“I like my name,” said Branwyn petulantly.

“You like being different from most people, also,” Morgana said to her daughter then she looked up at Kieran. “So, Kay, what are you cooking?”

“I was going to grill us some steaks out back. Nothing special just meat and potatoes,” he said.

“Show me to the kitchen. I think we can make a better meal than just grilled steak. I’m starting to think that you have some sort of family feud going on against vegetables and salads,” she said.

“All right,” Kieran said and got up. He paused at the front door. “Are you coming with us, Lucan?”

“Yeah, sure, I will. You might need some help fending off the green beans. They like to attack from behind,” Lucan said then he got up and followed them into the house.

Branwyn sat down on the steps beside Fintain. With her left shoulder she knocked into him. When he didn’t respond, she did it again then he pushed back. They both laughed. The two of them knew each other so well that they didn’t need words to communicate.

“How’s training going with your Ma?” Fintain asked her.

“Not bad. Ma’s a tough one. She likes to work Benedict’s, Etain’s, and my butt off with the same exercises over and over again until we get it perfect. She keeps telling us how far we have to go before we are proficient.”

“I bet Benedict hates that. He gets bored easily with that stuff.”

“Yeah, he does, especially since he won’t give up the thought of being,” she looked over at me then she chose her words carefully, “you know one of you guys instead of one of us.”

“Lucan ain’t happy until we are sweating and we can’t lift our arms up above our heads. Cedric almost passed out the other day from training. Benny would have loved it.”

“He’d rather be with you, but Merry told him he is better with us, that he is more gifted than he even imagines, but first he has to embrace his gift to see just how gifted he is. It’s killing him, though. He wants to,” she paused and again looked over at me then she continued: “He wants to be with you guys so bad that he barely tries, you know, to learn about his gift and all that.”

“I miss him. Lance just cares about technique and Wayne and Garth are wild. Cedric, well, he does as much as he has to, but Benny used to really push me. He was the only one who could match me in strength. I miss him.”

“Merry thinks he’s holding back with us because he wants to get back with you guys. He won’t let him go, though. I kind of miss Merry’s personal lessons,” she sighed then she glanced over at me again. This time I read her expression to say that it was my fault that Merry wasn’t giving them private lessons. I was taking all of Merry’s time lately, as he tried to catch me up to the rest of them.

I listened to them talk, and I felt like they didn’t want me around while they talked. My being there only interfered with their talking freely forcing them to use code words or find ways of saying what they wanted to say without being direct. I had gotten off to a bad start with Fintain and Branwyn on my first day there and it just hadn’t changed much, though in some ways I wanted it to change. Yet, there was something about Branwyn, especially when she was with Fintain, which irritated me to no end. Whenever I had a chance to be friendly with them, something sarcastic or defensive came out of my mouth. It was as if I had no control over what I said to them. Except for Wayne and Garth, I really hadn’t made much of a connection with any of my new schoolmates. I stood up and started to walk away from the steps.

“Hey, Sean,” Fintain called to me with concern in his voice, “you aren’t supposed to walk around here alone.”

“I’m just going to the barn. I think I forgot a book in there that I want to finish reading.”

“Do you want us to come with you?” Fintain asked with a sort of annoyed concern.

“Come on, Fin, he can manage to walk to the barn on his own,” Branwyn goaded me. She looked at me with an expression of be alone if you want to be.

“Yeah, like she said, I can manage this on my own,” I said defiantly then I started walking towards the barn.

I hadn’t left anything in the barn, but I merely wanted to get away from Fintain and Branwyn, who made me feel unwanted. I knew the initial problem with my relationship with them was my own fault, but it seemed over the past month that they were unable to get past that first meeting and that was their fault. In front of me the red barn loomed. Instead of going into it, I decided to take a walk to the back of the barn to the edge of the woods. It was a chance finally to explore a little of the place by myself.

So far all I had seen of the Watauga Lake area was what I was allowed to see with supervision. Yes, I went to the fishing pier with Lucan and watched him fish, and I watched people boat on the lake having fun and all. But I hadn’t really explored the place, not that I was overly interested in nature. I was the first to admit that I didn’t know the difference between a Dogwood tree and a Rocky Mountains Subalpine Fir tree or a Sycamore tree, as I liked the seashore better than woods, but I still felt like exploring this new territory on my own.

With a slate grey sky above me, I walked along the side of the barn until I reached the back. About five feet from the barn, a thick line of trees started. The dark bark of the trees and thick branches and foliage became shadowy and slightly intimidating, as darkness started to fall. It was as if nature had gone from friendly in the day to foreboding and dangerous at night. I started to think about walking into those woods, even though my instincts told me not to do it. I took three steps forward towards the tree line, when I heard some rustling of brush deep in the trees. My heartbeat picked up and my muscles tightened stopping me from going any further. Grrrrhh, a low guttural, menacing growl came from the woods. It wasn’t a dog’s growl, but something more feral. My heartbeat calmed slightly with that sound, as I took control of myself. There was something out there and I had the feeling that it was there for me. Suddenly, I thought of what Merry had told me: danger is all around you.

The rustling grew louder and nearer. I didn’t hear footsteps, though, but some animals were moving around in there. Again I heard an animal because of the rustling of brush, but there was no more growling. It was as if whatever it was, it was pacing back and forth just in front of me, but it was hidden by the trees and the brush. I took a few cautionary steps backwards. Suddenly, someone placed a hand on my left shoulder startling me and causing me to yelp.

“Calm down, it’s just me,” Lucan told me.

I turned and saw that Lucan was standing beside me. He had an ax with a large sharp edge in his left hand, as he stared into the woods as if he was looking for something he expected to be there.

“What are you doing back here?” he asked.

“I wanted to be alone,” I answered.

“Better places than this for that kind of thing. You could walk down to the shoreline and contemplate the water, or go into your room and enjoy some alone time,” Lucan said.

“There is something out there,” I stated.

“There’s always something out there; probably just a stray beaver or maybe a wolf or something like that hanging around the area looking for some dinner. I came here to tell you that our dinner is almost ready to be eaten. You should join us.”

“I felt like whatever it is in the woods that it’s here for me, though, not for dinner,” I admitted to him.

“Don’t you worry about it now,” Lucan said, “now let’s get going. We got us some steak, salad, grilled corn, and Morgana is even baking brownies. How’s that sound?”

“Okay,” I said.

We started walking towards the back of the house where the grill was and which was now lit up by a floodlight.  Along with a floodlight, Kieran had a bug light on, which hummed along with an occasional buzz as it zapped a mosquito or fly. Standing at the grill, he appeared to be lecturing Fintain, while Morgana had Branwyn cornered by the back door and she seemed to be lecturing her. I knew that they were somehow in trouble because of me. They were probably told not to let me out of their sight and they did. I felt both useless and annoyed that they were in trouble because of me. I hated the idea of other kids being responsible for me.

Lucan and I walked towards the long wooden picnic table, which had wooden benches on either side of it. I could smell the cooking steaks, see the smoke wafting off the grill, as corn, still in their husks and slightly wet with water, were grilling. As we passed by Kieran and Fintain, I overheard Kieran’s hard whisper: “He lost his parents, killed by the Aes Sidhe, Fintain. Think about that. He’s your cousin, too, and he needs to be prepared so that he can be presented for Bealtaine during his sixteenth year.”

Aes Sidhe! What was Aes Sidhe? And Bealtaine. What was Bealtaine? Was it a place, a school, or a festival? I had no idea what any of this meant, or even if I was hearing correctly. We continued past Morgana and Branwyn and I heard even more from Morgana: “How can you be expected to protect him during Samhain? I know you’re a child but there is no reason to be childish.”

Lucan and I continued on until we were at the long wooden picnic table. We sat down. I had heard of Samhain. Wasn’t Samhain another term for Halloween? What protection did I need during Halloween? They think I might try and overdose on candy?

As if he appeared from nowhere, Merry came strolling from the front of the house. He was dressed in a long black trench coat, his chinos, and a jean shirt, and was wearing a black slouch hat that was pulled low almost covering his eyes. Waving to Kieran and then to Morgana, he continued past them until he was at the picnic table. He sat down beside me.

“Lucan, can you please allow me a moment of Sean’s time alone?” he politely asked.

“Of course, Merry, I’ll let you have some time alone. I think Fintain has heard enough from his father about now,” Lucan said then he got up and walked over to the grill.

Merry sighed heavily, as if he was about to say something he didn’t want to say. Taking his hat off, he placed it gently on the tabletop then he began to stroke absentmindedly his beard with his right hand. Patiently, I waited for the lecture to begin.

“I’m sorry, Sean. I am doing a poor job of preparing you for things you need to be prepared for. One of the difficulties of being a teacher is to know when to push and when to allow the student to find his own level, his own boundaries. I believe I need to do some pushing with you, though,” he said.

“Sorry? I don’t understand,” I said.

“Well, you see I wanted to bring you along slowly, but time has a way of being compressed by circumstances, so I must pick things up with you. I shall have Morgana take over the full class load on Monday, so that you and I can really get down to work. Is that all right with you?”

“You mean I’ll be your only student from here on out,” I said with a hint of excitement.

“Yes, that’s what I mean. Your classmates need to do their work without you and you need to do yours without them for now. You will be my sole pupil.”

“Where? In the other barn?” I asked.

“In my place. Does that sound good?”

“I guess.”

“Good,” exclaimed Merry then he rubbed his hands together. “What’s for dinner then?”

“Steak,” I answered.

“Excellent. I was going to have a bowl of soup tonight, but steak is better.”

 

nnnn

It was cockcrow, an expression my father used to use, Monday morning. The sun brought with it a purple blue sky that seemed to be a harbinger of an exciting day for me. Merry told me that I needed to dress for strenuous activities, as well as mental ones, and that he’d pick me up at 6:30 and we would have a hearty breakfast at his house. I showered quickly then dressed in faded black jeans, a green Red Sox T-shirt, a Bill Belichick hoodie, and my trainers then I went out on the front porch and waited for Merry to arrive. There was a chill in the air.

At 6:29 a pristine and shining 1955 cherry red Oldsmobile 98 Holiday Coupe pulled up in front of the house with Merry at the wheel. He appeared to be in a good mood, which relieved me. In a state of mild awe, as I had never seen an antique car up close before, I opened the passenger door of the two door car and got in.

“This is too much, way too much,” I stated.

“You like my car?”

“Like it. This car is wicked.”

“I hope that wicked means it is cool and not evil. My car is not evil. I always like the slang word cool,” Merry said then he pulled the car out and drove away from the house.

“Where do you live?” I asked excitedly.

“In a very special place unlike any you have visited before in your life.”

“And that would be where?”

“Around, close by, yet very far away and unreachable unless you know how,” he said with a smirk. “You’ll see. It’s on the lake.”

“Oh, okay, it’s by the lake.”

“No, it’s on the lake,” he laughed.

The Oldsmobile turned onto a black top, paved road, which Merry stayed on for merely a few moments then he pulled off of the paved road and onto a dirt one. This dirt road led down towards the lake.

“Merry, where are you going?”

“Don’t worry, Bear, I do know how to find my way home. It is always within reach for me,” he answered then he lifted his right hand and waved it towards the water.

Without warning a light mist appeared at the lip of the water then it developed a tube-like shape on the water leading out into the middle of the lake. Unlike the mist that appeared in Maine, this one was less translucent, cloudier, and somehow this mist didn’t scare me. The red Oldsmobile continued towards the mist, which did concern me since I wasn’t in the mood to take a swim in the cold lake.

“Merry, what’s happening?” I asked nervously.

“I’m taking you to my place on the lake,” he answered.

Unexpectedly, I saw that in the mist there now appeared the outline of an old fashion wooden bridge. It seemed to just be in the mist yet nowhere else, so that as I peered into the mist it appeared to be sitting on the water ready for use, but when I looked past the mist, there wasn’t any bridge to be seen. It was unbelievable. Once in the mist he drove onto that bridge. As he drove along both the mist and the bridge seemed to move across the water, which I hoped it was some kind of an illusion. I peered into the mist and I saw that the bridge ended on an island that was in the middle of the lake. Yet, though, I had seen this lake many times I don’t recall seeing an island in the middle of the lake.

I remained calm on the outside, just as my father had taught me to do in situations where I felt that I had no control. Even if you have no control over anything my father told me you can at least control yourself. So while calm in appearance my stomach was in truth twisting with a combination of nervousness and fear. I had seen what mist could do and feared it, yet I trusted Merry. As the Oldsmobile pulled on the island the mist disappeared revealing all of Watauga Lake and the surrounding area. Merry kept driving right up to a large log cabin that was painted brown with white window boxes and had a scenic view of the beach and the lake beyond the beach. He parked his car.

“Welcome to my current home,” he said. “You are now my apprentice.”

“Merry, we are in the middle of the lake on an island that doesn’t even exist, can’t exist,” I said half in a state of shock and half in a state of excitement.

I got out of the car and twirled around looking at all of Watauga Lake. They were on a small island where a small island couldn’t exist. Suddenly, I saw a motorboat skipping along the top of the water coming towards us. The motorboat buzzed along and was almost on top of the island’s beach when it completely disappeared. I fell down onto the ground. My legs just gave out.

“Merry, where did that boat just go? Why isn’t it crashed on the beach?”

“It’s still on the lake.”

“Then why didn’t it come up onto the beach?”

“Because you, I, this particular beach, the Oldsmobile, and my mist isle are in a different realm than Watauga Lake. In this case we are in a sort of in-between realm of my own devising. You see this is a mist isle, Sean, which exists only on a realm that is in between other more solid realms and nowhere else,” he calmly explained.

“Mist isle? Realms? Whatever! This is impossible,” I mumbled.

“As your arse is sitting on the ground of a mist isle, I would say impossible is the wrong word at this time. Try improbable, yet true, which is a better way to sum it up. We are here, so you can’t argue with that. Are you hungry?” he asked me.

“I’m confused.”

“Good. I find confusion is the starting point for knowledge. To be confused is to be receptive to learning and eventually receptive for enlightenment,” Merry told me.

Before I could get up, the door to Merry’s cabin opened and an extremely large, black, furry dog wearing grey sweat pants that seemed too small for its large body, came walking out of it on its hind legs. I tried to speak but my throat and mouth went dry, so dry that I couldn’t even make spit. The dog, which had to be over six foot ten inches standing on its hind legs, walked up to me and licked its mouth with a large red tongue, as if it was hungry and I was a meal.

“Chota, please, Sean is an important guest and this is no way to greet him on his first visit to the isle,” Merry said to the dog. “Can you transform now?”

The large black dog sort of yawned, licked its chops, and then barked once then it did something I thought was impossible. Feeling as if I was going mad, I watched as the large black dog transformed into a man just under six foot wearing grey sweat pants. The man had black eyes, long black hair, and skin color that fell somewhere in between a suntan and a sunburn. His age appeared to be about twenty years old, give or take a year, but something told me that he was much older than that. He smiled at me: “How?”

“Sean, this is my mist isle roommate, Chota. He lives here because, like myself, he is a man out of synch with time in many ways. Chota is a full-blooded Yuchi and what the natives call a dogman. His father was chief and his brother a shaman and Chota is a shapeshifter.”

“Which means I can turn into a really, big cool dog, whenever I’m in the mood,” Chota said to me then he offered me his hand and helped me up.

“Chota will be in charge of your physical training on the isle, while I train you scholastically, as well as in other ways,” Merry told me.

“Hey, you’re a Patriots fan, I see,” Chota said to me, as he looked at my hoodie.

“Yeah! Are you a Pats fan?” I asked him.

“Naw. I always root for the Redskins,” he said with a big smile then he made the tomahawk chop cheer.

I didn’t know if Chota was kidding or not, but felt a little too confused and overwhelmed to ask him. The three of us went into the cabin, where a big plate of pancakes sat at a table with three waiting plates. We sat down and Merry served each of us a good sized-stack of pancakes. As he applied a great quantity of maple syrup on his pancakes, Chota started talking to me: “Pancakes are a Native American thing, did you know that? You see the pilgrims came and the Pawtuxet Indians…oops, Native American, taught them how to grind corn to use, which is one of the ingredients of pancakes. A pancake was first known as a journey cake then because of your strange accents in New England a Johnny cake and now it has morphed into a pancake. See how much you owe us?”

“Uh huh,” I replied between bites of pancakes.

“I love maple syrup,” Chota stated then he took a mouthful of pancakes. “I give you guys credit for that. I’ve never been to an IHOP, but I bet they’re pretty darn good to eat at.”

“Merry,” I said, as Merry poured me a glass of milk, “you definitely have a lot of explaining to do because I am sort of lost right now.”

“Yes, I do,” he said, “but not right now. As I said before to you, Sean, you were not supposed to be ready for this for another year, as your bloodline matures slowly because of its importance, but your time has come early, so I recommend that you roll with it, as they say. You must deal with it the best as you can. After breakfast you will belong to Chota. We will talk around noon.”

“Have I got a morning planned for you,” Chota said. “I thought we might start with some Native American dancing, you know, like the rain dance or something like that. You know a good dance can burn up to 342 calories an hour, but then I thought no. Maybe you aren’t a dancer, you know two right feet, so instead I thought I’d start training you with bow and arrow, knife, blowgun, spear and war club. First though, we’ll do some grappling and some throwing, Native American style.”

“Okay,” I replied blankly.

“Hey, Merry, I think he is in a state of shock,” Chota observed with a laugh.

“Any answers that he will be getting from me will have to wait until after lunch, Chota. He must show patience,” Merry stated.

“Finish up your breakfast, buckaroo, ‘cuz you belong to me all morning,” Chota told me.

Eating without much gusto I finished up my breakfast and then I washed up in the cabin’s bathroom. Chota took me outside and told me to take off my shoes then he tossed me a pair of grey sweat pants not unlike his own.

“Put them on. Jogging in jeans chafes,” he advised.

“Where do I change?”

“Right here on the beach, buckaroo. I hope you didn’t go commando this morning,” Chota joked. “I’d also get rid of the hoodie because you’ll be sweating.”

“Can I change inside the cabin? I’m not comfortable changing here.”

“Buckaroo, no one can see you and there is never a reason to be uncomfortable about your body, no matter what it looks like. A body is merely a vessel, so change now and don’t be embarrassed,” ordered Chota.

Feeling very exposed I changed right on the beach. Even though in my mind I sort of understood that the mist isle was in a different realm, an in-between realm, I was put off by the young girl water skiing not too far from where I now stood in my underwear. Quickly, I put on the sweat pants.

“Leave the trainers off. I’m a believer in bare feet, although a nice pair of moccasins will do in a pinch. It’s an Indian thing. We like to get used to the terrain, the ground we stand on,” Chota told me. “We are going to start with a jog around the isle on the beach.”

“Around the isle?”

“Twice. It’s a small isle, not that small since space is kind of meaningless in Merry’s realm, but it’s small enough for what I have in mind,” he said then he started running. “Come on buckaroo.”

Twice around the isle for Chota was a warm-up, but for me it was exercise. Once we finished Chota went in and got me a bottle of water and told me to drink. After that he gave me ten minutes to rest. Those ten minutes passed too quickly for me. Chota motioned me to stand up.

“We’ll start this time out with grappling Native American style. What you have to know about the Yuchi, my people, is that we fought for defense, but when we fought, we fought. Speed, commitment, agility, and fearlessness are all that you’ll need to be a good Native American grappler. Now I want you to give me your best attack.”

“Um, I’ve never fought anyone in my life,” I admitted.

“How old are you?”

“Thirteen,” I answered.

“Buckaroo, it’s about time you learned. Heck, by the time I was your age, I had fought against other tribes. You watch movies?”

“Yeah.”

“Do your best impersonation of an attack from a movie then,” Chota told me.

“All right,” I said then I ran at Chota with my right fist raised to strike him.

Instead of waiting passively to use my weight and attack against me, Chota dove into me with a body block knocking all the air out of me sending me to the ground. While on the ground I rolled around for a moment in pain then I stopped and forced myself to get up.

“That was the first lesson. Surprise is your best weapon in a battle,” Chota told me. “Now I’m going to take it easy with you because I am a man, but, buckaroo, you will be hurting by the end of our session. I’m not going to take it that easy with you. According to Merry, there isn’t time to take it too easy with you.”

For the rest of the morning, Chota taught me Native American grappling. By the time lunch came around, I had a bruise under my right eye, black and blue forearms, and a rib cage that was sore when I coughed, yet I was happier than I had been in months. No longer was I being treated like a fragile creature; I was being treated like a normal boy. And maybe my father was right; maybe I did have a destiny.

Merry had made a Native American stew for lunch, which included pieces of lamb, peeled potatoes, five roasted green chilies, corn, diced celery, which he covered with water and let cook slowly for several hours. While Chota ate two bowls, I slowly finished up one.

“Didn’t like it, buckaroo?” asked Chota.

“It’s great. I’m just filled with so many questions I don’t have much of an appetite,” I admitted.

“You better eat up, though, because you’re going to need your energy. Food tastes good, but food is also energy for the body, keeps it running,” Chota advised me.

“It’s almost time to answer your questions, Sean,” stated Merry.

“Well, that’s my cue. I’m done. I’ll see you early tomorrow morning, Sean. More jogging, more grappling, and more fun things to come. I tell you I can’t wait until we get to war clubs,” Chota said then he started towards the door.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Time to be a dog,” he answered then he left.

This left Merry and I alone. Merry pushed aside his bowl of stew. My appetite was hindered by what was coming. Merry expected that this day wouldn’t happen for a year, but now he had to decide how much to tell me.

“To begin with, Sean, it was I, who appeared in the black robe the night your parents were murdered by the Aes Sidhe and faced down their attempt to kill you.”

“It was you,” I mumbled.

“Yes, it was.”

Somehow I had convinced myself that I had not really seen a man stop the mist from coming for me that night. It was just too strange, too impossible, for it to be real. No, it must have been my imagination. But it was true and it was Merry who had saved me. I just knew Merry wasn’t lying to me and considering I saw him bring up a mist and drive onto an isle that wasn’t there, how could I even doubt what he said.

“I got there too late to save your parents,” he told me. “I deeply regret that. They were wonderful, brave people. Your mother wasn’t one of us, but she accepted us and loved your father deeply. And your father, well, your father was very special. He was of the bloodline, eldest, which makes you special, too.”

“Who are we, Merry?”

“We are the people, the Clan, who protect this realm. Simply put: we are the protectors of this realm,” he said.

“Who or what is the Aes Sidhe?” I asked.

“They are a powerful supernatural race that live in the realm of the Sidhe. They can appear human in form, very attractive, too, but some take a different form other than human. You might not know them by the name Aes Sidhe, which really is their race, but you may have heard legends and myths about them. The banshee is an Aes Sidhe. Pooka, sidhe shapeshifters, are Aes Side, so aren’t the Sluagh Sidhe, the siabra, and leprechaun. There are more races than that. I believe the other day in the woods that stalking you there was an offspring of a human being and a Pooka, or as we know them as: a werewolf. It along with its pack probably was imported from Scotland in order to hunt you down.”

“A werewolf? They’re only in movies. They don’t really exist,” I exclaimed with disbelief.

“I am afraid they do, though in some ways they are more frightening in movies than in real life,” he tried to assuage me. “A Pooka can become virtually anything it wants to transform into, but when a Pooka and a human mate their offspring can only become one animal. I know one offspring who isn’t evil that can transform into a weretiger. Very feral in appearance, but a real pussycat to deal with if you know how to deal with them.”

“Pooka, leprechaun,” I repeated. “How is any of this possible, Merry? They aren’t real. They are folk tales and myths, legends, not real.”

Suddenly, I remembered how Branwyn said that folk tales held truth people didn’t know about. Was this what she meant or was there even more for me to learn about?

“Yes, well, that is a good question. They are real. There are many realms of existence, which are dominated by different races. In this realm human beings are the dominant race. This is just the way it is. You see we live in a very complicated universe, yet its Creator had a simple plan: we are free to live as we choose. Peace is possible, if we choose it. Yet, so is war if we are not diligent. There exist many doorways to these many realms, so these races can mix if they wish, or conquer if they choose. It is their choice. There is the Aes Sidhe, who for lack of a more constructive term, are devious and evil; there are the elves, and the Fey, or faerie folk…”

“Fey. Like Branwyn Fey,” I interrupted him.

“Yes, like her, but not her kind. Not all Fey are evil. You see Branwyn and Morgana have human blood and Fey blood, also know as Fiery. Their actual name is Branwyn of the Fey since Branwyn’s father was a full Fey and Morgana’s mother was Fey,” he explained.

“Branwyn, she’s magical?” I asked.

“She has certain powers, just as Etain and Benedict were born with the potential of druid power in them, not unlike my own druid power, though not as well endowed. Etain is also blessed with something else, but that is not for me to speak of with you at this time. And Benedict, well, he could be well endowed with druid gifts, if only he took his studies more seriously, but he wants to be a warrior” he said.

“And Fintain, Garth, Wayne, and Lance, what are they?”

“They are very special warriors of a special kind, born with powers that develop at a certain age which allow them to defend this realm against the Aes Sidhe and others. You see your schoolmates are special like you.”

“Which am I, Merry? Am I a warrior or a druid?”

“You see, Sean, the inhabitants of these realms have often mixed with each other in a positive way. Branwyn’s father was a fine male Fey, who died protecting this realm. Morgana’s mother lived out her existence in this realm knowing she would have a shorter life span in this realm than in the Fey Realm. She loved it here. The Aes Sidhe chooses to mix in a less than positive way. There are certain humans who are responsible to protect this realm…”

“What am I, Merry?” I asked again.

“You may be the future Cathal, the next great warrior and leader of Proctectors, the next leader for all those humans who battle the Aes Sidhe. But the Cathal is more than that.”

“So I’m a warrior?” I said.

“Bear, you may be much more than just a plain warrior. A Cathal, which is ancient Irish for great warrior, doesn’t come around too often, and I should know, as I have been alive for a long time. A Cathal is something very special. He is someone who can lead the races from many realms because he is so trusted and so well respected. He is the leader of all the protectors.”

“And who are you, Merry?” I asked as questions started quickly filling my mind.

“Who am I? Now that is an excellent question, Bear. It is one a person should ask himself at several stages in their life. Knowing yourself can be a potent tool to have,” Merry said with a laugh. “I have been known by many names. Myrddin was one of them, Ambrose was another name they called me. To the Yuchi, I was known as the Unknown. I am a powerful druid, Sean, born with a gift. My hope is that someday I will be able to pass that gift onto someone who will replace me. So, in not really answering your question completely, Bear, I can tell you that I like the name Merry.”

“All right, Merry, if that’s all you have for me, that’s all you have,” I said then I paused for a moment. “These Aes Sidhe are after me, aren’t they?”

“Yes. When you were born, I knew there was more than a fair chance that you might be the next, the future Cathal, so I told your father to take you away from this area where some of us who protect this realm live and raise you as if you were a normal child. As he had married outside of our clan of warriors, he decided to bring you up in your mother’s home state of Maine. I knew that the longer you didn’t know who you might be, the longer it would take until you started to come fully into you gifts. I knew by the age of fourteen it would be necessary to bring you here for training, but you began to mature early.”

“How? I’m not any stronger than a normal kid my age or any faster. How?” I demanded because it made no sense to me.

“Have you noticed when you meet someone, you immediately know if that person is good or evil or somewhere in between, or if you like them or not, right away. You call it instincts and ignore this feeling thinking it is not really anything important. Well, Bear, I call it a gift which needs to be encouraged and tell you to stop ignoring your gift.”

“But…,” I stopped, “is that all?”

“Sean, a full blooded, immortal Yuchi dogman has thrown you around all morning and you are roughed up only a little. Isn’t that kind of different?”

“Oh,” was my only reply.

“Yes, oh. You are starting to come into your gifts,” he said then he stood up and began to clear the table. “And we need to get you trained up quickly.”

 

nnnn

It was the beginning of Samhain. I awoke to the music of Johnny Cash playing in the kitchen, as breakfast was being prepared. The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars. I got out of bed and shuffled my feet to my bedroom door and opened to see Lucan and Kieran cooking up a breakfast too big for just those who lived in the house. Restless by day and by night rants and rages at the stars. Kieran was busy making a dozen or so eggs into scrambled eggs, while Lucan had a skillet filled with shredded potatoes and another with two packages of bacon. It was a mix of odors that made my stomach growl in anticipation of eating.

“Hey,” I said loud enough to be heard over the music.

Lucan lowered the radio to a whisper: “Morning, Sean.”

“Morning, Bear,” added Kieran.

“What’s going on in here?” I asked.

“Tonight is the beginning of Samhain. For the next three nights ending with Halloween, All Saints Day, you, your classmates, Lucan, I, and several others, including Morgana, will be on Merry’s isle for the duration. We are meeting here this morning and I am feeding everyone then we’ll head over to the isle and prepare for tonight,” Kieran stated.

“Why will all of us be on Merry’s isle for three days?” I asked.

“To protect you from the Aes Sidhe, Bear. This is their time of year,” answered Lucan.

“Protect the so called Cathal,” I scoffed.

“The caul between realms is at its thinnest during this period. The Aes Sidhe can move into our world and around in our world almost without being noticed by us. This is not a good thing. It gives them the advantage, which means that they are at their most dangerous during this time of year, so,” Kieran stopped talking and added some pepper then salt to the scrambled eggs.

“Anyone home,” the voice of Morgana yelled from the front door. “I brought homemade doughnuts.”

“We are in the kitchen,” called back Kieran.

“I love her doughnuts,” Lucan stated.

In her usual overalls, Branwyn, carrying a platter of cellophane wrapped fresh plain doughnuts, along with Morgana came strolling into the kitchen. Branwyn placed the doughnuts on the kitchen table, pulled back the cellophane, took a doughnut from the pile, and handed it politely to me. I took it from her, slightly surprised that she even offered it to me.

“Try one. They’re good, probably the best doughnuts you’ll ever eat in your life,” she said to me.

I was surprised by her friendliness towards me. Maybe, it was a trick, I thought, she was setting me up for something. I noticed she was staring at me with a smirk then I realized I was standing there wearing only a pair of sweat pants. I took a bite of the doughnut and smiled awkwardly. The doughnut really was good.

“See, I told you about the doughnut,” I said.

“Yeah, it is good.”

“You’re getting muscles. Merry must be working you out pretty hard,” she commented.

“Chota is responsible for that not Merry,” I mumbled.

“Huh?” she replied.

“It’s Chota who is training me.”

“Oh, Chota. I’ve only met him once in human form. You must be special. He usually doesn’t bother with us, just turns into a dog when we visit the isle and waits for us to leave,” she said with a smile then she looked over at Kieran. “Where’s Fintain?”

“Still in bed,” Kieran stated with a hint of annoyance.

“I’ll go force him out of bed,” she said then she left the kitchen.

“Don’t mind my daughter, Sean,” Morgana said to me. “Since she is part Fey, she tends to have extreme mood shifts. It’ll give you a headache dealing with all her mood shifts. As she gets older she’ll be better at controlling them, though.”

“Really, you Fey get better at controlling your moods when you get older,” Kieran goaded Morgana.

“What are you trying to say, Kay?”

“Nothing, Mo, nothing at all. I’m just surprised that half humans and half Fey become better at controlling their moods, as they get older. It’s surprising to hear.”

“Now, Kay, don’t try and get on my last nerve, or I might use my own special gifts to make it rain constantly over your head for the next three days.”

“Okay, I won’t try,” he laughed. “Can you get me a platter so that I can put the scrambled eggs on it?”

“Sure,” she answered him then she went to a cabinet and retrieved a platter then stood beside Kieran as he dumped the eggs onto it.

“Donovan is coming with his son Benedict,” Lucan said to Morgana.

“Good. We can use the help. Who else?”

“Cedric’s mother, Denara…”

“Goody, the Celtic female warrior druid. She is something when she gets her dander up, real frightening,” Morgana stated.

“Yes, she is,” agreed Kieran.

“Oh, you like her. That’s interesting. I think you’re smitten,” Morgana declared.

“That’s not true. Female druid warriors aren’t my type,” Kieran told Morgana.

“Really, what is your type?” she replied with sly smile.

“Yeah, well, if you two are done,” Lucan interrupted their repartee. “Cedric and his father are staying near the shore instead of the isle as is Wayne, Sr.”

“Well, it sounds as if we are loaded for bear.”

“I resent that remark,” I said making fun of my nickname, as I ate a doughnut.

This evoked a laugh from Kieran and Lucan.

“The more the better at this party,” said Lucan. “I wouldn’t even mind importing a few people clans from Canada, Australia, Scotland, Ireland, Britain, and Wales.”

“We have enough good people here to handle the situation. Merry won’t let them on his isle,” Kieran said.

Lucan added the bacon to the platter along with the eggs, while Kieran removed biscuits from the stove. My stomach growled, as the smell of the food ready to eat filled up the kitchen. Fintain, looking half awake with bed head and still wearing his PJs, and Branwyn entered the kitchen.

“So you’re finally up and about, my lazy boy,” Kieran said to Fintain.

“Branwyn told me her mother made doughnuts. I couldn’t stay in bed when I heard that. I love them.”

“Still showing off, huh?” Branwyn said to me.

I blushed as I realized I was still standing in the kitchen without a shirt on. Without making an excuse, I quickly returned to my bedroom to change into some clothes. Rifling through my clothes, I got a pair of jeans on then I grabbed a grey L.L. Bean cotton River Driver’s shirt, pulled up its sleeves then I slipped on a pair of dockers. Meow, meow, I heard outside of the bedroom window.

Meow, meow, the muffled soft sound kept up, so I walked over to the window and saw a black cat with piercing yellow eyes peering up at me. My mother always loved helping stray cats and dogs whenever she could; the thought of people buying animals then either ignoring them or releasing them to survive on their own angered her. She said they needed love just like any pet. Unlocking the window latch, I opened wide the window to let the cat into my room.

“Hi, kitty,” I said.

The black cat jumped up onto the windowsill. It looked at me with its eyes now orange and yellow. I reached over and stroked the fur of the cat’s back, which roused a purr from the cat then suddenly I felt like there was something odd about this feline creature. It was as if an inner voice in me was calling out danger, danger, danger. I looked at the cat I was petting. In the pit of my stomach, a gnawing feeling of anxiety caused a rumble, as a further warning to me. I started to take my hand away from the cat, when the feline hissed, extended its claws and went to scratch me.

“Remove yourself now, unwanted guest, you fiend!” came a roar from Morgana, as my bedroom door opened and Morgana bolted in.

With naturally fast reflexes I quickly pulled my hands out of the reach of the cat, which just missed scratching me, as Morgana seemed to summon up a strong breeze within my bedroom and then blew the cat out through the open window then she shut the window with the same breeze. As her mother exited the room and went into the backyard along with Kieran, Fintain and Lucan to find the cat, Branwyn entered my bedroom. The expression on her face was one of concern, as she grabbed my arms and started looking for scratches.

“Did she scratch you? Did the cat scratch you?” Branwyn asked with nervousness barely hidden in her voice.

“She tried to but didn’t succeed,” I answered, as I pulled my arms away from her. “What was it?”

“A cusith, a cat sidhe. My mother suddenly felt her presence. The Aes Sidhe use them as spies, but they can also cause a mystical fever that can be deadly if they scratch you with their poisonous claws, especially if you are one of us. Are you sure you are all right, Sean?” Branwyn asked me, while checking every inch of my skin on my arms and hands for marks from the cusith.

“I’m fine, really, I’m fine. It completely missed me,” I assured her then I pulled my arms away from her again.

“You have to be more careful than that. That was stupid letting a cat into your room. Aes Sidhe, they have shapeshifters. You have to be more careful,” Branwyn scolded me in a tone that both annoyed and surprised me. The thought of being scolded by someone my age annoyed me, but she also showed great concern for me, real concern, which surprised me. Branwyn’s way of acting towards me had change seemingly overnight.

“I’ll try to be more careful,” I told her then exited the bedroom with her following me.

I started towards the back door to join everyone in search of the cat when Branwyn quickly moved in front of me and blocked my way. With her arms crossed in front of her and her jaw set with determination, she acted as a blockade.

“You have to stay in the house for now. The cusith is still loose in the area. We can’t take a chance with you,” she told me.

“Why do I have stay inside then?”

“Because you are not trained as well as the rest of us yet! You wouldn’t know what to do if you caught the cat and that would endanger you and others,” she answered.

“Would you want to go out there and search for the cusith?”

“Of course, I would,” she said in a dismissive tone.

“But…”

“No, buts. You are staying in here with me and without an argument,” she said. “Do you want anything to eat?”

“No, I don’t,” I said then I sat down at the kitchen table and sulked.

“This is for your own good,” Branwyn told me.

“I’d rather be helping. It was my screw up and I should be helping to fix it, helping to make it better. I’m sick of screwing up.”

“But you didn’t know. Merry has not taught you all about the Aes Sidhe yet, but he’s doing it now. You’ll know in time,” she tried to make me feel better but it was good enough.

I stared at her for a second then I said: “My parents died because of me. I don’t want anyone else to die because of me. I don’t care who I’m supposed to be. I won’t have people dying for me.”

“But, Sean, if you are the Cathal, we will follow you. We will die for you,” she told me in a voice that had no sarcasm or disappointment, but only hope. This intimidated me. I didn’t want anyone to die for me.

“Then I don’t want to be the Cathal,” I growled and then went into a pout.

“If you are the Cathal, you won’t have a choice,” she said then she got up and walked to the kitchen window and looked out to see how things were going.

“They’re coming back in,” she said. “I guess the cusith got away.”

 

nnnn

I spent the first day and night of Samhain on Merry’s isle sulking around in the cabin. Setting up tents and camping gear the visitors to the isle made themselves comfortable. While the others patrolled the isle and guarded the cabin I pouted away, sitting in the cabin’s spare bedroom avoiding everyone, except Merry and Chota, who didn’t care if I wanted to be alone. The room was small with only a single bed and a wood chair that looked to be made out of logs. I sat on the bed and Chota sat in the chair.

“So Buckaroo,” Chota said to me, “you’re pouting like a little papoose. That’s real mature. No wonder I like you so much, you remind me of myself when I was your age and everyone expected so much from me.”

“I don’t like the idea of anyone else dying for me, Chota,” I let him know.

“And I don’t like the fact my brother cursed me with immortality, or that my tribe is all but extinct, or the Braves are a bad baseball team this year. There’s lots of stuff I don’t like, but you know what?”

“What?”

“The world, or the Great Creator, doesn’t care what I like or what I don’t like. There is a plan and that plan was drawn up without my permission, and it will unfold without my permission. I just have to deal with it,” Chota told me. “Now I’m in the mood to turn into a dog and run around the isle avoiding our guests. It’s a little too crowded around here for my taste. You want to come along?”

“Why do you like transforming into a dog so much, Chota?”

“I like to lick myself,” Chota laughed.

“No, really, why do you like it?” I asked him.

“Because I feel freer as a dog. As Chota I feel cursed,” he answered with a shrug.

“Okay, I’ll come with you. I could use a run.”

“Hey, maybe I shouldn’t wear my sweat pants, so when I turn back into a human I embarrass the girls with my all natural look?”

“Wear the pants, please, wear the pants,” I said.

“Okay, ruin my fun.”

With Wayne and Garth coming along, also, Chota and I ran around the isle’s beach for exercise then settled in to have some fun. When he had enough of being a dog, Chota transformed back and noticed he had his sweatpants on backwards. After fixing his sweat pants he began to give me his latest lessons in Native American martial arts. On the beach Chota instructed me in several body blocks and throws then told me to try and take him down. With Wayne and Garth cheering me on, giving me support, I attempted to use speed and agility to do as I was told. Wayne had become my biggest booster among my former schoolmates and cheered loudest for me to defeat Chota. I was close several times catching Chota’s leg when the afternoon sky slowly turned light and charcoal grey and thunder rumbled and lightening bolts lit up the sky.

“The Aes Sidhe are searching for you,” Chota told me. “I think that they really, really like you.”

“Yeah, they like me all right,” I said sarcastically.

A lightening bolt flashed from the sky and hit the surface of the lake water. It was followed by a boom of thunder then another bolt hitting the water’s surface.

“Can the lightening hit us?” asked Wayne.

“Nay,” said Chota, “Merry made this isle. They don’t have the juice to break through the barriers he conjures. The man has serious skills.”

“Yeah, he’s got some serious juju,” Wayne agreed with him, which amused Chota.

“I like you,” Chota said to him.

“Thanks,” Wayne happily responded.

“So, should we continue grappling?” I asked Chota.

“Yeah, why not? You’re almost getting good enough to be a challenge.”

For another hour we grappled as the lightening and thunder continued its search for me. Finally, both Chota and I had enough and the storm suddenly stopped, almost as if it had finally found me. We returned to the cabin to find Etain, Branwyn and Benedict being instructed by Merry, who now wore the long black robe I saw him in the night my parent’s died. He lectured on the subtle nature of their powers, while Morgana and Denara watched on with amused expressions on their faces. Everyone else was on patrol making sure that nothing was on the isle that didn’t belong.

“Branwyn, Fey have natural empathy with nature. Where a druid can command nature with its powers, you can befriend and get it to do as you wish. I have found sometimes, most times, that is more powerful to befriend nature than command nature. It is a more organic relationship. Nature, when it is a willing ally, will give you more of itself. It will perform miracles for you. When commanded it will give only what is asked and nothing more. I want you to teach Etain and Benedict how to befriend nature,” he told her.

“Why me, Merry; why not you?”

“Because your affinity with nature is natural, something you were born with, while I had to learn to befriend nature,” he told her then with his right hand he gracefully motioned me to join him.

I walked over to Merry, who placed his arm around my shoulders and began to stroll. We walked for several minutes in silence until no one was near us, then he spoke: “I am glad you have left your room finally and joined us.”

“Chota convinced me to leave the room,” I admitted.

“He has a good affect on you and you have a good one on him,” Merry noted.

“Merry, why did Chota’s brother curse him?” I asked.

“Have you asked Chota this question?”

“No. I thought it might cause him pain to tell the story to me,” I explained.

“That is noble, Bear. Some day ask him the reason. I believe he will tell you,” Merry said. “Now tonight should go without any trouble. My talents are too strong for the Aes Sidhe to breakthrough the barriers I have set up, but tomorrow is Halloween and Samhain and that is a different story. They are one and the same time and our enemy will have extra strength behind their attack. They will draw on all the negative energies in the world and focus it on getting to you, which is why I have a devious plan to foil them.”

“What is your plan?” I asked with a little bit of exasperation in my voice. I was tired of hiding from those who had killed my parents.

“I will hide you in the Fey Realm tomorrow, as a guest of Morgana and Branwyn, who will go with you. How does that sound to you?”

“Like I’ll be running from my enemy, from those who killed my parents,” I stated.

“Oh, Bear, don’t think of it as running, but as a strategic retreat in order to preserve the well being of your troops. We are too few here to handle a large attack. After tomorrow night things will revert to their usual status quo with the Aes Sidhe having limited powers in this realm. All I ask is for one night we avoid confrontation,” Merry explained in a soft, calming voice.

“Merry, if I’m not here then everyone will be safe?” I asked.

“Yes, they will. The Aes Sidhe will risk an attack to get to you, but they will not attack just to attack.”

“Why would the Fey let me hide in their realm? Aren’t they afraid of the Aes Sidhe?”

“Excellent question, Bear. And the answer will surprise you,” he said with a hint of pride. “First, the Aes Sidhe won’t think of looking for you in the Fey Realm just yet. They are willing to attack now because they think you are still untrained and vulnerable, too untrained and vulnerable to be trespassing around in the realms where you might insult some allied race or make some other blunder. Yet, they don’t know you like I know you, which is to say that I think you are more than ready for a visit to a friendly realm.”

“So the Fey are allies to us?” I asked.

“Very much so. They are actually very attracted to humans. There is something about the power of our emotions, which attracts them to us. You see they too hope that you are the Cathal.”

“The Cathal is that important to all the realms, Merry?”

“Yes, he is,” he answered. “Now what do you say about my idea?”

“Yes, I’ll go.”

“Good,” he said then he turned us around and started walking back to the cabin. “I’ve been thinking, as you have made such great progress here with Chota and I, well, I thought you might move onto the mist isle and make the cabin your home with us until I think you are up to speed and ready to rejoin your classmates off of the isle.”

“I’d like that, Merry,” I answered feeling a surprising amount of relief at the thought of living on the isle. Even though Kieran was kind to me, as well as being my uncle, and Fintain was my cousin, I felt more at home on Merry’s isle than at their house.

“It would mean twenty four hours a day, seven days a week of training and being on your best behavior because I like peace and quiet on my isle. I am too old for a loud obnoxious teenager under foot,” warned Merry.

“I still like it,” I said with enthusiasm.

“We won’t have access to the internet, and I won’t allow videogames, and you will find that Chota chooses all the movies we rent down at Elizabethton and his tastes runs to westerns, action, detective, and, oddly enough, an occasional romantic comedy. He won’t allow sci-fi or fantasy. He says his life has enough of that already. Chota is a man of strong emotions and beliefs. Does that dissuade you?”

“No.”

“Good. I’ll inform Kay. He will be disappointed, but I think he’ll understand.”

“Thank you, Merry.”

 

nnnn

Merry asked Morgana, Branwyn and me to meet him at an isolated part of the beach at noon. He told everyone else to prepare for a picnic since they would remain on the isle in order to confuse the Aes sidhe. Dressed in chinos and pull over polo shirt along with bare feet, as per Merry’s request, I was the first to arrive, followed by mother and daughter. For this journey into the Fey Realm Branwyn showed up bare footed and dressed in a cotton white short dress, as did her mother. She looked almost embarrassed by the way she was dressed, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. It was more than she was attractive, but that I was starting to feel a strange connection to her.

“Morgana and Branwyn, you may allow the Fey parts of your being to come out,” Merry told them.

With those words, Branwyn and Morgana began to glow. It was as if an internal light had been turned on and started to shine through their skin. It was a yellowish gold glow. Branwyn glanced over at me and saw that I was staring at her. She blushed, which made her glow turn a slightly pink color. Merry noticed this and was amused.

“The Fey are literally a bright and shining people,” he said.

He squatted down and with the forefinger of his right hand he drew a circle in the sand large enough for someone to pass through. Next he stood up, raised his hands over the circle, and began to speak in a language I had never heard before. I assumed it was some ancient language.

“Fata, oiph doirseo celtae mod,” he intoned loudly.

The sand in the circle that Merry had made turned a wet black then turned morphed to glass, which then it turned to ice and finally transformed to what seemed to be water. Merry lowered his hands.

“Well, you can enter the Fey Realm now. I expect you back in the morning, healthy and refreshed and ready for whatever is to come next,” Merry said then he strolled away with his hand behind his back and whistling a Celtic tune.

“After you Branwyn,” Morgana said to her daughter.

Branwyn walked up to the door and fell forward into it then disappeared. Morgana motioned me to go next. With a mix of reluctance and curiosity, I walked towards the circle door, stood for a moment staring at the crystal blue infinite water then I fell face first into it. Much to my surprise instead of water, I fell through a door to the Fey Realm.

Although I thought I’d be on my face, I found that I was on my feet when I exited through another circle. Instead of a realm, it appeared that I entered a room, but it was a room unlike any I had ever seen or been in before in my life. On one wall a river of crystal blue water ran across it and on another wall there were paintings of Fey that seemed to change scenery and actions every few moments with a sparkle and glow. The floor of the room was made of the softest sand I had ever felt. For a few seconds I allowed my feet and toes to enjoy the softness. Branwyn was standing there waiting for me along with a Fey male and a Fey female.

Like Branwyn and Morgana, the Fey shone, but even more so.  Their clothes seemed to shimmer and shine and move languidly over their bodies in constant motion. The hair of the Fey was either the color of flame or the color of gold, and their beauty was literally breathtaking and ethereal. Morgana came through the door and it closed behind her.

“Morgana our half sister,” said the female in a musical voice, “and her sired, more Fey than human, you are a welcomed guest. Our brother loved you and changed realms for you. We are honored to have you.”

“And you, the would be Cathal,” the male said in an equally musical voice, “we are honored to have you as a guest. The cursed Aes Sidhe, who have in this plane of existence been the ender of life for many of my siblings, will not find you here. And if the cursed ones do, we shall die protecting you as you are an honored guest.”

“I am honored to be your guest and would never ask any of you to sacrifice their existence for me,” I replied, which seemed to make both the male and female happy.

“That is not for you to say,” the Female told me, as her glow increased.

“We shall introduce you to our simple realm,” the male told me.

Branwyn walked over to me and with her right arm she linked it with my left arm then she leaned into him and whispered: “They won’t tell you their names because you won’t be able to say them. It is not out of rudeness.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Prepare yourself,” she whispered, “the Fey Realm can be overwhelming.”

We followed the Fey out of the room, which I now assumed was a waiting room, and into the Fey world. Although I was prepared for something remarkable, my senses barely could handle what I saw, heard and felt. It was as if I had gone to a museum and entered into one of the most beautiful paintings I had ever seen. Colors were brighter; the sounds were never harsh or loud, but melodic and musical; smells were more enticing, stronger; and shapes never seemed to stay still for very long. Everything was in movement. My head started to spin with everything so vivid and seeming to be in subtle constant motion and so overwhelming.

The male and female Fey walked through a grassy knoll, where the grass was the color of a honeydew melon, smelled like spices and softly caressed your legs and feet. We followed them to a female Fey who appeared much older than the rest, even though it was difficult to tell age with the Fey. This older Fey had flaming orange hair and she appeared joyous that Morgana, Branwyn, and I were here.

“Child of my son, welcome home. I have missed your presence,” she said to Branwyn, who broke away from me and ran over to her grandmother to give her a hug.

“Hi, grans,” Branwyn said then she stepped back and stood beside her grandmother.

“Mate of my son, how have the days that passed found you?”

“They have been kind to me,” said Morgana, then she seemed to sing a beautiful song without words.

I assumed this was the older female Fey’s name. I watched as Morgana then walked up to the woman and kissed her cheek. Branwyn came back to me and brought me to meet her grandmother.

“Grans, this is Arthur Sean McCoul,” Branwyn introduced me.

The Older Fey’s shimmering and shining clothing seemed to move more quickly and shined a little brighter upon hearing my name. She released a scent that smelled like perfume made from flowers and spices into the air and sang a wordless song to Sean. When she stopped, I bowed to her and then said: “I am honored by your greeting. You have given me the gift of hearing beauty.”

This caused another song to exit the Old female Fey, who appreciated my words. With surprise Branwyn stared at me. Again she shone a bit pink and seemed to be very happy with how I acted.

“I have prepared rooms and food for all of you,” the old female Fey said.

“Thank you,” Morgana said.

“What do we have to eat?” Branwyn happily asked.

“Ahh, delicacies. I have fruit picked from the ocean; glasses of chill evaporated wind; handfuls of berries from the heart of trees; and frozen clouds for dessert,” she answered.

“And what do we have to drink?” asked Branwyn.

“The wine of the sweetest flowers pressed by hand.”

Branwyn looked over at me: “You will never forget this meal.”

“I look forward to it.”

After the most unusual dinner I had ever experienced, the Fey offered me some entertainment. Since this was the Fey Realm the magic here was more powerful. Tables and chairs were removed from the dining room of the older Fey’s house and large, soft, colorful pillows that smelled of honey were brought in for all to recline on, then the roof disappeared. Four Feys were dancing gracefully in the air. After they finished their dance, another male Fey produced a musical instrument that looked like it had elements both of a guitar and a harp. He played it and it made one of the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. The song he played made me think of my parents and I cried.

“Honored guest, you shed tears,” the older Fey said to me.

“Yes. The song made me remember my parents who were killed by the Aes sidhe,” I told her.

“Oh,” she smiled. “It was an evocation song of emotion. You honor the player with your tears.”

“And he honors me with his song,” I replied.

With the entertainment ended Branwyn took me to her favorite spot in the Fey Realm. Our guards on this trip were two male Fey warriors with bows and arrows made of gold and captured lightening. The spot was at the top of a purple mountain and overlooked a sea of shining cerulean water whose waves seemed to dance.

“What do you think of the Fey, Sean?” Branwyn asked me.

“I’m awed by it all.”

“I know. I love visiting here, but I could never stay here.  It’s all too strangely perfect. I like our realm,” she told me in an excited voice. “You have made an excellent impression here.”

“I’m glad,” I said with a feeling of relief.

“So when are you coming back to school?”

“Why are you missing Merry as a teacher?”

“No, he’s still teaching us certain subjects,” she answered me.

“How? He doesn’t leave the isle,” I said in shock.

“Well, you see Merry can split off pieces of his knowledge.  They look and sound just like him and once they have done their work they rejoin with him. He calls them his other selves,” explained Branwyn.

“I didn’t know that. So if you aren’t missing Merry, why do you want to know when I’m coming back?”

“I wanted to know when you are coming back because I wanted you back. You see we kind of all got off to a bad start with you.”

“I’m not coming back. As a matter of fact, I’m kind of leaving Kieran’s house, too,” I said then I noticed that her shine started to become a shade of blue. “You see I’m moving to the isle to train full time. I won’t be back until I catch up with all of you. Merry thought this would be best and safest for everyone.”

“Oh, well, I didn’t know that,” she replied in a softly, disappointed tone.

“Yeah, well, maybe I can convince Merry to have you guys to the isle more for some group training. I think he’d agree to that,” I said and her shine started to come back.

“Maybe some of us can visit you during Christmas, too?”

“I think Merry will like that. I know I would like it.”

“Good. I’ll tell my mother that we have an appointment for Christmas Eve on Merry’s isle.”

“Yeah, sure, Christmas it is,” I said and suddenly I wished I did go to school in the barn with the rest of them, especially her.

An unexpectedly warm feeling came over me. I looked at Branwyn, whose cheeks were now flushed. A tingle of excitement tickled me, as well as a feeling of interest. These weren’t my own emotions I was feeling, though. Branwyn looked away and suddenly I felt a hiccup of embarrassment. For a moment, I thought I was feeling Branwyn’s emotions.

“Do you want to skate on the top of the water?” she asked me.

“How can we do that?” I asked.

“Didn’t you hear? I’m more Fey than human. I can do everything a Fey can do here,” she told me.

Branwyn then took my left hand in her right hand and started walking off the cliff. Instead of falling the wind became our steps all the way down to the water’s surface. Hand in hand we skated across the surface of the water. She glowed a radiant gold with hints of red. For me it was the most magical thing I had ever done in my life.

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

Month FOUR

Elves and Holiday

_____________________________

At the beginning of December a light snow had fallen on the lake. This snow highlighted the mountaintops with white caps and left patches of white on the ground to mix with the winter brown and fading green. The average high temperature on Watauga Lake was usually near fifty degrees with lows in the thirties, but so far this December the temperatures were running colder, as if the Aes Sidhe were causing a chill to fall on the area in their search for me. For reasons known only to Merry, he also allowed it to be chilly on the isle and for some snow to fall, too. Chota and I were bundled in sweats and hoodies, as we practiced the war club, or as I called my club: a shillelagh. Chota made the weapons from Blackthorn wood in honor of my Celtic heritage.

“Never swing wildly, but swing with purpose, even if the purpose is only to confuse your opponent. Confusion, like surprise, can be a powerful tool in battle, so make use of it,” instructed Chota, as he wielded his war club with style and flair causing the thick heavy stick to disappear in a blur of speed then he stopped as it landed hard on a head of the straw stuffed dummy we were practicing on.

“And that wasn’t wild,” I remarked.

“That was style, buckaroo, pure, unadulterated style. I was a master of the war club in my time. I used it against the Yuchi’s enemies on many occasions.”

“Were you a great warrior, Chota?” I asked him.

“Great, now that is a tough adjective to live up to, isn’t it? I was a talented warrior, had a gift for battle, if that is a good thing. I didn’t like battle, but I had a gift for it. But was I great? I think I missed out on great because I failed as a leader.”

“How did you fail as a leader?”

“That is a story for another day. I still have to dazzle you with my expertise with the war club,” bragged Chota.

“Oh, so that’s what you call what you do,” I said then I wielded his blackthorn wood stick first hitting the dummy in the gut then smacking it on the head.

“It seems you have an easier time picking up this weapon,” observed Chota.

“Yeah, I sort of like this weapon.”

“Merry fills your mind and I mold you into a warrior. Teamwork, that is how it is done,” Chota laughed. “Let’s go get something warm to drink.”

“Coffee?”

“I was thinking hot chocolate.”

“That sounds better,” I agreed then I started to speak but stopped.

Chota smiled. He walked up to me and took his club and gently bopped me on the head with it: “You have a question but you don’t want to ask it. I consider you to be a friend, Sean. But more than a friend I consider you as part of my tribe. We are like brothers, so questions are never wrong between brothers. What is it you wish to know?”

“Well, you mentioned that your brother cursed you – why did he do that?”

“Ahh, why the curse, huh?” he said to himself then his face became dark with memories. For a few moments he seemed lost diving in the deep waters of remembrance then his consciousness came back to the surface.

“He had his reasons, I suppose. He did it when I was twenty-one. I stopped aging after that. Maybe he had good reasons, too, but I’m no longer sure. I know I failed my tribe. I was to be our next chief and I failed them. I didn’t want to be chief. It cost many of my tribe their lives, including my father’s life. My brother’s reaction to this great loss was anger, which I understood, but after anger came hate and with hate he cursed me. He placed a shaman curse on me that stays with me until this day.”

“Can you ever break the curse?” I asked him.

“Merry once told me that all things are possible, you just have to be patient and wait for the answer to come to you. Maybe someday I’ll find the answer to break my curse,” he told me then he bopped me on the head with his war club again. “Let’s collect all our gear.”

The two of us rounded up the gear and tools and started off to the cabin. As we approached the cabin, which had dark smoke coming out of its chimney, Merry, dressed in work clothes, came out of the cabin and began chopping wood for the fire.

“Merry,” I called, “do you want me to do that for you?”

“No, no, no, no, I can do it, handle quite well, thank you very much,” he said over and over again and shook his head, as he kept chopping wood.

It was odd behavior, but Merry could be odd when he wanted to be. Dropping our practice gear beside the front door, Chota and I entered the cabin. Sitting at a table, a black robed Merry sat reading what appeared to be an ancient, leather bound book, while another Merry also in work clothes cooked our dinner, Irish stew, and even another Merry cleaned up the cabin with a feather duster. Chota chuckled: “Merry, how many other selves can you use at one time?”

“I think eleven,” he replied, “though it might be more than that. I’ve never really tried to push it all the way to my limit.”

“What are you reading?” I asked.

“A rule book,” he answered then he closed the leather bound book, which had gold writing on it in a language I didn’t recognize.

“What kind of rule book?”

“A rule book on the treaties, protocols, and etiquette of the all the realms. It seems that the light elves are upset with me and have requested for me to make retribution to them for my great insult.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“When I attempted to save you and your parents that fateful night, I crossed through several realms to get to Maine quickly.  You need permission to pass through a realm, if you are going to be polite. I had no time for politeness that night. Now I thought all the realms I had used forgave me for this mild abuse, considering the circumstances, but suddenly the light elves want retribution for an act they think discourteous,” he said then he put the book down on the table. “I believe the problem goes deeper than that, though. I believe that the light elves are jealous that the Fey had a visit from the next potential Cathal and they haven’t had one yet and want one.”

“What do they want for retribution then?” I asked.

“To have you for dinner,” Merry answered.

“They want to eat me?” I asked in horror.

“Oh, no, Sean, you misunderstood me. I am a little flummoxed. All the other selves are a strain. No, they want to have you as a guest for one of their group dinners.”

“Okay, that doesn’t sound too bad,” I said.

“Well, Sean, are you sure about that?” Merry asked me.

“Merry, I want you to tell him what he is getting into if he dines with them,” Chota demanded.

“All right, I shall try to enlighten him,” sighed Merry. “The elf realm, Alfheim, is not like the Fey Realm. It is more enclosed, much more cramped, and a bit more strange than just about any realm I’ve been to, which is saying a great deal. However, it is not so bad.”

“Oh, come on. Lay it out real for him. It is a bunch of caves, tunnels, and caverns,” added Chota.

“Yes, caves and such. Their realm is made up of cold, dark, dank caves, which they are constantly digging out, expanding, and mining for materials. Besides the fact that their realm is caves, they eat only meat, no vegetables, and it is very undercooked meat at that.”

“How undercooked?” I asked.

“Nearly raw, I dare say. I try never to go into their realm on an empty stomach,” answered Merry.

“Let’s put it this way, I like it when I’m in dog form there, but not in human form,” laughed Chota.

“Is that it? Cramped conditions and bad food?” I asked.

“Well, no, there is something else. Well, you see, they are… how do I say it without coloring your opinion of them,” muttered Merry.

“They’re short and it annoys them, buckaroo, so they are feisty, too,” Chota told me.

“Short? How short?”

“The tallest, and I mean tallest, as in he is historically tall for them, is four-feet six-inches. The average height is four-feet two-inches. They are very, very sensitive about their height, or lack of it. Light elves have known to be insulted just because you look down on them, as if you could look up and see them. Once insulted they want to fight with cudgels until blood is drawn,” Merry explained. “Should I tell them you will have dinner with them?”

“I take it’s best to have the elves…”

“Light elves,” corrected Merry. “There are also dark elves with their own realm. They are associated and allied with the Aes Sidhe.”

“Okay. I take it we need the light elves on our side in order to deal with the Aes Sidhe?” I inquired.

“It would be nice to have them. You see they make the very best weapons out of the iron they mine, which has properties in it that makes their weapons deadly to all preternatural races,” Merry stated.

“I’ll have dinner with them. If I am the Cathal, then I have to learn to lead, which includes showing respect to those willing to follow you. I can’t refuse dinner or their hospitality,” I agreed.

“Very, good, Bear, very good. I knew I could count on you,” said Merry.

“I think he’s starting to come around in all ways,” Chota added.

“I am not allowed to come with you, but they will allow Chota to act as chaperone, but only if he stays in dog form. They prefer him as a dog,” Merry told both of us. “Are you willing, Chota?”

“They still are holding a grudge that I laughed at them the first time I met them.”

“Yes,” answered Merry.

“Oh well. Why not? I hope I don’t get any fleas from them while I’m there.”

“I shall inform them that dinner is on then and that they should prepare for you,” Merry said with relief.

 

nnnn

Merry opened the doorway to Alfheim in the trunk of a tree. Though it appeared to be a narrow doorway, he explained that there was no way of getting stuck in it, so there was no need to worry. He then stepped aside as I, wearing black jeans, work boots, a T-shirt and an Irish knit sweater, walked through the doorway with Chota in dog form following closely behind me. The first thing I did as I came through the doorway was hit my head on a low hanging stalactite, much to the amusement of the light elves, who waited to greet me, then I turned and stubbed my right foot on a stalagmite that rose to a height of at least five feet tall. Chota snickered as a dog, as I tried not to curse or be rude.

“Welcome potential great one to our home,” softly said a male’s elf voice.

As they were in a cave and sound tended to reverberate, the elves spoke in low soft voices until they were either angered or feasting then their voices became boisterous and rowdy. I turned myself around and first looked at where I was standing, which was a very, very large cave. This particular cave was lit by glowing white crystals, which were embedded in the walls and gave off enough light to see by. As for where the elves lived I saw that this cave was filled with mud dwellings, scaffolding, mining holes, and elves carrying picks, shovels, and other mining tools. The air smelled slightly stale with the hint of cooked meat and sweat, and was both humid and dank at the same time.

As for these elves, they were truly remarkable to behold.  Standing no taller than four-foot two-inches, just as Merry said, their limbs were perfectly proportioned, their appearance attractive with everyone sharing V shaped faces, skin that was milky white pale, and wearing leather clothes with fur trimming.  The other thing that I noticed was that the elves’ faces and hands were smudged with soot and dirt from constant mining. It would take several hot soapy showers to even start to get their skin cleaned.

My greeting party consisted of two males, each with white to hay colored hair, and two women with the same colored hair.  Their age couldn’t be judged, as they all seemed to be youthful in appearance, so that the only way you could tell a child from an adult was height with children being the smallest creatures around them. The male elf who spoke first spoke again: “I am Tyite. We are honored by your presence in our home, as well as your pet’s presence.”

Chota growled at the elf that stuck his tongue out back at Chota. It appeared that the elves still held a grudge against him. I suppressed a laugh: “I am honored to be here as your guest and wish to compliment you on your fine home.”

“We have prepared a great fresh feast for you. It will be a glorious feast for those attending,” one of the females said. “My name is Shaneen.”

“In anticipation that you fulfill your greatness, we wish to share food with you. We elves view you as a rough stone, who needs to be mined and polished, a thing of worth and potential but only in the future,” the other female said. “My name is Tyreen.”

“Yes, we honor your potential this one time only in hopes we can honor more than just potential later when you have matured and taken the first step at Bealtaine,” the other male stated in a friendly tone. “My name it Pymite.”

“I hope that I fulfill my potential, so that I can even further honor you for this invitation, as well as future invitations,” I said not sure that what I said made sense or not.

“Are you looking down at me, maybe great one, who has yet to prove himself? Do you look down on this elf?” asked the first male with a harsh tone.

“I look at you, but I do not look down on you,” I responded.

“I think you are looking down on me and you merely hide behind words,” reiterated Tyite.

“I would never look down on you, sir. You are an elf, a great miner, the greatest of weapons makers, and a gracious host, whose invitation I honor and accepted with joy in my heart,” I attempted to calm the situation.

Chota was so impressed with my ability to avoid a fight with the elf that he rubbed up against his leg in support of me. Absentmindedly, I reached down and patted Chota’s head, forgetting he was Chota. Chota nipped my fingers, as a reminder that he looked like a dog, but he wasn’t one.

“Still, I think you look down on me and insult me and my kind. I do not like that. It is tall arrogance, height inspired superiority, which I have disdain for,” said Tyite.

“I look at you. That is all, sir,” I answered.

“He has answered you well and with more respect than you deserve. I think you want a fight from our guest and will not be satisfied with the truth of his words,” Pymite stated.

“Are you accusing me of bad behavior to an invited guest?” asked Tyite.

“Yes, I am,” he answered him.

“I demand blood.”

“I answer it with blood,” Pymite said.

“I shall get the cudgels,” said Shaheen with excitement then she off to one of the mud huts.

Tyite and Pymite moved into the center of the cave, while a crowd of elves started to surround them. The noise in the cave became louder and voices started to echo off the walls causing a cacophony of sound. Chota and I joined the circle watching them. Shaheen returned with two black cudgels. She handed on to each and then joined the crowd to watch.

“First blood!” called out Tyite.

“First blood will be mine,” answered Pymite in a scream of emotion.

The two elves began circling each other slowly, at first, and then they picked up speed until they were almost a blur. With their cudgels they swung causing a whiff sound as they did. Whiff, whiff, whiff. The sound of the clubs grew constant then suddenly the elves attacked each other by rolling on the ground and coming up swinging at each other. I was fascinated by the acrobatic way in which these elves fought. They did rolls, back flips, cartwheels, splits, whatever it took to avoid the cudgel and try to get a clean blow on the other. I was shocked by the speed and agility they possessed. It would take a great effort by me to even touch one.

Chota began to growl with excitement as he watched. It was a spectacle to see and everyone gathered appeared to be enjoying it. I could see that the combatant elves actually thought out their moves in advance, so that which looked spontaneous was in actuality, calculated moves. This impressed me the most about them. This was fighting as chess, a game Merry was trying to get me interested in playing. Now I understood why Merry wanted me to play chess so badly.

Where Tyite seemed to plan three moves in advance, Pymite seemed to plan five movements in advance against him. With a roll, a back flip, followed by a swing of his club to move Tyite into a better position, then another roll and a swing, Pymite slammed his cudgel down on Tyite’s toes of his right foot, causing Tyite to fall to the ground and Shaheen to exit the circle of spectators.

“Review. We must have a review of the wound,” she called out then she walked over to Tyite and waited for him to take off his right boot.

Once the boot was off, she examined the foot. After she checked the foot thoroughly, she stood up and announced: “A bloody piggy toe. Pymite wins. First Blood!”

The crowd burst into a great cheer, as they were satisfied by the battle then everyone walked away and quiet returned. An annoyed, but now silent, Tyite put his boot back on and stood up. With a limp he walked over to Pymite and shook his hand. Pymite then proudly strode over to me: “Come. We must make our way down the caverns to the special feasting hall and your dinner of honor. I shall lead us.”

Through the tight, chilly caverns, Pymite led me in a downward slope towards their great feasting hall. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to slip through certain tight squeezes. On one occasion I got stuck and needed both Chota and Pymite to pull me through, but finally we squeezed through the caverns and exited into a great open space, where eighty elves sat at large concentric tables with on circling another. I counted six tables in total. A space in the middle of these tables had a small table waiting for me and me alone, though Chota went with me.

Trying to not to bump into anyone or knock anything over, I made my way through the small openings, which each circular table had, until I got to my place of honor. A female elf brought me a plate of barely cooked red meat and poured me some kind of hardy brew into a wooden goblet on the table then she left the way she came. I began to sit down for my meal, when an elf at the first table stood.

“We are honored to have you here, potential one,” he spoke. “I am Mirite, the leader of this great cave and you are our honored guest. We have looked forward to feasting with you.”

“And I with you, sir,” I answered him.

“If you are who they say you might be then some day I hope this cave has the honor of forging you a fine blade to use against the Aes Sidhe, as all Cathal need to have legendary blades,” he said then lifted his goblet.

I lifted my Goblet to return the toast: “I would be greatly honored and hope to wield a blade from this cave made by your best craftsmen.”

Mirite smiled: “Then drink and enjoy.”

Mirite drank down the brew. I sampled the dark liquid. It tasted of dirt and wheat with some spices added to it. I didn’t like it, but I knew that I must drink it, so I drank down half the goblet. Mirite noticed some of the brew spilling down my chin and laughed.

“You like it. Your kind usually doesn’t like our brew. It is too much for them. But you do. Good. Bring him more,” he called and the feast began.

The meat was greasy, cold and tough, though I noticed the brew became easier to drink with each succeeding sip. Whenever I could I snuck a piece of the meat under the table to Chota, who seemed to like it. When my plate was empty, a female brought me more, though not as much as before.

Once this plate was empty and I had drunk three goblets of the elf brew I was afraid I was going to be sick. As elves stood and told me stories of their heroism, I felt my stomach beginning to revolt against what I had just eaten and drunk. With great effort I tried not to look sick, though I was sure my complexion had turned green. Finally I could not hold back the food and drink. I stood up, bent over and vomited onto the floor of the cave. A great cheer arose in the cave. It was deafening. When I was done vomiting I looked to see Mirite laughing and applauding me.

“You enjoyed your food and drink so much you made room for more. We are greatly honored by you. Finally, we feast with a human who could live as an elf!”

I attempted to smile at the elf, but only managed a weak grin. Chota, who was under the table, made a whining noise. He, too, was ready to go home.

 

nnnn

It took Chota three days to get over his stomach ailment from eating the elf food. It took me a week to get over my own distress from their food. During that week, I asked Merry to teach me how to play chess and play it well because I finally understood its importance. This delighted Merry to hear. He then explained that chess was a game of complexity, which included geometry, math, strategy, and, above all, a willingness to look at the whole board and not just focus on a few spaces. It was a game for great tacticians and strategy makers. For most of my convalescence I received chess lessons from a very happy Merry.

Once I was well enough to move about again and able to eat solid food, I returned to the training of mind and body. My viewing of the way elves fought, as well as learning to play chess, increased my understanding of the training with Chota, who saw that I had become a more thoughtful warrior in one leap of observation. Merry was more than satisfied with the advancements I was making, as was Chota.

With that in mind Merry decided to make some changes for our Christmas holiday plans. Originally everyone was going to come to the isle for a visit and a meal, but now Merry thought it would be better if I spent several days’ at Kieran’s house reintroducing myself to my former schoolmates and showing everyone the advances I had made on the isle, then he and Chota would visit on Christmas eve and stay for Christmas day as Kieran’s guests. Here was a chance for me to relax and to gain confidence from letting everyone know how well I was doing. Merry understood the importance in me impressing my old schoolmates, who I had stumbled with in the beginning. With that decision he left the isle to inform Kieran of the plan, leaving me in the care of Chota.

“He thinks you have made great strides and deserves a reward,” Chota told me.

“Why do you say that?”

“He’s letting you off the isle. He wouldn’t do that unless he thought you had made great strides and that you could handle things better than before, and you can. Look at you, Sean. You’ve grown at least three inches, put on fifteen or more pounds of muscle and, most importantly, you have become a good student, one who observes and thinks. Yeah, I think you deserve a Christmas vacation from Merry and me,” Chota praised me. “I have one request, though, before you leave. It is an important request and one that I do not make lightly.”

“What is it?”

“I want to go on a spiritual journey with you. Are you willing to do that, Sean? Are you willing to take a spiritual journey with me?” he asked me.

“I guess so. It doesn’t sound like a bad idea. How do we do it?”

“I prepare a sweat lodge for us then you and I strip down to our underwear, stand around in the thirty degree cold until our body temperature drops enough, then we enter the hot lodge, smoke a chanunpa…”

“Chanunpa?” I asked.

“Peace pipe, buckaroo, we smoke the peace pipe then we purify ourselves, and allow for the spirits to visit us and set us on the right path in our life,” Chota finished explaining. “I believe, Sean, that something good will happen if you take this journey with me.”

“Okay. It sounds kind of cool to me. I’m up for it,” I told him.

“It is many things, but a sweat lodge is not cool,” laughed Chota. “I’ll make preparations. It’ll take me most of the day, so meet me once the sun has truly set here.”

“No problem, Chota,” I responded then I paused. “Why me? Why do you want to go with me?”

“My people are virtually gone. What few Yuchi are left, they are part of other tribes, but not a tribe of their own. Yet, I think of you as part of my tribe. I have bonded with you, Sean, which is something I have done with few since the day I was cursed. That is why I feel this journey will be good to take with you.”

“Wow, Chota. I’m honored.”

“You should be,” he winked. “Now I have lots of work to do for tonight.”

The preparations that Chota made were to build a wickiup for the lodge. The wickiup was comprised of slender withes of willow lashed together with root cordage, which was covered by animal skins and some mud to make sure that the heat would not escape. It had a low dome, no higher than five feet high, with a rock pit in the middle for the hot stones. The entrance to the wickiup was a long tunnel facing east and several feet from the entrance he built the sacred fire pit where the stones for the lodge were to be heated.

Merry thought the sweat lodge would be a good experience for me, a chance for both further bonding with Chota, as well as expanding my experiences in the preternatural planes, so he volunteered to make sure that we had plenty of rocks. Once the sun had fully set, Chota and I met at the wickiup and prepared to go into the lodge. Chota had prepared a loincloth made of animal skin for me. He also wore one. It was a chilly thirty-eight degrees, once the sun set. As I was prepped by Merry, I brought some tobacco leaves to offer the sacred fire, which I offered to Chota, who placed them on the fire.

Chota took a handful of Mexican sage bush and lit it on fire then gently blew it out. With the smoke of the sage he anointed both himself and me then he took some of the sage ash and smudged my forehead with it then his own. Standing away from the fire and allowing the cold to set into our bones, we were now ready to enter the lodge. Chota led the way. Before getting down on all fours and crawling into the lodge, he bowed to the sacred fire, which represented the Great Spirit. I did the same then we crawled into the lodge where we sat crossed legged around the stone pit. The lodge was dark and extremely cold. Chota spoke: “You are free to leave if you wish.”

I did not speak nor did I leave. This pleased Chota, as he spoke again: “We shall have a short contemplative silence then the stones will be brought in.”

In the dark and silence, Sean sat in the cold, emptied my mind, and listened to the silence. I heard very little, some crackling from the great fire outside of the tent, the wind blowing against the animal skin, Chota’s breathing, and my own. The cold was starting to creep deeper and deeper into my bones, when Chota called: “Awaken the Stone People spirits. Please, bring in the stones to heat the lodge.”

Merry opened the flap to the lodge and crawled into the lodge bringing a large stone. He wore fireproof gloves, and he placed the stone in the pit then he left. Immediately, another Merry brought in another stone then another and another until using Other Selves he filled the stone pit then he left and closed the flap behind him. Besides bringing warmth the stones brought luminescence. Sitting beside Chota on his left was the water drum, which he now sounded by beating on it then on his right was a wooden water bucket with a large wooden ladle. He scooped some of the water out of the bucket and poured it over the stones causing a great release of steam. Chota did this four times for each of the four directions then he prayed: “Sacred One, put our feet on the holy path that leads to you and gives us strength and the will to lead others past the darkness we have entered. Teach us to heal ourselves and heal the world. Great Spirit, please assist us in our journey. Clear your mind and let the journey begin.”

He then put another ladle of water on the hot stones bringing about even more steam and heat. If outside of the sweat lodge was cold, the inside the lodge was now a cauldron. I felt my body produce sweat. It felt as if every pour of my body was now sweating and was completely covered in wetness. I closed my eyes and let the heat envelope me, overwhelm me, take me on a journey.

“Here,” he heard Chota’s voice say and opened his eyes. He was extending the Chanunpa to him. It was a long wooden pipe with symbols painted on it and a white feather hanging from it near the mouthpiece. “Take a puff or two of the pipe then hand it back to me.”

I did as I was told then I handed the pipe back Chota, who took several puffs of it. He then placed it down beside him. I closed my eyes again and allowed myself to open up to whatever was to come. I wasn’t sure how much time passed, since time became meaningless after awhile, but I heard a low growl come from inside of the wickiup, so I opened my eyes. A pure white wolf stood beside a man, who looked very much like Chota in appearance. The man was older than Chota, but not old and also wore a loincloth. He patted the white wolf and the animal stopped growling. I looked over to Chota, who was staring at our visitor.

“Hello, my brother,” the man said in a deep voice.

“Hello, Tansi, Shaman of the tribe,” Chota replied with a hint of nervousness in his voice.

“It has been a long time, brother,” Tansi said.

“Yes, it has,” was all that Chota replied.

Tansi looked at me and said: “You are my new brother, huh?  I hope you honor the family that Chota has allowed you to become part of. We are a proud people, a great tribe, who expect our people to do us proud. You may not be born into the tribe, but you are now part of it and will be judged so.”

“I will honor it and bring pride to the tribe in my actions,” I said.

“Good. My brother has done well you with you, which is why I am allowed to visit this realm. He has shown that he would have been a great chief, if he had become one,” he replied then looked at Chota. “There is much pain between us, many mistakes. Some are yours, but some are mine.”

“You cursed me, brother. The pain of that curse has lingered with me, my brother,” Chota stated with a pain in his voice that was fresh.

“I know that it has. It has lingered with me, also. I am ashamed that I cursed you, my brother,” he answered with regret. “A shaman curse made cannot be unmade, though. It must be overcome by good acts and purification. I wish I could make the curse fly away on the wind, but I cannot do that.”

“But my curse can be overcome, brother?” asked Chota excitedly.

“Yes, it can.”

“How can I do this?”

“The Great Spirit expects much of you now, if you are to be allowed to live the rest of your life out without the curse then reside with the tribe in the afterlife, you must defeat the evil spirit Jumlin, the blood drinker, who continues to prey on those in this realm. Defeating Jumlin, sending him to the spirit realm forever, or by dying in a great effort against him, and you will bring honor to the Yuchi and overcome the curse I placed on you.”

“Brother, I will then be allowed to age like any other man and eventually rejoin the tribe?” Chota asked with great emotion in his voice.

“The great dogman will be allowed home,” Tansi stated and the white wolf growled.

“Where can I find Jumlin?” asked Chota. “I will slay him right now if he is close.”

“He is allied with our new little brother’s enemy, the Aes Sidhe. Fight with your new brother and Jumlin will find you,” Tansi told him. “I must go now, brother.”

“Thank you, Tansi,” responded Chota.

“Do not thank me, Chota, thank the Great Spirit and do our tribe a great honor.”

“I shall try my brother,” Chota said in a soft voice.

“We await you, my brother. You are missed,” Tansi said then faded away leaving us.

I noticed that Chota had a smile on his lips and tears in his eyes. I sat quietly letting him have some time.

“Thank you, my new brother,” Chota said to me.

“You don’t have to thank me. It was an honor,” I replied.

“Yes, I do. I could not have made this journey alone and I could not have chosen a better companion.”

“Then I should thank you. I always wanted a brother and now I have one,” I told him. Chota was teaching me things about family I never knew and it made me feel both more connected and stronger.

“You’re welcome, my little brother,” said Chota.

 

nnnn

In his cherry red Oldsmobile Merry dropped me off at eight in the morning for my Christmas vacation. The house had a Christmas wreath hanging from almost every one of the many windows, and two of the trees outside of the house were decorated with gold bulbs, red ribbons, and lights. Suddenly, it felt like Christmas to me. My mother loved decorating for Christmas, so seeing the ornaments and the colors of Christmas made me feel as if a part of her and my father survived in the spirit of the holiday. I took a deep breath and waved goodbye, as Merry drove away to return to the isle.

I didn’t have any bags, since most of my belongings were still in my room at Kieran’s. With a new sense of confidence and of feeling at home I walked up the steps of the house and knocked on the door. Within moments, Lucan opened the door. When he saw it was I he broke out in a big smile.

“Hey, Bear, it’s got to be almost two months since I’ve last seen you,” he said then stood aside and let me into the house. “You’ve gotten big.”

I walked in and then offered Lucan my right hand and said: “A warrior always offers a friend his sword hand, or so someone told me once.”

We shook hands. I noticed that the first floor family room had a fully decorated seven foot tall Christmas tree with an angel on top and dozens of gifts underneath it waiting to be unwrapped. Also, there were stockings hanging from the fireplace mantelpiece. From the hall I read the names on the red Christmas stockings: Kay, Fin, Lucan, and there was one with the name Bear on it. I smiled then slowly walked over to the stockings. I touched the one named Bear then my eyes drifted over to the gifts. My name was on several of the packages gift tags, which surprised me. I had gifts waiting here for me. They hadn’t forgotten about me.

Memories of my parents came flooding back to me unwrapping like presents of Christmas day. These memories were not so much burdens causing me to feel pain, but gifts of remembrance. Images of going to Christmas Eve Mass with my parents then returning home and being tucked into bed, but not being able to sleep for thoughts of morning gifts and my parents’ joy at watching me unwrap my presents. More memories of Christmas of the past, time spent with my beloved parents, gifts appreciated but never more than those who gave me those gifts. I found tears clouded my vision, but they weren’t tears of sadness, yet they were tears of fondness and thanks. In their time my parents had given me everything I needed to become whatever it was I was to become.

“Hello, Sean,” I heard my uncle’s voice behind me. “I hope you don’t mind that we put up a stocking for you and got some gifts for you. Merry said you probably wouldn’t fit into any of your old clothes because you’ve grown so much and you have.”

I turned around and looked at my Uncle Kieran, who noticed the tears. Suddenly, I realized that Kieran raising a son alone under unique circumstances and he had brought me into his family without any hesitation or qualms. He could have let Merry take me, especially when I seemed not to want to be part of any family, but he was willing to give it a try. Wiping away my tears, I walked over to my uncle and gave him a warm, heartfelt hug.

“Thank you for making me part of your family, Kay. I really do appreciate it more than I can say and more than I have shown you,” I said.

“Oh, you’ve always been family, Bear. No need to thank me, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Family doesn’t have to explain itself,” Kieran hugged me back.

I took a step back and grinned slyly at him: “I haven’t been the best nephew in the world.”

“You had your reasons for the way you acted, good reasons,” Kieran said then he wiped back a tear of his own. “Now your cousin is in class, so do you want me to make you some breakfast?”

“Actually, I thought of visiting the class just now. I think I have a few things to say to everyone. Fintain and the rest have grown up in a world where early on they knew they had a purpose, a purpose they have never been allowed to avoid, seem to never have doubted, and they haven’t complained about it. I haven’t shown them the proper respect, so I was thinking of going over to the barn and…”

“And re-introduce yourself to them,” Kieran said with great pride.

“Yes.”

“I think that is a good idea. Go ahead.”

Strolling out of the house, I made my way to the barn.  Instead of knocking, I opened the door and entered the schoolroom. Morgana was teaching them a history class by presenting them a slide show on Scottish Highland history with a Merry-other-self adding facts and insights for them. The class stopped when I entered unannounced and they turned their faces towards me. Although none of them had a reason to wish me well or give me a second chance, I knew that they would. They had been raised that way, especially since I was the potential Cathal.

“Hey, Sean,” Wayne called out happily. “Geez, what is Merry feeding on that isle of his? You’re getting big, grand even.”

I nodded towards him and then walked to the head of the class, where Morgana gave me a hug and the Other-Self-Merry dissolved away. I turned to face my former classmates. The first eyes I caught were Branwyn’s. She was beaming with delight that I was there. For reasons I didn’t understand staring at her made me feel uncomfortable and my cheeks began to burn, so I looked away and ended up staring into the eyes of Etain, who blushed. This also made me uncomfortable so I tried to avoid all eye contact.

There, everyone sat: Lance, Wayne, Garth, Fintain, Cedric, Etain, Branwyn, and Benedict. I took a deep breath, cleared my throat, and spoke: “I just wanted to come here and say that I’ve been kind of a jerk since I came here and I wanted to apologize to all of you for that. Since my first day here, I’ve acted like a bit of a brat, not really wanting to fit in or get along with anyone, and I’ve shown a lack of understanding for what it is you are all preparing for here, what you are learning and becoming. Now I do understand. And now that I really do understand, I just wanted to say I’m sorry and that I hope that soon I will be ready to join you in your training and schooling here. Also, I wanted to wish you all a Happy Christmas and hope that we are able to enjoy the festivities together before I go back to the isle.”

“You’ve grown a bit, Sean. I think you got some real muscles now. They must be working you hard,” Fintain said with a tone of appreciation.

“Yeah, it seems you’ve grown not just in height, but in other ways, too,” added Benedict.

“I heard you visited the elves,” remarked Branwyn, who a smirk. “How did you like the food?”

“I was sick in bed for a week. It was disgusting. I think it was the drink more than the food, though. Chota was sick for three days. It was horrible actually, but it did give me a chance to learn how to play chess from Merry.”

Everyone laughed at this. I exhaled and most of my discomfort had left me.

“We’ll have to play a game of chess then,” Benedict stated.

“Sure.”

“If you beat me then you can play Lance. He is the champ among of us,” Benedict told me.

“I’ll try my best,” I retorted.

“I heard you drank a whole bottle of their brew and two plates of their meat,” Branwyn laughed, “you’re lucky you were only sick for a week.”

“You’ve been to two realms. Most of us have never been to one, except for Branwyn and Lance,” said Benedict.

“Yeah, I’ve been to the Fey and to the Otherworld Realm once for a visit,” Branwyn stated.

“Where have you been?” I asked Lance.

“The Fey and to Avalon to visit my mother,” Lance answered me much to everyone’s surprise.

“Avalon, really? Avalon?” I said with surprise that Avalon was an actual realm.

“I was born there, but I’ve been raised here by my father,” Lance told me without having it pried out of him.

“I heard that Chota made you an actual member of his tribe,” said Lance, “at least, Merry told us that. He was proud of you.”

Though he excelled at most things, Lance usually remained silent in class and quiet out of class, but suddenly with me he was speaking. This surprised everyone.

“Yes, he did make me a member,” I replied.

“That is really amazing,” commented Wayne. “Can you make me a member of the tribe?”

“I’m afraid only Chota can do that.”

“I want to join, too,” Wayne retorted.

“All right. I can see where this is going,” Morgana said. “School is cancelled until after Christmas. Why don’t you all go decorate something?”

nnnn

 

It was four o’clock on Christmas Eve and Kieran basted the roast, while Lucan, Morgana, and Thomas Lake waited on the porch for Merry and Chota to appear for their visit. Though it was chilly outside, everyone had a sweater on and didn’t mind the cold. It also helped that Merry seldom made visits such as this one. On holidays I’d been told he could be found on his isle and if you wanted to see him to wish him a happy holiday, you went to him. He said that this was one of the privileges of being considered an antique.

Along with the rest of the class, Fintain and I had gone off with a football to play a game. Not far from Kieran’s house there was a cleared out area large enough to play a game of touch, or tackle, as Fintain preferred, football. Fintain preferred to play the roughest form of every sport. He said it was part of his heritage as a warrior. We walked through the woods to get to this field. Everyone was excited to play, especially me since I wanted to test my burgeoning physical abilities against those who had been developing theirs for many more years than me. I wanted to see just how far I had come and how far I had to go.

As we walked Branwyn teased Fintain and Cedric, who both enjoyed her ribbing, while Wayne and Garth argued over nothing important, which it appeared that they did more and more as they got older. Since Benedict and Etain were in a deep discussion over the moral ethics of using spiritual or mystical powers to gain success in the real world, Lance and I ended up walking together at the end of the line.

“Um, so,” Lance started to speak to me, “did you like the Fey?”

“Yeah. The Fey were amazing and that place is mind blowing. I drank wine pressed from flowers and skated on water. It was delicious.”

“Yeah. The flower wine made me a little drunk. My mother was embarrassed because I became too talkative.”

“Me, too. When were you there last?” I asked.

“I was there about six months ago. My mother had made one of the Fey my godmother, so I get to visit there occasionally to visit my godmother. I kind of like it there. It’s peaceful, reminds me a little of Avalon, though it looks nothing like Avalon. It just has the same peaceful feel to it, like nothing bad can happen there.”

“I can see why you like it there. I hope to visit again,” I replied. “So, what is Avalon like?”

“Well, um, do you like living on Merry’s isle?”

“Yeah, I do. It’s fun.”

“Well, um, Avalon will make you forget that his mist isle even exists. You see it is, um, like home to me. I love it there,” he admitted.

“Really? You don’t like it here in the human realm?” I asked him.

“No, that’s not it. Here is okay. I just don’t feel like I fit in here. You see, um, everyone here started to gain their added gifts in the last year or so and are just starting to develop them. They had years where they were normal, though their parents knew to start training them for the inevitable jobs ahead of them. Because of my mother, because of who she is, I was born with my gifts, so I’ve never really fit in. I’ve always been different.”

“I’m not sure that is such a bad thing, you know, being different,” I told him.

“Really, why?” he asked in return.

“I never knew what was going to happen to me, never knew that I had hidden gifts, which would some day come out. My parents kept it from me to protect me. I mean it kind of blew my mind when I finally found out. I just wasn’t prepared for it; I didn’t want to believe any of it. I acted like everything was cool, but I’m still kind of freaked out by it all,” I explained.

“I guess,” replied Lance, who then looked down at the grassy trail. “I guess you and I are kind of similar in a way, as neither one of us feels completely comfortable with who we are. We’re kind of misfits.”

“Yeah, in some ways, we sort of belong on the island of misfit toys, but we don’t have a choice, do we? It’s not like we can be someone else,” I told him. “Can we?”

Lance smiled: “I guess.”

As we came out of the woods into the field, we saw that some college students, wearing Duke T-shirts, were playing there own game of football. Three guys on three guys played, while four college girls cheered them on. Fintain groaned with disappointment.

“There goes that. And I wanted to play some football, hit some people,” he said.

“So show off your strength,” Branwyn teased him.

“Why do we have to leave?” asked Cedric.

“Because we can’t play in front of them or play against him, Cedric. You know that,” he said.

“Yeah, we would show them up if we played them. We aren’t supposed to show people up and make them suspicious,” Branwyn added her opinion.

“Why?” Cedric asked again.

“Cedric, do you ever pay attention in school,” Fintain exhaled in frustration.

“No… I mean yes. You guys don’t get it,” Cedric defended himself. “Why do we have to hide from college students? Let’s play them and kick their butts. They won’t want to tell anyone that a bunch of thirteen and fourteen year olds kick their butts. They won’t tell anyone anything.”

“He has a point,” Benedict agreed. “Their egos won’t allow them to talk about it and we get to test ourselves against fully matured individuals. I like the idea. Sometimes it gets tiring holding back.”

“Me, too,” added Wayne.

“What do you think, Sean?” asked Garth.

“Sounds pretty good to me.”

“Excellent!” exclaimed Fintain, who then walked boldly over to the college students. Branwyn followed after him, as did Benedict, who was burning to do something other than practice the druid arts.

“Hey, wanna play us?” called Fintain.

One of the students, a tall brown hair guy, playing quarterback for the team of three with the ball, laughed. He looked at smallish Branwyn, tall Benedict and brutish Fintain and cracked a joke: “baby hillbillies come out to play.”

His friends laughed, which made Fintain all the bolder: “Listen, I bet six on six that we could beat you by at least two touchdowns. And we are willing to play tackle, too, if that makes you feel better.”

“That’s sound like a brag that could get you into trouble, kid. Why don’t you go home and play the banjo?” the quarterback goaded Fintain.

“You haven’t either the skills or the intelligence to beat us,” Benedict spoke up.

“Intelligence,” one of the other college students laughed.  “Football doesn’t take intelligence.”

“It is that thought process which shows your lack of mental endowment and understanding of a complicated warrior’s game.”

“I think we should play these kids some tackle football and shut them up,” another of the college kids said.

“Who is your quarterback?” the quarterback asked.

“Him,” Fintain said and pointed to me.

The quarterback threw a long pass to me, which I almost dropped it. Although football was my favorite sport, it had been some time since I hand played it. I gripped the football and pretended to take a hike with it then I dropped back and threw a bullet pass all the way to Benedict, who caught it softly with one hand.

“Whoa,” said one of the college students.

“Fintain, Benedict, Wayne, Garth, Lance, and myself will be the team,” I called out, as I started to jog onto the field.

Branwyn glared at Sean and marched right up to him: “Why not me?”

“Branwyn, it will be embarrassing enough for these guys to lose to us. If we let you and Etain play against them then they will have to start wondering if we are on steroids or something, as you kick their butts. Remember, we don’t want too much attention.”

“I wanted to play,” she glowered.

“I’m sorry. I guess I have a way of disappointing you,” I said with a shrug.

“Yes, you do,” she answered.

With a dark cloud over her head, she marched over to where Cedric and Etain sat on the grass to watch and plopped herself down. I saw Etain smile blandly and tell her: “Sorry.”

The game lasted less than an hour and the final score was an embarrassing 56 to 14. The college students couldn’t keep up with us running, throwing, or even tackling. We were a unique and special group of thirteen and fourteen year old boys. The best effect the game had, though, was to show to me that I could lead them, if I really was the Cathal. I called the plays, threw the passes, and even called the defenses and no one argued with me.

We returned to Keiran’s house to find that Merry and Chota, as well as parents of the rest, had arrived and dinner was ready. I was amused to see that Chota wore jeans, a plaid work shirt and jean jacket and cowboy boots that seemed to be from 1880s in style, while Merry dressed as a college professor. It was so chilly out we had our meal inside instead of outside. The dining room, as well as another room, was used. With plenty of cheery conversation and banter, the meal consisted of one twenty pound turkey, one large roast, backed potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, roasted sweat potatoes, green beans, and biscuits. Before desert was served Merry stood up and called for an announcement.

“Can you hear me in the other room, as I have an important matter to share with all of you,” he called out.

“Yes, Merry,” I called back.

“Good. I have an announcement to make that is quite good. The Otherworld Realm Kings Arawn and Gwynn Nudd have made a formal invitation of the one who might be the one for a visit to their realm, which I have accepted on your behalf, Sean. So at 12:03 on New Year’s Eve, Sean and I will travel to Annwyn, the Otherworld Realm,” Merry announced and motioned me to stand, which I did.

“A visit to yet another realm,” Kieran spoke up, “should he really do that, Merry? Aren’t they putting a lot a pressure on the lad before he even is given the test to see if he is the Cathal?”

“At first, I agreed with that particular point of view, as I had my qualms about putting too much pressure on Sean, also. I feared that applying further pressure to our young Bear would be detrimental to his advancement, but after seeing how well Sean has handled the Fey and the elves, I believe this will add no more pressure to him at all, but will stimulate further growth,” argued Merry.

“But the more realms he visits the more the Aes Sidhe will be forced to make another move on him. Who knows what they’ll try next or where they will try it?” Kieran countered.

“I agree with him,” Chota spoke up. “We should be careful how much danger we put Sean in. He is a member of my tribe.”

“I shall put him in as much danger as need be for him to be in to become who he needs to be. Now that was an ugly sentence, wasn’t it? Anyway, getting many of the realms behind Sean will only benefit him in the end,” Merry stated in a tone that let everyone knew there was nothing more to argue about.

“He is one of my tribe now, Merry. I must look out for him.  I am bound to do so, you know that,” Chota stated.

“I understand, Chota. Family is family, as you are part of Sean’s family now.”

“I just say we should be cautious with Sean and not push him too quickly or too hard. The Aes Sidhe do not want to face another Cathal,” Keiran added.

“That is understood,” Merry agreed then he looked over at me. “Now this visit will last several days, as Annwyn, the Otherworld Realm, is home to several races and each will expect a short visit from you. Each will want to see the boy who would be king. Arawn asked if you would like to bring a friend with you on this visit, Sean, for companionship and support. Would you like to take someone with you?”

I looked at the faces of my classmates wondering if I should bring one of them with me to this new realm. Benedict, who could handle himself, seemed uninterested to visit; Etain, I didn’t know her well enough yet; Fintain was my cousin and it might seem like favoritism if I brought him; Wayne had been supportive of me since I came here, but I was rowdy and got into trouble easily; Garth didn’t go anywhere without Wayne; Cedric wouldn’t want to be bothered to make the effort; Branwyn would love to go, but she made me feel uneasy and that made it hard for me to be himself; and then there was Lance. He had been to two realms already. I looked at Lance, who stared down at his half eaten plate of food.

“I’ll take Lance with me, if he wants to come along,” I announced then I looked over at him.

“That would be great,” Lance replied with surprise in his tone.

While the adults congratulated Thomas Lake on his son being chosen; Fintain, who sat next to Lance, slapped him on the back to congratulate him, while Wayne applauded him from his chair. Lance looked up from his plate and stared with surprise at me. I nodded at him and he returned the nod with a grin, then I looked over at Branwyn, who glared at me. I blushed and then I sat back down.

Branwyn continued to glare at me. I could feel her stare burning a hole in me, so I glanced over at her and mouth the words: I’m sorry. She mouthed the words: Not good enough. I’ll make it up to you, I mouthed to her and she responded by saying: you better then she made Lance’s uneaten mashed potatoes be blown off his plate and into my face. Everyone at the table laughed, even I had to admit, it was a little funny.

Morgana, though, wasn’t amused: “Branwyn, young lady, we do not use our gifts to throw food at our friends. Besides being rude, it is unlady like.”

“Why not use your gift to toss food, Morgana?” said Kieran. “I remember when you used to do that sort of thing yourself. Heck, I remember having mashed potatoes tossed in my face as a kid by you.”

“Really, you remember that and you choose to bring it up now to undermine my parenting in front of my child,” Morgana fumed then she caused the little potatoes that were left in the bowl on their table to find Kieran’s face, causing the adults to laugh this time.

“Well, I guess I deserved that,” Kieran said.

“Me, too,” I said in agreement.

“You did,” Morgana and Branwyn said in unison from different rooms.

“Now, can we have the rest of this dinner without a food fight please?” asked Merry. “I have enough skills to dose you all in food.”

“Yes, Merry,” Morgana and Kieran said in unison then we broke out into laughter.

 

nnnn

In my bedroom off of the kitchen, I slept restlessly in my bed. A nightmare skulked on the outskirts of my sleep. It was a dark nightmare waiting to invade. I saw flashes of images of a large, looming black bird, which I knew instinctively was a messenger from the Aes Sidhe. It hovered there patiently biding its time to deliver a dark nightmare to me, but I fought it back. I kept that black bird from pushing my dreams away and forcing a nightmare on me through the force of will power.

In a cold sweat I awoke with a start in the blue darkness of the bedroom. I expected to see the black bird in the room with him. Wiping the sweat away from his brow, I calmed my breathing, which was huffing and puffing along. An urge to get out of the bedroom overcame me. Quickly, as if my life depended upon it, I got up and went into the kitchen.

“Morrigan are messengers. They force themselves into your dreams with warnings, cautions, fears, and whatever else the Aes Sidhe think will weaken or frighten you. They are nightmare creatures, even when they are not in your nightmares. Be careful of them and never take them lightly,” Merry said to me from the doorway to the kitchen.

“So you’re awake,” I said.

“Yes. I felt the Morrigan trying to invade your dream world. I wanted to see if you were strong enough to repel it and you were. I was delighted with that. It shows your will is strong. Congratulations, Bear, you are becoming the man I always thought you could be,” Merry pronounced with pride.

“Thanks.”

“The Morrigan will try to invade your dreams again and if that doesn’t work, they’ll attack you when you are awake. They can inflict horrible hallucinations, make you not be able to move out of fear,” warned Merry.

“I’ll fight them off, asleep or awake.”

“I know that you will,” he smiled.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

“A bit peckish, a tad staved, a smidgen ravenous, a wee bit belly-emptied,” he answered.

“Me, too,” I replied then I walked over to the refrigerator door and opened it.

Scanning the contents I saw a platter of cold roast beef, some cold cuts, a half eaten apple pie, a cold roast chicken, and much more. I was about to tell Merry what they had available when he heard a new voice.

“I want roast beef sandwich. Yeah, that would do me some good,” Lucan said.

“I’m thinking pie with my sandwich,” Chota.

“Me, too. I’m, feeling a little more than hungry,” Kieran stated.

“I’ll have a little bit of everything. I’m real hungry,” Fintain mumbled while still half asleep. A giant yawn broke open his jaw and what sounded like a moose call followed.

“Is it hunting season already?” asked Kieran.

“That was a remarkable imitation of a moose,” commented Merry, causing Fintain to blush.

“Well, since it is two in the morning and official Christmas day then why don’t we grab some food and take it into the Christmas tree and open gifts,” Kieran suggested.

“Sounds like a worthy idea,” remarked Merry. “I, for one, want a roast beef sandwich with some good old English mustard on it.”

“Lucan, get the mustard,” Kieran ordered.

“Everybody who wants a roast beef, please line up behind me,” announced Merry.

“I’m there,” I yelled, who got in line behind Merry then Chota got in line behind ME.

“I want chicken sandwich and pie,” Fintain said.

“All right, I’ll have the same as my little boy, who is going to be bigger than me,” agreed Kieran. “What about you, Lucan? Are you sure about the roast beef sandwich?”

“I’m having the bloody roast beef after taking all this time to find the mustard,” he said, as he finally found the jar of English mustard.

“I’ll put on some water for coffee and hot chocolate,” Kieran told everyone.

With sandwiches, pie, and mugs of hot drinks, the group of us found ourselves seated either on the sofa and the floor around the Christmas tree. Fintain and Kieran sat with their legs crossed near the gifts eating their food.

“Guests get their gifts first,” Kieran said. “Fintain grabbed Merry’s and Chota’s gifts.”

“Sure, dad.”

Fintain put down his sandwich on the plate and dug three gifts out from behind the tree. He handed Merry his gift then handed one of them to Chota. Each man started to unwrap his gifts.

“Comfy slippers, I love them,” Merry said with great appreciation.

“A dog collar,” laughed Chota.

“We were afraid you might not like the dog collar, as you like to run wild, so we got you another one, too,” Kieran told him. “Fintain, give it to him.”

Fintain gave him the other present behind his back. Chota opened it with gusto. In a clothes box was a Washington Redskins sweatshirt. Chota beamed with delight.

“I think that this is best Christmas I’ve ever had. Of course, I have spent most of my Christmases as a dog running around on a beach avoiding people,” Chota said.

“Well, you’re invited back next year and the next and the next ad infinitum. You are one of us now Chota,” Kieran said to him.

I looked about him. Everyone seemed so happy. This would have been a perfect Christmas if my parents were here. But they weren’t here and would never be here. Yet, I felt their presence, though, and that had to be enough.

“Now, I think we should let the young ones open their gifts,” Kieran said then he looked at me. “You’ll find mainly clothes. I mean Merry told me you had outgrown everything, so I thought we get you some replacements.”

I unwrapped a large package and opened the box. It was a new XXX large new Bill Belichick hoodie. A smile broke across my face. I still had family, a good family.

 

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